Chapter Four
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     "You realize you sound crazy, right?" Chloe said.

     I was sitting on the floor against the wall. My room was empty, since Carmen was probably socializing. Of course, Ilya and Lily were busy not doing anything.

     "Why would I lie?" I responded. "And I'm not crazy."

     Our conversation was a slow one. Between each reply, there was silence as each of us tried to think of what to say. I'd already explained to her the rules of the game and the items I'd found in the attic chest. Even then, she was in disbelief, which was perfectly reasonable. We weren't exactly best friends or anything since we'd only met recently, so why would she trust me when I told her people were being frozen in time?

     "Why don't you just show your teacher what happened in the attic then?" she suggested. "There's no point in asking for my help when I'm in a different country."

     For some reason, I felt annoyed at her. It might've just been because I was desperate, but it felt like she'd bailed on helping me. "You were giving plenty of insight before," I said. "Why are you suddenly hesitant to help now?"

     "Iris, I'm not the gullible type. I don't just believe a spooky story that someone tells me over the phone."

     "It's not just a spooky story!" I shouted.

     Chloe sighed from the other side of the phone. "Just talk to someone else about it. I'm busy anyway.” She no longer sounded energetic like she was earlier that day.

     I ruffled my hair in frustration. "Fuck! Fine," I blurted out and hung up.

     My heart was racing. I didn't normally get upset to the point where I swore at people. I felt disconnected from myself. Either way, I could only take her advice and find someone else to help me. There was no use in convincing her.

     As soon as I went to open the door, Carmen was standing outside. "Iris, good to see you again," she greeted. "You don't look too good…"

     "You're looking pretty shabby yourself, class rep," I said.

     Both of us looked about the same, with messy hair and heavy bags beneath our eyes. Although, for what reason Carmen looked so out of it wasn't clear.

     "Nightmare, what about you?" She asked.

     "A mixture of things, I guess," I sighed and sat at the edge of the bed. "Shouldn't you be out swimming or something?"

     "Swimming…" she scratched her head frantically. "What are they so chipper about anyway?"

     Carmen went and sat on the other bed, putting her head in her hands. Normally proper and perfect looking, she was now disheveled and stressed out. A surge of sympathy emerged from my mind.

     “Are you okay?” I asked. “You look worse than me and I'm doing pretty bad.”

     She lifted her face and stared at me for a few seconds. She then exhaled, turning her gaze to the floor. “If I tell you a secret, will you promise that you won't see me any differently?”

     I instinctively nodded, without really thinking the question over. “I mean- I'm pretty open minded I think.”

     She sat in silence for thirty seconds, before finally speaking. “My full name… is Carmen Crimson.”

     If I had a thought bubble at that moment, it would've said dot dot dot. It took a while for me to understand what that meant. “Oh! Like the Crimson family. I get it.”

     “Yeah…” she let out a sigh. “I'm the only daughter with red eyes so… I'm going to run the country when my mother can't anymore.”

     I tilted my head. “So you need red eyes to do it? That seems a little pointless.”

     Carmen nodded. “I'm still the second born but that doesn't mean anything. They want the Crimson family to always be linked to Pride.”

     I found myself struggling to understand. “What do you mean ‘linked to Pride?’ Is that like a figure of speech?”

     Carmen rubbed her eyes. “Sorry, I forgot you aren't too caught up on things. Pride is… well, other than an emotion, the name of the god representing the color red.”

     “Oh, I guess that's a thing in the Church of Color.” I scratched my head, not really getting it.

     Carmen nodded. “Basically, my family wants someone with red eyes to inherit Oculus. That's why neither of my sisters are held in such high regard as me.”

     I slowly nodded, processing what she meant. “So… why would this change how I see you?”

     Carmen looked up and blinked a few times. “I'm… I'm going to run the country. I'm wealthier than everyone in the school combined. I have everything I could ever want.”

     I stared blankly. “Uh huh… well, I had some awesome chocolate milk the other day.”

     Carmen’s left eye twitched, completely dumbfounded. “I'm as far away from normal as you can get. That… doesn't bother you?”

     I felt my chest sink as I clenched my jaw. “I wouldn't be so sure about that. I might not be loaded and full of privilege, but I'm not exactly normal either.”

     I turned my gaze to the side, staring at a vase of flowers. I wasn't normal. Not in the sense of being “God of Vega”, but altogether, I was an unusual mess.

     “Ya know, I don't even know who gave birth to me. I was found behind two trash cans and just sort of… lived with the people who found me. I don't even think I was legally adopted.”

     Carmen wore a somber expression. “Even so… shouldn't that change your opinion of me even more? I have it all. Meanwhile you're probably the poorest student in school.”

     I stretched sideways and squinted, thinking back on my youth. “Maybe, but it's not like your life is just being rich in the same way I'm not just an orphan. You're a person. Do you even want to run the country?”

     Carmen glanced to the side. “I don't know anymore… but if I don't, who will?”

     I shrugged. “Don't know, but you can willingly change your destiny, right? Your mother isn't in control of you.”

     Carmen gripped the bed sheets, staring at the floor. “Maybe not…” she sighed, before clutching her head and groaning. “My head is splitting, I'll go grab some medicine.” As she stood up and hurried towards the door, she stopped, glancing back at me. “And… Thank you. For keeping your promise.”

     With that, she left the room, leaving me alone. I stared at the door for a few seconds, before looking back to the flower vase. My expression softened as I thought to myself, what was it I wanted for myself? It was all well and good encouraging Carmen, but those words were insignificant coming from me. Someone who could hardly remember her own name.

     I let out a stream of breath, releasing any remaining tension left in my chest. I quickly reminded myself that time was of the essence, taking a few more breaths before heading out of the room. There wasn't any time to waste. Those hourglasses weren't going to last much longer. 

     First thing was first, I had to get help while also causing minimal panic. I went to the first person I could think of that would be helpful, Ms. Steinfeld. After checking the downstairs, I eventually spotted her in the backyard, her card between her fingers as she watched over her students.

     I strutted up to her and tugged on her sleeve. “Can you follow me? I need to um… well, Ilya and Lily need you.” I ended up sounding more timid than I wanted. 

     “Hm? Alright, what do they need?” She asked, wearing her usual annoyed expression. Although, her tone was still very kind. 

     “They uhh… got stuck in the attic?” I said, scratching my head.

     Ms. Steinfeld pinched the bridge of her nose. “For goodness sakes… alright, let's go.”

     Even though I was supposed to be leading her, I kind of just followed sheepishly behind her since it wasn't difficult to get to the attic. She ended up being the one to open it as well, since she was taller. 

     As the ladder unfolded in front of her, she did something unexpected. She went up it. She didn't simply call out to the girls, but climbed up the ladder. Even more strange, she walked right past Ilya. My eyes widened and I quickly went up after her, before coming to a stop at the top of the ladder. Ms. Steinfeld was looking behind furniture, ignoring Ilya and Lily.

     “Um… Ms. Steinfeld?” I said. “What are you doing?”

     She turned around and raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean? You said they were in here, didn't you?”

     I felt my heart sink, as I blankly stared at her with a ghostly complexion. She couldn't see them. Two of her students directly in front of her, she looked right through them. I glanced back and forth, trying to process my situation.

     “You… can't see them?” I muttered.

     She crossed her arms and sighed. “I come all the way up here and they've already left… what a headache.”

     “No, no, you don't understand,” I said, climbing all the way up into the attic. I grabbed Ilya’s arm, pointing at her. “Right here, you can't see her?”

     Ms. Steinfeld gave a blank look. “Okay… should I call your parents?”

     My head started to rattle, as if all my brain cells were simultaneously trying to understand. “I don't even have parents!” I shouted, before attempting to tug on Ilya’s arm. She wouldn't move.

     Ms. Steinfeld stared at me as if I were performing like some sort of mime. She sighed. “Well, let's call your guardian then and maybe send you home.”

     I stopped what I was doing and turned my head. “No!” I shouted. “You listen! Everyone is freezing in time!”

     “Right,” she said before making her way towards the ladder. “I'll make some calls then. Do you have any sort of medication with you?”

     My eyes twitched. Medication? Did she think I was crazy? I groaned and climbed down the ladder. Once again, another person of no help to me. I heard her call my name from behind me, but I just walked down the hall.

     As I turned to walk down the stairs, I saw a person. A person with one leg lifted off the ground, making their way up the stairs, but they weren't moving. Another victim.

     I gritted my teeth and walked past them. I had to figure something out, even if I had to do it alone. There was no time. I would end up like them. Regardless, I went back to my room. When I got there, I pulled out the two cards from my pocket and stared at them. I wanted to find something, anything that could be helpful. The only detail I noticed was that the colors of the cards matched our eye color, but that was it.

     Then, I noticed something in the background of mine. After staring for long enough, I saw static, like that of a TV. It was no longer the abstract colors and shapes I was staring at before, but TV static. I immediately took this as a clue that maybe if I could find that TV from my dream, I could do something.

     A loud and blood curdling scream from behind me made me jump, as I propelled myself forward feeling something whiff past my head. Something heavy crashed into the wall behind me, narrowly missing me. As I turned around to look, I saw an axe head buried into the wall. The person wielding that axe made my hair stand on end. Carmen had a red, murderous glint in her eyes, looking down at me.

     Using a leg to give herself more force, she pulled the axe out of the wall, nearly tumbling over in the process. I didn't know what to say. All I felt was betrayed. She tried to kill me, nearly succeeding. I backed my way into the corner of the room, staring back at her.

     Her hair was even more disheveled than before, looking like an animal. As she raised her axe, I prepared for another attack. She swung it in a downwards motion as I tumbled to the side behind the bed. She came at me again, raising it high. However, in her face was something different. Fear.

     “I don't want to die!” She screamed, before swinging it hard.

     I closed my eyes, not wanting to see my own death, but I felt nothing. No axe buried in my skull. All I could hear was the sound of an axe chop into the floor next to my head, and as I opened my eyes, I witnessed the sobbing of a girl fearing for her own life.

     My heart was pounding in my chest, but I didn't move. I stayed laying down on my back, looking up at her. Her bangs covered her eyes as she cried. She still held the handle of the axe, but never lifted it to attack again. Eventually, she let it go and it fell to the side. 

     I finally took a slow breath, preparing to speak. “Carmen?” I spoke softly. “Are you okay?”

     She fell to her knees and covered her ears, her head still lowered. Her tears kept flowing and falling onto my clothes. Her breaths were rapid and unsteady. At that moment, I felt something. The urge to do something. I slowly lifted my weak body up and kneeled in front of her. Then, with both of my hands, I grabbed hers, gently removing them from her ears. 

     “Hey,” I whispered. “You're alright. Can you tell me what happened?”

     I don't know where I got the confidence to do such a thing, but I did. Whether it was simple human empathy or an attempt at protecting myself, I felt an urge to help her. She kept crying, staring at the floor. Although, her tears were getting less severe. With her hands in mine, I gently grasped them to reassure her that she was safe.

     “I… don't want to die…” She repeated that same statement through painful tears. 

     I nodded, before very reluctantly placing her head against my shoulder. “Me neither. Dying sounds… pretty lame.”

     My heartbeat was still rapid, but I was trying to ignore my anxiety and focus on the person in front of me. Regardless of if she tried to kill me, it was clear she was fearing for her life, even more than I was. Which was strange, considering not even an hour ago we were having a heartfelt conversation.

     Carmen pressed her hands into my chest, whimpering. “I'm going to die…”

     I felt my chest tighten. “Can you tell me what happened?”

     She nodded her head against me, which kind of tickled. She then pulled her face away, covered in snot and tears at this point. Her eyes were puffy from crying so much. She was a mess.

     After a pointless attempt at trying to wipe her snot away, she spoke. “I've been hearing voices. The voice of a little girl.” As if scared of this little girl hearing her, she began to whisper. “She tells me all sorts of things. Things about my family, my future and that if I didn't kill you… I'd die.”

     I felt my heart sink for a moment. Whether or not those threats were lies or the truth, the fact of the matter was that freezing in time wasn't all there was to worry about. This little girl, Mina Roseate, was threatening Carmen’s life.

     “The truth is…” I started. “That same little girl has sort of been… not planting voices in my head, but speaking to me in dreams and messing with me.”

     Carmen's eyes widened, filled with light. “Wait, really? Then can you see the people frozen in time as well?”

     My eyes also widened. We were the same. “Yeah!” I yelled excitedly. “Finally, someone who's on the same page as me.” I sighed with relief and leaned back, staring at the ceiling. 

     Carmen put a hand on her chest, also making a deep exhale. “That's reassuring… Sorry for attacking you, Iris.”

     I waved a hand dismissively. “Don't worry about it. I lived, right?”

     She ruffled her hair some more. “I don't know what came over me. I just felt like it was my only option.”

     My anxiety started to calm as we talked. “Well, it isn't. We’ll find a way out.”

     “I don't even know where to start looking,” Carmen said.

     “I think I have a lead on how to stop all this,” I said. “I think maybe there's a TV somewhere in the house that can help.”

     Carmen gave a confused look. “You think so?”

     I nodded, standing up and reaching out a hand to help up Carmen, who was still wiping her face with a sleeve. “It's just a hunch, but it's all I've got.”

     She grabbed my hand and lifted herself. The two of us stood in silence for a moment while trying to recompose ourselves.

     “Where did you even get an axe anyway?” I lightly laughed. 

     Carmen sniffled, giving an awkward smile. “Out back, in the shed. That little girl kind of… led me there.”

     “She really wants me dead for some reason, huh. Well, I’ll show her just how hard it is to kill the one and only Iris!” I fist pumped the air. 

     Carmen stared at me in disbelief. “You're something else.”