Kev started seeing them around the corner of 6th Street and Prospero. He assumed they were hallucinations at first, but they also looked familiar.
He was freezing, face numb, hands stuffed so far down into his pockets they were almost in his sneakers. The holes in his jeans were like wind tunnels. Blood was frozen on his temple. A fluffy, prismatic halo surrounded every light, the city street curiously tilted.
He probably had a concussion.
The Christmas music, discordant and tinny, seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Bells on shop doors jangled, horns honked, people moved around him on the sidewalk like mighty waves around a tiny, rolling pebble.
Freezing rain pelted down sideways, stinging like bitty bullets, slicing tiny cuts into his exposed skin. It covered the dirty snow on the sidewalk and turned the concrete into an ice rink. He slipped as he walked, slipped again, slipped, and bumped into a lamppost.
He stopped, holding on to the lamppost like it was a life raft. The music whirled around him, muffled conversations of passersby adding to his confusion and nausea. He closed his eyes, trying to clear his head. Everything hurt. There wasn’t anything that didn’t hurt now.
He shouldn’t have done it. He’d broken his own rule, the last one he’d had left. Kids with empty pockets and little spiders under their skin couldn't afford rules, he’d told himself. Now he was sorry.
When he’d first landed on the streets, he’d found ways to survive. It had been surprisingly easy. Too young to get a job or anything, he’d fallen right in with some guys who were super happy—in love, really—with having a nice, middle-class blond boy to run errands for them. He picked up and delivered for them. He was their lookout, their runner, their mascot. They’d kept him clothed, fed, supplied with phones, cash in his pocket. Girls too, sometimes. Only when Bruno was feeling generous with his stable full of box. But having a little fun with Bruno’s girls had just shown Kev that there were certain things he, personally, would never do for money. How low could you go, right?
He had an angel’s face, a sweet smile, an easy way about him that Bruno liked. He and his boys thought Kev was funny with his middle-school jokes, lime soda addiction, and gleeful pyromania. He loved to burn: It made him feel good. He could make anything burn. Tires, mailboxes, his neighbor’s garage, and Melissa Ganko’s locker, among other things.
His school had kicked him out for this predilection, and his mother had tried to send him to military school, so he’d walked out. No one understood this need he had but Bruno. He called him Match-Man—his little Match-Man—and gave him stuff to burn. Bruno brought him matches from fancy restaurants to encourage his Little Match-Man’s favorite hobby.
He even knew about the accident.
But Bruno liked him just the way he was. He didn’t judge.
For two years, he was Match-Man, not Kevin or Kev. One of the cool kids. Bruno’s favorite.
“Just leave the product alone,” Bruno had said. “That’s the only rule in this house.” Kev could do whatever else he wanted, but no drugs. Bruno needed him healthy, stable, attractive—not twitchy and strung-out looking. Just a nice, normal kid, hanging around at the skate park or the school, looking innocent and happy, taking money, and delivering Bruno’s products without looking out of place or suspicious.
But of course, he’d had to try it. Just a sampling. He was around it all day, so what was the harm? A little in the nose, on the gums, a few pills, a needle between the toes. One of Bruno’s girls showed him how to hide the marks like that, between the toes.
There was so much of it, how could they miss any?
He’d been so stupid.
They kept track. Of course they’d noticed.
He was lucky they hadn’t killed him. Bruno liked him too much to kill him, to have him disfigured or hurt.
“Sweet kid,” he’d said, shaking his head. “You dumb fuckin’ kid, Match-Man. You had one rule to follow, and boy you fucked up, fucked up real bad.” Bruno had shed real tears of disappointment that night. He shoved a bunch of product into an old paper bag—a whole pharmacy’s worth—and placed it in Kev’s hands before ordering Metro and Jay to throw him down the stairs and into the street.
“Kill yourself,” Bruno’s voice had boomed down, sounding out for all the world like a sorrowful papa. “Go ahead and kill yourself with that shit, Little Match-Man. Don’t make me do it.” The door at the top of the stairwell had slammed shut, and that was the end of that. He had the clothes he was wearing and a bag of assorted drugs—that was all. Not even his skateboard.
If he’d been smart, he would have sold the drugs, taken the money, and left town on a bus. Gone somewhere sunlit, sandy, and warm, like Florida. He could’ve lived on the street in a different city without sleeting ice that scratched his face like cat’s claws, but the temptation to stay high for as long as he could was too strong. He’d gone through the bag in less than two weeks. Then it was time to do whatever it took to get more.
As it turned out, he’d been wrong. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to keep the spiders from crawling.
He heard a high-pitched twitter and opened his eyes. Two women hurried by, holding their purses tightly against their sides. Their lashes skittered to and away from Kev, buzzing like flies as they passed, chittering to one another. Two spooked little birdies.
I’m so scary now, he thought and laughed. The laugh came out funny, and he wanted to stop, but it was too ridiculous: the idea of him being scary. There was almost nothing left of him. His phlegmy giggle was hard to reign in.
He managed to stop, though, when he heard a whisper. He stopped to listen.
He looked ahead, squinting. Among the pedestrians hurrying through the inclement weather stood a small, scrawny figure, statue-still and staring at him. It had the impression of a girl, a really skinny girl, dressed in torn leggings and an old fishing hat. Her mouth hung open, missing teeth, blue gums. Her eyes were shiny. He’d seen eyes like that on night-time trashcan raiders: racoons, and opossums.
It’s a concussion, he told himself. I’m hurt. I’m seeing things.
There was a halo of light around everything but the girl. Around her there was a black hole—a syrupy darkness.
Scary, she said. Her mouth didn’t move, but he knew it was her.
Okay, he thought. He pushed away from the lamppost, turned, and walked unsteadily back the way he’d come, stumbling around the next corner. Restaurant and shop windows glowed like fish tanks, warm activity swimming behind them. Happy shoppers, happy eaters. Christmas trees and holiday lights everywhere, heels clicking by, and shopping bags rustling. His head swam.
He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, sparing a look behind him. She wasn’t there, hadn’t followed. He sagged a little in relief, crossing his arms, and peeked into a window out of the corner of his eyes, seeking asylum. The people inside laughed and flashed their forks full of comfort, drank from glasses and steaming mugs. He licked his lips.
God, he was so hungry. Claws scratched inside his belly.
He shouldn’t have broken his rule.
The guy hadn’t even paid. He’d started off nice and reassuring, putting Kev at ease, then shoving him into the backseat of the Lexus and doing whatever he wanted. The man had taken his time, too. Kev had never done that before and it had hurt like hell. Hurt in ways and places he hadn’t realized you could even be hurt.
And then he’d shoved Kev out of the car with so much force, he’d fallen onto the pavement and hit his head really hard. Hard enough to bring blood and make the bells ring. The man had laughed, called him a pretty little faggot, and driven off.
Kev had done the one thing he said he would never do for money. He’d done it and ended up with nothing to show for it. He was in worse shape than before. Tears burned on the edges of his lashes, surprisingly hot against the ice of his skin.
“Move it, kid.” A man in a nice suit stood in the doorway of the restaurant, scowling. Big and burly, not a dude to wise off to. He waved a hand at Kev. “You’re making the patrons nervous, tweaker. Move along.”
“Yeah, I’m so scary,” Kev said, frozen lips distorting his words.
Scary. He looked around.
Now there were two of them, standing a block away. The hat-girl and now a boy, also scrawny, shredded, skin blue. The boy was casually gnawing on a rat that he held in his hand.
“You’re disgusting is what you are,” the man said. “Get your sorry, vagrant ass away from this establishment before I make you get away, capiche?”
“Yeah, got it,” Kev mumbled, not once taking his eyes from the disturbing twosome. They watched him back. Rat guts dripped out from the carcass, and the boy caught them neatly and licked them off his hand with a long, gray tongue.
“So move it,” the man said. “Now.”
Kev moved it. He walked backward, eyes on the two shiny-eyed kids, hands out of his pockets, risking frostbite in exchange for balance. He bumped into someone.
“Sorry,” Kev mumbled, head down. He turned and ran, skidding and sliding. He turned a corner, then another, ending up by a darkened playground, swings and teeter-totters encrusted in a candy-coating of thick ice. He grabbed onto the wrought iron fence that surrounded the playground for support, cold metal spears biting into his hands. At least I can still feel it, he thought.
He had to get inside. He needed food. He needed something to drink. He had to find somewhere to go. Somewhere he wouldn’t get grabbed by the authorities, tossed into foster care, sent back to his mom, locked in a loony bin. Maybe he could break into someone’s basement, find an empty house—
A drive-by memory of fire and screams—the screams of children. An empty house. He thought that it had been an empty house. How could he have known?
The chains of a swing creaked gently. Scary, scary.
He looked up, tensing painfully, gripping the fence harder. His thin coat fluttered around him like an empty sheet.
They were on the playground, five of them. The girl with the hat was on the swing, another was sitting on the end of a slide, and two small ones were in the dark under the jungle gym. Rat-eater perched himself on a springy zebra, bobbing gently back and forth. Their eyes were dull, feral lamps, all shining their beams on him.
Kev pulled his breath in through his teeth, exhaling frosty smoke. “You’re scaring me,” he said. “Please stop.”
Scary, they whisper-sang. Scary, scary, Kevin McGarry, man in the car popped your cherry...
“I don’t know what you want,” he sobbed. “I didn’t mean to. I can’t take it back.” He was so tired, so numb. “Please, go away.”
“Kid, you okay?” The voice was right next to him, high, quavering, making Kev jump convulsively and bring his hands up to shield his face
A wizened old man, skin dark and freckled, wearing worn but warm clothes, regarded him with concern. He was carrying a shopping bag nestled in his arms. “You okay?” he asked again.
“I need something to eat,” Kev said. His own voice sounded hollow, far away. “I’m hungry.”
Hungry, they echoed. Hungry, hungry, Kevin the junkie, what would he do to get some money?
Kevin pointed a shivering finger at the playground. “Can you hear them?” he asked. “Can you see them?”
The man glanced at the playground, beginning to look alarmed. He was on his guard now. Kevin knew the answer from the expression on the man’s face.
Hungry, hungry, Bruno’s toy monkey, now he’s a junkie—
“They’re only there for me,” Kevin said miserably. “They know me, they know things about me. You have to help me.”
The man looked nervous now. “Well, I um…” He looked around—probably for other people, someone to help him—and saw no one. He patted his pockets. “I don’t carry no cash, now, I um ...”
“What’s in the bag?” Kev asked. “Anything to eat in there, old guy?”
“Nothing for you,” the old man said, shaking his finger. “Now, now, nothing for you in here.”
A tiny fire burned in Kev’s chest. Not for me, huh. Nothing for me.
Nothing left in the world for me–not now.
The man pointed behind him. “There’s a shelter, House of Mercy, just a few blocks away. I bet they could help you out if you need a place to go.”
“Oh, yeah?” Kev said. He moved forward clumsily, grabbing the bag. The man moved backwards, fast for an old guy, but Kev wrenched the bag right out of his hands.
“This is for me if I say it is,” Kev choked. He shoved the old man down and ran, not stopping to look back at the things on the playground, not checking to see if the man was all right, just running into the cold wind blindly, holding the bag like a precious baby.
“Merry Christmas, asshole!” Kev said. The weird laugh erupted again. It sounded more like crying.
He thought he heard someone yell behind him, maybe the man, maybe a cop, he didn’t know. With the last of his strength, he staggered all the way to the end of an alley. He collapsed against the wall, sliding down.
He sat, crisscross-applesauce as they used to say in preschool, his back against the brick wall. A single lamp shone over his head, the weak green light just enough to see by. Desperately, he opened the bag and looked inside, rummaging around.
The bag held a box of cheap Christmas tree decorations, a pair of black socks, and a bottle of cheap whiskey. He groaned. At the very bottom, he spied a package of what might have been crackers or cookies, and his hopes rose. But when he pulled it out, it was a red and blue box of kitchen matches.
He laughed weakly, shaking the box, still loving the sound. Hey, Match-Man, Bruno said in his head. Guess you should have followed the rules.
“Guess so,” Kev said.
He ripped the plastic packaging off of the socks and pulled them onto his hands like mittens, barely able to use his fingers now. Fumbling, he unscrewed the cap of the whisky bottle and dropped it on the ground. It rolled away. He took a deep, long drink from the bottle. It burned his throat, burned his belly, made him feel instantly lighter and warmer. His brain floated. He sighed.
He looked around the alley for a trash can, or paper, or something to burn, but it was bare except for grimy layers of dirt. The only door was chained and padlocked. “No Loitering.” He weakly gave it the finger.
With the last of his strength, Kev opened the box of matches and lit one, the beautiful light of its miniscule fire warming the space around it. Kev hovered over it, holding it as close to his face as he dared.
When it burned his sock-covered fingers, he dropped it, blowing it out and shaking his hand from the pain. He lit another. And another. And another. He knew he should save some of them, make them last ... after this one ...okay, after this one ... but he couldn’t stop.
He was almost out of matches when he began to feel them there, watching him. His eyes flicked up, then down again. There were a lot of them now. Some were very small. Some had no clothes. Some had old wounds, bloodless and wrinkled. Kev was afraid to look up long enough to count them, just catching impressions of them. Enough to give him a heavy, hopeless feeling.
Scary, scary, Kevin McGarry ...
“Please leave me alone.” Kev whispered, his voice a ghost.
Hungry. They sounded plaintive, full of longing. “Hungry, hungry …”
“Me too,” Kev said. He wiped tears from his face and risked a proper look—a long look up at them.
They surrounded him. Blue, broken, black-mouthed. Starveling children, wild children. The rat-eater had chewed down to the tail now. The ragged girl in the fishing hat knelt on the ground on the other side of the pile of spent matches, regarding him with wide, ravenous eyes. She smiled. Her gray tongue licked her teeth.
Kev lit the last match and watched it burn down. He was too tired to shiver, too dehydrated for more tears, too cold to move. He leaned back against the wall and listened to his heartbeat slowly winding down. The sounds of the city faded, his body numbed to pain, and his breath became as cold as the air.
The alley was silent, except for the falling ice.
He stood with them now, on the side of the dead. He could see Kev the Match-Man, frozen stiff, lying still against the wall. Eyes like glass, white face turned to the sky, lips blue and slightly parted. Sock-covered hands lay in his lap.
He looked down at the children standing there beside him. “I didn’t mean to.”
Kev started to forget who the boy was, memories drifting away like smoke. He felt nothing except an emptiness—a bottomless, scratching need that all the rats in the sewers couldn’t feed.
Hungry, he whispered.
Hungry, the children agreed. They crawled toward the still form of what used to be Kev the Match-Man, fingers turning to claws, teeth turning to knives.
Knives. All the better to pull cold meat from bone.
ALEX NORTON is the author of Witchbone, a series of horror-fantasy novels for upper middle-grade readers. Alex also creates poetry and short stories that occasionally escape and run around loose on the internet. You can find Alex in the wilds of New Hampshire or on Twitter @The_Xanomorph.