Finn laughed as Meska did an almost-cartwheel, barely lifting her feet off the ground. She was smart as a whip, agile and surprisingly strong, but there was something about that particular feat of gymnastics that had always stumped her.
“What’s wrong with her?” The loud woman in white, unfazed by Finn’s prolonged silence, pushed for answers she wasn’t entitled to. “I’ve never seen anything like it! It’s almost as if some other kid got a Sharpie out and colored all over her, but they’re too regular for that. Too symmetrical.”
He’d hoped that ignoring her first comment would keep her from pursuing the subject, but some people just can’t take a hint. “We don’t know what caused it,” he finally replied.
“Poor kid! I don’t suppose it’s some rare genetic thing?”
“Like I said, we don’t know.” He’d found the woman enjoyable when she was rambling about how great it was to be rich while she ate cheap candy, but now that her focus was on Meska she was losing her charm.
“Her mother doesn’t have spots, then?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“Didn’t? Has she passed?”
“No, she just…” Feeling frustrated by this continual picking at his wounds, he folded his arms across his chest. “She went away.”
“Ohhh,” she crooned, a sympathetic note creeping into her voice. “Did she leave because of the spots, d’you think?”
“No, she left long before – ” He stopped himself as he remembered, once more, the dream he’d had and Ally’s complete lack of reaction to it. “She left right after Meska was born.”
“Meska?” The woman’s lips tightened and her hand slipped into her massive handbag. “That’s an interesting name.”
“So people tell me. Ally picked it.” Finally turning to look at the woman again, he added, “She never even told me what it meant.”
“I know what it means.” She pulled a small, teardrop shaped piece of seamless metal out of her bag and pointed the smaller end toward Meska. A hand reached over the back of the bench and grabbed her wrist, pulling the hand and the metal teardrop it held up over the woman’s head. Finn turned just as Analas grabbed the woman’s neck with her free hand and flung her off the bench, sprawling the woman yards away on the grass, the device landing a few feet out of her reach.
“Run, Finn!” Analas called over her shoulder as she bounded over the bench, trying to reach the woman in white before she could get to the device. “Take Meska and get out of here!”
Finn froze, the memory of his last encounter with Analas blazing in his mind. He’d avoided her like the plague since that night, not even bothering to ask how she managed to get him back into his apartment after she drugged him. Still certain that Analas was a threat, he was about to ask why he should trust her when the woman in white rolled over and began crawling toward the shining lump in the grass. Her sunglasses had shifted to reveal large black orbs instead of eyes. The sight jarred him out of his stubborn mistrust of his mysterious neighbor. “What the hell?!”
Before he could make sense of what was happening, the woman-creature reached the device and pointed it toward Meska once more. Analas stepped on its arm just as it pressed on the bulbous end and a beam shot from it, hitting a squirrel, dissolving it into a pile of ashes without a sound. He looked from the pile of former squirrel back to the woman-creature, realized that Analas was well on her way to beating it to death, and ran to collect Meska. A few moments earlier he had been resentful of the parents who, out of ignorant fear of his daughter’s strange markings, had taken their children away; now he was relieved they weren’t there to witness the unexpectedly brutal side of Analas’s nature. “Don’t look, sweetie! Keep your eyes closed and hold on to me!” He ran as far as he could before stopping to check over his shoulder, gasping for breath through his burning throat. When he finally got to his own door, he struggled to find the right key with shaking hands.
“Don’t bother,” Analas said, opening her own door behind him.
“Shit!!” He spun around, clutching Meska even more tightly. “How did you get here so fast?”
“I…ran?” She could tell he didn’t believe her, but she didn’t have time to explain. Especially not out here, outside the safety of her force-shielded apartment. “Just come inside, Finn, you’ll be safer with me!”
“Safer from what? What was that thing?”
“I’ll explain everything! Just get in here! Please!”
He paused long enough to realize that Meska was shaking and sobbing in terror, eyes still closed tightly just as he’d told her. “She’s scared.” Fuck, he wished he could say aloud, so am I.
“It’s all right now,” Analas said softly, taking Finn’s hand to pull them into her apartment. “It’s gonna be all right!” She threw the deadbolt when they were safely inside, then pulled one of her books off its shelf. The two bookcases swung open like French doors to reveal a control panel that looked like nothing Finn had ever seen outside of sci-fi films. “Here, now…” With the tapping of a few buttons, Meska’s stuffed bear and favorite blanket appeared on the floor near Finn’s feet.
“BENNY!” Meska cried, squirming down from Finn’s arms to clutch at her bear. “How’d he get here, Ana? He was on my bed…”
“I teleported him,” she replied, pressing a button on her watch to activate the security system.
“What was that flicker?” Finn asked.
“It’s a force shield. Even if they break the doors in, they’ll have to neutralize the shield in order to get at us.”
“They…well….” Analas looked wearily at the little girl on the floor, crying into her stuffed bear. “Sweetie, you’re safe now. I promise!”
Meska looked up, but found little reassurance in her father’s grim expression or Analas’s tight smile. “Your hands are hurt.”
Analas realized for the first time that the thick, almost black blood of the woman-creature was still all over her hands. “Oh, sweetie, no! I’m not hurt!” She went to the sink in the kitchen and scrubbed her hands clean before letting Meska inspect them. “See? I’m not even the littlest bit hurt, okay?”
Satisfied that her friend had, in fact, not been harmed, Meska finally stopped crying.
Unable to help herself, Analas scooped her into a hug while keeping one eye on Finn. She’d saved his daughter’s life, but the distrust between them would have made this affectionate gesture impossible even an hour earlier. “Why don’t you go into my room and lie down with Benny?” Meska nodded and reluctantly drifted down the hall, Finn dazedly following with her blanket.