Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 2

  My feet slow as I walk toward a telephone pole. The wires lie spaghetti-twisted on the ground below it, and tacked to the front is a piece of paper at odds with this trashed, forgotten neighborhood. The paper is daffodil yellow—not sun bleached or water warped or wind frayed. I take a closer look.

  REWARD

  1–4 marks = 1 oz honey

  5–7 marks = 2 oz honey

  8–9 marks = 3 oz honey

  10 marks = 8 oz honey

  To claim reward, marked one must be alive.

  Payments made Sundays @ Southgate or Northgate.

  No payment for dead body.

  Sincerely, Governor Jacoby Soneschen

  I walk past the daffodil-yellow paper and round a corner in the deserted street, and a dog barks—the first sound that I haven’t made myself since leaving my house. More dogs join in, and my heart speeds up, a weak, dehydrated fluttering against my ribs. Four houses ahead, a window reflects evening sunlight … and the window is whole. Several dogs stand in the front yard below that window, teeth bared, saliva strings dangling from their barking mouths, yanking against the chains that keep them from charging me. My steps slow and I glance at my right hand. The flesh-colored makeup still hides the tattoo. When I look back up, four men stand in the yard with the dogs, and each man holds a gun pointed at me.

  M16 assault rifle. The name flitters into my confused brain. And I can remember the day my dad taught me to shoot.

  The guys at the Buckley Air Force Base always saluted Dad, even though he wheeled himself up to the platform in a wheelchair—his final badge of military duty, one he could never leave home without.

  “This your kid?” one guy asked, looking at me where I cowered behind the wheelchair. I stared up at his camouflage clothes, his broad shoulders, and tried to imagine my dad dressed like that and standing tall.

  “Yeah. She’s eleven,” Dad said. “Figured it was time to teach her to shoot. ”

  The guy nodded approval but looked skeptical. “Never too young to start ’em out. Just warn her about the recoil. We wouldn’t want her leaving with a black eye. ”

  The rest of the time at the shooting range was a blur of guns, noise-muffling ear covers, and recoils that flung me backward, but I remember the look in my dad’s eyes at the end of the lesson. And the other men’s eyes. Surprise.

  “With the finger control you’re learning in piano, you’ll be a sharpshooter in no time,” Dad said, his hazel eyes glowing with pride.

  One by one, the M16s are lowered as the men study me. I take a tentative step forward, and all four guns point at me before I can flinch. I don’t move.

  “Ellen, come here!” one of the men calls, staring at me through the scope on his gun. He seems to be the oldest of the four. His hair is white, at least.

  The front door opens, and a thin, hard woman steps onto a front porch edged with shrub skeletons. The white-haired man nods toward me. The woman puts her hands on her bony hips and squints. I have seen her before. She is the mother of one of my schoolmates. I used to play at this house, and this woman was always baking. She used to be as soft and round as her cookies.

  She presses a hand to her heart. “Dear Lord Almighty, that’s Fiona Tarsis. If she doesn’t have the mark of the beast, let her pass. ”

  Three of the four guns lower.

  “Hold up your hand,” the white-haired man calls. I lift both my hands over my head, palms facing them—a sign of surrender. “No. Your right hand,” he says, voice hard and mistrusting. “Show me the back of your right hand. ”

  Of course. He wants to see my tattoo. I turn my right hand, palm facing me, tattoo facing him.

  Ellen sighs, the sound carrying down the quiet street. “She’s clean. ”

  The fourth gun is lowered, but none of the men relax.

  “Get on past here, Fiona,” the white-haired man calls. I nod and start jogging. As I pass the house, the dogs go ballistic, jerking against the chains anchoring them in place. I stare into the front yard and study the men. But I was wrong about something. Only three are men. The fourth, the one who kept the M16 trained on me the longest, is Jacqui, my old schoolmate.

  But there’s something really wrong with her. She’s on the verge of being an adult. And her thick brown hair is cut like a boy’s—short as a soldier’s.

  “Get on by,” the white-haired man warns. I stare straight ahead and jog as fast as my weary legs will carry me, which is not very fast.

  Just as I pass the edge of their property, a shadow appears beside me. I gasp and cover my head with my arms.

  “Fo—Fiona!” It’s Jacqui—the older, womanly version of her in spite of her boy hair. Her hands are in my hair, twisting it, shoving it down the back of my shirt. “Cut your hair off,” she says, eyes scared. She presses something into my hand and retreats to her front yard. I look at what she’s given me and frown. A half-eaten snack pack of crackers. The sight of them makes my parched throat clamp shut, so I stuff them into my pocket.

  Movement catches my eye. In the last rays of the setting sun, a child perches on the roof of Jacqui’s house, a gun in his small hands, his eyes darting all about. Behind a fence in Jacqui’s backyard, I can see the tops of cornstalks. Green cornstalks. In the midst of the corn stands Ellen, trailing a fine-bristled brush over the feathery wisps that shoot out at the top of the corn, moving from plant to plant in a methodical, deliberate manner. Painting the corn.

  I look back up at the boy. He can’t be more than eight years old, but the way he holds the gun, he might as well have held it in the womb. He glares at me and aims in my direction. I turn and continue down the littered, deserted road.

  When I get far enough from Jacqui’s house that I can no longer see the boy, I stop. With the sun gone, the air fuses with twilight and darkness creeps in, unsettling my nerves, giving me the impression that something hides in the shadows. Something teases my ears. I pause and survey the decrepit houses haunting the street. I peer into the black, glassless windows and feel as if someone is watching me. I pray I’m imagining it.

  Shelter. I need to find shelter. I step over trash, over bleached human bones, over tree branches and tumbleweeds and empty plastic bottles strewn across the road. With every step the approaching night grows darker, making it harder to see, harder to tell the difference between trash and road. Harder to tell the difference between real and imagined.

  A dog barks behind me, and the desire to find shelter makes me frantic.

  I run, dodging trash, and jump over a mangled car door. When I land, my knees buckle beneath my weight. I squat on my heels and rest my hands on my knees. Panting, I lick my peeling lips, but my tongue holds no moisture. I need water almost as much as I need air. More than I need shelter.

  Another dog joins the first, a distant barking that echoes down the road, driving me to action. I stand unsteadily and face the silent houses. There has to be water in one of them. Maybe left in a toilet tank. Or forgotten in a teakettle. Or caught in the coils of a garden hose. Ignoring the instincts that warn me to stay out of the houses, I walk toward the closest one, staring at the gaping windows.

  I step up onto the sidewalk and pause. My skin tightens as if something is watching me, like the darkness will devour me if I take another step.

  More dogs start barking. A gun explodes, echoing like thunder. I turn and look down the dark road toward Jacqui’s house, and the gun explodes again. Raised voices fill the night, mixed with the frantic barking. Someone screams—a deep, male scream—and a gun goes off again. And then there is nothing but the ringing in my ears.

  Something grabs my arm and I am yanked backward, tripping over trash and the curb and my own feet. I scream, but my throat is too dry to muster up anything more than a croak.

  “Shut up!” someone snaps, the person dragging me to the middle of the street, to the black ring of an old tire. The person, a short wisp of a human—a child—releases my arm and shoves the
tire away. Beneath it sits a barely visible manhole. Metal echoes hollowly as the lid is slid aside, and then the shadow launches itself into the hole in the road and disappears. I peer down into the blackness and cringe at the dead-animal-and-raw-sewage smell wafting up.

  A pale hand darts out of the opening and grabs my ankle.

  “Hurry up and jump, or you’ll be worse than dead!” the child hisses, digging ragged nails into my skin. And then I hear a new sound. Footsteps. Lots. Pounding against pavement faster than my frantic heart pounds against my chest. Getting closer.

  “Fine! Stay up there. Freaking idiot!”

  The manhole starts scraping back into place as the footsteps thump closer. I peer down the dark road toward the sound of the footsteps and see a hoard of shadows approaching—big, broad-shouldered shapes silhouetted by starlight.

  I swallow, step, and plummet into darkness.

  Chapter 3

  I soar through darkness but only for a heartbeat. My feet impact the ground and sink, the squishy floor absorbing the jolt from my fall. It is like standing at the edge of the ocean and letting the incoming tide wash the sand over my feet until I can’t pull them out without wiggling them loose. I move my feet and the ground squelches.

  Above me, stars shine in a sphere, a halfmoon, a crescent, and then there’s darkness as the manhole locks back into place, the child panting with the effort of it. My feet squelch again, and the child leaps to the ground and grabs me, nails digging into my shoulder and pulling me down.

  Lips are on my ear, and I can’t tell which smells worse—the child or the air. “Shut up or I’ll kill you,” it whispers. A small hand comes over my mouth, and something cold and rough slides against my throat. I swallow a spitless swallow, and my throat bobs against sharp roughness. I hardly dare breathe.

  Above, the hollow smack of feet echoes. The child and I stay frozen in a tense embrace, my mouth still covered by a grimy hand, the sharpness warming against my neck.

  The footsteps pass, but the child doesn’t move a muscle. Yet the child’s heart thunders against my back. We stand frozen together for a long time—until the child’s heart slows—and then, without a sound, I’m released. I stumble forward, arms flailing in pitch-blackness. A hand grabs my elbow before I fall, and the child starts guiding me through the darkness, over the squelching floor. The child’s feet don’t squelch. Just mine.
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