Chapter 19
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CW:

Spoiler

panic attacks, loss.

[collapse]

Christine Underwood sat in her car in the parking lot of the restaurant she worked at on the weekends. It was a franchise restaurant that was owned by some insufferable prick with delusions of grandeur. Normally, she could side-step his advances, but today he seemed particularly mean spirited and aggressive.

She had been sitting in that same parking lot at work for the past ten minutes in a fugue state, trying to calm the whirlwind of emotions inside her. Maybe she will quit and find a different place to wait tables, it’s not like there aren’t any other restaurants with help wanted signs in their windows. She slapped both sides of her face to wake herself up a little before turning on the car and heading home. She couldn’t let Tyler see how much work took it out of her, if she did, she’d definitely do something drastic like dropping out to help out with the bills, and she would not let that happen to her. Her daughter was going to do better.

She smiled to herself. Just last week she’d have said ‘son’ and ‘he/him’ but she was already so used to her daughter's pronouns that she found it wrong to use anything else. Even when she thought about Tyler when she was little, it still felt wrong. She had spent several hours in-between jobs over the past week on her phone, scrolling through forums and blog posts of other moms who have a transgender kid. She could clearly understand their perspective when they all said it “just made sense”. Tyler was Tyler, she was just more so now.

In a little better mood, she turned onto the street home and bopped along to the recent release of a band she had listened to since high school. She couldn’t believe they were still making music after all these decades, but she loved it now just as much as she did then. She had just gotten the words to the chorus down when she had to slam on her brakes. Some asshole in a delivery van had almost run a red light as she was slowly approaching the intersection. Christine honked her horn at the careless driver and gave them a finger. She wasn’t sure if they actually saw it or not, but it made her feel better.

It took her another ten minutes to make it home, and pulled the aging vehicle into it’s regular parking spot and killed the engine. She gathered her purse and headed inside. Except, when she went to unlock the door, she found that it was already unlocked. Christine grunted. Tyler always forgot to lock the door, she’d have to reiterate how important it was to leave the doors locked whenever you weren’t expecting anyone.

“Eris? Honey, are you home? I thought I locked this door.” She called into the house as he hung her purse onto the hook by the kitchen door. She turned to the kitchen counter, expecting to find Eris. Tyler should be out on her date by now, but thoughts about her adorable daughter flirting were pushed aside when she recognized Matthew Johnson sweeping up the floor in her kitchen. “Mr. Johnson. How unexpected. And why are you sweeping my floor? Did Eris make a mess and have you clean it.”

Matthew looked like he had just jumped into a lake in the middle of winter. “Matthew? Is everything okay?”

Matthew shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

“Where’s Eris?”

“I—. I don’t know.”

Curiosity turned to worry, which turned to a primal fear. If something happened to Eris, then… oh god. She went back to her purse and pulled out her phone, the force of the action threw the purse off the hook, and it fell to the ground, spilling its contents over the kitchen floor. She ignored the mess and called Tyler.

The phone rang and rang. Christine bit her thumb as her worries mounted with each successive ring.

“Hello.” Came Tyler’s voice, crystal clear and completely fine.

“Oh, thank goodness. Honey are you—?”

“I’m unable to answer the phone right now, but if you leave a message, I promise to call you back! Bye bye!” A long beep as her daughter’s new voicemail rang in her head. She cursed and dialed the number again as she paced the kitchen.

Please pick up. Please pick up. Please pick up. Christine chanted the mantra in her head, willing her daughter to answer the phone, to tell her that she’s okay and everything is fine.

“Hello.  I’m unable to—.” Tears filled her eyes as she ended the call and collapsed on the ground. True fear gripped her.

“Not again.” She begged, to no one in particular. “Oh god, please. Not again.” Her words came out in dry heaves as her fear caused her to lose control over the rest of her emotions and she cried openly. Unwanted and repressed visions of her husband laying on a slab of cold metal in a morgue filled her mind, his face all red. Barely aware of the arms of Mr. Johnson helping her to the living room couch.

◊◊◊

Matthew sighed as he slumped down onto the couch in the Underwood’s living room. He had never seen someone so distraught before. Not even Art when mother finally passed, but she went peacefully with time to spare for long goodbyes. He didn’t have children himself, could never even see himself as a father, but if whatever Christine was feeling now was even twice as bad as what he’s feeling, he feared for the poor woman. Christine's emotional state was bad enough that he went to the medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom and found the bottle of Benadryl and gave her a dose to help her sleep.

She eventually did fall asleep, tired and exhausted. He refused to leave her alone until he was sure she was asleep. Seeing her like that reminded him of Art when his younger sibling would wake up crying. Art never told him what caused him so much distress. The reminder of what it was like to care for someone didn’t help the heavy feeling that remained from the events of the day.

Still, he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t even know if Tyler was still alive or what even happened. One minute he was having tea, the next he was trying to comfort a grieving mother. Thoughts bounced around uselessly in his head, coming up with no solutions, when the doorbell rang and a loud knock followed. He cursed whoever it was. If they woke Christine, they’d have hell to pay.

At the door was Orlando, Durian and Kyle, their faces mimicking his own. Guessing that they knew a little more than he did, he gestured for them to enter and told them to stay quiet and head to the living room. The voices would carry less with the carpet rather than the hardwood floor.

They all sat down, Matthew taking a position on a rocking chair and the three boys sharing the small aging love seat. They looked cramped, but no one complained, so Matthew decided to be the first to speak.

“I take it everyone here knows something about what happened today?” They all nodded. “Good, would you mind filling me in? Maybe we can piece something together.”

Durian spoke first. “We were eating lunch at my family’s restaurant and I had to use the restroom. It was when I was in there that it must have happened because when I came out, I didn’t see Tyler anywhere. I sat down, thinking she went to the restroom as well, to wait for her when someone came through the doors and yelled for me to call the police, that there had been a kidnapping.” Durian spoke quickly, as if afraid he wouldn't be able to finish it if he didn't get it out all at once. “I didn’t want to believe it, but I had to be sure, so I shouted into the girl's washroom to see if anyone was there. When no one responded, I started to panic. Then the stranger shook me a bit and demanded to know where the phone was.” Durian looked down. “The police took all of her things. I don’t know to do.”

Matthew nodded. That was good. If it was a kidnapping, then there was hope to at least get Tyler back. He was at a complete loss for how to find Eris, though. And he felt a pang of guilt at the glimmer of relief he got, like he was happy she was missing. Just because you thought she was a demon for forty years, doesn’t mean she actually is one. You’ve got to find her. And as far as you know, only you can do that.

Matthew shook his head to clear the thoughts, he was getting off track. He categorized the new information and turned to the other two. “Anything from you two?” He asked, accidentally using his teacher voice.

The two boys jumped and shook their heads. “No sir.” The one he was positive was named Kyle said, “Orlando and I came along to help.”

“Umm, sir? I don’t mean to be rude, but why are you here?” Orlando asked.

Matthew figured it was time for his version anyway. He wasn’t sure how much they knew about magic, though, so he’d have to be careful. He decided to test the three first. “Okay. I’ll tell you, but first I have a question to ask, and I need honest answers, okay?” He put extra thought into his voice to make it sound like a request than a demand, and continued when the boys nodded. “What do you all know of magic?”

Matthew enjoyed this test. He had tried different avenues of questioning people about it before, but found every method of asking too vague for people to follow along, or they figured he was a salesman or something and instantly became cagey. This way, he could see in real time the reactions of the people he asked the question. To his surprise, Kyle and Orlando both looked shocked to hear the question, while Durian furrowed his brow and looked angry.

“What the hell does that have to do with Tyler being kidnapped‽” Durian asked.

Matthew decided to step in before things escalated, thankful that the other two boys knew at least a little. “Calm down, Mr. Lambert.” He said with authority, deciding to use his teacher’s voice this time. It seemed to work, and Durian sat back a little into the couch. “It has everything to do with Tyler being missing, and I believe you two know why.” He looked expectantly at Kyle and Orlando.

Orlando spoke up as Kyle seemed to be tongue-tied at the moment. “We know about Eris, and where she came from.” He said.

Matthew frowned a bit, remembering the conversation he had with the young-looking girl this afternoon.

“And that Tyler can do magic.” Kyle offered.

Matthew’s eyebrows nearly left his head as he stared at Kyle. “She can do what?”

“Magic.” Kyle continued. “She turned me into a girl to prove it.” The look on his face as he said that probably meant that it wasn’t a good experience for the young boy, but Matthew was only vaguely aware of that as he tried to process this information.

“You mean she had a tool or a necklace or something that lets her change other people’s genders?”

Kyle looked at Orlando with a questioning glance, who just returned the glance. “No sir. She just closed her eyes and one moment I was me, the next I was a girl.”

Now it was Matthew’s turn to feel like he was being lied to. The comments seemed genuine, but no one could do magic unassisted. Even the binding ritual for the cup required several tools to complete, some of them still in his safety box at the closest bank. He never did get the time to get them out, and now he guessed he never needed to. He decided to just accept that the two boys remembered wrong or Tyler was concealing some magical tool when she did it and just move on. It’s not like it was going to help him any at the moment.

Matthew sighed again. “Do any of you know who would want to kidnap Tyler, and why?”

Once again, Kyle and Orlando looked at each other, unsure if they should tell him anything. He was about to press them on it when Durian spoke up.

“You guys have got to be fucking with me, right? Tyler is missing. She's scared and alone and probably hurt, and you all are treating the situation like a joke!”

Matthew shook his head. “I assure you, Mr. Lambert, that I am not messing with you, and this is not a joke. Magic is real, but I do not have a way of proving it to you here, and I promise I am taking this very seriously.”

Orlando spoke next. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. I saw it happen. One moment, Kyle was sitting right where Mr. Johnson is sitting, and the next there’s some girl.” He turned to Matthew. “I think I know why someone might abduct Tyler.”

“I’m all ears.”

What followed was absolutely impossible. The boys traded off telling about how Tyler came to the three of them crying over nearly killing Sid accidentally with magic. The poor girl was so distraught that they both went home with her to make sure she’d be alright. How it actually happened didn’t really matter, the fact remained that Tyler demonstrated the existence of magic in a public place. His worries mounted as he added “shadow government agencies” to the very short list of the possibilities for Tyler’s abduction. He really hoped it wasn’t that. They’d have no way of finding her if that was the case.

The room was silent for a while at Matthew’s request to think things over. While the possibility of a government agent abducting her wasn’t completely off the table, it was a pretty slim chance. The boys told him it happened in the courtyard when he pressed for details. The courtyard was bare, but there weren’t any outside cameras facing that direction, and the road was on the other side of the school. Tyler would have had to be extremely unlucky. Someone would have had to record it and post it online for the government to even know or try anything. No, It had to be something else.

“Do any of you remember anything odd at school? Anything that happened that didn’t make sense?”

Orlando and Kyle shook their heads, but Durian seemed lost in thought.

“Durian, please. Even if it’s very minor, it could help.”

“Okay. It was Sid.”

“Sid? I thought he was busy attacking Tyler in the courtyard?”

“Yeah, that's the problem. Sid got suspended for a full month, but he was at school that day. I thought it was odd, but Tyler said something about him getting his suspension lifted for ‘special favors’”.

The hair on Matthew’s arm stood on end. “Durian, this is vital. Do you know everyone who knew about the exact timeframe of Sid’s suspension?”

“Just Tyler and me.” Durian said, then recovered. “No wait. Mrs. Knightly was in the room as well. So, that’d be the principal, Mrs. Knightly, Tyler, and me.”

Matthew stood up. “We have a lead.” and started for the front door. He was about to tell the boys not to follow him when Christine came around the corner and into the kitchen. Matthew froze and looked at her. Her eyes were puffy and she was clearly tired. She still in her work clothes for the restaurant. Matthew didn't have to ask if she had just heard their entire conversation.

“I’m coming with.” Was all she said.

Matthew nodded. There’s no way he could say no now. He tried to say the boys had to stay here, but they insisted, and Christine kept looking worse and worse as the argument dragged on. He sighed, gave up, and just headed for his truck as everyone followed. How the hell am I going to keep all these kids safe?

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