by Jono Naito
Nana clucks at me through the smoke-bead curtain. “Twenty cents, no more, no less, you bring back with milk,” she says, her pots boiling over with pigeon’s guts and pickled roach. I leave at ten after ten, when the lamppost outside flickers on and off. We have no power; leeches are in the wires.
I skip to be fast, and be no threat. The corpses perched on neighboring stoops ooze nicotine from the flaps of their cheeks. ‘Those bodies just be smoke and glares, don’t catch their colds, don’t catch their stares,’ Nana said, Nana said. I am glad they don’t look at me with their hollow sockets. Instead they moan, jaws bowing. They aren’t talking to me, they are talking to their own broken teeth, with broken tongues.
Fingers wiggle out of planters and trash-bags as I walk. The dead do nothing as dozens of digits crawl from under towards me. They wave, they sign, they prod at my hems and seams. ‘There are fifteen ways the fingers crawl up your neck,’ Nana said, Nana said, ‘you may never trim them, more come back.’ I heed her advice as always and skip faster, so the fingers don’t catch me.
The gas station is run by a revenant, a sullen wisp of gasoline vapor and antifreeze. She stares into the flickers of the television, a summoning in progress. I grab the cheapest milk, the kind made with alchemist’s poisons, and place it on the counter. I thump it against the stone to make the revenant see me; a summoning completed. I pay in bent gold, and she gives me twelve cents change. A mistake, I call it, but am not heard. She returns into the television. I spy a dagger on a shelf, and place it under my cloak, imagining taking a cut to her for my change. ‘But the ghosts of labor speak in sighs,’ Nana said, Nana said, ‘you cannot kill that which has already died.’ I walk outside. The breeze is a chilled scythe, and so is my hunger.
Wolf-men have come to loiter in the lot. They see me and approach, and I look away at distant giants; the wolf-men move to stand before me. The first has nostrils wide as my wrists, the second with lips stitched grin-wise. They are on their break, hands perched on holstered guns and radios, spells spoken on the hour in arcane static.
“A sweet one, witch-child, how come you walk in moonlight?”
I tell him I got milk for Nana.
“A good witch-child.”
I shake my head and say I didn’t get the right change. “Oh,” says the second beast, the corners of his mouth held high and howling at the stars. “A bad one then?” One finger still tracing pentagrams on his furred belly, he raises a shiny silver nugget. “A bad child needs a coin for grandma?”
I shake my head and back into the glow of the store. Fear begins to pull at my heartstrings, to play the melodies of dread. ‘Wolf-man eats fresh alone,’ Nana said, Nana said, ‘don’t be meat on his bone.’
They continue their stalking. The wolf-men will eat anyways; Nana had no chant for that, for when I got snatched at last. I instead see the treasure hovering before me and nod, placing a hand on the paw of the nostrilled one. Hairs bristle on wolf-man cheeks, but before they can pounce I grab the silver and run. I run fast, then faster, leaping over slime and graves and spines.
The fingers appear again, and beckon me as I sprint. They glide along my waist, and I bat them away. “There are fifteen ways,” I start to chant, but they slide up my legs and I can only yell in a single tone; Nana’s words are not spells and can not save me. The fingers reach and trip and hold me back, and out I pull the dagger, cutting joints, splitting nails. I hear howls behind me and slip in gore. I get to my feet and find the archway of home, panting, as the wolf-men charge past into a further night.
I pass Nana the remaining metal. “And why have you tracked blood across my threshold? Did you not heed my words?” I lie and say no reason, just an accident, and she stops stirring, just for once. She uses the arm of her ladle to life my cloak, my streaked blade hanging there against my skin. Nana ponders me, then my knife, and says nothing as she smiles.
Jono Naito is digging int he snows of Syracuse looking for a telescope. Learn more at jononaito.com