My latest story for R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast was written for the show’s Halloween episode, and you can listen to it here.
The photo prompt for this episode was a very evocative and foggy pic of a path and trees:
The Word Count Podcast is now on a break until the new year. Thanks, as always, to our podcast host R.B. Wood for keeping this wonderful audio-adventure going!
Even before she goes to work at the bar that night, Essie knows it’s a bad idea. She shouldn’t be going, not tonight, but Odette, who is usually happy to cover a shift, is out of town. Also, it’s payday. The bar will be overrun and Billy, the boss, says she needs to come in or he’ll get someone to replace her, permanently.
Essie needs this job. God, does she ever. Pawning Momma’s silver chain was the last thing she wanted to do, but they need the electricity and Maura would scream bloody murder without the wifi, and there was nothing left to sell but the chain.
That was three weeks ago, and she thought she’d have the cash sorted sooner to get it back, but nothing ever works out the way Essie wants it.
Essie’s hand goes to her throat where the chain used to be, its reassuring weight holding her in place for 13 years. She tries to ignore the itch beneath her skin, the scratching of something in her chest, like claws raking the prison bars of her rib-cage.
On her way out the door, she peeks in at Maura. She’s sitting on her bed with her tablet, watching Netflix. Maura is 12 now, OK to spend the night in the house on her own.
“There’s lasagna in the fridge. Just reheat. I’ll be back late. Call if you need me, OK?”
Maura looks up and nods, still lost in whatever she’s watching.
The car’s been down and out for months so Essie walks down the lane to the bus stop. Trees line the path from their little house, mist threaded between them, golden leaves trampled below, no sky visible in the fog. Essie scratches at the old scar on her shoulder. It’s been almost 15 years since it hurt this much, with Momma’s silver chain cooling the ache. Now, the old wound is hot, throbbing with her pulse. Essie licks her lips and quickens her pace, walking away from Maura and the smell of the warm flesh beneath her daughter’s skin.
On the bus Essie doesn’t look at the other passengers, or the driver. She can smell them, though. Sweat and blood, salty on the tongue. Bones wrapped tight around fat marrow. She keeps her eyes closed, hands tucked into her jacket pockets.
Work is a haze. Her body feels like a meat suit. Like she’s manipulating limbs that aren’t hers. She pours drinks, pulls pints, laughs and talks, while the thing inside her peers out of her eyes, at the delicious bodies. So easy to rip apart, to gut. To eat.
Toby works the floor, taking orders, muscled arms covered in tattoos, dark brown eyes seeking her out, same as always.
Essie nods and tries on a smile, knowing she’s showing too many teeth.
“Just tired.” Her voice sounds rough and ragged. Toby hears it too. He leans in close, so close she could lick him.
“OK. But Essie. If you need anything… you know I’d do anything to help you.”
She shrugs him off, keeps moving, taking orders, scooping ice, working the till. If she stops it will catch up to her. Part of her wants it to happen. Wants to give in. She’s been so good for 13 years, ever since Momma gave her that chain to wear. She got her life sorted. Raised Maura. But now…now she wonders how she ever did without it. The thrill of hunger. Of power.
She needs this job. The salary is shit, but the tips are good. Maura likes her school. She has to hold on a little longer.
After closing, when she’s getting ready to head home, Toby comes over.
He says the stuff he always says. “I’d do anything for you. If you need anything…” Essie isn’t listening. She’s staring at a spot below his ear, where the pulse moves the thin skin beneath the stubble.
She could do it right now. Gut him, lick his blood off the floor.
Essie shivers. She knows how this works. She still has some time left before the moment comes, the instant when she will have no choice but to submit, to change.
Toby offers her a ride home, but she knows what would happen in the car, at close quarters. Can’t take the bus either. Essie walks all the way home in the dark, shreds of moonlight through cloud and fog lighting her way. She’s freezing, her jacket forgotten in the backroom of the bar, but she just needs to get home, get in the shed, lock it from the inside, chain and bolt the door. Like Momma used to do to her, way back when. Before she died. Before she gave Essie that silver chain, taking it off her own neck, as she breathed her last in the hospital.
It’s dark when Essie stumbles through the door, groping for the key to the shed in the drawer beneath the hall room mirror. She hears Maura’s breathing. Sound asleep. She pads into Maura’s room. To the bed. Leans close, sniffing at her daughter’s neck and hair, mouth watering.
It would be so easy to bite down. Just a taste, enough to leave Maura with a scar of her own. Essie still remembers when it happened to her. The pain, the fear, the change.
She never told anyone who bit her. Not even Momma. Not Maura either.
It was a boy, of course. Such a cliché. Barely older than she was. No one special.
Truth is, Essie knew he was bad, knew the danger, but she wanted him, wanted to get bitten. Wanted to change.
She was young and stupid, but she knew it would cost her, just didn’t understand the true price back then.
Maura stirs and Essie runs. Out the door, into the yard, toward the shed, key in hand. She runs, loping as her clothes and skin fall way, as the hunger rises up like a snarl in her throat.
The headlights of a car swing over the driveway, almost catching her. Crunch of gravel beneath tires. The slam of a door.
“Essie?” It’s Toby. Essie stops, panting in the shadows, licking her lips. “You forgot your jacket. I just thought I’d…”
Essie can’t hear him. The hunger is too loud, and she is out of time. So is he.
I’d do anything for you, he said. And as she springs from the shadows, she knows he will.
© Maria Haskins 2019
Cover art made by me, using Canva.