Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

All characters are AH/OOC

Beta: Hadley Hemingway


2

She sees faces in the blurry patterns that creep around the periphery of her vision. Voices that whisper in broad daylight. Shadows stalk Bella's dreams and linger after breakfast.

"Hallucinogens aren't helping that," Angela tells her, with the curt lack of pity that Bella appreciates in people.

"I got off the acid. Too unpredictable."

"Says the woman digging holes in herself."

"Molly helped the anxiety, but it was too distracting. I need to be able to concentrate."

"If I wasn't certain you'd end up in prison or institutionalized, I'd write a paper on you."

"Not sure the medical community is ready for that."

Across the kitchen table, Angela sips her tea and sizes up Bella's latest outburst with unusual precision.

"Are you ready to tell me how you got that?"

The persistent wound has become almost another appendage. It has a personality. A will. And secrets even Bella hasn't unraveled yet. She woke up in this body, relearning its mechanisms, but this spot of flesh is still foreign to her. Trees flash behind her eyes. Darkness. The screech of nocturnal things. Flash and fire.

"When I figure it out, I'll let you know."

Angela invites Bella to stay the night. Instead, she returns home with a handle of good gin and a bag of candy. Settles into the creaking desk chair and opens her laptop to scan the boards. A once-nightly ritual now spanning the daylight hours with only brief interruptions. She keeps meticulous notes. On the running cases, yes, but on the members, too. Subjects often engage in the investigations of their own crimes. All sorts of unsavory types find sport in the anonymous treasure hunt of keyboard crime-solving.

It began as a curiosity. Then a compulsion. Compelled to track and organize the massive trove of speculation and conjecture. Skimming the slurry for a solid bone. Something to bite down on. Most say they're addicted to the rush, the excitement of the chase. Bella's been running so long, she hardly feels the ground moving anymore.

For her, it's the silence. The quiet of a white noise machine. Letting her brain slip into neutral.

Until one word blares loud and bold on her screen.

Astor.

Subject reads: Have you heard of the Astor Eight?

Message: Following up from the Baldwin thread, has anyone else heard of the Astor Eight? Came across the designation in an old article from 2003 in the Jacksonville Tribune. Eight missing persons in the region of the Ocala National Forest in Florida. Officially unconnected but definitely suspect. A 1985 victim was thought to be Becker-Boyd kill, but has since been dismissed. Anyone read up on this?

There are a dozen replies since this afternoon. Links to articles covering four decades. Mug shots and missing person posters. Partially redacted police reports. Age-progression photos and sidewalk memorials. The remnants of cheap candles and mylar balloons that swept through town and got tangled in the trees where Bella rode her bike.

Astor.

Shorthand for death.

For loss.

The memories haunt her, but the missing pieces are scarier still.

When Bella was thirteen, she painted a name on a rock and dug a hole. The grave lies in a disused cemetery down an unnamed road deep in the Ocala National Forest. Same place her grandmother, Sofia, carved a wooden grave marker for her husband. Stuck it in the dirt. He killed her before she could put him under it.

Bella's mother was just a teenager when she laid her own mother to rest, then two years later a sinkhole swallowed twelve plots. A thicket of caskets tossed together like debris caught in a storm drain, splintered open and drinking water. They moved the remains to Paisley, all mismatched and mangled, and that was Grandma—gone.

People say Bella's grandfather tried to run. One day, a tourist walked out of their room at the Blackwater Inn to find an alligator gnawing on the better part of Grandad's severed right leg. Cops never found the rest of him. Buried the leftovers under the wooden marker. Put that gator's bleached-white skull on the mound of dirt.

In Astor, they don't have folklore, just memories.

Bella's father left town before she was old enough to know his face. The next day, her mom put a two-by-four with his name on it beside Grandad's mostly empty grave. She used to take Bella there on Father's Day until she was about nine or ten. Calling her in from playing by the river, legs still speckled with mud and bits of grass. They'd stand under the flaying summer sun, air so thick she could chew it, Bella's skin turning red as sunscreen and salty sweat stung her eyes. Ants crawling between her toes.

Bella believed her mother did it to condition a visceral sort of hatred in her. To pre-empt any future attempt Bella might make to find him. They were funny like that.

No matter how old people get, they're always children when they think of home. And as a child, Bella is always standing under a cloudless sky in June, ants between her toes, staring at a grave.

Bella scans the message thread, skimming through keywords until one name stands out. Bowls her over. Just a few letters in light, and suddenly, she can taste the river.

They were sun-soaked desire chasing lust. Terrorists in cutoffs.

Hair. Gauze curtains. Tentacles.

Lying eyes. Mischief eyes.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds.

Teen. Aged. Girls.

The worst kind. Dangerous minds.

Ask anyone, they were chaos operas.

Quite aggressively female.

They like to blame Shay. They called her Shy because at that age the only thing better than discovering irony is the invention of lying. Real lies. The good, sour, sting-the-tongue lies. The kind with purpose and plot. Teenage girl lies. What they do to survive.

When Shay's stepfather came home at night, the trees shuddered. His pickup truck rattling down the road like rocks in a tin can, exhaust sputtering big plumes of choking black. The whole neighborhood felt that screen door snap shut against the splintered wood frame. They cowered with her, in the corner, in the dark. Skin buzzed and paled. Fire in their cheeks. The emptiness in their gut. Held their breath when she slid open her bedroom window and cringed at the scrapes on her knees. Shay could have gone anywhere with those freckles.

On a humid night in June, every kid with a bike and an imagination rode wild into the forest chasing fires in the sky.

The night of the crash. When the whole world exploded.