Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Changeling

She peered through the window at the slumbering cherub. Pale skin and black lashes. A nightlight shone against the red drapes, and tinted the walls bloody. It was warm inside that nursery, she imagined. Snug, like the house where she’d once lived. But that was a long time ago. She did not remember her name anymore, or the person she’d once been. Only the job, the houses she visited each night. The faces of the children she stole.

This place was familiar, its weeping willows and honeyed air. The roots of giant trees had fissured the wide sidewalks into strips of pebbles. Swaths of grass lazed on lawns like kudzu’s wealthy cousin. The house was a brick Victorian with stained glass eyes. Yes, this terrain was familiar. Like a tune she couldn’t place, or the scent of a stranger wearing an old friend’s skin.

The cherub startled and sat up. They had a sixth sense sometimes, and knew when she was near. He threw off his Batman bed sheets, and she readied herself for the scream, the hurried entry she would have to make, the kicks and bites he would inflict as she carried him away.

He didn’t scream. The boy scooted out of the small bed and approached the window. The tip of his nose flattened like a mushroom against the glass, and he squinted into the dark. “Sister,” his red lips mouthed. The word rattled like ice against her hollow bones: she knew this boy.

• • • •

She’d stolen thousands. Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes, hazel. She’d seen cockroach-candied mattresses, mobiles that twisted overhead to the tune of Mozart’s Figaro, dirt floors, hand-knit blankets so soft and sweet-smelling that more than once she’d been tempted to steal them along with the child. At first they’d been missions of mercy. The starving, the sick. Better to carry them away. And then she’d graduated to the unwanted. Their mothers cursed their every breath. And now, finally, the loved. They were the most valuable in the scheme of things. The most satisfying meal.

She delivered the children to a place deep underground. Set them down inside a mouth of rocks. The dead smelled the scent of young flesh and came quickly, smacking their lips. They bent over the infants until their whimpers were piercing howls that suddenly went silent.

Twice she’d taken pity. A little girl from New Hyde Park, Long Island had caressed the webbing of her fingers as if trying to heal it. She’d held the girl, and kissed her cheek. Another time she’d spared a sleeping baby. The child’s crib had looked especially warm, and though she’d done it hundreds of times before, her mind had set like a strip of steel. She would not steal the child from a happy dream. She would rather have died. But these had happened long ago. The years had suckled her pity dry. This was just a job now. A thing she did out of necessity, like shit and sleep. Corruption is the eyes, the nose, the sense of touch. Corruption is the salve, and its irritant.

• • • •

She remembered everything, even the womb. Her parents were a young couple with healthy good looks. Tall and brunette and glowing from summers spent at the helms of boats and winters at the gym. They’d looked alike. Could have been siblings and in a way, were. They’d married within their town, their social set, their country club.

She was their first child. Born too quickly for a hospital. A labor in two-hours and without an afterbirth. Ravenous, she’d chewed her way down the canal. Their faces at the sight of her had been all smiles. Their perfect child. Their perfect life. And then the mid-wife bathed her, and they saw gray skin, gaunt body, and long limbs. Her crown of black curls like the laurels of an illegitimate queen. Forgetting her professional demeanor, the midwife dropped the baby in the sink, and made the sign of the cross.

From her first breath she cried without relent. At first they crooned lullabies and rocked her. Shook stuffed giraffes and elephants and bears at her angular face. Wept over the stygian squeals transmitted through their Walkie-Talkies (How could she cry for so long? Was she sick? Hurt? Frightened?). But soon their concern became exhaustion. She did not take her mother’s milk, but only formula. Over the weeks and then months of her endless shrieks, her body remained gaunt. Any material other than burlap gave her a rash, and if she wore the cashmere blanket her mother had knit, her skin opened up and began to bleed.

There were doctors. Trips to universities where women in white pricked her toes with needles. But she did not stop crying. She did not learn to speak. She did not smile. To muffle her constant wails, they nailed rugs to the walls of her nursery. But still they heard her, and no one in that house slept. They stopped seeing friends, stopped speaking on the phone, stopped loving the child that bore not their looks, but their name. After her second birthday, they started adding fingers of whiskey to her milk. Boozy, she did not fall asleep, but instead drifted away.

Once, her father sneaked into the room and lifted her into his arms. A hairy little girl with feathery down on her chin. How could this child belong to him? He must have wondered. He ran his fingers along the seams of her limbs. Not a tender touch. He recoiled even as he did it. “What are you?” he asked when she was only two years old, and if she could have given him an answer, she would have.

She’d been crying for two days straight when her mother delivered the bottle full of brown whiskey. Medicine, they called it, but her mind was more fertile than they knew. Her eyes were focused, watchful. She understood the things they did. Since drinking the whiskey, her hair had fallen out. Her mother held her. Squeezed her nose and mouth against her dry bosom. Tighter. Tighter. Tighter. So tight she hitched, and her lungs emptied, and she stopped breathing. Her eyes bulged, and she could not name the emotion she felt. She did not know what emotions meant. “Why won’t you go away?” her mother whispered, and then threw her back into the crib.

They stopped kissing her good-night. They stopped opening her bedroom blinds in the morning so that she could witness the rising sun. With stealth they sped past her room. They resumed the vacations they’d missed. Trips to sun-dappled islands surrounded by tropical fish, and sides of mountains where their downward skiing was rewarded with mugs of hot chocolate in front of warm fires. They went out at night with friends again, and left her to wail until she fell asleep.

They went through new nannies almost every week until they’d contacted every agency in town, and there were no more nannies to be hired. None could endure her endless shrieks, her strange body, her knowing eyes. They started paying the woman who cleaned house to feed and change her once a day. The woman did as she was instructed, but wore gloves so as never to touch her gray skin. She remembered watching things back then. The twisting mobile that she could not reach. The sky that thickened like soup in the summer heat. The designs on the blanket in her crib that were blue posies. She thought about death.

When she was four, the gloved woman called her parents, who were away on vacation, to tell them that the child’s cries had not ceased for two days. In broken English she explained that she could not stay another second. She was leaving.

In a daze, they packed their bags. They called the airline. They headed for a taxi, and then they stopped. They were hungry, and it was better to eat before a long trip. They ordered eggs from room service. They watched the news and learned that another Kennedy had died. At the last minute they decided to attend a cocktail party that was important for his career, where they drank too much wine, and had to stay overnight at the hotel. When thirsty headaches woke them the next morning, something insidious slipped between them. A thing that would gnaw at them without cease until all that remained was the husks of their bodies. They looked at each other and this thing coiled itself between then, nourished by their mutual madness. They did not go home for their child.

Alone, she cried until her lungs gave out, and her throat burned from thirst, and her stomach began to digest itself. The posies on her blanket looked like death. The shadows in her room looked like death.

The dead came to her, then. They entered the cabin like a fog that slipped through the cracks under the nursery door. Their bodies were conjoined, each starting before the other ended. Faces looked down at her while she wept, so hungry, in her crib. By luck they had found her. A meal. A chance to live another day. But when they saw her, they stopped. There was something kindred in her. Something they understood. In their mercy they adopted her as one of their own.

One of them, a woman, saw the child’s hunger, and ran her teeth along the inside of her palm until her cold flesh opened wide. She suckled the dead woman’s blood. Black nourishment filled her belly like sleeping snakes. She stopped crying, and never cried again. They carried her to the window, this foundling. This child that had been born not quite human. They carried her away.

Even the dead have honor, and to show their disdain for what the parents had done, they replaced the changeling’s body with the carcass of a pig.

She lived with them for fifteen years. Spent her days with them in the dark underground. They came out at night after feeding to spy on the living. Listen to old stories, visit old loves. They fixated on the epithets written on their headstones, and fomented old grudges, and sometimes wandered the floors of malls, their steps in synch with Barry Manilow tunes. They refused to let go, and so they lingered in a world they had no place. To keep their shadows from losing shape, to give them the semblance of flesh, they fed off the lives of children.

But she was not one of them. They offered her the bodies of broken-necked squirrels and small birds from above, and the meat from roots that grew underground. Once, they even found a jar of apple sauce. She could not keep any of it in her stomach, and so they took turns cutting open their hands and feeding her their blood. She was stronger than them, and in return for their blood, she learned to steal.

They made her in their image. To help her to climb the sides of houses, they bound and shredded her hands and toes until the flaps of skin on them became webbed. The sustenance of their cold blood gave her strength, but her nourishment had been neglected for so long that her bones were hollow, and when she moved, she ached. The dark had made her eyes and skin so sensitive that she couldn’t tolerate natural sunlight. She’d lived for so long without human touch that she did not know how to feel. Only to steal, to watch through windows, to skirt between two worlds, coveting both the living and the dead.

This was her story. A changeling raised with less humanity than a pig.

Now, the little boy smiled. She did not smile back. She suctioned her webbed fingers against the window and soundlessly opened it. She climbed inside. This place was familiar. So familiar. The boy was brunette, and had the glow of health. Wide brown eyes. Victorian house. She knew this place. She remembered this place.

She entered the room. On his bed was a blanket with blue posies. He didn’t scream. Perhaps he had been born different, too. Could sense in her their kinship.

She lowered her hands over the lids of his eyes and closed them. He thought they were playing a game. Hide and seek. Peek-a-boo. So trusting. So sweet she could lick him.

She wondered if she had ever left this house. If the dead were an invention she’d dreamed in this very nursery, too ignorant to recognize that she’d gone mad. The feeling was like rocks in her stomach, rooting her deeply to the floor, drowning her here. The memories of this place. She should have jettisoned them long ago, and yet they persisted.

The boy climbed into her arms, and she thought about taking him away. Saving him the way she wished she’d been saved. They’d enter the sunlight together. She carried him to the window. But down below the dead had risen early, and followed her here. They reached their arms up to catch him, this boy. To feed from him. A test. The dead had sent her here to test her loyalty. The boy hugged her tightly, and her hollow bones ached.

Behind her the door opened and she saw a couple, older now. Sadder, now. A man and a woman. They stopped in the doorway. There was recognition, and then it closed like an eye winking, and they forgot. They did not know her.

What had they done with the pig?

She dangled the child out the window. Trusting her, he did not fight. The dead clamored. The couple shouted. The boy did not blink. Such a sweet thing. Brown eyes, brown hair. A cold snake coiled inside her belly, and knew that she loved him. This, her opposite. This thing too perfect to be human. And yet, together, they were whole.

She dropped him into the arms of the dead. He was too surprised to scream. Wide-eyed, he fell with his arms extended, as if convinced that at the last moment she would reach out and catch him. And then the thud and moan when he landed, a startled sound. And then the crunch, and the smacking lips, and the snakes in her stomach writhed like rage.

The couple was weeping when she turned to them. Their eyes became the opposite of stars. They went from wet and shining, to black. They looked at her, and their recognition returned. Then she climbed inside the tiny bed, and took her rightful place as their firstborn child.

Sarah Langan

Sarah Langan

Sarah Langan is the author of the novels The Keeper and The Missing, and her most recent novel, Audrey’s Door, won the 2009 Stoker for best novel. Her short fiction has appeared in the magazines Cemetery Dance, Phantom, and Chiaroscuro, and in the anthologies Brave New WorldsDarkness on the Edge, and Unspeakable Horror. She is currently working on a post-apocalyptic young adult series called Kids and two adult novels: Empty Houses, which was inspired by The Twilight Zone, and My Father’s Ghost, which was inspired by Hamlet. Her work has been translated into ten languages and optioned by the Weinstein Company for film. It has also garnered three Bram Stoker Awards, an American Library Association Award, two Dark Scribe Awards, a New York Times Book Review editor’s pick, and a Publishers Weekly favorite book of the year selection.