Happy Halloween week, FIREreaders!
We are excited to share with a creepy short story from Amelinda Bérube, author of The Dark Beneath the Ice and Here There Are Monsters. Read below for all of the chills.
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Umami by Amelinda Bérube
Their progress through the woods had slowed to a stagger, but they kept going. They had to.
Jane shoved one booted foot through the layers of fallen leaves, then the other. Imagination kept her fear burning, prodding her forward with what if on an endless loop. What if that thing that had been her father had lurched impossibly to its feet, bent-necked and grinning, and come after them? But the sun was going down, the sky fading to pink and lavender behind the trees, and they wouldn’t be able to push forward much longer.
Emmett, ahead of her, cried out. “Look!”
Jane squinted in the direction he pointed, but the pale, twilit trees refused to stop moving after she turned her head, sliding past like tall, mocking ghosts.
“Whoa, whoa.” He caught her elbow, kept her from falling. She squeezed her eyes shut, hauled in deep breaths. Under her coat sleeve and a makeshift bandage, her arm throbbed, a hot, steady pulse. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
As soon as the spinning subsided, she glared at him until he withdrew his touch.
“Sure,” she said. “Peachy.”
His lips twisted, and he huffed a sigh.
“Come on,” he said, and as he set off into the trees, she saw it: the wide, black mouth of a window. The mossy expanse of a roof. It almost blended into the woods, almost disappeared, but right angles made shapes that couldn’t help but stand out, even when they swelled and sagged and warped.
The rusted-out excuse for a lock didn’t stand up to Emmett’s attack with a stone. A punching bag had been sitting in the corner of her dad’s basement, waiting to be hung up, since Emmett and his mom had moved in. Apparently it wasn’t just for show.
Musty disuse sighed out to meet them as the door swung inward: mildew and an old, sour smell, like cat pee. Emmett flicked on the flashlight on his phone, and the light quivered over a single room: the sagging remains of a couch, a wood stove huddled in the corner. A set of stairs led to a loft under the peak of the roof, where another window let in the fading sky.
“Perfect,” he declared. “There’s even a wood pile outside. Maybe we can light a fire.”
“Someone might see the smoke,” Jane said.
The look they shared was silent. Someone.
“Jane.” Emmett’s low voice was probably supposed to be soothing. A tremble gave it away. “He’s dead. After a fall like that—he has to be dead.”
Emmett hadn’t been the one locked in a horrible wrestling match at the top of the stairs, trapped in her father’s iron arms, failing to fight him off. Emmett hadn’t been the one fixed under his glazed and dreamy stare. Closing her eyes made the memory worse, more real. The nightmare plunge into empty space as she’d toppled them over the edge. The meaty, final crack of bone. The body—the cut-string puppet—she’d scrambled up and away from, its limbs splayed over the stairs and head tipped horribly wrong.
But Emmett had seen it. That alien imitation of her father. He’d seen its hands still twitching after her.
He has to be dead. Emmett was trying to convince himself as much as her.
“We have to block the door,” Jane said.
Emmett insisted on hauling some wood inside first, but he helped her push the couch across the room, leaving white gouges in the dingy floor. Jane sat down hard as they gave it a last shove, the darkness reeling around her.
“Jane?” Emmett’s voice came from far away.
“Just a minute,” she panted. The world heaved, dancing to the beat of her pulse in her arm. “Just need a minute.”
“I’m going to try 911 again,” he said. But the few minutes he spent poking at his phone were marked only by the curse words he hissed through his teeth. Something skittered through the deepening dark on tiny, clawed feet.
Eventually Emmett sat down next to her, keeping a polite distance between them.
“You’re sure?” He kept his hands clasped between his knees. The tremble in his voice had grown. “About my mom?”
The blood dripping from her father’s hands—smeared across his smiling face—hadn’t been his, and it hadn’t been Jane’s. There was no reason to go into detail about what she’d found him crouched over. No reason to think about it herself; it wouldn’t change anything.
“Look, I know you hate us, but if there’s a chance—if there’s even a chance—”
“There’s not.” Tremors swept through her, icy and prickling. She hugged herself, tried to keep her teeth from chattering. “Please don’t make me talk about it. You don’t want to know.”
They sat together in silence. I know you hate us. Hate was the word she might have chosen, yesterday. It seemed limp and absurd now, a petty irritation. She didn’t hate Diane, her dad’s girlfriend. Partner. Whatever. And Emmett, well, she knew enough about him from school that liking him wasn’t an option. She usually heard his name in a raucous shout across the hallway from people whose attention she’d never been unlucky enough to attract. He was a smiling lieutenant for the self-appointed conformity police. Trapped in the same house, the two of them had maintained a cautious, awkward civility, a mutual understanding that this…thing…their parents had going didn’t mean they had to have anything to do with each other.
Until now, anyway.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “There wasn’t anything I could do.”
“I know.” He tipped his knee into hers. It might have been an awkward attempt at comfort. It was probably an accident. “I’m sorry too.”
Her body quaked. She couldn’t stop; she was trapped in some lizard-brain loop of automatic response. Adrenaline, trauma, blah blah blah. She huddled into her coat, but chills chased themselves down her arms and back.
“How’s your arm?” he ventured.
“Fine,” she said stonily, and then amended, “It hurts a bit.”
His worried look was still plain in the half light, his eyes dark and searching. He didn’t say anything, but his questions back at the house bounced through her head anyway. Oh my god, are you bleeding? Did he hurt you?
She hadn’t let him see. She hadn’t let him help. She’d just yanked a T-shirt from the laundry basket and tied it tight around the wound. It wasn’t that big, wasn’t hard to hide. Nothing major. See? She’d wiggled her fingers to demonstrate.
"We can stay here till it’s light out again,” Emmett said, heaving himself up from the floor. His silhouette moved around the cabin, poking the phone’s flashlight beam into cupboards and across shelves. “If the phone still doesn’t work, all we need to do is find a road. Flag someone down.” He opened a little metal canister, let out a triumphant “Ha! See? Matches.”
Jane stayed locked in a miserable knot against the couch. “I guess.” A scrabbling noise made them both jump, but it was only something overhead, some animal rattling across the roof. Her thoughts leaped up and died away again unvoiced. What if he’s not really dead? What if he’s already out there looking for us?
But she knew how that sounded, how Emmett would react. When she stayed silent, he gave the scoff and eyeroll she’d been bracing for anyway, turned his attention back to piling kindling in the stove. The match he struck sent orange light splashing over his face.
“There,” he said a moment later, once the flames licked along the wood, and settled another log on top. Looked like leadership camp was actually good for something. Who knew.
Reluctantly, Jane shuffled closer, ignoring Emmett’s presence. The heat was irresistible. But it didn’t reach her core, where the shivers radiated from. Her cheeks felt sun-scorched, hot and dry, but she couldn’t get warm. The gash in her arm kept time with her heart.
She sank onto the floor, ignoring the grit on the rough boards. It was a relief, not holding herself up, but the dim ceiling wouldn’t stop moving—or was that the ground swinging gently?
“Are you okay?”
“Not feeling so great,” she admitted, and closed her eyes. “I think I have a fever.”
“Maybe we should take a look at your arm,” Emmett said slowly, bending down next to her. “You might have an infection.”
She tugged away from him. “Don’t bother.”
“Look,” he said, “our parents are dead, you’re hurt, and we’re alone in the middle of fucking nowhere. Are you still going to keep this up? This…grade school bullshit? I’m not the enemy here.”
“Why,” she grated, “because you’ve seen the light? Because you’re suddenly so much better than all your asshole friends? I guess it’ll all be so different when things go back to normal, huh?”
He unlocked his phone instead of looking at her, poked at the keypad. Three numbers chirped into the silence.
“I don’t know if anything’s going back to normal after this,” he muttered.
Night slipped in, pooling in the cobwebby corners, rising around them by increments. The fire snapped and danced. Jane watched the flames, watched Emmett’s profile. She watched her dad bend over a bloody heap of a body.
No. She closed her eyes, tried to breathe. That wasn’t happening now. That was before. When he’d used his teeth to tear at something clutched in both hands, like a dog with its jaws clamped around a slab of meat. Before. When she’d stood nailed to the spot and told herself to look away, to focus on anything else, to study the one high-heeled shoe hanging off Diane’s toe, polished and shiny, red as lipstick.
That was before.
Emmett crouched over her again, tugging at the bandage around her arm. It hurt, but she was too sick and dizzy to protest. In the firelight, the cloth came away dark and bloody. There was so much blood. She was still there, still couldn’t look away. She couldn’t absorb what she was staring at. The blood dripping down her father’s chin. His blissed-out smile as he chewed.
“Jesus Christ.” The words echoed down to her, a shout from the top of a deep well. “This is a bite mark, Jane. Did he bite you?”
“Maybe.” Maybe it was just a dream. Maybe she was still dreaming. Had he bitten her? That smile. Lined in red. There was no such thing as past or present anymore. It was all now, all circling her in the firelit dark, a storm of fragments that cut like glass. The flames were teeth in a devil’s mouth, promising to eat her whole.
The fire must have eaten her because she was the fire. And then the fire was Emmett’s hands, clasping her face, trying to hold her still, and was he crying? He was. He was crying, crying over her, that was hilarious, her turn to laugh at him, but she couldn’t stop and it wasn’t laughing any more, it became something else, an awful sound, she couldn’t hear it because she was the sound, scraping shuddering out of herself, and she tasted blood and she couldn’t stop--
Jane broke back into reality with a gasp, like breaking through water into clean air. The hard floor held her up and sweat dripped down her clammy face.
She was as wobbly and wrung out as if she’d just run a race. And something was wrong with her eyes. Everything looked clotted and fuzzy, the moon a smear of icy white outside the window, the fire a sullen orange glow on her other side. The cabin. Right. Emmett.
Her thoughts were as unfocused as her eyes. Emmett was here somewhere. They were here, together, for a reason. Something had happened. But it didn’t seem very important.
Mostly, she was hungry.
And something…something smelled good.
Savory good. Butcher-shop good. Meat, red and juicy, waiting-for-the-grill good. God, what was that?
Her searching hand collided with something warm and solid beside her, and the smell coiled up from it, made her taste buds sing and her stomach crimp. She was so hungry.
Emmett. Somewhere. It was hard to pay attention to him. She pressed her nose into the fabric-covered ridges of a rib cage, drinking in the scent. It was making her dizzy.
“What is that?” she breathed.
“Jane,” Emmett choked, “I thought you were dead, I thought—”
“I can’t really see.” She spoke over him. “But that smell…”
Oh. Suddenly, in a rush of gratitude, she understood. Wow, had she misjudged him. He’d actually found them something to eat. She’d never been so glad to be wrong about somebody. “God, Emmett, you’re a genius. I’m starving.”
She pulled the shirt away and the smell enveloped her, that delicious smell, salty and moist and perfect. There. That was it, that’s where it came from. It occurred to her that he was making noise at her, somewhere far away, irrelevant. Something was shoving at her, trying to pull the fabric back into place, trying to twist away from her. Hands? They couldn’t really be hands, those fluttering butterfly things. They were too fragile. She caught them in one hand, pinned them down. They crunched in her grip.
“I’m really sorry, Emmett,” she said dreamily. “I’ve been kind of a jerk to you, haven’t I?”
His voice was a mosquito whine. She couldn’t make sense of it anymore. Where had he wandered off to, anyway? It didn’t matter. It could wait. What was important was the firelight sliding over skin and fat and muscle. Her mouth watered.
“Let’s talk about it later, okay?” She could taste it already, a sweet and savory tang, like perfect crispy bacon or rare steak. “Let’s talk about it after we eat.”
Who's got all of the creepy chills? We know we do!
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