Around Moose, Astrid was safe.
It would always be like that.
Astrid knew that. Well, Moose assumed that his sister knew that. No one else can get her to talk so much. She’d sit and stare at the wall for hours before she talked in front of Mom anymore. She just wasn’t comfortable.
I wish she was. We can’t sit around being afraid of each other. But I’m okay as long as she talks to me.
“It’s okay to run, so don’t think you have to deal with things that hurt or scare you, okay?” Moose gripped her hand a little when he talked, so she knew he was there and she was safe. He was almost too tall for his age, and Astrid wasn’t far behind. His dad told him the rule about women needing to escape sometimes. Let them be frail, let them be soft. Osh was pretty much the strongest man in the world, him and Uncle Juke, so it was obviously okay to tell Astrid that. She’d be a woman eventually, and she needed to know the men in her life would protect her.
Moose wasn’t sure if women were supposed to protect themselves sometimes. His Dad and Unc didn’t really discuss what the women were supposed to do.
“No run…no run! Fight! OUCH OUCH!” Astrid pulled away and pretended to karate chop the wall. I hate when she watches that stuff online. He grabbed her hand again, not too hard, and shook his head.
“Astrid! No fighting! I’m supposed to fight for you. Daddy said so. Or Daddy can fight for you. Or Unc. We ‘got it’.” Astrid sucked her teeth but didn’t pull her hand away. There was no way he was letting Astrid get hurt. His mom finally trusted him enough to take Astrid and Chaunce to the park by himself. He didn’t really want to take Chaunce, honestly. She was too…wild. Every time he took her with them she got herself hurt or got Astrid hurt. Sometimes other people even got hurt. He wanted to be good at protecting them both, but Astrid would always come first.
Moose would always commit to protecting all the women in his life, even Auntie Noah and Mom… but Astrid first. He knew some things about Chaunce that made it seem redundant to protect her.
They reached the tree-lined park, and it was packed. This always spelled trouble with Chaunce. She’d been unusually quiet the entire walk, scrunching her face up at times, pondering something. You didn’t want little girls like Chaunce to think too long. She was especially dangerous when her father was away for work. Maybe it was separation anxiety. The little ball of hair didn’t smile, laugh, or even yammer away once the entire walk. Something was wrong.
“Astrid, you can go play if you want. I have to keep watch. You never know who might try to hurt you. Chaunce, you want to sit with me for a second? Just catch your breath?” Chaunce was suddenly still. Moose took her hand, afraid she’d run after Astrid, and smiled. “It’s a long walk. It’s okay if you need a break.” A small squirrel ran by, catching her attention. She neatly pulled away from Moose, following after the squirrel, whispering something.
Moose wouldn’t complain. He sat on a nearby bench with a group of older men, all bored and talking. This was what men did. They made sure the kids and women were safe. He was close to a lot of them in height. In a few years, he’d tower over everyone in the park, maybe. Pride swelled through him as he imagined his uncle patting him too hard on the back, handing him a fishing net, pointing out at the dark sea.
“We’re the protectors, kid. We decide who stays and who goes.”
He didn’t know what it meant, but he thought about that day a lot.
And here, Unc’s daughter was being surrounded by squirrels. More and more jumped down from trees. Astrid joined Chaunce under the slides, curious. Squirrels soared across the park to gather around them. Neither girl was afraid. They talked amongst themselves, glancing back at Moose every now and then, giggling.
At least she’s laughing now.
Something like uneasiness settled into Moose. The men didn’t seem to notice the two girls with the furry animals around them. There were almost thirty squirrels now. Other kids started walking over, delighted.
Everything was fine and then, like usual, it wasn’t.
He hated bringing Chaunce to the park.
On his last birthday, the day he thought about often, Unc took him out on the ocean in his workboat. He showed him the equipment they used for marine biology, for studying ocean life ‘as a living’. Moose thought it was boring. He was more interested in nature, or maybe in people, maybe something closer to what his Auntie Noah did. But he thought jellyfish were cool, so Unc was going to show him some.
They left at night (to Astor’s annoyance) and alone (to Osh’s annoyance), and they didn’t take Chaunce (to Noah’s annoyance). The sky was such a deep indigo that Moose felt like he was floating whenever he looked up. The quiet hum of the boat was enough white noise to make him sleepy, and maybe that was the biggest reason he didn’t understand what Unc said to him.
“Hey. What would you do to protect your family? Your mother and sister, mostly.” Juke stared down at the water. Or he looked up at the sky. He did anything but look at Moose.
“Would you kill people if you needed to? What if something big was after them? After all of us? And the only way to stop it was to hurt people? Would you do it?”
To Juke’s surprise, Moose nodded without pause. Of course he would. He’d do anything to protect the women in his life. There was no question.
“You might get to prove that sooner than I’d like, Moose. Let me ask you another question. You ever seen anything like this?” Juke held his arm out, still staring at the ocean. Pieces of rotted flesh wriggled in the moonlight, flaky and black. Much of Juke’s arm was turning black and rancid. Again, to Juke’s surprise, Moose didn’t react or comment.
His family was as they were.
Slowly, Moose lifted up his pant leg. A small patch of black, warped flesh sat close to his knee. Juke sucked in a deep, regretful breath. He nodded to himself, something big confirmed. Moose just pulled his pant leg down and stared at the black flesh of his role model’s arm.
“I think I’d better clear some things up for you, Moose.”
And Unc talked for a long time. But nothing was clearer when they got back to the docks. Nothing was clear.
An ugly, strangled cry filled the air. It was torturous. It sat deep in your stomach and crawled upward, slow and agonizing. The first cry was deepened by a second. Then a third. The strangled cries turned to wet gurgles and more and more joined in.
The squirrels were all coughing up blood and falling over. They ran in circles, smashing their own heads into garbage cans and walls. The frenzy seemed to spread out from the middle.
Chaunce’s eyes rolled up in her head, and Astrid stood over her, quiet.
The frenzy spread from the squirrels to the kids effortlessly. A small boy threw up a throatful of blood and fell over, loose, noiseless. Screams filled the park, as parents ran to grab their kids, searching for an invisible monster.
Moose stared, annoyed, at Chaunce. But Chaunce wasn’t breathing and was starting to convulse, so he figured he’d better take charge.
Out on the docks, Juke stopped his young protégé and asked to see his leg again. It stung whenever he exposed it to air, but he showed him, grimacing.
“You ever feel sick around Astrid?” Moose shook his head. He didn’t feel like talking anymore. Trying to process what he’d just learned was enough.
“…You and Chaunce. Be careful around Astrid. Don’t…just kind of watch the situation, you get me? If you start feeling sick or acting weird just get some air. Make some space between you two. Same for Chaunce. They might not get it, but they need space sometimes.”
Moose wanted to know things, but he couldn’t think of the right questions to ask. Finally, one struck him as appropriate.
“Should I be afraid of my sister?” Juke smiled a little.
“Be afraid of all the women in your life, Moose. We know how to pick em.”
Frantic but not wanting to draw attention, Moose walked slowly to the girls. Chaunce’s mouth was literally foaming. Her hands were clenched, locked in a painful spasm. Black veins crawled around her face.
Astrid stared at her.
“Just want stop…stop…hurt…just want stop hurt squirrels. Just want…” Astrid’s stuttering was at its worst when she was scared. Or ashamed. Moose held his breath and nodded. He pulled Chaunce away, motioning for Astrid to stay still. He really didn’t need to. She was paralyzed with shame.
The air around her was hazy.
It took a while for Chaunce to calm down, but she did. Her body seemed to unlock all at once, eyes widening, and she found Moose hovering over her. Spit and vomit covered her clothes. Her tiny frame was shaky, but she reached up to Moose, whimpering, begging to be picked up.
He obliged. Astrid walked in front of them the whole way home, refusing to speak or turn or do anything other than move forward. The haze dissipated, and Moose moved closer, trying to keep up. They left a barrage of dead squirrels, passed out children, and panicking adults behind them. The sound of sirens filled the space.
“I hate taking you with us, Chaunce.”
The police talked to Moose’s parents for a long time. No one seemed to connect the odd deaths to the girls, though one of the police wanted to check their home for poisons. The young boy tried to keep Astrid calm, but she just kept looking for Chaunce. Without asking a single question, Auntie Noah had scooped her up and rushed her inside, annoyed and rustled, as soon as the three had arrived with the police. She wanted to make sure she got to her before my mom did. No one was dumb enough to think Chaunce, even as wild as she was, would’ve survived Astor’s pure anger. And no one was dumb enough to hear sirens and see blood and think Chaunce hadn’t had something to do with it.
And yeah…Mom was angry. The police officers seemed thrilled to get away from her when they finally finished telling whatever story they could come up with from the mess left behind. Osh grabbed Astrid and hurried into the house, abandoning Moose to his fate. Moose loved his father to the ends of the Earth and back but, well, sometimes he wondered how a man could protect a woman he was so afraid of.
I’m not afraid of her. I care about my mom. And I know I have to protect her. And she’s really scary sometimes, but I’ll never be afraid of her. You can’t protect someone you’re afraid of. That’s what Unc says.
He realized that his shirt, the one his mother had pressed and laid out for him that morning, was covered in vomit. Soaked through. About eighty times, maybe over a hundred, Moose had to remind himself that his mother wasn’t going to actually murder him, that he wasn’t afraid of her, when she turned around, face almost bloodless in anger.
This is my mother; she’s not going to harm me.
Moose didn’t know where to put his hands or how to fix his face. You couldn’t outdo Astor Snow when it came to quiet rage. She boiled down at him and didn’t move, really stiff, really horrible. His mom never yelled, but she made these…faces. And sometimes she truly looked like a monster.
“You’re responsible for the girls when you take them to the park. You’re in charge. What happened, Astric?” She hated his real name and only used it if he was really in trouble, if she couldn’t work his nickname into her sentence from rage or fury or whatever else she experienced often.
“I…I don’t even know what happened, ma’am. The squirrels started dying. Chaunce was sick. I was just trying to protect Astrid…”
“You can’t protect anyone from anything, though, can you? Go in the house.”
It’s not fair. So many adults were there. Chaunce was there. Why was he the only one in trouble? Moose looked up at his mother, at this woman he was supposed to protect, and realized it would never be fair.
He had no idea what protecting his mother and sister entailed.