I wasn’t about to let myself suffer.
Nature hadn’t been kind to Ellsworth that year, especially not to me. A wicked blizzard ripped through the beginning of winter, laying waste to an already devastated community. Summer storms that always swept across central Kansas never came, leaving tilled soil to dehydrate in the harsh sun. Seedling crops spoiled, leaving us no food to survive on. No choice but to hunker down, to prepare for a rough end to the year.
“We’ll have to start rationing,” Dale told me. “What little from the crops can go around for a few days, but until the church sends assistance, we need to come together and share resources.” He took my hands. “The Lord will see us through this, Rose. I promise.”
I had to bite my tongue. My husband always cared for the town more than me. He was always doing more for them, giving them the shirt off his back—and mine too, without ever asking. And he got all the praise. “Oh, Pastor Gresham, thank you,” the sheep bleated, laying at his feet. Always begging for more. And when everything went to waste, he bore the brunt of everyone else’s suffering first.
I was left to suffer on my own.
So naturally, when the first signs of a miracle came to pass, I took things into my own hands. Literally.
I found the vine growing in my withered garden, poking up from the ice-crusted earth. Thick and green, standing out against the snow. It wove through the plot, bearing juicy red berries. Hundreds of berries, more than enough to see the town through until help arrived.
But if it was an act of God, he must have finally heard my prayers. I bent to pluck the vine before Dale could find it. Could share it among the undeserving. The vine shuddered with each tug, shaking snow from speckled leaves. Rustling from death like a snake in the grass. It was nearly free when something jabbed my finger.
“Shit!” The vine came free, and I turned it over to look.
The sharp end of a thorn had stabbed my finger, skin reddened around the puncture hole. Numbing the nerves. Perhaps the berries weren’t the answer to my prayers after all—but God no longer had a say in that. I took the vine inside, cut the berries loose, washing them. Storing them in jars that I hid beneath the floorboards. Should my husband decide our hunger wasn’t above the piss-poor of this filthy town, he’d be on his own.
The numbness from the thorn prick still hadn’t subsided by the time Dale came home. I did my best to hide it, ignoring the pins and needles as I served him what was left in the pantry.
“The situation is getting worse. I still haven’t heard if help is coming.” He pushed the plate of food away. “I don’t feel right eating while so many are starving.”
No thanks. No consideration for my efforts. As usual.
That night, I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t. The numbness had abated, but a new problem had risen: guilt. I kept thinking of those damn berries sitting beneath our floorboards. Safely tucked away where no one would find them. I was up all night pacing while my husband peacefully slept through his growling hunger. It caused my own stomach to turn, ablaze with indigestion. I went to the bathroom, and splashed cold water onto my face. Gazed at my puffy, irritated reflection.
“Get over it,” I whispered, shutting off the light and forcing myself back to bed.
But the guilt kept growing. I was unable to get out of bed the next day from how heavy it had gotten. Or perhaps because of how heavy I’d gotten. Overnight, my entire body had swelled, tender and tingling. Radiating from the thorn prick on my finger. Dale didn’t notice, of course; he’d gotten up before me, preparing for his sermon. Only coming to check if I was getting up for church.
“I don’t feel good. I’m sleeping in today.”
“That’s okay. I’ll be out for a while; I’m coordinating the division of rations after service today.” He kissed my forehead, placing something on my nightstand. “Here’s a copy of the sermon, in case you feel well enough to read it.”
When he’d left, I managed to roll over and grab the notecard. Promptly ripping it up.
The Good Lord will always provide. Greed hath no place among the righteous.
I finally forced myself up before noon, but it was difficult. I felt made of cement, stiff and heavy. Barely able to move. To carry the weight of my body on legs that refused to bend. To turn on the lights and head downstairs, refusing to face myself in the mirror. Terrified of what I would see.
By the time I made it down, I had swelled even more. Something inside my bulging stomach sloshed with every step, rolling back and forth. Feeling like marbles. The recliner creaked beneath my body, which grew ever heavier. Ever bigger. My finger ever redder. Had I just left the vine alone, this wouldn’t have happened.
I was just so tired of sharing. Of giving and giving, never once receiving.
I’m glad Dale didn’t come home right away. It would have been hard for him to see. To realize how truly selfish his wife had been. I managed to open the floorboards before I could no longer move, confined to the recliner as my body ballooned out of control. Sloshing, growing full of marbles. They came up my throat, spilling out of my mouth—berries from the vine. Suffocating me just as much as my guilt. Thankfully, Dale had left the pen he wrote the sermon with close enough on the side table. A quick jab was all it took, just like the thorn on the vine.
I wasn’t about to let myself suffer anymore.
T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City. She is co-editor of Crow's Feet Journal and Paramour Ink, and is a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. She has also written for The Black Fork Review, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Ghost Orchid Press among other publications. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones. She can be found on Twitter at @tlbeeding.
“Angelina, something is different.”
These were the first words Gregory had spoken aloud in what felt like lifetimes. It had been so long since Angelina had heard words spoken in a mortal tongue that it took a long moment to understand that it was speech and, further, that it had been directed at her. Gregory pronounced her name like he was chewing on gravel; the syllables broke apart in his mouth. Had the sound always made her teeth grind? It was an ugly thing compared to the open-mouth exhalations her mother called her by. Scraps of memory were all Angelina was able to snatch from the fog: her mother singing her name, the softness of Abuela’s bolillo under the tongue. The unfairness spread like the bitter taste of bile in the back of her throat.
Hearing her name cross Gregory’s blackened lips was an anomaly itself. But he was right; something was different. Something else.
It was enough to wrest her from inertia. She shifted on bare hardened feet, breaking up the moss that clung furry and green to her shins, her ankles. A flock of skeletal herons with razor-sharp bills and flame blue eyes took to the bruised-black sky. It was eternal twilight here, on this side.
A slight breeze interrupted the stillness of purgatory. The air around them shimmered. Oh yes, something was changing.
“The veil is thinning.” Angelina’s voice was the whisper of two smooth stones passing against each other, so long had it been since she spoke herself.
Gregory swayed beside her, his fingertips grazing the frost-grey grass as he did so.
“The veil is thinning,” Gregory echoed. “We can cross.”
The anticipation in the air was thick on her tongue. She salivated, not bothering to wipe the viscous drool that poured over her hanging maw. She looked to the river, where the mist appeared as a moving wall occasionally broken by views into the mortal world.
The slivers she saw were much as she remembered: towering pines, cerulean skies. Even the scent of pine needles crushed underfoot drifted between that world and this. And, of course, there were people. Five hearts beat blood rich and thick throughout their warm, warm bodies. Eagerness thrummed in Angelina’s bones; she ran her fingertips across her distended rib cage. She was oh so hungry.
“Ovet, where’s the bug spray?” she heard one of the humans call. It traveled between the worlds like words underwater.
Angelina tried the words on her own tongue. “Ovet, where’s the bug spray?” she mimicked. And giggled as her forgery bounced across the deadened hardwoods. They felt familiar enough. She turned, “Gregory, where’s the bug spray?” And then he, too, joined her in wheezy rasping laughter.
Angelina moved closer to the River White that separated them, but she did not dare break its banks. She was bound to this place—the Kalkaska sand along the shores of the White soaked the last of her lifeblood, and here she remained. Changed in a place that was unchanging. She had grown monstrous, and she had also grown used to her fetters. Though it seemed her time had finally come.
The mist hung in columns now. Across the river, Angelina could see the brightly colored patches jutting from the ground, a searing contrast to the pines that towered around them. Tents. She rolled the word around her mouth. Yes, that was right. She pressed her forked tongue up against her teeth. “Tents.”
Three small ones chased each other as the two larger humans worked around the space. A jealous rage wrapped itself around her jutting bones. Her jaw unhinged, “That should have been me!” Her screech ricocheted throughout this unhallowed place. Gregory gave a chorus of grunts in response. He shifted faster, digging the curls of his boney feet into the soft dirt.
What had she done to deserve an eternity inert and rotting? Why should she wait alone in this boundless night with only her cavernous hunger to keep her company? No, no. She would be sated. Angelina imagined slurping entrails through pursed lips. The gristle of throat between her teeth. But before all that? She planned to enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
“I want the small ones.” Gregory rumbled from beside her.
That was fine by her.
The last of the mist burned away. Angelina skated across the River White. The skin that hung off her bones skimmed the surface of the water. She was a blur, a strong wind that lifted hair from the shoulders of the human below. Angelina nestled high up in one of the surrounding pines.
She giggled, and it sounded like two trees creaking in the wind.
“Ovet, where’s the bug spray?”
K.S.Walker is a speculative fiction writer from the Midwest with a fondness for stories with monsters, magic, and/or love gone awry. When they’re not obsessing over a current WIP or their TBR pile you can find them outside with their family.
They're online at www.kswalker.net and on Instagram @kswalker_writes