“Are you even listening to me, Marguerite?” Jessica asked, green eyes flashing with irritation.
Marguerite’s face jerked up, giving her friend a half-hearted nod and weak smile, encouraging the girl to keep on with her rambling about someone taking her this Friday to the dance. The very subject that drove her here to the Kenner’s home.
Jessica mentioning her brother’s doomed romantic attempt planned for this evening was all she’d needed to hear. Then an easy manipulation this morning and the offer to come over for dinner was made by Jessica and wholeheartedly accepted by her. They were BFF’s after all.
From the corner of eye, she saw Sean linger for a moment with his back still turned. Shoulders low, head lower, he wheeled around, walked across the room to the sliding glass door which led to the Kenner’s backyard.
Her prey primed, she was ready to pounce; but not inside, there was no reason to waste energy on these two at the table with her. She merely needed to feed. With the back of her sleeve, she wiped her salivating mouth, moving to stand but sat abruptly back onto her bottom as Mr. Kenner addressed his son.
“Sean,” he said, “aren’t you going to finish?”
He looked over one thin shoulder at his plate and shook his head. “Nah, I’m not hungry. I need some air.” With that he slipped out the side door into the early autumn evening.
The legs of the chair screeched as Marguerite jumped up, feeling the trembling anticipation of an imminent feeding surge through her limbs. She could almost taste the succulent nectar she’d drain from the boy.
Jessica gaped at her. “You aren’t listening at all to me.”
“Uh, sorry, I think I need to go.”
Mr. Kenner smiled. “Do you need a ride home?”
She shook her head, eyes latched on the exit.
“But you’re all the way across town,” Jessica said. “You’re going to walk home? All the way home, by yourself?” The disbelief hung across her words like streamers. Bright and accusing. Jessica shot a glance in her father’s direction in time to catch the slight shake of his head. Message clear: Don’t.
She pressed her mouth in a line, studying her odd friend. Jessica’s mind raced with possibilities, none of them pleasant.
“I’ll be fine.”
With a flip of her hair, Jessica turned in her seat to face her father. “Dad. Just take her home, all right?” She twisted back to Marguerite. “I’ve never been to your home. What was the address again? I don’t remember the house number, if you told me.” Jessica tilted her head, waiting for a response. Eyes wide and innocent. When she received no reply, she glanced once more at her father.
He gave her a fleeting look of warning and patted his bottom lip with a napkin. “Well, Marguerite? It would be no trouble.”
Marguerite shook her head, raised her hands in surrender. “N-No. I mean, c’mon, I’m not an invalid. I’ll see you tomorrow at school. Okay? Well, bye!” She dashed from the room before either could comment further.
“Don’t be late again,” Jessica called after her, leaning forward in her seat. The door slid open and slammed shut. She dropped her fork and crossed her arms. “Dad. She was late every day last week.”
Mr. Kenner raised his brows and looked around before settling back on his daughter. He sighed. “Mornings are tough for teens.”
“Yeah, that bright morning light is bad for a monster’s complexion.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions.”
She opened her mouth and shook her head as though her point was painfully obvious. She huffed, “And she’s only been in town a little while. Maybe, I dunno, two months? Found out I had a brother who was unattached but pining with unrequited love and bam-o I got a new best bud.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Probably needed a friend.”
“She supposedly lives all the way across town. That’s a long walk in the dark.”
“I’m sure if she gets lost she can call her mother on her cell.”
Jessica leaned her head back, chewing on the corner of her bottom lip. She stared at the back door where her brother and new friend had exited. The glow of the kitchen light reflected upon the smudged glass, creating a distorted reality, a faux Kenner kitchen. Her face became pensive. “I dunno, Dad. She’s never mentioned her mom.”
His tone took on an edge of interest, “You haven’t met her? The mother, I mean.”
“Nope. Marguerite never talks about her personal life. I mean, not at all. Never got a lift from school, doesn’t take the bus. All adds up to suspiciousness if you ask me.”
“That doesn’t make them of . . . special interest to us.”
“Hmm, I guess not. Still.”
“We have to be careful, above all else.”
“I know. And I am,” she insisted with a roll of her eyes.
“False accusations can bring unwanted and unnecessary attention on families like ours. Wouldn’t want to have to move again.”
She nodded, but wasn’t really listening. She’d heard this spiel before, many times. She sat forward and stared at the plate in front of her. “Dinner was great, Dad, thanks for making it.”
He chuckled as she stood up and began collecting plates. She paused at her friend’s spot. Hand hovering above the place setting. She lifted the edge of the plate to show her father.
His brows pinched in a frown. They exchanged glances.
He shrugged, looking unconvinced. “I guess she isn’t as fond of pasta as you.” He gave her a half-grin, eyes wrinkling in crow’s feet as they twinkled. “Unless it’s my cooking. Didn’t think it was that bad.”
“You know. It’s interesting. Now that I think about it. She doesn’t care much for lunch at school, either. Never saw her eat anything. Like, ever.”
Her father stared at the plate, full of the spaghetti and slightly congealing marinara he’d portioned out an hour before. His expression grew grim. “Maybe she likes to eat other things,” he said.
“And now that I think about it, she went out the same way as Sean.”
Her father’s face shot to the door.
Jessica announced, “I guess that settles it.”
He looked back, gaze locking with hers. “I think it does.”
Outside, the autumnal air blew secrets to the dying leaves then wrenched them free from their tentative grasp. They rained down from the gnarled branches in brittle cascades to flutter across the lazy blades of grass. The sunset painted the sky in long sweeping arcs of mismatched tones. Blue and deeper violet clashed with gold and sweet tones of blushing pink.
The breeze toyed with Marguerite’s hair, teasing threads loose to whip around her neck and face as she approached the aging swing-set.
As she guessed, Sean was there; one toe poked into the worn dirt beneath the swing, one arm supporting him by the chain as he glanced down at the phone in his lap.
When he looked up, his face was lit by the ghostly illumination, shadows distorting his features. Marguerite felt an odd vibration in the air around her. She sniffed, chin tipped, pausing before brushing away the trepidation, continuing to the empty swing next to Sean. She dropped into the seat.
The uneasiness that she could not name returned. Some ripple in the air that left a sour note in the back of her throat. Like the whiff of the musk from some unseen predator. She glanced around. The yard was quiet. Bucolic. There was nothing to be afraid of this night. Not for something like her.
She tipped her toes into the ground until she was back far enough and then vaulted forward. The chain squealed and creaked in protest, but soon began to sing off-tune in a pleasant rhythm.
The noise of the chains brought Sean out of his reverie. Glancing at her bare arms and legs, the boy shivered. “Aren’t you cold?”
“No,” she replied as she swung past him. “I like … the night … air.”
He tucked the phone into his back pocket, rising. She stopped the swing with a lurch and wobble, then followed his motion.
“Hey. You seem down,” she said, reaching out to snatch at his sleeve. She pinched it between finger and thumb, stopping his forward momentum.
“Uh, well,” he stammered as she came closer.
“You want to talk about it?”
He shook his head, looking beyond her to the house. The lights cast subdued yellow rectangles across the gray-washed yard. Distantly, he heard the sound of dishes being washed and the softer, grinding sound of stone scraping on metal.
A knife being sharpened.
His brow furrowed in a slight frown, eyes darting between Marguerite and the house.
She wove around, standing in front of him, an intense look on her face. Her fingers slid up his arms until her hands were perched upon each shoulder. They were cool and left the distinct feeling of moisture behind, as a snail treading lightly across his flesh.
He shuddered. She pressed closer. A blush rose across his face. The darkening twilight made the embrace seem more intimate than a friendly hug.
“Marguerite,” he started with an unmanly squeak and cleared his throat, “I don’t mean to give you the wrong impression or, uh, anything, but I-I have a girlfriend.” He hedged away.
She shook her head, keeping tight her grip with only her fingertips. “Naughty boy, you shouldn’t lie.” Her grin spread, wider and wider. Feral.
He chuckled nervously, frowning. “Okay, uh –“
When she spoke again, her teeth scraped against one another, rasping over her words, “I heard the phone call. She said no. Again. Am I right? Aw. Too bad. But, if you want to take someone, I’m free. I love to dance.” She pressed herself against him, harder.
“Uh,” he breathed, “th-that’s really nice of you, but -” He tried to step back, away from her, out of her grip, but she held him in place.
“Aren’t you tired of being strung along? Don’t you want to have a little fun for a change?”
The smile creeped further, and her eyes glittered beneath the thick fringe of dark bangs. She bit down upon her bottom lip and nodded. She inched her lips closer to his, making a soft humming sound, feeling him tremble. “Fun,” she repeated, grin spreading higher, wrinkling the edges of her eyes until they were slits.
“Fun is--is good,” he said numbly, eyelids fluttering shut as her mouth rose to meet his.
Her hands were at the back of his head, fingers running through his wavy hair, suddenly knotting tight, yanking his head to one side with unexpected force.
Her mouth dropped open as rows of jagged teeth unfurled. A tentacle spilled forward, undulating from beneath her thick tongue. It shot forward, attaching to the side of his neck.
Sean stiffened, crying out, but just as he did, the monster was thrown off him. The tentacle ripped from the tender flesh of his throat. He stumbled back and fell onto his bottom, one palm pressed hard against the spot where the thing had momentarily attached, feeling the dampness, knowing it was blood. Swearing, he scrambled backwards before lumbering to his feet.
His sister wrestled the girl backwards, knocking Marguerite to the ground and falling on top of her with a grunt. They rolled in the grass until Jessica once again came up on top. She twisted her hips, bracing one knee on the thing’s chest, pinning it.
Guttural sounds erupted from the back of the fake girl’s throat, growls and a grating squeal, like metal gears grinding through broken glass. The face contorted and the head thrashed back and forth. Its body writhed unnaturally, squirming and bending in ways no human could even if double jointed. The sounds of bones snapping and popping like bubble-wrap filled the air.
The tentacle waved wildly in the air in front of Jessica’s face, hissing. “Gross!”
The creature reached up, gripped Jessica by the forearms, clawing at her arms, shredding the jacket she wore.
“Dammit! I love this coat!”
“What the hell, Jess!” Sean hollered from behind her. “What is that thing!?”
“Not now, Sean!”
She yanked one bleeding arm free. She pulled a small baggie from her inner pocket. She held it in her mouth as her other hand pressed a thin blade to the thrashing, hissing girl’s throat. The silver metal gleamed.
As the cool surface touched her skin, the thing posing as Marguerite lay suddenly still. She released Jessica’s arm and fell back. Subdued and submissive.
The tentacle receded, the teeth folded in on themselves. Marguerite went limp and frightened-looking under Jessica. The expression was a fair representation of a scared young woman. “Please, what are you doing?” she pleaded in a small voice. “Don’t hurt me.”
Jessica tore open the baggie. She sprinkled the contents over the thing’s face. Powder and dried herbs mixed with the salt and sand of a dead sea dusted over her. Marguerite’s face contorted as the flesh blistered and spumed. Groaning, the creature clawed at the ground, feebly trying to escape.
With a swift move of her wrist, Jessica opened a small slice in the girl’s neck below her jaw beneath her left ear. The false flesh peeled back, like a film of plastic, releasing a stench of vomited cheese. The creature squealed as Jessica shook what was left of the mixture into the wound.
Twisting, Jessica leaped off the seizing body as it erupted into a foaming mess, bubbling and seething in great gusts of slime and grey froth, gushing through the rumpled designer clothing. Sean caught his sister, both stumbling back. The sulfurous odor reeking of musk, mold and diseased pork filled the air.
“Ew, god,” Jessica cried, waving her hand in front of her face. “Those Feeders stink when they melt.”
Choking on the foul air, Sean gave his sister a shove.
“What?” she protested, coughing into her shredded sleeve.
“A Feeder!? You invited that thing into our house, Jess.”
She dragged the ruined jacket off and dropped it aside. “So.”
“So!? You coulda’ given me a heads up. Or Dad.”
She shrugged. “He guessed it pretty much from the start.”
The body behind them roiled and bubbled in the grass. Steaming as it dissolved. The foul smell began to dissipate.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “How’d you know I’d be vulnerable tonight? These succubi-hybrid creeps only do a reveal when they attack. And they only attack when a guy’s feelings are so totally compromised he’s vulnerable.”
Jessica fingered the hilt of the blade, looking everywhere but at her brother. When he continued to stare at her, hands on his hips, she sighed in defeat. Giving him a sad smile, she said, “Courtney was never going to say yes, Sean.”
He slapped his thighs, turning in a circle.
“Oh, c’mon. Look, I’m sorry. Everyone knows,” she added, looking behind her at the smoking mass of congealed mess that was once the new girl in town, the Feeder in disguise that hunted boys in positions exactly like her brother. She wrinkled her nose. “Bright side. Least we caught a Feeder,” she offered feebly. “You were the perfect bait.”
He spun on his heel, mouth dropping open.
Mr. Kenner poked his head out the back door, “Kids? Oh, good, we were right then, huh, Jessica? All the signs were there. Nice job piecing it together. Now, just get a move on cleaning that before the stench hits the neighbors.”
Jessica gave him thumbs up, catching the small shovel wrapped with a plastic bag he tossed her way. She pulled a pair of rubber gloves out of her back pocket.
Sean crouched next to what remained of the Feeder, wincing as he braced the back of his hand against his nose and mouth. Voice muffled, he said, “Next time, I’m using you for bait. When it’s something really gross.” Gagging slightly as she scooped some of the mess up with the shovel, he held the bag for her. “Like, the next time something like those kappa demons come up the river again through town.”
She laughed off his threat. “Fine by me. Those things are kinda cute.”
He grunted, “Weird-o.”
Jessica stuck her tongue out at her brother. He flicked some of the blob of what remained of the monster posing as Marguerite at her. She jumped back with a yelp, dancing in a furious circle. “Gross!”
He laughed, “I’m not the one that finds kappa cute, weird-o. Not to mention having a feeder as a best friend.”
“I was under cover. Like we’ve been trained.”
He tied the bag tightly, heaving it into the trashcan with a low, heavy slapping sound. Turning he said, “Ugh. I need to purge this night from my memory.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” she pointed out, “you could’ve been sucked dry.”
“No thanks to you.”
She leaned in and pointed at the side of his neck; scrunching up her nose. “Least you can say you had a hot date and got a hicky out of it. Who knows,” she said with a smile and a half-shrug, “that might even make Courtney jealous.”
He fingered the sore spot on his neck. Slowly, he grinned crookedly. “Yeah.” He huffed a laugh. “Hmm, you think?” He prodded the pebbly wound at his neck again, considering.
Maybe tonight wasn’t a complete near-death waste.
From inside the house, Mr. Kenner called in a chipper voice, “Anyone up for dessert?”