In the schoolyard, in an ungated part of the city, the children played behind the electric fence. Hopscotch. Handball. Monkey Bars. Jump rope.
A little girl, her hair in tight cornrows, jumped to the rhythm set by two other children. She chanted:
"I made my bed and I ate my greens,
Why oh why is my mama so mean?
I never lied and I never stole,
'Cause if I did they'd throw me to the Troll!"
At the word 'troll,' all but one of the children threw themselves to the ground, limbs akimbo and tongues sticking out in infantile imitation of death. The one child still standing put her hands on her hips.
"That's not funny!" she cried.
The other children giggled.
"It isn't! My cousin got eaten by a troll!"
A little boy sat up. "That's sad."
The girl who had been jumping looked at the standing one. "Have you ever seen a troll?"
The jumper puffed out her chest. "I have."
"Have not!" cried another child.
"I have too!"
"If you had, it would have eaten you," the standing girl reasoned.
"Well, it didn't, so there."
"What did it look like?" asked a boy.
"Like a troll!"
Then the bell rang, and the children ran back into the school. The teachers counted heads, then locked the doors. Outside, a pigeon landed on the electric fence for a moment. There was a buzz and a hint of smoke, and it fell off. No one saw it.
1 Day Before
"And in other news, Indonesian refugees stream into Australia, raising risks by authorities that unlawful fauna may be brought with them. While experts admit that it is highly unlikely that any of them will be hitchhiking in the makeshift rafts, it cannot be discounted as a possibility.
"Last night, a tenement fire in the ungated south of the city caused-"
Eva flicked off the television set. I need a drink.
She got herself a glass of gin, then sat back down on the couch, staring at the black screen still crackling with electricity.
God, what am I doing? Eva massaged her temples with her fingers, closing her eyes. I need to get out. See a movie. Do something.
One of her cats, Lumpkin probably, rubbed itself against her shin. She reached down to rub the animal's head.
The phone rang.
Eva's hand was on it by the time it rang again, bringing it up to her ear, her eyes wide.
"Hello, yes. Is this Eva Westergard?" The voice was brisk and male, unfamiliar. "This is Officer Allbert from the police."
"Oh, oh yes. Yes. Speaking."
"We think we finally have obtained closure on your son."
"Yes. Our forensics experts are still going over the evidence, but we think we found the one."
Eva closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing. She felt as though the world was closing, pressing in on her. Her head throbbed.
Officer Allbert was still talking. "As a courtesy, the next of kin are invited to view the site. For closure."
"Do you really think I want to look?" Eva's voice sounded harsher than she'd meant it to. "After two years?"
"It's perfectly acceptable if you don't want to. But the hazards crew will have to purge the site within the next few days."
"I…" Eva swallowed thickly. Maybe it would help. Maybe it would be good for her to see it. Just to understand. To wrap her mind around it.
"No," she said. "I do want to see it."
"You are welcome to visit the site at 10:00 tomorrow morning. It is located at 245 L Street."
"What? There must be a mistake. That's right next to the school."
"That is where we found the den, Ms. Westergard."
"Oh my god."
"Try to be sharp. We are going to purge the area afterwards."
"Yes, I… alright. I'll be there. Thank you."
The phone clicked.
Eva put it down and looked around. She twitched her fingers, first clasping her hands, then moving them to her wrists, her elbows. What am I doing? I won't like this. What will it look like? Will there be bones? Blood? God! No, no. They clean these sites up. It won't be bad. There won't be-
Her eyes flicked to the photograph on the kitchen counter. Eva. Man. Toddling child with bright eyes, pasta sauce smeared across his face. In the picture, he was only 2 years old.
Eva shoved her possessions into her purse. Chapstick. Wallet. Datebook. Pens. Bus schedule. Government- issue Red revolver. And a Swiss-Army Knife, in case the Red revolver jams.
She hated taking the bus in this part of town. All the people shoved together, some of them not even bothering to hide their Red revolvers. True, that was the government recommendation for unsafe areas. It just took some getting used to. Eva still preferred to hide hers. It just felt strange to carry a gun, even a Red revolver, around in the open, like some kind of maniac. Or like someone who didn't trust the gates.
Right. No gates here. She was forgetting caution so quickly…
The bus slowed down, and Eva shifted her weight. Her shoulder brushed the arm of a middle-aged man, and he jumped visibly, his hand twitching for the Red revolver at his waist. Good instincts, her Lew would have said. There's a reason he's middle aged. Lew had always had such a unique way of looking at things. Eva now knew that it was normal here.
Eva got off, and stepped out onto the street. It was a classic gateless area. Garbage, broken down cars, faint smell of exhaust. No people around, but plenty of graffiti. And there, a cross made of scrap metal, a white flower laid alongside.
She walked past the schoolyard, empty except for the armed guards in their riot gear standing by the entrances in the electric fence. Seeing them, Eva felt sick to her stomach. She wanted to grab them, shake them, wanted to scream at them: Where were you?
But she swallowed her bile, and walked to the apartment building. It wasn't hard to find. There were police cars out front.
She climbed to room 154, where a policeman stood outside the caution tape, his Red revolver standing out starkly against his black uniform, a clear warning.
"Ah," he said. "Ms. Westergard, presumably?"
"Yes." Eva looked down at the slip of paper with the apartment number. "Officer Allbert?"
"Yes. Glad to see you made it."
"You look shook up. Not used to gateless areas, are you?" The corner of the policeman's mouth twitched.
Eva shook her head. "It's been a few years. It's hard to believe I used to think I could live like this."
"Hm. How are you finding your new neighborhood?"
Eva frowned. Was that spite? This man wasn't prejudiced, was he? "It's very nice, thank you. Very safe."
"Good for you. To tell you the truth, you're very lucky. Most parents never get closure."
"Mhm. Hunting these things… it's not easy. They're damn good at hiding. Under floorboards, in attics, basements, walls. To be honest, we usually don't bother much more than cleanup."
Eva stared. "Oh," she said.
"Anyway, come on in." Officer Allbert ducked under the caution tape and bid her do the same.
The inside of the apartment was spare. No furniture or other signs of habitation. Just the walls, a naked light fixture, and a large dark stain on the ratty carpet.
"This is where we shot it," said Allbert. "It was a big female, weighed about 430 pounds. One cub found under the sink in the kitchenette, one in the hall closet, and one under the floorboards. We had to excavate it out."
"And my son?"
Officer Allbert sighed. "We found teeth that seemed to match the dental record."
Eva nodded, staring fixedly at the floor. After an uncomfortable moment, she said; "I would like to have some time alone."
"Of course. We'll give you as long as you like."
The officer left, his footsteps muffled against the carpet. Eva closed her eyes, and shivered.
Two years… god, two years. What could she say she'd done in that time? Grey, fuzzy memories of taking the bus to work, watching television, pushing paper, petting cats that she touched with only slightly more emotion than she did her television remote.
So much more vibrant in her mind's eye was Lew, laughing, kissing, embracing. His little habits, so exotic to a girl from the gates. The way he shyly avoided eye contact. The way he touched her gently on her shoulder blade to say 'do not be afraid.' The way he smiled without showing his teeth.
And Nicholas! Her Nicholas! His hands, his feet, his cries, his laughter. His eyes (hazel), skin (medium olive), hair (dark like his father's, not light like hers). His favorite ice cream flavor (chocolate chip) and his favorite lullaby (Hush Little Baby, though she always sang it 'Hush Little Nicky'). Every little inch of him, every second and minute and hour of him, and it would never be enough.
Eva choked. She walked over to the wall and leaned against it, her breath hitching. Tears ran down her face and dropped into the heating vent on the floor. She quickly wiped her cheek.
Her brow furrowed. What was that?
Scratch scratch rustle.
Eva looked to her sides, up, and down. No one was there. Was the sound coming from the heating vent?
She bent over and looked at the vent. She couldn't see well enough through the grate. She had half a mind to call for Officer Allbert, but discarded the thought when she saw movement. She reached into her purse for the Swiss-Army Knife, and used it to remove the grate.
She lifted the grate, and was rewarded by a frenzy of scrambling. Eva knelt and peered into the dimness, and two circles of reflected light stared back at her. She inhaled sharply and jerked back.
There was a sound, like a cross between a squeak and a mewl, and out crawled…
She'd seen pictures. On the news, in books. Seen the messy, scrawled graffiti, like a child's conception of sharp teeth and claws. Heard the preschool rhymes. So it shouldn't be so surprising. But no one had ever told her that it would have big, soulful eyes, or a pink, hairless face and belly. No one made popular the fact that they had such delicate fingers, or a face like a sad hound dog, but a little deeper and without the wet nose. No one said they were soft and furry, or had a round belly and a tail like a cat.
It blinked in the light, then stood up on two legs, folding up its long arms and looking around curiously. It squeaked again. It was a little sound, a baby sound.
Eva's breath rushed out. Her eyes flicked at the door, then back to the creature. Looked down at her Swiss Army Knife. Looked at the grate.
When she looked back at the creature, it crawled forward, unsteady, and put its paw (hand?) on hers. It squeaked.
Eva reached up with her other hand, perhaps to push it away, perhaps to see if the skin on its neck was as soft as it looked. It grabbed her hand with its own, and inspected it. Then, the creature mouthed her fingers, almost playfully. Its mouth was all gums.
Eva hesitated, just a moment, then wrapped her hands around the creature's waist and lifted it into her purse. It was tiny, no larger than a Yorkshire terrier, and in her purse it seemed to curl up even smaller, laying perfectly still and quiet. In a moment, before she could give herself time to reconsider, she was on her feet, then running out of the apartment, past a startled Officer Allbert, and onto the street. Then, to the bus stop, and she was on her way home, through the ungated communities, then through the gates, 25 feet tall and pulsing with electricity, fortified with caution signs and the seductive promise of safety.
This is illegal.
Eva stroked the top of the creature's head, and it closed its eyes, seeming to enjoy the attention.
I know it's illegal.
Her eyes flicked to the Red revolver laying on her bedside table.
You're supposed to kill them on sight, or tell the authorities where they are. Not keep them.
Eva picked up the creature, and put it on the floor. It looked around, up at her, down at its feet.
I've never even seen one at a zoo.
The creature got to all fours and began toddling around. It looked under her dresser, in the closet, and tried to climb up onto her bed.
But this… this is a baby. He's never done anything wrong. It's not his fault.
Eva cupped the creature's face gently and scratched under its chin. It was just as soft as it looked.
"Sweet baby," she murmured. "What am I going to do with you?"
The creature grabbed her thumb with its hand, and began sucking on the digit.
"Are you hungry? I think I have some milk. Baby formula would be better, but I can buy some later."
Eva sat on the couch, cradling the creature in her lap and feeding it from a baby bottle. It gulped ravenously, strong yet delicate fingers wrapped around the plastic.
Eva closed her eyes, feeling the weight of the creature on her lap and listening to his eager nursing. She smiled. Finally, she was home.
Eva was busy.
There was the crib, for one. Cribs are never easy to set up. Then there was the box of baby things, marked 'NICHOLAS' in permanent marker. That had to be sorted through. Then there were diapers to change, formula to mix, and plenty of electrical wires to child-proof.
The diaper-clad creature knuckle-walked around the room, examining the new furniture and the toys. It grabbed one surreptitiously and began gnawing on it.
Eva looked up, to see the creature gumming a stuffed rabbit's ears. She frowned.
"I know you're teething, but I can't let you eat everything." She reached forward and tugged the rabbit out of the creature's grasp. "That was Nicholas'. Not yours."
The creature reached for the toy, mewling.
Eva's expression softened.
"Well, if you really want it… I suppose I don't really need it for anything."
Eva went back to sorting through the toys. There were quite a variety. Simple books. Toy cars. Board games. Balls. Soldiers. Stuffed animals. Eva sighed at the sight of it all. She turned to the creature.
"I suppose you'd like the animals, wouldn't you? But the rest of it…" Eva bit her lip. "You're supposed to be smart, aren't you? Smarter than a dog, they say."
The creature looked up at Eva with dark eyes.
Eva lowered the creature into the finished crib, placing its head on the pillow. It folded in its long limbs and curled up, its tail draped over its hands and feet. It was so… small. So helpless.
"You know what?" said Eva quietly. "Life is unfair. I lost a son; you lost a mother. We're both victims in this world." She sighed, stroking the creature's fur.
"Maybe we're meant for each other. I always thought things happened for a reason…" She glanced down. The creature was asleep. "Nicholas."
Eva turned off the light and went to her own bed, where she read for a while before going to sleep herself.
At around midnight, the door to her room opened. A small, dark silhouette appeared, then moved silently across the floor. Two sets of long fingers appeared at the rim of the bed, then pulled up.
The creature curled up in the hollow made by Eva's body, closed its eyes, and went to sleep.
Eva sat at the kitchen table, eating toast with jam. The creature sat awkwardly in a high chair, sucking on a bottle.
"I looked you up at the library," Eva remarked lightly.
The creature continued suckling.
"They say that you're completely untamable. That you are programmed instinctively to see humans as food, and that's it. Impossible to acclimate."
"But you didn't attack me, which must mean eating humans is learned, not instinctive. You're not even weaned, how could you know what to eat? You can't be more than a month old."
The creature reached the bottom of the bottle, and smacked its lips, inspecting it for more.
Eva sighed. "But anyway, the point is that there isn't any information on how to raise you. So I'll be winging it. You'll have to put up with a first-time single mother, I'm afraid. I apologize in advance."
Eva smiled and reached over to stroke the creature's cheek. It closed its eyes in bliss.
"Mama has to go to work now, okay sweetie? Don't miss me too much, okay?"
Eva picked up the creature and brought it into the toy-strewn crib room.
"Be good." She kissed the creature on the head. "Bye bye Nicholas."
"I have to say, Eva, you've certainly been a lot more chipper lately."
Eva turned and smiled at her coworker Rebecca. "Well, life's dealt me a nice card."
"Ooh. A man? You deserve someone new, someone from the gates. After that slime Lew-"
Eva closed her eyes for a moment. "No. Just… good things. I'm feeling a lot better."
"I bet one of her cats had kittens," grinned Isaac from the cubicle over. "They're your life, right?"
"Isaac!" cried Rebecca.
Eva frowned. "I spay and neuter my cats, thank you. Unlike so many people, I'm a responsible pet owner."
"You know, they don't have the stray cat problem on the other side of the gates," said Isaac.
"Yeah, well, they have bigger problems," retorted Rebecca.
Eva shook her head and returned to her work.
"Hush little Nicky, don't say a word, Mama's gonna buy you a mocking-bird,
"And if that mocking bird won't sing, Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring,
"And if that diamond ring turns brass, Mama's gonna buy you a looking-glass,
"And if that looking glass gets broke, Mama's gonna buy you a billy goat,
"And if that billy goat won't pull, Mama's gonna buy you a cart and bull,
"And if that cart and bull turns over, Mama's gonna buy you a dog named Rover,
"And if that dog named Rover won't bark, Mama's gonna buy you a horse and cart,
"And if that horse and cart falls down, you'll still be the sweetest little Nicky in town."
"Goodnight Nicky. Mama loves you."
"Hmm." Eva inspected the shredded nipple on the baby bottle. "You're really teething, aren't you?"
The creature, curled up on her lap, said nothing.
"I suppose I'll have to start you on solid food. But you probably won't want fruits or vegetables, will you? I suppose I could puree some chicken…"
Eva put the creature down on the couch and went to the kitchen. It sat there motionless as the apartment filled with a whirring noise, then messy splattering.
Eva came back, with a small bowl of beige mush. As soon as the creature saw it, its ears pricked up and it stood upright. It mewled.
"You like this, huh?" Eva took a spoonful of the mush and held it out. The creature lunged for it, clamping its mouth the utensil. "Oh, you really like it!"
The creature reached for the mush, grabbing it with a fist and shoving it into its mouth.
"Well, fine mister! Feed yourself! Who cares about me, huh?"
Eva grabbed the creature and lifted it, looking into its chicken-smeared face. "You are very messy."
The creature sneezed, and Eva laughed.
"Oh, I need to get a picture." Eva put the creature down on the couch and went to grab her camera. The creature took the opportunity to stuff more chicken into its mouth.
"Say, 'Mama,' Nicholas." The creature looked up.
Eva had a client in the ungated part of town. They didn't usually have investors down there, but this one worked on urban renewal projects, and so their headquarters were ungated as a sign of trust in the local community. Or something of that sort.
Touring the facilities took up most of the afternoon, and it was already near dusk when Eva finally left. She considered the firm a good investment, and walked from the office to the bus stop with a confident gait.
Then, as she passed an alley, she heard something.
"Help… help me…"
Eva froze. Oh god. She reached for her Red revolver, acutely aware that her hand touched it a few heartbeats later than an ungated native's would have.
"Help… help please…"
Eva stared into the alley. What if it was really a person asking for help, not a trap? Not a huge horrible thing waiting with teeth and-
Something in her snapped, and she ran, terrified, almost senseless, as far from the alley as she could. Her knuckles where white around her Red revolver, and she darted across the street heedlessly. Some tires screeched, but she made it across, collapsing under a streetlamp. She shuddered and tried not to pass out. She took a deep breath. She couldn't die now. She had to stay together. For herself. And for Nicholas.
Eva opened the door to her apartment, arms full of groceries, and saw an unexpected sight: the creature, sitting in front of the door as though waiting.
"Nicholas? What are you doing out?" asked Eva. "How did you get out of your room?"
The creature licked its lips, then said: "Mama."
Eva's eyes went wide, and she slowly knelt down, putting the groceries on the floor. "Oh," she said.
The creature walked forward, then reared up and reached its arms for her shirt.
"Your first word…" Eva picked up the creature, grunting a bit at its weight, and cradled it to her body. " 'I love you.' Can you say that?"
The creature stayed silent.
"No? Well, we can wait. I'm very proud of you, Nicholas. Let's get some chocolate chip ice cream."
Eva sat at her table, cutting up salmon for the creature. Its hand continually wandered over, trying to pick up pieces of fish.
"No, Nicholas," said Eva. "You use a fork. I showed you this."
Eva opened the creature's hand and put in a fork. Then, guiding its fingers, she stabbed a piece of fish and brought it up to the creature's face. "See? A fork. No, don't pick your nose. Hold the fork."
The creature grunted, then dropped the fork.
"No, like this..."
"Eva, are you going to come to the Christmas party?"
Rebecca blinked. "The Christmas party, on the twenty-third. Are you coming?"
"Oh, I would, but I have to stay home."
"Really? Oh. I see." Rebecca's brow was furrowed. "But it would mean a lot to us if you came. And who knows, it might even bring you out of your cave…"
Eva frowned. "Is that what they're saying? That I live in a cave?" She shook her head. "It's not you. It's the baby. He's growing so fast."
Rebecca blinked. "Baby? You have a baby?"
"No, it's… never mind. I can't make it to the party."
"…is it a cat baby?"
Eva rotated her chair to the side, showing Rebecca her back.
Eva looked down at the bowls of cat food marked 'Lumpkin' and Gumball.' Both were full. The cats hadn't eaten their food. I wonder where they went? Maybe one of the neighbors is feeding them, thought Eva.
Eva looked over at the creature, whose lay on the couch, sleeping. It let out a tremendous, world-weary sigh, and draped a hand over its eyes.
Oh well. That's cats, I suppose. There one day, gone the next.
The creature curled in its crib, so large that its tail hung over the side. Crackling, ripping noises came from within. Tucked in the corner, a stuffed rabbit lay in tatters.
It was two-thirty in the morning when Eva awoke. A dark form loomed overhead. Round eyes gleamed, and there was a flash of enormous canines.
Eva screamed, and her hand groped blindly for her Red revolver.
Then, the thing looming over her leaped back into the moonlight streaming through the window. It was the creature.
"Oh, Nicholas! You scared me half to death!" Eva gasped.
The creature hunched its neck, staring at her.
Eva got out of bed and approached the creature, holding out her hand. After a moment, it reached out and touched the tips of her fingers.
"How did you get out of your room? It's so late! Are you hungry?"
The creature pulled away from her and walked to the window, gazing out. It looked back at Eva, then began pacing, back and forth.
"I'm not letting you out," said Eva. "It's not safe out there."
"Mama. I love you," said the creature.
Eva frowned. "Don't you sweet-talk me, mister! Here, let's go to your room. I'll read you a story. And lock your door."
Eva sat on the floor and threw a small, rubber ball to the creature. It caught the toy.
"Now, throw it back, sweetie. Throw it back to Mama."
Instead, the creature stood up on all fours and stared at the door, ears perked forward and head lowered. A moment later, the doorbell rang.
"Coming!" called Eva, and hurriedly lead the creature to its room, locking the door behind it.
Eva opened the front door. It was a delivery man.
"Eva Westergard? Package for you to sign."
"Yes, thank you," said Eva, and signed.
Behind her, and out of sight, the door to the creature's room rattled.
The creature lay on the floor. Eva was at work. It had picked the lock with a piece of twisted wire ripped off the television set, and a metal hinge from its cradle, which it no longer slept in. Its head was on its forearms, and its eyes were half shut.
The doorbell rang. Instantly, the creature was on its feet, ears forward. It knuckle-walked up to the door, tilted its head, and sniffed.
"Coming!" it said.
The creature reached for the doorknob, and tried to turn it. It was locked. The creature could have used its lock-pick again, but instead, it ripped the door out of its frame.
The deliveryman screamed.
Eva came home. She saw the missing door, and the blood. "Oh," she said.
The door leaned in its frame. Eva scrubbed at the floor with carpet cleaner.
Eva brought two bulging garbage bags out to the dumpster.
Eva sat on the couch, the creature sitting beside her, picking its teeth.
"Oh, Nicholas," she said. "You're going to be the end of me."
There was a knock at the door. Eva opened it.
"This is Officer Andover, from the police. I'm investigating the disappearance of one Thomas Streiss. This apartment was on his delivery route the day he vanished. Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?"
Eva shifted her weight. "No, not at all."
"Where were you the evening of the-" The policeman paused, and his brows furrowed.
"What is that smell?"
"Smell?" Eva frowned.
"Yes. Smells like an animal."
"Well," Eva smiled a bit. "I do keep cats."
Eva nodded. "Yes. Several."
"I see." The policeman shook his head, and went back to what he had been saying. "Where were you the evening of the tenth, around five-thirty?"
"I was working late."
"And- what's that sound?"
Eva listened. The creature was rattling its door. It did that more and more often, lately.
"It's nothing. Just a draft, probably."
"May I step in?"
"Oh," Eva paused. "Certainly."
The policeman stepped in, looking around.
"Where are the cats?"
"Where are all your cats?"
"Oh, they're around somewhere. You know cats. They're always wandering off." Eva chuckled.
The door rattled.
"What's in there?"
"Nothing. Just some old things."
The policeman stepped towards it.
"Oh, I'd rather you didn't. It's very dusty and moldy in there. I've been meaning to clean it up, but-"
The policeman smiled thinly. "I'm sure I can handle it, Ma'am."
The door was locked.
"Please go get the key."
Eva began to perspire. "Oh, I'd really… please don't-"
"The key, Ma'am."
Eva looked at the door, at the policeman, and put her face in her hands.
"Oh please oh please don't! Don't hurt him! He's like- he's my son! I don't know what I would do without him really, and he's very tame just don't hurt him please I'll do anything just please don't!"
The policeman stared. "Listen, if you don't open the door, I'll need to call in some backup. Do you understand? I-"
That's when the creature tore down the door.
"Oh, fucking hell!"
The policeman reached for his gun at the same time Eva threw herself in-between the creature and him.
"Get out!" he screamed, shoving Eva out of the way.
"Nicholas!" she howled.
The creature bowled the policeman over, causing his shot to hit the ceiling. Then, Nicholas leaped back and crashed through the window, and was gone.
Eva sat in her holding cell, entwining her fingers again and again. She sighed.
Everything happened for a reason. That was certain, unshakeable. There was a reason why her Nicholas had left, just as there had been a reason why her Lew had abandoned her.
Nicholas had grown up, and moved away. That was it. He'd gone to make his own way in the world. She had an empty nest, now.
Eva closed her eyes, and pictured her son. His hands, his feet, his cries, his first word. His eyes (dark, almost black), skin (tan), hair (chocolate brown). His favorite ice cream flavor (chocolate chip) and his favorite lullaby (Hush Little Baby, though she always sang it 'Hush Little Nicky'). Every little inch of him, every second and minute and hour of him, and it would never be enough.
She missed him already.