Traffic picked up as Ru made her way home. She weaved into drainage ditches to avoid passing cars, ignoring the cool rainwater that trickled through her sneakers and socks. Sparrows chirped, a lawnmower sputtered and roared in a yard across the street, and yet they all seemed miles away. She was lost in the onslaught of questions her mind asked. She didn’t notice how close she was to home until a shout sent her thoughts scattering.
Ru glared down Plover Road. The Hadley house was second on the street, a two-story tucked away inside a miniature forest of maples, crabapple trees, and blue spruces. Its walls and roof were a dark brown that reminded her of topsoil, with splintering window frames and faded brick accents. A walk made of uneven stones led to a concrete porch. There was a thin petunia garden that followed the edge of the walk and porch. One of Ru’s after-school chores was to water the flowers, but she wasn’t going anywhere near them with Jayson and Randy sitting on the porch, grinning in the shadows. Her brother she could deal with, but the sight of Randy Fresnel made her want to go back to the park and keep wallowing.
“Don’t call me Ruster!” she shouted at them.
“Geez, OK. Sorry, Prudence,” Jayson shouted back.
The mention of her full name made Ru as prickly as the spruces. She stormed up the driveway and loomed over the two snickering boys. Her looming, as usual, had no effect. Only Jayson’s sly grin could be seen under his beloved White Sox cap, the only thing he ever wore that showed a hint of age. He was wearing a new baseball jersey and dark blue jeans without a speck of dirt on them. Randy was the opposite, his clothes riddled with holes and grass stains. He had more bandages crisscrossing his limbs than he had fingers. His hair was vivid red, despite the filth that streaked each short cowlick.
“Don’t call me that either,” Ru snapped.
“Can we call you Rude?” Randy asked eagerly.
Randy swept away from Ru, his ever-present rollerblades clattering across the front walk stones. “Ruster it is then!”
Ru huffed and stomped into the house as the two boys started singing. They knew far too many songs about roosters as far as she was concerned. “Go home, Randy!” she hollered at him before slamming the door.
“Jayson?” her mother called from upstairs.
“No, he’s outside with Randy!”
Ru set her backpack on the kitchen counter and glanced at the clock. As she’d predicted, visiting hours for Breckenridge were over. At least phone calls were accepted until nine. Her mother came down the stairs, wearing far more jewelry than usual and a frilly blouse that reminded Ru of orange pulp. “There you are,” she said, giving Ru a quick hug. “I’ve got some interviews tonight, so I won’t be back until late. Kelly’s coming by in a little while.”
Ru frowned. “I’m twelve, Mom, we don’t need a sitter.”
“She’s just coming by to clean.” Her mother gestured to the living room and set an envelope on the counter. “This is for her. Tell Jayson to come inside when she gets here. I told her she could bring pizza.”
Kelly wasn’t really that bad, especially when she showed up with some of her ultra-cheesy homemade pizzas to share. She was a college freshman Jayson described as “stuck in the 80s,” citing her neon accessories and huge curly hairstyle. The problem was she was always coming by to “clean,” but ended up staying long after the house had been deemed spotless, until whenever Ru’s mother just happened to come home.
The garage door hummed shut, and Ru picked up the phone. Breckenridge’s end had barely begun to ring before it was scooped up and there was a breathless, “Hello?”
“Hi, is Colleen there?” Ru asked.
An impatient sigh, puffed into the phone. “She can’t talk right now.” A muffled, “It’s not him” followed.
“Well, is one of the house mothers there?” Ru persisted. “I have to give Colleen her homework.”
“No. She’s in the hospital.” Someone giggled in the background, and Ru gritted her teeth as she recognized who was speaking. “They’re not sure if she’s going to make it, so I don’t think she’s worried about homework right now.”
“Shut up and put her on the phone, Ronnie,” Ru growled.
There was a click and a dial tone. Ru slammed the phone in its cradle and pressed redial. After four tries, she did manage to give her message to a very irritated house mother, who confirmed that Colleen was actually sick but was in no danger.
That done, Ru lugged her backpack to the living room. Once her eyes adjusted to the dimness, they nearly bulged out of her head. The shorter of the two couches was overturned, its blue, flower-speckled cushions in a pile by the fireplace. Paper and mounds of baseball cards blanketed the carpet, and a faint aroma of cooked salami hung in the air next to a pair of saucers slick with brown grease. Most mothers Ru knew would be furious about a mess like this, but a shuffle through some of the papers revealed half of this was Ms. Hadley’s own doing. The story about Kelly cleaning was more plausible now.
Ru righted the short couch, then lay back with her head and ankles propped on the armrests and her nose buried in her new textbook. Golden sunlight trickled in through the kitchen patio blinds, illuminating the pages. The myth for the weekly essay was about the Aurora Pools. Before she knew it, she had read through the Legend of the Cameraman, the Angel of Leaves, the Midnight Sun, and the Storm Owl. Her eyes strained for more as the room grew dimmer and dimmer.
A silhouette appeared in the corner of her eye.
It seized her shoulders. Its nails dug through her shirt as it shook her, howling, an unearthly wavering shriek. Ru shrieked back and wrenched away. She scrambled over the armrest and backed up against the wall before recognizing Jayson. His eyes were wide with amusement, gleaming in the deep shadows formed by the brim of his hat. “You didn’t even hear me walk in.”
Ru threw her book at him. “What is your problem?”
Jayson ducked away. “You want the last can of ravioli?”
“Kelly’s bringing food.”
“It’s seven-thirty already,” Jayson pointed out.
With a shock, Ru glanced at the clock on the VCR, then went to the patio door and nudged the shades aside. A pair of stars winked at her from a darkening indigo sky. Her stomach growled loudly, as if it too was just realizing the time.
She stumbled as a head rush momentarily blotted out her vision. The answering machine on the kitchen counter read 0, and Ru could not remember the phone ringing, though to be fair, she hadn’t noticed Jayson return to the house as he’d said. “She’s usually here by five.”
Jayson shrugged. “She got stuck in traffic or something. You want the ravioli or not?”
Ru shook her head and went hunting in the cabinets for her own dinner. “Where’d Randy go?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw frustration spread across Jayson’s face. “Grounded. Joe Stalvey was messing with him at recess and Randy gave him a black eye.”
“He’s going to get kicked out of school if he keeps getting into fights.” Ru didn’t feel all that bad about the prospect.
Exasperation broke through in Jayson’s voice. When he was upset, he had a very brisk way of speaking, just like their mother. It made Ru feel like she was the younger sibling. “I know. I keep telling him that, but he doesn’t believe me.”
“Joe probably deserved it,” Ru said. “He’ll get kicked out before Randy does.”
“Joe was going to prank the new girl in your class.”
Although Quarterhill Middle School was fairly large, Ru was not surprised Jayson knew who Kenna was. He had friends in all grades. “You can tell a new kid anything about the park and they believe it.”
“Not Kenna.” Ru waffled between a can of macaroni and cheese and a small box of cereal. “She asked all the tough questions.”
Jayson snorted. “They’re only tough for people who believe those stories.”
Ru didn’t respond. This was not one of the times she found Jayson’s cynicism comforting. It was so easy for him to brush the legends off as a marketing ploy, and it was so easy for others to believe every word of the stories was real. Ru felt caught between the two, a lonely place.
Her father had been in the same state of mind. She hadn’t realized it until later on. He was looking for proof. She only remembered him in flashes, his smiling face peeking over the top of her stroller on a warm summer night. Her mother had a photograph of the two of them in what Ru was certain was the same moment. He looked like an older version of Jayson, but then again, not. Same inky black hair, same White Sox cap, same pointed chin and small, round nose. On the other hand, his face was full of stubble, his clothes wrinkled and grin uneven. He was a lot more relaxed than her mother, who stood behind the stroller with a dignified smile.
Ru’s heart jumped. There had been a light in the darkest corner of the cabinet, small but too bright to be a simple reflection, almost bright enough to sting her eyes. Static shock? It hadn’t touched her, if that was the case.
Another head rush came on, worse than before. She groaned and eased herself away from the counter. Jayson eyed her, but she barely noticed. The shadows over his eyes stood out more, the sharp, curled shadows in the dark rooms around the kitchen. They formed shapes in Ru’s spinning head. Her stomach tied in knots. She swallowed hard and tried to get a grip on herself with pure logic. She was probably hungry, or maybe sick. If Colleen was sick, she could have caught it too. She should go lie down. The thought became more and more appealing each second. Not resting or eating, but leaving the room.
“Jayson.” Her voice quivered.
Jayson opened his mouth, but whatever he had to say disappeared in the buzz that filled the room. The sound came from somewhere overhead. A violin, with crooked strings and a bow full of thorns. The louder the sound became, the more pressure Ru felt on the top of her head. Her knees trembled with the effort of standing.
Don’t stand. Run.
Jayson stared up at the kitchen light. It seemed ready to burst under the pressure. Ru couldn’t tell if he was looking at it because of her, or if he could hear the noise as well. It was hard to tell by his face, eyes wide but not quite alarmed.
A chill streaked up her spine.
Run, her mind screamed. Now!