We’re excited to share an excerpt from S. A. Hunt’s horror-tinged action-adventure about a punk YouTuber on a mission to hunt witches, one vid at a time. Book two in the Malus Domestica series, I Come With Knives publishes July 21st with Tor Books.
Robin—now armed with new knowledge about mysterious demon terrorizing her around town, the support of her friends, and the assistance of her old witch-hunter mentor—plots to confront the Lazenbury coven and destroy them once and for all.
Meanwhile, a dangerous serial killer only known as The Serpent is abducting and killing Blackfield residents. An elusive order of magicians known as the Dogs of Odysseus also show up with Robin in their sights.
Robin must handle these new threats on top of the menace from the Lazenbury coven, but a secret about Robin’s past may throw all of her plans into jeopardy.
Knock, knock, knock. The teenager stood in Marilyn Cutty’s driveway.
It’d been a few years since Robin last fled to Marilyn’s house to escape her feuding parents. Jason and Annie didn’t fight much anymore—their relationship had cooled from a forgelike heat to a cordial deference—so Robin hadn’t had much occasion to get away from their shouting, instead opting to sequester herself in the cupola. But today was a special case.
The screen door eased open, and Theresa LaQuices peered out.
Her oval face was framed with wispy waves of black and gray. “Yeah?” asked Theresa. “Can I help ye?”
“Hi,” said Robin. She’d never grown as close to the other two women as she had to Marilyn. Theresa and Karen spent a lot of time traveling—in fact, this was probably the first time she’d seen Theresa since early middle school. “Is Marilyn at home?”
“Maybe. Who’s askin’?”
“Uhh… Annie’s daughter.”
Theresa pushed the screen door open as far as it would allow her bulk through the frame, until the piston interrupted her with a tortured creak, and she stepped out onto the cement carport. The middlest sister of the Lazenbury three was an enormous brick of a woman, all shoulders and forearms, her hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun. Billowing around her legs was a ruffled cotton sundress in bridal white.
“Annie’s kid?” Theresa squinted at her. “What you doin’ up here?” As always, she was barefoot. Robin thought of that rhyme from Stephen King’s clown novel: He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts. When Theresa walked, her blunt, stony-looking feet pressed themselves against the cement like dirty fists.
“Mom and I had an argument and I didn’t really have anywhere else to go. I was gonna go to town, but I don’t have any money or a car.”
“So, you figured you’d toddle your little ass out here like you did when you was a kid, hmm?” Theresa nodded thoughtfully, staring at the evening sky. “Yeah, I remember. You’d wander out here and sit on the stoop, and you wouldn’t knock on the door or anything, you’d sit there and cry until one of us happened to hear it and come to see what was goin’ on.”
The two women stood there in the driveway for a moment, one young and indignant, one ancient and surly, as the sun gingerly eased itself onto the horizon behind them. Finally, the old woman said in her Cajunesque accent, “Your daddy always did mistreat you and Annie. I guess I can’t say I blame you for ending up out here the way you did. I could hear them hollerin’ at each other all the way up here.”
Robin nodded without looking up.
Heavy sigh. “Well, no sense in standin’ out here lettin’ the mosquitoes suck out your blood.” Theresa opened the door and waved the girl in. “Get on in here. Marilyn’s upstairs taking a nap, but I expect she’ll be down presently. It’s almost time for dinner and all.”
Being a lifelong gourmand, Theresa kept a clean workspace. The Lazenbury’s kitchen was spotless, as always. “I made some banana bread this morning, if you want some,” she said, as they entered the house. One bearclaw finger directed Robin to a little yellowbrown loaf sitting on a cutting board on the island. “Help yourself. If you’ll excuse me, I’m goin’ to get back to my stories.” With that, she trundled back into the living room.
Hushed voices and subtle music came drifting back. Robin cut a piece of banana bread with a nearby bread knife, then sat eating it and staring out the huge bay window at the vineyard out back. This time of year, the grapes were still a couple months out from being harvested, so the vines drooped with clusters of tiny green and purple marbles, the lush trellis frosted with fire from the sunset above.
The bread was pretty good. She cut another piece and found a stick of butter in a covered dish, smeared that on it.
As she ate it, her mind slipped back into her bedroom, back into the lingering sensation of the other girl’s rough softballer hands on her hips, the floral smell of her hair. Second base in girls’ softball, four inches taller and an Amazon of a sophomore. Under her hands, Brianna’s soft skin was cold and hot in turns: gooseflesh from the cool spring air and warm under the hoodie.
Snatched out of her reverie, Robin suppressed a jump and looked over her shoulder. Marilyn Cutty stood at the kitchen door leading beyond the fridge, into the rear hallway with its wet-looking tomato-soup paint job.
The old woman sauntered behind the island and pushed up the wizard-sleeves of her gigantic sweater. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?” Cutty asked, washing her hands. She was as tall as ever, a heron in cable-knit wool, and so towered over the counter it seemed as if the kitchen were made for a shorter species—looked like an ancient sorceress or a high priestess of some long-dead tribe, regal and well composed, and in retrospect, perhaps that was an apt comparison. “Been a long time since you found your way over here. Could I assume your parents have taken up that time-honored pastime of yelling at each other once again?”
“No,” said Robin, hunched over, clutching her piece of banana bread like a squirrel with an acorn. “No, they hung up their gloves. Looks like I picked up where my dad left off.”
“Ahh, now you and Annabelle are getting into it.”
“What about, if I may be so bold?”
Insides wound as tight as a bowstring, Robin searched for the tactful words. “She keeps me all chained up in her house and in her—in her philosophy?” No, that wasn’t quite right. “I don’t know what to call it—she’s really religious, you know? More and more ever since I was little. And she’s always trying to push those ideas onto me and, I dunno, ‘keep me on the straight and narrow,’ or something. She used to drag me to church, but back then she was all right. Just a Sunday thing. We don’t go anymore, but—”
“Feels kind of like you live with a nun?”
“A little bit, yeah.”
“Feels like you don’t go to church anymore because she brought church home?”
“Yeah.” A tiny thrill of adrenaline arced up Robin’s insides at how spot-on Cutty had gotten it. Never thought of it that way before, but hearing it out loud was like being slapped. “Yeah. I mean, she didn’t really launch into it today, but sometimes she’ll see me looking all messed up ’cause I had a bad day, and then she’ll come into my room with ‘words of wisdom,’ and quote scripture and shit. Proverbs this, Matthew that. And sometimes we’ll be sittin’ and eatin’ dinner at the kitchen table, and she’ll get on a kick of talking about Jesus, and about how Jesus loves me, and how it’s okay if I think this or that, because Jesus loves me anyway, and we’re all sinners. Today, Mom caught me making out with Brianna Wilson in my cupola bedroom. Came creeping up the stairwell and saw us. Now she’s giving me shit about being a lesbian. And I’m not even a lesbian.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
“I mean, no. No—but I don’t appreciate the assumption. I like dudes, too.”
Did you forget how to knock?
You must not have heard me, her mother had said. I guess you were busy.
“She’s always sneaking up on me like some kind of ninja, trying to catch me doing… something. What, I don’t know.”
“Living your life?” asked Cutty.
Why are you always interrupting my life? I finally manage to make friends, even though you hardly ever let me go anywhere other than school, and you’re still hovering over me with your Flowers in the Attic crap.
“It’s not like I ever do anything that would justify her paranoia—”
I’m not imprisoning you up here. You’re free to leave whenever you want.
“—I don’t do drugs. I’m not out there slutting it up, you know? What is she going to catch me doing? I mean, besides making out with my girlfriend.” In a smaller voice: “I guess.”
Is that right? Robin had retorted. So, you’re not going to stop me if I walk out of this house and go wherever?
Mom: Where is ‘wherever’?
That’s the problem! You don’t need to know!
‘Wherever’ turned out to be Grandma’s house. Cutty busied herself over the stove, filling a kettle with water and putting it on to boil. While she waited, she shoveled a couple scoopfuls of sugar into a pitcher. As she did, she chuckled to herself.
“Hmm?” Robin made an inquisitive noise. “What’s funny?”
“You’d never believe the kind of person your mother used to be.” Cutty turned and folded her arms, leaning against the counter. “She wasn’t always a Southern Baptist. She was a pagan, like us. And may I say, one hell of a hippie. So, it’s funny to hear about how she’s buttoned up her past and you along with it. She has no room to talk.”
“What do you mean? Was she a flower child?”
“Well, she was born in the last couple years of the seventies, so she didn’t get to… partake of the ‘cultural revolution,’” said Cutty, air-quoting with her fingers. “All her development took place in the eighties. The Me Decade. She was into Madonna, and Loreena McKennitt, and Nirvana, and she burned so much dope, the fire chief could have put out a warrant on her.”
Robin blinked. “Really?”
“Oh, yes. Wild child.” Cutty shrugged. “Perhaps she felt a certain measure of guilt at her freewheeling ways when you were born. Renounced them to become a better mother to you. Maybe in the intervening years, she’s burrowed a little too deep, spent a little too much time in that house, in her own head, and all that scripture’s rotting her brain.” Robin made a face and Cutty halfturned to stare out the window. “It happens. People seek shelter in religion. For some, it slowly transforms from a shelter into a cage. If you hold on to something too tightly for too long without giving any of it away—religion, love, hatred, knowledge, many things—it turns bitter and thorny and useless inside of you. Anything can torture you, if you let it.”
They sat quietly as the kettle huffed and chuckled on the stove.
Uhhm, Mom had asked, so does this mean you’re gay?
What? No. What would it matter if I was? God doesn’t give a shit.
Don’t matter to me. Just wanted to ask. And don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, please.
If it don’t matter, why ask?
Her mother had ignored the question. You go out there and I can’t protect you!
Protect me from what? Does it have something to do with the hoodoo carved into the windowsills? Yeah, I noticed it, even though you painted over it. You know you’re crazy, right? It’s been there for years and years. What even is that? Some kind of Catholic exorcism shit? It looks like chicken scratch. Robin’s hands had naturally, easily, scrunched up into fists, and she’d fully faced her mother down for the first time in her life. You know everybody in town thinks you’re fucked up, right? They call you Hocus Pocus, call you the Blair Witch. Last week, I was walking out of fifth period. Some cheerleader bitch out in the hallway said, ‘I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.’ Last year, somebody scratched a pentagram into my locker door and pushed a dead mouse through the front vent.
At the time, the hurt and surprise on her mother’s face had bounced right off of Robin’s angry mind, but as she thought back on it an hour later, guilt lay on her like a hot, heavy quilt. God, if only they knew how wrong they were, she had continued, laying in to her mother. You’re about as far from a witch as a woman can get, with your Bible crap, and saying grace over lunch at Taco fucking Bell. You look like you should be out back milking goats, not sacrificing them. You’re sick in the head. I can’t stand being around you.
A cannonball of shame rested in her guts. “Marilyn?” Robin asked, here, now.
“I been wanting to ask you a question for a really long time. It’s kind of a weird one. I’m sorry if it’s super awkward.”
“Absolutely fine. Fire away. I am nothing if not weird.”
“Are…” The girl looked down at her hands; they’d found their way to the drawstring of her hoodie and were meticulously braiding the ends together. “Are you my real grandma?”
A genuine smile spread across the old woman’s face. “No, littlebird, I am not. I’m afraid I can’t claim that particular distinction.” “Mom says my grandmother disappeared after her parents split up, when she was a kid. She didn’t want custody, and she moved away, but Mom doesn’t know where she moved away to.”
“Yes, that’s right. Your mother was raised by your grandfather John in Virginia. John Reynolds, I think his name was. Reynolds was your mother Annie’s maiden name.”
“I always wondered if you were my real grandmother.” Robin finished off the banana bread and contemplated another piece. “I wondered if there was some awful family secret keeping my mom from telling me about you.”
“No, dear.” Sly amusement spread across Cutty’s face. “I’m a foolish, sentimental old woman. I love to help people. I have the compulsion to save everybody, whether I have the means or not. When your family moved out here, I saw your mother out there mowing the lawn by herself.” She busied herself tidying the kitchen. “While I am normally an advocate for women doing whatever the hell they please, up to and including their own yard work, I found it obtuse she should have to do all the housework and paint the house—that house was a real fixer-upper when you all moved in— and do the yard work. Well, my friends and I went down there to introduce ourselves, and we ended up helping her do that huge lawn and paint the house while your father was at work.”
The kettle whistled. “And so we’ve been friends ever since. A little surrogate family, I suppose, and Karen and Theresa your mother’s de facto aunts. I guess that makes me her surrogate mother.” Marilyn sighed and poured the hot water into the pitcher of sugar, and added two teabags. There was a brief pause where she seemed as if she were about to say something else, but then she fished in a drawer for a wooden spoon and stirred the pitcher with it. “So, when your mother had you, I suppose I naturally slipped into the role of surrogate grandmother as well.”
“You’re good at it,” murmured Robin.
“Thank you, littlebird,” said Cutty. “I appreciate that. Never really got the chance to be a real grandmother in my own right, so it was nice I could do that for you. I hope you derived some measure of comfort and guidance under my watch.”
Robin shrugged, overcome with a sudden awkward shyness. “I guess so.”
“I could, though.” The old woman rinsed the spoon and put it in the dish drain, coming around the island to sit next to the girl. “Be your grandmother. If you wanted. You’re still welcome here. You could stay here. At least, for a while. Until you graduate high school.”
“I don’t know… I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“It would be no imposition at all. Love to have you around. And I’m sure that now you’re a young lady with a little maturity, no longer a squalling babe, the other two would come around to the idea. We could teach you so many things, littlebird, about the woods out there, and about wine, and gardening, and about love, and the world. I would very much like to have a fresh new face around here—you know, I love my sisters, but sometimes I see so much of them, I want to wring their necks. We can even learn from each other. You can teach me about the internet and help me set up one of those Facebook things. Got some friends out in Arizona and Maine I should be keeping up with.”
“Sounds nice, actually,” said Robin. “But I don’t know.” She couldn’t quite put her finger on why that sounded both so enticing and also so… weird, for lack of a better word. Maybe it was because she had become so unfamiliar with them in the intervening years, especially Theresa and Karen. Or maybe it was the idea of suddenly sharing a living space with people who were so much older, their age had made their routines and the house’s atmosphere so fundamentally foreign to her. Living with a house full of spinsters from another time just seemed to rub her the wrong way. “We could learn so much from each other,” said Cutty, bumping shoulders with the girl. “I know things that would blow your mind, kiddo. Secrets.”
“Like the book cover says, Things They Don’t Want You to Know.
Know what I mean? Things a lady of your age and demeanor would be served well to know. Things your mother knows, and stuff she has… chosen not to accept in her new life as a God-fearing woman. High time you step out of your childhood and consider your options as a young woman. We can help you in ways your mother no longer has the tools or wherewithal for.”
Okay, this had gone from weird to unnerving.
As if on cue, the screen door opened and Annie Martine stepped into the Lazenbury’s kitchen, out of breath, in a jacket and sundress. Ancient dollar-store flip-flops tried their best to stay on her feet.
“Hello, Annabelle,” Cutty said sharply, casually, an assassin’s dagger.
To Robin’s surprise, her mother’s eyes were glazed with alarm. “What are you doing in here?” she asked, without preamble.
“Eating banana bread and talking to my grandmother?”
Annie blinked, her eyes going wide. “Marilyn Cutty is not your grandmother, and how many times have I told you not to come up here?” She half-lunged toward her daughter, taking the teenager’s wrist and almost dragging her backward off the stool.
“Hey!” Robin twisted to catch herself as she stumbled to her feet. “The hell you trying to do, break my neck?”
“We need to get home,” said Annie. “We need to get home now.”
“No.” Robin wrenched her hand out of Annie’s grasp, her mother’s fingernails whipping painfully down the back of her thumb.
“No, I don’t need to go home. I am home.”
“This is not your home.”
“It’s more of a home than that house has ever been,” said Robin, pointing vaguely in the direction of the Victorian. “Between you and Dad screaming at each other, and this Jesus-freak shit the past few years—you know, you were right, it has turned into a boxing ring. And I’m done fighting for my life.”
“What?” said Annie.
“I told you, you keep me cooped up in that place like you’re afraid somebody’s gonna hurt me. Or kidnap me or something. Have you been watching too much Forensic Files or something?”
She caught Annie’s eyes flicking toward the old woman. “Her?” asked Robin, pointing at Cutty. “You’re afraid of her?”
“No,” said Annie.
She reached for her daughter’s hand again, but Robin snatched it away.
“She’s not afraid of me.” Cutty said it blandly, but her eyes were flecks of hot steel. “She’s afraid of Karen.”
“Karen?” Robin drew a blank for a second. Her mind reeled through a Rolodex of faces. “—The one that dresses like a horse thief and spends all her time making her own clothes and looking for mushrooms in the woods?” She looked at her mother. “Why are you scared of her?”
“She is afraid of Karen,” said Cutty, “because your mother is the reason why Karen’s husband is no longer in Slade Township. It is a blood feud from before you were born, and your mother is terrified of participating in it, because Karen Weaver can be a terrifying woman to antagonize. But what she fails to acknowledge is that I am the Dutch dam between your mama and the ass-whooping she deserves. Whatever measures she’s taken to protect herself— and you—are entirely unnecessary right now. As long as I am here, she—and you—are safe.”
“I think we’ve done enough talking,” said Annie, fully lunging for Robin. She tangled a fist in the girl’s T-shirt and hauled her toward the screen door. Robin banged through it and stumbled out into the driveway, her mother right behind her.
Continuing the theme of surprise, Annie grabbed her again. But this time, instead of anger, there was a panicked protectiveness. Annie clutched the girl’s head against her chest, even though Robin was a couple of inches taller.
“Mom! What are you doing?”
Her mother’s eyes were full of fear, darting in every direction, searching the horizon. “Gotta get you home, okay, baby? I need you to trust me and shut up and start walking. We need to get the fuck out of here and back to the house. I’ll leave you alone, you can do whatever you want, and I won’t say a word. But we need to go.” It was the first F-bomb she’d heard her mother drop in… a very long time. If ever. “What is so important about the house? Why do you look so scared?”
“I’ll tell you some other time. Right now, we need to move.” “No,” said Robin. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
With a soft slap, the screen door closed. Marilyn Cutty had joined them outside and stood there watching quietly, her arms motionless but subtly tense at her sides.
Annie watched the old woman. “We don’t have time for this.”
“This is Dixieland, Annabelle.” Cutty’s thumbs and forefingers rasped together in the stillness of the evening, like a gunslinger getting ready to draw down on a desperado in front of the town saloon. “The days run slow here.”
“What did you do?” asked Robin. The three of them formed an acute triangle in the driveway. “Why is Karen mad at you?”
Cutty’s eyes softened. Her head tilted in anticipation.
“I had him arrested,” said Annie. “Karen’s husband. He… I caught him touching kids out there in that old amusement park. His amusement park. And he was hurting them.” Her eyes cut over to Robin’s, and her face hardened. “I called the police, and they didn’t do shit.”
“Oh, they arrested him.” Taking languid, lawyerly steps, Cutty paced around them. “They took Edgar away, and they did their little investigation. But they didn’t find anything, did they, Annabelle? So, they had to let him go. They let him come back home, and that’s not the whole story, is it, hon?”
Annie said nothing, just stood there, breathing hard, her hands shaking. Robin couldn’t tell if she was furious or terrified.
“Because he didn’t stay home, did he?” continued the old woman.
“A year or so later, he just, hell, I don’t know, he wandered off, didn’t he? Slipped into the ether, like Amelia Earhart. Couldn’t nobody find him. Didn’t nobody know anything about where he went.”
“We need to go home,” said Annie through gritted teeth.
“What is she talking about?” asked Robin.
This time, Annie bulldozered her daughter down the driveway from behind, almost powerwalking her, muttering Bible verses under her breath. “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you.”
“Karen seems to think you know.” Cutty lingered somewhere far behind them at the top of the driveway, some thirty or forty feet back. Her voice echoed off the side of the Lazenbury as she spoke. “Karen thinks you know where her husband went.”
“Oh God,” Annie murmured in the girl’s ear. “Don’t turn around, okay, baby?” Chills ran up the girl’s arms at the panic in her mother’s voice. “Don’t look back. Don’t look back at her. Don’t look her in the eyes. Walk. Keep walking until we’re home. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Robin twisted, trying to see the expression on her mother’s face. Annie manhandled her. “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Eyes front, baby girl. Jesus loves you.”
“Oh, people liked to talk,” Cutty called from the gathering darkness beside the hacienda. She was almost shouting now, but her voice remained casual, as if she were trying to carry on a conversation across a baseball field. “People said he ran off because he was embezzling from the city. Somebody allegedly found dead babies in a dumpster on his property. They even said he was putting LSD in the Wonderland Slush Puppie machines. People, people, my God, they can say such mean things, they can get you in so much trouble, can’t they? They can get folks put in jail. They can get folks burned, get good women drowned in the river.”
“What is she talking about?”
The girl’s eyes managed to lock on the distant figure at the top of the driveway, an elderly Q-tip in a big slouchy sweater. Cutty stood stock-still, hands clasped behind her back.
“Don’t look,” said Annie, forcing her head forward again. “Don’t listen. She can’t do nothing if you ain’t listening and you ain’t looking. The Lord is my light and my salvation. The Lord is the stronghold of my life—”
“I just don’t—” Robin glanced over her shoulder.
All she saw behind them was beige cable-knit. Marilyn Cutty was inches from her mother’s back, right behind them, gliding effortlessly, close enough to touch, still motionless at parade rest, her hands behind her back. She loomed over them, a suddenly mythic shape, not walking but yet still somehow advancing on them, as if she were standing in a toy wagon that her mother was pulling like a sled dog. “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you,” Annie was saying, her voice growing hoarser with every word, “he will never let the righteous be shaken.”
In a voice like the buzzing, sleepy drone of a hornet, Cutty said, “Go ahead and look.”
Despite her dread, Robin’s eyes traveled the Celtic knotwork of the sweater, passing over the drooping cowlneck, and she peered up into Cutty’s face. Only, there was no face. Cutty’s hair had been reduced to lifeless gray moss on a parched skull. The old woman’s own eyes were not eyes; they were one puckered, misshapen socket that gaped asymmetrically across her face like an old shotgun wound. Her skin was pale book-leather, pebbled and cracked. Her lips were pulled taut against driftwood teeth, her stretched mouth almost combining with the eye-socket into one amorphous C-shaped hole.
“Go home, littlebird,” something buzzed from deep in Cutty’s throat.
Inside those nightmare face-holes, flesh that should have been wet and pink was dry yellow rawhide. Robin’s skin flashed as cold as frozen nitrogen. A scream tried to climb out of her throat, but she could only produce a wheeze. “Lord God in Heaven,” Annie was saying, “hallowed be thy name. Please let us get home safe and sound.” Then she muttered something in her daughter’s ear like a record being played backward underwater—
* * *
Night had fallen in earnest. Soft light fell in from the Martines’ living room as Robin and her mother moved through the shadows in the foyer, her hand clutched in Annie’s. “Come on, let’s fix you something to eat.”
“What happened? How did we get here so fast?”
“You ’bout passed out in the driveway.”
“Yeah. Have you eaten today, baby?” asked Annie, leading her down the hallway toward the kitchen. Her mother seemed to have lost all her fear and was now almost… chipper. “Did you eat lunch?”
“I had some cheese crackers. And a cup of yogurt, I think.”
“One cannot live on cheese crackers alone.”
They filed into the dark kitchen and Annie deposited her daughter at the table, pulling out a chair for her. She turned on the hood-light over the range, casting a dim greenish glow over the table. “Still got some of that chicken. I’ll make you a sandwich. Want some french fries?”
“French fries?” The words tumbled out of her mouth rusty and ill used.
“Yeah, I got some Ore-Ida in the icebox.”
Annie set the oven to preheat and rummaged in the freezer. “Maybe that fight we had did something to your blood pressure or something, I don’t know. But it ain’t gonna hurt to get some food in your belly.” She pulled out a bag, got a cookie sheet out of the drawer under the oven, and poured a heap of crinkle fries on top of it. As she scattered them on the sheet, Annie kept talking. “Look… I’m sorry I walked in on you, baby. Hey, from now on I’ll—I’ll flash the lights in the stairwell, all right? There’s a light switch at the bottom, I’ll flick that a few times. How about that?”
“Yeah, that’s—” Robin blinked, examining the kitchen from her seat. Everything looked dark and new in the lamplight, thrumming with some ominous note she could feel but not quite hear. “Did we—Were we just on the other side of the highway?”
Annie stared at her. “Dunno what you mean.”
“Did we go to Grandma Marilyn’s house?”
“Not that I know of. I found you down by our mailbox, sittin’ in the grass, talkin’ nonsense.”
Robin searched her mother’s face. “What was I saying?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You were mumbling something, I couldn’t hear it. You didn’t fall and hurt yourself today, did you?”
As if by instinct, the girl reached up and ran fingers through her hair, feeling for a bruise. There were none.
“So,” Annie said. “So.”
“You’re not batting for the home team, then?”
“I play for both teams, Mom. I like boys and girls both. Not that—” Not that it’s any of your business, she started to say, but it turned to ashes in her mouth.
“There’s a lot of love in your heart. I guess it makes sense you’ll give it to anybody that’ll take it. It’s all gotta go somewhere.” Annie huffed a cool laugh. “Just a surprise, is all.”
Ice tinkled. Mom was pouring tea into one of the glasses with lemon wedges painted all over. Robin sipped at it, staring down into the dark kaleidoscope of ice and tea, then she put it down on the table without letting go. Something about the weight of the glass, and the liquid inside, reassured her—as if some voice in the back of her mind said that if something happened, something that justified defending herself, she could throw it.
“Did you do something to me?” she asked.
Dirty dishes thunked slowly against the basin. Her mother had turned to the sink, elbow-deep in hot water. “I don’t know what you mean.” Annie rinsed a plate, putting it in the dish drain rack. You know what I mean, Robin started to say, but it was as if the words had been typed onto a sheet of paper in front of her and some unseen hand had snatched it off the table before she could read it.
Instead, she found only silence on her tongue. So, she thought of something else to say. “What was Marilyn talking about?”
Looking over her shoulder with a guileless expression, Annie said, “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to old Mary Cutty in a long time. Did you run into her today?”
We just talked to her, Robin wanted to say, but the words vanished into the dark again. Her lips parted as if to speak, but her tongue pressed uselessly against her teeth. Did you do something to Karen Weaver’s husband? she subvocalized, trying to push the words, to birth the words, but nothing came out.
“I heard he ran off with some hussy,” said Annie. “What?”
Cold surprise flickered across Annie’s face. Before either of them could say anything else, the oven chimed to let her know it was done preheating, and she put the baking sheet inside with a bang, setting the timer for twenty minutes. Wiping her hands on the towel that forever hung from the oven door handle, Annie marched out of the room. “I’m going to go see what your father’s up to. Keep an eye on those french fries, hmm? I put enough in there for both of us.”
Minutes crawled past. A clock ticked softly on the wall, but the time on it was senseless, arms splayed in random directions. Robin couldn’t focus well enough to divine its meaning, no matter how hard she stared at it, as though she could anchor her mind in the solid contrast of black numbers on white, black hands on white.
After an eternity of trying to tell the time, her eyes wandered away and settled on the kitchen door framing a narrow glimpse of the hallway: the right end of the sideboard table, on which stood a portrait of the three of them together—her father Jason, her mother Annie, and herself. Taken in Gatlinburg almost a decade earlier, everybody in cowboy gear. Dad still had his horrible goatee, Mom still had her cutesy bangs, and Robin herself was a little girl with glittering eyes and a sullen expression.
Mom. Fear shot through an arrow through her chest. Suddenly, she didn’t want her mother coming back through that doorway. If Annie Martine came walking through that door, she thought she would scream and run like hell. Mom made me forget something. She’s still making me forget something.
She’s a w—a wuh She’s—wwwwh A w—
She’s a www-wwuh—
Robin got up and spat into the kitchen sink, as if she could spit out the words. As she stood there gazing into the drain, with its mesh drain-trap full of soggy bits of food, she remembered the french fries. She opened the oven door and looked at them. After half a minute of staring, she realized they weren’t even remotely done, so she closed the door and stared at the range.
What was I doing? She scanned the kitchen the way you do when you’ve walked into another room and forgot what errand brought you there.
I need to protect myself. From what? How?
Creeping cautiously but quickly up the stairs without knowing quite why she was creeping, she went up to her room where she pulled her laptop out of the drawer underneath the north windowsill in her cupola. She sat there staring at the screen for a long moment, trying to recollect why she’d come up here and connected to the Wi-Fi.
On the windowsill, the carvings under the paint were thrown into sharp relief by the screen’s stark light.
A nail file in her backpack. With it she dug at the paint as if it were a lottery ticket, trying to reveal the symbols her mother had scratched into the window frames, looking for some kind of revelation or inspiration that could help her figure out what was going on in her head. Underneath were symbols that almost looked like English letters—F, N, S, R, some odd combination of lowercase b and uppercase P, all manner of symbols composed of straight lines and right angles. Looking back at the screen, she did a few Google searches and finally found something resembling her mother’s carvings. According to the website in front of her, they were Nordic runes. Something called Elder Futhark—
Reality jumped like a broken film reel and Robin blinked, startled. She was no longer sitting on her bed; she and her mother were standing in the bathroom, and her mother was scrubbing at the back of Robin’s left hand with a washrag and scalding-hot water. “What did you think you were doing?” asked Annie. “What is this, some kind of Satanic thing?” Annie was asking. Half-obscured by suds and the rag in Annie’s hand, there was something written on her skin with a Sharpie marker, some strange smeared symbol that looked like a chicken’s footprint. “Are you writing evil things on yourself? What is this?”
A greasy stink lay on the air. The french fries had burned. “This isn’t evil.” Robin’s words were heavy and slurred, as if she were having to lift them over the wall of her tongue. She expected her mother to ask her if she’d been drinking, but she didn’t say anything, just kept scrubbing. “It’s… Mama, it’s the stuff, like you scratched in the windowsills.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Annie glared up at her and kept scrubbing.
“Yes, you do. Are you doing something to me?”
“No!” cried Annie. “You trying to fight with me again? I thought we were okay now, thought we were cool. I wish you would sit down and eat your supper. You’re not well. Your blood sugar is low.”
Robin shook her head, slow at first, and then wildly, her ponytail sweeping across the back of her neck in a growing panic. “My blood sugar is fine, Mama.”
“Then what the hell?”
“I feel like I’m forgetting things. Something.” She reached up with her free hand and ground the heel of her palm into her eyebrow. “Something happened and I can’t remember what. I went somewhere and something happened, Mama. Something happened and I need to do something and I can’t remember what.”
“Do I need to take you to the doctor?” Annie’s eyes were glittering black pools in the dim bathroom light.
Not a medical doctor—a psychiatric doctor. Robin could read between the lines well enough. A shrink. “No, I don’t need to go to a doctor. I need you to stop doing whatever you’re doing to me. We went to—” Robin blanked, staring at the wall. The words had been there, just there; she was about to say them and they flitted away like a housefly. Some sensation like a smooth wall had set itself up between her brain and her mouth, the same feeling like when you’re trying to do math but you’re too tired to focus.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her mother’s lips were moving, like a ventriloquist’s. Subtly, silently, almost a trick of the light.
Summoning all of her will, Robin closed her eyes and fought the wall in her head, pushing, punching, pressing. She felt like she had to sneeze, but with her brain—that same kind of high, half-painful anticipation.
even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil Terrible black eyes. Eyes reaching into her and scooping her clean. keep walking until we’re home
But there were words in there, thoughts, crusted in the darker corners of her brain, that her mother’s spoon couldn’t reach, if it was indeed her mother doing this, whatever it was, this creeping assassin dementia. “Wwweee www—wwwennt,” Robin tried to say. “Wwweee went. To Gramma Mmm-mmary’s houuuse.” The words came out like meat processing through a grinder, tortured and crushed, almost in the same slow, buzzing hornet-voice Cutty had spoken to her earlier that evening.
Alarm spread across Annie’s face.
To her horror, Robin glanced away from her mother. The bathtub was full of dark water, silty with blackness.
the Lord himself goes before you and will be with—
“We went to Grandma Mary’s house,” she said, and the lights went out.
Arms reached for her from the darkness, water clattering across bathroom tile, as something stood up out of the bathtub and clutched at her.
Ragged fingernails chiseled cold fire into her wrists. She opened her eyes and saw a drowned woman, mouth gaping low and full of black teeth, eyes shrunken to hard pits, sockets cavernous. Her skin was clammy, glistening, almost gelatinous. Hair streamed black down the corpse’s shoulders—
That film-hiccup effect again. She was no longer in the bathroom. A half-moon perched high in the sky, bathing her in monochrome light. She sat in her bed, quilt pooled around her hips. Her wrists thrummed with pain, hot now instead of the cold of the thing in the bathtub. Leaning across the bed, she turned on the nightstand lamp.
Blood streaked the sheets.
One of her hands was a tight fist around the nail file, the one she’d been scraping paint off the windowsill with, and it was smeared with blood. Still wet, fresh.
Inside her wrists were a pair of lines burning with hot agony, cut deep with the file, but not deep enough to pierce the vessels. Scary, but not suicide-scary—they had made a mess, but they weren’t bad enough to justify calling an ambulance. Had she tried to slit her own wrists in her sleep?
No… they weren’t just “lines.” Splaying toward the crooks of her elbows were three lobes where she had cut the Elder Futhark chicken-foot symbol into her skin.
She pulled a T-shirt out of her dresser and tore it into strips, winding them around the cuts on her arms, then stripped her top sheet and retrieved her laptop. She checked her browser history, but there were reams and reams of research here, probably fifty or sixty links to pages about ancient symbols. Too many to suss out the meaning of the drawing she’d carved into her own arms. More than she remembered seeing earlier.
How long has Mom been doing this? she wondered, eyes welling.
What is she even doing? What was she saying in the bathroom?
In her bookmarks, she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Webcomics, links to Etsy shops, YouTube channels, Wattpad stories, DeviantArt galleries, Facebook groups, history websites for homework. She scrolled to the bottom: an online order form for Miguel’s Pizza and a link to the first season of an anime on a pirated-anime website.
Going back to the history, she got an idea. Maybe she’d carved her arms as soon as she’d found the symbol, which meant the page with the symbol would be at the bottom.
Click. RuneSecrets. There it was. The three-lobed Y.
“Algiz,” she mouthed silently. “Represents the divine might of the universe. A Norse symbol of divine blessing and protection.” It also stood for the elk. Below was a large picture of the algiz rune. “Alignment with the divine makes a person sacred, set apart from the mundane.”
Past-Me knew what was going on. Dots of blood pierced the gray cotton around her wrists. Maybe these blood sacrifices would protect her from them—from the gap-faced ghoul, whoever or whatever it was. God, how long? How long has she been making me forget? Is this the first time I’ve tried to push back?
Maybe this symbol, this “algiz” would protect her. Protect her from her mother—from the woman that imprisoned her and made her forget.
You can’t wash away a scar.
Excerpted from I Come With Knives, copyright © 2020 by S.A. Hunt.