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First Contact - Third Wave - Chapter 342 (Sword Hoof)

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Palgret barely yanked down his squad leader as the first round cracked right through where his squad leader's head would have been. The round, leaving behind a reddish-gold incandescent line, impacted behind Palgret and blew a hole the size of a melon out of the ferrocrete wall. The armored green mantid at Palgret's foot scrambled around to behind Palgret's heel.
"CONTACT! MULTIPLE CONTACTS!" the Terran yelled.
The black Mantid next to where the wall was suddenly crumbling performed a complex roll that got him around the rubble to the other side in a weird U-turn. The greenie next to him threw a handful of pumpkin-seed looking black objects up as it deployed the wings on its back. It hit a rocket thruster and jetted ten feet down the hall, weaving between Maktanan who were all scrambling and trying to find cover.
The two big Precursor machines revealed by the crumbling wall flinched back as the pumpkin seeds erupted into directed penetrators that blew off limbs, shattered weapons. One screamed past the two clankers, whistling loudly as it vanished into the tunnel.
Palgret noticed his squad leader's helmet had an upraised bubble of stressed battlesteel laminate streaking across the entire top.
"GET SOME!" the Terran yelled, turning from where he was working and leveling the digging machine. High-vee rounds bounced off the Terran's armor, scattering sparks from the black warsteel, smashing into the ferrocrete and blowing craters out of the manufactured stone. Lasers hit and just vanished into the black armor as the human played the beam around the tunnel.
For a moment Palgret wondered if the Terran forgot he was holding a digging tool and not a rifle as he triggered, ripping the ferrocrete into fog around the machines.
"FIRE IN THE HOLE!" the Terran yelled as Palgret's squad leader tried to roll away from Palgret.
--oh shit-- one of the Mantids said. The one by Palgret's foot scrambled up Palgret's back.
The Terran did something, Palgret wasn't sure what, and the entire tunnel filled with bluish white lightning, the bolts as thick as Palgret's leg. The bolts ripped apart the robots, shattering them.
Then the fog caught fire.
The tunnel exploded out with a roar of plasma.
The Terran stood right in the path of it, laughing madly as he kept waving the beam back and forth. Palgret expected to see the human torn apart or incinerated even as he brought his arms up to protect his face shield, feeling his rifle's sling system pull it around behind his back.
The flames puffed out instead of roared out, just barely wrapping around the Terran, who was stepping into the flames.
"GET SOME! GET SOME!" the human yelled. The beam snarled rather than hummed as he kept ripping at the walls of the Precursor tunnel and triggering the beams to fire at the same time rather than the hundreds of alternating pulses a second.
--get perimeter up-- 030 printed on the face shields of every Maktanan and Lanaktallan soldier. --damn you Sargeant fall back--
Palgret noticed his squad leader didn't object, just set to calling out names, making sure nobody had gotten killed by the wild firing in the beginning.
030 stood up on Palgret's shoulder, pointing at the tunnel. --one squad dig in there-- he pointed at where the human had torn a passage into the Precursor. --one squad dig in there-- he pointed the ground. --seismics get em planted--
The black mantid that had rolled behind the chunk of ferrocrete stood up, opening his helmet, spitting the broken and crumpled cigarette out, and closing his helmet again. The Terran was back down the tunnel, back into the maintenance hallway.
--officers gather up-- the greenie said, tapping the side of Palgret's helmet. --we rid to victory--
"Send a greenie to officer's school and suddenly he thinks he's a hive queen," one of the black mantids joked.
The answer was a complex equation that took a second for Palgret's data query from his armor to reveal was something rather crude: the equation was the point of collapse of muscular constricting strength of an anal sphincter after having a large round object pushed through it with the object roughly the size of the black mantid's head.
For some reason, the realization of what exactly the greenie had said made Palgret laugh.
Palgret's squad leader touched him on the arm. When Palgret looked at him he tapped the top of his helmet. "Thanks."
"No problem," Palgret said.
Palgret stood still, bringing his rifle back around as the LT and the greenie, who was apparently a Captain, conferred. Another human came jogging up as the LT assigned the two squads to dig in, the Captain told the Terran with the drones to secure the entry points, and the new human joined Palgret's squad.
Palgret swallowed around a lump when he realized two things.
One: He would be following the Precursor made tunnel.
Two: Captain 030 would be riding on his shoulder.
"Might I ask why, sir?" the LT asked, looking at Palgret somewhat suspiciously.
--double plus good instincts squared-- 030 transmitted. --C reflexes + 0sR2T3--
"Fast reflexes when the ambush went down," the black Mantid translated.
--yes--
"Do I hang back or something?" Palgret asked as he followed the human, who had strapped on his heavy armor, into the passage he'd created that led into the downed Precursor.
--no-- 030 said.
--ride that maktanan to victory-- 528 said from where he was standing on the back of one of the Terrans.
--yes-- 030 waved.
Palgret kind of felt like a riding animal or something for a moment.
The rubble kept shifting as he climbed up it, third in line. The battlesteel armor was ripped away in a rippled pattern, making it so the thick armor was easily to climb up. For a moment Palgret was jealous of how the black mantid that was with his squad had such an easy time climbing up.
Then he saw the Terran, who moved with a weird fluid grace, using his hands and arms to help pull him along up a sheer section of the armor, a rope trailing out behind him. Within thirty seconds he vanished over the lip.
--annoying yes-- 030 said with an emoji rolling its eyes.
"Are they always like that?" Palgret asked.
--yes-- 030 said. Accompanying the printed statement was an image of a human woman in dress in a grassy green field beneath a blue sky twirling in place firing fully automatic weapons in each hand with the caption "The Dakka Dakka Dakka of Music" at the top.
It was kind of lost of Palgret, but he got the idea.
Climbing up the rope wasn't easy, and 030 made Palgret go last, but it beat climbing the sheer slab of armor without the rope. He was grateful that 030 called for a break while 281 popped out his wings and streaked off to run recon.
The squad was sitting in the twisted and wrecked loading mechanism for the 'snub nosed' near C velocity cannon. The shells were the size of ground cars, two of them jammed up, on half eaten away. At Palgret's squad leader's insistence he took a couple swallows of the G8OR8 fluid that the Terrans had insisted when into everyone's armor instead of water (once it was adjusted by the medics for varying physiology) and once again was happy with the taste of hulgark berry juice.
After about five minutes 281 came back, cutting his jet thruster and angling sharply up so he just dropped a handspan down onto the floor in what looked to Palgret to be a long practiced maneuver.
030 and the LT got together with the Terran, the two black mantids, and Palgret's squad leader, all looking at the holographic map that 281 had built on his recon.
When they called time Palgret got up with a groan, doublechecking to make sure 030 was on his shoulder, and followed Culvit who was following ten paces behind the Terran. The Terran had found a maintenance hatch and opened it so that 281 could scout.
Palgret felt nervous, moving through the dark maintenance passage. There was no vibration, no lights lit, no sparks, nothing. The pipes were cold according to his visor, which added thermals if anything was too hot or too cold or if something had power applied. Everyone was using IR lamps, there was no ambient light to increase.
The assault came suddenly, a single mechanical defender swinging a sparking fusion torch at the Terran, the clanker lunging out of a side passage.
Palgret's eyes opened wide and he opened his mouth to yell when the Terran grabbed the extended manipulator, broke it with a weird looking movement, then smashed the torso of the clanker with a single elbow strike that caved in its chest plate. It shot sparks and started to slump but the Terran grabbed it. He lowered the clanker down and peered down the hallway.
"Think I startled him," the Terran said.
--rude-- 281 transmitted.
--maintain noise discipline-- 030 said.
They went back to moving quietly through the dark. Twice Culvit thumped his rifle against the wall when they were going around a sharp corner. The second time Palgret had to resist and urge to slap the other trooper across the back of the head.
The group moved into a vast open space, filled with twisted wreckage. There were half completed treaded vehicles scattered about, all of the equipment on the right hand side of the space. The floor and ceiling were buckled where the conveyors had torn free and some equipment sparked and flashed in the jun pile.
--take 5-- 030 ordered. --281 scout--
The other greenie deployed his wings, the thruster popped into position, and it sped away with little more than the whine of the jet turbine to give it away.
This time Palgret's squad leader and the LT came over to him, the Terran climbing on the wreckage, moving around to look at everything.
"Where are we going?" the Lanaktallan platoon leader asked.
--head toward center-- 030 said. --strategic intelligence array housing should be there most heavy armor area-- what followed next is a probability chain that the green mantid quickly stopped.
"Perhaps it is dead?" the squad leader asked.
"From crashing into the ground? I think not," Lieutenant Mu'ucru'u said. He opened his faceplate and lowered his jaw guard to spit shredded plastic cud on the ground. "Even if it is, we must ensure."
--not dead till scrape off boot-- 030 flashed.
Lieutenant Mu'ucru'u nodded. He suddenly gave out a wheezing laugh. "Our ancestors would fall upon the ground and convulse in shame, Captain, at the sight of us working with one another at the guidance of a maddened primate."
030 just flashed an emoji of a red face grinding its teeth with steam shooting out of its ears.
281 came streaking back, cutting off the turbine and slowing down by spiraling down to land at a the speed of a light jog. He transmitted a quick burst of code that unfolded into a map that 030 projected between everyone.
--shit-- 030 flashed. --mission update-- 030 motioned for the black mantids to join them, then got the human's attention from where he was kneeling down looking at the front of tracked vehicle.
Palgret stood silently as the visual footage rolled up. What he saw chilled him.
There were bubbling globes and tanks scattered throughout a room the size of a sports arena playing field. Some of the tanks had partially dismembered figures inside weakly and slowly thrashing around in the bubbling liquid. Others had only heads or obvious cerebral tissue, maybe with a few inches of spinal cord attached.
--shrieking array-- 030 said. He highlight some of them. --lanaktallan maktanan carikan--
Drones moved through, one carrying a weakly struggling Carikan female. It dropped her into the bubbling liquid in one of the tanks and closed the top. As it moved away metal tentacles lifted up from the bottom.
Palgret retched as the woman was torn apart, leaving behind only part of the torso and the head, the blood all swirling to the bottom.
--stimgum-- 030 sent on a private channel. --helps--
Palgret nodded, tabbing up a piece and starting to chew on it.
The human's eyes went from cold amber to bright burning red and Lieutenant Mu'ucru'u gave a low sound of pain before reaching up and tapping his helmet. The Lanaktallan sighed.
"Psychic shielding took a minute to deploy," the Lanaktallan said.
--all elements go to 75% psychic shielding-- 030 ordered.
It made Palgret's back teeth tingle when it got above 65%.
"We gonna bring mercy to those people, Captain?" the human asked, his voice cold and grating, belying the red of his eyes.
--must before online-- 030 said. --shrieking array double plus ungood--
Palgret listened as the mantid officer ordered everyone into lines.
He noted that the diminutive officer put the human straight up front and reaffirmed to Culvit that the Maktanan give the Terran at least ten paces of a lead.
--contact = terran go boom-- 030 joked.
Culvit gulped and nodded.
As they headed out of the wrecked assembly factory Palgret noticed someone had drawn a crude approximation of human male genitalia on the wall with fluorescent blue paint-stick.
The same color as the paint-stick that Palgret had seen Lieutenant Mu'ucru'u put in his right flank satchel when he'd come walking up.
The squad was quiet, making Palgret nervous, as they headed deeper into the hull of the massive Precursor. Twice they passed side corridors and Palgret saw the black mantids slap an object on each side of the entryway.
"What's that?" Palgret asked.
"Laser tripwire, it'll let us know if and how many move through the entryway," the Mantid said over the suit radio. "Don't want them sneaking up behind us."
"Oh," Palgret suddenly felt foolish.
"I asked the same thing first time I saw it, back before I went to Ranger School on Smokey Cone," the black Mantid said. "Felt like 'hurr durr' when they told me."
Palgret felt a little better.
He saw the human look around a corner then duck back.
CONTACT appeared on Palgret's visor.
"No, please, please don't," came a female maktanan's voice. "Please, you're hurting me," she sobbed.
HOLD POSITION floated up on Palgret's visor.
Before he could protest he saw the two black mantids and the human suddenly move forward. The human had made an odd motion with his arm and a long blade that became wrapped with a purplish nimbus slid out of the forearm housing. The two mantids both drew blades.
"Hold position, men," Lieutenant Mu'ucru'u's voice came through the command channel.
There was the thumping of metal, a Maktanan female voice screamed, then more thumping of metal. The human backed around the corner, holding the Maktanan female up off the ground, his hand holding her muzzle shut, his arm pinning her arms to her waist.
"I'm not going to hurt you," the human said, his helmet's faceplate splitting down the middle and retracting into his helmet. "Terran Army," he whispered.
The female went limp and let the human drag her back to where Lieutenant Mu'ucru'u, Captain 030, and Sergeant Santhik were. She flinched back slightly from the armed soldiers until Sergeant Santhik cleared his visor. She began crying quietly.
"Where did they grab you?" Sergeant Santhik asked.
"Shelter 8831278," she sobbed. "They broke in. The humans are fighting them but they grabbed me."
Lieutenant Mu'ucru'u nodded sagely. "All right," he said. Palgret knew he was relaying from Captain 030. "We can't send you back yet, but we're going to call in some backup."
"They've got other people," the female sobbed.
Palgret felt the urge to hurry up and run out and do something, anything but sneak around in the dark.
The two black mantids came back, both of them crouched low.
"Are we going to save them?" Private Kliptek asked.
"We can't just sit here, we gotta push them out of the shelter," Private Nanuft added.
"We've gotta save the civilians," Private Jagler put in.
A harsh snarl of high pitched static ripped through the helmet's internal speakers.
--SILENCE-- 030 flashed in bright red letters. --be still maintain noise discipline--
"You plan on carrying her two miles through wreckage of a live Precursor on your back, trooper?" Lieutenant Mu'ucru'u snapped over the command channel. "Now be silent."
After a moment Captain 030 shifted on Palgret's shoulder as Lieutenant Mu'ucru'u spoke over the command channel. Palgret saw 281 deploy his wings, lean forward, and go streaking off back the way they had came right as the command channel went life.
"I need four volunteers to go with the human and the two black mantids," he said.
"I'll go, sir," Palgret said.
--good man-- 030 said.
Jagler, Nanuft, and Culvit volunteered to go. They moved over to the human and the two black mantids, waiting a moment, then following the human as they headed the direction they'd retrieved the woman from.
"Where are we going?" Jagler asked.
--smash shrieking array-- 030 said. --pull clankers away from shelter away from rest of team--
To Palgret that sounded like a great way to have every clanker in the Precursor's shell head straight for them with a serious attitude.
"What about the shelter?" Nanuft asked.
There was quiet for a moment.
"Pray to the Digital Omnimessiah that the forces inside can hold them off," the black mantid said.
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I Stayed With My Roommate and His Parents Over The Holidays

Part Two
I was so nervous and excited about starting college. I didn’t really have a great time in high school—who did? I didn’t have a lot of friends and—god, I hate talking about myself like this. Blah blah blah, right? Anyway, I was just glad to begin a fresh start in a place where people didn’t know me at all. I thought it would be refreshing to walk down a corridor without being called a ‘freak’ every single day. But I won’t bore you—let alone myself—with the details of my pre-college teen trauma. Not right now, anyway.
I got accepted into Creekwood University, majoring in American Literature. Creekwood, for those who have never been, is like some sort of utopia. It’s honestly one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen and that alone sold me on my choice when I decided to apply. I went to one of those college open days and decided there and then that Creekwood would be the place for me. Shallow, I know, but when you’re a small town boy, anything else will do.
My parents begrudgingly drove me to Creekwood on a Friday. It was a massive inconvenience to my father who said he had far too much work to do. The whole way there my mother dropped hints about how hungry she was and how she could use a coffee, but my father ignored her in between work calls. Despite the five hour drive, with no food stops or bathroom breaks, my parents couldn’t wait to make the journey back home. They helped me with my bags upstairs in such a haste. I saw other students cringe from their crying mothers and their camera-happy fathers. My mother scanned the room I was staying in and simply said: ‘I can’t believe this is what we’re paying for.’ Just like that, they were gone—no emotional goodbyes necessary. After they left, I ended up collapsing onto one of the bare mattresses. I was too tried from the trip to even unpack yet and I assumed my roommate hadn’t arrived judging by the bare room.
I don’t know when I dozed off or how long for, but I was woken up by someone poking me in the chest. In my hazy state I saw a dark-haired guy towering over me, furrowing his brows. I’m a bit of a grouch when I wake up, so my first instinct was to punch him in the shoulder.
‘Ouch!’ He cried. ‘Dude, I was just trying to wake you up, there’s no need for the violence!’
Disorientated, I shot up from the bed and held my hands over his shoulder like I was some sort of healer. ‘I’m so, so sorry. I er-‘
‘It’s okay,’ he mumbled, rubbing his shoulder a little bit more than he really needed to. I have zero upper body strength, so I know I didn’t hit him that hard. That was the first time I saw his infectious grin. The type of grin that could get someone out of trouble, because you couldn’t help but grin back at him. ‘Good reflexes though. I’m Tris by the way. I’m your roommate, in case you hadn’t already guessed. Or maybe I’m a psycho who just broke into your room, I’ll let you decide.’
‘I’m Cole,’ I said, extending my hand which he grabbed with force and then used to pull me into a hug. A ‘bro hug’—that’s what he called them. His phrase, not mine, by the way. We would have a lot of those as we got to know one another. I wasn’t a massive hugger as you can imagine with what little background I’ve shared so far, but he turned me into one straight away. With him only, at least.
‘So, I’ve gotta grab the rest of my stuff and then I need to grab something to eat because I am absolutely starvin’. Do you want to come along?’
I stared at him, slightly bewildered because no one had ever invited me to have dinner with them. Ever. Especially within minutes of meeting. ‘Erm . . .’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Look it’s on me, and I don’t like eating alone. So please don’t make me beg.’
Tris clasped his hands together, like he was praying and pleaded at me to agree. I know he didn’t need me to eat with him, he was just being friendly and trying to make a good impression, I guessed. ‘I don’t really have a choice, do I?’’
‘Awesome! Okay, so first I’m gonna need some help getting my shit upstairs. I paid a guy a fiver to watch it, so it’s probably been stolen by now. But if it hasn’t can you give me a hand with it?’ Tris had already walked out the door before I agreed, so I followed. Even as we walked down the halls, which was full of students and parents carrying their duvets and cardboard boxes, he greeted people he didn’t even know. He raised his hand awaiting high fives from strangers and some even attempted to reciprocate whilst carrying heavy items, which caused them to drop them, of course. Tris exuded this I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and confidence from day one. It made him so popular, everyone loved him. From day one, I loved him.
Tris and I became best friends instantly. We spent most of our free time together just hanging out, playing Xbox, watching movies. Our other friends barely saw us unless we were together. Even when we should have been studying, he’d tempt me into going out or hanging out with some of the other guys from American Lit. I got a job working in some independent superstore a few weeks after starting college, and on my third week Tris got bored. Because he didn’t have me around as much, he called the store and pretended to be my brother.
My shift supervisor came up to me whilst I was stacking a shelf with a glum face, I honestly thought I was about get fired or something. ‘Cole, your brother’s on the phone. Something’s happened to your grandmother. . .’
I didn’t question it. I knew who it would be on the phone. My supervisor led me to the office, saying she’d give me some privacy and closed the door. As soon as she did I picked up the receiver to hear Tris snickering like a child on the other end. ‘You’re a dick,’ I said. ‘I can’t believe you’re Ferris Bueller-ing me right now!’
We literally watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the night before, so it wasn’t hard to work out where he got the idea from. ‘You’re totally getting fired. I bet you were all like ‘’I don’t have a brother’’, weren’t you?’
‘I’m not as gullible as you think,’ I said.
‘Excellent, I’ll come and pick you up then,’ Tris said, sounding very pleased his plan had worked. ‘Okay, start crying. You can cry on command right?’
To keep his idle hands and mind busy from making bad decisions like that again, I ended up convincing him to apply for a job at the superstore. He even charmed his way onto the same shifts as me. During our shifts, I worked and he mostly just talked to me whilst I worked. But I didn’t mind, it made it so much more fun.
By the time Christmas break came around, I got a phone call from my parents telling me that they wouldn’t be able to pick me up. They decided to go and see my dad’s brother for Christmas but said they left the key with the neighbour and they would transfer me some money for food and a train ticket so I could get home. I honestly wasn’t even disappointed. Although I’d have free reign of my house, I decided to stay at the halls because, quite frankly, I preferred it to being at home. When I told Tris he was so angry with my parents for basically abandoning me during the holidays.
‘That’s cold. Why can’t you go and see your uncle too?’ He asked.
To be honest, I could of. But if I wasn’t even invited, why would I even ask? ‘I really don’t care. I hate Christmas anyway and I’d rather just stay here. There’s a couple of people who are sticking around. Plus I can work more shifts and get double time so . . .’
It was very rare that Tris got pissed off. I could tell he was not only angry, but upset. He knew I didn’t have a close relationship with my parents and he just couldn’t fathom why. If I’m telling the truth, I couldn’t exactly pinpoint a reason myself. ‘Then I’m staying with you,’ he said abruptly.
‘No please, you can’t do that. Your parents will be heart broken.’
He shrugged, furiously grabbing his dirty clothes and socks off the floor and throwing them into the basket. Something I usually ended up doing for him, but he didn’t know what to do with himself. His emotions were all over the place. ‘I’ll invite them here. I’ll even cook them dinner.’
‘Can you even cook?’ I asked.
‘No, but I’ll do it anyway because I’m not leaving you here by yourself.’
In the end, Tris’s parents insisted we came to them for Christmas—no questions asked and no excuses. That was their response when Tris told them I wasn’t going home. I also think it was so he didn’t burn the halls down by attempting to roast a turkey. I was so overwhelmed that I went into the bathroom to cry. Whilst I was in there, Tris knocked on the door.
‘Dude!’ I shouted, acting like I was doing something other than sitting there.
‘Sorry!’ He whispered behind the door. ‘But er, I just wanted to say I’ll make sure you have a good Christmas with us. I’m really happy you’re coming with me. You’ll love my parents and my house is huge, and there’s so much to do, and it’s—honestly, Cole, I’ll make sure it’s the best Christmas you’ve ever had . . . I love you, bro.’
I’m not a crier but this sort of generosity was a lot to handle for me. I wasn’t used to it and I’d never experienced it before. Not like this. ‘Me too,’ I said, behind a cough to clear the chokehold inside my throat.
There was a silence between us. I wiped my tears away and I could of sworn I heard him sniff away some of his own. ‘Anyway! Can you hurry up? Some of us need to jerk off too!’ And just like that, he was back to good old Tris.
Most of the other students had already gone home by December 18th. It was so strange to be in the common room when it was so quiet, but there was still a few students who stayed there for the holidays. Myself and Tris weren’t leaving until the 23rd and I wanted some extra cash so I put myself down to work up until then. Although Tris didn’t need the cash, he took on the same shifts too.
The night before we were due to leave, we had the night off so I made sure we were all packed and ready for the morning so we could just chill out for the evening. Although I was immersed in this weird documentary we were watching, I noticed that Tris was staring into space rather than watching it. He had been since I put the documentary on.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked him.
Snapping out of his trance, he turned to me and gave me a half-assed smile. ‘Nothing.’
‘Tris?’
He put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a little rub. ‘I’m just happy to have a friend like you.’
‘Brother,’ I said, correcting him. He nodded, even though I wasn’t convinced that that was what he was thinking about. But I left it at that, it took him several minutes before he went back into a trance again.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I was so anxious about meeting Tris’s parents and staying in their house—well, it was an estate, actually. I just felt awkward spending Christmas with people I didn’t know. Sure, I know I’d be with Tris, but I know his family were well off and I had all these perceptions about how they would act or be.
Boy, was I wrong.
Tris drove us to the Warrener Estate early the next morning. It took us about three hours and of course, Tris made the journey fun with a playlist full of 70s and 80s tunes he could sing badly to. He loved music, especially from those decades. Tris lived in a town called Silver Oaks, which I had never heard of. It was a artsy town, apparently, that thrived on farming and old money. The outskirts contained huge country houses, and a lot of oak trees. I spotted an old radio tower that looked down on the town from the woods. The whole area looked picturesque due to the heavy snowfall.
‘Impressed?’ Tris asked, grinning at me.
‘Something like that,’ I said. ‘This place is absolutely stunning.’
‘Don’t let the postcard image fool you, some weird shit happens here.’
‘Like what?’
‘We’re just up ahead. Brace yourself.’
We drove through two huge iron bar gates and when we drove down the drive, I was blown away by the size of the estate. It looked like something from a period drama or something, and the fact it was covered in snow only made it more magnificent. Outside the huge black double doors stood Mr and Mrs Warrener, waving as we drove closer to the house.
When we got out the car, they walked straight over to greet us. Mr Warrener was a huge man. Tall and obviously spent a lot of time in the gym, or at least he used to. He was very clean cut and I could smell his expensive aftershave before he even shook my hand. ‘Cole, we’ve heard so much about you.’
‘Yes, we’re so happy you’ll be spending the holidays with us,’ Mrs Warrener said whilst she embraced Tris in her arms. I’d never seen anyone as beautiful as Mrs Warrener. She reminded me of a model in one of my mother’s magazines. I noticed how surgically pristine her makeup was, and how there were no flyaways on her long dark hair. And she looked so young. I did suspect she may have had a bit of help with that. ‘Come on, lets get you boys inside, it’s freezing out here.’
Inside was very modern. Far from what I would have expected in terms of décor and colour scheme judging from the outside. I was too afraid to even sit down. There was a lot of ceiling to floor length windows in the living room, and it was painted in neutral tones that somehow didn’t make it feel bland. It was very homely, accompanied by an already lit fire.
I caught Tris looking at me, and he seemed so happy to see my mouth-wide-open reaction. ‘Make yourself at home, I’ll take our shit—‘ he stopped mid sentence when Mrs Warrener raised her eyebrow at him. ‘Sorry. Our STUFF upstairs.’
Tris and Mr Warrener disappeared with our duffle bags up the huge staircase at the front of the house. I still couldn’t bring myself to sit down, plus Mrs Warrener didn’t move from where she stood. She stared at me with a warm smile, but it was a smile that made me feel awkward, so I broke the ice.. ‘I can’t thank you enough for this, letting me stay here I mean, it was very very kind of you.’
‘It’s no trouble at all,’ she said as she approached me. I had the strangest feeling when she rubbed her hand on my shoulder. The gesture made my heart pound, not because it was awkward, but because it was something my own mother had never done. ‘He thinks of you as family. And any family of Tristan’s is family to us too.’
I nodded. ‘I feel the same way—he’s family to me too, I mean.’
Mrs Warrener released her hand from my shoulder, and walked over to the door. The sound of her stilettos echoed throughout the room. ‘Please, feel free to look around. I’ll go and make us all some hot chocolate,’ she said before walking out. I took in the room on my own and as wowed as I was by everything so far, and as welcoming as The Warrener’s had been, I still didn’t feel at home.
Despite the size of the exterior, the inside of the house was easy to navigate due to the wide open rooms and huge corridors. I eventually found a study that was full of books and a pristine white piano. The bookcase had all the classics, some modern titles and some of my all time favourite books. There was also big square spaces in between the books with framed photographs. In every single one it was Tris and The Warrener’s with a different boy. They all posed like they were in family portraits, backdrops included. I guessed Tris must have been about 15 or 16 in the photos, he didn’t look any different other than his hair style varied with each photo. I figured he must have gone through a lot of phases as a teen.
‘How did I guess you would be in here?’ I jumped back to see Tris leaning against the door frame. He grinned liked an idiot, getting a kick out of the fact he scared me. ‘Pretty impressive collection, huh?’
‘Impressive is one word for it,’ I said. ‘This is immense.’
He walked over and pointed to a copy of a Dickens book. ‘That’s a first edition. Cost my dad a pretty penny.’ He wasn’t showing off, he knew I loved stuff like this.
‘I couldn’t even imagine how much. So, who are all these guys in the photos?’ I asked.
Tris cringed. ‘So embarrassing. So my parents always insisted on taking in exchange students when I was in high school so I could learn other languages and about other cultures. They weren’t even through the school programme. They were university students. My parents also insisted we had our photos taken together.’
‘God, that’s so adorable,’ I said pointing to a photo of Tris with some emo hair style, which earned me a middle finger in return. I counted up the photos and there was at least twelve of them. ‘Do you still keep in contact with any of them?’
‘Through Facebook with some, but mostly no. To be fair, they only stayed for like three weeks at a time and we didn’t really talk much after that. I don’t even know why my parents bother to keep the photos up.’ Tris sighed, examining the pictures. Almost like he was seeing them for the first time. ‘Hey! I’ve not even shown you my room yet, come on!’
Tris practically dragged me out of the room and across the hall which had a circular window in the centre that reminded me of the famous Amityville house. Tris’s bedroom was absolutely huge with a super-kingsize bed, an en suite bathroom and a mini living room area. It was at least four times bigger than our dorm room.
‘So bedroom options,’ he said, clapping his hands together. ‘You can either take one of the guest rooms, my sofa pulls out into a bed too or you can share with me. It’s up to you.’
‘Erm, I don’t even know what to say.’
‘Awesome! You can stay in here then,’ he decided. ‘I’m too used to having you around, I don’t know if I could even sleep without you being close to me.’
I put my arm over his shoulder and gripped him into a headlock. ‘Awh, shucks.’.
Christmas Day with Tris and his family was amazing—well, it started off that way. When I woke up, I was surprised to see a pile of gifts with my name on the tags. And when I say a pile, I mean a mound. I opened them with a sickly feeling in my stomach. Video games, books, a new laptop—honestly it was insane. ‘Mr and Mrs Warrener, I can’t accept these . . .’
Tris sighed. ‘Actually . . . They’re all from me, those extra shifts came in handy after all.’
I felt bad that all I got him was one video game, one he’d actually got for me too. I didn’t know what to say. ‘Tris—this is—‘
‘Yeah, yeah. I love you too,’ he said, wrapping his arm around me whilst Mr and Mrs Warrener smiled at us admirably.
The atmosphere was like something I had never known. Mr and Mrs Warrener cuddled up together, Tris, with his hair all matted, ripping through presents like an actual child on Christmas morning. Not to mention the Christmas songs that played in the background and the sweet smell of spiced apple that filled the room, or the size of the tree that rested in the corner, decorated like it was for a window display. I was so used to Christmas morning being short and sweet. My mother would be in the kitchen making dinner, my father would sit working on his laptop. When I opened my presents there was never any joy from either of them. They just saw it as a box they felt they needed to tick—I did, at least. That’s how it always felt.
Later on, I stepped outside to call my parents and wish them a happy Christmas. It was my mother who I decided to call, knowing that she would actually pick up. My father was always ignoring my calls or texts. ‘Merry Christmas,’ I mumbled when she answered.
‘You too,’ she said, distracted. ‘Did you get into the house okay?’
I frowned. ‘I told you I was spending Christmas with Tris. Didn’t you get my messages?’
There was a long pause on the phone. ‘Why are you inconveniencing someone else? You could have just come home. We were going to surprise you tomorrow and come home and cook you dinner. For god sakes, Cole!’
‘It’s not my fault you didn’t read my messages! I’m sorry, but I didn’t exactly want to sit at home alone with a frozen lasagna.’
‘Do you know what? Merry Christmas, Cole.’ She hung up. I threw my phone into the snow, wanting to scream, to hit something.. Her reaction didn’t surprise me. Somehow I knew she would ruin this day for me. She always did one way or another.
‘Is everything okay, Cole?’ I turned around to see Mrs Warrener standing by the backdoor with a cigarette in her mouth, cuddled up in a black mink coat. I didn’t even hear her come out and I wondered how long she had been standing there listening to my conversation. She noticed my eyes immediately drawn to her cigarette. ‘They both think I’ve quit. Our secret, okay?’
I nodded. ‘Of course.’
‘So, you and your mother had a fight?’ She asked, taking a long drag. I shuffled some snow with my feet, feeling a little embarrassed. ‘I’m sorry they didn’t want to spend Christmas with you.’ There was something in her tone . . . I wouldn’t call it disgust for my parents, but she didn’t say it with any respect for them. ‘I’m glad you’re here instead.’
I met Mrs Warrener’s eyes. Although she’d been warm to me, I detected something in them that night. Something that unnerved me. I reached down into the snow where I threw my phone and picked up. The frost stung my knuckles. ‘I’m gonna get back inside, I’m freezing.’
‘Cole?’
‘Yeah?’
She seemed to hesitate, taking a drag from her cigarette before she asked: ‘Do you think your parents love you?’
It took a moment. It felt like being winded. I tried to read her, indicate what her intention was for asking me that, as blunt as she had. There was no regret in asking her question, that was clear. She crossed a line, and Mrs Warrener knew it. I could tell by the way her expression didn’t change.
‘Excuse me,’ I mumbled as I marched past her and made my way back into the house.
We spent the rest of the evening watching some TV. Mr and Mrs Warrener cuddled up together on the sofa together and laughed at the unfunny parts of whatever it was were watching—I can’t even remember. I was glad when Tris suggested we go upstairs to do our own thing. He managed to sneak up a bottle of wine for us to share. In his room, we opened the bottle and shared sips.
‘Okay,’ he said abruptly, ‘what the hell is wrong with you? You’ve been a misery all evening. Is it your parents?’
‘Sort of,’ I mumbled, taking the bottle to have a massive swig. I avoided eye contact with him.
Tris rolled his eyes and snatched the bottle from me, slamming it down a little too hard on his glass table. ‘Fuck them, Cole. FUCK. THEM.’
I squinted my eyes, attempting to speak. ‘And—what,’ I stood over Tris, feeling blood bubble all over me. ‘Do you know what? Who the hell are you to disrespect my parents?’
Tris’s eyes widened and he started to bite on his thumb nail. ‘Erm. I just—‘
‘Just what?’
His eyes focused on the bottle of wine. The liquid still squishing at the top from how hard he slammed it down. I saw the cogs turn in his head. I may have only known him for three months, but we’d spent that much time together that I knew what was coming next. ‘You’ve had too much to drink. Maybe we should just call it a night.’
I nodded, pouting my lips. ‘Yeah, maybe we should. I’m gonna go and sleep across the hall.’
I picked up my phone and stormed out of Tris’s room. Instead of objecting or trying to stop me, he just picked the bottle back up and drank from it. I didn’t bother to close the door behind me.
I tossed and turned in the guest bed. Obviously I felt like shit about snapping at Tris, especially in his own house—on Christmas Day, of all days. It was the question that Mrs Warrener asked that played on my mind.
I was so fidgety that I couldn’t lie down any longer, so I got out of the bed and walked over to the window. The snow was coming down heavy outside, but the it lit up the pathway from the pitch black sky. This side of the house looked out at The Warrener’s enormous garden which I could barely see, but I found my eyes burning into the brightness of the snow, until I was distracted by a flicker of light.
It seemed to be a flashlight moving about near the bottom of the gardens. I knew The Warrener’s usually hired help to maintain it, but I didn’t see anyone else on the estate. I assumed they would of gone home for the holidays. But no, there was definitely someone down there. It was hard to make out what they were actually doing due to the heavy snowfall.
I waited near the window long enough to see the flashlight coming up the path towards the house. The closer the figure got, I thought it was Mrs Warrener, with a big, black fur coat. She had a hood over her head and a shovel in her hand. But then I noticed the white hair that snapped into the snowy wind. It was hard to make out but it was an older lady who struggled to keep herself up right. My initial thought was that it may be Tris’s grandmother, but he had never mentioned having one. And even if he did, why would she go that far down into the garden at night?
I got close to the window to see how much more I could make out of this older woman. The closer she got to the house the more I could just about see. And I noticed she was not only holding a shovel, but in her other hand was a black bin liner that seemed heavy judging by how she was pushing herself forward. She stopped in her tracks all of sudden, and slowly she bent her neck up and stared right up in my direction. Her face was undetectable—indescribable in the dark, shielded by the black hood, but the way she craned her neck up to my window told me she knew she was being watched. I only got a quick glimpse of her shadowed face because I jumped right back from the window so I wasn’t detected, but I feared it was already too late for that. She definitely saw me.
I waited anxiously for about a minute before I looked down again. She was gone, but the snowy path below was covered in black spots from where she had walked. They could have been footsteps, it was hard to tell without any light, or something from that trash bag . . . I remember how I felt a queasy ball in my stomach. It take over me all of sudden. I told myself that it was because of everything that had happened that evening. But what it really was, was seeing that woman in the garden. It didn’t make sense and it didn’t feel right.
It was my first indication that something was very wrong at The Warrener Estate.
I woke up the next morning with an arm around me. All I had to do was look at the chewed down nails to know it was Tris. The moment I raised my head, he tightened his grip around me. I tried my best to escape, but it was useless. He was actually quite strong.
‘Nope,’ he said. ‘We’re hugging this one out.’
‘Technically, we’re cuddling this one out and actually, you’re suffocating me.’
‘Okay, we’re cuddling this one out then.’
I shuffled away as he got closer. ‘That’s fine an all dude, but your morning wood is literally poking into me.’
‘Oh come on, like you haven’t seen it before!’
I started laughing. ‘Right, but I’ve never felt it and I don’t think I want to start now.’
He giggled as I managed to wriggle out of his grip.. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry too. A lot of bottled up emotions, you know? This was my first Christmas away—‘
‘Cole, you don’t have to explain to me. ‘
‘That’s why we’re friends.’
‘Brothers,’ he corrected.
Tris stretched out on the bed, unwrapping himself from the duvet. His exaggerated pose reminded me of a commercial for memory foam or something. ‘This bed is really comfy, did you sleep alright?’
I remembered the woman in the garden, and how it took me ages to sleep after. About an hour after seeing her, I couldn’t keep still and I had to look out the window again. The snow had covered over the marks on the path. ‘Tris, do you have a grandmother?’
‘Had,’ he said, ‘I never met them.’
Outside it was bright, the snow had stopped falling but covered everything. In the daylight I could see how far the gardens extended. What I failed to see last night was there was a graveyard at the back of the estate. I found it unusual, but I assumed generations past would have been buried there. It wasn’t particularly big, but I tried to replay the events from the night before and that was where I first saw the flashlight moving about. ‘Are they buried out there?’
Tris screwed his face up. ‘Morbid, much?’
‘Sorry, I just assumed.’
Tris got off the bed and stood beside me at the window. ‘That graveyard is ancient. Nobody’s been buried there for years. My parents bought the estate from the family who owned it sometime ago. It’s pretty grim I know. Apparently this place was the definition of American Gothic before my mom remodelled it. My parents wanted to get rid of the graveyard, but, they’re kinda superstitious.’
‘I saw someone—an old woman, I think, out there last night.’
Tris shrugged. ‘You sure you weren’t dreaming?’
‘No, I saw her,’ I said. I could tell by Tris’s face he didn’t believe me, and he showed no sign of knowing who it could have been. I had no reason to believe he was lying or hiding something from me. ‘You know what, forget it. I was probably a little drunk.’
Tris smiled and gave my shoulder a light bump with his fist. ‘It’s beautiful out there, isn’t it?’ He said, turning his attention back to the gardens.
I joined him and scanned over that graveyard one more time. ‘Breathtaking.’
I took a shower in the guest room and Tris went back to his room to do the same. When I emerged out of the bathroom in nothing but a towel, I was surprised to see Mrs Warrener sitting on the bed. She sat with such a disciplined poise; legs crossed, hands rested on her knee.
‘Mrs Warrener!’ I yelled, using my hands to cover my upper body. ‘Good morning.’
She didn’t return the greeting. Instead she smiled. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you unannounced. I felt I should apologise for last night.’
I didn’t know what else to do, other than sit in the arm chair and hug the cushion to conceal my bare chest. Couldn’t it have waited until I was dressed?, I thought. Instead I said: ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’
Her face was blank. Something about her body language, her tone of voice, everything about her was totally different this morning. She even looked tired, a little less . . . Perfect? I know that’s a shallow word to use, but she didn’t seem like the same woman. She eventually raised herself up from the bed and her warm smile returned. ‘Cole, I just want you to know, I suffer from insomnia and I get a bit restless. So if you were wondering what I was doing outside in the middle of the night, I was just taking a walk.’
‘So it was you?’ I said.
Mrs Warrener cocked her head and frowned. ‘Who else would it be? I hope I didn’t scare you.’ ‘No, no,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘I just thought it was someone else, that was all.’
‘Well, there’s only us four here,’ she said as she twisted a strand of her dark hair—which seemed dull that day—with her polished finger. It was almost as if she was trying to draw my attention to it, and it only made me think of the white hair I saw on her last night. In fact, I was still convinced it wasn’t even her at all. Even in the dead of night, there was no mistake about it—it was someone completely different.
Mrs Warrener and I stared at one another in silence for a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. She finally broke it when she said: I’m gonna make us all some breakfast.’ She opened the bedroom door to leave but stopped before exiting the room. She didn’t turn to face me. ‘I’m sorry again if I scared you . . .’ And then she disappeared down the corridor, the sound of her stilettos echoed through the wing.
As soon as she left, I closed the door and locked it.
Despite our little chat on Boxing Day morning, things weren’t awkward between me and Mrs Warrener. She didn’t make them weird, she carried on without even a cautious glance my way. It was nothing but smiles and laughter. It ticked at the back of my head all day long, how she felt the need to say anything to me at all if she wasn’t hiding anything. Of course I never questioned her about the shovel or the trash bag—why would I? It was her house after all.
Tris got extremely drunk that evening. We were in his bedroom and he hadn’t slowed down all day. I’d never seen him drink like that before and it was apparent that he couldn’t handle it. After he threw up in his bathroom, I helped him into bed. I removed his sweater, trousers and socks for him so he could cool down. I considered getting one of his parents to come and check on him, but I thought it would only piss him off the next day. I started to walk over to the sofa bed, when he held his arms out. ‘Don’t leave,’ he slurred, with his eyes shut.
‘I’m not going anywhere, I’ll be right over there.’
Tris licked his dry lips and shook his head side to side on the pillow. ‘They always promise they won’t leave . . .’
God, he was wasted, I thought. ‘Who is “they”?’
‘My brothers,’ he said. ‘You’re my brother, aren’t you?’
‘You know I am,’ I said, rolling my eyes. But something snapped in my brain that never even occurred to me. ‘You have brothers?’
‘Had . . .’ The slits of his lids opened slightly and he grabbed my arm. Even in his lucid state, he had a strong grip. He attempted to pull me in closer, but he couldn’t quite find the strength for that. So I bowed my head down so he could whisper in my ear: ‘You’re my favourite.’
That night I couldn’t sleep again. One word was on my mind: brothers. Plural. It confused the hell out of me. I wondered where they were, who they were, and what happened to them. There wasn’t even a photo of them. All the portraits and photos were of The Warrener’s and Tris. Just them together. The only other photos I’d seen without them was, of course, the ones with the exchange students. I don’t know what possessed me, but I opened up Facebook on my phone to stalk Tris’s friends list. I didn’t have any names to go off, but I would recognise some of their faces if I saw them.
I spent about an hour doing this and I had pretty much gone through every friend Tris had on there. There were several profiles with no facial pictures, but I thought it would be too much of a coincidence if it were them. Also three of them had girls names—all the exchange students in the photos were boys. I found nothing. Tris had no reason to lie to me, so I don’t know why he told me he had a few of them on Facebook.
I decided to go to the guest room across the hall to look out the window to the back again. I tip toed out of Tris’s room and made my way over, but when I attempted to open the door, it was locked. I tried all the other doors on that side where the view to back of the house was, but again, they were all locked. I tried a few doors on the other side, facing the front and they all opened fine. It was pretty clear that Mrs Warrener had done this on purpose.
I looked at the time on my phone: 12:06am. The Warrener’s would hopefully be in bed. Their room was on the other side of the house and the study was downstairs. I just hoped Mrs Warrener wasn’t planning on going on another walk.
I crept down the the staircase, using the torch on my phone to guide the way. All the lights were off in the house and I heard no sound from the downstairs area. The coast was clear as I made my way into the study. The door was left open ajar. It was strange, in the dark the room felt eerie, cold and very isolated. I thought about turning a lamp on, but I thought to be on the safe side I would continue to use my phone torch.
I flashed my phone over the pictures with the exchange students and examined them all. All the boys were around the same age, just like Tris had confirmed when I first saw them. But I paid special attention to The Warrener’s this time. Tris may have gone through some phases, that was clear by the clothes and different hair styles, but I couldn’t fathom why The Warrener’s also seemed to have done the same. I didn’t notice it before, but there they were in outdated clothes and strange hair styles. This literally happened a few years ago.
There was one picture where Mr Warrener was sporting a mullet and a moustache. Mr clean cut, preppy Mr Warrener. I found it hard to believe. It was a gamble and I didn’t have any idea what it would achieve. My parents used to write the dates on all of their scrapbook photos, I guess that’s where I got the idea from. So I picked up the photo and removed the backing. At first I doubted it. Shook my head. It was impossible. Literally FUCKING impossible.
On the back of the photo it said:
Kevin, 1982
I picked up another at random and did the same:
Michael, 1979
Another:
Derek, 1993.
The furthest date the photos went back was 1975. And in that time The Warrener’s hadn’t aged all. And Tris wouldn’t have been born. But there he was, the same age, nearly forty-five years ago.
The snow fall was heavier that night, more so than the last and I was absolutely freezing when I stepped out into the gardens. I didn’t bother grabbing my coat, It was a risk getting caught as it was just from being out of the bedroom. It was pitch dark, with no security light or anything to guide the way, but the path was linear and I knew where I was going. I turned around to check the house was still in darkness.
I could barely make out the graves when I finally got to them, I didn’t want to draw much attention to myself, so I put my hand over the torch of my phone to read what the stones said. Nearly all of them had been spray painted with first names over the original markings. And there was a lot of them. All boys names. And some of them I recognised from the photos upstairs.
I could hear my heart in my eardrums, and I even developed hot beads on my brow despite the cold weather and snowflakes hitting my head. I felt a hot sludge of sick travel up my throat and I puked right onto a gravestone with MICHAEL sprayed on it. Tris wasn’t referring to any deceased blood relation when he talked about his “brothers” earlier. It was those guys in the photos. They were his former ‘’brothers’’ and they were all buried in the garden on top of old graves.
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