Actions

Work Header

The Assholes & The Dead

Chapter Text

Gary kills Olympia, and he kills Cheryl, and he kills Tom.

Underneath the blanket, Malorie’s world narrows down to the babies. Their pink crumpled faces, their wailing cries. Tiny and perfect and fragile.

She hears an explosion rip through the room. Silence. Then the unmistakeable thunk of a shotgun hitting the floor.

“I said we shouldn’t have let him in.”

She gasps, her breaths ragged.

“Douglas?”

“Your knight in shining armour.”

For some reason, that makes her laugh – a dry, hollow thing she doesn’t recognise. Douglas reaches the bed, covers them all with a blanket. He looks at the children.

“Are they alright?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I got them. I got them.”

“Oh, good,” he says, with quiet sarcasm, “I’m sure they’ll be a big help.”

Malorie looks up at him, her eyelashes studded with tears. His face softens.

“Go downstairs. I need to board these windows up.”

She nods weakly, bundles the babies up in her arms.

Padding downstairs, she passes Tom, lying on his back, scissors sticking out of his chest. And Gary… Gary is slumped against the wall, skull blown open, crimson blood dripping into his eyes like spilt paint. Those eyes. Those eyes are so wide and so, so empty. 

 


 

Malorie sits, for a long, long time. It’s just her now. Her, and two babies, and Douglas. Douglas, who thinks everything is a huge mistake, who’s never wrong, who’s making the end of the world great again.

She wishes it were anyone else.

Tom would have defended her, protected her, kept her and the babies safe. Cheryl would have led the way, her will of steel swathed in motherly advice and affection. And Olympia… she and Olympia would have been two new mothers against the world. They would have kept each other strong.

“I suppose you’re wishing you were left with the handsome, heroic one,” Douglas says.

Malorie looks at him. He looks two-am tired to the bones, and a hell of a lot better than being on her own. She smiles wryly.

“Wasn’t I?”

 


 

Malorie wakes up to sunlight straining through the blinds, and she can’t find Douglas. He left, she thinks wildly. The bastard has left her, on her own, with two babies. She paces up and down, her heart thudding in her chest.

She hears a car outside, and the blood freezes in her veins. She thinks about Gary. She thinks about his eyes. She thinks there are more like him out there.

“Shit,” she whispers, “Shit, shit, shit.”

She runs back to the bedroom. The babies are stirring, and she shushes them, holds them both to her chest.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she says, running down the stairs.

She hears the garage door open, and a car pull in. She freezes.

“Son of a bitch,” she mutters under her breath.

It’s Douglas. He steps out of a car with papered-over windows – stolen, she guesses – and she wants to scream and hit him, yell never do that to me again.

“I thought you were gone,” she says, her voice shaky.

“I didn’t want to wake you.”

“You asshole.”

She’s crying. She crying, and it’s because she’s angry, and that just makes her angrier.

“Is this hormones,” Douglas says, “Or…?”

“I was scared.”

Douglas pops the boot. It’s crammed full of nappies, formula milk, and baby clothes.

“I think I was the first to raid Mothercare.”

She opens her mouth, closes it.

“I… Thank you.”

 


 

Later, Malorie picks through the post-apocalyptic baby shower. Douglas is on the sofa nursing a whiskey, the babies asleep next to him.

“What’s this?” she says, holding up a couple of complicated-looking pieces of fabric.

They’re baby wraps, she realises.

“In case we need to leave here one day.”

She moves over, kisses him on the cheek.

“Not that I don’t always deserve to be kissed, but what was that particular one for?”

“For… all of this.”

“Well, we appear to be running a daycare at the end of the world.”

He looks at the babies.

“I never asked. Which one is yours?”

She looks at them, wrapped up in a blanket like they belong together, like they’ve shared the same womb.

“They both are.”

 


 

“This is beneath me,” Douglas says, the first time he changes a nappy.

“Really?” says Malorie, “The three hundred times I did it were a privilege.”

I didn’t get myself pregnant.”

“Stranger things have happened, don’t speak too soon.”

Douglas plonks the boy into Malorie’s arms.

“All done.”

Malorie inspects the nappy, expertly pinned in place.

“It’s not the first time you’ve done this.”

“I didn’t think I’d be doing it again.”

Malorie shrugs.

“Well, that’s what happens when you shack up with a much younger woman.”

Much younger? Really?”

That makes her smile, despite herself.

 


 

It’s a couple of weeks before they’re woken up in the middle of the night by someone banging on the front door.

“Is anyone there? Please, please help me!”

It’s a woman. She sounds young, and desperate, and Malorie remembers Olympia. She gets up and goes downstairs.

“Malorie, stop!”

Douglas grabs her by the wrist.

“What are you doing?”

“Get off of me!” Malorie cries, wrenching her hand away, “She needs our help.”

“So did Gary.”

“So did Olympia.”

“Both of whom are dead.”

He cages her against the wall, arms either side of her head, and she suddenly realises how tall he is.

“Malorie, we cannot answer that door. We can never answer that door.”

The banging gets more insistent.

“Please help me, I think they’re coming!” the girl screams.

“Listen to her, she’s terrified,” Malorie says.

“What if she’s one of them?”

“Think you can’t handle a girl?”

“Can you? Can the children?”

He leans closer.

“Call me a coward. But I will not risk losing you. I know you can do this without me, Malorie, but I cannot do it without you.”

She covers her face with her hands.

“Okay,” she says, “Okay.”

She presses her face into his chest, feels small and scared.

The girl isn’t the only one who comes. They never let them in, of course. Malorie can still hear their screams when she closes her eyes.

 


 

Somehow, life finds a rhythm. The babies need so much and she can never stop giving. It’s tough, and it’s mind numbing, and she thinks she’d have gone mad without it. They change and grow, every day something new. Their first smiles, laughs, steps, ordinary but miraculous, a reason to keep fighting, to live, to win. Malorie loves them more than she can say, and it feels as if her heart is breaking.

Douglas reads to them at bedtime. She always watches. After everything that’s happened, it seems like something mythical. Something that people used to do, long-forgotten.

“Careful,” she says, “I’ll start thinking you have a heart.”

“I wasn’t a good father, the first time,” he says, “Or the second.”

You’re doing a pretty good job now, she thinks, but doesn’t say.

They sure up the house. They stockpile medicines, they put up wind chimes, they cover the beds with sheets, hooked to the ceiling like mosquito nets. The babies sleep with Malorie, because she can’t imagine leaving them alone, can’t imagine ever letting them out of arm’s reach.

Douglas does the supply runs. It terrifies her each time he leaves. She waits at home, trying the radio, listening out for a signal from someone else left alive. She turns it off when she hears the car. She doesn’t need anyone else.

Douglas finds Gary’s drawings. He pins them to the wall of his office, says they could give them clues about the creatures – what they are, how they work. How to beat them. He trawls through web forums, makes notes, makes a map of attacks, tries to piece it all together.

“They came from somewhere,” he says, late one night with an empty bottle in his hand, “There’s an explanation for all of this.”

“You need to sleep,” Malorie says.

He nods weakly, his eyes red, lets her take his hand and lead him to bed. There’s a photograph of Lydia on his bedside table, as well as her wedding ring, rescued from her blackened fingers.

“Stay,” he says.

Malorie pretends not to hear it.

 


 

Quietly, a year passes. They’re in the kitchen when the clock turns to midnight.

“We officially did it,” Malorie says, “One year.”

“And you haven’t killed me yet. That is something to celebrate.”

Douglas goes to the cupboard where he keeps the whiskey.

“Well,” Malorie says, “Just wait ‘til the honeymoon phase is over.”

He pours two glasses, neat.

“Is that when the sex stops, and the resentment kicks in?”

“I think that’s already happened.”

He slides her glass over.

“Remember the first time we did this?”

“You were such an asshole.”

He smiles.

“You know,” she says, “I still hope there is more.”

He holds his glass aloft.

“Here’s to hoping there is more.”

Chapter Text

It’s another month before they realise they have to leave. There are more people knocking on the door now. It’s as if they know they’re in there, as if they’re drawn in. It makes sense, Malorie supposes. As time goes by, there are fewer people like them and more people like Gary. Somehow that scares her more than the creatures.

“We should sort out some supplies, keep them by the back door,” she says, “We might have to leave in a hurry.”

They put together a couple of bags – food, clothes, torches, blankets – along with the baby wraps, and a box for the birds. Malorie packs her sketchbook, too. Most of her sketches are of the children and Douglas, but she’s drawn her sister, too, and Olympia, and Cheryl, and Tom, the people they’ve lost. (She spent days drawing Olympia holding her baby, that look of bliss and triumph on her face, because her daughter might want to see it someday, see what her mother looked like, see that she was loved.) And she drew Gary, because she’s never been able to stop thinking about him, about his eyes. About how he nearly killed them all, but he didn’t, and that’s why Malorie’s still here, with two tiny, precious lives to protect.

Douglas puts all his information and theories about the creatures into a notebook. Gary’s drawings are in there, and Charlie’s novel, and pages torn from some of Greg and his husband’s books.

“I’m a lawyer,” Douglas says, pulling his map down from the wall, “We make connections, find loopholes. I thought I could put all the evidence together and make it make sense. But it doesn’t.”

The children are sitting on the floor by his feet, happily playing with some discarded pages. Malorie shrugs, leans against the wall.

“Maybe you’re just not looking at the whole picture yet.”

“Maybe.”

“Da,” Girl says, holding a page up towards Douglas.

“Oh, are you helping daddy?” Douglas says.

He takes the page.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t say that,” Malorie says, “I hate it when you say that.”

“They’ll be talking soon,” Douglas says, slipping the page into the notebook.

“I know.”

“She’s nearly got ‘dada’. I think it might be her first word.”

Malorie sighs.

“Please stop.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re not their father.”

Douglas looks up sharply.

“Not their father? I’ve spent a year keeping them alive, keeping you alive. I didn’t have to do that, Malorie. I didn’t have to help you. I could have left, and you would all be dead. Like Lydia.”

Malorie tilts her chin up.

“So why didn’t you? You could have left anytime you wanted. You’re the asshole, it would have been in character.”

“I’m not your father, Mal–”

That’s when they hear the crash of glass breaking.

“Take the children,” Douglas says, grabbing his shotgun and running towards the sound.

Malorie doesn’t think, just grabs the children and runs to the back door, hands shaky as she hoists a backpack on and straps the boy to her front. She hears a shot, and another, and the children are crying, and shit, Douglas, did they get Douglas.

“There’s more coming,” Douglas says, bursting into the room.

He’s brought the birds, and Malorie gently takes them out of the cage and puts them in their box while Douglas grabs the notebook, any loose pages he can, shoves them into a backpack and puts it on.

“Take her,” Malorie says, passing Girl to him.

“Good girl,” Douglas soothes, strapping her in.

Malorie ties the bird box to him, hands him a blindfold, ties the children’s on tightly – toddlers grab anything they can get their hands on.

“Ready?” Douglas asks.

Malorie nods.

“Ready.”

She pulls her blindfold over her eyes, and steps outside. She knows the back garden pretty well – she decided to memorise it, in case anything happened – but walking blindfolded is hard, and walking blindfolded with a backpack and a child strapped to her is harder. She’s scared enough that she can keep moving forwards, counting her steps under her breath, past the shallow graves she can’t see but knows are there. She reaches the back fence, feels frantically for the gate, hands skimming the rough wood. Eventually, she finds the latch. She rushes through, hears Douglas close the gate behind them with a click.

“Have we lost them?” she asks, and then she hears a shout.

It’s distant – probably from the back door of the house – but it makes her stop dead in her tracks.

“Wait! Come back! There’s something you need to see!”

Douglas grabs her hand.

“Run,” he says.

So they run. They run blindly into the woods. The ground is wet underfoot, and it’s hard to push her feet against the soft earth, hard to drive herself on. Branches flick against her face, her hands, until she feels her fingers run wet with blood. The wind whips through the trees and rushes up behind them, and it feels like the whole world is against them, trying to stop them, trying to pull them back towards something horrifying. She sees nothing, just a few breaks of light through her blindfold, but she hears the children crying, hears her own ragged breaths, and it’s deafening. This is hell, this is hell, and they’re going to catch her, they’re going to catch her, they’re going to…

Malorie screams when she falls. Her shin connects with something – a log, a rock, she doesn’t know what, she can’t see – and sends her flying backwards and down, down, down. She tumbles, tries to fold her arms over Boy, keep him safe, but she couldn’t even do that when he was still inside her, the day she lost her sister and a kind stranger found her. She comes to a halt, but the world is spinning, spinning, black.

She wakes up on her back with a headache scorching behind her eyes. She hisses when she tries to move, sore yet numb from shock, limbs heavy, as if she’s underwater. Her chest is tight, heavy – and then she remembers that’s Boy’s weight, that Boy is strapped to her, that Boy fell with her.

“Boy?” Malorie says weakly.

She tries to touch him, to feel him move, feel that he’s warm, but her arm is twisted awkwardly and she can’t reach him. She wants to cry, with pain and frustration and fear, but she bites her lip hard, gulps in her breaths.

“Boy? Are you okay?”

Her voice is tiny and cracked.

“Boy!”

And then she feels some movement, not much but something, and then his hand is on her face, and he makes a little noise, and she’s smiling and crying and glad.

“Thank fuck,” she whispers.

“Malorie?”

She jumps. It’s Douglas. He sounds close by, but strange, somehow, like there’s an echo, like her ears are ringing.

“Over here!” she cries.

She manages to haul herself up into a sitting position, her body starting to come back to her, more awake and obedient. She stretches her fingers experimentally, clenches her fists. Everything smarts, but she thinks she’s okay. Mostly, at least.

“It’s safe here, Malorie,” Douglas says, “You can take off your blindfold.”

“What?”

“Look at me. Come over to me.”

Malorie shakily pushes herself to her feet, grabbing onto a tree for support.

“No. No, Douglas would never say that to me.”

A breeze tugs gently at her hair, and she hears the quiet murmur of leaves stirring up from the forest floor. Something is wrong. Something is very wrong.

“I’m here,” Douglas says, suddenly much closer, “You’re safe.”

And then Malorie is running again.

“Douglas!” she shouts, “Douglas!”

She tries to run back up the incline, but it’s steep and she ends up on her hands and knees, grabbing onto ferns, fingernails digging into the soil.

“Malorie!”

It’s Douglas’ voice, but different – more solid – and higher up, above her.

“Douglas! I’m here, I’m coming!”

She drags herself upwards, groaning with the effort, and she has to keep moving, she has to reach him, or they’re both lost. Both dead. And that can’t happen, because Douglas is an asshole, and assholes don’t die here.

“Where are you?” she shouts, “Douglas!”

“Lydia?”

His voice is quieter, confused. The birds are squawking. And Malorie knows what’s happening.

“No!” she screams, “It’s not her, Douglas!”

“Lydia, I can’t do that.”

Malorie keeps crawling upwards, and her feet are slipping and her hands are red raw and her throat is burning, but her voice is all she has, it’s all she can reach him with right now.

“Listen to me, Douglas, listen to my voice. Lydia is dead. She’s dead, and I’m so sorry about that. I’m so sorry that she died trying to help me. But she did, and I’m here. I’m here, and the children are here. And we need you.”

A pair of strong hands grab onto her and wrench her upwards. She screams as she’s pulled forwards, her feet unsteady on the flat ground.

“I got you,” Douglas says, throwing a blanket over them both, “I got you.”

Malorie pushes her blindfold up, and there he is, and there Girl is, and they might be the best thing she’s ever seen. The birds are quiet.

“Fuck,” she says.

They hold each other at arm’s length and fall to their knees.

Chapter Text

They walk for days. It feels like an endless trudge, long and cold and hard. They tie themselves together, use branches like canes to feel the way ahead. They have a map and a compass, they know where they are going, but Malorie has never been more lost. The days merge into one perpetual dark, hours of tedious slog broken only by fitful sleep. They sleep in shifts, too afraid to stay in one place longer than a few hours. The children are restless and hungry. Malorie tries the radio but gets static. She remembers Tom’s story, about the man walking his children to school. She wonders if he’s going on a journey like this now.

 


 

The creatures find them again on the seventh day. It starts quietly – a whisper through the trees, a flutter from the birds. The feeling of being watched. They’re here. Trailing them at a distance, perhaps, but here.

“We need to move faster,” Malorie says, picking up the pace.

She knows they can’t move fast enough.

“Malorie.”

Her sister’s voice. She hasn’t heard it in so long.

She grabs Douglas’ hand.

“Come on.”

She tries to think. The creatures can’t hurt them like this. They can’t even touch them. They can only make them kill themselves if they look. And they won’t look if they don’t listen.

“Talk to me,” Malorie says.

“About what?” Douglas asks.

“Anything. Tell me a story. Like you used to read to the children.”

“The night… The night wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another,” Douglas begins.

“Malorie,” Jessica calls again.

Malorie squeezes her eyes shut, focuses on Douglas’ voice, on putting one foot in front of the other. He’s read this story to the children dozens of times, but she never really listened.

“His mother called him ‘Wild thing!’” Douglas continues, “And Max said ‘I’ll eat you up!’ so he was sent to bed without eating anything. That very night in Max’s room a forest grew…”

“And grew and grew,” Malorie says with him.

“Until his ceiling hung with vines, and the walls became the world all around. And an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off, through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year…”

“To where the wild things are,” Malorie says.

The wind has dropped. The birds have fallen silent. Malorie stops walking.

“I think that might’ve worked.”

The radio clipped to her belt suddenly crackles into life, and she jumps.

“Shit,” she says, fumbling to pick it up.

“Hello? Is there anyone out there?” a voice crackles over the interference.

It sounds like a man’s – young, with a twang. Southern, she thinks.

“Don’t answer that,” Douglas says.

Malorie holds the radio up to her mouth.

“Yes – yes there’s someone here.”

“That could be one of them,” Douglas hisses.

“You think I don’t know that?”

“Hello,” the man says over the speakers, “How many are you? Where are you? You can’t be far away or we wouldn’t get your signal through the trees.”

“Don’t answer that,” Douglas says.

“I’m not really sure where I am,” Malorie says into the radio.

“Close enough,” Douglas mutters.

“We’re south of the river. There are wind chimes outside. If you knock three times, we’ll know it’s you.”

“It could be a trap,” Douglas says.

“How do we know you’re… kosher?” Malorie says into the radio.

The line is silent for a moment. Then, “Because I haven’t asked you to help me, or offered to help you.”

 


 

They argue about it, of course. There’s something ridiculous about having an argument under a blanket, but then there’s something ridiculous about the world ending, and Malorie is too goddamn tired to think about either.

“Douglas, we are tired and cold and dirty and running out of food. We’re not going to make it much longer and we’re running out of options.”

She sighs, runs a hand through her hair.

“Do you think this is a huge mistake?”

Douglas is quiet for a moment.

“No. I just think we should be careful.”

They check the map. There’s only one building nearby. It looks big – a school, perhaps, or a hospital. Maybe an hour away. So they walk. Before long, they hear the wind chimes, and then Malorie’s cane strikes against something solid. She reaches out her hand, feels rough bricks. A wall.

“I think this is it.”

Douglas takes her hand, leads her away, back into a tangle of shrubbery.

“What are you doing?” Malorie says.

“Stay here with the children. I’ll go see if it’s safe.”

“You don’t have to do this.”

Douglas covers them all with a blanket, unstraps Girl from himself and passes her to Malorie.

“If I’m not back in ten minutes, run.”

“No,” Malorie says, “They only heard my voice. They’re expecting me. I should go.”

Douglas shakes his head.

“I told you before. You can do this without me, Malorie. I can’t do it without you.”

He kisses the children one by one.

“Now, you be good for your mother while I’m away.”

That while I’m away has a weight to it. It could be ten minutes, or it could be forever. Malorie bites her lip. She’s not going to cry over this.

“I’ll see you in a minute,” she says.

Douglas hesitates for a moment. And then he’s gone. Malorie pulls the children close to her, listening to the sound of his footsteps, his cane hitting against the wall, until she can’t hear him anymore. She can hear the wind chimes, though, sombre on the gentle breeze. She can hear the river, not far away. She can hear… knock, knock, knock.

Malorie takes in a sudden breath, holds the children tighter. She was always afraid when Douglas went on supply runs. But she didn’t show it. She didn’t hug him when he came back, didn’t say she was worried about him. She just helped him unpack the car. Like they were a regular suburban couple, her at home with the kids while he got the groceries. It feels strange that she could still pretend something was normal. It feels strange that she wanted to.

“Malorie?”

It’s Douglas. She still doesn’t quite trust his voice – not after what happened when they left the house.

“Malorie, I’ve been inside. It’s safe.”

The birds are quiet – it’s definitely him. Malorie lets go of the breath she was holding.

“Over here,” she says.

Douglas stumbles under the blanket.

“You should be more careful. That could have been –”

“The birds were quiet.”

“I said ten minutes.”

“That was ten minutes.”

“It was twelve.”

Malorie rolls her eyes.

“Yes, dad.”

That earns her a scowl.

“There are people there,” he says, “They’re fine. Well, they’re people, they’re bound to be idiots, but they’re not criminally insane.”

“I’ve spent a year with only you for company,” Malorie says, “I’m not sure I’m not criminally insane.”

“Come on,” Douglas says, pulling her to her feet.

He picks up Girl, kisses her on the cheek.

“Before we go in there,” he says, and clumsily slips something onto Malorie’s finger.

A wedding ring – Lydia’s wedding ring.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Malorie says, but it’s more of a question than a jibe.

“We don’t know these people,” Douglas says.

“So we should lie to them?”

“We don’t know how they run things here. What they’re capable of. They might be religious fanatics. It’s the end of the world, those types are probably having a field day.”

He’s right, of course. The bastard always is. If nothing else, married with kids is an easier explanation than the truth.

“Couldn’t we just say you’re my father?”

Douglas gives her one of his looks. Malorie knows them so well by now, she knows the difference between I’m right about this and stop talking and I told you so. It says something, that she knows that, but not the names of his children.

“Fine,” she says, looking down at the ring, “I think this is Freudian enough.”

He leads her inside.

Chapter Text

“Show us your eyes.”

Malorie pulls her blindfold off, looks into harsh white torchlight. It scorches her eyes and she can’t see anything else, like she’s on stage.

“Now the children.”

She unties the children’s blindfolds.

“All clear.”

The torches lift, illuminating the room, and Malorie can see a group of people, men and women, different ages. An old woman steps forwards. She has leathery skin and hard, dark eyes.

“I am sorry, my dear,” she says, her voice low and cracked, as if she’s spent decades chewing tobacco, “But you do have to be careful these days.”

It almost makes Malorie laugh – that you used to be able to leave your backdoor open tone.

“I’m Mama,” she says.

“Malorie,” Malorie says.

“And who are these little ones?” Mama asks, peering at the children.

Malorie looks at Douglas. He raises his eyebrows, as if to say, Yes, what are their names, Malorie? They fought about it, once. Douglas said that she needed to decide on names. She said that names aren’t as important as what they’re for. And she believed that. Right up until she realised the children might one day call them mummy and daddy.

“This,” Malorie says, nodding towards the girl, “Is Ella. Short for Cinderella.”

Douglas wrinkles his nose.

“And our son…” Malorie begins, falters.

“Douglas Jr,” Douglas says.

He looks altogether too pleased with himself. Malorie shoots him a We’ll talk about this later look.

“Well, it’s lovely to meet you,” Mama says.

“Which one of you spoke to me earlier?” Malorie asks.

“That was me.”

A man at the back, tall and broad and weathered. He looks like a cowboy, checked shirt and Stetson, and she can’t help but think of her father.

“Travis,” he says, tips his hat.

Malorie nods.

“Thank you, Travis.”

“Now,” Mama says, “There’s nothing that can’t wait until you’re clean and fed and rested.”

 


 

The place, it turns out, is an old orphanage, abandoned in the eighties and gathering graffiti and urban legends ever since. It seems to exist in a perpetual half-light, windows papered over, candles and torches only used when needed. There are about thirty survivors, and they answer to Mama.

They give Malorie and Douglas food – hot soup, and they eat in silence and in seconds. Then they’re taken to the bathroom, cold and cavernous, sound echoing off the white tiles. Malorie looks at herself in the mirror. She looks like she used to be human, once, but forgot how to be. Her eyes stare out, white and fish-like, under her tangled hair, her dirty face.

“I’ll take the children,” Douglas says.

“Thank you.”

She finds a spot out of sight to wash. There’s nothing but hard soap and a bucket of tepid water, but she’s grateful for it. She scrubs at her hands until they’re red raw – the dirt’s caked on, embedded under her fingernails. Afterwards, she changes into the spare clothes they found for her. They’re clean, and sweet smelling, as if the previous owner’s perfume seeped in. There’s a dress, pale blue and patterned. It’s been a long, long time since she’s worn something pretty. She finds the children, washed and dressed and beaming.

“Look at you,” she says, scooping them up, “Who’d have known there were two beautiful little babies under all that dirt?”

“Or a beautiful woman,” Douglas says.

He’s kneeling on the floor next to a tin bath, his clothes wet – an occupational hazard when bathing two babies.

“You look good,” he says, looking her up and down.

“You look like you need a shave.”

In the end, Malorie sits on the floor, breastfeeding the children and waiting while he gets clean. When he’s done, she watches him shave.

“Douglas Jr?” she says, eventually.

Douglas shrugs.

“A lot of people name their firstborn after his father.”

“You have other children,” Malorie says.

“And none of my previous wives allowed me to call one Douglas Jr.”

“Isn’t it going to get confusing when I yell ‘Douglas’?” she asks.

“I’ll just see how angry you sound. If it’s very, I’ll know you want me.”

She’s exhausted, but she’s clean and warm and safe. That makes her laugh.

“Besides,” he says, “You named our daughter Cinderella.”

“It’s what Olympia wanted.”

He wipes his face with a towel, kneels down in front of her. Girl – Ella – reaches out to touch his face.

“Better?” he asks.

 


 

They find a spare mattresses and sheets. Stale and damp smelling, but clean enough, and much better than the wet ground outside. They claim a little room to themselves off the first-floor corridor – the dormitory, Mama calls it – not quite as far away from the others as Malorie would like. (The children cry in the night, and they don’t want to wake anyone up, she says. Mama just smiles and says everyone is used to it.)

“Well,” Douglas says, when they’re making their bed, “It’s not all bad, then.”

“Your first wife was right,” Malorie says, “Creep.”

His smile is all teeth and broken edges.

They sleep on the mattress on the floor, the children between them. When Malorie wakes up in the quiet light of the dawn, she feels Douglas gently touching her hand, fingers ghosting over the wedding ring. She wonders if he’s thinking of Lydia. She wonders if he’s wishing that she were the one still alive.

 


 

They get up when everyone else does, and Mama tells them where they can be useful. Her word is a command, not a suggestion. Douglas goes to help with the building maintenance, and Malorie spends the day in the kitchen. She scrubs endless pots and dishes and helps the cook, who is more bone than woman, eke out each last scrap of tinned and frozen food. Everything is rationed, because a few leaner meals mean a few extra days in between supply runs. Cook doesn’t speak, or even, it seems, have a name – she just nods in the direction of what she wants Malorie to do next, and tolerates the children’s interruptions.

Malorie’s glad to see Douglas again at dinner time. She’s spent almost every waking moment with him for the last year, and being without him is almost like being without part of herself. But it’s more than that. The place doesn’t feel right – too quiet, too empty, too… something. She knows he’ll know. She grabs a seat next to him as everyone settles down to eat. He kisses the children, puts Boy on his lap. Silence falls.

“We are blessed to be given this food,” Mama says, her voice loud and wailing.

“We are blessed,” everyone says in response, “We are blessed, we are blessed.”

They eat quietly. The processed meat is rubbery and vegetables are slightly metallic, but they’re tired and hungry and anything will do. They speak a little – Douglas compliments the food, and complains about the building’s ancient wiring – but they’re reticent, knowing that everything they say is overheard. Malorie wonders vaguely if this will be their life now: sputtering gas lamps, strangers, secrets kept from one another by omission.

“So Malorie,” Travis says, leaning across the table to get her attention, “Tell me. How did you two meet?”

“Oh,” she stumbles, eyes flicking across to Douglas, “It’s, um, actually a funny story.”

“Oh yeah?” Travis says.

“You see, I’m actually Douglas’ third wife.”

“Fourth,” Douglas corrects her.

She opens her mouth, closes it.

“She always forgets my second wife,” Douglas says dryly, “Something I envy.”

“Really, man?” Travis says, shaking his head, “Four wives?”

“Yeah,” Malorie says, “I’m just hoping I’m the one that gets to survive him.”

Travis chuckles, low and hearty.

“She came after me, of course,” Douglas says.

“As if anyone believes that,” Malorie says, “He chased me.”

More people are listening now, leaning in to hear the story.

“I was an artist,” she goes on, “And he came to one of my exhibitions. He said he wanted a piece for his collection –”

“I did,” Douglas interjects.

“– but he only came because he saw my interview in the newspaper.”

He nods sagely.

“It was an interesting piece. I could tell you were an intelligent, passionate woman.”

“Mm, I think it was my photograph that swung it.”

Douglas turns to the group conspiratorially.

“She was wearing a red dress. Quite revealing.”

The group laughs, small and contained.

“And on the night, he caught my eye,” Malorie says.

“You said I was exquisitely handsome.”

“Well, it was a long time ago.”

“She said she would paint me. But that was really just an excuse to get me to come to her studio.”

Malorie raises her eyebrows.

“Didn’t get a lot of painting done,” she says under her breath.

Everyone laughs.

“Things got serious pretty quickly,” she adds, looking down at the children.

“I didn’t believe her when she said she was pregnant,” Douglas says.

“He didn’t believe the doctor.”

“Neither did you, when they said it was twins.”

“And that’s when he said we should get married,” Malorie says, “He didn’t ask, just told me on the drive home.”

Douglas bounces Boy on his knee.

“You had your chance to run.”

 


 

“Was that how you met the father?” Douglas whispers, when they’re in bed.

Malorie’s been lying on her back for ten minutes but she’s not asleep – not even near to it.

“He was a starving artist,” she says, “I let him stay with me. He left as soon as I told him I was pregnant. Said fatherhood would dampen his artistic expression.”

She half-chuckles.

“It’s funny. I thought he was such a good guy.”

And I thought you were such a bad one hangs between them, unsaid.

“I think I prefer our version,” she says.

“You’d rather be my wife?”

“Eh, why not. I’m not afraid of going to hell, anyway.”

She doesn’t need to see his smile to know it’s there.

Chapter Text

“Could you just – ?” Malorie says, tilting her head to one side.

Travis copies her.

“Perfect,” she says, her gaze returning to the sketchbook.

They’re in the main hall, natural light streaming down from high windows too dirty to see through. It’s silent except for the scratch of Malorie’s pencil, the sound of the birds’ fluttering wings. They’ve made a nest in the rafters, but they fly down when she leaves food for them. They recognise her whistle.

“How long have you been here?” Malorie asks.

“Since the beginning,” Travis says.

“You came here?”

“At the time, we just thought we had to get away from where people were.”

“We?”

“My wife and I.”

Malorie looks down.

“I’m sorry.”

“She grew up around here,” Travis says, “Told me all the stories about this place. St Raphael’s Institution for Children. It started out as an orphanage, but then it became a dumping ground for all the kids no one wanted to deal with. Sick, disabled, behavioural problems…”

Malorie shakes her head.

“That’s awful.”

“They finally shut the place down in the eighties. They found babies left in their cribs all day, barely ever changed or fed. Some of them were dead and rotting and no one had realised. They were so used to the bad smell. There were kids kept in strait jackets for so long their arms were twisted all out of shape. And then… there were the ones in the basement. That’s where they sent them if they were bad. When they took them out, they hadn’t seen sunlight in so long, it scared them. One little girl couldn’t take it. Tried to put out her own eyes with scissors.”

Travis looks up, to the ceiling, the birds.

“You know, people here say they’ve heard them. The children, crying. I ain’t so sure myself, but… if any place was gonna be haunted, it’d be here.”

Malorie realises she’s stopped sketching. She remembers Mama’s people are used to it. She feels sick.

“Are you finished?” Travis asks.

“Uh – yeah,” she says, handing the sketchbook over to him.

It’s not her best work, but she thinks she’s captured something of him – the strong jaw, the solid presence, the heavy eyebrows. Travis chuckles.

“It’s good,” he says.

Malorie smiles.

“I’ve never shown Douglas any of his.”

“Can I see?” Travis asks.

“Sure.”

He turns the pages. There are the sketches of Douglas and the babies, telling the story of the past year.

“What’s this?”

Travis pulls out Gary’s charcoal sketches, black and smudged and incriminating. Malorie grabs them.

“That’s – uh, that’s nothing. I used to do more abstract work.”

Travis looks at her.

“Malorie, can I give you some advice? While you’re here… don’t lie.”

 


 

A week at St Raphael’s, and they’re starting to learn how things work. Mama puts them in different places every day – always apart, always watched closely. But Malorie is watching too. She watches Cook put some food aside at every meal. She watches the people here who have cloudy, unseeing eyes and facial scars. And she watches the building, which seems to change and shift around them. The graffiti is mostly swear words, tags, things left by kids, but she finds Latin words, paintings of St Raphael, and one room that has walls filled with hundreds and hundreds of eyes.

Her favourite day is spent with Travis, listening out for survivors. They find companionship in the long silences.

“There are people here who are blind,” she says, “And it looks like they did it themselves.”

“Some people will do anything to survive,” Travis says.

Something here feels wrong. There’s something unsettled beneath her skin, a centuries-old prey instinct. Like there’s rot at the heart of the place. She wants to talk to Douglas. She doesn’t know what he thinks these days. She’s only just realising that she used to.

One night, she dreams that she finds the children in a filthy crib, wrapped in rags. When she pulls the cloth from their faces, she sees that they’re dead. She wakes up and cries and holds the children – her real, breathing children – close to her, whispering that she’s never going to let them go. Douglas finds her in the morning, huddled in the corner, rocking the babies in her arms.

“I need to keep them safe,” she says.

 


 

The nightmare comes back the next night, and she wakes up in the dark, panting and soaked in sweat. She crawls off the mattress and gropes blindly for the matches, lights one with trembling fingers. In the weak, fluttering light, she can see the children and Douglas, their chests rising and falling as they sleep.

“Thank fuck,” she says to herself.

And then she hears something. Something faint, coming from below her. A cry? She sits there silently, straining to hear. The match burns her fingers, and she hisses in pain, dropping it. The match burns out, plunging the room back into darkness.

“Malorie?”

She jumps when she hears Douglas’ voice.

“Are you trying to burn the place down?” he mumbles, half-asleep.

“I thought I heard something,” she says.

“Like what?”

“I… don’t know.”

“Come back to bed.”

 


 

She spends the next day on laundry duty. The laundry room is hot and stuffy, lined with rusting old machines. Some of them still work, but the bedsheets are too big and have to be washed by hand. It’s backbreaking work – women’s work, Mama calls it – and the babies sit in a laundry basket, babbling to each other, as Malorie scrubs and wrings out and hangs up the sheets.

After a few hours, she’s sweaty and wet and exhausted. She hauls herself on top of a washing machine, unbuttons her shirt and tips her head back against the wall.

“I know you’re hard up, but you could at least ask me first.”

It’s Douglas. He’s pulled back one of the sheets to look at her. He nods at the washing machine, raises his eyebrows.

“What are you doing here?” Malorie says, pulling her shirt to cover her chest.

He’s seen her breastfeeding plenty of times, but somehow this is different.

“Just checking in.”

He comes over, and she remembers how tall he is.

“Listen,” Malorie begins, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I don’t know what’s going on here, but there’s a lot of things that don’t add up. Travis told me –”

“Oh yes, your new best friend.”

Malorie scoffs.

“What, are you jealous?”

Douglas’ mouth twists.

“We can’t trust these people, Malorie.”

“Can you just listen?”

Douglas folds his arms.

“I’m listening.”

“This place, Douglas,” Malorie says, “It used to be an orphanage, and then it got shut down for –”

“Child abuse. I remember the case. The nurses got off. Said there weren’t enough staff, they didn’t know how to cope. The only one charged with anything was the doctor who ran the place, and he killed himself before it came to trial. Thousands of children left dead, maimed, damaged… pregnant, even, and no one paid for it.”

“Is that why you went into bankruptcy?” Malorie asks.

“I wanted to do something more uplifting.”

Malorie smiles, rests a hand on his arm.

“Douglas, I’m scared.”

“It’s okay,” he says gently, and hugs her, her head tucked under his chin.

For all the time they’ve spent together, all that they’ve relied on each other, they’ve barely touched. Malorie wanted to, sometimes, but she didn’t want to blur the lines, risk something so fragile and so important. And yet here she is with a wedding ring and the only person she knows left alive. The end of the world has a way of complicating things. Douglas disentangles himself, a little awkward, and Malorie spots a movement behind him. Someone is at the door, watching.

“Shit,” she says, and before she really has time to tell herself what a bad idea it is, she fists her hands in Douglas’ shirt and kisses him.

She hasn’t kissed anyone for a long, long time, and she’s missed it, she’s missed sex, she’s missed feeling good and nothing else. Douglas kisses her back, and it should probably worry her how easily he does it, how easily he puts his hands on her waist and slips his tongue into her mouth. And yeah, she thinks, maybe there’s a reason he managed to convince three women to marry him. That’s why she doesn’t let it last too long.

“I, um,” she says, a little breathless, “I thought someone saw us.”

“Does it matter?” Douglas says, and he’s still holding her, why is he still holding her, “They think we’re married.”

“I mean, I – I didn’t want them to know we were talking.”

“Oh.”

He lets her go.

“Sorry,” she says, running a hand through her hair.

Douglas glances over his shoulder.

“I think they’re still looking.”

“Really?”

“No, but it was worth a shot.”

Malorie smiles despite herself.

“What are we going to do?” she says.

He shrugs.

“What we always do. You’ll ignore me, I’ll keep hoping your daddy issues resurface at some point.”

“I mean about this place.”

Douglas sighs.

“Malorie… whatever’s in here can’t be worse than what’s out there.”

She frowns.

“Didn’t you hear anything I said?”

“Yes. You heard some ghost stories and now you’re getting scared.”

She stares at him.

“Douglas, I heard something last night.”

“There are thirty-four other people living here. Don’t you think it might have been one of them?”

Malorie pushes herself off the washing machine, away from him.

“I’m just trying to keep you and our children safe,” Douglas says.

“They’re not yours. And I’m not either. I am only here with you because there is nobody and nowhere else.”

He looks at her for a long, long moment.

“Right,” he says, “Silly me.”

And leaves.

Chapter Text

 

“You know,” Douglas says that night, “They say the secret to a successful marriage is to never go to bed angry.”

Malorie huffs. She’s lying on the bed with her eyes shut, trying to ignore him.

“Are you the expert on marriages now?”

“I should be. I’ve had enough of them.”

He lies down on the mattress, the children in between them as usual.

“You know, at marriage counselling they tell you to remember what made you fall in love in the first place. It doesn’t work, of course. But… when you pulled that trick with the shotgun, I knew you were going to survive this. Because you’re an asshole too.”

They’re silent for a moment.

“It was also pretty hot,” Douglas adds.

“Go to sleep, Douglas.”

 


 

He does, eventually. And then Malorie she pockets the matches and leaves. She shuffles along the dormitory corridor, her feet bare and silent, hands groping along the wall. It’s always dark here, but at night it takes on a new darkness, thick and inky and deep as the sea. Everyone is asleep – she can hear their deep breaths, their snores – but she can’t risk lighting her way, not yet. She reaches the end of the corridor, her hands making contact with the double doors leading to the stairwell. She holds her breath as she presses against the cool metal. The old wood creaks. She slips through, holds the door so it doesn’t slam back.

And then she’s in the stairwell. And all there’s left to do is to go down, down, down. She counts her steps on the way. It’s something to think about, something to take her mind off the impossible blackness her eyes can’t adjust to, the terrible stories Travis told her. What she might find here. What might happen if someone finds her. Eventually, she reaches the bottom. The walls are rough brick against her fingers, and it takes her a while to find the door. It’s metal and rusted, with huge, heavy bolts drawn across. She pushes against them. They’re tough, locked tightly on, and the metal groans. She bites her lip, pushes with her whole body weight. There’s a sudden low clunk and the door shifts, pitching her forwards into the basement. The sound echoes around as she falls onto her hands and knees, hoping to God that no one heard it. It must be a big, open space down here.

Malorie sits back on her haunches, reaches into her pocket for the matches. Her hands are shaking as she strikes one. The flame bursts white-bright, then dulls down to a warm yellow-orange glow. It casts a small, murky light. She crawls forwards, too cautious to walk into the darkness, only able to see the floor and her own hands in front of her. It’s quiet down here, and cold, and she can’t help but think of the children kept down here. She’s never really believed in ghosts, but then she never really believed in monsters, either. She doesn’t know what she believes in now.

The match burns out. Malorie reaches for another, but her pocket’s empty.

“Shit,” she says.

She must have dropped the matchbox. It can’t be far away, she knows, turning back and running her hands along the floor, but she can’t find it, she can’t, and fuck, fuck, how long is she going to be down here, alone in the dark, trying to find her way out?

A low, dark laugh echoes around the basement, otherworldly and like nothing Malorie has ever heard before. She freezes. Her prey instinct is back, like something cold and shocking running down her spine and into her bones. She wants to run, she needs to run, but where is there to run in this darkness? Behind her, she hears the unmistakeable sound of a match striking. She turns and looks.

It’s a woman. The match is illuminating her face, making it look like she’s floating. She stares at Malorie with huge black eyes infected with constellations, eyes that have seen. She smiles, muscles stretching across her gaunt face, and it feels like looking at death.

“Who are you?” Malorie says, her voice a whisper.

“A ghost.”

Malorie inches closer. The woman is holding the match with both hands, held together as if in prayer. It seems strange, until Malorie sees that her wrists are bound together. There’s something delicate and childlike about her. She’s human, if only just.

“I’m Malorie.”

“Malorie. I’ve been waiting for you.”

Her voice is cracked and hoarse, and Malorie wonders how much she’s been crying. How much she’s been screaming. It must be nearly impossible to hear her down here.

“What’s your name?” Malorie asks.

She looks confused for a moment. Then she looks Malorie in the eye and says, “Names aren’t as important as what they’re for.”

Something twists inside Malorie. They’re words she’s said before, a long time ago, to Douglas.

“How long have you been here?” Malorie asks, “Were you here when this place got shut down?”

“You’ve been lying,” the woman says in a sing-song voice.

“I haven’t lied to you.”

“You’ve lied to Mama. To Travis. To Douglas.”

“How do you know about Douglas?”

The woman’s eyes burn with something terrible and unknowable.

“They tell me things. They know you, Malorie. They know everything about you.”

Malorie stares at her, unable to move, to speak.

“Go back to bed,” the woman says, “I’ll see you again soon.”

She blows out the match, plunging the basement back into darkness.

 


 

It feels like hours before Malorie finds her way out. She pulls the door shut behind her, almost runs back up the stairs, too panicked to count properly. She isn’t sure if she’s on the right floor, or the right room, until she stumbles in, sobbing.

“Douglas?” she says, shaking him awake, “Douglas, we need to leave. Right now.”

“What? What’s happened?”

“They’ve got one in the basement. One like Gary.”

“What?”

“She’s tied up in there, like they used to be, like the children –”

“Malorie.”

She can feel strong hands gripping her shoulders, but she can’t see his face.

“Malorie, listen to me,” Douglas says, gentle but firm, “You’ve had another nightmare.”

“No, no, no, no, Douglas please, there’s something wrong –”

“Ssh,” he says, pulling her closer.

“I told you something was wrong, I told you –”

“Ssh.”

Malorie’s too tired and weak to fight anymore. She crumples in on herself, lets him trap her in his arms, cradling her like a child. She doesn’t want this, she wants him to listen, but there’s a part of her that is small and scared and wants this more than anything, has wanted this ever since that terrible day when her sister died and the world started to end.

She dreams that she’s the one trapped in the basement.

Chapter Text

Malorie wakes up with sunlight streaming into her eyes and Douglas curled around her, pressed up against her back. The babies are crying – probably hungry – so she unbuttons her dress and holds them to her breast. They latch on, quietening quickly.

“How are you feeling?” Douglas asks, his voice rough with sleep.

“Not nearly hungover enough to wake up next to you.”

Douglas huffs, half-amused.

“Douglas,” Malorie says, “We need to leave. The woman in the basement… she was real. They’re keeping her here.”

Douglas sits up, looks away from her.

“You don’t believe me,” Malorie says quietly.

“I believe you’re scared. And suffering the effects of trauma.”

“Douglas, she said these things to me. She knew who I was, who you are. She said the creatures spoke to her.”

Douglas nods, and he’s looking at her like he’s indescribably sad.

“Malorie, you can’t tell anyone about this.”

“I’m not an idiot. They’re in on this, they all are.”

“If they hear about this, they’ll think you’ll end up like Gary.”

“Gary was criminally insane.”

“And we let him in.”

 


 

Malorie’s put to work in the kitchen that day. She washes the dishes, her hands bursting red with the hot water and caustic soap. Maybe, she thinks, the world is so fucked up now that you’ll go crazy before those things take you. You’ll be so damaged and bent by it all, you’ll end up like Gary before you can kill yourself. Enthralled, without thought or reason or self. That’s what scares her most. She can live with the idea that she might die. She accepted that a long time ago. But the idea that she might hurt the children… she can’t even think about that.

Travis finds her at lunchtime. The birds flit down from the ceiling and peck at the food Malorie leaves out for them, taking it back to their nest.

“Have they got chicks?” Travis asks.

“Yes,” Malorie says.

It seems strange and wonderful to her, that in this terrible place at the end of the world, is a family of birds who know no evil.

“Like you,” Travis says.

Malorie smiles.

“My wife and I wanted children,” Travis says, “She couldn’t have ‘em. Botched abortion when she was a teenager. Did it herself. They had to take out her womb.”

Malorie shakes her head.

“But I said, let’s adopt,” Travis says, “You know, it doesn’t matter to me if they’re someone else’s. We’ll take them as our own. And we did. Little girl from China. They don’t always want girls, even now. But we did. We gave her a home.”

Malorie doesn’t have to ask him where she is.

“That’s the thing about kids,” Travis says, “They don’t have to be yours for you to love them. For you to be their father or mother.”

“No,” Malorie says, “You don’t.”

 


 

“Will you be alright tonight?” Douglas asks, when they go to bed.

“You know,” Malorie says, “Fishing for sex just makes you look desperate.”

“Fine. I’ll stop trying to look after you.”

“I don’t need looking after.”

“Just like you don’t need me.”

Malorie doesn’t say anything. She’s tired. She doesn’t want to have this fight.

“Are you going to run away with Travis?” Douglas asks, after a few moments of taut silence, “Is that what this is about?”

“What?”

“I’ve seen you together.”

“Seen us talking?”

“Yes, like you were talking with Tom back in the house.”

Malorie rolls over, turns her back on him.

“You really are a creep.”

 


 

The next morning, everything is wrong. As usual, everyone gets up, washes, files into the hall for breakfast. But there’s an atmosphere – a sense of waiting, of expectance. Malorie notices a few people whispering to each other, a few people looking at her for a little too long.

“Something’s going on,” she whispers to Douglas.

He doesn’t say anything, just feeds Boy – they’ve taken to calling him Junior – some of his porridge.

Mama stands up, and everyone falls silent. This is when she divides the work for the day. But today it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like she’s about to make an announcement.”

“As you all know,” Mama says, “Today’s an important day.”

There’s some whispering around the room. Mama looks directly at Malorie with those dark, cold eyes.

“Malorie, Douglas, Douglas Jr, Ella. You have spent ten days among us.”

“Ten days,” everyone says, a murmuring repetition.

“It’s time,” Mama says, “Follow me down.”

“Down,” everyone repeats, “Down, down.”

Travis meets Malorie’s eyes, nods at her, solid and reassuring. She gets up, Ella in her arms. Douglas follows, hesitant. Mama holds out her hand, beckoning them. A faint smile twitches at her lips.

“Are you going to tell us what’s going on?” Douglas asks, as Mama leads them down the stairs.

“It’s our way, here,” Mama says, “Outsiders stay with us for ten days. And then, they are judged.”

“Judged?” Douglas says.

“To see if you have lied to us. To see if we can trust you.”

“Lied about what?” Malorie asks.

“Outsiders lie all the time. About where they’re from. Who they are. What they’re doing here.”

Douglas’ eyes flick across to Malorie, to her wedding ring.

“And what do you do?” Malorie asks, “To the liars.”

Mama takes a torch out of her pocket, switches it on. Even in daylight, it’s dark down here, and it’s darker the further down they go.

“We let them have the liars.”

Malorie’s stomach twists and knots inside her. She couldn’t see the dirty, cracked steps when she snuck down here, or the words Keep Out spray painted on the basement door. Mama shoves the bolts across, presses it open with a metallic creak. She stands by the door, shining the torch at them.

“Go in,” she says.

Malorie takes a breath and walks inside. She’s not alone, this time, and she knows what’s down here. She shouldn’t be scared. Douglas follows her. Mama slams the door shut behind them.

“Hey!” Douglas shouts, “Open the door!”

His yells are met with silence.

“Crazy old woman,” Douglas mutters.

“Hello,” Malorie calls into the darkness, “Are you there? It’s Malorie. Remember me?”

“What are you doing?” Douglas says.

“Ssh!” Malorie hisses.

She stands as still as she can, listening intently.

Nothing.

“Do you still have the matches?” she asks.

A pinprick of light suddenly flares into being, illuminating a ghostly face Malorie remembers too well.

“I said I would see you again soon.”

“Malorie,” Douglas says, drawing closer to her, “Who is that?”

“I’m sorry, was there some other woman in the basement I told you about?”

The woman laughs, dry and hollow, shuffling forwards with a slow, limping gait. Her hands are pressed together, the match held between them. Its flickering light reflects in her bulging eyes. Her fingernails are long and filthy, curled back on themselves.

“I see you brought Douglas,” she says.

“How do you know my name?” Douglas asks.

“And the children,” the woman whispers, peering at Ella, “Your beautiful children.”

Malorie instinctively turns away, holding Ella closer.

“Stay away from my children,” Douglas says.

“They’re not yours,” the woman says.

Douglas looks down.

“She says that to you, doesn’t she?” the woman says, nodding towards Malorie.

“You can stay away from her, too,” Douglas says.

The woman smiles, her mouth wet and open and ghoulish.

“You’re scared. Scared of losing her. I wonder what would happen if you did.”

“Are you threatening me?” says Douglas, “Is the woman tied up in a basement threatening me?”

The woman tries to move towards him, but stops suddenly, held back by something. She must be tethered to a long rope, so she can move a little around the room, but not leave it. The match burns out.

“One word from me,” she whispers, “And they will take you and your wife and your children and cut off your eyelids and tie you outside.”

“No,” Douglas says, “Not them.”

“No,” the woman repeats, slowly, “Not them.”

“Please,” Malorie says, “Don’t hurt him. Don’t hurt my family.”

“You’ve been lying,” the woman says, just like she did before, “You’ve been lying.”

“Please,” Malorie says, “Please.”

“Mama!” the woman yells.

The door wrenches open, rays of artificial light streaming into the basement. In the harsh white light, Malorie can see the woman clearly, her white-studded eyes like the side effect of a poison. Faint scars streak down her cheeks. She fixes her eyes on the doorway. And nods.

Chapter Text

Mama leads Malorie and Douglas back into a silent room full of waiting eyes.

“They have been judged,” she says.

It feels as if everyone is holding a breath, ready to dive underwater. Douglas slips his hand into Malorie’s. Is this how it ends, she thinks. Is this how they’re going to die.

“And they will stay,” Mama says.

“Stay,” everyone repeats, “Stay, stay.”

Malorie and Douglas look at each other. It’s a small movement, perfectly synchronised. Mama smiles beatifically at them.

“Not many outsiders pass the test.”

Mama turns back to face the room.

“Now we number thirty-eight – twenty-four sighted. A sacrifice must be made.”

An air of deep discomfort settles over the room. Those who can see look down at the floor, avoiding Mama’s gaze.

“All eyes are precious,” Mama says, “But the eyes of children, most precious of all.”

Her eyes settle on the children in Malorie and Douglas’ arms. Malorie feels bile rise in her throat. What does she mean. What does she mean.

“Tomorrow at dawn,” Mama says, “We will carry out the ritual.”

“Ritual?” Malorie says.

Her voice is small, her throat tight and constricted.

“The gods can sense the sighted,” Mama says, “They will allow a small number to live together. But too many, and they will punish us. Several of our number have already given their eyes to the gods.”

She draws closer, strokes Ella’s hair with her long, bony fingers.

“Your children’s eyes will be a cherished sacrifice. A small price to pay to guarantee their survival. And ours.”

“I think I speak for us all,” Douglas says, “When I say you’re out of your fucking mind.”

Malorie loves him for it, the way he stands tall and spits out the words. It makes her smile a little, in spite of everything, because he’s fighting her corner, because he’s an asshole but he’s her asshole, and right now, that’s what counts.

“You’re going to blind our children because Mrs fucking Rochester told you to?” Douglas says.

Mama looks up at him sharply.

“Yes. Or I can give you to the gods.”

Malorie squeezes Douglas’ hand, a silent entreaty for him to back down.

“Or your wife,” Mama says, “Or your children.”

Douglas lowers his eyes, silently deferring to Mama. She smiles, victorious.

“Now,” she says, “It’s your turn to carry water today, Douglas.”

 


 

Malorie spends the day in a trance-like state. She works in the kitchen, carrying out her tasks with a dull mechanical duty. Cook seems to take pity, gives the children a few extra scraps of food.

“What did she do to you?” Malorie whispers.

Cook opens her mouth. There’s no tongue in it.

 

Malorie eats lunch with Travis. He looks at her but doesn’t speak, seems to know that she needs the silence.

“Would you let them do this to your daughter?” she asks, after a while.

“I would do anything,” Travis says, “If it meant she would live.”

Malorie meets his eyes.

“I understand that.”

 


 

She’s surprised that they let Douglas and her share their bedroom that night. It’s another test, she supposes. Giving them a choice, a chance to see how trustworthy they really are. Or how desperate. Mama thinks she’s got them cornered. She thinks she’s won.

Now they’re finally alone, Malorie doesn’t know if she wants to scream or cry or fall into his arms. She settles for hitting him, raining down blows on his chest.

“You’re never wrong, are you?” she says, “Never – fucking – wrong.”

She breaks down into sobs, crushing her face against his chest. Douglas holds her, his arms around her, solid and real and strong. They stay like that for a long time.

“I’m sorry, Malorie,” Douglas says quietly, “I was wrong. I didn’t listen to you.”

They’re the words she’s waited a lifetime to hear, but not from him. Malorie moves back so she can look up at him. He looks tired. He looks like he might have been crying.

“Now you’re scaring me,” she says, “Where’s the asshole I married?”

That makes him smile, a little.

“We can’t let that bitch do this to our – to the children,” he says.

“Our children,” Malorie corrects him.

It should be hard to say, something she’s been denying for so long. But it isn’t. Douglas tilts his head.

“They’re our children,” Malorie says, “And we’re doing this together.”

She kisses him. It’s just a quick brush of lips, something that says I’ve got you without needing to say it. She’s angry at him, and she’s going to be angry at him for a while, but she needs him, and the children need him, and they’re going to survive this. There’s no space to think about anything else.

“Is someone watching?” he asks.

“Yeah,” she says, “Probably.”

 


 

Malorie knows she’s being watched when she leaves the bedroom. Mama isn’t stupid, and Malorie knows she’ll be heard, burdened as she is with her outdoor clothes and boots, two baby carriers – one strapped to her front, one to her back – and a blanket wrapped over her shoulders, covering what she’s carrying beneath. She moves quickly, her footsteps light but unmistakeable on the tiled floor. But she doesn’t need to be unnoticed. She just needs to be fast enough.

She runs down the stairs two at a time, each step echoing up the empty stairwell. When she reaches the bottom, she practically throws herself against the basement door, forcing it open.

“Hello,” she calls out, “Where are you? It’s Malorie.”

She fumbles in her pocket, pulls out a torch. The yellowish light cuts through the darkness. For the first time, Malorie can see how large the basement is, how dirty and damp. The walls are crowded, covered in writing and drawings. She can make out names, tallies, handprints, like echoes from a cursed past. A past when children were trapped down here, abused and neglected by the people who were meant to protect them.

Malorie jumps when the torchlight reveals a figure – but it’s not a person at all. Just a huge, crude painting of a nurse. Life-sized, with black, soulless eyes. She’s surrounded by children, reaching up to her with skinny, grasping hands. Malorie stares at it, transfixed. One of the hands moves, slowly stretches out to touch the painting’s face.

“We called her Mama,” a cold, cracked voice says.

The woman steps into the light. She turns towards Malorie, and she looks impossibly young.

“You were here,” Malorie says, “Weren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And this…” Malorie reaches out her hand, tracing the faint raised scars on the woman’s cheeks, “You did this, didn’t you? The day they found you.”

The woman blinks.

“He told you.”

“Yes,” Malorie says, “He told me.”

She grabs the knife hanging at her side.

“Hold your hands out,” she says.

The woman does as she’s told. Malorie starts to cut through the rope binding her hands together.

“You’re doing a bad, bad thing,” the woman says.

The rope frays and severs. Underneath, the woman’s wrists are marked with deep red welts.

“I do everything I do,” Malorie says, “Because I am a mother.”

She gets onto her kneels, starts working on the rope around the woman’s ankles. Up close, she stinks. Her dress – a hospital gown, Malorie realises – is white, but her body is caked in filth.

“You’ve been lying,” the woman says.

“You keep saying that. Come on, what have I lied about?”

“The girl isn’t yours. You’re not married.”

“So why didn’t you tell Mama?”

“Mama doesn’t like liars. She’d have put you outside. Let them take you.”

Malorie looks up at the woman.

“And you…” she says, “You didn’t want that.”

The woman smiles.

“I didn’t want that.”

Malorie looks down at her hands, at what she’s doing. She didn’t want that. She takes the last, long piece of rope, the piece keeping the woman in the basement, and stands up, so she’s looking directly into her eyes.

“You’re a mother,” the woman says, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Malorie severs the last piece of rope.

Chapter Text

“What are you doing?”

Malorie whips around, is hit with torchlight. She can’t see who’s behind it, but she knows who it is.

“What does it fucking look like, Mama?” she says.

Behind her, the woman in the basement darts away, finally free of her bonds. Malorie looks into the light, the knife still clenched in her fist.

“How can you live with yourself?” she says, “With what you did to the children.”

The light intensifies as Mama moves closer, hidden behind it in the pitch-black basement.

“I only did what they told me to do,” Mama says.

“The doctors told you to lock children down here?”

A dry, cackling laugh.

“You think I listen to mortals?”

“But… that was in the eighties,” Malorie says, “That was before they came.”

The light dips. Mama is close to Malorie, her eyes bright.

“Don’t you see? They were always here.”

Malorie stares at her.

“But… that…”

“You shouldn’t have come here,” Mama says sharply, “She was one of my bad ones. Why would you set her free?”

Suddenly, something drops from the ceiling, knocking Mama to the floor. Mama screams, her torch smashing on the floor and flickering uselessly. The woman Mama trapped for so long sits back on her knees, pinning her down. Her long ragged hair falls over her face, but Malorie can still see the look of vindictive triumph as she reaches forwards and tightens her hands around Mama’s neck.

“Because I knew she would do that,” Malorie says.

She can hear Mama choking as she leaves.

 


 

Malorie runs up the stairs as fast as she can, one hand grabbing onto the handrail, the other still clutching the knife. If anyone heard Mama’s screams, they’ll have woken the others, and she doesn’t want to have to deal with thirty-three end-of-the-fucking-world cultists questioning what’s happened to their leader. She reaches the ground floor, her breaths ragged.

“Malorie?”

Malorie swings her torch towards the sound. It’s Travis, coming down the stairs. He walks towards her, slow, like she’s a horse he doesn’t want to spook.

“I heard something downstairs,” he says, “I was scared you’d done something stupid.”

Malorie holds the knife out towards him, her wrist turned, index finger pointing along the blade. Her daddy was a real cowboy. She knows how to gut a deer.

“Stay away from me.”

Travis frowns, stops in his tracks.

“You lied to me,” Malorie says, “You told me your wife was dead.”

“I never said that.”

Malorie shakes her head, can’t keep the emotion from creeping into her voice.

“You said she grew up around here. She grew up in here, in the dark, so scared of the light she tried to put out her own eyes when she saw it. Mama did that. But this… you did this. Why?”

Travis’ face hardens.

“Because she killed our daughter.”

He steps closer.

“She knew what they were, when they came. But she’d only ever heard them. They spoke to her, when she was here. They spoke to all of ‘em in the basement. Mama most of all.”

Travis is big, much bigger than her, and Malorie steps back, keeping him at arm’s reach. She’s backed up against the wall now, and she doesn’t like it.

“When my wife saw them, it was like… she was greeting an old friend. She was so pleased. She told me I had to look, but I wouldn’t. So she made our daughter look.”

“How old was she?” Malorie whispers.

“Three,” Travis says, his voice cracking, “She was three years old. An’ she jumped outta the window to be with them.”

Travis looks her up and down. There’s a blanket tied around her shoulders, and he sees the lumps – one at her front, one on her back – concealed underneath it.

“That’s what we were tryna save your children from, Malorie,” Travis says, his voice rising, “You know this is the only way to keep ‘em safe. And you wouldn’t do it. What kind of a mother does that make you?”

Malorie laughs, a short, confident ha!

“You know, when I was pregnant, people would say that you’re a bad mother for drinking, or not taking vitamin pills, or having a hospital birth, or saying you were gonna vaccinate your kids. And now… now you’re saying I’m a bad mother because I won’t blind my children.”

“Because you won’t give them a chance to live,” Travis says.

Malorie smiles, shakes her head.

“I always knew I was bringing life into a fucked-up world. I thought I’d make a terrible mother. Hell, my obstetrician did, too. And the funny thing is, I’m a much better mother now the world’s ending than I ever could have been before. I love my children. And I want to give them a chance to see me. To see their father. And whatever beauty there is left.”

She leans closer to Travis.

“Don’t you see? That is their chance to live.”

She gently presses the knife to his throat. Just enough pressure to let him know that it’s there.

“So let us go,” Malorie whispers, “And I’ll give you a chance to run before your wife finds you.”

Travis’ breath is hot against her face, and there’s something broken in his eyes, and she thinks, she really thinks, that he’s going to let her go. But he doesn’t. He grabs her wrist, his hand huge and iron-strong, pulling her hand away from him and slamming it back against the wall. Malorie gasps in pain, losing her grip on the knife. It clatters to the floor. Travis scrambles to pick it up and she runs. She can’t fight him, but she might be able to outrun him. She might be able to lose him. She’s counting on his wife to do the rest. She pushes through the stairwell doors and runs along the ground-floor corridor – the route she was planning to take before he stopped her.

“Malorie!” Travis yells after her.

He’s not far behind her, and he’s got a knife.

“Shit,” Malorie says.

She throws her torch into one of the rooms off the right side of the corridor, and darts into a room off the left. It’s not much of a distraction. She holds her breath, hand clamped over her mouth, hiding just behind the doorway.

“Malorie!”

The shout terrifies her, even though Travis is running past, and she holds back a choked cry. She can hear him running into the next room, following the torchlight, and she knows she hasn’t got much time. She leaves the room, footsteps as quick and quiet as she can make them, heading down the corridor. She knows she can’t get far – she can’t let Travis see her – so as soon as her fingers brush against another door, she ducks into that room.

“Where are you?” Travis shouts, his voice echoing down the corridor.

She hears his heavy footsteps. She hears the bang as he kicks down a door. Not her room, but close enough, this side of the corridor.

“Malorie,” Travis says, his voice quieter, gentler somehow, “Why don’t you tell me about your father?”

Another kick. Fuck. He must be going through the corridor systematically, opening each door and sweeping the room with his torch. Standing in the doorways, he’s never going to miss her sneaking out down the corridor. It’s just a matter of time until he finds her.

“He drank, didn’t he?” Travis says, “And you and your sister and your mother just had to get by.”

Malorie scrabbles around the room, totally blind in the darkness, searching desperately for something – anything – that might help her. A weapon, a tool. But all she can feel is the cold, rough walls and floor. Kick. He’s closer.

“But you got used to bein’ alone,” Travis continues, “You learned to draw. A way to get away from all that. You still do it now, don’t you? That’s why you draw Douglas and the kids so much. It means you can distance yourself. You can be an observer.”

Malorie knows she’s crying, because Travis is right and there’s nothing here that can help her and no one is coming to save her.

“If you draw, you don’t have to be part of a family again. Because that’s what really scares you, isn’t it? You might make all the same mistakes your father did.”

Travis kicks the door down. Malorie shrinks back as his torch shines onto her, tear-tracks glistening down her face like his wife’s scars.

“How do you know?” she says.

“I told you, Malorie,” Travis says, “They speak to everyone here.”

He plunges the knife into her front.

Chapter Text

Malorie screams when Travis stabs her.

But the thing is, he doesn’t stab her. He stabs what’s in the baby carrier strapped to her front, hidden under the blanket tied around her shoulders.

“This is your fault, Malorie,” Travis says, his hand still on the knife, “You did this.”

Malorie stares at him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. He lets go of the knife. She looks down, the handle sticking out of her front. And then she pulls it out, turns the blade, and runs it into Travis’ stomach. He gasps, his eyes bulging, like a hooked fish pulled out of the water. Malorie twists the knife deeper, her shoulder wedged against his chest, and he flops down onto the floor, his back against the wall. She holds onto the knife as he falls, wet and hot and slippery with his blood. Travis blinks up at her, blood soaking through his shirt.

“You… you haven’t won,” he says.

Malorie lifts the blanket, revealing what’s underneath. Inside the baby carrier is a pillow, its stuffing coming loose from where it was pierced.

“I think I have,” she says.

Travis laughs, splutters, blood spurting from his mouth and running down his chin.

“This isn’t over, Malorie. They will come for you. You and your children.”

Malorie prises her torch out of Travis’s hand, tightly clenched around it. She meets his eyes for a second. He looks young, and he looks scared. He looks like he knows he’s going to die. She hesitates. Travis is the closest thing she’s had to a friend in a long, long time. Or at least, he was. She pulls the pillow out from the baby carrier and tucks it behind his head.

“And I will do anything,” she says, “If it means my children will live.”

She leaves. He can bleed out here, on his own, in the dark.

Malorie stands for a moment in the corridor, her breaths heavy. She rubs her face with the heel of her hand, realises she’s probably just covered herself in Travis’ blood. She’s exhausted. She needs to get out of this place. It’s made her a murderer. But maybe that’s just what you have to be at the end of the world. Douglas killed Gary. He killed some of the ones who came to the house, too. She’s never really thought about it before, what it meant. Well, she’s been blooded now. She wipes the knife on the blanket and tucks it back into the sheath at her side.

“Just as well I’m not afraid of going to hell,” she says to herself.

It’s almost funny. She can even smell the smoke. Malorie sniffs the air. It is smoke, dirty and heavy. She looks around, her torch sweeping across the corridor, trying to work out where it’s coming from. Her light catches the swirling tendrils, lazily drifting towards her. She follows them, covering her mouth with the blanket.

“Oh, no, no, no,” she says, when she reaches the kitchen.

Smoke is billowing out from under the door, flames flickering from within. Malorie knows better than to touch the handle – it’ll be white-hot. She shoves the door open with her shoulder.

“Cook?” she calls out, coughing as the acrid smoke invades her mouth.

It smells like a barbeque in here. Malorie can’t see much, the smoke is so thick. She can hear something – choked sounds, like someone is struggling to breathe. She moves forwards, towards the noise. It’s Cook. Someone is holding her by the scruff of her neck, bony fingers digging into her flesh. Cook’s bent over the oven, her face pressed down onto the hob.

“Let her go!” Malorie shouts.

The person holding Cook suddenly turns around, eyes locking onto Malorie.

“Mama?” Malorie breathes.

Because it is Mama – bloodied, sweating, breathing heavily. Alive and vindictive.

“Look,” Mama says, “It’s your friend.”

She drags Cook around to face Malorie. Malorie screams when she sees what’s happened to her. Cook’s face is red-raw, blackened folds of skin hanging off her chin. Her mouth is open and empty, her eyes filled with a horror Malorie can’t possibly comprehend. She suddenly realises why she can smell cooked meat.

“I take it this is yours?” Mama says, kicking something on the floor.

It’s Malorie’s rucksack. It clangs with the contact, rattling with the cans stuffed inside it.

“Didn’t you think I’d catch her stealing?” Mama says.

“I thought you’d be dead,” Malorie says.

Mama laughs.

“I killed Travis,” Malorie says.

Mama’s face hardens. Malorie pulls out her knife, stained with dried blood.

“And I’ll kill you too, if you don’t let her go.”

“I’ll deal with you later,” Mama mutters to Cook, throwing her to the floor.

Cook lays there, trembling and gasping. And Malorie seizes her chance. She runs forwards and grabs the rucksack, hauls it over her back. It’s heavy, and she won’t be able to run fast with it. But they need supplies. They won’t make it long out here without them.

Mama shrieks and grabs Malorie, her hand closing around her throat. She’s strong – much stronger than she looks. Malorie kicks wildly at her, her boots making contact with Mama’s stomach and sending her flying backwards. Mama crashes into one of the kitchen islands, an overhead rack of utensils clattering as they fall around her.

“Come on,” Malorie says, grabbing Cook by the arm and pulling her to her feet.

She’s weak, leaning heavily against Malorie. Malorie drags her along, but then she’s yanked backwards by her rucksack. She screams, the rucksack sliding off her shoulder and landing heavily on the floor. Malorie turns to face Mama, and gasps. She’s holding a meat cleaver – it must have been hanging up on the rack – and grinning.

“Jesus Christ,” Malorie says, and holds her knife up by her head, threatening to strike.

She should know by now that Mama doesn’t respond well to threats. Mama lurches forwards, slashing at her, and Malorie pushes herself back up onto a kitchen counter. Her back against the wall, she kicks out at Mama. Her boot connects with the meat cleaver, and the blade lodges stuck in the sole. Malorie’s not sure if it’s pierced all the way through to her foot, she’s so full of adrenaline, but she screams anyway. Mama puts both hands on the handle to pull it free, and that’s when Cook, still lying on the floor, grabs her legs and pulls. Mama’s thrown off balance, stumbles, but stays on her feet. She looks down at Cook, full of disdain and something that looks like disappointment.

“You always were a wilful child,” Mama says, and starts hacking at her.

Malorie winces at the sick wet noise of the meat cleaver cutting into Cook’s body. There’s a crunch as it breaks bone. And then again, and again, until Cook is a bloodied pulp, howling wordlessly and trying desperately to crawl away, her blood smearing across the white tiled floor. Malorie jumps down and shoulders the rucksack – Mama is too frenzied to notice, bent down over the twitching wreck of Cook – and then she plunges her knife into Mama’s back. It’s a bad hit. The blade only sinks in a couple of inches, stuck between her ribs, and all it does is piss Mama off. She screams and whirls around, the meat cleaver glistening with blood and hunks of flesh.

Malorie is not fucking dying today.

She grabs Mama’s hair and forces her down, stomping on her back as she rushes to Cook. She’s a complete mess. Her stomach’s burst open, entrails spilling out over the floor, but she’s still alive somehow. She’s going to die like this, and it’s Malorie’s fault, and she’s already guilty of so much and she just wants to do one thing right.

“I got you,” Malorie says.

She grabs Cook’s arms and drags her out of the kitchen. Mama crawls to her feet and rushes towards them. She slips on the blood that’s pooled on the floor, skidding backwards and hitting her head on a countertop. It buys Malorie the extra seconds she needs to pull Cook out of there and into the corridor. Through the window on the kitchen door she can see Mama racing towards her, painted red with blood, and Malorie knows what she has to do. She yanks the kitchen door shut, the metal searing her palm, and draws the lock across.

“Fuck you, Mama,” she says.

Chapter Text

 

Malorie watches as Mama’s face appears at the window of the kitchen door, contorted with rage.

“Let me out!” she shouts.

She bangs her hands against the door uselessly, like a fly slamming itself against a window pane.

“Malorie! Malorie, let me out!”

Malorie just watches her silently. She’s going to burn to death, and Malorie’s not sorry. She’s not sorry at all. Mama’s arm suddenly shoots through the window, the meat cleaver smashing the glass. Malorie jerks backwards, the blade missing her face by an inch or two. She falls to the floor, the glass raining down onto her, and there’s hot blood running down her face – her own, this time. Mama’s bony arm is studded with shards, flailing angrily as she tries to hack into her. Malorie skids backwards. Cook is moaning on the floor beside her, her body savagely ripped and torn, her face burnt beyond all recognition.

“I’m here,” Malorie says to her, “I’m sorry.”

Cook’s arms and legs are twitching, short, sharp spasms. Malorie just wants it to stop, wants Cook to die and be free of this agony. Cook’s hand smears blood across the wall, and Malorie realises that she’s not just shaking – she’s writing something.

“Is that…” Malorie begins, “Are you trying to tell me something?”

Cook’s fingers keep moving, weak and trembling, and Malorie thinks she can make out the shapes.

“Is that an R?” she says, “An R and an… A?”

Cook’s head moves in what Malorie thinks is a nod, tracing another line down the wall.

“I?” Malorie says, “Or L?”

Mama shrieks, and something bright and glinting flies across the corridor. Before Malorie realises what’s happening, the meat cleaver is lodged into Cook’s hand, pinning it to the wall, and blood is gushing down her wrist. Malorie screams, covering her mouth in shock. But she knows Cook doesn’t have much time left. So she grabs the meat cleaver and pulls. She feels the sinew and bone give a little. The blood spurts from Cook’s wrist, splashing against Malorie – the blade must have caught an artery. From the kitchen, Mama cackles.

“Fuck. You. Mama,” Malorie says, through gritted teeth.

She covers Cook’s hand with hers and pulls the meat cleaver, slowly working it loose. Eventually, it comes free with a wet smack and Malorie drops it, clattering against the floor. Cook’s hand peels away from her wrist, exposing the neatly cut bone and muscle, and Malorie screams when it dawns on her that she is holding Cook’s completely severed hand. It’s still moving, the muscles contracting, holding tightly onto her.

“Fuck! Fuck!” she yells, shaking her arm and throwing it off of her.

The hand lands on the floor of the corridor, upturned. Red and glistening with blood, fingers still moving uselessly. It looks like a monstrous, dying spider. Cook cries out, and Malorie tears her eyes off the hand and back to her. Cook’s pressing the stump of her arm against the wall, still trying to finish her message through the pain and blood loss. Malorie stares at her. She never knew someone could survive something like this. She wishes she didn’t know it now.

“That’s…” she says, studying the bloody letters, “Another R? Or P? And… is that B? H?”

Malorie mutters the letters under her breath, trying to work out how they fit together.

“R-A-R-H… No. R-A-P-H… Wait, isn’t that the name of this place? St Raphael’s?”

Cook’s bloodshot eyes look up into Malorie’s, already starting to dim.

“What is it about Raphael?” Malorie says, “He was… He was in the Bible, wasn’t he? Some kind of saint?”

But Cook’s eyes have turned glassy and empty, staring up into something Malorie can’t see. She’s gone. Malorie turns to Mama. Her arm is still scrabbling out of the kitchen door, trying to reach the handle. It’s hopelessly far out of reach.

“What did she mean?” Malorie says, “About Raphael?”

“I can’t tell you,” Mama says, “They wouldn’t want me to.”

“Don’t you want me to let you out?”

“You wouldn’t.”

Malorie shrugs, looking down.

“You know, I honestly don’t know what I’d do anymore.”

She picks up the meat cleaver. It’s only a matter of time before Mama’s followers come and she’d rather she has it than them. Her own knife is still stuck in Mama’s back.

“You knew what she was trying to tell me,” Malorie says, “So tell me.”

She stands up slowly, her matted hair falling over her face, her eyes flicking upwards to meet Mama’s. Mama says nothing.

“No?” Malorie says quietly, “Okay.”

She looks down at the meat cleaver in her hand. Takes a breath. And then she slices it into Mama’s arm. The blade cuts through the bone with a crunch and embeds into the wooden kitchen door, trapping her in place. Mama howls, furious and animalistic.

“Tell me!” Malorie shouts.

Her own voice startles her with its fury. Mama’s wriggling hand grabs Malorie’s shirt and drags her closer, so that their faces are almost pressed together. Up close, Malorie can see her watery eyes criss-crossed with veins, her wrinkled, leathery skin, streaked dark with smoke and dried blood.

“They say he was the first,” Mama whispers, “And you shall be the last.”

“The last what?” Malorie says.

Mama leans forwards slowly, as if to whisper in Malorie’s ear.

“The last what?” Malorie whispers.

Mama growls and plunges her teeth into Malorie’s neck. Malorie screams in pain and yanks herself backwards.

“Goddammit!” she curses, clasping her neck.

Mama bares her reddened teeth, spits Malorie’s own blood back at her.

“Fine,” Malorie says, “You can burn.”

“Seers of St Raphael!” Mama proclaims.

Her voice echoes down the corridor, deep and otherworldly.

“Don’t let Malorie or her family leave this place! Let them burn here with us!”

Malorie huffs out a breath.

“Bitch,” she says.

She grabs her bloodstained rucksack from where it fell on the floor, hauls it onto her shoulder, and runs down the corridor as fast as she can. She needs to get out of this place. She needs to get to Douglas and their children. She needs to breathe the air again.

Malorie’s nearly at the end of the corridor when she hears something that makes her stop dead in her tracks. Birdsong. The birds. She’d forgotten about the birds. She turns back and rushes into the main hall. The fire has already spread to here. Flames are licking up the curtains, threatening to tear them down and expose what’s outside.

High up in the rafters is the nest. The chicks must still be tiny, pink and blind and helpless. Malorie remembers the terrible day her children were born. How small they were. How fragile. How desperate she was to protect them. Her eyes prick with tears. She’s done some terrible things to save her children. And yet she can’t save these chicks. These chicks, who have done nothing wrong. Who she thought were a fresh start in this hideous world.

For a moment, Malorie thinks about leaving them. Letting the whole family die. At least they’d be together. At least they’d know no more evil. But she doesn’t think she can bear any more death tonight. She whistles, and the adult birds flutter past the flames and down to her.

“Hey there,” she says quietly, tucking them into the box strapped to her, under her blanket.

They might lay more eggs, one day. Raise another brood of chicks. Malorie doesn’t have that option.

“Come on,” she says, “Let’s get out of here.”

Chapter Text

Malorie’s about to leave the hall when she finds her way blocked by two of Mama’s followers. A man and a woman, unarmed but angry.

“Okay,” Malorie says.

She turns and runs. Running into the fire, towards the floor-length windows, she covers her head with the blanket wrapped around her and throws her entire body weight forwards, smashing through the glass. She lands heavily on her front on the soft, wet earth, shards pitter-pattering around her like hailstones. She groans, pushing herself up, but she doesn’t get far before she’s grabbed from behind and hauled upwards by her rucksack.

“Get off me!” Malorie yells.

She thrashes blindly, trying to get away, but she’s being held tight. She hardly notices the wind roll in from the forest, the cool air contrasting from the blazing heat of the fire.

“You’ll burn with us,” the man says.

“No!” Malorie shouts, “I am not fucking dying tonight. You hear me?”

She stamps down on the man’s foot, the movement dislodging her blanket. It falls, uncovering her face, and then she can see. Facing towards the building, she can see the man and woman looking out at the forest, staring at something behind her. Another gust of wind blows, carrying the fire out into the trees. The dry leaves rustle and murmur. The birds start squawking in their box.

“They’re here,” the woman says, her eyes full of awe, “They’ve come.”

Malorie knows she needs to run, needs to cover her eyes, but she’s frozen to the spot, watching as their eyes turn dark and sad. She hasn’t seen it for so long, she’s almost forgotten what it looks like. The moment someone sees. She remembers what it was like when it happened to Jessica. She’d never felt so helpless in all her life. She feels it again now, the sense that something terrible and powerful is close. And there is nothing at all she can do.

The man and woman turn and walk back into the burning building, their movements slow and robotic. Just like Lydia, when she stepped into that car. Malorie clenches her fists, Lydia’s wedding ring bright and hard on her finger. These things didn’t take her that day. They didn’t take her when she wasn’t blindfolded, when no one knew what was going on. They had their chance that day. They’re sure as hell not taking her now.

“I’m not afraid of you,” she says.

She pulls the blanket back over her head and moves as fast as she can through the trees. It’s hard to navigate – heat is rolling off the building in waves, flames roaring, and at one point she thinks she’s lost altogether.

“Douglas!” she calls out, “Douglas!”

“Malorie!”

Malorie follows his voice, until she feels his hand close over her wrist.

“Where the fuck have you been?” Douglas says.

He’s at the spot where he left Malorie and the children when they first arrived here. He wasn’t happy about it when they made the plan – he, of course, wanted to be the one to stay behind and get the supplies – and he seems even less happy about it now. He pulls Malorie under the blanket and stares at her, his torchlight illuminating the blood staining her face and hands.

“You’re hurt,” he says.

“I’m fine,” Malorie says, “What are you still doing here? I thought we said you’d leave if I didn’t get here in thirty minutes.”

“Yes, well, you’re lucky it’s only been twenty-nine.”

It’s an obvious lie.

“We need to hurry,” Malorie says, grabbing Junior and strapping him to the now-empty baby carrier on her front, “I only got away because they showed up. And the building’s on fire.”

“I noticed,” Douglas says, sounding distinctly impressed, “What did you do?”

“I took a leaf out of your book.”

Douglas quirks an eyebrow, a question.

“I was an asshole,” Malorie says.

He smiles. Keeps looking at Malorie as he tugs on his blindfold, as if she’s the last thing he wants to see before they leave. Malorie puts her blindfold on as Douglas ties his blanket around himself and Ella.

“Ready?” he says.

Malorie cries out when he takes her hand. Her palm is badly burned from the scalding kitchen door, the skin red-raw. She moves around him, taking his right hand with her left.

“Okay?” Douglas asks.

“Yeah.”

“Come on, this way.”

It was only days ago that they traipsed through this patch of forest, cold and frightened and followed. It feels like it’s been much longer. Malorie remembers the smell of the earth and rotting leaves, the ground slipping a little beneath her feet, the feel of Douglas’ rough hand in hers. But the thick smell of smoke, the stabbing pain in her face and neck, the dry, cracking blood on her skin, that’s all new.

She was so frightened when they first came here, her heart stammering like a rabbit’s. Tonight, she’s numb. Like she’s wearing the shock and exhaustion like armour, protecting her from feeling anything. She doesn’t think, just puts one foot in front of the other. If there are voices calling to her, she doesn’t notice. She hardly even notices that Douglas is talking until he’s halfway through the story.

“And when he came to the place where the wild things are,” Douglas is saying, “They roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws. Till Max said…”

He squeezes Malorie’s hand.

“What did Max say, Malorie?”

“Max said…” Malorie mumbles, “Max said ‘Be still!’”

“Yes,” Douglas says, as if he’s remembering the words, “Till Max said “Be still!” and tamed with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all.”

“And made him king of all wild things,” Malorie finishes.

Douglas stops. Around them, the forest is still. The wind has dropped. The birds have fallen silent.

“I think they’re gone,” he says, “For now, at least.”

“Let’s keep going,” Malorie says.

“Sure you don’t need to rest for a moment? I want to check you over for injuries.”

“Yeah, I bet you do. But I want to get as far away from that place as possible.”

Douglas runs his thumb across the back of her hand, gently pressing against the wedding ring.

They walk.