We've reached into the recesses of Prospero's twisted past to bring you these four short stories, and endeavored to stay about as spoiler-free as the back cover with regard to the present day storyline, so whether you've already read Splinters or not, tune in every Sunday night in October for a fresh tale of the dark and clandestine history of everyone's favorite Splinter-infested small town!
Click here for Four Trips to Prospero, Part 1: The Stuff of Legends
Click here for Four Trips to Prospero, Part 2: The Kirby Ridge Lights
Click here for Four Trips to Prospero, Part 3: Not Quite a Hollywood Ending
For our fourth and final tale, we'll catch up with Mina Todd, not quite as we know her...
By F.J.R. Titchenell
Mina - Five years before the events of Splinters
And, because it was Tuesday, I had a Girl Scout meeting.
I threw the unnaturally green vest over my stripy purple sweater, arranged the matching beret to stay put over my ponytail, and descended the stairs to the community center basement with none of my usual debate.
This wasn’t a week I could ditch and get away with it.
Thankfully, about half the girls were already there, enough and not too many to make it possible to choose the seat that would best work the odds.
I sat down at one of the tables, next to Madison Holland, across from Haley Perkins, and diagonal from Brianna Hicks, without waiting for glances of acknowledgement or welcome. Haley gave me one anyway.
I’d often wondered what it would take to avoid a kind smile from Haley Perkins.
I started tracing the cracks in the table with my fingers, trying to follow all the activity in the room with my ears, to keep my brain full enough to function.
In my central mental workspace, I mapped out the most likely parts of town, calculating distances and travel time.
That auditory activity level was limited. Whatever conversation there had been before I arrived came to a dead halt. A year ago, this would have been a minor inconvenience. Troop meetings had been one of my safest places, left mostly alone yet surrounded by younger, human girls.
Now, though, troop 246 was celebrating one eleventh birthday after another, pimples, bra outlines and menstrual symptoms cropping up left and right. Any one of us might be developed enough now to be replaced by Splinters. Any one of the others could be one, and it was becoming more difficult not to worry about the contents of the conversations that always abruptly died off around me.
“I like your sweater,” Haley tried to resurrect this one.
“Thanks,” I answered, winding a loose thread from its sleeve between my fingers for mental packing material.
It should have ended there.
“Don’t you like it?” Haley asked the rest of the table.
“It’s nice,” Brianna agreed as she did with almost everything Haley said.
“Little warm, though, isn’t it?” Madison put in. “It’s practically summer.”
“It’s April,” I said, tying a slipknot and untying it. Haley and Brianna were in sweatshirts, with floral umbrellas handy for the Northern California spring showers. Madison was determinedly not shivering in a tank top and tiny pleated skirt.
“We don’t all look as good in blue as you do, do we?” Haley teased her back affectionately, nudging me under the table to join her.
“You look like a pedophile dressed you this morning,” I told Madison.
Haley dropped her forehead exasperatedly to her hand, Madison scooted away, giving me more room, Brianna stared down at her clasped hands, and I silently called the aimless small talk’s time of death.
Finally, Michelle, Brianna’s mother and our troop leader, felt her way into the room with her toes, vision blocked by the crates stacked higher than her head in her arms, followed by a few other similarly encumbered parents, including both of Haley’s and neither of mine.
They could afford my time to come here for “much needed extra socialization” and to give our family some illusion of normality. Never their own. Not that I minded the space from them.
Haley’s Dad came out of the haze that followed him everywhere except near her, for long enough to wrap her in a tight hug that she only half pretended to be embarrassed by, before all the parental hangers-on left with their expected offers of further help to Michelle.
Michelle brushed them off in the expected way, turned to us, opened one of the crates, and pulled out the top box of Thin Mints with a flourish.
Haley and Brianna led the round of applause.
My absence would most definitely have been noted today. Money was involved.
“We’ve got more than enough here,” she told us, “So don’t worry about dropping off your preorders first unless you start running low. If that happens, just come back here to check inventory and stock up. We’ll go in pairs and one group of three. Remember, keep your buddy in sight at all times.”
A few of the girls raised three fingers in promise. I joined the wave of imitation before I could get stuck being last.
“Okay, Christine and Sarah, you start with Kirby Street, Hannah and Lisa, McMurdo Avenue, Brianna and Madison…”
I don’t know whose grip went more rigid against the table, Brianna’s or mine, when her name, for the first time, was not followed by Haley’s.
“Start at the bottom of Miracle Trail and head down West Street”
Whose parents had meddled, I didn’t know. My mother was probable, or possibly Michelle herself had decided to start weaning Brianna off of Haley’s company before their big move back east at the end of the year.
The answer didn’t change the consequences of my seating miscalculation.
“Haley and Mina…” Haley took the separation from both her usual companions considerably better, giving them both small shrugs of apology and me another small smile. “Kramer Road.”
I got up while the rest of the names were being called and started loading cookies into the mismatched carrier assigned to the two of us, a canvas box on wheels intended for laundry, and scooped a couple extra boxes of Tagalongs into my arms. That way I appeared to be helping when I bolted out of the room the moment we were bid good luck, Haley maneuvering the laundry basket up the stairs behind me.
I started across the community center lawn toward Kramer Road, in case Michelle was watching behind us, planning to circle back toward Main Street as soon as I was out of sight.
I checked the few small improvised flamethrowers I’d been able to conceal in the butterfly-embroidered pockets of my jeans and slipped my Bluetooth on under my beret.
“Aldo?” I tested it.
“You’re just in time,” my techie, my eye in the sky, and my closest ally in Prospero answered me in his hushed, sharp, nine-year-old voice, probably from under his bed. “Alexei’s just left the school, headed east.”
Alexei Smith, glitchiest and most obvious of Splinters to those of us who knew what to look for, was simply the quaintly odd neighborhood drama teacher to those who didn’t, and one of the Splinter Council’s favorite agents for new abductions. It was usually easier to keep track of him than of all the possible targets.
“I think you can intercept him at-”
“There’s a wrinkle,” I stopped Aldo’s calculations as Haley’s lanky stride and the squeak of the laundry basket caught up behind me.
“I think we should start with the west side of the street, then do the east on the way back,” Haley suggested casually, as though her keeping up had never been in question.
It would have taken me two words at most to make Madison angry enough to take off and think she was the one ditching me, especially with the head start I had going today.
Haley, on the other hand...
“It might be quicker if we each took one side,” I imitated her agreeable tone.
She narrowed her eyes in a way that managed to be accusing without meanness. “We’re supposed to stick together,” she reminded me.
So much for getting agreeably separated. I turned down the first corner toward the center of town.
“Mina!” Haley shouted, squeaking along after me. “Kramer Road is the other way!”
“Yes, it is,” I answered.
“Where are you going?”
“This way,” I said.
“Mina, please, don’t make me go back there and tell Michelle I lost you.”
I turned back to try to decide if she meant it.
“Please.” There was none of the upsweeping tension to the corners of her mouth or eyes that would suggest she was enjoying or even aware of the threat this would be, sending adults looking for me right now. “The rules are there to keep us safe.”
Oh, she meant it. She thought she was protecting me.
Before I could laugh at the absurdity of this, Aldo broke our impasse.
“Kramer Road is fine if you’re heading south. He’s veering around. I’ll let you know if he makes a move, just don’t take too long.”
“Okay, fine.” I took a step back toward our assigned territory.
“Really?” asked Haley.
“Really,” I had to push Haley on ahead of me. She kept looking over her shoulder to make sure I was still there, suspicion slowly transitioning into hope.
Kramer Road paralleled West Street, the second road from the thick tree line and rises of rock that marked the sudden edge of Prospero. Haley gave up on trying to watch both me and where she was going as we neared the first house, grabbing my wrist instead and pulling me alongside her onto its creaky wooden porch.
She knocked on the door, and I braced myself for the stilted exchange of words that would follow.
I’d never been very good at saying the right thing. The best I could do was maybe an eighty percent imitation of people like Haley. The Old Man, the Splinter hunter who had taught me everything I knew about our fight, had also taught me to be even more creative and effective at saying the wrong thing when saying the wrong thing could be useful, but at saying the right thing, he was no help at all.
I could scrape by in school and troop meetings and other places where words had purposes, where there were goals, however trivial, to accomplish, but these sorts of neighborly interactions with acquaintances of uncertain humanity, full of obligatory inquiries about people’s families’ health, were another story.
Mr. Callahan opened the door with a warm greeting for Haley and a polite recognition of me. I stood painfully still while the two of them mused upon the fact that it was indeed that cookie-selling time of the year again, and Aldo detailed into my ear the way Alexei Smith was leading Mr. Meiers, one of the other teachers from the high school, away from the activity of Main Street and into the park.
This sounded like how it would go. Teachers were some of the Splinters’ favorite people to take. Alexei would take Mr. Meiers to somewhere no one else would see him transform. Then he would take Splinter form to overpower him and drag him out to the woods, to wherever in that maze of trees and canyons the replacements were performed, and tomorrow Mr. Meiers would be gone and there would be a Splinter teaching his classes and wearing his clothes and living his life.
Unless I could get there in time.
After the first few houses, I managed to talk Haley into doing two houses at once, so long as I stayed on the same side of the street with her, where we could see each other.
Far fewer people had an appetite for Girl Scout cookies when it was only me on their porches asking them and no Haley, so the number of doors this strategy closed on us sped things along considerably as well, but fifteen minutes and two and a half blocks later, Aldo’s confidence was audibly slipping.
“Can you hurry it up any? You might want to hear this.”
Aldo held his mouthpiece to one of the open surveillance streams he was monitoring for me, to give me a staticky preview.
“It is soooo much nicer to rehearse in this time of year!” Alexei’s voice could send shudders up my spine even at this distance, those extended, distorted vowels that belonged in no earthly accent, however thick.
I’d quite thoroughly checked.
“...Your daughter, she is veeeery good actress! You must see her twirl the Desdemona dress. It drags only slightly!”
“Yes... she’s certainly sprouted the last couple years,” Meiers tried pitiably to respond to this.
“It is only her rhyming cooooouplets that conceeeern me...
“He’s leading him behind the amphitheater,” Aldo mercifully cut off the direct audio.
Behind the amphitheater. Out of sight. From there it was a straight shot to the woods by way of... of...
My mental map was blurry, and in the absence of my keyboard or my Sudoku book to reset my brain, I ripped open what turned out to be the wrong end of one of the Tagalongs boxes in my arms and took two cookies in as many bites.
“You’re not supposed to eat them!” Haley scolded.
I took four dollars of loose lunch money out of my jeans pocket, handed it to her for the change envelope, and offered her the open bottom of the box.
Haley crossed her arms and nearly managed to keep from licking her lips. “That’s still not what they’re for.”
I shrugged and took a third, mentally testing the sharpness of my geographic awareness of Prospero as my rising blood sugar brought the world back into focus.
“Do you always have to be so difficult?” she sighed.
“I’m difficult?” I realized too late how little could be gained from engaging.
“Yes, you are!” said Haley. “Yeah, some of the stuff we’re supposed to do is dumb. I know. But some of it isn’t. And some of it is fun. That is one of the reasons we’re here, you know. And you have more fun if you go with it, but you’re always fighting or ignoring or avoiding everything.”
I shrugged again. It didn’t placate her.
“Do you have somewhere more important to be?”
I didn’t shrug again, didn’t say anything. She didn’t need me to.
“You’re in a pretty big hurry. Is something happening down the hill?”
What Haley might imagine was happening in town, I didn’t know. A new book or videogame I wanted to pick up, probably. Whatever it was had to be harmless and far enough from the truth to acknowledge.
I shrugged again, in the slow, exaggerated way that denotes reluctant confirmation.
“Well,” said Haley, “you do have us ahead of schedule. Maybe we can make a quick stop before doing the east side.”
I let the hope show on my face. That wasn’t ideal, but maybe it would be enough to buy Mr. Meiers some time.
The Old Man didn’t allow me kill Splinters inside town limits anyway. Too messy. Too many complications. Splinters, like humans, disappeared most easily out in the woods. And Alexei had always managed to evade us out there, so here in Prospero he remained, making moves against one human after another, for me to thwart one by one, when I was lucky.
But Splinters liked to keep things neat and private too. All I often had to do to at least delay an abduction was to make sure a person couldn’t be dragged at the Splinters’ convenience out to the woods without being seen by humans like me.
Haley and I could interrupt their meeting together, find some reason Mr. Meiers had to go spend the rest of the day somewhere densely populated, we’d go back to selling cookies to her heart’s content, and then I’d check up on him later.
“Really?” I asked her.
“Really,” she said. “But first, you take one more house,” she nodded at the next one, “and smile. Maybe you’ll get a sale. Maybe it’ll be fun.”
“One house, I’ll smile and do the talking, and then we make a stop across Main Street?” I summed up.
“One house is pushing it,” Aldo advised.
I was the one hurrying Haley up the steps this time.
“Better hope they’re on a diet,” said Aldo.
I’d do more than hope.
Haley rang the doorbell and shoved me in front of her just as the door opened.
“Hi, Mrs. Becker,” I pushed through instinct to be silent with a broadly forced grin. “Would you like to buy some four dollar boxes of repackaged two dollar Keebler cookies to bring our Girl Scout troop fifty cents closer to sleeping in tents at the Lowell ranch, where Mr. Lowell would probably let us sleep for free if it didn’t build character to invent an activity in Prospero worth holding a fundraiser for?”
Haley kicked me in the back of the ankle and covered her face in her hands. Not enough of it to keep me from seeing the involuntary grin in the muscles of her cheeks.
“I’d love to!” Mrs. Becker exclaimed. Whether she’d heard a word of my speed-spiel was anyone’s guess. Her eyes hadn’t left the vein of Samoa boxes Haley had shuffled to the top of the laundry carrier. “I’ll take two of those and one of Thin Mints. Let me see…” She hunted around the end table by her door for several seconds for a purse, which she then hunted around for several more seconds for a wallet, which she opened to find a single five dollar bill. “Just let me find my checkbook,” she said, glancing up at the other box of Tagalongs in my arms. “Oh, and one of those!”
“Great choice,” I said. “They last three years at room temperature, see?”
I ate another Tagalong out of the open box, the age of which I knew nothing about.
This did not deter her from a further four-and-a-half minute quest for the elusive checkbook.
Once we were finally off of Mrs. Becker’s porch, check in hand, the door latching behind us, Haley poked me hard in the ribs, a gale of giggles bursting out. My body tensed automatically against the attack, and in lieu of putting her in a reflexive chokehold, I sidestepped quickly and as politely as I could out of her reach.
“That was awful,” Haley gasped, clearly trying to calm her diaphragm and bring some seriousness to her face.
“And ineffective,” I said, but out of range of her tickling, running just ahead of her toward Main Street, I found I was struggling to do the same.
Not for long.
“We were wrong,” Aldo hissed suddenly in my ear. “Mr. Meiers is going home. Alexei’s meeting up with Hermes at the Tea House. They could be there for hours. I don’t think he’s handling the abduction!”
I stopped with a skid of my sneakers. Hermes was another Effectively Certain Splinters. He couldn’t be a target.
“Then who?” I prompted him.
“Who what?” Haley asked, catching her breath.
“I don’t know,” said Aldo, “but something just tripped one of our sensors on the tree line, just below Miracle Trail!”
Back where we started. Madison and Brianna. They were wandering alone right next to the forest, and there was every chance one of them might already be a Splinter.
“On my way,” I muttered.
“Who are you talking to?” asked Haley somewhere behind me, before she realized that I was running back up the hill and started running after me. “Hey, wait! What happened to Main Street?”
I didn’t answer her until her inconveniently long legs pulled even with mine, and she reached a hand out for my arm.
“Go away!” I snapped, letting myself jerk away from her as hard as I could, scattering the remaining cookies from the mangled box in my hand. I didn’t need to bring a second potential abductee along with me when I got in the monster’s way right at the edge of the woods.
Haley’s infectious laughter faded further away than if it had never been there at all, and I couldn’t for the life of me explain why I’d been wasting precious seconds playing Girl Scout and negotiating and smiling and trying to make her laugh, instead of getting as far away from her as I could.
“Tell me where you’re going, and we’ll go,” she offered. “We’ll go together, and we’ll be safe.”
“This is Prospero!” I shouted. “Do you know why they let us wander around with a basketful of cookies, an envelope of cash, and the buddy system? Do you realize why we’re not selling cookies off the front step of a supermarket, next to three parents and a security guard? Because we live in a nowhere so safe that there aren’t even any strangers to talk to! Nothing is going to happen to us because we don’t hold hands crossing the street!”
But it wasn’t safe, and things were going to happen to us, worse things than would happen in Chicago and New York and LA, things that a security guard for every scout couldn’t stop, and they could be happening to the other girls right now.
When Haley didn’t concede the point, I took the handle of the laundry basket out of her hands. “If you’re going to tell, tell.” I let the handle go, so the basket of cookies started to roll down the slanted street.
Haley grabbed for it, and I ran, up the nearest driveway on the left, through the close-set bushes at the back of someone’s yard, over a chain link fence, and out onto West Street.
There was no sign of Brianna and Madison for the first three blocks I ran uphill, north toward to the Miracle trailhead. Finally, I heard the snap of movement in the trees.
Quietly as I could, I climbed the shelf of rock at the edge of the road into the redwoods and circled around to the back of the movement. From the shadows of a cluster of trunks, I watched the shapes of two girls, one leading the other. One glanced close to my hiding place, and I pulled back, wanting to crush my vest and sweater and sparkly embroidered jeans into the red bark behind me.
Someday, I decided, when I was old enough to shop for myself, I was never going to wear colors again.
Brianna, leading Madison, my eyes adjusted enough to discern.
I slipped my lighter into my hand, and the first moment Madison turned her head back toward the road, I grabbed Brianna by the back of her collar and yanked her behind the trees with me.
“Brianna?” Madison called out, taking several hurried steps in the wrong direction, turning around and squinting into the shade.
The surprise had made Brianna let go of her hand.
With two wooden cracks, Brianna’s elbows inverted, her now backwards hands latching instead onto my left sleeve and right wrist. The top half of her head twisted around to look at me with a splintering creak, distorted, claylike remnants of her nose following along with it.
“You,” she said through a mouth forming out of what had been the side of her neck, “really need to leave us alone.”
I wasn’t allowed to kill it, not here, not on my own. I could hurt it, though, temporarily but badly. I flicked on the lighter in my hand, burning into the malformed limb that held my wrist. It bubbled and smoked and finally had to withdraw with an insectoid shriek of escaping air.
“Brianna?” Madison called again.
A new limb burst from Brianna’s shoulder, cutting through her sweatshirt, featureless and tentacle-like, striking across my face, knocking my head back into the trunk behind me, snapping the loop of my Bluetooth and beginning to snake around my neck.
With my freed hand, I stuck my lighter into the hand Brianna was still pinning by the sleeve and pulled one of the modified travel aerosol cans from my pocket. I lit the lighter again, and in the frozen moment when Brianna realized what I was about to do, sprayed a jet of purple, air freshener flames into her face.
She screeched and scampered backward into the woods. Not for long, I knew. Only long enough to heal herself and try again.
“Brianna!” Madison called. She was going after her. She’d make it even easier to take her. And nothing I of all people could say would stop her.
Her eyes found my silhouette. “Brianna?”
“Sorry,” I whispered, and pushed her over the rock shelf by the road.
There was a very un-wooden snap of bone and a human scream when her elbow hit the asphalt.
I ran out onto the road, on the side she couldn’t see without figuring out a way to roll herself over, and hammered heavily on three front doors before sprinting through another back yard back toward the community center. Madison’s screams summoned even more people from the houses around her than I had.
Some of them had to be human still.
I disentangled the remains of the Bluetooth from my hair and held it to my cheek.
“Accomplished,” I whispered to Aldo before turning it off and dropping it in my pocket.
Haley nearly dropped the laundry basket she’d just begun to lower down the stairs when I caught up with her.
“That was... where were you?”
Not for the first time, I wondered if normal people found saying the right thing this frequently outright impossible.
“I told you I’d be fine.”
We were both safe, no one was in trouble. I doubted Haley’s look of questioning reproach would extend to changing that. Unless someone had seen me running from Madison’s accident. Then she’d tell the whole truth, and I’d probably end up on probation again.
We were helping to take inventory of the remaining cookie boxes and handing over our cash envelope when Brianna caught up as well, back in one humanoid piece with only a hole in her sweatshirt, an unusually sour expression and a vague smell of smoke still hanging about her.
Madison would be okay, for now. Her parents would be sure send her to Sacramento to get her arm set, to make sure it was done right, which would keep her safe for a few days, and then she’d be under close human attention for a while after. I’d put Brianna’s name forward to The Old Man. There was a good chance he’d eliminate her, or help Drake or me do it, rather than let her move away and pollute the outside world.
Any worries Brianna already had about that confined themselves to a slightly less timid glance at me than usual, while Michelle counted the few fives and tens we’d brought in.
“What were you two doing all day?” Brianna asked Haley and me, to the muted giggles of the few others who’d already made it back, unaware of the call we’d be getting any minute about Madison’s condition.
I tried not to sigh while I picked the pine needles out of my beret.