The wind whispers like ghosts, teasing the falling ash with its breath. Maggie twitches her nose to it. A strange smell she can’t place. Animal? Human? She listens. The snap of twigs intrudes upon the stillness. She can hear his breath, hoarse and quick. Frightened. He’s seen her. She follows the crunch of feet upon detritus, searching for a flash of colour in the graveyard of trees. A blue shirt, the colour the sky once was, weaving between the pallid boughs. Light as frost she chases, ignoring the bite of branches on her bare arms. He stumbles and she pounces on him and presses her knife to his throat.
“Scream and I’ll slit your lily neck wide open.”
“Are there more of you?”
“No, ma’am. Just me.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jacob. To your feet.”
She hoists him up by the scruff of his shirt and pushes him through the leafless woods.
He smells the campsite before he sees it. The acrid sweetness of decaying flesh and human waste. He retches but his stomach is empty and the bitter bile catches in his throat. She thrusts him towards the campfire and he falls to his knees. His head swims.
“Whatcha got for us, Maggie?” A boot, duct-taped, nudges his shoulder and rolls him onto his back. A kaleidoscope of faces stands over him. Four dark eyes, two green, like Siamese triplets joined at the forehead.
“Found him in the woods.”
“No meat on his bones. Won’t feed us for long.”
Green Eyes cackles, “We’ll boil him for soup.”
The kaleidoscope spins until the eyes and lips and teeth blur together and become black.
He wakes in the dark to the smell of the fire and charred meat. The grove echoes with shrieks and wails, the smash of glass upon stone. He feels the weight of cold iron around his ankle as he stumbles through the blackness. The viscid shadows cloak ghouls and monsters in their coils, but Jacob wonders if the beasts he imagines are truly worse than those outside his tent. He fumbles for the tent flap and peels it open, just a crack.
The brown-eyed man passes a bottle of murky liquor to the one called Maggie. Green Eyes tends the pot on the fire. She snatches something from inside – a foot? – and tumbles into Brown Eyes’ lap, licking the juices from her arm. Brown Eyes steals a bite between teeth bared like a dog, and Green Eyes growls back. The one called Maggie sits apart, her dark skin made bronze by the light of the fire. He watches the sparks dance in her midnight eyes and in the empty, silent grove he is transported to a different world before the trees died where she is a cannibal queen, a chain of skulls and teeth between her bare breasts and her dark skin painted red with blood.
The shadows shift and groan and Jacob staggers back with a yelp as he realises that he is not alone in the tent.
“Hello?” he whispers into the darkness. He hears shuffling, ragged gasps, but no response.
Maggie throws the tent flap open, bathing his moaning cellmate in ghastly light. A mound of naked flesh, though there was not enough of the man left to still call him a man. An arm missing and ragged stumps for legs, blackened at their tips. Jacob screams but Maggie crouches beside him and covers his mouth with her hand. Her face was so close he could smell the liquor on her breath, the iron tang of blood.
“Shh,” she coos, holding his face with her free hand. “Don’t mind him, he wasn’t much better’n that when we found him. Half-starved, half-frozen in the snow. If I take my hand away, you won’t scream?”
He shakes his head. She takes her hand away.
She throws a blanket over the body but he can’t take his eyes off the amorphous, writhing bundle that used to be a man. The cold air and the taste of rot fill his mouth and he can’t breathe and his heart pounds against the cage of his chest for freedom.
“Oh god, you can’t do this to me. Kill me now. Don’t keep me alive.”
“It’s not so bad. After a while you don’t feel a thing. You sleep. You dream.” She slides her fingers over his chest and laughs like grated glass. “Your heart is beating like a rabbit.”
She squats beside him, hunched over her pointed knees and offers him her bottle. He takes a sip, and then another. Almost whisky, but muddy, gritty. The burn of alcohol numbs his humming heart.
“Tell me a story, Jacob,” she says. “Who were you before this god-forgotten planet turned to dust?”
“I was a teacher. A professor at a university.”
“And a family? Little wife and two kids waiting for you at home behind your picket fence?”
He searches her words for spite but finds none so he tells her. He tells her about the little wife he had waiting for him at home, but no kids, not yet, just the one that is big and ripe like a peach in her swollen belly. He tells her about the day the meteor hits, the day the sky turns red and then black and his wife decides she doesn’t want to raise their little peach in a world with no sun and she doesn’t want to live in a world with no sun neither. He tells her about the crack of the pistol from the garage and the blood that pools on the floor, and the silence that follows it.
Maggie’s sorry she asked. “No happy stories left in the waste.”
“What about you?” he asks.
“Don’t remember. Woke up one day in the ash and snow and was born again. Started a new life.” She takes the bottle back and gulps until it is empty. “Probably best I don’t remember.”
Brown-Eyes and Green-Eyes have gone back to their tent and the fire has dulled to embers. They sit in silence.
“Why do you care, if you’re just going to…” He can’t bring himself to say the words. Eat me.
Maggie shrugs. “A girl gets bored. New faces hard to come by.”
She gets up and leaves the empty bottle behind and says goodnight and closes the tent, leaving him in darkness. He falls asleep to a groaning he can’t be sure is the half-man under the blanket or the trees aching beneath the wind.
The grey dawn creeps across the campsite, a thin vein of light that tickles Jacob’s face. He wakes to silence and peeks through the tent flap to find the glade empty. He gropes at the chain around his ankle and follows it to its source, beneath the blanket that covers his cellmate. He peels the blanket back and sees empty sockets, a mouth twisted and crusted with spit. His stomach heaves. The spike pins his chain to the ground in the crook of the man’s neck and shoulder and Jacob holds his breath and rolls the carcass onto its side to expose it. The earth is hard and the spike does not yield as he tries to free it. He remembers the bottle that Maggie left behind and breaks it, using the sharp glass to loosen the soil.
He does not hear the footsteps that approach his tent or the hand that slides the door open.
“Little mouse, burrowing to China are we?” A voice that lilts like honey, that cuts like a knife. Her green eyes catch him, a rabbit frozen in their light. He stands, wary, holding the broken glass outstretched, and as she moves towards him he plunges it deep into her shoulder. She laughs and throws him to the ground and straddles his waist, pinning his arms above his head. Blood drips from her wounded shoulder and streaks his face.
“Oh, you are a brave one,” she hisses and her breath is warm and rancid on his face. “But let’s see how far you can dig with one arm!”
Jacob writhes beneath her but she is too strong and too fast for him to break free. The machete that hangs from her waist is a wisp of smoke and his terror rises like a white sheet and masks his pain as the knife strikes his forearm once, twice. Blood surges from the wound and paints her skin. She picks up his severed limb, its fingers coiled, and the white sheet suffocates him in its folds.
He wakes in the night to firelight and a tender touch to his throbbing stump. Maggie wipes the blood that stains his flesh with a damp rag and wraps it in a bandage torn from the hem of his shirt.
Jacob groans. “Please. Help me.”
She gestures to his ankle, which has been freed from the chain that bound it. He makes to run, but Maggie pushes him back to the ground.
“Not now. They’ll catch you. Wait til morning.”
“Why are you doing this?”
She does not answer.
“You’re not like the others.”
“No. I’m not.”
The silence is heavy between them, punctuated by the crackle and hiss of the fire. She breaks it slowly.
“When the world first turned to shit, me and my little boy ran for the woods, as far from the riots as we could. We lived like beasts we thought, before we knew what beasts men could become. Foraging what we could before the leaves fell from the trees, hunting what we were fast enough to catch. My boy cried and cried the first time we killed. He held the rabbit’s limp, bloody body to his chest like it was a toy. We were too scared to light a fire so we ate its flesh raw off the bone. The nights were cold and dark and long and we counted the names of the stars we could remember because there were none left in the sky.
But the nights grew colder and darker and longer still. When the first snows fell the trees had long since died and the forest creatures too. We found their bodies, frozen and wasted with hunger, and saw in them our own fate. Hunger ate away at our bellies like an ulcer, a sore, flayed flesh from our bones and wore the strength from our bodies.
The moon was a smudge of light behind cloud the night my boy stopped shivering in my arms and I knew he was gone. And more than anything else I felt relief that he wouldn’t have to grow up in a world slowly dying. Relief that I was freed from worry.
I looked at his body, poor withered rabbit, precious gift, and thought of my own hunger.
I wished the snow would swallow me up, a blank slate a white canvas to pardon the horror that I committed and so for two nights and two days I walked until my heart was a blank slate too and his name and his face were no more than a smudge on a white canvas. They found me, a wandering wraith, and they gave me a choice. My soul was already damned so who was I to say no?”
Her eyes are hard. Jacob raises his hand to touch her face and she flinches but she doesn’t pull away. He folds his arm around her slim body and holds her close and for a moment he remembers another slim body he once held, in a different lifetime, in a room with blue wallpaper and an empty cot in the corner.
A boot, duct-taped, kicks Maggie awake.
“So the hunter lies with the prey,” the brown-eyed man drawls.
Maggie jumps to her feet and stands over Jacob. “Leave him be, Aaron. Give him the same chance you gave me.”
“One more to feed when food is so scarce.”
Aaron lunges at Maggie, grips her small neck tight in his hand. “Who are you to stand against me? Just a whelp we found in the snow. Are you not grateful for the life we gave you?”
Her lungs burn for air. She gasps, but Jacob doesn’t see her.
Jacob sees the tent door open. His captor distracted. Escape.
His legs are not his own. They carry him from the campsite, through the forest that nips his flesh with wooden teeth. He does not feel their bite does not feel the tearing cold does not feel his throbbing arm. He does not hear Maggie’s screams. He runs until the forest breaks to a field of hungry snow, a white canvas, and he feeds himself to it willingly, a memory at a time.
(This is a piece that I’ve had in the pipeline for a couple of years now, and I’d actually forgotten that I’d finished it. So, that was a nice surprise when I reclaimed this story from the vaults. I’ve shared it before in bits and pieces, but never in its entirety. So, here it is, complete.)