Rose is sixteen when a meteor smashes into a mountain just fifty miles from her house on a dusty April morning. It is unusually large and intact and light; the path of its destruction is limited to one farmhouse, six cows, and a new sharp-sloped hill to be used for, maybe, skiing, or a tourist attraction. For weeks afterwards people begin conversations with, “Did you see that meteor?” and sometimes cross themselves. Rose is not a girl who rolls her eyes when she’s talking to people face-to-face, but it is mighty difficult to restrain herself. They talk as though it is the end of the world. As far as Rose is concerned, it is not a proper apocalypse unless there is nuclear warfare, a doomed wizard, and maybe some zombies.
But like many things in life, the real news of the week, the one that no one knows about or pays attention to for some days, comes when an organic farm in Ithaca imports a shipment of red Alternian plumpfruits infested with striped tree bleeders. By the end of the week, an enormous, black cloud flies from the Catskill mountains to the Adirondacks. They cover the trees, drain them, then fall to the ground, their enormous pincers and teeth gnashing with feline satisfaction. Their fat, bulbous twelve-winged bodies are as long as her forearms, their horns long and sharp as boar tusks. The local news station send a reporter out to the field to spray one bleeder with a can of Raid, and their next major story is, "LOCAL MAIMED BY ALTERNIAN BUGS.”
By the beginning of May, the mountains turn a dusty, dull brown. Leaves rattle around Rose’s feet when she walks to and from the front door to her mother’s car in the mornings and afternoons. Her mother, a specialist in Alternian physiology and wildlife, joins a committee, and for the rest of the month, Rose lives off of overly elaborate finger sandwiches: egg salad, tuna salad, cucumber salad, sushi salad, all impeccably made and finished off with tiny toothpicks going straight through the center. Rose leaves a note on the fridge, next to the laminated map of Alternaterra she colored in the first grade, six human continents on one side of the globe, and one supermassive troll continent on the other: “Mother, I will take the liberty of ordering out for the next week. Please don’t trouble yourself to make me dinner.” She calls for Chinese that night, and instead of lo mein and spicy beef tripe, the delivery boy gives her another collection of sandwiches. “Darling Rose,” the note inside says. “God forbid that you ever go hungry. I made these with tomatoes. I know how much you love them.”
In June, a troop of sliceterminators stop in Potsdam on their way to Albany. The troll general is a close friend of her mother’s, and is coming from Potsdam to their tiny, godforsaken village just to see her. Rose has never met him before, and she’s okay with that.
“I have homework,” Rose says.
“Forget your homework, darling,” her mother says. “It’s always important to cultivate your troll friends. You never know when they’ll come in handy.”
Rose has a mental image of her mother pinning down her troll friend to the bed, and her entire brain spins around and snaps away from her brainstem.
“I’ve been thinking, Rose dearest,” her mother says. “You’ve always needed more companions. What about a nice trollish gentleman? A trollish gentlelady? Your hobbies have always trended towards the esoteric and strange. I don’t see why your romantic options shouldn’t. Why, the captain tells me that he has a collection of young grubs yearning for some shore leave. Brush up on your accent, dear. You need to impress.”
“My accent’s impeccable,” Rose says. Rose signed up for a penpal program in the fourth grade to mine her troll informant for tales of the horrific and the grimdark. Four letters later, she was banned from participating in any other cultural exchange programs and brought to the school psychologist. Rose’s mother had a tutor come in to teach her human and troll etiquette and sensitivity: how to order at restaurants, the famous ballad of Shanas Orobos, why you should never slap a troll unless you want to be hate married. When Rose learned enough, she had the tutor slide his resignation under her mother’s bedroom door and used the new two hours of free time to diagnose celebrities on TV using a stolen library copy of the DSM-IV. “And I intend to become a nun of the church of horrorterrors.”
Her mother clicks and clucks and pours herself yet another martini. “I can’t imagine why you’d deny yourself the pleasure.”
“Oh my god, mother.”
“They really can be so sweet once you find their weak spots,” she says. “It’s the same with all people.” Her mother picks up three hangers. Dresses in putrid pink and lavender and purple dance from her fingers. “Pick one, dear. I recommend picking a color that makes our troll friends associate you with a higher caste.”
“I’ve always found scarlet to be exceedingly fetching.”
“Don’t be silly, love.”
“The loveliest of oranges,” Rose says. “The finest greens.” The dresses dangle. The metal hangers clink and click against one another. Her mother takes sips. Rose goes with the lavender.
“Good choice, darling,” her mother says. “It goes with your eyes.”
The trolls arrive at her house in the evening. Rose stands behind her mother and watches, with dreary curiosity, as the sliceterminators line up in rows on her driveway. They’re six, seven feet tall, some knife-thin, some wide and thick as walls. There are thirty, forty of them, maybe more. A troll in blue in the front stops, yells at the others. Then he turns.
He’s at least seven feet tall, carrying a heavy metal box over his shoulder with blades sticking out of its long slits, and wearing a mask connected to a little air supply on his chest. He looks like he might break her fingers if she shakes his hand. Naturally, her mother is an imposing Greek statue of a woman, and is not at all intimidated. No one, Rose thinks with sour pride, could ever lay a hand on her mother. Her mother and the troll refer to one another in familiar pronouns. They talk about research: the production of human purrbeasts, the importation of trollish cats, the long legs of Troll Audrey Hepburn. The blue blood even smiles at her mother, face splitting to reveal at least two rows of needle teeth. He looks at his troops, at the people from the local newspaper, and then at Rose.
“She’s a pitiful-looking girl,” he says. “Absolutely delectable.”
“Thank you,” Rose says back.
“She speaks the Standard,” he says to her mother.
“Evidently,” Rose says.
The troll meets her eyes. Then he turns back to her mother. Her mother smiles down at Rose, a little coolly, and she is either putting on a facsimile of pride, or thinks Rose needs to work on her accent.
“Don’t mind her, dear,” her mother says to the blueblood. “Why don’t you have your units show us humans how to take care of those bugs before you go to Albany?”
The sliceterminators demonstrate their technique: first dousing the area in a bright red fog of chemicals, then walking into the cloud and shooting blades from their strange contraption. Most of them return from the cloud carrying a bleeder by the rear pincers. Rose watches their cool military efficiency, so different from the popular image of bloodthirsty, raving monsters in films and on television. All armies are like that, though, she thinks. But it’s hard to not be charmed by the cold façade of ruthless heartlessness. Rose chalks it up to being raised by the chief minion of icy irony herself. She appreciates a glimpse of this other world, everything as it is and nothing out of place.
When she turns seventeen in December, her mother buys her a beautiful, thundering beast of a car, likely capable of breaking the sound barrier. After some thought, her mother buys a second car for Rose meant for cruising.
“Fuck you, Lalonde,” Dave says when she tells him about her mother’s gifts. Dave is her Texan half-brother, though as far as they can tell, they share neither a mother nor a father. All they know is that their family tree twists, knots, and turns into a Moebius strip. “My brother films puppet porn in my rod. They did it on the roof, the hood, the gear shift. Twice on the hand brake. Butts getting touched more than once. Shit, my libido just went into reverse.”
He is both her dearest friend and fondest conversation partner, but he doesn’t have much competition. Rose has no other friends—she once made out with a few of her mother’s college students, but then it got creepy, so she chalks that whole thing up to ‘misguided experimentation’ and ‘A Lesson Learned’ and pretends it never happened—no one except her brother and her mother’s favorite cats and purrbeasts, who have recently started interbreeding. All sorts of strange kittens crawl around the forests and woods, kittens with four eyes and six legs, and jaws meant to swallow instead of crush. Rose finds them quite charming, but the state of New York makes her mother round up the cats and purrbeasts and put them away somewhere else. They all go except for Mutie, who her mother calls Zippanforisto, after some wizard or another.
When she first got her car, her mother had the faintest and most fleeting of hopes that Rose would use the car to connect with her classmates. And for a few days, she did. Their pointed accusations of ‘what are you doing here, Lalonde,’ veiled beneath a mask of baffled confusion, is entertaining for a little while. But then someone tells her, “Just go away, you bitch,” and Rose no longer sees the point in toying with them. It’s not satisfying destroying someone with words when your words have no effect on them. And they weren’t that interesting, anyway. She’d rather spend time with Mutie. Now she uses the car to run errands, drive herself to school and violin lessons, and occasionally indulge in long, unscenic drives around the mountains.
By now, the trees surrounding her house and the whole stretch of mountain from Canada to Pennsylvania are withered and deathly, but the infestation has, evidently, been taken care of. Rose’s chances of being stabbed in the face by a massive bug are approximately zero, her mother tells her, in an attempt to plant the seed of irrational fear into Rose’s mind to keep Rose from driving the depressing, mountainous New York highways around their house in the early winter.
“Dear mother,” she says—her mother smiles into her martini glass, and Rose knows she has laid it on too thickly—“I am the most careful of drivers. I will put chains on my tires and only drive on the major roads.”
“I should buy you a car with a four wheel drive.”
“I will salt the highway before I drive them. I will hire a squad of troll mercenaries wielding flamethrowers. They will rape and pillage the countryside like restless knights of medieval lore, all in the name of land acquisition and taking an enormous shit in the mouth of an opposing lord.”
“There is no reason to go to such extreme lengths, Rose darling. Let mother take care of it.”
“I don’t want you to take care of it.”
“Darling, your livelihood is much more important than your pride,” her mother says, and the words are reinterpreted in Rose’s mind as, “submit.”
The roads are clean and salted a week later. Her mother is a human Medici, grooming her for tenure at Harvard and rehabilitating Troll Jung’s reputation as a serious academic. Maybe write some fanfiction of Troll Jung visiting Troll Freud’s couch and having a contest in who can be the best pale and ashen prostitute. Oh, to grasp those spiraling horns.
Her mother is out tonight on a conference in Arizona. Rose has watched her mother give this presentation ten or twelve times, each time judging, “Too rambly” or “you’re slurring” or “That dress enhances curves I never knew you had, mother.”
Rose eats dinner, then drives herself to her violin lessons. It’s nearly sunset. The trees, black and brown and dead, cast dark bars across the road. She blares Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik out of her stereo system, and drives to the sound of furious violins.
Her house is several miles away from the main town. When it snows, she has to shift to first gear to make her way down the slope from her house to the highway, and even then, she has one foot tapping the brake. Once she’s on the highway, driving alone on the barely-lit road, she becomes uneasy. The mountains unnerve her. Not the size or the height or the constant threat of being eaten alive by Alternian bloodsuckers. No, what’s frightening is how everything seems half as wide and twice as tall as it’s supposed to, and sometimes she thinks she’s the only person who’s noticed: there is something wrong in the world, and no one else knows.
Her whole life has been like this, looking out the window and seeing everything a little wrong. The trees bend towards her car—tall, looming shadows that remind her of the dreams she had, starting right around her twelfth birthday, that made her think she was dying. Horrible, painful night terrors that no one knew about because she was too proud to scream and because she thought—anyone would think—that she was losing her mind, dreaming about her own death and the death of all things. Black, reaching, boneless arms and furious, plasma fire. She chalks it up to latent xenophobia and too many wizard novels.
She’s debating whether or not it would be productive to continue thinking about her dreams when a motorcycle, with its single bright headlight, stops in the middle of the road. She’s annoyed, at first—then she hits the brake when she realizes it’s not a motorcycle, but a person. Her car skids on a curve, and comes two inches from whacking a mailbox into the ground.
Rose is a classy broad. She doesn’t give the woman the finger and demand to know what kind of person stands on the middle of a highway after sunset. An idiot, her mind supplies helpfully, that’s the kind of person who stands in the middle of highways after sunset. But it helps that the woman is glowing, like a ghost or an apparition. She is a thing of nightmares. Rose—
Rose does not panic, but observes. Her grip on the wheel locks in place, knee and calf and hamstrings all tense, ready to run. The woman walks up to Rose’s car, and puts a glowing hand on the windshield. It is a troll in a bloodied Alternian military uniform, wearing a medical patch on one sleeve. She doesn’t know why the troll is emitting light, but, of course, the real question is why the troll didn’t leave with her company.
She lowers her window. The troll is quite pretty—maybe more than quite. Rose’s mouth slides into a smile, like it’s a natural expression for her. “This is quite the sight,” she says. “A glowing deserter of Her Imperious Condescension’s army, wandering the mountains of New York. I can only suppose that you were so taken by the prospect of skiing and other wintery fun-time adventures that you chose to join us in the boondocks, where we take our daily breakfast with organic cheese and fair-trade coffee. Or nightly. I shouldn’t be prejudiced against the nocturnal half of our planet.” Shit. She is engaging in the Dave Strider school of flirting by opening her mouth and letting bullshit come out. She has become one of those drivers who see hitchhikers and stop to wolf-whistle, blare their horns, and say things like, ‘Hey, dollface, nice gams,’ only disguising it beneath cheese and coffee.
Still, the troll puts her hands on Rose’s shoulders and looks at Rose fondly, as though yes, Rose has not completely blown it. Rose is preparing a detailed commentary on human-troll relations when the troll, almost gently, touches Rose’s cheek and says, “Hsssskkkkksssrreeeeeeeee.” Rose’s words don’t as much stop as they cease to exist entirely.
She bends down, and then into, the car; her horns scrape the seat’s head rest. The angle of the troll’s head briefly inspires an urge to take note of this moment and, perhaps, commit it to poetry—just briefly, because then she bites.
It isn’t painful at first, mostly because the first bite is more of a test, tooth pressing into skin. But then she hears the troll’s jaw click and then a sound of a pencil driving into a rubber eraser—except it’s not a pencil, they’re fangs, fangs piercing through muscle and tendon to reach artery. And yes, fuck, it hurts, she doesn’t understand why she ever thought that bullshit about vampires pumping anesthetic into the wound would ever be true. She’s waiting for unconsciousness to take her out of her misery. The troll licks her neck.
Good lord, Rose thinks, somewhere between panic and shock. This all happened because of her congenital smartassery. And for maximum irony—Dave can go fuck himself—her mental voice is tinged red and especially ironic. ‘Cool, Lalonde, stop to offer a chick a ride, no way that could go wrong.’
‘Congrats, Rose. Getting your Carmilla up for the first time. Toothular penetration to the neck? At least she didn’t strip you to go straight for a boob bite. Look at what a gentletroll she is. Bunp.’
‘Hey, Rose, guess you’ve become a poster child for why you shouldn’t let your vagina decide whether you chat up ladies who stop in the middle of the road but it’s all cool, blame it on the vampiric thrall’ and oh, fuck, ow ow ow ow somewhere out there, Dave Strider is laughing at her. The pain doesn’t go away, but it dulls. Rose spends ten—fifteen—however many minutes it is, feeling blood gush out of her neck, only to be lapped by a thin, long tongue, swallowed down and slurped wetly. Then, with a few final, long licks, the troll withdraws. Rose inhales so fast and deeply that she gets dizzy. The troll licks her lips. She reaches into her uniform, and applies a band-aid to Rose’s neck.
Rose has no fucking clue what just happened. She touches her neck, and stares up at the troll, who is now peering down at Rose with a similarly bewildered expression.
“Oh my,” the troll says.
“I must be drunk,” Rose says. “Otherwise I would have to ask myself why you have apparently decided to make like a vampire and suck.” She could deliver a lecture on the assault and battery laws of the Empire State, but if she’s worried that if she does, she’ll have to resort to crude tactics such as the time-honored tradition of running the fuck away.
“You by coincidence perhaps given to seeming a familiarity to me that is not coincidental but the potentiality is so,” the troll says in English. Her eyes, jade green, look earnest and damnably worried.
“Charming,” Rose says, in Alternian. “I can only assume that you do not mean that as a pick up line.”
The troll, either determined or perhaps, like most trolls, born with an innate inability to comprehend the concept of anyone but a troll speaking Alternian, plows on in English. “Of intentions to use ‘pick up line’ there are none I present to you caveats your vehicular safety strap-in mechanism preventing my ‘pick up’ ability now allowing for multiple variant answer inquiring in the car are you human all right I am trained professorial medicine cutter.” There is a little pause. “Hua zhongguowen?”
“I feel as though I could tell you that I am speaking in your native tongue for the next ten minutes without you understanding,” Rose says. “But setting aside your insistent massacring of the English language, I am afraid that you terrify me in several other respects that will now cause me to speed away, and hope that you have been hit by a car by the time I return.”
She doesn’t wait for an answer. She absconds.