Forget everything you've learned. I thought almost a decade and a half of life had taught me what was normal, what was fair, what was obvious and true. I was wrong. So wrong.
The people who want me dead would love to get their grubby little claws on my real name, but I can't give it to them. So here's what my allies call me, and what you can call me too: Bourbon.
Gah, I'm sorry. I'm no good at telling stories. I never have been. The last time I wrote one was in fourth grade, and that started with "Once upon a time..." not, "Before my life went down the toilet..." If I ever showed this to my old English teacher, she'd rip out her eyes and then rip up my notebook, telling me to put it in third person and use better vocabulary and add foreshadowing and shove in all sorts of literary fluff that I've never been good with. No no no, storytelling is not my thing.
So I won't tell you a story. I'll tell you the facts.
I thought I knew what normal was and I even considered myself at least sortof normal, until September second. That was little under a year ago, so I was in... ninth grade? Yeah, must've been. I was walking with my best friend, coming home from the mall. For now, let's call my friend Rich.
Rich and me were walking past identical white houses with blue shutters that were everywhere on this street. It was getting darker, and the street-lights still hadn't come on yet. We were laughing and shoving each other, our sneakers clapping against the cement. A pair of dogs skulked out of an alley and across the road.
Rich stopped laughing. I didn't notice this was odd, since I was starting to repeat the most clichéd comeback in the history of comebacks. "Yeah well your mom is a-"
Then, Rich stopped dead, and his arm shot out so fast that the wind actually made an audible woomph as he knocked it out of me. While I wheezed and swore, he whispered, "Bourb? What? Is that?"
I glanced at a dark blur a little ways up the sidewalk, just outside the opening of a trash alley. "That's a cat, you-" I told Rich a few choice words that he could have easily deflected onto my mother.
But he didn't move a muscle, except the ones he used to hiss, "There is something in the road. Put on your fricking glasses!" He was wide-eyed, terrified. Well fine, if he was going to be a baby about it.
I got control of my breathing, and took a squint at the shape. I couldn't tell a cat from a cow from that distance, so I pulled my glasses out of my pocket, and put them on as calmly as possible to show Rich what an idiot he was being. I could see pointy, twitching ears outlined against the last trace of sunset. "See?" I sighed. "It's a cat. Now let's go."
I noticed my friend's arm was still in my way. I walked forward, expecting him to shove me back and the both of us to launch into a stupid game of "you can't get by!" That's what I thought was going to happen. But like I said before, I was wrong.
The streetlights flickered to life, and I walked forward, and Rich's arm folded easily, and it fell limply to his side. I was confused.
Then I finally saw. There was light flooding from the lamp directly above it, and the thing- because it was a thing- was illuminated in a yellow pillar. I'll never forget that moment, not if I live to be a hundred or a thousand years old.
Everything I knew up until that moment told me matter-of-factly and resolutely that there were no such things as monsters. But I was looking at a monster.
It wasn't terrible. It wasn't even threatening. Honestly, it was pretty pathetic looking. Imagine the head of a cat. Now imagine that it has the blue eyes of a little human baby. Now imagine that coming out of the head, right where the neck should be, are three, thick, long, tentacles. Now imagine this thing is covered in black scales. You have imagined the creature squirming and writhing on the sidewalk just fifty feet away from me.
"Rich?" I squeaked at last.
"Bourb?" he squeaked back.
"That's- not a cat."
"That is not a cat."
"Like now!" I turned, and half expected my legs to freeze up like they always do in my nightmares. Thankfully, they didn't, and both me and Rich hurtled into the hedges just behind us.
I sat painfully on the heels of my shoes, but I didn't dare move too much, in case the monster got curious and came over to strangle me. I moved enough to peer through the branches, trying to stare at the thing hard enough to make it vanish like the bad dream it was. It didn't.
At that moment, the clatter of an overturned trashcan made me realize my heavy breathing wasn't the only sound in the world. There were voices, harsh voices, low voices. I couldn't move as two figures leaped out of the alleyway, just like the dogs, just like the monster.
The first was a woman. She was tall, in a jogging-suit that betrayed her slightly rotund figure, wearing wide sunglasses after dark, with her cherry-red hair streaming after her as she ran from the alley. She had overshot, and, grabbing the creature by the tentacles, she stopped suddenly enough that she fell backwards onto the sidewalk.
The second was a man. He had sunglasses too, but he also had dull black hair, a pair of what looked like pajama pants, and a tank top that showed way too much of his pale, freckled skin. He was shorter than the woman, and didn't seem to be in as good health. He jogged out of the alley, wheezing. He leaned on his knees, and swept the sunglasses off his face to rub an eye. "Good- catch!" he panted.
"Useless," she remarked, holding the creature by one tentacle while it flailed helplessly.
"Well, to be fair, it is only a baby," the man objected.
"I was talking about you." She glanced at him. "And keep those on, idiot!"
He quickly stuffed the sunglasses onto his face.
The woman groaned, "Honestly, I don't know why I let a rookie hunt with me."
"Hey!" the man objected. He stood up straight and poked a thumb at that freckly chest of his. "I've been on the force for nine years, so don't go calling me a rookie."
"You've been on the police force for nine years, not my force. Tell me what boss stands for."
"Um, bureau of... something something?"
"My point exactly. You're a rookie. So," the woman asked in a lower voice, "did anyone see the Seibu?"
"The what, miss?" the man asked blankly.
"This, you worthless sack of-" She shook the monster in the man's face, and it squealed louder. "The Seibu? The thing we've all been looking for over the past three- freaking- days?" She stared him down for a few seconds. She asked in a calmer voice, "Well?"
Her voice sounded a little strained. "Did anyone see the Seibu?"
"I don't think so, miss."
"Thinking isn't as good as knowing, now is it?"
He shook his head. They stared at each other for a while.
"Search the area!" she yelled.
"Right!" he yelped, and started scampering down the sidewalk... straight towards us.
"Rich!" I hissed, and my friend pulled up from what looked like his prayers. Rich, by the way, is an atheist.
I had absolutely no spit left when I mouthed, "Don't. Move."
The man trotted past us... and then he stopped.
Oh no, was it possible he'd heard my dry lips scratching together as I tried to warn Rich? We were dead meat. Dead, dead meat...
Then he mumbled, loud enough just for me and Rich to hear it, "Oops." He turned towards the woman and hissed, "Miss! Miss- There's a man over there!"
I turned my head to look across the street, hoping not to rustle the leaves, and saw a young man with huge eyes freeze. Run! I screamed in my head, and I couldn't tell you if I was talking to the petrified man or to myself. Get out of here! RUN! But it looked like his nightmare was coming true. He was just frozen to the sidewalk.
I didn't even notice the sneakers slapping against the cement until the woman was barely three feet away from our hiding spot. She skidded to a halt, the "Seibu" in one hand and an automatic pistol in the other. She hissed, "If you want it done right-"
The weapon recoiled, and the young man dropped.
I blinked again.
Somewhere between those two blinks, I realized I was going to die.
When I got home, I couldn't tell you. I could've stayed in that bush for seconds, minutes, hours. All I know is that when I got up, the monster- the "Seibu"- wasn't there, and neither were the two adults, and neither was Rich.
I couldn't tell you how I convinced myself it all wasn't a terrible dream. It sure looked like one, it sure sounded like one, it sure felt like one, but I knew there was no way it was one.
That was one freaky night.
In the morning, after I realized there really was a monster running around with a couple of armed lunatics wearing sunglasses, I put on my coat. I went to Rich's house.
When it came into view, so did something else. A crime scene. There were police cars everywhere, vans filed with forensic equipment, swarms of official looking people- the whole deal.
Now I was terrified. I watch a lot of C.S.I., so I know that if they find one shred of evidence that you were there, they will hunt you down and question you. What was I going to say? That someone got their brains blown out because they saw a monster that should not exist?
So I panicked. I skulked through the yard with the hedges, and I came back to the road through the spot where we'd been cowering the night before. No one noticed me. Shaking, I scuffed the dirt under the bush with my toe and coughed loudly. Still no one noticed me. I leaned over the crime-scene tape and called to the officer nearest me, "W- What happened here?"
He looked up and said protectively, "Hey, can you step back? This is a crime scene!"
"Sorry!" I said, looking as apologetic as possible. "I, um, yeah." Then, I walked through the bushes again. That would be enough to explain any fibers they found in the branches, I thought.
Then, I went up my friend's driveway. I was so nervous as I eyed the police car parked in front of the house. I opened the door, and saw his parents sitting on the couch, looking about as nervous as I did.
Rich's mother spotted me, and cried, "Bourbon!" (She didn't really call me Bourbon, but you get the idea.) "We just sent for you- Roger Jones was-" Her voice broke a little here, and she sobbed, "was murdered!"
Rich's father comforted Rich's mother. I didn't pay much attention. "Where's Rich?" I asked.
As Rich's mother wailed unintelligibly, Rich's father answered, "He's up in his room."
"Thanks." I went through the kitchen, where a couple of officers were loitering, climbed the stairs, and went into my friend's room.
He was sitting on the bed, looking very distressed. There was a cop in front of him with a pad and pencil, whose nametag said "Nekane". Rich was telling the officer, "I'm telling you, I didn't see or hear anything!"
"Hey Rich," I breathed.
"Hey Bourb," he breathed back.
The cop looked me up and down. "Is this the guy you 'didn't see or hear anything' with?" he asked skeptically.
"Yeah," I said quickly. Rich slapped his palm to his forehead. "Oops," I mumbled.
Officer Nekane fixed his dark eyes right on Rich. "Listen, a guy was murdered last night, right next door. This is not a game. Whatever you may have seen, I need to know it. Anything you can give us will get us that much closer to taking this murderer off the street."
I glanced at Rich. He cried at last, throwing his hands in the air, "Anything I can give you will get us locked up in the loony bin! You expect me to tell you what happened when I know you won't take me seriously?"
"Hey! You're obviously not taking this investigation seriously! If you don't tell us what you saw, you'll have let this man's killer go free!"
Rich didn't say anything else, but I could tell he was uncertain.
"Alright!" I blurted. The cop looked at me. "Alright..."
And I told him exactly what happened. And as I kept talking, I realized just how unbelievable the whole thing sounded, and as I kept talking, it sounded more and more like I was begging him to believe me, and as I kept talking, Officer Nekane's look just got darker and darker...
"...and then they were gone!" I finished in a frenzy. I sat down.
There was silence. I noticed he had stopped jotting down what I was saying a long time ago. Officer Nekane lowered his dark eyes on mine, and I was locked in their grip.
He started to tear up the pages of the notepad without taking his eyes off mine, and he said, "I'm going to do you boys a favor, and I won't tell your parents about this little chat. I thought I made myself perfectly clear, but apparently you didn't hear me. This isn't a joke. Now I want you to think about what really happened last night." He left.
"He didn't believe us," I murmured.
"Well of course he doesn't believe it." Rich paused, and said, "Heck, I don't even believe it, and I was there!"
I smiled. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
He leaned forward, asking, "Hey, you said they were wearing sunglasses?"
I said slowly, "Yeah. You didn't notice?"
"Uh, hello? I was too busy trying not to scream like a little schoolgirl?" We both gave a weak chuckle.
"But yeah, they were definitely wearing sunglasses at night." I put my finger to my chin and paused reflectively. "You know, I think we might be overreacting about how dangerous they are."
Rich raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Yeah," I said, cracking a smile. "They were obviously wearing sunglasses because they were super hung-over, and they only shot someone because they were cranky!"
Rich stared at me.
"Too soon?" I asked. When Rich refused to blink, I concluded, "Too soon." I put my hands up in surrender. "Okay, a hangover didn't drive them to murder. But seriously, there must be some reason that crazy chick was so set on the guy keeping his shades on."
Rich nodded and finally wetted his eyes. "Well, if their glasses were 'this big'-" He put his hands over his eyes to mimic my frantic explanation earlier. "-then they were probably just- Ugh, they might've been- you know those eye-reader things on-? Um..."
"Use your words," I coaxed in my best patronizing voice.
"I'm no good at working through crazy stuff like this," Rich mumbled, kneading the heels of his hands into his eyes.
"Yeah, well, who is?" I sighed rhetorically.
Rich, of course, took me seriously again. He took his hands away from his face, looked to be thinking, and said simply, "My cousins are."
"What?" I asked blankly.
He explained (as if that ever helped), "My cousins! Jinks and Zoi."
"Okay," I said slowly. "What about them?"
"C'mon, Bourb, keep up!" he said impatiently. "We need to ask them if they can make any sense of what's going on, and we figure out what to do from there."
I shrugged. "Okay. Sounds good to me. So, they're experts on tiny monsters with tentacles?"
Rich laughed. "Thanks Bourb, I needed that. I'll call you when the police don't need me, okay?"
I was terribly confused, but I nodded.
I started down the stairs, and saw Officer Nekane talking with the two loitering cops. Trying my best to look ashamed, I looked at my feet and crept down the stairs.
"...quite get it that there's a murderer running loose. I told him to think it over."
"Alright then," said one of the other officers. My eyelids flew back, and I froze in that position, one foot hovering above the next tread, hand on the railing, mouth slightly open.
I knew that voice.
"So I'll just head up now and get the kid's story?" the man asked, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at me.
I was still frozen.
"Nah, give it a few more minutes," Nekane said with a shrug. "So anyways, I hear she's friends with that widow from the car crash..."
I finally got control of my limbs, and tripped up the stairs. I ran back to Rich's room.
He looked up when I dragged a chair roughly next to his bed. I sat on it. "Rich," I whispered.
"What?" he asked, looking a bit weirded out.
"We can't trust anyone."
"Why wouldn't we- What?" he asked again.
"The cop downstairs, Rich. He's the guy. He and his partner grabbed the Seibu or whatever, and killed your neighbor."
Zoi and Jinks were Rich's cousins. The twins were pretty smart, according to Rich, and they were pretty nice, according to Rich. I'd never met them before, or even heard about them.
But, according to Rich, they had the brains to figure out what to do.
We decided to wait a day before we went to see them, just to make sure the rogue cop didn't realize we had seen him. If he figured out we were on to him, he'd probably sick that crazy lady on us...
Sometime the next day, we told our parents we were going over to see Zoi and Jinks, and so we did. Me and Rich walked to their house, and went inside.
There was a girl, who must have been three or four years older than me, sprawled across the couch reading Sherlock Holmes. She looked up, and then fell off the couch. She gasped, jumping up. "Oh my gosh, Rich! I heard about your neighbor! He was such a nice-" She stopped mid-running-over and asked quizzically, "Like, what's up?"
"Hey cuz," Rich said as he shut the door behind me. "Is Uncle Joe home?"
Rich's cousin shook her head, leaning back. "Seriously, what's up? There's something up. I can, like, tell."
He gestured to me and explained quickly, "Me and Bourbon here need to talk with you and Zoi."
"I'm Zoi," she sighed, rolling her eyes.
Rich took a step back. "Oh, sorry! You two look alike so-"
"Nah, I'm totally messin' with you. Lighten up!" the girl giggled. "ZOI! RICH IS HERE!" she yelled suddenly, making me jump. She was not making this any easier on my nerves.
An identical girl dressed in red stumbled out of a doorway on my left. I assumed this was Zoi, but I wasn't sure anymore. "Oh, hi Rich," she said, confused. She shook her head quickly, making her hair fly in every direction. "I heard about your neighbor. He was a nice guy."
"Cute too," added the girl with the book. (Jinks? Jinks.)
"That's really not what I want to talk about," Rich sighed. "Well, um, I guess it sort of has to do with that. See, me and Bourbon were out last night, and we saw something really weird."
"Weird?" the girls said in unison but in different tones. Zoi was curious, and Jinks was skeptical.
"Really weird," I mumbled to the carpet.
Rich glanced at me. "Bourb, I think you remember what happened a little better than me. You want to tell them?"
I peeked up at the strangers who were staring expectantly at me. I didn't want them to call me nuts, or a jokester, or a liar, or anything that Officer Nekane had been thinking of me.
I knew the whole thing was crazy. But I told it to the twins, slowly and carefully this time, and the expressions on their faces slowly morphed from "Oh, I get it. You're joking," to "Okay, the joke got old," to "You're nuts," to "Wait, seriously?" to "Oh. My. Gosh."
"I know you think we're lying," I begged, putting special emphasis on "we're" so they knew Rich could confirm my story, "but you've got to believe me- It really happened!"
"Oh!" Zoi said quickly, "We believe you all right! No offense, Rich, but you're a terrible liar. You'd be cracking up the whole time if you two were pulling our leg."
"You mean," I breathed, and I relaxed for the first time in two days, "you do know I'm not crazy? You seriously think two people caught an alien and then killed someone?"
"Well, now we do," said Zoi with a shrug.
Jinks covered her eyes and wailed, "Why do the cute die young?"
They were taking this awfully well. Maybe Rich was right, maybe they really were good at this sort of stuff.
"So, now that it's not just two kids who know what really happened..." Rich asked in a conspiratorial whisper, "what do we do now?"
I gave a weak smile before joking, "Call the police?"
Rich whipped around and gawked at me. "What're you, nuts? If there's one cop who's dirty, who knows how many else there are?"
I put a hand to my forehead. "Dude, I was kidding."
He blinked rapidly. "Oh. I knew that."
The girls continued muttering fragments to each other like, "Fire with fire?"
"No, water. Subtle, shy."
The twins pulled their heads apart, and turned towards us.
"Okay," said Jinks, "like, we've got no clue who these people are or what they're doing hanging out with monsters, right?"
"Right," Rich answered.
"Right," said Zoi. "Since they killed someone, we can probably assume they aren't selling cookies door to door."
Jinks commented, "That'd be like totally weird."
"It would, wouldn't it?"
"Girls!" Rich cried. "Can we try to make sense of the insanity rather than add to it?"
"Sorry," the twins said together.
"So the point is," Zoi continued, "whoever these people are, they're organized, and they're willing to kill to keep this monster thing under wraps. If we go blabbing to anyone, we're going to get killed."
Jinks leaned forward, so I had to lean forward too. She whispered, "So we need to keep our traps shut, all four of us, and this stuff about the- the Seibu, it can never ever never ever never-"
Zoi added, "Ever."
"-leave this room. That's the only way we're going to stay alive." Jinks leaned back, satisfied with her answer.
Rich nodded slowly. "I like staying alive," he muttered.
So it was decided there in that living room, four minors crouched on the carpet in an empty house. We could never tell anyone else about the Seibu. We would forget everything we'd learned. We would go back to our normal, fair, obvious, true... lives...
My lips opened and they made one very good point. "But we can't just do nothing." I put a hand to my big mouth.
"Why not?" Rich asked. I didn't answer.
The twins glanced at each other.
"He's right," one murmured, but I wasn't paying attention to who.
"We've got to do something..."
Rich put a hand to the side of his face out of frustration. "Then what?" he moaned. "We walked all the way over here to ask you what, and you still haven't told us!"
The twins who were very bright, who knew all about this sort of thing, looked at me.
Zoi started, "I, don't..."
Jinks bit her lip. Finally, she said, "We should, like, find out what we're up against. We keep an ear out for anyone who knows anything."
"I like it," said Zoi.
"Okay," said Rich.
"Sounds good," said I. My voice cracked a little at the end.
Jinks smiled. "Like, it's a plan then!" She pushed herself to her knees, then used her sister's shoulder to get to her feet. "You want something to drink, Rich's friend?" she called over her shoulder as she moved to the kitchen. "It sounds like all that talking wore out your voice!"
I shrugged uneasily. "Sure..." I remember having one of the weird, creepy feelings I get sometimes...
I shook it off. "Do you have any root beer?" I called.
So there are the facts. I opened my big mouth, and that is the reason why four kids were pitted against the things nightmares are made of. That's the reason why Rich stutters, why Jinks calls herself Zoi, why Star's mom is dating again, why Ice can't make sarcastic comments, why Qui- why Quill- why I-
That, is the reason, why we had to, to change our names. My name isn't really Bourbon. That's just what they call me now.