The first week of October signaled the end of hurricane season. Or at least it should have. We were passed over by nearly every storm before Hurricane Patty hit us. That’s what Hayden said it was called. I never saw the reports: I wasn’t allowed to watch the news. Only Hayden was allowed to use the TV.
“She’s a big bitch,” she told me. “Bigger on the radar than the state of Texas. Shit, that’s almost as big as you, Emma-Jean!”
“That’s very funny, hun,” I said as she laughed.
According to her, I was getting fat, and there were new ways every day to remind me of it. I tried not to let her know what she said hurt me; I’d learned real quick to keep the pain inside.
And really, I was eating very little.
“How long till dinner’s ready?” she said, setting off all kinds of alarms in my head. Her tone held a warning. I knew I moved too slow in the kitchen, but it was hard to flip the eggs with my wrist sprained. The cast iron was too heavy and the eggs were sticking something awful.
As far as cooking went, mine was shit. I never understood why she didn’t cook any if she was gonna complain about it every day.
Before I could say anything about dinner, though, my phone rang from the coffee table, stalling her wrath for another minute. Hayden hissed in annoyance and answered with her “friendly” voice.
I never heard that voice anymore. It had been taken. Replaced by something nasty. Full of venom.
“Hello?” she said. “Oh yeah, she’s here, Mr. Greene. Let me get her for you.”
She stomped across the floor of the living room to where I was in the kitchen and held the phone out for me to take. I looked at her for a minute, searching for the trick.
“It’s your daddy,” she said, and thrust the phone at me. As I took it, she grabbed my breast and twisted the nipple, hard. I tried not to wince.
“You know the rules,” she whispered into my ear. Her breath was hot and full of beer. “Make it quick—got it?”
I nodded and she let go.
“Hi, Pumpkin. How’ve you been?”
It was good to hear his voice again.
“Oh, nothing. Just cooking dinner,” I said.
“Emma-Jean, I asked how you been.”
“No, Daddy, we’re not evacuating. It’ll probably just blow right over.” Please, Daddy. Understand!
Last time I tried this, he said I must be drunk or high and hung up on me. This time, he was quiet. I was about to give up hope when he finally said, “Emma-Jean, is something wrong?”
Oh, bless you, Daddy!
My heart was racing as I said, “Yep. You sent me a present for my birthday? Said returned to sender? That sure is strange, Daddy. You sure you sent it to the right address?” I prayed a silent prayer that he’d finally understand this time.
The last two times he hadn’t.
Hayden was scowling again. She made like she was watching TV, but I knew all her attention was actually focused on me, listening to what I said. From the corner of my eye I could see her watching me from the corners of hers.
“Is it that girl you been seeing? She doing something bad?”
“That’s right, Daddy,” I said. “You got a pen?”
“What do I need to do?”
“You got your pen yet?” I said again, and paused for a moment. “Well you ain’t gonna remember the address in your head, silly. Go and get you a pen.” I took the phone away from my ear and pretended like I was looking through it. When I looked up again, Hayden was right in front of me. Her eyes were dark and full of murder. I pretended not to notice.
“What are you doing, baby?” she asked. Her tone had a kind of poison-sweetness to it, like wasp honey. Lately, I’d come to know that tone of hers too well.
“How do I find our address in this thing, Haydie? Daddy wants to send me a birthday present.”
“It ain’t in there,” she snapped. Her eyes blazed further, red and wide.
The silent threats of death grew, and I could feel them pressing against me.
“Oh,” I said, and calmly returned the phone to my ear. “No, it ain’t in the phone, Daddy, hold on.” I looked at her and said, “Can you tell me what it is so he can send my present?”
She didn’t reply.
Be blank, I willed myself. No emotions, Emma-Jean. I said, “Actually, Daddy, our dinner’s burning, so I gotta go.”
“I’ll send the cops,” Daddy whispered. I tried not to smile.
“What I’m gonna do is give the phone back to Hayden and she’ll tell you the address, okay?”
If I thought before that she might kill me, then from the anger in her look she was certainly fixing to after we hung up the phone. This would for sure earn me another night in the closet instead of on the couch.
“I love you, Emma-Jean,” Daddy said.
Don’t cry. Don’t you cry, Emma. Do not fucking cry. “I love you too, Daddy. Here you go.” Handing back the phone, I returned to the stove where the pan was slowly spewing smoke. I moved it from the burner, grabbed another, and began making breakfast-for-dinner again.
I was surprised when she did actually tell him the address. ‘Course, she only did it ‘cause I’d forced her to. If she refused, she’d have thought he’d become suspicious.
I cooked more quickly this time, thinking if I maybe did well enough I might actually escape punishment, but I was wrong. When dinner was done cooking, Hayden pulled me by my bad wrist to the closet. Told me I shouldn’t have mentioned nothing about the storm to Daddy. She seemed awful mad about it.
“Sit,” she commanded, throwing me down to the floor.
She snapped a shackle around my ankle and tucked the key inside her pocket. Took out the knife she kept on her belt and held it inches from my face. The light in the hall glinted off the blade—off her eyes—as she reminded me how easily she could put an end to me.
More and more, I wondered whether I wished she would or not.
She wasn’t always like this, though. We were happy in the beginning. Just like everybody else.
She’d been thoughtful and kind, instead of mean and spiteful.
We spent a lot of time in that period of bliss—you know, that patch of time where you learn everything there is to learn about a person. Where you see someone’s true colors shine through, even after the bravado of dates one and two wears off.
I fell for her there, and I fell hard.
When she wasn’t with me, my thoughts always led me back to her, to all of the stupid little things a person does—that she did. There was the that coy motion she did with her hand—the one where she twirled her hair while thinking hard—and the way her smile reached up past her eyes each time I made her grin. Other times, I couldn’t stop remembering the sweet and horsey sound of her laugh. It wasn’t like anyone else’s laugh I’d ever heard. It might have annoyed another person, but to me it was like music.
I knew I’d never felt like that about anyone before.
Eventually I realized that, though she did all these little things for the the wide world to see, I was the only one who ever saw them in such a way. Like they were special.
I remember this one day we were driving—we didn’t have nowhere in mind; we were just going to be going—and she slammed on her breaks all of a sudden. The Jeep was all screeching tires and burnt rubber as we stopped in the middle of the road.
For a minute I was so confused. I didn’t see anything worth stopping for, and there weren’t any other cars on the road besides us. But then she got out of the Jeep and disappeared in front of it, and when she reappeared, well, that was the day I knew for sure I loved her. ‘Cause when she reappeared she was holding that little snapping turtle as it flailed its arms and legs and craned its neck back, trying and failing to bite her, and she just laughed her beautiful, horsey laugh and said, “I’m trying to help you, you silly thing!” Then she set it in the brush beside the road and nudged its tail softly as it sauntered away.
She hadn’t been that woman for a while, now.
The Hayden I lived with now was someone else, someone I didn’t know and hadn’t ever loved. Someone whose eyes smoldered like an angry brazier in the dark instead of lighting up like the stars. All the kindness was drained from her, and the warm light that’d drawn me in had all but flickered out.
I’d known Hayden’d had some powerful magic inside her from the start, from when we’d met six months ago. There’s a bit of the stuff in me, as well, but nothing like what she’s got.
For me, it’s like a feeling in my gut. Not like most people get. Most people, it’s a hunch or a hope they call their guts talking. With me, I can take one look into someone’s eyes and know a whole mess of things I shouldn’t. Then there’s sometimes I see other things around a person; auras and the like. The energy that Hayden glowed with when I met her was this pale yellow sunshine that danced like a new flame. It was comforting and warm. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
The first time I saw her that way, I took it as a sign that the things she said she felt for me were true, pure. I could hear it too, vibrating in the air around me like little bells tinkling out a song nobody else could hear but me.
I haven’t seen or heard that energy from her for a while, though. Something bad happened, I think. The aura that swirls around her now is like brooding; thick as smoke and dark as sin.
Something changed when she met those Others. She learned more about her gift with their help. I thought it was a good thing, at first. That she could learn new things I couldn’t even begin to.
At first they just practiced simple charms—stuff to make the world brighter, more hopeful than was before—like making flowers bloom and turning gloomy grey skies into great, cloudless stretches of eternal blue.
Over time, though, those pretty little charms got bigger. Turned into things no one should have known how to do. Things that scared me down to my guts.
I don’t blame Hayden for what happened to her. I don’t blame the other two either. They weren’t bad. Not really. ‘Cause sometimes, for some people, seeing they can do a thing incredible ain’t enough. They want more. Want to see what else it is they can do, and how far the envelope can be pushed. But a growing power like that changes people. Takes them over.
I think something out there must have seen their light—the way they glowed when they worked together—and was drawn to it. I think they must have been tricked into opening doors that weren’t meant to be touched. I think something came through one of them doors and I think it never left.
I think it lives inside Hayden now, because whatever looks at me through Hayden’s eyes anymore, well it ain’t my Hayden.
Sometimes, I get the feeling she’s in there still. Sometimes, I hear those bells I used to hear, and the air vibrates with her love, but then it stops and that brief little breath of warmth around her turns cold. And if I see that yellow light of hers, then its flicker is weak, snuffed out in a heartbeat.
She never did tell me how it happened, but she did make me help her clean it up.
One morning, I woke up after Hayden’d had her new friends over for something special—something she wouldn’t say nothing about. Something with candles, and symbols painted in red, and the smell of something sweet and rotten hanging in the air.
They were dead when I woke up. The both of them Others.
And I knew right away she wasn’t my Hayden the second I saw her. It wasn’t even the fact her friends were dead that did it, though. It was the way her smile reached up past her eyes when she told me about them, and her aura turned black as night.
Then that thing inside her made me help her bury them in the yard. Out by the driveway, beneath the big trees.
That was the day I started to bruise in her hands, the day that thing used her voice to be cruel to me for the first time.
I couldn’t get away from it. I was afraid of what it might do if it knew I could see it for what it was, so I pretended I didn’t know it was there.
That was weeks ago, now.
The night I talked to Daddy—the night she put me in the closet again—I heard her chanting from the living room. It didn’t sound like her voice, but wasn’t nobody else in the house so I knew it had to be her. I didn’t understand the words from my corner in the closet as they came through muffled and low, but I could hear the wind picking up outside. I could hear the trees around the house were creaking and groaning up something fierce, and some of the larger branches crackled in the distance, joining in the noise as they broke away.
I was scared when I realized Hayden—or the thing inside her—had been right about Hurricane Patty, that it was coming right toward us. But exhaustion and fear were like pills and wine, and eventually I passed out in the dark with our coats and overshoes for company.
I woke up some time later, when Hayden was un-cuffing my leg.
“I’m going out,” she said, walking away. It was dark outside the closet. Stormy night beat at the walls and windows, blustering enough to wake the dead. I could hear it raging beyond.
It was bigger than before I slept.
“While I’m gone, you’re gonna clean up.”
Ain’t she scared I’m gonna run off? I thought as I dragged myself out of the closet and down the hall to the kitchen. I needed a glass of water more than anything.
Somewhere in the bedroom, Hayden laughed. It wasn’t sweet or horsey.
“You ain’t going no place in this storm, Emma-Jean,” she said. “You’re too chicken-shit to try.”
Was she reading my mind? Even now I can’t really say.
Seems to me like she’d have known I was thinking that very thing, magic or no magic. And, as if to punctuate her point, lightning struck just outside the kitchen window, pulling a shriek from my lips as it blinded me. Then it struck again, shaking the house to its bones and I gasped. When it struck again in nearly the same place, my heart was about fixing to quit.
What kind of hurricane can do all that? I wondered as thunder rolled around us.
When I could see straight again, the clock on the microwave read 9:04 a.m., but the outside world was dark as midnight. Maybe darker.
Hayden came out from our bedroom wearing a long black raincoat and a pair of overshoes from the closet. She took her keys from the hook by the door and both our phones from the chargers. Everything disappeared into a jacket pocket before she did up the coat buttons.
She was right about me staying here, and the worst part was we both knew it. I wouldn’t leave. Not during a hurricane. I didn’t know these woods, and the sky was constantly kissing the ground, and the trees, and everywhere else. The wind howled, screaming like the dead brought back, and the rain came hard and a mean like stones on the roof—sharp and angry.
“Do they know how long the hurricane is supposed to be?” I asked her.
But she didn’t answer. She just locked the door behind her with a soft snick from the bolt. I couldn’t open it from the inside without a key.
I turned to watch the storm wash everything away outside the windows as Hayden made her way to the car. That’s how I saw them before she did, not that it would have helped her if she’d seen them first. She never stood a chance.
They were climbing out of the graves in the yard, the ones beneath the big trees.
The lightning must have woken them from their death … or awoken something else. Or maybe they’d been kindled by the promise of revenge and the fire of their hate.
They didn’t look how they was supposed to. Their hair was gone, and great black voids had eaten up where their noses and eyes should have been. Most of their faces were made of wide, yawning holes full of teeth they shouldn’t have had. Even from way back in the house, I could see row after row of them chawing away as they spiraled down into vacant black throats.
Then they ran to where Hayden was getting into her Jeep. It didn’t look like she could hear them over the sounds of storm around her, ‘cause she never turned around.
The two of them reached her with an evil speed, and the taller leapt onto her shoulders, wrapping its spindly legs around the front of her neck and torso. Its feet were gone, replaced by thin claws with too many joints that branched out into sharp, hard points. They dug trenches in her sides that wept gallons of blood in the rain.
The shorter one’s hands were the same. It used them to dig inside her, burrowing in through her stomach. It pulled at her guts, ripping them from her body and passing them up like sausages to the other one on her shoulders.
As Hayden fell, they started tearing chunks of her away, using every set of teeth they had. When they were done, all that was left was a heap of meat full of a hundred craters made by mouths with too many teeth.
Then the tall one lifted what was left of her from the mud like she was nothing, and pitched her way up into the treetops, like a bully throwing away a little girl’s ragdoll. Except Hayden was the ragdoll.
Then they turned to me.
I snapped the curtains shut and hid further in the house.
They couldn’t get in. Could they? I didn’t think they could get in, but after a while, as the storm beat the house and they just groaned outside the walls, I wondered why they ain’t trying the door, or smashed out a window to come in.
Something must have been stopping them, I reasoned. That was the only explanation I could find.
I waited a few days, I think, being trapped inside as they moaned about just on the other side of whatever room I hid in. After about the third day of the storm I remembered Hayden’s tablet.
It still had the internet. I could reach out to somebody. I could get out of here!
First, though, I needed to know some things. Like when Hurricane Patty was supposed to end. Wasn’t no one on Earth going get to me if that storm don’t let up, and I needed to know when to tell my daddy to come and get me.
And, come to think, three days was an awful long time for a hurricane.
I’ve lived in Florida my whole life, but wasn’t one storm I lived through that lasted this long. They always passed within a few hours, a day at most. Three just wasn’t natural.
So I looked up the storm online. I tried all kinds of combinations of “hurricane” and “Patty” and “Florida storm”, but wasn’t anything on Google about it. No results.
There was no Hurricane Patty.
Anger boiled inside me for a hot minute when I realized that thing must have made it all up to keep me here, but that kind of anger don’t last long when you think too hard. When I realized that if Hurricane Patty had been made up, and that thing inside Hayden must have summoned this awful wind and rain itself, then since it was gone it couldn’t undo the spell. And all that hot anger just spilled out of me, leaving nothing but cold and tears behind.
I reached out to Daddy on social media. I didn’t know what else to do.
Daddy was awful glad to hear from me. He said there was nothing at the address Hayden had given him and that the police had tried to triangulate our last call, but it hadn’t work. Said it looked like the call had come from a shopping center somewhere, but there was nothing like that near me. Before we said goodbye, he said they were still trying to trace the phone, but I didn’t think that would work; if my phone hadn’t been smashed when those things had eaten Hayden, then it had to be dead—either from a flat battery or the wet of rain.
And those Others were still out there. They might’ve saved me from Hayden, but I knew that didn’t make them my friends.
I’d listened to them for at least five days–or was it a week already? I lost track of time in the rain and the night that never ended. I had to ration my food, and measured time in crumbs, but I was hungry all the time anymore and still didn’t know what day it was.
My rhythms got all turned about, too. I stopped sleeping almost all together. All I could get was a few minutes of shut eye here and there. Wasn’t for lack of trying—‘course I’d been trying … I just couldn’t do it.
Those things just made so much noise.
I listened to them all the time—what else did I have to do? Wondered how much longer I could keep listening before I lost my head.
At first it was just the noise of their howls, but then the noises started making a kind of sense. They clawed little pictures in my brain, scratched them in like cave drawings. Awful, dark scenes, etched just behind my eyelids so I’d see them even if I squeezed my eyes shut.
Didn’t take me long before I knew what they wanted. It wasn’t about revenge. It’d never been about revenge. They just wanted to eat.
They was just as hungry as me.
I kept telling myself I’d rather die there inside than join them in the wet and dark, but they was working hard to change my mind.
I’d think about doing it, you know? About running straight out there and stopping beneath the rain and the trees that swung about in the wind, and just waiting for them. Every time I’d shove the thought away it’d just force its way back inside my head again.
Sometimes, when I’d find myself feeling brave enough to, I’d peer through the curtains at them in the dark. When they wasn’t stalking the house, they’d claw through the dirt, rooting around to find other things they might could eat, but the only things I ever saw them find was frogs and worms. I never saw any other living things move through that window. Only things moving outside was the hungry wraiths and the old trees swinging in the wind. Most every other critter must have taken shelter away from the storm.
I wondered if those critters were okay.
I was wondering just that when I saw something else outside. Something I missed before.
I was in the kitchen boiling up a pair of Hayden’s old sandals and a belt I’d scrounged up from a forgotten drawer. I’d run out of food completely two or three days before, so I was going to eat the leather. I’d never done it before, but I knew you could. If you didn’t have no other choice.
I imagined it was gonna to be awful.
I sat at the window, miserable and hungry, nodding off to the drone of the storm and the howling of the wraiths on the other side of the house, when I saw them. They was just laying on the ground next to her car, right out there in the mud, in the wide open.
The keys to Hayden’s Jeep.
My heart thumped in my chest like an angry preacher pounding on the podium.
I could make a run for it …
No, I thought. That’s crazy. I knew I’d never make it to the car. The wraiths’d be on me in a second. Those keys may as well have been buried in the treetops with Hayden for all the good they’d do me.
With a sigh, I stood, turning away from the window to tend to the leather soup boiling on the stovetop. As I did, the quiet sound of distant bells cut through the noise outside. The tiny hairs on my arm stood on end with goose pimples as I turned back.
Something crazy in me expected to see her, standing out there in the rain, bright as she’d ever been, but the scene outside the window was just the same as before.
Cold. Dark. Rain.
I don’t know why that disappointment hurt so bad. I had just been so sure … so positive. But of course she wasn’t there. She couldn’t have been.
I was about to turn away again when something in the trees caught my eye. A yellow light, flickering someplace distant, like a flame. I could barely see it breaking through the wind and rain, but it was there.
I knew that light. I’d have known it anywhere.
It was her. She was burning like a fire out there in the storm.
The true Hayden. My Hayden. Not that thing that replaced her.
Before I knew what I was doing, I’d opened up that old kitchen window and climbed right out into the dark, walking toward the light like sun was pouring down instead of rain.
It couldn’t be coming from Hayden herself, I thought. Her body had been smashed up through the trees days and days and days ago.
Hayden was dead—her body was—but I still knew that light was her, sure as I knew my own name.
It moved, too, dashing quick in my direction, picking up speed as it went. It startled me. Made me think of a mountain lion streaking down a hill, and suddenly I realized where I was.
I was there in the rain. Soaking in the cold. Outside. With them.
I bolted for the car, my bare feet slipping in the mud. I couldn’t go back inside—inside there was nothing, just loneliness and a slow, hungry death. But outside, when I’d already made it this far?
I bounced off the side of the Jeep as Hayden’s light reached me. Blinded by freezing rain and my own slick hair, I fished her keys from the mud and she passed through me. Into me. I felt the warmth of her wash away the cold October rain. The bells were singing around me, all loud and perfect and magical. Damn near took my breath away.
I couldn’t hear the wind over those bells, even as it threw the rain against me and tore at my dress. I couldn’t hear the storm, even as it raged around me. I only heard Hayden.
As I climbed into the Jeep, movement caught my eye. I looked up in time to watch those dark creatures leap over the ridge of the roof. They must have been on the far side of the house when I came out.
They landed in the yard, spraying mud into the air all around them, and they screamed over the wind, but the glow of Hayden’s yellow light filled the space between us. I knew I didn’t have no more time to waste. I started the engine and threw the car in reverse, and drove away as quick as the rain would let me.
Yellow light danced in the mirror, and I could see flames flickering behind me despite the storm. I watched those dark things light and burn and curl until they were too far behind me to see.
The rain stopped when I found the main road out. The sky was clear and blue; like it’d never seen a storm in its life. As I drove, I could see smoke twirling into that clear blue sky from somewhere deep in the trees.
At Daddy’s insistence, I brought the police back to the house the next afternoon knowing there wouldn’t be nothing left to find; the rain had stopped and the house was gone. It had burned up that day ‘til there was nothing left of it but a concrete slab full of cracks and smoldering ash.
Police took me back to town, took my statement (such as it could be), and sent me home to Daddy.
I wish I knew what happened, really. I know it wasn’t Hayden kept me prisoner there, but something wearing her face. Something happened to her that almost ate her all up inside. I think darkness has a way of devouring things, same as fire. Things like hatred got a way of getting inside you and burning you away ‘til you’re something else, something you don’t even recognize … but love can do that same thing; even after you’re gone, the fire of love remains.
And me, well, I like to think that that sort of flame of true love burns twice as hot as any hatred ever could.