THE SILENT END will have you rooting for these three unlikely heroes as they battle monsters, town bullies, and teachers who expect homework done on time.
HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF an airplane vanishing? A set of engines, rumbling into fair weather, a moment later eaten by atmosphere? Well, that’s how Mother’s disappearance was for me. A traceless beacon. A silent end. It was as if she dematerialized from her bedroom as a midnight sacrifice, something for the monsters Father now hunted.
I’d just met up with my oldest friend, Gus Mustus, for what he swore would be our last Halloween in town. I often wondered if he thought about the disappeared. We never spoke of it. But Mother refused to leave my mind; while she had departed, her memory had not. I envisaged her sailing into the cicada orgy of Graywood Forest, her mouth open wide and her eyes black and empty. The real reason she’d vanished, almost a year ago, depended on who you talked to— adultery, suicide, homicide. But Father blamed it on beasts. Creatures that needed killing now more than ever. No matter which answer was correct, however, I knew one thing and one thing alone: that she was gone. Gone and finished like the end of a story.
Gus asked me the night it all truly began: “Is she coming?”
Though it was a predictable question, it caught me off guard considering who I’d been thinking about.
Gus’s dark, nimble hands were snapped tight into white, cotton gloves, and he used one to punch my shoulder amicably. He was dressed as some breed of magician, in a hot pink tuxedo jacket with a penguin tail, ribbed white shirt, and magenta top hat that could have been retrieved from an insane asylum’s lost and found box. Gold monkstraps fastened his tuxedo shoes, and a silver cummerbund crossed his waist. His idea of an illusionist was nothing I found familiar, but it was obvious a lot of thought had gone into it.
“It’s not like I keep track of Lexi’s schedule,” I said though in reality, I sort of did. She’d been spending a lot of time with us over the last few weeks, and I couldn’t say I wasn’t enjoying it.
“I hope she shows up.”
“Why?” I flashed a smile in his direction. “I don’t have enough Halloween spirit for you?”
“No, asshole.” Gus checked his hornet-yellow Casio, a little too big for his wrist. I assumed it was close to 7:30 based on when I’d left my house to meet him at his. “She promised to bring me Tesla Blue, Blood Mahogany 2, and a jar of Bonecrusher White…” He sighed. “She got them from Ronald, I think. I don’t even know how.”
“He probably owed her something.” I hoped I didn’t sound jealous. Even if the idea of Lexi alone with Ronald Peterson made my mouth feel dry.
“Whatever. I just hate it when people are late. I mean, why even make plans?”
“What did you expect? You think she gives a damn about us? You know she hangs out with us because she’s bored, right?”
“Shut up, Eberstark.” He tilted his body with un-delicate poise as he said my name (my last name, actually—it was what everyone had called me since middle school). Gus, while lithe, had a kinetic personality. A confidence so inbred it made me doubt my own. “You think everybody pities us. Which, you know, makes me think you really just pity yourself.”
“No, I’m just sick and tired of being branded an outcast because of your need to be so blatantly public about your hobbies.”
“My hobbies? Are you kidding me? I seem to remember someone crying, yes, CRYING, when his Techno-Lorque Legion got crushed in the Attactix tournament last year. Don’t try and under-nerd me, man. It’ll be an uphill battle.” He noticed my costume then, as if for the first time, and gave a double take. “What are you supposed to be, anyway?”
I hated Halloween for a lot of reasons, but the principle of all of them was dressing up. This year, I had, in a last ditch effort, painted my face black, covered my arms and legs in clothes of the same color, and sneaked out the front door before Father or, Odin-forbid, his cohort the Hat, kept me from doing so.
“That’s fucking racist,” Gus said.
“How am I supposed to feel about that?”
“Oh, come on.”
“Why don’t you just put on a minstrel’s jacket, huh? Or better yet, Eberstark, I’ll go find a yarmulke and go around asking the neighbors for their firstborn—I’m sure you’d like that.”
“All right, fine. I’ll change, okay?”
“There’s no time for that, you idiot. Just keep out of sight. My mom will kill you.”
“And she’d be justified.”
“I like your costume. It’s colorful.”
“You’re still a dick.”
Gus was right…and not only about the “dick” observation. He was smarter than me, for starters, organically speaking. Even though I’d caught up with him in some ways in the last couple of years, I’d stopped trying to dispute he was just better at understanding things than I was. Ultimately, I was thankful he maintained the upper hand. Many times, I’d found myself preparing to fuck up my entire life, and many times, I could count on him to cut me down to size before I went the distance. Just short of eighteen months ago, when Mother was still around but was becoming “unwell,” as Father liked to say with his fingers crunched into quotations, I landed myself in a rough patch involving pyrotechnics and psychedelics. Almost all the evil P’s you can think of, really. Gus, he’d practically made it his civic duty to straighten me out. He offered less terroristic outlets—the main involving space warfare and twenty-sided dice—that kept me out of juvie but, in exchange, put my social life on lockdown. Maximum clearance.
Since the two of us were about as attractive as you’d expect members of an organization called the Myers High Sword Star Society to be (which, yes, we did now co-sponsor along with Ajay Kapur and Ronald Peterson, the latter also a co-sponsor of the Manga Society and owner of three samurai swords that his mom had, wisely, neutered with cable locks), it could be argued that I never stood a chance in the first place. Though I also liked to think that, on some level, I’d actually wanted to become a better person.
It was just over four years ago that my family moved from Cleveland to this small, sleepy city. It was called Mossglow, a name more fit for the English countryside than the Pacific Northwest. Born and reared in a big(ish) city, Mossglow was unlike anywhere I’d been before. Quiet. Sparse. Private in that scary way. It had been perfect for Father’s business plan, and when we’d moved in, things hadn’t seemed quite as fusty as they were now. Then again, that was before Mother’s depression. Before Father started raving about the thickening mists and the neighborhoods hollowing out. Though I’d begun to see strange things myself in recent weeks, Father had been ranting on about them since Mother disappeared.
“Somewhere between that fetid bay and Mossglow proper lies the key to revealing the penumbra,” he liked to say of the phenomenon. But only when he emerged from his underground bunker where he practiced what he insisted on calling “science.” “Makes me wonder what sort of alive we are.”
The bay he spoke of was known to the rest of us as the Horn. Some old mining families had named it that a century or two back. Its gateway was marked by the townie neighborhoods—places best stayed clear from—and I’d never been down to the shore. From above, I’d heard it resembled its namesake, a bony curve of land with a fat beginning and sharp end. The waters weren’t welcoming, the temperature slightly more hateful than the waves, which were rumored to snap crab pots off their cables. Though since the majority of citizens, my family and Gus’s included, had settled on the other side of town, I didn’t think about it much. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I saw a swell of mist so large and solid-looking that, as it passed across my front yard, I wondered if it were alive. For that reason and others, I’d begun to worry I had been infected by Father’s paranoia, that soon, I’d be suffering from the same disease that sent him spiraling into mania. When it gets so dark at noontime you can’t see across the street, and when the mist grows thick enough to consume you whole, you can’t help but worry something’s going on that even madness can’t explain.
“Those dark patches light creates, they work against us.” Father, again, this time on the subject of “evil penumbras,” a term he coined after he’d spent the first month looking for Mother, camping out in Graywood Forest and getting lost in the caves of Goon’s Cove. The man I’d come to know as the Hat sat beside him, his eyes under Ray Bans, his mute lips pursed, a white fedora perched atop his head. “At least in this city. That’s why I say, ‘Never trust a man until you see he’s asymmetrical. And if you can’t tell from his body, check the eyes.’ Light can’t hide in the eyes, you see. Not the kind I’m talking about… not inside that kind of darkness.”
The last thing I wanted to do was validate Father’s babble. But my gut wouldn’t let it slide. When Mother disappeared, it was one thing… Though she’d been missing about ten months now, she might as well have faded away a good few before then. People asked me about her for a while, curious about whether she’d skipped town, the relationship between her and Father, and the like. Old Sherriff Nichols even stopped by the house once and put my balls to the wall on the subject. But when two more girls, teenage twins from the Upper Thicks, went missing a few months later, it was as if I, and Mother, completely faded from view. I’d even begun to think things could go back to normal for a little while after that. Of course, the town had its problems. Jobs were becoming scarcer than ever. Sometimes, the townies would drive around looking for kids to clobber. When that happened, the city seemed to shift in character, become something eviler than it knew itself to be. But people still had their barbecues in Graywood Forest in the summer, and school started in the fall. Nothing improved when things got bad, and nobody seemed to care about how they’d gotten that way to begin with.
“God, Eberstark,” said Gus, saving me from my own thoughts. “Don’t try and look too excited about tonight.”
“Settle down. I was just thinking.”
“Next thing I know, you’ll be reading books.”
Gus’s father, a heavy-gaited archeologist named Marshall who, for reasons unknown to me, refused to relocate after he got offered a big university job on the east coast, opened the front door of his freshly remodeled home and allowed us a joyless, “please shut the hell up” wave.
“You two still here?”
Marshall’s eyes looked bleary from the black cherry pipe tobacco he liked too much. He held a book titled Lithics in his hand, one chapped finger down the middle. He’d recently found work teaching online seminars at a Midwestern university, and I knew that was a good thing. Marshall had been experiencing a creative drought in writing his new book over the last couple of years to the point where his ability to secure academic work had diminished. I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t just taken a tenure offer he’d received, picked up the family, and skipped town. But I’d also seen what happened when he sat on his back porch and gazed into the mist. How he drifted off. How he lost himself.
“We’re just waiting for someone,” said Gus.
“Don’t be back too late.” Marshall arched his neck to see behind his son. Keeping in mind what Gus had made me realize about my getup, I tried to find cover. But Marshall’s worried eyes saw me crouching behind their mailbox, the hull of which had been fashioned out of a papaya-shaped geode he said he’d brought back from a cave in Utah.
“What in the hell are you dressed as, Eberstark?”
I brought myself up from the ground.
Marshall scrutinized me from head to toe.
“Told you,” said Gus.
Marshall coughed and closed the front door of his well-tended home, leaving us alone on the driveway. I was grateful he’d only given me the cold shoulder. The last time we talked, he’d asked me about Father, and I’d stammered so much I was sure I’d given something away. In the spinning of so many tales over the last year, I was afraid the weave would jostle loose, though for some reason, it hadn’t yet.
We’d stashed the majority of our Sword Star battle terrains in Gus’s basement and prepared all our strategies for the upcoming tournament there. Though it wasn’t easy, I’d managed to keep Gus away from my house since Mother went missing, and as for Father, he stayed in his bunker most days, sometimes for weeks at a time, and skulked often to the forest at night, fading into the fog like a passing supposition. In truth, the man’s occult preoccupations made my life easier. I preferred for him to leave me be. The way his eyes crossed made me nervous.
We heard a motor grinding up the incline to the west of Gus’s home. A tub of nuts and bolts gnarring so harsh it sounded like it was dumping out its innards. It climbed the hill from the bottom of the Lower Thicks, where I lived, and approached us at a crawl. Headlights kneaded over the willows at the peak of the incline. Tires hammered as they came level to the road.
“Lexi?” Gus’s costume turned a scintillating shade of pink in the headlights.
“Can’t be.” Though I hoped I’d be proven wrong. “The Shepherd’s in the shop.”
“That thing’s always in the shop.”
“Everything they own is.”
When an old, green Jeep Cherokee climbed into view, we knew immediately it wasn’t Lexi, whose treasured vehicle was an old Bronco she’d named the Shepherd. As I began to see through the windshield, mucky from tobacco, I glimpsed the contours of two people. Teenagers, like us. One had a mangled cigarette in the corner of her mouth, pushing yellow smoke to the roof. The other, chin down, head bald, cheeks sickly white, worked the transmission and steered.
“Garbage,” I heard him mutter through the open window as the Jeep appeared to stall for a moment.
“I can’t believe your dad makes you drive this shitbox,” came the other voice, growly and vaguely female. “Why are we even down here? You know Jesse’s throwing a shindig up in Crowstone.”
“Did you just say shindig?”
The bald one started the engine again, and the Jeep lurched forward. The one with the cigarette turned to watch me as the tires scraped past Gus’s driveway. Fear crept from my groin into my stomach the second I saw who they were.
“That’s Joe Ross driving,” I shuddered.
Again, the motor stuttered to a halt.
“Fuck you.” Joe smacked the dash with his fist.
“And the other one, that’s Charlene Poughkeepsie.”
“Just take it easy,” Gus said, sensing my fear upon seeing what might have caused some at our resident school, Myers High, to climb the nearest tree. Someone like Gus, who ignored popularity games, wasn’t on the radar of adolescents like this that didn’t believe in the existence of consequence. I liked to hope I wasn’t on their radar either. That I’d stayed far enough away from being a campus personality to not warrant notice. Gus and I—and to an even greater extent, Lexi—sat apart from the others. Not because we were different but because we were invisible, like shadows at dusk. Since Mother’s disappearance, I preferred it that way. It seemed to keep me safe.
Joe Ross revved the engine. Charlene, a bulk of a girl with painfully tied-back hair and a red track suit two sizes too small for her body, glanced at me again briefly as she lit another cigarette. She was snickering at Joe, saying something like, “Fucked him up real good, didn’t we?”
When the Jeep growled to life and lurched onward, I trembled with relief. The bumper sticker right above the left brake light reading TOWNIEZ caught my eye as the vehicle trailed up Geraldine Lane, towards Crowstone Heights and away from the Thicks. It screeched around a corner in a burst of speed and a babble of laughter from Charlene.
“They’re gone,” said Gus. “See? Nothing to worry about.”
“Did you see her look at me?”
“What’s her name again?”
“Good God, Gus. Charlene? Charlene Poughkeepsie?” His face was blank. “The girl who broke Danny Feld’s ribs?”
Gus chuckled. “Who cares what she looked at, Eberstark? Why would she have anything against you?”
“Do you even live on planet Earth?”
“Do you even know how big planet Earth is? In metric centimeters?”
“I hate how the two of you talk to each other.” A voice from behind caused both of us to jump. “Like two dolphins trapped in a bucket.”
“Balls, Lexi.” Gus held his hand to his heart though you could tell he was mostly relieved. “Why don’t you ever make noise?”
“I brought your paint.” Standing primly before us, she was dressed as a prom queen covered in blood. The dress was frayed around the ankles and somewhat colonial-looking save for the ruffled bust and corn syrup spatters. She stood duck-footed, per usual, with her knees angled outwards, her shoulders exposed and her jet-black hair tied up in a messy, blood-stained bun. She shoved a paper bag into Gus’s hands, which he snatched and peered inside. Just watching her long, muscular arm stretch out to do so filled me with a combination of what I could only describe as desire and mild nausea.
“Aren’t you lovely.” Gus ogled the jar of Bonecrusher White as big as his fist, which he would soon use to lend necessary highlights to his newly minted Demigods along with an Order AFT bequeathed by Jim Muller, who’d been hospitalized with Leukemia and could no longer play. Since I knew I’d be using it to spruce up my Techno-Lorques too, along with other reasons, I couldn’t keep from smiling. “I am going to make my Crow Seraph shine with you…you sexy, sexy pigment.”
“Gross,” said Lexi with an apparent lack of emotion. She retracted her hand and used it to scratch her crimson eyepatch—not part of the costume. I couldn’t even believe she was hanging out with us on Halloween. School was one thing, but this was the outside world. For an almost insane moment, I wondered if that could mean she actually liked—like liked—one of us (and by one of us, of course, I meant me). I saw the contempt in her eyes as she watched Gus molest his paint and struck the possibility from my mind. Though I still didn’t understand why she’d come out with us.
Gus eased the paper bag into his faux-magician’s faux-leather satchel. “Now, we can go.”
“Go where?” said Lexi.
“Trick-or-treating. I told you on the phone.”
“I know what you told me. I forgot to remember.”
“You’re dressed up.”
“So are you.”
“But why then…”
“I still don’t know why you want to do this,” I said to him. Fucking Halloween. I’d seen enough blood and darkness in my own life to be interested in celebrating it. It was really only because Lexi agreed to go that I’d not fought harder with Gus to stay ditch out. “Aren’t we getting a bit old for—”
“Who gives a damn how old we are?” he yelled, which for Gus meant raising his voice an octave above stern. “This is our last year before we go to college. Doesn’t that mean something to you?”
“College.” It was as if I was guessing the wrong answer on a game show. “And no.”
“We’ve been trick-or-treating the Thicks since freshman year. It was the first time you stayed over at my house. Remember, when we watched Akira and you got all freaked out?”
I remembered the evil teddy bear leaking milk and uttered some sort of affirmation. But I really wished he hadn’t brought it up in front of Lexi.
“Well then, you should know that for us, trick-or-treating isn’t a pastime. It’s a sacred tradition. A mark of friendship. Call me a purist, but—”
“We should go to the forest,” blurted Lexi.
“Halloween is a holiday that puts us in touch with our pantheistic selves. A gem of American paganism. And that’s reason enough to celebra—wait, the forest?”
“One of the girls I hate in Spanish class told me her brother saw a monster out there in Graywood.”
“And you believed her?”
“Yeah?” I sniggled uncomfortably at the mention of monsters. “You believed her?”
“No.” She kicked at the ground with her battered dance flat. “But I still think we should go.”
“Because trick-or-treating’s lame.”
“So lame,” I blurted. I hated how I got around Lexi. It had been the same ever since the first time she appeared, a little over six months ago. When for some reason she pulled up a chair and sat next to Gus and me in the cafeteria. She hadn’t even introduced herself. Just sat there, eating in silence day after day as Gus and I went on about Sword Star and whatever else crossed our minds, occasionally checking to see if she was still around. She basically became our friend without us realizing. A peripheral friend, sure, but now a member of our tribe. In the last few weeks, she’d become more vocal, though, which I wasn’t used to. The more she spoke, the more her voice, harsh and intelligent, stirred something inside me. I tried to make myself look relaxed when I felt whatever it was coming on but instead stumbled to do so much as speak. And now, she was talking about going into the woods with us. A place where she and I might have found a moment to be alone had Gus not been here and had we not been in danger of becoming pawns in one of Father’s plans.
“Anyway.” Her eye narrowed. “There’s got to be something in there that’s not happening out here.”
“What type of monster?” I tried not to sound nervous. I’d become good at keeping secrets from others but not so good at keeping them from myself. Since Mother disappeared, I’d adapted shades of loneliness that always seemed to linger in the Mossglow sky. Whenever I heard any mentioning of the M word, I was forced to accept the existence of Father’s lab. I was forced to guess at the strange goings on beneath that hatch in the backyard where I was scared to venture. Just yesterday, I’d overheard him with the Hat downstairs, whispering about high-grade explosives, a scheme for catching what he called “big game.” If he was out tonight, he was up to no good, probably in the forest, and I couldn’t say a word about it.
“I don’t know what type,” said Lexi. “A big, scary one. Let’s find out.”
“I don’t know,” said Gus.
Lexi smiled at me in a way somehow both dangerous and inviting. “You know you want to, Eberstark.”
“But I was kind of thinking we could all go to Gus’s house. You know, paint some Prodlings?”
“Why are you guys such shut-ins?”
Gus frowned. “I’m not a shut-in.”
I thought about the haggard expanse of Graywood. I watched Lexi’s eye flicker between the two of us and thought about what it would be like to reach out and touch her cheek. I thought about those things until I remembered Father. Then, the word “explosives” took over, and all I could see before me were flames. Lexi injured in some unholy blaze.
“Fuck it, Gus.” I put my hands in my pockets. “Let’s just go.”
“You kidding me?”
“It’ll be fun,” I lied. “And no.”
“Look…all right. We hit the Lower Thicks first, and then we can go to the forest. Okay? For like twenty minutes.”
Lexi grinned victoriously.
“Ridiculous.” Gus hated the forest. With good reason. “Of all the things to do in Mossglow…just a bunch of beer parties and wasted ambition.”
“You don’t like beer parties?” Lexi took a pack of cigarettes from her bloodied cleavage. She popped one in her mouth and swanned her neck toward a blue Bic lighter with the barcode scratched off.
“I don’t drink.”
“I don’t like to lose control.”
“You’ve already lost control…” I said. “Of your ability to get laid— am I right, Lexi? Am I right?”
“Your costume’s racist.” She exhaled smoke over her pink lips until it turned kindred with the mist. “Now, let’s go get this over with before I reassess my company. I’m interested in monsters, not men.”
Excerpt from The Silent End © 2015 by Samuel Sattin. Used by permission of the publisher, Ragnarok Publications.
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