The Caretakers

“The Caretakers” by David Nickle is a strange tale about a group of people called to a meeting with their intimidating boss. The newest member of their organization is not so sure she wants to even be there.

 

 

The meeting with Miss Erish started earlier than scheduled, in a room other than the one arranged. That meant they were all late, even Evelyn Simmons, who had flown in the day before and, unable to properly sleep owing to the time difference, risen long before the dawn.

She lingered in her room barely an hour, then took an elevator down to the lobby. It was empty but for the night manager, who dutifully inquired as to her needs and then left her to herself, to wander restlessly from chair to bench to sofa in the cold and quiet predawn.

Evelyn pored over emails, sent texts to her still-sleeping daughter back in the home time zone. Eventually, she watched the sunrise through the glass walls fronting on the parking lot as she chewed on a bagel from the continental breakfast table, slathered with most of a bubble packet of peanut butter and a dollop of strawberry jam. It had snowed the night before, and the dawn light made bright orange rinds of the frosted car hoods.

Unbeknownst to her or any of the others, the meeting had commenced at that moment, in its new room and on its new schedule, absent nearly all of them. By the time she sorted that out and arrived ten minutes early, reckoned against her understanding of the schedule, it was too late.

The skin of Evelyn’s forearms contracted in premonitory gooseflesh as she opened the double doors to the meeting room on the fifth floor, and she shivered as cold air from within washed over her. The room was empty but for its furnishings: eight black leather chairs, a conference table, and a dry-erase board, fringed with half-erased pictographs. The middle of it contained a note, written at some length in the cramped, antiquely cursive hand that Evelyn had come to recognize.

The note was accusatory: the tone was not as angry as it might have been, but nevertheless quite clearly disappointed. Evelyn stepped out of the room, and checked her email. But there was nothing, certainly no indication as yet of a rescheduling. She had not yet finished keying in a text message to the rest of the group when Leslie Hunter—of course it was Leslie Hunter—stepped off the elevator. He had cropped his hair short to his skull and gained some weight around his middle since the last time.

“Morning, Evie,” he said. “We the first?”

Evelyn started to explain about the rescheduling but Leslie shouldered past her into the room before she could finish. He read the note himself, shaking his head as he went.

“I should have known,” he said, “when I saw the note on the door.”

Evelyn had wondered that too when she read that first message taped to the door of the Cumberland Suite, where they were to have met: this one not handwritten but printed on hotel stationery, advising of the relocation.

What else had changed?

“Well, it’s too late,” she said.

“Any rescheduling email? A text?” Leslie didn’t bother with his phone but motioned to hers, which dangled in her hand at her side. “A call?”

Evelyn shook her head no.

He rocked back on the balls of his feet and forward again, rolling his shoulders and puffing his cheeks—as though bracing himself or readying for a sprint.

“Nothing to be done,” she said.

Leslie swallowed and nodded.

“Didn’t see you at the bar last night,” he said.

“I got in late. Went straight to bed.”

“And woke up at four, am I right? Evie, Evie, Evie.” Leslie stepped nearer, touched her forearm. His hand was warm. Was it damp also? Or was she the one sweating? “You have to power through the jet lag. Just stay up as late as you can when you get in. Only way.”

And that was as close as they got to the nut of it before Andrea Retson and Bill Allen and the new [email protected] was the only name that Evelyn knew her as—got off the elevator in a group. Leslie told them what had happened and pointed to the board, but no one wanted to go inside to examine it.

“What the fuck?” [email protected] was a thin slip of a girl, with black hair grown past her shoulders and swooping down over her left eye…her right eye, peering out in a sleepy drawl of indifference. She’d underdressed, Evelyn thought, showing up at her first meeting in a loose off-the-shoulder sweater and black tights, dirty white winter boots with a ruffle of faux fur. The cursing didn’t aid the cause any better. “I’m supposed to read minds?”

“Nothing to be done,” said Evelyn.

“Well, fuck,” said the girl, and kicked at the carpet with one boot, a gesture that recalled the manner of a horse.

Because no one else would, Evelyn went into the meeting room, found the marker where it had been dropped on the floor, and used the cloth on the back of it to erase the note. She flicked the lights off, and without looking back, slipped out the door and pulled it shut.

At the elevator, they each of them checked their phones again to see if there were a message indicating how to proceed, then tucked the devices in purses and pockets when it was clear none had yet arrived.

“We shouldn’t go far,” said Andrea.

“Where would we go?” said Bill.

They made their way down to the hotel’s bar. It overlooked the river, which was not entirely frozen over, and a freeway on the far side. The bar was closed, so Andrea stepped away to arrange for coffee service.

Evelyn’s phone chirped from her purse, and she checked it. Her daughter had texted her back, finally. stop, it read. Evelyn slipped the phone back into her purse.

“Any news?” asked Leslie, and Evelyn said, “Nothing.”

Andrea returned, empty-handed and flustered.

“They won’t bring it,” she said. “The complimentary breakfast ended an hour ago. The bar doesn’t open until three. Until then, they won’t bring coffee.”

“That’s not very hospitable,” said Bill.

“It seems deliberate,” said Andrea.

“Why are we—”

“You know why.” Andrea fell emphatically on the sofa and scowled at Bill.

“Excuse me a moment,” said Evelyn, and rose.

In the restroom, she set herself in a stall and keyed in the passcode to her phone. The text from her daughter hung there on the screen.

stop

Evelyn considered that word and, with her thumbs, typed in a reply:

in a telegram stop would just mean punctuation

Her thumb hovered over the send button as she considered deleting her reply and composing a new one. But in her consideration, she trembled, and her thumb brushed near enough, and just like that, the decision was made.

Evelyn stood and adjusted her skirt, slid the phone away in her purse. When she finally left the restroom, she found Leslie leaning against one wall of the narrow corridor.

“I thought we should talk,” he said, his voice low. “About Amy.”

“Amy?”

“The new girl,” he said, and Evelyn got it. [email protected]

“Amy,” she said. “What about her?”

“She left.”

“What do you mean?”

Leslie rested his hand on Evelyn’s shoulder and drew her nearer so he could speak in her ear. “She’s gone. Andrea went after her. Maybe she’ll convince her to come back. But for now, she’s gone.”

It had happened very quickly. Amy—her name was Amy—had been gnawing on her thumbnail and, after a moment, began to breathe rather heavily, and as Leslie frowned and started to ask what was what, she’d stood up, shook her head violently so that hair spread to the side and for an instant revealed both her eyes. “Fuck this!” she shouted. And then she turned away from them and ran, across the lobby and out the front door into the snow.

“Andrea followed her, but I don’t know how far she’ll get,” said Leslie. His hand moved to the nape of Evelyn’s neck and slid down the flesh of her back. “She’s not wearing boots. Not like Amy.”

Evelyn took Leslie’s hand, lifted it away, and Leslie sighed.

She let her fingers intertwine with his and drew him back down the hall in the direction of the bar.

“Not today?” asked Leslie, and Evelyn said, “Not now,” and as they emerged into the bar, Leslie agreed: “Especially not now.”

“Oh,” whispered Evelyn.

Bill had not moved from his seat in one of the easy chairs. Miss Erish had positioned herself on the sofa at his right-hand side. She wore a dark green jacket over a snow-white blouse, a matching green skirt. Her hair was bound and tucked beneath a small red cap, from which descended a funereal-black spiderweb veil that provided only nominal concealment. Her skin gleamed in the low light, like carved mahogany: sanded, stained, and nearly as hard. She saw them immediately and with one hand waved them over.

“Mr. Allen was explaining to me about Miss Wilson’s escape,” she said, and motioned to the empty sofa alongside her. “You will sit.”

Leslie sat at the far end—coward!—and so Evelyn sat between them. Miss Erish was scented with clove oil and cinnamon this morning, a favorite of hers. In her lap rested a tablet, screen glowing softly yellow around the edges of its burgundy folio. She patted Evelyn on the knee and returned her attention to Bill.

“She was frightened?”

“Yes,” said Bill. “Or that was my impression.”

“I wasn’t here when she left,” said Evelyn, as Miss Erish glanced her way.

“Well, no matter. Miss Retson shall fetch her.”

“I’m sure she will,” said Leslie.

“Do you want to know what I think?” Miss Erish looked to each of them, as though it were a question with more than one possible response. “I think that the Spheres have realigned.”

“Have they?” said Bill. Leslie nodded.

“Don’t all look so worried,” continued Miss Erish. “They have not slipped. No no. The heavens will not tumble on us any more than the sea will rise to consume us. The realignment is a blessed adjustment. It is a return to order. But one might feel it, were one sensitive to the deeper movements.”

Miss Erish paused, her mouth hanging expectantly. Evelyn was the one who asked.

“Do you believe that Amy—Miss Wilson might be sensitive in such a way?”

“It scarcely matters what I believe,” said Miss Erish. Her hands settled on her tablet case. She opened it, and her fingertips made a clicking sound as she entered the passcode on the screen. An email then appeared…one from [email protected], but not one that Evelyn had seen before. Miss Erish didn’t appear to mind, so Evelyn started to read it over her shoulder.

“You may read it aloud,” said Miss Erish.

Evelyn nodded, and went back to the beginning.

Dear Miss Erish,” she read. “Thank you so very much for everything. I have just got internet up and running in the apartment (Amy had abbreviated to apt.), and this is the first email that I am sending using it. I am looking out at a view on the Park, which I never thought I would see from my own place!!! It is so beautiful. Classes start in two days, so I have to finish unpacking. But I wanted to thank you Miss Erish. I could never have afforded this by myself. Love XO Amy.”

“I was rereading that note just this morning,” said Miss Erish, “as I waited. I had been looking forward to seeing Miss Wilson, you see. She had seemed grateful for all I have done for her.”

“We’re all grateful,” said Bill, and both Leslie and Evelyn nodded and agreed until Miss Erish appeared satisfied. She shut the folio on her tablet, and as she did, it seemed to Evelyn as though the light dimmed throughout. It was, of course, coincidental, and Evelyn saw that as she looked up and over her shoulder. Clouds had moved in and brought more snow. It was falling fast enough that the freeway across the river was now only visible by the stream of headlights.

Miss Erish tucked the still-glowing tablet between her hip and the sofa cushion, folded her hands in her lap, and looked about brightly.

“Mr. Hunter,” she said. “You’ve put on weight.”

Leslie shifted and sat a little straighter—as though that might conceal the spread of his belly over his belt.

“I oughtn’t be surprised,” she said. “If you enjoy beer as much every night as you did the last, of course you’ll fatten. It is like drinking cake.”

Leslie’s expression betrayed only the faintest breath of surprise for himself. Evelyn knew how unlikely it was that Miss Erish would have been here at the bar last night when the rest had arrived, and obviously Leslie hadn’t noticed her either. But Miss Erish’s senses were sharp, her intuition sharper; Evelyn wouldn’t put it past her to have simply correctly surmised by a barely perceptible redness in Leslie’s eyes, a hint of sourness on his breath.

“I’m worried about that weather,” said Evelyn, and Miss Erish nodded in agreement.

“They oughtn’t be out in it.” Miss Erish turned the tablet in her lap. “They ought to be here.”

“Why don’t I call Andrea? See how she is?” said Evelyn.

Miss Erish looked down and made a dismissive flutter with one hand.

Evelyn stepped away and made for the lobby. Miss Erish didn’t care for calls, in or out, during a meeting: it disrupted the foci as she put it. It was a dilution.

The lobby was scarcely busier now than it had been when Evelyn rose. In fact, it might have been busier at half past five than it was now. Even the concierge desk was empty. Evelyn pulled out her phone. There was another text from her daughter:

stop it

Evelyn let that sit while she scrolled through her contact directory and found Andrea’s number.

She answered after four rings.

“We’re all right.”

“Hello to you too, Andrea. I’m glad to hear that. It looks awful outside. You caught up with Amy?”

“It is awful outside. Yes, we caught up. We’re in a coffee shop down the promenade.”

Evelyn told her about Miss Erish.

“It’s pretty bad outside,” said Andrea. “I think we better hole up here for a while.”

Evelyn peered out the windows. Snow was drifting high in the parking lot, making shallow parabolae between the cars there. The sky was darkened to a necrotic purple. Even absent any other motivation for staying in their coffee shop, Andrea had a point.

“How is Amy?” she asked.

“She’s…” A pause, presumably while Andrea asked Amy how she was. “Amy is fine.”

Evelyn doubted that and said so.

Andrea paused again, but this time, it was not to ask Amy a question. Evelyn could hear the sound of chair legs clattering along tile, and the shift in acoustics indicated that Andrea was on the move. When she spoke again, her tone had shifted too.

“Amy’s not fine; of course she’s not. She says she’s not coming back.”

“That’s not good.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Has she said why?”

“She says—” Andrea paused again for a second and whispered, “—she thinks Miss Erish is a vampire.”

“Does she?”

“Well not literally. But she…she’s got some metaphysical ideas.”

“Would it help if I spoke with her?”

“What are you going to say?”

“I don’t know,” said Evelyn, “I’ll have to listen to what she says first.”

The concierge returned to the desk. He was an older gentleman, excessively thin, the dark flesh of his cheeks still soft, though. He met Evelyn’s eye and offered a hesitant smile before his mouth pursed severely and he made to busy himself at his computer screen.

“Hello?”

“This is Amy?” said Evelyn.

“Yeah. Hi, Evelyn. It’s Evelyn, right?”

“It is.”

Evelyn let the silence stretch a few seconds. “Andrea tells me it’s very bad out there.”

“It’s okay in here.”

“Well, I hope you’re drinking something hot.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you think you can come back to the hotel soon?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

“I see. You have your things here. How will you get them?”

“I don’t have much I’ll miss. I’ve got my wallet. My phone. All the important shit.”

Evelyn observed the inner cuticle on her left thumb as she spoke. It was ragged and red, as though she had been tearing at it with fingernails or chewing on it.

“Miss Erish is very sad not to see you. She asked me to read aloud the email you sent the day you moved into that lovely apartment. The one overlooking the park.”

“How do you know about the apartment?”

“It was in the email you wrote. That Miss Erish had me read aloud to the others.”

“Is she there now?”

“No.” Evelyn looked around. The concierge remained at his post. The door to one of the elevators was just finishing closing. Evelyn couldn’t tell who was inside as it began its ascent. “No, she’s sitting with Mr. Allen and Mr. Hunter. I am in the lobby. It’s just us.”

“I believe you.”

Amy’s voice sounded very small and much younger than Evelyn knew her to be. She was not a child, not really, but she was inhabiting one, perhaps remembering those nights when she lay awake in a cold bed, with emptiness gnawing like a rat in her belly… in a home where the only notion of escape was intertwined with death, where hope was death because that was how poverty was for a child…

“Now can we talk a moment, just you and I?”

“Okay.”

“Are you afraid of Miss Erish?”

“I’m… I don’t know. I’m creeped out by her.”

“I see. Can you be a bit more specific?”

“It’s the way…” Amy trailed off into silence.

“Does she telephone?” Evelyn prompted. “At odd hours?”

“Sometimes.”

“Can I ask what she calls about?”

“Different things. Sometimes, she asks me if I’ve read a book she’s reading. She has a story she likes to tell—about the river, right?”

Evelyn felt herself smile. Miss Erish first told Evelyn that story on her eleventh birthday, and brought it up from time to time, quite often. It was, as Miss Erish herself described it, foundational. “I know that story too.”

“It’s—” Another pause. “—It creeps me out.”

“Miss Retson told me that you thought Miss Erish was a vampire.”

Silence now. Evelyn supposed the girl was distracted, shooting daggers at Andrea as she must have been.

“Amy,” said Evelyn, sternly, “where do you suppose you would be now, if not for Miss Erish’s generosity? Amy?”

“Yes?”

“Miss Erish likes to talk. Sometimes she calls in the evening.”

“And when she calls—we come, right? No matter what?”

“That’s the deal, Amy.”

“I can’t fucking do it.”

Now Evelyn was silent. [email protected], that was the name that Evelyn really understood her to have; this humanizing business of Amy was only an hour or two old, she reminded herself—was so very unsuitable to Miss Erish. Really, the foul-mouthed little slut—there was no other word for her, a little slut—might be better off tramping out through the blizzard with her wallet and her boots and her filthy mouth, finding a bus back to the apartment that she would soon find herself unable to afford, and leave the rest of them to restore the balance. Evelyn swallowed hard.

“You can” was what she finally said.

“Hey.” It was Andrea. “Amy gave me the phone back. It’s me.”

“Put her back on.”

“She’s gone.”

“Gone?”

“To the ladies’,” said Andrea. She sighed. “I don’t know what to do.”

“No,” said Evelyn. “Maybe you should just come back. If little Amy wants to leave…”

“What? Let her?”

“She’ll see how it goes,” said Evelyn. “She’ll see the consequences.”

“She has a boy,” said Andrea, “or a girl. She hasn’t said as much, but I’m sure of it.”

Evelyn thought about that. If that was true…well, then that was another thing.

“All right,” she said. “Let me talk to her again when she’s back.”

“Look, my battery’s dying. And I don’t think it’s going to do much good, you talking to her. Let me work on her.”

“No. Let me—” started Evelyn, but Andrea had already disconnected. Let me talk sense into her.

Evelyn dropped the phone back in her purse and wondered: had there been another text from her daughter? She resisted the urge to check and made her way back to the bar, practicing what she would tell Miss Erish: that Andrea was having a talk with Amy…or that Amy was out of sorts…or that Amy had simply proven ungrateful, unsuitable, and that Evelyn wished she could say otherwise… Evelyn had no easy thing to say, and she worried.

As it turned out, she needn’t have. When she rounded the corner, floor lamps made lonely pools of light in the dim space, while behind the bar a young man fussed over a tray of glasses. As for Miss Erish, and Leslie, and Bill, they were nowhere to be seen.

Evelyn returned to the sofa and chairs where they had been sitting. She sat down in the spot where she had been earlier—the spot between Miss Erish and Leslie. The cushions to her right still held Miss Erish’s cinnamon-clove scent. Was the cushion where Leslie sat still warm? Evelyn’s hand lingered there.

“We’re closed,” said the bartender. “Bar opens at three.”

“I know,” said Evelyn. “I was here earlier. Did you see where my friends went?”

The bartender shook his head. “Haven’t seen anyone,” he said. “You’re welcome to sit there,” he added a moment later when Evelyn didn’t move.

She pulled her phone from her purse. There were no new messages on it. Not from Miss Erish. Not from Leslie, or Bill, or Andrea. Not from her daughter.

She began to compose a text—to her daughter, at her home. Not at home. She would likely be on her way to school now: on the bus, heading along the township road to the middle school.

i love you, she texted. She didn’t send that one right away. She wanted to add something to it: i do this for you, maybe. i cannot stop it was probably more to the point, or we all must pay our debts. But her daughter wasn’t ungrateful, selfish Amy—and Evelyn was in no position to chide or even invoke a guilty conscience in her child. Evelyn’s daughter was blameless.

She pressed send.

Red flashing lights inched across the highway, but it was hard to tell more than that: the snow flew thick over the river, swirling in eddying winds. Andrea and Amy would not be back soon in that, not both nor one nor the other.

Evelyn texted Leslie next: where r u

She waited a few minutes and thought about texting Miss Erish but couldn’t quite, so she gathered her things and left the bar. She hurried through the lobby to the elevator, and from there to the meeting room where they were all to have met that morning.

There was no note tacked to the door. It was shut but not locked, and when Evelyn opened it, she was assailed by the smell of ammonia. She saw that the dry-erase board had been turned to the wall. A housekeeper was wiping the conference table down, bucket on the floor beside her.

“We had the room this morning,” said Evelyn when the housekeeper asked if she could help her.

“You leave something? I didn’t find anything,” the housekeeper said.

“I’m looking for my colleagues,” said Evelyn.

“I didn’t find anything,” the housekeeper said again. “You don’t have the room anymore. I have to get it ready.”

“All right,” said Evelyn. She stepped toward the dry-erase board. The housekeeper moved to intercept her.

“What are you doing?”

“I just want to see if perhaps one of my colleagues left a note on that board.”

The housekeeper looked at Evelyn straight on. She was a small woman, stout without being fat, probably quite muscular, given her vocation. There was something serious in her look but not thoughtful. For a moment, it seemed as though she might actually physically prevent her from getting to the board. But the moment passed, and she looked away.

“I have to get this room ready.”

Evelyn said that she wouldn’t be long, and moved the easel out just far enough to see, and as it turned out, she wasn’t long. The board had been polished clean.

“Thank you,” she said, and returned to the hall, and summoned the elevator.

As the doors closed on her, she stood still listening to the wind howl at the top of the shaft. She debated a moment where to go and finally elected to return to her room. From there, she would try to text and then, if that failed, call Leslie, and then Bill, and finally Miss Erish. The elevator engaged and took her to her floor, and she waited barely an instant before she got off and returned to her room—trying to ignore a growing feeling during her march that she would not need to call or text anyone, because of course Miss Erish would be waiting there. Evelyn somehow knew that even before she caught the scent and slid the room card into the lock. It had happened before. Not always, but enough.

Miss Erish was seated in the low armchair next to the desk. The tablet was propped up in its case at her side. Evelyn could not see the screen, but it bathed Miss Erish in the same yellow light as it had in the bar.

Evelyn put her room card on the nightstand by the bed. Miss Erish’s eyes flickered between the screen and Evelyn, as Evelyn sat on the edge of the bed.

“I am alone,” said Miss Erish.

“Yes,” said Evelyn. The room was empty—undisturbed—in the state she had left it. With the curtains drawn, it might still not have been dawn yet. She checked the washroom, just to be sure, and it was so: just her and Miss Erish.

“Where are the others?” said Miss Erish. Evelyn started to answer, but Miss Erish raised a hand.

“Would you sit down, please,” she demanded.

Evelyn sat down at the foot of the bed.

“You took too long,” said Miss Erish.

Evelyn did not think that she had, but she knew there was no use arguing.

“I do apologize,” she said.

“Don’t speak,” Miss Erish said. “Don’t breathe.”

Evelyn drew in a breath and held it there.

“I didn’t breathe,” said Miss Erish. “Underneath those cold waters of the Great River, how could I? Why should you?”

Miss Erish leaned forward and drew herself to her feet. She withdrew the veil from her face, her fingertips making a squeaking noise as she caressed her own cheek.

“It was a gift, a gift of breathlessness. I didn’t know what a gift it was at first, as my lungs burned and I sank into the silt. My anger, it burned also, oh, how hot in my breast! It caught me afire; that is how it was. On fire in the midst of extinguishing waters. Do you think you will suffocate if you keep that up?”

Evelyn made as to draw breath, but Miss Erish raised a finger: not yet.

“You will not,” said Miss Erish. “No matter how you may wish it—no matter how strong your will, your flesh will betray it.”

Evelyn let her breath out and heaved another in.

“And yet. Your will, it might be stronger than that,” Miss Erish reproved.

Evelyn dared say nothing.

“The river gave me up, too. Eventually. It drew me, still and furious, through villages and the great golden cities, across a broad delta beneath palms, and through reeds, and on the tide to the sea with the fisher-boats. I was a great beauty then. More beautiful than you. Can you imagine?”

Evelyn simply nodded. Miss Erish arched her back as though preening. Her eyes never left Evelyn.

“There was drinking last evening,” she said. “You didn’t attend, did you? I know that Mr. Hunter would have preferred you had. He thinks about you a great deal. He is in love with you. There. It is out.”

Miss Erish finally turned to look at the screen of her tablet.

“Did you encourage him?” she asked softly.

“Once,” said Evelyn.

“Only once?”

“Perhaps more.”

“Ah. Well. No matter.” Miss Erish turned her tablet’s face down, so the light squeezed into a thin glow around its edge and Miss Erish was in shadow. “Mr. Allen has seen to him.”

Evelyn wasn’t precisely sure what she had meant by seen to him. It could mean a great many things, owing to the absence of both Leslie Hunter and Bill Allen from this hotel suite into which Miss Erish had let herself. Evelyn wasn’t sure—but she thought she knew.

Miss Erish’s joints popped and groaned as she settled forward in her chair.

“Up on the roof,” said Miss Erish, “there is a patio and a swimming pool, adjacent to the health club. It is closed now owing to the weather and so private. The pool has a tarpaulin covering it. That is where he took Mr. Hunter.”

And that is where he saw to him.

Evelyn sat perfectly still, or rather her body did. The terror had been creeping up on her for some time, maybe since she left the airport for the hotel, through the night alone in this very room…

No, it had begun sooner than that. Maybe in another bed, long ago, another cold, empty-bellied night—so awful that Evelyn could barely recall it except in the abstract…in the same abstract manner that she could recall her own gratitude now to her rescuer.

“There is no water in the pool this time of year,” said Miss Erish. “The flesh will not let the will have its way alone.”

“Did he…”

Evelyn felt the air in her lungs thickening like water now.

“He promised he would,” she said, “and Mr. Allen has never let me down. I have at least that one friend.”

At that, Evelyn found her voice. “I love you. I am your friend.” But she didn’t, and she wasn’t, not at that moment. Miss Erish shook her head slowly.

“I really didn’t escape that river until long after it stopped flowing,” she said, “in the wide sea. There was no land in sight when I rose from it—no fisher, nor ibis nor gull nor albatross. You have heard me tell this before, haven’t you? I forget myself.”

Evelyn had drawn her knees up to her chin. The windows in this room were double-paned and thick, but she could hear wind outside. It made her think about the empty swimming pool overhead, the tarpaulin straining at its moorings, snow sheeting across it and slipping underneath, gathering over Leslie’s cooling tear ducts.

“I’ve been trying to reach Miss Retson on her phone,” said Miss Erish. “She’s turned it off.”

“No,” said Evelyn. She explained about the battery in Andrea’s phone. Miss Erish looked skeptical.

“You have a daughter. Are you waiting on her now?”

Evelyn said no, but Miss Erish didn’t believe that either.

Your phone has no battery problems. It is a-buzzing. Why don’t you check it?”

Evelyn let her hand rest on the purse at her side, felt the rhythmic humming of the thing sure enough. Hands trembling, she reached inside and withdrew the phone.

come home mom pls, the text read, and she read it aloud when Miss Erish told her to. Miss Erish sat quietly for a moment, then delicately lifted the tablet so the yellow light from its screen climbed her torso like a dismal sunrise and finally illuminated her face, the eyes casting ravenously as if from the barren solitude of a tomb.

“You were here earliest,” she said. “While the others were sleeping, you were awake and about.” She set the tablet on its back, so it lit the curtains, the ceiling. “Of all of them, even Mr. Allen… you arrived first.”

Miss Erish looked down at the light. It seemed to grow brighter as she did so—as though the sensor had noted some competing glow, and automatically tuned the illumination higher.

“Oh dear,” said Miss Erish. “Oh dear, oh damn.”

Her voice sounded raw. It seemed to Evelyn as though she were crying. Evelyn’s thumbs hovered over the screen of her phone, and the little keyboard there. She felt as though she ought to respond to her daughter, but she could not take her eyes from Miss Erish, who trembled.

“What do you think about Miss Retson? She pursued little Miss Wilson very swiftly. As though she were very worried…very worried. Might she… Might it be love? No. That cannot be. I shall send her a message. Instruct her—” Miss Erish’s fingers clacked furiously against the glass of her tablet. “Oh damn, damn.”

Evelyn set her phone down. She reached her arms toward Miss Erish, slid forward on the bed, and Miss Erish joined Evelyn there. Miss Erish felt cool and brittle beneath her blouse, and left to her own inclinations, Evelyn would have recoiled at the inhuman touch of her.

They sat like that for some time, listening to the wind outside as it howled across the highway, along the river—somehow growing colder themselves, in one another’s embrace.

 

“The Caretakers” Copyright © 2016 by David Nickle

Art copyright © 2016 by Greg Ruth

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