“Gross! Don’t be frickin’ sick, you two!” Rick called toward Jay. Watching Jay canoodle with CJ always made Rick feel like he was going to barf. Jay said they were just good friends. But CJ was a girl. And that’s just not how guys like him and Jay were supposed to do things. You don’t make friends with girls.
“Fuck off, Rick.” Jay wasn’t even looking at Rick, but he’d clearly understood what Rick had been implying. “She’s my friend and she looks fucked-up.” Jay finally cast a glance Rick’s way, and there was the slightest hint of a grin at the right corner of Jay’s mouth, even though Jay’s expression looked otherwise troubled — for all you could read Jay’s expression, anyway. “If you were afraid of the dark, I’d–”
“Fuck – you,” Rick said.
CJ Sweet immediately threw Rick one of those looks you expect girls to throw, one of those nonsense-looks that seems like it’s all angry and scared and freaked-out and confused, all at the same time – because that’s how girls were, most of the time. But she didn’t say anything to him to go along with it – which is also something girls did a lot. Then she was looking back at Jay and talking quietly to him.
Rick had had enough – he took a single step toward Jay. “Hey — listen – …” he said.
“Hey, now –” said Grandma Hilda. She’d been standing next to him when the power had gone out, but now she moved in front of him and put a hand on Rick’s forearm, just above his wrist. “Let’s not get wild in the police station, boys, okay?” She let go of Rick’s arm.
Rick knew better than to lash out at his grandma. But that didn’t change the fact that he wanted to lash out. Punch walls. Scream. Do something. His guts were churning. His tongue tasted like battery acid. And his head hurt a little, at the back of his eyes.
“Sorry about all that, everyone,” said Otis the Cop. Rick had run into Otis Falke a few times hanging out with Mickey Laddow, so he knew him. “This is an old building – and power gets a little wonky, sometimes.” As the police office started to get back to its normal routine, Otis walked over to the Redwings and gestured toward one of the locked rooms. “If you’ll come with me, we can all sit down and get Jay’s statement. It shouldn’t take too long. I expect you’ll all want to be getting home as soon as you can.” His voice was sympathetic, but Rick found it weird. Otis had a way of making his words take too long. The cop kept drawing out certain words, stretching them at the vowels. It didn’t sound like an accent, though.
It was just weird.
Rick wondered if the cop had been shot in the head or something in the line of duty and lived. Except Rick couldn’t imagine any circumstance where anybody could get shot in Drodden.
That’s how it had always been — until today, anyway. Except, the Marshes hadn’t been shot. At least, Rick didn’t think they’d been shot.
They’d been burned. Rick couldn’t get his head around it.
Mickey had burned them. Mickey Laddow — Rick’s friend. Mickey Laddow, who’d called Rick and told him to come to the Marsh House to help with the prank. The Mickey Laddow whose phone was probably being looked at by the police, who’d see Rick’s number in it, maybe as the last person Mickey had called. The Mickey Laddow who’d decided to turn a prank into killing two people at least. Maybe more. The Mickey Laddow who was probably sitting in a jail cell upstairs.
And the Mickey Laddow who was hopefully getting the living shit kicked out of him right now.
Rick realized he was shaking a little. He wondered how long that had been happening. Probably, he guessed, ever since the power outage. He did what he could to hide his shivering, leaning back against one of the doors of the long hallway and folding his arms together against his chest, pressing himself flat against the wall. He looked over toward Grandma Hilda, wondering how much she’d noticed it.
She was watching Jay and CJ, who were standing near a door a few feet away. But she was talking to Rick, leaning in to murmur to him: “It’s gonna be okay, though, Rick,” Grandma Hilda assured him. “We’ll fix this. We’ll fix all of this.” She sounded like she had a plan. Grandma Hilda always had a plan. And whenever she did, it usually made Rick feel better about things.
Her words didn’t help Rick feel better, now, though. He knew that he wasn’t getting over this any time soon. He was going to have to accept that he was going to be shaken up for a while. It made him angry that he’d been freaked out by a fucking power outage – just by the lights going off. For, like, just twenty seconds or so. That’s why he’d been so pissed at Jay. Because Jay had been telling the truth. Rick hated the dark. Not just hated it, though. Rick was afraid of the dark. And Jay was making a thing out of it, right in front of everyone and their parents. And, it wasn’t like Rick was a baby who needed a night light. Rick felt like he had good reasons to be afraid — even if he wasn’t exactly sure why. To Rick, the dark meant fear, and the sensation of being trapped. Like he was in a little room without doors or windows. A special room that Rick felt like was reserved just for him. Like it had been built for him. And inside that room was pain. And maybe whatever the reasons were to be afraid were in there, too. But Rick didn’t like even getting near to feeling like he’d go in there. Being near it, even. And then CJ Sweet had to go and scream like that. Which sucked, almost as much as it sucked that Jay was so focused on her that he was ignoring everyone else. Rick really wanted to punch Jay at that moment, especially after the little shit had talked about him being scared.
“It’ll be okay,” Grandma Hilda said to him. She shook her head, eyes closed, and then patted Rick’s shoulder. “Jay’s just acting up because he’s scared, too,” she said to him, quietly. “You all are. You’ve seen — well, I can only imagine what you’ve all had to see.”
“I’m fine, Grandma,” Rick insisted. “It’s no big deal.” But it was a lie. He felt all stretched-out in his chest, like he might snap at any moment. It had only been about half a minute since the lights had come back on, but Jay knew he’d be jumping at nothing for the rest of the day.
Which is why he jumped away from where he was standing and turned around awkwardly he heard the sound of the door to his left unlocking and opening inward. From out of the room came a short female police officer with a blonde buzz-cut. After the cop, there came a dirty-looking girl with messy red hair that was going in all directions. After the younger girl exited the room, the lady cop closed the door behind them both.
Rick knew the girl’s name. It was Penny … Something. He’d seen her around town during the summer. A couple of times, he’d passed by the Yellow House, and he’d seen her staring out the window into space. She was weird. She had a weird sort of creepy vibe. She looked like she was looking behind you instead of at you. It was like she was mentally cross-eyed or something. It was just … yeah, weird. Everything about Penny was weird, in one way or another. That’s why he’d never really talked to her or anything. He stayed out of weird people’s way. He didn’t need those kinds of extra problems. He had enough problems of his own; he didn’t need to know Penny What’s-Her-Name’s weird problems, too.
“Penny?” Grandma Hilda said, looking over toward the girl. She sounded genuinely surprised to see her there.
Rick was sort of weirded-out that his Grandma seemed to somehow know who Penny was, too.
Weirder still, Penny seemed to know his Grandma: “Oh, hi, Ms. Leek!” Penny said to her, all familiar. Rick had to admit to himself that Penny didn’t seem quite as creepy when she was talking like an actual person, instead of just staring out her window. He wondered if she was a customer at Pawn & Ponderer, or something like that. But, Rick still felt like Penny was still someone who should be avoided. She was still kind of creepy; she had this weird way of staring, like her eyes were stuck wide-open, which was what she was doing as she just looked at Rick’s Grandma. But then, Penny seemed to realize what she was doing, and she suddenly looked really embarrassed. “I mean, hi,” she said, fidgeting in place a little. The way Penny was acting made Rick think about times he’d run into people from school outside of school. It was always kind of uncomfortable and strange. Rick imagined himself reluctantly saying ‘hi’ to the school librarian, if Rick ever had the misfortune of running into the guy outside the library. Yeah, the way Penny was acting matched up with what Rick imagined for himself in that situation. Then Penny asked Grandma Hilda “Are you here … because of the fire?” Then, Penny shut her eyes and coughed out a choked-back sob. She looked down. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”
Everyone in the hallway — including the cops — went silent for an uncomfortable moment. Buzzcut Lady Cop hung her head a little, and Otis the Cop reached up and put his right hand against the little patch of hair he had toward the back of his head, leaning hard on one leg like he suddenly needed the support.
Grandma Hilda broke the silence: “Oh, honey,” she said. Then, she was rushing over and hugging Penny, who clearly had no trouble accepting the hug. Grandma Hilda’s hands were shaking a little as she hugged Penny tight.
The cops didn’t get in the way of the hug, but Buzzcut Lady Copy walked over toward Grandma Hilda. Then, she took hold of Penny and guided her away from Grandma Hilda. She looked over toward Otis. “This is Penny Greenlee,” said Buzzcut Lady Cop. “She called in the fire, too. She was alone at her house. We’ve called the parents. They were headed out to Drum Lake. They’re on their way back to Drodden now, and … uh … ”
After that, Buzzcut Lady Cop’s voice trailed off into more silence — but, from his vantage, Rick noticed something else … something that went on between them, like two friends talking without really saying anything. It was a thing, Rick Knew. He did it with his Grandma all the time. You could look at someone you knew really well and say things back and forth without having to use words. It wasn’t like real words in your head, like in stupid movies. It was just a thing; it was about knowing the other person and how they were feeling from your history with them. That was what was going on between Otis and Buzzcut Lady Cop, and you could tell just by looking between the two cops’ faces. And, something about the way they were looking at each other told Rick there was way more to Penny being there than what had just been said. And, Rick was sure that it was something as weird as Penny was.