"Give me that!" Simon Lambeth grabbed the small wooden cage away from scrawny Richie Robbins, shoving him to the ground when he objected. Richie knew he was no physical match for the Lambeth boy, who at twelve was nearly four years older. Clearly overwhelmed, Richie decided not to further protest, delaying another beating from the local bully. The other kids in the orphanage playground watched the scene from a distance, ready to bolt at the first sign that Simon might turn his anger toward them. As usual, none were willing to protest his actions, leaving Richie - like so many others before him - to his own devices.
Simon held the cage up to his flustered face. Inside was a brown field mouse, which had been named Checkers after it was caught a week before by some of the other boys. The tiny creature was found tangled within a ball of Meredith Singletons knitting yarn and freed; ever since, it always remained close to at least one of the boys at the orphanage. Checkers was immediately touted as the orphanage mascot, though only by the boys (he was frequently used to torment the girls). Simon Lambeth, in particular, would hold it in his beefy hands and chase the girls around the play yard as they screamed for help from Miss Singleton or her aide, the Widow Withers.
Over the last week, Simon had grown attached to the rodent and wanted it all for himself. Having lived at the orphanage for much longer than any of the other children, Simon felt he was due, and - while not a hulking figure - he was certainly rugged. His burly features, cedar-colored hair, and brilliant blue eyes made him look even more developed, and many visitors mistakenly assumed he was nearly fifteen. Simon used these traits to his advantage, to intimidate the other children, and he nearly always got his way.
Today was an exception.
"Leave him alone," Simon heard from behind. Surprised, he looked back to find the slender form of Lucius Waverly moving toward him, the fanged stuffed rabbit named Clovis tucked under his armpit. Lucius was new at the orphanage, having arrived less then three weeks before, but in that short time hed managed to befriend most of the other kids, especially the younger ones. Simon noticed that even Miss Singleton and the Widow Withers treated him differently. The newcomers popularity infuriated Simon, but Lucius frail body ensured that the bully never saw him as a threat.
Lucius stepped forward, his defiant stance an open challenge in full view of the other kids. These were the kinds of moments Simon relished - no, craved. He smiled broadly as Lucius stepped in front of Richie and stared up at him. Simon had to give the new boy credit; none of the other children would even consider opposing him. That deserved one chance, he supposed
"Get out of here, runt, before I make you! I think youve been out in the sun too long," Simon spat as he raised his fist up to Lucius face.
Without a hint of fear, Lucius eyed the bully and moved his face even closer to the raised fist. Catching sight of Lucius clutched fist, Simon thought for a split-second that he was about to swing at him, but knew that he couldnt be that dumb.
Neither child backed away or broke eye contact, and more and more of their peers gathered around the play yard showdown. The faces in the crowd were drawn with concern, though Simon was sure it wasnt for him. The slightest twang of guilt crept within him, but he knew what was at stake here. He couldnt allow some scrawny baby to seize his influence over the others. He was in charge. Hed always been in charge. He wasnt about to let that go.
"Who do you think you are Lucy?" Simon asked as he pushed Lucius to the ground. "I run this playground! Dont you forget it!" Simon kicked a cloud of dirt at the fallen boy and walked away, the wooden cage still cradled in his hands.
The other kids swarmed over to Lucius, helping him to his feet as Simon stopped to remove the rodent from its cage and stroke its soft brown fur. The other children already forgotten, he played with the mouse for a moment and then triumphantly perched it upon his shoulder.
Only when he glanced back to Lucius did he pause, chill tendrils of dread creeping up the back of his neck at what he saw.
"Youll get yours" Lucius hissed, his eyes clouded over with a bright red sheen. A wicked smile appeared across the youngsters face, and his body took on a somewhat feral pose.
All the other children stood behind Lucius, where they could not make out his terrifying visage, but Simon was gripped by the sight, frozen in his tracks. Confused thoughts roamed through his mind, all of them senseless. "What are you?" Simon whispered, more to himself than to the creature before him.
When it was apparent that no answer was forthcoming, Simon turned and ran, off to search for Miss Singleton or Widow Withers. Hopefully, they would know what to do
* * *
The round figure of the Widow Withers watered plants in the orphanage garden, a task that Meredith would just as soon leave to the children, but one which Withers cared for enough to keep to herself. Her snow-colored locks were wrapped in a tight bun at the back of her head, and her mean, narrow eyes and long, thin neck made her appear more like a nurturing mother than a strict Sunday school teacher.
Withers had a slight German accent, left over from her upbringing in the Old Country, which proved to be a source of ridicule from the children. When they were not calling her Granny behind her back, they would endlessly torment her with bad imitations of her accent, and countless hurtful jokes had been made at her expense.
Presently, Withers spotted Simon Lambeth running towards her. Her first thought was that he must be up to no good; in the two years she had been with the orphanage, she had never understood why Miss Singleton liked the boy. Meredith had said many times that "he was just misunderstood", that "love and compassion are all he needs", but Withers saw him as little more than a common bully.
On many occasions, Withers wanted to show her own kind of love and compassion for the boy, but figured she would just end up in jail. The Widow Withers took solace in the fact that Simon had finally met his match with the new boy, Lucius.
The thought of how her familys sweet young heir would eventually take revenge upon Simon Lambeth brought gave her a warm feeling deep inside. Of course, Lucius would ensure that all the children suffered a fate far worse then anything Simon could ever do to any of them - but such is the price for trusting a son of the devil
Simon stumbled twice in his rush, and he looked scared half out of his wits, but Withers was more curious than concerned. "What is it boy?" she asked, trying to sound genuine and suppress a smile at his condition.
"Somethings wrong with that Lucius kid. Hes not right."
"What do you mean?" she asked. For a moment, true concern laced her voice, though not for Simon.
"I seen his eyes!" Simon screamed. "They aint right! The devils got a hold of him or something."
"Now, Simon, dont go around telling lies," Withers responded, "you know whatll happen if you do. Someone could get in a whole lot of trouble over lies like those. Someone might even think its you thats got the devil in em " Withers waited for the impact of her words to sink in before continuing. " but we know that aint true, either, now, dont we?" The widow moved over to a water bucket and filled her spout. "Maybe it was the sun. You know, like when you look at a cats eyes at night and they seem to glow. Youve seen that, havent you?"
Simon nodded. He struggled with Old Grannys words for a moment, finally responding with, "I guess youre right."
"Of course Im right," she stated flatly. "Now you go back and play with the others. Play with that little mouse of yours."
Simon was about to leave when a thought occurred to him. Being as careful as he could not to anger Withers, he asked, "Do you know where he came from? Lucius, I mean "
"From his parents, dear when they went to Heaven."
"Who were his parents?" Simon continued.
"His mother died when he was young, and his father moved out here to work in one of the mines. But he was killed during a cave-in. If Lucius hadnt been found by some of the good townsfolk, he might not be with us, either. Its almost like he has a guardian angel or something." Withers surveyed Simon, trying to tell whether his curiosity was sated. A moment later, when Simon simply shrugged, thanked her, and ran away, she was sure. Simon knew more than the Whateleys could allow.
Hes going to have an accident very soon, she mused, returning to her garden.
* * *
Late the next afternoon, the playground was tense. The division between Lucius and Simon was clear. Simon sat alone near the new orphanage building, playing with Checkers, but he was ever aware of Lucius proximity - and the fact that the lean boy was staring at him.
"What do you want?" Simon growled over to Lucius.
"How tough are you?" came the response.
"Tough enough to knock you down and make sure you dont get back up. Why? You itchin for another beatin?"
Lucius smiled, knowing that he had Simon where he wanted him. "I bet youre not tough enough to head into the North End."
"Theres nothin in the North End," Simon answered. "Why would I want to go there?"
"Because its fun. I play there all the time."
"That makes you tough?" Simon challenged.
"Maybe tougher than you, anyway." Lucius words were all the more biting when supported by the taunting stares of the rest of the children, but Simon found himself suddenly apprehensive. Miss Singleton had lived in the North End - at the Collegium Compound - before the riots, before demons walked the earth
She had warned the children not to go there - that only the dead and the forgotten went too far north of Town Square - and many of them did not return. But the challenge had been made, and Simon could either accept, or lose all hope of regaining his precious mantle of leadership.
Two hours later, the small group of boys skirted one of the side streets leading toward the haunted North End. Simon watched Lucius carefully, looking for any sign of the "Evil Eye" - anything that he could use to topple the pedestal the other kids had placed him on.
Simon petted Checkers as they approached the first abandoned line of businesses, cradling it protectively at his chest. Everyone was aware that the mouse had taken most closely to Simon, and that the boys feelings for it were similarly kind. For the last day - even while he slept - Simon was never without the mouse.
As the little group closed upon the rubble of the North End, Simon noticed the other boys mimicking every move Lucius made. It was as if he were a puppeteer pulling the strings of his marionettes. Lucius spoke very little, but when he did, the others treated it as the finest gospel, hinged upon every syllable.
It was time to show Lucius who was in charge.
The children left the last open stores behind, crossing into the deserted North End of town. Everyone knew this part of Gomorra was dangerous, especially at night. The law didnt even patrol here anymore, leaving it to the scavengers and outlaws bold enough to claim it for themselves. Ahead of the children, the remainder of Charing Street fled northward, pitted and pocked by debris and craters - a few of which appeared ominously like footprints. At the far north end of town, the children could make out the remains of the Collegium compound and the scattered remnants of the junkyard, silent shadows of their former glory
Simon quickly walked about fifty feet down Charing Street, heading directly toward the heart of the forbidden area. He did his best to look scared and even jumped a couple of times, just to put on a good show for the others, and make them think that ghosts or ghouls might occupy the area.
"You see " he screamed back at them, "theres nothing to be afraid of. Who wants to go next?"
None of the boys volunteered, and Simon saw his chance to regain control. "What are you? Fraidy cats?"
Still none of the boys moved. They watched the dilapidated structures of the North End as the late sun crested behind them, the shadows pooling into silhouettes of misshapen creatures that no one would ever want to meet in person.
Simon grew bolder as their faces dropped and they started to tremble. "If any of you go to that building at the end of the street," he screamed, pointing at the wreckage of an aged saloon, "walk around it and back here alive Ill give you Checkers." Simon held his pet up to the children for emphasis.
Once again, none of the kids accepted his challenge.
"Cmon," Simon chided, targeting Clovis, "wouldnt you rather have a real pet instead of some stuffed babys toy?"
For a moment, none of the children moved, waiting for Lucius response. It was obvious that the youngster was considering Simons challenge, though none of them ever suspected his answer: "Ill go."
The frail child slowly picked his way through the debris. Darkness was closing in on the children quickly, and would blanket them all very soon. Lucius could hear the other children calling for him to hurry, but he kept his pace steady, and watched his surroundings almost casually. Even when Simon grabbed a few stones and threw them at the nearby structures to startle him, Lucius was unmoved. Within a few minutes, Lucius arrived at the end of the structure, and looked back to wave at the others. A moment later, he vanished around the far side, out of sight.
Simon rejoined the other children, and they waited, but Lucius did not return from his trip around the saloon. Ten minutes passed, and still no sign of the meek boy.
"Simon, go get him," the other kids urged. "He shouldnt be gone this long."
Simon considered going after the missing boy, figuring maybe he had gone too far with the challenge, but coming to the North End had been Lucius idea, after all. He said he played here all the time
Just as Simon was sure the other kids would run off to find a grown-up, Lucius emerged from the other side of the structure. All the other boys cheered for a moment, but then went quiet as one of the shadows behind Lucius moved. Their applause turned to screams for Lucius to run, but his pace never faltered as he picked his way back to the others.
The crowd of children roared Lucius name as he joined them, but Simon was less enthusiastic. "Darn runt!" he grumbled. "Youre not so tough."
"Why dont you go around the building, and show me how easy it is," Lucius challenged.
"What did you say?" Simon shot back, buying for time as much as anything.
"Are you afraid?"
Simon stepped out onto the desolate road himself, looking back to Lucius and the others after hed made it a third of the way to the saloon. "Im not afraid," he called to them as he continued down the hellish street. In the distance, the children heard a bell, calling them home to the orphanage for the day, but none of them listened, too shocked by Simons steps into the darkened rubble.
Contrary to his words, Simon was very, very afraid. He reached into his pocket and took hold of a silver cross, the only possession he had to remind him of his mother. The cross had belonged to her, and she was always fond of saying that it was a "light in the darkness".
Maybe it could be his light now
A few minutes later, Simon neared the old saloon at the end of the street, and moved toward the door. To its side he could see through one of the broken windows, lit only by the pale glow of the blooming moon. Just inside the window, Simon made out the figure of a man, standing close to the wall, trying not to be seen. The mans face was turned directly at him, but its absolute stillness washed away its features.
Simon briefly considered running, but pushed his fear back down into his belly. Hes probably just an old drunk, Simon thought to himself. Nothing to worry about.
"Youre dead." The words wafted out of the saloon from the direction of the hidden man, and Simon strained to make out whether they were his or those of another inside the building. The figures face still did not move, but his form slowly leaned forward, drawing its face into the moonlight.
He isnt human! Simon backed away from the creature as its misshapen features finally shifted, revealing a maw of long fangs dripping with bloody strings of saliva. Simon turned and bolted away from the building as the creature bounded toward the door. Up ahead, toward the center of civilized Gomorra, Simon could see the others already retreating, heading home. Did they see it? Simon wondered.
Simon didnt bother picking his way carefully across the debris-ridden street, dashing over wreckage and leaping across crevices as quickly as his legs would allow. Twice, he tripped, and both times he nearly dropped Checkers or the cross, but somehow he managed to retain both as he stumbled back onto solid ground.
Looking back into the North End, Simon found nothing. Whatever the creature had been, whatever its intentions - it wasnt interested in pursuing him. Or maybe it was as afraid of entering Gomorra proper as he was of its home
Minutes later, as Simon caught up to the others, he heard telling the others not to worry - that he would take Checkers back. None of the kids were shaking or babbling about monsters, so Simon assumed that they had somehow missed the creature from the saloon, and decided not to mention it. No need to start a bragging war or convince the others that he was crazy.
Simons thoughts and heart were racing too fast for him to comment about Lucius promise. Instead, he simply fell in outside the crowd of children listening to Lucius, and watched the shadows until they arrived back at the orphanage.
Lucius was about to enter the building after the others when Simon grabbed him and roughly pulled him aside. Simon wasnt sure what he was going to do, or how he would do it, but he knew that he had to do something.
"I dont know what you are," he hissed at Lucius, "but Ill find out. And Ill tell everyone!"
Lucius remained calm and quiet, saying nothing in return, but his eyes bore into Simons own, and the former bully could make out just a hint of red burning somewhere deep within. Seconds later, Lucius pulled himself free of Simons grasp and disappeared into the building.
* * *
Simons parents died when he was around three years old. They had come to Gomorra to found a parish, and they had a promising start. Simons father was a very pious man and his mother was completely devoted to her family. Simon had no real memories of his parents. His only connection to them was the small silver cross that his mother used to wear, which he usually kept wrapped in a tiny piece of cloth in his pants pocket. Whenever he was sad or frightened, he would hold it, and it would somehow make him feel safe.
He clutched the cross tightly tonight as he watched Checkers play in his cage next to his pillow.
So many others have come and gone, he thought, but Ive always been here. When do I get to leave?
A floodgate of tears was released, but Simon remained absolutely quiet in his bed. He couldnt bear the thought of the others - or worse, Lucius - finding him crying. Looking out the window, Simon prayed - for the first time in many years - that some family would find him, rescue him
Then this nightmare would finally end.
Lucius slept soundly on the opposite side of the room. Moonlight struck his face, lighting up his smooth features and illuminating Clovis form as it rested on the nightstand nearby.
You dont fool me, Simon thought to himself.
For a moment, the clouds blotted out the moonlight, sending the room into near total darkness. Simon blinked away the tears, allowing his eyes to acclimate, and he caught a glimpse of what looked like two shiny red sparkles just to the right of Lucius bed - where Clovis rested.
Watching for a few moments longer, Simon could clearly make the red discs out. They looked just like what hed seen happen to Lucius own eyes on the playground the day before. Studying them more carefully and shifting in his bed, Simon found that they changed when seen from a different angle - like those of a cat.
Maybe it is just a cat, Simon thought. When the discs blinked out for a second, he was sure. Just a cat, staying in from the cold.
Simon settled back into bed, pulling the blankets close to his face, and tried to sleep, but was roused by something soft hitting the floor across the room. It did sound like the noise had come from somewhere near Lucius bed, but he couldnt make anything out in the clouded gloom. Even the light reflected from the cats eyes was missing.
Just the cat, hitting the floor as it ran off, he assured himself.
Then the clouds gave way to the moonlight once more, and Simon nearly screamed in terror.
Clovis was sitting motionless, as always, near the foot end of Lucius bed. Five feet from his former position!
Simon was too afraid to react. He covered his face again. Moments passed and it felt as if someone were gently sitting on the edge of his own bed. Nearly frozen with terror, he dared to look, but saw nothing.
Looking over to Lucius, Simon could make Clovis out, still resting at the edge of Lucius bed, but facing Simons own. Many minutes later, after assuring himself that the toy was not going to move, Simon once again hid his head beneath the covers and forced his breathing and heart to slow down. He slipped his arm beneath his pillow and grabbed his mothers crucifix for a quick prayer.
Nearly an hour later, he drifted off to sleep.
* * *
Simon was roused by a commotion around his bed. He heard one of the other children in the hallway calling for Miss Singleton. He could still feel his mothers crucifix held tightly in his hand. Blinking into wakefulness, Simon followed the kids vision to the side of his bed, where Checkers cage rested. Bloodstains trailed from the box and spread over onto the sheets of his bed.
Lying upon Simons nightstand was the motionless form of Clovis.
"Give Clovis back!" Lucius screamed at the top of his lungs as he bolted out from his bed.
Simon opened the cage to find Checkers torn to pieces. His head, legs, and tail were separated from the body and laid next to it. Simon screamed, jumped out of bed and threw Clovis as hard as he could at Lucius. The toy hit the wall and fell to the floor next to its owners bed, just as Meredith Singleton walked through the door.
"Simon, whats gotten into you?" she said.
"I didnt do anything. It was Lucius," cried Simon.
The bloody cage drew Miss Singleton quickly over to Simons bed. Without saying a word, she took the cage by its handle and grabbed Simons arm, dragging him to her office. Widow Withers, who had just arrived for the day, followed close behind.
"Miss Withers, please check on the boys," Meredith said to her. Neither Simon nor the school-marm noticed the old womans near-objection before she scurried off toward the boys room.
Meredith roughly sat Simon down, and leaned in close over him. "Why did you do this, Simon? Whats gotten into you?"
"I didnt do it," he answered, but she was having none of it.
"You know what this mouse meant to the others. How could you?" Meredith was clearly on the verge on tears herself.
"I didnt do it" he pleaded again. "It was Lucius." Tears streamed down his cheeks, a tactic that had served him well in the past. But this time, his tears were real.
"Young man, you wont get out of this by lying." Meredith grabbed Simon, laying him over her knee
Minutes later, Simon was led back to the boys room by Widow Withers, who had returned from cleaning up and disposing of the cage.
"You know Im telling the truth dont you," Simon asked her.
"Does it matter?" she smiled.
A chill ran through Simons body as Withers dragged him before the rest of the children.
"Apologize to the others, Simon " she prompted, per Miss Singletons instructions.
Simon gulped back his fear, finally realizing his true plight. He wasnt merely alone.
He was hunted.
And Lucius wasnt the only hunter
* * *
That evening, as Simon was finishing his chores for the day, he caught sight of Lucius and the others playing at the edge of the barn. They had finished their chores hours before, but Simons duties were twice as difficult today, many of which formerly belonged to the others.
The children made sure that Simon could hear their games - and their taunting jibes - but Lucius words were the worst. "Ill protect you," he told them. "Simon will never hurt you."
"Lucius! Lucius!" The children danced in a circle around him and chanted his name, over and over again.
"Dont worry, everyone. Clovis can be our new mascot. Simon cant hurt him."
* * *
Shortly after the others finished dinner, Simon closed the barn door and started back to the main house. He didnt get more than ten feet before Lucius stepped in front of him. Exhausted, and startled by the smaller boys silent approach, Simon jumped back, immediately on the defensive.
"Afraid of something?" Lucius quipped.
"Not of you, runt. I just wasnt expecting anyone to be sneaking around this time of night."
Lucius smiled back at Simon. To anyone else, it might have seemed disarming. "I just want us to be friends."
"Get away from me!" Simon screamed, fire raging in his veins.
"If you touch Clovis and say youre sorry, then we can be friends. Dont you want to be friends and play with the rest of us? The others will play with you if I tell them to."
"I dont need you!" Simon seethed. "I dont know what youve done to the others, or what you want, but Ill find out. Ill stop you!"
Shrugging and tucking the stuffed animal under his armpit again, the boy who had once been known as Lucifer Whateley turned and walked away. Hed offered Simon one chance, but now they were enemies.
And Lucifers family had a lot of experience handling enemies.