"what if there was a time summer went on forever? and no one noticed. the kids kept raging and going to the
beach. no school."
Fizz — crackle — pop.
"This is KLRC, coming at you live! It's another bright, bright summer morning out there. Perfect weather for a beach day."
7:05 a.m., on the dot.
Spencer cracks his knuckles, little rivers of seat tracing a path from his temple to his chin. The sun glares from above. Rock-dust dirt beneath his feet grits between his toes. Bending down, he places two filthy, small palms flat upon the earth and digs the balls of his feet into the desert.
"Come on!" Someone hollers from the crowd, and noises of similar impatience ring in his ears. Tension folds inwards from the gaggle of schoolkids bustling along the sides of the racers, some standing on the edge of the highway, others sitting on the ground. James, to Spencer's left, bites his lip. Even stolid, sturdy Rose, now wearing her long auburn curls in some semblance of a ponytail, shifts from foot to foot as the crowd grows louder, anxious and overheated.
The eight of them crouch shoulder to shoulder, legs trembling under the heavy hand of July heat. They stand next to the city highway that seems to stretch on to the end of the world, and Spencer loses himself for a moment in the sudden and intense curiosity that compels them all to peer down the road as if there was something to see other than the never-ending desert. About a mile from their location is the city limits, the proverbial physical end of the world. He refocuses, screwing up his eyes to see past the heat waves shimmering on the asphalt and grounding himself in the scratch and pull of his cargo shorts.
A piercing whistle cuts through the air and a religious silence settles into peace. Pete stands at the forefront of the racers, his mouth pressed into a straight line and forehead caked in grime. He's abandoned his overshirt in favor of the thin, soaked tank top beneath. His dark eyes sweep the horizon, the kids around him glistening under the midday sun, and he wipes back his sweat-shiny hair away from his brow. There's a glint of light from the knife Pete holds in his hand, and Spencer is momentarily blinded.
"On your ready," Pete says. He steps five paces out, away from the path of the runners. The crowd bumbles, the racers already trembling from exhaustion. "Get set."
Debbie and Benjamin, standing in the crowd, lace their fingers together in prayer.
Spencer pushes his toes into the dirt with a grunt, rocketing forward. The children to the sidelines scream slander and encouragement at every runner, their voices colliding into incomprehensible whoops and white noise. James pounds his way into first, followed by seven furious children and the cheering of the crowd. Becca, who had placed fourth or fifth every other time Pete organized a race, fights her way into second, heaving for breath. Spencer drops into third, content, as long as he isn't in last. In his peripheral vision, he sees Rivera stumble and gasp.
Poor Rivera, bespectacled and toothpick thin, is the one to fall behind, arms circling and clutching for any extra push of energy. It's a wonder that he continues to race at all, Spencer muses, knowing that he's obviously going to lose again. The metaphorical lamb, running with lions. He's part of Mimi's ferocious gang of friends, and she's most likely the one who pushed him out into the slaughter.
Up ahead, the turning point of the race comes into glorious, reassuring view — the speed limit sign at the end of this stretch of road. James reaches the sign first, straining his arm to reach at the pole, and twists his body around it without slowing down. Becca, fast on his heels, uses the sign to propel herself forward. Storm clouds of dust choke Spencer, the heat omnipresent, but he squeezes his eyes shut and keeps running. The crowd erupts as Becca overpowers James, stretching her arm out as she nears Pete, the pounding of her feet heavy and determined.
A flash bang win, Becca collapses on her knees as she's awarded first place. James claps her on the back with a grin, and Spencer manages to stumble his way to the finish line, weak with relief. Then comes Mimi and Rose, Jon and Greta. Slowing to a walk, Rivera wipes sweat away from his eyes, drenched in apprehension. The neighbourhood children scream and laugh and despair at the sight of Rivera, his face falling ashen as he approaches. Benjamin and Debbie, in the midst of the crowd, unlock their hands, gratefully watching Mimi and Rose while occasionally glancing at Rivera in dread.
Pete holds his hand in the air. The crowd hushes. Rivera crouches on the ground, sputtering. Standing over him, Pete turns to face Becca, her hair wild and the gums of her teeth peaking through her triumphant grin.
"To the victor, the spoils," Pete hums. The crowd cheers again, but the racers remain silent, their gazes fixed upon the knife Pete hands Becca.
It catches in the light again, and the hot spell of victory already filming over Becca's eyes. Her knuckles fade white as she grips the handle, giving it an experimental slice through the air. The hum of cicadas in the distance drowns out the pulse erratically drumming in Spencer's ears. Becca looks at Pete in an unspoken question, and he gives her a brief nod. Turning to face Rivera, knelt on the ground and eyebrows upturned, Becca holds the knife under his chin, where it catches drops of sweat and sunlight, sparkling.
Rivera's dark blood meets chalky, desert earth. The crowd screams with glee, and the hot summer sun watches on, heavy on their backs.
Spencer has few memories of before the summer — before Pete and the races and the beach, before the eternal smoldering weather and sudden mornings. He faintly recalls feelings of complete and utter terror when the Restarts first began, remembers better the slow-sinking apathy that replaced childhood wonder and horror alike. He has nothing left now but all-encompassing perplexity and boredom of freedom. He supposes that this must be what growing up is like
Somewhere within Spencer's feelings of disinterested unease are memories of his mother. Her winding chestnut hair, her soft fingers curled around a cup of coffee, familiar and friendly wrinkles crinkling the skin around her eyes. He remembers missing her profoundly in the beginning of the summer, when her absence seemed to stretch on and on, an emotion that lasted just as long until the details of her face faded and the characters of her name evaporated from his tongue. There are times still when Spencer longs for her, but these days he aches less for her living figure and more for the concept she presented — the safety and love that is inherent in every little boy's mother. The unforgiving summer and pull of time, however, ensure that he is never consumed by the past, only haunted.
Now, Spencer opens his eyes each day at 7:05 a.m., light filtering into his room in a gentle intrusion, his radio flickering to life. He meets Pete outside ten minutes later, and they walk the block, rounding up their own tight circle of friends. Together, they spend the day acting out whatever role Pete has bestowed upon them, steal abandoned cars and drive them wildly, play cops and robbers, race, be kids, and ignore the rising temperatures.
At 8:48 p.m., Spencer returns home and crawls into bed, listening to the empty creaks and groans of a house inhabited by the poltergeists of memory. A familiar two-thud knock from downstairs, the breathless wind that laughter sometimes falls apart into — but there is no one else in the house. These sounds are the only clues which remain, and Spencer closes his eyes and tries to guess what they once belonged to. Perhaps the thud is his mother knocking over a table, or maybe she fell into the wall. There's no telling.
He waits for the blinding white flash that burns an angry red past his eyelids, the sudden awful and excruciating heat — heat that blisters and pulls the flesh from his bones, vaporizes his thoughts, melts him into nothingness — heat that lasts only for a brief agonizing second, then:
Fizz — crackle — pop.
Not long after the Resets began, a girl named Maria had packed a backpack with granola bars and water bottles and walked out of sight. She had left back when the summer was still frightening, when the endless days and consequences of staying out too late were new to them, before there had been lasting order under Pete, back when terrified and heartbroken children scavenged and fought amongst themselves.
"There's another town about five miles from here," she had told the rest of them — the neighborhood children who were still left — pointing to a map she had took from the library archives. "I'll go there, see if — if it's the same or different, and then I'll come back with help, maybe. But I can't stay here anymore, not knowing." When she left, Pete and the neighbourhood watched her go, waving goodbye with forlorn and hopeful expressions as she disappeared into the horizon, past the city limits sign.
Spencer, Pete, and Greta are headed to that same sign, an hour before sunset. They pedal their bikes leisurely, and the cooling air is a shocking relief from the perpetual ninety-degree weather they embraced earlier in the day. The city limit is announced by a faded green and white metal sign at the end of Main Street, and it takes them only twenty minutes to reach it.
As it fades into view, Spencer briefly thinks about what would happen if he kept riding his bike out into the night, pass the limit, just like Maria had. When she left, it was still early into Spencer's association with Pete and had turned to him and asked, "Do you think she'll get stuck out there?"
"Maybe," Pete had said. "Either way, she won't be back."
He was right, of course, but that didn't stop Spencer from being curious. No one would ever know what she had found, if anything, or what exactly had stopped her from returning.
Now, as Spencer stares down the street, he can't help but feel that no one is out there, that life only exists where they stand, and that Maria's mission had been an unnecessary sacrifice. She had been the first person to not come back, but not the last. Several had followed her out in the weeks to pass, mostly the older children who veered into their teens and couldn't stand the inescapable life of their small town.
"So…?" Greta drawls, stepping off her bike and pushing it beside her as they approach the sign. Out of the small sack she brought with her, she fishes out a thick black marker and tosses it to Pete. One street lamp across the street provides enough light to see the old type on the sign and not much else.
"I'll do it," Pete says and uncaps the marker. He squints at the sign, the dim lighting of evening casting shadows that obscure their vision. "But what should we write?"
Spencer shrugs. "Whatever you want, I suppose. It doesn't matter so long as it's obvious."
They stare at the sign in silence. A bird squawks overhead, and another echoes it farther away. It's 7:31 p.m. Pete approaches the sign, tense like a cobra ready to strike, and brings his hand close, but withdraws it again in a physical manifestation of his hesitance.
"I once tried to keep track of it," Greta says. She wraps her arms around her, and her voice became softer. "I had a diary I used to keep, and I would keep tallies of the days. Not that it worked or anything, since every morning it'd be gone. I used to drive myself crazy tryna keep track of it all, redoing the tallies until it was just too much. So I stopped."
"Think it'll be like that?" Spencer asks, and Greta nods her head. Keeping track of the days was a task they had all tried at one point, but time wore on them and slipped past like nothing more than a shadow at the fringes of night. Time is meaningless.
Pete leans forward once more and scribbles a short line on the sign. "We'll know for sure now," he says. The deep black of the marker melts into the shadows of the night, but his handiwork is mostly visible. His slanted, looping print reads: this won't be here tomorrow.
"I'da just wrote I was here," Greta mumbles, kicking at the ground with the toe of her shoe. She hops back onto the seat of her bike and pulls forward into the street. Pete continues to stare at the sign, unmoved. The owl — the 8:23 p.m. owl which calls every night — spurs Spencer into action.
He reaches out and touches Pete's shoulder. "We should go," he tells him. "Better not get stuck." He waits and Pete slowly responds to his touch, moving to his bike reluctantly.
"Right," Pete finally says, and the three of them ride back into town, to their separate houses. The street lamps are a poor substitute for the light of day, but they do their job and Spencer is in bed before 8:48 p.m., stomach tight as he anticipates the flash, the pain. In the morning, the three of them venture out to the sign and are unsurprised to see Pete's prophecy has come true, the words lost in the Reset, yet another casualty unaccounted for.
The next day, Spencer meets Pete on his front lawn. The morning sun settles into a comfortable thrum, and they lean into the breeze that graces them at 7:16 a.m., as per usual. Pete smiles at him, close-mouthed, but Spencer can see the dark spark of mischief that blooms underneath, the cruel twist of his eyebrows and phantom laugh. Today will be one of those days, then.
Sometimes, the summer passes easily. They wallow in the nearest ice-cream shop or run the length of the beach, carefree. Other days — most days, it seems now — Pete manages to corral other kids outside of their usual circle into extravagant and dangerous games. The last time he had that look in his eyes was the day Becca had pushed her knife throw Rivera's throat.
Spencer groans internally.
"We need to find Greta," Pete tells him, wiggling his toes in the dew-sprinkled grass. "She's going to be my second today."
Swallowing any hurt, Spencer simply replies, "Okay." He was Pete's second two days ago, and he knows that out of all of them, he was captured the most in the last game of Cops and Robbers. It makes sense that he's not Pete's favorite at the moment, but that puts him in an uneasy position. Being on Pete's good side was a near necessity during the summer. However, Spencer has long since learned that it's better to work his way back into Pete's good graces quietly than kick up a fuss.
On their way to Greta's house at the end of the street, they meet Jon and Becca, who were hopping over their neighbour's fence in the denim-blue early morning. Becca's untamable hair and feral grin give her away as too excited, too hungry for the day's games. It's a trait she's developed over the past few days, ever since the race, and it stirs a subtle discomfort in Spencer's stomach.
Pete, on the other hand, only seems to encourage the bloodlust. "Hey, Becca, Jon," he greets in his cool, unafflicted voice.
Becca returns his hello, and Jon nods. Spencer watches the carefully constrained glee in Pete's countenance and aches. Such teeming excitement almost certainly spoke of a long day. He knows Jon recognizes the look as well from the wary way his shoulders straighten out. They fall into line together and continue toward Greta's house. Greta, her hair chopped into a bob, waves at them from her porch.
She crosses her lawn to the four of them unhurried, and Spencer runs the back of his hand on his forehead, already damp. "You cut your hair off," he says. It's not anything he hasn't seen before, but it surprises him all the same. "Why?"
Putting a hand on her hip, Greta responds, "Maybe I felt like a change."
Becca snorts and speaks Spencer's thought. "It'll just come back tomorrow, you know."
"Then I'll cut it again," Greta rolls her eyes, shaking her head slightly. The morning clouds begin to part, and sunlight tumbles from above, igniting the warm undertones of Greta's tanned skin. Smoothing out the wrinkles on her skirt, she asks, "So what are we doing today?"
Spencer stiffens. Wind brushes through his hair and a small chill shudders up his spine. This is the question he had been avoiding. Although he's traditionally a proponent of making the most of the summer, whatever Pete has planned isn't going to end well.
"Today," Pete decrees, "we're getting the mall back."
Crowing, Becca laughs out an animated cry, and Jon and Greta chatter enthusiastically. A lead weight drops in Spencer's heart, but he convinces the corners of his lips to upturn. He can't afford to make Pete upset with his lack of excitement, but the truth slithers and settles in his bones like iron. Pete's trying to make him lose the game, preemptively punishing him for the past day's mistakes and today's, too. Pete knows, undoubtedly, that Spencer isn't good at the turf wars — never caring for the price of victory that he and Becca thrive on.
"Greta's my second today," says Pete. "We lost the shopping mall to Mimi's crew last time, so it'll be us versus them. Jon and Becca, you'll be on ground. Spencer—" Pete faces him, an incalculable smile still playing on his lips. "You'll take out Benjamin, since he's the biggest threat. I'm sure you'll impress me today."
"I will," Spencer agrees, willing it to be true. Benjamin was the oldest on Mimi's crew (save for Mimi herself, who was Pete's age). Resolving himself to do well, Spencer lets out a heavy breath. Pete's approval is on the few remaining inconsistencies of the summer.
The shopping mall Pete wants to reclaim is little more than a mile south, close enough to the beachfront to be warranted a high priority target. Mimi and her crew — Rose, Debbie, Benjamin, and at one point, Rivera — had stolen the mall some time ago, and Pete had never expressed a vested interest in winning it back until now. If their mission is successful, Spencer knows he'll be redeemed in Pete's eyes. If they lost…
They reach the mall in close to twenty minutes, not taking the time to dally as the sun increasingly makes it presence known. It's still morning, though, which gives them enough time to hold the game before lunch and rest in air conditioning — provided they win, of course. The mall is a large, concrete building prettied up by a multitude of glass windows and an impressive skylight. Inside, leafy green plants at every corner and a gushing fountain distract from the otherwise dull aesthetics. The doors open to the main room of the mall, where the arms of the building branch off into rows of stores, offering a variety of items from candy to summer clothes to color televisions, and two sets of escalators on either side lead to a second floor that overlooks the ground floor.
It's good territory, defensible and with a shocking amount of loot. "But it's mostly about name," says Pete, cupping his hands around his eyes to squint at the revolving doors. "Owning the mall is all bragging rights."
Greta cracks her knuckles and noisily huffs a short curl out off the bridge of her nose. "We'll hafta declare war first," she states, jaw jutting out as if to dare anyone to argue. Spencer unhappily admits to himself that she's a fitting second for the task at hand.
"It's only fair," Pete concurs. He exhales and rolls his shoulders back. The doors beckon them forth, and Pete walks to them with all the casualness of an ordinary shopper, Jon the first to follow and rest after, hurrying after Pete like a pack of stray dogs. Ravenous.
Pete pushes through the doors, gait relaxed and comfortable. The rest of his crew eye the mall with growing suspicion, walking like furtive beasts in an unknown land. Only Becca appears to be as at ease as Pete, smacking her lips loudly enough to echo for no reason other than the satisfaction of the sound.
Glancing around him, Spencer notes the sound of rippling water as the fountain runs, the stores lit up and empty. There is no music, no cacophony of multiple conversations. They seem to be the only living souls in the entire building.
"Maybe they're gone," Jon suggests, but the statement escapes from him like a question.
"They're here," Pete says. His voice is the calm absolute of an incoming tide, but a darker dissonance echoes beneath the waves. His face tilts upwards, gaze locked on a teen-marketed clothing shop upstairs. Mimi emerges first, a pair of unbought sunglasses resting on the bridge of her nose, the price tag hanging from the side. A floral, semi-transparent tunic a size too big rests upon her shoulders like an elegant shawl.
"Welcome, Pete and friends, to my humble abode." She beams and gestures to the open room around them. Leaning on the rails, her smile shifts into one more animalistic, the game already bubbling into the edges of reality. She's been waiting for this. "May I ask the nature of your visit?"
"Why, of course," Pete replies in kind, donning his own falsely aristocratic tone in an imitation of Mimi's rich drawls.
"Pray tell, then."
Greta steps forward with an air of assured dominance, her converse scuffing against the tile floor. She and Mimi are the only ones wearing shoes, although Mimi's are nothing more than a pair of rubber flip-flops. "We've come to issue a formal declaration of war."
Spencer watches the exchange with a swelling sense of excitement. He's always been bad at games like these, yes, but they were never dull, and the charged atmosphere occupies the forefront on his mind, easing his apprehension. He would win this.
"Very well," Mimi says curtly and curls two fingers in her mouth, letting loose a piercing but short whistle. From other stores on the second floor the rest of her crew emerges. Debbie and Rose both have devilish, shining knives, and Benjamin holds an imposing BB gun. Rivera is nowhere to be seen.
The sight of the weapons sparks an anxious tremor in Spencer's body, not born of fear but eagerness. This is it, he thinks. His chance to redeem himself from his disastrous performance from the other day, a chance to disrupt the haze of boredom that had long settled into the vast opportunity and lack thereof that accompanied the summer. They had all the time in the world and had nothing to spend it on other than games like this.
They would have gone mad from the summer long ago had Pete not stepped into power.
Standing beside him, Becca pulls out the hunting knife she had won from the waistband of her jeans, and Spencer curses at the realization that he didn't have any idea she had it with her. His own pocket knife sits heavier in his pocket.
"Where's Rivera?" Becca calls out mockingly. Pete glances at her with a frown but focuses again on their enemies again.
Mimi purses her lips in disapproval, narrowing her eyes. A slight tilt of her head allows for her straight, black hair to sweep across her eyes, but she makes no move to correct it. "He's in timeout," she says. There's a disturbing lack of embellishment in her words, and Becca cackles with a perverse pleasure that perturbs Spencer.
Timeout is a punishment Mimi is justified to make since he had let her down in the race. Spencer shivers, grateful that Pete hadn't made the same call with him after Cops and Robbers. There's no telling how long Rivera has been wasting away in the sub-basement of the mall.
Benjamin aims his BB gun, brows furrowed. Rose and Debbie tense, ready to propel themselves down the escalators at any minute. "On your ready," Pete murmurs, his voice carried by the natural acoustics of the nearly empty mall. His crew assumes their positions — Becca and Jon crouching slightly and Spencer's hands closing into fists.
"Get set," Mimi answers, fingers curled around the railing. Neither she nor Pete pull out any weapons, staring one another down with confidence. Spencer turns his attention away from her and towards Benjamin.
Pete looks at his soldiers, appraising their ready posture. His face remains black. There is neither approval nor disappointment in his gaze, and Spencer leans on that inscrutability like a crutch. If Pete had betrayed any preemptive feelings, it would've been all Spencer could think about.
The two crew leaders nod at each other, and there is a single moment of blessed nothingness, then quietly—
Rose and Debbie take off, thundering down the left-hand escalators. Becca gives a wild howl and runs to meet them at the bottom, her knife held out prepared to meet flesh. Thankfully, Rose and Debbie's hasty plunder left the escalators to the right free of conflict, and Spencer takes his chance by running across the open floor to reach them.
Tink! Tink! Tink! Rapid fire from the BB gun follows Spencer, but he doesn't allow himself to slow, zig-zagging to avoid the fire. The real trouble will be the escalators. In such a limited space, it will be considerably easier for Benjamin to hit his mark.
Pete stands outside the fight, watching the procession as if it was nothing more than a game of chess, and Greta falters for a minute, debating whether she should stay by his side or join the fray. Pete catches her eye and points her upstairs. Grabbing a tin lid from a nearby trashcan, she follows after Spencer.
The BB gun continues popping behind Spencer, pellets bouncing off tile. Spencer ducks beneath the railings of the escalator and watches Greta approach, holding the lid by her head to deflect incoming shots. She crouches behind him, and they ascend together, cowering behind the dented lid, barely breathing as the pungent stretch of trash and old food clings to it.
Before they reach the second floor, Spencer glances back at Becca and Jon, still fighting Rose and Debbie. Jon has short gashes across his face and arms, blood pulsing into his eyes, but he still holds his fists up and dodges attacks. Rose, avoiding his punches, also looks hurt, her hair obscuring her line of sight and nose crooked and bleeding. While Jon and Rose appear evenly matches, Debbie and Becca are a different story. Becca, untamable and furious, stabs and slashes with no reprieve, pushing Debbie backwards, whose knife work is amatuer in comparsion. One wide arc sends Debbie stumbling and tripping into the escalators. Two screams echo — one frightened and the other anguished — and Spencer tears his eyes away but not fast enough.
The spray of Debbie's blood scars his vision, and Becca, laughing madly, is decorated in red. Jon's punches slow to a halt as Rose screams Debbie's name, flinching away from the shower of blood now pouring from her severed jugular, her hands uselessly scrabbling against her throat. She gurgles, wordless and pathetic noises, and finally falls limp against the side of the escalators.
Tinktinktink! Benjamin begins shooting again, now at Jon and Becca, who take cover behind the escalators. Rose follows them, clutching her knife like an anchor and crying out in desperate, apologetic sorrow and rage.
Spencer hops off the escalators on the second floor and charges at Benjamin, who realizes too late that his enemies are now beside him. Rushing forward, Spencer kicks the gun from his and sends them both tumbling to the tile. Mimi, only a few yards away, watches them grapple, mesmerized, but catches sight of Greta and quickly retreats to the escalators that are now a grave to Debbie's body. Greta swoops up the BB gun and carries it away, running after her.
The knife in Spencer's pocket is heavy, but he has no time to reach for it as Benjamin bites at his arm. Spencer shoves his knee into Benjamin's stomach, causing him to gasp and release his hold. They tussle on the tile, switching positions as they roll. Spencer gains the upper hand again and holds the other boy down by the length of his arm across his neck, choking him slightly. He pulls his hand into a fist and lifts it high before slamming it down on Benjamin's face. A sharp burst of pain notifies Spencer that he's probably broken his fingers, but Benjamin's howl distracts him from his own pain.
Benjamin spits up blood and momentarily stops struggling, giving Spencer just enough time to grab him by his hair and crush the back of his head onto the floor with a sickening crack. Benjamin groans weakly, screwing his eyes shut.
Spencer can feel Pete's eyes on him, can almost hear the soft-spoken command — you know what to do, make me proud — and he pushes away all other thoughts, focusing on the waves of pain in his fist and the burning rage in his chest.
It's easy, in that moment, to ignore Benjamin's fists pounding feebly against his chest and pull him up by the collar of his shirt, yank him forward and punch him again so that the collision sends his head snapping backwards. He shoves him to the edge of the rail, carefully keeping his balance on the tile now slick with blood. Fury blooms unbidden in him, infecting every part of him until he can't think over the sound of his own harsh breathing and Benjamin's unsteady wheezing, and with a minute struggle, he shoves Benjamin tumbling over the edge.
He lands face-down on the floor with a thud. A harrowing silence follows, and Spencer realizes that his battle was the last. Greta stands on the ground floor, not far from Pete, with the BB gun hoisted to point at Mimi, whose hands are thrown into the air. Rose kneels with Becca's knife to her throat, blinking sluggishly and looking sick. The new corpse and spreading pool of blood on the floor attracts Jon's attention.
Pete's eyes are on Spencer.
"Fine," Mimi grits out. Pete raises an eyebrow. "Fine. You win. Can we leave now? I'm starving and I'd rather not be here when they start rotting."
Before Pete can speak, Becca cuts in with an immature stomp of her foot. "No! No, I won!" Her knife is pressed firmly against Rose's throat, who doesn't even have the energy to respond, her eyes fluttering. Becca turns to Pete, her voice hoarse and shaking. "I won. I get to kill her."
Jon's face falls placid, and he exchanges fearful expressions with Spencer, observing from above. The game was over; Becca has no right to claim Rose's life. Pete tilts his head, a dangerous betrayal of emotion that would make Spencer quake if it had been directed towards him.
"You interrupted me," Pete says calmly. "And you know the rules. Mimi's surrendered. We let the survivors go."
"But I wanna," Becca whines, the knife unmoved. She narrows her eyes and grounds herself, a daring display of dominance and power where she has none. "And you're not the boss of me!"
The mall seems to grow darker, and Pete fully faces Becca. Her fire had now turned uncontrollable, and he was no longer amused by its sputtering flame. Spencer doesn't dare breathe, and even Mimi has to stifle her shock. "If you don't want to play by my rules," Pete says in a low drawl, "then you don't have to."
Jon reaches out a hand as if to tug at Pete's sleeve, beg for Becca's forgiveness himself, but he stops before he makes contact. Greta's gun falls slowly to point at nothing. When they had first arrived, the mall had been ominous but beckoning, all bright lights and empty stores, but now the building looms over them, threatening and vigilant, with two bloodied bodies artfully turned away — Debbie's broken gaze is fastened on the skylight, and Benjamin's neck is twisted just slightly so that one frozen eye stares down a hall leading away from where they stand, the sun illuminating the tile on which they've fallen.
"You're welcome to leave," Pete says. Becca, wide eyed and shaking, finally seems to realize the danger she's stepped into. "Walk three miles down Main Street and you'll reach the sign. All it takes is one step." A death sentence. No one who walks past the city limits returns.
Becca's eyes fill with tears, but something in her must still ache for a fight, because the words that spill from her lips are nothing less than blasphemy. "Oh, get stuck, Peter."
Pete raises an eyebrow. "Here's the deal," he says, voice deafening in the horrified silence. "You've really disappointed me today, Becks. I thought you were finally getting it, and here you are… disrespectful. So, here's a rule for you, Becca. You get stuck. Tonight. Or I will make your summer a living hell."
Jon lets out a low cry, wrangled from his throat like that of a wild animal. It's quite possibly the worst thing Pete has ever suggested, a curse so horrifying that nobody in their right mind would even think to utter to it. ("Death is one thing," Pete had once told him, a long time ago. "Not early Resets, or the kinds of death that don't last in the morning, but real death. Real death is absolute, really nothing to worry about once it's done. But worse things await us in the end, things that aren't ever done." )
"Pete…" Greta whispers, but he pays no attention to her, solely concentrating on the trembling girl in front of him. The hunting knife drops from Rose's neck.
Pete smiles humorlessly. He bends his head forward, holding his hands behind in his back, and murmurs in a low, amused tone, "Stay out late tonight. Run into the heat, little Becca, and get stuck. Become a living shadow, rewinding and reliving those last few seconds forever, and the summer will finally end and never be over, all at once."
He leans back and ignores the terrified, desolate expression passing through Becca's face. With Pete's permission, Mimi rushes to Rose, pulls her from the floor and leads them from the mall. Becca collapses in slow motion, the knife clattering on the tile.
Spencer can't move, paralyzed on the second floor in sympathetic fear. Becca had crossed a line, openly acting out against Pete, but the cold fury she had received in return was nothing less than cruel. Exhilarating, in an awful way. Pete turns his back on her and frowns at Benjamin's body on the mall floor and then at Spencer, his frown smoothing out as he does.
"Spencer," he calls out lightly. Spencer shakes himself out of his trance and meets Pete's gaze. Pete nods his head at the blood-soaked body on the floor and says, "You did good today."
Warmth flutters in Spencer's gut, spreading from the inside out until his cheeks hurt from smiling. He ignores the jealous glances from Greta and Jon and allows himself to be enveloped by Pete's rare approval.
"We should get you some kind of reward," Pete muses, stepping over the body. Jon and Greta walk after him as he moves down the hall. "I'm going to go find Rivera. He's probably thirsty by now." The three of them exit the grisly scene, leaving Spencer standing above it all like a god and Becca crumpled on the floor, heaving broken and ugly sobs.
They spend the rest of the day reacquainting themselves with the layout of the mall, snacking on whatever they find and snagging items of clothes to garb themselves in like an elaborate game of dress-up. Becca doesn't move. They find Rivera eventually, kicking rocks in the dimly lit basement. "Oh, hey, Pete," he says, blinking at the sudden light from the now unlocked door. "Good to see you again."
"Hey," says Pete.
Thirty minutes before the Reset, Pete leads them home, saying goodbye to Spencer last. His lips stretch into a wide smile. "I'm proud of you, you know. Tomorrow, you and me should go to the beach."
"Alright," Spencer says and waves goodbye. He walks inside his house feeling light-headed, taking a moment to breathe in the scent of coffee and vanilla. The pot is ready, as it always is, but there is no one else in the house. He never has time to try it before the Reset, and he hurries to bed instead, crawling under the covers and counting the seconds in each long inhale and stuttering exhale.
Only a few seconds, he reminds himself.
The clock ticks past 8:48 p.m., and the pain comes suddenly, all encompassing as the passage of time is disrupted, and Spencer can't move, can't scream, can't see, then —
Fizz — crackle — pop.
It's another beautiful summer day.
Perfect weather for a beach day, the radio tells him. Pete is waiting outside on the front lawn, and the sun peeks into his room through the blinds. The only child who doesn't open their eyes again at 7: 05 a.m. is Becca, who has followed Pete's advice. She flickers outside in the middle of the street, face upturned and elongated in excruciating and silent pain. Three seconds are long enough for her eyes to widen and hands move up over her face in defense, before it all loops back again. Living those three seconds over and over, the bright flash that comes every night reflected in her terrified eyes as she glitches.
"She got stuck," Spencer croaks, watching her cry out without a noise. He doesn't feel sorry for her, only the guilty relief that it isn't him and the continuing fear that one day it will be. Stuck in time while the rest of them moved on. Or, well, moved back.
Pete's hand rests on Spencer's shoulder. "Don't worry about it," he says, and they walk down the street, headed to the beach, towels underhand.
But Spencer can't shake the sight of Becca standing in the middle of the street. She's not the first to get stuck — countless others flicker in time closer to the outskirts of town, most of whom Spencer no longer remembers, nameless children who had relished in the summer and were quick to forget the abnormalities, the rules. Kids who hadn't realized the time and were too far from home to Reset properly, getting stuck by pure chance and bad luck. None had meant from those few seconds to catch them, leaving them unable to move forward, forever just another ghost.
Spencer spares one last glance behind him as he Pete walk away. Becca covers her face again, less than twenty feet from her front door. Kids like them don't know real death, but this is as close as they can get.
A quarter mile west of the shopping mall, the city library stands without disturbance. It's a cramped, homey building filled with books Spencer has never read and doesn't care to. Between joy rides with Greta and excursions to the beach with Pete, Spencer makes his way here. The quiet shelter that the library offers if often the only reprieve he can find.
If he's being honest with himself, he doesn't go to the library for the books or the solemn spell of silence kept even without the watchful eye of the librarian. He goes for the company.
The library is the only place he can find Missy these days, her tousled brown hair and thin fingers a living reminder of the mother he no longer has. At sixteen, she's the oldest out of anyone left and it wears on her. Her shoulders are always slumped, as if she's been carrying the world on her back for too long and has only just set it down in defeat. A long time ago, when the Resets had just started, she had desperately tried to organize the kids left behind, establish a school system and be the voice of reason as the games continued to get wilder.
Pete opposed her every step of the way. "We don't need a school," he had said. "It's summer."
"When it's not summer—"
"It'll always be summer," Pete had stated.
Missy's face had then set in grim determination, cheeks aflame and arms crossed. "You don't know that. You need an education to succeed, and when we get out of here—"
Spencer remembers the way Missy's mouth had snapped close, her eyes widen and brows furrow in the kind of outrage that only occurs when someone knows they're going to lose their fight. "You don't know that, though."
But Pete had only shook his head, that awful spark of pitying amusement simmering under the surface. "I do."
That had been that, then. No one ever went to Missy's lessons, choosing to run wild with Pete instead, racing and swimming and owning the world without regret. Missy had faded into the background of the summer, never taking part in their games. While she, like the rest of them, never truly changed in appearance, something in her eyes did.
Now, she stays in the library, away from the heat of the day, surrounded by miles of words. Spencer comes to see her on occasion, for the still and calm conversation she provides, and he asks her to read to him. She's already made her way through every book on the shelves and spends most of her time curled up in a cushioned rocking chair by the window, biting at the skin on her thumb. Spencer worries for her and the curious way her eyes grow older. Today is no different. She rests in her chair, the sunlight falling in her lap and bathing her in a golden luminescence. The pages of her book flutter softly as she rocks, pushing herself back and forth with one foot on the floor, her other leg pulled up her chest.
"Hey, Spin," she says. She doesn't move to look at him, gazing out the window without seeing. The gentle creaking of the chair doesn't lull, steady and consistent. Spencer feels tension drop out of her shoulders. It's a dynamic he's never been able to achieve with Pete, as if no matter what happens, he can always come back to her, always count on her to soothe the disquiet that the summer creates and breaks with every Reset.
She pats her lap, and Spencer climbs on top of her, letting himself be enfolded. He rests his head against her chest and her arms wrap around him. This, too, he misses from his mother. He's a little big to be curled up on on Missy, but she holds him with a practiced ease, balancing him and her book while still barely rocking her chair.
"What's up?" she asks, voice tight with concern. "You normally come in making noise, but you're all quiet today."
Not sure how to approach what's bothering him, he blurts out, "Do you remember your parents?" He regrets it immediately, frowning at the split-second pause in Missy's rocking, but it starts up again soon enough.
She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "Sometimes," she says. "Some days more than others. I remember my dad's laugh, booming and full of life. My mom didn't laugh like that, and when he laughed, well... I used to pull stupid stunts, say dumb things, just to hear it."
"Do you remember what he looks like?"
"Barely," she whispers. "I have his eyes. Why?"
Spencer gives her a half-aborted shrug, twisting in her lap to look out the window with her. A bird lands on the nearest bush and chirps inaudibly, its little mouth panting, before it flutters away again, the bush trembling it its wake. "My mom. She had hair like you, and I remember… I remember her in the mornings, tired and sad. I used to make her breakfast, toast and cereal, and she drink coffee. And then she'd leave. And one day, when the Restarts started, she just — wasn't there."
"I bet she loved that. Your breakfast, I mean," Missy says, rubbing soft circles on Spencer's arm.
"Yeah," he agrees, although he doesn't remember if she did or not. He thinks suddenly about the pot of coffee that waits for him every night when he gets home, how it must have been his mother's habit, how it's always there but she's never around to make it. Does he find the coffee because he expects to? Does it cease to exist outside of when he's home? He thinks of how the radio turns on in the morning with the same voice relaying the same message, but the radio host doesn't exist, not anymore, isn't in the station to record, just like how his mother isn't at the home to make her coffee, but it's there anyway. The world keeps rewinding and ghosts keep living.
A feeling of deep, penetrating hopelessness bubbles in Spencer's stomach, tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Do you think we'll ever see them again?"
"I hope so," Missy answers. "In the next life, maybe. If we're not…" She falters.
Spencer finishes for her, the thought numb to him. "If we're not already dead."
"Maybe," she says and laughs, but it's not funny and her laugh falls like broken glass on tile floor. "Sometimes I think we are. Living the same godforsaken day over and over, killing each other for fun because we know it's not real. None of this is."
He can't help it, stiffening and swallowing the lump in his throat. Missy stops rocking, tilting her neck down and forcing him to look her in the eye.
"What happened, kid?"
"'M not a kid," Spencer mumbles, because it may as well be true. They are children in name only.
She doesn't let him avoid the question. "Spin, did you do something?"
He nods, trying to look away, but she grabs his jaw and turns his head to her again. Her gaze is not accusing but careful, and somehow that's worse. Spencer sinks low in her lap. "It's not that," he says. "I mean, yes, but—"
Frustrated with himself and her persistence, Spencer huffs and feels his face pull into an immature pout. "It's not that," he says again. "I don't— I don't mind it like you do. It's like you said, it's not real. They come back, and there's no hard feelings or anything… It's just…"
Missy sighs, her old eyes slipping away from his. "You don't have pretend with me, you know. I'm not Pete."
Spencer groans. He isn't pretending, not in the way she thinks he is. "It's… I forced Benjamin into an early Reset, but it's not that that bothers me, okay? It was just part of the game, but…" He shifts settling into her embrace with an ardent desperation. "Then Becca got stuck."
"I'm sorry," Missy says. "I know she was your friend, Spin, but accidents happen, and—"
"It wasn't an accident," says Spencer, keeping his voice flat. "And Pete doesn't care. That's what's bothering me."
Missy hums. Confusion and hurt and numbness spread in Spencer like poison, jittering and disjointed thoughts pirouetting until he forces them down and falls back into his constructed, artificial apathy.
"She's dead, kind of," Spencer says. "Do you think she feels it? Like, she's still in there?" It's a sorrowful question, but it's fueled more by selfish curiosity. He hopes that if it happens to him, only a shell of him remains, his consciousness or soul or whatever lost to the time, somewhere where the summer can't reach him.
"I can't tell you for sure, Spencer," Missy says, her fingers twisting in his hair. "There are some things only you can answer. Becca, all of this, we don't know why or how or what actually happens. It's always been like that."
The sun resolves on Spencer's skin, the heat settling into him. He closes his eyes. "Missy, do you think it's true? That we're already dead and all?"
His brows furrow, scrunching up his nose as Missy's fingers continue to run through his hair, the sunlight dancing on the two of them, cuddled in the library rocking chair. "How would I know? I'm just a kid."
"Not really," Missy says.
The conversation lapses then, and Spencer desperately searches for a new topic — one that isn't so biting. "Can we talk about something else?"
Missy nods and slides Spencer closer to her, holding her book up. She rocks them again, cautiously balancing them and flipping the yellowed pages back until she's at the beginning again. Her voice is soft and charming, water rippling over smooth stone in a creak, the familiar words washing over him like a melody. She's read this one before, but Spencer can't bring himself to mind. "Okay. Chapter one. The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of the rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon…"
Fizz — crackle — pop.
It's the perfect summer day.
The sun is unforgiving, heat waves blanketing their city in firm resolution and cool breezes of wind granting them small pardons. To the west, the beach waits, decorated by large, yellow umbrellas and towels that cover the stinging hot sand. The mall nearby remains more or less empty, as all stores in the city do. There are no tourists, no passer-bys, only the same rowdy kids running free and wild, laughing and loving with reckless abandon. No school. The radio plays the same handful of the newest and hottest hits, and the radio station resides vacant. There are glasses of ice water to drink, fountains to play in, sunburns to gain, and lives to relive. Blood that is spilled during the day is wiped clean by morning, and the sun watches their actions with neither approbation nor objection, shining down on them like the apathetic eye of God.
Spencer finds Pete outside his house, and they walk barefoot to Jon and Greta. Becca stands alone and ignored. Somewhere in the distance, the rest of the world outside of the city limits continues to be a mystery that will never be solved.
He glances at Pete, walking beside him, his dark eyes fixated on an unknown destination, his wind-swept hair framed by gilded sunlight, and he knows then that it will always be this: a handful of memories of his mother, Pete's wicked and soft smiles, deaths and Resets and countless days, the sun hot and heavy on his back. Ready, set, go, the summer moves on with or without them.
7:05 a.m., on the dot.