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Eve of destruction, p.3
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       Eve of Destruction, p.3

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “I will not go into detail,” said Mrs. Goring, picking up the plate just as Connor stole the last one (also his second). “I will tell you only two things, nothing more. If you want details beyond that, you’ll have to ask him. He knows everything, even if he tells you he doesn’t.”

  Her cold gaze didn’t move from my face during everything she said, which felt like an anvil resting on top of any resolve I might have had to defend myself. I was powerless against this fierce little woman with her boots and her white hair.

  “The first is this,” she said, and my heart dropped into my stomach. I tore a piece of the pancake off and shoved it in my mouth so I’d have something else to do besides freak out. Marisa’s hand lay soft in my own, not holding mine, not yet pulling away. “You all have ailments you didn’t possess when you got here. You know you have them and you know they’re getting worse.”

  “My parents are suing Dr. Stevens about that,” said Alex. “Only they can’t find her.”

  “Shut up! One more word and I take the pancake.”

  Sometimes Mrs. Goring was amusing despite herself.

  “You’ve all taken on one element of his. You’re not hurt or sick. Not really. You’re just old, as he was once old.”

  Connor leaned over next to me and whispered, “What the hell is she talking about?”

  “Give it,” she said, holding out her hand, and even Connor didn’t have the guts to say no. He handed over one of his two pancakes.

  “Rainsford, the person who cured you,” Mrs. Goring went on, dropping the heavy pancake onto the cart. “He also stole something from you. He stole your youth. Not all of it, just a piece of it. And what he left behind in your body are the ailments you now endure. Will! Can you hear me, Will?”

  I could, but not that well. My hearing was halfway shot.

  “You’re crazy, you know that?” Kate went on, emboldened by a new idea: maybe Mrs. Goring was insane. “What does that even mean? He made us old?”

  “You think I’m nuts?” asked Mrs. Goring, and then, looking at me, “Ask him. Am I crazy, Will Besting? Am I!?”

  I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. And in that moment Mrs. Goring pressed her finger to the keyboard and the screen for the oldest computer I’d seen in a long time began to play a video I’d witnessed many, many times. Hundreds of times. It was on my Recorder. I’d watched it in bed, over and over again, trying to understand.

  The video showed Rainsford, the old and sinister man who had cured us of our fears. It was his face in close-up as he stared back at the camera, a face that began to twitch and move, to convulse. And then it began to change. The skin tightened and the face filled with life. The man grew younger before our eyes until finally, with alarming finality, it was clear who he was.4

  “Davis?” Ben Dugan muttered.

  Mrs. Goring didn’t speak, she simply stood erect, gauging the expressions on our faces. Davis, who had acted like our friend and our helper. It was Rainsford all along. The two people were one and the same.

  “Let me get this straight,” said Alex, scratching the side of his face like he actually had any kind of stubble at all, which he did not. “You’re telling us that Rainsford, the guy that cured us, was taking something from us that made him young again?”

  “That’s what I’m telling you,” said Mrs. Goring. “It’s what he does. There is no more Rainsford. Now there is only Davis, at least for another fifty years or so. Then he’ll do it again. And again. And again!”

  “The Dude is a vampire,” said Connor. “That’s twisted.”

  But even in his attempt to ease the fear around us, he glared at me.

  They were all glaring at me.

  “You knew this?” Marisa asked me, her hand slipping away. “But how? How did you know?”

  I shook my head.

  “I knew because she told me everything,” I finally managed. “And because I didn’t listen to Rainsford. I wasn’t in there with you guys. I didn’t listen, so he couldn’t make me forget.”

  Mrs. Goring’s first name was Eve, and like the biblical Eve, she had stripped them of their innocence, opening their minds to the truth and blowing my world apart in the process.

  Marisa’s warm, soft hand slipped completely away from mine, and I knew everything had suddenly changed.

  She’d stopped trusting me.

  It took some convincing.

  Mrs. Goring had to tell more than she wanted to and so did I, but finally, a half hour later, all the pancakes but one were gone and everyone believed. Old Rainsford had become young Davis. He had taken something from each of us in order to make that happen. He had figured out a way to become young again at our expense.

  Mrs. Goring picked up the one remaining pancake and took a bite out of it; then she spoke with her mouth full.

  “What creature in the morning goes on four legs, at midday on two, and in the evening on three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?”

  Kate was in no mood for riddles as she pushed away from the table and stood up.

  “I’m leaving. Who’s with me?”

  “Sit down,” said Mrs. Goring. Her words were slow, measured, and powerful—but not powerful enough to stop Kate Hollander.

  “News flash! You can’t make me stay here. You can’t make any of us stay.”

  Alex got up, too. Then Marisa and Connor. This potential mass exodus rattled Mrs. Goring as she looked at me for help.

  “Sorry, Mrs. Goring, I don’t even know why we’re here,” I said, and it was true.

  Mrs. Goring watched as Ben Dugan also got up and the whole procession began moving for the door. It was only me at the table, alone. I stared at the empty chairs around me and answered Mrs. Goring’s question.

  “It’s man,” I said, which was a strange enough thing to say that it got Kate to turn on her heels and glare at me.

  “You’re as loony as she is.”

  “I’m just looking for answers. Don’t you want some answers, Kate?”

  “Yeah, I want answers. Ones that make sense!” Kate started moving back toward me, her enraged splendor in full bloom. “It’s man? You’re a freak, Will. A total freak.”

  “All I know is I have at least one answer right.”

  Mrs. Goring repeated the riddle.

  “What creature in the morning goes on four legs, at midday on two, and in the evening on three, and the more legs it has, the weaker it be?”

  “Man?” Connor said, as he and the gang slowly walked back toward the table. “How is it man? I don’t get it.”

  “It’s the riddle of the sphinx,” I said. “It’s mythology.”

  “Hey, I remember that!” Ben was back at the table, bolstered with memory. “We went through the whole thing in eighth grade. He’s right, it’s man. We start on four legs, you know, like babies crawling around on the floor. Then we stand up and walk until we get old. Then we get a cane to help us walk, that’s the three legs.”

  “Then we die,” Marisa concluded. She’d returned to the table, too, but she was no longer next to me.

  “Unless you’re Rainsford,” said Mrs. Goring, a sad sort of rage in her voice. “If you’re him, you never die. You just stay on two legs forever, walking on all the dead people you leave behind. Laughing.”

  Mrs. Goring did sound crazy as a loon, and maybe she was. But she had our attention.

  “Why are we here?” asked Kate. She was confused and annoyed, but she was also curious.

  “What if I told you I could get back what’s been taken from you?”

  That caught everyone’s interest, including mine. She looked at Connor Bloom.

  “What if you could stop having those dizzy spells? You could be the captain of the football team again. And you,” she turned her gaze on Marisa, pausing to stare deep into her eyes. “You want to take a long nap right now, don’t you? Wouldn’t it be nice to stop seeing the world as a disconnected haze?”

  Marisa couldn’t hold her stare as Mrs. Goring silently slipped her hand into a pocket an
d took out a glass vial of liquid. Whatever was trapped inside was black. She pointed the end in our direction, and we saw that it was the kind of glass container used for holding a blood sample.

  “Gross,” said Alex. “You’re carrying blood around in your pocket?”

  “Shut up, Alex.” Connor had sat back down—they all had—and he was leaning forward on his elbows, looking seriously at the vial. If there was a shred of hope he might be restored to his former glory, he wanted to know every detail.

  “This is not just any blood,” Mrs. Goring answered. “It’s my own, and something more.”

  She held it up to the light, sloshing its contents back and forth, and I got the sense that what was inside was thicker than blood. It looked like old motor oil.

  “You’re not the only ones who’ve been cured,” she said. “A long time ago, before any of you were a bad idea in the minds of your dim-witted parents, he cured me, too.”

  “No way,” said Ben. “Were you two like, you know, together?”

  “We really don’t need to hear about this,” said Alex, obviously grossed out by the idea of Mrs. Goring and Rainsford disrobing each other.

  “One of you is missing,” Mrs. Goring said, ignoring both boys. “Avery. She’s the new me, you see? He’s taken her for his own, at least for a while. But time will pass, and when it does, she will grow old. They both will.”

  “But he’ll do this to seven more people like us,” said Kate. “Is that what you’re telling us? And Avery will end up just like you: old and bitter and alone.”

  “And here I was actually starting to like you,” said Mrs. Goring. “You should learn to tame that wild tongue of yours.”

  Kate had gotten under Mrs. Goring’s skin and put her in an even worse mood. Perfect.

  “Tell me what you were going to say,” said Connor. He’d been wobbling back and forth a little bit, having one of his spells, but he was back now. “About getting back what he took from me.”

  Mrs. Goring observed Connor with a contemptible pity, and it seemed she was having a hard time deciding whether to answer his plea or continue fighting with Kate. The negative energy in the room suited her, a long-missing fuel pumping into her hollowed-out soul.

  “This vial is filled with my fear,” she said, pointing the tube violently in Kate’s direction, while answering Connor’s question. “It’s the essence of what passed between me and Rainsford, or more accurately, the sludge created out of the cure. I’ve carried it around a long time. Avery carries hers, too. It’s our burden to carry the curse of young love around in our pockets so we never forget what fools we were.”

  She turned her head slightly and stared at Connor. “But your fear is somewhere else. Your vial is hidden away in a secret place.”

  “What about mine?” Alex prodded.

  Mrs. Goring snapped her attention to Alex, then Ben, then me, and finally Marisa.

  “All of your fears are hidden away. But I know where he keeps them. And if you bring them to me, I can give back what he took from you.”

  “You mean no more pain in my hands and my back?” Ben asked, who suffered daily from debilitating arthritis. “That problem would go away?”

  “Yes, that would go away. You’d still be stupid, but the pain—that I can fix.”

  Kate laughed and turned to Connor, expecting him to join her, but he was all business.

  “Where do we sign up?”

  Commanding an army of shoulder-padded Neanderthals across the goal line again made up the sum total of his dreams.

  “I would need them all,” she stammered. It seemed to me she was surprised to have gotten to this stage so easily. She had underestimated Connor’s will to compete.

  “God, this is twisted,” said Kate. “What would you even do if you had them?”

  At this, Mrs. Goring offered a fleeting smile that lasted only a moment.

  “I can’t get back what he stole from me. I’m cursed to hold the rank of seven, like Avery, and we are among the few who can never go back. But you I can help. Your wretched blood can be your antidote.”

  “You’d insert our blood back into us?” asked Ben. “That doesn’t sound like such a good idea.”

  “All of your vials together, that’s the antidote.”

  “Whoa, hold on,” said Kate. “You mean we go find these things—these vials of whatever—then you make some sort of witch’s brew and stick a needle in my arm?”

  “And then I pump you full of blood from this bunch of idiots,” said Mrs. Goring, leaning over the table and staring down at Kate Hollander. “Yes, that’s the cure.”

  There was a certain logic to it, in a black magic sort of way, that somewhere within all our mire lay a cure for what ailed us. But I didn’t trust her just the same.

  “How do you know it will work?” I asked. “And why should we believe you?”

  “I know because he told me. And you should trust me because I hate him just as much as you do. We’re bound by our loathing of the same person. And besides, the same thing that will cure you? It will kill him. That’s my take in the bargain. You get cured, I get a way to put an end to this madness, an end to Rainsford, once and for all.”

  “A poison for the one guy who can’t be killed,” Alex commented. “Interesting.”

  “But he’s gone,” I said, feeling inside that I’d love to be the one to stick the needle into his arm. “You don’t even know where he is.”

  “I’m banking on his return at some point in the not-too-distant future. He’s careful about cleaning up his messes, and you, Will Besting, are a mess.”

  I pondered what that meant as Mrs. Goring stood stone cold, with her arms folded over her chest. She’d said her piece, but there was one thing she hadn’t told us. I was thinking about the one thing, but it was Marisa with her haunted, weary voice who asked.

  “What was your fear?”

  Mrs. Goring put the vial back in her pocket.

  “I am the anti-Will Besting. Or I was.”

  “You were afraid of being alone?” I asked, surprised by the revelation.

  “Not anymore, as you can plainly see by my circumstances. I’ve come to understand that people are nothing but trouble and silence is golden.”

  “If you’re lying to us,” said Kate, standing in unison with the rest of us as Mrs. Goring started for the door, “I’ll kill you.”

  Mrs. Goring didn’t bother to respond as she walked the length of Fort Eden and put her hand on the handle of the door.

  “It’s time to take back what’s yours,” she said without turning back.

  And then she was out the door and we were all following her.

  On the way to the pond, there was a flurry of questions about where we were going and what we would be required to do, accompanied by a grand total of zero answers from the woman in charge. Mrs. Goring had fallen into an impenetrable silence. It was a lonely walk, because no one would look at me. I’d betrayed them, Marisa most of all, and they weren’t going to let me forget it.

  Keith, little bro, I wish you were here.

  Don’t sweat it. They’re just a bunch of losers. You don’t need them.

  What about Marisa?

  It’s not like you were gonna marry her. Grow up.

  Sometimes the conversations I have with my dead brother are not as useful as I hope they will be. As I was lost in my pretend Keith world, I looked back toward Fort Eden. The wind was still moving through the tall trees along the path, casting those sharp shadows on the ground, but this time it wasn’t a shadow I saw moving behind me. I’d caught a glimpse of someone moving from one side of the woods to the other. I dropped back from the rest of the group without being noticed. If anything, they wanted to leave me behind like the first time we’d been here. They wished I didn’t exist, and that made it easier to be invisible.

  I didn’t have to drop back very far before darting into the woods at the edge of the narrow, winding path. They’d only assume I was falling behind as usual and leave me be, at least
that’s what I thought as I quickly doubled back on the side where I was sure I’d seen someone. I fought through underbrush and worked my way around a series of tall trees, but there was no one.

  What I wouldn’t give to be able to hear a little better, I thought. If only I could listen for someone walking or running away, I’d know where to go. I was about to run back and catch up to the others before they realized I was gone, and that’s when I saw it, caught on a sharp limb of a tree. I edged closer, peering in every direction for signs of life, and grabbed what I’d found.

  I held it tightly in my hand as I jumped back onto the path and double-timed it around two twisting corners, seeing the group up ahead. They were slowing down as I came in close, looking back at me like I’d been there all along.

  I stuffed what I’d found into my front pocket before anyone else could see it.

  As my fingers felt the softness of the item, it made me feel even surer that something wasn’t right at Fort Eden.

  It was scary, this thing I’d found, for one very important reason.

  It proved that we were not alone.

  Someone else was hiding out at Fort Eden.

  “Any of you ever been in the pump house?” Mrs. Goring asked, breaking her silence as we came to the dock.

  No one raised a hand as Connor leaned down and splashed water on his face, but all eyes were on the run-down wooden structure that sat next to the pond. It was small, like the gardening shed in my backyard at home, and it looked like it might not make it through a hard winter.

  “It’s not really a pump house,” Mrs. Goring continued. Then she walked away in the direction of the thing we were talking about and left us all scratching our heads about what was really inside.

  She took a ring of keys out of her pocket and went to work on a big padlock at the door while Alex joked lamely about how easy it would be to put his foot through one of the walls and walk right in. When the heavy lock was removed, Mrs. Goring flung the door open and stood aside.

  “When you get to the bottom, you’ll find a room. Your vials are stored in there with all the others.”

 
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