By Tomas Baiza
“Sssso, explain to us, young man, why you believe we should proceed with thisss transaction?”
The strange voice had introduced itself as Mr. Dessousmer.
Ricky pressed the phone against his ear and glanced down at himself. His shirtsleeve had ridden up to reveal angry red lines crisscrossing the underside of his skinny forearm. “Um, Mr. Dessousmer,” he said, “when I saw the link to your web page, what you’re advertising—I knew I’d be right for them. They’re interesting.”
Interesting enough to follow the website’s instructions. No online forms. No emails. No texts. You actually had to call the number and speak to someone. Who even does that anymore? he wondered.
But for this, Ricky knew, he would have done almost anything.
“Indeed, young man. Interesting isss one word for them.” Mr. Dessousmer’s voice curled into Ricky’s ear like ink through water. “But interest alone isss insufficient,” the voice continued. “There must be a reason for said interest? A compelling need, hmm?”
Ricky closed his eyes and breathed deeply. This is too weird, he thought. I should just hang up.
But there was something in the voice, something inexplicably sincere, that made him want this all the more. Ricky swayed rhythmically on his bed, phone mashed to the side of his head. “I just know they would be perfect for me,” he said, “and me for them.”
• • •
On the porch was a small box with no postage or obvious markings other than a blue logo featuring a swirl of lines, waves maybe, circling a handsome eyelike symbol. The same symbol as on the website.
Ricky frowned and looked up and down the street. It had only been a day since he spoke with Mr. Dessousmer.
The box was light and made no sound when Ricky shook it gently. He keyed in and walked briskly down the hallway, past his parents’ master and Connor's room. Along the way, his eyes passed over the family photos lining the wall: Connor’s Eagle Scout ceremony, Connor's eighth-grade graduation, and Connor's letterman banquet. Ricky paused at the only one including himself: Cabo San Lucas three summers ago, to celebrate Connor's entry to high school. The four of them stood on the beach; Connor, tall and handsome, had his arm around his mother, Linda. Ricky’s father beamed at the camera, hand resting on Connor's shoulder. And in the back stood Ricky, pale and hunched behind Connor, two years younger and a full head shorter than his stepbrother.
He hurried the rest of the way to his room at the end of the hallway, box tucked tightly under his arm. He placed the box on the bed and kneeled down to admire it. The perfect, platonic ideal of a box. No dents, crushed corners, or smudges, the cardboard tape so expertly spread over the container’s seams that it might as well have been skin. Ricky ran his fingers over it, tracing a line in the tape with his fingernail.
Without thinking, he reached into the nightstand next to the bed and removed a razor blade. Halfway to the soft, white underside of his forearm, the blade stopped. Ricky brought the razor to eye level. On its edge was a dull, brownish smear where, on the bad days, he would lay it flat and push the blood across his arm.
But not today. Maybe not ever again, Ricky thought, pulling his sleeves down to his wrists.
He exhaled and slowly ran the blade over the brown paper tape. It parted with a clean, dry hiss that made his pulse quicken.
When he was done, he returned the razor to the nightstand and slowly, carefully opened the lid.
• • •
“Brine shrimp,” Mr. Dessousmer said. He laughed, a moist, gurgling sound that reminded Ricky of blowing bubbles in the bath water when he was little. “Artemia. Aqua Dragonsss,” the voice went on. “The medieval Persians called them ‘water dogs.’ Alas, they are simply brine shrimp.”
“The magazine ad called them Sea-Monkeys. I tried to take care of them, but they died after a day.”
“Indeed,” said Mr. Dessousmer. Ricky thought that maybe he heard regret. “Cryptobiosis—the eggs remain in stasis until one providesss the right conditions, but then they die, deprived of nutrients. They live and yet are wholly inadequate for your purpose. An unfortunate waste of life—if one can call an existence free of companionship a life.” Mr. Dessousmer paused, as if waiting for Ricky to respond. “It wasss not your fault,” the voice said, finally. “You could not have known.”
Ricky felt the tension in his chest release, like a tendon being cut. It was not his fault.
“Will you send them to me?” he asked, glancing at his laptop for the hundredth time.
Companions: Feeling Alone? Grow Your Own!
Caretaker consultations by phone only.
“We are as of yet undecided,” the voice said. “A few more questionsss, if you please.”
• • •
Inside the box were two oblong capsules, each roughly the size of Ricky’s thumb.
The capsules were snugly embedded, side-by-side, in a greenish foam that gave off a rich, fecund odor. Ricky thought it smelled like dried seaweed. He ran a finger over one of them. Its surface was soft, yet sturdy, and gave only slightly beneath his touch. Ricky’s eyelids fluttered, his mind caressed by ocean sounds—the rhythm of surf, frothing sea mist, the sizzle of breakers receding from a sandy beach. And deeper rumblings, the groans and clicking of massive things that moved slowly and sang for eons, never alone in the dark. Awash in the sounds, Ricky felt no need for words, those clumsy tools that had never fully conveyed his deepest thoughts.
The front door slammed. Ricky fell onto the floor.
“You home, dickweed?” Connor yelled from down the hall.
Ricky scrambled to his knees and shoved the box under his bed.
• • •
“I have a terrarium that I can fill with water, and my own room, and a closet that I can keep dark,” Ricky said, wincing into the phone. The still-raw cuts burned beneath his shirtsleeve.
“Very good, young man,” Mr. Dessousmer purred. “We have no doubt you would provide the material necessities, but more about you. We must be sure that we—the companionsss, rather—are placed with those who will value them most. Those with whom they can establish a…rapport.”
“I will be there for them, Mr. Dessousmer. I promise.”
“Why doesn't a sensitive young man like yourself just start with a dog?”
“My parents won’t let me have one,” Ricky said quietly. “Too messy.” With every slithering word from Mr. Dessousmer, Ricky felt his squirming emotions evening out, settling deeper into a quiet, calm space that helped to order his mind. “They’re okay with fish, though, or anything I can keep in my tank.” He sighed. “I’m tired of lizards.”
Ricky closed his eyes and waited for a response. He felt more than heard what came through the phone—a low, rumbling vibration that slipped into the silent spaces behind his conscious thoughts. The soft presence browsed through his drifting memories, not so much an intrusion, but bearing witness: the darkened hospital room; the smothering, antiseptic air; the wires and tubes connecting his mother to the phalanx of murmuring machines next to her bed. Ricky’s eyes began to glaze over. “Hello?” he forced himself to say.
“Yes,” the voice answered. “We have decided that you would be a suitable recipient. Our first, in fact. Congratulationsss.”
Ricky’s mouth fell open. “But,” he said, his vision beginning to clear, “there’s no price on your web page.” He had scanned the site so many times, committed every word to memory, but nowhere did it say how much they would cost. Just a blurry, almost abstract image of two vaguely human figures, floating side-by-side, the silhouettes of their heads punctuated by two swirling eyes.
“That is of no concern. Consider this a trial, a way for usss to test the market, so to speak.” Mr. Dessousmer’s words were accented with a delicate hiss that made Ricky’s eyelids heavy. “What is most important to usss is a suitable intimate. A good fit, you might say.”
“I can be that,” Ricky said, barely above a whisper.
Again, the gurgling laugh. “Good! But with this agreement comes responsibilities. You will not be their owner sso much as their partner. Based on just this interaction, we are confident you will bond.”
“Bond?” Ricky said.
“Indeed. Imprint. Now, let usss discuss what you must do once they arrive.”
• • •
Ricky stood at the kitchen counter, silently reciting Mr. Dessousmer’s steps for incubating the capsules.
The microwave rang out its happy, inane ding.
He opened his eyes. Connor’s chiseled, angular face hovered before him. Deep blue eyes searched Ricky’s before narrowing into slits.
“God, you really need to get this shit”—Connor gestured at all of Ricky— “fixed if you’re ever going to get any girls to talk to you at school. Fucking hopeless, dude.” He opened the microwave and ran his finger over the dripping remains of exploded Hot Pockets. “Make me some more,” he said. “This time, one minute. Can’t you follow instructions? I wish Mom and your dad had taken you with them on vacation and not dumped you with me.”
Ricky imagined kneeing Connor in the junk, spitting on his writhing body, and dumping the kitchen table over him for the grand finale. The fantasy collapsed under the weight of what he knew would really happen: Connor would deftly avoid the knee with some ninja-like move, bustle Ricky into the bathroom, and shove his head deep into the toilet. Another doomed attempt at cosmic justice ending in a bloody-nosed swirlie.
Connor looked Ricky up and down. “Just make sure you’re out of the way tonight. Sandra’s coming over.”
“Dad and Linda said no girlfriends or parties,” Ricky said as he rinsed the obliterated Hot Pockets off of the microwave dish. He sighed in frustration at the sink sprayer’s weak stream. The longer it took him to finish this, the longer he had to be around Connor.
“Sandra’s not a girlfriend, she’s a classmate. And we won’t be partying, we’ll be stu-dy-ing,” Connor said with a thrust of his hips on each syllable. The thrusts stopped when he noticed Ricky’s forearm. “What the f—”
Ricky pulled his sleeves down and tossed two more pastries into the microwave.
“Just…” Connor said, his expression a mix of revulsion and what Ricky thought might be fear. “Just stay the hell out of the way, and none of your Harry Potter or gamer nerd bullshit while she’s here. Got it? Sandra’s hot.”
And really, really nice, Ricky thought. One of the only kids willing to say hi to me at school. With a start, he remembered the box under his bed. “I’ll need to use the bathroom tub tonight,” he said, punching one minute into the oven keypad.
“Do not even tell me you’re gonna take a bubble bath while Sandra’s here.”
“It’s for a science project, for school.” Ricky knew the best way to get Connor to lose interest would be to use the words science and school in the same sentence.
Connor aimed a finger at Ricky’s face. “Whatever, dweeb. Like I said, no geek shit and do not even think about getting near my room tonight.”
• • •
Ricky slid the box from under his bed and set it on his lap. Music from Connor’s room thumped through the walls. With his thumb and forefinger, Ricky gently lifted the capsules from the pungent foam and raised them to the light on his nightstand. Inside, each one glowed a milky aquamarine. He turned them slowly but couldn’t make out anything more substantial than an indistinct denseness in the middle of each.
“Warmth iss good,” Mr. Dessousmer had said. “You may use a lamp, but your palms would be preferable. For the imprint.”
Ricky sat on the floor, his back against the bed, and closed his fingers around the capsules. He had already set the water heater to maximum in the garage and would need to start the tub soon.
Before long, he felt a warmth in the center of each palm spreading up to his wrists. The cuts on his left forearm stung and then calmed as the heat crept toward his shoulders and chest. When it reached Ricky’s neck, his head lolled backward onto the mattress. Ricky forced his eyes open, but what he saw was no longer entirely his bedroom. Thick stalks of kelp swayed in formation, bending upward through slanting blades of green sunlight that shone through his window. Creatures flitted through their leaves, perfectly in tune with their purpose in the world. Singly and in groups, the fishes and otters and turtles swam to a rhythm that made them part of something larger and more meaningful than themselves.
With an ache in his chest, Ricky knew that none of these creatures were ever truly alone.
His heartbeat slowed, keeping time with an order and calmness he had never known. Beyond the kelp, he caught glimpses of something utterly new, neither fish, nor otter, nor turtle. Something unexpected yet totally natural. They drifted through the kelp grove, almost playfully. Desire exploded in Ricky’s chest, a longing so intense it seemed he might turn himself inside out. Inch by inch, they came closer, obscured by the dense growth. Ricky rolled his head to the side and found himself face to face with one of them.
The doorbell rang.
Disoriented, Ricky rolled to his knees, the capsules still cupped in his palms. His room was dark and night had fallen outside his window. How long have I been here? he wondered. The clock on his nightstand read almost nine. Past his door, the sounds of Connor stepping quickly down the hallway. Ricky placed the capsules under his pillow and stumbled to his feet.
Again, Mr. Dessousmer’s voice floated in his mind. “Once you have prepared them, it isss time to run the water. Hot enough to cause sssome discomfort, but not to burn.”
Ricky stepped into the hallway and made his way toward the kitchen where Sandra was leaning against the counter.
“Hey, bud,” Connor said, his words clipped. “Didn’t realize you’d be out here.”
“Hi, Ricky.” Sandra smiled. Ricky stood for a moment to admire her red hair and lilting voice, always so upbeat. “Connor said you’d be using the tub tonight,” she said. “Something about an experiment for school.”
Connor crossed the kitchen and threw a muscular arm over Ricky’s shoulders. “Oh yeah, Ricky’s got a project he’s working on. Kinda the family genius, aren’t ya?” he said, his arm tightening around Ricky’s neck. “His mom would be proud of him. Wouldn’t she, Ricky?”
Ricky craned his neck to look into Connor’s miles-deep blue eyes, his smile showcasing perfectly straight teeth.
“I…yeah,” Ricky stammered. “Hi. Sandra.” The three stared at one another until Ricky twisted away from Connor. “I have to get something from the garage,” he croaked and flung himself out the door. Outside, he leaned against the wall, his hands balled into fists.
Never had Connor mentioned his mother before.
“I feel bad for him, Con. He’s always by himself at school,” he heard Sandra say through the door.
“Don’t worry about it. I watch out for him,” Connor said. “That’s what big brothers are for, right?”
Ricky stepped off the landing, unable to listen anymore. Next to the water heater, he found a thirty-pound bag of salt pellets. “You will need approximately two pounds of sssalt,” Mr. Dessousmer had said. He hefted the bag and waddled back up the steps into the kitchen.
“Wow, Ricky! I don’t remember having to do anything so serious for freshman science lab!” Sandra laughed. Ricky tripped against the kitchen table. “Help him, Con,” she said. “That bag looks heavy.”
Connor glared at Ricky. “No prob,” he said. “Let’s get that to the bathroom, champ.” Connor took a corner of the salt bag, and together they walked it down the hallway. At the bathroom door, Connor stole a glance toward the kitchen and leaned into Ricky, their foreheads touching. “Listen, you little nutsack,” he growled. “This is the last I want to see you tonight. Stay the fuck outta sight or I’ll make you wish you were in the car with your psycho mom when she went over the edge.”
• • •
“You said I’d be the first. Why me, Mr. Dessousmer?”
“Why indeed, young man,” the voice whispered. “Unlike the sso-called Sea-Monkeys you naively attempted to raise, your new companions will be quite sensitive to you—your moods, needs, desires—particularly early in the hatching process. They mustn't be ignored, and we are quite confident that you have the temperament and motivation to best care for them. They mussst receive your undivided attention.”
Ricky closed his eyes and pressed the phone harder against his ear. “I understand, Mr. Dessousmer. I won’t let you down.”
• • •
He turned the hot water on full and hurried back to his room. The underside of his pillow was warm, and the odor rising from the capsules reminded him of the sushi his family had ordered to celebrate Connor’s first place at State in the 182-pound class. He listened for a moment at his stepbrother’s door. Ricky heard a muffled laugh from Sandra and had to fight down a wave of resentment. Sandra could get anyone, Ricky thought. Why him?
The tub was half-full now. Ricky tested the water with his fingers, then turned off the faucet. “Perfect,” he said, carefully lowering the capsules into the water. They floated for a few seconds before slowly sinking to the bottom of the tub.
Ricky ripped open the bag of salt.
“About two poundsss,” Mr. Dessousmer had told him. “More than that would be...counterproductive. Much more...disastrous.” Ricky vaguely remembered something about “uncontrolled growth…excessive hunger…”
Ricky grunted as he lifted the heavy bag over the edge of the tub. The pellets began to plop into the water, each one spiraling downward to join the rest covering the dark green capsules.
The pile of salt moved. No, I’m imagining it, Ricky thought.
On the other side of the bathroom wall, voices and a bump from Connor’s bedroom. Wait, definite movement from beneath the pile. Ricky jerked away in surprise, and the bag slipped from his wet hands. His mouth opened in a silent scream at the sight of thirty pounds of salt pellets tumbling into the tub.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck,” he gasped. Panic drove his hands into the steaming water to save the capsules. Just as quickly, he stopped himself for fear of damaging them. He tried scooping up the salt pellets and groaned when they dissolved in his fingers.
Think, think, think, idiot. Water. Dilute the salt with more water.
Ricky turned on the faucet and yanked the shower curtains shut. The irrational idea of Mr. Dessousmer knowing what had happened filled him with shame. He chose me! Ricky thought. Me!
A moan came through the wall, barely audible over the rush of water into the tub.
The terrarium! Ricky jumped up and ran to his bedroom. In the closet, he found the five-gallon tank that would be the temporary home to his new companions. His mind raced: fill it with fresh water and then some of the salt water from the tub and then fish out the capsules.
He carried the tank down the hallway, shuffling sideways to keep it from hitting the walls. Passing Connor’s door, he heard voices again. Ricky slowed to listen, but a splash from the tub sent him waddling to the kitchen sink to fill the tank with the sprayer. “Hurry, hurry, hurry you piece of shit!” he whimpered, furious at the sprayer’s lack of urgency.
Adrenaline allowed him to carry the half-filled tank back down the hallway at a gallop. A dark crescent of water had begun to creep onto the carpet in front of the bathroom. He turned the corner to face the tub and gasped.
The tank shattered against the tile floor.
• • •
“There may be sssome…disorientation…at first, as they seek you out, reach out to you.”
Ricky’s head spun. “What am I supposed to do then? How will I take care of them?”
“Ah, young man, it will be challenging, but it isss also wondrous. I will not cheapen the experience with details, but you should know that your mind, your consciousness, will not be entirely your own in their presence. They will share themselves with you, and you with them, until it isss time for their release.”
“Release? You mean I won’t be able to keep them?” Ricky sat heavily on the bed. Eyes stinging, his fingertips sought out the still-raw cuts on his left forearm. He pressed hard with his thumb.
“Correct. We see that you are calling from a coastal city. Is that right?”
Ricky frowned, confused. “Uh-huh, Capitola.” He looked out his bedroom window. The hazy blue line of the Pacific was visible just above the neighbor’s house.
“And you are near the sssea?” Mr. Dessousmer asked. At the word sea, his silken voice took on a reverential quality.
“Yes,” Ricky said. “Just a couple blocks.”
“Brilliant. You will be their caretaker,” Mr. Dessousmer said, his voice soothing and even, “and they your wards, your companionsss. You will learn from one another. But, like all good relationsships, it will evolve, they will evolve. At a certain stage of development, before they grow too large, you will need to return them to the sssea.”
“How will I know when I have to set them free?”
“They will make you aware,” Mr. Dessousmer said. “When you have done this, we may discuss another delivery.”
“Another delivery?” Ricky said. “You mean I could have more? To grow and take care of?”
“Perhapsss. If things go well,” said Mr. Dessousmer.
• • •
This time Ricky was certain it was Sandra’s voice he heard through the wall.
Something—two things, he realized—stood in the tub behind the shower curtain. Each figure swayed slowly, obscured by the opaque plastic. The bathroom’s humid air thrummed, a barely perceptible vibration that seemed to tickle the inside of Ricky’s head, just behind his ears. His eyes rolled back as he collapsed onto the flooded bathroom floor, shards of broken tank glass biting into his shoulders and back.
Through vision not his own, Ricky was blinded by a field of milky white. He watched webbed fingers reach out to slice fine lines in the shower curtain with shining black claws. Past the torn plastic, a boy lay writhing in water stained pink with blood, the entire scene distorted and curved, as if Ricky looked down on himself through a fish-eye lens. Four sets of claws tore at the plastic until the curtain rod fell clanging to the floor.
Ricky rolled over to face them, his stomach lurching from the vertigo of following his every movement through their eyes. Their heads nearly touching the ceiling, they towered above him, swaying on thin legs that belied their immense strength. On their necks, horizontal flaps of skin flicked open and closed. Gills, Ricky thought distantly. The creatures’ webbed hands explored the bathroom’s misty air, clawed fingers sifting the water vapor. Their skin glistened a smoky gray and black, and subtle stripes bent around their torsos.
Ricky pushed himself to his knees and cried out from the glass bristling on his back. His outburst sent a shiver through the hulking creatures in the tub, and for the first time, they focused on him and him alone. Ricky’s head swam under their gaze—swirling galaxies of azure and white pierced by bottomless black pupils.
Three beings experienced the world as one. Curiosity, wonder, terror, companionship—all coursed through Ricky. The boy’s eyes fluttered yet again, his consciousness torn away—to the hospital room, to his mother’s hand, trembling from beneath the covers.
• • •
“I’m so sorry, baby,” his mother had whispered from her bed.
“No.” Her hand tightened around his. “It’s all right to say it, Ricky. It’s not fair,” she said. “I wish I knew why I was like this. I wish I knew how to be happy.” She pulled his hand to her cheek and kissed it. “I need you to know that it—what I tried to do—it wasn’t about you. You know that, right, baby?”
Ricky nodded and laid himself across his mother’s broken body, his tears wicking into the front of her thin, cotton gown. He wondered if things would have been different if, just for once, it had been about him.
“I need to know that you’ll be all right,” his mother whispered, combing his hair with her fingers. “I need you to look at me and tell me that you’ll choose to be all right.” She lifted his face and wiped his cheeks dry. “Choose, Ricky.”
• • •
The creatures regarded the boy kneeling on the bathroom floor, pulled into a memory not their own, yet universal in its essence.
The urge resounded through his body like a church bell, a deep, resonant note vibrating from within. He stared into the eyes of the newborn creatures. Despite his terror, Ricky felt the inexorable pull of their connection, a link between the soul and the flesh that bound them to one another.
The first companion stepped over the edge of the tub, followed immediately by the second. Ricky pushed himself into the hallway, the bottoms of his bare feet prickling as the creatures stepped onto the broken glass.
Ricky could now clearly hear noises coming from Connor’s room. The first companion jerked its head toward the noise. Narrow, impossibly muscled shoulders swung about.
Frantic voices from behind the door. Moaning.
Ricky shook with a white-hot anger. “Why?” he whispered to the creatures. “Why does he get everything that he wants—every fucking thing—and I have nothing?” Salty tears ran into his mouth. “How come everybody loves him?” The creatures gazed down at him, their heads cocked. “Well, I don’t!”
“Ricky!” Connor shouted. “What the hell is all the noise? Shut the fuck up or I swear I’m gonna come out there.”
“I don’t love him!” Ricky shrieked.
The companions stood on guard, galvanized by the boy’s rage. Their sparkling eyes flared, and the stripes on their torsos seemed to pulse in agitation.
Ricky pushed the back of his head against the wall and sobbed. “I hate him!”
The first creature stepped in front of the door. Two sinewy arms shot forward like pistons. Wood exploded and hinges bent.
Through eyes not his own, Ricky took in the scene beyond the door: Sandra’s legs straddling Connor; his stepbrother wiggling out of his shirt; Sandra’s sparkly black bra reflecting the glow from the creature’s eyes.
Both turned and screamed at the monstrosity stepping through the obliterated doorway. Sandra threw herself onto the floor and crouched in a corner of the room. Connor remained wide-eyed and frozen on the bed as the companion drew closer.
Animated by Ricky’s fury, its clawed hands closed like vices around Connor’s head. Ricky felt more than saw his stepbrother’s face pulled taut, his eyes and mouth stretched wide between glistening, pearlescent palms.
Steel-cable arms lifted Connor off the bed. His feet flailed for purchase as a desperate squeal escaped his lips.
For an instant, Ricky felt a hint of compassion—until Sandra screamed and Connor’s fist thudded into the side of the companion’s head.
His stepbrother’s eyes widened in terror and, in a blink, disappeared.
Ricky’s mouth jerked open; somehow, he tasted blood. Wet, ravenous sounds resonated inside his head and from Connor’s bedroom. In his—the companion’s—peripheral, Sandra threw her hands to her mouth but could not hold back the eruption of vomit through her fingers.
Ricky hauled himself to his feet and took a step toward Connor’s room, but it was too late. His throat gagged on the tang of Connor’s flesh, the slurried mix of bone and muscle and whatever brains his stepbrother had ever possessed. The second companion regarded Ricky passively from the bathroom doorway.
Its thin lips parted to reveal serrated teeth before it entered Connor’s bedroom to join the other.
Not Sandra, Ricky mouthed, not her, not her, not her. One of the companions extended a long arm, slick with blood, to calm her. Sandra shrieked and heaved a thick biology textbook at the closest one.
Pain exploded across Ricky’s cheek. No! To me. Come back to me.
The companions entered the hallway, a shred of Connor’s scalp dangling from the corner of one mouth. Ricky stood up shakily and then backed toward his bedroom, followed by the creatures. Behind them, Sandra burst from the bedroom, shirt on backward and one of Connor’s baseball bats in her white-knuckled hands.
The companions spun to face her.
Ricky threw up his hands. “No! Don’t!”
The four of them stood silently in the hallway, waiting.
“Run,” Ricky croaked. Sandra raised the bat. “No, Sandra. Run. Please,” he begged.
Sandra glared at the creatures standing above her. With a pitying look at Ricky, she let the bat fall to the wet carpet and bolted for the front door.
• • •
“What we have learned is that, to thrive, we—the companionsss, rather—must bond, must find an emotional referent early in development. This requires the right kind of steward, preferably someone young, unguarded, earnest. One who has much to give, but who also has much need. Your needsss will provide purpose, the most perfect, primal expression of love. Do you understand, young man?”
Ricky blinked, disoriented, unsure whether Mr. Dessousmer’s voice came from his phone or his own head.
“I—I think so,” he said dreamily. His hand rose to his chest, hollow with longing. Hot tears spilled down his cheeks onto his forearm. The sting made him wince. He glanced at the nightstand drawer. “Mr. Dessousmer…”
“Yesss?” Mr. Dessousmer’s voice unfurled inside him now. Ricky was almost certain words were no longer necessary, that he could simply push the thoughts out instead.
“Can I tell you something?” he whispered.
Anything, young man, Ricky heard in his head.
He licked the tears from his lips. I’m lonely, he thought-said. His free hand reached for the nightstand handle. From the drawer, he pulled out the razor and laid the cool steel flat against his burning arm.
We know, Mr. Dessousmer thought back.
Ricky turned the blade perpendicular. I don’t have anyone.
The corner of the blade pushed through, just deeply enough, to begin a new statement, another line of another paragraph of a story Ricky believed should only end in more pain. He thought of his mother and the dark spells that would torture her for days or weeks, chasms of misery so deep and wide that he was certain she would never climb back out. The blade stopped its march from wrist to crook. A sob slid from his throat as he flung the razor into the drawer and slapped it shut. Blood dripped gently onto his pant leg.
I don’t want to be alone anymore!
From the darkest corner of Ricky’s soul, he felt it. An upwelling of hope.
• • •
Ricky stumbled backward through the doorway and crashed into the nightstand. The bedside lamp wobbled and fell, painting the room in blue and black shadows. Two tall, lean silhouettes ducked carefully under the door frame after him. A pale light flickered from their swirling eyes.
The cloying aftertaste of Connor lingered on his tongue as he backed toward the closet. Ricky thought, When Dad and Mom-Linda get home... He was unable to shut out the image of them standing over the smear of what had once been Connor.
Ricky edged past the folding closet doors and pulled them shut. Through the slats, Ricky watched the two long-limbed shadows cross his room. A part of Ricky’s consciousness, dissociated and distant, marveled at their languid composure, a serenity of motion that could only belong to the sea.
The fullness of Ricky’s desolation pummeled him as the companions approached. With every step the creatures took, Ricky felt walls and foundations within him beginning to crumble. The excuses he had constructed to make it to the next day, and the next, and the next—every day since his mother had sent her car over the cliff—fell away. Was she thinking of him as she drove to the lookout, or when her car left the pavement and slid across the gravel, or when the tires left the ground to spin wildly in open space? Did she think of him just before the impact?
Ricky considered these questions as the companions drew closer. He reached down and squeezed his forearm hard enough to make the blood come, and he knew that nothing, no therapy or ritual of self-harm, could stave it off any longer. Watery images of what these creatures had done to Connor spilled through his mind. He deserved no better, he thought, peering through the door slats at their rippling muscles and gleaming black claws.
Four glowing eyes blinked in comprehension. They alone could give him what he needed most. What he deserved.
The first stopped just beyond the closet door. A lush, living odor overwhelmed Ricky’s senses. The creature’s eyes shone as its aware