To Mark's great surprise, Kristen's trip to the hospital was not the prize piece of gossip floating around the school. He would have been happy about that, if it hadn't been for what had taken the number one spot in every furtive whispering session-- the animal mutilations had resumed, and with a vengeance.
There had been three of them the night before: a squirrel, a stray cat, and a calf stolen from one of the local farmers. The favorite rumor was that a bunch of kids had taken ideas from the old bum who'd died, and were playing at devil worship. It was a believable enough scenario, and Mark really wished he could actually believe it. It was much preferable to his current theory.
Cruel teenagers playing at something stupid and violent would be a much easier thing to deal with than the spirit of Ryan Barnes possessing one unbalanced girl. The police could handle idiot teens-- but they'd lock him up somewhere if he went to them babbling about ghosts, green mist, and evil spirits. With that in mind, he decided it was time for a family meeting, of sorts, and arranged for Aaron and Kayla to meet them at 7pm. Both of them had things they had to do at home, making an earlier meeting impossible, but Aaron promised to finish his chores as quickly as possible, and would then give Kayla a ride.
Fortunately, the remodeling company had called and let him know that they would be finished up and out of the house by noon, so they didn't need to spend another night at Steven's.
The renovation had turned out well. The new bathroom was absolutely beautiful, well worth the slight decrease in the size of the bedroom to accommodate it, especially as the bedroom had also been redone and now used the space more efficiently. Kristen had happily proclaimed it to be "just lovely" and had immediately jumped into replacing their toiletries in the new bathroom, humming contentedly.
As per Mark's request, the basement had been completely finished and decorated, and a small bathroom had been added. The door at the top of the stairs had been thoroughly reinforced, as had the frame holding it, and with the locks and the heavy steel bar on the inside, it would hold off just about anything the town of Prudence could field to throw at it. One of the bookcases built into the north wall hid the entrance to the escape tunnel that let out a couple hundred yards from the house. The tunnel itself was walled and braced for its entire length, and the exit was even more cleverly hidden. Paranoid? Maybe, but he'd rather have it and feel silly than not have it if it proved necessary. The basement door could only be accessed from the tunnel side via one of ten hidden buttons being held for at least ten but no more than thirty seconds-- any of the other nine would set off an alarm and disable the opening mechanism completely. It was furnished with a small dormitory style refrigerator, a microwave oven, a small dining table with chairs, a desk, a pair of comfortable couches, and a large 'guest bed' in one corner. Another bookshelf concealed a safe where they could keep their more 'questionable' books and tools and anything else that might get them burned at the stake by the good citizens of Prudence, Tx.
Mark finished his inspection of the house, then sat down at his desk to get caught up on his long-neglected grading. He had just enough time to finish up before Kayla and Aaron were due, if he was lucky. Of course, things didn't go as he'd planned.
He'd just sat down when there was a knock at the door. Wondering if perhaps Steven had decided to come see the house now that it was finished-- or possibly to check on his daughter and use the renovation as a plausible excuse so that he wouldn't seem overprotective or paranoid-- he set the papers aside with a rueful smile and went to answer it. It wasn't his father-in-law who was waiting outside the door, though.
Instead, the sheriff stood there, his creased face set in grim lines that added years to his age, and Aaron with him. One tanned, weathered hand rested on the boy's shoulder, and Aaron himself looked terrified. He was shaking, his shoulders slightly hunched, and his odd hazel eyes huge in a face that was even paler than normal. It was very obvious that he was only holding himself together at all by a thin thread.
A thousand different scenarios, all of them bad, flickered through Mark's mind, and it was all he could do not to reach protectively for his frightened young lover. Hoping he was letting only a socially acceptable amount of concern show in his face and voice, he asked, "Is something wrong, officer?"
"Yessir, Mr. Hasseran, it is. Young Aaron here hasn't got any family in town, and he can't stay in his house tonight. Definitely not alone. Can he stay with you until his pa gets back in town?" While the sheriff spoke, Aaron's eyes were pleading with him, and with him so near, Mark could feel, through their link, the fear and panic that were threatening to overwhelm him.
"Of course," Mark said. "What seems to be the problem?"
Sheriff Wilson's lip curled, and he shook his head in disgust. "Some sort of sick prankster, most likely," he said. "But the boy's house has been broken into, and I'd definitely call the... damage... a threat."
"What happened?" Mark asked gently, looking into Aaron's frightened eyes.
The boy shivered, but spoke quietly. "I got home and stepped inside, and... and the place was a wreck. Nothing missing that I could tell, just destroyed. I turned around to get out of the house-- I didn't know if they were still there-- and the door was marked with... with blood. Still wet. On the inside."
A chill went down his spine, and Mark reached for his cellphone. He started to flip it open himself, but realized in time that doing so would look slightly suspicious, so held it out to Aaron. "You'd better call Kayla. Karen made some threats this morning-- and you and Kayla are Kristen's only friends. It might just be coincidence, but...."
Aaron shook his head. "I called her. First thing. She's okay. There's always someone at home at her house."
The sheriff spoke up, "We're going over the house now, and we'll stake it out tonight. I've called Mr. Deveraux, and he's on his way back here. Aaron said you probably wouldn't mind if he hung out here for a while, maybe the night, so we came on over here."
"Of course I don't mind," Mark said, shaking his head, then frowned. "Sheriff, if Karen is behind this, and she knows that Chastity talked to me... then Chastity could be in danger."
The sheriff ran a hand through his greying hair and shook his head, looking tired. "We've got the girl in custody, son, and have had since before noon. There's no way she could have done this."
Mark relaxed just slightly. "Oh, good. Then... I take it talking to her didn't do the trick?"
"Not even close," the older man answered, with a deep sigh. "We've got blood tests sent off to the lab, and I wouldn't be surprised at anything we found there. That's one poor kid who really needs some help. Totally messed up."
"She certainly seemed... unbalanced, this morning," Mark ventured hesitantly. "How bad off is she?"
"Pretty damned bad. I took her in custody as much to keep her from hurting herself as anyone else," Sheriff Wilson said, with another tired, disgusted shake of his head. Then he sighed again. "I'm getting too old for this. Anyway, I need to get back to my crime scene... you'll look after Aaron? He's a good kid."
"Of course," Mark said. "Let his dad know where he is?"
Aaron stood silently, just inside the door, as they heard the sheriff drive off. He didn't move towards Mark... or anything else, really. He just stood there, trembling very slightly, like a string vibrating under tension.
Mark looked at him, considering-- a touch might very well push him over the edge into total, well-justified, hysterical collapse. It was hard to remember, sometimes, given how they acted, just how very, very young his wife and lovers were, but seeing the boy standing there, trying so hard to hold it together, to be 'mature' and 'brave' and whatever else he thought Mark expected of him, when he was obviously scared half to death... well, that was a damned strong reminder. However, as much as Mark wanted to allow him the moment of weakness he was entitled to, and as much as he wanted-- and intended-- to give the needed comfort and reassurance, there was one thing that simply had to be done first. Safety came before everything else. He wanted to keep his young lovers emotionally healthy, but he had to keep them alive first. So, with carefully measured tones and without allowing himself to touch so much as one slender, trembling hand, Mark nodded to the phone. "Call your mama. I think we're gonna need her help here."
The hazel eyes widened even more, but the focus of the horror, at least, had changed. Aaron stared at the phone as if it had turned into a live, venomous, and enraged snake, then turned to Mark, aghast. "No way. She'd go overboard. She'd totally freak." His look quickly became pleading, as he added, "Dad's on his way. He was at the lab in Dallas, but he's on his way."
With a reflexive glance out the window, even though he'd already heard the sheriff's engine fade in the distance, Mark said, quietly, "I think Karen was possessed. Strike that... I'm sure she was possessed. How much magic does your dad know?"
Aaron bit his lip. "Not a lot," he admitted. "But what he does know is defensive, and he's good at it. He was always a target when we lived with my mother."
He was so earnest, and so very obviously terrified of what his mother might do or say, that Mark nodded reluctantly. "Okay. Good, then... how much do you know about breaking things like possession?"
"I... I know quite a bit. but I'm not good at it," the boy said cautiously.
"But you could teach Kayla?"
"Um. Yeah, probably, but, see... the way you practice is, you find something that wants to possess you, and you let it try."
"Oh!" Mark blinked, surprised-- he'd never considered Aaron might take it that way. The fact that the boy apparently thought it was a perfectly normal thing to be asked to 'practice' made him glad he hadn't insisted on that phone call, after all, too. The fact that such a thought was apparently 'normal' enough to have calmed him down considerably made him more so... though Lorena was still the best source of information they were likely to find. "I meant breaking it in other people. Like, to get Karen free. Though I guess we ought to discuss all of this when everyone gets here. How's Kayla getting here, by the way?"
Aaron dropped his gaze, looking thoroughly embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I... I didn't even think about taking my car. I was just... just a wreck. I should have... but the house... things were just shredded, like with claws." At that, Kristen stepped out of the doorway where she'd been quietly watching and lay a comforting hand on his shoulder, giving Mark a faintly disapproving look as she did so.
"It's all right," Mark said gently. "I don't blame you. I'll get Angie to pick her up. Go on with Kristen, now. It'll be okay." The look the boy gave him, before letting himself be guided out of the room by Kristen, was pitifully grateful. He swore under his breath and wondered just how bad it had been, and how much horror Aaron would hide, ignore, or just accept in order to try to please him-- and if there was anything he could do to make him believe that it wasn't what was actually expected, or desired.
One brief phone call later-- mostly consisting of him assuring Angie that everyone was all right and that he wanted to explain to all of them at once-- he followed the two teenagers into the kitchen.
Kristen had Aaron seated at the table, a light throw blanket wrapped around his shoulders and a cup of hot cider in front of him, and was talking quietly and soothingly when Mark came in, but it didn't seem to be doing much good. The boy was still shivering, and still looked extremely shaken and fragile, but he looked up with an odd determination as Mark slid into the chair beside him. "There was something there," he said softly, almost apologetically, as if begging Mark to believe him. "Something not just dark, but evil. There's a difference. I can't explain it, but I know how it... how it feels."
Mark rubbed the boy's back in soft circles, frowning. "Shit. I do not like the direction this is headed."
"All the other times... it was animals when the houses were marked," Aaron said. "There wasn't anything I could find, no kind of body. And none of them were marked on the inside. It wasn't like anything I've seen. No symbols, no circles, no runes, nothing. No trappings of any kind of blood magic I've seen, but I could 'feel' something. It wasn't kids playing around. It wasn't a game of 'scare the fag'. There was something there, I swear it."
"Shhh... I believe you. It's okay. Honestly, Aaron... your dad's going to have to be gone fairly often, isn't he?"
"Yeah?" The boy looked puzzled at first, then slightly defensive. "He can't help it. It's his job."
Mark nodded, staring vaguely off into space for a moment, then looked back at the worried hazel eyes and smiled, trying to make it reassuring. "I know. Would he agree to letting you stay here whenever he's out of town, though?"
"Um... yeah, probably." Aaron hesitated a moment and bit his lip before going on, "But if I did, if I asked, he'd know. He's not stupid."
"How would he react?"
"He... well... I think he'd be okay," Aaron said hesitantly. "I really do. But I can't be sure, not totally. I think he'd understand. He... he should. But I can't promise."
"Most fathers aren't like mine, Mark," Kristen said worriedly.
"My father is," he said, before Mark could answer her. "Sort of, anyway. In a lot of ways. But he doesn't always react like I think he will, and after... after the... the house... he'll be scared."
Mark sighed. "We may have to take the risk, Aaron. I don't want to, honestly, but I don't want to risk your life not to, either."
Aaron looked down at the table, huddling within the blanket. "It's up to you, sir. I don't want to cause problems for you. Whatever you want."
He meant it, too. Completely. Mark could tell. And, as usual, he didn't quite know how to react to that. It was just beyond anything he could remotely understand enough to feel totally comfortable with. He suppressed another sigh and just slid one arm around the boy, drawing him against his side as he reached for Kristen's hand with his other.
There was so much he had to learn, about so many things. "Let's see what we can figure out when we're all together," he said, finally. "Maybe together, we can find better options."
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