The aftershock rattled Maesi to the core and threw her to the ground. She tried to get to her feet as other kids ran around her, raising through the pews and down the aisle. The teenagers of the St.John youth group threw open the church doors, running to the nearest cars. Even the adults supervising them called it quits and spirited away. Stomping feet pattered around Maesi as she tried to stand up, only to be knocked down again.
When most of the chapel had fled, Maesi felt someone grab her arm and try to pull her up. Maesi grabbed the person’s other hand and slowly stood up, meeting the girl’s dark brown eyes. Maesi panted, gripping the girl hand hard enough to make her surprised.
Breathlessly, Maesi stated, “It’s coming.”
Scrunching her eyebrows and avoiding asking question, the other girl shrugged and ran outside with Maesi, leading them outside into the small, church parking lot, where cars were backing up all over the place, and people bumped into them at every turn. The other girl wildly clicked her cars keys in various directions with her right hand while holding onto Maesi with her left.
“Need a ride?” the girl asked, her voice quivering a little.
“Y-yes,” Maesi shouted back. One of the car’s tail lights beeped. Together, they ran to the gray, sort-of-beat-up car and threw open the doors. The girl crawled into the driver’s seat, and Maesi in the passenger’s, and they zoomed off onto the road, a wake of panic behind them.
A few minutes into the desolate ride, they were completely alone on the road. Forest surrounded them on both sides of the street, and the road seemed to go on forever. Maesi’s eyes darted around the landscape, thumbs dwindling. The other girl’s eyes were almost as wide, but they stayed fixed on the road.
“Um...who are you?” Maesi asked, biting her lip afterward.
“Natalie Keith,” Natalie answered. “Yours?”
“Maesi Bishop.” After thirty more awkward seconds, Maesi added. “Um...can you take me to my apartment?”
“Eh, I really don’t have anywhere else to go,” Natalie answered, voice quivering again.
“O-Okay.” Maesi scrambled to think of something else to say before blurting out. “I-Is this your car?”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Natalie told her, vaguely.
After a little more silence, Natalie suggested, “Better text your parents so they know.”
“No, it’s...it’s just me and my big brother.”
“One of those families?” Natalie bit her bottom lip.
More silence followed. Especially as Maesi waited impatiently as he phone buzzed deep, long tones that didn’t cease for what seemed like forever. When it was evident that the call was in vain, Maesi quickly sent a text and watched as the little loading bar stopped two-thirds of the way.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Maesi mumbled, staring at the unmoving little loading bar. Fingers twitching, she turned on the radio to fill the silence.
We’re getting word that an earthquake shook the county, a common warning sign that-
Authorities are advising residents to stay indoors, as high as possible-
...are crowded with people scrambling to-
“I was hiding under the kitchen table think ‘Holy Hell! Its-’”
Finally, they settled on a channel playing “Classic Rock of the ’70s, ’80s, and more!” Led Zeppelin played softly in the background as they drove into “town.” The buildings were few and far apart, a good acre of trees separating each store, house, or restaurant. The buildings were mostly a crude gray color, each one marked with a wooden sign. A few storefronts were messed up from the earthquake, and the roads were more cracked than usual. The few people there were scrambling in and out of houses and shops, grabbing what they could. Finally, the car pulled up at Maesi’s apartment.
The building was prism-shaped, with one apartment on the top and one at the bottom. Maesi raced up the staircase connecting them, metal clanking under her feet. Natalie hesitated, then followed her up. Maesi ran into the apartment, revealing a small apartment. The kitchen was small, with only a tiny table with two chairs accompanying it. The living room had one couch and a box-shaped T.V. that looked older than her. Despite the lack of furniture, the place was crowded. The earthquake had flung some possessions to the ground. Maesi hopped over all of them, searching for any sign of life.
She entered the only bedroom and emerged with a laptop and a book in her arms and a look of fear plastered on her face.
“He’s not here,” Maesi breathed, rushing past Natalie and out the door.
“Hey, wait!” she called after her as Maesi ran back into the car. “Where are we goin’ now?”
“I know the way there.” Maesi climbed into the car and slammed the door behind her. “Come on!”
A little frightened, Natalie followed after her. Before they knew it, they were back on the road.
Once again, a few minutes of silence proved to be deadly, as Maesi spent most of the time staring down at her phone, praying something would get through. Natalie found the sound of the engine too much to bear.
“So…” she began. “It’s just you and your brother, you said?”
“Cool. I have a brother too. Haven’t seen ‘im in a while. Doubt I ever will. Kinda don’t care.”
“You...seem pretty close.”
“You have any friends, or…”
“Oh, c’mon, even I...had friends. We used to go on camping trips and stuff like that. Once one a’their little brothers came along and would not shut up about his airpods so we pushed his air mattress in a river and set it adrift. They found the mattress a week later at the bottom of a waterfall. We, uh...we never saw him again.”
Maesi’s response was a concerned glance. Natalie bit her lip, automatically regretting saying anything. Maesi whipped open her book, which was labeled:
She pulled a pen from the spine of the book and flipped through a few pages. Natalie glanced over at some of the sketches, whilst constantly glancing back at the road. Most of the pictures looked normal, like detailed flowers and cloudy skies. But she stopped on a picture so big it took up two pages.
In the very corner was a simple, childish-looking flower with six yellow petals around a pink center and a stem with two leaves. What was around it was much more concerning. It was a large storm of wiggly black lines, taking up most of the pages. If Natalie squinted, she could see that the storm was made of the word “it,” written over and over again in ink. The chaotic jumble of “it” looked like it was just about to descend on the flower and squash it to bits.
“Road!” Maesi shouted. Natalie gripped the wheel, swerving around before getting back on track.
“Sorry, sorry,” Natalie panted. “It’s just…”
“This?” Maesi asked, holding up the picture. She flipped the page, her fingers shaking. “It’s nothing. Just a vision.”
Natalie kept her eyes off the book and on the road, though it was very tempting to just take one peek down…
“So...you’re into drawing?” Natalie asked, staring at the long road that stretched all the way to the horizon. “I can’t even draw a circle, I tell ya.”
“Circles are harder than you think,” Maesi answered, her voice a little meek.
“My fifth-grade teacher once had a professor that could draw a perfect circle. She showed us a video but forgot that one of her classmates called him the ‘slayer of-’”
Natalie looked back at Maesi and noticed that not only was she not listened, but she was adding more ‘its’ to the picture. Natalie tried to stay quiet and let the girl focus for a little longer, focusing on the long, unwinding road. It was lined with trees that appeared far away but were far away from them before they knew it. The roads all had very little markings on them, and the few white stripes that split the middle of the road chipped and fading. The road felt like it hadn’t been paved in thirty years. Eventually, the world started to mesh together. The road seemed to never ever end. It all looked way too similar. It got a little hard to just stare and stare at as the engine ground and no one talked-
“Why do they make this youth group meeting so late?” Natalie finally blurted out. “Like, church ends at noon and coffee hour’s until two, so why have us wait until five to have a meeting? I mean, that church real far away from everything else, and that’s saying a lot for this place.”
“You’re not from here, are you?” Maesi asked.
“Nope. I don’t even really live here yet. My parents just wanted me to go to a church service while we were on the road.”
“Where are your parents now?”
“Probably somewhere not here reveling in the fact that they get a whole day without kids.”
The stood quietly for a little longer until Natalie once again found it hard to bear.
“So what’s this ‘it’ thing?” Natalie asked.
“It comes at dusk,” Maesi told her, her voice tinged with concern. “We have to get home quick.”
“That’s...nice.” Natalie picked up speed slightly, only lasting a minute without blurting out, “Okay, I’ll be honest with you, if we don’t talk about something I might lose my mind. This place is creepy.”
“Where’d you get that bracelet?” Maesi pointed out. Natalie looked down at the colorful, slightly dinghy braided bracelet.
“Gift shop on the way here. My dad gave me five bucks and said that if he lets me get something, I’ll keep quiet the whole car ride.”
“What’s with you and quiet?”
“Well...it gets kinda lonely...and at my house, it was always real quiet before or after it got really loud.”
“Why was it really loud?”
“Eh, my parents were always yelling at my brother. They would do it, like, every night. I kinda got used to it, but it’d get loud. Especially when my brother yelled back. But then they’d all go in their separate corners and not say a thing until the next morning. I’d always hide up in my room and put headphones in and watch Youtubers play horror games so their screams drowned out my parents’ screams.”
“What was he always getting yelled at for?” “Teenage boy stuff. Like drugs. Mostly drugs. That’s why were on the road.”
“In rehab. You have no clue how great it is not having him around. I could go a whole night without listening to him bangin’ on his wall.”
Maesi looked a little shocked, to say the least. “You don’t miss your own brother?”
“Naw. He was a jerk.”
“But...he’s your brother.”
“Never acted like it. Maybe he will when he gets out, but we lived in our separate corners.”
“That’s not good. You’re siblings. You should bond and love each other and appreciate-”
“Babe, we had completely different brothers. It pretty surprising that you don’t hate your brother.”
“But you’re family.”
Natalie bit her lip. “Hate to break it to you kid...but sometimes it’s your family that treats you worst.”
“But it shouldn’t be…”
Natalie took her eyes off the road and looked at Maesi. She looked flat-out distraught. “Now that’s something we could agree on.” They were quiet for the next few minutes until they approached the exit.
“Make that turn there,” Maesi told Natalie.
“FINALLY!” Natalie gasped, making a perfect right turn and driving onto a new road. “You have no clue how long I was staring at nothing!”
“We were staring at the same road.”
There was a blip, and Maesi’s face lit up. “The text got through!”
“Great, that means there are people nearby.”
“He says he’s already at my aunt and uncle's house!”
“Wait, really? They took him all the way there without-”
“I’ll tell him I’m almost there.”
“We’re almost there?”
They turned once more, and two her right, Natalie saw the most beautiful thing of all: a building.
A crappy, one-story white house with roof shingles peeling off, a beat-down garage and a lawn full of weeds.
“How much longer, kid?” she sighed.
“About half an hour?”
“And it starts at sunrise…” Maesi’s voice quivered again.
“Okay, okay. We’ll speed up, we’ll get their quicker, we have enough gas, we…”
Natalie spotted a man in a torn coat a little farther up on the road. He looked as if water hadn’t touched him in days. He froze right where he stood when the car approached him, and his eyes followed the car until it passed him. As soon as the car zoomed by, he started chasing it.
“JEEZ!” Natalie’s foot crashed on the gas as the man sprinted after the car. “HAVE WE LOST HIM YET!?”
“HE’S STILL GOING!” Maesi shouted back. They speeded for longer and longer until the man fell to the ground, shouting, “IT’S COMING!”
There was stone cold silence, save for the sound of Natalie and Maesi panting. Neither could even breathe right. Natalie kept going at the same speed, too scared to stop for a second.
“That…” Natalie breathed. “That was...not right.”
“Yeah…” Maesi responded. Natalie focused on the road again, and went a few seconds without feeling lonely.
“So…” Natalie began, as both of them noted the sky beginning to get a little darker. “You have...anythin’ to say?”
“I dunno, a funny story or somethin’. So this whole thing goes faster?”
“Uh...the youth group went on a retreat to a college last year.”
“Go off on that.”
“Other churches do it too. And we all compete against each other.”
“And once it started raining. Raining real hard. And we had to get to the dining hall by six but no one wanted t’go.”
“And what did you do?!
“W-we remembered we were all track stars and got, like, two umbrellas and booked it.”
“AND HOW DID THAT GO?”
“I didn’t have a hood so I pulled my coat all the way up and huddled under the umbrella a’someone I didn’t even know!”
“AND AFTER THAT?”
“THAT NIGHT WE HAD A SHAVING CREAM FIGHT IN THE ROOM!”
“AND WHAT HAPPENED?” “I DIDN’T GET INVOLVED, I JUST GOT SOME ON MY HANDS AND CHASED THE OTHER YOUNGER KIDS THAT DIDN’T WANT TO PARTICIPATE!” “GREAT STRATEGY!”
“WE WEREN’T ALLOWED TO GO ON ANY RETREATS AFTER THAT!”
Maesi bit her lip and turned her eyes towards the sun, which was hiding in the trees. “Your turn.”
“Well…” Natalie’s train of thought was knocked right off its track by the sight of someone throwing open the door to their house, nails flying onto the deck, and take off sprinting. Frantically, a woman dashed down to her mailbox, and lifted a tabby cat from the ground. She ran back inside, nearly tripping on the steps. She gathered every nail surrounding the door before throwing the cat inside, stepping in, and slamming the door behind her.
“I’d always eat outside in seventh grade,” Natalie began, after a minute of stumbling for words. “Yeah, every day. With a couple a’friends I’m pretty sure knew I existed. This one kid, Ashton, would always destroy his chromebook. Once we ate outside when it was snowing, and we had a snowball fight, and he used his chromebook as a shield. And anotha’ time he flat-out smashed it against the brick wall ten times just ‘cause. And once I threw it in the street and it got run over by a damn bus!” “Good, good,” Maesi breathed, anxiously watching each lock-up house go by. “By the way, who the hell carried a fetus in their stomach for nine house, painfully popped it out, looked down at the tiny thing, and said ‘Let’s name it Ashton?’ That name just screams ‘I’m an a-hole.’ God, people are stupid.”
“Sure…” Maesi gripped her book to her chest, peeking into it to look at her masterpiece of “it.” Every “it” was curved and dry like that branches on the trees. They got together and formed a dark cluster, like the leaves as the sun got lower and lower.
“Keep talking, Maesi,” Natalie breathed, but Maesi was too busy focusing on how the last ray of sunlight hit her hand and made her skin look yellow. “C’mon, Maesi!”
Maesi’s head whipped around. She was breathing so hard her face was pink.
“C’mon, we’re almost there,” Natalie winced. “You’re close to your brother, right? Talk about him!” “W-we eat dinner together every night,” Maesi stuttered, her fingers tapping against the car door. “Just the two of us at the little table. We usually ate ramen every night but we didn’t really mind ‘cause we’d spend the whole time talking. About anything. I’d show him my drawing and he’d tell me about all the psychos he’d meet at the inn, and...we’d laugh and we’d smile for usually the first time that day…”
Maesi’s voice droned off, and it got harder to see the road in front of them.
“Keep talking,” Natalie told Maesi. “Anythin’ specific, any memories, anything?!”
“Right after we moved into our apartment,” Maesi began, her voice quivering again. “I wouldn’t sleep for a month. I was younger; I wasn’t used t’adjusting all the time. Everything felt too unfamiliar. So he moved his bed a lil’ closer so I could hold his hand until I went to sleep. So he could remind me that even though everything had changed, he’d always be there.”
“THAT’S GODDAMN ADORABLE!” Natalie yelled.
“THANKS! TURN LEFT!”
Natalie turned left, and Maesi's face lit up in anticipation.
“We’re almost there,” Maesi breathed. “We’re almost there!”
Just as the car neared a driveway, it sputtered and made funny noises.
“No-no-no-no-no,” Natalie grumbled as the car slowly halted. “DAMNIT!”
“WE COULD RUN!” Maesi told her. She grabbed her drawing book, threw open the door, and hit the ground running. Natalie followed right after her. The sun was almost completely set, and the last bits of daylight for struggling to remain glowing.
They neared a mailbox, and turned right when they reached it. Before they knew it, they were dashing through a vast, empty, green field. Right in the center of the field a big white house with a black tiled roof. A big porch stretched around the perimeter of the house, and it looked like they were dashing over to a side door.
Down the driveway the two sprinted, Maesi taking off like a rocket. She was on the front porch, banging on the door by the time Natalie was halfway there. Just as Natalie caught up to her, the door swung open, and the two of them fell right inside.
They fell right into a dining room filled with furniture that looked plainer than plain. An older couple stood by the door, staring confused at the random girl following her niece. A brunette girl a little older than Maesi was sitting at the table, her shaky hands shoveling three pills into her mouth.
“Maesi!” A voice called. Her face lighting up, Maesi ran into the arms of a boy who looked just like an older, male version of her. He hugged her around the shoulders and kissed her on the forehead. Natalie couldn’t help but feel herself smiling.
“Are okay? Are you hurt?” Maesi’s brother pleaded, clutching her tight.
“It’s fine, Mateo, I promise,” Maesi responded, breathlessly.
“Save the hugs for later, it’s coming!” Their aunt snapped, beginning to storm upstairs. The girl at the table scooped up her pill bottle, and started running up the stairs. The whole family (plus Natalie) was led up the stairs and to a ladder in the middle of the hall.
They all climbed up one by one into the attic, Maesi tossing her book up before climbing in after that. Everyone was upstairs in a flash, and the door was slammed behind them. There was complete darkness before a lantern was lit, and everyone could see each other again. They sat in silence for a second before the cousin asked, “Who the hell is she?”
The attic was very small, but they all fit just fine. It fit three cots for the aunt, uncle, and awfully quiet grandmother, and sleeping bags for the rest of them. The lantern sat on an old desk, and lightly illuminated the tiny room. A single, tiny window was covered by a curtain. Maesi sat next to her brother, her head on his shoulder, and his head on top of hers. She flipped through her drawing book, showing him everything she had seen recently. Their smiles were warmer than any other smiles Natalie had ever seen.
The aunt and uncle were holding hands, anxiously, the grandmother listened closely for any noises, and the cousin played with her hand, whispering, “Safe...fine…okay…” The cousin’s eyes were intense, but the brown color was so bright it could se seem in the dim light. Her hair framed her face, particularly her slight smile. To be honest, she looked really pretty. But Natalie had some other things on her mind…
“Wait…” Natalie said, breaking the calm silence and turning everyone’s attention to her. “Did you guys go back to the church after the earthquake t’get Maesi?”
“No…” the uncle answered.
“You just went straight here without picking her up?”
“Yes…” Maesi’s aunt and uncle shifted a bit, peering at her.
“...Am I the only one a little turned off by the fact you didn’t go back for her?”
“We had to get home quick…” the aunt answered.
“You couldn’t take the time to pick up your own niece? None of you went back?”
“We had to save the ones we love,” the uncle answered.
“I’m guessing you love her very much, so why not try to save her?”
“It was coming.” “What even is ‘it?!’”
The grandmother gasped.
“Oh, cut me some slack, I’m new here,” Natalie groaned.
“‘It’ is something that we have to be safe from at all costs.”
“Well, nothing seems to be happening.” Natalie reached to peek behind the curtain, but the uncle slapped her hand away from it. The sound echoed throughout the small room, and for a second, everything was still. Natalie gripped her hand, her eyes fixed in a glare that the uncle was so as to return.
“Natalie…” Maesi told her. “Just sit back down.”
Natalie reluctantly sat back down, a glare fixed on her face. She turned to the cousin.
“So...lovely night, isn’t it…” Natalie greeted.
“Anya,” Maesi answered.
“Don’t even try,” Maesi’s aunt informed. “She’s schizophrenic.”
“That won’t get in the way…” Natalie whispered to Anya, smirking. Anya looked unimpressed at first...but slowly let herself smile.
There was a distant rumbling, and Anya quickly snuffed out the lantern. Everyone climbed into their respective cots and mats with anxious looks in their eyes.
“It’s better if you sleep through this part,” Maesi informed Natalie, before kissing her brother on the cheek and holding his hand as they squeezed their eyes shut and tried to fall asleep. Just like that, everyone was out like a light.
Seizing the opportunity, Natalie pushed the tiny curtain aside and looked out the window. She saw a old, rusty car quickly sputtering down the road, it’s headlights flickering. From the looks of it, the poor driver was in the same state everyone in the attic was just a few minutes ago.
Maesi spent the next morning in her bedroom, sitting at her desk with an unlit lantern and her drawing book. Soft light from the windows reflected onto the white walls, and gave the room a soft, natural glow. The room barely had any furniture other then the bed, the desk, a nightstand, and an empty bookshelf. But hell, at least she had her own room.
Natalie stuck her head in the doorway, a smile on her face.
“I just got to know your cousin…” she said, scratching the back of her head, “very well. She’s a...very nice girl, I must say. Not to mention…”
Natalie peared over Maesi’s shoulder and saw that she was a drawing a busted car made up of the word “new.” Natalie felt a smile crawl up her face, but she shook the thought out of her head.
“So...I’ll be taking the car out of here t’day,” Natalie told Maesi. “So, I gotta say...it’s was fun being w’you for that car ride, and thanks for letting me stay in ya attic, and though I might never-”
“You could always just give me your number,” Maesi reminded her, seldom looking up from her book.
“Oh...I could,” Natalie whipped out her phone, and exchanged the number with Maesi. “I’ll...be seeing out. I mean, I probably won’t be staying anywhere near here, but...I’ll keep in touch. And tell ya cousin I said hi everyone once in a while.”
“Fine,” Maesi smiled.
“So...thanks for everything!”
When Natalie left the room, she found herself face-face (or face-to-shoulder) with Maesi’s older brother.
“You,” Natalie simply stated, her face blank. “She said a lot ‘bout you.”
“She did?” “Yep. Nothing but good stuff.”
Mateo glanced over at Maesi. “Not...surprising...I’m sure I’ll hearing a lot about you.” “Probably. And I gotta say...she draws some weird crap.”
“It’s her niche.” Mateo entered the room and looked over Maesi’s shoulder at what she was drawing. The two started smiling and talking, and Natalie watched from a distance, smiling. Taking one last look at the two, she turned over her shoulder and left.