Interlude: Theo

It was funny how fast death had happened.

Theo hadn’t known it could be like that—just crash into him out of nowhere. After all, it had been slow with his mom. Lots of trips to the hospital. Lots of pinched-faced doctors and sympathetic nurses and the never-ending red to rim his dad’s eyes.

This time though, death had come without warning.

One minute, Theo was on top of the world: Dr. Born was going to vouch for him with the RH disciplinary board, Freddie Gellar had said she liked him, and his grandmother had finally woken up.

Sure, the Berm High kids were a bunch of pricks, but their onslaught in the parking lot hadn’t ruined his evening. They were nothing more than an annoyance. A distraction. And Kyle Fucking Friedman couldn’t destroy all the good that had just come Theo’s way.

She’s awake, Aunt Rita had said over the phone only one hour before. And she wants to see you.

Except that now Gramma didn’t want to see Theo.

Because now, Gramma was dead.

It didn’t make any fucking sense, though. Like, how could she be dead when only an hour ago, she’d been alive? She’d been awake and perky and demanding beef jerky. The cheapest brand from the drug store downtown, she’d said, and Theo had immediately complied.

“I’m so sorry,” the tall, willowy doctor now told Theo while he stood in the hospital hall. Florescent lights buzzed. “We did everything we could for her.”

“Sure,” Theo replied—because what else was there to say? They’d done everything for his mom too. But that hadn’t made a difference in the end. “Can I…see her?” He waved to the closed door.

Room 34, where somehow, in the hour since Aunt Rita had called, everything had gone horribly wrong. Out of nowhere, Theo’s grandmother’s blood pressure had dropped. Her heart had slowed.

And now Gertrude Ferris was dead, dead, dead.

“I’m afraid you can’t see her.” The doctor wagged her head. “I’m sorry, but we’ve already moved her body to the morgue almost an hour ago.”

The morgue. Theo almost laughed at that word. Almost laughed at that time frame too—because seriously, his grandmother must have died before he’d even left campus. Maybe before he’d even gotten off the phone with Aunt Rita.

For all Theo knew, Rita had tried to call him back as soon as he’d walked out of the dorms. But with no cell phone he’d had no clue.

Theo swallowed. Then licked his lips, searching for the right words to respond with. The doctor’s expression was so sympathetic it was starting to piss him off. It was like this woman expected him to cry—like she wanted him to be upset and howling and reacting more strongly than he was.

But how could he freak out right now? Or cry? None of this felt real. Not the plastic bag with beef jerky clutched in his left hand, nor the freshly busted knuckles on his right.

His grandmother might be a corpse cooling in the morgue, but all Theo had to go on right now were memories—and in those memories, she was very much alive.

So instead of a meltdown, Theo opted for a question: “Do you know where my aunt went?” There was no sign of Aunt Rita here, and he hadn’t seen her sheriff’s car in the parking lot.

“I’m afraid I don’t,” the doctor answered, her overdone sympathy giving way to overdone thoughtfulness. Squinting, she turned to the nearest nurse, a dark-haired woman focused on a clipboard. “Kathy, do you know where the sheriff went?”

But Kathy only shook her head. “I haven’t seen her since we told her her mother had passed.” And that was all she said. No sorry for your loss or I wish I could help you. She didn’t even look up from her clipboard.

Yet Theo found he preferred that blunt honesty to the doctor’s squinching pseudo-sympathy.

After gruff thank yous for both the doctor and nurse, he left room 34 behind. The plastic bag rustled with each step. An awful sound. Overloud in Theo’s skull as he crossed the waiting room. As he boarded an elevator, thumb bouncing against his thigh. Then as he left the hospital entirely.

Maybe if you’d driven faster, he thought. Maybe if you hadn’t made out with Freddie Gellar or fought with those Berm High shits, then you could have reached her before she died.

He couldn’t have, though. Theo knew that. Or at least logically, he did.

But logic couldn’t erase these thoughts. It couldn’t erase these inner accusations. And it couldn’t erase the ceaseless rustling of the plastic bag, all the way across the parking lot. Then all the way as he drove through downtown, past the lakeshore, and finally onto the Roberta Hughes campus.

You were too slow, Theo. Too slow, too shitty, too behind. Like you always are.

He picked the farthest parking spot from the school. No lights. Only forest and shadows and untouched snow.

You were too fucking slow. He parked the car.  Too slow, too shitty, too behind. And now Gramma’s gone, and you’ll never get to say goodbye.

“Fuck,” he whispered, turning off the car. Silence thundered in.

Darkness too.

You did this, Theo. Because everything you touch turns to shit. You did this, and now you get to live with it.

“Fuck,” he repeated, louder now. Then he snatched the plastic bag off the passenger seat and kicked outside.

Cold poured over him. The snow had stopped falling, and though only half an inch had stuck, it was enough to blanket the world in white. It brightened the night to an eery, colorless glow.

Theo stalked toward the nearest tree line. The moon peeked out behind thick clouds. On any other night, Theo might have thought it beautiful.

Tonight, though, he fucking hated it.

“Fuck!” he screamed. Then again, “FUCK!”

He launched the bag of beef jerky into the trees, and without waiting to hear if it landed, he stalked away. Past his Silver Sweetheart and toward the school. He would go to the library. Not because he wanted to use it but because it was better than sitting in his dorm room with the empty walls and assholes like Davis lurking next door.

Theo’s footsteps crunched across the snow. It was slick, but he didn’t let that slow him. He walked faster. Faster. Until soon, he was flat out running.

A mistake.

A big one.

When he reached the school entrance, the loose brick caught him. The one he’d warned Freddie Gellar about only a day before. The one on the step right as you walked in.

He’d grabbed for the door knob, prepared to shove inside without losing a beat in his stride. But as the door swung wide, the icy brick caught him.

His footing failed. He flew forward through the open door, throwing out his hands to catch him…

His palms hit the tiles. Then his knees crunched down too, and just like that, he was on all fours.

“Fuck,” he wheezed between breaths. For some reason, the darkened hallway was spinning. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Snowmelt wet his fingers. His wrists throbbed, and he wanted to scream that none of this should be happening.

Why him? Why now?

Theo shoved roughly onto his knees. He wiped his wet hands on his pants. Then dragged a sleeve over his face. He wouldn’t cry here. He wouldn’t feel. Everything might be crashing apart around him—and there might not be a goddamned thing he could do about it—but he would shove down the chaos like he always did. Then he would ignore the swelling pain in his left wrist, and eventually it would all go away.

Like it always did.

Stiffly, Theo started to rise. He needed to close the door. Frostbitten air was gusting in and stealing the old building’s heat.

No noises filled the main school at this hour; a small boon, he supposed. Yet before he could lift his leg to shove upward, he spotted the brick that had tripped him.

It had torn free from the step and now rested a few feet away. Frowning, Theo’s gaze shot to where the brick had been, to the dark hole now gaping upward.

A dark hole that wasn’t dark at all.

Something glittered inside. Something that made Theo swallow. Something that, for a brief flicker of a moment, made him forget all about the ringing ache in his wrist or the snow that had soaked into his pants.

In fact, as Theo crawled toward the hole, a new feeling swelled in. A piercing sense that there was something he ought to be doing right now. Something important that he had, in the wildness of the night, completely forgotten to do.

Once, when Theo had been fifteen, he had forgotten to turn off the stove after making eggs. The empty skillet had just kept on cooking and cooking until finally, the smoke alarm had gone off.

This moment felt like that one. Like Theo was back in his tiny bedroom, on the mattress without a bed frame while an alarm’s mind-melting shriek suddenly split the silence.

There was something you forgot to do, the shriek was telling him. Something important. Something that will change everything. You need to do it right now, Theo.

He slid his hand into the gap in the bricks. His fingers touched cold stone. Then he curled his grip around it and pulled the fist-sized item free.

Moonlight glittered over it. Dirt too, since it had been hidden beneath a brick for who knew how many years. Perhaps it had once had a shape—one that was distinct and recognizable—but now it was just a worn-down lump of shiny, freezing stone.

Theo sucked in a long breath. The pain in his wrists and knees, the cold and the snow and darkness—all of it was rippling away. So were thoughts of his grandmother too.

The entirety of the world was shrinking, shrinking, until all that remained were Theo and this stone.

And until that spot deep, deep in the back of Theo’s brain, perked to life. Come, it said. We have work to do.

“Yes,” Theo replied. Work sounded good to him right now—because work would put an end to this alarm still screeching in his brain.

With curt movements and with no sense of cold or pain or even of himself, Theo tucked the stone into his pocket. Then he pushed to his feet set off for the trees.

Because ahead was the one who was calling him. The one he’d already met once, beside a lakeshore last week.

The one who was hazy, hungry, and who reeked of dead things forgotten.

Yes, yes.

There was much work to be done.

 

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