we were young when we heard you
call our names in the silence
like a fire in the dark
like a sword upon our hearts
we came down to the water
and we begged for forgiveness
shadows lurking close behind
we were fleeing for our lives
the valley, the oh hellos
Sometimes, the story goes like this: the girl sits in her bed, blankets curled over her knees, and her mama tells her about how her father might've left years ago, but he loves her very much all the same. Maybe he died. Maybe he's off, working long hours, to feed them, or protect them, or bring them back something that'll make it all worth the wait.
In the story, the reason he left never matters. Why should it? It's the fact he's gone, but he can't help it, and he regrets it, and that one day, he'll return.
Anya's never been very fond of stories. They're all lies, as far as she can tell, even the ones that're supposed to be true.
Her mama's always been good at stories. 'Course, she's always been real good at lying, too.
Sometimes, the lie goes like this: the girl walks into her kitchen, feet stained with dirt, and drops her backpack on the ground. She hasn't gone to school in a few years now, not on the regular. She's heard her mama on the phone now a couple of times, pop in her hand, talking to the folks up on the hill. But she doesn't ask the girl what she's doing, or where she's been.
The girl doesn't ask what her mama does all day, neither, but she does ask this.
"See, I've been thinkin', and the way I figure," Anya says, lingering in the doorframe, "is that you don't rightly know , do you?"
The sun's still a few hours from setting outside, but it's getting the first inclinations towards it. The kitchen's all dreamy, reds and golds scattering in from the windows, dappling all across the floor, all soft and warm enough to make even the scuffs on the blue walls look real nice. Anya realised, a year or so back, that her house doesn’t look like the kids in town, first time she walked into the Neptune’s house. It’d been huge, with white walls and red floors, and furniture that looked like it belonged in a store.
Xav had asked to come over to hers after, and she’d hem’d and haw’d, broke out a lie about how her mama ain’t really one for people. Everyone in town’d known that was one hell of a whopper, but there’s a reason she likes Xav. He hadn’t called her on it.
Better yet, he hadn’t asked again.
It’s not that she’s embarrassed, exactly. She likes her house, with the tile floor and the furniture her grandpa made. It suits her and it suits her ma just fine, like it was built just for the two of ‘em, but it just doesn’t fit into Red Acre. And folks always get real mean about things that don’t fit into Red Acre.
Her mama's at the table, pop in hand, skimming one of her books, her legs stretched all the way out under the table like she's tryin' to make room. When Anya walks in, she takes a long drag, exhales in two thick streams. "'Ccourse I know," she says, with the same ease she always tells folks the water's on, or they'll have rent next week. When she looks up, her voices all syruppy with her lying tone, same as the sleepy crook of her smile. "It'd be hard not to, girl. Why? What's got you worried?" She scoots aside her ashtray, pats the table next to her. "Come talk to your momma."
The kitchen of the trailer's small, and all of Anya's height’s been going to her legs, lately. It takes her three long steps to get over to the table. When she scrambles up, her feet hang just low enough to scuff at the floor. She swings them out, stretching ‘em far - and her mama bumps her knee into hers, all familiar-like. "Folks been asking questions?" her mama asks. "Starting shit?"
"I just wanna know,” Anya says, and bumps her right back.
Anya's mama's got features that might well've been carved from stone. Her nose's got a knot in it, where it got broke once in a fight. Her cheekbones are wide, and Anya's never seen her, not even once, without her eyes all the way lidded. Anya and her mama look just like each other, if Anya weren't quite so dark, and they look nothing like nobody else in the city. But the difference is that folks think her mama’s beautiful, with her choppy red hair and her big, dark eyes.
Nobody’s ever called Anya beautiful. But, she figures, she’s never spoken like this, not once in her life, all sweet and warm like butter on a bun. Everyone loves a liar. It’s why religion’s so big.
"Didn't nobody ever tell you, girl," her mama says, fond, "curiousity killed the cat? You always gotta know shit, like your brain ain’t gonna run out of room. But, hell. You’re, what.. fourteen? Fifteen?"
"Thirteen and three months," Anya corrects, and her mama laughs.
"Close enough, honey. I reckon you're old enough to know." She leans forward, stubbing out her cigarette, and Anya catches a waft of her perfume: faded and musty and iron, like her ma carries the mountain in her bones. "Your pops ain't around 'cause he's got other business, and I didn't figure we needed to have any part of it." There's still that smarm to her voice, making it smooth as melted butter, but her mama holds her gaze, steady and strong as anything. Maybe it's the truth, Anya thinks. "But do you know what he said to me, before he left? What he wanted me to tell you, girl?"
She'd like, she thinks, for it to be the truth.
Her mama takes Anya's hand between hers. She's always had big hands, her mama, big as any man’s: they overlap hers easily, long knotted fingers clasping over hers like she's still a mite, and not thirteen whole years old. "He said that if you close your eyes at night," she says, "right afore you go to bed, and you listen real hard, you'll hear him talking. 'cause he talks to us, every night. He says -"
Her mama's smiling at her, her lip crooked just so.
"- he misses us?” Anya asks, and it ain’t a lie, it’s a question. But it’s still too close for her to manage, because her voice quavers, right at the end.
But her mama doesn’t notice. "And he'll come back some day," she says, sweet as syrup, "right when his business's done."
Anya always hated going to school.
It’s on account of the facts folks always forget she don’t hear too well. There was a fever, back when she was a tot. She doesn’t remember it any, but it was back when her mama was young, young, young, barely any older than Anya herself, and she’d been scared. “If I took you into the hospital,” her mama had told her once, smoothing back her hair, “I reckoned they’d take one look at you, and they’d take you away forever. CHORUS - they do that, sometimes, and I’d fought so damn hard to get them to let me keep you. I thought we’d just ride it out. Folks used to, before they had hospitals.”
And so they had. They’d waited, and they’d waited, and they’d waited, ‘til the fever finally left, and Anya was left quaking in the aftermath. She’d survived. But it’d taken a good chunk of her hearing with it, and her granddad had always said it was none of anyone’s elses business, how well Anya could hear. So the teachers just called her distracted, at first, when she couldn’t catch their words, and then they’d started calling her lazy, and then they’d started trying to punish her into paying proper attention. She’d started skipping, then.
When they’d started calling her dumb, instead, she’d stopped coming back at all. Her granddad hadn’t complained. He’d told her, conspirational, that he’d never bothered to go at all - and then he’d started taking her out to the woods instead, to practice trapping, and hunting, and surviving, in the rest of the world outside of the town.
He’s been dead three years now, and for the most part, now, she’s stopped going at all. Way Anya figures, when she’s sixteen, she can drop out properly with her mama’s permission, and get a job with CHORUS, same as everyone else. Start mopping up the floors, or washing dishes, or any of the other things that the town needs to work, and don’t take anything more than determination to do.
That’s another three long years in the future, though. Until then, she just waves her ma goodbye each morning, the mornings her ma’s already in, and she just practices in the forest, collecting pinecones in her bag, ‘til it’s three. Every day, Xav pops his head out around the corner of the red brick of the school, curious as any squirrel, looking around for any sign of her.
Every day, she throws something at him. This time, she catches him right in the ear.
“Gotta stay alert,” she drawls, as he’s clutching his head. He’s glaring at her, bright gray eyes down to a slit, and it’s worth a grin to cool him down, just to get him to stop. Anya doesn’t look like anybody in town, but Xav’s folks have a tribe, just like hers, and that means he’s as close to kin as she’s got. “Whatcha gonna do if I was a coyote? Ain’t you heard the warnings? They got rabies, boy. You wanna get rabies?”
“Just because they’re rabid,” he snaps, “doesn’t mean they’re going to attack everyone, Anya.”
“‘course they are. Don’tcha know how rabies work?”
“Wikipedia says --”
“Iunno what a Wikipedia is,” she shoots back, “but c’mon, ‘fore the teachers start lookin’.” The truancy agent gave up on calling her ma last year, after they realised she was almost never home to pick up, but Anya doesn’t like testing the waters any more than she’s got to. Only three more years, and she’ll be able to just work, or hunt, instead of bothering with this nonsense at all. “Your ma ain’t picking you up today, is she?”
He shakes his head. Xav’s older than her, but most folks can’t quite tell: she’s as big as him, for all that she’s leg and bone, and when she jostles him, that size’s enough to make him stagger. “Good,” she says, pleased, and hooks her arm through his, and starts hauling. “Did you bring that fruit jerky, like I said? ‘cause I’ll trade you jerky for some jerky --”
The woods around Red Acre are a little hazardous. Anya likes hunting, but the way she hunts, she figures, is respectable: it’s her, and her granddad’s pistol, and she makes sure it’s a clean shot, so they barely know they’ve died. But the people down in the towns.. they don’t know how to act. Anya’s learned by now to avoid the edge of the forest at night, or the areas cut through by woods. There’s been too many times she’s seen the flush of headlights, pointing directly into the underbrush, and some townie perched on top of his car, gun in hand.
It’s not right, killing like that. But Red Acre’s never been too worried about rights or wrongs, and that’s why she snatches up the biggest stick she can find, soon as they’re out past the trails, and back into the woods proper.
It’s just habit, at this point. And they’re barely halfway down the path, Xav telling her about Red Acre’s caves, and what some kid was telling him about ‘em, when her stick hits something hard. There’s a shriek of metal. Something clamps down on it, hard enough to snatch it right out of her hand, and then the stick cracks, loud as a gunshot in the woods.
Xav cries out. The birds take off from the trees in a flurry of motion, but she’s already leaning down, fingers prying at the sideline. “It’s just a bear-trap,” she tells him, just as she finds the release. It clicks open, and she pries her stick loose. It’s still acceptable, mostly. Split halfway down the core, but..
“It ain’t gonna hurt you.” She nudges the trap. “Dunno why folks keep putting these up,” she says, annoyed. “Coyotes ain’t daft enough to go stepping in this shi --”
When she looks over at Xav, his face’s gone pale.
“Xav?” She reaches out, pats his shoulder. “Uh. It’s just a trap,” she offers, as she tries to remember if he has a dog. “Reason why I got the stick! It ain’t gonna hurt you any. I promise. And, uh, nobody brings their hounds all the way out here - it doesn’t catch nothing it’s not supposed to catch.”
“Except us. What if we’d stepped in it? ” He’s looking at the trap with his mouth thin, and there’s a motley sort of colour spreading across his cheeks. “We could have died. They’re popping up all over? People walk through these woods! And - what’s that?” His voice’s gone all queer: “- painted on it. The edge.”
She doesn’t get it. But she leans down all the same, brushing away some of the dirt. There ain’t much point in being careful, now that it’s sprung, but she keeps an eye out for rust all the same. It’s pointless. Under the debris, the metal of the trap is bright as the moon on a clear night, so pristine that it might even be new.
And sure enough, there’s red marks engraved in the side of the trap. “They’re just numbers,” she soothes him, scratching at them with her thumb. Under her nail, mud flakes away, but not the paint: five eight’s, paint still bold as flame even under it all. “Some folks worry about people takin’ their traps, sellin’ ‘em for scrap. So you carve your number on ‘em, see, so the junkers can call, and make sure you’re the one that actually owns ‘em.”
“That’s not a number,” he says. “That’s a logo. That’s CHORUS’s logo, isn’t it?”
When she peels off the rest of the dirt, there’s five eights, speaking in unison, CHORUS emblazoned above them.
Xav takes her stick, very gingerly, and starts walking.
“I’ve been hearing things. Around town, from the other kids.”
CHORUS isn’t too big on hunting, and hasn’t been for the past twenty years or so, not anywhere near city limits. It’s how they keep folks safe, they say, and that makes it worth it, though Anya has her doubts. That’s the same sort of thing that they use to justify her going to school, and she knows that’s nonsense.
But back when her ma was young, they were fine with hunting. The handful of hunting blinds still standing are testament to that. Most of them have been torn down, but Anya found this one back when she was ten, tucked nearly a twenty minute walk from anywhere civil. It was half-rotted through when she first found it, with holes in the ceiling and a raccoon’s nest in the wall, but she’s fixed it up the best that she could.
Past three years, she’s dried and bound twigs to make boards, just like her granddad taught her, and she’s used his old tools to secure them in place. She spent hours pounding new supports into the ground, the better to hold it up, and she’d even gone as far as to nick a door from one of the old, burned out houses from settler days. It’d taken nearly two damn hours, and more bruises than she’d thought she could have, to haul it up top. But it works, creaks or no, and it holds when she clicks it shut.
The entire place, she thinks, looks real nice now, especially when the lantern she hooked up in the ceiling is on. It paints everything a stark blue, even the shadows made crisp and sharp in the same way the woods get, and it feels just like them, when the wind picks up enough for her to hear it through the slats. It feels like home in here, more even then her trailer, and she’s watching Xav to gauge his reaction when he comes in. But he doesn’t seem to notice all the work she’s put in. He just slinks over to a corner of the hide, his knees up around his chin, the shadows lapping over him like water.
She can’t take it personal. He’s not even paying attention to the poptart he’s holding, half unwrapped in his hand. “If it’s cold,” Anya offers, “I’ll go get my heater. It’s kerosene --”
“No, it’s fine. Fire - that’d be dangerous. This is all wood,” he says, distracted. “I’m just.. have you heard the kids talking, Anya? I know you don’t talk to a lot, but..”
Anya shrugs. “I decked Lainie the other night,” she offers. “But we didn’t really talk it out afore.”
“Well. Everyone’s scared,” he says, and he’s been staring at the wall, his eyes wide, but now he looks at her. He’s still pale. He’s stayed pale, ever since he first saw that trap, and he hasn’t calmed down any, no matter how much she coaxes, or jokes. Talking about hitting someone would’ve made him witter, usually, but it doesn’t so much as get a comment. She’s not even sure he heard her. “Scared to go out. Scared to go to sleep. Because I’ve been hearing..”
When she waits, he doesn’t continue.
“Hearing what?” He looks like a beaten dog, all huddled in the corner, and she doesn’t know what to do. Her mama would’ve smoothed back her hair, but bundled up like he is, she doesn’t trust he won’t flinch.
So she chews on her thumb, instead. Then she turns her back, and makes a big show of rummaging through the plastic bags she’s got sitting by the door. There’s jerky in there, freshly wrapped, and bags of trail mix.. and under it all, the six pack of pops she’d nicked from her ma’s pantry. “Here!” If he looks like he’ll flinch if she touches him - well, nobody’s ever flinched to having a can rolled straight to his shoes.
“Drink this,” she orders him, brisk, and when he takes it, she counts it as a sort of win. He never used to drink pop, back when they first started talking, on account of all the sugar. Now he does it without even flinching, or asking for a straw. “Now, what were you saying?”
He cracks open the can before he speaks. “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” he says.
“You’re from Red Acre,” she shoots back. “You were born crazy.” It’s the sort of thing that her granddad used to say, whenever Anya got riled as a kid. Growing up in the radio-free zone, this far from anything civil.. he said it made a town strange, and all the folks in it, too, and then he’d laugh . “And what’s it matter what I think?”
“A lot! You could tell everyone that I’m crazy.” He’s unhuddling, but slow, sort of petulant. “And then they’d tell everyone else that I’m crazy. And then CHORUS would probably stick me in a loonybin, and no one’d believe that I’m actually telling the truth.”
“That’d be telling stories. Nobody ever believes stories. ” She takes her own pop, cracks it open for a sip. Their trailer uses well water, same as everyone outside the town’s limits, but Anya’s never liked it much, not even smothered in flavouring and sugar. “Stop watching so much telly,” she sniffs, “and try reading a paper. Folks can’t take you, unless they’re with the gov or somethin’. CHORUS is just.. CHORUS.”
“That’s.. true. There are laws,” he says, and maybe that settles his ruff down a little, ‘cause he’s talking easier now. “So I guess it doesn’t matter. Kids are saying they’re hearing.. things, that’s all. Things they shouldn’t. They close their eyes, and.. people are saying things are calling out their names. And talking to them. They made a club, to talk about it.”
She looks at him. Xav’s always so damn quavery. Her mama always says she’s built like the mountain under their feet: big, solid bones, and a hard, sturdy mind, though the last part usually ain’t fond. She’s never quavered a day in her life, and neither has her ma, and neither did anybody else, until she met him.
But Xav - Xav’s the rabbit and he’s the hound, all long-boned and soft-eyed and with a tension to him, like he’s always about to bolt. He looks like he’d rather race out the window right now, rather than spit out the words in his mouth.
That’s fine. Part of the reason they get along so well, she reckons, is that she’s always willing to say ‘em for him.
“You been hearin’ voices, Xav?”
He shakes his head. Xav ain’t her ma: his words are stilted and awkward and ugly, all the way through, and that’s how she knows he ain’t lying. “I haven’t. But kids have just been saying it,” he says, twisting the can in his hand. “And they’re talking about CHORUS. Do you know all of those runaways? Because.. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and it doesn’t make sense. Red Acre is one of the safest towns in Virginia. We don’t have drugs, or alcohol dependencies, or gangs, or violence. But we keep losing kids.”
“And most places in Virginia - did you know, Wikipedia says that most kids, they come back home in three days to a week?” He’s chewing on his lip. His face is overcast in the shadows, but when he tilts his head up, the light catches on his eyes. “Red Acre’s runaways never come home,” he says. “Not unless they’re dead.”
“So what’re you saying?” she asks. There’d been a girl that bolted a few weeks back, and then she’d appeared in the papers. Suicide, Red Acre Annual had said. “You talkin’ about Madi-Shaw? You think everyone’s just.. drownin’ themselves in the lake?”
“That’d be dumb,” he says, and takes a bite of the jerky. “Of course not. I don’t know. It’s just - I think it’s weird, that’s all.”
The best time to hunt’s always at night.
The real hunters - the bigwigs with their rifles and their vests and their dogs - always go out at dawn, or dusk. Anya’s granddad had explained why, back when he was still around: sure, you had to risk coyotes that way, but you got deer, too, which was the only sort of prey most folks were interested in.
Night-time didn’t have quails, or partridges, or rabbits, or anything big as a deer. Most folks didn’t feel like bothering, as a result, even though it was filled with other critters. Sure, raccoons were filthy creatures, filled with worms and disease. Anya’s ma had forbid her from ever hunting again after the first time she’d hauled one indoors, and she’d been after her, the last year or so, not to go out at night at all.
“It’s dangerous,” she told Anya, like her ma isn’t out all hours of the night, too. Anya knows janitor work doesn’t take that long. She remembers the way her granddad always used to fret when her ma came in late, and she’s heard the things folks around town talk about her, but - it’s never felt fair, dragging that sort of thing back to her ma, when it seems like she needs new shoes every other month. Her ma’s just doing the work she has to do, that’s all, even if it’s dangerous.
And if her ma can work, then Anya figures she ought to, too.
Anya keeps her pistol at her hip as she picks her way through the woods, careful to prod her stick ahead of her. She ought to be focusing on the woods, but - some of the things that Xav had said just didn’t make any common sense. CHORUS was a business, and one that practically ran their entire town. It employed his parents. It employed even her mother, for all that the pay was poor. They owned the stores, they owned the hospital.. there was no reason for them to be laying traps in the forest.
They didn’t have to hunt meat, when they owned the groceries.
Maybe the meat was all critters. She’s never eaten much venison, but Anya figures it couldn’t be that different from cow. They were both big, after all. And maybe it was cheaper to do it that way, instead of buying out. Virginia just isn’t good farming land, this far up the mountains.
Or maybe it was something else they were hunting, but she didn’t know what to do with that thought. So she shuffles it to the back of her head, instead, to turn over later.
There’s a well out in the middle of the forest, the leftovers from when the town first settled. It’s dried up. There’s a grate kept over it, usually, heavy enough that Anya’s never been able to lift it, and the one time she’d asked her ma about it, she’d nearly gotten slapped. “Honey, kids have died in that thing,” her mama’d said, sharp as she’d ever gotten. “If CHORUS had any sense, they’d just block it on up --”
So she’s never paid it much mind, but the opossums like it. There’s always one or two near it, sure as salt, and coyotes hate it, for whatever queer reason they’ve got. It’s pretty, all dark blue light dappling through the trees before they peel away, sweet as any dream. And the little clearing around it - well, it makes it a good hunting spot, one where she almost never has to waste shots.
And sure enough, there’s a flash of white ahead of her before she’s even in the clearing. Sheer habit takes her to a kneel as she aims her pistol, even as her mind’s distracted. It makes a sort of sense, she decides, that they’d be hunting, instead of shipping in cows. Corporations loved saving money. That’s what the news said, night after night, and she’d never thought of CHORUS like that - never thought of CHORUS much at all - but why shouldn’t they want to save money? They employ an entire town. Each of those red trucks alone must cost them billions.
The white shape shifts, but there’s too much brush to guarantee a clear shot. The part of her brain that isn’t crunching numbers hesitates, because - the thing is, the shape’s awfully big for a possum. Maybe it isn’t a possum. Maybe it’s somebody's dog.
Her ma’ll be incandescent if she kills a dog.
No, she decides, she’ll just inch a few feet closer, just to see.
Except when she gets closer to the edge of the brush, the figure isn’t a possum at all.
It’s a woman, Anya thinks, on account of the fact she’s built like her ma: all curves, from top to bottom. She’s dressed in all white, from head to toe, like it’s a dress, or a robe, or the sort of thing that priests wear in the films. It isn’t her ma, though, because she’s got her sleeves rolled up to her white elbows as she lifts the grate off of the well.
“Jesus christ,” the woman says with a huff. “We can’t make this easier? We can’t get a fucking ladder out here? Alright, people, get up here. One at a time, now, don’t break any legs -”
She steps back, scrubbing at her exposed skin, and people start climbing out of the well.
At first, Anya thinks she’s seeing things. But no. It’s people, sure enough. The first one is someone tubby and soft, with a mask pulled taut over their face. They look like a butcher, or a surgeon, or a ghost with the top bit clipped off.
If her ma was here, Anya knows she’d be told to scram. Nothing good’s ever come from strangers in the woods in white robes, but curiosity has always won out over everything else. The dumpy figure hauls themself over the lip of the well, something on their chest flashing green in the darkness, and she might’ve gone, then, but there’s more folks after them.
Children, this time, and the woman steps forward to help haul them up, one at a time. Or, well, not kids: they’re all Anya’s age or better, long-limbed and gangly in the way everyone’s getting lately. Most of em have spots, but she doesn’t know the kids by name, not at first. Then the light catches that ones face, just as they’re cresting the lip, and she’d recognise Xav anywhere.
There’s tigers on his shorts, and a long white tank covering his top half. He doesn’t have shoes on. He looks like he just rolled out of bed, with mussed hair and sleep-crusted eyes. Least, she thinks they must be sleep-crusted, because his lashes are so low, they’re practically brushing skin. She’s not sure how he can see like that, but it must be easy enough, ‘cause when she looks at the other kids, they’re all like that.
The woman’s settling the grate back on top of the well. Anya’s mouth is dry, and maybe if she was alone, she’d be reaching for her water bottle - but there’s fear curdling low in her gut, a trepidation that she doesn’t know what to do with. Right now, even her breath sounds too loud, too ragged in the woods, even with the sleeping folk huffing and puffing away in front of her.
If the woman looks over, will she see her in the dark? As soon as the thought hits, Anya’s pressing down further into the brush, ignoring the way the thorns catch on her skin. The way she’s hunkered is uncomfortable as anything. Her knees are starting to protest, being curled up like this, but she doesn’t dare to move. She doesn’t know what’ll happen, if she’s seen - but she doesn’t want to find out.
The forest is quiet, save for the shriek of the grate shifting back into place, and the woman’s quiet curses as she settles it in. The tubby robed one isn’t even watching while she works. Their face is turned away, but Anya can hear a murmur of sound coming from them, too low-pitched for her to pick up properly. They’re a man, then, probably. It’s always harder for her to hear men.
The woman’s voice, though - it’s just the right pitch that it carries through the night, clear as a bell.
“I know you’re not going to answer, Alex,” she’s saying, every flavour of disgruntled, “but I am so exhausted. Tom keeps reading off facts about sleep deprivation, and.. I swear, if he tells me one more thing about hallucinations..”
The masked figure doesn’t answer her. “We were chosen for this. Out of everyone in the world, we were the ones lucky enough to be chosen. We should be grateful, right?” she asks, then laughs, frayed. “That’s what I keep telling myself.” No matter how much Anya squints, she can’t see more than an impression of the woman's features - a nose, a mouth, the dark cast over her eyes - and the frustration of that is what keeps her creeping after them now, this bizarre little chain of ducklings. Because that’s what it is: the kids are bobbing and weaving like her ma does, sometimes, when she comes in late, so tired that she’s gone straight loopy. Some of their arms are stretched out, like they might fall, but Xav’s got his braced in front of him, like he’s already expecting the moment he hits the ground.
They’re walking like they can’t see, but -
Behind them, there’s only one set of footprints. They must be able to see, because they’re walking perfectly step in step, never mind their teetering. It’s so perfect, they must’ve practiced it, even if their eyes are shut.
Anya keeps having to blink, just to make sure hers aren’t. It’s almost like being asleep, watching all of this. It feels like a dream, or the start of a nightmare.
But Anya’s too old for nightmares, and her dreams are always full of feathers, and fire, and trails. So she follows them down out of the woods, and onto the trail proper. It’s easier to keep quiet here. The neighbourhoods all get together to keep them swept clear of debris, so there’s only a few sticks to dodge, and the ground’s hard-packed dirt, the sort that her shoes don’t even squeak on.
It gives her time to look at the kids. Because up close, with the streetlights overhead, she can better see their faces, clearer than the woman’s up front. Anya could recognise Xav anywhere, even in the dark, even if he was dead. But she’s not very close to the rest of the children in the town. Xav had been an accident.
Doesn’t mean she can’t recognise their faces, though, if not the names: that one’s the girl that sells eggs with her father at the farmer’s market. There’s the boy that delivers papers. There’s a set of chubby, freckled cheeks she recalls having decked in fourth grade, and there’s a certain kind of grim satisfaction, so sudden it very nearly makes her laugh, when she realises his nose’s still crooked.
All of the kids are like that, except one. The girl right at the end doesn’t look like anyone in Red Acre, and she doesn’t look fresh from bed, neither. Her red hair is immaculately curled, like she took rags to it, and she’s in a gown, almost, but not quite, the stout sleepwalker.
It’s only when the girl turns, revealing the thin paper laces, that Anya realises it’s a hospital gown.
The stranger girl’s right at the end of the train, walking even more stilted than the rest of ‘em. Anya doesn’t know what’s going on here, but.. Xav ought to be safe, she thinks. There’s bumps on her arms, but it’s not from the night air. Nah, Xav must be safe. Everyone would notice, if Xav went missing, or the girl from the farmers mart.
But no one knows this girl, to notice if she doesn’t come back from wherever the woman’s taking them.
Anya’s been sticking to the shadows. They’re still on the trail, here, but it’s getting more civilized, the trees around them sparser and sparser as the moonlight filters in. She ought to peel off, disappear back into the woods. If she sticks around, then she might be noticed. She’s got dark clothes, dark skin, even dark hair - but with every step out of the forest, the darkness around her is fading.
And ten feet ahead, there’s a foglight, so bright that it paints the street white.
She ought to peel off, but instead, she slips forward, careful to keep her footsteps even, avoiding the twigs and debris as almost an afterthought. She snuck up on a deer, once, gotten close enough to run her fingers right across the scarred-up slope of its side. People have always been easier than that. People never pay much attention to anything, never mind what’s going on around them, and sleeping or not, this lot isn’t any different.
This lot shouldn’t be. But maybe she steps on something too small for her to notice. Maybe she catches a mouse, and it squeaks too high for her to hear - because she’s not even close enough to grab the girl, not unless she tackles, when the woman pauses midstep, just as she’s moved under the light.
Under the foglight, everything looks so stark, bleached white and pale. When the woman turns, it’s hard to tell where the high collar of her jacket ends and her mask begins. But Anya can tell when she spots her, because the woman goes still, all the way down to her core.
It’s too late for Anya to flinch back, because the woman’s looking at her, really looking at her, like she’s trying to memorise every inch of her face. “Who are you?” she says, baffled, and Anya can hear the moment she spots the pistol: “- hey, sweetheart, what’re you holding?”
Anya throws an arm across her face, aims the pistol at the streetlamp, and fires.
Shooting one-handed always makes her shoulder ache, all the way to the bone, but it’s a small gun. The pain doesn’t break it, anymore than the sting of glass slicing against her skin. When she moves her arm, sprinting forward before her eyes have time to adjust to the dark, she feels the glass crunching under her feet.
The woman’s got her hands pressed to her face. The ducklings are milling, making all sorts of sounds too low for Anya to hear. That’s fine. She’ll grab Xav later, she thinks, but right now --
The strange girl’s hospital gown is catching the wind. Anya doesn’t like folks, but Red Acre ain’t a big town, and she’s never seen this girl a day in her life. All of this is strange, but that’s the thing that makes her stomach sink the most. She should’ve seen her. There’s only the one school, and newcomers ain’t that common.
So she goes for her first.
“Wake up,” she hisses, snatching the girl by the shoulders. Anya shakes her, hard, but the girl doesn’t do much more than hang limply in her arms, her mouth twisted in a mouie. She’s like a ragdoll. She’s like trying to wake up Anya’s mother for work on the days that she doesn’t come home until dawn, except at least then Anya has water to pour on top of her.
There’s no water here, but the girl’s still fast asleep, despite the bang of the gun, or the glass shards she’s stepping on. Her eyes ain’t lidded. They’re all still asleep.
“Please. Please! You have to wake up!” she cries, and her voice raises, just enough for the other sleepwalkers to stir.
The dowdy man stumbles towards them, Xav in a jerky lockstep behind him. The crunch of their footsteps are loud enough that even Anya can hear, but the girl doesn’t wake. She just whines, her lips parting like she’s going to say something, and behind her, the rest of the sleepwalkers recover from their distressed flinches.
There’s that sound still coming from them, but it’s too garbled for Anya to make out any, and they’re too far for it to come clear. The girl’s closer, but she’s too faint, and Anya’s never caught the hang of lip-reading. Still, when the girl looks at her, locking eyes, her mouth forming words too quiet to hear, Anya tries.
She can’t make it out. The girl steps back, and the robed sleepwalker steps forward, arms wrapping around her, and - all of their mouths are moving now, from the girl to Xav to the children around them. Their lips are all moving as one.
Anya swears, stumbling back. They’re all staggering towards her now, in stilted, awkward steps - like kites caught in the wind, getting yanked this way and the next. She doesn’t know why they’re following her. She doesn’t know what they want, because their lips are moving, but she can’t hear the words. But something about the sight of them makes her sick.
It’s not like they’re drunk. It’s like they’re not even there, but they’re walking towards her, and they’re looking at her, like they can see her, even though their eyes are all sealed shut.
“Get away from me!” she snaps, waving her pistol, but she’s never shot a person, and she never will. “I - I -” She can’t bring herself to say it, either. Maybe it doesn’t matter, though, because they stop, all at once.
Behind them, the woman pulls her hands away from her face.
The next foglight is dozens of feet away. This far away, the only light comes from the moon and the stars, but it’s a clear night, and outside of the trees, it’s enough to see by. There’s blood on the woman’s face, falling in sticky streams from a cut above her.. above her eye, Anya thinks at first.
But that isn’t it. It’s not above her eye. It can’t be, because she’s wearing a mask.
Except it’s not. Something’s gone wrong with her face, because it’s not a mask at all, and staring at it, Anya doesn’t know how she ever thought it was.
The woman’s head is all smooth skin, with the barest hint of features if she tries to focus on them. It must be the darkness. It’s a clear night, but it must be, because she can still make out the dent of a mouth, and a slope of a nose, and the ridge of eyebrows, casting a shadow over the rest. Dimming her eyes.
Or no, she realises. Not just dimming them, because the woman steps forward, and it’s like the light moves with her. There’s a sticky mass where the woman’s left eye should be, something that pulses as Anya looks at it, and there’s just enough light left from the stars that it seems to shine like a fire in the dark.
The glass hit her eye, Anya thinks. Oh, god, she blinded her.
Anya takes one step back, then another. The pistol tries to slip between her sweat-slick hands. There’s bile biting at the back of her throat, and it’s so hard not to just lean over and hurl, or cry, or both, all at once, because she took her eye.
“You shouldn’t be here! Are you one of those fucking kids? ” the woman snarls, like she thinks Anya’s an adult, and - and maybe she does, never mind her words, because she’s stalking forward, hands raised like she’s going to hit her.
She took her eye. She didn’t mean to, but the glass hit her in the eye, and of course she’s going to hit her. Of course she’s going to kill her. Anya’s feet are frozen to the ground. She can’t bring herself to move, although part of her brain is screaming; it’s like she’s watching someone else stand there, as the woman moves closer and closer, and there’s nothing she can do.
A small part of her wails: her ma is going to be furious.
This close, as the woman stalks up, Anya doesn’t need the moonlight to see.
Anya didn’t take her eye. There’s a wound on the woman’s face, but she didn’t take her eye, because there’s a dozen different eyes skittering across the woman’s face like bugs, skirting around the wound, streaking through the blood. Something ripples under her skin. The corner of her wound pulses, like something might come out -
There’s a sound, coming out. It takes Anya a moment to realise it’s her, wailing, and when the woman snarls out - “shut up!” - it doesn’t come out of a mouth.
It’s just sound, clear and crisp, like no one else’s voice tonight has been.
A voice in the dark, Xav had said.
“We’re going to have a serious talk --”
The ice locking her into place cracks, all at once. Anya turns and runs.
Red Acre is full of old caves and mine shafts, left over from the point everyone was trying to find money in the mountains. Anya doesn’t tear straight for the nearest - she isn’t dumb, and she isn’t interested in getting caught by whatever it is that’s chasing her. Instead, she bolts straight off the trail and into the most familiar bits of the forest, winding an indirect trail towards one of the hollows in the thicket she’s seen.
Down the path where she’s sprung traps before, because they never pop up in the same places twice. Still, right now, with her heart in her throat, each rock under her foot sends fear jolting up her.
(“Maybe they’re hunting bears,” she’d told Xav, and, oh, how dumb must she have sounded?)
The thicket doesn’t come soon enough. But eventually, the smaller trees start breaking in the way she’s used to, and then she’s there. Anya leans down, plucks up the largest rock she can find -
- and when the doe tears off through the wood with a stinging rump, her fawn in toe, Anya flings herself right up against the cliff and into the slip in the rock she’s just starting to get too big for.
She’s got bloody knees and torn pants by the time she makes it into the cave proper, but there’s no sound outside, not for the rest of the night.
Anya doesn’t return home until dawn. She’s expecting her ma to be up and waiting, switch in hand, cigarette on her lip. Wouldn’t that be her luck? But she’s lucky. When she creeps back into the trailer, slipping in through her bedroom window, the big rooms’ empty. She doesn’t hear the front door creaking open for another whole hour, and then there’s just the soft sigh of her ma peeking into her room.
Anya doesn’t pull the blankets off of her head, not until she hears the front door click shut, three hours later. She doesn’t sleep none, either. It’s impossible when every time she closes her eyes, she sees that face again, blood trickling down the smooth slopes, a thousand eyes pulsing as they watch her .
Instead, she sits, and she cleans, and by the time she finishes, it’s almost the end of the day.
So she goes off to the school.
Xav’s leaning against the outside of the fence, his nose buried in his phone. He doesn’t look up until she flops in right next to him, close enough that her shoulder jostles his. “You on your Wikipedia again?” she asks.
There’s bags under his eyes when he looks up. “It’s not my Wikipedia. And I can’t get it on my phone. I told you,” he complains. “I need a USB. You know that -” Then he winces, a hand going up to his mouth as he takes her in. “Holy shit, Anya. What happened? You look -”
She’d washed up in the tub, best as she could, and she’d washed her clothes there, too. It’d kept her awake, and maybe they’re still damp in the creases, but she figures it’s better then her ma coming home early and wondering why they’re hanging. She hadn’t thought about what she looked like past that. “I had a long night,” she says, scrunching up her shoulders. She runs a hand down her braids, but they feel clean enough. “You look like you did, too.”
“One hell of a bad night. I - it was bad dreams.” There’s dirt under his fingernails when he scrubs at his eyes. “I dreamt I was trying to climb down a well, and it was deep, and I was tired. But I couldn’t stop climbing. I don’t know why, I just.. couldn’t. So I got almost all the way to the bottom, and it was miserable, but just when I was climbing down again, something broke. And I fell, and -- ”
He shrugs. “It was horrible,” he says.
Anya inherited her mother’s hands. The palm is big, and the fingers are long, long enough that they wrap all the way around when she snags him by the wrist. She turns his hand over, just as he curls his fingers in.
His nails catch the sunlight. It’s not just dirt. It’s blood, shining red as fire in the dark against the dirt.
“Queer kind of dream,” she says, quiet. She doesn’t know why there’s blood, but she hadn’t stuck around, after she’d shot the foglight. Maybe she ought’ve. “Drowned, huh? Like in the lake?”
He looks at her.
Then he tugs his hand away with a laugh. His smile doesn’t reach his eyes, and it leaves his lips pinched thin, his nose scrunched. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he lies, and - she doesn’t know what to do with that. Xav’s never lied to her before. “Seriously, though, what happened to you?”
Her mama’s been coming in less and less at night, these last few months.
If she’s honest, Anya hasn’t entirely noticed. They’d inherited their trailer from her granddad, but her ma still has to buy food, and clothes, and new filters for their water. All of that takes money, and that means long hours, and work wherever she can hustle it, however she can hustle it.
Anya refuses to think much about that anymore, and she hits the folks that make her. It’s not like it matters much, anyway, how much her ma’s around. Anya’s been microwaving food since she was old enough to pull over a chair, and she’s always known you don’t open the door to strangers. Red Acre’s a safe town, all things considered. Sure, kids run away, but life isn’t one of her granddad’s stories. And she ain’t a baby, like when her ma was all afraid.
Kids don’t get taken away, not in this day and age . So it isn’t like there’s ever been a reason to mind, being on her own.
But just as she’s packing the last of her gear into her backpack to pretend like she’s walking off the three miles to school, the front door opens. And it’s only when her ma staggers in, dark circles under her eyes, that Anya realises she hasn’t seen her in nearly two days.
“It feels like I haven’t slept in a week ,” her ma laughs, but it’s cracking straight into silence on the high notes.
“If you hadn’t slept in a week, ma, you’d be dead.” Anya loops an arm around her waist, leans in against her ma with only a little awkwardness. This happens, every once in awhile. Anya doesn’t ask questions anymore. There’s no point, not when her ma’ll always answer with that pretty smile of hers, and it works: her ma never asks her questions, either, much about anything.
So when her ma hums, and asks: “- d’you reckon I’m a good ma?” - well, Anya nearly drops her, right on the bed.
She manages to tuck her in instead, careful, and her mama’s eyes are already lidded by the time she hits the blankets. Still, she turns her face towards Anya when she asks that. “I’ve tried,” she says, drowsy but earnest in a way that’s discomfiting. “I’ve tried real hard to do what’s good for you. Make up for your da. I don’t know if it shows..”
“‘course it shows,” Anya murmurs. Her ma sounds like Xav, like she’s apt to start quavering, not like the woman that raised her. She doesn’t like it. Most of her wants to edge back: she lingers instead. “I know, mama.”
“And you know you can tell me anything, don’t you? I know that Madi-Shaw dying’s got everyone riled, but there’s no need to get worried.” She yawns, curling into the pillows. Her words are muffled as she nuzzles into one. There’s something uncomfortable about seeing her ma like this, her red hair all tangled, her eyes squeezed shut. “We can talk about it, if you are. We can talk about anything.”
Any tugs the comforter over the top of her. “I know, mama,” she says. “But don’t worry. I’m not worried about anything.”
And it’s not a lie, because truth be told, she isn’t.
Oh, the first day after she shoots the foglight, Anya’s jittery as a jackrabbit. But after that, she relaxes, inch by inch. If they were going to come snooping, she figures, they would have. And they haven’t, so it seems like she’s scott free. It isn’t like she did anything too foul. She broke a lamp, maybe, but kids did that every other night, in other towns. And she couldn’t have hurt that woman, because that woman -
She doesn’t know. She couldn’t have, that’s all.
The rest of it feels hazy, and the well itself feels hazier with each passing day. Sure, she’s got scabs on her knees and arms, but she always does. And the foglight, when she sees it on her roamings, stands fixed and shining, without so much as a crack in the lense.
She and Xav never talked about what happened that night, or his dream, or much else. He lied to her, just like her ma, and the words stick in her throat when she tries to think of how they ought to go. Anya’s not even sure she remembers it right , anymore. It’s like a story, that’s the thing, one that goes like this: the girl goes into the woods and finds everything’s gone topsy turvy, and people she loves aren’t the people she knows, under their face.
Anya doesn’t like stories. She’d disproved Bigfoot with her granddad back when she was eight through traps and stake-outs, the two of ‘em huddling in a hide night after night just to prove nothing would come. She’d never believed in Santa, or Snow White, or anything else after that, and night-time antics just doesn’t seem any realer. It was a dream, she reasons. It was a nightmare, the queer kind that seems real, and the more she repeats it, the more it feels like it could be true.
But it’s hard to keep repeating it when she walks the foglight and feels glass crunching under her feet. Or when, one night, she chases a oppossum all the way to the well and finds the grate resting on its side, the mouth hanging open like a threat. Things like that keep happening.
And Xav keeps getting stranger and stranger.
He’s been hanging out with new kids, lately, during lunch. It’s cut down their them time something awful, but Anya’s tried not to resent it. He’s allowed to have friends, and it’s not like she needs him around. She doesn’t need anybody, not when she’s got herself and the woods for company.
And it’s not like he’s ignoring her entirely. He’s in the hunting hide one day after school, his laptop in his lap and one of those sealed paper cups of coffee in his lap. He’s been drinking an awful lot of that lately. “I just think it’s kind of crazy,” he says, tilting the screen so she can see. “Look at this. We’re in the middle of the radio free zone, right? But other cities have real cellphone service. Snowshoe’s not that far - and that’s neat etymology, Snowshoe, isn’t it? - but Wikipedia says they’ve got an entire ski resort, and wi-fi. Ours is closed circuit, but they’re even closer to the signal. Why?”
“Iunno. Maybe we’re closer to something else,” she says, looking back down at her pistol. Cleaning it had seemed the hardest part of it, back when her granddad first started teaching her to use it. But now it’s soothing in its repetitiveness. “Maybe CHORUS’s got its own radios.”
“Maybe it’s not radios,” Xav says, but he doesn’t keep going. He turns the conversation back to the maps, and the other cities, and wheedles out which of ‘em that she’s heard about. It’s a fun talk. But it’s not what she wants to hear.
He won’t say what she wants to hear, and everything’s gotten too strange to ask him outright. Xav’s discovering something, night by night, and..
It feels like they’re moths circling a flame. Maybe he’s already burning his wings, one scale at a time, skirting around whatever knowledge he’s finding. Maybe he’s afraid for her doing the same. She forgets, sometimes, that he’s older than her, and he’s always so full of worries.
But Anya wants the truth, and worries or no, she won’t rely on a liar for answers he won’t give.
That’s what takes her to leave behind the woods, and start trawling the town at night instead.
Anya’s never been in Red Acre after dark. Back when she was going to school, she used to ride the bus in, and ride it out, all the way to the edge of the city limits. It was a twenty minute walk to get back up to her trailer then, and only ‘cause her granddad knew the best way to - cutting straight through the woods, not bothering with the dirt road that winds past all the burnt-out houses that used to be. She’d gone straight to school in the mornings, and her granddad had taken her straight back home each afternoon.
There’d never been sleepovers, or field trips, or a reason to visit town. When she was younger, the other kids folks hadn’t liked Anya, much, and by the time she was older, she hadn’t liked the kids none either. Her granddad used to go out, sometimes, but he’d never seen a reason to haul her along. “Better you stay out of sight, bluebird,” he’d always told her, fond, “so I don’t gotta share you.”
She’d never seen a reason to go on her own, either, until now.
Red Acre, as it turns out, looks different at night.
Even when the moonlight’s filtering in through the trees, the forest is always dark. Anya’s never minded. Your eyes adjust, if you wait long enough, and she’s used to squinting through the dim light, searching out movement and familiar landmarks among the dark blue shapes.
Here, she’s squinting for a different kind of reason. There’s so many lights. It’s almost as bright as daytime, enough that it makes her eyes tear up, and the first night she tries to sneak in, she scarcely makes it thirty minutes in before she tries to turn tail. She feels exposed, from top to bottom, like she’s been painted red from tail to nose: look at this hick, sneaking into town to steal away knowledge. She doesn’t belong here, not during the day, and not during the night.
But she can’t get away slip back into the shadows, it feels like, no matter how hard she tries. There’s foglights in the backyards and up in the front, with little plumed lanterns lining the paths and drive ways. There’s street-lights at what feels like every four feet. Even the spots that look dark aren’t safe. The first time she creeps along the edge of a yard, and one of the dimmed foglights on the back of the awning flickers on, flooding her vision with white -- well, she doesn’t holler, but it’s close, and her heart doesn’t calm down until she’s tucked all the way back into the trees, white still licking at her toes like a reminder.
No one comes outside to investigate. The light clicks off, leaving her blinking spots in the darkness, and she decides to call it a night early, that time around.
That sort of thing happens a few more times after that, but slowly, she adjusts: first to the lights, and then to the way the buildings hang overhead, somehow larger and grimmer in the dark than they’d ever feel during the day. And finally, she adjusts to the silence of the town. There’s no one out, those first few nights. There’s no cars moving, and no lights on inside of the houses, and none of the forest chatter she’s used to.
The worse she gets is a dog barking, once, when she cuts through a yard. She’s already up a tree before she realises the sound is muted, and the back door is still shut. Still, each booming bark feels as loud as a shout. She waits, her heart racing, for someone to come investigate.. but no lights turn on in the building. The door doesn’t open.
When the dog eventually quiets, what feels like hours later, there’s no sound to replace him, save the distant hoot of an owl. It’s like the entire town has died.
It makes her wary at first. Worse yet, it just makes her frustrated. Anya had almost thought there’d be some secret to uncover, hidden away in the dark. Maybe there’d be something to explain the well. Maybe she’d find her pa, tucked away in some corner, just waiting to explain she’d belonged to the town all along, and this was just how they’d wanted her to prove it - by proving she was willing to seek it out, and find her answers, same as she did anything else.
Maybe she’d find her ma, just like folks said, on her way out of some folks house.
But there’s nothing to find in the town. It’s quiet, and it’s dead, and there’s no more trains of ducklings, following strange women. There’s no stranger’s faces on the streets, and she doesn’t spot the girl coming or leaving from the school. There’s no proof.
Sure, there’s more storm cellars than she’d ever figured anyone ever had, but the only one she finds unlocked is filled with potatoes, and cans, and boxes all fresh from CHORUS. The rest are little slats of red in the grass, just bright enough to avoid tripping on the handle, and they refuse to open, no matter how hard she pulls. Once, she tosses a rock up against the side of a car, and hides herself off into the bushes just as the alarm goes off -
- but it just wails, and wails, and wails, and nobody comes out to see.
It’s curfew, she figures. Maybe all towns were like this. It isn’t like she’s ever left Red Acre to see. So, on the eighth night, Anya gives up. She makes it all the way down to the town, but right under a lamp, she can’t bring herself to keep going. She looks at the empty roads, the darkened windows, and she decides: it’s just not worth it.
She could stay out here for months and months, and all she’d ever find is the same dull quarantine. She’d dreamed the well, and the children, and the strange girl, and the woman, and that was fine. Red Acre made you crazy, her granddad used to say, and maybe that was true. Maybe that’s why they kept fishing runaways out of the lake, their blood washed away and their skin swollen blue.
This wasn’t a story. She wasn’t Prometheus, finding fire, and there wasn’t a girl waiting for her here, or her paw, or anyone else.
On the eighth night, she walks all the way down to the edge of the town. She looks down at the road at Hoadley, with its lights and its houses. Then she turns around, and heads home.
Not to her trailer, but straight up into the forest, and her hunting hide. The darkness is such a damn relief, after staying in the town. High above, an owl hoots. She can hear the rustle of the leaves, a constant murmur at the edge of her hearing. Something off in the brush steps on a twig, and a flurry of birds shoot off from their branches, taking to the sky.
Everything is so much more alive here. It feels like she’s been holding her breath, and she’s finally able to breath. Each step into the forest lightens something in her that’s been wound tight since she first saw the lights of Red Acre. Anya had searched for proof, and she hadn’t found it, because there was nothing to be found.
Maybe she’d tell her mother about it, in the morning. Her ma would fret, but she’d probably laugh, too. Red Acre makes everyone crazy, her granddad used to say, and hadn’t this month been proof of all of that?
Anya’s smiling when she places her hand on the doorknob, and behind her, something grabs her by the shoulder.
It’s not gentle. It yanks her hard, sharp fingers curling into her skin, and Anya freezes.
“Who’s your mother, honey?” someone says. The voice’s familiar enough that her breath catches in her throat. “Your parents? Do they know you’re out right now?”
But it’s not the woman. Her voice had been a rasp: this one’s voice is high and sweet, syruppy like her own mother. It doesn’t make sense at first. Anya doesn’t interact with most adults. She doesn’t know their voices, even of the teachers, sometimes, and she’d gone to school for years and years.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she snaps, and tries to jerk away. But this new woman’s holding her arm too tight to escape.
“Well, you shouldn’t be out at night, either, kiddo.” When the woman starts walking down, she’s steering Anya with her, away from the hunting hide. Anya’s attempts to twist away just get her grip tightened. “What’s your name?”
“I don’t give my name to strangers,” Anya says. “Get off of me!”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. You shouldn’t be out at night. It’s not just dangerous - did you know, this is actually illegal to violate a curfew?” There’s plenty of adults in Red Acre with accents. Up on the highest part of the hill, around CHORUS proper, there’s a lot of people from all over the country, who moved here just to work for the company. But this one’s different. It sounds sort of like Xav. “They’re not just here to keep you all safe. It gives us time to work to keep you all safe. It’s in the etymology, you know. Curfew! To extinguish fires - ”
Oh, of course it does. It’s Xav’s mother. Who else uses words like that?
“Get off of me,” Anya snarls, and lands an elbow right in Mrs. Neptune’s gut. She loosens her grip, just long enough for her to twist around. “I’m not going anywhere with you! Leave me alone!” She’s already stepping back, her hands up in front of her to swat Xav’s mother away. Anya refuses to hurt her - that’d be horrible - but she isn’t going to be hauled off somewhere.
She isn’t going to have her ma find out about any of this -
- and then she catches sight of Mrs. Neptune’s face.
The last time that Anya had seen her, she’d been asking her about her family and where they were from, while Xav sipped water at the dinner table. “Littlefeather,” she’d said, in the same tone she’d been explaining in: “- oh, that’s a fascinating etymology!” That evening, she’d been in her labcoat from the office still, with her briefcase abandoned on the table next to them, and Anya had thought she must be the smartest woman in the world, to work on the hill up with CHORUS.
She looked smart, with the wrinkles around her eyes, and her high bun, already streaking with gray, and her glasses. She’d looked like every scientist on television, pretty and brilliant and composed in a way that Anya had almost wanted to copy.
She doesn’t have a face right now. She has a smooth, bald fleshcap, with a surface that ripples as Anya stares at it. Ripples, and bulges, a nose popping into existence towards the top, the dip of what could be a mouth, or an eye socket, or an ear to the left. Her stomach twists as she watches, because they’re constantly shifting.
Above one of the crevices, round circles begin to bulge. Then black hairs push through, growing longer and longer as she watches, stretching into eyelashes. The interior pulses like a vein. Then it thrusts out, the skin paling, then blanching to bone white, and -
The eye blinks at her.
Mrs. Neptune sighs, then slaps her across the face.
Anya’s never been slapped before, but this isn’t like the cartoons: it’s hard enough that it snaps her head back, and it’s loud, loud enough that she can hear it more than feeling it. Feeling sets in around the time Mrs. Neptune lowers her hand, red glinting on the edge of her wedding ring.
When Anya opens her mouth, something on her cheek pulls, sharp enough that she pauses. “I’m sorry,” Mrs. Neptune says. “I didn’t mean - well. Never mind. I just can’t have you waking up the entire town, because you’re getting hysterical.”
“Your face.” She hit her. When Anya reaches up to her cheek, the skin is warm. Two fingers come back red. Mrs. Neptune doesn’t recognise her, and she hit her. Pain is setting in like a burn, one warm flush that keeps getting worse every second it fades in. “I’m not hysterical - your face -”
“My face is perfectly fine,” Mrs. Neptune lies, brisk. “This is why you shouldn’t be up all hours of the night. You start seeing things! And - fine. If you don’t want to give your name, we’ll just take you to the police station. How’s that?’
Her cheek hurts. Mrs. Neptune is steering her with every step, closer and closer to the town, and Anya doesn’t know what to do, except let her. But distantly, she knows, this isn’t the way to the police station. Anya doesn’t know Red Acre very well, but she knows the big white building, near the top of the hill. She’s sat in the car, before, when her ma’s had to go to pay one parking fine or another.
She’s being led down the hill, off towards the cliffs, and the houses, and the foglight that she’d shot out, what feels like months ago.
Each step feels like her heart is drumming against her ribs. Her cheek hurts, and her mouth is dry, and - the entire night feels like too much, from the pain, to the chill, to the way her pulse is racing. She doesn’t know what to do.
“This isn’t,” Anya mutters, “the way to the police station.”
Mrs. Neptune blinks at her, and then frowns. “Of course it is,” she says. “Now, if you’ll just give me your name, sweetheart, we can take you back home. Because I know, I know you kids don’t think the curfew matters, but it’s for your own safety. We’re just trying to protect you.”
Anya can’t wrench free. Mrs. Neptune is bigger than her, and wider, too. And she’s already gotten hit once. There’s heat trickling down her chin, and Anya doesn’t have to reach up to know it’s blood. She’s never been hit by an adult before.
She does not, she decides, want to be hit again.
Mrs. Neptune isn’t holding her hands. She’s holding her shoulders, firm, and she doesn’t pay any attention as Anya reaches into her pocket. “I wish you kids would just realise that,” she’s complaining. “We’re doing our best to make things better for you, and all you want to do is fight it.”
She doesn’t want to do this. She doesn’t want to do this, and she doesn’t want Mrs. Neptune holding her, and she doesn’t want to be here. This is near where the girl had disappeared, Anya thinks, and then: if she disappears, her ma will just think she ran away.
And Red Acre’s runaways never come back, not unless they’re dead.
There’s shapes off in the distance. Anya’s throat closes. For a moment, she thinks - she hopes - it’s someone come to save her. For a moment, she hopes this is really just a story, or a dream, and it’ll be her mother.
But then Mrs. Neptune exhales. “Oh, thank god, I thought I was going to do everything,” she says, and then, louder: “- Tom! Miguel!”
The figures turn. They’re wearing white, just like the thing with Mrs. Neptune’s voice. And at this distance, Anya can’t see their faces, not at all.
She doesn’t want to do this. But this isn’t a story. If she doesn’t want to end up dead in a lake, she’s just going to have to save herself.
Carefully, she pulls the pistol out of her pocket, aims it straight down and back, and shoots.
Her wrist screams. This close, unbraced, the recoil feels like a punch. But she doesn’t drop the gun. Mrs. Neptune drops her, though, with an unearthly yowl, and a moment later, she hits the ground. The two figures are racing towards them, their features blurred, and Anya doesn’t wait. She dives over Mrs. Neptune, who’s curling around her foot. She runs straight back for the forest.
And this time, she doesn’t have the presence of mind to keep it straight. Anya just runs, branches tearing at her clothes, bile in the back of her throat, because - she just shot someone. She just shot someone she knows, even if they didn’t recognise her, and she’s probably going to go to jail. Never mind that she shot her in the foot. Never mind that Mrs. Neptune was dragging her against her will.
She knows how these things go.
And she knows that there’ll be no proof she did anything, if they can’t find the gun.
Anya knows the forest near her trailer like the back of her hand, but when she finally slows down, tucking herself into a tree to wait out any pursuit, she finds herself faltering at the edge of the deeper end. She doesn’t know what to do there, in the dead of the night, this far into town. These aren’t her woods, not really. She doesn’t trust she’ll be able to get back, and right now - she keeps thinking of the beartraps, bright with CHORUS’s logo on the sides. If she goes too deep, and something triggers on her, grabs her by the leg --
She lets one, then two hours, tick past instead, skulking through the forest, skirting on the edges of the bits she knows extend for miles. Then she slinks her way towards the edge of the woods. It doesn’t matter what direction you walk in here, her granddad always used to joke, so long as you walked far enough, you’d hit a cliff. It’s true. She empties out the barrel of the pistol, four bullets she shoves into her pocket, then she flings it over the edge.
She doesn’t go home, after. She can’t go to her hunting hide again, either, and every time she thinks of trying one of the others, her heart catches in her throat. Anya spends the night in one of the caves instead. She doesn’t think she’ll sleep, but she does, and her dreams..
It’s a kind of story, she thinks, even while she’s in it. Everything around her is dark, but she holds a feather in her hand. It lights the path ahead of her. No matter what happens, she must follow it, and cast the light upon the truth at the end.
But things pluck at her as she walks, and creatures whisper from the shadows. She can’t make out the words. She doesn’t need to. They want her to stop. They want her to take the feather between her teeth and swallow it whole, so she’ll become a shadow like the rest of them. And then, they say, she won’t need the light to see the truth at the end.
They’ll simply tell her.
When she wakes, twigs in her braids and smelling like cavemold, she has a plan. And when the lunchbell rings, she’s lingering by the back door of the school, waiting as students trickle by her. As soon as she sees Xav, she grabs him by the arm and hauls him - not towards the table he’s always at, but instead, towards the farthest corner of the schoolyard, where the fence has loose boards, and the red-leafed trees hang low. Folks don’t like this corner, on account of the fact it’s always filled with wasps. “Anya,” he says, startled, but she knows how to do this.
No one else is around to see them here. A wasp buzzes by, but she ignores it as she lays a heavy hand on his shoulder. Xav’s eyes are widening as she takes a deep breath, and says:
“I shot your mom.”
“And I’m real sorry,” she says, while he stares, “but I don’t want to lie to you. I don’t want to lie, ever. So - so, she grabbed me first, so I don’t think --” She’s got to keep her voice steady and even while she talks, Anya figures, or he’ll startle before she can finish. “I don’t reckon it was unfair? Not really. She started it! And I didn’t shoot her bad. But I still feel awfully sorry, because - well, that’s your ma.”
Steady and even, but it’s hard, because Xav’s looking at her.. like, well, she shot his ma. And her face is heating up with every passing word, and it’s taking everything she has to just get it out. “So I’ve been thinking! And I can’t exactly tell her I’m sorry, because I ain’t, not sorry that I shot her, because she was - was going to kill me, or something. But I’m sorry I shot your ma.” There’s a lump in her throat. “So,” she forces herself on, ragged, and - damn it all.
Her cheek hurts, and her throat hurts, so she shouldn’t be surprised when her eyes start leaking. But she scrubs irritably at them with her hand. She won’t ruin her apology. She has to be stoic. “So I figured you can shoot me back, if you need to, so’s it’s all even. Right in the foot.” The tears aren’t stopping. She makes a frustrated noise, dragging her hands down her face. “A-and I don’t got a gun for it, anymore,” she concludes, “but we can find one, and then it’ll make up for it, maybe. What d’you say? I can go find one right now.”
Xav is staring.
“I - what?” he asks. Then: “- I don't even know how to shoot a gun.”
“I can teach you,” she sniffles, pulling back. “It's n-not hard, you just have to watch your wrist, and then it’ll be fair. It's not fair if you don't shoot me back.”
Xav reaches out like he's going to pat her, then he flusters. He drags a hand through his hair instead. “I don't want to shoot you! Why would I shoot you? That doesn't even - I don't want you hurt! My mom is already hurt. Oh, god, she said she sprained something.” His face is reddening. “But you shot her. You shot my mom.”
Anya bursts into tears.
“Oh, god. Please calm down.” Xav doesn't know what to do. She doesn't, either, if she's honest. Anya isn't the type to cry, and she can count the number of times she remembers doing it on one hand. But she can’t stop sobbing now, great, wheezing gasps that rip the air right out of her lungs and leave her chest aching in its absence. “Please? It's okay. I mean, it's - not okay, obviously, but it's fine. I don't want to shoot you. Please stop crying?”
She’s had her face buried in her hands, trying to reign it in. It’s hard! She doesn’t cry, usually, and it’s like wrestling a fish: every time she thinks it’s under control, it wriggles and breaks free, just like that. But Xav’s starting to breathe fast and hard too now, gulping in air like he's drowning, and that makes it easier. She takes a breath that feels thick in her lungs, and when she lets it out, it’s only a little bit of a gasp.
One of ‘em’s gotta be strong. Both of them can’t go wailing, so she pats his shoulder, a little rough. “I'm sorry I shot your ma,” she snuffles, “but at least I only got her foot.”
“That's only a little better,” he tells her.
They're off in a corner of the school yard, tucked under the red leaves of the trees. No one's close enough to overhear. No one's looking their way, either, but it still feels too exposed. She feels too exposed, now, like crying’s ripped something raw in her, and everyone can see it bleed.
Maybe they can. Last night, there was blood on her hands, and now there's tears on her face, and every last little inch of composure she’s ever had is gone. Her ma said she was like the mountains, once, but if she’s any sort of stone, it’s just chalk.
She feels brittle. She just wants to go home, and sleep, and scratch at the scabbing cut on her cheek, and sleep some more. But for now, she keeps patting Xav, until his breath’s soothed, and until her throat doesn’t feel like it’s two steps from breaking.
“I think you're right,” is the first thing she says, once Xav’s calmed down. “I don't think - they're not runaways, Xav. Your ma said she was taking me to the police station, but she was taking me to the cliffs. But I can't talk about that now.” No one’s looking their way, but there’s that prickly feeling in her gut. She’s been here too long. If Xav’s mother, and CHORUS, are looking for a kid, where else would they look, but at a school? “ I gotta go, before anybody sees me.”
“I’ll talk to you soon,” she calls out, still snuffling as she lifts up the board. “I promise.”
No cars are parked in front of the trailer when Anya gets home. She takes this as a good sign. If CHORUS was going to come for her, then they’d have been at the school, or they’d have been here . But they’re not, and so she heads straight to her room.
Anya doesn’t know how to pray. It’s not a thing that ever got covered, by her ma or anyone else. Red Acre’s never been real big on religion, and she knows it’s a thing elsewhere, in a hundred different flavours of it - the man on a cross, or the prophet on the mountain, or the prince in the gardens. But it’s never been a thing for her. Nobody’s ever taught her how it goes.
She’s seen it some, though, in movies and books. So she kneels in front of her bed, then leans down, until her forehead’s all the way on the ground, and her knees are flat behind her.
It’s uncomfortable. She hasn’t swept in months, and months, and she’s pretty sure her skin’s gonna be black as tar when she sits on up. The ground’s cold, too, ‘cause her mama ain’t keen on her lighting the heater while she’s gone, but that’s alright.
Maybe praying ain’t supposed to be comfortable. And maybe this ain't a case she's supposed to be praying, but she doesn't know what else to do.
Voices in the dark, Xav had said, at the start of this whole mess. Folks talking to people when they closed their eyes, her ma had teased. But people couldn't do that. Only one thing could.
She closes her eyes.
“My name’s Anya. And I don’t reckon I know yours,” she says, and her voice’s small, small, small in the tincan of her room. “But I don’t care. Fact of the matter is, I’m scared, and this is - this is real fucked up, ain’t it? I ain’t supposed to be scared. I’m thirteen. And I shot someone. And - maybe it ain’t fair, but - I wasn’t scared any until you folks started talking. I didn’t know there nothing to be scared of.”
She’s never managed sugary sweet, not even one day in her whole life, but that’s okay, Anya thinks. She isn’t like her mama, but maybe she can be like the mountains, instead. They flake, sometimes, big old showers of stone and shale. Used to be, folks said, they’d even shake. But they’re solid under all of that, the Blue Ridges, and she can be, too. “CHORUS - maybe you’re saying all these things, but at least, they’re our family. We didn’t know they were doing anything, until you started talking.”
“What’re you, except trouble? ”
There’s no response. She doesn’t know why she expects one, laying with her head pressed to this grimy floor, but the minutes tick by, and disappointment settles in like a cloak. Of course there’s no response. This isn’t a story, no matter what it feels like.
Her paw isn’t going to whisper anything in her ear, no matter how much she listens.
When she lays her head down on her bed and closes her eyes, though, she still does. It’s the same as it is every night. There’s just the pounding of her blood in her ears, like the drumbeat of her own personal music. There’s the creak of the trailer around her shifting in the wind, always just on the edge of her hearing, and the rustle of the trees beyond it.
She falls asleep like that, waiting.
“Lāvanya,” someone calls from the dark. It’s nothing like anyone she’s ever heard before. It’s like something that she heard once, she thinks, in a dream. There’s a buzz under the words, almost like there’s two voices at once. But no matter how she turns, she can’t see them.
Of course she can’t, she realises. She’s dreaming.
“You poor child. So many questions! But you don’t know what you’re asking. Why should you trust us , over your families?” Anya’s heard disdain, before, coming from some of the kids in Red Acre, and some of their parents, too. She’s heard disgust, felt the way it prickled and ached long before she knew what it was curling their lip.
She knows the ways folks disguise it. She can almost picture the downcast eyes, and the careful poise, and the way this person looks , all fake and prickly-pleased, like the thought of her question is nothing but a dead rat from some farmcat’s mouth. Or, no: she can almost feel it, because that’s what it is. Her eyes are closed, and her vision is dark, but she can feel this thing talking, all the way down in her core. “Because you should want to live. You should want to trust us, because our parent - your CHORUS - is lying to you, Lavanya.”
It laughs. It’s not a pretty sound. “Just like so many of your parents are lying to you.”
When she wakes up, the sunset is pouring her room purple, and her ma’s pressing a cold cloth to her forehead. “Poor junebug,” she says, “you’ve been running a fever all night. I was starting to worry.”
Her ma’s roots are growing back in. It’s inky blue-black edging out the red, inch by inch, and when Anya reaches up to touch it, she bows her head down. The strands are dry, but - “I know, I know.” Her ma’s voice’s wry, under all the concern. “I need to get it fixed.”
“I think it looks nice,” Anya says, and then: “- ma, who’s Lavanya?”
Her ma blinks at her. Then she laughs. “It’s your name. La-vuhn-yaa.” The word stretches out long and hard, just like the voice said it, and something in her chest twists. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
“It’s the sort of name that gets a girl teased.” Her ma’s lip curls up. “I figured you had enough cause for that,” she admits, wry. “But you never had to worry about that none. You’ve never let folks tell you what to do. Back when you were toddling, my pops reckoned we ought to buy you a leash, because you’d never just sit down and listen.. and maybe we ought’ve.”
She pauses. Then she sighs. “I know you’ve been skipping school, honey,” her ma says, soft as the fingers that brush back Anya’s hair. “They called me this morning, again, and it’s.. it’s no good, that’s all.” Her thumb passes over the scab on her cheek. She sighs. “Oh, Anya. What’ve you been doing?”
Everything hurts, from her toes to her ears. Her head hurts so much, though. It’s like the voice dragged a knife, right through the softest part of her brain, and everything’s oozing in the aftermath: sticky veins of lava, that burns deeper with every pulse. But the way her ma sounds - that hurts worst of all. “I’ve been working,” she objects, pushing herself up. Her ma’s making a shushing sort of sound, tugging at the blanket, but Anya pays her no mind, bats away her hand. “Just like you!”
Her ma sits on up, too. Her face’s all pinched and pained. It makes Anya’s heart twist, but not just with pity. “Working include going through my files?” her ma says. “That where you read your name? You tryin’ to get your social, so you can get a job? ‘Cause I’m the one that works, honey, so you don’t have to.”
“I don’t need my social. And I didn’t go pawin’ through your stuff. Someone told me it,” she says, waspish.
“And who would’ve told you that?” Her ma’s so patient. It grates.
“Somebody told me,” she repeats, dogged. And then she takes a breath. “When I was asleep.”
“Anya,” her ma says, straightening up like someone shoved a stick right in her ass, in the same tone she used for don’t go out at night, or stop hitting folks. Her mouth’s a thin line, her face’s gone pale and drawn. “Girl. Are you telling stories, now?”
“It’s the truth! I’m not lying. I don’t believe in lying.” Anya’s never snapped at her ma before. Her ma’s done everything for her, in the end, from the long hours to staying here, in Red Acre, with its red homes and its white lights.
But Anya’s never been called a liar before, either, and it hurts, when her ma ought to know. It hurts that her ma’s looking at her like that, when she hasn’t done anything wrong.
“Oh, don’t get superior with me. Of course you do.” Her ma rolls her eyes, folding her arms. For a moment, she doesn’t look pretty: she just looks young, and she just looks worn. “You’ve been letting me think you’ve been going to school every day, for years,” she points out, sour. “That’s a lie if I have ever heard one, Anya. Two hundred and forty six days, they’re saying, total, that you haven’t had your ass in a fucking seat. What’ve you been doing? ”
Anya almost never gets angry. There’s not a point to it, especially not towards her ma. Her ma works so hard. But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? “If that’s a lie, then what’ve you been doing at night?” she says, fierce, pushing the blanket down. “Because it ain’t janitor work.”
For a moment, her mother looks startled, like she doesn’t know how to respond. Then she scowls at her. “It’s business that you don’t need any part of,” she snaps. “I’m keeping you fed, girl, and I’m keeping you safe .”
“Just like my pa was?” Anya shoots back, and her ma flushes red as her hair. “If that’s the case, you might as well leave, too. Because -” She’s never spoken to her ma like this before. She should stop, but her voice’s raising instead, higher and higher, until it’s almost a shriek. “It’s not like you ain’t already always gone!”
The doorbell rings.
Her mother jolts to her feet. Her face’s gone straight past red and into purpling, and there’s heat in Anya’s cheeks, too, along with the queasy ache of her head. Her cheek hurts, the scab knocked loose from her hollering, and - this’s the closest the two of them have ever come to a spat.
Anya wants to cry. She wants to puke, or bury her face in her pillow, or go to her hunting hide, and never, ever come out.
But mostly, she wants to shout, until her ma takes it all back, and promises to never look at her like this ever, ever again.
“You will sit here, and you will think, girl, about exactly why I’m always gone, and you will apologise,” her ma says, icy, “after I’m done with this door. You hear me?”
“Do you hear me?” her mother demands, staring at her with her hands on her hips.
“You already think I’m a liar,” she says, “so I don’t know why you’re askin’ me.”
The doorbell rings again. Her mother turns on her heel and leaves, slamming the bedroom door shut behind her.
Anya thinks about going back to sleep. She’s tempted. Wouldn’t it be something if she just laid down in the bed, pulled the blankets over her head, and refused to talk to her ma at all? She just had a fever, and here her ma was, yelling at her, and calling her a liar, and being just plain awful. It’d serve her right.
She’s tempted, but when the front door creaks open, the whine of motion loud enough even she can hear it, she slinks over to her bedroom door instead. Anya presses her ear flat to it, plugging the other, ‘cause sometimes that helps with hearing shit. Curiousity wins out over her anger, just like it always does, because they don’t get visitors. Anya doesn’t bring Xav to their house, and her ma doesn’t bring her friends, either.
If her ma has friends. Anya knows so little about her ma’s life, outside of taking care of her, but she’s the one getting called a liar.
“ Morning, miss Littlefeather,” the visitor says, so prim and proper that Anya’s eyebrows shoot right up. Nobody calls her ma miss Littlefeather, period: it’s always Miss June that, Miss June this, when folks want to bother feeling formal. Something about the ‘miss’ and Anya’s age always wigs most folks right out.
But it wouldn’t wig her teachers, would it? And it wouldn’t bother CHORUS none, who’ve employed her ma since she was born. CHORUS, who watched her grow up, and probably know her face, as best as anyone else in the town.
CHORUS, who’ve been setting traps in the woods to catch runaways, and who have jobs that work all through the night, when the rest of the town is dead, dead, dead - or walking.
It’s a little like being on auto-pilot. She stumbles to her feet, quiet as she can manage, and thank heavens, her bookbag’s on the floor, gaped half-open with her latest snare in it. She starts shoving things into it, one-handed, while she tugs on her boots with the other. The laces aren’t tied, but that’s fine, she can get that later.
She presses her ear to the door one more time, straining to hear. It’s hard at first. All she hears is snatches. Then the man raises his voice.
“I appreciate your concern. But we found a gun, Ms. Littlefeather, so I believe we’re past that. It’s registered to your father,” the man says, and Anya jerks away from the door, never mind how her head screams at the motion. She’d been looking for her canteen earlier. She doesn’t worry about that, now. There’s a river - she can drink from that. People used to, back in the old days, didn’t they?
They’d never died from that.
She pulls on her backpack. Then she cracks open her window, gentle so it won’t shriek, and climbs out.
She spends one night in the woods, huddling in the woods. It’s August, and it’s not that cold out here. 70F, according to her phone. In her makeshift shelter, with the wind cut off and her hood up, it’s warmer. Fear is what keeps waking her up, not discomfort.
Fear, at first, and then anger. By the dawn hits, Anya decides: this isn’t fair. Nothing about this is fair.
She doesn’t like stories. But if she’s going to be in one, then she’s not going to let it be like - Snow White, or the Diamonds and the Toads. She won’t let some folks hunt her through the woods, looking to carve her heart out. She won’t lie back and let someone else decide how her life goes. If CHORUS is going to try and take her away over some story they’ve formed in the town, or try to disappear her, and write her a new one -
- then she’ll just make her own story, instead.
Anya’s never been to the well during the day. The stone’s white, it turns out, when the sunlight hits it. And the grate is off, just like it had been a week ago, with the same stone, even, holding it in place.
She’d seen the kids climb out of the well, their eyes closed. She’d seen that big man climb out, with gloves on his hands and a mask on his face. Sure, her wrist’s sore, and it twinges when she rolls it, testing out the range. But the path down can’t be too hard, she reckons, if everyone else managed it.
So Anya eases herself over the edge, feeling with the toes of her boot while her fingers clutch the rim. When she feels a ledge, she lets just enough weight onto it to test it. It doesn’t budge. It holds sturdy, even as she lets her weight drop fully onto it, and when she lifts her next foot, feeling down, it doesn’t so much as creak.
Maybe the well was built to be climbed. It’s a queer thought, but so’s the fact she’s climbing down in the first place.
The stones are remarkably dry under her fingers. Like this, she climbs down, one step at a time, her movements as quiet as she can manage to make them. As careful as she can make ‘em, because her wrist is aching every time it has to take her weight, and she tries to give it time to settle in between steps. Time for it to settle, and time for her heart to calm down, too. Anya doesn’t know what she’s going down into. Part of her wonders if someone’ll be waiting there, when she finally hits the bottom. Maybe it’ll be Xav’s mother, even, or the woman she’d injured before.
If there is -
She’ll deal with it when she gets down, she decides, her mouth dry. Maybe they’re down there, and maybe they weren’t, but there was no point in worrying before then.
The ground is fifty, forty feet down, she thinks, when she peers down below her. It’s hard to tell: she can see wooden struts, sitting criss-crossed over the opening, but the ground below that’s a blue haze that she can only guess on. The number feels right, though, and it gives her something to focus on, more’n than if she’s gonna get murdered at the bottom. It gives her something to count, with each foot she travels.
Her wrist starts to twang after only fifteen feet, and every time it sends off a pulse of pain, her mental count of the distance keeps going awry,. Is she fifteen feet down? Twenty? How much will it hurt, if she slips? Because her palms are getting wet. Herhand keeps sliding on the stone, and it’s getting harder to keep a grip with her shoes.
She reaches down.
How much will it break, if she slips? she wonders, because no matter how much she bats away the thought, it keeps coming back. Will she break her legs? Her back? Her spine? Her grandfather had broke his hip once, when she was very young. He’d been stuck in bed for months, while it heeled.
Anya doesn’t think she trusts hospitals anymore, not after the girl in the hospital gown.
When she reaches down for the next handhold, feeling for it, the rock doesn’t slide under her hand. Instead, it bites in, cutting straight into the skin, and she has to bite down hard on her lip to stop herself from shrieking. She curls her hand into a fist, clenching it hard. Anya gives herself a moment to breath. There’s tears clouding her vision, and she needs a moment to blink those away, too.
If she dies down here, who’ll notice? Will they even bring her to a hospital?
Or will they just find her body in the lake at the end of fall, like poor Madi-Shaw’s?
She’s not going to fall. She’s not going to break anything, or worse yet, die, and she just - she just needs to remember that, Anya decides, and takes a deep breath. Her hand hurts, but she can move past it. Her wrist aches, but halfway down the well isn’t the time for her to start sobbing, not unless she wants to fall.
So she scuffs off her hand on her pants, and grabs hold of the rock again, more careful this time around. She takes the next step, and she continues like this, ignoring the slipperiness of her hand, and the iron in her mouth, until she reaches down with her foot and finds empty air.
It takes a few minutes to navigate around the tunnel. And at first, that’s all she plans on doing. The floor is still a good thirty feet down. If she wants to get down there before her arms give out, she doesn’t have time to explore before her arms give out, or her hand gets cut by something worse than the sharp edge of a stone. It’s just a waterway, anyway, she thinks.
But wells this deep shouldn’t need waterways.
She pulls herself into it, careful to keep her head bowed. The rock isn’t like the brick of the well, here. It’s solid stone, smooth when she runs her fingers over it, and paler than the well’s walls. At the far end, she can see white light pouring up from a hole in the ground. And all around her, she can hear the faint murmur of voices, just loud enough to catch on the edges of her hearing, and above that, music, something full of chimes and strings.
She’s slinking forward before she can think twice. It’s easy to be quiet here, at least: her grandfather had showed her how to make quiet boots, right before he died, and these have just enough grip that she doesn’t slide on the stone. She gets right up to the edge, and she twists her braids into a hasty knot on top of her head, just to keep ‘em out of the way. Then she leans in.
The first thing that she notices is there’s cameras on the wall, some little lens on a lazy circuit around the room. It’s pointed straight down, though, focusing in on the consoles.
Everything’s concrete down there. The floors are ribbed strangely, like someone took parking stoppers and stacked ‘em into a building, and the walls look foul with it, too, where there’s no consoles blocking them. She can’t tell what those are for, except taking up the middle of the room. They’re covered in glittering, pulsing lights, and switches, and some small screens with pictures that keep flickering and twitching, and she’s about to slide down to investigate when she hears a door open.
A moment later, two figures walk into sight, right under the solid square of her hide-away. It’s a man and a woman, from the looks of it, both wearing the same white robes as Mrs. Neptune and the woman.
She should go, before either thinks to look up. But then Anya sees one of them is wearing a bandage, thrice-wrapped, around her head, and then she hears, ringing out from that mouthless void of a face: “- poor Tom. At least you’re not June.”
Anya presses herself to the floor of the shaft, ears straining.
The man - Tom - sighs, leaning back against one of the consoles. He presses his palms into his face, scrubbing at what Anya thinks must be his eyes. Skin pushes up between his fingers, straining, and at the apex of one bulge, something black protrudes. “There’s no need to be unkind,” he says irritably. “It could happen to any of us. I’m just lucky that Sydney trusts me enough to ask me for help, when those bastards started talking to her.”
“She didn’t think a schoolyard would help her? Funny how that works.”
“You’re such an asshole , Parvati.” Tom folds his arms. “What would you do, if it turns out your daughter’s involved?”
Bandage leans back against the stone. She reaches into her pocket, pulling out a cigarette. “She wouldn’t,” she says easily, “because I actually know how to raise a child , Tom, same as you. CHORUS’s appalled that we let somebody slip through the cracks that easily. Did you know the grandfather died? ”
“When?” Tom demands.
“Three years ago,” Bandage says, amused. “Three fucking years ago! And June’s just been leaving her daughter at home, instead of making sure she’s at school. No wonder she’s a part of that fucking club. It’s all the town’s tra --”
Anya starts moving. She doesn’t know what to think, so she doesn’t - she just moves, as fast as she can without making noise, and leaves it all behind.
The tunnel is long, and it curves as she heads down it. There’s a wind blowing down it from off in the distant, but it’s not hard, and it’s dry. Anya doesn’t mind. It helps dry the sweat on her palms, because every ten feet or so, there’s yet another hole in the ground, and yet another room, the light shining up like a beacon in the dark tunnel.
All of the rooms are like the first. It’s hard to remember she was just in a well, when every time she looks down, it’s into areas full of concrete and carpet, red as the blood that keeps trying to well from her cut. (If she does this again, she’ll need bandages. If she survives this. If she doesn’t just get out, and run.) All of them have cameras, and the same consoles, and the same empty rooms.
If she couldn’t look back and see the rays and rays of light, shooting out from holes behind her, she’d wonder if she was going in circles. But she isn’t. The tunnel curves as she travels down it, with rougher rocks there, and smoother rocks here. Little changes, but still, something. The rooms.. she doesn’t understand what they are.
There’s cameras everywhere, here. She shouldn’t go down: she’s seen bank heists on the news, and the sort of things that cameras film. It might set off a bell, soon as she steps under it, and then they’ll throw her off the cliffs right here.
But the entire reason she came is because she wants to know. She wouldn’t have learned anything, if she went cowering. So when she leans down and discovers the fourth room in a row is empty, she makes a choice. The floor isn’t so far down, here, from the tunnel. She doesn’t dare to jump, but she can grab the edges and swing down, knees bent to soften her fall.
There’s a cherry red door across from the consoles, a perfect match to the carpets, and the camera’s light on the far corner blinks as it peers down at her. The room isn’t much bigger than it looked from up-top. It’s about the size of a postage stamp, with the consoles taking up most of the room, but the walls.. they’re not ribbed, here. They’re covered in televisions, all of them showing blurry pictures of shapes she doesn’t understand under all of the noise, and all of them playing the same hum of music.
It’s louder here than it was in the tunnel. But that’s for the best, she thinks. It means no one’ll hear her footsteps.
When she taps her nail against one, hard, it doesn’t clear up the static any: it just makes the sound get louder, still soft, but too much to ignore. So Anya gives up on it, just like that. She doesn’t have time to figure that out, but the consoles are right there . And the one nearest has a screen on it, hidden among the blinking green dials, and the strangely-symboled ribbon.
The picture is grainy. But it’s one of the houses backyards. She recognises, even through the noise, the distinctive white of the yard’s awning against the stark blue of the woods. The video is of a camera mounted on the wall of the building, she thinks, from the angle, and as she watches, it slowly turns. It’s daytime, during the video.
Then the picture flickers. The sky above the woods is black, but the yard’s still lit up. There’s a squirrel peering up at the awning, circled in red by a computer’s pristine pen.
The picture flickers. The yard is still lit up, but the ground’s wet, now. There’s an owl on the awning, talons wrapped around a dove’s body, beak firmly on its head.
The picture flickers. The ground’s dry, and there’s a face staring out from the woods, eyes wide in the darkness.
It’s her, from only a few nights ago. When the light swings by, it catches across the sloped toes of her boots.
The door in front of her creaks, and Anya flattens herself to the ground, hand reaching for her knife. But the person doesn’t seem to notice her as they step inside. They’re walking strangely, heavily, each footstep thumping even through the padding of the carpet, and when they round the corner of the console, she can see why.
It’s someone in the same kind of mask she’d seen under the foglight. Under the crisp white light of the room, it looks like a funeral shroud. There’s no way for them to see her at all, she thinks, but she still holds her breath as the figure strides by.
They don’t look down. All she needs to do is get back up into the tunnel, but she’s not sure how, not without climbing on the console. She could go for the door, but the person’s walking still, some path of their own making. “Acoustics are unsatisfactory,” they say, their voice ringing out like a bell through the room, and Anya pauses behind the console. “Report the Song is weak here.”
She doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The music is still building steadily, ever since she hit the television. It’s like someone breathing through woodwinds and slapping their hand against a bass, all at once. It’s sound reverberating through an empty space, and coming out something changed, something that sets goosebumps rising all over her arms. It’s not weak. It’s not weak at all.
But they’re talking to themself, and they’re listening to the song. That means it’s safe to move, she thinks, even if they’re more deaf than she is. So she takes one step back, careful, then another. She can’t get up on the console, maybe, but she can get out the door. Her foot touches down on the concrete, soft as a mouse -
“A sound,” they say, and they look directly at her. She stops. “What is it?”
They tilt their head. The nylon of their hood shifts, bunching along their shoulder, and an absurd part of Anya wants to laugh. They look like a dog, almost, ears flopping. The rest of her quakes, because - they look like a dog, one that’s just found its quarry, and they’re stepping towards her now.
She holds her breath. They can’t see. They can’t see anything, behind that hood, and the music’s gotten so loud in here. That means if she holds still, they won’t find her.
“We do not die,” they say, like it’s a promise. There’s lights on their outfit. With each word, they pulse red, bright as flame even under the room’s harsh lights. “We sᴘᴇᴀᴋ ᴀs ᴏɴᴇ. Come to us, and we will be kind. ᴡᴇ ᴡɪʟʟ ꜰᴏʀɢɪᴠᴇ.” They’re stepping forward, one step at a time, meticulous in their movements. Their fingers brush the consoles on one side, skirting over the top of the buttons, and the other reaches out in front of them.
Anya’s still crouched. But now she bounds to her feet, turns, and springs for the door.
She’s tired. She hasn’t slept well in days, and she’s been sleeping in caves, and she’s sore from it all - but mostly she’s tired, and it barely takes them more than three steps to snatch her. “A wayward child.” They grab her by the shoulders, and it’s gentler than anyone else has. But their grip is still steel. “Do not resist,” they murmur, so much more gentle than their touch, as the gloved hands shift upwards, from her shoulders to her collar.
The music is so loud here. She can’t hear her own thoughts over it, and she can’t do much more than struggle as their fingers wrap around her throat. “Do not be afraid, child.” Their grip tightens. All around her, the music is deafening, so loud that her ears ache with it, but she can still hear:
“Tʜᴇʀᴇ ᴀʀᴇ ᴡᴏʀsᴇ ᴛʜɪɴɢs ɪɴ ᴛʜᴇ ᴅᴀʀᴋ.”
Her throat squeezes. It hurts, and the pain cuts through the haze of the music like a knife.
She draws her arm back and hits them, right in the gut. Then she jolts back as they stumble, losing their grip. Anya’s panting, sucking in air as quickly as she can, even as her throat wails in protest with each breath. Everything hurts. The music’s fading under the rapid fire shot of her heart: the only sound she can hear is the pulse of her own blood filling her ears, and her own ragged breath. That’s fine. She’ll be fine, she thinks, if she never hears anything ever, ever again.
She lurches away from the masked figure while they’re still double-opened, one hand on her throat as she snatches open the door. It’s a big, long hallway, here, with metal balconies hanging from the ceiling. She can see one end of it here, and the long, red-lit grid covering it, like the bars of a cage. She could climb it, she thinks, but she wants out.
The ground there slopes down. So she turns instead, sprinting - lurching, because she’s half-stumbling as she goes - towards the other end. The ground’s smooth here, smooth as a riverstone, and everything’s white, almost pink from the grid’s lights in the distance. It’s ten, twenty feet to sprint, and the ground is clear. She covers it in a moment, even as the ground’s tilting up, and then she crests the top of the lip.
She’d hoped it would be an exit. A tunnel up, maybe, some way of getting out of here. But instead, she’s on a cliff, and the room in front of her is massive, bigger than Red Acre’s supermarket, maybe as big as their football field. Another fifty feet to the left of her, the cliff veers, and then it dips down, down, down, in a red-carpeted slope, all the way to the bottom. There’s pipes there, sticking out of the stone, and there’s platforms, teeming with white-robed adults, masked and unmasked, and -
There’s pumps, hundreds of feet high, pulsing in front of her cliff. The sides stretch out as she watches them, billowing out with air, and then they suck in, like the lungs of some great beast. They’d told her that Red Acre had been mining country, once, back in school. They’d said it was full of old tunnels, and shafts, and places folks had abandoned, and CHORUS had shut them all down.
It’s not so much that CHORUS lied, Anya’s starting to realise. It’s that they’d just never been telling the truth at all.
The pain of her throat is fading, slowly but surely. And under the pulse of her blood, she can hear the song again, wheezing out of the lung in front of her, one breath at a time. She can feel the wind of it on her skin, and how it’s building up in her head.
And behind her, she can hear a boot thump against the stone.
She whirls around, lunging forward before she can think twice. Anya’s tired of being grabbed, and she’s tired of being chased, and she’s tired, suddenly, of being the one in pain. The person hisses as she hits them full-body, elbow landing hard in their sternum. They’re not as big as most of the adults, here. They’re her-sized, and her weight, if not skinnier. They hit the ground hard enough to blow the air out of both of them.
But that doesn’t stop her from twisting her arm up, locking it under their chin to force their head up.
It’s Xav, smiling at her, wavering. There’s dark bags under his eyes, and a twig caught in his hair, and probably more bruises than she can even count forming, because she just threw him to the ground.
“Uh, wow. Can you let me up?”
“Promise you won’t lie,” Anya demands, tears clogging her voice. She doesn’t know where she is. She doesn’t know what any of this is, and the weight of it, suddenly, seems impossible. Her throat hurts, and she’s trapped underground, and her ma --
She doesn’t want to think about her ma.
“Promise me you’re not going to lie to me again! You’ve heard the voices! You know that wasn’t a dream! You know, Xav!”
He takes a shaky breath.“Y’know, funny story, about the voices. Bobby said one of them thought you’d be down here,” he says. “So. I promise. D'you have time to talk?”
Xav leads her out of the underground, as he calls it, and back into the light.
It turns out there’s a place some of the runaways have been heading, the ones who’ve survived, and it’s a set of boxcars out in the middle of the forest. It’s protected by the voices, one bright-eyed kid named Bobby tells her. The adults can’t find them here, even though they’ve tried. The traps always disappear here. And they can actually sleep, here, without worrying about anything taking them over at night.
“The voice’s will talk to you the entire night,” Bobby says, “so you can’t hear the song.” Anya’s never had to worry about being taken over. But she thinks of Xav, wandering the streets, and she thinks of the music in the underground, flooding her thoughts. She can see the sense in it.
“That’s.. awfully nice of ‘em,” she says, hesitant, and Bobby beams.
“Isn’t it? The voices are great. They protect us.”
In the boxcars, everything comes back to the voices.
"Y’know, my ma said we shouldn’t go talkin’ to strange voices," Anya says a few nights in, lingering in the doorframe of the one that passes as their common room. Kids have been dragging in rugs they steal, and tables, and string-lights, and half-melted candles that sit on plates and in bowls. Kids are everywhere, and even after a week, their faces are still blending together for her. She knows some of the names, though.
Archer is curled up under one of the tables, working on his drone. Sophie is pawing through the deck of cards everyone keeps swearing are used by one of the voices. (They’ve all got names now, apparently. Anya hasn’t bothered to keep track.) Bobby’s slouched across the floor of their makeshift closet, their feet propped up against the far end, their laptop balanced on their knees.
“Yeah, well, some of our ma’s are out strangling people, so maybe we don’t have to follow their advice.” Anya won’t talk about her family in the boxcar. It feels.. poorly, no matter what her ma - June - has been up to. But Bobby doesn’t have that sort of loyalty, she thinks. They’ll talk about anyone.
“Doesn’t it feel wrong to have something in your head?” she persists, and Bobby snorts, curling their lip.
“D’you know what feels worse?” they fire back, amiable. “Waking up to find you’re covered in blood. I’ll take Laughs-Last over the Song any day, thanks.”
The boxcar always feels like a dream. There's moonlight spackling the floor, all shades of faded blue, and there’s a hole in the ceiling. When it starts to rain, they stick a board over it, and kids keep tussling over if they should patch it. But Anya likes it. When she stands at the entrance, right here, she can still look right up through the hole into the trees.
It doesn’t feel like home. But if she stays here long enough, with all the clutter, and the kids, and the forest, breathing blue down on her, it might be. Anya doesn’t have kin, outside of her ma, but Xav’s from the tribes, too. That makes him a sort of relative.
She’s starting to think these other boxcar kids - they might count as a kind of family, too.
“Fair enough,” Anya says, and she heads to bed.
The farthest boxcar is all sleeping mats, from one wall to another. Bobby’s got a hammock up on the wall, but Anya’s pretty sure that’s just for show. The kids cycle in and out enough that there’s always a free one available. Xav’s asleep in the one nearest to the door, his laptop in front of him still open on some wiki article about rigging up electricity. It’s been his project for weeks now, apparently, and now that she’s here, he’s been telling her all about it.
He’ll have more to say when he’s up, more likely than not. So she grabs the sleeping bag nearest to him, lies down, and closes her eyes.
Once, her mama had told her that if she closed her eyes and listened hard, she could hear her pa talking. Anya’s never heard him say a word, but ever since she’s come to the boxcar, the voices won’t shut up. They’re like scraps of flame in a firepit, jumping from paper to paper, begging for any attention they can get. Soon as she closes her eyes, she knows what’ll happen.
Sure enough, it’s like stepping into the middle of a conversation. Sleep envelops her like a blanket as the darkness settles in. With it, out of the shadows, words start to form. Someone’s voice, soft but steady, a voice she’s heard in the boxcar a dozen times before. Sophie, maybe, or Archer, or Beau.
"- of course we lie," the voice murmurs in her ear. This one - it’s like a comb carding through her hair. It’s like honey dripping across bread. It’s warmth, pooling down from her head to her toes, and when the voice speaks, she can almost picture the crook of her mama’s smile, the sleepy cast of her eyes. All the voices are so fake. "Some of us.. our charge is to motivate action, my darling. But why does it bother you? You lie to yourselves all day, blinding yourselves to the truth long enough to get up in the morning. We hardly mind."
"It's part of what makes you beautiful."
In the story, it goes like this: the young girl sits in a room, her sleeping bag drawn over her shoulders, her eyes shut. Voices speak to her. They say that her community is filled with deception, and liars, and misdeeds. They say follow their words, and listen to their lies, and they’ll teach her to find the truth.
In the story, she listens.
Anya’s never been fond of stories. And she’s so fucking sick of lies.
“Good thing I’m ugly,” she says muzzily, opening her eyes. “And I’m learning how to fucking see.”