got a long way to go before we’re back in Wildwood.”
Shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his pants, Curtis turned about and walked back toward the floodlights of the disassembling carnival. They would go over ground, he decided. He would walk through the Outside for the first time in a long while. They would cross the Railroad Bridge as he had so many months before; they would find their lost brothers and sisters. He was determined.
On the other side of the ridge of trash, Prue stumbled in the dark to arrive at the little trough in the pile where the dilapidated shack stood. She found herself muttering to herself as she walked, mouthing words of self-affirmation. “I’ll be fine,” she said, and then, as if to reinforce it, said, “You’ll be fine.” A little bit later: “Curtis will be fine,” along with its companion: “Of course he’ll be fine. He’s a big kid.” She realized, then and there, that she was enacting a conversation between herself and some invisible guardian; she was acting as her own surrogate parent.
Had she really meant all that, back there? Had she really forsworn her parents? The thought, oddly enough, created very little regret in the cavity of her chest; the overwhelming power of her task and the tree’s whispered instruction seemed to eclipse all other concerns. It felt as if she’d been slipped some powerful draft that had made her whole reasoning and perspective shift. Or, she figured, perhaps it was of her own making. Maybe this was what becoming an adult felt like.
Her mind was consumed by this new realization, this epiphany. As she grew closer to the shack, however, she saw that there was something very different about it; different from how she and Curtis had left it only a few hours before.
The door was open.
Indeed, it was so open as to be banging on its hinges, blown by the cold wind. Her mind flashed back to their first arrival; she was certain they’d closed it tightly before they’d left to search for Esben, for fear of someone finding the hole. They’d even put a spike through the latch to keep it closed.
That was when she began to hear the noise. It sounded like a broken, uncommon yell—a voice in a garbled dialect on a transcontinental phone call. She realized it seemed to be coming from her feet. She looked down to see a gray tuft of grass peeking up through a tangle of rusted wire. The sound grew in volume, its timbre more focused and intense.
Prue squatted down, her feet on either side of the tuft. What is it? she thought.
She screwed up her brow and focused; the bit of grass seemed to be wanting to convey something—something of grave importance. Like a ship cutting through a dense blanket of fog, the little plant’s desire to speak became more and more clear to Prue’s mind.
What is it? she repeated. What are you trying to say?
Louder now. GGGGG.
It became clear that the grass was trying, to the best of its ability, to scream at her.
And then it broke through:
Prue nearly fell over, so great was her surprise. The plant had formed a cogent, single word in the center of her mind, its meaning as evident as if she’d been yelled at through a megaphone. It was the first time she’d ever heard the noises in her head coalesce into an intelligible thought. The grass made a kind of sigh, as if it were relieved that she’d finally understood what it was trying to say. It seemed so simple: She now realized it wasn’t the plants who’d lacked the sufficient power to communicate clearly; it had been her own slow learning curve.
I’ve got to get out of here, she suddenly knew.
She began to walk away from the grass, which, lapsed back into wordlessness, was sounding a kind of howling moan. She searched her surroundings for a route of escape; a tunnel made by a pair of toppled car fenders suggested itself. Before she could arrive there, however, a dark shape stepped between herself and her target.
“Where to, little one?” asked the shape.
The shape, black as pitch, seemed to undulate slightly in her field of vision; the evening’s dark was pervasive now. The glow of the departing carnival, just beyond the ridge of trash, dimly lit the scene. Prue watched with horror as the shape convulsed before her eyes.
“Who’s there?” she called out, though she knew the answer to her question.
“Just your old science teacher, Prue. Your old pal.” The dark shape of Darla Thennis—neither fox nor human—seemed to spasm in between shapes, the movements making a kind of eerie quaver in the woman’s voice. “Been some time, hasn’t it? Now, I’m not one to hold a grudge, but you did a pretty bad thing back there at your precious bandit camp. A pretty bad thing.”
Prue’s eyes adjusted slightly to the dark; she saw two gleaming eyes peering out from the wobbly dark shape. “Just let me go, Darla.”
The shape coughed a laugh. “Let you go? After what you did to Callista? Poor, sweet Callista.” The contortions ceased; the figure, caught between its two warring shapes, began to approach her. The nascent glow of a low moon, hidden by clouds, gave light to the horrible thing: It was undeniably the shape of a woman—she walked upright, though hunched—but her head had a distinctly canine shape. Twin fangs jutted over her lower lip; black fur, matted from the rain, covered her otherwise naked body. It was the most hideous sight Prue had ever witnessed; she recoiled in revulsion.
“What’s the matter?” asked Darla. “Do I scare you?”
Prue began moving backward; a bent piece of rebar caught her boot heel, and she fell backward against the ground.
“You don’t think, do you,” said Darla, approaching. “I mean, it was smart of you, staying underground; very clever. But I knew you’d eventually come up for air. They all do. See, I’ve been doing this a long time now. I’ve killed a lot of things. Animals, humans. Yes, even kids. I take particular pleasure in the children, actually.” She punctuated this statement with a wide smile before continuing. “In the process, I’ve come to learn folks’ motivations, the things that drive ’em. I’ve also learned to be patient. Very, very patient. I figured maybe you were dead, sure. That was an awfully long fall you took. But it just didn’t taste right.” She was circling her now, toying with her. Her speech sounded like it came from someone who’d been in isolation for too long; it was half-crazed and weirdly cadenced. Prue scrambled backward, trying to push herself onto her feet. The uneven terrain of the trash heap was unforgiving. The fox-woman spoke on. “That’s the only way to explain it. So I was patient. I didn’t rush things. I knew, if you survived the fall, you’d pop up again.” To illustrate the word pop, she made twin explosive gestures with her hands, spooking Prue. Her fingers were black with fur and topped by long, yellow claws. “And lookit that. You did.”