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Amy on the Train

Amy was thirteen, and had been thirteen for a very long time. The train car she sat in was an overnighter, meant for people who couldn’t afford a sleeper car. The night dimmed the windows to opacity, so Amy used the glass as a mirror to watch the compartment door open. A nicely-dressed man and three children hustled in, chattering before they even got the door open. There was a teenage girl, a boy with glasses who looked a few years younger, and a little red-faced boy in a sailor suit who immediately set to kicking the seat opposite his.

“Jack,” said the man without much heat or conviction, “stop that.”

The boy made no such motion. The family immediately spread out, capturing so much of the seating Amy was forced to press against the window. Her breath didn’t steam the glass.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t get a sleeper,” said the girl, tossing her hair. It was quite voluminous and chased with ribbons so that it looked almost like a cake.

“Amelia, dear, I have explained this,” said the father, not looking up from his papers, “we will be in at your grandmother’s stop within a few hours. It would be a waste of money.”

“But we have to share compartments with any dirty old stranger!”

Not once did any of them look over at Amy. The little boy bored with kicking the seat and began bumping the makeshift desk his father held on his lap with his knees.

“Jack, stop that,” said the man, pulling away. Jack turned his heels up to his sister Amelia, who gave him a withering glare.

“Father,” said the glasses-wearing boy, “Amelia’s right, to a certain degree. These compartments are made to fit four comfortably. By rights we shouldn’t have to share.”

“I suppose you’re right, Thomas.” The father turned to Amy, not looking at her but in a direction that happened to hold her. “Would you mind getting out, terribly? We’re all very tired.”

Amy looked the group over once. “Yes, I see.”

The older boy slammed the door behind her with a loud snap. Amy stepped slightly to the side and leaned her back against the wall, listening.

“Well I don’t see why I have to mind the smelly little beast, he’s old enough to—”

“Amelia, please stop arguing with me. If you don’t learn now what will you do when you have children?”

“I’ll have nannies and maids to look after them. Really, daddy. You think I’m as malleable as that silly girl who trespassed in our car. Dirty little thing. She’s probably one of those war orphans.”

“Now Amelia, children can’t help how they appear. It’s the fault of the parents, most of the time.”

“So who can we blame that hair on, eh Ames?”

“Shut up, Thomas.”

Amy crept off. Not to another compartment, but to a quiet place where she could conceal herself. She had boarded without a ticket or bags, because she was not traveling but looking. And the family had looked quite promising.

 

11:30. The little boy Jack had escaped the compartment, or been allowed to escape to give his father some measure of peace. He throttled the external door like a pet bird’s neck, kicking the bottom panel with his heels. Amy watched the scenery pass by indifferently, gauging their speed. They were on a flat plain. Soon there would be a hill.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked.

The boy jumped, then his face turned mean when he saw she wasn’t an adult. He sneered at her and resumed kicking at the door. Amy watched the restraining bolt as it rattled in its hinge. Too much force would make it vibrate free.

“I don’t believe that’s safe.”

“I don’t believe that’s safe,” the boy repeated back in a mocking tone. He reared back and gave a mighty kick, edging the bolt a millimeter. Amy could feel as the train slowed, starting up an incline.

“Are you traveling on holiday? Perhaps we’re going the same way.”

The boy kicked faster, eyes gleaming from his red face like bits of bottle glass. The bolt did not move.

“Does your sister have any friends where she’s going? Perhaps we could become acquainted.”

At mention of his sister, the boy doubled his force. Amy could feel their assent slowing. Soon they would be at the peak. The bolt was only halfway loose.

“Shall I tell your father you’re here?”

Shall I tell your father you’re here?” Kick. Throttle. Kick. The train was beginning to pick up speed.

“I only worry, because you’ve been left unsupervised.”

“Stupid girl.” Kick. Throttle. The train slipped faster down the incline.

“Something terrible could happen to a small child left alone.”

“Ugly girl.” Kick. Throttle. They were nearing the end of the slope, hitting the pinnacle of the train’s speed.

“I don’t believe this door is safe at all,’ Amy said, letting her eyes flick to the bolt. Jack followed her gaze and crowed in triumph. He yanked the bolt back and gave a final kick. The door bowed open from the force of the kick and Jack went with it, disappearing into the rushing night air. As the door bounced back, Amy caught it and latched it securely again.

 

12am. On her way down the hall, Amy ran into the older boy, Thomas, waiting in her path with a smug expression.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“Not particularly,” Amy said. Thomas tapped the thin book in his hands.

“I’ve been reading the train regulations. Father says I’m to take over his business one day, so I read everything I get my hands on.”

“How nice for you,” Amy said.

“It says that those without fare can be charged with up to five years in debtor’s prison.” Thomas tapped the book again. “Tell me, do you have train fare?”

Amy slowly looked him up and down.

“I read all sorts of books,” Thomas bragged, having departed the real world for his own head, “read one recently that revealed the poorer classes have no choice but to continue to be poor. Bad breeding, you see. I’m sure you can’t help your lowbrow criminal behavior, but it is my duty as a paragon of good breeding to correct you. I’m going to tell the conductor and he’s going to throw you off the train. Seeing as you’re a lady, he might be tempted to go easy. But I will remind him of the rules and regulations.” Thomas tapped the book again.

Amy smiled at him, so long that he began to shift uneasily.

“Tell me,” she said suddenly, “have you ever read the riddle of the Sphinx?”

The boy colored slightly. Apparently he had skimped on the classics.

“The sphinx of greek legend sat outside a city and asked a riddle of every passer-by. If any of them got it wrong, she would tear them to pieces. Want to hear a riddle?” Amy asked sweetly.

Thomas turned slightly pale. The train ride had become bumpy, the lamps in the corridor were flickering.

Amy smiled wide and white as she leaned forward until their faces were inches apart.

“What’s black. And white. And red all over?” she whispered.

Thomas trembled. “The financial times?”

Amy laughed as the lights flickered and then went out. “No,” she said.

 

1 in the morning. The girl Amelia was in the lavatory, petting her own face listlessly. She gave a little scream when she turned around and found Amy standing very close behind her.

“You startled me,” she said, fanning her face.

Amy clustered in, preventing her from turning back to the mirror. “Oh dear. How sorry I must be. What’s keeping you up so late?”

Amelia donned a haughty look. “Looking for my horrid little brothers. You haven’t seen either of them?”

“Not recently” Amy said truthfully.

Amelia sighed and then daintily pushed her out of the way. “Then you’re of no use to me.”

“Amelia.”

The girl stopped part-way down the hall. Amy had shut the lavatory door, so the car was lit only by what little light bled from outside.

“Do you know my name is Amy? It’s quite like yours, isn’t it?”

Amelia wrinkled her nose. “Amy is cheap substitute for a real name. Is it short for something?”

“Several things.”

Amelia shook her head, which made her hair flap like a circus tent in a breeze. “A cheap name for gutter trash. I told daddy to book us a sleeper, nothing good comes from interacting with common folk.”

“Wait.”

Amelia’s hand was on the door latch. Amy walked closer, pitching her voice so that Amelia had to lean forward to hear it.

“Your brothers are dead. They died while under your watch.”

Amelia, disturbed, took her hand off the latch. As Amy drew closer, she backed away.

“There was nothing you could have done to prevent it,” Amy whispered, drawing her feet along the carpet so her steps made no sound, “but more importantly, nothing you did prevented it. You feel that your father’s money affords you a comfortable measure of safety? But that measure means nothing if it’s not enforced.”

Amy paced, slowly chasing her to the end of the car.

“You feel that if anything happened to you, it would raise a mighty furor,” Amy continued, “and you think that guards against misfortune. But it doesn’t. Collaring the burglar does not fill the safe back up. Damming the river does not un-drown the flooded. An ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure, wouldn’t you agree Ames?”

Amelia’s back hit the connecting door. She pressed her lips together so they turned white.

“Daddy,” she whispered, barely loud enough that Amy heard her over the train.

“He’s not here,” Amy said, petting her head like one would a dog, “but I am.”

 

2 and a bit. Amy closed the compartment door snugly behind her. The man(she never had gotten his name, had she?) dozed in the corner. Amy shook his arm, looking deeply into his eyes as he woke.

“Your children are dead,” she said.

“Yes, I see,” he said back.

“You no longer have any reason to travel to your original destination.”

“Yes.”

“Shall you accompany me, then? I’m getting off at the city.”

“Seems only logical,” the man said.

 

The passengers disembarked around five in the morning, which was still dark at this time of year. Amy stepped confidently off the train, looking like a girl who knew exactly where she was and where she was going. Still, she waited until a blank-eyed gentleman stepped off the train, linking arms with her so that it looked like he was escorting her and not the other way around.

Because Amy was thirteen, and would continue to be thirteen for the foreseeable future.

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A Delicate Matter

“Watch th’ rail, okay? Nearly took his arm off that time.”

“I’m watchin’ it as much as I kin, I don’t see how—”

Naylor rapped on the doorframe. “Gentlemen? How we doing?”

Agee and Tucker drew apart. The cadaver on the table was rolled onto his side, displaying the s-curve of the spine. Agee touched up a few strands that had fallen from his shiny pate.

“It’s the damndest thing, Mr. Naylor. We were all set to tap him, but…”

Naylor looked past their plump shoulders to the cadaver. It showed no signs of liver mortis, at least the visible portions didn’t. How odd.

“Mr. Abraham,” Naylor said, “his widow is in right now. Did you want me to tell her you haven’t yet started preservation procedure on her husband?”

Tucker looked off to the side. He was always the quieter of the two.

Agee ground his toe into the floor. “It’s just…me’n Al here, we left him by the window awhile. Damndest thing.”

“So you think cooking Mr. Abraham is proper procedure?”

Tucker shook his head. “No, sir. It’s…well, you better come look.”

They heaved the body onto its back. Abraham was grizzled and grey. His frame was stretched and thin so that his tendons stood out, even in the state of death. His skin was the translucent white of ivory soap.

Tucker brought his right wrist up for inspection. The hand, from fingertips to elbow, was striped red. Sunlight streamed in through the slats of the blinds, leaving matching stripes on the concrete floor.

Naylor clicked his teeth together. “How long did you leave him there?”

“No more’n a minute, Mr. Naylor.”

Naylor frowned down at the body.

 

Jessica Abraham was waiting in the showroom. Save for the sparse strands of white in her blonde hair, she looked young enough to be Abraham’s daughter. Her black mourning dress, though of a modest neckline, was tight.

Naylor had to restrain himself from smoothing back his hair. “My apologies. An administrative matter.”

“Not at all.” Her voice had the hollow tone he heard all too often. “Are you a family establishment?”

Naylor cleared his throat. “No, though I like to think of my technicians as family.”

Jessica wasn’t listening. She was pacing down the line of wooden boxes, seeing but not seeing.

“I don’t have much family,” she said, “Hank was my world. A lot of people think, with me so young and him so old, that it was about money.”

Naylor tactfully looked elsewhere.

“You don’t have to worry, if that’s the case. I brought my own money into the marriage. I’m going to give my husband the best send-off I possibly can.”

Naylor saw his opening and rushed to fill it. “We strive to work with every client to give them the best possible experience, no matter their budget.”

He tactfully guided her past the bargain models towards what the receptionist dubbed “the hall of eternity.” Mahogany and brass gleamed. Satin and velvet glowed.

“This model is guaranteed for fifty years after burial. Floods, insects, even seismic tremors.”

Jessica looked down at the box, the red comma of her mouth curling into a frown. Naylor intercepted her with his most sincere look.

“It is the finest wood we have,” he said, “rainforest teak. So strong that some emperors had their royal tombs carved from the wood.”

He was particularly proud of that last touch. The young widow bent over the box. Her blonde eyelashes made her eyes look misty.

Naylor, glancing discreetly up at the clock, caught sight of Tucker standing in the doorway. At an angle that she couldn’t see, Naylor frowned at the funerary tech.

Tucker thumbed behind himself. His face was subtly terrified. Naylor looked from him to the widow, and back again. He sighed inaudibly.

“I’m very sorry,” he said, “I’m afraid I must excuse myself again.”

Jessica looked up. Her pencil-thin eyebrows arched. “Not a problem with my husband, I hope?”

“Most certainly not,” he hastily lied. “We’ve had problems, with…a buyer. A simple paperwork matter. Shouldn’t be more than three minutes.”

She did not look entirely satisfied, but nodded him on his way.

 

“What did you DO?” Naylor gaped at the scene.

“Well, me’n Al got to talkin’, see, and we thought the daylight thing kinda funny. And you know, when we went to tap him, the old boy was complet’ly dry. So Al, he says maybe we should wheel him to that big ol’ chapel cross and, well…”

Abraham’s body now had a violet cruciform discoloration down the face and neck.

Naylor got to his knees, moaning. “You know I was just showing her the Emperor, don’t you? Goddamn, clients like her don’t just drop in every day in this hick town!”

“Sorry, boss.” Tucker at least had the good graces to look ashamed.

“Yeah, sorry.”

Naylor covered his face with a hand and waved it away. “We can fix the face. But there’re deeper matters in play here, now.”

“What matters, boss?”

Naylor lowered his hand. Tucker shuffled his feet and looked down again.

“You want I should get the priest?”

“Just like that? Would you just snag anyone to perform a wedding ceremony, Al? No.” Naylor straightened up. “You’ve got to have tact. I can still fix this.”

 

Jessica was looking out the stained glass window with a slightly puzzled look on her face. The scene he’d chosen was non-denominational. In a town so small he couldn’t afford to alienate any creed.

“Mrs. Abraham,” he said in his most cultured, soothing voice. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”

Jessica shrugged. Grief struck in all sorts of ways. Some fell wailing before the oncoming tide, some weathered it like shoal.

Some, Naylor reflected, ran back up to their beachfront mansion.

“Well, I’m sure you’ve had enough of the hall for now,” he said, tactfully steering her towards a little-used door, “I have something else to show you.”

Jessica let herself be led.

“Many people do not like to think of the minutiae of a funeral,” Naylor continued as he guided her through the door. “There are many aspects of a funeral that go largely unremarked. We pride ourselves on thinking of such, so that others do not have to. So, when the time comes, you can make the most informed decision you can.”

Jessica frowned slightly at the boxes lining the wall. Some were plain wood, some stone, some cut glass. The biggest would only have held a cat at most.

“I don’t understand.”

Naylor took off his glasses and rubbed an eye with his fingertip. “Sometimes there are… additional preparations to make. We handle it discreetly as possible, but we cannot make decisions for the client.”

He fetched a wooden box from the wall. It was carven with a hunting scene. Dogs with long tongues ran baying before a man with a flintlock.

Naylor bore it over to the widow reverently. He set it on the viewing table and opened it. Jessica gave a little gasp.

“It is the finest wood we have,” Naylor said, stroking the stake with the fingertips of his right hand.

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Habit

Darryl made it a whole six days before the craving kicked in this time. He didn’t even bother locking the door to the basement and all its coffins, he just grabbed up a few things and ran.

His sleep-deprived logic being what it was, though, the things he packed didn’t have much in the way of practicality.

He tied the cigarettes and the cough medicine up in the one extra shirt he brought and abandoned the awkward weight of the umbrella after three blocks. Then he just ran and ran, sucking oxygen greedily as he pelted the asphalt with his feet. He ran without a plan or a map, on and on in a straight line. He felt strange in the naked daylight. He knew he must look strange to the people passing by, with his patchy stubble and his greasy, much-worn t shirts.

He collapsed on a street that was far beyond his starting point, but still not far enough. His blood wheezed in constricted veins. His stomach pinched.

On the street, between a boutique and a hardware store, was a diner. He scraped himself up off the pavement and went in.

The diner was practically empty. A sour old woman sat in the far corner booth, glaring out the window. Two men sat at the counter, five seats apart, each nursing a coffee. The waitress was topping off one of their cups. She looked too young to be working at such a place. Her name tag had metallic backing, he couldn’t read it with the glare from the front window.

The waitress looked up. “Sit down, if you’ve a mind.”

It sounded less like an invitation and more like a stern missive from a teacher. Darryl immediately dropped to a stool. His weight fell too close to one edge and he tilted dangerously. Darryl grabbed the counter to save himself. The other two counter-dwellers glanced over then away.

The waitress came over, steaming pot in her hand. “What do you want?”

It had been so long since anyone had asked him that question, Darryl felt he had to savor it. To stall for time, he took another look at the waitress’s name tag.

“Suzanne,” he pronounced carefully.

She looked taken aback. “Yes?” she asked.

Darryl set his elbows to the counter and tried to look as natural as possible.

“Well—” he began.

He stopped.

He had never even considered money. When money was required, it was given to him in very specific amounts. His pockets were so empty they were practically vacuums.

Suzanne read something in his panicked expression. Without being asked, she set a white cup on the counter and filled it to the brim. She left and returned with cream packets and the white sugar dispenser. Darryl waited until she drifted to service another customer before he accepted it. He dumped half the sugar into the cup, washing down the syrupy mixture by sucking down each individual cream packet.

The man on the end left, pulling on a trucker’s hat. The old woman crankily called for ketchup. The man to Darryl’s right got up, spilling change on the counter. The old woman demanded a fresh pepper shaker, hers was stale. Suzanne lingered over a spot on the counter, wiping in patient circles. The old woman got up and walked to the door, teetering on orthopedic heels and shooting venomous glances at the counter.

As the door swung shut, Suzanne muttured, “penny tip. Worse than nothin’.”

Darryl could not tell if he was being spoken to, and said nothing.

Suzanne gave up on the counter, tucking the rag at her waist. “If the service is so terrible, she’d do well not to come here. But then,” she sighed, “she’d have nothing to complain about.

Suzanne looked directly at him for the first time. She smiled understandingly.

“How long?” she asked.

Darryl wished he had left something in the cup, so he could tip the last little dregs into his mouth and have some barrier between the two of them.

“How long since what?”

“That’s what I’m askin’.” Suzanne said. She took a notebook from her pocket and a pencil from her hair and wrote something.

“I’ve got a place, if you’re kicking the habit,” Suzanne said, “not like a church group or anything. Believe me, I know what that’s like.”

Darryl said, “I’m not sure—”

“It’s okay,” Suzanne said, ripping the paper off and pushing it face-down across the counter to him, “you don’t have to say anything. Like I said, I understand. You can go if you want or not. It’s up to you.”

She left the paper on the counter and walked away. Darryl just looked at the paper. And looked.

 

The street lights were already coming on. They were the orange kind, they made blue shadows. Darryl sat beneath one because he did not want to step out of the pool of light.

The place just looked like a plain white house. That stalled him more than anything. The plain facade could be hiding a flophouse, or even a feelgood cult interested in liberating his soul.

His pathetic bundle dangled from one hand. The cough syrup made a liquid sound. To stave off the pangs of withdrawal, he had sloshed down several helpings of the stuff. It did not help.

He heard the rock of bad springs as someone got out of a car. Darryl’s heightened senses told him who it was before Suzanne even stepped out of the Dodge Caravan.

“Well, come in if you’re comin’,” she said. She started forward without looking to see if he would follow. He did.

Suzanne knocked on the door four times and rang the bell twice. The door opened on a pudgy Hispanic woman in sweats.

“I found the codeine,” Suzanne said, “and the Epsom salt. This is Darryl. Have you already started dinner?”

And just like that, he was in.

It was not at all what he expected. People in plain sweats or pajamas lounged around a TV or stood chatting in doorways. A few had the telltale drawn look of heroin users. One woman couldn’t stop grinding her teeth from side to side. But they were all relaxed and talking and didn’t look pursued.

Darryl almost turned and ran.

He hadn’t been in such a well-lit house in so long. It was being lived in, rather than inhabited. The prospect that he could possibly, probably, perhaps stay in this world was almost more terrifying than the prospect of being caught.

“Can you help me with the groceries?” Suzanne asked, proffering an armful of bags.

He hid his hands behind his back. His fingers were scarred with chew-marks from desperate times, when he’d sliced his incisors through his own flesh in an attempt to stem the craving.

“I’m not—” he began, but she cut him off with a smile.

“It’s fine if you’re not feeling well. Sit down, then.” She retracted the offer and went off to the kitchen. Her understanding made him feel more ashamed, so he lurked in the doorway.

Dinner was a thin stew, with tiny, easily chewable meat chunks and vegetables so overcooked they practically disintegrated. Darryl watched the others eat. Some didn’t have any teeth and pulped the stew with their gums. He had a feeling this was how most meals went.

Afterwards, Suzanne beckoned him.

“Would you mind, terribly, helping me get the linens?” she said.

Feeling a bit braver with a bowl of something warm inside him, Darryl nodded.

Calling them linens was charitable. A bunch of refugees from suburban closets of the past few decades; torn sheets with filmation cartoon characters and zebra patterns populated the cabinet.

Suzanne smiled as she handed him a pile of neatly-folded sheets. “Thank you. it’s a help.”

She touched his arm, and that was all he needed. He followed her to the beds, larger rooms partitioned clumsily in half with drywall. Some with mattresses. Some with cots. Suzanne took the sheets from him and spread them over the bare beds with care. She did everything with care, Darryl noted.

“If you’re wonderin’ why I haven’t asked you any questions,” Suzanne said out of nowhere, “it’s because if I don’t ask you anything, you don’t have to lie.”

Darryl felt he should defend himself. “I don’t lie.”

Suzanne smiled. “Well then, we should be happy with each other. I’m not gonna ask you to work, I’m not even gonna ask you to stay. That’s not what this place is about.”

She tucked in the corner of a sheet, smoothing out the wrinkles.

“You’ve got a look about you,” she continued, “and I’ve seen that look before. You got a habit you can’t kick. I can’t save you from it. No one else can save you from it, the only one who can is you.”

She patted the bed, turning to him with a grin.

“Good one, huh? Momma beat the liquor, but it beat her liver before it left. Well, we don’t have many open spaces. You can sleep in Leonard’s room, he grinds his teeth, or you can sleep with Marcy. She’s a snorer.”

Darryl suppressed the urge to chew on his fingers. “Somewhere light.”

Suzanne raised an eyebrow.

“I have nyctophobia,” he lied, “I’m…I can’t stand being in the dark.”

She smiled at him. “Well, if you’ve a mind, you can sit up in the living room with me. Always keep a lamp on to read by.”

An old cowboy movie fuzzed in and out of being on a TV so old it had rabbit ears. Suzanne sat in an easy chair missing a leg so it had to be pressed up against the wall. There was a large black man dozing on the sofa, so Darryl sat with his legs splayed out on the floor next to Suzanne. He felt like a kid.

God, he couldn’t remember being a kid. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d used a stove. Tonight had been the first cooked meal in…years? Decades, maybe.

Suzanne licked her thumb and turned a page.

Maybe he could learn it all again. Maybe if someone else had the patience to teach him, he could have the patience to learn.

Maybe…

There was a rattle outside.

Darryl froze.

Suzanne sighed. “Damn kids.” she made as if to get up. Darryl beat her to it,

“I’m—I’ll go—I should check it out,” he stammered as he walked to the door.

Suzanne sank back down with a shrug.

It was dark outside. Darryl shrank into the porch light, making himself as small as he could. He couldn’t see anything. Maybe it was just neighborhood kids.

Burt landed soundlessly in front of him. The red plaid of his shirt and darker maroon of his vest were nearly black in the streetlight, his dead-white skin was an unwholesome orange tint.

“Now Darryl,” he said calmly, “you really need to confine your errands to a smaller field, we can’t keep coming to get you when you get lost.”

Darryl didn’t scream. Years of training went into effect and he went limp.

Burt extended his hand. Darryl obediently stepped forward for examination. Burt looked him over like a horse, even checked his teeth.

“They fed you,” he said, “such a nice gesture. Deserves a good turn, wouldn’t you say?”

Darryl was too frozen to feel horror.

Burt’s wife landed on the lawn. Save for the neckerchief that was at least twenty years out of fashion and her bored, flinty gaze she could be any other housewife.

“Stacy,” Burt said, “our Darryl’s made a few friends.”

Stacy didn’t even look at him. She was sweeping her gaze up and down the exterior of the house, sneer curling her pretty mouth.

“Well, since you’ve gone and gotten social, I suppose we can’t hold it against you.” Burt patted Darryl amiably on the head. The pat turned into a press and Darryl was borne down to the yard. “You did have us worried, but as long as this doesn’t become a habit—”

The door creaked open, spilling more light onto the lawn. Burt and his wife nimbly moved away from it in a movement so natural it was like a dance.

“Darryl?” Suzanne called out. “What’s keeping you?”

Burt made the first move. He stepped into the pool of light, squinting as he smiled so Suzanne wouldn’t see the red in his eyes. “Howdy do. Name’s Burt—”

“—and Stacy—”

“Daughtry.”

Suzanne furrowed her brow, looking over at Darryl’s rigid form. Burt moved forward a little more, drawing her attention away again.

“We want to thank you for watching after our…Darryl like this,” Burt said, extending his hand to give a firm handshake, “we don’t mean him to be any trouble. We would love it if you invited us in for a cup of coffee.”

Suzanne’s gaze was on the perfect white of Burt’s grin.

Darryl ground his face into the dirt. He almost screamed ‘no, you are worth so much more, just forget saving anyone and just run, do what no one before you had the sense to do.’

Almost.

“That’s sounds great,” Suzanne said in a dazed voice. She opened the door for the couple and shut it behind them.

Darryl was still on the ground when Burt came back out with a bowl.

“Now Darryl,” he said reasonably, “you can come help us clean up in a bit. And after that, when we get home, maybe you should take a rest. You seem to have been overdoing it lately, but we don’t blame you.”

And he set the bowl sloshing with blood directly in front of Darryl’s face.

The sickeningly sweet smell made him want to vomit through his traitorously watering mouth.

Burt was above him. Burt was all he could see.

“Come on now,” he said, “there’s a good boy.”

Tired as Darryl was, that did not stop him from crawling hand over hand to sink his face in the bowl and drink every last drop.

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The Yeseni Vampires

The Yeseni are  almost a complete cypher; aside from a few polychrome ceramic vessels and bone utensils that could easily have belonged to a neighboring tribe, there are few physical markers of their existence. What sets the Yeseni apart from their surviving neighbors is a single tomb.

The tomb was discovered after archaeologists drained a reservoir to examine what appeared to be submerged village. Along with the hut bases that had been visible from above-surface, there was a platform a distance away from the village. The platform was 2 meters in circumference and carved with a shallow sun-relief. Post holes indicated the area had once been fenced in. The ornamental nature of the platform, and its isolation from the village, led to speculation that it was of ceremonial importance.

Upon excavation of the platform, the crew found that a well extended beneath it. Crude depth markers set the well’s shaft length in excess of 30 meters. When a pump continued removing water past the capacity estimated for the space, the well was deemed part of a subterranean river and the pump was switched off. When the well failed to refill, an aide was lowered into the shaft and found the large interior space that would be dubbed ‘the crypt’: a perfectly circular room 4.5 meters in diameter. The walls held no torch sconces, leading to theories that light was discouraged in the small space. The floor was packed clay mixed with ash.

The floor was divided into sixteen partitions, and nine of them occupied by stone sarcophagi. Sarcophagi, and the complex burial customs that accompanied them, were not previously thought to exist in the area. Each held a sun-relief that mimicked the platform’s carved design. The sarcophagi were almost completely one piece, it was finally deduced that a small section at the end of the stone tube could be removed, providing barely enough space for a small adult to squeeze through. The sarcophagi were impregnable; archaeologists found that opening the end of one could not be done without destroying the integrity of the structure, so they delayed it until proper facilities could be established.

At this point night had fallen on the surface, so the crew regrouped and planned for the next morning’s operation. The floor of the chamber was still under six inches of water; this would necessitate removal so the crew could explore unhindered the next day. They had brought no photographic or videorecording equipment, so it was never fully established whether the murals existed before the second day of exploration.

The discovery of the murals was not without some furor, as the first team to enter the tomb had brought adequate lighting and were resolute that they had not seen the decorations.

The crew took photographs and film of the well’s murals, the first of many of what would become infamously significant. The murals were thought to be entirely non-representative, no figures, plants, or animal life could be discerned from the geometric patterns. The patterns themselves were theorized to be a crude kind of written language.

The cerulean present in the murals they guessed to be a formula similar to Han blue, the red a mercuric sulfide. The violet remained a mystery. It was too color-fast to be a vegetable pigment, and mineral violets had not been synthesized until hundreds of years after the projected age of the tomb. One dig member thought it to be obtained from some now-extinct Murex relative. All pigment conjecture aside, the question of how the murals had remained colorfast for so long remained unanswered, seeing as the walls were not limestone and no substitute fixative could be detected. The sarcophagi were fashioned from flood basalt, the room’s fixtures from a white alabaster not found in the area.

By now the archaeologists had developed a rhythm of work on the tomb. The site could only be worked by a few shifts a day because workers developed pressure headaches, presumably from the tomb’s depth. Three mild incidents of narcosis were reported in the first week. The next discovery was falsely attributed to mild cerebral edema: several crew members of an evening shift claimed the murals were more bright and saturated than their first sighting. At first dismissed, the claim was verified when the photo rushes arrived from the temporary darkroom set up in a nearby town: the murals had indeed become more vivid since the first day of observation. What was more, the phenomena was not confined to the tomb’s walls. A magazine abandoned overnight showed a marked increase in ink saturation; what was more, the photographic subjects had warped in the moist air, appearing to gain sunken hollows in their cheeks and eyes.

The shifts were commuted from three a day to merely one, and this only lasting fifteen minutes. Even so, the observers within the tomb noted visible changes to the murals within their presence. The geometric patterns began to have a derogatory effect on the crew, one ended up being airlifted to the city after collapsing from an epileptic seizure(no epilepsy had been extant in his family history.)

Seventeen days after the dig began, crew reported an auditory hallucination: knocking. They claimed it was not a knuckle-rap as one might hear on a door, it was more like the flat of a hand testing a surface for solidity. The hallucination did not decrease with time and distance from the pit. More and more crew members reported flu-like symptoms, but blood tests showed no increase in white blood cell count or any other typical response to a viral infection. Finally, the dig was halted when the dig foreman suffered a minor cut to his finger and the wound failed to clot. The foreman lost around two pints of blood in an hour. While he was flown back to the city for emergency procedures, a supposed “pump malfunction” caused water to pour back into the tomb. The shaft was flooded to 2/3 its original volume, the tomb itself presumed submerged once again.

The local government has since designated the area a national heritage site, replacing the stone platform and barring any further archaeological operations. Many of the original crew retired shortly after the dig.

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Joint Custody

“I just, I just don’t see why you gotta be like that, is all.”

Janice twitched constantly and sniffed, as if getting over a cold. She frowned over at the mirror behind Ben’s back. Ben thought it a cruel touch, it just served to remind families of what they’d lost.

Janice had lost color, her red hair dulling into a shade of liver, her skin turning parchment beige. You could see her teeth when she talked. The gums had retreated, giving the optical illusion that the canines had lengthened.

“I want my babies,” Janice said.

Ben sighed. “I know. I know you do.”

“Not like that.”

“Of course,” Ben said.

“Don’t you ‘of course‘ me, gettin’ all high and mighty,” Janice sneered.

Dandridge, the lawyer, roosted in the corner, pretending to be engaged on the phone. Ben knew better. Burke&Slaw had made their name through cases like Janice, they called it charity work.

Ben wished they would go back to getting domestic abusers off on technicality.

Janice flicked her hair aside and glanced at the mirror again. Her gaze never stopped moving, she herself was always twitching in some remote corner of her body.

“I’m the one who pushed them out,” Janice prodded.

No, you’re not, Ben had to bite his tongue to keep from saying. Because she hadn’t. This wasn’t the same woman who had cried and sweated through hours of labor, it wasn’t the mother who taught Brittany the chicken dance or even the lover who had taught him to flip eggs.

Ben patiently laid out the various bylaws that had been put in place specifically to prevent her seeing her children. Rote repetition had been a good fallback defense, he found. Dandridge was good at arguing around convictions, rationalizing feelings into mist. But he could not step around the law without risking his position.

Janice clamped her teeth, working her jaw like a junkie. Dandridge dismissed the phantom client and oozed his way over.

“It’s like this,” he said warmly to Ben, “either you give us partial custody now, or we take full custody later.”

Ben said, “no jury in the world is going to agree to that.”

Dandridge tilted his head and smiled. Every face he made was like a toothpaste commercial.

“The US is making great strides in post-mortem rights,” he said.

“You’re right,” Ben said, “it is. They’re not all put to the torch the moment they pop out of the ground now.”

It was an awful thing and he regretted saying it. But he always had to say some variation of it, just to see the reaction.

Janice hunched her shoulders. Her face showed feral irritation, rage, and guilt. They had been thinking the same thing, he knew.

Ben left his seat. Behind him, the mirror showed Ben, prematurely graying and tired, and the lawyer. Nothing more.

“You can put it off all you want Mr. Brock,” the lawyer called after him, “we will get it.”

 

Brittany was balancing along the divider in the waiting room, arms airplaning out for balance. Pascal broke into a big grin when he saw Ben.

“Dahee!” he called. “pay fo’ guy! Pay fo’ guy!”

Ben picked him up, puzzledly kissing his brow. Brittany, having reached the limit of the retaining wall, did a supermodel turn and came back toward her father. Her little cowgirl boots made hollow clicking noises.

“Get down,” Ben said by way of greeting. “what’s he saying?”

Brittany rolled her eyes as if it should be obvious. “Penny for the guy, daddy.” She did a neat little pirouette when she jumped off, just to show him that she didn’t need to listen completely. The feeling of relief that had been flooding back at the sight of the kids ebbed a bit. He frowned.

“Mrs. Abaroa was teaching it to him with the other kids. She thinks it’s fun.”

Though it was clear by her tone how noncommittal she felt, Brittany could not stop her forehead from quirking a bit. Ben caught it. He kissed away the wrinkle.

He fanned her hair. “Get your bear, we’re going.”

 

“Ah, Mr. Brock?” Dandridge was jogging to catch up with them, one finger out. Ben tried to repress the rise in his hackles.

“What is it?” he said without breaking his stride.

“I wanted to discuss with you some conditions,” Dandridge said with an air of confidentiality.

Ben spoke while keeping his back to the lawyer. “There’s no conditions because there are no visits.” He buckled Brittany into her booster seat and handed her his phone.

“Ah, of course, but…” the lawyer let the sentence dangle, juicy and obvious bait.

Pascal poured lumpily into his seat. Trying to fit his arms into the straps was like juggling gelatin.

“There’s something I didn’t want to discuss in front of the…” Dandridge mouthed the word ‘children‘ as if just saying it would ignite their presence. Ben gave up on Pascal’s left arm and turned around, briskly confronting the other man.

“Look,” he said, “better lawyers than you have tread these waters before. You know, the last guy wouldn’t have even thought to make me bring the kids. He knew how to pick his battles.”

The lawyer seemed unflapped by this. “Please, Mr. Brock. It will only be a moment.”

Ben looked back at the car. Pascal sprawled like a lump in his seat. Brittany was busy in whatever brightly-colored candy land she had summoned up.

“Thirty seconds,” he said, auto-locking the doors, “no more.”

They walked to the lee of the building. Dandridge’s boyish combover was flapping in the breeze. Ben wished he smoked, if only for the excuse to blow something foul in the man’s face.

“Alright,” he said, “what else you got?”

“As you know, ah, Mrs. Brock–”

“Janice,” Ben said tonelessly, closing his eyes. “If you must call her something, call her that.”

“Of course,” Dandridge smiled without apologizing. “Janice is wondering after the state of her children’s schooling–”

“No she isn’t,” Ben interrupted, “you and I both know that.”

“Whether you were still planning to take the catholic route—”

“She was episcopalian, jackass.” Ben could no longer help himself. “and her thought on the schools was, and I quote, ‘the only thing those places are good for is churning out politicians with a wide piss stance.’ At least do some goddamn research before you put words in her mouth.”

Ben’s outburst hadn’t even dinged Dandridge’s confidence. Ben had to wonder about the man.

“Janice would also like to know if you are respecting her gluten-free dietary regimen. She would like to set up meetings wherein she can determine their health and safety.” Dandridge finished, smug.

Ben got close, got in his face.

“We both know that will never happen,” he said, “because she will never be alone with those kids. Not ever. I’m glad she didn’t get torched when she came back, I am. But it’s not Janice. It’s not. It’s just–it’s empty and hunger and anger, can you fucking see that? Can you—”

Dandridge’s gaze darted, just once, behind Ben. Ben turned and saw the back passenger door of the car hanging open. He bellowed and took off, leaving the lawyer to stumble along in his slipstream.

He didn’t slow down in time and hipchecked the side of the car. It stung.

Brittany sat small in the passenger seat, phone forgotten by her feet. She wasn’t crying, but her bottom lip stuck out and her eyes were big. The car seat was empty, straps hanging limp. Ben gasped. He hadn’t even been running long and already felt like he couldn’t breathe enough. He slammed the door shut again.

“I’ll be back,” he promised.

Ben scanned the area. The center was in a small dip between hills. There was the road out, with nothing but scrub all around. Too low for cover. That had been intentional.

The center backed up against the car in one direction, in the other was—

“A stream!” he gasped. He knuckle-punched the door and ran towards it.

He couldn’t hear anything as he came closer to the gurgling brook. Just the thrash of weeds dying beneath his boots and the delicate susurrus of fall insects. He forced himself to slow, to be methodical, to take breaths.

The bank was too spotty, disappearing completely at some points, to follow consistently. Ben tried the higher ground, away from the center, praying that it was the right direction.

There, on a knoll, was a glimpse of red hair and blue overcoat. Ben took a few breaths before approaching, praying.

“Janice,” he said like a plea.

Pascal cried out. Janice leapt to her feet, too late to disguise her actions

Janice had a nail dragging open her breast, letting out the blood that lay black and ichorous in branches beneath the surface to ooze velvety red from the wound. Her face showed shock, anger, and thwarted lust. No regret. None at all.

“Janice,” Ben whispered, reaching into his right pocket, “oh Janice…”

Janice hissed before he’d even taken the crucifix from his pocket, looping the chain around his hand. She dropped Pascal to the ground, holding barbed hands before her face.

With his free hand, Ben scooped up Pascal, who was now bawling his eyes out. Once the boy was in his grasp, Ben made the hand with the crucifix go limp, letting it slide back into his pocket. He turned away from his wife.

Janice hurled herself at his shoulder, swearing. She had wild-animal strength now. She tore at the back of his clothes and trumpeted out horrible pig noises that made Pascal force his head deeper and deeper into Ben’s sweater. Dandridge caught up with them, looking affronted and just a little bit scared.

“I must protest—” he began, and Ben closed his mouth with a right hook. The lawyer’s head snapped back and he wound up on his back in the dirt. Ben hoped he was already formulating a wrongful assault charge. He’d jumped the gun, been too eager. His betters at the law offices would make an example out of him.

Janice had fled, probably for the woods. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t cross the stream. They would get her within hours.

Brittany looked at him with too-grown eyes when he opened the car door and eased a terrified Pascal into his seat.

“Hot chocolate?” he asked.

Brittany nodded.

 

Back home, Ben made a quick phone call and got the kids situated, heating up milk in a saucepan.

Pascal giggled and gurgled in front of the TV, his terror forgotten. Brittany appeared suddenly at Ben’s elbow, silent and serious. She held a piece of paper out for him to inspect.

It was an art assignment. With peach and pink crayons, she had drawn her family. Balloon-headed stick figures were christened ‘daddy’ ‘little brother’ and ‘me’. On the far side of the page, almost an afterthought, was a flat gray rectangle with a curved top and a little black cross on its surface, labeled ‘mom’.

Ben lowered the picture and petted her hair. “It’s great, sport.”

That evening he heated up a can of soup and made grilled cheese. The kids absolutely refused anything extra in their sandwiches, so he loaded his up with mortadella and tomatoes and mushrooms until it was more pie than sandwich. It made the kids laugh to see him eat it with a knife and fork, and it did him good to hear them laugh.

After dinner he turned on the TV to an old black-and-white movie, because they always made Pascal drop off. He was finally starting to forget the day with the sleepy bulk of his son tucked in one arm when Brittany called from the window.

“Look, lights!”

Without getting up, Ben called. “it’s just a bonfire sweetie. Come back here.”

Without moving Brittany asked, “daddy, what’s a guy?”

Ben swallowed down a lump with more chocolate. “Well, sweetie, it comes from England. They had a holiday they’d celebrate with bonfires and they’d dress up these old dummies in rags and ask for money with them.”

Brittany giggled.

“Then they’d drop the dummies on the fire and let them all burn up.”

Brittany remained at the window, hands cupped around her face. Ben rested back, listening.

Then Brittany called out again: “look, blue!”

Ben sweated.

“So blue! Why would anyone put something so pretty on an old dummy?”

Ben swallowed dryly. Pascal was a dead wight on his left side.

“That’s enough sweetie,” he said, “come watch Sesame Street.”

Brittany finally turned from the window. “Eff that, I wanna watch Monkeypie.”

“Language, young lady,” Ben said, gathering her to him. He sat up long after they had gone to sleep. Not until the orange glow faded from the window did he dare get up.

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Facts Concerning Michael

Michael was the middle child.

Anna was born when Momma was twenty-three, dated the same as her first grey hairs. Momma often said it was the strain of Anna, so much all at once, that aged her into motherhood. Anna grew into a solemn adolescent, a prematurely mature girl who watched rather than participated.

Joshua was born to her parent’s doddering old age, at nearly forty each they had mellowed into kind, permissive child-minders. Often it was Anna who scolded, Anna who held them responsible for their actions.

Michael was born on Christmas.

The baby came out with a caul on its face. Anna suffered a sudden, indescribable fear that the birth had gone terribly wrong, that something had crept inside her mother when she wasn’t watching. Her aunt hissed and spat through her fingers. Only the dull washerwoman they had for a midwife kept a calm head. With the least filthy cloth she could find, she wiped the baby’s face into being and plunged him into a pan of warm water. Momma screamed and bore down from between her thighs. There was no placenta.

Michael had flaming red hair.

Anna had taken after her parents, dark and olive-complexioned. Joshua, in his time, developed freckles, but inherited her grandfather’s curly brown mop. Michael was fair, milk-pale, with startling green eyes.  Her aunt wouldn’t hold the baby. Grandmother wouldn’t hold the baby. Momma took the difficulty of his birth as a sign that he was a miracle child; after all, three boys and a girl had spaced between Anna and her brother, all at rest beneath the roses in the garden. She doted on her boy, while Anna sat with the women in the kitchen. They shook their heads at a question that hadn’t been asked.

Michael was pretty.

Everyone said so. Girls loved to run their fingers through his hair, pull bits of it out for lockets. The bullies at school decided he was too fair to hit, though they made no such exception for his siblings. Anna and Joshua were forever his dark shadows, noticed second if they were noticed at all. They held no bitterness in their hearts. It wasn’t as if he did it on purpose, Michael just had…a way about him.

Michael was always a little sick, but never ill.

It was odd. He always complained of chilblains and headaches and tummy aches and sore joints and cold until Momma would cradle his spindly body and rub liniment made from tallow and linseed oil into his stick limbs. But when the whooping cough came down on mountain winds, Michael’s door was the only one left open. He stayed healthy and rosy-cheeked on his mother’s knee while Auntie made endless mugs of soup and tea. She would not touch the boy, not even to move him. She had not held him since the day he was born.

Michael had never truly gotten in trouble for anything.

He often happened to be a bystander in childhood scuffles, just by chance arriving before anyone upon the scene of a crime. He had a smile that could melt candle wax. Anna was never sure why her heart was still when she looked at him. Perhaps it was his gaze; he always seemed to be looking at some impossible distant horizon within himself, never at other people. Perhaps it was his jovial heartlessness, nothing was safe from his humor. It might have even been the love Momma spent on Michael, spending all of herself for his wellbeing, leaving nothing for her or Joshua. In her twelfth year, Anna found out something very important.

Anna was afraid of her own brother.

There had been claims of a “walking sickness” down in the next valley, adults spoke of it in hushed tones that indicated significance without actually describing anything. Aunt came down from the hills, white cloth around her head, and conferred with Momma. Some distant cousin, or perhaps an unfamiliar brother, had taken to walking after a mine accident. Anna overheard little, in between fetching bread for the table, before Momma’s adamant tones drove Aunt from the house. She would not hear a word on it, (though what it was, Anna did not hear) and blood meant nothing.

There was much about blood in those days.

Anna grew taller and fuller in the hips. The women of the washing house showed her how to clot between her legs during her monthlies, as Momma had grown too into herself and her love of Michael to notice her daughter becoming a woman. Anna’s features were not dramatic enough to gain much notice from schoolboys, who were joining their fathers in the fields anyway. About the only one who noticed was Michael, who smiled in a way that made her uncomfortable in her skin.

When Michael was nine, Aunt tried to brand him with crossed iron.

Michael squalled and ran into Momma’s arms, perhaps it was only Anna who noticed that his eyes showed no fear. Aunt was barred from the house. Before leaving she painted something on the windowsills with water that dried before the sun went down. That night Michael was terribly unwell and lay gasping like a fish in Momma’s arms. Anna was made to fetch a cloth and wipe the sills clean. She tasted the marks and found it was salt water, nothing else.

When Michael was eleven, the walking sickness came to the valley.

It caught infants first, babies would still in their cribs and bleed of all color. The old man they paid in eggs and milk to be a night watchman was found stone cold in a hayfield. Momma took to barring the door before sunset, dandling Michael on her lap in the rocking chair as if he were an infant again. It was in these days of watchfulness that Anna found she had no friends. She had only to smile at someone before her brother swept over in a cloud of easy charm. He alone did not seem affected by the air of doom that lay over his home.

Aunt said her younger brother was a revenant, a walker.

Aunt’s house stank; from the garlic garlanding the door, from the meadowsweet rotting on her table, from the cats buried under her doorstep. She said the boy was thrice-cursed. She said she had told Momma to throw her faceless infant on the fire, that God had decreed the child lost long before he left the womb. Anna drank bark tea and tried not to wince at the bitterness. Her aunt said that as the eldest of the family, and one who was too close to be colored by charm, the deed fell to Anna. Anna spoke her first words of the night to ask what deed she meant. Aunt laughed and gave her a club of wrought iron. Anna also left with a wreath of brambles, which she buried as soon as she left sight of her aunt’s house. She did not know what to do with the club.

Her brother Michael knew, she knew.

He often smiled at her dowry chest, where she kept the club wrapped in her wedding shawl. Now Michael would come to her in day, branding her cheek and arms with kisses. His lips were always cold. Anna did not feel she could push him away, though she felt the dragging insistance of his affection. He loved her, loved her so much, she must love him. Musn’t she?

Michael would never stop.

Now every child in the village was home ill, and now Joshua had rosy bruises blooming on his neck and chest. Momma had taken to bed, issuing care of Michael in a high, cracked voice. Anna spent long hours of daylight away from their home, away from the smoke and the sick and away from her brother’s smothering affection. He followed her. She felt that he kept himself just visible enough to be a threat, and now wrath bloomed in her heart. She tried to beg God to forgive her, tell herself it was merely years of favor put off that made her sick with anger. Then the day came when she had been followed once too many, the day when she whirled on her brother and sent him to the dirt with a shove. His face showed only surprise, not hurt, not anger. While she still held steam, she asked him why.

He said, “What?”

Why?

He said, “Why what?”

Why, Michael. Why.

Here he smiled sadly, his perfect lips shaped a cupid’s bow that dragged the corners of his eyes down.

“You don’t understand.” He looked off to the horizon. “I have so little and you…do you see?”

He sounded so pitiable and Anna so wanted to forgive her brother that she nearly relented. Nearly. It was then that she saw it for the scene it was, a masterwork of emotion, a study in martyrdom. Michael looked so perfect, so impossibly sad that it was unreal. Anna turned and left for home without looking behind her.

Anna was the eldest and Michael was the middle child and Joshua was the baby who had gone missing in the night.

He might not have been missed until morning if Anna hadn’t woken to her mother’s hacking cough. Joshua was not in his trundle bed, nor in the toilet shed, or the pantry. Michael’s shoes were missing. Joshua’s were not.

She caught up to them on the hillside.

Michael did not carry Joshua, but led him beside, while the boy trotted to keep up with his pace. It was almost the scene of a little brother eager for a treat, but for the haggardness of his face. Anna said his name, and Michael came to an abrupt halt. He turned to smile at her gently, easily, as if there was nothing odd with what he was doing.

He said, “Sister?”

Anna held her hand out. Michael was not gripping the boy’s hand, it was Joshua who did not seem as if he could wrench away. Anna slid the wedding shawl from her body and called again. Joshua gathered himself as if to jump and staggered a few paces from his older brother. Michael, still smiling, held his hand out without saying anything. Joshua tottered between the two as if drunk. It was Anna taking his arm, Anna sliding the shawl down his feverish little shoulders that decided the matter.

Michael said, “Unfair.”

Anna said, “Nothing is.”

They caught sight of her in the torchlight from where they gathered in the town square, wending her way down from the hills. She was like an angel, an unassailable vision wrapped in white. In her arms she carried a bundle whose arms and legs dangled from their white sanctuary. Anna gazed impassibly back at the crowd, chin up and out, waiting.

It was nearly dawn, and Anna knew only one thing in this world was certain.

Her brother Michael was dead.

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The Ward Angel

We always saw her drifting in and out of the ward. She came during shift change, so the same people didn’t see her enter and leave. She never imposed, you wouldn’t realize she was there until you turned and there she was, fresh and cool like a spring breeze. We figured she was an unfortunate young mother, a poor thing who couldn’t take her baby home yet, bending over the crib to coo comfort at her little one.

It was her smile that did it, the smile that that only made a dimple in her left cheek. Her and her sad green eyes and her honey-colored hair. Folks called her the ward angel.

You don’t see the cause of death on infant certificates written as SIDS anymore. SIDS stood for just about anything, from accidental smothering to coldhearted infanticide. That was usually a home disease, though.

It was a lovely spring, plenty of breezes, plenty of air. But the black mark on those days were all the babies that never made it home. Folks say they’d drop in to see the tyke and find it lying still on its back, as if sleeping.

We worried about her the most, our little angel. She moved with such a light step it was as if her feet were afraid to touch the ground and wake her infant. If you could’ve seen that woman, her smile as she bent over the crib…

Well, the whole thing boiled over when Hannah Foley comes in and sees someone else hanging over her twins. We swear on our scrubs no one came in but our ward angel, but she said the woman leaning over her boys was ugly as a walleye. When she shouted for the other woman to leave, she drew back like she was hit. Hannah ran and got one of us, but the lady was gone. So was little Benjamin Foley’s breath.

Takes a while for people to put two and two together sometimes. The most famous case of SIDS turned out to be the momma herself, but it took ‘em seven kids to reach that conclusion. Sometimes the medical industry doesn’t move as fast as it should, but we get there in the end.

We cornered her after shift change. She was leaning over a cot. She always hit a different cot, not sure how we missed that one. Jessup asks her her last name. She smiles real pretty as if she doesn’t understand. Jessup asks her again and she breaks into tears. Barbara is all set to comfort her, but we hold her back.

Even the crying is off, like she’s trying to make a pretty show out of it, just like everything. Jessup asks her her name. The crying stops. She lowers her hands and just stares at us. Maybe she never hit that response in her whole career. She ain’t prepared, but we are.

She screamed just like a real woman, that was the hardest part. Even after the fire’d been going a while, longer than it probably should. The smoke was thick and greasy, spread like molasses over everyone. Thank god for the breeze.

Needless to say mortality went down.

We stuck her at a crossroads, because no one’s sure what the protocol is for this sort of thing, and buried her with a good, flat stone in case she ever gets the idea to come and visit.

Ward’s a bit slow these days, mostly new dads coming in to peek at their wife’s hard work, grandparents arguing about whose nose he got. But there’s one woman who comes almost every day, dark as a spring wood, always with a smile.

We call her the ward angel.

Just in case.

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