‘No Shelter’ (Part Four) by Timandra Whitecastle
“You left him?” The midwife wants to know. “You left the aelf when you went looking for me?”
We’re sitting in her hole, a basement apartment she’s made up for herself. No photos of family, but there are prints of Van Gogh’s sunflowers on the wood-boarded walls. She’s making tea in a small kitchen area. It smells herbal. The wolf is curled up by the warmth of her wood stove. He looks kinda homey. She doesn’t seem to mind him. She thinks he’s a husky. I can’t be bothered to correct her.
“Only for a while. I returned later.”
The midwife grunts.
“I couldn’t leave without telling him.”
“You poor child” is all she says; then she hands me a cup of scalding tea. I don’t splash it in her face, but I want to. “You have contractions already. Not the real ones, of course. These are practice. It’s your body getting ready to flex its most powerful muscle for the birth. You should stay close. It could happen any day now.”
“Okay.” I’m still scared of the unknown, but I don’t show it anymore.
“So where is he now?” she asks, taking her seat in a bamboo rocking chair opposite the leather couch.
“It’s complicated.” I wonder if Facebook is still online and whether I should change my relationship status. Connection error. Try again later.
“Tell me,” she says.
“Annihilation leads to transformation. Transformation leads to annihilation. Anna-hilation.” I take a sip from the cup. “Get it? A-N-N-A messed up.”
When I returned, he wasn’t at home. The school was empty, as were the woods behind them. At first I thought he might be out hunting. He was often gone a few days at a time, anyway. I figured it was no big deal. I waited, a scrap of paper with bible verses and an address written in ink in my back pocket. I couldn’t wear my jeans properly anymore. They wouldn’t close. I made do with a piece of elastic band through the buttonhole, a safety pin holding it all together. I tried not to think about what was making my jeans not fit.
Then the silence started to weigh heavy on my ears. I was jumpy when the schoolyard lit up at night, but there they were again, my old friends, the doe now without her fawn, and the damn fox in the trash cans.
A week passed that way, and I was a mixture of worry and anger. Then one night the lights lit up. As I looked out, I saw the doe tearing across the yard in wide-eyed panic. Behind her in the woods, the trees were shaking, bent by invisible hands. But the heavens were clear, cold starlight gleaming.
The atmosphere changed, something was happening out there. Electricity ran over my skin, crackling in my teeth as power pressed against the windows, making them rattle in their frames.
Then I saw him running down the hill. I didn’t think. Just acted. I took my “wand” and ran out to meet him. The motion sensors went crazy.
“In!” he shouted, waving at me to return to the school.
I stood in the yard, a loose dress whipping around my ankles. He was covered in blood, gaping wounds all over his body, his knife dripping red once more.
I raised the gun at the thing that came out of the wood after him. A flicker, and the lights were snuffed out. I could just make out the size of the creature by its luminous eyes. Horns and additional limbs made it hard to tell what it used to be. What it was now was infected.
I emptied the gun at it as my man hurtled toward me, throwing one arm around what remained of my waist. He dragged me inside, then stopped at the entrance and signed a ward in midair, spattering the blood from his slashed arm across the concrete steps in a wide arc. Another surge of power knocked me flat, winding me.
I lay there helpless, sucking air through my mouth with a whistling sound. The infected drew nearer, staggered, and finally fell before the magic force field.
After a moment of darkness, the lights flickered back on. Or maybe I came back to.
He helped me up, and we walked inside together; we always did. I leaned into him, my head almost to his shoulder. We didn’t make it much past the entryway. He closed the door and pressed me against it, and shivering, bleeding, we kissed. A final push, then we were all flesh, and all feeling in that flesh, joined and rejoined. Distance collapsed upon us as we gave each other shelter.
The morning after, there was a small heap of fur at my feet.
“What’s this?” I rubbed my eyes, waking. The warm, trembling ball of fur uncurled, and golden eyes stared at me.
“Dog,” he mumbled, still half asleep.
“It’s a wolf,” I said, touching his upper arm. His skin felt hot.
“Good. Wild dog. Won’t hide in one of your pictures.” He shrugged and rolled over. “He will stay by you. I have whispered it.”
The hair on my arms rose as I saw the bite and scratch wounds on his arm. “Why?”
He hesitated and looked out into the dawn outside, then back at me and my tiny round belly.
“Lonely.” He reached across me and fondled the wolf pup between the ears. I’m still not sure who of us three he meant.
Over the course of the next few days, we tried to bury the carcass of the infected in the schoolyard before deciding to burn it. Its charred ruins stared at me. The corrupted flesh oozed into the asphalt in black sludges, staining it forever. The doe never returned. Nor did the fox. We were left all alone, and me with the address of a midwife burning like a hot coal in my pocket.
But he was sick and needed rest. I feared sepsis from the wounds. They smelled funny. We had enough bandages, but other than a few painkillers, I had nothing to battle a regular infection. I kept checking him for blood poisoning, figuring I might have to make another trip to Mr. Barker for penicillin and, I dunno, antibiotics? Would they help? I dunno. His hacking cough kept me up most nights, so I moved into a different room. He was a little better after a week.
Occasionally, as we worked or walked together, I’d grab his hand and plant it firmly against my womb when the baby moved. He smiled first, then turned away, weeping. So I stopped.
I spent most of my days in the library, reading, waiting, gathering courage for what I had to do. I would have to leave him alone again. I’d have to join a group of other survivors, be among my own kind to deliver our baby. But how could I when he was so weak? Instead, I read and reread all those stories I used to tell him.
Until I found him in the bathrooms, a trail of vomit leading me to him. Talk about breadcrumbs. I already had that sinking feeling then, but I wouldn’t allow myself to think it. Not when our baby moved inside me, kicking and turning against the fragile walls of stretched flesh.
Later, I’d wake up in the night to go pee, the kid was so heavy on my bladder. I could make the journey in total darkness and the wolf went with me, fur stroking against my naked legs. Until the night I nearly walked into my man as he stood in a dark corner, face to the wall, twitching. I peed myself right where I was standing. The wolf growled, his ears flat on his skull.
I didn’t need to see the telltale black spots at his wrists, on his elbows along the blue-green lines of his veins.
Only one consequence of transformation. But, well, you heard me tell it before. You know what’s coming now. You know just how the story goes.
The next day I found him in our old room, staring out the window past the dead plants on the sill. There wasn’t much to see out there, only the carcass and its tainted mark.
He only snapped out of his reverie when I switched on the smartboard, turning up the music’s volume. I yearned to hear him tell me the story of how it happened. But he couldn’t. He didn’t know the words. Story of our life together: not knowing the words.
“Bad,” he said, lifting his forearms, wounds ragged and still wet, his skin the color of fresh bruises.
“Yes,” I whispered. “Very, very bad.”
The metal of the gun felt cold in my hand. The wolf at my heels—it growled low at its former savior, inaudible above the blast of music.
I closed my eyes. Briefly, I wanted to open the window and jump out. The end. But the classroom we were in wasn’t high enough, only on the second floor. I didn’t know what else to say, so I died a bit inside. I stared at him mutely, racking my brain for something to say that didn’t sound like the whining orphan I was inside. It was the moment I became an adult. In my gut the sinking feeling articulated into the inescapable, cruel truth of life: it goes on.
My shoulders dropped.
“Our child will be fine,” I said.
There is no happy ending.
“Three wishes,” I swallowed hard, gripping the gun. “That’s the way the story goes, so that’s all you get.”
It’s all anyone gets, if they get anything.
The midwife is silent for a while. My tea is cold. I down it in one go.
“What did he wish for?” she asks.
“His first wish was a story of my past,” I say.
He wanted to hear the story of how I came to have my grandfather’s gun. And I gave it to him.
“His second wish,” I tell the midwife, “was to hear a story of my future. I wasn’t sure what to say. So I made something up. I made up something I guessed would be what he wanted.”
“About you and your child?”
“Yeah, I basically told him the Gilmore Girls series, me being Lorelai.” As though that world hadn’t ended. As though a happy ending were just around the corner of Stars Hollow.
The midwife nods. Finally she gets a reference. Connection made.
The adult world—it tells teens the story of something being wrong with us, when in reality it’s a cautionary tale about what we lose when we believe the grown-ups have all the answers.
The midwife holds her cup in her strong, capable hands, and I wonder if I should ask her about her own story now. My voice is raw, though, and when I cough, she gets up to get me a glass of water. Her mouth droops low in sympathy as she passes me the drink.
“And the last wish?” she prompts.
She knows the story must end. Audience waiting for catharsis, greedy for it. One final dawn came, and it was Scheherazade’s last, whether her sheik lived to hear the end of her stories or not. The last wish is always the one you can’t fulfill yourself. A thrilling sense of calm settles over me as my stomach muscles tighten. Practicing for the real thing.
I look over to where my gun is propped against her table. She follows my gaze and nods once, curtly.
“You can tell me,” she says.
There is more to tell. Always more.
If I choose to tell it.