Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Red House

I.

This is the story you remember.

The girl lost in the woods.

How they find her after eight days, the mud smeared on her arms and legs, clumped in her hair and under her nails. Through the rain she sees the policeman running, lifting her up in his thick brown jacket, driving her back down the jagged lumber road towards the highway in his truck. She won’t answer his questions, won’t untangle her thin ten-year-old limbs. She runs her tongue along her broken tooth and the cop hits the sirens to run the stoplights, the world flying by in a haze of streets and rain.

At the police station they write her name on a form, put her in a room with a large uniformed woman, her tight bun pulling her face into a mask. The girl begins to cry and they give her crayons to keep her calm.

With a red crayon the girl draws a box and with a black crayon she draws stick figures inside it. She cocks her head, lets her knotted brown hair fall across her face. She draws a roof atop the box and what might be a crowbird atop the roof, and she fills it with crisscrosses and smaller boxes, until the stick figures seem to reach out and hold the thing by its guts. The woman asks the girl what she’s drawing and a white light in the ceiling buzzes and the buzz is like a machine grinding the world into a hole. The girl colors a black stovepipe out the roof and a slanted porch off the front and a backdrop of lines like rain or pines to fill the remaining space. The crayon breaks and the girl looks up at the woman’s face to see what she might see.

Her mother is a bird, a yellow crown of hair, a cigarette in her beak: mother and daughter, always in flight, nest to nest; a forever changing landscape of anonymous motels, spare bedrooms, all-night diners; piecing together new names from newspaper obituaries piled in the floorboard of the car; their lives contained in a cardboard box on the backseat, often spilled and reconfigured on dashboards or wobbly motel desks; her Berenstain Bear books with the pages falling out; her sticker books with the stickers peeling off.

On the road again: punch-buggy, license plates, ten points for every cow.

Later the girl knows nothing could have changed, the whole arc of their lives inevitable. Her mother twitching her neck, her mother buying gas station food, her mother grabbing the girl’s hand in public and keeping her close. A smile one day, a cry the next.

In some motels, the plastic wrapper on the plastic cup is missing. Her mother knocks the cup from her hand, says never to drink from those. There’s danger everywhere, and they can never really hide.

They don’t talk about the father, just circle motels twice, three times, only hit drive-thrus if they’re empty, only sleep with the dresser lodged against the door.

When the hand presses against her mouth and the voice says she has to go, the cigarette will still be burning on the nightstand, and that’s what she’ll make herself remember, the orange ember, bright enough to blind out the room, blind out the black figures moving between the beds, blind out her mother’s head, her father’s too, until the motel disappears and she’s being driven away in the dark.

What the girl will tell is how the rain is falling at the motel when her father shoves her in the car and how it’s falling in her eyes when her father says stop crying and how it falls across the windshields and headlights and how it falls when the car begins to climb into the mountains and how it’s falling at the empty roadside church where they park among the trees and how it’s falling on the dark empty car as they unload the hatchback and how it falls as they hike into the hills and how it falls for eight days on their faces and how it falls for eight days on their tarp and how it falls from the sagging trees and how it falls in the pools of mud and how it falls in the rising water and how it is still falling on the roof of the red house when they find it in the woods.

When they ask about the red house, what the girl will never tell is how it’s a place where her father is and her mother is, a place they are now still, and how they argue back and forth, how they accuse each other, hate each other, pull the girl this way and that, and how the walls of the red house will fall away, it’s just the three of them, dissecting each other, destroying each other, refusing to listen to any of what is said, and here will forever be her mother’s head and her father’s head, and the past will be red, and the future will be red, and the house in the woods is red.

What they ask most often is about the father. It will take years to learn how to answer their questions, their mouths moving like grey figures in the room. What she’s not allowed to do is yell. How she can’t respond is with silence. They demand she tell it right, go back where it all begins. And they think they know it, the shifting figures in the shifting rooms, think they have her figured out. She tries to listen to their pleas, tries to take them seriously, but it’s a bore, a chore. So she gives them a glimpse of what they think they want. And that’s all it takes. They back right down, their eyes searching for anything but hers. Because even they know if she tells it, it becomes a spell, a bad magic they do not want to dabble in. By then it’s too late: the head she wears is not her own.

The father is a series of fragments. A time when he’s not there. A time he’s inescapable. His uniform hanging stiffly in the closet until the day he makes a show of burying it in the backyard. Their home a steady upbringing of misunderstood glances, shouting matches and slamming doors, a reign of bloody curses like invocations to dark malignant Gods.

Her family a bag of ragged luck.

Her father is a house, one he’s made himself. Her father is a callused hand in the dark, a whisper in her head. He is a tunnel through the woods. He is the dark space below their tarp. He is the racking down of rain.

Her father is a house. He will never be big enough. The house is small and the walls are caving in. Together they must fit.

After the woods, after Child Protective Services and foster families, after running away at sixteen and working double shifts at restaurants and gas stations, not sleeping, not eating, reading coroner reports and newspaper archives on internet searches, reproducing a piecemeal memory of the events, the girl will slowly grow into a version of herself. One part wants it to end, one part knows it won’t, and she isn’t sure what happened, afraid it’s wrong to remember. Her life a never ending spell. The picture will change, but no one will ever see it. The red house has been there long before and will be there long after. There will never be enough crayons to black it out.

The official story.

The father murders the mother and flees into the woods with the girl. It’s the worst weather in a hundred years. The creeks rise and wash out four bridges, two miles of Highway 17. There is quicksand and mudslides and sinkholes and every creature for fifty miles is washed loose upon the woods. In three counties they will be counting up the lost and dead. No one will be able to get up there, the search worthless before even it begins.

A dirge down from the heavens, a gospel made of mud.

II.

With the car abandoned, the motel already in another world, the girl and the father hike an impossible series of hills. Her father goes first, the night full dark. Rocks litter the ground like malformed heads. They struggle up an incline of impenetrable pine and spruce, over roots, through brambles, the rain falling harder, the ground slick and thick with straw and mud.

In his overstuffed pack, her father’s some creature awkwardly arranged, unprepared yet determined, his bag filled with an idea he thinks looks like survival, all manner of salvation—fry pan, loose rope, headlamp—cinched to the straps, dangling loose, swaying with each step.

There are things unseen in the woods, a distant screech, a howling in the dark, things the girl pretends she does not hear.

They go down into a ravine and the creek is overflowing. The rain comes unrelenting. The girl plays in the muddy water until her father says to stop. The girl says she is tired and the father says to hurry. Her shirt and jeans are soaked through. She only has a pair of flip-flops for her feet. They follow the creek. In a break of trees she sees the low grey sky, the birds just beginning to call. Her father says to keep up.

He lugs them up another hill and behind a fallen log. A mossy ledge of rock hangs above the hole. Here the father works the pack, unrolls the cheap camouflaged tarp, runs a strand of rope through its metal loops, strings the tarp between log and ledge. Her father pulls out cans of beans and corn and pears. They pass the cans between them and the rain rushes off the tarp and down the log, pooling where they sit. Her father tells her to sleep and the girl stretches out as best she can, curls her legs close and lodges her shoulder against a root. Something crawls across her foot and she kicks her flip-flops in the mud.

The girl will struggle to remember what her father looks like, his image ephemeral and in doubt. An alien-being stranded on a rock. A head talking on a stump. His sharp tired face in the half-light of the headlamp. His small eyes and spiky beard. His chapped hands and wooden stare. There will be no photographs to remind her, no family or friends with whom to reminisce. Her father’s face is the face of a constant complainer, cataloguer of hurts, short-tempered and ferocious. With his big wet hand, in the lamplight, he strokes her hair.

Under the tarp, the father tells how there was once a witch up in the woods. In these woods, the sun did not exist. It was a fake thing the witch had made, an orb she controlled with mirrors and pulleys and string. The sun was a story to nurture a fool-hearted faith in the world. Sometimes children wandered to her door, sometimes weary travelers, sometimes men. Once, a man came pleading for a potion, a spell he could cast on his wife to be sure that she would love him. Such interruptions the witch did not mind. To bide her time alone, she often crocheted oven mitts and placemats, coasters and little black hats. She would spend her Thursdays packing them up and mailing them to her cousins and sisters. One weekend a month she sold them on a folding table at the flea market in town. Sometimes she’d meet children there, and they would smile, point at the sun, say There it is! The witch would smile and never spoil their fun, never say the light was just another swindle, that the real world was always dark. Why spoil the fun of children when you could ruin the world of men?

So the witch told the man who’d come for the potion she could not help him, but when he was not looking, she slipped a tablet into his glass of water. But the man was clever, the man had always thought himself as quick. When the witch wasn’t looking, he fished the tablet out. Yet in his hands was not a tablet but a book. He tried to read aloud the words, knowing words were how a spell would work, but as he said them his mind went dark and he feared what she had done. For there stood the witch before him, his wife beside her, their unseen children laughing all around. And the man then knew the world was dark and he knew the blinding flights of their mad fancy and he knew the taste of the tablet’s bitter poison on his tongue.

They spend their nights trudging over mad unnamed rock, over knotted roots, through knitted woods, their days feigning sleep under the sagging tarp, a cage of branches overhead. It becomes a cold aching fear: a whole life’s worth to give away.

And yet at times she feels different. They walk another half day into another ravine. A railway is built on a cut to the north, and here, she’ll read years later on the internet, is where ex-slaves would hide near a wooded spring that fed the creek. The water is cold and refreshing. She’ll remember this too: the metallic mud in her throat, the rain across her face, and the fleeting smile on her father’s head when he strips out of his clothes, dives into the water and tells her to get in.

She knows she will have to find a way to love; if not all of him, then parts.

They are cast about in blowing sheets of rain. She worries they are lost. Her father insists they are out of food. He is always packing and unpacking, always grabbing at her wrist, staring off at things she cannot see.

In night on the move, in day undercover.

Beneath the tarp, while the father sleeps, the girl digs into the pack, finds unopened cans of food. She wakes him and says there is plenty to eat. He looks at the cans and his head becomes a mouth.

You sound like your fucking mother.

Again they cannot see the sun.

Her father is falling and the girl can’t reach him.

At the bottom of the hill, where the water has risen above the reeds, he’s flipped upside down, his limbs flailing like some upturned bug. The water soaks the pack and he begins to sink, the creek coming up all around him.

All around the woods loom large. The girl is sliding down the hill after him, already in the water up to her waist.

She should run. This is when she should run. But before she knows it, the creek will take her too.

There is a world of silver fish and swirling eddies, sticks and leaves and billowing mud.

Under the water, she remembers an afternoon she and her mother snuck into a community pool, the girl watching the big kids hold their breath in the deep end. Afraid to join them, she lingered near her mother, who in a lounge chair smoked her cigarettes, her birdhead smiling in the sun.

Fear is never just one thing.

Like the big kids, she holds her breath, finds her way to the bottom, the mud rising around her feet. Perhaps she can stay here. Perhaps just open her mouth and breathe.

But then she comes awake, coughing and out of breath, her father washed in the reeds beside her.

Things are not the same. Her father’s leg is bent backwards. He makes odd noises with his mouth. The pack is gone. She’s lost her flip-flops. The tarp is gone. There is no shelter. They pull themselves up the hill away from the water. They fall in and out of sleep. Flies swarm and bite their arms and necks. Her cold bare feet are cut and bruised. Her father cries that his leg is broken. She looks to where his pants are ripped, to the bone protruding behind the flesh.

Where the girl felt fear, she now feels pity.

She doesn’t know the word for pity then, but later, when they pull her into a room, shut the doors, lean across the tables and plead for her to let them help, she’ll see in their sad pathetic faces the face of her father. By then she’ll know pity, and it will make her sick.

But in the woods her father just rolls back and forth on the ground, grips his leg, curses the mud and rain, allows, in some pathetic way, apology to pass his lips. She thinks her father sad and for the first time, she’ll know anger can carry her through.

He’s never been the man he thinks he is.

He’s telling her how they got there, all the things not his fault.

Stop! she says. I don’t want to hear it! I don’t want your stories! I want Mom! I want to go home!

There ain’t no home, he’s saying, refusing to look up. You won’t never do no better.

III.

And so begins a lapse in time the girl will remain unsure of. They fall, it seems, though some unknowable fold in the hill. Within the fold they find the clearing, within the clearing, they find the house. It’s a squat red house with a line of smoke escaping the broken stovepipe, a ragged crowbird calling from the roof. There are holes where windows should be, but instead of glass, they are covered with a mesh of twigs and vines like some poorly stitched wound.

On the sunken porch the figures move back and forth, first gray, then black, their bodies morphing in and out of the house’s shadow, their flesh in flux. She knows them when she sees them, feels the reason why she’s there. For years to come they will be there with her, a glimpse in the mirror, a dream-thing scaring her awake.

The girl comes across the yard, her arm hitched through her father’s, his bad leg dragging in the mud. The red house welcomes them inside.

The interior is dark and cramped with low lit lanterns hung along the walls. It is a room filled with all manner of furniture—chairs woven from heavy branches, footstools carved from sanded stumps, a grandfather clock in a handmade cabinet. The ceiling slants so the room seems to be collapsing and the walls lean in as if they might fall down.

Her father is wet and writhing on the rug.

The girl is tired, hungry. She’s never been so hungry. On a long table, there are crocheted placemats and napkins, metal plates and bowls; black fish in oil, their eyes spooned into a cup; cracked nuts and smoked meats; bitter greens tossed in egg yolk. There is a roasted bird on a platter she easily dismembers, tearing it apart at the joints. She stuffs red and black berries in her cheeks, drinks water from a tin cup, wine from a glass. She feels drunk, angry; her head swoons and her stomach cramps.

Her eyes are grey and her father is making noises. There is something wrong and the walls go red.

First wet, then dry. First hungry, then full.

She’ll never believe they never found her father, that there was never any house up in the woods.

The red house is changing, the room different, a noise like a machine grinding in her head.

She is standing against the wall and all the furniture has vanished.

Her father is strapped to a table.

When she blinks, the figures move behind her eyes.

There are pulleys and cables strung above the table and a set of hanging scales descending into space. The figures droop above her father, like mounds of fresh wet clay. Hands like claws come in and out of focus. The girl does not know what she is seeing, can’t hear her father’s words. On a metal table beside him, there are forceps, a boning knife, a saw.

There is a stool in the corner where the clock once was. Her mother is smoking, something wrong with her neck.

The leg, the mother is saying, the leg will no longer do. To fix the leg would neglect the cause. The leg is rotten. The leg is of no use. But surely you’re no dummy, girl. Surely you see the disease.

Her voice is a mockingbird, her neck all jerks and stops.

What he didn’t do was care for you, the birdhead says. What he didn’t do was try to make it better. He’s a sad sack, quick with his hands, the bad kind of husband. Thinks he’s a father. Here we are, look at this mess. Do you remember when you lost your tooth? Two teeth: one in the table, one at the park. Your daddy took them. He made you climb the monkeybars, he pushed you to the floor.

But I hit him back, the girl says. I got money for those teeth.

I’d say you’re finished, the birdhead says. Don’t get me started, that sonofabitch. Let me tell you how bad it’s gonna be.

And she leaves nothing out.

It’s a curious procedure. The girl is frozen where she’ll always be, between the mother and father. The machine noise and white light are such that her eyeballs feel scrubbed, sanded and antiseptic. The operation is under way. The figures work the instruments with long languid stokes. They work the father piece by piece. The father open upon the table. The father parts laid out for her inspection, displayed in piles, his inside knots undone.

They tourniquet the injured leg high up on the thigh. With twists and pulls they disassemble the leg down at the knee, a faint grey finger probing in the hole. The knife cuts the ligament and the saw cuts the bone. They scoop the knee right out. They hold the bottom half of the leg aloft. The father’s body begins to empty from where the leg should be. He pours into a bucket. They put the leg up on the scale, record the weight in a tablet on the table. The father is thoroughly dissected. His skin is pinned back and the cavities scraped. The scales are sagging and the buckets fill along the floor.

The fatherhead, separated from the body, says she’s misinformed.

This was all her doing, the fatherhead says. Teeth? She wants to talk of teeth? If only she had listened, if only she had tried to understand. But you’ll understand, I bet you, this is what you’ve got left, better believe it. The world is a mess of hurt, girl. You might as well get on the right end of it.

That’s just what he’d say, says the birdhead. What they’d think. Ain’t no hurt they’re not the cause of.

You know what your problem is, says the fatherhead. You’re just always squawk, squawk, squawking the same old shit. Look at her, girl. You gonna end up just like it. Squawking in the corner till someone’s got to shut you up. No one promised you any better.

Look at this, the birdhead is saying, but the girl doesn’t want to look. She shuts her eyes and sees the figures coming in the dark. What do you plan to do? the birdhead says. Blame me? Blame us? You’re the one that’s left. It’s yours to carry.

The red house isn’t real. The red walls run to black. The rug turns to carpet, two beds sitting side by side. What she has to see is her mother on the bed beside her, her father standing over them in the dark. The figures wait along the walls, the television light calling them into shape. He has his hands around her mother’s neck and he’s looking at the girl. This is what they will tell her, what happened in the motel, what they know she must have seen. A girl under the covers, squeezing tight her eyes. She has to keep pretending not to watch. Eyes open or eyes shut: she sees them just the same.

What are you doing? the birdhead says. Don’t look at that! Look away! Did I teach you nothing? Are you always going to look? You can’t keep from looking? It’s a bad house, girl. Look away.

And then she sees the deep swirling red in her heart projected into the monstrosity of the house. It paints the red of the universe on the walls and floor and the room comes together and the walls breathe in, her arteries and veins like vines along each surface, her insides coming out. A wave of sickness washes over her, her body a din of infirmity: abdominal pain and nausea, blotches on the skin, abnormal moles and sebaceous cysts, thinning hair and brittle nails. The red house has had her all along. When they ask their questions, she’ll craft a line, repeat it over and over: It’s a red house in the woods. It’s a red house in the woods. When they stop listening, she has to swallow the house back up. It’s an incurable infection, a disease of the flesh and blood.

Her mother is no longer in the corner.

The girl can still see the orange ember of the cigarette illuminating her father’s body on the floor. He is twisted and split and broken. He cannot come after her, cannot take her wrists, cover her mouth, tell her stories she doesn’t want to hear. Here in this house, he is dead and she feels him in her teeth.

Each version of the room is laid atop another: the motel room, the operating room, the school rooms and bedrooms, the room beneath the tarp, the locked rooms they put her in. The red house holds them all.

The house still breathes, and she finds herself surprised there is not more blood. Perhaps the house has taken it, she thinks, wondering how her father’s leg has reappeared, somehow reattached, how the scales are gone and the buckets too. Or perhaps the red house is me, she thinks, then shuts her eyes, and opens them again just as fast.

She can’t see the figures, but knows that they are there.

Somewhere in the house, the droning machinery roils on.

The front door stands open, and beyond it she can see the rain. The girl collapses off the front porch, into the black heavy mud, and the rain falls wonderfully across her face. She pulls herself up and begins to drag herself across the yard.

For a moment the rain might hide her, so she can get to the woods and run.

The birds have flown and gone.

The red house rises up and behind her the dark in the door takes shape.

A man on a logging road carries her away.

The figures linger between the trees, in the backseat of the cab, in the rearview and side mirrors.

The cop keeps asking her questions. The words she has, they make the world unwell. In her head she says them anyway. She flings her hair, runs her tongue across her teeth, so the cop can see her face.

That’s when he hits the sirens, grips the wheel, drives hellbound through the rain.

In the woods, there is a red house waiting. You can’t look for it, can’t avoid it. When they give her the crayons she’s already ancient, older than they’ll ever be.

No one will let her forget. The river never subsides and the insects swarm her mouth. She won’t tell it straight, so she perfects a stare, learns to misdirect. She will carry her soft touch, the gray haze of a hustle wherever she goes. She will know the nature of constant movement, the steady twitch of bodies on the run. What other choice is there? The girl carries it in pieces, in a place like a little pouch. She won’t tell them the red house is a salvation, everything inside dying to gush out.

She is the girl. This is the life she leads.

Go ahead, ask your questions.

But when she asks you to repeat them, so she’ll know that you are listening, be careful what you say.

This might be how bad magic works.

This isn’t the story you remember, where a girl escapes the woods. It’s the one where she takes you back there with her. Before you know it, the room turns red.

Here are your crayons.

The head you wear is not your own.

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Gavin Pate

Gavin Pate

Gavin Pate is a father, husband, writer, and teacher in Norfolk, VA. His fiction has appeared in places such as The Collagist, Barrelhouse, The Southeast Review, the dark fiction anthology Warmed & Bound, and in his novel, The Way To Get Here, from Bootstrap Press. As an associate professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, he teaches classes with names like The Weird & Fantastic, American Violence, and Mystery, Crime & Noir. He is currently finishing his next book, Notes From The Coming War.