The rain plodded steadily down the streets and alleys, and Jeremy learned for the first time what it was to be truly alone. He reclined on a pile of dusty blankets next to a short candle that provided the only light in the abandoned warehouse. Shattered glass covered the floor, and through the gutted ceiling Jeremy could see the damaged, blackened beams that supported the high walls.
It was his third week away from the caverns, and he wondered if he was even a Special Friend anymore. Of all the times he'd been betrayed by friends, the last one he suspected of doing it to him was Barney. Barney who took him, his sister, and his best friend up to his beautiful lair. To sing, to dance, to receive a "Special Gift". But it was all a horrifying lie.
Barney had taken Fran away, left in the company of Baby Bop. He had killed Cameron with a blow to the head with a machete. And he had tried to kill Jeremy, by locking his arms around the throat, still wearing his idiotic grin and giggling. All of this, just because the three children turned thirteen.
Jeremy listened to the rain dance upon the pavement, which was drenched with filth and rubble. It was only some years ago that adults frequented the streets, going about their way to work. Now it was still. Jeremy could not break the stillness, for were he to yell or sing or cry, it could bring about the attention of the Loved Ones. Many times Jeremy had spied them shuffling about the ruins of the city, looking for him, offering Barney dolls with one hand while clutching a torch with the other. They came mostly at night, and all Jeremy could see of them were their cloaked, squat bodies clad in purple and green. Jeremy prayed they would go away.
Jeremy also feared the Bad Ones. It had been so long that he'd seen an adult, but he remembered the stories Barney and Baby Bop told of them. How they liked to pull the hair of children, and hit them without reason. It was this reason that all adults were to be shunned, if not destroyed. Jeremy prayed they would go away too.
He was surprised that he lasted as long as he had. For while he was alone, he managed to find decent shelter and other staples, mostly from ransacked buildings and stores. He dared not sleep in the same place more than once, lest he be found. He had come back to a few places he'd been before, only to sense that the Loved Ones, or someone, had been there too.
Now he lay atop the stack of ragged blankets, wishing he still had his Barney doll. For some inexplicable reason, he missed the fat, bouncy dinosaur. The very creature that killed his friend and abducted his sister still had some emotional control over him, and it scared Jeremy. At night he could still hear the Barney love-song, playing over and over again until he broke down in tears. The chubby purple beast was the first creature that ever made him feel truly loved:
I love you, you love me, we're a happy family, With a great big kiss and hug from me to you, won't you say you love me too?
Then he envisioned the dead eyes and horrible laugh Barney chuckled while tightening his fingers around Jeremy's tender young neck. The relapse caused Jeremy to scream frantically, and his outburst lasted a full minute before he realized the danger he was putting himself into. When he did regain his composure, Jeremy blew out the candle and crouched by the window.
He hoped to God (Barney?) that no one heard him.
Jeremy stared out at the vast darkness, as the rain continued to fall. For a few moments, it looked like he was safe. Then, down a thick, crumbling alley, he saw a soft blur of light. This was soon followed by two, maybe three others, and they began closing in. The Loved Ones had heard the scream, and were eagerly scrambling over to reclaim Jeremy.
"No, no, go away," muttered the boy. He was terrified. The huddle of cloaked creatures came closer and closer.
Jeremy grabbed the candle and a dusty blanket. He couldn't leave out the front, they'd see him for sure. His eyes raced over the destroyed room, when he noticed a flight of stairs. With some luck, it would lead to another building or even a fire escape. Jeremy scurried up the steps and watched from a dark pile of rubble.
No more than a few minutes passed when the first Loved One entered the building. It stood only about four feet high, and gurgled to the others in a bizarre language. Soon it came to the pile of blankets where Jeremy had lain just shortly before, and felt the warmth. It nodded its head, and giggled. With a wave of its hand, it motioned the other three Loved Ones to search the area. One immediately started up the steps towards where Jeremy was hiding.
Jeremy knew that his best bet was to remain hidden and quiet. He stood behind a battered crate, breathless. He watched in horrified fascination as the Loved One clumsily waddled up the stairs, waving its torch back and forth. As an offering, it carried a soft plush Barney doll in its other hand. The Barney doll was entrancing in an odd way, and Jeremy's first impulse was to walk out and take it. But his instinct kept him away.
I'll hide here and maybe they'll be gone soon, thought Jeremy. He had never liked the Loved Ones anyway. As long as he could stay hidden, he would be safe. The Loved One would look around briefly, then be gone. He was sure of it. All Jeremy had to do was stay still, and wait.
"Jeremy! Jeremy! This is your good friend Barney! Are you in there?"
Jeremy froze. The voice had come from outside.
"Jeremy, I know you must be really mad at me, but I want you to know that I'm sorry. I really, really am! I hope that you and I could still be friends. Don't you know that I miss you? So does Fran! How could you leave your sister behind like that?"
Jeremy watched as a tall, stocky silhouette came in. There was no denying who it was. Jeremy was suddenly filled with a tremendous urge to run out and embrace the fat purple dinosaur.
"Gosh, Jeremy, it sure is dark and cold in here. Not to mention damp! " Barney lit a torch and examined the lower level. "So much dust and broken glass. Wouldn't you like to come back home? Tonight, we're having a lot of fun games and parties, and you're our guest of honor! I'll bet you'll have so much fun! There's ice cream and cake, plus lots of presents. In fact, if you come back to me right now, I'll make sure you get to lead all the games!"
No, no, no, thought Jeremy. He killed Cameron. He may have killed Fran. He'll probably kill you. Don't believe him. Barney lied once, he may do it again.
Barney scratched his head and sat upon the blankets. "Jeremy, do you know why I'm out here tonight? Because I love you. You know, I never told you this before, but you are my favorite, favorite friend in the whole wide world. That's why I want you back. I'm sorry I was so bad to you before, but I promise it will never happen again. But if you love me too, and I know you do, you'll come running out here right now for a great big kiss and hug!"
"Barney, I missed you and I love you too!" cried Jeremy, coming out from behind the crate. Tears ran down the boy's cheeks and when Barney saw him, the plum-colored lizard extended his arms in a loving gesture.
"Well that's wonderful!" exclaimed Barney. "Come on down, Jeremy, let's hug!"
Jeremy started to dash down the steps but as he did, the Loved One who had been at the top of the stairs suddenly lurched at the boy and grabbed him by the arm. The boy screamed and struggled.
"Not now, you fool!" bellowed the dinosaur.
Jeremy shrieked and fought with the Loved One, who had now dropped his torch and Barney doll, and was trying to get both hands on the child. The rotting, partially destroyed floor rocked and keeled below them. Jeremy managed to get his foot behind the Loved One and shoved hard. The next instant the cloaked creature fell through the damp, plaster wall and impaled itself on a sharp jutting metal beam. Its jagged razor edges slid through the Loved One like a knife through butter.
The scream was bestial and piercing. As thick, pink ichor gushed out of the Loved One's wound, it spasmodically thrashed, clutching at the beam that emerged dead center of its chest. In its initial throes, it accidentally flung back its cloak, revealing the creature hidden within.
Jeremy gasped at what he saw. The Loved One was a horrid caricature, part human, part dinosaur. It was covered in sagging, pale red skin that was spotted with green and brown patches. Its eyes bulged with a serene, almost idiotic gaze. The teeth were smooth, perfect, and a creamy white in color. As the Loved One struggled in desperation, its thick, lumbering tail lashed back and worth, crumbling the wood below it. Finally, with a low, raspy groan, its eyes rolled back and thin trickles of pink and orange fluid seeped down its snout, nostrils, and chin. It was dead.
"Jeremy, don't be scared. Come back to me! I'll protect you!"
Jeremy looked back at the Purple Beast. He sensed a certain falseness and anger within Barney, and started shuffling back away from the stairs. The dinosaur edged near the steps, and hesitated. Jeremy immediately realized that Barney was afraid to go any further. His massive bulk would probably cause him to fall through the rafters.
Jeremy ran back towards the rear half of the building. He immediately heard more scampering up the steps, and he knew the other Loved Ones were after him. He picked up a brick and hurled it at the closest one, and hit it square in the face. It growled in anger, and reached under the folds of its cloak, producing a rusty hatchet. It flung it at Jeremy, who managed to duck in time. The blade whizzed by, embedding itself into a thick beam.
Jeremy found a window and looked down. There was a fire escape. He promptly scrambled down it, the Loved Ones close behind. Several times they clutched for him, but he was too fast and agile for the creatures. At the bottom, he jumped off the landing and into a dumpster filled with paper and cardboard. He pulled himself out and tore down the street, the rain drizzling upon him. In the distance he heard a high-pitched plea . . . .
"Jeremy . . . come back . . . don't you know I love you . . . ?"
The next day Jeremy found himself in a sporting goods store. He quickly went to the camping rations and tore open the flimsy packets of dried food and snacks. The boy ate voraciously, and gained his senses. No way was he ever going back to being Barney's "Special Friend". The events from last night certified that. But now it was time to face up to the problem, rather than keep running away from it. He still had his sister Fran to consider. What if she was still alive? And what of his friends he left behind? Soon some of them would be turning thirteen, and facing the same fate as Cameron had: headless and forgotten.
Jeremy knew that he'd have to come back to the caverns and face the Purple Beast. If he stayed out here, he'd most likely be hunted and killed by Loved Ones or even the Bad Ones. It was a no win situation either way. Best to go down fighting, as his uncle had once told him. The sentiment burned in the young boy's mind, and he liked that.
As Jeremy cleaned himself at a small puddle, he began wondering how he'd best prepare for another (and possibly final) encounter with Barney, Baby Bop, and the minions known as the Loved Ones. He seemed to recollect something about the sporting goods shop and walked back inside. He went near the back area and stopped. He found what he was looking for.
On the walls were various rifles, shotguns, and hunting knives. Jeremy sucked in his breath and began removing them from their mountings.
It was time to prepare.