The first thing I realized when I woke up was that…peanut butter jambalaya, everything hurt! I felt like a baked potato that had been put through a car crusher.
“What happened?” I groaned.
Nobody answered. I opened my eyes to find myself lying in a bed with stiff, scratchy sheets. The walls around me were painted a blinding white. The beeping, which was already starting to give me a headache, turned out to be a heart monitor.
And I was alone.
Weird. I’d been in plenty of hospital rooms over the past three years, but this was the first time I’d ever woken up in one all by myself. Usually my family was there, or McGus, or Aesop and Jade. At the very least there should have been a doctor here, right? I looked around for the button to call the nurse, and frowned when I couldn’t find it.
“Hello? I’m awake in here!” No response. “A little help? Anybody?”
I laid my head back down with a tired sigh. It’s not like I was in a hurry, I guess. What was the harm in lying here for a little while and WHERE WAS ETHAN?
Bedeepbedeepbedeepbedeep! went the heart monitor as my pulse skyrocketed.
I sat up straight, ignoring the pain, and ripped the wires off of me.
I swung my legs out over the side of the bed and hoisted myself onto my feet. Ouch, ouch, freaking ouch! I clenched my teeth together to keep from whimpering, but when I stood up I felt more or less like I could stay that way. I still had the clothes I’d worn to Feverdream Field on, which was weird. I even had Splatsy hanging from my belt. Why had the doctors not even bothered to dress me in one of those buttless gowns before abandoning me in here? Not that it mattered, I decided, since it just saved me the trouble of having to get dressed. I made my way into the hall, groaning with every step.
I recognized where I was immediately. Saint Bobo’s Hospital, on the western side of Mauldibamm. Not that that was any surprise. The council would never let their Hunter be treated anywhere they couldn’t stick their noses whenever they wanted.
Farther down the hallway, I saw light shining from another room. It was the only one, the others all as dark as if the hospital had been abandoned. It was creepy enough to send a painful shiver down my spine. Even so, I headed that way, leaning on the wall to keep from falling.
Was Ethan in there? Would they even treat a human at a klaon hospital? I tried to tell myself that he was too valuable for the council to just let die, but I couldn’t help but remember how Ichabod had asked if they could cut the laughter out of him. His wellbeing had never been their first priority.
I reached the door, but stopped just outside. Could I bring myself to face Ethan after what I’d done to him? This whole thing was my fault. What would McGus say?
“He would say,” I whispered, “to get your butt in there and face the consequences of your actions.”
Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to go in.
“So, you’re awake,” my dad said.
I froze, blinking. Everyone I knew — Dad, Mom, McGus, Aesop, Jade, and Grandpa Teddy — were sitting around the hospital bed. Cousin Gumdrop lurked in the corner, leaning against the wall, giving me a smug grin as if she’d been waiting years for this. She was a Red, her hair cut in a way that made her entire head look like a giant gumdrop. Her paintmarks made an X over her face, crossing on her forehead and slashing down over her eyes and cheeks like fresh wounds.
Someone was lying in the bed, but I couldn’t tell who it was because the sheets had been pulled up over their head. That tore a gasp from my mouth, but then I realized another heart monitor had been hooked up, and it was still beating.
Slowly. Terrifyingly slowly. But a slow beat was better than no beat at all.
I raised a trembling hand and pointed at the bed. “Is- Is that…”
Mom nodded. “It’s Ethan.”
Wincing against the pain, I hobbled over to the bed. My right leg gave out just as I reached it, and I had to catch myself on the footboard. Nobody moved to help me.
“Is he all right?” I asked in a quiet voice.
“Does he look all right, Blueberry?” Cousin Gumdrop shot back.
“Alicia!” McGus snapped.
She bowed her head, but I didn’t miss the cruel smile she gave me. “Sorry, Master.”
“You’ve been out for almost a whole day,” Aesop said, sounding uncharacteristically solemn. “We’ve been here with Ethan the whole time.”
With Ethan, I thought, but not…me?
“He’s alive, though,” I said, pointing at the heart monitor. “Right?”
“Why are the sheets pulled up if he’s still alive?” My voice was rising. “Let me see him!”
I reached out to pull the sheets down, but my mom grabbed my wrist and shook her head.
“The sheets are like that,” Dad said softly, “because it’s only a matter of time.”
My mouth fell open, and I stared at Ethan’s motionless form. I couldn’t even hear him breathing. If it weren’t for the heart monitor, I would have thought he was already…
“No,” I whispered. Tears started to run down my face. “No, no, you’re lying!”
My legs grew weak beneath me, and I sagged against Ethan’s bed frame. All the chairs in the room were taken, and nobody offered to give me — the injured one — theirs.
“Quit your blubbering!” McGus snapped without even a glimmer of sympathy in his eyes. “What did you think was going to happen, letting him run around in Feverdream Field by himself?”
I shook my head. “No, I- I didn’t mean—”
“It doesn’t matter what you meant,” Mom said. “You should have known this would happen.”
“We’re all very disappointed in you, Henry,” Grandpa Teddy said. He was sitting at the far end of the bed, cane clutched between white knuckled fists. “You’re lucky your cousin arrived when she did. If it hadn’t been for her, those maiams would have killed you both.”
With a jolt, I remembered the one that had sucked out Ethan’s laughter.
“Killed it,” Cousin Gumdrop said.
I spun to face her. “That’s impossible! How?”
To my complete and utter surprise, McGus actually smiled. “She’s an incredible maiam hunter. Letting that supercharged monster run free would have been a disaster, but she took it down in less than five minutes.”
“While you were taking a nap,” she added, grinning.
I looked at the others for support, but they were all nodding their agreement. I could already see where this was going. Slowly, my hand went to cover Splatsy.
“I can fix this,” I said quickly. “Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. Anything, I swear! Don’t—”
“The decision,” Grandpa Teddy said, “has already been made.”
I turned to look at him. “The council met about this before I even woke up?”
“Not the council,” McGus said. “Me.”
“I was right,” McGus said, folding his arms. “Clearly, giving you the responsibility of the Hunter was a mistake. You’re immature, irresponsible, and on top of all that you’re just plain dumb!”
“I can fix this!” I whispered again.
“The fact that I chose you as my successor is a blight on my honor,” he said, closing his eyes in disgust. “I never thought I’d say this, but the council actually knew better than me.”
“Your position as Hunter, along with all related duties, have been taken over by your cousin, Alicia Wolfe,” said Teddy. “Effective immediately.”
I gasped, those words stabbing me straight through the heart.
“Y…You can’t be serious,” I stammered in disbelief. “Cousin Gumdrop? But she—”
Gumdrop slapped me viciously across the face. Lights flashed in front of my eyes, and I slid pitifully to the ground with my head against Ethan’s footboard.
Nobody helped me.
“How many times do I have to tell you,” she snarled, “never to call me that?”
“Henry,” Mom said as I struggled to pick myself up, “show your cousin some respect.”
I stared at her. “I…but she…she just hit me!”
“You deserved it,” said Dad. My mouth fell open, horrified. Everyone looked at him, and he shrugged awkwardly. “We’re all thinking it, aren’t we? I…love…my daughter…”
It sounded like he had to force those words out of his mouth.
“…but she was never a good Hunter. Alicia can fight, she can track maiams better than anyone except maybe Master McGus, and she’s a Red.”
She’s a Red. Those words were more painful than Cousin Gumdrop’s slap. More painful than all the injuries I’d suffered from the maiams. After all I’d done, everything I’d sacrificed, my own father couldn’t see past my freaking hair color.
“You’ll need to turn your hammer over to Master McGus,” Grandpa Teddy said. “Right now, if you don’t mind.”
McGus stepped forward, and I backed up against the wall, eyes wide.
“No, please!” I begged him. “I can do better, I promise! I- I’ll never mess up again!”
He ignored me, reaching for Splatsy.
“I’m not your master anymore.” he growled.
I held out my hand to stop him, but he just brushed it aside, grabbed Splatsy, and tore her off my belt with a quick tug.
I fell to my knees, sobbing. “No! Don’t do this! If I’m not the Hunter, I’m…I’m nothing!”
“Oh, will you shut up?” Aesop yelled. “Somebody just died because of you, and all you care about is your stupid hammer? What’s wrong with you?”
I stared at him. “But…But taking him there was your idea!”
He threw up his hands. “I can’t listen to this anymore. Come on, Jade.”
Without another word, without even a backwards glance, my only two friends in the world walked out of the room. I watched them go, unable to believe what I was seeing. It was like all my worst fears were coming true, right here and now in this room.
I blinked. Wait a second. Why did that sound familiar? All of my worst—
Be…deep…be…deep, went Ethan’s heart monitor. Be…boooooooop!
I gasped as the monitor flatlined. Everyone bowed their heads, except for Cousin Gumdrop who leered at me in satisfaction. I fell to my knees in front of Ethan’s bed again. This wasn’t possible. This couldn’t be happening!
“We should go,” Dad said after a few minutes.
Numbly, I got to my feet. Maybe this would all make more sense after I’d spent the night in my own—
“Actually, Henry,” Dad said, putting his hand on my shoulder, “why don’t you stay here for a few more days?”
I looked up at him. “Wh- What? Why? I’m fine! Why would I need to…”
Horrible, gut wrenching realization hit me when I saw the look in his eyes.
“Mom?” I whispered desperately.
She shook her head. “You were hurt pretty bad. You should probably let the doctors take care of you for a while.”
“For as long as they’ll let you stay,” Dad added. Mom nodded in agreement.
I put my hand over my mouth, but I couldn’t stifle the heartbroken whine that came out. I looked at Grandpa Teddy, the only other Blue in the room. Surely he, if nobody else, wouldn’t just abandon me like this.
“Grandpa Teddy?” I whispered.
His face grew hard. “Child, calling a politician by such names is horribly inappropriate. From now on, I will need you to refer to me as Representative Mulch.”
I stopped moving entirely, my sanity falling to pieces. I couldn’t do anything but watch as my family filed out of the hospital room, leaving me alone with Ethan’s corpse.
Slowly, I turned to look at him. To think that that bedsheet mummy was him, when it felt like I’d seen him alive and well just a few minutes ago. I could barely bring myself to believe it. But it was true. It had to be.
With that, I collapsed onto his bed, crying my heart out. This was all my fault. I was a terrible Hunter, a terrible friend, and a terrible person. My family had disowned me, my friends hated me, and the only thing that gave my life meaning had been snatched away forever. I should finish what the maiams at Feverdream Field had started and do a swan dive off the roof.
Eventually, I stood up. I don’t know how long I’d been crying, but it hadn’t made me feel better. All I wanted was to lie down on the floor and never move again. And maybe I would. But first, for my own peace of mind — or as close to it as I would ever get — I needed to see Ethan’s body for myself.
Slowly, I walked to the side of Ethan’s bed and held out a shaking hand, but stopped. Touching him after what I’d done felt wrong. But I had to do this. I clutched his bedsheets in my hand, counted to three, and whipped them off…
To reveal the man in the clown mask.
I screamed as he sat up, looking at me with his dark, empty eyes. I backed away, but my legs gave out beneath me and I fell to the floor.
“That’s impossible,” I whispered, scooting backwards as fast as I could. “How did you get here?”
Silently, he climbed out of the bed, looking down at me like an insect he wanted to squash. Then thick gray smoke began to billow out from behind his mask. It fell to the floor, making ominous ripples toward me. I pressed myself up against the wall.
Wait, no, a small voice in my head screamed. Something’s not right!
His poisonous laughter was rising, filling the room at an alarming rate. I covered my hands with my mouth, whimpering.
How did he get in here? that little voice insisted. Why didn’t the others see him? Either they let him come in and lay down in Ethan’s bed, or he was already here when they showed up.
I paused. The voice was right, that didn’t make any sense. But before I could think about it, the door was thrown open and a parade of maiams came in. One slithered across the floor like a man-shaped slug, and the second had arms so big that it walked on its knuckles while its legs dangled over the floor. The third one had a short, squarish body, and long legs that made it look like…
“I killed you,” I whispered as it turned to grin at me. “I remember that! You were dead!”
The gray smoke was rising even higher. I had seconds before it reached my mouth.
“None of this makes sense,” I said. Slowly, I got to my feet, pointing at them. “You’re dead, he can’t be here, and…and how did maiams get into the hospital anyway?”
A maiam attack — not on Ethan, but on me, personally. Maiams can’t feed on klaons, and Ethan was dead, so why would they come here? The hospital was right in the middle of Mauldibamm. They would have caused a panic. It wasn’t that this didn’t make sense, it was flat out impossible. Like one of my worst fears brought to life.
I stopped. Not just one of my worst fears. All of them. I’d let Ethan die. I’d had to be rescued by the person I hated most in the world. I’d had my job and Splatsy taken away, lost my family and friends, and now the monsters I’d spent the last three years killing were here for revenge.
There was only one explanation.
Ignoring the maiams, I turned toward the man in the mask. The smoke reached my nose and, hesitantly, I took a deep breath of it.
“This,” I said, stepping up to him, “isn’t real.”