by Ashley Libey
She stood as still as she could. Her hands trembled, and she couldn’t quite catch her breath. She was lightheaded and nauseous. Her mother swung the axe for the last time and then stood quietly, looking down at the ground, unaware that her daughter was still behind her. The thing was there, laying still now. Not moving. No longer making those awful noises.
Abby shifted slightly. The taffeta of her dress crinkled, and her mother turned. A lock of hair had come loose from her mother’s chignon and hung, curled by her cheek.
“Abby, you should have gone back inside when I told you to.” Her mother sounded tired and matter of fact. She closed the distance between them and put an arm around Abby’s shoulders, careful to hold the axe slightly away from her own bright pink cocktail dress. Abby’s heart slowed just a bit. She leaned her face into her mother’s warm stomach, the fabric of her mother’s dress somehow still immaculate. The fence was splattered with the same reeking, black tar that clung to the blade of the axe.
Abby peeked past her mother at the thing on the ground. It still lay perfectly still. Abby’s heart raced, and she felt nauseous all over again seeing the body once more. It’s back looked as though it had been broken. She was sure it would have never bent that way while alive. It was covered in scales the exact color of the dead fish her brother had made her look at by the river last week.
“It’s dead now,” her mother said. She saw where Abby was looking. She turned Abby away and began to walk carefully toward the house, ensuring her stilettos wouldn’t sink too far into the muddy ground. Abby glanced back. Her mother’s warm hand cupped Abby’s chin and made her look up.
“It’s dead now,” she repeated. She looked down, into her daughter’s eyes, and Abby realized that her mother didn’t look scared. Instead she looked tired and solemn and resolved. “It’s dead,” her mother repeated.
Abby took a deep breath and nodded. Her heart slowed just a bit. Looking at her mother’s face made her feel a glimmer of calm.
“Go inside and fetch your brother,” her mother told her. “Have a cookie. Everything is fine now. And the Johnsons will be here soon.”
Abby nodded and scurried back into the house. The kitchen was bright and spotless just like it always was. It smelled of pot roast and baked carrots. The dishes were all laid out neatly on the counter, aluminum foil wrapped over them to keep the heat in. Abby grabbed a cookie from the jar by the fridge and stared at it. She didn’t think she could eat it. She stuffed it into her dress pocket and ran into the living room, stumbling to a stop next to the squishy recliner her brother was usually found in. He was playing a video game and didn’t look up at her.
“Mom’s outside,” she blurted, breathless all over again. She shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
Her brother paused the game and looked at her. “And?” he asked, sounding bored. He was only three years ahead of Abby’s nine, but thought himself far superior.
“She wants you,” Abby told him. “One of those things from the news was out there.”
Her brother frowned at her. Abby was clutching the front of her dress in both hands. She realized and tried to smooth the dress out, but she had already wrinkled it. She put her hand in her pocket. She’d broken her cookie and now had nothing but dust and crumbs. Her brother nodded and got up from the couch. He slipped on his dress shoes and walked past her, patting her head as he went. Abby swatted his hand away.
She counted to five and then crept to the back door. She peeked through the curtain at her mother and brother. Her mother and brother both had thick garden gloves on and were dragging the thing to the fire pit. Her mother disappeared into the shed briefly and returned with a red can of gasoline. Abby watched as her mother poured all the gasoline into the fire pit, shaking it to get the last drops out. She handed a book of matches to her brother and he lit a match. They both stepped back as her brother dropped it.
Abby blinked at the bright light as the fire ravenously caught. It flashed white several times, then quickly dimmed to a dark blue. The flames crept along the body searchingly. Her mother and brother stood side by side, silhouetted against the flames. He reached for their mother’s hand.
The doorbell rang, and Abby jumped. She glanced at the clock. Six thirty. The Johnsons. They were always on time.
She ran to the front door and peeked through the window on the side. Mr. Johnson was standing there, looking somehow bored and impatient at the same time, arms crossed. Mrs. Johnson was smiling into a compact and reapplying her lipstick. It was dark red and made her mouth look bloody and ragged.
Abby opened the door a crack.
“Can I help you?” she asked. She worried that if she let them in her mother and brother wouldn’t be done in the backyard yet. That would lead to questions Abby wasn’t sure how to answer.
“Abby!” Mr. Johnson declared. “We’re here for dinner. Surely you know? Let us in, little girl.” He leaned toward the crack in the door and lowered his voice. “They say it’s not safe to linger in the dark.” He laughed a little ‘oof’ of a laugh and shook his head ironically at this last bit, as though he thought it to be nonsense. Mrs. Johnson laughed along with him, a quiet chirrupy laugh, and flicked her hair over one shoulder.
Abby opened the door. “Well, if you really want to,” she said. She stood aside and let them in. Mr. Johnson shrugged off his overcoat and held it out to Abby.
“Well, where’s your mother at?” he asked. Abby hung his coat on the coat rack and held her hand out for Mrs. Johnson’s long fur coat. Mrs. Johnson sneered at her and hugged her coat tighter. She reeked of perfume. Abby watched, transfixed, as she took out her lipstick and began reapplying it once more. Not even bothering to look in her compact, Mrs. Johnson ran the lipstick around and around her mouth. The color was beginning to bleed past her lips. She stared at Abby with cold, dark eyes. Abby felt lightheaded all over again. Mrs. Johnson’s perfume was so strong. And there was something else. Some other smell.
“Don’t mind Linda, Abby. She’s been cold all day,” Mr. Johnson told her. He put a hand on his wife’s back and they walked down the hallway and into the dining room. Abby trailed behind.
“Where’s your mother, Abby?” Mr. Johnson asked once more.
“She’s busy right now,” Abby said.
“Well, can you let her know we’re here?” he asked her. He checked his watch and huffed quietly. “Not even ready,” he muttered to himself.
“Sure. Be right back.” Abby turned to go through the kitchen door when something caught her eye. Mrs. Johnson’s mouth looked lopsided. It was hanging to one side like a ragged tear across her face. Abby was sure it hadn’t looked that way when they’d come in. Mr. Johnson didn’t appear to have noticed, but then again, he rarely seemed to notice much about his wife. He was comparing the time on his watch to the clock on the wall. He shook his head, pulled the clock off the wall, and began to fiddle with the back of it. Mrs. Johnson’s head turned sharply as she caught Abby’s stare. She reached up and touched her mouth, then pushed it back into place. She smiled. No. She didn’t smile. Mrs. Johnson showed Abby her teeth. They were smeared and globbed with her red lipstick. Abby turned on her heel and ran to the kitchen door. She flung it open and darted across the yard, her chest feeling as though it were being squeezed.
Her mother and brother were pouring buckets of water on the ashes in the fire pit. The smoke stank horribly.
“Mom! They’re here!” Abby gasped as some of the smoke blew in her eyes. They immediately began to sting and water.
“Right on time.” Her mother’s face was grim. “I think that’s enough, Dylan.” Abby’s brother put the bucket down and followed their mother toward the house.
“Mom!” Abby whispered, tugging on her mother’s elbow. “Mom, Mrs. Johnson!” They crossed the threshold into the kitchen.
“What, Abby?” Her mother shook her off her arm as she poured more sauce onto the pot roast.
“Mrs. Johnson. She’s weird!” Abby hissed. She felt panicked; she wasn’t saying it right. Her heart was beating so fast. She took a deep breath.
“She’s always been a little weird, honey,” her mother whispered back. She gestured to her brother to carry the pot roast and picked up the bowl of salad.
“But she’s wrong! She’s wrong!” Abby looked at her mother with pleading eyes. She didn’t know how to say it. She wasn’t even sure what was happening, but she knew Mrs. Johnson was no longer Mrs. Johnson.
“What?” Abby’s mother cupped her chin and studied her face for the second time that day. “What do you mean?”
Just then Mr. Johnson flung open the kitchen door. “Margaret! We’re starving. Don’t mind feeding us, do you?” He laughed at his own joke.
“Of course not,” Abby’s mother trilled.
Abby followed her mother and brother into the dining room, bobbing about nervously. Abby tugged at her mother’s elbow again.
“Go sit, Abby.” Her mother sounded a bit cross.
Abby shuffled toward the table and sat down in her normal spot with her back to the kitchen door. Her brother sat on her right, at one the end of the table. Mr. Johnson had placed himself at the other end. Mrs. Johnson came and sat down on Abby’s left. Mrs. Johnson smiled at her again and brushed the back of Abby’s hand with her fingertips, scratching her with one long red nail. Abby jerked her hand away and looked at Mr. Johnson, but he was busy talking to Abby’s mother, who was starting to carve the pot roast.
“I’ve fixed your clock there, Margaret. It was four minutes slow.”
“Why thank you, Harold.” Abby’s mother was all politeness and good cheer.
“Do you believe any of this nonsense they’re plastering all over the news these days, Margaret?” Mr. Johnson leaned back in his chair, clearly in his element—talking someone’s ear off. “They have their own land, their own space. We’ve lived peacefully side by side for decades. I mean, this is the twenty third century for crying out loud. We’ve gotten along for almost a hundred years. Why would they attack us now? And all this nonsense about them eating us and then wearing us like skins. It’s all politics and propaganda if you ask me.”
A strange growling sound emanated from Mrs. Johnson. Everyone turned to look at her. She smiled and patted her stomach. Mr. Johnson laughed heartily. Abby froze, afraid to move.
“Why indeed,” her mother murmured.
Abby watched as her mother held Mrs. Johnson’s gaze. Mrs. Johnson’s smile widened. She showed more of her teeth, smeared with red. Abby’s mother smiled calmly back.
“If you wouldn’t mind excusing me just one moment,” Abby’s mother said. “I’ve forgotten the carrots.” She passed behind Abby and into the kitchen.
Mr. Johnson continued yammering this time in Dylan’s direction. Abby stared in horror as Mrs. Johnson scratched at her cheek. Her skin moved unnaturally, as though it were not quite attached. Abby sat, frozen and gripped her steak knife as Mrs. Johnson scratched at her neck, her skin sliding about. Mrs. Johnson noticed Abby’s attention and smiled, showing her red, red teeth. She reached out and gently stroked Abby’s hand. Abby yanked her hand away and caught another whiff of Mrs. Johnson’s perfume along with the something else she thought she had smelled earlier. It was something dead.
“Margaret!” Mr. Johnson spluttered. “What in the world?!”
Abby jerked her head forward and saw her mother’s shadow on the wall. She had the axe raised.
About the Author
Ashley Libey received her Bachelor’s in English Literature from Western Washington University in 2011. She worked briefly as an editorial assistant for a book reviewer and holds a deep, dark understanding of the slush pile. She enjoys reading works from all genres (apart from romance, ew) and currently mediates an online writing group. Ashley can usually be found writing, dancing tango, or crocheting yet another blanket.