AuntieVerse Serial #6, 2017
The wind has long stopped whistling through the cracks in the windshield when you wake on the side of the road, only a couple of feet away from the cornfield that is swaying beneath the moon. There is acid on your tongue and the stink of copper weighs heavily in the stale air. Your hair is plastered to the back of your neck with sweat or worse, and there is a pounding beneath your skin that threatens to split your skull wide open if you catch it between your shaking fingertips and squeeze too tightly.
There is an ominous rustle between the rows of slumbering stalks and a deep sinking in your stomach tells you that it is no fault of an errant breeze---the night feels as stagnant as ever.
Still, you climb to your feet and limp from your bed of shattered glass some distance down the road, away from the useless, twisted frame of your car. There are no signs here, no marks of civilization, save a gray farmhouse with wood over the doors and the sickly flickering of candlelight in an upstairs window.
The corn shakes. If you listen closely, a groan slips beneath the moonlight and between the beats of your blood in your ears. Ahead of you waits the house, with chipped paint and a now-dark window. Behind you waits the field, shivering and shuddering and incapable of silence.
The rustling has grown louder as your fingers claw through the ruined car interior. There is a cloak in here and the pocket is full---thank goodness---and you find your broken cane beneath what was once the passenger seat. You tear your eyes from the mangled body of the man hanging from the rear window and clutch the sharp shards of wood in each hand.
There is a thrumming in your veins when the cicadas begin to sing. You pass beneath the withered tree that wearily looms over the dilapidated veranda and think you can spot the twinkle of a couple of wind chimes in its branches. By now, the noise in the field has raised the hair on the back of your neck in sticky, tangled clumps.
The wooden porch creaks and groans beneath the weight of each hesitant step---you've found yourself pacing in anxious anticipation. Every few minutes, your hand is hovering above the cracked plywood over the front door, as though to knock, as though to whisper in your ear what you already know to be true---you cannot be on the porch when whatever killed Greg comes for you.
Your knuckles are still trembling even as they rest against the shuddering plywood. The knocking echoes well into the house and when you press an ear to the boards over the doorway you can hear the unmistakable sound of anxious steps and shuffling, as though someone were pacing inside. Convinced, you knocked once more and then a final time.
The house is silent and still.
You close your fingers around the fistful of amber and ivory in your pocket. Your palm spreads against the doorway and you reach deep inside, searching for some whisper in the walls. Beneath the sound of settling plaster and skittering pests, there is a steady, shallow hum of power, of resistance. This house is keeping something out.
The rows of corn are louder than the pounding of your pulse now, and you can feel weight on your back and shoulders the longer you wait at the blocked entrance.
Finally you feel it, the break in the seal. Your urgent strides take you to the back of the house and soon you are up, up, up, digging fingers between gray boards and crumbling bricks, dragging yourself to the roof. You pull yourself across the shingles with a groan of discomfort, and ignore the bright red blessing across the midsection of your shirt. Three staggering steps carry you to the chimney, the chip in the house's armor.
With an exhausted huff and a whisper of syllables that leave your bones buzzing, you are hoisting yourself up and then dissolving down the chimney and into the belly of the house.
Your legs are trembling when they carry you across the floor, the toes of your boots peeling dust from the weathered floorboards in delicate clumps. Every footstep seems to set the walls rattling in this house. Aside from your own trail carved through inches of filth and neglect, there are no signs of life.
The house appears to be empty.
There are stairs leading upward, illuminated in the fragile light that weakly filters through the slats in the plywood and tears in the newspaper plastered across every exit. You take them two at a time but carefully, cautiously, with one hand on the splintered banister. The right side of the cloak drags with the weight of Greg's amulet, growing heavier by the moment with need. When your mind follows the tugging at its corners, you are rewarded with the knowledge that you can use its powers of escape only once more tonight.
The top step whines loudly when you reach it and you cringe. Peering into the gloom, you spy a door at the end of the narrow hall, shut against you and, unlike every other surface in the house, immaculate. You can spot the shimmer of the polished handle even from here, thanks to the flicker of orange that licks it's way around the door's edge
You are not alone.
The door handle shakes momentarily as you approach and your draw your hand back to your chest. You realize now that you have been tightly clutching the remains of your cane and glance down at the sheen of ebony in your fist. Before you think to replace the cane in your cloak, the door handle gives a squeak of protest and slowly begins to turn.
The hinges of the door give a squeal of protest when it opens and a blast of cold air sends you blinking furiously. Hot tears sting and slither down your grimy cheeks, sending you scrubbing a them furiously with a grubby fist. When you open them again, the room before you is empty and dark, with only the blackened stub of a candle in the window.
One stilted step after another leads you deeper into the room and you snatch the candle from the sill incredulously.
It had not been burning for quite some time.
You let the wax tumble out of your palm and set your eyes through the window--the only one in the house that is clear. The moon is high now and the crippled hangman's tree in the yard is moaning and shivering with every gasp of the wind. Across the road the cornfield churns so violently that the stalks would be ripped up and scattered through the sky, like so many dandelion seeds.
Your cane clatters to the floor but you cannot hear it.
The car and Greg's body are gone. Only the smear of blood leading into the cornfield and the glass twinkling beneath the moon like stars are the only evidence of your crash.
You settle with your back to the wall and your eyes on the field. At your feet, the cane trembles and fire blossoms on the wick of the candle.
The door swings shut with a whisper.
Suddenly any lingering warmth in the room is sucked away. In the light of the candle stub, you snatch a length of rotting cord---likely from the moth-eaten curtains in the corner---and clumsily bind your cane together. If you are quick enough…
All sound is muffled and then muted, as though you've cotton tucked in your ears. Your head is very heavy now, but the cord does its job and the cane sparks weakly in your hands. In your pocket, Greg's amulet is very heavy, but you are struck with the feeling that you may not need it for now.
When the old woman walks through the door and to the window, her eyes are not upon you.
You hold your breath and count.
She is---was--- a frail little thing. Dreadfully old and no doubt powerful. Her hair is severe and slicked, tied tightly at the nape of her neck in a stiff bun. Beneath rows and rivers of wrinkles, you can see only wispy eyebrows and a scowl. She crosses the floor of the room slowly, in careful staggers, and watches the corn through the window without a word. In all this time, she does not turn her eyes to yours.
You are a ghost to her.
When she is satisfied, the candle sputters and spits and the old woman hobbles out of the room again, blasting the door open. The force of the blast ruffles your hair and chills the skin under the drying blood.
Fifteen minutes later, she returns. The same whining door. The same creep to the window to stare blankly at the cornfield. The same sad shake of the head and retreat to the depths of the house.
When you are satisfied, you whisper a thank you to the cane in your hands. In its condition it cannot protect you, but rendering you undetectable should suffice until morning. You are not certain if her ritual continues in the light of the sun, but you are willing to rest in this room and see.
You give a last glimpse out of the window before your eyes close. The cornfield is still.
So are the Strawmen on the road.
You expect the sting of sunlight when you pry open one heavy eyelid after another. Instead, there is only the familiar chill of the crone's room and the heavy slate of dark clouds that have swallowed the sky. What trickles weakly between the cracks and folds is cold and gray and the heavy tree that drapes wearily over the road is still loudly creaking in the wind.
The pocket of your cloak feels lighter and you pat it experimentally to see if Greg's amulet remains. To your relief, it does, and the momentary contact fills you with a sense of peace. You climb to your feet warily and glance over the sill.
The road is empty.
The cornfield is still.
You want to believe for a moment that you imagined the strawmen, that they appeared as a trick of the light in the tall grass and pockmarked pavement. Alas, the streaks of dried blood from Greg's body tell you otherwise. Something pulled him and the car from the road last night.
Something knows that you escaped.
Was it the dawn that scattered them like seeds in the field or was it the house itself? Would they return that night? The amulet had saved you once before, but would it---
Before you finish your thought, you hear the door close with a crisp click. You twist the cane between your fists again and wait for the old woman and her endless routine to wash over you, to drown your senses in her unsteady pacing and stink of moldy parchment.
She leaves as quickly as she came and you make to follow. The room is empty, save some weathered newspaper and, upon a cursory glance, you find the morning to reveal no more than the night before. When you leave the room, the crone has vanished---as you suspected---and you make your way down the stairwell, one careful step after another.
There is not much to the house, you realize between silent footfalls and stifled breaths. If you had thought daylight might help you to discover any secrets in the piles of discarded cigarette butts and haphazardly stacked books, you were sorely mistaken. Instead you find a foyer empty but for a motheaten rug and shredded faux-leather armchair and a couple of dark, dingy rooms with no furniture and no answers.
Above you, the bedroom door slam open and a blast of wind rattles the walls. You ignore it.
Eventually your steps take you to the kitchen, where a tempest of empty liquor bottles and a tower of precariously perched dirty dishes await in a sticky pool of brown and red.
Waiting also in the blood is the little girl.
Her hair is tied neatly in four shiny plaits and she regards you with a grim smile. When you motion to her and attempt to approach, she gracefully dances out of your grasp and holds a finger to her mouth, gesturing upwards with her other hand until you can both hear the bedroom door above you creak closed.
'We've no time,' she whispers, gripping the blood-stained sleeve of your jacket and pulling you hastily to a closed door that you assume to be the pantry.
'Who are you?' is your incredulous reply when she opens the door and shoves you through with ease. You are on a stone stair well and the abnormal chill has returned.
She brushes past with a newly lit candle and takes the steps two at a time, her polished shoes click-clacking to punctuate her sentences. 'Magdalene. I live here. You're in trouble if anyone sees.'
You had gathered as much without her intervention but do not say so. 'Who is the crone?'
'Grandmother.' Click-clack. 'She is stuck.' Click-clack. 'If you break the loop, she will kill you.'
'Is she the only one who is stuck?' You venture warily.
Magdalene does not stop until she reaches the bottom of the stair, but she glances over her shoulder with a catlike grin.
'We're all stuck,' she tells you, and motions for you to follow.
You step from the stone stairwell and the heels of your boots immediately sink into cold, soft earth. Magdalene waits long enough to ensure you are behind her then trails away, leading you from the entrance deep into the looming shadows of the root cellar.
'Where are you taking me?'
'I'm not taking you.' Even here you can make out the distinct sound of her polished heels on the dirt floor. 'You're following.'
You let it go.
The cellar stretches on ahead of you into a great yawning tunnel. Skinny roots become stretching skeletal fingers and skittering insects transform into scurrying demons in the flickering light of Magdalene's candle. Every step carries you farther from the house and the tight web of protection woven into its walls. Soon the stagnant air and the stifling weight of silence become too much---you can taste it on your tongue in shallow sips and it wriggles and writhes in your belly with a sour splash.
You clutch your chest and gasp noisily, staggering to a slow stop behind her, a couple of feet from a padlocked hatch. When she sees that you are no longer dipping and diving around the dried herbs that are drooping from the uneven rafters, she stops and turns to meet your eyes with hers. They flash in the dim light and you feel fear grind down your throat and grip your lungs.
'Where are we?'
Slowly the corners of her mouth curl upward and you fitfully twist the cane between your hands, desperate for a barrier between predator and prey.
'Greg is waiting for you,' she whispers conspiratorially while reaching her slim arms upwards for the lock. 'I promised that I would bring you to him.'
The click of the tumbler sends an electric thrill along the hair on the nape of your neck.
Magdalene heaves the doors open effortlessly and the cold light of the morning pours inside. In your haste to escape the stale air of the tunnel, you grip her shoulder and push her from the entrance. The chill of autumn slaps your cheeks rosy and widens your eyes. You gag and gulp down one shuddering breath after another until you have nothing else to spill into the furrows of the field.
When you look back to Magdalene, she has disappeared and the door hatch to the tunnel has closed. When you pat your pocket, the him inside tells you that way is closed now.
Something more pressing has its attention and you can feel it tugging you through a row of stalks to an abandoned mass of wreckage. Most intriguing is the twisted remains of a car door that you recognize.
The amulet is singing to you.
'Alright,' you murmur, pulling the amber amulet from your pocket. 'Lead the way.'
The amulet pulls you to the right, to the silhouette of a gray barn framed by the wispy shrouds above the slowly sinking sun. Each step shrinks the crumpled car door and its shattered glass behind your back until even the farmhouse vanishes in the distance and soon you find yourself twisting and turning between the tightly woven rows for some clue of your surroundings. It was foolish to expect the amulet to guide you directly---it had, after all, placed you in this very position.
Greg had always been a better driver, but not even he could have avoided the strawman in the road. It was all he could do to send you through the window and away from the wreckage, away from the slashing and stabbing, away from straw fingers splitting and spreading his skin.
And now you are following him into the fields.
The cane wobbles wearily under your unsteady weight. You feel yourself over correct and then topple to the ground and the cane gives with a heart wrenching snap beneath you. The gravel and hard earth sting your palms as you struggle to push yourself up.
Behind you the corn is rustling.
You're up and on your feet in a matter of moments, but the cane is in the dust behind you. Each stalk of corns is as merciless as a spear when you come crashing through the fields with only your palms and the cloak to protect you. The pounding of your footsteps does not slow until your hands collide with the splintered door of the barn. When you turn, twilight is kissing the horizon and you hear the raspy groans of wind through earth and cloth, smell the stink of rotted vegetation and men who came back wrong.
Your hand finds your pocket and you have no choice.
In an instant you are between the cracks in the door and climbing up, up, up into the loft.
You hide in a massive, moldy pile of loose hay and suck your breath between your teeth to hold in your belly while your blood roars in your ears.
The doors to the barn buckle one, twice, three time with the effort of politeness and then blow open.
It does not grow cold when the doors to the barn burst open, hinges shrieking in protest. Instead you feel the hot glow from the entrance long before it licks up the rickety walls of the barn and send stingy shadows stalking along the ceiling. You hear the unmistakable sound of something's clumsily stumbling.
The first impulse that squeezes your throat commands you to burrow deeply between the books and crannies of the hay bales. The skips and scuffles of the creature in the barn is sending your heart racing, and the weevils scurry for safety along the slick skin on the back of your neck. You swallow your breath and squeeze fat, hot tears from your eyes with the effort of keeping still.
You see red and orange fingertips kissing along the prong of the pitchfork some thirty feet from you.
Unlike the weathered rope and rusted hedge trimmers, the pitchfork looks to be in pristine condition, as though it were newer than the rest of the barn. Whatever reason for its presence, you know that it is sturdy with merely a glance.
There is a wheeze below you that rattles into a high pitched whine.
Your teeth meet with an audible click---there are thousands of cicadas singing in your skull. You feel weightless, as though you are floating endlessly above the fields, as though you are filled to bursting with starfire and silent secrets, as though a single word could unravel you to spill out in a messy pile at the feet of whatever called to you downstairs.
When your pocket burns hot with Greg's amulet, you find yourself at the edge of the hay bales, with one hand on the ladder. You jerk away, perhaps too loudly, and dive for the pitchfork that is now just within reach. Gripping it as tightly as you had your shattered cane, your footsteps whispered toward the hay bales desperately.
Behind you, the ladder begins to shake.
The throb of heat in your legs is nearly unbearable in the still silence of the hay loft. The ladder shifts with the effort of your shambling stalker but you wait all the same until the curve of ragged burlap edges up and over the ledge. The pitchfork is away from your chest and into its eyes before you can stop yourself, spraying streaks of black across the wood and straw.
Its body sags in spite of the flailing arms and high pitched wail that sets your teeth chattering.
The weight of the strawman nearly topples you from the loft with it but you hold tightly. There is a sickening rip that churns your stomach and the strawman's body tears away from its neck, squirting streams of blood all the way to the filthy barn floor. The head impaled upon the pitchfork flashes its rusted nail teeth and screeches again.
Outside you can hear the corn shifting and seething like a summer storm.
You drag the pitchfork along the ledge and let the head peel away, flopping to the ground like a dead bird from the sky. The light of the moon through the landing draws your attention and when you look outside, you can see trails in the rows of corn racing for the barn. Strawmen are stepping from the corn by the dozen.
When you peer more closely, you see the walking skin of Greg, smile stretched tightly over someone or something that isn't entirely sure how humans ought to look.
All of that research, all of that training, all of that time spent looking for this farm, for that farmhouse, only to die here. And for what?
Greg gives a mechanical wave and you see the straw stabbing through the delicate skin of his wrists.
'Little sister,' he coos, a gasping gurgle through clenched teeth by a creature that is not sure how to work a human jaw properly. 'Little sister, it isn't nice to take your brother's toys. Why don't you come down and play?'
By God, he is horrifying.
Nothing in those books, in all of those years of instruction could have prepared you for the sagging smile that split Greg's face from temple to throat. The way the flesh of his jaw puddles against where an Adam's apple ought to be, the pool of skin on his shoulders. Whatever is wearing Greg's skin is stretching it out in all of the wrong places, at all of the wrong angles.
He waits patiently for the seconds to bead upon your forehead and swim beneath your skin. His disciples gather around him, one by one, a dozen Sandmen that shamble from the corn in stuttering strides.
You twist the shaft of the pitchfork in your fist, smearing sweat along the sturdy wood. The Sandmen have at least stopped below, not a one daring to venture inside the barn to join their fallen brother.
Perhaps they can sense how desperate you are now.
Seeing Greg below fills you with cold dread, an ivy wash of fear that sets you to trembling. Is that your fate? Your destiny? Would your soul be blown out like a candle in the night breeze, your body a vacant house stretched and slung over the twisted frame of some beast?
The pocket of your tattered cloak is heavy and warm. You slide a couple of fingers inside without thinking and Greg's eyes follow you. You think perhaps that you see some measure of recognition on his face, a genuine thought or memory that is not mere recitation.
It is gone in a blink when his smile becomes predatory and he begins to pace alongside his still Strawmen.
Perhaps you have imagined it.
Something about that thought fills you with rage. You scream, high and long and loud, and feel your arm jerk high above your head. When it comes down again your fist is empty and the pitchfork is soaring downwards. It catches Greg in the shoulder and sends him heels tumbling over head. His black blood splatters along the ground, oozing like oil across the gravel.
The Strawmen are still. Their wails rise on the wind.
Shock gurgles from deep in Greg's chest, but you cannot hear it. Your hands are on the rope and the hedge trimmers and you are down the ladder in a matter of moments, ignoring the pain when you land.
Heart and feet pounding, you race through the corn for the road.
Every shallow breath burns in your belly, blazes through your chest and out of your mouth in wheezing gasps as you going yourself from row to darkened row in the heart of the fields. Left, right, it doesn't matter: you have to get out of the corn while Greg is still pinned by that pitchfork.
The rustling races after you and the sound of the dead men's skins shambling bites at your heels and crowds in the corner of your head. You trip gracelessly and bruise an elbow against the earth.
You hardly feel it.
A scream to the left sends you sprawling to flee in the opposite direction. You sense the earth shifting beneath your strides, breathing, bubbling beneath the dusts, between the roots. The sound of skittering and scurrying joins the weariless shuffling and you stifle a shriek when something with two many legs slithered across your bootleg, dangerously close to the jagged tears in your filthy denim.
When you turn again, you see that a Strawman blocks your way, arms and crooked grin stretched wide enough to swallow you. Black is drooling from where tear ducts ought to be and his nails are curved and wicked when he stumbles to you. For a moment, you consider backing away, but then you are sucking down a sharp gasp of pungent air that sours in your stomach and lunging forward, driving the hedge trimmers between the Strawman's ribs more times than you can count. You do not stop to finish the job when he crumbles to the ground---you are too busy running.
The shears are smoking now, spitting and sputtering every time a breeze brushes them. You ignore it and stop long even to nurse your leg and get your bearings. There had been that car door here…you were certain of it…
'You're not very good at this, are you?'
You spin uneasily and brandish the blackened hedge trimmers.
Magdalene bears her teeth in a feral grin and paces delicately, careful not to scuff her buckled shoes. Her eyes, clear and bright beneath the golden moon, never leave yours. 'And after all I've done for you.'
'All you've done for me?'
'Of course!' She agrees with a definitive nod that send her red bob bouncing, too eager, too enthusiastic. 'Everything you've asked I've done for you.'
You gesture wildly at the sagging Strawmen climbing from the rows. 'Do you think I asked for this? For any of this?'
She glances around, knitting her fingers together. 'Well…not all of it.' Her lips curve into a smile that does not warm her wide eyes. 'Just the little trinket in your pocket, really.' An exaggerated wink.
An icy realization slithers between your shoulder blades and into your heart, even as you find yourself joining her thoughtful nodding. The amulet in your pocket pulses with a dull heat and you grit your teeth when you force your hand away from it.
'This isn't right,' is all you can manage.
Her laughter rings like tinny winds chimes before the storm. 'Tell me I'm wrong,' Magdalene murmurs as the Strawmen ring themselves around the two of you. 'Tell him you didn't want this.'
Greg, smeared in thick crusts of black, staggers ever closer. You want to search his grey face, his dead eyes, but you know the only thing you would find there would be your own reflection.
Somehow that's worse.
'I just wanted it to be over,' you choke out. 'You were so obsessed…'
You stop yourself mid-plea. Greg is not in that walking corpse, you remember. Greg is not anywhere. Whatever wears Greg's body is not interested in your excuses, only your death.
'You did this. You killed him and then stuffed your…Strawman…inside him.'
Magdalene giggles as she spins a strand if hair around a pale knuckle. When she faces you, her eyes are wide and wild and her sneer swallows her jaw. She is clawing at her hair now and peeking her fingers and as soon as she spots the horror on your face, she laughs and laughs and laughs.
You were born at the crest of a softly sloping hill, in a small house that was settled on a carpet of lush emerald and pepper with white and blue wildflowers. When you were old enough to walk, Greg would call you into the library and spend hours listing every detail of his lessons with his tutor. He glowed with such passion then, such unbridled joy. Doctor Graves had promised your parents that Greg was special.
You were…less so.
Resentment wriggled and weighed its way in the pit of your belly.
Still, your elder brother had insisted that you never be forgotten, that when he learned the fundamental you would as well, that when he received any gifts from Doctor Graves you would be granted one of equal esteem.
Greg had always watched over you, had always fought for you and your meager talents. When you shattered your leg like a New Year's lantern trying to follow him in flight, he had your weak wand fashioned into a cane to protect you---a crutch to keep you from standing on your own.
And when your teacher granted Greg his precious amulet on his death bed, the worm grew wings.
Greg's obsession with bringing Doctor Graves back spilled out of his veins and into the library, drawing you on, holding your head under and drowning you. Every night was a different seance, every day was filled with leaning towers of leather-bound tomes and moth-eaten sheafs of parchment.
Sitting in the car, chasing yet another lead in an endless chain of ghost stories and empty promises…
For the first time, the worm had shaken its heavy head and your resolve with it.
Looking at Greg now, you don't see any hint of the brother who pushed you through the windshield with his dying breath, the boy who waited patiently for you to kindle fire as easily as he could, the man who helped you harness your gifts when you struggled with even the most simple of spells.
There is only the Strawman under his skin and the stink of black tar bubbling and flowing freely from the holes in his chest and shoulder.
'It's singing to me, little sister,' he coos uneasily, staggering forward. You back away from the sizzle of his outstretched habd, side stepping a mirthful Magdalene who is still shaking with laughter.
He slithers toward you and reaches for you again but your eyes are not on him anymore---the orange glow of heat radiating from the circle, from Greg's dead body and the amulet that calls to him--- has caught the corner of something familiar.
You feel your fingers drift to your pocket and Greg's eyes upon you. The heat from him is unbearable now, sending sticky streams of sweat down the nape of your neck. He reaches for you again.
'I'm sorry,' you tell him when your hands closes around the amulet and you feel your body disintegrate.
You do not know if that is true.
Magdalene's screams shake the rows and you hear the croak of crows storming into the sky. For thirty seconds it does not matter, you are smoke on the wind, racing for the abandoned ruin of Greg's sedan. Your body reforms in the mess of shattered glass and slashed upholstery and you slam you fist against your prize---a worn cigarette lighter. It gives with a satisfying click and you allow yourself a smile and a sigh.
Then there is the sharp sound of fierce ripping and a flash of unbearable pain and the collar of your shirt is wet and hot and red. Your vision sways and your body begs to follow.
Suddenly you are spinning on one foot, out of your control, and the hedge trimmers find a sheath in the bulging belly of the Straw man with a fistful of your hair. He lurches to the side and your trimmers find his collarbone, snapping it with an audible CRACK. He falls and your foot comes down on his forehead. His face gives too easily for you to feel any remorse. Your stomp and stomp until your pants are black to the knee and another Strawman is lunging for you.
This one is easier, your trimmers hook under his armpit and fit like a glove. You scream when you close them and his arm bounces against the earth uselessly, spraying whatever vile lubrication all over your cloak. He backs away and you do not dare follow, not now that there are more Strawmen shambling out of the rows.
You back yourself into the mangled sedan and wipe slime coating the trimmers onto your pants. The Strawmen show no sign of slowing.
Beside you, there is a shallow 'pop' in the dashboard.
The worm blossoming in your belly roars and, when your fingers whisper across the lighter, bursts into flame.
When you swing your fist for the first Strawman on your right, it lurches away, snarling and snapping like a wild beast as it struggles to flee. You lunge forward with a flailing backhand, aching for contact. It clumsily ducks of your reach but not before the lighter between your knuckles brushes the sleeve of his ripped cotton shirt. The smoke licks up his neck and across his cheeks in seconds but the other Strawmen watch in silence as their fellow screams into the night and goes up in flames like the 4th of July.
You feel heat swallow your own sleeve and look down to find that your cloak has caught stray embers and the drying blood from the smashed Strawman is all too happy to spread the fire. You begin to pat yourself out frantically and have no time to dodge the outstretched arms of the three Strawmen on your left, who reach out to trip and to tear. When one buries sharp fingers into the flesh of your should, you smear your sleeve across each one and send them wailing between the rows of corn, catching golden stalks and shoots in their wake.
The hedge trimmers are ablaze now and you cannot stop the fire from climbing along your chest. It claws its way up your back and into your hair and you are a whirlwind of flame and fear and fury, dragging the blades across the bloated bellies of the dead men in the field with you, brushing fire from your shoulders to theirs.
The fire is tugging at your face now and you feel the tear in your eyes sizzle and sear quicker than you can dream them. Your hair is lifting, catching on the breeze and sailing to the clouds covering you moon when you are face to face with Greg.
There is no fear in his eyes.
There is no fury.
There is only gray stone and silence.
'I'm sorry,' you tell him when you drop the hedge trimmers and your fingers close around his shoulder blades, locking the two of you together.
You do not know if that is true.
Greg doesn't scream like the others, doesn't struggle. He stands there and watches as the fire cradled between your chests begins to crawl up the sagging skin of his neck and into his filthy hair. His eyes never leaves yours, even as the straw beneath the skin catches and sends the flesh in his face running like cheap candles.
You consider holding him like this until he's passed, but your hand is in your pocket again.
He's still watching when his limbs crumble into a sorry pile of gray ash and you are rising up, up, up with the smoke.
She is standing in the road, chin pointed to the clouds, head tilted back and hair full of cold rain. You feel the sizzle of the water against your burns and hear the hiss of the fire in the fields fighting the oncoming storm. Magdalene had called the rain too late---the fields were a red ruin and all that remained was the twisted tree and the farmhouse that Greg had tried so desperately to reach.
You hold out the rope silently and wait for her to turn her eyes to you. She shakes her head but lets you bind her wrists, hair clinging to her cheeks with wet slaps.
'You won't have me swinging from that tree,' she sighs, backing away. Her motions are half-hearted; calling the weather has worn her down, hopefully long enough to reach a town and a phone. You know that for now she will not fight you, but she will not run, either.
That suits you fine, you decide, and begin to lead her from the charred fields and cursed house.
'You aren't Magdalene, are you?'
She huffs a choked laugh and plucks at her wet socks. 'Not for years and years.' There is gravel in her voice that speaks the truth of her words, even if she will not.
You watch. You wait.
'They wear out so fast,' she mutters, tripping briefly over the clunky shoes. You wonder briefly if she has forgotten you now. 'The bodies never last. Not enough power in them. Not enough.'
'Which bodies?' you venture, though you think you know the answer already.
She is stubbornly silent. You walk on for some time, until the moon is covered by clouds and the crickets and cicadas are drowning.
'Oh the things I could teach you…..there's never enough power,' Magdalene murmurs irritably, stopping to peel at her temple. The skin there has begin to sag with the strain of using magic. You wonder for a gruesome moment what manner of grotesque creature you would find if you peeled that flapping flesh on her forehead back. 'They burn up so fast.'
'Greg kept his fire,' you muse, almost to yourself. ' You must have, too, right?'
She laughs and the sound twists something in your stomach. It is a drawn howl that ends on a broken note and something like a sob. Magdalene does not stop; she is peeling her flesh away in great gobs, dropping fistful after fistful of wet black and red onto the grass.
You drop your end of the rope and look on, mouth dry and filling with bile.
'You're not stuck. You're inside of her,' you whisper. The realization is punctuated by a crack of thunder and the girl's head cranks toward you, yellow eyes are wide as eggs. Her too-many teeth curve past her lips when she grins.
You slowly back out of her reach as she climbs to her knees.
'If you are Grandmother, who was in the house?'
She gurgles an answer between her clicking teeth and the stream of black ichor. 'A trade. A trap.' Her barks of laughter spike ferociously. 'This life is mine. This power is mine. The bodies burn up so fast.' Her breath rattles and wheezes and you hear a low growl deep in her chest. 'The body must rest. The spirit must rest. There is no time now.'
Magdalene extends a clawed hand desperately, testing you. Instead of swatting her away, you backpedal out of her reach. She advances, one shaking step after the other, gaining speed as the skin sloughs off uselessly to reveal the furrowed brow and once-white webs of hair, now stained red.
She needs a new body, you realize, a husk that she can slip into whenever she pleases, a form that she can use to access her magic and burn up when she grows weary of it. Whatever else she had told you while wearing Magdalene's face had been a lie to lead you to your death and, when that failed, to this moment, this struggle.
It would not be you.
Your hand slips inside of your cloak pocket.
When she lunges, you are ready, one arm outstretched to meet her. You flow into her like rushing water, like sand along glass, like scent on the breeze and you drop the amulet with a thunderous clatter upon the pavement when you are elbow-deep in her chest. The pain sends a shock through your knees and you are shrieking blindly, even as she falls away in silence. Magdalene's head thuds against the pavement once. Her breath leaves her in a wisp of white and takes Grandmother with it.
You sit and scream in the rain, in the pink pool of your blood, nudging the cracked remains of Greg's amulet with the toe of your filthy boot. It sparks uselessly and sings, weakly pressing at the edge of your mind.
You suck in a long shuddering sob and grab the amulet, coating the amber surface in the blood drooling from your severed arm. It shivers in your fist and pulses merrily, even as your fingers grow cold and your grip weakens. It takes only a couple of moments for your eyes to close and when your vision goes black, you wash away with the rain.
Sweet dreams, Dearest. Auntie loves you.