The chalk was smooth and dusty in her fingers.
Small fires of dead leaves crackled in the crevices, tips flickering with red-hot embers. They ate away at them until they melted into ash, fed with sticks, thick deadwood fallen from oak trees and maples in parks, splintered with burning threads like gold candlewick. They warmed the air with a billowing heat, to keep her head clear. The chalk-scrawled walls were lit with scented candles.
Numbers and words unfolded from the tip of her chalk, calculations and charts and arrows.
“Can’t you at least take a break?” asked Aaron.
“Not yet, I’ve almost got it.”
Empty, miscellaneous bottles and cans rolled over the floor. A plastic sand bucket wobbled in the middle like a bright red cauldron, sticky with a warm, thick mixture. The stirring ladle dried on a piece of newspaper. Ciana was shuffling the deck of cards she’d found again, bored.
She flung down her chalk with a glassy clink, and snapped up one of the chapstick tubes in her fingers. It was cherry-flavored. She popped open the cap and began screwing, until the balmy cylinder slid out of the casing, dropped it into the bucket and stirred. It broke up into chunks, and melted. The mixture was a little thicker now. She scooped some up in her ladle and drizzled it over the floor.
“Try this, Ciana.”
“It’s important for the lipids to be at the right consistency. Just see if it’ll light.”
“Okay, okay. One second.”
Ciana scooted over to where she could see the window and closed her eyes.
Ciana opened her eyes for just a second, and saw the moon, pale as milk and round in the evening sky, a starry cookie with a small bite missing.
It was close. The drizzle of liquid glowed and spit sparks. But then the light faded and it sizzled out.
“Just a little more,” said Daffodil, reaching for another tube of scented chapstick. But they were gone.
“Looks like we ran out of chapstick,” she said. “Aaron, can you go get some more? Like I said. Just a little more.”
“That’s what you said the last five times,” he said. “Are you....sure you have to add wax in such...tiny amounts?”
* * *
Aisle upon aisle, layered like stacks of laundry. Bags of chips and cans of soda gleamed from between sandwiches of shelf as freezers hummed. Layers upon layers of packaging and gleaming candies, sending sparse glints of light from neon tubes spinning off into the aggregate. Candy bars gleamed like molded iron in the flickering, hued light that made gummy bears glow from the inside, and bags of porcelain mints painted with red seams crackled. Tubes of neon light lined slanted metal shelves like waxy squiggles of cake frosting, glowing from behind glass freezer doors that reflected nothing.
The tubes of chapstick gleamed from the checkout rack. Aaron grabbed a handful.
His foot brushed something. He looked down. There was a tote bag on the floor, green and strung with black cords. There was something hard inside of it. He pulled it out.
It was a liter soda bottle, with sticky bits where the label had been. Pink lemonade sloshed inside.
Daffodil had said there was a computer with security tapes in the back room. He was curious about that.
The back room was very dark, and it was hard to see. It was a natural darkness, though, one that didn’t whisper, or collect in odd places. The computer screen gleamed with a grainy sheen like polished wax, and the papers spread over the table were pale against the shadows. He turned on the computer, and it rippled with brightness.
There was a file folder on the desktop, He opened the security footage from a few days ago, and saw Starling. Her face was blurred out. She had been an aspiring cryptid, after all. She’d shown up, made a bang, and disappeared without a trace.
His hand bumped something cold on the table. It was a bottle of iodine, next to a frizzy stick of cotton swab.
It was what she would’ve wanted.
* * *
Daffodil finished stirring and drizzled another swath on the floor, next to at least a dozen dried others. “You know the drill.”
They all stared.
The mixture was burning. Cores of a pale, electric energy, that simmered like the white light that dripped from Ciana’s eye sockets during a full moon.
It was time.