“Can we stop?” asked Nikki, panting, her face tingling from the assault of the cold. Her fingers were numb, her nose running. Her lungs burned.
“When we reach the trees,” her father said. He was a few feet in front of her, walking steadily against the wind. Ahead of them was an island of snow-capped pine trees.
After hours of walking, the island—once just a small patch of green and white in the middle of the frozen lake—now loomed as an expanse of dense wilderness. The lake stretched behind them in every direction, on the horizon a thin line of green where the surrounding snow-covered forest met the gray sky.
They’d prepared for the cold. They had found coats, gloves, scarves, and knitted caps in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory. They had spiked snow boots and thermal leggings and ear muffs. They greased their lips with petroleum jelly. But Nikki was still cold. She hugged herself, pressing the thick fabrics to her body, attempting to trap heat. She was on the verge of collapse, her knees buckling under her. She struggled to keep her muscles tight. She clenched her teeth to stop them from clattering.
Her father reached the trees. “Come on,” he yelled back. “It’s getting dark.”
He had been like this a lot lately: pushy, over-eager, uncompromising. Two days ago, when Nikki was sick with her first bout of menstrual cramps, he didn’t even care enough to stop and let her rest. They walked that entire day as Nikki groaned through wave after wave of pain.
Nikki pushed her way to the tree line and then fell against a tree, sucking cold air into her hot lungs. Then she slid down to the base in a heap. Her stomach throbbed with menstrual pain.
Her father pulled off his pack. He reached in and pulled out a johnny cake wrapped in foil and a plastic bag of moose jerky. He offered it to her as he drank water he kept in a pouch under his coat.
She snatched the johnny cake from his hand and awkwardly fumbled with the foil wrapper, not daring to take off her gloves. She cleared a bit of the johnny cake and bit into it.
“Not far now,” her father said, breathing heavily. He looked a little panicked, though he was trying to hide the fact. He kept staring up at the setting sun. Nikki couldn’t understand it. Hadn’t they gone on this long-ass journey to be safe? Though she couldn’t imagine how an island in the middle of a lake was going to be their salvation. They hadn’t had luck with islands in the past.
They’d spent two years on this journey. First there was leaving St. Thomas on a small rusting dinghy with a bad motor; they had barely survived the trip to Florida. Then it was highways stretching up the east coast, spotted with migrants. Then winding back roads overgrown with weeds. And through snow: slick with cold rain, or knee high, or hard and crunchy under their feet. They hunted and scavenged and stole what they could. There were close calls with grisly men and people that had succumbed to madness, their mouths frothing, their eyes full of rage. Her father had to use his gun. They were out of bullets.
Nikki ineptly grabbed chunks of jerky and shoved them in her mouth.
Her father leaned against a tree, watching her. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I spent summers up here, and I would come out to this spot and play on the lake shore. Took me a long time to swim in the lake. Didn’t like how the algae felt under my toes.”
He smiled when he said this. Nikki chewed.
“The water never gon’ be as warm as back home, but it’s clean.”
Nikki bit out a larger piece of johnny cake.
“You gon’ like it here, I promise. It’s quiet here. And the weather good.”
Nikki stopped chewing and swallowed. Snow was falling between them. Her father’s backpack was already covered in snow. Up past the trees, the sky was dark and gray. The sky had been that way since they arrived at the abandoned cabin on the other shore of the lake. She hadn’t seen a single star. Not even the moon. The weather was shit. She had no idea what he was talking about.
“Well,” her father said, “you not going to think so now, but in the summer it gets real nice. I mean it still cloudy and rainy, but it warm and everything green.”
“Mom liked it here?” Nikki asked.
Her father slid down his tree to the ground. He tossed her the water pouch and she had to be quick to catch it. Nikki put the nozzle to her lips.
Her father rubbed his gloves in the snow. “She swam in the lake right away. She didn’t mind the algae or the slick stones under her feet.” He paused. “She was fearless.”
Her father was silent for a long time. “Nikki,” her father started. His face was completely obscured by shadow. Night had snuck up on them as they talked.
Nikki pressed her gloved hands together. She wiggled. Her butt was starting to feel cold. “What is it?” she asked, though she had a feeling what it was. You lied didn’t you, she wanted to say, but didn’t. You lied about mom.
She’d wanted to say this before. Many times. But then she’d remember the long gashes on her father’s chest and back, twin scars of smooth, raised flesh, pink on his light brown skin. She would remember the look on his face as they stuffed food and clothes into backpacks when they fled St. Thomas. And her neighbor Cecil, standing in front of his house, bare-chested, wild-eyed and teeth-bared, gripping a sharpened cutlass in his hand. The look of warning on his face as they passed. The way her father kept her close, watching everyone as if they were a potential threat. She’d remember her father’s quiet sobbing at night when he thought she was asleep in her sleeping bag. And she would know there were worst things than a lie.
This was the closest he had gotten to confessing. Her name. A long pause.
Nikki hugged herself and buried her mouth into her scarf to warm her lips. She covered her ears against the wind. Since they had arrived on the island, the wind was different. It whispered to her.
She’d heard whispering like this before, sometimes, when they slept in the woods. She’d wake up in the middle of the night and stare into the dark beyond their camp and know they were there. The wolves.
Her father looked up at the sky as if remembering something. “When we get to the house, I have to tell you something,” he said. “So you are prepared for what’s gonna happen.”
“Why not now?” Nikki asked. “What I need to be prepared for?”
“I’ll tell you later, daughter,” her father said, still looking up. “But now we have to go. The clouds are breaking.”
• • • •
Nikki’s world had never been electric. She never saw water running through pipes or electric stoves. These were stories she heard from her parents, of a world where the rusting faucets in the bathroom tub produced hot water, and fridges kept the food cold, and people crawled across the Earth like ants.
When she was seven, she asked her father what had happened to all those people.
“You don’t need to bother yourself with that, daughter,” her father said, tight-lipped as ever. He was scaling fish in the backyard to fry in the coal pot. “There were too many people. Now there’s not. Stop asking questions about dead things.”
Nikki didn’t listen. She went inside and asked her mother.
“It was a plague,” her mother said. She was sitting at the kitchen table drinking treated water from a mug. Her hands shook as she drank. She rubbed her knuckles against her temple.
“What’s a plague?”
“A disease. You get sick.”
“What was it like?”
Her mother thought for second. “Like rabies.”
Her mother whispered something, but Nikki didn’t see her lips move.
“What?” Nikki asked.
“Go play, baby,” her mother said softly. She rose from the kitchen table. “Mommy’s got to lie down.”
Nikki pieced together the rest of the story by listening to adults when they thought she wasn’t listening, and to Cecil, the older neighbor boy, because he knew more than she did. She learned that suddenly people started getting sick. They would succumb to madness. Sometimes it would take days, or weeks, or months.
“Then they snap and eat people,” Cecil said, filling her head with images of cannibalism. “Eat them all up.”
This wasn’t strictly true. The infected were more biters than eaters. Janis—from down the street—had a brother that was bitten. A few days later he tried to bite Janis. And a few days after that, he was running through the bush near their house, naked and screaming, frothing at the mouth.
“We had to do it,” said Janis, at a neighborhood party at Magens Bay. The smell of fried fish wafted through the air. Children weaved in and out of the water, laughing as they somersaulted and leaped, and chased each other up and down the shoreline. Nikki wasn’t playing. She watched the weak waves lick the shore and pretended to build sand mounds as she listened to Janis and her father talk, near enough to hear them but not be noticed.
“What did you do?” her father asked.
“What everybody did,” Janis said. “We had to do it,” she repeated.
What everybody did was different depending on the person saying it. If the person was a friend or relative, they’d shoot them in the head to be merciful. Or they tied them up, took them out in a dinghy, dumped them in the ocean and waited for the body to wash up or drift away on the waves. If it was a stranger, they did other things.
“I once saw a group of men kill one of them with a cutlass,” said Cecil with a sick grin. They were sitting in his backyard, playing with some of Cecil’s toys he’d scavenged from abandoned houses.
“But wild-people ain’t no big deal,” Cecil said. “It is when they change into woo-woos . . .” Cecil trailed off. He stopped smiling.
“Change into what?”
Cecil shook his head and stopped talking altogether. He never mentioned it after that. No one ever mentioned it. The whole island had quarantined itself in a conspiratorial silence no one could break.
By twelve, Nikki knew all she could know. She knew St. Thomas had eventually decided to purge all the infected. They went through every house, combed through the dense brush, scoured all the hidden places. They tied the infected together, marched them down to the harbor, hoarded them into boats and abandoned them on uninhabited cays like they once did lepers. Nikki’s nightmares were filled with the infected, all limbs and teeth and bones wrapped in withered skin, baking in the Caribbean sun on forgotten islands where no one could hear them scream.
One night she woke up from the recurring nightmare to hear a whimper outside her window. Nikki slowly peeked out and had to cover her mouth to muffle a gasp. Outside her window was a large creature hunched over in the bushes, the moonlight glinting off its dark back hair. It was bigger than any animal she’d ever seen. She could hear loud smacking sounds, the wet crunch of teeth against bone. She felt fear first, her body trembling in the dark, and then recognition. She knew exactly what it was.
• • • •
Nikki didn’t leave her bedroom until late morning the next day, and only because she could hear her parents arguing in the kitchen. Nikki walked on soft feet, stopping at the doorway, peering into the kitchen as stealthily as she could.
“Sherman, we can’t move,” her mother said. “Where we gon’ go?” She was sitting at the table in her usual spot, rubbing at her temples with trembling hands. Her mother’s collar bone was sharp under the skin, her neck thin and long, her hair graying and falling out in patches.
“We could go back,” her father said. “Maybe they can help you. You wasting away here.”
“Staying here is too dangerous. Janis and the other neighbors been searching everywhere for her baby.” Her father sat at the table and held her mother’s trembling hands. “We see this before, Tatiana. Think about what will happen. Think about Nikki.”
“That’s not fair.”
“We got to go.”
“You talking ’bout the woo-woo?” Nikki asked, revealing herself at the doorway. “I saw it. Just outside my window.”
For a moment her parents looked at her like she had two heads. “Who told you about woo-woos?” her father asked.
Nikki didn’t want to reveal her source. “It was eating something,” she said instead. “Something small.”
Her mother stopped rubbing her temples. She was staring at Nikki now, tears in her eyes.
“Your mother and I are considering leaving the island,” her father said. “We won’t be safe here anymore.”
As far as Nikki knew, it was worse in other places. People came to St. Thomas all the time, with stories of places overrun with madness. “I don’t want to leave,” Nikki said. “This the safest place in the world.”
“If you know ’bout woo-woos, you know that ain’t true,” her father said, looking at her mother.
Her mother closed her eyes, pinching her nose.
“Why we don’t just find and kill it?” Nikki asked. “Then we gon’ be safe again.”
Her father put his hand on her mother’s shoulder and gently rubbed. Neither of them said anything.
“It’s just one woo-woo,” Nikki continued. “How hard could it be to kill it?”
“She’s right,” her mother said. “One woo-woo shouldn’t be so hard to kill.”
Her father slammed his hand down on the table. “We leaving. I don’t want to hear no more discussion.” And with that, her father got up and left the room.
“I don’t want to leave,” Nikki said when he was gone.
“Me too, baby,” her mother said, kneading at her temples. Then she whispered something. It whistled from her lips too quickly to catch.
“What?” Nikki asked, stepping close.
Her mother reached out and pulled her in. Nikki eased into the embrace, only realizing then that it had been a while since her mother had touched her this way.
“You mine,” her mother said.
“They not having you,” she said, tightening her embrace. Nikki tried to stay still. She was beginning to have difficulty breathing.
“Mom, stop it,” she said. Her voice was muffled in her mother’s bony shoulder.
“Mine,” she said again. “Always mine.”
This close, Nikki could hear whispers mixing with her mother’s words, a nest of them clinging to her in thin strands, burning into her like salt in open wounds.
Another squeeze left Nikki gasping. Her ribs felt like they would snap. She lifted her head and screamed.
Her father rushed in and pulled them apart. Nikki staggered back, stunned.
“I’m so sorry,” her mother said, reaching for her.
Her father intercepted, pulling her mother into him. “Go to your room and pack,” he told Nikki. His voice was low, but there was an edge to it she hadn’t heard before.
“What’s wrong?” Nikki asked. She took a step toward them.
Her father tensed up immediately. “Go to your room!” he said again, all attempt at control gone.
Nikki glared at her father, but she obeyed. As she left, she could still hear her mother, in a voice so low it hardly seemed like her own, repeating the same words over and over like a mantra to ward off evil spirits. Mine. Always mine.
• • • •
That night, after packing, Nikki went to bed. She locked herself inside what was soon to be not-her-room and covered her head in her pillow and cried until she fell asleep. In her dreams she could hear her mother screaming. She saw her mother’s frail body being dragged out of their home by the woo-woo. She saw it open its mouth to reveal a trail of sharp crescent teeth, dripping with saliva. Her mother, helpless in its claws, gave out one last scream before it bit down on her head. She heard again the sickening smacking sound as the woo-woo worked through flesh, gristle and bone. And then it turned to smile at her. It had a grin that curled all the way to its ears.
Nikki started awake in the hours before dawn, crawled out of her bed and walked down her hall to her parent’s bedroom. She opened the door to find no one inside and then walked out into the dining room and through the kitchen and out the front door, where she found her father sitting in their old lounge chair, almost too still to be alive. He was shirtless, a long piece of white fabric wrapped around his chest and back. It was stained red.
“What happened?” Nikki said. “Where mom?”
Her father didn’t look at her. Except for the slow rise and fall of his chest, there was no movement.
Nikki stepped closer. It was dark, but the light of the moon reflected off his face. The tears in his eyes sparkled.
Nikki felt her eyes burn, the recognition floating up into her consciousness. “Did the woo-woo get mommy?”
Only then did her father seem to realize she was there. He turned to her, his empty face now filled with emotions Nikki couldn’t understand. He nodded. He was crying now, the tears freeing themselves from his eyes. “We have to go,” he said. “This place is not for us anymore.”
• • • •
There wasn’t much left of the house, except for blackened stone columns and a snow-covered foundation. Parts of the frame of the house also remained; jagged pieces of wood reached up out of the snow to form the outline of rooms and part of the roof. The damage wasn’t new; parts of skeleton had collapsed long ago. There was no sign of ash. This place had been burned down for years.
“Fuck,” her father said.
“Fuck,” Nikki repeated.
Her father didn’t scold her for cursing. He just stood there staring at the ruins of his Michigan family home.
“What will we do now?” Nikki asked. This was their destination, the whole plan. Two years of travel for a burned down house in a clearing covered in snow. Where would they go after this?
Her father shrugged. “We will have to find another house. There’s bound to be some abandoned homes down the road. I remember one of my mom’s neighbors was an elderly woman. Maybe she moved on.”
Maybe she moved on? Nikki and her father had seen grown men trying to bite their own children and here he was, using euphemisms for death. How could he tell her the truth about her mother if he wouldn’t tell her the truth about strangers?
“What did you want to tell me?” Nikki asked.
Her father was facing away from her. She could only see his back. She waited a long time before he answered.
“Your mother really liked this place,” he started. “We came up here when we were in high school. We thought we were so in love. I wanted her to meet my mother. She’d only met dad, and, well, your grandfather wasn’t really a good man.”
Something was wrong. Nikki’s skin was burning. She touched her flushed face with her gloved hands.
“Your mother was bitten here,” he continued. “Soon she started hearing whispers. Usually the madness happens in a few days or weeks. But your mother didn’t get sick right away. Took years. And even then, it was slow. Though the end result was the same.”
“Did you kill her?” Nikki asked, the wrong in her spreading.
Her father frowned.
Nikki rubbed at her cheeks. “Did the neighbors kill her?”
“Your mother wanted to protect you.”
“Don’t do that. Don’t fucking do that.”
“Watch your mouth,” her father warned.
Nikki was panting now.
Her father noticed this. Nikki had never seen the expression he was making now. Complete terror.
“We have to find shelter,” he said. “Being out here like this is dangerous.”
“Not until you tell me.”
“Who is that over there?” yelled someone.
Nikki spun around to see who it was. Two men were walking out from the tree line and into the clearing.
One was slender and wearing a thin jacket, too thin for the weather they were in. The other was larger and heavier and holding a shotgun in his hands.
“You weren’t hard to track,” yelled the larger man. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“I think that’s Brenda’s boy,” said the thin one. “You know, the halfie?”
The larger man nodded, creeping forward bit by bit.
Nikki was preoccupied. Her stomach ached. Her insides were boiling. It couldn’t just be cramps. “I want to know,” she said softly.
Her father was staring at the larger man as he approached, his eye on the gun. “That you, Tomin?” asked her father, turning his head to the thin one for only a moment before turning back to the larger man. “It’s Sherman. I used to play with your son.”
“The boy died a long time ago,” Tomin said.
“Sorry to hear that,” her father said.
Nikki whimpered. “Tell me.”
“You sound funny, boy,” said the larger man. “Where you from?”
The men were close now. Too close. If the man wanted, he wouldn’t even have to aim.
“I’m from the Virgin Islands,” her father said. “I didn’t get your name.”
“Andy,” the larger man answered. “Never heard of no Virgin Islands. What’s in the backpacks?”
“Food. Clothes. Water.”
“Guns?” Andy was so close now, he could almost touch them. Tomin was standing a ways back.
Her father pulled Nikki to him slowly. “Just a hunting knife,” her father said.
Nikki groaned. “Tell me please,” she whispered.
“What’s wrong with the girl?” Andy asked.
“Look, me and my daughter just looking for a place. She isn’t well.”
“She has the madness?” Tomin asked. He looked nervously at his partner. “We should go, Andy.”
“She doesn’t have the madness,” Andy said. “You’d see it in the eyes. No, this is just a nice young girl. How old is she?”
“Don’t.” Her father’s hand was at his waist, where he kept his other knife.
“I’m not doing anything,” Andy said. “Relax. We’re just being nice. In case you forgot, boy: the world ended. We don’t have to be nice to you people. You don’t want your daughter freezing to death out here in the cold do you? We could help. We have a place just down the road. You’d like that right, little girl? What’s your name, sweetie?”
Her father lunged. He was fast, but the man was faster. His shotgun was already pointed. The blast was loud in Nikki’s ears. Her ear drums throbbed. There was no more sound, only the sight of her father, flying away from her, his coat shredded with buck shot. She could not even hear her own screaming, only the echo of a bell in her ears, forever ringing.
She felt hands on her, muffled words mixing together into something completely alien. Nikki watched as a pool of blood spread out from her father’s body. Deep red. Her tears felt cool on her flushed face.
Andy had his hands all over her. His voice was coming intermittently through the fog. It’s okay—something. Don’t worry—something. Something. A house. Something. You cold? Something. We will take you—something, something. Shit. What is wrong with your eyes? Something. Don’t look at me like that. Something. Please. Something. Oh God, please!
Nikki’s teeth were in Andy’s neck. She could feel the teeth growing from her gums, sharpening, thinning, curling slightly at their ends. The skin around her skull stretched around widening jaws. Hair shot out from her pores. Her clothes bulged, her ribs sprawling like wings, her back arching, her muscles rippling and fanning ever outward.
Andy’s blood, hot and sweet and thick like syrup, coated her throat. She groaned in pleasure, but it wasn’t her voice. Her mouth was bigger now, her neck longer, her throat wider and deeper.
Tomin stumbled backwards away from them, screaming. She could now hear everything, the sound of him crisp in her newly formed ears. She ripped out Andy’s throat and let his body drop. She kicked off her torn shoes and danced towards Tomin, her bare feet light on the snow, her new tail flicking from left to right. She could hear herself laughing, but it was deep and trembling like a growl.
“Please!” Tomin screamed out, but she was already on him, her claws digging into his shoulder blades and pulling, pulling him apart. He screamed as she threw her mouth wide, so wide she could taste his sweat, feel the splatter of blood on her tongue. She bit down quick, his head a fleshy ball in between her rows of sharpened teeth. She worked him over and over until she could no longer hear his screams. Then she ate, slowly, deliberately, hungrily, until there wasn’t much left but bone and the spray of blood on the fresh snow.
When she was done and she felt her body returning to its original shape, she made her way back to her father. She lifted his head, rested him on her lap so she could see his face, and stroked hiss overgrown beard. She removed his knitted cap to reveal his matted hair. She stroked that too, lovingly, working her fingers through the knots.
Her father was covered in blood. His face was so pale, it was almost blue. Her tears were coming now, falling on his face, in his hair and beard.
Nikki’s skin was slack around her eyes, the water collecting in pools beneath her eyeballs. The skin on her cheeks drooped, her neck sagged. All the while she could feel her skin tightening, her ribs folding in, her teeth smoothing and retreating back into the flesh of her gums. She looked up long enough to see the full moon swallowed back up by the clouds.
Nikki screamed. For her father and her mother and the secrets that died with them both.
“Oh, sweet one,” a voice said. She didn’t hear the voice in her ears. It rolled around inside her head. “So far from home,” said the voice, soft like a woman’s, rumbling at the edges like distant thunder.
“Who’s there?” Nikki asked. She waited. She closed her eyes and tried to listen for the sound of footsteps. She couldn’t hear a thing. Something about the voice felt familiar, though Nikki couldn’t quite place it.
“I remember your father,” said the voice. “And your mother.”
Nikki could feel eyes on her. So many eyes.
“She was full of the old wildness. That’s why we chose her as one of our children. She was not much older than you when we met. When I tasted her.”
Nikki removed her father’s head from her lap and rested him gently in the snow. She looked around at the surrounding woods. It was too dark for her to see anything but a row of trees and deep shadow.
“The wildness always takes what it wants. It likes the strong ones. Like you. Like your mother. It burns the rest. But if you fight it, the wildness will burn the fight out of even the strong. Your mother didn’t understand this. We tried to warn her about what would happen. Six billion times, we tried. She was stubborn. But it wins or the madness wins. There is nothing else.”
Nikki walked towards the tree line, slowly, carefully. She had lost the lightness she had before, her feet crunching through the snow. But she no longer felt cold, a blessing considering her torn shoes and clothes.
“You understand, right?” asked the voice. “You were born into the wildness. Nursed with it. You won’t deny it. You won’t disappoint us.”
Nikki stopped and looked back at her father, his corpse lying in the snow. She looked at the other two corpses, the bits of them scattered in pools of blood. Fresh tears blurred her vision. She felt sick to her stomach, the shame of what she had done starting to crowd in on her. If only that was all she felt, she could pretend none of this had happened and start a new life somewhere else. She had learned how to survive. She could do it on her own. But Nikki sensed that behind her shame lurked something powerful, a thrill burning so bright she could never put it out. She had done a thing and hated herself for doing it. But she also knew she would do it again. She considered the voice’s warning: the wildness wins or the madness. Was it a lie? Would she test it like her mother had? Even as she asked she knew she wouldn’t. She’d seen what lay down that road. No more secrets. No more hiding.
“What do you want?” she asked the voice, her own voice shaky with sorrow.
“What you want,” said the voice. “There’s no place for you in the old world. But perhaps there will be a place in the new.”
When Nikki reached the tree line, she sensed not one, but seven creatures waiting. Beyond the seven she could sense millions more, spread across the earth. One creature stepped forward and rubbed her snout against Nikki’s hand. It was not a woo-woo, though she could sense them too, in all the hidden places. It was a wolf, like the ones that had been at the edges of her camp on those dark quiet nights of her journey here. Just a wolf. And more.
Nikki stroked the wolf’s black fur hesitantly. The wolf leaned into her touch. The other wolves waited quietly in the dark. Nikki considered running away, but found she didn’t want to.
“Where will we go?” Nikki asked the wolf.
“Wherever you like,” the wolf said simply. “We have the whole world.”