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Caroline at Dusk

The gun was still on the table when Caroline returned from her walk.

She stopped short in the doorway. A gust of wind shoved at her back, whipped a spray of rain around her. She fumbled until she found the handle and pulled the door closed behind her.

The gun was still on the table.

She had hoped, as she had been climbing the hill away from the cottage, to return and find she had imagined it. With ice in her throat, faster and faster until her breath tasted of blood, she had climbed until she reached the summit, where a wire fence met a collapsing stone wall. Filthy fat sheep twitched apprehensively on the other side. She had stared at them, they at her. From the corner of her eye one lumbering animal looked too large, too hulking, its stench on the rising wind too rich—but when she turned its shape was normal, its stare dull.

There atop the hill, she convinced herself the gun wasn’t real. It worked for only a slithering moment, but even that moment felt like victory, there in the manure-slick pasture.

There was nobody but the sheep nearby to hear the laughter choke her as it escaped. There was a storm rolling over the sea; the view was stupendous. Maggie would have loved it: the suspicious sheep smudged with red and blue and green, the stone walls tumbling down the hillsides, the villages tucked into protected folds of land, the green so rich it had a smell to it, a taste. She would have reveled as the wind rose to caress nervous ripples in the grass. She would have refused when Caroline suggested they head inside, refused and said: Don’t be a baby, Carrie. It’ll be an adventure.

Thinking about Maggie, about time and change, about how small a plea could be, how few trees there were here and how hard it would be to hide, how rotten remains eroded from the hillside would look, would smell, Caroline had watched the storm rage closer. Explosions of wind churned up Dingle Bay and gray curtains of rain devoured Great Blasket Island. The Atlantic had been smaller, once. As a child Maggie had made a model of tectonic plates from cut-up construction paper; two years later in the same classroom Caroline had reused her idea. Long ago the continents had been one, before they split, ripped apart by the slow grind of time and the deep churn of heat within the earth. She imagined she could feel it, that rumble, that fire, if she held her breath, if she closed her eyes.

She wasn’t going to close her eyes. Even on a treeless hillside and a sunless day there were too many murky shadows. She couldn’t see what lurked on the other side of the wall. The stones were high enough to hide a child, or a crouching man.

She had waited too long to start back. The rain caught her in spitting cold gusts, ripe with the stench of sheep and the sea. She fell twice on the green slope, and each time she scrambled to her feet with her heart racing, gagging on the scent of mossy decay. By the time she was inside the cottage and pulling the door shut, her jeans were mud-smeared and clinging to her calves, her hair dripping rivulets down her neck, and the gun was still on the table.

She hadn’t imagined it.

It was a black handgun. More darkness than shine. Flanking it on the table were a tea-stained mug at one end, the rental car keys at the other. Caroline couldn’t be certain they hadn’t moved. She might have set them both at the same side. She might have set them in the middle, where the gun was now. There might have been a plate—there had been a plate, earlier, when she had awoken with a whiskey headache and a sour stomach. Breakfast at noon: heavy soda bread, rich butter, jam. A gift from Siobhan and Brendan, the cottage’s owners, handed over in a basket, tucked under a tea towel marbled with bleach spots.

Caroline didn’t know if she had washed the plate. She couldn’t see into the sink from where she stood. An empty bottle and glass sat on the counter. The cottage smelled musty, as though it had been closed up for years, not less than an hour.

Rain clattered against the window; the daylight was rapidly fading. Caroline edged her way around the room, back to the wall, inching toward the lamp beside the sofa. She pulled the string—nothing happened.

Her dismay was sudden, a nauseating betrayal. Caroline had specifically asked about the electricity—not admitting a fear of the dark, never that—and Brendan had answered that she needn’t worry, it went out sometimes, yes, but only in winter, and here it was barely autumn. He was round-cheeked, grinning. He laughed at every Irish word Caroline tried and failed to pronounce. He winked as he said, “Let us know if you need anything, anything at all.”

Siobhan had echoed the words with a pinched smile and narrow eyes: Anything at all.

After she had clomped out in her Wellingtons, Caroline had half expected Brendan to turn to her with a leer and suggest she come over for a drink later, if she liked, when the wife was out.

And she had thought, in that pause where an invitation might have fallen, she would accept. She would watch through the window to see Siobhan’s Ford Fiesta pulling away, and she would grab one of her bottles of duty-free whiskey and trudge down the driveway, following the glow from their kitchen window like a ship sighting a lighthouse, and somewhere between the cottage door and Brendan’s welcoming leer she would become a woman who did that kind of thing. Maggie would have done that kind of thing and confessed giggling to Caroline over wine. Caroline could too, even if she had no sister to confide in anymore, even if she was late in catching up. She was always late, and their confidences had only ever flowed one direction anyway, like rivers, or time.

Caroline tried the light again. Again. Three times before she remembered she had to turn the power on at the outlet.

Warm yellow light flooded the room, and the gun was still there.

Eyes skipping away from it like a film missing frames, she pulled off her boots, wrung out her hair, stripped off her sodden jeans. She ducked into the bedroom, grabbed her sweats and hoodie from the rumpled bed before darting back into the living room. She changed in full view of the uncovered window; her reflection in the glass was pale against the glowering twilight.

Her fingers twitched at her side. Mug, keys, gun. No plate. She couldn’t remember about the plate. She would have remembered a gun. The gun. This gun. She didn’t need to look more closely to recognize it. There had only ever been the one.

She had lied to the police when they asked, the night Maggie died, six weeks ago and three thousand miles away. An ocean and an eternity. Caroline had never lied to the police before; it had felt like the last clattering moments of a roller-coaster climbing to the top of its first, greatest hill. “Our dad’s old gun,” she had said. Accepted a Styrofoam cup of coffee that tasted like jet fuel. Let hot tears fall. “Maggie kept it in her closet, I think. I don’t know anything about it.” A truth and two lies. Under her own words she heard their father’s voice saying the name years before—Beretta, thirty-eight, just what we need—his feigned expertise, his puff-chest patriarchal protectiveness, his rumble-voiced promises of safety offering too little, too late. His little girls had already gone into the woods—but that was ages ago. Another time, another life. The police had not believed it relevant.

A gust of wind shook the house. Caroline grabbed the car keys, tucked them into her purse by the door. Rain drummed on the roof like stones from the sky. She skirted the table, two feet between herself and the gun at all times, and swept up the mug. She realized a moment too late there was still a soggy tea bag and half an inch of bitter brown liquid in the bottom. The tea splattered over her hand. She dumped the soggy bag in the trash, the tea in the sink, right over a dish speckled with crumbs. It had been there all along.

She ran the water and squirted green soap onto the sponge. The kitchen window looked out at the driveway, where her rental car was getting drummed with rain and hedgerows quivered in the wind. The water changed from cold to hot so suddenly it stung her hands; she jerked back, adjusted the temperature. The soda bread was a fist in her stomach. She had picked up a week’s worth of groceries, but three days in she had barely made a dent in them. The night pressured through the windows too early, too earnest, and everything tasted earthy and mossy and green.

Caroline shut off the water, squeezed out the sponge. She glanced out the window as she turned away.

There was somebody in the driveway.

She whirled around and gripped the edge of the sink, leaned forward until the counter’s edge bit into her stomach. Car, hedge, drive. There was nobody. Her nose didn’t touch the glass, but her breath puffed a circle of steam, obscuring her view.

She wiped it away. There was nobody.

Her heart racing, she stepped back from the sink. Dishwater had soaked through her shirt on a soggy line. She hadn’t seen anything on the hill, and she hadn’t seen anybody just now. Her eyes were playing tricks on her. There was only a feeble sliver of daylight visible between the distant horizon and the clouds. The islands were completely hidden, the whole of Slea Head cloaked in rain.

It hadn’t even looked like a person. She was tired, hungover. Sleep had been slow to come last night; the cheap IKEA bed was hard as stone and squealed with every turn. She had seen the wind moving through the hedge, the dark bulk of the car, her own reflection on the glass.

Caroline marched over to the door and slid the latch into place. Dropped her hand, then lifted it again. If she had seen somebody—she hadn’t, but if she had—it would be Siobhan or Brendan come to check on her, to make sure she was settled in before the storm. They felt sorry for her. She had given them the sob story: my sister died, very sudden, we were so close. I never had a better friend. We never lived more than a few minutes apart.

“She would have loved it here,” Caroline had said. “She always wanted to visit, but she never got the chance. Her career, you know, and then . . . ” She left the manner of Maggie’s death unspoken. She had given them a false name, paid cash. They didn’t care. “I needed to get away. Figure out what to do next, now that she’s gone.”

Siobhan’s wrinkled prune of a face had softened. She had gestured to the wooden sign over the door, where the cottage’s name was painted in predictable fake Gaelic script. Críonnacht. “It means wisdom,” she had said, and Brendan had added, “Worldliness too.” The crags of Siobhan’s face hardened when he corrected her.

Caroline unlatched the door and turned the knob. The wind shoved inward, and the door knocked into the side of her face with a solid blow.

“Damn it!” she spat, fingers going to her cheekbone.

Rain gusted inside, but she made herself look. There was nobody. Of course there was nobody. She shut the door with a decisive thunk and locked it again. Siobhan and Brendan were cozied up in their own house, warm and dry by the fire, not thinking about her at all. Caroline was too intimidated by the cottage’s wood-stove to light a fire of her own. Siobhan’s warnings against using too much newsprint had given her visions of setting the entire chimney afire, the entire house, her bed turning to a pyre while she slept.

Now she was shivering again, and her pajamas were damp, and the gun was still on the table.

It hadn’t moved.

The words skated through Caroline’s mind, a declarative statement first—it hadn’t moved—before weakening to a question: had it moved?

The barrel had been pointing toward the kitchen before—hadn’t it? It wasn’t now. It was pointing at her, as though somebody had spun the gun around on the table. Russian roulette meets Spin-the-Bottle.

But the question of whether the gun had moved—

The voice in her mind sounded much like Maggie giving a lecture to indifferent freshmen. In the early days Caroline had watched her teach, slipping into the back of auditoriums that smelled like coffee and teenagers, until Maggie had asked her not to come anymore.

—that question paled in comparison to the question of how it could be here at all.

It couldn’t be here. It couldn’t be anywhere except at the bottom of the Ohio River. Caroline had dropped it from a bridge so high she hadn’t heard the splash. It had fallen into the darkness and—vanished, gone, not even the softest gulp of answer from the river below. No cars had passed when she walked onto the bridge, none when she walked back. Her palms had itched the entire way. The gun was gone.

A burble of hysterical laughter rose in Caroline’s throat. She pressed her fingers to her lips to shove it down, slid them up to her cheek where the door had struck her. The gun hadn’t moved. And if it had—the wind, the storm. She had jostled the table.

If there had been somebody outside—there hadn’t been—but if they had come to check on her, given her a moment’s consideration as the storm rose, she could have asked Siobhan or Brendan about the gun. Pointed, said: Look. That. That. Do you know where that came from?

And they would laugh, say, there’s a funny story, see, we thought you might feel safer. You being American and all. A handgun to go along with the complimentary toiletries and shortbread biscuits. No extra charge.

When Caroline tried to force another laugh, her gorge rose. She choked back of bile, swallowed twice, breathed through her nose. She walked to the table and nudged the chair aside. She reached for the gun, fingers flexing, but stopped with her hand inches above it. They had never tested her hands, the police, when they questioned her. They had huffed and murmured as she cried, annoyed by how little she knew. She was hysterical, distraught, useless. Home invasion gone wrong, they decided. That poor woman. She’d had a new job to look forward to. Such a bright future. Even when Caroline was sitting right before them, red-eyed and shuddering, all of their sympathy had been for Maggie.

It had always been that way, even when they were children. After the woods, after the hospital, when they were pinched into in last year’s Easter dresses and standing as a family for reporters to see, even then there had been eyes only for Maggie, nine years old, solemnly telling them all about how she had run away. “To get help for Carrie,” she had said, transforming her betrayal into heroics with those squeaky-voiced words. It had found its way into a headline later: Sister Risked All to Bring “Help For Carrie.”

Maggie never told them that it had been her idea to go into the woods that day—don’t be a baby, Carrie, jeez, let’s play fossil hunter, it’ll be fun—and she never told them how thrilled she had been, that make-believe afternoon, when they found the bones buried in the riverbank. It’s a deer, Maggie had said, giddy and laughing. A big deer, a giant deer, a fossil, held me dig! Caroline helped, and it was her fingers that first found the dirty white skull, and it was her voice that whispered: We shouldn’t be here.

Maggie stopped laughing. A man’s boots cracked on dry twigs. Caroline reached for Maggie’s hand.

Later, when Caroline’s raw wrists were bandaged and the hospital lights were too bright and even water through a plastic straw tasted of dirt, Maggie didn’t tell anybody how Caroline had pleaded for her not to leave, and she didn’t tell them how their little girl hands had twisted together for a second, gritty with mud, and she didn’t tell them how she had broken away, how she had run, and run, and run, how she had heard Caroline screaming and kept running. Maggie’s statement was important testimony. She had stopped a murderer and brought help for her sister. Maggie was heroic, radiant in the photo in the local paper. Carrie, small and glum, a traumatized wisp beside her.

Caroline closed her fingers into a fist. As she withdrew her hand she saw a motion at the corner of her eye, and she whirled toward the front window.

It wasn’t her reflection. It wasn’t the hedgerow. There was something out there.

A dark shape, rounded, hulking. Moving past the window with lumbering slowness.

A sheep.

Too big for a sheep.

A really—she gagged on a burble of laughtera really big sheep.

There had to be—what were they called—male sheep. Rams. One had gotten through the fence, jumped the wall like a bedtime counting game, and now it was shitting on her front walk.

Caroline stalked to the window, leaned close enough to feel the chill on her skin. Raindrops streaked the glass. There was nothing to see. She snapped the green plaid curtains closed; metal rings squealed over the rod. The wind was so loud, the rain like somebody was throwing buckets of water against the windows. The door rattled with every gust, straining its old hinges, and each draft of cold air brought with it a ripe green smell. She would never be able to sleep with this racket—but it was early yet, in spite of the darkness. Not even dinner time. She had a while to wait before Maggie came home.

Her skin prickled. A low ocean roar filled her ears.

With trembling fingers, she adjusted the curtain, turned from the window. Closed her fingers into fists. Her palms were itching again. She wasn’t waiting. There was nobody coming.

She didn’t do that. She didn’t get confused.

She could recall every moment of Maggie’s last day with perfect clarity.

Maggie had called rather than texted about lunch. That should have been a sign, but Maggie was the clever one, Caroline the follower tripping two steps behind, and she hadn’t suspected anything, not until Maggie had smiled and apologized and smiled some more, and a chill has trembled over Caroline’s skin, sunk into her bones.

“It’s such a good opportunity,” Maggie had said. “It’s an amazing position. I know it’s far away, and I know you don’t want—but aren’t you happy for me?”

They were standing in the museum’s Hall of the Pleistocene, where they always met for lunch—less frequently of late, Maggie was so busy—and Maggie had blurted out the news right there, right beneath the span of Irish elk’s antlers.

“It’s such a good opportunity,” Maggie had said, and said it again, more desperately, when Caroline didn’t answer. The midday sun through the skylights had flattened the fossils into shadows, but Maggie was a pillar of sunlight. “Are you mad at me, Carrie?”

And Caroline had said: “Please don’t leave.” She said it because she meant it, and because she wanted to see Maggie wince.

She tugged the chair away from the table. Sat down. Smoothed her palms over her knees once, twice, again, rubbing away the itch.

The gun barrel was pointing toward her.

It had been pointing at the door before. She looked along the short black barrel, over the table and the chair on the other side, straight at a gap in the curtain where a single black eye peered through.

Caroline jumped to her feet. The gun was in her hands, warm like it had been there all along. Another roar of wind buffeted the house, and the eye was gone. She saw only the sheen of glass, the rivulets of rainwater, the gray dusk.

She adjusted her grip on the gun, flexing first the fingers of one hand, then the other. The black barrel wavered. Her heart was punching wildly and her breath was short. Glass, rain, darkness. She shouldn’t have turned on the light. She shouldn’t have closed the curtain.

Behind her shoulder there was a loud snort. Caroline spun around, swinging the gun and knocking it clumsily into the corner of the cabinet.

There it was outside the kitchen—how could it have moved so fast—a massive creature, broad snout and eyes like stones in the window above the sink. It was so dark it had no features, no topography. It sapped the light from the cottage and drained it into the night, and left in its place a choking musky stink, a stench so strong it felt like a physical thing, damp earth and rotting wood and fleshy soft decay. Caroline felt dirt crumbling through her fingertips, grinding between her teeth, sliding beneath her feet—she wavered, caught herself. She was on the floor. Solid ground. Her hands were clean.

The thing outside the window huffed, clouding the window with rancid steam. Caroline gagged and hooked her elbow over her nose. She inched into the kitchen, step by sliding step, and she reached with the other hand, the hand still holding the gun, to snap the thin lacy curtain closed. The gun tapped a cool clink-clink on the kitchen window.

Another snort, another hot stinking exhale, and outside the cottage gravel crunched. Behind the lace the thing moved to the left, toward the front of the cottage.

Caroline shuddered into the living room, her socked feet slipping on the floor. There she stood turning, waiting and indecisive, listening for breaths and snorts and footsteps on gravel. The creature plodded along the right side of the cottage, reached the corner and turned, then it was in front of her, it was stalking toward the entrance—she turned as it moved, leveling the gun at where it ought to be. But it didn’t stop at the window, didn’t stop at the door. It paced to the next corner, turned again, crunched its way along the left wall, behind the unlit wood stove.

Caroline tracked its every step, rotating in clean even angles, gun trembling in her hands. Her eyes passed over the wood stove, the cheap furniture. The shelf of tattered paperbacks. Ugly watercolor seascapes hanging crooked in their frames. With every degree she turned, she gripped the gun tighter, and the room smeared into indistinguishable shapes and colors. Her eyes grew hot with the effort of staring, stinging with a chemical urgency; the stench was everywhere now, in her mouth and nose, her hair, her lungs.

Between blinks she saw wallpapered walls shift into summer trees.Saw the squat wood stove quiver into Maggie’s unused fireplace. She blinked, blinked, chased scalding tears from the corners of her eyes. Paperbacks become academic texts with a flutter of pages. The walls melted and she was on the riverbank, beside the bones, cowering before the silhouette of a man. And Maggie, running away.

The creature rumbled, engine-like, as it rounded the back wall of the cottage. It passed the naked bedroom window in a wave of black, the span of glass blocked by its heaving dark flank. It passed and Caroline saw, for an instant, a flash of sunlight breaking through clouds, setting the rain over Blasket Sound aflame.

Around another corner, to the kitchen window again, the feeble shield of lace, and she almost fired then, her finger twitched and her breath caught—but she waited. A splinter in the floor caught Caroline’s sock as she turned, and she waited for it to move forward, every step growing heavier, slower, the ground trembling, glasses in the cupboard rattling, and she felt it through her feet and her knees, her stomach and her chest. The shadow was moving past the front window, a moment of darkness through the gap in the curtain.

Caroline held her breath. She counted the steps.

When the creature reached the front door, she fired.

The door shattered outward in an explosion of wood, and the creature bellowed, first an agonized roar, then a high, angry scream, a scream that almost became a word—almost, but she fired again, and the voice was choked off. The creature thrashed at the door, its hooves breaking through the ruined wood, tearing free again in a panicked frenzy, ragged wood scratching thin forelegs raw. Caroline fired until the trigger clicked useless under her finger and her elbows and wrists ached from the kick. She fired until the thing on the other side of the door huffed, huffed, groaned, and collapsed.

In the quiet that followed there was only an agonized wheeze. She matched her breath to the creatures—inhale, pause, exhale, relishing the burn in her lungs—until its gasps slowed, cracked, finally stopped.

She lowered the gun. Her wrists ached. The pain would fade. Her ears were ringing; the sound would fade. The tremble in her hands, the weakness in her spine. It would all fade. The car keys were in her purse. She didn’t have much to pack. She could go somewhere—a city, brash and new, full of light, devoid of green. A place Maggie would have hated, for once, for the first time, a place where Maggie’s dreams had not tread before. She could drop the gun into the sea. The feel of it in her hands, intimate as flesh, that too would fade.

Beyond the broken door the gray evening slid away to night. The rain slackened to a steady patter, as though the wind had sapped its strength.

Caroline was turning from the door when she heard: a dragging wet rattle, a breath sucked into punctured lungs, and with it, scrabbling, the scrape of hooves on gravel. Beyond the shattered door, darkness moved. The earth tilted beneath the creature’s shifting weight. She had no more bullets.

About the Author

Kali Wallace studied geology and geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, and Tor.com. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California. Her debut novel Shallow Graves was published in January 2016.