“The world is so small, Alicia. You see one person, and they’re actually another. You build your own community, and it’s actually just you.” Alicia’s father held her small hand as they watched the town burn. Crumbling, waves of heat distorting the shrunken bodies of their friends. She wanted to tell her mother to stop sobbing, to stop sucking in those deep breaths. It was their neighbors she was sucking into her lungs. Couldn’t she understand that?
Alicia followed her family to the car with shaky legs. There was nothing to be done for the town. No one else seemed to register the loss they’d just faced, the friends she’d made in the last twelve months, the faces, small and large and sometimes even tiny, all turned ashen, blending into the atmosphere.
As far as she knew, this was the third time her mother had breathed in her burning neighbors. Her father spat tobacco to the side, irritated, watching with a slowly rising venom that she didn’t find accurate enough. She couldn’t remember too much from the years before her 13th birthday, though. That was the one where her father declared she had to be “tested or eliminated.”
She couldn’t cry. She hardly ate. Her hair grew like an animal. These were signs that she had inherited the “syndrome,” and her father had to know whether or not she was “a full one.” They had to do “the test”. That was the birthday when her mother pleaded with her father to just let her be, to let her live whatever life she had in store for her.
“She either is one or she isn’t. But we have to know now. And we have to protect her if she is,” he reasoned. Her oldest sister agreed to help him. They had long, somber talks about it for the few weeks leading up to her birthday. Her mother wasn’t invited to those talks, but that didn’t stop her from screaming at her husband about it every chance she got.
“You killed the last two tryin’ to test this out! You won’t kill her; you WON’T!”
That was the birthday when her father locked her mother in the closet, ignoring her screams. Alicia struggled and fought, only giving in when she almost passed out from her father’s headlock grip. It was the birthday when her sisters held her down in the tub, with their father egging them on, and she drowned. The one when she chaotically spit blood at her oldest sister, trying desperately to get up. The blood seeped into Mae’s face, into her skin, and her sisters let her up, stunned. It was the birthday when her mother cried upon her release, hugging Mae grimly, calling her a devil.
“You GAVE it to her, Harold! How could you?! You said you couldn’t give it to the normal children! You promised! What did you do? What’s gonna happen to them?”
“I did no such thing. Calm down. Mae’s just protecting her sister.”
Maybe they had always been on the run. Her father told them they’d better get moving before they came back. He said they’d be back. And Harold was always right. Why would now be any different?
From fire or water or genetics, maybe they were always on the run.
Alicia’s father was a mansion, both in size and personality. Wealth seemed to spill from him when he winked, making better-classed men spill secrets and give her family free room and board. He smiled, and the hearts of women seemed to turn to gel, to allow entry, to encourage it. Her mother was quite the same. She was poised, radiating charm and luxury without ever needing to make a penny. Men seemed to wilt when she talked to them, her hands always gloved and clasped. Judith walked by and even Alicia closed her eyes to take in her beautiful scent.
Her sisters were vibrant and almost song-like, all tall with wide smiles and impossibly white teeth. The oldest was the envy of Alicia’s entire life. She was so tall Alicia had to bend her head back to talk to her. She often wished she was as regal and delicate as Mae Free. At 19, Mae wound men, and even women, around her finger with the smallest gesture. They were close. Mae took to staring at Alicia for long periods, almost uncomfortably so, but it made Alicia feel prettier. She didn’t mind it.
The family charmed their way across the country, even engaging with the white folks, who despised them inwardly. All it took was one good scam a year, and they lived like they were rich. Judith dressed them lavishly, making sure to separate them by glove color. Alicia’s were always black leather while the other girls donned white satin. Judith wanted it apparent that Alicia wasn’t to be approached.
Alicia was pretty but not much else. She lacked the charm of her family so deeply that they left her at home when they went out. There was too much venom in her glances, too much anger in the curves of her body. Where her sisters and mother were lengthy and regal, she was petite and curvy. People stayed away from her. Her father couldn’t risk having her around for the scams; she was a dead giveaway that something was wrong. She had never quite fit into the mold, but hiding behind her family’s collective charm protected her nonetheless.
No one ever complained that Alicia didn’t help when they robbed or stole. Her mother forbade it.
“It’s harder for us dark girls, but it’s not impossible. You just have to learn how to work people. Don’t worry. Anyone touches you, and your father will eat ‘em. Cut ‘em up, and eat ‘em, girl,” her mother used to joke. Alicia would look down at her deep brown skin and nod. At 16, running away from another town, she wondered for a moment if she was the reason these towns kept burning. Was her family on the run because of her skin color? Mae was the same brown, but she was lengthy and charismatic. Her sisters, Sara and Mary, were lighter with looser curl patterns, more like their father. Were they hunted because of Mae and Alicia?
No. The marks of the scams never knew what hit them, but they were never bold enough to burn down towns. They went after older white men that boasted and flaunted their wealth, the ones who cornered black women and tried to guilt them into sex, the ones that belonged in prison but skidded by on their wealth and race, terrorizing blacks. They could hurt you in numbers but were almost always too afraid to even look in your direction. Talking helped with their anxieties. They could hardly close their mouths long enough to light a cigar let alone burn a whole town of innocent people.
This time, though, it was hard to ignore her father’s quiet anger turning to shame, her mother’s stillness, with anguish flowing through her. The words she didn’t say were all soaked in blame toward her husband.
“How could you, Harold?”
Alicia was not considered the loveliest, but she would always be the smartest. She knew her charming mansion of a father was the one they were after. And whatever was after him was not going to back down until he wafted into the wind with the others.
Alicia heard her parents arguing all the time. They didn’t bother to stop even after they realized their daughters were awake, huddled in the back of the flashy black car (her father’s pride and joy). The argument was heated enough to make Harold pull over to the side of the road, deep in the country, to better turn and yell at his wife. Alicia stared out the window, eyeing the darkness of the woods, trying to ignore them.
It was an argument they had a lot, and her mother never seemed to shrink until her father’s unsurpassable rage bubbled up.
“How do you know that was actually your brother? We ain’t goin’ there. I’ll be damned if I get tricked by one of those damn things!”
“I’ve known my brother my entire life, Harold. You think I don’t recognize his voice on the phone? Are we really going to lose every person we know and love because of your paranoia?”
Harold cut the engine of the car and turned to face his wife.
“You understand what we’re facing? Did you see what happened back there? If they destroy my body, or worse, the girl’s body…”
Judith scoffed. “According to you, ya’ll would be fine! You’re dragging us around the world. Dragging us. The girls need friends. They need school, not going around swindling and pointing guns at people. This ain’t right. Whatever we’re up against is nothing compared to how lonely we all feel. You are supposed to protect us, Harold. You got all these extra lives, or so you say, and you can’t even protect us…” Alicia watched her mother’s golden brown skin reddened, anger and exhaustion consuming her.
“So I say?” he chuckled. “So I say.” He paused for a long time with his eyes closed, trying to calm down. Judith gave Alicia a tight smile from the passenger’s seat.
“There’s only one place left to go, Judy. You don’t have to worry your pretty head about it. I got a friend down south in the city, in Chastain. She’s supposed to keep us safe from them. She asked for me and the girl personally; she’s been lookin’ for us…”
“Don’t you call her “the girl”. You know I hate that. Just because you made her a monster don’t mean she gotta be “the girl”. And what about the rest of us? The normal ones? This woman gon’ take care of us too? How do you know her?”
Harold was quiet for a moment. “Back when I was young, she was good friends with my momma. She’s like me. Like the girl…I mean, like Alicia. She knows more than I do, and she’s been around a long time. If anybody can help us, she can. And she can teach the girl how to handle herself.”
Alicia stared down at her own feet. Mae squeezed her shoulder in support. A low, static-like noise forced her to look up.
Outside of the car, the light of the day was slowly retreating into the distance. It looked like rain was approaching. Sara, Mae, and Mary all focused on their gloved hands as their parents argued. It was a moment Alicia would think about a lot later, the family all sitting there together, beautifully dressed, with the sky darkening quickly over them. It was like a picture. She would think about looking over to her mother and the heat of her fear. Then turning her head back to look at Mae and finding her staring hard, unblinking, head tilted painfully.
“You mean to leave us, don’t you? You mean to give my baby to that woman and send us away? I’m guessing you’re not coming with us either? You’re going to send us off to live like thieves while you cozy up to some woman in the city and my baby is doing God knows what…”
“I’m sending you away from burning to death, woman, don’t you want that?! You think they’ll stop at me? They don’t know which of us it is!”
“You’re not keeping my baby there. You stay. We’ll go.”
“Alicia and Mae will stay with me. The rest of you are the normal ones, remember?”
“Mae…yeah. How could I forget your little bathtub experiment? You give one of my babies your extra lives and doom another to a shorter one.” Harold seemed hurt by her words, turning further to see her better. Judith’s white gloves shook with anxiety.
“Mae agreed to it. She agreed! The girl has to be protected. She has to have a Latch. It’s…”
“So you say,” Judith murmured. Harold let out an angry growl through gritted teeth, struggling to calm himself. Judith tensed up at his anger, swallowing the rest of her words.
There was that noise again. Alicia felt her stomach churn as the sound grew louder. Shuffling. It wasn’t static. It was the sound of dirt moving under feet. A lot of feet.
“Something’s about to happen, Alicia, I can feel it,” Mae said slowly, her dark cheeks blushing. Alicia nodded. Mae didn’t move again. Not an inch. She sat and stared at her sister until tears welled up in her eyes. “I love you, Alicia. Don’t feel bad.”
“Daddy…” Alicia’s voice came out hoarse and shaky. Harold froze. The other girls looked up in confusion. Mae seemed to be having trouble breathing.
“You hear somethin’?” Judith asked knowingly, straining her neck. Harold held up his hand to shush her. Alicia and Harold could always hear the things the others couldn’t.
“Where’s it comin’ from, girl?”
“I…Daddy, it’s everywhere. I hear them from everywhere.”
Suddenly, the windows of the car turned pitch black, like someone dumped black paint over it, like there were black walls on all sides of them. Alicia couldn’t see anything, not the woods, not the sky, not even the window itself. The darkness completely consumed the car.
Judith’s heavy breathing was the only noise. Gasping. She was always gasping and sucking in air. Alicia tried to listen to the shuffling over her mother’s panic, but abruptly, it was gone. The static disappeared.
The silence was too thick.
“Daddy…drive! Please!” Sara’s voice was thick with worry. Alicia reached across Mae to hold her older sister’s hand—black glove against white—until she stopped shaking.
She closed her eyes and listened.
Everywhere…they’re everywhere! But one’s real close…
“They’re in front of us…” As soon as Alicia spoke, a pair of big brown eyes opened outside of the car window next to her. The whites seemed to blaze into the car, stark against the pitch-blackness. The pupils constricted until they looked like tiny dots in a sea of brown, and somehow, they still focused on her. They slowly slid over to see the back of her father’s head. A wide, white smile seemed to tear across the window.
The front window shattered, an ugly roar filled the car, and Alicia felt her body sliding into her sisters. Judith let out a violent screech, fighting against black hands bursting through her passenger side window. A sticky, bubbling substance traveled along the unbroken glass, thick like molasses. Harold was silent except for grunts. His foot pressed uselessly against the gas pedal. The car leaned forward as if tipped by a giant. Screams ripped through Alicia’s ears, and more pitch-black hands and blobs burst inside. She gripped the window crank, preparing herself for the worst.
Mae sat entirely still, with her head turned, staring at Alicia.
Alicia watched one of the black bubbles wrap around her leg and thin out, changing to effortlessly match her own skin.
Sara screamed then gagged, as a black bubble leaped into her throat. Something grabbed her and yanked her through the window, tearing her dress from the small of her back to the hem. Sara gripped the sides of the window, broken glass digging deep into her hand. Another black hand gripped her face, squeezing until her skull cracked, then dragged her out into the deep black until she was gone.
“NO! NO! NOT THOSE GIRLS! THEY’RE NOT WHO YOU WANT! LEAVE THE NORMAL ONES! PLEASE!” Judith’s pleas turned to gurgles as the black traveled down her throat. She shook violently. The deep blackness seemed to eat the entire world, and all Alicia could see around them were silhouettes.
They were so dark, she could see their outline against the deep black. Hundreds of them, far into the woods, peering around each other. She could smell their drool, feel the heat from their hands ripping her skin. Mary’s head disappeared out of the back window, her body shuddering, and then, Alicia was out of the car. Her father’s frantic cries drowned out the gurgling noise of her mother, the scared whimpers of her last sister, and her own ugly groans of pain.
She couldn’t see anything, but she could feel her lungs collapsing. A pressure built up inside of her, and as she relaxed, unable to move, the darkness took over. The sensation was so familiar.
Death. I’m dying. Like the bathtub. I’m really going to die. She’s really going to die.
It felt like her thoughts were split in two. The first half belonged to her, the crumpled body on the road whose limbs were being tore off by the things. The second half belonged to Mae.
Something was in her lungs. She coughed until there was nothing left in her body and then, slowly stopped moving.
An eternity seemed to pass – time roiled around her, drifting in and out, settling in her head. And then, she was awake, being dragged down the street by a man. He was mangled, with one arm gone and half his chest ripped open. Unfortunately, his legs still worked, making his escape with Alicia possible. He looked like a normal man, eyes wide and constricted. She was shocked to feel normal human skin where he held her leg.
There was a sensation in her chest that felt like the air turned into fingers and tried to push out of her. She bit deep into the arm of the man, and it screamed a normal human scream. It yanked away from her. She realized, almost guilt-ridden, that she was the only one left. That she was far enough away from the car to escape. The light crawled back around her, and she slowly lost sight of the vehicle. The things swarmed her family members, ignoring her.
The man dragging her away gave her a small, apologetic smile. He ran into the woods and disappeared forever. She sat stunned until her father’s frantic voice boomed through her, almost feminine.
“Alicia! Run! RUN!”
Alicia heeded her father’s screams, blocking out the wet way his voice cut out, and vanished into the night. It felt as bright as day outside of that deep blackness, the indigo sky and half-moon guiding her along the dirt road. She ran until all she heard was her own feet slapping against the ground, her own tired whimpers burning through her throat, and only stopped when she saw a barn. The door was wide open. Exhausted, she pulled herself over the wood fence and through the door, not bothering to close it behind her.
It was empty. She hid in a corner, pulling her ripped and bloody skirt as close to herself as possible, and passed out.
When the morning came, Alicia could barely move. The breaks in her skin produced a cloud of strange red dust. A patch of rubbery dried blood formed wherever the break was too wide, easing pieces of her flesh back together. Black veins snaked painfully around them. She felt a long patch of the dried blood going up her back. There was another just like it on her right shoulder that wrapped around down to her elbow. The patch thickened the higher the black veins crawled, bursting open like seams.
The morning was quiet. Exposed in the corner of the barn, Alicia shook violently, breathing almost as loud as her mother always did.
You have to get them. You have to go back.
She didn’t have the energy to argue with herself, so she shook her long brown hair, stiff with blood, and pushed herself up. The leg that was used for the dragging felt like it had a million tiny daggers in it, all trying to move through her bloodstream. All she could do was drag it behind her.
Outside the barn, it was a bright and cheerful morning. The normalcy almost sent her back. Somehow, she felt bigger. Longer.
Upon painfully limping around the isolated farm, she found no people but came across freshly slaughtered animals littering the property, their body parts strewn about. The door to the main house stood open, a bloody handprint splattered against it. A pair of feet lay still in the doorframe. She didn’t dare travel into the home to see the rest of the body (or bodies). There was no way she could help.
They died because the things were looking for me.
Swallowing her guilt, Alicia trudged back the way she came. Something told her the things had moved on, satisfied with their catch. They hadn’t looked too hard for her; they’d gotten the man they’d been trying to get for years.
The blood in her leg hardened up to her thighs, and she whimpered, limping harder.
What had been a car the night before was stripped bare and totaled. Parts of the mangled machine greeted her before she could see the actual body of it. She found an arm, too small to be Mae’s but too big to be Mary’s, and ignored it. More chunks of her family greeted her the closer she got to the shiny black metal. Harold’s pride and joy.
Judith’s body lay on the ground on top of a chunk of metal. Her head was missing. Alicia found it tossed casually a few feet away. The hair flowed in the wind, pretty and fluffy as ever. Alicia kept walking.
She stopped. All the air seeped out of her in a tight wheeze. She looked at her hands for confirmation.
In front of her laid…Alicia. She stared down at her own body and viewed her head roughly severed, sitting on top of the stomach. Her dress blew faintly in the wind, with her black gloves soaked through. It was her. Short. Petite. One arm and one leg were missing. The head was charred and mangled, but she could make out her lips. Her facial structure.
Her eyes traveled the body she was in. She touched her hair. She ran a hand over the long leg, ignoring the sting of pain.
Finally, where the front of the car had been the night before, she found her father. Burned. Parts of his body were crushed in, somehow nearly smashed to blend into the dirt of the road. His legs were flat.
One of his hands seemed unable to stop moving, his fingers fiercely scratching the ground. His head was burnt black and nearly smashed in, oozing blood out of a thick gash. One of his eyes was entirely gone; one was still rolling around, staring at everything. It tried to focus on Alicia when she moved into its view.
Alicia couldn’t let her scream out. It bubbled up in her stomach and sat there, painful and filling. Harold’s finger moved slowly against the ground, seeming to point. Alicia plopped down next to him and almost cried out from the pain.
He let out a long, anguished wheeze and then spoke. Nothing had ever scared her more than his mangled words. They crumbled out of him.
“Go…to…to…city…go…before…teh…teh…back…take…teh…teh…to…take me…ocean…can’t stop…please go…”
“Take you to the ocean?” Suddenly, her father’s breathing stopped completely, and the rolling eye stopped dead on her.
“Never…go…ocean.” The blood rolled through his chest and eased out of his mouth. Somber and serious, Alicia gripped her father’s shivering hand and sobbed into it.
“Daddy, I don’t understand. I don’t GET IT! It’s me; I’m Alicia! Why am I…I’m in Mae’s body, Daddy. I don’t understand! I can’t leave you here! You said you couldn’t die! You said so!”
He made a wet noise that could’ve been a laugh. “No more Mae…saved you…good girl…Leave…me…or…suffer…girl…teh…teh…not what…I…thought…Mae…did well…to protect…teh…made choice…teh…good thing…” He gripped Alicia’s hand with one finger and puckered his lips, his eyes rolling toward his skull. “Must be…you…the…real immortal…I can’t make…another Latch…only you…they will come…again…you can hide…did not know…you had…Latch…will find out…”
Alicia gulped. “You knew this would happen? What about Mae? You sacrificed her for me?”
“Sacrifice…must be…made. Mae…knew…please…teh…teh…find Yenna…will protect…you…girl…they will come…they will come for you…they will take you, too…girl…if you…deviate…”
Alicia left when her father finally stopped moving, when he passed out or died or did whatever his body would allow him to do. He was utterly destroyed. Like the car. Like the girls. She bypassed her sisters and her mother. She walked around her former self. She wandered until she passed the barn, until her leg lost all feeling, until her mouth trembled in the heat.
Somehow, Alicia would make it to Chastain. She would make it all the way there. She would lose and gain her will to live a thousand times before she saw the things again. The guilt of taking Mae would corrupt her judgment. It would sting forever.
But Harold was always right, and this time was no different.