Searching for clues about her best friend’s mysterious suicide, Danielle ventures to the squatter, utopian town of Freedom, Iowa, and witnesses a protector spirit—in the form of a blood-red, three-antlered deer—begin to turn on its summoners. She and her new friends have to act fast if they’re going to save the town—or get out alive.
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy pits utopian anarchists against rogue demon deer in this dropkick-in-the-mouth punk fantasy that Alan Moore calls “scary and energetic.” Available August 15th from Tor.com Publishing.
Sometimes you have to pull a knife. It’s not a good thing. I don’t enjoy it. But sometimes you just have to get a knife in your hands and make it clear which way the stabby end is pointing.
“Let me out here,” I’d said, before the knife got involved. It hadn’t been a question. Men always assume that declarative statements like that are questions.
“This is a ghost town,” he said. I hadn’t caught his name. He’d been nice enough to pick me up hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere Iowa, but he wasn’t nice enough to let me out where I wanted.
“That’s alright,” I said. “Just let me out.”
“There’ll be someplace better. A Walmart or something. I’ll let you out there.”
“Let me out here.”
“I can’t just let you out in the middle of nowhere, not by yourself. It isn’t safe.” He said it without a trace of irony. He locked the doors.
That’s when the knife got involved. I slid it out from my jeans pocket, clicked it open. Pulling a knife means going double-or-nothing. I was either going to get out of the situation, or the situation was about to get a lot worse.
“Jesus,” he said. He pulled over.
I unlocked my door, grabbed my pack, and hit the gravel before he came to a complete stop.
I flipped off his car as he drove away, but at least he was driving away. The worst of it was, he probably thought he was just taking care of me. That he was a nice guy. I hoped bad things were going to happen to him, and soon.
Ten years of putting up with shit like that from drivers. It was getting old. Hell, at twenty-eight, I was getting old. Ten years ago I’d talk to drivers about anything and love them for it. I loved the nice ones for their kindness, I loved the crazies for their stories, and sure, I hated the racist pieces of shit but if nothing else I got to feel like I had the pulse of this racist piece of shit country. But a decade is an awfully long time and whatever shine I’d found on the shit that is hitchhiking had long since faded. Still, it got me where I wanted to go.
The town’s welcome sign had been painted over. Don’t know what it used to say, but now, in clean stenciled letters, it said, Freedom, Iowa. City Limits. Unincorporated. An entire town, abandoned by a dead economy and occupied by squatters and activists and anarchists.
It was the last place Clay had lived, the last place he’d spent much time before he’d found his way west and his hand had shown his razor the way to his throat. No warning signs, no cries for help.
I had a lot of questions. If there were answers, I might find them in Freedom, Iowa.
I shouldered my pack and clipped the waist belt shut. It had been Clay’s pack. I had his suicide note folded up in the smallest pocket. The road into town was two lanes that led away from the highway, paved with pale, patched asphalt. The trees beside it climbed toward the sky, and I walked on the double yellow with something of a spring to my step.
After a hundred yards and a couple turns, when the trees were getting thick enough to cast the whole of the road into shadow, I saw a deer on the shoulder ahead, rooting at something on the pavement. The beast was crimson red. Bloodred. I didn’t know deer even came in that color.
I crossed to the far side of the street so I wouldn’t disturb it, but I couldn’t help but stare. A rabbit was dead on the ground beneath it, its belly up, its rib cage splayed open. The deer looked up at me then, its red muzzle dripping red blood.
On the right side of its head, it bore an antler. On the left side of its head, it bore two.
“Jesus,” I said.
I kept walking, because what else do you do? It watched me until I was around the next bend, and I couldn’t help but feel its gaze on my back. The only sounds in the air were birds and the faint white noise of a nearby river, and wildflowers were in bloom on the forest floor.
Another quarter mile, and I stepped out of the woods and saw the town on the far bank of a small, slow-moving river. Half a hundred houses were set into the hillside along a single winding street. A few old cars were parked along the curb and in driveways, but I couldn’t get a gauge on whether or not they were in use or abandoned. A two-lane bridge spanned the river. Clay had talked about the place like it was paradise.
I crossed over, pausing to look down over the guardrail at the water thirty feet below, as it tumbled and tore its way over river rock. Just at the other end of the bridge, a boarded-up gas station was covered in street art as good as any I’d seen in Oakland. It was a quarter mile farther up the hill to the first houses, and most were overgrown, more than a few with caved-in roofs. Others looked haphazardly maintained.
I walked into town, but I didn’t see any signs of life. No smoke or lights or motion. No one was out on the street or sitting on their porches. Maybe everyone had left when Clay had. Maybe the water was poisoned the same as it seemed to be in half of middle America, and seeing shit like that fucked-up mutated deer with three antlers made everyone realize it wasn’t safe to stick around.
The first five or six houses I passed were split levels, set into the hill. Welded-rebar statues populated one front lawn—a three-horned deer amongst other woodland and farmyard animals. Even the statue seemed to bore into me with its stare, and the damn thing didn’t even have eyes.
The next house, alone on its block, was an old colonial. It was handsome, its wood siding painted dark. Its circular attic window was an eye casting its longing gaze out over the river and Iowa. I walked up the cement steps to a large wooden patio on the side of the house and peered in through the sliding door, but it was darker inside than outside and I saw only my own straggly short hair reflected in a silhouette in the glass. I sat down on the porch chair and leaned back to ponder the empty town and my lack of luck.
I had no idea how to find what I wanted to find. I’d come here because I needed motion. Without motion, there was nothing. Without motion, I was probably as dead as Clay.
I kicked back in the chair, put my feet up on the table, and looked out over the town. I’d make it my kingdom for the day, I decided, and hit the road again tomorrow. I had canned food enough to see me through at least three meals, and if I got desperate I had a jar of peanut butter somewhere in my bag that would keep me alive for days. I took out my phone and headphones, put on black metal, and dozed off.
* * *
I like the tiny little dreams I get when I sleep in the afternoon. That day, I was a very young goblin, riding this brontosaurus-like thing, and I was in love with a human boy and I was afraid he’d find out I was a goblin.
When I’m awake I’m happy sometimes, but I don’t know that I’m ever as happy awake as I am when I’m dreaming. Awake, I’ve got all this nostalgia, this feeling that I’m separated from something I can smell but can’t touch. I get these sudden, unbearable realizations that I should have been more present during all those moments in my life, that I should have taken the time to be like, “Oh shit man, this is my life, and it’s fucking awesome sometimes.” Dreaming, I just swim in the joy and the intensity and the now-ness of life.
Late in the afternoon, I heard rustling and opened my eyes halfway. On the railing in front of me, a rabbit cleaned its paws. I watched it, drowsy. It turned toward me, and its chest was a raw red wound, its rib cage and organs gone. It smelled like death and blood, and I don’t usually smell much in my dreams. It hopped away, and I presumed it a nightmare and fell back asleep.
* * *
“Get your feet off the table.”
“What?” I asked, startled awake, ripping out my earbuds.
“Can’t have dirty boots on the table,” he said.
I got my feet back on the porch and turned around. A gangly, handsome fellow was looking at me with a brown fist on his hip and a weird sort of smile hovering on his face. His septum was pierced. One side of his head was shaved, the rest of his hair was thick black curls. His short dress was clean, faded black, stitched up in a few places with dental floss. He was heavily tattooed, mostly blackwork. Behind him, the sliding glass door was open. Obviously, I hadn’t heard him walk out.
“And who are you?” he asked.
“Danielle,” I said.
He was looking me over, his head cocked to the side, trying to make up his mind about something.
“I, uh, I didn’t know anyone lived here,” I told him.
“Well,” he said. “Someone does. There’s at least four or five spots left if you want your own place. More than that, if you know how to patch a roof.”
He stared at me as I tried to process this information.
“Oh, you’re new. Like, new new. Like, don’t know anything new.”
“I just got here,” I said. “I was thinking maybe there wasn’t anyone left.”
“I’m Vulture,” he said. “What pronouns do you prefer?”
“She,” I said.
“I use he,” he told me.
“Well, Danielle, I came outside because there was a strange woman sleeping on our porch. Everyone else, they’re inside, wondering who the hell you are.”
He started drumming his fingers on his chin.
“Wait, what’s your last name?”
“Cain.” It wasn’t my legal name, but it was my punk name.
“You’re Dani Cain!” His whole body loosened up and a smile exploded across his face.
“I’d rather Danielle than Dani,” I said. I hadn’t let anyone but Clay call me Dani in years.
“Clay talked about you, I don’t know, maybe every day? Come inside! Eat with us! Welcome to town!”
There’s a kind of hospitality found amongst squatters and punks that I’ll never stop appreciating. When there’s not enough to go around, that’s when people share. As far as I can tell, it’s part of why us poor get taken advantage of so much. So I met a tattooed man in a ghost town and I followed him into his house because he knew someone I knew. Sure, I had to give it some thought, but it felt a hell of a lot safer than getting in a car with a stranger.
Outside, the house was rustic and kind of pretty. Inside, it was astounding. I’ve spent plenty of time in squats in the U.S., and I thought I knew what to expect. Most squats, they range from people-who-honest-to-god-piss-in-the-fucking-corner to kinda-normal-but-pretty-messy to artists-obviously-live-here-jesus-christ-why-is-there-a-life-sized-hippo-made-from-styrofoam-in-the-living-room. But that house was something else. It was clean, for one thing, and every wall was painted gray, black, or copper. Every fixture was gold or copper, even if half of them were spray painted that way. Mirrors were everywhere, letting daylight reach into the corners of the house.
While two full-size couches sat empty, the three people in the living room were crammed onto a love seat, lounging atop one another in that way that punks and puppies do. A man and a woman sat next to one another while another woman lay across them, tattooing the back of the man’s neck by hand with needle, thread, and ink.
“May I present to you Danielle,” Vulture said, grandly gesturing. “The Dani Cain. Danielle now though. Just walked into town for her very first time.”
“Well damn,” the tattoo recipient said, “Ms. Cain herself.”
“That’s Thursday and Doomsday sitting down proper,” Vulture said, by way of introductions. “We call them the Days. Freedom, Iowa’s only power couple. Come on, do the thing.” He clapped his hands, giddy.
“I don’t want to,” the woman said.
“We gotta do it,” the man said. He wrangled his arms free from underneath the tattooist, then held out his fists, hands together. He had the word “Thursday” tattooed on his knuckles, black against his brown skin. The woman sighed, then held out her pale hands, palms down. In the same font as Thursday’s tattoo, but clearly more faded, was the word “Doomsday.”
“And this is Brynn,” Vulture said.
Brynn, the tattooist, looked up at me with pale gray eyes. An inch-thick black line was tattooed from the bangs of her hairline to the bridge of her nose. Which, where it met her glasses, formed a hypnotizing geometry. She had the same military-style belt I did, the same extendable baton worn in its holster on one side and pepper spray on the other that I did. Both weapons are better than a knife for self-defense. Knives are only good for threatening, not for fighting. Pepper spray can actually disable someone. A baton can beat someone near to death without cutting them.
Our eyes met. I try not to read too much into things like that, but our eyes met. After a brief moment, she went back to tattooing Thursday.
“So what brings you to this shitty little corner of the world?” Brynn asked, without diverting her attention from her work.
“It’s not shitty,” Thursday said.
“Don’t talk, your neck moves when you talk.”
“It’s kind of shitty,” Doomsday said.
By the look on his face, “not talking” was probably one of Thursday’s least favorite things.
“All done,” Brynn announced. She put the needle down next to the vial of ink on a rag on the coffee table, and turned Thursday around so everyone could see. On the back of his neck was a stylized deer’s head, three antlers sprouting from its crown and running up toward his hairline.
I was about to ask about it, but a sudden fear shut my mouth. There was something more to Freedom than I knew, and as much as I wanted to feel right at home, I didn’t.
Vulture complimented Brynn on her work and Thursday on his taste, then took a photo of the tattoo with his phone.
“Vulture, you want to help me get started on dinner?” Brynn asked. Thursday started clearing up the tattoo equipment.
“As soon as I find the right filter and post this.”
“I can help,” I said. “I like cooking.”
So I followed Brynn to the kitchen to start dinner, happy to see if making food could get my mind off the worries that raced through me. Vulture straggled behind us, tapping and swiping at his phone.
“You definitely don’t have to help cook,” Brynn said.
“I’d enjoy it,” I said. I loved cooking for groups, hated cooking for myself. If it’s just me I’ll eat fucking protein bars for dinner. Brynn turned on the lights, a series of bright LEDs wired into a wooden strip screwed into the ceiling.
“Where do you get power?” I asked.
“Solar,” Vulture said, still staring at his phone. “Don’t use it for much, just some lights and our phones.” He set his phone down on the counter and started rooting through a produce basket, procuring an onion, which he set in front of me. I started dicing it as Brynn ran outside to turn on the propane for the stove.
“Where do you get the gas?” I asked.
“We, uh,” Vulture demurred, “we buy it at Walmart. Only place to get pretty much anything within a two-hour drive.”
I almost asked them where they got money, but I figured I knew the answer: some combination of crime, seasonal labor, and working remote. Same as the rest of us travelers.
“And the water?” I asked.
“Used a water key, just turned the city water back on,” he said. “You can buy basically anything on the Internet. Got it shipped to someone in Chicago.”
Vulture had this grand way of gesturing with every word he spoke, imbuing everything around us with meaning. Brynn came back in, whistling, and swept up the diced onion into a frying pan. She was taller than me, muscled, and handsome as hell.
In any other circumstances, I’d probably be in love with both of them already. Instead, they were a mystery to me, a mystery I aimed to solve. For Clay’s sake, and for my own.
“The water’s not like, fucked up or something though?”
“No way, the water’s great,” Vulture said.
I opened my mouth to ask about the mutated deer, but shouting from the street cut me off. Brynn set down her spoon, Vulture set down his knife, and we all met each other’s eyes.
The shout was soon a scream. We ran for the door.
The sun sat fat and low on the western horizon, at the top of the street, and the last light of the day lent everything vivid faded colors. White lambs, dappled with red and purple wounds, paced a circle around both lanes of the street, not twenty yards from where we stood. Geese dodged in and out between them, and a regal goat oversaw the parade. Each creature had only a gaping wound where its rib cage had been, yet they lived. They opened their mouths to bellow and squawk and bleat, but their organ-less bodies let out only strange rasps.
Mixed in with the good summer scents—early summer flowers, a neighbor’s barbecue, a campfire farther off still—was the iron of dried blood, the rot of death. The same as the rabbit I’d thought I’d dreamt.
A fluttering, above me, caught my eye. On the power lines, hundreds of birds without rib cages—sparrows and finches, jays and pigeons—cried dry and unholy, an angry jury to the trial below. I was transfixed. I can’t say if it was magic or shock. I can’t say the two are wholly distinct. I stood on the lawn with my jaw hanging low, staring at the undead spectacle before me.
At the center, a man stood, bent over, fighting for breath. He’d been running. He’d been screaming. Hints of white hair peeked out from beneath his sweater’s hood, and he wore patched black jeans and the look of a man condemned. For a moment, I thought he was the master of those animals, some punk rock summoner. But everywhere he tried to walk, a barnyard demon blocked his path. He was trying to reach us.
“Doomsday!” he called out, his voice hoarse from screaming. “Tell Doomsday! Run!”
I started toward him. Vulture put his hand on my arm. He was filming with his phone.
“We’ve got to help,” I said.
“We can’t,” Vulture said. He was near to tears. Brynn, on my other side, was as well. They knew this man, they cared about him.
Thursday and Doomsday stepped out the front door a few moments after the rest of us, each with an identical handgun. She held hers slack at her side, a dead weight. He kept both hands on the grip, his finger near the safety.
Where the hell had I found myself?
Then I saw the deer. The bloodred deer stalked down the hill, the last remnants of the sun at its back, its three antlers in sharp silhouette. The beasts parted for their master, and the old man straightened up, turned to meet his fate.
The creature reared onto its back legs and kicked the man in the chest. His ribs broke loud like gunshot, and my ears were ringing from the blow. The man collapsed without a sound, and the deer reached its muzzle into his chest and tore out his heart.
If I’d had a car, I could have ran. I could have been safe somewhere, anywhere. If I’d had a car. The highway was too far to run, and I had visions of that monstrous deer chasing me over the river, through the forest. Hooves in my back, antlers in my chest, my heart held aloft above my dying eyes. So I didn’t run. I stood, in company with Clay’s friends, near to paralyzed with fear.
“The sun’s almost gone,” Vulture whispered. “It’s powerless, at night.”
The beasts parted once more, and the deer walked off, down the hill, down toward the river and out of sight. The animals plodded slowly after. The birds were still, just then, and the man was still forever.
Excerpted from The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, copyright © 2017 by Margaret Killjoy.