The power had been out for a week.
As the entire neighborhood sat in darkness they listened to the thunder of great guns overhead. A news report shortly before the televisions died had said the enemies from the west had come to tear land away from the rightful owners. Marcelina disbelieved the news in general. How had they even gotten this far?
The soldiers had come around and informed everyone there were to be no lights. No communication devices were to be used. Nothing. Marcelina was bored. She could not even do homework without light. Everyone sat huddled in the living room as if being together was better. Unsure why dying together was preferred to alone she’d retreated to her room. Besides, no one had been by her dziadzio when he’d died.
Marcelina did not want to think about him. It made her sad. He was in heaven now, with Zuza. By now he probably loved her more because she’d been perfect.
Her head shook and she quietly shoved her desk against her door. The wind gusted against the heavy curtains when she opened the window. A quiet squeak seemed too loud in the oppressive silence of the night. Marcelina slipped out into the shadows and closed her window almost all the way. No one should notice.
Jory would be home. Everyone was home. No one was allowed out on the street, but she didn’t need to use the street to get to him. They had a secret pathway between yards to get to each other.
Once safely in his fenced backyard she crept towards the house and threw a toy soldier at his window. That done, she retreated to the clubhouse in the tree. They had been stockpiling snacks for months so could have a quiet party together. Too dark to read comics, unfortunately. Climbing the ladder was always easy and she hopped onto the wooden floor with a grin.
She was not alone.
Nothing, but she saw a shadow move in the corner. Her brain screamed at her to leave. What if this was an enemy soldier? What if she was going to be killed?
“Not Jory. Come away from the exit.”
The voice was older, male, and one she’d never heard. Marcelina had heard all the tales about what the enemy did to those they captured. She was sure they were fake. Positive, in fact. Except, well, she was alone and it was dark and no one knew where she was now. For all she knew, Jory’s whole family was dead already.
“If you hurt Jory, I will kill you.” The words were out before she could stop them. Marcelina closed her eyes, expecting a bullet now. Instead, she received a laugh. A warm laugh that brushed away the cold chill seeped into her body from fear.
“I’m not trying to hurt anyone. What’s your name?”
Marcelina thought she heard someone at the bottom of the tree. Was Jory on his way up? Should she warn him?
“I’m The Claw.”
More laughter had her edging closer to the shadows in the corner. Jory would be safe up here. If that was him. Maybe it was soldiers.
“The Claw, a pleasure. You seem so much bigger in the comics.”
“I won’t hurt you,” Marcelina promised solemnly. Over the years she’d begun to develop a sympathy for the supposed villain. “I’m not even really a bad guy. People say that. It’s not true.”
“People say that about me as well.”
Marcelina watched as the shadows lightened and she saw whom she talked with tonight.
“Holy dirtbag! You’re one of them!”
“One of whom?”
“Traitors. Enemies of the people.”
Jory had arrived. Marcelina darted back and grabbed his hand before he might run off and tattle. He gave a half-hearted tug to get away.
“Yes, that’s what the news calls us. When they even acknowledge we exist.”
“The news lies.”
No one responded to this truth so Marcelina decided everyone else knew as well as her. She couldn’t have argued anyway. The creature, man, slithered forward.
Instead of feet he had a tail. Like a snake. His eyes glowed yellow in the darkness and there was no skin or hair on his whole body. Only scales. Even on his heavy arms. Marcelina wondered what he felt like so she released Jory’s hand despite his quiet protest.
Marcelina marched forward and reached out. Her fingers ran along his arm and he grinned. He was much bigger this close. What she’d thought was hair was more like a cobra’s hood. He spread it out and she jumped pack.
“I would never attack The Claw,” he said. “Professional courtesy.”
Even in the darkness, she was sure he saw her grin.
“Marcelina,” Jory hissed. From behind he grabbed her hand and pulled her back. “You leave her be!”
“Yes, I should be leaving. I wouldn’t want to endanger you.”
“We can help you.”
“I am not Marcelina! I am The Claw.”
“If he’s caught and we’re with him, they’ll kill us. And our families.”
Her enthusiasm drained away at his words. Jory was right. The government wouldn’t mind killing children. Then it would hold the parents responsible and they would die as well. Or worse.
“He is right.” The serpent-man said. He slithered closer and Marcelina took his hand. He grinned, she thought, and pulled his hand free to touch her forehead. He had scales even on his fingers. Jory stiffened when the serpent-man touched his forehead, but he didn’t back away.
“Be careful, children.”
“You too,” Marcelina whispered.
They watched him slither, climb down the ladder and once he was on the ground Jory pulled her back and into the clubhouse. He shook, but so did she. They clung to each other the rest of the night even though they both knew they’d be in trouble come morning.