She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow

by on Dec 1, 2015 in Short Fiction | 1 comment

6,500 Words

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Chancery hissed at the sudden pain of a splinter in her palm. She took a deep breath filled with the scent of dust and woodsap, and exhaled the hurt as steam to dissipate in the cold air.

“See? She’s people,” Hedron said. “People are a distraction. They always spoil everything, given a chance. You mustn’t give them one.” He bared his tiny, needle-sharp teeth, a distant storm glimmering behind his moonstone eyes.

“Kay’s not people,” Chancery said. “How do you know she’s coming, anyway? You promised you’d stay away from the harbour.” She put the dropped log on the stack at the back of the shed and pulled the splinter out with her teeth. It tasted of resin and woodlice.

Hedron took her hand and kissed it better. Spores cried like fading ghostly mice as they died.

“I promised I wouldn’t go inside the fence and I haven’t,” he said. “One of ours was wandering along the road by the compound, and Kay was talking to the site manager just inside the gate.”

He perched on the tree stump Chancery used as a platform for splitting the logs and ran fingers like knobbly twigs around the brim of his hat.

Chancery didn’t like his hat. It was too big and sagged over his head in a floppy, shapeless mass of purple felt attracting dust, cobwebs, fluff, and stray hairs. Once a week or so, he went away for a few hours and came back with it clean. It stayed clean for a day or two at the most. He’d warned her not to touch. She wouldn’t have tried anyway; looking at it made her bones restless and itchy.

He rubbed his fingertips together, sniffing them. They squeaked like soaped glass. A twist of hair fell from the hat and he herded it back with a cupped hand. “She brought chocolate.” He offered no explanation as to how he knew this, but all their people had his eyes and ears. He told them what to do.

“Will she visit?”

“Would the Oilers care about cocoa content?”

“No.”

“Then she’ll be here tomorrow.”

It had been a year since Kay’s last visit, a year since the fight. Chancery couldn’t manage the monthly trade with the Oilers without Hedron telling her what to say, and they didn’t matter much. They were just people, interchangeable.

Kay wasn’t.

Chancery’s vision swum with panic. What if she said the wrong thing?

“She’s not worth getting in a state over,” Hedron said. “Think of all the things you could do with that chocolate.” He stretched out his long, spider-thin legs and leaned back, lacing his hands behind his head. Dust spilled from his hat and returned as if it were sheep separated from a flock.

Chancery imagined bitter chocolate mousse with honeyed damsons, soufflé, and drowned cherries. She concentrated on the shape of the flavour and all the things that could slot into it, a jigsaw for her tongue, until her breathing settled and her heart stopped racing.

She placed the last three logs. “You just don’t like her.”

“She wants to ruin things, take you away. Of course I don’t like her.”

“Don’t be stupid. Why would she want that?”

“Not because she loves you, no matter what she says.” He kicked some of the bark that had fallen from the logs as Chancery split them.

She shook her head. “I’ll make tea. We’ll try the biscuits I made this morning.”

Hedron slouched to his feet, hat brushing the shed roof, and stuffed his hands back inside his smock. “I’m going to check the goats.”

“Fine.” No point arguing if he was in a sulk.

Hedron had brought her to the farm after he found her. It was self-sufficient in all the ways that mattered, and the farmhouse kitchen alone was the size of the flat she had shared with Annabel; they hadn’t been able to afford anything bigger. Back then, hardly anyone could.

Now, no one else wanted it.

§

It had happened suddenly. One day, everything was fine; the next, Annabel said she was leaving.

Annabel was the only one who had seen past the lack of eye contact, the silences that could last for days, the finicky obsessions and pedantry; the disability that wasn’t enough to get Chancery support in a world where everyone was expected to pull their weight. The wasted talent. She was the only person since Chancery’s mother died to make her feel safe and loved; the only one not to have been people.

She might as well have stabbed Chancery in the heart with a boning knife.

The world sublimated; standing at the kitchen window, Chancery could see everything trembling, crumbling around the edges. Furniture, grass, trees, birds, work tops, next door’s dog, all shivering into fragments.

Everything was ruined.

She hadn’t known what to do.

She tried hugging her. “I can come with you.”

“No,” Annabel said, disentangling herself. “I love you, but I don’t have the energy to go on like this, looking after you, keeping you safe. I’m not helping you by letting you rely on me so much. It’s best for us both if I leave.”

She didn’t even kiss Chancery goodbye, just turned and walked out the door.

Chancery knew she had to stop her. This was absolute, a searing, hot-cold certainty. It sliced Chancery in two and poured acid on the cut.

Chancery stumbled after her, tripped on the doorstep, and fell on her face, smashing her nose against flagstones. The pain was white, explosive, awful but irrelevant. All that mattered was, if Annabel got away, she would become just like everyone else. She would become people.

Chancery couldn’t talk to people. She did her best to avoid them.

Out on the street, people were having seizures, vomiting, screaming, thrashing on the ground. Chancery climbed to her feet, shuddering at the noise slicing against her skin, and tried to help Annabel, but what could she do? Nothing she said made any difference. It was as if Annabel could no longer hear her.

After a while, people stopped screaming and the world turned quiet. Eventually, over the course of several days, they all began to walk. They went to the beach, flocking to the sea in skeins and drifts like slow-motion, ground-trapped starlings.

When Annabel went, Chancery went with her, following the silent masses to the ocean. It was a rare day of heat, the sun blazing, the sea both sparkling and smooth, as if covered in partially crumpled foil. It rolled in an easy, steep swell, fat breakers crashing in spumes of froth like whisked egg whites. About a mile out, the frequent sea fog they called the Haar was a thick, impenetrable wall of white; an endless roulade of candyfloss cloud across the horizon.

People milled on the beach before aiming for the wall. Once in the water, they floundered in the surf, drowning, unable to swim, unable to stop. Bodies bobbed on the waves, a grotesquerie of marker buoys, and lay puffed and bloated on the beach. Crows squabbled with seagulls over a surplus of glistening, crimson ribbons of flesh. The stink of rotting meat and seaweed coated Chancery’s tongue like a mouthful of rancid fruit drenched in iodine and soy.

“Wait!” Chancery grabbed Annabel, clung to her. She pulled away, drawn to something out at sea, just like the other people, oblivious to the corpses. Chancery started after her, but she was already lost.

Chancery collapsed, bones baking. She had visions of them caramelising, could almost smell the roasting marrow. She squeezed fistfuls of sand until it hurt.

When she saw Hedron, he was blurry: a shape, a shadow in a heat haze. He wandered over, taller than any of the people, and she couldn’t tell whether they made room or he passed right through them.

Prickling tendrils burst from high up inside her nose and shot through her brain, a snort of sour fizz with a chilli heat. “Hello,” he said. “Aren’t you going with them?”

She tried to answer but couldn’t.

He bent down, cupped her face with hard, spindly fingers, and blew gently on her parted lips. The coolness of his breath on the moistness of her mouth penetrated to her bones, replacing the marrow-deep fire with a detached calm.

She looked up, and he was pulling his hat firmly onto his head. It was covered in a layer of granular soot.

She sat, arms almost too weak to push against the soft sand. “She said I couldn’t. I lost her. I didn’t know what to do. Then you came.” She looked at her hands, thinking there should be some sign she nearly roasted from the inside. “You made me better.”

“You wouldn’t have been able to speak to me if I hadn’t, and you’re the only one who tried.”

She turned to watch people falling like skittles in the surging waves. “All those people,” she said. “They’re dying.”

“I know. I don’t know why.”

“They’re going into the sea.”

“What’s wrong with the sea?”

“They drown.”

More prickling, ticklish rather than painful this time.

“All right. We’ll keep some of them. They can help me keep you safe.”

Chancery picked up a dead crab and made its legs waggle, then frowned at the opaque horizon. It was so quiet. So peaceful. Her limbs relaxed outwards, as if she were a trussed chicken and someone had cut the string. “Do we have to?”

§

Hardly anyone escaped, Hedron had said at the time, pleased with himself. Bones still lay in bleached white drifts of fragments on the beach, barely recognisable after five years of winter storms. The Haar remained, never straying further than around three miles out, no matter the weather, although sometimes it came all the way in. Chancery knew that was when people were trying to reach the island and Hedron didn’t want them to.

Armed coastal patrols kept Britain in internationally ratified quarantine. Only the Oilers were allowed to land. Their Aberdeen Harbour compound was the one place still accessible. Three years after the Walk they’d surrounded the docks with an electric fence and doused everything in chemicals before resuming work there. Maybe they really needed the oil.

Although she’d never been inside, Chancery bartered with them, with Hedron’s help. Gourmet meats and preserves, jewellery she’d found—things they couldn’t afford where they lived—for rifle ammunition, flour, and spices. She’d asked Hedron not to infect them and he’d agreed, as long as they kept bringing her things, didn’t leave their compound, and she didn’t tell them about him.

He wanted her to be happy. Cooking made her happy.

She gave them jars with lids sucked tight and Tupperware containing gold and gemstones swimming in bleach, which they had her drop into plastic bags she wasn’t allowed to touch. They weren’t to know the real reason they were safe.

The first few visits, they’d tried to catch her. Once, she barely escaped. She begged Hedron not to send his people to spit and shed through the fence, nor to activate the spores coating the piers and their vehicles, in case it disturbed the status quo and even more people came. He eventually relented, although the ones responsible had walked, and he made them stay near the compound as a warning, until they starved to death.

After that, the Oilers settled for trading. Hedron said they thought they were keeping an eye on her, as if she needed it with him around.

That was how she’d met Kay, and Kay was the only one who’d been outside since.

Chancery hadn’t needed Hedron to talk to Kay. Kay wasn’t people.

The kettle rattled, spitting water onto the hotplate. Chancery dragged herself away from one of her treasured recipe books and filled the cracked brown teapot before snuggling it under a cosy.

She retreated to the living room with biscuits and tea. Curled up in front of the fire with a notebook and pen, she made a list. Lists kept her calm. Hedron had taught her that. They were recipes for getting through the day.

After a while she opened her eyes to see Hedron peering at her notebook. The fire had died away to embers. She threw twigs and logs into the hearth to get it going again.

Skook nosed his way around the door, pink tongue lolling and his face all wet. Hedron had got Skook for her after the Oilers tried to catch her. He was an enormous dog, the biggest she’d ever seen. He had fluffy fur the colour of autumn leaves and looked like a cross between a lion and a bear. Hedron said he was a Himalayan mastiff. Even down on all fours, his head reached her chest, and Chancery loved him to bits. She had never been to see the Oilers without him since he arrived. He helped Hedron keep her safe.

“How were the goats?”

“Fine. I’ve got a couple of our people out by the barn.” Hedron didn’t say what they were doing because they both knew. They would be walking. That’s what they did.

“I’ll be careful.” They’d learned the hard way it was almost impossible for Hedron to stop her walking when she was close to one of their people and he and his hat were elsewhere. “Are you staying for dinner?”

“I ate not long ago.” He yawned, mouth impossibly huge above his pointy chin, teeth glinting in the firelight.

Chancery didn’t ask what he’d had. Or who. She put the guard in front of the fire and returned to the kitchen.

§

She fetched rabbits and pheasants from the snares in the greyness of pre-dawn, the Haar thick and moist across the fields and forests. The rest of the morning was spent on mise-en-place, because Kay was coming and Chancery wanted it to be perfect. She always wanted it to be perfect, but didn’t mind getting it wrong so much when there was no one around to see.

Hedron visited after lunch.

“Are you going to clean your hat?” she asked. It was making her bones itch and her toes curl. He fingered the brim and sniffed his fingers.

“Not today,” he said. “You mustn’t stray far without me, Chancery.”

“Okay.”

She frowned as he left. He wasn’t normally quite so protective.

§

She was reading, clean and a little damp from an early bath, when Skook went mad and an engine rumbled into the yard, the sound burbling in her gullet. Her heart kicked against her ribcage.

Someone banged on the door. “Chance? Have you got hold of that carnivorous pony?”

Chancery knew Kay meant Skook, even though Skook was a dog. “Yes!”

Then she heard a much deeper voice, a voice that pattered on her skin like the first pebbles of an oncoming landslide. She grabbed the boning knife from the rack.

Kay was swaddled in a heavy fleece with the Chevroil logo on the breast, a fur-lined trapper hat, mitts, and thick cargo-trousers. She trailed a scent of soft-hard peony, orange blossom, sandalwood, and vanilla; by comparison, Chancery’s honeysuckle soap smelled of cheap chemicals. Her deep brown eyes, candied rose petal lips, and complexion of smooth, dark, rich honey were so perfectly beautiful Chancery’s gut twisted in a tight knot of hopeless inadequacy.

Worse, behind Kay was a man. A people. Hedron would be so angry.

Sick anxiety clogged Chancery’s throat.

“My god, you’ve gotten thin.” Kay pulled off her hat, hair falling in glossy waves. “Hi, Skook. Remember me?”

He growled, hackles raised.

“Evidently not. Oh, Chance. It’s so good to see you.”

Kay embraced her. She returned it, stiffly, not ready for the intimacy but not wanting to offend. She could smell the man. Bacon, baked beans, and black pudding. All Oilers were the same; she couldn’t tell them apart.

Except Kay.

“What’s this?” Kay plucked the knife from her hand. Chancery couldn’t reply, but her fingers ached to snatch it back. Kay put the knife on the table.

“It’s all right, Rob. Chance’s shy,” Kay said over her shoulder. “You must know Rob, Chance. He told me your sausages are the best.” She paused, her face an undecipherable combination of smile curves and frown lines. “I’ll have to see more of you or one day you’ll forget me, too. Rob, would you mind helping me with my stuff? I brought coffee and I’d better get it before Chance makes me some unspeakable concoction from twigs and rabbit droppings.”

“I said I’d drop you off, that’s all. I thought this place was close to the beach.” Rob’s gravelly voice made the words clipped and fierce.

“We’re only a mile inland. You can practically smell the sea,” Kay told him in a harsh whisper. “Think of Sara. She’s your niece. You’ve got plenty of time. Man up.”

Kay turned back, expression tight and stiff. “This won’t take long,” she said.

They went out again. Chancery stood by the stove, shaking. She tried to calm herself by listing all the recipes she knew for raspberries. Skook growled and she shushed him.

They fetched five boxes, piling them on the floor. Kay took Rob outside and there was muffled conversation, then the jeep left with a throaty gurgle. Chancery stared at the pyramid of cardboard invading her space.

When Kay returned, she took off her jacket and her boots, dumping them on the floor by the sink instead of putting them where they were supposed to go.

“Right!” She grabbed the knife and plunged it through the tape sealing the first box. Chancery swallowed her instinctive protest. Skook pressed against her.

Kay rummaged and made piles of bubble wrap. “Teabags,” she said, brandishing a box. “Coffee. Chocolate. Ammunition and clothes… Must be in another box. Preserved lemons, hickory chips, almond flour, parmesan, canned cherries, olive oil, dried pasta—”

Chancery’s legs folded under her. The cold seeped into her buttocks, grocery items and packaging accumulating around her, long-lost scents worming into her head. She rocked, clutching herself so she wouldn’t dissolve into the strangeness.

“Oh god. I’m sorry.” Kay put the jar she was holding back in the box. “You’re getting worse. You shouldn’t be out here alone.” She kept her voice soft, glancing at the dog. “I’ll tidy this up and we can go through and have a drink, like normal people.”

Kay’s ‘tidying’ comprised throwing everything back in the box and kicking the bubble wrap under the table. She dumped the knife in the sink and grabbed a bottle of French wine with one hand and Chancery with the other. “Come on.”

§

“They caught a few two weeks ago.” Kay had drunk half the bottle. Chancery had barely touched her glass. Skook was asleep on the hearthrug. “Took them to Porton Down. Everyone thought they’d be dead by now. No one knows why they’re not. I heard one of them was pregnant. They must be breeding. Can you imagine? They say the further inland you go the less time it takes before you Walk, no matter how careful you are. It’s why the scientists got infected, despite all the precautions. Even the ones who didn’t go near the Walkers.”

That’s what people called Hedron’s people. To Chancery they were all just different sorts of people. She had to avoid them unless someone was around to look after her. Her mum, then Annabel, now Hedron.

“Oh,” Chancery said.

“I heard that’s why they went into the sea at first. To get away from it. Now the only one who can stay here is you. It’s so sad.”

That was the way Chancery and Hedron liked it. “Are you hungry?”

There was a pause. “I could eat.”

Kay sat at the kitchen table while Chancery finished and plated up. Her unbroken attention made Chancery’s hands tremble as she positioned vegetables in a delicate garden salad and finished with a warm dressing of rosehip vinegar and hazelnut oil. She put the plate in front of Kay and poured her a glass of oak leaf wine. Kay speared a carrot and sucked it off her fork with a loud slurp that made Chancery flinch.

“How do you make a carrot taste so good?” she asked.

Chancery served rabbit loin braised in a broth of dried leaves and mushrooms, accompanied by its own sautéed, sliced heart, and roasted venison marrow on a bed of succulent moss. Kay went into raptures over the loin and the heart, slurping and sucking on every piece, but didn’t touch the rest.

“I get paid a lot—and I mean a lot—and I couldn’t afford to eat somewhere serving food like this,” she said.

For dessert, Chancery offered a honeyed apple tart with damson liqueur.

“You’re too talented to waste out here,” Kay said. “Chance—” She hesitated. “We’re closing the depot. The profit margins are thin and the company’s worried.” Her fingers alternated like legs on the tabletop.

“No Oiler has walked recently.” Hedron would have mentioned it.

“I want you to come home with me. Please. There might not be a next time.”

Chancery cleared the table.

“Talk to me,” Kay said.

“I need to get the dishes done.”

“Leave those. They’re not important.”

This was clearly wrong. Chancery ignored it.

“Dammit, Chance!” Kay’s outburst shocked Chancery into tears, and she dropped the glass she was holding. It shattered. “When we met, you were about ten kilos heavier and I could talk to you. You didn’t make much sense, but you’d talk. You’re eating plants and twigs. You look like you’d snap in a breeze. You reacted to Rob like a child reacts to a stranger, and I can barely get a word out of you. You’re only twenty-five. You’re wasting away.”

Her chair scraped, grating on Chancery’s spine, and a moment later Chancery recoiled at the touch of hands on her shoulders.

“I don’t want to upset you, but you can’t stay here by yourself.”

“I’m not by myself.” She had to force the words out between choked sobs.

“Skook’s a dog. You need someone to take care of you. You need people.”

“I don’t! I’ve got Hedron.”

Kay’s hands stiffened. “Hedron? Oh, Chance. He’s not real.”

Fresh tears stung Chancery’s eyes. Her gut burned and her skin turned cold as fresh fish. “You said he was as real as anything.”

She’d fought so long with Hedron, pleading to be allowed to tell Kay about him, so she would understand why it was safe to visit. Kay was the closest thing to Annabel Chancery had found.

“Real to you. He helped you cope with being the only survivor. But when they close the depot, you’ll be alone out here.”

Broken glass glittered in the sink and found its way into Chancery’s heart. “I need to get the dishes done.”

Kay blew a sigh, then patted Chancery’s shoulders, making her shudder. “We’ll talk again tomorrow. I’m really tired. I’m going to bed.”

“Your room’s freshly made,” Chancery said, and wondered if there was a way to make the last ten minutes not have happened.

§

Chancery was woken by the door opening. The room was black, save for the bright rectangle of moonlight on the window frame. She listened so hard the soft pad of footsteps stroked her eardrums.

The bed heaved when Kay climbed under the duvet. She slid her hand around Chancery’s waist, then up to nestle between her breasts. Lips pressed against her spine, pliant and moist, a patch of heat that blew cold when the kiss moved on. Chancery felt herself flush warm and tingly, even as her skin prickled in the draught. She tangled her fingers around Kay’s hand and brought it to her lips so she could kiss her fingertips.

She breathed deep, and Kay’s scent was thick and dense. She kissed Kay’s palm, pushing her tongue against it to taste her skin.

Kay’s breathing slowed and her arm became slack. Chancery kissed her hand once more, then put it back against her chest, holding it tight.

§

She slid out of bed quietly, so as not to wake Kay. It was early, still dark. She had chores to do.

“Why do you think she brought all this if she wants you to go with her?” Hedron asked when she entered the kitchen. He was hunched over the pile, all elbows and knees and furious angles. Chancery gaped at him. She had never seen his hat so filthy. Looking at it made her bones quiver and burn. It made her want to run.

“You need to sort your hat, Hedron.”

“Answer the question.”

Chancery shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“To show you what you’re missing.” He jabbed an accusing finger at the pile. “Olive oil and Belgian chocolate. Saffron, Chancery. She doesn’t think lichen and leaf broth can compete with white truffle and cinnamon.”

Chancery cracked the lid on a pot of pimenton dulce and sniffed. The heady aroma’s physical presence conjured a forgotten happy memory: Annabel making a mess of spaghetti carbonara with chorizo in their tiny kitchen, laughing as the sun turned her hair to spun gold.

No one since Annabel had kissed her until Kay did.

Chancery hugged herself, remembering the feel of someone else’s skin.

“You and Skook could come, too.”

“You know what would happen.” He held out his arms like a scarecrow and pirouetted. “All those people. This is our home and you belong here, with us, where we can keep you safe. She doesn’t love you like we do.”

All those people. How many more would walk if she did?

Part of her wanted to. Part of her wanted to because they all would.

§

“You shouldn’t have bothered putting the stuff away,” Kay said around a mouthful of toast piled with fish and egg. She poured more coffee and tapped her satellite phone. “They’ve moved the departure date. I have to take you back tomorrow.”

“I can’t.”

“What?”

“All those people. I can’t.”

Kay rummaged in her bag. “I have something for you.” She produced an envelope. Chancery took it and read the letter inside. “It’s an offer of a place in the kitchen at the Sanctuary in Bergen,” she said, as if Chancery were too stupid and damaged to understand it. “It’s an amazing opportunity.” Chancery felt faint. The restaurant’s recipe book was one of her favourites. “You’d have to go through quarantine, but that only takes a week. I know you’re scared of being amongst people again, but you’d adapt. I think you’d blossom.”

Outside, Hedron was talking to the chickens. The volcano smouldering on his head made Chancery nauseous, itchy, and restless. She shivered.

“I belong here,” she whispered.

“Don’t you get it, Chance? Do you know how selfish you’re being?”

Skook ambled over. She rubbed his ears and he licked her arm.

“You’ve been out here for five years and you haven’t Walked. You’re the only one. You could help people come back.”

Chancery put her arms around Skook’s neck and pressed her face against him, her chest tight and painful. There was a long silence.

“Do you understand me?”

“Yes.” Skook’s fur grew damp under her cheek.

An engine rumbled into the yard and brakes squealed painfully.

“I have to go to work. I’ll leave you to think about it. Please. All those people need you. I need you.”

Kay jammed her feet into her boots, right there at the table, and left.

§

There were a lot more of Hedron’s people around that day than usual, wandering like ghosts in the Haar. Mindful of Hedron’s caution, Chancery didn’t stray far from the house. Even so, she nearly ran into one, coming close enough for her to see the oozing cracks in his blackened lips and smell his off-sweet, cheese and pear-drops scent. He reached for her, eyes glistening in a face scalloped by emaciation and scaly with flaking skin, his hands shiny and dried to red, worse than her own. His song filled her head with his aching desire to hold and be held, but he didn’t touch her. She wondered if he’d been told not to.

She wondered if he’d ever not been people.

At lunchtime, the temperature dropped and the sky darkened. She went out, opened the door to the barn, and put out leftover rabbit, venison, cheese, and bread.

“It’s going to snow,” Hedron said. She could barely see him in the gloom.

“I know.” She pulled her jacket tighter, shaking. Her bones itched, hot and cold at the same time.

“This looks good.”

“There are a lot of them about today.”

“You’re safe enough. I’m not far. You should go inside, though. You’re cold.”

“I’m going. I don’t feel too good. What about you?”

“I’ve got things to do. But Chancery?” He waited until she was looking right at him. “Don’t worry. Okay? No matter what happens. I’ll be close.”

“Okay.”

She headed back to the house. When she reached the tiny road between the house and the farm she looked back and stuffed her knuckles in her mouth at the sight of him. His head was hidden beneath a seething, roiling mass of grey like storm clouds made of corpse skin. Her marrow fizzed and her skin prickled and stung. Her eyes smarted as if she were chopping onions.

“Go inside,” he called, and his voice was sterner than she had ever heard it. It frightened and reassured her, both at the same time.

§

The snow came, fat flakes drifting until the wind picked up and sent wild flurries careening through the sky. Chancery settled down by the range, listing her supplies and flicking through recipe books. She wanted to be overflowing with so many ideas she didn’t know what to try first. The ideas were there, spinning and whirling like the snow, but she couldn’t tame them because Kay’s scalding anger and betrayal kept forcing their way to the front of her thoughts.

Kay didn’t believe in Hedron; hadn’t asked why Chancery was so thin when she cooked so much. How could Chancery convince her? Hedron looks after me. He loves me. He looks after you, too, when you visit, because I asked him to.

That would just make Kay angry again. She should have asked Hedron what to say.

When did Kay start turning into people?

She was still worrying at it when an engine coughed, popping in her chest. Flustered, she tried to focus on making some dinner because it was that or run away and hide. She’d got as far as jointing the pheasant when Skook began barking out in the yard. She went to the door. He was bouncing around in the headlights, saliva flying from his teeth.

“Come!”

With a shake of his head, he ran over and pushed her back inside. She closed the door. He stood on his hind paws at the sink to stare out the window.

“Chance? It’s freezing!”

“Skook, sit.” He lowered his hindquarters until they barely touched the floor, growling. “Okay.”

Kay came in, stamping to get the snow off. “My god, that weather. Did you know there are Walkers out there?”

“Where else would they be?”

“This many, though?”

Chancery shrugged.

“Hi, Skook.” Kay reached to pet him and he snapped at her, teeth missing her hand by a careful inch. “If he’s aggressive like that back home, they’ll have him destroyed.”

Chancery’s fingers tightened around his scruff.

“I’m sure he’ll be all right,” Kay said, then, “We have to leave tonight.”

Chancery shook her head. She had no idea what to say other than, “I can’t.”

“Chance, Rob Walked. You have to come.”

Hedron hadn’t said anything about that.

“I can’t.” It was hopelessly inadequate.

Kay was silent for a moment. There were no lines or curves on her face. “Fine. It’s okay. Really. I just need to get something from the jeep.”

An icy gust barrelled into the kitchen when Kay went out. Chancery rubbed Skook’s ears, tense.

The door opened again, snow shredding the air. Skook barked, deep and angry, and there was a tremendous crack. In the confines of the kitchen, the gunshot was deafening, stunning, a sledgehammer to the head. Chancery’s ears sang against silencing numbness as she stared at Skook lying on the floor with metallic crimson matting his fur.

Someone grabbed her. She heard hollow burbling, water gurgling in distant pipes.

She was hoisted into the air. She screamed. She kicked. She pummelled with her fists and when someone tried to pin her she scratched and bit. She was released and tried to run but was grabbed again and bundled to the floor. Sharp pain lanced through her leg and she cried out. Someone knelt on her shins and someone else held her hands way above her head, making her shoulders hurt. The sound of sticky tearing preceded constriction around her wrists and ankles. Fire licked her bones.

Something like a wasp sting jabbed into her arm, then she was drowning in liquid dark, Hedron’s name tangled around her tongue.

§

Chancery was sick. It wasn’t helped by the sinuous rise and fall of the boat underneath her. She assumed it was a boat—it smelled like one.

“I’m sorry.”

Chancery turned towards the wall, not wanting to see her.

“The world needs you. It’s selfish to stay where you were.”

Chancery’s bones were baking. It wouldn’t be long now. There had been no sign of Hedron since she woke up.

“I’m sorry about Skook, I really am.”

She didn’t sound sorry, but Chancery didn’t know what sorry sounded like. Never had.

“We’ll reach Zeebrugge in a couple of days. There’s a team waiting to examine you. They’re not going to hurt you. They just want to take a few samples, keep you in for a few days.”

“They’ll kill me,” Chancery said.

“Don’t be silly. They just want you to help them find a way to fight the disease, that’s all.” She paused, then said, “Try and get some rest. Shall I bring you something to eat?” She must have realised the offer was insulting. “No. All right then.”

Chancery pulled the thin blanket to her chest and squeezed it between her fingers so tightly the tendons ached. Nerves fired randomly in her legs, making her knees jerk and twitch.

Not long now.

“I did this for my daughter. Sara. She’s very ill. The medical bills—” A broken, halting sob. “A cure for the Walk is worth a lot of money. I took the job for the life insurance, the Walk policy, but after I met you I couldn’t…I hope one day you’ll understand.”

The door shut. Chancery tried to go back to sleep, knowing this wasn’t a nightmare, hoping it was. A minute passed, two, and then a sound that had been familiar until five years ago: the heavy, regular, fast thump of a helicopter.

She scrambled out of bed, fell on the floor. Her right leg wouldn’t support her weight. She hobbled to the door. It was locked. There was no window.

“Hedron,” she whispered. “Where are you? You said it’d be okay.”

She sat in the corner, on the floor, waiting, fidgeting, rocking, burning up inside. The hands of the clock, high on the wall, swung from nine-twenty to almost ten, then voices murmured on the other side of the door. The lock clunked and a figure entered the room. It was covered in blue material, and had a square of clear plastic over its face. Another two figures, similarly clad, remained outside in the corridor.

Chancery stared. She couldn’t breathe.

“Don’t be afraid.” His voice, thickly accented, was muffled. “My name is Doctor Marcello Martino. I need to take a blood sample, just to be sure everything is A-OK, yes? Miss Korsten tells me you survived five years without Walking. You are a very special young lady, and we will take very good care of you.”

He carried a kidney dish. A blood collection kit, five tubes and a needle, rolled around in it.

She squealed.

Then she saw Hedron. He winked at her. “Don’t worry,” he said. “List all the things you can do with apples.”

People wearing crew uniforms grabbed the two figures in the corridor. They ripped the hoods off the suits as the men inside screamed. Martino turned to see what the commotion was and someone ripped his suit, too.

Hedron bared his teeth and his eyes spat lightning. He removed his hat. It was a dark, irregular ball made of dust, cobwebs, lint, stray hair, soil, dirt, skin flakes, fish scales, leaf litter, and fly shit. It oozed hunger. His hair sprang up in a thick, woolly mass of green and white, rippling like an anemone covered in cobwebs.

He clapped his hands against his hat.

Dust exploded.

Chancery’s eyes streamed, nausea making her stiff. Vertigo gnawed at her temples. Her marrow was on fire, her heart pounding so hard her ribcage shook. The doctor and his men doubled over, pink-tinged vomit splattering on the floor and filling the room with a sharp, bilious stench. Hedron grasped his hat in both hands and squeezed, wringing it like a dishcloth.

“Hedron—”

“It’s okay. Stay there. Close your eyes.”

“I don’t feel well.”

“I know. Don’t worry. Do as I say.”

She could not disobey that voice. She wrapped her arms over her head, quaking with fever. Minutes stretched the shivers into spasms. Screams echoed from the corridor, punctuated by dull slaps, wet meaty thuds, and occasional gunshots.

When everything fell silent, Hedron came and sat beside her. His hat was back on his head and it was spotless.

“It’s okay,” he said.

“I’m sick.” Her teeth chattered.

“I know.”

“Am I going to walk?”

He curled down to kiss her head. His voice surged inside her, a song without melody. “Ssh. Don’t worry. I’m here. You’re safe. Tell me all the recipes you know for liver.”

§

Hours later, Hedron helped her limp onto the deck of the platform supply vessel, his hat sooty. The sky was darkening, snow drifting like ash. The control house sat five floors above the bow, bristling with antennae and radar arrays. The helicopter perched at the stern of the long, flat cargo deck, where the crew meandered in Brownian motion. They were a mile offshore. Black smoke from the harbour curled upwards against flat, grey clouds. The sea rolled in a smooth, glassy swell the colour of an approaching storm.

“What happened to Kay?” she asked.

Hedron pointed to one of the people on the deck. Chancery supposed she ought to feel sad.

But then, Kay had spoiled things. Just like Hedron said she would.

“Do you know how to drive a boat?”

He indicated the crew. “They do.”

Chancery nodded. “I’m going to be okay amn’t I, Hedron?”

“Of course,” he said. “You’ve got me. I’d do anything to keep you safe.” He gazed towards the horizon, beyond the foggy swirls of Haar, and showed his teeth. “Anything.”

Sam Fleming’s work has appeared in Black Static, Fish from Dagan Books, and Looking Landwards from NewCon Press. She lives in north-east Scotland with an artistic spouse and the correct number of bicycles, that being both entirely too many and not quite enough. Find her at ravenbait.com.

1 Comment

  1. This story is astoundingly great! That is all…

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