By Harmony Melbourne
Patti May and Clarence gathered segments of Master Archer’s hazelnut, ribbed tail and lifted it onto their work-weary shoulders. Golden sunlight shimmered between the branches of a three hundred-year old oak tree in the front yard, stroking the skin on Patti May’s nape and painting delightful leaf pictures on her arm.
She glanced at Clarence, peeking between black bangs in sore need of a trim. The muscles on his back strained against the weight of the heaviest portion of Master Archer’s tail. Dark, sweaty marks stained the tattered blue tank top he wore, the one she’d given him three years ago, before Dergen sold them to their current owner. While Clarence moved, he hummed a familiar folksong. Her tongue curled around the name of the man who first sung the melody.
Clarence crooked his chin to the side, his steely blue eye—the good one—finding hers. His nostrils flared. “You’re walking like an old maid today, Patti May. That foot hurting you?”
She shook her head. Two weeks ago, she stepped on one of Master Archer’s brood eggs, and in retaliation he put her foot in the pincher. Almost broke a bone, too, until she pointed out how difficult it would make things for him if she couldn’t work.
“What’s on your mind?” Clarence asked, shoveling shaggy dirt-colored hair away from his equally disheveled, bearded face. “You ain’t been this quiet since you heard Gran died.”
“Nothing wrong with me, Digger.” She hadn’t called him that since he was five.
Clarence’s face turned a shade of red reminiscent of radishes.
“Turn that cheek forward and keep on walking. Master Archer ain’t gonna like it if we’re running behind schedule.” Her palm, slick with mucus secreting from the quivering tail, shifted positions to gain a better grip on the detachable appendage.
The young man, ten years her junior, let out a grumbling sigh and returned to the weekly duty. His lilting voice took up the old song again. Patti May cringed when she heard the words: “The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord.” Gran used to sing the song before the Hellwalkers came and she lost her religion.
“Lord ain’t good to any of us, Clarence.”
That shut him up.
The scent of fresh green apples, still unpicked in the orchard, clung to Patti May’s gray tunic. She closed her eyes, trusting Clarence and the path she knew so well, and breathed in the sweet smell. Patti May remembered how Gran used to spray the trees with a concoction meant to keep them from getting sick, until she ran out of the vile-smelling mixture. There were days, long before that, when Gran would bake pies out of the apples. Days before the Hellwalkers came. Before the ban on apples. And sugar and coffee and tea sold as staples, not luxury items.
The well sat on the property long before Master Archer’s species made contact with the government officials in the White House. Patti May used to throw coins into the interminable black, make wishes, dream of money, prestige, men. Four years old, she told Gran she wanted to be an astronaut. Explore space. Discover new worlds. Gran laughed in her face and informed her there weren’t any new worlds to explore. God created this one, only, and humans were His chosen species. Patti May’s jaw clenched. No wonder Gran’s sanity left her when the Hellwalkers showed up with their hideous, maggot-white faces.
Clarence’s footfalls ceased, and Patti May raised her eyelids. There was the old well, quartz stones crumbling, moss creeping from the foundation. Chalky bird droppings covered the roof. The grass around the base rose to Patti May’s knees. She swallowed against a dry mouth. A sip of fresh spring water would do her good right about now.
They set down the slippery tail, mucous stringing from it in webs. It clung to them, and the sight of it forced bile up Patti May’s throat. She’d never gotten used to the ugly thing, the rotting flesh smell of it, how it felt on her skin.
Her partner didn’t seem to mind the coagulated sheen on his bare shoulder. He leaned down and hooked the bucket to the chain, then wrapped his hand around the wooden lever and began winding the bucket down into the well. His good eye sought out hers.
“You think Gwendola’s gonna show at the party this evening?”
Patti May shrugged. “You think she has an option?”
“Don’t know.” Clarence paused to wipe a trickle of sweat from his sun-kissed face. “She got some respect with the Master’s friends. Could be she has options.”
She shivered, hating to dwell on the price for respect in the Hellwalker community. “Sell your soul, win their love. Don’t like to think how they use a girl like her.”
The bucket came up, filled to the brim with sloshing mud-brown water. Clarence plucked a metal ladle from the ground, gathered some water, poured it into Patti May’s cupped palms. She rinsed her hands with it, then sipped on the rest to cool her thirst. Clarence spooned another measure down her shoulder and arm, erasing the mess left behind by the tail.
“I sure want to see her with my own eye,” Clarence whispered, performing the same cleansing ritual on his skin. “Heard she’s as beautiful as a starry sky.”
“She’s a whore, Clarence.”
His eye flashed anger. “She ain’t a whore. She’s a psychic.”
Patti May surprised herself with her vehemence. “She’s Satan’s whore, then.”
He refilled the ladle and carried it to where the tail languished in the grass. Patti May unhooked the bucket and brought the remaining water with them. She set it next to the tail, dropped to her knees, and removed a scrubbed from her apron pocket.
Clarence poured water over Master Archer’s tail, while Patti May scrubbed it clean of goo. She handled it like a dirty dog, or a fresh-caught fish in need of scaling. The water neutralized the Hellwalker secretions, made it smell pleasant, almost floral.
“Still wanna see her,” Clarence grumbled.
Patti May kept her eyes on her work. “Don’t know why. She’s a hypocrite. She helped them kill us. Don’t know how anyone could live with themselves after that.”
Clarence was silent, so Patti May finished the job and returned the bucket to its station. He put away the ladle, and she put away the scrubber, and the two of them carried the clean tail to the manor house to be reunited with the rest of Master Archer’s body.
“You believe in freedom, Patti May?” Clarence called to her from his front position.
“Course I do.”
“Then why do you serve Master Archer?”
A scowl formed on her face. She glared at the back of his head. “You know why. I ain’t a fool. Runners get crisped or pulled apart or worse.”
“You’re afraid of dying?”
“I ain’t a fool,” she repeated.
“Ain’t you a hypocrite, then?”
Her frown grew. “Shut up, Digger.”
This time, he didn’t react to the old name. “You serving the master frees time for him to catch more of us. They’re shipping out slaves every day.”
“How’s that my problem?”
He stopped at the door. “It ain’t.”
“What’s your point?”
“You got no cause to judge. We’re all doing what we need to survive.”
Inside the old manor, the cheap Greek and Roman replica statues had been replaced by grim-faced Hellwalker statues carved out of icy black stone. Patti May gave the statues a wide berth; she didn’t like to brush against the foreign stone. It had an electrical charge of sorts, and left her hairs prickled and her skin sensitive for hours after one accidental touch. The tapestries and paintings her parents kept around the place had all been replaced by skins, some human, some alien, of every kind of color imaginable. Hellwalkers liked to display their kills in this way, splashed all over the walls, vaguely forming the shape of the murdered creature.
In the living room, Master Archer’s sprawling form covered the blood-stained chaise that used to belong to Gran. He sat in front of the hearth, feeding human fingers to his pet, an overweight black reptile the size of a pug, with a flat snake-like snout, stumpy legs, and a tail. Patti May and Clarence called it “Sludge” because there was no human word for it yet.
Master Archer turned an eyeless face toward them. Humans. My tail? He said it without moving his mouth, he had no mouth. None of them did.
Patti May heard they absorbed nutrients from the soles of their feet, but she’d never gotten a good look. He kept them covered at all times. Scientists on the old videos explained the two long slits down either side of their face, covered with skin flaps, were similar to human ears. Three other slashes, horizontal lines evenly spaced on his face, were supposedly his visual receptors, though they didn’t look like eyes Patti May had seen on any other creature. Just gashes on his face, with black furry stuff growing out, yet somehow they enabled him to see them.
Clarence reached slowly for the back flap in Master Archer’s leather clothing. He lifted it, revealing a pink, dripping hole between their master’s shoulder blades. Patti May hoisted the tail up, and Clarence directed it into place. They turned it counter-clockwise until they heard a slight crack. The same sound Patti May’s neck made when she turned it funny, or her knees made when she stood too soon.
The guests. They come at sun-down, Master Archer thought.
Clarence’s eyes turned blank as Master Archer engaged him in private think-speak. Then he nodded and peered at Patti May. “He wants you to see that the food is ready. I’m gonna check on the dining hall, make sure it’s set up properly.”
Patti May waited for Master Archer to mentally dismiss her, then shuffled in the direction of the kitchen to see if Danny needed any help.
You either hated Gwendola or you loved her. If you hated her, as Patti May did, you feared her. She had a gift that made her valuable, even to the all-powerful Hellwalkers, and she wasn’t hesitant to use it to her advantage. When the Hellwalkers landed, twenty-two years ago, Gwendola worked a day-job at a corner-side 7-11 and at night she read Tarot cards for the superstitious and desperate. Educated people turned their noses up at her skills, even when she was right; it was all a coincidence after all. Her gift was too specific to be of use for most, so nobody cared until she started talking nonsense about aliens.
Patti May learned about her through a witch man who used to come by on occasion looking for clean water. He didn’t come anymore, but since then she’d heard the occasional mention about the psychic by Master Archer. Though this was the first time Gwendola came to the manor to demonstrate her powers, Patti May already knew what to expect.
“Woman has to be brainwashed to do what she done,” Patti May mumbled while she helped Danny lay out the strange food roll that smelled of grass and rot and manure.
“You say something, Patti May?” Danny asked.
“No. Nothing.” Clarence was the only person she talked with honestly. Patti May knew Clarence so well she could tell when Master Archer or any other Hellwalker poked around in there. His face would blank; his words would not be his own.
Danny pointed to another roll. “Help me with this?”
Together, they covered the floor in the dining hall with long, black rugs of organic material. Patti May didn’t know what the Hellwalkers ate exactly, or even how they ate. Danny had his cooking orders, but he was compelled to keep the secret. And Master Archer liked for him and his guests to eat in private, so he closed the door to the dining hall for every meal.
“You happy, Danny?” Patti May asked the man.
“Course I am,” Danny said, smiling. “The master’s kind to us, long as we keep our heads down and do as we’re told. That’s better than others, I expect.”
“Yes,” Patti May responded. “I suppose that’s true.”
Danny straightened and wiped dusty hands on his tattered pants. “Think we should prepare something for the psychic? What do psychics eat, anyhow?”
“She don’t need a thing,” Patti May insisted. “She hungry, she can ask.”
“You a mean one, Patti May.”
Patti May was in the orchard when Master Archer’s guests arrived. Danny shouted at her through the kitchen window, and she tucked away her pink gingham purse filled with weed and ran to find Clarence. They assembled at the door the moment the bell rang. Clarence opened the door, and Patti May slunk into the corner of the foyer and watched as the pot-bellied alien war veteran strode into the house—her house—smelling of clovers and fecal matter the way they did.
Behind him, three larger beasts followed. Patti May still hadn’t learned the difference between males and females in the species. The aliens she saw didn’t look anatomically different from one to another, though some had spotted or checkered skin patterns. People speculated they were asexual, but Master Archer once spoke about buying brood eggs at the market to fertilize and incubate. Patti May took it to mean female Hellwalkers on Earth were a rarity.
The crowd came, one after another. Patti May counted ten, then twenty Hellwalkers. Tails jutted from their upper backs, adorned in jewels and baubles and lace. The bushy black lines on their faces moved and squiggled as they took in their surroundings and communicated mentally, to the exclusion of the slaves. They wore silk togas of every color, draped across their lumpy forms. Boots covered their worm-white feet.
Patti May’s eyes roved, searching for the one human rumored to be among them. At her side, Clarence stood slouched over, hands in his pockets. Danny and the others watched with arched eyebrows and mouths agape from an open door at the other end of the dining hall.
Then, at the end of the line, a Hellwalker dragged a long length of chain between knobby hands clenched like spider legs. And on the end of the chain, a manacle. Held within the manacle, a long, slender neck. Her head was bowed, a wild mane of black hair shielding her eyes. One lone, blue streak of hair trailed down the front of her head.
Patti May felt Clarence tense, heard his sharp intake of breath.
“She is beautiful,” he said.
“Can’t see her,” Patti May grumbled. “But she’s twice your age.” She knew she had no cause to feel jealous. Clarence would never leave her, not even if he found someone he wanted to marry. Things didn’t work the same as they used to. People hooked up, then moved on. If there was love, it was preceded by loyalty, first. Whoever Clarence chose would have to defer to her.
Gwendola raised her head, revealing eyes the color of mist and a wild sideways smile. There were humor lines around her mouth. She had an Oriental look about her, with delicate features, small eyes, and high cheekbones. Her skin glowed like limestone, white and glittering.
Patti May’s insides clenched with envy at the cleanness of Gwendola’s skin. No mud streaks on her face. No stains on her clothing. Around and under Patti May’s own fingernails were dirt and blood and white stuff from Master Archer’s tail. Gwendola’s nails were painted an evening blue, with a multitude of pale cream stars etched across each.
The Hellwalkers settled in, exchanging silent touches and greetings with smileless faces. Master Archer had his back to Patti May, but still she heard his voice inside her head.
Send the others away, he commanded her. We will eat in silence.
Won’t you need us to help?
The psychic is here. We need nothing else. I will summon you when you’re needed.
Patti May’s eyes stayed to Gwendola. The psychic hung her head again, as if knowing her gift would be sport for the evening, a show among Hellwalkers while the humans cowered in fear. And finally, she felt a measure of pity for the woman. For all her fancy clothes and blue streaked hair and blue nails and cleanness, Gwendola was nothing but a Hellwalker slave.
She spent the evening trying to teach Clarence and Danny how to read. Patti May hated to admit her own limitations in this area—she had only attended school through third grade before the Hellwalkers outlawed formal education. Master Archer had a fair collection of human books. He considered himself a scholar of human history, and the books he owned all dealt with human mythology, culture, and religion. Patti May’s ability to read was one of the skills that had made her intriguing to him. He wanted her to read the books with her mind wide-open so he could sit and listen to her thoughts as a means for enhancing his own scholarly pursuits.
While the Hellwalkers were engaged with Gwendola the psychic, Patti May used the time to her advantage. Danny disliked books— at eighteen, he was more interested in hunting for illegal flash drives packed with porn and external hard drives filled with movies and music from the past, things that could only be accessed with a generator and a computer. Clarence didn’t mind the learning, she could see him working it around in his head, but he was always questioning her, always challenging her knowledge. It was almost a relief, then, when Master Archer channeled a thought to her in the middle of a clumsy lesson on Greek mythology.
You are needed.
Patti May arose from her perch, a downed elm tree, and closed the book. “Ya’ll are a waste of time. Don’t know why I even bother.”
Danny yawned, but Clarence gave her a sweet smile.
“You love us, that’s why.”
She rolled her eyes as she tossed the book at him, but her insides warmed. At the door to the manor, Master Archer stood with a Hellwalker, the one carrying the chain, and Gwendola. The psychic looked worse for the wear, with sweaty strands of hair clumping across her forehead and around her ears. Large purple half-moons hung under her eyes, and her mouth sagged at the corners, no longer smiling. The hem of her blue toga dress was stained with black muck.
The psychic needs air and water. Assist her.
Patti May pointed to the manacle. “You gonna take that off?”
Master Archer couldn’t understand human tongue, but he could hear the same question in her mind. The chain will extend so far as the well.
Patti May shook her head, then reached for Gwendola’s arm. “Come on, then.”
The woman gave herself over with no resistance, almost falling down the porch steps in her eagerness. The chain clanked and grumbled as it unspun from the Hellwalker’s hands. Patti May glanced at Gwendola nervously, noticing for the first time how raw and red the flesh around her neck was from the tight, rubbing metal manacle. The psychic was slender and tall, taller than Patti May by at least half a head. As soon as they moved out of sight of the Hellwalkers, Gwendola’s footsteps slowed and she put distance between herself and Patti May.
It took a moment for Patti May to realize that Gwendola’s exhaustion in front of the Hellwalkers was only an act. A serene aura fell over the woman, her skin brightening and eyes growing more alert. Patti May had been leading her toward the well, but now the woman was moving her own direction, toward the orchard, bare feet skimming across the grass like a specter.
“Where you going?” Patti May asked.
The wild smile was back, but it wasn’t crazed. It was spirited and defiant and free.
“Follow me.” The woman’s voice was deep, whiskey seeping through rivulets on an old oak tree. She did not wait for Patti May to move. The chain chimed, bells, as she walked.
Patti May glanced at the outline of the manor house. Master Archer could look into her mind at this very moment, could see that there was something not right about Gwendola. The mad woman might lead her straight into trouble. She should return to the house and tell. Tell? What could she say? That the psychic had more energy than she let on? That she was headed toward the apple trees rather than toward the well? A laugh tickled the back of Patti May’s neck.
Gwendola picked up an abandoned woven basket and began gathering apples from one of the trees. Her fingers moved with efficiency, snapping the fruit from the branches like she was popping heads off necks. Patti May closed her eyes and inhaled the strong scent of overly ripe apples roasting in the sun. She watched Gwendola work, arms crossed, wondering if Clarence or Danny or one of the other humans would happen upon them.
“You don’t like me.” Gwendola said this without malice.
“Don’t like most people.”
She closed her eyes. “I understand.”
Patti May arched skeptical eyebrows. “Sure.”
“Most people don’t like me.”
Patti May nodded. “I understand.”
They didn’t speak for a long while. Gwendola filled her basket with apples, choosing the pockmarked ones and the ones with bruises over the perfected ones, then sat down on the grass and dumped out the whole lot of them into a pile. Patti May shook her head, astonished at the waste. Of course the woman wouldn’t care. Her Hellwalker master treated her as a pet, a prize from the war years. He dressed her well and kept her clean. Probably fed her the best foods, too. So apples and other luxuries meant nothing to her.
The Hellwalker soldier who discovered Gwendola first tried to delve into her mind to determine whether he should put her on a ship bound for their home world, force her into slavery on Earth, or kill her. She pushed back mentally and foretold his death. The Hellwalker, convinced of the inferiority of the human species, disregarded her threats and even told his squadron leader about her ‘lies.’ He likely put the prophecy out of his mind until the moment before the bomb set off a mudslide in the mountain facility where the alien was transferred.
Gwendola lifted one apple. She found a flat rock on the ground, reasonably sharp—it looked like one of those arrowheads found on the ground from time to time—and cut open the flesh of the fruit. She began to hum, an off-key, eerie lullaby.
“You like to destroy things?” Patti May asked.
The psychic froze. The hum ceased. Gray eyes met Patti May’s.
“What’re you doing to them apples?”
“I’m looking for seeds.” She stripped the flesh off the fruit until she was down to the core, then dropped it in the basket. Her hands glistened with sticky juice.
“What you want the seeds for?”
Her eyes drifted. “I’m collecting them. Please help me.”
Doubt squeezed her throat, but Patti May wondered if maybe the Hellwalkers had put her up to this. She didn’t know anything about their diet…maybe the black carpets Danny made came from apple seeds. But even if they had put Gwendola up to it, Patti May didn’t want to help.
“As you said, I don’t like you.”
Gwendola shrugged. She reached for another apple, worked it over in the same way. Her rhythm became quicker and surer and soon apple flesh scattered the area around her billowing silk dress. Five, six, seven apples. Patti May found herself entranced by this odd ritual, and soon she was sitting across from the psychic, watching her discard the good meat and keep the bad.
She reached for one of the fresher apples in the basket. “Mind if I eat one?”
“Only if you give me the core and all the seeds.”
“Fine by me.”
They sat like this until Patti May’s apple was eaten and Gwendola finished her task.
“People think I have no heart,” Gwendola said as she climbed down the hill toward the well, carrying the basket full of cores and seeds. “They think I am a monster.”
“You court monsters,” Patti May said, wiping her chin again. The juices clung to her, making her face a gluey mess she couldn’t seem to undo. The apple had tasted overripe, a sullied flavor that reminded her of decay and rot. Worse, the middle had brown spots surrounding the core, so she’d had to give it up before completely finishing the fruit.
“I see death.” Her eyes glazed over. “Only death. I can’t predict all aspects of the future.”
“Why’d you help them?”
“They only want what we want. To survive.”
“They used you to kill us,” Patti May growled.
“They came to me and wanted to know their deaths. I saw attacks. I saw murder. Humans slitting their throats while they slept. Bombing their bunkers. Burning their brood eggs alive.”
“They attacked us first,” Patti May said.
“I told them their deaths,” Gwendola whispered. “They used my sight to change their fate. I didn’t know then what it would mean for humanity.”
They reached the well. Patti May put a hand on the quartz to steady herself. “Don’t tell me you feel guilt. I don’t believe that load.”
“Guilt is pointless.”
Gwendola smiled. “I do like you, Patti May.”
“How you know my name?”
“I know more than that.”
A cold chill crawled up the base of Patti May’s spine. “Don’t read my future.” She shook her head. “I don’t want to know how I leave this world.”
The psychic sighed. She placed her basket full of apple cores on the ground, then reached for the bucket. Soon, they had a full container of water to wash the apple stains from their lips and hands and arms. The psychic drank deep from the well water. She sighed and closed her eyes and poured a ladle over her head, let the water flow down her face and neck and shoulders.
When there was only a small amount of water left in the bucket, Gwendola began plucking the seeds from the apple cores and dropping them into the water. Her fingers played the cores like buttons on a machine, tapping and twisting. The eerie song returned.
“What’re you doing now?” Patti May asked.
“Did you know apple seeds are poisonous?” Gwendola asked.
Patti May snorted. “That’s a lie. I swallowed ‘em before.”
A slow grin formed on the psychic’s face.
Fear sprouted in Patti May’s belly. “You sound like a scientist.” The Hellwalkers shipped every surviving human with education beyond elementary level to their planet, a place Master Archer hinted was overpopulated with nightmare monsters so the only safe place was under the ground. She heard the Hellwalkers could eat humans, only most didn’t care for the flavor.
Gwendola bobbed her head. A skein of hair fell over her shoulder. “I do.”
The only scientists left were on video recordings the Hellwalkers hadn’t yet confiscated. She’d watched a few recently, where they explained that the Earth’s temperature was getting warmer and warmer and that ultimately this would lead to some sort of Ice Age. Patti May sure hoped the Ice Age would come soon. The Hellwalkers had an aversion to cold weather.
“People say I betrayed my species,” Gwendola said, as she emptied out the last apple core. Then she reached for a loose rock at the base of the well. She planted it in the middle of the bucket and began twisting her hand around, grinding the rock into the floor of the bucket. Her movements were visceral, her torso jolting along with the effort.
“You did,” Patti May toyed with the tips of her hair.
“I’m not a killer,” Gwendola said. “I don’t believe in murder.”
“But they murdered us. You helped them.”
She blinked, and her eyes came up sorrowful and brimming with unshed tears. “I thought it was a gift. What I could do. I was meant to save lives. Wasn’t that why God gave it to me?”
Patti May couldn’t tear her gaze away from the bucket full of apple seeds, and how Gwendola had turned a bucket and a rock into a mortar and pestle. What did she plan to do with it? “I don’t know ‘bout all that.” She shifted positions. “Maybe it’s time to go back?”
“Twenty-two years, I wondered why. I searched for answers. What’s the purpose of seeing death, of changing death, if you can’t save lives? If saving the lives of some means wiping out a species? Maybe the only life I was ever really meant to save was my own.”
“We all had to make sacrifices.” Patti May found herself repeating what Clarence had said earlier in order to reassure Gwendola, even though she didn’t know why.
A strange expression passed across Gwendola’s face. “Sacrifices. Yes.” She peered into the bucket of mashed seeds. “I tried to kill myself countless times. It never worked. They have me shackled for a reason. They can read my mind as easily as anyone’s. I can’t hide from them.”
“Master Archer will be looking for you.”
“Do you lie, Patti May?”
“I can’t. Master Archer would know.”
“I don’t lie, either. For the same reasons.” Gwendola dipped her hand into the bucket. When it emerged, she held a mound of mashed apple seeds. “But tonight, everything changed. I saw my death. And I knew I could fool them this one time.”
“Don’t.” Patti May felt panic rise in her chest. They would blame her. She was supposed to watch Gwendola! Master Archer would kill her, or worse, kill Clarence.
She straightened and held her palm high. “I saw your death as well.”
“I ain’t eating any of your foul poison, witch.”
“That’s not how you die.”
“I told you, I don’t want to know.”
She stared at the concoction in her hand. “I told my first lies tonight. Each of them wanted to know how they would die. I gave them a lie.”
“And they didn’t know the truth?”
“I have been preparing myself for this moment a long, long time.” She stood and put her hand to her open mouth, consuming the entire handful of crushed seeds.
On the way back, Patti May vacillated between surety that Gwendola’s suicide plan would fail, fear that it wouldn’t, and confusion about what would happen next if it did succeed. It seemed to her there was a great chance, no matter the outcome, that she would die at the end of it all. “I can’t keep this a secret from the master,” she whispered. “He’ll know I’m lying.”
Gwendola’s steps were belabored. “I’ve seen your death. He won’t kill you.”
It took Patti May a few moments to gather her courage. “How do I die?”
“You said you don’t want to know.”
“Yes, I do.” She stared at the manor, where Master Archer waited next to the Hellwalker holding Gwendola’s chain. The Hellwalker tugged on it, hurrying the psychic along.
“This was your home before they landed, wasn’t it?”
Patti May nodded. “My Gran owned this home. We lived here when the war broke out, until a Tracker found us and sold us out to the Hellwalkers. They took my parents but left me and Gran at his mercy. Gran died a few years back. The Tracker sold the property and Clarence and I to Master Archer. Made a tidy profit on all of it, too.”
“This house will be yours again when all this is over.”
She studied Patti May. “When the time comes, don’t touch the dead. Leave them to rot; let the flies consume them. Let them soak into the floor. Then they’ll be a virus for all who touch them.” Her eyes blanked, like a Hellwalker was listening in on her. Then she smiled.
Away, human. Master Archer commanded in his powerful think-speak.
Patti May gave Gwendola one last puzzled, parting look before leaving her to the mercy of the Hellwalkers. She went to find Clarence and tell him everything.
“You left her?” Clarence asked, disapproval drawing his eyebrows together. The pupil expanded in his good orb. “What kind of person are you?”
“She wanted it this way,” Patti May whispered. “She saw her death.”
Rage darkened his eye. “Woman spent her entire life giving people their deaths so they could change it. Hers don’t have to happen, either. Let’s go back.” He started for the manor.
Patti May put out a hand to stop him. “She already took the poison. Leave it alone.”
“You said they were gonna eat her.”
“She’s a dead woman. Why does it matter if they eat her?”
He stepped away from her. “There’s something wrong with you. I never saw it before. That coldness. I thought it’d change after Dergen went away. Thought you’d get better.”
“You want me to get her?” Tears poured down her cheeks and dripped off her chin. “You want me to interrupt the Master, risk my life to save a woman with a death wish? I’ll do it if you ask me to, Clarence, but I want you to understand fully what you’re asking me to do.”
His head dropped. “No. That ain’t what I want.”
Patti May felt her temper rise. Her legs burned with energy and hot, hot blood. She stomped with purpose toward the manor, ignoring Clarence’s pleas for her to stop. She could hear him trailing her–of course he was, he wouldn’t leave her. She’d become selfish. Bitter and hard like the pips of an apple. The Lord wasn’t good to her, in spite of what the cheery folksong said. No, not at all.
She was halfway across the yard when the pang jolted her leg. The injury Master Archer gave her two weeks ago flared. Coupled with the pain, mental screams filled her head. Patti May covered her ears, eyes searching for Clarence. He, too, was doubled over and making a concerted effort to hide his head against the raucous sound.
Suppressing the sharp electricity traveling down her spine, Patti May limped toward the large bay window that let natural light shine into the manor dining room. Her stomach clenched tight, a coil wound to impossible proportions. She moved toward the crack in the middle of the window between the silver taffeta curtains. Her heart climbed her throat, blocking breath.
She saw them writhing, trembling, seizing. Their normally pale bodies were swollen pink. Veins she’d never before seen bulged, climbing up their necks and faces like ivy. She couldn’t tell one from another, not even Master Archer.
In the corner of the room, boots lined the floor. Their feet were exposed, muddied by their carpet of food. One of the Hellwalkers raised a foot, tried clawing at the sole, exposing sickening black roots that extended from his base. The furry lines across his face moved with spastic jerks. The screams inside her head grew to unthinkable volume.
Patti May swallowed. Took a step backward. Her heart tried to escape her chest. She knew they had an entirely different genetic structure. They drew nutrients from the roots that retracted from their feet, the same way the trees survived in the orchard. Horror built in her gut, bringing up bile. What were they? And what had they done to Gwendola?
A few moments later, Patti May peeked through the curtains of the bay window again and saw bodies littered everywhere, speckled with shiny black spots all across them. Their tails dried and calcified and turned to dust. How? Had all the seeds Gwendola consumed affected them? Were they poisoned alongside her? Surely not! This was something else. The smell of rot overwhelmed even past the secured glass.
She sucked in air through her mouth. Saw exposed organs on the organic carpet. A severed hand cast against the wall like refuse. Blue fingernails with stars etched across them.
They waited by the well for Master Archer to call them. They set up camp, built a lookout, and took turns running back and forth from the house for supplies. He did not call them in hours, or even days. Weeks passed. No one touched the dining room door, no one even dared to look inside. More Hellwalkers came. The slaves buried their camp and hid at the bottom of the well until Patti May saw the invaders leave carrying out the bodies.
Later, Patti May noticed the leaves on the apple trees were covered with glistening black lesions. The branches turned reddish and cankered. Some of the trees died. She wondered if Gwendola saw the death of even the orchard. If she saw the death of all life forms, human, and apple, and Hellwalker. And how one death could bring about another.
After that, Patti May made it a regular habit to eat the fruit, sickly though it seemed.
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