The blue pills came first. Robin’s egg blue and smelling faintly chemical when Madeline opened the bottle. Then yellow, and a green the color of scum that grew on the pond her landlord called a “water feature.” Finally, a striated capsule all violet and cream. Madeline had liked that one. It made her feel like she was swallowing flower petals.
Her dealer told her that sometimes they would help her, but sometimes they wouldn’t. It depended on the batch. Everything depended on the exact calculations and levels in his body when he hooked himself into the machine and poured out all of the darkness he’d seen that week. Minimal input meant minimal output, and so she waited for the bottles and dry swallowed the pills faithfully.
The pills the government sent every month — pure white and as large as horse tranquilizers — kept her looped out of her mind but did nothing to stop the change. What the dealers supplied may be illegal and inconsistent, but at least it could control the change most of the time.
Plenty of weeks, she’d be on day three of the cycle and the shakes would start up. Her hands first, the fingers spidered over cheap Formica, and then her arms and legs shaking until she couldn’t stand. Delirium tremens without the addiction.
Still, she’d power through, drink glass after glass of water, try not to go near the windows, and chain herself down until the next bottle came.
It was at the end of the violet and cream pills when Bennie appeared outside of her door two days early. He usually came to see her on Saturdays, that beautiful glass bottle clasped in his hands, but it was only Thursday, and it was his face she saw through the peephole when she looked.
“Open the goddamn door, Madeline,” he said, and she threw the lock, pulled the door back so that only a sliver of sunlight poured into her apartment.
“You’re not supposed to be here. Not today.”
He held up the bottle. “You really going to tell me to leave?”
She opened the door wide, and he hurried past her. The air he brought with him smelled of cinnamon, and the back of her throat prickled with something like the reminder of a different life. A life before stale rooms and the taste of blood in her teeth. A life before all of those pills sinking like stones in her belly.
“Well? Let me see,” she said. He tossed her the bottle, and his hands fluttered at his side as if he wanted nothing more than to take back the movement, to secure the bottle and then run, but then his palms were pressed flat against his thighs, and he wouldn’t look at her. That part hadn’t changed.
She lifted the small glass cylinder, let it catch in the scant light coming from the single lamp, and it refracted back to her, a myriad of bright color that reminded her of things she’d long told herself to forget. A thin blanket soft and warm and the smell of baby powder She shook her head to rid herself of the thoughts.
“They’re pink,” she said, and he shifted his weight from his left foot to his right. Readying himself to move. To run if he had to. It almost made her smile when he did this kind of thing. Almost.
“Yeah. I’m trying something new.”
She barked out a laugh. “Whatever you say, boss.”
He turned his face further away from her and took a step forward.
“So now you want to leave? Act like a tough guy at the door and then don’t even want to stay for a drink?”
“You’ll like them. I promise, but I have to get going.”
“Sure, sure. All of those other clients to see. Right,” she said and retrieved the manila envelope from the drawer of her battered desk. Another relic of a past life. The only thing she kept after everything came apart.
He took the envelope from her with his fingertips, but before he could scurry out the door like some frightened animal, she gripped his shoulder and brought her lips close to his ear. “There aren’t that many of us left, right? If I’m not the last, I’m pretty fucking close, aren’t I?”
She knew what she must smell like to him. Acrid sweat and dirty hair, and underneath all of that the smell of rotted meat. Fetid and close.
“No,” he said, but she could smell the lie on him, felt it twitch through her blood, and she bowed her head. Within seconds, Bennie was out the door, and the interior world she’d built for herself went silent.
Thick dust coated her tongue, clotted against the back of her throat, and she went to the kitchen and poured a glass of water. The pills still rested on the counter, and she eyed them.
“A bottle of roses or candy hearts or some other cotton candy shit,” she said, but she still opened the bottle, tipped one of the pills into her hand and then swallowed it down. May as well see if the new pills were better than the old ones. She could switch back at the end of the next cycle if she needed to.
She always watched her hands first. Turned her palms face down so she could see the tops of her knuckles, watch the skin go the slightest bit smoother, the gnarled fingers relaxing, jagged fingernails receding into rounded half-moons. The pills never took everything away; her hair was still wild and thick, her eyes too large and slightly yellow, but they made it so she could pass for human as long as she didn’t draw attention to herself.
If it worked, she would sleep, and the dreams would flood her mouth, the slick taste of blood on her tongue, and she would gobble down all of those terrible things Bennie had seen, and it would keep her safe until another cycle passed. Keep her from tearing her way out of the apartment, roaming under a bright, round moon until she found what she needed. Hot blood hidden behind the thinnest cage of flesh.
But it had never been the need for blood that changed her into something monstrous. Had never been the drive to hunt that made her spine arch and crack, the limbs lengthening and jaw elongating so the newly formed teeth could snip and snap and tear. No, it wasn’t the blood. It was what bloomed inside of the blood. All of the dark secrets people tucked away. Jealousy or anger or hatred. Terrible sins like dark fruits waiting for her to pluck them, to bring them to her lips and drain them dry.
She’d tried injecting herself with the blood alone, but it hadn’t worked. The flesh that contained those iniquities was as much a part of what she needed as the blood itself. The only thing that would satisfy was to bite and tear and rip until blood flowed warm over her teeth. Even as she gobbled down those awful things, her need temporarily satiated, she felt sick.
There used to be more dealers. More of the greasy, pimple-ridden morons who could plug themselves in and then carry the pills to you in the name of cash in hand, but then the websites began to disappear, and pretty soon, Bennie was the only one who’d respond to her messages.
She could guess at what happened to the others creatures like her. Razorblades and a warm bath. Or maybe a gun if they could get their hands on one, which wasn’t as hard to do as one might think. She knew. She had checked. All of the things they’d done, the people they’d lost, too much to bear so instead of the darkness, they swallowed down fire or poison and hoped that whatever lay on the other side was better than the horror they’d found here.
It didn’t matter what happened to them. If one by one they blinked out, a vacuum of empty space among the living, there was no one left to notice. No one left to mourn if they vanished a second time.
Madeline stood in her tiny kitchen with its shitty appliances and its peeling linoleum floor and watched her hands. Routine. Something to ground her while she waited to see if this month she could go outside or if she’d have to hide herself in the apartment and wait for the next bottle.
Minutes ticked by, counted down by the clock the previous tenant had hung on the wall, and she watched and waited. Thirty minutes passed and nothing happened. No softening skin or straighter fingers. Nothing.
She hefted the bottle and threw it across the room where it thudded against the living room wall and fell to the carpet with a dull thud, the pink pills scattering. “Motherfucker,” she said. She wanted to scream until her throat went bloody, but she clenched her teeth, bit down on her frustration and anger, and swallowed it all down, bitter as an herb.
Her laptop was still balanced on the faded green couch in the living room, and she left the kitchen, turning off the light as she went, and grabbed the laptop. She opened her email and pulled up Bennie’s address. Her fingers ached as she typed, her stroke missing keys, and she forced herself to slow down, to focus on the movement of her breath. She started again.
Your “something new” doesn’t fucking work, Bennie. Even your weakest shit has usually kicked in by now, and there hasn’t been a single change. Not. One. Get your shit straight before you come back here. And I want another bottle. I don’t care how you have to get it, but I want another bottle. By tomorrow. I fucking mean it.
She slammed the laptop shut and drummed her fingers against the top. Two days. He’d been two days early. The next cycle was supposed to start in five. If he couldn’t get her another bottle before then, she wouldn’t be able to leave the apartment, would have to spend the nights chained inside of her bedroom with its pitted, splintered floors under torn up carpet while piss and shit dried against her legs and bedsheets, and the moon lit her body up silver bright.
There was still a practically full bottle of whiskey resting on the kitchen counter, and she stood up from the couch, her joints popping as she moved, and grabbed it and unscrewed the top. She didn’t bother with a glass but tipped the amber liquid back, let it flood her mouth and throat with fire, and float into her belly where it stole through her veins leaving her face and mouth numb.
If nothing else, she could spend the next few hours getting drunk. In the morning, she could put on a hat and dark glasses and go out into the light for the last time before this cycle ended and the next began. Let sunlight and cold air kiss her skin and lungs and hold all of it inside of her until it was over.
When the bottle was empty, the room spun. A bloated, dark stain on the ceiling leered down at her. A water leak with the face of a man. A man whose name she’d spent the past three years trying to forget, but it didn’t matter. She would never forget.
She closed her eyes, and the room tilted, shifted and expanded behind the dark of her eyelids, and she fought against the nausea growing in the back of her throat.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow Bennie would come back. He’d have another bottle of pills, and everything would be fine. He was afraid of her. She could smell the fear roiling off of him in waves when he was standing in her apartment. Closed off and trapped like something she could grab hold of and tear off its skin.
He would do it because he was afraid of her, and she would be fine. She repeated the word, over and over, until she lost the idea that what she was saying was even a word at all. Just a sound stuck inside of a void. A bright thread to follow out of the dark.
Madeline was dreaming. She knew she was because she was back in the old house. The house with its front porch and big kitchen and the crib in the back bedroom.
Scott was somewhere in the house. She could feel the weight of him, feel the tug at some part of her she couldn’t see. He was there, hiding in one of the rooms, but she couldn’t see him, and even though it felt like she shouldn’t be afraid, she was.
She stood in the hallway, the bedrooms jutting to the left and right. From the small bedroom in the back — the bedroom with the pink and white walls and the pink blankets and the tiny dresses embroidered with roses — came a soft crying.
Her legs moved without her wanting them to, and she tried to shrink backward, but they carried her forward.
“No, no, no, no,” she said, and a cold sweat broke out across her lower back. She didn’t want to go down there, didn’t want to open the door to that room, and see what it was inside of the crib.
Her legs kept moving.
“Please,” she whispered and then screamed. A raw sound that echoed back to her in hollow tones. Surely, Scott would hear and come and find her, keep her from seeing this thing she knew she was going to see.
Because it was always like this. The dream. Her in the house with Scott hidden away while she walked on tiptoe down the hallway, her calves and thighs aching from the effort to wrench herself away.
Her fingers fluttered feather light against the doorknob, and then she turned it, tried to close her eyes, but her body was a separate entity, something she could no longer control, and she opened the door. And she looked.
The baby monitor blinked back at Madeline. An all-seeing eye in the darkness. Something dark stained the carpet and the slats of the crib. She would not look. She would close her eyes or turn her head away, but her body wouldn’t respond, and she looked, and she remembered.
She had done this. The change newly coursing through her blood, and foolish enough to think she could control it, she was the nightmare come into the room to take what little meat it could find. And she had not been satiated.
Scott wasn’t hiding. Not at all. She’d gone looking for him first, hungry for the sins he carried inside of him. She opened her mouth and screamed, but she knew this part of the dream. She could scream until there was the taste of blood in her throat, but no amount of shrieking would wake her up. There was a final thing to do.
She’d managed to stop herself before the end. Something, some tiny flicker of her real self still alive underneath the teeth and hair. Her baby alive but scarred and taken away. Loud voices and shouting as faceless forms shone a bright light into her face and took the baby from her arms.
Still, in the dream, she went to the crib picked up the tiny form and cradled it, her keening lifted to a moon that would not hear her. When she kissed her daughter and laid the warm, broken little body back in the crib, she woke. Gasping and with her face wet, she struggled to draw air into her lungs.
Scrubbing her face with her hands, she focused on slowing her heartbeat, on forgetting the face of her daughter, the tiny fingers that would clutch Madeline’s as she nursed, the smell of her damp skin, or her downy hair.
Madeline sat with the memory of her daughter and husband, ghosts that would never leave her no matter how hard she tried. On nights she had the dream, she still thought about the razor blades she kept in the cabinet above the bathroom sink, but no matter how hard she tried, she’d never been able to bring herself to do it. And every time, she hated herself a little bit more.
When she could move again, she rose, drifted to the window, and opened the curtains. A bloated moon hung against black velvet sky, a sliver of black still outlined against the gibbous shape, and she waited for the light to pull against her like quicksilver, waited for the slight tingling in her arms and legs, for her heartbeat to quicken, and her blood to warm. Not enough to change fully but enough to remind her of what was to come.
She stood under the wash of moonlight, but was no change in her heartbeat, no awareness of the thing pricking just under her skin as it waited for its terrible birth. She looked down at her hands. Blinked once and then again, holding her eyes shut for a beat, then two beats. Because what she’d seen was impossible. Smooth flesh and long fingers that tapered at the tips. Her hands as they had once been. Before all of this. Before she changed and became a monster.
Her heart hammered in her chest, the air around her gone electric, and she squeezed her eyes tighter. It wasn’t possible. She opened her eyes, and her hands were the same. The knuckles flat and the skin smooth.
Stumbling away from the window, she flexed her fingers, shook her hands, slapped her palms against her thighs, but didn’t change, the skin tingling and warm. She laughed aloud and drew her nails across her face. No sharp edges that hinted at something that clawed and tore. Something bestial.
Her breath caught, and she went lightheaded, the room dropping away, and she lurched forward, her knees hitting the carpet, her hands thrown before her to stop the fall. She opened her mouth, gasped, but the air felt as if it had gone thin, and she couldn’t breathe, and she was laughing and crying, and the light scattered through the room like ice, and her skin. Her skin was normal.
She lay on the carpet, watched the ceiling with its undulating patterns traced into the plaster. Bulbous eyes and twisted mouths reflected back at her, and she watched them morph and change, watched them laugh down at her that this was a trick, a dream. Bright smoke that would vanish in the sun and leave her the same she’d been since the day the monster caught her. Out for a night run Scott had begged her not to go on and absorbed by the music in her earbuds and the thud of her feet against the ground, she hadn’t seen it crouched just ahead of her. Sixteen days later, and she was another statistic. Another number on the plotline of a growing problem that needed resolving.
And they had resolved it. A scientific breakthrough that would keep the wolf from the door, but it wasn’t perfected, wasn’t fail proof. Those white pills her doctor wrote monthly prescriptions for and left her a drooling mess for most of the cycle. But this. This. She held her hands up, the patterns dancing behind in orgiastic glee, and her entire body shuddered.
The pills still lay in a pile against the far wall. Rose-colored deliverance. She pushed herself toward them, gathered them up one by one, and let them clatter back into the bottle. Once she was finished, she stood, and carried the bottle to her bedroom. She felt the need to hide it, to put it somewhere no one would ever look, but glancing around the tiny bedroom, she realized there was no such hiding place. Clutching the bottle tight in her fist, she moved to the mattress and lifted it, placed the bottle underneath, and then stood. It would work until she could find something better. Until she could figure out if the results lasted longer than a few hours.
From the living room, her laptop pinged. A new email. No doubt from Bennie assuring her he could get her a new batch, but she didn’t want a new batch. If everything stayed the same for the next few days, she’d never need any other batch again. She tried not to let the thought sink into her bones, tried not to let herself think she could be normal again, but the feeling infected her, her skin itching with something akin to hope.
In the morning Bennie would be on her doorstep again, his hands filled with empty promises that he could find her something else, something better, and she would take whatever promises he could give her, because she needed him afraid, needed him to understand she could snatch away everything if she wanted to.
Already the hazy light of morning filled her bedroom, the sun on the precipice of the world, and she let herself drift back out into the living room, to the window, where she stood and waited for the world to wake.
“I’ll have a new batch by sundown.”
Bennie stood outside Madeline’s door, his eyes trained on some fixed point she couldn’t see. She hadn’t let him inside. Figured it would frighten him more if he thought she couldn’t control herself so close to the full moon, and so she’d kept him behind the door.
She whispered to him, lies and threats evaporating like vapor, and she could feel him tremble, taste the cold, sour flavor of his fear as she palmed tonight’s pill inside the damp hollow of her left hand.
“I’ll have it, Madeline,” he said, and she turned her back on him, closed the door, and pressed herself against it. She felt him pause, felt his hesitation, before he turned and ran, his feet stumbling as he hit the last step, and then he was gone.
Tonight. Tonight and tomorrow night, and then she would know if what was happening to her was real or just a fluke. Because hours had passed, and still her hands had not changed, the skin smooth and unblemished.
Once the sun rose, she’d gone into the bathroom and stared at the mirror. Reflected back at her were pale green eyes instead of yellow, the circles beneath deep, and she’d touched her face over and over, but even still she wasn’t sure if it was her own.
She felt the need to do something, anything that meant she could get out of this dank apartment with its ancient smells of cooked food and human sweat. She wanted to feel the sun on her face, breathe in air made clean by rain. She went back to her bedroom, tugged on a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved sweatshirt. All nondescript. Vague. Nothing easy to identify. She tucked her hair into a baseball cap and before she could remind herself it was too close to the end of this cycle, she grabbed her cell phone and was out the door, the lock catching behind her as she blinked against bright sun.
She walked with her head down, her eyes racing along the pavement, as she took the sidewalk. It didn’t matter where she went, just that she was out, and that her blood didn’t quicken when other people approached, the beast living under her skin quiet and subdued.
She heard them before she saw them. A group of boys hollering back and forth, the steady drum of a basketball as it passed back and forth between them. Her nostrils flared, and her head snapped up.
There were three of them. A lanky boy with tow-colored hair clipped skull tight led the way, and the two that came behind were obviously brothers. Both had the same hardened forehead, the same coltish, dark eyes that watched the boy ahead of them with both awe and hatred. They trailed behind, their mouths opening but never interrupting the stream of dialogue emanating from the other boy’s mouth.
Madeline could smell it on him. The lanky one. All of his private sins laid bare as she breathed him in. Death. Probably he’d caught a stray cat or a squirrel or some other defenseless animal and killed it. Maybe it’d been something bigger. A dog or a raccoon, but she could smell murder in his sweat.
She stopped in the center of the sidewalk, and they passed her, didn’t even look up to notice the woman who blocked their path. Fetid and hot, the scent wormed into her, but her palms stayed flat against her sides. She exhaled through her teeth, pushed all of that darkness out of her, and her head swam. A momentary fever. Nothing more. The feeling came and went without the need to push the boy to the pavement and open him out, his guts and memories filling her up until she couldn’t breathe.
She laughed because she could and walked on.
From her pocket her cell phone pinged. Bennie. He could have another batch to her by that afternoon for three hundred. Cash. Five o’clock at the latest. She smiled and returned the phone to her pocket. Five o’clock was good. He couldn’t afford to be any later.
When late afternoon tinted the air gold and amber, she turned. Her entire body felt light, incorporeal. As if the thing moving back to the non-existence she’d created wasn’t actually her, but a ghost drifting through the motions it had memorized.
Bennie was waiting outside her apartment when she walked up, and he started up when he saw her. “You’re late,” he said, and she grinned, bared her teeth at him, her lips stretching impossibly back and back and back, and he shrank away, his apology already dead as he offered it up to her.
His hands shook as he held out the bottle, and she took it, let her fingers pass over his skin, and he fidgeted away from her touch. “Don’t you want to come inside?”
He cast a glance at the sky, the shadows already grown long, and the wind getting colder. “It’s late,” he said, and she unlocked the door, didn’t look back at him as she let herself inside, and closed the door in his face.
The bottle was light. The pills inside a pale yellow. The color of winter sunshine. Once, she would have been hopeful at the color; hopeful that whatever terrible things Bennie had seen and were distilled down into chemicals had led to something that would make her clean. Pure as the color of the pills.
She reached for the other bottle instead. Let a pink pill dissolve on her tongue, bitter and sweet, and she tasted everything buried inside of it. Cold fear and burning pain, and the feel of hard hands and the night taste of bruises. Screams bound up inside of her stomach, and those terrible things flooded through her, and she shuddered at how lovely and wonderful it all was.
Already, the moon pulled at her. She could feel that full night had fallen, could feel that dark face turn on her, but she stayed the same.
She stripped off her hat and shirt, the jeans, her bra and underwear, until she stood before the window, naked skin exposed to the moonlight, and she let it wash over her. Nothing. Certainly, she felt her body tense, felt herself brace for the moon’s draw, but there was no popping of vertebrae, no teeth grown long and hungry as they did when the cycle was almost complete.
She turned back to face the door. She could go out. Here at the end of a cycle, and she was fairly certain she could go outside. The moon beat glittering light against her back, but it was nothing more than light, and she rose onto the balls of her feet, her calf muscles stretched taut. She could go out.
Dressed once more, she stood in front of the door. Over and over, she pulled her hand back only to put it on the knob again. Her mouth tasted metallic, and she swallowed.
“All this time,” she said and turned the knob and moved out the door.
For a long time, she did nothing more than stand at the foot of her steps with her hands in front of her and the moonlight stretching over her skin like gloves. Gray shadows played in the periphery of her vision. Headlights stretched out of the darkness and cast strange shapes back at her.
There was still a tingling in her chest, still the slight need for her skin to pull itself inside out, but it was something she could shrug off, something she could push away into a deep corner and starve.
She had the thought she could run, strip off her clothes, and dance like some Dionysian nymph, drunk on glimmering light, but she couldn’t bring herself to move. A car pulled into the parking lot, the alarm beeping as the owner walked away, her head tucked down and shielded against the bite of ice in the air. Madeline imagined the woman warm inside of her apartment. Perhaps there was a room at the end of the hallway. A room candied with pink walls. A room with a crib inside.
A sob caught in the back of her throat. Her daughter. If they’d had the pills sooner. If she’d known sooner what it was that attacked her. If she’d paid attention.
Madeline had no idea where the people who found her had taken her daughter. Those people with their cramped, fake smiles and briefcases filled with paperwork. Closed adoption. Her baby lost into a system she couldn’t trace. She thought again of the hidden razor blade. Even if the pills kept her from changing, she couldn’t bring back her baby.
The world blurred. A smear of dark and moonlight, and she groped at the handrail to the stairs and pulled herself up. Back inside the cramped apartment, back inside the box she’d put herself in, back to hiding.
Again, she pulled the hard-edged silver from its place in the medicine cabinet and tested the edge against her thumb. Her insides all crimson blooms and ugly thoughts, and she could open up her skin, peel it back until whatever devil had found its way inside of her fled and then she could open her arms to whatever darkness lay beyond.
A pinprick, and her blood beaded and dropped against the sink, and she breathed through her nose and she breathed again, and she couldn’t. She couldn’t.
“Fuck you,” she screamed. Over and over until there was no sound left inside of her, and she collapsed onto the cold linoleum, her hands pressed to her chest as if they could hold in her fluttering heart.
After a time, she went still. Drifted through a kind of twilight where shapes bent and twisted into things they were not, and noises bloated and elongated into something that seemed like a baby crying.
She slept, and the nightmare came. It always came.
She was inside a grocery store. Outside, the full moon streamed through windows. The end of a cycle, and Madeline stood in the produce section and watched it. Around her, tired mothers pushed their carts down the aisles, their children protesting about what sort of cereal they wanted or couldn’t they please have the cookies this time?
And she stood among them. Normal. So normal with her basket and her bag of apples and her coffee. Her hands trembled, and she stilled them, reached for a bag of spinach. Her heart kept beating.
She’d thought about not taking the pill, thought about opening the door wide and letting herself change fully. But even if the police managed to catch her before the night ended, they wouldn’t shoot her. They’d haul her into custody and turn her over to another group of scientists who would cram her full of needles and drugs just to see what happened.
If she was going to live, she wanted to do fucking do it right even if she didn’t deserve it. Maybe she could find her daughter. Call the adoption agency, tell them she’d figured out the pills. That she wouldn’t change. Start with monitored visitations until eventually she regained custody.
Tomorrow, she would pay Bennie a visit, explain she’d been wrong and she needed another bottle. The pink ones. The sooner, the better.
But tonight, she was going to try to move through the world of the living like she belonged there.
Somewhere in the store, a baby cried, and she bit down against her tongue. The taste of hot blood and the lights too bright and everything shifting as if the world had come unmoored, and it was too much. She shouldn’t have come here. She’d thought she could do it, thought she could stand here under the light of a full moon, and be okay. She dropped her basket and moved toward the exit, the moon guiding her forward, reminding her that even if it couldn’t change her, it was still sleeping inside of her.
Fumbling with her keys, she unlocked the door, and shoved herself behind the wheel. She could be back in her apartment in five minutes, the door safely between her and the rest of the world, but she took a left instead of a right out of the parking lot.
The traffic lights bled together, and she couldn’t be sure if they were red or green, but she still drove, her movements a learned habit she couldn’t forget. She didn’t think she ever would.
The house was dark when she pulled up to it, and the windows glinted moonlight back at her. Two cars in the driveway. A sedan and an SUV. A tricycle sat by the stairs leading to the porch and two topiaries flanked the door. A home. Someone had made this place a home.
She parked on the street and watched the house. She half expected some younger version of herself, the imprint she’d left behind, to walk out of the front door, but everything was quiet. Still.
Before she could think, she opened the door, crept along the side of the house until she came to the back fence where she lifted the latch and slipped through. There was a window to her left. A picture window. A window where a little girl could grow up. A place for her to dream.
She placed her hand against the screen. So flimsy. Something she could tear open with her hands, the glass so easily breakable. Inside in less than a minute. Skulking through the rooms she used to inhabit, the hardwoods a learned pattern under her feet. Would they scream if they saw her? This new family asleep in their beds, lost in a tangle of dreams. Would they know her for the nightmare she was if she went among them, her chemically induced body no longer her own? Would they mourn if she stole into the little room, and took the tiny, sleeping form for her own? She could be a mother again. If they wouldn’t give her daughter back, perhaps she could take the child who slept here now. Her mouth watered.
Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. A warning that she was far from home. This place was not anywhere she should be, and she moved away from the window, away from the place her daughter once slept, and she ran. Left her car behind and ran, her lungs raw and her throat heavy with the taste of iron. She ran until there was only the movement, the other parts of her falling away, and she was only muscle and bone. Something fearful moving through the night.
“You look like hell, Madeline.” Bennie stood in the doorway, his left hand crossed over his body and gripping the frame. A posture of “you can’t come in.”
“I need another bottle,” she said, and she thought she saw him frown, thought she saw his eyes go dark, but as quickly as the expression came, it was gone.
“I just gave you another bottle.”
“No. Like the one before. The pink ones.”
She stepped forward, placed her hand against the door, and gave it a slight push. “Yes, you can.”
“You don’t understand,” he said and retreated, his hand still crossed over his body as if he could ward her off.
She stepped through the door, let it fall shut behind her, and turned to lock it. Bennie whimpered, the low sound of an animal caught.
The machine stood out behind him in stark relief against a plain white wall. A small, dirty window above poured light into the room. There was nothing else in the apartment. No furniture. No television. Only the machine that drained him of all the terrible things he’d seen and then shaped them into her supposed deliverance. The machine was a box that stood about waist high and glinted gunmetal gray. Two clear tubes extended from the front along with a single black button. An opening on the left hand side led to a glass bottle, already half filled with pills. Pink pills.
“You fucking liar.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t,” he began but then she was on him, her hands against his throat, squeezing and squeezing until he began to splutter, bits of foam flecking the corners of his mouth. He clawed at her, his fingers batting at her arms, her face, and she saw, for the first time, a hint of reflected gold on his left hand.
She let him go. Left him choking against the carpet as she moved across the room and picked up the pills and poured them into her palm. Twelve. Not nearly enough. The next cycle had begun, and she only had ten more pills stashed away in her apartment. Twenty-two days was all she had. Not enough to get her to the next moon. Not enough.
She scrubbed at her face, let her eyes stay closed. “Just fucking do it, Bennie.”
“I can’t. I can’t. Not anymore.” He’d begun to sob quietly, his breath hitching and labored.
“You can. You’ve done it a hundred times.”
“Not like this. It’s too much. I have a little girl, too.”
Madeline went still. “What did you say?”
“I can’t watch it. Not anymore. I have a little girl, too.”
Her knees buckled as the full impact of what he was saying hit her.
“Show me,” she whispered, and he shook his head. “Goddammit, show me,” she shouted.
Slowly, he stood and moved to the window, and he tapped against the pane with his forefinger. “Straight across. First window in the next building.” His voice moved through her like vapor. Insubstantial and hollowed out.
She turned, and she looked. Bennie’s apartment faced the parking lot, the next building tucked so close that each uncovered window was a private viewing for any would be voyeur. Most of the windows were covered with blinds or curtains, but the one directly across from the apartment wasn’t. The blinds had been pulled up as if whatever lived inside wanted to be seen.
At first she could only make out the room, an empty white wall with a door tucked in the center, but then a small form crept into a view. A little girl who couldn’t be more than four or five with curling hair the color of deep earth appeared, a doll tucked under one arm. She turned to face the window, and Madeline could see every curve of her face, every fragile bone covered by delicate skin, every purplish bruise both fresh and faded. The girl smiled, lifted her hand in a wave. Madeline lifted her fingers, pressed them to the window, and the girl turned away and disappeared.
“Sometimes she doesn’t come home. Her mother. It’s better when she doesn’t,” Bennie said, and Madeline looked down at the bottle of pink pills.
“This is how you make them,” she said. He didn’t answer her.
She looked back into the little room, but the little girl was gone. Vanished into the maw of closed doors and long hallways.
Madeline turned back to the door, left Bennie shivering on the floor, and let herself out.
Moon. Moon and light and everything torn away. Skin and muscle and teeth. Moving quickly over frozen earth, and Madeline could smell her. She remembered the way. She knew where she was going and why.
The door was cheap, splintered under her fists, and she was inside. Breathing air that smelled of mold and cigarette smoke, and underneath a dark, swirling mass, sweet on her tongue.
The woman lay under a pile of blankets on the couch. She did not scream when she saw Madeline, but her eyes went wide, the pupils dilated and ink black, and when Madeline opened her up, the woman grunted, but she did not fight, and Madeline gnawed her bones and drank her down. The hard fists and soft words and mewling apologies that meant less than nothing.
When the noise came from behind her — a tiny intake of breath — Madeline knew what it was. She turned and the girl stood in the doorway, the hallway light haloing around her.
The girl looked beyond Madeline, her eyes passing over what sticky remains lay smeared over the couch, and then the girl turned her eyes to Madeline.
“Momma,” the girl said. She clutched the same, ratty doll to her chest, and she sank to her knees and sobbed. Everything inside of Madeline broke open, and she ran.
At the end of the next cycle, she would chain herself up. She would keep paying Bennie and hoping every month he got it right. But never like this. Never again.
In the morning, she would come back. Her human face soft and kind, and she would gather the girl in her arms. Her new daughter.
She would never let her go.