Cold, Part 7

winter tree

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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.

Cold, Part 4

Rearview Silhouette

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The party was in a large clearing in Fallsdale woods ringed by trees Ed had never seen before. Gnarled and gray and splotchy. That was odd. Ed grew up in these woods and he thought he knew what all the trees looked like. Come to think of it, it was odd that he’d never seen this clearing before. He didn’t have any trouble finding it.

“Ed!” said Kristen when he arrived. “Come. We started a fire.”

She didn’t need the say it. The bonfire blazed in the center of the clearing like a hungry mouth. It licked at the darkness and spit sparks into the sky.

“Hey, Ed,” said a girl sitting by the fire.

“Oh. Hey, Marcy.”

Looking around, there were about a dozen people here, talking and laughing and drinking from milky-white bottles. Two guys were throwing pine cones at each other and hooting like they’d just invented the best game in history. But Marcy was one of the only people Ed recognized from school. She used to be class president, but he heard she hadn’t been to any of the meetings in a while. In fact, Ed couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her at school.

“See, you know people,” said Kristen. “I don’t know what you were so worried about.”

Ed didn’t remember saying he was worried. He hadn’t been. But he was now. Something about these people made him uncomfortable. They way they all looked at him. The way they looked at Kristen. They way they all swayed with the breeze, as if they were stalks of grass in a field. Ed told himself they were probably drunk or something. That’s what he told himself.

“Come,” Kristen grabbed him by the hand. “Let me introduce you to everyone.”

She walked him around the circle. She told him people’s names, but they fell out of his head almost immediately. She added in a few details about everyone, but they didn’t seem to make much sense.

“This is Razor,” she said of a short black girl covered in tattoos. “She’s been resonant for, what, six years now?”

“Seven,” said Razor. Ed didn’t ask what that meant. They moved on.

“And of course you’re already friends with Bagel,” said Kristen. Ed looked. It was one of Ryan Sutherland’s friends. The one that had elbowed him in the stomach the day before. Apparently his name was Bagel.

“Yeah,” said Bagel with a sneer. “We’re good friends.”

Ed didn’t say anything. He just followed Kristen back to the fire.

“Hey, Ed,” said Marcy. “You want a drink?” She held out one of the white bottles.

“What is it?” asked Ed. “Beer?”

Everyone standing around laughed as if he’d just said something dumb. Something quaint.

“No, silly,” said Kristen. “It’s mahsa. Distilled and fermented moonlight!” She threw her arms up towards the sky.

Ed looked up. He didn’t see a moon. Ed wondered if Kristen had sent one of these people to climb into the sky, rip down the moon, and puree it into this stuff.

“Have some,” said Kristen. It wasn’t a request.

Ed shrugged and took the bottle. He twisted off the cap, pressed it to his lips, and took a swig. It tasted strange and warm, but it froze in his throat. He realized that everyone was staring at him. Like they were waiting for something to happen. Ed took another sip.

“Damn,” said Bagel after a minute of silence.

“See?” said Kristen. “What did I say about him?”

Ed didn’t know what they were talking about. He didn’t ask. A few seconds later everyone stopped staring and went back to their conversations. Or their pine cones. Kristen floated around the group, slipping in and out of conversations with anyone and everyone.

Ed sat there in silence. He decided that he didn’t like the mahsa much, so he put it down. Marcy tried to talk to him a few times, but he couldn’t follow what she was saying. How many of those bottles had she had?

Ed considered trying to talk to these people. That’s what Marisol would have told him to do. She said he was compulsively antisocial. But it didn’t seem that interesting. What would they have to talk about? He supposed he could talk to Bagel about football. But Ed didn’t much like talking about football. He didn’t have much to say. And he didn’t much like Bagel. So he just sat there, alone. He didn’t mind. Eventually something would happen. Or the party would end and he would go home. Either way it was what it was.

Some time later Razor walked over and sat down next to him.

“So Ed,” she said. “What other kind of crazy things can you do?”

“Crazy things?”

“Yeah,” said Razor. She leaned in and rubbed her shoulder against his. “What else can you do?”

“I dunno,” said Ed.

“He can take a punch,” said Bagel from behind Razor. “He can take a punch like nobody’s business.”

Razor rubbed her hand along his arm, as if feeling his muscles.

“I think strong guys are very sexy,” she said.

“Um…thanks.”

“Show us.” Kristen’s voice cut through the sound of chatter and the crackling of the bonfire.

“Huh?” said Ed. All eyes were turned on him again.

“Show us how you can take a punch,” said Kristen, walking towards him. She wore that grin again. “Arnaud, come over here. Stand up, Ed.”

Ed stood up. One of the pine cone throwers walked up to him. He was even taller than Bagel. A bigger. Ed thought he might have fit into one of this guy’s pant legs.

“Arnaud is going to punch you in the face,” said Kristen. She ran her finger along Ed’s cheek. “Is that okay?”

Ed shrugged. Kristen’s smile widened.

“Go ahead, Arnaud,” she said. “Punch him as hard as you can.”

“As hard as I can?” Arnaud asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” said Kristen.

“Yeah, knock the fuck out of him!” said Razor. She had a hungry look in her eyes.

“Okay,” said Arnaud with a resigned expression. He pulled back his fist, and then slammed into Ed’s face.

Ed took a single step back.

“Damn!” said Razor. “I mean, damn!

After that it was on. Everyone wanted to see what Ed could do. People lined up to hit him. Someone asked him to climb a tree and then fall out of it. Ed didn’t mind. It’s not like it hurt. Finally, someone asked him to see how long he could hold his hand in the fire. After two minutes it was obvious that nothing was going to happen, so he pulled it out.

“Okay, people,” Kristen said. “Ed’s not a captured animal. Let’s leave him alone for a while.”

Razor’s face sank, and Ed hear someone say, “I wanted to kick him in the balls.” But everyone dispersed back to their separate activities. Ed sat down on his log near the fire. He was happy to no longer be the center of attention.

He saw Kristen detach from talking to Razor and walk over to him. Apparently “let’s leave him alone” didn’t apply to her. Not that Ed was complaining. “Move your arms,” she said. He did, and she settled herself into his lap. Ed swallowed heavily. He hoped she didn’t notice what was happening on his lap just an inch below her thighs. But from the wicked look she game him, she knew.

She took his hands between hers and started to rub them.

“They’re like ice,” she exclaimed with delight. “Two minutes in the fire, and they’re like ice.”

“Yeah,” said Ed. “They’re always like that.”

“I want to do something to you, Ed,” Kristen said. “Badly. Can I do something to you?

Ed swallowed again. “Sure.”

“Oh good. I’ve been wanting to try this for months.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a tiny knife. No, not a knife. A sword. It looked like something off the cover of a fantasy novel, only it was only two inches long. She took Ed’s middle finger in her left hand, and placed the edge of the blade up against it. She leaned her head against his face. He could smell her hair. Like cinnamon and candle wax.

Then she pressed the blade into his finger. It was very sharp. She let out a sharp breath as the blade cut cleanly and smoothly right through the flesh. Kristen took Ed’s finger between two of hers, and a second later she pulled the tip right off. She held it up to the firelight and looked at it.

Ed looked down at his middle finger, now missing the tip just above the last knuckle. It didn’t hurt. There wasn’t any blood. He couldn’t even see any bone. The cleanly severed area glistened in the firelight, like a sheet of crystal. Or ice. Then Kristen pressed the severed joint back onto the finger. There was a sizzling sound. A moment later Ed’s finger was back to normal. He flexed it. It felt fine.

“Thanks, Ed,” said Kristen, cooing. “That makes me happy.” She turned to meet his gaze straight on. The bonfire was behind her, but somehow he saw it reflected in her eyes. “Ed, I want something from you. Can I have it?”

“Um…what is it?” asked Ed.

Kristen’s face hardened. “If you don’t want to give it to me, just say so.” She stood up and turned away.

“Wait!” he called. “Yes, yes you can have it.”

She spun slowly back around. “Good,” she said. She walked towards him. Slowly. “Do you know what I want from you, Ed?” She asked. “Do you know what it is that I want?”

“What?”

She put her hand on his shoulder and leaned in. She brought her lips very close to his ear. For a long moment she stood there. He could feel her hot breath tickling his skin. He could hear her breathing in, and smell her rich, warm scent right next to him. His vision blurred. It was like there was nothing else in the world but her. Like everything else melted away.

No. Not melted.

Burned.

“Do you know what I want from you, Ed?” She whispered. Ed tried to speak but it caught in his throat. “Do you know what I want?”

She placed her hand on his chest and said one single additional word. He could hear the smile in her voice. The hunger. It terrified him. It excited him. So much in that one single word.

“Everything.”

Cold, Part 3

Ice Ledge

 

Connected

“You did what?” Marisol shrieked and dropped her taco. The tortilla opened up, and some of the carnitas fell out.

“I went after her,” said Ed.

“At 3 AM? Near Whitehaven? With an infuriated biker whose bike she stole after her?”

“I don’t know if there was actually a biker,” said Ed.

“Oh, well that’s fine then.” Marisol scooped the taco into her hand.

“We didn’t see any.”

Marisol rolled her eyes. “You didn’t tell me any of this.”

“No,” said Ed.

Marisol glared at him. “Fine. So the biker didn’t show up?”

“Not that I saw,” said Ed. “Someone did shoot at us, though.”

“Someone shot at you? For fuck’s sake!” All around them, the faces of other taco patrons shot in their direction. Marisol bent down and lowered her voice. “Someone shot at you?”

“I think so,” said Ed. “Maybe. There was a noise. It was pretty loud.”

“Ugh,” said Marisol. “Okay, fine, whatever. Then what happened?”

“I knew you would come,” said Kristen as Ed pulled of on the exit to Okenville. “No one else thought you would.”

“No one…” Ed trailed off. Who else was there?

“No,” Kristen said. “They didn’t.” She put her hand on his leg. Ed didn’t say anything. He just drove.

“You’re going to need a new coat,” Kristen said after a few minutes.

“Yeah,” said Ed.

“That one has a hole in it.” She didn’t need to say it. Ed knew it had a hole in it. He was there. But she said it with such delight. Like she could taste the words in her mouth, and they were delicious. Ed swallowed.

“I’ll buy you one,” Kristen said.

“You don’t have to,” said Ed.

“Of course I don’t have to,” said Kristen, and she laughed her gas flame laugh. “But it’s going to be cold at the party. And if you don’t wear a coat you will look ridiculous.”

“Party?”

“Yes. Saturday.”

Ed wanted to say something, but the words froze.

“This is my house,” said Kristen. She slipped her hand off of Ed’s leg – slowly – and slipped out of the door. “Saturday,” she said without turning around.

The text day Ed told Marisol about the party. And nothing else. He tried to get her to come.

“To a party with those people?” she said. “Not a god damn chance.”

“It could be fun,” said Ed.

“No way, brother,” she said. Then she grinned. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to cockblock.”

“You think something will happen?” Ed’s throat was dry. It was always dry, but this time he noticed, because he read that sometimes it happened in situations like this.

Marisol shrugged. “That girl wants to wrap every part of you around her fingers. I don’t know what game she’s playing, but there ain’t no doubt about that.”

“I thought you didn’t like her?”

“I don’t. I think she’s a crazy bitch.” Marisol put her hand on Ed’s shoulder. “But I like you. And if you want to dip your wick into that fire, I’m not going to stop you. How else will you learn? Just don’t expect too much sympathy over here when you get burned.”

Ed thought about hugging Marisol. But that would have been weird.

Rumors spread over the next few days that Kristen Selka was having a crazy part in the woods this weekend. Ed didn’t remember there being this much gossip in Okenville before Kristen showed up. But maybe he just never paid attention. Everyone whispered about who was invited and who wasn’t invited. Ed heard from Steve that Ryan Sutherland hadn’t even heard about it until Thursday, and certainly didn’t get an invitation. Somehow, everyone knew that Ed was going.

Ryan and two of his varsity friends cornered Ed outside the locker room Friday afternoon. There was no one else around. Ed wondered what had taken them so long.

“Hey freak,” said Ryan. “I heard you’re after my girl. Is that true?”

“I dunno,” said Ed.

“I asked you a question, assrag.”

Ed shrugged. “I’m not after anyone.”

“That’s not what we heard,” said one of the friends. Ed thought he was very tall.

“You need to learn some manners,” said Ryan. He actually said that. Like a bully in an 80s movie. Ed thought that was kind of funny.

“Are you laughing?” Ryan’s friend asked, grabbing Ed by the sleeve.

“No,”said Ed. Had he laughed? He didn’t notice.

“Oh, that is fucking it!” Ryan punched him in the stomach. Then the other two joined. They smashed Ed’s head against the wall, and elbowed him in the gut. One of them punched him in the ear.

Ed didn’t want to fight back. It didn’t seem worth it. But after a few minutes he got the impression they weren’t going to stop for a while, and he didn’t want to be late for art class. He liked art class.

Ed spent the rest of the day thinking someone was going to come and tell him he was in trouble. But no one did. Ryan and his friends must not have said anything. Maybe they were embarrassed, or something. He saw Ryan in the hall, but he wouldn’t catch Ed’s eye.

Just after last period a freshman ran up to him and handed him a bag. It contained a brand new jacket. It looked expensive. It was Gore-tex. It was flame-red and had a darker red circle on the chest.

Right over the heart.

Cold, Part 2

Ice Covered Branch

 

 

Connected

Ed first saw Kristen on the day of the Frozen Storm. It was during a football game against Linneman High. Ed’s head wasn’t in the game. That was the way it was done. The moment he stepped onto the field he let his mind drift away from what he was doing. As long as he didn’t think or pay attention or try to make any decisions, he played just fine. Ed’s body knew how to play football. He had no idea.

Linneman snapped the ball and everyone on the field exploded into motion. Ed felt his legs rush out from under him. His eyes and his mind wandered.

And there she was. The sky was overcast and the stadium was full of mist. The lights lit up the field, but the mists shrouded the stadium and made it hard to see the crowd. Except there she was. Her bright, wicked smile burned right through the fog. Ed could see her, standing up there, talking to a big group of people who all seemed sort of oriented around her. The way people oriented around Joe Malif in the cafeteria. He had never seen her before. He had never seen her before? He could barely make out her face. But there was that sharp, electric smile. And she seemed to be staring right at him.

The play ended and the defensive line reformed. Ed could still see her, leaning on one hand and low to the ground. He turned to the player next to him.

“Steve, do you see that girl?”

“Which one?” said Steve.

“Right up there,” he pointed. “The one with the big teeth.”

The look Steve gave him was visible through his helmet. “Yeah, I see her.”

“Who is she?”

“I dunno,” said Steve. “I saw her earlier. I think she’s new. Why?”

“Is she…is she staring at me?”

“Dude,” said Steve. “Girls don’t stare at the JV left defensive end.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right.”

The quarterback snapped the ball. Ed leapt into action.

Twenty minutes later the game was called because the sky began to spit out sharp pellets of ice down upon them. Linneman was up by 7, so they won. Ed didn’t care. The entire time, wherever he went, she stared at him.

That night Okenville experienced the worst ice storm anyone could remember. Trees froze up and bent over from the extra weight. Kuwasa river froze over. Pipes in people’s houses burst from the flash freeze. Ed didn’t sleep. The hail pounded on the slanted attic roof just above his head. He stayed up the whole night and thought about that smile.

It didn’t take long to figure out who she was. Everyone was talking about her. Her name was Kristen Selka. She was a transfer student from Hawaii. Everyone wondered why anyone from Hawaii would come to this frozen hellhole of a town. There were rumors that she was kicked out of her last school. There were rumors that her dad was a murderer in prison for life. Those didn’t survive the first time he showed up in his vintage Mustang to pick her up. Opinion was divided on how hot she was. Some guys thought she stole the top spot for recreational viewing from Cynthia Brown. Some thought she was a butterface. Ed knew they were all wrong.

She was fire. She was perfection.

Over the next few weeks Ed stole looks at her whenever he was near. Whenever she walked by. As she sat across the room in the study hall they shared together. He kept waiting for her to look back at him. She never did. She must not have been staring at him on the football field. It must have been his imagination.

Okenvile stayed frozen that entire winter. Less than a week after the Frozen Storm a blizzard hit the town, and the ground was covered in snow that never melted.

One day, Ed cut through the woods on his way home, as he sometimes did on days when Marisol had theatre and couldn’t walk home with him. He’d been coming this way as often as he could, lately. Ever since the ice storm. The world looked right. Everyone else complained about the cold and the dreary sky. Ed didn’t want spring to come. He didn’t want it to end.

As he walked underneath one of the tall trees he heard a creak from above. He looked up to see a huge branch rushing towards him. He leapt out of the way, but it landed on his legs and knocked him to the ground. It didn’t hurt. But he was stuck. He wiggled his toes. Nothing was broken.

Ed sat up to look at the branch. It was enormous. It had his legs wedged into the ground. There was no way he could move the branch or pull his feet out from under it. Not like this. The only thing he could think of was to dig his way out. There was more than a foot of snow between his legs and the frozen ground. It was packed down by the impact, but it should still be doable. He picked up a sturdy looking stick and got to work.

It took more than two hours before he was able to wrench his legs free.

“Nice job,” said a voice behind him as he got to his feet and brushed the snow off his legs. “I didn’t know of you could do it.”

He turned. And there she was. Kristen Selka. Standing against a pine and wrapped in a purple and orange scarf. She smiled that white-hot smile at him. This close it was almost too hot. He felt it burn into his face. Like a brand seared into his flesh. He was marked.

“How long have you been standing there?”he asked.

“Twenty minutes,” she said. Her husky voiced sounded clear. It didn’t shiver or stutter the way most people did in the cold.

“Twenty minutes,” Ed mouthed.

“This time,” said Kristen. “I was here an hour ago. And an hour before that. I saw the tree land on you.”

“Oh,”said Ed.

“I wondered if you were going to make it,” she said nonchalantly. She leapt up onto a fallen log nearby and walked along it, her arms extended for balance. “I gave you a fifty-fifty chance. You’re very strong, aren’t you?”

“I guess,” said Ed.

“I saw you at the football game, you know,” said Kristen without looking at him. “You know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” said Ed. “I guess I do.”

“I bet you’ve been wondering why I was looking at you,”she said. “And why I never look at you at school.”

Ed said nothing.

“Are you angry we me?” asked Kristen. “Are you angry I didn’t go for help? That I left you to dig yourself out or freeze to death?”

He thought for a minute. “No,” he said at last. “Not really.”

Kristen’s smile grew wider. Ed winced against the heat. “Good,” she said. “You passed.”

The she turned and started to walk back into the frozen forest. Ed could have gone after her. He could have called out. But he didn’t. After all, he didn’t really know what to say.

Kristen still wouldn’t look at him at school, after that. But she started to pass him notes. They said things like, “I’m thinking of you,” and “It’s too hot without you.” Some of them asked him questions like “How much can you bench?” and “What is the sexiest book you’ve ever read?” He sent back replies. The expression on her face when she read them was completely neutral. She had other people send him notes. Wherever he was he might at any moment be given a note. In the middle of a math test, in the boy’s locker room, even one time in the bathroom. And people started to notice.

Marisol corned him one day after school.

“Are you and Kristen Selka having a thing?” she asked. “I mean, you’d tell me if you were having a thing, right? That’s not something you’d keep from your best friend?”

“A thing?” said Ed.

Marisol rolled her eyes. “You know. A sex thing.”

“Oh. Um…no.”

“Good,” she said. “Because Ryan Sutherland would totally kick your ass.” She looked him up and down and grinned. “I’d like to see how that went for him, actually.”

“Ryan Sutherland?”

“Yeah. They’re, like, an item. Didn’t you know? I heard she let him through the back door, if you know what I mean.”

“The back door?” asked Ed.

Marisol scoffed. “You know, the forbidden highway.” Ed’s face was blank. Marison rolled her eyes again, and said, “Anal. There, I said it. Are you happy?”

Ed swallowed heavily.

“Okay, so you’re not having a thing with Kristen,”said Marisol. “But do you want to?”

Ed’s eyes widened. So very slightly. But Marisol knew him very well. She laughed. “I knew it! Jesus, Ed! You can do better!”

He shook his head. “There isn’t better. She’s perfect.”

“Puta madre,” said Marisol. “She’s a psycho! I heard she got kicked out of her last school for killing the principal!”

Ed considered this. “Wouldn’t she be in jail?”

“I don’t know!” Marisol threw her arms in the air. “That’s just what I heard. Listen, just promise me you won’t do something stupid, alright?” Ed stared at her. “Alright?”

“Alright,” said Ed.

“Alright what?”

“Alright I promise I won’t do something stupid regarding Kristen Selka.” Marisol seemed satisfied. On the rest of the walk home, they talked about cupcakes.

Ed intended to keep his promise. He always intended to keep his promises. And he didn’t for nearly 13 hours.

A shrill noise woke him up. He blinked against the dark and looked over at his alarm clock. 3:32 AM. The shrill voice came again. It was his phone. He picked it up. The call was from UNKNOWN, so he answered it.

“Ed?” the tiny licks of flames in Kristen’s voice danced inside his eardrum.

“Kristen?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m stuck outside of Whitehaven. My bike broke down.”

“Your bike? You have a bike.”

“Well, it isn’t mine,” she said, laughing. “I took it off some guy at the bar. But it broke down. And I think he probably wants it back. Can you come get me? I’ve got my phone’s GPS enabled.”

“Yeah,”said Ed. “I’ll be right there.”

He sighed, and looked over at the stuffed orangutan Marisol gave him for his 12th birthday. It was named Marisol. “Sorry, Marisol,” he said to it. “I tried.”