Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Girls Without Their Faces On

Delia’s father had watched her drowning when she was a little girl. The accident happened in a neighbor’s pool. Delia lay submerged near the bottom, her lungs filling with chlorinated water. She could see Dad’s distorted form bent forward, shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow, cigarette dangling from his lips, blandly inquisitive. Mom scooped Delia out and smacked her between the shoulder blades while she coughed and coughed.

Delia didn’t think about it often. Not often.

• • • •

Barry F threw a party at his big, opulent house on Hillside East. He invited people to come after sundown. A whole slew of them heeded the call. Some guests considered Barry F an eccentric. This wasn’t eccentric—sundown comes early in autumn in Alaska. Hours passed and eventually the door swung wide, emitting piano music, laughter, a blaze of chandelier light. Three silhouettes lingered; a trinity of Christmas ghosts: Delia; Delia’s significant other, J; and Barry F.

“—the per capita death rate in Anchorage is outsized,” Barry F said. “Out-fucking-sized. This town is the armpit. No, it’s the asshole—”

Bethel is the asshole,” J said.

“Tell it on the mountain, bro.”

“I’ll tell you why Bethel is the worst. My dad was there on a job for the FAA in ’77. He’s eating breakfast at the Tundra Diner and a janitor walks past his table, lugging a honey bucket—”

“Honey bucket?”

“Plumbing froze, so folks crapped in a bucket and dumped it in a sewage lagoon out back. Honey bucket. It’s a joke. Anyway, the dude trips on his shoelace . . . Go on. Imagine the scene. Envision that motherfucker. Picking toilet paper outta your scrambled eggs kills the appetite. Plus, cabin fever, and homies die in the bush all the livelong day. Alcoholism, poverty, rape. Worst of the worst.”

“Please,” Delia said. “Can we refrain from trashing a native village for the sin of not perfectly acclimating to a predatory takeover by the descendants of white European invaders?”

“Ooh, my girlfriend doesn’t enjoy the turn of conversation. Sorry, my precious little snowflake. Folks weren’t so politically correct in the 1970s. I’m just reporting the news.”

“If we’re talking about assholes, look no further than a mirror.”

“Kids, kids, don’t fight, don’t derail the train,” Barry F said in an oily, avuncular tone. “Anchorage is still bad. Right?”

“Wretched. Foul.”

“And on that note . . .” Delia said.

“Haven’t even gotten to the statistics for sexual assault and disappearances—”

“—Satanists. Diabolists. Scientologists. Cops found a hooker’s corpse bound to a headboard at the Viking Motel.”

“Lashed to the mast, eh?”

“You said it.”

“Hooker? Wasn’t she a stripper, though? Candy Bunny, Candy Hunny . . . ?”

“Hooker, stripper, I dunno. White scarves, black candles. Blood everywhere. News called it a ritual killing. They’re combing the city for suspects.”

“Well, Tito and Benny were at the Bush Company the other night and I haven’t seen ’em since . . .”

“Ha-ha, those cut-ups!”

“I hope not literally.”

“We’re due for some ritual insanity. Been saying it for months.”

“Why are we due?”

“Planet X is aligning with the sun. Its passage messes with gravitational forces, brain chemistry, libidos, et cetera. Like the full moon affects crazies, except dialed to a hundred. Archeologists got cave drawings that show this has been a thing since Neanderthals were stabbing mammoths with sharpened sticks.”

“The malignant influence of the gods.”

“The malignant influence of the Grays.”

“The Grays?”

“Little gray men: messengers of the gods; cattle mutilators; anal probe-ists . . .”

“They hang around Bethel, eh?”

“No way to keep up with the sheer volume of insanity this state produces. Oh, speaking of brutalized animals, there was the Rabbit Massacre in Wasilla.”

“Pure madness.”

“Dog mutilations. So many doggy murders. I sorta hate dogs, but really, chopping off their paws is too damned far.”

“And on that note . . . !” Delia stepped backward onto the porch for emphasis.

“On that note. Hint taken, baby doll. Later, sucker.”

Delia and J separated from the raucous merriment of the party. The door shut behind them and they were alone in the night.

“What’s a Flat Affect Man?” Delia wore a light coat, miniskirt, and heels. She clutched J’s arm as they descended the flagstone steps alongside a treacherously steep driveway. Porchlights guided them partway down the slope.

“Where did you hear that?” Sportscoat, slacks, and high-top tennis shoes for him. Surefooted as a mountain goat. The softness of his face notwithstanding, he had a muscle or two.

“Barry F mentioned it to that heavyset guy in the turtleneck. You were chatting up turtleneck dude’s girlfriend. The chick who was going to burst out of her mohair sweater.”

“I wasn’t flirting. She’s comptroller for the university. Business, always business.”

“Uh-huh. Curse of the Flat Affect Men, is what Barry said.”

“Well, forget what you heard. There are things woman was not meant to know. You’ll just spook yourself.”

She wanted to smack him, but her grip was precarious and she’d had too many drinks to completely trust her balance.

Hillside East was heavily wooded. Murky at high noon and impenetrable come the witching hour. Neighborhoods snaked around ravines and subarctic meadows and copses of deep forest. Cul-de-sacs might host a house or a bear den. But that was Anchorage. A quarter of a million souls sprinkled across seventeen-hundred square miles of slightly suburbanized wilderness. Ice water to the left, mountains to the right, Aurora Borealis weeping radioactive tears. October nights tended to be crisp. Termination dust gleamed upon the Chugach peaks, on its way down like a shroud, creeping ever lower through the trees.

A few more steps and he unlocked the car and helped her inside. He’d parked away from the dozen or so other vehicles that lined the main road on either side of the mailbox. His car was practically an antique. Its dome light worked sporadically. Tonight, nothing. The interior smelled faintly of a mummified animal.

The couple sat in the dark. Waiting.

She regarded the black mass of forest to her right, ignoring his hand on her thigh. Way up the hillside, the house’s main deck projected over a ravine. Bay windows glowed yellow. None of the party sounds reached them in the car. She imagined the turntables gone silent and the piano hitting a lone minor key, over and over. Loneliness born of aching disquiet stole over her. No matter that she shared a car with J nor that sixty people partied hardy a hundred yards away. Her loneliness might well have sprung from J’s very proximity.

After nine months of dating, her lover remained inscrutable.

J lived in a duplex that felt as sterile as an operating room—television, double bed, couch, and a framed poster of the cosmos over the fake fireplace (a faux fireplace in Alaska was almost too much irony for her system). A six-pack in the fridge; a half-empty closet. He consulted for the government, finagling cost-efficient ways to install fiberoptic communications in remote native villages. That’s allegedly what he did when he disappeared for weeks on end. Martinis were his poison, Andy Kaufman his favorite (dead?) entertainer, and electronica his preferred music. His smile wasn’t a reliable indicator of mood or temperament.

Waking from a strange, fragmentary dream, to a proverbial splash of cold water, Delia accepted that the romance was equally illusory.

“What is your job?” she said, experiencing an uncomfortable epiphany of the ilk that plagued heroines in gothic tales and crime dramas. It was unwise for a woman to press a man about his possibly nefarious double life, and yet so it went. Her lips formed the words and out they flew, the skids greased by a liberal quantity of vino.

“Same as it was in April,” he said. “Why?”

“Somebody told me they saw you at the airport buying a ticket to Nome in early September. You were supposed to be in Two Rivers that week.”

“Always wanted to visit Nome. Haunt of late career Wyatt Earp. Instead, I hit Two Rivers and got a lousy mug at the gift shop.”

“Show me the mug when I come over for movie night.”

“Honey pie, sugar lump! Is that doubt I hear in your voice?”

“It is.”

“Fine, you’ve got me red-handed. I shoot walruses and polar bears so wealthy Europeans can play on ivory cribbage boards and strut around in fur bikinis.” He caressed her knee and waited, presumably for a laugh. “C’mon, baby. I’m a square with a square job. Your friend must’ve seen my doppelganger.”

“No. What do you actually do? Like for real.”

“I really consult.” He wore a heavy watch with a metal strap. He pressed harder and the strap dug into her flesh.

“There’s more,” she said. “Right? I’ve tried to make everything add up, and I can’t.”

“Sweetie, just say what’s on your mind.”

“I’m worried. Ever have a moment, smack out of the blue, when you realize you don’t actually know someone? I’m having that moment.”

“Okay. I’m a deep cover Russian agent.”

“Are you?”

“Jeez, you’re paranoid tonight.”

“Or my bullshit detector is finally working.”

“You were hitting it hard in there.” He mimed drinking with his free hand.

“Sure, I was half a glass away from dancing on the piano. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

“Wanna get me on a couch? Wanna meet my mother?”

“People lie to shrinks. Do you even have a mother?”

“I don’t have a shrink. Don’t have a mother.” His hand and the watch strap on his wrist slid back and forth, abrading her skin. “My mother was a . . . eh, who cares what the supernumerary does? She died. Horribly.”

“J—” Would she be able to pry his hand away? Assuming that failed, could she muster the grit to slap him, or punch him in the family jewels? She hadn’t resorted to violence since decking a middle school classmate who tried to grab her ass on a fieldtrip. Why had she leapt to the worst scenario now? Mom used to warn her about getting into bad situations with sketchy dudes. Mom said of hypothetical date rapists, if shit got real, smile sweetly and gouge the bastard’s eye with a press-on nail.

The phantom piano key in her mind sounded like it belonged in a 1970s horror flick. How much did I have? Three glasses of red, or four? Don’t let the car start spinning, I might fly into space.

J paused, head tilted as if concentrating upon Delia’s imagined minor key plinking and plinking. He released her and straightened and held his watch close to his eyes. The watch face was not illuminated. Blue gloom masked everything. Blue gloom made his skull misshapen and enormous. Yet the metal of the watch gathered starlight.

“Were you paying attention when I told Barry that Planet X is headed toward our solar system?” he said.

“Yes.” Except . . . Barry had told J, hadn’t he?

“Fine. I’m gonna lay some news on you, then. You ready for the news?”

She said she was ready for the news.

“Planet X isn’t critical,” he said. “Important, yes. Critical, no. Who cares about a chunk of ice? Not so exciting. Her star is critical. A brown dwarf. It has, in moments of pique that occur every few million years, emitted a burst of highly lethal gamma rays and bombarded hapless worlds many light years distant. Every organism on those planets died instantly. Forget the radiation. She can do other things with her heavenly body. Nemesis Star first swung through the heart of the Oort Cloud eons past. Bye-bye dinosaurs. Nemesis’ last massive gravitational wave intersected the outer fringe of Sol System in the 1970s. Nemesis has an erratic orbit, you see. Earth got the succeeding ripple effect. Brownouts, tidal waves, earthquakes, all them suicides in Japan . . . A second wave arrived twenty years later. The third and final wave hit several days ago. Its dying edge will splash Earth in, oh, approximately forty-five seconds.”

“What?” she said. “I don’t get it.”

“And it’s okay. This is when they come through is all you need to understand. I’m here to greet them. That’s my real job, baby doll. I’m a greeter. Tonight is an extinction event; AKA: a close encounter of the intimate kind.”

Delia fixated on the first part of his explanation. “Greeter. Like a store greeter?” She thought of the Central Casting grandad characters stationed at the entrance of certain big box stores who bared worn dentures in a permanent rictus.

“Stay. I forgot my jacket.” J (wearing his jacket, no less) exited the car and be-bopped into the night.

Stay. As if she were an obedient mutt. She rubbed her thigh and watched his shadow float along the driveway and meld into the larger darkness. Chills knifed through her. The windows began to fog over with her breath. He’d taken the keys. She couldn’t start the car to get warm or listen to the radio. Or drive away from the scene of the crime.

Delia’s twenty-fifth birthday loomed on the horizon. She had majored in communication with a side of journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She was a culture reporter, covering art and entertainment for the main Anchorage daily paper.

People enjoyed her phone manner. In person, she was persistent and vaguely charming. Apolitical; non-judgmental as a Swiss banker. Daddy had always said not to bother her pretty little head. Daddy was a sexist pig to his dying breath; she heeded the advice anyhow. Half of what interviewees relayed went in one ear and out the other with nary a whistle-stop. No matter; her memory snapped shut on the most errant of facts like the teeth of a steel leghold trap. Memory is an acceptable day-to-day substitute for intellect.

Her older brothers drove an ambulance and worked in construction respectively. Her little sister graduated from Onager High next spring. Little sister didn’t have journalistic aspirations. Sis yelled, Fake news! When gentlemen callers (bikers and punk rockers) loaded her into their chariots and hied into the sunset.

Delia lived in an apartment with two women. She owned a dog named Atticus. Her roommates loved Atticus and took care of him when she couldn’t make it home at a reasonable hour. They joked about stealing him when they eventually moved onward and upward with trophy spouses and corporate employment. I’ll cut a bitch, she always said with a smile, not joking at all.

Should she ring them right then for an emergency extraction? “Emergency” might be a tad extreme, yet it seemed a reasonable plan. Housemate A had left on an impromptu overnighter with her boyfriend. Housemate B’s car was in the shop. Housemate B helpfully suggested that Delia call a taxi, or, if she felt truly threatened, the cops. Housemate B was on record as disliking J.

Am I feeling threatened? Delia pocketed her phone and searched her feelings.

Her ambulance-driving brother (upholding the family tradition of advising Delia to beware a cruel, vicious world) frequently lectured about the hidden dangers surrounding his profession. Firemen and paramedics habitually rushed headlong into dicey situations, exposing themselves to the same risks as police and soldiers, except without guns or backup. Paramedics get jacked up every day. While you’re busy doing CPR on a subject, some street-dwelling motherfucker will shiv you in the kidney and grab your wallet. Only way to survive is to keep your head on a swivel and develop a sixth sense. The hairs on the back of your neck prickle, you better look around real quick.

Words to live by. She touched the nape of her neck. Definitely prickling, definitely goosebumps and not from the chill. She climbed out and made her way into the bushes, clumsier than a prey animal born to the art of disappearing, but with no less alacrity.

She stood behind a large spruce, hand braced against its rough bark. Sap stuck to her palm. It smelled bitter-green. Her thigh stung where a raspberry bush had torn her stocking and drawn blood. A starfield pulsed through ragged holes in the canopy. She knew jack about stars except the vague notion that mostly they radiated old, old light. Stars lived and died and some were devoured by black holes.

Nearby, J whooped, then whistled; shrill and lethal as a raptor tuning a killing song. Happy and swift.

He sounds well-fucked. Why did her mind leap there? Because his O-face was bestial? Because he loved to squeeze her throat when they fucked? The subconscious always knows best. As did Mama and big brother, apparently.

J’s shadow flitted near the car. His whistle segued to the humming of a nameless, yet familiar tune. Delia shrank against the bole of the tree and heard him open the driver’s door. After a brief pause, he called her name. First, still inside and slightly muffled (did he think she was hiding under a seat cushion?); second, much louder toward the rising slope behind him; last, aimed directly toward her hiding spot. Her residual alcohol buzz evaporated as did most of the spit in her mouth.

“Delia, sweetheart,” he said. “Buttercup, pumpkin, sugar booger. I meant to say earlier how much I adore the fact you didn’t wear makeup tonight. The soap and water look is sexxxxxy! I prefer a girl who doesn’t put on her face when she meets the world. It lights my fire, boy howdy. But now you gotta come here.” His voice thickened at the end. By some trick of the dark, his eyes flared dull-bright crimson. His lambent gaze pulsed for several heartbeats, then faded, and he became a silhouette again. “No?” he said in his regular voice. “Be that way. I hope you brought mad money, because you’re stranded on a lee shore. Should I cruise by your apartment instead? Would your roomies and your dog be pleased to meet me while I’m in this mood? Fuck it, sweetheart. I’ll surprise you.” He laughed, got into the car, and sped away. The red taillights seemed to hang forever; unblinking predatory eyes.

The entire scene felt simultaneously shocking and inevitable.

Of course, she speed-dialed her apartment to warn Housemate B. A robotic voice apologized that the call would not go through. It repeated this apology when she tried the police, her favorite taxi service, and finally, information. Static rose and rose until it roared in her ear and she gave up. She emerged from cover and removed her heels and waited, slightly crouched, to see if J would circle around to catch her in the open. A coyote stalking a ptarmigan. Yeah, that fit her escalating sense of dread—him creeping that ancient car, tongue lolling as he scanned the road for her fleeting shadow.

The cell’s penlight projected a ghostly cone. She followed it up the hill to her nearest chance for sanctuary, the house of Barry F. Ah, dear sweet Barry F, swinging senior executive of a successful mining company. He wore wire rim glasses and expensive shirts, proclaimed his loathing of physical labor and cold weather (thus, he was assigned to Alaska, naturally), and hosted plenty of semi-formal parties as befitted the persona of a respectable corporate whip hand—which meant prostitutes were referred to as companions and any coke-snorting and pill-popping shenanigans occurred in a discreet guestroom.

Notwithstanding jocular collegiality, Barry and J weren’t longtime friends, weren’t even close; their business orbits intersected and that was the extent of it. J collected acquaintances across a dizzying spectrum. Scoffing at the quality of humanity in general, he rubbed shoulders with gold-plated tycoons and grubby laborers alike. Similar to the spartan furnishings of his apartment, individual relationships were cultivated relative to his needs.

What need do I satisfy? Physical? Emotional? Victim? Delia recalled a talk show wherein the host interviewed women who’d survived encounters with serial killers. One guest, a receptionist, had accompanied a coworker on a camping trip. The “nice guy” wined and dined her, then held a knife to her throat, ready to slash. At the last second, he decided to release her instead. I planned to kill you for three months. Go on, the fear in your eyes is enough. The receptionist boogied and reported the incident. Her camping buddy went to prison for the three murders he’d previously committed in that park. Which was to say, how could a woman ever know what squirmed in the brains of men?

As Delia approached the house, the porchlight and the light streaming through the windows snuffed like blown matches. Muffled laughter and the steady thud of bass also ceased. At moments such as this, what was a humble arts and entertainment reporter to do? Nothing in her quarter century of life, on the Last Frontier notwithstanding, had prepared her for this experience: half-frozen, teeth chattering, absolutely alone.

Darkness smothered the neighborhood. Not a solitary lamp glimmered among the terraced elevations or secluded cul-de-sacs. She looked south and west, down into the bowl of the city proper. From her vantage, it appeared that the entire municipality had gone dark. Anchorage’s skyline should have suffused the heavens with light pollution. More stars instead; a jagged reef of them, low and indifferent. Ice Age constellations that cast glacial shadows over the mountains.

The phone’s beam flickered, perhaps in response to her fear. She assumed the battery must be dying despite the fact she’d charged it prior to the evening’s events. It oozed crimson, spattering the stone steps as if she were swinging a censer of phosphorescent dye. She barged through the front door without a how-do-you-do. Warm, at least. In fact, humid as the breath of a panting dog. Her thoughts flashed to dear sweet Fido at the apartment. God, please don’t let J do anything to him. Oh yeah, and good luck to my housemate too.

She hesitated in the foyer beneath the dead chandelier and put her shoes on. Her sight adjusted enough to discern the contours of her environment. No one spoke, which seemed ominous. Most definitely ominous. A gaggle of drunks trapped in a sudden blackout could be expected to utter any number of exclamatory comments. Girls would shriek in mock terror and some bluff hero would surely announce he’d be checking the fuse box straight away. There’d be a bit of obligatory ass-grabbing, right? Where were all the cell phones and keychain penlights? A faucet dripped; heating ducts creaked in the walls. This was hardcore Bermuda Triangle-Mary Celeste shit.

Snagging a landline was the first order of business. Her heels clicked ominously as she moved around the grand staircase and deeper into the house to its spacious, partially sunken living room.

Everyone awaited her there. Wine glasses and champagne flutes partially raised in toast; heads thrown back, bared teeth glinting here and there; others half-turned, frozen mid-glance, mid-step, mid-gesticulation. Only dolls could be frozen in such exaggerated positions of faux life. The acid reek of disgorged bowels and viscera filled Delia’s nostrils. She smelled blood soaked into dresses and blood dripping from cuffs and hosiery; she smelled blood as it pooled upon the carpet and coagulated in the vents.

Her dying cell phone chose that moment to give up the ghost entirely. She was thankful. Starlight permitted her the merest impressions of the presumed massacre, its contours and topography, nothing granular. Her nose and imagination supplied the rest. Which is to say, bile rose in her throat and her mind fogged over. Questions of why and how did not register. The nauseating intimacy of this abominable scene overwhelmed such trivial considerations.

A closet door opened like an eyeless socket near the baby grand piano. Atticus trotted forth. Delia recognized his general shape and the jingle of his vaccination tags and because for the love of everything holy, who else? The dog stopped near a throng of mutilated party-goers and lapped the carpet between shoes and sandals with increasing eagerness. A human silhouette emerged next and sat on the piano bench. The shape could’ve been almost anybody. The figure’s thin hand passed through a shaft of starlight and plinked a key several times.

B-flat? Delia retained a vague notion of chords—a high school crush showed her the rudiments as a maneuver to purloin her virtue. Yes, B flat, over and over. Heavily, then softly, softly, nigh invisibly, and heavily again, discordant, jarring, threatening.

I’m sorry you had to bear witness. These words weren’t uttered by the figure. They originated at a distance of light years, uncoiling within her consciousness. Her father’s voice. The human animal is driven by primal emotions and urges. How great is your fear, Delia? Does it fit inside a breadbox? Does it fit inside your clutch? This house?

The shape at the piano gestured with a magician’s casual flourish and the faint radiance of the stars flickered to a reddish hue. The red light intensified and seeped into the room.

The voice in her head again: Looking for Mr. Goodbar stuck with you. Diane Keaton’s fate frightened you as a girl and terrifies you as a woman. In J, you suspect you finally drew the short straw. The man with a knife in his pocket, a strangling cord, a snub-nose revolver, the ticket stub with your expiration date. The man to take you camping and return alone. And sweetie, the bastard resembles me, wouldn’t you say?

Ice tinkled in glasses—spinning and slopping. Glasses toppled and fell from nerveless fingers. Shadow-Atticus ceased slurping and made himself scarce behind a couch. He trailed inky pawprints. Timbers groaned; the heart of the living room was released from the laws of physics—it bent at bizarre, corkscrew angles, simultaneously existing on a plane above and below the rest of the interior. Puffs of dust erupted as cracks shot through plaster. The floor tilted and the guests were pulled together, packed cheek to jowl.

There followed a long, dreadful pause. Delia had sprawled to her hands and knees during the abrupt gravitational shift. Forces dragged against her, but she counterbalanced as one might to avoid plummeting off a cliff. She finally got a clean, soul-scarring gander at her erstwhile party companions.

Each had died instantaneously via some force that inflicted terrible bruises, suppurating wounds, and ruptures. The corpses were largely intact and rigidly positioned as a gallery of wax models. Strands of metal wire perforated flesh at various junctures, drew the bodies upright, and connected them into a mass. The individual strands gleamed and converged overhead as a thick spindle that ascended toward the dome of ceiling, and infinitely farther.

The shape at the piano struck a key and its note was reciprocated by an omnidirectional chime that began at the nosebleed apex of the scale and descended precipitously, boring into plaster, concrete, and bone. The house trembled. Delia pushed herself backward into a wall where normal gravity resumed. She huddled, tempted to make a break for it, and also too petrified to move.

There are two kinds of final girls. The kind who escape and the kind who die. You’re the second kind. I am very, very proud, kiddo. You’ll do big things.

Cracks split the roof, revealing a viscid abyss with a mouthful of half-swallowed nebulae. It chimed and howled, eternally famished. Bits of tile plummeted into the expanse, joining dead stars. Shoe tips scraped as the guests lifted en masse, lazily revolving like a bleeding mobile carved for an infant god. The mobile jerkily ascended, tugged into oblivion at the barbed terminus of a fisherman’s line.

Delia glanced down to behold a lone strand of the (god?) wire burrowing into her wrist, seeking a vein or a bone to anchor itself. She wrenched free and pitched backward against a wall.

The chiming receded, so too the red glow, and the void contentedly suckled its morsel. Meanwhile, the shadow pianist hunched into a fetal position and dissolved. Run along, her father said. Run along, dear. Don’t worry your pretty head about any of this.

Delia ran along.

• • • •

Alaska winter didn’t kill her. Not that this was necessarily Alaska. The land turned gray and waterways froze. Snow swirled over empty streets and empty highways and buried inert vehicles. Powerlines collapsed and copses of black spruce and paper birch stood vigil as the sun paled every day until it became a white speck.

Delia travelled west, then south, snagging necessities from deserted homes and shops. Her appearance transformed—she wore layers of wool and flannel, high-dollar pro ski goggles, an all-weather parka, snow pants, and thick boots. Her tent, boxes of food, water, and medical supplies went loaded into a banana sled courtesy of a military surplus store. She acquired a light hunting rifle and taught herself to use it, in case worse came to worst. She didn’t have a plan other than to travel until she found her way back to a more familiar version of reality. Or to walk until she keeled over; whichever came first.

In the beginning, she hated it. That changed over the weeks and months as the suburban softness gave way to a metallic finish. Survival can transition into a lifestyle. She sheltered inside houses and slept on beds. She burned furniture for warmth. However, the bloodstains disquieted her as did eerie noises that wafted from basements and attics during the bleak a.m. hours. She eventually camped outdoors among the woodland creatures who shunned abandoned habitations of humankind as though city limits demarcated entry to an invisible zone of death. The animals had a point, no doubt.

Speaking of animals. Wild beasts haunted the land in decent numbers. Domestic creatures were extinct, seemingly departed to wherever their human masters currently dwelled. With the exception of the other Atticus. The dog lurked on the periphery of her vision; a blur in the undergrowth, a rusty patch upon the snow. At night he dropped mangled ptarmigans and rabbits at the edge of her campfire light. He kept his distance, watching over her as she slept. The musk of his gore-crusted fur, the rawness of his breath, infiltrated her dreams.

In other dreams, her mother coalesced for a visit. Now it can be said. Your father murdered eight prostitutes before lung cancer cut him down. The police never suspected that sweet baby-faced sonofabitch. You were onto him, somehow. She woke with a start and the other Atticus’ eyes reflected firelight a few yards to her left in the gauze of darkness that enfolded the world.

“Thanks for the talk, Mom.”

Delia continued to walk and pull the sled. Sometimes on a road, or with some frequency, on a more direct route through woods and over water. She didn’t encounter any human survivors, nor any tracks or other sign. However, she occasionally glimpsed crystallized hands and feet jutting from a brush pile, or an indistinct form suspended in the translucent depths of a lake. She declined to investigate, lowered her head and marched onward.

One late afternoon, near spring, but not quite, J (dressed in black camo and Army-issue snowshoes) leaped from cover with a merry shriek and knocked her flat. He lay atop her and squeezed her throat inexorably, his eyes sleepy with satisfaction.

“If it were my decision, I’d make you a pet. You don’t belong here, sugar pie.” He well and truly applied his brutish strength. Brutish strength proved worthless. His expression changed as terror flooded in and his grip slackened. “Oh, my God. I didn’t know. They didn’t warn me . . .”

Her eyes teared and she regarded him as if through a pane of water. Her eyes teared because she was laughing so hard. “Too late, asshole. Years and years too late.” She brushed his hands aside. “I’m the second kind.”

He scrambled to his feet and ran across fresh powder toward the woods as fast as his snowshoes could carry him, which wasn’t very. She retrieved the rifle, chambered a round, and tracked him with the scope. A moving target proved more challenging than plinking at soda bottles and pie tins. Her first two shots missed by a mile.

Delia made camp; then she hiked over to J and dragged him back. He gazed at her adoringly, arms trailing in the snow. He smiled an impossibly broad, empty smile. That night, the fire crackled and sent sparks homeward. J grinned and grinned, his body limp as a mannequin caught in the snarled boughs of a tree where she’d strung him as an afterthought. The breeze kicked up into a chinook that tasted of green sap and thawing earth.

“Everything will be different tomorrow,” she said to the flames and the changing stars. Limbs creaked. J nodded, nodded; slavishly agreeable. His shadow and the shadow of the tree branches spread grotesquely across the frozen ground.

The wind carried to her faint sounds of the dog gnawing and slurping at a blood-drenched snowbank. The wind whispered that Atticus would slake himself and then creep into the receding darkness, gone forever. Where she was headed, he couldn’t follow.

“So, while there’s time, let’s have a talk,” Delia said to Grinning J. “When we make it home, tell me where I can find more boys just like you.”

Laird Barron

Laird Barron (photo by Ellen Datlow)

Laird Barron is the award-winning author of several books, including the horror collections The Imago Sequence, and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. His stories have also appeared in many magazines and anthologies. The novella “—30—” was recently adapted as the film They Remain.

His latest novels chronicle the saga of Isaiah Coleridge, a hard boiled detective featured in Blood StandardBlack Mountain, and the forthcoming Worse Angels; all published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Barron currently resides in the Rondout Valley writing stories about the evil that men do.