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The horses were restless.

The sound of snorts and hooves tangled through Lanie's nightmares, familiar dreams of smoke and screaming. She woke with a start, sweat sticky on her neck. Beside her Merle stirred and swore.

"Between you kicking and them carrying on it's a wonder I ever sleep." He always woke up cranky. It usually made her laugh, but now her hands shivered with adrenaline.


© 2014, Jeff Ward,
"Snakebit"

"I'd better go check on them," she said, throwing back the sheets.

He propped himself up on one elbow. "You sure?"

"Go back to sleep." The breeze from the open window dried her skin as she groped for a pair of jeans and shoved her feet into the nearest boots. Merle was snoring again by the time she was dressed.

She took the flashlight from the nightstand—and after a second's hesitation, the pistol from the drawer. If something was out there spooking the horses she'd be better off with the shotgun, but the fit of the revolver against her palm was comforting.

She crept down the stairs, careful of the creaking middle step. Darla was a light sleeper—she took after Lanie that way. Mackenzie slept deep as her father and woke just as crabby. The back door needed oiling, but Lanie knew where to lean on it to stop the hinge from squealing.

The November night was cool and sticky. Wind keened soft around the eaves, setting the chimes clashing and teasing goosebumps along her arms and breasts. Past the glare of the barn light, stars drifted against the black velvet sky. Plains and fields rolled to the horizon, the boundary between earth and sky marked by distant turbines, white as bones in the light of the waning moon. Nothing seemed out of place, but the back of her neck still prickled.

Gravel crunched under her boots and she winced, even though it would be better to let an animal know she was coming. Coyotes still haunted the plains.

A horse snorted and kicked the stall while she juggled gun, flashlight, and keys. Probably Susie—Diego was the calm one. A cat hissed as Lanie opened the door, eyes flashing in the dark. The pungent smell of horse and hay and packed earth washed over her; usually a comfort, but now the nightmares were fresh in her mind. Too easy to remember smoke and blood, the screams of frightened horses.

They'd had seven horses when the old barn burned. Five survived the fire. Since Roy Baxter died and Lanie and Merle moved into the house, they'd sold most of the horses and land. She hated it every time, but it was true they didn't have time or money to look after so many animals. She'd put her foot down for the last two, though—the girls needed to learn to ride.

Susie snorted again. "What is it, Susie Q?" Lanie asked softly. She balanced the flashlight on the stall railing and reached out to stroke the mare's velvety nose. Lips moved across her palm, hot and damp and searching. "Sorry, darlin'. I didn't think to bring you anything."

The horses' insistent nuzzling calmed her nerves. After a minute she switched off the flashlight and stood in the darkness scratching their heads. She tucked the gun into the waistband of her jeans so she could use both hands. "What if it was just you and me?" she whispered. "Where would we go?"

But there was nowhere to go and she knew it. Too many fences for horses to run free anymore, and nothing for her but this house where she grew up. This new barn that reminded her of the old one. This life she'd cobbled together from the rags and bones of her childhood.

I always knew, her father said one night after Cody ran off. Drunk off his ass, like he had been for weeks. It's in our blood. We're all snakebit, all of us. You might as well get used to it, cause you'll never be happy.

She'd believed that for years, through Cody's disappearance, through the terrible night in the barn years later, through the ugly years after high school when she tried everything she could find to kill the unhappiness and nearly died of it. Then Merle came, and Mackenzie, and she'd told herself her father was wrong. Just a bitter old drunk, and she could do better.

Diego leaned across the door of his stall, nosing her shoulder until she gave him more attention. Her hand slid down the coarse sleekness of his neck and she itched to get a saddle, to ride and ride and not think of anything but the wind and the rhythm of the horse.

But she'd regret it in the morning. And the girls had to be up for school.

If horses were wishes, went a song. If horses were wishes, she'd used up most of hers. Better to save the last for when she really needed them. She gave Susie and Diego a last ear-scratch and retrieved the flashlight. She should salvage a few hours of rest.

Something moved at the corner of her eye when she stepped outside. A deeper black amid the shadows. She spun, the gun scraping the small of her back as she yanked it free. The flashlight beam cut through the darkness, but found nothing except the side of the stable and the fence behind. The night-darkened wall bled crimson in the light.

Heart racing, the taste of metal sour in her mouth, Lanie circled the barn twice, searched inside before locking the door. The horses were calm now, but her hands shook as she fitted the shackle into the padlock. Silly horses, silly woman, all of them jumping at shadows. She tried to convince herself of that as she walked back to the house.

Darla waited at the top of the stairs, scraps of light clinging to her white nightgown and blonde curls. Lanie shoved the gun behind her back before her daughter could see it.

"What's wrong?" Darla asked.

"Nothing, sweetie. The horses were restless, is all. I calmed them down.

"I dreamed I saw a ghost."

"No ghosts here, pumpkin." Lanie climbed the stairs, careful of the creaking step even though she wouldn't wake anyone else. "Just horses and little girls who should go back to bed." She ran a hand over Darla's hair—still baby-fine, fair as Merle was as a boy, until he darkened to ash. Mackenzie's hair had already deepened to chestnut. Neither of them inherited their mother's mess of black curls.

"Would the horses see a ghost?" Darla said as Lanie steered her down the hall.

"I don't know. You can ask them tomorrow after school." The gun gouged her back when she bent to kiss her daughter's head. She breathed in the warm smell of Darla's hair. "Good night, pumpkin."

"Night, Mama."

Merle barely stirred as Lanie slid back under the covers. The horses stayed quiet. Her hand rose to the crook of her neck and left shoulder, fingers brushing long-healed scars. She'd told Merle a dog bit her, years ago when the marks were still obvious.

Ghosts weren't what she was afraid of at all.


On Wednesdays she met Naomi at the Wrecking Ball for drinks and pool. Naomi was the last of her old friends. The last tie to her wild youth. The rest had all died or run off or swung hard the other way, found rehab and Jesus and burned old bridges.

The air was heavy with smoke and spilled beer, the clatter of pool tables and off-key singing from karaoke in the next room. Lanie nursed her drink and half listened to Naomi's flirting and law office gossip—all names redacted, but the town was too small for that to make one bit of difference.

"You're not listening to a word I'm saying, are you?"

Lanie looked up from picking the label off her sweating bottle of Corona and realized she couldn't remember the last ten minutes of the one-sided conversation. "Sorry. I didn't sleep much last night. The horses were fussing."

Naomi made a sympathetic noise and picked a cherry out of the melting ice at the bottom of her glass. "How are Merle and the girls?"

"Sounder sleepers than I am. Merle's helping Mackenzie make a diorama for a book report tonight.

Naomi tilted her head with a laugh, strawberry blonde curls breaking across her shoulders. "Oh, honey. Your family is adorable, but it all sounds so damn domestic."

Lanie shrugged and grimaced. "Lucky for the girls Merle's better at that kind of thing than I am. I'd probably just raise them in the barn with the horses."

She drained the last lukewarm swallow of beer. It tasted like bitter water and lime and she wondered if she should switch to whiskey or call it an early night. She was still wondering when the stranger walked in.

A small man, skinny and not tall, a faded black coat flapping around his hips. She couldn't see his face, but something about the way he moved stirred long-buried memories. Her breath caught. There'd been a pack of them... But when the door chimed again it was only Bobby Franklin from the diner down the road, and whichever waitress he'd taken up with this week.

 The stranger scanned the room and Lanie felt a prickling chill as his eyes moved over her. His hair was fine and straight, the color of dead leaves, drifting around a pale, seamed face. Shadows pooled beneath deep-set eyes and lined the hollows of his cheeks. The crowd drew aside for him without seeming to notice.

"Not your type, is he?" Naomi asked, kicking Lanie's ankle under the table.

Lanie tried to answer, but her tongue had gone numb and the man was already moving toward them.

"Good evening," he said. His voice was low and rasping. He stood as far back as he could without shouting, hands clasped, slight and unassuming. Lanie's heart still sped, pulse climbing in her throat. Beads of moisture shone in his hair, dappled the shoulders of his coat. "I hope I'm not interrupting."

Naomi leaned toward him though he was nothing like her type, either. Her eyes glinted with sharp-edged humor as she glanced at Lanie. "I was just boring my friend to tears. We could use some interrupting."

His cheek creased. His eyes glittered like glass in the dim light. "I'm glad I could help, then. I'm Jonah. Jonah Crow."

Naomi's smile flashed. "That sounds like a preacher's name. And you look like one in that coat."

This smile was slow and anything but godly. "Not me, but my daddy was once. It rubs off."

Naomi laughed and Lanie wanted to slap her, to scream at her that he was dangerous, nothing to flirt with. But her mouth was a desert and her hands were frozen white-knuckled on the edge of the table.

"Well, Jonah, I'm Naomi, and my bored friend here is Lanie. Would you care to join us? You look like a man who could use a drink." One nail tapped the side of her empty glass suggestively.

"I am, but that's not why I'm here." His cold eyes settled on Lanie. "It is Lanie Baxter, isn't it?"

She stiffened, heat rising in her cheeks. "It's Goss now."

He glanced at her left hand and nodded. "I've come about your brother, Ms. Goss."

A brittle silence settled around their table. Finally Naomi stood, her stool tottering, and pasted on a smile.

"Looks like a pool table's opened up. I think I'll win a few bucks off Luke Anderson. Nice to meet you, Mr. Crow."

Jonah cocked his head in a silent question. When Lanie didn't answer he settled on the empty stool, propping his elbows on the table. Lanie stared at his glittering eyes, then wondered if she shouldn't. He looked away first.

She should be terrified. She should be angry. But she recognized the electric shiver that rose in her as anticipation. How long had it been since she'd felt that?

"You came to the house last night." The words fell into the stillness between warring songs.

"I did. I would have talked to you then, but..." Narrow shoulders rose in a shrug. "I thought you might feel more comfortable in public."

She very nearly laughed. "You spooked the horses."

"Not me. There was a coyote prowling around."

"Was?" Anger stirred now, but Jonah shook his head with a chuckle.

"Nothing like that. I'm fond of animals."

"You only hurt people?"

"That's right. But I'm not here to hurt you, Lanie. Just to talk."

Her name in his mouth made her shudder. "What about Cody?"

If he'd had a hat, she imagined he would have taken it off. Instead he dragged a hand through his hair. It was warning enough.

"He's dead. I'm sorry."

She could have said, he died nineteen years ago. She didn't. "How?"

"If you'll forgive me saying so, he was young and stupid and thought nothing could touch him. He was wrong."

Cody would have been thirty-six this year. Not exactly young. But he'd been seventeen when he vanished, and that was how she'd remember him.

"Merry went with him," Jonah added.

That drew her up. Merry. Meredith. Cody had told her the name one night before he disappeared, a big dumb smile all across his face. I met a girl, Lanie. She remembered the pale shape in the shadows beneath his window, the slender figure behind him in the doorway of a narrow dark house in Abilene. A beautiful white face with sad eyes. Sad, hungry eyes.

"You were there, weren't you? In Abilene?" She hadn't seen any other faces that night, none that she could remember when she was awake. Only eyes shining in the darkness, voices whispering too low to make out.

"I was. It was a brave thing you did, following him there. Stupid as hell, but brave."

She hadn't felt brave at the time, only scared and desperate and furious with Cody for running off and leaving her and their father alone. Running off just like their mother had when Lanie was three.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I thought you'd like to know. That you deserve to know. And that you've seen enough to understand."

"I've seen too damned much and I don't understand any of it."

"He cared about you."

She laughed, harsh and cracking, before forcing her voice low. The last thing this town needed was more gossip about her family. "He cared so much he tried to kill me?"

"Ah." Jonah swallowed. The rings of his larynx pressed against the thin skin of his throat. "So that's what happened. I hope you can forgive him, whatever he did. It's hard to go home. Hell, it's hard to be here now, talking to you. It's worse when you're young. Worse when it's someone you knew."

How long has it been since you were young? But she didn't say that either. "Where are your friends?"

"Gone."

"Gone?"

Another shrug. "Some like Cody. Some just wandered off. It's rough sometimes, living like we do."

"How do you live, exactly?"

He turned Naomi's empty glass between his hands, pulled his fingers away slick with condensation. "The same way you do, I imagine. But...messier."

Her scar throbbed. Jonah's nostrils flared as if he could scent her nerves. He probably could.

"I should go." Her stool skipped on the sticky floor as she pushed back. "I— Thank you for telling me."

Jonah's hand closed on her elbow to steady her as she stood. His chill soaked through her sleeve and she felt the strength in his fingers despite his light touch. He smelled of rain and autumn, clean and cold through the layered scents of sweat and smoke and spilled beer. He smelled like nothing at all.

"I'll walk you out," he said, and she didn't try to stop him.

The rain had stopped, but clouds slid low across the sky, snagging against the distant silhouettes of grain elevators. Sodium lamps glazed wet asphalt with marigold light. Lanie drew a deep breath, tasting rain on concrete and bitter exhaust. By the time they reached her truck she'd gathered enough courage to ask her question.

"Was Cody happy with you?"

Jonah was quiet for a long time. Lanie's breath misted in the damp air; his didn't. "He loved Merry," he said at last. "Or wanted her enough that he couldn't tell the difference. He was young and cocky and selfish—that made it easier. It was that cockiness that drew her in the first place. But time doesn't always temper us the way it does... people like you. Cody kept on like that, wild and reckless, not growing out of it."

Lanie thought of how she'd been just out of school. Scared and aching, willing to hurt herself or anyone else just to feel something different for a while. Sometimes, when the highs were high enough, she'd wanted to stay that way forever. But it could never last.

"What about you?" he asked. "Are you happy?"

"I have a family. I love them." Which wasn't more of an answer than he'd given her, but it was all she had. Jonah nodded. From his silence she thought maybe he understood.

"Take care," he said at last, stepping back to let her open the door.

"What will you do?"

He paused, half turned, and yellow light lined the bones of his face. "I'll pass through soon. But your friend was right—I could use a drink."

She watched through the rain-beaded windshield as he walked back toward the bar, light and drifting as a ghost across the pitted asphalt. Her hands ached on the steering wheel. She shouldn't let him go. She should warn someone.

Instead she put the truck in gear and drove toward the dark country roads that led to home.


Merle and the girls had gone to bed by the time Lanie got home. A light burned in the kitchen, illuminating the diorama on the table. A black horse ran along a paper beach while a faceless human figure stood against the cardboard background, watching him go.

She should check on the girls and go to bed, curl up against Merle and cry herself to sleep. Let go of the misery she'd carried for nineteen years. Cody and her father were dead, but she wasn't, and she had the chance for happiness that had escaped the rest of her family.

Had her mother been happy, wherever she'd run to?

She took the bottle of whiskey down from the cabinet and poured herself a double. The glass warmed between her hands as she sat at the table, staring at the paper horse. Pour it out, she told herself. She knew better than to drink in this black mood.

"I missed you, Sis."

Nothing would ever drown her brother's voice, but she threw back the whiskey anyway. One shot, then another, till her head grew heavy and tears dripped hot down her cheeks.


"Cody?" Hay crunches underfoot as she steps into the barn. Horses snort and stamp. The kerosene lantern sways in her hand, casting shadows from wall to wall.

You were dreaming, she tells herself. But restlessness had dragged her from bed, and in the darkness below her window she'd glimpsed a familiar shape slipping inside the barn.

"Lanie."

She jumps at his voice and the lantern flame gutters. There, at the edge of the light, stands her brother. He hasn't changed a day in three years. Tall and lanky, skinny arms corded with muscle. So pale, though, and his eyes— They glitter by lanternlight, cold and sharp, and she can't look away.

He moves like a ghost but his arms are solid and strong around her. He holds her tight, her face pressed against the worn cotton of his shirt. He's cold, though, and his chest is too quiet against her ear, too still.

"Look at you," he whispers, before she can follow that thought to its conclusion. "You grew up." His breath stirs her hair, bitter and metallic. Her head fits under his chin now.

"You left me!" She slaps his shoulder. "You ran away like Mom!"

"Hush, Lanie." He tightens his arms around her, gentle but much too strong. "You knew I couldn't stay here. You shouldn't either. You'll end up like the old man, bitter and miserable."

She tugs free and he lets her go. She sets the lantern on a beam, scrubbing away tears. The horses' eyes shine liquid in the shadows, flashing as they toss their heads.

"I'd be a lot less miserable if you'd stayed." She means to sound angry, but her voice cracks.

"I'm here now."

"But you're not staying."

"No." He closes in, backing her up against a hay bale. He cups her cheek with one cold hand—he used to pinch her cheeks to piss her off, but this is nothing like that. Her heart races, pulse fluttering against his touch. His eyes flash copper-red like an animal's and she remembers the dark house in Abilene.

"What happened to you?"

"It only hurts for a minute," he murmurs, hand sliding down to brush her hair back from her neck. Panic closes her throat. She's trapped against hay and wooden beams and his hold is cold and hard as rebar.

"Cody—"

His mouth presses against her neck and something sharp and electric moves under her skin. Then comes the pressure of teeth, a sudden stab and hot red pain. She tries to scream but all that comes out is a breathless gasp. Lanie writhes, but can't break free. Struggling makes the pain worse; moisture leaks down her shoulder, cooling as it soaks into her shirt.

The pain eases in heartbeats, replaced with warmth and dizziness. One hand clenches in Cody's shirt to hold herself steady. To hold him closer.

A horse whinnies and kicks the stall. The clatter snaps her out of the soft, melting lassitude. No, she tells herself. "No."

The sound is barely a word and Cody doesn't hear or doesn't care, but it's enough to rally her fading strength. She struggles again, groping behind her for the lantern. Her fingers hook on hot metal but it tumbles from her grip. Glass shatters. A horse screams.

Cody jerks away and Lanie slumps against the hay. Firelight shines in his eyes, gleams crimson against his blood-slick mouth.

"Lanie—" He stumbles back as smoke drifts through the air. "Lanie, I didn't mean..."

Someone yells outside. Lanie's eyes droop and by the time she pries them open again Cody's gone. Static fills her ears like the crackle of burning hay. Someone shouts her name. Smoke fills her mouth when she tries to speak, dragging her down into warm, red darkness.


"Lanie!"

A man's voice. She woke slow and muddled, pain lancing through her neck. One hand flew to her shoulder, but found only scars. She'd fallen asleep at the kitchen table and the pain was the ache of a bad angle. The smoke was nothing but whiskey sour in her mouth.

"Dammit, Lanie."

She opened her eyes to see Merle pulling the half-empty bottle out of her numb hand. Pins and needles rushed through that whole arm as she tried to sit up.

"I guess I'm taking the girls to school, then," he muttered.

"Mom, are you sick?" Mackenzie asked, watching from the doorway with wide eyes.

"Your mother is drunk, is all," Merle said. "But don't repeat that at school, please. Or tell your sister." He leaned toward the stairwell. "Darla! Hurry it up, pumpkin!"

Lanie dragged a hand through her tangled hair. Her chair scraped against the floor as she stood. She staggered on her way to the sink and Merle's dark eyes narrowed.

"Christ. I thought you promised not to drink like this anymore. And not around the kids."

"It's Cody." His name scraped out of her dry, sticky throat. "He's— A friend of his found me last night to give me the news."

"Oh." His broad shoulders sagged and the anger drained away. "Oh, shit, sweetheart." He reached out and pulled her into his arms, callused fingers snagging on tangles as he stroked her hair. "I'm sorry, baby."

She took a deep breath, steadying herself with the smell of his shampoo and aftershave, the steady throb of his pulse. "I'll be okay," she said. "It was just a shock."

"Of course. Stay home today. Get some rest. Drink some water."

"Yeah." Her smile felt crooked and strange. Merle looked as though he wanted to say something else, but she turned away to kiss the girls. "Hurry up, kiddos. You don't want to be late."


Lanie spent the morning on the rocking chair on the front porch. The chair her father had carved for her mother when she was pregnant with Cody. When the sun balanced at the top of the sky and the shadows were short and sharp, her phone rang. Lanie looked at Naomi's number on the screen and a knot of tension she hadn't named loosened an inch or two.

"You sound rough for someone who only had one beer last night," Naomi said when Lanie answered.

"I might have had more than that when I got home."

Naomi made a sympathetic noise, then paused. "Your friend Jonah bought me a drink last night. Or three."

Lanie's hand tightened on the phone. "He's not my friend."

Naomi laughed. "He should be. But since Merle would hardly appreciate that, I'll keep him for myself."

Her breath rushed out. "He was one of Cody's friends. The ones he ran off with. They're bad news, Naomi."

"Hell, sweetie, so were we once."

We never killed anyone, she nearly said. It was true, but only for dumb luck or the grace of God—she knew which one she believed in more.

"But he said he came to tell you about Cody," Naomi went on. "It...wasn't anything good, was it?"

"No."

Naomi sighed sad and hollow through the phone. "Oh, sweetheart. I'm so sorry. Do you need to talk?"

"I will, most likely. But...not right now."

"Of course. You call me as soon as you do, though."

Lanie nodded, for all the good that did. Naomi knew her well enough to understand her silences. She meant to say something reassuring and hang up, but when she drew a breath something else came out.

"Naomi, if anything ever happened to me, you'd look after Merle and the girls, wouldn't you?"

She imagined Naomi's eyes narrowing in the hush that followed. Voices rose and fell in the background. "I would."

"Good. We'll talk later." As she lowered the phone, she wondered why the words were cold and bitter as a lie in her mouth.


After that she couldn't sit still any longer, never mind her unhappy stomach and the angry spike hammered between her eyes. Instead she tugged her boots on and scraped her hair back and went into work. The noise and bustle of the warehouse didn't help her nerves or her head, but she could answer phones and type in orders no matter how hungover she was. The guys in the back noticed the set of her shoulders and mostly left her in peace. She kept at it till the light faded in a slate and salmon wash across the west and the last of her coworkers finally forced her out so they could lock up.

Jonah waited for her as she crossed the pitted black top to her truck, leaning against her tailgate motionless as a scarecrow. The breeze tugged at the hem of his coat, lifted strands of his hair.

Lanie sighed. All last night's adrenaline was spent. "Why are you still here?" It sounded ruder than she'd meant it to. She wondered if that should bother her or not.

"I'm not sure." Jonah straightened, and his shoulders shook in a silent laugh. "Hell, that's a lie. Can't you guess, Lanie? I'm lonely."

She didn't need to guess. She could feel that black empty space inside him. Like looking into a mirror in a dark room. "So you're talking to me?"

"I don't have to pretend around you."

She didn't know what to say to that. Finally she settled for, "If you want to talk, get in. I'm too old to hang out in parking lots all night."

That drew a low, rusty chuckle from him. "Some things we're never too old for." He opened the passenger door and slipped in.

Maybe if her mother had stuck around Lanie would know better than to pick up strange men at night. Her father hadn't bothered with that lesson, just skipped to the part about where to kick anyone who gave her trouble and how to throw an uppercut. Her father had fucked up a lot of things, but she didn't think that was one of them.

They drove in silence, away from the glare and traffic. If not for the reflection of the dashboard lights in Jonah's eyes, she might have been alone.

"You've done pretty well for yourself," he said at last. A little upward lilt at the end, not quite a question.

"I guess I have." Most days she didn't feel like she'd done anything at all, except let Merle take care of her. But even that had been an effort at first.

"Your girls are beautiful."

That cut through her detachment. She rounded on him, lip curling, and the truck veered and shuddered. Jonah raised a placating hand. "It's not a threat," he said. "I had daughters once, too. A long time ago."

Hands white-knuckled on the wheel, she forced her eyes back to the road. "What happened?" She wasn't sure she wanted to know, but the question slipped out all the same.

"I went away. Looking for work. I told them I'd come back. I meant to go back. But..."

"You never saw them again?"

"Once. Years after. I didn't let them see me. It's easier that way."

An ugly noise like a stillborn laugh crawled out of her throat. "Easier. I don't know what would have been easier. If Cody had never come back, or if he'd finished what he started." What would that have meant, though? Her dead body crumpled in the hay for their father to find in the morning, or one more pale, hungry girl drifting through the shadows? She'd been drifting ever since anyway.

"Nothing about living is easy," Jonah said, so soft the hum of engine and tires nearly swallowed the words. "But even now I think it's better than the alternative."

Lanie shifted gears as they came to a tilting, bullet-scarred stop sign. She felt the chilly touch of his hand on hers a second after he pulled away.

"This'll be my stop. Goodnight, Lanie."

And then she was alone, headlights cutting through an empty crossroad.


The call came the next day at work as the sky began to bleed violet and marigold. "Lanie." Merle's voice crackled over a bad connection. No, she realized an instant later: his voice was cracking. "Lanie, come home."

Her throat squeezed tight. "The girls—"

"They're fine. They're fine, I promise. It's—" He took a hitching breath. "It's Diego. It was colic, we think. We found him— By the time the vet got here... I'm sorry, sweetheart. Please come home. Darla's taking it hard."

"I'm on my way." She hung up before the last syllable left her lips.


Dr. Leicht's truck was outside the barn when Lanie pulled up. The trailer door stood open a few inches, and she was grateful as any coward that it was too dark to see inside. Merle and Mackenzie stood by the barn door. Merle's eyes were bloodshot, his shirt dark with sweat and dirt. Mackenzie hugged herself like her skinny arms were all that held her together. Lanie went down on her knees beside her. The girl submitted to her mother's embrace, but stayed stiff and shivering.

Merle folded his arms around both of them, burying his face in the crook of Lanie's neck. She flinched as his breath moved hot across her scar.

"Where's Darla?" she asked, unclenching her hands from Mackenzie's shirt.

"In with Susie."

She followed Darla's wet, sticky breath through the shadows to Susie's stall. The girl crouched beside the railing, folded up on herself like Mackenzie. But when Lanie opened her arms Darla fell into her with a fresh sob. She tried to speak, but all that came out was a hiccupping "Mama."

"I know, baby. I know."

They knelt there until Darla's sobbing slowed and she slumped bonelessly in Lanie's lap. Lanie picked hay out of her daughter's dusty hair while Susie stamped and snorted in confusion and concern. She was dimly aware of the sound of voices outside, the slam of the trailer door and the cough of an engine starting, but the warm darkness of the barn enveloped them, separating them from the rest of the world.

"Now Susie will be all alone," Darla said at last, scrubbing her face with her shirt collar.

"No, she won't, sweetheart. She has you and Kenzie."

Darla's swollen eyes narrowed at the absence there. The promise Lanie couldn't make. But all she said was, "That's not the same."

"Maybe not, but it's still a lot." And it was. So why did she feel so damn hollow?


Lanie lay with Darla that night, inhaling the scent of strawberry shampoo and unfinished child sweat, feeling breath and blood move beneath her daughter's bird-light bones. Stay here, she thought. This is real. But rest wouldn't come for her even after everyone else settled into miserable, exhausted sleep. She finally crept onto the porch to listen to the night.

His boots were silent on the gravel. He stopped at the foot of the steps as if he needed an invitation to come closer. Lanie went to him instead.

The boards creaked under her weight. All the gravity that didn't touch him tugged at her, dragging her down, chaining her to this house, to this life. If horses were wishes, she only had one left.

"I'm sorry," Jonah said, light as the wind.

They stood together for a while, staring past each other.

"I have to go," he finally said. "Or I might do something stupid." It could have been a threat, but mostly it was sad and wistful and lonely. "I'm glad I got to see you again, Lanie. I'm sorry it couldn't have been...different."

"Do you ever show up anywhere with good news?"

His shoulders lifted once. "No, probably not. So hopefully I won't see you again."

He turned and the wind lifted his hair to eclipse his narrow profile. One step, then another, and he would be gone. She would be alone, bound to this life she'd chosen, that she'd let grow around her stone by stone.

"Wait," she whispered.

Jonah paused, unmoving.

You have a life, she told herself. You have a family. So had her mother. So had Cody. It hadn't held them, in the end.

She reached for his hand. His skin was cold through and she felt the starkness of tendon and bone. Fragile as a bird, like something she could shatter. He didn't move.

"Tell me to stay," she said. "Tell me I have a life here. Tell me how lucky I am."

His eyes glinted deep in shadowed sockets. "I don't have to tell you that, Lanie."

"Then tell me you don't want me to come with you."

"I can't tell you that, either." His fingers curled slowly around hers. "I don't have to pretend with you, remember."

She didn't look back at the house she'd grown up in. The house that held everything she'd loved for the past ten years. The things that held her up but couldn't fill her. She didn't need to look back.

The night opened wide and empty in front of her.


 




Amanda Downum is the author of the Necromancer Chronicles—The Drowning City, The Bone Palace, and Kingdoms of Dust—published by Orbit Books, and Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, forthcoming from Solaris. She lives in a garret in Austin, Texas, and her day job sometimes lets her dress up as a giant worm. More information can be found at her website.
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