By Laura Garrison
The station wagon drifted for a few dozen yards, like a raft on a slow-moving river, before coming to a gentle stop at the base of an incline. The red Check Engine light glared accusingly from the dashboard. Around them, the forest stretched away in all directions, broken only by the pitted tarmac of the winding mountain road.
Susan glanced sideways at her husband, Paul, who was staring straight ahead through the windshield. His hands were still on the steering wheel, as if he hadn’t noticed the car was no longer in motion.
The radio was on, presumably running on battery power. It was tuned to the only station with a clear signal: WPOL, The Polecat, broadcasting from Marlinton in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. At the moment, a dejected Hank Williams was informing them there was a hole in his bucket and, as a result, he would be unable to purchase any beer.
That seemed to be as good an opening as she was likely to get, so Susan turned to Paul. “Speaking of problems, we seem to have developed a small one of our own. Any idea what might be wrong?”
A sheepish expression crept over Paul’s face. “Actually, yes. Do you remember a couple of months ago when Frank left that message about how we should make an appointment to replace the timing belt?”
Frank was their mechanic. Susan had no memory of the message, and she wasn’t quite sure what a timing belt was, but she could see where this was going.
On the radio, Hank Williams gave way to a commercial for Tudor’s Biscuit World, a local fast-food chain. Susan’s stomach rumbled, and she switched the radio off. They had spent most of the afternoon walking at a leisurely pace on easy-to-moderate trails, but she had eaten her last granola bar over two hours earlier when they had stopped to rest on a moss-covered boulder the size of a triceratops. And that’s a long time when you’re eating for two, right, little dude? she thought, glancing down at her stomach. At five months, she wasn’t exactly a whale, but she had definitely reached the stage of being visibly pregnant.
While Paul got out to poke around in the engine, Susan opened the glove compartment and pulled out a road map.
Paul returned to the car after a cursory inspection under the hood. “Timing belt,” he confirmed. “This is bad. What’s the closest town?”
“Let’s see,” she said, studying the map. “How far have we gone past Beechnut Falls?”
He shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe fifteen miles?”
Susan nodded. “Yeah, that sounds about right. Looks like we’ll be hoofing it all the way back to Rusty Springs; it’s about twelve miles north of here. Good thing we’re in hiking shape, huh?” She tried to smile, but her eyes strayed to the west, where the last rays of sun were casting their thin amber glow through the trees.
They had rented a cabin in Rusty Springs for the week, hoping to enjoy a break from civilization and bring a little wilderness into their lives. They had proudly left their phones and laptops back in their high-rise apartment, bringing only board games and paperback novels for entertainment.
Paul put his hand on Susan’s knee. “Hey,” he said. “Do you want to wait here while I walk back? I’m sure I could get the property manager or someone from another cabin to drive me back down to pick you up.”
“Are you kidding? I’m not spending half the night in our busted car in the middle of Appalachian territory with nothing but a rolled-up map for fending off curious bears and hillbillies.”
“Okay, okay,” Paul said, laughing. “Then let’s get a move on. No sense wasting the last few minutes of daylight.”
They got out of the car. Susan pulled a red hooded sweatshirt out of the backseat and put it on while Paul adjusted the straps on his backpack.
They set off together, with Paul matching Susan’s sedate pace. Halfway to the top of the hill, she stopped. “Look,” she said, pointing. “There’s an old house down there.”
It wasn’t much more than a shack. The windows were broken, the front door was missing, and the rotting boards seemed ready to collapse in the next good puff of wind. The only respectably sturdy feature was a crooked stone chimney.
As they watched, a blue heron stepped out from behind the house. It waded into a nearby marsh, taking high, delicate steps and switching its head from side to side. Then, moving almost too fast to see, it stabbed its pointed beak into the water and came up with a wriggling frog. Working its flexible neck with oddly graceful motions, the heron forced the frog into its throat and swallowed it. The frog’s legs were still kicking as it disappeared.
Susan shivered and turned away.
“Yikes,” Paul said. “I mean, I know we talked a good game about coming out here to ‘experience nature,’ but that was a little too Discovery Channel for my taste.”
They got moving again. The stars began to appear as the last of the sun faded from the sky. In the twilight, thousands of crickets began to chirp. Fireflies zipped around, blinking their taillights on and off.
“Do you want me to get the flashlight out?” Paul asked.
“Not yet,” Susan said. “We can still see the road. Maybe when we’re going down the hill on the other side.”
But when they reached the top of the hill, they realized no flashlight would be necessary. Spread out below them were the welcoming lights of a small town, nestled into a valley not half a mile from where they stood.
“I’ll be damned,” Paul said. “I guess this wasn’t on the map, huh?”
“Salientia,” Susan said, reading the name on a sign along the side road that led into the town. “Nope. Pretty. I would definitely remember that name.”
“Well, considering it saved us from being walking cougar snacks for the next four hours, I’m just glad it’s here.”
Susan slipped her hand into Paul’s, and he gave it a squeeze.
They walked into the town that way, hand-in-hand, like children in a fairy tale. Salientia’s central boulevard was lined on both sides with sturdy brick buildings. Strings of colored paper lanterns crisscrossed over the street, and there were lots of people milling around outside. Several boys were playing leapfrog in the grass, and a few girls were crowded around a hopscotch court on the sidewalk, where the street lamps provided enough light for them to see the chalk lines. All the girls were wearing dresses, which struck Susan as charmingly old-fashioned.
It’s not just the dresses, either, she thought. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many children playing outside. She caught the eye of one of the girls who was waiting for her turn at hopscotch. Susan waved, but the girl just gaped at her, eyes wide, mouth slightly open, without returning the wave. Some of the adults were also watching them closely as they passed, and a few of them turned and whispered to each other.
Paul nudged Susan’s shoulder. “Let’s try that diner. I could really go for a cup of coffee, and they might have a phone we could use.”
Warm light spilled through the diner’s plate-glass windows, where a neon sign spelled out “Jeremiah’s” in pink script. Underneath the sign, a cardboard rectangle reading, “Come on in; we’re OPEN” dangled from a hook on a clear plastic suction cup. A bell tinkled when they opened the door.
The only other customers were two teenaged couples drinking sodas in one of the booths. Both of the boys had on letterman’s jackets, and the girls were wearing short-sleeved cardigans and knee-length skirts. They looked like extras from the set of Happy Days.
There was a row of chrome stools topped with round leather cushions in front of the counter. As Paul and Susan climbed onto the two in the middle, a tall man in a white apron with “Jeremiah” embroidered on it came over and set a napkin in front of each of them. He was almost completely bald, with just a fringe of hair behind his ears. “Evenin’, folks. Can I pour you some coffee?” he asked.
“I’d love some,” Paul said.
“Do you have decaf?” Susan asked.
“Yup,” Jeremiah said. He set two cups and saucers on the counter, then grabbed two pots of coffee off their warmers and poured from them both at the same time, filling Susan’s cup from the pot with the orange lid. Then he went to the refrigerator and came back with a small pitcher of cream.
“Thank you,” Susan said. “You aren’t still serving food at this hour, I suppose?”
“I think we might have some grasshopper pie in the back. Let me check with Lily; she’s our cook.” He pushed through a metal door with a glass porthole in it, and they could hear him talking to someone in the kitchen as they sipped their coffee.
A moment later a plump woman who looked to be in her late fifties or early sixties came through the door with a slice of acid-green pie on a plate. She wore a simple black dress under her apron, and her hair hung down her back in a long silver braid. Smiling shyly, she set the plate in front of Susan, whose eyes widened when she saw the woman’s hands. Lily’s fingers were webbed, and — stranger still — she had no fingernails. Each slim finger simply ended in a soft bulb of smooth flesh, like a rubber ball.
“This looks delicious!” Susan lied, picking up her fork and forcing herself to look up into Lily’s round face. She nearly dropped the fork when she saw Lily’s eyes. The irises were gold. Not earthy yellow but true metallic gold, like doubloons. She couldn’t tear her gaze away from them.
“Thank you so much; my wife was very hungry,” Paul said, elbowing Susan lightly.
Susan managed to nod as she stabbed the pie with her fork. She remembered the way the blue heron had speared the frog with its sharp beak, and for a moment she struggled against a rising tide of bile in the back of her throat. Then she pushed the image from her mind, lifted a quivering forkful of pie to her mouth, and swallowed it. “Mmm,” she said. “Very tasty.” That was actually true; the pie was much better than its aggressive coloring suggested.
Lily beamed. “I’m so glad you like it,” she said. Her gold eyes shimmered. They were beautiful, once you got used to them. She had hidden her hands under her apron, and Susan hoped she hadn’t embarrassed her by staring at them.
When Jeremiah came over to refill their coffee, Paul explained what had happened to their car and asked if there was a phone he could use to call a cab.
“Sure, but I should tell you that the closest cab company is over in Beckley, and they’ll charge you an arm and a leg to come all that way at this time of night. If I were you, I’d spend the night here in town — the Cattail Inn is real nice — and then give Emery a call in the morning. He has a garage right around the corner, and he does good work for fair prices. Plus, he’ll tow your car for free.”
Paul turned to Susan. “What do you think?”
She pretended to deliberate. “Hmm. A hot shower and a good night’s sleep, or a long wait for an overpriced ride in a smelly cab. What to do?”
Paul turned back to Jeremiah. “Where is this Cattail Inn?”
Jeremiah’s face lit up. “You mean you’ve decided to stay? That’s marvelous! It’s right down the street. Just look for the big flowerpots.”
Lily looked pleased as well, but she seemed a little distracted. Her eyes kept darting nervously towards the diner’s front door, as if she were expecting someone whom she did not particularly wish to see.
Susan had another bite of pie. “This is really great,” she said. “What do we owe you?”
“It’s on the house,” Jeremiah said. “I wouldn’t feel right taking your money on Midsummer’s Eve. Besides,” he added, with a glance at Susan’s midsection, “I can see you’re in the family way, and I’m sure you two are saving your pennies.”
Susan shifted uncomfortably. She didn’t like discussing her pregnancy with strangers. “Yes, that’s true. I hadn’t realized it was midsummer already. That’s the shortest night of the year, isn’t it?”
Something flickered across Jeremiah’s face. Susan thought it might have been a frown, but it vanished so quickly she couldn’t be sure. “Yes. It’s a very special night for Salientia.” He sounded wistful, almost melancholy.
“Oh, really?” Paul asked. “Why is that?”
“It’s sort of a nod to our heritage, I suppose. According to local legend, the group of settlers who founded this place in the seventeenth century used to worship an unconventional deity called Rana, whom they believed had always lived here in the wetlands. Midsummer’s Eve was set aside as his special feast day, and everyone stayed up all night celebrating in his honor.”
“Sounds like fun,” Susan said, with her mouth full of pie.
“It was,” Jeremiah said. “For a while, anyway. Eventually, though, after discovering the freshly mangled bones of some settlers and noting how several others had disappeared altogether, those who remained decided that Rana was not a god after all, but only a terrible swamp monster who used his physical strength and unnatural longevity to prey upon humans.”
“That sounds less fun,” Susan said. “What did they do?”
“According to legend, the monster could not be killed, but they came up with a spell that put him into a state of deep hibernation under the marsh, and he remained there undisturbed for many years. It’s at this point that the story gets a little fuzzy. Some accounts simply end with Rana’s banishment, while others add a nasty little afterward to the tale.”
“Well, don’t leave us hanging,” Paul said. He took a swig of his coffee.
“There is a rumor,” Jeremiah said slowly, “that one young woman who was well-versed in both the dark arts and the town’s history decided to try to awaken the swamp monster. She convinced herself that he would be so grateful to have been raised from his slumber that he would take her as his bride, and perhaps even allow her to share in his immortality. Together, she imagined, they would take over the town, the country, the world.”
Susan shuddered. “I’m guessing this story doesn’t end with, ‘and they lived happily ever after,’ does it?”
“Unfortunately not,” Jeremiah said. “No one knows what blasphemous ritual she performed to raise him from his watery cave, or how she sent him back after she realized she had made a terrible mistake. But by then it was too late; she was already carrying the monster’s offspring. When she gave birth, the townsfolk’s suspicions were confirmed — the young woman had lain with a monster and conceived an abomination. Some accounts say that the mother and child were run out of town. Others say they were both hanged, or burned at the stake.”
“Wow,” Paul said. “That’s some story.”
Susan put her hand to her mouth to stifle a yawn. “Well, thank you so much for the history lesson, and for the coffee and pie, but we should probably get going.”
“It was my pleasure,” Jeremiah said. “I’m sorry your car broke down, but if it had to happen somewhere, I’m glad it happened here, tonight.”
“So are we,” Paul said. “We’ll probably stop by in the morning, if you’re going to be open for breakfast.”
Jeremiah and Lily exchanged a glance. “That,” Jeremiah sighed, “would be wonderful.”
“Then it’s a date,” Paul said. “Come on, Suze,” he added, taking her arm. “Let’s go find out if the Cattail Inn allows grubby hikers to stay in its fine suites.”
They stepped out onto the street, where the celebration had picked up considerably since their arrival. A jug band was playing a rousing version of “On the Road Again,” and several couples were dancing in the street. Susan spotted the teenagers from the diner among them. A group of children ran by with sparklers in their hands.
Several people smiled at Paul and Susan as they walked down the street. They spotted the Cattail Inn, which was indeed flanked by two enormous granite pots filled with clusters of the lodging’s namesake plant. The heavy tops looked like velvet sausages skewered on slender reeds.
They had almost reached the entrance when a dark form slipped out from an alley like smoke and stopped right in front of them. Susan stumbled and almost fell. She instinctively put a protective hand in front of her stomach, but Paul grabbed her shoulders and steadied her before she could tumble to the ground.
“Watch it, Ma’am,” Paul said. “It’s crowded out here tonight, so you ought to look both ways before you —”
“Hush!” the woman hissed. A tattered coat hung from her bony frame. Her face was sharp and pinched, and there were cobwebs of wrinkles bunched around the corners of her sunken eyes. “You have been deceived,” she said. “This town is under a terrible curse.”
“Okay,” Paul said in a soothing voice. “Thank you for letting us know. But we’re leaving tomorrow, so I think we’ll be —”
“Tomorrow will be too late!” She was ignoring Paul and speaking directly to Susan. “You must leave now, tonight, before dawn,” the old woman said. Her dark eyes snapped and sparked in their deep sockets. She reached out and placed her hand on Susan’s belly, fingers splayed, like a dead starfish. Her fingernails were yellowed and thick, as if she had some sort of fungal infection. Susan could have sworn she felt something, an energy or a pulse, flowing out of the woman’s hand like radiation, invisible but dangerous.
“No, don’t. Please, take your hand off my —” Susan was almost whimpering.
Paul reached out and put his own hand on the woman’s wrist, trying to pull her hand away from Susan, but although he tugged on it as hard as he could, actually grunting with effort, she barely seemed to notice; she just waved her other hand at him as if she were shooing away a pesky fly, and he stopped immediately, dropping his arms to his sides.
“This town is cursed,” the old woman repeated. Her breath was like a flutter of moth wings on Susan’s face, and there was an urgent note in her voice that bordered on desperation. “You cannot stay here. Especially not in your … delicate condition.” She pressed for a moment on Susan’s belly, then took her hand away. “It’s cursed, I tell you!” she shouted one last time as she faded back into the shadows of the alley.
When she was gone, Paul shook his head as if to clear it. “Are you all right?” he asked Susan. He looked a little dazed.
“I think so,” Susan said. She brushed at the front of her sweatshirt, trying to remove the residue of the woman’s touch and wishing she could wipe it from her memory as well.
They entered the lobby of the Cattail Inn, which was small and cozy, with wood paneling on the walls and a stained-glass lamp on the check-in desk. A young man with glasses and curly brown hair was standing behind the desk. “How may I help you?” he asked.
“We’d like a room for the night,” Paul said.
“Certainly,” the young man replied. “That will be twelve dollars, please.”
“For the whole night?” Paul asked.
“Yes, sir.” Suddenly he sounded worried. “You will be staying until morning, won’t you?”
“Of course we will. I was just surprised that your rates are so — reasonable.” Paul shrugged off his backpack and fished out his wallet. He handed the young man a twenty-dollar bill.
Looking tremendously relieved, the man took the money and tucked it into the drawer of an antique brass cash register. He handed Paul a five and three ones, then turned to a small pegboard and took down a silver key. “Room Number Four. Just go right up the stairs; it will be the second door on your left,” the young man said, handing Paul the key. “Thank you for choosing to stay with us.”
They went up the stairs, which groaned and creaked beneath their weight. When they reached the second door on the left, Paul unlocked it with the silver key. He fumbled with the light switch and turned on the small iron chandelier that hung over the bed. The walls were the color of dill pickles, and a large rug patterned with lotus blossoms covered most of the hardwood floor. The plaid comforter on the bed matched the curtains on the window, which had been tied back with ribbons, although the only view was the brick wall of the building next door.
Susan headed straight for the bathroom. She pulled off her sweatshirt and set it on the closed lid of the toilet. Then she reached for the tap over the bathtub, pausing to admire the tub’s large bronze feet. They were not the usual lion’s paws; they had pebbly skin and long, curving claws, like alligator feet.
She turned on the tap, then cried out in disgust as a thick rope of gray-green water poured out. It had a rotten smell, like decaying plant matter. The rubber stopper was looped over the tap on its chain, but something must have been blocking the drain, because the tub quickly began to fill with murky water. She tried to twist the lever the other way, meaning to shut it off, but the handle slipped loosely through her fingers and fell into the tub with a splunk, splashing fetid water into her face.
“Ugh!” she sputtered. Then, more loudly, “Paul! I need some help in here!” She grabbed a towel from the rack and blotted her face with it, leaving green smudges on the clean white cotton.
He poked his head in the door. “Phew, what stinks?” he asked, waving his hand theatrically in front of his nose. “Is it the curse?” He looked at the tub. “Oh. Shit. What happened to the handle?”
“It fell in.” She stood up and moved away from the tub. The water coming out of the tap was churning up a pile of beige foam.
Paul rolled up his sleeve and knelt beside the tub. With a grimace, he plunged his hand into the dark water and scrabbled his fingers across the bottom. Suddenly he yelped and yanked his hand out, scrambling to his feet. He was clutching the handle and staring into the water. “There’s something alive in there,” he said. “Something slimy.”
Leaning gingerly over the tap, keeping his body as far away from the tub as possible, Paul twisted the handle back into place. He swiveled it, shutting off the noxious flow. The water had risen almost to the lip of the tub; in a few more seconds, it would have poured over the side in a swampy waterfall. As the surface of the water stilled, a large bubble rose slowly to the surface, where it burst with a soggy blorp sound.
There was a plunger next to the toilet. Paul picked it up and lowered it into the water. He pressed it firmly over the drain and worked the handle up and down. Something came loose, and the water began to drain. A clump of some strange weed bobbed up from the depths of the gray-green water. Its leaves were dotted with round growths like yellow pustules.
“Do you think that’s what you felt under the water?” Susan asked.
“No, I’m pretty sure that’s what I felt,” Paul said, pointing at the other end of the tub, where a brown eel was swimming in a circle. Susan gasped.
Now that there was only a little water left in the tub, they could see it fairly clearly. It was perhaps eighteen inches long, and its body was round, like a snake’s. They watched as the tug of the whirlpool dragged it towards the drain. It went down tail-first, and just before its head dropped out of sight, Susan caught a glimpse of its face and could have sworn it was smiling.
“What do we do now?” Paul asked. “Should I call the front desk?”
“Let’s just deal with it in the morning. They’re not going to send someone up to fix it tonight. Not on Midsummer’s Eve,” Susan said, rolling her eyes. “Right now, I just want to go to bed. Maybe if I fall asleep right away, I’ll be able to convince myself that I dreamed the whole thing.”
“What whole thing?” Paul said, assuming a blank expression.
She managed a tired chuckle. “Exactly.”
Before climbing into bed, Susan opened the window, hoping to air out some of the smell. Then she lay down on the bed, fully clothed, and closed her eyes. She heard the toilet flush, and a minute later Paul came out of the bathroom and climbed into bed next to her.
“You want to hear something weird?” he asked.
“Not really,” she replied without opening her eyes.
He went on as if he hadn’t heard. “The water in the toilet and the sink are fine. Crystal clear. No wildlife of any kind.”
“That is weird,” she agreed. “We should definitely discuss that in the morning. But it’s bedtime now.”
He leaned over to give her a kiss. “Good night.” He scooted down and kissed her sweatshirt in the vicinity of her belly button. “And good night to you, little dude,” he said. He switched off the bedside lamp.
Paul fell asleep almost instantly, but Susan lay awake for a few minutes, listening to the sounds of the festivities outside. The noise wasn’t too loud; their room was set a good ways back from the main street, but she could hear a muted babble of voices and, ever so faintly, someone picking out “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the banjo.
Susan wasn’t sure exactly when she fell asleep, but when she woke up a few hours later, the revelers had finally fallen silent. She could hear something, though. A scratching sound, small but annoying. She opened her eyes.
A face was staring at her through the window. It was the old woman who had accosted them outside the inn. Her skeletal face was frozen in a silent scream, exposing the dark cavern of her throat and a few discolored stubs of teeth that clung to her gums like barnacles. Her long silver hair floated around her head like the fronds of some unearthly water plant. She was scraping one of her horny fingernails against the window screen.
Susan lay completely still, too shocked to move or even think; her brain was all sirens and flashing lights. Then she felt something roll in her abdomen. It was a lurching, awkward movement, as if the football-sized being inside her was trying to turn away from the thing in the window.
That got Susan going. She rolled onto her side, grabbed Paul’s shoulder, and gave it a good shake. “Honey, wake up! There’s a crazy woman at the window!”
“I said there’s —”
But the woman was gone.
“She must have gone down the fire escape,” Susan said. Heart pounding, she stood up and went to the window, pressing her forehead to the screen so she could look down. But there was no fire escape; the flat brick wall of the building extended all the way to the ground, twenty feet below. There was no sign of the old woman anywhere.
“Okay. That’s it. We’re leaving,” Susan announced.
“What? Now?” Paul said. “It’s not even five o’clock! Can’t we just go back to sleep for a couple of hours?”
“You can if you want to. I can’t wait any longer. This place is really starting to freak me out.” A tear rolled down to the tip of her nose as she bent to tie her sneakers, and she wiped it away impatiently.
Paul came over to give her a hug before putting on his own shoes and slipping his backpack over his shoulders. “Ready,” he said.
They tiptoed down the creaky stairs. The young man who had checked them in was asleep with his head on the desk. Beside him were an empty tumbler and a plate with a half-eaten piece of grasshopper pie on it.
The sky was already lightening in the east; the sun would be up in a few minutes. The street was empty except for a few paper cups and streamers. Without the crowds of people, the street looked smaller, and in the pre-dawn dimness all the features of the town — the buildings, the lamp posts, the benches, the trashcans — looked less substantial, less there, than they had the previous evening. They were like pictures someone had cut out of a book.
They had almost reached the place where the road wound back up to the state highway. Susan spotted the back of the sign they had passed on their way into town, although it wasn’t quite light enough to make out the words on this side yet.
“This is probably the lack of sleep talking, but does the pavement feel kind of squishy to you all of a sudden?” Paul asked.
“Now that you mention it, yeah,” Susan said. “Almost like a sponge.”
They quickened their pace a little. The condition of the road surface continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate.
“Look,” Susan said. She pressed her sneaker into pavement and lifted it out with a squelching noise, leaving behind a footprint that quickly filled up with water.
They stared at each other, alarmed. “Maybe we should run,” Paul said.
Susan ran, or at least tried to. The asphalt grew less solid with every step, and it pulled at her sneakers like quicksand, trying to slow her down.
Paul followed her closely, doing his best to keep the panic out of his voice. “We’re almost out,” he said. “Just a few more steps.”
The sign was right in front of them now. The sky was lighter, but the black letters had started to drip down the white background like runny frosting. Susan thought she saw the words, “Here Ends Salientia,” but she couldn’t be certain.
“Damn it, my shoe is stuck,” Paul said from somewhere behind her.
“Just leave it!” Susan called back.
She stepped past the sign, and the first sliver of sun appeared over the top the mountains to her left. As pleasant as it was to feel its warmth on her face, the sensation under her feet was even more comforting — solid pavement.
Susan heard a splash. She turned around to check on Paul, but he was gone.
The whole town was gone. Where the roads and the houses and the people had been, there was only a wide expanse of wetland. The rising sun glinted off pools of standing water between hillocks of marsh grass. The edge of the nearest pool came up almost to the end of the pavement, which now stopped four inches beyond the toes of Susan’s sneakers. Splintered stumps dotted the landscape like jagged fangs, many with the waterlogged trunks of fallen trees beside them. Dragonflies hovered in the air like bits of colored foil, red and blue and green. And there were bullfrogs everywhere; there wasn’t a single log that didn’t have a row of them, and Susan could see many pairs of round gold eyes in the pools, peeping at her from just above the waterline.
“Paul!” she shouted. Don’t panic, she told herself sternly. Maybe he got ahead of me, somehow. He’s probably just out of sight on the other side of that hill.
She was standing near the bottom of the hill they had walked over after their car had broken down. Taking slow, purposeful steps, she began to make her way around it. There was a thick layer of damp leaves on the ground, and the soil beneath them felt reasonably sturdy.
When she had walked about a third of the way around the base of the hill, she spotted the ramshackle old house with the crooked chimney she had pointed out on their way into town the night before. Something — someone — was inside; she saw movement through one of the broken windows. “Paul?” she called, waving. “Is that you?” When the figure in the window waved back, Susan broke into a run. Two minutes later, she arrived, panting, at the rectangular hole that served as the cabin’s front door.
Inside, seated at a small table, was Lily, the cook from Jeremiah’s diner. “Please come in,” she said. Her voice was soft, and although she was smiling, her gold eyes looked sad.
“What’s happening here?” Susan asked, dropping into the chair across from Lily. “I just watched an entire town disappear, and now I can’t find my husband.”
“Your husband is all right.”
“He is?” Susan leaned forward. “You’ve seen him? Where is he?”
“He is someplace safe. I think I’d better explain a few things before I tell you anything more.”
Susan began to feel uneasy again. “What do you mean?”
Instead of answering, Lily went over to the hearth, where a kettle was warming over the coals. A moment later, she returned with two steaming clay mugs. She set one on the table in front of Susan. “It’s herbal tea,” she said. It had a spicy smell, like cloves mixed with peppercorns.
Lily sat down again, wrapping her smooth, webbed fingers around her own mug as if to warm them. “My mother was telling you the truth,” she said quietly, gazing down at her cup. “Salientia is under a terrible curse.”
For a moment, Susan had no idea what she was talking about. Then she understood. “The old woman from the alley — you’re her daughter?”
“And the two of you live here, together?” A nasty thought crossed Susan’s mind, and she glanced warily around the tiny room. To her right was a set of rickety bunk beds, but aside from their moldering sleeping bags and filthy pillows, both bunks were empty. “Where is your mother now?” she asked.
“Hunting,” Lily said. “As I was saying, she told you the truth, but she didn’t tell you all of it. You may have noticed that my appearance is,” she held up one of her webbed hands and wiggled her finger-bulbs, “unusual.”
Susan nodded, unable to think of a polite response.
“There’s more,” Lily said. “Watch this.”
A bluebottle fly was crawling across the frame of the top bunk. Lily’s tongue shot out, extending itself more than a yard in the process, nabbed the fly, and pulled it into her mouth. It was over in a fraction of a second; there was a fly, a pink flash, and then no more fly. Lily looked at Susan bashfully, just as she had the night before when she had brought out the slice of grasshopper pie.
“That’s … remarkable,” Susan said.
Lily blushed. “I know it’s sort of gross. But to understand what’s happening here, you have to know why I am the way that I —” she broke off, staring over Susan’s shoulder at something in the doorway.
As Susan turned to look, a blue heron stepped into the cabin. A scrap of something bloody dangled from its beak.
Susan ducked and cried out as the heron flapped its way up to the top bunk. She felt one of its feet drag through her hair as it passed over her head. When the heron reached the bunk, it shimmered and transformed into a shape that was more human but no less frightening.
“So,” the old woman said, peering down at Lily from her perch. “I suppose you’ve been having quite a chat with your new friend. Or should I say,” she added, turning to leer at Susan, “my new friend.”
“I would hardly say that you and I are friends,” Susan said, having recovered somewhat from this most recent shock.
“Oh, but you have been so helpful to me,” the woman said. “Why, if you had stayed in town even a moment longer than you did, you would have broken my curse!” She collapsed onto the bed, cackling wildly. There was a chilling lunacy in the sound.
Susan turned to Lily, her face pale. “What is she talking about?”
Lily dropped her eyes and began tracing the rim of her mug with one round fingertip. “Do you remember the story Jeremiah told you last night, about the woman who slept with the swamp monster and gave birth to something that wasn’t quite human?”
Realization dawned in Susan’s eyes, and she looked from Lily to her mother in horror.
“They took one look at my beautiful baby and ran us out of town,” the old woman spat. “They deserve every minute of misery they’ve had since.”
“What you saw last night,” Lily continued, “is the town as it was on the day I was born. What you saw after the sun came up this morning is how it exists the rest of the time, thanks to my mother. Although many years have passed, the townsfolk have not aged. In order to keep the pain of the transformation fresh, Salientia returns to its former state from sundown to sunrise every year on Midsummer’s Eve. Only one thing has changed — over the years, the townsfolk have warmed up to me. I have many friends there.” She gave her mother a pointed look.
In a huff, the old woman hopped down from the bunk, landing on two spindly bird’s legs. The blue heron stalked moodily out the door.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what any of this has to do with me,” Susan said, after the old woman was gone.
“Every curse can be broken,” Lily said. “It’s a sort of dark magic safety feature. In this case, if a new mother, or one who is expecting her first baby, were ever to spend a full night in Salientia, arriving in the evening and remaining there until sunrise, then the townspeople could go back to living their normal lives. My mother assumed this would never happen. She did not think the town would ever extend a warm welcome to a stranger on the one night it appeared, and because the land is so swampy the rest of the year, she figured no one would ever inadvertently decide to camp there.”
“Do you mean to say,” Susan said, dropping her voice to a whisper, “that if I stay out there tonight, alone, in the place where the town is supposed to be, then the curse would be broken?”
“Yes,” Lily said. “But you won’t have to stay there alone. I have a tent that we can share. My mother might try to meddle again, but I think I can fend her off. With my help, you can restore this place permanently to its true form.” Then her face clouded. “Speaking of things that need to be restored to their true forms, I have something I must show you.”
She got up and went over to the corner by the hearth, where there was a woven basket with a hinged lid. It was about the size of a lunch box. She picked it up and set it down carefully on the table. “Do you know what’s in here?” she asked.
“I’m afraid I do,” Susan replied. “But how did you —”
“These wetlands are my home,” Lily said. “I have ways of moving very quickly through this landscape. And my mother isn’t the only one who can blend into the scenery when she wants to.”
“I see,” Susan said. Steeling herself, she opened the lid of the basket.
The contents emitted a deep bass croak.
“Hello, Paul,” she said.
Laura Garrison is moving slowly from the north to the south, like a glacier. Her fiction and poetry occasionally surface in various locations. She is currently the Associate Editor at Jersey Devil Press.