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Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (7 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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The gold necklace was still draped loosely over her wrist, incongruously delicate. Joan touched it, leaving bloodied fingerprints, very dark against the gold.

The thumping sound was getting louder. Joan shook herself. She shoved the chain into her pocket and forced herself to her feet.
Thump.
The door to the passage jumped on its hinges. “Ruth,” she said. “We have to go.”

Ruth was staring at Gran's face, looking as numb as Joan felt. “We can't leave Gran here.”

Joan didn't want to either. The thought of leaving Gran with people who hated monsters was unbearable. But Gran had always been practical. “Ruth, she'd want us to go.” With each thump of the door, a larger slice of light was showing. Joan grabbed Ruth's hand and dragged her up. “We have to go.”

She half shoved, half pulled Ruth over to the window. She pushed the curtain aside and recoiled. There was a body outside, lying in the colonnade: a woman with long black hair. She was wearing a blue dress with silver beading.

“I know,” Ruth said shakily. “It's Marie Oliver.”

Joan wiped her face with the back of her hand. The gap in the window wasn't nearly big enough. She gave the glass a shove. It barely moved. Had anyone even opened it in the last hundred years?

“I think we can squeeze through,” Ruth said. “Don't you think?”

Joan stared at her. The gap wasn't big enough for a child. She pictured Ruth stuck in the window while Nick's people stabbed her like they'd stabbed Gran. Her stomach rolled. If anyone was going to get stuck, she wasn't going to let it be Ruth.

She climbed up onto the sill. The wooden flat of it bit into her stomach as she forced herself into the gap. As soon as she started pushing, she knew she wasn't going to fit. Her side dragged against something sharp, making her grunt. The seeping warmth that followed told her that the wound in her side had torn wider. And then she
couldn't
go any farther. She was stuck just like she'd pictured. A fish on a hook for anyone passing. She struggled desperately.

“Shit.” Ruth shoved at Joan's side, making Joan pant in pain. “Oh God. I can't move you.” Joan struggled harder. “Oh my God,” Ruth whispered, panicked. “Oh my God.” She shoved Joan again. She shoved her again. She shoved her
hard.
And then something tore in Joan's dress, and Joan fell to the ground in an inelegant flop.

Joan lay there for a moment, trying to breathe through the pain. On the ground beside her, the dead woman lay, eyes wide open, looking up at nothing. Joan felt a sob rise in her throat like bile. She squeezed her eyes shut for a second and then forced herself to her feet.

“Give me your hands,” she said to Ruth shakily. “I'll need to pull you hard.”

“Here.” Ruth passed something through the gap. It was the heavy bronze candlestick that Joan had taken from the mantelpiece.

Joan tucked it under one arm. “Give me your hands.
Hurry.
” Whoever had killed Marie Oliver might be just around the corner. “And be careful. There's a nail sticking up.”

“Fuck, this is narrow,” Ruth said. “I don't think I'll fit.”

“You'll fit,” Joan promised. “I'll pull you through.”

A loud crash sounded. The room lit up. “Ruth!” Joan tried to catch Ruth's hands, but Ruth had already scrabbled back, turning to face the intruders. “
Ruth!
” Joan screamed. She didn't even care if anyone heard her. “Ruth, get on the sill! I'll pull you out!”

“Joan, run,” Ruth ordered. Her voice sounded weird. Fierce and stern. Almost like Gran's voice.

“No!” Joan shouted. People in black were swarming into the room. “Ruth!” One of the figures caught Ruth's arms. A knife flashed. “
No!
” Joan screamed.

Ruth struggled, flailing an arm free. One of the figures slumped to the floor, and then the knife plunged into Ruth's gut. She made a horrible, agonized sound. Her shocked eyes met Joan's through the window.


No!
” Joan heard herself cry.

And then there was just empty space where Ruth had been. She was gone.

A face appeared in the window. “There's another one out there!” they shouted.

Glass shattered, and Joan
ran
, bursting out of the colonnade into the South Garden. It was incongruously cheerful. The trees were lit with fairy lights, and the hydrangeas were in full bloom, in ice-cream shades of pink and white.

Joan had run the wrong way, she realized, terrified. She should have gone north. To the south there was only open lawn and the hedge maze.

The fastest way out was across the lawn and then down the path to the southwest gate. But there'd be nowhere to hide. She would be out in the open for at least five minutes, even if she ran as hard as she could.

That left the maze.

Someone shouted behind her and Joan hurled herself across the garden, crushing hydrangeas as she ran. The perfume of them rose, fresh and sweet. There were bodies lying among the flowers. Joan glimpsed a man with a mermaid tattoo curled delicately around his wrist. A woman with long red hair.

Joan risked a glance back. A figure in black appeared from around the corner of the house. Joan threw herself into the mouth of the maze. Had they seen her going in? She had to assume they had.

She ran, stumbling into the hedge walls in her haste to turn corners. And then she just ran and ran until she had to stop, hands on her knees, sucking in air and trying to quiet herself. Her own wheezing breaths sounded like Gran's last gasps. Like
Ruth's agonized grunt. She was still shoeless, she realized then, and still clutching the heavy candlestick like a runner's baton. Her dress was torn from where it had caught on the window ledge.

Joan wanted to lie down and cry. Her family. Oh God, her
family
. She wanted to pretend this wasn't happening. She imagined what Gran would say to her now. Her incredulous expression.
Joan, you're running for your life, girl. So bloody run!

Joan stumbled forward.

She wasn't sure when she began to hear the other sounds. At first they could have been hedge leaves rustling in the wind. But soon the thud of steps was unmistakable. There was someone else in the maze with her, running too.

And someone was in pursuit of them, perhaps no more than a turn behind.

Every now and then, the maze brought them close enough for Joan to hear them clearly—the broken gasp of someone who'd been running too fast for too long; the steady breaths of someone who'd been trained to chase.

Joan peered into the thick press of the hedge, but the night was too dark. There was no way to tell how far away the runner and chaser were. The other side of the hedge wall could be miles of twisting paths away, or a single turn.

Then the sounds of running stopped abruptly. “Oh God. Please don't.
Please
don't.” A boy's voice.

Joan caught herself before she gasped out loud. It sounded as though the boy were right next to her.

Joan walked forward carefully and then hesitated. She had no idea where she was in the maze. Everywhere she looked, the view was the same: dense hedge walls and dirt path.

“Please,” the boy said, hoarse. “Please.”

Joan crept around the corner. And there they were—Aaron Oliver, trapped in a dead end, facing one of Nick's men.

In the moonlight, Aaron's golden hair looked almost white. There was a tattoo on the back of his pursuer's neck—a snarling wolf. The man's posture was relaxed and confident as he walked toward Aaron. He drew a long knife from his belt.

Aaron saw Joan and froze. Joan knew exactly what he was thinking. He'd left her to die back at the house.

Two steps
, Joan thought. Two steps back the way she'd come, and she'd be safe again. Two steps, and she'd be out of sight.

Joan took two steps. Aaron's eyes widened. She slammed the heavy candlestick into the back of the man's head.

The man rocked on his feet. He seemed shocked but unhurt. He grabbed Joan's hair and jerked her head back, knife coming up. Joan swung the candlestick hard into his face. There was a sickening crack like a twig breaking. The man stumbled, and Joan swung at him again, as hard as she could, connecting with his jaw. He fell, and she fell with him, feet tangling with his. The candlestick slid from her grasp, and she scrabbled after it desperately.

“He's out.” Aaron's voice. “You hit him rather hard.”

Joan's vision focused. “Oh my God,” she heard herself say. The man was lying on his side, unconscious. His face was a
bloody mess. Joan put her hands on her knees and breathed.

Aaron's feet appeared in front of her eyes. “I think I'm going to be sick,” Joan told him. Then she turned away and retched, hunched over, at the base of the hedge.

When she was done, Aaron offered his hand, gingerly, as though he didn't really want to touch her.

“Fuck you,” Joan said. Her stomach was still rolling.

“Why did you help me?” Aaron said.

Joan got herself upright, ignoring Aaron's question and his outstretched hand. She felt like she'd been pummeled in the stomach. She avoided looking at the man lying in the dead end. “I don't know how to get out of the maze from here,” she said.

“I do,” Aaron said. When Joan looked up, he'd rearranged his expression to something more familiarly supercilious. “I grew up in this house.”

Grew up in this house?
Joan couldn't make sense of that, but she didn't care enough to think about it. “Then get us out of here.”

Aaron grabbed her sleeve as she turned.

“Don't
touch
me!” she said reflexively.

Aaron tugged the pinch of cloth in an exaggerated gesture to show that he wasn't touching skin. “Wrong way.”

It took Joan a second to understand him. “We can't go back to the house,” she said, confused.

“I need to find my father,” Aaron said. “He'll take care of . . .” He nodded at the unconscious man. “That.” At Joan's blank look, he added, a little awkwardly, “No harm will come to
you now, of course. You saved my life. My family will pay the debt.”

Aaron didn't know.

The night around them seemed very quiet. “We can't go back,” Joan said. She took a breath. “Your father is dead.”

Aaron went still. He let go of her sleeve. “What?”

Joan saw Gran again in her mind's eye. Gran was back there in that room. Joan had just left her lying there. And Ruth . . . Joan squeezed her eyes shut. “Your father is dead.”

“No, he isn't.”

Joan opened her mouth, and then couldn't think of what to say.
I'm sorry.
That's what she'd normally say if someone's father had died. Only, she wasn't sorry. Edmund had wanted her to die, horribly, for his own amusement. Aaron had just walked away; he'd
left
her to die. “It was fast,” Joan said.

Aaron straightened the cuffs of his jacket. They didn't need it. He was neat and ordered and unrumpled. Someone stumbling onto the scene would never have guessed he'd just been running for his life. “You're wrong.”

Joan thought again about the way Edmund had died. The sword wedged deep into his chest. She took a slow breath, hoping not to retch again. “I'm really not.”

“You think I don't know—” Aaron bit off the words as his voice started to rise. “You think I don't know when my own father is going to die?” He was clearly forcing himself to stay calm, to stay ordered. “I know my family history. This isn't when he dies. It isn't today.”

There wasn't
time
for this, Joan thought, frustrated. Standing here, where Nick's people could come upon them from any angle, was unbearable. “The boy who was with me,” Joan said urgently. “The human boy. He killed Lucien. Then he killed your father. His people are all over the estate. They're killing us.”

“Us?”


Monsters
,” Joan said. And then she remembered how Edmund had called her an abomination because she was half-human. She wanted to scream suddenly. She wanted to grab Aaron by the shirt and drag him out of there. But she didn't know the way. “
Listen
to me,” she said. “My gran is dead. My family. Your family. They're all—” Her voice broke. “They're all dead. And if we don't get out of here, we're going to die too. They're
killing
us.”

Aaron stared down at the unconscious man. The wolf tattoo on the back of the man's neck was stark black against his skin.

“Aaron,” Joan said. Without view of Aaron's face, she had no idea what he was thinking.

After a long moment, Aaron spoke. “I saw people in the South Garden.” He sounded as though he were pulling the words reluctantly from somewhere deep. “Ivette. Victor. I saw people in the Green Lane. They were just lying there.” He lifted his head, focused on Joan. He frowned. “You look like you've been in a car accident.”

Joan blinked down at herself. Then she wished she hadn't. Gran had bled so much that her dress was stiff with it.

“Are you hurt?” Aaron said.

“No.” Then Joan remembered Lucien and the sword. Well, not too badly. At least, she hoped. She fished in her pocket for the phone she'd found and the necklace Gran had given her. She started to remove her dress.

“What are you doing?” Aaron sounded horrified.

“I can't walk around covered in blood,” Joan said. She tugged the dress over her head and caught his scandalized expression. “I'm not
naked
underneath.” She gestured at her bike shorts and tank top.

“Oh,” Aaron said, face stiff.

Joan balled up the bloody dress and shoved it under the hedge next to the unconscious man. A message.
Dear Nick, I took out your guy. Love, Joan.

“How do we get out of here?” she said.

Aaron gestured ahead. Joan waited for him to turn his back, then fastened the necklace around her neck, tucking it under her tank top.

BOOK: Only a Monster
3.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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