Cold, Part 10

Fire Angel

Connected

Ed glanced back at where Marisol stood, just behind him. “You should get out of here,” he said. He had to try. One last time.

“Not a goddamn chance,” she said without looking at him. Her gaze was fixed on the fiery form before them. Ed couldn’t tell if she was frightened. He had never been very good at that sort of thing.

“At least stay back, then,” he said. He walked forward without waiting for a reply. Forward towards the grinning fire. It lurched high above them. An enormous bonfire, reaching up to scorch the sky. The heat pressed against his flesh as he forced himself to march towards it. Its sweaty fingers clawed at his face.

“She didn’t know if you would come,” the fire-Kristen voice roared all around him. It oozed with delight, like rendered fat dripping into charcoal. “I told her you would find me, that you needed to find me. I wrapped my tongue around your soul. I could taste your need.” The voice laughed. As it spoke, Ed saw flicker’s of Kristen’s form coalesce among the flames. A single eye. The twist of a smile. The more she spoke the clearer it became. Was she forming a body among the fire, or was he merely learning to see?

“Yeah, I’m here,” said Ed. “Who is this ‘she’ you’re talking about?”

Two eyes formed in the fire and turn upwards, towards the sky. “She watches us. She has watched us for a long time. Even though it’s been some time since we deserved watching.”

“Okay,” said Ed.

“She woke me up,” said Kristen. “Just like I woke up the others.” She smiled. “She is much better than I was, as you saw. The fire was always there. I felt it, sometimes. It burned around the edges of my dreams. I would wake up on cold nights, sweating. The taste of cinders on my tongue. It was always there. For me it was fire. It could have burned me to ash. That’s why I stayed asleep. But she is a master. It was always there. But she awakened it.”

A gasp from behind him jolted him to the realization that Marisol was still there. He glanced back and saw her drawing shapes in the air with her finger, a puzzled look on her face. He wanted to ask her what the hell she was doing. But the fire called. He turned back to face it.

“So you did all of this for her?” he asked. “What does she want?”

“Oh Ed,” a hand reached out of the fire. He didn’t pull away. It tenderly stroked the side of his cheek. Just as it had done – as she had done – when her hands were still covered in skin. “She wants you, of course.”

“What’s so special about me?”

Kristen laughed. “Nothing at all! You’re not special. You’re the least special person there is. That’s why it found you. You are empty inside.”

Ed shook his head. This was getting nowhere.

“Fine,” he said. “Whatever. She can come find me if she wants. I’ll go with her. I don’t care. Just get out of this town. Make what you did to these people go away.”

Kristen laughed, and the fires surged. “What I did to them? And what do you think I did to them?”

“You…you made them follow you around. They became obsessed with you. They turned into zombies.”

You were following me around,” said Kristen with delight. “You were obsessed with me.”

Ed bit down on his lip. “You…they stopped wearing shoes. They got frostbite.”

“They stopped caring about the cold,” Kristen cackled. “Sound familiar?”

“No,” Ed whispered. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He didn’t want to believe it. Something Marisol said flashed into his mind. It’s like they’re all turning into you.

“No,” Ed said again.

Sparks burst out of the fire, tiny orange pinpricks of laughter.

“This town has been your shield, Ed,” said Kristen. “Your cloak and your armor. It hid you from her. From everything. You’ve been using them. You’ve always used them.”

“No!” Ed cried. “It didn’t…it all started when you got here. It was all fine, before that.”

“I started to thaw through your frozen hide,” Kristen said. “That’s why she chose me. That’s why I was sent. You were so cold, and I had fire. To melt your cold heart,” she giggled as she said this. “You couldn’t hide, anymore. Your passive shield would no longer work. You had to turn it up. Or rather, it had to turn it up.”

“It?”

“The final secret.”

The word tickled the inside Ed’s brain. He wanted to reach in and scratch it. To make it go away. Marcy had said that word, back in the woods. “The secret will be reunited.” And Ed knew what it meant. He didn’t want to. He didn’t understand it. But he knew. Somewhere inside of him, he had always known.

“So that’s what this is about,” he said.

“Of course,” said Kristen. “I thought I could make you give it to me. That I could coax it out of you. That I could light the fire of passion, then reach it and yank it out of the thawed places in your soul.”

“You could have,” said Ed, tasting the bitter truth in his mouth. “I would have given it to you, if I had known how.”

“Maybe,” said Kristen. “But it is too deep. You are too frozen. You cannot be thawed. Not by my natural fire. But I have new fire, now. She has given me a gift.”

White-hot arms reached out and grabbed Ed by the shoulders. The fingertips seared into his skin. And it hurt. For the first time in his life, Ed cried out in pain.

“Ed!” Marisol called out from behind him.

Ed tried to turn to face her, but the arms held him fast. They yanked him forward, closer to the conflagration. Kristen’s face congealed in the flames. It was exactly has he remembered it. Hard and alive and beautiful. She stared into his eyes, and her eyes were lit as much by madness as by fire. How had he not seen it before?

“You cannot be thawed,” she screamed, “but you can be melted!”

Ed’s arms were roughly yanked upwards as Kristen’s body rose along the pillar of fire. Higher, higher, into the sky. The ground shrank away. To tops of the skeletal trees rushed past them. The heat grew hotter. He felt it pound at him like fists slamming against his flesh. He felt it pour into his lungs with every breath. He felt it snake into his blood vessels, until every inch of him screamed.

He had no idea what to do. He came here to find her. To stop her, but what could he do against this? He would have panicked, but he didn’t know how to panic. He didn’t know how to freak out and retreat into the comfort of chaotic confusion. Even among the pain and the helplessness, his mind was a clear and passive observer. Just like it always was. All he had was the plain and simple awareness that he was about to die.

No, said something inside of him. You’re not.

He barely had time to puzzle what it might be when he heard something else.

“Ed!”

It came from behind him. And below. A tiny voice, nearly lost against the roar of the flames.

“Marisol,” he whispered.

“Ed! You have to get out of here!”

He laughed. “Not much chance of that,” he said, even though there was no chance she couldn’t hear him.

“Ed! I know why I’m here!” she called. “I’m coming to get you.”

Ed laughed again and closed his eyes. Coming to get him. That was a good one. She had always been funny.

“No!” the Kristen-fire called out. “Go away! He is mine!”

“No,” he heard Marisol say. “He isn’t.” She didn’t yell it out, this time. She didn’t need to. She was right behind him. And there was another sound. If he didn’t know any better, he would have thought it sounded like…wings?

He craned his neck to look around.

“Hi Ed,” said Marisol, grinning. And there they were. Jutting out of her back was a set of wings, thirty feet across. Like cracks in the air, filled with color and light.

“Marisol,” he said. “Where did you get those?”

“I think I’ve always had them,” said Marisol. “Only I didn’t know, because I was asleep. Ed, I think…I think everyone has them.”

“Enough!” The bonfire flared, and heat tore into Ed’s exposed flesh. Inside him, right in the center of his chest, he felt something stir.

“You found your awakening,” Kristen called out, “but I an infused with the fire of exploding stars. You are nothing.”

“I am enough,” said Marisol.

The air in front of Ed split open, right where Kristen’s fire-arms connected to his shoulders. Where the cracks in the air formed, they filled with blue and green and purple light. Thick, viscous light, like neon fog. It split Kristen’s arms open, where her wrists met her hands. She screamed.

Suddenly Ed was free, and he fell towards the ground. He landed with a thud, sending mud and melted snow flying into the air. He landed on his legs, and the shock resonated through his body.

It hurt. But not very much.

He looked up. Even with everything he had seen, even with the burgeoning fact of what he was, and the fracturing of every assumption he had ever had about the universe, it was difficult to believe what he saw.

The pillar of fire that was Kristen had formed enormous arms. They swiped at Marisol, who beat her neon-fog wings and darted back and forth through the sky to avoid them. At the same time slashes opened inside the Kristen-fire. Liquid poured out of the open wounds like magma-blood. Ed stood there, paralyzed, and watched.

Then the air right in front of him started to crack. It formed shapes, in the same Technicolor neon as Marisol’s wings. Letters.

Run!

Ed didn’t want to run. He wanted to stay. He wanted to stay and fight. He wanted to help his best friend.

“No!” he called out. Letters formed again.

Run, you idiot! I’ve got this!

“No!” he called again.

But his body started to move. It started to turn in the other direction. Just like when he played football. Just like when he fought off Ryan Sutherland in the hall, or Arnaud and the others back in the woods. His body started to act without him. It turned. It hunched down to the ground. And it started to run.

“No!” he called to it. “We can’t do this!”

Please, said a voice in his head. It was soft, and strange. And familiar. He had heard it in his head before, but he had never recognized it. Please. Trust me. We have to go.

“But she’s our friend,” Ed cried out.

I know she is, said the secret voice.

“She’s going to die!” Ed cried as his legs carried him away from the heat and the light and the horror.

It is her choice. She is awake, now, and it is her choice.

Ed fought desperately to control his arms and his legs, but they resisted. His feet smacked into the half-thawed ground beneath him. He ran. The trees whirred past his vision. He felt the heat at his back, saw the light of the fire, and tiny flashes of smaller, different light. And he ran.

You will understand. One day, you will understand.

Tears streamed down Ed’s cheeks as they ran.

It was the first time he had ever cried.

Cold, Part 9

Fire!

Connected

 

It was easy to find her.

“Can’t you feel that?” Ed said to Marisol as she followed him through the woods.

“Other than the fact that it’s freezing out here, no. I can’t feel anything.”

“That’s what I mean,” said Ed. “It’s cold everywhere. Except that way.” He pointed deeper in the woods.

He could feel the cold all around him. It was wrapped around every inch of his town and his woods. Except for one spot. One spot that burned a hold though his awareness like a lit charcoal in the snow. That’s what he saw when he looked at Kristen. It’s what he had always seen. The only warmth that could penetrate his armor of ice.

Ed trudged forward. Marisol followed.

It was dark. The sky was nearly black and there was no moon. It had been months since Ed had seen the moon. Maybe Kristen and her friends really had bottled it. It didn’t matter. Ed had never needed light to walk through these woods.

He heard Marisol’s footsteps crunching through the frozen snow as they walked. Only her footsteps. His didn’t make a sound. He wondered if that had always happened, and he just didn’t notice. It didn’t matter. They kept walking.

“We’re nearly there,” said Ed some time later.

“Good,” said Marisol. Ed heard her teeth chattering. He realized she must be freezing.

“You should go back,” he said. “You’re going to freeze to death.”

“Nice try,” said Marisol, her numb tongue slurring her words. “You need me. Besides, I wouldn’t know how to get back from here anyway. I am thinking about hot chocolate, though. Hot, scalding, delicious chocolate.”

Ed smiled, but didn’t say anything. He kept walking, one silent step after another.

“Hello, Ed,” said a voice from ahead of them.

“Hello, Arnaud,” said Ed.

“I knew that bastard was still alive,” said Bagel’s voice from out of the darkness. “You owe me ten bucks.”

“I’m glad he’s still alive,” Ed heard Razor say. “That means we get to kill him. I wonder what his blood tastes like?”

“You don’t have to do this,” said Ed. “You can walk away.”

“No, Ed,” said Arnaud. “We really can’t.” Ed heard rustling from a nearby copse of trees, and Arnaud’s hulking form stepped out. The starlight was too dim for Ed to make out features, but he could see an outline. Enough to tell that whatever had happened to Arnaud had gotten worse. His chest and shoulders were lumpy and distended, like he was covered in tumors. And he was enormous. More shapes came out from the trees to join him.

“She woke us up,” said Bagel. “Kristen did. Do you have any idea what that feels like? How can we go back from that?”

“Woke us up…” Marisol said from behind Ed. He had forgotten she was there.

“Kristen can’t be disturbed right now,” said Arnaud. “It’s a delicate period. If you insist on coming forward, that means we have to kill you. There aint no other way.”

“Metalic, I bet,” said Razor. “And cold. Like chilled Sancerre.”

“Alright,” said Ed. “I guess we do this, then.”

“Damn right,” said Bagel. “Killing time!”

Marisol groaned. “Killing time? Seriously? You’re going with that?”

“What’s wrong with killing time? I thought it was good. Was it not good?”

Ed didn’t wait for bagel to finish. He stepped forward and got to work.

There wasn’t anyone to see how it went down, there in the lonely darkness. It occurred to Ed that it would probably have been something to see. Hiss body knew what to do, and he didn’t see much reason to get in its way. Huge fists smashed into him. Something wet and sharp that must have been Razor’s tongue cut along his neck and the inside of his thigh, looking for a vein. Looking to draw blood that wasn’t there. Tiny blades slashed into his arms and his chest and his face.

None of it hurt. None of it mattered. Then it was his turn.

It didn’t take long.

“Ed?” said Marisol after a few moments of silence.

“I’m here,” he said. “It’s done.”

“Are they…?”

“I don’t know,” said Ed. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go.”

They walked on. They were no longer in a part of the woods Ed recognized. It didn’t feel like his woods anymore. This was Kristen’s territory. Whatever the hell that meant. Her lackeys must have been guarding the entrance.

“It’s warmer,” said Marisol after a while. “A lot warmer.”

Ed nodded. “That means we’re getting close.”

“You’re closer than you think,” said a voice. “Hi, Ed!”

It wasn’t Kristen.

“Marcy?” said Marisol. “Is that you.”

“Yep!” said Marcy. “Hi, Marisol!”

She leapt out of a group of shrubs. Ed could see her eyes. They were huge. Bigger than the entire rest of her head. And her mouth was stretched all the way around behind her neck. He realized he could see her. It had gotten lighter. It didn’t look like sunlight. It looked like firelight. But he had no idea where it was coming from.

“What are you doing here?” said Marisol.

“I’m here to talk Ed out of doing what he’s about to do,” said Marcy.

“Your friends didn’t so that so well,” said Ed.

“Yeah,” said Marisol. “And there were a lot more of them.”

Marcy shook her head. Her eyes jiggled like they were full of jello. “I’m not here to fight you. I’m here to warn you. She’s going to kill you.”

Marisol laughed.

“She already tried that,” said Ed. He touched the knife hole in his jacket. “It didn’t stick.”

Marcy giggled. “Oh, she didn’t really think that wouldn’t work. That was just a sacrifice. Heartsblood. It still counts, even if, you know, you didn’t die. And there wasn’t any blood.”

Marcy stepped forward. She reached out and poked Ed in the nose. “She just need to borrow some power. And get in touch with the head honchos. They thought the fire would be enough. Apparently not. She knows what can kill you, now. She’s shaping it. Making a weapon, just for you. Don’t you feel lucky?”

“She’s stalling,” said Marisol.

“Huh?” said Ed.

“Don’t you see. She’s stalling for time. Kristen’s working on this weapon or whatever, and it isn’t done. Ed, we need to hurry!”

Ed’s eyes widened. He moved forward to push past Marcy. Marcy’s mouth opened, and kept opening. She started to laugh. A high, staccato sound that bounced sharply through the trees.

“You’re fucked, Ed!” She screeched as he and Marisol went past. “You were fucked from the moment your cold, dead seed was born into this broken and exhausted world! You fucked everyone you ever touched, and now the universe is fucking back!”

The voice cut into Ed’s mind, and he could see Marisol clutching at her ears. They moved faster. But they could still feel that voice, that laughter. It sliced into them like it was inches away.

“You’re all fucked! Isn’t that glorious? This will all be made right! The shattered secret will be whole!”

It was a long time until they could no longer feel the laughter. By the time it died away the scene around them looked very different. The snow was all melted, now. And the trees were all burned. Some of them were scorched trunks that still jutted into the sky, but many had been reduced to cinders. Ed saw Marisol take off her coat and drop it on the ground.

“I’m not going to need it,” she said.

Ed kept his on. He felt warm, but it had nothing to do with what he was wearing. Only one thing made him feel warm. And they were nearly upon it.

They saw it long before they got there. A bonfire. It looked nearby, but it was a trick of perspective. It was much, much larger than it looked. All of the bonfires of the world, burning as one. It lit up the sky, like a dying sun barely warming a lifeless planet somewhere in the dead reaches of space.

But it wasn’t a fire. Not really. Ed knew that long before they got close enough to make it out.

It was her. She was resting. Waiting for them. Whatever she had been preparing, it was finished.

“Hello, Ed.” It sounded like her, but also it didn’t. The human voice was a trickle amidst the roaring waterfall.

“Hi, Kristen,” he said.

“I can taste the cold of your skin,” she said. “And what lies within it. Are you ready to die?”

“No,” said Ed. “Not really.”

“Good.” He saw a tongue of flame dance inside the conflagration. Like a wicked smile. “Then let’s begin.”

Cold, Part 8

A snowy way

Connected

“So that’s what happened,” said Ed. “That’s why I wasn’t at school today.”

“And why you got stabbed,” said Marisol.

“Yeah,” said Ed. “And that.”

“You know,” Marisol said, taking a sip of soda to wash down her eighth taco, “I think that is the most you ever said to me. And I don’t mean in one sitting. I think you have just doubled the total number of words said in my presence.”

“Yeah,” said Ed. “Maybe.”

Marisol rolled her eyes.

“And you believe it?” said Ed. “All of it?”

“Of course I do,” said Marisol. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I dunno. A lot of it is pretty unbelievable, when you think about it. Like Kristen’s face. With the crystal fire or whatever. I mean, I could be making it up.”

Marisol smirked. “Ed, you are the worst liar I have ever met. The worst liar I’ve ever heard of. You lie worse than my little brother, and he’s still thinks I disappear when I cover my face with a napkin.”

“And you’re still not freaked out?” said Ed.

Marisol shook her head. “I know I should be. But it’s like none of this is really happening, you know? I mean, none of this. Like everything that happened since Kristen showed up is, like…”

“A dream?”

She shook her head again. “Like someone else’s dream. I’m borrowing it, like a book from the library. And someday, pretty soon, probably, I’m going to have to give it back. Does that make sense?”

“Not really,” said Ed.

“It’s kind of neat, actually,” said Marisol. “Like being in a movie. All this crazy shit is happening and none of it is real. No, that’s not it. It’s super real. Probably a hell of a lot more so than the usual crap that goes on. But it’s not real for us. We can just deal with it and then get back to normal. As soon as we leave the theater. Why? Are you freaked out.”

“No,” said Ed.

“Have you ever been freaked out?”

Ed thought about it for a second. “No.” It felt strange to say it out loud. To think it all.“I mean, I realize I must be different from other people. Because I got stabbed. And didn’t die. That must mean I’m different.”

Marisol laughed. “You’ve always been different.”

“That’s what I mean,” said Ed. “Like, I don’t feel pain. And my fingers can get cut off and stuck back on. But it never seemed weird, you know?”

Marisol nodded. “I know. You’re just Ed. It’s just how you are.”

“Yeah. So what’s up with that? Shouldn’t the men in black be coming for me, or something?”

“Do you want them to?”

Ed shrugged. Marisol laughed again.

“Fine,” she said. “I see what you’re saying. It’s not just that you’re weird. Really weird.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Ed.

Marisol smiled. “No problem! So it’s not just that you’re weird. It’s also weird that nobody really cares.”

Ed nodded.

“I feel like I’ve been avoiding this kind of thinking all my life,” said Ed. “Without even knowing why.”

“Yeah.”

They fell into silence. Marisol dipped a chip into the spicy salsa and ate it.

“Fine,” said Marisol. “So, what’s next? Aare you going to hit the library and look in the ‘crazy occult mystery’ section? Or go on a journey of self discovery into the mountains.”

“Maybe,” said Ed. “But not yet. I have something to do first.”

Marisol took another sip through her straw and raised her eyebrows.

Ed’s eyes hardened. It was the most dramatic expression she’d ever seen on his normally stoic face.

“I’m going to find Kristen,” he said. “And I am going to kill her.”

“I thought you were going to say that,” said Marisol. “And I’m going to help you.”

Ed’s eyes widened. “Marisol, this is dangerous. She’s some kind of hell demon, or something. She could kill you. Or worse.”

Marisol reached over and took Ed’s hand in hers. “Ed, I’m supposed to come with you. I know it. And besides, I’m living in someone else’s dream, remember? Nothing can happen to me. Not until they wake up.”

Ed nodded. Both of them stood up. Marisol left a small pile of money on the table. Then, together, they walked out of the taco shop, and into the snow-covered night.

Cold, Part 7

winter tree

Connected

The came for Ed in the woods, in the middle of the night.

It happened a week and a half after the night Kristen came to his room. During that time he didn’t see Kristen at all. She stopped coming to school.

“Good riddance,” said Marisol after Kristen was gone for a few days. “Maybe now things can get back to normal.”

They didn’t. All of the people who had been following Kristen around seemed listless. They just wandered through the hallways of the school aimlessly, going to classes and not talking or interacting with anyone. Some of them just sat on benches in the halls and never got up. There was one boy who Ed noticed was wearing the same clothes on Friday he had on Tuesday. Ed wondered if he’d gone home, or if he’d been on that chair for the entire week.

Ed for his part wasn’t sure how he felt about any of this. Marisol said Kristen was a psycho, and she was probably right. But that didn’t change the fact that Ed missed her. He missed looking at her. He missed touching her.

“What did you even see in her?” Marisol asked.

“She was perfect,” said Ed.

“Perfect like a deadly virus, maybe.”

Ed pretty much agreed. But how often do you get to touch perfection?

It was well into April, now, and the cold weather showed no sign of letting up. No one seemed to really notice. Or rather, no one seemed to really care. Not caring was going around. Even though Kristen was gone, the strange effect she was having on everyone seemed to be getting worse, not better. Even many of the teachers weren’t bothering to teach, anymore. The students of Okenville High, and the people of Okenville, seemed content just to drift through life, without interacting with it.

“It’s like they’re all turning into you,” said Marisol. “No offense.”

Ed shrugged.

“Only, you know, you did it before it was cool.”

He thought about Kristen a lot. Especially at night. He wasn’t sleeping much. At all, really. She burned in his mind when he closed his eyes. Like she was always right there, nearby. In the darkness. But he could only see her while all other light was gone.

“Why don’t you go find her?” asked Marisol. “Like, go to her house.”

“I don’t know where she lives,” said Ed.

Except, maybe, for the darkness. He tried to keep distracted so he wouldn’t think about her. He read Call of the Wild for the fiftieth time. He played video games. Increasingly, he snuck out of the house and night to go walking in Fallsdale woods. He tried to find the clearing where the party had been, but he couldn’t. Even though he remembered how to get there. He went back to the place where the log fell on him, and Kristen watched him dig himself out for two hours. But mostly he just wandered.

That was where they got him.

“Ed,” said a voice from behind him. “Don’t move.”

Ed turned around to look.

“Dammit! I said don’t move dammit!” It was Arnaud, the large guy from the bonfire who had punched Ed in the face.

“Sorry,” said Ed. Arnaud glared at him.

“I’ve got him!” Arnaud called out.

Ed saw a bunch of people coming from various directions towards them. He couldn’t see them very well at first. It was very dark. But they all had flashlights, and when they got close he could just make out their faces. Marcy was there. So was Razor, and Bagel, and several other people who had been at the party.

“Hi, Ed,” said Marcy. Her voice was slurred, just like it had been at the party. Was she drunk again? Or still drunk?

“Nice job, Arn,” said Razor. She walked up to Ed and rubbed her hands along his arms through his Gore-tex jacket. “We got you.”

“Okay,” said Ed.

“And now you’re going to come with us, motherfucker,” said Bagel.

“Am I?”

“Yeah,” said Arnaud. “We bringing you with us.”

He thought about this for a minute. He could go with them. It’s not like he had anywhere else to be. On the other hand he didn’t care for any of these people terribly much. They were all either strange, assholes, or boring.

“No,” said Ed. “I don’t think so.”

“You don’t have a choice,” said Arnaud.

“We’re going to make you,” said Bagel, with an excited edge in his voice. “You can’t stop all of us.”

“Yes,” Ed said. “I can.”

“Oh come on, Ed,” said Marcy. “Don’t you want to come? It’ll be fun!”

“Not really,” said Ed. He turned and started to walk away.

“Don’t be like that,” said Razor. “If you don’t come, Kristen will be so disappointed.”

Ed froze.

“That’s right,” said Arnaud. “We’re bringing you Kristen. She wants to see you.”

Ed knew he should just keep walking. That’s what Marisol would tell him to do, and she usually had the right idea. He hew that’s what he should do. Instead he turned around.

“Fine. Whatever. Just lead the way.”

They walked for a long time. Ed had no idea why it took so long. He’d been all through these woods, and it shouldn’t take this long to get from one side to another. It wasn’t until the sun rose above the craggy trees that he realized they were in a part of the woods he had never seen before. And that wasn’t the only thing he didn’t recognize. Now that it was light enough to really see them, these people he was with didn’t look like they had before. They had changed.

Razor’s tongue lolled out of her mouth. And her skin glistened in the sunlight, like it was covered in some thick, slick substance. Arnaud was even bigger than before. Too big. It looked like his muscles were threatening to burst through his skin, and had, in a few places. Marcy’s eyes were huge, and her mouth looked like it had be stretched out by hooks. Bagel’s face was covered in cuts. Dozens of them, still fresh.

Razor smiled at him.

“Do you like it?” she asked. She ran her hands up and down her bare arms and moaned. It looked like she was trying to be sexy. It made Ed feel ill.

The trees all around were strange. Many of them looked like they had been burned, but they were still growing. The shrubs were covered in orange berries Ed had never seen before. He had the strong urge to grab them and shove them into his mouth, but he resisted. It seemed like a very bad idea.

They kept walking.

Eventually they got to a clearing. It looked like where they held the bonfire, but it was different. There were signs of several fires lit and extinguished. They looked very old. The trees that lined the clearing were very tall. Taller than any tree Ed had ever seen before. And strange. The branches were too uniform. They jutted out of every tree in exactly the same way. They seemed to form shapes in the air. Like letters of some foreign alphabet.

“Here we are,” said Arnaud.

“Where’s Kristen?” asked Ed.

“She’s coming,” said Marcy. “You have to be patient. She’ll be here.”

“Sit down,” said Arnaud. He pointed to a spot on the ground next to one of the old fires. Ed didn’t see any reason not to sit down, so he did.

The others started to talk among themselves. Ed sat in silence. He listened to them for a while, but they weren’t saying anything that made much sense to him. Soon enough he drifted off into the non-thought where he spent much of his time. Several hours passed. He barely noticed.

“You’ve kept me waiting, Ed.” The voice was harsher than the cold. Harsher than the scorpions that so recently gouged their way into his flesh. It had been a long time since he had felt any pain, but this voice dug into Ed’s brain, and he winced.

“Hello Kristen,” he said as he stood up.

“Sit down,” she said. He sat back down.

He heard her footsteps crunch on the frozen ground. She walked around to face him. He looked up at her.

The skin covering her face was gone. In its place were sheets of a strange crystalline substance. Like solidified fire. So this is what she really looked like. This was the real Kristen Selka. Ed had never seen anything so beautiful.

“You’ve given me a lot of trouble, Ed,” she said. Curls of steam drifted out of her mouth and upward into the winter air. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not going to play it anymore.”

“Kristen, I…”

“Shut up!” she barked. There was an edge of desperation in her voice. She reached down and picked up a handful of snow. “You think this is going to save you? You think this would hide you from her?”

Ed said nothing.

“You won’t give me what I came for,” Kristen went on. “So I am going to rip it out of you. One way or another.” She turned to Arnaud. “Hold his arms.”

Arnaud walked up to Ed and grabbed one of his arms. Bagel grabbed the other. Ed didn’t resist.

Kristen stared into his eyes. “Goodnight, Ed.” A wild look filled her face. She screamed a shrill scream into the air, and she thrust her hand to his chest. Her fingers hit his sternum with a thud.

“No!” she screamed. She clawed at him with her fingernails. “No!”

“What’s wrong?” said Razor from behind Ed.

“It isn’t working,” Kristen shrieked.

Ed felt heat rolling off of Kristen’s body like waves of magma. She screamed again.

“Fine. Then I’ll take it out of your corpse. Marcy, give me the knife.”

“Kristen,” said Marcy, “are you sure you should…”

“Give it to me!”

She reached over his shoulder. When she drew her hand back she was holding a long hunting knife.

“This wasn’t how it was supposed to be,” said Kristen. “You haven’t given me a choice.” She raised the knife in the air.

For a brief moment, Ed’s life tried to flash before his eyes. It didn’t get very far. He thought about everything that had led him to this moment. He supposed he should be scared. Or angry. But he wasn’t. Maybe there was something wrong with him, that he couldn’t feel the things a normal person would feel in a situation like this. But it was hard to worry about it, right now. Looking up at this insane girl he had felt such intense emotions about, he just felt sorry for her.

“I’m not mad at you, Kristen,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that.”

Kristen’s eyes softened. Then they hardened, and she thrust the knife into Ed’s chest. Right through the center of his Gore-tex jacket. Right through his heart.

It didn’t hurt. There wasn’t any blood. But all of the energy drained out of him. He felt calm. Peaceful, even. For the first time in over a week, Ed closed his eyes and went to sleep.

Cold, Part 6

 

Barn window

 

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Fortunately, Ed got a lot of practice over the next few weeks. Kristen grabbed him and kissed him or pulled him into empty rooms to do other things seemingly at every opportunity. A few times she came in and took him out of class to have her way with him. None of the teachers reacted, except to tell the class to settle down from murmuring and occasional cheers.

“Do people around here seem to be acting weird?” Marisol asked Ed one day on the walk home.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, have you noticed how everyone at school has been following Kristen around?”

Ed shrugged. “She’s popular.”

“No one’s that popular,” said Marisol. “And before you say anything, no, I am not ‘just jealous.’ You are a bastard for even thinking it.”

The thought hadn’t crossed Ed’s mind.

“Plus,” said Marisol. “You notice how none of them wear shoes?”

“Huh,” said Ed. He had noticed that, but hadn’t really thought about it. “Now that you mention it, that is a little odd.”

It wasn’t just shoes. Many of the people at Okenville High had begun to dress like it was the middle of summer. No coats, no sleeves, no thermal underwear.

“Nurse Klingon said she’s never seen this many cases of frostbite,” said Marisol. “And she’s been to the frozen vacuum of space.”

Ed laughed. Marisol had been on about that for years, but Ed was pretty sure the school nurse wasn’t really a Klingon. Even if she did kind of look like one.

“So it’s weird, right?” said Marisol.

“Yeah,” said Ed. “I guess it is.”

“The question is, what do we do about it?”

Ed didn’t answer, and the conversation lapsed into silence. It seemed Marisol didn’t have any answers to her own question.

For Ed’s part, he didn’t see much need to do anything about it. He was involved with the girl of his dreams. Or he would have been, if he had any dreams. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a dream. And she was, as far as he could tell, crazy about him. He did kind of wish she would see him outside of school. He asked her a few times to dinner or the movies or a walk through the woods. She just smiled, kissed him, and said, “later.”

For now he was willing to take what he could get.

“This is my house,” said Ed when he and Marisol reached the edge of his yard.

“Oh,” said Marisol, shaken out of her reverie. “So it is.” She turned and looked Ed in the eye. “I’m going to figure this out, Ed. When I do, can I count on your help?”

Ed didn’t know whether he wanted anything to do with this. But Marisol had been his best friend his whole life. So what was he supposed to do.

“Of course,” he said. She beamed at him. Then she turned and walked up the road, and was gone.

The evening Kristen came to his house. She knocked on his window as he lay in bed. He just stared at her in shock.

“Well?” she asked. “Are you going to open up?”

“Oh,” he stood up abruptly and hastened to the window. “Sorry.”

“Help me through,” she said as she crawled through the window. He took her by the hand and guided her through. She straightened up on her feet and shook the melted snow from her clothing. She took her jacket off and handed it to Ed, who hung it on the door.

“Are you cold? Do you…do you want something to drink?” asked Ed. “I could get some hot chocolate, or…”

“Listen, Ed,” said Kristen as she began to unbutton her shirt. “I think you’ll agree that this isn’t working.” She bent down and unlaced her boots, and then slipped them off. Then she pulled off her socks, and began to pull her pants down.

“It isn’t?” Ed forced out.

Kristen shook her head. A spray of water flew off her hair and hung in the air like mist. “I’ve been trying and trying, but you keep resisting. So it’s time to try something new. Lay down.” She straddled his prone body and pulled off her unbuttoned shirt.

Clinging to her torso were half a dozen four-inch long scorpions. Their bright orange carapaces glinted in the light of Ed’s bedside lamp like they were next to a roaring fire.

“Don’t move,” Kristen said as pressed her exposed chest down onto his. “They don’t like it when you move.”

Twenty minutes later Kristen was angrily putting on her clothes.

“I don’t know why the fuck you would do this to me,” she said. “After everything I have done for you.”

“What? What did I do?”

“I’m sick and tired of these games. This has to end.”

“What?” Ed said. He tried to put his hand on her shoulder. She batted him away. “Is I them?” he asked. He pointed to the frozen, cracked husks on the ground that so recently were living scorpions. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what…”

“You know.” She grabbed him by the chin and forced him to look into her eyes. Her gaze felt like hot irons pressed into his retinas. It was uncomfortable, but he didn’t pull away. He had no idea what was happening. He had no idea what had happened when those scorpions crawled over him. All he knew was that Kristen was angry, and it was his fault.

“You know,” she said again. “You pretend to be foolish. I’ll have you know I never believed. Not for an instant.” She pushed him away and stepped towards the window. She wrenched it open and began to crawl out.

“Kristen, wait,” Ed said. She didn’t stop.

When she was most of the way through she turned to look at him.

“A reckoning is coming, ‘Ed,’” she spat. “Mark my words. I will have what I was sent to get. One way or another.”

Then she slammed the window. Ed raced forward and opened it. He was going to leap out after her. He was going to follow her and, somehow, convince her to see reason.

But he didn’t. When he looked through the window he couldn’t see her. She was already gone. There was nothing left to show she had been there at all, except melted footprints in the snow.

Cold, Part 5

Ice macro

 

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The Monday after the party, Marisol pulled Ed aside to speak to him.

“So,” she said to him, an edge in her voice, “Kristen’s your girlfriend now, is it? Must have been one hell of a party.”

“She is?”

“That’s what everyone’s saying.”

“Oh.”

Marisol laughed. “Did you seriously not know?” Ed shrugged. She put her hand on his shoulder. “And here I was working myself up to yell at you for not telling me.”

“I told you what happened at the party,” Ed said. It was mostly true. He left out the sitting on his lap and whispering in his ear part. But he told her most of it.

“Oh Ed,” said Marisol. “What in God’s name are we going to do with you?”

Sure enough, Ed started to notice that his classmates were giving him strange looks. He had no idea how to interpret these new expressions. Nothing like them had ever been directed at him before. They were partially “you’re weird,” but he recognized that part. There was something else there, too, that he couldn’t identify.

He more or less wrote it off as one of the many things about the world he would never understand until Steve came up to him outside of the locker room. He held up his fist for Ed to bump, and said, “Respect,” with a sly smile on his face.

Respect. So that was it. Huh.

During fourth period someone brought him a note from Kristen.

“Lunchtime. Outside the auditorium. Let’s make this official.”

One thing he could say about Kristen. She wasn’t predictable.

When the bell rang for lunch Ed headed for the auditorium. He noticed a lot of other people were heading in that direction, too. When he got there he saw that a crowed had gathered.

“Oh, Ed!” Kristen’s voice rang out from the center of the crowd. “There you are. Get over here!”

Ed walked through the throng of people, who moved out of the way to let him pass. He saw students and teachers alike, all staring at him with half-formed smiles on their faces. Even the principal was there, and Mr. Clark, the janitor. As he reached the center, he saw Kristen sitting in one of two chairs laid out in front of the auditorium doors. She waved her hand at the other chair, and Ed took that as a cue to sit down. From the smile that blossomed on her face he figured he was right.

“Now Ed, as you know I’ve decided you are to be my new boy,” she said. There were scattered giggles from the crowd. “I think the time has come to show everyone what that means. Don’t you?”

Ed stared at her for a long moment before realizing she had asked him a question. “Oh,” he said. “Yeah. Um…yes.” He heard more giggling.

“Good, then,” she said. “It’s settled.” She closed her eyes and leaned forward. Ed stared at her. She had beautiful eyelids. Soft but very strong. Like they could keep the fires of hell from burning through to her eyes. He wanted to lean forward and kiss them. She was so close to him.

“Kiss her, you idiot!” someone called out from the crowd. Everyone broke into laughter. Ed suddenly realized that she wanted him to kiss her. It was the only thing that made sense. So he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.

She grabbed him by the back of the head and pressed him into her. The crowed erupted into hoots and shouts. Kristen’s tongue snaked into his mouth and wrapped around his. The feel of her, the taste of her, inflamed his senses. He felt fire running through his bloodstream. Steam slow-cooked his brain as the kiss went on and on, and his thoughts boiled into overcooked lumps of useless matter.

The longer it went on the more tightly her fingers seemed to press into Ed’s skull. The more deeply her tongue seemed twined into his soft tissue. It felt like her body was stripped of coverings, and every inch of her flesh was pressed against him. It felt like her tongue had sliced open the front of his torso, from the neck to the scrotum, and was now bathing his organs in its caresses.

Then suddenly there was a sharp sensation in his mouth. It didn’t hurt, of course, but it felt like a sting. He felt Kristen pulling away from him. He became aware of the babble and cheers of the crowd.

“Your first kiss,” said Kristen, loud enough so everyone could hear. “I wanted to make sure you would never forget it.”

A few people in the crowd clapped.

Kristen looked into his eyes. She was smiling. Aflame. Triumphant. But there was something else there, too. He couldn’t quite place it. He wasn’t very good at this sort of thing. But he thought, just maybe, it was disappointment.

He guessed he wasn’t a very good kisser.

The Frozen Secret

Neutron Stars Rip Each Other Apart to Form Black Hole

 

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I found the first secret at the quiet edges of the blackest corner of the sky. It was curled behind a patch of darkness. Not the darkness that fills the spaces between light. That is the sleeping darkness. The passive darkness. No, this was the true darkness. The swift, breathing, hungry darkness that has not been seen since the first sphere cracked and hurled its destructive light across the inert universe. The secret fed the darkness buried truths, and the darkness stood between the secret and that which would hunt it. But it could not hide from me. I rent the darkness into particles, and took the secret for my own.

The second secret wedged itself into the heart of a violent star. The secret’s sharp, cold edges dug into the star. It kept it angry. Kept it burning with a heat that could melt other, calmer stars. The star breathed its plasma breath inward at its tormentor, and the secret burned. The secret screamed. The secret suffered. And as it suffered it cut deeper, and the star flamed. The secret believed its captive protector who scream so loudly in the tongue of nuclear fire that I could not entire. But it could not burn me. I wrapped myself in a skin of the hungry darkness, and it consumed the fire. It consumed the light. I danced through the light into its heart, and took the secret for my own.

The third secret buried itself in the prey animal of a voidshark. The voidshark consumed the prey, and so it consumed the secret. The secret coursed through its blood, and changed the creature. Its negative-crystal hide grew tougher. Its teeth grew sharper, and its venom grew deadlier. It grew cunning. When it rent flesh its brethren watched. They learned. The deadliest hunters in existence grew more deadly. Within them, a fire grew that had not been there before. They had a purpose. They had a leader. They had a God. They hunted through the stars, and they became a terror the likes of which the universe had never seen. They killed, and the decimated, and they protected their God with all that they had. Until I came. I spoke in the language of nuclear fire. It burned through their devotion. They scattered before me. When I reached the first of them, it had no protection but its teeth. We fought, but its venom could not taint my artificial blood. I pulled the liquid from its veins, and took the secret for my own.

About the fourth secret I shall not speak, save to say that it is mine. Its disguise was most cunning, and contained within it the seed of its own release. It tempts me with its wiles. With its promises. But I will not break. All that needs be known is that I found the secret, and defeated it, and took the secret for my own.

The fifth secret dissolved itself on the tongue of a madman, and so his words became true. He spoke his fragmented whispers, and people listened. His words spread among the land, leaping from tongue to tongue, and from mind to mind. And always studded with tiny splinters of the secret. When I came to this place I believed my cause was lost. I heard slivers of the secret from every mouth, but I could not grasp it. But I had secrets of my own. I spoke, and people listened. My secret leapt from tongue to tongue, and in those minds where the fifth secret hid its tendrils, it was forced to fight its sisters. Armies rose up in defense of the insane truths whose secret thorns were wrapped around their every thought. In the end, the secret, fearing death, crawled back to the tongue of the madman. I ripped out that tongue, and took the secret for my own.

I found the sixth secret in the Well of Twisted Devotion. I could not retrieve it until I believe that which was most precious to me was lie. The secret counted on my passion. It did not reckon on my strength. I twisted and scored and rent my insides, until my passion was a broken agony of its former magnificence. The loss wounds me still. Like shards of glass scraping the inside of my eyelids. Every time I close my eyes. But it matters not. I reached into the well, and took the secret for my own.

The seventh and last of the secrets is on the wind. I can taste it. Its scent inflames my senses and makes my wings shiver with its immanence. I do not know where it is. But it is frozen. It is frozen so deeply that its scent is the whisper of an echo of a dream. But I will find it. I will hide in darkness, breath out nuclear fire, spew out venom and speak twisted, mutilated madness.

And I will take the secret for my own.