Her hair is getting long. It almost brushes her shoulders now, brittle and limp in the little mirror. She squints at her reflection. All that’s visible is her face and shoulders, the sharp angles of her collarbone. A neat little snapshot, like one of the old polaroids her mama used to take back before - before.
She doesn’t bother with the mirror when she begins cutting. She’s going for utility over aesthetics here, it doesn’t matter if her hair is longer on one side than the other and her bangs are jagged and sloppy. The strands tickle her bare feet where they drop, floating down on the muggy evening air. The old fan burbles in the corner, kicking up a faint breeze on her shoulders.
She sets the scissors down and scrapes the cuttings into her palm. Are they moving? The ends feel like they’re squirming against her palm, growing, mutating - she slaps her hand against the trash bin, shakes it off and moves on. Settle down, Zoe. It’s nothing. Doesn’t work like that. She doesn’t look, anyways.
Her head feels lighter, clearer without hair sweat-stuck to her forehead and the nape of her neck all the time. She yanks her tank top back on over her sweatpants and shoves the mirror back into the drawer where she won’t have to see herself every time she walks by it. Through her ratty old curtains she can see it’s getting dark out.
The mattress on the trailer bed is flat with age and made of some kind of plasticky material that crinkles when she sinks down on it. She grabs her bottle of beer off the floor and drains it - one of her last, precious few - and shuffles her stack of papers out from under the mattress, fanning them out like tarot cards. For sure, this time she’ll see something she’s missed. Some piece of it that will make this whole goddamn nightmare puzzle shift into something she can make sense of. There must be a way out, somewhere.
There isn’t, of course, just like there hasn’t been the last twelve times she’s gone over it. She’s been scribbling down every vague shape of a clue she’s rustled up and all it’s left her with is a fat wad of nothing. Her own handwriting stares up at her from the page, a mocking, hopeless scrawl.
Fine. Fine. She’ll start over in the morning. She shoves the papers back together in a haphazard pile and jams them back under the mattress, settles herself on top of them. The beer bottle rolls to the floor with a glassy clunk. When she thumbs off the lamp, she can barely see her knees in the little light that leaks into the trailer. No noise except the constant hum of the swamp and the ticking rattle of the fan. Might as well get some sleep, even though she barely needs it these days; at least time passes faster when she doesn’t have to be aware of it.
A knocking on the trailer door wakes her up.
She lies still an extra long moment, tucked petulantly under her thin blanket with her eyes barely slitted against the dark. She imagines it’s a stranger outside. A lost hiker looking for directions maybe, or a real estate developer who just couldn’t resist the allure of a pair of houses about to fall over any day now, come to beg her to sell for a million bucks. She’d only accept that deal if they promised to bulldoze the place to the ground and start over from the beginning.
The knocking keeps going, no pause, just an unceasing thud-thud-thud, and she swings her legs out of bed to answer. Of course, it’s not a hiker, or a millionaire, just a monster in dark clothes with a freshly-shorn head to match hers. Lucas leans on the doorframe. He looks unnervingly like his old self, maybe a little more stretched out. He’s grinning at her.
“Heard about what you’ve been up to, Zoe.”
“Fuck off.” She doesn’t bother slamming the door in his face, there’s no point. He won’t go away until he gets what he wants. She learned that lesson plenty of times as a child, when she was trying to play quietly in her room or help Mama in the kitchen and Lucas barged in and took up all the air in the room. They’re taller, now, and different in...other ways, but things haven’t changed that much.
He follows her back into the trailer and slouches against the table, fiddling with the busted door on one of her birdcages. Not hers - Mama’s. It creaks open and shut, open and shut.
“What you want, Lucas?”
“What, I can’t visit my lil’ sis? We all missed you at dinner.”
“Wasn’t hungry.” She’s starving, it feels like there’s an animal trapped in her belly shredding the walls as it tries to climb out, but it’s not worth what passes for a fucking family meal these days. Sometimes Eveline drags her in anyways.
“Aww, you never were good at lying, huh?” Lucas laughs his stupid fucking hyena laugh, teetering the birdcage back and forth across the table. He’s got one hand jammed in the front pocket of his hoodie, turning something over and over inside it. “C’mon, ma made spaghetti, you love spaghetti.”
“Guess my tastes changed. Why’d you go? You could just cut your own fingers off, save Daddy the trouble.” He lifts his free hand between them, wiggling it around so they can both see the fresh flesh growing in. Probably didn’t ask to pass the salt again, just shoved his elbow in Mama’s face reaching for it. That had gotten him a bent old steak knife embedded in him more than once.
“I just can’t get enough of that home cooking. Plus, Grandma’s there.” It’s a bucket of cold water dumped all over Zoe. Grandma is buried in the family plot, safely rotting away from all this.
The last time Zoe saw Eveline she was looking around Mama’s age, grey streaking into her hair. How old must she be now? Lucas grins at her. “C’mon, you come next time, we’ll get the whole family back together.”
“You sure? I brought dessert.” He pulls his hand out of his pocket and she can see what he was hiding. It looks like some kind of wooden frame, with a crow’s skull lashed to it. There’s still a bit of flesh peeling on one side, and it clicks loosely when he waves it around, tendons replaced with string and wire to hold the jaw attached.
“What the hell is that, Lucas?”
Lucas cackles and opens his hand so she can see the other side of what he’s holding. There’s a key tied onto the end of the wood, old and half-rusted. “It’s a special treat, just for you. Ma made it herself! She’s been real into arts and crafts lately. Making all kinds of fun stuff in the old house. You remember that class project you did back in middle school, all about recycling? Well, ma thought, why not recycle dinner into something you’d like a little better. You know, since you’re off sulking all the time now. I figured it might cheer you up.”
“Lucas, what the hell is that thing?”
He rolls his eyes and slouches into his hoodie like a petulant goddamn teenager. “It’s a key, dummy.”
“Key to what?” she snaps.
“A door. Ha! But not just any door. A veeeery special door, with some real special stuff behind it. You wanna guess?” His grin is getting wider and wider, manic and peeling at the edges. It makes her stomach turn.
“Just tell me, or I’ll - ”
He cuts her off with a disdainful noise from the back of his throat like he’s gonna cough up a hairball, tossing the key up a few inches and catching it nimbly. Zoe’s eyes follow it without meaning to.
“You’ll what? Chop my fingers off, impale me a little? Empty threats, sis, plus you always been a soft one. You ain’t got it in you. But alright, I’ll tell you. Y’see, a few months back, I got this email. Secure encryption, VPNs, real darkweb shit, you wouldn’t get it. Waaaay beyond your hacker skills. But this email was from some people who did get it. They got everything. They’re the ones who made Evie.”
Of course he’s losing his goddamn mind. Mama did, and Daddy did, and if they couldn’t keep it together Lucas sure as hell wouldn’t be able to. “Sure. Right. Lucas, get the hell out.”
“I’m serious! Gawd, you always were a pessimist, huh? Never believed your ol’ brother about anything. But that’s alright. You’ll come around. Just like I did. Y’see, they sent me a loooot of interesting information, and I did some digging, and I put together a - call it a serum. Made me better.” He boosts himself up off the table and spins around, the kind of agitated movement he used to do when he had something boiling over he could barely wait to talk about.
Zoe’s heart roars in her chest like it’s about to burst through the skin and cartilage and scutter away across the floor. She forces her voice even. It’s a lie, it’s got to be. No fuckin’ clue what game he’s playing but Lucas always has a game, and he always wins. Still - the note Mia scribbled out is jammed under her mattress with the rest of her crap, and the words are practically burned into the back of her eyelids. “You aren’t cured, Lucas. Leave my stuff alone.” A loud clank as he drops the birdcage back onto the table and a sneering roll of his eyes. She can feel hers roll right back. Stupid sibling shit never dies, even when you and your whole family mutate into monsters, apparently.
“Why would I wanna be? I can cut my own foot off and stick it right back on and do a fuckin’ jig to celebrate. Why would I wanna fix that? Have to be a total dumbass - like you!” He cackles and spins the key around one finger. “I mean, you can tell, right? I’m not like I used to be. Little bitch doesn’t control me anymore. I control me.” There’s the dangerous glint in his eyes, the one that always meant something was gonna break mysteriously or catch on fire or fall out a window. Zoe was always better at spying it than Mama and Daddy were.
“What do you want?” she asks.
“Oh come on, can’t I just - yeah, okay, you got me.” He grins and rolls his shoulders up, gesturing with the key and almost knocking the lampshade swinging. “‘Course I want something. I want you to go into the house and get me something. Need it for a project I’m workin’ on.”
“Why can’t you get it yourself? What’s the catch?” She tramples the little bloom of hope that keeps trying to grow through the concrete slab of her chest. Lucas has never been reliable, even before Eveline, and she shouldn’t even be entertaining this much. Still. She wants, desperately, to know.
“The catch is, I’m offering you a gift and you are looking it right in the mouth.” He fiddles with the skull until it opens its beak at her, giggles over his own joke. “You want it or not?”
She takes a slow moment to consider, mind gone a little fuzzy with the bayou heat even in the darkest, coolest part of night. The awful hope curls like a vine up her throat, spills out of her traitor mouth. “I get you something from the house, and you give me the key, and I get the serum?”
Lucas’s tombstone teeth snap together like a grin, a trap around the leg of a wounded animal. Zoe hopes it’s not her leg this time, but she doesn’t have much faith. “Got it in one. You in?”
“What do you want from the house?” He jams the key back into his pocket, the side of it bulging out crookedly through the worn fabric. Her eyes can’t seem to pull away from it, just a steady chant of want, want, want running circles around her common sense.
“Nothin’ big. It’s a padlock, last I saw it was in the recreation room. One of the drawers, maybe, I dunno. Bring me that, I’ll give you this, and everyone walks away happy.” Her eyes flicker up to his face, finally, in time to see a little sliver of false bravado. Lucas is a crazy son of a bitch (sorry, Mama) but he’s not stupid. If he’s worried, there’s something worrisome.
“You could just get it yourself.”
“I guess I could but where’s the fun in that?” Oh, that’s all bravado, and familiar to boot.
“You’re really that afraid of Daddy?”
“Shut your fucking mouth.” His face hardens and his jaw juts out like it always did when he knew he was in trouble. “Tick tock, lil sis, this offer’s only valid for the next ten seconds. You want a ride out of here or not?”
She should say no. She should’ve slammed the door in his face when he first knocked, she should kick him out now, she should figure it out on her own but she’s been trying to untangle this for more than two years and her everything is running thin and threadbare.
“Fine. Where do you want me to bring it?” If she thought the flash of teeth before was the snapping of a trap, this smile is burning the whole fucking forest down just to kill one terrified rabbit.
“Meet me ‘round back by the barn. And hurry, okay, I’m kind of on a timetable here. Got some guests to attend to.” The trailer door rattles in its frame when it slaps shut behind him and Zoe sags. She drags her hands through her hair, smothering her palms against her eyes until they throb, and considers her options.
Lucas can’t be trusted, she’s sure of that much at least. But if there’s even a single strand of hope, that he’s telling the truth, that the ugly fucking talisman he’s got could lead to a cure - she’s gotta take it. She owes Mama and Daddy that much, at least.
She shoves her feet into her sneakers and then takes a second to relace them properly. Better be able to run if this whole thing goes diagonal. Outside the trailer the noise from the swamp is louder, more immediate. Lucas is nowhere to be seen, probably slunk back into the barn. She’s heard noises from there, ones that make her skin crawl. They used to get a steady trickle of visitors, travelers looking for directions or a bathroom to borrow, poor folks from the drier parts of the parish hoping Daddy’d have some work for them in return for a hot meal. She hasn’t seen any of them in months, but she doesn’t delude herself into thinking that means they’ve stopped coming. Just that they’ve stopped leaving.
Her feet crunch on the damp grass as she makes her way to the porch of the main house. There’s a reason she avoids everywhere but the trailer unless she needs to, these days. The building before her is choked with ghosts. She runs her palm over the banister and finds the familiar warp of the wood and her feet skip over the creaky stair without a conscious thought to it.
The main door closes heavily behind her and Zoe winces. She pauses in the doorway, ears pricked on high alert for anyone coming closer, but nothing moves. Inside the sounds of the surrounding bayou are muffled, even more so than they are from inside her trailer. The main house is a little island of its own on the floodwaters. Or maybe a tomb.
She shakes her head to clear it. Getting all fanciful and morose won’t do anything to help her family right now. They’re not dead yet, even if that’s more to God not collecting on his promises than it is to lack of opportunity. So she’s going to do this damn favor for Lucas, and get her parents back, and herself back, and only then can she start entertaining thoughts about taking some kerosene to this whole place.
She keeps her footsteps light as she makes her way up the stairs. At the top, she leans over the bannister for a moment, and then has to stumble back a step, suddenly dizzy. It’s never seemed like far to fall before, but then she had a good childhood, loving parents. It’s only in the last couple of years that she’s had to worry about how this house could hurt her.
Up ahead, the door to the main wing of the house. She slows her movements even further. In the entry hall, at least, she can see everything around her, but the rest of the house twists and turns back on itself. Her nerves jangle and toss under her skin. The door is closed, but the knob slips easily under her free hand and she presses it open with her shoulder.
A creaking noise comes from behind her, the shift of a board, and a low moan from somewhere below - down, in the depths of the basement.
She trips back, heart in her throat, and leans over the bannister to see. Down in the center of the main hall sits a monster; Eveline is ancient now, older than Grandma ever looked. The thin light through the porch windows casts her hair in dusty grey, wild around her head, and her shoulders are narrow and frail under one of Mama’s shawls. She doesn’t move, but the stolen wheelchair lists slowly, forward and back by scant inches.
The sound comes again, a muffled animal noise from the basement; Mia, in one of her fits of incoherent rage. Her voice rises in a shriek below the floorboards then, abruptly, cuts off. Eveline’s wheelchair stops moving entirely.
Zoe’s limbs feel like half-set jelly, but she forces herself to step away from the bannister and back through the doorway. It’s stupid to think Eveline didn’t see her. It’s probably even stupider to think that, now she’s been spotted, she’s getting out of here in one piece. But this close, closer than she’s been in years, the stupidest thing would be to turn around.
The carpet muffles her footsteps even further, and she slides her shoulder up against the wall to navigate in the dark. She doesn’t need it, really, she’s got years of traipsing up and down these hallways, but the crutch feels good and solid. The house is still the house, even half-rotted on both a literal and metaphorical level.
She reaches the rec room and flicks the light switch on. She hasn’t been in here in months, but it looks like it always did. The pool table Daddy almost broke his leg moving upstairs, Mama’s fuck-ugly angel statuettes on a table. The alcohol cabinet behind the bar is gathering dust; guess Evie doesn’t see much use point in imbibing.
She casts around aimlessly for a moment. Where to start looking? Could just dump all the drawers out, but that’d make a racket and - well, she doesn’t need to be drawing attention. She skirts around the bar where the bowl of fruit Mama always used to keep full is putrefying into a liquid, and that’s when she sees it. The padlock hangs crooked off the deadbolt to Grandma’s old room.
“Fuck you, Lucas.” No one can hear her but it makes her feel a little better anyway. Of course that’s what he wants, to make her poke at yet another old ghost. Probably doesn’t actually need the padlock for anything. Fuck Lucas. Fuck Eveline, while she’s at it. Hell, fuck Mia, rattling around in the basement and acting like she didn’t bring this whole little plague down on Zoe’s life.
Lucas didn’t give her the code, but she can make a guess. Grandma always said marrying into the Baker family was the best thing she ever did. She loved Grandpa, but more than that she loved Dulvey, and all the extended relatives who used to come ‘round for holidays and fill out the ranch, and introducing herself as Mrs. Baker in town to anyone who’d listen. The ‘R’ slots into place and the padlock clicks open.
She hesitates over the doorknob. She has the padlock - she could just go. Throw it at Lucas’ goddamn face and hope it leaves an imprint.
She turns the knob. The hinges creak when she pushes the door open. Haven’t been touched in awhile, just like the rest of the room. It still smells like Grandma’s clingy old perfume, and Zoe’s throat chokes up. She sinks into the rocking chair and stares at the empty, unmade bed. Grandma hadn’t had the energy to do it, in the end, so Mama’d tidied up after her every morning. The day Grandma went into the hospital, there hadn’t been time, and after the rest of them left, there hadn’t been a need.
“Probably good you left before all this. I don’t think you’d have liked the new look. You used to get so mad Daddy even built this new house instead of fixing up the old one. Didn’t even care it was sinking into the swamp.” They’d had the argument a dozen times over, Daddy too polite to fight with his own mother and too stubborn to not defend himself when she started crabbing about it. The empty bed doesn’t answer her.
She should be crying, or something, but she doesn’t have it in her anymore. Did too much of it early on, and now she’s just numb for the most part. Maybe Eveline decided tear ducts were unnecessary and she couldn’t now if she tried. Of course, if Eveline had that much control, she probably wouldn’t need to be sneaking around in Grandma’s pilfered wheelchair, so maybe the empty pit inside her chest is all Zoe. Hell, there’s still dishes from the last meal she ate here on the desk. Except the fork, though, and that wrings a hysterical laugh out of Zoe for a half second.
“You’d probably be snapping at me for this pity party, too.” She pushes herself up from the rocking chair, tucking the padlock into her pocket, and freezes in place when a floorboard creaks faintly in the hallway. Eveline? But no, it happens again, and those are footsteps, not the roll of a chair. Heavy ones, too. Daddy never had lost his high-school-football appetite.
None of them can really get hurt in any way that sticks, but that doesn’t mean she’s looking for a fight. Still, her hand reaches behind the chair, for Grandpa’s old shotgun. He’d loved his old Winchester, and Grandma’d kept it beside her for years after he’d passed. She’d talk to it, sometimes, address it by name. It had seemed silly, until Grandma died too and Zoe found herself doing the same with the quilt on her bed.
She hefts the shotgun into the crook of her elbow and feels around in the drawer for shells, finding a couple 12 gauge shells. Of course, Grandma also kept the gun for more practical purposes. It clicks loudly when she breaks it open and she winces, hoping the sound didn’t carry into the hall. She drops the shells in and very carefully doesn’t think about who she’s planning to point the gun at, or whether she’ll be able to pull the trigger at all. If she’s lucky, Daddy won’t notice the light in the rec room, and she can slip out through the main hall undetected, or maybe climb down over the balcony rail. But she doesn’t tend to have much luck these days, so, the gun.
“Boy, is that you? I told you not to come sneaking around here no more.” Daddy’s voice is getting close, right outside the rec room door now. He sounds hoarse; she hears him screaming most nights, from her trailer. Slowly, carefully, Zoe crouches down beside the bed and slides underneath on her back, tugging the quilt down behind her so that there’s only a thin gap for her to see through. The shotgun lays awkwardly across her chest, the barrel pointing to the door, her finger balanced on the trigger.
The rec room door swings open and the heavy footsteps cross the threshold. “Come on, son, you know I’m gonna find you. Eveline doesn’t like you messing around up here.” Thump, thump. Must be by the bar now; she hears a rattling crash as a box is tipped over. Thump, thump. By the pool table. Close enough she can hear his breathing rattle. Daddy used to be in good shape, kept himself fit running the ranch. He’s stronger now than he ever was before but he’s dammed up with mold, Eveline’s little fingers clawing at his lungs and his muscles. Rotting him into something new and unrecognizable. Her heart pounds, off-rhythm with his footsteps.
“Lucas, you better not be in here. Your sister doesn’t like it when you don’t listen.” He fills the doorway, and Zoe presses herself against the floor, her arms tense around the gun, and forces her breath as shallow as she can stand.
When she was eleven years old, Daddy took Zoe into the swamp with a couple of old guns and taught her to shoot. She’d protested - she wanted to stay home and color or some shit instead - but he’d been stern about it and insisted that if she was gonna live in a house with guns, she’d best know what she was doing. They made an afternoon of it, didn’t invite Lucas along. By evening she was a passable shot, and he’d clapped her on the shoulder and called it good. Said the safety was the more important bit anyway, and she’d probably never need to use the shooting part of the lesson.
She supposes he was right. Up this close, aim won’t be much of a factor at all.
Daddy huffs wetly, like a cow or one of the horses from the DuBois ranch close to town. After an impossibly long moment his footsteps turn away, the air displaces around where he’d been, and the door creaks shut behind him. She listens to his voice fade into the hallway, muttering about the things he’s going to do to Lucas when he gets his hands on his skinny chicken neck.
Zoe waits until she can’t hear him at all anymore to roll out from under the bed and let her heart unwind in her chest. Shit, she’s shaking hard. She shoves her hand into her pocket to confirm the padlock’s still there and readjusts her grip on the shotgun to ground herself. Time to move, before he comes back.
The room is clear when she nudges the door to Grandma’s room open. She flicks the light off and slips back into the hall. She moves careful until she reaches the landing and looks down. Moonlight still pours down at an angle, illuminating the cluttered table and the silent floorboards. Does Mia sleep, now? Zoe’s really only doing it out of habit, to kill time with reckless abandon. Maybe Mia, in her more lucid moments, does the same.
A hard little knot of a fist punches into her shoulder and shoves, and Zoe has just enough time to register that she’s falling before she isn’t anymore, instead landing with a crunch of bone and flesh.
Her skull cracks back against the floor and her vision blurs dark for a second. Something in her shoulder shifts in a way that makes her stomach roll with bitter nausea and she just manages to push herself over and keep from vomiting down her chest.
Up above she can hear a voice, a warped droning that makes her ears hurt - or maybe that’s the head injury. A giggle, cut off sharply, and she blinks dark spots out of her eyes. Zoe can’t tell if the shadow on the balcony is really there or not, but best not stick around to find out.
She scrambles for the gun where it slipped out of her hand, grinds her teeth against the awful wrenching sensation as her flesh knits back together.
Her fingers grasp the barrel and she jams the stock into the floor to lever herself up with. Under her hip, the padlock bites into her through her jeans, and she has to snap her teeth down on her lip to keep from screaming when she lifts herself off of it. Under her skin she can feel the muscles and tendons winding back into place, bones shifting like plates below the ground. It makes her limbs shudder and her gut turn but at least there’s nothing left to retch up.
“Who’s there?” The voice is faint, but it won’t be for long. Time to move, Zoe.
She stumbles through the front door and lets it slam hard behind her, propping herself up with the shotgun. Her leg gives out when she tries to step down off the porch and sends her tumbling into the grass and heaving again, sprawling onto her back facing the house. Zoe hears the deadbolt slam into place on the other side of the door, and then it’s still and silent.
She clambers back up on her good leg and manages to limp her way into the trailer, breathing in deep lungfuls of the familiar grime and sweat when she steps inside. The door feels solid against her back and even though she knows it’s a lie, that any one of her family could tear through it in an instant, it’s comforting just to have between them. Her knee shrieks at her when she shoves it back into place but she can feel the blood start to flow again, veins twining back around each other and her toes twitching abruptly in her shoe as the infection knits her back together.
The key is almost in her hands. The key to the key, at least. Padlock to Lucas, Zoe to the old house, this serum to every single person living on the property, and she’ll be done. It sounds so close. Her knee lists to the side and she wrenches it back in place and watches as it shifts and resettles in the socket. Gross.
She thumbs the letters on the padlock so they spell out gibberish. He probably already knows the code, but on the off-chance he doesn’t, there’s no need to make things easy for him. Maybe if he has to crack it, some poor sap will get a couple extra hours to wallow in the barn. She strips her puke-smelling t-shirt off to trade it out for a cleaner one and tests her leg, gingerly. It still feels a little watery, like the bones aren’t quite where they should be, but she makes it a loop around the trailer with only a little trouble.
She hesitates only a moment over the shotgun, before tucking it under her arm. Won’t likely get too many runs at this; best to make them count.
The music in the old barn Lucas has taken over reminds her, weirdly, of a haunted house she went to once, on a family trip to Lafayette when she must’ve been ten or so. It had been terrifying then, had her clinging to Lucas’s hoodie and yelping when an animatronic ghost popped out at them. The barn’s even spewing technicolor light into the gloom and dripping artificial fog from every pore. Whatever Lucas has going on in there is definitely a lot worse than some crappy plywood models and a handful of bored teenagers in costumes, but you’d never know it from the outside.
“You got the stuff?” One of the shadows separates from the side of the building, like he’s trying to be intimidating except he got the same scrawny set of genes she did so the effect is kind of, eh, she’s seen better. His phone blinks to life and illuminates his face from below, making all his angles that much sharper in washed-out blue.
“Gimme the key first.” She adjusts her grip on the shotgun in a vague threat they both know she won’t follow through with.
“Ah-ah-ah, c’mon, sis, you gotta trust me.” Lucas pulls the crow key out his pocket, waving it at her.
Zoe flips the padlock around her finger by the shackle in return; stalemate. “Snowball’s chance in hell, Lucas. Give me the key or I’ll go throw this in the swamp.”
“We toss it together on three. One, two - ” he pauses and makes like he’s gonna toss her the key underhand, grins when she jolts for it and it doesn’t leave his hand. “I said on ‘three’, not ‘go’, right? Just checkin’. Three!” She lobs the padlock at his shoulder and scrambles for the key when he drops it and there, it’s done, she skitters a couple feet back and they’re both clutching their prizes.
“Fucking ow, you goddamn psycho bitch.” Lucas rubs his shoulder.
“You think I’m some kind of idiot, idiot?” she snaps.
“Listen, listen - we all got what we wanted, ‘kay? We both walk away happy.” He fiddles with the padlock in greedy, excited fingers, tripping on his spidery legs back towards the barn. The music thumps and pounds at her eardrums and Zoe fails to pretend she can’t hear the sound of someone screaming faintly underneath.
“I’m gonna fix this,” she shouts, because it’s the only thing she can think to tell him. It’s not even really true. Whatever’s wrong with Lucas, the serum won’t fix it; something was wrong with him before Eveline ever washed up on their shores.
“Sure, sure, you go right ahead and fix the best thing that ever happened to you. Cool. Buzzkill.” Lucas laughs and his teeth are white in the shadows.
“Lucas.” She has no idea what she’s trying to say to him. What’s left, even? If all goes like she plans, they’re done. Hands all played. She’s not letting herself think about the alternative, so this is it. “Thanks.”
His grin is white and wicked in the shadows. “You might be singing a different tune when you find out where that key leads. See you around, sis. Say hi to ma for me.” He whistles out of tune as he walks away.
Zoe stands in the damp grass for a handful of long moments. The beat of Lucas’s music throbs in time with the distant ache still clawing at her shoulder and the sharp pulse in her knee every time she puts weight on it. Ma, and the old house, then.
She makes her way across the yard. The sky is starting to open up, soaking her shoulders and plastering her hair to the back of her neck with rain and sweat. Her sneakers soak through with mud, sticking her in place and making her wrench her knee on every step.
Halfway across the boardwalk, the wind picks up, sending the hanged baby dolls clacking into each other and the fencing. The boards beneath her feet shift and creak behind her, like something heavy is bearing down, but when she turns, there’s nothing there. Her own damn mind, or Eveline? She hobbles the rest of the way across in a hurry.
Inside the house, she can hear something buzzing relentlessly, halfway to a tune. When she was little, her mama would sing her lullabies - most mothers do, probably, but Lucas hated them so it felt like something special just for her, a secret that hummed between them. She hears Eveline humming too sometimes - did Mia sing to her, before their ship wrecked? She doesn’t know how anyone could comfort a disease but she’s heard familiar scraps of music below the floorboards of the house sometimes, something crooning in the dark.
The door is slightly ajar and she opens it further just enough to slide through, slowly to keep it from creaking when she swings it shut behind her. The smell inside makes her gag - soggy wood, and swamp mud, and liquefying meat from whatever dead animals are strung up like christmas lights. Her mama used to love birds; she’d sit on the porch in between chores and watch them chase each other and flit from tree to tree in the early evenings.
Zoe clutches the key tighter in her hand and tries not to shiver at the feeling of feathers. Lucas said there was a door.
To her left, the house has been rent in two. Floodwaters lap at the floorboards. Across the gap, the door leading upstairs has a bird pinned to it, a scraggly old crow sagging around the nails through its chest and wing. A crow door, and Zoe has a crow key. Bingo. A crude pulley system promises a bridge back to her side, but it’s raised to the ceiling right now and the crank is on the other side. She’ll have to cross the gap herself.
She crouches at the edge of the splintered floor and looks down into the water flooding the old crawlspace. Mosquito larvae cluster in thin black strings around scraps of wood bobbing on the surface, but the water is brackish and green and she can’t see any deeper. Right below her, a boulder protrudes a few inches and she tucks the crow key into her back pocket, folds her arm around the shotgun and carefully lowers herself to drop onto the boulder before she can talk herself into a worse plan.
There’s an old piece of cabinet a short jump further, and it slips and slides under her weight but it holds out long enough for her to lunge for the far edge of the pit and grab the ragged edge of a floorboard with her free hand and swing the shotgun over. The wood scrapes her forearms as she hauls herself up after it and her shoes are completely soaked but in a moment she’s up and on the far side. She pushes herself to standing and makes sure her grip on the receiver of the shotgun is firm.
The crow on the door looks at her with glassy, dead eyes as she makes her way up the short flight of stairs, careful of the waxy puddles burning low on either side. Her hand trembling, she slots the key into the lock and chokes a whimper in the back of her throat when it turns and clicks open.
The only warning she gets is a guttering in the light from the candles all around her and a roaring buzz in her ears. She ducks on instinct but a clammy, strong arm still grapples around her waist and twists her down the stairs and she lands hard for the third time tonight. Her arm spasms and jars when she hits the ground and the shotgun skids to the edge of the chasm, teetering precariously.
“My daughter, my eldest girl. You cut your hair.” Mama looks - like she always looks, now, wild-eyed and hunched and snarling. She lunges and Zoe rolls to the side. Her hand flies out and she manages to snatch the gun back to safety before Mama can kick it away. Zoe braces it against her shoulder and fumbles the half-numb fingers on her injured arm into position around the receiver.
Mama snaps her yellowing teeth and tears at her hair like she’s having some kind of a fit. The sleeve of her shirt bulges and a centipede crawls down her upper arm, another scuttles down her leg from under her skirt; she moves towards Zoe on wooden limbs like the insects are puppeting her from the inside out. Her belly writhes under her stained shirt. “Ugly, ungrateful, pathetic little brat! We give you all the good things in this world, and this is how you repay us? I ought to skin you! I’ll turn you into a husk, let my little ones grow in you. You’ll make such a good cocoon.”
“I’m sorry, Mama.” In the last moment, Zoe’s eyes snap shut. It doesn’t matter; from this close it’s an impossible shot to miss. The recoil slams into her shoulder and makes her yell out, though she can’t really hear herself over the ringing in her ears.
Mama wails, and Zoe opens her eyes. The slug punched a fat hole through her shoulder, leaving sticky black blood drooling out of her neck and and her arm hanging useless and half-attached by her side. She jerks her aim down and the second shot hits her in the belly, where it bulges and twists under Mama’s skin. Mama drops wetly to the floorboards.
Zoe staggers to her feet, and her knee protests heavily. She drags herself around where Mama’s lying, soaking bile into the damp wood, and makes for the stairs. She doesn’t have any time.
She makes it two lunging, desperate steps before a hand clamps around her ankle and topples her. She swings back with the stock of the gun and feels it connect but Mama keeps her hold on Zoe’s ankle. Her mutilated arm hauls her forward and already, maggots and sinew are beginning to bulge through the gap and sew her up.
“You little bitch,” she spits. Zoe grips the barrel and swings the stock of the gun, trying to break her grasp and kick at her face at the same time, but Mama lurches forward and doesn’t even seem to register the blows glancing off her. “My little girl offered you so much love, and this is how you treat us? By sneaking around like a rat and spitting in the face of her gifts?” She looms over Zoe and wrenches the shotgun out of her hands; Zoe feels her thumb bend back and twist out of the socket, and cries out.
Mama rears up and flings the shotgun into the water, and Zoe takes the chance to scramble back herself. If she can make it around Mama and up the stairs, bolt the door behind her, maybe she’ll have time. Search the upstairs, find Lucas’s serum, and get started righting some of this wrong.
“You’re just like all the others. You know what I do with rats? I drown them!” She sinks her ragged nails into Zoe’s shoulders and pulls, and Zoe goes over the edge.
The water is warm with the humid weather, and it makes her eyes burn when it swallows her head. She thrashes up - it’s only a flooded crawlspace, can’t be that deep, and she breaks the surface a moment later.
“That’s what you get,” Mama shrieks, “that’s what you get for spitting in the face of your family.” She lurches up and black sludge gushes from the hole in her belly, splattering the surface of the water and soaking it dark red. Zoe twists and her foot hits something soft and bloated under the surface - she turns, and pitches backwards when a corpse bobs up next to her. “You see?”
Her back hits the boulder she used as a stepping stone earlier and Zoe scrambles up onto it. The serum is a distant thought, so close that leaving it now tastes bitter and acidic but Mama kicks the crank on the pulley system and the wood bridge crashes down across the gap. No time. Zoe hauls herself up out of the water, gasping when the wood splinters against her belly and hands.
“C’mere you little witch,” Mama’s voice calls from behind her. Don’t look, Zoe. “You’re not going anywhere until I get my hands on you and make you bleed for what you’ve done to your sister. Awful, awful little parasite!” Zoe staggers forward and shoves at the door to the outside but it doesn’t move. Fuck.
A small, pale hand wraps around her wrist and wrenches it back with preternatural strength, twisting Zoe around, and Eveline looks up at her.
She’s a child, now, as young as she was three years ago after the shipwreck. Her eyes are dark and huge, sunk far into her little face. “Hello, sister.”
Something cracks against the back of Zoe’s skull and her legs drop out from under her.
Her vision swims and Mama looms over her, kneeling down and gathering Zoe up in her cold arms. Her voice is low and soothing again, and she’s dripping sickly black blood onto Zoe’s forehead. “Shh, shh. Hush, little one. When you wake up this’ll all be a bad dream. Tomorrow I’ll make you your favorite meal, fill your belly up with love and we’ll be a happy family again. I know we will. Our precious little girl’s got such good things in store for us. Soon, Zoe, just you wait and see.” Zoe’s head rings and she clenches her teeth against it. Mama’s hands tighten in her hair, pulling it back until it hurts. Over her shoulder, Eveline smiles down at them, holding the shotgun like a doll, and the metal of the receiver warps under her thin hands, and Zoe just -
When she wakes up, she’s in her trailer.
Her head throbs and she whimpers, feeling the back of it. Tacky blood soaking into her hair, but the skin is smooth underneath. Her arms, too, are smeared with flaking blood but the scrapes and splinters are gone. She pushes herself up, and her knee doesn’t so much as twinge, though she feels all over like jelly wobbling in a jar.
The lamp is on, and there’s something stuck to the door. She limps over to it and tugs down a polaroid of a cake with sickly globs of frosting all over it; in the background, a hand unattached to any arm makes a crooked peace sign. THANKS BITCH is scribbled over the picture in dark marker. She crumbles it into a ball and throws it vaguely in the direction of the table.
She hobbles back to the bed and fumbles under the mattress. Her heart thuds unevenly for a second until her fingertips find the papers still folded up and jammed below it. Safe. She sinks back onto the bed and stares at her hands. Her nails are caked with blood and dirt and her thumb twinges a little when she rolls it around in its socket.
Across the room, the battered old television flickers on in a buzz of static. Zoe nearly gives herself whiplash turning to look at it. She scrambles over and twists the dial, thumbs at the heavy buttons, but the static just whines louder for a second before clearing up into a picture of an irritated looking man in a blazer, walking backwards and gesturing with his arms.
“ - is Pete Walker and tonight on Sewer Gators, we’re continuing our tour of the most haunted locations in all fifty states. This week we’re in Mississippi, where reports of a murdered teenager haunting an old bridge - ” The television flickers off as quickly as it had turned on. Outside the trailer, the quick sound of feet running across the grass, and something that might be a childish giggle. Such good things in store for us.