There’s a dish of milk balanced on the trailer’s top step, something dark surfacing in the white like a shark. As I knock and wait, I try to figure it out: a Hostess Cupcake? A Ding-Dong? You leave your best, after all.
Inside, Mrs. Bruinsma makes coffee with the lightly champagne-coloured water from the tap. Mine cools in a chipped and faded Snoopy mug while I explain why I’m here, pushing a business card across the sticky tablecloth.
“Are you with the government?” she finally asks.
“No, ma’am. We’re a private company.”
“Do you have...equipment? Are you going to do tests on her?”
“No. She’ll be fine. You can stay and watch if you want.”
She’s not listening, and nothing I’m saying, I figure, is the deciding factor that gets her up from the table. I follow her outside, careful not to touch the teetering offering. We walk past a dozen trailers, some clearly abandoned, others more ambiguously so, and head through the fence marking the border of Meadow Hill.
The clearing we enter is untrimmed, one side backed with tall black trees. Something white and gray straightens suddenly from the grass, and for a moment I am not an Evaluator, not even a human, only a hunted vertebrate poised to spin and flee, my throat making a small involuntary whine.
The moment passes and it’s just a kid, ten or eleven or however old kids are right before you think “Ah, they’ll put on weight soon and shoot up,” dressed in a grey sweatshirt so long it’s become a dress, dirty striped leggings, black boots. She resembles her mother: lank brown hair, a paleness endemic to the region that goes past white and into the territory of translucence, cave fish, milk glass. I am struck by two things: the smudge of blood on her chin, not hers; and the crown she wears, three skulls wired together, a rabbit, a deer, and a coyote or dog. Together they should be too heavy for her skinny neck, but she stands tall, proud, easy. Too easy. Bad sign.
“Where’d she get the skulls?” I murmur.
“I don’t want to know,” her mother whispers.
Me neither, but this kind of question is part of the job. I approach the kid with my hands out, trying to show that I’m not carrying anything, though I suppose it looks like I’m about to snap my arms shut and grab her. She doesn’t seem concerned, only watches me as I approach. Another bad sign.
“Hi there, Edeline,” I say. I realize I sound like I’m speaking to a bright but unfamiliar dog, and try to modulate my tone; I’m not used to kids. “My name’s Sheffield. I’m an Evaluator. Drove in from Derby to meet you. You got a minute to talk?”
She nods as I study the crown—copper wire binds the yellowed bone, each skull indifferently cleaned so that none-too-fresh scraps of flesh remain. Even as I’m thinking it, a small black-and-red beetle shoots out of one eyehole and into another. I’m expecting the sour smell of unwashed skin and dry-aged carrion, but there’s only ozone and the sticky scent of the forest. Another bad sign.
Under her pale skin, something glows and moves, a pulsating gulp of liquid bypassing veins, arteries, the small things of the human body. At night it must be bright enough to read by. No real point in doing the Evaluation now; I’ve seen enough to fill out the report, but I move closer yet, stoop to make eye contact. Her eyes are pearly and grey, the cataracted eyes of an old woman, pupils still visible for now. “Now this might feel a little funny,” I tell her, “but I’m not gonna touch you. OK?”
“OK.” Her voice is still ordinary, a child’s clear descant not too marred by her jumble of baby and adult teeth.
I shut my eyes and step inside, all the outside sounds—her light breath, the wind in the trees, faraway traffic—fading like usual. But where they would normally be replaced by the chitter and gabble of excited spirits, there is nothing. A void, waiting. The wards on wrist and chest suddenly seem not only inadequate but pitiful, a token insult; sweat soaks my shirt as I retreat into the real, embarrassed at my terror.
She’s smiling; her hands flash briefly from her too-long sleeves and I freeze and cower at the resultant explosions. No, not explosions—creaks and roars, the wet smell of fall sap, amber splinters flying. The mother screams. I hope she doesn’t move. Two huge birches drop on either side of us, sending birds howling from the dark woods, setting off car alarms so far away I can barely hear the warbling.
It’s enough. It’s enough for the report. I take the cowering mother by the elbow, not quite running, and leave the child to the woods for now.
Back at the kitchen table, Mrs. Bruinsma sobs, angry at her own pain, soaking up the tears with her sweatshirt sleeve. I fill out the form while she weeps, including a sketch. Where did the blood come from? Hopefully just an animal. Better yet a stolen steak. But recommend checking missing persons reports, I write.
“When did this start?” I ask.
“Couple weeks ago.”
“And you didn’t call for help.”
“It wasn’t like this,” she snaps, pointing at the window, and by proxy the mile or so between the gesture and the child. “She was just... she’s always been a little... but not like this.”
“Passed away. Two years ago.”
“Anyone else I can talk to? Friends? Brothers? Sisters?”
There’s a blue shadow under her eyes when she says it, deepening by degrees to something resembling football black. At least one other, then. Dead or gone in some other way, a runaway, or still here but vanished into one of the many liminal states presented as viable options: meth, Oxy, booze, God, gods. I put away the form and pick up my bag.
She follows me out, carefully but unconsciously avoiding the offering again. “Wait,” she croaks, voice ruined with tears. “Aren’t you going to...to take her? I thought...”
“No, Mrs. Bruinsma. We can’t do that.”
“You can’t, or you won’t?” she says shrilly. “You see her, you see what I have to live with—I can’t live like this much longer, neither can she. If you don’t...”
“We Evaluate. That’s all.” It isn’t, but she doesn’t need to know that. We’re not county animal control at any rate, we can’t just collar and cage her, we don’t have a shelter for her. And even if we did, it wouldn’t be a no-kill. None of this needs saying. She’s upset. “I’ll call you if I need more information,” I say, truthfully, and get back into the car.
This place, Christ. I want to call the boss as I drive—it’s almost an hour back to Derby from Meadow Hill—but the roads aren’t good here, and neither is the reception. Funny that they mutter darkly about the electronic soup ‘the government’ is bathing their brains in, won’t let anyone put a cell tower in here, and then have the gall to bitch about their bad reception.
They bitch about me too, more justifiably: the city mouse that moved to the country, and doesn’t even have the good grace to leave the country mice to themselves. But we were getting so sick of driving out from the city that the boss decided to open a regional office. And it’s not that I love my job so much that I took the move instead of quitting; it’s that when you don’t have much in your life, a move is not an adventure, not even an inconvenience, it’s just what you do to keep the one thing you do have.
And so here we are in Derby, the deep, dark woods, a little crossroads of a thousand people in town and about the same in shrinking trailer suburbs, elegantly ringed with expanding circles of abandoned buildings, like Roman ruins. The industrial companies moved in on the hard, water-tight clay for a couple decades, then went under or got bought out, and slunk out in the middle of the night, no way to recover the assets they left here. A branded amphitheater, a bright new cinderblock school, a rec center, all shut and graffitied and crumbling from disuse. The clear wellwater the locals still reminisce about turned orange about twenty years ago, and one of the companies ponied up about five million dollars to build a treatment plant for the aquifer. It’s still running, not well; you don’t drink the tap stuff if you can avoid it. It’s one of those unspoken rules that only goes spoken when an outsider moves in.
We got the office for next to nothing. Lunch money for a month back home. Here, it houses me, and my co-Evaluator Kabore, and our boss, Ferne. We go around seeing whether people have been fucked up, pardon my French, by what we’d call ‘country living,’ or by the industrial chemicals, or by the furious dark ancient unknowable gods that have always lived here.
The problem—and, Ferne opines, the reason for a local office—is that the chemicals seem to be increasing the incidences of that last, but no one knows why. The last company, Tethys Industries, set up bioremediation cells not just under their old footprint but everyone else’s, and they’re supposed to be busting up the chemicals, breaking them down, but the levels just never change. There are a hundred places you can’t put a playground or a garden. There are places you can’t even dig in the dirt, lest your hands emerge blistered, or bright orange, or simply degloved. Something they made was phytotoxic, moves in fits and starts, so that trees are still dying, in those slow spiraling rings like the buildings; and where they aren’t dying, they’re changing, getting graffiti of their own, tagged with cellulose and chitin tumours of all colours and sizes.
And me, I leave my offerings out like I was told, milk and sage, oil and bread, pudding—just once, but it was all I had. It’s not a concession to the locals and their superstitions. It’s a concession to living out here, and the slow dawning that it’s a dangerous and lonely place, but that the people who live in dangerous and lonely places often don’t mind. In the old days, though, people were afraid of the land for reasons they knew. Now they don’t. Everything they used to love is stark and hard on the eyes. I think that’s why they tolerate me and Kabore—we are hope, a small dim ray of it in the strange new darkness.
Kabore isn’t in when I reach the office, but Ferne is, angrily poking at a salad and her keyboard in turns. “Look at this bullshit,” she says, not looking up. “Corporate is going to force us to do this information security course by month-end. Says we have to send the certificates to prove it.”
“How bad could it be?”
“Eighteen to twenty hours, it says!” She stabs at the salad, and a piece of hard-boiled egg flies across her desk almost onto my lap. Before I can sweep it into the garbage can something small and resin-green with a hundred eyes creeps up the desk leg and snatches it away. At least out here we don’t have to clean the office. Ferne sighs, and pushes her lunch at me. “Here, eat the rest of this. I’m full. How was the park?”
I hand her the form from my bag, which she ignores. “Talk to me, Sheffield,” she says.
“It’s bad,” I blurt, surprising us both. In the long silence everything I wanted to tell her in the car bubbles up, an incoherent hurricane of words. I hold it down and try to fish something useful out, coming up only with, “Oh God, Jen, it’s so bad. Jesus. Tell me what to do next, before I go back to my place and just pack a goddamn bag.”
She’s staring, eyebrows almost meeting her silvery hairline. I don’t blame her. Evaluators are unflappable, not merely stoic; we are the heroes of horror movies, we cannot be rattled. And in ten years I haven’t. I am startled to find myself on the verge of shouting, or tears.
Finally she looks at the form, then back at me. “Glowing,” she says. “Generating the old light.”
“In broad goddamn daylight.”
“Where did she get the skulls?”
“I don’t know.”
“All right,” she says, and scribbles on the form. “I’m pulling head office in on this one. Bring her in early tomorrow. We’ll do a day trip back to the city, get a full Evaluation done by the regional team.”
“I’m not going back there. Send Kabore.”
“Kabore’s booked. What’s the matter with you? All right, so it’s...it’s bad, it’s new. Part of the job. You get too used to one thing, novelty scares you.”
“What are you going to do, fire me?” I ask hopefully.
“Brad,” she says, pushing the form back at me, “pull your shit together.”
No sleep. Only a half-hearted paralysis, hearing everything, footsteps, heartbeats, the familiar softness of wind in trees. The keen of satisfied gods, the drag and slurp of their movement, the cries of their despair, clunks and screeches as they scratch bumpers or scare alley cats. Sleep! I order myself, but nothing happens, and then my phone is beeping.
Four in the morning—time to get dressed and go back to the trailer park. Back to the long grass and the black woods, back to the thing that lives in a little girl with a name too big for her.
Mrs. Bruinsma lets me in without comment, and makes eggs, toast, more of the toxic coffee. I turn down her breakfast and wait for her to drink enough to gear up for conversation. The kitchen is lit with Dollarama bulbs, strong and harsh, erasing the darkness outside and making mirrors of the windows: the thin woman, long hair down her back; the sturdy man in city clothes, pouchy, scruffy, like an urban raccoon. I give myself an encouraging nod.
“You know, her Nana died about two months ago,” she says suddenly. “Her dad’s mom. I thought maybe this was...her way of...of...acting out.”
“No, I didn’t think so either,” she says. “I hoped so. But...anyway, I’m sorry you came out here for nothing. You should have called. Eddie’s not here.”
“Mm-hm?” I say, because we found her yesterday in moments, for whatever reason—the pull of the gods, or a mother’s instinct, or perhaps just that she keeps returning to the same place, not quite grass, not quite woods.
“Yes,” she says. “She ran away. It must have been right after you left. Because she didn’t come in for dinner.”
“Mm-hm.” We all took Investigative Techniques, I want to tell her. We learned how to tell if you’re lying. And how to tell if you’re telling the truth. And how to tell if you’re doing both, which often happens if you are doing one or the other by omission or exaggeration or coercion. She’s sweating despite the coolness of the morning. “That coffee hot enough for ya?” I ask her, politely.
“Sure you don’t want some?”
“I drank a gallon of it in the car,” I tell her. And wait, and let the silence stretch out, until her fork jitters on the melamine plate. “Mrs. Bruinsma,” I say softly, as a piece of egg plops onto the tablecloth, “if I went outside and put my hand on the hood of your truck, how warm would it be?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not gonna go to the police,” I tell her. “I just came to talk. Because we want to take Eddie to the regional office for another evaluation. More testing. That’s all.”
Another pause. Then: “She ran away, Mr. Sheffield.”
“Yes. She’s done it before. Kids, you know...kids...”
No, I don’t know kids; but I know guilt, I know shame. “Is that what your other kid did?” I say, and then go full bore, leaning my full weight on what I hope will snap. “Your other daughter?”
She starts. Tears stand glassily in her eyes, but do not fall. Not just that they’re tough out here or that it would take more than that, but that they fear, perhaps, that their tears will be the champagne colour of the aquifer, forever tainted. “How...did you know about Wilhemine? Did they...did someone...”
And it all comes out. How Wills vanished last year, the beautiful girl, their golden darling, the great hope of the line; how the phone calls grew shorter and fewer and finally stopped, and the police did nothing; how Eddie raged and screamed and wept, and ran away again and again, and was brought back again and again—by truckers, loggers, flying spirits, local sheriffs, PhD students, patient environmental consultants getting paid by the hour. She’s babbling now, an opened valve. But telling me the kid ran away before doesn’t mean she ran away last night; and I’m right.
“All right, so you know, so you say you won’t tell, I took her, I used the old mine roads—not the silver mine, the copper mine, from the Fifties, it’s still there if you have four-wheel drive, and yes, I took her, I did, and I left her, but I...it’s not...”
She’s wailing now, as if I’m going to go back on my word and turn her in, but she can’t even see what I see. All she knows is that the gods of the hills and the trees have gotten to her last child. What I know is that the child is owned, not just touched but taken, that it’s not her child any more. What I know is that she, the mother, is also beginning to glow where the skin is thin—ears, lips, the bones of her wrist. The colour is precisely that of the daughter’s glow, a blue and a yellow that somehow fail to make a green. I have never seen that before. I have no words for it or for how frightened I am.
What I should do is reassure her, then go back to the car and call Ferne. Instead I go start the car, which doesn’t have four-wheel drive, and pull up Maps on my phone.
The sun still has not risen. Maybe it won’t today.
Maps has no idea what I’m talking about no matter which terms I punch in, but a local birding chapter has posted colour coded trails. I park at a junction where Drive Carefully yellow becomes Running Shoes green, hoping that I find Eddie before I range into Hope You Brought Crampons red. Would she be running uphill , to where the water is still clean? Or down, to where the chemicals are pooling? All I know for sure is that she will be in the deep dark, wherever the Marianas Trench would be if these woods were an ocean.
With my headlights on, I confirm the copper mine road—a trace of feedstock remains on the packed clay and gravel, seafoam green, faintly glittering. I start a flashlight on my phone and abandon the car for the sea of trees.
Now I will have to navigate by my gifts, my Evaluator training, by whatever woodcraft I’ve seen on TV. I can’t call for her. Or let’s say I could, but I’m too afraid of what might respond. I don’t know how much control she’s still got over it, or whether she’s ever had any. If the thing itself responds, I don’t know if I could take it. I am brimful of fear, sloshing like a full glass, and for the first hour I cannot understand how it is that my feet are still moving, following invisible threads of magic where they become visible in the mind, like fiber optic cables, picking and choosing between shades like the birding map—red and pink are other spirits, purple is another spirit. A royal blue is too blue. A golden yellow is too yellow. But here, something else, an uneasy gaudiness, that could be her. Or it. Or them.
As dawn begins the birdsong around me is reassuring, making everything seem normal even as the woods get darker. I know the sun is coming up—I can see it at the treetops—but something is preventing it from hitting the ground, and I still need my phone to see. I can’t hear the highway traffic any more, not even big trucks going over the metal bridge that was so loud at the trailer park. What am I doing in here? If my phone dies, will I be able to find my way back? Will something take pity on me in here and guide me out? Or will their pity take another form? This land knows Eddie and her mother; it doesn’t know me from a goddamn hole in the ground. Yet I keep walking.
A low growl erupts from the trees, just as I walk into something not familiar at first for its looks but its smell, and then despite the growling, I cannot help but laugh—a grow op out here, of all places. The plants are tall and healthy, each row neatly labelled with a round metal tag, swaying in the dark. How are they growing without sunlight? Someone is making good sacrifices.
Footsteps hushed in the bark and litter, and two heavy Rottweilers step into the trail, teeth bared, frowning affrontedly. They are grotesquely swollen, pink skin showing through the dark fur, fungus shaped like cities sprouting from the humps. Skyscrapers of yellow and orange, pitted with tiny windows and doors. I back away, lower the flashlight from the dull flash of their eyes. “Easy there,” I murmur. “I’m not here for your crop. Easy.”
They growl but hold off as I back away, and keep backing into the trees, feeling my way behind me with one hand. My back itches as I keep walking, even though every time I turn, they are not following. I am getting close. There’s another smell away from the pot field and the rotting dogs—dirt, ozone, wet bone, the alarm chemicals of disturbed maggots. And something sweetly artificial, grape or cherry.
She’s sitting on a stump, glowing under her crown of skulls, eating an Avengers-branded yogurt tube. This does not strike me as particularly incongruous or unreasonable, seeing the violent hollows beneath eyes and cheekbones, the way her skin hangs on her skinny neck, the blue-white bones showing through the back of her hands. Since yesterday she is down perhaps ten or fifteen pounds. Her lips around the garish plastic have the white crust of dehydration.
“What do you want?” she says, folding the emptied tube into her pocket.
“Same thing as yesterday,” I tell her, putting my phone away. “Evaluation. Come back with me. We’ll...we’ll go get lunch, and then we’ll go to the regional centre. They can...”
“What? Show me my true face?” She laughs. “I have none, Evaluator.” She climbs adroitly off the stump; she is not barefoot as I had first thought, but in light canvas sneakers, too light for mid-October. They’ve had snow this early before. Bulges swim and meander under her leggings in a dance that no human should watch.
“The car is warm. I have water. Coffee. Does your mama let you drink coffee?”
“Sometimes. With a lot of milk and sugar. And we leave coffee out for them sometimes.”
“That’s good. That’s good. You give your best.”
“You give your best,” she repeats, looking up at me. I wonder what colour her eyes were before this happened. Brown, like her mother’s? They are frosted over entirely now, a winter landscape seen from above, white flecked here and there with black.
She’s so short, so light. I could pick her up as easily as a cat. More easily, in fact, with no claws or teeth. But I would be picking up both her and it, and it might be heavier than it looks. Certainly stronger. My hands remain firmly in my pockets. “Eddie, I need to know who I’m talking to. You, or...the thing.”
“The time for that distinction is over,” she says, and that must be the god, it cannot be a ten year-old.
“Not if we can separate you.”
“Why would anyone want that?” she laughs, and climbs up onto the stump so that we are the same height. I’m too close. I back up, sensing something behind me, another set of threads—it’s a stag, glaze-eyed and staggering, dark blood oozing from its nose. Too many points to count—fourteen, sixteen? An award-winner for damn sure. Need to tell Kabore if I live. He’s made hunting buddies here. Not that you’d want to eat this one. It’s blocking the trail back out; I’ll have to go through it if I can’t get around. A bright sunny morning, pitch black, illuminated by a glowing girl and a monster deer.
“Listen, I don’t know what it’s telling you about—that side of things,” I begin, slowly. I am probably saying the wrong thing. We don’t negotiate with gods. “But you could come back to your mama. She’s worried. She loves you. You’re all she’s got left now. And go back to...school, your friends...McDonald’s...Jesus, I don’t know. You have to live for something.”
“Mom drove me out here. She’s a bad person. Who would do that to their kid?”
“A bad person,” I say carefully. “But you’re not her kid any more, are you?”
“And she pulled me out of school,” she says, pirouetting on the stump, rubber-soled shoes squeaking in the lichen. Her tone is lightly disdainful, a few millennia too old for the actual voice. “She said I was too dumb to stay, and the principal didn’t argue. And no one else cared. I never had any friends there anyway.”
“You aren’t dumb. You weren’t dumb. They weren’t trying hard enough, that’s all. Not you.”
“They started off just pulling my hair and drawing on my clothes with a pen,” she says dreamily. “Then they stole my lunch. Every day. Put rotten milk in my gym clothes. Made me miss my bus. It’s a seven mile walk. They hated me, Evaluator. I was glad to leave. Nothing made me happier. Till now.”
“Tsk. School? I have the wisdom of millennia now, I have power, friends, sight, strength, magic, freedom...”
“You don’t have any of those things. The thing inside you does. And it’s using you.”
“Everybody uses somebody.”
I can’t bear it. She’s so proud, so excited. My mission is unwelcome if not actually invalid. And I have not been entirely honest about it so perhaps she, or they, can be forgiven for believing so, but they’re making it harder than it has to be.
My stomach is rising, falling, filled with icy lead. No small forest god does this, is capable of this. I am in over my head and I am in so far that the sky has vanished and I don’t know which way is up any more or where my head is supposed to be.
“It’ll use you up,” I clarify.
“So will life.”
“Perhaps, but weren’t you expecting to live a bit past ten years old?”
“What for?” She sits back down, something misty forming around her head, like fungal spores, glowing, golden. It drifts lazily and settles back on the bones, the damp brown hair. “If I tell you a secret, do you promise not to tell anyone else?”
“When the old gods here began to be poisoned by the water, the new ones moved in,” she whispers. “But no one knew. Isn’t that funny?”
“Oh, they kept taking the offerings. It was important to not let anyone know that the gods of the hill and the green were dying. But the new ones have been taking the little bit of belief still left, and saving it up for something big. Big!”
“Don’t interrupt!” she says sternly, lifting a bony finger to her lips. “But it’s early days yet. Maybe in a hundred years. In the meantime, the best way to gather information is with the locals. And the best way to use the locals is simply to use the locals. The old gods never did that.”
“And you’re the first. The first in this...this Ponzi scheme, this pyramid con.”
She nods virtuously. The childish glee in her face is unfeigned, backed though it is with glowing worms. Worms, I notice, that are speeding up, swimming faster. Eating more, I think, unable to help myself. Getting fatter. The kids at school wouldn’t bully her now. Wouldn’t even be able to look at her.
“All right,” I tell her. “If I tell you a secret do you promise not to tell anyone else?”
“The reason we Evaluate people is to see what’s inside them. Whether that’s chemicals or spirits or gods or whatever.”
She pouts. “That’s not a secret.”
“And if we find someone with gods or spirits,” I continue, blithely, “we harvest the magic for our employer. Because there’s no other way to get it until it can be filtered and channeled through a human mind. I could do that. For you.”
“I doubt it.”
“Would you let me try?” This is the first opening she’s given me, the first hint of anything other than a flat-out no. “Eddie, you wouldn’t have to go back to school. But you could live with your mother again. I’ll get people in to clean up the aquifer, plant trees in the dead area, put——“
“You know, you’re supposed to go up in an auction, not down,” she observes, and this is certainly the child speaking, and I know I am not offering much, not compared to this, to myth and magic and all the power in the world; it seems I am the only one who could be caught on the lure of the ordinary and safe and warm. We are therefore at a standoff. I can help her, but she doesn’t want the help. And the thing inside her is in perfect consensus.
But I can’t let her keep affecting the others in the valley; they have enough problems without being drafted into this impostor mafia.
The company-issued amulet in my pocket is heavy; I’ve never had to use it out here. To defeat this god would evaporate the sturdy brass like so much cotton candy. It took years to collect, probably. I never asked the cost.
“Refuse me one more time,” I tell her.
“The child is mine,” she hisses, and leaps.
I trained for this ten years ago, and the shield I throw up is weak. Her tendrils punch through it like a wet tissue and smack me into the ground, knocking my breath out. The next shield I get up is better, but I’m disoriented, the glowing light isn’t helping, I’m trying not to hurt her, she’s got no such considerations.
The next three spells parry her, push the tentacles back, and try—then fail—to pin her. Trees creak warningly around me; can anything I put up protect me from a perfectly unsupernatural, non-eldritch two-ton trunk? We’re thrashing around on the needles when something dark comes at me from the edge of my vision. I roll just in time to save my eye, as the stag’s antlers dig into my shoulder. Sharp projectiles hit me from the shadowy branches: birds, too small to do any damage.
The amulet’s weight is vanishing from my pocket; it will be gone in a moment. Already my efforts to smother and pinion are drawing from something more vital. I feel sleepy, cold. Something blinding pummels me into the leaf litter and I look up dreamily to see the thing, the true thing, the god inside, darkly glowing and veined with amber, like a coal scraped from the hearth, past the tops of the grasping trees, past the clear blue sky, past the clouds, and Eddie’s skinny, grubby body as straight as an arrow, her fist pointed at the sky. In my pocket, the amulet disappears.
Laughter surrounds me, a swirl of golden motes. The pressure on my chest is abruptly gone, and I sit up, gasping; Eddie is leaping off into the woods like she’s walking on the moon, chirping derisively. I can barely breathe for the ozone in the air. The stag is dead, deteriorating with visible speed into a heap of brown and green fungus, already attracting flies. Tiny birds, sparrows or kinglets or chickadees, pepper the ground. Live ammunition carelessly and cruelly spent.
My phone is cracked. I find myself deeply unsurprised at this turn of luck——do the gods, after all, not put their hand in when they can?——and it takes me most of the day to return to the car. There’s a form for this. I’ll have to get the mother to sign it, then go back to the office to get Ferne to sign it, and then head office has to sign it off because there’ll be an inquiry.
But as the sun goes down I find myself still sitting in the car, keys dangling from the ignition, staring at my hands——the movement, the glow.
This story originally appeared in A Breath From The Sky Anthology, by Martian Migraine Press.