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Tessali wanted to run away from the house, run as fast as she could, like a Pilell across the wild plains, but escaping with small children meant that you had to walk, slowly, and take frequent breaks. Like rabbits, the boys could run full-tilt, and they could sit, but going steady at a moderate pace was outside their gait. They’d been walking for over an hour, and Tessali was worried that she hadn’t seen any houses. She’d come to a dirt trail that the children said was a deer trail, but, not having a better plan, they followed it.
“The brontosaurus is still my favorite dinosaur, even though it’s not really a dinosaur anymore.”
“It’s not?” Tessali asked. She looked back the way they’d come. She hadn’t heard anyone, but surely they would have noticed their absence by now?
“Nuh uh. I like T-Rex too, but when I was a little kid, me and Caleb used to watch this show about dinosaurs, and Caleb used to cry when the T-Rex came on, and he had nightmares that the T-Rex was going to eat us, and Mom said I couldn’t watch that show anymore, but then she let me again when Caleb wasn’t scared of it anymore.”
Caleb whined, and Tessali stopped to see what the matter was. He’d fallen and scraped one palm on the ground. The other hand was still in his mouth, thumb no doubt shriveled and pale from sucking.
Birdsong came from the air above them, and the three of them looked up to see a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky, forming and re-forming black constellations as they coalesced, then circled and dispersed into the horizon.
The ground was flat and covered in high grass that left a trail when they walked through it. In the distance, she saw power lines and contrails. There must have been fields of grain around, because she heard the distant rumble of heavy machinery and saw plumes of dust rise in the distance, but she couldn’t tell how far away it was.
“But the triceratops lived, like, millions of years later than those other dinosaurs, so they shouldn’t be in the same picture. I asked Mommy and she said she didn’t know why they did that, but that sometimes adults didn’t know as much about dinosaurs as I do.”
Tessali tuned him out. She was tired of hearing about dinosaurs. She was tired, period, and thirsty, and hungry, and cranky from the pain in her abdomen. This was starting to seem like a mistake. The light was turning reddish and dimmer as the sun set, and soon it would be dark and they wouldn’t be able to see.
“And then the stegosaurus was like mrrowwaaa, and the allosaur was like grrraaa!” Mark mimed eating a dinosaur.
Caleb sat down on the dirt, thumb still in his mouth.
“I’m thirsty,” Mark said.
She was thirsty too. Or at least, she thought she was thirsty. She hadn’t seen any water, and didn’t know how to find any. And what about food? And what if dinosaurs were real and there were dinosaurs out here in the grass, waiting for them to stop so they could eat them? Mark said that dinosaurs weren’t real, that they were all dead, but everyone here had a different version of the truth and she didn’t know what to believe anymore.
“We have to keep going,” she said. “It’ll be dark soon.”
“And then what happens?” Mark asked.
She didn’t know. “Come on,” she said, and tried to scoop Caleb up off the ground.
Caleb whined and went limp as she tried to sling him over her shoulder. He had grown so heavy. She turned to take Mark’s hand, but Mark was staring back down the deer trail, his mouth open and his face as white with fear as if an allosaur was after him.
“Mark?” she set Caleb down.
Mark screamed and started running.
“Mark!” She tugged at Caleb’s hand, but Caleb was already running after his brother, his little legs pumping frantically, jarring his sobs. His thumb was still in his mouth.
Then she saw the wolf. She’d never seen one before, but she instinctively knew it was dangerous. The yellow eyes, the dark muzzle. She ran after the boys. Her legs closed the distance in no time, and she scooped Caleb up without stopping. She was already exhausted, her heart pounding and her legs weak with fear. Mark screamed again and darted left as a second wolf emerged from the grass. Tessali followed him. Caleb was whimpering in her ear, his small arms closed tightly around her neck and his face buried into her shoulder.
Mark stumbled as he fell down a gully, and her heart lurched with fear, but then he got up again, face bleeding but legs still moving. She leapt across the gully and scrambled up the other side, somehow not dislodging the small child attached to her side. The wolves herded them away from the deer path and into a thick copse of trees. They snarled and howled like they were right on their heels, but Tessali didn’t dare turn to see how close they were behind them.
When they emerged from the trees, they saw Luke, standing on a dirt road, next to an old sedan with its rear door opened. He was smoking a cigarette. The setting sun made the old paint of the boxy car glow pink, and the light reflecting off the rear window blinded her.
“Luke!” Tessali screamed. She could hear the wolves right behind her.
Luke glanced up.
“Luke!” Surely he could see them?
Luke dropped the cigarette in the dirt and stomped it out with his toe. He coughed, bored, slowly, as if they weren’t being pursued by wolves, and started to walk around to the driver’s side.
Mark made a beeline for the open door and rushed inside. He turned to shut the door behind him, but his hands were clumsy with fear. Tessali pushed him aside, unloading Caleb onto the torn vinyl upholstery before climbing in herself. She pulled the door shut, and then rolled up the window. Through the glass, she saw the two wolves glaring at her, no longer in pursuit.
Luke coughed again, and opened the driver’s door. He got in, none too quickly, sighing, and slammed the door behind himself. He cleared his throat again in that deep, phlegmy smoker’s rumble of his. He pulled his keys from his back pocket and turned the engine over. It complained a few times before the engine caught and rumbled to life. Luke put his arm over the passenger seat to look behind himself. As he slowly backed the car up, the wolves danced aside, still looking at the car with their evil yellow eyes. They panted, and their tongues lolled out of their mouth like laughing dogs.
When he’d backed up as much as he could go without hitting a tree, Luke made a dirt-spewing U-turn and drove up the dirt road towards the setting sun.
Tessali set her mouth in a line and looked out the window. The wolves slunk off into the dusk, vanishing as easily as fish in a lake. “The wolves are leaving.”
Luke laughed. “They’ll meet us back at the house.”
Then it all made sense to her. She felt sick. Christine and Chance.
“You knew. You knew we’d left.” She glanced back at the children. Caleb was sobbing, nose dripping snot as he gasped for breath. Mark’s feet were cut and bleeding.
“You’re one sweet piece of ass, but you’re so fucking stupid.”
She looked down at her lap. Her new jeans were torn and muddy, and the clean skin she’d bought so dearly was grimy with sweat and dust.
“I tried to give you a chance.” Luke lit his cigarette, then rolled down the window to blow the blue smoke outside. “But you had to take the kids.”
Tessali felt her throat clog up, and tears welled up in her eyes. Tessali didn’t respond, or look at him. She’d failed. If failure had a smell, this is what it would reek of, dirt and sweat and smoke.
Luke pulled into the driveway of the house. A flock of birds startled as Luke’s car drove towards them. They flew away with chirps of protest, singing from the safety of the poplars that made the house’s windbreak. Tessali got out of the car and stared up at the birds, wishing she could fly. The ditch, once swampy with frogs and cattails, now had only stiff mud in the bottom. The clouds she had seen earlier had crept closer, adding their gray menace to the twilight.
“You’re lucky I found you before that rain hit,” Luke said. He grabbed her arm and dragged her towards the house. She tried to go limp, like Caleb, but that just made him pull her by her hair.
Christine took the children to the basement and locked them in, but Luke took Tessali to the living room. He bent her over the couch, then unbuckled his belt and fucked her. Christine was there the whole time, staring at her laptop in a chair by the window, but she didn’t look up as Luke grunted and thrust. He didn’t use a condom this time.
Rosemary said you should always use a condom if you had sex with a boy, because if you didn’t, you’d get babies, or at the very least some kind of disease that could kill you. She knew that Luke didn’t want any babies. None of the people here liked children, which is why they’d brought her here in the first place. They hated children. Anyone who kept sweet little boys like Caleb and Mark trapped in a basement must hate children.
Tessali winced against the pain as she waited for him to finish. Luke didn’t use a condom because he was going to exile her to the dead lands as soon as he didn’t need her anymore. She couldn’t even pretend he was her boyfriend anymore. He was her captor, her enemy.
When he was done, he dragged her to the basement door and tossed her in so roughly she almost fell to the bottom of the stairs. As she was righting herself, wincing and rubbing the torn skin on her shins, she heard the deadbolt click. She got to her feet. The boys were huddled in the corner. Caleb was sucking his thumb and Mark was scribbling a picture on the wall. She looked in the cupboards to see what was left. A can of peaches and a can of beans. Peaches today, beans tomorrow. It wasn’t enough, but it would have to do. Tessali opened the can as carefully as she could, so they wouldn’t cut their lips on it.
She passed the can to Caleb first. He took his thumb out of his mouth long enough to sip the sweet syrup. She took the can back from him and handed it to his brother.
“Mark? Would you like some peaches?”
Mark shook his head.
She took a sip of the syrup and scooped out one of the yellow fruit into her mouth, but left a third of the can for him.
“I’m hungry.” Caleb reached for the can.
“Mark? Do you want a peach?”
Mark shook his head, scribbling furiously on the wall. She handed the can to Caleb, who slurped down the rest of it.
“What are you drawing?” she asked Mark gently.
“It’s an allosaur eating a wolf.”
Caleb had tipped the can back, waiting for the last drops of nectar to pour into his mouth. She filled the can with water and they drank from it again and again until it no longer tasted sweet. She heated some water and used it to wash off Mark’s feet as best she could. Then she poured out the dirty water and filled it again, heating it a second time to wash off Caleb’s cut hand and Mark’s face, which had looked quite bad but was mostly just bruised. After that, she tucked them into the bed and clicked the shell lamp until it was at its darkest setting.
The boys fell asleep quickly, but Tessali stayed up late, reheating the pan, using the water to wash her left arm, then her right, then her chest, then her back, then her left leg, then her right, then her face, and finally she washed her vagina once, twice, a third time, hoping that the rumors Kirali had told her about the dying lands weren’t true, that you couldn’t conceive a child as easily as conceiving a poem, because she wasn’t doing very well in taking care of these children and she didn’t deserve any more. She tried to wash the smell of Luke off of her, the fear and the failure and the stench of wolves. Werewolves, which everyone said didn’t really exist.
By the time she stopped washing herself, she was numb with fatigue and her skin was red and raw from scrubbing. She went to work on her hair then, combing it with a fork, which is all she had. It seemed to take hours, and it hurt, because her hair had somehow gotten all tangled again. She was as careful as she could be, but still winced as she dragged the fork through her hair, untangling it. She combed and combed and combed until the mats finally began to work free. The key fell out, landing on the floor with a metallic ping. She still had it? She picked it up, turning it over and over in her hand. Tucking it in her jean’s watch pocket, she resumed combing her hair. Eventually the fork couldn’t find any more tangles, and she braided her hair up tight.
Having nothing left to do, she turned off the light. Tessali climbed into bed, gently pushing the boys aside to make room. Despite her exhaustion, she had a hard time falling asleep. She lay there, crying silently, with her arms wrapped around herself. Her scalp was sore from combing, and her skin felt raw from all the scrubbing, but she still felt dirty and disheveled. Something jabbed into her hip bone, and she reached down and felt the key in the watch pocket of her jeans. She threw the key across the room, hearing it ricochet into the darkness. What good would the key do her? What good was any of it? She would be stuck here until she died. She began to cry, quietly, so as not to wake the boys. Her face grew wet with tears, but the only sound escaping her throat was a muffled sob.
“Tessi?” Caleb whispered. His small hand brushed across her nose.“How come you’re crying.”
She sniffed. “Because I want to go home.”
He snuggled against her. “Mommy and Daddy will save us.”
She kissed his head. The werewolves clearly wanted the boys for some reason, and if they had meant to kill them, they would have already done so. But his mommy and daddy wouldn’t save her. No one was going to save her.
“We should call the police.” There was a slurp as Caleb took his thumb out of his mouth. “The police will come and stop the bad guys and help you. Miss Ally from Sunday School said so.”
“I don’t have a phone.”
“Oh,” Caleb said. There was a sucking noise, and then another slurp as he took the thumb out of his mouth. “You can’t call without a phone.”
“Wanna talk to grandma,” Mark said, but he was talking in his sleep. She stroked his hair, and his breathing grew deep again.
Caleb snuggled against her. She wrapped her arm around him and held him close. His hair smelled like sweat and little boy and dirt. She kissed the top of his head. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you to your mommy.”
“Tessi?” Caleb whispered. “Are you gonna run away?”
“Cause Luke said you could have.”
“He’s a liar.”
“You’re not gonna leave us?”
“No. If I leave, I will take you with me.”
“We should call mommy and daddy,” Caleb said. “Tell them to come and get us.”
“I don’t have a phone.”
“Oh,” Caleb said. “Yeah. That’s stupid.”
Caleb fell asleep. Tessali lay quietly, listening to the creak of the house and the snore of the boys. She tried to fall asleep, but her mind was racing, tense, exhausted.
She was going to dig a hole in the wall of the basement, and when she dug a few feet she’d find a portal back home again, and she’d take the boys there, and she’d get the Elders to exile them again, back to Seabingen this time, and she’d go and live with Sage and Rosemary.
Carrie Ann would come and save her. She’d show up with the police, and a dinosaur would eat all of the wolves and Caleb and Matt would ride on the dinosaur’s back and they’d all run away and go back to the Faire and no one would bother her about being an illegal immigrant because she had a dinosaur that would eat them if they were mean to her.
Tessali would charm Christine, and Christine would let them go and give them a car, and Tessali would drive the boys home to their parents, and their parents would be so grateful that they’d let her live with them in a real house with a real bed.
She had no idea how late it was. After midnight, certainly. It was quiet. Unbelievably quiet. No one was upstairs at all. Tessali sat up, and the springs of the sofabed creaked so loudly she thought she’d wake the boys, but the children slumbered deeply, Caleb curled up with this thumb in his mouth and Mark sprawled like a starfish.
Tessali crept carefully out of bed. She walked over to the window, peering up at pale glow of the dirty casement window. She felt something cold under her foot, and reached down. It was the key. She picked it up and flipped it over in her hand, clenching it to feel the teeth bite into her finger.
A good Indel learns to walk silently. She crept upstairs, barely making a squeak except on the fifth step which was unavoidable. At the top of the stairs, she listened. Nothing.
The key turned the lock with barely a click.
She opened the door, expecting a creak of rusty hinges, but she heard nothing. She felt the warmer house air. She glanced behind her. It would be cold when it rained. The boys didn’t have warm enough socks and hats. These wolves wouldn’t think of things like that.
Tessali walked down the hallway, going by feel and memory as much as anything. She crept down the hall to the living room. The television had a faint hum, and a black screen that somehow put off light anyway. She heard snoring and froze. Luke was asleep on the couch in the living room. He didn’t wake as she slipped past him into the kitchen. She saw a phone on the wall, and she lifted it, but it had no dial tone. Christine had left her purse on the dusty counter next to the microwave, and Tessali searched it, but she found nothing that looked like a phone. She put everything back in the purse just as she found it.
A stack of empty pizza boxes reached to the level of the counter, and the top box rested half on the stack and half on the counter. Dinosaur Pizza, home of the Brontosauceous slices. Tessali lifted the lid. On the last slice, a circle of congealed pepperoni had half-slid off the cheese. It was too much of a risk to eat it, but she did anyway, devouring the slice cold. She could have eaten four more. She closed the box again, hoping they would blame one another for eating the last slice. It had a flyer on top with a picture of a dinosaur on it eating a pizza. Buy one pizza, get a second one for only five dollars. She could eat two pizzas just by herself. She folded the flyer and shoved it in her back pocket. Mark would like the picture.
Going to the kitchen door, she grasped the handle and turned it. The door didn’t open, so she carefully flipped the latch at the top, and tried again. This time the door opened. It made a noise as the old rubber gaskets released from the door frame, and she winced and waited thirty seconds, but there was no change from the sleepers.
She walked outside. The moon was setting, three quarters full. The night grew silent as she walked outside, but then the crickets and birds and frogs and owls resumed their chorus as they realized she posed no threat. She listened to the night. Was Luke lying? Could she really have escaped if she had gone alone? Could she escape now? Could she run to freedom? She knew they had only taken her so she could care for the children and when they sold the children, they wouldn’t need her anymore.
Overhead were the same stars she’d seen everywhere in the dying lands. She was still in the dying lands. She hadn’t gone through a portal to somewhere worse. She could run to freedom. She would run and run and run in the moonlight, and then she’d come to a road, and she’d hitchhike to a gas station, and she’d find a phone, and she’d call …
Who? She had no one to call. Rosemary was on tour. Carrie Ann barely knew her. Sage would help her if she could, but she couldn’t, and anyway, she didn’t know Sage’s number. She didn’t know anyone’s number. She couldn’t call anyone. She could call the pizza company, and tell them to bring two pizzas, but of course she couldn’t pay for it. Tessali sighed.
She crept back in the house, went to the basement, locked the door behind her, and walked down the steps to the sofabed. It was damp. Did Caleb pee in the bed again? No, the moisture was in the wrong spot. She touched it and followed it up to Caleb’s face, wet with tears. She pulled the blanket back from the spot as best she could, so it would dry, and lay on the other side.
She lay awake for a long time, long enough that the basement grew lighter from the dawn rising up over the casement windows. She wasn’t sure if she slept at all.
In the morning, she heard voices.
“The moon’s full next week.” It was Christine speaking. It sounded like she was just outside the door at the top of the stairs.
Tessali sat up in bed, extricating herself from the blankets. Caleb squirmed, but remained asleep, sucking on his thumb. Tessali gently leapt down from the back of the sofa bed and crept up the stairs, skipping the one that creaked. When she got to the top of the stairs, she cupped her hand around her ear and pressed it against the door.
“No shit,” Chance said. “What did she say? Are they gonna buy the kids?”
“Well, what is it? Maybe or yeah? Did she see the prints?”
Tessali frowned. The palm prints? The boys had mentioned painting their hands. Caleb had compared Christine to Miss Ally from Sunday school, who apparently was super nice and could sing very well and was pretty and could move her ears without touching them. That was when they first got here, before Luke had kidnapped Tessali. Painting with fingerpaints was the only thing Miss Ally and Christine had in common.
“She saw the prints. She said if they’re changers, she’s interested.”
“What about the rest of us?”
“Look, she wants the kids. They don’t want us, but they’ll take us if they have to. I told her we were thinking of ransoming them to the parents, and she freaked out, offered to double the price. Trust me, Annie wants them. She’ll make Tobias let us in. I’m worried about Michael though. He should have been back by now. Is he gonna screw us over?”
Chance snorted. “How?”
“Not a chance.”
“Two unchanged cubs—“
“Not gonna happen.” Chance said. “You don’t know them. We’re apostates. Either one of us sets foot on New Mexican soil, we’re as good as dead.”
“So where did he go?”
“Without the cubs?”
“What if he’s gone behind our backs, made some kind of deal?”
“If he showed up without the cubs, they’d devour him,” Christine said.
“Eat him?” Chance said, incredulously. Tessali wished she could see his face. “Shit, you sure? I’d heard rumors, but—“
“Tobias is old school. Hardliner.”
“And you want to run with them?” Chance asked. “Eating people? That’s fucked up.”
“You don’t have to run with them, just take their money,” Christine said. “They know you’re a pig-born. It’s not like you’re going to bed beta daughters no matter whose ass you kiss.”
“Ain’t no one left anyway. Pack’s falling apart.”
“The pack was falling apart,” Christine said, sounding peeved, “but it will be better once Tobias is King.”
“And you’re really gonna run with them?”
“I’m wolf-born,” Christine said. “No offense.”
“Whatever. Tobias is a nut job, and Annie’s not a lot better. Baby hungry psychopaths.”
“For six figures a head, you can make nice.”
“What about the hand off? You doing that?”
“Luke is. He doesn’t trust us.”
Chance grunted, sounding irritated. “I don’t trust him. You’re not gonna let him get the money, are you?”
“No way. Annie’s wiring us the money.”
“Where’s he dropping them off?”
“Just outside Wichita.”
Tessali’s heart beat faster. She knew that name. Wichita. Where had she heard that name? Was that a person, or a place?
“You know you’re going to have to take care of her before then,” Christine said, quieter. “Luke’s too weak.”
“I’ll wait until after the full moon. After the hand off. She’s the only thing keeping them from freaking out.”
“Don’t get squeamish.”
“Look, it’s not gonna be a problem,” Chance said. “Luke may be thinking with his dick, but he picked the right girl. Even if they find her, no one knows who she is. She’s got no papers.”
Christine exhaled sharply. “Whatever. Just don’t get squeamish.”
Tessali pulled her head away from the door, and crept back down the stairs. The boys were awake, and Mark was whining about being hungry. She went to open the last can of beans, and remembered the pizza flyer in her pocket. She stared at it before before handing it to Mark. 78-JURASSIC. She stared at the pizza flyer with the dinosaur on it. Pizza would be so delicious right now.
She poured the last can of beans into the pot. When Luke came down to rape her again, she’d tell him they were out of food.
Like the book, but short on cash? New chapter next week!