another world, not quite ours: The official website of YA author Megan Crewe

Horns

by Megan Crewe

The reporters said, "Oh, what a magnificent creature," and, "The fragile beauty!" and "What do you feed it?" Mrs. Eton chuckled through her crooked teeth and pointed to the bales stacked by the side of the garage. White paint flaked off like dandruff on the hay, fluttering in the wind.

The creature in the garage didn’t make a sound.

Sam crouched by the corner of the garage and stared in through the gate Mrs. Eton had fixed across the doorway. Shoes scuffed the tails of her overcoat and her fingers stung from the tea she’d spilled when one of the reporters had bumped against her. The styrofoam cup stuck between her palms. The silent hooves rose and fell against the concrete floor. The silvery tail flicked in and out of shadows. The knobbed horn lanced out from the sloping forehead.

Sam pressed her teeth into her lower lip. How had Mrs. Eton stuck it on?

Krazy glue. Staples. A couple of screws through the skull. She felt herself smile, her cheeks stiff.

The footsteps faded as dusk lapped the yard. Sam leaned into the gate, letting the rough planks bite her cheeks. Only ice-pale slips of shoulder shone in the dark of the garage. Mrs. Eton didn't stir.

"It’s amazing," she said. "Isn’t it, Samantha?"

"Sure," Sam said. "Sure it is." She stood up and her legs prickled with the rush of blood. She couldn’t feel her feet. It was like walking on stumps, on air. In the darkness, she could almost believe she’d lost them for good.

#

The house’s windows stared at her like flat black eyes. Sam dug her thumb into the key edges as she tramped up the front walk. She found the right one and thrust it jingling into the hole in the door.

In the hall, coats hunched over a row of hooks. The air left a taste like wood varnish in her mouth. Sam eyed the legs of the mahogany side table, running her tongue over her teeth. Then she looked up.

The drift of light in the stairwell stained the wallpaper a tepid orange. It glowered over the antique rose pattern. The petals seemed to wilt.

She dropped her gaze and brushed into the kitchen. The fridge door creaked as she fumbled for the gin beneath the burnt-out bulb. Her fingers chased the sides of condiment jars, juice jugs, ragged tops of soup cans, the slick face of a milk bottle, which skidded away from her, over the edge, and smacked the floor like an infant’s head. The toes of her socks grew damp. She shut the door and walked back to the stairs. The orange light flickered.

Matt was sitting in the master bedroom, playing with a lick of fire. The bedside lamp glazed his hair. He had a tin serving tray spread on his knees and held a bottle of vegetable oil up at eye-level. His eyes followed the flame. He wove the drizzle of oil around the edge of the tray and then spiraling into the center. The flame crept after it. A tangled black line marked its earlier journeys.

Sam jabbed the switch and the ceiling light flooded out lamp and fire. Matt glanced up. His grip on the bottle wavered.

"What are you doing?" she said.

"Whatever you want." He flipped the bottle up and spat at the flame. It hissed out. "You saw it?"

"Yeah."

"Was it good?"

She laughed. The sound knocked at the sides of her throat. "Yeah. It’s all good. Sure."

"Good." He nudged the tray with his knee and it slid off the side of the bed.

"Good," he said. "Let’s sleep."

#

The ravine smelled of algae and decaying leaves. Twigs swept down the creek like broken rafts. Matt waded among them, wiggling his toes against the slick pebbles. Sam stayed on the bank. Her shoes squished in the muck.

The backs of houses watched from the cliff-edge, through browning leaves: tan and russet brick, the black hole of a tire swing, flaky white boards beneath tarred shingles.

She stopped. "It’s there," she said, pointing. Matt raised his head and his hair fell back from his forehead. Sam’s eyes jerked to him. A maroon point broke the flow of buttermilk curls just above his ear. She swallowed. If she squinted, it would blur. Just the tip of his ear. Just a funny shadow thrown by the dying leaves. Ha ha.

His perfect nostrils flared. "It’s busy," he said. "Still. Too many people. Must have come through strong."

"Yeah, well, Mrs. Eton had to tell the whole block. Someone called the police. Figured she was off her rocker. But..." Sam shrugged. She looked up at the garage again. It sat there between the trees like an oil painting someone had set against the sky. "Maybe she is."

Matt’s gaze turned to her. "You said it was there. It was real. Don’t play with me, Sam."

"What, you don’t like games any more?"

"Sam." He curled his fingers around her wrist and yanked her around so she would face him. She stared at him, her mouth set and heavy as lead. Then, he smiled. His hand was still squeezing her wrist.

"No," he said. "It’s never been a game with you. It couldn’t be."

"I did see it," she said. "It looked like... like what you said."

"You’re sure?"

"How sure?"

"Sure, Sam. Sure."

"Yeah, I guess."

"You guess? That’s not going to cut it."

"How the hell can I be sure? You think I got a DNA test?" She flung her free hand at the trees. "Forget it. Why don’t you waltz over there and take a look for yourself. I’m going home."

She couldn’t, though. He was still holding her.

He stepped up on the bank and drew her to him. The lapel of his woolen coat scratched her jaw. She could feel the coiled muscle with every hitch of his chest. Sometimes it surprised her to find that strength in one who looked so soft. Sometimes it surprised her to find him breathing.

His head fell forward until his breath rushed over her neck. "Sam," he said, and drove his lips against the skin. His hair flooded her face. All was rose and pepper and vinegar and warm, and the tender, insistent pressure on her neck. She could feel him trembling. Her arms wrapped around him, squeezed him closer.

"Sam," he said, more felt than heard. "You know I need you. You know I’d do anything."

"I know," she said. "I know."

"Don’t go."

"I won’t."

He raised his head, slightly, and she turned hers, seeking, willing his mouth to hers. It didn’t come. His cheek settled against her temple.

"You’ll go again? You’ll go and see it?"

"Yes. Of course."

He hugged her to him again, then let her go. She faltered back against a tree. The trembling had passed to her. She kept looking at him, at his eyes which shimmered like opals. She could never tell what color they were.

"I couldn’t do without you, Sam," he said.

They were anything but black.

#

The newspapers said nothing. It was the way these things worked, Matt said as they lay in the dark. What things? Sam wanted to ask. Things like finding him curled naked, asleep, and sooty in her fireplace last spring? The space between them on the bed was cold. Her hand would sneak across the sheet in her sleep and she’d wake to find it numb. Only sometimes he would pull her in to him and condense the space into a thin line of warmth. When he did, now, he spoke mostly of the creature in Mrs. Eton’s garage.

"The hooves are cloven?" he said.

"Yes."

"A little silver beard?"

"Yes."

"And the eyes?"

"You were right," she said. "They’re pink."

And she looked into them, the glossed almonds like pools of milky blood, as she leaned into the gate along the garage and the wind whipped her hair with the fallen leaves, day by day. She stretched out her arm, hand palm-up. A slice of pomegranate balanced there like a toy boat. The beast took a step forward, then another. It blinked at her. Its head lowered. Velvet lips brushed the fruit from her hand, leaving only the cool mist of its breath. If she lifted her hand she could race her fingers up the length of the horn. Matt said not to try that yet. It might snap at her.

So she just watched it, in its silence: the smooth flow of mane along its neck, the delicate swirl of hairs on its withers. Its tail swung back and forth like a pendulum. It looked at her, and then it didn’t. She was not important.

The reporters were gone. Mrs. Eton wandered out to the back yard to pluck gargantuan undergarments and flower-print sheets from the clothesline, but never glanced at the garage. When the snow came, it buried the hay and the fence and the footprints Sam made walking up the drive. She thrashed at it, kicking up powdery clouds. She smashed her boots through the icy sheen. Yet every time she came, the ground was as white and still as if it were the first time.

#

One day she walked into the dining room to find a handsaw spread on the table next to a silk pouch. The steel teeth reflected the glimmer of the setting sun. Matt tumbled down the stairs in his rhythmic clamor and burst into the room. His eyes were aglint. But he didn’t speak, just stood there wound inside his pressed shirt and slacks and looked at her, half-smiling.

Sam pointed at the saw. "What’s this?"

"A saw," he said.

"I can see that."

"Then why did you ask?"

"You’re not coming back, are you?"

He frowned. "I’m here."

"But you’re not coming back. You’re going and you’re not--"

"Sam."

She flung her hand at the saw. It skidded off the table and clattered on the floor. "Just say it."

"Sam, I’m not going. I'll be here as long as you need me." He reached for her elbow. She jerked it back, folding her arms tight across her chest. Her gaze fixed on the two tiny maroon points poking out above his ears.

"What are you?" she said.

He halted. "What?"

"What are you? Where did you come from? What the hell are you doing here? Why?"

"You don’t want me here?"

"No. No. Yes. I don’t know. Just tell me."

He looked at her, still and silent.

"I’m here for you," he said. "What more do you need to know?"

"I don’t know. Everything?"

"And what if I said that I couldn’t explain it? That that’s just the way it works?"

She swallowed. Her mouth tasted bitter. A dull ache was crawling up from the hollow of her stomach as the flame had eaten its way across the tin platter.

"I’d say you’re full of shit," she said. "I’d say you’re a lying, manipulative bastard."

Matt fell back against the table. His hands twisted in his lap. He stared at them. His eyes seemed to darken from blue to indigo.

"You wouldn’t understand if I tried."

"What would you say?" she said.

"I don’t know. That there’s things people don’t even realize. That there are whole worlds in everyone’s heads and sometimes things just pop out, like that--" He snapped his fingers. "--and they’re not meant to be, but they’re there. They’re just there. And all they can do is follow instinct, without knowing how they know, because... I’m here, for you. I’m meant to be here."

He took her hand, then slid his up her arm and drew her to him. She let her forehead bow into his shoulder.

"Are you trying to seduce me by talking metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, Matt?"

"No," he said, quietly. "If I wanted to seduce you I don’t think I’d have to try that hard."

"So why don’t you ever try?"

She raised her head. Their noses almost touched. His face was a blur of skin and shadow. When he breathed out, she inhaled, that scent of roses and pepper and vinegar. He said nothing.

The bitterness welled up in her throat, thick as choking. "I guess it’s not so easy to find a twenty-five year old virgin. Wouldn’t want to spoil me."

He smiled then, smiled and nudged his face against hers. "There are plenty of fifteen year old virgins," he said at her ear lobe, "if that had anything to do with it. It had to be you. That’s why I’m here."

She let herself sink into him, let her hands rise to soak into his hair. One thumb, then the other, hit the ridged lumps above his ears. She curled her fingers around them and pulled him to her tighter. She traced their arcs up to the rounded points, back to his scalp. His breath was on her neck. She just kept running her fingers up and down, points to bases. They were so hard and yet so easily slipping under her touch.

Horns. For the first time, she allowed herself to name them. Horns. Matt’s hot hand settled over her ribs, branding the skin beneath her breast, and she didn’t really care.

#

Twilight stuttered through the branches of the walnut tree that stood over Mrs. Eton’s garage. It slunk over Sam’s feet as she dragged them up the driveway. Her boots crunched through the fragile crusts of ice.

She halted at the gate and leaned her hands on the picket points. The wood dug into her palms. Her breath rose in a mist before her eyes. The shadows stirred with silvery wisps of hair. The creature was dancing, ever-silent, in the dark.

Sam clucked her tongue on the roof of her mouth. Her fingers dove to her pocket. Empty. Panic washed up, then dissolved as she remembered. No fruit this time. It wasn’t supposed to eat tonight. She shrugged the pack off her shoulders and drew out the saw.

It felt heavier than it had with Matt’s lithe hands over hers. The blade wobbled as she swung it from her fingers. She fixed her eyes on the cold, bare concrete and whistled low, under her breath. The creature shifted, blinked, and ambled up to her.

"There’s a girl," she said. She held out her fingers for it to sniff. It nuzzled her hand, then gazed up at her, head tilted. Questioning. She let her fingers slid up its jaw to the gentle curve of its neck. Even beneath the fine strands of its mane, its hair was so cold, as if frosted.

"There’s a girl," she said again. She couldn’t look at it. The saw dangled in her peripheral vision. With each breath she felt the capillaries in her nose freeze. Her cheeks burned numb.

Matt had given her words. They turned in her stomach like vomit.

"No one sees you," she said. She glanced up at the beast. "Not any more. No one but me. You know that. And I can’t--I can’t keep bringing you food every day, enough so you won’t starve, it’s just stupid. I think you’d starve even if I tried to stop it. You need something more, something we don’t have here. That’s true, isn’t it?"

It gazed at her with its soupy eyes and didn’t stir.

"So there’s only one thing we can do," she said. "You have to give me your horn."

The creature winced and stamped its foot, or at least brought its hoof down on the ground in a way that would have made a stamping noise had it been capable of sound. It thrust its chin out at her, the thin lips drawn back over clenched teeth. Sam flinched back. The saw clanked against the gate.

"Hey," she said. "Hey there."

The creature lowered its jaw and shook its head. The shudder ran down its neck. It pranced back and forth, staring at her from one angle, then another. Finally, it stilled. Sam extended her hand. It let her touch its cheek.

"I’m sorry," she said. "But he needs it, and-- It’ll be better for you this way. Won’t it?"

It watched her a moment longer. Then, like a suitor, it knelt down on its front knees, lowering its head so the horn rested between the pickets.

Sam reached out. Her fingers glided over the horn. She swallowed. Her hand fell until her ring finger rested against the teeth of the saw. She closed her eyes. Breathe. Push in. Pain, red and yellow, sparked through the finger tip. Blood welled up, cold against her skin in the night air.

She placed her finger at the base of the horn, where it stuck out through gate, and smeared a burgundy line across its surface. The creature shivered, but didn’t move.

Sam raised the saw and set its edge along the line. Her jaw tightened. She jerked the saw to the side. The teeth grated against the spiral, biting in. She stared down at the saw and the glinting silver of the horn and felt her throat cramp with the urge to gag. Her hands shook.

The creature gazed at her through the pale fringe of its lashes. Its eyes shimmered as if tearing. It nudged its forehead forward, into the embrace of the saw. Its chest heaved, and Sam saw the ribs like barred walls etched in its torso, the gaunt flanks, the knobs of hip-bones. It was already dying.

"It’s not fair," she said in a hiss. Her own eyes felt hot and moist. "It’s not fucking fair."

Then she gritted her teeth and yanked the saw, so it screamed for both her and the silent, wasted creature beneath its steel jaw.

#

The house radiated light. A yellow glow hazed every window. Sam stared up at it, the frigid air searing her throat and nostrils. She jiggled the silk bag now hanging limp from her left hand. The tip of the horn bumped against her thumb through the cloth. Her fingers twisted. She hauled back and whipped the bag at the door. It hit the screen with a muffled thump, far too soft to satisfy. She thought about going into the driveway where no one would see and wrenching the saw out of shape. The fine, silver powder would still be clinging to the teeth. Her stomach twisted.

She strode up the walk and caught up with the bag on the welcome mat.

Matt threw open the door. Warm air rushed out past him, tickled with wood smoke. It ruffled his hair and the open neck of his shirt. He looked at Sam, and then down at the bag by her feet. Sam stood there, still and stiff.

"Take it," she said. "It’s yours."

He scooped up the bag and tossed it down the hall with a flick of his wrist. Then he stepped out onto the porch. His hands rested on Sam’s shoulders. His eyes held hers. Gold flecks drowning in the green irises. She felt herself sinking in.

"Sam," he said. "Thank you."

She breathed in his breath. "It was nothing," she said. She placed her hands against his chest: one, then the other. Fists. They felt like rocks against the soft fabric of his shirt.

When he grasped them and tugged her inside, her legs balked. Knees clamped, hips jarred. She stumbled on the doorstep. The light inside played on the wall in a hyperactive game of tag. Flames crackled in the fireplace and the wood smell rose in a bittersweet tang. The air swam with currents hold and cold. She stumbled and he leaned in and caught her fall with a kiss.

Then she was swimming, too, her nerves splurting out from her body, her skin evaporating, wrapped up and drifting through his embrace, condensing at the point where his lips touched hers, the lips shifting, coaxing out a whimper, drawing all sense but this from her mind.

He pulled back just enough to speak against her mouth, and she could feel again. The cool wood under the soles of her feet. The waves of heat from the fireplace, singeing her skin. Her hair mingling with his as it brushed her cheek.

"I’m yours," he said. "I’m all from you, all for you. But tomorrow I have to go."

"No," she said. She clutched his wrists. "Don’t say that. Say you’ll stay. Forever."

"All right. I’ll stay. Forever."

"Mean it," she said.

"I mean it."

Her fingers snaked up to pull his lips to hers again. She grasped the curved points above his ears. Their ridged surface felt brittle. She yanked them again, crushing him into her, as if she might snap them. Her feet skidded on the floor. She tumbled, and he tumbled with her, breaking the fall with one elbow as his forearm cushioned her head. He knelt over her, pushed her coat from her shoulders. Her hands flitted down his torso. An ache, hot and sharp, lanced up from her groin through her chest.

The kiss broke. Her head lolled to the side, and her gaze snagged on the silk bag lying in the hallway.

"The horn," she said. "Don’t you want it? I got it for you."

He chuckled. "Sam, Sam. Didn’t you know? It was for you." He stood so swiftly that her arms leapt after him, unbidden. Panic bubbled in her throat. He simply grabbed the bag and snapped it in his hand. Then, he tugged the tie loose.

"It’s for you," he said again, and flung it. Silvery powder gusted out. It drifted down through the air like a snowfall of stars. A world of metallic white, sparkling and glinting, tingling in Sam’s mouth and nose as she laughed and breathed, and Matt bending over her again, and she could see nothing but the shimmering specks of light.

#

Sam woke alone. The late morning sunlight drifted through the living room window and her back felt stiff against the floor. She got up. The silent rooms met her one-by-one. There was no note, no sign that anyone else had ever lived there. She sat on the edge of her bed, where the tin platter leaned against the wall, and sobbed into her hands. Her fingers raked up through her hair and stopped. There were lumps, she thought. Two little lumps above her ears.

Days faded. She went to work, got groceries, watched the animal welfare people lead a knobby white horse into a van outside Mrs. Eton’s house. "It’s amazing," Mrs. Eton said to Sam. "I don’t know how on earth it got in there." Sam smiled and nodded and felt the wind catch on the tiny bumps.

In a week, she was sure they were horns. They didn’t show in the mirror but she felt them twinge as she ran the brush through her hair. No one seemed to notice. Not even the guy she picked up at a bar one night, who dug his fingers into her scalp as he arced over her on the bed. She looked into his eyes and imagined irises of a shifting haze of color. And felt the tips of the horns ripple under his palms, undetected.

The End

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Originally published in Brutarian Quarterly (#44, Summer 2005)

Author's Note: Written in 2002, this is one of the few pieces of fiction I've attempted without outlines or preplanning, that I was actually happy with. I wanted to focus on mood and tension. If you ask me what it all means, I've never been entirely sure. Also my first professional short story sale.

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