The rain falls on me, heavy at first, then lighter, then heavier again. I am soaked to the skin, and I am hoping that the backpack I’m wearing is waterproof. I’m afraid to open it to check, and so I leave it on and just keep walking.
The further I go along the street, the fewer people I see, the fewer parked cars, the fewer buildings. Soon the sidewalk runs out as well, replaced with a grassy shoulder along the road, and there is nothing to either side of me except fields speckled with the occasional group of oaks, and a line of white fencing that extends forever in front of me.
A flash of lightning rips across the sky, and a pattern of shadows races across the field to my left, thrown from the trees nearest me. I am startled enough by the unexpected light, but what unsettles me more is that the shadows continue to move after the light dies down again, flowing like water across the grass, an afterimage in motion. They race across the field toward me, quickly, far too quickly, and I step back from the fence at the field’s edge, stepping up onto the road. The shadows hit the fence at a terrific speed, silently crashing against it, and although there is no sound of the impact, the fence creaks and vibrates as though it has been hit by a considerable weight, and water splashes from the boards and onto the pavement at my feet.
I take another step into the road, putting more distance between me and the field, and I pick up my pace. Keep to the road, the woman in the leather coat had told me. You’re safe as long as you keep to the road. She had also said it was only a mile to the houses, but there’s no way that’s true. I’ve been walking for at least an hour now, and I’ve yet to see anything since leaving the town that’s not fields and trees. I’m certain I’ve not taken a wrong turn, simply because there has been no other road to follow but the one I’m already on.
There is another flash of lightning to my left. I don’t turn to look.
How many miles now? Five? Seven? All I have to gauge by is the brightness in the sky, and although I can’t see the sun through the clouds, I have a sense that it won’t be long before night overtakes me. The rain continues to fall for what seems like hours, and even though the trees become greater in number, and clump together in thicker groups, and even though my feet are cold and wet and aching, I don’t leave the road to go sit in the dry places beneath them. Though I’ve seen no more wild shadows in the blasts of lightning which illuminate the countryside, I feel no decrease in my worry about what might be on the other side of the long white fence.
I don’t know how much longer I walk before I notice that the rain has stopped, or that the skies have finally grown clear. Looking up, I see a vast scattering of stars, bright swirls and spirals of them, brighter than I’ve ever seen before, freed from the dimming and blurring of city lights. I’m no astronomer, but not a single constellation looks familiar to me. A green ribbon of an aurora stretches across the sky, dividing it like the channel of a river, from one side of the horizon to the other.
I realize I am shivering, that my teeth are chattering, that in the brightness from the stars and aurora, I can see my breath clouding in front of me as I walk.
There is nothing good about this situation.
I take off my backpack and kneel down, setting it on the damp pavement, and nervously unzip the main pocket. I fear the worst, but I’m relieved when I put my hand inside and find that my clothes have remained dry throughout the rain and long walk. At least something is going right for me this time.
I am not about to leave the road in order to change, and so I awkwardly take off the wet clothing that Sullivan had given me back in his shop, and let it drop to the pavement at my feet. I take my jeans and T-shirt from the pack, the clothes I’d been wearing a million years ago when I’d walked through Mr. Middlemost’s door in the shed in California, and fumble to put them on in the dark. I put on two pairs of Sullivan’s socks, and slip my feet back into my wet shoes.
When I am done, I at least feel warmer, and I savor the moment. I’m afraid that small victories are the only ones I’ll be having from here on out.
I don’t know what else to do with Sullivan’s wet clothes, so I wring them out as best I can, and tie them to the straps of the backpack. I don’t want to leave them behind. I might end up needing them again.
The book of photos I put inside the plastic bag that had been holding my socks, adding some extra protection for it, just in case.
I am just settling the backpack against my shoulders again when I hear the first whisper from the other side of the white fence.
What is it? the whisper asks. I smells it on the road.
I turn and look, the field bright from the light of the stars and aurora. I see nothing but grass and trees, but I sense that emptiness is an illusion.
It’s a her, a second whisper replies. A so-close-to-us her.
A sigh, light as a breeze, and a smell of rot and undergrowth drifts like smoke across me. I wants her. I wants to touch her hair.
Have her hair. I wants to feel her fingers. Soft, I bet they are. Like butterfly stomachs.
I want to run, but I force myself to keep to a fast walk. The night is bright, but I don’t want to stumble in a rut in the road. A twisted ankle would make this more of a horror movie brought to life than it already is.
I wants her teeth. And the bones in her throat.
Follow her. Breathe on her. Lull her.
Again there is a sigh, and again the stink slips over me. I feel covered in a patina of mildew, and I wipe at my face with the back of my hand. The taste of it is in my mouth, like moldy bread.
Her skull for a bowl, the voice whispers.
Her eyes for my eggs, the second voice murmurs. Her belly for my nest.
Again the breath against me, fetid and moist, and my throat is full of burning coals. I stumble, falling forward and scraping my hands against the pavement as I am swept away in a fit of coughs, heavy and thick, stars at the edge of my vision.
So close, sighs the first voice.
So near, breathes the second.
Something begins to pull gently at my hair, tugging, insistent. Still coughing, I try to crawl further away from the fence, to the other side of the road, but then the invisible fingers in my hair tighten, and yank my head back and to the side. Like I am on a leash.
I fall to my side, helped along by the tugging in my hair, and roll onto my back. The stars are bright above me, the aurora shimmering at the edges, vibrating and indistinct. Another wave of rotten air blows over me, and the stinging of it brings tears to my eyes. I blink against them and put my hands to my head, trying to free the phantom fingers there that are pulling harder, yanking me backwards, moving me toward the fence despite my attempts to scramble away from it.
A touch on my shoulder, and then a painful iron grip.
We has her.
And then I feel the grass beneath me as I am pulled off the pavement and onto the grass running along the long white fence. I slip beneath the bottom of the fence, and as much as my fingers dig into the damp wood, as deep as the splinters bite into my skin, as much as my muscles strain against the tidal pull…
Her is ours.
Bones for us.