Some will tell you that the most dangerous part of the Mass is the restless dead, the monsters that haunt the marshes and lie in wait beneath the water. Some will tell you that the most dangerous part is the people themselves, the backstabbing Pure Bloods and the hard Bay Walkers, used to their difficult lives. But they would be wrong.
The most dangerous part of the Mass isn’t the monsters—no. It’s the fog that rolls in from the sea, blanketing the docks and softening torn buildings with its grey haze. It’s the winding and treacherous marshes with their secret ways that only Bay Walkers know. It’s the winter storms that lash the people with their fury and their waves, turning the sky green as the winds rise to a fever pitch. The most dangerous part of the Mass is the Mass itself—and like the sea, she shows no mercy.
But even with these dangers, life goes on. The people that live in the Mass learn to be wary of her, to respect her. After all, you don’t grow up if you don’t learn how to cope with danger; in fact, you don’t grow up at all.
The young girl crouched behind a thick copse of saltmeadow hay, green eyes peering through the thin stalks of grass that cloaked her motionless form. Her small fingers dug into the peat beneath her, feeling the damp of the marsh water that seeped through the springy material. Quiet—that was the point of the game. It was something that she learned early in the marshes—how to be silent when need be. If you couldn’t fight, then your best chance at surviving was to hide.
She had remained there, still, for the past several minutes—watching, waiting. The trick about hiding was to not move. If you moved, they’d see you—and then it’d be all over.
The smells of fish and damp and decaying things drifted on the wet wind, stirring the pale strands of her hair. The stalks of plants bent slightly and ripples stirred the muddy waters around her. Over the sound of rustling grass, it was hard to make out other noises—the plop of a fish, the call of a marsh sparrow, the cry of a gull. She squeezed her eyes shut and listened hard. Were those footsteps? Or was that just her imagination?
The distinct sound of a foot falling a few feet away caused her eyes to snap open. She resisted the urge to jerk her head in that direction. Instead, she remained completely still, her heart hammering in her chest as she chewed on her lip. Maybe if she was quiet, he would go away.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
The voice was a whisper—a mere breath—but she could hear it from her hiding place. She shivered slightly; this meant he was close, very close. They were always careful to be quiet. After all, loud noises attracted the dead.
The girl held her breath, small, booted feet shifting slightly on the springy layer of peat. She just had to be quiet—like her parents taught her. “Always be silent and still. Most people look for movement. If you stay as still as a stone, people will often look right at you and not see you as a person,” they had told her. She had asked them, “Is it like being invisible?” They had responded, “It’s just like being invisible. You need to learn how not to be seen.”
The footsteps were even louder now. They approached her hiding spot, and the girl tensed. Even if you were silent and still, you couldn’t avoid being seen if the other person tripped over you. Her small shoulders tensed.
“I said come out!”
The voice was right next to her. She could see the boy’s brown shoes through the grass, standing only a few inches away from her pale fingers. If she moved, he would see her. If she stayed, he would still see her. There was only one thing to do: if you couldn’t fight and you couldn’t hide, the third option was obvious.
The girl stood up and ran. Her feet splashed through puddles as she leapt through the marshes, careful to keep on the narrow causeways that she knew so well. She heard a faint cry behind her as the boy realized what was happening, and then she heard his footsteps behind her. It was a race, now. Wind whipped her hair back from her face as she tried not to slip. A false step would send her into one of the boggy mires where she’d be stuck, unable to pull herself free.
Ahead of her, she could see the docks and the buildings of Beacon Hill, outlined in grey haze from the fog that was beginning to roll off the sea. But she wasn’t aiming for the city; it was too far of a run, anyway, and her parents were still working on the marshes. Instead, she turned and hurtled toward the landmark that they had chosen: the rusted and gaunt remains of what might have once been a ship in the distant past. Its hull had been torn out, its parts harvested for salvage and scrap. All that remained were its bones—pitted and torn by water and time.
She heard a small shout behind her. The boy was gaining on her, his legs longer than hers as they raced across the water. She put on an extra burst of speed, determined to reach the safe spot before he did. Her heart pounded, her eyes focused forward—every forward.
She reached out a hand toward the remains of the metal ship and then slapped her palm against it. Her fingers stung slightly from the force, but she felt a wide grin cross her face as she spun around to look at the other child, “Home free!”
The boy had come to a halt in front of her, his arms crossed defensively across his chest as he frowned. Sea-green eyes squinted at her from beneath a mop of dirty, brown hair as he fought to catch his breath, “You were lucky I didn’t see you! And I was just about to catch you!”
“Doesn’t matter! ‘Cause I got here first still.” The girl smiled at him and then sat down next to the ship, trying to catch her own breath. She drew her legs up toward her chest, tilting her head up to look at the grey sky above,“Think the others are still out there?”
The boy’s frown vanished as he glanced back toward the marshes. The other children—the children of dock workers and scavengers and slaves—were probably still hiding. They were tempting targets in the game of Hunter-and-Prey. He turned to look at the girl once more, slowly uncrossing his arms, “Guess so. I’m gonna go find them.” He took a few slow steps away from her and then headed more rapidly toward the marshes once more, calling quietly over his shoulder, “And you get to be Hunter next, Alexa! I want to hide next time.”
The girl grinned, “Okay!” She settled next to the ship, falling still and silent once more as the boy’s back retreated into the mist. She listened and watched and waited. After all, she knew what every Bay Walker child has been raised to know—life is never certain, life is never a game, and the Mass will always be there to collect.