Lady Glory and the Knave of Spades
The day the city died, Glory fell and broke her head and all her words leaked out. Ever since, she's been as braintouched as Salt 2, as bug-eyed, but hardly half as chickenshit. It was the seawater should've done Salt 2, him and Salt 1 with him, with their house dunked to its attic and them in it, and the only thing as saved them was their mom, drinking everybody's pee to keep her milk up, but the thirst cracked her for starters, then the sea cracked her for keeps, and she cried for water till the water killed her dead. We found them that same day.
Bloody batshit way to go. That's one of the few I haven't seen, but it seems most deaths have their near misses, and they come to us, or those like us, carrying their relics in their pockets and their stories on their backs. (Salt 1 still plays with her mom's sneaker like a doll. I drew a face on it for her, swapped in secret for a square of lace to pin around it for a skirt. And Salt 2 lullabies himself with songs that are not his.)
Glory, now. I didn't find her—Falling did—but I cut her palm to mine and did the naming. That was me. She'd been on the run, she and hers, and whatever pulped her family flung her free, backpack on and everything. Just a busted ankle and a line of blood out one ear and a lights-out when we carried her out of the mess where a cafe had collapsed on her heels. We fixed her up and smiled at her when she woke up screaming and named her Glory of the Fires in the Sky. Say what pleases you to say, but they were pretty, and I thought she could use a pretty name. Besides, nobody really knows what Glory saw.
It is Quarantine, not lastborn but not dead, that's telling this.
You must keep speaking properly, says Susan. By the time you're grown up, so few will remember how. I want to see you kids reading those books once in a while, she says, pointing at the floor she stands on. I want you practicing your handwriting. How many of you can spell your name?
Some hands go up. Some don't. Some, like Baby Starve, wouldn't know their name, their real one, if it came up and bit them in the ass.
Christ, she says, I'd swap the shirt off my back for some paper and a pen.
I've got a pen for you, says Drowning.
Mine's bigger, says Crash, and they laugh.
Me, I keep quiet. Susan's nice and all, and there's not that much to choose from, but she looks way too much like my mom. So much that I can't even look at Susan without seeing her, all swollen up and splotchy and bleeding out the eyes, just strong enough to keep the guard's gun off me for ten seconds while I got away.
Susan gives them the eye she used to scare her classes with, back when she had a school to teach in. Why don't you put that energy to some use, she snaps, and get that fire going? Those doves aren't about to roast themselves.
Two of the oldest boys—Falling and Crash—each jimmy a book out of the insulation and take the steps up from the shallow end. They're bitching plenty, trust me, but they go.
Susan's watching them. All this talk you hear about repopulation, she says, and snorts. I'd like to find the genius who thought that up and kick him in the balls.
So this is the year of us living in the town pool. I'm fourth oldest boy this year, sixth oldest of all. Or seventh, maybe: Glory's age is anybody's guess. We made her up a birthday. Susan's still got a watch that tells the month and date, and if it's someone's birthday that person gets to be lazy all day until dinner, and then they get the biggest share. Whoever's out on scav duty tries to find something nice for a present. Glory's first birthday with us I found her a bag of little muffins hidden under the blown-out window of a corner store. The muffins were smashed to crumbs, but the bag was sealed. That was a few years ago, though. You don't find shit like that now.
Susan put me in charge of Glory because I used to have a cousin who couldn't talk either, so she thought if any of us could communicate with her, it was me. Glory could hear fine, though, and there's plenty of people around who don't talk much, and it's not like the fall that knocked the voice from Glory gave her time to learn a word of signing, so I don't really understand what the big deal was. Maybe Susan wanted to fix Glory and me up, you know, in the interests of repopulation. Maybe it was because I gave Glory her name. Or maybe Susan just figured she was busy enough herself. We'd pulled Baby Starve out of the wreck of the shelter not a month before we found Glory, and those days it seemed like all Susan could do to keep him hush-mouthed and full-bellied and not crawling off into one of Drowning's dog traps.
So I taught Glory how to hunt squirrels. How to protect herself with a club or a shiv or her fists or her brain. What to have an eye for and what to not waste the sweat on in a scav. How to move quietly over a jackknifed bridge, a rotten floor, a mass grave littered with teeth and plastic vases and busted picture frames.
Also how to sprout clover, bake sourdough, dry crabapples. How to feed the chickens. How to stack library books for maximum insulation against the blue walls of the pool. How to keep slugs out of the soybeans and salamanders out of the catchment bins.
When to run and when to climb a tree and when to play dead. How to do all three.
How to start a fire. How to put one out.
Maybe even how to disappear.
The day I get assigned to lay traps along the treeline, Glory takes to following me around. Just picks up half my rope and a bundle of sticks for sharpening and starts walking alongside me like she'd been invited. Somebody, Susan maybe, has lent her a knife. I start walking fast to shake her—I don't like company I don't ask for—but Glory, all blistered toes in tennis shoes she outgrew last summer, more or less keeps up. I can't even hear her breathing. Even when I stop to piss the parched creekbed to mud she doesn't squat to rest like I expected, just starts digging around in the brush until she comes up with an armlength of bramble, the berries still on it, and she winds it round into a hoop and sets it on her head. Lady Glory, I call her then, because her crown makes me think of princesses in cartoons my little sister used to watch.
Her laugh is pretty. It still surprises me that there are some sounds left her broken voice can make.
We eat the berries as we walk.
My trapping route is tighter than Drowning's: where his loops way out along the road and meanders back through houses half-digested by the woods, mine's a straight shot down the treeline, one trap every fifty paces for a mile, longways, north-northeast by dead south, and this time of day we're walking straight into the sun.
Glory helps me with the traps, but we still won't lay them all in one run, not carrying on foot. I tell her, and she shrugs and tips her head up at the sun, maybe a handswidth higher than the trees by now and already leaning on us with its oven breath, as if to say There's hours left of light, then sweeps her arm down toward the woods: and shade.
We head in under the trees.
It takes us maybe two hours to run out of rope. It's turning out to be such a nice day, though, bearable even without the sun gear, that we don't much feel like going back home right away. The woods spreads out around us like a sea, and I think of explorers drifting in their tiny boats, the sun scorching them raw, surrounded by water they can't drink, like Salt 1 and 2 and their poor dead mom whose dead baby's milk kept them alive to pound the walls just long enough, whose shoe they lullaby. We might be explorers, too, Glory and me, if we could only find someplace that's new.
Over my shoulder, back and back into the woods, is what looks like maybe a path. Most of this wood is old growth, but here on the edge it's bled out in fringes across the waist-high meadows that were landscaped lawns, before. The path might have been a gravel driveway or a bike trail or a row in an orchard whose trees have since burned out and grassed over. It leads away under a hall of birches, pines, sugar maples still stabbed with sticky taps from somebody's attempt at syrup.
It's gone mossy. It looks soft.
(I've heard enough ghost stories that I half-expect pale lights off in the distance, near but not quite on the path, back where the wood goes black and damp with cover from the sun. I'm almost disappointed not to see them.)
Glory starts off down it, further in. I follow her. Why not?
A month later I still don't know what Glory saw in there. I mean, I went where she went and she went where I went and there wasn't much worth noting. There were a few abandoned pear trees, where we stopped to gather into pockets. There was a heap of old bricks from a dead house, burned but unbroken, which I told Susan about when we got home. There were a few birds within stoneshot, but all crows, and we knew better than to cook a carrion-eater. We'd gnaw belt leather first. (And have.)
There was another dead house out there, a newer one. We'd seen it before. Susan called it garish, but even I could see the longing in her eyes, dimmed only by the dry rot, the black mold, the gaping floors, the wet oakroots through the walls. It was all white clapboard siding and blue frilly bits, which Susan called gingerbread. There was a shed and a doghouse and a mailbox. They were shaped like miniature white houses with blue gingerbread.
What of the yard's flowers hadn't died had burst their gardens. There must have used to be tulips, because the mailbox had blue plastic tulips in neat white plastic terraces.
Anyway, Glory started picking flowers while I headed around back of the house to see if there was anything we'd missed when we'd searched this place before. I didn't stay there long. Partly because the place was stripped, and partly because the black pond out behind the house still gave me the creeps, even by day. I never liked it there behind me, breathing down my neck, like there was something in there waiting for its moment and then there'd not be much left of me but a drag trail and some bubbles and a yell.
So I went round the house to where I'd left Glory to her flowers. I set eyes on her and I felt my blood cramp in my veins. There she was, standing dead still in front of the dead house, maybe fifteen paces from the rotten porch, staring up at something in the window of what must've been the attic, looking like I must look with that black pond to my back. Like she'd seen a ghost.
My first reflex was to look up in the same direction. My eyes were on the window before it occurred to me that I probably didn't really want to see what might be there, but there was nothing. Not even a curtain that might catch her eye and trick it into seeing a waving arm, a standing shape, a face. Disappointed, relieved, and confused that I was both, I dropped my gaze to Glory and found her staring now at me.
What was it? I asked her.
She gestured to her eyes, then shook her head and smiled.
Playing tricks on you?
I wanted to believe her. If I believed her, I wouldn't have to know what was up there that could turn her so pale, then make her lie to me so that—what?—I wouldn't be scared too?
I tried. Really I did. But something changed in Glory then. Like something snapped in her, or something sprouted out. I was supposed to look after her. I should have seen it at the time.
When I notice how often there's no Glory there at dinner, or she shows up to duties with leaves in her hair, or Drowning comes back from trapchecking to swear he saw her in the woods, just for a second, just for a flash and gone, I take to teasing her.
How's your squatter boyfriend? I ask. How's your pet monster? How's your whatever-it-is?
She laughs and fans her cards. She's just beaten Crash in poker for the first time all day. She eases the berries from the center of the table back into her pile and hands me a few. Then holds up a card for me to see.
What? I ask. That's your monster in the attic? Sure, Glory.
She twinkles at me. I give up.
Later on I find her and Salt 1 chopping onion grass for soup. Tell us about your ghost, I say.
Salt 1 gives me this look. Much like the one Glory gave that dead house window. She hisses at me: How did you—
Not you, I tell her. Glory. Glory's got a ghost.
Why not? says Salt 1. Her family's just as gone as yours.
Not that kind of ghost. She found it in the woods. I was there. She goes back out to visit it, brings it her breadcrusts, comes back with pine needles in her shoes. I elbow Glory in the ribs. Tell her, why don't you.
Glory, of course, shakes her head. Rolls her eyes. But she won't look at me.
For a day or two I keep on asking. Starting that first time, when she showed me the poker card, she doesn't answer me the same thing twice. Once she points at a tree. Once she points at the moon. Once she throws her apron over her head and makes ghost noises. Once she picks a book at random out of the wall and flips it to the first picture she sees. It's a glossy book about a painting, and the page she opens to is a detail where a creepy-looking person with four arms and four legs and an owl for its head is juggling what look like huge cherries.
It's pretty clear by now she's not going to answer me straight. I think she just wants me to leave it alone. So I do.
I heard something crashing in the woods last night. Something louder than a deer. Later I saw Glory sitting on the rise and staring hard toward the treeline. She was wearing the necklace Susan gave her and she had some plastic graveyard flowers in her hair. She looked like she was waiting. But she wouldn't tell me why.
I try convincing myself I don't care what's happening to Glory. Not that I even know what that even is. If anything.
Another thing I don't know is why I even give a shit. Glory's not my girlfriend. I don't want her to be. If it came down to it, the repopulation that's got Susan so hopping mad, I'd pick Salt 1, if I had to choose. Really, though, there's this girl that runs with the swappers who we meet by the ravine, our books and dog jerky and crabapples for a box of matches or a can of beans, and she's got black eyes and strong legs and a wink for me every time I laugh at her dirty jokes. But Salt 1 would do.
When Glory's turn comes round to bake the bread, I skip scav duty and run off to the woods. The ground is dry, and I make good time, even lugging the monster of a beartrap that's like Drowning's pride and joy, despite it never catching anything better than a sick raccoon. I told Fever I was helping Salt 1 dig for soup roots, and he just took Susan's dog with him for scav partner instead, without so much as asking why, so I should make it there and back before anyone gets to wondering.
While I'm hauling that rusted piece of garbage through the woods I'm thinking about the day I gave Glory her name, when I explained to her how naming works. What should have killed her, what killed the rest with her, that's what she's stronger than, I told her. To name her for it's like a prayer to disaster, like catching lightning on your roof so your house doesn't get hit.
She'd asked Susan with her eyes: What about you?
Nothing's coming for me now, sweetie, Susan said. I'm too old for death to care.
The dead house still looks the same. I circle round it twice, and all that's different, from here at least, is what might be a set of muddy footprints leading to the front door from somewhere around back by where the pond is. The grass is higher than even Drowning could track through, though, and I don't try to follow them. Whatever might be in that pond can stay there till the damn thing dries to dust. That's fine with me.
I leave the trap outside.
Inside the house, I don't waste time. I start looking for the way up to the attic. First I'm watching the ceilings for hatches, but when I run out of ceilings it occurs to me that despite the plastic siding, this is a pretty old house. I start looking for stairs.
Of course I find them soon enough. There's a little door behind the kitchen door, narrow enough that at first I take it for a closet and miss it on my first pass through. On my second pass I open it. Behind it there's the flight of stairs, barely wide enough to climb, but not creepy and rickety like I'd expected. There's not even much dust.
It's getting on for twilight now, and there's no way in hell I want to be up there in the dark, so I give myself a good verbal kick in the ass and go stomping up the stairs.
It's quieter up there. That's the first thing I notice. The attic is a long low space with exposed beams in the ceilings and darkness beyond. I half expect something to reach down out of those shadows and haul me up to disappear. I half expect a lot of things up there, but I get my back pressed into a corner and don't flinch when I look around.
The attic's mostly empty, really. Between our scav duties and the swappers and who knows who else's efforts, the whole house is pretty much stripped. Up here there's a broken table and a ruined braid rug and a huge moldering couch that could not possibly have fit up those narrow stairs. Nothing else between me and the window.
I cross the attic to it. There's just the one window, so whatever Glory saw, it was standing exactly where I'm standing now. It's old, this window, old enough that the glass has settled in ripples and I can't see out too clearly. There's the porch below me, then my trap and the yard and the shed, then the wall of trees where the woods are shouldering back in.
And out there, just in under the trees, something moves. Something quick. I remember now how Drowning said that he'd see Glory out here, sometimes, too fast to quite make out. But Glory isn't fast. Glory can't run for shit. And Glory's smaller than the thing I see, that all at once I can't see anymore. Just the branches swaying, stilling, still.
Suddenly, I don't much want to turn around.
There's my choice, though, turn around and run or stay and let the thing come up and kill me, or else stay and starve. Not much of a choice. I spin around, eyes on the floor in front of me, and hurl myself across the room, down the stairs, out the house—only just missing stepping in my beartrap; Drowning won't like it, but there's no chance of stopping now, not right here on the front porch like I've got a target painted on my back—and back through the woods and the meadow toward Susan's cookfire in the distance. It's dark when I stagger through the fence, and it's all I can do to haul in a full breath, but right now I don't care about that, or about the way they're all staring when I slam the gate shut behind me as hard as I can.
All but Glory. It takes me a minute to realize that she, alone of all of them, is not looking at me. What she's looking at is just behind me or above, out just past the cast light of the fire.
The day Glory vanishes, Susan sends me and Drowning out with the dog to look for her. We come back with no Glory, and the next day and the next she sends us out again, and her face falls more each day, until one day we realize we're not looking for Glory anymore, but Glory's corpse. That day we all go, Susan too, except for Salt 1 minding Baby Starve with the fires going and the catchment bins hauled inside and the lock down on the gates.
I go kicking around in the fields for Susan's sake. I holler Glory, Glory with Susan even though it's clear she knows better than to hear anyone answering. After a while I shake the others and I sneak down to the dead house in the woods and drag the black pond by myself until it's too dark out to see. Then I report back that I've found nothing. Which is mostly true.
Nicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with one husband, three ferrets, the cutest baby in the universe, and many, many books. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several magazines and anthologies, including Best American Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Ideomancer, GUD, Goblin Fruit, Lone Star Stories, and Idylls in the Shadows, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her first novel, Desideria, is available on Amazon. She can be found online at www.nicolekornherstace.com or wirewalking.livejournal.com.