Twenty-four

Arella took it pretty well, and by that I mean she didn't get hysterical. She just kind of nodded and looked at the floor like she could see a whole other universe there. I stopped trying to talk to her a few minutes after she didn't respond. Sophie said it was shock.

I kept myself busy by going through what Arella had bought at the shop—hair dye and clothes. I picked black dye for myself, since it was such a deep contrast to my blonde, and had Sophie help me with wetting my hair. While I waited for it to set, I went through some of the papers I had ripped from the book the shifter carried. Mainly, they were filled with nonsense—things written in code, anagrams, but some things were displayed clear as day. Like:

Mexico City?

It was underlined, circled, and printed large across one page, so I knew there was a meaning there. Mexico City was the place where the shifter had tried to convince us all to go, and then claimed to run off to as Indrid. But what was going on there? It obviously wasn't just a random place.

My eyes couldn't stray from the question marks either. What did they mean, that even the shifter had no idea what was in Mexico City? But then why write it down in the first place?

I went from piece of paper to piece of paper and couldn't figure out anything. I tried—believe me, I tried—but it just didn't make sense. Eventually, I got so frustrated that I set everything down and started to cry. The tears came more from seeing Arella and hearing about Indrid than the codex.

It felt like I'd been stabbed, brutally. This pain… this… this intense hurt. My best friend was dead. Sure, so I was just going off of the words of a lying, scheming shapeshifter, but seeing Courtney's body… seeing her lying there… It let me know that the shifter was more than just talk. To be capable of murder once was to be capable of murder to an infinite amount.

After everything, after all of the death, I had no hope left. We'd gotten off of the island, and that was good, but look at what that had led to. Truly nothing good could happen to me. And so I knew Indrid was dead.

I started to wonder how the shifter killed her, and that was when I began outright sobbing. Charlie came over a few times and asked if I needed company, but I said no. The only thing I needed was Indrid. The only thing I wanted to do was to stand around and talk to my friend—have her tease me and badly braid my hair and scoff at our math homework and dance around our room—but she was gone.

I'd spent these past few weeks with a proxy, with an echo. The shifter was awful to me, and it'd made me feel so insignificant and terrible, but at least I had hope that I could turn things around. I thought that Indrid and I could patch things up and become friends again, but now…?

I looked up miserably at the sound of footsteps to see Ben staring at us all, appearing quite disturbed. "I was gone for maybe two hours," he began, confused. "What happened?"

No one answered him.

"Where's Courtney?" Ben tried again.

Arella broke her silence with a small cry at his words, moving to bury her head in her hands.

"She's dead," Sophie said, when it became obvious that no one else was going to answer.

"I was gone for maybe two hours," he repeated. "How did you guys even manage that? Hello? Why are you all unresponsive?"

"Indrid is dead, too," I said, staring at Ben. He met my eyes, and his face changed, shifted. I was too weary to judge which emotions they were.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"No," answered half of us simultaneously, despite him only having really asked me. I would've felt smug about that, if I wasn't stuck on Mars.

"The shapeshifter got away," I told him quietly.

"The… what? Can someone tell me what's going on?" Ben demanded, quickly losing patience.

"The suspense must be killing him," murmured Sophie sarcastically, sounding almost dead. Though she acted less upset than the rest of us, she still hadn't responded to Ben's inquiry of an explanation, which meant that Sophie didn't want to address what had happened either.

"Cripes," said Fate, lightly swatting at Sophie. "Not the time."

Charlie sighed at the girls. "Sorry, Ben, we're all just a little frazzled. I'll help catch you up."

"Okay," Ben said cautiously, eyes flickering over to me before returning to Charlie as he walked towards my ex. "So what happened?"

"Twyla was outside and found Courtney's body in the dumpster," Charlie began. "She came in and confronted the shapeshifter, who was in there, in Courtney's form. The shifter admitted to setting the bomb and causing the shooting. While I went out to see Courtney, it ran off. We tried to pursue, but… it can shift shapes. We lost track."

I sniffed, wiping my eyes as I stacked the papers from the shifter's book. "I managed to get these," I said. "They belonged to the shapeshifter."

Ben came over, extending an arm to get the paper. I handed it, warning, "It's in some kind of code. It won't make a lot of sense."
"He's a linguist, remember," Fate said.

Despite all of my pain, I still couldn't help but roll my eyes. I knew him better than she did. "Yeah, I know."

"Mexico City," Ben read off, arriving at the one page that I could comprehend. "So that's where the shifter went?"
"It's too obvious," Sophie immediately dismissed.

"But something is there," Ben countered, eyebrows furrowing as he went through the pages. "Something has to be in Mexico City."

I was tired of hearing about Mexico. "Can you understand anything else?" I asked.

He flipped furiously—front to back, back to front, over and over for a solid minute. Ben's eyes swept over the same words again and again, as if waiting for them to change, to morph into something that made sense. It was nerve-wracking to just watch.

"Ben?" I said eventually, realizing that he wasn't going to answer.

"What?" He looked up, shocked.

"Can you understand anything else?" I repeated patiently. My burning eyes reminded me of Indrid, but talking to Ben helped distract me. When all was silent, the burn was all I could feel. So it had to just never be silent.

"Do you know what a random walk is?" he asked, instead of answering.

"Nope," I admitted.

"It's when the movement of a variable doesn't have a pattern." Ben pointed to the papers, nodding to himself. "This is feigning a random walk. The shifter that wrote this tried to make it appear as though everything made no sense, in case someone found it, but there are commonalities."

"So you can figure out what it means?" Fate gathered.

"Maybe," Ben said, after a pause. "I think so. I mean, so far as I can see, everything does make sense. They are—or were—notes for the shifter, things that it thought would be important. So there has to be a code. I'll figure it out."

"There isn't time to sit and wait around here," Sophie said, addressing what we were all thinking. "The government will find out that we're gone soon—if they haven't already. We have to get as far away as possible from Florida."

"Maybe we have some time," Arella murmured. It was difficult to hear her, which I think Arella herself figured out because she cleared her throat. "No one is going to rat us out. If we escaped, every single person on that island would want us to get as far away as we can. It could be months before anyone notices."

"Listen, I don't disagree with you that everyone is willing to help out, but Charlie's dad visits often now," Sophie pointed out. "He's sure to notice that his son is missing. And once that's figured out, it won't take much time for the rest of us to stand out."

"So what do you propose we do? Go to Canada?" Charlie asked.

"Why do you say it like that? It's either Canada or… what, Mexico City? You guys are serious about that? Come on, that's where the shifter wanted to go to kill us most likely. And you want to go there!" Sophie shook her head. "It's crazy. It's suicide!"

"Canada is too far," I pointed out.

"And we're going to Mexico," Arella claimed sternly. Before Sophie could say anything else, my friend raised her voice. "That shifter killed our friend! I don't care if it's a trap. I don't care if it will get me killed. I'm fine with risking my life to avenge Indrid. She didn't deserve this."

"And we don't deserve to die, either," Fate said. "You know, she probably wouldn't have wanted us dying for her."

Oh, she so would have. Indrid was incredibly dramatic and would've taken offense if we didn't risk our lives for her. I could imagine the conversation…

"Um, well, I would so die for you," she'd say. "That's what friends do! Come on, it's defending my honor. Worst case scenario, we end up dead together. But that's not so bad—there's probably some great parties in the afterlife."

"I'm really not trying to offend you guys, but we really just didn't know her that well," Sophie added.

"Can we not…" Charlie drifted off suddenly. He sighed. "Can we not do this right now? My head is pounding."

"I was thinking of taking a nap," I piped up, to defend Charlie's need for silence.

"Okay, so we'll take a break. And the rest of us can dye our hair," Sophie said. "And then in a few hours, we'll reconvene."

"Got it."

"Okay."

I retreated back to my bed and remembered that the last time I had been with my bag and jacket was when I found my grimoire. Part of me remembered that my book was still outside and that I hadn't even managed to throw it away, but I had no desire to go out and do anything with it. I forced the thought of the wretched book away.

But still, I recalled what happened after I went to toss the book… Courtney.

"We should bury her," I murmured.

"Huh?" Fate said.

"Courtney. She deserves to be buried."

"Does she?" Sophie wondered aloud with her not unusual filthy bleeder tone.

"Yes, she does," I said firmly, turning to give the rusalka a glare. "She deserves at least that."

Sophie huffed.

"If we bury her, her family will never know what happened to her," Ben spoke. "If we leave the body, the authorities will eventually find it, and the right people will be called."

"Maybe it's better that they don't know," Arella said. "Maybe knowing is… the worst thing that could ever happen to them. They'd lose all hope, then."

A sneaky tear managed to escape from my eyes, which I quickly wiped away.

"Let's bury her, then," Sophie said finally.

Arella sighed. "Do I need to go and buy a shovel?"

"That would be nice," admitted Charlie, who was probably thinking of helping with digging.

"I'll go now," she said, moving to the door.

I laid down as soon as Arella disappeared, placing my jacket on top of me. I had a spectacular view of the peeling paint on the ceiling. It was blue.

Blue turned to black.

I dreamed of a memory, this memory:

This past summer, on the beach. We had no bathing suits, so Arella, Indrid, and I adorned our underwear. Same thing, pretty much.

I was tanning in the sand with Arella while Indrid groaned, trying to get us to go into the water. Eventually she gave up on getting a partner and went down on her own, and then ran back up every time a wave came in because it was, "Too cold!"

She spent an hour doing that but eventually gave up, coming to rest by Arella and me. It was one of the funniest parts of the summer, even though it wasn't that funny. Well, it had been. Back then.

Things were easier at being funny back then. I missed laughing.

My eyes blinked back open, refocusing on the blue paint. For a second, I thought it was the ocean, and then I remembered where I was. What had happened. Instantly I closed my eyes, causing tears to roll down the sides of my eyes and into my hair, attempting to reenter the dream, to reenter the past. But I couldn't.

I even contemplated using magic to make myself sleep, but here was the predicament: I could be happy for a few minutes, while risking destroying the world, or I could be miserable and keep a world that hated me safe.

In the end I was too chicken to risk the extinction of mankind. Maybe one day I wouldn't be. The idea of the deaths of all of those that had not even inadvertently destroyed my life was appealing for a few seconds. A few seconds too long.

That was what true evil was. Sneaky. Waiting. Waiting for weakness, for sadness, for anger. And that was when it took hold, planted its roots.

It was only a matter of time, I thought again, until I would stop caring so much for others. Only a matter of time.