The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
by Michelle Joy Gallagher
There are sleepers in the tall grass” she said quietly. “We must not wake them.
He said nothing. Never even looked up. He sat cross legged in front of the fire, carving a path in the dirt with a sharp rock.
Today had been good. She had been herself. Coherent. Almost cheerful. But there was something about nightfall that flipped a switch inside her. They’d worked all day gathering wood, tanning hides, checking traps, mending the holes in the fishing net, and she had kept up with him. Sure strides, steady hands, sharp sight. It reminded him of when they were just little and they’d set off together at sunrise and did not return til the sun had buried itself in the bosom of the hills to the west.
Of course, he’d heard about sleepers. She had too. From the old crone, before she traveled to the next plane. And from their mother’s mother, who would greet them with stern looks after they’d returned from a full day of adventures. A warning in a glance. Eyes that said “you are not being careful enough. You don’t know what waits.”
Sleepers, they’d said, walked between worlds, and would take shelter and rest in the tall grass when the moon was high, as to escape detection and exhaustion. Once recovered, they’d continue their journeys through this world to the next and the next.
“There are sleepers, brother. Please, keep still.”
The hand the guided the rock smoothly through the fine dirt paused momentarily. He kept his eyes down. Shook his head.
“Ain’t no such.”
She stood and crossed the distance between them lithely, as if she was still that little girl out exploring valley. Toe to heel, more grace than her thick frame should have allowed.
She had the full face of their mother; high cheekbones, wide jaw, round cheeks. Her eyes were dark and deliberate and deep. She knelt to face him. He glanced up for the first time in hours. When he did, for a moment he believed his mother was there before him, back from the dead, ready to love him back to reason, and his heart leapt against his chest.
She slowly took the stone from his hand, kissed him on the forehead, then stood and threw the stone as hard and as far as she could into the grass surrounding their encampment.
The stone made a dull thud as it sank through the dry grass and found purchase in the soft dirt.
Nothing, save for a cautious cricket momentarily pausing his chirping.
He glanced up and met her eyes with a sorrowful look, as if to say “See, your mind has rotted, but I give up.”
Every night like this, with the day before to torture him with a semblance of normalcy. He can’t remember when last he slept.
She gazed at the horizon momentarily, then started her graceful strides into the grass in the direction she threw the rock, arms out at her waist as if wading into water. He watched her go with a detached sort of pity and a small sliver of anger he knew would grow larger with each passing day. He already resented her, he was just too tired to show it.
He watched her as she went, the tall grass and the pitch black outside of the fire’s influence finally enveloping her.
Then came the scream.
He rolled his eyes when it began, wondering what new torture her madness had devised for him, who’s duty it was to see to her safety.
But it was a sustained scream, full of anguish and pain, and he struck out toward the sound of it. Finding his love for her finally at the bottom of his misery, sleeping soundly and suddenly awakened by the threat of her harm.
His foot caught on some unseen disturbance in the grass, and he fell face first to the dirt, the smell of iron and ions from the recent storm intoxicating as he lay disoriented in the dark.
He felt blindly for purchase still reeling from the fall, and his fingers found something tacky and warm and out of place. He dragged himself up on his knees to find the moonlight glinting off of what appeared at first glance to be a skinned deer carcass discarded by some hapless hunter.
Then he saw the necklace their mother had worn as long as he could remember. The same one that was given to his sister when the cold had taken their mother last winter. She’d worn it ever since. It laid beside the carcass, discarded.
Blood pooled around the carcass, a black, still lake that reflected his new understanding. Mocked it.
The skin had been neatly removed and was missing. Her organs bare and sickly glistening. He vomited down his front and tried to stand.
He was struck down before he could find his feet.
Laid out on his back he met the eyes of something almost formless, a void or a dark cloud in the shape of a man, that shifted and changed as it moved.
“Sleeper…” he whispered, and then met the dark beyond dark.
Fiction © Copyright Michelle Joy Gallagher
Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
More from author Michelle Joy Gallagher:
Blackhawk: Volume 2
Welcome to Blackhawk, Colorado. Blackhawk has always been strange. Natural disasters. Disappearances. Murders. High strangeness is a part of daily life. We can’t hope to explain it, but we can chronicle its past. Learn from it. Fear it. Blackhawk is an experimental fiction series set in a shared universe, written by a variety of talented authors. It is the brainchild of David M Brown (Plague Doctor, Modern Animals) and Carl D Smith (Moleb the Giant, Darkness Out of Carthage). Each story will contribute to an organic, evolving mythology as diverse as the voices behind its tales. For fans of True Detective, Lost Highway, Twilight Zone, and The Terror. This is Volume Two of the series and contains five stories by five different authors, each in tune with the specific strangeness Blackhawk has to offer. NOTE: For fans of Lake Lord Publishing’s prior horror titles, be warned that Blackhawk will contain content that is perhaps more disturbing and mature.
Please don’t forget to visit the other WiHM 11 projects taking place!