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1

There was a diner on Old Derry Road. It was the diner that time had forgotten, much like time had forgotten Derry itself. Those who visited the sleepy town tucked away in a corner of Maine that no one thought about all said the same thing: leaving was like turning the clock forward. Time didn’t just restart the further one got from the tired old Victorian buildings with their faded weatherboard and peeling painted faces; it sped up as soon as one bumped along the last dirt road and turned back onto the interstate that ran so smoothly past Derry.

Once all the detritus of Derry had been shaken out of the absconding vehicle, the modern age raced to catch up. The surroundings weren’t as tired. The trees held more life the further one drove. People smiled more, though the citizens of Derry disagreed. Theirs was a friendly town, they’d say. A sensible town. A slice of pure, rural Americana. Life could be slow here because it wanted to be, and if you didn’t like it you could just keep on driving up to Portland or Bangor and everyone would be happier for it.

What no one realised was that if they wanted to be happier still, they should just keep driving and driving out of Maine and then even further yet until they tipped right off the edge of the earth and away from what lurked within.

But, of course, they didn’t know that.

The diner, which wasn’t actually within the city limits, had found that this strange, liminal quality of Derry had, much like mould, spread. Also like mould, it happened in spurts. Slowing in the hot, quiet in-between years when not much of interest occurred, and then speeding up in sudden bursts of stormy happenings. Wet weather drove it. Rain brought rivets of water that seeped into the thirsty ground, drawing what was buried deep below up onto the surface world where the humans crawled. Up came the worms and the rot and the mould and the savage, stygian hunger. By the early summer of 2009, the diner on Old Derry Road had long ago been devoured by the starving greed of Derry’s underground mouth.

To put it another way: It was here.

 

2

Like a link of black ants, the sleek SUVs pulled up outside that exhausted diner, wheels crunching on the loose asphalt. One bobbed into a pothole no one had cared enough for twenty years to repair, hardly interrupting the fierce silence of the inhabitants. The others, seeing the danger, avoided it. To the people of Old Derry surrounds who were gathered around the diner, it was as though something from out of this world had reached in with gunmetal government fingers to interrupt their sleepy days.

From somewhere below, It knew.

Inside the diner, a scene was set. Five men; three women. Three of those were law enforcement in brown uniforms. Four more were witnesses. There was the man in a suit three sizes too big who was hoping to slip away from the scene along with the oxys in his breast pocket. He’d been passing by when he heard the screams; in a kinder world, he’d have just kept on going. There was the woman who owned the diner: tremendously fat,, grease-stained, kind-faced, and never to forget what she’d seen today. In fact, three years from now, her disinterested heart would stall on the thin linoleum of these same floors as her brain misfired and, at the last, thought again of this very day. Huddled to the side were the two teenagers who smelled of alcohol and each other. Tommy Hiscott, splattered with blood and cuffed to the radiator where he’d been for some time now, was their friend, as was the body that probably still existed, somewhere. This was an incorrect assumption made by the law enforcement personnel who couldn’t be blamed for assuming so, seeing as Tommy had been found holding what surmounted to be the missing girl’s hand and, it had been presumed, must therefore know where the rest of her was.

A usual crowd in unusual times. Aside from the blood and the tears and the rabid gleam in Tommy’s eyes, it could have been any other Tuesday in any other forgotten diner, with the same cracked pleather booths, the same faux-fifties memorabilia, the same wall of photos containing faces lone gone on to better places than Derry, Maine.

In came the feds. The diner owner counted them as they came, her hand routinely curling around a pen she wasn’t holding. The cursory greeting she’d given for thirty years now – but wouldn’t for much longer – paused on her lips. Her heart hopped with ragged, anticipatory anxiety. Terrible or not, this was bringing more people than ever as the staties out front set up search parties from up the road to find the girl the hand in the cooler belonged to. This, the owner supposed, correctly, was something she’d be talking about for the rest of her life.

Officer Harold Gardener, on loan from Derry, thought at first that the newcomers didn’t look much like feds. The first one did, and perhaps the second, them being two men in suits with faces suited to pushing their weight around. The third that entered, eyes immediately finding the boy on the radiator, was fed material too, Gardener figured, giving the energy of being thick with no brains. And black, he also noted, himself uncaring but certain someone would kick up a stink. The rest? Women and a man on a cane who looked like he wouldn’t have been out of place getting his evening beer at the Falcon. Hardly DC’s best and brightest.

But Derry made do.

“Good luck,” was what Gardener said to the first man, the one with the hard jaw and cold eyes. “We’ve got nothing out of them. Reckon we’re looking for a body, but.”

“We don’t know nothing,” said one of the teenagers, a boy. Bleached-white hair straightened until it burned, his lip bitten through by a line of silver studs. He was bleeding, Gardener noticed. Nipped at those stupid studs on his lip until he’d bled. His name was Jerry Dalton. He was fifteen years and five months old, certain that he’d marry the girl sitting beside him and without any clue that he’d be one of those this hot summer swallowed. The team, when they dug further into his past, would find nothing untoward except a minor citation for underage drinking and a small fire he’d accidentally set playing with matches when he was seven. Dalton was a good boy, and he’d be a good boy until he died in much the same strange way Marcie Harris had before him. And he added a surly, “Marcie was behind us until she wasn’t, and none of us know shit about why.”

“Who’s in charge here?” asked Supervisory Special Agent Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner. “And why aren’t there dogs out looking for the missing girl?”

Hotch had seen what was missing in the rabble outside: motivation, for one. Most of them just seemed bored.

“Well, it’s the damnedest thing,” began Gardener.

 

3

Marcie Harris’s body lay at the bottom of a narrow ravine sunk deep with decayed leaves and a seeping, sallow stink. The body was seven miles from the diner where the terror had finally touched, but it would still be almost two weeks until someone found it. By that point, the rot had set in. When the body was found, the coroner assigned to her would say much the same as Gardener had: it was just the damnedest thing. Never seen much like it before. You see, Marcie was putrefying into a rotten mess in the middle of a forest in a damp crevice cushioned by leaves and dirt and broken roots. By the time they discovered her body, she should have fed the forest that sheltered her. Maggots and ants and beetles and hungrier jaws than the ones that had killed her would have arrived before any human hands unearthed what was left. But they hadn’t. Despite the decay, not a bug nor a fox nor even a voracious crow had dared to nibble at her.

Ain’t that the damnedest thing.

As unchewed upon as her body was, the coroner could easily see the damage that had been done to it. “I say they lock that boy up and throw away the key,” he’d tell the feds questioning him. “Not even the animals did what he did to her.”

Upon seeing her autopsy report, they’d agree. Marcie had died screaming; the wounds on her side, bruised like they’d gone in slow, had bled copiously. She’d been alive when whatever had been driven into her body had done so. When asked what caused those sucking wounds, the ones that curled right into her side and under her tit like they’d been reaching for her panicked, frantic heart, the coroner would simply shrug. Fifty-eight years and he’d never seen a thing like it. He had no answer for them. But in his darkest moments, he’d always envision that the tool used had been someone’s awful, grasping hand, despite knowing that no one could possibly have done that with their fingers alone, especially not a teenage boy, and even one as deranged as Tommy Hiscott. Besides, there was everything else about the body. Undeniably, her hand had been bitten clean from the wrist and Tommy had never had any blood in his mouth, but that detail was lost in the rush of everything to come.

 

4

“The dogs won’t search,” said Agent Derek Morgan to Agent Emily Prentiss, coming over to where she was reading through the list of names at the check-in station. The sun overhead was hot, a thin sheen of sweat lining his brow and a furrow of worry tracing hers. “Handler tried again just then and, nothing. They just cringed until he put them back in the car. You ever heard of something like that?”

“I’d cringe too if I had fur under this sun,” Prentiss commented. Her dark eyes hidden by darker shades scanned the parking lot, razor-sharp bangs hiding her cool expression; she was a knife honed sharp by the FBI with a mind as dangerous as the gun at her hip, and the one on her ankle. She had a shadowed anger buried deep that was quicker to burn than any of her colleagues, hidden hurts festering. If pushed to breaking, she’d snap gloriously; the man beside her was just as angry but with none of the fantastic control. Hotch headed their group with an ease that corralled them both; they’d have followed him to the ends of the earth and leapt off if he’d said so, but only if he’d justified the rationality of the decision. A dangerous combination, that loyalty combined with their intelligence – but it wasn’t the first time a similar combination had come to this place and gone away sorer for having done so.

“Something here stinks,” said Morgan. There was a foul scent in the air, one that made him feel like the dogs had the right idea. He sniffed and frowned, watching the forest surrounding.

Later, he’d think it was just the air of this place. A bad wind blows from Derry, and they were close enough to the town to really feel it.

“We got more people coming down from Castle Rock,” said the woman – barely a girl – manning the check-in station. Her tight shirt had dark circles ringing the neck and pits, as she chewed at something and jabbed her pen at a map. “Here. It’s where that lot came from, in there.” The pen was jabbed at the diner and the teenagers within. “Camp No-Hope up there, that shithole. Sorry, can I swear around you? You’re not like, language police, right?”

Prentiss ignored that. “Camp?” she asked. They hadn’t been told about a camp. They hadn’t been told anything. Just that there was a severed hand with no girl attached. When asked where the teens had come from, they’d gotten shrugs, stares, sweet-fuck-all. “What camp?”

“Here, at Dark Score,” said the girl, chewing gum popping and blowing a waft of mouthy mint over them. Pen tapped again on the map, at a lake set away from the small dot marked ‘Castle Rock’, further up from the dot listed as ‘Derry’, and fed into by a river that ran right by them both. “I recognise that girl’s hat. They’ve all got them, those uniforms. Camp Moribund. Hell of a place.”

“How come no one has called the camp supervisors to inform them the kids are all the way up here?” Morgan asked.

“There aren’t any,” was the answer. “No one cares about them. They’re all rotten.”

 

5

“Anything?” Agent Jennifer “JJ” Jareau asked her colleague, who was sitting beside the blank-eyed Tommy on the grimy floor, a cane across his lap and one leg held out in a stiff line.

“He needs medical attention,” was Dr Spencer Reid’s immediate response, something he’d been saying from the first moment he’d crouched in front of Tommy and gotten nothing but wide-eyed panic. “At the very least, he’s in shock.”

Though his degrees weren’t of the medical kind, Reid was capable of making this call. His sunken eyes and angled bone structure obscured an intellect that was as honed as Prentiss’s anger. He was twenty-eight. The youngest of the team by far. When he’d been six years old, they’d given him a Weschler and declared him a ‘genius’, a term he’d come to resent, before leaving him alone to grow up intelligent enough to see all the broken parts of humanity.

In the boy beside him, he saw his mother’s eyes at her worst moments.

JJ trusted him. “Tommy, if we get you help, will you speak to us?”

Tommy said nothing. Whatever words he’d once possessed, they were lost in the silver-bright sheen of his sanity shattering. What sat here wasn’t the boy who’d taken his friends on a joyride to breathe summer air away from the place they’d been locked in like sheep in a pen awaiting the bolt.

“I’ll get Hotch.” JJ stood, eyes scanning the room as she, once again, tried to chase away the memory of knowing this place – the feeling fading as she looked back at Reid. “Spence?”

When he looked at her, eyes a troubled shade of hazel, she said with her own blue – in the way of two people who’d worked together a long time, who knew what the other needed, who simply understood –

– Did he do it?

Reid shook his head: no.

That was that, though neither of them would ever stand in a court and argue for Tommy’s innocence. They’d never have a chance. But they didn’t know that yet; they were simply doing the job they expected to keep on doing until they couldn’t do it any longer.

This was true, for most of them

When JJ told Hotch Reid’s appraisal, he gave her a look that was as distracted as she felt. “I’ll handle it,” he said, moving away to do just that.

It left her with the last of their field team of six, David Rossi.

“You grew up around here, right?” Rossi asked, looking at her. “Ever heard anything like that?” He pointed at the nondescript blue cooler they’d shoved the hand into for lack of anything else to do with it until someone qualified came to tell them otherwise.

“I didn’t,” JJ said, before being struck by a feeling of wrong and a flush of remembering. “My grandparents live out here though, somewhere. Mom grew up near the river, Penobscot, but we never visited. Why?”

Rossi held up his cell phone. “I had Garcia send through anything of interest on the way over. This isn’t the first weird murder here, or rather, close to here. Derry’s lousy with the dead. Have we ever had a case there?”

“Not in my memory. Reid’s, maybe.” They both smiled at the mention of their friend. “How’s Hotch holding up?”

Rossi glanced at his friend’s back as the man argued with the state officer who’d declared jurisdiction on this case and was digging his heels in on that.

“As good as expected,” was all he replied.

 

6

Aaron Hotchner had never taken a Wechsler test: if he had, the results would have landed him far closer to Reid than anyone would have guessed. A man made of causes and duty to those causes, he was firm in the face of calamity and a determined protector of those around him. So far as he knew, he’d always been this way. Stern and unsmiling and loyal to a fault. Loyal to his job, which he allowed to consume any part of him that might have been softer, and loyal to his wife, although not loyal enough to stop her from sleeping with another man and then taking their son and leaving. Hotch didn’t blame her for this. A softer man might have since she’d married him knowing full well the kind of man he was, but he did miss his son. He missed her too, and not just because when there was a warm body in his bed it was easier to dull the intensity he cultivated at work. A man like him, he took it as a personal failing that he missed fucking her just as much as he missed kissing her, though it paled in comparison to what he’d done to them both in the ruining of their lives.

He was a hard man but his job was harder; five months prior, one of the men he’d hunted had instead hunted him. His ex-wife and child were in witness protection, hidden from the world that would kill them for loving him. Yet, here he was. Still living his life with the name he was born with and failing them every day he did so. The Reaper was a monster, the deadliest one – until now – Hotch had faced. Until now.

But the Reaper was just a man, much like every monster – until now – Hotch had faced.

“We’ll question him when he’s been seen to,” Hotch said to the man who was arguing that their only hope of finding Marcie alive was in furthering the neglect of the boy inside the diner. “I’ll escort him to the nearest hospital myself. He won’t be out of our custody the entire time.”

“I still think it’s foolish, but I guess you won’t be stopped.” The man shot him a disgusted look, one Hotch was well used to. He didn’t like stepping on toes, but he would if needed. “I’ll get you an escort to Derry.”

“Where’s the boy from?” Hotch pressed. “He must have a family, or at least someone we can contact for him, as well as the others.”

“Them? They’re from the camp just past Castle Rock. No point calling there, they won’t come for them.” The cop gave him another look, this one suggesting that he was stupider than the dirt he stood on and just as useful. Hotch let him look. This man was nothing. “They’re always losing kids.”

“Losing?”

“Runaways, the lot of them. I wouldn’t bother. Something in the water up there sends the kids nuts. Don’t think we’ve ever had a good one out of there. I can’t name one, anyway.”

Hotch stared at the man with no expression crossing his features.

“No,” said Hotch. “I don’t suppose you can. You’ve been a … help. Officer.”

Hotch could tell, though it wasn’t being said, that no one cared about what had happened to poor Marcie Harris. They were simply here for the spectacle. Disgusted, he moved inside to fetch his team and the teenagers no one cared about either.

 

7

Reid stared at the photographs on the wall. The team was gathering their belongings, Morgan and Prentiss clashing over whether two of them should stay to help with the search and which of those two it should be. Hotch was replacing the cuffs on Tommy with his own with thought to the sharp angle the boy’s arm had been held at for some time now. JJ was finishing the witness statements. It was any other crime scene he’d seen before, any other place in the world.

Except, apparently, it wasn’t.

Rossi noted his expression first, turning and seeing Reid leaned heavily on the cane that supported him, the bullet wound in his knee weakening the limb enough to require the implement. The cane aged him, but not as much as the look on his face right now; Reid’s skin was washed out, his eyes wide, his fingers clamped tight around the grip.

“Kid?” Rossi asked him, stepping closer. “Reid?”

Reid looked at him, then back to the wall, reaching with a hand that trembled to tear a photograph down. Hundreds of faces looked back at him, right back from when the diner had opened in 1963. Some of them smiling, some scowling, some just staring. The photograph he held shook so much the faces upon it were blurred, their features hidden

The others had fallen silent. Perhaps they guessed, somewhere deep inside them, as the stink of this place slunk into their noses and reminded them that they were somewhere known … perhaps they guessed what he’d found. An animal hunted always remembers the reek of the hunter, just in case they meet again.

Knock knock, Reid thought hysterically, looking at that photo with the strangest feeling like he was losing his fucking mind. Welcome home.

“What’ya doin’ with that?” the woman who owned the diner barked, seeing it. “Put that back. It ain’t yours to be tearing.” She had fond memories of the faces within, which is why it was displayed so prominently. A table-full of kids gone on to better places, she hoped, though she couldn’t recall the names attached to the faces. Just feelings. They were good kids, she was sure, those ones that had visited twenty-one and some years ago.

“Reid, we’re –” Hotch began, but Reid turned to him.

Hotch would never forget the look on his face, not ever.

The photo was held up. They all looked at it, none of them noticing what he had. Not at first.

Then Emily saw it: the girl furthest from the camera, the one with the fiercest scowl. That was her scowl, her eyes, her bangs with the wild hair above them that she hadn’t worn in twenty years. Morgan and JJ saw it next, simultaneously. Side-by-side right now as they were in the photo. Rossi just shrugged, confused. He wasn’t pictured. Hotch was, staring at his eighteen-year-old self who was, in turn, staring at Emily with a smile on his mouth that was as unfamiliar as this diner was, despite the photo saying otherwise. Reid was right there too, sitting on the end of the booth with his feet unable to touch the ground and smiling shyly at whoever was holding the camera. Another boy beside him, just as small as he was.

Reid counted thirteen children in the photo, crushed into the three booths pictured. He didn’t remember any of them besides the ones he was standing with now and Garcia, sitting beside Morgan with her eyes averted.

“Why is there a photo of me in a diner I’ve never been in, surrounded by people I didn’t meet until I was twenty-two?” he asked, a question no one there could answer.

With that one unanswerable question, the storm that they’d been living in the eye of for the last twenty-one summer years finally crashed down upon them.

Chapter Text

1

Aaron Hotchner meets his maker.

The day Aaron Hotchner walked into the storm brewing in Derry and the surrounds was exactly eight months after Georgie Denbrough had been murdered by person or persons unknown. Aaron was sixteen years old and his brother, Sean Hotchner, was barely six – much like Georgie, whose body had long ago been buried and was now nothing like it had used to be.

Unlike Georgie, who’d been loved dearly for all of his six and some years of life, there was no playful teasing between Aaron and his brother, no loving banter, no startling kisses upon one’s cheek. The two boys stood in fixed silence, ramrod straight and attention diverted. Sean wiggled in place because, even though he knew better, he struggled to remember that it was always best to behave. The reason for this stood in front of them dressed in blue jeans and a faded plaid shirt, dirt on the cuffs and scars on the knuckles of the wide hands waiting. With hair that was as dark as his eldest son’s and eyes that were darker still, Robert Hotchner smiled as other parents walked past them with their giggling children and, between smiles, whispered with a snake’s voice all the things he’d do to his boys if he discovered that they were being bad during this treat he was giving them.

Aaron would never forget this voice. It would haunt him a long time after the bruises had faded and he’d stopped waking up cold in the middle of his night waiting for the tread of shoes into his bedroom and the shshhhhhhshhhsnick of a belt being slid through loop after loop.

“Had me my way, you’d be home with a tanned ass working like a shit-stain like you should,” Robert snarled at Aaron, who wouldn’t be Hotch for a good ten years still and thus had no real spine yet to use to stand up to his father. “Not here being coddled like little pissant you are. I should take you right back in the car and show you what for.”

“Yes, sir,” Aaron said. “I understand, sir. We’re grateful you’re giving us this … gift.”

The pause was just noticeable enough to sting, his eyes flicking over to the cheerful sign over the painted gate: CAMP MORIBUND in a wide, happy font of a margarine yellow too sickly to be butter. There were kids all around them dragging suitcases and toys. They were laughing, happy to be here. Then there were the outliers, like Aaron and Sean, who were here because their parents wouldn’t – or couldn’t – care for them over the coming summer. Aaron’s mother had seen the camp advertised and leapt at the chance.

“It’s cheap!” she’d exclaimed, pointing to the article. “And there’s a discount for older kids willing to act as counsellors. Besides, it will keep Aaron out of trouble.”

This statement meant different things to her than it did her husband: one of whom considered trouble to be his son’s very existence, the other who winced every time belt struck skin and left bruises blooming like a mockery of springtime.

“You don’t think this is a gift?” Robert asked, not missing how Aaron’s eyes flickered to his belt and Sean tensed, knees knocking close. “This money we’re spending on you ungrateful brats?”

“We’re grateful,” Aaron breathed. By his side, Sean did nothing but tremble. They pressed together like boys facing a known danger did, despite Aaron barely knowing his brother and Sean’s reckless hero-worship of the elder. “Aren’t we grateful, Sean?”

“Yes. Thank you, sir.”

Maybe it would have gone worse but there was a shrill whistle that sounded like salvation to the two frightened boys. Heads turned to find a woman who had no idea what she was interrupting, her curled fist raised as she caught the attention of the gathered children. Aaron relaxed as she hollered for the camp counsellors to gather, aware that the danger of his father was seconds from passing.

“That’s me,” Aaron said, glad to turn his back on his father standing by their pale blue car, which was a colour he’d never appreciate again, too firmly wound with his memory of this dirt-streaked, tobacco-scented man and the belt he only ever took fully off to strike his children with.

“Gittout then,” Robert said. He sounded nothing but pleased to see the back of them. “Don’t disappoint me.”

“We won’t,” Sean promised with every intention of keeping this promise.

“We won’t,” Aaron added, who had no intention of contacting his father at all until fall. “Bye, sir. Sean, come on.”

The two boys fled gleefully past the crowds with no idea that the danger looming behind was nothing to what awaited them below. No one paid attention to the way their gaits changed as they slipped through the gate and out of sight of the parents behind them, bags bumping at their sides and Sean struggling with his. Despite this weight, both walked lighter than they had in years. Summer stretched ahead and their father would soon be gone. Had anything ever been as promising as that?

“You’re so useless,” Aaron commented, looking down to see his brother dragging the tail of his bag in the dirt. Threads torn loose and the strap ragged, Sean lifted it for a moment before letting it drop again, small arms tiring fast. “No wonder Dad gets so mad with you.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sean. All he wanted was for his brave, big brother to look at him and smile and say he was good; a good boy, like the other boys at school who weren’t like him and didn’t wet their pants at night or cry too much or get hit for being terrible.

But he suspected that Aaron didn’t think much of him at all.

Sean adored his brother as some distant, untouchable stranger, dressed in his clean-cut jeans and brown v-neck sweater that hid everything he needed to hide. Despite how effective at obscuring him they were, the clothes also set off his broad shoulders and firm torso, power in a body that hadn’t yet realised it wasn’t as small as it had started off as. To Sean, that kind of power seemed unattainable; he felt like he’d always be six with hair that was blonde instead of black and eyes that were blue and therefore girly and less, which was how he suspected things like that worked.

Aaron, who hadn’t meant to snap and felt bad for doing so as soon as he had, and who was aware enough to recognise the way his father sometimes spoke using his voice, didn’t apologise but instead wordlessly took his brother’s bag, shouldering both.

He led the way further into the camp, following the shaded signage and watched by no one but a girl in black. They didn’t notice her either. Aaron was too busy resenting the boy by his side while loving him with a distant, worried feeling that he should love this kid he barely knew purely because they shared blood and a home that was okay. Sometimes.

Aaron would never figure out why he felt so confused about his brother. Ignorant of what was to come, they smiled as they walked and it seemed, for now, that the worst was over.

 

2

Emily Prentiss meets desire.

“You’re going to learn responsibility if it kills you,” Elizabeth Prentiss had said to her wayward seventeen-year-old daughter, which would turn out to be an unexpectedly prescient statement. Elizabeth had said that before signing her up to be a counsellor at this shithole dig-out in Maine, perched on the edge of the sunken lake that clutched there like it was waiting to give up completely and just slide right on into the earth. Emily wished it would hurry the fuck up and do just that as she stared moodily at the glittering darkness and distant shadows of the new canal they’d put in to hook Dark Score up to the towns up the way, letting the ashy aftertaste of her smoke burn down on her tongue. Before it was done, she turned her back on that lake to watch the two boys make their fated way across the camp.

Nice ass, was the first thought Emily would ever have about Aaron Hotchner, waiting until he was past before ogling his rear in those faded jeans and judging the moody eyes that swept over her like she was nothing. He was a pretty kind of fuck-up she wouldn’t mind stripping down to his barest parts, reading him more easily in that split second of observation than any teacher had managed in years of knowing him. Sure, he looked like a clean-cut Southern boy raised on the iron side of his father’s belt, but she’d bet he have his dark parts, and those parts would cut up nice against her in some shadowed pocket of this forest. It was some consolation that, if she was stuck playing babysitter to three dozen whiny horrors and all their assorted grottiness, at least the adult company was fuckable.

“Emily. Are you smoking?”

Emily rolled her black-ringed eyes, turning to face the girl behind her before blowing a keen thread of smoke between them just to block out her view of those sanctimonious baby blues. Dark hair teased into sharp, angry spikes and nails painted darker yet, Emily curled her mouth into a sneer that bared the teeth her mommy had bought her. ‘Money’ that straight, white smile said, even if the girl attached to the smile was trying to hide the wealth she dripped with using torn fishnet stockings and thrift shop clothes artfully baring pale skin in an attempt to look either alluring or fucked up. She waited a moment before bothering to answer.

“What gives you that idea, Barbie?”

She dragged on the cigarette again, the end flaring hot, before holding it out to the other girl.

“No,” said Rosaline Jareau with just as much dislike in her voice as Emily had for her. Cute little bob-cut and sweeter than the sugar she’d been dipped in at birth, Emily loathed her for no other reason than that she felt she should. Both her and her bratty sister, who was just as cute and stupid as Rosaline was. “We’re supposed to be meeting Grandma in the hall. You know, we’re responsible for these kids once their parents leave. You should take that more seriously instead of staring at the boys like … well. Like a girl like you.”

“Responsible for what?” Emily snorted. “Stopping them drowning themselves in the lake? Our job gets easier if they do.” She saw a dangerous gleam appearing in the younger girl’s eyes, the same gleam she’d spotted immediately upon arriving here three days prior and finding that she was sharing her cabin with this girl and one other: a fanatical kind of determination to kiss ass, she assumed.

Later, she’d realise it was fear.

“Keep them away from the lake,” said Ros, her voice only twisting a little. “And get your skanky ass to the rec hall before I get you thrown back in the dirt where you belong.”

With that, she turned on her heel and stalked away, leaving Emily mouthing what the fuck at her retreating back. Where had that come from?

Mystified, she stumped the smoke out against the cabin she was leaning against, dropping the butt in the dirt and stalking off in the direction she’d seen the black-haired guy and his blonde shadow walking. It was as easy as following the shrill sound of a child’s voice until she found the kid sitting on the stoop of the male counsellors’ cabin. He watched her approach, blue eyes wary. She poked her tongue out at him and wondered why he didn’t smile. What kind of kid didn’t smile? Besides her, but she knew she’d always been an anomaly.

Deciding to ignore him, she stepped past and thumped her palm flat on the wall, leaning in and watching the inhabitants turn to stare at her. The scent of boy, deodorant, and damp towels stunk up the air in the small cabin, which she supposed was still a nicer scent than the lake when the wind blew wrong. That smell was rotten, like spoiled dirt and something fallow crawling into her nose to die.

“We’re late, pretty boys,” she said, watching them both. “I’m Emily. Emily Prentiss.”

“Aaron Hotchner,” said the dark-eyed guy, holding his hand out to shake like he was a particularly well-trained retriever. She obliged, feeling his warm palm and firm grip and thinking again of what sex with him would be like: if it would be as dangerous and unprecedented as Rome had been, or if he’d be as well trained in bed as he seemed to be outside of it, a puppy who’d had his nose rubbed in his messes too many times to try misbehave again no matter how much she wanted him to or how prettily she asked.

“Rafe Garcia,” said the other boy. His accent was slight enough that she knew he was muting it. Probably been called a wetback too many times to be proud of himself, Emily assumed, ignoring the twinge of sympathy that dug up. No point getting attached. She didn’t intend to hang around here long enough to get attached. First chance she had to run, she was out of here and straight on to eighteen.  “Nice to meet you. Shouldn’t we get your brother settled in?”

“Dunno.” Aaron was watching Emily, the same heat in his eyes as what she felt. She watched that gaze rake her up and down, hovering on the bared skin of her hip and lingering on her low-slung skirt. “He can probably get himself there. Right, Sean?”

“I guess,” said the shrill voice beside her, so young that she flinched at the pitch. “It’s probably just over there …”

“I’ll get you there,” Emily announced, possessed by some ghost of the girl her mother wanted her to be, she guessed. “Rafe, you go ahead. Save us a seat. Coming, Aaron?” She gave him a look that girls had been giving boys since time immemorial: come with me, that look said, let me show you what we’re born for. Emily had learned that look young, been hurt by that look, and still persisted in using it despite all of the above.

Aaron, like all those boys before him, dutifully obeyed, falling into step beside her with Sean trailing behind and their hands brushing with every step they took, each touch deliberate. Their proximity set the blood in both their bodies to thumping, hormones and teenage stupidity drowning out their better sense.

“This is it,” said Sean, his voice cutting into a heated silence. “Number five, right? I think?”

“Looks right.” Aaron’s voice, several notches deeper than it had been before, cracked only a bit when he said this. He pushed open the door and stepped in, Emily following. Two small boys sat within on one of the lower bunks, watching the newcomers with the wary regard of wild animals. The upper bunks were empty. “Here. Which beds are taken?”

This was directed at the boys, one of whom shrunk back as the other grinned at Sean with a brash kind of defiance, his expression as bright as the purple scarf wound neatly around his throat.

“This one’s taken,” the boy declared. “I’m in top, and Spencer – that’s him – is beneath me.” Emily looked at ‘Spencer’ and didn’t bother attempting to poke her tongue out at him; he looked like he’d faint if she so much as sneezed in his direction, with thick glasses obscuring his eyes and hair so long she could have braided it if she’d been inclined. “Me and Spencer are best friends always so we get that bunk. Who are you?”

Sean didn’t answer, just inched closer to his brother and reached for a hand that was pulled out of reach.

“This is Sean,” Aaron said. “There, Sean. Take the bottom bunk.” He tossed the bag into the empty bed, looking at Emily and shivering. Emily swallowed at the look that passed his eyes, thinking that maybe the next three months wouldn’t be so bad after all even if she didn’t bail one week in for greener pastures. “Make friends with, uh …”

“Ethan,” said the brash boy with another wide grin. “I’m seven. And Spencer’s a baby, just six.”

“I’m six,” Sean whispered.

“You’re just a baby, too! That’s okay, I can look after you both. I’m great with babies. Mom says I was one, once.”

“I bet,” said Emily. “Well, we’re off. Bye, kids. Have fun and don’t fall in the lake.”

Out the door they stepped, Aaron glancing over his shoulder to make sure the receding cabin behind them was far enough before slowing his hurried pace. Neither saw the way Sean stared after them, his eyes on his brother and mouth turned down.

“So,” Emily began, looking at Aaron through her lashes and seeing his throat bob nervously. “You as neat as you look or are you going to stop looking at me like you want to eat me and instead deliver on that promise? Come on, Southern. I don’t bite … unless you ask.”

Aaron just stared so Emily led the way to the lake, smiling when his footsteps followed.

Such a boy.

 

3

Derek Morgan meets a girl.

Derek Morgan wasn’t keen on two of the boys he was sharing his cabin with. The entire time he was unpacking, he felt their eyes on his back burning away like they’d taken a lit match to his skin. Their regard on him felt hot. It wasn’t right, the way they were looking, like all they were seeing was the colour of his skin or maybe the fact that he wasn’t dressed like they were. He dressed to give off a very particular vibe: don’t touch me. His tight shirt showed the muscles he’d started working hard for, making sure he tensed his back to be sure the boys behind him didn’t get the wrong idea and think he was easy to get the jump on.

He took top bunk because bottom felt too much like a cage. Somewhere cornered where someone could slip in with him, sneaking a hand under the blankets and pinning him to that wall. You like it. That’s what they’d whisper, Derek knew. You’re asking for it.

“Need a hand unpacking?” said a new voice. Derek’s head snapped around to stare at the boy standing beside him with an athletic bag bumping at his hip. “Kids like us, we gotta stick together, ey?”

“Like us?” Derek asked the question but figured he already knew the answer.

“The wrong shade of not-white,” the boy answered with a quick flash of teeth. “I’m Manny Garcia. You here alone?”

“That the first thing you see when you walked in here?” Derek snapped, already on edge about this shit-awful camping idea – his mother’s – and not certain he wanted to be making friends. Kids like him didn’t make friends; kids like him didn’t need them. Before Manny could answer, the other two boys shouldered past and left, one of them snapping something that sounded sharp and cruel before the door slammed behind them. “Fuckers.”

“First thing I saw when I walked in here was those two giving you the stink-eye,” Manny answered frankly. He pointed to the bottom bunk and waited for Derek’s shrug before slinging his bag onto it. “Figured since we’ve barely been here three seconds, could only be one reason. Now, what reason could two whiteys be looking pissed off about sharing a cabin with a black kid, hm? You didn’t answer my question. This is a family thing, this place. You got family?”

“Two sisters.” Derek watched the boy, trying to figure if this was some trick. Someone being kind just to push him up against the wall later. He was used to that. Not many people home in Chicago were kind for no reason, he’d learned. Everybody wanted something. “You?”

Manny grinned again. He was the type of kid who faced down his problems with a laugh no matter how serious they were. Derek, eventually, would come to appreciate that about him. “Three brothers, but only two here with me. One step-sister. She’s alright. Our dad married her mom, so this is some kind of family bonding bull to make us get along with her better.”

“You don’t like her?” Derek wondered what that would be like, living with someone he didn’t love or even like in his family. Ever since his dad had died, he’d been the one looking after his sisters, and he loved them fiercely. Even when he was hurting, it was okay, because at least them and their mom were safe.

Manny shrugged. He was shorter than Derek, a rangy skinny with black hair that fell into his eyes. “Like I said, she’s alright. I don’t really know her. When do we get fed? I haven’t seen a single adult in this place aside from the old bat who runs it and I’m starved.” For dramatic effect, he rubbed at his stomach and pulled a grotesque face, earning a startled laugh from Derek. “If I don’t get fed constantly I’ll just die.”

“Come on,” Derek said, relaxing. Looking after kids littler than him was something he knew, and there was no threat from a skinny-armed weed like this guy. “Let’s go see if we can find some grub. Maybe our stuff won’t get messed with when we get back.”

“Doubt it,” Manny said cheerfully, abandoning his bag nonetheless. The two boys walked together, out of the cabin and across the packed dirt path leading to the centre of the camp. There were kids everywhere now, most wandering around looking lost, some clustered in groups – and, Derek noticed, no adults. A couple of older kids in shirts with Moribund emblazoned across the front in blue and red were the only signs of authority Derek could see, and even they looked confused. The roughly hewn cabins around them were cheap and nasty, Derek pausing to eye ivy crawling through a wide gap in one. Lucky it was summer because none of them looked weatherproof, two of the windows they passed almost sliding out of their loose frames.

“This place looks like it was made with spit and well-wishes,” Manny said as they passed, looking where Derek was. “Jeez, so many shrimps. I was never so tiny. Hi, small kid – whoops, scared him.”

The kid he’d called out to, a little guy in an over-large cardigan and carrying a book that was probably as wide as he was, had looked to Manny and then bolted behind a cluster of cabins like a mouse in glasses. Derek laughed and went to tell Manny not to worry about it –

They heard a small cry from back there.

“Wait here,” Derek said. Manny, of course, didn’t. He followed right back into that narrow alley, overgrown with weeds and littered with the forgotten belongings of past kids. There was a dank, horrible smell seeping up through the dirt. In here, the sun never reached and the air stank of piss and rot. Derek frowned, seeing no kid … and then spotting the book on the ground.

He picked it up and walked further in. The sounds of the camp seemed to recede, leaving nothing but the muffled sound of his Nikes squishing in the dirt, the ripping sound of thin grass winding around his ankles and tearing with the strain, and Manny’s rough breathing behind him.

“No mames, I don’t like this,” Manny muttered. “What’s that stink? That piss? It stinks of piss back here, on our shoes, man oh man. Where’d that kid go?”

“Shh.” Derek inched closer, listening. There were voices ahead. Just kids. Strident and anxious, chattering like parrots startled by a lurking cat. Then a noise, the oof of a small body hitting dirt, being shoved. The other voice shrilled again – a girl. Derek launched forward, circling round the back of the cabin and out to find the mouse boy on his knees, glasses on the ground in danger of being stepped on. The three boys ringing him were just kids themselves, eleven at most – but the kid, Derek looked and him and thought, Why you’re barely six, aren’t you?

A girl was standing in front of the boy, looking ridiculously like Derek’s mama with her hands on her hips and her blonde hair cut neat in a bob.

“You go the heck away!” she was shouting, stomping her foot with anger. “Do you hear me? Go away! Picking on someone littler than you, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves! I’ll tell my sister and you’ll be in for it then!”

“I’ll tell too,” said a small voice against the wall, Derek turning to find another little blonde kid hunkered there, blue eyes wide. “My brother’s a counsellor. He’ll be real mad at you, he will.”

The mouse boy said nothing, just sniffed.

“Screw snitching, did you hit that kid?” Manny declared. “Cos if you did, I’m gonna hit you back and let you see how you like it. Right, Derek?”

Derek opened his mouth to say something, but the smell was worse. He coughed on it, almost gagged, and met the mouse boy’s eyes. They were huge. Locked past him, like he was staring at some terrible thing behind Derek. Derek went cold. Fear tightened around his chest, a pocket of cold air sinking in and stealing all the oxygen from his lungs.

His skin prickled. The burning regard was back. He didn’t want to turn around.

But he did.

There was nothing there. Air returned to his chest in a whoomph, the day suddenly warmer than it had been. Nothing was there but the alley they’d walked through to get here and the bizarre sight of a half-deflated balloon dragging its string by in the dirt, left behind by some kid who’d forgotten to hang on. A red balloon, Derek noticed, just like the balloons tied to the gate. Just like those – conveniently forgetting that those balloons were all yellow.

When he looked back again, the boy was still staring.

“Get out of here,” he told the bullies who were ignoring Manny and the angry girl in favour of staring at him, their expressions all such fixed terror that he knew they’d seen his arms and were dreading him whaling on them like they’d whaled on the mouse. “Go on, fuck off. If I hear of you doing this again, you’ll be in for it alright.”

“Yeah!” Manny hollered, but the boys were already gone in a loud shuffle of sneakers thudding on moist, packed earth. The girl was helping the mouse out of the dirt. Derek stepped forward to give him back his book.

“Thanks,” said the girl, taking the book and brushing it down. “I don’t know why we’ve got so many kids here this year. Normally we don’t have this many, and we have actual adults around. Dunno what’s going on. I’m Jennifer, but you can call me JJ. My grandparents own this place.” She smiled sweetly. Derek returned it with a spark of resentment for this clean, bubbly girl and her clean, bubbly life. “This is Spencer, and that’s Sean over there. They’ve had a bit of a mishap with their buddy.”

“I’ve lost my friend,” Spencer said, which were the first words he’d spoken. They were barely more than a whisper. “We saw that –” He pointed to the balloon, which twisted as though caught in a breeze. Derek shuddered, sweat dripping down his back: there was no breeze to speak of down this airless alley. “– and he said he’d get it for Sean, but then I don’t know where he went. I thought he followed it back here, with the man giving them out …”

“I didn’t see anyone,” said Sean, wiping his nose with his sleeve. “I told you you were seeing things.”

“I saw a man,” Spencer said firmly. “We were supposed to go read down the lake. Ethan brought his book especially to read together. He said it’s tradition to have a camping book.”

“Ethan is your friend’s name?” Derek asked, hearing Manny groan as he realised their quest for food was going to be delayed. “We can go find him. The lake, huh? Maybe he went on his own.”

“Yeah. He’s small like me, sort of, and he’s got a purple scarf.” Spencer nodded sadly, JJ taking his hand and holding it tight. His sleeves were muddy, Derek noted. They covered his hands and made it hard for JJ to find his fingers to grasp them. “Maybe, but he knows I wanted to see the lake too, and I don’t like being … alone.”

“Well, you’re not alone now.” JJ held out her other hand for Sean before giving Derek and Manny a look. “Come on. Let’s go find Ethan.”

 

4

Penelope Garcia meets an idol.

Rafe had found her eating dinner and was peck peck pecking at her like he always did, never letting her have a moment to herself or realising that she didn’t need him in her life. She’d never asked for bothers. That’s what they were – bothers. Always bothering her.

Penelope Without-A-Last-Name, because she wasn’t yet sold on using ‘Garcia’ and definitely didn’t want to use the name of the man who’d helped make her, didn’t need the dudes in her life telling her what to do. She was just fine on her own, uhuh, just fine, even stuck in this carved wooden hell on the edge of Lake No-Technology, staring moodily at a plate of mac and cheese.

And Rafe was peck pecking at her.

“You gotta make friends, Penny,” he was saying, patting at her arm like they were friendly. “No more of this moping around looking gloomy. Your mama doesn’t like you looking gloomy. That’s what she said, to come out and here and make friends and stop looking so gloomy and angry all the time like we’re the worst things to happen to you –”

“You are the worst things to happen to me,” Penelope muttered, spoon glooping through the yellow muck in front of her. Around her, kids were squealing and screaming and throwing food. The other counsellors looked overwhelmed. Rafe wasn’t doing anything to help, of course.

“Ayy, that’s mean. Don’t be mean, Pen. It doesn’t suit you.” Rafe gave her a look just like his stupid father would give her. It meant she was being childish and small, and she hated it. “Why aren’t you eating?”

“Don’t want it.” That wasn’t entirely true. She was hungry, but circumstances had come about to remind her that food was just another thing that brought comfort at a cost.

Penelope had come into this determined to do just what her mom wanted and make friends and it had seemed like maybe that would work, at first. She’d found that she was sharing her cabin with the cutest girl ever, JJ, and Desiree Morgan, who seemed cool and fierce and fun, but then their fourth had shown up, taken one look at Penelope, and asked whether or not they were going to have enough food in the camp to feed her. JJ hadn’t been there to say anything, Dezzi had just looked uncomfortable, and Penelope had looked down at her stupid, fat stomach and seethed.

She wanted to go home.

“Hmm.” Rafe was still looking at her. She wished he’d go away so that he didn’t see her getting ready to cry. He’d never leave her alone if he saw her crying.

Rafe could see that there was more to this than what was showing, but he also knew better than to dig. “Are you ever gonna learn to like me, Pen?” he asked, hurt in his voice as he flicked the end of her blonde hair. She scowled. “That’s what I figured. Well, I like you plenty. Maybe one day you’ll feel the same.”

Penelope doubted she’d ever love him, which was true in a way.

She’d never get the chance.

“Hey,” Rafe hollered, clapping his hands as a fight broke out at one table. “Asses to seats, now! All of you!”

Whistles went off as the counsellors followed his lead. Penelope watched them restore order among the sea of small children racing around them. Another boy in a red and blue shirt slipped through the front door, Penelope looking at him and forgetting, for a moment, that she was spotty and fat and horrible and gloomy as she saw how gorgeous he was. But then, moments later, she remembered that she was eleven and a baby and he looked positively adult in comparison. He’d never look at her, not ever. Who would?

Angry now, she dropped her spoon in her gloop and stood, slipping away out of a side door while Rafe was distracted. No one stopped her or even cared where she was going. Outside was cooling down as the sun lowered, the shadows growing long. With all the kids inside eating except for a few stragglers wandering in lost circles who Penelope pointed in the right direction, it was blissfully quiet. She relaxed as she meandered down towards the sparkling promise of the lake through the trees, picking at her spots as she went and stopping when that made them bleed. She wondered if life would ever get better.

Someone coughed. Penelope froze, before inching as quietly as a girl like her could through the trees, off the path, and towards the sound. Natural curiosity led her on and she poked her head through the brush to find a girl sitting on the shore with a cigarette in her mouth and her toes in the water. Definitely old enough that she was a counsellor, not a camper, but without the shirt to denote her as such. Instead, and Penelope stared at this with fixed awe, she was dressed in blacks and purples and jagged lines, hair spiked up and makeup so fierce that Pen wanted it instantly. Maybe it would even hide her spots.

“Whoa,” she gasped, pushing out of the trees and jogging over. “You look amazing! I love your hair!”

The girl jumped, spinning to stare at Penelope and almost dropping her cigarette. “Jeeeeeeez, you scared the hell outta me, I thought you were Aaron!”

“I’m not Aaron, I’m Penelope, and you are awesome,” Penelope babbled, forgetting all her anger and frustration in the face of finding someone so cool. “I wish I could dress like that.”

“So, why don’t you?” The girl pulled on her smoke, chest moving slowly with her inhalation and then stalling as she held it. Pen watched, feeling almost out of breath herself before the girl released the lungful of smoke in a cloudy puff and a wicked black smile. “I’m Emily, by the way. Nice to have a fan of my aesthetic. Come here, kiddo.”

Pen went, sitting on the rocky shore with her and bounced with excitement when Emily dug through the pocket of her skirt and emerged with a tube of black lipstick, telling her to stay still before applying it to Penelope’s puckered mouth. The lipstick was tacky, dragging across her lips, and the hand holding her jaw steady was warm. Pen had to fight the urge to smile giddily at Emily’s looming face, her heart hammering with the awe of being so close to someone so much older and cooler.

“There,” said Emily, using her thumb to catch a smudge before leaning back and smiling. “Look at you, little goth girl. You look wild.”

“Do I?” Penelope went to touch her lips, wondering if she looked as good as Emily did. “Oh gosh, I wish I could see. I’ve never looked wild before! Just … well.” She stopped, feeling her smile falter in favour of a flush of embarrassed heat.

“Well, what?”

Penelope didn’t answer.

“Oh.” Emily’s mouth looked cold now, angry. Stabbing her smoke out on the pebbles, she flicked the butt into the water where it bobbed with the ebb and flow. Penelope watched as she lit another and held it out for Pen, who shook her head, unsure what to do with it anyway. “Hey, Penelope, I bet some bitches made you look so sad, calling you names, right? Telling you that you’re not as cool as them because you’re chubby?”

“I’m fat,” Penelope snapped, anger sparking again.

“Bullfuckingshit you are,” Emily snapped back, which was easy enough for her to say. She was skinny as a rake, all points and angles and lines. “You’re like, ten.”

“Eleven.”

“Exactly! Eleven-year-olds still have puppy fat, that’s what you’ve got. It’s cute, you’re cute, and anyone who says otherwise is flapping their mouth to let all the shit they’ve got in there fall out.” Emily puffed more smoke, Penelope watching with fascination as it spooled around her head like a grumpy punk dragon. “You’re cool, kid. You walked right up here and sat down with me, a stranger, and knew yourself well enough to know you liked my look. That’s cooler than anything else, having the personality to do that. It took me ages to learn who I was, and I still don’t think I’ve figured it out.”

“Oh.” Penelope smiled; she thought maybe she’d somehow made the right impression despite herself. “Does the lipstick really look cool on me?”

“See for yourself.” Emily pointed to the water of the lake, which was still enough to cast a reflection. Penelope nodded, standing and walking over there until the water was lapping at her open-toed sandals, almost too murky to see. She squinted, trying to turn the pale-faced blur in the water into her, but couldn’t do it. “Try leaning off the dock.”

She did. The wood creaked as she kneeled on it, feeling the aged planks ache under her hands, knees scratchy on the splintered surface. The water lurked below as she leaned over the edge. For a moment, she forgot what she was looking for and focused beyond the surface, down into those depths. Wondering what was down there, and why she couldn’t see the bottom despite being so close to the shore.

“Jump,” chuckled a voice, Penelope lurching up to stare at Emily on the beach.

“Well, what do you think?” said Emily, cigarette bobbing around between her lips as she played with it using her tongue.

“I haven’t looked yet. Did you say something?”

“No?”

Penelope frowned, turning to stare behind her and then looking down through the cracks of the boards where she thought maybe the voice had come from. Was there something under there? She tried to listen, hearing the wet sounds of water slapping at the wood, a soft plopping nearby, cicadas making a terrible noise in the forest …

“Penelope?” called Emily.

“Penelope,” giggled the voice, a wet voice. It had a whoop tucked in the back of it, like the person had laughed it from the back of their throat. “What do you think, fat girl?”

Penelope leapt up, heart hammering. Something was unnerving about that voice, something familiar. She thought of being ten and screaming at the circus when a clown had offered her a balloon before leaning forward and grabbing her chest – because even at ten she’d had tits, ones the girls at school had teased her for – and saying –

“Honk honk,” laughed the voice before bubbling away until she could hear the faintest, wettest echoes of it nearby. It should have been funny. That was a funny thing to hear from under a dock, but she stared down at the cracks and felt her heart try to crawl out of her mouth, her left tit aching like a hand had wrapped around it and squeezed –

There was a splash.

Through a wide gap in the wood, a small hand flailed at the surface of the water; for the briefest second, she saw a terrified face in the water. A flash of purple twisted and writhed above it and the face vanished, mouth gaping, eyes bulging, bubbles streaming.

She screamed.

 

5

Jennifer Jareau meets foreboding.

JJ wasn’t supposed to go near the lake. Ros had told her over and over and over, “Please don’t go to the lake, Jay, don’t do it, please!” For the last three years, every time they’d come here for summer, it had been her never-ending mantra. The warning stuck. JJ never went near the lake unless she had to, and she certainly never touched the water, her dreams filled with the sensation of drowning. A strong swimmer since she was six, now she refused to touch any water even when they were home in Pittsburgh. Her parents despaired of this but Ros …

Ros seemed almost pleased.

“There’s something in that water,” she’d told JJ as they’d packed to go back to Grandma’s earlier this week. Ros had begged and begged not to go, telling her parents that she’d babysit the whole summer if that’s what they wanted. JJ didn’t know why Ros was so determined to stay away. They’d always come to Grandma’s for summer, ever since their daddy had gotten so sick and lost all his hair. Sure, it’d been weird this time so far, with Grandpa barely there and Grandma distracted, but it was still fun. And JJ loved the woods and the trails and the horses nearby and … well, everything but the lake.

“There’s something in the water,” JJ repeated to herself as their group walked down the trail looking for Ethan. Spencer’s hand in hers was clammy and Sean, on her other side, was looking around. The other boys, Derek and Manny, trudged behind and occasionally hollered Ethan’s name.

“What?” Spencer asked, looking up at her and almost tripping over himself, fingers slipping on his book. She stopped to let him get his arm around it properly before taking his slippery hand back. “Did you say something?”

“Nothing,” JJ said. She went to smile at him, which was when they heard the screaming.

Derek sprinted ahead towards the unearthly sound, JJ pausing for only a second before tearing after him. Manny sped past too, leaving her running with the two first-graders scrambling to catch up as she slowed to let them reach her.

By the time she made it to the lake, her heart hammering out a mantra in her mind – there’s something in the lake there’s something in the lake there’s something – the boys were already there. Derek hugged a screaming girl with a round face and blonde curls while Manny waded into the water, arms in the air for balance and clothes slapping at his skin.

There was a frantic splashing and JJ stared incredulously as someone surfaced, dark hair visible for a moment before she gulped air greedily and dived down again.

Why was there a girl in the water?

“What’s going on?” JJ shouted over the screaming, the girl in Derek’s arms turning to her with tears streaming and black lipstick smeared across her mouth like it was melting off. She was gasping for breath – a hu hu hu hu sound that made JJ’s lungs ache – snot and tears mixing garishly with the lipstick.

Sean began to whimper.

“There’s someone in the water!” the girl howled, Derek jerking away from her and sprinting to the water where the other girl was already diving back down. Something in the water, hissed JJ’s brain as she took a staggering step back and almost knocked Spencer down. “I saw him! He was drowning!”

“Ethan?” whispered Spencer.

JJ went cold.

Splash!

She pictured what that would look like. What did someone look like when they were drowned? Horrible, she guessed, bloated and swollen with water leaking out of their eyes and ears and their tongue poking out like the rat JJ had found dead in a drain once.

Splash!

The girl surfaced, gasping, before going down again. Derek dived from the dock, hitting the water beside her and powering under.

JJ remembered the rat’s milky-white eyes.

Splash!

Spencer began to cry. Sean was already crying. The crying girl was turning red under the whitish sheen of her skin. Manny stood on the edge of the water, the lake licking at his toes and looking helplessly from the bubbles of air from the two divers and back to JJ, who wanted to scream at him to get away from there, to get out of reach of the something before it dragged him in too and made him just as dead as the rat.

Footsteps thundered up, JJ turning in a daze to see Ros hurtling towards her and other people following. The screams. Everyone could hear the screams.

“Jennifer!” gasped Ros, grabbing JJ’s shoulders and almost shaking her. Green-tinged, like she’d had a terrible shock. “What are you doing here! I told you never to go near the lake!”

“Emily!” someone else shouted, a tall male counsellor sprinting past for the water. He didn’t hesitate but waded right in, and JJ felt safer when she saw how old and big he was. Safety in the most adult form here.

“Someone’s in the water,” JJ said, feeling her ears pop and block out all the sound, her knees shaking so hard she might fall. “Help him. He’s in the water. Help him.”

She was helplessly repeating herself, Ros hugging her tight as kids cried and shrieked and yelled and where were the real adults?

Where was her grandma?

Not in the water, where two more counsellors were swimming out to where the girl had surfaced, coughing and spluttering and barely keeping her head up. Not on the shore where kids were pressing together, staring out there and waiting with breaths locked tight in their chest for someone to appear with a small rat-dead body out of the waves. Not running down the path where more kids clustered, the ones too scared to come closer.

Not by Spencer, standing there crying silently with his book hugged tight and no Ethan beside him.

But her hearing snapped back suddenly because there wasn’t any noise to block out anymore. Everyone had gone quiet. The tall counsellor was helping the girl from the water, Derek swimming up behind them. She was holding something, but it wasn’t a boy, thankfully, or anything terrifying. It wasn’t a rat.

It was a sodden strip of purple material.

JJ made a noise of her own, a frightened hiccup that bubbled out of her chest and tasted like bile and water.

“There’s nothing down there,” said the girl, standing there trembling with her own makeup running everywhere, black hair plastered to her face. Clothes so wet that JJ could tell she wasn’t wearing a bra, her skirt low on her hips with the weight of the water pulling it down so that JJ could see the line of her underwear, the thin elastic band and pale-blue cotton. A small bow on the front. Just like the ones you’d buy in the supermarket. It was such an odd detail to focus on, that this girl in the wet black clothes was standing there holding that purple scarf with K-mart underwear and her eyeshadow leaking. “I didn’t see anyone, just this.”

“I didn’t see anyone either,” said Derek. “And the current down there is nothing. It wouldn’t have pulled him out further. I don’t think there’s anyone down there.”

Ros’s fingers were hurting with how tight they were gripping JJ’s shoulder, her face a drawn horror that JJ had never seen before, like something horrendous she’d been waiting to happen had finally occurred.

“I saw a boy,” said the first girl, calmer now that she was surrounded by people. “I swear, there was a boy down there. And a voice … it told me to jump in. It called me fat.”

The counsellors looked at each other, the tall boy one stepping forward. “Come on, everyone,” he said, his voice calm, his smile soothing, and his dark eyes soft. JJ relaxed. He wouldn’t be this calm if someone had drowned, right?

But she looked at Ros, who still looked horrified, and the terror came back.

The boy was still talking: “Everyone back up to camp. It’s going to be dark soon and we got told that we can make a big ol’ bonfire tonight for everyone. Won’t that be fun?”

The kids cheered, already forgetting their fear as they ran back up the path with counsellors shooing them along. Soon, all that was left on the beach was JJ with Ros pinning her there, Spencer and Sean standing together with their faces still tear-streaked, the girl who’d first screamed, and a small handful of counsellors. When Ros let go of JJ’s shoulder and walked with halting steps towards the dripping wet girl, JJ tensed. Cold without her sister there, and aware that the sun was going down and the lake was darker than ever and that they still hadn’t found Ethan.

“Here,” said Ros, taking her jacket off and holding it out. “You’re shaking, Emily. Put this on.”

“I really did see a boy,” the blonde girl repeated, hugging herself now.

Derek was with her again, his arm around her shoulder. JJ determinedly refused to think about the rat.

“Shh, hey,” he soothed, glancing back at them before guiding her up the path. “I believe you saw something, Babygirl, I believe you. Let’s get you cleaned up and you can tell me about it, hey? I’m Derek, by the way. Derek Morgan.”

“Penelope,” JJ heard the blonde girl say, and then they were gone.

“Did she see something?” asked the tall boy, kneeling and holding out one of his arms. For a bizarre second, JJ thought he was offering for her to hug him – the next, Sean had pulled away from Spencer and was hurtling into that grip. “Why were you guys down here, anyway?”

“I can’t find my friend,” Spencer stammered, his voice still thick with tears. “That’s his scarf.”

There was silence. Emily wound the scarf around her hands a few times before loosening it and looking down at the sodden fabric. “Aaron,” she murmured, looking garish and scared in the weakening light. “What if …?”

“Okay, the majority of us need to get the other kids settled down,” Aaron commanded. He stood and looked from Emily to Ros. “Emily, get changed and go help set up the bonfire for them. That’ll keep them all in the one spot. Ros, we need to go tell your Grandma what’s happened and get the police out looking for him if he doesn’t show up, okay? I don’t think he’s in the lake, but we do need to find him. What’s your name?”

He was looking at Spencer now, who rasped his name out.

“Okay, Spencer. You come with us, okay? You can tell us all about Ethan.”

Ros crouching to talk to JJ. JJ waited to be told that she was going too, up to the house where Grandma lived with Grandpa and it was warm and safe and not scary at all. “Jay, come on –” she began, before looking around at their group, throat bobbing as she swallowed. JJ felt proud and tall at that moment, and loved, like she always did when Ros used her secret nickname for her. Jay, like the bird and like the first letter of her name, sometimes even ‘Bluejay’, when Ros was feeling especially sisterly. “Actually, do me a favour, okay? Can you go with Emily – stay with her at all times – and help with the fire? I need you to do this for me, sweetie, okay? I need you to make sure every kid stays by that fire. If you go to the bathroom, you go in groups. Promise? We’ll be back soon.”

“Promise,” said JJ, who wondered why Ros didn’t want her to go with them to her grandparents’ but didn’t think to ask. She’d been given a job, and she would not let her sister down.

 

6

Spencer Reid meets the terror.

Spencer read the book alone, tilting it towards the light of the bonfire and wondering where Ethan was when he was supposed to be here. The night had gotten cool, but not cold, and the kids around him were excited about the marshmallows that were being handed around. Spencer declined his. He wasn’t feeling well, the soda he’d been drinking from the can beside him sitting heavy in his stomach and bubbling away like the carbonated drink was as worried about Ethan as he was.

Aaron had brought him back from the big house up the road with his face locked in a frown and the scarf in his hands. Spencer looked down at it now, wondering why it had been in the lake when – as he had been told by the old lady that Ros called ‘Grandma’ – Ethan had decided to go home. Apparently, he’d gotten homesick and called his mom, but Spencer knew that wasn’t right because Ethan’s mom had died when he was a baby.

Hadn’t she? He was sure they’d talked about it, once. Only once. Ethan didn’t like talking about it more than that, not in all the time Spencer had known him ever since he was four, which was ever so long ago. Practically forever. Spencer had counted: it was a third of his life ago.

Spencer wiggled again, skating his fingers across the pages of the book that Ethan had brought with him for them to read. They’d been talking about this trip for a month now, how exciting it would be – filling the hours they’d spent in the special classes they had to go to for ‘Academically Enriched’ students with plans for what they’d spend their summer away from home doing. So why would Ethan go home on the very first day? It didn’t make sense, not even to someone as young as Spencer.

If he’d been older, maybe he’d have made more of a fuss about his missing friend. Maybe it would have helped. But he wasn’t older: he wasn’t eleven like JJ and Penelope or fifteen like Derek or sixteen like Aaron or even seventeen like Emily. He was six, and six was an age where things like Ethan going home to a mom that was dead was troubling but not overly alarming. Ros’s Grandma wouldn’t lie to him. Aaron wouldn’t lie to him, and Aaron seemed to believe her. Aaron was almost a grown-up, which meant he didn’t do things like lie; even a kid as smart as Spencer believed that because, when you were as small as him, it was much less dangerous to trust the adults around you.

Unfortunately for Ethan, he’d believed this too.

JJ was sitting beside Spencer, eating Cheetos from the packet and licking the flavouring from her fingers after. She’d offered him some but he’d declined in favour of his book, turning the pages and trying to distract himself from worrying. He’d have to find Ethan when he went home and give him his book back, as well as the scarf that he’d tied around his own throat once it had dried, but that was three months away – which was forever when you were six!

He missed his best friend dearly.

Distracted from his book, Spencer watched the people around the fire. He’d learned their names already. Names were important because they made it easier to remember which of the people here he should avoid and which he shouldn’t. Derek and Manny were sitting with Derek’s sisters, talking avidly about something that sounded sporty. Penelope sat alone with a packet of marshmallows all to herself and eating them while not looking at all happy about doing so. He could see Ros corralling kids away from trying to touch the fire, and Aaron and Emily lurking just outside the ring of firelight with Aaron’s hands obscured and Emily’s head tipped up to look at him. He wondered what they were doing and why they were standing so close together, leaning around the fire to squint at them through the light refracting off his glasses.

Someone was standing behind Emily. Spencer could see the shape of him silhouetted against the moonlight through two cabins, the rest of his features obscured. It wasn’t any of the counsellors, he didn’t think – they were all here – and it wasn’t a kid – far too tall – and it was definitely not Ethan.

The man wasn’t moving. He was just standing there. Blocking the moonlight that should have streamed through the gap in the cabins behind him, swallowing it in greedily like he was devouring the light and leaving only darkness.

Suddenly, Spencer remembered the glimpse of someone he’d seen earlier that day when the boys had been pushing him over, and before that when a white-gloved hand had gestured them down between the cabins with the promise of a balloon. But there hadn’t been anyone there when Spencer had worked up the courage to go after Ethan. Spencer hadn’t told JJ that Ethan had gone there because he knew how much Spencer liked balloons and he wanted to get him one; Spencer, with the intuition of the very small, had some feeling that that made this all his fault. Instead of telling JJ, he inched over and stared at that figure as Aaron tipped his head towards Emily, their bodies tilted so all Spencer could see was their shadows and the shape behind them, close enough to reach out and touch Aaron’s shoulder …

Fear gripped Spencer by the throat, tight enough that he knew he couldn’t scream even if he wanted to because that hand would reach out and grab Aaron and rip him back into the dark and –

“Bathroom,” JJ announced, standing up and brushing her pants down. “I’m going to see who else needs to come so we can go in a group. Do you need to go?”

Spencer, jolted from his fear, stared at her and then looked back over at Aaron and Emily.

There was no one behind them, the moonlight unobscured.

“Spence?”

“No, thank you,” he said, glancing behind him to where the path to the toilets meandered off into the darkness, which was absolute. In this ring of firelight, he was warm and safe, but outside of it? In that crushing darkness? He trembled, knowing that there could be anything out there, anything but light. “I’ll stay here.”

“Suit yourself. Don’t leave the fire, okay? Promise.”

She was gone before he could reply.

He read until he was tired and the words were blurring together. Other kids were starting to yawn and mumble about going to bed. With the news about Ethan having gone home spreading, no one seemed disinclined to wander away alone, kids breaking from the fire and vanishing towards their beds. Spencer watched them go, the sight of the darkness waiting making his bladder pinch. Regret began to build about not taking JJ up on her offer. He waited and waited and waited, crossing and uncrossing his legs while he did so, but she didn’t return … and, finally, he knew he’d have to go or risk having an accident.

He hadn’t really promised to stay since she’d left before he could, so it was okay to go alone if he had to. He suspected he might have to.

He could still see Aaron and Emily watching the group. He could go to them and ask them to take him, but he remembered the look on Aaron’s face when he’d come back and found all of Ethan’s stuff gone from their room – how annoyed he’d been to have been so worried for no reason. Or he could ask Sean, but Sean had already gone to bed. Sean wasn’t scared of the dark or being alone like Spencer was; he wasn’t a weak baby, jumping at his own shadow.

Standing, Spencer put his book by the log he’d been sitting on and inched towards the path, trying to peer around for the light that denoted the bathrooms. He could almost see it through the trees. If he ran, he’d be there faster than anything. Fast like the superheroes in Ethan’s comic books.

If Ethan was here, he wouldn’t be alone.

Anger churned, anger that his friend would leave him like this without saying goodbye, and without getting Spencer the balloon he’d promised, which was lovely and red and would squeak humorously if Spencer rubbed his hands on it. Spencer used this anger to goad him up that path, stomping his feet extra loud so people could hear him coming as he walked away from the fire. Onwards he went, the soft talking behind him fading, someone shouting and laughing by the cabins, what sounded like a firecracker going off. It was dark, but not completely. Spencer looked back over his shoulder and saw the fire burning away, people still right there … he was safe. This was safe.

His breath caught. His feet slowed. The world was colder out here, great bumps of fear starting up along the skin of his arms under his thin cardigan. Rubbing at them didn’t help and he tried to walk faster, almost tripping over his shoelaces, which were undone.

He began to run. His breath came quicker and shallower, choking him. Lungs burning as he hurtled around the corner feeling like he was running but not moving. Legs too short, too small, too slow. There were the toilets, but it was darker still before them and he cried out and jumped –

– and landed in the ring of welcoming light, stumbling against the wall and letting the rough brick scratch at his hands as he breathed, the sound rasping. He pressed his cheek against that brick for a second, taking one gulping breath before straightening.

Safe.

He could hear girls talking over the female side of the toilet block, trotting around to the brightly lit entryway to the males. The long light overhead buzzed as he walked under it, bugs beating themselves senseless against the dirty plastic with a relentless tock tock tock tock tock. Spencer peered up at it before the desire to pee grew too great and he left the bugs to their concussions. He edged into the toilet block and peered in to see what he was to face now, always uncertain in new places. Three cubicles waited and a row of urinals. He looked at those for a while, wondering if he was supposed to use them even though he never had before, before deciding to go into the cubicle; he didn’t want anyone walking in on him anyway, and could hear people talking just outside.

Tock tock tock went the bug on the plastic covering as Spencer slipped into the cubicle, examining the door for grossness before pushing it shut and turning the lock. There was a great big gap between the frame and the door and he scowled at it, touching it with his fingers to see how far they could go through. What was the point of a door that didn’t door properly? Anyone leaning close could peer right through –

Something darted past, giggling softly. Spencer gasped, leaping back and almost tripping into the toilet bowl. His heart thumped as he stared at the gap. Had he imagined it?

Tock tock tock tock tock.

Tock tock tock. Tock tock.

Tock.

Spencer looked at the space between the door and floor before slowly lowering himself, heart racing so fast he thought he might be sick even if touching the toilet floor didn’t make him sick first. He planned to sneak the fastest, most speedy peek at the gap there, just to see if there were shoes outside. Kid shoes, probably, since it would have to be a kid. It had looked like a kid, small and fast, so he fully expected to see shoes just like him or Ethan would wear.

There were shoes there, waiting politely for him to finish. Spencer saw them before bolting upright while wishing he hadn’t looked at all. Not knowing had somehow been better, as he backed up against the wall before realising how easily grabbed his legs were from below and clambering instead up onto the toilet. His fingers clung numbly to the wall and heart going as fast as a rabbit’s staring down a truck: thumpthumpthumpthumpthump along with the tock tock tock tock tock of that dying bug, until he thought he might run out of heartbeats while standing here hoping he’d imagined those shoes.

He couldn’t look away from the gap below the door, staring at it silently with the person on the other side staying silent too. If he could have run, he would have. Instead, he was locked into this relentless battle to see who would speak first, the tension building and building and building until he was shaking with it bottled up inside him, vision narrowing to that small gap and the humming of the overhead light.

A hand appeared, waving at him before snapping out of sight.

Spencer stared some more.

The hand reappeared, gesturing him closer. It didn’t belong to the owner of the shoes, which were big and red and silly like the clowns Spencer had seen on TV one day at Ethan’s – a clown which didn’t belong here in this campground bathroom and so he was petrified of because he didn’t like things being where they shouldn’t be. This hand wasn’t a clown’s or a man pretending to be a clown. It was a small hand. A child’s hand. It waved again at him before a familiar giggle floated through the door.

“Spencer, come on,” said Ethan. “Come read with me. I’ve got you a present.”

Above the door as Spencer craned his neck back to look at the sudden flash of colour, a shiny, red balloon bobbed. It looked wonderful, just like the ones Spencer’s mom had used to make his hair frizzy when they’d gone to a carnival one day, and Spencer fancied he could already hear the latex squeaking, feel the static, hear her laughter …

But it didn’t feel right.

“No,” whispered Spencer because Ethan had gone home to his dead mom and without his book and, wherever he was, it wasn’t here. “I don’t want to.”

“Why not? Don’t you want to be friends anymore? I’ve made a new friend too, and he wants to meet you. He likes balloons too.”

With a whimper that hurt, Spencer tried to press back harder against the wall, his shoes squeaking on the toilet seat and in terrible danger of slipping in.

“Come on, Spencer, don’t be a wimp. We’ve always done everything together, haven’t we? Why can’t we do this together too? Just take my hand!”

Spencer shook his head, a terrible premonition striking him. Ethan’s hand wasn’t moving how a hand should move if it had a person moving it: it was moving like a doll’s hand, a puppet’s, like someone else was moving it for him. Someone else who wanted him closer to that door so they could drag him screaming into the darkness outside. Someone else … or something. The something that he’d always worried was out there in the dark; the something was here, and it laughed at him using Ethan’s voice.

“What are you afraid of, Spencer? The dark? Are you scared of the dark, like a baby? Like a big, weak baby, sleeping with a nightlight?”

Now that he knew it wasn’t Ethan, he could hear the something behind the familiar voice. He could hear something else made of dark places and hungry teeth and hollow nights; a something that was empty and cold and relentless, a something that he knew would eat him if it caught him. A something he was more scared of than he’d ever been scared of anything before.

“You’re not Ethan,” he wheezed, his lungs so tight now that he knew he was going to faint. He was going to pass out and it was going to reach in and pull him out and take him to wherever it slept, some dank, wet place filled with kids like him who couldn’t get away. “I want my mom. Mom!”

But his voice was too soft, too strained, and he was too scared to scream.

“I smell piss,” said the something in its own voice. It was a terrible voice. Spencer opened his mouth, feeling the muscles ache, the cords in his throat pull tight, his body locked into a rigid shape of terror. There were no voices outside; the girls next door were gone. The bug was silent. Maybe it was dead, crushed to death by its need to be near the light. He couldn’t scream. “Did you piss yourself, little baby?”

Yes. Yes, he had.

A sound ripped from his mouth. It wasn’t a scream. It was just a sound: the sound any animal would make when it knew it was going to die. The something shrieked a laugh at him as it moved towards the door. The hand that looked like Ethan’s but wasn’t was gone. Instead, those shoes replaced it, the ones that shouldn’t be here, and Spencer’s heart kept going: thuthuthuthuthuthuthu, too fast to count just one beat.

There was a slow sniiiiff from the other side of the door as the something sucked in the air that Spencer was struggling to breathe, luxuriating in doing so like what it could smell was delicious: a Sunday roast or bacon in the morning meaning that Spencer’s mom had gotten out of bed and was having a good day. Except there was nothing delicious it could possibly be inhaling like that, just the warm pee dripping down his trembling legs and staining his corduroy pants, the stink of the toilets, the damp smell of the urinals …

And him.

It was smelling him.

He was the Sunday roast; he was the delicious bacon, the good day coming, and a promising meal.

“Oh, Spencer,” said the something using a friendly voice now. So friendly that if Spencer hadn’t already figured out how much it wanted to eat him up he might have unlocked the stall and let it in. “Oh, Spencer. How can something so small smell so good? Like … popcorn.”

Spencer whimpered, closing his eyes.

“I think I’ll save you until last,” it continued, the door scratching gently as nails were itched across the flaky paint. “Marinate you nice and sweet, seep you in that delicious smell, for a treat, a bedtime snack. Do you like chocolate, Spencer? I like chocolate … cho-hoc-colate, mm. That’s what you’ll be, like a naughty, fattening sweet before bed.”

Spencer slipped with a gasp, eyes flying open as he fell into the wall of the cubicle. His hands scrabbled at the side as he clawed at it as wildly as a trapped animal seeking salvation. So scared that he barely felt the pain when he hit the tiles or when he lurched back so fast his head hit the wall. Small and frightened beyond belief, almost beyond sanity – an older child would have broken completely at the absurdity of being this afraid, and maybe it was lucky he was small enough that monsters were just terrifying, not impossible – he managed to cram himself tight between the toilet basin and wall. In an hour, when Aaron saw the abandoned book by the fire and found his empty bed and came looking for him, they’d find he had a perfectly indented shape of the pipe dug into his arm which would bruise splendidly over the following days.

Spencer did the only thing he could: he closed his eyes and, out loud and therefore to drown out the sound of the something lurking, began to read. A familiar story, one his mom had read to him and therefore he could hear perfectly in her voice, like he was home and in bed and not here waiting to have his guts pulled open and feasted upon.

“– ‘And sees with glad relief a streak of daylight showing under his bedroom door’,” he gasped, the something laughing louder at his voice, calling something terrible to him, something he couldn’t comprehend, some dreadful thing. But he kept reading, the words burned into his mind, his voice stuttering and stammering on every sound, tears burning his face: “‘Oh, joy of joys … it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and someone will come to look after him’.”

The creature laughed more. It moved away. Ethan’s voice sighed his name, disappointed.

Oh, Spencer.

Spencer doggedly continued, ignoring his friend: “‘The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain’.”

“I guess we’ll have fun together later,” said Ethan. “I’ll miss you, buddy.”

“‘He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then’ …” Spencer stopped: was that silence? The words whispered from his mouth, one of his mother’s favourite writers. Proust. Nothing would eat him to Proust, right? “… ‘die away’.”

But the buzzing overhead ceased, the sound of outside rushed back in –

– and then the lights snapped off and plunged him into a darkness so complete he only knew he was still real because of the feel of the dirty tiled floor below his hands.

Finally, he screamed. Eyes scrunched shut and scream finally coming and coming and coming, but there was no one close to hear him, the darkness his only companion as the voice whispered the final line of his mother’s favourite story before fading.

“‘The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him a-hen-eee help’ … goodnight, Spencer! See you reeeaaal soon.”

Chapter Text

1

The eleven-year-old Penelope would have been overjoyed to have had a sneak glimpse into her future twenty-one years from the day she’d been told that there was more about her to be appreciated than she’d suspected at the time. The Penelope Garcia of now, who’d long ago come to realise her last name was a gift to be treasured instead of resented, sat in a world of her own creation with everything she’d ever dreamed of at the tips of her scurrying fingers. In here, this dark office in Quantico lined by blinking screens and resplendent with colour from her many decorations, she was Queen of her Information Superhighway and safe from the brunt of the ickiness her team faced daily.

Usually.

On this day, she returned to her office with over-sugared coffee that even Reid would have twitched his nose at, beads and bracelets jangling on every available surface of skin. Far from abandoning that girl by the lake, the one who’d doubted her love of colour and childhood and fun, Garcia had embraced it: as she dropped back into her office chair and wiggled her heels from her purple pumps, one hand brushing crumbs from the stomach she no longer hated because she knew she could work it to her favour, she was content to be herself.

That continued until her phone rang. There was a line set aside for her team to contact her, and that was the light that blinked swiftly at her now, like an eye into the unsettling. Steeling herself for whatever she was about to be asked to dig up, she answered: “Hotline to all things that go boo in the night, hit me.”

“No funning this time,” Derek replied. “We’re sending you through a photo, Pen. We need names on all the kids in there, and we need them faster than ever.”

As far as Garcia knew, they were in Maine looking for a missing girl. “I’m going to need some context on that picture,” she warned him as the file uplink started processing on her screen. “I’m fast under pressure, but you’ll get better results if you give me the good stuff, you know that. Dates, location, whatever.”

“Address will be patched through of the diner where the picture was taken. Garcia?”

Uh oh times one thousand. She recognised that tone as his ‘I’m not playing anymore because I don’t get what I’m looking at’ voice, and he only used that when things had gone hokum. She braced but still wasn’t ready for what came next.

“Some of those kids in the picture? They’re us, Pen. They’re us. Nineteen-eighty-eight by Reid’s estimates, and they’re us.”

But she didn’t really need him to keep telling her: she could see that just fine herself. There she was in all her eleven-year-old glory, looking cute as a button and so insecure next to Derek Muscles Morgan, who she was sure she’d never met until the day he’d asked her to join the FBI. Which, despite how brilliant she knew she’d always been, had not been at eleven.

“How is this possible?” she breathed, fingers still stalled on the keys. “I have no memory of this? Do any of us have a memory of this? Is that Reid? How old is he? I don’t even know where to start with this, Derek, where do I start?”

Penelope Garcia, who at ten had been assaulted by a clown at a carnival and at eleven had taken her stepfather’s name after her mother remarried and at eighteen had buried both her mother and stepfather, had never once in all that time stopped in a dingy diner on Old Derry Road to take a photo with people she couldn’t possibly have known.

Pictures told a thousand tales, and the tale this one was telling was impossible.

“That’s what we need you to find out. Think you can?”

If anyone could work out the impossible, it was her. After all, she wasn’t eleven anymore, a year of life she realised now that she had no memory of. Not knowing things had turned out to be Garcia’s nemesis, her lifelong focus; she’d done everything she could since her parents’ deaths – she was starting to realise that maybe her hatred of being left in the dark about things might have started earlier still – to make sure she knew everything she could and, if she didn’t know it, that she was surrounded by the resources she could use to rectify that.

As though she’d tempted it, a whisper of something touched at the back of her mind. A faded memory. A sallow smell and a snippet of an image: purple streaming through murky water, glimpsed through a crack in a rotting dock.

Jump, giggled a voice in her memory, her hands shaking upon her keyboard as she stared at her eleven-year-old face in the office of her thirty-two-year-old self. It felt as though a terrible thing had slunk into her safe room with her. A fearsome memory, a bubbling laugh … the screen wavered in her vision, reminiscent of how the world had been to her before she’d been eye-tested at the age of fifteen and found to have been struggling along with 20/100 vision, uncorrected. Despite the glasses she wore now and had for over a decade, for a moment her world twisted to how it had used to be before she’d known there were leaves on trees or weaves in the carpet.

“Something’s in the water,” she said to the soft hum of her screens, before laughing at herself. Who was she speaking to? No one here but her and the job she had to do, this impossible mystery only she had the resources to solve. The moment passed. Her vision stabilised. She got to work.

 

2

There were eyes on them at all quarters. They’d been given a room off to the side of the precinct – a paranoid part of Hotch noted that it had no direct line to any of the exits and the outward-facing window was high and narrow – but no one seemed pleased that they were there. In the interrogation rooms just down the linoleum-lined hall, the two kids who’d been out with Tommy Hiscott sat waiting to be seen.

Hotch’s instincts were clamouring worse than they’d ever clamoured before.

When he’d started at the BAU, it had been with Gideon and Rossi alone to teach him everything they knew. Gideon had been the scientist of the group, sticking firm to his belief that what they did needed empirical basis behind it – a belief that had mellowed in those final years, after Boston – but Rossi had attributed a fair amount of what they did to their guts.

“Instincts have saved my life more than this has,” he’d told Hotch one winter night in Manhattan, tapping the butt of his gun. Hotch had always remembered that even if he’d never quite followed it to the letter in the coming years as he’d come into himself as a leader and agent. But he remembered it.

Oh, he remembered.

There were other things he was remembering today, ever since that diner. Things that thwacked meatily against his brain like the gravel the tires had flicked up on the road to Castle Rock, pinging painfully against his thoughts and taking chips out of his stoic paintwork. The picture was tucked into Reid’s shoulder tote, bumping against his hip. Hotch kept looking at it as they set up a map of the area on the board they’d been given. He wished Reid would –

(run)

– put the bag down, shove it under a chair or behind the door or somewhere out of sight. Every time Hotch caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of his eyes, another memory would take another chunk of paint, another hum of his instincts setting his teeth to grating tight. JJ and Rossi worked quietly together through the list of volunteers helping the search, but Hotch couldn’t focus past that bag and the impossible picture within. Even as he glanced at Reid anew, he watched as the younger man rubbed his eyes like they were hurting him, like –

(a man comes into our cabin at night. He)

– he was having just as much trouble focusing as Hotch was.

“Reid,” Hotch barked, wincing at how sharp his voice sounded. Reid jolted before turning to him. His eyes were weeping at the corners, the lids swelling shut and making him look exhausted, or stoned. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Reid said. “This hasn’t happened in years. I think my eyes are reacting to my contact solution, but they shouldn’t be. Not anymore.”

“Did you bring your glasses?” JJ asked, gently reaching up to get him to look down at her. “You need to take these out. Come on, you hit me. I don’t understand, Aaron, why would you do that?

“What?” Hotch stared at her, the word cutting loose from his lips as a slam of guilt/horror/shock assailed him. For a heartbeat of a second, he saw the shadow of bruises on her face, a cut lip, a split cheek, the whisper of a belt through denim loops, shshhhhhhshhhsnick, gonna show you what for, little pissant, little queer, show you what

“I said come on, I’ll help you rinse them.” JJ gave Hotch a look that was as strange as the one he was sure he was giving her. “Are you okay?”

“Case like this, it gets to all of us,” Rossi said from behind him, anchoring Hotch to this moment, this room. Not twenty-one years ago, or prior, but right now. “If you’re good to go, Hotch, we should talk to those kids before we go back out there. Find out exactly what happened so maybe we can give the search parties some direction.”

“The picture,” Hotch murmured, his gaze trying to skip to where JJ and Reid were leaving the room together, Reid digging through his bag for his glasses. The frame of the picture was visible until the door banged shut behind them. The blinds were pulled. They’d done that because of the eyes on them, all those cops’ distrustful faces …

“Garcia’s dealing with it. Our job is to find Marcie Harris, or whatever’s been done to her. You good for that?”

Hotch knew why Rossi was asking, when before none of them would have doubted him. Oh, most of them still didn’t doubt; he knew that Reid and Prentiss, JJ too, probably, were all trying to ignore that he’d been changed by Foyet’s knife, but Rossi knew. Morgan too. Hotch figured the time was coming when one of them would question his command, likely rightfully.

“I’m good for it,” he said, setting aside the Reaper and his own lost family and his slipping control. His brain was afire, but he fought the madness – Why does the memory of Reid in glasses make his gut twist? Why are his hands twisting into his suit pockets at the very thought, the very fucking thought, it’s never bothered him before and especially not like this with the burning scent of lemon and laundry soap in his nose? The burning taste of tears in the back of his throat, tempered by a scream – and he set it aside: there was a job to be done. “Which do you want? Girl or boy?”

 

3

While Rossi and Hotch were talking to the two teenagers who hadn’t seen what had dragged Marcie Harris screaming and begging and puking with pure fear into the ravine, Garcia had delved deep into Derry. Old Derry, good old Derry. A history as sordid as a well that had gone too deep and struck rotten, with poison water and creeping fingers of decay spooling up the sides reaching for the fresh air above.

Good old Derry.

In her safe, warm office back at the FBI Academy, Garcia was no longer feeling either of those things and doubted she ever would again. Derry might have been a well indeed; it had sure swallowed its share of children. Children like those in that terrible photo. Developed long before digital had come along and taken over the world.

She’d found out as many of those thirteen children as she could, thinking all along what a terrible number of children that was, thirteen, and how even one more might have made it slightly less terrible if she was the sort to believe in superstition. There they were now, pinned up one by one on the corkboard behind her, watching her with their smiling faces, as many as she’d been able to track down. It had felt important, fatalistically so, that she find photos as close to the age they were in 1988 as she could, as though that would keep this image as distant as possible from the people they were now.

The thirteen children were as follows:

Aaron Hotchner, sixteen years old. His high school had digitised their senior yearbook photos and that was the image she pinned upon that board, with a white pin that cut her finger as she used it. If she turned her chair, his eyes caught her first, something dreadful in his fixed stare. He didn’t smile in the senior photo as he did in that diner booth. He didn’t look like he had any smiles left. His stare was unyielding, cold, unforgiving: like slate. Liable to shatter under unprecedented pressure.

Beside him, in a neat row like sparrows on a wire with their small heads all cocked to the camera, were the smallest of them: Sean Hotchner, six years old if his brother was sixteen and with no pictures that she could find even in her digital archive; Ethan Coiro, whose photo on her board was the grainy frozen-instant image from a Missing Child poster dated the summer of 1988; and Spencer Reid, who shouldn’t have been there and yet was. Seven and six respectively.

Ethan wore a purple scarf and, if Garcia had looked for longer than an instant at his face before finding herself averting her gaze, she would have noticed a thin trickle of water seeping from his smiling mouth.

Emily Prentiss (seventeen, just a baby really, and Garcia wonders why she looks so shellshocked) opposite Aaron, her raven-wild hair only slightly calmer than that of her senior year photo pinned on the office wall. Derek Morgan and Jennifer Jareau beside her (fifteen and eleven, only eleven, just like Garcia had been), JJ’s head turned to stare at the girl in the booth beside them.

Rosaline Jareau, date of birth the eighth of May 1971. Date of death: eleventh of August 1988. Garcia had stared at that for a long time, wondering why JJ had never told her. Told any of them.

And Garcia already knew the ones beside Rosaline: her hand drifting towards her cell as she considered calling her brothers and asking them what the hell they were doing in a diner on Old Derry Road. But she hadn’t talked to Manny since her parents had died, and this seemed a poor reason to change that. To dredge up those sore memories and remind them what part she’d had to play.

She hadn’t talked to Rafe since he’d run away and never come back.

He hadn’t even come to the funerals.

They’d never forgiven him for that.

The final two were Desiree and Sarah Morgan, Derek’s sisters, and that was why it was Morgan that Garcia chose to call. After all, he’d always been her port of safe harbour before and it seemed a safe bet that he would still be so now.

If she’d counted from one side of the photo to the other, from left to right, she would have noted that Reid himself was unlucky number thirteen, Ethan’s hand curled possessively around his and the water beginning to pool on the pleather seats below them. Their fixed photo smiles had begun to falter.

Outside the diner, through the smeary windows, a harsh wind blew.

Garcia saw none of this.

“Tell me you’re not in Derry,” she said as soon as Morgan picked up the phone, dispensing with the pleasantries as she turned her back on the photo on her screen. Over her shoulder, the silent images of the children they had been stared at her. Spencer was crying now.

“Not quite,” Morgan responded. “I’m with the search parties outside the city limits. The rest of them have gone the other way, up to the town near the camp the kids came from. Why?”

“Because, oh love of my life, Derry is one seriously spooky place. I have no idea how you guys don’t have weekend homes there. Want to guess how many kids they’ve listed as missing since we’ve begun keeping track of that kind of thing?”

Morgan didn’t sound like he wanted to guess, which she figured made sense. It wasn’t exactly a fun party game. “Just tell me. I bet I’m not going to like the answer.”

Garcia sucked in a breath at that; he really wasn’t. “It’s impossible to get a firm number, but I’m looking at over two hundred disappearances, minimum. And that’s a generous minimum – you don’t want me to add on how many dead.”

Behind her, water dripped from Ethan’s eyes in a sickly torrent.

Ros’s arms were bleeding.

Emily’s face was bruised.

Aaron was standing, watching something approach beyond the frame of the picture.

“In how long?” choked Morgan, his breath rattling on the line. “How many years?”

“That’s in fifty-five years, and only if we include the ones from only the Derry city limits. If we expand that to the surrounds, Derek, my god …” Garcia rubbed her eyes under her glasses, barely believing it herself. “This place is like the Bermuda triangle for minors. How have we not heard of this?”

In the photo, there were now fourteen.

“Want to know the kookiest bit? If I narrow the search to Castle Rock and the surrounds, which I guess encompasses where you are even though I can’t find the camp’s location anywhere, the number of missing kids goes down dramatically …”

Her vision was wavering again. Garcia fiddled with the headset before taking her glasses off and reaching for something to wipe them with.

“Sounds like there’s a but there.”

“There isn’t … it just doesn’t feel right. I can’t explain it, Derek. I think there’s more –”

She cut off with a gasped groan, the sound made when frightened utterly. She’d turned the chair. Glanced at the screen with the diner photo.

Screamed and hurtled back without consciously recognising what had frightened her.

Now she was on the ground, glasses still in hand and headset barking Derek’s voice from beside her. The chair was on its side. She stared at that photo, at the fourteen blurry faces who weren’t looking at the camera anymore. None save one.

When she slid her glasses back on – hu hu hu hu hu came her breath, a reminder of something else – the photo was as it had always been. But she knew what she’d seen. She knew what had been there, censored by her blurry, uncorrected vision. Even though she’d barely seen anything at all, the image was burned into her brain as vividly as though she’d had her face pressed against the glass.

The clown.

The clown.

The clown with the mouth of madness, split wide, ringed with teeth and puckered gums. The clown with the claws that gaped, that chewed, that punched right in and held on tight. The clown with Aaron’s head grasped tight in those talons; the clown that smiled even as its mouth closed around Aaron’s face. All of them, staring at it. Watching it kill Aaron, kill Hotch. Kill their friend.

And they were laughing as it did it.

“Penelope!” she heard, ripping her out of her memory delusion. “So help me, answer me right now or I’m calling Anderson –”

She picked up the headset. She slid it on. She answered: “Please don’t go there,” with a voice that was shrill and young and not at all as it should be. “Please, don’t go back there.”

“Back where?” Morgan asked, his own voice cracking with fear. But she didn’t need to answer; she’d heard that he knew in the way his voice had broken.

Camp Moribund.

 

4

There were those out there that remembered Camp Moribund, though they were outnumbered by those who had no recollection of that place or the time that they’d spent there. Some, for whatever reason, had clung to the memory of the glittering lake and those mouldering cabins and the distant old woman who watched the camp from her house on the hill but never came down to see if the children there were still breathing. Some, for reasons of retaining sanity, remembered nothing. And some, the unluckiest of them all, were beginning to regain what they had been so blessed to lose.

Las Vegas, Nevada, Bennington Sanitorium: Diana Reid received a phone call from her adult son. The doctors thought nothing of it until they came to her room after the call and found her curled tight in the corner with her gaze locked on the wall opposite and her thoughts hundreds of miles away. Blood on her hands and her fingers cut. “William lied to me,” she told the doctors as they tried to find where the blood was coming from. “He said we never sent him there, like cattle to the slaughter, our sacrificial lamb.” Who, the doctors would ask, and she answered by screaming and screaming and screaming until they had no choice but to sedate her. All Reid had asked was if she’d remembered a Camp Moribund, or a lake named Dark Score. She remembered: oh, how she remembered, even if William refused to. But no one would ever believe her, the mad old woman, about how she’d listened to her six-year-old son begging for help over the phone – about how he’d screamed don’t let it kill me and all anyone else listening had heard was, “We’re having a great time!” No one had let her help him then, not her the paranoid schizophrenic imagining things again, and no one would let her help him now, even knowing her son was going back there. Back to Dark Score. Back to Derry. She knew there was no way he’d escape again. Not when he’d been so lucky the first time. And the price they’d paid for that luck, oh the price! Is it any wonder she’d gone mad?

JJ hadn’t contacted her family yet; ever since her sister’s suicide, there’d been a distance between her and her parents that she found hard to span. Her father’s cancerous death had only deepened that gulf. But if she had, if she’d called Sandy Jareau and asked her about the photo taken in that diner on Old Derry Road, she wouldn’t have gotten an answer anyway. Sandy knew nothing about Derry or Dark Score or the nearby camp, nothing except a thin shiver of cold and a wormy bite of terror deep deep deep in her instinctive animal brain. On her wall, her family photos would stare back at her, Ros’s smile frozen forever at seventeen and her father just as frozen beside her. Look at us, those stares seemed to say, just as much as the sepia-toned image over the flat-screen TV, the one of Sandy as a child standing on the shore of a long-forgotten lakefront with two boys beside her and her mother looking down fondly at them all. Look at us, those stares said too. Don’t forget us.

Prentiss, who’d never really liked her mother all that much for all that she sometimes loved her, didn’t contact her either. She considered a text, typing it out three times before erasing them all. It hardly mattered. Ambassador Elizabeth Prentiss knew nothing of her daughter’s seventeenth year except for a vague memory of police and a hospital and the distant feeling that perhaps her wayward daughter had run away. Certainly, she’d returned quieter, more obedient, more liable to sit in her room and do nothing troublesome. For the Ambassador, that had been an improvement: hadn’t she always said Emily needed to be seen more and heard less? She’d definitely been quieter after, aside from the nightmares. But they’d dealt with that, taking Emily from psychologist to psychologist until they found one who’d help her without the quite frankly unnecessary diagnosis of trauma. Elizabeth had always thought, what trauma? Why, it had been a positive experience for them, Emily learning to appreciate what she had. Emily would be thankful for it, one day.

Aaron Hotchner called no one because he had no one to call. His father and the belt were long-ago memories, buried at the same time. Sean was a stranger to him, somewhere in New York, he thought. Or Seattle. Anywhere where Hotch wasn’t.

Chicago, Illinois: the Morgan family received a call from the oldest son, just as vague as the one Diana Reid had received. His mother knew nothing of a place called Derry or a summer camp nearby. Raising three kids on her own after their father died, when would she have had the funds to send them to camp? Sarah Morgan, the youngest, agreed. Camp wasn’t something they’d ever had, growing up here. Desiree Morgan, after a long and stunned silence, said only one thing in response to her brother asking about that camp, implying that he planned to return. To go back.

“Don’t.”

 

5

“Don’t,” Tommy mumbled. It was all he’d say, his posture lurched at such an extreme angle that Prentiss worried for his spine. The boy in the bed, restrained to the bars lining the side, jittered at every shrill beep, every clatter from the hall, every raised voice. The hospital was nothing but a cascade of stimuli his brain couldn’t comprehend, this FBI agent by his bedside nothing more but one more thing to push away. Along with the memory of those silver eyes.

“Don’t,” he said again.

“Don’t what, Tommy?” Prentiss asked. “Do you know where Marcie Harris is?”

Tommy shook his head. The gesture was violent. His whole body was locked tight, held tense. Hands curled into claws on his knees, nails torn. He bit at his lip, which bled.

“Don’t,” said Tommy once more. He stammered it. Choked on it. Spat it out. His lips kept moving long after the sound of the word had faded, still trying to force more, create language which was gone to him. Make something out of the nothing left behind. Lost to that ravine. To Marcie.

“What did you see?” Prentiss asked, watching the boy’s face. “Tommy, look at me.”

Tommy looked.

“What did you see out there?”

Tommy shook his head, once, twice, three times. Don’t don’t don’t chanted through his brain. Don’t what? He didn’t know. But it was important. He closed his eyes, opened them, closed them once more.

Saw silver glints of light on the red lids, saw a wide, toothy smile. A red smile. Like a wound. A gash. Or a knife.

To Prentiss, it was as though a sudden change had come upon the boy before her. He uncurled, eyes snapping open, gaze suddenly locked on her. “He had a message for a man like you,” Tommy said, his voice now calm, concise. Focused. Nothing else mattered. This was why he’d been spared when Marcie hadn’t, even though It had made him look, made him watch –

“Who did?”

“The clown that killed Marcie. He had a message for his old friend, Spencer Reid.”

Tommy would never know the impact his words had, the cold bubble of air he’d engulfed her in.

Emily breathed past a sharp scream of pain in her abdomen. “What did the clown want you to tell Doctor Reid?” she asked despite having never wanted to know the answer to a question less in her life.

“Ethan’s so glad he’s come back,” was the rasped message. “He’s been waiting so long to play with him.”

Tommy Hiscott, who would die in five hours – no one would ever figure out how he’d escaped the hospital without being seen – after wilfully walking back into the arms of the dead ones waiting, cried one last time, “Don’t listen!”

 

6

The two teenagers found with Tommy Hiscott in the woods on Old Derry Road hadn’t seen anything of use. Both corroborated the other’s story; both were adamant that one minute Marcie had been there, the next she hadn’t. And Tommy hadn’t done it; he couldn’t have. Sure, the Tommy sitting in Castle Rock County Hospital listening to the windows whispering for him to join the dead, sure he seemed crazy as a skun goat now – but he hadn’t been a mere five minutes before Marcie had vanished. Not crazy at all when they’d stolen a car and gone for a joy ride down to Derry just to get the stink of Dark Score off their skin.

He’d been sane as a saint, they swore, that entire drive and all the time before it, even when they’d decided to stop at a rest stop near the diner for a piss and a smoke and a chance for Marcie and Tommy to fuck each other stupid in the bushes. Teenager things, normal things, sane things, except for what happened next.

But Tommy didn’t do it.

When they’d heard the screams and run in there, they’d found Tommy screaming like a loon, his eyes crazier than they’d ever been before and no sign of Marcie except her hand on the leaves. Nothing but the blood and the screaming and the deepest stink of putrefaction; didn’t the agents realise that there was simply no way Tommy could have killed her and hidden her body and ripped off her hand all in the time it took Jerry to piss and Carrie to light her third stolen Winston?

Morgan had called in as the team gathered back in the room they’d been given and worried over this. If Tommy hadn’t taken Marcie, then someone else had – and that someone else was fast enough and deadly enough to have ripped a girl’s hand off and taken her in the time frame the teenagers gave.

“It’s getting dark out here, Hotch,” Morgan said, his voice crackling over the line. “They’re thinking of packing it in already. I don’t want to state the obvious, but with her hand severed and no medical help after this long … well, they’re looking for a body and are motivated accordingly. Any luck with the parents?”

“None,” JJ admitted. “I’ve been making calls up to that camp all day, trying to get these kids’ details, but no answer. And they’re not telling us anything about their homes. We can’t hold them. What do we do?”

Reid was staring at his cell, fingers tapping lightly at the side and reading over and over the text lined up there neat and clean and deceptively digestible. A message from Prentiss, like so many messages before, appearing in its yellow box right after her invitation to a movie night last Saturday. What had they watched then? He couldn’t remember, too distracted by that text.

Tommy mentioned you by name, as well as an ‘Ethan’.

Ethan. Did he know an Ethan?

He thought he might.

“JJ and I will drive them two back up to the camp now then,” he heard Rossi say, their voices snapping him back as he focused on the now instead of that text. “We’ll find out what the hell is going on, and see if there’s anything there on Marcie that might help find her. Or at least contact her parents if Garcia’s still coming up blank on that.”

“Right, and Reid and I will stay here and wait for Morgan to come in.” Hotch glanced to Reid, eyes flickering to his phone and mouth turning into a slight frown. “Is there a problem, Reid?”

“No problem,” Reid responded even though he could have answered with any number of things that were bothering him right at that moment – like where was Marcie Harris or why did the name Ethan make his bladder pinch and the hairs on his skin stand on end or his concerns about antibiotic resistance bringing about the next global pandemic or – “Would you mind if I joined Emily at the hospital? I want to talk to Hiscott about something.”

Hotch waved him away. He trusted Reid implicitly: the man would do whatever he saw necessary to find Marcie, or whoever had taken her. And if he was gone, perhaps he’d take that damnable picture with him too …

But Reid never made it to the hospital.

He drove through the dimming twilight with his mind twisting around a haunting memory of a boy calling out for him from the dark. He didn’t feel safe. He didn’t feel right, his hands clammy around the steering wheel and his photographic memory guiding him unerringly to the hospital despite having never travelled these streets before (or so he thought). The radio, playing yet another emergency broadcast calling for information on the whereabouts of Marcie Harris, grated on his aching head, his hatred of driving and his worries about this case pulling together until he pulled up in the parking lot of the location he’d checked a town map for before leaving and found –

It wasn’t the hospital.

Reid blinked, ran back over his route in his head, and found that he’d somehow ended up in the wrong quarter of Castle Rock. The squat, brick building in front of him was small, the doors thrown open against the night and letting forth a welcoming pool of light.

It’ll be warm inside, Reid thought without consciously realising he was cold, leaving the keys in the ignition as he stepped out of the SUV in a daze and walked towards those open doors. Following a path his feet had taken so many times before, so practised at it that he tripped on the steps as his brain misjudged his height, hand catching the lower rung of the guardrail despite having to stoop to do so. His cane hanging almost forgotten by his side, his brain too frazzled to register the pain signals his knee was sending, he straightened and stared.

Then he stepped inside, past the tattered posters announcing community events, church fetes, fairs, sales –

(Spencer, there you are. What would you like to read today? )

– and finding himself standing in front of a brightly painted banner: Come Read Together! Castle Rock Public Library is

(safe)

open to all!

“Can I help you?” asked the librarian, who was younger than she should be with black hair instead of brunette, which felt wrong to Reid, but he was too lost to speak. All he needed to do was push past the shyness he’d fought and conquered before joining the FBI, the shyness that had crippled his childhood and adolescence and stopped him from ever having a friend (except one). He’d regressed somehow to ten years before, fumbling and stammering and flushing red instead of speaking clearly. He couldn’t do it.

He couldn’t find the words to say, “I’m looking for

(sanctuary)

 

7

“– Marcie Harris. She’s from here, right?” JJ eyed the small groups of teenagers of varying ages, their brightly logoed polos labelling them as counsellors for the camp that they’d found tucked up against the lake, the gateway overgrown. No one had cared about this place in a long time, JJ had thought as they’d driven up a bumpy, unlit drive to find the camp at the end just as neglected as the sign out the front that would have once read Camp Moribund.

“Why?” asked one, a girl with enough makeup on that the skin around her eyes seem to crack as she widened them. “She in trouble? Why are Jerry and Carrie sitting in your car? You cops?”

“Any adults around here?” Rossi asked. His eyes skimmed the campground decisively, spotting the trash gathering into corners, the belongings strewn everywhere by kids without care, the barely-held together cabins sitting there in lines of three like squat cages at a circus filled with barely alive animals. “You lot aren’t the only ones looking after them, are you?” He pointed past the bedraggled line of eight tired teenagers to where worried faces peeked out of those squatting cages. Some out of cracked windows, some crouched by battered doors. The camp, in the gloom of the new night, didn’t look like anyone should be living here at all, no child, no rat, not even the bugs flying into the overhead light illuminating this dirty square.

“Her.” A hand was pointed, the nails bitten low and bruises on the knuckles, to a distant light up the hill. “She’s here.”

Slow nods followed that. JJ stared at these kids, her stomach lurching hard. They looked tired and hungry, and scared. Scared of the night, of JJ and Rossi and the guns they wore on their hips, of the revelation that one of their own was missing.

“Who is she?” she asked, receiving no answer, just glazed stares.

Distantly, the lake slapped at the shore.

“I’ll get them,” Rossi murmured, vanishing back to get the two teenagers out of the SUV and leaving JJ standing there with the counsellors.

“How many kids are here?” JJ was already aching to pick up her phone and start calling these kids’ parents, CPS, any fucking one who’d come here and feed them and love them and take them away from this contaminated place.

“Dunno,” said one of the teenagers, this time a boy with blue eyes and a cut mouth. “Used to be three dozen kids, roughly. But some are gone.”

“Lots are gone,” another whispered, a shudder floating through the group.

“Don’t talk about that,” someone snarled. “We’re not to talk about it. We’ll be next if we tattle – like Marcie. She tattled.”

“Marcie tattled about what?” The night was growing colder around them, JJ wishing she’d brought a jacket. On the back of her neck, the fine hairs were standing on end like eyes had swept over her, had settled upon her, familiar eyes … “About this camp? Are you mistreated here?”

Silence answered her. She was looking at a row of stony eyes as Rossi’s footsteps returned, the teenagers trudging behind him. The closer they’d gotten to this camp, the quieter the two of them had gotten, until they looked as they did now: much like the rest of the people here.

Resigned to their fate.

“We need to talk to the adult,” JJ murmured to Rossi, watching as the teenagers began to slip back into the darkness, herding children into the cabins as they went. “Is there even power? I don’t see lights in any of those rooms.”

“Sometimes she turns it off,” Jerry said, his voice too loud for the quiet night surrounding. “It’s a good time to stay away when she turns it off.”

Neither Rossi nor JJ had any idea how to approach that, JJ thinking of her small son and how she’d have torn any place to the ground if it had treated her child like this. Rossi breathed slowly and reached to his belt for the flashlight he carried, lighting their way up the steep path to the house overlooking the darkened camp.

Every step to three of their small group, clustering close with no real reason for why they were clinging, was torment. Every step was a step closer to something terrible, something hidden in this dark night. JJ found herself practising the breathing a long-ago psychologist had taught her, square breathing to control her anxiety following her sister’s death. A trick she hadn’t needed for a long time, but which felt as natural to her right now as breathing normally would. And, despite the silence of the teenagers following, she led the way unerringly despite this path they walked having long ago been washed out by time and the rain and the uncaring nature of the world around them.

Until they were there. The house loomed ahead, Rossi glancing curiously at JJ as though to wonder how his teammate had found this place so easily once they’d been swallowed by the overgrown trees. But she wouldn’t have answered even if he’d asked, because she was walking up the path – lined with thick slabs of slate making a crooked line, she stepped stepped stepped from one to another making sure not to step on any cracks – and reached her hand up to brush them against a dark patch of paintwork on the faded wood surrounding the front door. It was the only spot where the original colour remained, the rest of it weathered.

It was the spot where, until recently, a doorbell had sat. JJ pressed her fingers to that spot now, closing her eyes and hearing it chime as if she’d been inside that house itself. A giggle bubbled out of her throat, tapping her finger on that spot again from habit and glancing to her side as though expecting someone to be standing there shaking her head at her, saying

(stop playing with it, Bluejay, you’ll make Grandpa mad)

“Does anyone even live here?”

She jolted, finding Rossi standing there tall and greying and grizzled instead of who she’d expected. Instead of answering, she knocked the police knock. Three times without any pause: the kind of knock anyone would feel nervous upon hearing in the middle of the night.

The knock she’d learned as an adult, not a child.

“She’s always here,” Jerry said as shuffling footsteps came towards the door. No light illuminated the grimy windows lining the doorway, or lit up the black voids of the windows beside them, but there was certainly someone coming. Dragging, cautious steps as though the person making that sound was reluctant or infirm in some way.

The door opened. The woman stared, first, at Rossi, and then at JJ.

JJ swallowed, hard.

“Grandma,” she said from what felt like a million years ago, Rossi doing a double-take beside her as he registered her words. “Hi.”

“Hello, Jennifer,” said the grandmother JJ hadn’t seen since she was eleven years old, not since Ros. Her voice was much the same as it had always been. “You’re late. Take your shoes off at the door. You kids are always tracking mud in.”

Then she was gone, back into the darkness of the house.

They had no choice but to follow her.

 

8

Outside an abandoned building in DC, littered with the debris of many broken lives, there stood a public phone booth. The hardened plastic panes had long ago been popped out, the cradle itself was marred with burns, and the whole thing smelled of human waste. In fact, the phone itself hadn’t worked for years. Those who passed it thought nothing of the relic of a faded past or, if they thought of it at all, they wondered when the council would come in and tear it down.

On this day, a man was passing. He was a nondescript man with worried blue eyes and sandy hair cropped short, the lines around those eyes aging him more effectively than the heavy great-coat he wore that was fifteen years out of style or the thin, wire-frame glasses perched upon a narrow nose. He walked as though time weighed heavily on him, and focused on nothing as though his mind struggled to work under that weight.

The public phone, as he passed it this day, rang.

He stopped, staring at that phone. It shouldn’t be ringing. The thing was quite obviously broken, why, it didn’t even have a cord attaching handset to cradle. But ringing it was, so the man did exactly what most humans his age who’d grown up how he did had been conditioned to do: he answered it. And he listened.

And he smiled.

The man, who only months before had ambushed Aaron Hotchner in his apartment and stabbed him approximately nine times, was George Foyet. He had the deaths of thirty-five people on his soul and was proud of each and every one. In fact, he was already thinking about how good number thirty-six and thirty-seven was going to feel as the voice on the phone told him exactly where to find them. Before he’d hung up, without questioning the coincidence or the commands he’d been given – no Reaper questions the devil’s desires – he was already on the hunt. If Aaron Hotchner was in Maine, well now, wouldn’t he like a family reunion?

After one quick stop that was, at a little corner house in DC where a happy family wouldn’t be quite so happy anymore – because Foyet always honoured his side of a deal. The voice had given him Haley and Jack Hotchner: in return, he would give the voice what it wanted.

From deep underneath Derry, the caller waited patiently for a trap that had been twenty-one years waiting to finally spring closed.

Chapter Text

1

Spencer Reid runs.

The days following that terrible night when Spencer Reid survived an encounter with something so purely evil he’d never quite meet anything to rival it were informative for the boy. Never before had he faced something so unimaginable, so illogical, so absolutely impossible. There was nothing in any of his books that explained this; he assumed, because he was a boy far more comfortable with black and white than shades of grey at this point of his life, that that was because he was only six years old and therefore simply hadn’t had enough time to read enough books to have encountered an explanation for it.

But there was more to learn than just the lesson that books didn’t contain all the answers he’d thought they would. While help had arrived that night in the form of Aaron Hotchner, who’d spent a patient forty-eight minutes coaxing Spencer out from behind the toilet before helping him clean up and calm down, Spencer in the time after was irresolutely alone to deal with the fallout. He’d never been quite this alone before and wouldn’t be again until ten years of age when his father would leave him nothing but a letter and the care of his unstable mother as the man vanished from his life.

He knew he couldn’t go back to the bathroom. Not to where the not-Ethan had asked him to play and the clown had whispered of eating him wholly. There was no force on earth strong enough to push him through that always-open door under the humming light whose safety he now knew was illusionary. But he didn’t know how to use the vocabulary he was still forming effectively enough to communicate to the barely interested teenagers entrusted with his care as to why he couldn’t go there. Aaron seemed friendly but distant. Emily frightened Spencer in a way he didn’t understand, which was probably because she was like no one he’d ever met before. Derek scowled all the time. Rafe was tall and broad and smiley and Spencer felt wary of interacting with someone so exuberant – reminded, painfully, of Ethan every time the boy laughed just because. Ros scared him as well, with the way she twitched at every shadow. Looking at her made his belly pinch and his toes curl, like she was confirmation there was something here to be scared of, and the way she looked at him, like there was something tragic lurking right over his shoulder, well, that was frightening too.

So he did what he could without guidance, realising that he needed to solve this himself. During the day, he peed in the grass behind his cabin, keeping a wary eye out for balloons or hands. More immediate bathroom needs he found he could get away with sneaking into the counsellors’ toilet block, the one with real lights and a proper door that shut tight without a cubicle to get trapped in. But at night …

He tried not drinking anything for as long as he could, declining the water that the counsellors would offer after playing sports or running around. But he soon felt sick and admitted that he couldn’t keep that up. He tried holding it for a long as possible, thinking that if he could be strong enough to make it to morning, nothing could get him. In here, in his cabin with Sean sleep-talking in the other bunk, it was safe. He only had to hold it in.

The first night he wet the bed, he was so scared of getting in trouble that he stayed awake in it for hours as the nightlight he’d brought with him cast stars onto the ceiling. He’d been embarrassed about the light, at first, but Sean hadn’t seemed to mind, and since it was just the two of them now Spencer guessed it didn’t matter.

Spencer looked up at the top bunk where Ethan should be, wishing that his friend would suddenly bob into sight, hanging upside-down with the nightlight patterning his face and his hair hanging down, face reddening. Whatcha crying about? he’d ask, and then he’d smell what Spencer had done and say fondly, see, you’re just a baby. This is why I’m here to look after you.

“Sean?” Spencer whispered, tearing his eyes away from the top bunk as an abysmal thought occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, Ethan would appear … but not in the way Spencer wanted. It might be the not-Ethan from the bathroom, his grin too-wide and his eyes too-blank, moving in that jittering, puppety way. The fear of that felt very plausible, and Spencer wanted nothing more than someone else awake beside him. It was the early hours of the morning, the coldest part of dawn with the sky outside a dim, dark grey and the camp utterly silent. It made the shadows in the room dangerously animated. A time when it was very easy to believe there was no one else alive in the world but him and all the monsters his books tried to tell him weren’t real. “Sean!”

Sean moved in his bed, blankets rustling. Spencer called his name again, wiggling almost out of the covers before pulling them closer as he remembered the gap under the bed.

The bunk above Spencer creaked.

Spencer flew in a wild rustle of bedding, his feet barely touching the ground as he aimed for the centre of the room and leapt, sailing through the air in a desperate attempt to get to the other bed while not letting whatever lurked under the bed grab his ankle and drag him down to be chewed up. Eyes closed and mouth scrunched tight, he didn’t make a noise as though aware he needed to be fast and quiet to make it.

He didn’t look back because he didn’t want to know.

Knee slamming soundly into the side of the bunk, Spencer scrambled onto the bed with a sound like a sob, falling forward onto Sean. The other boy jolted awake with a cry of fear, arm flying up to protect his face before he realised it was Spencer.

“What are you doing?” he gasped. “You hurt me!”

“Is there something on Ethan’s bunk?” Spencer managed, trying to burrow deeper into the covers, his legs sore where his damp pants were rubbing.

Sean was quiet for a moment. Then, “No. Should there be?”

All the air Spencer had been holding in expelled in one great huff, the relief slamming home. They were okay. He’d just been imagining. And, for a second, he thought that maybe he could tell Sean everything that had happened, and Sean would tell Aaron who would finally listen and let him call his mom and go home –

“You’re wet,” Sean said, his voice rasping as his eyes went big. “You wet the bed. Only bad kids wet the bed.”

“It was an accident.” Spencer looked down at himself, cold striking as a childish dread deep in his chest. There was little he feared more than being ‘bad’. Bad kids didn’t get the teachers’ attention. Bad kids didn’t get smiles or pats on the shoulder or stickers on their work. Bad kids didn’t get any of the things he loved getting at school because sometimes he couldn’t find it at home, any of the things that made him feel less lonely in his mind when his mom was sick in hers. “I’m not bad. It was an accident. You have to do it on purpose to be bad and it wasn’t on purpose because I was asleep.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Sean, imparting a lesson he knew was an absolute truth. “Pissing the bed is bad. You have to hide it, or you’ll get it.”

Spencer had no earthly idea of what ‘it’ was, but it didn’t sound good.

“Don’t you have accidents sometimes?” he asked, looking up at Ethan’s bunk. It was empty and he shivered nervously, wishing the sun would rise.

Sean paused. Spencer didn’t seem like he’d tattle …

He decided to trust him.

“Sometimes,” he admitted, pulling his legs away from the other boy so he didn’t touch. “Dad says it’s bad, like a dog. Aaron told me to hide it or to tell him instead and he’ll hide it for me.”

“Oh,” said Spencer. He missed his mom. “I don’t want to tell Aaron. How do we hide it?”

“Uh,” said Sean, but stopped. Everything went very, very quiet. It was with a terrible jolt of icy fear that Spencer realised Sean wasn’t looking at him anymore, but past him and into the dreadful shadows clustered around the door. His breathing was going faster, his eyes widening; Spencer knew that there was something behind him.

“What is it?” he whispered. Sean moaned. “Sean? I don’t want to look.”

There was a sound behind them. A shshhhhhhshhhsnick of a belt being drawn through denim loops. This sound had an electric effect on Sean as he vanished beneath the covers with a gasped, “Aaron!” Spencer, realising that Ethan wasn’t here and neither was Aaron, but he was … he realised that he needed to be the one to protect the littler kid beside him.

So he turned around.

There was a man in their room, hunched in the corner with a belt in his hands. Spencer felt uneasy when he tried to study that man’s face to see if he was familiar. His features seemed to shift with the shadows, one moment almost looking like Spencer’s dad, the next moment a bigger man with dark hair and a mean mouth. The only constant was the glint of his silvery eyes.

“You’re gonna get it,” the man whispered in a voice that cut the silence like a knife. “You’re gonna get it, dirty little rat. Stinking rat. Come here.”

“No,” Spencer choked out, pressing himself back hard against the trembling shape of Sean behind him. “Go away. You’re not allowed here and we’ll tell.”

“Who you gonna tell, baby?” sneered the man. “No one will believe you. I could creep over there and do what I want and no one will believe you. They didn’t believe you about Ethan and now I have him and I’m not giving him back.”

Spencer choked back a gasp, his whole body shaking now, but that didn’t stop him from reaching under the blankets behind him to fumble for Sean’s hand. They could run. Right out of the door and across the clearing to where the brightly lit laundry rooms stood, where they could wait for morning and the camp to wake up. Or they could scream.

“If you scream, I’ll hurt him,” hissed the man, moving from shadow to shadow as he slunk closer. Closer and closer yet, bringing with him the stink of tobacco and alcohol until he was at the foot of the bed and bowing his great height down and down and down to fold himself into the bunk where the two boys trembled. “I’ll get your Ethan and I’ll give it to him, give it to him good. You’ll see. Sean understands, don’t you Sean? You know what bad boys get. And what we’re doing here, boys, what we’re doing is secret, like this …”

He put one thick finger to his slimy lips, pressing it close and whispering shhhhh around it, his smile sick and his eyes lit with unholy light.

“No one will believe you,” he hissed. “You can’t tell, not even Aaron, because it’s a secret, Sean, just like what Daddy does to you when you’re bad, when he gives it to you just like this –”

Sean popped out of the blankets, his clammy hand wrapped so tight around Spencer’s thumb that Spencer couldn’t feel it anymore. “You’re not my daddy,” he squeezed out, terrified beyond measure. “Go away!”

But the man was on the bed, the springs creaking, and he was reaching one terrible hand towards Sean’s foot. He licked his lip, and opened his mouth wider and wider and wider and wider and –

“Run!” screamed Spencer, and they did.

From behind them, they heard a cackling laugh and the sound of shuffling feet giving chase – but they didn’t stop. Spurred by all the fear in the world that had ever driven the human race away from predators lurking, they sprinted hand in hand straight past the other cabins only offering the illusion of safety and further on yet. Down that road and away from the camp, neither of them pausing even once to consider if there was an end in mind to their wild flight.

And neither looked back because confirming that the sounds of pursuit they could hear were real would only slow them down.

 

2

Penelope Garcia escapes.

Today was a horrible day, Penelope decided. The kind of day that simply wasn’t going to get any better no matter how much she wished it would. It began in the morning with being woken up super-duper too-early when JJ came sprinting in from the bathroom declaring that she’d seen a dog lurking outside. The camp had been woken by her shrieks, the counsellors searching for the dog but finding no such animal.

“It definitely had rabies,” JJ was telling Ros. “Like the one we saw camping with Daddy that time, the one he had to shoot. It looked like that one, but with silver eyes and a horrible smile.”

“Dogs don’t smile, Bluejay,” Ros replied with a measured amount of calm. “And they don’t have silver eyes. It was probably a trick of the light.”

Penelope didn’t think either of the Jareau girls looked like they believed that though, which was scary. She decided to stick close to her brothers, following Rafe as he whacked at bushes with a big stick and yelled, “Here doggy doggy!” into them. The rest of the camp was in a similar state of nervous excitement, kids giggling and calling out dog names while counsellors kept shooing them away from sticking their arms in places a sick dog might lurk.

“Why can’t we just let it run away?” Penelope asked Rafe, looking away from where Aaron was grabbing a boy by his belt to stop him from crawling under a cabin, Emily laughing instead of helping him scold. “It didn’t attack JJ. Maybe it’s a nice dog.”

“Not if it’s got rabies it’s not,” Rafe informed her, glancing at her. “That means it’s sick, Penny. Real sick. If it bites people, they’ll get sick too, so we have a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“What responsibility?” Pen grumbled, her stomach grumbling with her. It was too early and also past breakfast and she wanted to either go back to bed or go eat something. “We didn’t ask to be the dog police. And I don’t want the dog to get hurt with everyone’s big sticks. I think this whole thing is horrible and I wish JJ hadn’t said anything.”

“Well, I’ve got a responsibility to all the kids in this camp, including you.” Rafe had stopped banging his stick now and was watching her with his normally silly eyes intent, a look that made Penelope feel small. “I’m here to keep you safe. Can you imagine how I’d feel if a sick dog got you?”

“Because you’d get in trouble with Mom …”

“No – because you’re my sister and I don’t want you to get hurt. Even if you’re a moody snot today.”

Penelope scowled at him. She didn’t believe that he cared.

“I don’t need you to look after me,” she informed him before turning and stalking away. She’d go eat and leave them to their dog whacking! “I’ve never needed a bother, and I never will!”

“Penelope –”

But she covered her ears and kept walking, cheeks burning. He was so so horrible, sticking his nose into her life like this. Him and his family moving in like they owned the place, her mom’s house suddenly full of boys and their things and their lives with no room for her anymore. And especially no time for her anymore, with her mom too busy and –

There was a soft growl, but when Penelope looked around she saw nothing. Just tufty grass along this path that wound through the camp, the trees surrounding the cabins and the firepit up ahead. Toilet block beyond that, rec hall a bit further where there would be food right now. Food that she was looking forward to because it was some comfort when everything else was –

The growl came again. Penelope crouched to look under the cabins on either side of her, peering through the grass at the gaps in the slats there. Nothing looked back, just darkness. She lowered herself, wondering if it was the dog and if she should tell someone if it was. She didn’t want him to get whacked with a stick or shot like JJ had said. Surely if the dog was sick, it just needed some love?

“Why are you on the ground?” Manny asked from behind her. “You look like a big worm.”

Penelope shot up, furious at his use of the term ‘big’ – but the angry yell she’d prepared didn’t leave her lips as she whirled around and found that Manny wasn’t alone.

Derek Morgan stood there, his arms bare and crossed loosely, his shirt too tight and showing all his muscle. Penelope swallowed. He looked an awful lot like the handsome boys in the girly magazines her mom bought her, although they weren’t usually black and Derek most definitely was, but perhaps even more handsome because he was different to the fake-magazine boys in such a real way. Those boys were the kinds of boys Penelope knew that teenage girls were supposed to fall in love with and, although she didn’t understand what love was aside from it having something to do with writing her name and his all over the place, she was pretty sure she’d decided that she was in love with Derek. Ever since the lake, he’d always had time for her, stopping to smile and call her –

“Hey there, Babygirl,” Derek said. “Why are you frowning? You’re too pretty to frown.”

“She’s fighting with Rafe again, probably,” Manny said. “She only gets this grouchy when she’s fighting with him or me, and I’ve been with you all morning.”

Derek gave her a long, searching look that she was too shy to respond to, instead focusing on her shoes to hide her flaming cheeks. “Why are you by yourself, anyway? Where’s the rest of the girls from your cabin?”

Oh. Oh, what a horrible question.

“They don’t like me,” Penelope mumbled, sure this would make him hate her. After all, one of them was his sister. “Dezzi likes Hannah more and JJ spends most of her time with her sister. Hannah doesn’t like me because …” She trailed off, wishing she hadn’t said anything at all.

“Because?” Derek was still watching her in that way, like what she was going to say was important to him. It made Pen feel bubbly inside and warm as well, a reminder of what home had been like before it filled with boys and fractured her mom’s attention.

“Because I’m fat,” Pen said. It was hard to say, but she said it anyway. It would be terrible to lie. Even if Emily had tried to tell her otherwise. “Which I am and I don’t care so there. I’d rather hang out by myself, anyway.”

“What bitches,” Manny declared. Pen blinked. She’d expected him to tease. “I mean, sorry, man. Dezzi is your sister but still, what bitches. Well, screw them. Hang with us!”

Penelope stammered, “Oh, no,” despite really wanting to say yes. How awful/wonderful, to spend time with Derek! Even at the cost of spending time with Manny.

“I’ll talk to Dezzi for you if you like, or Ros about JJ,” Derek said with another soft, important smile that she knew he only smiled at her with. With everyone else, he was scary. “But sure, hang with us. You have to promise not to snitch on what we’re doing, okay?”

“What are we doing?” Penelope asked, but Derek just winked and told her that she’d see.

What they were doing, as it turned out, was using the chaos of the dog hunt – which had turned into a game now, as the sun kept rising and no dogs were found – to sneak out. This was tremendously exciting. Penelope dressed and then slipped away from her cabin to meet Derek and Manny by the broken bit of the fence around the camp, finding them waiting just like they’d promised. They were sneaking out, how naughty! She hadn’t been deliberately naughty before, but she was uber-excited to have this be the first, like a whole new Penelope No-Last-Name was beginning today. When Pen saw the two boys waiting there, it was as though her day had begun anew along with her; no one ever had waited for her before, either. She’d been expecting to be left behind, but she hadn’t, they hadn’t, and at that moment she loved them both. Without a word except to shh each other, Derek climbing the fence and reaching over to take her hand, they slipped out of the camp and away, coins jangling in Derek’s deep pockets.

“We’re going to watch a movie at the theatre in town,” Derek whispered as they walked quickly through the woods, birds singing around them.

Penelope faltered. “I don’t have any money,” she admitted, looking at Manny hopefully. To have such a wonderful thing taken away from her …

“That’s okay. I’ll pay for you, gorgeous girl.” Derek was still holding her hand as he said this, and she hoped he hadn’t noticed how sweaty her palm was. “My treat. And I’m going to buy popcorn and candy to share and you better enjoy it without thinking for a second of what those girls think of you, got it?”

“Got it,” she replied, beaming. Oh, today was wonderful! It was like … well, it was like a real date.

But a shadow fell over them, sticks cracking in the shadows of the tree as something crept closer. All three of them froze, Manny waving his arms in silent panic that they were about to be caught. Pen was panicking too, just quieter, that it was going to be Aaron or Ros or the old lady, someone fierce and no-nonsense who’d ruin their wonderful day –

But it was just JJ, peering around the tree at them and then sheepishly stepping out when she realised she’d been spotted. “You’ll be in an awful lot of trouble for sneaking out,” she said to Derek without any fear that he was older than her and might not appreciate her snotty tone. “We’re not supposed to go past the fence. You’re a counsellor, you know that.”

“Do you always do what you’re supposed to?” Derek asked her. He was still smiling, but it was a different smile. Penelope liked to think that maybe this smile was the one he used on kids like JJ, who spent all their time trailing their siblings instead of standing on their own two feet, not like the grown-up smile she got.

“When it suits me,” JJ responded, glancing at them and then looking to Penelope. “Hi, Penny!”

“Hi,” Penelope answered cautiously. “Are you going to dob us in?”

JJ thought about that.

“What if you come with us?” Derek asked slyly, winking at Penelope. “We’re going to the movies. I’ll buy you a ticket if you promise not to tell. Sound good?”

“Awesome,” said JJ, practically skipping over to Penelope’s other side and looping her arm through hers. “I’ve always wanted to hang out with Penelope!”

Stunned, Penny let her hang off her side, walking in a chain of three with Manny just ahead and with her mind puzzling over the revelation that maybe someone did want to be friends with her after all. It felt normal to those three to be holding each other like that, just as it felt normal for Manny to be on the outside looking in. While none of them could have explained it, there was a distant sense of Manny not belonging, just as there was a sense that they were missing some who should be there.

Heedless of where they were truly going, the children walked onwards.

 

3

Emily Prentiss stalls.

Every time Emily tried to run, something held her back. Mostly Aaron with his shy smiles and kind hands, but also a sense of something tying her to this mouldering campsite and the children stuck here that she was beginning to realise had no one looking out for them. Just a bunch of distractible teenagers who had no idea.

Today, with everyone distracted looking for a dog she personally didn’t believe existed – it was as tall a tale as Spencer’s surety that a clown had chased him into the bathroom – she saw her chance and grabbed it with both hands. With nothing but the backpack over her shoulder, Emily left that place. She didn’t bother saying goodbye to Aaron; he was sweet and kind and a fantastic kisser who made her feel special and alive, but he was temporary. Everyone was temporary. She’d learned that young. Why break her heart over him, especially when he clearly wasn’t ready to break his heart over her in return?

It was a feeling like freedom, walking along the highway leading back to town and ignoring the men who asked if she needed a ride. The gas-stink of their exhausts didn’t bother her, nor did their searching eyes. Nothing could touch her, not out here. She was untouchable; she wondered, spotting the town up ahead, if she should just keep on walking. Right across America, far from this stinking camp and anywhere her mom could find her. Could she do that?

Could she just vanish?

It was this she was pondering when she sauntered into town, ignoring the strange glances her clothes and hair got her. She was different, and she was used to the stares. In fact, she savoured them. They were a reminder that she wasn’t living her life dead like the rest of the people around her, repeating the same rituals day in and day out as they died without remembering to live.

“Bag at the door,” a cashier called out when she entered the gas station. “I’m watching you.”

“Hope you enjoy the show,” she snapped back, flinging her bag down before going looking for a bottle of water and some gum for the road. Maybe some smokes, if the guy moved away from the counter and she could nab them without being spotted by the camera blinking in the corner. “Fucking pervert.”

If he heard her, he didn’t respond. Just to spite him, Emily found a novelty toy pack and slipped it into her jacket, walking right up to the counter with her purchases and smiling as brightly as though she wasn’t stealing a two-buck toy. He hadn’t noticed. Of course, he hadn’t; too busy watching her ass, no doubt. Receipt in hand, Emily grabbed her bag and left, the toy tucked in her waistband for now. She felt untouchable.

Castle Rock was a small place. Emily meandered down the street, noting every smile, every greeting. It had a small-town feeling to it, too stifling for her taste but exactly right to others. It was in stark contrast to how this town would be in twenty-one years, as the rot underneath sank changed the world above. But, right now, when Emily was just shy of eighteen, Castle Rock flourished.

She perched on a small brick wall at a park across from an old theatre announcing a showing of It Came from Somewhere Else, wrestling with the packaging of the toy until it tore open to reveal her prize: a cheap yo-yo, a pack of invisible ink pens that smelled like a laundry when she uncapped them to sniff, and a spy-glass that didn’t magnify anything when she peered through it. It sharpened what she was looking at, but that was about it, slipping from an old man walking a poodle to a hugely fat woman trying to shove a chair into her car and around to a small shape huddled against a tree in the park behind him.

Emily lowered the spy-glass, pocketing her toys and leaving the packaging on the wall as she walked over there, heart sinking. Just when she’d thought she’d gotten away.

Something always pulled her back.

“How the fuck did your little legs get you all the way down here?” she asked, looking down sternly at the damnable Spencer Reid as he grinned sheepishly up at her, glasses missing and still in his pyjamas. There was a rustle from the other side of the tree, Sean Hotchner of all people poking his head around. “Oh good, there’s two of you. Midgets travel in packs, I see.”

They didn’t answer, just looked guilty and tired. Emily studied them with close attention, noting their red eyes and hang-dog expressions. Both stared longingly at the water bottle shoved into the pocket on the side of her backpack, so she gave it to Spencer. He drank thirstily and handed it to Sean, who did the same.

“Right, talk to me,” she informed them both, taking the empty bottle back. “If you tell me why you’re here, I’ll buy you both lunch. Deal?”

The boys perked up. Hungry as well as thirsty, Emily thought, and then wondered with a tinge of culpability just how long they’d been out here. Had they been there this morning? She didn’t remember.

But her musing was cut short when Spencer burst into tears before sobbing, “We’re not bad.”

Emily stared. Never in her almost eighteen years of life had she been entrusted with the care and comforting of small humans, especially not ones who seemed sunburned and who smelled distinctly of urine. “I didn’t say you were,” she settled on, trying to brush the hair from Spencer’s eyes as he sniffled wetly. “Does Aaron know you’re here, Sean?”

“No one knows we’re here,” Sean answered. “We ran away.”

“Why’d you run away? That’s not a very sensible thing to do.” Pot meet kettle, Emily thought as she said this, trying to stifle a smile. But she wasn’t six.

“You won’t believe us,” Spencer muttered, twisting away from her hands like he’d remembered he was mad at her. “Just like with the clown in the bathroom. No one believes us so I don’t want to say it anymore.”

Emily thought about that before gesturing for them to follow her. She walked up the street with them trailing behind her until they reached a diner. In there, she found a booth and bought them burgers and milkshakes to go with hers, waiting until they were tearing into their food before speaking again.

“See this?” she said, holding up one of the stolen UV pens. “It’s invisible ink. Magic. You write something with this end, here, and then you shine the light on it with the other end so you can see what you’ve written. Cool, huh?”

Sean nodded. Spencer looked interested but mostly unimpressed.

“So, here,” she continued. “Spencer, write out why you ran away on a napkin and then you can show me. That’s not saying it, is it? And things are more real when they’re written down.” A flaw in her plan suddenly revealed itself: so sure that they’d jump at the chance to play spy with her magic pen, she’d forgotten their ages. “Uh … can either of you two write?”

Sean shook his head, looking stricken.

“Yeah,” Spencer replied with no emotion in his voice, taking the pen from her. “Mom taught me.”

He wrote busily on the napkin, hand covering it despite Emily being unable to see the faint marks anyway. All his strokes were precise, his eyes narrowed with concentration, and it took him a long time to finish what he was doing before sliding the napkin and pen back to her and returning to his now-cold fries.

The pen was warm from his hand when Emily picked it up and pressed the button on the side to shine the light onto the napkin, which was torn in places where he’d accidentally pressed the pen too hard. The two boys were silent. She turned on the light. His writing was astoundingly neat for a child, every letter particular in the shaping of it and every sentence on its own line. He’d even nailed the grammar, the little weirdo. That was what she noted first. Then, she read it.

A man came in our room in our bed.

I don’t like him.

I think all the bad things are him.

That’s why we ran.

She stared. The words crept and wavered, horrific possibilities burping into her mind.

“A man comes into your room at night?” she read out, staring at them to see if they were lying. “Spencer, Sean, don’t lie about this – this is something you can’t lie about. Are you lying?”

They shook their heads in unison.

The burger sat uneaten in front of Emily, mocking her. The three bites she’d taken sat heavy in her gut. This sounded like one of those bad things that never happened to people you knew, always a friend of a friend somewhere far away. Fables made up to scare people. Emily had heard them all before from various over-protective security details. Don’t get in the van because the man will kidnap you to pick fruit at his farm (although she knew that what that actually meant was ‘the man will rape you’ in words coached not to be too horrifying for children); don’t speak to strangers in case they wanted to hurt you (murder you, was the unsaid thing there, Emily always rolling her eyes at everything hidden in these neutered warnings); and if a bogeyman came in your room at night, scream (or you might end up a milk carton kid). Whether the bogeyman was of the raping sort or the murdering or the milk-carton kind, she’d never asked.

“What does he do when he comes in?” she asked.

A bright tune was playing on the jukebox behind her. Around them, people chattered, the cash register dinged, someone shouted, “Order up!”

The boys exchanged uneasy glances before Sean did something that burned itself into Emily’s mind as she regretted not paying attention to the endless ‘here are the signs of a bad person’ seminars she’d had to sit through.

“He said this,” said Sean, and then he lifted his finger, pressed it close to his lips, and made a soft shhhh noise. Spencer fiddled with his fries. “He told us not to tell anyone. And then he tooked his belt off.”

Just like that, she was stuck again. “Finish your food,” she said to them, her own no longer appealing. “We’re going to go talk to someone about this, okay?”

“He says we can’t tell anyone,” Spencer said glumly.

“Not even Aaron,” added Sean. “He says no one will believe us.”

“You’re not going to tell anyone,” Emily informed them, grabbing her stuff and making sure they were following before hauling ass out of that cheerful diner. The napkin was in her pocket along with the pen, and she wondered where to go first – Aaron or the cops? Who was more likely to listen? “I’m going to.”

But, as they marched down the street together, Emily leading the way like a mama duck with her ducklings and the two boys playing with the yo-yo she’d given them to keep them quiet, there was a familiar group of people now sitting on the wall Emily had abandoned. They’d definitely been seen. Emily could see the blonde girl, JJ, waving madly at them and Derek scowling.

“Hi, Emily!” chirped the Penelope girl, smiley and bubbly over a choc-top ice-cream cone that she’d gotten more on her mouth than in it. “Hi, kids. Did you guys sneak out too?”

“What the hell, Emily?” Derek asked, staring at the boys. “What are they doing here?”

Emily sighed. Her day, which had begun so hopefully with the promise of irresponsibility, had clearly come to a depressingly adult end.

“Sorry to ruin your party,” she informed them with her mother’s stern command, “but we need to go back to camp. Now.”

 

4

Aaron Hotchner frets.

As the morning ticked on to afternoon, Aaron realised something: there were a lot fewer people here than there should be. A simple walk around the camp didn’t shed much light on why he was feeling this way until that walk took him past his brother’s cabin, the cabin of the boy he’d been steadfastly ignoring up until now. Sean reminded him too much of the home Aaron was trying to forget despite how guilty it made him to keep pushing his brother aside.

On a whim, he stuck his head inside and called his brother’s name.

It was with an uneasy twist in his gut that he noted the empty room. The two upper bunks were unslept in, with Ethan long gone home and the other never filled, to begin with. The lower two bunks, in stark comparison, were scattered everywhere. Aaron felt that uneasy twist twist harder as he smelled urine on the tangled sheets, which were pulled off of the mattress as though they’d caught on the person vacating the bed at speed. The smell reminded him of his closet, the back of which he’d long been using to hide Sean’s soiled bedding from their father until he could wash them and which now smelt distinctly piss-soaked as a result no matter how much spray-deodorant he aimed in there.

Wary now, he went looking for Emily to see if she knew where his brother was. He found Rafe playing kickball with a bunch of smalls, and he found the two Morgan girls organising some of the older kids into a bedraggled group to go swim in the lake. But no Emily, and no Ros.

And no Sean.

Mindlessly obeying a need to piss while pondering this, his feet took him along the path towards the bathroom block, pacing around it until he was standing in the grimy doorway looking in. The light that was never off buzzed overhead, the plastic covering filled with dead bugs. Aaron glanced up at it, shaking the unease that had lurked around this place ever since finding Spencer that night. In he went, refusing to falter in the doorway as he walked to the urinal and fumbled with his fly.

The bathroom was silent except for the buzz of that light, but, despite this, the hair on the back of Aaron’s neck stood on end. He pissed quickly but without rushing his clean-up, making sure to saunter to the sink to wash his hands and, with just as much casual disregard, over to the paper towel dispenser. Here, he leaned on the wall as he wiped his hands, seeming uncaring despite having no one here to be performing for but with his eyes falling naturally onto the middle cubicle anyway.

There was no Spencer there today, curled up so small behind the bowl that Aaron had thought at first he was an animal of some sort. But no animal had ever been so frozen and scared as Aaron had eased him out, hugging him tight until his tiny knot of a body had begun to uncurl, and no animal had ever clung to Aaron with such desperation and trust. Aaron stared hard at that cubicle, wondering what had scared the boy so much.

Driven by some strange desire, he lobbed the paper towel into the over-flowing bin – no one cleaned out here – and stepped forward to lean into the cubicle, wrinkling his nose at the stink. Hand flat on the door, he studied the corner before turning to try to imagine what could have scared a small boy into paralysis like that.

Nothing was there, just the line of dirty urinals and the high-set gridded windows.

And the door.

Aaron traced his fingers on it, feeling the pads catch on small lines on the wood. But, when he looked, there was nothing there … until he leaned close and found the finest of lines cut into the paint, five in a row and, when he placed a finger over each line and curled them in, exactly as wide as his hand was.

“JJ!” he heard screamed from outside, Ros’s voice cracking with fear. The bathroom forgotten, Aaron jogged towards that scream without looking back. Not that it mattered. Aaron, even if there had been something there with him, wouldn’t have seen it anyway.

“Ros!” he called, finding her crying near the female side of the toilet block. “What’s going on?”

“I can’t find JJ,” Ros sobbed, hugging her arms tight around herself like she was trying to pull herself back together with sheer will. He saw her pull away from him: Ros, he’d noticed, seemed afraid of him, careful that he was never within arm’s reach of her. He’d wondered why, but figured maybe he reminded her of someone, trying not to take it personally (but really, he did, because she looked at him like he was his dad). “Oh my god, I can’t find her, I can’t find her, she’s gone. She’s gone!”

“Hey, hey.” Aaron didn’t know how to calm her down. He wasn’t exactly great with girls; he hadn’t exactly had the chance to learn. There was Emily, who he was fumbling and awkward with, and Haley back home who he hadn’t gotten the nerve up to talk to yet and was hoping all these new things he was doing with Emily would give him the courage to finally do so with Haley. “I’m sure she’s fine. A few of the counsellors are gone too. Maybe they took her down to town?”

“Why would she go without me?” Ros burst out with, anger and terror now warring for dominance on her face. “I told her never to leave the camp without me. She doesn’t know how dangerous it is out there!”

Aaron privately thought that this camp was the safest place he’d ever been, but he also knew better than to say this to the distraught girl in front of him. “If her friends were going, she probably didn’t think,” he soothed. “Kids don’t think when they’re with their buddies. Look, we’re allowed to use the mini-van, right? I’ll drive down to town and pick them up. You stay in case I miss them, alright?”

Ros, he noted, didn’t seem confident that this plan was as foolproof as he seemed to hope it was. But he did what he always did when Sean was worried and pretended that he was completely sure that his plan was fine, rock-solid even, and she gave in eventually. He left her there still fretting, heading up to the shed where he knew the keys were hanging on a hook by the door in case they needed groceries of some kind and couldn’t wait for delivery day.

Of course, when he found himself behind the wheel of the elderly mini-van, trying to coax it into starting as a misty rain started to blur the unsealed road before him, he rethought this surety.

“Be a camp counsellor, Aaron,” he mimicked his mother bitterly, the engine catching and the van coughing out a billow of acidic black smoke behind them. Down the road they hopped, the van jolting with every foot travelled and the radio cutting in and out. “You’ll have fun, Aaron! You’re so good with kids, Aaron, take your brother, Aaron, jeez …”

The rain thickened around him as he navigated the narrow roads. It was a forbidding, wet day, and it left him with plenty of time to ponder the camp and all its oddities. Really, he didn’t mind that there weren’t that many adults there. They seemed to manage okay, and the old lady was there if they needed her. Aside from a few over-imaginative campers spinning wild tales to scare the others, it was –

He slammed on the brakes as he rounded a corner and almost ploughed right through the bedraggled line of wet kids straggling up the road. With a whine of anger that he’d braked so hard as the kids scattered to either side of the road, leaving Emily standing there with one eyebrow raised and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, the van spluttered, coughed … and died again.

“Fuck,” said Aaron.

That said, he slid out of his seat and shoved the door of the van open, stepping aside with his head bowed to avoid banging it on the roof as the kids flooded in, grateful for safety from the now vicious rainfall. He counted as they went past: three, four, five, plus Emily made six, and then Derek bringing up the rear. Seven.

“Thank god you’re here,” Emily hissed as she slid past and grabbed his arm. “We need to talk, away from them. Now!”

“Is that supposed to be happening?” Derek asked, cutting in as he pointed to the windscreen where the glass was fogging from a thin line of steam leaking out from below the hood.

“Fuck,” said Aaron again.

“Umah,” whispered Sean. “That’s a bad word.”

“Umah,” Spencer parroted, the two boys giggling together before returning to play with a yo-yo they’d somehow gotten hold of, Spencer showing Sean how to make a cradle out of the string between their hands. Although Aaron didn’t know this, the fear of the night before had faded from them despite their exhaustion, as though they’d given it to Emily along with the napkin in her pocket. Now, like all children with no worries presently at hand, they played.

Aaron stepped out into the rain, popping the hood and shaking rain from his eyes as he tried to look in. The water dripped down his shirt and stuck his clothes to his skin, his hair in his eyes and everything about this day getting worse and worse with every second that passed … until the rain around him was suddenly blocked, the patter of rain on him being replaced by the patter of rain on material.

Emily stood beside him, holding her coat up over them both and hooked over the hood. She was also holding a socket wrench, which he didn’t know what to do with but figured he should take anyway so he looked mechanical, hefting it in his hand as he studied the motor.

“We need to talk,” she said again.

“Damn right we do,” he snapped. “The hell did you bring the kids out here for? Ros was having kittens back at camp thinking JJ had vanished into the woods or something. Plus, I almost ran you over standing on the road like –”

“Spencer and Sean told me someone has been sneaking into their room at night,” she said, Aaron’s heart slamming to a cold stop with the words. “A man.”

“What the fuck,” he breathed.

“I don’t think they’re lying, Aaron,” Emily added, pressing close with all her clothes flat to her skin with the wet from the rain. She looked cold and scared and he wanted to hug her close at that second, to protect her from the unease that was crashing down on him again. “I’m thinking, maybe that clown Spencer saw? Maybe that wasn’t such a dumb story after all. Maybe it was some perve getting his rocks off. And I’m thinking if he’s sneaking in their room at night and telling them they can’t talk about it, well, he’s gonna do worse than just scare them if he hasn’t already.”

Aaron became aware of two things in that second.

One was the weight of the socket wrench in his hand, his fingers curling tight around it and his mind locking onto how effective a weapon it would be if needed.

The second was this: he’d watched his brother be hurt for too long now without doing anything about it.

No more.

 

5

Derek Morgan fears.

With the two older kids out trying to fix the van, it was left to Derek to try to keep the kids inside the van calm. That was easy enough, he found, since none of them seemed inclined to shriek or fight. In fact, it was peaceful for Derek to watch them muck around together. The two really tiny kids were huddled together on one seat, playing with a toy. Penelope and JJ were together up the back giggling over something that was making them both blush red while sneaking glances at him. Uncomfortable under that regard, he looked out the window to see what Aaron was doing. Manny had his face pressed to the window Derek was trying to look out. His fingers left smeary marks on the glass as he pulled faces at his reflection, Derek rolling his eyes at him for his childishness.

Emily slipped into the driver’s seat, bringing with her a rush of cold air as she worked the motor a few times, everyone quiet as they listen to it grate.

“Are we in shit?” Derek asked with a nervous glance to where he could just see Aaron’s shoulder through the smeary glass.

“Nah,” Emily replied before vanishing back out of the van and leaving them.

“We’re definitely in trouble,” JJ said cheerfully. “Aaron’s so grouchy. Oh well.”

“A-ron A-hole,” Manny joked, earning a giggle from JJ and a frown from Penelope. “What an A-Hole, am I right, gals?”

Derek opened his mouth to say something, but Sean made a loud noise of fright from the seat he and Spencer were in. When they looked at them, both boys were up on their knees staring out the window like startled meerkats.

“What?” Derek asked them, frowning when he saw the looks they gave each other. “What’d you see?”

“I don’t see anything,” Manny said. “Hey, do you think those two –” He pointed his thumb at Aaron and Emily through the window: “– are, you know?” ‘You know’ was a lewd gesture with the pointed thumb and a circle he was making with the fingers of his other hand, Derek shaking his head at him. He didn’t see anything funny about it, even though Manny seemed to.

“Shut it, Manny, lemme talk to the kids,” he said, but Manny was on a roll.

“You know, I seen them sneaking about together. I bet they’re definitely doing it. Do you know? You all know, right?”

“I don’t,” JJ said curiously.

“Neither do I,” added Penelope. “What’s it?” She mimicked the hand gesture, wrinkling her nose as though already suspecting it was gross.

“Come on, man, stop teaching them that shit,” Derek snapped when Manny opened his mouth to respond.

“We’re old enough!” JJ argued. “We want to know! What are they doing? Are they kissing?”

The two first-graders were silent, heads moving in unison from one speaker to the next without any understanding on their faces. Derek was glad for that, at least.

“My mom says that adults kiss at night sometimes and it’s different and secret,” JJ declared, widening her eyes like this was some amazing declaration. Derek felt sick to his stomach, like he wanted to puke. A real belly-deep ache. “Ros says they get naked for it.”

“Oh,” said Penelope, now bored. “You’re talking about sex. I know all about that.”

“Who taught you about sex?” Manny asked, his good humour gone now. “You’re a baby, you shouldn’t be learning about sex yet, should you? Does Mom know?”

“Does Mom know,” Penelope mimicked in a cruel voice, Derek giving her a startled look. “First, she’s not your mom, and second, yes, duh. She taught me. Sex is a thing married people do in bed at night and it makes kids and I know more than you, so there.”

“I knew all that too,” JJ added hurriedly, although she looked curious enough that Derek doubted that. “Wait, is that what Aaron and Emily are doing? But they’re not married? Is that allowed?” With an excited gasp, she added, “Are they going to make a baby? That’s so cute!”

“Derek?” whispered a small voice as the others began to bicker. Derek looked down, finding Spencer inching forward, the yo-yo held tight in one hand and the other holding Sean. “Can you see him?”

He pointed.

Derek looked and, for a split second, he felt his whole body recoil with raw fear, his eyes superimposing a man standing in the tree-line right by the van and looking in the window. A familiar, horribly familiar man, leering at Derek with a horribly familiar smile. But, the next, the wind moved the trees and there was nothing there after all.

“You saw him,” Spencer said, sounding satisfied. “Oh good. Because Aaron keeps walking right past him so we thought …”

“We thought he was imaginary,” Sean finished. “But that’s not right, because imaginary things can’t touch you.”

Derek gagged. All his good feelings from the movie and the sneaking out and seeing Penelope go from sad to grinning so happily all now gone, he leaned closer – ignoring the feisty discussion of how kissing turned into sex going on overhead. “What do you mean imaginary things can’t touch?” he asked, bile burning rich and thick in his throat.

The boys looked at each other.

“We can’t tell,” Spencer said. “He said not to.”

“Shh,” added Sean, finger to his lips.

The bile was now burning absolutely. Derek didn’t know what happened in between these moments, but suddenly he was out of the van and walking around to where Aaron and Emily were talking in rapid voices; talking, Derek heard through the buzzing in his ears, about a man sneaking into rooms. Sneaking into bunks.

He knew what men did to kids in bunks at night. Oh, he knew.

You want this. You’re asking for it.

I’m making you a man, Derek.

But you can’t tell.

It’s a secret.

“I think I saw him,” Derek said, barely managing to keep upright and feeling small and defenceless again, just like the first time Carl had made him feel that way. “The man? He was here just then, over there.”

He pointed.

Aaron turned and looked, which was when Derek saw the heavy wrench he was holding.

“Are you sure?” Emily asked, before adding, “Whoa, Aaron! Wait!”

But the boy was already walking towards the woods, his hand tight around that heavy weight of metal and his eyes locked on the trees. Derek, feeling small in the way that only children who had been made to feel small could, stayed put. There wasn’t a part of him that felt able to walk towards the familiar face he’d seen, as his brain struggled to conceptualise how that man could be out here where he was supposed to be safe. Where they were supposed to all be safe. Emily followed Aaron with only a single nervous glance behind them, leaving Derek standing there.

There was something horribly final about the way they vanished into the trees.

“Hey,” said a voice beside him after some innumerable amount of time had passed, Derek turning his head to find Manny there. Aaron and Emily were nowhere to be seen. “Look, man, if I upset you, I didn’t mean to. Was just messing around, ya know? Banter and stuff, that’s all. We cool? I didn’t even mean that Aaron was an A-hole, not really. He’s cool, I guess, if you guys are friends too.”

Derek glanced at Manny, the words dying on his lips as he looked past him to where Carl Buford stood by the open door of the van grinning at Derek with his same haunting smile. Manny had his back to him. Manny couldn’t see.

Carl smiled, pressing his finger to his lips (our little secret, Derek) and stepping into the van.

The door clicked shut behind him.

And the screaming started within.

Derek didn’t hesitate. Later, he’d find tears on his fingers from the sheer force he used when ripping open the door, Manny two steps behind him. Inside the van, he found terror. There was no man; just all of the kids huddled against the back of the van with their eyes locked on the radio, which was silent.

“Where’s that man?” he shouted, looking around for a weapon. “Manny, get Aaron! Where’s the man?”

None of the kids responded and he realised he was missing something here: Penelope had her hands over her ears and was crying, JJ’s mouth was hanging open like she was stunned, and both boys were just staring. Manny, when Derek looked at him, was also staring at the radio.

He turned too, gaping at the machine. It remained silent. As silent as the grave, a giggly part of his mind burped up, although he didn’t feel like giggling now with Penelope sobbing and JJ’s breath rasping in her chest.

“What are you guys staring at?” he asked warily.

“Doncha hear that?” Manny breathed, his skin a garish sheen under the tan. “Doncha hear the voices?”

“Make them stop!” Penelope gasped.

“I don’t hear it! What are they saying?” A small part of him was sure they were making this up, pranking him, maybe. Maybe they knew what he was hiding and they were taunting him, except, he didn’t think JJ or Penelope would be that cruel, and Aaron didn’t care enough about him to get in on it.

A larger part of him knew that they weren’t lying but hoped they wouldn’t answer anyway.

But JJ did.

“It’s kids,” she said. “They sound wrong. They’re saying we’re … they’re saying we’re going to die.”

“How do they know our names?” Penelope cried, her voice shrill in the buzzing silence. Derek felt like he was drowning in that silence, the silence that apparently only he could hear. “Stop talking to me, leave me alone!”

Derek reacted. He knew the danger of secrets and disbelief, so he sure as fuck wasn’t going to stand here in front of his new friends and tell them they were hallucinating this – and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let them keep being terrified by it. It wasn’t hard, hooking his fingers around the shitty plastic holding the cheap radio into its slot in the dashboard. He’d been with kids back in Chicago who stole radios from cars, and they’d always told him the hardest part was not damaging the dash when pulling it out. No radio put up a fight if you really, really wanted it.

He didn’t even try not to damage the dash with this one, wrenching it out of its hole and launching out of the door, using the momentum built from his running to hurtle towards the woods, whirl his arm back, and throw –

The radio cackled in his hand for a second, cutting in a snarling you’ll change with them too, Derek, as he lost his grip on it, flinging it onto the ground where it shattered into a thousand shards of plastic shrapnel instead of hurtling off into the woods.

“Hey!” yelled Aaron, who’d been in the firing range of the exploding radio as he’d unexpectedly emerged from the trees. “Derek, what the hell!?”

A thin trickle of blood ran from his cheek where a piece of plastic had sliced him.

Emily stared.

And anything Derek was going to say was stalled by Sean diving out of the van and throwing himself into his brother’s arms as Aaron crouched to catch him, Spencer only two steps behind. Aaron held both boys, hugging them both as they wrapped their arms around his neck and hung there like koalas on a tree.

“I want to go home,” Sean moaned.

Derek would think later that that, out of everything, was the only thing that had really scared Aaron. And it wouldn’t be for a long time until he understood why going home, to Aaron, was scarier than staying put.

 

6

Rosaline Jareau explains.

When Rosaline Jareau had been sixteen, she’d learned something about this place: it was filled with forgetting. Much like Derry, where a boy named Bill Denbrough would soon discover that forgetting tragedy was an artform, Castle Rock and the surrounds were also beginning to be swallowed by that muffling fog. She’d noticed it at first the year before, the year that she’d realised there was a terrifying thing lurking in Dark Score Lake: the year she’d realised that no one but her really seemed to see it. She and the other kids, the ones she couldn’t remember now. All gone, she suspected, although she had no faces or names to confirm that thought. They were gone from her memory just like some of them, or maybe all, were gone from this world: plucked from the shore like they were the plumpest of store-cooked turkeys and it was Thanksgiving eve.

But here they were again, in the worst place in the world for kids who saw too much. Camp Moribund. Rosaline sat in a cabin filled with tempestuous faces, looking at each of them and already seeing the forgetting working upon them despite what had happened that day, the lunatic terror of those voices from the radio that some had heard and some hadn’t. With that and with the whispers of men creeping into beds at night, it was the moment of telling for Ros: the moment she risked being labelled crazy once more in a desperate attempt to save their lives.

There were eight plus two in this cabin. Eight kids playing at being adults because there was no one else more qualified available, and two children barely old enough to be aware of their world, who couldn’t possibly be of any help to them with what was coming. Those two slept. It was long past their bedtime. The camp outside was silent, all the younger kids long in bed and with these eight wide awake in the awareness that they were wholly and completely responsible in a way they’d never been before.

As they listened to Rosaline’s tale, it meant something very different to each of them.

In the bed by where Aaron was standing like a sentinel on guard, there were two small shapes: Spencer and Sean, barely visible under the pillows and blankets the worried counsellors had piled around them. All that could be seen were two tousled mops of hair on the singular pillow and one wayward arm of no certain origin thrown upwards like the owner was stretching for something just out of reach. Emily sat upon that bed, the matching pair to Aaron’s wary stance, looking bored and annoyed except to anyone who bothered paying attention – like Ros was – she was neither of those things. Aaron clearly wasn’t listening. Oh, he was listening, Ros could tell, but he wasn’t listening like how she wanted to. Even though he was younger than Emily beside him, he wasn’t going to believe. Ros decided right then that he’d be no help; if he didn’t believe, if he didn’t see, then It could control him like it did all the other adults.

Aaron, in her mind, was set aside as a potential ally into the box of just another weapon It would use against them. She didn’t trust him, not once she’d seen the way he’d flinch if someone raised their voice around him, not once she’d gotten the inkling that he’d grown up black and blue: the monster used pain to make more monsters, and Aaron? Aaron had never not hurt.

It would change him easily, she thought.

Sarah Morgan sat listening with distracted attention, her eyes locked on Rafe who, in turn, kept giving her meaningful glances from his position by the door. Ros thought something might be happening there, much the same as something was going on with Aaron and Emily and also with the two girls sitting on the other bed holding hands under the blanket like they thought no one could see them. Sarah didn’t seem convinced of the danger; Rafe, the oldest, gave no indication of his feelings.

The other three, a boy named Jackson and the two girls, Kelly and Ashlee, Ros disregarded. Those three felt in some way unimportant, like their existences here were temporary even if they survived. Over that last summer, Ros had gotten a good sense for the people who were ‘temporary’. It was a feeling that hadn’t failed her yet, as though there was some great focus on certain chosen people within the camp and she was tapping into that focus.

Rosaline Jareau saw too many of the things that people wouldn’t believe in. The magic, and the monsters, she knew they were real. There was a terrible truth in fiction, and it wasn’t that good always won or that children always conquered all: no, the truth was in the snarling nightmares. After all, the first stories told by humankind were horror, back when they’d been smart enough to fear not only the dark but also the light.

On this night, she once again was telling them what she knew about Dark Score, about the thing in the lake. She told them what she’d seen the year before, and what everyone – including her – had forgotten. Until now. Now, she remembered, and had from the moment her mother had knocked on her door two months before and said, “Ready to go to Grandma’s?”

It was, Ros decided, time.

It had started, she told them, three weeks into summer. They’d come here that year to escape from their father’s illness, but their grandparents were strange from the moment their parents’ car had left them there. Rosaline and JJ had been confined to the house on the hill, warned not to go anywhere without their grandparents with them and especially not to come down to the camp on the shore.

When Ros had asked why, they’d said that the lake could be dangerous, even though both Ros and JJ were strong swimmers.

“But you snuck out,” said Emily, the only one to speak and with amused approval in her eyes. “Good for you, teacher’s pet.”

“What did you see?” asked Rafe. He wasn’t looking at Sarah anymore, but at Ros, and Ros felt her heart beat quicker under that soft regard.

Fear, Ros told them. It was a seeping, billowing fear that seemed contained by the fences around this camp. The children here had known It was coming; by the time Ros had worked up the courage to rebel and sneak down to the camp, many of those kids were already gone. They were the ones who told her how It hunted, how night or day didn’t matter and how It was a different shape for anyone who survived to tell the tale. For one boy, a spider with clicking mandibles and too many eyes to count; another girl saw a writhing maggot with rows of teeth lining an endless mouth; two more spoke of a creature that oozed and spat and cackled as it reached for them. The one form they agreed on, the one that most of them had seen, was this: the (dancing) clown. The clown that watched them, and sometimes spoke.

“Just a man in a costume,” Sarah said, although she didn’t sound convinced. “That’s all they saw, some paedo in a costume. Right?”

“Why didn’t they call for help?” Aaron asked, his dark eyes, to Ros, far too adult in that second. She didn’t trust adults: adults had put them here and rang the dinner bell.

“They did,” said Ros with simple finality. “We all did. Even I did. No one came. No one heard us and, if they did hear us, they ignored us. Adults won’t help you. if any adults are here, they’re here to help the thing … just like they did last year. Don’t ever tell adults, ever.”

With a terrible shiver, she remembered that night: the night she’d come face to face with It. And that was why she was here, wasn’t it? The something, that terrible thing … It hadn’t wanted her to escape, but she had. It wanted her back in its grasp and, like a spider spinning a sticky web that she’d only thought she’d wiggled free from, It had pulled her back with such ineluctable strength that she’d been helpless to do anything but watch her death approach.

The children of the camp, she told this small group, had changed. The fear had changed them. This place, the stinking, rotting air of this place, had changed them. At first, they’d tried to band together to protect each other. But It got in their heads, the ones who didn’t really believe in monsters or magic, and It used that doubt to change them just as surely as It changed the children It stole. By the end of that terrible summer, Ros had gone down to that camp to find that the terror was gone, along with the children. All that remained were a small gaggle of the ones who’d been just slightly too old, or just slightly too broken: those who, maybe, hadn’t tasted so good. And they’d been so dreadfully calm, their bags packed and their smiles static.

No matter how much Ros had asked, none of them would tell her what they’d done with the remaining children. All they’d say, with those same blank smiles, was that the summer was over and they were going home.

“We’ve had such a good time,” each and every one of those survivors (except, had they survived? Ros privately didn’t think so, because there’d been nothing in those eyes, nothing at all) had said. “This is a wonderful place.”

When they had said that, Ros had known what they’d done.

The cabin was silent.

“What did they do?” Emily whispered. No one else spoke.

Ros answered.

They’d fed It. Sated that tremendous hunger, just like Pt had wanted them to do all along. Oh, It liked the hunt – Ros was sure of that, after all, It had told her itself. But this place wasn’t for the hunting. It was a pen. A cage of lambs the farmer was fattening for an easy meal, waiting placidly for the knife to cut their bared throats, their tails wagging happily the whole time. When the thing – Ros knew its name, but she hated speaking it and hadn’t worked up the courage in case, somehow, It heard and came looking – had a hard night of hunting elsewhere, when Its usual prey evaded It, this place was the takeaway outlet on its way home where it could drop by and feast.

“Oh my god,” said someone. Ros thought Emily, or possibly Sarah. “The children …?”

Were dead. Ros had tried to save them, searching for the place they’d been taken; she’d found them, but the monster had been waiting for her. Like It had wanted her to see what it was doing; like It had needed her to know what had happened to the children she’d failed to protect.

“Where?” asked Aaron.

That Ros wouldn’t say. She couldn’t tell them about that place, that horrible place; she simply couldn’t. That would make it far too real. All she told them was that she’d dealt with it: that rotten place existed no longer.

She also didn’t tell them this: the monster had caught her. As she’d run from the fire she’d brought to that nightmare, It had chased her and caught her and dragged her into Its loving embrace, holding her close and breathing rancid, coppery air into her lungs. And she’d looked, oh she’d looked, right into its mouth and the death that waited within. What had she seen in there?

Herself. Her death. And the death of the world with it, devoured by this being. And maybe she would have gone mad, allowed herself to be devoured just to end the knowing of that inevitable torment, but for what the being had said next.

“I wonder if your sister will taste as sweet as you.”

There was little in this world that was more dangerous than a human being with a purpose. Humans with purpose had created fire and spears and guns and nuclear weapons that existed solely to destroy life. Humans with purpose had killed and killed and killed all throughout history, conquering beasts and other humans alike. Humans with purpose had defeated gods.

Rosaline Jareau, on the cusp of madness and held around the throat by those sucking claws, had found her purpose and, like It had sensed the great change in her, It had paused. Her hands, which had been beating senselessly against those claws, bit down: something wound around them. Her locket which was around her neck, torn free by the scuffle; the locket that JJ loved.

Ros had held the locket, she’d thought of her sister, and she’d decided surely that JJ would live.

The locket, held in her hand, had at that moment gained some marvellous power, burning the creature where it touched It. It had let go, and she’d run, holding the necklace out in front of her like a beacon, and a reminder.

JJ would live.

There was a small voice in the cabin, an unexpected one – Spencer sitting up with the pen that Emily had given him to keep them quiet still in one firmly grasped hand, as though he’d fallen asleep clutching it for comfort: “Maybe Ethan’s at that place?” he asked with a longing glance at Aaron, as though begging for confirmation of this hope. “Could we go see?”

“Ethan is dead,” Ros cut in. Spencer needed to understand that there was nothing at that place but the dead things. “He’s dead, Spencer. It has him.”

“He can’t be dead though,” Spencer repeated. “He’s still here. He asked me to play, but I didn’t want to because he didn’t move right. But dead kids don’t play, they just … don’t.” He’d trailed off, unsure exactly what it was that being dead meant, except that it definitely meant that you didn’t play anymore or even be around at all.

“Wait, you’ve seen him?” Aaron kneeled by the bed, at eye height with the kid as he spoke. “You’ve seen Ethan since he left?”

“I think so.” Spencer looked at each of them, his eyes getting wider as he seemed to realise the severity of the moment. “I think he’s mad because I won’t go play, but I’m scared of his friend.”

Emily coughed out a nervous laugh, touching Spencer’s hand like she was ensuring he was still there. “Hey, pipsqueak,” she said gently, smiling without any warmth, “do me a favour. No playing with Ethan, okay? You tell him you can’t play because Emily said no. I’m not sure your mom would like us to let you play with ghosts.”

There were a few strained laughs from around the room at that but, when Ros looked around at them, no one was smiling.

“Ghosts don’t exist,” Aaron said without looking at any of them. “Ethan went home and you guys are scaring the kid pretending otherwise. This is insane …”

Ros said, “I’m sorry. I forgot about what happened here, but I remember now and I know it’s real and I know it’s going to happen again and again and again so long as that thing exists. I think maybe it’s been happening for a while, longer than any of us have been around.”

“If that’s true, your grandparents know,” Rafe said. “But they put you in the camp this year, not up in the house with them. You know what that sounds like, right?”

Ros swallowed audibly.

Sarah laughed, the sound shrill. “Well, then. Look at you now, down here penned in with all us other lambs. Bully for you.” Only she seemed to find it funny, everyone else’s faces mixed expressions of horror. “Come on, this is bullshit. Ghost clowns? Why the fuck would your grammy let you stay here if she knew something was after us, huh? You saying she wants you dead? That’s messed up, Ros, this is all so messed up –”

But Rafe stepped forward and, on his face that Ros realised was handsome and kind, her heart fluttering a bit with the strangest feeling – after all, she was still just a teenager and falling in love in times of chaos was what teenagers did best – was a beautiful expression: belief.

He believed her.

“I don’t care if it’s a spook or a demon or just some freak,” he said resolutely, standing tall. At that second, Ros wondered how she hadn’t noticed him before; he was so firm that it seemed impossible anything, even a monster, could get past him to those he wanted to protect. “Nothing is touching these kids. If that thing wants feeding, it can go away and eat elsewhere, or it can starve like a dog. We’re going to patrol in pairs and on a schedule. At no point does anyone go anywhere alone. Can we move bunks to get as many kids in as few rooms as possible?”

“Easily,” Aaron answered despite his expression suggesting he still wasn’t fully on board. A plan in motion, a sense of power thrummed around the room.

Rafe was taking charge: “Sarah, you and those two tomorrow, get as many phone numbers of parents as you can and call all of them. Get any kid out of here that you can, in any way possible.  Ros, me and you are going to your grandparents. Maybe we can talk sense into them, right?”

“Maybe,” said Ros, who wasn’t sure at all.

“It’s worth a shot, anyway. But for tonight, I want one counsellor in every cabin with kids. No one sleeps alone. Do we have some way to contact each other?”

“There are radios in the shed,” Jackson piped up. “No batteries, but I think we could probably find enough to get some of them working.”

While this was happening, Ros stepped back and watched, a sense of absolute relief sinking into her: she wasn’t alone anymore. They might survive this. The something that she knew was in the lake, the something she’d seen last year (Pennywise), It couldn’t go up against their combined efforts to protect their charges. Could It? And even if It changed a few of them, the rest would stand strong.

JJ would live, if Ros ensured it.

“Emily,” she said, catching the girl’s arm as they began to move, planning the radios and the cabins and everything else. “Can we talk? For a second?”

Emily gave her a strange look but obeyed nonetheless, following her to the corner where they were hidden by the partial shadow of the beds.

“You believe me that something is out there, something inhuman, don’t you?” Ros demanded.  “You’re not just humouring me?”

“I don’t know,” said Emily, all makeup and sharp edges, so many that Ros couldn’t find level ground with her. They were just too different, but Emily was – to Ros, anyway – indescribably dangerous. There was a potential for violence in her that Ros didn’t have, but needed.

“Well, I need you to believe me,” Ros said. “Because I need you to promise me something.”

“What?”

Ros took a deep breath. Here it was, the terrible truth: right from the start, she’d always known she wasn’t making it out of this camp. She could tell the temporary kids because they felt exactly the same way she did: hunted.

“When It gets me,” she said, calmer now that she knew she wasn’t leaving JJ alone, “promise me that you’ll keep JJ safe. Please.”

Emily stared at her, eyes so wide that they were a perfect ring of white around black. “When?” she whispered in a voice that assured Ros that at least a small part of this girl, no matter how tough and unapproachable and adult she tried to seem, believed in monsters.

“Promise me,” Ros said again, taking, for the first time, the other girl’s hand. Emily didn’t pull away. “She’s the strongest kid I know, but she’s just a kid. She’s my baby sister, and she’s not strong enough yet. But she will be if she survives, and I need her to survive. You’re the only one here I trust with her because you’re strong too. You’re a survivor. If you can survive this, you can protect her. I know you can, but you need to believe me and … and, I’m sorry, but you can’t trust anyone else with this, especially not Aaron.” When Emily frowned, she clarified: “He doesn’t believe, and that means the creature can use him to take her. And It will – It hates me for escaping It once before. Do you promise?”

Finally, Emily answered (because, despite everything she had with Aaron, she didn’t trust him: she didn’t trust anyone), although she wouldn’t realise the importance of this answer until later: “I promise.”

Chapter Text

1

There was a song playing in the depths of the library. Reid could hear the cadence of it, but not the lyrics. Despite this, it hammered deep into his brain like it was a long-forgotten friend. He’d never been able to name music that wasn’t one of his mother’s favourites, never resonating with any on his own – but he knew this. He even had words to describe it deep in his overactive brain.

Synth-pop, he thought, moving towards the tinny radio that was quietly playing the song in a back-office down the back of the cluttered aisles. He’d heard this before, a long time ago. In a terrible place when he’d been very small.

“Excuse me, sir?”

He turned. The librarian was watching him curiously.

Never want to put my feet back down, the song whispered in his mind, remembered lyrics shocking him out of his blankness.

“I, uh,” he stammered. “I’m with the FBI, I mean, I’m Agent Reid, with the FBI. Investigating a missing girl, Marcie Harris.”

“Oh, the girl down Old Derry Road. How terrible.” The librarian, to her credit, seemed genuinely saddened by this. Reid wondered if she’d known Marcie. “How can we assist, agent?”

His mind went blank again. The song had changed, the strain vanishing from his memory before he’d remembered the title or the artist. Uncomfortable with being unable to remember something which had felt so clear moments before, he tried to focus on the now. He must be here for a reason: why else would he have driven here?

“Marcie was such a sweet child –” the librarian continued, Reid snapping to attention with his half-remembered thoughts vanishing.

“You knew her?” he asked. “I was under the impression that the camp children didn’t venture far from the grounds, from what the local police have told us.”

“Oh, no. They’re here a lot, some of them. Poor dears. I think they miss home and we offer some comforts the camp doesn’t. The internet, for one.”

Reid knew better than to ask for access to Marcie’s browsing history while she was here; no library would willingly give up that information without a fight. Instead, he asked, “Can you tell me anything about her? Who she frequented the library with, maybe? Or if there was anyone she seemed afraid of?”

“I can do one better,” the lady answered, grabbing a key from under the front counter. “I was waiting for her to return to give it to her, but, well, I guess … anyway, I found something she left behind the last time she was here. Come with me.”

Curious, Reid followed her deeper into the library and into the office where the music had issued from. The radio was playing a different song now, another that rose the hairs on his arms. Before it was finished, the DJ cut in, talking overtop in a rapid voice that grated, his tone mockingly upbeat: Welcome, welcome, listeners and you’re on 519FM, listening to the best the eighties had to offer on this very auspicious day, yes it’s an auspicious day, folks! Twenty-one days since they got away and they’ve come back, all my little lambs. We’ve got more tunes from your past coming so just keep on listening and remembering, oh you’ll remember, won’t you, Spence? Remember me?

Do you remember?

Reid jerked his head towards the nondescript device sitting there, the DJ closing off with a cheerful: And now, Steve Winwood with ‘Valerie’

– which wasn’t what he’d thought he’d heard, what had he thought? –

which you’ll remember more clearly as the song you first heard the day Rosaline died.

“Oh, here we go. Just let me get this cupboard open … we never used to lock this door, but some kids started breaking in here looking for lost electronics and, well. Times change. Agent?”

Dazed, Reid looked at her, his heart hammering sickly in his chest. He hadn’t imagined that, had he? Was this it?

Was he finally becoming his mother?

“You don’t look very well,” she said. “Would you like to sit down and I’ll get you some water?”

“I …” he managed, before taking the seat she offered with all the blood in his head whirling in a dizzying rush and his knee suddenly screeching with pain like he’d been walking on it without the cane’s assistance. Which, he realised, he had been, looking down at his lax hand and realising he’d been carrying the thing without noticing the pain. The librarian vanished, leaving Reid shuddering there with the radio playing and his brain choking up terrified snippets, his eyes searching the room desperate for something to focus on that was

(JJ crying, she’s crying so much and Emily hugging her tight. Emily’s crying too, and everyone is scared)

normal, not crazy, and with absolute irrevocable existence. There were books, papers, knickknacks, things that grounded him. The papers reminded him of his mom, the knickknacks Garcia,

(there’s a body in the showers and blood on Rafe’s hands)

and the open cupboard reminded him that he was here with a job to do, whether or not he was losing his sanity. He stood, leaning heavily on the cane and limping over to peer into the depths. In here, he could tell, the library had neatly stored all the lost objects they’d gathered over the years, every shelf sorted with a level of organisation that he appreciated. Each year had a little box just to itself, some full and some depleted, as he looked down to the floor and smiled to see that the years went right back to the sixties.

The radio behind him was playing REM. I feel fine. The DJ was silent.

His cell rang. Garcia calling.

“Hey there, Junior, how goes the search?” Garcia chirped into his ear with an exuberance that he knew was false; but he didn’t comment on it, because he’d remembered.

“Emily,” he said out loud, twisting his torso around to look at that radio without turning his entire body, sweat beginning to drip down the back of his neck. “It was Emily … she played this.”

Save yourself, serve yourself, the radio crackled here and in his memory, listen to your heart bleed.

(and Emily screaming the words with her face locked into a white and frozen smile, a hunted smile; she was laughing as she picked up the radio and threw it at the wall; she’s always loved music and plays it too loud but you like that, Spencer, you like it in the end because you get the feeling she’s doing it to try to keep the world out, out and away from you)

“Played what?” Garcia asked, but his brain was racing along trying to reach that year, what year?

1988.

“What is it, Garcia?” he asked her, ignoring her questions as he crouched to study the lower shelves, his knee howling. There it was. The neatly labelled box: 1988 written in chunky black marker on a yellowed strip of masking tape. He looked inside.

“Oh, I was just calling because there’s an outlier in that photo Hotch has me looking through, the one you found.”

“I know which one,” he answered. In the box, he had found the following: plastic combs with broken teeth, keys and keychains with tacky trinkets attached, neon jewellery and rubber bands, half a broken Walkman with two tapes under it, more pens than anything, a yellow yo-yo decorated with a clown’s smiling face, three wallets –

He looked again at the pens, eyes finding one that was chunkier than the others. He smelled, for a heartbeat, laundry soap …

“Well, this is the thing, everyone in it is either us – which is still weird, I gotta say, so ooky – or one of our siblings. Sean Hotchner, Sarah Morgan, Rosaline Jareau –” He shuddered again (she’s dead, she’s dead) “– and then there’s this little guy sitting next to you who I looked up and, Spence? You were in first grade with him, in Vegas. Does the name Ethan Coiro ring any bells?”

Yes. Yes, it did. Reid stood there, holding the chunky pen in one hand. It had a button at one end that you could click, although the light had long ago ceased to work and, when he uncapped it, the end smelled faintly of soap and citric acid. There was a name tag glued to it, the name faded but still legible. Turned out he was going mad after all, just like his mom. Just like Diana.

“Spence?”

He didn’t answer. The radio was playing something cheerful now, something which almost hid the sound of children laughing.

(I’ll miss you, buddy)

And the name on the tag on this pen that had been waiting in this box for twenty-two years, that name under his white fingers was ‘Emily Prentiss’.

 

2

To put it politely, when Reid arrived at the hospital where Prentiss had left Tommy alone to go look for her partner who should have been here over an hour ago, the first thing Prentiss thought was, “He looks fucked.”

He was pale on every visible inch, his limp worse than ever as he climbed from the ubiquitous SUV that they always seemed to be supplied no matter the town – he’d driven, she noticed, despite his hatred of driving – and lurched towards her with his bag clutched tight.

Prentiss, who’d faced down serial killers and terrorists and men who thought they could subjugate her since the year she was eighteen, shivered to see her friend looking like this. Some things still cowed her; this was one of them. This fear.

“I don’t think you’re going to have much luck with Tommy,” she told him as he limped to an unsteady stop beside her, listing like he’d had too much to drink. His fingers around the strap of his tote were white, the knuckles stand out on the knobby width of them. Ropey and tense and locked so hard that she doubted he’d relinquish his hold. She dearly wanted to question him about what he’d seen; she also knew that she didn’t want to know.

“Marcie kept a journal,” was all he replied, his eyes distant. “It was accidentally shelved at the local library until a librarian found it. And Garcia located your Ethan.”

Prentiss waited for him to expand on either of those thoughts, but he didn’t.

“Emily,” said Reid, giving in to the madness and turning towards her with such speed that she jittered backwards. His hands snapped away from the bag, wrapping around her arms as he stepped into her personal space and loomed, his eyes wide behind the glasses she so rarely saw him in. Where were his contacts? She didn’t know. Where was his cane?

She didn’t know that either.

“What do you remember?” he whispered. Whispered, not spoke, because he sensed that they shouldn’t be talking about this.

“Nothing,” she lied.

His eyes searched her. She felt stripped by that gaze, flayed right open (like the body had been when she and Aaron had pulled it from the lake), but she met it without flinching. So he pulled back, averting that terrible gaze. She was thankful for this because, although she doubted he was aware since there was more than the suggestion of a dangerous shine in his eyes when the light hit them wrong, he was crying, which scared her. His fear gutted her; suddenly, for the first time in years, she craved a smoke. Craved it bad, real bad, enough to give her the jitters like she hadn’t had since she was twenty-two and strung out for no reason other than that she’d been a hot mess at twenty-two. Maybe he saw it. Maybe he didn’t.

Either way, he let go.

“I need to speak to Tommy,” was all that Reid would say but, when they went back into the bleached-cold halls of the hospital, it was to find that while Prentiss had been looking for her partner, Tommy had vanished. His bed was empty; there was no sign of him. The staff seemed unconcerned.

That was the last time he was ever seen alive.

 

3

The photo was impossible.

Oh, Garcia had known from the start that it was impossible unless she and twelve others had suffered collective head injuries, but now she knew that it was definitely impossible in every sense of the word. There was no way that those thirteen children in the photo that she’d fled from could be in that photo, not at the same time, not at that diner on Old Derry Road.

Right now, she was sitting in the conference room with a laptop, the photo left faaaaaar behind in her office with all the spooks that she wasn’t talking about, thanks, and she was discovering the true depths of its impossibility. There was Ethan Coiro, for one thing, who’d been listed as missing in June of 1988: missing in the state of Nevada. There had not been and had never been an investigation into his disappearance in Maine. The news publications at the time showed his picture right next to that of Riley Jenkins and stated without a doubt that both boys had been taken by the same man. Ethan Coiro, these publications said, was as dead as Riley Jenkins. But Ethan had gone missing in 1988. Riley had been raped and murdered in 1984.

And, as they now knew, Gary Michaels – responsible for Riley’s death – had died the same year his last victim had, even though his body hadn’t been unearthed until 2008.

Even if Garcia believed for a moment that a boy gone missing in Nevada, a boy so closely linked to Reid, was right there beside him during what must have been a publicised search for a serial child murderer with his second victim – there was Rosaline Jareau, whose date of death was in August 1988 even though the trees visible in the photo outside those filmy windows, those trees that Garcia had seen be torn about by an impossible breeze … those trees’ leaves were yellow and orange, the leaves beginning to turn. Summer, in that picture, was well and truly over. It was an autumn that Rosaline hadn’t been alive to see, despite her photographic smile.

Despite Garcia’s surety, the forgery was a good one. It didn’t matter how many programs she ran the picture through, none of them was picking it up as having been altered. In fact, most of them were refusing to recognise it as a photo at all. Garcia, by this point, was stumped. Stumped, and scared. In response to this, since she’d always dealt with uncertainty with action, she did something unprecedented.

She picked up the phone and found the number she needed, the number she didn’t call enough and should more.

She called her brother.

“Penny, hey,” Carlos said, sounding surprised to hear from her. Garcia winced at that. She really was a terrible sister and, for a brief second, she decided to do better at that. “Has something happened? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine, don’t fret, my love.” But she knew she wasn’t fine, and he could probably tell. There was a gulf between them still ever since she’d walked out on them after their parents had died but, hey, Rafe had walked out too. She wasn’t alone in the familial abandonment here, even if the thirteen-at-the-time Carlos might have more to resent her for. “Hey, question. Do you remember me, Manny, and Rafe going away for summer? I would have been about eleven.”

“What? No, not really. Eleven, huh? Pen, I was barely five or six then. You should ask Manny or Eddie. He’d have been, what …” Carlos trailed off thoughtfully.

“Ten,” Garcia supplied. “Why wasn’t he there then?”

That didn’t make sense. Aaron and Ros were definitely wearing the Camp Moribund polo and, from what she could see, so were Rafe and Sarah. Spencer and Ethan were six and seven, so the camp was open to all ages. Why had their parents sent some of them and not others, if they’d ever really gone at all?

“Ten, yeah. So he’d remember. Or, you know, you could find Rafe and ask him.”

No, she couldn’t. She’d never been able to take that step, to deep dive into her databases and dig her brother out of the nether he’d vanished into. He didn’t want to be found; she didn’t want to betray him, and that, boys and girls, was the gulf between her and her brothers that remained to this day: they knew she could find him, and they hated that she was the only one with that power but the one most adamant not to use it.

“Try Eddie,” was Carlos’s advice. “And call more. We miss you.”

She assured him, with the best of intentions, that she would before disconnecting the call. Manny’s number was there, though he resented her more than ever …

But she needed to know.

She dialled Eddie.

“What?” Eddie said, his voice short even over the line. “You get shot again and decide to tell us years after the fact?”

“Okay, wow, confrontational. Slow down there, tiger, I’m just …” Garcia trailed off. What was she doing? Not helping find Marcie, that was for sure, no matter how important this photo felt to them. “Hey, look, do you remember me and Manny and Rafe going away together? When you were like, ten?”

“Yeah.” His short reply stalled out her heart: confirmation of what she’d been trying to convince herself hadn’t happened. “Some camp, right? Dad’s idea. Thought it’d stop you and Rafe trying to rip shit out of each other. Didn’t work though, did it?”

Garcia didn’t know to answer that.

“Why didn’t you go?” she asked quietly. “Or Carlos?”

“Me? Didn’t want to. Place looked boring as shit, then I got sick and that sealed it. Chickenpox that year, remember? Gave them to Carlos. I remember because he got so pissy at me when Mom told him he’d caught them from me, thinking I did it on purpose. You guys had already had them.”

Now that he said it, she remembered: remembered the smell of calamine and chamomile, the soft splashing from the bath where Mom was soothing Carlos’s spots: she remembered Rafe playing dot to dot on Eddie’s stomach, she remembered them laughing together and Manny telling Eddie that they could play his video games while he was away: and she remembered feeling so, so left out as they ignored her in favour of each other.

Eleven had been a lonely age. Somewhat, but definitely not quite, as bad as eighteen.

“You really don’t remember?” Eddie asked her.

“I’m beginning to,” she said, wishing it was otherwise. She had the surest feeling that, more than anything, this should stay in the past.

And she wished her team would come home.

 

4

Reid and Garcia were beginning to remember, the fog clearing for them the fastest.

Hotch, however, refused. He was here to do his job, not let his gut rule him or his fears overcome him. The only concession he made to his rampant dread was to make a phone call to Garcia.

“Can you find me Sean Hotchner’s contact details?” he asked her before turning the attention back to the case so she couldn’t question him about why he needed her to call his own brother. In some way though, she seemed to understand.

“I found the Hiscotts,” she offered up with her usually exuberant manner muted. “No sign of Marcie’s folks yet.”

“Keep looking.”

“Can do. Uh, sir?” She stalled out, waiting for his “Hmm?” before continuing. “It would be easier to find him if you could tell me what area I’m looking in. When did you speak to him last?”

The question slunk a thick taste of fear down the back of Hotch’s throat. It wasn’t an unfamiliar taste these days: he woke with it cloying in his mouth every morning, as he stared at the ceiling and wondered if today was the day that Foyet found his family. This fear was different to that one though; this one had deep roots sunk hard in Hotch’s past. It tasted like blood in his mouth and sounded like his dead father’s belt. It was him and Sean fighting and it was his late teens when he’d spiralled out of control as his uncertain childhood had finally crashed down onto his too-slim shoulders. It was everything he’d left behind when he’d become Hotch instead of Aaron. He’d always thought that Aaron, that frightened, stupid boy, had died … but maybe there was more of Aaron inside Hotch than he’d thought. The same cowed, simpering child who’d stood by and watched as his brother was beaten. A man in a suit and tie now, but his father’s voice still mocked him.

give you what a little pissant like you deserves, fucken queer. You and your brother, both as weak, piss-weak, gonna give it

Maybe that same voice still mocked Sean too.

“New York,” he said with a firmness that indicated he was surer than he actually was. “I was at boarding school for some time, then … we weren’t close.”

His phone beeped, indicating another call on the line. He told Garcia that the case came first: there’d be time to find Sean, once they’d found Marcie and Tommy, too. She sounded relieved to be told that she could put the photo aside, even as she sent through what information she had so far.

As he switched to the other call, his tablet beeped too. As Rossi greeted him through the line, Hotch flicked the tablet on with his finger and skimmed what she’d found.

“You better be sitting down for this one, Aaron,” said Rossi. “The lady that owns this camp? It’s JJ’s grandma.”

The words slammed into Hotch like a freight train, bringing with them a crushing impact of

(memories)

things he thought he might have dreamed, things like –

they’re running, his sneakers slapping the wet ground under them and Emily is ahead of him, barely an arm’s length ahead with her hair streaming back; she’s wearing his sweater, his too-big sweater, and he stares at a splash of blood on the left shoulder. His own arm aches, it’s heavy, and he’s carrying

a body. Emily’s trying to help, but she doesn’t know where to put her hands to avoid touching something she shouldn’t. They’re wet and there’s a sob building in his chest; it’s thick and hurting and he can’t let it go because they’re all watching him, this gathered crowd of six plus him that’s left and he’s the oldest now he has to

an old woman is standing in front of him holding a gun, telling him to get back, to

Emily with a knife, backed against the wall and with the sharp end aimed at him. Her clothes are torn, her lip bleeding, her face: what’s happened to her face?? “I’ll gut you if you come closer,” she snarls, “I swear, Aaron, if you come near me again, I’ll kill you just like I did

– nightmares, things that should have faded in the light of the waking day … but they haven’t. They were still there, locked deep, and he heaved in a breath that Rossi must hear, he must.

He did.

“What the hell is going on?” he asked, sounding furious, sounding confused. Hotch could relate to both feelings. “Hotch, we need to get those kids out of here. This woman, JJ’s grandmother or whatever, turns the lights off –

Why are the lights off? Spencer’s scared of the dark.

I’m okay, I’m okay, really. I’m okay.

No, you’re not. You’re crying. Aaron, get the lights on. What the hell is she

– on the kids. They’re all terrified, they’re dirty, and I can’t even guarantee they’re being fed. There isn’t an adult in sight except for this woman who doesn’t seem to know up from down. She keeps calling JJ ‘Ros’ –

he closes her eyes because no one else has yet

– and, honestly, this place needs to be shut down thirty years ago, we need an evaluation of care done on this woman, and all these kids need to go home. Why hasn’t anyone –

They didn’t hear us. No one can hear us

– done something about this before now?”

“Because no one believes them,” Hotch said through an immeasurable pressure. It felt as though he was in the grip of a migraine, but there was no pain. Just that pressure building from the inside out and pushing at his skull, something inside fighting to burst out into his knowledge of the world as he did everything he could to shove it back down (this was a mistake – if only he’d remembered, what happened next wouldn’t have happened at all). “I need to speak to JJ.”

“Good luck. She’s freaked out. I don’t think she knew her grandmother was here. you should have seen her face when that door opened, but …”

“But?”

Rossi’s confusion hadn’t abated in the time they’d been talking; if anything, it was worse. “She walked up here like she’d done it a thousand times before. No hesitation. Some part of her remembered that path even though it’s grown over and doesn’t look like anyone but animals have been using it for years.”

Hotch nodded. He understood; he understood more than Rossi ever would. And he wrenched his brain back to the present, back to the job at hand. The job he was determined he could still do, even if cracks in the shape of Foyet’s knife were beginning to show on his usually impenetrable facade. “Tell JJ to stay with her grandmother,” he ordered. “I’ll get the sheriff to send a health worker up there to relieve her as soon as they can. You stay with the kids in the camp, keep them calm and quiet until CPS arrives. They’ll hurry if I make the call.”

Rossi laughed. “Damn right they will,” he said with some of his usual brashness returning.

“Right. Dave? Tommy Hiscott is missing. He may be heading back your way. I’ll send units up to wait with you, just in case.”

“We don’t think he did it, do we?”

“I don’t think so, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.” Hotch wasn’t really worried about Rossi; the man had started this unit, shaped this unit, and he was the best agent they had bar none. There was little that could shake him. Despite that, Hotch was a cautious, careful man. “Stay safe and alert. I’ll see you back at the precinct when you’re relieved.”

“I hear ya. I’ll find the kitchen here and see what I can do in the meantime. Bet these kids haven’t ever tasted a meal like I can make it. Get some smiles around here instead of frowns, that’s the magic of a full belly, or so Mom used to say. I’ve never seen reason to disbelieve her.”

Hotch farewelled his friend and hung up.

That was the last time he ever spoke to David Rossi, the agent who had indeed created the BAU, brought them all together into this singular field fighting monsters together, and the agent who was, tonight, going to die screaming and alone with none of them beside him.

 

5

They were remembering.

In the safety of the FBI Academy, Garcia was finding more and more about the place called Derry and the surrounding areas. With every word she read, every file she opened, every archive she delved, the familiarity of this place grew stronger. Her first approximation of the number of children lost in Derry had been supremely optimistic: children went missing in Derry, vanished into the dark without a word, at the rate of forty to sixty a year. In some years, as many as two hundred gone. Every bit of this she forwarded, every face, every report, every photo of a child lost. It went back so far that, by the time she realised she’d need to return to her office and that dreadful photo, she was already drowning in data that there seemed no end to. And she was remembering, oh yes, she was remembering learning all this before. Some of these faces? She knew them. She’d known them.

She was remembering.

Midway between Castle Rock County Hospital and the local PD, Reid was folded into the passenger seat of that steadfast SUV with Marcie Harris’s journal open on his lap and flicking through at a rate of too-many-words per minute for a passer-by to even guess at. He was finding that Marcie, far from being the bad egg everyone had hinted at and far from the difficulty their finding her suggested, had been an intelligent and observant young lady: she’d documented everything, in detail. Reid read it all, and he remembered. For him, it was feelings and sensations more than specific scenarios, but he read her fear and remembered his own; he read her panic and choked on his own tongue like he was swallowing a scream that would give him away; he read her love and determination to protect the children around her and remembered a boy that was almost a man, and how much he’d loved that boy. Loved him like a brother, truly and absolutely in the way only a child could love someone with all the innocent adoration of the truly naïve. He remembered that boy protecting him, just as Marcie burned to protect Tommy and the children she referred to as ‘their little guys; he remembered that that boy had never called him names or hit him or snapped at him, and he remembered being carried through a burning night with his head on that boy’s shoulder, watching the way that the fire lit up the sky and feeling safe in those firm arms.

He was remembering too.

In his car outside that very PD, Derek Morgan sat silently as he considered that Marcie was dead. The forest they’d walked through had dredged something terrible up in his stomach, some hard lump he’d swallowed years ago and was finally trying to work itself loose: that thing tasted like bile and aspirin and like being fifteen again and not quite old enough to do what he needed to do, to do what his dad would have wanted. They hadn’t found Marcie. He knew they never would, at least, not alive.

Derek, much like Prentiss, who was driving the car that Reid was silent in, and JJ, who was facing her own fallibility, didn’t remember yet: but they would.

 

6

JJ didn’t recognise this woman. Oh, she recognised her, in that she knew it was her grandmother and had memories of her childhood at her knee, memories of family get-togethers and Christmases and Thanksgivings. But this woman in this darkened house, wandering around like a ghost in the night (haunting the place, she was haunting it; like a man named Mike Hanlon had once written in a historical record of the Terror of Derry: a haunt is a place where animals feed and this woman truly had been fed upon), she wasn’t the woman that JJ remembered as having a hand in the raising of her.

They were alone in this dark house, the stink of rotted wood and damp thick in every crevice. Leaving her grandma to totter around the living room chatting about the walls, JJ held her flashlight and went for the basement where she remembered the circuit box had once sat upon the painted wall. Even in shadows, she knew this place. There were photos of her as a child on the wall. Photos of Ros too, all of them caked in dust. None of this made sense, not this decrepit house or her grandma being here or the camp down the lake that JJ didn’t remember any of her family ever mentioning owning, nor did it make sense how familiar this felt at the same time as she unerringly made her way down into the swallowing dark of the basement. Here, her flashlight barely made a mark upon the encompassing shadow. She wished, briefly, that Rossi was still here beside her instead of down the hill at the camp with the children. She wished Reid was here, or Prentiss or even Hotch. Especially Hotch.

But she wasn’t afraid of the dark, so didn’t hesitate before stepping onto the packed earth floor and making her cautious way across, always aware of the danger of barked shins on unseen hazards. The circuit box was where it had always been, waiting for her hand. The door was silent as she pulled it open, flashlight propped between her arm and chest. Well oiled hinges. This, unlike the door to the basement which had screeched as she’d pulled on it, had been cleaned recently. Cared for.

Well used.

Click went the lights for the house, the basement suddenly swamped with glaring light. JJ blinked her way through it until the room came into view. As a child, she’d never feared this place like some children had feared their parents’ basements. Now she remembered why. It wasn’t like her friends’ basements, those cluttered places filled with dark nooks and crannies. This place was – or had once been – clean and dry and lined with files, endless records of, what JJ realised, were probably this house and camp’s expenses. On the wall where JJ stood was the long cabinet containing the breakers not only for the house but also for the camp down the way, complicated wiring that she distantly remembered her grandpa telling her about: in case the power goes out in a storm, we can flip it back on from the comfort of our home instead of trekking down there in the wet.

But if the storm knocked the power out, JJ had wondered even then, wouldn’t they want to check on the kids?

She didn’t remember if Grandpa had answered.

“You grew up pretty,” said a voice, startling JJ. Her hand flickered to her gun out of instinct – she was quick on the draw, ever since Hankel had reminded her that being slow could get her teammates or herself killed – but dropped when she saw Grandma hovering in the doorway with her eyes filmy white. Even though JJ suspected she was almost blind and almost certainly flirting with dementia, she was steady as she walked down the basement stairs. “You stopped visiting us, girl. Didn’t see you get big, but here you are. So pretty.”

“I guess after Ros …” JJ trailed off; it still hurt to think about her sister, who she’d loved more than anyone in the whole world even when they’d fought, which had been often. The necklace around her throat hung heavy, always reminding her that she was here and Ros wasn’t. “Then Dad, well. I don’t know, Grandma. We should have visited. You haven’t been coping, not in this big house with Grandpa gone. How long have the lights been out?”

“Don’t need lights with these.” Her grandma tapped at her eyes irritably, turning her head to look around without her eyes focusing on anything she looked at.

“The children need light, Grandma,” JJ said gently. “These breakers are for the kids too, down in the camp.”

She’d flipped the lights back on for them too, sure that Rossi would appreciate that.

“There are no children down there,” said Grandma, JJ’s heart skipping a beat and then dropping into her gut as she realised this was going to be no family reunion as hard realities slammed home. “We closed the camp, me and Harold, after your uncles.”

“You – wait, what?” JJ shifted on her feet, glancing over to those files before walking to her grandma and leading her to a bench set against one wall. “I don’t have any uncles.”

“Don’t be daft, Ros, pay attention,” was the distant response. Those filmy eyes closed and JJ leaned close, listening worriedly to her breathing, which seemed stable enough.

“Jennifer,” said JJ. “I’m Jen, not Ros. Ros died.”

Grandma didn’t answer.

“Do you have records of the enrolments here?” JJ asked her, going over to those neat shelves and frowning as she noticed mould working its slick way up one back wall, symptoms of this home’s long neglect. Almost like an accusing finger pointed at her going what kind of person forgets their grandparents, what kind of person are you, Jennifer? Not a good one. Not a good one at all.

“Third shelf. Do you have children now, Jenny? You’re so much taller now, so much older. You and Ros must have children of your own, small ones. You never bring them to visit.”

Another gut-punch. JJ looked again at that finger of mould, before looking away and reaching for the box she’d been pointed to. In that box, the files were neatly labelled by year. JJ pulled forth this year’s, flicking through the forms within.

“Yes, I do,” she said as she read each name looking for one in particular. “A son, Henry. He’ll be one this year.”

There was no Marcie Harris in the file dated 2009. She found Tommy Hiscott and the other two teenagers who’d been with them, but no Marcie. Not even on her second look through. Puzzled, JJ went back to the box. Maybe the paper had fallen loose, or maybe –

She saw the file labelled 1988 and, as though in a dream, reached for it and pulled it loose.

“One is such a lovely age. You were lovely at that age. Harold adored you so. We should visit him, while you’re here. He’d have liked to see you this big. He’s only down the hill, you know. I can show you.”

But JJ wasn’t paying attention, because she was reading the names on the file she’d opened. There were thirty-four sheets of paper – she and Rosaline weren’t in there, but that hardly mattered at this point – and she read each and every one.

Aaron and Sean Hotchner. Spencer Reid. Emily Prentiss. Derek, Sarah, and Desiree Morgan. Rafe, Penelope, and Manuel Garcia. Other names that hummed in her brain as familiar without really registering a face: Jackson Kallum, Hannah Redfield, Ethan Coiro, Kelly Archer, Ashlee Nix. More names yet that she didn’t remember at all, except that maybe Conroy Craine was the boy who she’d caught shoving Spence into the dirt and who’d been one of those to go missing when everything had gotten bad and Karin Armstrong was his friend who’d died too, died screaming when they’d all been too scared to go help him, and –

JJ looked up, desperate for air in this closed-in, sunken room that didn’t feel so warm or familiar anymore, instead hot and welcoming, much like she imagine the gates of Hell would –

Her grandma was gone.

“Gran?” she called, peering up the stairs before tucking the two files under her arm and following up those stairs. The wood creaked under her feet as old, worn in stairs were wont to do, the middles worn smooth by endless years of being walked upon. She exited into the hall which was now lit up, letting her see the frozen smiles of all those photos on the wall. Unsettled by her family’s gaze upon her, JJ looked left to the closed front door, then right to where the back door stood open.

She followed that wordless beckoning, stepping out into the chill of the night. A path wound from the back porch, down into the woods. And, within that dark, she caught a glimpse of white: her grandma’s dress.

“Damn,” JJ hissed, giving chase. It was brisk enough for an old woman to become ill out here, dark enough that an almost-blind person would have no vision to see by. Down down down that path JJ followed until the trees broke and the moon gleamed above and the lake was a bright glitter to the left of her. A building stood before her, half of it a crumbled husk, the other half standing tall so that she could see a half-hearted steeple and the opening where a church bell would have once hung. A neat fence wound out of the trees around an area that had probably once been clear but was now overgrown, white visible amongst the darkness as a ghost that floated through that growth.

JJ kept following. Stepping over rocks and mounds of dirt, climbing that neat, waist-high fence and stumbling through knee-high grass that pulled and dragged at her, she finally found her grandma standing before a small area where the grass had been roughly ripped from the dirt, leaving clods and clumps settled everywhere.

JJ’s flashlight landed first on her grandma standing there sedately and then upon what she stood before.

“Grandpa?” she said, stunned. “He’s buried here?”

For what they undoubtedly stood upon was a grave and, as a cursory flick of the flashlight around her showed, there were more graves here.

Unease grew.

“He wanted to be buried next to his beautiful Rosaline and his darling sons if they were not returned, God bless them,” Grandma said dreamily. “They left a space for me. See?”

JJ saw. The beam illuminated the name beside Harold Jareau’s: Rosaline Jareau. There it was written in stone, date of birth and date of death and the line inscribed beneath Given to our Lord.

“Ros isn’t buried here,” she said, the flashlight tremoring enough in her hands that the beam had begun to jump and bounce about. “She died at h-home. She … she killed herself at home and I fuh-ff-found her.”

She didn’t know why she was stammering so, why her brain had choked so completely, but words had tangled up in her mouth and she didn’t know what was happening now.

“Oh, no,” said Grandma. “She’s here, of course. Everyone always comes back in the end. Your uncles did, and so did Ros. Even, my dear, you. The people buried here?” She gestured around with a smile that was gone, illuminating more than anything that no one was home behind those white eyes (like the rat, drowned like the rat, Jennifer. Milky-dead-white, remember that? And the body in the lake, the one that got up and killed him) and there hadn’t been anyone home for a very long time. “They’re not dead, just different. And we’ll all be together one day, our whole beautiful family. He promised we would be, once we change.”

“Just like you will, Jennifer,” yipped a voice from her darkest, deepest memories, a rotting voice from deep within her worst night. “Just like I promised you all those years ago … you’ll learn how fun it is to float.”

“Oh my god,” JJ breathed but she, foolishly, refused to run.

After all, she was an adult now, and adults were rarely as clever as their childhood selves at surviving monsters.

Chapter Text

1

Rafe Garcia takes a chance.

No siree, no siree Bob, Rafe Garcia was no chicken, no weakling. He wasn’t gonna stand down like this bitch, this pinche clown fuck threatening his family. Up that hill he marched with his anger firing up inside his brain like daytime fireworks: barely visible against the sky but boy oh boy, they were there alright and if you touched then you’d get a nasty burn to remember your idiocy by.

Ros followed silently and her being there, just there behind him saying nothing, well it only inspired more of that invisible, incendiary anger in him. After all, Rafe was seventeen and so was she and she was, he noticed when he wasn’t busy being righteously angry, really pretty under all that crazy. Kinda mad hot, he thought, which was a thing he liked when he wasn’t busy being scared out of his mind because things were so fucking lunatic right now. And maybe he strutted a little more, looked a little more fierce and swaggering, just because a pretty girl was giving him those eyes like she was hopeful he could turn this whole situation on its head and shake it ‘til the bad leaked out.

Well, he figured, maybe she’d keep looking at him all hopeful and womanly like right up until her g’ma either helped them or didn’t, because if she didn’t he was gonna smack an old lady out tonight and he didn’t think Ros would wanna tumble after that. Which was a pity but hell, his family came first: always. Manny and even Penny, spitfire Penny, he was gonna get them home to his parents safe and without a single chink from their armour. That was a Garcia promise.

“It’s not going to help, talking to Grandma,” Ros said as they rounded the corner to where the house stood like some hunched over ugly old crone. “I tried last year … I told you this.”

“I’m not knocking it without trying it myself,” Rafe said. He was an eternal optimist and, when he turned to look at her, his anger sputtered as he noticed how grim she looked in the beam of his flashlight. All that vivacious determination when she’d told them her story, that utter certainty that made her eyes light up like never before and her hands alive as she gestured and her chest heaving as she breathed faster and rougher, that was all gone. Now she stood there slunk back in the clean camp polo and her Guess jeans and Nike sneakers, hands tucked to her chest and bob-cut swinging forward to hide those lovely eyes. She looked like a dog that’d been kicked one time too many, Rafe thought, his anger fading more in the face of that look: she looked like Penny did sometimes, when she pulled all the world’s anger down onto her shoulders and declared herself the reason for it all.

“What happens if we just run?” he asked instead of pointing that out, walking closer and leaning down to study her glassy eyes. Dreading tears and finding them, sure enough, which he’d always only been good at dealing with when they were his girlfriends’, not this hot stranger with her mysteries and her rare smile and her sad eyes. “We load up every kid three to a seat in that shitty old van and drive like shit right off this lake and through Castle Rock and onward till Bangor, huh?”

“The van will break down,” she said. “The tires will pop, it will crash, the police will turn us back, the clown will punish us. Any number of things. I told you, we’re in a cage. Maybe he lets other kids have a chance, but those kids aren’t us. For some reason, we’re like … it’s like we’re promised to him. I don’t think any of us are supposed to leave once we walk through that gate, at least not the same as we came in.”

“You left,” he pointed out.

“I’m back.” She looked up at him now. “I’m back, Rafe, and I can’t think of any way to change that. I feel like maybe that was my second chance and I screwed it up somehow, maybe by forgetting and not warning people, and I don’t know how to …”

She trailed off, those sad eyes getting, if possible, sadder.

“If only I could get JJ out,” she whispered.

Rafe understood that. There was little he wouldn’t do to get his siblings out of here. Shit, he was pretty sure that, if he had to, he’d pick them both up and with one on each shoulder like a sack of potatoes, he’d just march them the hell down the hill. But then there were all those other kids, all those other kids looking at him like Ros was right now, so hopeful that he had a clue or an answer or something that he wasn’t sure he had but was determined to find: some kind of Authority, said like that with the A in capitals because it was bigger than lower case and more important. Authority didn’t fail. Authority didn’t let any kids go missing like Ethan Coiro had gone missing, and Authority didn’t let pretty, sad Rosaline Jareau keep looking like the countdown on her life was ticking down without respite.

“I guess you wouldn’t much like it if I hugged you, huh?” he asked, his voice so low it was almost stolen by the noisy nighttime forest around them. But she heard. Her head flicked up, those sad eyes lighting up just a little, and a dash of something zoomed across her face so fast he wondered if he’d imagined it.

“What would you want to do that for?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Can’t stand it when girls cry,” was his response, before moving forward and slipping his arms around her and giving her plenty of space to run if she wanted. “And you look like you need it.”

She didn’t run. She burrowed in instead, pressing her face against his shoulder (her face was damp, but he didn’t mind) and swallowing loud gasps which might have been sobs if she’d let them be. Her hands against his chest and her shoulders shaking, they stood there like that with the tired summer moon drooping overhead until she finally took a long, clear breath that felt cleansing to them both and stepped back.

“Thanks,” she said.

“Anytime,” he said, meaning it.

They walked together that last stretch, finding the house waiting. Ros didn’t push on the doorbell or knock on that door, she just popped it open without hesitating, her sneakers silent on the wooden porch, and gestured for him to follow her into the cool innards of the building. He followed.

“Gran?” she called, flicking lights on as she went. The sound echoed. Rafe looked around. It looked like any other old white person house, with photos on the wall – jeez, Ros was cute, standing there smiling with more life than the real living breathing version of her next to him had – and knick-knacks and lacey doll-thingies and the smell of lavender and foot cream tinging the air. It was also cold, despite the leftover day’s warmth, and as quiet as

(the grave)

the night. Rafe shivered, wishing he was angry again instead of uneasy as his brain took all that info and burped up thoughts of clowns and changed children and Ros searching for something that wanted to eat him and the people he loved without so much as a yes please.

“Gran?” called Ros again. “Grandpa?”

“Don’t think anyone is here,” Rafe muttered, walking up the hall and peering through open doorways. A parlour, a room for sitting and nothing else, a closed door he assumed was the basement, a kitchen, a bathroom: no people.

He looked at the basement door and, for a moment, smelled something rotten in the air. No mames, he definitely didn’t like it in there, not one bit. Not even at his most angry was he gonna open that damnable door that probably led down into the earth where dead things lurked; he’d always hated stuff that lived wet in the mud.

Ros was going upstairs. He followed, casting a nervous look over his shoulder as she opened doors and leaned in, leaving them open behind her. There was definitely no one here.

He did the same though since it was better than looking down at that basement door, finding more rooms with uncertain purposes and, suddenly, a room with a definite purpose.

“Yo, this yours?” he asked, walking in without waiting for permission as his curiosity overcame his good sense. Here was Rosaline, this girl who’d been puzzling him since the start of summer and who his interest in was overcoming even his nervousness about the current immediate state of his world. Dead voices in radios and boys maybe gone missing were one thing; this room with the puffed lace on the covers over the bed and the sporty posters over the walls and the paintings of butterflies and dragons, this was here and now and smelled much different to the rest of the house. It was a nice change from rot and old, he thought, breathing in and feeling relieved for all the pretty things girls offered, like perfumes and soft mouths and nice smiles and sad eyes that didn’t need to stay sad if they were told enough that they were gorgeous and special.

Rafe was the kind of boy who flittered from love to love like a hummingbird searching for enough nectar to keep his frantic heart beating, but he was also the kind of boy who hurt a little more every time he found dents and scratches in all those girls’ facades. Girls who’d been told they were ugly (when they weren’t) or fat (when they were young and needed boosting up not kicking down) or bossy (when in fact their terrible sin had been to speak and be heard in a way he’d have been commended for).

“Oh jeez, don’t look,” Ros said from behind him with a quiet laugh. “I decorated this place when I was a kid and Grandpa told me to do it, it’s so …”

“It’s happy,” Rafe said, sitting on that puffed-lace bed and fiddling with the corner of the blanket. “You decorated it? You must have been happy too.”

She looked at him and Rafe almost ripped his gaze away: for a single, tortured moment, she’d looked at him with blank, dead eyes and he was sure he’d just seen a ghost or a corpse come to life standing before him, something dead or dying and just not quite laid to rest yet. But the moment passed and she was a girl again, just a girl his age like any other who was worried about her family just like he was and scared of monsters like he was too and maybe wondering what their future held in store for them all, same as him. With her blonde hair darker than her sister’s and her bottom lip chewed from her straight, white teeth and a gold necklace around her throat that cut and glittered in the light from the bulb overhead, mottled by the lace lampshade wrapped around it.

“What would you do if you thought you were going to die?” she asked him.

He laughed and the sound was thin, grating. Rusted, like a gate barely used, even though he used his laugh a lot but not this laugh, this high, unsettled laugh. “I don’t know,” he said. “Never really considered it seeing as it’s a long way off, don’t you think?” She didn’t answer. “Rosaline?”

She still didn’t answer.

“Hey,” he said, heart beating quicker just like that hummingbird’s wings. “Hey, hey, no. Not like that. No thinking of that. We’re not dying, sad girl. None of us is dying, not one. Not me, not you, not anyone we love. We’re gonna kick that unholy cunthole of a clown right back to whatever hell circus he popped out of, and we’re all gonna walk right out of here. Understood?”

“I think,” she said, coming towards him like she was for some reason drawn to his rough hands on her childish bed, “I think maybe something horrible should happen though, don’t you? Something the clown can’t hide or twist. Something too big to ignore.”

“That something ain’t us dying,” he said even firmer now. “Don’t even go considering it, ay? Come on, not when I’m just getting to know you. That would be a mean trick, get me interested and worried for you and your sad eyes and then wipe out on me, that’s mean. And I can’t keep this place under control by myself, shit, who would I rely on then? Aaron? He’s half in love with Emily and she’s a wildcard. The kind of girl that a boy like him claws on hard to, all his brain cells fantasising about her, and that doesn’t let up easy. If she decides she’s heading to Canada, he’d probably follow just to get a leg over, right?”

Ros laughed and he savoured the sound.

“I thought you were interested in Sarah,” she accused him. There it was: he saw it in her eyes now, that spark of life as she cocked a hip and raised an eyebrow at him. “You’ve been smiling at her an awful lot.”

“I smile at everyone,” he said. “And everyone smiles back because I’m irrepressible, everyone except you. You seem immune to my charms. That clown got you that beat that you can’t smile anymore, huh? You letting him beat you?”

“Never,” she said, closer now. Close enough that he could see the weave in her denim jeans, see the chipped paint on her nails. See how stubborn her mouth was, under all that sad. “I’d never let him win. I told him once if I ever faced him again, I’d do it on my terms. I mean that.”

“Atta’ girl,” said Rafe. She was close enough to kiss now if she’d only lean towards him. “That spark? That’s what’s getting us out of here. Don’t lose that.”

She gave him a look that was all fervour, just as bright and sneaky as his firework anger had been earlier. “Guess Grandma won’t be home for a bit,” she said. Rafe, like any other boy would when looked at like that, grinned. “We have time to be stupid while we’re alive to do it, right?”

“Christ, yes,” he said, never considering that she was being selfish despite the danger looming: never considering that she was using him to feel alive just one last time: she was seventeen and alive and he was seventeen and alive too; in those frantic, fumbling minutes of him and her and their basest of desires, it felt like even Hell couldn’t touch them.

Even if he’d known at the time why she’d had sex with him, he would have loved her for it because it was human in all the ways that it would break his heart.

 

2

Spencer Reid takes the blame.

One of them had wet the bed. Spencer didn’t think it had been him – his pants felt dry except where he’d been leaning on the damp bit – but one look at the white-eyed terror on Sean’s face triggered some small child instinct buried deep inside him, an instinct that told him that it needed to be him even if it hadn’t been.

“We’re gonna get in so much trouble,” Sean wheezed through barely open lips, not even moving out of the soggy patch of sheet. Spencer looked from Sean to the sleeping form of the boy who was supposed to be watching them – Jackson? He thought his name might be Jackson, although he’d never talked to him before – and then over to where the other bunk had three more sleeping forms. The bunk above them had two small kids, just a bit older than Spencer and Sean. Girls, though, so Spencer didn’t know them. “They’ll tell Dad and Dad will whup me for it, he’ll get me good oh no oh no, it’s so bad, it’s so bad to mess the bed oh no …”

“I did it,” Spencer whispered, shuffling out of bed. He was wary as he put his feet on the floor, but nothing grabbed him. “It’s my mess. I’ll clean it up before they catch us and then we won’t get in trouble.” They wouldn’t get the dreaded ‘it’. Spencer still didn’t know exactly what that was but also didn’t want to find out. “How do we clean it without anyone seeing?”

Jackson snored from his propped-up seat, head hanging back and mouth open. Spencer thought that maybe he was being bad too, since Aaron, after herding as many kids in here to sleep as could fit, had told Jackson to keep watch until he came back. But that wasn’t watching; that was sleeping.

“We could wash your blankets and sheets.” Sean slipped out from the covers, not even pausing before stepping out of bed, and having grabbed firmly to the notion of it being Spencer’s mess, not his. Unlike Spencer, he was aware that frightening things in the night came through the bedroom door, not from under the bed, and there was a price to be paid for badness. “There’s a washing machine in the room where the phones are. I know how to use a washing machine. Aaron showed me. Put your shoes on and we can sneak over before people wake up.”

Happy that he wasn’t quite as alone as he’d felt, Spencer did as he was told. Getting dressed was a ritual and rituals he was comfortable with. Jeans still folded from his mom’s hands. Shirt, tucked in. Sweater overtop. Sean did the same, both being as quiet as possible. As Spencer was pulling his socks on – odd socks, which felt comforting to him too in a way he didn’t know how to explain – and sliding his shoes over them, he felt a semblance of control sneak back into his life. He was okay. He could do this. Maybe he could go to a library and find a book on what he’d seen, learn about it and understand it. After all, he could read ever so well and books had only just now started letting him down so he wasn’t certain that they’d continue doing so. Most exciting, maybe the books could help find Ethan.

“Ready?” Sean asked impatiently.

Spencer abandoned his shoelaces, having never gotten the knack of tying them, and nodded. With the bedding bundled up in Spencer’s arms and Sean’s soiled clothes inside that bundle, they slipped out of the cabin and into the weak dawn light. They marched down the path, neither looking left nor right nor anywhere that wasn’t where they were going; this was because both boys knew that, if they looked into the dark, the dark was likely to be looking back. It was the same reason why you never, ever looked out a window at night time, because there would definitely be a face out there, a terrible face. And if you saw that face outside, it might just take that as an excuse to come inside and say hello …

There was a light in the laundry room and both boys breathed again when they closed the door behind them, safe again. Closing out those watchful shadows. Spencer felt tired now like he’d walked a mile instead of only twenty feet and some. He couldn’t sleep at this place, not without being scared or bad.

As Sean walked towards the two washers set against the wall with their colours faded and the buttons worn right down, Spencer looked to the right and studied the phones there. An idea clicked: he could call his mom. Nothing was stopping him; the phones didn’t take change, that he could see. And she would answer, even though it was three hours earlier there and therefore two a.m. and Mom would be asleep – she’d still answer. Or Dad. One of them would, anyway, and he could tell them about the clown and ask them to come find Ethan so he could actually go home and ask if he could go home too, and if he was bad even though he hadn’t meant to mess the bed and if that meant Sean was bad too.

He wondered, for a second, if he could ask if Sean could come home with him too; he didn’t think Sean had a very nice dad and maybe Spencer’s dad would be nicer. Maybe if Sean came, Aaron would too, and he’d get two brothers. That would be wild!

He decided that was what he would do, standing on tiptoes to pick up the phone with one hand while dialling the number his mom had been sure to make him memorise. People had come to his school with colouring books and stickers saying Stranger Danger with blank spaces to write his home phone number on so he would remember it and be able to call home if he felt in danger. Well, he felt in danger now and wished he had one of those stickers to confirm his shaking fingers were dialling the right number as the line hummed and then rang dully in his ear.

But no one picked up.

He pressed the button down to reset the call and tried again, playing with the cord as he waited. Sean was trying to work out the door of the washer, the bedding dropped carelessly in the middle of the room where Spencer had abandoned it.

“Who you calling?” Sean asked, noticing where he was.

“Mom,” Spencer said. “Do you think your dad would let you live with me if you asked?”

Sean looked startled. “I don’t think so,” he said. “But that would be amazing. I wish I could.”

“I’m going to ask Mom anyway,” Spencer said, earning a half-excited, half-miserable stare from his friend. “Mom never hits.”

The line connected. “Reid residence,” said his dad’s sleepy voice, Spencer’s heart leaping in his chest with utter glee – he was safe! Here was his dad, to help them both! Nothing could hurt him now, Dad would never let it hurt him –  “Hello?”

“Dad, it’s Spencer,” Spencer rambled. “I want to come home, can I come home? It’s not nice here and Ethan’s gone and I messed the bed and I’m sorry but it was an accident, I didn’t mean to and my friend wants to come too because his –”

William, when he spoke again, sounded annoyed. “If this is a prank, it’s not funny,” he snapped, Spencer freezing as he panicked about whether he really was in trouble or not. “Who’s there?”

“Me?” Spencer whispered, closing his eyes and hearing that beetle from the bathroom all those weeks ago tock tock tocking against the light again, desperately slamming itself to death trying to get to what it saw as safety. “Daddy, it’s me.”

“Daddy, it’s me,” said a thin, cruel voice over the phone. “Daddy! Daddy come help me, I pissed the bed like a baby, a little crawling baby, and baby is scared.”

Spencer dropped the phone and hurtled away from it, tripping over the sheets in his rush and hitting his head against the table leg as he fell, pain making him cry out. Sean was talking too, but Spencer’s focus was locked on that handset swinging on its cord, rotating gently around. Watching as it spun so the back was facing him. Watching as it spun again, the mouthpiece and earpiece coming into view, those neat rows of holes through which he’d thought safety could be found … watching as a beetle, impossibly, squeezed out of those tiny holes like it was made of Jell-o, flicking its wings as it pushed out and crawled down to fall to the ground. Much bigger now than it had been, and still growing as they stared at it.

There was silence between the boys as they watched that impossible beetle. Even from across the room and with Spencer’s head ringing dully from the knock he’d given it, they could hear the dial-tone issuing forth, but neither was going to walk over there to pick it up and put it back into its cradle.

“Spence?” Sean said finally, his voice shrill and tight. When Spencer looked at him, he found him hunkered against the washer with his face sweat-shiny and his fingers bunched in his pyjama top. “Ethan’s at the window.”

Oh, how Spencer wanted nothing less than to see. He couldn’t look, he knew. Too many impossible things were suddenly becoming possible and he wasn’t the kind of boy who could shrug that off. He simply couldn’t do it; perhaps as some deep protective instinct against the chaos his sick mother represented, he’d determinedly ordered his small world into a perfect understanding of what was Possible and what was Impossible. Every action had a predictable and logical reaction. Things like tiny beetles small enough to get out of handsets only to become bigger beetles didn’t happen; missing boys reappearing without warning didn’t happen; clowns in camp bathrooms didn’t happen; voices saying his name and the names of the kids with him didn’t come out of car radios. Not in his world where things made sense and, those things that didn’t make sense, he could soon force to make sense after only a small amount of time spent with a book.

Spencer Reid, instead of accepting the impossible, chose the most rational, predictable option left to him. He did not look at the window. If he had, he might have been shocked and dangerously allured by what he’d see, but he didn’t. He held out his hand to Sean, who crept over without taking his eyes off that lurking shape, and he said, “When I say run, run. And don’t let go. Run!”

After all, running had worked before, and this time they didn’t have to go anywhere near as far; he knew that JJ’s cabin was near, and JJ would have one of the big kids with her too. It wouldn’t dare attack a big kid.

They ran. Neither looked back, which was fortunate, until their little hands were scrabbling at the door handle of JJ’s cabin and finding it locked. As soon as they realised that, they cried out with strident calls of terror. Behind them, they were sure, clawed hands would be reaching to drag them back and eat them up and –

The door yanked open, a sleepy Sarah Morgan staring at them.

“Who the fuck let you two out?” she snapped when she saw them. “And what –”

She’d stopped because she’d looked behind them and her eyes had gone big, gone shocked, gone scared. The boys dived past her as a terrible growl sounded.

“Oh my god!” screamed Sarah, slamming the door shut before either could see what it was; inside the cabin, girls were sitting up in their beds, JJ scrambling out of hers when she saw the two boys cowering there. Spencer caught a glimpse of Penelope and another girl he didn’t know on the top bunks peering down, Penelope without her glasses – and then the door went BANG and groaned right down the middle with a sound like a tree falling as some momentous weight leaned upon it.

That growl came again, followed by what was undoubtedly the sound of a huge beast dragging in a wet, snuffling breath. The boys backed up fast, JJ catching them by their shoulders and pulling them back with her as everyone in the cabin scurried as far away as they could from that groaning door.

Sarah dived for a radio sitting by a bed made up on the floor, holding the button down and whispering into it, “Rafe, Rafe, Aaron, Emily, someone! There’s a bear here, I think it’s – ahhhh!”

They’d all screamed because the wood had buckled. Spencer was suddenly surrounded by taller kids fighting over trying to get as far back as possible despite them already being against the wall. Someone was crying; yet another girl dived under a bunk with a tiny shriek; Sarah was standing in front of them holding the radio in one hand – which was silent – and a tennis racket in the other.

“You’re holding the button down,” Spencer whispered, staring at the two-way radio Sarah was grimly white-knuckled onto with one hand. Her hand was on the transmit button still; they couldn’t hear if someone was coming. He and Ethan had used to play radios. They’d made the same mistake, sometimes.

But he couldn’t make his voice loud enough for her to hear him through the frantic chattering of the terrified girls around him, and then an elbow hit him in the spot he’d smacked against the table and he bit down hard on his tongue. Tasting blood and whimpering as his head ached.

“The window?” someone cried as the door finally split, two deadly claws appearing for a second before vanishing to be replaced with the animal’s snout. Spencer caught a glimpse of a white-foamed mouth with teeth that felt like they were as big as him, and one rolling, staring, reddened eye, before the snout vanished and the claws came back.

They looked to the window, which was on the same wall as the door.

Sarah began to cry too, turning her back on the door and shoving through the group of scared kids to grab her sister in a horrified hug, pulling Dezzi’s head close to her chest.

Spencer, seeing that, felt a terrible peace sink into him. He’d passed right through white-hot terror and into a paralytic calm. Around his hand, JJ’s grip slackened as though she felt that same deadly armistice despite the animal that seemed to be almost toying with them. It hadn’t even been a minute, but Spencer was certain it could have broken that door in a fraction of that time. He’d seen the size of those teeth.

For the briefest of seconds, there was a calamitous calm in the cabin.

Suddenly, JJ came to life behind him: “The wet corner!” she gasped, lunging forward and ignoring Penelope’s hands that grabbed for her to try and yank her back. “Someone help me – here!”

There was a bucket in the corner, overflowing with water from somewhere. Spencer stared at it and then looked up to where the damp had settled into the roof and wall, before looking down at the floorboards revealed as JJ kicked the bucket aside, spilling water everywhere. It had been a joke from the moment they’d arrived in this place, among the children older than Sean and Spencer anyway, that in the event of a fire it would be easier to escape through the walls than the doors; the joke was just as accurate in regards to the floorboards which had been installed on the cheap, out of code, and using untreated pine which softened when exposed to damp such as the corners of several cabins where the rain pooled from blocked drains and ran inside the rooms to collect in the dips of buckled floors.

JJ, right now, attacked that floorboard. The boards bit back at her hands, her nails catching in her desperation. But she wouldn’t be stopped.

Like they were coming back to life, the other girls moved. Sarah went for her dropped tennis racket; Penelope, a metal-poled broom. As the door finally began to give way to the bear-thing’s lazy paws, they attacked the floor with a frenzy that cornered rats would have been envious of, the other girls clustered around screaming at them to hurry hurry hurry hurry

From outside, more shouting.

The floorboards gave way. Spencer watched, too stunned and still sluggish with the freeze working through him, but Sarah screamed at the girls to move and grabbed him. Both her hands around his arms gripping him painfully, she boldly threw him at that hole; go go go, get through, now! she was screaming, and he came to life and did as he was told as quickly as possible. Splintered wood ripped at him, hands from above hitting and shoving him as he wiggled through the barely big-enough hole before he fell through a thick bed of cobwebs, feeling things touch his face with spidery-legs and crawling feelings. He screamed and thrashed in the dusty, damp dark below the cabin. All over his face, his arms, he was sure he was covered in spiders that would bite him and he’d die and they’d spin a web over him and –

Someone landed on him with a tiny shriek before scurrying away without seeming to notice the webs: Sean. The light pouring in from the room above was blocked again, someone small wiggling through and falling on top of Spencer; an elbow slammed into his nose and he sobbed with pain, his glasses flying off.

“Oh no!” he heard JJ gasp, grabbing whatever part of him she could reach – his shirt – and dragging him with her away from the hole. Another girl was through and hands were ripping at the soft wood to make room for those who needed to get through still.

Above them, they heard the door give. Now, the screaming was beyond terrified; it was pure, absolute, deathly fear.

“Crawl, Spence, crawl!” JJ screeched at him, slapping him as she tried to coax him back without being able to see him properly. Spencer crawled, hoping he wasn’t going in the direction of the bear and finding himself fetched up against pipework where Sean was already huddling with lines of light from the cracks between the floorboards above barely illuminating his face. Around them, they could see suggestions of daylight from the slats set to stop animals – and children – from getting under the raised cabins, but they couldn’t see –

The floors above then groaned; the bear was inside. Spencer couldn’t see if anyone else had gotten through; he didn’t know who was down here and who wasn’t. The screaming was gutting something deep inside him, and he could hear a radio somewhere shouting too. More yelling as the bear roared; Spencer turned his head to look at JJ and almost smacked his eye into a pipe, everything a mass of indistinct shapes to his eyes without his lost glasses.

“Where’s Hannah!?” cried a voice in the darkness, Spencer turning towards that voice and seeing nothing but more cobwebs and unsteady shadows in the uneven light that flinched and huddled down every time the floor above them buckled with heavy, shuffling thumps.

A small hand grabbed Spencer’s from behind him; Sean was okay back there.

“She wouldn’t get out from under the bed,” Sarah said. “I tried to drag her out, but it came too fast and she –”

They all went quiet, listening to what came next.

The screaming had stopped.

It sounded, Spencer thought dazedly, like one of those cartoons where a character was chewing on something that looked a lot nicer on the TV than it was in real life. A whole chicken or piece of steak, the sounds exemplified into this tearing, gnashing noise. It didn’t sound like a real sound, this chewing and smacking and crunching.

Something wet dripped into his face from above. He looked up, feeling it run down his cheek.

“Oh my god is it ea –” Penelope began, her voice a shriek.

“Quiet.” JJ, sounding far more adult in that second than her eleven years should have allowed her to sound. “Don’t say it.”

“But –”

“What’s that noise?” Sean, his voice so small that Spencer wished he could cover his ears for him and block it out; Spencer, who loved horror movies and animal documentaries with the eating left in even though he was too young and his dad said he shouldn’t see them, thought he might know exactly what that bear was doing above them. It was a vivid moment for him as his brain took the knowledge of that sound and made the logical leap with it: there was really nothing different about the unlucky antelope and the slowest child.

“Oh no, honey, it’s nothing, it’s nothing, oh my gosh,” Penelope rambled, sobs choking her voice. “It’s nothing, we can’t hear it, we can’t hear it.”

“Be quiet.” JJ again.

“It knows we’re here! It’s going to –”

They gasped in unison.

The snout was pushing down into the hole in the floor. No one moved. No one even breathed except the creature which blew hot, sickly smelling air into the dank space that they were crushed into; that narrow, grimy, spider-filled hole between cabin and ground where nothing lived but things that loved the dark.

Spencer thought he might faint, or vomit, or both. Someone was praying. He thought it might be Sarah or maybe even Desiree, although he didn’t know if she was down here or not and their voices were similar enough that he wasn’t sure. Whoever it was, someone was trying to invoke God in a place where no God could be found; even Spencer, at six, suspected that nothing so kind had ever looked in this direction and faced what lurked here.

The bear began to gnaw thoughtfully on the hole, the wood crushed by its devastating jaws. Spencer could see what was going to happen. It was going to chew through the floor so it could use those big claws to scoop them up like plucking the meat from an oyster and it was going to crunch them right up, just like the girl who wouldn’t get out from under the bed.

There was no shouting outside anymore. Whoever had been yelling out there had either gone quiet or run away. Spencer knew which one he would have picked.

“Can we crawl to the side and break a board?” someone whispered.

“Do it, go,” Sarah responded, turning with difficulty – her head kept knocking the boards above – and trying to push as many kids as she could reach in the direction of the side. But, like sheep, most of them were too stunned to move. Only one went, the sound of small nails scratching at the wood sounding out. Spencer inched back on his butt, keeping his eyes on that chewing snout and the dripping saliva that kept catching the light as it fell into their space. It stank. Like rot and damp (and, weirdly, a bit like popcorn burning). He watched that, thinking suddenly of the book he and Ethan had been reading together and how he wished they’d been able to finish it before, just as quickly, remembering the night in the bathroom.

The clown hadn’t liked being read to.

“Have peace now,” he began, raising his voice and earning a chorus of shushes from the girls around him, but he kept on, “until the morning and h-heed no nightly noises! For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top.” The bear snarled, but Spencer yelled at it, “Good night!”

There was a beat of shocked quiet before the chewing started again, angrier this time.

Angry too, Spencer repeated himself, sitting up on his knees as someone yanked at his shirt. “Nothing passes door and window here,” he yelled at the bear, “save moonlight and starlight and the wind, so good night, Mr Bear, goodnight and go away, thank you!”

Someone was laughing, small hiccupping sobs that sounded like they hurt, the hysterical laughter of the doomed. Those small nails were still clawing at the wood behind them, which wasn’t giving, and Spencer was angry now; this bear, this thing, it was all the bad stuff. It was his bad dreams and the man in their room and it was Ethan being gone and it was the girls’ fear and everything wicked.

So he said, again and with his anger colouring his voice, “Have peace now until the morning and heed no nightly noises,” thinking again of Tom Bombadil and how he wouldn’t fear a nightmare bear and how Ethan wouldn’t have either because Ethan was never scared, even when it would be smart to be. They’d have both laughed at it, laughed in its face, and even though Spencer was scared right down to his bits and pieces, he still shouted, “Good night!” at the monster creature above them.

To his surprise, a voice joined him. When he began the passage again – the passage that was the last he and Ethan had reached in their book before Ethan had left – that voice read along.

It was Sarah. Shortly after, it was Penelope too, and then JJ who was breathing hard and who, Spencer now knew, was the one trying to kick the wood free so they could crawl out.

The bear above was deathly silent because they were all shouting at it now, their words tangling and most of them getting the passage wrong, but for some reason, for some strange and unfathomable reason … it was working?

Working until it wasn’t when suddenly the bear let loose a gut-wrenching bellow and slammed onto the floor, which buckled.

They all screamed.

Something hit the board by JJ, who howled and crashed back into Penelope, who in turn crawled over Sean, who – Spencer stopped being able to tell what was happening, as the something hit the wood again, buckling it. Suddenly huge paws were ripping wrathfully at the dirt and reaching for them through that growing hole above, but Aaron’s face had appeared right beside them on the other side of the buckled wood and with only that wood separating him from JJ, a crowbar in his hand.

He covered his lips with one finger in a desperate command for them not to give him away, slid the bar into place, and heaved.

 

3

Rosaline Jareau takes his hand.

In the middle of everything awful, Rosaline had found one bright spark and was cupping it tightly in her shivering hands, frantic to cling to anything that made her feel like she might see another morning come. Even if that spark came in the glint of his dark eyes, his crooked smile, and the way he looked at her like she knew he’d looked at so many other girls before – and would look at girls when she was dead and gone, she hoped. It was a spark. It was something.

She knew now that there was no escape from this, not for her. But for Rafe? For JJ? For all the other kids around her who she hadn’t connected with, who she barely saw at this point as more than background characters to her tragic existence? That was the thing about dying, it made everything seem so unimportant. There was no point making human connections because they’d be snuffed out with the last thump of her lazy heart; there was no point living because there’d be no her to remember it. So maybe she’d decided to have sex with him because he seemed into it and because he was there and handsome and smiling and made her feel normal even though she knew something was twisted inside her.

Or maybe she had sex with him because it was the greatest fear of every human to die alone, the irony of that being that dying alone was inevitable.

Her grandparents hadn’t returned and, as the dawn broke and still feeling slick and pleasantly sore in the way any physicality left muscles used, Ros walked beside him back down that broken path to where the camp slept. He was silent, as was she, but every time she looked at him, he had a shy smile just for her. Only for a second did she allow herself to contemplate what they could have if they weren’t facing the butcher’s knife, but only for a second. The ugly truth was that they were lined up to die. There was no escaping that.

Even as she reminded herself of this, as though to affirm the plan she’d begun to consider and what was feeling more and more ineluctable with every grim day that passed, her hand sought his and her fingers curled around the rough ones waiting: a human connection was made, despite herself.

Then they heard the screaming.

It slammed Ros into the past – remembering standing on this very path looking down onto the camp and hearing screams that no one else seemed to respond to. She remembered running. She remembered being too late.

She remembered that, this time, her sister was down there.

“Jennifer!” she howled with the fear of every parent realising the stroller was empty or the pool gate open. And then she was running, Rafe beside her, sneakers slamming the ground and every warm spark she’d found guttering in that husky dawn light. The sun was swallowed by the grim clouds surrounding, the air tortured and still. The screams carried; along with them, roaring. A bellowing, a beastly trumpeter of animalistic hunger and instinct. A sound that only had one meaning to anyone listening: today, I feed. And any listening creature with good sense fled.

The humans of the camp didn’t.

Ros dashed out into the campground, past cabins with faces pressed to the windows, the inhabitants too scared to emerge. She ran past clustered groups of children curious enough to emerge from their safe havens, but not driven enough to move closer. And she almost slammed straight through the chaos that was the older kids, milling together in a frantic crowd right by –

JJ’s cabin.

JJ’s cabin with the door ripped right down the middle, splintered like some great hand had taken the world’s sharpest axe to it. JJ’s cabin with the roars, and the screams, coming from within.

“No,” Ros might have whispered. Certainly, Rafe grabbed her around the belly and lifted her back as though she’d gone to plunge right into that room alongside her sister.

“They’re under the cabin,” someone said – Emily? It sounded like Emily – Ros fighting Rafe to try and see. And there, she saw flickers of movement between the gaps in the lower slats, the people huddled within clustered up against the wood like they were water in a dam trying to break.

But the creature was above them and, as Ros watched, they weren’t breaking through.

“Calm down!” Rafe yelled at her, throwing her down as she kicked backwards and got him hard in the knee. “Ros, no. You can’t run over there. It’ll go for you.”

“That’s my fucking sister!” she screamed back.

“Aaron!” Emily cried.

They all looked, Ros panting and Rafe distracted. Aaron was army-crawling towards the slats where the girls were, a crowbar tucked at his side. It was at the front of the cabin, the window and door right there, and Ros despaired: why hadn’t they gone in any other direction? The creature would only need to lift its head and it’d see Aaron. Why didn’t they crawl away now?

They watched in slow motion as he wedged the bar in, and began to heave.

They watched just as slowly through the window as a great shape in the cabin lifted its head and swung around to look at him; he hadn’t made a noise, but the creature seemed to know.

It was going to kill him. It would reach out so simply with one great paw. Ros could see it now. See the huge paws, those curved claws, the dripping teeth, the rotted eye sockets that seemed red one moment and silver the next. It was a mockery of a bear, a child’s idea of something turned rabid.

It was him.

Ros spun out of reach of Rafe and ran forward, ignoring their exclamations as she raced past Aaron and the kids trapped down there who cried out in unison. Through that splintered door she ran, skidding to a stop on the ruined floor and finding exactly why the kids had crawled to such an inhospitable spot: the floorboards they’d broken to get down there would have dropped them right into the pipes from the small sink area each cabin was equipped with. They wouldn’t have had a choice but to crawl forward when, really, they’d have had a better chance crawling back.

Above that hole, was Pennywise. She knew him as a clown (a dancing clown, he’d told her the first time they’d clashed), but right now he was this monster bear with no intelligence to be seen in his dark, sunken eyes. She knew it was him despite this. Nothing else could be so terrible.

Ros clasped her locket in her sweaty hands and took two trembling steps forward, holding it out in front of that dumb animal glare. The bear shifted, the boards creaking below, and breathed hot, sick air onto her. Stinking air that choked in her throat and clogged up her airways, making the words she fumbled for snarl around her dry tongue.

“I told you you couldn’t have her,” she said. Attempting to be firm, but he stared at her and twisted his muzzle into an inimical approximation of a clown’s painted grin. She thought she could see something squirming between those rotten teeth. “Get the hell away from my sister.”

The bear took a single step back, the floorboards bending dangerously under its great paws. And another. Bolstered, Ros advanced upon it, her voice growing confident and her hands holding the locket steady.

She wondered if Aaron had broken the board yet, if he’d gotten them away. Surely she’d bought them enough time that –

The bear lashed out with terrific speed. The pain didn’t come immediately; the first she knew of it was that she was being lifted as effortlessly as Rafe had lifted her before with one arm hooked around her belly, except this time it was because there were claws around her throat and she was being wrenched into the air with all her weight resting on those divisive points.

But the pain came, as pain was wont to do, when she was hanging suspended and gasping with those points tipping her head back so she was staring at the ceiling without any air to keep her struggling body continuing on. She should have been decapitated, she’d think later, with the way the creature was holding her; her only assumption was that he’d dulled the claws to avoid ripping her in two. It was an accurate assumption: as angry as he was growing as his easy prey here proved frustrating and a small group of children in Derry eluded him, Pennywise always preferred to toy with his food first.

Fear sweetened the meat.

When she fell, she fell heavily, landing in a tumbled heap with no sense of up or down or whether she was alive; just that suddenly there was a heavy paw crushing her ribs and those calamitous jaws loomed into view. They were everything she could see. For that brief moment, they were her entire world. There was nothing else except the floorboards under her that her useless hands slapped and scrabbled at, her feet kicking weakly, and those dripping jaws above as black spots bloomed.

She was dying.

Pennywise spoke with the bear’s guttural throat; despite this, his voice was almost pleasant.

“I’ll enjoy crushing you the most,” It said in that calm, mundane voice only slightly distorted by the bear’s teeth and tongue. “Perhaps after I crawl down to your sister and rip out her still-beating heart so you can hear her dying first.”

Ros choked. She wheezed. She

(died)

had never heard It like this, so calm and yet she could sense some frustrated anger building inside it. Something, somewhere (Bill Denbrough and his friends, although she’d never know them) was frustrating this monstrous creature who she was certain had existed before humans had invented a word to describe it.

Her hands slowed, fingers scratching one last gentle time at the wood, almost a caress, before falling still. Her feet tipped down. Her heart thumped, stuttered; she thought of her sister and felt a last, desperate burst of love. At that second, her earlier cynicism faded and she wanted furiously to kiss Rafe again and feel him kiss her back. She wanted to grow old and live long enough to feel settled with herself and she wanted babies with a pretty man while also wanting to strike her own path alone; she wanted with the pure longing of someone who knows now that they will never have any of the above.

A small part of her hoped

(because one’s death feels so big, so indeterminably huge, it MUST summon her parents here to save her sister, and she believed this completely)

maybe she could be the last.

“No one is coming to save you or her,” snarled the beast, which was when the world burst into flame. Ros couldn’t scream; she had no air to do so. The bear did though, staggering to the side as its face was consumed by the blaze that seared right through to his rotted bone. Ros saw through her reddened eyes – a vein had popped in one, turning the white red – its skin begin to melt and drip down to sear a line onto her cheek.

The flame stopped and, for a second, there was silence.

Ros turned her head with the last of her strength to look at her saviour, even as she greedily gulped air down expanding lungs free of the bear’s weight.

“Eat shit!” screamed Emily, brandishing a can of Bold Hold Hairspray (for a hold that holds up under pressure, said the can in black lettering on neon pink) in one hand and a green Zippo in the other. With that, she blasted the hairspray once more over the click of the lighter, the fire fast and hot and vicious.

Ros, for some time, drifted.

When she came to, she was laid in the dirt outside the burning cabin, someone’s arms around her shoulders and everyone talking at once. She could smell scorched meat and something metallic; she could taste blood and rot; and her whole body hurt from top to toe, but especially her throat and head which thunk thunk thunked like there was a rotary band having a bang-up in there. Someone was holding her hand. She managed to wrangle her brain together enough to look at whose hand it was, finding JJ sitting there all snot-nosed and red-faced and sniffling. Absolutely covered in dirt and cobwebs and gross things, so much that Ros ached to throw her into some water or hose her down or something.

“Hey, knobs, shut up – she’s awake.” Rafe’s face bobbed into view overhead of her, upside-down and creased with worry. It was his arms around her. “Rosaline? Are you dead?”

“Did Aaron get them out?” Ros rasped through a throat filled with knives. “All of them?”

“Yeah,” said a quiet voice. She turned some more – having to sit up to see, but Rafe supported her – and found Aaron in the dirt with her, Sean in his lap barely visible through the possessive circle of Aaron’s arms wrapped around him. “Except …”

“It ate Hannah,” JJ whispered with a cautious look at Sean and the other small one, Spencer, who was standing by Emily anxiously clicking a button on a black pen like it was all he could focus on right now. His face was bleeding and he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Emily was bleeding too, one side of her face grazed to shit like she’d been thrown down hard and with what looked like burns on the reddened hand curled close to her chest. “We think, anyway. There wasn’t anything left …”

“Just blood,” someone else said. Ros closed her eyes.

“The phones are all dead,” said one of the female counsellors, one of the ones Ros always had trouble remembering. She opened her eyes and looked at her to try and jog her memory, finding her standing next to the other male counsellor (Jackson?), who, for some reason, had a bloodied nose and blackened eye. “We tried to call out and they’re all silent. Not even a dial tone.”

Ros looked up. The sun was up. It didn’t make the day any warmer.

“Is the power on?” she asked dreamily like she was walking back through the shadows of her memories and finding them more immediate than expected.

There was a quiet moment. She heard feet move away, a whisper twist through the crowd. While they waited, JJ inched closer. Ros could see her locket around JJ’s neck: good. Maybe there it would do some good.

“Aaron hit Jackson,” JJ whispered to her, eyes flicking to the dark-haired boy who sat there scowling. Now, Ros noted the bruised knuckles on the hand curled around his little brother’s shoulders. “Because he fell asleep instead of watching the kids and the bear almost got them. He was so angry … it was scary. He only stopped hitting when Sean started crying.”

Ros could imagine. Aaron’s was a dark, terrifying fury.

A girl ran back from the cabin where she’d been flicking the light switch back and forth. “All the lights are broke!” she shouted, the words sounding almost excited as she bounced and grinned a gap-toothed smile. Her novelty sneakers flashed every time she stepped, bright sparks glittering along the length of her small feet. “Are the lightbulbs all gone?”

“You killed it, right?” Derek asked Emily, his voice too-loud and cutting right through the chatter of all the gathered camp, the entire campground it seemed minus two (but, Ros thought with a rush of cold, maybe they were here too – Ethan and Hannah standing there invisibly furious that they’d died, that no one seemed to care that they were dead as everyone struggled to come to terms with what had killed them; maybe their ghosts were here still and always would be). “It was on fire when it took off. Surely that will kill it?”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Emily said grimly. “Right, Ros?”

Ros looked at her lap as a sharp wind blew. She opened her mouth to speak but before she could she felt a cold finger down her spine, and spun to look behind her, behind Rafe, to the forest where –

the clown stood there, his balloons bobbing around him and not a single one of them moving with the breeze. He stood there, smiling, unmoving except for his arm, which was waving at her. The balloons turned in unison, revealing that every one of them was decorated with JJ’s smiling face. (I’m coming for her, Rosaline, oh she’ll taste so sweet so good maybe I’ll play a bit first and it will be all your fault because you just won’t die) One by one they began to pop. No one else seemed to notice. Pop pop pop pop pop, until every single one was gone

– nothing was there except the road to Castle Rock, the road which she knew there was no help coming because they didn’t have proof. Just a boy everyone thought had gone home and a teenager they’d say had run away. They didn’t have

(a body)

proof.

“Ros?” Rafe said again. “What do the lights going out mean?”

For the first time, he sounded truly scared.

“I think we should all sleep in the rec hall tonight,” she said, letting go of her sister’s hand. “I know where the circuit breaker is. I can get the lights back, but they won’t stay on.”

Clouds were blowing in over the lake, bringing on a storm from down Derry way. The air it brought was thick and stinking. No one spoke. They all knew they were going to have to face It; only Ros had an inkling of what that would truly mean.

 

4

Penelope Garcia takes a breath.

They were barricaded in the rec hall and the big kids were fighting. The lights were on after four of the big kids had walked up there and turned them back on, but it wasn’t helping make this less horrible. Penelope felt like she couldn’t breathe because it was one thing being scared but it was totally another to see that fear spread into people who were too old to be so frightened. Rafe she could tell was scared because he was yelling and she thought he was looking at Aaron like cats that were gonna fight look at each other, with the same staring eyes. Aaron was scared because he was yelling back and not caring how much his yelling was making Sean cry (and whimper, “Aaron, please stop,” but Aaron wouldn’t). Sarah was scared; she cried without a break, and Emily was scared because she was silent in the corner with her arm around Spencer, who was busy writing in a book that didn’t look like it was for writing.

“We need to run!” Aaron yelled, his hands bunched and a muscle twitching hard in his sharp jaw. “Why are we staying here? That fuck is out there and he’s toying with us. Is that what you want?”

“Ros says running isn’t going to help,” Rafe replied with a snarl to his voice that made Penelope shiver. “You need to shut the fuck up and listen to her. She’s older and smarter than you –”

“She’s going to get us all killed,” Aaron snapped back. “Besides, she’s crazy as fuck. A clown? That’s some damn bullshit. It’s some sick freak and we’re playing into his trick staying here. How do we know she’s not working with him, huh? That she’s not into this too?”

Rafe swung. The yelling grew. Everyone was shrieking now, kids beginning to shove and yell at each other as Aaron lashed back.

Penelope closed her eyes and covered her ears, trying to block out the fight and only succeeding in muffling it. Even worse, muffling the sound reminded her of something else, the meaty thunk of someone hitting someone else sounding like that horrible chewing …

She slapped her hands to the ground, rasping in a breath and finding herself rocking on her ass, responding to some terrible grief ripping out of her. Raw terror cleaving her right down the middle.

And everyone still yelling. Ros was there too, screaming at both boys.

“You’re just like them!” she was spitting at Aaron, shoving him away from Rafe and aiming a slap at his face that would have hurt if it had connected. Penelope felt tears beginning to burn down her cheeks, wishing someone would tell the kids to stop fighting and to hug the smalls and stop them crying, to help whoever smelled like they’d made a mess, to take them all home –  “You’d kill us all without ever realising how wrong you are! All you are is twisted, you’re fucking twisted. No wonder your dad beats the crap out of you!”

Aaron reeled back, going white. Penelope had never seen someone go so pale so fast, staggering like he was sick or drunk.

“Ros,” Rafe said, standing shocked beside her. “Ay, stop, holy fuck.”

“I wish he’d killed you,” Ros hissed with dangerous intensity; she was crying too. “I wish your dad had killed you before you’d ever come here because you’re going to be the death of us, I promise you. The fucked up ones always are. You’ll feed us to it.”

“You bitch,” Aaron breathed, that same white horror still lingering. Penelope caught a glimpse of his dark eyes, and what she saw in them terrified her. “You –”

Penelope didn’t hear what he called her; no one did. There was a loud screeeech of speaker feedback and then noise blasted into the room, silencing every open mouth. A song played at max, the singer’s voice howling into the room along with the electronic thump of the music. Emily stood by the stereo, her expression gaunt. In the stunned aftermath, Emily turned the music down clumsily with her bandaged hand, but they could all still hear the lyrics. Penelope knew this song. She liked it. Depeche Mode was one of her mom’s favourite bands, even if Penelope didn’t know what they were singing about. And Penelope had always liked saying synth-pop, popping the ps in her mouth while giggling at how silly it sounded.

“It’s going to be dark soon,” Emily said in the dazed lull that followed her noise onslaught. “And us fighting is exactly what it wants, right?”

They looked at Ros, who nodded. The hall was so silent aside from wet sniffles that Penelope could hear the wind outside beginning to pick up.

Emily continued, with a calm that didn’t really match the bleakness in her black-ringed eyes, “Right, well then. We’re not doing that anymore because fuck giving this thing an inch. I don’t know what it is, monster or freak or whatever, but I don’t like doing what I’m told. We need mattresses and blankets and flashlights and weapons, and we need to stop acting like dogs trying to show who has the biggest cock because all that’s gonna do is make it easier to get blindsided. Got it?”

“Aces,” answered Rafe.

“Got it,” rasped Aaron.

REM was playing on the stereo now. Penelope sat there unmoving as something shifted through the counsellors. As one and without talking, they broke apart and began to move through the crowd of kids of which Penelope was one, breaking them into groups and getting them to push tables and chairs against all the doors and windows. Still shaking, Penelope helped, an ache of terror biting into her throat and making it impossible to speak. She looked up from helping two thirteen-year-olds take the hinges off the door between the staff kitchen bathroom and the main hall and saw Rafe walking out of that unblocked door with a crowbar in hand and Manny at his side. Emily and Aaron and Ros were all gone too, she realised, leaving them just with Sarah standing guard.

That terror bit hard and shook at her, much like a dog with its prey, until she couldn’t think but to close her eyes and tremble and –

A hand touched her elbow. She gasped, jerking backwards and almost sobbing when her eyes snapped open to find Derek standing there.

“They’ve just gone to get things to sleep on,” he said, obviously having seen her staring at the door. “They’ll be minutes, at most. Promise. Please stop crying, gorgeous girl.”

“You don’t know,” Penelope whispered, abandoning the door to the thirteen-year-olds eager destruction and flinging herself into Derek’s arms with a boldness that would have shocked her if she’d had any brain left to feel shock with. “You didn’t hear, Derek … it ate Hannah. All I could hear was …”

Revulsion surged and she sagged, him holding her up. Barely managing not to puke on him as that wet, smacking sound echoed in her head once more.

“Hey, look –” Derek began, but there was a cruel laugh by him.

They turned, finding two boys standing there leering at them.

“It ate her, Morgan,” one of them simpered, pulling a stupid face. “How come it didn’t eat you then, huh, whale? God, this place is fucked. Fucking bears and clowns, do you think we’re five? No one believes that. Hannah ran away, that’s it, that’s it.”

“You shut your rat face,” Derek growled, his fingers tightening on Penelope’s shoulders. “Conroy, shut the fuck up. You don’t know shit. Don’t think I don’t know that you ran like a pussy when you heard that bear roaring. Too chicken-shit to face it, huh?”

“Bit hard to be scared of something that doesn’t exist,” Conroy bit back. “You want to make something of it, ni –”

A pillow slapped hard into the back of Conroy’s head, him whirling around with his hands up to protect himself. The ripple of laughter that sounded out at his simpering was cruel, Penelope laughing too – but she was seething at him mocking how horrible this was, insinuating that she’d imagined those … noises. Those horrible noises …

“Get your ass over there and help drag mattresses,” Emily told Conroy coldly, the pillow having come from her hands. “Unless you want to sleep outside tonight … alone.”

Conroy went quiet, scuttling away fast with his friend following. Neither mouthed off at her, although Penelope saw Karin, the friend, turn back and gesture rudely with the finger Penelope’s mom had told her she’d chop off if she ever caught Penelope using it for cussing. Emily gestured right back before walking off.

“I wouldn’t want to fuck with her,” Derek said, watching Emily walk away. “Her being quietly angry is so much scarier than Aaron yelling.”

“Nothing’s scarier than Rafe when he’s mad,” Penelope disagreed, looking around for her brother. By now, the windows were fully covered, beds were beginning to be made, and there was a general grumbling about the lack of real food to be found. They’d already eaten through what was in the pantry and fridges, leaving the campers’ snacks the only reserves left to them. Penelope didn’t care. She doubted she’d ever be hungry again.

But Rafe had appeared, Manny with him and Ros helping them both carry a couple of milk crates with them. It only took a second for people to realise what they were holding, a general excited cry of “Food!” going up around the room. What was in the crates was bread and rice and some cartons of eggs that the bigger kids got to cooking as the atmosphere shifted from terrified to waiting.

Penelope, sitting beside Derek and waiting for this night to be over, declined all of it.

The night ticked on. Once fed, kids began to make up games and stories, sticking to their own groups and pushing away the fear of the storm that was now giving the hall a good whupping for sure and their fear of the bear they’d faced earlier. Derek took Pen’s hand and led her over to sit with his sisters, the four of them in a huddled group by one wall on two shared thin mattresses, Sarah letting Penelope under her blanket with her.

Derek stood over them. Penelope feigned sleep, closing her eyes and listening to the chatter of voices around them, kids laughing nervously, the sound of forced cheer. The stereo was playing again, softly.

“Derek, lay down,” Sarah said. “Sleep, come on. Dezzi is. She’s exhausted.”

“Almost dying will do that,” Derek responded.

“Sure, but we didn’t die. Don’t go obsessing over that. We decided tomorrow we’ll get out of here, all of us together, once the storm is blown out.”

“How can you pretend it’s going to be that easy?” Derek’s voice, now that he seemed to think Penelope was asleep and he didn’t need to be calm for her anymore, was shrill. “Hannah died today. A girl you were looking after, she died. And this storm? You don’t think that’s a coincidence, that that happens and now there’s a storm holding us here?”

Sarah took a deep breath, her chest lifting Penelope’s head as it rose and fell. Penelope kept her eyes shut, listening intently. “God works in mysterious ways. I trust in that, and I trust in Rafe.”

“God?” Derek barked a laugh. “There’s no God here, Sarah. God doesn’t give a shit about kids like us, and he never has. Trust me – no matter how much you pray for him to stop bad things, he never does. And he’s not going to stop this. You don’t think Hannah prayed before it killed her?”

“He’s not going to let us get hurt,” Sarah said again, her arm tightening around Penelope. Dezzi made a soft snuffling sound in her sleep, almost drowned out by the noise around them.

“God?” Derek asked. “Or Rafe Garcia?”

“Rafe,” Sarah said firmly. “You know how I know?”

Derek didn’t answer.

“I know because his little sister is right here needing protecting, Derek, just like my little sister and brother are needing protecting. Nothing hurts a little sibling while their big sibling is around to stop it – absolutely nothing. I promise you that.”

“That’s not how it works,” Derek replied. “I gotta protect you. I’m the man now Dad’s dead, and he’d tell me to protect you girls. Not the other way around.”

“Bull. Dad always told me to look out for you and that’s what I’m –” Sarah stopped with a gasp. Everyone had stopped.

Penelope opened her eyes, already knowing what had happened. The shadows on her closed eyelids had changed.

The lights were off.

Whimpers began to roll through the kids, shapes moving in the gloom and yelps sounding out as people knocked shins against chairs or table legs. Some voices called out for quiet. Penelope could hear a soft argument nearby, Emily’s voice rough.

“Why are the lights off? Spencer’s scared of the dark.”

“I’m okay, I’m okay, really,” said a small voice Penelope thought might be Spencer, although it didn’t sound like it was okay, all snuffled and gasping. “I’m okay.”

“No, you’re not. You’re crying. Aaron, get the lights on. What the hell is she doing up there? Ros, what the hell is she playing at?”

Silence. Flashlights began to flicker on, dancing from face to face, lighting up the people caught in their beams until they landed on JJ and Ros sitting together against the wall. JJ was quiet, looking at something held in her hands. Something that glittered.

“Emily, where’s your radio?” Ros answered, her face shadowed as multiple flashlights lit her up like she was their salvation, their saving grace. Penelope’s heart was thumping as the noise of the storm outside grew. No sunlight leaked around the tables propped against the windows, blocking their view of whatever waited outside: night had well and truly fallen. “The battery-operated one?”

“In my bag.” Emily gestured to where they’d stacked up rows of duffle bags and suitcases, every kids’ belongings who’d wanted to bring it here. The cabins were abandoned, ceded ground to the monsters lurking. This was now their stronghold against the dark. “Why?”

“I think you should put it on. Play it loud, okay?”

“Why?” asked Emily again. The wind howled through gaps in the wood. Penelope shuddered.

“She’s right,” Rafe answered. “The less we can hear, the better. Everyone in their beds while we get the lights back on.”

Emily put the radio on, drowned out at first by the sound of thirty-something kids shuffling into blankets and sheets. But the noise died down, no one brave enough to keep their voice raised in this suffocating darkness, and the music rattled on as a barrier between them and the outside world. Penelope stayed where she was, Sarah slipping into the bed with Dezzi beside them and Derek crawling in beside her, wrapping his arms around Penelope and curling close. His heart was hammering too; she thought that he might be just as scared as she was.

Rafe walked by, his flashlight turned on her for a moment – but she closed her eyes and faked sleep again, lying there silent until he walked away without speaking. When she looked again, his flashlight beam had taken him right across that silent room, past the two counsellors standing guard with rackets for weapons, and out the door into the snarling storm.

“He’ll be okay,” whispered Derek beside her, watching that door close behind him. It opened again, three times. Three more counsellors slipped out into the night, the sound of the storm rising to a howl only to be cut off as the double doors closed. “They’ll all be okay. And they’ll get the lights back on, just you watch.”

He sounded so sure that Penelope almost believed him.

The radio announced that it would now play Valerie.

 

5

Jennifer Jareau takes it hard.

JJ was pretending to be asleep because she’d learned that sometimes adults would only say things if they thought there were no kids around to hear. So she was awake when someone walked over to hers and Ros’s bed-on-the-floor, just like they’d used to make beds in the living room during summer under the aircon at home, and crouched beside them.

“Circuit box in the basement, yeah?” Rafe said with his deep voice calming JJ’s shattered nerves. She hadn’t felt right since the bear. Maybe something in her had broken, shattered like she was a box filled with glasses that someone had shaken too hard. Maybe that was it. She couldn’t be right again because inside her the bear had left jagged bits to stab every time she moved or breathed or existed.

“Yeah, where I showed you earlier,” Ros answered with her tone pitched low to avoid waking JJ. “Just flick every switch you see. You’re not going alone, are you?”

“Naw, course not. I’ll take whoever will come. Don’t worry. Stay with JJ.”

Ros moved. JJ strained her ears, feeling the mattress dip like someone had leaned on it, then she heard a noise like a kiss.

“Be careful of Aaron,” Ros said. “I don’t trust …”

But she trailed off.

“He’s the biggest guy here, besides me. I gotta take him. And Emily’s a good shot with that bat she’s got. Don’t worry, Aaron’s a total knobfest, but he’s steady, yeah? Got a short fuse, but steady despite that. We’ll be fine. Stay here, sad eyes, and I’ll be back. Keep my spot warm for me, ay?”

Ros laughed but it was a weird laugh. JJ shivered to hear it.

“Who said you get to warm my bed, huh?” she teased.

“Who said anything about bed warming being the plan? Ros, shit, I’m terrified, girl. This isn’t anything about you – I’m the one in need of cuddling. You gonna turn down a scared lad like me, needing a strong lady to hold him through the night?”

Ros laughed again, this time sounding choked up like she was about to cry. “Go,” she said thickly, JJ opening her eyes a shred to peek. “Get out of here, weirdo. Get those lights on. And Rafe?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you. For being strong. For not letting things break you. You’re incredible, you know?”

“Wow, jeez … hey. Just … wow.”

Another kiss sound. JJ pulled a face, hiding it by turning her face down into the pillow.

Then Rafe was gone, walking out of the door and away into the night. JJ thought he was pretty brave, doing that. It was gross out there, filled with things that might shake him up like the bear had shaken her up, and not as safe as it was in here. Surrounded by people everywhere, kids whispering and snoring and making farty sounds. Ros’s arm warm around her, holding her tight … JJ closed her eyes, and decided to stay awake until Ros came back and maybe eavesdrop some more to find out if Ros and him were doing things together, like the stuff they’d talked about on the bus …

(someone leaned over her, cool lips kissing her temple and a voice whispering, “You’re the bravest little badass I know. You’ll prove that one day,” and a choked, “I love you,” that faded into the night without JJ registering it)

… she opened her eyes. The bed was cold. The music was louder. At first, she thought that that was because everyone was asleep now since there were no giggles or whispers despite her being able to see sleeping shapes in the gloom, but she didn’t think so. There were some kids still awake, sitting upright or lined up along the walls. Someone was by a window, peering out past the table blocking it. And someone had definitely turned the radio up. Why?

She wondered.

Ros wasn’t there. JJ rolled over, touching the mattress where she’d been. Something cold touched her fingers, thin metal catching her nails. Ros’s locket, the one JJ loved but Ros always took back from her. Why was it here? JJ had had it earlier, but Ros had taken it back – had looked torn as she’d done so, but she’d done it, and now it was here?

“Why aren’t the lights back on yet?” someone was saying in a voice that JJ could hear even though she wasn’t supposed to. “It’s been almost an hour. You don’t think …?”

“We would have heard if something got them,” another voice replied. “Don’t freak out. You’ll wake kids up and then we’ll have to deal with that.”

“But the whispers …” the other voice said. JJ felt a cold claw sink deep into her gut, one almost as big as the bear’s had been. “You heard them … something’s out there.”

“It was the storm.”

But JJ didn’t think the speaker believed that. The music was louder, covering something: why would they cover the sound of a storm?

And where was Ros?

JJ hugged the locket close, watching those shapes walk past her in the gloom and back to the front of the room. As soon as they were past, she slid out of bed, keeping low to the ground as she crept towards the bathroom, where she was sure Ros would be. No one saw her. No one stopped her, and she slipped through the open doorway and tucked herself against the wall, looking around the dark room. The open cubicles, the darkened mirrors.

No Ros.

There was a click beside her. A creak. JJ turned her head, peering out the door and across the space of the kitchen inlet, beyond the counter to the other side’s wall. The fire exit was open. They’d blocked it earlier – she’d helped move the chairs – but now it was open. A line of moonlight leaked in.

JJ knew without a doubt that the door was open because Ros was out there. Out there with the bears and the whispers and the something in the lake.

She didn’t hesitate; she ducked across that open space – unseen, unheard – and out that door, letting it click closed behind her. Suddenly, she was outside. Out in the open air, which was still. The storm had blown over without ever breaking overhead. The ground was dry already under her bare feet, her skin prickling from fear more than the cool air. The leaves on the trees surrounding her were unmoving, not a whisper of wind tugging at them.

She was terrified, but Ros was out here and maybe Ros was terrified too. Maybe she’d come looking for Rafe and the others, worrying about them being out in the night without coming back. That was it, JJ was sure: they’d all gone up to the big house where her grandma and grandpa were and they were still there, talking to JJ’s grandparents about how this whole mess could be solved. That sounded perfectly reasonable.

Unafraid now, JJ walked up the path towards the trail that led up the hill to her grandparents’, sure that she’d find everyone up there. She pushed aside her shattered nerves and her memories of that gruesome bear and focused entirely on the end of her journey.

So focused on her path that she didn’t register the light until she was almost past it, her bare feet slowing and her head turning to stare at the glimmer of yellow in the dark night. It was a bright yellow, so bright that she knew it wasn’t a fire or anything natural; it was a light, a room lit up as a singular beacon in the dark camp which was almost unfamiliar with how dark it was without anything but the moonlight overhead. That light, yellow and human, beckoned to her.

She looked around, seeing nothing. Hearing nothing.

The wind was picking up.

Cautious, JJ walked towards it. One foot in front of the other, staring intently at the glow through the cabins – skirting the side of the camp where the burned remains of her old cabin were, the cabin where she’d almost died – until she popped out into the clearing and found the shower block waiting with every high-mounted window glowing as though to say, here is safe, here is bright, here is sanctuary.

“Ros?” JJ called, her voice reedy enough that a new wind whipped it away without any living creature hearing it. Because, it must be Ros, right? Ros knew how to get the lights on. Maybe she was having a shower, much like JJ wished she could since she smelled like smoke and rotten stuff from under the cabin despite having changed her clothes.

There was a thunk and JJ leapt backwards, twitching like she was going to run before realising it was just the door of the shower block, the open door.

She stared at it, inching closer. Close enough to see. Close enough to reach out and push the closed door open, letting that warm light spill free.

Ka-thunk went the door again, thumping boldly against something propped against it. With a feeling like that door had thumped instead against her, JJ stepped back and examined it. Her heart was running hard, the gun from that night back again, the night Penelope had seen something in the lake and screamed. Bang bang bang in her little chest, small hands tucked tight around her and curled into her armpits seeking the heat that normally emanated there. But it was cold now. A grim breeze blew; JJ didn’t know this, but it blew all the way from Derry to rip through this quiet camp.

“Ros?” JJ called softly at that whispering door. Even though her hands were no longer touching the pock-marked wood, the door moved. It bumped against the jamb with the tongue catching it every time before that grim breeze knocked it back against whatever was propped against it. Ka-thunk.

And JJ’s little heart beat a little harder.

Ka-thunk.

Around her throat, the necklace hung heavy and cold, much like JJ was cold in her shorts and the shirt that was too thin, needle-stick arms and legs poking out in every direction and her bare toes curled into the gravel.

“When are you going to grow, little bug?” Ros had always teased her, poking and pulling at her toes or her fingers, whichever part she could reach. “Sticky weirdo, look at you. You’re just a skinny binch.”

“You’re a binch,” JJ would giggle back, her body whipcord tense waiting for the tickling she knew would come next. “Nothing but a silly binch, that’s you!”

And the two girls would laugh and laugh and laugh as though theirs was the only humour in the world worth laughing for. Sometimes, one of them would get cocky and bold, leaning close and whispering the uncensored version, “You bitch,” and the giggles would get sharper and wilder all at once, knowing they’d get a telling off if they got caught swearing under their parents’ roof or anywhere else in fact. Small towns had big ears and Mom always knew when they’d been cussing, even for a good reason.

On this night, a long way from East Allegheny’s big ears, JJ was whipcord tense once more but without the expectation of tickles to come. Instead, she was frozen up on her tiptoes like a deer, like Bambi from the movie when he was perched and waiting. Sandy had taken JJ and a girlfriend to see Bambi in the cinema once when the girls were smaller, and JJ had cried so much about what had happened to Bambi’s mama that Ros had written her a new ending where it turned out that his mama was fine and had just run in a different direction, that was all. It seemed that if JJ just hoped enough, maybe she could change the ending of tonight as well – maybe Ros was asleep in there, tucked up comfy in a shower stall with her blankets in there too. That seemed somewhat cosy, like a nest. JJ liked nests; she liked to hide away in them with a book and her thoughts until Dad would find her and laugh at how she’d burrowed in.

“Ros?” she called again, her voice too loud. It echoed around the quiet campground. None of the cabins around her had anyone in them. There was no one to hear her shouts since they were all in the rec hall with music on to shut out any frightening sounds outside.

She pushed the door again.

Ka-thunk.

JJ turned and ran from there, the terror growing so thick in her that she couldn’t stay still one more minute. Skinny legs working as hard as the heart pumping in her chest, she sprinted just like the titular deer up the path until she was hovering at the T junction at the end, staring back at the squat, waiting shower block. Ringed by light and surrounded by forest, the dark stealing in, and Ros never let her out alone at night but she was alone right now.

Her plan to go to her grandparents forgotten in the surety that Ros was in there, JJ teetered on the edge of running but never quite committed.

“Ros!” she screamed, something in the woods taking flight. “I’m not listening to you – I’m out here, alone!”

That would bring Ros running, JJ was sure.

But it didn’t.

JJ ran towards the bathroom again, dragged by some hook in her chest that hauled her back towards that wooden door, that once-white wooden door with the paint flaking now. And she slammed her hands – bang! – on the wood with a shriek before jolting back again. A rabbit trying to work up the courage to race across a busy freeway, she jerked back and forth with the terrible fear fighting for control over her haunting need to see. Anyone who would have looked at her then would have laughed to see her race back and forth, unless that person was familiar with how a cornered animal acted right before shattering with terror, in which case that person would have been concerned for this pale-white child in too-few clothes.

“You’re bravest little badass I know,” JJ had thought she’d dreamed Ros had told her, stopping to think about those words with a faint feeling like maybe she hadn’t dreamed them and so she needed to prove them now. What would a brave girl do?

A brave girl would push that silly wooden door open and go inside, marching because nothing frightened her.

That, she decided, was what she’d do. Forward she marched, ignoring her brain which whispered about showers having pipes, pipes having water, water having somethings. Because her sister was in here, she was sure, and because she loved her sister and her sister loved her, JJ braced her shoulder against the wood, shucked her feet hard against the ground, tensed, and pushed.

The door, as though it had been waiting all along for her to get a clue, gleefully popped open. It exposed the tiled innards of the privacy wall to JJ’s wide eyes, her breath coming quick as she stared into that mouth. The tiles, like teeth, were yellowed.

JJ walked in there. A pale waif with blue eyes and blue lips and gaze locked ramrod forward, she walked as calmly as though she hadn’t been darting about like the rabbit in a snare just moments ago. You may even say that she marched into that room, her sneakers squeaking on the tiles as she walked right to the smack bang centre and stood there with her spine snapped straight and her hands hanging limp at her sides. Just a straight-back, limp-aired little statue, the only sign of life the pulse that thrummed at her throat, and Ros was dead.

JJ knew dead. They’d had a dog that had gotten dead once. They’d buried it in the yard and written poetry to be properly mournful about it. The books at school had a lot of dying, sometimes, like the teachers got a kick out of watching a whole class of ten-year-olds cry. And Hannah had died not even a full day ago, died in the bear’s mouth and belly and with everyone too scared to call her family to tell them what that meant, even if the phones had been working. Dead meant gone, forever.

Dead dead dead.

JJ did nothing but breathe and live while Ros lay curled in her nest in the corner of the shower stall she’d picked to die in, her body cut up like the person who’d cruelly removed the strings to control her hadn’t bothered to try and spare her while they’d done so. The tiles around her were red. That red had pooled towards the drain, bloodied fingers reaching for the water down there like a message to what could taste her death above: I’m not here anymore so don’t come looking. And there were crisscrosses like Tic Tac Toe right down Ros’s arms, starting shallow and getting deeper like she hadn’t been sure right up until a manic frenzy had overtaken her natural instinct to survive and driven the razor in and out and in and out and in –

JJ sucked in air and held it. Her heart slowed as her brain shut off momentarily, sparing the immortal horror of this moment by restarting all functions. She stood there for quite some time, looking at Ros who stared back without seeing. In fact, JJ stood there so long that her legs locked in place, her hands still limp, her back still straight, her pulse still ticking, and her heart dying right along with her sister cut up on this grimy, yellowed floor.

The wooden door creaked behind her, someone pushing it open. Ka-thunk it said as it knocked against whatever had been propped against it and was now shoved back by JJ’s violent entry – she hadn’t checked what it was – and then came the tread of feet. JJ wasn’t scared by this although, with everything, she should have been. JJ wasn’t anything at this moment.

“JJ?” said Emily’s voice, the voice that was usually so strong and sure except right now it was unfamiliar to JJ’s deafened ears. “What are you –”

She gasped.

She didn’t scream. There was a scream inside her waiting to pop out like a Jack-in-the-Box, but Emily bit it back hard and it didn’t escape. And, for a terrible second, the two girls stood there both looking at the dead one.

In the end, Emily didn’t say anything. What could she possibly say? There weren’t words, at least not words that she knew at this point in her life. Instead, she walked those last few steps on trembling legs and picked up the static eleven-year-old, who immediately became mobile at the stimulus of another human being within reach and wrapped her arms koala-tight around the body made available to her. Like this, clinging to each other, Emily turned her back on that ghastly sight and walked from there JJ’s face buried in her shoulder to avoid looking back and both understanding that nothing would be okay after this.

The last thing JJ would remember of this darkling night was Rafe pushing past them, and the terrible sound he’d made when he’d seen her sister dead.

Chapter Text

From the Collected Notes of Anonymous Author

All following entries have had identifying details of the author removed, either by their hand or another. Dates have also been removed, although they remain within the periodical articles collected among them. As to why, that seems obvious when considering the tall tales told. Clearly, the work of a madman, or woman, as some passages read distinctly feminine. Other scholars believe that the work is by multiple authors. Few believe the work is genuine, although it is inarguable that it seems some of the tales are rooted in fact.

Select entries are as follows.

 

1

He keeps saying that this story needs to be told, that one of us needs to sit down and write it all out, but then he never picks up a pen himself. I find that remarkable, don’t you? That here’s me, the least likely out of all of us that walked away from the lake that day, and I’m the only one willing to put what happened to us to words. I guess I’m the only one capable. Did we survive that day?

Sometimes, I look at them and I think we didn’t. They’re not who they used to be.

Me?

I’m different too. I think something happened to me, back when I was a kid at that camp. I think whatever Rosaline Jareau – have I written about her yet? I should – whatever happened to her, she passed it on to me when she died. Like a cold or some virulent strain of flu. I’ve tried to talk about it, but he tells me I can’t focus on the past right now when the future is so much more pertinent. I’ve never tried to tell the others. I don’t want to worry them.

I dream sometimes. I don’t think all the dreams are false. Marcie Harris: I think she had it too, this true dreaming. It’s something about that camp, something about the way the kids are penned in there breathing that air and choking on it, crushed under the weight of all the evil buried deep. Maybe that was it, what we found under the camp in those tunnels below the old church. Maybe that was what did it to us. The night before Rosaline died, she told us that she’d found a terrible place, the place that the children of the camp the year before us had taken the other children to die. So, I know she went there. She breathed that air and she saw what we saw, what I saw. What I’m beginning to suspect Marcie Harris saw too. It changed us, all three, although maybe not in the way Pennywise wanted it to.

Sometimes, when I dream, I see things I shouldn’t. I see things It’s done. And I never forget them. Once I dream them, they’re in my brain forever, taking up space and slowly but surely driving me mad.

I guess that’s why it has to be me that writes this. I know more than anyone, even though [redacted] is smarter and [redacted] more easily able to dig up what we need. Because I saw It. Because I still see It, even now that It’s just a screaming nightmare the others have woken up from, leaving me behind in the dark.

Have I written about him yet? About It? Pennywise the dancing clown, he calls himself. Itself. Herself? We know now that it breeds. We didn’t know that then. Not that it would have changed anything. They would still have died.

I miss them all, everyone we lost to that place. I miss them every day. Maybe I should write about them too.

He told me that if we ever do write the history of what happened to us – a cautionary tale, I expect he’s thinking since there’s no guarantee that there aren’t more nests and that one of these days another It will appear freshly birthed and ravenously hungry – we need to be careful about how we write it. We’ll seem mad, every last one of us, unless we’re organised about our presentation. Begin at the beginning, he says. Well, I don’t know where the beginning is. I’ve looked into Derry and what happened there, reading the unpublished notes of a man who saw exactly what we did. According to him, it goes right back to the start of this country. He’s found a sinkhole of evil with Derry in the middle: is that the beginning I’m supposed to cover?

I’ve never been a historian, and I’ve never been good at organising my trauma. I also don’t think there’s any way of hiding how crazy we all are. There’s not one kid who walked away from that camp sane, not a single one, even though we all pretend to be.

Or should I write about the beginning of the camp, seeing as it was that tale that we lived and breathed, not the story of what happened in Derry? Not that what happened in Derry wasn’t terrible. I’m told that Derry was where It died, faced down by a group of kids grown up and dragged right back to Hell. Just like us. I wonder about those kids sometimes. I think the author of those notes was one of them. I don’t know if he’s alive. I’ve never worked up the courage to ask. He probably knows. One day, I might bring it up.

The camp began with [redacted]. I guess maybe that seems preordained, doesn’t it? It all seems so bizarrely purposeful, like something bigger than us ordered the world to make it happen. Bringing us all to that camp at the same time, that same year, and then bringing us all together again as adults who shared not only the same ridiculously narrow career path, but worked in the same unit? Crunch the stats on that, boy genius. I bet there aren’t enough numbers in the world for even your brain to do it. So she was the hinge. The centrepiece, I guess. And not once, not when we were kids and struggling to survive and not when we were adults and struggling to comprehend, did we realise just how much Dark Score wanted her back. Maybe if we had, things would be different now.

This is what I’ve found about Camp Moribund. This is what started it.

This is what I wished we’d known then.

 

2

The following periodical articles were found hidden among the author’s notes. Some attempts have been made to reorder the articles, however, the order intended by the original author is unknown.

 

From Castle Rock Herald, August 29th, 1962 (page 1)

SEARCH FOR MISSING BROTHERS CONTINUES INTO THIRD DAY

Harry and John Jareau of East Allegheny, Pennsylvania, are missing feared drowned after vanishing from the family’s holiday campsite on the shores of Dark Shore Lake late Tuesday evening. The boys, aged 9 and 13, were reportedly swimming under the supervision of their father, Harold Jareau, when he turned away to speak with his wife. Mr Jareau, who owns a camp-goods and sporting store in his hometown and is a proactive and devoted member of his local community and church, was heard to state that he ‘only looked away for a moment’ and that both his sons were ‘strong swimmers’. The search for the boys continues into the third day, with police divers being brought up from Bangor and hope beginning to fade.

Volunteers are requested to report to Castle Rock Police before attending the scene.

The boys’ sister, Sandy Jareau, aged 16, was unavailable for comment on her brothers’ whereabouts.

 

From Castle Rock Herald, September 13th, 1962 (page 2)

SEARCH CALLED OFF FOR MISSING BROTHERS

In a statement from police, the search for the missing Jareau boys, Harry and John, has been called off after storm conditions have made the boys’ survival ‘almost untenable’. They urge parents to be observant of children around all pools and waterways, as it only takes a second for tragedy to strike.

The brothers’ parents disagreed with the decision to call off the search, with the father, 34-year-old Harold Jareau, informing reporters that he planned on staying in the area until his boys, or evidence of their deaths, were found.

‘They’re giving up,’ Harold stated to Castle Rock Herald reporter, Alan Jones. ‘Those are my boys, not theirs, and they’re just giving up on them. What right do they have? I know my boys didn’t drown – there’s no way they drowned, not them. They were taken.’

Police have declined to comment on accusations of foul play, stating that the incident was nothing more than a tragic accident that could have been prevented if ‘more attention had been paid’ to the boys.

Magarey, the boys’ mother, and Sandy, their sister, were both unavailable to speak to reporters.

 

From Castle Rock Herald, September 17th, 1962 (page 5)

MEMORIAL PLANNED FOR DROWNED JAREAU BOYS

All are invited to attend a MEMORIAL planned in honour of JOHN and HARRY JAREAU at the location of their disappearance past Sable Hook Road campground by Dark Score Lake. Services will be held on September 20th at 10 a.m., and the boys’ family will be in attendance.

All of Castle Rock mourns the loss and a large turnout is expected, with the church community gathering in support of the family’s loss.

The boys’ bodies have still not been recovered.

 

From Castle Rock Herald, January 13th, 1963 (page 10)

SALE COMPLETED OF OLD CAMPGROUNDS

Castle Rock Real Estate is pleased to congratulate Harold and Magarey Jareau on their purchase of the Dark Score Campgrounds off Route 11. This is a fantastic piece of land and the whole of Castle Rock is excited to see what will be done with it, with hopes of increasing tourist revenue coming from the revival of the old camping areas.

 

From Castle Rock Herald, July 24th, 1963 (page 2)

GRIEVING FATHER GIVES BACK

The opening of Camp Moribund on the shores of Dark Score Lake is an unexpected outcome of the tragedy that befell Castle Rock on the night of August 26th, 1962. The drowning deaths of Harry and John Jareau, boys aged 9 and 13 on holiday to the lake with their family, has haunted the town’s memory since, with increasingly wild theories of what happened to the boys’ bodies, which have never been recovered, circulating the town.

When asked why he chose to return to the shores of the lake where his sons died, Harold Jareau stated that ‘the lake asked something of me that night, asked me to give it something I wasn’t willing to give. Well, now I’m back and ready to listen. What happened then won’t happen again.’

Magarey Jareau, the boys’ mother, was more forthcoming. ‘It’s a chance to give back to the community who was so kind to us in the months following losing our sons,’ she told Castle Rock Herald reporters. ‘A summer camp for kids, teaching them all the kinds of things we wish we could teach the boys. They always wanted to go to summer camp, you know. I feel like this way we’re giving them that.’

The opening ceremony of the camp has inspired a wave of excitement the likes of which Castle Rock hasn’t seen since the new sporting grounds were built. With planned games and prizes, it promises to be a night for the whole family. Everyone is urged to get out there, make the drive, and support this family in their brave endeavour to create a place for children to be happy, in memory of their lost children.

 

3

This is my final entry because last night It told me that it’s coming for me today. I’ve asked the others if we can go for a drive, get as fast from camp as we can. Maybe we’ll escape. Probably we won’t. Even if we don’t, it will be one last adventure.

My name is Marcie Harris. Today I’m alive. Tomorrow, I won’t be. That’s why I’m writing this, because maybe if someone finds it after I’m gone – maybe the person investigating my death? – they can use it to help my friends. I’ve known I’m going to die since the first night here at this camp when the monster that lives in the lake told me so. I haven’t told the others. They’ll only worry. There’s nothing they can do.

I’m not the only person this has happened to.

I found pages to a book tucked in the boards of the rec hall last Tuesday, the night of the mummy. The night Lana was killed. We were all hiding in there together and I was trying to stay away from Tommy because he was being a fuck about it. God, I’m so sick of the boys thinking they can save us just because they’ve got dicks and no brains. Don’t they realise they’re going to get eaten along with the rest of us? It doesn’t care how old we are, how innocent, how smart. It’s older and smarter than all of us. It’s unstoppable. The book said so. There it was, shoved right down deep in the cracks – this torn out page from Lord of the Rings wrapped tight around an old novelty marker. ‘Emily Prentiss’ was the name on the pen. I wonder if Emily is dead. I wonder if the monster killed her too.

Anyway, the pen had a dinky light on it. Makes invisible ink show up when you shine it on the paper. So I did, you know? Whoever is reading this, I did. I shined that light on the paper while everyone bickered around me about plans to escape and fight back, all these plans that won’t work because it only told me what I already knew: the townspeople are feeding it. This monster? It OWNS them.

But it was just one page. It looked like a child had written it, can you believe that? And this is what it said: Rosaline is dead and I’m going to be dead too. Emily says people need to know it controls them. Ros said it controls them even if they leave. You can’t leave Camp Moribund.

that’s it. This childish, kiddy writing – I can picture the little kid writing it, their hand shaking all over the page to make the careful letters jump and spike – and it’s saying something so fucking damning. Whoever is reading this, beware: You can’t leave Camp Moribund. And if you find someone who escaped? Run. Run away from them. It OWNS them.

I took that page and brought it here, to the Castle Rock Public Library. I figured there was more to this book if I can find it. More writing. I’ve spent days and days searching every aisle, every shelf, every dark corner. It feels really safe here, somehow. Out there I feel watched, like people are looking at me judging how nice I’m going to look served up for dinner, but I don’t get that feeling here. Maybe It doesn’t like it here because there’s too much power in a book.

Like this one: I found it. The book that this page was torn from. It’s not a library copy. It’s just this tattered old Lord of the Rings hardcover with THIS IS ETHAN’S (and Spencer’s) FAVOURITE BOOK written in the front in cyan crayon.

Jesus fuck these kids are probably dead. Ethan, Emily, Spencer. I’m reading words from the dead. I wonder if I’ll meet them when I’m dead too.

I don’t want to die.

If you’re reading this, find that book. It will tell you more than I can. Read that book and everything I’ve written over this summer – read them together. And the newspaper articles I found too. They’ll tell you the story of Camp Moribund. They’ll tell you MY story too since no one will be sorry that I’m gone except the kids that are going to die with me. So find that book: I put it back where those dead kids left it.

And then take our advice and run.

 

Marceline Harris’s journal (entered into evidence July 27, 2009) ends here.

 

4

Author #7 from exhibit 170

She says we need to tell people so here I am, writing in a kid’s fantasy novel in invisible ink. This sure is telling people. But the others have all done it so who am I to shit all over what they think is a good idea? Everyone is getting a chance to have their say.

I guess it makes sense. One girl had a camera. They took it from her and broke it the first time we tried to run after [redacted] died. Then they sent us back. That night, someone cut the phone lines. The message there is pretty clear, isn’t it? ‘Don’t tell anyone, or else’. She says we need to write our story down in a way where no one can find it and destroy it, because maybe if we don’t escape then it will help the next kids. This was the little guy’s idea, the invisible ink and this place to hide, just for tonight – this place that feels safe, like a sanctuary – but she’s made it something we share. In case we don’t escape.

I don’t agree with that. We WILL escape. I won’t die here.

I won’t, and neither will anyone else for that matter. I guess the others are trying to write in here what’s happened to them, what this creature has done. But I’m not gonna do that because this isn’t about IT. This is about US. And now I’m the only one here who can save them. So I guess that’s what I’m writing, a promise.

I promise that I’m going to get every one of these kids home. I promise.

I PROMISE.

 

Author #18 from exhibit 170

Emily saw The Man today. It hurt her. I don’t think she is okay because she’s not being Emily. It put on Aron and hurt her and I think it puts on Ethan to. It puts on a lot of people. We ran away. You should always run from It, Always.

They know we are here. The lady says to Hide but I think we should run. Aron says wait.

I heard the police man talking to It. Emily did to. She yelled and the police man looked at her mean. And now we’re hiding when we should Run.

This is mine and Ethan’s favourite book and we’re hiding our Secrets in it because the lady says this town is Secrets and they are all in here. Sean cries a lot. I think someone is coming. Maybe the Man

 

Author #12 from exhibit 170

[Redacted] is dead and it’s my fault because I didn’t listen. It’s all my fault. I don’t want to write anything else in this stupid stupid book except THAT because that’s all people should know: I killed her and there’s nothing I can do to change that. And since [redacted] died, everything has gotten so horrible. So many of us are gone. I watched [redacted] get opened up, how FUCKED is that? That’s right FUCKED and mom always told me not to swear but everyone else is right now and they should because that monster took [redacted] and I did NOTHING. We’re safe for now but not for long. What’s the point? If [redacted] couldn’t keep us safe, no one can. We’re all going to die.

 

Author #2 from exhibit 170

This is an account of the kids of Camp Moribund, 1988. There are only twenty-two of us now. How many when we started? I think about thirty-six. That’s fourteen kids gone. We watched some of them die and we saw their bodies. The body in the showers. The body in the lake. The body that the bear devoured. The boy that tripped on the road when we all kept running, and his friend who was the only one to try to help him. They’re both dead. Three more kids vanished from the rec hall. I saw an arm on our way out of there. Just an arm, still with the torn-up sleeve of the camp polo attached. You know, I think that’s probably what I’m always going to remember. That arm, and [redacted]’s eyes.

[Redacted] started writing in this book back at the rec hall in the camp. Mostly just scared scribbling, I can’t even read some of it. But some of it is stuff I didn’t even know, stuff that he’s seen around the camp. Things that have happened. And I realised: it’s different for all of us. We all must tell our stories. So I’m making everyone write in this book and we’re going to hide it before we make a break for it. Will we make it? I don’t know. I probably could, if I ran now by myself. With nothing slowing me up.

But I’m not going to do that. Why not? I don’t know. Maybe a month ago I would have. No scratch the maybe, I definitely would have – said fuck you and walked out of here flipping every one of them off as I went. But not now. I guess that’s what happens when you realise you’re responsible for keeping something alive: it makes it impossible to run away from it. And I promised [redacted] I’d keep [redacted] alive. I intend to keep that promise.

This is an account of the kids of Camp Moribund, 1988. Right now, some of us are alive and some of us aren’t, and the people of this town don’t want you to know that. The camp is a feeding ground for animals and we’re the meat: the townspeople know what will happen if the beast goes hungry.

Hungry things feed, and they have children too.

 

Author #32 from exhibit 170

It spoke to me last night. Whispered through the walls. Said I can get out of here, get my brother out. Both of us, free of this place. They won’t notice we’re gone, no one here notices us. We can slip away. It says it will let us. All it wants in return is something to eat. I don’t have a choice. I have to protect him.

I’m sorry.

Chapter Text

1

It made it all very real. Nothing realer than this, not a thing. Nothing realer than squatting on these yellowed tiles next to the body of the sad-eyed girl he’d been so ready to love if she’d let him. Shit, fuck, man, maybe he wouldn’t have loved her. Maybe they would have fizzled out. But shouldn’t they have gotten the chance to find out? The same chance any other kid their age had?

It wasn’t fair.

Rafe sat. The tiles were cold. The showers stunk like piss, which a grim part of his brain pointed out was probably because she was dead and dead people did that, pissed and shit themselves, and after thinking of that he wanted to curl right up small and cry because fuck this wasn’t fair. She wasn’t supposed to die. But she had.

He snuck a look at her, at her eyes starting to cloud and her skin turning a funny colour as the blood pooled oddly and the way she didn’t really look like a human anymore, not really, not in the ways that counted. Then he looked at her arms and all the meat he could see slashed open there, and he felt very, very afraid.

Ka-thunk.

The door thumped against whatever held it, letting in some of that wicked cold storm-washed air. Rafe curled tighter and savoured this one last moment of being a child who couldn’t handle this, people dying, before he had to slide his big boy pants on and stand up and make sure everyone else was okay. Whoever was coming in, they paused before shoving the door roughly, whatever was leant against it giving way against that force.

Rafe looked up. Aaron stood in the doorway with his eyes dark and his expression darker, staring at Ros like he’d never seen a corpse before cut open and drying out and losing all her pretty life. Probably he hadn’t. Tonight was a new night for all of them.

But Rafe couldn’t grieve, because here was someone he needed to be strong for and, once Aaron was dealt with, there would be Penelope, Emily, anyone they’d told … and JJ. There’d be JJ. Lord give him the fucking strength, there’d be JJ needing someone, anyone, and him the oldest and having to stand up to her. He had to be appropriate, just like after his mom had died. ‘Grieve appropriately, Rafe’ they’d told him, and what that meant was that he had to push everything aside and be there for everyone else who needed him until they were done needing and he could privately mourn. There was nothing different about now and then.

“You have blood on your …” Aaron rasped out, one foot skating forward nervously and tapping at those yellowed tiles. His hands clutched at themselves. His countenance was green. He looked ill all the way through, and he looked like he was doing a lot of what Rafe was right now: silently praying to stop from hurking right on this shitty floor or maybe even right on what Ros had left behind for them to deal with.

Hoo lad, and there it was, there it was with a rush: Rafe was so fucking angry that she’d done this to them. To him. Left him here with that clown fuck and her old ma’am and Aaron and JJ without even a goodbye lad and thanks for the kisses. Just gone. Go straight to Hell, no passing Go, no collecting one last funerary cheque. Just gone.

Oh.

He looked at his hands and his stomach lurched. Blood. There was blood on his hands. When had he touched her? But he must have because she was moved. No longer slumped grossly upright but now laid down nice; he closed his eyes and swallowed down the bile and the sick of remembering how limp she’d been in his arms when he’d crouched beside her and pulled her against him.

She was dead she was dead she was dead, dead and gone and dead and –

A shadow fell over him. Rafe opened his eyes and jerked back when his gaze fell on Ros’s dead blue eyes, hazed over like he’d thought only happened in the movies. But here they were, just like in the worst of the flicks he’d taken girls to to get them scared and feeling cuddly, except maybe he wouldn’t do that anymore because even trying to imagine holding someone had him locking up tight with the memory of her body in his arms and – he groaned at the thought.

Aaron’s knees popped as he kneeled beside them, reaching out and, without hesitating, closing her eyes. It didn’t work, not like it did in the movies. They closed alright, a little, but slipped open at the bottoms so Rafe could still see the whiteish haze.

“It’s not like TV,” Rafe choked out, because one of them had to speak, right? Someone had to. “It’s not as …”

Temporary.

“We should move her,” Aaron rasped. His hands lingered. Rafe watched. Watched as they curled, blunt nails tucking against trembling palms. Watched as they lowered, a single touch to her cheek, almost like he was just making sure, like oh yep this one is dead for sure, Captain, no doubt about it she’s a goner. “Um. Don’t bodies get … stiff? And hard to move after a bit?”

“I don’t know, man, I don’t know. What do I know about the dead?”

Less than he’d known about her alive. Alive, he knew about her childhood bedroom and her puffed lace bedding and that she wore cotton panties with strawberries on them and that she always did a little breath in before kissing him and that she had sad eyes and a lovely smile and –

He was, he realised, grieving inappropriately. That wasn’t fair to the people that needed him.

Time to man up, Rafe, he told himself with his father’s voice.

“We need to call someone, cops or something,” he said with that same voice deep from his belly. Channelling his pop because shit he had to, didn’t he? Rafe couldn’t handle this; his dad could. “You’re not supposed to move the body until the cops have seen it.”

“Phones are down,” said Sarah from the doorway. Rafe looked at her. There was vomit on her shirt. “And JJ’s hysterical.”

“Emily?” asked Aaron, still staring at Ros.

“Dealing with JJ, barely, but we’re going to have mass panic soon. Everyone knows, Rafe. JJ won’t stop screaming. And the powers still out, except …”

They all looked up to the tube light flickering overhead, the light that couldn’t be on if no other lights were working. Some magic bullshit and Rafe was done with magic bullshit. They’d spent hours trying to get the lights back on and, what had they gained? Nothing. All that had happened was Ros had chosen to die while he’d been gone.

“We’ll carry her up to her grandma’s,” Rafe said finally, the idea seeping into his brain with a riotous return of all his former fury. Let her take the dead, that unholy Jareau cunt who’d put them here to die. Let her see what she’d done to them. Let Ros’s blood which had stopped running stain her floors and hands instead of his; let her take the screeching JJ and try to return sanity to her shattered childhood. Let her fucking deal with it, and let him wash his hands of the whole thing. He’d protect them, but he didn’t want to clean this up. “Help me.”

“Oh, no no no,” Sarah whispered, stumbling back. “I can’t, I don’t … she’s dead …”

Rafe ignored her, jerking his head at Aaron. Aaron, without a word, slid around until he could wrap his arms around her dead dead shoulders, waiting for Rafe to take her legs. And it wasn’t so bad, not really, she felt dead but in an expected way; this wouldn’t be so bad, and at least she wasn’t bleeding now.

They braced, looked at each other for confirmation, and then lifted.

Oh, it was worse than Rafe could have imagined. She came up too fast but too heavy as well. They both stumbled as her whole weight sagged stiffly into their arms. Too heavy for a human – Rafe suddenly understood the term ‘dead weight’ – and her limbs not moving right, her skin the wrong kind of soft to his fingers as they felt like they sank right into her flesh through her neat Guess jeans; Rafe’s grip slipped but he hung on right until her head lolled back with a meaty thunk against Aaron’s chest and her mouth gaped, eyes sliding back open once more.

Aaron screamed and dropped her, launching back and slamming his shoulder hard into the taps of the shower. Rafe swore, because it had to fucking hurt, and then swore again as Ros’s head cracked wetly against the tiles and the skin split at the point of impact.

“Oh god, oh fuck, I’m sorry, ow, oh god fuck,” Aaron rambled, dropping to his knees and hovering his hands again like he didn’t know what to do, before buckling forward with a strained groan and wrapping one hand around his bruised shoulder.

Rafe didn’t respond. He couldn’t. It hurt too much.

He just manned up instead.

“Get a blanket,” he told Sarah. “And two more counsellors to help us. Tell them we need their help moving her, don’t surprise them with it. I’ll wrap her so they can’t see.”

“Okay,” Sarah said, looking relieved that someone – not her – was in control. Rafe clung to that.

 

2

Rafe was the one to wrap the blanket around her, leaving her face until last because it felt like a goodbye covering it. He didn’t kiss her though. She didn’t look like Ros now, her lips going blue, and he couldn’t work up the courage with everyone watching him. Sarah again, and Aaron still despite looking grey and sick after their first attempt at lifting her. Emily was crouched over the other side of her body, having helped him roll her body onto the blanket and now watching him with those emotionless, black-ringed eyes of hers. He was amused that she’d still eye-lined up for the day, despite everything, although her hair was lank and unwashed around her shoulders. And Derek freaking Morgan, of all people, since apparently no other counsellor had the balls to help so it was left to a fifteen-year-old kid. Manny wasn’t here, which Rafe was glad for because someone needed to stay by Penelope until he was done helping everyone other than his family.

He pressed his fingers to his lips, ignored the eyes watching him, and brushed that kiss against her dead, unfeeling lips. It was as close as he could get.

“Hasta siempre,” he murmured to Ros before covering her face with the blanket and tucking it in as neat as if she was a child in the nighttime. Emily swallowed hard. And then it was done.

The four of them – Aaron and Emily at the legs, Rafe at the head, Derek supporting the middle – carried her home together, up that hill and to the house looming above, with what felt like all the eyes of the world upon them.

The house, when they reached it, was silent. As still as the grave. Sarah opened the door and they carried her in, hesitating only a moment before Rafe guided them into the living room to lay her gently upon the couch. And that was that. She was out of their hands, except for his which were stained with her blood.

“Get back to the camp,” Rafe told the others. “I’ll wait for her grandparents. I’ll make sure they …”

He trailed off, but everyone seemed to understand anyway. In a moment, he was alone beside her body, looking down on the shrouded blanket.

“Why …?” he breathed, almost giving in to a wild desire to scream at her body, force her to answer his questions – he had many – and maybe even turn this back, make her live again in all the ways he needed her to. Instead, he closed his eyes and breathed a prayer he barely knew.

Someone coughed softly. He jerked around, staring at Emily lurking by the window.

“I said to leave,” he snapped at her.

“I chose to ignore that,” she responded. “I don’t trust the old bat not to, I don’t know. Do something. And you shouldn’t be alone.”

“I’m fine.”

She shot him a look that was lined right through with sure you are, and if Rafe had seen into her future at the moment he’d have known that she was the prime example of exuding fineness when in reality she was nothing but. Of course, if he’d been able to see into the future at that moment, a lot of the terror that the storm had left waiting for them to blunder into once their guards were down – well, a lot of that terror could have been avoided.

Instead, he knew nothing of what was coming and thus stumbled blindly.

Emily began opening cupboards, rifling through them with the practised ease of a seasoned thief. Rafe watched her because it was easier than watching Ros decompose, too numb to feel any semblance of curiosity about what she was doing.

“I hate her for this, you know,” Emily said into the cupboard she was leaning into. Rafe said nothing. Emily didn’t seem to need him to speak. “Offing herself. Fuck, I’ve always hated her, precious little fucking Jareau. Look at me, my pain is so much worse than everyone else’s, I’m the saddest of everyone but oh gosh I can bat my baby blues and people just fall over themselves to love me, golly gee.”

Rafe scowled, fists bunching at his sides … but then he unclenched them. There was an acidity to Emily’s voice that he recognised from his mom’s death. A venom. Emily might have hated Ros while she was alive, but she didn’t hate her for dying; she envied her.

“And I’m pissed right the fuck off that she did this and left JJ behind,” Emily spat, slamming the door shut and moving to the next, which was locked. No one, Rafe especially, was surprised when she conjured two picks from her pocket and slid them into the aged lock. “What the fuck is with that? Who bails on their sister? And, what? Does she think we’re going to pick up her slack, look after her brat sister for her? I’m not. I don’t look after anyone – bingo.”

“Bingo?” Rafe’s voice sounded as tired as he felt, despite it still being his father’s tone. He wondered if his smile had died with Ros, drained with all her heart’s blood into that stinking hole in the yellowed tiles, down down down to the rotten underground where monsters lurked.

Emily emerged from the cupboard with her prize: a surprisingly shiny Bren Ten, the shelf of the pilfered cupboard lined with ammunition boxes. The handgun looked obscene in her surprisingly childlike hands with their bitten-down black nails with the polish chipped off. And she didn’t handle it right, curling her fingers around it without any care for the hungry trigger or that staring black hole.

Rafe took it from her, ignoring how she scowled at him

“We need it,” she pointed out. “I bet I could shoot it in a pinch.”

“I feel like you’re more a close combat fighter,” he quipped with no heart, glancing up to the silent door. “Get a knife. Hide it. And anything else, for the others. Go, fast.”

She grinned with her bright rich-white-girl’s-smile and vanished, leaving the cupboard door accusingly open. It felt like agreeing to the end, sliding that door shut and triggering the lock, but only after checking that the gun was unloaded and slipping it into his belt under his jacket … and only after pocketing as much ammo as he could without clinking.

Then they waited.

 

3

Rafe held it together until a fly began to buzz nearby, the buzzing grinding right into his very soul and shaking his sanity to its core. The relentless drone was insidious, broken up by Emily continuing to snoop around the house and the tick tock tick tock of a grandfather clock that he looked at and imagined a smaller Ros staring up at without any concept of the finality of time. Tick tock tick tock underneath that unending buzzing, until he scattered right out of his skin. He jerked up, jittering like a puppet without control of his limbs to a safer space than this, one without her rotting body. Emily called out to him, but he was running.

Up he went, sneakers thumping hard on the creaky stairs until his momentum was propelling him forward and spilling him through that door, almost dropping to his knees on that faded peach-pink carpet. He locked eyes with a marker-drawn dragon with a lopsided grin and almost screamed his pain at it as it hit, hard: that bed? Ros would never sleep on it again. They’d never kiss or cuddle or fuck again; he’d never see her smile again, laugh again, gasp again, breathe again. All these pictures on the wall were a girl who didn’t exist anymore, a girl who wouldn’t graduate or get a job or fall in love or rifle through these croaky drawers looking for the perfect Christmas sweater to make her baby sister smile. This knowledge dragged him forward, pulled him even, until he was crumpled on the bed with his mouth and nose pressed to that dusty puffed lace and his fingers clutched tight as he drew in a breath that seared the whole way down and scented the fading trace of them together.

A hand touched his shoulder. He knew it wasn’t her. It would be a hand with bitten nails and chipped black polish, and he looked to confirm this.

The nails were bare. Blunt and clean. He stared at the spot on the back that not even a full day ago he’d brought to his lips and kissed just to make her blush. He stared as the owner of that hand leaned close to him, no heat radiating against his back, no breath on his neck … and whispered, “Might as well be stupid while we’re alive to do so, right?” in a voice that sounded wet and hurting. That hand slipped down his chest; the bed dipped as someone climbed on with him, and he wouldn’t look and couldn’t scream: she was dead, but she was here. The hand crept lower and he was frozen, his heart smashing out of his already-damaged chest, a cry of halleluiah or, alternatively, help, trapped in his throat and blocking anything else he could say as cold lips traced the bumps of his spine.

“You’re not Ros,” he rasped, his gaze still locked on the wall the bed was pushed against, his back snapping straight with a rush of pure terror that almost had him pissing in his trousers as the hand curled over his crotch and the fingers bit down hard. A claw around his fear-shrivelled cock that was almost as painful as the way his heart was hammering, his entire body pulling tight like it was trying to draw his vulnerable parts up into himself for safekeeping. “You’re not Ros, you fuck. You’re that. That thing. Some stinking thing. I can smell you.”

And he could. That sickly, rotting, corpse-like smell and it was getting worse with every passing second.

Her hair brushed his ear, the same colour as it had always been in his peripherals, as she leaned her chin on his shoulder and smiled at him.

“Baby,” she purred in that soggy voice. “Why won’t you love me? You can have me like you already did? Didn’t you have fun? Wasn’t I good to you? Didn’t I make you come so prettily? Don’t you want to come with me, just like we did, so we can be together forever and ever … wouldn’t you love that, Rafe? To change down below, where we all float together … you and all your dead children.”

A maggot dripped from his shoulder onto the sheet in front of him, writhing on the ruffled lace; Rafe finally found his voice and he screamed and screamed and screamed. Flying so fast off that bed that he hit the ground and crawled in a flailing panic, kicking out wildly to dislodge anything on him, the gun clattering away and ammo scattering from his pockets – then the door banged open and Emily was there.

“Where is it?” she yelled, brandishing a kitchen knife that gleamed. “Rafe, where is it?”

“The bed,” he groaned.

But it wasn’t. The bed was empty, the covers creased where he’d thrashed on it. Ros wasn’t there, or her ghost, and there was no sign that she’d ever been.

But Emily walked forward and flicked her knife on the covers. Flicked something that fell to the ground and writhed.

A maggot.

Rafe watched it until Emily brought her booted heel down upon it and crushed it into the carpet. Nothing but a smear. The memory of something rotten.

It didn’t help.

He heaved until he puked, right here in this room that he had loved and now feared; and he kept retching with the talon feeling of those dead fingers on him until Emily dragged him up and downstairs and right out that front door, only pausing to stuff the scattered ammo into her bulging pockets and to pick up the gun he’d abandoned.

They ran, from Ros and the clown and all the dead things waiting for their turn to rot. They hadn’t helped Ros or forced her grandparents to help them or even managed to call her parents; they hadn’t done anything even remotely resembling grieving appropriately.

It just wasn’t fair.

 

4

They called for help. Aaron sat beside the bank of phones stuck neatly to the laundry walls, watching as they continued trying. Sarah was on the furthest phone, crying with frustration as she worked her way down the list they’d gotten from the kids who could remember their parents’ numbers. At the middle phone, one of those other girls, the one he always forgot the name of, determinedly kept trying her list. She began each call the same: “Hi, this is Kelly Archer from Camp Moribund and I’m calling about your child,” and ended each one with the same whimpered, “Why can’t you hear us?”

Aaron’s phone sat silent in his hand. He’d given up on the second call. The parents heard what they wanted to hear and that was it. JJ’s parents, Ros’s parents … they’d answered and said nothing but how glad they were that the kids were having fun, even though Aaron had just told them that Ros had killed herself, please help, JJ saw her body.

“Keep trying,” Sarah yelled at him. The whites of her eyes seemed even starker against her brown skin. Aaron stared blandly at her. Ever since Ros, all those hours ago, he didn’t know what he felt. He didn’t know how to unpack it. It was … tangled. Knotty. Wound too tight around a ball of hurt he didn’t want to let loose.

“Oh, give up,” Emily snapped from her position keeping watch by the door. Some of that knotted hurting seeped out to strike at Aaron’s heart when he glanced at her, seeing her nails that she’d bitten right down until they’d bled and her narrow, pale face. Chewed on lip and straggled hair, all of her careful facades crumbling in the face of the terror that consumed them. “Can’t you tell that no one is coming? We’re alone.”

“They have to come,” Sarah gasped, clutching the phone. “We called them!”

“They didn’t hear us,” Emily said bluntly. “No one can hear us.”

Aaron closed his eyes against the truth of that, his brain slamming back into the memory of Emily bursting into the rec hall with JJ a sobbing mess in her arms, and Emily crying out, “She’s dead, she’s dead, Aaron! She warned us and now she’s dead.”

It had been an abysmal look into Emily’s terror, her nonchalance ripped aside for a moment.

Perhaps that was the worst part of this for Aaron. He knew people misread him. He relied on it. But he didn’t like misreading others, and, right now, all they were doing was confusing him. Sarah, who’d always been calm before, was shattering. Emily, who’d never faltered before, was breaking. Derek, who’d always just been a sulky child to Aaron’s eyes, had suddenly stepped up and taken his place among the counsellors as though he’d been there all along. And Rafe, oh god Rafe, Aaron couldn’t even comprehend the dangerous grief in the man’s eyes (man, not boy, because when Aaron had walked into those showers, it hadn’t been a child sitting beside her body, not anymore; he’d seen the Kraken, and it had aged him instantly). But still, Rafe was pulling through for them, dealing with Ros’s body and finding weapons for them and getting them to try the phones even though they knew it might not work while, in the rec hall, they prepared to flee.

“Ros said running wouldn’t work either,” said Sarah. “I’m starting to think she might be right about that as well. Maybe we should stay.”

“We can’t stay,” said Aaron.

“Maybe we should,” Sarah repeated. “If Ros was right about the phones, right about the lights, right about everything – if there really is no one coming – he’ll punish us for trying to get away. Like he punished her.”

“She killed herself,” Emily said with bitterness lacing her voice. She arched back, like a snake Aaron would think as he snuck another glance over there and felt the hurt fade for a moment as he noticed the softer parts of her, the parts he’d been tentatively learning. “No one punished Ros but herself because she was batshit crazy. Come on.”

She wasn’t wrong. Ros had been crazy.

But that didn’t mean she couldn’t also be right.

“Come on,” Aaron said, itching to get back to his brother. Bad things seemed to happen when Sean was out of sight, and as much as Aaron struggled to understand his complicated feelings surrounding his brother, within him still burned a fierce desire to keep that boy safe. “We’ll talk to Rafe.”

“What’s he, your girlfriend now?” Emily hissed. Aaron ignored this; he recognised that fear was taking her tongue and sharpening it, just as he recognised the distance she was trying to slam between them in preparation for disaster. “You listen to him, huh? Maybe if you ask him nicely he’ll let you touch his dick, since you’re clearly uninterested in anything I –”

Aaron took her hand. She let him, falling quiet and looking ashamed, for just a second.

“I get that you’re scared,” he said softly, privately. A moment between them despite the counsellors picking up bats as they prepared to dash back across the hot camp and to the gross heat of the rec hall, where thirty-three (but there should be thirty-six) sweaty and unshowered kids were crammed in together with all their collective stinks. “But Rafe’s got this. He knows what he’s doing.”

They needed to believe that because someone had to be in charge; Aaron knew that it couldn’t be him because he was too much his father.

Ros had known that too.

 

5

Back to the hall they trudged, stepping into that engorged heat and finding everyone silent and drooping. The crowd of kids bristled suspiciously. Some still laughed and teased, some weren’t shaken yet … but the clowning amusement of the past was now patchy. In spots among the group, the children stood silent with hollow eyes and terrified hearts. Penelope and Manny stuck close to Derek, all three of them twitching with every sound. Spencer and Sean huddled close as well, Sean playing with a yo-yo and Spencer focused on writing in his book.

Beside Rafe, JJ clung to the hand he gave her as though her sister’s death had slammed her back to being Spencer’s age once more; Aaron looked at her standing there still in the clothes she’d worn that night and with her thumb shoved into her mouth and her blue eyes blank behind swollen lids. No one had bothered to wipe the snot or tears from her face or pluck the stuck strands of oily hair from her sweaty skin. No one had offered to help her find a shirt to replace the one she was wearing, the one that must remind her of the bathroom every time she looked down. The only person who’d even tried was Rafe, and he was too busy saving them to have time to worry about snot or tears or holding her and telling her how okay it was to cry.

Each kid had a backpack of some sort. Most of them held something that could, in theory, be used as a weapon. Some had stripped sweaty clothes from their bodies and tied torn shirts around their foreheads, deciding that no one here was civilised anymore as the counsellors struggled to manage the barest of their charges’ needs. They were fed, barely, although the food was gone now, and alive, mostly, except for those that weren’t.

“We hit the road and keep walking,” Rafe called to them. He didn’t need to clap to get their attention or do any of the tricks Aaron remembered from school. No, Rafe commanded their attention with his voice alone; every child there, no matter how old, knew that this man would be the saving of them. In him was the protection a parent offered, as summer chugged into its final weeks and a confrontation hurtled towards them, as below them the monster of Derry began to consider eating its dreadful fill before returning to a tenebrous slumber. “If something attacks, we run. Everyone buddies up. Do not let go of your buddy’s hand. Anyone loses a buddy, call one of us.” He pointed to the assembled counsellors. “We’ll help you. Everyone clear?”

A hum of agreement rushed through the room. Little hands snapped out to find their partners, pairing off into groups of two-by-two and looking to the door. A fateful sun shone indignantly outside, as though the weather itself had picked up on the clown’s fury that Ros had escaped him. Aaron felt Emily squeeze his palm before letting go, her hand flickering to the knife tucked into the waistband of her skirt. Sean and Spencer appeared beside him, both holding hands and Sean looking to Aaron, who smiled tightly at him.

Aaron carried his crowbar, the one he’d already saved his brother with once and would use again for much the same reason before this day was over, just as that knife would be bloodied within the next hour.

“Move out,” said Rafe.

They obeyed. Like soldiers marching to battle, in huddled groups, they streamed out under the furious sun. By the end of this walk, they would be thirsty and sunburnt and more frightened than ever before; by the end of this walk, even those who still smiled and giggled would do so no longer. No one had thought to bring water. Aaron found himself staring straight ahead as they went, his gaze fixed forward fatalistically: he felt truly that if he kept watching where they were going, they would get there. They’d have to. Out the gates they walked, some falling behind and some speeding up as a shiver of fear swept through them like a cold breeze despite the airless day. If Aaron had looked around, he’d have found that almost everyone was doing much the same as he was and looking forward, not back.

If they’d looked back, they might have seen the flicker of lights on the hill above, the red and blue that still denoted safety for some of them. They might have guessed that Ros’s body had been discovered and that Authority had arrived. Maybe they’d have been, falsely, reassured by that: it wouldn’t have changed anything in the end.

Maybe if they’d looked back, they’d have seen the girl with the light-up sneakers stop, her buddy stopping with her. They’d seen something following, something appealing to small girls of seven and eight who didn’t really know what they were supposed to be frightened of.

No one would notice they were gone until it was too late.

No one would find their bodies for twenty-one years.

They rounded the corner of the gravel drive and saw the main road ahead. It beckoned to them.

Someone shrieked, letting go of their buddy and sprinting for that road. Rafe called for them to come back, but he’d lost his power outside the walled confines of the camp. Others began to run too until he had to race to chase them. No one held hands anymore. Aaron grabbed Sean with the hand not holding the crowbar. Similarly, Rafe clung to JJ – who hadn’t bothered running but just kept trudging aside Rafe with that same empty stare – and Emily clutched Spencer’s arm, hard. He’d have a bruise the next day, yellowed and sore.

Someone tripped with a gasp, other kids leaping him and racing on. To avoid being stepped on, he rolled to the bushes that lined the drive and waited to stand. To the left was the panicking crowd, as stupid as sheep and with the older kids barely any smarter as that infectious fear spread and they began to run too. To his right, a sound.

He looked. His name was Anthony Kallum and his brother, Jackson, was the counsellor who’d fallen asleep the night of the bear. Anthony wore a sleeveless shirt and faded shorts. He screamed as something from those bushes grabbed him with cold, dead hands.

The scream panicked those who were willing to be panicked, and they scattered. Some into the trees, howling with fear. Some keeping on to that road, their gazes fixed forward. Some stopped and looked back, among them Jackson who saw the cold hands dragging his brother into the depths of the bushes and reacted fatefully: he launched forward with a scream and grabbed his brother, fighting the arms for him – and he looked dead into the eyes of what held him and screamed again.

Aaron put Sean down with a hoarse cry, lunging to help with his crowbar raised ready to bring it down on the head of what held the boy. Sean, terrified, staggered back and back and back – past Emily and Spencer, who were struck dumb by what they could see, and past Derek who held Penelope’s hand, until the backs of his sneakers were nudging the edge of the path. He didn’t see. He didn’t know what crept behind him.

Crowbar raised, Aaron stopped and stared as Jackson screamed at him, “Help me, they’re hurting him!” And they were. Anthony’s legs were bleeding. The torn nails that clutched at him were biting deep, ripping into his unprotected skin. Those nails were attached to fat, swollen fingers. Those fingers attached to peeling hands; those hands to rotted arms; those arms to a torso barely covered by the fading remnants of what had once been a summer dress; above that dress, the dead girl’s face was sunken and slick, holes where the cheeks should be and her eyes eaten by something awful. Aaron stood frozen, crowbar raised, unable to bring it down with crushing force on this dead child’s head.

“Come with usssss,” hissed the girl with a tongue that wasn’t there anymore, her voice bubbling and thick. “Come with us, Anthony, we’re having a grand time.”

“A graaand time,” moaned another voice, another child appearing beside Aaron, who stumbled back with a thin, whimpered scream. This one was a boy, a boy in a yellow raincoat. Where one of his arms should be there was nothing but a tattered stump and a shockingly white knob of bone. “We float and we change and you’re all invited. You’re invited, Aaron, and you Emily and Rafe and Sean and Spencer and Jackson and Penelope –”

More voices were joining them. Chanting. So many voices. Aaron lurched back to the centre of the path as others around him did the same, screams driving them back as they huddled like sheep with half their flock swept away in the night: around them, the forest teemed with the dead who called their names and invited them to go along.

“I’m Ethan … I’m Betty … I’m Georgi e… I’m Victor … I’m Edward… join us, join us, come play, come change. We’re all down here, with the bear and the clown and Ros, Ros is here too, don’t you miss her, Jennifer? She thought she could escape but she couldn’t and she’s changed too, just like usss …”

Jackson dragged himself back as slowly as if he was struck, his brother in his arms and both of them gaping at the rotted girl in her summer dress as she followed them with halting, skipping steps. Sean screamed. Aaron turned, too slowly. As though in a dream.

Ros smiled at him with yellowed teeth (like the tiles) as she twisted Sean’s arm up and, inexorably, began to pull him back.

“No,” whimpered Aaron, but he couldn’t move. The dead were everywhere, and he was frozen. “Sean …”

“Ros!” came a scream, a terrible scream: JJ had seen her sister. “Ros, no – let me go, Ros!”

But she couldn’t follow her sister’s corpse because Rafe held her tight, his eyes so bulging with shock and terror he looked like he might faint. Aaron could see the gun in his waistband.

“Aaron!” screamed Sean.

The spell broke. Aaron moved faster than he’d ever moved before – even to run from his father’s belt – and swung. The crowbar made a steel-grey line through the air and it was beautiful, oh a beautiful sight, curving through that hot, summer sky, until it came down –!THWACK! – on Ros’s rotten skull, which burst. But she let go, Sean dropping to the ground. Aaron roared with anger and

just

kept

hitting.

Around him, the world had snapped back into vivid clarity for everyone else as well. Emily snarled like a rabid fox as she slashed as the arms of those that lunged for Spencer – later, she’d vomit as she remembered the grate and whine of the knife against the bone of the dead-Ethan’s hollow cheek and the look of shock on his little face – and Derek, who had no weapon, simply kicked and punched at anything stupid enough to come near Penelope, who held a stick she couldn’t bring herself to strike with. Rafe, luckily, was kept from using the gun he didn’t know how to shoot by the hysterical JJ, determined to follow her sister into the dark as her brain refused to comprehend the ghastly state of her. This likely saved lives: in the chaos, surely Rafe’s unpractised aim would have swung wide and, even if it hadn’t, it was impossible to pick out the dead children from the living.

“Run back to the camp!” Rafe screamed, finally resorting to picking JJ up to get her away from a water-rotted toddler that bit at her foot; she clawed at him, frantic for this singular chance to get her sister back (she’d watched Aaron and his crowbar and what those two things did to her sister, but her brain hadn’t registered that yet, couldn’t register that yet, so it simply blocked it out), and he did something he’d never forgive himself for and slapped her hard. This had the intended effect. She stopped fighting him and just stared, her cheek reddening and mouth gaping: no one had struck her in all her eleven years. But he didn’t have time to calm her, just hugged her tight to his chest and yelled again, “Everyone, turn around – get everyone turned around, run back to the camp – they won’t follow us there!”

He couldn’t have said how he knew this, and Aaron couldn’t have said why he knew it was true, but they both understood instantly how correct it was. Despite the sensation that they were fighting a force as powerful as the tide, they began to point as many people as they could grab back towards the camp, getting them running and hoping that they made it.

Aaron carried Sean in one arm, swinging the crowbar with the other as he tried to get as many kids as he could turned around. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, Emily plunging into the woods and he briefly grieved her, assuming she was gone for sure. It was a distant, unfocused sensation, one that everything else he was feeling was knotted up with too – and then she reappeared, more kids in hand that she’d ripped out of the corpses’ claws, and she was alive, halleluiah! He knew then that she was untouchable, his wild girl, his dangerous fire, and the love he felt for her could have flattened mountains had he been inclined to use it to do so. The crowbar swung with renewed determination: he was fighting for his brother and for that furious, incendiary love and for every child here who needed him; he was fighting to be as unlike his father as he could be, and he was winning absolutely.

Somehow, exhausted and scattered to the four winds, they made it back to the camp.

Men stood waiting.

 

6

Aaron stumbled through the gates and into a milling throng of kids who’d run back into danger simply because Rafe had commanded it. Now, where they’d been told to go, they waited in silence broken only by their gasping breaths and muffled sobs. Some were bleeding. All were bruised. There were so many missing.

And men stood waiting.

Aaron pushed through those kids, Sean still in his arm and the crowbar hanging loose, until he was at the front of the crowd standing alone facing the three uniformed officers. They looked like illusions of safety, like a whisper from his past when he’d thought adults meant sanity and security – except, really, Aaron and Sean out of everyone there knew how bad adults could be and had known from the first time their father had decided to give them what for.

He demanded of them as only a boy at the end of his desperation could demand, “Are you here to help us?”

The cops exchanged glances, then looked to the oldest of them: the man with the shiny sheriff’s badge and the too-small eyes. Aaron’s heart, still wrapped in that tangle of knotted emotion now leaking out from the hole his realisation of love had torn right through it, sank. Sean’s small arms around his throat tightened imperceptibly. Aaron’s knees buckled, although still held him upright; his fingers, drained of any strength in the face of the betrayal coming, released the crowbar, which was clotted with blood and brain and bone. The sound of it hitting the gravel echoed.

A hand took his, a shadow moving beside him.

No. Not a shadow.

A light. A bright wildfire, his wildfire.

He clung to his brother and he clung to Emily and, as more bloodied and battered kids ran into the camp and joined their small group as though compelled, they waited for the answer.

“We’re having reports of criminal behaviour from some of you older kids,” said the sheriff, his eyes betraying the lie as he chewed on both the words and the tobacco that stained his teeth. He loved his job, he loved his town, and he loved his daughter who was twelve and very vulnerable to ‘missings’ like those down at Derry, those that had (mostly) been avoided up this way. But sacrifices had to be made, ayup, sacrifices were unavoidable. “Real rowdy stuff. Stuff that might get someone hurt. Might end in a couple of nights in lock-up for those responsible.”

Aaron couldn’t believe this. “We were attacked,” he managed, looking down at the bloody crowbar and back to the still-bleeding, still-crying children behind him. Derek’s eyebrow was torn open. A girl had a chunk like a bite out of her jaw. Another boy’s arm hung low, the socket popped right out.

The sheriff continued: “If you big kids are looking not to spend a night down there … well, that rowdy kind of behaviour better stop, huh?”

“Ros is dead!” Aaron yelled, his grip on Emily’s hand crushing. “Kids are dying, we’re dying! Is it them? Did they call you to drag us back, to scare us?” He yanked his hand out of Emily’s, using it to point to the house on the hill. “What have they got on you?!”

“No more running, no more screaming, no more breaking into where you shouldn’t be,” the sheriff continued, sweat dripping down his face. It was hot, he decided. The heat was making him squirm and sweat. Not anything that was happening here, to these bad eggs, these bad kids. Why, this camp was full of delinquents –

“Look at the blood!” Emily cried, pointing to the crowbar that looked, to the cops, to be clean and new.

– who no one else could get a lick of sense out of, liars and thieves and punks –

“Look at the kids,” Aaron added, pointing to the kids who were obviously dirty and sickly, obviously, what could be done about those kinds of people?

– not like their town kids, their good kids, who deserved to live and grow up to be good, God-fearing people. Maybe it wasn’t fair, it certainly didn’t seem to be, but life weren’t fair and these kids would learn that maybe if they’d been with God then God would have been with them.

“Look at us,” Rafe said, walking right to them with JJ in his arms. “We need help. Please.”

There was silence, broken by a click whiiiirrrr that had them all twitching nervously. It was Kelly Archer, who at this point was still alive and tired of this shit, who’d been given a polaroid camera for her birthday by her brother who’d died in a car accident three months before she’d been sent here to ‘heal’, and who had solely carried that camera when they’d fled this place because it was all she had to remember him by. She held it now, filled with righteous fury at this injustice, the square photo-paper spinning to the ground below her feet where it would develop into a grainy image of three policemen standing before, depending on who was viewing the photo, either children who were simply dirty and ‘rough’ or children who were broken and bloodied.

The sheriff didn’t even need to point. They’d learned this last year: don’t let the word get out. At this point, in 1988, unlike 2009 where the rot ran deeper, the sickly influence on this place was focused where it needed to be (like the municipal police station and, even deeper, the county hospital). The officer at his left (who would be the sheriff in 2009 and, unlike his predecessor, wouldn’t even ponder the rightness of his actions) moved to grab the precious camera and, as Kelly cried out her horror, shattered it under his county-issued boot.

“Look at us,” said Rafe again, blankly now. JJ smashed in his arms. Fewer kids than there had been behind him. “We need help.”

But they didn’t listen.

The officers left with their warning ringing in the air (don’t disobey us or we’ll take their only protection away and then It will feed unhindered, oh will It gorge itself fat and stupid on the waiting meat). And no one was coming to save them.

“Rec hall,” Rafe rasped. “Get everyone in there. Roll call as we go, mark it off on the walls. Who knows first aid?”

A few hands floated unsteadily into the air.

“Good. Get on it. There are some supplies. Do we have food?”

Heads shook.

Rafe nodded, looking almost drunk he seemed so unfocused. Aaron shuddered to see that expression, almost wheezing no no no no no from that knot deep in his chest, because if Rafe fell…  if Rafe fell …

They would truly be alone.

“Put the music on, Emily,” said Rafe with a dreamy air to him. He’d put JJ down and she didn’t cling to him now, but still followed as though she didn’t know what else to do. Like maybe she’d fold up completely without him, simply cease to exist. Voiceless and sisterless and reasonless. “Put it out loud. Keep them out. Yeah, that will help … keep them out …”

He wandered away without purpose, leaving them standing there.

 

7

Time moved oddly after that.

Aaron, as he looked at the group to see if anyone was following those listless orders, saw a single lost sneaker laying in the dirt by the gate. Even though the sneaker was unworn, no pressure upon the novelty sole, the lights on the side still flickered as though their owner still bounced in them. Gutted by this, Aaron raised his arm, caught their attention, and led the way to the hall despite feeling as though his entire world was sliding off the hook it was hung on. He understood Ros now; his brain kept circling back to her opened-up arms and her peaceful emptiness oh god oh fuck how kind that would be, how sure an ending, how –

Emily. Sean. Spencer.

He needed to live. They needed him to live, and so he did: Aaron, in the absence of Rafe, called the roll (in the end, they’d lost five to their failed flight), and helped with the first aid (he even helped brace the kid as Derek popped his dislocated socket back in, and fuck was that a moment for him), and wiped faces and hands and found clothes and water (but no food). He did all this and then, when all that was over and the shell-shocked remains of their camp were lined up in their warlike rows of camp mattresses in that stinking hall, he slunk out of the room to finally, finally, let that knot that was full (of their tears and their pain and the deaths and his memories and his fears) burst with finality.

It was Emily that drove him out the door. Emily playing her music too loud and singing along with manic desperation; she’d begun to laugh. No one knew why. Suddenly she’d started laughing along instead of bellowing out Michael Stipe’s lyrics (It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine, doesn’t everyone? Don’t we all just feel fine, feel dandy ha ha, we’re fine), laughing and crying and screaming and the music was too loud right up until she picked up the radio (and Michael Stipe along with it) and threw it at the wall with paralysing force. It shattered, and Aaron’s tangled knot of everything he was feeling shattered with it.

He fled. Out into the night – it was night now, he realised, almost yawling in terror because he knew this creature wouldn’t let them go when summer ended so every night was one step closer to the end of the world as he knew it (still feeling fine, Aaron?) – and buckling down into the dirt as everything that held him upright gave up with a final whomph of the world slamming down on his broad-but-not-broad-enough shoulders. He hit the dirt under the weight of Ros’s open eyes and the sound her skull had made when he’d dropped her body; the weight of JJ’s grief and Rafe’s exhaustion; the weight of those five kids he’d lost and every one of their names; the weight of Hannah and Ethan who’d never had a chance and those five that had died for a chance and for the other kids that would probably die because that chance had failed and –

He thought of Emily, Emily who he loved and who might die, and then he remembered Ros’s eyes again. Here it came, oh here it came, like it hadn’t come since he was a boy and he’d learned that tears would get him labelled a little sissy, a queer, a pissant in need of what for. It came like he wasn’t afraid of the belt anymore (and he wasn’t, really, he’d never fear his father again after facing the hands of the dead dragging at his brother) and it wouldn’t be stopped: Aaron Hotchner let out everything rotten inside him with a howl that had been fighting to get out since Ros had died and, once that had made room, he curled down into the dirt and cried like he never had before. Great, fat tears that he wasn’t ashamed of and heaving breaths that hurt. Every sob came out noisy and with heat and wet and every part of his body aching along with it. It came out as pain and misery and brokenness and, when it was done – soon but not yet – it left him clean.

But he wasn’t done when there was a crunch of foot on gravel beside him and he staggered up, fists bunched and face still streaming, to find Rafe standing there.

“How dare you?” Rafe snarled, his own face twisted like Aaron knew his was too, except without those tears, without that wetness, without the filthy, streaming muckiness of letting himself go. It was pain but knotted up so much that it needed to burst, just like Aaron’s had, but Rafe wasn’t letting it happen. “How dare you!? You didn’t even know her and you’re crying? What gives you the right to cry like that for her when I … when JJ … you didn’t like her and it’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair, fuck you, you asshole, you cunt you fuck you –”

He stumbled forward, swinging weakly.

Aaron caught his fist, his breathing rough.

“You fuck,” Rafe choked out, crumpling into him before trying to swing again. Aaron caught that one too.

“It’s not fair,” Rafe moaned. He didn’t swing this time, and Aaron didn’t think he was referring to him crying anymore. “How can this be fair? Any of it?”

“It’s not,” said Aaron. “It’s all shit. And she didn’t deserve to die.”

Rafe looked at him, looked at him like he was wishing he, Rafe, was dead too; Aaron was scared right then that maybe he wasn’t the only one who envied Ros her peace. If Rafe fell …

“I’m sorry,” said Aaron. And, again, “It’s not fair.”

He wasn’t the kind of person who could talk about the emotions he’d struggled with himself, those knotted feelings pulling tight. He wasn’t a girl, after all. He didn’t do big deep talks about feelings and hurting and grief, at least not yet. Not now. Maybe one day, when he was grown well beyond this moment. But he knew it wasn’t fair, and he was sorry, and so he said so.

Rafe, who had needed to hear that more than he needed to be told he was strong and needed and responsible for all their lives, sagged into Aaron’s arms, squeezed out all his air like he was trying to start again, and began to cry. Quietly and far less spectacularly than Aaron’s tears, but resolutely, nonetheless.

They stood there together, those two men who’d started off this summer as boys. They were grieving the girl who’d never expected to be grieved, for all that she’d hoped her death would mean something. Time passed. Rafe wasn’t crying anymore, although he still kept his head bowed against Aaron’s shoulder. Aaron had his arm around him, hand working loose circles into the other man’s back. They both breathed easier.

Aaron found his voice. “I don’t know how to do it,” he said to the man pressed against him. “I don’t know how to protect Sean like he needs to be protected. If I fail … I’m an awful brother, I always have been, and I can’t do this. I’ve always failed him before.”

Rafe straightened, turning himself so they were standing side by side looking out over the darkened camp. Nothing moved, but they didn’t let that fool them. It was out there.

Wiping his face with his sleeve, Rafe spoke. His voice was clear and calm, his tone measured. It didn’t hitch or crack or falter in any quantifiable way. “Ros didn’t mean what she said.”

Aaron looked at him.

“You’re not anything like your dad.”

“You don’t even know my dad.” Aaron wouldn’t, couldn’t, admit how much he wished he could believe Rafe. This? This was his fear. His terror. Worse than any clown, any legion of dead children. That he’d grow up with the same belt, the same anger, the same hurting hands. “You just know whatever Ros told you, whatever she could see in me, and maybe she was right even if she didn’t mean it. Maybe all I do is hurt people, just like him.”

“I don’t think so,” said Rafe, who’d never know how important this conversation was to either of them. “I mean, you’re here crying because a girl you didn’t even know died. That’s pretty human, and I don’t think someone who knocks their kid around is all that human, do you? I think that’s worse than that.” He pointed out into the darkness. “Because at least this thing is killing us for a reason, because it’s hungry, yeah? Your dad? He hits you because he can.”

“Because I’m bad,” whispered Aaron, the deep-set belief sneaking out in this vulnerable moment.

“Because he can,” Rafe said again, firmer this time. “Nothing to do with you. It doesn’t mean shit about who you are. Ros was wrong. Aaron, look at me – you turned those kids around today.”

“Because you told me to!”

“Yeah, but it was you who got them moving. I was too busy with JJ, trying to stop her racing after Ros. You? You got almost all of them going, all while holding your brother. You didn’t even falter. You think your dad would have done that? You think he wouldn’t have dropped Sean and saved his own skin? Left all those kids behind? No, I don’t know your dad.”

Rafe stopped, breathing low and slow and looking up at the moon above.

“I do know you, though,” he finished with, giving Aaron a look that suggested their tears had done something more than just cleanse them; maybe it had taught them something too. “I know that you’d hold your brother up against a horde of the dead and never once consider dropping him to save yourself … and that you reach for others when you need them. No, Ros was wrong. I think that if we survive this, it’ll be because of you, not me.”

“Why?” asked Aaron. He didn’t see any of this in himself. Not a hint.

“Because when I do something, people follow,” said Rafe. “But you? When you do something, they believe.”

“What does that even mean?” Aaron shook his head, arms wide and hands gesturing to the nightmare around them. “Look at this place! Where’s belief gotten us! Belief has killed us! And I don’t know if I can do it, Rafe – I can’t …” A terrible thought reoccurred. “If you’re not here … I can’t protect them.”

Please don’t leave me, that thought begged. Don’t follow Ros.

“Lucky I am here then,” said Rafe, because he was and he would be and for one simple reason: “We’re brothers, Aaron. Doesn’t matter if we can’t keep them safe, if we don’t feel like we’re strong enough or powerful enough. We have to try anyway because they don’t have anyone else.”

Chapter Text

1

There were seven nightmares that night. Six minds unravelling over the strange things looming, even if It hadn’t truly welcomed them home just yet; six adult minds trying to comprehend the strangeness that was beginning to rear its impossible head from below the quiet waves of their lost memories. They weren’t children anymore. As children, when the impossible had happened, they had dealt with it. A bear attacked at breakfast and, by lunch, they were calm once more. A man who couldn’t be there sneaking into their bedroom at night with his silver-dollar eyes hadn’t stopped two young boys from practising a yo-yo trick once the sun was up once more, and JJ had survived the night of her sister’s death. Impossible hadn’t broken them because children were advocates of the impossible. As adults, their minds rebelled. They’d stiffened in their ways since those years that had come before.

What was approaching, a small part of each of them knew, was nothing any adult could justify or comprehend, and it would destroy them in its revelationary wake.

 

2

Jennifer Jareau dozed in the armchair by the unlit fireplace of her grandparents’ home above Dark Score Lake, one ear awake and listening for the sound of her grandmother moving around above. She wore her gun at her hip and a locket around her throat; in the pocket of her sensible pants was a men’s wallet she wore on cases when it was untenable to carry a purse. Within that wallet, there was a picture of her family.

She dreamed of something feasting in the lake, biting and gnawing and sucking down the marrow of the bodies that floated there. A boy with one arm who couldn’t stop how his body bobbed and rolled in the listless waves, and Hannah who had been eaten by the bear, and there was Emily with her face messed up and with her hands burned black and charred. Even as JJ watched, they began to crumble away, black staining the water with the ashes that were left. Below the bodies – Spencer and Ethan and Henry and Rafe, all dead, all eaten, all gone – the something moved. It hungered. It gloated welcome back, whispered in a chant from all those dead faces.

When she woke with a start, the nightmare already forgotten, her wallet had slipped from her pocket and lay, open, upon the floor with her son’s face smiling up at her.

 

3

Aaron Hotchner slept without moving, his form laid out as neatly in the hotel bed how he would wish to be eventually laid to rest: upon his back with one arm at his side, the other over his chest, and his feet together. If the others had stiffened, he had solidified in the time since he’d been seventeen; even then, he’d barely survived what he’d seen. Despite his unmoving demeanour, he dreamed greedily and viciously. He saw Sean’s body thrown down on the floor of his bedroom and he saw their father standing over him with a bloodied belt.

“I had to do it, son,” said their father. The belt dripped upon Sean’s open eyes. “I had to give him what for. He was bad, you see.”

“We’re not bad,” Aaron gasped, staggering back with the knowledge that his brother was dead and there was no undoing that, not ever. “We didn’t deserve this.”

“You’re all bad,” said his father. “Rotten right through. Turn around.”

Aaron did. He saw his team. Dead, each and every one, the marks of that belt upon them … the belt that now hung heavy and wet in his hand, bits of skin and hair and spit upon it.

“You had to give them what for,” said Emily’s body, opening her eyes to smile sadly at him. “Just like you did to me that time. Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember beating me?”

“I never,” rasped Aaron.

“Oh, but you did,” was Emily’s response as she struggled to stand on her ruined legs. She kneeled before him, half unclothed and cut to slivers; he struggled to breathe through the knowledge of what he’d done. “You really did. And now you’re back, you’ll do it all over again.”

Welcome back, chanted all the rest of those crumpled bodies, their mouths barely moving but every unseeing eye locked upon him. Welcome back welcome back welcome back.

 

4

Spencer Reid dreamed of Ethan leading him down a path that grew slicker the further along they walked. Every step gurgled, the trees around them growing crooked at sharp angles as though they couldn’t bear the touch of the sun. The ground beside the path was littered with bones, Spencer counting each one as he went with disinterested fascination.

“See,” said Ethan with a crooked smile, gaps left by missing teeth that had never had time to grow. He held his hand out and Spencer took it since it was offered; together, they walked from that forest and into the light of the carnival waiting. “I told you I’d get you a balloon one day, Spence. Aren’t you excited?”

Spencer was distracted, looking back at the forest behind them. It wiggled in his mind, the perfect term to describe what it had felt like in there…  the cold that stole into his body with every shallow breath, that dripping wet that felt like it had left a membrane over his skin … the perfect word …

Then he remembered exactly the word he needed, facing that carnival and watching as the row of balloons along the entrance swivelled in the windless air to face him in return.

“Moribund,” he said, standing alone and knowing that what was waiting, forwards and back, was terrible. “Moribund means the act of dying.”

The balloons bobbed in agreement, each one of them splashed with the merry words welcome back.

Welcome back to the camp of death.

Welcome back to the act of dying.

 

5

Derek Morgan dreamed of fire. He tossed and turned in his bed, mind locked onto an incendiary night, one that he knew wasn’t solely created by his sleeping mind: in the dream, Emily was burning. There was screaming, mostly his, and he fought the terrible grip on him because he’d sent her into Hell to burn alone and he was desperate to save her from perdition.

“Emily!” he screamed over and over again, his feet kicking, those hands vicelike on his arms, his gaze locked onto that fiery mouth ahead. “Come back!”

Because he needed her back, otherwise he was alone. She’d told him to run and get help, but all he did now was stare as, within those flames, she burned alive.

“Welcome back,” said the person holding him using the voice of Carl Buford, Morgan bucking in that grip. “Welcome back, Derek … isn’t it exactly how you remembered?”

“She didn’t burn,” Morgan snarled. “She didn’t burn!”

But he was watching her stumble from the flames, her clothes on fire and her eyes melting from the heat, and he screamed.

“She will,” promised the creature holding him in an entirely pleasant voice. “This time, she will.”

 

6

Penelope Garcia slept fitfully and dreamed in shallow bursts of her waking worries, drifting off as she thought of Reid’s concern and Prentiss’s caginess. She dreamed of Morgan in danger and woke again, pulling her covers tighter around her as she lay with her eyes open and thought over and over of the black spot in her memory.

What had happened when she was eleven?

What had happened at that terrible place?

When she dozed off again, this time she dreamed of the rec hall. She knew immediately where it was despite it having been over twenty years since she’d stood here last, rows upon rows of camp mattresses lined up and the distinct smell of sweat and urine on the air. Those last few nights had been tortured, she remembered now.

She remembered being locked in here. She remembered that, by the end, most of the littles had made messes of themselves and some of the bigs as well. The water had started to run like blood and no one had wanted to go into the bathroom at all because voices could be heard from inside the pipes, calling them all down to float. There hadn’t been food or drinkable water and the heat on her arms burned now along with the stink in her nose, that remembered stink, but in this dream, unlike in reality, she was alone.

She stood there in her dream, remembering it all until the smoke began to curl under the doors of the hall. Flames licking at the door with greedy tongues, the heat pressing inwards. She thought of what she’d discovered now as an adult: it had always escalated, hadn’t it?

The fire at the Black Spot. The explosion at the metal-works. Those pilgrims who had gone missing, a whole town vanished. It always escalated …

The memory of smoke grew.

“We made you angry,” Garcia remembered out loud, shuddering as she took a step back from the burning door and almost tripped over a mattress. “We infuriated you.”

The flames cackled.

She remembered.

“No,” she said, horror slamming home: she remembered. “Aaron infuriated you, didn’t he? In the end, it was Aaron. And you said –”

“You’ll be back,” whispered a voice around her, a terrible voice. “We always come back, Penny, you and Aaron and little Spencer and me, of course, I came back … and when you’re back … when you’re back, you’ll die here too. You’ll join us too.”

Garcia knew that voice.

“Rafe,” she gasped. “No … you escaped. You got us out.”

But when she turned, her heart slamming hard, there he was; hand in hand with Rosaline Jareau and with his eyes dead inside and his smile too wide.

“Come back to us, Penny,” he said with that smile growing wider. “Come home.”

“Come die,” offered Rosaline, slipping her arm around his waist and holding him close. “Your team has, after all, and they’re calling you home too.”

When Garcia woke with a start, the nightmare already fading but her terror lingering, her cheeks were wet and her heart twisted tight. This time, she didn’t go back to sleep. Instead, she did what she should have done years ago.

She got up and went to find her brother.

 

7

Emily Prentiss dreamed of the deadlights. The dreams were impossible to describe using the words of waking hours; she’d never be able to tell anyone of what she saw. In the lonely bedroom of the hotel where five others of her team also slept fretfully, she twisted and turned in the rucked-up sheets, her body writhing like a fish on a hook.

If she’d been awake to see how she fought so violently to escape her bonds, she’d have thought that description was apt; a fish on a hook she was and had been since the day she’d looked down the throat of a clown. It had hooked her that day, hooked her well and truly. Her furious anger as an adult didn’t all stem from the festering wound left inside her where the barbed metal had latched on, but it certainly contributed. There was no escape from Camp Moribund, not for any of them, but especially not for her. Pennywise had shown her that day, shown her what he was, and he never let those who saw him – It – get away.

It would kill her, she knew, just like Rosaline Jareau, and just like Marcie Harris. All his dead-eyed fishes rotting from the head down with the tenebrous knowledge it had poured into them.

When she snapped awake with this knowledge bubbling up in her brain, her wide eyes locked on the shadowy surface of that hotel ceiling, she knew It was watching. The room stunk of her sweat and she’d pulled her summer sleepwear into disarray during the battle. She sat up slowly, her shoulder cocked towards the bedside cupboard where she’d left her gun, loaded, and she fixed her tank top not to cover her breasts but to hide the round scar upon her chest. The scar left by a bite.

She was calm when she looked to the bathroom and, in the unsteady light, locked eyes with Pennywise watching her.

“Welcome back, Emily,” said the clown politely, reaching up to honk his red nose at her with a salacious wink. “Oh my, oh my, look at you. Look how you’ve grown, how you’ve changed.”

With fixed calm, Emily took out her gun and stood. Her chest heaved; she was breathing rapidly but it didn’t shake her hand or her aim when she fixed the sight on the second down of those silver buttons. Anyone looking at her would have seen her fear, almost tasted it: it was as obvious as her blown-wide pupils and that heaving chest, as obvious as the goosebumps up her arms and the sharp nubs of her nipples under the thin material of her tank.

“It won’t hurt me,” the clown promised her, and she knew he was right. “You’re too old, all of you. Too old to harm me, too old to fight. My spring lambs all grown up into stupid sheep, blundering happily back into the floodwaters … and you’re trapped, my dear, you’re being swept down the river, each and every one of you. I could kill you now, couldn’t I?”

“No,” Emily rasped. It was a lie.

“I could,” It said, smiling wide. It’s teeth, she noticed, were sharp. It’s lips were wet. Red and wet. She almost choked on the stink of It, the dripping rot. “I could … they won’t wake to save you. Why, you could scream and not a mouse will hear you, just like that night. None of them heard you that night, did they? Sleepy little lambs, as their throats were cut, and you screaming … I’ll show you.”

And It threw back its terrible head and laughed and laughed and laughed, with a noise like all her nightmares come alive at once; it laughed so loud her ears ached and she almost dropped her gun to clap her hands over them. It laughed so loud it seemed impossible that no one heard, that lights wouldn’t snap on in every room in the vicinity as they rushed to see what that terrible noise was in her bedroom. But no one came; just like that night, she was alone.

When It stopped, those laughs finally quelling into soft howls of monstrous mirth before fading away, Emily was left shaking. Her finger, despite being locked on the trigger, had no feeling left within it. She could not have fired to save her life, her entire being shaking with every one of those boundless cackles as each one hammered home just how dead she was.

“You remember now, don’t you?” It asked her. That white-painted face, those silver-lit eyes, they were cocked to the side as It studied her curiously. “Don’t you remember what we did together? Don’t you remember how much fun we had?”

She remembered. She remembered it all.

“And whose fault was it, Emily?” asked the clown, slinking closer. The closer it came, the light shifting on those torturous features, the less sure Emily was that it was a clown at all: now, instead, it looked like a face from her memories. It looked …

It looked like Aaron. Aaron at sixteen, before he’d been Hotch. The Aaron she’d kissed. The Aaron she’d turned her back on fleeing alone for because he’d promised he’d keep her safe and she’d believed him. The Aaron she’d had sex with for the first time in the basement archives of the Castle Rock Public Library the night they’d run for their lives before they’d gotten caught, and the Aaron who’d whispered I love you into her ear as he’d made a mess of them on a pile of emergency blankets and torn couch cushions. He’d given her her first orgasm, she remembered with a strange thrill, all the hair on her arms now standing to attention with fear and shock, but that had been, in the end, the only good thing he’d given her. He’d given her pain too, so much pain. More than she’d ever felt before, and that was saying something.

It looked like Aaron the day he’d beaten her senseless. But that hadn’t been Aaron, it had been this creature, hadn’t it?

Hadn’t it?

“Whose fault?” asked the Aaron standing before her, his hair floppy and his smile sly. “Who called It to come and take the littles away? Who betrayed you all to save his brother?”

He leaned so close that his mouth was brushing her ear, her head tipped back to avoid touching him. The gun barrel pressed hard against his cold chest and her nostrils full of that rotting scent.

“Who ran when you needed him?” It asked. “Who lied … and who watched you get taken?”

Oh, suddenly she remembered. Remembered screaming his name as the claw had snapped around her ankle, and remembered watching his back retreating as he’d run away while that claw had dragged her kicking and screaming down below. It was his fault that she’d seen so much; his fault that the glimpse she’d gotten of the deadlights had turned into a full baptism in their darkness; Aaron’s fault and Aaron’s alone that she’d been so thoroughly destroyed.

“Your turn,” It told her. “Run, Emily. Run before he does it again. Run and maybe, just maybe … maybe you’ll escape.”

The laughter that followed this statement, that manic, hysterical guffawing, chased her as she twisted herself out of his grip and bolted for the door, wrenching it open and fleeing with every devastating memory hot on her heels. It wasn’t just the memories she was running from: she could feel them, the deadlights. The madness they had sunk into her brain, the creeping hooks that crawled into her sanity and tried to shatter it like glass. It hadn’t managed it last time, even though It had tried … It hadn’t managed it all because of one person.

One person who’d pulled her back to sanity.

Running from the laughter and the memories, she bolted for that remembered salvation because that laughter was madness and she, alone out of all them, had the propensity to fall to its tempting insanity.

 

8

In the seventh nightmare which was different to all the others only because it was a waking one, David Rossi was dying.

It began much as their tale had with a child crying. There was no real consensus on where It had come from, but most who knew of Derry’s terror would assume that soon after It’s creation, a child would have met an untimely and gruesome end. David Rossi, who had been waiting at the camp in the vain hope of a better future for those children within it, perhaps would have survived if he’d known as much about Dark Score as his teammates were beginning to.

He’d put the children in their beds after managing to fire up the aged industrial kitchen and putting his long-learned culinary skills into play to feed the fifteen hungry mouths waiting. Fifteen, he noted, checking his cell and finding that according to the list JJ had sent through there should be twenty-eight, not including Tommy Hiscott or the unfortunate Marcie Harris. Now he sat alone in the rec hall, the case file before him and the camp silent except for the humming light overhead.

The approach of a vehicle was loud enough in the night that he was immediately aware he was no longer alone. Closing the file and carrying it with him in case of curious children seeing the photos within, Rossi walked out to greet the officer sent to relieve him. The police cruiser was a comfort to Rossi’s eyes as he crossed the camp, for some reason uneasy despite the relative lack of danger in the place.

“You’re alone?” he asked the officer who stepped from the car, hat in hand and gun on his belt. The officer was a wiry skinny with nervous eyes and a patchy beard, those blue-washed eyes darting around as though he sensed the wrongness in this camp too. Upon his breast, his badge read ‘Kallum’.

“Yessir, couldn’t spare another hand away from the search for the Harris girl. Deputy Kallum. Any trouble with Hiscott?” The officer’s eyes lingered on the shower block as he followed Rossi back to the rec hall, his expression taut.

“No sign of him. Kid’s probably halfway to Bangor by now. Is there a problem?”

Rossi asked this question sharply, alarmed by the man’s skittish behaviour. This was who he was expected to leave in charge of fifteen scared kids?

“No problem,” said Kallum. “I’m just …” Those eyes skittered about again, fingers tight on his hat. “You hear stories about this place, you know. Weird things happening. Hauntings. Ayup, hauntings, that’s it. It’s a creepy place, you know? Look at that.”

He pointed one knobbly finger towards an overground mound of weeds and gravel, the bare suggestion of the jutted skeleton of some kind of frame thrust out from the gravel like a burned finger.

“Why leave that there?” he said quietly. “There’s no sense in that.”

“What is that?” Rossi asked.

“Old cabin. Burned down, some twenty years ago. Girl died in it, I’m told, though I don’t know myself. Was too young to take notice of things like that.”

Rossi watched him carefully. “You grew up around here then, did you?”

“Not really.” The man was still staring at the frame, before turning and grinning self-consciously. It wasn’t a comfortable smile. “But I’ve never felt at home anywhere else, doncha know? There’s something about this place. Something welcoming.”

“Kids die here a lot?” asked Rossi.

Kallum shrugged disinterestedly. “No more than other places,” was his answer. “Maybe more than some. Who knows. How many left here?”

Alarms were buzzing now. Rossi hadn’t worked the job he had for as long as he had without getting a feel for ‘wrong’ and this man, Deputy Kallum, he was ringing wrong. He was ringing ‘scared’ too, which Rossi thought was strange since the only thing they had to be scared of up here was mad Tommy Hiscott, who weighed about a buck twenty soaking wet.

“Fifteen,” said Rossi.

Kallum nodded. For a fleeting instant, Rossi saw a smile on his face.

“A bad summer,” said Kallum, in a way that sounded like he’d almost meant to say ‘good’.

“Uh-huh. Look, say we head up to the main house?” Rossi had his hands slung in the pockets of his expensive jeans, always dressed for comfort below and style up top. His jacket was fine, his shirt finer, and his jeans were expensive enough that he could buy them to look cheap. It suited him to dress this way, a counter-point to Hotch’s stark professionality. ‘This job hasn’t changed me’ his clothes said, which was a lie. “Check in with my partner and then I’ll get you settled here. You got back up coming, yeah?”

Really, he just wanted another gun at his side that he trusted while they got Garcia to run a check on this Deputy Kallum. JJ would sense the wrong too, he was sure. Woman had brains to spare.

“No backup,” said Kallum quietly. “Do you hear that?”

Rossi did. A child was crying. But not from the cabins, which were silent and lit by the yellowed lamps set around them on long poles; this child was crying from the path that led down towards the lake. Rossi turned to look, staring down that unsealed path and seeing flickers of movement between the low-hung branches. Something moved within.

“Take point,” he told Kallum. Like hell he was having this man’s gun at his back.

Kallum obeyed. Together, the two men walked towards the lake. Rossi thought, strangely, of his old hunting hound as they came out onto the shore. Mudgie, that was her name. Mudgie, who’d been a good dog. A fine dog. They’d hunted plenty of ducks together, him and Mudge, on lakes that were just like this one.

The crying was louder down here. Rossi could pinpoint the direction as being roughly towards a sloped shed perched on the side of the lake, the kind that would keep safety equipment and swimming toys and gear for the children of the camp to have close at hand. Plastic buoys and long noodles made of foam and endless child-sized lifejackets coloured in neon-bright shades that had long become firmly associated with ‘danger’ in his mind.

“No key to that shed,” said Kallum, staring at the shed without making a move towards it. “It was lost, years ago.”

“Was it?” Rossi asked without caring to hear the answer. The crying was hiccupping now, almost broken-hearted, and he couldn’t stand to hear it anymore; without Kallum, he walked towards the shed, flashlight held aloft to look for small, terrified shapes in the gloom.

“Ayup. Nineteen-eighty-eight, it was. We got the body out of the lake, but not the key.”

Rossi turned, staring at Kallum now. The crying had quietened for a moment like it was also waiting for an explanation.

“What body? Who got it out?” Rossi turned, darting his flashlight at the door of the shed, which was open. He didn’t point that out. It seemed unimportant despite the topic of conversation.

But Kallum was still watching the lake with a strange, hallowed expression, almost awed.

“You should have seen it,” he said. “Torn right open it was. I watched them get it out, Hotchner and Prentiss, even though she was fucked up that day, really fucked up. It got her, you know. Smashed half her face in and I remember Hotchner was so pissed at me because I wouldn’t help with the body and Prentiss had to, even though she was fucked up. I remember that they didn’t know where to hold it and Prentiss slipped and her hand went right into the open guts. That was a real fucken moment. I realised some things when that happened.”

Rossi was stunned silent. His brain was skating over those familiar names in such an unfamiliar context, trying to deny that there was any sense in what was being said … but the photo in the diner, and his teammates’ skittish behaviour, and everything else that was weird about this place. JJ’s grandma and Aaron’s erratic demeanour and Reid’s uncharacteristic vacuity

(and that photo)

and it worked out to scream one thing: he’d better listen up and listen good because this was a tale and warning the likes of which he’d long learned to respect, even if it seemed insane. Especially because it seemed insane. Some of the best advice of his life had come from the lips of madmen, usually resplendent in its simplicity.

(run)

“What did you realise?” he asked, narrowing in on the one thing he felt sure of getting an answer for, even though what he really wanted to ask was whose body was it and what had ‘fucked up’ Prentiss and how was the shed door open if the key was still in that silent lake.

“I realised,” began Kallum (and the child wasn’t crying anymore, but giggling), “that there was no escaping Camp Moribund, and that Hotchner was an idiot for trying. The only way to win was to join them.”

Join us, whispered the child behind Rossi, whose hands tightened around the heavy weight of his flashlight. Without turning, because he didn’t want to see, he used his other hand to slide his cell phone out of his pocket. His eyes still locked on Kallum, who watched him disinterestedly; something was walking on the gravel path behind Rossi leading to that unlocked shed. Join us, said the child again, except there were more now. A legion of children’s voices. Rossi didn’t believe in ghosts, but he believed a little right then.

When he darted his eyes down to his phone, looking away from Kallum for just a second to see the screen where his fingers had already pressed down speed-dial #1 – Aaron – he found that the screen read ‘Reception Unavailable’.

Kallum slid a small box from his pocket and waved it at him. A jammer.

Rossi pocketed his cell in favour of his gun. The snap of the holster almost drowned out the feet shuffling towards him. Still, neither of them were speaking.

Join us, whispered the lake as well as those children and, when Rossi glanced at it as he began to sidle sideways, along that shoreline – away from Kallum and also away from those shuffling feet – he saw pale blurs shifting under the shadowy waves. He knew what those blurs were. Drowned faces. Dozens of them, slowly ascending. Coming towards him, their features becoming clearer.

“You can’t escape,” said Kallum with a sad smile. “It’s alright, agent. He

(Rossi actually heard the word spoken as though it was both bolded and Importance Capped, how someone particularly pious would speak of their God)

welcomes you, even though you’re an outsider. He sent me to fetch you.”

“Not planning on dying today, thanks.” With that said, Rossi sprinted for the path that led up to the house where JJ was. He didn’t look left – to the seething lake – or right – to the shambling children who, if he’d looked, watched him with deadened eyes. He just locked his gaze ahead and ran like he hadn’t run since Vietnam, distantly hearing Kallum call out after him:

“No one who dies here really dies. In the end, we all come back.”

 

9

Here we take a brief break from the inevitable truth of David Rossi’s death. At the exact moment that Rossi was running from the legion of murdered children, those of Derry and Dark Score joined as one horde to help face one of the two groups of now-adults who had, as children, faced him and lived, his team had no idea of the danger he was in; many of them, in fact, were preoccupied with unfortunate events of their own.

JJ snapped awake to a thump above her, sprinting upstairs with a hand on the butt of her gun and her heart hammering just in time to find her grandmother seizing on the dusty floor of her bedroom. There was spit on her lips and piss on her nightgown, and JJ didn’t notice either of these things in the rush of adrenaline that spiked to keep her gran alive. At the point of Rossi’s desperate flight, JJ was no longer in the house on the hill; dream long forgotten in the face of a living panic, she was sitting in the waiting room of the Castle Rock County Hospital waiting for news, her cell phone in her lap as she pondered whether her boss would be awake yet or not.

The time was four thirty-eight a.m. The sun was still down. The town slumbered on.

Aaron Hotchner was indeed awake. He’d woken with the precognition of a man who spent more time in danger than out of it, showered and dressed before the clock had ticked to four and was now doing a nervous patrol of the outskirts of the hotel. His flashlight lit up every shadowed nook, his route taking him past each of the rooms which contained his team. The doors, on the inside of the hotel hallways, were closed and peaceful.

When his restless feet took him outside – right as Rossi reached the house and, fortunately, although in the end it didn’t change the outcome, threw himself into cover rather than sprinting out into the open – he found that Reid’s window was wide open, the curtains flapping outside where they’d been dragged out by a breeze.

But the night was still. No wind blew. And with that same endangered tenacity, Hotch walked towards that window with a feeling of doom. He peered in, seeing nothing but shadows and the couch set against the wall, the bathroom door neatly closed. There was a light on around the corner of the room, where the bed was set, but the bed itself was hidden from sight.

“Reid,” he said, expecting and receiving no answer.

The silence boosted him. He put his flashlight back in the inner pocket of his suit jacket, the one which contained small items designed to keep him alive on duty, and rested his hands on the windowsill. It was an easy effort to pull himself up and through the window, landing quietly on his sensible shoes, which were polished to a high shine. Inward he went, gun now in hand and careful to clear every corner – he was a father and a smart man and refused to become a picture on the wall of the FBI while still either of these things – before rounding that dividing wall to find that his youngest team member was gone.

The bed was there, the bedding tossed about as though the person within it had slept terribly. The pillow was indented where his head would have lain. If Hotch had walked forward and opened the drawer on the side of the bed, he would have found Reid’s credentials and cell phone both set in there atop his unloaded service weapon. These things would have alarmed Hotch.

But they didn’t, because they had no need to.

Hotch was already alarmed.

Above the bed, bobbing like so many accusing faces, were dozens of red balloons. They drifted on a wind of their own becoming, each turning in unison to stare Hotch down. Their strings seemed, in the light that Reid always kept on – he was scared of the dark, Hotch remembered – to shine garishly as though covered with slime from a pond or a sewer. They smelled of rot. Put together, they spelled out WELCOME BACK over and over and over again, their sides squeaking as they rubbed together.

Someone spoke to him. As it wasn’t Reid or saying anything that made any possible sense, he ignored it.

“Do you remember now, Aaron?” it asked in his father’s voice. “Do you remember the lake? Do you remember Emily’s face? Do you remember ME?”

He kept ignoring it, moving around the balloons, which couldn’t exist, in favour of looking to see if Reid had left in a hurry, which was quantifiable in a way the balloons and the voice weren’t. He refused to look, despite his neck prickling.

“Do you remember the bear?” it asked. “Do you remember the smell of cherry-ass? Cherry-ass! And the taste, oh, how it burned your tongue! Emily was too smart to drink it. You remember that, right!?”

It was getting closer. Hotch had found Reid’s gun and phone and was now dreading the worst.

“Do you remember Sean?” it whispered. “And the whupping I gave you? Do you remember what for?”

“Do you remember giving Emily what for?”

“Do you remember how GOOD it felt?”

“Do you remember the body in the lake? Boy, I did a job with that one, didn’t I? You puked, remember! Threw up all over yourself and then did it again when Emily touched the stomach, because the sound! It was like this.”

The sound that followed slammed hard into Hotch as some long-forgotten nightmare. He froze, eyes locked on the screen of Reid’s cell, which he was checking to see if there was something there explaining the man’s disappearance. His stomach gurgled, threatening to spill bile and his half-hearted dinner right up his throat and out onto the bed and all those balloons. He closed his eyes and saw

(Emily yanking her hand out of the gaping hole with a small scream, tripping in the bloody water and falling back. When she lurched up, her skin and clothes foamy, and he threw up again and added to the unholy mess. She was crying and so was he and so as everyone watching and he)

nothing, just the dark of his eyelids. When he opened them again, he was calm. There was no voice talking. There was no one here, which was a problem as Reid was supposed to be here. That was what he would focus on, not impossible voices or balloons.

As Hotch ignored the voice talking to him, Rossi was staring at something else entirely and Morgan was following a bloody trail to a silent door.

A shout shattered the peace of the hotel. Hotch ran towards the scream, refusing to look back to see if the balloons were still there and refusing to look towards that voice to see if it was watching.

(he knew the answer anyway)

 

10

David Rossi was crouched in the bushes that ringed JJ’s grandmother’s home, and he was typing a text he knew wouldn’t send in time to save his life. The text read this:

Dep. Kallum is complicit. Foyet is here w. Aaron’s family at Jareau house. Going to get Jack out.

He paused, looking back up to what he’d seen, which was Haley Hotchner nervously holding hers and Aaron’s three-year-old son – he’d be four in October, Rossi remembered, but only if Rossi did his job tonight and did it well – by her side. That would have been alarming enough since she was supposed to be in WITSEC far away from here, but Rossi had gotten a nice long look at the man who’d exited the driver’s side of the neat sedan parked there. He was dressed like a US Marshal, but he wasn’t: Rossi hadn’t spent the last few months chasing George Foyet’s tail without learning well what the man looked like and that, that was most definitely him. Him putting his hand on Haley’s shoulder and smiling at her before leading them up the porch stairs to where the door stood open. There was no sign of JJ and her SUV was gone from the drive.

“Fuck,” Rossi whispered to himself. He couldn’t call for backup. He couldn’t leave. The chances of him surviving an encounter with Foyet were fairly high, except maybe he was overstating those chances since Hotch – who was a good fifteen years younger than him – had barely escaped Foyet’s knife with his life.

He could die here, he realised.

He added a line to the text, Died fighting, because he hadn’t lived a life like his to go out with a squeak. And then he amended that to, It’s not your fault, you couldn’t have seen this coming, because there was no way Aaron wouldn’t take this personally.

After all, if he survived, he could delete the text before they saw it.

Pressing send, the message showed the spinning icon that meant it had no signal. Rossi watched that for a moment, one eye on the silent house, before flipping the cell closed and tucking it into a fork between two branches.

Gun in hand, Rossi stalked the house which, upon examination by others in the light of day and with the knowledge of what was about to happen, seemed almost like an open mouth anticipating a long-awaited meal.

 

11

Morgan had no idea why he’d been struck by the desire to go walking through the hotel at ass o’clock of the morning, feet bare on the carpeted halls and thinking how silent it all was. He’d wondered where everyone was, if their team were somehow the only people staying here despite how popular the place supposedly was, and then he’d come around a corner and his bare foot had stepped into something that squelched.

When he looked down, the floor was soaked in blood. It oozed through his bare toes, bubbling under the pressure of his heel. There was enough under his foot that he knew whoever had left it was in a lot of trouble.

“A real bleeder,” he murmured, brain misfiring over that unsteady pool and some old memory. He understood that he’d gone walking because the blood was here needing to be found, or perhaps the blood was here because he’d gone walking, but either way the message was clear. He followed it. His heel left more red splashes on the tan carpet as his eyes tracked the drips and drops. Before he’d rounded the corner and found the door the trail led to, he was sure he was going to find a body: no one could lose this much blood and survive, although it did remind him of Foyet’s kitchen when he’d faked his death … no one could lose that much blood and survive, except the Reaper.

The blood led to Prentiss’s door.

Morgan wished he’d brought his gun, looking up to see the handprint that curled around the handle of his teammate’s hotel door. Inside, she slept. Vulnerable.

It was that that goaded him forward. The door, he realised once he was standing before it, was partially open, and he pushed it the rest of the way and called her name (no answer) into the waiting dark. When that brought no reply, he, probably stupidly, walked inside.

When he saw what was waiting for him, he yelled. Hotch came running, already dressed and already pale, even if what he saw hadn’t been already guaranteed to add to the lines on his face.

“Shit,” Hotch breathed, arm flung out as though to catch himself on the doorway he’d just thrown himself through. Morgan said nothing, the cry having choked out everything he felt capable of verbalising even in the face of Hotch swearing, an unprecedented occurrence. “Where’s Emily?”

Morgan shook his head, closing his eyes against the garish scene before them as Hotch slammed home just how fucked they really were.

“Reid’s gone too.”

“Did he leave behind something like that?” Morgan managed to spit out, eyes still closed but the red lines burning his retinas. He was reminded, suddenly, of Elle. Elle and Gardner and everything that had gone wrong.

It was about then that he started praying because he couldn’t handle another Elle.

“Something like that,” said Hotch. Morgan opened his eyes again, forcing himself to look at what was splashed above Emily’s bed – at the giddy words that were written over and over and over and over again (welcome home welcome home welcome home welcome home welcome home) in what was undoubtedly blood, the letters still dripping with how fresh it all was. Whoever’s blood it was, it was recently shed, and there was way too much for a person to survive losing.

When they dialled her number, her cell rang from the counter against the wall.

Morgan prayed harder.

No one was listening.

 

12

JJ, sitting alone at the hospital with no idea that any of this was happening because no one in the chaos had thought to call and warn her as of yet, was unprepared for what was to happen next. She sat alone, staring at the oddly patterned walls, the tiles swimming together in her restless mind as she went over and over the oddity of her grandmother’s existence and those graves down the hill and the church that had sat squat overtop of them, shaped as though it had been half-built and forgotten.

The sun, when she glanced to the window, was rising.

She was still thinking over those things, her brain coughing up the same thought over and over again instead of anything useful, when someone walked into the waiting room and choked out her name.

She lurched up, thinking it was a nurse with news – although what nurse would cry her name, Jen, like that, like they’d never expected to say it again? – but finding she was wrong.

“Will?” she asked stupidly. It was undoubtedly her boyfriend standing there with their son sleeping in his arms, wrapped tight in the bunny-blanket Spence had bought him in a fit of god-fatherly worry that they weren’t keeping him warm enough. “What are …?”

But she never got to finish her exclamation, because Will had strode forward and dragged her into an awkward, one-armed hug that was damp and desperate and crushing enough that she worried for Henry between them. “I don’t understand,” he was repeating into her hair, his voice thick and his breathing heavy. “I don’t understand, they said, they sai…”

She pulled back, looking up at him and seeing his red eyes and unbrushed hair and generally haggard look.

Something in her stomach twisted hard.

(there’s something in the water)

He was here. In Castle Rock, within reach of something.

Henry too.

Henry was here too.

“You can’t be here,” she stammered out, but he was talking over the top of her. Saying something about her dying, about someone knocking on their door and telling him that she’d been killed in the line of duty. That he was here to ID her body, except she wasn’t dead and Henry was here.

“Didn’t you call the precinct to check before you rushed here?” she asked him.

“Of course, I did, don’t you think I did?” he snapped at her. She ignored his tone. If the roles were reversed, she’d be snapping too. “No one told me otherwise. They consoled me, Jen.”

That something in her gut twisted harder.

“Did you call Hotch?”

“No answer. I tried your cell too, and it said it was off.”

Her cell, when she pulled it from her pocket, was very, very on.

“We need to leave,” she said distantly, focusing (remembering). She took his hand. Henry slept on. They walked calmly. Will said little, keeping close to her; he was a cop too, and he felt it as well, she suspected, judging by his clammy grip on her palm. He felt the wrongness, that feeling like there was a snare waiting to loop around their necks. Henry grumbled, blue eyes blinking open. JJ took him from Will and held him close. They looked at each other. She saw it in his eyes; he felt the wire touching his throat too, that danger looming.

A nurse walked past without looking at them. JJ turned away from her, choosing a different hallway, and another still when she saw a doctor ahead. Will followed. They found the gated doorway to the paediatric ward, balloons tied to a chair near the door. Those red balloons terrified JJ. She walked faster.

“Are we in danger?” asked Will, who’d seen the balloons but didn’t understand why JJ looked so frightened by them.

“I don’t know,” lied JJ, who knew very well what Emily had told her all those years ago (he’s never going to let you go, JJ. He’s never going to let you go. He wants the full set, you and Ros together again, isn’t that fucked) and believed that she’d meant it. Because she remembered now, didn’t she? She remembered Emily when they’d gotten her back from somewhere: where had she gone? She didn’t remember that, but she remembered the wrongness, oh yes, the wrongness that JJ and Will could sense thrumming through this hospital, feeding off the sickness and the death and the morgue below that was lined with little bodies, it had been in Emily that day, hadn’t it? That day in nineteen-eighty-eight, when Emily had died in vain and then come back to them wrong. What had she promised in her blank, nothing voice with her too-shiny eyes staring and Aaron trying desperately to snap her out of it?

(JJ remembered how hard he’d shaken her trying to make her stop being crazy and start being Emily again, shaken her so hard her teeth had rattled together and her breath had skipped and JJ had been scared he’d shake her till she fell to pieces or bit her tongue off or something else equally horrible)

She’d promised that JJ was definitely, absolutely going to die.

And she’d laughed as she’d said it.

“Jen,” said Will, breaking her from that terrible memory. Her son in her arms and feeling sick all the way through, JJ turned to him – and a burst of relief almost slammed her to her knees.

Rossi was here. He stood at the end of the hall, gesturing them towards him. JJ, seeing safety in the gun at his hip and the unwavering strength of his abilities, ran towards him. With Will at her side and Rossi ahead, she shoved Emily’s premonition aside. Emily had been crazy that day, she’d seen

(everything)

something that had spooked her, that was all. She was fine now.

Rossi waited until they were close before opening a door and slipping inside, leaving it open for them to follow.

“Come on,” said JJ, following her friend without hesitating through that door and down the waiting stairs. Henry was awake now, smiling to see his mommy holding him. Will seemed to have calmed down. They were okay. “Rossi will know what to do.”

The door closed behind them.

 

13

It was eighteen past seven in the morning. Emily Prentiss and Spencer Reid were long gone. Derek Morgan and Aaron Hotchner were terrified for them. Jennifer Jareau was in more danger than she knew, and David Rossi had been dead for just over two hours.

His body lay among the gravestones in the small cemetery down the hill from the Jareau house. The knuckle of his right hand brushed Rosaline Jareau’s headstone. The dirt around him was buckled, disturbed from below as though something had shoved upwards to grasp him when he’d foolishly stepped upon unhallowed ground. His eyes were open and stared up at the sunrise he hadn’t lived to see. His mouth gaped. He’d died screaming, gazing at something terrible.

It would be impossible for those who would eventually find his body to imagine how terrible the thing he’d seen in his last moments had been. They could hazard a guess though that it had been dreadful, as there was little of the man left below the torso and, what was left, had certainly been devoured by something monstrous.

David Rossi had, in fact, not died fighting. He hadn’t died saving Jack Hotchner from his fate, and he hadn’t even managed to warn Haley of the danger. He hadn’t died the hero he’d lived as. He’d died running, died alone, died terrified and screaming and wishing for someone to save him.

Ain’t that the damnedest thing.

Chapter Text

1

Aaron Hotchner tells a lie.

They were going to starve soon and that was the terrible truth of it. Water, they had. Food? Not so much. And they’d started going through the stages of hunger, with the kids getting ratty as their bellies moved through the pinching part and started cramping instead. Aaron’s hurt too. A gut-deep gnawing in his belly that left him dizzy if he stood up too fast, but he couldn’t let them know he was hurting because he had to be brave for them, an example.

“Just get them to sleep,” Rafe said tiredly. “We can try steal food from the house again …”

“We cleaned it out pretty well last time,” Aaron pointed out. They were trying to be quiet about this conversation as to avoid panicking anyone, but JJ was curled up in Rafe’s lap watching. Thumb in her mouth again and those same blank eyes, Aaron shifting uneasily in his seat as it hit him just how desperately that kid needed help. She hadn’t spoken since seeing Aaron hitting her sister, really giving the dead Ros what for. Aaron shivered, trying not to think about what that would have looked like and avoiding her accusing blue eyes.

“Maybe it will let a few of us sneak down to town?” Emily asked, perched on the edge of a table with her legs crossed at the ankles. “I’m not afraid to knock off some food. Did we ever get the mini-van running again?”

“Not well,” said Aaron.

“I can try getting to town –” Rafe started, but JJ in his lap began to whimper, her hands clutching his shirt and breath starting to come in fast, choking wheezes. “Hey, hey. It’s alright, kiddo. Was just an idea, you know, just a thought. Breathe, kid, breathe …”

But JJ kept wheezing, curling up against him with every part of her body trembling.

“Christ,” said Emily, looking away with her mouth a thin line of either disapproval or anger.

“Don’t be a bitch.” Rafe’s tone was soft but there was an acrimonious irritation hidden within it. “She’s had a rough time, okay? I’m all she’s got right now, and I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”

JJ nodded, her face turned away from them and hidden against his shirt.

“You guys have to keep in mind, this clown thing has mostly ignored us older kids so far,” Rafe said, locking his gaze onto each and every one of them.

“Ignored us?” Sarah hissed. “It killed Hannah!”

But Aaron cut her off. “The bear was hunting Spencer and –” He swallowed. “– Sean. It was after the kids. They just ran to Hannah’s cabin and she got caught. Rafe’s right. From day one it’s been after the kids. The man in Sean’s bedroom, the dog JJ kept seeing, the radio in the minivan that we couldn’t hear.”

“Spencer’s clown,” Emily added. “Penelope’s something in the lake. Most of us didn’t even believe in it until we were forced.” The look she gave Sarah was scathing, Sarah looking away.

“The few times it’s attacked one of us, it’s because we’ve pissed it off somehow, it seems.” Rafe slid his arm around JJ’s shoulder, holding her tighter. “It hated Ros. And we really fucked it off by trying to get the kids out of here. But a couple of us bigger kids sneaking away and meaning to come back? I think it will let us go.”

“Have any of you been directly targeted?” Aaron asked, watching each of them closely. Ros’s warning rang in his mind: the older kids from the year before who had fed it. Did he think anyone here was capable of that?

He didn’t know.

Heads shook in unison, except for Rafe who shrugged, and Emily who was watching Rafe.

“So it’s not after us then,” Rafe said, ignoring that stare. “Good. That’s settled. Everyone get the kids down to sleep. We watch on a roster, two awake at all times – and tomorrow, we’ll go down to town and get food.”

The counsellors murmured, Rafe walking off with JJ in his arms. Aaron watched him go, feeling uneasy; yeah, sure, it made sense that JJ was clinging to Rafe … but why was Rafe so determined to cling back? There was something there Aaron was missing, and Rafe had lied just then. He’d seen something, and he’d lied about it.

“He was attacked in Ros’s bedroom,” Emily said in a low whisper meant only for Aaron as the other counsellors scattered, leaving him standing there alone looking out across the mostly darkened hall. “Rafe was, I mean. Something attacked him. I heard him screaming but when I got there it was gone. You know him and Ros were together, right? Fucking, at least, but maybe something more …”

She trailed off and Aaron looked away; he hadn’t known and wished he still didn’t because losing someone who might be something more was a scary thought. He didn’t want to think about that. It made him want to hold Emily close and shield her from the world, but he knew she wasn’t the kind of girl who’d want or accept that kind of protection.

“What does it mean?” Aaron asked her. He turned his head towards her, finding her closer than expected in the gloom and giving in to the desire to lean forward and bump his lips against her forehead in an almost-kiss. “Did he piss off the clown?”

“I don’t know,” said Emily. She took his hand in hers, her palm warm, and together they walked back to their small corner where Sean and Spencer were sharing the last of a bottle of water. Spencer’s glasses flashed in the dark every time he turned his head to look around and a flashlight beam caught them. “It has to mean something though since he doesn’t want the rest of us to know. Maybe he’s worried we’ll think he’s losing it.”

“Maybe,” said Aaron. They were at the beds, Aaron smiling at the boys despite the dark hiding it. “Hey, guys. Ready to sleep?”

“We’re hungry,” Sean whined, his knees pulled up against his chest. “I’ve got a tummy-ache.”

Spencer was silent.

“We’re going to get food tomorrow,” Emily said after a beat, her voice forced into some pretence of being upbeat. “All you need to do is sleep and there’ll be something to eat tomorrow, yeah? Doesn’t that sound easy?”

“I guess …” Sean didn’t sound convinced. “Aaron? Are the dead kids going to come back?”

“No,” Aaron said. “Absolutely not. We chased them off and they won’t dare show their faces here again. Spencer?”

Those glasses flashed as the quiet boy looked at him without speaking.

“You good to sleep?” Aaron pressed.

Spencer wiggled on the mattress, making a low ummm noise that Emily laughed at.

“Need the bathroom?” she asked, Aaron raising an eyebrow at her ability to understand that voiceless request. “Great. I’m spending way too much time around babies. I’m starting to speak their language. Come on then, let’s go. I’ll keep watch for clowns, hey?”

“And dead kids,” Spencer whispered, clambering up and taking her hand.

“Them too.”

And then they were gone, vanishing into the sticky dark of the hall towards the bathrooms. Aaron watched after them with a bite of anxiety in his throat, muscles tensed as they would remain until the two figures returned.

“Is Emily your girlfriend now?” Sean asked. Aaron jumped, misbalancing and ending up on the mattress with his brother and trying to make it look like he’d meant to flop down. Sean didn’t seem fooled, sniggering at his brother.

“Dunno what you mean,” Aaron replied, heart hammering. Was she? He didn’t know.

“Well, you kiss her like she’s your girlfriend,” Sean said matter-of-factly. “You’re only supposed to kiss people who are your girlfriends or your wife.”

“Mom kisses you,” Aaron pointed out. “Is she your girlfriend?”

“Is Emily your mom?” Sean shot back. Aaron snorted, letting him know how much he wasn’t going to encourage this childish conversation as they went quiet. “Aaron?”

“Mmm.”

“Are we going to die?”

Cold slammed hard into Aaron. It felt like everything they’d been through over the past few weeks, all the horror and the fear, had all compounded into this single moment of truth, asked so innocently from the mouth of a child.

“Why would you say something like that?” Aaron snapped, trying to shake those words from his brain. You’re gonna die, whispered his brain. Gonna die like Ros, like Ethan, like Hannah, gonna die screaming and so is he and there’s nothing you can do about it, nothing nothing nothing nothing. “You shouldn’t ask things like that.”

“I asked Spencer if kids were supposed to die and he says a lot of kids die all the time for all kinds of reasons, like pools and polio and Luke-eee-ma, and he said that he doesn’t know what happens after we die except that there’s probably not many books and that his mom says a lot of people have a lot of ideas and some are sillier than others and –”

Sean cut his rambling off with a gulping breath.

“Spencer sounds like a little smartass,” Aaron said, his gut too tight and the anxiety too clawing. All of it was taking up too much space in his struggling brain.

“He is,” said Sean. “He’s the smartest person in the world, even if he can’t tie his shoes. He even knows about Daddy even though I didn’t tell him. He guessed. And he’s got books in his head. I think his brain is made of books.”

Aaron closed his eyes, curling his fists so tight he could feel his nails cutting his palms. “What about Dad?”

“About Daddy and his belt.” Sean moved on the bed, his voice wavering like he was scared of getting in trouble. “He says it’s not good for Daddy to hit and that his parents never hit.”

“Good for him.” Aaron was having trouble breathing. He’d never talked about this with Sean, always hoping that somehow maybe it was just him who was suffering, maybe Sean didn’t know, didn’t see –

“He’s gonna ask his mom if we can go live with him though?” Sean added, Aaron’s heart stalling. “Then he can be our brother and not get hit ever ever ever … and I said that would be really cool if we could because I know Daddy makes you sad and I don’t like that. It hurts, here.”

Aaron looked at his brother, who’d moved his hand in the dark. It took a second to figure out where he’d put it. Aaron reached out to find his small hand, which was now scrunched over about the middle range of his chest.

“I don’t know why,” Sean finished in a low voice.

“It hurts because when you love someone, that’s what it feels like to worry about them,” Aaron explained, his own heart doing much the same and knotting tight in his chest. “That pain means you’re worried about me. And you shouldn’t, buddy, you shouldn’t worry. I’m okay.”

“I worry about Spencer too? In the same spot. And it hurts when I think about if we’re going to die too, so I try not … to.”

Aaron nodded. “You really like him, huh?” was all he could manage, referring to Spencer.

“Of course. He’s my best friend until Ethan comes back anyway because he was Ethan’s first.”

There it came again, that terrible weight. Another thing to add to the part of his mind that was bogged down under awful things.

Aaron asked, “Sean, you know that Ethan is dead, yeah? And you know that means he’s not coming back?”

“Sure, not for a while. But he will? He won’t stay away forever. I wouldn’t stay away for always from my best friend. That’s not a good friend.”

Aaron eased back onto the bed, ignoring all the whispering conversations happening around him and focusing on this one alone: “Buddy,” he said, wishing anyone, absolutely anyone, was having this conversation instead of him. “Dead means gone. You don’t come back from being dead. Not even if you love someone a whole lot and not even if they love you just as much – they can’t come back. They’re gone. That’s dead.”

Sean made a low, damp sound. When he spoke, his voice was thick and confused. “But … but they have to? What about Ros?”

Aaron froze, unable to answer, to speak. What about Ros? What about her eyes, the sound her skull had made on the tiles, her opened-up arms? What about –

“JJ needs her,” Sean gulped out. “She needs her sister. That’s not fair, it’s not fair.”

Then he was crying, the sound not out of place in this hall of the barely living, not really. He wasn’t the only one crying. Kids had been crying on and off for hours, because of hunger and fear and because of missing their parents and their friends who were dead. Aaron could do for Sean nothing except what he’d done for those other kids.

Lie.

“We’re going to be okay,” he said, tugging his brother into his arms and hugging him close until Sean cried himself to sleep. “We’re not dead. We’re not gone. And we’re going to be okay.”

He didn’t move from that spot, not even when Emily returned with Spencer (who’d taken every last inch of her patience to talk into walking into that bathroom, his terror of the cubicle overwhelming), and not even when she slid Spencer into the bed on the other side of Sean before crawling in behind Aaron and wrapping her arm around his stomach, her chin against his shoulder. He wondered if she was this cuddly in any other context other than this one.

He wondered if he’d ever get a chance to find out.

“He okay?” she murmured, meaning Sean.

“He’s almost asleep,” Aaron said. It was true. Sean was only sniffling sporadically now, turning in Aaron’s arms until he could reach out and curl one of his hands through Spencer’s. It didn’t answer her question, mostly because that question didn’t have an answer. “Spencer okay?”

“He took about a million years to take his pants off, I swear,” Emily grumbled into Aaron’s shoulder. “Then he got scared by the soap dispenser, and he’s too short to reach the sink so I had to pick him up. Six-year-olds are so useless. Glad I never was one.”

Aaron smiled, glad the smile was hidden because it felt private.

“You’re going to make a great mom one day,” he said. It came from nowhere, slipping out on the tail end of that smile, and it felt too much like thinking of a future none of them would have. But there it was: he’d said it. There was no taking it back. And he meant it.

Emily said nothing, just tightened her arm and pressed closer.

They slept fitfully, with each of them waking throughout the night.

 

2

Emily Prentiss takes a beating.

Emily dreamed of a baby crying. It woke her over and over again, each time worse than the last. The first she was shaking; by the fourth, she felt sick with a stabbing pain below her gut and her entire body trembling with every remembered squall. Each time, she took stock of her surroundings, drank some of the tepid water in the bottle beside the camp mattress, and then attempted to drown out the whimpers by focusing on Aaron’s steady heartbeat beside her.

Sleep came slowly. Emily leaned against Aaron, counting his deep breaths. He was deeply asleep and, when she leaned over to peer at his face, it was smooth and calm. At least one of them was getting rest. From here, all she could see of the two boys was the tangle of blankets and hair, both of them burrowed in as much as they could into the covers.

People were talking quietly behind her. She rolled, narrowing her eyes against the dark and focusing her ears until she could pick out that it was Rafe’s voice with a girl responding. JJ, she thought first and then realised it was Penelope.

“JJ’s going to be okay, isn’t she?” Penelope was asking. “She seems so sad.”

“She is sad,” Rafe responded, trying to keep his deep voice low. It carried anyway. “She’s sadder than you can possibly know, Penny. It hurts so much to lose someone you love. We’re going to have to be kind to her because when you’re tied up in that hurt it’s hard to think of the people around you, especially when you’re as little as JJ.”

“You’re sad too …”

Rafe was quiet for a moment, before saying, “I cared about her so much too. Ros, I mean. She was … coming to be special to me. Even if we didn’t get to explore that, it hurts that the chance was taken away from us.”

Emily didn’t think he was talking to Penelope anymore, more just verbalising his grief. And she hadn’t realised the depths of that grief, looking now at Aaron and imagining him as dead as Ros had been.

She stopped imagining it quickly.

“Sleep,” she hissed to herself, burrowing her head into the jacket she was using as a pillow. “Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep …”

The baby began to cry again.

She dreamed of Ros with the clouded eyes and the split skin-skull, walking slowly down a staircase into the ground. Emily felt herself hauled after, her feet moving by themselves. The stairway was lined with people waiting. People in priests cassocks, their faces obscured by darkness. Each held a candle that flickered with red flames casting vanta-black shadows.

Matthew waited below. His body was sprawled on the ground, foam dripping from his blue lips and blood staining that foam pink. A needle was curled in his crooked arm. Bruises stained the skin. Emily stared, her weak heart slamming hard.

“Just a dream,” she breathed to herself. A hand touched her shoulder.

“You’re finally here,” said the pleasant voice. “Confess your sins.”

“A terrible dream,” Emily repeated, shaking her head to make it go away. “It’s not my fault. I didn’t do this … Matt … Matthew?”

But Matthew was dead and could not answer.

“Say it,” said that voice.

Emily shook her head, a sob rising in her throat that couldn’t escape. Say it, the voice snarled again, in her ear and her head and her soul stained black with all that she was done.

The voices chanted, refusing her absolution. They labelled her a whore

(mea culpa)

a temptress

(mea culpa)

a liar

(mea culpa)

a sinner

(mea culpa)

a murderer

(my fault)

“I didn’t kill him!” she screamed, spinning on those endless voices and finding herself alone and looking down a brightly lit aisle. A familiar aisle. The aisle of the church that … that had thrown her out. But no priest stood staring down at her. The pews were full of familiar faces, all smiling. All watching. Her family, her friends. The children of the camp, both living and dead. Emily looked and saw Ethan waving with his dead hand holding a single rose, dressed in a tiny tuxedo. Spencer and Sean sat beside him, similarly adorned.

When she looked down, she wore white and the knife was in her hands.

When It came from behind her and took her arm, she could do nothing but follow. Her feet dragged on the red carpet below her, that sob still burning to escape, her entire being fighting what was coming. And the clown held her arm in a vicelike grip, walking her up that aisle to where John stood waiting.

“Please, no,” she whimpered. There was a baby at John’s feet, a baby that screamed as though its throat was being cut. “Please, no,” she said again as they stood before it, the clown still holding her arm, the knife in her hands. “Please …”

She raised the knife and screamed as she looked directly at the infant and saw that the child’s hair was black, as were her innocent eyes. Her daughter, she realised. A daughter.

“Murderer,” purred the clown.

The knife plunged down.

And she woke, staring wordlessly at the still-dark ceiling of the rec hall, her hands rigid talons at her mouth, her entire body locked stiff. Not a sound escaped her.

Emily kept staring at that ceiling until her hammering heart calmed. Kept staring until her muscles loosened and her hands relaxed and she could close her eyes and sink back into the mattress … which was wet below her.

With a frown, Emily reached between her legs under the blankets, tracing her fingers across the cotton of her panties and finding them sticky to the touch. When she shifted to sit up, trying to calculate the time of the month with a gut-dropping lurch of panic (but it was too early by far, she’d only finished bleeding the week before), the mattress made a squelching sound under her. A soaked sound. She’d heard that sound before.

Face locked into what she knew was a rictus of terror as she vividly remembered where this sound had happened before, Emily reached for the flashlight and flicked it on fast. On and off, all while aimed between her sprawled legs, the blanket pulled aside.

Oh, the blood. So much blood. So much.

Too scared to scream, Emily dropped the flashlight. It was happening again. It was happening again, all of it, happening again just like

(waking up in the back of Matthew’s car, still groggy from the anaesthetic, and there’s blood everywhere; she’s burning from the inside out and Matthew is screaming her name because she’s not answering him, why isn’t she answering him)

last time and everything that had happened, everything awful

(the ambulance and the anger and her mother finding her sobbing because she’d go to prison, they’d take her away; they’d know what she’d done to the baby in her belly, that she’d killed it and, in return, some higher power had brought pain)

everything that she’d been told was all her fault for being a dirty, sinful little slut

(post-surgical infection causing haemorrhage, the doctors had told Elizabeth with Emily listening)

(she could have died)

just a worthless whore.

She couldn’t walk; her brain swam. Was it hot in here? Or was it the fever back again, searing her like Hellfire under her skin? She had to get out. She had to get clean. Wash it from her body before someone saw, before they knew; she crawled until she could walk and walked until she could run, sprinting right past the shocked Sarah Morgan who called her name and into the bathroom, where she slammed into a cubicle, locked the door, and dropped to the ground to curl around her splitting belly.

“Go away,” she snarled when Sarah’s footsteps followed her. “Get out!”

“Should I get Aaron?” Sarah asked, lingering. Emily opened her eyes and, in the gleam of light under the cubicle door from the lamp Sarah was holding, she saw the bloody trail she’d left behind.

Oh god. Oh god. She was going to die. Bleed to death.

She lifted her hands and stared down, watching it keep pooling and pooling between her legs. So much that she couldn’t possibly survive.

“Emily? What’s wrong?”

Couldn’t she see? There was so much blood out there, why hadn’t she seen?!

“Fuck off,” Emily whispered, her vision swimming and turning everything red too. She had to get out. She couldn’t die here. If she died here, it would be Aaron who’d have to carry her weight. It would break him. She couldn’t do that, couldn’t take that future from him just like Ros had taken it from Rafe.

Sarah wasn’t there when Emily unlocked the cubicle, her bare feet squeaking on the bloodied tiles as she lurched out like a drunk. Emily bolted out the bathroom and through the side door, out into the rotting air of summer.

“I can hide it,” Emily whispered to herself, hands tucked over her womb like she could obscure what she’d done. “I can fix it. I just need …”

Clothes. Clean clothes. From her cabin, which was too far.

She went for Aaron’s, ignoring a voice that called her name behind her as she sprinted like she wasn’t bleeding to death, sprinted like she had all the time in the world left to her; she didn’t stop until she was shoving open the door to his cabin and striding in. She knew where he kept his spare clothes and went straight there, pawing blindly through the pilfered drawers of the shared dresser until she found jeans and a sweater.

She could hide this. Fix it. All she had to do was get rid of these red-stained clothes and act normal. Unless she died.

Her shirt caught on her hair as she dragged it off, using it to wipe the blood on her legs before tossing it under a bunk. Her skirt followed, kicked under the bed, and she pulled on his jeans and whimpered when she felt another wave of heat and a hot gush between her thighs.

“No, no no no, no,” she gasped, staring at the crotch of his clean jeans as they turned red too. “Oh god, no I don’t want to die, please please, please don’t let me die, please –”

“Emily,” said a voice from the doorway.

Emily jerked up with a thin scream, staring at the moonlight until the shadow blocking it stepped forward. Even in the gloom, she knew his profile. Knew that hair and those hidden eyes.

“Aaron,” she sobbed, hunkering down in his ruined jeans and her bra and closing her eyes against the truth. “I’m sorry, god. I’m so sorry. I’m dying, I’m dying, please, help.”

He didn’t say anything, just kept walking closer; she could hear his boots on the floorboards.

“The blood,” she whispered. But he didn’t speak. “There’s too much. You have to call an ambulance. It’s happening again.”

He didn’t speak.

Emily opened her eyes. He was standing looking down at her. Despite the dark in the room, she could see his expression: he was disappointed.

“Aaron?” she asked, standing with difficulty. The wall supported her.

“You’ve made a mess,” he said, his voice low and pleasant. She blinked. “Do you know what happens to bad kids who make messes?”

“I … what?” Emily stared at him. “The … t-the blood, Aaron. Can’t you see I’m hurt?”

“Bad kids get punished,” he whispered, leaning close and smiling like it was a delicious secret for just him and her. In the dark, his eyes gleamed silver. “Bad kids get what for.”

“I –” she gasped, and then the room exploded into a starburst of colours as something struck her in the face and threw her sideways, hard. She slammed into the dresser, almost sliding down – but he grabbed her by the hair, ignoring her shocked scream and hauling her up to hit her again with his other hand. The blow left her blind, head reeling, head bursting with pain. Her cheek felt split open, her eye already swelling shut and with blood filling her mouth from a bitten tongue.

Everything became slow after that. Hazy. Dreamlike. Emily felt herself go limp. She felt her heart slow with the shock. She felt her eyes roll back as her brain tried to shut down.

He’s going to kill me, she realised.

He’s going to kill me.

He was going to kill her.

She snapped awake, and screamed. Screamed and kicked, clawing at his face and hands and anything she could reach, but he was so much bigger, so much stronger than her. He simply lifted her by that handful of hair – and the pain, oh, the pain, as though she was being scalped – and threw her into the wall. A hook on the wall, meant for coats, slammed into her back and she lost every bit of air as everything in her body quit working all at once. She dropped to the ground as though there wasn’t a single part of her that had control anymore.

But Aaron was still there, and she opened her eyes to find herself on her side on the ground looking up at him over her.

He held the knife. Her knife.

Emily bubbled out what might have been his name if she had still been capable of forming words from her ruined mouth, trying to move her limbs to drag herself away from him. But she couldn’t move.

Aaron leaned down until his face was against hers, blowing hot, sticky air onto her bleeding mouth, where he kissed her. His tongue slithered against her lips and she choked rather than let it in, feeling the hilt of the knife press into her limp hand. He was giving her the knife.

What?

Emily shook her head no at him as he pushed her shoulder until she rolled onto her abused back, straddling her with a knee on either side. At that moment, she was terrified. She thought of all those meetings with the security details who’d told her to be careful of boogeymen, of rapists and murderers, and she wondered if she was about to meet all those things as Aaron watched her with emotionless silver-lit eyes while he undid his belt. The buckle clinked. He slid it free.

Shshhhhhhshhhsnick went the belt, loop through loop through loop until it was out in his hands and he snapped it tight, still watching her.

Her neck was arched back, her free hand biting at the wooden floorboard below her. Later, she’d find that she’d scrabbled so furiously to escape that she’d ripped two of her nails clean off. Muscles corded in her throat and she let her head loll to the side as she looked to the door, mouth gaping as she tried – and failed – to scream for help.

As Aaron leaned down and brushed his mouth against her chest, nuzzling at her tit before grinning up at her with too many teeth … the belt in his hands and her bra-strap snapped in the scuffle, baring her to him … as he sunk his sharp teeth into her skin, she looked to the door and saw Sean standing there, staring.

“Want to see a secret?” snarled Aaron in a dripping voice, blood from her bitten tit staining his mouth – like he’d been trying to gnaw right through to her heart – right before he raised the belt. And Sean was watching. Sean was there.

Sean was in danger.

“No,” gasped Emily. Sean was in danger, and the knife was in her hand. “No.”

But Aaron just laughed and opened his mouth. Wider and wider, impossibly wide, until she was staring down into the echoing depths, staring at what he wanted to show her. What he’d shown Ros and, in the future, would show Marcie Harris too.

And what she saw was terrible; what she saw was Dead.

 

3

Sean Hotchner sees a monster.

Sean woke and found himself alone. He didn’t know where Aaron and Spencer were, nor Emily, and he fumbled for the wind-up flashlight Aaron had given him and turned it on to find that no one was beside him anymore.

That was frightening.

Sean, with the fixed terror of being small and alone, made his terrified way along the wall, trying to avoid stepping on anybody. He counted beds as he went, eyes wide against the darkness until he found the bed he was looking for and crawled onto it.

“Rafe,” he whispered, small hands patting at the blankets until he found the man’s arm and shook it. “Rafe? I’ve lost Aaron and Emily.”

“Mmm?” Rafe grunted as he sat up, JJ stirring beside him. Sean wiggled back, almost kneeing Manny, who was asleep. Derek sat up at the sound of Sean’s voice, reaching his hand out to stop Sean from bumping into him. “What’s going on?”

“Aaron and Spencer are gone,” Sean said, holding his flashlight up like it explained everything. He felt sick. Aaron hadn’t said he was going anywhere, but he was gone, again. He was always leaving Sean behind, like he didn’t really want to be with him. “Emily too. I don’t know where they are.”

Rafe climbed up, switching on his flashlight and aiming it over the row of sleeping heads to light up Sean’s sleeping place. It was empty, Aaron’s blankets folded back neatly and Emily’s tangled and tossed aside.

“Rafe?” called a voice, Sarah appearing beside them as though she’d teleported out of the darkness. “You better come quick. Emily just took off.”

“Took off? Where?” Rafe gestured for them to stay as he stepped off the mattress and went to follow Sarah, flashlight still on and blinding Sean every time the beam caught his eyes. “Where’s Aaron?”

“He took Jackson with him to get a change of clothes for Spencer, but Emily wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to tell her that. She’s outside, by herself.”

“Fuck,” Rafe swore. Sean had followed them, heart pattering nervously. He wanted his brother, and now he was worried about Emily too. Where would she go? “Sean, JJ, stay here. I mean stay!”

Then he was gone. Sean looked at JJ, who looked at him.

“Don’t do it,” Derek said from behind them, all of them watching the door swing shut behind Sarah and Rafe. “He’ll kill you both.”

“I’m going,” JJ said, her voice strange and hollow. Sean inched away from her, wary of this new, withdrawn JJ. “Last time I lost sight of someone …”

She trailed off, shaking her head before sprinting after them, out into the night. Sean waited for a second before following; he was remembering that dead meant gone, forever. Behind him, he heard feet thumping after: Derek.

“Come on, quick,” Derek said, catching Sean’s arm as they reached the door and hauling him after JJ. Outside, the air was cold and it was dark. Sean looked to the shadows of the forest and suddenly doubted this choice. “We better catch them. We’re going to get fucking killed out here, I swear, and Aaron’s gonna shoot me for not tying you to your damn bed.” He let go of Sean’s arm, jogging slowly with Sean scurrying to keep up. They could see JJ ahead, arguing with Rafe near the turn-off to the showers.

Sean picked up speed when he saw that – Rafe was safety. Rafe would take him straight to Aaron. Rafe would – and then he looked left and blinked to see Aaron stepping into his cabin, closing the door behind him.

“Derek!” Sean gasped, breathless from running as he skidded to a stop and almost tripped, a rock hurting his bare foot. Hopping on it, he pointed. “Aaron’s over there.”

But Derek wasn’t listening.

Sean would always choose Aaron over anyone, and he turned from the path and plunged bravely into the dark between him and his brother, not letting rocks deter him from running right up to that cabin. The distance wasn’t so long, not really, even though his lungs burned and the back of his neck prickled like something was watching him. He made it to the door, slapping his hands against the wood triumphantly before turning to see if anything had followed him.

Nothing had.

Sean shrugged, turning back and standing on tiptoes to reach the handle. Something thumped loudly inside, thrown against the wall. He heard a choked cry. What was that sound?

His fingers found the handle. The steel was cool against his skin. He didn’t have a good grip on it.

It opened anyway, pushing down against his fingers as the tongue clicked out, the door swinging open and spilling moonlight into the room. Sean stared at his brother and Emily, both revealed in that light. For a moment, he didn’t know what he was seeing. He almost laughed because it looked like they were playing wrestling, but that wasn’t right. Aaron didn’t play wrestle, not like other brothers did. They never played like that, and that wasn’t just Emily’s hair fanning out around her head in a wave of darkness … but as Sean lifted the flashlight in his hand and flicked it on, he realised it was blood too.

And it wasn’t Aaron sitting on Emily. It wasn’t Aaron at all.

“Daddy,” whimpered Sean, his flashlight trembling as it lit up the man and his belt and his mouth that was open too wide with too many teeth.

Emily was staring up into that mouth, her eyes huge and her face all wrong. Her mouth was open. Her teeth were red. She looked like she was screaming without making any noise. He realised, dimly, that he could see all her secret parts her shirt should cover, the parts his mom had told him were for babies only and not little boys like him, not ever.

“Watch this, Sean,” said Sean’s dad with a horrible smile. “Time to teach her a lesson, teach her real good.”

He snapped the belt tight. Emily didn’t move. She seemed struck dumb, transfixed by whatever she was looking at. A deer in the headlights watching her death barrelling towards her.

Daddy hit her. Sean dropped the flashlight, his entire body recoiling at the familiar whup of belt on skin. Emily jerked, her gaze snapping over to Sean before she bucked hard up into the man atop her. Something flashed up, a silver arc at the end of her hand. Sean’s daddy made a gurgling sound, but it didn’t stop him from hitting her again, and again, and again. Every whup was another remembered scene, another moment for Sean to know the pain and see, once more, Aaron’s face every time he was hit.

Sean screamed. Screamed and screamed and screamed, grabbing for the flashlight as he tried to run back and almost fell from the step. But the flashlight lit up in his hands despite his fingers being nowhere near the switch, and he saw that the knife was stuck right through his daddy’s throat.

Right through.

Then he fell back, the flashlight flying from his hands and someone catching him. Hands on him and he thrashed, fighting them – before whirling to find Aaron holding him.

“Daddy’s hurting Emily!” screamed Sean, pointing to the cabin and watching as Aaron made a funny, hurting face and then leapt up and vanished into the room.

Silence fell, except maybe it wasn’t silence but more the weird buzzing in Sean’s ears wouldn’t let him hear anything. He strained against that buzzing, closing his eyes and trying to find his senses … until there was a pop and sound rushed back in. People calling out their names, and Emily’s voice. Yelling.

She was snarling, “I’ll gut you if you come closer!” and Sean crawled up and peered into the doorway – despite being terrified of seeing something dreadful – to find Aaron standing there with his hands out in front of him and his expression horrified. Emily was against the wall hunched over and bloodied with the knife shaking in her hands. “I swear, Aaron, if you come near me again, I’ll kill you just like I did before. I’ll kill you again so stay the fuck away from me.”

“Em, hey, hey,” Aaron said softly, taking another step closer to that knife (Sean shrieked, thinking that she might stab the knife into his brother like she had his daddy) and reaching for her. “Look at me, Emily. You’re in shock, something’s hurt you, but it wasn’t me. Look at me – you know it wasn’t me.”

The knife slashed at the air, Emily’s dripping mouth – Sean heard her trying to breathe and how it gurgled and bubbled – locked into a grimace. A big, red, horrible mouth with a biting smile, and Sean would have nightmares of that mouth until the day he died.

“It wasn’t me,” Aaron breathed. “Please, believe me. I’d never hurt you.”

Emily gave him a wild look, her eyes (one eye, just one, the other swollen shut) ringed in white that stood out starkly in the shadows. “You hit me. I don’t understand, Aaron, why would you do that?”

(except she didn’t say hit, did she? Sean knew she didn’t. She said ‘bit’ and he heard that clearly, but Aaron would always swear up and down that she’d said ‘hit’ and Sean never knew why his brother was so horrified by using the right word for what had clearly happened)

“I wouldn’t ever hurt you,” said Aaron again. He was close enough now that the knife, if Emily waved it, would kiss his cheek. She could stab (kill) him so easily. Sean was terrified. “Please, let me help you. You’re hurt. You’re bleeding, oh jeez, you’re bleeding so much.”

Emily wobbled, the knife drooping and her face doing something strange, something that Sean would dream about for a long time. It went slack and weird, all her muscles giving way at once and her eyes going almost crossed.

“I’m dying,” she slurred. “Just like he showed me.” Spit and blood dripped from her chin, and then she dropped. The knife clattered, hitting the floor first.

Aaron caught her, lowering her to the ground before looking at Sean.

“Get help!” he cried. “Now!”

Sean, who now knew what dying meant, ran faster than he’d ever run before, screaming for Rafe.

 

4

Jennifer Jareau loses another.

JJ woke up for the first time following Ros’s death when she was standing beside Rafe as they both turned towards little Sean Hotchner’s screams. He was crying for help, babbling something about Emily and a knife and Aaron dying, which was when JJ’s clarity returned with devastating impact. She’d spent the days since Ros had been lost drifting in a comfortable haze of who cared what happened, nothing mattered anymore, only occasionally focusing to notice the world going on around her. She remembered, like it was a nightmare, the dead Ros falling under Aaron’s crowbar, and she knew, with sharp feeling, that she had to stay by Rafe or something terrible would happen, but that had been all that had carried her through.

But Sean was screaming. JJ opened her eyes properly and realised he might lose his brother just like she’d lost Rosaline. That was terrible, the most awful thing JJ could think of, so she woke up to pay attention in case there was something she could do to stop it.

She followed Rafe, just like she had when she’d been just placidly living in that hazy nothingness, except this time she was very, very awake. Awake to see what they found in that cabin, Rafe leaping the steps and vanishing into the room as he cried, “Oh fuck!” at what he saw inside.

JJ followed and found a nightmare within. Aaron wasn’t dying, Aaron wasn’t dying at all.

But Emily looked like she might be.

There was so much blood. Blood on her face and in her hair and smeared all over the ground where some terrible fight had taken place. She was wearing too-big jeans and her bra was only half on, looped around one arm but the other strap snapped and lost. There was more blood on her chest, coming from a wound above her breast that oozed grossly.

JJ stared for a moment, took and breath, and then reacted.

“She needs first aid,” she said, finding that, for some reason, her voice was clear and firm. This, she knew. Didn’t she?

Of course she did. Ever since they’d been little, their father had taught them what to do if they got hurt, especially out hiking or camping when there might not be an adult around.

“I don’t know what to do,” Rafe stammered. JJ could see him staring at that wound on Emily’s chest, probably because it was easier than looking at her face. “Wait, is she unconscious? That’s really bad, isn’t it?”

It was, but they didn’t need to hear that right now.

“Water,” said JJ. “And something to stop the bleeding. We need to clean as much blood as we can to find where it’s coming from. And hot towels, for her face, otherwise the bruising is going to hurt a lot, especially her jaw.”

Both older boys looked at her oddly, and she realised with a flush of worry that she was ordering around people years older than her.

“I can help,” she explained weakly, feeling the nothing haze rise in the face of those stares as her brain tried to escape back into safety. But she couldn’t do that. Not when Emily needed help. “Please?”

“I’ll go,” said Rafe. He jogged off, leaving JJ with the gently crying Sean and Aaron, who cradled Emily like she was precious and looked down at her with a ghastly terror locked into his expression. There was something so terrible about the way he touched her, JJ thought, something so scared.

“It’s probably worse than it looks,” JJ said. It was easy to focus on being here when she had something to focus on, she found, walking forward and kneeling beside Emily. “Head injuries bleed a lot. R-Ros taught me that.”

“She’s unconscious,” Aaron rasped. “That could be anything, any number of …”

“Probably shock,” JJ said with fierce determination that it would have to be true because she didn’t know what to do if Emily’s brains had been rattled silly. “Get that sweater, over there. And the shirt. This one isn’t so bad …” She was talking about the round chunk of torn skin on Emily’s chest. It was bleeding, yeah, and didn’t look clean, but it would keep for now. “Can we get the sweater on her? Press the shirt against it, like that, yeah, and the sweater to keep her warm. That’s good.”

Aaron obeyed her without question, Emily limp to his handling. JJ paused, breathing fast; in that brief moment, the reality of Ros’s death tried to reassert itself and leave her useless.

She ignored it. She had to. Emily needed her. And others were arriving now, Derek and Sarah with Sarah gasping and moving forward to help Aaron ease Emily into the sweater. That was a relief for JJ because she hadn’t known where to look until Emily was covered. Looking at other girls who were more grown up than her was weird.

“What happened to her?” Derek asked, horrified. “Why is she half-naked? Did someone …?”

But he trailed off, swallowing hard.

JJ didn’t have the faintest idea what he’d been about to ask, and the older kids were more focused on trying to wake Emily up more than the groggy half-consciousness she was managing as Rafe returned with water and torn shirts.

“The first aid stuff is down by the lake, in the shed we keep the swimming gear in,” Rafe said, kneeling. JJ shuddered (there’s something in the lake). “There was another couple of kits here, somewhere, but I can’t find them. If we want something to clean this up with, we’ll need to go there. I’ve got Jackson getting everything else ready. JJ, do you know what we need?”

“I don’t know the names,” she admitted, closing her eyes as she searched her memory for the sharp-scented tubes her daddy had taught her and Ros the uses of. This one for burns, this one to stop infection, this one for poison ivy to stop the itch; she could picture what she needed, but not name it.

Time to be brave.

She opened her eyes and breathed in, seeing Rafe looking at her strangely again. “I can find it though,” she rasped. “If you take me with you.”

To the lake. The terrible lake.

But if they didn’t help Emily … she might die. Or get sick. And if she got sick, she’d get sicker, until she was just like Ros. Daddy had said to always make sure to clean bites real good because bites pushed all the bad stuff in your mouth deep into the skin. He’d said that bites could kill, and JJ knew that what was on Emily’s chest, as insane as it sounded, was a bite.

“You going to be okay?” Rafe asked, still looking at her like that. Maybe expecting her to go nothing again, and she probably would, but not yet. Not right now. Right now, she was focused. It made it easier.

“Yeah,” lied JJ.

There was a truncated sound near Aaron. They all looked to find Emily’s eyes flickering open again, unfocused and with one swollen shut. At the sight of Aaron, she cringed away, whimpering.

It scared JJ, that whimpering. Emily didn’t whimper. Emily wasn’t ever scared.

And Aaron looked as hurt as though she’d hit him instead.

“We’ll get her back to the hall,” said Sarah, scuttling forward to help slide her arm around Emily’s shoulders and lift her out of Aaron’s lap. “Aaron, help me. Sean, hold your brother’s belt, don’t run off.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Derek, shuffling closer to Rafe. “To help, or something.”

JJ didn’t know why he looked so nervous about Emily, or why he kept looking at Aaron like that, but she was glad he was coming. Derek was just as tough as Rafe, and tough was safe. Tough would get them into that shed and back with everything they needed.

She wasn’t scared at all as they left the cabin, even though she should have been.

“Isn’t that shed locked?” Derek asked as they moved through the shadowed camp, Emily’s battered body vivid on their minds. JJ hoped this was within the realm of ‘we can fix it’ and not at the point where her father had warned her she’d need an ambulance for sure, because with everything weird lately … JJ wasn’t sure an ambulance would come.

“I’ve got the key,” said Rafe. JJ jogged beside him, barely managing to hold back the desire to cling to his hand. He saw her running anyway, slowing and taking her hand. “You’re being super brave. I know the lake scares you.”

“I trust you,” said JJ. “You’ll keep us safe.”

Rafe gave her another odd look. She didn’t know it, and would never know it, but at that moment he’d wondered how she could still trust him so completely when he hadn’t managed to save her sister.

His hand around hers tightened.

“When we get out of here,” he said quietly, just for her she thought since Derek moved away to give them privacy, “you wouldn’t mind if I still saw you sometimes, would you?”

JJ slowed, looking up at him. She didn’t understand. Why would he want to see her, a kid? She wasn’t that interesting.

“Why?” she asked, suspicious.

He was looking away, up the path towards the lake, but she thought he might be … was he crying? But boys weren’t supposed to cry, were they? She couldn’t imagine Aaron crying, or her dad, or Derek.

“Before Ros died …” he choked out. She felt those words too. They hurt so much she wanted to close her eyes and sink back into the nothing again, away from that stabbing pain in her chest that felt like her heart caving in. She didn’t want him to keep talking and took her hand back, turning away to try and stop him. He didn’t stop. “I heard her … she was talking to Emily, to Prentiss, and asking her to look after you. Emily is … I don’t know. I don’t understand her. She’s so angry and, and, and I don’t know why Ros wanted her to look after you and not me? Because I lo – I really liked her, or I was starting to, and I want to keep you safe, sort of … selfishly, I guess. Because you’re a part of her.”

JJ didn’t understand a thing he’d just said, balling her fists and staring at the lake which was now visible, the shed up ahead. Her eyes burned, the lake wavering in her gaze. Her cheeks burned too. She hated Rafe for talking like this, for talking about her sister at all.

“I can’t be your sister,” he was still saying which was true, he couldn’t, and he should stop talking about it! “But I could try to be a brother for you if you want? Like me and Penny, but maybe not quite … JJ?

She wasn’t paying attention anymore. There was a girl in the water, sitting on the shoreline and waving at JJ. JJ fought the urge to wave back, opening her mouth to ask Rafe why the girl was in the lake and not back at camp.

But her words wouldn’t come because a terrible fear struck her: she’d seen the girl’s eyes.

Derek grabbed at her arm and his hand on her skin was slippery. JJ knew, at that moment, that he saw it too. Those milky rat-eyes, drowned in the water. The girl slipped back into the lake, drifting out on the waves with her arm falling limp. She bobbed in the water, unmoving except with the tide. And then, seconds later, she began to weakly flail, looking just like the videos they’d shown JJ in swim class at school of what people looked like when they needed help. It looked so much like those videos that JJ thought she could smell the chlorine of the pool, hear her swim coach’s whistle, feel the tight, comforting grip of swimwear on her body.

The girl cried help me in a soft, scared voice.

“Holy shit,” Derek breathed. JJ felt through his hand on her arm the way his heart was going bang bang bang in his chest. Bang bang bang, like a gun, she thought hysterically, her heart doing much the same thing as it struggled to oxygenate her body enough ready for her to flee. The moon was out. The lake was calm. The girl gurgled hollowly.

Someone yelled something. It might have been a swear, JJ would think later, or maybe it was someone’s name – but suddenly Rafe was sprinting past them, going for that dead dead girl in that dead dead water. Did JJ tell him not to? She didn’t know. Maybe she didn’t, after all, Rafe was the oldest and the bravest and nothing was strong enough to hurt him. He was as invulnerable as an adult to her young eyes, and her heart slowed with the knowledge that it was going to be okay. He’d save the girl and they’d leave, out from under this moonlight and away from the stink of wet dirt in her nose.

Then she looked up and saw the clown standing on the pier. It waved at her just like the girl had, winking and then stepping down onto the lake. It walked across the water like there was solid ground below, JJ gaping at it with her heart bugging out from sheer terror. As she watched, the clown sank into the water, vanishing below the surface without a sound.

The water splashed around Rafe as he waded in. It rippled out. JJ watched those ripples.

She watched those ripples stop as they reached where the clown had sunk down. They shifted direction.

They moved towards him.

There was something in the water, and now JJ knew what.

“I gotta help,” Derek said, beginning to walk there. He hadn’t seen. He didn’t know. A madness overtook JJ, every inch of fear she’d built up going off like the gun her heart had been as she grabbed his arm so tight her nails ripped into his skin. Then, she screamed an animal scream that blocked out all sound – including Derek yelling with pain as she made him bleed, and including the splash splash splash of Rafe grabbing the body and turning it over as he tried to clear her airway, and including his cry of shock when he saw those milky white eyes – except one. This one: a laugh. A laugh that was as rich as blood, a clotted, cloying laugh that scared JJ more mercilessly than she’d ever been scared before.

Derek was looking at JJ, so he didn’t see what happened next, not like JJ did.

It took no time at all for Rafe Garcia to die. One minute he was there, staggering back from that body in the water with his arms outstretched to try to catch his balance; the next, he was dead.

JJ watched the clown unzip him like you would a jacket when you were done with it. It bobbed out of the water just far enough away that, for a second, there was hope that he could run. But the clown was dry, JJ noticed in that instant of seeing it. Unlike Rafe, who dripped, the clown was dry and it was laughing and it reached with arms that were too long and grabbed him.

He screamed. It was a wail. JJ had heard a rabbit in a snare once; Rafe made the same noise the rabbit had made as the wire had cut its throat. She didn’t know this, but the reason Rafe was making that noise was that those sucking claws had just cut through him as though he was made of lace, slicing through all those pulsing, important parts that make a human being.

The water turned red. The scream, which had only lasted sixteen seconds until the lungs powering it had ceased to contain enough working air to do so, came to a gurgling stop. His last breaths were gasped into the murky water of Dark Score as the clown let him go and his body dropped without life enough to hold it up. He died, face down in the water like the body – which was now gone – had been. He died with the parts of him that should have been inside now outside and floating too, lying splayed on that water that splashed merrily around him.

JJ and Derek, upon seeing this, ran screaming into the summer dark.

Chapter Text

1

Manuel Garcia loses his head.

The first Manny knew of his new reality was Derek screaming. Derek fucking Morgan, that tough sonofabitch that Manny had made fast friends with over the last impossible span of time since they’d gotten to this place, screaming like a little lady, like a frightened girl. It was enough to give you the chuckles, it really was.

Except there was nothing to laugh about when it came to screaming in this place. Manny had already seen that tonight. They were in the rec hall in clustered groups divided roughly by age and gender in the natural way that kids of their varied ages tended to, the weenies sitting together regardless of whether they were boys or girls and the kids like him who were pushing into puberty making sure to avoid their other halves. Then there was the group in the middle that they were all watching, which was the counsellors and those that tended to cling to them, and it was Emily.

Manny couldn’t stop looking at Emily. She was awake now. She hadn’t been when they’d brought her in, hoo boy no she hadn’t. She’d been right out of it and even now her speech sounded slurred and didn’t make much of a lick of sense to any of them. Manny stared at her face, wondering what the fuck had big enough hands to do that much damage to what had been a pretty girl before now, pretty in a kind of dangerous hot way that he knew he’d never go near no matter how much he dreamed about her. She was huddled in a too-big sweater, the sleeves folded over her hands which were curled to her chest. Her one good eye wasn’t looking at much at all no matter how much Sarah talked sweet to her.

“Should I help?” fretted Penelope, who never could handle people suffering. “Maybe I can get water or something?”

“Aaron’s got the water,” Manny pointed out. Aaron was hovering with a mixing bowl of water and some towels, but Emily sure as heck wasn’t letting him anywhere near her with them. Every time he tried, she’d flinch and twist away, staring at him like he was something nasty. Manny didn’t like that look. It set something hard in his stomach, something that had him eyeing Aaron warily. Girls only looked at boys like that when they’d gone and been what Manny’s mom, before she’d died, had called being ‘handsy’ which he’d been told never to do under pain of being strung up by his family jewels if she found out.

“A clean sweater?” Penny asked.

Manny shrugged. “Don’t think she much wants to be fucking around with clothes,” he said since there was a spreading red stain just starting to darken on Emily’s chest and around the collar. It all looked like it would hurt to be pulling clothes on and off, so she may as well just stay dirty. That was how Manny preferred it.

Then they heard the screaming.

Manny had to hand it to the big kids; they were fast as fuck now. The first few days things had gotten weird had been chaotic and messy, and they’d lost a lot of kids, especially if Manny was counting that disaster run to town. But now? Now, when someone screamed, they moved like a team. He watched in awe: Aaron went for a knife on the table beside Emily, the one with the already-bloody blade, and Sarah had a bat in her hand conjured from nowhere in particular. Within seconds, the rest of them were armed – Manny saw a broken table leg, half a soda bottle, and a couple of sports bats among those that carried weapons – and then they were moving in a group towards the door, splitting into two teams to make sure they were between whatever was approaching and the rest of the kids.

“Where’s Rafe?” Manny heard Aaron call. “He’s got the gun.”

Manny heard a voice that he shouldn’t have been able to hear, looking back to the centre of the room where no one else was paying attention. There was Emily, sitting on the table and looking blank and confused.

“What?” asked Manny, sure he’d heard her say something but not quite sure he’d understood.

“He went with Derek and JJ to get the first aid kit,” someone else called out.

Emily whispered again, “He’s gone. It promised to kill him next.”

Manny stared. His brain bubbled over that. Then it clicked exactly what she’d dared to say, what lie she’d spat out.

“You’re a crazy bitch,” he yelled, scaring the shit outta Penelope as he leapt up and found himself gesturing rudely at her and screaming at her in a vicious mix of Spanish and English. “You pinche, you bitch, you’re fucking crazy!”

“Manny, what the fuck?” someone snapped, Aaron he thought. Penelope was yelling at him to stop, but he couldn’t, because how dare this goth freak sit there and say his brother was –

The doors thumped. Two voices screamed on the other side to be let in. Manny almost yelled at the counsellors not to unblock the door, that they weren’t knocking how they’d decided everyone would knock to be sure it was camp kids and not dead kids – but the counsellors were unblocking it anyway because the voices were clearly JJ and Derek and they were scared to shit.

It was about then that Manny found himself thinking that Derek was a bit of a pussy for screaming, but this thought bubbled up in his brain and brought with it cold terror that escaped almost as giggles, and he knew, really, he didn’t blame his buddy. He didn’t blame him at all. There was nothing girly about screaming these days, in fact, screaming really seemed like the in thing to be doing.

See Rafe, Manny thought hysterically as the door was dragged open and the two kids raced in shrieking over each other trying to tell their story. I’m finally in with the popular crowd. The screaming meemies, that’s in this month, that’s the radical thing that every kid wants a shot of. Screaming and pissing your pants and dying, oh boy, and dying.

“It got Rafe,” howled JJ, crying so fiercely that she was choking on her own tears. “It got Rafe! It got Rafe! It got Rafe!”

“He’s dead,” gasped Derek.

Silence followed. Aaron buckled down the middle like they’d slugged him. The Morgan girls began to cry. Jackson swore, swinging the baseball bat he was holding into a wall and denting in it before screaming fuck! again. Spencer, very quietly, whispered, “But he’s grown?”

Guess you’re still cooler than me, Manny thought, sitting down hard. Always hitting those trends first. Well, well, Rafe, buddy oh brother, guess we won’t be far behind you now.

“What an asshole,” he said to no one since everyone was busy freaking out because their protector, their adult, their one shot outta Dodge, was gone. Manny did laugh this time because maybe their hope was gone but that hope? That hope was his brother, his best mate, his always-there. And he said again, “What an asshole,” because fuck Rafe for doing this. He was their hope but he was Manny’s brother, and that was more than hope.

That was family.

In the chaos of those first however many minutes it took for the news to sink in and shocked faces to start turning grey with worry – Manny watched it happen with distant amusement, refusing to grieve because he was just angry right now – no one paid attention to Manny, who was numb, or Penelope, who was crying. That only made Manny angrier. She didn’t deserve to cry for Rafe. She hadn’t even liked him that much, had she? Not like Manny had liked (loved) him.

He looked at Emily. She was still sitting there, a weird inlet of peace in an ocean of kids freaking out. So he asked her, “How did you know?”

“It showed me,” she answered without emotion in her voice. Maybe it was because her voice was so bland that it carried as far as it did, a ripple of quiet spreading around them.

Manny shuddered. It. That fucking thing, whatever this was … this murdering bitch that had apparently taken his brother. “Did it show you anything else?” he asked, his voice too fierce. Penelope sobbed some more. He ignored her.

Emily stared. Maybe the knocking around she’d gotten had snookered her brains. Maybe she was like that girl at Manny’s school, the one who’d been a normal girl until grade five when she’d vomited while asleep and choked on it and come back a year later without any of her senses. Now she was in the classes they set aside for the kids who weren’t quite right and never did much but played by herself in the schoolyard with a pack of cards that were missing half the pieces.

Manny shifted uncomfortably. It weren’t right to yell at someone with snookered brains, even if he was scared.

“You knew!” he tried to say without yelling. “You knew it was going after Rafe! Why didn’t you warn us?”

“She didn’t know,” Aaron snapped, suddenly there with his dark eyes furious and his body the kind of tense that meant he was up for a fight. “Don’t be a dumbass, Manny, she didn’t know. We don’t even know what happened, so how could she know?”

Emily blinked. Manny watched it happen, watched the strange blankness suddenly vanish. It was weird, weird as hell, but it made an impression on him for sure. He watched her go from peculiar and vacant to Emily once more, intelligence snapping back into those dark eyes.

“It didn’t tell me shit,” she said in her voice, the spitfire voice that was guaranteed to get your back up, even when pushed out through a fat lip. “I don’t even remember what it was, let alone if it could fucking talk. All I remember is …” She paused, scrunching her face up and wincing as this hurt her battered cheek and swollen nose. “Helping Spencer with the bathroom?”

“That was ages ago,” said Spencer helpfully.

“You don’t remember my daddy?” asked Sean.

Manny had no fucking idea what these weirdos were smoking, but he was getting angrier: why was she lying to him? Why wasn’t anyone talking about Rafe? Why were they just standing here instead of going out there and –

“What if he’s not dead?” he burst out with, finding his feet. “You two, you look freaked out. Maybe he’s not dead and you just thought he was because you were scared and wanted to run without being chicken shit cowards.”

“Hey, man, watch it,” Derek said in his ‘tough’ voice, but the effect was ruined by how much he was shaking. “He was dead, I promise you.”

“I saw inside him,” whispered JJ.

Manny almost puked. Penelope made a faint noise, curling on her side with her arms over her head and face hidden. Dezzi crouched next to her, hand on her shoulder. Down for the count, Manny thought, and shook his head. What a girl.

Aaron spoke to Emily in a voice that wasn’t supposed to be heard, but Manny heard it. Probably everyone heard since the usually loud hall was dead quiet. It was really sinking in: without Rafe, they were fucked with a capital Fuck.

“We have to go see,” was what he said. “Rafe has the gun.”

“We need to stop splitting the group,” replied Sarah Morgan, standing there with the tip of her bat resting on the ground. “I think …” She swallowed. “I think we should all go.”

This caused an outcry. Manny listened listlessly. They were saying stupid bullshit like what about the kids, what if it was horrifying, and they shouldn’t let Manny and Penelope see, and this was about when he really started to laugh. They all looked at him then, really looked, and he pointed and kept laughing.

“You’re all totally crackers,” he burst out with between guffaws like his mouth was running away with him because everything that he kept in control had died with his brother. “What the fuck is this soccer mom bullshit? What about the chill-derin! What about the babies, fuck off with that, that baby there?” He pointed to Spencer. “That little baby, what’s he gonna see that he hasn’t already? The clown went for him first! And me? You think I’m scared to see my brother dead? Fuck off, I’m angry. I ain’t leaving his body for the crows. JJ watched you –” He pointed to Aaron now. “– smash her sister’s head in, her super dead fucking sister, may I add. Pop! There she goes, we watched her skull smash. We don’t need protecting, you knobs! That horse has bolted right into the clown’s mouth and it is traumatised already, my friends, we are all heading to the quackhouse!”

He stopped, breathing fast, as though the torrent of words had run out without warning. Very suddenly, he remembered his mom dying; he remembered how much trouble he’d gotten in after that, running his mouth off like he couldn’t help it, like he was possessed by the ghost of some loud-mouthed comedian with no ability to tell a joke. He’d kept that up until Rafe had stood him aside and said

(Manny, come on kid, there’s nothing tough about taking a beating you’re asking for)

he really needed to stop asking for trouble because it was making it harder for all of them.

“Just saying,” he finished weakly. “Better nuts then dead, right? So let’s go make it a party and everyone is invited.”

Except Rafe, said the small bit of his mind that was trying to force him to understand how momentous Rafe being gone was, how final and fatal and crushing. But he ignored that corner. He’d grieve, later, when there were no clowns or goths or screaming meemies to be found. Right now, he was angry, which was good. Anger he could use.

Maybe if Rafe had used his anger instead of his good sense, he’d still be alive.

No one said anything. They were all trying to avoid being the one to balls up and step into the shoes Rafe had been ripped out of. That hurt, it really did. Realising how important his brother was? That caused a hot burn of love deep in his chest, fringed with a wild pride and then shot right through with gutting grief of realising important hadn’t saved him.

“Come on then,” Manny said, squeezing those words out past the pain as he turned to face Aaron. “Get over it, Hotchner. Stop standing there like a lump. You’re up.”

“What?” croaked Aaron, his gaze jerking up to lock with Manny’s before he looked around. People had to gravitate towards him, and Manny gestured to them. “Wait, no. Don’t look at me – I don’t know what to do.”

“You’re the oldest,” said Sarah.

“And the biggest,” someone else said. “Aaron, come on. You gotta get us out of here, man.”

“We have to get Rafe,” Penelope whispered from her huddle on the floor, teary eyes just appearing over her arm. “We can’t leave him there, that’s not right. He wouldn’t leave me there, he wouldn’t. Aaron, please.”

They went quiet, waiting to see if Aaron Hotchner would finally step up and take charge. Later, Manny would think of this moment and realise that not everyone was, as he’d mistakenly suspected, as on board with this as he’d been. He’d think back and realise Derek was frowning and Jackson wasn’t looking anyone in the eye and the singular group of kids was beginning to splinter into many, their faith in the collective shattered by Rafe’s death.

He’d realise that this, and what followed, was the wedge the monster who’d killed his brother needed to get to the rest of them.

“Alright,” said Aaron with a deep breath, trying to square his shoulders and look tougher than he was. “Alright, then. But not together. I’m not taking kids down there to … see.”

“I’m not going back,” Derek said. “Neither is she.”

He was pointing to JJ, who stood alone. Maybe she’d learned that clinging was dangerous. It made her vulnerable to crushing loss. Good on her, Manny thought. Good on her.

“This is a mistake.” Sarah Morgan. Manny agreed with her, but he shrugged, now listless. He’d said his piece and passed the torch. Now, all he could focus on was what was directly in front of him: foot in front of foot, walking him all the way down to that lake where his brother was dead.

“I’m coming,” said Jackson. “I want to see.”

“I’m coming,” said Emily. Aaron scowled at her. “Don’t you dare tell me I can’t. Don’t you dare – he died trying to get help for me.”

Even though Manny would have sworn she was too messed up to stand, stand she did. On her own two feet too, ignoring Aaron’s arm held out to her. Manny respected that, even if she was the craziest of them all.

“I’m coming,” whispered Penelope.

“Ayy, I don’t think you should,” said Manny, blanching at the thought. “You’re a –”

She looked at him.

“Stay behind me then,” he said grudgingly, pulling his hand away when she reached for it. Maybe later he’d help her with her shock and grief, but not yet. Not when he was still sour that she’d never even got Rafe when he was alive, never understood how good a brother he was.

Yeah, maybe later. If she lived.

Manny knew that wasn’t guaranteed.

Before they left, Manny made one last stop.

“Sup’,” he said to Derek, pausing in front of him. “Hey, man. Rough time, yeah?”

“Yeah,” said Derek. He didn’t meet Manny’s eyes. Manny, in response, bunched his fists and tried not to let his voice waver. His grief was too big to think about right now, his complete loss of hope too adult for him to understand, but he knew one thing: he really needed a friend for this next bit, and he only had one friend here. “Sorry about your brother, Manny … I didn’t … I would have done something if I could.”

“Naw, we know it would have killed you if you’d tried. JJ too, probably. Running was smart.” Manny’s gaze kept dropping, dragged to the floor by his surety that Derek was going to reject this plea. “I …”

Derek didn’t look up.

“I don’t want to go alone,” Manny finished heavily.

“Aaron’s with you. Emily too.”

That hurt. Manny winced at the pain of that rejection. “I don’t want to go without a friend,” he rasped. “That’s my brother, man, my big bro. He’s supposed to … he’s not supposed to die.”

“Then don’t go,” was Derek’s whispered response. “Don’t do it. You don’t need to see, Manny. Stay here with us. We gotta think about what we’re going to do next.”

“We have Aaron for that.” Manny was angry now, his fists tight with fury rather than fear. This was bull, total fucking bull; Derek was supposed to be his friend. “Aaron ain’t shit to me as a friend, that’s you. Let him lead.”

“I don’t trust him.” Derek finally looked at him, something dark stealing into his eyes. That darkness scared Manny. He didn’t understand it. “And I don’t think you should either. Look what he did to Emily.”

“The clown did that to Emily. They all say it did.”

“Aaron says it did. Emily doesn’t remember, and Sean says he saw Aaron going in there. Sure, he says it was his dad that hurt her, but he’s six and it was dark and he was scared to shit. I don’t think we should rely on Aaron to get us out, Manny, not like we relied on Rafe.” He went quiet, but Manny had got the message. They looked at each other for a second, before Derek leaned forward and whispered, “Some of us are thinking of running, tonight. Without them.”

Them was the bigs, getting ready to go get Manny’s brother. To lay him and everything he’d done for them to rest. Manny looked at them.

“It can’t chase all of us at once,” Derek finished.

Manny thought about that. It made sense, sure, if they were assuming that the clown bothered about their silly rules like what it could and couldn’t do. It seemed to him that if the clown had been what had beaten Emily – because Aaron didn’t seem the type to do that to a girl, at least, Rafe had never thought so and Manny trusted Rafe – and yet it had also been in the lake waiting for Rafe not even an hour later, well then, it might be a bit magic. And if it was magic, he figured it could probably chase as many of them at a time as it wanted.

“What will you do with them?” he asked instead of pointing this out, nodding to the few littles they had left. Not many now, just the two boys and one girl of seven. They’d had six when this had started. That was a fifty per cent loss of littles; Manny didn’t like those odds. “You gonna take them on, huh? Wipe noses and asses for them when they shit because they’re scared or cuddle them at night like Emily and Aaron do when they’re crying their bitty selves to sleep because mommy isn’t here?”

Derek tensed. Manny watched some tremendous battle flicker over his face.

“Or are you going to leave them here while you run?” Manny asked, no emotion in his voice. No judgement. He knew that it didn’t matter what Derek answered; their friendship had ended the moment Derek had refused to help him through this, even if it made sense that Derek didn’t want to go back to where he’d seen it happen.

“I don’t know,” answered Derek.

Manny nodded. “Well, I hope you figure it out soon,” he said, holding his fist out. Derek bumped his against it. “Good luck, man.”

“You too,” said Derek, like they were about to play ball instead of going to get a body or doing a kamikaze run into the mouth of a monster.

Then Manny turned his back on him and walked away.

They filed out of the rec hall, those that were going, in a silent line of muted faces. Down the path they went, a funeral procession of teenagers and pre-teens, most of them armed. Behind them, those that were staying locked the doors. Manny could hear blockades being put back up. He doubted it would help even as he wondered how many kids would remain behind those blockades when they returned.

It was a full moon and Manny thought that that was apt. Those that held flashlights barely needed them, only to skirt the sides of the path to make sure nothing nasty lurked. The moon lit their way. It lit the lake too. It lit the scraggly group of kids who were way-too-fucking-young-for-this, each and every one of them, as they filtered out of the woods and stood staring. Every one of them staring, even those that had seen Ros’s body and even those that had faced the dead kids. Because dead kids were one thing, they were supernatural and fucked up and like something out of a movie. Movies could be turned off. They could be muted or thrown away or forgotten, but Manny had never ever seen a movie in his life that had shown something as ghastly as this.

The lake had pushed Rafe back against the shore. His body moved in rhythm with the lapping of the water. The water around him was darker than the rest, even in the moonlight, and Manny took three shocked steps towards him before he realised that it was blood. Not just blood. Other bits were floating in the water around him too, parts that were still connected but not where they should be anymore.

As soon as he realised that, he broke. Tough until that moment, sure until that second; his brain recognised that there, that long slippery thing that shifted in the water like something under the surface was nibbling at it, that was his brother’s intestine – and he hurtled away from the sight with a whistled gasp that should have been a scream.

Someone caught him, holding him close. Hugging him tightly. He let that person hold him as he closed his eyes and shuddered through the shock, ignoring everything that was happening around him … and then he realised who it was.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” he said through a thick taste of snot and tears.

“He’d have done it for me,” said Penelope, her tears fierce but, for some reason, more composed. “He’d have absolutely done it for either of us.”

That was true.

With a rasping breath, Manuel Garcia – who’d forget this night just as quickly as his sister would in the hazy years following their tentative escape from Camp Moribund – turned to face the lake and his brother’s death front on.

“Where are the shovels kept?” he asked anyone that was listening, knowing now that there was no moving forward until this was done. Not once did he consider leaving it for an adult; Ros, after all, had died and been whisked away and there had been no funeral, no wake, no chance to grieve. That wasn’t happening here; he’d see his brother buried, not vanished.

Rafe would have done it for him.

 

2

Derek Morgan leads the way.

Derek sat silently. There were twelve down at the lake seeing what evil had been done there. Another fifteen still in the rec hall, arguing. Those that wanted to stay were adamant that they should all stay; those that wanted to run thought that their best bet was if there were as many distinct groups as possible. Derek had been a part of this second group, his brain locked on hard to what he’d seen down the lake … but Manny had said, what had Manny said?

He’d pointed out that there were little kids here, just kids like what Dezzi had been when his dad had died. What would his dad have said if he’d known that Derek was planning on running and leaving someone as small as his little sister had been back then?

Dezzi was sitting with Sarah, who’d begrudgingly agreed to stay when Aaron had decided the kids shouldn’t see. Derek walked over there, feeling numb. Feeling like he’d been scooped out and left raw, rawer than even Carl had ever left him.

“Listen to those cowards,” Sarah said when Derek walked over there. She was frowning at the boys who were planning on going and who, Derek knew, were trying to entice others to abandon ship too to help draw attention away from them. Sacrificial lambs. He was torn between hating the thought and wondering whether it would help him get his sisters out. “That’s fucking disgusting. They’re just trying to save their own asses.”

Dezzi was quiet. When she looked at Derek, he saw the same thought in her eyes: maybe it was a chance …

But Sarah wasn’t done.

“I’d rather die than run out on kids who can’t defend themselves,” she said with a stubborn shape to her mouth. “Imagine facing down Dad and telling him we let kids die to save our skin? That’s not how he raised us. That’s not what a Morgan does.”

The shame that slammed home to Derek then made him feel weak-kneed, his guts turning to water with the sheer and utter embarrassment of it. When she fixed him with a look like their momma did when they were fighting, he knew that she knew what he’d been planning. Oh, she knew.

“No Morgan is a coward,” she said.

“Momma needs her babies to come home,” Dezzi said. “She needs us, Sarah – she can’t lose us and Daddy too, it’ll kill her. I think it’s sick too, leaving kids to … well, it’s horrible. But it’s worse to think of Momma dying from a broken heart because none of us ever come home from camp. If we can get to the road, we can hitch a ride and get clean out of here. Back home to Momma. Don’t you want to see her?”

Derek realised with a strange feeling of disconnect that he hadn’t thought about his mom in, what? Weeks, almost.

Actually, looking around, cold stole into his gut; no one had talked about home in a while. At first, they had. They’d tried to call home, get their parents. The little kids had cried themselves to sleep howling for their daddies. But now? They talked about escape, but not where to go. And, when they did run, they ran not for home … but for town. Castle Rock. Like they were pulled there, magnetised. Drawn there by something that was in their minds as surely as it was the water, driving away all thoughts of their families.

He frowned, thinking that over.

“Sure, I do,” Sarah was saying, although she had a face on like she was also trying to remember something long forgotten. “But I damn well know I need to be able to look her in the eye when I see her next, otherwise that’s it for us. We’ll never be a family again. Come on, Dez. Don’t be that naïve. Anyone who picks up three dirty-looking black kids on the side of the road, two of them girls, they’re not the kind of people we want to be hitching rides with.”

Something dragged on the floor. Derek looked up. The others were going. The dragging was them unblocking the barricades, carrying all the weapons and the flashlights too.

“Let them go,” Sarah said bitterly. “We’re damn well staying. Derek, look at me. The both of you – look at me.”

They did. She pointed. And they followed her finger.

Derek swallowed; she was pointing to a huddled group of kids left behind, watching with worried eyes. One of them called out, “Where are you going?” but he was ignored. Just four. Four little kids.

Conroy stopped. Derek hated him. He liked to wait until no one was listening and whisper cusses at Derek. Derek had learned words he’d never known before from him, the likes of which would have made Sarah murderous to hear.

“You can come if you like,” he called back to the small kids, who looked at each other. Some of them inched forward. “Come on, run after us. We’ll wait for you.”

Derek lurched up. “Don’t move,” he told the kids. “He’s lying. He’s not going to wait for you, he’s going to run and leave you behind.”

“You disgusting pig,” Sarah snapped, Conroy rolling his eyes at them. “You’re going to get all those kids with you killed.”

“Don’t see you stopping me,” he shot back, before vanishing out the door. It closed behind him.

Derek looked at the kids, who looked back at him. He recognised Aaron’s little brother among the group, standing next to Spencer who was writing in his book again, and JJ, whose expression was cold. She was the oldest there. Everyone else her age had taken off with Conroy and his friends.

“Why didn’t you run?” he asked her.

“Why didn’t you?” she shot back. “I know you were thinking about it.”

He probably deserved that.

Uneasy with how few they were now, he looked at Sarah as though hoping for guidance but found none there. She looked just as worried as he did, and just as lost; he wondered why she hadn’t tried to stop the others from leaving. After all, she’d been the one who wanted them all to stay together.

“Maybe we should go down to the lake,” Dezzi said, cold horror sinking into Derek’s gut at the thought. “There really aren’t many of us left, and we should tell Aaron what’s happened. He’s going to want to know where everyone went.”

A small voice spoke up, surprisingly firm despite how young it was.

“I think we should go to the library in town,” said Spencer, not even wavering when everyone looked at him. “It’s safe there.”

“What?” Sarah asked, shaking her head. “Don’t be ridiculous, we already tried to get out and it –”

“He’s right,” said Sean Hotchner, shrinking back from the attention it gained him. “It doesn’t like stories and libraries are full of stories.”

“Stories …” murmured Sarah, exchanging a glance with Dezzi that Derek didn’t understand. “The bear?”

“It really didn’t like us reading to it,” JJ added, standing up and looking more alive and fiercer than she had since Ros had died. “They’re right, Sarah. It didn’t like the stories!”

“But that doesn’t make sense.” Sarah looked confounded by that, looking from Derek to Spencer as though either one of them was going to clarify this for them. Derek thought of the radio; he hadn’t heard anything, but the others had. The smaller ones had.

Smaller kids, kids who probably still believed in the stories they read.

“I think I get it,” he said slowly. It was time to be brave, he thought, picturing his dad and holding his image in his mind. “It’s gotten worse the more of us believe in it, right? The more of us that are scared? That’s why it didn’t attack you guys, the counsellors, until after you all started believing in it. Maybe it needs us to be scared of it, to really know it’s coming after us. And maybe … maybe that works both ways. Spencer, how safe is the library?”

Spencer’s eyes were wide and very serious behind the thick lenses of the glasses he’d lost under the burned down cabin until Emily had crawled back under there to get them. His hair was way too long, in his eyes and matted around the ears from no one helping him brush it.

“It’s very,” he said. “Nothing can hurt you in a library.”

“You really believe that, huh?” Derek pressed, walking forward and kneeling down so he was eye to eye with the little kids that Conroy’s group had thought were useless and Aaron’s group had thought needed protecting – but who Derek was beginning to realise might actually be the ones to get them out of here.

“Yeah, of course,” said Spencer. “My mom says that there’s nothing safer than a book. So a library has to be even safer since it’s made of books.”

“If Spencer believes it, it’s gotta be true,” Sean added, the other kids around him nodding too. Spencer had made his mark among them. “He’s the smartest person in the world.”

Derek looked at Sarah for guidance, only to find that she was looking at him. Looking at him like Manny had, desperate for him not to disappoint them … well, he’d disappointed Manny. He’d let his fear turn him into a coward. But Morgans weren’t cowards, and his dad had always said the only cure for doing wrong was to do twice as much right.

“Come on,” he said. Ignoring his fear, he stood and held his hand out for a kid to take. One did, a girl of seven who Derek didn’t know because she’d always – until now – had friends her own age to hang out with, and he wondered how long she’d been alone. But Sean then took her other hand, Spencer standing with his book under his arm and his pen capped and safely put in his pocket as he took Sean’s free hand with his. They were a straggled line of kids holding hands, like an elementary school excursion with Derek and Sarah capping the ends.

“Where are we going?” Dezzi asked, darting over to pull the door, that Conroy had left unblocked. “Derek, where?”

“To the lake,” he said, holding that little girl’s hand tight. “We’re going to get the others, and then we’re all going to the library, together. We’ll be safe there.”

“Promise?” asked the little girl, looking up at him trustingly. He wondered if this was how Rafe had felt.

“I promise,” he said.

 

3

Penelope Garcia marches on.

Penelope had always hated herself for a lot of reasons. Some of them were that she was chubby and spotty and gross, and more were that she was emotional and erratic and the smallest thing could bring her to tears. Tears, she believed, were a terrible weakness that she and she alone had been struck with. The day they pulled the step-brother she’d never loved as she should have from that lake, she cried a lot. Cried because she hadn’t loved him but she did miss him, and maybe she’d been coming around to loving him and was shattered that this had put a horrible stop to that.

She also cried because Manny was crying. Because he was acting just as erratic as she’d always been told she acted, flipping from anger to misery so fast she could barely keep up. He was tough as they marched down there but broke apart when they saw the body floating. Maybe the idea of Rafe being dead hadn’t been as bad for him as the reality of it.

That was strange, Penelope thought. It was entirely the opposite for her. Knowing he was dead was somehow worse than seeing it as the confirmation gave her the okay to feel everything she was feeling without resenting herself for it. And, in some strange way, seeing the body was important in other ways for her too.

Maybe, she thought as she sat on the rocky shoreline with Manny huddled, still crying, under her arm. Maybe crying and tears and emotions and everything she’d hated about herself … maybe they weren’t because she was a girl and stupid and gross. Maybe that wasn’t it at all.

Maybe they were human and, therefore, okay. Normal.

Important.

She thought this because, that terrible night as those kids tried to pull together to do something that was beyond them, they were all very human. She watched, her tears finally dry – watched because she knew her limits, and Manny’s too, and neither of them could get in that water – as the others tried to bring Rafe out.

Aaron was angry, sure; he yelled at Jackson because Jackson was refusing to help carry the body out, and he yelled at Manny to stop and sit because Manny had found a shovel and tried to dig a grave with it even though he was sobbing so hard he couldn’t hold the tool up. But he wasn’t just angry. He was crying. He was crying in the lake as Emily helped lift the body, and then he threw up when something went wrong with that. Penelope thought that maybe they’d looked at the ick, which she was determinedly not doing because she didn’t need to see all of his dead bits to grieve her brother, thank you very much. She was instead focusing on imagining ducks on the water, happy ducklings and white boy ducks and colourful girl ducks, all swimming around without a care in the world.

Emily was crying too, she noticed, which was also interesting. If there was anyone least likely to cry in her mind, it was Emily. But she was. And so were the two other girl counsellors there, even though they weren’t helping. Jackson wasn’t helping or crying but just watching with this expression on his face Penelope didn’t like looking at. She focused on the others instead, listening to them but not looking.

It made Aaron seem different to her, those tears, Emily too. She’d been awed by Emily ever since that first night at the lake, and Aaron scared her. But, after this … he scared her less. And Emily seemed less unapproachable. They were human like she was human, hurt by loss and able to cry, and Penelope took a slow breath and realised: she had loved Rafe. She’d loved him like she loved Aaron and Emily and Manny and even Derek, who’d been too scared to come down here which was okay and totally understandable, to Penelope at least.

She loved them because they were human and able to hurt, and she wished she could hold back all the hurt from them despite this.

In the years to come, despite not remembering this night, Penelope would be shaped by it.

They heard the others approaching before they saw them, and it was after they’d gotten Rafe out of the lake and laid him down on the shore. Penelope felt sick. She hadn’t been looking, but she’d heard alright … and she knew that Emily had thrown up not only because her head was still achy from being hurt earlier, but also because she’d done what Aaron couldn’t and helped put what was outside of Rafe back in.

Rafe was covered now, in a tarp that she didn’t know where they’d gotten from but was glad for because it didn’t let any blood stain the blue. She could almost pretend there was no body under there, especially after Emily and Aaron washed their hands of the blood.

That was how they were standing when the strange line of kids emerged from the camp, hand in hand like a long snake. Penelope still holding the now wetly breathing Manny, all cried out, and Aaron and Emily standing on either side of the tarp-covered body like funeral angels on guard. The other three kept back.

JJ let go of the line and walked forward when she saw the tarp laying there, her eyes wide and, in the moonlight, very bright.

“Oh,” she said, beginning to cry at the confirmation of Rafe’s death. Emily crouched before her and hugged her, trying to avoid getting her damp despite Emily’s soaked clothes which still had blood staining them, hers and Rafe’s both. But JJ clung hard, crying even harder, and Emily didn’t push her away; instead, she hugged her tight and cried too.

Penelope clung to that as evidence that losing someone didn’t mean losing everyone. Rafe was gone, just like Ros was gone, but JJ still felt. She still cried for someone else. And Penelope rather thought that JJ was the strongest of them all because, even though she’d never admit it, Emily needed the hug much more than JJ did. What they’d just done, pulling Rafe from the lake, had been terrible. JJ had somehow known that just like Penelope knew it, and she’d hugged Emily in response even though maybe she’d have preferred, by now, to cry alone.

When Manny pulled out of Penny’s arms and stood, making his wobbly way over to Derek, Penelope stood too. She walked to Emily, slipping her hand into hers. Emily looked down at her, her expression odd in her swollen, battered face. Her normally wildly spiky hair was damp and flat against her head, her make-up washed off and dressed in a too-big plaid sweater, she didn’t seem like Emily at all. Not that untouchable, wild girl who’d smoked by the lake.

Penelope, showing a hint of the empathetic adult she’d become, recognised that maybe Emily needed back some of that power she’d had stripped away.

“We’re going to be okay,” said Emily, squeezing Penelope’s hand. Some of that frozen exhaustion and fear faded from her features in the face of the two girls who needed her as she’d been and not as she was now. “You two stay by me and we’re all going to be okay.”

Derek was there. He looked different too. Not as raw as Emily and Aaron were looking, not as punch-drunk with grief as Manny. He looked sure of whatever he was thinking, whatever had made him lead the way down here; Penelope saw his calm, focused expression, so different from his earlier terror, and a little of her prior childish love for him surmounted once more, but different this time. Deeper. Realer. She loved him despite him leaving Manny to come here alone and despite seeing him in a moment of weakness; maybe, much like Aaron and Emily, she loved him because of those things.

“Spencer had an idea and I think it’s a good one,” Derek said, ignoring Aaron noticing how few they were and asking where the rest of them had gone. “He says we should go to the library. We really believe that it’s safe there just like Spencer believed that reading to the bear would stop it getting to them before you could them out from under the cabin.”

His eyes pinned Aaron, daring him to believe too.

Aaron was quiet.

“The others ran, didn’t they?” he asked. Derek nodded. “Alone?”

Another nod.

Aaron looked around at them. Penelope did too, at the few who were left. She wondered, although she’d never ask, if they’d run because Rafe was dead … or because Aaron wasn’t. She knew that people wondered who had really hurt Emily so bad; those that hadn’t heard Emily screaming that she’d kill him if he (bit) hit her again had heard the others whispering about it.

But Penelope trusted Aaron. He was good.

“Why the library?” Aaron asked.

“Because we believe it’s safe,” answered Derek with astounding simplicity. “This thing gets us when we’re most scared. When we’re most ready to be got. Who says we can’t use that against it? Who says we can’t try?”

“How the hell are we going to get the kids down to the town without them panicking?” Emily asked. “Last time it was them bolting like scared sheep that got us surrounded. We can’t stop that happening again.”

Penelope thought about the bear, shuddering when she remembered its terrible face, and then pushing those thoughts away because maybe in this place, bad thoughts had power. Instead, she focused on the good.

“I have an idea,” she said, looking back at the lake and imagining her ducks once more. It helped.

It helped.

 

4

Aaron Hotchner finds Sanctuary.

Aaron got the gun from Rafe’s waistband where it still was, slippery with blood and other things, and he cleaned it as best he could while pondering Penelope and Derek’s plan. It felt like a good one or, rather, it felt like as good a plan as they had right now. He was a smart boy, even at this supposedly stupid age, and he knew when they were running out of time. He knew it in the burning blisters on his palms and the way Emily was swaying, and he knew it in the faces that were missing. He knew it in Manny’s manic misery and Rafe’s body that was beginning to attract blowflies as the morning sun rose and they kept up taking turns digging a grave for him.

It had been decided that they would dig this grave before Aaron would tell them what he’d decided about The Plan. The Plan which had gained the importance of a proper noun and thus needed to be spoken as gravely as such, after an appropriate amount of deep thought had been given to it. While Aaron was busy pondering and digging, intermittently, he couldn’t pay any attention to how Emily flinched away from him like he was

(his father)

something she should be wary of.

The day was what his father would call a real stinker. The hot sun felt swollen in the sky overhead, their skin burning within minutes of being out under it even before it had climbed high enough to get real bite. Flies buzzed around them, congregating on the sticky tarp that, in the light, was covered in bloody handprints. The flies landed on the thin circle of kids too, buzzing at eyes and mouths and landing on dirty skin. They were a sight under that swollen sun. Their mothers could have walked right up to them and not recognised a single one of them.

Aaron’s mother would have screamed to have seen Aaron, whose clothes had dried into stiff and muddy shapes from the lake-water, his hands black with dirt and with dark-brown stains from Rafe’s body dug into his nails. They bled too, his hands, from the shovel he relentlessly wielded as they dug deeper and deeper into the stinking earth. She would have screamed to see Sean too, who had a steel soup ladle from the kitchen and was helping dig, his pants so muddy and torn by this point that he’d taken them off and was kneeling in the dirt in just his kiddy underwear. His blonde hair was now rat-brown and as matted as it could get, stuck in knots and clumps. His blue eyes stared out from a grime-encrusted face, the mess worst around his mouth and nose where snot and tears had collected above his upper lip. By the time this day was done, the skin that wasn’t filthy would be a bright lobster-red, burned all the way around.

JJ took her turns digging too. Despite her clean clothes – she was too fastidious to let herself get as dirty as some of them had – her mother would have had to take a moment to recognise her as well, her eyes unfamiliar behind their blank stare. Her hands bled as Aaron’s did. She didn’t seem to notice or care, wiping the blood on the cleanest shorts she’d been able to find in her suitcase and leaving lines of rust-red on them that dried brown. Occasionally, her gaze would flicker to the tarp, which the kids milled around calmly. The dead didn’t bother them anymore. A body was a body; at least this one was covered and, most importantly, staying dead. Spencer, in fact, sat barely three feet from Rafe’s body, playing with the yo-yo Emily had given him with his book tucked under his knees.

Penelope and Manny dug until they were shaking from the effort. Dug until they were just as coated in the dark mud of Dark Score Lake as the rest of them were, which at least was some protection against the sun and the flies. There wasn’t a child there that wasn’t dirty, wasn’t battered, wasn’t bruised. An unholy gathering of wildlings, waiting for the sound of a shot to send them scattering … or waiting for someone to call them back to civilisation.

Aaron, seeing this, decided. He turned to Emily, who inched away from him when she saw his gaze on her and, in the process, broke his heart a little more.

“I think we should go,” he said.

“If you say so,” she replied with her voice teetering dangerously close to the blankness the attack had precipitated. The one eye that wasn’t swollen was red and heavy-lidded; none of them had slept. Her lips were cracked, her skin tight where it wasn’t bruised.

“Penelope’s idea is probably a good one,” he pressed, desperate to see some life in that reddened eye.

“If you think so,” said Emily.

“If I get you there safely,” Aaron said frantically, grasping at straws as he felt the one thing that made him feel good in this camp begin to slide out of reach, “will you trust me again?”

She looked at him now, looked at him proper with her good eye narrowed.

“I’d never hurt you,” he pleaded. “Emily, please. If I get you to the library, somewhere we can be safe, will you believe that?”

“I guess if you managed that,” she said, “I’d probably believe you were capable of anything.”

He held that close, determined that she’d look at him sweetly again – or, if she didn’t, that she’d have a moment to catch her breath, recover, and get some of her riotous spark back. That was his guiding motivation, he decided, he would see Emily find herself again.

“Penny,” he called, standing over the grave that was now six-foot deep and almost ready to be filled with the man who’d died because he’d let his desire to see them all safe overcome his desire to stay alive (and Aaron knew, despite recognising this, he’d probably make the same mistake if it was Emily, or Sean). From inside that hole, Penelope looked up at him, sweaty and red and dull-eyed enough that he crouched down to pass her the almost-empty water bottle. “When the sun goes down, tonight, we’re going to try your plan. It’s a good one.”

A thrill rippled around the shore. They looked up to the sky, where the swollen sun hung.

And they hoped.

There was little to be said about the burial of Rafe Garcia. It wasn’t beautiful or memorable. Two years from now, few of them would remember this day; fewer still would remember that Rafe had died at all. The terrible forgetting of Derry would have worked its cruel magic on them and they, like all those before them, would conjure up illusions of things that could have happened that made more sense than reality. They didn’t know how to get his body into the grave gently and it made a gutting noise hitting the wet grave, which was filling with brackish water from the porous sides. The shore where he had been lying was stained with the vaguest outline of a person made from everything that had leaked from him as he’d rotted.

They tried not to look at that.

“Does anyone want to say anything?” asked Aaron as he stood over that grave with his shovel in hand, ready to fill the hole. They all knew, somehow, that this was the only memorial Rafe would get. Just like Ros, the terror had him – his life and his death – and it wouldn’t let him go no matter what.

No one did, but Emily tried. She felt like someone should say something, even if it wasn’t enough. Standing there beside the box of torn up shirts and sheets that they’d fashioned into blindfolds for what came next, she cleared her throat.

“I guess, thank you,” she said. They all looked at her. “Thanks for trying, Rafe. You really tried and … and I hope we can learn something from that. To keep trying, no matter what.”

“To hope,” said Penelope.

Manny said nothing.

Aaron looked down at the tarp-wrapped shape of the man whose shoes he was now expected to wear – realising somewhere deep inside him that if he stepped into Rafe’s shoes, well, that didn’t leave any space for him to turn out like his father, did it? – and he whispered, “I’ll do my best.”

Then he let the dirt fall.

By the time the grave was filled loosely (and not well enough, it would sag in as the body holding it up rotted inward quickly in the damp mud), it was night. The moon had replaced the sun. Shovels were thrown down and the loose group, fewer than they had been, gathered around Emily’s box.

“Anyone who thinks they’ll get scared, hand up,” said Aaron. “You’ll get a blindfold.”

“Don’t be scared,” said Penelope to them all, making sure to push through her sadness to smile at each and every one of them. “We’re all going to hold hands and we’re going to make noise so we can’t hear anything awful, and no one is going to let go of anyone – got it?”

They nodded.

“Who wants a blindfold?” called Aaron. Hands shot up. Some slower than others, some determined; they all remembered how clotting the fear of seeing the dead kids had been. At least this way, if they died, they’d die without knowing the terror was coming for them.

In the end, when Aaron and Emily were finished knotting blindfolds tight and lining the kids up in a line of two-by-two with more knotted rags tying them to each other like a team of workhorses before a cart, there were six kids without blindfolds. Only six from the group left who’d kept their hands down, for varying reasons.

Aaron and Emily, who knew they had to face their fears and trust each other to be the eyes for the kids they were responsible for. Derek, who was determined that this time he’d see the danger coming and stop it rather than see someone else buried, who was determined that if he had to face his dad anytime soon he’d do it as a Morgan and not a coward (Sarah had kept her hand down but he’d sworn to her that it was his job to keep them safe and begged her to wear it). JJ, who doubted anything could scare her anymore so she may as well face it much like she’d faced the something in the lake that had lost some of the terror in the knowing of what it was. Penelope, who felt responsible for this idea and therefore a part of making sure those kids that couldn’t see didn’t stumble on the way.

And Spencer.

“Put the blindfold on, mouse,” Emily was saying to him, crouched down beside where he was tied neatly to Jackson behind him and Dezzi in front of him, his hand locked through Sean’s beside him and his book under his other arm.

“No,” he said, pulling away when she tried to drape it over his eyes. “It’s dark. I don’t like it.”

Aaron went over there, ignoring Emily’s wary stare.

“Can you be brave?” he asked the boy, who nodded. “Even if you see Ethan? You can’t go after him, Spencer. If you see him, you need to ignore him. Can you do that?”

“Yes,” rasped Spencer. “I’ll be good, I promise. And I’ll look after Sean.”

Aaron nodded. “Let him go,” he told Emily. “I trust him.”

Although he’d never know this, that single line went a long way to repairing what had been broken between him and the girl crouched there; she thought that no man who’d done to her what had been done would ever have validated a small boy’s fears like this, or trusted him so much, no matter what her shaky memories were telling her.

With those six sets of eyes open against the dark, they set off into the night with Aaron in the lead and Emily walking alongside. They, unlike everyone else, were not tied into the group; instead, they worked to clear the path for those who couldn’t see, helping those who stumbled as they made their slow way out of the camp.

Emily, as they moved further into the woods that whispered around them, sang. It was a shaky singing, her voice raspy and her tune off, but it drowned out anything that drew the children’s attention away from her. She sang any song she could think of, anything from her collection of albums with their long-remembered lyrics. When the kids recognised the songs that she was singing, they joined in.

The night gave way to them, letting them pass as though it didn’t know what to do with this strange, straggled sight. Aaron didn’t see a single spook, even though he was looking out for them. For some reason, they’d been given this respite, this relief; they’d been given this chance to leave the camp behind even though they were still coated in the stinking mud of it. It gave him hope as nothing else had before, his shoulders straightening and stride becoming firmer, as though the ghost of Rafe Garcia was walking beside him whispering, “You’re doing it, Aaron, you’re saving them.”

It was right when he gave in and joined in on a shaky rendition of a George Michael song he’d remember suddenly in twenty-one years (cos I gotta have faith faith faith), that he heard a thin cry.

He paused, calling out for everyone to stop. Obediently, they did. Emily took the chance to help a little girl with her shoe, which she’d hooked the strap through a branch, and Spencer watched Aaron curiously.

They heard it again.

“It’s a trap,” Derek declared, holding up his own weapon, one of the shovels they’d buried Rafe with. “Ignore it. Let’s keep going, man.”

“It lured Rafe into the lake with a girl drowning,” JJ added.

Aaron listened. He heard it again (help us) and thought, what was the worst that could happen? Of course, he knew the answer: he could die and leave these kids alone right when he knew they were almost to Castle Rock, die at midnight of this shaky night. Die when he could be getting them to the safety of the library which would surely be closed right now but would open again as surely as the sun would rise, open and welcome them inside to Sanctuary.

“Emily?” he asked, turning to her. “What do you think?”

She looked surprised to be asked, looking at him oddly. “Why are you asking me?”

“Because,” he said, “you’re my co-pilot in this plane we’re flying out of hell. Captain doesn’t do shit without the co-pilot’s okay.”

Emily gave him another intense look, one he wouldn’t understand until he was far far older than this. The cry sounded again, louder this time and with other voices chiming in as though whoever were voicing those yells had heard the singing and thought rescue was close.

Finally, she spoke. “It could be the ones who ran,” she said. “Or it could be the clown. I don’t know, Aaron. They ran. Do we risk ourselves for them?”

Aaron thought about that for a moment but, in the end, he knew the answer to that.

“Our strength is in each other,” he said, looking down the row of blindfolded faces who’d let him lead them blindly into the unknown. “No one let go of each other – no one, do you understand?”

“Where are you going?” asked Derek uneasily. “You’re coming back, right?”

“Absolutely,” promised Aaron, tugging out Rafe’s gun and checking it was loaded. It was. “Emily, you’re coming with me. Derek, Penelope, JJ –” After a moment, he added, “Spencer,” because the kid wasn’t blindfolded and, shit, maybe Manny had been right: they’d seen enough that they were all the same now, weren’t they? Just as capable and traumatised as each other. “Get the others to the library. Keep singing. Me and Em, we’re going to go save the others from their own dumbassery, and then we’ll meet you there.”

“Damn right we will,” said Emily, stepping away from the nightmare It had tried to feed her and back beside Aaron where she belonged. He’d done something no one had before and that was stronger than any false face: he’d trusted her. Not even her mother trusted her like that and, at the moment, she’d have followed him to Hell if he’d asked it of her. “Let’s do this.”

They went one way while the kids went the other, neither group sure that they’d see each other again but at least one of them sure that the risk had to be worth it. Rafe might have died because of his humanity, but humanity was what was keeping the rest of them alive.

A worthy gamble.

 

5

Spencer Reid keeps a record.

They made it to the library. Spencer felt pleased when he saw the familiar building looming ahead on the silent, lamplit street. Oh, he’d never been here before, not this library. But he’d been to a lot of libraries in his life, all kinds, and one library was just as exciting and safe as the next. He could have recognised a library no matter what guise it took and this? This was definitely a library.

“Remember, it’s going to be closed,” Derek was saying as they unknotted ties and began to run towards the overhang before the building, desperate to huddle up against that door. “So we need to wait quietly for –”

Spencer could have told him he was being silly: a library would never be closed when they needed it and, sure enough, the door of this one stood open. Stunned, the older kids exchanged surprised and wary glances – because it was well after one o’clock – and the younger kids shrugged and accepted it as part of Sanctuary, which would, of course, be open to them.

“Don’t go in yet,” Sarah commanded, back in charge now her blindfold was off. She grouped them all before the doorway looking into the dim interior, calming everyone who was whispering excitedly – would there be beds inside? Food? Who knew! – “We should wait for Aaron and Emily. It’s weird that it’s open …”

Spencer didn’t think it was weird, but he was okay waiting for Aaron anyway. Sean kept looking around for his brother approaching on the dark street, his face twisting as he got more and more worried. His hand, in Spencer’s, was clammy.

“Maybe we should knock?” said Ashlee, one of the counsellors.

“We should go inside,” said Jackson. Spencer looked at him. He was standing there holding his little brother’s hand and, when he saw Spencer looking at him, he looked away with his cheeks flushed red. “Come on, it’s supposed to be safe, isn’t it? So go in!”

He yelled the last, the shout echoing up the street. They all tensed – a gathering of dirty, worried children waiting for the policeman’s eyes to fall upon them – and then there was a soft gasp.

“Goodness,” said a lady in the door of the library, staring out at them through her glasses with her hand pressed to her fluttering heart. If she’d expected anything when investigating the odd noise pulling her away from the overdue accounts that had kept her here long into the night, it certainly wasn’t this group of ragged children, dirty and scared and looking at her like she might bite. “Where on earth did you all come from?”

“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Sarah, who’d meant to explain where they’d come from and why they were here but found all those words stripped from her in favour of these: “Do you have any food? We’re all so hungry.”

A soft whine of agreement whipped around the group, small hands going to bellies and sad eyes turning sadder as they all became aware, once more, of their growling stomachs.

“And tired,” whispered JJ, hugging her arms around herself. The librarian, looking at her, saw her bloodied nails. “I just want to sleep.”

Sean sniffled, still looking up the street for his brother.

The woman, who was sixty-eight and had never turned down a soul in need in her life and wasn’t about to start now, stepped back, held the door open, and asked them to come inside.

They did.

With the efficiency that she’d run the town library with for thirty-nine years, Barbara Manning soon had those wild children in order: she got them all inside and then commanded, with a stern look in her eye not a single one of them could deny, that they would all wash before she’d feed them. Into the bathrooms they were duly marched, those who finished washing as best they could in the high sinks returning to the main hall of the book-lined building to be put to work in the attached kitchen –Mrs Manning was now very smug about having asked it to be installed, back when the library was smaller and a hub for various other groups who all required tea and feeding – making sandwiches from frozen bread and long-life preserves kept there for emergencies like this one.

By the time Aaron and Emily sidled in through those open front doors, eyes wary and looking starkly out of place with Emily’s face and Aaron’s mud-covered clothes, the kids were cleaner than they’d been, calmer, and sitting in loose groups on the floor of the hall devouring sandwiches as fast as they could be made.

“More of you!” declared Mrs Manning, stunned to look up and see yet more children in need of care slinking into the hall. Why, there were two teenagers looking the worse for wear and, yes, even more behind them! “Well, wash up and eat and then I demand an explanation before I call your parents!”

“Sandwiches,” moaned Emily, darting from Aaron’s side towards the plate and nabbing one before she could be scolded for her dirty hands. Aaron, who was too well-mannered to snatch, nodded with a dazed look on his face and wandered in the direction of the bathrooms he’d been pointed in. Spencer watched in awe as no less than three more kids filtered in after him, three kids that Spencer had last seen leaving the rec hall with Conroy and his friends. Three kids who should be dead, but weren’t, and Spencer at that moment believed completely in Aaron’s ability to save all of them.

Not once did he think of the other five who’d left out that door and weren’t back here now, those that Aaron hadn’t saved at all.

“When you’re done eating, come see me, please,” said Mrs Manning, leaving the door of her office open as she shook her head and went back to her books, keeping one eye on the children outside whose existence she couldn’t explain but who she suspected might be here because there was something wrong with this town – and she’d seen the camp polos some of them still wore.

Spencer ate until he felt like he might pop, making sure Sean was eating too, and then he huddled down by a bookshelf looking around at the kids around him. The older ones had filtered into the office, closing the door behind them, and he could just see Aaron through the partially-shuttered blinds of the window between them. They’d eaten and then gone in there, Spencer guessed to tell the librarian about the monster that was hunting them.

He wondered if she’d believe them.

“Do you think she’ll let us stay?” Sean asked, also watching that window. They were, all of the gathered kids, thinking the same thing: if she didn’t, they’d die. If she called the police, they’d be taken back to the camp, where they’d die. If she called their parents, well, it had never worked before so why would it now?

“I think she will,” said Spencer. “She must know that this place is safe too.”

It certainly felt safe. Not once in the bathroom had his belly twinged nervously and from no shadowy corner did Ethan peer out at him. No bears stalked the romance section and no dead kids were poking wormy fingers at him through the encyclopedias. It was a Sanctuary, he knew, and they’d be safe so long as they were inside here.

But he had to distract the others because he could see them worrying about whether it was as safe as he was sure it was.

“Sean, help me,” he demanded, letting his book fall open to the page he knew he was up to and pulling Emily’s secret note-taking pen from his pocket. He uncapped it, smelling laundry soaps and something biting, before pressing the point to the page. It left no mark, as it was designed and as everything else he’d been writing in here had left no – visible – mark. “Want me to write something for you, too?”

“What are you writing?” Sean asked.

“What’s been happening,” said Spencer, who knew this was important. Other kids were looking at him too now, peering to look at the pages. “Because people don’t believe us about it and they should, so if we write it down we’ll always remember and we can make people believe, but I put it in secret ink because … well, the policeman broke the camera. If they knew about this, maybe they’d break this too. I wrote about Ethan, since he can’t, and I wrote about Rafe –”

“Telling our stories,” said Manny, the first thing he’d said in ages. He scooted over, holding out his hand. “Let me. I want to write in it too.”

“Okay, but you have to be sensible,” warned Spencer, frowning at the boy who told more jokes than he did practical things. “It’s an important record, like a … a, um …”

“Memorial,” said JJ. There was a breath of silence following that before she spoke again. “I want to write in it too. I want it to remember me as well.”

As Spencer watched, his book slowly went around the circle with everyone waiting patiently for their turn. That was what they did, until the door of the office opened and the bigs walked out, everyone now looking at them.

Spencer, despite his surety that they’d stay, felt nervous when he saw Aaron walking towards them, Mrs Manning at his side.

But the lady said, “You boys, come help me get the mattresses from the room out back. You’ll all sleep here tonight and we’ll work out what to do with you all when the sun is up and you’ve all rested, you poor sods.”

Those that cried at the news were judged by none of them, because knew that at least now they had a tomorrow – and that, these days, was a rare knowledge.

 

6

Jackson Kallum chooses a side.

Jackson sat on the wall near the window, and he did this so he could hear the outside whispering. It had started with the dead kids, the whispering. The telling him that there was no escape from Camp Moribund. That he would

(change and float and die, oh you’ll die, you’ll die like us all)

if he didn’t obey. If he didn’t do what he was told.

(be a good boy, Jackson, be a good little boy. Your nana would be proud of a good boy like you, doing what you must to keep your brother safe, sweet little Ant)

It had gotten worse when Rafe had died. Jackson had stared at that body in the lake and he’d known how doomed they all were; he’d have known that Aaron was hopelessly naïve thinking that they could get out of here alive even if the trees hadn’t confirmed it as they’d laughed together behind him.

(trust us, Jackson)

(do as we say)

(feed us)

He hugged Ant closer now, pressing his face close to the boy’s sweaty hair and refusing to let go even when Ant complained. He loved his brother and had since the day his parents had handed him the tiny, swaddled infant and told him that he was a big brother who had Responsibilities for now and for always.

He had Responsibilities.

(that’s right, Jackson, you can’t let him down, can you? Not little Ant)

(so just do as we say)

“How?” he whispered, Ant almost asleep now that he was filled with sandwiches and cordial. The other kids were helping the old lady get out plastic camp mattresses and lining them up on the ground, the hall sticky-hot with the air-conditioning not working (which was why the door had been open, the lady had told them, but the trees had whispered to Jackson that the doors would be open even before they’d gotten here, hadn’t they? It was all part of the plan). No one looked at Jackson or his brother. No one ever looked at them. They were invisible.

(don’t drink it)

That was all the answer he got. He leaned against the wall, hugging his brother close as he looked across the hall to where the boy, Spencer was writing in his book. Sean Hotchner sat beside him, Sean Hotchner who Aaron had once run towards instead of helping save Ant, who’d needed saving more. That little brat who would always get the help he needed even if others died because Aaron was oh so much more important than everyone else and therefore so was his stupid, bratty brother.

Or so Jackson told himself, feeling sick inside like maybe it wasn’t all true, not really.

(oh, but it is. They’d see you die, so be the better man. The better hero. Give me three so all shall live … all shall live …)

(Ant shall live)

He made his choice. He hugged Ant once more, told him not to drink anything he was given, and then stood. Without hesitating he walked over there, crouched beside Spencer – who looked surprised to see him, but Jackson refused to look him in the eye (the small one, the smart one, I want him) – and he said, “Can I write in it too?” while pointing to the book.

This would be his absolution and, if no one saw what he meant to write, well then, they deserved what they got, the three that had been picked. Just three. Three instead of all, three instead of the countless ones Rafe had gotten killed.

Really, Jackson, by his reckoning, was a hero.

 

7

Emily Prentiss runs away.

While the kids were helping set up their beds, Emily was somewhere else. She’d gone poking around the basement rooms, fascinated to find that there was a whole room just dedicated to old newspapers down here – moving away from the scurrying of kids fetching mattresses and laughing and talking amongst themselves, already losing the fear that outside had layered upon them. She was still there when the voices faded, the door banging shut, walking alone in the archive hall as she touched paper clipping after paper clipping and wondered whether, in twenty years, if any of these would tell her story. She felt no fear about being alone. After all, before this, she’d always loved to be alone, and this library, this place … well, Spencer had known.

It was Sanctuary.

Emily?” asked a voice from the door. She went cold for a moment, went scared, but it passed quickly. The last time she’d heard him call her name like that, it had been followed by the beating of her life but, when she turned, it wasn’t the barely-remembered cold-eyed Aaron standing there, but her Aaron. The Aaron who had plucked those three kids back out of the wilds even though they’d run from him thinking he couldn’t help them. “You shouldn’t be down here alone. It’s not safe.”

“I’m not alone,” she teased, leaning against a filing cabinet and trying to find her old smile to taunt him with, even though her heart still raced as though a part of her still feared him. “You’re with me.”

He laughed softly, moving over to her and peering at a shelf of film reels. He whistled. “Spencer would love this place,” he said, shaking his head. “If that lady doesn’t kick us out come morning, maybe she’ll let us watch them.”

Emily wondered how long he expected they’d be safe here. It couldn’t last forever, could it?

She was still thinking that when she realised he was looking at her with some tremendously complicated expression on his face.

“What?” she asked.

He reached out to her. This time, she managed not to flinch away, as he brushed the pads of his fingers so gently across her damaged skin.

“I can’t stand looking at what happened to you,” he breathed, stepping closer. Her heart hammered faster and she was furious at herself for still being scared, even now. Hadn’t he proven himself over and over since that moment, that he wasn’t the demon who’d hurt her?

So why was she so scared?

“It’s no big deal,” she said with forced nonchalance before something took hold of her mouth and run it stupid. “I’m sure you’ve gotten worse from your dad.”

He looked at her oddly.

“Sean said he …” She swallowed. Oh, she’d thought a lot about what Sean had thought he’d seen, and why a child would picture their daddy doing something so awful. “What he saw, who he saw with the belt … I don’t know, I just don’t think he’s old enough to imagine that from nothing, is he?”

Aaron looked away. Maybe if he hadn’t trusted her then, what happened next wouldn’t have happened at all. After all, it took vulnerability from her that was harder than ever to find, following John. Following It.

But he did.

“He uses his belt,” Aaron rasped, breaking her heart so cleanly in two at his resigned misery. Even the clown made more sense than a father doing this; at least the clown just wanted to feed. “On m-me … sometimes, Sean. But I try not to let him hurt Sean. I-if I think he’s going to hurt Sean, I … I …”

“Piss him off more so he hits you instead?” she guessed.

He nodded.

“God, you’re so damaged,” she said with a shake of her head, and then she kissed him.

It hurt all the way through from her hammering heart to her cut lip to the bruises he was bumping against in his clumsy attempts to kiss her back. She wasn’t the same girl who’d decided he was fuckable the day he’d sauntered through camp in his clean-cut jeans and too-neat hair, but he wasn’t that same boy either.

“We could die,” she told him when they broke apart, both her hands on his muddy jeans, holding him there. He looked at her. “We could, we could die at any moment. You want me to trust you, yeah?”

Desperation drove her: she wanted to keep this boy, to chase away her doubts and bare her heart in a way her words would never let her. She wanted her power and her agency back and she wanted to show him how much she owed to him, her life and her sanity and everything.

“Emily,” he breathed. He knew. Oh, he knew. He’d never had a girl like her – never had a girl, actually, and he wasn’t sure now was the right time to be breaking that record – but he knew the look in her eyes was the same as the first day she’d cocked her hip at him and beckoned him to follow her, follow her right down to the lake where he’d refused sex but gotten thoroughly mussed up by her anyway, her and her pretty, clever mouth. He’d refused sex because he’d been young, but not stupid, and they’d had all their lives ahead of them.

That didn’t feel true anymore.

“My last guy knocked me up and threw me aside,” Emily burbled out, seeing him blanch at the confession. “Fuck, Aaron, he left me so dirty, just a …”

She went quiet.

“I don’t want to die having only been with him,” she managed, flushing hot from her toes to her nose. “I just … I just want to know what those girls talk about, you know, in books and stuff, when they talk about feeling lo … like they’re worth something. Like they’re worth living for.”

He said very intently, “You don’t need sex to be worth something.”

But he didn’t say they weren’t going to die.

“One night,” she asked for. “Just one night, please. Before we face tomorrow.”

In the end, that’s what he gave her and what she gave him in return.

One night.

When they emerged from the basement archives to find the lights of the hall dimmed and the kids settled down, it was with a new feeling around them. It wasn’t, Emily thought, to do with the sex at all, which had been over fast and left her feeling sticky and sorer than before, but probably more to do with him choking out I love you midway. Those words bubbled in her mind as they dodged drowsy kids who barely stirred to look up at them – those that did smiled trustingly at Aaron, their faith in him returned, and she noticed that he walked taller having seen this – and tried not to kick over mugs of drink placed beside them.

“There you two are,” said Sarah when she saw them, sitting at the front desk of the library with her own cup in hand. The lady stood on the other side, frowning when she saw them. “Here, Mrs Manning says it will help us sleep.”

“What is it?” Aaron asked, taking a mug and sniffing it warily. Emily sniffed it too, recognising it before he seemed to.

“Just a nip of brandy, lad,” said the lady, who’d seen the look in the eyes of all the kids before her and known that the night would be restless and filled with nightmares for all of them. She’d done this for her own kids when they were sick, hadn’t she? Helped them sleep peacefully, and it had never hurt them, not a single one, even when they were babes. “Not much for the small ones, and watered right down. It’ll get them dozing and hopefully keep the nightmares away but it’s no magic pill, so be quiet and don’t go banging about or you’ll wake them.”

(and she frowned a little, wondering why she wasn’t telling them about the something extra in there she’d put in to help, just to help. She really did mean well, she did, but meaning to help in this place didn’t mean actually helping, not even a little)

Aaron sipped it, pulling a face. Emily did too, frowning when it left an unholy aftertaste in her mouth, like cherry mixed with what she’d jokingly have called ‘ass’ if she wasn’t standing before the lady who could toss them out if she was sassed.

She’d make this joke to Aaron before the night was over.

Aaron drained his mug, looking relieved that it was over when it was done. Emily sipped hers, smiling disarmingly at the woman when she glanced at her. It didn’t taste right, not as brandy should. Maybe it was some bullshit old lady mix, but Emily didn’t like it at all and she’d partied too hard in the past to trust drinks that tasted off.

“Come on,” Aaron said, taking her hand and leading her to a free mattress beside where Sean and Spencer were already fast asleep. He thanked the lady as they went, but Emily was too busy noting the empty mugs beside the two small boys. Something twinged in her gut, and she twisted around to watch the woman watching them. “Emily?”

She looked at Aaron, having startled at the sound of her name. The aftertaste lingered in her throat.

“Come to bed,” he coaxed, pulling her hand and offering her the same shy smile he’d given her in the basement. She wondered if he was still thinking about what they’d done, that explosion of something he’d set off in her that she’d never felt before and still felt shaky about. Maybe that was it. Maybe that was why she was feeling off. “Come on, we need sleep. You’re exhausted. I’m exhausted. And we wore each other out …”

He gave her another smile, this one cheeky and a reminder of who he could be if she got him out from under his misery.

“Okay,” she said, lying down beside him and setting her, still full, mug on the ground. “Tastes like cherry ass,” she muttered, hearing him snort with laughter. Then, with his arms around her and his head leaning on her arm, she closed her eyes and fought for sleep …

… what felt like minutes later, she opened her eyes. Too wired to stay asleep despite her exhaustion. The lights were off now and the hall was quiet, everyone asleep around her. Except, it was wrong. The sound of it was wrong. No cicadas were calling outside, no lap of the lake down the slope … no pacing guards … no … no …

It clicked.

Everyone was sleeping silently. The library hall, despite being filled with people, was completely and utterly noiseless. That was what had woken here: no one was crying or whimpering or farting or yelling or laughing or talking or doing any other of the myriad of annoying noises a couple of dozen kids made when shoved into the same room together.

She rolled, finding Aaron breathing deeply behind her. Very alive, and she breathed out in a huff that was almost a laugh as she realised she’d been expecting that he’d, what? Died?

Ridiculous.

“Aaron,” she whispered, wincing at the noise. He slept lightly. He’d wake easily.

But he didn’t.

She frowned, inching closer without sitting up and pressing her fingers to his chest. He was warm and his heart beat steadily. She shook him a little and then a little more when he didn’t twitch. He was heavy against her hands, limp and unmoving, so she shook him even harder but his eyes remained as closed as if … as if …

“Oh, you stupid bitch,” Emily breathed, flattening herself as terror slammed deep into her heart and made it race. They were drugged. Maybe to help them sleep, maybe for some reason more dastardly – but the end result was the same. They were helpless, and she was alone. Terror driving her now, she crawled from the plastic mattress, which made an unholy noise under her, scuttling across to where Sarah was sleeping and shaking her.

She didn’t wake. Neither did Dezzi.

Neither did Ashlee, did Manny, did Kelly. None of them woke. Emily sat up on her knees, looking around the room and seeing only sleeping bodies, unmoving faces, no one to –

There were lights outside. She crawled to the window, not even bothering to be careful about knocking people on her way, and kneeled before it with her cramping fingers locked on the sill as she looked out at the night outside. Her hammering heart ceased hammering as dread silenced it.

Police cruisers. Three of them, lined up, lights flashing. Here for them. She pressed her face closer and saw the old woman standing before the police with her arms crossed, refusing their entry. But they were going to come in anyway, Emily knew. An old lady couldn’t stop them.

She fled from that window, not bothering about noise as she cried, “Wake up!” to anyone who’d listen, flinging herself down beside Aaron and battering his broad chest. “Aaron, please! Wake up, wake up, they’re coming!”

“Emily?” someone gasped. She whirled, finding Derek staring at her, half-sitting up and looking terrified to see her so wild. “What the fu –”

At that moment, looking down along the row of beds to where Derek was – the five beds between him and her, one of which held Aaron – Emily realised. They weren’t going to come in. There was nothing potential about their entry at all.

They’d already been in.

Sean was gone.

So was Spencer.

And, when Emily made herself look, horror thudding home, she realised: so was JJ. They hadn’t been drugged, but they’d slept through the removal of some of their smallest charges anyway, their exhaustion deadening them to sound; after all, it hadn’t been sound that had woken her, had it? It had been silence. Silence, here, was dangerous.

They’d failed. And they’d fail more if they stayed. Aaron wouldn’t wake. None of them would, except Derek (who hadn’t liked the taste either, it reminded him of Carl, who always gave him alcohol to make you feel like a man, Derek and sometimes that alcohol tasted off too).

None of them would wake.

“We have to go,” Emily realised out loud, Derek scrambling up and making a noise as he saw the lights too. “Derek, we have to go – now.”

They heard the distant sound of keys in the heavy front doors.

“But my sisters –”

There was no time. Emily pressed her mouth against Aaron’s in a desperate, fleeting goodbye – wishing she’d said it back now that they were out of time – before leaping up and jumping prone bodies to grab Derek’s hand.

Before she leapt up, she paused only once: to lever out the gun from Aaron’s waistband and tuck it in her own.

“Run!” she hissed at Derek, dragging him after her as she fled for the weak light of the fire exit to the back of the hall. “Run!”

Derek, obediently, ran. He didn’t question her, even though she saw him twisting back towards his siblings, horrified that he was fleeing them. For a heartbeat, as they fetched up against that door – while she reached up to disconnect the alarm – she thought he was going to run right back over there to where flashlights were moving around, obscured by the aisles of books between Emily and Derek and them.

“They’ll kill you too,” Emily hissed, spitting the words right into his ear.

“Okay,” he said, turning back to her. He understood: the only way they could do anything was by surviving.

The door was cold under Emily’s hands. She pushed it open and slid through the gap, holding it open for him before easing it shut. Then they were out, out in the night with the shadows around them and everyone they loved inside, in the monster’s mouth.

The library had been safe, Emily realised dully, the place was safe. The people, though?

No person in this place was safe. No one could be trusted.

“You’re going to run now, aren’t you?” Derek asked her. His fists were bunched, his face tortured. He knew as well as she did that there was no escape for those they’d left behind but maybe, just maybe, there was an escape for them. “Don’t lie to me. I know you’re the kind of person to run away. I don’t know why you haven’t yet. Well, I’m not going, I’m not leaving my sisters, fuck you, I’m not –”

“Quiet,” she whispered. Something had caught her eye. She crept around the edge of the building, using the stinking dumpsters to hide her as she inched closer and closer to the corner and peered around it to the street before them. From here, she could just barely see the backs of the police cruisers, squat and ugly. She stared at those, before turning and trying to work out what she’d seen move in the shadows.

Her heart stammered to a stop, stalling right the fuck out with shock. She heard Derek gasp behind her, his hand suddenly snatching at her arm and biting in. But she didn’t need him pointing out what she’d seen as clearly as he had: the clown standing there smiling at them with his grease-painted mouth, one rubbery hand pointing to the back of the closest cruiser. It was far away from them, a full three parking lots out of reach, but Emily still struggled to tear her eyes away from that monstrous sight to see what It wanted her to see. The car It was pointing at.

“Wait here,” she told Derek, feeling like this was probably the second dumbest thing she’d ever do, the first being falling in love with Aaron fucking Hotchner (who was dead now, she told herself, because if he was dead he wasn’t alive and in need of her saving him, which would surely end in her death). But still, she stuck close to the wall and dragged herself across it, the rough brick grabbing at Aaron’s woollen sweater she was wearing, inching along until she was at the corner near that cruiser, where anyone could look over and see her as she looked inside.

JJ. Curled up small on the backseat, fast asleep. Not moving when Emily tried to wave to catch her attention. Desperation biting home as Emily remembered Ros begging her to look after her (and she hadn’t because Rafe had stepped up, but Rafe wasn’t here anymore, was he?), Emily took three wobbly steps out into full view of anyone who cared to see, and she knocked on that glass.

This close, she found Spencer and Sean. They were in there too, Spencer moving at the noise and looking up at her groggily. She stared down at him even as she tried the handle (locked, of course) and then looked to the driver’s side door. She could jimmy it …

She looked up and her gaze locked on Jackson Kallum. He was sitting across the street, a uniformed officer by his side. The officer wasn’t looking at Emily, but Jackson was. He was sitting there watching her with a strange expression on his face, his brother sitting at his side. Both awake. Very awake and … unsecured.

“Mine,” purred the clown behind her, so close that she felt the hot, rancid breath on the back of her neck. “He is mine, my dear. And oh, he’s fed me, look at those delicious snacks … waiting to be delivered to my hungry stomach …”

“Let them go,” she whispered, too scared to move as she tipped up onto her toes and fought the urge to race away like a deer. “Take me instead.”

“Oh, darling, you don’t taste anywhere near as good to dear old Pennywise … not so good at all, all used and ruined and filled with that boy’s mess. What a disgusting little slime you’d be. I’d still eat you, but you’d be nasty, a real vegetable. So what are you going to do, little girl? Little whore? Will you run?”

Emily whipped around, hand curled into a claw ready to slash at him and the other going for the heavy weight of the gun. But there was nothing there except Derek gesturing at her to get back out of sight.

Like a drunk, she staggered back over there.

“Jackson did it,” she told Derek, feeling sick. “They’ve got Spencer and Sean and JJ to … to feed to it. Just like Ros said they would.”

Derek looked at her.

“Well,” he said, his voice deep and low and, she realised with a dull thud of amusement, finally broken. It didn’t crack at all. What a time to notice that. “What are we going to do about it? We’re all they have. It has to be us.”

Emily closed her eyes for a moment, thinking furiously. What were they going to do …?

A memory twinged. Something she’d seen.

No.

Something she’d been shown.

She opened her eyes, looking up the street to where she could see a distant glow of a gas station sign. It gleamed, the brightest thing on this darkest night.

“I know where it lives,” she said dully. Because she did, didn’t she? It had shown her, just like It had shown Ros … Ros, who’d gone down there. Ros, who’d tried to get the kids It had been fed back too. She’d known where they were being taken and now, Emily did too, sort of.

She knew who’d know anyway.

“What? Where? Emily?”

But she was already walking away, keeping to the shadows of the buildings as she turned her back on Aaron and the others who were captured, walking towards that glow in the sky. “Go away,” she called back. “Hide. If you come, it will kill you. I have to get them out by myself.”

Derek caught up, jogging by her side. She wasn’t surprised.

“What are we going to do when we get there?” he asked her, shoulders as stubborn as Aaron’s were. She looked at him and knew he wouldn’t be budged. “Do you even know?

She did.

“We’re going to burn that fucker alive,” she promised, eyes locked on the display of gas cans inside the gas station ahead. “And Ros is going to show us how.”

Chapter Text

1

A storm brewed in Derry, rolling thickly outwards in an inexorable finger towards Castle Rock and the flustered shores of Dark Score Lake. It was unprecedented. Unseasonable. People reached for slickers and boots and sandbags. In Castle Rock, despite the mild forecast betrayed by this strange, static storm, no one worried much. Castle Rock had never flooded like Derry had that summer Georgie Denbrough had died. The pumping station that had linked Dark Score with the waterways of Derry since the late fifties would surely hold up against the fury of the Penobscot if the storm rose its banks.

They didn’t worry.

Below the lake, something seethed. It felt a fury It hadn’t considered in twenty-one years, not since seven children had come down into the dark and almost succeeded in their vanquishment. Not since a boy who was almost a man had defied his adulthood and declared that he would never move to allow It’s passage. They were back, all of them: the original seven, those children with the minds so bright that It had longed to devour them, and the others. The unprecedented other six, those who had never bested him as thoroughly as Bill Denbrough and his friends had but still their minds had stood steadfast in their unholy defiance.

It felt something new: It felt fear.

It was cautious. Before Bill Denbrough, Derry had been a safe ground. Sunk deep into terrible claws and teeth, there wasn’t a human there that hadn’t been born into the fading apathy that It bestowed upon that accursed town. The adults there were puppets; the children delicious. The boy had shaken that, although not shattered. Not yet.

Before Aaron Hotchner, It’s grip on Castle Rock had been approaching the absolute, much like Derry. But that boy had tested that grip. On the night of It’s defeat by the Losers, It had tried to flee to Dark Score and the feeding grounds there to feast on those lambs that waited so that It’s sleep would be healing, so that It would come back stronger to defeat those children. But It had been bested.

Yes, It felt fear. But they were adults now, not children, and as It turned a wary gaze towards those scattered points of light above, It knew: they were less than they had been. They were aged. Brittle. Weak. Their fears were more complex, harder to pin a singular face on, but their minds were nowhere near as capable of handling the madness It could bestow. They would be easy to manipulate, easy to shatter.

It felt them approaching. A confrontation loomed. In two separate places, in these towns It had marked as being It’s, the children-no-longer congregated in two separate yet equally mortal groups. They felt fear too. They remembered too.

And It decided, let them come. Oh yes, It remembered them. The sanctimonious Aaron Hotchner who had been stiff then and would now be stiffer yet, no doubt; the one that was all brains and fear and cloying anxieties, the weak-minded Spencer Reid; little Jennifer, who It despised with a passion because It remembered that cunt Rosaline; Derek Morgan who was brittle and would shatter spectacularly; and Penelope, worthless, delicious Penelope … It couldn’t sense her but knew she was there, somehow. It didn’t matter. She would be destroyed anyway, as easily as It had reached out and brought their families to this place.

And Emily Prentiss.

It raised It’s consciousness to search for her, finding her guttering like a candle in a vicious wind. Oh, Emily … It had been wrong, all those years ago. Spencer hadn’t been the most fun after all nor the easiest to break. Not even the tastiest.

Emily, It decided, It would keep. It would finally achieve what It had aspired to all those years ago, before that pained sleep; It would take her and dash her brilliantly against the deadlights, capturing her for an eternity in the agonising catatonia of madness. She would be trapped. She would be insane. She would be glorious in a way that Rosaline Jareau and Marceline Harris just hadn’t managed to be. A worthy reward for the fear It felt currently.

Emily would be hers, and they would feed together: forever.

 

2

Haley Brooks was terrified. It was a primitive terror, sunk deep into her belly and making her bowels turn to water and her heart beat cold instead of hot. A whole-body fear driven by the primal notion that the only way to continue was to run, run, run, run, run. But there was no running from this. They’d tried that. She’d straightened from washing her hands in the downstairs bathroom of that

(mouth)

house she’d been brought to in the wake of her ex-husband’s murder and almost screamed as a man had stepped up behind her and covered her mouth with a rough hand. She’d almost screamed. Perhaps, in some ways, it might have been better if she’d screamed and they’d been discovered. What followed had been dreadful anyway.

“Dave,” she’d gasped when he’d uncovered her mouth. David Rossi, in the flesh. Oh, what hope he represented, he and that gun on his hip!

“Don’t make a sound,” he’d whispered back. She’d felt so falsely safe at that second, such an illusionary optimism. “Follow me. Where’s Jack?”

In the bedroom, sleeping, she’d told him. That bedroom above that frightened her, the one filled with the forgotten detritus of a little girl’s room trapped in amber like some prehistoric insect. The clothes had been out of fashion for thirty years, the puffed ruffles of the pink bedding so thickly dust-laden she’d worried for her son’s lungs. No child had been here for decades, except for hers. She’d stared at the picture on the dresser for a while contemplating that, looking at those two little blonde girls staring back with their smiles fixed forever.

Rossi had continued being cruel to her: he’d given her more hope than she could handle. Aaron, she had been informed, was alive. The man who’d brought her here, the one who’d told her of Aaron’s death … Dave hadn’t explained who that person was, but Haley was no idiot. She knew. As soon as he’d told her that Aaron was still alive, she’d known their terrible danger.

They’d tried to flee. With Jack in her arms and David Rossi, the friend of her ex-husband she’d always resented for having more of his life than she did, leading the way. They hadn’t even almost escaped. There was no almost about it. In fact, now, as she walked deeper into the dark with that gun at her back, she considered that maybe they’d gone exactly where they were supposed to go on that wild, futile flight before David Rossi had died.

She’d watched the ground open up and swallow him alive. It had grown hands and teeth and a terrible, hungry tongue lines with pustules that writhed and hooks that gripped, and he’d died screaming as she’d been dragged away. Seeing that, seeing what had happened to him … it was madness. It was insanity. It was lunacy.

It couldn’t be real.

Dave had still been alive when the marshal who’d brought her here had walked up behind her and grabbed her by the hair, dragging her backwards with such violence that she’d dropped her son, who was already screaming. She didn’t see Dave die. It didn’t matter.

There wasn’t much left of her mind to conceptualise what was alive and what was dead anyway.

Now they walked, further and further into the dark with the fake marshal whispering behind them, David’s gun pressed into the ball of her spine. It would blow a hole right through her if she disobeyed but, in all honesty, he didn’t need that to ensure her acquiescence. Because the man was whispering to the walls, asking them the way, and the walls … the walls were whispering back.

Dave hadn’t warned her that what they faced, the danger he’d failed to save her from … he hadn’t told her it was madness.

They kept walking down, down, down into the depths of the earth with her shattered mind and her crying son wrapped in her arms – the son that she and Aaron had made together in those fleeting moments before their love had faded (or, hers had: he still loved her fiercely) – and they could hear the terrible, rhythmic beat of a darkling heart.

 

3

It was eighteen past seven in the morning and an ill mood was settling on the town of Castle Rock, blown over them by the winds from Derry way and spurred by the bubbling anger that seeped up through pipes and toilets and waterways to dribble into the townsfolks’ minds like a noxious thought. The clouds settled thick and heavy in the sky above. Distant thunder boomed menacingly. The air held its breath, humidity sticking a thin coat of sweat to the arms of the people trapped within the eye of it. That great and terrible eye, locked and waiting.

Aaron Hotchner felt as though he was breathing water. As he stepped from his vehicle, dressed as always in his suit and tie despite the unsettling heat trapped around them in the bowl of still air created by the bizarre stormfront, his shirt clung to his skin within seconds, his carefully brushed hair soon slick with perspiration. Morgan hurried after him, dressed more sensibly for the weather but just as overheated. They were armed with four guns between the two of them and neither looked up to the darkened sky where the rising sun was hidden behind the imminent clouds of the incipient storm.

“Two of my agents have vanished in the night,” Hotch informed the deputy sheriff already waiting. He’d called it in before rushing here, only slightly disconcerted by the man’s odd affect over the phone. He hadn’t yet managed to contact the rest of his team: neither Rossi nor JJ were answering their cells. “Their belongings were left behind and I suspect they were coerced away. We need roadblocks, patrols, and a line to the FBI to organise –”

But the sheriff’s office was quiet. Every officer there seemed to be looking at them. A terrible calm settled upon the room. A waiting calm. Hotch now noticed as he hadn’t before a familiar blank – almost dazed, he’d think later – look upon those faces. Morgan’s hand drifted to his holster even without his conscious guiding of it; he recognised that emptiness. They’d both seen it before, a long time ago in another lifetime far from now but in this very same building.

“We’re already in contact with your superiors,” said the deputy sheriff with a strange smile. “Would you both come with me?”

“Hotch …” murmured Morgan. But Hotch merely glanced at him – come on – and followed. Uncertainty, after all, was never an excuse to risk the tenuous peace with the locals that their work relied on, especially now when not only Marcie Harris but also their two teammates needed that full and unwavering cooperation.

They entered the sheriff’s office where the man himself waited. The atmosphere, Hotch thought distantly, was like something he’d lived through before. Before he could stop himself, he found himself looking around for a landmark, some familiar ground …

“Agents,” said the sheriff. They looked at him, Morgan’s muscles held tight and Hotch drifting in some half-forgotten memory that was driving a stake of fear right through his throat and choking out all his words. He stumbled, Morgan glancing at him with surprise, but Hotch was distracted by his body’s confusion: two fingers on his right hand (they hadn’t known he was left-handed when they’d tried to cripple him) had just sparked some hellfire pain down the nerves of his hand and arm and his lips felt sore, swollen. Suddenly, he felt a burning thirst rise as though he hadn’t drunk water in (sixteen hours) an eternity, his gut cramping despite his dinner the night before, his head splitting from a headache spurred from nothing. He felt dizzy and sick; he felt scared like he hadn’t been since he was a teenager under his father’s belt, like there was a beating waiting for him.

“You do remember my present for you,” said a familiar, abysmal voice from behind them. Hotch straightened at the sound of that voice, his pain forgotten. The sheriff watched him vacuously; in the dim light thrown from the overcast window, his eyes could have been silver. “That’s lovely. I do so hate to have my gifts forgotten.”

The voice chuckled, the air scented with burning popcorn.

Hotch refused to look for the source of that voice. Morgan didn’t seem to hear.

No one else seemed to hear.

“What is this about?” Morgan asked the sheriff.

A TV on wheels had been rolled in behind the sheriff, the power cord spooling out from the back to meet the wall like a black root. The display was turned off; the VCR player below it was not. The sheriff gestured to this now. “Please, sit.”

“Our agents, Reid and Prentiss –” Morgan said in the wake of Hotch saying nothing.

“Sit.” The sheriff’s tone was deadly.

Neither man sat.

“I politely request that you both disarm before we continue,” said the sheriff as though he expected to be obeyed. That same strange (dazed) smile upon his face.

Hotch found his voice in the shadow of that smile: “I don’t think we’re going to do that.”

Morgan turned, noticing the two men standing guard outside the door. Both armed, as was the sheriff. They were outgunned; he gritted his teeth and thought, fleetingly, of Garcia.

The sheriff nodded. “Very well,” he said, that smile stretching wider. It was the smile of a man who thought he’d solved some great mystery, come out on top of some monumental struggle. The smile of a man in a position of power that he intended to flaunt. He said nothing more, simply turned on the TV’s display and turned the volume up before pressing play.

Hotch was quiet voices echoed into the room. Those long-ago voices of the two figures in the captured room. One man, one boy. The recording was old. In fact, he knew the age of it exactly: it was twenty-one years old and the boy sitting at the interrogation table within, why, that was –

“Hotch?” Morgan asked, his voice tight.

“Hotch!” simpered the voice that Hotch was steadfastly ignoring. “Oh, little Aaron! Little piss-wet Aaron, in the flesh! Let’s see him cry.”

“Once more for the camera,” said the officer within the recording, the officer that now sat behind the sheriff’s desk watching them with that satisfied ‘gotcha’ smile. “State your identifying details and your confession, just how we showed you.”

The boy’s head, which had been tilted down towards the table as though his neck just wasn’t quite enough to hold it up, lifted. Even on the grainy, broken image of the late eighties’ security feed, details could be made out on his face: details like how exhausted he looked, details like the bruises that littered his pale skin, details like the blood that ran free from a cut mouth. He was cuffed and beaten and there were details that the camera didn’t show but that Hotch remembered perfectly –

like the ring on the officer’s finger, his wedding ring, and how it had split his lip like a rotten gourd when the officer had slugged him, once, twice, three times

and like the way they’d wait until his head was drifting towards the table, desperate to sleep before they’d grab his hair and yank it back, screaming at him confess

and like the way they’d showed him photos of bodies, children who were eaten and ripped to pieces, babies that were bloated and rotten, and said you did it you did it even when he cried and said, “How could I?” because those babies, those babies had died before he’d been born

and like the way they’d told him that Emily was dead when he’d asked for her, how they’d told him he’d be dead soon too because no cop likes a baby killer

and like they’d written his name on a bullet and dangled it in front of him and promised they’d put him down like a dog when they were done with him

– like how cold the room had been, how tight the cuffs. He’d been hungry and tired and scared and he’d broken, of course: hadn’t it been Reid who’d told him what he’d already been taught in his FBI training, that it wasn’t a matter of if you’d break under torture but when?

“My name is Aaron Hotchner,” said the boy in a voice that was wrecked. “Date of birth November 2nd, 1971. I’m sixteen, I’m only sixteen –” Someone in the recording laughed and the boy’s voice hitched. Morgan made a low noise. “– and I did it, okay? I did it. Everything you say I did, I did. Please, take me to see her now?”

“Details, boy.”

The boy began to cry. Hotch felt sick. He remembered, suddenly, just why the boy didn’t want to look up: he remembered who had been standing behind the officer questioning him, turning tricks and laughing along with every one of Aaron’s desperate pleas.

“Oh, we had such a good time,” said the clown from behind Hotch now, so close that surely Morgan must hear him, must see him, must feel the stink of his rotten flesh burning the mucous membranes of his nostrils. “Hit him again, I said! And again! Down for the count, make it matter! Again and again and again, isn’t that right, Aaron!? Smash his mouth, break his fingers, make him cry! What fun, what fun, and you scream so pretty.”

“I don’t know them,” the boy sobbed, trying to move his hands against the cuffs that held him to the table but his movements were sluggish and slow, hands clumsy and eyes locked on that capering clown that only he could see (severely dehydrated, by this point: sixteen hours in that room and he hadn’t been in the best condition when they’d put him in there in the first place, had he?). “I don’t know any details. I just did it. I killed all those kids –”

“Rosaline Jareau?” asked the officer, the one who’d laughed.

“What? No, she killed herself. She kill –” But the boy went quiet, looking around for mercy that wasn’t coming. “Yes. Her too. Please, Emily, you said –”

“Rafe Garcia?”

There was a low moan. None of them knew if it was the captured boy on the screen who’d moaned or one of them; they’d all hurt just the same at the spoken name anyway.

“Yes,” was the whimpered reply, audio distorted by how much his voice was breaking. “In t-t-the lake, I killed him in the lake. His body is there, you can go dig it up. Please … Emily …”

“We’ve got over one-hundred missing kid cases here first, boy. You’re going to look at them all, say you did it, and then God help you where you’re going. Understand? You can start with her, this Emily. Emily Prentiss?”

“You said I could see her,” the boy snapped back, the smallest thread of spine showing.

“But why?” he asked, “would we take you to see the girl that you murdered?”

Silence.

“Says here that you beat her,” he continued, “that you beat her so bad she couldn’t even see right. Is that true? Is it true you used your belt on her, that you –” The boy was shaking his head so violently that Hotch was surprised he wasn’t throwing up from the vicious concussion he’d had from the first time they’d struck him. “– didn’t like that she’d turned you down so you beat her stupid, messed with her, then killed her? It’s all here, kid. We’ve got an unshakable witness that says you killed her after taking advantage. Is that right? Are you a rapist and a murderer, you sociopathic little cocksuck –”

“That’s enough,” Hotch said coolly. The sheriff tapped pause on the remote as though he’d been expecting this, that smug smile back if it had ever shifted at all.

“Don’t you want to know what comes next?” asked the sheriff.

Hotch knew what came next. In all honesty, he was surprised the footage of that had survived.

He also, distantly, wondered if Morgan remembered.

“Agent Prentiss is alive,” he said without a shake in his voice. This was not the boy they’d beaten half to death in that interrogation room. Enough time had passed since now and then and he wasn’t that boy any longer; enough time had passed that he could walk down the hall to that very room and look in and there wouldn’t still be blood and spit and vomit on the floor and piss puddled there too from when he’d tried to escape and fallen. “I was unaware of the existence of that video but my suggestion is that it remain as lost as it has been up until now unless you’d prefer that you hand over evidence of historical police brutality to my superiors in Quantico in an effort to discredit me?”

The sheriff’s smile slipped as though he’d, foolishly, forgotten the time in-between in that dazed knowledge of correctness at his surety that this man standing in front of him, despite all evidence to the contrary, was the one who’d terrorised Castle Rock and perhaps even Derry for (centuries) decades.

“Your superiors wouldn’t be interested in knowing you were suspected in the rape and murder of –”

“Someone alive and perfectly able to discredit the allegations?” Hotch interrupted, his heart slamming hard despite his calm exterior; suddenly, the timing of Prentiss’s disappearance seemed damningly unlucky and, in the back of his mind, he pictured her executed in some agricultural warehouse, thrown in the lake, dropped into a quarry, lost in a mine-shaft, hidden in the woods –

“Maybe she’s burning,” suggested the clown.

Hotch refused to turn.

He continued: “I can assure you, as perhaps you’re unaware living as you are in Castle Rock, Maine, that coerced confessions are quite easy to spot when the child confessing is bloodied and crying and swearing that he was responsible for murders twenty years out of his time of which he can give no concrete details of. The FBI has handbooks on it that I helped write. You’ll destroy your own precinct, not me. I will walk away which, I might stress, I would suggest you allow me to do right now. Tell your men to stand down, Sheriff. They’re between me and my people, and I won’t allow that to continue. Remember how afraid you were that day … I can bring that fear back, except this time there’ll be no sweeping it under the rug because I’m not sixteen and powerless anymore, and I will destroy you utterly.”

The sheriff just stared at Hotch, his smile vanished from his face as though it had never been there at all. The dynamic in the room had turned dangerous as the power had tipped violently back towards Hotch and his steady stare, but he knew it was a temporary reprieve.

“News travels fast, Agent Hotchner,” said the sheriff quietly. “I get the feeling half the town is going to be remembering your name soon, connecting you and your team with what happened here. I think there sure as shit is gonna be repercussions for that when people get … angry. And a small-town office like this? Why I don’t fancy we’d be able to much stop them, do you? Not when the mood is that ugly.”

“Are you threatening us?” Morgan asked.

“Just stating the facts as I see them. Maybe you didn’t kill those kids. Maybe some wires got crossed, things got confused. But I don’t think that’s what the town is going to believe. Your people, well, they’re not here, are they? They’re not safe, and people get so hasty when they think kids are in danger.”

“No,” said Hotch coldly. “Not here they don’t. There wasn’t a single one of you that gave a damn when it was us who needed you. Now, I’m not asking anymore – stand your men down, or I will stand them down for you.”

In his pocket, his cell phone beeped to indicate that a text had (finally) arrived.

 

4

The sun wasn’t rising as it should. Spencer Reid fiddled with the radio of the sedan he was half-sitting in, half-dangling out of, trying to find a station that wasn’t just static. None obliged. Overhead, the clouds clustered hungrily, seeming to sink even lower with every notch his mood dropped. He leaned out of the car as fat, dime-sized raindrops began to fall.

“Emily,” he called. His cane resting against his leg, one shaking hand wrapped around it; this hand was all he allowed to show his stark fear for the woman who’d become, over the past few years, very dear to him. But, today, she ignored him. She just continued pacing on the gravelled verge they were parked on after she’d almost flung them into a tree taking a corner too sharp, thirty-three minutes out of Castle Rock. “Em, come on. You have to talk to me. What’s going on?”

He was proud of how steady he was keeping his voice, considering he’d been woken up in the middle of the night by a frantic Prentiss who’d covered his mouth, told him to say nothing, and then abducted him with the gun she was carrying a little more than an implied threat. Oh, he wasn’t scared of her. Even though she carried the weapon like she’d use it on him if he disobeyed, he wasn’t scared she would; more, he was frightened of what had driven her to these lengths.

“Be quiet, Spencer,” she snapped, her voice drawn so tight he was shocked it hadn’t snapped. She kept pacing, pacing, pacing, chain-smoking the packet of Camels she’d taken from the glove box. He watched her quietly, the thin thread of smoke drifting over her shoulder as she walked and turned and walked again, only pausing to hunch her shoulders against the raindrops that splattered on her coat and hair as she bit with a savage intensity at her nail in between hard pulls. “Just, just, just, be quiet.”

This halted speech scared him too. He could read what caused it and it wasn’t comfortable to see: that was raw fear. She’d seen something that had terrified her beyond reason. Something that had driven her out of her bed and into his room with her gun and her panic and her biting hands, not even allowing him the time to grab his own cell or weapon.

Also, he was pretty sure this car was stolen. It certainly wasn’t hers, since they’d flown here and they drove Bureau-issued SUVs when in the field.

“What do you remember?” she asked, whirling on him. “From when we were kids, what do you remember?”

Her eyes so wide he felt drowned in them, her face so pallid with points of pink high on her cheeks. She stared him down, cigarette burning between her shaking fingers and with blood on her lip smudged from where she’d bitten her nail too low and torn the quick.

What did he remember?

Not enough.

“I don’t know,” he said, wrapping his hands around his cane for comfort. The wind was starting to pick up, throwing gravel against the panels of this stolen car and against Prentiss, who didn’t seem to feel it striking her or notice the way her loose hair was being whipped into a tangle. “I remember …” He closed his eyes, breathing slow. “I remember a clown in a bathroom, I remember a dead boy. Ethan. A book. And Aaron, I remember Aaron. He protected us.”

“No, he didn’t,” Prentiss rasped, turning in a tight circle like a tiger caged too long. Driven mad by her own inactivity. “He didn’t, Spencer. He sold us out. He fed us to It.”

But that didn’t feel right.

“I don’t remember that,” he said carefully. “I remember a bear though, a bear that wasn’t a bear, and Aaron getting us away from it. And I remember being carried –”

“By Rafe,” said Emily. “By Rafe, when he saved you from the tunnels. The tunnels that Aaron put you down, don’t you remember?”

But that wasn’t right either.

“Rafe was dead by then,” Reid remembered out loud, seeing Prentiss frown as she struggled to conceptualise that information along with the timeline in her head. “Oh jeez, Rafe Garcia was dead by then. He’s dead. Have we always known he died? Has Garcia?”

Prentiss stared at him, looking like a ghost from his memory standing there in the wind panicked and fraught and frightened. He didn’t like that that was his memory of her; it didn’t mesh nicely with his knowledge of how she was now. But, then again, he doubted her memories of him at six were aligned with who he was now as an adult.

He no longer doubted those memories were true; however, for the first time, he did doubt Emily.

“We need to call her,” Reid said, standing despite the wind that buffeted at him and the gravel underfoot that made his cane wobble precariously. “He’s her brother and if we’ve remembered something she hasn’t, she deserves to know. I need your cell.” She kept looking at him and he gritted his teeth against frustration as he reminded her, “You wouldn’t let me bring mine.”

“I didn’t bring mine either,” she said. The rain was getting heavier. He wished she’d get back in the car. “They can track us via our cells, you know this.”

“Who is ‘they’?”

“Aaron,” whispered Prentiss, dropping her cigarette and wrapping her arms around her sodden coat, looking up into the stormy sky. “Aaron will find us. He’ll do it again, all of it, don’t you understand? He belongs to It, even if he doesn’t know, and he’ll, I don’t know, he’ll hurt us. Maybe he won’t mean to, but he’ll hurt us, Spencer, and the only thing we can do is run.”

“All I know,” said Reid quietly, “is that you didn’t run back then even though you wanted to, and you told me that was because you had to stay to get us out too. If you run now, Em, you’re leaving everyone else behind. I don’t think you’re right about Hotch but, even if you are, he’s not the only one in danger now. JJ’s still there, and Morgan, and Rossi. Even Hotch, Em, even Hotch – we need to get him away from It if It has a hold on him, you know this. We need to get him out of there before It gets in his head.”

Even as he said this, he doubted the sanity of it: he had a small but pervasive suspicion that maybe It had already gotten in one of their heads, but it wasn’t Hotch’s. There was something too unfocused, too illogical, about Prentiss’s thoughts right now. Something too uncharacteristic. His Emily, his best friend, didn’t run and leave others in danger. Not under her own power she didn’t.

But that was all the more reason he needed to get her back to the others. He didn’t remember why that was so important, just that it was. She’d never escape without them.

“We’ve seen a storm like this before,” she said. “Do you remember?”

He didn’t.

“The book,” he said, a thought of Marcie’s startling journal suddenly surmounting over the rest of his worries. “The book Marcie wrote about, mine and Ethan’s book. Emily, if you don’t want us to go back to Hotch, then we’ll go to the library. We’ll find that book. We’ll find what happened to us when we were kids, all the stuff we don’t remember – that will tell us if Hotch betrayed us or not.”

And, he thought privately, there would be a phone he could sneak away and use to call the rest of the team. They needed to know if Prentiss was compromised, if she needed to be out of the field – and out of Castle Rock. He could call Garcia as well and tell her about Rafe, get the team back together so they could –

“The book,” Prentiss murmured. “Sanctuary …”

She was well and truly soaked now. Thunder roared directly overhead and, with it, a premonition: he was certain that the team as they had been would never again be together. The thought was so shocking, so fierce, that he lost his grip on his cane with all his weight upon his bad leg; he buckled.

Prentiss’s hands were on him, catching him and easing him back onto the damp seat of the stolen sedan. He was shuddering with the shock of that thought, the damning surety of it – and he snapped back to himself as she slammed the door shut and hurried around to the driver’s side, sliding in and switching the heater on despite the sticky heat of the storm which hadn’t quite been washed away just yet.

“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded of him. “You’ve gone white. Is it your knee? You said it was fine!”

She was close enough to him as she leaned to examine him that he could smell the smoke on her breath and clothes, clinging to her as surely as their pasts did.

“I think we need to get to that book,” he said, unable to hide how his voice trembled. “Please.”

She started the car, all of her fight gone in the face of his lunatic fear. Together, they turned and drove back into Castle Rock, both of them aware that their deaths awaited them but also that there was no escape from Camp Moribund; that there had never been an escape from Camp Moribund, just a reprieve.

This moment was always meant to happen.

 

5

The file was nondescript. Garcia had no idea how she’d never noticed it tucked in the corner of her work computer like it had always been there, gathering digital dust. It contained nothing but an executive file she recognised as one of her own; despite not remembering what it would boot when selected, she knew that this was her work and hers alone.

For the longest time, she stared at it. Her phones were silent. The team hadn’t checked in for the day despite the sun rising outside; no one came knocking and she was alone in this office that had represented safety before this moment, alone and staring at all the answers.

“Big girl pants on, Penelope,” she said to herself, moving the cursor over to that file and hovering it there. But she didn’t want to know. Clawing in her gut and tightening her throat was the memory of

(“I saw inside him,” whispered JJ)

her parents’ deaths. Manny had been destroyed by them, and Carlos, he’d only been so little … and Rafe …

She didn’t remember ever telling Rafe that they were dead.

It was a point of shame for her how much her hand shuddered as she reached for the phone, typing in a number from memory that she hadn’t dialled in years. Around her, fans hummed, the air conditioning rattled in the walls, and the building seemed to be holding its breath with her. And that file … it waited.

The line connected. His voice, when he spoke, was rough with sleep, and Garcia was already crying before she said hello because, as soon as she heard his voice, she remembered

(You think I’m scared to see my brother dead? Fuck off, I’m angry. I ain’t leaving his body for the crows.)

everything.

“Manny?” she gasped out, hearing the way he inhaled when he realised it was her. Of course he wouldn’t have her number saved, why would he? They’d never gotten along, not since Moribund.

“Pen? What the hell do you –”

“Rafe’s dead, isn’t he?” she asked him, still staring at the file that she’d put together and promptly forgotten. “Rafe’s been dead for years, hasn’t he?”

There was a gutting sound on the other end like she’d reached right through and slugged him squarely in the belly, knocking out all of his wind. But he didn’t deny it. He didn’t even try. And she recognised the sound he’d made as the sound he’d made the night their parents died, and the night that –

“Something killed him in the lake,” Manny breathed, his voice crackling over the line. In the background, there was a voice, someone asking what had happened. “We, holy fuck, we … we buried him?”

That voice was getting louder, sharper. Garcia didn’t recognise it, but she assumed it was whoever Manny was shacking up with these days. Ever since he’d left home, he’d bounced around. That was what they’d done, her and him, gone off the rails, and no one had known why.

“Shut up, it’s my sister,” she heard Manny snapping from miles away, a buzzing in her head drowning out everything else. Almost of its own accord, her hand had crept back to the mouse, selecting the file and running it without a pause to wonder what she was going to see. Windows opened, files flickering up. She read them numbly before realising he was still talking: “Penny? Penny! What the hell is going on, what … I didn’t remember, what the fuck, what the fuck is going on?”

“Manny, I have to go,” she said distantly, hearing his voice crack as he tried to argue with her. “Can you call Carlos and Eddie and tell them I love them? And you. I love you. I love you so so much and I’m sorry, I’m just … I’m so sorry.”

Now he was really panicking but she couldn’t snap out of it to calm him down. Opening that file, it had been as devastating as she’d thought it would be. Rafe was dead.

“Don’t!” she heard him cry, except his voice was that of a kid, just a kid, and how old had he been? Fourteen? Just a baby, just like her. “It’s back, isn’t it? It’s back. Don’t go, baby, please don’t go back there don’t –”

She hung up. The silence was complete. Not even the fans hummed along.

Rafe was dead.

And she wasn’t alone anymore.

“Looking for me, Penny G?” Rafe asked from behind her. She froze, eyes locked on Hotch’s high school senior photo – because that’s what this file was, it was them – and his empty smile because it was a better alternative than turning around to face her (dead) brother. “Why, I’m right here. Why don’t you turn around and give your bother a kiss?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Garcia choked out. There were photos on here of them, news articles they’d brushed up against. Her, Morgan, even Reid. Their growth documented like she’d been a particularly doting parent. Tangentially, she found data on the Morgan girls and her own brothers and, damningly as Rafe crept up to lay a hand on her shoulder, she found the death certificate labelled ‘Rafe Garcia’.

The date upon it was twenty-one years before.

The hand on her shoulder closed tight. She smelled rot and sewer water, her eyes seeing a flicker of white out of her blurry peripherals: bone. That hand? It was knobby and cold and hurting, and it was bone.

A skeleton brother, leaning close behind her.

“I’ll be seeing you reaaal soon, girl,” the monster said with her brother’s voice, that hand vanishing and then returning to tap something on the same place its bony fingers had rested. “Real soon … and it’s going to be a party like you’ve never gone to before, a girl like you … you’re gonna love it.”

Then it was gone.

The fans kicked back into gear, whirring loudly; the air conditioner spluttered once before running smooth. Garcia was hunched over, her hands folded in her lap and her gut threatening to spill her morning coffee, and the thing that the skeleton Rafe had tapped upon her shoulder tumbled down to land on those folded hands, where it fell open. The leather was torn and smeared and the plastic window, when she opened it, was smudged with something thick and green that stunk of some putrescent oil. When she wiped that aside, David Rossi’s face looked up at her from the warped surface. It was his badge.

It was covered with blood and, even as she stared down at it, that blood began to bubble up behind that plastic window, obscuring her friend’s face. Within seconds, it was seeping out and oozing onto her hands, dripping between her fingers into her lap. When she choked out a bitten back whimper and dropped the badge onto the ground below, it snapped shut with a sound like falling earth, and stayed shut. The blood still came despite this.

But she didn’t scream; she’d learned a long time ago (twenty-one years) that there was no point screaming when it came to It. After all, she hadn’t screamed when faced with the real Rafe’s body; she refused to be scared by the idea of a skeletal illusion of it. Tears still streaming down her face, she dialled a number she knew wasn’t going to be answered with her fingers that left smeary red marks all over the number-pad.

This is SSA David Rossi. Please leave a short message and I’ll return your call.

The others’ voicemails answered similarly. Reid requested she leave her information so he could reach her when he was able; Hotch was curt but stern in apologising for being absent; Emily sounded bored as she enunciated precisely into the recording; JJ sounded tired but sorry anyway that she wasn’t there to answer the call.

She tried Morgan last.

This is Derek Morgan, it said, Garcia closing her eyes and swallowing down everything awful as she realised this was voicemail too. I can’t answer because I’m busy dying, Babygirl, back at Camp Moribund. We’re having a party and everyone is here, everyone you’ve always missed. Won’t you come too? Won’t you come die with us, like Rossi already has, die screamin

She threw the headset away, knocking over a unicorn toy as it clattered down and stared accusingly at her from the desk. She wouldn’t be able to reach them, not by phone. And no one would believe her – isn’t that what this file on her computer warned? All these disciplinary notices her friends had incurred in the school system, all those notes from well-meaning but misguided therapists. They’d labelled them troubled (Aaron and Derek), disturbed (JJ and Spencer), and delinquent (Penelope and Emily, oh Emily) because no one had listened. Here was a transcript from Reid at age eight stating that the reason he couldn’t sleep was that that was when the man came looking for him to take him down to see Ethan’s bones, the psychologist noting that it was a recurrent nightmare; here was one from JJ talking about seeing Rosaline dead, her therapist declaring this a manufactured memory; and here, here was Emily, whose psychiatrist hadn’t even tried to understand her mood swings and mania and long periods of ‘unjustifiable withdrawals from external stimuli’, just recommended medication and hospitalisation in a long term facility, the likes of which would have absolutely disallowed her entrance into the FBI if the files hadn’t been hidden away until Garcia had gone looking. Somehow, Garcia doubted even Emily remembered what had happened to her in the year following that summer. No one did.

Someone had made it as though it had never happened. Someone had made their cries for help go unheard.

Someone had drawn them into a trap that was twenty-one years waiting.

A ping distracted her from this volley of information, even as she hammered the speed-dials again with the thin hope that someone would pick up. Because they couldn’t be dead, right?

Right?

The ping was a police report. For a second, Garcia had to fight with her exhaustion and looming terror to figure out why she’d been pinged, then she realised. It was a murdered US marshal, and that wasn’t news for her, except, as soon as she saw it, she knew exactly who this marshal had been guarding.

“Oh no, oh no, don’t you dare,” she choked out, wheeling over there with her desk chair leaving a bloodied line on her floor. But there it was, laid out in cold black and white for her: the marshal guarding Haley and Jack was dead and they were gone, missing. Taken.

Garcia knew where.

“Fine,” Garcia snapped, standing and looking around for the photo of them as kids. She’d tipped it face down after the weirdness the other day, so really she was just glaring at the paper back of it – but that didn’t stop her rising fury from being aimed square at it. “Fine! You know what, you, you thing. I am not letting you hurt that beautiful baby, not on my watch. Nup. Not happening. You want me? You got me, and you’re going to regret the day you touched my family. If I have to, I’ll, I’ll …” She paused, closing her eyes and remembering smoke. “… I’ll burn you again.”

With that promise, she wheeled back to her main computer and began looking for the soonest flight that would get her to Maine, ignoring the voice from behind that photo that whispered welcome home.

 

6

Reid was moving with an erratic anxiety that was setting what was left of Prentiss’s nerves on a sure-fire edge. While he jittered from aisle to aisle on a quest to find the book Marcie Harris’s journal had referred to, Prentiss tried to find the stalwart part of herself she’d lost on her wild flight. The urge to run run run run run was still hammering through her, twitching like a deer scenting dogs on the wind; every time she turned around, she expected to see It standing there smiling at her with that grease-painted mouth. But she’d run to Reid for a reason; she’d protected him once and he’d saved her in return, and she was determined not to lose him this time and, with him, her tenuous grip on her hard-won sanity.

The library was empty except for them, the librarian, and an old man reading a paper on the couches alongside the western glass wall. There was a radio playing in the office; Prentiss noticed that Reid, as though his nerves were as shot as hers, kept looking nervously towards the tinny tunes playing. When she came up behind him, he didn’t seem to hear her, but she could hear him singing REM softly under his breath with a strained whine undercutting his usually throaty voice.

For some reason, that song terrified her. She closed her eyes to the sound of him whispering it and remembered

(screaming the lyrics to it because it’s all gone so fucking wrong, it’s all so wrong, and she was trying to keep everyone’s spirits up with the song so some people are singing, some kids – she can hear Spencer sobbing them out in between hiccups of air as they hear the screams outside growing – and then It’s voice crackles from the radio pleasantly joining in, and she throws)

the first time she’d heard that song, sitting in her mother’s car on the way to yet another doctor’s appointment when she was newly eighteen. Prentiss at eighteen had been sick a lot; there had been a lot of doctors, and this song playing while she cried into her arm, pressed against the child-locked door like she was going to fling it open and throw herself into the traffic to escape.

She didn’t remember what she’d been diagnosed with, just that she’d been sick.

They’d stopped at a toy store on the way back into Castle Rock and Reid had vanished within and emerged with a packet of spy pens, the sound of him undoing the clamshell packaging strangely thrilling. Prentiss had watched him without saying a word as he’d unpacked the two UV pens in there and handed her one. She’d uncapped it. It had smelled like fear. Right now, it was tucked in her pocket because she couldn’t stand the scent; he was using his to skim the pages of every copy of Lord of the Rings they could find looking for the one.

“Did the journal say where Marcie put the book?” Prentiss asked Reid.

Reid responded monotonously, reciting from memory without pausing for the careful punctuation the girl had littered her final entry with: “If you’re reading this find that book it will tell you more than I can, read that book and everything I’ve written over this summer, read them together, and the newspaper articles I found too, they’ll tell you the story of Camp Moribund, they’ll tell you my story too since no one will really be sorry that I’m gone except the kids that are going to die with me so find that book I put it back where those dead kids left it.”

“Where the dead kids left it …” Prentiss looked around, something in her brain wiggling around, trying to remind her of a long-forgotten memory. The dead kids, the dead kids …

“Jesus fuck these kids are probably dead,” Reid recited, lowering his voice with a careful glance over at the old man reading on the word ‘fuck’. “Ethan, Emily, Spencer. I’m reading words from the dead. I wonder if I’ll meet them when I’m dead too. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”

His eyes were wide. His voice was strained.

Prentiss thought again of It’s late-night warning.

Run, Emily. Run before he does it again. Run and maybe, just maybe … maybe you’ll escape.

“Keep looking. I’m going to go ask.” She left him there, walking fast around from him and his panic and the potential he had to bring back everything horrible; she’d run to him last night to try and drag him out of Hell with her, but all that had happened was that he’d pulled her right back in. Their team was here.

Aaron was here.

Prentiss shuddered again, seeing something red (like a balloon) floating out of the corner of her eye. But, when she looked, there was nothing there. She was going crazy (again).

“Excuse me,” she asked the librarian when she tracked her down, finding her in the DVD section studying a pile of children’s movies. “Marcie Harris, you knew her, right?”

“Oh yes,” said the lady with a glance at Prentiss, who wished she had her ID with her to ease their way into the information they needed. The woman had recognised Reid immediately; that was all that had gotten them in here. “She was here a lot, poor dear. No sign of her?”

Prentiss didn’t answer that. “Was there anywhere she favoured in here? A particular spot to sit and read or write? Maybe a computer she always sat at?”

The librarian paused, something hidden flickering across her features. In the office, the radio was declaring that there was a hunt on so everyone arm up and get out there, get shooting and bag yourself a big one!

“Marcie was a sweet girl,” said the librarian slowly. Prentiss bit back the desire to scream at her to hurry up. The pauses were long enough that she could turn to glance back to Reid, finding him standing at the end of an aisle looking out the windowed wall as fat, angled raindrops began beating the glass with intent. “A really sweet girl, but she was …”

Prentiss remembered, suddenly, what she’d gone to the doctors for.

“Troubled,” she finished for the librarian. “Marcie was troubled.”

“Some thought she was a bit of a delinquent, but I never got that impression from her.” The woman shook her head, mouth pinched. Prentiss wanted to cry and ask her where she was when Emily had been eighteen and ‘delinquent’. “So sometimes she’d come here and she’d be hungry and scared, sometimes she wouldn’t want to go back to that camp, and you know I’m a Christian, ma’am, I’m a Christian and was always taught to do good by those that need you. I wasn’t breaking any laws, you know, no matter what that good for nothing sheriff told me, harbouring delinquents –”

“You hid her,” said Prentiss.

“Yes. Her and some of her friends, if they were with her, just so they could have a square meal and some sleep. Never for long, I’m sorry to say … the police always seemed to know, I don’t know how, and they’d come to get her and threaten me some more if I kept doing it. After a while, I started telling them I had no idea – that Marcie and her friends were breaking in.” The woman looked shamefaced, pale fingers clutched tight around a Clifford the Dog DVD. “They weren’t. I’m sorry I did that. It likely made things harder for them.”

“Where did they sleep?”

The woman looked to a door. Prentiss followed that glance and knew; she didn’t need the quiet, “Archives,” that the woman offered up.

She glanced back to Reid, who wasn’t there anymore.

“We lock it down there now, after some vandalism,” the woman was saying, “but I can let you down. Agent? Are you okay?”

“Why didn’t you get the kids real help?” Prentiss asked, feeling tired, feeling old. She wasn’t expecting an answer. After all, no one had ever tried to help them either; that was just the flavour of this place. “Why didn’t you get them out of here when you saw they were hungry and scared? They trusted you.”

But the woman just stared at her like she’d asked some unfathomable question and didn’t answer. And, in the end, Prentiss walked into Archives alone without getting the answer she sought.

 

7

A phone call set the following events in motion.

As Emily Prentiss vanished below the library to the archival rooms where, a long time ago, she and a boy had found some tentative peace in each other, Spencer Reid was biding his time. When he turned from looking out the window (what had he seen? He couldn’t remember, but it had sickened him) to see Prentiss going through that door and out of sight, he moved fast. There was a free-to-use phone set into the wall of the lobby, sticky flyers surrounding it for piano lessons, furniture for sale, lost pets, missing child posters from nearby Derry. So many faces. He shivered and ignored them as he dialled fast, turning his back to the door to watch the lobby opening warily for Prentiss (and her gun) to appear and ask him what he was doing.

When Garcia answered, he knew immediately that she was terrified.

“It’s me,” he said.

“Tell me everyone is alive?” she gasped, the puff of her breathing distorted the line as he heard her scrabbling at her headset, as though it had been off (thrown) and she’d had to race to answer his call. “Please, please, Spencer, tell me everyone is alive.”

“We are,” he said, incorrectly, although he didn’t know this. “Garcia, I need your help. Can you patch anyone else in? Hotch, preferably, if he’s –”

“I’ve been trying his cell all morning,” Garcia answered. “Same as the others, I’m getting nothing. Just voicemail. Where’s your cell?”

Reid gritted his teeth and didn’t answer, eyes locked on the lobby opening. “Do you know where we are?” he whispered.

They both knew what he was asking.

“Yes,” Garcia replied dully. “Oh jeez, yes, yes I do. Spence, baby, please tell me you can get out of there.”

He didn’t answer.

Garcia sucked in a breath that rattled. “Right, okay. Look, listen to me. I’m going to try to get the others again –”

“Not Emily,” Reid said quietly.

She didn’t question that.

“– that aren’t Emily, okay, and then … I have …” She trailed off. Reid huddled to the wall, cane tucked to his leg and wondering if they were as doomed as he felt they were. “Okay, never mind, I’ll tell you soon.”

“Hurry. There’s a storm coming in, it’s going to –”

His voice was cut off by an unholy peel of thunder overhead, the lights flickering dangerously and the rain coming down harder with a sound like sheet metal crashing. Garcia’s voice faded out, the connection humming – for a heartbeat, Reid was sure that he could hear laughter somewhere down the line – and then she was back.

“– Derek?”

“Penelope, thank god,” Morgan exclaimed, patched into the call, and Reid almost cried out with relief at hearing his voice. “I’m on speaker, Hotch is driving. Who else is here?”

“Me,” Reid said, glancing back for Emily, just in case. He heard Hotch’s voice bark something (Reid? Where is he?!) but ignored the tension in his tone to charge ahead, cutting Garcia off. “Hotch? Something is wrong with Emily. She’s acting erratically, frightened of …”

There was a taut silence as Reid fumbled for the words to explain what he needed to explain, some way to verbalise that wild drive in a stolen car with the chain-smoking Prentiss.

“Something appeared to her, didn’t it?” Hotch asked. He sounded calm. Reid, and the other two on the call, clung to that. “Are any of you injured? Were you harmed or coerced into leaving, threatened by anyone?”

“No, we, uh … it wasn’t coercion. But we’re back, I got us back.” Reid couldn’t help but try to soften the blow of Prentiss’s desertion, despite knowing logically that he needed to be as clear about it as possible. “We’re at the library, looking for the book mentioned in Marcie’s journal. We think that might –”

“Never mind that,” Hotch broke in. “Garcia?”

“Sir?”

“We received a text from Rossi. Are you able to ping the location of his cell? Finding him is our priority. Find JJ’s location as well – Reid, I need you and Prentiss to go to where JJ is if she’s no longer at the camp with her grandmother. You’re to remain together and alert until we can regroup. Trust no one, not even the Castle Rock PD, and do not split up. Will Prentiss be able to follow these orders?”

Privately, Reid wondered the same thing. After all, that thing that Prentiss was afraid of?

It was Hotch.

“Absolutely,” he said despite these doubts. “What did the text from Rossi say?”

It was Morgan who answered, his voice grim. In the background, they could hear Garcia typing busily.

“All it said,” was his response, “was ‘welcome home’.”

 

8

Garcia found their people. Morgan listened without a word as she located JJ at Castle Rock County Hospital and Rossi still at Camp Moribund, where he was supposed to have been relieved the night prior by one of the precinct’s cops. Reid hung up to go get Prentiss so the two of them could go and collect JJ, and then it was just them and Garcia on that wild, washed out drive up the lakeside road to where the camp was perched, waiting. Morgan hoped that Rossi was there waiting too.

He snapped back to attention only to hear Garcia and Hotch having what he realised was a very polite disagreement.

“Sir, I have a file here, it’s … it’s extensive, there’s so much data. I don’t know when I gathered it, but I have it and there’s too much for me alone to read and it’s too big to send through. Reid –”

“You’re not coming here,” Hotch said firmly. “That’s final. Whatever this is, it wants all of us and that includes you. You need to stay where you’re safe, in DC –”

“I’m not safe,” said Garcia.

Morgan shuddered. The rain beat down furiously against the SUV, the glimpses of the lake he could see through the thin trees to the left showing choppy, grey waves that threw themselves bodily at the shore. A cold feeling settled over the vehicle.

“You’re –” Hotch began, but he was cut off by Garcia, who never cut their boss off like this, never, and that sent another chill down Morgan’s spine to coil icily between his hips as a raw, emptying kind of fear. He was haunted, still, by that video; Hotch as a child, just a teenager, and beaten half to death as they’d told him he was a murderer. Morgan didn’t doubt that their flight from the PD was just a temporary reprieve before the insanity chased them up here.

Garcia was hammering that home.

“Aaron,” she said. Morgan saw Hotch’s knuckles whiten, his colour wash out. He knew. Oh, he knew. They all knew. “The state marshal assigned to Haley and Jack is dead. They’re missing. And I checked Rossi’s call records while I was looking for his location, and, oh. Oh, we’re not safe. It’s coming for us, Aaron, you know it is.”

“Who did Dave call?” Hotch rasped. Morgan felt sick. The vehicle shuddered under them as Hotch pressed the accelerator down, despite the danger of this windy, tree-lined road with the rain doing its best to sweep their wheels out from under them.

“He called Will LaMontagne, who is no longer answering any of my calls and neither is JJ and, oh, why would Rossi call JJ’s family?”

“He wouldn’t,” said Morgan since Hotch’s focus was locked on the road and the deadly conditions doing their best to kill them if his speeding didn’t. “It has them, doesn’t it? Your family, Hotch, and … JJ’s … god, it’s pulling us all in. All of us.”

“And Dave?” Garcia asked.

No one answered.

“We have no confirmation that what’s happening here is connected to what’s happening at home,” Hotch said, shooting a glance at Morgan that was frighteningly disconnected. Despite this, his voice stayed steady. “Garcia, contact our families. Anyone who was at that camp and survived. Ensure they answer no calls from anyone, not even us, understood? And you do not come here. You absolutely do not come here. Has the Bureau been alerted to what happened to Haley’s detail?”

Garcia was silent. They could hear an alert sound over the line, the sound of typing indicating that she was still there, just not listening.

“Garcia?” barked Hotch.

“DNA is back for Marcie,” Garcia said. Her voice, Morgan noticed, sounded as though she was very far away. “We have a paternal match.”

“We can’t focus on Marcie right now!” Hotch burst out with, the break in his composure sudden and shocking. “Garcia, does the Bureau know about Haley, are they sending someone –”

“Marcie’s biological father is Jackson Kallum,” Garcia charged on with, silencing both Hotch’s shout and Morgan’s heart. Oh fuck, Morgan thought, because he knew who Kallum was. Now it had been said, he knew – and he knew where he was and who he was with. “Deputy Jackson Kallum of Castle Rock County PD. That’s not who’s listed on her birth certificate though, oh no, oh you poor girl …”

“Aaron,” Morgan said. As his boss looked at him, Morgan couldn’t help but trace his fingers over the butt of his gun, glancing down to check it was there. “Deputy Kallum was the officer sent to relieve Rossi last night.”

 

9

These rooms were familiar.

Prentiss walked them and knew she’d walked them before. A feeling of safety settled over her, a wash of warmth that started at the top of her head and swamped her right down to the curled toes in her smart boots. She faltered in the doorway, looking to her arms and realising the fine hairs lining them were standing on end. She remembered this place. She’d known peace in this place and peace, she knew, was something she hadn’t found again for a very long time, if ever.

Hooked on the end of a rod of memory, she let herself be reeled in the direction that, somehow, she knew she’d gone before. Rows of microfilms stored neatly, old newspapers waiting to be immortalised, old books waiting to be sorted or new books waiting to be presented to the public; here, she passed piles of sandbags, there she passed … mats. She stopped, looking at those for the longest time. They hadn’t been here, in this room, she remembered that. They’d been in another, one of the back ones with a door between them and the rest of the world that they’d closed when Aaron had come to her.

It slammed home with a rush and she reeled, remembering, suddenly, Aaron’s hands and his mouth and his cock and everything they’d done.

“Holy fuck,” she gasped, staggering back from those mats and that memory. “Holy fuck, no.”

But there was an ache between her legs and a stubble burn around her mouth; her body knew even if her brain had forgotten: this was the place she’d had sex with Aaron Hotchner when he was sixteen and her seventeen. Both of them just a few months shy of their respective birthdays; both of them hurting more than they’d ever hurt before; both of them finding something in this dusty sanctuary room.

Bizarrely, it was this more than anything else that had her reeling for somewhere to sit and gather her thoughts, the room spinning in a vertiginous whorl around her. Knees buckling, sweat pooling down her spine and hands tingling, Prentiss lurched forward to the softest landing she knew as she fell. She landed quite neatly on those mats, curling her knees under her and tucking her head in as she tried to stop from passing out. Hunger and fear and shock warred, and she felt her fingers bite into those mats and almost cried out again as she remembered how she’d held on back then as he’d done something to her that she hadn’t quite understood, something more than John had ever managed in all his rampant fumbling. She smelled blood and dirt; she felt the phantom pain and the pleasure that she’d battled all those years ago, her face and chest and everything else sparking hot.

A foot scraped in the darkness.

Prentiss launched up, spots dancing in her eyes. Despite these, she still got her gun up and out; the muzzle wavered along with her shaking hands. Her foot caught the mat, one of them sliding back and almost toppling her back with them, but she steadied herself; the heel of her boot tapped something hard, the corner skittering away. But she didn’t look down.

Ian Doyle was standing in the corner watching her.

“Did you like fucking him more than you liked fucking me?” Doyle asked with a wide smile. “How about we give it another go, Lauren, my love? Right here, huh? I’ll pay you a dollar. A dollar for a dicking, right?”

“You’re not Ian,” she said, blinking to clear her vision. “Fuck off. Get out of my head.”

Ian wavered, melting like a waxwork statue in front of her. She watched with a fascinated kind of horror as his skin bubbled and slid from muscle and bone, dripping onto the ground around him with a scent unlike anything else she’d ever smelled before. Eyes turning to jelly as she watched, teeth falling from his still-grinning mouth to clatter to the floor; her stomach lurched and she swallowed down the vomit that surged, keeping a two-handed grip on her gun to try and keep the sight in place.

When It was finished, It wasn’t Ian anymore, but Rafe. Rafe as he had been the night they’d buried him, except worse. Ian’s bulk had dripped away into a pooling mess of skin and teeth around his feet and everything else had reformed into the slender, tall shape of Garcia’s brother. That was his nice smile, except warped by the black rot oozing through his lips, and those were his sweet eyes, except they were wormy and fogged over. And he was open. Prentiss kept her gaze on those dead lips to avoid looking down to where she could see flesh-pink pulsating in the zipped open gash of his gaping guts, something falling out with a disgustingly wet sound that she recognised from when she’d accidentally slipped while carrying him that final time.

“I’m not scared of Rafe,” she said quietly. She didn’t fire. In this enclosed room, she didn’t want to deafen herself until she knew she didn’t have a choice and, besides, she wasn’t entirely sure a bullet would work. But her heart was racing like she was dying herself and that panic was fighting to gain control and send her toppling again, the panic she’d been barely outrunning since that terrifying moment when It had been in her room waiting. “Not even dead Rafe. That just makes me sad, not frightened. You don’t have a handle on what frightens me.”

“Don’t I frighten you, Emily?” Rafe slurred out, his tongue partially eaten and barely held in place. Nausea pitched in her gut, but she chased it down and stepped back again, her heel once again nudging whatever leaned against it. “Doesn’t remembering me dead frighten you? Everything fell down that night. My dying ruined everything. You should have run before then, maybe you’d have escaped everything awful that followed.”

“Why do you want me to run?” she rasped out, backing up with the hope of getting to the door before that corpse boy started staggering after her with his entrails dragging after and leaving slick, red lines like a snail behind him. “You’re not trying to save my life, bullshit you are. You don’t do shit like that, you don’t have mercy. Especially not to me. So what’s your plan?”

Rafe was melting again. This time, the smell was overwhelming, like rot and maggots and pus and burning fat, and Prentiss gagged. But it was over faster and, when it was done, it was Aaron. Seventeen-year-old Aaron with his father’s smile and bloodied hands, looking at her like she was meat.

“I don’t want you to run,” he said with a cold laugh, walking towards her at a speed that was almost inhuman and had her scampering back. “I want you to scream.”

She fired. The bullet impacted nothing. In the space of a second between one blink and the next, Aaron had vanished. But she knew she hadn’t imagined it; before the gunshot had deafened her from the enclosed proximity to it, before the shock-pain and ringing silence of her eardrums momentarily calling it quits, she’d heard the popping sound of air rushing to fill a space that, seconds ago, hadn’t needed filling.

And the floor was still covered in blood.

She lowered her gun, breathing out and closing her eyes as she tried to wait out the ringing in her ears. When she opened them, a dull feeling of sound was slowly returning … and she looked down to see a book on the ground, knocked out from under the mats by her tentative flight backwards.

“Of course,” she thought she said, although she couldn’t hear her voice to be sure. “Where the dead kids left it, fuck. This was the last place we …”

But she didn’t finish her thought, just shook her head and dropped to her jelly-filled knees, shuffling over there to pick up the book. The hot gun she put aside. Black streaks marked the battered letters on the book, denoting the author of it. When she opened it to the first page, cyan crayon waited for her: THIS IS ETHAN’S (and Spencer’s) FAVOURITE BOOK.

Hands shaking too hard to be much help, she leaned the book down, keeping it open with her knees as she slid the UV pen out of her pocket – the scent of It fading to be replaced with the laundry-soap stink of the pen – and switching on the light.

The book lit up like the worst of any crime scene she’d ever visited before. Papers slid out, newspaper clippings shoved in there, maps, even a blueprint folded over and over and over that she unfolded and scanned quickly. It didn’t make much sense to her so she turned back to the book and began to read.

Her hearing wasn’t back to normal, a dull buzzing still overlaying her sense of the world, but, as she read, voices whispered around her anyway. It was eerie, Prentiss’s head jerking up to look for her audience but finding no one down here. As soon as she looked away from the yellowed pages with their messy scrawl of glowing words, the voices stopped.

As soon as she began to read once more, they came back.

“We ran to the library,” said a small voice she recognised as Spencer’s as a child, so close it was like he was leaning over her shoulder and reading it out loud. She fought the urge to look. “Aaron took us to the library. It is safe. We are safe. But we can’t escape. There’s no escape, everyone says. I want to go home.”

She turned the page, flipping away from that childish handwriting the filled the bulk of the first half of the book. Here, the writing was different. Neater. More adult.

“I’m scared for my siblings,” Sarah Morgan read out dully, Prentiss’s neck going cold like someone was blowing freezing air down onto it. “I don’t think we’re getting out of here. What will Mama do without us? It’ll kill her and she’s not going to be happy when she gets up there to Heaven and finds us waiting. Derek –”

Derek cut in, his voice low and hurting: “I’m sorry I wasn’t a good friend to Manny. I wanted to be a good friend, I just got caught up in being scared. It’s hard to be a good person here and it’s easy to forget that everyone around us just wants to go home too. I’m sorry I didn’t save Rafe. I’m sorry I didn’t stop Rosaline. I’m sorry –”

“I hope I can go home to Spencer’s,” whispered Sean Hotchner, little Sean, and Prentiss’s eyes burned at the reminder. “I hope Aaron will be happy. I hope Emily can come too because she is his girlfriend and she needs a home too.”

“We’re safe for now but not for long,” JJ said over the top of Sean, her voice adding to the chorus. Prentiss was shaking. She wasn’t reading anymore; they were continuing without her. “What’s the point? If he couldn’t keep us safe, if Ros couldn’t, no one can. We’re all going to die.”

“I won’t die here,” said Rafe, his voice clear and no longer dead. “I won’t, and neither will anyone else for that matter. I guess the others are trying to write in here what’s happened to them, what this creature has done. But I’m not gonna do that because this isn’t about It. This is about us. And now I’m the only one here who can save them. So I guess that’s what I’m writing, a promise.”

Spencer again: “And anyone who escapes, it owns them. You can’t escape. You can’t.”

Rafe, once more: “I promise that I’m going to get every one of these kids home. I promise.”

Prentiss heard her voice, the voice of her teenage self, and it sounded exhausted and defeated and sure: “This is an account of the kids of Camp Moribund, 1988,” she said, sounding like she was walking around her adult self and intoning tiredly. “Right now, some of us are alive and some of us aren’t and the people of this town don’t want you to know this. The camp is a feeding ground for animals and we’re the meat: the townspeople know what will happen if the beast goes hungry.”

“Hungry things feed,” Prentiss finished for her, the voices quietening to let her speak. “And they have children too.”

“It owns them, Emily,” six-year-old Spencer agreed. “Don’t forget that. You can’t trust them. You know this – they’ll do anything to stop the beast from turning on them.”

Prentiss opened her mouth to speak, but one last voice spoke. He sounded fucked; he sounded like he’d been crying.

It was Aaron.

“It spoke to me last night,” he choked out, the same young voice that Pennywise had mocked her with before but this time without any of the tortured glee. “Whispered through the walls. Said I can get out of here, get my brother out. Both of us, free of this place. They won’t notice we’re gone, no one here notices us. We can slip away. It says it will let us. All it wants in return is something to eat. I don’t have a choice. I have to protect him.”

Ghostly lips touched the shell of her ear, her blood running cold at the pressure of the air he wasn’t breathing chilling her skin.

“I’m sorry,” he finished. “I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

She pitched for her gun, leaping up and aiming it where his head should be if he was kneeling behind her – and wrenched it away with a shout of fright when the muzzle landed neatly to tap against Reid’s chest. The adult Reid, not his child self, standing there with one hand half raised and completely frozen with the fright of having her hold a weapon on him.

He spoke again. She realised that he’d been calling her.

“It’s just me,” he said, the same as he’d been saying as he’d walked in the door and found her crouched there reading. “Don’t panic. Em, your gun …”

She lowered it, trembling, and didn’t fight him when he inched closer and took it from her. His hands were clammy around hers; the tug of him pulling the weapon from her grip was almost a relief. It wasn’t her problem anymore.

“Are you okay?” he asked, eyes wide behind his glasses and mouth pulled tight with nerves. She nodded. It was a lie. Aaron fed them to It. She’d been wrong to trust him, just like she’d been wrong to trust John – and hadn’t Spencer said that It owned the ones who escaped? Well, if it had owned Aaron originally, what hope did he have now?

Maybe he’d brought them back here on purpose.

Maybe he was feeding It again.

“We need to go,” Reid coaxed, crouching to gather up what she’d dropped. He was holding the gun awkwardly and, without a word, she unstrapped her holster and held it out to him. It was her fault he wasn’t armed, after all, and she’d almost shot him. Someone steady needed it now. Someone she trusted, someone who’d never betrayed her. “We need to go now. JJ’s in danger.”

“Where?” rasped Prentiss.

“I promised Ros I’d keep JJ alive,” whispered teenage Emily. “Do you still intend to keep that promise, Agent Prentiss?”

Reid didn’t seem to hear.

“The hospital,” he answered. “Hotch says we need to be careful. The town is turning on us. Are you sure you’re okay?”

He’d spoken to Hotch. Reid had gone behind her back, just like Aaron had. He’d betrayed her too.

Prentiss nodded; she now regretted giving him the gun.

 

10

The storm broke hard.

In Derry, six out of seven gathered. It’s attention was drawn away, briefly, from the gathering of those six at Dark Score Lake. A showdown approached. Rain fell fiercely; both the lakes and the rivers that fed on it, both natural and manmade, began to swell outward.

A black SUV drew up a gravelled drive. The rain fell so furiously around it that it was impossible to see further than five metres in any one direction. The two men who stepped out of that vehicle were drenched in moments, both as bedraggled as each other despite one wearing a suit and the other jeans and a shirt. Both carried weapons, both did their best to protect their weapons from the deluge. Thunder boomed overhead, a rolling groan of the sky caving down as they walked together towards the circle of cabins ahead and the terrible silence within; no children peered out at them and Rossi wasn’t there waiting.

The door leading to the Castle Rock County Hospital basement was barricaded shut. JJ had moved quickly upon realising their danger; there was no one down here, no Rossi in sight, and no way out except the way they’d come. Upon opening the door again to exit, she’d faced three guns and barely made it back down alive. Now she sat with her knees against her chest and hand hooked to her own gun, back against the door that she and Will had pushed heavy medical equipment against. No one knocked upon it, not anymore. But Henry slept in Will’s lap, their useless cell phones next to them, and they knew there was no escape the way they’d come in. Silence didn’t mean safety.

“They were nurses, Jen,” Will said to her, his eyes glinting in the dark. His hand fumbled for hers, gripping it tight in a clammy hold that scared her in a way his steely voice didn’t. Outside, they could distantly hear thunder. “Why were them nurses trying to shoot you?”

“I don’t know,” she lied.

Outside in the corridor, they heard an alarm begin to sound.

When the stolen car pulled up outside the very hospital that, unbeknownst to them, their friends were trapped under, the first thing Reid thought was that they were too late. The parking lot was bristling with people, the thrown-open doors of the emergency room still spilling yet more out. Prentiss was silent as she’d been silent the entire drive, putting the car into park and holding up her hand to stall him when he went to get out and call out to find out what was happening.

“Something’s not right,” she said. A siren was sounding. A fire alarm, she suspected, but there was no haste in the people filing out of the building. They stood in the parking lot under the curtains of rain without even lifting their arms to shelter their faces. Patients and staff alike stood side by side and, with a shiver, Reid noticed a man with a cast on his leg walking as though he didn’t even realise what he was doing to his afflicted limb.

There was no smoke from the building, he observed, and then he saw the guns.

“Why are they evacuating?” he asked Prentiss, seeing that she’d almost spotted the row of guns being loaded and prepared from the small group of men by those open doors. The faces that they could see through the rain, not many but enough, watched those men too with (dazed) blank expressions. “Do we know?”

“Are you sure JJ’s in there?” Prentiss asked, scanning the crowd for a familiar form and finding their colleague nowhere in sight. Reid nodded. “Then I’d say they’re getting out of the crossfire.”

They looked at each other now, Reid curling his fingers around the gun at his hip. The expression on his face was pure bewilderment; he had no idea how an entire hospital would fall to the whims of the terrible being like this.

He didn’t remember, Prentiss realised, he didn’t remember what had happened on that last night.

But she did.

“Come on,” she told him, popping open the door and raising her voice to shout over the hammering rain that swept into the vehicle and drenched her side and leg. “There’s gotta be a side entrance. We need to get in before they –”

There was a boom that, for a heartbeat, they both thought was the storm truly bringing the sky down upon them. The windshield of the car rattled. Stones on the parking lot asphalt skipped about. People stumbled, turning uncaring eyes to the stormy sky as a black plume of smoke, as thick and noxious as an oil spill, began twining into the air above them. Another explosion followed it, Prentiss seeing the gout of flame it caused reflected in Reid’s glasses as rubble tapped against the windshield.

The hospital burned.

“JJ!” screamed Reid, lurching out of the car and, as though he’d forgotten his leg just like the man in the cast, running towards that deadly smoke and the engulfing smoke that waited for them. Prentiss followed at a sprint; despite her mistrust of the man in front of her, she’d never let him hurtle into danger alone.

And the crowd turned to face them.

Chapter Text

1

Three hours out from Castle Rock, Maine, Penelope Garcia settled into the firm-backed seat of the flight she’d rushed to be upon, feeling as though the world around her had frozen in anticipation of where she was going. As the plane taxied down the runway, Garcia set her laptop upon her knees and looked over her neighbour to peer out the small window. She could see clear sky over top of distant trees, trees that vanished as their ascent began. Clear, calm skies.

Anyone who looked at her sitting there wouldn’t think to wonder about her pale face or the determined grip she had upon her device. They might notice her clothes, which were brighter than usual and resplendent with more accessories than she’d ever get away with even in her secluded office at Quantico, and they might notice the fastidious care she’d taken to pin her hair into a cheerful bun designed to sit like the tail feathers of some fancy bird. A particularly observant person might even consider that this was a woman wearing a costume; those clothes were a shield of colour and personality against something so damningly dark that to walk forth into it without armour would be to accept death entirely.

Before this flight was out, her neighbour – a twenty-seven-year-old man on his way to Bangor for the birth of his niece – would offer her a tissue and a shoulder to cry upon after noticing the tears streaming down those made-up cheeks. She’d decline. She was on a mission.

The laptop, now, was open, the file she’d found transferred onto it as she used these hours to dig through the information her past self had determined was integral to this confrontation. Every few minutes she’d press another speed-dial on her cell, the earpiece she was wearing informing her that the lines were busy and no calls could go through. It was a reminder that the only reason she’d reached the team at all was that Pennywise had let her, probably for the very reason that now had her sitting on this plane: he wanted all his spring lambs home for slaughter.

But there was no time to focus on that. Garcia breathed out, smiled damply at her concerned neighbour, and focused once more on a schematic of the Dark Score canal as, in her ear, the voice informed her that JJ was unavailable to take her call, please try again later. There was a connection here, some important piece of the puzzle and, if she couldn’t find it, Garcia knew Reid would be able to.

She just had to get to him.

 

2

The explosion rocked Castle Rock to its core, the shockwave spreading far wider than just the surrounds of the county hospital. Those few birds that had thought to stay safe in nests and trees against the vicious storm rethought that assumption as the scent of smoke began to lace the air. Dogs howled with the echo of the boom. The people were quiet. An alarm began to ring at the local fire station but a queer sluggishness seemed to take hold of the men there, those men who continued doing what they had been doing before the blaring klaxon signalled disaster disaster disaster, as though there was no klaxon at all. At the hospital site, where quiet crowds stood in the downpour watching the unfurling smoke with blank eyes, no one hurried or panicked or sprinted, screaming, up the street past storefronts and shiny glass windows where, inside, life continued as though the heart of this town hadn’t just gone up in flames.

Below the hospital, they were trapped.

They were flat to the floor: JJ had fallen as the explosion had rocked the ground beneath her, a single inchoate thought barely forming that maybe this was rescue; Will had wrapped his arms around his son and thrown himself down alongside her with his heart hammering fast as his brain registered their abysmal danger. He could feel, through his shoulder pressed to her side, her heart racing. Henry whimpered but didn’t cry, not yet.

“Will, what –” JJ began, but there was a terrible groan from above. They both looked up, eyes wide against the gloom. In the bare light let through from the gap under the door above them, dust began to float lazily towards them. Something clattered over. They smelled burning and the siren, somehow, grew louder. Above them, the flames reached down; below them, something approached.

“Take Henry!” ordered Will. He didn’t know what was happening here and he didn’t understand how JJ could just lie there and look so calm when the danger they were in was so absolute. For a moment, it seemed she wasn’t going to obey. Just sat upright with her face white – plaster, he realised, the ceiling was coming down – and seemed to resign herself to their fate. “Jennifer! Take Henry! I’m going to get the door.”

“You’ll let It in,” JJ said, her voice empty of anything approaching what he recognised as good sense. A cold feeling sank into his chest and he staggered, blaming his unsteady footing on the danger instead of his body realising just how doomed it was. “Don’t open the door.”

He ignored her, taking her gun and leaping – once, twice, that was all it took for his long legs to get him to the barred door – to the exit before shoving the medical equipment aside. It crashed down the small flight of stairs, his hand closing around the door handle –

– behind him, JJ whimpered, and he heard her staggering upright, her feet stumbling back –

– but it wouldn’t open. It was locked.

It was locked.

Smoke began to curl in under the doorway. It was far too thick, Will thought, looking down at it. Far too thick and black as coal. Not scented like it was burning plaster and modern fittings, but scented as though … as though …

“Will,” moaned a voice, a small girl’s. A child’s.

He turned, confused, to find JJ with her back to him. It must have been JJ who’d called his name, not a child. She was staring at the ground before her. It was dark in here, growing darker yet as that thick, barely moving smoke squeezed its way under the door and pooled down the stairs, moving languorously. More of a liquid than a gas, reaching dark tendrils for JJ’s legs. He couldn’t see what she was staring at – until suddenly he could. There was a light, leaking from that ground. The smoke wasn’t going for JJ; it was being sucked towards that strange circle of light that began as a suggestion of transient shadow and slowly became more insidious. A cold, blue light that broke its way through the solid cement, throbbing with the beat of Will’s terrified heart as his son in JJ’s arms hiccupped once and reached a curious hand towards that beckoning glow. With every beat, every thump of life, the light grew stronger, as though it approached, as though it crept closer, as though –

The floor began to crumble away. JJ stepped back once, as though uncertain, and then faster as the crumbling quickened. Great chunks of cement broke and tumbled inward, sucked in by the earth, which groaned as it devoured what was offered. The light broke through, blinding them. Will yelled as his vision was shattered into white splotches and torn images; Henry was crying now, crying fiercely, and JJ –

All JJ said was, “Rosaline, stop!”

“Who are you talking to?” Will yelled, trying to blink his way back to sanity. “Jen, get away from there! This place is coming in! That explosion must have torn the foundation loose –”

But a hand brushed his, curling tight around his fingers, and he lost his words as he turned towards that warm pressure with a surge of panicked relief: here she was, here was his brave, tough woman – right beside him, with Henry safe on his hip. Thank the Lord. “We gotta get out of here,” he said again to her, seeing her blurry shape begin to take form before his strained eyes. The light was faded, or gone already, but his night vision was shot and it would be minutes before he got it back. Behind Will, near the sudden sinkhole, Henry was still crying and the hand in Will’s tightened –

Henry was behind him.

Will frowned.

He lifted his free hand to reach towards the woman before him, fingers brushing against a cold, rough surface where JJ’s face should be. He trailed them down to her lips and felt his nails skip skip skip over a ridged surface, the sensitive pads of his fingers feeling the surface turn smooth. His nose began to run as the stink of something dead began to overwhelm the smoke.

“Will,” he heard JJ wheeze from the same place Henry cried, her voice strained. “Come back to me. Quickly, walk back towards me. Don’t look, just walk.”

“Don’t leave,” whispered JJ from before him as well, but her voice rasped, choked out around a throat that sounded full of something cloying: “Stay with us, Billy. Stay with your family.”

From below them, Will heard a dog begin to growl. JJ screamed, Henry screaming with her.

Will turned and sprinted towards those screams as, behind him, something began to laugh.

 

3

The crowd parted like a wave before them, row upon row of blank, staring faces looming as though they were passing judgement down upon Reid and the frazzled Prentiss jogging up behind him. Those who didn’t move, he shouldered past, refusing to stand for these people between him and his friend. Despite this desperation, as the smoke grew thicker, he didn’t reach for his gun. That, he knew, would be a terrible mistake.

When the crowd broke, a line of armed men waited. Reid counted them swiftly – one, two, eight, ten, fifteen, plus the one in the centre with the greasepaint smile and the assault rifle propped on his hip – before squaring his shoulders and refusing to be stopped. Prentiss grabbed for his shoulder; she’d seen the man in the centre with his buttons of orange and his oversized red shoes. Reid pulled himself out of her grip, marching right towards those silver eyes.

“Our agent is in there,” Reid called out into the quiescent lull that composed this waiting danger. “Stand aside. That’s an order.”

“Welcome back,” said the clown with a wet sounding chuckle, one that bubbled like the last breath of someone drowning. No one said a word. Somewhere in the crowd, a baby began to cry, their shrieks going unsoothed as they howled in abject terror. “Aren’t you excited, Spencer? Excited to be home?”

Prentiss didn’t understand how her partner was so calm. Gone was the tremoring fear, the mincing anxiety; before her Reid stood straight-backed and calm, the only sign of how lunatic his actions were in the white showing around his widened eyes. She looked at him and saw, for a heartbeat, a terrible dark and Spencer standing alone with the clown looming above him, his little head tilted back as he stared up into that dreadful gaze with a child’s determined gaze. Then she blinked. He was an adult again, his jaw starting to show an unshaven shadow and his posture slipping sideways as his knee sagged.

“There’s murderers in there,” a man said with a voice like the damned.

“That’s right,” said Pennywise. “Terrible, terrible murderers, that little Bluejay bitch. Just like her sister. She killed Rafe, she killed Rosaline, she killed Ethan. Murderer, murderer, murderer!”

As It chanted, a low snarl seemed to grow in the throat of the great beast that this crowd had become, a frenzy whipped up by the smoke and the screaming wind that drowned out every lick of sense along with the baby’s frantic cries.

“Murderer,” snarled Pennywise, leaning closer to Reid. His hair shifted as the clown breathed the last word. His expression didn’t twitch. “Do you want her, little Spencer? Do you want your friend? And you, Emily? Are you really going to save her, like you promised? Save Jennifer, when you never managed to save yourself?”

Prentiss didn’t answer. Neither did Reid. Those guns were loaded. Their faces, much like the faces of everyone else there, were streaked with rain and black, dripping lines of sodden ash that had drifted down onto them from the burning hospital before being tentatively washed away by the rain. The clown’s face, aside from that off-grey paint (the colour of a water-logged corpse partially decomposed), was clean.

It said, “Then run,” and stepped aside, slowly lifting the gun that looked so erroneous and human in It’s inhuman hands, and pointed the empty, black eye right at Reid’s temple. “Run, boy, run!”

There was a gap beside him leading to the gaping open doors of the doomed hospital. Prentiss’s eyes flickered to it, seeing the smoke beginning to reach for the oxygen sucking those flames out and towards them. To get into that door, they’d have to brush past the monster, past those guns, and dive willingly into the flames

(she looked down and saw that her hands were on fire, screaming and screaming and screaming as the flames devoured, first, her fingers and then her knuckles, greedily biting at her wrists and beyond)

where they’d be killed for sure.

But they ran, oh, of course, they ran. Reid limping, Prentiss barely ahead of him as she led the way into that fiery month; and, behind them, the clown cheered the armed men on as they gave chase.

 

4

The camp was silent.

Hotch and Morgan walked together, side by side. Both knew they’d been here before. Neither called for their colleague. Perhaps they knew no one would answer.

“Where are the children?” Morgan asked. Hotch didn’t answer. He was walking unerringly up a remembered path from those open gates, head turning to glance towards a tree overhanging the path. Through the rain he saw

(a girl dressed in black with hair spiked up against the world, dark eyes watching him with a mixed kind of haunted hunger and disinterest. A cigarette burned down between her lips and he wanted her, oh he wanted her)

nothing. Just a half-dead tree and the shadows of the camp, all those dark fingers reaching for him. Yanked back from the past, he remembered: Haley and Jack were missing. His family was in danger. A terrible fury rose in him.

Morgan glanced to that tree too: there was nothing there.

“Where are the kids?” he tried again. He could see it written in his boss’s expression, in his furious eyes and taut mouth; here was the explosion he’d been expecting ever since Foyet had taken Hotch and cut him up without Hotch being able to do a damn thing about it. Here was the catalyst for the end of it all. He knew that, if Haley and Jack Hotchner had been hurt, there wouldn’t be a thing any of them could do to stop Hotch burning the world down around the person who’d done it, and anyone caught in the crossfire. And, really – would Morgan stop him?

He didn’t know.

Hotch reached out, pressing to the side of a cabin doorway as he opened the door. Morgan took point, stepping in that door and casting the flashlight set atop his weapon around the empty room. It smelled like piss and sweat in there. Thunder rolled outside; there was no hope of seeing the sky. Hotch used his foot to nudge aside a child-sized shirt on the floor. He was looking at something, Morgan shining the flashlight onto it, and they both registered what it was at once: the jagged remains of a can of soup, having been savagely hacked open with something unfit for purpose. Ants crawled over the sticky remains but Morgan could see smeary fingerprints all over the tattered label, as though the person hunched down in that corner with their meagre feast had scooped the soup from the damaged can with their small fingers, desperate with hunger. They wondered how starved you’d have to be to risk your fingers on those sharp edges, but they didn’t wonder for long. They remembered.

What sounded like thunder boomed again, the ground trembling under them. It took a moment for both agents to realise that it wasn’t thunder at all, but an explosion.

When they walked outside, even through the pouring rain, they could see a suggestion of a dark haze far below, down towards Castle Rock.

“What do you think that was?” Morgan called over the rain, one hand covering his eyes as he hunched over his weapon.

Hotch said, “Morgan,” and pointed towards the centre of the camp, where the rec hall stood. In the grim, rain-soaked light, there was a shape on the gravel outside the closed double doors. A fine mist of moisture drifted above it, flicked back up by the ferocity of the rainfall and catching the thin, orange light leaking out from under those doors. Morgan’s heart thumped once, hard, and then settled back into its quick-paced adrenaline beat. It was a body.

They moved as one, still a team even in the face of insurmountable odds. Towards that body, weapons ready, clothes hanging sodden from their bodies and nothing like the kids they’d last been when walking this same gravelled path. Morgan’s light fell upon it. It wasn’t Rossi.

“Goddamn,” Morgan murmured, crouching beside the body of Deputy Kallum and turning it over, the mud making a sullen sucking sound as it reluctantly released its hold on the man’s battered face. “What did this? And where the fuck is Rossi?”

Hotch swallowed, looking down into those staring, dead eyes. They were all that was clear on the man’s face. Whatever had killed him, it had done so by beating him until what was left of his body resembled ground meat, the skin burst and features shattered. His mouth was in three parts; his tongue protruded out grossly. Scratches had gouged his bare arms, his deputy uniform’s shirt and pants torn, his badge gone. The beating hadn’t stopped when he’d died, set upon by … Hotch studied the man. Many hands, he realised. Many hands had done this.

He looked up to the rec hall, stepping over the body – rain had washed away any blood that had pooled, leaving that horrible sight there devoid of gore except for the body itself – and walking towards those doors. Morgan said something; Hotch didn’t hear, already wrapping his hand around the handle and pushing it inward. Light spilled out from the fire built in the centre of the hall, set inside a metal barrel and sending up smoke from wet wood that choked the hall. He stepped inside. The children watched him warily, every one of them pressed back against walls and tables and the broken food counter; they watched him like chickens watched the fox, every body turned to flee, small hands wrapped tight around make-shift weapons. They were an anonymous mass of dirt-coloured hair, mud-coloured clothes, and skin stained with filth. Young enough that there was no telling the boys from the girls, no way of telling the brave from the scared, no way of telling which would run and which would attack if he cornered them. The only way he could tell any of them apart was by their wide, terrified eyes watching him. Some of them coughed. It was hard to breathe in here. It had always been hard to breathe in here.

“We’re here to help,” Morgan soothed. Hotch couldn’t speak through his stopped-up throat, looking from each child to the next to try and tell if any of them were his. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. We’re not going to hurt you. Are any of you hurt? You’re bleeding …”

He trailed off as he realised what Hotch already knew: that wasn’t their blood.

There were more bodies in here, laid out reverently in the corner. Not left in the mud like the deputy. Smaller bodies, although not as small as those still alive.

A boy stood, talking three unsteady steps forward and coughing as this brought him closer to the choked fire. There were bloody furrows in the mud on his face. His eyes were blue. His name was Simon and he was nine years old; in three years from now, having survived this camp, Simon would take his father’s gun and fire it three times into his temporal lobe, silencing the voices of those dead children forever. His parents would never really recover; they, somehow, wouldn’t see it coming.

“Are you like them?” he demanded, pointing to the bodies. “Is it in your head too? Are you here for them?”

He pointed to the living children. Hotch shuddered.

“What did they do?” he rasped, feeling as though the ghost of Ros had just stepped up beside him and sighed they fed It.

“The policeman came in,” said the boy, speaking for those behind him who seemed too shell-shocked to speak for themselves. Neither of the agents blamed them. “He said it was time. He said we had to go with him, but some of us didn’t want to go. Not where he was gonna take us.”

“Marcie warned us,” a little girl began to cry. She wiped a hand under her nose, leaving a glistening smear of dirt and blood above her lip. “She said some of us would change and that if they did, we weren’t to go where they told us. That we had to do whatever we could not to go.”

“So we told everyone who thought we should go to go first,” said the first boy. “Like a vote, right? And when we saw where they wanted us to go, then we stopped them. Stopped them for good. Didn’t we, everyone?”

Small heads nodded.

“We’re not going into the ground,” someone else said.

An echo of agreement hummed around the room.

“You killed your friends,” Morgan breathed, stunned. He was staring at the bodies: Jerry stared back, Jerry who’d been alive only the day before, Jerry who’d loved his girlfriend and smoked too much and been sure that Tommy Hiscott was innocent. It was the big kids in that row of the dead: big kids just like Aaron and Emily had been.

“They weren’t our friends, not anymore. They’d changed. They wanted to give us to the monster. They were going to put us in the ground, through the hole. In the horrible church.”

“We didn’t want to kill them,” another girl said. She was, Hotch noted with an abstract thrill of nausea, hugging a toy rabbit. She was so slight. “But when we started fighting we just, we just, well, we just …”

“We just did,” said the first boy matter-of-factly. “But we didn’t leave them in the rain to get mucky. We brought them in where it was warm, didn’t we? We’re not murderers. We brought them inside.” He grinned, his white teeth stark against the filth caked around his mouth. The grin was manic. “Now who’s having a wonderful time?”

“We’ll stop you too if you mess with us,” someone said coldly. Hotch looked at the speaker, a child filthy enough he couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, young or older. The child held a broken paddle. “Stop you good, just like Marcie told us to. She said we should stick together.”

Weapons rustled in agreement, a few children standing ready with those makeshift defences held out. All those eyes, those age-old eyes in children’s faces, watched. Waited.

“Marcie said we should stick together, but she ran away,” someone muttered.

“No one’s perfect,” said the first boy. “We think you should leave. We don’t trust adults. You’re all It’s.”

“The agent who was here,” said Hotch. “Agent Rossi. Where is he?”

“Hotch, they’re not going to know –” Morgan began.

But they were pointing, a few of them.

“The dead kids chased him up to her house,” said one of them. “Or the dead church, maybe. He looked like he got away. We’re sorry if he didn’t. He was nice.”

“He was an adult,” said the first boy hatefully.

“He was nice.”

Hotch turned his head very slightly towards Morgan, lowering his voice. This, he knew, was one of those leadership moments that would always haunt him. Too many conflicting needs battling for priority: they needed to find Rossi, they needed to find Jack and Haley, they needed to know where this church, this hole where the children had almost been forced down was, they couldn’t leave the children alone, they couldn’t split up.

They couldn’t have everything they wanted.

“You need to stay with the children,” he said to Morgan, feeling the words fall from his mouth in a leaden heap. Each of them was one more nail in a potential coffin, each of them could be a signature on a waiting death warrant. But the rest of their team was out of contact and, outside, the storm was worsening both here and in Castle Rock. “I’m going after Dave.”

“Is that safe?” Morgan asked, looking at those kids with their weapons and glassy stares. “For either of us?”

“Disarm them and treat as many injuries as you can.” Hotch knew they could hear him and were judging his every word. “Get them ready to run. When I come back with Dave, we’re all leaving. Every last one of us.”

“Not to the town,” the first boy said. “Everyone down there is –”

“Not to the town,” Hotch confirmed. “We won’t stop until you’re all far from here, I promise. I know you’re all hungry and tired and scared. I know some of you are hurt and all of you have seen, and done, terrible things. I know you’ve lost friends, maybe family. I know because I’ve been you, I promise, I’ve been you, and I’m alive. Derek is too. We got out and we’re going to get you all out too, but you need to let us. Can someone draw me a map of where this church is, where Agent Rossi was chased? He’s my friend. I need to find him.”

“If you go alone, you’ll die,” said the first boy. Despite this, he’d lowered his weapon.

“I won’t,” Hotch promised with a fanaticism he hadn’t spoken with since he’d been sixteen years old and facing much the same scene as he was now. “Not when there are so many people relying on me. I’m going to get every one of you kids home. I promise.”

 

5

Reid was sure they were aiming to miss, coursing them like hounds coursed foxes to wear them out before the final bloody kill. The bullets whistled around their heads and ears, taking chunks of plaster and pinging loudly from metal fixtures. Even though they weren’t running fast enough to outrun a bullet, they weren’t hit – but they should have been. They’d turn a corner and men would already be there, those muzzles raised and spitting death towards them with deafening barks: all their faces laughing, all their excitement realised. They were enjoying this, the hunt, and Reid was exhausted already. He’d lost his cane, maybe left it in the car even, and he’d never been a marathon runner anyway. Turning sharply on the linoleum floor was exhausting, slamming into walls and bouncing from corners as he tried to see everywhere and everything at once, predict every turn, sense every danger. Prentiss was doing better than him, but only just.

In the brief lull of gunfire as they both ducked behind a nurses’ station, they heard it: someone calling Reid’s name.

“JJ?” Reid said, popping his head up like a sacrificial meerkat over the countertop. Prentiss yanked him down just in time to stop two bullets from shattering his skull. “Em! It came from down there!”

Prentiss peered low around the corner, calculating the tramp of boots up the long corridor and their chances of making it over to the hall where the voice had echoed from. Could they make it?

She doubted it.

“Give me the gun,” she commanded, holding her hand out and expecting no argument. Now, unlike before, they were working as one again; she locked away her mistrust of him to be explored later when they were out of the lion’s mouth. “I’ll cover you so you can get over there.”

Reid looked from her to the corner he needed to get to. He knew, just as she did, that there was no sure chance they’d see each other again if they split up.

They heard it again, a cry for help.

He gave her the gun and crouched, his knee screaming and his eyes locked on Prentiss: he drank in every inch of her, devouring how she was now, just in case she was never this again. A cut on her cheek he hadn’t seen the cause of, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, her shadowed eyes. At that instant, he loved her so fiercely he wished they could have had anything other than this moment: he wished they’d met in a park and fallen in love; he wished they’d met in a bar and done nothing but fuck the night away; he wished he’d been student to her teacher as he admired her from afar; he wished for any scenario that didn’t end with this moment, her laying cover fire so he could scamper in front of a half-dozen guns, turning his back with no idea whether those guns would then fall on her.

“Stop looking at me like that,” she told him. “I’m not going to die.”

“Don’t make me leave you,” he breathed. “I don’t think I can. Don’t ask me to.”

She shifted, uncomfortable with his fear. “Look, when I need you to stay, I’ll ask you to stay, okay? Right now, I need you over there in one piece so we can get JJ out of here. Now, go!”

Reid went. He moved fast, every step taking an eon, every moment an eternity: each of the heartbeats between here and there he expected to be his last. The rapport of Prentiss’s gun narrated his flight, and she kept going until he was firmly behind cover. He counted the shots. She was empty, and over there still. That hit home hard and he buckled, gasping for air through lungs that choked on it before straightening and looking around for the source of the cries for him. The gunfire in the hall had started up again, much less comforting than the steady beat of Prentiss’s Glock. His ears hurt.

Back behind the nurse’s station, Prentiss pressed close to the counter and did much the same as Reid was doing: breathed to calm herself as she figured out her next move. She had no intention of dying. None of them were dying today, just like they hadn’t died back then. Something in the way Reid had looked at her had confirmed that for her; something in the way he’d looked at her had struck home, making her doubt of him feel small and silly in the face of his willingness to stay beside her until the end. After all, she’d run to him for a reason, even if she wasn’t sure of that reason right now. Something about him was utterly, utterly safe.

And she’d promised him she wouldn’t die, so she needed to get to work on keeping that promise now.

Reid had found a door. It was sturdy, but not so sturdy that he doubted he could get through it if he needed to. A quick glance down the hall told him he very likely needed to: the gunfire had quietened, but the smoke was thickened and it was getting warmer. The flames, contained to the back of the hospital, had escaped. It burned fiercely now.

“JJ?” he called, leaning against that door as a cursory try of the handle found it was locked with no sign of the key. “JJ? It’s Reid –”

Something thumped inside, the door banging once as though someone had slammed a hand against it. A male voice called out, “Reid? Reid, get this door open!”

He reacted without thinking, half his brain still stopped over who that voice was even as he took a few stumbling steps back and attempted to mirror Morgan’s door-breaking capabilities by shouldering his way through the lock. He bounced off the solid expanse of the door, pain shooting up his shoulder and arm and his entire body throbbing with the shock of the collision.

“Fuck,” he wheezed out, folding around his arm and coughing as he accidentally inhaled a lungful of noxious smoke. Something distantly exploded, the entire frame of the building shaking and the ceiling making a dangerous sound above his head.

“Move,” Prentiss commanded, appearing beside him like a wraith. Reid startled violently. “They stopped firing, I don’t know why. Get away from the door!”

With a nervous look back, Reid missed her kicking the door in; he didn’t trust that their hunters would have just stopped. And, indeed, his heart stalled out when he saw the clown at the end of the hall just watching them. Flames licked the walls behind It, pressed back by the demonic presence. All It was doing was watching, silver eyes empty.

“Em,” he whispered. She didn’t seem to hear him. The door was open and she lunged for it, leaving him standing there staring. The ceiling groaned again.

A hand grabbed his, yanking him into the doorway right as the armed men rounded the corner. Reid flew into the dark, missing the step and bouncing off of Prentiss standing at the bottom of the stairs. Behind them, Will was shoving the door shut, the lock hanging off, and pushing something square and steel in front of it that rattled as he moved it. Reid was still reeling from the sight of the clown; he didn’t turn to face the dark until Prentiss had moved from his side to crouch beside a pale blur on the floor.

JJ.

“Are you okay?” Reid asked her, struggling to kneel with his knee screeching. “Will, why are you here? Is that …”

It was: one-year-old Henry was on JJ’s lap, huddled close to his mom with his face buried in her chest. They could just make out unfocused features of the child, the broken door letting in light from the split wood around the lock.

“It lured Will here,” JJ gasped. “Spence, it lured my family here. Oh, fu-damn.”

Prentiss had leaned against her leg, pulling away as JJ gasped. Reid moved to touch where Prentiss had leaned, finding a warm pulse against torn strips of shirt wrapped around their teammate’s legs.

“Dogs,” JJ said between gritted teeth. “They came out of there.” She pointed to a circle of even darker nothing in the grim room, Prentiss shuffling away to peer down into the depths. Reid recoiled. The dark clawed at him, setting all his sanity on edge. It terrified him like nothing else, that hole, that darkness. “Fell on me before we could stop them. Will got them away and I shot them, but they, god that hurts, vanished.”

“They weren’t like any dog I’ve ever seen,” Will murmured. He was still up by the door. “There are voices out here. I wasn’t hallucinating them men trying to shoot you, Spencer?”

“No. Are there any exits out of here? That door won’t hold and they saw us come in here.”

The ceiling groaned again.

“Plus, that,” Reid added, wishing he could see the damage to JJ’s legs before getting her up on them. “That fire is minutes from behind overhead.”

“Oh my god,” said Emily. They looked at her, JJ passing Henry to Reid before struggling to stand on her own. Hugging his godson tight, Reid breathed in his clean, baby scent and tried not to be paralysed by the knowledge he was here, in Castle Rock, within reach of It. “Oh my god, it herded us here. That’s why they didn’t shoot us outright. It wanted us down here, it wanted us trapped with one exit.”

“There are no exits,” Will corrected.

“There’s one exit,” Reid said quietly, looking at the waiting darkness of the hole. “That’s a tunnel, isn’t it? It’s always tunnels with this thing. Always.”

Someone outside their room kicked the door and laughed. The barricade by the door shifted with the blow. And, out there where the men waited, Reid could swear he could hear music: the tinkling, saccharine sound of a carnival.

“Count of five, we go in and blow them to pieces,” they heard someone call; whether it was Pennywise or someone human, they’d never know. Either way, it was terrible. “Smallest chunk wins.”

They didn’t discuss it; they just moved. Will wrapped his arm around JJ, pulling her up, Emily held her hand out to Reid, who took it. Henry was quiet in his arms. Warm and alive and so so so vulnerable, and Reid looked to the baby’s parents and wished they’d take him so he wasn’t left with this precious burden.

“When we get down there, we run like hell,” Will whispered, half-carrying JJ as she staggered on her bitten legs. “We don’t stop, not for anything. Spence, you okay with Henry? I need to help Jennifer and I can’t carry them both.”

“He’s fine, Will,” JJ said. “Spence won’t let him go.”

“I’ve got him,” confirmed Reid, hugging his godson close. “He’s safe with me.”

They all knew that was a lie; none of them was safe, especially as they climbed, one by one, down into the earth where It wanted them to be.

 

6

Hotch walked alone, attention shattered between the camp behind him, the town below him, the storm around him. It felt as though the lake had breached its banks and burst out at them, flooding the world with relentless, undivided fury. It felt like he could drown up here, above the world in a rotten forest walking towards the monster’s mouth. The bedraggled map held tight in one hand was still unfolded, the pencil fading as the rain beat down upon it. He didn’t need it. He hoped Morgan was okay. He thought of Jack, again, and the rain slowed.

A cell phone rang. It wasn’t his. His was silent in his pocket and, when he pulled it free and wiped those few stray raindrops from the black screen, the message waiting for him was No Signal Available. So he turned towards the eerie tune, seeing glimpses of a building through the thinning trees as he slipped from shadow to shadow towards a flicker of manufactured light.

It was Dave’s cell. Tucked between the fork of two branches, Hotch knew it right away because it was the flip phone only Dave still insisted on using for work purposes when the rest of them had upgraded to smartphones. A blue light blinked to show that a message was waiting or a call had been missed; when Hotch slid it from the tree and flipped it open, he found seventeen missed calls and an unsent message. It was that he opened first, dimly glad that Dave never bothered locking his cell.

He read it three times and then once more again.

Dep. Kallum is complicit. Foyet is here w. Aaron’s family at Jareau house. Going to get Jack out.

It’s not your fault, you couldn’t have seen this coming.

Aaron Hotchner felt something he hadn’t felt for a very long time, not since when he was sixteen years old and looking down at something else that had made him feel sick and terrified and furious and murderous all at once. Suddenly, he understood those children back at the camp, more than he ever had; oh, he understood them alright. If he’d had Foyet in front of him, he’d have beaten him to ground meat as well. The message had failed to send at ten to five that morning, seven and a half hours ago. It seemed unlikely that Dave had been successful.

It seemed likely that Dave needed backup.

Hotch slid his friend’s cell phone into his pocket, took a deep breath, and strode calmly towards the waiting house where the porch light was on and the door stood open. It seemed welcoming, almost. Like it wanted him to go inside. He didn’t. He skirted it. Something about the house felt wrong wrong wrong, and his goal was beyond it, to the hole in the ground where the children were to be devoured. Despite all his instincts, he didn’t call for Dave as he went. Foyet was here. Foyet would hear.

Jack was here.

The rain felt very far away. Every step Hotch took echoed in his ears, louder than any other noise except for perhaps the rasp of his breathing. The anger warred with the fear like two great beasts in his head were savagely ripping at each other for control of his actions. With every heavy step on that sodden path to hell, he thought of something new that spurred that loss of control:

He thought of Jack and how Hotch had missed his son’s first steps.

He thought of Sean and how they’d never really been brothers, not really.

He thought of Morgan and hoped he was okay.

He thought of JJ and Reid and Emily and grieved that he’d brought them all back here.

He thought of Dave.

Then he took all those thoughts and imagined steel and plexiglass, locking it away in some dark, terrible corner of his mind along with the memory of a leather belt’s kiss and the way Sean would cry when struck. He layered that steel around it, the plexiglass walls, like a dock in a courtroom with a judge staring down – and then he realised the rain had almost stopped and he was standing in a silent, dripping forest looking down an overgrown path to a half-rotted church. It was sunk into the wilderness around it. Trees reached for it. Grass had swallowed the headstones whole. It all smelled damp, foreign, cold. The rain stopped. He walked forward, and a hand fell on his arm.

Hotch almost shot him, God bless, he really did. Whirled around with the map going flying as both hands shot to his weapon and almost blew his friend’s head to pieces, scattered that fantastic brain everywhere and silenced his ego permanently.

“Dave, what the fuck?” Hotch wheezed, ripping the weapon away and stumbling back. He was sweating, he realised, not all the damp on his skin from the rain. Sweating and trembling, and it was hard to breathe. Dave gave him a strange look, raising both eyebrows in his ‘what do you think, Rookie?’ look. “Where’s Foyet?”

Dave kept staring at him. Unease grew, the silence now haunting instead of comforting. When he held his hand out, something colourful held in his tight grip, and still said nothing, Hotch shook his head. Shook it again when the man gestured for him to take it, eyes odd in the strange gloom of this day. He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to. He …

He’d started backing up. For some reason, he didn’t want to touch his friend. He didn’t want to take what the man was holding, maybe brush his palm, maybe feel his skin.

His heel skidded on something wet, dress shoe squelching as it sunk down. Just mud. It was just mud. Hotch took another step back, feeling something soft under his heel.

Dave watched.

Hotch looked down. The ground under his foot was red. Not red as though blood had spilled here, but red as though the earth itself was bleeding. Blood seeped up between stones and twigs, bubbling around his shoe and leaving flecks of aerated red on the shiny black leather. It made a soft noise as it came, like a baby creek babbling. Hotch lifted his foot, watching the blood rush to fill the small depression left by his heel. There was something in that depression, lifted gently by the flow. It looked like meat. Just a chunk of meat, floating there. Torn from an animal, he assumed, in the desperate feeding that had followed its death.

When he looked back up, Dave was leaning on a tree watching him with a sad smile turning his features solemn. He was fiddling with something, some brightly coloured toy. Moving the jointed arms around and making it strike a heroic pose without his gaze ever leaving Hotch. It was a superhero toy, and it was Jack’s. Hotch had bought it for him the Christmas prior, as an apology for not making it home from work in time for Christmas Day.

“Why do you have that?” Hotch squeezed out, hairs lifting on the back of his neck. His leg brushed a headstone. The scent of blood was turning his stomach. He didn’t want to turn around; he didn’t want to see, even as his gut pinched tight and his bladder threatened to loosen with the utter terror of what he knew was behind him as Dave did nothing but watch him wordlessly. In all his life, in all his goddamned life, David Rossi had never been this quiet. “What did you do?”

“You weren’t here, Hotshot,” Dave said softly. “You weren’t here.”

“No. No, no, no, don’t, don’t you dare –”

“So I went in alone …” Dave pushed away from the tree, swaggering over with all the cockiness thirty years of being top shit at the FBI had taught him. Hotch, to his shame, backed away. He fled. Scrambled backwards with raw fear driving him. Fear had won, silenced the anger, and he knew his head was through the snare waiting for his neck to be snapped. “I went in alone, Aaron, and I died. I died and where were you?”

No!”

“Yes.” Dave smiled again, a cruel smile this time, and tossed the toy at Hotch. It sailed over his head, landing somewhere behind him, and Dave laughed. “Yeah, I did. I really did. Why the fuck did you bring me here? This wasn’t my fight, asshole. This wasn’t my fault – I didn’t need to die for you, trying to save your brat son.”

Automatically, Hotch had wheeled around to grab for the toy, as though it was his child he was trying to yank out of the air. But he’d stopped. All he was doing now was staring down at the toy, at what it had landed beside, and Dave was so close to him now that Hotch could smell his expensive cologne. The scent didn’t quite manage to hide how much he stunk of putrefaction.

“I didn’t need to die for you,” Dave snarled, “but there I am. Do you want to know how scared I was? How I screamed? How much it hurt?”

Hotch had no words. He lurched back once more, but not to flee; this time, with the instincts drilled into him from years of crime scene management, it was to vomit away from the mangled remains of the man who’d helped make him who he was today, leading him away from the shadow of his father. The man who’d taught him how to be more than his family had tried to make him be. The man who was, now, not ripped cleanly apart; Hotch had been able to tell that in an instant, knowing somehow that whatever had devoured David Rossi, it had done it while the man had still been alive to feel himself being eaten.

And the figment, the false Dave, stood there and laughed until Hotch was done vomiting; the fear dropped out of him as suddenly as though Dave’s influence on him had had a shelf life right up until this moment. In the time it took for Hotch to straighten and wipe the vomit from his face, the fear snapped out like a light.

The anger flared.

He didn’t make a sound, not a sound, as he wheeled on the false Dave and, with an expression that his child self would have seen and fled from, expecting the belt, he lunged. He didn’t use his gun; he struck again and again and again, and each time he felt flesh give, bone break, blood bubble. The illusion didn’t fade because he was trying to kill it, trying his fucking best; it didn’t become less real. It laughed as he killed it until it had nothing left to laugh with and then, breathing hard and staggering up with his bloodied hands bunched beside him, it used its ruined mouth to gurgle out, “You can’t beat me, Aaron. You’re going to fail, and they’re all going to die, just like David Rossi. And you call me a monster. How am I the monstrous one? You led them here to die. You pulverised your best friend’s face while his corpse feeds the ants beside you. Why, even now, you’re not thinking about your son or ex-wife, or the fact that I’m killing your people in that building right there, are you? You’re just thinking about finding George Foyet and doing to him what you just did to me.”

Hotch looked at the church, his ears humming dully. The creature was lying. It always lied, always. No one was dying in there.

“Oops,” spluttered the broken illusion, beginning to melt into the ground as Hotch looked away with his gut burning. “Ooops, there goes Emily … her pretty head … pop!”

And it was gone, leaving nothing behind but an oily stain on the ground in the reluctant shape of a man.

Hotch fumbled for his gun, unfocusing his eyes before looking to what was left of his friend. The rain must have started again, he thought, because his cheeks were wet and it was hard to see. “I’m sorry,” he choked out. “I’m sorry, Dave. I have to go. I have to make sure.”

Dave said nothing. Hotch left him lying there.

 

7

There was a pause between entering the tunnels and the men following them in. Or, maybe, as they all suspected: maybe there wasn’t a pause at all. Maybe the men had always been there, in the dark behind them, their boots muffled by whatever foul magic had created this place and the sound of their breathing muted to hide their presence. Silent. Hunting. Deadly. Whatever the reason, the pause was long enough that the small gaggle of worn-out humans slowed, trudging down a gently sloped packed-earth tunnel towards what felt like nothing but more darkness. Will handed JJ over to Prentiss and took their one loaded gun, walking behind the group with his gaze turned back towards the shifting shadows that followed. Reid, despite his knee, took point with Henry asleep in his arms. JJ laid her head on Prentiss’s shoulder and closed her eyes, waves of heat and dizziness overtaking her. She couldn’t feel her legs which were, quite unknown to her, damaged more than any of them suspected yet. From the knee down, they were numb. She was cold despite the heat. Prentiss’s arm was around her, a warm, calming strength. JJ could fear the other woman lifting her when she staggered, pushing her forward when she faltered, and a delirious love surged through her centred around this woman who refused to let her go even though she must have been a dead weight and Prentiss sounded exhausted, her breath rasping.

“Thank you for saving us,” JJ said suddenly to Prentiss, her voice soft to try and keep this moment private. Prentiss grunted. “When It took us into the church, I remembered … when we were small, thank you for saving us. That must have been scary.”

“I didn’t save you,” Prentiss said. “I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I sure as shit didn’t save anyone. Morgan had to drag my ass out of there.”

“Aaron,” Reid called back, his voice too loud and too sudden in the echoing tunnel. They all winced. When he spoke again, it was quieter: “Derek was there, but it was Aaron who saved us. I told you, Em … he carried me out.”

“I don’t remember,” Prentiss admitted. She was thinking longingly of her condo, visiting her cat at Garcia’s home, just being away from here, this tunnel that was so terrifyingly like the one they’d almost died in. It wasn’t a lie. She didn’t remember who had saved them back then, not enough to argue the point; she doubted anyone was coming to save them now.

The pause ended. They heard a chuckle, coming from every pore of the wet hole they felt closing in around them (like a grave, more than one of them thought, they’d walked so willingly into their graves). They lifted their heads, Henry hiccupping awake, and stood silent and unmoving for the longest second; frozen waiting for the end of it all.

The bullets came. Packed earth turned to cement under their feet and they flew, bouncing from wall to wall and off of each other with nothing but surviving racing through their heads. Rats in the walls of a shelled building; they ran for their lives and they ran for each other and they hoped to live even though bullets were whistling and sending chips of tunnel wall to shower down upon them. The only light in the tunnels was the sparks of bullets on cement; none of them could hear anything above the deafening roar of the initial gunfire. They were just running. Running and running and running – JJ didn’t know where Reid was, if he still held Henry, if Will was still behind her, if they’d all lost track of each other – until suddenly she realised that the shadows were lifting, just a little, and if she turned her head she could see the shadowy suggestion of Emily’s profile beside her. Her feet hesitated, her gait slowing. She was deaf, winded, her muscles screaming. Aware of blood sheeting hot and fast down her ruined legs and, for a single moment, she gave in to the desire to pull back against Emily’s arm and turn around: she needed to know, you understand, if her son was still alive.

Reid hurtled past. JJ caught a glimpse of his arms tight around a huddled shape and her heart soared again; love for her boy, for her friend, for her boyfriend whose hand touched her elbow, for Emily who lifted her bodily and dragged her forward with her mouth shaping words –

– JJ remembered, suddenly, that Ros had once asked Emily to take care of her, and she felt safe as Emily looked ahead, moved forward, carried her –

– until Emily’s entire body jerked grossly and her head snapped forward and JJ felt a warm spray coat her mouth and her nose and her tongue. It tasted like pennies. She blinked. Emily dropped. Shot, JJ realised dumbly, stopped dead like a deer on the road with those bullets whistling greedily for her life. Too stunned to move because they’d just shot Emily in the head.

Like a deer.

Like a lamb.

JJ screamed, lurching down there to grab at Emily with weakened hands. Turning her over. Those useless fingers ran through sticky clumps of hair falling loose from half a ponytail. In the almost-gloom, Emily’s startled eyes looked up at her, and there was so much blood, oh so much blood, on JJ’s hands and pooling around Emily’s head – or was that hair? – and smearing in wounded slashes up Emily’s arms as JJ fumbled for a pulse, just like, just like, just like …

JJ closed her eyes and remembered Rosaline and the bathroom and how hilariously fucken dead she’d been. Hysterical, right? You had to laugh. Here were all these strong, wonderful women dying around JJ and JJ left lingering despite being weaker than them all.

You had to laugh, otherwise you’d cry and find a way to end it, this monumental cosmic joke.

Emily was dead.

She’d lost Reid in the chaos. Lost Henry with him. Lost Emily for sure, and JJ looked around to see a white shape barrelling towards her and screamed, her nerves shattered. In that catastrophic nightmare, she’d lost herself: she wondered, for an instant, if she’d die screaming and betray who Ros had hoped for her to grow into.

The shape reformed as a monster and then reformed again as her boyfriend who dropped to his knees beside her and tried to push her down into the pool of blood she was kneeling in. She struggled against that; she didn’t want to lay in Emily’s brain and skull and life. His eyes were catching the dim light in here, glinting, and she thought he might have been yelling at her; she thought he might have been crying; she thought he must have been there all along because he had Emily’s blood on him too. But couldn’t he see that there was no point? She couldn’t flee; her legs were ruined and her ears were deafened and Emily was dead.

Then he leaned close and she heard him tell her with his voice and Ros’s and a thousand other dead kid’s: “Don’t you dare give up down here, Jen – if you can’t run, crawl!”

She thought, Henry. She dearly wanted to hold her son again because she trusted that Reid had gotten him out of here. Nothing could harm him while he was so protected; if she lived, she’d see him once more. She crawled, belly to the ground, face in the dirt, and with blood coating her, along the tunnel and towards the sun she hoped still waited above.

 

8

Reid ran. Henry was flat to his chest, smothered against his clothes, but there was no gentler way of carrying him. It was already hurting him, his arms aching horrendously and his grip on the baby slippery. He suspected that his nails were digging into soft, baby skin and grieved that, but his muscles had locked tight in his desperation to carry them out of there and there was no loosening that grip. His legs were screaming, his brain was silent except for a buzz of static fear that didn’t even manage to drown out the gunfire, and he was sure he’d never felt pain like this, ever. Not even when he’d been shot all those months ago and handled the experience with minimal painkillers, determined to avoid the siren call of narcotics. Adrenaline carried him further than he thought possible, long legs easily outrunning the others behind him; he was horrified by this but, Henry.

His one purpose was getting Henry out of there.

When the bullet slammed into the arm bearing the brunt of Henry’s weight, ripping with lunatic ease through Reid’s bicep, he was moderately surprised. It was comical almost, and he figured that was probably the adrenaline too.

The static in his brain ceased for a moment and he looked down, switched Henry to his other arm mid-stride, and thought, wow, I’ve been shot again. That’s a lot. Wow.

He laughed. It was a thin, manic laugh and it hiccupped out from a chest that was desperate for air and couldn’t spare an inch.

He kept running. He didn’t laugh again. Henry was screeching with terror, not even Reid’s chest muffling that gutting sound. The bullets kept coming.

The second bullet didn’t hurt as much. Reid felt it as an impact, oddly in his abdomen, and then a spreading heat that throbbing warningly.

Okkkaaay, he thought with another shrill giggle, tottering into the wall and feeling Henry slide down him as his grip slackened. Okay.

Then he readjusted his grip as much as he could and doggedly continued, deaf to everything but his own startled heartbeat and Henry’s breathless screams. Screaming was good. Screaming meant alive. Looking down was alarming; oh boy, that was a lot of bleeding, he suspected, oh boy. But, when he slid one arm free and traced it over his stomach, he found only a small but deep notch. It wasn’t bad. He was okay. He was okay.

Zig-zagging madly both from the terror of being hit and because, for some reason, neither of his legs wanted to work anymore, he bounced from wall to wall as he went. Slamming from one to another and blind in the dark, until he blinked and realised the dark was fading.

The next wall he hit gave way against his shoulder. He whirled, attacking it madly with the hand not holding Henry (whose crying had changed, when had it changed, and it was so much worse and driving Reid to insanity) and almost howling with mad joy/fear when he realised it wasn’t a wall at all, but a hole. An exit. Freedom.

Later, there would be no memory of clawing his way through that gap. He wouldn’t remember the dirt and the rocks biting at him, the cobwebs covering him, the tightness of his chest as he hadn’t dared to breathe until the suggestion of light at the other end had become a reality. He staggered out into the world, breathed once more with a sucking, rasping sound, and collapsed soundly among the rotten pews.

(some part of him recognised this room; some part of him feared it)

When his eyes flickered open again, there was a solid, humid weight against his side and it hurt every time it moved or touched him or did anything at all. He didn’t know how long he’d been lying there, but there was saliva sticking his face to the ground and his mouth was dry, his tongue like sandpaper. Eyes gritty like he’d rubbed them against the dusty floorboards he was prone upon. Turning his head slowly – the world swayed and dipped and he gagged – he thought that the light was different. It had shifted.

Henry sat beside him, tears and snot covering his filthy face, dirt all over him and his blonde hair stuck up into ridiculous tufts. Reid stared blankly at him. Why was Henry here?

Henry sniffled and whined, but Reid was too tired: why wasn’t JJ picking him up?

He wiggled in place and groaned as it tore at his skin, stuck firm to the floor. “I’m sick, Henry,” he mumbled, trying to move his arm to touch at the strange, unfeeling heat that was his hip. “Get your mom … Uncle Spencer is sick.”

Henry babbled something senseless and Reid hated him, just a little, for being incompetent. He drifted and dreamed of something terrible, something so close … something calling for him and for Emily to go, go, go to it … he dreamed of Emily in the dark, dancing …

… his eyes snapped open. Henry was quiet, looking at something. Some noise. Hinges. The sound of rain pattering leaked into the muffled room; a reminder that outside still existed.

A floorboard creaked and Henry opened his mouth.

Reid moved faster than he’d have thought possible: his hand lashed out and wrapped around Henry’s mouth, dragging him close to his body with the softest sound of material on dirt as the boy tumbled back. He held him there, one arm wrapped around his chubby legs, the other covering his mouth, and he lay rigid. Unmoving. Unable to think through the fear. Something was here. Something was here, and he was unarmed. Emily had the gun, and she’d never followed him out of the hole. None of them had.

He was alone, and something was here.

Back at the hole his eyes were dragged, away from the danger that had just entered through the door. He stared at it. The edges wavered. For a second, he thought it was a smear on his glasses, but they were gone, lost in the tunnel somewhere. Everything in the room was fuzzy at the edges, but that hole? That hole was crystal clear. Sharply defined.

Real.

It beat. Grew and shrunk, throbbing like a heart. A strong, terrible heart pushing oxygenated blood outward through the veins and arteries of this defenceless town, tunnels sunk deep to touch every lake and waterway and pipe. With every pull of those awful muscles, it spread further, grew stronger, and Reid couldn’t look away. It was fucking petrifying; he wanted to crawl towards it and back down into the dark where he could die and not feel anything anymore.

A floorboard creaked right behind him but he couldn’t think to look up, to face the danger. He couldn’t look away from that dark void which promised warmth and softness and a kind and gentle death, a peaceful sleep, a friend, come on Spencer, come play? Emily is down here. Emily is listening like a good girl… she’s coming too, Spencer, and we can all play together forever … you can have everything you ever wanted …

“Reid!” came a barked cry, shattering that voice. Reid jerked away, cringing down like a dog. It took too long for his reflexes to turn his languid body around, to crane his head back and feel it almost tumble from his arched neck as he stared up at the something. It looked like Aaron Hotchner. It looked … but things lied. His eyes lied.

“Shit, Reid, is that Henry?” Hotch was crouching now, setting his gun out of reach of Henry and reaching down to curl his fingers around Reid’s hand, which was still cupped over Henry’s mouth. “Reid. Spencer. Spencer!”

That was sharp. Reid blinked. He was staring. Hotch had grabbed his arm, shaken it.

Fuck, it hurt.

“Ow,” he breathed.

“Spencer, look at me.”

Reid looked at him. Hotch’s eyes were abysmal. There was something hollow in them. Something Reid didn’t want to know.

“You need to let go of Henry. He can’t breathe. You’re hurting him.”

Reid let go. His arm slithered into his lap, lying there like it had died. Henry sucked in a deep, horrified breath and then burst into tears once more. They were tired, shocked tears, and Reid didn’t fight the other man when he slid the baby from him.

“Where’s the blood coming from?” Hotch was asking. The hand he wasn’t using to hold Henry he touched Reid with, his fingertips searing hot after the cold of the floorboards. He tugged Reid’s shirt up, sucking in a breath at what he saw there. Reid looked down too. It was as shallow as expected; just a ricochet.

“Henry,” he admitted, trying to lean back and finding nothing to rest his dizzy head against. “It’s Henry. His foot. There …”

He tried to point but his hand wasn’t working anymore; despite this, Hotch seemed to understand. Henry barely changed his whimpers when the man eased him down and checked his feet, finding the chunk a stray bullet had taken from the heel.

“Oh, buddy,” Hotch soothed. Reid blinked dully, recognising the man before him as Jack’s father, not Reid’s boss. The transition had been instant, too quick for his shell-shocked brain to register. “Oh buddy, hey buddy. Look at this. This is nothing, we can fix this. Let’s get this all wrapped up nice and tight, there’s a brave guy. Reid, help me.”

Reid nodded and closed his eyes.

The dark called him.

 

9

William LaMontagne, who loved his wife (because he knew he’d marry her, as soon as she’d let him) and adored his son and cherished his hard-won life took unto his body on this day thirteen bullets in the pursuit of saving two of those aforementioned things.

As JJ, who loved her boyfriend (because she’d never quite gotten around to believing it was permanent, since nothing in her life had ever been assured) and treasured her son and grieved her sister, still, crawled towards what a teenaged Emily would have called ‘the very fucking wrong way’, she didn’t see this happen: she didn’t see Will turn with the gun in hand, determined to give his family the best damn shot they had at surviving even though he had no idea what was killing them and why. She didn’t see the bullets strike Reid, one, two, three, which was probably for the best because she died certain her son was safe and they were both unharmed and this was a final, excellent comfort during what was a resoundingly terrible end. She also didn’t see Will fall. It didn’t matter.

She wouldn’t outlive him by long.

As the gunfire slowed, Will – who was dying in the dark of that damnable tunnel – had no idea that it was because the men had sensed what those who were hunted had not: something wicked lurked ahead. He found himself on his side with no strength to speak of, an excruciating cold working its way from his extremities to his core, pushed back only by radiating pain from each of those thirteen bullets. The men wavered, uncertain. Will closed his eyes, convulsed abortively with the pain of his body attempting to die, and felt his twitching hand brush something warm.

JJ didn’t see this. Maybe that was also a comfort. It was painful to observe.

No one else saw this either, not Reid or Hotch above, who could have helped. There was no comfort in that, for anyone.

Will opened his eyes, despite the dark, and rolled, despite the pain, towards that warmth. He croaked, “Jen?” with a dim, fading hope that it was the woman he loved even though the sensible part of his brain knew she was gone ahead to safety and was thankful for that. No one answered. He grieved for a moment; when he came back to himself, it was because someone else in this tunnel had made a noise. A grotesque noise. It was wet and crackly and sounded as though it bubbled deep inside a struggling body. He might have made it, but he doubted it.

Heroic to the end, he crawled towards that sound, hands curling around that warm, damp form. He found the body was soft to the touch, motionless, and there was a sticky residue in the tangled hair his fingers trembled though. It wasn’t JJ. He knew her body intimately, even in the dark.

“Emily,” he breathed, finding the mouth that had bubbled out that terrible noise and leaning his cooling cheek against it. Her lips moved. He felt damp on her skin. If it was any other circumstance, he would have been appalled to be found molesting someone like this, with his hands flattened undoubtedly on her slowing chest and his face pressed to hers, but in this, he desperately needed one thing from her: ineluctable proof of life.

The men chasing them had backed away. They were unwilling to approach the something they could feel pulsating in the depths ahead. Their two victims, the men unaware they’d struck anyone at all in the madness they’d been driven to, to hunt indiscriminately the monsters they’d been told to – and surely if they’d understood it was humans they were firing at, not monsters, they’d have likely stayed their hands. If they’d seen the baby; understood the people; known the evil pressing in on them. But they hadn’t, and they didn’t, and so they fled and left the dying to their inglorious, senseless deaths.

Prentiss, for now, breathed against the chilled skin pressed to her mouth.

“I’m sorry, Em,” Will rasped, who’d have never called her that if she’d been conscious to hear him or in any other context than this one since he held a healthy respect for her exceptional command of weaponry and willingness to use it if disrespected. “This is gonna hurt us. Probably you more than me, but I’d be a damned coward to leave you down here and Daddy didn’t raise me a coward. We’re getting out.”

With steadfast care for all the parts of him he knew were failing, he inched his way beside her, pulled her slight weight onto his lap – her head lolled loosely onto his shoulder and he almost gagged with how dead that motion felt – with his arm hooked around her chest for balance, and slowly, so slowly, pulled them both along that cold, cemented ground. There was no time to speak of during that everlasting exertion. There was no sense of up or down, right or wrong, death or life. No sense of what he was doing except this: not leaving her there to die. If she woke at all, he didn’t hear it. If he bled the entire way, leaving a trail that told this terrible story in unbearable detail, he didn’t see it. If there was another option, another way to survive this, he didn’t think of it.

There were two paths at the end of this hallway. One led up. It was steep and narrow and hard to discern in the darkened gloom. It was the hard way; it was the correct way. Reid and his precious cargo had sprinted right into it, crashing against the opening and squeezing through with a tenacity any frantic rat with a terrier on its tail would have envied. They’d torn it, knocked jagged chunks of dirt and rock loose in their haste, ripped through cobwebs as thick as woven silk. Their passage had left a thin thread of tired light to leak through, a beacon for the damned trapped within. JJ, with her face down and crawling to escape the bullets she’d expected but that had instead all hit the man she loved, who’d run behind her to ensure that very thing as he turned and faced his death, didn’t see that light. Her hands guided her, her eyes shut tight against the darkness, and she went the easy way, the clear way, the obvious way: she went the wrong way. Towards that terrible, beating heart that had scared the men hunting them so much.

Will saw the light, Emily breathing tenaciously against him. Voices murmured above. A baby cried. For a second, there was hope for them both in his quietening heart. He reached for it, opened his mouth, and creaked out a single rasped cry. To his pounding ears, locked so desperately on the salvation that light represented, the cry sounded like a bellow; Reid and Hotch, whose voices were so near they must have heard him call for them, instead heard nothing.

Sure that help was coming, he held Emily close, murmured, “We’re getting out, sweetheart,” and died.

 

10

A man waited in the dark. He was a nondescript man with worried blue eyes and sandy hair cropped short. The lines around those eyes aged him more effectively than the heavy greatcoat he wore that was fifteen years out of style or the thin, wire-frame glasses perched upon a narrow nose. He’d once walked slowly as though time had weighed heavily on him.

Now, he stood straight. His shoulders back. His smile fixed. He waited.

He waited.

Here came thirty-six, crawling up the tunnel even though the bullets that had chased her had long ceased. He listened with rapt attention to the whimper of her breathing, smelled her sweat on the air. She was a terrified, dirty worm lying there throbbing on the ground, and his cock hardened just thinking about how good his knife would feel inside her. Oh, she’d bleed and she’d scream and she’d die and he’d glory in every sensual instant. The walls whispered to him. They promised him death, so much death, and he switched the knife to his other hand and leaned back against the wall for a moment, taking pleasure in the moment before entering another human being, one way or another.

He licked his lips. They were moist despite his dry mouth, anticipation like static electricity crackling over his skin.

“I want this one,” he told the walls, who promised him he could have her, he’d earned her, bringing Hotchner’s bitch and brat down here to the room with a thousand watching eyes.

The worm had frozen. She’d heard him. Good.

Fear made them die better.

She was holding her breath, perhaps hoping he hadn’t heard her. He had. She glowed. Not to anyone but him, blessed with It’s glorious, deadly sight, but to him … oh, she glowed. Like an angel, a deity, and he intended to worship every part of her, inside and out. Get right in there, nice and deep, and lick every delicious part he could find to really learn the taste of perfection, if there was time for that.

“Hello Agent Jareau,” he said pleasantly, a swagger to his step as he walked towards her. “Did you enjoy seeing your family? That boy of yours, he’s a sweetie. Why I almost couldn’t stand not killing him.”

“I know your voice,” she answered. Considering she’d bled her pretty way down the tunnel, her voice was strong enough, he supposed. It still wouldn’t save her. He watched curiously as he levered herself up, eyes wide and blind in the dark that didn’t hamper him at all. “I know you. You’re George Foyet. You’re not real. You’re just another one of It’s hallucinations, It’s just fucking with me. I’m not scared of you.”

“Oh baby, I’m very, very real,” Foyet promised her. “And when I’m done with you, I’m going to go cut off your little boy’s toes one by one. Won’t that be a scream?”

Kill her fast, the walls demanded. Cut the bitch to pieces before he comes.

“If you say so,” he replied dreamily, kneeling beside her and reaching down to take a handful of her pretty, pretty hair, yanking her head back hard. He expected a fight from the moment his skin touched hers; the best ones always fought back.

 

11

… when he opened his eyes again, determined to be useful, there was a hand against his throat. Hotch loomed above him, his expression strange, especially to Reid’s blurry vision.

“Henry?” Reid asked.

“He’s fine,” Hotch answered. His mouth was open, ready to continue speaking, but Reid cut him off.

“The others didn’t follow me out,” he said, turning his head and pointing towards the hole. His arm worked now, he was pleased to notice, but his shirt was gone and Hotch’s suit jacket was laid out over him. “JJ and Will, and Emily, we were being shot at. The townspeople. I left them, Aaron, you need to go get them out!”

“You’re still bleeding,” Hotch pointed out, sounding annoyed. “You told me you were shot twice.”

Reid didn’t remember saying that. Despite that, he was certain it was true and thus shrugged. Being shot hurt; he’d have known if it was more than that.

“Go get them and then worry about me,” he snapped, furious that Hotch was ignoring him as he struggled upright against Hotch trying to force him to stay flat. The jacket pooled into his lap in a heavy slide of expensive material and he pushed it aside, glancing down. His pants were slid down and it was with a sharp twist of anxiety and shock and unease that he realised his underwear was too; for an instant, all he saw was the embarrassing jut of his hipbone and the very visible thatch of hair bared by the pants slid down his thigh to bare the base of his groin. Cheeks flaming, he opened his mouth to query his state of undress, and then looked down again.

Hotch’s other hand was pressed dangerously close to his pubic area. Reid couldn’t see quite where; he also couldn’t feel it. But he could see this: that entire area was painted red.

“Oh,” he said quietly.

“Stay calm,” Hotch told him from very far away. “It’s a through and through. I don’t know how bad.”

“I can’t feel anything.” Reid said this with a fastidious calm. He wiggled his toes and wondered if he was only imagining them moving. “I can’t feel anything, Hotch, I can’t –”

“I think it might have struck your hip.” Hotch’s voice was low, soothing. Calming. Reid finally looked at him, looked at him properly, and wondered about the blood spattered on his face and those still-hollow eyes. “The entry wound doesn’t match the exit wound. Something made it change direction, but not towards the spine. The body can only take so much pain, it’s likely just numb as a defensive measure.”

“I’m paralysed,” Reid wheezed, terror slamming. A soft noise beside him drew his attention and he looked and found Henry sitting there watching them, a stick in his hands he’d been playing with now forgotten in the face of his godfather’s distress. “Oh my god, I’m paralysed, I can’t move, I can’t feel it, I’m –”

“You moved your legs to help me get your pants out of the way,” Hotch said. His free hand was fumbling for what was left of the shirt beside him. “You’re not paralysed. Here, press your hands against this. I need to finish making a bandage.”

Reid did so.

As Hotch worked on him, Reid considered their options. None of them were good, but only one was clear.

“You need to leave me and go get Emily and the others,” he said, feeling Hotch’s hands on him pause from where he was fastening the makeshift pressure pad with Reid’s belt. Reid studied it. It would hold, for a bit. He was fine.

He didn’t even feel dizzy anymore. In fact, everything seemed very clear.

“You’ve passed out five times since I found you,” Hotch snapped. “You can’t walk, you can’t even stand. I don’t really think you understand how close this shot came to killing you outright and, if those men find you, you can’t protect yourself, or Henry, unless you’re suggesting I take Henry down there.”

They both looked at the hole; they both remembered what waited below.

“I’m fine –”

Hotch settled back on his heels, lifting blood-stained hands to tick off his wry points as he went: “Your heartbeat is rapid, your skin is pale, you’re sweating, you’re confused. Focus on your breathing for a second, Spencer – is that fine?”

Reid focused like he’d been told, looking down. His chest was rising and falling rapidly, fascinating him for a moment. As soon as he noticed that, he also realised he was taking strange, gulping breaths and tried to stop, frowning when his body wouldn’t obey.

“Shock?” he pondered.

“Blood loss,” Hotch corrected, looking around the room with a frustrated, haunted expression. “I can’t leave you here.”

But that didn’t sound like he was completely convinced.

Reid frowned at him, his oxygen-starved brain sluggish to realise what he should have understood from the beginning if he hadn’t been so stupid. “Jack,” he said, closing his eyes against the horror. “Jack’s here, isn’t he? Somehow, Jack is here, just like Henry.”

“He’s down there,” Aaron said with breathless fear (and Spencer remembered that same fear, that same voice, that same expression, saying, “I can’t find Emily. She came down here to find you and I can’t find her.”).

Aaron, not Hotch, and when Reid opened his eyes, he was more Spencer than he’d been for years, looking to the man he trusted completely to save them against all the odds.

Just like back then.

“You have to go,” Spencer said. “You have to. If you don’t, who will? And …”

Aaron waited for what he was going to say, torn between this moment and the next; his family and his team.

Spencer finished: “Aaron? You didn’t leave any of us down there. You can’t change that now, not for me. Not just for me. You know … you know what It’ll do to them.”

Oh, Aaron knew. Spencer did too. They all knew, those two men who were reminded vividly of what it felt like to be boys again at this small heartbeat of time where they were both alive and together and terrified for their friends and family.

But then the heartbeat was over.

Aaron slid his cell from his pocket and laid it down gently next to his gun before standing. Both his knees popped as he went. He looked at Spencer, who looked back up at him, and neither admitted that they were both wondering if this was the last time they’d ever see each other.

“Keep calling Morgan,” Hotch said finally, turning his back on the man sitting there with the toddler curled up next to him, head pillowed on Reid’s arm and almost asleep. “Get him down here to extract you as soon as you get through, and then get out of here. Don’t wait for us.”

“Okay,” Reid said, his voice already grieved. “Aaron?”

Aaron paused.

“Please save them.”

 

12

The men were trapped in the tunnel by the burning hospital above. They’d clustered like lambs in a dead-end, terror striking each and every one of them as it occurred to them that the force that had led them down here would turn on them in a heartbeat, and all their guns were pieces of plastic and metal and human vulnerability: they wouldn’t save them from evil itself.

A man emerged from the dark, lit by their wavering flashlights as they turned to him in a panic. The man looked sated, content. There was a lazy smile on his thin mouth. He looked like a man who had satisfied some innate, deep, realised desire.

He was a happy man: he did not feel the claw marks in his throat and cheek caused by carefully manicured nails digging deep into soft flesh. When he spoke, his voice was soft and dry, issued from a throat that had been crushed by a single shattering blow by a furious elbow; he didn’t seem to notice. The men were struck dumb by the sight of this deliriously joyous man who stood there smiling at them like he’d seen God and come out maddened but completed by the sight, this man who didn’t seem to realise that he was covered in blood from top to toe with it shining wet from where it poured from his gaping eye socket. The eye, that cold, blue eye that had seen so many deaths, was lying somewhere back in those tunnels along with the body of the woman who’d ripped it from him as she’d died.

The best ones always fought.

“Come along,” he told them pleasantly. Not a single one of them thought to argue with him; there was something so fucking terrifying about his smile that they’d have rathered swallow their guns before doing so. “She sent me. The people you’re hunting are this way.”

“Are you here to help us?” one of them asked, one with less sense of survival than the others.

The man cocked his head. His fingers rubbed at the blunted head of his knife’s hilt, stroking it gently and smearing the blood on the warm grip. He seemed to be listening to some far-away voice.

The men said nothing to him until he was done.

“No,” said George Foyet. On his way to find these hunters, just as he’d been instructed (once he’d finished making what he proudly titled a ‘meat puzzle’ out of one Jennifer fucken Jareau, that sanctimonious whore), he’d stepped over the cooling body of her boyfriend, which laid alone by the exit. He’d passed within inches of the voices above, recognising Aaron Hotchner’s voice. And how he’d wanted to go up there. How he’d wanted to show him what he’d done. But there’d be time for that later, there was so much time; after all, he doubted that these minuscule men with their fallible guns would kill Hotchner if he, the Reaper, hadn’t managed it … and wouldn’t it be so much more satisfying if Hotch died looking down on the bodies of all those he’d failed?

William’s body had laid alone.

“No,” he said again, that terrible smile back with a vengeance and every part of him stiff with delight. Fuck, that would be good. Imagine how he’d cry. “I’m going to show you where to go, and then I’m going to find a little lost kitty, mewling down here in the tunnels needing rescue. Why I’ve always fancied myself a hero …”

He shivered.

Don’t kill her, the walls snarled at him. She’s Mine. Just bring her to me.

Maybe, thought Foyet, his knife warm in his hand. Maybe he’d listen.

But he was sure Emily Prentiss would be a fighter.

Chapter Text

1

William LaMontagne was dead.

Hotch crouched by the body for longer than he could spare. Scratches along his bare arms ached, although it was an unimportant ache that felt disconnected from the rest of him. They’d been caused by struggling through the hole that had only narrowed the further he’d crawled into it; it was a hole for children, not for adult men. He’d forgotten those injuries instantly, though, because as soon as he’d found his feet and turned on the small flashlight he usually kept in his suit jacket pocket – the actual jacket which was still up with Reid – the narrow beam had landed on the motionless form lying sadly here, alone.

“I’m so sorry,” Hotch murmured to the body, his hand slipping from that still throat after finding no pulse. He’d checked despite seeing the pallor, the strange discolouration of the skin as the blood began to pool, the mouth that hung open and those clouded, empty eyes. He’d checked despite all that blood, and the shirt which was torn at every point of impact from the bullets that had destroyed this man who’d done nothing but love a woman touched by evil. Just like Haley.

Hotch stood. He darted his light about the tunnel, seeing the blood that spattered the concrete floor. The fact that the floor was concreted chilled him. A hole dug by an animal, that made sense. This, though? This manmade burrow? It spoke of something darker. And, he thought, looking down again at the bullet-riddled man who’d died so close to the light, Will had clearly been killed by men.

Because it hurt too much to stand here wondering if Will had died within earshot of them, if he’d been calling to them with his last breath, Hotch turned his back and walked away. Following a path he knew led down, down to where the dead remained. He’d walked this path before. He remembered.

The numbness was fading. The wrath from before was back, coming in waves. A tide coming in and bringing with it the drowning memories of everything this town had ever done to them. It seemed like every time Hotch blinked, he remembered another rage-inducing scene: Spencer as a six-year-old boy, crushed behind a toilet in his navy-blue polo with his mouth locked open from screaming even though he’d long run out of breath; Derek throwing the minivan’s radio as he’d howled with fully actualised pain; Penelope holding Manny as they watched Aaron and Emily pull Rafe from the lake; JJ’s hollow eyes when they’d carried her away from her sister’s body.

Emily in the cabin. The blood, the bruises, the knife. Emily in the tunnels, limp and staring.

Dave.

Hotch turned a corner and his flashlight lit up Hell. It was a red room. The walls were painted in dripping sprays; the floor red-washed from the tips of Hotch’s shoes to beyond the gory scene. It took a long moment for Hotch to realise what the cause of the mess was. When he did, walking forward into the bloodied space and looking down at it, recognising her, the world went very quiet.

An unfathomable amount of time passed. Hotch kept blinking but the images from the past were gone now. Just, this. This seared into his brain forever. His knees wet with the blood. His hands red on his lap. The gun strapped to his ankle still there, untouched, because there was no doing anything about this now; they’d failed. They’d promised Rosaline they’d protect Jennifer, and they’d failed.

He’d promised Spencer he’d save her. He’d failed.

She was very, very dead.

There wasn’t a tide of anger swamping him anymore. It wasn’t anywhere near as predictable. It was a storm, unseasonable and vast. It would crush everything in its path. It would destroy all that stood before it. It was hurting and bitterness and twenty-one years of swallowed up pain; it was their fear and their grief and it was Hotch’s father’s fury finally rising from the grave with his belt and his cruelty to take root in his brain. He welcomed it. Oh, how he welcomed it.

 

2

Hotch kept going, leaving reddened footprints behind him. Down into the dark, eyes locked forward and not a single part of him able to focus beyond the rage. He would rip Pennywise in half. Crush It. Reach inside and rip It apart, like It had Rafe. Maybe he’d do to It what It had done to Emily. Maybe he’d beat It, whip It, rip a chunk of It’s flesh out with his own teeth as It writhed under him and screeched for –

He turned a corner and found Emily, her body thrown down into a pile of gas cans. Red plastic tumbled about her and her arms and legs askew, her dark hair wild around a face that was just as empty and staring as Will’s had been. It was bright in here, lit eerily. His eyes hurt as they adjusted to it. A strange, blue-white bulb hung overhead. It seemed ridiculous.

It made the shadows around him starker. It illuminated Emily.

She was so very dead.

It hit like everything else all at once: Hotch staggered with a thin cry of grief and shock as Dave’s death and Will’s death and JJ’s destruction slammed into him at once at the sight of Emily Prentiss lying there. Never to rise again. Gone for good. So many gone. And Reid was dying and Morgan would die and Jack would die and Haley

(you should die too. Just die, come on. Do yourself a favour. You’re nothing without them, those you led to their doom)

would die because he had saved no one.

He turned his head away, squeezing his eyes shut with vomit rising in his throat and tears burning. Hands shaking too much to grip anything … until they were steady and he lurched forward drunkenly to lift her from the debris. All he could smell was old gas. She was so light in his arms as he hugged her close, so slim, and he turned her gently to fix her hair away from her face. Emily was always so well-presented in life, he couldn’t bear to see her like … this.

He stared, on his knees cradling his dead teammate’s body and she was seventeen in his arms. Seventeen years old with smeared mascara and red lipstick half wiped off. Her chest was bared, a bite above her breast still oozing blood, and her face, her face was beaten. She’d been whipped.

Her eyes opened.

He didn’t fling her away from him, although it was a close thing. Remembering what he’d done to the false Dave, he gradually lowered her to the ground and stood, backing three steps away from her without ever breaking eye contact. Not when he leaned down and unstrapped the gun from his ankle, making sure she saw every one of his very deliberate movements as he straightened and checked it was loaded.

When she sat up and wiped one insouciant hand across her mouth, her face was intact. The skin above her breast was clean and unbroken. It looked as though no hand had ever been laid upon her, and she smiled at him with a look that, at sixteen, had allured him beyond all good sense. But he wasn’t sixteen anymore; he was thirty-seven and there was nothing seductive about those dark lashes and that curved mouth, not on such a young, haunted face. She was a child and he was not, and he felt sick as this facsimile of the girl he’d loved stood and winked coquettishly at him with one hand on her cocked hip and her chest still exposed.

She was holding his father’s belt, red with the blood from the last person it had beaten. Probably him. Maybe Sean. No one who’d deserved it, if anybody ever had.

“What’s wrong, Aaron?” It asked with Emily’s young voice. He wanted to rip out It’s tongue, because how dare It, but he couldn’t bring himself to hurt this child he’d loved so fiercely for one terrible summer. “Don’t you still want to fuck me?”

“Where is Prentiss?” he asked, his voice simmering low. Hiding that acrimonious anger.

“I still want to fuck you,” It simpered. “Is it because I’m not pretty enough for you? Or too damaged? Oh … you prefer blondes, don’t you? Like Haley?” Something bit down hard around his heart as she looked away, mouth turning down and chin wobbling. Those dark eyes were glassy, hurting. Scared. He couldn’t think; he was suddenly slammed by every dark guilt he’d ever harboured that he hadn’t been able to heal her in all the ways he’d longed to when he was sixteen. “I’m sorry I’m not good enough. I was always sorry I wasn’t good enough for you. But I sucked cock like a champ, didn’t I?”

It held out the belt. Hotch raised his gun, putting the false Emily squarely in his sights.

“You can whip me if you like,” It offered, smiling with too many teeth. The illusion was slipping. “I know you like causing pain. You’re not so different from good old George, are you? Oh, George, your Reaper. No, you’re not so different from him. You know that she’s scared of you, don’t you? You know, she’s down here hiding from you like a kicked bitch, a stray mutt.”

“You never convinced her I was dangerous,” Hotch said. He wondered what It would do if he walked right past. “I remember how much you tried, pretending to be me, trying to set me up for everything. But it didn’t work. She never doubted me, none of them did. You failed.”

“You failed,” It shot back, throat arching inhumanely as Emily’s young face split into a snarl. “You think you bested me? You didn’t do shit. Fucken queer little pissant, you wet little cunt – you did nothing. So what if you got away once? You’re not going to now. I’m going to devour you and your friends, and I’m going to make it hurt so much more because of how pathetic I find you all, how worthy of loathing. I failed? Did I fail? Your friends are dead and dying, Hotshot! David Rossi died like a whining dog. Jennifer Jareau will have to be buried in a matchbox. Emily Prentiss is running from you. How long do you think Spencer will last alone? Maybe I’ll send someone to take care of him, huh? Maybe I’ll have them cut off his cock first so I can shove it down your –”

Hotch fired; the bullet slammed into the centre of Emily’s forehead, snapping her head back and sending her staggering back into the gas cans. They sloshed, plastic dragging against cement

(he remembered them)

but she didn’t fall, just straightened back up and rolled her dark-rimmed eyes at him, blood trickling from the round hole in her temple and the wall behind her splattered with bone and brain matter. He watched the blood drip between her eyes, rolling smoothly down that long nose and splitting in two to drip over her mouth and off her chin. It made perfectly round circles on the floor where it landed.

“So many of us dead,” she said, the blood on her lip spraying with every word. “So many of us failed. Adult fears have many faces, Aaron, and all yours belong to me now.”

The shadows bubbled around them, Hotch’s flashlight shaking in his hand as he struggled to avoid the temptation to see what was approaching. Feet shuffled on cement. Old clothes whispered dryly. He heard the wet sound of something dripping as the multiple sources of these sounds approached. He still didn’t look: he didn’t want to see the dead made into this monster’s puppets. He didn’t want to see Dave like that, or JJ, or …

A small hand touched his elbow.

Everything went cold.

“Look at him,” Emily simpered, her expression colder than the real Emily had ever looked. “Look how small he is … how dead …”

The boy was standing just below Hotch’s peripherals. Blonde hair was just visible, but the boy’s face was lowered, obscured. Whoever it was, he didn’t say anything, just stood there with his dead hands curled over Hotch’s arm like he was trying to get the man’s attention to play with him. Hotch’s brain, entirely without his permission, calculated the height someone would have to for them to stand that tall, and his gun shook as every answer came up: Jack.

“He’s not dead,” Hotch rasped. “You’re lying.”

Emily watched him coldly.

He tore away from the dead boy, refusing to look as he shoved past Emily and closed his eyes: blind and frantic, he shoved and struck and pushed his way through the dead clustered in the entrance to the tunnel. He refused to look at any of them. There was no going back, not until he was done.

Deep below Castle Rock, Aaron Hotchner kept going. The dead followed him but he refused to be stopped until he got where he was needed: the room which contained that terrible, beating heart.

 

3

The room devoured all light. For the second time in his life, Hotch stepped out into it and knew it instantly for what it was. His flashlight barely penetrated the deep shadows. The air was colder, easier to breathe but with an aftertaste that made him feel sick. The claustrophobic feeling of the tunnels dropped away; he took a breath and knew he was in a vaulted space that loomed far over his head and before him. The ground throbbed.

The darkness moved. Hotch stilled, willing even his heartbeat to quieten so he could focus.

He wasn’t alone in here.

The ground felt alive under his shoes as he stepped cautiously forward. Something pulsed under it, just out of sync with his heart. There was a soft clicking echoing in the dark, like the whisper of a thousand dry voices. Hotch listened to that for a moment until he realised what it reminded him of with a shudder that worked right from his skull to his gut: it sounded like insects scuttling. It made his entire body itch, every hair stand on end, as he imagined countless eyes and whispering legs and clicking mandibles.

If the dead still followed him, he couldn’t tell now. It wasn’t important anyway. He remembered that this was the room the kids had been taken to all those years ago; this was the room they’d have been taken to now. Haley and Jack had to be here. From memory, he walked forwards towards

(there’s a pile of stuff ahead of him, lit by his flashlight, and he realises: the pile is made of toys and bags and clothes. The pile is made of bones and bodies. The pile is made of those children who never left Camp Moribund – and the ones he’s looking for are there, curled up in a huddle waiting for him)

the darkest part of the room where a great pile of stolen belongings and lives had once stood taller than his head and which he was sure must now stand taller still. It was there he’d found them. He was confident.

The flashlight flickered over a shape that darted out of sight, ducking behind that pile. It was white and sudden, pale in the flash of light, and he twitched slightly with surprise but didn’t let it shake him.

“Haley?” he called out, raising the arm with the light so he could try to see further. It didn’t work. The place seemed to eat anything as comforting as the ability to see. “It’s Aaron. I promise, I’m real, I’m not a –”

“I know who you are.”

He tensed. That wasn’t Haley.

It was followed by the sound of a gun being loaded, a sound that seemed to resonate around this haunting space. Even the rustling was silent. Everything was listening.

“Emily,” he said.

Silence was his answer.

“Emily? I swear, I’m not It. I’m me. Where are you?”

“I’m here.”

He tried to shine the flashlight where he thought the voice was coming from, but there was nothing there. Or, if there was, the darkness hid it. Unease began to grow. This wasn’t right. She wasn’t right; there was something strange about her voice. Something reserved.

Emily Prentiss is running from you Pennywise had snarled at him.

“Where is here?” he called. “Are you hurt?”

“I don’t know, am I?” She sounded distracted. He took another step sideways and then forward to try to circle around to her voice, but sound carried so strangely in here. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You’re going to touch something you shouldn’t.”

“What shouldn’t I touch?”

“Something.”

She moaned as though in pain.

The unease was thick now, choking all hope of this resolving itself and leaving him with a gun he trusted at his side. “Can you see me?”

“Yes.”

“Come you come towards me? Without touching what you shouldn’t?” As he spoke, he eased up onto his toes, nervously darting the flashlight in sweeps around his feet to see what she was warning him away from stepping on. The ground, he realised, was strange. It wasn’t the same concrete flooring as he’d walked on this whole way down here. It was … white. Glinting sickly where his light struck it like it had been coated in something. Barely half a foot to his right, his light found the outline of what he immediately recognised as a human form half-sunk into the floor. It didn’t look so human anymore. The floor seemed to have grown up around it, drawing it down within it as that sickly white had oozed over it. As he stared at the fully-enmeshed human shape, he thought he could see something moving under the shell of it. Something breathing. That hadn’t been here last time, he was sure.

Prentiss wasn’t answering.

“Please come to me, Emily,” he kept trying, lifting the light slightly. Using her name to remind her who she was, who he was. He could see more of those mummified forms in rows all around him; somehow, he’d walked quite neatly down the centre of an aisle between them. If he’d gone left, or right, he’d be within them. “I need your help. Jack is down here –”

“And how did that happen?” came the low reply. He’d heard that dangerous tone to her voice only a few times before, when she’d been angry beyond belief at whoever she was interrogating and leading them into a vicious trap. “Tell me how it happened, Aaron. Are you sorry?”

“What? No, I’m scared, I’m scared, I want my son –”

“They want him too,” she replied, voice distant again. “Can you hear them?”

He didn’t answer.

She continued, “Hear them feeding? Do you know, crocodiles are one of the oldest predators in existence … millions of years and they still feed on us so perfectly. They’re still so good at what they do. That’s fucked, isn’t it, Aaron? That something can be created so perfectly to do nothing but hunt and feed on humans, to kill us. Maybe we’re supposed to die. Who are we to argue with that kind of history? Primitive, predatory, older than us … we fear them so innately. Like spiders. Are you scared of spiders? I am.”

“Okay,” he said, walking forward further down the aisle, now careful where he placed his feet and definitely not looking at the bodies or the clicking, which seemed to be getting louder, more excited. He wondered if the source of that clicking could smell his blood, hear his heartbeat … “Okay, Em. I’m going to come to you. You stay very still, alright? I think there’s something wrong and I’m coming to help –”

“One more step and I’ll blow your fucking brains out of your skull!”

He froze.

“You’re like them,” she hissed, her voice’s cadence slipping grossly into something he didn’t recognise. “You’re just like them. The spiders and the crocodiles, the predators … the dangers … you always have been. Rosaline was right. I can’t trust you, none of us should and none of us will. Oh, you tried to convince me otherwise, but I’m not stupid. You’re not coming near us. I’ll kill you if you try.”

Us.

“Who is ‘us’, Emily?” he tried, all his muscles sore from fighting the urge to sweep his light around the room and keep looking for her. “Who is with you?”

“You know, don’t act dumb! You sent them down here, you bastard! You fed them to It!”

He was completely lost now. “Jack? Is Jack with you? Emily, tell me!”

He turned, very slowly and ignoring her furious hiss, until his light hit, not darkness, but the mountain of belongings. It was still there. It was bigger.

Prentiss was before it with her gun fixed neatly on him.

“I’m putting my gun away,” he said, making sure to keep his movements slow and predictable as her eyes tracked his every move. She looked bizarre, caught in the flashlight beam as a bright splash of life against the dark of the terrible pile behind her. Her hair was loose, hanging lank around her face, her eyes wide and staring in her chalk-white face. There was blood but he refused to panic; there was no guarantee it was hers. But it was in her expression, those wide eyes, the something unsettling. He remembered how she’d been after Pennywise had attacked her, forced her to see something that had almost driven her insane. Had it happened again?

His gun was holstered. He showed her his empty hands. Her weapon didn’t waver.

“Are you alone?” he coaxed, standing once more and taking a step towards her that stopped when her finger drifted to the trigger. Don’t touch the trigger until you’re committed to taking a life, he’d taught her, so he took that small gesture very seriously indeed.

Her gaze almost flickered down before snapping back to his face.

He lowered the light in a quick movement that lit up a motionless form laid out by her feet. Blonde hair. Superhero pyjamas.

Jack.

Hotch cried out, darting towards his son –

– she shot him.

The pain was sudden and shocking, and he reacted to it instinctively. Flashlight off and dropping fast, keeping low to the ground as he moved away from the place she knew he was before lying flat, belly to the unsettlingly warm ground and feeling a warm trickle of blood and a hot, throbbing pain start up in his shoulder where her bullet had struck. He didn’t think she’d been aiming for his shoulder, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth against a sickening surge of pain from what he suspected was his collarbone, either fractured or broken by the bullet impacting it. He suspected she’d been either aiming for his head or his heart; he suspected she hadn’t meant to miss.

He didn’t want to shoot her. He couldn’t shoot her. She wasn’t acting right, but he knew, somehow, that this was Prentiss. It wasn’t Pennywise wearing her skin, it wasn’t a ghost mocking him while Prentiss’s body decomposed somewhere out of sight. It was Prentiss, and he wouldn’t kill her.

So why was she trying to kill him?

The room throbbed along with his racing heart. It beat, tha-thump tha-thump tha-thump, with each thump getting deeper, stronger. Something liked that they were here. Something was enjoying this grotesque game of cat and mouse.

“Spencer asked me to save you,” he said, listening intently for anything other than that beating and the resumed scuttling under his prone body. Prentiss was quiet. “He’s worried about you. Please come with me, Emily. Come see him. He’s hurt, and we need to get him out here but he won’t go until you’re safe too.”

“You shouldn’t be giving him a say in if he stays or goes,” Prentiss responded dully. She sounded even worse, he realised, the thought not as comforting as it should have been. Her voice was slurring like she was drunk or exhausted. Another thought occurred to him: there was every possibility he could just stay hidden until she died from her unseen injuries. She didn’t sound like she’d last much longer.

That thought sickened him. He couldn’t bear to think of her dying. No, whatever was wrong with her, it was temporary. Maybe she’d just hit her head; she’d surely be fine. They’d be fine. They’d all be fine.

He could carry them away from this, just like he had before.

She was still talking: “He’s too little. He doesn’t know what’s good for him. I’m not strong enough to pick him up.”

Hotch blinked.

“Little?” he asked, sitting up and holding his breath as he waited for her gun to end him. “How old is Spencer, Emily?”

She answered: “He’s only six. How could you do this to him? He’s only six, you monster …”

Hotch stood and walked towards her, unafraid of her gun anymore.

 

4

“Hi, Em,” he said, finding her sitting where she’d been standing before she’d shot at him. She didn’t raise her gun when he turned his flashlight back on to illuminate her, just blinked listlessly at him with Jack pulled onto her lap and her weapon loose over the little boy’s chest. “You know I didn’t do that, right? I didn’t give the kids to the cops to bring down here. You know I didn’t because I was drugged in the library. Then the police had me and I’m sorry about that because it meant I didn’t get here in time before It hurt you. But I did try. Don’t you remember?”

She shook her head, then frowned. “I kissed you,” she whispered, looking down at the boy unconscious in her lap. Hotch stared at him, holding his own breath until he saw the child breathe too; Jack was alive. “I kissed you goodbye. Then I came down here to die saving them. Counting ghosts. Where the hell were you? I needed you! I … I came alone …”

“You were brave,” he agreed, crouching. “But I’m here. Can I have Jack? I can carry him.”

Suddenly, she moved. Too fast – and he had a gun aimed at his head and her eyes were wild.

“You’re leaving me to burn,” she snarled, wobbling in place. “I tried to burn it, Aaron, and you’re leaving me here. Well, it’s not happening again! I’m taking them and going, we’re going, we’re –” She tried to struggle up, Jack flopping limply in her one-armed grip, and made a gutting moan of misery when she couldn’t make it. “No! Spencer, please, come on. Don’t die, you little shit, I didn’t come down here to find you dead! It was supposed to be me dying, not him!”

“You’re not seventeen,” he tried, unable to move with her finger so sloppily cocked on the trigger while she struggled to lift his child with her other arm. “Em, please. You’re not seventeen. You’re not alone. I’m here, I can help you. It’s not then.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” she snapped. “Don’t try to gaslight me. I know what you did. You called them, you sent the kids down here, and now you’re here to make sure It devours us. You’re watching me burn alive – I know you are. I can feel it, the heat …” She turned her face away from him for a moment, as though twisting back from some great wall of flames. He saw blood coating the back of her neck, her shoulders, and it looked wet enough that he knew it was hers.

Hotch looked away to try and gather his thoughts, seeing what else lay there on that horrific stage with Prentiss. He hadn’t seen it before, but he saw it now, and it struck him dumb. But there was no time for it yet. He pushed it down and looked for that part of himself he’d locked away, the stuff even deeper than his grief for his team and his fear of Pennywise and his memories of his dad. Everything he’d tried to lose following that summer.

He found it.

Aaron looked back, meeting Emily’s eyes.

“There’s no fire here,” he said, “because you didn’t want to come out into this room. We just chucked as much of the gas in here as we could and threw a match. It went out, Em. The fire went out. We’re crap arsonists – we couldn’t even get the bonfire lit for the kids that time, not until Rafe helped.”

She narrowed her eyes, looking around. “We are kinda crap arsonists,” she admitted, mouth quirking. Jack twitched in her arms, his eyes moving behind blueish lids. “But I thought … I could feel my hands burning.”

“Pennywise did that to you,” Aaron told her, a thrill of adult anger rising and threatening to ruin what he was desperately trying to do as it reminded him how terrifying that had been, seeing Emily drop, screaming, to the ground as she howled about her hands melting. “It was an illusion, just one of his tricks. I handed Sean to Derek and ran back and got you, remember? I carried you until you could walk again.”

“You did that,” she remembered in a soft voice. “I do remember that. Why would you do that?”

He breathed in and out once more, locking this moment in his brain. Closing his eyes and picturing her as she’d been then, trying to remember how he’d been … how real and new everything was at sixteen, how vivid the feelings. How fresh the pain but, oh, how incredible to be in love for the first time. Thirty-seven-year-old Hotch would be lying if he looked at her now and said what he had to say, so he wasn’t that man at all; he was the boy he’d killed in an attempt to escape this place. He was Aaron, who’d deserved better.

They’d all deserved better.

“Because you’re the only person I trust beside me,” he said, locking onto that feeling and ignoring everything else. When he opened his eyes again, he could see it: her kneeling there holding Spencer and watching him warily, waiting for the words he’d been too much of a dumbass to say at sixteen. He still couldn’t say them. “You’re my co-pilot in this plane we’re flying out of hell, remember? And what did I tell you about co-pilots?”

“Captain doesn’t do shit without the co-pilot’s okay,” Emily whispered, the gun lowering.

“Shoot me if you want,” he told her, shuffling towards her with a distant realisation that his arm wasn’t working anymore from where she’d already made good on that threat. But he wasn’t done: “I don’t care. Even if you shoot me, I’ll crawl to stay beside you and, when I can’t crawl anymore, I’ll drag myself until I can’t do that either. I’m not who It’s trying to make you think I am. I don’t run when my friends are in danger. I don’t leave my people behind. Not you, not Spencer, not anyone.” He was crying, he realised, fetching up beside her and reaching out to take the gun. She let him; she was crying too. “I’m getting out of here and we’re getting those kids out too, just like we promised, Em. We can’t let Rosaline and Rafe down.”

Hiccupping messily, Emily folded forwards into his arms. He hugged her for what felt like an eternity, as though the last twenty-one years was folding into this singular moment. There was no letting go until she was done; he might have her gun now, but he still needed her cooperation.

Holding Emily close, the flashlight on the ground beside them and Jack still breathing between them, Aaron stared numbly over her shoulder at what he’d seen before: Haley’s body, staring eyes watching him accusingly. He’d known from the instant he’d seen her lying there that he’d lost his wife in a way more final than even the divorce had ever been. No living face was ever so expressionless; only the dead were so gone. But there was no time to react now, he just couldn’t. He was too shaken, too hurt, and he needed to be Aaron right now, the Aaron who barely knew Haley. He couldn’t be the man who loved her right now; he couldn’t be Hotch, and so he didn’t react.

Aaron could get them out of here; Hotch would simply give up and grieve.

 

5

The hug ended. Prentiss wiped her eyes as they broke apart. Hotch was careful not to look again at the body behind her.

“Jack?” he called, checking his boy’s vitals. A pulse thrummed and Hotch breathed with relief.

“It’s just like last time,” Prentiss murmured, looking around. Hotch took the chance while she was distracted to lean over and try to see if he could tell where she was hurt; he suspected she’d hit her head against something, seeing the hair on the back of her head matted with blood. When he reached out to brush his fingers gently against it, he found the skull soft to the touch. His fingers skimmed a wound that still bled in a hot dribble of blood. No wonder she was confused; she’d had her brains rattled, hard. He needed to get her out of here.

“What is?” he asked, looking down at his own shoulder and realising he was going to need Prentiss to carry Jack, if she could.

“We got here in time last time, before the frenzy …” She was frowning, that confusion sneaking back in the sharp light of the flashlight. “But I didn’t get out, did I, Aaron? I think I died down here.”

“You didn’t.” Hotch staggered up, bringing her with him. “Can you carry Ja-Spencer? My arm is hurt. I can’t do it.”

She nodded, following his instructions without question but still looking around with that same acute look of distress. Despite this, she carried Jack easily. Her gait was strange though, Hotch guiding her down from the ledge she was on and leading her carefully down that aisle of safety among the skittering ground. It was like both halves of her body were out of sync and he had to keep correcting her as she’d list to the left and begin drifting towards those strange, encapsulated corpses and their clicking, moving contents.

“Look,” she said suddenly, nodding with her chin towards something only she could see. He aimed the flashlight over there: there was a blank spot in the pattern of bodies. Something in his gut kicked hard. “I told you I didn’t get out. Right there, that’s where he put me to lock me here forever … and there’s your spot, and Derek’s, and Penelope’s. It told me where It was going to put each of you. No spot for Spencer, though. Pennywise was greedy about Spencer. I don’t think Spencer was for sharing.”

Horror slammed home; Hotch realised what she was talking about. Suddenly, he wanted out. He needed out.

“It’s a feeding ground,” he rasped, looking to his feet where, below, something was alive. Fed by these bodies, these countless bodies. All those helpless children above, penned in and waiting for slaughter.

“No,” said Prentiss. “It’s a nest. Didn’t you know? I did. It showed me. It feeds in Derry for Itself and then It comes here to nest where the hunting is easy. It says the babies grow so fat here, so healthy. Aaron, can you take Spencer? My hands are sore, they’re burnt, didn’t you see them burning?”

He looked at her. She looked like Reid had in the church above them, her skin washed out of all colour and coated with a fine layer of sticky sweat. There was still wet blood shining on her shoulders and he swore softly, realising she was bleeding out faster than they were getting out. Even as he watched, she swayed dangerously, her breathing strenuous from a throat that was beginning to fail. The sound was wet, flaccid. She was slipping away as he watched.

“I’ve got him,” he said, taking Jack from her with his working arm. The other hung limp, the pain unimportant but the limb still not responding anyway. He was bleeding too, but he ignored that, continuing to lead them away from

(Haley)

the hungry mouths he now knew were waiting below for one of them to stumble into place. He didn’t look back. There was nothing to look back for. At sixteen, he hadn’t known Haley, not well enough to grieve her, but he had known Emily and she was at his side, just like Sean was in his arms … he blinked, looking down and seeing Jack, then Sean, then Spencer, and thinking that maybe he should stop his own bleeding before he ended up as lost as Prentiss.

“Oh,” Prentiss moaned in a toneless sob of animal pain, lifting the flashlight and holding it aloft to illuminate Foyet in the doorway.

 

6

Foyet’s eye was gone. A hollow, bloodied socket stared at them, blood coating his face, his chest, his arms. His face was covered in scratches, great gouges of flesh ripped from his cheek and jaw. He smiled despite these things, holding his arms out as though in greeting in the circle of wobbling light from Emily’s flashlight. The knife in his hand gleamed slickly red, much like the rest of him was. Hotch stepped forward, putting himself between Prentiss and the grotesque sight before them. Only moments later did he realise this put Jack in danger, turning his body with difficulty to try gesture for Prentiss to step forward and take the boy to give Hotch back his working arm. Everything moved very slowly; they were in indescribable danger.

“Oh dear, Aaron,” said Foyet in a tone of great sadness, leaning around them and staring off into the waiting dark. “Is that Haley there? Oh, she’s very dead. So very very dead. That’s disappointing. I’d have liked to have killed her myself.”

“Haley’s dead?” Prentiss mumbled, head snapping up from where she’d slumped into a half-crouch.

“Take Jack,” was all Hotch insisted. She was in no state to help here.

He had to face Foyet alone.

Prentiss took Jack without another word, the flashlight bobbing and making the light erratic. Foyet was caught in the fluctuating beam, his shadow growing and shrinking and his smile never slipping.

“Not even a hello? Even after I offer my sincerest condolences for the untimely death of Mrs Aaron?”

Hotch stood, gun in hand.

“Keep the light on him,” he told Prentiss.

“Hotch, be careful,” was her response. Hotch, he noted. Not Aaron.

“I just want to say, I’m glad the boy is still alive. It’s going to be exciting, cutting him up. Did you see what a pretty puzzle I made of –”

Hotch aimed and fired in one smooth gesture, but Foyet had stepped back and the darkness had swallowed him. There was a beat of silence – and then he attacked.

The first Hotch knew of him was the shadows beside them buckling as Foyet seemed to burst from them, slamming into him and sending them both stumbling as his feet skidded out from under him. Prentiss cried out – don’t touch the bodies! – but Foyet’s hand gripped tight around Hotch’s hand, nails cutting tight. That empty eye socket bobbed inches from Hotch’s face, made even more horrific by the way the flashlight skipped about on his torn features. Foyet was a man possessed. A demonic strength seemed to drive him; it was all Hotch could do to try to keep his grip on his gun – and his other arm was useless, barely able to lift it to try to squeeze some space between them.

Pain burst. Hotch grunted as the knife slid and skipped along his ribs, redoubling his efforts. A knee to Foyet’s chest brought a satisfying exhale of air from the man, red-stained teeth bared at Hotch in an animal howl, but it didn’t shake him loose. The knife stabbed down again, Hotch twisting out that deadly touch; the gun crept around closer and closer as they rolled on the ground in a terrible tangle of limbs and blood and pain –

 “Just let me kill you,” Foyet spat at him, his eye so empty of anything approaching sanity that Hotch knew the same thing had happened to this man as what had almost happened to Prentiss all those years ago, except this man had welcomed it. “You’ll beg for it in the end. Jennifer did! She begged and she begged and she”

– and Hotch pulled the trigger as soon as it even seemed like it was close enough, feeling his arm knock something that reached out to touch it back with fine, spindly fingers. Above him, Foyet lurched backwards with a gurgle. The gunshot left Hotch’s ears ringing, his side burning from the knife strikes, but that didn’t stop him from rolling away from whatever he was touching with a hoarse cry, using his damaged arm to ineffectually scrub it away before it could eat into the flesh. Foyet was hunched on the ground like an animal, half-kneeling, half-crouched, one hand to the ground and the other to his face. The bullet had ripped up through his jaw and out through his cheek, but it wasn’t stopping him.

It wasn’t stopping him at all.

His head turned, to look at Jack lying alone on the ground with the flashlight propped beside him, still on. There was no sign of Prentiss.

“No,” Hotch moaned, fighting a wave of hot terror to struggle to his feet. Where was his gun?

He’d lost the gun.

“No,” he rasped again, but Foyet lunged: knife in hand and scuttling grossly towards the boy, Jack lay there defenceless, and Hotch was failing again.

Hotch gave chase, leaping one of those mummified bodies and almost putting a foot through another in his haste, not taking any care in his rush to get to his son. To save his son. He flung himself forward –

– and they went down with twin snarls, Hotch unarmed now as he attempted to do to this man exactly what he’d done to the false Dave. But he was weaker now. He’d lost too much blood, seen too much to break him. The anger that could have ripped through Foyet like a storm through a wooden shack was gone; it had reached its peak in that terrible scene with JJ dead, blown itself out as he’d walked away from the illusion of Emily mocking him, and died completely when he’d reached back into the past to try to draw Prentiss to safety in the present. It was as dead as Haley.

There were hands around his throat, squeezing tight. Foyet loomed close, no longer human with his face eliminated, his one eye lost to the madness Pennywise inspired. And it was his fault that Haley was dead, his fault Will had died, his fault Jack and Henry were in danger, but Hotch’s vision had fractured into bursts of light and shadow, his lungs screaming, his brain shutting down, and he began to drift as he was, inexorably, killed.

“Emily,” he tried to

 

7

moan, but she covered his mouth.

“Shhh,” she whispered, leaning close and kissing him again. She was naked against him, her eyes so dark he felt like he was drowning in them. He felt, all at once, aroused and insanely lucky and as though he was the only boy in the world to live this dream. No one else, he was sure, had ever felt as alive as he did on these faded exercise mats in the basement of some backwater library, with a gorgeous girl naked in his arms and him inside her. “Someone will hear us.”

“They’re all too busy stuffing their faces,” he reassured her. “Didn’t I tell you I’d get us out of there? She’s going to help us, you watch.”

She moved and he felt her all around him, this time failing to muffle the sound it pulled from him. There was a tattoo on her shoulder blade; he couldn’t tell what it was from this angle, not with her hair in the way.

“Maybe we’re going to be okay,” she said, burying her face against his bare shoulder. Her arms wrapped around him. Her lashes were damp against his skin. “Oh my god, Aaron, we’re going to get out of here. We’re going to live.”

“I told you we would. I promised, no one else is going to

 

8

die!”

Hotch breathed in a rush; the world burst into vivid, burning clarity around him. His eyes fluttered open, suddenly aware that his throat was burning and his body felt disconnected from the rest of him – except for his hand, which had fallen limp on the floor and, somehow, found Jack’s little hand to hold on the way – but he was alive. He was alive.

Where was Foyet?

The ground moved below him in a slow, corrosive wave of a thousand concerted beings. He felt himself roll with it, tipping onto his belly and dragging himself in a tired heave over to his son and pressing his mouth to the boy’s flushed forehead. Jack’s eyes were open, barely, blinking more awake every moment that passed … Hotch smiled at him … the screaming started.

With a jolt, he turned, feeling the room spin with him. He couldn’t see. He was blind.

The flashlight bumped against his fingers and he fumbled with it, dropped it twice, ears ringing, mouth burning. He tasted copper and vomit and stale, old pennies shoved down his throat to choke him, ripping and slicing the whole way down. If he coughed, he felt like he’d bring the whole system up with it, and that was when he got the flashlight on and aimed it towards those wet, shrieking cries.

“Just, die!” Prentiss snarled, slamming Foyet’s head down again on the ground with the sound of a watermelon being slapped against concrete from a great height. Foyet burbled. There was a bloodied baseball bat on the ground next to Prentiss, the end splintered but the name JAREAU visible stencilled in black on the polished handle. Prentiss was atop Foyet, straddling him as she pinned him down. Hotch tried to understand what he was looking at, what he was hearing; Foyet’s screams were weakening but Prentiss was beginning to cry out with pain too, and it looked like the ground itself was seething around them. Something cracked; they sank more, and Hotch saw Foyet’s chest begin to cave inward as spindly legs of shadow began to fight to crawl out of the opening, bubbling around Prentiss’s already obscured hands. Where the light touched, the shadows fled, revealing torn masses of flesh and gouts of blood and the white hint of bone left behind by a voracious hunger stripping it clean.

He realised what he was looking at and ripped his gaze away, scooping Jack up close against his chest as he staggered up. Everything wavered around him, but it didn’t matter; he just ran. Headed straight for that door and away from what he’d seen eating its way through George Foyet while the man was still alive. Jack cried something against his chest, but Hotch pulled him tighter and ignored his shock. His child couldn’t see that. He’d never forget it.

The tunnel felt claustrophobic around them as they ran halfway up it before Hotch skidded to a stop and crouched to place Jack down. The air here felt tight, compounded. Jack was crying.

“Mom,” he sobbed. “Where’s Mommy? Daddy, where’s Mommy?”

“Stay here, buddy,” Hotch pleaded with him, trying to coax him to sit despite his raw terror. There was blood on his pyjamas now, staining the hero’s smiling face. “Daddy has to go get Emily, but you need to stay here – please?”

Jack stared at him, too terrified to understand. There was nothing for it.

Hotch gestured for him to stay, desperately hoped he would, and then turned around and ran back.

She wasn’t hard to find. Her sobs were gutting, raw terror breaking him. Foyet was dead or, at least, Hotch fucking hoped he was because the flashlight that he held steady on that roiling, starving mass of black eyes and a million tiny, gnashing teeth revealed that they were almost through eating the man’s head from the inside out. All that was left was one blue eye staring and his mouth hanging open to reveal the creatures feeding inside. Prentiss was trying to stand, to pull away, but his hand had locked tight around her arm as he’d died and the creatures were leaping from him to her and trying to burrow in.

Hotch crushed one against her arm with the flashlight, crying out with her as she screamed when it burst in a flood of searing black ooze that ate at her skin. Kicking at anything that scuttled at him, he threw the flashlight into the cavernous space of Foyet’s chest and the bubbling darkness there: the creatures screamed with one voice and tried to flee, down into the ground and away from the burning light. He ignored his own pain as he tried to wipe as much of them from her as possible before grabbing that dead, rigid hand and yanking it loose. She stumbled against him and he lifted her, and he ran.

 

9

“Let me see your hands,” he demanded. They were in the lit section of that tunnel, against the edges of the singular bulb’s grim reach. Prentiss had twitched from her undignified seat thrown over his shoulder the whole way back here, Jack stumbling tiredly aside him with his small hand looped through Hotch’s numbed one. Hotch could feel his strength sapping with every drip of blood from that hand, his collarbone fucking him up so completely that he was pretty sure existence was nothing but pain by this point. He’d dropped her as soon as he’d seen light. There was no way to describe it other than dropping. The sound her head had made on the ground reminded him of Rosaline.

Prentiss said nothing, just let her head tip back and groaned very softly. It was a sound he ignored. With Jack pressed against his back, he kneeled and used his one good hand to strip his shirt.

“Hold this,” he told Jack, using the boy to brace the shirt so he could rip it using his knee. That, he looped it tight around his shoulder in an attempt to keep what was left of his blood in. The darkness around him was beginning to be lit by spots of red and green, dancing in his peripherals and vanishing when he looked directly at them. “Good boy. Stay there. Let me help Emily.”

“Okay, Daddy,” Jack mumbled, his eyes glazed. Very, very deeply in shock. Hotch, for a heartbeat, was furious at him for that – and his father’s voice whispered see, he’s useless just like you were.

He ignored it.

“Emily,” he coaxed, propping his numb hand behind her head and wincing as blood squelched wetly against his palm, her hair matted at the base of her skull. “How are your hands?”

She twitched again, before lifting them for his purview. They weren’t so bad. The blood of those creatures had burned them, but it didn’t look too deep and she didn’t seem in pain.

“Okay,” he breathed, relieved. “I’m going to check out your head now and see if I can stop the bleeding so we can get out of here.”

“I’m tired,” Jack whispered.

It was a long way out.

Hotch eased Prentiss around and tipped her head forward so he could examine it in the unnatural light, the smell of gas thick in his nostrils. “I can’t carry you,” he said, unsure if he was talking to Jack or Prentiss. “You’ll have to walk, Jack, even though you’re tired. I have to help Emily.”

Jack looked at him, his mouth wobbling. He was only four. It was a long way out and sloped uphill the whole way. There was the bloody mess of JJ to get through. The dark. The monsters that lurked.

He wouldn’t make it.

Hotch couldn’t carry them both.

That settled over him in a dazed wave of horror as he used his good hand to gently part Prentiss’s hair, searching for the impact zone. And here it was. For the longest time, Hotch stared at it. It wasn’t bleeding now, he noted. That was good. That was a good thing. Curled slightly to her side, Prentiss said nothing, her chest rising and falling with tedious determination to hang on. He could feel her heart going fast against his knee.

She hadn’t hit her head, either.

That wasn’t good at all.

She’s not going to survive that, said that voice in his head again, the one he was beginning to suspect wasn’t his dad at all but himself. The cold, calculating, pragmatic asshole that lived in there and had gotten him this far. Look at that. That’s a bullet hole. She’s got a bullet in her skull, Hotchner. Right in the base of the thing. She’s not going to make it.

“You’re not going to die,” Hotch said. Her eyes were open, but they weren’t focused. They moved in spasmodic, uncoordinated twitches from side to side. Her entire body was tensing tight before shuddering into a series of abortive shivers in his arms. The shivering would cease as she tensed once more before the whole cycle played out again.

That’s her brain shutting down right in front of you, said the voice coldly, cruelly. Hotch tightened his hand into a trembling fist and closed his eyes, willing it to shut the fuck up. He just needed to think. He did this once, at seventeen, walked in here and got everyone out. He could do it again.

Except for Will. Except for JJ. And Dave.

And Haley.

She’s dying.

“Jack, walk a bit further for Daddy. I have to carry Emily.”

But she wasn’t cooperating anymore. Carrying a limp Prentiss had been hard enough with one side of his body in agonising pain; carrying one that was losing increasing amounts of control over her motor functions with every passing minute? And she was conscious now, fully conscious, cussing him out in a slow, slurred voice every time her head bumped against his shoulder or the wall. Jack lagged behind. Hotch stopped, exhausted. They’d barely moved out of sight of the gas cans.

He lowered her again. She watched him with one eye, the other half-obscured by her slumped eyelid.

“I can’t,” Jack mumbled, curling up on the floor like his batteries had abruptly run out. Hotch recognised it as the child hitting the end of his limited reserves. He was exhausted, scared for his mom, confused, probably hungry and thirsty too but too shell-shocked to verbalise any of that. Hotch couldn’t ask more of him. That was setting his son up to fail when they couldn’t afford that failure.

“I can carry you both,” Hotch decided out loud, slowly flexing his fucked arm and ignoring how it almost laid him out with the pain. Sweating and gasping, vomit searing from his stomach to his throat and back down again as he forced it down, he leaned to try to wrap that arm around Prentiss and lift her back over his unfeeling shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

A hand curled over his arm, pushing him away with no real strength. “Don’t do that,” Prentiss said tiredly. “You’re beat. I’m fucked. You need to go. Get Jack out.”

Hotch gritted his teeth and pushed her hand away. She couldn’t stop him, but the half roll of her one good eye was enough to indicate she wasn’t happy about it.

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” he snapped at her, furious with her refusal to keep fighting. “I can do this.”

“You never knew when to quit,” she mumbled. The slur was back. He hated it, teeth ground so tight together he could hear them creaking. “Never. So stubborn. Such a shit. Take your promise back.”

Her voice was softening. He couldn’t really hear her, having to lean close to her lips to feel her shaping them carefully. “Which one?” he asked, giving in to the impulse to just lean his cheek against hers and breathe for a second, shoving back everything that was threatening to overwhelm him right now: he was losing her. Right here, and not like Dave, not like JJ or Haley or Reid; he hadn’t been there to help them when they were hurt. He hadn’t been right beside them, but he was with Prentiss.

And she was still dying.

“That you’re getting us home. Take it back. Give it back. Make a new promise …”

She’d trailed off, blinking, uncertain. He didn’t know what she was trying to say, so he couldn’t help her find the words that were evading her.

“I don’t leave people behind. Not you, not anyone. You came down here to save my brother. I’m not leaving you here.”

He was crying again, the tears hot as they fell from him to trace lines down her grubby skin. She didn’t seem to care.

“Now who’s confused … about when … it is …” Her eyes closed. His heart stopped, but hers was still going. She was still going. The world spun wildly, horribly; he almost wished she’d die faster so this uncertain misery could end. Then she spoke again, eyes opening just enough for him to see what he worried was their last moment of clarity: “Get him out. Get him safe. And then come back.”

“I will, I will, I’ll come get you, I promise –”

Head shaking, she laughed. It was almost a normal laugh. He grieved it. “Fuck me, I’m ready to sleep. Headache is killing me. Just want to sleep at this point. No, fuck me … get your ass back here and kill It, Aaron. Don’t let It hurt any more kids.”

Jack was crying, either from sensing that Prentiss was hurt bad or from his terror over his mom or because his dad was crying too, or from a mixture of all of the above, but Hotch’s world had ground to a halt on those words. Moments later, it restarted, with purpose.

He had purpose again.

The storm returned and he nodded. “This ends today,” he promised her. “We’ve lost too much.”

She didn’t answer. Aaron leaned down, pausing for a heartbeat before pressing his lips to hers and feeling her respond weakly to the kiss, one hand fluttering up to touch his cheek before falling. She went still.

When he stood, the tunnels felt colder. Cleaner. Sharper. Sean watched him from his seat on the concrete behind him, standing when Aaron held his hand out. He was so light on Aaron’s arm, so easy to lift despite his exhaustion. Aaron smiled at him, before looking down to Emily, who smiled back brightly.

“You go,” she said with a toss of her hair and a wink, that knife-like grin he loved so much set nicely onto her dangerous mouth. He adored it all, her dark eyes, her stark make-up, her hair spiked up in a wild mess around her head as she reclined there in the light in her leather and sass with a cigarette in hand and booted feet crossed at the ankles. She was so impossibly alive. “Hurry up, Hotshot. When you get back here, we’re burning this bitch down.”

It was

(impossible)

easy to

(stagger)

walk away from her because the tunnels were

(dark)

bright, the future was

(ending)

real, she looked

(dead)

just how she always had at seventeen, and of course, he’d see her again.

(he wouldn’t)

 

10

Footsteps followed him out. He kept his smile up. There was no reason to cry. No reason to choke around the gutting, bitter sobs that ripped out of him and stole all his air with them, no reason for the burning agony of his eyes, no reason to grieve. Everyone was still alive and he’d make sure they stayed that way. He was sure: little JJ was following just behind him and Spencer held his hand. Sean was heavy in his arms, and they were okay. Emily would be okay too, once he got the kids out and went back for her, and surely Derek was here somewhere too?

“You’re gonna be okay,” he told Sean. “We’re almost out. Just close your eyes through here. It’s frightening. I don’t want you to get scared.”

“Okay, Dad,” said Sean, burying his head into Aaron’s shoulder.

“You too,” he called back to JJ and Spencer. “JJ, make sure Spencer doesn’t see.”

She didn’t answer, but he wasn’t worried. She’d always looked after him.

“Everything’s gonna be just fine when the clown is dead,” he told them. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

(2009)

Hotch crawled out of the hole and felt, for a single second, relief. Jack stood in the light, every inch of him covered in dirt and blood that wasn’t his. It was an anodyne sight, his son standing so alive and realised; and then the thunder rolled outside and the shock of the light faded and Hotch realised there was no sun here to be found, only clouds. Only storms.

He kneeled beside him, taking every inch of his son in as his brain ablated itself between the past and the present. Was he Agent Hotchner, the leader of the BAU, father of Jack? Or was this Sean standing here smiling at him, and JJ and Spencer crawling out behind him …

Whoever he was, he turned his head and froze. There was a huddled shape against the side of the false church. A splash of navy blue, rich and shocking. His suit jacket pulled unevenly over a static form. It was Reid. Reid who he’d left behind, Reid who didn’t know Prentiss was dead and JJ was dead and and and …

And Hotch knew he was dead and buckled under the knowledge, crawling over there mute and senseless to double-check. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t lose another. He couldn’t he couldn’t he couldn’t he couldn’t –

His hand touched Reid’s still cheek. He was turned slightly to his side, one knee drawn to his chest. Eyes sunken in his narrow face, those purple bruises ringing his eyes worse than ever. Hair matted from sweat. This close, Hotch could see movement under the jacket: Henry, asleep cradled in the encompassing world of his godfather’s arms. Blood had pooled under them and dried, gluing them there. Dirt and dust had settled in the now-brown puddle. Reid’s cheek was cold.

His eyes flickered open, blinking torpidly. Life stole into that wax-like face.

A small sob of amelioration slipped from Hotch’s lips. He opened his mouth to tell him about Prentiss.

“They’re outside,” Reid rasped, turning his head to continue that exhausted blinking while staring at the door. Hotch followed his gaze. Blue and red lights flickered on the frame. “I don’t know how they got there. Someone would have had to lead them out the tunnels and they didn’t pass through here. I … I shot at them to keep them out, for now.” He looked back, eyes darting to the hole. “JJ?”

Hotch said nothing.

“Will?”

Silence settled heavy over the blood and grief of that unhallowed room. Reid swallowed. The sound grated.

“Emily?” he whispered.

“We have to get the boys out,” Hotch said. “We’re sitting ducks in here. Can you run?”

Reid’s incredulous lift of his eyebrows answered that better than anything else could, levering himself up with Henry babbling as he woke up in his arms. An orphan now, Hotch realised. Henry was an orphan. Reid’s arms tightened around him as though he’d realised it too: Henry was his responsibility now. His responsibility, his joy, his terror. Just as Jack was Hotch’s.

“There’s a side door,” Reid said slowly. Hotch’s gut churned, digesting itself under the weight of what he was about to say. No no no no no screamed his grieving brain, the brain that had lost so many today, so so so many, but he said nothing. After all, he was Hotch, right? The cold, pragmatic man. He’d left Prentiss to die in the dark. He’d walked away from so many people before. What was one more? “I … I’ll lay cover fire. You take the boys and run.”

Henry whimpered. Jack said nothing. Hotch nodded, crushed under immediate sorrow. Somehow, it was worse. Worse than Haley, which hadn’t sunk in yet, and worse than Dave, which had happened outside of Hotch’s control. Worse than JJ, who he still couldn’t believe had died like that, and worse than Will, who wasn’t Hotch’s responsibility.

Worse than Emily who probably wasn’t gone yet, still dying slowly down there in the dark.

Worse because Reid was alive, so alive, and even though Hotch had wondered how fatal the wound was, if Reid was still alive right now it seemed like he’d probably been on track to stay that way. His injuries wouldn’t kill him; Hotch would. By leaving him right now, Hotch was actively killing him. He wondered, briefly, if there was really a God and if that God had found it hilarious all those years ago when Aaron had met the six-year-old Spencer, looking down on the two of them and deciding that this boy would be the death of the other.

Reid would be shot to death by a firing squad. Executed.

And Hotch was allowing it.

“Take Henry,” said Reid. Hotch crouched, wordless, and did so. Continuing this fallacy. Was he going to do it? Was he going to sacrifice the man to save two children?

“My gun,” Hotch said with a quiet concession to what was going to happen mere minutes from now. Bullets would fly and the man who was alive and vivid and real before him would cease to be all of those things. “Take it. And Emily’s, from the other holster. Three weapons. Don’t pause to reload, just keep firing with the next once one is empty. They might think twice about coming in here if they can’t predict how many shots you have.”

None of the clips were full. They didn’t have spare bullets to reload anyway.

What a farce.

When Reid had the weapons, Hotch stood. Henry in one arm, Jack holding his other hand.

“Run,” said Reid. He limped over to the door, outlined against the grim wooden background. “Now, go!”

Hotch went. Jack trotting beside him. Henry heavy in his arms.

He realised something as he slipped out of the side door, stepping out into the wet, waiting air. Something that slunk in unpleasantly as gunfire started up behind him, something that oozed as damply as the marshy ground under his dress shoes. Something that was hidden in the small hand tucked in his, something told in the warm weight of Henry.

This had happened before.

They flew, the three of them, heading for salvation against the storm that whipped the world into a frenzy around them. Bullets whistled – they’d been seen – but Reid’s gun was still going so they weren’t being chased yet. The sound of his cover fire was a comforting, continuing support that called after Hotch, “You are protected. I’m still alive.”

And then it stopped.

 

1

Spencer Reid is lost in the dark.

Spencer Reid was long past being helpless. People still didn’t believe that about him. As he kneeled by the doorway of the church of the clown, that bilious sinkhole of distorted faith, he realised this: it had been a very long time since he’d needed anyone, really needed them.

He needed them now. He needed so many of them. He needed JJ and Will to be alive to raise their sonbecause he knew he couldn’t do it, not the man with the insane mother and the propensity to be much the same, one dayand he needed Hotch to get away with his godson because Hotch was invariably linked in his mind with being safe. At all the darkest moments of his life, Hotch had been there: he’d been there at the end of Hankel, he’d been there after the anthrax. He had been there when Reid had been a child, back when he really had needed someone. Back when he’d been helpless like he wasn’t now.

Hotch had taught him how to be the kind of man he wanted to be. Whether he knew it or not, Reid’s understanding of masculinity was invariably shaped by the formative exposure he’d had with a sixteen-year-old boy who’d walked without flinching into hell for him. Aaron had faced his death to ensure a child would live; now Reid, twenty-one years later, did the exact same without regret but grieving the loss of his life and his friends nonetheless.

He also remembered this, as he placed one gun aside, spat sticky bile from his drying mouth onto the dirty floor, and reached for the next. This one was Prentiss’s. That hurt. He guessed she was dead now. That hurt more. He missed her already.

He remembered that, in the end, it hadn’t been Pennywise who’d been the most dangerous part of Castle Rock, had it? It was the grownups, Spencer thought dazedly, wiggling in the arms of the man who held him tight. He wanted to get down. His stomach felt sick, and he coughed and tasted the cold-syrup taste of the nasty drink the lady had given them.

“This one is waking up,” said the man carrying him, shifting Spencer around so that Spencer was hanging over his arm, facing the ground. A terrible pressure pushed into Spencer’s gut from the uncaring arm looped around him, and he whimpered. Around him, it was dark still. Someone else was crying, soft, slow sobs that sounded breathless. “What do we do?”

“What do you mean, what do we do?” another man snapped, his voice hateful in its power over Spencer just because he was small. As though he was a possession, not a person; as though he lacked his own mind on things like whether he wanted to die or not. He didn’t, but he doubted he was going to be given a say. That was just how grownups were. Spencer pulled a face that hurt every single muscle he used to create it: it was the kind of expression he’d never given anyone before because he’d never hated anyone before like he did these men. Adults were supposed to protect them! “What, are you scared of him? He can’t do shit.”

Spencer couldn’t. He hung there with his limbs too heavy to move, staring at the ground as it moved past him blurrily. His glasses were gone. He wanted Aaron. He could hear the lake.

He could hear the lake.

“Please don’t,” he pleaded, his voice thin. His toes curled, so cold and bare in the chill air that he could barely feel them. He scrabbled with small fingers to grip at the shirt of the man whose face he couldn’t see, the one that was carrying him. If the man decided that he would save Spencer, why, Spencer would be saved! Not even a clown could stop an adult, right? “Please, please … I’m scared of the lake.”

The man holding him paused. Spencer hoped. Nearby, he heard Sean say something, and then the crack of something being struck. Sean began to hiccup; the other person began to cry louder.

When Spencer turned his head towards that second sobbing voice, he saw a pale blur being dragged along by a larger one. As the adult walked past them, it shaped into a woman dragging JJ by her arm, ignoring how JJ was digging her feet into the ground and clawing at the hand around her wrist. They were bleeding, her feet were. No one seemed to care. Her hair was everywhere and, just for a second, her blue eyes locked on Spencer’s. He whimpered, starting to feel extra dizzy from being held upside-down for so long, like all his blood was now in his brain.

A hand snuck over his mouth, the arm tightening around him. There was a brief moment of optimism that the man was going to whisper something secret to him, something like, “Don’t worry, I have a plan.” But he didn’t whisper. He didn’t whisper at all.

His hand pushed hard. Spencer snuffled against it, inhaling his own spit and snot and a musky taste of someone else’s dirty skin, and then he tensed. He couldn’t breathe. The hand hurt, driving his nose hard into his skull, gripping his jaw shut with fingers that bit in hard. Spencer tried to pull his head away, tried to kick, and then, when he realised no air was coming and still that grip clamped down, he began to thrash with the manic animal terror of any living organism seeking the continuation of their life.

JJ began to shriek. He’s killing him, he’s killing him, she was screaming, but Spencer couldn’t hear her through the rush and thump of blood in his dizzy, upside-down, oxygen-panicked head; he kept kicking fitfully as his extremities lost strength first then, as his brain began to quieten, he felt some integral small part of his consciousness slip away and he …

… could breathe, and did so in a rough, loud gasp that whistled. The hand had been ripped away and he was dropped, wheezing, into a heap on the ground. His head struck first, but he barely felt it, just lay there inhaling air and dirt and sticks and feeling his whole world nutate around him. Small hands touched him, pulling his face out of the dirt as they grasped at his shirt-front, and he blinked JJ into focus as she shoved her face into his. Bright, watery eyes stared at him, ringing by teary lashes and set atop a nose that dripped. There was blood on her lip where she’d bitten through it. The adults were fighting (you know they need to be alive! – I know, damnit, I know, it’s just, I thought it’d be kinder) but Spencer only had eyes for this small familiarity, lifting his hand and feeling her thread her fingers through his.

“I think they’re taking us somewhere terrible,” JJ whispered to him, trembling so violently he could feel it shaking his arm through her grip on his hand. “I’m scared.”

If Spencer could have talked right then, he’d have said, “Me too.”

 

2

Manuel Garcia loses his shit.

Manny flew through the night. The roads passed by under his wheels without thought to how many miles he’d failed to put between him and this moment of finality. The black asphalt was uncaring, cruel. Much like the town ahead. He stared at the road and he wondered: how much speed would it take to lift him right off this roadway and up into the air above where he knew his sister lingered in some liminal space between here and DC? Between alive and dead. Between life and Camp Moribund.

Rafe was dead.

Penny had hung up him on, cut him off, and for the longest time Manny had just stood there staring at his phone unsure what to make of it all. What was his next step? Get up and face the past, or stay here naked and frightened while Roger paced around the room fretting at him for his lost composure? He didn’t know. Everything felt very far away. As far away as that camp perched above Castle Rock in Maine, the camp that squatted beside an engorged lake seeping into the ground around it. He’d barely escaped the infection with his life last time, now he was supposed to, what? Chase his sister right back into the heat and the rot? Expose himself to that disease once more?

Roger crouched beside him, cold hand pale on Manny’s bare knee. Naked too and Manny’s gaze skimmed his body without much interest, the activities of their last few hours faded now.

“You’re looking like you seen a ghost, mate,” Roger said in that accent that had turned Manny’s brain inside-out right from the get-go, usually pinging him right from his head to his dick. Right now, he felt nothing. An animal sitting afraid on the edge of a precipice as, behind him, the wolf approached. “Bad news from home? You gotta talk to me.”

What had Manny said? Had he told him everything, this pretty man with his nice cock and pale skin that looked so nice laid out next to Manny’s in the crumpled heap the bed that was already cooling? Had he, or had he recognised that he was already looking at the scene like one did who was already grieving something. He grieved the warmth on the bed fading away and he grieved Roger and his nice accent and faded red hair and freckled shoulders and habit of biting his lip when he was nervous. Manny knew already: they’d likely never meet again in this world. The clown was calling, come home.

What he’d said was, “My brother is dead. I have to go.”

And then he’d flown. Taken the car that was less than legally acquired and sling shotted himself right into lunacy. He figured he could head Penny off at the airport before she hit the road. Maybe grab her and keep on going, press down this accelerator and pitch right off into the morning sky that was beginning to arch across him and his car and Roger, who he’d left behind. Or maybe he could drive just as fast but without looking and smash the both of them into a tree and end this travesty of living once and for all. It would be just as damning as continuing on to Moribund. It would leave them just as dead. It would probably hurt less. But he knew he wouldn’t. He’d keep going and going with his cell hot in his pocket and the time the lovely lady had given him bubbling in his brain, keep on going until he finally bumped over the border into Maine. Until he finally crossed the county limits. Until he was walking into an airport lobby and standing there staring at nothing until his peripherals caught a familiar slash of colour hurrying towards the exit and his brain gulped out welcome home . He looked. She looked too, slowing in place.

Neither said, “You shouldn’t have come,” because that was so fucken obvious to them both.

Neither of them said hello.

All Penny did was square her shoulders, tighten her expression, and remind him that, “Derek’s there, Manuel. You turned your back on him once, remember? Don’t do it again.”

“We could die,” he pointed out dully, already feeling dead and gone. His jeans felt too heavy, his shirt too small, like he was growing out in every direction and threatening to spill over and make a mess on the neat floor below his sneakers.  His meat sack decomposing already, in anticipation of the clown. “The people are rotten. We found that out the night that the librarian was dead. Manny hunkered tight to himself, feeling piss pressing hard against his tight bladder as fear shot through his body and made an animal-brained creature of him. Around him, other kids were similarly huddled, all of them staring. All of them shocked.

The librarian slumped to the ground slowly, leaving a smear of blood down along the wall she’d fallen back against with a startled little ‘oh’. The echo of the bang! still resounded in Manny’s head and some of the kids had their hands over their ears. No one was crying. Everyone was still frozen.

The cop lowered his gun. Manny stared.

“Damn shame she had to get in the way like that,” said the cop. No one said a word, not the kids, not the other police, not the counsellors who were standing there looking like they’d been carved out of ice. Most of their eyes were locked on the gun and its staring black eye, that eye that had yelled and blinked and killed the librarian faster than a cough. Manny thought that was wild, how easily it had just fucken killed someone. Were humans so fragile? Was he so fragile?

Penny was breathing noisily behind him, gusting and blowing as though she wasn’t sucking it in through the right holes. He backed up, letting her hands tighten around his belt as she clung to him for sanity’s sake. Still, it was silent. No one knew what the fuck was going on. They’d woken up to the lady shouting (where are they!?) and then, that bang.

“What we’re all gonna do is get up nice and quiet and sort ourselves into groups,” the cop kept saying, that gun drifting around lazy in his hand. Looking at Dezzi for and then drifting to Manny and then winking at Ashlee, who began to cry. “Then we’re going to listen to everything we’re told to do so we can get everyone home with minimal mess and fuss, understood?”

“Home to our families?” someone whispered.

“My brother is missing,” Sarah said, ignoring how the cop turned to look at her with the queerest expression on his face. Manny was too busy staring at the librarian to pay attention; her eyes were open and her jaw hung slack and he could see spit oozing down her chin. There was nothing human or alive about her. She’d just been here one moment, gone the next: wasn’t that whack? Just like Ros and Rafe had been. Here, then gone. Here, then blink, then gone. It was so easy. People died so easy. He was glad for Penny’s noisy breathing to mark that she hadn’t just slipped away too. And what for? Because she’d said, “You’re not taking them.” That was it. She’d been brave, and she’d died.

Just like Ros and Rafe.

“Where’s JJ?” someone else called.

“Spencer too!”

Manny looked around. Faces were missing among their terrified group.

“No talking,” the cop added. His gun bobbed about. The black eye winked. “How many you think we can get in the box at once, Steve?”

“Stack ‘em in, a fair few,” another cop responded. “It’s not that far up to the camp.”

They were going back.

Manny swallowed. It wasn’t fair! They’d earned this! They’d earned the right to live.

Someone stepped between them and the cop. Someone brave. Manny closed his eyes, feeling the shakes starting to rock him from his head to his toes. Feeling his brain wiggle around the image that slipped right in: Aaron fucken Hotchner just as dead as that librarian, with his eyes open and spit on his chin and head lolling back. Manny thought hysterically of something his biology teacher had told him once, that the human body released itself when it died. Laying there in the blood and the piss and the shit, that would be what Aaron got for being brave, and Manny’s breath began to whistle as loudly as Penny’s.

“You’re not taking any of us,” Aaron said. Manny wasn’t dead, but he almost pissed himself right then hearing how dark that guy’s voice got. That wasn’t a comfy voice. That was a growl in the night, that was a man at a bar about to hit another. That was danger. “Just let us go and we’ll leave, but you’re not taking us.”

Silence fell, broken only by small sobs and frantic inhales of air. Manny kept his eyes shut. He’d seen enough people die for being brave. No more no more no more no more Rafe oh Rafe, we’re fucked up, we’re finally in the fucking doghouse my brother, this is it. Me and Penny’ll see you soon, pal.

“What’s your name?”

“Aaron Hotchner.”

Man, Manny thought with a nervous giggle fighting to bubble out of his stupid mouth, man he sounded so sure. Like yessir, nossir, Aaron Hotchner sir and I won’t stand aside, oh no I won’t, so aim your gun and fucking make me.

Penny was holding his hand now. Her hand was wet. She was shaking hard, or maybe that was Manny, or maybe it was all of them. Shaking waiting for the bang.

“Right.”

More silence. Someone made a low noise of terror. Manny needed to know what was happening; he also refused to know. Eyes shut tight, shut safe, and nothing could get him, nothing could touch –

The sound of something being struck was meaty. Raw. Manny felt it to his bones. Aaron grunted. It came again and again and there was a scuffle. Kids began yelling. Around him, like Manny was a fixed point of terror on a raging, frantic sea, the building tension broke and they erupted outwards. Despite his sneakers digging into the floor, he was still dragged forward with the rush; he finally opened his eyes just in time to see the cops lift their weapons – oh fuck, he thought, this is it – and then bring them down, butts to heads. Manny didn’t see who got smacked first. He saw the wave of uniforms as other officers bust in kicking and yelling and hollering fit to burst, but from where he was stood still with his feet rooted firm, all he could see was kids sprinting in every direction. Some were trying to hide, crawling under bookshelves and leaping the loans counter. Some were trying to fight, Sarah flinging herself at the cop who was kicking a curled-up Aaron and raking at his face with her nails until he roared and picked her up like she wasn’t shit to him, sending her flying. Manny looked away first; it didn’t stop him from hearing her scream with pain when that beating fell on her instead. Everyone seemed to have lost their minds but him; he was Manuel Garcia, a steady point of sanity in a dreamland of madness and he watched those kids run and hide and fight, and he watched one girl crawl over kids who’d fallen, bleeding from blows littered on their shoulders and heads, watched her crawl and crawl until she was tucked up against the side of the dead librarian with her thumb stuck in her mouth and rocking with terror as her mouth made inconsolable noises he doubted her brain had anything to do with. Penny hung to his waist, maybe recognising that he was the only thing riding this out. Penny screamed.

Then Manny looked up to see a wall of uniforms bearing down on his fixed point, ignoring his static acceptance of what was to come.

“That your sister?” asked the mountain of brown with a glittering PD badge the only thing Manny could focus on in the sheer dread of the moment.

“Yessir,” said Manny.

“If you fight back, we’ll slit her throat,” they told him. Manny blinked. And nodded. And finally let loose that weak little giggle as a hand emerged from that wall of brown, a hand that became a fist that hurtled towards him and shattered his fixed point to nothing with a starburst of light against his temple as Penelope screamed for someone, anyone to help her.

So much for being brave.

 

3

Derek Morgan risks it all.

The children were quiet. Morgan had done his best to soothe them, but none of them trusted him. They wouldn’t leave the rec hall with that abysmal line of bodies, no matter how much he coaxed. They wouldn’t agree to him moving the bodies out, not that he could. Validity of the crime scene and all, although that felt like a distant concern of a man he wasn’t right now and probably wouldn’t ever be again after this night. He knew better than to use force against the children to make them obey. That would be the worst possible thing he could do. Right now, he was a tentative something between Us and Them, and he did not want to become Them by setting himself up as the enemy. Not with those wary eyes and bristling weapons still locked on him.

He started patrolling for something to shake the anxiety of waiting from his broad shoulders. It felt bizarre to be here, as though all the past years of being strong and sure had been peeled back from his body and left him a fleshless mass of snivelling emotion. A weak boy again, a boy who’d almost let a friend burn. Pacing helped. He slipped in and out of the rec hall, letting the rain wash over all his raw and open parts, out for the world to peer in on and judge him by; if they cared to look, they’d see his cowardice and his shame and his repeated failings. He stepped over the body of the murdered officer. Counting his steps as he went so he didn’t look left or right and remember everything that had happened here, so he didn’t look uphill and wonder what was taking Hotch so long and why Rossi had never checked in. So he didn’t look downhill to wonder if the rest of their team was still alive in the town that was hidden from him by the lowering storm clouds.

His rumination was interrupted by headlights creeping through the open gates. He stood there and watched. Those headlights were like terrible eyes, inching towards him. Blinding him.

They stopped. He let his hand drift to his weapon, thinking briefly of Hotch.

The car switched off. The slow ticking of the motor cooling was somehow audible over the weather. The doors opened, both sides. Two potential hostiles. Morgan braced.

He still wasn’t ready for who appeared.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Morgan said as Garcia saw him and paused, the rain flattening her hair to her head and with a laptop bag pulled tight to her chest, coat drawn over it. The other man, at a glance, wasn’t familiar. Hispanic, tall, shaved head, eyebrow piercing. Grim expression. Who wasn’t grim in this place? “What the fuck are you doing here? You can’t be here!”

“I need to be here,” Garcia replied. Morgan winced; he knew she was right. Some terrible force had pulled them all back here, and he’d been an idiot to think that Garcia would be immune to that. “I have information but, I need Reid to help dig it all out. It might help fight …” She looked around the camp, voice drying up. The rain sped up. “Manny’s already tried to talk me out of it, so don’t bother. I’m not leaving.”

Morgan looked at the man. Manuel Garcia.

There was nothing to be said to him, so he looked back to Garcia again without a word, seeing the look on her beautiful face that he’d come to recognise as her ‘I’m not listening so don’t bother’ expression.

Giving in, Morgan turned and led the way. They followed mutely. He didn’t warn them about the bodies: what was the point? They’d been here before.

They knew the flavour of the place.

The kids didn’t say a word when Morgan walked back in there with two more people in tow, just moved further back into the shadows of the hall. The stink shocked Morgan’s nose all over again, eyes watering for the short period between walking in and when his senses adjusted to the onslaught. Garcia and Manny both reeled.

“Oh my god,” he heard her breathe. “It’s just like –”

“Don’t say it,” Manny said harshly. “Don’t jinx us.”

“We have to get them out of here!”

Morgan looked at her and said all he needed to without saying a damn word, that was how well him and her worked: where would we take them? For now, they were stuck, at least until Hotch –

The sound of the gunfire reached them despite the storm. Sound carried uneasily out here; it always had.

“Fuck!” Morgan cried, wheeling towards the door. It was a steady volley and it was coming from up the hill, it was coming from where Hotch had walked alone. “Hotch! I gotta go. Penelope –”

“I’ll stay.” She nodded at him and he remembered how brave she’d always been. He couldn’t walk away from her, leaving her here alone with a bunch of murder kids.

But he had to.

“Right, shit, I’ll be back,” he called, sprinting out into the rain and towards that volley. Adrenaline surging, senses on overdrive, ears picking up the thump of footsteps behind him –

He whirled, Manny almost hurtling into him.

“What are you doing?” Morgan snapped. “Don’t follow me –”

“I didn’t come here to sit pretty like I did when I was tiny,” Manny replied. “Don’t pretend otherwise, Derek. If you thought we were gonna survive this, you wouldn’t have even let Penny get out of the car. Some part of you knows how this ends.”

“How does it end?” Morgan asked. He didn’t really need to. They all knew.

“We die and there’s nothing we can do about it because we’re too split up.”

Derek looked at Emily. They’d been hunkered here for ages, waiting for something. Hours had passed and Emily was acting strange as the sun rose overhead. He’d be the first to admit it was eerie how unflinchingly she’d led him here after stealing the gas cans. They’d had to do three trips, which had been exhausting, and now they were resting before the final leg of it: forward into the mouldering church they were crouched in the bushes outside of.

“We don’t know where anyone else is,” Derek pointed out. “There’s not much we can do about being split up. I thought you were sure we could do this alone?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” Emily looked away. He saw it again, that fraught look. He recognised it, where had he seen that look before? “This might all be a mistake. I don’t know why we’re here, they might not even be down there …”

But, as Derek looked across the grassy gravestones to the sunken church, he suspected that they were exactly where they should be. It felt evil. The sun was hot and sticky despite the shade they were in, the air oppressive. The world was holding its breath.

He recognised the look Emily was wearing; his mom had worn it when his dad had died.

“You know,” he said, “Aaron’s probably okay.”

“Probably,” Emily agreed with listless belief. “Look, we should sleep. I’m fucked and Ros said there were tunnels, miles of them. No way we’re getting this lot down there without resting.”

“When did Ros say that?”

Emily didn’t answer, just rearranged the neat row of gas cans without meeting his eyes. Too tired with the exertion and the heat, Derek let her have her secrets; he curled up with his arm as a pillow, closed his eyes, and wondered if his sisters were okay. The ground was hard. Bugs crawled on him. Something smelled nasty, and he knew he’d never sleep like this.

He dreamed of a scream and woke with a start.

It was dark. The heat was choking and thunder rolled overhead, a storm brewing. It clung to his lungs, congealed in his throat. The darkness burned his retinas, searing black spots into his wide-open eyes.

He was alone. The gun was on the ground beside him, placed there carefully. Before he reacted, he picked it up, checked the safety, and stuck it into the waistband of his shorts.

“Emily?” he whispered when that was done. “Em?”

But she was gone, and so were most of the gas cans. She’d crept away while he was asleep. That bitch.

“Oh yeah, sure,” Derek muttered, “we’re too split up so the solution is clearly to split up more! That’s smart. That’s so fucking smart, stupid idiot, what a –”

He’d grabbed a gas can without thinking, stalking towards the church with his indignation rising. Certain that he’d march right down there and burn it alongside her, but there was smoke leaking from the doorway already. Thick and acrid smoke and he stared at it, stunned that she’d managed to make so much already.

But it was too thick. Too acrid.

Too silent.

No flames crackled. There was no noise but the pause of the forest waiting for a storm to break. The smoke congealed. Something moved within it. Something made a terrible noise.

Now he was backing up quicker, coughing as the smoke choked him – but it followed, along with a scent that had him gagging as his stomach, horribly, rumbled with hunger. It smelled like meat cooking. Like a pork roast, hot and crackling. His mouth watered along with his eyes.

The smoke parted.

The figure was Emily and she stared at him with perplexed eyes as flames licked around her body. Derek only realised his mouth was hanging open to scream at her to run when his tongue failed to make any sound at all, sitting fat and useless in there drying up as the meat flavour battled the smoke. The flames were beginning to race up her back, leaping once their fingers caught her hair; he watched the skin of her arms beginning to blacken and curl, her shocked eyes begin to melt out of her skull, and it was then that they both started screaming at the same time as though with one mouth.

“Emily!” he screamed, lurching forward as he tried to reach into the flames and pull her free. “Come back! Get out of there! It’s burning!”

But her screams were gurgling and he saw her arm slide right out of its socket as the flesh holding it charred and gave way, and that delicious smell, it was her.

He fled with a shriek, unable to face those flames and the distant knowledge that that wasn’t Emily but, somewhere down below, it could be.

He needed help. He needed it more than he’d ever needed anything before, praying as he sprinted through the night towards the only salvation he knew was within reach.

The camp was silent as he hurtled the fence. The gates were closed, which was a bizarre sight; the gates, in all the time he’d known them, had never been closed. There were cop cars parked in the lot too, with two officers lounging on them smoking. Derek avoided those with his hands shaking and his eyes still streaming from smoke that had stopped existing as soon as he’d fled the scene. His suspicions that everyone had been brought back here were confirmed.

Belly flat to the ground and wiggling determinedly with the gun digging into his hip, he crawled past those cops and towards the rec hall ahead. Another cop stood by the door, which was barred. Derek studied that, letting the shock/horror of Emily burning fade and his sense prevail: that definitely hadn’t been Emily. It was just Pennywise, freaking him out. But he did need help; he didn’t feel at all brave enough to crawl down there alone and face those flames again, real or otherwise.

Instead, he oozed his way around the rec hall until he was out of sight of the officer, creeping to the window and popping up to tap at it. It took three goes before a face appeared, Penelope’s eyes wide as she realised he was there. Derek motioned for her to open it, holding his breath when she vanished right up to the moment she and Sarah reappeared, working together to lever it open silently. Derek pulled himself up and through, feeling the horror of the smoke drop from his shoulders as soon as he was back in the familiar space surrounded by people he knew.

“Jesus,” he said, earning a Derek from Sarah for the blasphemy. “What happened to you?”

All the faces that were peering at him were bloodied, bruised. Some looked real bad too, like hospital bad.

“Pigs got handsy,” said Dezzi. She had a black eye and a bloodied mouth. Sarah, when she pulled a face, was missing teeth. “How did you escape? We got woken up and you weren’t there.”

“Are the others with you?” Penelope asked. Manny was lurking behind her, his expression vacant. There was a massive egg on his temple, bruised to shit and distorting his hairline. “Sean and Emily and JJ and Spencer?”

“No,” Derek said uneasily. “But I know where they are. The cops, they took them … somewhere. Somewhere to …” He coughed, the words sticking, but from the expression on Sarah’s face she knew what he was going to say. “Emily says they took them underground to feed them to It. And she went to get them back, Emily I mean, but she needs help. We need help. Please?”

No one spoke. Manny giggled, bizarrely. Derek frowned at him.

“They’ll cut your throat if you leave,” Manny said in a strange sing-song voice, thumbs hooked in his jeans and slouching back. “Hope you know that. Bravery will get you the old Cheshire smile from one ear to the other. Better to be a coward, like me. I ain’t moving. Have fun getting gutted.”

He sat down, wrapping his arms around his knees and burying his face in them.

It felt like a betrayal, expected or otherwise, and Derek knew that was written all over his face.

“Whatever,” he snapped, turning to his sisters. “Come on, you gotta come help me.”

But Sarah was shaking her head.

“He’s right, Derek,” she whispered. “You didn’t see them down there. They killed the librarian? And they took Aaron and haven’t brought him back, maybe he’s … they said they were going to do to him what they’d do to us if we tried to run. And then they never brought him back. I can’t do that, not to you guys. I can’t be the reason you get hurt if we get caught.”

Stunned, Derek looked at Dezzi, who looked away. No one else would meet his eyes either, except Penelope.

“All of you?” he asked. “Emily is trying to save the kids, and you’re gonna let her do it alone? Really?”

“I’ll come,” Penelope said after one desperate look around, but Manny was up.

“You will not,” he snarled. “Rafe would string me up by my balls if he knew I let you go get munched. Sit the fuck back down, Penelope, you stupid twit. What’s someone like you going to be able to do against a monster anyway? Eat it?”

Derek burned with fury, but he bit it back, barely. That wasn’t easy. Penelope’s eyes were bright.

But she wasn’t backing down.

“Emily’s the only person in the world who has ever thought I’m cool for just being me, even though I’m fat and stupid and spotty,” she snapped back, those tears spilling over. “I don’t care what you think – I’m going to help her! Derek?”

He looked at her.

“You need me, right?”

He couldn’t. He wanted to say yes. He didn’t want to go back there alone, but it would be selfish. Penelope wasn’t going to swing the needle, not alone, and he couldn’t bear for her to get hurt. He … he just wanted her safe.

Maybe that was selfish too, but fuck. Whoever said he was a good person?

“Where did they take Aaron?” he asked her, ignoring all the other cowardly fucks, including his bitch sisters, in that stinking room. “I gotta go get him. He’ll help her. He loves her.”

“Probably locked him up,” said Sarah. “If he’s even still alive. They seemed pissed at him.”

“Don’t go down there, Derek –”

“Please stay,” he asked Penelope, backing up towards the window. “I’d feel better if you did. Someone brave needs to look after these sheep, and you’re the bravest person here.”

“You think so?” she asked, eyes brightening.

“You’re damn right,” he said, shooting his sisters a disgusted look. “Right, fine. I’m going to get Aaron and Emily and we’re gonna save those kids, alone. Then we’ll come back for all of you because we’re not fucking cowards like everyone here except Penny. I’ll be back.”

Ignoring the ones who called after him, he leapt out of the window and bolted, certain that he’d be spotted, into the safety of the trees.

Back towards town he went, hoping he wouldn’t scent smoke on the thickening air. He didn’t stop to think or doubt until Castle Rock loomed before his exhausted body, slinking through the quiet streets. It was dark again. It had been a bizarrely long amount of time since they’d absconded from the library, hours walking back up to the church, time lost to sleeping, back to the camp, back down here again … now, he was certain it was past ten at night, and Emily had been down there so long. He was taking too long.

She’d die before he got back.

Maybe she was dead already.

Cursing her still, he saw the lights of the precinct ahead and sped up, somehow managing to eke out some last vestiges of strength to get him from here to Aaron Hotchner, the boy he was relying on to carry them outta Hell before it burned down around their damn ears.

It was perverse luck that saw him managing to sneak into the precinct. There was a skeleton crew there this late at night in this sleepy a town and with most of them up guarding the camp, easily evaded. Despite how desperately he wanted to sprint through the halls, checking every room until he found Aaron and got him out of here to save Emily before she burned, Derek kept low and he kept quiet.

If he got caught, Emily would die (if she wasn’t already). That was the long and short of it, ladies and gentlemen, he had to be careful. More careful than he’d ever been.

Logic would have had him checking the holding cell, or even bypassing the sheriff’s office altogether to go check the jail cells down at the courthouse, but instinct trumped that rationality; Aaron, Derek knew, was here somewhere. Something drove him towards him as inexorably as Emily had been driven towards those underground tunnels, his knees and elbows burning from the drag on the cheap carpet as he crawled from desk to desk and made his slow way through the dimmed room. Down a hall he slunk, finally standing and shuffling so he could peer through half-drawn blinds to the rooms lining that hall. A small office, a room with a couch and microwave alongside a yellowed refrigerator, bathrooms … his instinct twinged again and Derek looked down the hall, to the room marked ‘Interrogation’. Place as small as this only had one, but they wouldn’t leave someone in there overnight, would they?

A shape moved inside the room. Derek shuffled down there, his heart beating in his throat at every shifting shadow. He knew he’d be captured. Soon, he’d be caught. Maybe having a cop for a dad had dulled some of that innate mistrust of police that boys growing up in Chicago carried, but he wasn’t dumb enough to think that this backwater police station would treat a rough-looking black kid like him kindly if they found him slinking about. Plus, he’d seen the kids at the camp. He’d seen what had been done to them. But he needed to risk that capture, because if he didn’t …

He pushed that thought away.

At the window of that room marked ‘Interrogation’, Derek hooked his fingers on the splintery sill and pulled himself up to peer through. The blinds were pulled, but not completely, and there was a narrow line behind the glass where, if he pressed his eye to the window, he could stare through at the man prowling the room and … and …

“Aaron,” whispered Derek, his gut twisting hard and his fingers biting down into the wood. There he was, alive. Alive but, oh fuck, Derek’s head swam with the terror of this; he’d seen people hurt before, sure, hadn’t everyone at that camp seen some pretty sick shit? But this, this was worse: this was undeniable proof that they were royally fucked because the people that were meant to help them? Well, Aaron hadn’t had a black eye or a broken nose or dried blood caked onto his cracked lips in the library, had he? He’d been hungry and tired and sad, but not this, and the only place he’d supposedly been between now and then was this room, in this precinct, with the people who were meant to help kids like them … not beat them. And oh man, oh yes, Aaron Hotchner had clearly had a beating to rival Emily’s; as Derek pressed even closer to the glass in his desperation to see, with his breath fogging it up as he went and his skin leaving oily smears, he saw that Aaron was cuffed to the table he was slumped at and he saw that his expression was approaching no-one-is-home-or-ever-will-be-again and that the hands that rested on the table were swollen with buckled fingers bruised black and blue.

It was the bruised faces of all the camp kids added together onto the one person, and Derek had been pissed to see his sisters messed up but this terrified him.

“Fuck,” said Derek because he knew what his dad would tell him a Morgan had to do in a situation like this. No one gets left behind. And his daddy had taught him something else too, even though his daddy was a cop … he’d taught him that sometimes the bad guys were the ones in uniform.

The gun was heavy in his waistband as he slid his hands down and wrapped his fingers around the butt, drawing it free. It was warm from his body heat. Did he intend to use it?

He didn’t know.

Maybe he would have continued not knowing if what happened next hadn’t happened. Up to this point, Derek had seen a lot of shit. He’d seen that bear and he’d seen JJ after Ros and he’d seen everything Carl had done to him and he’d seen Rafe – but what would haunt him in his dreams for a long time following this night, maybe because by now Aaron had taken some kind of position in his mind as Authority like his dad had been Authority, Authority that was Good, was what he saw as he crept to that door and wrapped his hand around the handle. He knew it would be unlocked. He didn’t know how he knew, but he knew.

He opened the door. Aaron’s head lifted. He looked at Derek with those eyes, those fucking eyes, the eyes that were empty of anything but ‘I am beaten’, the eyes that said nothing but ‘I have been hurt’ and those eyes, they really didn’t seem to understand that it was Derek Morgan standing there with Rafe Garcia’s gun in his hands.

The cop looked at Derek too, his blue-washed eyes widening with shock. A blankness vanished from his face.

“What in the hell –” he began to exclaim.

Something snapped in Derek when he saw those eyes in the face of someone he hadn’t really been friends with right up until this moment. It was something driven by the shared horrors they’d gone through and the fact that Aaron had walked them down from that camp and out of hell to a place that was almost Sanctuary, or as close as this town had. He and Aaron might not have been friends in the traditional sense, but that something burned hard in him right then; he would have died for Aaron as Aaron would have died for him because they’d faced the dark together in that camp and they would continue doing so. It was a connection as fierce as the friendship shared by those seven in Derry; it would not be denied.

“Uncuff my friend,” Derek said in a low voice that he didn’t recognise. It wasn’t his voice. It wasn’t his father’s. It was, although he’d never know it, the voice he’d have as a man, and the gun in his hands was held with a preternatural steadiness he wouldn’t possess until two years into working at the Chicago PD ten years from now. “Uncuff him now or I’ll fuck you up.”

The officer opened his mouth to shout; Derek saw that Aaron’s blood was on his hands, quite literally. Pressed into the little lines and congealed around his cut-short nails.

“Make a sound and I’ll kill you,” he snarled.

The room went very, very quiet. All Derek could hear was the thumping of furious blood in his ears, driven by that something fierce. Aaron’s gaze wasn’t quite focused on him and his breathing was wet, but Derek focused on that thump instead … thump … thump … thump …

The officer, with true terror showing in his eyes and around his thin, pale mouth, got out his keys and, without a word under fear of that gun that was trained on his head firing, undid Aaron’s cuffs and stepped back.

Aaron didn’t move.

“He’s a murderer,” rasped the officer.

“Aaron, come on,” said Derek. Like he was a zombie, Aaron stood. He didn’t look like he’d be able to walk too well, but Derek needed him to get out of here on his own stead. “You, cuff yourself to the –”

But the officer had used the distraction of Derek’s worry about Aaron to move, ducking behind Aaron and going for his weapon. Derek moved, Aaron trying to twist out of the way – and in a last-ditch effort to save their lives, Derek flung himself across the table and threw himself boldly into the officer, both of them hitting the ground hard. A gun fired; the bullet hit the ceiling where it would remain until some janitor found it years from now.

If there had been someone else in the office at this point, they’d have been in a lot more trouble than they were; as it was, they were lucky.

Derek hit down. He struck twice, trying to knock the man who was bigger and stronger than him down, and then hands were helping him, wrestling for the gun that was half out of the officer’s holster: Aaron.

“We gotta hurry!” yelled Derek as soon as he realised Aaron was there. “Emily needs help!”

That dazed look faded from his friend’s battered face, replaced with something furious and determined; if Derek had been driven by the desire to save Aaron, Aaron was engulfed in the need to get to Emily, who he’d thought was dead but was now realising was very, very alive. But they were two teenagers fighting a grown man who was trained in self-defence. Not only that, but they were two kids who’d been hungry more often than not the last few weeks, who hadn’t had water or medical care or a proper night’s sleep, and Derek felt his grip on the gun slipping.

“Get, off!” snarled the officer, and pushed. Aaron went flying, stumbling over the officer’s feet; Derek didn’t see him fall, but he heard the loud wet-skull crack of head meeting table.

Derek whirled, staring. The officer lunged for him, and he was in no position to stop the assault. As those hands closed around his arms and tried to restrain him, he watched as Aaron struggled for a second with a wide-eyed shock on his startled face before

his eyes unfocused

his body went limp

and, for a single horrible moment, he was still.

“You’ve killed him,” said Derek plainly. He hadn’t expected this to stop the officer, but it did. The man let go of his arms and looked at Aaron. For a moment, the room was a cold silent.

“Fuck, he’s breathing,” gasped the officer, shoving Derek aside as he crawled over there and checked for a pulse. Derek wiped his sleeve over his face, kneeling there stunned as the man checked for signs of life on the boy he’d just murdered. “Hey, hey, Aaron? Shit, don’t be dead, you cocksucker, don’t be dead, don’t be fucking dead, oh fuck.”

Derek understood then with a numb resignation. A dead kid on his watch? This guy’s career had just imploded, even here in Castle Rock where the Derry sickness was only just starting to seep through. Beating the perps was fine, even justified, but killing them?

Then Aaron breathed, a rattling gasp that precluded the hard reset his brain was undergoing. Derek gasped, crawling over there in a shamble of arms and legs (during this crawl, his leg knocked into the gun he’d dropped, and he picked it up without stopping) and cried out his friend’s name. But Aaron didn’t answer; his blank stare just got blanker and then his body shuddered hard and he started to seize.

Derek shrieked. It was a thin noise, reedy and scared, and he scuttled back away from those jolting limbs as foam built up in the corner of Aaron’s lips and the stink of piss scented the air.

“Help him!” he screamed at the officer, who was staring as he saw his whole life crumble in the face of this fading boy. “Help him!”

But the man just stood, took three nervous steps back, and then ran. He didn’t even lock the door. He just went. Pure, raw fear drove him – Pennywise’s influence had faded in a rush as It’s attention was diverted elsewhere, all at once, and he faced the momentous shock of what he’d done – and it was that that probably saved their lives.

Derek curled there waiting for the seizure to stop, the gun in his lap and tears streaming down his face and his breath coming as choked hiccups. Eventually, Aaron went still as his body slowed into weak, abortive twitches and then went limp. His eyes were open but (nobody’s home) there wasn’t anything in them, and Derek began to cry like he never had before as he realised that if this was it, if Aaron died … it was his turn in the hot seat. And he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t be that man, so Emily would die and his sisters would die and Spencer would die and Manny –

“Derek,” Aaron whimpered. It was a whimper, a true little whine of a dog beaten one time too many. Derek opened his drippy eyes and found Aaron looking at him blearily with his brain starting up once more. “Aw, fuck, I think I pissed myself …”

There was a brief moment of them looking at each other and then Derek giggled shrilly. It was a mad giggle, unhinged just like Manny’s had been, and only helped along when Aaron choked back a snotty laugh as well. They both began to laugh because it was insane that they were alive, that their opponent was gone, that Aaron was sitting in a puddle of piss and knocked half out of his mind, but still alive nevertheless. It was insane; survival, they were beginning to realise, was insane. Theirs was lunatic laughter because they felt truly lunatic at that moment and, as soon as the moment was over and their laughter had stopped, Derek struggled to his feet and held out his free hand for Aaron to take.

“Can you stand?” he asked. “We gotta get out of here before that guy stops panicking about killing a teenager and starts thinking he’s gotta torch the evidence and any witnesses, namely me.”

“No,” Aaron admitted. Despite this, he crawled up onto his knees and took Derek’s hand. “But I’m going to have to. Where’s Emily?”

A hundred and one thoughts were racing through Derek’s brain at that moment, the topmost one being that Aaron looked like he needed a hospital right now before that need became a morgue (another being, is he going to seize again? because that had scared him an absurd amount and he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to see something like that again), but he pushed them all aside.

“In trouble,” was his sure answer because there’d never been anything that he’d been more certain of than that Emily Prentiss needed their help, right now.

 

4

Emily Prentiss follows the dead.

The world was quiet down here. Emily Prentiss waited in the dark for a death that she knew had been a long time coming. Aaron was gone. Or was it Hotch who was gone? She didn’t know anymore. It was cold. Everything was cold. Her head hurt.

“Don’t let me die in the dark,” she tried to mumble but her voice wasn’t working anymore.

She guessed this was probably it, opening her eyes and looking back to the eerie glow of that unlikely room. It was blue. Like water.

She was going to drown, and she laughed because she was going to drown. The tunnel seemed to waver with her laughter, a shape emerging from the dark.

“Hi,” she said with a shaky smile, seeing a face she hadn’t seen in a very long time. Rosaline Jareau, that sanctimonious bitch. Still as pretty as ever. “Do you still hate me?”

Ros didn’t answer. They never did, not a single one of them spoke to her. Emily followed the wordless forms down into the dark. It wasn’t really dark, not to her eyes, so it was more like the conceptual idea of being dark, which was fucking weird.

“I’ve gone crazy,” Emily muttered, pausing to peer back up the tunnel to where Derek was asleep aboveground in the blessed fresh air. The gas cans in her arms were heavy. She had to find the kids first before she could burn the clown. “I’m seeing ghosts, right? You’re all ghosts.”

Ethan looked up at her, his eyes wide and his mouth silent. Ros lingered up ahead, that unnerving glow from her incorporeal form lighting the other way. There were others too. Rafe had paced behind them with his head down. She thought she might have spotted Hannah lurking behind him, her form hidden by his bulk. The others were too out of focus for her to recognise, just a shapeless mass of dull light.

She hadn’t told Morgan she was seeing ghosts. That probably wouldn’t have gone down well. For much the same reason, she hadn’t mentioned the voice in her head either, the one that whispered (burn the clown) things she was trying to ignore. She wasn’t crazy, and she’d prove that.

After she burned the clown.

“So, are you lot that clown’s puppets or what?” she asked them as they continued their slow trudge into the tunnels. Oddly, she wasn’t scared of them. None of them was doing gross shit at her or acting particularly frightening. They just seemed sad. Lost. “It’s not going to jump out and like, tear me in two, right?”

They didn’t answer. Emily sighed. At least if she was going crazy, this was a productive way to be so. After all, she’d kind of asked for it, shouting at Ros to come help her burn this.

(burn It)

Imagine her shock when Ros had actually appeared.

Down into the depths she walked, led by a procession of the dead. None of them was Aaron, which she was thankful for. If he was alive still, he’d almost certainly come barrelling down here at some point, and there was a perverse comfort in that even though she wasn’t the kind of person who trusted in others to save her. Was she?

Maybe not, but she trusted in Aaron. If he could get to her, he would. That was what the captain did; he stood by his co-pilot.

He wouldn’t leave her alone in the dark, with no one but the ghosts beside her.

He just wouldn’t.

 

5

Penelope Garcia burns the clown.

The scars on this place were still visible. Garcia knew scars. She was surrounded by them, on her body and soul and on the bodies and souls of those she loved. They weren’t all physical, damaged-but-healed flesh on the human form. Some were, like the bullet wound on her chest and those that Foyet’s knife had left on Hotch. Some were more spiritual, knots of darkness left on their very selves. Garcia had always wondered about the grim mistrust in Prentiss’s eyes, right from the first day she’d joined their team; now, she understood its origin. Likewise, Reid’s nervous wariness suddenly made sense, as did Morgan’s fierce overprotective streak. All formed from the half-healed scars of this place, Camp Moribund.

Places scarred too. This rec hall was scarred, just like the children inside it. That one over there had Reid’s scared eyes and those girls there, they burned with Morgan’s anger and Prentiss’s wild unpredictability. More than one, Garcia knew, would leave her with the intensity Hotch had spent his adult life crushed under. And the walls …

The walls were still blackened. No one had painted over where this room had burned.

Garcia fretted over the children. She placed filthy blankets over those that were dead, straightening clothes and limbs and closing eyes even as she cried. The wounded she did her best for, the rest she smiled damply at and told them they’d be okay. Lies, all lies, and the blackened scars on the wall only confirmed that. They weren’t going to be okay. They were waiting to die, just like last time, just like the last fire.

Her laptop sat there. She glanced at it, wearily wondering if there really was any hope for survival in there, locked away. It seemed impossible. Surviving seemed impossible. They were just waiting to die, waiting like last time … and then she looked again at the wall, at that bubbled and blackened and knotted scar, and she remembered something with a thrill: they hadn’t waited to die. That hadn’t been what they’d done at all.

“I’m going to tell you a story,” she said, every child’s head snapping up to stare at her. “It happened to me a long time ago, in this very place.”

They drew away from her. That hurt, but she barged onwards. Penelope Garcia wasn’t brave or strong or fierce or powerful, not like her friends, but she had been that night – and that’s the story she told. The story of the fire.

And how it had all started with the clown standing in the corner of the hall. Penelope saw him first. She’d been hunched by the window staring out at the rain beating on the glass, thinking of where Derek had gone. Beautiful, handsome Derek and his sweet, sweet smile … would he come back? Would he find Aaron or others? Or had their cowardice doomed them? She didn’t believe she was brave, after all, a brave girl would have gone with him even though he’d asked her to stay. A brave girl wouldn’t have let him go alone.

She turned and saw the clown. No one else was looking. They’d given up and slumped down on mattresses, and no one was looking anywhere but inward. Misery abounded that night at Camp Moribund, and Penelope stood there unnoticed with her hands hanging by her sides and watched as the clown smiled kindly at her.

“Would you like a ba-ba-bah-lloon?” It asked her with a low, sneaking smile.

Heads began to lift slowly, looking first at her with tired frowns. They thought it was her.

Penelope saw those exhausted faces. All these kids, beaten. All these kids who’d been brave, been strong, throughout this whole horrible summer, and now they were beaten. Beaten just like she was when people called her fat, as miserable as she felt when she crawled home from school and stuffed whatever she could find in the pantry into her mouth even if she wasn’t hungry just out of a relentless desire to punish herself. As broken as she felt in PE, or changing in front of the others, or sitting in front of her computer and wondering if smart was enough when she’d never be pretty.

Anger bubbled.

“I’ve got red, lovely red,” said the clown, pulling one balloon out from the bunch that floated eerily by its head. They moved like the wind caressed them, even though there was no wind to speak of in here. “Red like a fire engine, red like blood. Red like Derek’s face smashed to pieces.”

Penelope stared It in the eyes. She didn’t flinch. She wasn’t scared.

She wasn’t beaten.

“Or blue,” said the clown. Someone gasped. Someone else had looked to where Penelope was staring. A slow wave of terror slid through the room, people trying to scuttle back away from the clown before it could face them. Some didn’t move at all. “Blue like … water. Deep water. Blue like drowning.”

Penelope looked around. She was by Emily’s stuff, where Emily and Aaron and Sean and Spencer slept. There was a bag there. While the clown mused about balloons, every second it was standing there seeming to drain another inch of that pleasant glamour from its features, turning them hungry and sharp, Penelope hooked her foot around the closest bag and dragged it close.

You’re the bravest person I know, Derek had told her, and now the fox was in the henhouse and someone had to be brave. Manny was staring at the clown with his face resigned. He wasn’t even trying to get away as the clown stepped forward and began to approach him, blue balloon held out. He just sat there. The clown was drooling; the clown was going to eat her brother, and he seemed almost glad; Penelope saw a dazed, vacant smile beginning to appear on Manny’s empty face.

Dezzi didn’t do anything either. She was just watching.

So was Sarah.

Penelope bent down swiftly, scooping the bag up in one hand before standing. The clown was moving faster now, silver eyes locked on Manny’s accepting face. Her brother didn’t move for an agonising moment, and then he stood. The anger Penelope was feeling lurched, replaced with fear and relief for a second – but the relief popped like a bubble. Manny didn’t run. He just stood there swaying as the clown approached, latex balloons squeaking together and its big orange shoes making no sound, and then Manny reached for the balloon as though he was hypnotised.

“Good,” drooled the clown, opening its mouth wider than it needed to to say what it was saying. “Such a good boy.”

Manny, sounding drugged, whispered, “Time to float,” and tipped forward to fall into the clown’s arms.

Penelope noticed something then: It looked hurt. Part of that white face seemed warped, damaged. It’s movements were broken, nowhere near the dangerous speed she expected of something so deadly. There was desperation in the way It reached for Manny, like It needed him …

Like it was weak.

Like they had a chance.

Penelope screamed. The dream shattered and people began to move. Sarah shook her head, blinking awake. Dezzi gasped.

Manny’s eyes widened; his foot slid forward and he caught himself from his seditious collapse into the clown’s claws.

The clown’s mouth began to open and open and open and open.

“Come to meee,” Penelope heard a voice grind out even though the monster’s mouth wasn’t moving. “Let me feed before I sleep, before I heal. Come to me. They cannot stop me. I am Everywhere. Come Float!”

You’re the bravest girl I know Derek had said, and Emily had told her she was cool, and Aaron had fought for them, and Rafe had died for them and … and … and … and, as the clown lunged for Manny, Penelope reached into the bag and found it was Emily’s. Emily’s bag; Emily’s can of hairspray; Emily’s collection of stolen lighters.

You’re the bravest girl I know.

The anger surged and it lifted Penelope across that room, leaping kids and mattresses and feeling, for a heartbeat, half her size – and then seconds later she felt exactly as big as she was and she revelled in it, turning her terrified scream into a screech of rancorous fury as she charged the clown with intent. Who cared if she was fat! Right now, that was good! She’d slam into that, that, that fucking clown and she’d burn it and crush it all at once until it was dead!

Her thumb found the trigger of the hairspray. It depressed it. The can sprayed and she smelled the spray and thought of Emily, her heart singing for the girl she loved dearly for finally being the person who’d seen who Penelope was, and her infinite potential.

Click went the lighter.

The clown burned and Penelope screamed with it, ignoring the hatred in those silver eyes as the fang-ringed mouth snapped shut and that neck cracked around to stare at her as the fire roared; she ignored Pennywise’s snarled, yoooou, and she ignored the smell and she ignored the fear, and she did exactly what it couldn’t handle: she laughed and laughed and laughed until it retreated before her, turning small and squeezing back against the wall; its face was melting and its skin bubbled and those buttons melted and it didn’t seem able to escape. It seemed confused. Distracted. Upset. Every time she lost her flame, she snapped the lighter again and again and again until it returned until, finally, she realised that the tears in her eyes weren’t just from the stink of burning clown.

The hall burned too.

A hand grabbed her arm, hauling her back and towards the door. They tumbled out into the light rain, the empty can still gripped tight in Penelope’s hand but the lighter lost somewhere along the way. Hands turned her, shook her, and a face wavered into view; a face that was bruised and dirty but alive, and Manny whooped and shook her again.

“You fucken burned that bitch!” he cheered, the rest of the kids all gathered in a loose knot of rain-shocked faces as, behind them, the flames licked lazily at one wall of the hall. The rain was already putting it out through the shitty roof. “Did you see it sobbing! What a princess, what a chump! We can beat it, you almost did!”

Penelope shivered. She’d heard it, the echo.

We can beat it, had rippled through the crowd of kids, snapped out of their delirious acceptance of doom. And now, oh no, and now … now they were looking at her.

Emily believed in her. So did Derek.

She believed in herself.

“We can beat It,” she said slowly, seeing feverish nodding start up as kids snapped onto what she was saying, the hope she was dangling. “We’re not going to die. We’re not going to sit here and die. We’re going to … beat it?”

“Why didn’t it kill you?” Sarah asked.

Penelope went to shrug, her hand cramping hard around the can she was holding. The ridged texture of the trigger felt like it was imprinted hard into her thumb. She looked down at the can, the logo, the smiling girl with the wild black hair. Emily’s hairspray. Emily’s trick. Emily’s assurance that she was cool, she was valid, she was … something.

“Because,” Penelope said with a fierce rush of absolute belief, feeling the rain wash away the fear and the dirt of summer. “Because I didn’t do it alone. Emily showed me how. We’re not leaving her alone either. We’re following Derek and we’re going to the place where the kids got taken, and we’re standing together. That’s why it didn’t kill me – because it knows I’m not alone. None of us are. And we’re not weak until we’re by ourselves.”

“What if we die?” Ashlee asked.

It was Manny who answered, turning in a circle as he spoke and scanning the camp. Penelope realised what he was looking at: the patrol cars were gone. The police were gone. No one was watching them.

“Then we do that together too, I guess,” he said. “Rafe would have wanted that. No one left behind.”

“We just need to find where they’ve been taken,” Penelope said. They needed a sign of what way to go, though, otherwise, they’d be wandering blind. But what kind of sign?

From up the hill, from the house that loomed over them, the gunfire began.

 

6

Aaron Hotchner lets go.

“Down there?” Aaron asked, looking straight into the hole that seemed to be shaped like the pupil of some terrible eye. Diluting as he watched it, then widening with hungry arousal, like it was going to blow right open and suck him inside. “You sure?”

“I’m sure, man,” said Derek. He was looking at that hole as well, his skinny face fixed with horror. Aaron watched him, his mind ruminating over what Derek had told him he’d seen here: Emily, burning. “She went down there after the clown, I’m sure. But, I don’t know, I don’t know what told her it was down there. She might have been wrong.”

They both knew she wasn’t. They could feel the hole waiting.

“Right, okay,” Aaron said, his voice seeming to slow like time was turning to treacle around them. “You good for this?”

“I’m good.”

He would be, Aaron knew. Derek was solid. They’d march down there together.

They did.

The squeeze was tight. Aaron’s head thumped sickly with every step he took, nausea and dizziness making the crawl through that narrowing hole harder than it should have been. Small rocks and dirt pattered down into his hair, every small impact feeling like a ginormous blow. By the time he was crawling out, panting and gagging, into the black of the sour-smelling tunnel within, his head was splitting. He sagged against the far wall as the shower of rocks falling announced Derek’s passage. When Derek slid out of the hole and thumped to the ground with one of the two flashlights they’d stolen from the police precinct switched on in his hand, Aaron was wiping his mouth.

“You puke?” asked Derek. He darted the light at Aaron, who groaned as it slashed at his aching brain, and then down to the puddle of vomit by the wall.

“I’m good,” Aaron lied. He felt cold and sticky. Arms tingling and his throat tight, his broken fingers tucked against his chest as he switched on the flashlight with his working hand. “Come on. We have to keep moving. She could be in trouble.”

Emily Emily Emily Emily he chanted, keeping himself going with the thought of her smile and her spice and her fierce desire to not only survive but to live. She was an inspiration to him. He had to keep going for her, and not just her: Sean was down here too. His brother was trapped in this awful, stinking pit as well, and Aaron wouldn’t let him die. Not ever. There was so much he was just realising he’d never said to him, so much left between them; so much that Aaron needed to do for and with him.

Why, I’ve never been a real brother to him, Aaron thought as they trudged down a gently sloping tunnel, the darkness seeming to press in on all sides. Not ever. I’ve been cold, distant. Just like Dad.

If they survived this, he determined to change that. He’d be kinder. Smile more. Laugh.

Live.

The tunnel seemed to go forever. The further they went, the colder they got. Aaron kept his gaze fixed ahead, ignoring everything but the comforting echo of Derek’s footsteps behind him and his own ragged breathing. The smell grew worse too, like pus. If Aaron had focused on it, it would have had him puking again, but he tuned it out along with everything else except Derek’s presence, thoughts of his brother, and his determination to save Emily and Spencer and JJ, and everyone else who didn’t deserve to die.

Those police officers, the ones who had hurt him so bad while the clown had simpered and mocked him, they’d messed up. They hadn’t broken him at all. As much as they’d hurt him, he’d been hurt more before and by people he trusted more than them; no, they’d just made him angry. Police were supposed to help. They were supposed to have the power to fix things like this, that was the point of them, of adults in general. Aaron decided right then and there, deep in the earth: when he was an adult, when he had the power that those men had wielded against them … he’d never let a child down. He’d save them all.

Just watch.

“Aaron,” Derek said, but Aaron had seen it. There was light ahead. They approached cautiously, finding a forked corner of the tunnel which was lit with a single, bluish lightbulb. It cast a light that reminded Aaron of a mausoleum, a corpse-like kind of hue. All stone and marble and cold things. It chilled him.

Below that bulb, gas cans were stacked, placed there by a careful hand intending to return to them once her job was done. Neither of the boys said anything when they saw those cans, just skirted them and kept walking on, down the path that led to something they could feel seething, throbbing … and calling them.

They pressed close. Derek’s free hand drifted out, brushing Aaron’s belt. It was a small touch and, after a short moment, Aaron lowered his injured hand and, in the darkness, let Derek wrap his trembling fingers around his wrist. They’d never speak of this, holding hands like children crossing the road, but they were scared. They were more scared than either had been in a long time. But they didn’t stop.

They kept walking and walking and walking until, up ahead, cold air blew. It brought with it rot, death, misery. Fear and a grim realisation that there were things of this earth that simply weren’t. Whatever brought that scent, it wasn’t from this world; it was an introduced beast, a creature too evolved for the ecosystem it had been dropped in. It would prey savagely and without compunction, without a challenge, against the helpless beasts who had no idea what this foreign danger meant. There were no earthly defences that could stand against it.

But they didn’t stop.

They stepped out into the void. Their flashlights barely broke the dark, walking in a wobbly row with their hands connected and their lights like eyes in the dark. Neither called out. Neither could. Their throats were sealed with terror. They wondered, briefly, just how much earth and water was piled above them, waiting to crumble inwards and crush them deep below the world.

They wondered what waited within.

The light broke against a great shape ahead. Something made a noise, a startled gasp. Derek’s hand grew damp against Aaron’s skin, but he knew that gasp.

It took him two goes to get the soft word out.

“Emily?”

“Fuck, Aaron?” came the reply, a white shape folding out of the dark to reveal Emily standing there with her features distorted by the shadows. “How did you find me? It’s dark as hell down here. We were scared to walk back into it once we found somewhere to hide, it’s so consuming.”

“Nothing is darker than this place,” said Derek. Some great tension had broken as soon as she’d appeared before them, relatively unharmed and still dressed in Aaron’s oversized knit-sweater. They were okay. They were alive. They were continuing. “Did you find the kids? We need to get outta here.”

Emily turned. Aaron leaned past her, shining his light over there and almost collapsing with relief when he saw the three small shapes curled up in a huddle by whatever looming form was the only landmark in here.

It took four steps to get over there, kneeling and opening his arms to let Sean hurtle into his grasp.

“It was going to eat us,” Sean sobbed into his chest, small fingers curling as sharp points into Aaron’s skin as he clung, “but something surprised It and It went away.”

“Something scared it away?” Aaron asked, looking up to see Emily shrug in the flashlight. JJ was standing beside her now, her legs half bowed like she wasn’t quite holding up her own weight and Spencer latched tight to her side.

“I didn’t see,” said JJ dully. “It said something though, a name. It sounded mad …”

“Bill Denbrough,” Spencer whispered. “That’s the name it said.”

Aaron frowned. That name meant nothing to him, much like the vicious battle now occurring one town over at Derry meant nothing to him – but only out of ignorance. If Aaron Hotchner had known of Bill Denbrough and his friends, much like if Bill had known of him, they would have both cared very much about the other and their concurrent struggles to survive. He wiped his nose with his bad hand, ignoring how it stung, and let go of Sean to pick the light back up. Out of a wry curiosity that was more human than anything else down here, he shone it past them and onto the shadowy mountain.

The light landed on a body. It stared back at him, skin almost gone and bare bone peeking through, those empty eye sockets seemingly damning with their question of why he was alive and it wasn’t. The skeleton wore a dress, still clinging determinedly to that emaciated form with rot staining what had once been a light yellow into a dark, murky brown.

Aaron yanked the light away, the shaking back. Spencer had seen it. He hadn’t even flinched, just stared inquiringly. Hello, therapy, Aaron thought with a nervous huff of air. No one else had looked. No one else seemed to realise what Aaron had just realised: this was a feeding ground. It had brought them here to feast before being interrupted, and they were surrounded by the litter of past meals.

“I think we should count our blessings and book it out of here before It comes back, right?” Derek asked. Aaron nodded, standing with the ground unsteady under him. Unlike the air, the ground was warm and silent. So silent. Waiting. It almost, he thought dizzily, felt like it was …

Incubating.

“Aaron?” Fingers brushed his arm, Emily fetching up beside him and studying his face intently. “You look like shit.”

He didn’t rise to the bait. Half his attention still on the warmth of the ground below his feet, he leaned close and kissed her cheek before murmuring, “I thought I’d lost you,” and pulling away as she flushed dark in the weary light of Derek’s flashlight. “Everyone, hold onto each other. Don’t let go. It’s too easy to get lost in the dark down here.”

They obeyed, hands hooking together in an unsteady line that was broken in places. Aaron held the flashlight in his good hand with Sean holding his belt. Spencer held Sean’s other hand; JJ Spencer; Emily JJ, and Derek came up behind with one hand on Emily’s shoulder and the other with the light. This was how they left that place, markedly devoid of pursuit.

They stopped only once. Left the kids with Derek in the blue room and walked back towards that terrible heat, one gas can each. Emily at his side. They didn’t speak, just worked in silence; neither wanted to enter that room again so they stood by the door and threw as much gas in there as possible, Emily throwing her lighter in after.

The room glowed blue for a moment.

The flames vanished.

They weren’t surprised, and they didn’t try again, just got the hell outta there with the thin relief that they’d tried carrying them on.

None of the children spoke the entire walk back. Whatever they’d seen, whatever had chased them, hounded them, forced them down into that awful room, they wouldn’t bring it back by speaking of it. Despite their exhaustion, despite their fear, they didn’t stop. They didn’t falter.

The exit approached.

Aaron was the last to leave. He saw Emily through first. She didn’t argue, which was worrying in itself. Then Sean, Spencer, JJ. Derek after that. For a few minutes, he was alone. Alone to look back down towards that room, thinking again of the warmth. Maybe they should have tried harder to burn it. Sent Emily and JJ out with the boys while he and Derek torched the place, taking advantage of Pennywise’s distraction.

But they didn’t. He didn’t.

He crawled through the hole and re-joined the world above, leaving that place behind to

(hatch)

be forgotten.

For a moment, in the light, there was relief. He raised his head to smile at his friends. For a moment, just a moment, he thought it could be okay. Then he saw it: no one was smiling back. They were gesturing at him with panicked arm movements from their place by the door. The boys were crouched by him, JJ standing in front of them, and fear was thick in the room. Aaron sat upright, peering past Derek, and saw through the decayed window the white side of a police cruiser and the barest flash of a man with a rifle crouched beside it. Waiting out there like a hunter in a blind.

Waiting for them.

“Get back,” Emily was mouthing. “Back down, quick!”

Aaron froze, horrified. They couldn’t go back down there. Not in the dark. But they couldn’t go outside either.

As though to prove that to him, he felt something pulse below him. Some finger hooked into his chest, some dark knowledge which ached. He looked down and knew, somehow, that something was rushing towards them. Something terrible. Something hurt. Something hungry.

It needed to feed, and It had come home to find It’s larder empty.

“There’s another door,” he whispered, pointing to the side. “Come on.”

Without waiting for them to reply, he darted for the door. Derek stayed where he was. The children, and Emily, followed.

“Derek, come on!” Aaron hissed.

“I’ll cover you,” Derek said mulishly. There was a gun in his hands. “Just run. Get those kids out of here!”

“Dumbass,” Emily moaned. “You’re such a dumbass, they’ll kill you.”

But Derek didn’t move.

“Run,” was all he said, and they didn’t have a choice. If they stayed, they’d die, and if they waited, their only way out would be down towards the hunger that was fleeing home to find the strength it had relied on was gone.

 

Deep below them, unknown to Aaron or anyone above, It knew they were gone. Having been beaten by those seven in Derry, beaten thoroughly and almost killed, It needed to retreat. It needed to sleep, to lie dormant to let It’s wounds heal and It’s body strengthen once more. But, first, It needed to feed on those who It had placed here ready to take below, to take into the dead sleep, to feed on for an eon. But they were gone.

It snarled, looking above to the camp. If it could not have a small handful of morsels to sate It, to press back this pain that had been visited on It that was unlike anything It had ever felt before, well, It would have a feast then.

As Aaron and the others broke the surface, It was sliding up into the presence and minds of the camp children; as they realised their danger, It was facing Penelope.

It was burning.

 

They ran. Emily grabbed JJ’s hand and hauled her forward, sprinting with her through that door and hurtling towards the forest. The trees here were thinner than they’d be in twenty-one years and, despite the rain that drizzled and the stormy clouds overhead, it was daytime. They were seen immediately. Aaron, who picked up one boy with his good arm and gripped the hand of the other, ran out into a volley of bullets. Never in his life had he been that afraid, that certain of his death. Somehow, though, and he’d never know how, the bullets missed him, the volley sailed overhead, and he dragged the boy behind him with him into the trees at a sprint. Time seemed to move slowly as pursuit began. Emily was in front of him. JJ was breaking away. She was faster than all of them, pulling ahead. He fixed his gaze on Emily and he ran; his sneakers slapping the wet ground under them and Emily barely an arm’s length ahead with her hair streaming back. He stared at a splash of blood on the left shoulder of his sweater she was wearing. The gunfire continued. His arm ached, the boy huddled screaming to his chest heavy. He was carrying, he was carrying …

The boy in his arms slipped as Aaron stumbled, sliding down his body. Aaron felt a bullet clip the tree beside his head and he wrapped both arms around the boy and threw himself down, only realising a moment later that he’d let go of the other.

He’d let go.

He’d let go.

He turned. Time caught him. Dragged at him. He saw faces, dozens of them, following; each and every one was his father. Each and every one of them carried a reddened, dripping belt.

Someone screamed.

 

It fled the camp. They were chasing It. The children were whipped to a frenzy, empowered. They were readying to stand against It, just like Bill Denbrough. Just like those Others. How dare they!

Men driven mad by It stood ahead. It was dying. It knew this. If It didn’t flee below, to the nest, to the bodies set underground waiting for It’s babies to feast, everything would be lost. But, this hurt. It