Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Fossil Heart

What the ---- Is That final cover

This story also appears in WHAT THE #@&% IS THAT? edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen. Available Nov. 1, 2016 from Saga Press.

Nan Walker doesn’t mean to fall asleep. She never does. But tonight the creak of the ceiling fan lulls her. Evie curls warm against her side, one long leg thrown over hers. Nan’s eyes sag, her fingers relax, and her worn paperback slides onto the bed. Sleep strokes gentle hands across her eyes.

The nightmare waits, constant, unchanging: muddy water, stale wet air. The car shudders in the torrent as the flood rushes past outside. Debris scrapes the doors and windows. Chelsea’s hand clutches hers, cool and clammy, already starting to slip. A child’s fear paralyzes her, warring with the adult knowledge that she has to change it, change anything, but she’s already too late—

The dream—the memory—slips and shatters. Eyes flash in the darkness—the monsters coming for her.

Nan wakes to thunder, to the hot press of flesh and a weight on her chest that steals her breath. Her spine is full of razor wire. She thrashes, trapped and tangled, and strikes fur with one flailing hand. Evie’s fat white cat murrs indignantly and leaps away, digging a parting claw into Nan’s stomach.

Nan swallows nausea. Her pulse pounds in her throat. Only a moment’s inattention, but the night is different, deeper. Rain drums the roof and Evie has rolled to the far side of the bed, taking the covers with her. Nan fumbles for the clock; her novel slides to the floor with a muffled thump. The clock-face is black, the ceiling fan still; the power is out. Rain-light and storm-shadows shift across the ceiling.

Eyes flash in the darkness by the door and she’s sure the monsters have come. Then lightning splits the night open, revealing Winnie the cat. Thunder shakes the house. Nan falls back on her sweaty pillow, waiting for her heart to slow and her stomach to settle, for the pain in her back to dim to its usual nagging awareness.

Evie stirs beside her, one hand clenching in the sheets. She mumbles something incoherent and kicks. Her foot settles against Nan’s shin and she stills again. The familiar touch steadies Nan, too. Everything’s all right, she tells herself. It’s just a storm. She leans in, pressing her shoulder gently against Evie’s, grounding herself in human warmth.

When the pins-and-needles in her fingers fade, she slides out of bed and grabs her phone and cigarettes off the nightstand. Four in the morning. She lost five hours. Not so bad. Nothing, really—normal people lose more than that every night. But normal people can sleep, can rest, can dream of something besides the same moment over and over again.

Moisture slicks her skin as she pads across the sticky floor, her own rank fear-sweat and the storm’s paper-curling miasma. The screen door creaks as she steps onto the porch. The cool autumn night laps over her and she sighs. Goosebumps crawl up her legs and her breasts tighten under her damp tank top. The power is out all down the block; no electricity but the lightning seething in the clouds. Rain pounds the roof, rattles the gutters and rushes to the ground in shining cascades.

It can’t wash her away. She’s safe here in this house on the hill. The water can rise, but it can’t reach her. Not this time.

She sinks onto the porch swing and lights a cigarette. Smoke clears the sleep taste from her tongue, the sour metal fear taste. She wants a drink. Water all around her, but her tongue feels swollen between her teeth. A cockroach scuttles across the weathered boards and Nan pulls up her feet to let it pass. The swing squeals softly.

Somewhere, in some other reality, there’s a Nan who sleeps soundly. Who sleeps at all. A Nan who isn’t afraid of storms and rushing water and the constant, crushing weight of failure.

She closes her eyes to the sound of rain on shingles, the wet rattle of oak and magnolia leaves. Rain on muddy earth. The drone and buzz of insects searching for the stolen porch light. The smell of rain, of damp wood and cigarette smoke and her own salt sweat. Start with this, she tells herself. You lost five hours—take them back.

She was here earlier, alone on the porch. She can do this. Her pulse jumps at the thought, and she forces herself to ignore it. Ignore the rain, too; it wasn’t here. She reaches for the pain, the angry fire that licks her spine, lets it swim up from her subconscious and arc along her nerves. Her constant, her anchor.

Colors pulse behind her eyes, spinning fractals and kaleidoscope swirls. The world unravels along invisible seams and Nan falls into the void.

Darkness burns around her, shot through with stars. A million points of light, each one a moment, a possibility. She hangs on a precipice, tide rushing past her. The depth and vastness will swallow her if she lets them. She could float there forever, without pain, without fear . . .

Ananda Walker.

The monsters are always waiting. Long, sleek beasts, all bone-sharp jaws and cutting angles, their words razors and broken glass. Thirsty. Stay. Soon.

Teeth close into her flesh. Electric tongues spark against her skin. Nan fights a scream, searching for the right spark. A pinprick hole in the black. She reaches for it, reaches through, and pulls herself out the other side.

She opens her eyes, muscles spasming. Her jaw snaps. Teeth graze her cheek and the taste of red and copper spools across her tongue.

Overhead, a moth beats against the grimy globe of the porch light. Streetlamps bleed sodium halos through the sticky air. A car speeds down Locust Street, tires humming on dry asphalt.

Nan gasps. Her cigarette snaps in a numb hand, scattering orange sparks and flecks of tobacco across the porch. Adrenaline sings through her. She did it. Five hours. The most she’s ever rewound.

She looks at her hand, at the shadow of teeth marks already fading around her wrist. No blood, no broken skin, just chill and weakness.

Soon. Waiting. A greater darkness flickers in the shadows below the porch, there and gone in an eye-blink. Hungry.

The screen door opens and Evie steps out.

Nan swallows nauseous spit; the stutter of perception makes the queasiness worse. Tension throbs in her neck and jaw. The roar of her pulse is as loud as the coming storm.

She counts silently: sixty seconds later, the screen door creaks open and Evie steps out. “Nan? It’s eleven—I’m going to bed.”

“I’ll be there in a second.” Her voice only trembles a little.

Evie frowns, cocking her head. “Weren’t you wearing pants a minute ago?”

Nan looks down at her bare legs. She was, before. The first time. The past overwritten. Her heart speeds again.

“It’s hot,” she says, standing up. Her left calf twitches with an incipient cramp.

Evie’s frown deepens. “Are you all right?”

“My back.” It’s not entirely a lie. Nan takes Evie’s hand and pulls her close, kissing her neck and breathing in the clean smell of her skin: salt-and-honey soap and sweet citrus shampoo.

Evie laughs as Nan’s lips brush her collarbone. “Maybe we should take this inside.” She pauses and leans in. “You smell like rain.”

“A storm’s on its way.”

That earns her a different frown. Not the crazy girlfriend who wanders around in her underwear frown, but the crazy girlfriend who predicts the future. Who thinks she can change the past.

Nan kisses Evie again and leads her into the air-conditioned house.

• • • •

“Five hours,” Evie says later, stroking her fingers through Nan’s short hair. The storm hasn’t hit yet, but the wind is picking up and thunder growls in the distance. The room smells of sweat and musk and hot wax. Candlelight dances across the walls, votives of St. Peter and Mary and all the others that crowd the little shelf Evie refuses to call an altar.

Nan nods, her head pillowed on Evie’s stomach, her cheek sticking to the soft curve of the other woman’s belly. She concentrates on the murmur of Evie’s heart, the weight of her fingers. The now. This moment with no pain, no fear, no past, no monsters. The river of time waits to sweep her away, but she won’t let it.

It can’t last, but she can pretend.

“Hey,” Evie murmurs, as comfort threatens to lull Nan to sleep again. “Love you.”

“I love you. But do you believe me?”

Evie sighs. “It would be easier if I didn’t, but I do.”

“I am crazy.”

“You surely are.” She strokes Nan’s hair. “But I dreamed about the black dog again last night.”

Nan shivers. “I’m getting closer. I could only manage five minutes before.”

“Five minutes is long way from fourteen years.”

“I can do it. I’m sure I can now.”

“But are you sure you should? You see monsters, Nan. Don’t you think that means you ought to stop?”

She flexes her left hand. Only a faint chill lingers in her bones. She’s told Evie about the monsters, the hounds, but not about how they feed. “I can’t.”

Evie’s fingers still. You mean you won’t. Don’t lie to yourself. It’s not mindreading: she hears the words leave Evie’s lips. Precognition. Déjà vu. But Evie chooses a different path.

“What’s that word you told me about the stars? The light we see that doesn’t exist anymore?”

“Fossil light?”

“Yes.” She sighs again, and Nan’s head rises and falls with her breath. “That’s you. You’re not really here. And I’m afraid by the time I find you, you’ll be gone.”

• • • •

The first time Nan rewrote the past, she was dying.

A bottle of Xanax and a bottle of tequila, determined to stop it once and for all. The lost time, the panic attacks, the nightmares. The eerie precognition that left her stumbling away from people who hadn’t moved yet, dodging parked cars, answering unasked questions. Slipping grades, doctors’ warnings. Another lost job, another girlfriend walking out on her. Everyone tired of dealing with crazy, broken Nan.

She was sick of living with it. Sick of living.

She was sick of dying before long, huddled on the bathroom floor with the stench of vomit thick in the air. Her cheap phone smashed to pieces against the linoleum—no more calls for help. Maybe she should have hanged herself instead. All she wanted was sleep, but an empty place unfolded inside her, sucking her down. The empty place that never healed after Chelsea died.

Chelsea always believed people would find each other again on the other side. If that was a lie, it was the sweetest Nan had ever heard.

It should have been her all those years ago, her instead of Chelsea. Her with Chelsea. Why hadn’t she died too, if this was all she had to live for? To live through.

She remembered Chelsea’s hand in hers. Cold and damp and clutching tight, before her best friend’s fingers went limp and slipped away.

The precise instant was lost. When she realized there was nothing she could do, that her parents weren’t coming back and there was no one to help them, she’d shut her eyes and tried to get through, pushing as hard as she could against that awful moment. Trying to fast-forward through the pain as if it were a song she didn’t like.

The emptiness opened, welcoming her inside.

But as she fell, Nan snapped awake to find herself back in the drowning car. Muddy water rising all around her, her back throbbing where she’d slammed against the door when the station wagon slid off the flooded bridge into the rushing, rain-swollen creek. The flood roared past, pulling at the car, pinning the doors. Debris scraped like claws against metal.

And Chelsea. Chelsea trapped in the back seat, seatbelt locked tight. Brown eyes wide and shot with panic as the water rose higher around her head, closing over her black braids and purple plastic barrettes.

Best friends since second grade, blood sisters by needle-pricked thumbs since the age of twelve, an awkward sugar-sticky first kiss on Nan’s thirteenth birthday. A world of possibilities stretching out before them, with only the certainty that they would be together. And now Nan watched those possibilities wither and fall away one by one with every millimeter of rising water.

The other Nan, the poisoned, dying Nan, clawed her way up from the dark. This wasn’t a dream: she was back. The body that ached so fiercely wasn’t a child’s. She could change it, change anything, and maybe she could save them both.

Chelsea’s dimming eyes flashed open, blazing like cut glass. Thirsty.

It was the first time Nan remembered hearing the monsters, their words like scalpels, but the sound was familiar as childhood lullabies. Teeth pierced her flesh, sharp as the doctors’ needles that took the pain away. She screamed in panic and recoiled.

With a sickening wrench, she fell back through the dark, back into the now.

She opened her eyes to warped linoleum tiles, the bathtub slick and steady against her back and her spine throbbing like the injury was fresh. The amber bottles sat on the floor in front of her, full of liquor and little blue pills, but she still felt sick and poisoned. White-knuckled fingers clamped tight around her phone.

This time, she called for help.

• • • •

Four in the morning again, the long way round this time. The power is still out, so Nan takes a cold shower by candlelight. Modafinil keeps sleep at bay, but maybe she’ll walk to the corner store and get some lousy coffee and be back in time to wake Evie at five.

Even candlelight can’t flatter her reflection. The face in the mirror is worn and whittled thin. Only twenty-seven, but she looks ten years older. Hollow cheeks, indelible bruises around her eyes, threads of gray in her spiky brown hair. Lack of sleep, maybe, or drinking—though she drinks less when she’s on her meds. Or maybe all the time slips take their toll, all those moments lived twice. She’s moving faster than the rest of the world, rushing toward the end.

She won’t go without a fight.

She leans against the doorway, watching Evie curled in tangled sheets. Guttering candles kiss her chestnut skin, limning her with gold. Midnight curls splay across the pillow.

The suicide-that-wasn’t and all the possibilities it opened were enough to keep Nan going. To scale back the booze and pills, to keep track of the slips and lost time, the nightmares and flashes of precognition, and especially the monsters. It kept her alive long enough to meet Evie, and she can never regret that, no matter how bad things have been since or will yet be.

Evie, who spends all day with the sick and broken and dying and comes home to light candles to powers she refuses to name. Who invests her time and training and student loans in medicine, but carries magic close and silent in her heart. Her brushes with the weird aren’t the same as Nan’s, but they’re enough to let her listen. To accept, if not understand.

Chelsea is a shadow between them. Nan’s therapists tell her to let go, to move on, to make peace, but how can she, when every careless moment tugs her back? She lost three years to a haze of drugs and doctors and quiet rooms, but even that couldn’t keep the past away forever.

Evie deserves more than Nan can offer. But to fix herself may mean losing everything she has now.

She turns back to the medicine cabinet and reaches for her Fluoxetine. As she counts out forty milligrams in green-and-white pills, eyes flash in the angled mirror. The bottle slips from cold fingers, bounces off the counter and sprays pills across the floor with a machine-gun rattle.

So thirsty. She feels its attention shift, past her to the bedroom. Sweet.

“No!” Her hands clench on the edge of the counter. If feeding the monsters is the price she pays for what she does, so be it. But not Evie. “Don’t you fucking touch her,” she hisses.

Teeth like shards of ice blaze in a grin. You touch her.

Nan slams the mirror shut, rattling glass and bottles. Behind her the doorway is empty, except for a soft chuffing laughter fading in her head.

• • • •

Tension builds that week, simmering, implacable. Evie is scared, hurt, and Nan doesn’t know what to say to make it better. Knows, but isn’t willing to lie. She hears the things Evie almost says but holds back. Unlike so many others, Evie considers her options before she acts, doesn’t always take the easiest, obvious path. It was a balm when they first met: someone Nan couldn’t always predict, a journey whose end she didn’t know from the start. But now it leaves her off center and shaky, fighting not to react to things unsaid.

She could make it easier. Lock herself into the now and turn her eyes away from the probabilities and possibilities constantly unfurling. After so many years, she’s learned to turn the volume down. Instead she stretches herself wide, searching, riffling through cracks whenever she sees them. The night of the storm left her with a sense of momentum, a cold weight of anticipation in her stomach. She doesn’t dare lose herself to complacency again.

• • • •

She sees the next storm coming on a dead television. A roiling mass of green sweeping across the state. Flooding, devastation, death. Reports of destruction that hasn’t yet occurred scroll past her, and she knows bone-deep that one of those deaths could be hers.

This is her chance.

She comes back to herself in Evie’s cramped living room. The lamplight is wrong, crystalline and fractured as if she were tripping. The monsters, her monsters, wait in the corners. Sharp lines, cutting angles, nothing of softness.

Impatient. Yearning. So thirsty for destruction. A lean shape slinks around her, flickering in and out of her vision. Come with us, Ananda Walker. We’ll show you.

Jaws close on her right wrist. Needles of ice pass through meat and bone. A rough, sparking tongue laps at the wound. Nan feels some part of her draining away, but she can’t name it. Behind her eyes the void begins to unfold, the threshold to uncounted worlds.

“Nan?”

Glass shatters.

“Nan? Are you—” Evie lets out a strangled shriek. Nan spins to see a glass slip from Evie’s long brown hand. It falls so slowly. So easy to move between heartbeats and catch it. Gravity resists for an instant as she moves it from its downward path, then it’s safe on the counter.

Evie stands frozen, hazel eyes wide. Tall and raw-boned, the proud arch of her nose slightly off-center, an asymmetry that leaves her more arresting than simple prettiness could. Nan is often struck by her beauty, her strength, but now she marvels at the life in her. The blood jumping beneath her skin, the dampness of her parted lips, the film of moisture shining on her dark-flecked irises. So sweet.

She looks for her reflection in Evie’s eyes and sees only a dark, angular shadow.

The light softens. Cut-glass shadows melt back to normal. Evie recoils, catching her hip against a little table. A vase teeters and falls to the floor.

Glass shatters.

“What the hell was that?” Evie’s eyes flash white as she looks from Nan to the empty corners and back again. She shakes her head sharply, curls rasping against her scrubs. “Those things—you were—”

The room stifles with potential, none of it pleasant. Some inevitabilities can only be dodged so long.

“How long have you been feeding them?” Evie demands.

“Since the beginning, I think. I didn’t realize it at first.” Nan lifts her hands in a useless shrug; the right is still numb. “I didn’t want to scare you.”

“I’ve dreamed of the black dogs ever since I met you. I thought I could protect you from them. But all this time you’ve invited them in. And you don’t want to scare me.”

“Evie—”

“Look at yourself!” She catches Nan’s wrist, presses palm to palm. Her touch burns. Nan’s skin, always paler, is spectral now in comparison. Bone and tendon and veins stand stark, any softness she’s ever had melted away. “They’re stealing your life.”

Nan draws breath to answer, but there’s no answer to give.

“I’m living with a ghost,” Evie whispers. “Because you won’t stop living with yours.”

And now the dam cracks, and the things she holds back come rushing out. Evie points at the desk, at the carved wooden box where Nan keeps her old photos, yellowing reminders of the days when she had a family, a life, when she had Chelsea. “Do you think I can’t see? Those could be my baby pictures. I look just like her. How the hell is that supposed to make me feel?”

Not quite, Nan almost says. Her eyes were darker. She didn’t have that little mole. She wouldn’t be so tall. She smothers each thought in turn—she’s not that crazy.

“Am I just a placeholder?” Evie goes on. “The next best thing until you “—finally kill yourself—” bring Chelsea back?”

“No.” Nan’s chest aches around the word. Her own anger rises in turn, even though she knows it’s just defensive hurt. “What about me? You want to protect me? To rescue me? Am I just another project to you? Another broken bird to nurse? Don’t you get enough of that at work?”

Evie laughs harshly. “Maybe neither of us knows how to have a healthy relationship.”

“I know I love you. But that’s not enough to fix me.”

“Nothing will ever be enough if you don’t let go of this!”

“Do you think I haven’t tried? I can’t let go. I’ll never be enough for anyone. For myself. Something is wrong with me, Evie.” It’s her turn to laugh now, just as rough and ugly. “A lot of things. But something is broken, and I have to try to fix it.”

“Bad things happen. Terrible things. They break us in a hundred ways. We can repair ourselves, but we can’t change the past.”

I can.

She catches Evie in her arms. “Hey,” she whispers. After a second’s stiff resistance, Evie hugs her back.

“Hey. Love you.”

They hold each other in the dark. It’s not enough.

• • • •

“Pardon my language, lady, but you’re fucking crazy.” The cabbie glances at her in the rearview mirror. He takes one big-knuckled hand off the wheel to gesture at the rain sheeting down the windshield, the furious squick-ick squick-ick of the wipers. “Which makes me equally crazy, too. We’re going to fucking drown.”

“No,” Nan murmurs as images flicker and scroll through her vision. “You won’t.”

Texas is drowning, though, or it will be soon. Every path that branches from this now ends in destruction somewhere, unavoidable. Whether it will be hers Nan doesn’t know, but she won’t get another chance like this.

She left Evie sleeping, walked out on everything and called a cab to the bus station.

“I love you,” she whispered. “I love you, but I have to do this.”

The driver glares at her. She leans her head against the window and doesn’t meet his eyes. Every drop of water glistens with potential, a million worlds falling all around her, but she doesn’t look. The gutters surge, trees and buildings and the few other cars on the road swallowed alike by gray. Her stomach is sour from too much coffee, cup after cup every chance she had on top of the Modafinil to make sure she didn’t fall asleep on the Greyhound. Her eyelids feel like sandpaper, and a muscle has been jumping in her left cheek for the past hour. No idea what time it is, but that hardly matters anymore.

“Crazy,” the cabbie mutters again. A gold saint’s medallion sways from the rearview mirror, flashing in the gray light. It reminds her of Evie’s candles, and she looks away. She’s too tired to cry, too dry.

“That’s what all the doctors tell me.” An old joke, but her mouth can’t force a smile and the words fall flat and humorless. The din of rain and windshield wipers replaces conversation, and she’s grateful.

They leave offices and shopping centers behind. Hills rise through the blinding rain ahead. She hasn’t been back to Austin in years, but she remembers. Karst topography, limestone and granite cloaked in thin soil, green with live oak and cedar scrub. Hot and dry most of the year, perfect for flash flooding. Which everyone knows, but every time the rains roll in someone is stupid or unlucky enough to drown. People like Nan’s parents. And Chelsea.

Nan should have died too. How had she lived without Chelsea? Best friend, sister, first love, even if she hadn’t realized that at the time. Every plan they had ever made had included both of them. Chelsea, always the precocious one, had taken all the steps she could think of to keep the connection. Blood mingled on pricked fingertips; brown hair and black braided together in friendship bracelets; their names written together with Chelsea’s mom’s fancy fountain pen, smudged and sloppy cursive script offered to a candle flame. Maybe it worked too well.

If that day had played out any other way. If Chelsea had taken the front seat instead of Nan. If Nan had been trapped in the broken seatbelt while water filled her lungs. Chelsea had been the clever one; she would have figured something out. And if she hadn’t, if Nan had paid that price so her friend could live, Chelsea would have been the strong one. She would have survived and thrived and carried Nan’s memory forward into a life worth living, instead of wasting everything.

Maybe Chelsea would have met Evie.

Soon, the monster whispers from the angled sliver of the rearview mirror.

“Did you say something?” the cabbie asks.

“No,” she says. “We’re almost there.”

“Look, I know this is none of my business, but this isn’t a suicide thing, is it?”

Nan catches his eye in the mirror. “No.” She manages a smile this time. “It’s not a suicide thing.”

“All right then,” he says reluctantly. “This is it.”

He turns off the main road onto the narrow lane that leads to the park. Scraps of color break the gloom, orange and black balloons tied to a post, dangling in tatters from their ribbons. Markers for a party come and gone, or thwarted by the storm.

The creek is already flooding, sluicing over the grass and blacktop. The driver curses as wings of white water flare on either side of the car. Nan’s stomach turns over as they hydroplane. The cab slues to the left, spray tracing its turn. The cabbie hits the brakes and slaps his hazards on.

“What the fuck was that?”

Nan looks up in time to see sleek black shapes move at the edge of the headlights. She might mistake them for dogs, if she didn’t know better. “Don’t worry. They won’t bother you. I can make it from here.”

“Are you sure, lady?”

“Yes.” The conviction in her voice surprises her. She tugs her wallet out and hands him all the cash she has. She doubts she’ll need it again. “Thank you.”

He shakes his head. “Try not to drown.”

“I’ll do my best.” She opens the door into the deluge.

Two steps and she’s soaked to the skin. Three and her boots squelch. Four and the lights of the cab fade into the gloom. She spares a moment’s distraction to reassure herself that he’ll probably make it home tonight.

Would you do anything differently if you knew he wouldn’t?

“No.” Rain fills her mouth, sour with the salt and grime sluicing off her skin but better than the lingering taste of bad coffee. The moisture makes her realize how thirsty she is.

Implacable. Indifferent. You’d make a good hunter.

She doesn’t look at the hound straight on, but tracks it from the corner of her eye. “You didn’t used to talk so much.”

Hard for us to interact with your world, for the angles to intersect the curve. But you slip further and further into ours. A pause, broken by thunder. It won’t work. Not like you hope.

“I know that.” The first time Nan has admitted it, but she does know. All her experiments warned her, a missing pair of jeans the final piece of data. Her now always overwrites the before. Whether it’s five minutes or fourteen years. She’ll never be young with Chelsea again. All the futures they could have shared have long since burnt out. Her might-have-beens with Evie smolder behind her.

The monster gives a soft whuff. You give up your mate for your sister, even if it means giving up both of them.

“Evie will be better off without me. I’ll give up everything to let Chelsea have a future. She’ll do something with hers.”

You don’t know that. You cannot.

“No, I can’t. But I wish it. I hope it. I’d pray if I knew how.”

The water reaches her knees now, weeds and branches catching on her jeans with every step. The weight of wet denim and soaked boots drags at her. The creek is somewhere in front of her, only yards away. Not that its boundaries mean anything now. To her right is the low bridge, whose flimsy guardrail hadn’t been able to stop her parents’ car from sailing downstream.

You are ridiculous creatures. But hope is sweet. Hope, love, despair—we drink them all.

Another step toward the bridge. Mud shifts beneath her, sucking at her boots. She reaches for the pain in her spine. Only a few more strides—

Headlights flash behind her, the sound of tires and engine lost to the storm. The cab, Nan thinks, and then the realization hits her.

“Nan!” Evie is a dark blur in the rain, but her voice carries. “Nan, don’t! I won’t let you do this alone.”

“I have to!” she shouts back. “Evie, go!”

The water surges around her thighs. She can’t see the car, but she hears Evie’s shout, watches the headlights slide sideways.

Time slips. Slows. Raindrops hang in midair, crystalline and iridescent. The roar of the storm dims to a sound like hollow breathing. The hound slinks across the water, its faceted claws carving slices out of the frozen surface.

Forward or back?

“If I go back, if I change it, she’ll never come here in the first place. I’ll save her either way.”

She can change the past, and erase herself from it. Or she can try to salvage the life she has instead of longing for something that never existed. All the things she dreamt of with Chelsea she could find with Evie. No—they could find new dreams together. But she knows better even as she tries to convince herself. She’ll never be free of her past, not that way.

She dives for the bridge.

Time resumes as the water envelopes her. The surge crushes her, scathes her with debris. Her outstretched arm catches the guardrail. Metal bites skin. Bitter froth fills her mouth and nose.

A seam opens. The station wagon stutters in and out of focus. Almost there. Muscles strain and stretch. Her fingers slip. The cold breath of the hounds chills her neck. Waiting to drink the last of her down.

Her grip gives way. Nan reaches.

Warm flesh closes around her wrist, hauling her back. She screams in pain and frustration and inhales a mouthful of water.

Evie holds her close, braced against the storm’s fury. “You can’t do this,” she says, lips moving against Nan’s ear. “But I can.”

She lets go, and Nan’s scream is lost as water closes over her head.

• • • •

The car tilts, shuddering in the surge, caught in a tangle of tree branches. Nan leans over the passenger seat, stretching her hand toward Chelsea. Her back screams, and every movement is agony. Her breath comes in high keening sobs.

Chelsea struggles against the broken seatbelt as water rises higher around her head. It laps against her chin now, closing on her mouth. Her lips part as if she means to speak, but instead she spits and coughs. Her dark eyes widen.

A shadow moves across the windshield. Nan glances back, and shrieks as the glass spiderwebs under a blow. Another impact and a thousand glittering fragments rain into the car, stinging her outflung hand.

A woman crouches on the slanting hood of the car. Dark curls writhe around her face, and her clothes are plastered to her skin. Shadows move behind her, like a pack of rib-sprung black dogs.

The woman shoves broken glass aside, shoves Nan aside, and reaches into the back seat. Muscles strain as she tugs on the seatbelt; the tendons in her neck leap taut. Joints pop. Fabric pops. The tongue snaps free. The woman falls back as Chelsea clings to the driver’s seat and gulps sticky wet air.

The woman looks at Nan with sad, dark-flecked hazel eyes. She raises a bleeding hand, brushes Nan’s face with warm fingers. Her lips move, but Nan can’t hear over the roar of water and her own pulse.

Then the dogs surge through the broken windshield, closing skeletal jaws in the woman’s clothes, in her flesh. She doesn’t scream as they drag her out into the storm.

Nan screams for her, grabs for her, but she’s too slow. Then Chelsea squirms out of the back and into her arms, wet and chilled and shaking. They hold each other tight, sobbing, as the flood rages on.

• • • •

Nan Walker sits on her porch swing, a cigarette smoldering in one hand and her phone warming in the other, watching heavy pewter storm clouds slide across the sky. The wind rises, whipping fallen oak leaves across the lawn. The smell of ozone prickles her nose.

“Are you listening to me at all?” Chelsea asks, five hundred miles away.

“Sorry.” Chains squeal as she shifts her weight. A column of ash falls to the floor, disintegrating in the breeze. “A storm’s on its way.”

Chelsea makes a soft noise, equal parts sympathy and disapproval. She pretends Nan’s fear of storms is a childhood foible to be outgrown, but Nan doubts her nightmares have stopped, though it’s been years since they shared a bed. “Anyway, I said I might come back to Texas next month. For Vangie’s birthday. She’ll be four.”

“I know.” She’s seen Chelsea’s daughter more often than Chelsea has, but she doesn’t mention that. Evangeline’s grandmother doesn’t talk about Aunt Nan’s visits. Chelsea’s mom knows about the fall-outs and make-ups and the slowly widening gyre of two people who love each other but can’t live together, but she’s too polite to talk about that either. “Shall I come down?”

The sky darkens during Chelsea’s silence. A fat drop of rain splatters on the steps. Thunder growls in the distance and Nan shudders.

“Sure,” Chelsea says at last, trying too hard for nonchalance. “Vangie would like that.”

A shadow flickers at the corner of Nan’s eye. She glances up to catch a lean black shape moving at the edge of the yard. A dog, maybe, but so thin. It’s gone before she’s certain it was there at all. Her scalp prickles. Chelsea dreams of storms even if she won’t admit it; the black dogs are Nan’s alone.

“You’re still not listening,” Chelsea says with a sigh.

“The connection’s bad. Must be the weather. Call me back later. Or else I’ll see you soon.”

“Yeah. I’ll see you.”

A familiar ache opens in Nan’s chest, the absence of something she can’t quite name. She used to think Chelsea was the only thing to fill that void. She’s not sure anymore.

“Hey,” she says before she ends the call. “Love you.”


Editor’s Note: This story was co-edited by Douglas Cohen and will also be appearing in the new anthology, What the #@&% Is That?, edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen, out November 1 from Saga Press. Visit johnjosephadams.com/wtf to learn more.

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Amanda Downum

Amanda Downum

Amanda Downum is the author of the Necromancer Chronicles and Dreams of Shreds & Tatters. Her short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, and Weird Tales, and in the anthologies Lovecraft Unbound and Dreams From the Witch House. She lives in Austin, TX. Her day job sometimes involves dressing as a giant worm.