Appearing in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Volume 11
Daddy told me to keep to myself after the foxes disappeared, but there’s only so still you can keep your hands when your belly’s rumbling, and you think you’re seeing claws at the ends of your fingers instead of skin.
“What’d I tell you, girl?” he says, and his touch is rough as he wipes at my crimson-smeared lips. I nip at the iron tang on his palms, and he frowns when he sees the broken body of the mouse I caught and snatched up before it knew how to take its last breath. “You should have been a boy,” he says, scratching at his beard. “At least then I could have taught you how to use a gun.”
I don’t have the heart to tell him that we would still have gone hungry. There is no number of bullets that’ll bring back the dead so you can kill and eat them all over again.
“Come on,” he says and shifts the pack on his back. “I want to get to the ridge before sundown.”
I walk behind him, stepping in his footprints on the ice-crusted ground, and watching my breath cloud out of me. It’s too cold to snow, and this means the animals that are left are caught up in keeping the soft parts of themselves warm. It’s what Daddy and I should be doing, but there’s nothing left now but movement and touching my tongue to my teeth to see if they’ve gone any sharper. Some days I think they have, but there are other days when they are just as dull as the gray sky above us.
It’s a good thing my mouth is closed to hide my doing it. The last time Daddy caught me, he gave me six licks from his belt, and that was enough for me to remember to keep it from him. Mama had only been gone for a few months, but there was still food back then, and I’d had no real need for teeth meant to rip and tear meat from bone, but I longed to be something more than the girl I was. That was two years ago—only thirteen and unable to control the need to check—but I know how to fold that secret into myself now and touch my teeth behind closed lips.
My mouth still tastes of velvet warmth, and I try to hold the feeling for as long as I can, but soon enough there’s only ice and rot, and I hold my eyes open wide and sweep them back and forth across the ground in case there are any other tiny-boned things that have ventured outside. Of course, there’s nothing. The mouse is the first creature I’ve seen in weeks, and before then we hadn’t caught wind of anything larger than a squirrel, and even those were thin and rangy looking, but I went after them anyway with Daddy shouting behind me to stop. My belly cramps around the smallness of what I’ve eaten, and I slow.
“Pick it up, Henni,” Daddy says but doesn’t turn to look.
“My stomach hurts.”
“It’s the blood. The meat. Your body isn’t used to it, and it’s cramping. Breathe deep. It’ll pass.”
He always tells me this. Even back when there were still rabbits all sleek-bodied and shivering in the field behind our house and chickens in the coop that would let us take them up and cradle their necks in our fingers before we twisted until we felt that pop that told us we would not go hungry.
It has been a long time since then. For a while, I counted the days, and then the months, but then there was nothing left to count, and we left the house behind to look for something Daddy won’t talk about. It has been three days of walking with nothing more than a trickle of water from Daddy’s canteen to wet my tongue every five hours.
I double over, my hands digging into my sides as if I could claw the pain out of me, and keep walking. “How far until the ridge?” I say. Ahead of me, Daddy shuffles his feet like it hurts him to pick them up.
“Two, maybe three more hours. At least that’s how I remember it. ’Course, I wasn’t walking back then.”
“When was the last time you were there?” I say, but Daddy goes quiet, and I know better than to ask anything else because it’s better than him yelling about how he’d wish I’d learn to hold my breath, and I think back to the time we don’t talk about, and I know how it looks when someone forgets how to breathe and wonder if he’s trying to not think of it, too.
There are probably other people, living on in this famine with different earth under their feet, and I wonder if they’re walking, too, or if they stayed put, huddled together in cramped apartments surrounded by the smell of mold and rot in the cities I never wanted to understand. Once, Daddy wanted me to go to college. He’d talk about it, and Mama would smile and nod, but she knew I was as tied to this place as she was. There was only one way for us to leave. If nothing else, I was proud to have given her that.
Daddy is moving slowly even though we aren’t going uphill, and the terrain is dotted here and there with fallen branches, the earth drained of any color. What grass remained died off long ago and even the pines that should be evergreen are tinged with a kind of brown death that marks every living thing. I’ve wondered if the entire world looks like this dying forest.
My fingers twitch, and I pass my tongue over my teeth. If Daddy’s heart were to burst like overripe fruit, I would not be able to keep myself from eating. I flex my hands, dreaming of dark, hooked claws.
The cramping passes and settles back into the same aching hunger that has been pitted in my belly for so long. The skin on my legs burns and tingles, and I stamp my feet, try to get the blood moving even though it hurts. I hum something tuneless, anything to drown out the lack of sound. No birds crying back and forth to one another, no scurrying feet. All of that silence is louder than a scream, and I clamp my hands to my ears. It does no good. The only thing I hear is the hollow sound of my own heart.
It’s late afternoon when Daddy points ahead of us to the brown, peaked earth that rises toward the sky. “There,” he says, and touches his chest, his thighs, as if he’s looking for something he’s misplaced. A pocketknife or a handkerchief or the letter he’d carried with him since he met Mama after the War. Before we left for the last time, he folded it and buried it in the backyard. He didn’t wash his hands when he came inside, and we left the next morning.
I crane my neck, and the movement makes me dizzy. “Do we have to climb it?”
“No. We wait.”
“Hush now,” Daddy says, and his eyes are clear and bright and the color of lake water, and he jerks his head left and right, but there’s nothing else here. I sink onto my haunches. “Don’t sit like that,” Daddy says when he sees me, but he doesn’t jerk me to my feet like he usually does, so I stay that way. It feels better to let my muscles mold themselves into this movement that should be unnatural, to bend and stretch into a shape that fits my body.
Twice, Daddy brings his hand to his hip to touch the gun he carries, and I dig my fingers into the ice-crusted earth and think of my teeth against smooth throats. “I can help if you’re hunting. I know what to do,” I say.
When he looks at me, I tell myself his eyes aren’t distant. “I know you can, Henni. I know.”
We wait until the sun has almost vanished. Daddy keeps his hand on his gun the entire time, and I can taste the fire of it in the back of my throat and remember how he’d wanted to be the one to help Mama to the other side. But it was my duty. I was her girl, and she’d taught me what to do. Daddy could never understand. Not really. But he knew better than to hate me for it. I reckon when he married Mama, he understood what was to come but hadn’t been ready for it when it came. We aren’t supposed to live past forty. It’s not how our bodies work.
I smell them before Daddy hears them, and it sets my mouth watering. Two of them. A man and a woman who carries something dark inside of her. Not disease but something else that smells like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Sharp and earthy, like the underside of mushrooms mixed with lavender, or like blood and honey that has ambered and lacquered the surface of wherever it has come to rest. I clamp my teeth together with a sharp snap, and Daddy unholsters the gun but doesn’t raise it.
“Just us, Paul. I got a gun on me, too, but it’s not out or pointed at anybody. No reason for all that, is there?” The voice is male but high-pitched and tinny and out of breath as if whoever owns it isn’t used to walking over such terrain, and my heart swells with pride for my Daddy, who’s broad shouldered and quick and can still run over uneven ground for miles without tiring out.
“’Course not. You know that.”
With one quick movement, Daddy puts his gun back into the holster, and I’m almost disappointed, but I have my body, and that’s all that’s needed when the time comes.
The man is average, his stomach not bulging but not flat, and his hair is cropped close to his skull so it looks as if he’s just escaped from some kind of hospital. The woman is small, mouth pinched tight and dark hair flowing past her waist like water, eyes beady and set close together. Her hands are chapped and look bloodied, and even from all that distance I know she is watching me.
“Is that your girl?” the man calls, and I look up at Daddy, but he’s watching the man and woman and won’t turn to face me even though I’ve started up a whining in the back of my throat as warning.
“Henni. Her name is Henni,” he says in a voice too quiet for them to hear, and I know he’s not telling them but himself.
“This is Beth-Anne,” the man says. They are close enough now to see that the woman isn’t a woman at all but a girl probably just a bit older than me. She’s dressed plainly in a denim jumper that reaches her ankles that are covered by heavy boots, and a too-thin coat, but she doesn’t shiver.
Daddy nods, and the pair stop about fifteen feet from us. The man doesn’t look at me, but the girl, Beth-Anne, stares at me and chews at her lips. I sniff at the air and roll her scent over my tongue. She’s hungry, too. I can smell it.
“Well,” the man says and rocks back onto his heels, his hands stuffed into his pockets. “That’s all there is to it then.”
“I reckon so.” Turning, Daddy kneels down, pulls off the glove on his left hand, and cups my face, but he’s distracted, his eyes roaming back over to the man or down to the dirt. “Listen to me, Henni. You’re going to go with Beth-Anne now.”
“No. No, that’s not how it’s supposed to be.” My throat has gone thick, and I bite down on my tongue so I won’t cry. “Mama said.”
“Mama’s gone though, ain’t she?” Daddy’s voice is quiet, and I curl into myself because even though he knew what would happen, it was still this thing that lived inside the women in his life that robbed him of the happiness he’d found.
“It was supposed to happen. And one day it’ll happen to me,” I say, and Daddy shakes his head.
“Not again, Henni. It won’t. Not if I can help it. Go with Beth-Anne now.”
Beth-Anne has taken a step away from the man, and he has unbuttoned his coat, the glint of metal at his side too bright in this bleached-out landscape, and I understand the hollow sound that comes from Daddy’s side when he stands, the deliberate click that spells out everything he will not say to me.
“No,” I say, and Daddy raises his hand. His eyes are wet, but the meaning behind it has vanished.
“Go with her.” His finger is against the trigger, and I watch the muscles in his hands flex.
I stand up. I run.
I don’t wait for Beth-Anne but streak past her, the world a blur of dead colors. Behind us, one of the men fires a warning shot. I do not look back to see if it was Daddy. I do not look back to see if he’s calling to tell me he’s sorry, to tell me to come back, and we can go home, and keep living the way we’re supposed to. To tell me he can be strong the way Mama had hoped.
Only once I am deep within the trees again do I slow, and I can hear Beth-Anne panting behind me, but she keeps her distance. “We shouldn’t stop,” she calls. “They’ll give us a head start, but they’ll find us again.”
I pause but keep walking. “He let me go.” There are other words I want to say, but they dig into my belly like thorns, and I cannot pull them from me.
Beth-Anne pushes past me and turns to block my path. Up close, her eyes aren’t dark at all, but a light brown that is almost yellow. “Think what you like, but we have to keep moving and put as much distance between us and them as possible.”
“He would never do that to me. Come after me like that.”
“Being hungry does strange things to men. You should know that better than anyone.” Beth-Anne grins, and her teeth are sharp in the way that mine are not. She grasps my hand and tugs me forward so that her face rests against mine. She inhales, her cheek passing over my jaw, my neck. “You smell like my mother. Like me. I’ve never done this with another girl. Maybe it will be different this time,” she says and darts away.
By the time the sun has set, I’ve fallen into the rhythm of my legs pumping beneath me, and the burn in my lungs. Already, I can smell Daddy and the man behind us, and they smell of sweat and fear and metal. Now and then, Beth-Anne glances back, but we run on into all of that gathered darkness, the trees looking like bits of bone reaching up into nothingness. I imagine we are ghosts. I imagine we are still the girls who looked at our mothers in wonder the first time she explained what we were. I imagine our mothers have not left us, and what kind of golden world that would be.
I don’t notice when Beth-Anne stops, and I plow into the back of her, our limbs tangling as we fall. She clamps a hand over my mouth, and it’s almost as if we are not separate bodies but the same creature lying on our backs, four legs and four arms and two pairs of hungry mouths gasping into the night air. “Listen,” she whispers.
I do. For the first time since Mama died, all of the mechanistic parts of me roar to life, and I am nothing more than an extension of what’s always lived in my blood.
“Two of them. Big,” I say, and I catch the curl of Beth-Anne’s lips even through the dark.
“Good girl. What else?” she asks, but I cannot bring myself to answer her because it is something that will upend the sky and send me tumbling even though I’ve scented him this entire time.
Beth-Anne digs her fingernails into my cheek until I answer her. “Daddy,” I say, and she drops her hand, but we stay on the ground, and our breath rises and falls in the same pattern.
“It may be that he won’t kill you. Mine never does, but each time, he swears that he will. When he’s done with the thrill of finding me and hungry enough…” Beth-Anne presses the tips of two fingers to my forehead and makes a small popping noise. We lie there quiet for a moment longer, our heartbeats sliding against each other, and Beth-Anne wraps her fingers through mine. “We could have been together. Once. When there were many of us, and no one to hunt our skins. We could have been in love,” she says, and I try to crush her hand in mine, but I am not as strong as she.
“What are we?” I say, and she turns, her eyes flashing yellow.
“Wolves. Foxes. Bears. The mountain lion creeping through the night. We are fury wrapped in meat.” She brings wet lips to my ear, and her breath is hot across my neck. “We were girls. And now we are not.”
In the distance, a twig snaps, and two men mumble in low voices filled with a violence I still cannot understand. Mama did not explain this. She only told me what I would need to do to honor her memory. How I should take her into myself piece by piece until I was filled up with her. And so I had. She had not told me, though, how love can grow into something duplicitous. How a husband, a father, can look at his child and forget how he once cradled her fragile body and swore to her mother and to himself that he would follow her down into the dark, his protection the only thing that mattered.
“My mother got sick when I was seven. Too early, but she took the time to explain. How there is something alive inside of us. How beautiful it is and how that even with the world dying around us, we would carry on. And then she died, and I gobbled her down the way in the way she had her own mother. The next morning, my father took me into the woods and turned me loose, told me that if I could outrun him, he’d let me live. Back then, I knew he was brain-sick from losing my mother, but then it was more than that, and he did it again and again, and I wasn’t his daughter anymore but something to hunt. I kept coming back because the house was still warm, and there was still food, but there hasn’t been anything close to that for a while. And now, there’s you.”
She pauses and traces her fingers over her lips. “They’ve been talking for months, you know. I stole the letters and read them while he was sleeping. Our mothers knew each other when they were younger and had written for a few years after they’d gotten married. Your daddy remembered and sent the first letter to my father. Wanted to know how he could look his girl in the face when all he could see was his wife’s blood on her hands. He had itchy fingers, he said. So he wrote and asked how he could put you in the ground. Or at least, he wanted a way to be rid of you that didn’t mean covering your mouth while you were sleeping or pointing his gun at your head while you built a fire. Hunting makes what they’re doing a very different thing,” Beth-Anne says.
“He won’t kill me,” I say, and Beth-Anne laughs deep in her throat so that it sounds like a snarl.
“They can’t hunt the way we can. Looking for the small things that creep over the ground. And there’s so little meat left. So little for them to eat. They’ll die out before we do, and they’re scared and hungry.” Beth-Anne tugs at my arm. “We should go.”
My mouth, my teeth, my throat ache, but I stand and nod. “Yes.”
We run until our feet bleed and then still, we run, our eyes on the sky, waiting for the sun so that we might hide ourselves from the men who were once our fathers, but night is something we are caught in now, a great dome that cannot be lifted.
When the shot comes, it is not for me. Beth-Anne jerks and grunts, but she does not stumble.
“You have to stop,” I call to her, and she turns back, her teeth painted vermilion, and I feel only cold and hunger seeing her blood, but she reaches for me, and we run together. On and on and on into what seems like the quivering thread that separates this world from the next, but there is the crack of another shot, and Beth-Anne throws back her head and laughs and screams, and I open my mouth and scream with her. Sisters, mothers, lovers, born out of things husbands and fathers cannot comprehend.
“We take back our own, and the doing of it makes us stronger, makes us able to move through this world that has forgotten us. When the time comes, you will eat of my body and drink of my blood, and I will always be with you,” Mama had said, and now Beth-Anne looks at me, her teeth still bared. I bare mine back and know that they are now as sharp as hers.
When we double back, we go through the trees. Quiet and deliberate and without a sound. They do not know when we are behind them, their shoulders hunched against the cold, the only sound their ragged breath in the frozen air. We have stripped ourselves of our coats, our boots, anything that will keep our bodies from moving in the way our mothers had intended. We are hungry, and we go silently.
I have not forgotten the shape of my mother’s face. I have not forgotten how she placed her eyeteeth in my palm and told me to eat them first.
My father calls my name once, twice, but of all of the things I remember, I have already forgotten what it means to live inside the girl he should have taught to shoot a gun; the girl he carried out of the forest when she sprained her ankle; the girl he found covered in his wife’s blood and weeping tears dyed scarlet; the girl who became the ghost that would not vanish from his sight.
When we have finished, Beth-Anne licks my face clean, and with the beginnings of claws, I dig the bullet from her shoulder while she sits in silence, and we turn away from the trampled earth.
We leave the guns behind. We will not need them, and our bellies are full and cramping in the way my father explained, and I lift my eyes to watch the trees shape themselves into things I no longer recognize. “Will it always be like this?” I ask.
Beside me, Beth-Anne is silent, but she looks back at me, and it is enough.
Kristi DeMeester is the author of Beneath, a novel published by Word Horde Publications, and Everything That’s Underneath, a short fiction collection from Apex Books. Her short fiction has appeared in several places, including Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Horror Volume 9, Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volumes 1 and 3 in addition to publications such as Black Static, The Dark, and several others. In her spare time, she alternates between telling people how to pronounce her last name and how to spell her first. Find her online at www.kristidemeester.com.
Published Shimmer #44, July 2018, 4000 words
The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea, by Sara Saab