by LACHIE HOLDEN
ummers yanked on the lever and recoiled from the shock of cold water.
The showers were hooked up to hydraulic pumps on the concrete wall. There was a way to set up the privacy dividers so they’d stay propped up on the uneven ground, but Summers and Torrent were so eager to wash up that they left the dividers at awkward angles. It took twenty minutes to scrape off the grime.
Any hang-ups they had about joining Echuca—their companion’s unease, the suspicious glances, the unsettling cleanliness of the townsfolk—were set aside in the sputtering, freezing water. It was over. They’d beaten the outback. They were safe.
Summers ran her hands along Torrent’s sunburnt neck. He smeared soap through her hair. She pushed him up against the concrete barrier and before he could protest, her lips touched his and they slid to the floor.
Their companion, Nashago, six feet tall upright and four feet hunched over, teeth gnashing, eyes unfocused, did not join in the shower. Every morning and evening for the past six months he had cleaned himself from the pores in his scalp to the callouses on his toes.
Instead, he watched them. They had long grown used to it. Under normal circumstances, basic animal necessity overpowered discomfort. But their relative safety dawned on Summers, and she was overcome with the desire to send Nashago away.
He did not like being sent away.
The world had ended long ago, and the population of the colony was weighed down by the knowledge that they could be the last human beings on Earth. Yet the Murray provided running water, the farmland provided food, and the high stone walls provided protection. Despite the misguided existentialism that pressed against the backs of their minds, the community was well prepared for the coming winter.
Summers’ cheeks brightened at the sound of babies laughing. Many of the young mothers of the compound were using laundry day as an opportunity to socialize and set their toddlers loose with one another. The kids bunched up at one end of the tarp they used to trap the dirt. Knocked the tentpoles and strings aside. Cried out in laughter. Summers found something endearing about the chaos.
So did Nashago. He lumbered up to one of the kids. Thrust out his arms to snatch it up off the ground. The toddler shrieked and fell to its knees and scrambled away.
Summers flashed an apologetic grin to the mother. She understood the concern; trusting outsiders could turn deadly. In fact, she was shocked at the familiarity of another young mother who walked up and pushed a baby into her arms.
The baby stared at Summers. Summers stared back. She had the uncanny feeling that he was judging her. He had the most piercing eyes she had ever seen.
His mother, Molly, was wearing a bright yellow sundress that hugged her waist tight enough to be improper. She had just turned eighteen and was cursed with an omnipresent good mood. She grinned at Summers. Expecting compliments. Everyone always gave her compliments.
Summers bounced the baby in her arms and made a brief, meaningless comment about how cute he was. She asked for his name.
James, after his father.
Molly skipped close to Summers and pressed her forehead against James. Nuzzled him. Gave him Eskimo kisses. James refused to reciprocate the affection. In fact, Summers could swear he felt cold under her grip. Something about the kid was unusual and frightening.
She gave Nashago a glance: Is this alright?
Of course, she already knew the answer. Nashago was jealous of the attention.
He was not the only one who took umbrage. A middle-aged woman dressed in sharp, ugly blue overalls stalked up, and it was evident before she arrived that she was going to start a fight. She had that abrasive look about her: this was a person who had been miserable since she was born screaming into a world she’d never taken the time to understand.
James squirmed under her grip. Clawed at her shoulder. Scrambled to get away. His fingers dug into Summers skin.
The abrasive woman was James’ grandmother, Sandra. She shrieked something about outsiders, about allowing them to touch one of our own, of distrust and paranoia. She shrieked until her voice was hoarse.
Torrent grimaced. He gestured, subtly, to Nashago, who was also feeling uneasy. Nauseous. A confirmation in and of itself: this woman was only pretending to be human. Nashago knew it, and now Torrent knew it too. He also knew any false accusations would destroy whatever goodwill they’d accumulated. He kept sneaking glances to Nashago: What should they do? How should they go about this?
Sandra shrieked something about the outsiders conspiring among themselves: Look at the glances they’re giving each other. They must be planning something sinister.
Torrent gave a short, curt nod to Nashago, and Nashago nodded back. He locked eyes with Sandra, and he growled.
The voices around them evaporated.
With everyone focused on Nashago, Summers was the only one to notice that James had quieted down, too. He stared at Sandra.
Summers breathed in sharp. This baby knew. He knew, just like Nashago knew. He could see the monsters.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Torrent shrunk back as the compound’s enforcer, Bluth, slammed his fist against the table as emphasis for each word out of his mouth. The only reason—BANG!—we let you in—BANG!—is your retard—BANG!—and his powers—BANG!
Dead weights, placed lovingly on the table not moments before, jumped with each hit. It was clear Bluth had made an effort to keep up his physical fitness well into his fifties. His leather jacket, maintained and repaired since he was a teenager, bulged at the shoulders.
Torrent took offense at the use of the word retard but the forcefulness of his objections only made Bluth more insistent. Their shouts blended together, half cognizant, something about pissing him off, something about accusing honorable citizens of unspeakable crimes, something about the logic of who is and is not a monster …
… and Torrent knew that the way he handled this argument could define their relationship to Echuca for months, if not years. He couldn’t help himself. He yelled over Bluth, not listening, neither of them listening. All that mattered was being the loudest and angriest, and Bluth had considerable experience in both. Torrent felt his breath pop, hardly realizing that Bluth had shoved him—and, to a degree of frustration with himself, realizing he was prepared to shove back—until he felt Summers’ forceful grip on his shoulder.
Bluth towered above them. If anyone had tried to grab his shoulder as well, they would not have survived. But that wasn’t what held him back. It was Cunningham’s voice.
A short, calm, exasperated sigh.
Cunningham rose from behind his desk, where until a moment ago he was drowning out their argument by poring over an inventory report. Cunningham loosened his tie, rolled up his cuffs, took off his glasses, and kicked his chair away with a resigned casualness. He couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t a leader in some fashion, and although some people—like Bluth—would claim he had fallen into a comfort zone of authority, it gave him considerable experience in dealing with matters such as this. He hadn’t asked to lead the colony. He had accepted it without an ounce of surprise when it was offered.
He gave Bluth a look: Again? And, although Bluth didn’t feel intimidated, or humiliated, or even that he was in the wrong at all, he quieted down. He dug around behind Cunningham’s desk. Produced a pack of cigarettes.
Summers forced herself to turn her attention from the cigarettes to Cunningham. She thanked him for his hospitality and, to sweeten the deal, added a small compliment: she had assumed all the good people were gone. She was pleased to find they’d all ended up here.
He seemed to like her. Good.
Cunningham suggested they sit down and talk like reasonable adults. Wholehearted agreement from Torrent and Summers. They took a seat. Grudging agreement from Bluth. He took a seat. The flimsy wicker chair creaked under his weight. Cunningham’s wife built the damn chair over a year ago and it was already falling apart. Bluth’s irritation manifested as a gruff barb against Nashago. This retard wasn’t in any state to be accusing nobody.
Nashago sensed Bluth was human. He wished he was a monster. It would be easier to vilify him if he were a monster.
Torrent, of course, was quick on the defense: they’d been accepted into the colony. They’d already been over this stuff. Nashago was challenged, sure, but he could tell the monsters from the humans and he could communicate well enough to reveal them. If Bluth had any problem with the arrangement, he should have voiced his concerns at the beginning.
Bluth rose to fight but Cunningham sat him down and flashed Torrent an apology. The more important matter was determining the veracity of Nashago’s claims against Mrs. Sandra Clarkson.
But they weren’t claims. Nashago was not the kind of person to make claims. It was never a matter of interpretation, but of action. Those that doubted him in the past were slaughtered. Entire colonies torn to pieces. The monsters had never taken well to exposure. Once you’ve accused them, you’d have a short period of time before they grew paranoid and struck.
Bluth, of course, believed none of this. Nashago just wanted the attention.
Nashago seethed with hatred. Summers noticed and chose to say nothing. It was better to let him stew than to provoke him.
Cunningham was more sympathetic to Nashago than Bluth. He agreed that Mrs. Sandra Clarkson should stay in isolation until they could run further tests. He also agreed that a systematic check across Echuca would be a good idea. It wasn’t unheard of for the monsters to work alone, but it shouldn’t be expected.
Bluth, of course, was up in arms. He took Cunningham aside. Their authority was being undermined. Their leadership was being challenged.
Cunningham corrected him. It wasn’t their leadership. Just his.
Summers gave Bluth a saccharine smile.
Rows of lockers. All of them smashed apart. Locks snapped off. Doors ripped from their hinges. Looters and thugs had hollowed out the school before the new colony had converted it to an administrative office.
Torrent commented on this. Summers was more focused on how badly Nashago was shaking.
She pulled him around the corner, out of hearing range. The schoolhouse was empty save for Cunningham and Bluth, but she was worried their voices would echo across the halls. She sat Nashago down. Her attempts to read his face were met with resistance. She pressured him about the looks he had given Bluth. It was important for him to communicate what he’d seen.
Nothing. Torrent shook him a little, but they couldn’t get him to talk.
What it took from them, after a minute or so, was a simple question: was there a monster in the room with them?
Nashago shook his head. No way.
This surprised Torrent. If Bluth wasn’t a monster, then why was he staring at Bluth with such hatred? What’s going on?
Summers suggested it could just be that Nashago didn’t like him.
The holding cell where they were keeping Sandra was a crude, barricaded camping trailer draped in chains and steel blockades.
Salem was scrawny even for his age. He had insisted on participating in the branding of the monster because he saw it as a perverse rite of passage to adulthood. If he faced down the ultimate enemy of humanity and survived with his mind intact, he would become a man. This was wishful thinking. He was already suffering under the boiling sun and above the crackling flame he was using to heat up the branding iron. He had wrapped the iron in strips of cloth so it wouldn’t hurt his hands. His mother would be annoyed. She had spent a long time making him that shirt, and here he was slicing it up.
Before Salem unlocked the door to the holding cell, Cunningham stopped him. If it turned out that Sandra was human after all, he wanted Salem to brand him as well. He had a duty as leader to face the consequences of his actions. Oh, and also, brand the guests, too.
Salem took sadistic pleasure in this knowledge. He yanked open the door and—
—slammed it shut.
He slumped to the ground. Quivered. Dropped the branding iron. Clawed at his eyes.
Cunningham draped his arm around him. He spoke over Salem’s moans, small words to assuage his fear, apologies that he had allowed him to see the horrors that had brought the world to ruin in the first place …
Salem muttered something inaudible. Make it go away. Kill it.
Cunningham pried the branding iron from Salem’s fingers, which were in rigor mortis. He unwrapped the cloths and tied them around a chunk of plywood. He sprayed the makeshift torch with cigarette lighter fluid and dipped it into the open flame. The torch lit up.
He cranked open the holding cell’s door and tossed the torch inside, letting the door slam shut.
The monster’s shrieking was muffled, which made it easier to ignore the parts of the shriek that sounded human. After a while, the human parts evaporated and the monster’s screams were alien, and this alien-ness was comforting.
Bluth found Cunningham at the edge of the colony, near the walls where they planted their trees in the spring. Cunningham, with Salem’s help, had felled one of the thicker trees and was carving through the logs with an ax that needed some serious sharpening.
Since Sandra was, in fact, a monster, he couldn’t satiate his martyrdom complex by allowing himself to be branded. Instead, he insisted on chopping all the wood for a bonfire. It had taken him most of the day. He had only, with great pains, accepted help from Salem an hour earlier.
When Bluth accosted him with a stream of objections, Cunningham slammed the ax into the ground and confronted Bluth straight on. He could smell Bluth’s breath: cigarettes and scorn. They were going ahead with this. The entire colony would be tested, one by one, and no amount of strong-arm tactics could change it. After all, anyone who objected was a possible monster.
Of course, if Bluth were a monster, he would have killed Cunningham right there. But he was human, and despite his contempt for Cunningham’s method of dealing with strife, he considered him an ally.
Cunningham hacked his way through the log. He wasn’t trying to convince Bluth. He didn’t care about how Bluth felt because Bluth was not a part of the decision-making process. The only reason Bluth didn’t shove him right there and then was his knowledge of the radius of Cunningham’s swing. He left in a huff.
Cunningham sighed. He gave Salem a regretful glance: as far as the colony knew, Bluth and Cunningham were a team. Their friendship was the glue that kept Echuca from splitting down the middle. He demanded that Salem keep quiet about their argument.
The bonfire rose higher than the bungalows and caravans surrounding it. The very tips of its flame consumed the stars.
Its crackling was drowned out by the hubbub of people: hundreds of men, women, and children, none so far revealed to be monsters. It was a social gathering now, not a life-or-death procedure, as it had begun. Families and friends clumped in discrete groups. Children played. The older of the groups yearned for the long-forgotten smell of marshmallows and hot dogs.
Nashago sat on a stump by the fire. His face was silhouetted and unreadable. It had been a long night, well past his bedtime, but he wasn’t tired. This was his purpose. This was what he was good at. This was something worth staying up all night for.
Among the last people to be processed were Molly and her baby James. Molly was nervous. Lips pursed, nose scrunched, eyes darting. Nashago sensed all of this, the heart racing, the destructive thoughts racing through her head, the uncertainty, the paranoia, but what he didn’t sense was any trace of that churning, twisting, ugly, unnatural stench. No images of swimming viruses and boiling insects and uncanny shrieks of an inhuman presence. Molly was clean, and so was James.
Any outside observer (of which there were many) would have seen him examine Molly for a few seconds, then, in a soft voice, declare her to be good.
Torrent and Summers were content to sit in the shadows away from the fire. Molly searched for them, found them, sat down next to them, and nestled up against Summers, who was taken aback by the familiarity. Summers’ fingers paused above Molly’s head, uncertain whether the gesture would be considered too presumptuous, but she swallowed and stroked her hair. Molly was sticky with sweat and fear. Summers apologized for the loss of her mother. Molly forgave her. Her mother had died a long time ago and they were helpless to change it. She asked if Summers would hold James for a moment.
Summers nodded. She heaved as Molly plopped James into her lap. As Molly stood to leave, she froze at the sound of a gruff voice, faint at first. Then louder, angrier, pushing its way past the hubbub of people.
Bluth muscled up to them. His eyes were locked dead on Summers and James. It wasn’t right for Summers to be holding him.
Summers made some flippant comment about the whole thing being none of Bluth’s business, but this only made him angrier. He thrust his arms to tear James from her grasp and it took both Torrent and Molly to pull him off, yelling and thrashing.
Cunningham once again intervened with a firm clasp on Bluth’s back. He gave Bluth a broad, false smile. Nashago had declared him to be good, and while they were having this weird needless argument, almost everyone who hadn’t already been tested had gone through the procedure and passed. The only one who Nashago still needed to examine was Bluth.
Torrent pointed out that Nashago had already talked to Bluth. He was fine. But Cunningham insisted that everyone go through the procedure and that no preferential treatment would be awarded. Bluth, like everyone else, would have to sit down in front of Nashago and sweat.
Bluth dug in his jacket for a cigarette. He’d forgotten his pack.
Cunningham sat Bluth on the log across from Nashago.
Nashago was seething with hatred. With his back to the bonfire, his face was darkened, so only Bluth was privy to the expression. Bluth didn’t care. He barked out an order for Nashago to speed it up.
Nashago scowled. Studied Bluth. This man had insulted him and bullied him. He wanted him to be a monster. His eyes tracked from the muddy tips of his work boots to the frayed collar of his jacket …
It was disappointing, really. Bluth was human. No squirming terrors, no writhing horrors, no monsters. Just an asshole. Nashago was about to declare him good, but just before he made a sound, he stopped. And deliberated.
His smile disappeared quickly and the words were only a whisper. Bad, bad kill bad monster death not not not human bad bad bad bad bad bad bad —
All other voices evaporated. Even those out of earshot at the edge of the clearing could sense something was wrong. Food hung in people’s mouths. Drinks slopped. A few whispers of confusion, a few more of fear …
It took Bluth a moment to process. First disbelief, then surprise, then —
— boiling hot rage as he leapt out of his seat to strangle Nashago, fat fingers around a chubby neck, only held back by Cunningham and two other men prying him off as they endured frantic kicks and slobbering unintelligible insults and spittle flying, the others all screaming in panic and anger and —
Bluth sat chained to a stump outside the holding cell. They had elected to keep him nearby as they cleared out the mess from the previous occupant.
His arms were tied behind his back with loose wire they’d dug out of the defunct electrical system of the caravan. Cunningham used to be a scout leader. He knew how to tie knots. Bluth was outraged. Restraints wouldn’t hold a monster. They could treat him like a human or a monster—it’s their choice—but they ought to be consistent.
Cunningham, Torrent, Summers, Salem, and the strongest, burliest hunters of the colony focused their efforts on clearing out buckets of burned, blackened skin. Salem pulled out a human tooth the size of a boulder and felt bile building up in his throat. He threw it down before he could look at it any longer.
Cunningham berated him for not cleaning out the cell like he’d asked. Salem apologized and retreated behind the holding cell. He sat down in the brace position on an upturned, rotting picnic table. He kept his breathing steady so he wouldn’t vomit.
Summers and Torrent carted out a charred carcass. It was twisted into a cross between a human and an insect, human bones splitting through the skin, coarse hairs twisting around twitching appendages, fingernails so long they sliced through its engorged palm, eye sockets in the wrong place, skull in the wrong place, spine wrong, belly wrong, groin wrong, wrong wrong wrong —
Summers, once, had seen these things alive. She woke up screaming in the night for months and still suffered from nightmares. Bodies cracking and morphing and twitching as they approached. Wrapping themselves around her. Consuming her. Copying her. Crunching her bones and organs as they shifted around her, expelling waste, sprouting new limbs and ejecting them as soon as they came, squashing her head until her brain leaked through the cracks. She would dream of erasing the world.
They dumped the carcass into a garbage bag and washed their hands in a makeshift tupperware container filled with dish soap.
Torrent whispered to her. What did she think about Bluth? Why didn’t Nashago pick up on it before? Summers wasn’t sure. Maybe Bluth had been taken in the interim. But if that were the case, there would have been more than one monster in the colony. The other option, of course, was unthinkable. Nashago wasn’t allowed to make mistakes. Their livelihoods relied on his infallibility.
Cunningham interjected and asked if anything was wrong. Torrent gave him a convincing smile. They were fine.
The other men brought in a high-pressure hose and pumped water. Spraying off the edges of the holding cell. Carefully collecting soggy chunks of the monster in plastic bags as it all came pouring out of the cell.
Once they were done, they shoved Bluth inside. Sat him on a chair. He pointed out that if he was a monster, he probably would have killed them all already.
They pointed out that if he was a monster, he’d be trying to convince them he was human.
All he had right now was intent. You can’t prove intent.
Torrent kneaded his head as he paced.
Their room was cramped. A small section carved out of an otherwise empty hostel. Two small beds, one for Nashago and one for Torrent and Summers to share. A hook on the wall for coats, which Summers and Torrent preferred to fold neatly and place on the little dresser. They used the hooks to keep Torrent’s machete and Summers' recurve bow. A quiver lay on the floor, knocked over, arrows spilling out.
Nashago curled up on the bed. Stared at his hands. Twiddled his thumbs faster and faster and faster until Summers sat down next to him and propped him upright.
She thought about what to say to calm him, but she was so filled with rage that she couldn’t think of how to phrase it well. So she phrased it badly but filled her words with an undeserved soft and motherly tone. She asked him what the Christ he was thinking … sweetie? Was something wrong?
Nashago’s eyes went glassy. His lip quivered. He nodded.
She asked him if he had told a lie.
She asked him if he felt bad.
She asked him if he was sorry. If he regretted what he had done. If he would change it if he could.
She expected him to nod but he couldn’t bear to look at her. He stared at his feet.
Summers snarled. Disgusted. She stood fast and grabbed Torrent. Her grip was so firm that his feet gave way underneath him. He righted himself and stopped pacing. What could they do? Bluth was human. He wasn’t a monster. They had to keep it a secret.
Summers was as disgusted with Torrent as she was with Nashago. Being accepted wasn’t worth a man’s life.
She shrunk back as Torrent shouted that they weren’t going to spend another decade eating roadkill in the outback. This was the final bastion of human civilization in a world that had been wiped clean. Now Nashago had put them in jeopardy because he condemned an innocent man to death for no other reason than he didn’t like him. They didn’t have an option here. They have to let Bluth die so they can stay in the colony.
Summers stroked his cheek to quiet him.
They pressed their foreheads against one another. Torrent’s head was warm after being worked up into a frenzy. Summers awarded him a faint, tinkly laugh.
Like they had done a thousand times, stuck in their ratty old tent with monsters squirming five feet away, they reaffirmed their vows. Never leave each other’s sight. Never be alone in a world that kills the lonely.
Bluth’s snores were interrupted by the aluminum flaps smacking against the boarded-up windows outside. He stirred. Neck sore from sleeping on the concrete. He grabbed his chair from the corner where he had kicked and beaten it into hours earlier out of rage and frustration. He put the chair in the center of the room and sat in it. He closed his eyes. It was more comfortable than the floor.
His eyes snapped opening at the sound of skittering.
He jumped off the chair. Ready to pounce. Something was in the room with him. Eyes darting left, right, down, up. Floors clear, walls clear, ceiling —
He woke up with a start the next morning. He had slid off the chair in his sleep. As his ears stopped ringing, he was accosted by the knocking at the door.
Cunningham’s voice was muffled from outside. He ordered Bluth to sit cross-legged in the middle of the floor with his hands raised high. Bluth complied. Legs crossed, hands high, eyes narrowed in anger.
The door creaked as it opened. Cunningham squeezed his way in. Bluth asked if he was alone. Cunningham said, yes, this was something he needed to do for himself. He needed to be sure.
Bluth’s rage turned to fear when he noticed the branding iron, white-hot. He leapt up with a million objections on his tongue. Cunningham apologized. Bluth shrunk from the heat. Heart racing. Adrenaline pumping. He muttered, no, it’s his, listen, the kid, James …
Bluth wiped the sweat off his forehead. He wasn’t able to stop himself. Molly sitting there on a rock at the edge of the river, him showing her how to reel in the line, falling over one another and in her innocence mistaking it for something else, something more meaningful than he intended.
Cunningham took a step forward. It wasn’t enough. A lot can happen in a year. But Bluth asserted that if this whole mess was going to get sorted, Cunningham would have to trust him. He was falsely accused, and he needed to prove his innocence, and he needed to make things right with Molly.
Cunningham lowered the branding iron.
The door slammed shut. Cunningham swivelled, eyes widening, turning back in time to see Bluth bearing his teeth. No emotion. Dead eyes. Too late.
Salem met with them in what had once been a gourmet fudge shop. It had been repurposed into a processing unit for the fish they caught in the Murray, and it smelled of grime and weeds. Torrent coughed and Summers patted him on the back. She asked what was so urgent.
Salem explained that Cunningham had run some tests and determined that Bluth was human. On Bluth’s request, the colony was out for blood. They were going to hunt down Nashago and bring him to justice.
Summers thanked him for the information. The others in the colony would choose to believe whatever truth was most comforting, but Salem was different. He was smart.
Torrent wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to know what Salem knew that nobody else did.
Salem figured Cunningham would never let Bluth call something like that. It wasn’t like him. He would consider it an admission of defeat. And, in a similar vein, Bluth would never have accepted a victory like this without leveraging it against Cunningham’s leadership.
Torrent nodded. These were not circumstances that could mend a fractured relationship. The colony was lost.
The hostel had once been a city museum. Looters, long ago, had torn down the plaques and displays and stripped them for their copper wiring. The colony picked up where the looters left off by steam-cleaning the floors, blasting the wooden paneling with pesticides, and tearing down walls between the rooms. They rebuilt it as a temporary residence for newcomers. In the first few years, these newcomers were regular, but as time passed the hostel had been cycled out entirely and now its only residents were Torrent, Summers, and Nashago. Which is why the mob had no qualms about breaking down the walls once again.
The door shook from the pounding. Summers scanned the halls, hoping Nashago would emerge from his room and they wouldn’t have to decide whether to save him, but their door remained shut. She could hear Nashago wailing from inside.
Could they save him? There wasn’t enough time unless he was willing to save himself. Torrent didn’t believe he’d be amenable. Summers knew Nashago well enough to agree. He would resist until the mob had torn him from their arms.
The front door splintered and the mob poured in. Bouncing off each other, more a fluid than a collection of individuals. Shouting and cursing and rioting. Summers grabbed Torrent by the scruff of his collar and dragged him out the back exit. If the mob noticed their escape, they chose to descend on Nashago instead. Dozens of bodies pressed up against the door to his room. Smashing the wood. Splintering it. Poking their arms and legs and heads through the gashes. Shouting obscenities at the lone figure perched on the bed.
Nashago clutched his head and wailed.
The colony had subsisted by growing its own food within its walls. A miraculous season of rainfall had made the forests by the Murray rich and after a summer of chopping down trees they had made themselves a plot of land to plant corn.
Torrent and Summers hid among the corn. The mob won’t think to search in the fields, and if they did, they wouldn’t be able to find them here without coordination.
They wanted this, Summers figured. Something in those people had snapped. Paranoia taxes the brain and grows weights in your gut to be dragged around throughout the day. To have an enemy that was real, that was right in front of them, clear as day, an enemy that unified them, it made them excited and wild and erratic. And relieved.
Torrent brushed her hair out of her eyes. He was taken aback at her beauty: yellow slivers of light curving against her sunburnt face through the rows of corn. Freckled skin and shining eyes. He didn’t have to say anything. She knew all he wanted was to stop running and to stop hurting the people around them.
It hurt her to tell him they couldn’t say. And he was hurt, but he knew it was true. There was no way of fixing this. Bluth was human when they locked him away, but he wasn’t human anymore. Which meant Cunningham was dead, too. They’ll overrun the compound soon. And it was too late to save Nashago.
Summers and Torrent agreed to grab their weapons and equipment before they made a break for the exit. Their next step was finding Molly and James. The kid could see the monsters. He was a bargaining chip, and he was well worth the risk.
The sun passed across the river and touched the tips of the tallest trees. The shadows were long and asymmetric. The colony was quiet, and this worried Summers. They snuck to the hostel and slipped in between the broken walls. There were signs of a struggle: boot marks dragging mud across the floor, blood smeared along the base of the walls, heavy cracks in the plaster …
When they pushed through the splinters of the door, they expected their room to be torn to shreds, their belongings burned. But, instead, the beds were unmade, their hiking packs laid on the floor, and their weapons still hung from the hooks in the wall.
And Nashago still sat on the bed.
Summers gave him a suspicious glance. He refused to acknowledge their entrance. This wasn’t unusual for Nashago, but they felt different about it now that he had spent so long out of their sight. Torrent kept an eye trained on him as he gathered up the weapons and supplies. He brandished his machete. Summers hefted her bow. She reached for an arrow from her quiver.
At the sound of a horrible crack, the arrow was notched and readied.
The noise came from the door.
Cunningham stood there, boots nestled among the splinters, hands flexing.
He muttered something about searching everywhere for them. Summers told him to stand down. Arrow aimed at his throat. He feigned disbelief: how dare they threaten him! After all, had he not shown them unprecedented hospitality? Had he not stood up for them? Had he not vouched for their innocence?
She shot him in the neck.
Nashago screamed. Cunningham screamed, and his screams grew wet and sloppy. A gurgle. And both of their screams morphed into something utterly alien, utterly inimitable by humankind, the hum of a bowstring, the chirp of an insect, the screech of a planet’s rings falling apart. Their voices cascaded until the walls shook.
Torrent and Summers bolted for the door.
Cracking of bones. Squelching of flesh. The sounds of transforming, hitting them in the back like a shockwave, but to look back is death, never look back, never look at them, never never look —
It took a few moments before Molly had calmed down enough to speak. Summers waited until she could feel Molly’s heartbeat slow to a manageable pace before she took her hand off her mouth with an apologetic look. She didn’t want to hurt her.
Molly wiped her lips. A million objections spewing forth from her tongue, accusations of betrayal and trickery and —
The only thing Summers could say that brought her back to the present was the hint that Nashago wasn’t the only one who could see the monsters for who they were.
Her son. He was special.
Molly held James in front of her. His blank expression, which had always worried her, now took on a new light. His cold demeanor finally had meaning. No longer an indication of poor parentship but of the fact that she has given birth to something truly unique, something with meaning and power in this world, an indication that her struggle and her uncertainty and all the nights she’d lost sleep bawling from frustration were worth it.
She could barely pay attention as Summers explained what it all meant. At James’ age, the abilities would come and go, and it would be even longer before he understands what he’s seeing. But when he grew up, he would become the most powerful person in the world.
Molly nodded. There were boats on the docks by the river. The giant boats with the spinning wheels had long since been decommissioned, but there were still functional motorboats locked up. They’d need the director’s key.
The director’s office was in disrepair. Like the hostel, a fight had taken place. Desks were overturned. Drawers yanked out of their sockets. Chairs broken. Black goo dripped from the walls and its pungent, rotting odor made it difficult to breathe.
Summers found the boat keys beside a pack of cigarettes in an overturned drawer. She pocketed both.
Something slithered in the shadows.
Summers notched an arrow in the direction of the sound. Torrent approached, machete drawn, using a broken stool as a shield.
Bluth stepped from the shadows. He was wrong, in every sense, every part of him fragile. Skin pulled tight over his cheekbones. Making no pretensions about his true form. One of his hands drooped to the floor, fingers so long they grasped at his ankles. His mouth was full of glass and his voice was unrecognisable, something about leaving them forever, something about their puny rigid bodies, and in a flash his neck ripped backwards and rough, veiny appendages burst in a spray of blackened fluid, and before the tendrils could jab through Molly’s chest, Torrent chopped them in half.
Bluth lunged for him. Summers released an arrow, thwack, into the side of his head, doing nothing to slow him down until Torrent rammed the blade through his neck.
Molly screamed. The father of her child, cut in two, blood gushing from the stump, the severed head still gasping for the air in a stew of its own blood on the ground, the body still taking a few stumbling steps forward, arms outstretched —
James watched with cold, scientific eyes.
Summers’ voice was only a faint buzz. All Molly caught was something about him not being real, just an imitation, but of course, she already knew that. She knew he was long dead. She snapped out of it as the body and head crawled towards one another, sprouting insectoid legs, grasping and gasping in their union. Bone-shattering crunch.
The transformation wasn’t complete. Summers grabbed Molly’s hand and sprinted after Torrent through the school halls before the monster’s true form could emerge.
The colony had been massacred.
The smell was so overpowering they had to wade through it like a bog. Molly held back vomit. The entire city square was littered with the corpses of the townspeople. Ripped to shreds. All dead or dying. Vocal chords ripped out. Throats slit. Torn to pieces and rotting in the light of the setting sun.
Salem lay against a bungalow, his legs ten feet away, connected only by a long line of nerves and muscle tissue. He was still alive. He could only raise his arm halfway up. Could only move his head an inch. Could only see vague shapes through the blood streaming over his eyes. Could only croak out two words.
Torrent was struck by Summers’ beauty. She stood straight, arms stretched in the perfect form of an Olympic archer, hair flying in the wind, and he smiled at the absolute certainty in her face as she let the arrow fly with a twang, barely looking to make sure she had hit her target, refilling her hand with an arrow in case of future threats.
Salem slumped, an arrow through his head, no more peaceful in death. If there was such thing as a soul, his would be broken, and there was nothing they could do to fix it.
Infants screaming for their mommies.
Molly felt that tingly sensation from her toes to the top of her head.
The nursery was covered in a mound of corpses, piled up, collapsing on one another. Something squirmed from within, slithering out of sight, and the sound of screaming infants, calling out to their mothers, crying for anyone to save them, all of it was cut short.
Torrent pushed Molly. Urged her to keep moving.
The ground rumbled beneath their feet.
The monsters knew where they were. They were coming for them.
Never look back. Never, never look back.
There was a small motorboat tied up at the banks of the river. Molly whipped off the tarp cover, slipping, soaking her dress, drenching James, but still managing to lug her water-heavy form over the side of the boat and stay still. The boggy smell of the Murray overpowered the smell of the bodies. She found she could finally breathe.
Summers checked the tanks. Empty. Not good enough. She looked around for Torrent and found, to her great distress, that he was gone.
No, he wasn’t gone. There he was, lagging behind, heaving from the effort, carrying a fuel tank through the blood and the mud, and with a cough and a grunt he threw the fuel tank into the boat. Molly scrambled to twist off the cap. Dumped the gas into the motor.
Torrent mumbled some reassuring words, lost as the ground rumbled and shook and knocked them over, smearing them in the mud from the banks, twigs and rocks and dead fish sticking to their clothes. Molly twisted the keys in the motor. The metal cut into her fingers. She sobbed as the motor sputtered, again, sputtered, again, nothing —
Summers reached up the side of the boat and stopped her. She’d kill the engine if she kept doing that. They needed to get away from the banks so the blades would have room to spin. Molly nodded. Summers shoved the boat waist-deep through murky water. They clambered in one after the other, Torrent extending a hand to pull Summers up in with him, sharing a quick, thankful kiss as the motor finally sputtered to life and —
The roar of the motor matched the roar of the monsters behind them.
The boat sped off down the river.
Weaving past toppled trees.
Nobody dared look back at the banks of the colony.
Except James. James watched the monsters on the banks with fascination. No longer a set of individuals: a fleshy, incoherent mass, one singular mind shrieking in hatred and dismay.
They ate rations out of Summers’ bag. It all tasted like sawdust.
Molly breastfed James, and when she was done, he closed his eyes. To Molly, her baby was content, but to Summers, she could sense that underneath he was stewing with unease.
She mentioned, off-hand, that Molly must know why they insisted on bringing her with them. Molly held James close. She nodded. They’d have to avoid other humans until he was old enough to communicate with them. His abilities would come and go until then. Molly was scared, and Summers reassured her that she was in good hands. They’d keep her safe.
James opened his eyes. A serenity. A distinct sense of purpose. He stared at Torrent.
Molly poked at him. She wanted his attention, but he wouldn’t break his gaze.
He pointed at Torrent.
Torrent stared back. Empty eyes. And the enormity of it hit Summers all at once.
She screamed in agony at the loss and the injustice, sending Molly scrambling back to the edge of the boat, perturbing James, for once breaking through and sending him doubts: did he do good? And all the while Torrent’s gaze shifted to her. Utterly dispassionate. When she had finished gasping, and when her moaning had given way to tears, he proposed that they get it over with.
Summers shook her head.
This surprised him. He studied her face. Taken aback by the sincerity. He found her wish incomprehensible: she wanted to pretend, for a little while, that nothing had happened.
Waves lapped against the edges of the boat.
Summers leaned into him. Slowly. Gingerly. Pressing her head against his chest. Their fingers interlocked. His heart had a steady, slow beat, and although it was only an imitation, Summers took comfort in the rhythm.
The sun set.
The boat drifted down the river.
They were safe.
Lachie Holden grew up in Warrnambool, Australia, and spent most of his youth gorging himself on the downright excellent fudge selection. He moved to Melbourne with his mates at the drinking age of 18 years old and just bloody went to town on the goon. He writes to forget those difficult times. He is now 19 years old, and works for an improvisational theater company in the CBD.
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