A man with a knife was standing in the hall. Wren could feel him, and lay still, absolutely still, like Mama had taught him, covers pulled tight to his mouth out of fear that his breath might escape and somehow invite attack.
He could call for her. Scream. And then the man with the knife would disappear, and try again another time. Sometime when Wren might not see it coming, when he had no chance to stop it. Better to allow the plan to unfold until the attacker was committed. Maybe.
Whoever was out there wasn’t moving. Just standing. Waiting, maybe. Or listening. For an instant, Wren nearly pimmed his mother, quietly reaching out to her through the digital connection. But no. He might catch the burst of signal, recognize the warning, and then it’d be the same as a scream.
Wren’s eyes scanned the dim room, moonglow blue in the soft light of the night-light near the foot of his bed. Now he felt childish for having kept the light, and foolish for the disadvantage it forced on him. There would’ve been more places to hide in pure darkness. More opportunity to surprise his would-be attacker, or to slip out and escape. But not now. He’d limited his own options and traded imaginary dangers for real ones.
The person in the hall moved, and moments later Wren could hear a faint scratching at the door. Working the lock from the outside. Help wasn’t going to come. Wren would have to figure this one out on his own.
Carefully, carefully, he slipped sideways, stretching his foot out and down, down to the floor that now seemed too far away. When he finally made contact with the floor, he eased himself off the mattress, not daring to breathe, trying desperately to slide silently out from under the covers without shaking the bed. Just as he was about to get his other leg out, the door clicked once and the scratching stopped. Wren froze.
Silence stretched. The person was still there. Did he hear Wren? Or was he afraid that Wren had heard him? The leg that was supporting all of Wren’s weight started to burn. As he was trying to decide whether to shift back into the bed or not, the scratching resumed. Good. Still working on the lock then. Wren got his other foot on the floor and quietly shifted the pillows into a lump under the covers.
We often see what we expect, Three had once told him, and miss what we don’t.
Three, the man who’d given his life to get Wren safely to Morningside. Wren felt a cold knot in his chest, the fear mixing with a sudden sadness of loss. He swallowed and tucked the blankets in around the lumped pillows. Not very convincing, but maybe they’d buy him some time anyway.
The room was simple and small. A desk, a chair. Not many natural hiding places. Did he have time to switch off the night-light? No, the man with the knife might see the light go out under the door and then he’d know Wren was awake and aware. Instead, Wren grabbed the corner of the large comforter on his bed and pulled it towards the night-light. The fold cast a dark shadow across one corner of the room without disturbing the brightness near the door.
Wren’s bed was positioned in one corner of the room, the right side pushed against the same wall that held the door and the head against the wall adjacent. Sleeping in the corner had made the room feel smaller, more secure. Now, Wren was grateful to notice that the intruder’s likely approach to the bed would put his back to Wren’s hiding place.
There was something else, something in the drawer in the desk that might help, if Wren could just open it quietly enough. The door clicked again. Unlocked now. No time for anything else. Wren backed into the darkest corner of the room, diagonal from the door, tight in a ball, the chair the only thing between him and the entry. The first seconds would be the most dangerous; if the attacker scanned the room before entering, he might spot Wren in the corner. But if he was intent on the bed, Wren just might have a chance.
The boy watched the door handle with wide eyes. Tried to keep his breathing steady. His heart thundered so hard against his ribs he feared the man with the knife would be able to hear it.
From across the room, it was nearly impossible to tell if the handle was turning or not. But soon a crack appeared between the door and its frame and Wren knew the man was creeping in. At last the figure appeared, gliding like smoke seeping through the barely-opened door. He was backlit and silhouetted by the night-light, a slender figure with a hood. No, not a hood. Hair, long, past the shoulders. He was short, hunched in on himself; his frame slight, his movement controlled and delicate like a dancer.
The man with the knife crept towards the side of Wren’s bed. A momentary gleam in his left hand. The knife, the blade translucent.
Wren’s timing would have to be perfect. A few more steps and the man’s back would be to Wren, and Wren would have a clear path to the door.
Still. Be still.
The man stopped mid-step, only part way along the bed. Still too close to the door. If Wren moved now, the man might see the motion and have time to react, time to catch him before he made it to the doorway. But maybe the man had realized that Wren wasn’t in the bed. Maybe it was already too late. Wren felt cold sweat break over him as he fought the indecision. Try to run for it now? Hold still just a little longer?
The man’s head snapped around. Now it was too late. The night-light illuminated only the right half of the assailant’s face, leaving the left blank in shadow. His right eye fixed on Wren, and for a long, electric moment, the two stared at each other.
It was impossible to make out the man’s features distinctly in the dim light, but Wren could tell he was young. His face seemed smooth and soft. Wren couldn’t see the knife.
“Please, don’t,” Wren said.
After a moment, Wren saw the young man’s shoulders go slack.
“I have to,” the man whispered, his voice thin and light. Not a man at all. A girl. The knife inched upwards, where it caught the light. She rolled the blade over in her hand. Then again, to herself, “I have to.”
She shook her head slightly, and in the half-light Wren saw the gleam of her eye disappear. She was looking down, watching the knife blade continue its uneven roll, or maybe she’d closed her eyes. Considering. Wrestling. Her shoulders came up again, tensed. Wren knew what was coming next. He brought his hands up in front of him, palms out, started to rise slowly.
Help, flashed through his mind, help!
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking at him again, “but I don’t have–”
She didn’t finish the sentence. In that instant, Wren launched himself from the corner and drove the hard edge of his right hand into her left wrist, aiming for the nerve there, just as he’d been taught. A split-second later he buried the top of his head into her lower abdomen, just above the pelvis. Together they crashed into the bedframe, and Wren felt a sharp impact on the back of his head that made stars explode in his vision.
They hit the floor, and Wren rolled to his left, found his feet. The room spun. The door wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Where did it go?
There. Closed. He leapt just as the girl snatched at his foot and caught it for a split second. Wren went sprawling again at the foot of the bed and heard a metallic scrape against the floor behind him. She still had the knife.
He scrambled, fumbled the door handle with fear-numbed hands, felt her rising close behind. She was clambering over the bed. He clawed the door open and squeezed through just as she reached out and slammed the door on his ankle.
“Help!” Wren called. It was the only word that would come out as he tumbled into the hall. He skittered backwards as the door flew open. “Help!”
He scrambled back, back, back into a wall, hard. Felt strong hands clamp down on his upper arms. Lifting him. Not a wall. Someone else.
The girl stood silhouetted in the doorframe, and Wren felt himself whirling sideways as he was tossed to one side. He landed on his feet, but went down on his knees as the Someone Else stepped between him and the girl. Shielding him. He recognized the shape now. Able.
“Wren!” Cass, his mother, was running down the hall, her eyes glowing their eerie blue in the gloom. In two heartbeats, she was at his side, and then hunched in front of him, eyes on the assassin.
Wren craned around his mother for a view. The attacker was trapped, now, trapped in the doorway of Wren’s room, with Able and Mama both ready to pounce. The girl took a step backwards into his room, hands up, submissive. But she still had the knife.
She looked sad in the glow of the night-light. Trapped, defeated. Desperate. Wren recognized the look. Remembered it well. It was how Mama used to look, before Three had come.
“It’s OK…” Wren started to say, but the girl was already in motion. Before anyone could react, she plunged the knife into her own stomach, just below the breastbone. A quick twist of the handle, and a dull thump sounded inside her chest. The girl doubled over, hung in an awkward pose for a moment, and then collapsed to the floor.
Lights came on in the hallway as guardsmen rushed in from both directions. Able signaled to them, and they slowed their approach, obviously relieved that they weren’t too late. Late, but not too late. Able moved to the girl and crouched near her warily, holding himself ready for any sudden ambush.
Cass turned part way around and pulled Wren in front of her so she could look at him without taking her eyes completely off of Able and the girl. She went down on one knee, cradled his face in her hands, searched his eyes.
“Are you alright, baby?” she asked. “Did she hurt you?”
Wren shook his head. His legs felt hollow and his face hot, and when he shook his head it made him dizzy. “My head hurts a little. We fell. And my ankle.”
The guardsmen formed a timid semicircle around the others, waiting quietly for some kind of orders or direction. Cass gently ran her hands over Wren’s head and when she reached low on the back of it, he winced and jerked away from a stab of pain where she brushed over a wound. When she brought her hands back, the fingertips of one were stained wet crimson.
“Lane,” she said to one of the nearby guards, “would you go get Mouse for us? Ask him to bring his kit?”
“Sure thing, Miss Cass,” Lane said, with a quick nod. He turned and hurried off down the hall.
“You might need a stitch or two,” she said. Then she motioned with a hand and caught Able’s attention. “How’s the girl?”
Able shook his head slightly. Dying, he signed with his hands. But not dead yet.
At least that’s how Wren interpreted it. He still had a little trouble following some of Able’s faster signs, and everything was starting to feel fuzzy. He pulled away from his mother and approached the girl.
“Careful, Wren,” said his mother, but she didn’t restrain him.
Able held up a cautionary hand as he drew near. Wren nodded and crouched next to Able, careful to keep the man between him and the girl. From here he could see she was taking quick, jagged breaths, almost like hiccups. Weeping. Or maybe struggling for air. Able rolled her gently onto her side. There was blood in her mouth and fear in her eyes. Able brushed the hair back from her face, an almost tender gesture.
She was a few years older than Wren. Thirteen, maybe fourteen, with hazel eyes and a splash of freckles across her nose and cheekbones. Too thin. Wren wondered when the last time was she’d had a meal. Without understanding why, he felt emotion clawing up his throat.
“It’s OK,” he said to her. Her wild eyes bounced between Able and him. “It’s OK. We’re going to get you some help.”
Mama was next to him now, kneeling at his side. Able handed her something, and as she was examining it, Wren recognized it as the handle to the girl’s knife. The blade was gone. After a moment, Mama turned to him.
“Wren, she doesn’t have much time. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do for her now.”
“What about Mouse?” he asked.
Cass shook her head, and held out the knife hilt for him to see. She pointed to a section of the hilt, showed him how it twisted. “There’s a charge in the blade. This makes it explode.”
Wren understood then. Rather than be taken, the girl had chosen to detonate the blade inside herself. Why would she do that? Did she think they would torture her or something? For a brief instant, he wondered if it was out of fear of capture or because of some expected consequence of failure. He turned back to her. “I don’t understand. I don’t know what I did. But I’m sorry. I’m sorry for whatever it was.”
Her eyes locked on his as he spoke. Her lips moved, but no sound came except that of her thin, labored breath.
“It’s OK. I know you had a reason,” he said. “It’s OK. I forgive you.”
The girl’s eyes softened, tears welled. She raised a weak hand towards him, but Able instinctively caught it at the wrist, held it fast. Still, she never took her eyes off of Wren. Again her lips moved, so pale now he could barely distinguish them from the rest of her ashen face. But the damage was too severe and no matter how much the girl might have willed it, her message to Wren went unheard. As Lane and Mouse came running down the hall, her eyes darkened and her hand went limp in Able’s grasp. And there, on the floor of Wren’s bedroom, a girl that should’ve been blossoming into life died instead.
Tears broke from Wren, and he felt sick. He gagged once, then again, but only sobs came. Cass wrapped him in a strong embrace. She tried to turn his face away from the girl’s body, but he pulled her hand off, and continued to stare at the girl on the floor of his room.
“Why, Mama? Why did this have to happen?”
Cass replied, “I don’t know, sweetheart. But it wasn’t something you did. It wasn’t your fault, OK? It wasn’t your fault.”
It came crashing down then, the fear, the relief, the guilt, the horror. Wren let himself cry, let the flood of emotions overtake him while Able rolled the girl gently to her back. Mouse came and knelt by her for a moment, making her seem even smaller and more fragile next to his hulking frame. He spoke in low tones to Able, who signed in response. Wren didn’t even try to follow them.
Cass picked him up and carried him across the hall to her own room, and together they sat on her bed, door open, with the light from the hall spilling in. After a few minutes, Mouse and Able came in together. Able stood quietly by the door while Mouse gave Wren a quick examination and cleaned up the wound on the back of his head.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any serious damage. Nothing missing, nothing broken,” Mouse said, flashing a subdued smile. “Just going to put a couple of drops of goo on this gash to seal you up and you should be all set, ’kay, buddy?”
Wren nodded, and Mouse stepped around behind him to do his work.
“Looks like you got a pretty good whack from something sharp and bony. Knee? Elbow? Chin maybe?” he asked.
Wren shrugged. He remembered every terrifying moment with absolute clarity, but he didn’t feel much like talking about what had happened. He just kept thinking through it, wondering what he could’ve done differently. What he should’ve done differently. Maybe he should’ve called out sooner. Or hidden under the bed. Surely there was a way for it to have turned out differently, a way that didn’t end in death.
“Well, whatever it was, I’m glad it’s no worse. You might end up with a little scar, but I think it’ll heal up fine.”
Wren heard the words, but they didn’t really register. He was too busy playing the scenes out in his head.
“Thanks, Mouse,” Cass said.
“No sweat, Cass. You need anything else?”
She shook her head. “I think we’re OK for now.”
“Alright then. I’m going to go see about… uh,” Mouse finished his sentence with a little nod towards the hall. Cass nodded. Mouse squeezed Wren’s shoulder and left the room. Able bounced a gentle fist off Mouse’s upper arm as he passed, a silent gesture of thanks and casual affection. For some reason it made Wren wish he had a brother. And reminded him of the one he had once had.
A thought occurred to Wren, and he sat up straighter in Cass’s lap. “Mama. How did you get there so fast?”
“What do you mean?”
“You weren’t in your room. You came from down the hall. When I yelled for help, you came so fast. And Able…” he trailed off, realizing that Able must have already been in the hall when he’d called. And Able couldn’t have heard Wren calling anyway.
“You called before that, sweetheart. You know. The way you can.”
She put special emphasis on the words. The way you can. The way he could, without knowing how. The way he’d done it before. And other things. Worse things.
He said, “I wish I knew what she was trying to say. There, at the end.”
Cass just nodded.
“Did you hear?” Wren asked.
Cass shook her head. “No, sweetheart, I couldn’t.” But her eyes flicked up at Able, and there was something to it that Wren picked up on. Able didn’t react, but when Wren looked at him, he held his gaze.
“Able,” Wren said. “Could you tell what she was saying?”
Able didn’t move. Just held Wren’s stare. But Wren could see it in his eyes. Able, deaf from birth, was a masterful lip-reader.
Able glanced at Cass, a silent request for permission. Cass nodded. He drew a breath, looked back at Wren, and carefully signed. She said, “They told us you were a demon.”