Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

The H Word: What Comes at the End

I am seven and my fingers are streaked with dark earth. With my right hand, I am using a spoon to cut an earthworm into smaller and smaller bits and wondering what it would feel like to be taken apart. I am in our tiny backyard, behind the tinier rental house that could get away with not being called a house at all, and I am digging a hole with a spoon from our silverware drawer. It is one of four spoons, and my mother has given it to me. There are no toy spades, no toy buckets. We are poor, and so I dig my hole with a spoon and pluck worms from their hiding places. The earth is one of the first things to teach me of death.

I dig the hole large enough to step inside, but I cannot lie down the way I want to, cannot press my back into the soil and stare up into the sky and forget the shouting coming from inside the house. I don’t understand that my mother’s shrill voice carries its own indiscretions, its own abuses, that it isn’t only my father who has committed sins in the name of abandonment and apathy. I scrape at rocks, turning them over to examine the pill bugs underneath before I mash them flat under my spoon.

Here I can control how the horrors play out. I understand the earth, understand how it pushes against me and then finally gives under pressure, parting to let me through. I feel no remorse for the insects I kill, only a kind of cold fascination in the thought that the membrane separating life from death can break so easily. I teach myself how to view horrific things, how to take ownership of them so that the pain I feel in my waking life becomes somehow lessened.

• • • •

I am older, but not old enough yet to understand the world I inhabit. I am waiting for my mother to pick me up from school. One by one, the other children climb into their parents’ cars or minivans. A few toss me sympathetic or confused glances, and I stare hard at the horizon, determined not to show them that I’m embarrassed, that I’m afraid.

It will not be the last time my mother forgets about me. Another twenty years will pass before I am angry, before I question how a mother can forget her child.

No one sees me when I walk away from the school. No one sees me when I walk to the end of the road and kneel in the dirt. No one sees me crush ants under my palm and dig into the dust until my fingernails break and my fingers bleed. I imagine that my mother is dead. I imagine that she is not. I am not sure which is worse. No one sees me when I start to cry.

• • • •

I am twenty-seven, and I write stories about things under the earth. It has been many years since I discovered my love for horror, but it took me a long time to allow myself to write the things I had carried with me since I went digging for the first time.

My fears are all covered in a thin film of earth. What lies under the soil—those unknown possibilities—is bound up with loss. To lose yourself or the ones you love to those dark things you could never understand even though you stood just over them; this is the only fear that squeezes my heart, my lungs, so I cannot breathe.

Readers point out these repeated motifs to me, and at first I am surprised. I don’t realize what I am doing. I am only writing the things I’ve kept buried for so long, pulling them up from the dark places of my childhood and examining the truth of them. I weigh out my belief that horror hides inside the fears we’ve carried with us since we were small, and at thirty, I accept it as truth and learn to abide with it.

There are other horrors, other childhoods that are not mud-slicked and filled with grit. We read horror, we hold up the mirror, and we peer deep and wonder if what looks back will resemble something we know, if perhaps, it will be worse, but when we find the fear we know, we let it settle like a hard stone in our bellies, and we dare ourselves to look again, to take ourselves a bit further in, a bit further down. This, I feel, is what draws us, inexplicably, to horror. This recognition. We come back again and again to find ourselves and to offer a kind of balm to the shaking children we once were.

Then the meaning shifts and changes again. Our worldview expands and the events around us spin into the horror we try to tackle with our fiction. Those old fears, the ones you’ve tried to cover the best you can, become less than the horror we see unfolding in the news or in our political climate. Here, again, I turn to horror to try and make sense of the insensible, and in that way, horror can become more powerful a tool than we ever imagined it to be. It does not simply unearth what we’ve tried to forget, but gives us the means to shed light on the larger things we should fear in the future.

And so I lay the girl I once was down in the dirt. I cover her in dust and breathe stories into her ear and tell her that if she wants to close her eyes, that it’s okay. Nothing bad will happen.

This is how we come to our horror stories. Quietly. Carefully. Believing that perhaps everything will be fine in the end.

But it is a story I am writing, and this, of course, is a lie.

There will be horrible things.

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Kristi DeMeester

Kristi DeMeester

Kristi DeMeester is the author of Beneath, a novel published by Word Horde, and Everything That’s Underneath, a short fiction collection forthcoming this year from Apex Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Horror Volume 9, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volumes 1 and 3, in addition to publications such as Pseudopod, The Dark, Black Static, and several others. In her spare time, she alternates between telling people how to pronounce her last name and how to spell her first. Find her online at kristidemeester.com.