October 12th, 1990
When Ethan agreed to stay the night at Jesse’s house that Friday night, he did his best not to read too much into it. On the one hand, at fifteen, they were both a little old for sleepovers. On the other hand, since moving to Finch Point in June, Ethan had been flying solo, and Jesse was the first potential friend he’d found. Maybe.
Jesse was a bit of a mystery to Ethan. In attitude and temperament, they couldn’t really be any different. Jesse was all confidence and bravado. He talked about girls as if he actually knew something. He had worked last summer as a volunteer fireman. At least that’s what he said. Most of Jesse’s stories were like that: almost believable, but always with some whiff of bullshit underneath. Ethan suspected the stories of his sexual conquests were much the same. He was less troubled by Jesse’s need to embellish–to lie, really–than he was confused by it. What was it about Ethan that led Jesse to believe that he would be impressed by these stories? Why so much effort?
And then Jesse had invited him to stay over, watch some dumb movies, stay up late, act like idiots, and Ethan was shocked at how much he craved just those things. Not one more Friday night in his room listening to his dad’s old records and copying panels out of comic books. Actually doing things. With people.
His mom drove him over after work, and pulling to the curb, she looked over the outside of the house with a cool, appraising eye. A single level house, painted a dark green, the branches of tall pines resting on the roof. There was a car in the driveway that looked like it probably hadn’t run in this decade, pine needles piled up at the base of the windshield, rust eating away the wheel wells.
“I still don’t like not meeting him or his folks,” she said, sitting back.
“He’s a guy from school. And I’m not a little kid, mom.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I am just registering my concerns.”
“Received and filed. Now can I go?”
Ethan opened the door and climbed out.
“Your sister has swimming tonight, so we won’t be home if you call.”
“Love you too,” he said, rolling his eyes and shouldering his backpack. He closed the door and walked up the front walk. He knew his mom was still there at the curb, that she wouldn’t move until he was inside the house. He refused to turn and look at her. He knocked, and he could hear movement from deep within the house, see shadows behind the wavy amber glass alongside the front door. The door opened, and Jesse smiled from beneath his fringe of stringy hair.
“Hey,” he said.
“Come on in. Quiet, though, My mom’s asleep.”
Ethan followed him in and as he shut the door he broke and glanced out at his mom, car idling at the curb. Still watching. He closed the door without acknowledging her.
The inside of the house was dark with the blinds drawn and the shade of the big trees outside, and the dusk coming on already. It smelled vaguely of freezer-burn and stale cigarette smoke. He followed Jesse through a living room of mismatched couches and recliners, all facing a massive television, down a darker hallway and through a door on the left, all the way at the end of the hall.
Jesse closed the door quietly.
“My mom gave me some money for pizza, if you’re hungry.” He flopped onto the bed, leaning against the wall. The bed looked like it was made for a much younger kid, and the table beside it was beat up and covered in stickers that had been peeled off unsuccessfully. The room was dark, with only the last of the daylight filtering through the flannel blanket tacked up over the window.
“Sounds good,” Ethan said, dropping his bag onto the floor. “I’m pretty hungry.”
Jesse jumped up and vanished back down the hall, into the kitchen, where Ethan could hear him dialing the phone. Ethan stood in the middle of the room, looking around. Dirty laundry piled on the floor. A desk that looked like it probably weighed a ton, with the finish all but worn from the top. Several glasses, half full of mysterious liquids. A boom box with several cassettes piled up around it. A Nike shoebox beside the radio.
Ethan rifled through the tapes. Anthrax and a couple of Black Sabbath. All bands that Ethan knew only as names on t-shirts. He lifted the lid of the shoebox and dropped it quickly again. Looking toward the door, he lifted it carefully again. A naked woman stared up at him, her legs parted, her face painted and bored, hair teased up into a blonde helmet. He supposed he wasn’t supposed to be critiquing her hairdo. It was a page that had been roughly ripped out of a magazine, and Ethan lifted it to reveal a whole sheaf of such pages. A whole box full. He quickly replaced the lid and moved away from the desk.
Jesse pushed back into the room and once again closed the door with surprising care.
“Thirty minutes or less,” he said, flopping back onto the bed.
“You can put on some music if you want. Just don’t turn it up above three or my mom will kick my ass.”
Ethan moved back to the desk, his eye drawn back to the shoebox. He picked out And Justice for All, just because the cover looked cool. He pushed the tape into the player, checked the volume–pegged right at three–and hit play. The music started with a swirl of weirdly distorted guitars that sounded like they were rising from deep underwater.
“Fuck yeah,” Jesse said. “I mean, it’s not Puppets, but nothing is Puppets.”
Ethan just nodded, no clue what any of that meant.
“If you feel like taking a walk in a bit, there are some friends having a thing. We’re invited.”
“Sure,” Ethan said. Am I going to a high school party?
They sat on the bed, listening to the music and thumbing through some of Jesse’s Thor comics. Ethan didn’t read Thor. He didn’t even really know what it was about. Then there was a rap at the front door and Jesse turned off the music as he ran to get the pizza. Ethan followed him out into the living room, and Jesse led him into the kitchen. It was a narrow white room with an old range with dirty trays under the burners. The table was a round formica thing with brass tubular legs. Jesse opened the pizza box and went to the refrigerator.
“Sure,” Ethan said, taking a slice.
Jesse poured out two glasses from the plastic bottle and then looked at Ethan with a mischievous smile.
“Want a little extra?”
Ethan just looked at him.
“Black Velvet? It’s my mom’s.” He pointed to the top of the fridge where a large plastic bottle of Black Velvet indeed stood. Ethan wasn’t even exactly sure what Black Velvet was, but he nodded.
Jesse looked down the hall, listening intently, and then took down the bottle. He poured it into Ethan’s glass until the foam all but spilled over the top and then returned the bottle to its place.
“What about you?”
“I’m good,” Jesse said, taking his drink and the box of pizza and pushing through the back door. Ethan followed. The backyard was a deep stretch of yard with a good half dozen trees looming high up above. There was no grass to speak of, just dirt and pine loam, and some folding beach chairs with tattered webbing. Jesse sat in one of these, put the pizza on another, and put his glass on the ground beside him.
Ethan took another chair, sipped at his drink. It tasted like soda and cough medicine. It was terrible. He took a long drink and set the glass down. He took a slice of pizza.
“Your mom work nights?” he said.
“Nah. She’s just not feeling too good. Been sick for a while. It’s fine. She leaves me alone, you know?”
Ethan finished his slice, washed it down with a long drink. It got better the more you drank. Not good, but at least tolerable. He still wasn’t sure what to make of Jesse’s not taking any.
They ate the whole pizza in silence, and Ethan finished his drink.
“Walk?” Jesse said.
Jesse shoved the pizza box into a plastic garbage can and went around the side of the house, through a little rickety gate, and soon they were out on the street in front of the house.
“We can cut through the park,” he said, pointing with his chin. Ethan, feeling a little swimmy, followed.
The park was a block over, a big chunk of land with a playground on this side and then paths that led down into a dense stand of redwoods, with a filthy little duck pond at the bottom. Ethan had been there a couple of times with his family. It was a cool place, but now the sun was really sinking down, and as they entered under the canopy of the trees the dark deepened. Jesse led them off the asphalt and down through the underbrush, along a well worn trail that cut straight across the main road’s zigzagging switchbacks. Soon they were out of the dark and into the open space of the duck pond. A couple of pickup trucks were parked near the fence, country music blasting from the speakers, and the kids standing around eyed them as they passed, but Jesse didn’t even acknowledge them. He just moved around the edge of the pond and followed a narrow path up the other side.
“These kids, the one’s we’re going to see? They’re kind of church kids, so maybe just don’t mention the alcohol, okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” Like what was he going to say? And church kids? There was no part of Jesse that fit with any other part.
At the far side of the park, they walked a couple of blocks, cut through a yard, and Jesse knocked at the door to a nice looking two story.
The door opened and a clean cut looking girl with a blonde ponytail looked out. She smiled at Jesse and then saw Ethan.
“Oh, hi. Come on in. I’m Beth.”
Ethan nodded to her as they passed into the house. The entryway gave onto a living room that was broad and open, with high ceilings. A baby grand piano took up one corner, and another girl was sitting on its bench, facing away from the keyboard, drinking a coke. Piano girl had red-blonde curls that stood out around her round face. Three other kids were scattered around the room in various stages of lounging. There was a bag of potato chips on the coffee table. On the radio, playing low: “Nothing Compares to You,” which was almost inescapable but that Ethan secretly thought was kind of great.
Jesse shoved his hand into the bag of chips and wandered around the room.
“This is Ethan. He’s new.”
“Hey.” They all nodded or raised hands in greeting. Ethan wasn’t sure if he fit in with the church kids either, but they were certainly a lot easier to read than whatever was going on at Jesse’s house. He still felt a little woozy, a little unsure on his feet, and he was sure that they could all see it, that he was making a fool of himself.
“What you all up to tonight?” Jesse said around a mouthful of chips, crumbs flying.
“God, you’re disgusting,” Beth laughed, holding up a hand as if to protect herself. Ethan watched her move, her long-fingered hands. Maybe it was the ponytail, but she seemed like a dancer, scrubbed clean and smooth.
“Nothing much,” the girl by the piano said. “I’ve got to get home soon. If my parents find out I was here, they’ll kill me.”
Ethan looked around. What sinister influence was supposed to be lurking here?
“We can walk you home,” Jesse said, and piano girl gave him a long, seemingly meaningful look.
“Yeah, okay,” she said, finally.
Without even looking at Ethan, Jesse extended an arm, guiding the girl toward the front door again, and before he knew it, Ethan was standing in the living room with several strangers.
“Well, nice meeting you,” he said.
“Yeah, see you around,” the boy on the floor said without looking up.
Ethan nodded to Beth, who was really kind of painfully pretty, and then he hurried out the door, running to catch up to Jesse and piano girl. He kept his distance, trailing behind them as they moved back into the park.
It was almost full dark now, and it was nearly impossible to see his way under the trees. He just kept his eye on Jesse up ahead and stumbled blindly forward, hoping the ground wouldn’t drop away beneath him.
At the pond, the pickup kids had their headlights and the bright spots mounted on top of their cabs turned on, reflecting off the algae-strewn surface of the water. Garth Brooks loudly proclaimed how he had friends in low places. Someone threw a bottle into the pond, and it made a hollow plump! Someone shouted something, and Ethan didn’t know if it was directed at them or not. Once again, Jesse paid them no mind.
They plunged back into the brush, the darkness so deep it was almost palpable, and Ethan was sure that he was going to get lost or fall and hurt himself. And his balance was messed up from the stupid drink.
The other two were a ways ahead of him, and Ethan hurried so he wouldn’t lose them. Jesse was holding piano girl’s hand now. She would sometimes say something quietly to him, and he would give a little laugh and answer in similarly quiet tones. She never acknowledged Ethan’s presence.
Soon they climbed out into the playground area, where streetlights illumined the parking lot. Jesse led them away from his house, and Ethan walked along, a few paces behind the couple, for three blocks. Then piano girl stopped them and told Jesse he needed to go.
“If my mom saw you,” she said.
“Right,” he said. “Well, later.” And he turned away, heading back toward Ethan. Piano girl walked up the block, not looking back.
“What was that about?” Ethan said.
“Heather’s a trip, man. Strict parents, but she’s wild, man. Her sister, too.”
“So, you two?”
“She just does hand stuff,” he said, miming. He laughed a mean little laugh, and they kept on.
Ethan thought again about walking home. He could always go back to the house and call his mom, but no, he couldn’t. Steph was at swimming. So, yeah, just walk away. Whatever Jesse was, Ethan was pretty sure he didn’t want to be that. Well, he wanted to be with girls, and the picture of Beth’s blonde ponytail flashed through his mind again, and then unbidden the thought of Beth lying down in the pine needle and trash of the park floor. He shook it away. There was something about Jesse’s way of being in the world that just felt… off.
He also knew he was too much of a coward to go. He’d wait it out. He knew he would. Call his mom in the morning. Make a run for it then.
Back in the house, they returned to Jesse’s room, where he turned the music back on and dropped once again on top of the bed.
“Bathroom?” Ethan said.
“Down the hall. Last on the right.”
Ethan imitated Jesse’s careful opening and shutting of the door and crept down the hall. The last thing he wanted was a run-in with Jesse’s mom. If Jesse was scared of her, Ethan couldn’t even imagine.
The bathroom was filthy, with a black coating lining the inside of the toilet bowl and mold growing up the walls. Ethan peed, half-holding his breath, ran his hands under the water, and wiped his hands dry on his pants.
Moving back down the hall, the door on the right was now open a couple of inches. The mom’s room. He did his best to move silently by, but a voice called out from inside.
Ethan stopped. He didn’t know what to do. Finally he spoke, standing where he was.
“No, ma’am. I’m Jesse’s friend. Ethan. I can get him for you.”
“What the fuck do I want with him?” The voice was thin, rough, and sharp as a rusty fishhook. “Come help me.”
Ethan looked down the hall toward Jesse’s closed door. He turned and pushed the door to his right open. The room was dark but for the light from the attached bathroom. That light fell on Jesse’s mother, a skeleton hung with pale skin, wearing a sheer bra and panties. Her legs were covered in half-dollar sized bruises, some green, some blue, some sickly yellow. She was trying to get up from the bed, without much success, and her hair, greasy and lank, hung down over her downturned face. Ethan stepped inside, and took one scrawny forearm in his hands. Her skin was dry as paper, and she felt too light to make up a whole person. He got her onto her feet, and she wavered, unsteady. She smelled of old urine and something vaguely medicinal. Ethan tried not to look at her, offering the modesty that she didn’t seem to afford herself. Instead he looked at the bed she had just risen from and saw sheets stained brown with what looked like dried blood.
“Just help me in there,” she said, nodding toward the bathroom, and Ethan kept one hand on her upper arm and placed his other hand at the small of her back, feeling the vertebrae standing out like the ridge along a lizard’s back. Glancing down, he saw that the back of her underwear was stained almost black.
In the bathroom, she swatted his hands away and braced herself on the counter.
“Shut the door, but don’t go away. I need help back.”
Ethan hurried out and closed the door. Looking around the room, he noticed that in the center of the far wall was a hole in the plaster. Eye-level and maybe ten inches across, it went clear through, darkness on the other side. The edges of the broken drywall were worn smooth along the bottom edge, and the wall was dirty around it, as if hands had worried it often. That would be the last bedroom on the right side of the hall. He watched the hole. It seemed to pull at him, and he wanted to cross the room and look through, but he wanted to be nearby when Jesse’s mom called, so he just watched it, as if something might crawl out of it, or some face might appear on the other side.
The toilet flushed, she called out, and Ethan opened the door again. She was sick alright, and the smell was truly foul. He held his breath and helped her up from the toilet. She clawed at her underwear with broken nails, not seeming to be able to make her fingers work. Finally, Ethan reached down and tugged them up, quick as he could manage. Bending down brought his face near to hers, and he really saw her for the first time. Her eyes were sunken and black-ringed, and her lips were chapped to bleeding, and there were more bruises on her cheeks. One nostril was caked with dried blood.
“The bed,” she gasped.
Ethan led her back into the bedroom, nausea tickling the back of his throat. As they shuffled back to the bed, he watched the hole in the far wall. It was like a pupil in some massive eye, focused on him, watching. At the bed, she turned, and Ethan lowered her down. She swatted his hands away again.
“That’s enough. No more free feels for you. Out.” She waved a hand toward the door and with the other hand picked up the glass beside her. She drank it greedily, some of it running out the sides of the glass and down her chin.
Ethan pulled the door quietly shut and hurried back toward Jesse’s room. He looked at the door across the hall, the room that neighbored the mother’s. A slide latch had been installed on the outside of the door, the metal bar pushed into a hole drilled into the frame.
“You get lost, or just take a really big one?”
“Your mom. She was calling.”
He threw his comic book down and swore, starting to rise.
“No, it’s okay, I helped her.”
He stopped and looked at Ethan. A very long pause.
“You helped her.”
“Yeah. She seems pretty sick.”
“I told you. She needs a lot of rest.”
“Well, she’s back in bed now.”
He was still holding Ethan’s eyes, as if he were doing some complicated calculations in his head.
“Well, if she’s up, we can watch some TV. Come on.”
They went into the livingroom and Jesse turned on the big TV. The volume was all the way down, and he left it that way as he flipped through the channels. TBS was playing Beastmaster, and Jesse turned the volume up just loud enough to make out, and then tossed the remote onto the coffee table.
“So, how do you know those kids from before,” Ethan said.
“Oh, just from church.”
Ethan tried to imagine Jesse in church. Then he tried to imagine his mother anywhere.
“We haven’t gone in a while, since my mom got sick, but they’re okay.”
On the screen, Dar and his companions found themselves surrounded by red, bat-like humanoids who closed in around them in an ever-tighter circle.
“I used to have this on tape. Wore it out,” Jesse said.
“Yeah,” Ethan said. He didn’t know what else to say. He wondered if his family was back from Steph’s swimming lesson. He could fake sick. Say his stomach hurt. Get the hell out.
But instead, they watched the rest of the movie, and then MacGyver reruns came on, and they watched that. They didn’t say much, only occasionally commenting on the action. Ethan found himself drifting off in the fake leather recliner.
Finally, Jesse got up and disappeared down the hall, returning with a couple of blankets and two pillows. He threw a pillow and blanket and Ethan, and took the rest back to the couch. He set up his little bed there, while a Tide commercial flashed bright on the screen. Ethan put the pillow behind his head and covered up with the blanket. It was pretty comfortable, actually.
Jesse wanted to watch USA Up All Night because he thought the host was hot and the movies were funny, but they didn’t make it even a half hour into the first movie before Jesse was snoring quietly on the couch, the TV still humming away quietly. Ethan punched the pillow, which smelled musty, and settled in. Soon, he drifted off in the blue light of the television.
He awoke to the sound of scratching and a soft voice calling out. At first, still caught in the gauzy web of half-sleep, he thought it was a cat, trying to get in. But that soft whine was a word.
He looked across the room at Jesse, twisted in his blanket, back turned toward him. The TV was still on, whispering out the laugh track from Happy Days and casting shifting shadows around the room.
Fully awake now, he didn’t have to guess. He knew where the voice was coming from. The end of the hall. The last room. Ethan’s mind raced through horror movie images and tabloid headlines. He imagined some little sister, kept chained to the wall, half-starved. But why? And why the hole in the wall? Who did it serve? The mother or whoever was locked up inside?
He allowed himself a brief fantasy of opening the door, gathering up the emaciated form of the abused child, carrying her–he knew it must be a her–out into the street, as ambulances and police cruisers converged on him, the hero.
And then the voice shook him back into reality.
The scratch-scratch like fingernails along the bottom of a hollow-core door. And he didn’t want to be a hero anymore. He didn’t want to open any doors on any secret family horrors. He wanted to run. He could get his bag, slip out the back door, walk home. He’d make it before daylight. Sleep the morning in his own bed and forget about everything he’d seen and heard in this house.
He carefully folded up the recliner, tangling the blanket in the footrest, and stood up. Jesse slept on, the rise and fall of his breathing barely visible. Ethan moved to the end of the hallway. It was dark, the bathroom door standing open but offering only deeper darkness within. The scratch-scratch seemed terribly loud in the stillness.
It was the voice more than anything. Childlike and feminine and pleading, as if only for him. He took two steps into the hallway. There was a wet cough from behind the mother’s door, a sniffle, and the sound of rustling bedclothes. Ethan stood statue still. He imagined the mother opening her bedroom door at that moment and finding him standing there in the dark, perfectly still, just staring at the door. She’d probably scream. Jesse would wake up. He’d look like a crazy person.
He felt a little like a crazy person.
Two more steps and he was past the mother’s room, almost to the end of the hall. It was deep darkness here. He remembered thinking he was lost in pure dark earlier in the evening, in the park, with Jesse and piano girl. But this was true darkness. Glancing over his shoulder he saw the flickering glow of the television in the other room, but the hallway seemed so long, the light so far away.
He ran his hands along the smooth wood of the door, feeling for the latch. He found it, and it rattled, too loud. Too loud. He was still again.
The voice didn’t even seem to come from behind the door. It filled the darkness. He lifted the little hasp and slid the bar to the side. It wasn’t a large lock. A good kick should have been enough to knock it loose. He carefully pushed the hasp back down, and then waited again, listening.
Sliding his hands down the door, he found the handle, turned it slowly, pushed.
As the door moved, something skittered away from it, back, away into a far corner. There were two windows in the room, both of them covered in cardboard, held in place by duct tape. The only light came in through the hole in the wall to his right, casting a dim spotlight on the far wall. Devoid of furniture, the room felt over-large, cavernous, the corners dark.
“Hello?” he whispered, his eyes slowly adjusting to the weak light.
In the far corner, beyond the hole in the wall, in the deeper shadows, a shape moved slightly.
“Please,” she said.
Ethan stepped further into the room, eyeing the hole in the wall. The room beyond, Jesse’s mom’s room, was just an orange glare of dim light and shadow. He passed through that light, approaching the figure in the corner with his hands up.
From the shadows he could see that she was at least not a child. Her hair hung loose over her eyes, and she seemed to be wrapped in a sheet, or some kind of loose, gauzy scarf-like thing. She stood slightly hunched, with her hands at her sides, shoulders tensed up.
“I’m Ethan,” he said, not touching her, but holding his hands out so that she could see they were empty. “What’s your name?”
She looked up from under the fringe of hair so blonde it was almost white, big eyes reflecting the faint light, and he thought he saw a smile.
And then the light was gone, and they were plunged into darkness. Ethan flinched away, turning to the hole on his right, where Jesse’s mom peered through. Her eyes and nose filled the space, her fingers poked through, clutching the bottom of the hole. She hooked her eyes at Ethan, standing guilty in the dark.
“She don’t talk,” she said, the voice coming through the wall muffled and rattly. “Never talks.”
“Why’s she locked in here,” Ethan said, adrenaline shaking his voice, ready to run.
“Why you lock something up? So it don’t get out, or so someone else don’t get in. Don’t ask stupid questions. What you really want to know?”
Ethan took a step back, away from both women, the skeletal face peering through the plaster and the grinning woman hunched in the corner. Suddenly, he didn’t know which to be more frightened of.
“I caught her,” the mother said. “She didn’t think I could. Didn’t think I was strong enough. Didn’t think I had the juice. But I caught her. She’s mine.”
“You can’t,” Ethan said. Just that. He couldn’t find the words to say everything that was wrong with the situation. You can’t keep a person prisoner. You can’t steal people away. You can’t be here, staring through this ragged hole in the wall in the middle of the night. You just can’t.
The mother laughed. It was a broken glass under car tires sound. “That’s what she thought, but look at her. I can. Can’t I, dear?” The eyes moved toward the corner.
“Who is she,” was the best Ethan could do. He didn’t have the necessary resources for this conversation.
“Not a who. A what. What’s she look like to you? Tell me what you see.”
Ethan looked back at the girl in the corner. She lifted her hands, long-fingered hands, pale in the dark, and pushed her hair back behind her ears. He knew that face. He’d seen it just today. Jesse’s friend. Beth. Her hair let down from its ponytail. She smiled up at him.
“Ooh, hoo. What do you see, boy? She look like an angel to you? She looked like an angel when I got her. She ain’t no angel. Sometimes she still tries, but I see through it. Tell me. Tell me what you see.”
“She’s just a girl,” he whispered.
That laugh again. “A girl. All you boys think about. Girls. She’s no more a girl than I am. Ancient. Older than time, this one.”
“Why are you keeping her in here,” Ethan said, straightening himself. The first waves of adrenaline had subsided enough that he could almost think.
“That’s what you do with one like her. I like to watch her. Sometimes I watch her all day long. Taken almost everything to keep her here. Almost drained me dry, but I caught her. She’s mine. She’ll be mine until I finally die. Soon now. Then she’ll go. But she’ll remember. She’ll know I caught her. She won’t underestimate the next one.”
“Come on,” he said to Beth. “I’ll take you out of here.” He held his hand out to her.
The mother laughed again. “I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do that. Never touched her. Wouldn’t.”
“It’s okay. We’ll get help,” he said.
The long pale fingers reached out slowly across the darkness, stretching out toward his open hand.
“Don’t feed the animals, boy. Don’t do it. I wouldn’t. She’s just good to watch. She’ll show you anything you want. Be anything you want. Wouldn’t touch. Just look.” She started to cough, that wet, hacking cough, and her face disappeared from the hole in the wall, once again letting a solitary beam of light enter the room. In the light of that beam: Ethan’s open hand, and the girl’s pale fingers reaching out, almost touching. He held his breath. That touch. Just the feel of her fingers wrapped up in his own. He’d die for it. Just one touch. Her fingers slid into his palm, and he closed his fingers around them. They were so cold. He wanted to take them in his mouth, warm them, keep them close to his skin. She looked at him across the circle of light, so beautiful. Painfully beautiful. Like a fishhook just below his sternum, tugging.
The mother returned to the hole, peering in, and the room went dark again.
And Ethan felt his arm jerked suddenly away. There was no pain. It simply wasn’t there any more. He felt at his shoulder with his left hand, at the wet socket, blood pumping warm between his fingers.
“Oh, my, no. I wouldn’t have done that,” the mother said. “Wouldn’t have touched her. Not for a million dollars, no. Just watch her. Just look.”
Ethan fell to his knees, the blood rushing from his head, gone light, too light. He couldn’t feel his arm. As he fell, he felt those cold fingers on his skin. Painfully beautiful.
The mother laughed her gravelly chuckle that was half cough, as the mouth closed on the base of his neck.
“No,” he said, though no sound came out. “Please.”
“Oh, goodness,” he mother said. “I tried to warn you. Look but don’t touch. Oh, look at that. She’s never shown me that before. Yes.”
Ethan felt the warmth running out of him. He felt his body shake as the girl’s teeth tore through his belly, her fingers pulling him open.
“Please,” he sighed, but he wasn’t sure if he was pleading for help or begging for her not to stop. If she would just hollow him out and climb inside, he’d keep her warm forever. Just so that he could feel that touch.
“Just look at that,” the mother said. “Just look.”
Josh Hanson is a teacher and a graduate of University of Montana MFA program, and his first novel, King’s Hill is forthcoming from Wicked House. His previous work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sinister Smile Press, BlackPetals, Dance Cry Dance Break, Stoneboat,Fast Flesh, and Diagram.
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