CW: mentions of child death, needles/drips, blood.
Russ Carney could see through anything.
Allie Creet had never found it particularly impressive.
They all did something here, after all. Captain Bennet only liked children who could do things.
Vicky Stevens stretched.
Benny Poladi stuck.
Ian Wright glowed.
The new girl floated.
It was all very uninteresting, and Allie was the most uninteresting and uninterested one of them all.
Allie Creet vanished.
Russ Carney was the only one who was good at finding her when she did.
“I can still see your insides,” he’d say, wrinkling an upturned nose, “It’s your outsides that make you disappear. But I can see through them.”
Blond curls, nine years old, a missing canine that the tooth fairy had left abandoned even though the captain assured him she was just running late. Allie never thought Russ looked particularly impressive either.
“What do my insides look like?” She would then ask.
“No.” Allie protested.
“Yes. Your stomach especially.”
“What about my intestines?”
“They look like squishy tree branches. Like that.”
A narrow finger pointed to a tree through the window. Its nail was bitten nearly to the stump. The finger’s, that is. Trees don’t have nails. At least, Allie didn’t think they did. Allie’s class had been halfway through learning about forests when Daddy had decided it was time for her to go away. She never did find out what sap was made of. She didn’t really mind that, to be honest.
“That’s not what intestines look like.”
The oak outside seemed to agree, moving those branches with creaks of consensus. Or maybe it was just the wind. Allie had never understood how something you couldn’t see could move something as heavy as a tree.
“Yes, it is. Trees are basically people but with bark.”
Now, Allie very much didn’t agree with that, but she didn’t say anything. The tree outside was hard. Knobbled. Creaky. Glazed by the rain that had been bucketing it down for days, yes, but certainly not slimy. One large, gnarled twig, it was, that couldn’t have possibly compared to yellowy guts.
Allie dug her chin further into the backs of her hands. Her glare was all too easy to hide as Russ’ eyes stayed fixed to the tree. His extra inch on her made the view to the oak a simpler task for him, leaving his chin floating above the windowsill whilst she slummed it on pasty skin. The neatly-taped-in needle bit into her bone. Russ scratched at his own.
The boy had always liked the window of their shared room more than anything else. It was the only thing in here other than her that he could see through. Something in the sail-boat wallpaper and squeaky furniture made them just the same for him as they were for everyone else. When they weren’t in the dining hall or Captain Bennet’s office or the big, metal room where they kept the needles and blood and the bags that swung from their drips, he’d stand at the window for hours at a time. Now was no different. He watched and watched, they both did, as the rain lashed and the moon glowed. A car cut through their lines of sight. A knife through butter, a shadow through Ian-esc light.
“Benny says that’s where they’re keeping Susie.”
Susie St. James had been strong.
“Where are they taking her?”
“To be burnt,” his skin taughtened around the tube as he wiped his nose, “My Nana was burnt when she died.”
She thought of her Grammy. Healthy Grammy. Grammy with rosy cheeks and a toothy grin and barley sugars in her pocket. Grammy who sung her the spooky, icky lullabies rather than the boring ones the other kids’ parents did. Not Grammy with sallow skin that sagged like her old cardigan and a face so pale it looked like paper. Allie had thought Grammy had learnt how to vanish at first when one morning she wasn’t in the house. She had grinned with the delight that someone else was like her. But Grammy hadn’t vanished. She was just dead.
“I can see your bone.”
Allie startled at Russ’ statement and glanced down to her fingertips. With the thought of Susie and the pulse of sadness that came with it, the ends of each finger had faded into nothingness. She gave them a wiggle. They faded back to pink. The boxy car with Susie inside faded too, disappearing into the distance to the big, big ovens where the people went in and the dust came out. Allie hoped they put Susie’s dust somewhere nice – a pretty tin with painted flowers or a jar that used to hold preserved lemons. It was where Allie would’ve wanted to be, she thought, when it was her turn to be dust.
“I liked Susie.” She said, because there was nothing else to say. Susie’s bed sat empty and sad. The Tweety Pie blanket asked where she had gone with cries of its canary yellow fabric.
“We won’t be able to break the window without her.” She then said.
“So now it won’t work.”
But probably was close to maybe and maybe was close there’s a chance and there’s a chance was rather eenie-weenie when Allie thought about it enough. So, really, it could’ve worked. Susie would be dust soon but Russ and Allie were still mush.
Like the tree’s agreeing groans, Russ gave a hum of his own. His hands gave a grabby stretch and pulled his drip bag off its pole. The liquid inside wobbled as he placed the bag on the windowsill. The cloudy, gummy colour to it became speckled in the shadows of the raindrops.
“What’re you doing?”
Russ clutched the pole in reply and heaved it off the ground. She saw the slightness of his arms struggle under the heavy metal, but he didn’t grimace as he lifted it further and gave it one big ram against the window lock. Two foreheads creased with a wince at the sound it crashed out. And, yet, the lock was still intact.
Allie nudged him with her elbow. Do it again, the point of bone instructed. So, Russ did it again. Russ did it again quite a few times, actually, getting louder with each ram. After time number ten, forehead creases finally smoothed themselves out as the lock dropped to the sill. Allie gave the space it left a prod with her finger. The window seemed happy to comply, swinging out into the rain and wind and leaving the room to suck in the chill.
“That was hella amazing.” She declared.
“It means really, really, really. I heard it on TV once.”
“Oh,” Russ preened, “Thanks.”
Allie would’ve said thanks too. Hella was for cool girls. The ones whose parents let them wear eyeshadow and who had Polly Pocket collections.
Russ clearly thought his next movements were hella cool as well. He gave a look of achievement towards her as he hopped onto the windowsill. Allie was rather indifferent, to be honest – it was hardly a Polly Pocket Pollyville.
“Remember what we said?” he asked, stuffing his drip bag down his tucked-in sweater, “We climb down the tree, like Tarzan, and then–”
Noise from the hallway, however, brought a cleaver down on that. When the blade went up again, a silence settled between the two and their gazes stitched themselves to the door. Captain Bennet had always had heavy footsteps. Hella heavy, Allie would otherwise say, but Captain Bennet wasn’t cool enough for that.
The cleaver swung down again. This time it had managed to reach right into Allie’s thoughts.
Russ scrambled from the window. Bare feet pushed him onto a branch that stretched out further than the others. He was in the tree even before the blade could strike again. The feet may have slipped slightly from rain and bark but he was there, standing in the rain and on the bark while Allie was still on floorboards.
Regimental loafers were on floorboards too – the ones outside the door, getting closer, closer, closer.
Russ gave her a silent plea.
Captain Bennet’s hand was already on the handle. Allie could see the twist, could hear the lock unlatching.
He’d see. He’d see. He’d see.
The office and the needles and the eyes all on her – it all suddenly began to slosh around her head.
But, unlike Russ and Susie and Vicky and Benny and Ian and the new girl and Captain Bennet, Allie Creet could vanish.
She tore the tape from her skin, the needle too with an agonising slide, and pressed a thumb to the hole that spat red. And then she disappeared, just as the captain did the very opposite.
“Allison?” his presence stabbed into the room, “Russell? I heard you causing a ruckus.”
Allie had once had a teacher who spoke just like him. The wolf-voice they called it. Growling, howling, sharp and pointy. She liked it in that teacher just as little as she did in the captain.
“Creet. Carney.” The words just about pushed through the snarl. He took in the empty room. In eyes alone, he chewed it up and spat it out. Neither child dared move - Russ on the bark with his arms stretched for balance, Allie on the floorboards with her fingers firmly pressing to stop her blood. Neither child dared even to breathe as he stalked to the open window and slammed his hands onto its frame. In the picture it painted of the rain and the tree, his eyes only saw Russ.
“Go away.” He said to the captain. Allie gave herself a nod in approval. Yes, that was a good voice, she thought. Strong and grown up and nearly as growly as Captain Bennet’s. Maybe Captain Bennet would get as scared from Russ’ howl as they all did from his.
“What are you doing on the tree, Russell?”
If Allie had reached a high enough level in her literacy class, she would’ve been able to pick the perfect word for the way the captain’s voice changed. It was sweet just like candy was, but sweet in a bad way, like bad candy, like the candy you thought looked nice but was so sour inside you had to spit it out as soon as it hit your tongue. It didn’t sound scared at all.
“I’m leaving,” Russ tried the howl again, “I don’t like it here and neither does Allie.”
Captain Bennet’s eyes pinched the same way her Daddy’s did when she was in trouble. “And where is Allison, hm? She can’t have made it out to that big old tree with you? She’s half your size.”
Allie gave a see-through scowl. Allie was not half his size.
“She’s right behind me.” Through the rain that dripped down his chin and the shiver that ripped through his body, Russ gave a defiant nod.
“Yes, really,” he glared, and then added, “Hella.”
The word whistled from his missing tooth.
Captain Bennet remained sour-sweet.
“Come inside, Russell.”
Captain Bennet pulled the gun from his belt. Its end drew towards Russ, a magnet to his steel. At the sight of it, Allie let out a gasp. Loud enough to set her hand rushing to cover her mouth, quiet enough to stay unheard by the captain.
“Stop being such a silly boy, Russell,” Captain Bennet let his gun gesture with each syllable, “You and Allison will come inside and we will sort this–”
Allie’s blood dripped to the floor. The blood that no longer had a hand to cover it.
The gun dropped.
Captain Bennet’s head went snapping in her direction.
He’d seen the scarlet as it began to puddle between the floorboard seams and had heard the drips and had smiled at the thought of it all. Had growled out her name with wolfy bite.
Captain Bennet began the walk to her, gun cocked and smile stretched so wide even with nothing but a pool of red and an empty space to aim them at.
More red hit the floorboards.
But that one wasn’t loafers – that was bare feet. That was Russ’ bare feet as he made to climb down and run away and find people who could stop the office and the needles and the eyes all on her. The only eyes on her now were Captain Bennet’s.
And so, because Allie Creet was not only hella cool but also hella brave and needed more than anything for Russ to keep running without the captain stopping him, Allie Creet let herself be seen.
She faded back to pink.