Days after the altercation at the show, Gregg still found himself passing his thoughts through the what ifs of the moment. What if the bullets had carried a better arc? What if they had pierced the essence of himself or one of the others? What if it had been his brain matter splattered against the side of the van instead of the simple bullet hole that graced the paint?
To distract himself from the thought of darkness brewing in his cortex, he took to the myriad of books surrounding him in his stately chair. At first, he scanned through his father's books, all about forensics and police work, but soon became nauseous at the mention of bullet fragments and shootings, and switched over to his mother's nursing guides. He felt his stomach calm. But in the midst of the chapter regarding blood, he concocted a brilliant sort of idea. He lazily placed the medical book on his side table and switched back to the forensics book, straight to the very paragraph where he had become I'll at the mention of bullets and their trajectories.
Within an hour, his calm reading time was disrupted by the sound of shouting from a floor below. Curious, he peered over his shoulder at the basement door, where he could quite clearly hear the melodic voice of Selina shouting angrily, a deep fury in her otherwise peaceful vocal cords. Gregg sighed and closed the book slowly. He stood, placing the forensics book atop the medical book on the side table, and marched to the basement door, throwing it open unceremoniously.
"What are you getting at now?" he called down, eyes narrowed to frustrated slits.
There came no response to him, but Gregg could quite clearly hear Selina yell something about "MY PROPERTY!"
He sighed once more and descended the creaky stairs into the gloom of the basement, closing the door behind him. As he rounded the corner at the bottom, he came upon the odd sight of Selina standing on the floor, holding her infamous red sweater tightly to her chest as Liz looked on, standing in a neutral pose in one of Selina's borrowed bras, which was much too big for her thin frame.
"You can wear anything of mine EXCEPT THIS!" Selina cried, choking back some tears. There was a hurt look in her eyes. Liz glanced to Gregg, then back at Selina.
"I'm sorry," said Liz in a calm voice. "I hadn't realized it was off-limits."
"You should be sorry," snarled Selina, finally noticing Gregg. In a moment of embarrassment, she realized she was flat-footed on the stone floor and to remedy this, gently fluttered up a few inches to hover.
"Must you shout?" asked Gregg, more annoyed than worried. His house guests were important to him, but they had ever-so-steadily grown on the introverted boy's nerves.
The light of the sunset from the short half-window behind her basked Liz in an ethereal sort of glow. Her calloused hands curled up in front of her; an almost defensive pose. The crossbeams on the half-wondow cast a crossed shadow across the back of her neck. Her mouth seemed to open and close as though she were muttering unheard prayers and pleas for forgiveness. She honestly seemed to not know what she had done wrong; what the sweater meant to Selina, who stood away from the window, basked in the shadow of the basement, a sort of contrast to Liz's fair stance in the light. Gregg rubbed his fingers between his eyes, trying desperately to massage away the growing headache he was about to suffer.
"Listen, if this is all said and done, can we be on our way?" he asked, checking his wrist for the time, forgetting for a moment that he wasn't wearing his father's watch.
"I'm not going," Selina muttered beneath her breath, glancing to Gregg. She then looked back to Liz, and a snarl formed on her pale lips. "And I'm not through being cross with you."
"Dammit," Gregg growled, pulling his phone from his pants pocket and flipping it open. With a sigh, he typed away a short message. "I'll just tell Coop we're not coming. This is such bullsh-t."
"Yeah, bullsh-t," Selina echoed with a hint of sarcasm in her voice. She pointed to the stairwell. "Go back to reading."
Liz followed her finger, and was about to move when Gregg signaled that Selina had meant the command for him. She pitifully fell back into her neutral pose, her bright blue eyes lost in a sort of sorrow. Selina's hateful gaze did not falter, but instead, she took her own command and floated away, traveling upstairs and out of their sight. For a moment, Gregg and Liz stood in the silence of the moment, before it was broken by Selina shouting down at Gregg:
"And don't you be home late! I have things to suck!"
Gregg felt his cheeks burning. He wasn't sure if she had meant the double entendre or npt, but nevertheless, he felt the pangs of embarrassment flood his face. He looked to Liz, who looked puzzled. It then occurred to him that she likely didn' know much about sexual topics. He gave a slight sigh of relief.
"What is it that makes her so... attached to that sweater?" Liz asked.
"I don't even know," Gregg sighed. "She's something else. Something distant. I want to know, but... She's hesitant to say..."
"Perhaps we can figure it out."
"I don't think she'll be too keen to tell us. What with her... whatever with me and her anger towards you."
"Will she be mad at me for a long time?"
"Not really," Gregg smirked. "She'll blow over by tomorrow morning."
Then, he added:
The headlights of the car washed the roadside in a tunnel of light, illuminating the coloured leaves steadily dying on the trees' gangly bark fingers. As he placed the truck in park and turned off the ignition, Stephen felt himself dying on the inside, too. There was something rotten in the pit of his soul, trying desperately to crawl its way up his throat and out through his mouth into the cold, fall night. He swallowed hard, imagining the claw of the rot flood back into his stomach, and instantly, he was hit with a wave of nausea as he opened up the car door and stepped out onto a pile of leaves which crunched sickeningly beneath his sneakers.
There were a few other cars parked along the edge of the road in front of him, so he knew this was the right place. Taking in a breath, he walked away from the car and into the dark of the woods. As he made his way through, the fingers of the branches clawed at his face, and he nonchalantly brushed them away. But beneath the surface, his nonchalant stride into the darkness was hiding a deep, burdening fear. These woods were too dark, and it was too late into the night. Horrible things hide in the dark of the forest, he knew, and they wait.
Finally, he rounded over the slight incline in the trail and stumbled down the steep dirt incline. Before him, the image of a rickety, rusted footbridge came into view. From his position, Stephen could make out a small crowd of figures, guarded in shadow. He could make out the forms of Alex, Cooper, Clarissa, and the glowing form of Sam, summoned with the quija. They had planned ahead of time not to mention their meeting to Gavin, who they were not quite sure they could trust with this information. Alex had even mentioned that he wasn't sure Gavin would believe their story. As he made his way up toward the bridge, the idle chatter that had been being shared amongst the figures subsided, and Cooper's voice rung out in the night, welcoming him.
"'bout time you showed up."
"Sorry, I got caught up at the light in town," Stephen replied simply, counting out his friends before him. But a few were conspicuously absent.
"Did you get Gregg's text?" asked Alex, flipping out his phone to check for any messages. It was to no avail. No phone carrier's service could reach this deep into the woods. He sighed and shoved his phone back in the depths of his jeans pocket.
"No," Stephen answered, perplexed.
"He's having a 'domestic issue' at home. Can't make it," said the ghostly form of Sam, who leaned on the decrepit handrail of the bridge. For a moment, Stephen worried the structure might snap off and send Sam plummeting to the creek below, but then logic struck. Sam had no weight, after all.
"Which is kind of a pity," came Clarissa's voice, the only feminine one on the bridge. "Because the news is kind of kick-started by him."
There was an awkward cough from Sam in the dark, breaking Clarissa's dramatic pause.
"Go on," Cooper urged, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. He had forgotten to dress for the fall weather, and had instead gone for his usual sleeveless look, which left him feeling the cold in his bones.
"Gregg's contract is back up," said Clarissa blankly. For the shock of the moment, Stephen noted how emotionlessly she had said it, as though Gregg were just another casualty in her book.
"Wait, what?" asked Alex. "How?"
"He broke up with what's-her-name. No love there," Cooper assured the group.
"His contract stated that his soul was to be traded for love. He didn't specify a particular object for his affections. If he's in love, he's fair game."
Clarissa once again said these words with an emptiness in her voice. It was a cold, harsh sort of empty. Cooper felt a chill go down his spine, this time not from the fall's biting cold on his flesh.
"Gregg in love," Sam scoffed, "that's a stretch, I'd say."
"I knew he had some vampire lovin' in his pad," Alex joked. But no one laughed. They all knew where this conversation was going. For a moment, Stephen lost track of his concern for Gregg in anticipation for his own come-uppance that was surely on its way from the back of Clarissa's tongue.
"Which brings me to the point. They're closing in. All of them."
"All of them?" asked Cooper. "Who's them?"
"You're apparently quite valuable targets," Clarissa explained, folding her arms across her broad chest. "Anyone who's anyone is in on the bounty."
"Bounty? Jesus, are we outlaws?" asked Alex.
"Not exactly. You're just valuable. I don't know the entirety of it. I think they're catching onto me helping you all. I don't get the same level of info that I used to a few weeks ago. I don't know why they want your souls so bad. But they do. And that's why I asked for you to meet me here."
"To talk about our contracts," Cooper concluded, pressing his fingers into his temples to relieve the headache coming on.
"Yes," she confirmed, sighing. "Listen, I know you must have had good reasons for selling out, but you need to nullify them in any way you can. For your own sake."
"How?" asked Alex, looking to his hands. His eyes darted back and forth, examining the lines in his palms. They were cracked and scarred from years of guitar practice; his fingertips were little more than round callouses, barely illuminated by the starlight from the night sky above.
"Undo what you sold for. Gregg can fall out of love, it's simple," Clarissa mumbled, rolling her eyes at them all.
"Emotion is simple enough, but..." Cooper began, his normally powerful voice trailing off into a choked silence. Everyone else reacted to this stunned sound, shifting awkwardly.
"What we sold for is a part of us. Our selves!" Alex exclaimed, looking back down at his hands, almost admiring with a sad resignation the wondrous lines weaving their way across his flesh.
"No concern of mine," Clarissa replied coldly. "The days of flirtation are over, Alex. It's either kill or be killed now. You're under fire, and you have no other way out. Do it, or die and burn for eternity. I've done my part for you. I can't hold your hand forever."
Still glancing at his cracked hands, Alex knew she was right. In more ways than he wanted to admit.