Feb 05
adelaide.m's picture

The Dark


THE DARK
CHAPTER ONE
“ROSIE!” Alexandra Benton’s shrill voice seemed to bounce off the walls. “WE’RE OUT OF COFFEE, AND I HAVE TO GO TO WORK!” 

    Rosie, familiar with this conversation, sighed and set down the book she was reading. It was a teen romance, gifted to her by her best friend Piper. Romance wasn’t really Rosie’s forte, but she’d figured she’d humor her friend, at least until the book got boring.

“AND?” she hollered back. “PICK SOME UP ON YOUR WAY BACK FROM WORK!” 

    Alexandra appeared in Rosie’s doorway a split second later, wearing a neatly pressed blouse half-buttoned, one sock, and her long black hair twisted into an awkward bun. Rosie’s mother was always running late. It was a wonder she hadn’t been fired yet. 

“Rosie,” She said sternly. “I have a meeting after work, and the coffee shop closes at four.” Rosie knew this was a lie. Alexandra worked in the town hall, doing something as a secretary. There was rarely anything she needed to do outside of work hours.

    She opened her mouth to protest, but Alexandra cut her off. “Rosie, I asked you to do something, and I’d like you to do it.” She leaned against the doorframe, somehow managing to button her shirt without ever taking her eyes off her daughter. “Now I know you’re scared of the dark, but you have to go out sometime.” 

    Rosie begged to differ, but she didn’t say anything. She wasn’t necessarily scared of the dark… well, no. She was. She just didn’t like it when her mom said it. 

“Fine.” Rosie stood up from her spot on her bed. Her mom, seemingly satisfied, smiled and nodded.

“Now get out.” Despite the harsh tone in Rosie’s voice, Alexandra was still smiling as she stepped out of the doorway and disappeared down the hall. 

    Rosie listened for the sound of the front door shutting. before she stomped down the stairs. A twenty-dollar bill laid flat on the linoleum counter, crisp to perfection, as was Alexandra’s way. Rosie didn’t pick it up though. Instead, she wandered into the living room, which was really just a couch facing the fireplace and a massive bookshelf shoved against the wall. She really didn’t feel like getting coffee.

    Rosie sat on the couch and counted the ticks of the miniature grandfather clock on the mantel. A minute passed. She debated texting Piper, but it wouldn’t be any use. It was a Friday, after all. She would be in school. 

Her eyes wandered over the random display of knickknacks sprawled across the fireplace. A jack, an old friendship bracelet, old holiday decorations from aunts and uncles, and many many framed photographs. Photos deserve to be treated nicely, too, Alexandra would always say. They’re just like memories.

    Rosie stood and picked up one framed in silver. It was a picture of Alexandra and Marcus, her father, on their wedding day, but it wasn’t from the wedding. Her father, who already had laugh lines at twenty-eight, had his arm thrown around her mother, whose mouth was twisted in annoyance, but eyes that glittered incandescently. A shiny necklace lay on her throat. Rosie knew the story behind that photo by heart; her dad used to tell it to her every time he saw her staring at it.

    “I woke up the morning of our wedding before the sun had even risen.” He would pull his daughter up onto his lap, no matter how old she was. “Now Rosie, they say it’s bad luck to see your bride on your wedding day until she walks down the aisle, but I just couldn’t wait to see your mother. So I got up out of my bed, and I crept through the halls to your mom’s room. See, it was in the room with the squeaky door, but I got it open without too much noise, and I woke her up.” At this spot in the story, he would call for Alexandra to tell Rosie that he did, in fact, open that door without much noise. She would obligingly inform Rosie that her father was very quiet opening the door. And her father would tell her that they talked and talked until Alexandra’s mother came knocking on the door.

    “And then…” Marcus would always drag this moment on while Rosie, wide-eyed, waited in anticipation. Multiple times, Rosie, always impatient, finished this part for him.

    “You climbed out a window!” She would cry.

    And then Alexandra would scoff. “It was a first-floor window.” Then they would bicker back and forth about whether or not it was the first floor or second-floor window, but it was a loving bicker, not at all like the fighting between them in the months before Rosie’s father left.

    She set the picture down with a bang. She didn’t want to think about it anymore.

 Rosie grabbed her bag from her wall hook in the kitchen and stuffed the twenty-dollar bill into her wallet, taking care to crumple it, just because, before putting her hand on the doorknob. It was antique gold, but still fashionable, connected to the door that had stood there since before Rosie could remember.

    The funny thing was, Rosie used to love this door. It had a pretty stained glass window, and it was covered in chipped green paint. Young Rosie thought it was artsy and tasteful; Rosie now just thought of it as a reminder that the formidable darkness was just inches from getting inside. 

    She took a deep breath and before she could talk herself out of it, she opened the door.
    In Ferncliff, the rural and cutesy town the Bentons inhabited, there were two parts of town; on the west end of town, there was the Oval. The Oval wasn’t an oval at all, just a plain old street dotted with art galleries and chic coffee shops, but in Ferncliff’s desire for uniqueness, it had been deemed the Oval, instead of a dependable name such as “Main Street” or just “Downtown.”

    The rest of Ferncliff was occupied by expensive-looking suburban houses mashed in next to prefabricated ones, and other businesses that weren’t as easy on the eye. Ferncliff used to be a town that’s primary income came from tourism, and ease of eye was very important to the old mayor, Barney Green who was also Piper’s step-father. For good reason, yes, but Piper wasn’t very fond of him, and due to the laws of BFF’s, Rosie wasn’t either. 

    Because of that, the road from Rosie’s house to the Oval was filled with potholes and covered with loose gravel. She used to walk this road to get to the school, before her mother had let her switch to online classes. Nostalgia and a little bit of FOMO came with this path, even after a few years. Rosie tried to focus on that a little more; it almost took her mind off the darkness. But she nervously rubbed her hands none the less. 

    Where the sidewalk that led to the Oval began, Rosie’s walk to school ended. She took her left, casting a look at the single spire of the old-timey school visible over the hill, to the right. Piper was in calculus there. Or more likely, sleeping through calculus. 

“Hey, Rosie!” A deep voice called.

Surprise made the tip of her blue sneakers catch in a deep crack in the sidewalk. She wobbled a little before righting herself. On the edge of the intersection, a dark-colored police vehicle was parked. A man was smiling at her through the window.

“Hey, Officer Martin!” She called back.

Officer Martin rolled down the window of his car all the way. He always seemed to be parked on that corner, although the crime in Ferncliff was sparse. Rosie supposed that, as much as her mother denied it, the darkness made everyone uneasy.

    She stopped walking.

    Officer Martin turned down the radio in the car. “I’m surprised to see you out so early.”

    Rosie half chuckled and half scoffed. She checked her watch. It read eleven-thirty. Her mother had demanded coffee, and then left around nine-thirty. In Rosie’s almost a year of spending days alone, she had discovered she was an expert at wasting time. 

“Yeah, I wasn’t planning on it,” She said.  At his inquisitive look, Rosie continued. “Apparently, we’re out of coffee.”

    Officer Martin laughed. He had a sort of contagious laugh, and Rosie began to chuckle a little, too. “Ah,” he slapped the steering wheel. Leave it to Officer Martin to slap a steering wheel when something was funny. “I’ve heard that one before.” 

    He settled back into his seat, and someone coughed. A girl was sitting in the passenger seat, watching the interaction curiously.

“Oh, yeah. Rosie, this is my niece, Nicola.” The girl, Nicola, leaned closer with narrowed eyes. A stud glimmered in her nostril. Rosie could see the resemblance in her broad nose and prominent cheekbones, but unlike her uncle, Nicola gave off a vaguely threatening air; Rosie’s skin prickled, but she smiled and waved.

 “Hi.”

Nicola regarded her for a moment more before replying, “‘Sup?”

Officer Martin rolled his eyes. “Nicola here is on probation, so I pulled her out of school to do some patrolling with me. If only she would get off her phone.” He chuckled to himself, Rosie almost pointed out that Nicola wasn’t on her phone at the moment, but she decided against it.

“Rosie here is around your age,” he said to Nicola. To Rosie, he asked, “How old are you again?”

“Sixteen,” Rosie answered obligingly.

“Ah yes. Nicola’s seventeen. You guys should hang out sometime.”

Nicola let out a sharp laugh. Her intense brown eyes were still trained on Rosie. “Not all girls the same age are friends, Uncle Gabriel.” Officer Martin sighed.

“Yes, well...We won’t hold you any longer, Rosie. We know how much your mom likes her coffee!”

Rosie said farewell, taking great care to watch where she was putting her feet, only looking up to cross the street towards the coffee shop. 

The bell jingled as she opened the heavy door, a satisfying sound she had loved when she was little. She bought a big bag of coffee beans, and she ordered herself a black coffee from the counter. The coffee here was mediocre but overpriced, but it was the only place in Ferncliff, other than the diner, which was even worse. So they settled for this. 

  Rosie bumped open the door with her hip, trying to fit the lid on her scalding cup, when she nearly ran right into Nicola. A bit of coffee splattered on Nicola’s sweatshirt. Nicola just cast a nonchalant glance at her shirt, and then back at Rosie. 

“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” Rosie gasped as she bent down to grab the bag of coffee beans that had fallen out of her purse. She straightened. 

“Wait, aren’t you supposed to be on patrol?” She asked. She shoved the beans back in her bag, and shoved the lid on the cup harshly. It made a not-very-pleasant sound, plastic on plastic.

Nicola nodded. “Yeah, I was, but I convinced my uncle that it would be more educational out here. He’s very easily persuaded, you know.” She shrugged. “But I don’t think he realized he would be stuck in a car with me all day.”

Rosie smiled.“Well, have a very educational experience.” 

Rosie stepped around Nicola, and just as she was about to cross the street, Nicola called, “Wait!”

    Rosie turned as Nicola jogged a few steps towards her. “I was going to stop at the diner for lunch, do you want to come?” 

    Rosie’s eyebrows furrowed, and she checked her watch. Eleven forty-three. Alexandra’s voice rang in Rosie’s ears, scolding her about how she needed more friends, how she couldn’t stay home forever. But Rosie hadn’t charged her phone, thinking she’d be back to the house quickly, and it was almost dead. Rosie fingered the necklace she was wearing--a little horse charm her grandma had given her a million years ago-- before taking a deep breath and pushing her uncertainties aside. “Sure. I’d love to.” Nicola, satisfied, nodded and turned down the sidewalk, Rosie hurrying after her. 

    Dellah’s Diner sat not far from the coffee shop, in an unhappy looking building. The bricks crumbled, and the neon sign was cracked and covered in dirt, but the diner still had a steady stream of regular customers. Nobody had ever met Dellah, either. 

The door opened easily though, and they settled into the plasticky red booths. Alexandra refused to eat here--for what reasons, no one knew--so Rosie rarely came. Nicola turned to Rosie. “So. Do you go to the school? I never see you there.”

    Rosie drummed her fingers on the metal rim of the table. “Nope. I do an online course.”
    Nicola nodded. “Smart choice. The people there are literal demon spawn.” Nicola laughed to herself. “Literal, actual demon spawn.”

    Rosie didn’t think Piper was demon spawn--well, maybe a little, but good demon spawn. Nor did she think any of her old friends were either--well, maybe a little. Not good demon spawn.

    She frowned a bit. “Don’t you not have any friends?”

    Nicola glared at her. “Well of course I have friends.” Rosie waited, but Nicola didn’t elaborate. A tall girl with a bright pink pixie cut brought them waters, introduced herself as Mai, and took their order. Rosie did not miss that Nicola asked for her ‘regular’, or when she fist-bumped Mai before she returned to the counter.

    “See?” Nicola smirked and took a sip of water. “Friends.” 

    Rosie just nodded and peered out the window. She watched as people passed under the spectral purple streetlights. Most of them walked solo, staring at their phones, but some of them looked around smiling. How people could be comfortable in this world, where there was never any light, Rosie had no idea.

    “What are you looking at?” Nicola was staring at her with an inquisitive look.     

    “Just the people.” Rosie settled back into her seat, away from the window. “I like to watch. And see how they handle…” Rosie trailed off. It had become a sort of subconscious habit, whenever she was out. Just watching. 

    “The darkness?” Nicola finished. Rosie nodded. 

    “Well, it’s been long enough. I don’t really notice it anymore.” She took another sip of her water. “And besides, isn’t that a little stalkerish?”
     Rosie just shrugged, and Mai appeared with a tray of their food. 

    Dipping a fry into ketchup, Nicola stared at Rosie thoughtfully. She seemed to do a lot of staring, whether it was in a threatening, thoughtful, or condescending way. 

    “So what do your parents do?” Nicola asked through mouthfuls. 

    Rosie dipped her own fry in her chocolate milkshake like a normal person. “Well, my mom works at the town hall.”

    Nicola nodded. “And your dad?” 

    “He left when I was eleven.” Right before Rosie was left in the dark. Literally and figuratively. 

    “Hmm.” Nicola nodded thoughtfully.

    “What about you? Are your parents still around?”

    Nicola shook her head. “Nah. My mom up and left after I was born, and my dad died when I was seven, so I live with my uncle now.” 

    “Sorry to hear that.”

    She shrugged. “It’s not that big a deal. I don’t really remember them anyways.” 

    They ate in silence for a few minutes. 

    “So why are you on probation?” Rosie finally asked. What if Nicola was a murderer? It probably wasn’t very common for murderers to get out of jail and on to probation, but that was just the way Rosie’s mind worked.

    “How very nosy of you,” Nicola said, not unkindly. “I’m not a murderer or anything, I promise.”

    Rosie was not at all comforted by this. “That is exactly what a murderer would say!”

    Nicola laughed. She had an infectious laugh, just like her uncle, and soon Rosie was giggling too. 

    Rosie was still laughing when the smile faded off Nicola’s face. She was staring at a girl who had just come into the diner, mouth twisted and eyebrows furrowed. The girl in question was currently leaning against the counter with Mai. She was jealous, Rosie realized.

    “Who’s that?” Rosie pressed her lips together to keep from smiling. She couldn’t help it. 

    As if Nicola had realized she was scowling, her facial features fell into a calm, composed look. “Her name’s Mintie.” And then, after a pause. “She’s Mai’s girlfriend.”

    Rosie smirked. “Hmm.” 

    “What?”

    “You like Mai.

    Nicola shrugged. “She’s my ex.” When Rosie didn’t say anything, she glared. “Do you have a problem with that?”

    “Not at all. Just… you miss her?”

    Nicola didn’t say anything, neither confirming nor denying, but her frown deepened. Rosie took it as confirming. 

    Her smile widened.

    “What?”

    Rosie shrugged. “Nothing. It’s just...fist-bumping isn’t exactly a form of flirting.” 

    “Whatever.” Nicola threw a fry at Rosie, but she was smiling.

CHAPTER TWO
When Rosie’s phone buzzed with a text from Nicola the next morning, asking her to hang out later that night, Rosie wasn’t planning on answering. That is, until Alexandra, being the snoopy mother she was, read the text and decided that ghosting was no longer acceptable.

    “C’mon, Rosie. You should go.” They’d been arguing about this for quite a while now. 

Rosie found it peculiar how her mother hadn’t demanded to know who Nicola was, which was exactly something she would do. Rosie guessed that, in their lines of work, Officer Martin and Alexandra crossed paths often.

“You need more friends! You need to get out more!”It was a Saturday, Alexandra’s day off, which meant it was cleaning day, and she was scolding her daughter about social interaction while rubbing the kitchen counter with a puffy yellow sponge and unnecessarily large pink gloves. It made her look like an old-timey cartoon character, and Rosie was finding it awfully hard to take her seriously.

    “Gee, thanks,” Rosie grumbled. “I had lunch with her yesterday.”  She scrubbed a little harder at a rust stain on the kitchen island. Her hands were protected from the chemical spray they were both using with smaller, yellow gloves, which seemed more practical. 

    “Wait, really?” Alexandra looked ready to hug her daughter and compliment her bravery.

    “Don’t sound so surprised,” Rosie muttered.

    “Aw, I’m so proud of you!” Alexandra didn’t hug Rosie. 

    “Mom.” Rosie rolled her eyes. “Then I don’t need to go.”

    “Nonsense.” Alexandra turned back to the counter. “Tell her you’re coming.” 

    Worn down, Rosie didn’t feel like arguing. So she did.
    Rosie met Nicola in front of the used bookstore, per her instructions. 

    “Hi!” Rosie came up to where Nicola was slouched against a car. Nicola merely regarded her as way of greeting, before turning her attention back to the bookstore. In big yellow letters, painted on a piece of plywood, a sign read “Al’s Book Shop.” 

    They sat in silence for a moment before Rosie gave up on waiting for Nicola to tell her what they were doing.

    “So why exactly are we here?” She twisted her fingers around her ever-present purse. Waiting made her anxious, which was ironic considering that’s what she spent most of her life doing.

    “Do you like to read, Rosie?” Rosie nodded. She loved to read. 

    “Well good. This is where Mintie works.” 

    Rosie shook her head. “But I thought you liked Mai?” 

    “I do,” was all she offered, then she pushed herself off the car and stepped into the bookstore. Rosie just sighed before she followed her in. 

    The bookshop was a rather cozy place. Rosie rarely came in, due to obvious reasons, but when she did, she never wanted to leave. Bookshelves of different shapes, sizes, and colors were pressed against every available wall. Long tables were spread throughout the middle of the room, pressed together in L’s and T’s, and a bar in the back had display racks of pastries and bread, and even a coffee maker. Nicola didn’t take any time to look over the books that were on almost every surface; she just headed straight towards the counter in the back. 

    Mintie was just coming through a swinging door that led to the back kitchen with a tray of croissants. She jumped when she saw Nicola leaning against the counter, but recovered quickly with a laugh.

    “Oh, Nicola! Hey!” She said brightly.

    “Hi, Mintie,” Nicola said in a sweet voice. Rosie detected a venomous note underlying her sugary tone but Mintie didn’t seem to notice.

    Rosie busied herself looking through a stack of books. She may have only known Nicola for about a day and a half, but she knew that she did not want that venom directed towards her.

    “What can I get you guys?”

    “I’ll take a black coffee!” Rosie called from her position away from the blast zone. As much as she wanted to stay out of this, she wanted coffee more.

    “A black coffee…” Nicola made a show out of inspecting the pastry display. “And I’ll take a strudel and whatever tea you have brewed.”

    Mintie smiled brightly. “Good choice. Mai helped make the strudel.”

    There was that smile again.

    “So...will you be at Montgomery tonight?” Nicola stepped away from the counter to the nearest bookshelf. She ran her finger over the spines of the books dramatically, before selecting a book and pulling it out. She didn’t even read the back before setting it on the counter

    “Nah.” Mintie fitted a lid on Rosie’s coffee before setting it beside the book. “I promised my dad movie night tonight. Maybe next week, though. You?”

    “Same. I figured I’d let my probation cool down before I hang there again.”

    Mintie nodded understandingly, though it was doubtful that she’d ever even been pulled over before. She slid the tea over the counter next.

    “Emil says he wants to start going deeper into the tunnel.”

    Nicola nodded thoughtfully. “And you? What do you think?”

    “I think that we should stay at Montgomery. Cael just changed the batteries in the lights. But it could be interesting. What about you?”

Nicola scoffed. “I think Emil’s a chicken and never goes through with any of his ideas.”

Mintie chuckled, but it was apparent the comment made her uncomfortable. She handed Nicola a paper bag with the strudel in it. 

“Rosie, did you find a book?” 

Rosie nodded and slid the book on top of Nicola’s. Nicola passed Mintie a few bills and grabbed their purchases from the counter.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you around. Tell your dad I say hi.”

Mintie smiled brightly. “Bye Nicola! Have a good day!”

Nicola passed Rosie her coffee as they stepped out of the door. “I’ve never seen her dad in my life.” She laughed slightly under her breath. “So infuriating.”

Rosie was surprised that it had gone over so smoothly. She had expected nothing less than blood. 

She sipped her coffee. “Really? I thought she was nice.” 

Nicola narrowed her eyes. “Pick a side, Rosie.”

They both were nice people. She hadn’t known Nicola long enough to pick a side, but she held her hands up in surrender anyway.

They sipped their coffees in silence before Rosie had to ask.

“So, will you tell me why you’re on probation now?”

Nicola just rolled her eyes. 

“Fine. Where are we going next?” 

“You don’t have anything to do, right? I thought we could go to my house.”

Rosie shook her head. “What street do you live on?” 

“Brown, by the school.” 

That was closer than where she lived, and Rosie didn’t quite feel like being alone, since her mother wasn’t home from work yet. The thought of the darkness was in the back of her mind, and she wanted to keep it there.

“Sure.”

The hill that led up to Brown Street was not relatively steep, but rather a gradual slope that seemed to last forever. Nicola seemed to drift up the hill easily, whereas Rosie had to force her feet forward. With each step, her breath hitched and caught, shooting up as Rosie attempted to catch it, before plummeting down where it was unreachable. It was, for sure, in part, the hill. The other part, however, was how alone she felt. Alone in her fear. 

Nicola walked beside her, yes, but Rosie had known Nicola for forty-eight hours, max. 

Often, Rosie felt like her fear was pushing every element of her--her soul, her personality--down, using its claws to scramble its way to being the most undeniably real part of her. 

Nicola didn’t know that yet, and there was no need for her too. 

So Rosie struggled for breath in silence.

When they arrived at the house, Rosie’s hands were shaking. Nicola fished some keys out of the deep pockets of the cargo pants she was wearing.

The Martin house was on the suburban side of the Ferncliff house spectrum. It was all shiny white board-and-batten and dark gray roofing. 

The entryway was sparsely decorated though. As Nicola led Rosie through the house to her room on the far side, Rosie found that the whole property was only speckled with staples and necessities. That is until Nicola opened the door to her bedroom.

Every inch of wall was covered with posters and drawings and poems, plastered down with yards of tape, not at all what she’d expected from Nicola. And it was a very big room, providing a lot of wall space. There was even a bookshelf tucked into one corner, which took Rosie by surprise. She hadn’t taken Nicola for the reading type either. 

“Welcome to my room,” was all Nicola said before throwing herself onto her bed and opening the book she had purchased at Al’s. 

Rosie was eager to read the book she had picked out as well, but she took her time examining Nicola’s decoration. Posters for boy bands, and then some girl-bands. Doodled unicorns and detailed illustrations of cars and monsters. Poems that looked like they’d been torn out of books and some scrawled on lined paper with a pencil. It was fascinating to look at, really. Rosie could almost see how Nicola’s personality had changed, and how her walls had changed with it. 

Rosie turned away from the wall. Other than Nicola’s bed and an uncomfortable-looking desk chair, there seemed to be no other place to sit, so Rosie leaned against the wall and opened her book.

CHAPTER THREE
When Rosie returned to her house from Nicola’s--her book had gotten boring and Nicola didn’t seem at all inclined to take a break from hers--Piper was sprawled on the floor of Rosie’s bedroom, in the dark. 

“Finally!” Piper sat up as Rosie opened her door. “I’ve been here for nearly an hour! Your mom almost had me roped into cleaning!” She smiled, teasing. “Where were you? I haven’t been replaced, have I?” Piper was very good at putting up a sarcastic and carefree front, but Rosie had known her long enough to see a bit of hurt on her face. Piper needed to be needed. She had taken it as her personal responsibility to be Rosie’s friend, but it was clear now that Piper needed Rosie as much as Rosie needed her. 

“Never.” Rosie heaved a sigh. She flicked on the light of one of her many desk lamps and leaned against the wall. There was always a light on in Rosie’s room, except when Piper was there. She had a thing about the cost of electricity. “My mom made me go out.” 

“Why didn’t you text me? I would’ve come with you!”

Rosie smiled. She was very tired, and it was only one o’clock. “You say that like you have ever woken up before noon in your life. But I went with Nicola? Martin? To the bookstore?”

Piper froze and her eyes widened. “Nicola Martin! Rosie, she made my life a living hell last year!”

Rosie instantly felt bad. She knew that last year was hard for Piper. It was supposable that someone such as Nicola had a talent for picking out insecurities and exploiting them.

She sat on the floor beside Piper.

“Sorry. I didn’t know.” 

Piper looked like she was about to say something, but her features relaxed. “It’s fine, Ro. Just...”

Rosie knew what she meant. If hanging out with Nicola would hurt Piper, then Rosie wouldn’t hang out with her anymore.

They both stared at the floor. It was always awkward talking about things like that with Piper. Feelings. It just wasn’t the way their friendship worked, and Rosie was fine with that. 

“So,” Piper finally said. She picked at the carpet. “Did you finish the book?”

“Hmm?”

“The one? I gave you?”

“Did you really forget the name?” Rosie had forgotten too, but she felt as if this was not the time to tell Piper she’d read the first three chapters and then “lost it” under her bed.

“Maybe.” Piper blushed. “Oh. I totally forgot. The last basketball game of the season was rescheduled for Wednesday. Will you be able to come?”

The sudden realization that summer break started in a week hit Rosie like a ton of bricks. After this, she would be finished with her junior year of high school. That meant she only had one more year left. Yes, she’d never really cared much for school. And there was no coming of age, dramatic, life-changing decisions in her future. No college. A boring job in one of the stores on the Oval.

Yet Rosie still got that odd twisting feeling in her chest that came with the end of an era. 

She blinked.

“Obviously. I wouldn’t miss it.” If Rosie was feeling this, Piper must be too. Or not. Piper was not nearly sentimental.

“Good.” She beamed. “Now can we get a snack? I’m hungry.”
Nicola texted multiple times between their trip to Al’s and Wednesday evening. Rosie neither ignored her or really replied. Their conversations went like this:

Nicola: Hey wanna get food?

Rosie: Can’t. Sorry.

Nicola: Im gonna be at the library w some friends studying wanna come?

Rosie: Sorry promised my mom a grocery run. 

This felt like a happy medium between hurting Piper’s feelings and offending Nicola, but Rosie felt bad anyways. 

When Wednesday came, Rosie donned her Ferncliff High School sweatshirt from her glory days and pulled wadded up dollar bills from her piggy bank for the overpriced concessions. No one would think such a school of two hundred would need a concession stand, but it was there anyways. 

Alexandra also had on a Ferncliff sweatshirt from her days as a PTA mom. The basketball games were where rebellious teens and mellow parents met. Although there were no other teams to compete against, Ferncliff found a way. The school would select thirty reluctant teens from the masses and set them up in teams of fifteen for the season. Que some “healthy competition.” Rosie thought the concept was a little bit stupid, but tradition was important. Especially when everything had changed. 

Alexandra had peeled away from Rosie when they entered the gym to sit with Mayor Green and Piper’s mother Lena. Rosie spent too long looking for a seat with a good vantage point before she settled into the one she usually did. 

Rosie sat, watching Piper stumble around in a ratty green uniform for fifteen minutes. Piper was a talented athlete, for sure, but her long, gangly limbs made it very entertaining to watch her run and dribble the ball.

The stadium stayed empty, only a few early-goers like the Bentons and the Greens, and a few more, but like clockwork, during halftime, the crowd came. The stadium was quickly filled. And with that, Nicola slid into Rosie’s row.

“Hey.” Nicola wedged herself in the row, which already had two other families in it. Plus Rosie. 

“Hey.” Rosie squirmed. Piper would not like this. And the last thing Rosie wanted was to hurt Piper’s feelings.

“Who’s winning?” Nicola fished around in her deep pockets for something.

“Green.” 

Each team did have a fancy title, but no one--including Rosie--remembered them, Every one just called them by the colors, red and green. 

“Cool.” 

Nicola came up with a wad of crumpled dollar bills. She pressed them against her knee, a hopeless attempt to smooth them out.

“I’m gonna get a pretzel. Do you want something?” 

Rosie nodded. 

“I’ll take a pretzel too.” She passed Nicola a dollar from her purse and Nicola side-stepped out of the row with several excuse me’s and a few awkward limb entanglements. She took the steep bleacher stairs two at a time in a hurry to get to the concession stand before the crowd got there; already, people were standing up from their rows.

Rosie quickly ran through every possible solution to get away from Nicola. With a little rush of panic, it became apparent that there was no way of doing so without appearing rude. 

Was rude worth it?

It was too late, because Nicola had awkwardly sat down beside Rosie again. She silently passed her a large pretzel.

“Thanks.” 

Rosie brushed some of the salt off her pretzel before taking a bite. Her arms itched. 

The teams broke from their huddles with some sort of chant that was impossible to understand. Rosie immediately saw Piper jogging to her position, her eyes scanning the crowd. Rosie winced, but before Piper spotted Rosie someone called her name, and she turned back to the court. 

It was hard for Rosie to enjoy the game with Nicola sitting beside her, making her anxious. Thankfully, Piper was invested in her plays, and she didn’t look for Rosie again. She would, though, and Rosie sat huddled, waiting for the bomb to explode.

Nicola just sat there, unaware of how antsy Rosie was, eating her pretzel.

“Are any of your supposed friends here?” Rosie finally blurted. Maybe Nicola would take a hint. But Nicola just turned to look at her calmly.

“Nah. This isn’t really their scene.” She finished her pretzel. “You?”

Rosie inspected her nails. “A few. What exactly is their scene?”

Nicola crumpled her wax paper and smiled slyly. “You’ll see. One day.” 

Rosie wouldn’t see, but she didn’t say that. She just nodded, before hunching up her shoulders as Piper ran by. 

There were only five minutes left in the half. Nicola looked ready to go; her eyes darted around the gymnasium in loops. Rosie allowed herself a little relief.

But then Alexandra called her name.

Rosie whipped her head around. Alexandra was scooching through the row with a little more grace than Nicola had, but not much.

“Rosie!” She was being unnecessarily loud. Rosie shrunk a little more as she saw a few heads pop up and look for the source of the noise. 

“Rosie!” Alexandra let out a breath as she made it to Rosie's seat. “Oh, hi Nicola,” she said before she targeted her daughter.

“Hi Mrs. Benton.” Nicola looked like she was trying very hard not to laugh. But Rosie wasn’t looking at Nicola. She was looking at Piper, who was staring at her with an unreadable look.

“Rosie!” Alexandra snapped her fingers a few times. “Do you have any money? I forgot my wallet.” Rosie’s eyes darted away from Piper and to her mother. She blushed despite herself as a few onlookers shouted at Alexandra to sit down. 

“The game’s almost over, Mom!” She hissed.  

Alexandra rolled her eyes. “Who cares. I’m hungry.”

“Fine.” Rosie handed over her wallet as the game-ending buzzer went off. 

Rosie glanced back at where Piper had been standing, but she was gone.
CHAPTER FOUR
Piper ignored all of Rosie’s texts throughout the next week. She hadn’t waited after the game like she usually did, either. Rosie felt bad--she really did--but after a few days, she grew aggravated. Why couldn’t Piper understand that Rosie hadn’t known about her history with Nicola? It wasn’t Rosie’s fault Nicola had sat with her at the basketball game. 

“Screw it,” she finally said. If Piper was going to be difficult, then Rosie would be difficult too. So she texted Nicola.

Hey.

Immediately, Nicola replied.

Hey. And then, What’s up?

Nothing. Are you out? 

Yep. Meet at the park?

Be there in five. 

The park was well lit, Rosie reminded herself. She was bored, she wanted to get out of the house, Nicola was at the park. 

She put on her jacket and grabbed her purse, and then she went downstairs.

She counted to three and opened the door.

The park was just down the street from Rosie’s house. It wasn’t really a park, just a stretch of green dotted with trees and a gravel walking path around the edge. 

She found Nicola sprawled beneath one of the more shady trees. She was wearing mirrored sunglasses, so Rosie thought she might be asleep. Why anyone owned sunglasses in this town, Rosie had no idea. She settled down beside Nicola.

“Hey.” Nicola said quietly.

“Hi.” Rosie sat against the thick trunk of the tree. It might have been an oak, or something else. Rosie wasn’t good with trees.

“So.” Nicola sat up and pushed her sunglasses off her head. “You’re friends with Piper.”

Rosie sighed. She hated confrontations, but she also wanted to be friends with Nicola, as well as Piper.

“Yeah.”

Nicola nodded. “You know, I was immature back then. I apologized to her a few months ago.” She rubbed her forehead with her palm. “I don’t think she believed me.”

Rosie nodded thoughtfully. Piper held on to things. It wouldn’t be that easy for her to forgive Nicola, or anyone else for that matter. It was going to take a lot for Rosie to make it up to Piper. She probably shouldn’t be here, talking to Nicola, but she stayed where she was.

“She’s mad at me.” 

Nicola looked up at Rosie. Her eyelids fluttered sleepily. She didn’t say anything, just grimaced and patted Rosie’s leg, before her eyes closed completely. Her hand lay limp on Rosie’s lap.

Rosie stared up at the branches of the tree for a little bit. Her own eyelids drooped. She hated how she probably made Piper feel abandoned, but Rosie also enjoyed Nicola’s company. A lot. And Rosie rarely ever went to the park, yet here she was, willingly. 

She stared up at the branches of the tree.
A little while later, Nicola woke up. Rosie was relieved. Her legs had been falling asleep, but she hadn’t wanted to disturb Nicola. She stretched her legs out gratefully as Nicola rubbed her eyes.

“What time is it?” She grumbled, her voice throaty. Rosie checked her watch.

“Almost four.” 

Nicola sat up straight, eyes wide. “Oh crap. I have to go.” She stood, nearly kicking Rosie in the process. “Umm.” Her eyes were still wide. 

Rosie raised her eyebrows, waiting. 

Nicola’s brows furrowed for a moment. “Oh, yeah. Do you want to hang out tonight? Good. I’ll text you when I’m coming to pick you up.”

“I--” Rosie stammered, surprised at her sudden change of plans. She’d wanted to settle down with a movie tonight, but she supposed that wasn’t going to happen. “Okay.”

“Good.” Nicola nodded, before taking off in a jog. “Good!” Rosie heard her say again before she crossed the gravel path and disappeared down the hill.

Rosie sat for a moment, staring at where Nicola had disappeared. “Good.” She repeated before standing, stretching out her stiff legs, and ascended the hill to her house. 
Rosie waited for hours before Nicola texted. Nine o’clock passed. Then ten. Rosie started a movie, and then stopped it as her phone buzzed. It was just an email notification. Eleven passed, then twelve. The movie ended. 

Feeling desperate, Rosie crept down the stairs to make a cup of coffee. The coffee maker let out a loud grumble. It was a miracle Alexandra slept like a rock.

Rosie’s watch buzzed one o’clock. She stared at the ceiling until two, feeling stupid. Nicola had obviously stood her up, or something. 

But no.

At two forty-five, right as Rosie was preparing to put on her pajamas, her phone buzzed.

Rosie lept for it, pushing it off the bed and onto the floor. She scrambled for it, already thinking it was probably another email or something. 

Be there in 5.

Rosie groaned, satisfied Nicola was coming and annoyed at the same time. But she put on her sneakers and a sweatshirt, and snuck down the stairs nonetheless. She could almost hear her mother snoring over her footsteps. She eased the door open and stepped out into the chilly night air.

“Gah!” Rosie jumped as Nicola stepped out from the corner of her house. “Jesus, you scared me.”

“Sorry.” Nicola whispered. “I didn’t want your mom to see me.” 

Rosie rolled her eyes. “Where are we going?’

Nicola smiled. “You’ll see.”

Rosie hopped from one foot to another. Adrenaline made her veins feel buzzy. She’d never snuck out before. It was exciting and terrifying.

Nicola led Rosie down through the streets, towards the towering chain link fence that circled Ferncliff. It wasn’t the furthest gate--there was another one that surrounded the first one. Tall and concrete, or so Rosie had heard. The area between the wall and the chain link fence was restricted--government permit only. 

“Wait.” Rosie stopped. Nicola stopped too, a little ahead of Rosie. “We’re not doing anything illegal, are we?” Rosie asked.

Nicola smiled. She winked. “Just mildly.” She winked. “Come on!”

Rosie had a choice to make, then. Nicola seemed to walk in slow-motion as Rosie ran through a thousand possibilities. For one, Alexandra would be pissed. She’d never broken the law before. But Rosie was done being the girl who only left her house for coffee. 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She asked. She’d already made up her mind, she just wanted to see what Nicola would say. But Nicola had scampered behind a neatly-trimmed hedge. She was crouched behind the leaves. Her eyes were glowing, trained on the wide open gate. Rosie had walked past before, and seen it open and close electrically. But now it was at a standstill, wide open and waiting.

“Come on!” Nicola beckoned from behind the hedge. Rosie could almost see it as a scene from one of her horror movies as she jogged over to Nicola. She slid into a crouch, not as gracefully as Nicola had. Rosie opened her mouth, but Nicola shushed her.

“We’re watching the delivery,” Nicola said, anticipating Rosie’s dependable “what are we doing here?” 

Rosie, a never-ending machine of questions, was not satisfied. 

“You mean the helicopter?” A helicopter came every night, flying over the fence when the whole town was asleep,  dropping in crates of supplies, food and clothes and hygiene products. Rosie guessed that maybe the governor or president sent one to each walled-in town across the country. That was a lot of helicopters.

Nicola’s eyes scanned the wide-open gate. It was a strange sight to see the gate open. Rosie never had. But she’d also never walked by it at three in the morning before either.

“There is no helicopter,” Nicola replied matter-of-factly. 

Rosie scoffed. “Of course there’s a helicopter, Nicola. We have to get food and clothes and toothpaste somehow.” 

Exasperated, Nicola turned to Rosie. “No, Rosie. There is no helicopter. We get our stuff a different way. Now, come on.” 

Nicola dashed out from behind the bush, and Rosie followed skeptically through the wide-open electrical fence. A few people scampered around under the bright lights--they were higher issued than the rest of Ferncliff, less purple more white--but none seemed to notice Rosie and Nicola. Nicola stopped in the parking lot, crouched by the wheel of one of the police vehicles. Rosie had walked by it enough to recognize it as Officer Martin’s car. She shot Nicola a questioning glance, but Nicola just shrugged. 

“He always parks in the same spot,” she whispered. “I come here often with my friends, too.” She scoffed, and whispered something else that wasn’t audible.

From their angle, there was a clear view of the giant border wall. Handfuls of people crowded around it like ants, at least twenty of them, just staring at the wall. Even from a distance, Rosie recognized the back of Officer Martin’s head, standing with his arm around a woman with a shiny braid. Rosie opened her mouth to ask Nicola who her uncle was standing with, but her attention was stolen by something else. The three massive lights mounted on the wall began to flash red, and the crowd scattered chaotically.

“Get ready!” Nicola patted Rosie’s arm excitedly. And then, “Can you see?”

Rosie nodded. She watched carefully as the crowd found order and separated into two groups, leaving a gaping path in between, fit for something large. 

And then the wall split open. 

Rosie’s mouth opened slightly. Nicola let out an awed laugh. 

An army of quiet, black shipping trucks rolled through the opening in the wall. Rosie craned her neck to try and see what was behind them, but the trucks had fanned out in a circle, blocking any view of where they had come from. Rosie was opening her mouth to ask just that when a sharp cry rang out in the near silence. Over the hood of the car, Rosie could see a group of uniformed guards of some sort break off from the crowd. Her eyes immediately spotted the silver guns strapped to their belts.
    “Hey!”

Nicola, suddenly alert, muttered a curse. But a smile shone in her eyes as she grabbed Rosie’s hand and dragged her off into a sprint. Rosie knew Nicola was probably faster than her, but their footsteps were synchronized on the asphalt as Nicola led Rosie through the rapidly closing electric gates. 

Through the town and around corners and through the backyards of the citizens. Rosie was too giddy to gasp for breath. When the footsteps of their pursuers dispersed, Nicola and Rosie collapsed in a spread of grass. 

A laugh bubbled in Rosie’s throat. She had just been chased by armed guards out of a very restricted area, watching a delivery she was probably not supposed to see. What had become of her life?

The laughter died. Rosie rolled over to face Nicola. “What was that?”

Nicola breathed heavily for a moment. “I told you. There is no helicopter.” 

“But what does that mean?” Rosie groaned. She pouted like a little kid. “Stop being so vague!”

Nicola stood and wiped the grass clippings off her jeans. She smiled slightly and  shrugged. “Think on it.”

 And then she just walked away. 

Rosie laid in the grass for a few counts, debating whether or not to run after Nicola. But Nicola was probably headed home, and Rosie should too. She stared at the sky for a few more seconds. The gaping, black sky.

Rosie missed the stars. 

She used to make a cup of tea, back when she was eleven and went through her tea phase, and sit on her back porch, staring at the sky. Orion, the big dipper, Scorpio. Her father had taught her all of the constellations he knew. He didn’t know many, but it still entranced Rosie. She’d stare at the sky until her neck hurt. 

In the grass of someone’s yard, Rosie’s eyes prickled. She hadn’t cried in a long time, and this upset her more. She inhaled deeply, squeezing her eyes shut, before she stood up. Her stomach lurched. She wiped her nose and started walking.

CHAPTER FIVE
Later that night, Rosie couldn’t sleep. She had cried a little, but just little tears, not sobbing. She tried to go to sleep, but her mind was restless. After she was done crying, she had done what Nicola had instructed and pondered over the delivery trucks. A lot, actually, but eventually she had gotten bored of that. Her mind was circling around the Piper situation when she climbed out of bed.

She’d never gone out at night with Piper before, but that wasn’t really Piper’s fault. Rosie kept thinking about how cool Piper would’ve thought that was. She was always talking about the big, rebellious adventures she had planned, but she never went through with it. 

Not knowing what to do with herself, Rosie sat in her desk chair, tucking her feet up under her, and rested her chin on her knee. She yawned.

What a night.

She crawled back under her covers. It was not supposed to be this cold in the summer. Rosie let her eyes drift shut and her breathing became even. Before she finally fell into sleep, she thought she heard one of her floorboards creak, but she was too asleep to care.
That was Monday. Rosie spent the rest of the week with Nicola, reading in the park or just walking around town. She shot Piper a few texts, but no response came. When the weekend arrived, Rosie was this close to giving up. Why should she care? She’d done more with Nicola in two weeks then she’d done with Piper in two years? But she did care. Piper was her best friend. She cared.

“Hey.” Nicola looked up from her phone. She was lounging on her bed, scrolling through her phone, while Rosie sketched on scrap paper at her desk. “Remember when I said you’ll see my friends’ scene?” 

Rosie thought back to the basketball game. “Yeah.” She added a top hat to her sketch.

“Well, how ‘bout tonight? They’ll be at Montgomery.”

“Where’s Montgomery?” Rosie chewed on her lip as she doodled on a cartoonish mustache. 

“You’ll see. Is that a yes?”

Rosie crumpled up her paper. “I guess, yeah.” 

“Cool.” 

Rosie uncrumpled her drawing. The wrinkles gave it a little depth. She added more shading, switching to a darker pencil.

“Are you ever going to tell me why you’re on probation?” She spun around Nicola’s desk chair. Nicola didn’t answer, just smiled. “Ever?” Rosie pressed. 

“Maybe one day.” Nicola shrugged, still staring at her phone. 

“Ugh.” Rosie groaned before turning back to the desk. She angrily added devil horns on top of the hat, nearly ripping the paper.
It happened to be that Montgomery was an old subway tunnel, barely a mile from Rosie’s house. 

Ferncliff was a relatively small town; there was no use for a subway tunnel here. There was barely use for the small traffic lights across the end of the Oval. According to old local lore, Ferncliff used to be a large city, but it had shrunk down seventy years ago, due to a plague, maybe? Or a war? Rosie didn’t find the story very believable, so the former use of the old subway tunnel mystified her. 

Nicola had led her through a pile of collapsed concrete. It was dotted with holes and cracks just barely big enough to squeeze a human through. From the outside, it just looked like a collapsed building. The tunnel just led underground, an invisible snake under the soil of Ferncliff. 

Nicola marched through a few hallways covered in old tile, a tiny pinprick of light from her phone flashlight leading the way. Rosie followed reluctantly, fighting the urge to turn on her own flashlight. 

She forgot about a flashlight as Nicola led her into what she assumed was Montgomery. 

A huge cavern gaped around them, almost every surface covered in old, chipped subway tiles, with the exception of the gravel around the old tracks. Sickly battery-operated lights gleamed from spots along the tunnel, leaving split seconds of darkness before you stepped into another ring of light. Rosie craned her head up, but she couldn’t see the ceiling, juist darkness. It didn’t scare her this time. She looked around and saw an old sign that looked like a gigantic version of a street sign was nailed against the wall. Her eyes found Nicola’s destination. 

A fire roared in an old metal barrel in between the two sets of tracks. Twenty or so people sat around it, speaking and laughing loudly. Even from a distance, they all looked dangerous. Rosie thought about Nicola’s probation, and what that would entail if these people were anything like her. Rosie pushed that thought away as she continued to marvel at the tunnel. A simple space that seemed to become some sort of haven.

It gave Rosie a strange feeling. 

    It wasn’t that it was probably occupied with criminals all wearing glow-stick necklaces, or the fact that the ground was covered in shattered beer bottles and other, more illegal substances; it definitely was. It was that some part of her felt at peace here, whereas other parts were screaming at her to get out.

    Rosie wasn’t sure she liked it.

    Her small piece of serendipity disappeared as anxiety reappeared. 

    Her eyes darted from the fire in old barrels to the sickly lights glowing on the edge of the tunnel once more as they progressed down the tracks. People called out hellos to Nicola, and Rosie just tried not to trip on anything in the dark, which proved rather challenging.

    “Hey Rosie!” Someone said. 

    Rosie snapped her head up. They had made it to the fire at last. Around the barrel, a rag-tag group sat on buckets or in rusted camping chairs or old-looking barstools. Rosie was right; they did give off a dangerous air. In one of the chairs, Mintie sat with Mai perched on her lap. She waved, not looking dangerous at all. Rosie felt a moment of relief at seeing someone other than Nicola she recognized. That relief was soon diminished when Nicola decided it was necessary to introduce her. 

    Nicola coughed. “People. This is Rosie. Be nice.”

    As Nicola spoke, every mouth stopped talking and every head turned towards her. It was obvious Nicola had gained respect with this group. Rosie wasn’t sure she wanted to know how.

    Nicola’s eyes scanned the faces thoughtfully. She nodded, satisfied, and the conversations resumed. 

    Nicola left Rosie's side to make conversation herself. She did not wait when Rosie made no move to follow her. 

    Rosie singled out an empty camp chair and tried to reach it without falling over anything. There she sat, playing with a strand of her hair.

    A slight clatter sounded to her left; Mintie had pulled up her own camp chair beside Rosie’s. 

    “Hi! We weren’t properly introduced, but you were with Nicola at the bookstore? Al’s? Yeah. I’m Mintie.”

    Rosie smiled. Her nerves soothed slightly, silenced by Mintie’s easy affability. “I’m Rosie. Just wanted to make that clear, in case Nicola didn’t clarify.” It must have been hard for Nicola to have such a deep hatred for someone so sweet, even if it was because of a Mai.

    “Hey.” Mai appeared, a flash of pink hair under the ghostly electric lights. She gave Mintie a swift kiss before she leaned against her camp chair. “I’m Mai.

    Mai appeared to be the polar opposite of Mintie, from her wonky hair color to the gruff tone of her voice to the absurd amount of leather she was wearing. Leather leather leather. Pants and jacket and boots. She was wearing a red tank top under her jacket though, which Rosie appreciated. She had a fondness for red. No idea where that came from.

    “I’m Rosie.” 

There also appeared to be six piercings on one of her ears, one on the other, and another stuck through her eyebrow.

    “Sorry--I see a lot of faces at the diner everyday. But were you there with Nicola, like a million years ago?”

    “Yeah, we were.” It was actually only a couple weeks ago.

    “Cool, cool.”

    Awkward silence came after that, that wasn’t awkward enough to try and fill. Like… Rosie tried to come up with a metaphor but couldn’t find one.

    Instead, she gazed around at the gaunt faces circling the orange flames. Nicola sat talking to a guy with even more leather than Mai, but a less daunting look. Three girls sat huddled, ears pressed against the speaker of one of their cell phones. Rosie’s eyes landed on an elegant boy slouched awkwardly on a bucket. He stared absentmindedly at the fire. The flames cast a glow over his angular face, illuminating a shiny scar down the side of his cheek. 

    Rosie watched him, ignoring the fact that she was being creepy. Something about the way his eyes remained on the fire while the rest of the world tumbled chaotically around him entranced Rosie.

    “Oooh.” Rosie’s head whipped around as Nicola popped up beside her. She’d found glow stick necklaces somewhere and slid a pink one over Rosie’s head. “Interesting.”

    Rosie flushed. 

    “That’s Cael. He’s a weird one. Strange but sweet. Come on. I’ll introduce you.”

    Nicola grabbed Rosie’s sleeve. 

    “No no no.” Rosie sat firmly in her seat. “That’s not necessary.” Her face burned hotter.
    “Rosie, have some fun.” Nicola groaned. Rosie shook her head.

    Mai patted Rosie’s hand and said, “I swear Rosie. He’s so nice.” 

    Rosie glanced at Mintie. She nodded in encouragement. Rosie sighed. This was a bad idea. Rosie was trying to get into the habit of saying yes to bad ideas. It was probably a bad idea.

    “Fine.”

    “Goodie.” Nicola led Rosie around the fire. 

    “Hey, Cael.” Cael’s eyes flashed up, blanking for a second, as if he’d been woken from a trance.

    “Oh. Hey Nicola.” He smiled easily. He and Nicola did some sort of complicated bro hug thing while Rosie shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot. Nicola cast her an amused look.

    “Rosie, Cael. Cael, Rosie” she said.

    Cael waved. Rosie smiled back. Bad ideas were extremely bad ideas.

    “Oh-kayyy.” Nicola said. “Well. I’ll let you guys chat.” Rosie gave her a not-very-subtle look. She ignored it. As Nicola turned away from Cael, she bumped into Rosie’s shoulder. 

    “Remember,” She muttered. “Fist-bumping isn’t a form of flirting.” And she walked away, leaving Rosie standing there awkwardly.

    “Hi. Uh, do you want a chair?” It took Rosie a second to realize he had spoken. 

    “Oh uh, yeah. Thanks!” 

    Cael pulled over another bucket. Rosie sat down awkwardly. It was not nearly as comfortable as the camp chair on the other side of the fire. She tried not to stare at it too longingly.

    “So how do you know Nicola?” Cael had an easy, knowing, smile spread across his face. 

    Rosie felt somel stiffness leave her as she let herself fall into the familiar lapse of a conversation. 

    “I met her a couple of weeks ago. My mom’s friends with her uncle.” Rosie wasn’t sure if she would call Alexandra and Officer Martin friends, but it sounded less pathetic than telling him she always stopped to talk to him on her infrequent outings out of her house. “How ‘bout you?”

    “School. She actually dated my friend Emil for a very, very brief period.” Cael said. “Well,” he laughed. “She’s dated almost half of our friend group.” 

    Rosie was slightly surprised by this. She obviously had a very strong emotional attachment to Mai, it was kind of hard to believe she had dated other people.

    “Which one’s Emil?”

Cael pointed to the guy in leather Nicola had been talking to. He was watching them with a venomous look on his face. When he caught Rosie looking, he turned away. Rosie frowned.

“Oh,” Cael caught the look on Emil’s face. “Don’t be offended. That’s just naturally the way his face falls.”

Rosie found that hard to believe. There seemed to be a lot of hatred in that look. 

Cael laughed, and Rosie realized she’d been frowning, and she tried to force her face back into a neutral smile. 

“I know. I swear though. He hates everyone.” Cael smiled.

She said nothing. He said nothing. Rosie was usually content with silence, but this made her itch. She spared glances at Cael, but his eyes just wandered peacefully. 

Finally, Rosie gave up.

“What’s your favorite color?” She bit her lip. What’s your favorite color? What was wrong with her?

“What? Are we playing 21 questions now?” Cael gave her another bemused look.. Rosie’s face burned once more, but she pressed on.  

“That’s not how 21 questions works.” She rolled her eyes. It wasn’t like he was supplying any conversation starters. “What’s your favorite color?” She asked again, trying her best not to sound bossy.

She braced herself for him to laugh at her, but he just sat, looking thoughtful. 

    “Hmmm. Black.”

    Rosie feigned surprise. “No, really?” She smiled before her head got in the way, specifically at his all black get up. 

    “What’s yours?” He folded his legs, looking too comfortable for someone sitting on a bucket. 

    Rosie winced. “Red.” 

    It was Cael’s turn to laugh. “Ah. And your favorite flower’s a rose, right?”

    “Actually, it’s a daisy,” Rosie said smugly. She felt okay now, better now that she felt more like herself. 

    “Okay. My turn.” Cael pinched his lip with his thumb and forefinger. Rosie felt weird about the fact that she noticed, and she stared at her hands until her cheeks stopped burning. 

“What...is...your biggest fear?”

Rosie’s head snapped up. So much for feeling okay now.  “Excuse me?” 

Cael was looking at her with an eyebrow raised and a slight smirk, but other than that, he looked perfectly serious. 

“What? Is it that bad?” A smile spread across his face. “You’re not scared of bridges, are you? Clowns? Oh, tell me it’s not cats. Because that would be a dealbreaker.” 

Rosie’s insides tightened. What the hell was she supposed to say to that? Honesty is the best policy? Over sharing was not the best approach to flirting, much like fistbumps. 

“I’m scared of the dark,” Rosie said softly. Cael was quiet for a moment. 

“Hmm.” 

Hmm? Rosie almost laughed. That was all he had to say? Part of her was appreciative of the fact that he didn’t give a crap, but the other part of her was annoyed, for some reason. Denial...was not...something she liked.

“Well at least it’s not cats.” 

Rosie did laugh.

“Do you want to see a picture of my cat?” Cael didn’t even wait for an answer; he just pulled his phone from his black jeans.

Rosie pulled her bucket closer, wincing as it scrapped against the ground, and peered over his shoulder. 

His cat was very cute, although Rosie thought of herself as a dog person. She withheld this fact from Cael. 

“His name’s Simon.” 

Rosie began to smile, her eyes crinkling, but before she could, Cael had kissed her.

Rosie’d never been kissed before.

“Rosie!” Nicola appeared behind them. Rosie turned, painfully aware of how red her cheeks were. Nicola didn’t notice though. She swiftly pulled Rosie off her bucket. “C’mon. Time to go.”
    Rosie, a bit dizzy, frowned. She glanced at Cael, who was blushing slightly. “But I don’t want to go.” She looked back up at Nicola. “I’m having fun.”

“C’mon, Rosie. We have to go.” Nicola looked at Rosie for the first time. Urgency bled through in her voice. Her eyes were wide. 

Rosie's frown deepened, but she stood up. She wasn’t as dizzy, but Nicola still had to grip her arm as stood.
    “Bye.” She muttered to Cael as Nicola pulled her away.

“See ya.” He waved and smiled sheepishly. 

Nicola led her further away from the, helping her navigate over the garbage and around the tracks. She pulled her through the hallways without the flashlight, but Rosie didn’t really care. 

“Why’d we have to leave?” She whined. “What’s wrong?”

Nicola didn’t say anything as they climbed through the concrete slabs. When they reached the light, Nicola cast Rosie one, mildly disgusted look.

“God. You sound drunk.” Was all she said.

“I didn’t drink anything.” Rosie crossed her arms. The dizziness had faded, and she was angry now. Nicola had made her come to Montgomery, way out of her comfort zone, and as soon as Rosie was starting to have fun, she made her go. “Why’d we leave?”

Nicola just sighed. “Something happened,” she murmured, her eyes down. Rosie was suddenly worried. This was as unraveled as she’d ever seen Nicola.

“I…I’m too tired for this. Do you want to talk tomorrow?”

Rosie frowned again. As much as she wanted to know what had happened, Nicola obviously didn’t want to tell her. Rosie shushed the curious part of herself. 

“Well, okay, sure. Do you at least want me to walk you home?”

Nicola looked at her and shook her head. Her face looked normal now, but her mouth was twisted a little. “Nope. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Rosie watched as Nicola walked away, taking a left at the intersection where Rosie would take a right. She stood for another few moments until her skin began to itch familiarly and she rushed home. 

CHAPTER SIX
Nicola didn’t want to hang out with Rosie. Rosie had texted her a few times once noon rolled by, but Nicola had just bluntly replied, No. 

Rosie baked cookies. She thought maybe she’d take some over to Nicola’s, but she realized that Nicola didn’t want to be bothered, so Rosie tried her best not to bother her. Alexandra came in and ate half the cookies to Nicola’s while Rosie sat at the counter, trying to focus on a lantern she was making. 

Marcus had taught Rosie how to make them when his daughter was just eight years old. He’d been in the military before he met Alexandra; he’d learned it there. The first one he taught Rosie was just a strip of paper sliced into strips and glued together, but as she grew, her father taught her new techniques and patterns. He’d left just months before eleven-year-old-Rosie woke up one day and the sky was gone. Not gone--that’s what she used to think. Just black. Even now, Rosie resorted to glue and colorful paper whenever she didn’t know what to do with herself.

This one was orange and green with a delicate doily pattern. Alexandra watched her daughter carefully. Rosie waited for her mother to demand coffee or groceries or a plant to add to her collection, but Alexandra just watched Rosie for a few minutes before leaving the kitchen. She never said one word about the lanterns, although Rosie knew that it reminded her of Rosie’s father. She never interrupted Rosie while she was working on them either. 

Rosie exhaled heavily, and then ate a cookie. 

She was finally affixing a string to her lantern when the front door opened.

Rosie froze. Her eyes darted to the knife block on the counter, and then back to the door in a split second. Alexandra never locked the doors, but people--also known as not burglars--usually had the courtesy to knock.

“Hey.” Piper stepped through the door, her long red hair in braids. Rosie’s whole body relaxed for a second, before she startled again. It had been forever since she and Piper had gone this long without talking. 

“Hi.” Rose tried to act calm, forcing her heart to slow down. This was her best friend, not a burglar. Stupid heart. It always had a mind of its own. 

Piper shut the door softly and smiled awkwardly. Rosie smiled awkwardly back, her hands still holding a piece of yellow thread.

Finally, Piper sighed. She stepped into the kitchen--really just a few strides from the door--and grabbed a cookie from the pan. 

Piper nibbled on the cookie and Rosie tied the string to the lantern the way her father had taught her. Over, under, loop to the left, figuring out what to say to Piper. 

She tapped Rosie’s shoulder. Rosie turned, preparing to apologize, when Piper hugged her. Rosie let out a little involuntary grunt. She and Piper rarely hugged; Rosie wasn’t a hugger. 

But this time, she hugged Piper too. “I’m really, really sorry Piper. Really.”

Piper stepped back. Her eyes were a little shiny. “I’m sorry too, Ro. I shouldn’t have been so...stubborn. You can hang out with Nicola all you want.” She laughed a little. Rosie was relieved. Piper had forgiven Rosie and acknowledged her own fault. Rosie hated when she had to give up her ground to make Piper happy, even if that was the mature thing to do.

They both smiled. Rosie’s heart calmed. 

Piper reached over Rosie’s shoulder, the moment over, and grabbed the lantern. “Ooh.” She looked up at Rosie. “I like the colors.”

“Careful. The glue’s still wet!” Rosie gently took the lantern from Piper and placed it on the counter. Piper was a bull in a china shop when it came to Rosie’s artistic creations.

Piper grabbed Rosie’s hand. “C’mon. Let’s go sit on the couch.”

Piper pulled Rosie to the couch and they settled into their respective corners. Years of gossiping on the Benton couch that had become habit. Rosie tucked her knees under her chin, and Piper grabbed a pillow.

“So.” Piper fluffed the pillow before squeezing it in her lap. “Anything fun happen while I was gone?” 

Piper always asked this question after they hadn’t seen each other in a while. Rosie was pleased that, this time, something interesting had happened. She blushed.

“Actually, yeah.” Rosie bit her lip, trying to stop smiling. “I...” she coughed. “I may or may not have...kissed someone?”

Piper’s jaw dropped her and her eyes widened. She sat there for a moment before leaping clear across the couch at Rosie. 

“What?!’ She screeched. “When? Who?” Piper smiled grandly. “Awww, Ro, you’re all grown up.” Rosie coughed. Piper had had her first kiss in like, seventh grade. 

“His name’s Cael. I dunno his last name. Last night, at this weird tunnel called Montgomery. With Nicola.”

She watched Piper carefully. Although everything had been cleared up, Piper’s feelings could still be a little hurt, but she just nodded in confirmation. “I’ve been there before. Not my scene.” She squealed. “Cael Stewart!” She fell back on the couch dramatically. “Rosie!”

Rosie lay out on the couch too, her head next to Pipers. She couldn’t stop from smiling. “What?” She laughed.

“Nothing!” Piper squeaked. She looked gloriously happy.

“Well I’m glad you don’t have any beef with him.” Rosie adjusted her arm under her head.

Piper glared at Rosie, but in an amused way. “Very funny.” 

Rosie laughed despite herself. She was just so hilarious sometimes. Piper joined in too. It was the kind of laugh that came from something dry but developed into hysterics. Rosie gulped for breath.

“What about you?” She finally asked when the laughter died. “How have your first two weeks of summer break been?”

Piper sighed. “Good. Not as grand as yours, of course. I went to the obligatory end of season party, then a few end of school parties…” Rosie listened as Piper launched into a dramatic story about how some freshman did this and some parent did that. Rosie smiled as Piper leapt onto the coffee table for a performance. Just like that, the attention had shifted from Rosie’s news to Piper’s. But she didn’t mind. It made her happy to see Piper joyful for a bit, and she’d forgotten about Nicola. Until Piper fell into a food coma on the couch from all the cookies she ate, that is.

Rosie sat at her feet, flipping her phone over and over in her hands. She chewed on her lip. Nicola was fine. She was probably at Mai’s or one of her friends. Rosie sighed. Alexandra came through the living room, presumably on her way to the kitchen. She stopped when she saw Piper. She smiled at Rosie.

“I’m glad you two are talking again.” She kissed the top of Rosie’s head. “Love you.” 

“Love you too,” Rosie murmured as Alexandra drifted out of the room. 

“Love you too!” Piper yawned from the couch. She stretched her arms over her head before sitting up and peeling her eyes open. She flopped over to Rosie’s lap and nestled her head there. “You wanna have a sleepover? Barney’s mad at me again.” Piper asked sleepily.

“Sure.” Rosie patted her head. Barney was always mad at Piper. She clearly wasn’t the perfect princess of a daughter he’d expected when he married Lena. “Let’s go upstairs.”

Piper groaned but took the stairs two at a time anyways. Always the overachiever. 

    She collapsed on Rosie’s bed and was once again asleep, leaving Rosie alone until the smell over dinner woke Piper up. 
    Piper had to leave early that morning; apparently the Greens were hosting a luncheon that Piper was required to attend, whether Barney was angry with her or not. 

    “Wish me luck,” Piper had sleepily muttered as she stood on the doorstep, rubbing her eyes.

    “Text me every hour so I know you're alive.” Rosie replied before she shut the door. 

    

Finally, Nicola texted her. Rosie was relieved. She’d mended things with Piper, but she still wanted Nicola as a friend. 

    Find something productive to do, the text read. I’ll pick u up at 8.

    Rosie didn’t find anything productive to do. She sat around anxiously until her mother demanded that she do laundry. So Rosie did laundry anxiously instead.

    Six o’clock rolled around, and Alexandra made Rosie sit down for dinner. They always ate dinner together. That was one of Alexandra’s non-negotiable rules. 

    “So do you want to tell me what happened with Piper?” Alexandra asked. She didn’t look at Rosie, she just sawed her green beans into little tubes. Alexandra always used this method when it came to parenting Rosie. She would let Rosie come to her to help if she wanted to, and she asked questions only after the situation resolved. 

    “We had a disagreement.” Was all Rosie said. Alexandra just nodded. She never made Rosie talk about it, either. 

    “Well. I’m glad everything’s okay. I missed my second daughter.” 

    Rosie smiled. This seemed like a good time to ask, when Alexandra was in a good mood.

    “Can I go out with Nicola tonight?” Rosie didn’t look at her mom. She sawed her own green beans into even smaller tubes. She’d only snuck out twice, but she was already weary of it. 

    Alexandra set her silverware onto her plate. Rosie still didn’t look at her.

    “Rosie,” she began. “I know I’m always pushing for you to get out but that doesn’t mean partying every--”

    “I know, I know,” Rosie interrupted, setting her own fork and knife down and looking up. “I’m not partying. We’ll probably be back by ten!” Rosie had know idea when they’d be back. You could never know with Nicola. 

    “Well, where are you going?” Alexandra picked up her fork again and ate one of her symmetrically cut green beans.

    Rosie did a little half shrug. “I dunno.” 

    Alexandra chewed slowly. “Alright. But if going out at night is a habit,  then let's make ten your curfew.

    Rosie didn’t like the idea of a ten o’clock curfew. She rarely went to bed before twelve. She didn’t say anything, though. Alexandra had okayed it and that was what counted. 
    Nicola arrived on time. Rosie had texted her that it was okay to knock, so Alexandra called up to Rosie when Nicola rapped on the door. 

    Rosie rushed down the stairs wearing a sweatshirt and her trusty blue sneakers. It was getting colder at night, which was strange, considering it was summer. Rosie was dressed for the weather. 

    She said goodbye to her mother quickly, taking off with Nicola. Rosie breathed the fresh air. She now sort of understood what people meant when they said to get some fresh air; it could be very healing. 

    They walked for a moment. Rosie drummed her fingers on the strap of her purse to try to keep her nervousness at bay. 

    “Why didn’t you want to hang out yesterday?” Rosie asked. It was too quiet. And she was curious.

    Nicola shoved her hands in her pockets. She was wearing a tank top and cargo pants. Unlike Rosie, she was not dressed for the weather. “I was figuring some things out.”

    What sort of things? “Do you want to tell me why we had to leave the other night?”

    Nicola shrugged, pushing her hands deeper into her pockets. Rosie could see goosebumps on her dark arms. “Someone said some things that bothered me more than they should have.” 

    What sort of things?!

    Rosie just nodded. 

    “You know,” Nicola suddenly blurted. “Mintie and I used to be best friends, before everything closed off and all that?”

    The way she said that implied something had happened, Rosie knew from experience that took a lot to separate best friends.

Rosie was about to say something comforting when Nicola snapped back into the present. Her eyes focused and she coughed.

“Oh,” she said. “We’re here.”

They’d walked onto Orange Street, a one-way road just a block street across from where Piper lived. 

Rosie frowned as they peeled off Orange Street. Nicola led her to the tall, chain-link fence that bordered the entire town, maneuvering expertly around more neatly trimmed hedges. She stopped. Rosie stopped beside her and gazed up at the fence. It was much taller than the other parts of it Rosie had seen, but Piper’s step-father did a good job of disguising the shiny metal links. He took careful steps to make life in Ferncliff as normal as possible, even though it had been four years since everything became not normal.

On this part of the fence, off the edge of Orange Street, signs were zip-tied to the rusty links, shouting things like No Trespassing, and Government Property. It looked like something from an apocalypse movie. They were far off the edge of the street, almost to where the pavement ended. There were not many houses back here, just a lot of bushes, and few bright streetlights, so Rosie guessed not many townsmen ventured back here

“Do you trust me?” Nicola asked solemnly, glancing over at Rosie with a fiery, intense look in her eyes. Nothing like the distant one she’d worn just a minute before. 

Rosie peeled her eyes off the fence and frowned. She seemed to be frowning a lot these days. “I guess, yeah.” She said slowly. Nicola had led her into a parking lot surrounded by armed men and a very old, man made cavern, and she’d survived. She guessed that counted as trust.

“Good enough,” Nicola shrugged. She paused a moment, calculating, before she bent down and  pulled up a piece of loose metal fencing leaving a gaping hole where the mesh had been. She gestured to the hole.

It took Rosie a minute to grasp what Nicola wanted her to do.

“You want me to crawl through?” The itching returned. 

Nicola rolled her eyes impatiently. “Obviously.” A sharp smile flashed across her face, pearly white teeth and a dose of evil. Nicola didn’t know that Rosie was scared of the darkness, or at least Rosie hadn’t told her. And Rosie respected the rules. For the most part. Well, she hadn’t been, as of late. It was understandable that Nicola had misinterpreted that. But though the delivery might have been something Rosie wasn’t supposed to see, this was a whole new level. This was the worst crime in Ferncliff you could commit. The mayor and city hall and police station had made that all very clear. 

Then it dawned on Rosie. Well, not really dawned. Rosie grasped at a concept. Did Nicola want her to say no? Was this some sort of test? Did Nicola, for whatever reason, want her to succumb to her fear, which Rosie had though she’d done a pretty good job hiding? That seemed… sort of likely. 

Rosie had been succumbing to her fear for a quarter of her life. This was a test. Or at least Rosie treated it like one.

She narrowed her eyes. 

 Rosie liked to prove people wrong. 

She bit her lip and dropped onto her hands and knees. 

The hole was big enough that Rosie didn’t have to crawl on her stomach, but that didn’t stop prickers and vines from catching on Rosie’s clothes and scratching her skin as she squeezed through. When she finally made it through to the other side of the fence, Rosie stood on the gravel road. There was just enough light from the streetlamp for Rosie to feel a little comfortable, but she shivered as she watched as Nicola crawled through, as graceful as ever. Nicola came to stand beside her.

“Hey,” she smiled.

Rosie tried to smile back, but her facial muscles felt frozen. 

“Have you ever been outside the fence before?” Nicola looked around, even though you couldn’t see anything outside of their purple crescent of light. 

Rosie shook her head, and then let out a manic giggle. She was beginning to be so terrified, she almost found it funny.

“Is--” she took a deep breath.” “Is it safe?”

“Oh of course.” Nicola looked at her. “My friends and I come out here all the time.” Rosie thought about the crowd at Montgomery, and she wasn’t surprised that this was one of their favored recreational activities. 

Nicola began walking down the road, her sneakers kicking up gravel. When Rosie didn’t follow, she let out an impatient, “Come on!” Rosie dashed to catch up. As much as she didn’t like where this was going, she didn’t want to be left alone.

As they got farther and farther away from the fence, the light started to fade. The few things visible were lit in a dim purple glow that gave their surroundings a surreal ambience. Rosie began to rummage through her purse, searching for one of the many flashlights that she always had in there. Nicola coughed.

“Give me your purse,” she said.

“What?” Rosie never went anywhere without her purse. She clutched it close to her side. “No.”

Nicola rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Rosie. We’re here for a reason. And lights aren’t needed.” Nicola waited, but Rosie still didn’t hand over her purse. It wasn’t a valuable bag; just some mustard yellow canvas sewn into long paracord straps. But it comforted Rosie. It was her coffee errands companion. It held her flashlights.

“Rosie.” Nicola said slowly. “You said you trusted me.” She grabbed Rosie’s wrist. “I need you to trust me, mkay?”

The little glimmer of Nicola’s eyes in the dark seemed sincere, but Rosie froze. What the hell was she doing here? Following a girl she had met only a few weeks ago into the dark? She wasn’t stupid. 

Nicola gazed at Rosie. Calm, as always. Waiting for her to hand over the purse.

Rosie’s jaw tightened. Something inside of her seemed to wither up, and she didn’t feel like willing it back to life. She didn’t like this. She didn’t like Nicola demanding things from her or telling her what to do. But no longer shaking, she let the flashlight she had grabbed slip out of her hand and back into the bag. Then she pulled it over her head and passed it to Nicola. 

“Good.” Nicola pulled the strap over her own head. “Thank you. Now let’s go.” 

Still holding Rosie’s wrist, Nicola resumed walking. Rosie let her feet lead her as she followed, still conflicted. She trusted Nicola. She wasn’t stupid.

 The purple lights began to fade as they strayed away from the fence. The only things Rosie could see were faint outlines and shadows, merely due to the eyes of human evolution. As they walked, great shadows loomed in front of them, all angles and mass. Nicola stopped where the shadows seemed solid. She let go of Rosie’s arm. Rosie took a moment, letting her eyes adjust completely. It appeared to be a wall, stretching tall and wide. Rosie didn’t know of any wall, besides that tall metal one that kept everyone in. This wall was too concrete to be that one. Rosie stuck her hand out. It was too rough also.

“What are we doing?” 

“We’re at the bridge.” Nicola pressed her own hands on the giant column in front of them, feeling for something. 

There used to be a bridge here. Rosie remembered now. She thought back to the road trips she used to take with her mom and dad. It was a small, two lane one that allowed passage over the reservoir on the west side of town. She guessed that it wasn’t so necessary anymore after no one left Ferncliff. And the river had dried up.

A bang sounded as Nicola’s hands found something metal. Now Rosie could sort of see the dark rungs, stark against the paler shadow of the wall. 

Nicola began to climb up the giant column, rung by rung.  She paused, ten feet off the ground. “Let’s go.” She called back down.

Rosie shook her head. No way. Wandering in the dark was one thing, but climbing? There were only a few ways that could end, and most of them were bad. And Rosie was never particularly coordinated to begin with. But she sighed. 

Prove her wrong.

This prove her wrong mindset was going to get her seriously injured. But she wiped her clammy palms on her pants anyway and began to climb.

Rosie was only halfway up when a gust of wind blew around her. Nicola had disappeared from sight, but Rosie could tell she was still there from the soft clangs on her hands on the ladder and her soft grunts of breath.

Another gust of wind roared through her ears, wrapping her in a curtain of sound and blowing her loose hair in her face. She couldn’t hear Nicola anymore; the wind was too loud. 

She kept climbing, determined to reach the top before the wind ripped her off the ladder. Hand, foot, hand, foot, she told herself. Hand, foot, hand, foot, slip. Rosie pulled her foot back onto the ladder and shook her head out, her heart hammering.

“Nicola!” Rosie called. She stopped climbing, trying to listen if Nicola’s footsteps were still on the ladder, or if she’d made it to the top. The only thing Rosie could hear was wind.
    “Nicola!” Rosie called a second time and irrational panic set in. The third time she called Nicola’s name, the wind ripped the words out of her throat. Despite herself, she began to cry. She looped her arms through the rungs, just trying not to be torn from the ladder. Panicky thoughts skittered ahead of rational ones. Here she was, where no one would find her, frozen on the middle of a ladder, without her lights, or her phone, or anything. 

She remained there, her arms looped around the metal rungs, until the wind died down and she heard her name. 

Sniffling, Rosie looked up. She couldn’t see much, but a faint shadow in the shape of Nicola crouched above her, no less than twenty feet away.

“Rosie?” Nicola asked again. Her expression was uncharacteristically worried. “Are you okay?”

Rosie managed a small nod. She wasn’t okay, but she’d be fine once she got up to Nicola.

“Okay. Do you think you can get up? It’s only a little further.”

Rosie nodded again. She took a shaky breath and resumed her ascent. Everything

was fine; Nicola had just climbed up over the ledge. She didn’t disappear. Rosie scolded herself for letting her imagination get away from her again. For falling into that state of panic and fear.There was no room for that.

When she finally reached the top, Nicola grabbed her elbow and hauled her over the sharp concrete edge. “You sure you’re okay?” 

“Yeah.” Rosie tried and failed to smile brightly, but Nicola didn’t ask any questions. She just looked around. Rosie let her eyes wander as well. She couldn’t see much, just blackness outside of a ten-foot radius. She assumed that the actual driving part of the bridge stretched up and up, and the path of the old river stretched down and down. She didn’t let herself look down. 

The air where she and Nicola stood felt condensed and cramped. Beside Rosie, Nicola suddenly sat down, cross-legged. She patted the concrete next to her, gesturing for Rosie to join her. Unthinkingly, she plopped down as well.

That sat in pure silence--and darkness--for a while. The only sound was the tapping of Rosie’s anxious fingers against her thigh. 

Finally, Nicola said something. “Why?” Though it was out of context, Rosie thought she knew what this meant.

“Why what?” Rosie didn’t particularly want to talk about it though.

“Why are you so scared of it? The darkness, I mean.” Rosie could feel Nicola’s intense gaze on her. Her arms prickled.

“What makes you think I’m scared of the dark?” Rosie crossed her arms. She was. It was true. But she absolutely hated it when other people assumed things about her. 

“How do you explain that?” Nicola gestured to the ladder. Rosie frowned and hugged her arms tighter. She didn’t say anything.

“Fine,” Nicola sighed. “I heard you and Cael’s conversation, at least that part of it.”

Rosie bit her lip. Nicola waited.

“I don’t know, Nicola,” Rosie finally said. “Why are people afraid of dogs? Or spiders?”

“Because they have past trauma. Or those things are perfectly capable of killing them.” Nicola stated simply. At Rosie’s look, she continued. “The darkness can’t hurt you. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“There are plenty of things to be afraid of in the dark.” 

Nicola frowned. “I suppose. But I also think you watch too many horror movies.” She sounded thoughtful, not meaning to be insulting, but Rosie took it as an insult anyway. 

“Do you ever think,” Nicola continued. For the first time, she sounded unsure of the words coming out of her mouth; she spoke slowly. “That maybe, you’re only scared because...because we don’t know where it came from?”

Nicola watched Rosie carefully. Rosie thought for a moment. A headache bloomed in between her eyebrows.

Nicola was right. Rosie didn’t know how, but Nicola was right. She felt it. The world was a scarier place when there was no logic to it, she knew that much. She let out a helpless little laugh. Because how stupid would that be? That just the idea of not knowing what was happening was enough to make her freeze up and her skin prickle?

“It’s okay, Rosie--” Nicola began, but Rosie cut her off. Nicola may be right, but Rosie didn’t want to hear any more of her analogies.

“Why are we here, Nicola? Why do you care whether or not I’m scared?” 

Nicola didn’t say anything for a moment, just thoughtfully picked at her nails. 

“Because I’m your friend,” She said softly. 

Rosie just stood up. “Give me my bag back.” She wasn’t sure if Nicola was her friend. Kind of, but not really. She’d felt too many emotions today already. She really just wanted to find a flashlight and go back home. 

Nicola didn’t protest; she just handed the bag back to Rosie. Solemnly, Rosie fished around until she could find a headlamp. It’s weight against her hip comforted her, somewhat. Her hands found a headlamp. She passed Nicola a smaller, normal flashlight. It seemed a little unfair for Rosie to have light and Nicola not to even if light mattered more to Rosie. 

The descent down the ladder was much easier with a headlamp; Rosie could see each rung below her, and placed her feet accordingly. Nicola was above her, letting Rosie move at her own, slow pace. The wind had died down too. Rosie let out a gasp of relief when she reached the ground without getting blown off the wall. Beside her, Nicola let out a little “oof” as she jumped from one of the lower rungs. 

Rosie eyed her for a moment, before sweeping her light in an ark, curious of their surroundings. With the light shining on it, the columns of the bridge were huge and tan behind them. The gravel road seemed to lead on into the darkness, further than the headlamp reached. The road was dotted with huge, wiry bushes, nothing like the neatly trimmed greens in the town. They looked painful. 

Rosie squeezed her eyes shut, before she started walking, fully intent on going home and sleeping. Nicola grabbed her shoulder, pulling her to a stop. Rosie spun around, preparing to yell, but Nicola let out a violent, “Shhh.” Her eyes were narrowed, her body tense. 

Rosie didn’t say anything.

Nicola’s eyes widened. They darted to Rosie, and back to the road, and then to the bushes. The ground began to rumble. 

Nicola cursed. “Come on!” She dove behind one of the bushes. Rosie stood, frozen in confusion, before she came to her senses and followed Nicola. The bushes were not only wiry, but dotted with thorns too. A rip opened in the sleeve of Rosie’s sweatshirt as she pushed through the loose branches to crouch beside Nicola. 

“Turn your light off!” She hissed. Her flashlight was already off. Rosie flicked her own off before she could think too much of it. 

The ground seemed to rumble harder. Nicola put a finger to her mouth, warning Rosie not to say anything. Two beams of light appeared in the distance. They merged, becoming a single, wide ray that washed everything in white light. On instinct, Rosie winced and ducked down further into the bushes. A thorn scraped her cheek.

The rumbling came from a boxy black military vehicle that shook the ground as it sped by. It seemed impossible that something of such mass could go so fast. Rosie could see the silhouette of at least three men sitting in the seats. She shivered, grateful Nicola had heard the vehicle in time. If she hadn’t, they would be either arrested or flattened into the gravel by now. 

Nicola made Rosie stay crouched behind the bush even after they couldn’t hear the vehicle any more.

 When they finally stood, Nicola shrugged. “Sometimes there are two.” She explained. Rosie nodded as she pulled a thorn from her palm. 

“Lets go.” Nicola began walking, back in the direction of the hole on Orange Street. Rosie busied herself pulling thorns out of her fingers, trusting her feet to carry her. It was only when Rosie’s palm flickered a light purple when she realized Nicola had passed their way out. The purple was from the dim streetlamp. 

“Hey.” Rosie stopped. “Where are we going?” 

“You don’t think I dragged you all the way out here just to sit on a bridge for ten minutes, did you?” Nicola asked. She smiled a little. Rosie found herself annoyed that Nicola had the nerve to lead her further away from the town, even after they had fought. Was it a fight? It wasn’t. Rosie wasn’t sure. She needed sleep.

“Fine.” She snapped. The cold began to seep through her sweatshirt as they walked on. It was almost like the heat was sucked away after each step. 

It wasn’t far before Nicola stopped. Rosie shined her light around; Nicola had led her to the border wall.

Rosie had never seen it before, but it was just as menacing as she expected it to be. She gawked at it. The humongous hammered metal bolts screwed into the shiny metal. It looked even more apocalyptic than the chain link fence. It was impossible to inhale it all in one look; she moved her light back and forth, back and forth. 

Nicola stood, watching her with an amused look. Rosie knew she must’ve looked like a cat swiping at a red light, but she didn’t care. If all went according to plan, she wouldn’t be out here ever again. 

When she was satisfied she’d scoured every inch--from afar, at least-- she turned to Nicola. “This is pretty cool.”

Nicola shrugged. “It has its uses.” She stepped over a few scraggly plants before kneeling at the wall. She prodded something Rosie couldn’t see with her two fingers. She gestured for Rosie to join her. 

A huge rip sprawled through one of the metal seams. Rosie bent down, inspecting it closer. It looked like something had ripped through. Something with very sharp crawls. 

The sharp metal edges pricked Rosie’s fingers as she touched it, gently. “What happened?” 

Nicola didn’t look up. “I happened. With a crowbar.” She smiled. And then continued, “Well, it was Emil some too.” 

It took a moment for Rosie to process this. When she did, all she could come up with was, “Why?” 

Nicola tilted her head, inspecting her handiwork. She shrugged, a gesture that Rosie took as “I have my reasons.” 

“Well.” Rosie stood up and rubbed her hands together. She found nothing to complete her sentence, though.“Can we go?”

Nicola looked up at her. “Sure.”

Rosie nodded. “Good.” 

When they made it back to the fence, she turned to Rosie. 

“That,” She said, smirking. “Is why I’m on probation.” 

CHAPTER SEVEN
Alexandra stood at the counter, furiously chopping something green, when someone knocked on the door; their doorbell had stopped working long ago and Alexandra had never felt the need to fix it.

“Rosie! Can you get that? And clean up your paper scraps, for god’s sake.”

Rosie looked up from the paper lantern she’d been gluing on the coffee table.

“Rosie! Door!”

“I’m coming!” She hollered back. She opened the door right as her watch buzzed five o’clock. Nicola and Gabriel Martin stood on the doorstep. Officer Martin held a pan of something that looked very chocolatey.

“Oh, hello Rosie! I hope we’re not late.”

“Nope,” Rosie shook her head. “Right on time. Come on in.”

“Oh, hello Gabriel, Nicola.” Alexandra smiled as Officer Martin set his pan on the kitchen counter. “You didn’t have to bring anything!” 

“It was my pleasure.”

Rosie gestured for their jackets to hang them up. Nicola followed her down  the hall to the closet under the stairs.

“He was just worried your mom wouldn’t make dessert,” Nicola said as Rosie searched for a hanger strong enough to hold Nicola’s oversized leather jacket. 

“Good,” she replied. “My mom can cook, but she’s a terrible baker. She always burns everything.”

Nicola laughed. Rosie found a sturdy plastic hanger that only buckled a little under the jacket. She zipped Officer Martin’s police-issued windbreaker on to a thin wire one.

“Do you want to go up to my room?”

“Sure.” Nicola had drifted into the living room where she held a photo in her hands. Rosie peered over her shoulder. It was the pre-wedding photo, where her mom looked annoyed and her dad giddily accomplished. 

“That’s a pretty necklace.” Nicola pointed to the pressed coin around Alexandra’s neck in the photo.

“Yeah. It’s from Vermont. That’s where they met. My dad found a coin from that year and had it pressed for the necklace.” Rosie used to think that was the most romantic thing ever. Now she just thought about how after her dad left, she had never seen Alexandra wearing it. Ever.

Rosie coughed. She took the picture from Nicola and put it back on the mantel. 

“Come on.” 

She led Nicola into her bedroom, and it was almost like seeing it for the first time herself. All the paper lanterns strung in the corner. Horror movie posters and crappy drawings. The massive bookshelf against the wall. It was very similar to Nicola’s own room in the Martin house, but very different at the same time. 

“These are cool.” Nicola fingered a red paper lantern. “Did you make them?”

“Yeah.” Rosie sat on the bed. “My dad taught me when I was little.”

“Hmm.” Nicola sat in Rosie’s desk chaired and flipped through her sketchbook.

“So, how was school?” Rosie asked, scrambling for a conversation topic. 

“Boring,” was all Nicola offered, and then paused. “Mai and I are back together again, though.”

“Really? What happened to Mintie?” She would never tell Nicola, but Rosie had actually wanted Mintie and Mai to stay together.

Nicola shrugged, but Rosie could tell she was withholding something. “Some stuff came up.”

Rosie thought about Nicola storming out of Montgomery weeks before. “Well, congratulations,” she said meekly.

“Thanks.”

Rosie sighed. “What about Cael? Did you talk to him?” She asked hesitantly.  She’d been thinking about him, too, but less about him and more about how she felt about him. 

“Oooh.” Nicola turned to look at her with a teasing smile. “I did. He failed his history test. I hope you don’t like boys who are good at history.”

Rosie laughed. “Well, I’ll avoid offering my opinions on the American revolution. ” Nicola laughed too.

“So how exactly does this homeschool stuff work anyway?” 

“Well,” Rosie settled into her pillows. “There are these pre-recorded videos I have to watch, which are kinda like classes. I usually do a few a day. And then I have the rest of the day to actually do the work, or study.”

“What about tests?” Nicola was looking through a photo album of Rosie’s baby pictures now. 

“They’re scheduled.” Rosie picked at a stray thread on her comforter. “I study, then I take the test on my computer. My mom sits with me though. So I don’t use my notes. She’s not the most trusting.”

“Ah.” Nicola looked around, apparently finding nothing else of interest to rummage through. “What’s your mom making?”

Rosie got up and pulled a deck of cards from her desk drawer. “Um, some sort of casserole, I think. Go fish?” 

Nicola nodded, and they sat on the floor. Rosie shuffled and dealt. Nicola won all three rounds. Rosie was convinced she’d cheated. If you could really cheat in Go fish. Then Alexandra called them down to eat. 

Officer Martin and Alexandra were already seated at the kitchen table. Alexandra had brought in chairs from the basement to seat everyone.

“Cheers!” She raised her wine glass as the girls sat down. “To new friendships, and to Rosie finally making new friends!”

“Mom!”

Alexandra rolled her eyes and served the food. It was a sweet potato casserole, accompanied by a salad. Rosie’s least favorite, but she didn’t say anything. The dinner went as most dinner’s with guests went: Officer Martin asked Rosie about her online classes; Rosie reiterated everything she had explained to Nicola. Alexandra asked Nicola about her grades; Nicola smiled and lied about how good they were. Officer Martin made several bad jokes, and Alexandra laughed at all of them. Nicola rolled her eyes at least sixty times. 

Three-quarters of a way through dinner, Nicola excused herself to go to the bathroom.

“So,” Officer Martin smiled at Rosie. “How’s Nicola? It seems you guys have become fast friends.”

Rosie smiled back. “She’s great. Very nice.” 

Officer Martin’s smile widened. “Good, good. I think you’ve become a good influence on her. She’s stayed out of trouble lately. At least as far as I know.” He laughed, and Alexandra laughed along with him. Rosie remembered the subway tunnel, but she laughed too.

Nicola seemed to be gone from the table longer than necessary, but maybe it was because Rosie was stuck at the table with the laughing adults. When she finally returned, Officer Martin served his brownies. They were very chocolatey. 
Later that night, after the Martins had left, Rosie sat in her bed, reading, when Alexandra knocked on her door.

“Come in,” Rosie said. She frowned. Her mother never knocked. 

Alexandra stood in the doorway, a frantic look in her eyes that contrasted her calm voice as she asked, “Rosie? Have you seen my necklace?”

Rosie’s frown deepened. ‘Which necklace?” 

“The coin. The one your father gave me?”

Alexandra never wore that necklace anymore. Rosie shook her head, opening her mouth to say so, but her mother shut the door before she had any time.
The sound Alexandra’s footsteps in the house made it hard to sleep. Her mother had been walking around the house for an hour now, probably searching every crack and corner twice for the necklace she never wore.

It was likely it took a long time to forget someone you love.

Rosie sighed. She wouldn’t know.

Alexandra’s footsteps had faded before Rosie finally drifted off to sleep. 
Rosie woke up in the middle of the night, eyes wide and heart pounding. She hadn’t had a nightmare, but some sort of dream that she couldn’t remember. 

Nicola had taken the necklace. 

Rosie had watched enough cheesy mysteries to be disappointed in herself. She should’ve figured it out sooner.
Nicola didn’t text or call Rosie the next day. A part of her had been disappointed when her phone stayed silent; she’d grown used to wandering Ferncliff with Nicola. The other part of her, on the other hand, was relieved to have a day off. After her lessons for the day were complete and she had no pressing homework, Rosie curled up on the couch to watch a movie. Alexandra had refused to update their TV system, so Rosie flipped through a stack of DVDs until she found one she hadn’t watched in a while. 

As she settled into a nest of blankets and the beginning credits rolled through, she pondered why she was so fond of horror movies. With all the blood and gore and screaming and darkness. She’d been curious about it before--why she, the skittish person she was, was who she was--but she had a different point of view now. The world is a scarier place when there’s no logic to it. That’s what Nicola had said. Maybe that was why. Because she knew it was all fake. The darkness, however, was a thing of mystery. 

Rosie sighed to herself and turned her attention back to the movie, where a pretty blonde girl’s face was already splattered with blood. 

The blonde wasn’t even dead yet when a knock sounded on the door. 

Rosie paused the movie with a groan. She’d been perfectly comfortable with her quiet and uneventful life. Was it too much to ask, just for some bits and pieces of it back? Apparently not with Nicola. 

But it wasn’t Nicola who stood on the stoop when she opened the door. It was Cael and Mintie. 

“Oh. Hey.” Rosie was suddenly very self-conscious about her tattered pajama pants and hole filled t-shirt. 

“Hi Rosie!” Mintie smiled. “Can we come in?”

“Umm, sure.” Rosie stepped out of the doorway to let them in. Her eyes followed Cael as he stepped into the living room. She was disappointed when he hadn’t greeted her, but now she could sense something in his demeanor was off; something was wrong. 

Rosie folded her arms and leaned against the wall as they perched awkwardly on the couch. The silence only broke when Rosie attempted to be a welcoming host.

“Can I get you some water? She began before Cael cut her off. 

“Have you spoken to Nicola today?” He asked.

Rosie stumbled over her words for a moment, but she forced herself to hold his intense gaze. “I--I. No. I haven’t. 

Both he and Mintie breathed audible sighs of relief. 

“Good.” Cael said at the same time Mintie said, “Could I actually have some water?”

Rosie went into the kitchen, where she shakily filled a glass of water. She could hear them muttering in the other room, but she couldn’t make out any words. She returned to the living room and passed Mintie her glass before resuming her position against the wall. 

Mintie sipped her water timidly. 

Wide eyed, Cael ran a hand through his hair.  He opened his mouth several times, preparing to speak, but each time, he shut it. 

Rosie just waited and watched. He obviously had something he needed to say. So she just waited and watched. 

“Look, Rosie,” he finally said. “Nicola’s planning something. And, Nicola’s always planning something. Take Mintie for example. Nicola wrecked her life.” Rosie blinked. She knew something had to have happened for Mai and Mintie’s sudden breakup, but wrecked her life seemed a little extreme. 

“And none of us questioned her.” Cael continued. “But this isn’t just something. Just... It’s big this time. Not just ruining lives or…” He glanced at Mintie and she nodded him on. “It’s bad, Rosie…” he trailed off again.

“And?” Rosie prompted. 

“And,” Mintie said, continuing on for Cael. “We think you’re...involved, somehow.” Mintie shut her mouth with a snap, her eyebrows furrowed. There was no place for negativity in Mintie’s life, yet here she was. 

Cael took a deep breath. “No offense, Rosie, but Nicola doesn’t just take people in unless she has a purpose for them. That’s just the way it is. And Mintie and I…” he looked toward Mintie again, and she gave him another small nod. Permission to go on. “And Mintie and I don’t want Nicola to win this time. It’s too much.”

He paused. Rosie bit her lip, waiting for one of them to go on, but they both just sat there, staring at their hands. 

“Well?” She snapped, impatient. “Are you gonna tell me what she wants to do or not?” 

They glanced at each other. Cael opened his mouth, hopefully to explain, when Mintie’s phone began to ring. Rosie groaned. It was a catchy, frantic song from some old sitcom that Rosie couldn’t place. Mintie gestured for Cael to go on, before she stepped out of the room to take the call.

Cael didn’t say anything though.

“Well?” 

He sighed. “I think I need Mintie for this, Rosie.” 

Rosie sighed. “Fine.” 

Mintie appeared from the hallway a moment later, a distraught look on her face. “Cael. It’s Emil.” 

Cael immediately stood up, his eyes wide. 

“We have to go.” Mintie said. And then to Rosie, “Sorry, Rosie, we’ll come back later if we can.”

“Wait wait wait.” Rosie stepped away from the wall. “What’s wrong with Emil?”

Cael’s face paled and his lips stretched thin. Mintie glanced up at him. “It’s...not my place to say,” she said softly. 

Rosie frowned, but stepped back as Mintie took Cael’s hand and guided him to the door. On the doorstep, some color returned to his face.

“Look, Rosie,” Cael said as Rosie stood in the doorway, frowning. “We’ll be back later. I promise. We just have to take care of this first.” The two exchanged yet another mysterious glance, Cael worried, and Mintie sad. “Just stay away from Nicola? Okay? At least until we explain everything?” 

“Cael. We’ve got to go.” Mintie tapped his arm and he grimaced.

He nodded, still looking at Rosie. “Okay. Just stay away from Nicola.” 

They took off into the pouring rain. Rosie stood in the doorway, listening to the rain for a little bit before she shut the door and retreated inside. 
Rosie did not stay away from Nicola. She could barely stay focused as the blonde died a horribly violent death, so she gave up on her movie. Finding no other viable option than to satisfy her curiosity, she put on a sweatshirt and her red rain boots. It was barely drizzling as Rosie flicked up her hood and dashed out of the door. 

It took her a few seconds to get a bearing of her surroundings before she made her way to Brown Street. The rain had picked up, and the shoulders of her sweatshirt were soaked through by the time she arrived on the front porch of the Martin house. She raised her finger to ring the doorbell, but she stopped a second before she made contact with the button. 

If Nicola had wanted to hang out, she would have asked Rosie to hang out. What if she wasn’t even home? Or even worse, what if she had Mai over? What if Officer Martin answered the door? 

Rosie put her palm against her forehead as if she could physically hold back her thoughts. She rang the doorbell.

Nicola opened the door. Rosie breathed a sigh of relief. 

“Hey. What’s up?” Nicola said.

Rosie imagined what she looked like, wide-eyed and soaking wet. 

She blinked. “I want to know what you’re planning.” 

Nicola put a hand on the doorframe. “What makes you think I’m planning something?”

Rosie scoffed. “Please, Nicola. I’m not blind. You don’t think I haven’t noticed that there’s always some sort of agenda when we hang out?” Rosie’s voice had risen. She had, actually, been pretty blind, but after what Cael and Mintie had told her, it seemed so obvious.

“Rosie. You need to chill. I’m not up to anything, okay?” 

Rosie would not be defeated though. “Okay fine. What is it then? Why did you even invite me to the freaking diner, huh? Why did you invite me out after? What part do I play in this.” Nicola opened her mouth to deny it, but Rosie didn’t let her. “And don’t tell me you don’t. Because you do. And it seems as if you don’t care who you hurt. As long as you succeed. So let me ask you again. What part do I play?”

She waited for an answer.

After a drawing moment, Nicola replied.

“A part,” she said slowly, choosing her words with careful precision. “That no one else can play.” And then she stepped back inside and shut the door, leaving Rosie standing there under the porch, left alone to try and figure out what that meant. 

Rosie needed to think. The logical option was to go home, whole up in her room, and stare at the wall until she came to a conclusion. But Rosie had given up on logic the day she’d met Nicola. 

So Rosie stepped off the porch and back into the rain, and let her feet carry her down to Orange Street. 

It took a second for Rosie to find the hole in the fence. She’d only been here once, after all. But once she did, she slithered through it easily. Water dripped in her eyes. Once more, she let her feet carry her down the gravel road, and she began to think.

Rosie wasn’t extraordinary. She knew that. There wasn’t anything particularly special about her. So. What. Did. Nicola. Need. Her. For? Millions of possibilities spun in her head. Nicola wanted to get out. Nicola wanted to get out. How… how could Rosie help her accomplish that?

Rosie squeezed her eyes shut, letting the rain roll off her eyelashes. All this plotting… it made her head hurt. 

She let herself see shapes before she finally opened her eyes. Immediately, they rested on a pinpoint of light in the distance, barely visible through the rain. 

Rosie took off in a jog, headed towards the light. It could very well have been a security guard of some sort, armed and capable of arresting her, she knew. Curiosity, once again, got the best of her. 

As she got closer and closer to the pinprick of light, it became apparent that somebody was standing in the rain, holding a flashlight.

It then came apparent that it wasn’t just somebody, but Alexandra, crouched in a dark raincoat.

 “Mom?” Rosie whispered. She could barely hear herself over the pitter-patter of the rain. Off the side of the gravel road, Alexandra was peering through a hole in the border wall. Though Rosie had only been to this spot on the boundary fence once, in pure darkness, she recognized it: it was the hole Nicola had shown her.

And at that moment, Alexandra was gazing through it with a flashlight. 

“Mom?” Rosie repeated, louder this time, to be heard over the rain. Alexandra spun around. 

“Rosie? What are you doing here?”

“I--I, uh…” Rosie’s mind blanked for a moment. Why was she here? She went with the short and easy reply, the one that didn’t actually answer the question. “Because I’m a rebellious teenager who doesn’t follow the rules.” Rosie coughed. “What are you doing here?”

Alexandra scoffed and continued scouring the gash in the seam of the fence. “Sure you are.” Usually, Alexandra would be fuming that Rosie was on the most restricted part of Ferncliff, breaking one of the most condemning laws you could break. But she seemed distracted, which just annoyed Rosie.

“Mom. Why are you here?”

Her mother sighed. “I work here, Rosie,” Alexandra said it like this was a staple piece of knowledge, and she expected Rosie to know it.  

“Wait,” Rosie said. She tried to let her brain load this new piece of information. “You work here?” Rosie knew her mother did something for the government, but she had just assumed it was a desk job, not anything that required walking around with a flashlight and a gun strapped to her hip, which Rosie had just noticed.

Alexandra shot her a disbelieving look over her shoulder. “Yes, I work here, Rosie. Did you not know that?”

Rosie shook her head. “I mean, I knew you did something for the government, but I didn’t think you came out here!”

“Well, I thought you knew.” Alexandra turned back to the fence. “Nicola knows, after all.

Rosie froze. 

“Nicola knows?” At that moment, all Rosie could think about were the things she had said to Nicola just an hour before. Nicola denying everything. A part that no one else can play. 

Nicola knew that Alexandra had access to the border. Nicola had pried open the fence seam. It was not Rosie that was part of Nicola’s scheme; it was Rosie’s mom. Rosie was overwhelmed. What was Nicola trying to do? She was trying to get out, that was her plan. But when it came to Nicola’s plans, someone was always hurt. And Nicola never cared who. 

Unaware of Rosie’s distress, Alexandra prodded the hole in the fence with two fingers. “What happened here?” She breathed, thinking aloud. “This fence should be totally secure. Nothing should be able to get in from the outside.”

Rosie didn’t think she was meant to hear that.

The outside. 

What could be on the outside? 

Rosie knew that it was in fact, Nicola’s crowbar that had made that hole, not something from the outside. But what had Alexandra meant by that?

There was nothing on the outside, except forest and more darkness. Of course, there were other walled-in cities like their own, but the whole reason for this giant wall was that no one would wreck on the gnarled, dark roads that lead away from their beloved town. She supposed that Nicola was aiming for one of those towns, but that still wouldn’t explain what Alexandra had said. Nobody could leave their towns. That was declared after it went dark. Rosie’s mind went over the question again.

What was outside?

 Rosie decided it was best to take a blunt, direct approach. “What do you mean?” 

Alexandra glanced up, her eyes wide. “What?”

Rosie coughed. “What do you mean, nothing should be able to get in from the outside?” She repeated.

Alexandra stood abruptly. “Oh, no, Rosie. I--”

    A sharp whine erupted. Alexandra froze. Rosie winced. It sounded like it was coming… from outside the wall. Rosie cursed, turning to her mother. But Alexandra wasn’t moving, just staring past Rosie’s shoulder. Rosie turned, making sure there was nothing behind her. “Mom?” She began, but as she turned back around, her mother wobbled a little. 

    Rosie’s brows furrowed. 

    Blood bloomed on Alexandra’s shirt. 

    Rosie’s mother’s eyes fell from the spot over Rosie’s shoulder, and fell on her abdomen. A panic look spread across her face. 

    “Rosie?” Her mothers voice cracked.

    Rosie’s eyes widened. She screamed, her limbs frozen. Alexandra’s knees buckled and she fell to the ground. Rosie’s eyes watched it in slow-motion, but she couldn’t move. 

    She couldn’t move. Mom? She thought. 

    A chill pricked her ankles.

    Her eyes turned slowly downward. Nicola’s crow bar hole. Rosie blinked, not sure what she was seeing. A shadow loomed in the hole, tendrils curling towards Alexandra. Rosie blinked again, and the shadows were gone. She looked back to her mother.

    “Rosie?” Her mother said again. The blood on her stomach had bloomed, a flower on her shirt, and begun to pool beneath her. 

    Her mother was dying.

    Rosie knew she should sit next to her mother; hold her hand, something. But she couldn’t move. Her knee twitched, and she whimpered. 

    Alexandra’s eyes found Rosie, but there was no anger in them. No anger that her daughter was too much of a wimp to kneel beside her whilst she died. Just sorrow. Rosie’s lips trembled. 

    “Mom?” She forced herself to say. She meant to say it loudly, but it came out as a barely audible whisper. 

    Her mom heard it, though. She stared up at her daughter with big, intense eyes. It might have been Rosie’s imagination, but they seemed to glaze a little. 

    “Rosie, I love you.” Alexandra said. Her voice had tremor that shot a spear of panic up Rosie’s spine. She said something else but Rosie wasn’t listening. She should’ve been but her ears weren’t picking up any noise. 

    Her eyes were on the glimmer that shone on her mothers neck.

It was the necklace. Unmistakable, it was the same one that shone on her neck in the wedding picture. The one that, until now, Rosie had never seen her wear. 

The one she was looking for the night before.

The one Nicola had moved.

 Even from a distance, Rosie could see that the ribs of the old coin had been rubbed off, slightly, and the shine was gone, but it was the necklace nonetheless.

And there it was lying flat on Alexandra’s unmoving chest.

Alexandra’s unmoving chest. 

Rosie’s eyes flicked up, but she already knew what she would see. Tears began to flow from her eyes. 

Alexandra stared at the sky, her eyes unblinking. Rosie watched in horror as the pool of blood grew bigger and began to flow towards her feet. 

Rosie couldn’t look away.
CHAPTER EIGHT
Rosie was on the kitchen floor when Nicola knocked on her door. She’d been in the kitchen for a while now. She didn’t remember much; her mind was fuzzy. She hadn’t made it past the kitchen after she sprinted away from the wall, she knew that much. 

    She groaned as Nicola pounded on the door. It had been too long since she’d drank any water; she had a mind-numbing headache. 

    “Rosie?” Nicola knocked again. “Hey Rosie? Can we talk?” 

    Rosie forced her head up. She could see Nicola’s silhouette behind the twisted glass through her swollen eyes. She’d cried. She remembered that too.

    “Rosie!” Nicola knocked again. Rosie knew there was no chance Nicola would leave her alone, but she didn’t get up to open the door. 

    Nicola knocked again, and then fell silent. Rosie crossed her fingers, hoping that Nicola would prove her long and leave. But Nicola spoke again.

    “Alright, Rosie. I’m coming in.” The doorknob twisted squeakily. Rosie squeezed her eyes shut as a little bit of light from the streetlamp shone through the crack. Nicola flicked on the lights. Rosie groaned. 

    “There you are.” Nicola stomped through the kitchen to the corner Rosie was curled up in. “Come on. Get up.” 

    Rosie hung limp while Nicola attempted to pull her up from the floor. “Stoppppp,” she whined. 

    “Nope.” Nicola grunted. She’d pulled Rosie up onto her feet. “We have plans today.”

    Rosie laughed a little. Plans. “Funny.” She shoved Nicola away and stood on her own. “I’m good.” 

    Nicola leaned against the counter, inspecting Rosie. Rosie filled herself a glass of water, noting how Nicola had not asked Rosie what was wrong. Not why she’d been crying, or why her hair was a tangled mess, or why she’d been sniffling on the kitchen floor. She took a sip of water and instantly felt better. 

    “Go change your clothes.” Nicola inspected her nails. “Bring something warm.”

    “Ugh, no.”  Rosie leaned dramatically against a cabinet. “It’s too early. I’m not going with you.”

    Nicola scoffed. “It's eight PM, Rosie. You don’t have to come with me, but at least get dressed.” Rosie knew that she would probably have to go with Nicola at some point, but she ignored it. She did some quick calculations in her head. If it was already eight o’clock, then she probably had a million missed texts from Piper. She’d been curled up in a futile ball in the kitchen for almost twenty-four hours.

    Her mom had been dead for almost twenty-four hours.

    Rosie froze, her glass poised at her lips. 

    Her mom was dead. 

    Suddenly, Rosie needed to move. She needed to get out of these clothes, she needed to wash her face. It didn’t matter if that was what Nicola wanted. Rosie set her glass down with a bang and sprinted up the steps. Nicola didn’t try to follow her. 

    Up in her room, Rosie shakily peeled off her old clothes and replaced them with jeans and a cardigan. She splashed water on her face and tried to comb her hair into a semi-smooth braid. She found her phone, under a pile of papers on her desk, and tried to explain to an worried Piper that her phone had died and she lost the charger. 

    She would explain her mothers death later. She had barely grasped it now. 

    Rosie tossed the phone onto her bed and stared in the mirror. She still felt shaken, but now that she looked close to normal, her heart slowed a little bit. This could be any other day. 

    Rosie stomped down the stairs, leaving her purse on it’s hook; she didn’t want it any more. 

    Nicola was still in the kitchen. She eyed Rosie as Rosie stomped into the kitchen too. 

    “You feeling better?” She asked.

    Rosie didn’t reply. She just glared at Nicola.

    Nicola shrugged. “Fine. Lets go.” 

    Rosie looked at her feet, and then back up at Nicola again. Her head still ached, but the rest of her wanted to get out of the house and run as far as possible. “Fine,” she said. 

    Nicola had a car this time. It was Officer Martin’s police SUV. Rosie didn’t want to know Nicola had gotten a hold of it. 

    Rosie grabbed the handle of the passenger side while Nicola went around to the front, but Rosie spotted Mai through the dark tinted windows, scrolling through her phone. She looked up and flashed Rosie a friendly smile. Rosie got in the back.

    As Nicola started the car, Rosie gave her a questioning look.

    “It’s not just you and me, Benton. We’re meeting the whole crew today.” Nicola turned on the radio and pulled out of Rosie’s driveway. Rosie pressed her forehead to the cold glass of the window, watching the houses and business blur together as Nicola drove way over the speed limit. 

    She knew it as soon as she saw the sign, but Rosie’s heart still skipped a beat as Nicola drove all the way down Orange Street and curved off the road, smashing bushes in her wake. 

    They were at the fence. 

    Rosie squeezed her eyes shut. She remembered now. Her mom, the bullet. Flashes of light as Rosie blindly sprinted from the fence to her house without breath.

    Her mom was dead. 

    “Where is everyone?” Rosie asked as she jumped out of the car, clenching her jaw to try to keep tears from coming. It was surprisingly high up. She guessed large wheels made it easier to trample bushes.

    “They’re meeting us further down.” Further down. The rip in the wall.

    The rip in the wall indeed. Rosie recognized most of the people there. Cael, Emil, even poor Mintie was there. They all held flashlights. 

    Rosie’s eyes swept the ground. There was no blood in sight, under all the black combat boots, no nothing. Someone had removed the body. Rosie didn’t have time to process this before she heard Emil call out. 

    “Nicola!” He spotted them first, and then all heads turned. 

    Rosie bumped Nicola’s arm. “What are we doing here?” 

    Nicola smiled back at her. A real, radiant smile. “We’re getting out.”

    Rosie wanted to think about this, but the crowd of teenagers swallowed her. Everything seemed too loud. People congratulated her--for what, she wondered-- and fistbumped her and a guy even hugged her. They were getting out. 

    Rosie’s eyes found Cael and Mintie, standing together, watching her. Cael gave her a thin-lipped smile, and Mintie just looked at her sadly. Rosie couldn’t help but feel she had failed them. She wasn’t supposed to come near Nicola. She’d forgotten that.

    “Rosie!’ Nicola found her and grasped her arm. She was still wearing a big smile. “C’mon. We’re going first.” 

    Rosie felt sick to her stomach. They were getting out. 

    Bits and pieces of Nicola’s plan started to connect. Befriending Rosie gave her access to Alexandra. Alexandra worked out here, where barely anyone was allowed to go, not even Officer Martin. Rosie felt stunned. That they were getting out, that this had been Nicola’s plan all along, everything.

    Her eyes widened as Nicola pulled her through the crowd to the wall. They cheered, loudly. They weren’t worried about anyone hearing them.

    They truly believed that they could get out, and they didn’t have a care in the world. 

    But what about their families? Rosie longed to ask. Once they went through, it wasn’t likely they’d come back. But Rosie couldn’t make out the words. 

    Her only family was dead.

    “Are you ready?” The cheering had died down. Nicola was gazing at her intently, her jaw set. What was Rosie going to say? 

    Her only family was dead.

    She had nothing to lose.

    “Yes.” 
CHAPTER NINE
The wall was thick. Thicker than Rosie had realized. From where Nicola had ripped open the wall was just the first layer; she hadn’t been able to see how deep it went, at least ten feet thick. Claustrophobia began to kick in as Rosie crawled through on her hands and knees, Nicola just an inch ahead of her. She nearly ran into Nicola’s bulky boot as Nicola stopped, presumably to try and tear another hole with the prybar she’d brought along. Rosie breathed heavily.

“It’s thinner on the outside,” Nicola whispered breathlessly, barely audible over the clang of metal on metal. “I don’t know why, but I guess they thought the inside layer would be strong enough.” 

When Nicola finally hacked away at the wall, big enough for both of them to squeeze through, she let out an audible sigh of relief. There was no way Nicola was prepared to turn around and tell the crowd of roaring teenagers that she couldn’t break through.

But the claustrophobia and the nerves and everything else she’d just been thinking about  was worth it when Rosie’s head popped out hole after Nicola, followed by the rest of her body. Her senses were overwhelmed. 

It was light. 
All Rosie could see was light. Bright, bright light. Nicola had gone through first, and Rosie after. Light. It was the sun. The girls both let out a giddy whoop of laughter. The sun! Rosie stared at it, trying not to burn her eyes, but she couldn’t look away.

The

Freaking

Sun.

It was all she could think about. She gazed up only until Nicola murmured that she was going to go back through to the others. Rosie closed her eyes and nodded, arms wide. She let the warmth envelope her. 

A minute passed.

Then another.

Minutes didn’t matter.

The sun.

The warmth disappeared. 

“No!” Rosie’s eyes flashed open. She’d lived in shadows for too long. 

But the sun wasn’t gone. Three silent, steady planes hovered above Rosie. They were sleek and black like the other machine’s she’d seen in Ferncliff, like the trucks and military vehicles. A moment of panic stopped her. 

She wasn’t in Ferncliff anymore. 

Slowly, she turned and stared at the wall. Like the inside, it was made of rough metal, but where the darkness had hidden the rest, this was the opposite.

The wall was tall. Rosie couldn’t see the top; it extended up and up into the sky, but she saw it as the three planes flew in perfect formation over the wall and disappeared.

Everything seemed to stop.

She heard a whoosh, like something being dropped.

Rosie would never be able to  explain what happened next. She saw a flash, she heard a boom, and she was thrown off her feet. Her head hit the ground, hard. And her vision went dark.
Rosie laid on the hard ground on her side, her ears ringing viciously. They felt wet, bloody maybe. Her whole body ached, especially her head. She rolled over, onto her back, coughed. Dust had flown up her nostrils, making it hard to breath.

What had happened? The planes, she remembered. Dread filled inside of her. The planes had dropped something. What had it been? Rosie had an idea, but she refused to believe it.

She peeled her eyes open, slowly at first, and then quicker once she saw her surroundings. Or the lack thereof.

It was just smoke. That's all she could see. A few burnt pieces of shriveled metal here and there but that was it. Smoke filled Rosie’s lungs, and she coughed. The motion sent another jolt through Rosie’s head, and the world fell dark again.
The second time she woke up, it was from someone splattering cool water on her face. Her eyes opened quickly this time, and she sat up fast, spluttering. 

An older woman and a young man were crouched over her, staring at her with concerned eyes. They leaped back as Rosie sat up, the young man spilling water from a thermos all over himself. 

“Oh good,” The woman said. She had a soft, pleasant voice. It reminded Rosie of a grandma in a sitcom. “You're okay.”

Rosie found herself gasping for breath. “Where...Where am I?” 

The woman shrugged. “Frankly, you're in the middle of nowhere.” 

“No,” Rosie gasped, shaking out her head. Water dripped off her nose and chin. “I mean, am I still in Ferncliff?” Was it possible that it was all a dream? That Ferncliff was still standing? No Rosie felt the sun. But she stared at the woman anyway, waiting for an answer.

“No, hun. Ferncliff’s gone.” The woman said it in a simple way. No coddling. 

“You were the only survivor,” the young man put in, still dabbing water off his shirt. He had a voice like the annoying neighbor. It was very nasally.

It took Rosie a moment to accept this. 

“Eli!” The woman gasped the same time Rosie repeated his words.  

“Only...survivor?” No. She wasn’t the only survivor. What about Cael and Nicola and Mintie and Piper? The town was still there. There were no survivors, because nothing had happened.

“Elsie, she was part of that town. There’s no such thing as the easy way now.” Eli said to the woman. “Miss?” He leaned towards Rosie. “Can you tell me your name?”

Rosie just stared at him, wide eyed.

“Oh shush.” Elsie elbowed him. “Go annoy someone else.”

“But she’s the only one here!” Eli protested.

“You’ve made that very clear,” she shushed him again and he sulked off.

“Sorry about him, hun.” Elsie pressed a cool hand to Rosie’s forehead. “But we do need your name. How does your head feel?”
    Rosie stared at her. She heard herself whisper her name, but she hadn’t meant to. And her head hurt a lot. But she was still so confused. Where were Piper and Nicola? Where was her town?

Elsie gave her a sad smile as a single tear rolled down Rosie’s cheek. “I know, honey. You’ll be okay soon. Let's get you up.”

Elsie had been right when she’d said they were in the middle of nowhere. She’d led Rosie away from Ferncliff and into the nearby woods. They were mostly untouched, except for a few shards of metal and chunks of concrete. 

They got deeper and deeper into the woods, Elsie leading Rosie with some sense of direction. The forest didn’t marvel Rosie like it should have. Her thoughts were too focused on what had happened, and she followed Elsie blindly until they arrived in a clearing of tents.

Rosie was guided to her own tent, on the very far edge of the clearing. Elsie gave her a few instructions on what to do, but Rosie didn’t listen to her; she just collapsed on her cot as soon as the tent flap closed.

CHAPTER TEN
The third time Rosie woke up, she wasn’t sprawled in the rubble. The ceiling of the tent swarmed above her as she tried to remember where she was.  Her head still hurt though. And she was thirsty.

She made herself sit up, determined to go find a glass of water, but there was already one on the floor of her tent. Thank goodness for the Elsie’s in the world. She gulped it greedily. It churned in her stomach, making her nauseous. She stared at the floor. 

    “Rosie?” Rosie looked up from the floor. In the opening to the tent, Elsie held a bowl of something steamy.

“Can I come in?” She asked kindly. Rosie nodded. Elsie stepped into the tent and set the bowl and a spoon on the hard ground beside Rosie’s cot. “How does your head feel?” 

“It hurts.” Rosie picked at a thread on the floor of the tent. She eyed the bowl, but she was still too nauseous to eat anything. She turned to Elsie. “Is Ferncliff really gone?” She whispered. She had so many questions, this was the most important

Elsie gave her a sad look and put her warm hand on Rosie’s shoulder. She nodded. Rosie looked down at her hands. Her nails were chipped and bloodied, her palms scraped. Ferncliff was gone.

And that was it. Rosie had cried too much in the last forty-eight hours, but she cried again anyways.

A tear rolled down her face. And then another, and another, until she was crying so hard she couldn’t catch her breath. And suddenly Elsie’s strong arms were hugging her, and she was crying too. 

 Rosie wasn’t sure how long she spent sobbing in Elsie’s arms. She cried for Nicola, and her mother, and the things she thought she had known. She cried for Cael, Mintie and Mai. Officer Martin. Piper. Piper. Rosie hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. It was only later that the tears stopped flowing, and then she just tried to catch her breath. Everyone she knew was dead, buried in the rubble of Ferncliff.

When she finally stopped crying, Elsie patted her arm.

“Come on. Everyone’s at the fire. It’s about time you get some answers, dontcha think?.” 

Rosie had no desire to get up and interact with anyone, but she let Elsie guide her to her feet and out of the tent.  

Rosie’s jaw dropped. 

Camped out in the woods, not a speckle of light in any direction, save the campfire yards away, the stars were the most beautiful thing Rosie had ever seen. She was sucked into a nostalgic feeling; the stars hadn’t changed a bit. 

Elsie smiled from beside her. “That’s my favorite thing too. The stars.”

“Yeah,”  Rosie breathed, not taking her eyes off the night sky. The dark wasn’t so bad when there were stars.

Elsie laughed softly. “C’mon. You’ll get plenty of time to soak in the stars. Everyone’s waiting.” Elsie began walking towards the fire. Rosie rushed to catch up with her. “Though I must warn you, he’s a bit of a fragile one, and he’s taking it very hard that we didn’t make it in time to save all of you. He’s the head of the cause and, well, I’ll just let him explain.”

“Who?” Rosie stumbled over a tent stake. 

“Oh. Our ‘leader’, if you will. He used to work with the guys that put you in there, but he had a change of heart.”

Rosie nodded. The guys that put her in there. Her, Rosie. There, Ferncliff. What’d Elsie mean by that?

The fire pit filled with glowing orange flames. Though Rosie had seen plenty of fire’s in their hearth at home, and even at Montgomery, this one had a different feeling to it. Smoke billowed in six different directions and the ground was glowing with sparks.

 Elsie called, out quick to the point. “This is Rosie, the girl who got out.” Every head in the circle of camp chairs turned to look at Rosie. She waved shyly.

A man and a woman, hand in hand, stepped carefully around the fire. The man had a long beard and crewcut. As he came closer, she heard a quick intake of breath from him, but her eyes were already on the woman beside him. Specifically, at the necklace resting in between her collarbones.

It was a pressed coin. It was Alexandra’s pressed coin. 

The last time Rosie had seen it, the necklace was laying on the ground, covered in her mother’s blood. And now this woman had it.

“Rosie?”
    Rosie turned to the man, whom she had almost forgotten about. His palm was on his chest, and he was staring at her with an awed look. Rosie gasped. It was a look she knew very well, the one she had seen him wear every time he looked at Alexandra.

“Dad?”

Every heartbeat in the circle seemed to stop. 

And it was her father. Bearded and older than last she’d seen him, but Marcus Benton stood in front of her. Rosie couldn’t quite catch her breath. She felt as if she should hug him or something, but something kept her feet in place. 

“I…” was all she managed. She blinked, and her fathers face grew a bit stonier.

It was her father. Rosie’s heart caught a bit. She thought she might cry, but the look on her face stopped her; she just stared. 

“I’m sorry for your loss.” He said. Rosie barely managed to stop her jaw from dropping. He was sorry? What kind of crappy thing to say to your daughter, whom you’d hadn’t seen in years? And you say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss?’

 He glanced up at Elsie, and she nodded. He glanced back at Rosie, and she could’ve sworn she saw a wary look in his eyes. 

“Come. We have some explaining to do.” Rosie pressed her lips together, but she let him guide her to a seat next to him, around the fire, and she sat in it wearily. Her body was exhausted, but her mind was ready for answers. There’d better be some explaining. 

Marcus sat in his own chair and put his elbows on his knees. Beside him, the woman with Alexandra’s necklace scowled at Rosie. Rosie chewed on her lip.

“So,” he said. The whole camp ring was silent, listening to what he was about to say. “I suppose we should start with the darkness?”

Rosie nodded. She didn’t miss it as his eyes flicked over to the woman, for barely a split second. The line between his eyes deepened. 

Marcus ran a hand over his beard with a sigh. “Have you ever heard of Afifium, Rosie?”

His fingers drummed on his kneecap. Rosie shook her head.

“No.”

Marcus nodded. “I don’t expect you to. It was invented nearly fifty years ago, for use in the military, but they found no practical use for it, so it collected dust in a basement somewhere.”

“What is it?”

“It’s hard to explain--” Marcus began.

“It’s a one-sided film.” The blonde woman cut him off. She picked at her nails with a bored look. “It blocks out any visible light, but it still lets all the important vitamins of it travel through. That’s what they covered Ferncliff with.”

Hot anger began to boil in Rosie’s stomach. This woman had no right. To steal Alexandra’s necklace, and then to steal Marcus’s story? Her fists clenched and unclenched, before the anger turned to dread. 

What if the necklace hadn’t been stolen?

What if Marcus had given it to her?

Rosie felt her heart quicken. Her vision seemed to focus and unfocus. The little girl in her that had still believed her parents still loved each other seemed to flicker. The fights had been real. In the chaos of the past few days, few things felt real; a voice in the back of Rosie’s head told her she was in denial, but she ignored it. Maybe her parent’s love was one of them.

Rosie realized she was still staring at the blonde woman angrily. She blinked quickly a couple of times before she heard Marcus was talking.

“...she was willing, and I wasn’t.” He was looking at her with an expectant and concerned look. Like she was something fragile he was scared of breaking.

“Sorry, what?” 

Marcus sighed, a pained look on his face, and Rosie felt bad. This must be a part of the story it was hard for him to talk about.

“You’re mother and I,” he said. Rosie caught him steal a nervous glance at the blonde woman again. “It was when you were eight or so. We were approached by the government. They recruited us to the board of a new project.” The beard masked some of it, but a sad look fell over his face. “It was a inhumane project. But we were still young and immature, despite being in our thirties. We didn’t think of it that way.”

He paused.

“What kind of project?” Rosie shook her head. “And why you and mom?” Rosie had only known her mom as the woman who worked at the town hall. She didn’t think that gave you any qualifications. And her dad; she really had no idea what he did, since he retired from military service. “Weren’t there any betterfit candidates for the job?” She had a sinking suspicion she knew what project he was talking about.

“Your mom worked in psychology at the time. And I had just finished my military service. So your mom was their psychology consultant, and I was there for strategy development.”

Rosie nodded. “Okay. But I’m still confused. What was the actual project?”

Marcus smiled sadly. “You always jump too far ahead, Rosie. I was going to get there in a minute.” 

Relief spread over Rosie like a blanket. Earlier, it had almost seemed like her father had forgotten. Forgotten all the stories, the lanterns, everything that had made him her father years ago. She smiled, just a little. She may be relieved, but it wasn’t going to last long. Marcus still had to tell her what the “project” actually was.

“The committee wanted to see how human life would adapt with the lack of sunlight. Someone stumbled upon Afifium in the basement of some fortress. We recruited a team of scientists and chemists and engineers to try and replicate it, and it worked pretty quickly. Eventually, we had miles and miles worth of it. It was turned into a dome, through some scientific process I didn’t understand. And we decided to put the plan into motion.

“We found a town. Up east. It was a nice place, but there was hardly any contact between them and the rest of the state, or even country, other than the people that seemed to flock there during summer and the holidays.”

“Ferncliff,” Rosie breathed.

Marcus nodded. “Alexandra and I were relocated there. Originally, it was just to scope out the setting, the people, the way they worked. But then we were offered an opportunity. To be part of the actual experiment.”

Experiment. He’d said experiment instead of project this time. Rosie thought she could fill in the rest of the story, but she had a nagging feeling he was leaving something out.

“You put the dome over the town. Took away all the sunlight.”

Marcus looked pained. “Rosie, you’ve got to understand, I would take it back if I could--stay away from the project, the committee, everything.”

Rosie ignored him. “It was all just an experiment?” My whole life was just an experiment? 

Marcus nodded. He expected Rosie to freak out, to yell at this slightly--no, really devastating revelation, but she wouldn’t. 

“Okay.” She said, determined to keep her cool. Besides, there were more questions to ask. “Who knew about it?”

Marcus sighed. “Most of the people who worked for Barney Green. He was part of the board. The cops knew about it, too, although they weren’t as involved.”

Rosie rubbed her hands together. The heat from the fire was warm, but she was cold. It was obvious, now, how Alexandra had been a part of it. Everyday, when she’d send Rosie out and walk down to the mayor's office. She’d been analyzing every person in the town; the reactions, the changes. And even her own daughter had been the perfect subject to study, with all her fear. But Rosie still couldn’t grasp part of the story. Not the Ferncliff story, but the other one. 

“Why’d you leave?” She asked quietly. Every head turned away from Rosie and Marcus, suddenly finding something interesting to stare at, and every heart seemed to stop. Even the blond woman turned away, but her scowl deepend notably. 

Marcus sat back in his chair. His hand trembled, a little, on the arm of his chair. “We had a disagreement,” was all he said, his eyes trained on his hands.

“No kidding. About what?”

He didn’t say anything for a second. “We both knew the darkness was coming. We had picked the town, and we were offered a chance to stay, to see it all play out. I didn’t want to be there for it, your mom thought it would be a new... opportunity,” Marcus glanced at me, then back at Pandora. He looked anxious. “She thought we could discover something great. But I was beginning to see all the things that were wrong about it. So I left.”

Rosie put her head in her hands. She didn’t care that everyone was watching her; she was angry. She missed Alexandra terribly and she wished she could hear her side of the story, too. It was so hard for Rosie to imagine her mother--her sweet, bossy, mother--would willingly do something like that. 

Rosie bit her lip.

“And who’s that?” Rosie flicked her head to the woman with the coin. Marcus would never have given somebody else the coin, unless he’d really fallen out of love with Alexandra. 

“That’s Pandora.” He bit his lip, staring at Rosie with an unreadable look. “She’s my wife.” 
Rosie’s eyes were closed, but she wasn’t asleep. She couldn’t sleep. A heavy feeling sat in her stomach, contrary to her mind, which was whirling, airy like a tornado. It was so much information; her mind was on overload. She almost didn’t hear it when someone began to unzip the flap of her tent, but she blinked her eyes open quickly..

    It was just Marcus, though. She sighed, still on edge, and watched him sharply as he stepped into the tent. 

    “Rosie?” He whispered.

    “Yes.” 

    She bit her lip as he sat down next to her, on the cot. He gestured to the space beside her. It was hardly big enough, but Rosie scooched over, making room for him to lay down, but still watching him carefully. He laid down beside her, but didn’t take any of the mountain of blankets. 

    Despite all her anger--at her father, at her mother, at Nicola, at everything, really--a weight seemed to lift off her chest. As she stared up at the ceiling of her tent, her father breathing beside her, a strange feeling spread over her, and she realized something with a start.

    For the first time in so many years, Rosie felt safe.




        

    




 
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