This Wet Red
by Marisca Pichette
I lie listening to a mouse in the wall. Its tiny feet scrabbling across worn boards; its tiny heart beating and beating and beating.
Its not so tiny pursuer winds through the dark, a soft caress of scales over pine. I track the path of the monster unseen from one end of the room to another, steady in pursuit. It knows the mouse cannot escape. It knows there are only so many empty spaces in the house.
Scratch scratch scratch. Squeak. The mouse erupts from the corner and runs down to the floor. I sit up in bed, tracking its progress between my bare feet. From above, I hear the relentless monster drinking the scent of its prey, following it into the open.
Open-ish. It is almost totally dark in the room. In the house. There is no power anymore.
After the candles ran out, I located a box of crayons and burned them one by one, like I read once in a Tumblr post. Internet hack pulling through and outlasting its source.
I follow the chase with my ears more than my eyes. The three-foot predator slips down the wall, hits the floor with a muffled thump that reminds me of tenderizing chicken, back when I had chicken to tenderize. The mouse is hiding somewhere; I lost track of it when it fled beneath the bed. Without the hero, I follow the antagonist instead. The milk snake hugs the floor, tongue lashing the dark. I sit still as it pulls itself under the bed.
Scuffle. Scratch scratch scratch. Sque—
The next sounds make me think of the house, and the house I stayed in before. Wet and full of bones. I think about the house before that, and the trailer before that house, and the apartment, and the motel. Thick swallowing and the smell of silence.
After a few minutes, I get up and reach under the bed. The snake is sluggish after its meal, and I snatch it easily. It is more filling than a mouse on its own.
When I run out of snakes and mice, I move into another house. Sometimes there are others inside, hiding like me. But this one was empty when I got here. I spend the days sleeping for as long as I can, hoarding my strength and gagging my hunger. Day is good. Day is safe. The monster sleeps during the day.
At night, though, I have to be alert. I don’t move around; I don’t have the energy to burn. I lie on the bed, and wait.
Tonight, I eat the last snake. Tomorrow, I walk outside. The sun is bland, strangled by clouds and indecisive precipitation. It could be rain, it could be sleet. It might be something else entirely. I take a fresh coat from this house and set out. The sleeves are too short but too wide also, and I hunch, balling my fists in the pockets. I find two used tissues and a melted cough drop.
I eat the cough drop. I shove the tissues into my jeans pockets, in case I need them later.
This is the eighth coat I’ve taken. They keep disappearing.
Outside of the house I have choices. Choices-ish. I can choose which direction to go. I know not to go south; south is where the monster is. South is wet and red and brown.
I think about going east. Across the overgrown field, I see disused tobacco barns, thin trees, and far off—hills. I could shelter in a barn, but there wouldn’t be any food besides what I can catch. In a house there’s a chance of finding something packaged. I turn north and start walking.
The grass comes up to my knees, clinging to my legs and dropping seeds over my shins. My boots wick away some of the moisture, but water is tenacious. Soon my socks are wet and cold. I curl in on myself, squinting my eyes against the wet air.
Mist eddies over the field, weaving around a wooden fence and dropping away on the other side. I extend my stride, chewing my lip and shaking stray hairs from the corners of my eyes. When I get close enough to look over the fence, I smile. The road.
A road. I don’t know if this is one I’ve found before. It’s cracked like the other, with shoots crawling up between the veins of asphalt and turning brown where the ends have been snagged by frost. I hop the fence and begin walking, heading west now. Out of habit, I check the watch on my right hand. It’s fractured, the time stuck at 6:34. I look up at the emotionless clouds. Half-formed ice crystals sting my eyes.
I should be fine. I have time. Maybe five hours, if I’m lucky. Morning is hard to tell. I think it might be 10:00. I’ll be fine.
I don’t walk fast. I can’t afford the waste. I lope along the road, letting my weight determine each step, gritting my teeth as the wetness on my legs draws the heat from my skin. I try to make the sleeves of my new coat meet the tops of the pockets, but it’s useless and my skinny wrists gleam in the gap. Tiny ice crystals plant seeds of cold along my arms.
Eventually the road leads to a neighborhood. It is quiet; probably evacuated due to the warnings. I feel like an intruder, but I tell myself I’m a refugee. No one is coming back to these houses. I skip the first one and go to the second. I always skip the first house.
On the steps are two flowerpots. I move each, checking underneath before feeling through the dead stalks and digging in the dirt. Empty-handed, I step up onto the porch and kick away the doormat.
A key lies in the dust. I roll my eyes and pick it up. “Can you be any more obvious?”
I unlock the door and let myself into the dim interior of the house. I’m surprised to find it warm. Was the heat not turned off in this area? I close the door as quietly as I can, the key clutched in my other hand. As warmth begins to permeate my limbs, I inhale, smelling for death.
Of course, monsters don’t need heat. That’s for the living. Something further inside rattles.
I close my eyes and follow the movement with my ears. Then I clear my throat. “Hi.”
When I open my eyes, a woman is standing in front of me. Her hair is grey and matted, her clothes hanging loose as my new coat. She’s holding a pair of scissors in one hand.
She stares at me. “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
I pocket the key and jerk my head back towards the road. “Came from the farmlands, down east.”
She doesn’t lower the scissors. “The farms? I thought they were evacuated. I thought the monster came.”
“It did. They were. I thought this neighborhood was evacuated, too.”
Her hands are shaking. Not a good sign. She probably doesn’t have food. “I stayed.”
The others said that, too. That’s why they were still in their homes, alone and starving when the monster came. They had their reasons, of course—what good it did them. Land inherited through generations, nostalgia, investment, family…all faded and failed at the end. But reasons intrigued me. I never stayed, not when the monster came, and those people died, and I was left alone. What drove people to sit and wait for death?
“Why?” I ask.
She shrugs. It’s so out of place on her, in here, now. “This is my home. We’ve stayed through storms and wars. What makes this different?”
Because this is personal. There aren’t soldiers or armies. There’s just us, and it.
And it’s coming.
I decide not to voice the truth, the memory of all those others who sat, while I kept moving. Instead I extend my hand, making her twitch and raise the scissors higher. “My name’s Leiki. Can I stay with you for the night?”
I have time to pick another house, if she says no. But I don’t know that I’ll find another key, and breaking a door or window will waste valuable energy, not to mention compromise the security of my shelter.
She frowns, and I can almost taste her gaze traversing my face, my eyes. My stomach rumbles. “Pretty name, Leiki. What’s that….Japanese?”
She doesn’t try to push me. “Helen,” she says, and lowers the scissors. “You can stay, if you must. But I don’t have much.”
I was wrong. She does have food. Food-ish. For her age, Helen is a survivor.
We go into the kitchen, where three skinned squirrels are lying on the counter. I tense at the smell of blood and fresh meat. She sees my expression and misinterprets, gesturing to a birdfeeder outside the window. “Electric. I fry ‘em when they come for the seed.”
I make up my mind to stay with Helen for more than one night.
As the days pass, I begin to feel more like myself. Eating squirrels and songbirds isn’t much, but it works. Helen doesn’t talk a lot, which is another blessing. You can say a lot without words.
I’d fuck her, if I had the strength.
I still listen for mice, and catch them when I can. That earns my keep. I’m like a stray cat, steadily culling the vermin to ensure I can stay longer. But they run out eventually. One night a week into my stay, I lie awake and hear nothing.
Something is moving around outside. I stay lying down as long as possible, unwilling to expend the strength to investigate. Food has gotten scarce, and hunger is starting to creep through me, unstoppable. To distract myself, I lie and listen to the thing outside as it creeps around the yard.
Something like footsteps, and a deep, strong heartbeat. Four legs. I close my eyes, biting on my lip until I taste blood.
Through my window on the second floor I can’t see it. But I hear as it approaches the house. It begins scratching, trying to get in. I will it to find this place empty, to try the first house instead. Wouldn’t it go to the first house?
White light flashes from outside, and the monster bellows. I lie frozen, then remember Helen’s birdfeeder. It runs on a generator in the basement; a generator that will keep working as long as there is gas to fuel it.
The monster must’ve touched the wires. I hold my breath, listening for more. Maybe it went away. Maybe it died.
Helen’s voice. I get up, put my coat on, and come down the stairs. She is waiting at the bottom. “I think it’s knocked out,” she says.
I go to the kitchen window. It’s too dark to see outside. All I find is a hazy reflection of my face, blood dripping down my chin. My stomach twists.
“I’m going to look,” I say. Helen grabs my arm.
“Leiki, don’t.” Her voice is thinned by fear. I look at her, or the shadow that I know is her. I tried to fight it. I really did.
I’ll remember her more than the others.
I pull away from her grip, using some of my precious strength. “I have to see.” I walk over to the back door and turn the deadbolt.
I can hear her heart, fast and fragile. Before she can stop me, I open the door. Something black shifts in the gloom.
The monster is here. When I turn around, Helen screams.
Morning. I am lying in the yard. My coat is gone. All around me the grass is flattened and crusted over with frost. Birdseed dapples the grass like sun. I sit up, brushing seeds and frost and blood from my face.
The back door is open. I don’t want to see; I know what I’ll find. But I get up anyway. I walk anyway. I look anyway.
Inside Helen’s house it is wet and red. Helen is spread everywhere, over the counters, the floor, the windows. She makes it all the way to the front door. I use this door to leave, wiping my feet on the mat. I don’t bother to close the door. There’s no heat left to let out.
I keep the key. It’s something.
Before I go to the next house, I walk around the back and stare at the flattened grass. My limbs feel stronger, my body warmer than it’s been in weeks. I bend down and pick up a tuft of black hair. There’s another. I follow the trail until I find the bear stretched out in the grass, its neck twisted and broken. Its fur is torn and matted with blood. I lick my lips, remembering the taste.
As I back away, I shiver. It has my coat in its mouth.
About the Author
Marisca Pichette is a queer author of speculative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She studied at Mount Holyoke College and the Stonecoast MFA Program, and presented at the 42nd International Conference of the Fantastic Arts. Her work has appeared in PseudoPod, Daily Science Fiction, Room, Voyage, and more. She lives in Western Massachusetts.
About the Narrator
Autumn Ivy is a voice actor, model, cosplayer, twitch streamer, and jack of all trades. PseudoPod fans may be interested in listening to the stories she’s narrated for The Bone Collector. Go follow the links in the show notes for more of her work.