Croak grinned wide, and for the first time he looked ugly, the fire putting weird shadows on his face.
“As you may know, Alpha Beta Rho has a proud, bitchin’ reputation. Party hard, then party harder. But we also have another rep, one that made us, like, totally paranoid. Alpha Beta Rhos always get their dream. And this is why.”
“Ritual sacrifice, bro,” Croak said through a wide, toothy grin. “We’ve done all the hard work, too. Prayer and chanting. You’ll get to do that next year for the new pledges. It’s sick, but it’s all in this dead language and it’s, like, a buzzkill to remember. And some of the sounds are hard to make. This year, all you have to do is take those-”
In the ground in front of the fire were three large butcher knives, more symbols carved into the handles.
“-and spill their blood. Right into the fire. College will be, like, whatever, a guaranteed degree. And by the time you’re old and thirty, you’ll have la vida awesemosa.”
The three of them stood, unsure, confused. There were questions. The wrong questions, mostly, although that could be forgiven as they didn’t have the experience to know the right ones. Eagle would later learn the only question that really mattered was ‘who the fuck are we sacrificing these girls to?’ Right then, though, that question never even occurred to him.
“We kill them-”
“Gotta be like this, bro,” Croak said, running a finger across his throat, “and the blood has to go into the fire.”
“And then we get whatever we want?”
Croak nodded. The fire was making him sweat, and he was shining. “Some of the boys found this book about fifteen years ago. Seemed legit. Figured it was worth a shot.”
“Who are these girls?” Logan asked, staring down one in particular.
“Pssht. Who cares? No one.”
Logan nodded, and that’s when Eagle realized Logan wasn’t as freaked out about this whole thing as he was. Logan had already made his decision, he was only making sure he wasn’t going to get caught.
On the other side of him, Scooter belched. No help there.
Croak motioned to the knives. “When you’re ready.”
Logan hardly hesitated, picking up a knife. Scooter, still believing he was in some sort of fever dream, followed suit, missing and almost plunging his hand and arm into the fire.
“Wait, no, wait,” Eagle said, holding an arm out. “This is fucked, man, this is way fucked.”
“Bruh, this is nothing more than a fair trade,” Croak said. “Their life for yours, and they’re lives are, like, whatever, man. You take it, you do something better with it, you know?”
Eagle stared at Croak in disbelief.
“They’re still people, Croak. They’re not just throwaways.”
“We’re not throwing them away, man,” Logan said, holding his knife up to the light. “We’re using them to make our lives better. A true sacrifice, right?”
Not right, not that Logan knew that. Or Croak, who was nodding and grinning and looking far more devilish with every passing moment. Those blue eyes didn’t even look blue anymore. Black.
“No!” Eagle said, stopping Logan as he walked around the fire. “We can’t do this, bro.”
“Scooter is fine with it,” Logan said.
“Scooter might actively be dying,” Eagle said, looking him over.
“Nfinme,” Scooter said. He tried to go for the knife again and knocked it to the ground.
“Look, Eagle,” Croak said. “I’ll make this simple. Kill her, or I kill you. And then I kill her anyway.”
Eagle Carridin hated school and didn’t study and loudly made fun of people who did. He smoked and drank, often while driving or surfing. He’d slept with close to thirty girls, and more than a few of them had not been one hundred percent willing. He made petty theft a habit and liked hitting squirrels with his motorcycle.
But Eagle Carridin didn’t kill girls. He didn’t kill anyone. And he didn’t even pause to think after Croak’s ultimatum before launching himself at Croak and knocking him to the ground. He got a few good punches in while Croak was still too surprised to act before Logan pulled him back and Croak headbutted him. The girls began screaming and trying to pull the peg out of the ground. Scooter had attempted to get his knife again, missed, fallen to his knees, and was currently passed out and drooling, his head dangerously close to the fire.
This went on for some time before a single shot rang out. Which was weird, because Croak was pretty sure he hadn’t brought a gun and neither had the others.
Someone stepped into the clearing. She was old and thin and had a shotgun pointed at Croak’s face. Everyone in the clearing stared at her, confused. Except Scooter. He fell over, away from the fire, and started to snore heavily.
“Who the fuck are you?”
This was Collette King, Collie to her friends, the list of which had been slowly dwindling in the past decade or so, either through falling outs or deaths. She was fifty-seven the night she met Eagle, but with Collie age hardly seemed to matter. She had shrunk a little and her hair was now mostly gray with a few old chestnut brown locks still hiding underneath. Thin, but wiry, taller than average, or maybe she only seemed that way, she always wore the same type of dark blue jeans and had owned her leather jacket longer than some people own cars or houses. The younger ones called her old school while anyone her age just called her a functional alcoholic. Hair of the dog in the morning and whiskey for the rest of the day. When the rest of the world stopped smoking she only smoked more, yellowing her skin and teeth with nicotine, setting the smell of smoke into everything she owned, and scratching her voice like an old vinyl.
Alpha Beta Rho had gotten onto her radar the year before. She had been driving through town and was parched, found herself in a bar otherwise filled with college kids. Sitting in the middle of college kids was one of her favorite pastimes. They thought there was so much weight to their problems, talked about them like they shook the world, when really they were pebbles compared to her own weight, or even the weight they would have to carry in the future. She thought it was the funniest shit. And then one of the conversations she was eavesdropping on turned interesting.
“They found me out when I didn’t know how to play Asshole.” He was a clean looking kid, green, wearing slacks and a polo that fit neatly and a hangover that didn’t. “I’ve never even heard of Asshole.”
“How have you never heard of Asshole?”
“It never came up in my searches! Do you know how many drinking games there are? How was I supposed to get to every single one?”
“It’s for the best man,” the other one said, also clean looking. “It’s just not worth the liver damage.”
“Isn’t it? Four years getting stupid with Alpha Beta Rho and I’ve got guaranteed graduation and apparently my dream job.”
The other one was already shaking his head. “It’s a myth.”
“I’ve done my research, okay? I don’t know what they’re doing over there, but it’s not a myth.”
Intrigued, Collie had stuck around and did some research of her own, and came to the same conclusion. Fifteen years and every Alpha Beta Rho, despite having an active alcohol and drug life and usually being tremendously stupid, had graduated from Carson College. After a little more digging she had discovered the dream job part was completely true, too.
It took her a little bit longer to figure out what the hell they were doing to get such things. They were surprisingly good at covering their tracks and picking the right people. Of course it had to be virgins, and maybe virgins were just in short supply on the Carson College campus, but even that first year they hadn’t taken their victims from their own backyard. They must have been taking a few each year. Only a few had ever been reported missing. But they had been reported the same time each year, and they were around the same age, and it took an intuitive leap, but it was one Collie was comfortable with. She’d been back around Carson College since the beginning of the school year, waiting. She’d kept her eyes on the new pledges, figuring they would be the ones to do it this year, and so had missed the older frat boys collecting the girls. But she had been in her pickup truck across the street when Croak had marched them out of the house, and knew by the look on his face that tonight was the night.
“I will load you with buckshot if you speak again,” she said, her voice as grizzled as she was. She looked at Eagle.
“You. Blondie. Untie the girls. Get them out of here.”
“I don’t know who you are, bitch, but-”
These were the last immortal words of Croak Neilson. Collie was a woman of her word. Most of the buckshot found his face, and at close range, there wasn’t much face left once the bang floated off and the smoke disappeared. Croak Neilson fell face first into the flames.
The girls were screaming. Scooter had rolled over again, towards the fire, and Collie used one boot to roll him back. Logan was staring wide eyed at the charring corpse of his hero. Eagle was frozen except for his eyes, which were bouncing back and forth between Croak and Collie so fast he pulled something.
“Did you have to kill him?” he asked finally.
Collie lowered the shotgun and considered it briefly. “How many times has he done this already?”
Eagle thought about it, really thought about it, and came out with roughly the right math. He nodded.
“You’ve ruined everything,” Logan said. The grip on his knife tightened. “I finally had it. All the shit I put up with. The constant drinking, the hangovers, the loud music, the tramps. It was all going to be worth it.”
It occurred to Logan that, perhaps, it still could be worth it.
He took a step towards the girls.
Collie dropped her shotgun.
Eagle started to block Logan.
From her jacket pocket Collie pulled out a revolver.
Logan tried to go around Eagle.
Collie leveled the gun.
Eagle pulled the knife away from Logan hard to enough to break his wrist. Then he dropped Logan with a solid hit to the jaw.
“No,” he said, waving the knife at his unconscious body.. “Killing is wrong, you fucktard.”
He looked up at Collie, then, still holding the knife. She almost shot him in that second.
“What the fuck is going on here?” he asked.
Collie sighed and dropped the gun.
“Help me with the girls.”
That was the end of Alpha Beta Rho’s mysterious success, and the end of Eagle’s career at Carson College. The first to see Collie with her new partner was Bertie Bowie, and she didn’t believe it for a while. Nobody did. Collie never traveled with people. Collie kind of hated people. And here she was teaching the trade to some big dumb idiot who knew nothing about anything. Everyone had their guesses, and a few guessed correctly. Collie, while still a firecracker, was almost sixty. Hunting on her own just wasn’t safe anymore. She needed some extra muscle.
Eagle got credit for keeping Collie alive for an extra eight years. And in the end, it wasn’t the job that got her. Stomach cancer. Still smoked to the end. Eagle started smoking with her. There was really nothing else to do when you’re spending all of your time with a walking chimney. Once she died, though, he threw them away and quit cold turkey. Didn’t like what it was doing to his face, he told everybody. Like none of them were allowed to admit they loved anyone. They all knew the truth anyway.
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