There was a young girl whose grandma loved her fiercely, and so made for her a suit of skin. Her grandma brined the skin, scraped it free of fat and flesh, and soaked it in a brainy mash until it was soft and milky as a baby’s breath. She crafted an opening in the suit with leather cords to tie the flaps. “Promise me,” said the girl’s grandma, while she adjusted the fit, “that you’ll always wear this when you go outside.”
The girl shook her arm and the skin waggled. “It’s still loose.”
“That way you won’t outgrow it. Now promise me . . .”
“I promise,” said the girl.
Her grandma then showed the girl how to smear the blood and offal of the Risen over the skin for camouflage, including onto the hairy scalp of its cowl. The girl kept to her promise. She never left home without the blood-smeared suit, and so everyone called her Red Hood.
One day her mother gave Red Hood two tins of soup and a bottle of cough syrup. “Go, my darling, and see how your grandma is doing. She is sick and could use our help.” Red Hood loaded the supplies into her knapsack and put on her skin suit. Her mother applied blood from a pot they kept by their apartment door and handed her a sheathed knife, its wooden handle split and repaired with duct tape. “With luck, you won’t need this.”
“It’s broken,” Red Hood said.
“The worth of a knife is in its blade, not its handle,” her mother said. She then gave Red Hood a few last words of advice. “Don’t follow the road because your shadow will show in the sunlight, and don’t talk to anyone until you get to your grandma’s apartment.”
Red Hood descended the stairs until she reached the sub-basement of their apartment building, and then followed the dusty trail of footprints her mother called the Lost Highway. The trail twisted and turned in the darkness, leading from one building to the next. Red Hood maneuvered past hulking furnaces, octopus-armed duct systems, and grimy cars abandoned in parking garages. Sometimes her flashlight picked out the decapitated bodies of the Risen. Sometimes the dust tickled her nose. She pressed a finger hard above her lip—a trick she had learned from grandma—so that she did not sneeze.
She did not encounter anyone animated until she had completed half her journey. Tinny and wan, like the mating cry of an insect, music was the first indication that she was not alone. She swung her flashlight around. A stranger leaned against a desolate sports car. He wore a squirrel-fur hat and had kindly eyes. He held a tiny machine in his hands and cranked its handle with the tips of his thumb and forefinger. “What’s that?” Red Hood asked. Then remembering her mother’s admonition against strangers, she added, “Who are you?”
“A friend.” The music stopped and was replaced by a silence that felt like loneliness.
Red Hood looked longingly at the tiny machine.
“It’s called a music box. A genie lives inside and he sings when I poke his ribs.” He cranked the handle, and Red Hood heard the startled genie’s tune. This time the stranger sang along with it. His voice was rough, but the words were pretty:
Away upon a rainbow way on high
There’s a land that I learned of once from a butterfly
Away upon a rainbow bluebirds sing
Of warmth and food and all the love that you can dream.
Red Hood had never heard anything so wonderful. She clapped her hands. “Please play it again.” She said please and so the kindly stranger obliged.
“Would you like my music box for your own?” the stranger asked.
“Oh yes,” said Red Hood.
“I can’t give it to you, but you can earn it.”
The stranger’s forehead wrinkled. He stroked his naked chin. Then his eyebrows shot up. “I have it. We’ll have a race to the next apartment building. First one to tag the EXIT sign wins.”
Red Hood had visited her grandma many times and knew the Lost Highway well. She knew its dangers and obstructions: the cave-ins, the flooded levels, and, most importantly, where a Risen might lurk at a dark intersection. She gained two full steps on the stranger before he even knew the race had begun, but her skin suit slapped and dragged at her ankles. She slowed and the stranger passed her like she was a rooted in the concrete. He wasn’t even panting by the time she caught up with him at the EXIT sign.
“My suit tangled in my legs,” Red Hood said. “Otherwise I could have beaten you.”
The stranger looked so sorrowful it was surprising his eyes were dry. He placed the music box on the floor and ground it beneath his heel until it squealed. Nothing was left of it but a mess of crushed metal and plastic. “See what you made me do,” he said. “That’s the music box and the genie also.” There was a spot of rust on the floor that might have been genie blood.
“I’m sorry,” Red Hood said.
“Will you pay the forfeit?”
“Forfeit?” He had said nothing of this before.
“I’m not asking for anything of value. Just a kiss.”
Red Hood had kissed family members, even a few boys. This kiss was different, hungry, and just when she thought it over, the stranger bit her lip. She gasped, tasted blood.
“Now,” said the stranger. “I have something that your mother would like.” He rummaged through his pack and exhumed a plastic comb, pink and with a floral design. “Will you race me for it?”
“To the next apartment building?”
Why dwell on the details of this race? All happened as before. Red Hood took a head start but the skin tangled in her legs and she slowed. She would have cried over her failure but for the sympathy of the stranger. “See what you made me do,” he said. He cracked the comb across his knee and threw the splintered pieces away as if to hide these from their sight.
“Is there another forfeit to pay?” Red Hood asked.
“The same as before?”
He nodded again.
In truth, this kiss was nothing like the first. The stranger’s tongue pummeled her lips and teeth and, when she relented, pursued her own tongue like a hungry salamander. He only withdrew after he had wrestled her tongue into bruised submission.
The stranger wiped spittle from his lips and smoothed his eyebrows. He removed a crystalline flask from his pack. “If you can beat me to the next building,” he said, “I’ll give you this medicine for your grandma.” He uncorked the bottle, swirled the amber liquid inside, and let her smell its honeyed aroma.
“I can’t win,” Red Hood said. She fought back tears.
“Of course you can. You just have to set aside your suit. Without it, you’d be as swift as the North Wind.” This was the best comparison the stranger could make, for the North Wind is the liveliest and cruelest of the four cardinal winds. “Hang your suit on this nail where it will be safe.”
Red Hood stripped off her suit and hung it on the basement wall. She felt naked without it, but won the race easily. The kindly stranger had been morose in victory but accepted loss like a champion. “You do not need a suit if you are quick,” he said. He rummaged once more through his pack and found a flask that looked much like the one he had shown her. “Take this to your grandma. It will assist her health.”
“Thank you,” Red Hood said. The medicine was murkier than she remembered. She wondered about the forfeit she had missed. Would it have been like a rat, or a salamander, or another animal altogether? She started to retrace her steps.
“Where are you going?”
“To get my suit.”
“But you are almost at your grandma’s.”
Red Hood was tired from the races, but knew she shouldn’t leave her suit behind. Luckily, the stranger was as wise as he was kind, and proposed a solution. “I’ll watch over your suit and keep it safe. We mustn’t keep your grandma waiting.”
“But you might have to wait a long time.”
“I won’t be lonely.” The stranger squeezed his pack and it rattled merrily. Perhaps it contained miracles more entertaining than anything he had yet shared.
Red Hood glanced back once after they parted, just long enough to see the kindly stranger tip his squirrel-fur hat. If she had followed him, she would have seen him give a little skip as if he had just won a lottery. If she had followed him still further, she would have seen him take her skin suit down from its nail and try it on for size. And lastly—although of course she did not, for she continued on to her grandma’s apartment—she would have seen that the suit fitted the stranger so perfectly that he, not she, might just as well be called Red Hood.
• • • •
Red Hood found her grandma shivering in bed, although her apartment was roasting hot. A fire crackled in the wood stove. Red Hood sat beside her grandma and, using the hem of her undershirt, daubed at the chill sweat on her forehead. “Where is your suit?” her grandma asked.
Red Hood flushed. “There was a tear in its sleeve and I had to leave it behind.”
“Couldn’t your mother repair it?”
“She’s doing that now.” Red Hood’s excuse felt too much like a lie and she evaded her grandma’s eyes by fumbling inside her knapsack. “I brought you soup and cough syrup.” She set these on the bedside table. “And something better.” She added the crystalline flask of medicine. It sparkled with light stolen from the fire.
Grandma reached toward the flask as if it were a source of warmth. “That’s beautiful. What is it?”
“Medicine.” Red Hood thought back on the kindly stranger and how he had given her the flask so freely. “From a friend.”
“A rare gift.”
Red Hood used her knife to break the seal of sticky stuff that adhered to the cork. “Smell this,” she said. “Doesn’t it smell just like a summer’s day?”
Grandma sniffed the opened flask and jerked away as if slapped. “My mother used to tell me the best medicine tasted foul. But sometimes evil cannot hide its fangs. Dump that down the sink.”
Red Hood did as commanded. The medicine bubbled and fumed and its stench hung in the air. Red Hood opened a can of soup and heated it on the wood stove. It was tomato soup and it smelled wonderful. Her grandma stirred the soup, inhaled its aroma, and thanked Red Hood for her kindness. But she only sipped at her spoon, and the soup cooled in its dish.
“Will you be better soon?” Red Hood asked.
“I will never be better.” Grandma pulled her nightgown down to reveal a wound that was wet and red and shaped like a mouth. It pained Red Hood to look at the wound, but she did not turn aside. Her grandma reassembled her clothing and sank back into her pillows. “You brought me three gifts from home and so I will tell you a story of three’s. While I am talking, you will know that I’m alive. When I stop, you will know that I am dead. When that happens, you must take your knife and stab me through the temple.”
Red Hood nodded. This was one reason her mother had given her the knife. She fetched it from her knapsack and set it on the table close at hand.
“I’m cold. Please add a log to the fire.”
Red Hood fed the stove even though the room was stifling.
“There was once a young woman who lived in a small town. She knew everyone in the town and everyone knew her. One day, a handsome stranger arrived. He told comical tales of outwitting the Risen, played a scuffed guitar, and sang songs to her. The best songs were those in which he compared her eyes to pools of starlight or oceans of violets. The stranger was canny enough to also charm her parents and, with their blessings, he took the young woman away to his distant home.
“They spent the cold seasons beneath a down comforter and the following summer she gave birth to a baby boy. The baby entertained her even when her man did not. Another year passed, and the young woman gave birth to a second baby more handsome than the first. She missed her family and friends, but her man discouraged her from visiting them, sometimes with words and sometimes with blows. The young woman gave birth to a third baby boy, the prettiest of them all, and, while her man was out scavenging, she escaped with her children and began the long journey back to her hometown.
“One of the Risen caught her scent, and then another, and soon it was a fearsome pack that trailed her, howling and crashing through the underbrush. She reached a river and tried to hide with her children among the rushes. The youngest began to cry and could not be quieted. The young woman knew they would soon be discovered and so she wove a basket of reeds and set her youngest in it. She kissed her baby one last time, pinched his cheek, and shoved the basket out into the current. The baby’s cries attracted the Risen and the young woman escaped with her two remaining boys.
“The meal was small and the pack was many, and soon the Risen took up the chase again. This time they caught up with the young woman in the forest. The Risen gathered around the tree in which she hid and howled for the sweetness of her flesh and the richness of her blood. The young woman crawled to the end of a branch. She knit a nest of leaves and set her next youngest in it. She kissed her baby one last time, pinched his cheek . . .”
The room was hot, and the voice of her grandma dwindled until it seemed the rustle of leaves itself. Red Hood had promised to stay awake but she could not keep her promise. When she awoke, her grandma’s story was long completed and the fire almost out. She fed a log into the stove and stirred the embers into flame.
Grandma’s eyes sparkled.
“Oh grandma, what big eyes you have.”
Grandma pulled at her blankets.
“Oh grandma, what big hands you have.”
“Oh grandma, what a horribly big mouth you have!”
Grandma stretched her stiff limbs. She was newly dead and still slow. Yet, even dead, grandma had already cast aside her blankets. She tried to speak, but the words caught in her throat, and all that emerged was a painful moan.
Red Hood stumbled backward. She spotted her knife but in her haste knocked it off the table. It skittered across the floor.
The Risen never laugh, not even at another’s misfortune, and that distinguishes them from true men and women. Grandma stood and sniffed the air. Her nightgown slipped down to expose the dreadful wound in her side, and she tore at the fabric as if it had attacked her.
Red Hood’s horror was like a boulder in her belly. She still loved her grandma, even though she was now on level with a beast. Who knows what would have happened if there had not been a knock at the door? This knock was followed by two more, each louder than the last. Grandma hugged the tattered nightgown against her bony chest and hunched to the door. She pressed her eye against the spy hole and howled in delight. She undid the deadbolt and opened the door.
The kindly stranger stood outside. One of his hands was extended in greeting, the other hidden behind his back. He wore Red Hood’s skin suit.
“Red Hood,” grandma cried. The suit fooled her. Her words sounded almost human, but were not human enough to fool the stranger. The stranger swung his arm out from behind his back. He wielded a machete. The blade flashed and grandma dropped to her knees. The blade flashed again, and grandma’s head bounced across the floor. “Go to the bathroom,” the stranger said to Red Hood. “You should not see what I now must do.”
• • • •
Red Hood heard thumpings and rattlings and dragging noises, and sometimes a joyful whistling. Finally, after thirty minutes that carried the weight of hours, she heard the stranger’s footsteps approach. He knocked politely and then opened the bathroom door. He no longer wore the skin suit and once again looked as kindly and as handsome as when she had first met him on the Lost Highway. “I need your help,” the stranger said.
“What must I do?” Red Hood asked. She wanted to sound brave, but her voice squeaked. The body of her grandma was nowhere to be seen.
“Help me barricade the door.” The apartment door was thick, but not so thick that it could shut out the howlings of the Risen. Even more disturbing was how they scraped at the wood, as if they might peel the door apart sliver by sliver.
“Help me with this couch,” the stranger said. Red Hood and the stranger wrestled the couch into position by the door. They then flipped a table upside down onto its cushions and searched the apartment for heavy objects—pots and pans and plates from the kitchen, drawers from a bureau, rolled-up rugs, anything and everything—to add to the pile.
“That’s enough.” The kindly stranger wiped sweat from his eyes. “Bring me the kitchen knives.”
“Why?” Red Hood’s arms ached.
“This is no time for questions.”
Red Hood was too tired to debate and did as commanded. The stranger dumped the knives into his pack and cinched it shut. He then smoothed the sheets of her grandma’s bed, straightened the blankets, and fluffed its pillows. “We’re safe now. Sit beside me and share the warmth of the fire.” He patted the mattress.
Red Hood took a seat near the footboard.
“Do you still have the bottle of medicine I gave you?”
“That’s finished,” she said.
“No matter. I have more.” The stranger pulled a crystalline bottle from his pack. Uncorked, its honeyed aroma was just as she remembered. “Drink this,” the stranger said. “It will restore your strength.”
Red Hood took a sip and felt fire burn across her tongue and run down her throat. She coughed. “Have another taste,” the stranger said. “Each sip is easier than the last.”
The stranger, as always, spoke the truth. “Do you know why I came back for you?” he asked. He had moved so close to Red Hood that she could smell the medicine on his breath and feel the heat of his body.
Red Hood took another sip from the bottle. She felt warm and a little too comfortable. “Why?” she said.
The stranger smiled. “Because you still owe me one last kiss.”
Red Hood was confused. She licked her lips clean. Kisses, she had learned, were unpredictable. “Will it be like the others?”
“It will be nothing like those.” If a smile can be said to smile, the stranger’s smile wore itself out with trying. The stranger loosened the cord that cinched his pack shut. The leather puckered around the cord like withered lips and, once parted, the entrance gaped like a mouth.
Red Hood leaned forward. She could see nothing inside the pack. “For this kiss,” the stranger said, “you must climb into my pack.” The pack bulged with its hidden freight and anyway was too small to hold a person, even someone as young and small as Red Hood. Red Hood wasn’t sure if the stranger was making a joke, but she laughed just the same.
The stranger dug at his teeth with a fingernail and flicked a pinkish morsel aside. The gristle hissed on the warm bricks by the stove. “Just a little kiss. You promised.”
Red Hood could not have said why she thought of her grandma at that moment. Maybe it was only because memories, like ghosts, know no barriers and enter unbidden. Whatever the reason, Red Hood remembered the story her grandma had told her earlier. Red Hood had not stayed awake to hear the story’s end, but she had heard its beginning and its middle and that was enough. No matter how small the pack appeared, she knew that it could swallow her and then the stranger would take her away. “If I give you this kiss, will you carry me with you to your home?”
“I live far away but, yes, I will take you with me. We will live together and you will share in all that I own.” The stranger hefted his pack and it rattled merrily, suggested the wealth contained within. There was a murmuring also, like distant voices.
“What is that?”
“Those are the voices of my hometown,” the stranger said. “Before I left on my travels, I stopped by the market and I listened to the laughter and chatter of the crowd and the haggling of the merchants. I gathered just a little of what I heard into my pack so I might feel less lonely on the road.”
“If I give you this kiss and join you in your travels,” Red Hood said, “you will never feel lonely again.”
“When you give me this kiss.”
“If I give you this kiss.” Red Hood bounded from the bed. She grabbed the pack’s strap and dragged it past the stranger’s legs. She shook the pack. The first time she shook it, the voices inside came tumbling out and echoed all around her. “Run,” they cried. “Run for your life.” The second time she shook the pack, spoons clattered forth and scattered across the floor. Spoons, not the knives she had hoped for. “Run,” they cried with their blunt metallic tongues. The third time she shook the pack, bones tumbled forth. There were leg bones, rib bones, finger bones, knucklebones, vertebrae, and broken pieces of skull. Most of the bones were white but some were pink. “Run,” the jawbones cried. Red Hood now knew where her grandma’s body had disappeared. She also knew why the stranger walked the earth alone but with a full pack.
The stranger laughed. He had not moved from his seat on the bed. He smiled at her indulgently, as if she were a child easily tamed.
Red Hood looked about for a means of escape. The door was barricaded, the window three levels above the street. She had lost the kitchen knives to the stranger and his pack. But there was still the knife she had brought with her from home. She had set it on the table and then knocked it to the floor when her grandma woke from the dead. Where had it gone?
The stranger caught her eye. He reached into his boot and brought out her knife. Its blade flickered in concert with the fire. “Is this what you are looking for?” He inserted the blade’s point between his teeth and picked loose another sliver of flesh. He licked the flesh from the metal. He then opened the door to the stove and tossed her knife into the fire.
“You still owe me a kiss.” The stranger reclaimed his pack from the floor and shook it open. The mouth of the pack gaped. Its sides caved like a stomach accustomed to richness but which has gone hungry for too long. “Now climb into my pack.”
The fire crackled behind its mica window, perhaps in laughter, perhaps in simple enjoyment of the knife’s wooden handle. The remains of Red Hood’s knife glowed within the heart of the fire. She remembered her mother’s words: The worth of a knife is in its blade not its handle.
She dropped to her knees before the stove and swung its door open. Sparks cascaded forth. Her knife’s handle had burned to ashes, but the blade remained. She plunged her hand into the coals. The knife seared her flesh and the heel of its blade sliced into the meat of her thumb. The stink of burnt flesh filled the room. Her skin blistered but she did not drop the knife. Tears blinded her but she gripped the knife all the more tightly. She screamed and she struck.
Red Hood’s first strike cut loose a hank of the stranger’s hair. He laughed and caught her by the arm, spinning her around as if he were a prince and she his princess engaged in a dance. “You owe me a kiss,” he whispered, his breath tickling her ear. He twisted her arm behind her back. She cried out in pain, but this was not the arm that held the knife.
Her second strike slashed the stranger across his bicep, slicing through his sleeve and drawing a trickle of blood. He cried out in surprise and released her. “You cut me,” he said. He shook his head in disbelief. “All over a kiss.”
Her third strike pierced the stranger through the eye. He stumbled back. The knife protruded from his eye socket, and he crumpled dead to the floor.
Afterward, Red Hood bandaged her hand and tidied the apartment. She gathered up her belongings, not forgetting her knife, the remaining can of soup, and the cough syrup, and slipped into her suit of skin. She freshened the suit with the kindly stranger’s blood and then shoved his body out the window. She watched it tumble through the air and smack against the pavement, and continued to watch as the Risen shambled from the shadows and shredded his flesh. On her way home, she passed one of the Risen gnawing on a bone. The creature growled when she approached, and followed her. Red Hood had nothing to fear. She wore her suit of skin and the creature fawned about her bloody heels like a dog loyal to its master.