Authors: R. Lee Smith
R. Lee Smith
To my loving sisters, my best editors and my best friends.
Copyright © 2009 by Robin Smith
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including, but not limited to, photocopying or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, places, locales and events are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, places or events are purely coincidental.
Cover designed by Sarah-Jane Lehoux
Olivia Blake stood half-naked in the rain and tried to think that she was dreaming. She wasn’t. She brought her watch up and tilted it to catch the light from the overhanging lamp in the parking lot. It was half past three in the morning. She turned her head to the right and saw the overpass, empty and silent. She turned her head to the left and saw the sprawling apartment complex where she had been living for not quite four months. She looked up and saw dark clouds dropping warm summer rain on top of them, still thin enough to show the pale blur of the moon over the mountains. All around her, women she half-knew clutched each other and cried, babbled pleas at the creatures surrounding them, or stood in their own stupors with terror making caricatures of their own almost-familiar faces, but Olivia could feel no fear.
It was a hot night. The rain fell and fell onto her upturned face, warm as tears as it slid over her cheeks. Her nightshirt, she supposed, was soaked, exposing every inch of the body beneath. She couldn’t care. Her mind felt syrupy and drugged. She closed her eyes and wished everything away, but when she opened them again, nothing had changed.
Let me tell you about horror
, she thought serenely, studying the row of silent creatures looking back at her
. Horror is nothing you find in the movies, or in the latest Stephen King novel, or even on the news. Horror is coming home from work one night and waking up to a monster. Real horror doesn’t scare you. It’s the stuff that can’t exist and still does, the stuff you have to live with.
The woman on her right was growing louder, more hysterical. She seized Olivia’s sleeve, babbling, “I won’t let it touch me! I won’t let it!”
Olivia could only look at her. The declaration seemed utterly nonsensical. They were already caught, weren’t they? It didn’t matter that there was still pavement under her feet and halogen bulbs shining over their heads, they were as caught as caught could be. The monsters could do whatever they wanted with them now. That was how these things worked.
As if she had spoken out loud, the woman backed away from her, shaking her head over and over, her eyes round and brilliant with terror. “How can you be so calm? How can you just stand there?”
“I have to,” Olivia replied. “I’m caught.”
The hysterical woman shook her head, first slowly, then violently, and then she lunged around and sprinted for the road.
Olivia watched. Watched the woman break away from the rest of the herd. Watched one of the hulking, dark figures detach from the rest of their guards and swoop after her. Watched black leathery wings unfurl and catch the air like sails as he leapt low into the sky and flew to her. He stooped like a hawk, his feet smacking into her back and knocking her sprawling over the parking lot. He hopped landed gracefully next to her head, then picked her up by one arm and half-carried, half-dragged her back to the others. It wasn’t the least bit scary. It was horror and Olivia was calm.
The monster dropped his recovered captive next to Olivia and stood over her as she wept, watching cars come and go on the overpass. His bestial face moved in unreadable expressions as he looked from the road to the women to the light overhead. He shuffled his wings, refolding them, and glanced at Olivia. She said nothing, did nothing, felt nothing. The glance lingered. One of his fellows muttered something in their unintelligible language, and he uttered a coughing sound that silenced all of them. It wasn’t a glance anymore but a stare; Olivia stared back at him.
She could not think of him as hideous. He was too strange to be ugly, but he was formidable. He towered over her by at least a foot, but the broad, black horns that swept back from his brow added at least another foot, and the high, sharp claw that crowned his wings gave the illusion of even greater height. It made her think of the woman sobbing beside her and of her strange defiance; ‘I won’t let it touch me,’ she’d said, she’d actually said that. ‘I won’t let it,’ just like there was anything any of them could do to stop it. How could anyone stop something this
When she realized she had been staring at the vast expanse of his chest for several seconds in stoned silence, she made an effort to look him in the eye. His were oversized and oddly slanted, black and fathomless as the sky, emotionless as he gazed back at her. Olivia’s chin began to drop again until she was back to staring at his chest, at the ridiculously unreal size of him, at the hard slabs of muscle dimly outlined beneath a pelt of sleek, dark fur. Then his wings moved and his wings fascinated her. She stared, seeing nothing else in this whole wide world as he half-unfolded them and gave them a little shake to knock the rain off. He rolled his shoulders a little when he did it, but otherwise, the wings almost seemed to be a separate entity, unfixed to this reality. They didn’t even flutter when the wind picked up, but just folded up tight again and hung there in there in two stiff, black wedges.
Olivia reached out and touched one.
She sensed the ripple of silent movement as the other creatures watching her reacted, but the one whose warm wing she explored did nothing. He held very still, moving nothing but his eyes as she traced the complicated folds of this unfathomable appendage. The skin of his wing was surprisingly soft and warm and alive. “Show me,” she said, stroking. “Show me, okay?”
He was quiet for so long, she wasn’t even sure she’d actually said it aloud, but then he shifted his weight slightly and opened the wing under her hand. It unfurled, a matador’s cape in brilliant slow motion, and swept outward and upward until it was all there. It had not occurred to her until now how much like an arm a wing really was. Backlit as he was against the parking lot’s lamps, she could see the narrow bones coursing down each wing, and dark veins like rivers that pulsed with the rhythm of his alien heart. Together, they watched her hand travel across his naked skin, until her arm became too heavy to hold up anymore, and she let it drop.
He folded his wing away again with effortless origami and she tried to watch, but her head was getting heavier and heavier. As her head began to droop, her eyes continued to trail down the length of him until she was sleepily focused on his feet. He had oddly handsome feet, outrageously oversized, roped with tendon and muscle, with long, thick toes that ended in huge talons. Like the claws tipping his fingers, they were not sharp, but blunt and worn and black. He had, she observed clinically, a dewclaw on his ankle, and it was very small, hardly a nubbin, but looked very, very sharp.
And then she couldn’t see anything because her eyes had closed.
Another engine roared by on the overpass, a big one, going fast. One of the creatures growled out words in their own creaturish language and Olivia heaved the weight of her head back to watch this creature—her creature—think about them. Their eyes met again, and again the stare caught and held him.
He raised his hand, glanced at it, and curled the fingers as if to hide the short claws that peeked from their tips. Olivia did not look at his hand. His eyes were whole oceans, whole skies. They stood that way, frozen in place, frozen in time. Then he touched her.
He didn’t stroke, didn’t grip and squeeze, didn’t do anything except touch. She could feel the leathery pad of his palm, the soft scratch of fur, the smooth curve of one claw pressed to her cheek. His eyes were endless.
He spoke now, not in the growling, mud-deep words of their language, but in unexpected, awkward English: “What do you want?”
His voice was thunder in Olivia’s bones, impossibly deep. It was voice made for growling, she thought, or howling at the moon. She tipped her head back to look for the moon and blinked rain out of her leaden eyes.
But the crying woman beside her had seized on the creature’s words. She staggered suddenly to her feet. “I want to go home!” she cried, and the creature immediately dropped his hand and stepped back to look at her. “I want to go home! Let me go, let me go!”
A few of the other women echoed her, but not many. Some were beginning to look around, as Olivia had, with confusion instead of fear. Some were nodding off on their feet.
The creature considered the woman as she fell again, sobbing, to the pavement. At last, he half-turned and motioned at another of the creatures, one considerably smaller, who stepped up at once and lifted the screaming, struggling woman off the ground. The two creatures conferred in their inhuman rumbles, and then the one holding the hysterical woman led her back towards the apartments, making Olivia wonder if they were going to let her go after all.
Olivia looked up at him.
“What do you want?” he asked. “To…To take?”
She thought about it.
“I want a shower and a clean set of clothes,” she said.
The creature looked over his shoulder and grumbled a question to the others. There was some discussion, and then he looked back at her. “What is a shower?” he asked.
“A bath, then,” she said.
He considered this, then nodded and took her by the arm. It was a cautious grip, a gentle grip, but it was not a human hand. Olivia looked at it, then at him. The pavement under her bare feet felt warm and rough and wet. The rain ran down her hair and dripped off her nose. It was too much to believe in, too much to not be real. Olivia took a deep breath, wiped her eyes, and started walking.
She took him back to her apartment, moving like one in a dream, thinking only how nice the moon looked through the sullen rain clouds. When they reached the narrow stairway, he released her and let her lead him. It never occurred to her to run. Her door was still open. The knob was loose, hanging away from its fitting, broken. She knew she’d locked it. She always locked it. A single woman in a cheap apartment complex, even in a small town like this one, learns early to always lock the door. So the monsters don’t get in.
Her monster reached to touch her, hesitated, and tapped at the door jamb instead. Olivia looked around and saw maybe three other doors, open like hers. She looked over the banister and saw the knot of captives growing steadily smaller as others were led away back into their apartments for whatever they could think to bring with them. They were only taking women, she saw. Only young women.
The creature did not nudge her, only waited patiently, and at last she moved inside. The apartment was a mess, which was vaguely embarrassing to her. She didn’t do much housework except on the weekends. There didn’t seem to be much point in picking up now. The creature watched as she collected some clean clothes, then followed her into the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror as she sat on the side of the tub to draw herself a bath.
“May I ask you questions?” she said. It took tremendous effort to speak clearly.
He took a long time to answer. She had shut the water off and begun to remove her nightshirt when he said, “Yes.”
“What did you do with the others?”
He wrinkled his brow as he translated this. “Outside,” he said at last.
She shook her head, then stepped out of her panties and into the tub. The water was too cool to be comfortable, but she lowered herself into it, and reached for the soap. “The others…that live here. The other people.”
He watched her, unmoving, then answered, “We took no man. We took no…mother with milking young.” He frowned as he spoke, watching her closely as if for clues that his words were correct. When she did nothing except lather up her bar of soap, he glanced away at the open door of the apartment and added, “There are no dead.”