“Uhhh. Is this the right stop?” Alicia hesitated on the steps off of the school bus. She’d been chatting with Tabitha about designs for her goblin story and somehow entirely lost track of the surroundings passing by the bus windows outside.
“Yep, this is our stop,” Tabitha confirmed, waving Alicia forward with an excited smile.
“This... is a trailer park,” Alicia pointed out, uneasily stepping down from the school bus.
It wasn’t a nice-looking trailer park, either. Alicia had an aunt that lived in a mobile home lot in Georgia, but those ones were all new homes, painted uniformly and arranged neatly onto their picture-perfect manicured little lawns. This lot that Tabitha had taken her to was as close as Springton had to a ghetto, the sort of slummy, broken-down place that spoke of a lifetime of mistakes.
Dilapidated trailers were packed together in claustrophobic rows, stretching on down the hill behind a gas station and a liquor store. Garbage was everywhere; discarded trash, sagging waterlogged fast food cartons and cups, unidentifiable broken pieces of plastic, and rusting metal parts littered the sides of street. Lawns consisting of clumps of weeds seemed popular, while bare, sunbaked dirt patches scattered with cigarette butts and gravel were also apparently in vogue in this neighborhood.
The trailers themselves were obviously, visibly run-down. Some had doors boarded up with plywood already black with mold, others sported roofs covered with tarps or trashbags. Broken glass in windows, with duct tape applied haphazardly across the spiderweb of cracks. There were trailers with sagging panelling, trailers filthy with grime, and even an abandoned, gutted one that looked like it had become a playhouse for neighborhood kids. Or possibly drug addicts.
“You... live in a trailer park?” Alicia asked, turning to cast a doubtful look in Tabitha’s direction.
“Surprised?” Tabitha gave her a knowing smile.
“Yeah. I mean, kinda,” Alicia took another look around. “You’re for real? Not messing around?”
“Oh, c’mon, it’s not that bad,” Tabitha teased. “Now hurry up, let’s get inside—I don’t wanna get mugged today.”
“Har, har,” Alicia gave her a sarcastic snort. She stopped in place a moment later, giving Tabitha an unsure look. “...Has anyone here ever actually mugged you?”
“Of course not,” Tabitha laughed. “I’ve lived here my whole life—well, sorta, anyways—so, everyone here already knows I’m dirt poor. I don’t have anything worth taking.”
“Um. You’re still a pretty young lady, though… you know?” Alicia said in a pointed tone. Be a little self-aware of what could happen to you, please? Mom might not even want to drive in here to pick me up. This whole place screams all kinds of bad news.
“Damn, you’re right,” Tabitha said sheepishly, and the redhead smacked her forehead into her palm. “I keep forgetting about that.”
“Please be careful,” Alicia let out a nervous chuckle as she looked around, not sure if they were joking or not.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Tabitha nodded. “Hah. C’mon, this way.”
Still. Dirt poor, huh? Thumbs hooked into the straps of her backpack, Alicia couldn’t help but reevaluate Tabitha as she followed the redhead down the narrow lane between the rows of trailers. Nothing at all she thought she knew about the girl had ever hinted that Tabitha grew up in this sort of poverty. The most beautiful white girl in all of Springton High comes home every day... to THIS? This is the rest of her life?
“Here we are,” Tabitha said, heading up the steps of a rather nondescript trailer.
...Huh. It looked as shabby as the others, and Alicia awkwardly wondered if she was expected to remark on how nice it was, make some sort of polite observation. Unable to think of anything to say, Alicia pressed her lips into the thin line of a forced smile and followed her friend up the concrete steps and into the worn-down mobile home.
“Dad? Mother? As we discussed yesterday, I’ve brought a friend home with me from school,” Tabitha announced. “Her name is Alicia Brooks. Please treat her respectfully, and make her feel at home.”
That’s… a weird way to phrase it? Alicia tried not to feel on edge. ‘As we discussed?’
The interior of the double-wide wasn’t as bad as Alicia feared. Their living room was a neat, tidy area, without any of the cluttered furnishings or mess she’d expected. Worn but well-cared-for furniture, sparse but tasteful decor, a recently cleaned carpet, and wide-open window views gave the illusion of having a much larger open space.
Tabitha’s parents were both home today and sitting around the TV—an older man with a forgettable face who looked like a blue-collar extra in a movie, and a fat, rather unfriendly-looking wife.
“Hi,” Alicia gave Mr. and Mrs. Moore a meek wave. Oh shit. I thought they would seem more like Tabitha, or something. They look like… generic rednecks? Racist maybe? Is my skin color gonna be a weird issue?
“Nice to meet you, Alicia,” the father got up out of his seat to shake her hand.
“Hello,” Mrs. Moore didn’t rise out of her seat on the sofa, instead giving Alicia a lingering glance before turning to give Tabitha a scathing look.
Oh shit. Oh shit.
“Here,” Tabitha called, pulling two chairs out at their dining room table. “I’m sorry there aren’t more places to sit. Would you like anything to drink?”
“I’m good, thanks,” Alicia said, placing her bag on the table and settling into the seat. Nothing about this visit had gone like she thought it would—she’d pictured a nice, upscale house in a suburb somewhere. Good-looking parents, maybe ones with some light-hearted sense of humor to help put their daughter’s friend at ease and make her feel more welcome. Why can’t anything ever be like it is on TV?
Mr. Moore returned to his chair, and the trailer went quiet.
“I uh, I read through that whole masonry book you gave me last night,” Alicia spoke up. Even if tense silence was situation normal for this family, it felt incredibly straining on her as their guest. “Art of the Stonemason. Well, kinda. I definitely didn’t read any of it, but I studied all the diagrams and everything.”
“Oh?” Tabitha’s eyes lit up with interest. “Was it helpful at all?”
“Oh my God, yes,” Alicia nodded emphatically. “I was… well, you know. I draw people and expressions mostly, I was never interested in drawing walls—until now.”
“If slaves are doing all the actual labor, they wouldn’t have the uh, modern, perfectly-squared off bricks that fit all nicely together. They’d have to take each random rock, chip away all the weak parts, protrusions or what-have-you, and then fit all these different-sized pieces together somehow with mortar so that it’s structurally sound.
“There’s so many aspects I’d have never even thought about ‘til going through that book. Thinking about it in terms of structure, figuring abutments, springers, and a keystone when you form stone arches—and you’re gonna want arches—thinking about using longer stones as corbels to support weight, that kinda thing. Here, look at my new doodles,” Alicia said, opening up her current sketchpad and sliding it across the table.
“These are amazing,” Tabitha praised, tracing her fingers along the paper with reverence. “They look so much more... real.”
“Right? That book really helped me start thinking of each piece as its own three-dimensional thing. Like, it’s made of all of these mismatched components, but everything still fits together in a certain special way. Matching up rubble with uneven joins so that they’re all in their courses, spacing out what they call perpend stones, or through-stones, to keep the pilings from shifting away from one another… there’s so many little details that got put into stuff back then that you just don’t see with boring cinderblock kinda stuff today—I never realized how cool this kinda thing would be to design and draw.
“I mean, I was always doing that generic, boring, flat surface with overlapping rectangles brick pattern for things ‘till just last night, when I read through that book. Is there gonna be a whole lot of this kinda stuff in your story?”
“There is!” Tabitha nodded. “The second book will feature stoneworking throughout its plot! The mages, they had their goblins build up these labyrinths around the leylines—labyrinths designed in a specific way, so that everything from the mana spring gets focused and channeled along onto this one singular, specific path.
“But, the free goblins hide out there, break down some walls and build up others, messing everything up and turning the labyrinth into this huge, sprawling maze. So, not only do the mages have to deal with navigating this underground deathtrap full of rebel goblins, they have to figure out which exact walls to repair and which to tear down to restore the proper magic flow.”
“I understand less an’ less o’ that conversation the more I overhear,” Tabitha’s father commented, turning from his seat to give each of the girls a baffled look. “What’s all this about goblins, now?”
“They’re, you know—they’re part of Tabitha’s story?” Alicia tilted her head and gave the man a quizzical smile.
“Her what, now?” For some reason, he looked more confused than ever.
Does Tabitha never talk about her interests with them? Alicia looked from Tabitha to the girl’s parents and back again, hoping she hadn’t committed some sort of unknowing faux pas.
“Oh, um. Yes, I’m working on writing a novel,” Tabitha admitted.
“Hah,” Tabitha’s mother barked out a short, humorless laugh. “Of course she is.”
Before anyone else could say anything, Mrs. Moore heaved herself up from the sofa and left the room, shaking her head and muttering under her breath. The woman had looked agitated to begin with, but Alicia couldn’t piece together exactly what had happened, or what particular choice of words had suddenly set her off.
So—okay, what the hell? Alicia turned to her friend for answers, but all she saw was a conflicted look as Tabitha bit her lower lip in frustration.
“You’re writing a story with goblins?” Mr. Moore sounded like this was news to him. “I tried reading that Hobbit book when I was ‘round your age, but I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. That stuff sure is popular as all get out, though—fellow that wrote that must be a bigshot millionaire by now.”
“That would be John Ronald Reuel Tolkien,” Tabitha clarified in a wistful voice. “He passed away in nineteen seventy-three. I’ve been a longtime admirer of his work—I would kill to possess even one-hundredth of his talent.”
“Huh... is that right?” Her father nodded, already distracting himself with the television in front of him again.
...Are these people actually even related to Tabitha? Alicia blinked in disbelief. Is this really her family? There didn’t seem to be a single shared trait between them. While Alicia felt uncomfortably out of place in this weird, kinda messed-up situation, what struck her the most was that Tabitha seemed even more out of place.
“You’re a very strange girl,” Alicia blurted out before she could stop herself. Ah, crap.
“Oh?” Tabitha winced and gave her an apologetic smile. “Yeah... sorry.”
“She sure is,” Mr. Moore chuckled. “But, we love ‘er anyways.”
Well, at least one of you does, Alicia thought, glancing over to the hallway Mrs. Moore had disappeared down.
“Um… anyways, I’ve been spending every day this month practicing martial arts, over in the empty area on the other end of the trailer park,” Tabitha forcibly changed topics. “Do you want to come see?”
“You know martial arts?” Alicia asked, raising her eyebrows. She wasn’t sure if any random new thing this girl said should surprise her anymore.
“Yes,” Tabitha said, looking embarrassed. “I mean, I practice a little bit.”
“Sounds like you’re gonna be my volunteer model for whenever I need a cool action pose, then,” Alicia decided, grinning and flipping her sketchbook to a fresh page. “Perfect, I’ve got my camera in my bag today, too!”
A pair of teenage girls loitered around on an empty stretch of grass beside the parking spaces at the end of Lower Park mobile home lot. The first girl was pale, a fine-featured young lady with lovely red hair wearing an elaborate sleeveless blouse, while the second was a rather smart-looking dark-skinned young woman with glasses and her hair drawn up in a business-like bun.
“You promise you won’t laugh?” Tabitha asked with a nervous expression.
“I promise nothing,” Alicia gave her a snarky look. “C’mon—let’s see it.”
“Um… yeah, okay,” Tabitha sighed. “The best action pose I think I can do for you is— well, it’s called a butterfly kick. It’s very… cinematic? But, I’m not sure it will work for a static drawing. Maybe I can just run through like, one of the basic forms?”
“Well, let’s see it!” Alicia prodded.
Alicia held her disposable camera against her face like a mask, turning it this way and that. Looking out at the world through the narrow viewfinder, she tried to imagine each of the rather stilted action scenes before her as a captured photo. It was a Kodak Max, a small but expensive contraption of black plastic and yellow cardboard, and almost all of the film within had already been spent on family beach photos. The handful of remaining shots, however, her mother had said that their young artiste could take however she pleased, because they were getting them developed soon.
She’d already taken a photo of herself earlier, in her artsiest getup and presenting what she hoped would be a mesmerizing look off into the distance, and when it was developed she was going to use it to draw a glamorous self-portrait. Now, Alicia wanted a photo of Tabitha.
Super weird thing to just ask for outta the blue, though, Alicia thought, feeling guilty for some reason. She didn’t want just any random picture of her strange school friend like this—she wanted the absolute BEST angle of her, one that captured Tabitha’s surprisingly beautiful features in just the right way. A reference she could use, to portray the girl just the way she wanted for this big Goblin project of hers. The idea was growing on her.
The brief sound of a police car toggling his siren interrupted the teenagers, and they looked up in unison to see a white car being pulled over by a cop car across the empty stretch of grass from them. The lone driver being stopped cussed loudly, slamming his hand against the side of his steering wheel in frustration.
“Uh-oh—somebody’s in trouble!” Alicia chuckled. The dark-skinned girl was looking over with interest when something strange about Tabitha’s awkward stance had Alicia do a double-take.
“Y-yeah,” Tabitha mumbled uneasily. The young woman had frozen up at the sight of the guy being pulled over, and when she abruptly turned away from them, she was wearing a rather strained smile.
What’s this? Alicia arched an eyebrow at her friend. Guilty conscience? Maybe there’s some story there, or maybe she just gets real nervous around cops? As an artist, she was a fair study of body language, and as Tabitha’s friend, her intuition told her that something had her friend very ill-at-ease. There was raw apprehension there, a strained sort of jittery look, as if Tabitha was clenching her jaw.
“Uh, sorry. Someone you know?” Alicia asked, looking back over as the police officer got out of his car and sauntered up to lean over the window of the man he’d pulled over.
“No. I—um. No,” Tabitha said distractedly, stealing a glance over in their direction herself.
The cop was asking the man to step outside of his vehicle. When the door opened, the guy stepping out had a narrow face and sharp, angular features. He had short, messy hair, wore a distinctly unwashed-looking shirt, a pair of gym shorts, and no shoes at all. Tabitha quickly looked away.
Okay…? Lately, something had been weighing heavily on Alicia’s strange school friend. Each day in class or at lunch, Tabitha seemed progressively more high-strung and on edge. Despite both subtle prodding and even direct interrogation, the girl wouldn’t reveal why.
Well. I can make plenty of guesses, Alicia mused, quirking her lip. Maybe it’s a boy I don’t know about? And, then there’s her weird family thing she has going on. Also, sure, she says it doesn’t bother her, but all the things those girls at school keep saying about—
A thundering crack sounded out, impossibly loud, louder than anything Alicia remembered hearing before, and she flinched in response, hunching her shoulders and wincing. It sounded like a gunshot from a movie or on TV, but at such an incredible, exaggerated volume that Alicia couldn’t help but swear out loud. The dark-skinned girl whirled, searching for the source of the disturbance.
She looked just past Tabitha—who was also turning to see what had happened—to see the police officer collapsing backwards onto the ground on the median. The man he’d pulled over made a mad dash back to his car and he dove into the driver’s seat, peeling out before he’d even gotten the door closed again after him. Seconds later, the white car was practically gone, quickly disappearing down the road and out of sight.
What. Was that? Alicia was still frozen in place, staring at the scene in shock when Tabitha bolted forward towards the downed police officer. That’s when it hit her, and Alicia realized—the cop laying right there just a few dozen yards in front of them had just been shot. This wasn’t something staged for a movie, or a game some kids were playing.
He just got shot!
In her stunned disbelief and confusion, she took a few hesitant steps after Tabitha before realizing she was still clutching her disposable camera in both hands, right in front of her. Realizing how stupid she was, missing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Alicia hurriedly raised the camera up and snapped a quick shot.
Shit! Fuck! Alicia cursed to herself, realizing she hadn’t been holding the thing steady. She tried immediately snapping another shot, but this time there was no click. Staggering to a halt, she belatedly remembered to wind the film for the next shot and carefully brought the camera up again. Damnit Alicia, don’t waste it…
She took the photo just as the running Tabitha was reaching the police officer, and it looked like a pretty good picture. The subjects were a little too far away for it to be ideal, but Alicia didn’t have any more time to think about shot composition— she quickly jammed the disposable camera into the back pocket of her jeans and rushed over towards them.
Oh my God…
The police officer was a clean-cut looking man in his thirties with an old-fashioned taper haircut and rather rugged features that were just beginning to droop. A handsome man just a little past his prime, he looked like a stereotypical Dad, one that might have just walked off the set of some white family sitcom. Except, he was dying.
It wasn’t poignant and serene, nor was it dramatic— something about the scene unfolding before her eyes was just so real that horror and instinctive revulsion rolled through her uncontrollably. His eyes were mostly closed and slightly fluttering, his body was jerking and slightly twisting as he struggled for consciousness, and she could see blood, a deep, dark wet spreading out across the dark blue of the man’s uniform. She could smell it, even; a metallic, somehow sticky smell.
“... No, no, no no no!” Tabitha cried out, dropping down beside the officer. She snatched up the officer’s handset from the man’s belt, and her young voice rung out back to them from the radio within the nearby squad car. “Officer down! We have an officer down at thirteen twenty two South Main street. He’s shot, he’s—he’s bleeding everywhere.”
There was several strained seconds of tense silence before a response crackled back over the radio.
“Hello, can you repeat that address?”
“Thirteen twenty-two south Main street, it’s the lower trailer park. One, three, two, two, South Main,” Tabitha repeated, nervously stretching out a trembling hand above the policeman. “Lower trailer park.”
“Help is on the way, they should be with you shortly. Is the shooter still at that location?” the dispatcher asked.
“No, he’s—the shooter drove off,” Tabitha answered. “I need um, sorry, I have to stop the bleeding.”
“Hold on, I need you to stay on the line,” the dispatcher insisted. “Honey? I need you to stay with me on the line.”
Ignoring the dispatcher, Tabitha tossed the radio to Alicia and scrambled back to the downed officer. Alicia caught the handset awkwardly in both hands, nearly fumbling the thing as Tabitha inhaled sharply through her nose and then clamped both palms right down into the man’s blood-soaked chest in an effort to stem the bleeding.
“Are you still there?”
“Hello?” Alicia asked into the radio. She couldn’t hear herself over the car radio like she had when Tabitha had spoken through it; she wasn’t getting through. In a panic, she tried again, squeezing down one of the buttons on the side. “Hello? H-hello?”
“Hello, we have help on the way but I need you to sit tight for me if you can do that. Has anyone else been hurt?”
“No,” Alicia answered.
“Can you describe the shooter?”
“Caucasian male in his mid-twenties,” Tabitha called over. “He was headed southbound on South Main, driving a white Lincoln Continental with West Virginia plates.”
“Uh… uh… what?” Alicia froze as she looked over to see Tabitha pressing both hands firmly down to pin the officer to the pavement. Her hands were covered in blood, and blood had soaked a large swath down the side of the officer’s uniform and onto the pavement. How-how does she know what to—
“Are you still there?” the police dispatcher asked.
“Th-the shooter was a white male, in his, uh in his twenties,” Alicia reported over the handset. “He was going, uh, he was—”
“Southbound on South Main, in a white Lincoln Continental with West Virginia plates,” Tabitha said again. The slender girl sounded composed, but she was wearing an extremely grim expression as errant red locks of hair fell down across her face, not daring to take her eyes off of the wound she was clamping down on.
“Southbound on South Main, he’s in—he’s in a Lincoln Continental with West Virginia plates,” Alicia blurted frantically into the receiver. “White, a white Lincoln Continental.”
“That’s southbound, in a white Lincoln Continental?” The dispatcher asked.
“Okay, thank you. Just sit tight please, we have an ambulance on the way there to you now.”
All at once and in several different directions, the town erupted into warbling siren wails, a cacophony of dogged noise. Alicia hadn’t been sure if they would even be taken seriously with that officer down—after all, they were just teenage girls. It turned out, however, they were taken extremely seriously, as what must have been every police car in Springton seemed to immediately mobilize to full alert.
“You said the officer is bleeding?” the dispatcher returned.
“I’m—uhh. I’m gonna let you talk to her again,” Alicia said, hurrying over to hold the radio up to Tabitha for her.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” the dispatcher asked amid a burst of static.
“We have an entry wound about an inch, inch-and-a-half left of his sternum,” Tabitha reported, leaning towards the offered handset. “That’s, um, my left, his right. He’s still breathing, he’s breathing in tiny little breaths. He’s, uh. He’s lost a lot of blood. I’m applying pressure, but he’s lost a lot of blood.”
“Okay, keep on applying pressure, please. Emergency medical is on the way.”
“Whatever you’re sending, send it faster,” Tabitha insisted with an edge of urgency to her tone.
“Emergency medical is getting there as fast as they can. We just need you to stay calm and keep applying pressure to the wound.”
Alicia saw Tabitha’s form hunched over the officer’s body blur as tears filled her vision. The initial stunned shock of the moment had abruptly worn off, and a whirlwind of emotion was suddenly overwhelming her. Clamping a hand over her mouth to stifle her sobs so as not to startle Tabitha, Alicia stood there rigidly beside the police car, looking across the horrific scene and crying.
Short moments later, the siren sounds drew painfully close and a vehicle flashing brilliant blue and red light screeched to a halt. To their disappointment, it was another cop car, rather than the much-desired ambulance. A uniformed police officer jumped out, radio in hand, leaving his car running in the middle of the street.
“Thirty six to dispatch, I’m confirming officer down at one three two two South Main,” the officer reported as he ran forward. “Request urgent medical.”
“Ten-four,” the dispatcher acknowledged. “Stay there, ambulance is on the way.”
“Shit,” the officer took a knee beside Tabitha and the fallen officer. “Ahh, shit, shit.”
He was a stocky, clean-shaven white man with a crew cut and a no-nonsense expression. The brass nameplate he wore above his breast pocket read WILLIAMS, prompting Alicia to realize she’d never looked down to see the fallen police officer’s name. Now, she was afraid to.
“Let’s get that ambulance rolling,” Officer Williams barked into his radio. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.”
“Ten-four, ambulance is on the way,” the dispatcher helplessly repeated again.
“Are you girls alright?” the officer stowed his handset and leaned in, hesitant to jeopardize the downed officer by taking sudden action. “You want me to take over there, Miss?”
“I’m not releasing pressure until the ambulance is here,” Tabitha promised in a resolute voice. She was paler than ever, and her eyes were wet, but she wasn’t crying. “We were over there on the side of the road when it happened—we saw everything.”
“Good—okay, good, good, you’re doin’ great, just keep putting on pressure,” Officer Williams told her, pulling a pair of latex gloves out of his belt pouch and hurriedly putting them on. As carefully as he could, he opened the fallen officer’s eyes one by one, shining a small diagnostic flashlight into them.
“Is he gonna be okay?” Alicia blurted out, hoping the cop could tell them something.
“Uh, I don’t know, hun,” the man admitted regretfully, surveying the copious amount of blood that had already spilled. “I really don’t know.”
“He’s going to be okay,” Tabitha decided, gritting her teeth and staring back down at her bloody hands pressed against the officer’s chest. “He’s going to make it.”
How do you know that? Alicia wiped tears from her face with the back of her hand, staring at Tabitha incredulously. How did she know what to do?
The answer, surprisingly, came to mind right away, and many things all at once seemed to fall into place. Of course—Tabitha read about all of it, in the school library. All those books. Specifically. Is it a coincidence? Everything was like, tailored for this situation, preparing her for exactly this.
Her steadily increasing anxiety. Her not wanting to be alone today. Her wanting to hang out around here, right here, for no apparent reason… waiting for something? Alicia’s eyes widened as she regarded Tabitha in shock. It seemed impossible.
She knew this was going to happen.