Edition 24: Stewards of the Land by Anthony Rella
The Warrens move to share the Fremen’s property, a generous gift. But their home is also shared with others, those unseen, who are tied to the Fremens and the land. As Lar Fremen and Tim Warren grow, the world intrudes upon the little idyll, and there will be consequences. Anthony Rella brings to live an urban supernatural horror teeming with underground resentments in a perfectly placed backwater setting. SY
Durrell Fremen, Lar’s father, sipped his coffee by the kitchen window, watching the Warrens unload their car and trailer. “They got a boy about your age,” Durrell said. “Once they’re all moved in, you better go show him around, tell him about the spirits.”
At eight years old, Lar barely understood the spirits herself but felt obliged to do as he asked. That night, her family walked over to the house on their land where the Warrens now lived, and Lar introduced herself to the youngest boy, Tim.
“Let’s go walk around,” she said. “I’ll show you the forest.”
“Chuck, you go with them,” Tim and Chuck’s mother said. Chuck whined about how he was too old to tromp around with babies.
“What are you going to do?” their father asked. “Sit around playing video games?”
“They’ll be fine together,” Durrell said. “Lar’s been walking the woods since she was four.”
The Warrens relented, and Tim found himself ambling beside the sprightly young girl. Though the two families had lived in Goodwill for generations, Tim had never met the Fremens outside of church, and he’d never been this close to the only black girl in town. He kept quiet, afraid to say something wrong that would make the Fremens tell his family to leave and go back to living out of the car.
Lar paused and looked sidelong at the boy. “I’ll show you the secret house first.”
She did not even look at the ground as she passed through the tangled woods, and Tim could see no defined path. This forest was deeper and more gnarled than any he’d walked before. Lar told Tim the names of the old, thick oaks and maples. Cobwebs crawled across his face.
“Do y’all get deer out here?”
“Oh yeah,” Lar said. “If you’re quiet you can get up close enough to touch them. Lots of animals out here, and spirits.”
Lar giggled. “My family’s been on this land for generations, we know the spirits. Grandpa said you see them in the corners of your eyes, like shadows. Grandma said never look at them direct.”
“Do they hurt people?”
“Not our people.”
Lar remembered what her great-grandmother, Lady Fremen, said a few years ago before she died: “The land has always cared for our family, and will always care for our family, so long as it feeds on the blood of our enemies.” Lar remembered the words but never understood the meaning, and she didn’t think Tim would handle them well.
“Grandma said if you ever think you see one, only say, ‘Bright spirits, let’s be friends. I won’t hurt you if you don’t hurt me.’”
“Where are your grandparents?”
“They died a few years back, in the house you guys are in now.”
The forest opened into a meadow that appeared to be evolving into new forest. Tall grasses obscured the rocks and shrubs that tripped up Tim. His scratched-up-legs stung when they finally came to a house that sagged, looking as though it were falling asleep.
“Sharecroppers used to live here,” Lar said. Tim did not know what a sharecropper was. “Kind of like your family. They paid us to live here and farm.”
This decaying relic delighted Tim, inside of which were mysterious and rusted implements with which the kids could explore and endanger themselves. Behind the house was another mystery, a clearing in which a burned circle suggested an old fire pit, strewn with unrecognizable bottles. The wall in back of the house had been marked with strange symbols—five-pointed stars, squiggly lines, names, and a four-pointed sigil that seemed like boomerangs arranged in a circle around the center point. Tim had seen the symbol elsewhere, on bathroom walls and such, and thought it must have some dark meaning.
“Devil worshippers?” Tim whispered, as though they might be hiding behind the trees listening. A devout Christian child, he was both repulsed and fascinated by the occult.
“Maybe,” Lar whispered. “I’ve never seen them. Some times I think I hear talking. One time though…” Lar glanced around and sucked in her breath.
Lar leaned in closer, whispering. “I came up and the fire pit was glowing coals. Like whoever had run away right before I got there.”
Tim thought being poor had stirred up the peak of cruelty from the kids at school, but it worsened as soon as they learned his family had to rent from the Fremens. Even teachers took Tim aside, smiling with prim, condescending eyes, to tell him how sorry they were for how far his family had fallen.
Dwight Budd tried to stop Tim from playing soccer with the other kids. “Your family ain’t better than—” he started, finishing with slurs.
Tim felt his voice trembling as he tried to come up with a counter-insult. Suddenly, Dwight fell to the ground, knocked over by Lar, who had been playing soccer within earshot.
Dwight jumped to his feet and looked like he was about to run after her. Tim turned to look for a teacher and a cloud passed over the sun, because everything seemed to get dark. When he looked back, Dwight’s nose was bleeding and he appeared stunned. Lar was still walking away, nowhere near him.
The teachers called all three of them in and Tim told on Dwight for swearing and using racial slurs, knowing his social position was already at its lowest. Lar wasn’t trying to defend Tim, he knew, but she was his only friend now.
At sixteen, Chuck saved up enough for his own used car, and he was eager to take his friends out on adventures. Chuck and Tim’s parents, however, worked two jobs each and compelled Chuck to always keep Tim on hand during the summer when the Fremens were not available.
Though Chuck frequently pinched, punched, and called Tim a “little tool,” Tim loved the opportunity to spend time with Chuck’s friend Mikey, a dopey and charming football player who liked to play heavy metal music and scream. Mikey never resented Tim’s presence. He always told Tim dirty jokes and taught him the lyrics to the metal songs that they blasted while driving through the town.
One Saturday, Mikey and Chuck took Tim to the record store to look for new music. On the way home, Mikey insisted they stop at the Army Surplus store. The store’s interior seemed to push down on Tim: drab uniforms densely packed together with weapons and flags anchored to the walls. Never having cared for the military, Tim did not understand exactly what one was supposed to do here. He looked into a glass case of knives so large and ornate that they seemed like they’d be useless in combat.
Mikey sidled up to Tim. “Cool, huh?”
The man standing behind the counter wore a scowling mask, and Mikey seemed familiar with him. “Let us in back.”
The man shook his head and glanced at Tim.
Mikey knelt down and leaned in close. His breath misted Tim’s ear. “Hey, you wouldn’t tell anyone what you see here, right? If we show you something really cool, promise to keep it between us?”
Tim would have made any vow.
The three boys entered the back room, across which was brandished a giant red flag with that four-pointed sigil set in black against a white circle. Suddenly, Tim realized how stupid he had been, unable to connect reality. He’d known about Nazis from TV and school, but had not understood—refused to believe—that the symbol people in his town were inscribing was the same as the Nazi swastika.
Mikey showed Chuck the paraphernalia on sale, and bought himself a Nazi flag “for my room.” On the ride home, Mikey kept talking about the flag as he played with it on his lap.
“We should fly this out your window,” Mikey said. “Right in the view of those—“
“No way,” Chuck said. “My parents would fucking kill me.”
“Why did you buy that?” Tim asked.
“What, little man?” Mikey turned and gave him that white-toothed grin.
“I thought the Nazis were bad. We fought them in the war.”
“That was a mistake,” Mikey said. “The Nazis saw better than America did what was at risk. You and me, white people, our lives and our culture are in danger of getting wiped out.”
“People who, uh, aren’t white. People like your landlords. It’s a fucking shame you guys have to submit to them.”
He went on to call the Fremens names that Tim had already heard a hundred times in the past few years. He felt growing upset at Mikey’s lighthearted tone but the words to express himself were not coming.
“The Fremens helped us. Lar is my friend.”
Mikey laughed and shook his head. “You’re a kid. It’s okay. You’ll get it soon enough.”
After dropping Mikey off at his house, Chuck and Tim shared a silent ride home. Half a block before pulling into the Fremens’ land, Chuck said, “Don’t tell anyone what Mikey bought.”
“You like the Fremens.”
“Yeah, they’re nice to us.” Chuck rubbed his face, avoiding Tim’s eyes. They did not see Mikey again for the rest of the summer.
Tim and Lar read comics in the old sharecropper house that they had taken to calling “The Temple of Doom.” Thick candles stolen from their parents’ living rooms barely illuminated the stacks of books. Tim noticed a swastika in one of the books and showed it to Lar.
“Why do people draw these everywhere?”
Lar’s face hardened into a serious, thoughtful look. “Cause this town is full of them. Nazis, living in secret. They use that sign to mark their meeting territory. They also use it to scare black folks away from living here.”
“You guys are here.”
“Our family’s been here for years and these folks have been after us the whole time. Used to be more black families here. White folks came after us in white sheets but now they’ve got to be more hidden.”
“All the way from Germany?”
“No, not real Germans.” Lar worried the page of her comic book, trying to put words around this truth she’d been gestating. “People like them. They think nobody but white people deserve to live here.”
Tim rolled his eyes, imagining secret underground bunkers with Nazis shouting and stomping around in their heavy boots. “No way there’d be a secret society in this place.”
“Didn’t you say there were devil worshippers here?”
“I used to but that’s stupid.” Tim’s tone felt more ugly and defiant than he meant it to be. “People probably paint those signs and don’t know what they mean. I didn’t even know this was a Nazi symbol until—a few weeks ago.”
“You’re dumb, then. Everyone knows what it means.” Lar turned her face into the shadows of the Temple of Doom and ignored Tim until the candles had burned too low to read.
Tim and Chuck played video games in the living while their parents sat at the dinner table, speaking quietly. Chuck seemed to catch word of something, paused the game, and pressed his finger against his lips to silence Tim.
“Realtor’s leaning on them hard to sell,” their mother said. “They could fit 50 units and a mini-mall in the forest.”
“The Fremens will never sell the land,” their father said.
“If they’re smart they will. That realtor’s going to stir up trouble, too, if they don’t change their mind. There’ll be crosses burning on the lawn in no time.”
Alert to the silence in the living room, their father glanced over. “What are you boys doing?”
“Will we have to move?” Chuck asked.
“Don’t listen in on our conversations.”
“Why would there be crosses burning on the lawn?” Tim asked.
Tim’s mother put her hand on the table, sighing. “It’s a sign of race hatred. A lot of people in the town resent the Fremens for being black and owning land, especially those that don’t have any. When this town goes through hard times, someone ends up trying to attack them.”
“Is that why people draw Nazi signs everywhere?” Tim’s mother nodded, and Tim was aware of the hot beams of Chuck’s glare against his face.
“Years ago this town was a place where whites and blacks came together to try to live as equals in harmony,” their father said. “That was when the Fremens moved here. They’ve been here longer than most families, definitely longer than ours.”
“Racists tried to chase them out a couple times,” their mother said. “Never worked out. Klansmen would march through the neighborhood and then the men would all disappear. Overnight. No one could prove it was the Fremens, but people think they have witches living underneath their house.”
“Were they evil? The people who disappeared?”
“Nobody is evil, Tim,” their father said. “But they let evil take root in their hearts and tried to do evil, and evil came to them.”
“Kids at school pick on me for hanging out with Lar,” Tim said. “They call her all these names.”
“I wish we could protect you kids from that,” Tim’s mother said. “Remember that the Fremens have been good to us. We would’ve been on the street if they hadn’t let us live here. We owe them, them and this land.”
For three months, a white woman had been coming by once a week, knocking on the Fremens’ door, snooping around their land, making notes on her clean legal pad and pursing her lips. When she could get the Fremens to talk to her, she offered her card and introduced herself as Sandra Sterling of MRP Development, Inc. Her suits were always too thick for the weather and her voice sounded hardened from years of smoking.
“Goodwill is on the verge of a significant boom that your family can make possible,” Sandra explained. “We’ve noticed that you have several acres of unused land that could house more than one hundred families and businesses.”
“We ain’t selling,” Durrell said. “And how did you notice that? Nobody invited you to look around the land.”
“Sir, this change is coming whether you’d like it or not. You all could make a lot of money if you sell now. Buy yourself a really nice house over in Shaker Heights.”
“Where the black folk live?”
Sandra’s face contorted, almost scowling and then smoothing into a flat visage. “If you don’t sell now, we’ll start developing in other parts of the town, and your property values will plummet. I’m offering you the first opportunity.”
“If our land’s valuable now, it’ll be valuable then, won’t it?”
Sandra’s incredulous, superior laugh skittered through the hallways to where Lar stood in the kitchen, listening. Her body felt void of sensation other than her rapidly beating heart. Something bad was happening.
“I think you’d better take off Ms. Sterling. My family’s been caring for this land a good long time and we aren’t leaving it.”
Sterling left that day, but she did not relent. Once a month she left long answering machine messages in clipped, professional tones that both promised riches or threatened utter ruin depending upon whether the Fremens acquiesced. One day, the Fremens came home from work and school to find the big picture window in their family room shattered. A heavy concrete block had gouged their antique coffee table and lay in a pile of glass. Lar’s parents walked in slowly, checking the whole house before gathering by the window.
“Lar, honey, get some gloves and the vacuum. We’ll pick up the big pieces and then suck up the rest,” Caroline said.
“Are we going to call the police?” Lar asked.
“We know who did this,” Durrell said.
“Daddy’s going to go visit the land,” Caroline said. A small shudder slithered up Lar’s back and her mouth snapped shut.
Though Sandra and the other developers never approached the Fremens about their land again, within a few years the town began to change. Rows of identical housing developments uprooted forest and farmland, and big box chain stores encroached upon the boundaries of their acreage.
When Tim and Lar reached middle school, their parents shifted from approving and encouraging friendship to adding bricks to the wall forming between them.
“Don’t you think it’s time to be friends with some girls your age?”
“I know you two get along well, but you are getting too old to be out together at all hours.”
Tim ran track and discovered that the boys his age had stopped caring so much about his previous social stigma. For the first time, Tim was in the world of crude jokes about girls and cruel jokes about people of color. “What’s the difference between a black man and a pizza?”
Tim became acutely conscious of his desire to stare at the boys in the locker room, and had nights where he couldn’t sleep, imagining the boys would discover this and beat the shit out of him. To distract their attention, Tim would tell them the dirty jokes he learned from Mikey.
Sometimes, the conversation veered into danger when one of the boys remembered Tim lived next door to Lar. “You fucked her yet? What does she taste like?” The boys goggled at him and Tim felt caught in a bind. If he said yes, then he was a lover of black folk. If he said no, then he was queer. If he played along, then he was a traitor to Lar and her family. If he refused…
“I wouldn’t fuck her,” he heard himself saying, and then stalled as he tried to think of a sufficiently cool thing to say that would end the conversation. “It’d be like fucking my cousin.”
“You got black folks in your family?” One of the kids laughed.
Lar and Tim stopped playing together at recess or riding the bus next to each other. By thirteen, they felt they had little to talk about other than their occasional forays into the mysterious world of the forest and its ruins. Lar started wearing hooded sweatshirts and cut-off jean jackets with patches, running with the “freaks”—mostly white kids who listened to punk music and put safety pins in everything.
Tim asked why Lar had to try so hard to be weird. “Can’t you dress nicer? The kids don’t like you because you act like a freak.”
Lar’s eyes glimmered with flame. “I’ll always be a freak to them. I could be a cheerleader and I’d still be different.”
“You don’t know that.” Tim said, but by his voice it was obvious he didn’t believe what he was saying. “Nobody really cares that you’re…” He almost whispered the word “black,” the way his grandmother did, as though saying it was disrespectful.
“I’m black. Everyone cares. You care.”
After graduating eighth grade, most of the kids’ parents sent their kids to summer camps or went on vacations, so Tim and Lar only had each other. Tim hated that lingering thought, each time they hung out, that this was the end of their allegiance. The mystical ruins and gathering sites of five years ago now looked like sad, empty places where teenagers went to drink, and Tim knew before long he would be a part of that.
Lar had grown to quietly hate Tim, knowing in her heart that he’d allied himself with the people who hated her for no fucking reason, who pinned to her all these evils and social problems when they were the ones failing out of school, getting arrested for petty juvenile crimes, and spewing hatred. She knew Tim’s friends would become the people who spray painted bullshit graffiti in the woods.
Her mother had warned her. “Don’t be surprised if that boy ends up running with his own kind. White folks end up sticking together.”
“Why do we live out here?” Lar asked her mother. “Why are we the only black folks around?”
“Our family matters here. Your great great great grandaddy was a slave who bought himself and his family out of slavery after working himself to the bone. They brought themselves up here with the money they had left and got this land because the people here were trying to make a better society. That went to hell, but the Fremens stayed. We’re not getting chased out.”
Lar remembered the old stories her grandparents used to tell, about how all those crackers who came after them ended up dead, unemployed, or crazy. “Is it true what Lady Fremen used to say? That the land feeds on the blood of our enemies?”
Caroline paused and gaped at her. “Who the hell told you that?”
“She did,” she said.
Her mother pursed her lips and shook her head, looking half-shocked and half-amused. Turning to the mail she’d been sorting, Caroline whispered, “It’s true.”
Lar’s parents took her to a basketball game at the regional high school to help her get a sense of what she could expect. She was entranced and perplexed by the numbers of boys and girls who looked more like her, and their codes of dress and behavior that signified they were a tribe in which she had not been raised.
In line for the bathroom, Lar pretended not to listen in when some older girls talked about classes, speaking with a rhythm and cadence she struggled to follow. Lar thought this might be the secret she needed to crack before entering school. They fell silent when they noticed her.
“Look at this one,” one of the girls said, wearing oversized denim with a bright purple jacket, almost defiant in its boldness of color. “I never seen a black girl dressed like that.”
Lar looked down at her army pants and black shirt with rows of safety pins, her military surplus jacket. “I like it.”
Lar was unsure how else to respond, not sensing animosity but still feeling like she had had been abandoned by her own circus. She’d hoped this feeling would go away someday, but it seemed this would be her fate wherever she went.
“I’ve never seen anyone dressed like you.”
The two older girls frowned at her, glanced at each other, and went back to their conversation. Lar watched them for the rest of the game, sitting together, calling out to the team, flirting with boys. She admired them with a desperate ferocity: the richness of their velvet skin, the polish of their makeup, their striking femininity.
Lar drew in her notebook that night until she heard a familiar rustling outside. Tim stood at their meeting corner, a sullen face illumined by the light of their dining room. Every boy his age had the same look, slumped over and avoiding eye contact, as though the boys felt they could only take up the same small amount of space their bodies used to inhabit. The high school boys’ bodies had an easy grace, a swagger that Lar had immediately begun to practice after coming home.
Tim seemed almost friendly when Lar met him outside. “I was bored at home. You want to go to the fairy ring?”
“We never find anything.”
“Tonight we will.”
Quietly they walked together. Lar felt a sense of pressure to speak twined with her uncertainty of what they had to say to each other. “My folks took me to a basketball game at the high school.”
“There were a ton of black kids there, but none of them like me.”
“No one is like you.” Lar had longed to hear these words from a handsome upperclassman with a mohawk and voice like melting chocolate. From Tim, the words sounded cruel.
“I like being different,” Lar lied. “I’d hate to be like you, pretending to be like all those idiot running boys with their stupid jokes.”
Tim was startled by sting in his belly, but his hurt was chased away by the shock of seeing an orange glow ahead of them, creeping around the edges of the Temple of Doom. The two could hear the faintest sounds of conversation and bottles clinking.
Without thinking, they took hands and walked slowly together, moving their feet delicately to avoid noise. A fallen log lay near the fire ring, thick enough to conceal them both as they crawled up behind it. Lar felt the wet bark under her fingers as she pulled herself so gently up to peer at the ring. When she fell down, her eyes were aghast and she gestured for Tim to look.
At first, Tim saw only darkness and heard rustling noises. Pain shot through his head as something bony dug in and lifted him into the air. Before him was something that only suggested it was a face because of the three holes where one might have carved eyes and a mouth. Its skin was like wood covered in moss and strange intricate carvings. The eye sockets were dark caverns around something soft and glistening, doglike.
“You see us.”
It was not a question or a command. With its other lanky, long-fingered hand it plucked Lar from behind the tree and carried them to the firepit, where a cluster of monsters paused in their revelry and eyed the children.
Lar saw creatures like humanoid birds, their feathery digits paused around a bottle. One of the creatures had a deep, throaty laugh and a fluid movement. It seemed almost human but moved like light on the face of water, its body seemed made of dense smoke.
“These are our little hunters,” said one of the birdlike creatures with a dull, monotonous voice. “They’ve been stalking around here for years. Scoping all of our haunts.”
“Lucky little foxes. Let them stay a spell.”
The wooden creature set them roughly down by the fire.
One with a rabbitlike face and ears and scaly skin offered the two of them a heavy jug. “Drink!” it chirped.
Lar tried desperately to grasp the thought that floated in her mind. She met Tim’s eyes and was grateful to realize that he remembered as well as she to pretend they could see nothing. This sight was much harder to ignore than the strange shadow at the corner of the eyes, however, and Lar wondered if her grandparents had seen these very creatures.
“Who’s here? What’s going on?”
“Does the boy see?” The smoky monster said. It drew a tendril along Tim’s face, feeling like a feather brushing his skin, until it dove into Tim’s eye socket and pulled out his right eye. “Can you still see?”
“Bleed them,” muttered the wooden creature that had originally found them.
“Leave a few devoured corpses laying about our gateways. A cunning plan, no doubt, but one guaranteed to get us the attention of their kinfolk.”
“Local fauna will devour the remains,” the birdlike creature said, clapping its hands. “We’ll arrange them as though they had a lover’s tryst and murdered each other. My favorite game of all.”
Tim’s face was as drawn, bloodless, and empty as his eye socket.
Anger steadied Lar and reminded her what to say. “Creatures of the land, let’s be friends. We will do you no harm if you do us none.”
The smoke monster pushed Tim’s eye back into its socket, which immediately blinked and resumed normal operations. “Children of earth.” The smoke monster spoke with a sudden, sweet softness. “Do not be scared of these voices in the wind.”
The other creatures fell silent, all looking to the smoke monster.
“Did you hear what I said?” Lar asked.
“Yes. Your family is honored by us though we have not spoken in some time. We are a shy and vulnerable kind, and we fear being seen by yours, who chased us off this plane so many years ago.”
“That’s so s-sad,” Tim said.
He touched his formerly vacant eye socket, looking as though he was about to vomit.
“When humans see us, we have no choice but to eat their eyes or spill their entrails on the earth as a warning to others not to pursue us.” The smoke monster’s voice remained kindly, like a loving grandmother. “Clearly you two stumbled here unknowing, lambs wandered from the fold. My kind are ourselves like sheep without our shepherd. We wandered onto this plane of being on accident, and cannot find our way home.”
“Need blood.” The tree-like being stomped its foot.
“The gate to our home opens when blood is spilled. For generations your family has kept us fed, but recently we have been without guidance. Little child of earth, your family is beloved to us.” Now Tim started squirming. “For generations you have tended our land, allowing us offerings of blood that we can travel between this plane and our home.”
“Whose blood?” Tim half-shrieked.
“Our enemies,” Lar said quietly.
“How wonderful that the children still know the old ways! Yes, your grandsires have sent us on many quests to devour and destroy your enemies. Years ago we were taught to recognize them by their red crosses and white hoods, only those enemies have grown thin. We still need blood.”
“Their blood,” the tree creature said again.
“Perhaps,” said the smoke monster. “But your family was once beloved of us. You have not fed us for some time. Just that morsel a few turns ago. We have been as vapor beside you, watching for those who would cause you harm and drinking where we could.”
“Feed us,” the birdlike creature said.
The smoke monster floated all over Lar’s room and seemed to melt into her clothes, leaving a sticky residue that smelled like mold and bleach. She wondered whether it ate, or shat, or needed to bathe. They had been quiet coming back into the house and for the next hour, but when Lar lay down to try to sleep, she decided to ask it her foremost question.
“What are you, anyway? You’re not fairies.”
The monster kept shifting between its fluttery, sighing voice and a deep, cutting voice. In her mind Lar started to call the fluffy voice “cloud monster” and the deep one “smoke monster.”
“We are kin to the fae, distant cousins. And older. Tortured for aeons.”
“Don’t you know? That the elder races had to send a tenth of their brightest stars into the foul, torturous pits to prevent the world from being overcome by the demons that live there?”
“Sounds like a movie.”
“You assuredly mean a noble sacrifice and a trial that would warp the kindest being’s sanity.” The cloud monster levitated above her bed and gazed down at her, rubbing two tendrils of smoke together like a cartoon bad guy.
She’d almost begun to relax until this moment, and now she believed the thing would eat her eyes tonight. All she could do was pretend to sleep, and after a while it seemed she must have slept, because the light changed in the room and she sat up, gazing around, noticing the cloud had settled in the corner.
The morning was silent. Lar had never known this kind of silence to come during the summer. Every second was always beset by some creature chirping, groaning, croaking, buzzing, clicking, or whirring. Now she could hear the blood rushing in her ears, the sound of her dry lips parting, her shallow breaths. She could also hear that the cloud made no sound.
If there was a time to kill it, this might be it, but if a thing didn’t breathe could it be killed? A failed attempt might mean the end of her.
Wild anger rose up in Lar. She’d only lived in this terror for less than eight hours and already she was ready for it to be over. If she killed her monster, though, what would that mean for Tim and the other beasts? What would it mean for her family if she failed?
The thinking did not last long as the smoke beast rustled and turned toward her, dilating and changing to an etheric purple color.
“Are you woken?” Lar pretended she was looking through the monster, staring without focus at her room.
The smoke monster perched around the shower head, so that the water passed through its body and coated Lar in a foul-smelling sticky substance that she pretended she did not notice. She thought of all the people she’d ever wanted dead and found, when she was honest, the list was pretty small.
Tim met Lar on the long driveway to their houses. A fifteen minute walk would take them to the nearest shopping center, where the kids used to go to get candy and comic books. Their monsters walked adjacent as Tim murmured, “My family is dead.”
The birdlike creature tittered. “Sleeping.”
“They feel cold and they’re standing in our dining room staring off into space.”
“A reserve in case we cannot find enough bodies.”
“How many bodies do you need?” Lar asked.
“Measured in adult human bodies, about ten,” the cloud monster said. “For smaller bodies, I would say thirty.”
As they turned onto the main road, Lar noticed a swastika spray-painted on the neighbor’s barn. Her head felt hot and buzzy as she pointed. “There is the mark of our enemies.”
Tim grabbed Lar’s shoulder. “No way! You can’t send them to take down—I mean, those people probably didn’t put the mark on the barn themselves.”
“But they left it there, all these years, right where we have to look at it every time we leave our land.” Lar felt more and more certain. “Our enemies used to wear those hoods and capes but now they’ve gotten sneaky. Now they leave these marks everywhere.”
Tim suddenly realized the truth that Lar had been trying to tell him: all along, white supremacists had lived quietly in the open. They were no secret cabal or army.
“We can’t sacrifice everyone in own,” Tim whispered.
“Only ten to thirty,” Lar said.
“You don’t understand, Lar, this puts lots of people in trouble. People who are good, basically good… They say bad things but they don’t mean bad.”
Lar eyed Tim, and in her eyes he saw the surface of two deep wells of hurt and anger. His heart escalated its thumping as he felt himself almost dropped into the wells, almost as though his skin were being singed and burnt by the sheer emotion that dwelt inside of her. Tim realized, in that moment, that he was a prophet who finally knew the message he must give to the people.
Their demonic companions ambled across the road, toward the neighbors.
Anthony Rella is a writer and mental health therapist living in Seattle, Washington, United States of America with his husband and canine companions. He studied creative writing in fiction at Northwestern University. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have been included in anthologies published by Scarlet Imprint, Minor Arcana Press, and Random House.