Horror & Dark Fantasy

roadseven-nm-2

Advertisement

Fiction

Nesters

They killed the last calf that morning. Ma wanted to hold off, give the poor thing a chance, but Pa said it were cruel to let a body live like that. He cracked the hammer on its head—a sick, sad sound. Later he slit the calf open and showed Sally the animal’s stomach, choked with dust. “Suffocated from the inside,” he said.

Sally cried, or would have cried, but her face was too caked with dirt. The Vaseline in her nostrils couldn’t keep it out. She wondered how much dirt was in her stomach and whether her body was already full of it, like the calf, her tears and blood just rivers of dust. But when she asked, Ma said, “Jaisus, quit nattering and help the bairn.” So Sally did, even though her baby brother was curled up like the calf had been, under a skin of dust that never went away no matter how they cleaned.

Sally followed Ma ’round the dugout, stuffing rags into the cracks where the dust had trickled through. Alice toddled after her. Ben watched from the bed, his feverish eyes glistening. At fourteen, he was taller than Sally and better at reaching the upper cracks. But what could be done? The dust-lung had him. If Ben were to move, Ma said it would be to her sister’s place in Topeka, away from the land that was killing him. Better still, Ma said, would be to head out to California, where there was still work to be had. But Pa had heard about the cities. Many who went there came home poorer than before. They told tales of Hoover camps, the shame of being spat on by city-dwellers. At least here they suffered together. At least here they had the land.

To lose your land was to lose yourself, her father had warned her and Ben. This was in the early years, when folks still thought next year would bring the rains back.

“This here’s the first thing our family’s ever owned in this country,” he’d said, showing Sally the dark soil between his fingers. “Mackay land.” His eyes had shone with the wonder of it.

Now the earth was hard and brown and dusters turned the sky the same color, choking and fierce. “Still,” said Pa, “we have the land. We lost it once to the English. We won’t lose it to the wind.”

Two strangers were at the gate. Sally could see right off they weren’t farmers. Too pale. Too well fed.

The taller man leaned forward, dangling his hands into the yard in a way Sally didn’t like. “Your father at home, sweetheart?”

Sally looked the stranger up and down, the starving chickens pecking at her feet. “You from Washington?” There was talk of Mr. Roosevelt sending folk to tell the Nesters how to run their farms. This man, with his clean suit, seemed like he could be one of them.

A glance from the leaning man to his companion. “What d’ya think, Bill? Are we from Washington?”

The older man looked like a schoolteacher, one of the impatient ones who rapped kids’ knuckles. “We’re on official business,” he said. “We’re looking for the man of the house.”

Sally knew Ma would scold her if she let a government man pass by, even rude ones. There might be a dime in it, and a dime could buy bread.

“I’ll fetch him then,” she said. “Best come out of the blow.”

At the dugout’s entrance, Ma’s face already showed the strain of a smile. Sally knew Ma was thinking of rusted cans of water instead of tea, the assistance bread gone hard by week’s end. At least they had some milk to offer, thanks to the dead calf. Still, it was as much her mother’s smile as the need to fetch her father that made her run so quickly.

She found Pa fixing up the old John Deere D, trying to get work done while the air was clear.

“Government men come.”

Pa nodded and wiped his hands, reluctant to leave a task half done. “You take over here.”

Sally took Pa’s place as he strode off. She checked the front tires for cuts, wiping off a grease splatter with a gasoline-damped rag. Everything on the farm depended on the tractor. If it broke, they’d be beat.

Sally thought instead about the government men. Maybe they brought work with them. Maybe it’d be a good day after all.

Stepping inside the dugout, Sally realized something was wrong. Ma stood stiffly in a corner. Pa sat beside the older man, his shoulders squared. The younger government man looked at Sally as she entered, then back at Pa.

The older man spoke, an edge to his voice. “Did no one go out to the farm to look for him?”

Pa’s face was closed. He shook his head.

“Why not?”

Pa glanced at Ma, who folded her arms tightly against her chest. Reluctantly, Pa said, “They say the Dubort place’s cursed.” Pa shrugged as if to remind them he didn’t hold with superstitions.

The Dubort place! Sally watched the strangers with new interest. The abandoned farm was the only site for miles with greenery to spare. Tom Hatchett said if you passed too close to the Devil’s Garden—what the kids called it—one of the monsters living there’d gobble you up. Tom Hatchett was a liar, but still.

The man flipped through his notebook. If he was trying to frighten Pa with that flapping paper, he didn’t know nothing. “Stories of strange vegetation? Odd lights and noises? Animals disappearing? That kind of thing?”

Pa’s gaze was stony. He shrugged again.

“And all this happened after the meteor fell?”

“I don’t know nothing about no meteor,” Pa said. “One of Dubort’s fields caught fire. We went to fight it, like good neighbors. Some folk said a falling star started it. Don’t know more than that.”

“Good neighbors,” the government man said. “But nobody went looking when Frank Dubort disappeared?”

Pa blinked. Looked away. “Place got a bad reputation,” he said. “No one wanted to borrow trouble. It was a wrong thing,” he admitted, quietly, to himself.

Rage blossomed in Sally. Couldn’t these men see how tired Pa was? He had enough to deal with, without these men asking him to feel bad for a stranger, a weekend farmer who couldn’t take the hard times.

But Sally remembered that day at Ted Howser’s farm, the man scuttling out of the barn on his back, like an upside-down beetle. Mr. Howser had put his hand over his mouth. Sally’s Pa had stared like he hoped what he saw wasn’t true. Sally thought the scrabbler looked like Howser’s neighbor, Mr. Dubort—or like some hobo wearing one of Mr. Dubort’s famous blue-checked shirts, all stained and tore up. But Pa stood in front of her, blocking her view.

Pa told her and Ben to go home. He’d stayed behind to talk to Mr. Howser about what needed to be done. What had they done? Pa had refused to speak of it. He’d said it was settled, and to ask no questions.

Dread crept through Sally. She wondered what had happened to bring these government men here.

“We’d like to go out there, Mr. Mackay,” the government man said, “to have a look around. Your name was mentioned as one who could take us there.”

Sally wanted to know who’d given them Pa’s name. She suspected Pa did too. But the less said to these folk, the better.

“There’s money in it.” The younger man pronounced the words carefully, as though he knew the effect they’d have in this dusty, coughing dugout. “Fifteen dollars, for a guided trip, there and back.” He smiled at their astonishment. “We’re . . . scientific men, Mr. Mackay,” he said reassuringly. “We need to see this site close up.”

Sally thought the older man might be angry with his companion for offering money straight off, but he seemed to be taking Pa’s measure.

“If we find Frank, that’ll put this thing to rest,” the young man added, slyly. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Pa’s face was tight. His gaze slid over to Ma. But Ma didn’t know what to do either, Sally saw. She was caught between fear and worry and the promise of fifteen dollars.

“Alright then,” Pa said. “But you pay up front.”

The older man got up from the table. “Five now, the rest later.”

“Ten.” There was a determined glitter in Pa’s eyes. The government man flicked a bill onto the table. Ten whole dollars.

“We appreciate your help.” The younger man smirked, like he’d known how this was going to go all along.

Sally hated him, she decided. She hated them both. She itched to give the nearest one a kick on his shins as he passed. It was the sort of thing she’d have done last year, never mind the manners. But she thought of Ma and the remaining five dollars. She let the men go.

Pa glanced down at Sally as he put his hat on. “Take care of your ma.” He patted her head, messing up Sally’s hair. Sally smoothed it back as she watched Pa leave.

It was a funny thing to say, she thought. Ma was the one who took care of everyone else. The strangeness of this kept her standing there, while the men got in the car and drove off.

The duster rolled in a few hours later. Sally crouched into the grating wind and kept one hand on the guide rope, the other over her eyes as she traced her path back from the chicken coop. She struggled along blindly, feeling her bare skin scraped raw. She tried not to think of Pa out in this duster, guiding strangers on someone else’s land.

In the dugout, they huddled together with cloths over their faces. There was no point in burning the kerosene lamp. No light would get through. They sat silently, trying not to breathe in too much of the dust, while the wind raged outside.

The duster lasted the rest of the day. When its blackness cleared, the night was there to take over, and the cold. They lit the lamp and looked at each other, her and Ben and Alice and Ma.

Ma said, “Let’s clean up,” and so they did. Sally tried not to wonder about Pa. He’d have to see the government men back to town. He’d probably stayed there.

But in the morning, Pa still wasn’t back. Sally forced the door open and trudged to the chicken coop to count the survivors. There were two dead, dust-choked. She took the bodies out, feeling the lightness of their scrawny bodies. They needed more food.

It was Sunday and Sunday meant church. Pa wouldn’t miss church, Sally was sure. She put on her “nice” dress—still made out of feed sacks, but cleaner than the others—while Ma got Alice ready.

Ben’s eyes opened when Ma put a hand on his forehead. “Keep an eye on the bairn. And if you see Pa, make sure you tell him to stay put till we get back.” Ben closed his eyes. Sally wasn’t sure if he’d heard them.

But Pa wasn’t at church. Sally kept turning around, scanning the pews. Ma pinched her arm to make her stop, but Ma kept glancing backward too, every time they had to stand up.

The service was one of the usual ones, about the end times and how the dusters were the Nesters’ fault for ignoring the Lord’s will. Inwardly, Sally was having none of it. It was a pretty poor God who visited misery on folk for drinking too much and taking his name in vain now and then. Maybe it was true what the ranch hands said, that they’d done wrong by taking the grassland from the Injuns and turning it to the plow. But even so, where was the good in little kids dying? If that was God’s will, then she hated him, Sally thought, and felt a flash of fear.

After the service Ma caught Ted Howser by the arm. “I need to talk to you about Pat.”

Sally wanted to hear the rest of it, but Ma told her to mind Alice didn’t hurt herself. Sure enough, Alice took a spill. The dust cushioned her so she wasn’t even crying when she looked up. Well, that’s one thing it’s good for, Sally thought, offering the toddler her fingers to grab.

She looked back. Ma was at the center of a ring of old ranch hands and farm wives, their faces grave.

“Come on,” she said, tugging at Alice’s hand. “Back this way.”

“Paddy’s a good man and I’d walk to hell for him,” Jake Hardy was saying, “but if the wind stirred something up, we’d best not get too close.”

Someone else snorted. “Walk to hell but wouldn’t go in it, would you?”

“Facts are,” Mr. Howser said, “the Dubort place is off-limits. Pat knew that when he headed out there.” He looked round the circle. “You saw what it did to Frank. We can’t go there. Can’t let anyone go there,” he said, looking back at Sally’s ma. “Who knows where it’d end?”

“He’s probably holed up at another farm,” Dan Giss said. “Roads are tough. Duster’s closed a lot of ’em. He’s probably holed up with Schmitt, minding those damn fool government men.”

Sally’s ma seemed to sway on her feet. Sally let go of Alice to run toward her.

Margie Fisher, the schoolteacher, reached Ma first. She put an arm around the younger woman.

“There now,” she said, glaring at Ted Howser. “We need to organize a search party. Knock on every door. Chances are, Pat’s not the only one who could use a hand.”

Sally heard a wail behind her. She turned to see the abandoned Alice sitting in the dust, blood running down her forehead. Somehow the toddler had found the only uncovered rock in the yard and fallen smack into it. Of course she had. And it was Sally’s fault for leaving her.

“Shush,” Sally pleaded, stroking the toddler’s sweat-damp hair. “It’ll be okay.” But it wouldn’t be, Sally knew, the dread rising in her. It wouldn’t be.

Ma and Mrs. Fisher would search along the road; Mr. Howser would take a horse up Fincher’s lot. Jake and Dan would go to the Dubort place. Everyone was worried about this plan, but Jake and Dan swore they’d leave right quick if they felt they were stirring things up.

Stirring things up, Sally thought, remembering the giant vegetables Mr. Dubort had brought to town. Turnip skins so bright they hurt your eyes, apples that glistened like they’d been dipped in water, and huge! One turnip was as big as Ben’s head—he’d put it on the table so Sally could measure before Pa had slapped them away.

“Don’t you do that,” Pa had said, angrier than Sally had ever seen him. “Don’t you touch those things, no matter what.”

Sure enough, when Mr. Dubort sliced the turnip open, dark gray powder crumbled out.

“Must be some kind of blight,” Mr. Dubort had said, pushing his hat back on his head. He was a city man, unused to farming. “Have you seen anything like this before?”

The Nesters said nothing. Their silence hung around them like a sky empty of rain, waiting for the dust to roll through.

Now Sally walked behind Alice as the toddler clung to Mrs. Fisher’s furniture. Mrs. Fisher had a proper house, with tablecloths and everything. Sally noted the dirty film on Mrs. Fisher’s table with satisfaction. She reckoned it must take a lot of sweeping to get dust out of a place this size.

The tick-tocks of Mrs. Fisher’s clock reverberated through the house. Each one felt like a burning pin pushed into Sally’s flesh. Why couldn’t someone else watch the babies? If Ben were here, she reckoned they’d let him go.

She imagined herself wandering across the dust-dunes, finding Pa in a place no one had thought to look. Not hurt, of course. Her mind shied away from that. No, Pa would be fine but helping one of the government men, who’d gotten his fool self hurt. The younger one, Sally decided, viciously. She imagined Pa’s grin when she clambered up the dune that hid them from the road. “I knew I could trust you to figure it out,” he’d say. And the government men would pay them thirty whole dollars for the trouble they’d caused. And—

There was a noise outside.

“Stay there,” Sally told Alice. She didn’t want to pull away the sheets the Fishers had nailed over the windows, so she headed to the door instead.

There was a scramble of people in the yard. Jake was trying to hold a flailing man by the shoulders. “Don’t let him go!” Mr. Fisher, the mortician, grabbed the man’s other arm.

It took Sally a moment to recognize the flailing figure, all covered in dust. It was the older government man. He lips were pulled back from his teeth, his eyes rolled to the sky. As Sally watched, he arched his back and howled, a long, hard sound that raised all the hairs on her scalp. A string of gibberish babbled out of him: grah’n h’mglw’nafh fhthagn-ngah . . .

She shut the door, closing out the sight. It was as though God had heard Sally’s foolish dream of finding Pa and had sent the government man back to punish her vanity. Please, please, she thought frantically, hushing Alice, please let them have found Pa, please let him be all right—

When Ma came back, her face was strange. “Make sure you thank Mrs. Fisher for letting you stay here.”

Sally obediently repeated the words, even though Mrs. Fisher was standing right there. Ma and Mrs. Fisher stared at each other like they were having a silent conversation above Sally’s head. Normally Sally would hate that. Now it made her more scared than ever, because something was really wrong if nobody was talking about Pa.

Ma’s silence carried them back to the dugout. It filled the air there when Ben tried to gasp out a question.

“Others are seeing to that,” Ma said shortly. And, “Jaisus, get the broom, will you?”

Sally got the broom and swept the dust about the place, while Ben wheezed and the babies coughed and Ma tried not to cry. If only the dust would leave the place, they’d be all right, Sally thought wildly, knowing it wasn’t true.

Next morning, Sally was up before cockcrow. Her head was buzzing as she cast the hard, dried-up corn into her bucket and went out to face the chickens.

“I’m going to school,” she told Ma at the door. Ma hesitated, then nodded. Ma was always on Sally and Ben to keep up their lessons. In truth, Sally doubted there’d be any kids in the school. The morning had that hard-light look to it that threatened dusters, and there was too much work to do just to get some food through the door.

But today Sally had other things on her mind. If there was a duster coming, she needed to move fast and early.

She packed her water and the scrap of hard-bread that Ma had set aside for her. She’d also take the shovel from the back of the tumbledown barn, in case she needed to dig her way out. That’s what Pa would do.

Ben watched her tie the strings up on the rucksack, his eyes angry. He knew what she was doing.

“Just . . . don’t say nothing. Unless I’m not back by sundown,” Sally whispered. Then she threw the rucksack on and left, before Ben could muster the air to call her back, before anyone changed her mind about what needed to be done.

The sky above her was blue, blue, blue, dotted with the occasional cloud. No point trying the local road over to Dubort—that would be drifted over. She’d cut across land, avoiding the big drifts except when it came time to climb the fences.

It was hard going. Sally’s feet sank into the sand, her boots filling with grit. Mackay land, she thought, turned against us. The spade was heavy on her shoulder.

About halfway to the Dubort place she started to feel she’d made a mistake. The sun was fully up now. In its glare she could see the green strip of land away in the distance. The Devil’s Garden, some called it. It’d been so long since there’d been green in these parts, Sally couldn’t tell if it was the drought or whether there was actually something wrong with the color.

The animal sounds dropped away as she approached the Dubort place. You’d think the jackrabbits and birds would flock here, given that no one hunted at the farm. But the air out here was stiller than the desert.

Sally walked along the side of the giant dune that had piled up over the Duborts’ old fence. She saw the white bones of some animal poking through. Probably a starved cow, tangled in wire and Russian thistle. Beyond the bones was a place where the dune dipped a little. As good as any spot for a crossing, she thought, and waded up.

It was strange being surrounded by green again. Sally remembered the color from the old days, but here it was everywhere. The Duborts’ fruit trees had grown large and tangled. Between them, vines draped and alien flowers gaped at the sky. A nearby bush dangled huge, glossy fruit. They looked like they would quench the thirst that was beginning to rasp her throat. Sally looked away, remembering the powdery vegetables.

The lurid greenery stretched everywhere on the Dubort side. There was nothing for it. “Pa!” she shouted. “Pa!”

Silence. Sally took a swig from her bottle and kept walking.

The Dubort house stood on the northern part of the property, close to Mr. Daverson’s fence. Surely, if Pa was in trouble—if a duster was bearing down on them—that’s where he’d head. For shelter. And he hadn’t had the shovel that now ground into her skinny shoulder. They could be stuck in there, underneath the grit.

At a certain point the trees thinned, and she saw a hard-pack section where nothing grew, a burned-looking hole at its center. She figured that must be where the rock had hit. There was something blue standing by the crater—a human color.

Sally didn’t want to walk into the clearing—it seemed strange to her somehow—but she figured if she were looking for Pa, she had to check out every clue. So she walked quietly over to the blue thing. A couple cans of gasoline and a man’s hat, filmed with dust.

Sally tested the weight on the gas cans. They were full. The young man had been wearing a hat.

A screeching sound jerked her head up. It was probably some kind of buzzard, she told herself, walking quickly back to the dune line. She had the uncomfortable feeling something was watching her, its gaze focused just between her shoulder blades. It was a relief when she left that clearing behind her.

She knew she should yell for Pa again, but after the screech she couldn’t work up the nerve. Pa had to be at the house. The sooner she got there, the better everything would be.

When she finally reached the Duborts’ house, her stomach sank. It didn’t look like a house at all these days—more like a sandy hill, with a strange gray vine growing up its side. As with the clearing, the forest that had claimed the rest of the property seemed to have left this part alone.

Sally circled the house, afraid of what she’d do if it was empty. She saw a dark square opening in the leeward wall. The black square of a window, or door. Someone had recently been inside.

Sally lowered the shovel. “Pa?” She tried the word out, scared of speaking too loudly. “You there?” The air itself seemed to be listening to her.

Sally closed her eyes, thinking of Pa and his tobacco smell and his graceful fingers as he patched up a gunny sack. She had to see.

She walked slowly up to the dark square and peered inside.

The first thing that hit Sally was the smell. It was horrible, and faintly familiar, as though she’d encountered it many years before. It was the smell of rot, the kind of thing you might find in a wet place, not here on the plains.

She stared hard at the darkness, trying to make it form shapes. She had matches in her pocket, swiped from the old kerosene lamp. She struck one, but a faint stir of wind guttered it out too quickly. She needed to do better than that.

She slung her leg over the windowsill, gulping what clean air she could. The wooden sill moved beneath her hands. You’re doing a dumb thing, she thought, and slipped inside.

The ground was soft sand. Grimacing, she put her hand up against the wall. She’d follow the wall around, in the dark. Figure out how far she could go.

But she hadn’t gone very far at all when she heard the breathing.

Sally froze. She wanted to believe she was imagining things. She held her breath, to prove it. A wheeze in. A wheeze out. Too regular to be the wind.

Fear pressed on her. She didn’t want to call for her father. If he hadn’t heard her earlier, he wouldn’t hear her now. And if it was something else there breathing, she didn’t want to know.

Don’t try to solve all the problems at once, Pa always said. Break them up. Deal with each one in order.

So Sally groped her way back to the window, with its bright patch of light. She was glad, now, to see the lurid green outside. She fumbled the matches out, holding them in the light. Ten left. I am going to do this, she thought, I am.

She struck the match.

At first she could see nothing in the orange circle of light. She cupped the flame and extended her arms. There was one shadow that was stranger than all the others, taller than any man should be. Something was there.

Sally moved forward. She had to get the circle of light closer before the match went out. The soles of her feet crunched onto uneven sand piles, miniature dunes that hissed out of place as she stepped on them.

Yes, there was definitely something there, in the jumping flame. A line of vine, of leaves, a reassuringly normal shape. The vines fed into the bulky mass growing out of the wall, a

gaping incomprehension of seeds and veins and flesh and

interiors that were exteriors yawning backward into dark

[consumed] the dirt the air the vine the stone the bird the man the

the

It had her father’s face.

It used that face as a hand, reaching for her, sensing maybe the kinship between them. It reached for her with its

—fused body that bulked vegetable animal

a cufflink from the other agent still on its cuff oh god the—

Sally ran. Quick as sight, she was out the window, her disconnected self not feeling the stones that slammed and cut her knees and saved her life because the father-thing stopped to drink her blood, the jeweled red pools that clustered in the stone—

Sally ran, feeling her body again when the evil not-vegetation tried to clutch her legs her arms but she was an arrow loosed from a bow. She thought of those crusts of bread her mother had saved eat this you must stay strong, and here was why, this flight, this stumble toward sand, the sand would save her. Even the gnaiih-thing behind her could not grow in the dust; the choking otherness would slow it down while she, a Nester, fleet, could reach the fence, could stagger ch’it while h’followed her on what kind of legs? Dear god h’ah’olna’ftaghu

She was over the fence, running across the dust to the end of the horizon.

When her legs gave out, Sally forced herself to look back toward the house. This was maybe the bravest thing she’d done, because she knew if [it] was coming for her, there was nothing she could do but watch her death walk up. Not death, no: [it] was worse than that, her father’s face absorbed into some amalgamation of life and used as a tool to probe the world. At least [it] didn’t look human, because if [it] did—

But [it] didn’t. She hoped [it] never did. She hoped that along with those pieces of her father and the government man, [it] had not taken their memories: the pattern of her mother’s dress, the creak of the old well, the words the government man had used to get her father, oh, her father, to come trudging out here to die.

Except he wasn’t dead.

Sally understood now what the screaming government man had tried to tell them,

—the exterior turned interior the reaching dark the—

and knew also there was no words to contain [it]. She had to force her mind back, to here, to the soil on her hands and the gleam of life that was Sally because

—the howling light a rage of knowing—

if she didn’t, she would become like one of those wizened stock, tangled in the wire. No. She was a Nester. She would not die like that.

But her Pa.

If she told, they would come out here. If she lied and said she’d found nothing, they might come anyway.

She’d lost the shovel, dropped it somewhere. That wouldn’t do. A fire. She remembered the red can of gasoline by the crater.

I’ve cracked, she thought, brushing her face. But that was all right.

When her legs started working again, she got up and went back to the clearing.

Sally struggled over the dunes, the sun high in the sky. No birds, no clouds, only infinity staring her down.

When she was actually at the Duborts’ fence, seeing again the drift, the body of the cow ominously absent, she felt fear thrill through her. It was that fear that finally brought her back to herself, no longer one with the sky and the—

—down in the dark, in the deep

—but back in her shaking, dry-throated body.

She didn’t want to die. She was sure the calf hadn’t wanted to die either, no matter how its stomach hurt or how short its life would be. It had struggled even as the hammer came down, with Sally’s fear reflected in its eyes.

It’s like riding a horse, she thought. Like riding a horse somewhere it doesn’t want to go. With that in mind she coaxed a foot forward. Then another one. And another.

She watched her feet. If this was all she saw, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

But it was bad. The hideous green jangled her mind. The wind breathed wrong, whispering things. Why had she come, after all? Why had she come?

There was a stubbornness in Sally that went down through the soil and past that, through the rock and its layers of time. She was a Nester, wasn’t she? She belonged here, or at least—(remembering the Comanche, remembering the English with their guns)—at least she was here, and she would not easily be moved.

It was a long, hot way. She had to keep switching the gas can from one arm to another when the pull got too much. As she walked she became more and more herself, these tired muscles lugging a sloshing burden through an ugly glare of green. She should have brought Ben. If Ben could walk, he would have helped her. But then he would see the thing and she did not want anyone else in her family to see [it]. That would be too much.

At last the house swam into the tunnel of her vision. She expected her legs to balk again, but they didn’t. It was as though, having crossed the fence, all of her options were gone.

She did not bother wasting a match outside this time. She slung her leg over, and stepped inside.

When she lit the match, she saw only awful greenery. The father-thing had vanished.

[It] couldn’t have gone far, she thought. Of course she wasn’t sure if that was true or not. Maybe the thing was faster than it seemed. Maybe [it] was already advancing through the township, swallowing stray passersby into its madness.

No. The thing was here. Somewhere.

Perhaps [it] was deeper in the house.

The hairs on the nape of her neck rose. Of course the house had more rooms. It was a wealthy house. Now that the outgrowth on the wall had torn itself away, she could even see the gap where the door had been. Might not that be a sign, then? That something had gone through?

Between her and the door was a mess of tangled growth. It was dangerous to step through, and not just because of the smell of rot that arose with every step. She had the notion that the vines and [it] were all connected. She was like an ant walking on [its] arm letting [it] know where she was.

If [it] found her, she could kill it faster, she reminded herself. She walked through the door.

The air inside this room was moist and sweet smelling. The rot-stench was thick here, and something else, something indescribable, and bitter edged.

She struck a match. There was a dark square in the floor. A rusted ladder curled out.

Sally peered into the black hole and thought about dropping the match. But what would happen if the flame lit on part of [it]? The thing would know what she intended.

So she blew out the match. In darkness she found the creaking, terrifyingly mobile rungs of the cellar ladder. She climbed down.

At last Sally had come to the end. She knew that even before she opened her eyes, before she struck the second match. She could hear the breathing around her. Synchronized, from many points. A sucking in and out.

She stepped down. Fumbled the cap off the gasoline can.

A puff of air on her leg. She carefully pulled that leg away, trying to stand close to the ladder. They were all around her.

And they were.

The jumping orange light revealed twisted bodies—humans, cows, birds, plants, all merged together. Bird wings fanned air around the room. Human faces twisted on vine stems. A flower opened around an eye. She placed the match carefully on the ladder, letting it burn.

The antennae/vines/fingers quested forward. She looked for her father’s face. That was the only one that mattered. The prickle down her leg told her that one of the vines had caught her, was latching on.

Then she saw Pa. It helped that he didn’t look like her father anymore, but like a sack that had been stretched over a different shape. Something appeared to be growing under his eyelids.

She hurled the gasoline at him. It missed, soaking a good portion of the vine-wall instead. Heart clutching, she felt the slight slosh of some remaining gasoline. Nothing to do but this. She strode forward and poured, the awful, wonderful smell of gasoline filling her nostrils.

She could feel the latch of the vines on her arms and hands, could feel them burrowing into her skin. But what mattered, what truly mattered, was that she get the other match free, and out, and—stepping back, despite the tearing pain at her legs—struck.

The whoosh of flame knocked her backward. Now there was heat to get away from and the screams of [it] as flowers, vines, hands stretched up in pain and terror. She stumbled away from the father-thing, crawling with flame. Her hand found the cold rungs of the ladder. Up.

Eyes streaming, Sally stumbled toward the thin light of the window—a different window this time; she’d come out wrong. The house was filling with smoke and blackness, like a duster. She didn’t want to die like this. She tore vines away from the old window frame, pushed her way through the rotten wood. She fell outside, into the sunshine and the merciful air.

Sally choked on the ground. There was not enough air in the whole world for her. The sun dazzled overhead, a hot stare, and black trekked above her in a column of smoke. Behind her, the vines were screaming.

Let them scream. Sally rolled on her side, scrabbled blindly away from the noise, going somewhere else.

They found her on the road. Her mother grabbed Sally, a relief of human skin pressing against hers. “Sally what happened to you, your face—my God—”

All of these words were tiresome. Sally leaned her smarting face against her mother’s shoulder, breathing in the smell of flour. One of the adult men was shouting but Sally ignored him. “It’s okay Ma,” she tried to say. The words came out as a croak.

“Hold on, Sally,” Ma said. “You hold on.” And Sally lowered her head as though Ma’s words would keep her safe.

Later, when the doctors finally let Sally come home, she helped Ma look for dimes. The funeral had come and gone when Sally was in her fever. About it, all Ma said was, “Your Pa was a good man.” She added, staring at the pile of bills, “He would have wanted us to stay here.”

Sally knew Ma was talking about the hardware men who were calling in their debts, and who Ma refused to look at when they were in town. It wasn’t fair of Ma, really, Sally thought. What choice did the hardware men have about eating? They needed the money.

But something seemed to have changed for Ma, since the day Sally had come stumbling back to them on the road. She didn’t care so much about politeness now. That part of Ma seemed to have been lost somewhere. Sally missed it.

Ben, on the bed, was trying to do his part. He held up the coin he’d found—or hidden, Sally thought, a long time ago.

“Found one,” he gasped. He looked away from them. Ma added it to the small pile on the table. Sally remembered the ten dollar bill sitting there and turned her head away. That money was long spent.

“Are we going to be okay, Ma?” Ben couldn’t see the coins from where he lay. He didn’t know how few there were.

Baby Alasdair snuffled in his box, his breathing low and ragged. Ma adjusted his blanket, then scooped up Alice, who was getting underfoot as always. She went over to Ben and sat on the bed beside him, motioning Sally to join her. Sally sat gingerly on the end of the bed. Sometimes she thought she could still feel the vines squirming under her skin, and then she was afraid to let folk touch her.

“Now you listen, all of you,” her mother said. “This is Mackay land. We’ve worked for it and we’re going to keep working for it.” She squeezed Ben’s hand and threw a hard, half-hug around Alice and Sally. Sally found herself returning the painful embrace, as though she were hanging on to her family as they slid off the face of the world.

“We won’t be moved,” her mother repeated into Alice’s hair, like it was true.

From the nick of her eye, Sally could see the future coming for them: baby Alasdair dead from dust pneumonia by year’s end, the land foreclosed, her mother half mad at losing another loved one in a land not even good for graves any more. They’d be moved, all right, the way you had to move, when the only other choice was to die.

Sally felt that future and it terrified her more than the thing she’d seen at the Duborts’. But she said nothing. Instead, she reached out and took hold of Ben’s arm, like it really could work, like they really could make it.

Head bowed, she told the lie that was asked of her.

“We’ll hold on, Ma,” she agreed. “You’ll see.”

Siobhan Carroll

Siobhan Carroll is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Delaware, where she specializes in nineteenth-century literature, imperial ecology, and the history of exploration. Her short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. For a complete list of titles, visit voncarr-siobhan-carroll.blogspot.com.