“I used to think the sky would peel open,” the girl with the green hair confesses, curling black–nailed fingers around a can of Pabst. “I always had bloody knees, because I never looked down when I walked — I’d clasp my eyes to the sky, bracing myself for the sight of a gigantic hand pulling aside the clouds. If I saw Him coming, maybe I could pray hard enough in time for God to forgive me. Otherwise… Mom told me I’d burn like the whore I was. In sixth grade.”
Her smile is shy, a crooked little secret that Derleth likes. He finds his own head bobbing in agreement, his body resonating to the tune of her broken childhood.
The girl’s smile melts into a relieved grin; she’s discovered a fellow member of a secret society in a cold and hostile land. She grasps his hand.
“You know, don’t you?” she whispers. He can barely hear her over the death metal band onstage, pounding out a Cannibal Corpse cover tune. “You know what it’s like to live in fear of the world ending?”
Derleth closes his eyes. He can see the clouds parting across the mesa, black lightning slithering to the ground. Except it’s not lightning — it’s tentacles tumbling from the sky, suckered and glistening and rooted to something big enough to have engulfed the Earth. They flop down from cumulus clouds, slapping against the ground hard enough to cause tremors. The rusting tin shed caves in, collapsing upon his six brothers before the corrugated walls are scooped away by a questing tendril. A hundred other boneless limbs descend hungrily upon his squalling brothers. They haul them, wailing, up into the sky, up with a billion other innocents plucked from collapsing skyscrapers, mud huts, once–sleepy suburbs. Clouds, now tinged with crushed red.
All the while, Mother dances in crazed triumph, naked, breasts flopping. Spattered in blood, she gargles the syllables that beckoned the Goddess here…
Derleth shakes off the — dream? Idea? It’s hard to say. The girl with the green hair chews her pierced lip. She’s so afraid he’ll laugh at her, so relieved she thinks she’s found someone who shares her terror of the Rapture, that already she’s confusing intensity for love.
Derleth thinks of himself as an empty cabinet. He knows if he remains quietly agreeable, people will stack up his insides with their own needs and desires, imbuing him with all sorts of cheerful motivations. And since he does not trust his own voice — Mother’s doing — he finds that preferable to telling people who he is. Was.
Except now, he’s found someone who knows a part of him.
“You were raised by fundamentalists, too,” she begs, trying to make a light game of it. “Weren’t you?”
He turns away from her to dive into the mosh pit, terrified of the unknowable, always terrified of the unknowable.
The next night, Derleth is once again drenched in other people’s sweat. His fellow moshers grind their exertion into his skin with grimy elbows, flailing kicks to the face, spotlight–heated bodies flopping down on him from above, until Derleth’s bruised chest is sheened glistening. The music roars, distorted into an eardrum–hammering incoherence, but everyone in the pit hears the intent: a call to thrash.
Derleth loves the mosh pit’s embrace. Hugs make him nervous. Violence is the only intimacy Mother ever spoke, so here is where Derleth fills up on human contact; in the ritualized destruction of the pit, before finding an alleyway to sleep in.
He looks up; the girl is shoved up against the stage on the far side of the pit, watching him, braced to hurl her slim frame into the welter of hulking metalheads. She’s shaved her green hair into a stubbled crosshatch pattern in an attempt to look hardcore, but her heart–shaped face is too cute to look mean.
His skin goosepimples. She’s encroaching on his space. Her eyes are defiant.
He waits for the music to break — that moment when the band halves the tempo, downshifting straight into violence. Then he slingshots himself at her, a barrel–chested bullet, ready to knock her out of his world.
She launches herself right back at him, grinning, as if this is all a game.
Derleth hates grins. Mother’s grins were all monkey–hatred grins, a challenge expressed in teeth —
— Mother grinning down at him as he writhes in a bug–filled blanket, the sunlight like needles poking his eyes, his neck so stiff he cannot turn to look away from the Arizona sun. He feels death crawling up his spine, a hot–white pain that spews from his mouth. It is not yet his ninth birthday.
Mother, pregnant as always — he could not remember a time when her nipples weren’t smeared with stale milk — has stood over him for hours, now, drinking in his every twitch and shiver.
“I’m dying,” he croaks. His throat is sandpaper, his lips caked with dried vomit. His brothers sometimes bring him water from the plastic rain–catchers, sometimes wander away; they’re too little, all sunburnt babyflesh toddling awkward, they can’t understand. Mother does, though. “Please.”
She kneels down, eyes gleaming with triumph. She thumps his chest, three times, as though sharing a fine joke.
“We’re soft,” she croons. “Our flesh decays, makes no mark on the hard rock of this world. Nothing will remember us, unless we hurt it.” She swallows thickly, her bug eyes rolling in contemplation. “What can you hurt?”
“I hurt,” he moans.
“Then only you will remember you.” She gets up to wander away, disappointed, distracted. “And why bother, when you will be gone?”
Shivering, Derleth watches in horror as Mother walks out of his field of vision, chanting her nonsense language —
— and the green–haired girl slams into his chest, sending him reeling into a pair of Juggalos.
It’s a good pain. The shock jangling through his nerves reminds him he’s alive, his heart is pumping, that he left Mother behind in Arizona. The green–haired girl stumbles back for more, elbowing her way through the pit’s muscled mayhem, ducking under a crowd–surfer to headbutt him in the stomach.
She sees the ghosts in his eyes; every blow she delivers is an exorcism. The pit reduces them to survival mode, robs them of contemplation; a pause for memory means a boot to the face. This sea of flailing punches is where they destroy their past, and she gleefully transforms wretched memories into throbbing bruises.
This is love.
And they are in the darkened parking lot, kissing and biting and clawing, licking sweat from skin in a filthy rutting beauty. She tugs him into a rusting Saturn, shoves crumpled McDonald’s bags off the back seat, never taking her mouth off his. She fumbles at his belt, then tugs her camouflage pants down around tattooed ankles. The scent of her excitement fills the car. And as he looks down —
— Mother sits spread–legged for hours at a time, one hand clenching the back of Derleth’s neck to press his cheek against her thigh so he must watch. Her other hand endlessly strokes the flaps of pink flesh between her legs, contorting it, displaying it.
She is always like this when she gives birth.
“The Goddess’s cunt is black as ebon,” his mother whispers. “She is always fecund. This is always yawning wide, spawning wide. Things squirm out. She leaves them behind. She will fill the world with life until She creates something strong enough to end it.”
His mother’s cunt convulses, spattering Derleth’s cheeks with mucus. The pale, spider–haired skull of yet another brother spasms into view —
Derleth falls back against the car door, wailing, nose wet with terror and snot.
She stops, baffled… then slips her arms around him. Derleth freezes, unable to stop crying; he does not know how to be touched. She curls around him, stroking his hair.
“We’re not sinners,” she reassures him, urgent enough to convince two people. “There’s no God watching. It’s just us.”
He wishes there was a God watching, something conscious fine–tuning the mechanisms of the universe. But here, in the car with this beautiful girl, all he feels is the touch of the Goddess — this stiff–dicked need to fill the world with flesh.
He struggles. She clings tighter, whispering comfort, until he slumps into sleep.
He wakes up on a futon, in a small apartment cluttered with old Chinese takeout boxes and Ramen noodle wrappers. A note lies on the pillow.
At work. Eat whatever you need. Rest. You look like you need some recovery time — Gabrielle
P.S. — Please don’t steal anything.
There isn’t much to steal: a small TV, an iPod charger, a coffeemaker. But he feels safe here. It’s the first place since he was fifteen that he hasn’t had to worry about roaming cops, predatory homeless, the weather.
He flicks on the TV. To Derleth, eight hours of uninterrupted television is like a trip to the Taj Mahal. He drinks cold soda from the refrigerator, takes the luxury of hot showers. When Gabrielle comes home, she curls up next to him on the futon, plants a single kiss on his forehead, and silently watches reruns with him — always holding him close — until they drift off.
So the next seven days pass.
The rhythms of life at Gabrielle’s apartment both disturb and comfort Derleth. He’s never had any predictability in his life, not since he left Mother behind. It’s all been standing at the backs of restaurants asking about dishwasher jobs, looking for clean dumpsters in the hopes of a rainless sleep, thumbing for rides and hoping he won’t have to break some horny trucker’s nose tonight.
Yet the idea that life could resume a pattern also means there’s something new to be taken away.
“So what was it like?” she finally asks as the credits roll on another episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. She stays admirably calm as Derleth’s muscles tense, offering a steady embrace, neither clenching him into a trap nor offering an easy escape.
It frightens him, how much he wants to hit her.
It frightens him more that she might like that.
“I don’t have to answer that,” Derleth hisses.
“No.” She rests her head on his shoulder. “You don’t.”
Another Everybody Loves Raymond starts up. He doesn’t answer her until Seinfeld’s second commercial break.
“Mother got the urge to get with God before I was born,” he exhales, quickly, like the smoke from a first cigarette. “She drove off deep into the desert, put up a shack, got to worshipping.”
Gabrielle nods. Derleth feels guilty, letting her fill in the gaps. He’s not saying who Mother worshipped, or how.
“Food was scarce,” he continues, picking his way through it. “She’d go on walkabouts for days, headed to town — sometimes she’d return with buckets of rotten fruit she stole from CostCo, sometimes she’d cruise back in a car with the other crazy survivalists and unpack a trunkful of MREs… and sometimes she’d wander back empty–handed, sunburnt and babbling. I don’t think anyone really knew we were out there.”
Gabrielle nods. Did she understand what he meant by “worship”? His mother was not quite a whore, as her whole goal in life was to birth the lamb that would destroy the world… but some of the guys felt like they owed her something anyway. Sometimes it was food, sometimes they’d hold tongue–tied lessons in reading or survival or shooting for Derleth and all of his brothers; reclusive, sweat–stained men reduced to stammering by a crowd of children. But whenever Derleth had asked one of these temporary father figures to stay, they’d brayed brittle laughs and patted him on the head.
Eventually, Derleth had realized: his mother was the crazy one among a bunch of crazies.
“Did you have a lot of brothers?” she asks. Derleth locks up: how could she know? Maybe Gabrielle worships the Goddess too, this comfort is her attempt to breed him…
“My Mom was a Quiverfull,” Gabrielle adds quickly. “I don’t think I ever saw her not pregnant. Or trying to.”
Derleth laughs bitterly. Their lives overlap in all the wrong ways. She thinks she survived an awfulness. How can he stay, when this girl knows nothing of life? Part of him wants to choke her, to teach her the violence Mother did to him —
She senses the tension. “How many brothers did you have?” she asks, as if the answer is obvious —
— the baby is dead on the ground, ants marching across its shriveled eyes. Derleth has been apologizing to the baby for hours now, heaving with dry tears, knowing a cup of water might have saved it. Mother has been on walkabout for ten days, and the cisterns are all empty. All his brothers are huddled under the tin shack, seeking coolness in hot shadows; all of them are dying.
The youngest is dead. Again. Mother had stopped giving them names.
They’d had food, endless crates of granola bars. What they’d lacked was water. Derleth, the eldest, tried everything he could, shoving his useless man–nipples into the child’s horrifically dry mouth, cutting cactus up and squeezing dribbles of water out, even gathering scrub brush in hopes of boiling some of the rancid fluid pooled in the sewage pit. And when the baby had died, he’d still held it to his chest in disbelief until he realized its skin was cooking in the desert sun.
Now it’s on the ground. He does not know what to do. His remaining surviving brothers mewl in the shade, hoping not to join the other desiccated bodies in the desert. Derleth wonders how in hell he can save them.
He looks up, hearing the usual nonsense syllables of Mother calling to the Goddess. She strides back across the desert, dragging three canisters of stolen soda syrup. He grabs up the baby, ants and all, thrusts it into her arms.
“Look what you did!” he screams. “You did this!”
She looks down at the dead child. Her mouth forms a surprised “O,” as if he had handed her a Mother’s Day gift; she bares cracked teeth at him in a grin. She bobs her head slowly at first, then nods in a vigorous raver’s nod.
“Yes.” She licks the syllable with pleasure. “I did this. I did this? I did this!” She hoists her dead child in her hands, flinging it into the air over and over again in a ghastly game of whoops–the–baby, its tiny hands flopping lifelessly.
Derleth assaults her. But Mother’s body isn’t short–circuiting due to dehydration. She slaps him aside, hurls the baby over her shoulder, then hauls the syrup over to the shed, her belly distended, ready to birth again —
“How many brothers?” He rolls away from Gabrielle’s embrace to face the wall. “The numbers changed. Up and down. All the time.”
She sucks in a quivering breath. “I know bad,” she assures him, placing a tentative hand on his shoulder. “My Dad did things to me —”
“Your Dad was a pussy.” He slams his head into the baseboard, blinding sharp memories with sharper pain.
“Hey,” she snarls, a furious command. She yanks him onto his back, slaps him hard enough that Derleth sees a spray of his blood fan out against the wall. The adrenaline shock of impending fight floods his system, he buries his knee into her gut —
She grabs his chin and kisses him, their mouths filling with salt–sweet blood. She straddles him as the adrenaline shifts to need, and punching her is the only safe way to touch her, and she’s slapping him and snarling what a stupid, Hell–bound sinner he is —
She pushes her pants to one side, placing a hand between her legs to shield Derleth from the sight of it. As she lowers herself onto him, Derleth freezes, wanting this wetness, terrified by the implications —
“I can’t get pregnant,” she assures him, suddenly vulnerable. “Not any more.”
And oh God it is soft and beautiful and he looks up at the real Goddess, not some tangle of fecund slime but a smiling young girl with a freshly–blackened eye and perfect breasts, and instead of punching he brushes his fingertips against her skin, afraid she might vanish with the contact, but she clasps his palm to her chest as she rolls her hips to bury them both in pleasure, whispering it’s all right, it’s all right.
And when he comes, it is as obliterating as any moment in the pit, losing himself in orgasmic anesthesia. When she collapses against him afterwards he sinks into her flesh and enters a deep and dreamless slumber.
Gabrielle has quit her job so they can drive out to Arizona in Gabrielle’s rackety car. They’ve been consulting maps for three days. She hasn’t asked him any questions, which is good: all he’d been able to tell her was, “I have to know if she’s still there.”
Then, to get to Mother’s old home, they have to walk. He’s only made this journey once, in the other direction, headed towards town instead of fleeing it. They sleep on sandy rocks, shivering in the desert cold, ill–prepared. Gabrielle is braced for impact the whole time.
And then they’re there.
He finds it more by memory than landmark; there wasn’t much here to begin with. Derleth’s clued in by a scattering of sun–faded granola wrappers caught in tangles of thorns, the dark spot of the dried–up sewage pit.
He does not want to dig in the sewage pit, but he needs to know for sure. Derleth kneels, shoves his hand into the grave — his fingers grip dead bone. Mother’s body. He sighs, relieved —
— Mother would gather the children around, spinning grand stories about the day she would call the Goddess back to destroy the planet, pointing at the clouds and telling them exactly what it would look like. Sometimes she forgot words, lapsing into ululations for hours on end. The children shivered, terrified to move, as Mother described all the different places where people had been cruel to her, and how violently each person there would die once she brought the Goddess back.
One of the littlest talkers — Mother had stopped giving them actual names — unwisely speaks up.
“But the Goddess will save us, right?” he asks.
Mother shakes her head, amused.
“The Goddess loves nothing,” she tells him. “You all die.”
As his brother begins to wail, Derleth feels the fury welling up inside of him. Why would Mother get to have all the revenge, and not Derleth?
Before he knows it, he has leapt on Mother. Is strangling her. He expects to be swatted away, then tied to the ground until his brothers free him. That is how it works.
Yet he is surprised to find how big he has gotten. She goes over, borne down by his weight. He hasn’t tried to fight her in years, and Mother has gotten old. He wraps his fingers around her neck as his brothers flail at his shoulders, begging him to stop…
…and Derleth cannot stop smiling.
The fear glistening in her eyes as he strangles her is his fear mirrored, and it has been all along. She’s not powerful. She’s a nothing, so unseen that she disappeared from the earth one day and no one noticed, someone to be kicked or screamed at or fired by anyone who damn well felt like it. She went to the desert to birth her own squadron of people to abuse because pain was the only proof that she ever affected anyone, and even then she could only hurt soft things that couldn’t fight back…
That was why Mother needed the Goddess — if she destroyed the world, she’d at least have done something…
“What can you hurt?” Derleth screams, over and over again, relishing her struggles, drunk on her dying. “Goddess cunt! Goddess cunt! What can you hurt?”
The answer is nothing. He can hurt. He can destroy, now. And for the first time in his life, Derleth is potent. He’s not just killing her — he’s showing her just how little she matters, shatters the brief illusion of relevancy she cobbled together by fleeing out here, showing her even the weakest of things can strangle and rob and rape her.
This is Derleth’s fondest memory.
He dumps her in the sewage pit, warns the kids that if they ever speak a word about Mother, she’ll come back and eat them. It’s thrilling how easily they believe him. He storms out across the desert, knowing that he now walks Mother’s paths, set to find a cop and lie about his mother disappearing on walkabout, about the orphaned kids huddled in the desert…
—“They don’t get up again,” Gabrielle reassures him, words with the weight of knowledge underneath them. “You think they’re so powerful, they’ll rise from the grave after you kill them. But…” She shrugs. “Dead is dead.”
Suspicions blossom, then guilt. He wonders what things her father did to her. “So you…”
“You always think the horror is yours,” she says. “And it is. But… there’s a lot of overlap between awfuls. I know some of what you went through. And you know some of mine. Or else you wouldn’t have…”
She flutters her hand weakly towards the grave, as though it barely matters.
Derleth squints as the sun sets: two murderers on a vast desert, sharing confessions. Except Gabrielle is not a murderer, not in spirit; she’s sunny with dark streaks. Compassionate in a way that makes Derleth shudder to think such caring might exist inside of him. “So how do you…?”
“I keep the good stuff and throw the bad away,” she tells him. “That’s how I survived.”
Derleth realizes his wandering has been an attempt to throw the bad stuff away. He’d loved that power of killing, craved it — but that was Mother growing inside him, a thing he had to starve and kill by starving and killing himself…
“I had no good stuff,” he mutters.
She laughs. “People like you and me don’t start with good stuff. We have to make it. One memory at a time.”
Derleth looks down at Mother’s grave, a dry body in a desert, forgotten. All her crazed attempts to create immortality led only to her worst dreams coming true. There was no Goddess, no tentacles in the sky; only human beings, perpetuating their own horrors.
“So what do you do now?” Gabrielle asks.
Derleth takes her hand.
More from Ferrett Steinmetz:
Ferrett Steinmetz has been published in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Escape Pod, among others. He spent twenty years locked in an ugly writer–hibernation, getting nowhere, until the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop provided the cheat code to his secret writer–power. Later on, he picked up a magic mushroom boost at the Viable Paradise Workshop. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, a small black dog of indeterminate origin and too much energy, and a friendly ghost. He blogs entirely too much about puns, polyamory, and politics at www.theferrett.com. His twitter handle is @ferretthimself.