By Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin
At first she thinks they’re attracted by the light and heat.
During the day they slip out of the water pooled in the hollows of the park and sun themselves on the humps of higher ground, drying the gossamer shreds of skin that hang from their bodies. Luba watches them from the corner of an upstairs window, barely breathing, drawing back if they glance her way. They seem to know they’re being spied on, because every time she’s called Zach to the window they’ve dropped back into the water with a plop, leaving only a widening ripple.
The ducks and seagulls drawn to the miniature lakes made by the storms squawk and flap away when the two of them appear. The birds return hours later, when the day is waning or clouds hide the sun. Only then does Luba step out of the house—but never out back, where the park is. She surveys the damage in the front: the live wires that droop from leaning poles to tangle on the street, the house next door abandoned to the tree now sinking through the roof, the debris that encrusts everything.
Three days of storms, each day worse than the one before. And two full days of watching the waters behind the house recede only inches, allowing her to observe a bizarre sight that is suggestive of something she can’t quite put her finger on.
“When you were a kid,” Zach asks, “did the park ever flood?”
“I can’t remember.”
“There’s a lot you can’t remember about growing up here, isn’t there?” His voice is sympathetic, and she busies herself with making the bed and fluffing the pillows so she doesn’t have to do more than nod.
This will always be Gary’s house, despite their extensive repairs and refurbishments, even though her mother married Gary when Luba was five and she can barely recall a time before him. Gary lingered in the house long after his sleek corpulence melted to skin and bones, a decade past Luba’s mother’s death. Luba did not visit him once in ten years, but she feels him in the very walls that surround them.
Although her childhood here seemed like a series of drawings with dirt blown across them, disconnected images blurred and obscured, she knows she never saw them — until now. Or has she? Luba can’t shake the feeling that she should know what they are. In the three months since she and Zach moved in, these two . . . creatures . . . have appeared every time rains flood the neighborhood.
On the second night after the storms, as she readies for bed by candlelight, they surprise her. She says, “I hear them,” clutching Zach’s arm.
“Who? What?” He tosses aside the book he’s trying to read, clicks off the flashlight, and rubs his eyes. “I’m tired of pioneering. I want our power back.”
Luba gazes into the night outside the window and closes the blinds.
Zach smiles at her curiously. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t want them to see us.”
“How can anybody see us? Besides, who’s out there—the frogs? Anybody else’d drown.”
She perches on the edge of the bed, half turned from him. “It was close. I heard a splash and then a thump, under the back porch.”
“You mean those people you’ve been trying to show me.” Zach pauses. “How’d you hear a splash with the windows closed?”
Luba whispers, “They’re not people.” She holds up her hand. Zach listens.
They sit suspended for a long moment, until finally Zach says, “Maybe something washed up from the water. A tree limb.”
She swallows and doesn’t reply, aware of how she’s beginning to sound, calling her husband of twenty years to look at things that are no longer there and listen for noises that don’t recur.
The next morning the phones still don’t work and there’s no cell or Internet service, but the sun fires the sky as if it means to dry every last pool and dip in the soggy ground. All night Luba has dreamed of indeterminate things writhing in the crawlspace under the back porch.
While Zach is out looking for neighbors, she goes to the second floor of the house, where she can get a better view. Sure enough, in the sparkling sun the two of them are reclining on the nearest dry hillock, both female, their anatomy evident under the translucent ragged ribbons of flesh. Their eyes are closed, their scaly faces relaxed to the air. A moment after she’s begun staring at them they open wide their large dark pupils and turn in her direction. She immediately cowers against the wall, until she hears first one plunk and then another and she dares peer out again.
They are gone except for the telltale bubbles in the water.
At the edge of the nearest pool, a head surfaces, then a back, and then arms that look mostly human while pulling the small rear legs and thick tail onto the spongy bank. A second head rises from the water, in the center of its scalp a thin bristling mane the color of new copper. They creep toward the back porch. Luba feels the fluttering in her chest that is supposed to be kept in check by her medication. It grows until she is faint, but a few deep breaths later her head is clear again and she goes downstairs to the garage.
When Zach returns he finds her standing by the open back door wielding a long-handled three-prong hoe. A rusty but substantial spade leans against the wall.
“Where’d you get these?” he asks, surprising her into a sudden turn with the hoe. “Watch it!” He hops back a step. “What’s going on?”
The hoe stays up. “I saw them go toward the crawlspace.” Luba turns and throws a quick look outside.
Zach scratches his head and pushes up his glasses. “Well.” He takes a deep breath, reaches for the shovel. “I guess we should investigate. Can’t have anybody setting up camp there.”
When did his hair turn so gray? she wonders, following him to the kitchen for one of the flashlights they left on the counter. “Are we still the only ones around?” she asks.
Luba surreptitiously plucks a pair of scissors from a drawer. “What do you mean almost?”
Zach opens the back door and they step into a morning very different from what it was a half hour ago, sullen and gray and the air heavy. He frowns. “Don’t tell me it’s going to rain again.”
“Shhh,” Luba whispers. “They’ll hear us.”
He leads her around the enclosed crawlspace to the entrance, a plywood door with a simple hook-and-eye latch. The door is secured. “Everything’s still okay here.” Zach turns and examines the park behind them, its sodden contours starting only yards below their home. They have been spared the flooding by the barest minimum.
He spends a long time inspecting the landscape, so long that Luba begins to wonder if he’s avoiding her eyes. She searches the ground and tries to think of where she saw them, positioning herself in her mind’s eye at the upstairs window.
“Look,” she says. “There. See those marks?” She points at the tumult of soil and grass and leaves whipped off of distant trees.
Zach examines the area she indicates and hesitates before shrugging. “Hard to tell, everything’s so messed up.” He turns toward the crawlspace. “Nothing could have gone in, but what the hell, we should see what’s in there anyway.”
The hook and eye are rusty and he bangs them with the handle of the shovel to separate them. The eye falls off the rotting wood.
Luba asks, “Who’d you find?”
“What?” Zach pushes the warped door.
“You said we’re almost the only ones here.” Luba looks around, clutching the scissors so that her fingers hurt.
“Oh.” The door gives and Zach bends to see into the space beneath the porch. “A cousin of your old neighbors the Boones, down the block.” He swings the flashlight into the dark while Luba keeps her distance. “They left him the house when they died and he’s been fixing it up to rent out. John something. Said he remembers you.”
Luba yanks her head back. The smell from the crawlspace is a thick dank rot teeming with microbial action and the ferment of memories that are as indistinct as wraiths.
Zach rises. “One of these days we’ll clean this out. A bunch of crap in there. Some old pieces of foam rubber, bits of carpeting.” He sees Luba’s face. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” She pulls a Kleenex out of her pocket and blows her nose. “It’s the smell.”
“Musty.” He wrinkles his face and eyes the broken latch. “Guess I’ll have to fix that eventually.”
Luba continues holding the Kleenex to her nose as he tries to prop shut the door, which is now stuck in the mud. Zach jumps aside suddenly, pushing her out of the way as two snakes—the palest of rose quartz, six or seven feet long and thick as a hand—slither out of the crawlspace. One of them glides down to the nearest pool of water but the other cuts across Luba’s path, lifting its bony snub-nosed head a foot off the ground and folding the front of its body in an undulation that whips its tail against her legs. Startled, she freezes as Zach runs to club it with the spade. He misses the head, and the serpent disappears into one of the muddy basins.
Zach puts his arm around his wife and draws her toward the house. Then he remembers the crawlspace door and forces it closed, so that even without the latch working properly the snakes would need fingers to open it from the outside.
In the wan light from the kitchen windows Luba fills the coffeepot with water, throws grains into the basket, and sets it on the gas stove. “Check for mold first,” she says, placing a couple of croissants on the table.
Zach sits with a perplexed expression. “Did you know there are snakes around here?”
“No.” Luba raises the flame under the coffeepot as if to burn away a persisting prickle of repugnance.
“What the hell kind were they, anyway?”
“I don’t know anything about snakes.” She makes a show of neatening the cluttered countertops, then faces him.
His hunched silhouette is gnomelike against the windows until he looks up and smiles at her. “We’ll get through this,” he says. “This weather can’t last forever. We’ll figure out a way to snakeproof the house.”
Luba’s eyes fall to the floor. “But they’re not what I’ve been seeing. There’s something else around here.”
Zach doesn’t answer. She adds, without looking up, “How old is he? That cousin of the Boones.”
The transition takes a moment to register. “Our age, maybe. I take it the Boones were older?”
“Yes. I don’t remember him.”
“He says you played together when you were little.”
The coffee’s begun boiling and Luba lowers the flame to a simmer, then simply turns it off. She has no patience for these old cooking methods. “That must have been when my mother first married Gary. I was five.”
Zach accepts a full mug from her and inspects its inky depths. “Do we have any milk left?”
“It smells bad.” She sits across from him with her own cup in hand.
Zach takes a sip. “He said there was a little girl you used to play with too. Both of you.”
A sudden flash of long, red, coppery hair reaches through the decades to Luba. A cheerful personality. A name. “Brenda,” she breathes.
“He said she disappeared,” Zach says gently. “Do you remember any of that?”
Luba stares at the wall behind Zach but her gaze is inward. Like something she’s memorized, the words come out before she knows what they’re connected to, and yet she understands them to be true. “She had an older brother. Andrew. I thought her mother was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I don’t know if I knew her father. Brenda. Yes, I remember John now too. He was lean and olive-skinned and always climbing things. We played out back a lot.”
Zach seems to be suddenly cognizant of the squall stirring in her eyes. “Luba, what’s wrong?”
“Where’s John?” She gets up and looks around as if expecting to find him in the kitchen. “I need to speak to him.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?” Zach pauses at the inside door to the garage. With much effort the two of them have lifted the automated outer door by hand. “It’ll do you good to get out of here.”
Luba makes her voice apologetic. “I’m a little tired. I need to think.”
Zach sighs. “All right. But I hope when I come back you’ll tell me what this is all about.” He holds up the list. “I’ll see what I can find. Anything you want to add?”
“No. Be careful. Watch those wires.”
She practically shoos him out of the house, sorry to have alarmed him by asking for John earlier. She doesn’t really want to speak with John. She doesn’t need to.
After Zach is gone she grabs the hoe from the garage and stands in the kitchen with it. In her mind the old uneven linoleum floor and cracked Formica of her childhood overlays the white tiles and new countertops they’ve just installed. She walks the rooms of the first floor, holding the hoe like a staff. The rooms are smaller, darker, meaner than they were an hour ago. Upstairs, her childhood bedroom seems to squirm under the piles of boxes that still need to be opened and furniture that should have been tossed to the curb, some of it Gary’s. She makes a face against the close air and quickly leaves for the next bedroom, a spare with nothing but a bed. From the window she immediately sees the two of them sitting cross-legged on the nearest mound.
They’re almost luminous in the odd light of the unhappy sky, as swallows flit around them from roof to trees to grass and back. One of the creatures ignores the birds, the other gazes raptly at the dark heads and forked tails and pale bellies, swallows by the dozens, unusual here, their movements sharp like those of bats. Its bristle of mane has grown into a lush fringe and deepened to the fiery hues of sunset.
Luba stands by the window a long time until the creature with red hair sees her, at which point she holds up her hand as if in greeting. Now both observe her, but it is difficult for her to gauge their expression. She turns away.
Downstairs she pulls on a sweater and drags the hoe outside. Her feet squelch in the grass, her shaky legs move as if they belong to someone else. And maybe they do, she thinks. They belong to a little girl who knew too much and understood too little, but who grasped enough “to know what’s good for you,” as she whispers now, Gary’s voice hot in her ear.
She approaches the crawlspace under the back porch, looks around for snakes, and turns the corner. There they are, pink-and-cream-hued, naked, smooth-faced—and Luba’s heart assumes the deliberate calmness of one drawing near a large, unfamiliar dog. She lowers the pronged end of the hoe to the ground. They remain seated, seeming neither alarmed nor aggressive. They do not need to be curious.
She nods at them. They stare back. “I know you know me,” she says.
Zach returns home with a big bag of ice and a few groceries that he puts directly into the lifeless freezer. “Luba?” he calls, shaking off his wet slicker and hanging it in the bathroom.
When he can’t find her in the house he looks out back through a window and sees her sitting on the ground behind the crawl space, arms wrapped around her knees, dark hair crimped unevenly by the drizzle. Her back is to the house.
He scowls and knocks on the window, then hurries outside, feet sucking and pulling through the mud down the slight slope. The hem of Luba’s sweater drags in the muck and she’s talking . . . to herself.
“Luba!” When she doesn’t reply he draws closer in time to hear her give a strange little laugh.
“I guess I succeeded without even realizing,” she says. “Though I guess I didn’t really succeed, did I?”
On instinct, Zach continues to listen as her voice falls to a murmur. “The desert always reclaims the earth.” Luba’s hands flutter out of her pockets as if she’s drawing something in the air. “All that energy, everything needed to keep it down, to grow lawns and golf courses and cities on dry land with so little rainfall—” She shakes her head. “I’m talking about deserts. Here we are, about to drown. But you know what I mean.”
She stops, and Zach thinks she’s become aware of him behind her and will turn around, but she continues looking straight ahead.
“Only a few dreams this time. Protecting my life with Zach. I’d catch a glimpse of him from a distance—”
“Luba, what are you doing?” Zach’s voice is hoarse. She turns, and when she sees him she’s startled only for a moment. A look of relief passes over her.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she says. “Now you can see them for yourself.”
The expression on Zach’s face scares her. He holds out his hands to help her up, but when she makes no move to take them he crouches beside her and says, “Luba, what’s wrong? Why are you out here?” The rain running down his face beads on his glasses and he wipes his sleeve across them. “Why are you talking to yourself?”
She glances back and forth between him and the creatures. “You don’t see them?” she asks, registering the loud plop plop that follows her question. Zach’s eyes track the sound, squinting at the subtle movement of water on the surface of the nearest standing pond. For a second she thinks she’s about to cry, but she takes Zach’s hand and lets him pull her up. “It’s okay. They did what they were supposed to. I used to think they wanted the sun.”
“Luba!” Zach grips her by the shoulders and shoves his face into hers. “What’s going on? What are you talking about?”
She pulls back as far as she can inside his clinch and takes a deep breath. “That,” she indicates with her head.
He follows her motion and his expression grows darker when he sees the door to the crawlspace. “Why is that open? Did you open it?”
“Yes. There are no more snakes.”
As if realizing how tightly he’s holding her, he lets go and brushes away the hair that’s fallen over her eyes. “How do you know that?” he says in a voice she can tell is carefully controlled. She smiles at him.
“They helped me get rid of them. It’s why they were here.”
“You’re not making sense.” He turns and jerks one of her arms toward him. “We’re going inside. And we’re drying you off. And if you’re still not making sense—”
Luba plants her feet in the slush and pulls her arm back. “I’m not finished yet.”
“Talk to me inside, then!”
She makes an impatient sound. “I’m not finished here.” She lumbers up the little slope toward the crawlspace, sodden clothes dragging at her small frame. At the entrance she stoops and calls to Zach with her hand. “This was always Gary’s. No one was allowed in here. Except I didn’t know that at first. You don’t have a flashlight, do you?”
The air is cool and fresh with the scent of green things nourished by the rain, and Luba takes a deep breath before facing the entrance again. She feels Zach’s eyes on her as she enters the crawlspace. What used to feel like a mysterious cavern now resembles a confined and smelly chamber full of insects that dart and wriggle on the wet earth and cobwebs that graze the top of her head.
“Please don’t go in,” Zach says. “Luba. You don’t know what’s in there.”
“Yes I do.”
“What if there’s a nest—?”
“The snakes are gone, I told you.” The heavy gloom under the beams muffles her voice, and when she looks back she sees her husband poised at the doorway, his face puckered as he peers into the dark. “There were two of each, but I think only one of them is hers. I don’t know the other girl.”
Zach ducks inside and grabs hold of her sweater, but she wrenches it out of his grasp and moves farther into the murk, into the airless, opaque bubble that seems to open up around her and push between her and Zach, who sinks to his knees and gropes blindly against the light from the door.
“Luba!” he calls. “Why are you doing this? Let’s go back upstairs.”
“I know you heard them.” Again her voice is swallowed into the pitch as she shuffles in an awkward squat. “They’re here somewhere, Zach.”
She detects a sigh behind her.
“Please come out, Luba.” In the stagnant air Zach’s tone is high and thin and more distant than it should be.
“I need to be here, Zach.”
“We can get the police, Luba. We don’t have to do this ourselves.”
“I need to do this.” She pushes on through the shadows, her hand coming down on something whiplike and desiccated and she brushes the palm against her pants and continues heading for the farthest corner. “Zach?”
“I’m here, Luba. Where are you?”
“I’m making a right.”
His voice is faint and she doesn’t bother replying. After advancing another few moments she realizes she is completely disoriented. The house above them can’t possibly be this big. Circling on her hands and knees, she cannot see Zach or the light from the doorway.
“Zach?” she says at last, his name absorbed by the immediate space around her. “Zach!” When he doesn’t answer after several calls, she stops crawling and tamps down the blister of panic forming behind her breastbone. She draws the oppressive air in through her mouth, purses it out again, in, out, aware of her body’s solidness and the hard packed earth beneath her. There is only one thing to do now. She wipes away something crawling on her cheek and forges ahead into the infinite darkness, the sound of her breathing the only thing she hears.
A deep sadness clings to her fear.
After a long time her hand touches plastic sheeting hard with age and powdered soil, and her fingers spring back as if they’ve landed on something diseased. She dares to reach down again and pat the edge along its length, stopping before she finds the end. The sheeting could be any piece of junk here, and yet the tears that overcome her tell her otherwise. Luba sits back on her heels and allows them to flood her, wiping her nose with a gritty hand and laboring for air through the mucus and dust.
The outpour is intense but brief, and as she lifts her head she realizes she is not alone. Her heart squeezes erratically in the warm grateful glimmer that surrounds her, and soon the tingling on her skin reaches into muscle, bone, and sinew and settles in the stygian cavity of her chest, where it starts to dissipate the grief entombed there. Whether it’s the soul of another, or her own regained, she can’t be sure.
She emerges from the crawlspace just as Zach runs toward her from the side of the house, flashlight in hand, slipping in the fresh mud. “Luba!” he cries when he sees her.
Luba stands, feet planted wide, eyes closed, raising her face to the cleansing rain.
Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin’s short fiction has appeared in Rose Red Review, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Absent Willow Review, and the anthologies Skulls & Crossbones: Tales of Women Pirates and Hunger: Stories of Desire, Discovery, and Dissatisfaction (the latter released by her writing group). She has had poetry published in Shadow Road Quarterly, Rose & Thorn Journal, Golden Sparrow Literary Review, and Piedmont Literary Review. Her first novel is due out from Permuted Press in late 2015.