Protection Racket – An Urban Fantasy tale

This one came courtesy of the Pickle, my 3 1/2 year old daughter. Considering that she’s made me change Jack and the Beanstalk so there’s no meany stealing from the giant involved, I’m not sure she’d be too happy with how this turned out. Fortunately, she’s not reading blogs yet. 🙂

 

Natasha had a secret. She kept it hidden beneath her pillow, along with Raggedy Ann and the tiny scrap of her brother’s pajamas she’d clung onto when they took his stuff away. Every night, she’d curl up in the tightest ball she could and put her hand under the pillow. She’d grab a hold of Raggedy, the cotton, and the secret, and if she was really lucky, she’d sleep through the whole night without dreaming about her brother.

Those nights were few and far between though. This night was no exception. She woke, cold sweat in the gaps between her toes, and sat up. Raggedy remained in her hand and it took her a moment in the dim glow of her night light to realise the cotton scrap wasn’t there.

A moment’s feverish hunting turned it up and she held it to her chest until her breathing subsided. The dreams always came when she let it go. Resolving to sleep with it resting on her, she lay on her back and stared up at the ceiling. Her eyes closed slowly, but sleep took a while to come.

It was during those in-between moments when the voice spoke to her.

‘Natasha?’

‘I’m here.’ She mouthed the words to her silent bedroom, but in her head they were loud and clear.

‘Natasha, when can we come and see you?’

‘Soon. You don’t need to come now, it’s alright at the moment.’

The voice was silent, but she could feel it lurking behind her eyes, in the dim recesses of her brain. It was greedy. She didn’t mind. She was greedy to see them as well. Life was always better when they were around. But she’d told them the truth, there was no need for them right now. And they always knew when she was telling the truth.

 

Time passed. Natasha could no longer curl up in a ball, though she often wanted to. Raggedy was tatty and embarrassing and stayed beneath her pillow. But her nightly ritual hadn’t changed one bit. The tiny piece of Jason’s pajamas was now sewn into a larger blanket, which meant she lost it less. If that was the reason for the dwindling nightmares, she didn’t know, but she clung to it anyway.

Mum and Dad were better. Not well, but better. They didn’t shout at one another anymore and Mum didn’t cry so much. At least, she still cried, but did it behind the bedroom door instead of at the breakfast table. And the lunch table. And the dinner table.

She moved around the house like a woman much older than she was. Natasha was fourteen and Mum had been pretty young when she had her, but she stooped like she was sixty. Her hair was grey and her face covered in lines. Natasha preferred it when Dad came to the school concerts and things. He at least looked like he was still living. She wasn’t sure he was, but she could overlook that so long as her friends didn’t know.

The voices were still there and on this particular morning that saw Natasha humming her way through breakfast, they were greedier than ever. Imagine the genie in the lamp, only they were stuck not inside a potentially infinite vessel, but the mind of a depressed fourteen year old who had done her best in the last couple of years to pretend they weren’t there.

Every night they spoke to her. On some nights, she answered, responding with curt, one word answers and tears. On others, she simply pressed her lips together and thought nothing until sleep claimed her and drove them away.

School meandered. It meandered most days, like the huge rivers they were learning about in geography. She fancied herself one of those skiffs from Thailand, the sort that drifted aimlessly down the river, poled by a thin man with a wide round hat upon his head. As the skiff, she drifted down the lazy wide river of life, never touching the sides and earning no more than the occasional glance from the others that used the river.

She was halfway through maths when something struck her on the ear. She yelped, earning a glare from the teacher, and turned around. A girl with a nose piercing and her tie halfway down stuck her fingers up at her. Natasha ducked her head and returned to her work. She tried to write an answer and realised her fingers were shaking too hard to grip the pen. What did she want? Who was she?

She endured four more elastic bands before the bell rescued her. She dashed from the classroom and raced to the security of the library. She was most of the way there when a hand gripped her arm and she found herself being dragged across the hallway and into one of the locker nooks.

Lockers covered three sides of the tiny space, with the fourth open to the corridor. There should have been students in here retrieving things for lunch, but there was nobody. The girl from maths gave her the sort of smile she’d seen a hundred times at night, but never during the day.

‘You’re Natasha, right?’

‘Yes.’ She wanted her voice to sound louder, but her fear made the word stick in her throat, so it came out barely more than a croak.

‘You’re the mad bitch that killed her brother, ain’t you?’

Natasha’s mouth fell open. Inside her, a number of walls that had been painstakingly built over many years, trembled. Brick dust rained down from some as she searched around in there for something to say. The girl spared her the trouble.

‘What you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in a special school or something?’

‘I didn’t kill Jason.’

‘Really? Not what I heard. I heard when they found him there wasn’t much left. ‘Cept you were there, smiling away.’

A couple of the walls came down like a bulldozer had taken a mighty great swipe at them. The first thing to happen was Natasha yanking her arm free of the girl’s grip and sliding down the lockers. When she reached the floor, she curled up in a ball and tucked her head in.

It was dark in here, and safe. Something struck her in the ribs and she screamed. It was a pitiful wail, but she couldn’t make it without her head jerking up. She stared at the girl’s broad smile and realised she’d drawn her leg back for another blow.

‘Please, why?’

‘You’re a sicko, ain’t you? Don’t want you around.’

‘But I’m not, I’m n—’

Her boot caught Natasha on the hip and tears appeared like cherry tree blossom in her eyes. She put her head back down and went inside. They’d had a cherry tree in the back garden. She couldn’t remember much of Jason, but she had an image of him lying on his blanket, gurgling happily up at the tree that had, overnight, become covered in tiny white flowers.

She clung to the image, clenching her legs and pressing her forehead into the space between her knees. She could kick her all she wanted, she was safe in here.

A foot struck her in the stomach and she gasped. Her breath took too long to come and spots appeared before her eyes. The next blow was aimed for her shins and she felt the skin split apart. Warmth flooded her trouser leg as blood crept silently from the wound.

Why was bleeding so silent? All her life she’d watched her parents bleed and, aside from Mum’s crying, it had always been silent. Bleeding should be accompanied by a siren, or maybe a screeching sound, like seagulls after chips.

They’d gone to the seaside not long after it happened. She’d wolfed her chips down because the seagulls had been gathering. Dad had tossed most of his on the beach and they’d watched the gulls feast. Mum stayed in the car.

The next kick struck her hand and she whimpered as something in it shifted. She wasn’t sure if it was broken, but the pain took her memory, screwed it up and tossed it in the bin. When the next kick landed, the rest of the walls came down. Her fists clenched and she bit her leg as darkness flooded in.

‘Natasha, we’re coming.’ The voice was louder now. She whimpered again, pressing her face into her knees. They couldn’t come. She wanted them to come, but they couldn’t. Not here. Not anywhere.

‘We’re coming.’

‘You can’t.’ She shouted, and if it came out loud, she wasn’t aware, but in her head it sounded like thunder.

‘But we must. She’s hurting you, Natasha, you can’t let her hurt you.’

‘But you’ll hurt her.’

‘Is that any less than she deserves?’

Natasha chewed her lip. ‘Please don’t hurt her.’

The voice was silent for a moment. ‘Perhaps we’ll just scare her.’

Natasha nodded vigorously into the shelter of her lap. ‘Yes, just that, just scare her.’

Another silence, when she felt it welling up inside her, like the voices would climb up her throat and burst out into the school.

‘Natasha, we’re here.’

She gasped and her head came up from her lap. The girl was still glaring at her, lip curled in a sneer. Her foot was drawn back but something had stopped her. Then Natasha saw it too. Black smoke drifted from the lockers, squeezing out through the key holes and hinges.

The smoke was dense, and she knew if she reached for it, it would stick to her hands like treacle. She shrank away, tucking her fingers into the warm spaces beneath her knees. The smoke billowed up until the locker nook was filled with it, save the space between the two of them.

A figure stepped from the smoke and despite her shivers, Natasha put her hands up. He lifted her from the floor, held her in his arms for a moment, then placed her on her feet. He held her like she was made of fine china.

He was just as she remembered. His chin was strong and masculine. His nose was just a tiny bit smaller than it should have been, but the lips beneath it were full and smiling. And his eyes were the same as Dad’s had been, before Jason went.

‘It’s been too long, Natasha.’

‘I’m sorry, I’ve been happy.’

He frowned and put his head to one side. ‘Happy, or coping?’

She shrugged and inspected her hands. He patted her shoulder. ‘Don’t worry. We’re here now.’

From the smoke stepped two more people. The woman to her right was dressed in black. Her hair was black and her eyes glittered so dark they may as well have been forged from the night. Her dark lips split apart and the teeth behind them were shocking in their whiteness.

She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Natasha. ‘It is good to see you.’

Natasha buried her head in her shoulder, not expecting the lump that formed in her throat. Night had been her greatest friend. How had she kept her away for so long?

The third man, shorter that the other two, and rounder as well, gave her a beaming grin and followed with a hug of his own. He wore a suit, but it was crumpled and rumpled like he’d just spent a week in the office.

‘Estridge.’

‘My lady.’ He spoke in an off-key American accent, like he thought he knew how they sounded, but didn’t really. It made her smile, just as it always had. His face was the same as his voice. All the necessary pieces were there, but they didn’t quite fit together properly.

She looked back to Alfred. His perfectly pressed slacks and trim white shirt were as perfect as ever. He was perfect. And he hadn’t aged a bit.

He turned away from her to where the girl still stood, staring open mouthed at the three people who had appeared before her. ‘Who the hell are you?’

Estridge took a step forward. ‘We’re Natasha’s friends. And you haven’t been very nice to her. Do you think that was a good thing to do?’

The girl tried to sneer, but she was way too freaked out. ‘I didn’t, I don’t, I mean…’

‘What do you mean?’

‘She killed her brother. She’s a freak.’

Alfred pushed past Estridge until he stood only a few inches from the girl. ‘That isn’t true. I ask that you rescind that comment right now.’

‘What?’

‘Take it back.’

‘How the hell do you know?’

‘We’ve known Natasha all her life. Trust me, we know. She didn’t kill Jason.’

Natasha watched it all through disbelieving eyes. They’d spoken to her every day of her life, but she hadn’t truly believed in them. It had been such a long time ago, she didn’t think for a second they’d actually come back. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and stared at Night. She’d always wanted to be like her. She was beautiful and graceful and smart. Seeing her again after so long only made her want it more.

‘Fine, whatever, she didn’t do it.’

‘I think an apology might be called for as well, don’t you?’ Alfred’s voice hadn’t risen one notch from its calm state, but he leant even closer. The girl was trying to back away, but she was pressed up against the lockers and Alfred wasn’t giving her any chance to move. He held his hand up before her eyes and a flicker of green flame burst into life and raced down each of his fingers.

The girl from maths went paler still and her lips began to twitch, like she was seconds away from tears. She nodded, her voice coming out cracked. ‘I’m sorry, really, I am, sorry, Natasha.’

Natasha nodded and Alfred stepped back. The girl dashed out of the locker nook and Natasha let out a long breath. She turned back to her friends. ‘Thanks for coming.’

They gathered around her, assuring her it was no trouble at all. She sighed. She was safe. She’d known she was safe, but it had been so long. Knowing was very different from believing. She hugged them all, then the black smoke returned and the three of them melted away.

The rest of school was like some wondrous dream. She was floating on cloud nine and if some of the girls were talking about her, it didn’t matter. They knew she was protected now and that was all that mattered.

The last bell went and she skipped out of the school gate, smile playing on her lips. As she drew nearer home, her good feeling began to ebb away, like the sea drawing back from the half eaten chips. Mum would be there, ghosting around the house and then Dad would come in. They’d eat dinner in silence and watch crappy TV till bedtime.

She turned away from her street and stomped, paying no attention to where she was going. So it was with something close to surprise that she looked around and found herself at the end of an alleyway. She didn’t know how she knew it was the right one, but she did.

She stepped into the shadows and the transformation began. Her nails tore from their beds as they grew and the creaking that accompanied the growth was met by a gentle patter of blood on the concrete. Her leg muscles tightened and expanded until her school uniform tore up to her hips. Her teeth came last, as they always did, extending and sharpening.

She was ‘protected’, but they could only come once every twenty-four hours. Why did she remember that? Oh yeah. She smiled as the girl who’d attacked her entered the other end of the alleyway.

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