Here is another exciting installment in Becca Beckon's story. I've been reading some gothic-tyoe stories last few weeks, so I'm in the mood for creepy basements and the undead. Be warned...:)
I woke the next morning abruptly. I sat up with a groan, hissing as all my muscles protested. I swung my legs out of the bed, the air cool but not unpleasant. I could see light glowing under the edge of the curtains. There was another thin line of it along the floor some distance away. I stood and groped my way to the door, my hands out to prevent my falling on my face.
The door opened onto the main room of Kevin’s apartment. I took a moment to get my bearings, my eyes hurting. The room was still, the mobiles suspended in the air like miniature solar systems, circling each other lazily. They did not flash, but shone softly in the dawn light. I shivered and looked around for Kevin.
He was stretched out on the couch I remembered falling onto the night before. I snorted; a gentleman through and through it seemed. He lay with his feet up, a book resting on his chest as he snored lightly, his arm thrown over his eyes.
I prodded him cautiously. He grunted, lifting his arm enough to glare at me.
“What is it with you and being up at the crack of dawn?” He lurched into a sitting position. He continued, nearly snarling. “Is this going to be a regular thing with you?”
My nervous laugh grated on my ears as he stood, stretching. He tossed the book over his shoulder, yawning hugely. The book hesitated a moment, then drifted to a bookshelf and slipped in among its fellows.
“Hungry?” Kevin asked, moving away from me. He waved irritably and a mobile zipped aside, whirling faster in agitation. The center of it was beginning to brighten, sparkling instead of shining. “Kitchen’s in here.”
I followed, casting looks back at the bookshelf. Kevin had his head in the refrigerator.
“What do you want?” he asked, rummaging around with the clinking of bottles.
He thunked a bowl down on the table and gave me a selection of boxes to choose from. I poured some cheerios, looking around the room. The papers he’d swept from the table at my last visit were still lying on the floor. The pencil mark was still on the wood, a faint gray line across the waxed top. I kept my meal and hands outside of it.
Kevin was drinking a tall glass of something awfully green with his eyes closed. I munched steadily, my stomach taking each bite with a small lurch of protest.
“So,” he said suddenly, setting the glass in the sink. I gulped my mouthful and eyed him. He smiled. “It’s your Quest, Becca. What do you feel like doing today?”
The honest answer was to go back and hide under the covers in his bedroom and never come out. Why had I done this? The drive, the urgent need I’d felt to be doing something had gone. I had been afraid before.
Now I was terrified.
Kevin saw it, I think. He pulled and chair out and sat across from me. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared absently over my head. Giving me space. Time to think.
I couldn’t think. My mind was absolutely completely blank. Did that mean my Quest was useless, that what I was looking for didn’t exist?
Kevin proved himself very adept at reading my thoughts, or lack thereof, on my face. “You know,” he said slowly. “If I knew what it was you wanted, I could help get you started.”
I worked some moisture into my mouth. “I want to save the world.”
He smiled again, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. “Yes. But how?”
I didn’t understand. He went on. “If I knew more about how this curse was supposed to work. Not yours,” he said quickly, holding up a hand when I made to protest. “But this everything dying curse.”
“Everything is going to die.” I insisted. I knew that. I knew that to the very bottom of my soul. Kevin looked at me solemnly. He leaned forward and pressed his hand over mine, hot compared to the cool wood of the table.
“I believe you,” he said softly. “Becca, I really do believe you.”
I had to look away. His eyes were doing that too bright, flashing thing again, holding mine. And mine were suddenly itchy and wet.
He let me be until I gained control of my voice again.
“What do you think I should do?”
He sighed, lifting his hand away from mine to run it through his hair. “I don’t know.” He admitted.
“Have you ever been on a Quest?” I asked, avoiding the topic of my own as much as I could.
“No,” he said. But his eyes kind of slid past mine, not quite meeting them. I frowned. The set of his mouth warned me not to ask questions just then.
“You ever know anybody who went on a Quest.”
He grinned, breaking the firm line of his lips. “Lots.”
“What sorts of things do they find?”
He laughed and stood. “Finished?”
I passed over my bowl, trying to ignore how the skin on my arm tingled as it slid through the circle he’d drawn. There was something in that thin line, no matter it was just hastily scrawled pencil. He set the dishwasher working, then led the way back into his room. His study. Or research chamber. I wasn’t sure what to call it. It looked like a wizard’s tower, a high-tech research lab and a squishy comfortable den had collided at high speed.
Kevin went to a desk at the back and started rummaging around. I went and cleaned myself up in his bedroom. If possible, it was messier in here, clothing and books piled everywhere. I brushed my hair and teeth and went back out feeling more like myself.
Kevin was tugging at a thin book buried under a pile of inch-thick tomes. He swore at it and gave a jerk. The tower teetered as the slim book pulled free, but he spoke sharply and it steadied. He blew dust off the cover, though how it had gotten that way at the bottom of a pile I wasn’t sure, and waved me over.
“What is it?”
“I remembered,” he said, flipping through the glossy pages. “I’ve an old picture of the CMR students.” I leaned to read the binding. Meta-physical Manifestations of Trans-Spherical Thustra-Wave Particles. The names under the title were C. Mule and K. Zuagardi.
“I helped Mule with his observations…oh, nearly ten years ago, now.” Kevin had a fond smile on his face as he rifled pages. “I remember there being a picture…here.”
I took the book and looked at the page. It was a fuzzy black and white photo sandwiched between two complicated looking tables. Mule, still with some wisps of hair on his head stood next to Zuagardi, who was as emaciated as I had ever seen him. I was not surprised he had been dematerialized. There was barely enough of him to exist in this world anyway.
Next to them was a gaggle of grinning children, looking supremely pleased. I picked out Kevin and Jeffery at once. Kevin had the same smile, open, friendly, and just the smallest bit teasing, like he knew a joke you didn’t. Jeffery’s grin was pure cockiness, his arm slung around the shoulders of a girl about his height. The half dozen children were all early to mid teens.
“How old were you when you went to the CMR?”
“Eleven,” Kevin said, taking the book back. He turned pages slowly, looking at the lines and lines of text. “There’s a dormitory, above the offices, where they house the children who work there.”
“Your parents?” I asked.
Kevin shrugged. “Glad to get me out of the house. Not that they didn’t love me,” he added, suddenly fierce. “They came to visit all the time. It’s just that…well…”
He glanced over my shoulder, to the swirling mobiles, the flashing lights along the walls. The stacks and stacks of books and papers, the long tables filled with beakers and instruments.
“I understand,” I said.
“Most were like me,” he said after a moment. “Too powerful to let run loose, but not inherently dangerous.”
For some reason, I had to gather up some courage to ask my next question. “What about Strenton?” Another impulse I couldn’t identify, but it felt safer to use Jeff’s last name with Kevin for now.
Kevin grimaced. “Like I said, he was already way more advanced than any of us. He stayed by choice.”
“But where did he come from?”
Kevin shrugged again. “He never said.”
“Where are you from?”
“Boston.” Kevin supplied, his voice suddenly drawling. He snorted. “You westerners have terrible accents.”
I sniffed. He handed me the book and went back to the pile, reading the bindings in a mutter. I flipped through the pages, stopping at every photograph. Most were Mule and Zuagardi working, looking at things on computer screens, peering at graphs, looking into machinery, their sleeves rolled up to their elbows.
I looked down at the photo of the students. Jeffery’s eyes were green in the picture. I could tell, even through the black and white.
Kevin’s muttering grew distant, echoing. I tried to breathe, but the air was too heavy, thick. Jeffery’s smile faded, set into a bitter line. He stepped away from the girl, leaving her leaning on nothing, and walked out of the picture.
The book hit the floor with a smack as I gasped, panting. Kevin snatched me back from the book, holding me steady.
“What is it?” He demanded.
I was shaking, sweat standing on my face. Kevin squatted next to the book and gave it a prod with his finger. It lay lifeless. He picked it up and fanned the pages. “What was it?”
“The picture,” I said breathlessly. I took a slow deliberate breath, calming myself. “It…it moved.”
Kevin frowned at me. “How?”
I shook my head at both questions. I didn’t know how and I couldn’t explain. Kevin scowled at the photo. “It doesn’t look different to me.”
I looked, steeling myself. Jeff was back in the group, the same smile, laughing. Happy.
“Why did he leave?” I asked.
“Who?” Kevin was still examining the book for something, running his hands over the cover, feeling the binding.
Kevin shrugged. “I’m not sure. You’d have to ask Mule.”
“Kevin.” I said sternly. He looked up and his mouth made a good copy of Jeff’s bitter frown.
“Alright,” he said. “He ran away.”
“Yes,” I said. “But why?”
Kevin shrugged again. “How should I know? We weren’t friends. I was never in his research group.” I wondered if Kevin heard how much resentment and anger was in his voice. He snapped the book shut. “Mule said he just needed some space.”
“Did you ever see him between then and the other day?”
Kevin shook his head, straightening. “No.”
I watched as he slammed the book onto the top of the pile, raising more dust. “So, he could have been up to anything.”
Kevin laughed, a fake, mocking one that set my teeth on edge. “A man like him? I couldn’t even begin to guess.”
I held in my sigh of frustration. I had never once in my life wanted to be magic. But right now, it was getting to be a pain, never knowing what they meant, understanding their comments.
Kevin was glaring out the window. The mobiles were flashing wildly now, spinning, streaking light. The room was making my eyes water.
My brain had worked itself out of its stupor, it seemed. I looked at the book, thinking. Jeff looked to be sixteen or so in the photo. He was twenty-five now. What had been doing those years? Besides working for my father.
And what had he done before?
I gasped, my vision reeling.
“Becca?” Kevin held me upright as I pressed my hands to my face. The world was spinning again, with me at the center, the bottom of a great, limitless well, stretching away from me in all directions, forever and ever.
I blinked a few times, forcing the sensation away. It inched back, leaving me still dizzy, but able to stand it. I turned slowly and the world shifted around me, swaying, adjusting.
“What is it?” Kevin asked softly.
“I know what to do.” I said, surprised my voice was steady. His hand gripped my shoulder.
I nodded. “It’s not far from here.” That’s why it was so strong, pulling at me. I continued my turn until the world stopped. There was a gentle snap, like gears locking to place and the room solidified. I pointed. “That way.”
Kevin frowned. “That’s east.”
I nodded. “That way.”
He hesitated a moment more, then nodded once. “Alright. Let’s go.”
I stood and watched as Kevin got ready to leave. No matter how many times I told him it was very close, in the city even, he just shrugged and kept packing. He had a pack for me, with mostly food and some clothing. His pack was no bigger, but he was being very careful about what he put in, making sure his back was to me whenever he did pull something out from under a pile of books or sheets or scrap metal.
Once he was satisfied, he slung the bag over his shoulder and came to me in the doorway. He turned and looked over the room, at the flashing lights, the slivery markings on the walls.
“Let’s go.” He said. He opened the front door. I went out, still watching the lights reflecting off the walls, shimmering even in the daylight, like sunlight reflecting off water. Kevin turned back and swung the door shut, but not before I saw the light stop moving, then wink out. As he locked the door, I thought I could hear the soft clatter of dozens of balls hitting the wood floor inside.
He was waiting for me. I turned and went downstairs.
He had a car and we climbed inside. I had to force my head away from staring east. To get to the main road, we had to drive almost due west. It made my palms sweat, carsick. I couldn’t help my sigh of relief when Kevin turned on to the freeway, heading in the right direction.
“Let me know what to do.” He said softly. I nodded, closing my eyes. The world was trying to move again, shifting. I stayed focused on what I wanted to find. What had Jeff done before he’d gone to the CMR?
“There,” I said, pointing. I blinked in the bright sunlight. We were still in the city, but in a more residential area, the houses rolling away for miles around. Kevin took the exit and we slipped into the light daytime traffic.
“Keep going east.” I said, trying to feel what to do next. It kept slipping away. I didn’t know the rules, the parameters of this. I could only go by instinct and hope for the best. Otherwise, I’d never find anything and then my Quest would never be lifted. “Turn here. Left.”
Kevin jerked around the corner. “More warning next time?”
I was shivering, full of adrenaline. “Stop.”
He pulled up next to a curb. I climbed out before he could even stop the engine and walked across the street.
It was a dingy elementary school. The kind that had once been used for all grades, then just first through eighth. Now it was for the youngest set. I imagined just a few blocks over, I’d find a brand new school, much larger and better equipped, while this one held onto existence through the sheer perversity of its aging teachers and principal.
Kevin opened the door for me after I had stood staring at the glass for a long time. I didn’t want to go in. Then the Quest would have really started. I could still go back, still turn around and-
“May I help you?”
I blinked, finding myself at the front desk, facing a pruney woman who scowled at me. I opened my mouth, but couldn’t find the words. The woman stared me down, ready to order me out. I turned to Kevin for help. I didn’t like his searching look, but he looked to the woman and smiled.
I’d seen several of his smiles, very nice ones, too. He was good looking, square shouldered, with a boyish grin. This smile was none of those. It was a thousand times better.
The woman gasped and patted her hair, smiling back shyly.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” Kevin said, very respectful, with just a hint of flirt in his tone. “But we were wondering if we could look at the records of old students?”
“Old students?” she repeated blankly, still simpering.
“Yes, ma’am,” Kevin said. “A friend of ours. We’re looking for him.”
“I can look him up in the computer,” she offered. But she didn’t move from her open-mouth staring.
“No,” Kevin said sadly. I had a twist in my gut. We had disappointed him. I had disappointed him. “No, ma’am, I think he’s too old for that. We need to see your old records. Down in the…” he trailed off, eyebrows up. And still smiling.
“Basement.” The woman supplied. “I can show you.” She stood.
“No, that won’t be necessary,” Kevin said, waving her back to her seat. She sank back down. “Thank you, ma’am.”
He grabbed my elbow and hauled me after him. I had to blink hard a few times, shaking my head to make my senses stop tingling. He led me down a narrow hall and turned a door handle. The door creaked open, revealing a staircase down into a pit of blackness. He shoved me through and closed the door behind us. The lock clicked into place.
A small light grew in his hand. He flicked his fingers and it floated up above us.
“You understand why they like to have everyone tested.” Kevin said quietly.
I was still groggy. “What did you do to her?”
He shrugged. “Nothing dangerous or permanent.” But he wouldn’t meet my eyes, his own shadowed under the flickering light.
“Can you do that with anyone?” I asked.
“Yes.” He turned away. “Can you feel anything down here?”
I jerked back from staring at his profile, focusing. I could feel something down there drawing me, pulling me down into the darkness. Of its own accord, my hand found Kevin’s and squeezed it. He closed his warm fingers around my clammy ones and tugged gently. “Show me.”
I stepped out, leading the way.
The floor felt like plain concrete, rough and slightly uneven. I walked slowly along the foundations of the school. Some basement. Pipes and beams stretched in all directions, old desks and chairs stacked haphazardly. One corner was filed with rows of boxes stacked one atop the other, file cabinets, books. It was a miserable copy of Kevin’s apartment, throbbing with life and light while this dank corner sat dead and cold.
I stopped, staring at the papers and boxes.
“In here?” Kevin asked.
“Can you get more specific?”
I closed my eyes, trying to focus. The push was ebbing away. I tried to hold onto it, but it slipped through my fingers. I sagged, trembling and exhausted. Kevin braced me up.
“Anything?” he asked.
“No.” I was disappointing him again. I took a hold of myself. “No, but there is something here.”
“But what?” Kevin asked rhetorically. He left me standing and went to the closest stack of boxes. “We could be here hours.”
I nodded, gritting my teeth.
“What are you looking for?” Kevin asked, opening a box and tipping it to peer inside.
“I’m not sure,” I hedged. By his conversation upstairs, I was sure he guessed. But I still didn’t want to admit it, even to myself. Would that disrupt the Quest or the Speaking or whatever they called it? Kevin sighed and sat and began sifting through old documents.
I did the same, going to a file cabinet. “This one is locked.” I complained.
The metal shivered under my hands and the drawers sprang open.
I twisted to peer at Kevin, his back to me as he dug through a carton. I steeled myself and started looking.
They were mostly old student files, dating back to the fifties. Too old for Jeff. I closed the top drawer and moved to the next. A few more years were inside, but the not close to what I wanted.
I kept searching, trying to find some mention of him. Why had he left this school? How old had he been when he had gone to the CMR. He was older than Kevin, but why did he go if he was unhappy there? I was sure Jeff had been unhappy. Stifled. Confined. But what about here had been worse?
“Becca, look at this.”
I glanced over. Kevin was a few rows away, his legs sticking out as he sat right on the cold ground. I slammed the drawer shut and went to look.
It was a dull yearbook, slim and grimy. The date was stamped into the front under a horribly drawn cartoon of a bird of some sort. The elementary school mascot.
“Found him,” Kevin said. He showed me the page. It was full of small black and white photos. Jeff was in the middle of row, smiling. I could tell it was him, even plump faced and young. Very young. Maybe five or six. Not the early teenager I was expecting.
“Here’s the next year,” Kevin said, pulling out another book. We flipped through silently, until we found him again. A little less plump, but still boyish.
“The next?” I asked. Something didn’t seem right.
Kevin found it and turned the pages. He frowned.
He turned it so I could see the page. The names skipped over Strenton, Jeffery. He wasn’t in the book.
“Third grade,” I said slowly. “So he was what, seven? Maybe eight?”
Kevin nodded. “But he wasn’t at CMR that early. Mule said he came a few years before I did. He must have been thirteen or fourteen.”
Six years. Six years of nothing. What did this have to do with the Quest? How could it help me stop the world ending?
I sucked in a breath, gripping Kevin’s shoulder. The books slapped as they hit the floor, dropped unceremoniously as he held me steady.
Everything dead, everything and everyone, starving, rotting, falling, dead.
“Becca!” Kevin snapped, shaking me. “Breathe, Becca.”
I did and I felt better. It was easy to forget, thinking about death like that. I turned and walked down the rows of records. I knelt and tugged at a filing cabinet drawer until Kevin unlocked it for me. I reached to the back of the drawer and pulled out a slim file.
Strenton, Jeffery, was written in faded ink across the tab. I opened it, turning over papers one by one.
An address. I read it over and over, memorizing it. It was in the city, the other side of town by the zip code. I put the file back and stood.
Kevin didn’t ask anything as we climbed back upstairs. The woman saw Kevin and blushed, her cheeks flaming. We went out into the hot sunlight, burning after the moist chill of the basement. How could they leave those children in there all alone? No wonder Jeff had run way, trapped down in the basement with the others, forgotten, alone and cold, in the dark and-
Kevin snatched me back from the street. A truck went by, horn blaring, the wind of its passage kicking up grit and blowing it in my face. He was shaking, his breathing quick. He pushed me away and shook me roughly.
“Stay focused!” He snarled. I blinked, trying to see the rest of the world. “Becca!”
“I’m trying!” I whined.
He led me to the car, his hand firm around my arm. I sat in the sweltering heat, feeling the AC kick up as he started the engine.
“Where to next?” he asked. I noticed how stiff he sounded, but it couldn’t bother me just then.
“Six four seven, north Pine Drive.” I said absently. “Six four five North Pine Drive. Six-”
His hand touched mine. “I got it, Becca. Why don’t you try to sleep?”
I nodded, exhausted, shivering. Cold, cold, cold.