Not likely. Her knapsack slammed into the small of her back with every jolting step. The item within pretty well guaranteed an extended chase.
Father Value had taught her other things, just as important: Always carry something silver and pointy. And, If one happens to be nearby, virgins make excellent fodder. Creeps found the flesh of the chaste particularly tasty. It might not be the nicest tactic, but when it was a choice between your own hide or someone else’s, well, she’d been raised as a survivor, not a savior.
Elly had lost her own virginity when she was sixteen. She was never quite sure which desire had been stronger—wanting to get in Billy Chambers’ pants, or wanting to make herself less delectable to the Creeps. It came in handy a few weeks later, though, when Billy became one of them himself right before her eyes. The fact that she’d been deflowered kept him from leaping upon her immediately, and it bought her those few heartbeats she’d needed to reach for her Silver and Pointy and drive it into his chest.
They said you never forgot your first. Every time she thought of Billy, it was his blood on her hands that she remembered, not his come on her thighs. Not so warm and fuzzy, as memories went.
For the most part, she stuck to Father Value’s teachings. After all, they’d kept her alive so far, even if some were steeped more in superstition than survival. Would the universe really notice if, just once, she didn’t leave three strands of hair on the windowsill during a full moon? Would the Creeps win by default if she just wiped up the salt she spilled and didn’t fling some over her shoulder?
Those were things she probably should’ve asked Father Value to clarify, but she’d never gotten around to it, and now he was dead. The police had declared it an accident, but Elly knew exactly what had killed him. The old man had broken one of his own cardinal rules when it came to the Creeps: If you have something they want, sometimes it’s best to hand it over.
That way, you had a chance to live another day.
So what could be so important about this damned book that Father Value had died trying to keep it out of the Creeps’ hands?
And how stupid was she, that she’d gone and stolen it back to find out?
Her feet slapped along the pavement, the other end of the alley getting closer with every ragged breath. She felt like she’d been running for hours; her lungs burned, her muscles screamed in protest. But Creeps didn’t get tired like humans did, and if she slowed down now, the one behind her wouldn’t even have to break his stride to scoop her up.
She burst out of the alley, casting about frantically for somewhere to go. During the summer, this strip of the beach road would be filled with tourists until all hours. But Labor Day had come and gone and the clam shacks and clubs closed up early. She didn’t even bother looking both ways as she streaked across the street.
Two choices: the bus stop or the pier, both of them deserted. The bus stop was well lit, but that wouldn’t deter the Creep. The water, though . . .
Elly’s footsteps thumped hollowly along the wooden planks. For a moment, she fostered the impossible hope that the Creep wouldn’t venture out with her at all, that he’d stand at the place where sand met dock and be unable to follow—did the ocean count as running water? Then she’d just have to wait until morning, until the sunrise drove him back to his hidey-hole.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
So much for hope.
Thirty feet on, Elly ran out of pier. She spun around, shrugging the backpack off so it slipped from her shoulders. She held it in one hand, dangling it over the water as the Creep closed the distance.
“That’s close enough.” Too close, in fact. She could smell him—wood shavings and rancid meat, making her want to gag. He wore the hood up on his sweatshirt, so most of his face was in shadow. But the tip of his snout protruded out from it: thin, angular. Sharp-tipped teeth glinting in the dim light. The better to eat her with.
Or tear out her throat, then eat her with.
The Creep stopped. He held out his hands and spoke in a dusty, raspy voice: “Give it to me and I’ll let you live.”
“No.” She took another half step back, feeling the edge of the dock beneath her heels. “Leave me alone, or I’ll drop it.”
“Do that and you’ll die.”
She let the bag dip lower, until the tails of the adjustable straps touched the water. “Maybe. But you still won’t have your book. Something that old, it’s not going to survive half a minute in salt water. And you can’t go in after it, can you?” Her heart slammed. She should give it to him. She should give it to him and live another day, just like Father Value had always taught her.
But she remembered Father Value’s broken body, how small he’d looked beneath that sheet. The accident report said the fall had killed him, that all those shattered bones were consistent with a dive from several stories up. Bullshit. The Creeps had worked him over before they’d pitched him over the side. Elly only hoped he’d taken a couple out first. For the thousandth time since it happened, she wondered if things might have been different if they hadn’t decided to split up.
The plan was solid. Even now, she knew she’d have made the same calls as Father Value had. Plans can go bad, Eleanor. That was one of his lessons, too.
Was the Creep standing in front of her one of the ones that did it? If he hadn’t pushed the old man to his death, had he been there to witness it? Had he laughed in that dry voice while Father Value’s life bled out on the pavement?
Headlights flashed along the road, their beams reflecting out over the water: the bus, on its late-night circuit. It trundled down the hill toward the stop.
Elly edged to her left, keeping the backpack out over the water. “You stay right here. Take one goddamned step and I’ll drop it.”
The Creep glared. His eyes caught the moonlight, two spots of amber glinting beneath his hood. But he didn’t move to snatch at her as she inched past him and back toward the beach. “We’ll find you,” he said, turning to watch her retreat. “And it will go as well for you as it did for the old man.” Those leathery lips peeled back into a grin. He sounded eager for that day to come. “Always remember you had a choice.”
“Screw you.” She backed up as quickly as she dared, feeling her way along so she wouldn’t have to take her eyes off him. At last, her sneakers sank into the coarse sand. Only then did she put her back to the Creep, as she took off toward the bus.
“Wait! Wait! Oh please, wait.” Father Value had always said she had a hell of a set of lungs. Her voice echoed off the closed-up clam shacks and the shops across the way. With every step, she expected the Creep’s hands on her shoulders, yanking her back. She put on one last burst of speed as she reached the sidewalk, hollering for all she was worth at the idling bus.
The driver heard her. He waited, one hand on the lever that opened and closed the doors, a grin splitting his face. She imagined what she must look like to him, winded and windblown, her mouse brown hair in wild disarray from her run. Her clothes were old and oft repaired, but clean. No one would have called her intimidating at a glance; usually they saw her petite frame and dismissed the possibility of danger altogether. That was usually their mistake. With the bus driver now, it worked to her advantage.
“Didn’t want to say good-bye to your boyfriend until the absolute last minute, eh?”
Fumbling for her wallet, Elly followed his gaze. Out at the end of the dock, the Creep’s silhouette was visible against the moonlit waves. He could have caught her. It wasn’t even a matter of him worrying that the bus driver might see and interfer. He let me go because they like to hunt. This was a head start to him, nothing more. She shuddered and fed a fistful of quarters into the collection box.
That had been another of Father Value’s lessons: Always carry bus fare.
The bus rolled into Edgewood a little after two a.m. It had picked up a few more passengers after Elly’s frantic boarding, mostly college kids coming off closing shifts at restaurants and coffeehouses. Elly watched them as they pulled out their cell phones and texted their friends or dragged huge textbooks into their laps for some after-hours studying.
She wasn’t much older than they were, and yet their world was so alien to her. She’d tried hanging out with normal kids once, a couple of years before. It had been easy enough to slip into the party, which had overflowed from the house into the street. All Elly’d had to do was walk in the door. Whenever anyone asked, she’d said she was “Mark’s friend.” No one had challenged her, which meant either there really was a Mark, or the other partygoers were also only loosely acquainted with the house owners.
She’d lasted maybe ten minutes.
She’d walked into the kitchen and plucked a beer out of a basin filled with ice. She’d stood at the edge of a gaggle of people and listened to the guy in the center holding court. She’d even laughed with the rest of them when he got to the punch line of his story.
But soon enough she found herself eyeing the doors and windows, planning exit routes and scoping out the décor for likely weapons. Silver and Pointy was a reassuring weight along her forearm. Her long sleeves hid the sheathed spike—she couldn’t help but wonder what people would say if they saw it.
She couldn’t help but wonder if she’d need it.
The walls had started closing in then, and from the sidelong glances the others were giving her, she knew she’d gotten twitchy. In the end, she’d deposited her half-drunk beer on an end table and fled out into the night before anyone could question her.
Father Value hadn’t known how to comfort her when she came home with red-rimmed eyes, hiccuping out her story between sobs. Not that she’d expected him to understand. That sort of life hadn’t ever been his.
That was what you gave up, being one of Father Value’s kids: being like everyone else.
Elly managed to hold it together on the bus ride, at least. She’d chosen a seat near the emergency window, the one you could pop out if the bus rolled over or plunged into a lake. If the Creeps decided to descend upon them, she had the instructions to get out of there memorized.
But that wasn’t the Creeps’ MO.
She made sure she was in the middle of the weary pack of late-shift workers when they disembarked in Edgewood. Anything looking to pounce on her would have to go through the coeds first, and while that wouldn’t buy her her life, it’d give her the opportunity for a good running start.
The streets were quiet, for the most part. Light spilled onto the sidewalk halfway down the main drag from a smattering of still-open shops. A coffeehouse, maybe, and probably a copy shop. The college kids shuffled along in that direction, headed for the campus on the other side of town. Elly had to fight the urge to shadow them—there was safety in numbers, and odds were at least one of them was a virgin.
But her destination was the other way, toward the huge white house on the outskirts of Edgewood. With a sigh, she turned away from the cluster of bodies and toward the one place Father Value had said might take her in.
She practiced speeches as she waited for someone to answer: I’m sorry it’s so late, sir, and I’m sorry to be leading monsters to your door. But when the silver-haired woman answered, all Elly could manage was, “Um, hi.”
Even though it was almost two thirty in the morning, the woman was dressed in jeans and a sweater, her hair pulled back in a bun. She might have been about to go out for a late dinner or a PTA meeting, to look at her. She regarded Elly with impatience. “Office hours don’t begin until eight, young lady.”
“Um,” Elly said again. “I’m not a student.” She shrugged off her backpack and held it to her chest as she opened the zipper. “I’m sorry to bother you so late, ma’am, but I need to speak to Professor Clearwater right away.” She let only the corner of the book show, enough so the woman could see that it was old. “A . . . a friend of his sent me.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. For a moment, Elly was sure she was about to have the door slammed shut in her face. She choked down despair—she had nowhere else to go.
Then the woman’s shoulders sagged and the harshness left her eyes. “You’re one of his, aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
“My name’s Elly Garrett. Father Value said that if I needed help, I could come to Professor Clearwater. Please, is he home?”
The woman shook her head. “Not at the moment, no. But if you’re here, alone . . . You’d best come inside.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Clearwater.”
The woman chuckled, a low, rueful sound. “Call me Helen. If things are as bad as I think they are, we may as well dispense with the formalities.”
“What do you mean, as bad as they are?”
Helen pursed her lips, as though searching for a delicate way to put it. “He kept Henry at a distance these last few years. For his ward to show up at our door in the middle of the night, I’d imagine the situation has to be particularly dire.” She stepped back so Elly could get past her, then shut the door and turned the lock. Her hand fell gently on Elly’s shoulder. “Otherwise . . . Tell me, Elly. Is Father Value . . . ?”
“Dead,” she said, and the weight of the last two nights crashed down on her at last. She tried taking a deep breath, but it turned into a sob. Another followed, then another. All she could see were Father Value’s eyes, cold and staring—the only part of his face she could even recognize under the blood and bruises.
Then Mrs. Clearwater—Helen—was there, pulling her into an embrace and murmuring nonsense words as she stroked Elly’s hair.
That set off another spate of tears. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had held her like that, not even Father Value. No, that wasn’t true. She could remember, but it only dredged up a deeper hurt.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a while. She wrangled hold of the sadness and fear coursing through her and gave Helen a watery smile.
“Don’t be. Let’s get you some tea, and you can give me the short version before Henry gets home.”
Elly lifted her pack from where she’d dropped it and followed Helen further into the house. The pack felt heavier than it had before. I thought burdens were supposed to get lighter when you shared them.
Only, she wasn’t feeling any relief. Elly looked out a window into the night. Somewhere out there, the Creeps were coming. A day, maybe two, and they’d find her here. They wouldn’t be kind to anyone aiding her.
Burdens might get lighter, but guilt? Guilt bears down harder.
First thing in the morning, I’ll go.