- by Brandann R. Hill-Mann -
CW: Domestic Violence
Tab stood at the top of the stairs, fingers twisting the scrap of the penny saver she’d pulled out. The one with the cryptic, coded message the others had told her about. The one she’d hidden away in the wrapper of an unused sanitary pad, deep in the bottom of her purse, until she was certain it was time. She checked the address against the page several times, even though she’d memorized it.
One foot in front of the other.
Down the stone steps she went. Toe to heel. Toe to heel. There were five of them. The door looked ordinary, like any other door to any other basement apartment in these old houses divided up into livable units. They all had cute little assignments, like this one: twenty-two and one half. Like it was some sort of liminal space between the other apartments.
The naked bulb of the yard light flickered under the obsessive attention of Canadian soldiers flapping around it. Each one vied for a place in the light—that warmth they couldn’t pull away from until it was too late. Tab, too, had come here for the light: a beacon of hope so beautiful she had to reach for it, even if it killed her.
The weathered wood door swung inward before her knuckles even touched it; the brass knocker wiggled on its loose hinge. The woman on the other side held it just wide enough to show her face, highlighted by the golden, flickering glow of the bug-covered yard light. “May I help you?”
“Yes. I mean, I hope so. I’m Tab. Tabitha, but everyone always calls me Tab.” Her shaking fingers smoothed the crumpled penny saver page against her leg. “I brought this, just in case you needed it.”
The woman reached through the opening and stilled Tab’s hand with a gentle squeeze. “No need, dear. Come in.”
Tab stepped through the door, a fearsome chill running through her like a warning—that he would find out. That there was no going back. She swallowed; her tongue dry, filling her whole mouth, making it difficult to breathe.
“Is this your first time?” the woman asked.
“Yes. I mean, no. I tried other ways, but they weren’t . . . they couldn’t help me.” She let the woman guide her into the hallway with a light hand on her elbow, then into a small living room where she gestured to one of two leather-looking couches.
“No one comes here their first try.” Something mournful wound into the woman’s words.
Tab nodded, eyes turned down, afraid someone might recognize her. It always felt like he was watching her. Like he was following her. She shivered, despite her flannel-lined jacket.
“Hey, love.” The woman stopped and turned, a turquoise-ringed finger crooked under Tab’s chin. “You’re safe here.”
Tab flinched. She didn’t mean to, it just happened. Safe? What was safe anymore? There was no place his eyes couldn’t see. No place his reach couldn’t go.
Tab summoned her courage and leaned into the older woman’s cupped hand. So gentle. So warm. It tingled through her like lightning; it would leave the same fractal scarring across her spirit if this didn’t work.
Tears spilled from Tab’s eyes. “Thank you.”
“The others call me Auntie Ula. Let me help you.”
Help. That’s why Tab was here. For help that no one else could offer. Help that all his charms and all the privilege of his upbringing could finally not stymie.
Tab sat on the small sofa. A slight, tired-looking woman in a terry housecoat and rubber-soled slippers appeared and handed her a mug of tea. The spearmint steam seeped into Tab as she inhaled deep, soothing her nerves.
Auntie Ula settled on the opposite sofa, crossing her ankles primly and regarding Tab with eyes an unnatural blue. The woman could have been peering at her from somewhere else in the world, this body only the vessel through which she did her work. She, too, looked dressed for bed: marabou mules on her feet, her long, heavy housecoat trimmed likewise. She smelled of tobacco and sweetgrass. Iron-grey hair hung in a long braid over her shoulder, and her face was lit with a smile rich with secrets she’d promised to keep. Perhaps names of those who’d come before Tab, equally desperate and in need of help.
“You know what it is I offer?” Auntie Ula asked, her voice a kind caress.
“I do.” Tab bit her lip and squeezed her fingers around the mug. Spoken in whispers by those who knew the need, shared by those with no power to help her on their own.
“I assume you’ve exhausted all other . . . temporal options?”
Tab nodded once more. Auntie Ula’s help was a last resort—an endgame play. “I’ve tried the police.” Her shoulders sloped under the weight of her embarrassment. “The city police told me to go back to the reservation, but the reservation police won’t interfere because he’s not tribal.”
“I see.” Auntie Ula’s face hardened, though not unkindly. “You know there is no cooling off from this, yes? What is done cannot be undone.”
A sob shook Tab’s shoulders. “What other choice is there?”
“There is always a choice,” the elder woman cautioned. “Even if it is not a good choice. You must be sure.”
“I’m sure. I choose this.”
There was little else to discuss. No money to exchange. Tab knew there was a cost. There was always a cost. But she followed Auntie Ula as the woman swept out of her seat, marabou feathers dancing as her hem swished around her feet. The slight, exhausted woman held open a small door for them and Auntie Ula ducked through it, then waited as Tab followed into the darkness of what appeared to be a laundry room. They walked carefully past a set of coin-operated washers and dryers, stopping at yet another door that by all rights should have led to another unit. This one opened with an old-fashioned key hung around Auntie Ula’s neck on a chain so fine it didn’t look able to hold that wrought iron weight.
Faint blue light pierced the dark passage as Auntie Ula slotted the key home, then flooded from the door as it was opened. Tab shielded her eyes against the sudden brightness.
Even having heard the stories, Tab inhaled sharply at what lay beyond. The room teemed with albino loaches, large and snake-like, each as long and thick as her arm. They gave off an incandescent blue glow, fins and fanned tails casting reflections off one another, dappling the ground with an eerie shimmer. Their mouths were slightly elongated, flowing whiskers sweeping as they moved, as if through rushing water. Their unseeing eyes had the clouded-over look of cave-dwelling fish, focused on nothing. Yet Tab was certain she could feel their gaze boring into her.
“Don’t be shy,” Auntie Ula coaxed. “The wyrms won’t harm you.”
“What do I do?” Tab asked in a low murmur.
“Nothing. If you choose to invite one, it will find you, and it will show you what to do.”
The wyrms parted for her, making a path to the middle of the room, before closing in behind her. They swished and wound about her, but never touched. Tab’s eyes rounded as she watched them swimming, darting, and diving—the motions fluid and swift in their elegant grace. She reached out a hand, palm up, watching them expertly move to avoid contact.
All except one.
With purpose, it wove its way through the others until it floated in front of her, regarding her with its milked-over eyes—seeing her with something more than terrestrial vision. The others pulled back, giving space to the pair in silent acknowledgment.
She felt the wyrm’s wordless thoughts in her mind, loving and gentle. There was nothing to fear here. Nothing to feel ashamed of. This was a place touched by power—potent as it settled against her skin. Without words, she felt it encourage her. Her fingers found the front of her jacket, and she let it fall away before slowly undoing each of the buttons down the front of her waitress uniform, exposing the place on her chest beneath which her heart beat with ever increasing speed.
The wyrm drew closer—beseeching, never forcing—and Tab was able to brush her fingers along the soft fins that lined its swaying body. It nuzzled into her outstretched hand, more a friendly cat than a fish. She scratched gently beneath its whiskers, and it wound up her arm until it rested its protruding mouth against her rounded cheek, imploring.
“I accept,” she said reverently, her brow touching the smooth surface of its translucent skin.
The wyrm disentangled itself from her grasp, pausing to rest once more in front of her. She could feel its love and protectiveness, along with an apology: it charged at her, head connecting with her chest with a searing hiss and a stench like a red-hot poker set to flesh. It burrowed past her skin, past her sternum. Tab cried out in anguish as it needled the whole of its body into her, making space for itself and spreading out until she could feel its warmth coursing through her. She panted, desperate for air she couldn't quite draw, fighting against the pain until she thought she might faint.
Hands grasped her under her arms, helping keep her upright. “Don’t fight it,” Auntie Ula cooed. With great effort, Tab let herself relax as the last inches of the loach’s tail disappeared through her chest.
Her breath snatched inward at last and she let out a wail, shaking and staggering a step forward out of Auntie Ula’s grasp. She dropped to her knees, muscles heaving. She gagged and felt her muscles spasm as something forced its way up her throat. She choked, crying without sound until finally, finally she coughed hard and forced a small, bright blue stone to tumble to the floor.
The room was quiet and dark as Tab leaned her weight on her hands, wheezing to calm her aching chest. When she tilted her head up again, she couldn’t see any of the other loach wyrms. There was no swarm, no glowing lights apart from the tiny blue stone on the floor glittering with its own energy. Auntie Ula picked it up and held it aloft, and in the light it cast Tab could see the tears wetting the elder woman’s cheeks. She cradled the stone in her hands like it was the most precious, priceless object the world had ever known. She watched Auntie Ula place it in a glass jar, where it hovered, touching neither lid nor base, and set the jar upon a shelf in a line of others just like it.
Tab was given time to recover, legs drawn beneath her on the sofa, the dregs of her tea gone cold. Her eyes stayed trained on the scattered tea leaves, wishing she could divine her future in the indiscernible pattern. Her stomach wound in knots, a hunger churning in her that did not end in her belly. It crawled through her very being, demanding, urging her to be on her way. She didn’t need that to tell her it was time to go; she’d been gone too long. He would have questions.
Auntie Ula helped her from the chair, and the other woman helped her bundle back up into her coat. “You’ll need to feed soon.”
“How?” Tab shook her head. This part she wondered at. This part she feared.
Auntie Ula’s smile was kind and sad. “You’ll know. The wyrm will show you.”
Tab hurried home, her steps swift on the concrete, not slowing until she’d put the little house out of sight. She hugged her arms around herself, a strange, cold, tangible emptiness filling her. It made the chilled autumn air feel hot against her face. She redoubled her pace.
The mustang sat cold in the driveway, a layer of fog already creeping across the windshield. With any luck he was already asleep, despite the light from the television glowing through the curtains. Maybe all of this would be unnecessary. Maybe when she got inside, he would just be glad to have her home and things would be like before. All the same maybes that never came to fruition flitted through her mind, just long enough to be argued away by the choking truth.
He can’t hurt you anymore, she reminded herself. Despite all that had happened tonight, she wasn’t sure she could trust it; it didn’t feel real. She walked up the steps, the same as she did every other night, and opened the door without feeling the knob in her hand.
“Where were you?”
Tab let the storm door slam shut behind her, startling at the sound. “Work.”
“I called the diner an hour ago. Try again.” He didn’t bother looking up as he flipped through the streaming platform menu. He paused on each choice only long enough to avoid the autoplay.
Her hands shook as she undid her jacket, hanging it on a hook behind the door. “It was slow, so Mame let me go early. It’s such a nice night, I took a walk.”
“Who was with you?” There was no missing the sharpness of his accusation.
“I went by myself.”
The remote crashed against the floor, the slat for the battery compartment skittering across the threshold to land on kitchen tile. “Why do you lie to me?”
“I’m not. I went for a walk. No one was with me.” Her voice trembled despite her efforts to steady each syllable. She could feel hot tears on the apples of her cheeks.
He pushed up from the chair and jabbed a finger at her. “Don’t you dare start crying. I know what you’re trying to do, and it won’t work.”
Tab inhaled, exhaled; nodded, dashing at her eyes. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” She was always sorry. Sorry for being late. Sorry for existing. Sorry for the customer who made a joke that was just a little too flirtatious.
She hurried past him, out of arm’s reach. Hunger twisted itself more tightly inside her. She dipped to one knee on the linoleum to retrieve the remote’s battery cover before doubling back. “I should have come home first. Maybe we can go for a walk. I think the air would do you some good.”
“You know what’s good for me, do you?”
“I just thought we could . . .” not do this in the house, she finished in her head. “It’s just so nice and all the stars are out.” She stood as he advanced, his steps too quick to be predictable. She moved back until she felt the wall against her spine.
“You thought, did you? Is that what you did? Because if you used your head, you’d have known to come straight home.” He loomed over her now, finger to her sternum. She could smell the cigarette smoke and beer on his breath. He’d promised he’d quit. He made a lot of promises, didn’t he? Promises not to hurt her. To do all the nice things he’d filled her head with when they were young.
She could feel the wyrm’s fluttering beneath where his finger drilled into her.
Her brows knit together as she looked up to him. “Please move away from me.”
“You don’t tell me what to do.” To prove his point, he leaned closer, mouth directly in her face. He raised his voice. “You’re not going to change the subject. Now tell me where you were.”
Suddenly she couldn’t think of anything except the way he ebbed with what the wyrm craved. Teeth grinding together, Tab forced the next words out between them. “I said get back.”
“Shut up.” He pressed his forearm against her, across her shoulders, all but pinning her to the wall. “Answer me.”
“Which is it?” she asked before she could think not to.
“What?” His eyes narrowed.
“I can’t shut up and answer you. You’ll have to pick one.”
“Are you being smart with me?”
“One of us has to be.” Tab placed both hands on his chest and pushed with all her might, finding herself stronger than either of them expected. “I said get back.” The tremolo left her voice and she squared her shoulders.
“Don’t you dare lay your hands on me,” he growled. He swung his arm, cuffing her upside the head. Light exploded behind her eyes and there was a ringing in her ears she tried to ignore.
“I asked you to get back.” Tab ducked out of his grasp with tremendous effort, barely making it a step before he grabbed her by the arm, twisting it behind her until she cried out.
“Just remember, you hit me first.” He blocked her path out of the room as she struggled to pull free, then knocked the chair over.
She slipped away and ran for their bedroom. She closed the door, but he managed to wedge his foot in first. She leaned against the door with all her weight, but it wasn't enough to stop him from shoving his way in, the swing of the door sending her staggering. Her foot caught in discarded laundry and she tripped backward onto the bed. He was atop her in an instant. He rammed his knee into her stomach, hands closed around her throat. She dragged herself backward, grasping at sheets, blankets, anything to get traction. She kicked her legs uselessly.
He leaned close, screaming at her now, the words not even registering. Though she couldn’t draw a breath, her mouth still gaped.
It was enough.
At first it felt like breathing, except it wasn’t drawn into her lungs. He didn’t notice at first—how it hooked onto his own breath, how it drew out of him like a pale blue thread. He squeezed, shaking her, but as the thread flowed into her it gathered tensile strength, doubling and tripling in size. She pushed him away, following as he fell back, his hands loosening from her throat. The pull of breath became stronger. The cable became light, twisting and scintillating, blue lightning between them. His eyes widened, face crumpled with confusion. His back met the closet door, then there was nowhere else for him to go.
Tab broke the connection, barely slaking the ravenousness inside her. “I told you to get back,” she gasped.
“What the fuck was that?” he demanded. Even now, weakened and at the disadvantage, he tried to assert his dominance as he rose to tower over her.
“Your last warning.” Her words came so calm, so soft. She held his gaze with her own.
He curled his fingers into her shoulders, bruising. “You’re going to be sorry.”
“Maybe,” she agreed. “Go ahead, hold your breath and see.”
The loach wyrm slithered out of her mouth, lurching forward like the pharyngeal jaw of a moray eel. It grabbed nothing tangible that she could see, but she could feel the hold she had all the same. He struggled, and with every motion, with every breath, the grip of the wyrm tightened until the blue light cable poured out of him and into Tab. His face shrivelled in on itself, leaving him wan and harrowed. His hands loosened, his knees gave way, the connection between them like a taut rubber band that had snapped. He dropped to the floor, and Tab stumbled back onto the bed once more. The wyrm retreated safely back inside her.
Then there was only quiet.
Tab gave herself a moment to catch her breath. It came easier than it had in a long time. She would need to pack what she could, quickly. The wyrm stilled inside her, sated. For now. She didn't know how long she would have before it would need to feed again and, for the moment, she didn’t care. All that mattered was that she was free, and would be far away from here when the hunger came again.
© 2019 by Brandann R. Hill-Mann
Brandann R. Hill-Mann is a Triple Bi (Biracial, Bisexual, Bipolar) speculative fiction author, playwright, podcaster, stage manager, and US Navy Veteran. Her work has appeared in Devilfish Review and Page and Spine. Brandann is part of the weekly Bi Bi Bi Podcast.