Read Guardian


When you live in a small town and tomorrow is a lot like yesterday, you tend to pay special attention to anything new that happens.

My brother, James, is obsessed with these two reclusive women who just moved in. They never come outside. It’s almost like they’re allergic to sunlight.

I’m suspicious, but James is infatuated. I have to stop my brother before he gets labeled a stalker. I could live with that responsibility, but there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Our neighbors might be monsters.


 

Since the Smiths moved to New Ulm earlier this month, James has become more trouble than ever before. I’m used to covering for my little brother, but this takes covering to an extreme. Now I’m trying to stop him from being labeled a stalker. He just doesn’t know when to quit. I wish he’d listen to me and leave them alone already.

I go to the stable and find the stall with my horse, Calliope. She needs exercise, and I need to find my little brother. I start by brushing her gray coat. I admire the healthy gleam and the lean yet muscular build of her breed. I’m probably biased, but I think Andalusian horses are the most beautiful.

After I’ve finished brushing her off and checking her shoes, I put on her bridle and get her saddled up. I lead her out of the stable and give her a friendly pat before climbing onto her back.

“Going somewhere?” Debbie calls and waves from down the lane. “I thought we had plans today.”

I know for a fact we didn’t have any plans. I never forget things like that—especially when it comes to my girlfriend.

I dismount and walk over to greet her. I hold the long dark curls of her hair away from her face before I kiss her. The wind is blowing just strong enough that we both would have gotten a mouthful of it otherwise. I’m about to pull away from our short kiss, when she brings me back in for a longer one.

Her skin is soft and perfect, tanned by the sun. Skin like hers would make any guy weak in the knees. She holds me closer, pressing me into her. Feeling her body soft and flush against mine is something I’ve never taken for granted. If there’s one thing everyone agrees on about Debbie Carter, it’s that she’s beautiful. Everyone in New Ulm says her looks alone guarantee she can have any man she wants. For whatever reason, I seem to be the one she wants.

“I need to take Calliope out for a ride,” I say, extracting myself from our kiss. I can’t afford to get lost in my girlfriend right now. I need to stop my little brother from doing something stupid.

“Let me take one of the other horses. I’ll come with you,” she replies. She catches my wrist and holds on tight.

“I won’t be long. I promise. I’ll run by your place after, and then we can go out.”

“Why do I get the feeling you don’t want me with you, Ryan?”

When she uses my name wearily like that, I always get this sick feeling in my stomach. Come to think of it, I can’t remember a time when she’s said my name and seemed happy about it. It’s always pet names with her. When she’s using a pet name, she’s happy. When she’s using my actual name, she’s not.

“I’ll be fast. I already have Calliope all ready to go,” I insist. Then I climb onto my horse’s back and wave at Debbie as I have Calliope trot past her.

Debbie has her arms folded as she watches me leave. It seems like she’s going to stay silent, but then she waves at me. “You better come by later then, like you said,” she calls.

I wave back. I right myself, focusing on Calliope’s movements. I keep her at an easy trot, letting her warm up. I ease her into going faster as she travels the dirt road, kicking up a trail of dust behind us. I don’t take any detours and guide her right to the Smiths’ house. While the rest of New Ulm is speckled with trees, the Smiths had all of their trees chopped down. Before they moved in, there were ash trees all over that land, but now there’s a single lone ash tree just off their property. That’s where I find my brother.

“You should leave them alone already,” I say when James hasn’t bothered to acknowledge my presence. I know he heard me coming. A horse’s hooves as it runs isn’t the quietest thing in the world.

James has his hands at either side of his shaved head. His hair is so fine and such a light blond it’s hard to tell he even has any hair—especially from this distance.

“Hey, you, in the tree. I’m talking to you,” I say, rolling my eyes.

“Shut up, Ryan!” he barks. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“Busy being a pain in everyone’s ass,” I shout back. “The Smiths like to keep to themselves, so let them. Stop spying on them all the time.”

“I don’t just spy,” he defends. “I bring them gifts and all kinds of things.”

“How could I forget? But you’ve been doing it way too much. You’re coming across as some sort of creepy stalker.”

“Have you even seen the Smith women, Ryan? They’re like these beautiful goddesses—mainly Wendy. But still.”

“No, I haven’t ever gotten a good look at them, but that’s because I’m respectful of their wish to be left alone!”

“How do you know they want to be left alone?”

“Based on the fact that they never leave the house and barely open the door when anyone tries to visit?”

“Maybe they’re just shy.” James finally tears his eyes away from the house and looks down at me from his perch in the ash tree. “Why do you suppose they have the same last name? It’s not like Wendy looks anything like Elizabeth. I don’t think they’re even related.”

“Maybe they were adopted into the same family, you insensitive jerk. Get out of that tree and go home, or go fishing or something. You’re wasting your whole summer.”

“I’m so close to being invited inside though, Ryan! I can feel it! Each time I’ve brought a gift to the house, Wendy’s opened the door just a little bit wider. She’s the one who answers the door every time I go up there, too. She totally has a thing for me.”

“Do you even hear yourself?”

James sighs. “I know how it sounds, but I just have this feeling. It’s meant to be! Besides, what are you getting after me for? You spend almost as much time here as I do.”

“Only because I’m trying to get you to stop coming out here every day.”

“Don’t try to tell me you aren’t interested in them.”

I don’t have a comeback for that. I am interested in them, but not the way he is. He’s infatuated. I’m… wary.

New Ulm is a small town. It has its fair amount of reclusive families, but nothing to the degree of the Smiths. I never see them leave the house. They send everyone away who comes up to their door—at the very least, they’ve never let anyone inside. Sometimes just thinking about them makes me shudder. I can’t even properly put clear faces to the names Elizabeth and Wendy because they never show them.

My brother says they’re beautiful, but I wonder if he’s really seen them well enough with all of his forced interactions with them, or apparently just Wendy, to know that for a fact. Maybe he’s just projecting what he hopes onto them. Maybe I’m projecting too. It’s not like anyone really knows anything about them. Still, why did they have all of their ash trees chopped down? The grassy land looks so barren without them. It just seems—

“Today is the day!” James shouts as he slides down the tree and dashes for the Smiths’ gray farmhouse. “Wendy’s going to let me inside today!”

He’s already halfway to the front door by the time I’ve come to my senses and scramble off Calliope’s back. The only thing I can think about as I run after my brother is catching him before he rings the doorbell. I push my legs harder than I’ve ever pushed them before, but James has too big of a head start. I want to yell at him to stop, but if we haven’t already caught the Smiths’ attention, that definitely would. So I run, helpless to stop him before he rings the doorbell.

I catch him a few seconds too late. Still, I have to vent my frustrations somehow, so I hook my arm around his neck and trap him.

He smacks at my arm. “Quit it, man! Are you trying to kill me?!”

I ignore him and hold him tighter. I’m not choking him or anything. He’s just whining because he can’t free himself. I start dragging him away from the gray farmhouse, hoping against all odds that the Smiths somehow didn’t hear him ring the doorbell or the ruckus outside.

Of course, a clean getaway would be too good to be true. I’ve barely dragged James off the porch when the door creaks open a few inches. Based on the dark skin alone, I decide it has to be Wendy. Elizabeth has fair skin. I know that much. That and Wendy is James’s age while Elizabeth is in her late twenties.

I stop dead in my tracks, but I don’t let go of James. Wendy opens the door a bit wider. Only the left part of her face is visible, but it’s enough to tell she isn’t pleased.

“What the hell?” she says. “I don’t know what kind of game you boys are playing, but do it somewhere else.”

“No! Wendy! Forget this guy. He’s just some crazy person who jumped out of nowhere and attacked me,” James cries.

He struggles even harder than before to get out of my hold, and this time he succeeds. But he’s too late. Wendy’s already shut the door, leaving him grasping at nothing but wood. He balls his hand into a fist and gently places it on the door, then he brings his forehead down to meet his hand. He starts shaking as he turns around to meet me with his teeth bared.

“I can’t believe you embarrassed me like that! I thought you were supposed to be the goody two-shoes!”

“Well, embarrassing you wasn’t exactly my intention, but if this whole thing works to make you leave the Smiths alone, I’ll take it.”

James sticks his tongue out at me. He is 16, but he really couldn’t have come up with a more juvenile response.

“You’re not sorry at all,” he states.

I shake my head. “Let’s go—unless you want to annoy Wendy even more by bickering on her porch.”

I start walking, and James follows behind me.

“She probably thinks I’ve just been screwing with her all this time now.”

“That’s exactly what you’ve been doing,” I point out.

“No, it isn’t.”

I bring my gaze to the ash tree James was using to stake out the Smith house, the only ash tree left in this area and all because it’s just off Smith property.

Calliope is waiting for me just under the shade of the tree, speckling her already dappled gray coat even more with the bits of sun coming through. I see a flash of dark curly hair as Calliope turns to look at me, revealing Debbie at her side.

“What’s she doing here?” James asks.

“I don’t know,” I mutter as I wave at her.

She doesn’t return the gesture. She barely even looks at me before she returns her attention to Calliope as she strokes her neck.

“She pissed at you or something?” My little brother snickers.

“Shut up.”

“I thought I’d find you both here,” Debbie says when James and I reach her. She still won’t look at me. She has her eyes trained on Calliope’s mane, concentrating on getting out some of the tangles with her fingers.

She continues, “The Young boys can always be seen at the Smiths’ these days. What is it about Elizabeth and Wendy that have you both so smitten, I wonder.”

“It’s not like that,” I say.

“Then what is it like, Ryan? I came over to see you earlier, and you ditched me because you said you needed to take Calliope out for a ride, but I don’t see you riding. I find you here with your brother, trying to get into the Smiths’ house.”

“I came because of him.” I jerk my thumb behind me to indicate my brother.

“Just trying to keep him out of trouble as usual?” She says this like I say that all the time. Maybe I do.

James throws up his hands and says, “Leave me out of this.”

“Debbie, I—”

“Don’t ‘Debbie’ me.” She frowns. “Lately I’ve been wondering if you even love me anymore. We’ve been dating for just over two years, since we were sixteen. We’re both eighteen now and have been for a while. I was really hoping that meant we’d be getting married in the near future, but we haven’t even talked about it.”

I open my mouth to say something, but I can’t think of any words to say.

“Your silence says it all,” she concludes.

I scratch my head. “Debbie, no. It’s no—”

“It’s not like that?” She scowls. “Save it. Talk to me when you have something better to say.”

When she gets like this, there’s no changing her mind, but I don’t expect her to heave herself onto my horse and urge her into a gallop before I even get a chance to protest. James and I cough in a cloud of dust, and I blink at the grainy particles scratching my eyes as Debbie rides away.

“Debbie!” I shout when the cloud has cleared, but she’s too far gone.

“You gonna chase after her like you chased after me? Everyone’s putting you on the run today,” James says nonchalantly as he laces his hands behind his head.

I kick a fist-sized rock near the toe of my left boot. There are no words or real actions I can take to make myself feel better at the moment.

“That make you feel better?” my little brother asks.

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re being a baby. Go be a man and chase after her.”

“I’ll let her cool off first.”

“You’re so lame.”

“Hey,” I snap, “this is all your fault, you know.”

“How is it my fault? I didn’t tell you to come find me out here. Your girlfriend’s right, man.”

I don’t want to hear any more. I’m already frustrated enough. I kick that damn rock again, and then I start walking. If James is following behind me, he’s staying far enough away to give me some space. Thank God for that.

Sighing, I look up at the clear blue sky. James said I should go after Debbie right now, but I’m in no big hurry to. I hate when she gets like this. She expects me to come running. I always have in the past because I hate fighting. But I can’t come running this time. I’m in no big hurry to talk right now—not if she wants to discuss marriage. I’ve never even really considered it before. It’s not that I don’t love Debbie. I do. Like she said, we’ve been dating for two years, but marriage just seems so final, like it’s the end of the road. If I marry Debbie, that’ll be it. I’ll stay in New Ulm, Texas, for the rest of my life. What about the rest of the world? What about all the things I haven’t tried yet?

Debbie doesn’t care about adventure. She’d be happy to stay in this small town for the rest of her life. That’s what she wants. But I’m not sure it’s what I want.

***

It’s hot today. The heat alone is enough to make me not want to do anything, but then there’s the Debbie situation on top of that. Now I’m wasting a perfectly good summer day on the porch when I could be out doing something. After I finished the chores on the farm, I couldn’t find the motivation to do anything but sit here. Yesterday sucked and it’s carried on to today.

Debbie returned Calliope to our stable like I knew she would, but she hasn’t come out to talk to me. She’s waiting for me to make a move. We’re going to be at a standstill like this for a while if neither one of us is willing to give in. I can’t remember a time when Debbie has ever given in. It’s always been me. What if I don’t want to give in this time?

“Ryan? What’re you doing? It’s not like you to waste your day away sitting on the porch,” my dad remarks. He just came out from behind the house, and he’s covered in dirt. He takes off his hat and wipes the sweat from his brow. “If you’re still here, you should help me out with the horses. I could have swore your brother said you were both going fishing today though. Plans change?”

Fishing? This is the first I’ve heard about that. Is James using me as a scapegoat again? I told him he can only do that under special circumstances. He’s probably just back at the Smiths’. He just doesn’t give up.

“We are. I had James go on ahead. I was about to meet up with him but I fell asleep on the porch,” I say.

“You’re lucky you don’t have the same fair skin your brother and mother have. You’d get burned to a crisp doing something like that. There isn’t even any shade on the porch this time of day.”

I know. I was suffering in silence and in the heat. I don’t tell my dad that though. I don’t want to talk about Debbie. I don’t even want to think about her, so I guess it’s time I go see what James is up to. At least that will get my mind off my girlfriend. It probably won’t do anything to help my mood though.

“See you later, Dad,” I say as I run off the porch.

He shouts, “You boys better bring home dinner since you’re leaving all the extra work to me!”

I help out on the farm a lot, but lately I’ve been trying to weasel my way out of it just like James always has. I don’t think I want my own farm. It’s a lot of work and time. Maybe I’d like doing something in a big city better. I won’t know unless I leave this place and try it out. So why haven’t I left yet? Like Debbie pointed out, I’m 18. My parents are supportive. If I told them I wanted to go to Houston or some other part of Texas, they’d be fine with that. Maybe I’ve stayed here because of Debbie, or maybe it’s because of James. I say I want to see new things, but I’m tied to this place just like everyone else who lives here—everyone except the Smiths maybe.

Unlike yesterday, I walk and take my time getting to the Smiths’ small gray farmhouse. My hands are in my pockets, and I try to enjoy the hot summer day. I lock my gaze onto the ash tree just off of the Smiths’ property as soon as it comes into view. I think I can see a figure in the tree, but I can’t tell for sure. Now I pick up my pace, eager to see if James is in his favorite spot to spy on the Smiths. When I reach the tree and don’t see anyone in it, I’m not sure if I feel relieved or worried. Did James actually go fishing today? But then why would he have told Dad that I was going with him?

I walk around the tree to get a different angle. Still, I don’t see anyone up in its branches. I look down the small dirt trail leading to the Smiths’ front porch. That’s when I see him. James is at the front door again—despite what happened yesterday. What’s even more shocking is that the door is open. Not just a crack. The door is open.

This is the first time I’ve ever gotten a clear view of Wendy. She is cute. She’s short with big boobs, dark wavy hair that reaches her shoulders, and light blue eyes that stand out when compared to the rest of her dark features. I can see why my brother is so smitten with her. Has he gotten her to open up like this before? She actually looks like she wants to see him.

I squint and shield my eyes with my hand to try and get a better look. She’s definitely anxious to see him. She’s staring so intently. I catch myself leaning forward and almost trip over one of the ash tree’s roots. I catch myself and look back at the farmhouse just in time to see James go inside and shut the door behind him.

My mouth drops open. She let him inside?!

This is something I would never do under any other circumstance but… I sneak forward, intending to peek in through one of the windows when I feel a hand on my back. I barely manage to stifle a surprised cry as I whip around to see Debbie. She drops her hand and looks at me with wide eyes.

“You really do have it bad,” she says. “You’re acting like I just caught you doing something you shouldn’t be doing. What are you doing that you shouldn’t be doing?”

“God,” I breathe. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”

“It’s not like you to be jumpy.” She brings out her lower lip in a pout and folds her arms in front of her chest, closing herself off from me.

“I’m not doing anything bad, okay?” I mutter.

“Then what were you doing?”

“I was…”

“Going to peek inside a window or something? Hoping to catch either Elizabeth or Wendy changing?”

Her answer must mean she just barely got here if she doesn’t know James is inside. That makes me feel a little bit better about her sneaking up on me, I guess.

I open my mouth to reply, but Debbie beats me to it by saying in a mocking tone, “And don’t say ‘it’s not like that.’ I waited for you to come find me all day yesterday, after I took Calliope back home for you, and this morning. You never came.” Tears are building in her eyes. I’m going to get the waterworks any second now.

“I figured you needed some space,” I tell her.

She brings her hands down into fists at her sides as she stands rigidly. “I wanted you to come find me and apologize!”

And then I start yelling too. “It’s not like I can read your mind, Debbie!”

“You always come find me.” The tears finally spill.

“I didn’t see why I had to! I’m always the one to give in, and you’re mad at me for no reason!”

Her lips quiver. “If you leave with me now and take me for a nice picnic, I’ll forgive you.”

“Forgive me for what?”

“For spying on the Smiths!” She puts her hands to her forehead. “What changed between us, Ryan? We never had any problems before. Are you bored with me now? Is that why you’re looking at other girls? You always came running when I called, and you never showed any interest in any other girls. What changed?” She furiously wipes away her tears and glares. “I’m going to give them a piece of my mind. They’ve been flirting with you, haven’t they?”

“What?” I ask, dumbfounded.

But she’s already gone, marching her way up to the lonely gray farmhouse.

“Debbie, stop. You’re just going to embarrass yourself,” I call.

She doesn’t respond, and then she hurries her walk into a run. I let out a groan as I follow behind her. Didn’t I do almost this exact thing yesterday?

“Debbie, seriously.”

She won’t be dissuaded. I follow her all the way to the front porch. She raises her hand, about to knock, and then the door swings open. Debbie jumps away in time, though she loses her footing. I catch her, but she pushes away from me as soon as she has her own balance again.

James steps backwards onto the porch from inside the house. His hands are up in front of him and he has a dopey smile on his face. Elizabeth rushes at him and jabs a long, slender finger into his chest as her carrot-orange hair flies into her face. She looks wild and unruly—almost scary.

“Leave.” She hisses. “And don’t ever come back.”

She slams the door shut before checking to make sure James is clear of it. He almost loses a finger. He laughs and grins like a fool as he steps back toward Debbie and me. Then we all step back slowly. I’m almost expecting the door to come swinging open again. It doesn’t.

“Let’s go,” I mutter when I have the nerve to allow my back to face the house.

Once we’ve safely made it to the lone ash tree off of the Smith property, I let out a breath of relief. Then I turn to James and grab his collar. “What. The. Hell? What did you do, James? She looked like she was about to chop your head off!”

James looks right at me, that stupid grin of his still plastered on his face. “I kissed Wendy! Damn was it amazing. She’s really intense. She wanted me so bad it was almost like she was trying to eat me.”

“Gross. That’s way too much information.” Debbie gags and sticks out her tongue.

“You’re an idiot, James,” I announce.

“You both are,” Debbie says.

She huffs and turns away from us as she starts walking in the direction that will take her home. I stay standing by the ash tree with James.

“Aren’t you going to walk her home?” James asks.

“No.”

“Really? She looks like she wants you to. See how slow she’s walking? Besides, you’d rather walk home with her than me, right?”

“I thought we were going fishing.”

“No way. Fishing is boring,” James mutters.

“You liked it when we were kids.”

“Yeah, well, times change. I’m meant for bigger, greater, and more exciting things. Maybe I’ll become a rock star.”

“You’d have to actually sing or play an instrument to do that,” I say.

“Stop being such a killjoy and walk your girlfriend home already.”

“Fine, but Dad’s going to be disappointed we didn’t bring any fish home.”

“So let him be disappointed.”

I’ll have to talk to Debbie eventually. Now is as good a time as any. This must be why I’m always the one to give in. I clap my brother on the shoulder and rush past him to catch up to Debbie.

As soon as I’m at her side, she says, “I’ll forgive you if you apologize. Hold me in your arms and tell me you love me like you always do. Tell me you’ll never go back to the Smiths’.”

“I’ve only been at the Smiths’ because of James. There is nothing else. I’m not trying to spy on them. I’m not checking them out. I don’t know what you’re so mad about.”

“Why are you lying to me, Ryan?”

I run my hands through my hair. “Lying? What do you think I’m lying about?”

“You don’t love me anymore! You’re infatuated with the Smiths just like your brother. I don’t matter anymore.”

“I just said it isn—”

“Isn’t like that? If you can’t be honest with me, maybe we should break up.”

“I am being honest. If you have such little faith in me, then I agree. We should break up.”

She jerks her head toward me, and stares, like she’s trying to gauge if I mean what I just said.

After a pause, she asks, “Are you serious?”

“I’m serious.” And I am. It almost surprises me. I wasn’t planning on breaking up with my girlfriend today.

“But—no. You can’t.”

“I do love you, Debbie, but I don’t want to get married. Not any time soon anyway. There’s so much of the world I haven’t seen. There’s so much I don’t know. I need to figure out what I want.”

“And you have to do this by yourself?” she cries.

“Yeah, I think I do. Or, at least not with you.”

Her face cycles through several different expressions. One of them is an almost uncontainable anger I’ve never seen on her face before, but the expression she settles for is a mix of that anger and frustration. Her skin is going red and it looks like she’s going to burst.

“Fine!” she screams as more tears fall out of her eyes. “But you’re going to regret this!”

She storms away again, and this time I’m glad to see her leave.

***

I feel like a weight’s been lifted off my shoulders. I wonder if it makes me a bad person to feel good about breaking up with my girlfriend. I take a long detour to think about everything, and my conclusion is I did the best thing for me and Debbie. I didn’t break up with her to hurt her. Maybe we could have come to some sort of compromise, but she needed to be the one to bend this time. I shouldn’t always have to be the one to do it. Maybe we could have talked things through, about how I want to see more than New Ulm. About how I don’t want to get married any time soon. Maybe she would have understood, but when have we ever talked?

I take my time on the way home, so when I see my house in the distance, the sun is already about to set. It isn’t unusual to see my family outside, but it is unusual to see them all hanging out on the porch. They fly off the porch all at once when James starts pointing at me frantically.

“There you are!” James exclaims.

“Here I am,” I reply once everyone is standing in front of me. They’re all giving me this intense look. “Is something wrong?”

“That’s what we want to know,” Mom says. She raises an eyebrow and pulls a wisp of her long golden hair away from her eyes. “Your father’s been on the phone with Mr. Carter for the past half hour.”

With Debbie’s dad? Why would he be on the phone so long with my dad?

“Apparently Debbie came home in tears because you broke up with her,” Dad explains. “Did you break up with her?”

“I did,” I say carefully.

My family exchanges looks.

Dad takes off his hat and rubs his brow. “Mr. Carter’s about to blow a fuse. He said he’d be coming over to have a ‘chat’ with you.”

That doesn’t bode well. Mr. Carter is known for losing his temper. My dad always just said he is a sensitive guy. When it comes to the people he loves, he can get pretty touchy. I should have known that breaking up with Debbie would put me in this kind of situation. It was naive to think this breakup would set me free.

“You’ll want to prepare yourself,” Dad says. “Your mom already called the sheriff over.”

“What?”

“He threatened you over the phone,” Mom informs. “Then he said he was coming over here to teach you a lesson. I’m not going to allow my son to get beat up because he broke up with his overly clingy girlfriend.”

I flinch. “Overly clingy?”

James laughs. “She’s always had you whipped, man. You’re like the only one who never noticed, so we all figured maybe you were the right guy for her. Apparently you’re not.”

I frown. Dad rests his hand on my shoulder and says, “We’re behind you, son. If you felt it was best to break up with Debbie, I’m sure it was.”

“Thanks,” I whisper. At least I’ve always been able to count on my family whenever I’ve gotten in trouble. Even James when it comes down to it. It’s just what the Young family does.

All of our heads turn to the road when we hear the rasping wheeze of Mr. Carter’s favorite old truck. It coughs and sputters before coming to a complete stop. My blood turns to ice in my veins when Mr. Carter hops out of the truck and locks his gaze onto me. I’ve never talked to him much, but I’ve also never been on his bad side before. I guess that means Debbie never had any complaints about me in the past, but now I’m about to see what it’s like to be on Mr. Carter’s bad side.

I find myself praying the sheriff gets here soon. Mr. Carter is shorter than I am, but he has no shortage on muscle. And, truthfully, I’ve never been much of a fighter.

“Ryan Young,” Mr. Carter announces my name like it’s a challenge. He marches right up to me, unperturbed by my family standing at my side. “Debbie came home in tears today. Says it was your fault.”

“To be fair, she’s the one who suggested we break up first,” I tell him and instantly regret opening my mouth. I’m more afraid than I thought. If I was thinking straight, I so wouldn’t have done that.

The rage that flashes through his eyes goes by so quick that I would have missed it if I hadn’t been watching him like a hawk. But it doesn’t do me much good. I’m too slow to react, and he punches me right in the face.

I stumble backwards, completely disoriented. My dad catches me from behind before I can fall to the ground.

“That’s enough, Mr. Carter!” Dad shouts—though I can tell he’s trying to hold back his anger; getting angry with Mr. Carter is the perfect way to make this escalate. My dad places himself between me and my ex-girlfriend’s angry father. “Breakups happen all the time,” Dad says. “It’s nothing to get so bent out of shape over. Besides, I think we can all agree that your Debbie is a bit of a drama queen. She’s probably making this whole thing sound worse than it is.”

Mr. Carter’s face goes as red as a beet. I swear I can almost see smoke shooting out of his ears.

“Well,” James interjects, like he can’t tell Mr. Carter is about to blow up, “everyone but Ryan would agree Debbie is a bit of a drama queen.”

I smack the back of my brother’s head to get him to shut up. The action somehow jars the rest of my body and new pain flashes over my left eye. I’m pretty sure Mr. Carter gave me a black eye when he hit me. It sure feels like he did.

“Ain’t no boy around allowed to make my Debbie cry like that!” Mr. Carter announces as he grabs my dad’s shirt by the collar and pulls him down so that their eyes are level. “You looking for a fight?”

“I think it’s the other way around,” Dad replies with fire in his eyes.

“Don’t do anything you’d regret, Mr. Carter. The sheriff’s on his way here,” Mom threatens.

Just as the words leave her lips, the sheriff’s car pulls up onto our property. He gets out of his car and makes his way to us. He came in time. I let out a sigh of relief and bring a hand up to the tender skin around my left eye. Damn, it hurts. It feels like he must have knocked my brains loose too. I’ve got a headache along with this black eye.

“You never taught your boys to fight their own battles?” Mr. Carter demands, spitting in my dad’s face. “What kind of father does that?”

“That’s enough, Mr. Carter,” Sheriff Gray announces as he comes up to us. He places a firm hand on Mr. Carter’s shoulder. “What have I told you about fighting?”

“We were just sorting something out,” Mr. Carter says. “Doesn’t have anything to do with the law.”

“When you start making threats over the phone, and then come over here to make good on them,” Sheriff Gray indicates me with his free hand, “it concerns the law.”

“Only because some folks go crying to the law because they can’t take care of things themselves.”

Mr. Carter still looks like he wants to jump my dad, or me, or maybe even James, but he stands down. He takes his hands off my dad’s shirt collar and takes a few steps back.

“What is this even about?” the sheriff asks.

“My Debbie came home crying because of that damn boy.” Mr. Carter points at me accusingly.

The sheriff raises an eyebrow. “What’d he do?”

“He broke up with my baby girl. My baby girl. The man who gets to marry her someday is going to be lucky as hell, and this boy just tosses her away like she doesn’t mean anything at all.”

“It wasn’t like that!” I protest.

The sheriff sighs. “It was just a breakup?”

“Just a breakup? Didn’t you hear what I just said?” Mr. Carter demands.

“Yes, yes, your baby girl. The man who marries her someday will be lucky indeed. So Ryan isn’t the lucky one. Let’s just leave it at that and move on, shall we?”

Mr. Carter works his jaw to the point it looks like it’s going to pop out of its socket. The sheriff takes his shoulder and tries guiding him away. At first, Mr. Carter doesn’t budge an inch, but he eventually relents.

He shoves off the sheriff’s hand and says, “I can escort myself home.”

Sheriff Gray stays standing by us with his fingers hooked in his belt loops. We all watch in a stiff silence until it’s clear that Mr. Carter won’t be coming back.

“Mr. Carter has a hot temper,” the sheriff says. “I’d avoid the Carters for a while if I were you. You folks shouldn’t have any more problems if you do that, but if you ever do find yourselves in trouble, you know you can always call me.”

“My hero.” James mock swoons.

“All joking aside,” Dad says as he nudges James with his elbow, “we appreciate the support.”

“Looks like Mr. Carter got you pretty good anyway,” Sheriff Gray says. “You’ll want to put ice on that, son.”

I wince when my fingers touch an especially tender area of skin. “I plan to.”

“C’mon, honey. Let’s go inside and have a look at you,” Mom says.

I follow Mom inside our blue farmhouse while Dad and James stay outside and talk to the sheriff. Mom tries to baby me, but I tell her I’m fine and go straight to the freezer. We don’t have any ice, so I grab a bag of frozen peas and hold it to my eye as I retreat to mine and James’s bedroom. I enjoy a moment of silence alone on my bed until James slams the door open and then shut again as he leaps onto his bed.

“You asleep?” he asks.

“If I was before, I’m certainly not anymore,” I say. “Could you be any louder?”

“Of course I could. That was me being considerate.”

“Good God.”

“I can’t believe you’re using a bag of frozen peas to bring down the swelling. It’s times like this you should show your stuff as a man and use a steak, but you choose peas.”

“And just who am I going to impress by using a steak?”

James shrugs. “You have a point.”

I close my eyes and hope that’s the end of the small talk. I’m exhausted and I just want to forget everything that happened today.

“Do you think Wendy would sneak out with me if I went to see her again?” my brother asks.

I groan. “I don’t know. I’ve had my fill of women for a lifetime. Probably.”

James laughs. “So you’re never going to date again?”

“Not any time soon. I think I’m going to leave.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m going to leave New Ulm. Check out Houston or something and see what opportunities I can find there.”

“That seems pretty random. Since when have you wanted to leave New Ulm? And what did Debbie do to get you two to break up? I didn’t think that would ever happen. You’re like the only guy in the world I thought might be able to deal with her. If even you can’t, that girl is going to lead a lonely life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re the biggest sucker and pushover I know.”

I remove the peas from my eye, slam them down onto my bed beside me, and sit up to see James grinning at me. I say, “Just because I don’t feel the need to push the boundaries or to outright be a pain in the ass, doesn’t make me a sucker or a pushover.”

“Yeah. You’re just boring.”

I plop back down on my bed and put the peas back over my eye. “Go to bed,” I mutter.

James doesn’t say another word. I thought that would make me feel better, but it doesn’t. I toss and turn as I try to go to sleep, but all that finds me is unrest.

***

My left eye is throbbing. It wakes me up. I must have gotten some sleep at least. The room is dark, and I can see a faint beam of moonlight drifting in through the window. I roll over onto my back and find the bag of peas I was using as an ice pack. They’re too warm to do much good now.

Sighing, I take the bag of peas and get out of bed. I make my way to the kitchen and throw the peas back into the freezer and take out a bag of frozen carrots. I lift the icy bag to my eye and feel the pain recede a little. I should be able to go back to sleep if the pain stays at this level.

Once I’m back in mine and James’s room, I’m about to plop down on my bed when I glance over at my brother’s bed. I don’t think anything of it at first. It’s dark, and he usually has his blanket all bunched up in a mess like it is now. He’s just fast asleep. Except… the shape isn’t right. A person couldn’t possibly be in that mess.

“James?”

I don’t get an answer, and his bed stays perfectly still.

I say his name louder this time, “James!”

No answer.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I mutter under my breath.

I go up to his bed and throw his blanket onto the floor. Sure enough, James is nowhere to be seen.

“Damn it!”

I drop the bag of carrots onto the floor and bring my hand to the back of my neck, feeling the chilled skin of my hand against the warm skin of my neck. It sends a shiver down my spine, another unpleasant sensation on top of the dread already gathering inside of me. Where could he have gone? He was talking about Wendy before we went to sleep. Would he try to visit her this late at night? How late is it?

I glance at the analogue clock on our nightstand and see that it’s 1:00 a.m. Why would he go to their house this late? They’re probably asleep. Maybe he’s just gone to spy on them in that lonely ash tree.

My hands find my head as my fingers twist in my hair. I can’t understand what my little brother is thinking, and I can’t think of anywhere else he’d be. Whatever he’s doing out this late, it can’t be good.

Then it occurs to me he might just be in the bathroom. What am I getting so panicky over? I’ve always looked out for James, but he isn’t a kid anymore. I should give him more credit than that. He isn’t stupid.

I pick up the bag of frozen carrots and lie back down on my bed. I press the veggies to my black eye and close my eyes in an attempt to fall back asleep. I’m exhausted, so I thought I’d fall back asleep pretty fast, but my mind keeps buzzing with thoughts of James. I haven’t heard him come back into the room yet.

“You worry too much, Ryan,” I tell myself as I sit up.

I leave the carrots on my bed and sneak out of my room to see if anyone’s in the bathroom. The bathroom door is open, and when I peek inside, I don’t see anyone in there. James really did leave. I wasn’t just worrying over nothing. I should have listened to that feeling of mine sooner. Maybe it was God telling me to go stop my brother before he does something stupid. I’m such an idiot.

After slipping on a pair of shoes, I’m out of the house like a bullet. I consider tacking up Calliope, but decide against it. It’d probably be faster to run, and I wouldn’t want to accidentally wake anyone up with my horse running by—especially my parents.

I run the whole way to the Smiths’ house without a single break. By the time I make it to the ash tree just off their property, I feel like I’m going to pass out. My sides are heaving. I wouldn’t be surprised if I collapsed. I should have at least paced myself. And man am I thirsty now.

Placing a hand on the tree, I lean into its trunk for support for a couple minutes as I look at the small gray farmhouse. I can’t make much of anything out by the light of the moon alone. There are no lights on inside or outside of the house. I guess it’s possible James didn’t come here. Then again, it was Elizabeth who tossed him out of the house yesterday, not Wendy. Maybe Wendy really does have a thing for him and they’re trying to keep the whole thing clandestine.

Only one way to find out.

As soon as I feel like I can move again without falling over, I sneak up to the farmhouse. I tiptoe onto the porch and hear something. Freezing, I strain to listen to the odd scratching sound whispering into my ears. There’s crunching mixed in with the scratching. I rub my arms as goosebumps prickle my skin.

I see light curtains flutter outside the open window to my right, looking over the porch. Does that mean the sounds I’m hearing are coming from inside the house?

Ducking so I won’t be seen, I shimmy over to the window. The sounds are louder now. And I hear voices.

“I couldn’t hold it in anymore.”

“I told you to keep your distance. Now we have to leave this town and we only got to feed on one body.”

“We can make up for it by feeding tonight.”

“That’s what we’ll have to do. It’s just unfortunate we couldn’t have waited longer. We’d be able to eat more that way.”

“Things don’t always go according to plan.”

What the hell? Those are the voices of women talking, right? Elizabeth and Wendy? But what are they talking about?

I bring by fingers to the window’s edge. My heart is beating so loud I can hear it. It’s like my heart has left my chest and moved to my head with how hard it’s pounding. The talking has stopped, but now those crunching noises are even more pronounced than they were before. I have to look inside the house to see what’s going on, but my hands are shaking, and I’m not sure I can pull myself up to do it. I tell myself I have to. What if my brother’s inside? Maybe they’re all playing some weird new game. Maybe James has befriended them, and I’ve just been getting in his way all this time like he keeps telling me.

I swallow, trying to still my fears, but it doesn’t work. There’s still a lump in my throat. I’m still shaking. I try to take in a deep breath. It ends up shallow. However, it’s enough for me to lift myself just high enough so I can see inside the open window.

Nothing.

I see nothing.

I blink my eyes, as if that will clear the darkness inside of the house. Moonlight is shining through just enough for me to make out a bobbing motion that’s in time with the crunching noises. Each crunch hits my ears a little harder and makes my stomach churn. I’m about to gag. What is that awful smell?

The two bouncing figures move their position, revealing the slick gleam of some sort of liquid, chunks of something scattered on the liquid trail and… a corpse. It’s a corpse. No.

No!

His face is still there. Even though his body has been ripped open, I know that face. James. James is dead. They ripped him apart. I must be dreaming. This is a nightmare. There’s no way this can be real. The Smiths are cannibals?

No.

Unable to hold the reflex in, I drop down to the wooden boards making up the base of the porch, and I rock back and forth. I grab my hair and pull, trying to wake up. I chant over and over to myself, “Wake up. Just wake up. You’re dreaming. This is all a bad dream. Your mind is running wild.”

When I open my eyes again, it’s still the same dark, muggy night of summer. I’m still on the Smiths’ porch. I have to look again. What I saw was a trick of the light, my imagination playing tricks. James isn’t dead. James isn’t…

I rise just high enough to look inside the window again. Nothing’s changed. There’s blood. Lots of blood. Chunks of flesh. My brother’s vacant eyes. My brother is dead. He was murdered by these psychotic women who moved to New Ulm. I knew there was something off about them. Why didn’t I do something sooner? Why didn’t I make sure James stayed away from them?

I let my brother die.

His body is lying inside of their house, alone and mutilated.

Alone.

Cold appendages like spider legs crawl across my fingers until they have me caught in their trap. Not spider legs. Fingers. I let out a yelp and try to pull back, but I’m held fast. A head of messy orange hair emerges from the other side of the window and a pair of two bright glowing eyes reflecting the moon look back at me, round and alien, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Then she smiles, showing sharp, bloody teeth.

I scream and tug. I don’t care if I rip off my hands, just let me get away from here! Elizabeth screeches at me. The sound isn’t human at all. I don’t know how I ever thought she was human in the first place. She’s a monster. A complete monster. Wendy must be too. Where is she?

I manage to wrench my wrists free of Elizabeth’s gasp just as Wendy comes careening out the front door. She has her teeth bared like a rabid dog, and she growls, leaping for me. She’s covered in blood too. My brother’s blood.

“No!” I scream as I leap over the porch railing, landing on my hands and knees as I hit the grass below.

It hurts, but I don’t have time to dwell on it. I scramble to my feet and run. I don’t know where I’m going. Anywhere is better than here. I automatically find myself running in the direction of home, but I can’t go home. If those monsters follow me, I’ll be leading them straight to my parents.

I look over my shoulder and see two dark figures. I can’t make them out, but I’m sure they have to be Elizabeth and Wendy. They’re coming up fast. I put everything I have into my legs and make my decision. I make a sharp turn and run for the St. John Lutheran Church. It’s the closest church around. The Smiths have to be demons or possessed—something! A church is the only place that can repel this kind of evil. Because that’s what all of this is: pure evil.

My lungs burn with every step I take, but I can’t afford to slow down. They’re getting closer to me with each passing moment. I start to think I’m not going to make it to the church at all. I can see it now, but I still have to make it to the front door.

“This one is determined.”

“I know. It’s refreshing. I wonder if he’ll taste half as good as his brother.”

I scream again. They’re toying with me. Everything is how they want it. Tears try to sting my eyes again, but I don’t let them. I’m not ready to give up yet. Since I don’t slow my pace, I run into the front door of the church, jarring my whole body, but I don’t even manage to blow through it. It stands firm and I’m trapped outside of the church.

“Please!” I scream and pound on the door. “Let me in!”

I wasn’t really expecting anyone to be here this time of night, but I was hoping God would be on my side and allow me shelter inside the church. The Smiths laugh from somewhere behind me, except their laughs echo like we’re inside a cave. They still haven’t decided to capture me yet, so I rush around the church, trying to find any open windows. Nothing. The church is closed up tight for the night.

What can I do? How can I warn the town about these monster? Should I go to the sheriff? Will shooting them work?

I slam my hands against the church. “Why won’t you help me?”

“Looks like he’s winding down.”

“That’s too bad. I wanted to see him run around and scream like a maniac some more.”

“That’s why towns like this are nice. Spread out farms, lots of land between houses. We can do things at our leisure.”

Turning around slowly, I press my back into the church and watch as the two shadowy figures slink toward me. Their eyes are glowing in the light of the moon, crescent-shaped slits. They look human, and even their eyes, as alien as they seem, are still the eyes of a human. No one would know otherwise, but the blood coating their mouths and clothes reveals their true colors. I know that they’re monsters, and now that I know, I can’t unsee it. I see it in their every movement.

“What are you?” I demand.

“Oh, he still has some fight in him after all.” Wendy cackles.

“Good, good,” Elizabeth replies.

I say, “It’s not going to hurt you to answer my question if you’re going to kill me anyway.”

“Wendigos,” they hiss in unison.

“Wendigos?”

“I told you, Liz. Only vampires and werewolves get all the glory.”

“Who cares? Let’s eat him.”

“But look at his eyes. He isn’t broken yet.”

I bite my lower lip. I don’t know what she’s talking about. I feel broken. I don’t see a way out of this, but I guess I am still hoping. I’m still hoping God will decide to help me. I’m hoping he’ll destroy these monsters for what they did to my brother. I cringe as images from that gray farmhouse come flooding back. I can’t think about my brother without remembering him dead. All I can see is him broken and bloody. I can’t see his smile anymore. I can’t think of his smart-ass comebacks. It’s all twisted and silent.

“You’re right,” Elizabeth concedes. “We should take him with us and kill the rest of his family. That ought to break him.”

“Go to hell,” I say.

The monsters start to giggle, and then they start howling with laughter.

Wendy replies, “I’m sure we will one day, but not today, boy. You first.”

I dash. I break past the Smiths and run for the sheriff’s house, but I don’t get very far. Fingers with a grip like iron find their way around my arms and yank me backwards. My arms burn. Forget my black eye, this is beyond painful. I yelp as my arms continue to burn and Elizabeth wraps me up in her arms. She’s insanely strong. I can hardly move at all now, and she’s squeezing so tight my vision is filling up with black blotches. Can’t breathe.

I think this is the end. I think this is where I die. If dying is this simple, maybe it isn’t so bad after all. Fading into darkness isn’t so hard. Once you’re there, it doesn’t hurt anymore. Soon I’ll just fade away, all conscious thought obliterated. Everything will be better.

“Wake up.”

I draw in a sharp breath that burns my lungs as they fill with air. I cough and sputter on the grass. Those black splotches begin fading from my vision, and I see the nightmare world I thought I had escaped.

“This is your house, right?” Elizabeth asks, tossing her long orange hair over her shoulder.

I look past her and see my home. I don’t say anything as I bring my eyes back to her.

“It is,” Wendy says. “His brother told me time and time again about where they live. I think he was hoping I’d get out of the house and decide to visit.”

“That boy was way more trouble than he was worth.”

I grind my teeth together. I want them to die for what they did to my brother. I want them to die. I get on my feet and run at Wendy because she’s closer, but Elizabeth jumps in and knocks me down to the ground. She hit me so hard that I smack the ground and all the air is forced out of my lungs. I’m burning all over again, I can’t breathe, and everything hurts.

“Tie him to that tree with this.” Wendy holds out some rope.

“Where’d you get that?” Elizabeth asks as she drags me over to one of our ash trees.

“Found it lying around.”

“All these stupid fucking trees,” Elizabeth mutters as she slams my back against the tree and ties me up tight. “Mostly these ash trees. They give me hives.”

“Hives?” I say. “Is that why you chopped down all the ash trees on your property?”

Elizabeth flashes a dangerous grin, cracking the dried blood around her mouth. “That’s right.”

“Why haven’t you just killed me already?”

“You passed out, and we like our food to scream and struggle until their very last breath.”

The knot in my stomach is pulled tighter as I remember James and his vacant eyes, his mangled body. He had to suffer through that? I… I can’t…

“How can this be happening?” I cry. “Why haven’t I woken up yet?”

Elizabeth brushes her fingers across my cheek and then brings her head in close to mine, whispering in my ear, “You haven’t seen anything yet, boy.”

“Let’s see how you feel after we kill the rest of your family,” Wendy establishes.

“Please, don’t,” I beg. “Just kill me instead. Leave everyone else alone. Please.”

“You alone won’t sate our hunger.”

“Don’t!” I scream. “Mom! Dad! Run away!”

I can’t be sure my voice will carry far enough for my parents to hear. I’m still yards away from the house even though I’m on our property. But I don’t know what else to do. I can’t move. I’m struggling against the rope holding me to this ash tree, but all I’m doing is chafing my skin.

“Leave them alone!” I scream again when Elizabeth and Wendy take off for my house.

My parents must have heard something because their bedroom light turns on. Tears blur my vision, but I can’t look away. The Smiths have already broken the front door down. I can’t even cover my ears when the screaming starts. All I see are the shadows of silhouettes against my parents’ bedroom curtains. I can’t see everything in detail, but I see enough. I hear enough. My parents are getting ripped apart. Their screams are horrific. I want nothing more than to curl up into a ball and cover my ears. I want this all to be a bad dream. I want to wake up in my bed to the start of an ordinary day.

But it won’t end.

I don’t know how long the screaming goes on. I’ve become numb. I can’t feel. I can’t sense anything. Everything’s fuzzy, like it’s a distant world I can’t quite reach or make out.

“Now we’ve done it. We broke him.”

“He didn’t even watch the whole show.”

“He made his wrists all bloody with his struggling though.”

“Smells so good.”

“Can we eat him now?”

“Yes. Yes, let’s eat him.”

I don’t scream. Not even when their teeth rip into my flesh. I feel like I’ve already died. All the physical pain they must be causing me is happening to someone else because I’m not here anymore. The darkness is coming for me again, and this time I know it’s going to keep me.

The unmistakable sound of thunder draws me out of my stupor. It brings me a step back into reality and all the pain along with it. My whole body is being shredded, and I see blood everywhere. Just let me fade into the darkness. Please. You haven’t done anything else to help me, so at least give me that. God.

Wendy and Elizabeth leap away from me. I’m afraid they’re going to leave me here to bleed out instead of finishing what they started. They’re screaming about something, but their words are a garbled mess in my muddied mind. My eyelids are so heavy. They’re begging for me to close them, but I can’t. The Smiths, those wendigos, they’re hopping around, frantic. The looks on their faces… Are they afraid?

A flash of lightning rips through the sky; it’s so bright it leaves me seeing everything in negative. The thunder following the lightning is so close it almost ruptures my eardrums. Another bolt comes shooting down from the sky, connecting with Elizabeth and Wendy, searing their bodies into nothing but ash within seconds.

Just like that, they’re gone.

But I still don’t wake up.

“So you save the rest of New Ulm but not my family?!” I shout to the heavens. I cough and my whole body twinges from the exertion. I don’t look to take stock of what the wendigos did to my body, but I don’t think I’m going to recover from it. What did we do to deserve this? I close my eyes and just pray for it to be over.

“You’re still alive.”

I don’t recognize the voice trying to coax me away from the darkness. It’s a female’s voice, but it’s nothing like Wendy’s or Elizabeth’s. Their voices had a piercing quality. This voice is soft like cotton.

“Can you hear me?”

“Please. I’ve had enough,” I mumble.

“What was that?”

I open my eyes, an action I never thought would be so hard. Leaning down in front of me is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. At a first glance, she could almost be mistaken for a much younger girl based on her height and youthful face, but her curves betray that initial image. She’s almost like a doll. Her skin doesn’t have a single blemish, and it’s almost like she’s shining. There’s something about her that’s inviting. Her hair is light, maybe white; it’s easy to see in the night. She’s wearing armor made out of some kind of metal that also catches the light of the moon, making her shine like a beacon in the darkness that’s all but consumed me. Her eyes are a yellow-green, an intense color that produces a light all its own. There is power in those otherworldly eyes. I can’t look away. If she didn’t feel so different, I might be thinking she’s some kind of monster too. But she feels warm. I don’t feel afraid anymore. I can trust her.

She reaches out her hand to my cheek. I flinch at her touch because my body is so messed up right now any movement or foreign touch is bound to cause me more pain.

“You’re dying,” she says.

“I kinda figured that out,” I say back.

“Do you want to die?”

“Maybe. What good am I going to be if I live? I couldn’t save my brother. I couldn’t save my family. If I had been a better guardian, if I had watched over my brother better, none of this would have happened.”

“You see yourself as a guardian?”

I laugh, but it hurts, so I stop. “No. Didn’t you hear what I said?”

“I hear that you have regrets and a lot of love for the people you feel you let down.” She searches my eyes. “You are a kind person.”

“Who are you?” I whisper, my voice threatening to leave entirely. “What are you?”

She smiles. “I’m an angel.”

My heart skips a beat. “An angel? Where were you when I needed you then? Where were you when my family needed you?”

“Angels aren’t all-powerful.”

“But isn’t God?”

“God works in God’s own time. It’s not something a mortal or even many immortals can understand.”

“Why now?” I rasp.

“I think because I’m meant to save you. I’ll ask again: do you want to die?”

My mouth trembles, and I answer, “No.”

“If I give you the opportunity to stop things like this from happening again, will you take it?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

She draws her hand back from my face to take off her arm guard. Then she pulls out a small knife and cuts her wrist. Blood drips from her porcelain skin as she holds out her wrist.

“When you drink my blood, your body will undergo a transformation. You will no longer be human. Are you ready?”

I don’t have any second thoughts, and I don’t think to ask any questions. “I’m ready,” I say.

She brings her wrist to my lips, and I close my eyes. Drinking blood is the last thing I want to do after everything I’ve seen tonight. I expect the moment her blood hits my lips to be repulsive. But that’s not the case at all. Her blood is sweet like sugar. All the pain I’m in begins to subside as I drink. I drink until all the pain is gone. Is this magic?

The angel withdraws her wrist and says, “Open your eyes.”

I do as I’m told. I dare to look down at my body. My clothes are a mess, blood stains and chunks bitten out of them. They’re in complete tatters, but all of my wounds are gone. I lift up my shirt slightly to make sure I haven’t lost my mind, but the skin underneath is smooth and perfect, even better than it was before I became a wendigo meal. I feel better than I’ve ever felt.

“This is your house,” the angel says.

I don’t look up because I don’t want to relive what I just went through. “Yes.”

“I’ll grab you a new set of clothes, and then you can leave this behind forever.”

I’m about to tell her not to bother, but I feel a gust of wind and look back to see she’s gone. She reappears a few seconds later. I never even had a chance to look away, and now she’s holding out some clothes she found in mine and James’s room

“Get changed.”

“Right here?”

“No one’s around. I won’t look.”

I feel my face flush, but I do as I’m told. I throw off my ruined clothes and put on my new clothes as quickly as possible.

“I need to let someone know what happened to my family, or at least leave the sheriff a message,” I say as I change.

The angel responds, “Neighboring farms were stirring. Those demons were making quite a ruckus. I’m sure people will be here to investigate soon enough. You needn’t worry.”

“Okay,” I say as I think about Calliope and the other animals on our farm. I won’t be seeing them again either.

“My name is Imae, by the way,” the angel informs.

I glance behind me as I finish slipping on my shirt to see her back facing me.

“I’m Ryan,” I reply.

“Is that still the name you want to be known by or would you like a new name to go along with your rebirth as an angel?”

I think about it. My family died today. And now I’ll be going wherever this angel takes me. Ryan died today, too.

“I can give you one, if you like,” she says. “A new name.” She turns to face me, probably figuring she’d given me plenty of time to change.

“I’d like that,” I answer.

“Rynne. From this day on, you will be known as Rynne.”

The buzz I got from drinking her blood seems to be fading. Emotion is welling up in my chest, but I refuse to cry anymore. I’m done crying. I’m going to follow this angel. I’m going to stop things like this from happening again. Maybe I’ll even get to ask God why he didn’t save my family today. I’m not going to squander this second chance. That much I know.

“Shall we go?” Imae asks. “There is much for you to learn.”

I glance at my home one last time. I try to remember all the happiness I shared with my family there. I’ll just have to carry it all inside of me from now on. I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget any of this. I’m going to make the most of my second chance.

I say a silent goodbye and walk away from my home, away from New Ulm, and embrace the new world before me.

“Let’s go,” I say. “I have a lot of questions.”

“And I have answers.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.