“You have a way. I know you have a way.” To Aiden’s shame, his voice broke on the last word.
Magda glared at him. “No. Can’t be done, not without God’s help anyway. And I don’t believe divine intervention is real, either, so let’s just say it can’t be done, period.”
“Don’t lie to me. I saw Missy Engle talking to you, alive, after she died. After Tara came to see you.”
For a moment, he feared that Magda would stand up and slap him. After a few seconds of staring at him in icy rage, she looked away and bit a thumbnail. “Don’t know where people get these stupid ideas, like I’m a witch or something.”
Aiden drew a shaking breath. “I don’t think you’re a witch, but I know you’re hiding something. And if it’s something that can bring him back, then. . . I’m sorry, but I won’t leave you alone until you tell me.”
She stood, then, and brushed some speck of lint off her denim work-shirt. “I’m sorry that you lost Milo. I truly am, and if I had a secret laboratory that could resurrect him, I’d do it. But what you’re asking, I can’t do.”
Aiden didn’t move. “What about Tara Engle’s daughter?”
She looked at the floor. “That’s a sad story, and not one that’ll help you. Please leave, now.”
Aiden sat in his car, and watched Magda’s house, and thought about Milo. He thought about that day over a year ago, when he had almost finished closing up the café. The bell over the door, which he thought was annoying but the tourists found quaint, had jingled to announce an arrival. He turned, mouth open to shoo away a would-be customer, when he saw that it was Milo.
“Help you close up?” Milo asked. He smiled as he said it, but Aiden saw the exhaustion in his eyes. Milo had been going grey for years now but had never looked old, not until that moment.
Aiden wiped his hands on his jeans and crossed the room. “God, Lo, I’m sorry. Come here.”
Milo leaned into the hug, and they stood like that for a while. Finally, he pulled back. “It was Missy. You know, Tara and Chase’s oldest.”
Aiden swallowed. “Christ. What happened?”
“Oh, her fucking boyfriend hit a tree with his car. He’s fine, but she went through the windshield.” He shuddered and looked away. “She was alive when they brought her in, but. . . I mean, those head injuries. . . Well. I couldn’t get her stabilized.”
Aiden rested his hands on Milo’s elbows. “Lo, did you do everything you could?”
“Then you don’t have anything to feel guilty about.”
Milo nodded and pinched the bridge of his nose. Aiden could see the lines he got between his eyebrows when his head hurt. “Yeah, I know. It was just hard, seeing Tara there. She was in shock, babbling, not making any sense. After I told her, she just kept saying ‘I have to find Magda, I have to talk to Magda.’ Wouldn’t even acknowledge it.”
“Magda?” Aiden frowned. “Did she mean Magda Warren? The one who sells cheese and stuff at the market?”
“Maybe. That’s the only Magda I know.” Milo retrieved the dishcloth and tossed it to the sink behind the counter. “Maybe they’re good friends or something.”
“Hm.” Aiden tried to recall ever seeing Magda Warren in their neighborhood. Tara’s house was visible from the front porch, and he and Milo usually went outside to sit there several times a week. They watched the neighbors come and go, and saw when strangers arrived. He doubted Magda could be a frequent visitor without him noticing, and she lived well outside of the town. Aiden talked to her occasionally at the market, and found her likable in a brusque sort of way. He couldn’t quite picture her being close to Tara, who was friendly but also loud and a gossip.
Milo noticed Aiden’s thoughtful expression. “Look, it doesn’t matter. Tara might have a sister named Magda, right, I mean, we’re not her best friends or anything. And anyway, in her mental state, God knows what she was thinking. You ready to go? I need to go home and relax and have a beer.”
“Beer and a backrub?” Aiden offered, grabbing his keys.
Milo smiled, and it was tired but genuine. “How’d you know?”
Aiden waited three days before walking over to the Engle house. He wondered if he was supposed to bring something, and then wondered if he should be going at all. It was always like this when someone died, he thought. Nobody knows the rules for grieving or giving comfort. Milo refused to go. “The last thing they’re gonna want to see right now is the doctor who couldn’t save their kid.”
“That’s not how they’ll think of you,” Aiden had protested, but Milo got that stony look and he knew it would be a mistake to push harder.
So Aiden crossed the street by himself and knocked on the door before he could think better of it. As he heard footsteps from inside the house, he looked down and realized he still had on the stained T-shirt and jeans he’d worn to do yardwork earlier in the morning. He’d washed his hands, but there were still traces of dried mud on his pants. Cursing himself, he wondered how much of a breach of protocol it was to pay your respects in the same clothes you use to pull weeds. He’d never heard it discussed, but it certainly sounded like the sort of thing that would earn him a disgusted sigh and a smack upside the head from one of his sisters.
As soon as Chase opened the door, Aiden saw that he needn’t have worried. A grenade could probably go off and Chase wouldn’t spare it a glance. “Hi, Aiden,” he said, mechanically and without making eye contact.
Aiden took a hesitant step forward. “Chase, hi. Look, I don’t want to intrude, but I just wanted to say how sorry I am about Missy. If there’s anything we can do–”
“Not unless you know a good hitman.” When Aiden didn’t respond, Chase added, “You know, for her boyfriend.” His mouth formed a hard slash in his doughy face. Aiden had always found Chase nice enough, if a little dull, prone to staring off into space and drifting in and out of conversations. This was the first time he’d ever heard the man say a harsh word about anything.
Aiden glanced down at the porch. His eyes fixed on a Super Soaker one of the kids had left leaning against the railing. “Well,” he said at last, “Can’t help you there, but if you need us to watch the other kids or something, just let us know.”
Chase nodded. “I appreciate it. Might take you up on it, actually. It’s just been me here for the last two days, and without Tara, it’s getting. . .”
“Where’s Tara?” Aiden asked before thinking.
Chase took off his smudged glasses and wiped his red eyes. “She’s at Magda Warren’s. Don’t ask me why, they’re not even friends. I think she’s just lost it. So, yeah, I might bring the kids over tonight and see if I can go get her to come home.”
“Yeah, of course, any time. Whatever you need.”
“Thanks, man.” Chase reached out and shook Aiden’s hand. His grip was limp and cold. “And thanks for not bringing a fucking casserole. Got so much casserole in this house, I’m gonna have to start feeding it to the dogs.”
Aiden slowly walked home, picking over the conversation in his head. Milo was waiting at the kitchen table. “How are they?” he asked.
“Hm? Oh. Chase is pretty much a zombie.” He pulled a glass out of the cabinet and poured himself some water.
“What about Tara?”
Aiden thought about repeating what Chase had told him. But it would lead to speculation about what Tara was doing, and he knew Milo wanted to think about that as little as possible. He settled for, “I don’t know. She wasn’t there. But we might be watching Jaden and Mackenzie tonight while they take care of some stuff.”
Milo blinked, and some of the tension drained out of his shoulders. Aiden knew what he was thinking: Tara and Chase would never let him babysit their children if they blamed him for Missy. Milo exhaled quickly and stood. “Great. I’ll see if we have any movies they’d like.”
The doorbell rang at 7:00 the next morning. Aiden, pouring more orange juice for Mackenzie, exchanged a glance with Milo. Milo stood at the stove with a spatula, pausing in the act of flipping a half-cooked pancake. Both of the kids sat in silence, still wearing their rumpled clothes from the previous day. Setting down the cup of juice, Aiden went to see who it was.
The kids had been quiet and morose when Chase dropped them off the previous evening. They’d never really acted normally, of course, but they’d been somewhat cheered by Aiden’s spaghetti and Milo’s enthusiasm for drawing. They’d eaten dinner, watched a movie, and played a few rounds of Jenga without any problems. The kids even giggled a little at Aiden’s exaggerated reaction to knocking over the column of blocks. There was no mention of Missy, and both Mackenzie and Jaden seemed grateful for the distraction.
Around 10:00, though, Aiden started to worry. The kids were young, five and eight, and he felt pretty sure they were supposed to be asleep by now.
“When did Chase say he’d be back?” Milo murmured as Aiden checked his phone for messages.
“Two hours. It’s been almost five.”
Aiden tried calling several times, always going straight to voicemail. He even, after a moment of hesitation, tried Tara’s number.
By 11:00, both of the kids were asleep on the couch and Milo went to make up the bed in the guest room. They carried the kids to the bed, tucked them in, and returned to the living room to wait. “Where was he going again?” Milo asked.
Aiden rubbed one of his eyes. “Tara hasn’t been staying at the house since Missy died. He was going to try to get her to come home.”
Milo raised his eyebrows but said nothing. At 1:00 am, they both gave up waiting and went to bed, only to be roused at 6:00 by Mackenzie knocking on the door and demanding to know where Mommy and Daddy were. “They’re just taking care of some things, pumpkin,” Aiden replied, trying to sound more awake than he really was. “They’ll be back soon. Come on, let’s go get some breakfast.”
Aiden opened the front door and froze, mouth open. Chase had been dead-eyed and lost the previous day, but now his grief seemed raw and new. His face was swollen and eyes bloodshot with crying. He leaned against the door frame with one hand, as if unable to support his weight. “I’m here for the, for the kids,” he said, breath hitching between words.
Aiden finally got his voice to work. “I’ll get them. Do you want to come in?”
“No. . . No, I’ll wait.” And he covered his face in both hands and turned away, shoulders shaking with quiet sobs.
As Aiden turned, he saw Tara. She stood on the sidewalk, one hand on the open door of Chase’s car. Her head was bowed, blonde hair covering her face. Deep crimson scratches covered her arms. As he watched, she turned to look at him. Unlike Chase, she hadn’t been crying. There was grief in her expression, but also shock and deep, powerful guilt. She met his eyes without a word for several seconds. Then she turned away and wandered down the middle of the street, vaguely in the direction of the Engle house. She wore no shoes.
Aiden went back in the house, almost fleeing from the sight. He quickly bundled the kids into their coats and shoes. Milo started to protest, started to say they could take them home after they’d finished their breakfast, but Aiden silenced him with one hard shake of his head.
“What the hell was that?” Milo asked as Aiden closed the door. Chase had taken the kids’ hands and turned away without making eye contact. “Thank you, Aiden. Tell Milo goodbye for me,” he’d muttered, barely audible.
Aiden returned to the kitchen and sank into the nearest chair. His heart thumped wildly in his chest, and if asked he knew he wouldn’t be able to say why. Milo stared at him with wide eyes. “What is it?”
“Just. . . I don’t know. Something must have happened.”
Milo sat down across from him. Aiden thought about taking his hand, but didn’t want him to know he was trembling.
“Well, I mean, they’re in mourning. That’s how it is in these situations, for a while they’re ok, and then suddenly they’re hysterical. It’s hard to see, but it’s normal,” Milo said soothingly.
No, you idiot, something happened, Aiden wanted to shout, then felt ashamed of himself. He forced a nod of agreement and stood to clean up the mess from breakfast.
Two days later, Aiden heard that the Engles had disappeared.
“What do you mean?” he asked, paused in the act of assembling a chicken sandwich.
Elsa Belicek raised her palms in a helpless gesture. “I don’t know. I tried to call, because both of the kids have been out of school since Missy died. Parents usually think it’s best to keep them at home when this kind of thing happens, but I try to encourage them to send kids back to school as soon as possible. You know, get them back to a normal routine. Anyway, when they didn’t call back I went to the house, and it’s empty. I mean, not completely, there’s stuff strewn around, but there’s no furniture in the living room. I was hoping they said something to you, since they’re your neighbors.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Aiden noted that one of the part-time waitresses, Tanya, was taking a very long time making espresso. The customer, a tourist by the look of her, sighed and gave her watch an ostentatious glance. “Need a hand, Tanya?” Aiden asked.
She jumped and scurried into action. “No, sorry, I got it.”
He turned back to Elsa. “No, sorry, I had no idea. Didn’t even see any moving vans or anything. I can ask around the neighborhood, though.”
She sighed in relief. “Thanks, Aiden. It’s just, I worry about those kids.”
“Yeah. I’ll check into it.”
Once he and Tanya had served the remaining customers, she pulled him aside. “Sorry about that earlier. She was my principal when I was a kid. I was just curious. Because I kinda knew Missy, you know?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Aiden started to turn away and stopped. “Hey, Tanya, did Missy spend any time with Magda Warren?”
Tanya frowned. “No. In fact, her mom told her to stay away from Magda.”
Aiden avoided eye contact, busied himself with emptying a coffee filter. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I just remember when we were at the summer fair once, and Magda was selling stuff there. Missy didn’t want to try any of Magda’s samples, because she said that Mrs. Engle had said Magda was into creepy stuff, but I don’t know what she meant by that. But, you know, Missy and I weren’t that close, so she might not have told me even if she knew anything else.” The bell over the café door chimed and a couple of regulars wandered in. Tanya moved to the register with a bright smile and started taking orders, leaving Aiden to his thoughts.
The drive to Magda Warren’s little ranch took Aiden out of town and along several miles of winding highway surrounded by thick Oregon forest. When he rolled down the windows, he could almost smell the salt air coming in from the coast. Bruise-colored clouds gathered on the horizon, but overhead was just a thin layer of grey, enough to soften but not completely block out the sun. Usually, drives on this road meant a hike with Milo, or maybe a longer journey to Portland for the weekend. Now, though, Aiden found himself ignoring the scenery and gripping the wheel a little too hard.
He’d never been to Magda’s, but a sign for the Warren Creamery marked the drive to her house. Aiden parked in the gravel driveway between the simple ranch house and the barn, adjacent to Magda’s beat-up Bronco. He could see two other buildings farther back on the property, ones not visible from the road. As he stepped out of the truck, Aiden smelled goats and heard their bleating from the fenced pasture next to the barn. He turned a full circle, scanning for signs of Magda or anyone else. Maybe the Engles, although he couldn’t think of any reason for them to be here.
Failing to see anyone, Aiden trudged up to the house and knocked on the front door. The sound of a barking dog came from inside, but no one answered.
After a few minutes of knocking and calling Magda’s name, Aiden went to check on the barn and the other buildings. He found no one there, and nothing more interesting than livestock feed and some gardening tools.
Just as he gave up and started back to the truck, Aiden heard a voice over the crunch of gravel under his shoes. He paused, wondering if it was just one of the goats. But, no, he heard it again, the sharp tones of a raised female voice too far away to be heard clearly. He turned around and made his way past the barn and the small outbuildings. The voice faded for a bit, starting up once more as he passed the tool shed. This time, it was close enough for him to determine that it came from the woods at the back of the property, where the goat pasture ended at a wall of mossy tree trunks and brush.
Aiden found a rabbit trail and picked his way through the trees. He wondered why Magda hadn’t cleared some of the dead limbs and brush; with a little maintenance, these woods would be a perfect place to hike or picnic. As it was, though, it was a nuisance to navigate and maybe even a fire hazard. Cursing slightly, Aiden hopped over a tangle of brambles and kicked a branch out of the way. Looking up as he came over a small rise, he saw Magda less than fifteen feet ahead. She was a stout, middle-aged woman with deeply lined skin and rough hands. Her braided hair, though, remained a bright, youthful red. She stood next to a fallen log, talking to Missy.
Aiden froze. He stared, hoping the sight would resolve into something comprehensible. The longer he looked, though, the more certain he became that it was Missy. She had a distinctive cloud of black, curly hair, so unlike either of her parents. Like Tara, she had paper-white skin with a smattering of freckles; she’d also inherited Chase’s only beautiful feature, a pair of large green eyes. She said nothing, and she stood wrapped in a blanket that trailed the ground, so that Aiden couldn’t see what clothes she wore underneath.
Magda was speaking, hands on Missy’s shoulders. “Look, I’ve told you, you can’t come around here. If you wait, I’ll bring–” She stopped and turned quickly, responding to some sound Aiden didn’t know he made. Her mouth dropped open, and panic flitted across her features.
Missy stared at him, too, but her expression was more confused than frightened. She had always waved to him when they passed on the street, but now there was only vacant incomprehension in her eyes.
“This is private property. You need to leave,” Magda snapped, a slight tremor in her voice.
“That’s. . .” Aiden began.
Magda turned back to Missy and placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Listen. Go now.”
Missy glanced at Aiden, then back at Magda. She made a convulsive bobbing gesture with her head, one that made Aiden feel a little sick to see. She muttered something that sounded like, “Yesyes. Yesyes, waterwetlakepuddle.” And then she sprinted into the woods, bounding elegantly between the trees.
Magda turned and made shooing motions at Aiden. “Go. I said, go now, I can call the police if you don’t leave now, go–”
Aiden took an involuntary step back, eyes still glued to the spot where Missy had vanished into the forest. “What the fuck. . .”
“I said, get lost.”
Aiden finally got himself to focus on Magda. She stood with hands on hips, face set in a stony glare. “That was Missy Engle.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Magda, that was her.”
Magda took two steps forward and jabbed him in the chest with her index finger. “Now you listen. That was not Missy, I swear to you. What you think you saw wasn’t what you saw. And that’s the last I’ll say about it, because it’s got nothing to do with you.”
Aiden tried to think of a response. I should refuse, he thought. I should demand an answer. But every muscle in his body screamed at him to run, to get away from this place. In the end, he nodded and mumbled something, and let Magda nudge him back toward the barn and his truck. Before he climbed inside, he forced himself to turn to her. “Just answer me one question, ok, and I’ll leave you alone. I just came here to ask one thing. Do you know where the Engles are? Tara and Chase and the kids?”
Magda’s jaw tightened. “They left. They went to a relative’s place, somewhere in California. They’re ok, but they won’t be back.”
Aiden nodded. “Thank you.” He climbed in the truck, slammed the door, and sped all the way back to town.
Milo sat in silence after Aiden finished his story. He perched on the edge of the sofa, elbows resting on his knees, hands folded. Aiden stood, had been unable to stop pacing while he spoke. A glass of whiskey sat untouched on the mantelpiece; it had sounded like a great idea, just the thing to steady the trembling in his hands, but his stomach clenched every time he thought about taking a sip.
“Come here,” Milo said at last. Aiden sat next to him, and Milo took his still-shaking hand. “You know that this puts me in a weird position, right? I know you wouldn’t lie to me, but I also can’t believe you.”
Aiden nodded and swallowed the instinctive, angry retort. “Ok.”
“Aiden, I declared Missy myself. I was there when she died.” He held up a hand to cut off Aiden’s response. “And, let’s say I made a mistake and she wasn’t really dead. Even then, Aiden, her skull wasn’t just fractured, ok, it was crushed. Even if she wasn’t dead, and she’d somehow lived, which I don’t think was possible, she would have been persistent vegetative for the rest of her life. There’s no medical way she could have gotten up and wandered off. Not to mention the body would have to have gone missing. So I know it wasn’t her you saw.”
Aiden said nothing; the tightness in his chest told him his voice would break if he tried to speak.
Milo squeezed his hand and continued. “But I can tell you saw something that scared you. I mean, I’ve never seen you this scared. So I’m willing to concede that you saw something you can’t explain. I mean, I don’t believe in ghosts–”
“I never fucking said it was a ghost. I’m not stupid.”
Milo bit his lip and took a deep breath. “Ok. I’m not saying you did. I’m saying, you had a weird experience. And I’m willing to accept that and say that unexplainable shit happens sometimes. But I also need you to let it go, and not try to convince me it was her. Because if you keep telling me that a dead girl is walking around in Magda Warren’s woods, how would you expect me to look at that?”
Aiden let out a shaky sigh and held his head in his free hand. “That I’m losing it. That’s probably what I’d think if it was you.”
He sensed Milo nodding. “I don’t think you’re crazy, I really don’t. But please don’t make me worry about you.”
Aiden let Milo pull him into an embrace. He leaned his head against Milo’s chest, and breathed in his scent, and held on tight. “Ok. I won’t talk about it anymore. I won’t,” he promised after a while.
And he didn’t. They stopped talking about Missy, and a new family bought the Engle house, and Aiden was almost able to convince himself that it hadn’t happened. Still, he avoided Magda’s stall at the market, and when driving chose routes that didn’t take him near her place. Milo may have noticed these behaviors, but if so he said nothing.
Eighteen months after Missy Engle’s death, the phone at the café rang. It was Beth, one of the physician’s assistants who worked with Milo. “Aiden? You better get down here. Milo collapsed, it looks like a heart attack.”
Aiden’s knees threatened to buckle. “Is he ok?”
Beth hesitated just a little too long. “They’re working on him.”
Later, Aiden would be unable to remember the drive to the hospital. He would only remember stepping through the ER’s automated door, and seeing Beth waiting for him. The mascara-stained tears streaking her face. His lungs seemed to forget how to draw in air, and he found himself sitting in a molded plastic chair with Beth’s hands grasping his shoulders. “It’s ok, just breathe, just breathe. . .” she kept saying.
“Let me see him.”
She didn’t argue. Taking him by the elbow, she led him into a cold room where Milo’s body lay under a sheet. His eyes were closed, but he didn’t look like he was sleeping. Aiden stared, and tried to see Milo, but could only see a corpse with vaguely similar features.
He stumbled out into the corridor. Beth had wiped the mascara off her face. “I’m so sorry, Aiden,” she whispered.
“I have to go,” Aiden heard himself say. He already had the keys to the truck in his hand.
Beth laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Aiden, I’m sorry, but there’s paperwork to be filled out. I know it’s the last thing you want to think about, and I feel terrible about it, but. . .”
“No. Later. Just don’t. . . Just keep him here.”
Beth tried to step in front of him. “Aiden, you shouldn’t be alone. At least let us call someone.”
“I have to go,” he repeated. “I have to find Magda.”
Seven hours after Magda had told Aiden to leave, she came out to his truck. “You aren’t gonna go home, are you?” she asked with a resigned look in her eyes.
She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose as if to ward off a headache. “Ok. I’m going to show you something, so you can understand why I can’t help you. Because I’m scared of what you’ll do if you just go poking around here yourself, and don’t understand what you’re looking at.” She met his eyes. “But this isn’t going to help. I need you to accept that.”
Aiden said nothing. Magda shook her head and turned away. “Come on. Just follow me and do whatever I say. You’ll be safe, as long as you don’t do something stupid.”
Aiden followed her into the woods. On their way to the path, Magda stopped in one of the outbuildings to pick up a bucket containing apples and carrots. She gestured at a plastic bag. “Carry that for me.” Aiden obeyed, peeking inside and finding only a package of rock candy.
As they left the driveway behind, it occurred to Aiden that Magda could be carrying a gun. She could be taking him somewhere where his body would never be found. She could be insane. He considered the idea, and found it held no fear for him.
They walked for over half an hour, so far that he couldn’t hear the cars on the highway anymore. Aiden saw none of the usual signs of human passage he usually found on hikes. No cans, no cigarette butts, none of those things that made Milo grumble about a lack of consideration for fellow backpackers.
Magda stopped at the top of a small slope. She gestured for Aiden to stand next to her. “Look down there,” she said. “But be careful. Don’t get close to it.”
At the bottom of the slope was a clearing, an empty space that the forest seemed to lean away from. At the center lay something that Aiden at first mistook for a large mud puddle, until he saw it bubbling. It took him a moment to recognize it as a tar pit, roughly six feet across and bordered by a tiny ring of barren sand and scrub.
Aiden turned back to Magda. She squatted on the ground, taking the fruit out of the bucket and arranging it in several small piles. “I didn’t know we had tar pits around here,” Aiden said after a moment.
“It’s not a tar pit. Put the candy next to that bush and come stand behind me.”
Aiden did as he was told. They stood in silence for several minutes, watching the scattered clusters of food. As they waited, Aiden listed to a bird whose call he didn’t recognize. It sounded a bit like a mourning dove, but with some odd little clicks interspersed in its song. It grew distracting enough that he scanned the forest for it, finally spotting it on the underside of a branch almost directly overhead. Wait, no, he thought, frowning. It can’t be hanging upside down like that. But it was definitely a mourning dove, with dappled grey feathers and a pudgy body. As he watched, though, it swung up and gripped the branch with two legs that extended out from under its wings. It crawled along the bark, lizardlike, undersized wings occasionally flapping as if for balance. Aiden let out a curse and took several hasty steps backward.
Magda followed his gaze up to the branch. “Oh. Yeah. Don’t worry about those.”
“What the hell is it?” he asked in a low voice.
“Just shut up and watch.”
The first of them showed up about five minutes later.
Twigs cracked in the underbrush, and Aiden nervously glanced around to see if there was a bear. The shrubs straight ahead of them shifted with the weight of an animal, something moving low to the ground. When it came out of the ferns and headed for the food, Aiden’s stomach twisted in revulsion and he had to fight the urge to turn away. Everything about the creature screamed wrong, even before Aiden saw exactly what it was.
Its hairless skin was a light pink, like a baby’s. It crawled on all fours, limbs short and stocky like a badger. The stump of a tail swung in the air over its hindquarters. The small head had blue eyes set into the sides of the face.
But it was the mouth that finally made Aiden see it for what it was. Beautiful cupid’s bow lips, and behind those a set of straight white teeth. The lips parted, and the teeth crunched down into a bite of apple, licked up drops of the juice with a human tongue.
The second one walked upright. From a distance, it might have passed for a naked man. Up close, things were missing: hair, fingernails, nipples, navel. The eyes had no iris, just tiny pinpoint pupils amid the white of the eyeball. It made it nearly impossible to tell if the thing was looking at Aiden or not. The rest of the face was flat save for a thin slit where the mouth should be.
The third was Missy, or at least the thing that wore her face. Now, though, she didn’t have a blanket wrapped around her; instead she carried it under one arm, just like a toddler with its blankie. As soon as he saw her, Aiden wondered how he could possibly have ever mistaken her for human. Below the neck, her body consisted of an undersized torso and four long, boneless limbs. Both legs and both arms extended at least five feet from her body, tapering down to points rather than fingers or toes. They flexed and swayed in the air like tentacles. The limbs looked weak and fragile, yet Missy easily balanced on the ones where her legs should be, curving the lower ends into something resembling feet. The legs bent in too many directions as she walked, sometimes forward like a human knee and sometimes to the sides like nothing Aiden had ever seen.
Missy moved toward the one with no features. “Wine Easter swimming,” she said, shaping the words slowly and with apparent care.
It reached down for a piece of fruit, bending awkwardly at the waist. “Calcalcalcaldera. Streetstreetstreet.”
Aiden realized that Magda had his arm gripped tightly in one hand. He managed to tear his eyes away from the things long enough to glance at her. “Just stay quiet,” she muttered.
Missy undulated towards Magda. Her mouth worked, but no sound came out. “Hello,” Magda said quietly. “Eat your food.”
Missy frowned. “Your. . . Your food fad eat at. . . Halo. . .” Her whole body spasmed and she snapped her teeth together three times in quick succession. Aiden backed up two steps, unable to go farther without breaking Magda’s grip.
“Sh,” Magda said. She reached out and covered the girl’s mouth with her free hand. “Sh. Go eat.”
Missy drifted away, mouth still forming silent words.
The fourth one made Magda cry, just silent tears on her stony face.
It had blonde hair and a handsome young man’s face. The body was insectile, thin and jointed with six limbs. Instead of chitin, though, it had pale human skin covered in a downy layer of golden fur. It walked on its lower four legs, top two folded against the thorax. When it saw the food, it smiled like a child and opened its all-too-human mouth; pincers emerged, and it scooped up the rock candy with wet sucking sounds. All the while, Missy and the tall male one chattered incomprehensibly to each other.
Magda began to speak, voice flat and monotone. “They came out of the pool. Those two–” she indicated the one with no features and the one that moved low to the ground, “—those two were here before I found this. God knows how long. The one with the blonde hair was my son.” She paused to glare at Aiden. “And you know where Missy came from.”
“How?” The word came out like a gasp.
“I can’t tell you how. I can only tell you what happens. Things go in the pool. Dead things, live things, anything with DNA. The pool recombines it and creates something new. Squirrels and lizards. Birds and mice. People and insects, or cats, or fish, or snakes.” She pointed at Missy. “That isn’t Missy Engle. It doesn’t have her memories, her personality, nothing. It just has some of her genes.”
The one on all fours left his food and snuffled around Magda’s feet. She ignored it. “I found this eighteen years ago, doing research. I saw it in action, just dumb luck. An injured deer died on the edge, half in the mud, and it got sucked under. A few hours later, I watched it jump back out and run away. Or I thought I did.” She stared into the trees. “Probably I would have seen that it wasn’t just a deer anymore, if I’d gotten a better look.”
“How did your son. . .” Aiden murmured, eyes locked on the thing sucking down lumps of crystallized sugar.
“I didn’t understand. I thought I knew what the pool did, and he died, and I acted without thinking.” She stepped in front of him, stared right into his eyes. “Can you even fucking imagine what it feels like to see the face of the person you loved the most on one of those things? Think about what that would be like. That’s why I’m showing you this, so you don’t ever have to go through that.”
Aiden staggered backwards until he bumped into a tree. “He’s gone.” He closed his eyes and tried to picture Milo exactly as he’d looked this morning, drinking coffee and reading the news. There’d been nothing special about this morning. No great romantic gestures, nothing different except that it was the last. He tried to recall if he’d even kissed Milo goodbye before driving to work. He couldn’t remember.
Something rustled in front of him. He opened his eyes and saw the thing with Missy’s face standing before him. She watched him for a moment, then slowly extended one of her limbs. It held an apple. “Mid. Flash. Mid.”
Aiden gingerly accepted the apple, and she smiled. “What does that mean?” he asked.
Magda stooped to pick up the bucket and plastic bag they’d carried the food in. “Nothing. They can mimic the sounds of words, but they can’t attach meaning to them. Believe me, I’ve tried to teach them. I think there’s enough human genes in there that they know they’re supposed to be verbal, but they can’t quite do it. Doesn’t stop them from trying, though.”
Aiden took a clumsy step forward. Tears felt a long way off. Right now he just felt too heavy to move. Magda took him by the elbow; this time, though, it felt like support instead of restraint. As they moved out of the clearing, Missy and the blonde boy tried to follow them. “No,” Magda said sternly. “Stay.”
Missy reached out with both limbs and the boy let out a whimper, but both stayed and watched them walk away.
Aiden found himself in Magda’s living room without quite remembering how he got there. She wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and started arranging kindling in the old fireplace. “I should go,” he murmured.
“It would be criminally irresponsible to let you drive right now.”
“Tell me. . . Tell me what happened with Tara.” Aiden heard himself say the words, and realized that he didn’t particularly care. He just didn’t want silence.
Magda sat in her armchair and stared into the fire. Her dog, a black border collie, nuzzled her hand and she absently stroked his head. “She found out years ago. Before Missy was even born. I was still experimenting back then, with dead animals and things, trying to see if I could control it. I thought if I could figure out how it worked, I could reverse. . .”
She cleared her throat. “Anyway. Tara came to me one day and said she knew. She’d been in the woods and saw me put something in the pool, a dog or something. I didn’t show her anything, but I managed to convince her that it was something that needed to be kept secret. I kept expecting her to blab about it, but I guess even she realized that it was important. Then a year and a half ago she shows up crying on my doorstep, saying I need to bring Missy back. Saying she can handle if the girl has deformities, as long as she gets her back.” Magda let out a dry, humorless laugh. “Deformities. That’s what she thought she’d get. I told her I wouldn’t do it, and she threatened to tell everyone, so I told her we’d talk about it. I assumed if I let her stay here and waited until she calmed down, she’d see reason.”
“And then Chase came to find her,” Aiden murmured.
“Yeah. They went out in the driveway to talk, and next thing I know they’re both gone. Up in the woods. By the time I got there, they’d already dropped some of Missy’s hair into the pool, and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it from happening.” Magda pressed her lips together and shook her head. “They thought she’d be Missy, just a little different. And then that thing came out, and they saw what they’d done. No wonder they left town.”
“So now it’s just you taking care of them.”
Magda looked at the floor. “If you can call it that. That thing, that pool up there, it’s a fucking miracle. Hell, for all I know it could even be the primordial soup, you know, the stuff that started everything. There’s a chance that pool might be able to explain life on Earth, but, Jesus, I hate it. I can’t even stand to look at it. And I can’t stand to look at them, any more than I have to.”
They fell silent. Aiden stared at the fireplace and thought of Milo. The next thing he knew, he was waking up to morning light streaming through the kitchen window. The fire had burned down to ashes. He took a deep breath, stood, and walked outside without a word.
Aiden turned off the truck’s ignition and gazed through the windshield at Magda’s house. Reaching over to the passenger seat, he grabbed a bulky paper grocery bag and opened the truck door.
Magda came outside before Aiden reached the house. He saw the wariness in her eyes, saw her preparing for an argument. He held up a hand. “Don’t worry. I’m not here to ask you for anything.”
Magda folded her arms and waited.
“I had him cremated,” Aiden said after a moment. He looked down at the gravel of the drive. “We scattered his ashes off the coast. So even if I wanted. . .”
Magda’s features softened. “Well. That’s good. I won’t ask how you’re doing. That was one of the worst things about when Cole died, people asking that all the time.”
Aiden nodded. There had been the week of drinking, and the week spent in bed, and the week snarling at anyone who spoke to him. There’d been moments of quiet and warm memories, and moments so lonely he’d thought his chest would cave in. There’d been too much food from the well-meaning neighbors, and a visit from his sister than left him wanting to be anywhere except in the house with her. Underlying all of it was the ache that he would never have the words for, but that he recognized when he looked at Magda.
“I feel like I’m ready to do something,” he said.
The idea had come to him the day before, standing at the kitchen sink. He’d looked out the window and seen a stray cat darting across the yard, and had been struck with the memory of when Milo had found an abandoned kitten several years earlier. Even though he hated cats, he’d still fed it with an eyedropper and kept it alive and healthy until they found a home for it. Aiden had let out a little laugh at the memory of Milo getting out of bed at 2:00 am and grumbling about feeding the damn kitten. With sudden clarity, Aiden realized what Milo would be doing right now if he was alive, what he would have done long ago if he’d been the one to see what hid in the woods behind Magda Warren’s house.
Aiden held up the grocery bag he’d brought from the truck. “I brought some things for them. You know. . .” He gestured toward the woods.
Magda stepped warily toward him. “What things?”
“Just. . .” he rummaged through the bag, “paper and crayons and some other art stuff. And a little CD player, for music.”
Magda looked at him silently for a moment. “What do you think they’ll get out of that?”
Aiden shrugged. “I dunno. I think they’re lonely, and they don’t know how to communicate, and you’ve been dealing with them alone. I don’t know if I can get them to talk, but maybe there’s a way to get through to them. Maybe it’ll be easier for me, since. . .”
She shifted on her feet and stared at the woods. “I don’t know how much you’ll be able to do,” she said at last, “but if you want to, go ahead and try.” She turned back toward the house. “I’ll have coffee waiting for when you get done with them.”
Finding his way to the pool was easy. There was a smell, he realized, something that got stronger as he went farther along the path. Something like earth and blood.
The thing with Missy’s face followed him there. He caught sight of her halfway to the pool, peeking from around a tree, but she darted away until he started walking again. She appeared and reappeared, getting a little closer each time. Aiden’s heart hammered whenever he caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, and he wondered how long it would take for the fear these things triggered to leave him.
Aiden stopped on the slope above the bubbling pool. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, he arranged the contents of the bag in front of him. Brush rustled off to his right. “It’s ok,” he said in a low voice. “It’s ok, you can come out.”
After a few minutes, the thing with Missy’s face edged into the clearing. “Hi,” Aiden said. When it didn’t bolt, he picked up a crayon and a sheet of drawing paper. “My name’s Aiden. I don’t really think you can understand me, but we’ll see if we can work on that. You’re alone out here, aren’t you? Why don’t you sit down with me for a little while?” As he spoke, he moved the crayon across the paper to create a swath of green hillside. To the hill he added the outlines for a little house, one similar to Magda’s. When he glanced up, he saw the thing watching the movement of the crayon, openmouthed. Aiden slowly reached over and tore off another sheet of paper. “Here,” he said, “you try.”
The thing hesitated, glancing between the sheet of paper and his face. She frowned, as if trying to work something out. Extending one of her limbs, she picked up one of the scattered crayons and lowered herself to the ground. Slowly, carefully, she pressed the tip of the crayon to the paper and began to draw.