Don’t worry, dad said, you worry too much.
But what about—?
They said no going outside, no exposing yourself to—
To what, air? Don’t expose myself to air and breathe like a human being just because I’m dying?
You’re not dying wasn’t the right thing to say, because it was a lie, and so instead she said, don’t worry, dad, you’ll live forever.
Nah, I won’t. None of us do. And when you’re my age you realize that’s a blessing. You stop being afraid; you start being ready. You know what’s funny, though? I thought you’d save me first. I didn’t think you’d just let me die… my only daughter left her daddy to die to go save someone else’s kid.
But you told me to.
It doesn’t matter what I told you; it matters what you did. You came back too late, remember? Had to watch your own father die, just to let someone live, you had to be the hero. You didn’t even know them, they didn’t even say, thank you. And then what happened to you? Huh? What’d you become?
She’s been in the dream too long; dad’s face is just as realistic as the day he died in her arms, and she’s there again holding him while he smiles and asks again, what’d you become? The way she can tell she’s been in the dream too long is that it’s taken a turn for the worse. He never said those things. He was just dead when she came back. Everything starts out as a dream and ends up as a nightmare. The troubled mind can’t dream with itself for too long without an unwanted injection of horror.
The eyes are what she saw first, before the height of the thing. They were pale yellow underneath the murky light of the round moon, which darkened its grey fur into a blue, dismal pelt as it prowled quietly to her. The shoulders were broad and half-clothed with a red plaid shirt ripped apart and glistening, the opened maw was wet and dripped onto the concrete as it walked to her on its hind legs, the teeth long and yellowed. It was taller than any dog she’d ever seen, well over six feet, and it was so slow, unblinking.
I don’t have a good feeling about this, she says to her partner, who’s in the backseat of her empty, rotten car. She’s safe here in the decrepit car that’s covered in moss, with puddles on the floor and cottonmouths slithering inside the fluid pooling up around her ankles. She’s watching herself. Watching that thing coming up to her and her dead daddy.
Then why are you going? He asks.
Because I don’t have a good feeling about it.
She wakes up bound behind a tree and breathes as if it’s her first breath; and somewhere deep within her the desire to weep is rattling, but she cages the urge with trying to move, trying to break free. She can’t remember how she got here, because she never left the woods and only remembers the old man’s face, just a nip of it, after he’d hit her with something. She remembers him limping away on that cane of his, him muttering, and her thinking out loud to herself before she lost consciousness, I’m supposed to come back later, when I’m ready.
You’re going to die, but I die first, the little girl says to her with a tiny, shaky voice. She’s not tied up because fear keeps her tethered to this place. There’s a fire burning from behind them and an eerie chanting in a strange language she’s never heard, and a smoky, meaty scent drifting over to them both. She hears the girls stomach growl. The little ones always die first, the girl says, then the older ones. I’m not the littlest one yet, so I’m in the middle.
The detective can almost recognize her as a missing kid from not too long ago, but with the malnourished face, dirty, knobby knees and protruding ribs of the slight body, the shadows of constellations of bruising, the pieces of her scalp missing, it’s difficult to get a positive I.D.
You won’t die, the detective says, you’ll live forever, and the detective cranes her neck as much as she can manage to see what’s happening behind her.
Baby Mikey is being lead up to an altar decorated in a folk piece acting out the Last Judgement. The eyes of Jesus are black beads that flash anytime the flames palpitate, with crayon-blue tears dolloped thickly down a pale paper face. The robes are a collage of greasy newspaper and old painted sheets, the arms are wooden, the fingers broken tree limbs. The angels encircling him from thrifted tree toppers. His halo is tinsel wrapped around rope, and Baby Mikey is naked and crying, trying to take a crudely painted, paper mache mask of a dog off of his face, but he’s struggling, he can’t do it.
Miranda’s mother is leading him toward the altar, nude except for mud and a swamp-crown, her pubic hair decorated with leaves. She’s shushing him, smiling, as the others chant in rows so that she can walk up to the fire and the flimsy image of Christ.
TO BE CONTINUED …