Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Trampling

It starts with a small child — a girl of no more than eight or nine, with stringy blond hair and grease caked under her ragged fingernails — trotting down a street in a not so fashionable district of London. It’s 1886. It’s nearly three in the morning, the night shrouded in fog. She’s barefoot and hungry, and back in the rooms she left just ten minutes ago, her parents have begun making up from the row they’ve just ended, a row that included a vast amount of cursing, thrown cutlery, and fisticuffs, leaving the girl’s mother with a great weal across her cheek and another across her forehead. The girl’s been sent for a doctor, who might stitch up the cuts. Her parents’ making-up will consist mainly of the girl’s father forcing himself into her mother, disregarding the tears in her eyes and the whimpering he mistakes for her pleasure, and in this way he will allow himself to believe that everything that came before that moment has been forgiven.

The girl, as mentioned, is hungry. And also somewhat frightened by the goings-on back home, though over the years her fear of her father’s temper and her mother’s sharp tongue has waned. Little by little, the girl has come to see that, though one might easily and consistently be hurt in mind or body by living in the circumstances she’s been born to, one can survive if one keeps her wits about her. So when a fight breaks out, she knows to slip out the door and wait beneath the window ledge with the flowerless flower box sitting upon it, until the shouting and the tussling is finally over. Which is what she’s done. Then her father called her in and said, “Run and get the doctor.” Which is what she’s doing.

Even this late at night, there are doctors of a certain type — apothecaries more than anything — that will waken and go to someone’s aid, even though the streets have almost emptied. Even this late at night, too, you can sometimes find a gentleman who may stop to give a barefoot urchin a coin, enough to buy a sweet from the shops in the morning if she can hide it long enough from her parents. And many gentlemen won’t even require her to sing a song or to perform a dance or to allow his hand to caress her for several moments. No, the ideal gentleman will simply press a coin into her hand and will then move along, shaking his head, disturbed by the overwhelming force of pity she’s stirred in him. If she can find an ideal gentleman while running for the doctor, she thinks it could at least mitigate some of the disaster she’s just lived through.

To find a doctor, she’s had to go down a street that she’d probably recognize more easily during the day, when people are actually walking about and the shops are open. She’s unsure of whether or not she’s taken a wrong turn, because it feels like it’s taking longer than usual to find the building where the old sawbones who usually sees to her mother’s ailments lives. And despite her belief that there are always kind gentlemen available at any hour, none seem to be appearing now to help her.

The moon is high. The gaslights flicker in the white fog like faraway lighthouse beacons.

Though the girl doesn’t see any gentlemen appearing in her path, someone is in fact coming toward her. Someone — or something — is approaching from nearly two blocks away, heading in her direction, his footfalls thudding against the cobblestones, his breathing fast and heavy. He is not a gentleman in the least, though. He is more like some kind of elemental force: a dark wind blowing down an alleyway, pushing over carts, spilling apples, shaking windows until they shatter in his wake. He is hurrying away from something at this moment, his arms pumping furiously, as though he’s being chased, and his bloodshot eyes are glistening. When he turns a corner, he sees the little girl just up ahead. She’s standing under the foggy glow of a street lantern, a sole actor illuminated by stage lights. He doesn’t slow down in the least. He goes forward, possibly even faster, as if she is just another obstacle placed in his way — an old barrel, or a bin full of rotting cabbages — that for obscure and paranoiac reasons he must now confront.

The girl turns to see him barreling down on her, coming at her with the pace and intent of a juggernaut, and promptly she opens her mouth to scream. Before she can loose a cry, he is there, knocking her backward, her head hitting the stone upon which she’d been standing, and then he tramples over her, his boots thudding across her small body, snapping her left arm in two.

After which the girl does manage to scream, loudly and over and over, unwittingly calling the attention of someone nearby. A gentleman, actually. An ideal gentleman by the name of Enfield who, on his way home from what he’ll later describe to a confidante as some place at the end of the world, has just witnessed what’s occurred from across the street, and who now shouts, “You there! You, sir! I say. Halt!”

When the dark wind that blew the girl over does not heed his words, Enfield rushes across the street and begins to chase the monster.

It is a long chase, though Enfield does not feel exactly how long it is as adrenaline pumps through his body. As the cries of the little girl rise like frightened night birds, he quickens his pace, faster and faster, going one block, two, three, then a fourth, until suddenly he is breathing down the neck of the man who assaulted her, grabbing the collar of his overcoat, and lifting him off the ground by an inch.

“I said to stop!” Enfield shouts, and then places the offensive cur back on his feet, only for the man to turn around to reveal his face, shadowed beneath the brim of his hat.

It is a normal enough face, but something in it strikes to the heart of Enfield, sending a shiver through his body, weakening his grip on the man’s collar. It is a normal enough face — two eyes, not set too far apart or too close, two ears in proper alignment, a nose without a break, a mouth full of all its teeth even — but something in how it is all put together signals pure evil. The evil man sneers, and Enfield says, “You, sir, have hurt a child. A child to whom we shall now give our help.”

No argument ensues. The horrid little man — who is actually not little so much as stooped over as he walks — simply says, “Very well, then,” and walks alongside Enfield, who has still not released his grip on the man’s collar. It’s only after they walk the four blocks back to the street corner where the terrible incident occurred that Enfield realizes the length of the chase and begins to feel winded as he returns to normal.

A small crowd has gathered around the girl at this point: her parents have come looking for her, along with the doctor she’d intended to find in the first place, and a few people from the neighborhood that were woken by her cries. Her mother’s face is shrouded with a shawl she’s pulled over her head, as though she means to keep out the winter chill instead of hiding the violence done to her earlier that evening. Her father still stinks of gin, but by now he’s at least able to stand without wobbling. The little girl looks up at them all as they converse above her.

After examining her briefly, the old sawbones snaps his black bag closed and stands again, telling everyone, “Her arm is broken, I’m afraid,” which sends them all into a concerted argument with the man who ran her over.

They have questions for him. What is his name? “Hyde,” he tells them. Her mother repeats that name like a curse, then spits at the man’s feet, mere inches from the girl’s body. They will bring that name to ruin, they tell him. They will make such a scandal of that name that it will stink from one end of London to the other.

The man who trampled the girl cannot seem to make a face that exudes any hint of an apology, which angers the gathered crowd even more. He wears a continual sneer, as though all of humanity is beneath his contempt, as if all of humanity is his for the trampling. He adjusts the brim of his hat so that it shades his eyes into dark pools, and says, “If you choose to make capital out of this accident, I am naturally helpless. No gentleman but wishes to avoid a scene. Name your figure.”

Numbers fly back and forth over the girl’s head. They seem to have forgotten her at this point. The man, Enfield, who brought her assailant back to face justice, says, “One hundred pounds!” and the girl’s father looks at him as though he’s demanded the moon itself.

“A hundred pounds!” says Hyde. “Why, that is enough to purchase a house!”

“Or to purchase our silence,” Enfield says, his voice low, almost growling like a dog giving warning.

“Very well, then,” says Hyde. “A hundred pounds.”

“And how will you produce a hundred pounds at this hour?” Enfield asks, seeming angry that Hyde has agreed to meet his figure, as if he were hoping the man would argue, so that he might instead have him thrown into prison.

Hyde simply grins an evil grin and says, “Follow me.”

Before they leave, the old sawbones sets the girl’s arm and arranges it in a sling, muttering, “It’s a simple break, but do not let her move it.” He also gives the girl’s mother a vial to help the girl sleep, if sleep will not come tonight. “Only a thimbleful, though,” he advises. “It is strong stuff.” Then the girl’s father lifts her up and places her into her mother’s arms.

The mother takes the girl back to their dirty little rooms and puts her to bed, then sits beside the girl’s cot to sing her a lullaby. Her notes flicker like the flame in the bedside lantern as she sings an old song about a child who’s been ill and, after breathing her last breath, is released from her body to walk across a star-filled sky. Afterward, the girl pretends to fall asleep, and the mother folds her arms across her stomach as she rocks back and forth in her chair, over and over, stifling her sobbing. The girl lies in bed, eyes closed, pretending to sleep so that the mother will eventually stop crying and leave her altogether.

It is only after the mother stands to go, closing the door behind her, that the girl’s eyes fly open again, and she stares up at the ceiling, where shadows are starting to gather. They move as if they have a life of their own, bending and winking. She watches them shift and transform in a hypnotic fashion, until suddenly she sees a figure forming above her, and she begins to scream.

• • • •

We’ll leave the girl like that for a moment. We must now follow the men — her father, the old sawbones, and Mr. Enfield, her savior — on their journey to acquire Mr. Hyde’s hush money.

Mr. Hyde leads them away from the scene of the crime, stamping his cane on the stones in front of him. They walk not a great distance, but in that short span the streets change into a somewhat dingy neighborhood. Dingy, but what one calls quiet. Dignified working class quarters, where the houses are bland but livable, and where the streets during the daytime take on a friendlier air as the shopkeepers push their grains and goods outside for passersby to consider. This neighborhood borders a much better one, so those who live on this particular street take pride in their nearness to polite society.

They come to a stop at one particularly sinister-looking block of buildings — two stories high with not even one window, and a gable that thrusts itself out and over them like a gargoyle — and there Hyde opens a recessed door with a key and looks over his shoulder to say, “One moment, I will be right back,” before closing the door behind him.

The door is a blistered and discolored affair, set back into a sliver of darkness. It’s the sort of place where tramps take cover, sleep, and strike matches against the panels. It’s the sort of place where children decide to keep shop, where schoolboys try their knives on the moldings. Enfield, the father, and the old sawbones look upon it and shiver.

Hyde returns quickly, as promised, and hands the father coins and a check. “What’s all this?” the father asks, and Hyde explains that he only has ten pounds in his quarters, and the rest can be withdrawn from the banks in the morning. Before the father can say anything, Enfield takes the check from him and examines it for a long moment, after which he lowers it slowly, so that Hyde sees the man’s eyes revealed little by little, and then his entire face. And Enfield’s face betrays a shocking disbelief.

“How did you come by this check, sir?” Enfield inquires calmly, though his voice is tinged with an even greater edge than before. And Hyde does not attempt to answer with any complex lie. He simply assures Enfield that the check, despite being signed by a Dr. Henry Jekyll, is quite good.

“If it is good,” Enfield says, “then you wouldn’t mind waiting with the rest of us until morning, when we could all go to the bank together.” He looks at the father, who nods, and then at the old sawbones, who sighs but also nods, and then turns back to Hyde, who is grinning beneath the shadow of his hat’s brim.

“But of course,” says Hyde. “Where, however, might we wait?” He looks back to the sinister building behind him, and the other men look with him. Hyde’s grin grows wider, though they can’t see it. And their own faces look grim as they consider what Hyde’s lair might contain.

“My rooms are not far from here,” Enfield says, and they follow him several blocks into the bordering streets, where polite society still sleeps.

They pass two hours in Enfield’s drawing room, which has a fire going for warmth, and he shares out a bit of brandy between the men, Hyde included. The father drinks his too quickly, rather than sipping. Enfield is perturbed by the man’s lack of manners, but rises to pour him another regardless. If he didn’t, he would not be a gentleman. The men do not speak much, and the father eventually falls asleep in a wingback leather chair, snoring a bit as he descends into unconsciousness. Hyde snorts at the irony of this development, and peers through the fire lit shadows to see if Enfield and the old sawbones, too, find it humorous that the father of the victim is the first to reconcile himself with their odd situation enough to sleep soundly in a strange room among strangers, one of whom has injured his daughter. Enfield rolls his eyes a little, then looks toward the window, where the sun has just begun to rise behind the silhouetted roofline across the street, turning the sky pink, then orange, and then finally a blue that glistens like ice.

When the bank opens, the men are already outside, waiting to enter. Waiting to end their enforced company. So they slip through the pillars into the building, where Enfield instructs the father and the old sawbones to wait on a bench near the front, and then he and Hyde continue further, seeming to grow smaller as they approach the center of the high-vaulted room. A man comes out from behind a large desk to greet them, shakes their hands vigorously, takes the check from Enfield, asks for them to wait just a moment, ferries the check to an inner chamber, then returns minutes later with a billfold of bank notes, which he presents to Enfield, which Enfield carries back to the father waiting on the soft-leather bench, to place it in the father’s hands gently, soberly, with an air of nobility, as if he is knighting or anointing the father with this money that has purchased their silence.

The check is good, as Hyde said it would be. The father now holds a hundred pounds on his person. More than he has ever seen in his life, even if he added up every shilling that had ever slipped through his grubby fingers.

They stand in a circle staring down at the bank notes, except for Hyde, who is already moving toward the exit. “It has been an interesting evening, my friends,” he says, and then he laughs loudly — once, twice, a third time — as he pauses at the door to look over his shoulder briefly, to sneer at them once more. And then he is gone, sticking his cane out before his next step, strolling among the good people of London.

The men dissolve their company and the father returns to his dirty rooms in his dirty district, where the mother has fallen asleep sitting at the kitchen table, her head rested on her folded arms. He wakes her up, laughing, and dances a jig as he shows her the money, which makes the mother laugh as well now, hysterically so, and then she has a kettle on and she’s still laughing and laughing — she cannot stop laughing — and they’re making plans, so many plans, more plans than the money can even make happen. A house. New wardrobes. Perhaps they will open a shop for the mother. She’s a good seamstress, after all. She could have her own place, if they’d purchase the equipment and all of the materials she’d need to make a go of it. Together they could make a go of it, they’re thinking, they could make a go of this life that they’d nearly given up on after years and years of backbreaking labor that never amounted to anything but squalor.

The girl, who has not yet fallen asleep, hears them laughing and dancing. She stares up at the ceiling and shakes her head at each idea they produce in the midst of their hysteria. These dreams, she knows, none of them will come true. She knows this because she knows her father, knows his rarely kept promises, knows his seeming inability to flourish even when good fortune befalls him. Whatever he touches turns to dust and ruin, the opposite of Midas.

And she is right. The father will not buy the house they’ve imagined that morning. He’ll rent one for them instead, in a better neighborhood, of course, and yes, he’ll buy them new clothes. But the dreamed-of shop for her mother will never come to fruition. He’ll have started drinking far too much gin again by then; and really, even now, as they’re making plans for what to do with the money, he is already thinking of his next glass. And as the money withers little by little, he will grow frightened and will begin to gamble, trying to regain his losses, but the money will only disappear faster and faster, as if it’s caught a wasting disease, and eventually he’ll be unable to pay the rent on the new house and will be evicted, only to return to the dirty rooms in which they are now, at this very moment, dancing and laughing and making plans for a better future.

The girl shakes her head as she holds her broken arm and tries not to look up at the shadows crawling on her ceiling. They seem to be alive, to crawl like snakes.

• • • •

This is the last we’ll see of the girl in a somewhat hopeful situation. Her arm will heal, of course, but the old sawbones unfortunately did not set it properly, and because of this she will not be able to bring it behind her back or raise it entirely over her head for the rest of her life. It will be a limitation that excludes her from certain kinds of work. Like the work her mother had lined up for her prior to the trampling. Work as a servant in a decent house, where the girl might have taken coats from gentlemen as they entered to visit the girl’s hypothetical master, for whom she might have cleaned and blacked the stove and helped the cook with preparations in the kitchen.

Instead, in the coming months, after the father has moved them to the new house, then moved them back to their old rooms after losing the money, the girl will be turned down for the position as it becomes clear she isn’t capable of doing certain kinds of labor. Instead, she’ll go to work in a match factory at the end of their grubby street, where she will work sixteen-hour shifts dipping matchsticks into vats of phosphorous, the fumes of which will eventually come to rot her teeth. She will continue to dip matchsticks from then on, from age ten until age sixteen, which is when she’ll begin to cough blood into her hands and onto her pillow — another effect of the fumes she’ll breathe for sixteen hours out of each day of her life, more chemicals than oxygen — and when that happens she will remain in bed for the rest of her remaining days and nights, which are unfortunately quite limited.

Hers is not an unusual life, really, even now, where we stand over a century beyond the girl’s desperate circumstances. Cell phones manufactured by indentured factory workers, clothes made in places where sixteen-hour work shifts are still quite ordinary, where such a shift may produce only a dollar or two for those who work them, and where children scavenge among the material wreckage other nations have deposited in their homelands, looking for copper and other metal that might be salvaged. It is not unusual, even now, to hear of places where the powerful have arranged for the working populations to enter into a new kind of slavery, where a person can toil freely, without compulsion, for the profit of others yet still go hungry, still live in squalor despite their hard labor. It is not unusual, even now, to hear stories of the powerful attempting to eradicate laws that have been erected to protect people from allowing misery of this kind to dominate their lives. Laws that would protect people from them, really, the Hydes of the world, who appear before us as the highest members of society, seeming as good as Dr. Jekyll himself seemed, doing charity work and throwing galas for the underprivileged in an effort to obscure their all-consuming greed, to help obscure their inner desire to harm, to exploit, to trample.

The girl lies in bed with her hands on her stomach. She hasn’t been to the matchstick factory for nearly a week. Her breathing is shallow; her chest stutters as it rises and falls. It is almost time for her to leave her body and walk across the night above the rooftops, to leave the pain this world has given her, as in her mother’s song. But for now she still breathes. She still lingers. She still stares up and into the vault of darkness gathering above and waits for the shadow that has haunted her since the night of her trampling. The shadow that had made her scream that night, right before we left her to follow the men to Enfield’s quarters.

On that night, the night Hyde ran the girl over, she’d feigned sleep so her mother would leave her bedside. And afterward the girl had opened her eyes, only to see a cloud of black shadows swirling above her. At first the shadows moved like gentle winds, but the longer she watched, the faster they stirred, growing furious and more powerful, bending across her ceiling, until all at once they coalesced into the figure of a man, and in the next moment the man dove toward her.

The mother, from the front room, had heard and came running, casting out the shadowy figure in the very instant she opened the door and filled the room with light from the kitchen. “What is it, love?” she asked the girl. “Is it your arm?”

But the girl only shook her head and said, “It was him. It was him again. That man. He was coming to trample me.”

“Oh love,” her mother said. “It’s all over now. It’s all over.”

But it wasn’t over, not really. Not for the girl, who would continue to see his shadow appear above her every night for the rest of her brief life, even after other horrors she would eventually encounter at the factory might have replaced him as an alternative source of torment. He was still out there. It was not over. Not for anyone. The girl knew this on the night he trampled her, and she knows it still, now, in her final hour. Even as she waits for her last breath to leave her, she can hear the clomping of his heels on the cobblestones and his heavy breathing as he approaches. And then he is there in the room with her once more.

She gasps, releasing a chilled plume of breath into the air above her, and then she is skipping across the night sky above a jagged line of London’s rooftops, free, as the lullaby her mother once sang her promised.

He is out there, even now, still running with the pace and intent of a juggernaut down streets and alleyways, prepared to trample over anything and anyone, prepared to trample over the world if he has to, still sneering, as if all of humanity is beneath him.

Christopher Barzak

Christopher BarzakChristopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Fantasy Award winning novel, One for Sorrow, which has been made into the recently released Sundance feature film “Jamie Marks is Dead”. His second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, was a finalist for the Nebula and Tiptree Awards. He is also the author of two collections: Birds and Birthdays, a collection of surrealist fantasy stories, and Before and Afterlives, a collection of supernatural fantasies, which won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. He grew up in rural Ohio, has lived in a southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and has taught English outside of Tokyo, Japan, where he lived for two years. His next novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, will be published by Knopf in 2015. Currently he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University.