Mercury Abbott lived in a strange house at the end of Cemetery Hill Road, on top of a mound that was once said to be an ancient indian burial ground.
Now it was just a modern burial ground.
Her father was a mortician, the only one in the city of San Auxhood. It was a quirky place, somewhere in the deserts of Arizona, surrounded by the whispering and sometimes screaming wildlife. Her father, similar to the town, was also quirky. He liked goat milk in his tea, and marked the pages of his book with dried flowers instead of bookmarks. He sometimes sat on the porch and watched the flies, and when Mercury walked by he'd ask her what their names were. She'd tell him, if she was in the mood.
Mercury's mother was a paleontologist, that is, she was currently in the African Sahara looking for fossils. Her life's work led her all over the world. She was a wild woman, much louder than her husband. Sometimes Mercury even got a postcard.
Mercury's parents were both very intimate with death. Mercury on the other hand was still very young. The closest to death she had ever gotten was her grandmother's cold body on the day of her passing. She remembered it very well. It was an interesting moment in her life. She had passed away peacefully in her bed. Her grandmother had always been a loud snorer, so she didn't look quite asleep. She looked frozen in time.
That was ten years ago now.
Mercury sighed into her hand, her elbow propped on her desk, her eyes gazing out the window. The teacher droned on about parabolas and she watched the wind pick up the dust in the courtyard.
It was glaringly bright outside, the Arizona sun beating down on the cracked dirt and sparse, brown grass. They were in the middle of a drought. They were always in the middle of a drought. The air conditioner was buzzing loudly, struggling to keep up with the heat. It was unseasonably warm, the weather man had said. Unseasonably warm.
A girl in a white sundress stood out in the courtyard, looking up at the sky. She squinted, putting her hand above her eyes to block out some of the light.
Sweat dripped languidly down Mercury's spine.
She turned to look at the teacher, miserable in the heat. Sweat had formed splotches underneath his arms and he looked haggard and irritable. Everyone was irritable. It was unseasonably warm.
"Care to solve the problem on the board for us?" His tone was curt and short. Mercury squinted.
She stood from her seat, her thighs unsticking from the plastic. She made her way to the front of the class, reading the problem as she went. She was quick about it. The problem wasn't easy, they never were, but math was her strong suit. She hadn't been paying attention, but she worked it out.
When she was finished she turned to her teacher. His hair was matted down with sweat, and she could see it beading on his forehead and upper lip. He frowned.
"Very good. Take a seat." She did as she was told. "That should wrap things up for today."
The kids around her shuffled as she took her seat. They were stuffing their papers into their backpacks, shifting impatiently into their seats. Mercury glanced at the clock, and then the bell rang.
The teacher called after them as they hurried from their room, some reminder about homework that no one paid any mind to. It was Friday after all. They wouldn't have to worry about that until Sunday.
Mercury made her way out of the stuffy building, pushing past all the sweaty children chattering loudly to one another.
She pushed her way through the crowd bottlenecked at the doorways, out into the courtyard. A kid burst past her, running toward the buses. Mercury hurried along, the sun soaking through her black hair into the top of her head. The long strands stuck to her neck and she pushed them out of the way.
The girl in the white sundress was still standing there, glaring up at the sun. Mercury frowned. She seemed her age, so why hadn't she been in class? The other kids ignored her entirely, moving around her.
"What are you looking at?" Mercury asked, coming to stand beside her.
The girl turned to look at her owlishly.
"You can see me?"
Mercury gave her a confused look. "Of course I can."
The girl blinked, then turned back to where she had been staring and pointed.
Perched atop the flagpole was a strange black creature. It's large ears flopped around it's head as it swiveled its neck back and forth, watching the children run across the courtyard. It's eyes were huge. It looked like a nighttime creature, and in the daytime its fur shone like an oil slick in the burning sun.
"What is that?" Mercury gaped.
"I don't know."
Mercury looked around, wondering if anyone else saw it, too. No one else seemed to have even bothered to look up.
"Oh, I think it noticed us," the girl said, surprised. Mercury turned back to look, and sure enough it was staring at them. "There it goes!" Like a flash it turned and lept from the flagpole down onto the roof of the school, and disappeared onto the otherside. "Let's go!"
Mercury cried out in surprise as the girl began to run, dodging around the building.
"Wait up!" She yelled, quickly following her. They crashed through the spiky bushes, racing around the corner just in time to see the thing bound across the street in long, cat-like strides and disappear into the undergrowth.
"Aw man!" The girl cried out, throwing out her arms. "I've never seen anything like that."
"You shouldn't go chasing after wild animals," Mercury gasped, panting heavily. The girl in white didn't seem as affected. "You don't know what kinds of diseases they might have."
"Who cares? I could have made a big discovery just now," the girl pouted. Mercury struggled to even her breaths.
The girl turned suddenly, watching Mercury for a few moments.
"I'm Zola. Who are you?"
Mercury stared at this girl oddly. She was certainly strange.
"Mercury," she replied, wiping sweat from her palms onto her shorts.
"Nice to meet you Mercury. I should really be going. My parents are going to wonder where I am."
"Nice to meet you… too." Before Mercury could finish her sentence, Zola was gone, running across the street. Mercury barely understood how she could have so much energy in such relenting heat.
With the strange encounter over with, Mercury began to make her way home.
It was a long walk from the school to Cemetery Hill, but Mercury didn't mind, despite it being unseasonably warm. She enjoyed walking through the small town, particularly because she got to pass Yolotl's.
Her yard was decorated with numerous strange metal statues, creatures and things of all shapes and sizes. Mercury's favorite had always been the one that looked like a dog's skeleton. When Mercury told Yolotl that, she had laughed and said, "That is so like you."
When Mercury walked past today, Yolotl was out grinding away at a piece of metal, her long, coarse brown hair tied back in a tight bun. She was sitting on a stump, leaning in hard to her work.
"Mercury!" She called out, her face lighting up. She sat up straight, swiping some sweat out of her eyes. "Good afternoon!"
"Good afternoon, Yolotl," Mercury called back, waving half heartedly.
"How was school today?" She asked, standing and wiping her hands with her rag.
"It was good." Mercury hiked her backpack a little further over her shoulders, gripping the straps with each hand.
"Awfully hot out, isn't it? Why don't you come in and have some lemonade." Yolotl gestured towards her ramshackle house, surrounded by hearty desert flowers and glistening glass windchimes.
Mercury eagerly made her way into the shade.
"The weatherman said it was going to be this hot, but man was I unprepared," Yolotl laughed. The screen door slammed shut behind them, and a cool breeze drifted through the small kitchen. Pots and pans filled the sink, and the yellowing linoleum creaked beneath their feet. It smelled herby and sweet inside. "Grandma, Mercury is here!" She called through the doorway into the living room.
"Come in here, girl."
Mercury glanced at Yolotl.
"Go on. I'll get the lemonade." Yolotl waved her hand, ushering her toward the living room.
She found Grandma Uiara in her rocking chair in front of the old television set. Her eyes crinkled, smiling at Mercury as she entered the room. Her skin was wrinkled and brown, her age and her wisdom apparent in every move she made.
"There you are, girl. Come sit. Tell me about your day."
Mercury sat on the old couch beside her, the springs groaning under her weight. She slipped her backpack off of her, but let it rest behind her, not planning on staying long enough to get comfortable.
"I met a strange girl today," Mercury mused.
"She was just standing outside the school, staring at this weird thing."
Grandma Uriara raised her eyebrows, prompting Mercury to go on.
"It was all black and hairy, and had ears like this." Mercury put her hands on either side of her head and flapped them around.
The sudden look of alarm on Grandma Uriara's face confused Mercury. She dropped her hands, frowning.
Yolotl entered the room, a tray with three glasses of lemonade balanced on her hand. She handed one to Mercury and set another on the table beside Grandma Uriara.
"What are you two talking about?" She frowned, noticing Grandma Uriara's expression. "What's wrong?"
"Mercury," Grandma coughed. "She saw a Stikbat."
"Oh." Yolotl froze, before slowly sitting on the coffee table. "Oh no."
"What's a Stikbat?" Mercury asked, confused.
"It was at your school?" Grandma Uriara asked quickly, a frown stretching her wrinkled skin.
"Yeah, on top of the flagpole."
"Don't go near it." Yolotl clenched her fists, her face twisted in thought. "I think it's best that you get home now. Go straight there, ok?" She ushered Mercury quickly to her feet, handing over her backpack. "Quickly, finish your lemonade."
Mercury gulped it down fast. Despite her worry, she was very thirsty.
She knew that thing had to have a disease.
She made her way home as quickly as she could, marching down the gravel road and up the hill to her strange house.
It had been painted a deep orange long ago, but now the paint was peeling to reveal the even older grey underneath. It was two stories, but there was a tower that was at least three. Old bones sat on the windowsills and hung from the porch, rattling in the breeze. Some had been carefully made into windchimes or dreamcatchers, decorated with desert bird feathers. A stuffed rabbit sat beside the door, watching the road for any guests.
There were two front doors. One led into her fathers mortuary, and the other into their home. No living customers ever came here, this was just where he did his work. The door into his shop was wide, so it was easy to get the people in and out. Mercury never went in there. She never had any reason to.
"Dad?" She called as she entered the house, quietly shutting the screen door behind her.
"In the kitchen!" He called back.
She found him cutting carrots. An old radio sat on the counter next to him, blaring public radio through the static.
"Another body was found, this time just outside Nurton Springs. Authorities are hesitant to rule this an accident. The remains were positively identified as those of the missing seventeen-year-old Hatti Williams, police said Thursday. Neighbors are scared for their families safety, not only because a girl was found dead but also because this is the fifth found body case in the surrounding area in just three weeks."
"This is kind of grim, isn't it?" Mercury quipped, sitting in one of the rickety wooden chairs surrounding the old kitchen table.
"It's public radio, of course it's grim." The knife chopped loudly against the cutting board. "How was school?"
"It was school." Mercury propped her chin up in her hand, leaning against the table. "How was work?"
"It was work." He paused, turning the radio down until it was a dull murmur in the background. "It seems I may be getting more of it soon. Nurman Springs is a small town not too far from here. They might send that body my way."
"Isn't it a murder case?" Mercury shoved some hair out of her face. "You're not exactly a detective."
"I've had forensic training," he huffed. "I used to work for the police you know, before I married your mother."
"That was a long time ago, then." Mercury stood. Her father turned to her and grabbed a card off of the counter, handing it to her.
"She sent another postcard. From Algeria."
"Ooh," Mercury cooed. The front was boring, just a picture of the desert. She flipped it over. "It says 'My darlings, greetings from Algeria! Did you know Algeria is the eleventh largest country in the world? It's certainly a large area to cover! Things are going remarkably well. We believe we have found another piece of a Tassiliodus, or something similar. It's hard to base all of your knowledge off of a tooth.'" Mercury paused. "The only evidence they have of this dinosaur is a tooth and some scales."
"I know that," he chuckled. "Keep reading."
"'I hope things are going just as well for you back home. I've tried their national dish, couscous. It's not everything they say it is, or maybe that's just me.'" Mercury paused to laugh, then smiled sadly. "'I send all of my love! Don't forget about me while I'm gone. Looking forward to being with my wonderful family again. Love, Lenore.'"
They sat in the silence of the moment for a short while. Mercury looked over the postcard carefully, memorizing every stroke of her pen.
"I miss her."
"We always do," her father sighed.
"Should we write her back?"
"We always do."
They grinned, and got to it.