One winter my dad went to London to meet with an old friend, Avery Knuth. They had a snowball fight in Hyde Park. Papa said rain and snow fell together on that day, so that he had shivered and winced. I have never seen snow falling or heard it pierce a frozen sidewalk. They were supposed to be friends: affable, kidding, beer-buddies.
That changed when Knuth had hidden rocks in the snowballs. He had thrown them with a wicked, determined gleam in his eye, as if playing baseball with trolls. That’s how Papa describes it. To this day, Papa walks with a limp, three fake teeth, and a wry grin.
Knuth spent five years in prison before taking a short trip to the US. He had wanted to “make amends” with Papa. Knuth had bought a gun and ten thousand bullets.
Papa should have kept his mouth shut after that. He was never quiet, though. He snuffled and snorted everywhere like a whale with pneumonia. Heavy grey boots covered his feet, even upstairs. The limp made his stomps slip. Papa stomped louder than usual one evening. He snorted anger. Our English class had been covering ancient literature. My second-hand copy of Beowulf bled pink highlighter on the kitchen counter; I had bent a page to mark my place.
“You shouldn’t be reading this,” he said, picking up the copy from the kitchen counter. The garbage can clicked open.
“Papa! I need that for a test!”
He held the book out of reach.
“Honey, you want Vanessa to fail English?” Mom was scrubbing out a lasagne pan. Grease covered her hands.
“It’s utter propaganda. Complete exaggeration.”
“That’s the point, Papa. It’s about how heroes are glorified when the monsters are wiping them out.”
I rescued the book by jumping on my toes.
“Propaganda,” Papa repeated. “And you shouldn’t call her Vanessa. It’s not safe.”
“It won’t be safe if you make a big deal out of it,” Mom said.
Papa grimaced and limped up away. I grimaced at his snuffling.
“Better hide that book, Vanessa,” Mom said. “He might burn it next time.”
“Why do I have to hide it? If he wants me to do well in school-”
“You know your father. His buzz is wearing off.”
I did know. My father had stress levels equivalent to that of war veterans, so he needed medication. The family therapist had started hypnosis, but we hadn’t seen change. We heard him growl and moan and snuffle at night; cold nights made the moaning worse. Lyon, our assigned bodyguard, took to sleeping in the soundproof basement.
“Lyon will talk to him.”
“Fine, but why this book, Mom? Why Beowulf?”
Her eyes fluttered. Black specks swirling in the sink. “Your father hates heroes. He always has.”
Sun cast dull light on the dried Florida pastures. Glare pierced the car windows. Rubbed eyes, turned on ignition, and pressed gas pedal. Mind filled with donut flavors and Charlie.
My baby brother wanted me to pick him up for school, even though I had spent the night at a friend’s house and the early morning at the donut shop. They‘d needed someone on zombie shift, and I was the newest cashier. Lucky me!
Papa’s campaign against Beowulf had hit the local news, and Lyon had almost hit Papa for attracting attention. They had scuffled in the living room; Mom had broken through before Papa could bite off Lyon’s ear. Lyon had spent the night in the police station. No one slept well that night. Good thing my friend Nicole appreciated my car; she had let me stay the night after ordering me to drive her to the mall.
Breakfast, yanked from glove compartment: box of Pop-tarts and stale donuts. Donut shop coffee wobbled in the cup holder. Brushed some ants off a powdered Boston Cream.
The car belonged to Dad, but since I had started working at the donut shop he had given me the spare key. He didn’t drive much. Charlie paced our driveway. He ran up as soon as I pulled over.
“Charlie,” I shouted. “NEVER run towards a moving vehicle! You could get hurt!”
“You sound like Mom.”
I yawned and hit a button. The trunk popped open. “Get in, chubby.”
“Watch it, Elephant Butt.”
Drove on autopilot: hands steered, foot dug into gas pedal.
Charlie jabbered about lacrosse and basketball and a documentary on Nike sneakers and if Dad and I were going to declare truce. I managed nods and a few sentences.
Unlike me, Charlie had handled Witness Protection. Then again, too many kids were named Charlie; I had gone by my middle name, Pearl, for nine years. It had never become a part of me, although tattoos and white highlights had. The therapist had recommended both to express accumulated trauma. Working with fried dough also helped, because skin turned an odd white color when burned. The scars also
went with the Satan tattoos. Cup of coffee drained and crumpled.
Charlie found the Pop-Tarts. He talked with his mouth full, using a hand to block the rising glare.
“Fruit Mocha? Are you serious?” he asked.
I nodded. “Tastes like strawberry coffee.”
“You never know. People like Berry Explosion rolls, and those taste like rotten cherry pies.”
Charlie coughed with laughter. Crumbs spilled down his front. He rolled the window down. “There’s Lyon’s car parked in the road.”
“He can’t have gotten up this early, Charlie.”
“I think it’s him; only his car can flash that siren.”
A red light spun from the sedan’s side window. It blinked like a swollen eye. The car was parked at a slant in the road, blocking both lanes. Chills swum down each bone in my back. Tattoos throbbed. Lyon would never create a roadblock.
“Hey, aren’t you going to tell him to move?”
“Yes. Wait in the car.” I switched to Park but did not pull out the key. Maybe the zombie shift caused the chills. Maybe the harsh air conditioning made my teeth chatter. The doors on Lyon’s car also beeped open.
A thick boot crushed gravel. A deep, droning voice broke the still morning.
“Good morning, Vanessa, Charles. Long time no see.”
Gunshots. Charlie and I screamed at the same time. The car sagged.
“I’ve just flattened your tires so you can’t get away. Please be reasonable and step out of the car.”
No, no, no, no, dear god no. Had Papa’s complaints made national news? Didn’t they only watch cooking shows in prison?
The footsteps came nearer. “I asked you to step out of the car.”
“There is a mistake. My name’s Pearl,” I tried to say, tongue glued to thirty teeth.
Pressed Lock button. Charlie curled into a ball. Gun crashed through driver’s window, broke glass. More screaming from our end.
The door clicked open. A cold hand yanked me out. Charlie kept screaming. Knuth surveyed me. He smelled like Lyon, was wearing his outfit. He had trimmed his dark beard so that it framed his face. Long hair tied back in a ponytail.
“You have your mother’s eyes,” Knuth said. He held a pistol no bigger than a baby’s fist. “And your father’s large nose. What a shame that you’ve pierced it.” The pistol poked at the offending stud.
“Where is Lyon?” I asked, clenching my car keys. A medical condition prevented Charlie and me from swimming, so we had to take alternative PE courses. Women’s Defense 101 sprung to mind.
“Dead. Nothing personal.” Twenty golden rings dug into my shoulder. “He was a worthy opponent.”
My mouth opened. Cold air flew in. Handcuffs clicked around the wrist with the Satan tattoo. Lyon couldn’t be dead, not with Knuth smiling. Lyon was probably back at home, sleeping in the basement and groaning. He’d suddenly appear with a spare gun and an axe, yelling for us to get down…
Charlie had not moved from the backseat. His fingers moved fast; he had set his phone to silent. Smart kid.
“You’re lying,” I said. “Charlie, run! Call for help!”
Knuth slammed me against the closed car door. He held the bound wrist with one hand and the gun with the other. The muzzle slid to my forehead.
“Please don’t run,” he spoke to my brother. “Then I’ll have to kill your sister, and it won’t be much fun.”
Fun? If his elbow weren’t against my throat, I might have managed a hysterical laugh.
“I’m wearing your friend’s uniform. It makes a fine pelt. Soon I’ll be wearing your brother’s.”
That did it. My free hand slashed across his face, key’s jagged edge across his nose; he yelled and backed off. Good old Women’s Defense. I pushed away the gun and head-butted him. The pistol swung to his leg and discharged. His yells became high-pitched, almost pathetic. Blood stained my nice shoes. I kicked him to the ground and ripped the car door open.
“Charlie, let’s go!”
Handcuffs clanged against the mirror. The sound seemed to rouse Charlie. He sprang from the open door and sprinted, grabbing my free hand. We sprinted past the moaning Knuth.
“Just keep going to the end of the road,” I panted. “Maybe we can make it home.”
“Mom says find a lake to jump into. Wait, that doesn’t make sense-”
“Just keep running. He can’t shoot us as well behind the trees-”
Shrill whistle. Piercing, horrible knives. My ears were getting sliced.
I screamed and covered my ears; the knives kept slicing. Knuth did not seem to hear the sounds coming from his puckered lips; he just blew.
Knees hit dirt, hair flowed against the ground . . . The world became blurry and painful.
Stench of gasoline and motor oil. A green glow grew at the corner of my eyes. Someone with small fists was shaking my shoulder; the fists seemed to be wrapped in chains. I mumbled and tried to turn over, only to find myself dangling.
“Vanessa.” Charlie was whispering. “V. You have to get up.”
That name; a ghost had landed on my brother’s lips and forced him to mime each syllable.
I opened my eyes. Severe cramp pressed into my legs, which were tied together. Sticky eyelids fluttered so that the room came into focus. Stale air shot through the hole in my nose. We were in a dim garage with golden walls; the only light came from a single bulb and made the gilded paint gleam. Knuth had chained us to a large generator while keeping our legs wrapped in thin shackles. I groaned, unable to rub out the cramp with my hands tied to the generator.
“Charlie, what happened?”
“The whistle.” Charlie mimed with two bound hands. “It knocked us out. Knuth must have dragged us to a car and driven us here. He took out your piercing.”
“Fun. At least he didn’t kill us.”
“He’s going to,” Charlie quavered. “Maybe he’s going to leave us here with the generator and-” He placed his hand around his throat to make choking sounds.
“He had a chance to kill us with that whistle, Charlie. Why put it off?”
“So there are no dead bodies. That way no one could arrest him again.”
“But he’s never cared about that, not with Papa.” An idea hit me. “Charlie, tell me what you remember about Papa’s stories.”
Words shuddered out. “Knuth was avenging a wrong, filling a blood lust. Papa had arrived to a dinner party uninvited.”
“What’s so bad about crashing a party?”
“Papa did something bad; he was not himself. He hurt people.”
“Knuth wanted to make Papa pay.”
“But how come Papa’s the one not in jail?” I thought back. “Why was Knuth in the wrong?”
“Papa did go to jail,” Charlie said. “At least, for a short time, but he made a deal. He couldn’t control what he had done. That’s why he went to see Knuth, to apologize. He had to volunteer at hospitals, talk to scientists, and stay away from cold places.” Wow. I had not remembered that from the bedtime stories. “Papa never meant to hurt people,” Charlie said. “That’s why he always went easy on us, so that he wouldn’t go back to being what he was.”
I looked him over. “How do you know?”
“Papa. We have man-talks sometimes.”
“Oh.” I swung my legs so that I was sitting up. “What else has Papa told you?”
“What Mom told me over the phone: if Knuth ever caught wind of us, jump in a cold lake. Or call the police. It depended if Mom was ever listening.”
“That’s very helpful.”
“I’m sorry, V. That’s all I know.” His face was red, lips pulled in.
“Charlie, don’t you dare cry,” I ordered; the chains rattled as I sidled beside him. His voice broke.
“Lyon is dead. Papa can’t protect us. We’re going to die, V. We’re going to die and no one will come in time.”
“We’re getting out of this alive.”
Charlie didn’t answer. Tension filled the silence between us. Our limbs went numb. I thought, and thought, and rehearsed begging for Charlie’s life.
They came with clanging; the garage door slid up. Our stomachs started to growl. Wind whistled through the hole in my nose. It made a pitiful, pleading sound. Knuth’s company numbered twenty, dressed in thick riot gear and large, golden earrings. The dimness cast an eerie green glow on their skin. The stench reeking from their long, braided hair was worse than that of the gasoline. If my hands had been free, I would have placed both on my stomach and retched.
One man made a gesture with a jeweled knife and a diamond-encrusted pistol. Two men grabbed Charlie and forced him onto his feet. He didn’t struggle.
“Softie,” they muttered.
Knuth pulled my nose stud from his pocket and fingered it. He had shrugged off the police uniform but kept the bulletproof vest. A triangular bone knife dangled from his waist. The silver handle glinted as he grabbed my shackles. I shrunk away, but his grip remained firm.
“Make sure they don’t escape. Creatures like these are tricky.” The man wearing the most jewels spoke. He wore chains of steel skulls across his black tunic.
“What did we do to you?” I asked as Knuth yanked me up. “We were just going to school like ordinary people. We had ordinary jobs.”
“You don’t know.”
“We never did anything to you.” I shouted this as two men with identical red sashes grabbed me by the shoulders. “Our father’s sorry for what he did.”
“He betrayed me.”
“He’s still sorry.” The shoving knocked the wind out of me, making this bold statement pithy.
Knuth’s eyes remained impassive. The shortest member of the group, however, allowed concern to enter his face. The skull mask did not hide his open mouth. He quickly closed it as the two men dragged me past him.
“Protect my brother,” I whispered to him.
At least my knees were capable of bending and stumbling, but Charlie seemed to have turned into granite. His red sneakers dragged against the polished carpets, against the walls that held motifs of deer and warriors fighting dragons. A lady dressed in furs passed a contemptuous glance. The hem ruffled at the ankles, draping to four-inch heels. Her stiff, regal pose reminded me of a queen, like the actress who played Wealhtheow in the Beowulf movie.
A harsh breath escaped me. Knuth thought himself the hero, and Papa hated heroes. He hated Beowulf more than Grendel, even though Grendel had the foul language and sex references.
The lady held out two thumbs. She met my eyes.
“This one will fight, if you give incentive. Slit the other one’s throat.”
“No!” I screamed. Knuth dragged me back. Charlie closed his eyes.
“Then fight.” Her voice was cool, disdainful. The man with the knife withdrew from Charlie. “We won’t kill him if you put on a good show. Knuth will be a fair opponent. Do you understand?”
“No, I don’t.” Hysterical laughs crept into my words. “How is this fair? You want a killer to fight a teenage girl who fails PE and can’t swim worth a damn?”
Knuth bristled when I said “killer”; he glanced at his bandaged foot. The lady wrinkled her nose.
“We can make it unfair, if that’s what you prefer.”
I kept laughing in short hiccups. “Yes, yes, I’ll fight, and you can write tales about how Avery Knuth tortured two kids just because their father lost control. It will be heroic.”
Knuth pushed me to the ground. I kept laughing between gasps of pain.
“Stop it,” Charlie whispered.
“Save it, Knuth,” the lady said. “Just stop the laughing.”
Knuth grabbed my bound wrists and raised his hand. The blow was a hard sting and would leave a bruise later. A final gasp. I breathed calmly.
“Get up,” he said. I obeyed as best I could, bound legs wobbling back and forth. He sighed and undid the leg shackles.
Charlie was moaning under his breath. I could only tell him, “I’m sorry,” as the men shepherded us onto a pristine grass lawn with a rectangular pool and a lakefront. The men with Charlie, the lady and the man with the jeweled knife withdrew.
Knuth undid the handcuffs; I let my arms rest at the sides. Thick red lines covered the Satan tattoo. He unbuckled the knife from his belt and gestured towards to lake.
I straightened my shoulders. The knife returned to Charlie’s throat. It only took one leap. For a lake in springtime, the water was damn cold.
Skin froze. Muscles cramped. And Knuth was expecting me to fight in heavy, sopping leather. I saw my legs sinking to the bottom, and I looked up, watching
the water ripple, breathing steadily– Breathing? I started as the bubbles popping out of my mouth grew bigger and more oblong. The reflex made my legs kick. Jeans ripped, and I let out a burbling squawk – those were my best designer pants. Webbing grew between five rubbery toes on each leg, both of which had turned coal black. Claws sprouted all over my skin and through my nails; I hissed with pain. Tatters of cloth sunk.
A splash. Knuth had also jumped. He had clamped his teeth onto the knife and his hand onto a wooden harpoon. We drifted with wary gazes. A cry caught in my throat as I glimpsed my reflection in his blade: a saggy-bottomed river hag with slimy, dead weeds for hair and crocodile eyes. Papa’s gravelly voice broke through my thoughts: “It took more than strength to survive Knuth. It took cunning.”
I withdrew and dove for the river sludge. Knuth followed. He pressed his lips together. Webbed feet dug into the powdery bottom and kicked. Sludge flew out as a filmy smokescreen. Knuth advanced forward. He moved the harpoon to both hands. I noted the scant clothes, save the bulletproof vest. His bandaged foot limped in the surf and leaked blood. I could taste it with fine nose whiskers. Dear God, the STENCH. I kicked again, sending more dust. He sneezed and spurted bubbles in the water. Lake powder covered him. “Smell him,” Papa’s voice commanded, as if he were listening in on my thoughts. “Hone in on his weak point.”
“Thanks, Papa,” I said. Bubbles garbled out.
Blood, blooming in the weedy current. Aluminum knife, the chalky scent of bone. Whiskers shivered. A red outline filled my head. One clawed hand grabbed his wounded ankle and the other snatched an arm. Bubbles flew out of his cursing mouth.
The hippopotamus weight which had grown on me allowed me to drag him down. We twisted. One thought as he sent me tumbling: he is only a man. Ten retractable
claws dug into his bleeding ankle, and pulled him down. He swiped with both the knife and the harpoon.
Now you know how it feels to be hunted, I thought savagely, pulling him deeper. This is for Papa and Mom, for Charlie, and for the police who had tried to protect us.
When the bubbles changed color, I bent my thick legs and shot for the surface. Explosion of water, tossed warrior. Knuth bounced on the mown grass. The other warriors drew their knives and guns. The lady sucked in breath. The smallest warrior had already unchained my brother’s legs.
Charlie’s eyes took in my hag-body and scraggly hair. He recognized the misshapen Satan tattoo.
“Is that you?” He whispered.
“Poor little Vanessa had an accident,” I hissed. The larger warriors slapped Knuth’s chest as I sunk into the cold water.
Mom and Papa have tried to get me out of the lake, but I’m happier down here. Knuth’s lackeys now have a monster to fight, so they won’t go after Charlie. When those creeps are gone, I’ll resurface, regain balloon lungs and rejoin the ordinary teenagers who wear clothes and piercings. The people who live nearby have started a rumor about the Avery Lake monster. The kids get excited and grab their snorkels. I hide myself by shrinking and sinking into the sand like a flat rock; no need to
frighten them. I was once them . . . a long time ago.
Author Bio: Bio: Priya Sridhar has been writing since fifth grade, a year after her mother forbade her from watching television all day. Her fantasy and science-fiction stories have since been published by Alban Lake, Indian SF and Deimos Ezine. She invites readers to sample her bakery witch webcomic A La Mode, about an enchanted bakery (http://alamode.smackjeeves.com).