Joyland

PNW |

The Guest

by Jennie Melamed

edited by Kait Heacock

She arrives on May 26th. A Monday.


After all the days on my real calendar were crossed off, I made myself a new one. Nothing fancy, no pictures, just sheets of paper with dates on them. Before I go to bed at night, I put a big X through the completed day. I often wonder what I’m counting towards. Perhaps I’m just trying to measure the time building up between me and that year of hell.

She comes at sundown, stumbling towards the house in a torn dress and boots that have seen better days. Red’s barking is faster and louder than for a squirrel, and I go to investigate, hoping it’s another dog. A female dog, a young one. Unspayed.

Her figure is outlined by sun and I have to squint to see, her lines burn and she looks like she’s on fire. When she gets to the steps she falls to her knees and says, “Thank God,” in a soft, high voice.

All I can see is the top of her head. Her scalp is scaly and hair oily and dusty. For a while I watch her breathe deeply, her ribs widening and pushing the purple flowers on her dress in and out. She reminds me of a horse worked too hard, with a lank mane and a catch in its breath. Then she raises her face, and it’s young and beautiful. She’s part Japanese, or something like that, with almond eyes and a flat nose, but freckles on her nose and cheeks. Like me, she’s too thin, with hollows above her jaw. The skin under her eyes looks like lavender tissue paper, like it would tear if you touched it. Her eyes are pools of black, and they roll like a frightened horse’s eyes. I breathe, “Easy…” and murmur in a low voice like she was a skittish horse, and her breath finally slows.

“I haven’t seen another person in almost two years,” I tell her. “Am I dreaming?”

“Are you going to hurt me?” she answers.

“I don’t plan to.”

“Can I please come in?”

“You may.”

I stand aside to let her pass, and she limps by me. Up close, I can see all the bruises on her: her forearms, neck, and calves are all stained maroon and blue.

“What happened to you?” I ask. There are definite finger marks around the throat. I’m ashamed to admit that my revulsion at the bruises is companion to excitement that someone else is also out there. The evidence is written on her skin. One person is a miracle, two… if there are two people out there, there have to be more.

She doesn’t answer. Going to the rocking chair, she pulls off her boots one by one. Her long dancer’s feet are dirty, with blisters on the sides and the toes. When she flexes her toes with her fingers, the cracks echo. Lifting one foot, she crosses it over her knee to massage the heels. She doesn’t bother to pull her dress down, and I can see white underpants stained brown with old blood. Red trots over and shoves his nose in her face. He’s wagging his whole body, he’s so happy to see someone new. She pushes him away, but gently and with a pat on the head.

“You got stuff to eat?” she asks.

“What do you want?” I reply.

“I want a fresh steak with baked potatoes and real butter, and a slice of cherry pie.”

She smiles. She’s missing two teeth, which is harsh in her face, like someone drove a car through a freshly painted fence. But otherwise it’s a lovely smile. She has dimples I could hide my fingertip in.

“Well, ma’am, we’re out of that,” I reply. “I do have some canned corn beef hash though, and fresh eggs.”

“Fresh eggs,” she repeats, her eyes wide.

After my wife died, I kept her chicken coop alive and producing. Every time I eat an egg I think of her. Now this girl who doesn’t know anything about her will eat her eggs. It gives me an uncomfortable feeling up my spine.

Walking over the mantel, I pick up a picture in a cheap gilt frame. It was taken on our 30th anniversary, and my wife wearing a dark blue dress and has her hair curled around her shoulders.

“Do you see this woman?” I ask.

She frowns, confused. “Yes.”

“She was my wife. She loved keeping chickens, had names for all of them. She’s the only reason I have eggs.”

“I see,” she replies.

“She died before it happened. Cancer.”

“Oh,” says the girl.

“Her name was Alice.”

We stare at each other and I see the hunger swimming in her eyes. She would look at or say anything for something to eat. I’ve had dinner already, a can of beans and a can of tuna, so I fetch an egg and a can of hash.

Her eyes follow the can opener as it makes its slow circle around the can. I can practically hear her mouth moisten. When I hand it to her, she ignores the spoon and shovels the hash into her mouth with her fingers, as fast as she can, the meat clinging to her fingers. After she’s scraped the can clean, I hand her the egg.

She holds it in her hand gently. I assume she’s admiring its clean, smooth lines until she says, “You’re not going to cook it?”

“Too much trouble to make a fire for an egg. I’ll get us a squirrel and build a fire for the meat.”

“Meat? Fresh meat?”

“Fresh squirrel meat.”

“So… how’m I supposed to eat it?”

“Squirrel?”

“The egg.”

“Raw.”

“You can eat eggs raw?”

“You can.”

“I thought it’d poison you.”

“Humans have been eating eggs longer than they’ve been cooking things.”

She pauses to think about that. “How do I eat it? Break it into the can?”

“Give it to me.” I wipe away a bit of muck and gently tap on the blue-white shell until cracks appeared. Easing my fingers into the weak spot, I tear away part of the shell and hand it back to her. “Drink it.”

She frowns. “Drink an egg?”

“Go on.”

She puts her lips to the hole in the shell and tips it back, swallows, makes a face.

“Is it bad?”

“Just… strange. The texture.” She finishes it off and runs her small pink tongue around to catch the glaze of white lingering on her lips. “But… good, I think.”

“More nutrition in that than most else we got.”

“What else do you have?”

I catch her wide eye. “Some vegetables. Eggs. Cans. Some meat, like I said, if I can shoot it. That’s it.”

“What about the corn?”

“Gone to seed many times over. Can’t you tell?”

“No. I never saw a farm growing up.”

“Then how do you know it’s corn?”

“Movies. Maybe it’s not corn, I don’t know.”

“It’s corn.”

She pauses. Then she says, “What will you do when you run out of cans?”

I shrug. “Get more cans. I don’t have to travel far to find other people who had cans in their pantry.”

“Other people?”

“Well, other pantries.” I pause. “I can’t save meat unless it’s winter. I haven’t figured out how to dry it properly and it spoils. I miss my freezer.”

She nods as if she’s heard enough, rises up wearily, and begins to slip her dress off one shoulder.

“Wait,” I say, but soon it puddles at her ankles. She’s wearing an old-fashioned bra with thick straps and lace stained yellow under the armpits. Reaching her arms around, she unhooks it, and I am blasted with a sudden memory of Alice doing the same. I always loved the concentration she had on her face, the graceful bend of her elbows.

“What are you doing?” I say sharply, and she stops.

“You don’t want to?” she says.

“I have… had daughters older than you. Heck, granddaughters,” I reply. Her body is like a stained summer apple, smooth, shining, and bone-curved, blemished with purple and gold, graceful as a bird soaring.

“What do you want, then, for the meal?” she asks. Then she says, “I don’t have anything.”

“I didn’t ask for anything, did I?” I reply, and she pauses, and then bends over to reach for her dress. She puts it on slowly, unconcerned by her rejected nudity.

“Well, am I supposed to leave?” she says.

“You can stay for a bit,” I say. “Until it’s time for you to move on.”

“You’ll tell me when that is.”

“Yes, or you’ll figure it out on your own.”

“Well, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

She sighs. “Really. Thank you.”

She smells terrible, like rotting onions and greasy hair. “You need a bath,” I say.

“You have water?” She asks, her eyes widening to circles.

“No, there’s a little river that runs aways behind the house,” I say. “No fish worth eating, sadly, but it’s nice and clean. You can wash yourself, wash your clothes.”

“With soap?”

“No soap. Just lie in it, it’ll get you clean enough.”

“Then my clothes will be wet.”

“Put them on a rock to dry. In this heat it won’t take long.”

“And what do I do?”

“Sit on a rock next to them.” I could offer her a shirt of mine, but it seems too intimate. She also seems strangely pale for someone wandering through the countryside in summer, like some sun would be good for her.

“But… Okay.” She winces as she puts on her boots, and limps away out the front door and around the house. Time passes, and I think of her sitting naked on a rock in the sun, her damp dress warming beside her. I make up a bed in the second room. When I spread out the quilt, it bleeds shining gold dust into the air.

She doesn’t want to talk about her life. “Why would I want to do that?”

“Well, it’s who you are.”

“I’m boring, then. I grew up with a mother and father and sisters, and I went to school, and took ballet lessons, and then I went to college and studied communications and then when it started I went back home.”

“What happened at home?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“What have you been doing since then?”

“I don’t want to talk about that either.”

“What’s your name?”

“I don’t have a name. Besides, we’re the only two people here. If you talk, I’ll know you’re talking to me.”

“How will you know I’m not talking to Red?”

“You always use a special voice for Red.”

“Where was home for you?”

“Does it matter?”

“I think it does.”

“I think it doesn’t. I can remember home and Mom and Dad and Fiona and Helen and the cats, too, but what’s the point? They’re all gone.”

“You’re not gone.”

“So?”

“You remember them, you keep them alive in you.”

“And when I die?”

“You have children before you die, tell them about their grandparents, their aunts and uncles.”

She bends over laughing so suddenly that I jump. She howls until tears trickle down her cheeks, holding her belly, her bare feet lifting off the floor. “Have children,” she keeps saying, roaring, and suddenly I feel very small, watching a storm I can’t outrun and don’t understand. When I leave the room she’s curled up on her side, still giggling.

The first night, all she does is scream. I can’t fault her for it; for all I know, I scream too, and only Red could tell the tale. Her words are mostly gibberish, but I catch some. Hurt. Hospital. Leash. Guns. Help.

The next day, she sits in the front room, in the rocking chair, and rocks lazily while staring out the window and petting Red with a small foot. I’m suddenly aware of every noise I made, every footstep. If I cough, someone hears it. If I swear, someone hears it. Most of my life, the everyday sounds I’d made had been absorbed by somebody, but for the past couple of years I’d gotten used to my freedom. I could talk to myself, talk to Red, talk to Alice, sing half-made-up songs, slam around, fart freely, and I was the only person around to hear. Now I find myself breaking into a normal walk and then starting to tiptoe with the knowledge that she’ll hear it. I go to the vegetable garden to weed and start to sing in my loudest voice, “OH, WEED THE GARDEN, FOR THE CARROTS I WILL EAT” and then stop and put my head against the earth and pray that maybe the sound didn’t carry. When I go back in she’s still sitting in the rocking chair staring, but there’s a tiny depression over one of her dimples.

“Why is Red your only dog?” she asks me.

“He’s the last of my dogs,” I reply.

“Why not have more dogs?”

“Him and his brother were the only pair born of my last bitch’s last litter.”

“Aren’t there other dogs around?”

“Probably. I haven’t seen any, though.”

“Where’s his brother?”

“Blue died.”

“Blue. Red and Blue.”

“I’m the white.”

The depression again, a little deeper.

She never asks for anything, but any food I offer she eats with such ravenous hunger I know she needs more. “Thank you,” she’ll say politely, and tears into the food with her hands. I bring her forks but she doesn’t seem to notice. Even black beans she eats with her hands, the purple juice running down her fingers and smearing over her upper lip. It’s like watching a toddler in an orgy of appetite. I trot back and forth to the kitchen and the pantry, bringing out new concoctions for her to eat. I even open up my last sardines. All the eating gives her belly trouble, and I have to show her where to go outside. “Oh, it hurts to eat,” she says, and then starts eating again. Her remaining teeth are clean and white and nothing short of glorious. They tell of a childhood of dentists, and glasses of milk, and bubble gum flavored toothpaste. Even years of neglect can’t muddy their perfection. I show her how to rub them with salt.

After a couple of days she gets up, tags behind me, and tries to help around the house. I let her fetch water from the river and sweep dirt from the kitchen, run a cloth over the banisters and windowsills and I even find an old dog brush she can use to groom Red. They both love it. She squats by him, showing underpants with the crotch cleaned to a mottled tan, and pulls the brush over him in long, slow strokes. Red keeps rolling on his back to show his belly, and she giggles and pets it until he sneezes and rolls on his side again. The brush pulls out old fur, and sheds dried mud onto the floor. “He’s the nicest dog,” she says. “I used to have a dog.”

“Did you brush it?”

“No, it wasn’t the kind you brush. It had hair, not fur.”

“Like a poodle or something?”

“Yeah.” She reaches out and ruffles her fingers through Red’s fur. “I like the fur better, but it makes a mess.”

“If your poodle had run around in the river, it’d probably be messy too.”

“Yeah.”

“We used to have cats, too. We even had a goat.”

“Where is it?”

“I ate it.”

“You ate your goat?”

“That or someone else would have.”

“Who?”

“In the early days.”

“Oh.” She pets Red some more. “Poor goat. I hope he tasted good.”

“Before, I would have said terrible. Stringy, gamey. But yes, he tasted good.”

“You didn’t eat your cats, did you?”

I laugh. “No. They just started coming back less and less, and then disappeared. It’s possible a coyote got them, but I like to think they’re hunting and doing fine for themselves.”

“Don’t you miss them?”

“I do. But cats aren’t like dogs, they don’t need people the same way. And I’d expect they’re doing a lot better than the dogs right now.”

Before she came, I had a routine. Wake up around dawn, go downstairs, do some stretches while looking out the front windows. Share some breakfast with Red- I gave up on dog food a while ago- and head to the river to get water for the day. If it was warm out, I’d take a bath while Red splashed and walk home naked with my clothes under my arm. If it was freezing out, I’d break the thin ice cover, get a bucketful, and hurry home. Every week, if it wasn’t too cold, I’d wash my clothes in the river after bathing, rubbing them against rocks because I’d read a long time ago that’s how people used to wash clothes, before soap. Go take a shit in a spot I’d chosen; first I just went on the ground, but it got so disgusting I picked a new spot and started burying it deep with a shovel I left there. Often I’d go hunting. In the summer I just used a .22 for squirrels or birds, in the winter I might take my shotgun and try to fell a deer. Even if I didn’t get anything, I liked the walk around the property, seeing the small changes: plants rising and falling according to their season, small animals nesting or dying. If I did bag small game, I’d put it in the cellar until dinnertime. A deer was more of a production, a couple day’s work outside and then wrapping and storing the meat in the cold. I only shot three or four all winter, if I could, and it fed me well.

After hunting, or trying to hunt, was lunch. If there was no snow, I’d tend to the garden, which was much more work than I’d ever imagined. I gave a little blessing to Alice every time I put my hands in the soil, because I had hated gardening and she’d made me help her anyway. The garden was bigger now, I’d widened it considerably and built up the fence to keep the deer away. I was careful to save all the vegetable scraps to compost- another thing she’d forced me to learn- but fertilizer was dear and I worried about the soil. I’d read somewhere that you could use dog or human waste as fertilizer, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Most of the vegetables were from Alice’s seed collection still, although I knew I’d have to find and raid a garden store at some point. I raised carrots and greens, turnips, eggplants, tomatoes, all the vegetables I used to dislike but ate for my health, and now craved with a hunger deep in my blood. Even when the garden didn’t need extra work, I’d often stay and pinch up tiny weeds no bigger than my thumbnail, or mend the fence where it didn’t really need mending.

Then I did chores, trying to keep the house in order, wiping down furniture and beating carpets, washing the sheets and blankets every now and then in the summer. If it was winter and the garden was blanketed with snow, I built a small fire and unwrapped the layers around myself, stretching out in my long underwear and toasting my aching hands. Dinner was at sunset, and then I might read a Western by candlelight. My sleep was dark and deep, sliced through with dreams of such horror that I woke up drenched in sweat and needed to feel Red’s rib cage rising and falling next to me before I could breathe.

Now she’s here, muddying things, making me second-guess my simplest movements. When I stretch, I pray she won’t come downstairs to find an old man struggling to touch his knees, his scrawny butt high in the air. I don’t dare walk home naked from the river, lest she run away screaming. The hunting is bad, like she’s hanging on my arm, pulling it to the right and making me miss my prey. Lunchtime stretches out as she gorges on what I give her, and then tells me by her eyes that she’s still hungry. When I garden, she sometimes comes out and I stare at her blistered bare feet, her bruised calves as she walks aimlessly, sometimes chattering of nothing, sometimes eerily silent. I pull vegetables instead of weeds. The chores have a frantic edge to them, like I’m running a hotel and have an important guest is staying. She tries to help, but everything seems messier after she’s done. At night I can’t relax, even if she’s taken to her bed. I just sit and read the same page over and over. In my dreams, she walks into the screaming and the death and the spike-sharp sorrow and stands there, just watching as my grandchildren die in agony.

In the kitchen while we’re making dinner, she asks me about Alice. “Your wife, you loved her a lot,” she says. “What was she like?”

We are chopping onions to mix with some Spam. The vegetables are still dirty from the garden, but she doesn’t want to wipe them clean. “The dirt probably has vitamins,” she said. “I read that somewhere, that dirt has vitamins. We’re not getting any vitamins with all that canned stuff.”

“Alice was… well, she was warm, and funny, and kind, and beautiful.”

“Quite a combination.”

“I met her because I was dating her sister.”

She giggles. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. Lynn never quite forgave us. I dated Lynn for a couple of months, met her at a dance. She had this beautiful blond hair that I couldn’t stop touching. So Lynn brought me home to meet her parents, and there sitting across from me at the dinner table was this girl who went straight to my heart.”

“Same hair?”

“She had red hair. Red and gold, like copper wire. She had it curled around her shoulders, and it was warm out and she was wearing short sleeves, and her arms were freckled and had golden hair on them.”

“Was she prettier than her sister?”

“No, actually. I think that’s the real reason Lynn was so mad, because she was prettier but I chose Alice anyway.”

“Did you at least break up with Lynn first?”

“Well, no. I was worried if I did I’d never see Alice again. I kept wanting to go back to her house for dinner, Lynn thought I was going to propose and was trying to make up to her folks. One evening I went outside to watch the sunset, Lynn was helping with the dishes. I lit a cigarette and she was sitting next to me asking for one. Her feet were bare, in the grass, and I wanted to kiss them. We smoked and watched the sun go down, and she asked me if I was serious about Lynn. I said no. She said I should let Lynn know, because she had other ideas. I said I couldn’t, I was in love with someone in the house. And she said, ‘You’re in love with my mother?’”

She giggles. I smile.

“She kissed me, and her mouth tasted like smoke and ice cream, and two months later we were married.”

“That was fast.”

“Well, we had Darla on the way.”

“I thought people didn’t have sex before marriage back then.”

I laugh for a long time. “People have been having sex before marriage since before there was marriage.”

“Why didn’t you use protection?”

“It wasn’t easy back then, not like these days where they throw birth control at kids by the time they’re twelve.” We both pause, thinking of all the dead children. “I mean, like they used to.”

“You were happy together?”

“Very. We had four daughters, the doctors kept telling me I’d have a son next time, but I was happy with the girls. They had hair like their mama. Alice was amazing. She ran the place like a captain runs a navy ship. Everything just went smoothly with Alice at the helm.”

“How old was she when she got sick?”

“Sixty-one. Breast cancer. She just kept shrinking, they were pumping chemotherapy and radiation into her but she kept shrinking, and finally she said enough.” I wasn’t looking at the food anymore, I was seeing Alice before me, hair gone, eyes huge in her gaunt face, smiling a little. She always smiled at me.

“I’m sorry she died.”

“Well, odds are pretty good she would have died later, if she hadn’t died then. Her death was hard, but probably better than it would have been. She had morphine.”

“She might have survived.”

“Might have, but as far as I can tell odds are almost one hundred percent she wouldn’t.”

“But we’re here.”

“We are here.”

I sniff and draw my wrist across my eyes.

“Are the onions making you cry?”

“No, I’m crying because my wife died of cancer.”

We look at each other, and laugh a little, and I keep chopping the onion into smaller and smaller pieces until it turns to paste.

The fifth night, she comes into my room with a candle and crawls into my bed naked. I push her away. “I said you don’t have to pay for anything.”

She presses against me. Her small breast is soft as a cloud against my arm, heavy and warm, and I can feel her heart beating. “I’m not trying to earn anything,” she says.” I just want to.”

“Bullshit,” I say, and she is silent for a long while. I shift my arm away from her breast, but she crawls closer, presses against me more.

“I want to,” she repeats. “You’re so kind and so generous. I want to be with you.”

“I’m old and ugly,” I say. “You’re young and beautiful.”

“And where,” she says, giggling a little, “are the young and beautiful men?”

“So you’re taking what you can get?”

“It’s not like that.” She throws a leg over mine and I feel her sex sear my thigh like a flame. “Please.”

My hands move of my own accord, pulling her on top of me. She’s like an armful of hot, living silk, an old man’s impossible dream. Her bruises have faded some, and she’s marbled with amber and gold. Even while she rides me, her face grimacing with pleasure in the candelight, I think of the picture of Alice by my bed and wish I had put it face-down.

The next morning she comes into my room wearing one of my shirts and twirling around. She’s cut her hair to her chin. The right side is longer than the left, but I can’t tell if it’s on purpose. The back is choppy and shingled, and I grab the scissors and make her sit while I trim it properly. When my daughter Sarah was little, I was the only one who was allowed to cut her bangs. I used tiny scissors and cut them in small snips, moving slowly across her forehead, looking into her trusting brown eyes.

Later on, I look at the stained rags she’s wearing and feel guilty. “Listen,” I say to her. “Alice’s clothes are all still there. I don’t mind if you use some.”

“Are you sure?” she asks, squinting at me.

“I’m sure,” I say. “Panties too. You need some new ones. Her clothes will be big on you, but they’ll be better than what you’re wearing now. And fit better than mine.”

She comes out in Alice’s dark red top with the white flowers, and a pair of her jeans cinched tight by a belt. They all hang on her frame like a blanket, and the shirt seems to be mocking Alice in the way it latches to the knobs of her shoulders and drapes over her thin, sinuous figure in folds. She looks so young, and so beautiful, and I remember Alice complaining about her crow’s feet, about her hips and her ankles and her gray hair. This young girl has been in Alice’s kitchen, and then in her bed, and now is in her clothes.

“They’re so big on me,” she laughs, and I nod curtly and feel like hitting her for a moment. Then I stroke her slender arm through the dark red, silky fabric and she laughs again and kisses me on the cheek.

That afternoon, my hand starts hurting, like my lower palm is bruised, but there’s no mark. I walk to the river to get some water, and I can’t carry the bucket in my left hand on the way back. She is playful and lazy, and I decide to take a vacation from my normal routine. We use a stick in the dirt to play tic-tac-toe and hangman, and then play Twenty Questions, which she’s somehow never heard of. Then we go to the river and splash around naked, and lay on the rocks to dry. She finds all sorts of shapes in the clouds that I can’t quite see. A dragon. A tractor. A puppy. When we walk back- me behind her, because it’s so lovely to watch her walk- I looked at my palm and it’s red.

It’s not that, I tell myself firmly. You survived. You’re being ridiculous. And I go to bed curled around her, the knobs of her spine pressing into my belly.

I wake up in the early hours and my hand is throbbing. Moving quietly, I light a candle in the other bedroom and examine my skin in the flickering light. There’s a swelling rising, a perfect circle, hot to the touch. The skin over it is stretched and shining. I tried to tell myself it’s a cyst, but I’ve seen it before, on too many people.

It doesn’t make sense. She’s obviously never had it, or she’d be dead. I ponder if she could have carried it with her in some way, given it to me the night before. Or maybe it has been sleeping inside me all this time, waiting until I found some joy to emerge like an assassin. Perhaps it was what I’d done, right in front of Alice. I don’t believe in God anymore, but I’m not so sure about angry ghosts. I’ve never seen just one of the marks. They always rise in numbers, like water boiling, consuming people whole. What to make of one?

She finds me the next morning, still staring at my hand. She looks at it and falls to her knees with a thud. “Oh,” she says.

It’s turned into the classic sore, a translucent pearl straining to come loose of my skin. “Oh,” she says and touches it. I push her away roughly, and she falls curled up, protecting her head, and stays there for a few seconds. When nothing happens, she carefully rises and comes back next to me.

“You can’t touch it,” I say. “You need to leave.”

“No,” she says.

“I said I’d tell you when it was time to go.”

“It’s not time for me to go,” she replies.

“It is absolutely time for you to go.”

We stare at my hand. The pearl strains, stretches, throbs.

“I… I’ve touched them before. A lot. I took care of Mom, and Dad, and…” She trails off. “If I was going to have it, I’d have it.” Then she looks terrified. “Did I bring it? Am I a carrier? Was it-“

“No,” I say to reassure her. “No.” I don’t have any good reason, but she relaxes like I’d just showed her hard evidence. I’m not so sure I believe it, but however it came to me, it’s too late to put it back.

“I’m going to take care of you,” she whispers.

“No,” I say, and lay down on the bed. “No. No.” And I start to weep.

Later she asks if she can read to me. “I used to read to my little sister. She would get these fevers.” I tell her where to find Lonesome Dove, then listen to her settle by me and open the book. “When Augustus came out on the porch,” she reads haltingly, “the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake- not a very big one.” She’s not a very good reader. She can read the words just fine, but there’s no inflection, and she draws her breath at odd intervals and then rushes forth in a tumble of words. I doze, then wake up and she’s still reading, and I can tell by where she is in the book that it’s been a while. I put a hand on her knee.

“It’s okay to stop,” I say.

“I read terribly,” she says. “In school they always laughed when I had to read Shakespeare.”

“You read great,” I say. “Your voice is smooth and… and… musical.”

“I think you have a fever,” she says, putting her hand on my brow to check, and it feels cool and dry in a heavenly way. Then she pinches my cheek and I know she’s joking. She unbuttons her shirt and takes off her jeans and lays next to me on the bed. She’s wearing Alice’s high-waisted cotton panties and a bra that hangs down in wrinkles in the cup part. I cradle her in one arm, and hold up my palm above us. We stare at it, like it was a great work of art or a television.

First I hear Red barking, barking like he’d barked when she arrived. It grows more and more fierce, and then there is a sharp bang. Red’s voice stops. That’s when I know.

“Get behind me. Stay behind me.” Tears are already pouring down my cheeks for Red. My shotgun is propped by the back door in the kitchen, and my .22 is on the counter. Why have them nearby? Who ever heard of such a crazy thing as home invaders, now?

I can hear their footsteps knocking across the main room, into the kitchen. “Look, Spam!” a male voice shouts, and another laughs in a hoarse voice. Then each step grows louder and louder as they clatter up the steps, swearing and yelling in a hubbub that I can’t pull words from.

“Hello!” calls one of them. “Baby girl…” They howl like coyotes. One stumbles into the room and stares at us: Me standing with my shirt off, and her cowering behind me like a dog awaiting a beating.

“What the fuck!” says the man. “I said three days, tops! I said three days, you stupid bitch!” He breaks off and cackles. “What the fuck are you wearing?” He is in stained army pants and a leather vest, carrying a sawed-off shotgun, reeking of sweat and metal and animal excitement.

I turn to look at her. She is staring at him, then at me, in horror. She is shaking her head. “You know him,” I say.

Another man comes to join us, heavy and bearded, dressed in similar clothes and holding some kind of machine gun. “What the fuck?” he says to her. “What the ever-loving fuck? You never came back. We thought we’d find you locked up in some psycho’s basement. Did you think this was a vacation? There are no vacations in the end time, bitch!” He looks very proud of himself for saying such a thing, and the others laugh and cheer.

She’s trembling now, like the temperature in the room sank, her arms crossed over her breasts and one leg wrapped over the other. “Ha!” says the first man, looking at her, and at the sharp syllable she pisses herself right there. The golden stream spirals down one slender leg and makes a puddle on the floor.

“They sent you,” I say to her. “As a scout.”

“Sorry, gramps,” says a third man lingering by the doorway. “You musta thought you’d died and gone to heaven.” They laugh and bay, yelping like hounds and growling like monsters. I don’t take my eyes off her.

“I couldn’t help it,” she whispers to me. “I had to do it. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it. If I’d told you…”

“You led them here,” I say, and watch her standing there in Alice’s underwear, shaking like a leaf. Something inside me rips apart, I can feel it, like cloth tearing. A rage so hot my bones boil comes flooding into my rib cage. “You lied, the whole time.”

She shakes her head, opens her mouth to speak, and I grab the back of her neck and slam her head into the wall, once, twice, and she falls to the ground like a rag doll. “Please,” she whispers. “Please.”

I ignore her. Turning, I hold my palm with its marble-sized lesion out towards them like a talisman, like a cross before the unholy. Their laughter stops as quick as if I’d sliced their throats, and one lets out a high-pitched moan. I can hear Alice laughing like an avenging angel behind me. Step by step I advance, and as the blood drains from their cheeks I can see that they are teenagers at most, overgrown children feeding and growing on the scraps that the rest of the world left behind for them.

They stutter and babble, they beg, backing up until they trip on the top stair. In their faces I see the terror of sons who watched their fathers die screaming, who smelled the dead flesh of their mothers, boys who stepped out of their front door crying one morning and realized there was nobody left alive to comfort them. In my hand I hold the terror that makes them scream at night as the black places in their brains open and seep memories into their dreams. Slowly I walk down the steps, staring into their eyes as they stumble backwards. When we reach the bottom, they turn and flee, one tripping over Red’s corpse. I follow them into the darkness, holding my hand out like a torch before me.