Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Sympathy

The Sympathy by Eric Gregory (illustration by Galen Dara)

The apartment was in his name, and the Accord was in hers. It took Lauren less than a minute to step out one door and into the other. She put her suitcase in the floorboard and her laptop bag in the passenger seat. Her container garden fit snugly in the back.

Lauren had expected some frisson at the threshold, a shiver as she shrunk from a we into an I. Instead, she cracked her knuckles and smiled and rolled down the window. She drove by the seminary, half-listening to You Bet Your Garden and glancing through windows. Inside, men of God slouched in office chairs, staring listlessly at a screen. She didn’t see Ryan, but that was all right; she felt quiet and rich and pleased, as if she’d reached the end of a sad book. She drove on.

The phone rang once, around six. Lauren had set it up to send him to a personalized voicemail, which explained that she was gone for good. He didn’t leave a message. Traffic was light.

Four hours out, she took a long, twisting exit into a town that was really a truck stop. It was, she thought, a pretty good truck stop, somehow more authentic than a Travel Plaza full of gelato and electronic massage booths. They had showers and barbecue and bitter coffee. In the strip mall across the street, there was a liquor store and a porn shop and a tattoo parlor, none of which seemed to be doing much business. She got a room in a smoky motel beside an empty Hardee’s (the sign still telling her to try a Thickburger), considered checking out the porn shop, and finally decided against. Instead, she sat on the toilet with her laptop and read about the weather in San Francisco, then turned on the TV and watched talking heads on mute, their jowls flushing as the ticker scrolled exposition. Sometime after midnight, the phone beeped: a voicemail. She dismissed it and set an alarm. She kicked off her boots and tugged off her jeans and tank-top, stripped the blanket from the bed and curled up between the yellow sheets. She left the TV on, its pale old faces pouting into the dark. She thought she might go west in the morning, maybe even as west as she could go, and she went to sleep thinking about Alcatraz and Long Beach and fault lines. She woke only once, to the scrape and rattle of something rooting through the trash outside.

***

Lauren dropped off her room key in a repurposed mailbox, then walked across the street to the truck stop. The breakfast buffet was better than the last night’s barbecue. French toast sticks, omelets full of garlic and jalapeno, smiling pancakes with enormous chocolate freckles. A young guy in a John Deere hat grinned at her piled-up plate, seemed like he wanted to comment, but only nodded and said, “Ma’am.”

Lauren had made it to the last pancake when the girl slid into her booth. She looked about a decade younger than her, hardly out of high school. Thin, short. Frizzy red hair. A shiny bead of a nose piercing. She wore an oversized Tulane hoodie, carried a purse covered with old comic book characters. Her voice was low and rough, much huskier than Lauren expected.

“Howdy,” she said. “I’m Madison. Going east.”

For a moment, Lauren thought her name was Madison Going East. Then she realized what the girl had asked. She shook her head, wiped chocolate from her lips with the back of her hand. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m headed west.”

“Really?”

“Sure. California.”

Why?”

Lauren shrugged. “See what’s there.”

“Nothing out west but the devil and the sun gone down.”

Lauren frowned. Speared another chunk of pancake. Madison rested her elbows on the table, cupped her chin in her hands, and watched Lauren eat. “So, what,” she asked eventually, “you got people?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Out west. You got people there?”

“My sister,” Lauren lied.

Madison shook her head like a disappointed teacher. She took a sip of Lauren’s coffee, then put her purse on the table and dug around inside. Lauren thought she heard clinking glass. Finally, the girl pulled out a fistful of coins and dropped them on the table. Gestured for Lauren to examine them. They looked like candy gold. She picked one up. On one side there was a tree. On the other, a woman’s face in profile. Lauren put the coin down on the table. Glanced over her shoulder at the truckers in the next booth, who pretended not to watch her. All except John Deere, who smiled and nodded again.

“What are these?” she asked. “Canadian?”

Madison shrugged.

“You want to pay me in Canadian coins to take you east.”

“It’s you or them.” Nodding toward the truckers. “I like you better.”

Shit, thought Lauren. “How far you wanting to go?”

“Crossville, Tennessee. Couple hours outside Knoxville.”

“And you got people there?”

The question was a sigh. She already knew what she was going to do, and so did Madison. The rest was small talk. The girl leaned across the table, lowered her voice, careful in success. “Good people,” she said. “If you need a place to crash . . .” She let the offer hang.

Lauren thought of all the folks she knew on the East Coast, the cities where college friends had made colonies. Lexington, Atlanta, DC. Her mom lived in Nashville. It wasn’t the wild choice, perched over a fault line, but it was smarter, safer. She pulled the coffee back to her side of the table, drank it down, then swept the girl’s coins into her palm. “You got bags?” she asked, standing up.

Madison grinned.

***

At first, Lauren had worried that Madison would be a big talker, but once they were on the road, the girl leaned her head back and went to sleep. The GPS (Lauren called it “the Bitch”) gave cool, stern directions to Tennessee, and teenagers sang country music on the radio. It reminded her of vacations with Ryan: her driving, him sleeping. She’d always felt a sort of maternal loneliness on those trips, ferrying her passenger through worlds he never saw.

Madison twitched in her seat now and then. Lauren couldn’t tell if she slept hard or badly. When the girl woke, around eleven, she seemed confused, spooked. She hugged her knees to her chest, then took the phone from the dashboard and fiddled with the GPS.

“Bad dreams?” Lauren asked.

“Not exactly.”

Two words, muttered, and then Madison ignored her. Lauren tried to think of something else to say. She changed radio stations, found Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!

“How long you been at Tulane?” Lauren asked.

“Not long.”

“Were you there for the hurricane?”

Madison shook her head. Eyes on the phone, distracted. “I was out of the country. We need to get off. Now. Next exit.”

Lauren glanced aside at her. She was pale as paper. “You have to pee?”

“Just get off.”

“There’s a truck coming up on the right—”

“I’m telling you. Get off.”

Her eyes were bloodshot, and there was something fragile in her voice. Like glass, clinking. Lauren thought, Christ, I picked up a crazy person. She hit the blinker, swerved onto the exit ramp and started to make a left, but Madison shouted, “No, right!” When Lauren tried to pull into a McDonald’s, the girl slapped the dash. “Keep going,” she said. “Just a little farther.”

Madison told her to turn left in five hundred feet. Lauren pulled into a big, empty shopping center, where the only living business was WE BUY GOLD, and put the Accord in park.

“Look,” she said, “you’re going to have to—”

“Give me the coins.”

“What?”

“The coins I gave you. I need them.”

Lauren stared at her, and Madison stared right back. She’s not, Lauren thought, the kind of girl you can say no to. She dug the coins out of her pocket, slapped them in Madison’s palm. “You got the wrong driver,” she said.

“The wrong driver.”

“I can’t take you. I’m sorry. I can’t do it.”

Madison shook her head. “You don’t want to go,” she said.

“What?”

“You don’t want to leave me.”

Was that a threat? “Okay,” said Lauren.

“You don’t want to go,” Madison repeated. She dropped the coins in her superhero purse and slid out of the car. Looked back at Lauren. “I know your name, okay? I see you. You’re gonna stay here with me, right?”

Lauren didn’t mean to respond. But her mouth had its own answer.

“Right,” she whispered.

Madison nodded once, then headed into WE BUY GOLD. Lauren sat, utterly still, her hands on her thighs. The AC had only been off for a minute, and she was already sweating. She frowned, stared at the key in the ignition, thought of turning it. So easy. It would be so easy to turn that key and leave Madison behind. She was good at leaving; leaving was easy. But she couldn’t make herself raise her hand. You won’t go, Madison had said. She’d made the truth by speaking it plain.

“Shit,” Lauren said.

She yanked the key out, stuffed it in her pocket. Threw the car door open and stepped into WE BUY GOLD. The shop bell jangled behind her. Madison glanced over her shoulder and smiled, and the gold man gave her a little wave. He was short and stocky, leather-skinned, with bushy white eyebrows. Like Colonel Sanders’ younger cousin. Between his fingertips and the glass of his display was a small mountain of coins. Wordlessly, Madison handed Lauren her purse. Hold, please.

Without thinking, she took the purse and tucked it into the crook of her elbow. It was half-unzipped, too-heavy; Lauren found herself zipping up the purse, smiling at the gold man, pretty as you please. She felt powerless in the face of the younger woman’s gall. Like a helpless parent.

“I can’t imagine,” said the gold man, peering at a coin through a monocle, “where you found these.” He sounded amiable, more fascinated than concerned. “They are really very old.”

Madison blushed, as if he’d complimented her on her good taste.

“Estate sale,” she said.

The gold man frowned and scrutinized the coin between his fingers. Lauren looked down, echoed the man’s frown. Something felt off, detuned. The purse. It was too heavy, and the weight felt wrong. Like an unasked question in her mouth, some lost word on the tip of her tongue. The gold man shook his head, whistled. “Well, hon,” he said, sliding his laptop across the glass, “this here’s what I can give you.” He pointed to a number on the screen. Madison pursed her lips, feigned contemplation.

“Okay,” she said.

It was a ridiculous number. Madison held out her hand, Purse please, and Lauren gave it to her. Madison signed a paper and placed a folded set of bills in her bag. She thanked the man, started to walk away, and then stopped. Turned around. “You got any iron?” she asked.

The gold man looked confused. “You mean a gun?”

“I mean the metal.”

“No, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“Right,” said Madison. “You have a good one.”

She led Lauren outside, handed her the folded bills.

“Back on the road,” she said.

***

Lauren had liked to annoy Ryan by saying she was born ten years too late to believe in God. But the fact was, she saw no real need for an opinion on the matter and so never developed one. When, on the other hand, her father claimed to dream people’s faces before he met them, she’d believed him, because her father wasn’t a lying man and the universe was a ridiculous place. It was important to believe in her father, so she did.

But she didn’t know what to make of Madison.

Of course there were people who could make you do things. Mothers and fathers and bosses. Preachers and police. There was power in the world; there were words spoken willfully. But this was something weirder, something wilder. This was gall. And Lauren didn’t know what to think about it. Worse, she didn’t know what she needed to think about it.

She drove. Madison was easy now, as cheerful and self-possessed as she’d been in the truck stop. She hummed along to a song about heartbreak and smoked out the window, glancing now and then at the Bitch. She joked about stupid billboards, pointed at animals on the side of the road. “Christ, that was a fox,” she said. “Jesus, did you see it?”

Lauren bit the insides of her cheeks. Drummed her fingers on the wheel, out of time with the music. The cracked, wet Mississippi roads reflected a gray sky. Even the trees seemed old, in disrepair.

“You need to calm down,” said Madison.

Lauren almost laughed. “Okay.”

“You running from something? Someone after you?”

“There’s nothing after me.”

“Looks like you picked up and ran,” said Madison. “What do you do?”

Lauren glanced at her. “I’m between jobs.” That wasn’t strictly true, not yet. She’d called Stephen before she left and persuaded him that she needed a few days’ vacation.

“What did you do?”

“Best Buy.”

Madison didn’t look like she understood. “And what’s next?” she asked.

“Something else.”

As she talked, Lauren felt her heart slow. Her fingers relaxed on the wheel. She wasn’t calm, exactly, but conversation was better than silent panic. The more she talked, the more she was able to persuade herself that Madison was a normal girl—a bit brusque, maybe, a bit forceful, but not even the strangest hitcher she’d ever picked up. That was the sculptor on the way back from New Orleans. He called himself a “chaos artist.” After a brief lull, she worked up her nerve, glanced aside at her passenger. “You grow up in Louisiana, then?”

“Oh, no. All over. My parents were kind of missionaries.”

“Yeah?”

“Spent a couple years in the Truant Valley, Yarrowhold, the Melancholy Coast. When I turned thirteen, we finally settled down in Portland. My parents opened an appliance repair place. I lived in Washington until college.”

“What kind of missionaries were they?” Lauren asked.

Madison didn’t understand.

“I mean, Baptists, Mormons, Scientologists . . . ?”

She looked out the window.

“Just missionaries.”

Lauren decided not to press the subject. She nodded, turned up the music. They were listening to the music on her iPod now, and the song was “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” The Bitch told her to bear right in a quarter of a mile. Lauren glanced aside, found the girl holding her knees against her chest.

“Was it hard?” Lauren asked. “Moving around?”

“It was the best time of my life.”

Madison pulled a cigarette from her jacket pocket but didn’t light it, merely pinched the little black cylinder between her fingers.

“I think it kind of ruined me for the real world. Once you see what all’s out there, all these beautiful, impossible places—it’s depressing, you know? You can stand in the driveway of any house in any American subdivision and see your whole life at once, the kids and the dog and the office, the diseases and the end and the realtors.” She fiddled with the cigarette. “I need something rawer than that.”

“Is that what’s in Crossville?” Lauren asked. “Something raw?”

Madison twisted around to smile at her. “Got it in one.”

Lauren looked down at her hands on the wheel, slender bones working beneath skin as she tightened her grip.

“Why did you want to ride with me?” she said. “Why me and not someone else?”

Madison took a drag from her cigarette. Lauren hadn’t seen her light it.

“You want the truth?” said Madison.

“Please.”

“You’re a rare girl. You have a strange soul.”

“I have a strange soul,” said Lauren.

Madison nodded. “You make the world more than other people do. Or you could. You could make the world and you don’t even know.”

“I don’t understand,” said Lauren. “I don’t know what you mean by that.”

“That’s my point,” said Madison.

***

Ryan changed in the summer. Eight months out of twelve he was gentle, even generous, but once the mercury hit ninety, he withdrew until October, hardly speaking except to snipe at her. He was sexless, sullen; he spent hours staring at his laptop, pretending to write or playing Call of Duty. He ignored trash, dishes, bills; he snapped at her when she asked him to help with housework. When money was low, he asked her why she couldn’t find a real job.

She’d confronted him once, the July before last, suggesting that maybe he had reverse seasonal affective disorder. He said if anything was wrong with him it was that he grew up in Bangor but became a man in Austin, slowly associating the hot core of America with all the disappointments in his life. He said lots of things like that, especially when he was feeling defensive. He’d always wanted to be a poet.

After that lone confrontation, the subject of his summer cruelty was somehow anathematic, an edict enforced not so much by Ryan as the Ryan-voice in her head. Once or twice, after cookouts, their friends came to Lauren to ask what was up his ass, and she pretended not to have noticed a change in him. “He’s a divinity student,” she joked. “There’s always something up his ass.” They laughed and dropped the subject, but the uncomfortable truth was that it wasn’t true at all. By October he was giddy, ridiculous, demanding that his friends help him make home zombie movies for Halloween. He surprised her at work with homemade burritos, kissed her neck in the shower and left dirty haiku in the pages of her books. Eight months out of twelve, he was someone she could live with, and in a way, that was the worst of it.

She spent each summer waiting for the fall.

***

Madison insisted they stop outside Birmingham.

“It’s just three or four hours,” said Lauren, pointing at the Bitch. “I feel fine. We could keep going.” She didn’t say, I could be free of you. Her legs ached, and she had littered the backseat with Diet Mountain Dew bottles. She felt lightheaded. Madison wasn’t frantic this time, but she was firm. She shook her head, turned down the music.

“The sun’s going down. You’re tired. There’s a Holiday Inn off the next exit.”

They got off at the next exit. Madison paid for the adjoining rooms, then led them to the third floor. She opened Lauren’s room but kept the keycard. “In you go,” she said. Lauren dropped her bags and retreated to the bathroom. She tied her hair back, stared at herself in the mirror, then washed her hands until they blazed red. When she came back out of the bathroom, she found Madison waving a salt shaker over the windowsill. Something clinked like glass against the AC unit, glinting in the dusklight like metal snow.

“Uh,” said Lauren.

“I’ve already done the door. Don’t touch them.”

Lauren crouched by the door, examined the messy line of metal shards that crossed the carpet.

“What are they?” she asked.

“Iron filings.”

“Okay.” She paused. “Why?”

“Keep the Sympathy out.”

The word she used wasn’t exactly sympathy. It sounded like sympathy without the vowels.

“Okay,” said Lauren, this time to herself.

The girl spread her iron on the windowsill, then looked back at Lauren.

“Don’t touch them,” she repeated.

“I won’t.”

“You can’t open the door or fuck with the windows.”

Lauren nodded.

“The door to my room is open. Knock if you need me.”

“Okay.”

Madison tucked the salt shaker into her bag, opened the door between rooms. “Sleep well,” she said, and closed the door behind her. Lauren blinked, exhaled. She felt lightheaded, and sat down on the bed. For several minutes she stared out the window at the orange sky, breathing.

She opened her laptop, got on Facebook. Ryan had posted “What?” and several of their friends—probably without knowing she’d gone—had Liked it. She thought about responding, saying she was fine, but instead updated her own status to, “In Birmingham.” The Lauren on the screen smiled out at her, arm in arm with her boyfriend, and she frowned back. Sooner or later she was going to have to change that picture. She closed the laptop, took out the folded bills and counted them until she reached the ridiculous number. Between savings and the gold money, she thought she could get by for a year. Longer, if she stayed with friends.

Three hours, she thought. Three hours, I could be in Nashville.

She wanted to stuff the bills in her pocket. She wanted to kick apart the little line of iron filings, throw open the door, and race down the hall and stairwell. She wanted to call her mom and apologize for the short notice. But her head felt heavy, and the thought of running twisted her stomach. She closed her fist around the money, lay back on the bed and closed her eyes.

The lights are still on, she thought. Someone ought to turn out the lights.

***

“There’s something I have to tell you,” she said.

He didn’t respond. He didn’t turn to face her. She could tell by his breathing that he was awake, but he kept on pretending sleep. She glanced sideways at his back, pale blue in the nightlight, dotted with that familiar constellation of moles. “I know you’re awake,” she said.

Something batted at the window. Tree limbs in the wind.

“I know you’re awake,” she repeated. “But you’d rather be asleep. And that’s what terrifies me. I want to wait for the real you to come back, but I’m afraid the summer’s going to keep you. I’m afraid you’re going to go to sleep, and we’re never going to be the old us again. The summers will get longer because of global warming and you’ll be so hateful all the time that our friends will all leave us and I’ll only ever see this other you, this stranger, and we’re going to strangle one another. We are going to suffocate somewhere and no one’s going to find us.”

It felt good to say the words. It felt like fall. But he was quiet, his breathing shallow. The clicking on the window was regular, clicks in patterns of seven. She stared at her hands.

“Ryan,” she said. “Goddammit.”

No answer.

“I swear to God,” she said, quiet, as if kids might hear, “I will leave you where you lie if you don’t talk to me. You think I won’t?”

There was a pause in his breathing, but he didn’t speak, and she didn’t touch him.

“I won’t do this for the rest of my life,” she said. “I won’t do it—”

Seven clicks sounded against the window, neat and rhythmic, seven hard clicks in a row. Finally, she looked up. In the window was the silhouette of a horned man, his fingernails tapping against the pane. The light around his head made it seem like he’d eclipsed a blue sun. Lauren lay very still, thinking the figure was a tree, a trick of the light. The thing’s head tilted slightly to the left, and he struck his fingers against the window again, rattling the glass in its frame.

“Ryan,” she hissed.

Seven clicks.

“Ryan, there’s a man outside.”

She reached across the bed, gripped Ryan’s arm. He was hot to the touch, unmoving.

Seven clicks, and thin cracks spiderwebbed across the glass. Lauren wondered if she could make it to the kitchen, to the steak knives. She wondered, absurdly, if Ryan was sick, if he had heard what she’d said. Seven clicks and a crash, and the window shattered. There was a soft, trilling sound, like a chicken or a kitten, and the light was in her eyes, and she shielded her eyes with her hand. The breeze blew inside.

***

She woke up blinking away the light. Her clothes were soaked and cold with sweat, and the AC unit whirred to her right. Madison sat at the table beside the window, sipping from a tiny Styrofoam cup, dark rings like coffee stains under her eyes. “There’s cappuccino,” the girl said. “And a bagel if you want it.”

Lauren shook her head. She could still feel the heat of Ryan’s skin, the adrenaline and dread. The dream still felt more vivid than the morning. She sat up, threw off the sheets, and waved away the food, her stomach shifting uncomfortably. Madison shrugged, Your loss.

“Tell me about the dream,” she said.

Lauren swallowed. Her mouth tasted rancid with sleep. “I was with my—” She didn’t know what he was now. “With Ryan. I was trying to tell him something. I was telling him I was going to leave. But there was a thing at the window, tapping. Like a man. With horns. I thought it was a man, but I think it was just an it. It broke the glass and came inside.”

Madison frowned into her breakfast.

“You want a shower?” she said.

“I want to go. Just give me a second.”

Lauren stumbled into the bathroom and stared at herself in the mirror. Fought back a wave of nausea and gargled a tiny bottle of complimentary mouthwash. When she returned, Madison was on her knees, scooping the iron filings into her palms. She unscrewed the top of the salt shaker and poured the metal shards back inside, careful as a kid with a collection. Lauren wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “You ready?” she asked.

Madison gave her the keycards and asked her to turn them in. “I’ll take your bags,” she said. What did she want them for, Lauren wondered. Collateral? Lauren handed over her briefcase but kept the laptop bag, headed down to the lobby. She turned in the cards and then lingered over the continental breakfast, finally settling on a danish and a cup of apple juice. A cable news morning show played on the lobby’s giant flatscreen, and she couldn’t help but watch as she finished her food, transfixed and mystified by the New York laughs and CGI skylines. Finally feeling awake, she threw out her Styrofoam cup and felt the folded-up bills in her pocket.

Okay, she thought. Three hours.

She found Madison standing frozen in the parking lot, Lauren’s briefcase hanging limply at her side. The morning was already brutally hot; sweat beaded on the girl’s face. Lauren smelled gas, thick and astringent in her nose.

“Sorry,” she said, a kneejerk apology, “I got caught up . . .”

She trailed off, stopped beside Madison.

Inside the Accord, blue and purple flowers pressed against the windows like the dead palms of zombies. Vines snaked around the seats, and stalks hung gravid with too-large serrano peppers, tomatoes like heads, pumpkins and eggplants and a dozen other outsized crops that Lauren didn’t recognize, that she knew she’d never planted. Flowers she couldn’t name crowded the dashboard, fighting for space with spiny weeds.

“Jesus,” she said.

Black roots had burrowed through the bottom of the car and into the pavement below. The tires were all flat, root-pierced, and roots dangled from cracks in the door. Fluid pooled beneath the car—spilled gas mixed with something else, something viscous and white. Madison took a hesitant step forward, but Lauren pulled her back.

“Shit,” whispered Madison. “Oh shit.

Lauren gripped her arm. She felt strangely calm. Even if none of this made sense, she knew what she needed to think about it, knew how she needed to respond. “Stay back,” she said. “Don’t touch anything. We need to get out of here, don’t we? We need to get away?”

Madison was white, paralyzed. Her eyes darted from Lauren to the car.

“Yes,” she nodded at last. “We need to get away.”

***

Lauren called for a tow, wondered vaguely what the driver would say when he saw the car-cum-greenhouse. Hell, she thought, and laughed, what will the insurance say? She didn’t particularly care, and she didn’t intend to wait and find out. “The keys and cash will be with the woman at the front desk,” she said. She called for a rental car next, and she and Madison waited in front of the hotel with their bags in their hands.

The girl was as shaken as Lauren had seen her, quiet and distracted, picking at the whites around her fingernails. She hardly seemed to notice when the rental arrived and Lauren guided her into the passenger seat. Far-gone as the girl was, Lauren figured she could have ditched her without much difficulty, but the money was thick in her pocket, and they were three hours from Crossville, and Madison really was somewhere else. She seemed young, all of a sudden, green, and for all her own fear and uncertainty, Lauren couldn’t bring herself to abandon someone so needful.

They drove in silence until they crossed into Tennessee. No music, no radio. Madison stared out the window, her hands on her bag. The sky ahead was vague with rain.

“Before,” Lauren said. “When you asked what I was running from. I lied.”

Madison turned to face her.

“I thought I was pregnant.”

It felt good to say the words. She hadn’t said them aloud yet, even alone in the bathroom, even in the middle of the night. Madison frowned, looked briefly away. Lauren smiled wryly.

“Not when I left. Before. My period came late, so I bought the pee test and it came up positive. False-positive, which pretty much never happens, right? But it did, and I didn’t know for like two weeks. I felt like I was in college again, freaking out like that. I imagined myself in yoga classes and hospital beds with this stranger in Ryan’s body and I thought, we are going to suffocate one another. I felt like this whole awful path was unfolding under my feet, and all I could do was follow it to the end. When I found out I was wrong, I was free, leaving seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”

Madison was silent. They drove past outlet malls, billboards advertising Southern Exposure. Raindrops collected on the windshield.

“It wants you,” the girl said.

“What?”

“The Sympathy.”

That word again. Sympathy without the vowels.

“I didn’t think it would follow you. I thought it would just get confused and lose my scent. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. And I know you won’t want to trust me, but you don’t have a choice.”

Lauren’s stomach knotted. “What did you do?”

“I used you as camouflage.”

Lauren gripped the wheel. The Bitch told her to bear right in one mile.

“Madison,” she said. “What are you running from?”

The girl hesitated.

“You want me to try to make it sound normal?”

“Flowers ripped up my car.”

“Okay.” Madison nodded. “You’re right. That’s true. It’s like a bloodhound.”

“Like a bloodhound,” Lauren repeated.

“You saw it in your dream. The horned thing. I stole from its kin, and they sicced it on me.” There was a light in Madison’s eyes, a kind of giddiness that outshone the fear. “When you cross back and forth too much, when you make a mistake, when you get caught—they sic the Sympathy on you. It tastes souls, it tracks souls. You can track a soul from the other side of the country, and it did. It found me, it found us, and it fucked up your car. The only reason we’re alive right now is we’re not alone, we’re on busy highways and I was careful with the iron.”

Lauren swerved to avoid a pothole. “It doesn’t like iron,” she said.

“None of them do.”

“Or roads? What do you mean about the highways?”

“It’s not the roads. It’s the people on them. When a bunch of humans get together, when we see the world together, we shape it. That’s what we do. We build the world together. Things like the Sympathy, things like the Folk on the other side, they live outside of our realities, or in the dark unfinished corners. In the uncertain spaces. Dreams and deserts and forests at night. You want to hide from them, you have to stay in crowds, stay where there are plenty of people. Or make sure you have some iron in your hand.”

Lauren remembered fingernails against glass.

“You said you made a mistake.”

Madison shook her bag. “I stole from the Sympathy’s Queen.”

“It has a Queen.

The girl nodded.

“The coins,” Lauren said. “The gold. You stole it all.”

“I stole a lot of things,” Madison agreed.

Lauren felt her foot pressing harder on the accelerator.

“So why does it want me?”

Now Madison looked frustrated, impatient. “I told you. You’re a rare girl. You’re a shaper. You shape the world more than other people, you make the world in your image. Your soul is loud and bright and I knew it would disguise mine, but it’s like catnip to the Sympathy. The monster got a taste and now it’s off the leash, it’s hungry. And I’m only telling you because I fucked up, because I want to help you, and if you try to kick me out or run away—if you don’t do exactly as I say—you will die.”

“And what do you want me to do?” Lauren asked tightly.

Madison told her.

***

The place was just off the Interstate, but there wasn’t much to Crossville. The Bitch led them a mile and a half down a road that turned quickly to gravel and then to dirt, and the trees grew so dense above and around them that rain no longer dotted the windshield. Here and there on the roadside were abandoned tires and chains, beer cans, worn and empty pairs of sneakers. Without the Bitch’s preview snapshot of the destination, Lauren doubted she would have gone the last half-mile. But she pressed on, gritting her teeth.

Finally, they came to the treehouse.

Lauren had heard of it before, but never visited. Treehouse was the wrong word—it was a labyrinth of lumber wrapped around a tree, a tower cast in boards and nails, twisting overhead like an Escher illusion. The regional papers ran interviews with the builder and owner, an ex-preacher, on slow weeks. He called it an eternal work-in-progress, an architecture whispered constantly in his ear, and he said he would continue to build it until he died.

“Every labyrinth,” said Madison, “every true labyrinth, is a way into the other side. But there aren’t many true labyrinths in America.” Now that she’d opened up, the girl wouldn’t stop talking. She gripped her bag, babbled about true labyrinths.

Lauren turned off the car.

“The farther in we go, the farther we go into the raw space,” said Madison. “Once we reach the heart of the maze, the Sympathy will be on us quick.”

Lauren nodded, wordless, and stepped out onto the gravel of the parking lot. There was a Land Rover parked beside a child-sized stack of lumber, but Lauren didn’t see any signs of life. She listened for voices and only heard birds. The entire lot was shaded, leaves and seedpods scattered in the gravel. Madison touched her elbow and nodded toward her labyrinth. From below, it looked like the wooden skeleton of an upside-down pyramid.

Madison took the lead, quickly climbing the steps to the entrance. Inside, the smell of sawdust. The first room felt like a backwoods church under construction—crosses on bare walls, pews arranged around a platform. Lauren’s boots clomped on the raw pine floorboards. Madison led her quickly past the pews and up a creaking set of stairs, into a long hall lined with cheap mirrors. Doorways opened into makeshift bedrooms, reading rooms, broad and empty nameless rooms. The girl walked like she was at home, every turn and loose board familiar. She pointed out hidden crawlspaces, secret stairwells.

“You said you had people here,” said Lauren.

“What?”

“When we met. You said you had people here. You offered me a place to stay.”

“Oh,” said Madison, not looking back. “That was maybe not entirely truthful.”

They took spiraling stairways, ducked through barren plywood passages. Sunlight sliced through cracks between the panels. They walked across a floor scrawled over with letters that looked a little like Greek. She’d helped Ryan study Greek for two years now, and she knew enough to read scraps of the gospels, but she didn’t recognize any words. As they climbed farther, the geometries of the space seemed to shift; the angles were off, the halls too narrow, not quite straight, improbably long. Lauren lost her sense of the way they came, tried to find a window simply to figure out how high they were.

“Not far now,” said Madison.

She could have driven away. She could have been on the way to Nashville, on her way to tell her mom that it had all gone fucked and she didn’t know what to do. Was that why she was here? Because it had all gone fucked? Because she wanted someone to tell her what to do? Or was Madison still using that gall, dragging Lauren along? The girl wanted her to believe that she shaped and resolved the world around her, but Lauren felt unresolved herself, shaped by Ryan, shaped by Madison, shaped by the Sympathy.

Madison stopped. “Okay,” she said. “Okay. Here.”

They stood in an empty room. Light peeked through hairline cracks in the ceiling. No windows and a single door, set on rusty hinges. The floors were pale white wood, and sepia photographs of naked, indistinct figures hung on the walls. The space seemed older than the rest of the treehouse; nails longer than her hand jutted halfway out of the floorboards. Madison drew her salt shaker from her bag and poured a circle of iron filings around Lauren.

“Stay inside this,” she said. She tried to raise a brave face, but her words and hands shook. “You’ll be safe here. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, stay inside the iron and you’ll be safe.”

Madison said she was going to kill the Sympathy, but she didn’t look like a slayer of monsters. She looked like a shoplifting teenager. “Okay,” said Lauren, swallowing a miserable laugh. “I’ll stay here.” She felt a numb anger, and she felt sort of silly and futile, standing there in the circle, but she couldn’t work herself into any terror. She didn’t feel the terror that she felt she ought to feel.

“These things,” said Madison, “things like the Sympathy, they don’t have shapes the way you and I do. If you see it, it’s going to appear in your image, it’s going to look the way you make it look. It’s going to be . . .”

“What?”

“Unpleasant,” she finished.

“It’s going to try to scare me?”

Madison crouched in the corner of the room. She pulled a hunting knife from her bag and flipped it open. “No,” she said, “not exactly.”

“You’ve seen it before.”

“I’ve seen it.”

“What does it look like to you?”

“Flowers.”

Madison avoided her eyes, and they waited in silence after that. Lauren tried to concentrate her anger on the girl, but it wouldn’t take, it wouldn’t stick. Whatever impossible mistake she had made, however maddening she was, Madison was only a girl and she was risking her life now. Lauren needed someone more distant and indefensible to hate. She fished around in her pocket, pulled out her phone. The icon in the corner still flashed: one voicemail. She pressed the icon, raised the phone to her ear. There was a moment of static. Then Ryan’s voice.

“Fuck you,” he said. Already, she could tell he was drunk. He didn’t drink often. “Man, I’ve wanted to say that. You know what? Just fuck you. You think you can do this? Let me tell you something, honey. I know you. I know how you work. You’re not even really gone. You left while I was out and now you won’t pick up your phone, all to sustain the illusion, all so you can convince yourself that you’re really leaving. But here’s the thing. I don’t think you ever really meant to, not for more than a couple of days. You left your birth certificate, you left the title to your car, you left your goddamned Social Security card. I mean, Christ. I called Stephen, you know. You didn’t even quit your job, did you? You must’ve always known you were coming back. You were just killing time.”

Below her, the floor shivered.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” Ryan said. He paused, and when his voice came back, all of the bravado had evaporated. “I mean, God, Lauren, I know I’m not easy. You’re not easy. But I need you to make me whole. I need you to make me a good man. I love you. You’re supposed to love me.”

Her grip on the phone tightened.

“Just—fuck you,” Ryan said softly. “Fuck you. I love you. I’ll see you soon.”

He hung up.

Four to save, seven to delete.

The hinges of the door whined. Madison raised her knife. Her hand shook.

Lauren closed the phone and saw the Sympathy.

At first, it looked like a pale and slender gorilla, walking on stubby back legs and long arms. It had wide antlers, familiar from her dream. It approached slowly, its head tilted at an angle, trilling like a chicken or a kitten. There was a faint blue luminance to the thing; it looked smooth and hairless. It came closer, step by hesitant step, and finally Lauren understood that it was made of bodies, two bodies.

She and Ryan were twined like pale, blue-veined snakes around a caduceus. They were nude and broken, their bodies twisted to form a new body, their limbs wrapped around one another like vines. The thing’s head was her own and Ryan’s, fused; wide, wicked stag’s horns curled out of their open mouths. It smelled like him, too, it smelled like both of them together, musky and familiar but subtly wrong, subtly fungal. The Sympathy’s four eyes blinked, mismatched and empty. It passed Madison, oblivious or simply bored by her now, and stood before Lauren, hesitating at the circle of iron.

Lauren stared up at her own face. She felt very heavy, very still, and her anger was a weight. No one should see this, she thought. No one should see their own corpse, their own empty face and suffocation. Slow as a stone wheel, Lauren turned her head toward Madison. The girl grimaced, her knife down by her side. She raised it again and moved haltingly toward the monster’s back, breathing hard. Whatever Madison had done in the past, whatever she had stolen, she had done it by wits and in shadows. She was not a warrior. Still, she moved toward the Sympathy; she was trying to be brave. Lauren looked up into her own eyes and Ryan’s eyes, all four of them looking so seduced and curious, these lively eyes in the middle of dead faces. Then the eyes widened, and the mouths yowled.

Madison stood behind the Sympathy, her shaking knife buried to the hilt in the monster’s back. A fungal tang filled the air. The Sympathy twirled around, bleeding flowers, and swatted Madison with one long arm. She dropped the knife and fell hard, cracked her head against the boards of the wall. One of the boards bent and let the light in. Purple flowers fell from the Sympathy’s wound and onto the floor—a few floated through the air and landed on Lauren’s arm. She tried to brush the blood-flowers away, but they clung to her, leaving a pleasurable prickly sensation on her skin. She supposed she ought to be nervous after what the flowers had done to her car, but she felt a sort of calm distance from herself. She dropped her arm to her side.

Across the room, Madison struggled to her feet. Lauren watched her turn pale, watched the decision pass across her face. The girl met Lauren’s gaze, at least, inclined her head a little—not quite an apology, but an acknowledgment. Then she lurched toward the doorway and was gone.

Lauren listened to the girl’s footfalls on the old lumber of the halls outside, her steps hard and then fading as she ran for her raw places. The Sympathy ignored Madison again, fixed its attentions on Lauren. It pawed the air above the iron, wary but curious, then drew back with a hiss. It settled on its haunches, shifted its weight restlessly, wanting. It looked sort of pathetic in its agitation, like a hungry dog. Ryan had always hated dogs: He said they were noisy needy pitiful animals, but Lauren had seen the way he flinched when one approached him on the street. So they’d bought a cat, even though she was allergic.

The Sympathy opened its mouths and moaned. It was an awful gagging sound—the mouths were full of antlers—and it went on for much too long, longer than any living thing should have been able to gag. Then the Sympathy closed its mouths and stared at her.

“She tricked you, you know,” Lauren said. “She ran right by you.”

The monster didn’t seem to hear or understand her. It snorted and inched closer to the iron. Lauren raised her arm again and examined the flowers. They had grown and multiplied, wrapped themselves around her arm like a sleeve of tattoos or a gauntlet. The entire arm tingled, but it didn’t hurt. She felt cleaner now, stronger, charged with possibility. Lauren crouched and pried a loose nail from the floor. She didn’t understand what she was doing until the nail was in her hand, long and red with rust. She held the white light of the phone in one hand and the nail in the other, smiled sadly up at the Sympathy.

“You’re not a beast, are you?” she said.

The creature watched her hands, trilled once and squared its shoulders. It ducked its head toward her in a way that felt eerily imploring. Lauren peered up at its bowed head and remembered how it had felt to start again, how it had felt to drive by the seminary and tell herself that she had finished the book of her time with Ryan. She thought she understood what the Sympathy was asking.

“If you are a beast,” she said, “you don’t have to be. You’re a hound, you get sicced on people. You have a Queen, someone to make you fearsome. Is that right?” She paused. “You want me to make you into something else.”

The flowers covered her right arm now in a sort of purple latticework, but they had stilled and stopped growing, they stayed put. She liked how they looked, how they felt: The petals were cool and staticky. They thrummed against her bicep. She was armored in flowers, and the nail in her hand blurred into a sword, long and elegantly curved. She hoped she wouldn’t have to use it, but she liked the heft of the thing. She imagined how Ryan would look when he saw it, when he understood that the book was finished. She pocketed her phone and passed the sword to her left hand. The air was crisp. Something inside of her, something like a vast hand reached out and shaped the Sympathy into something new.

The creature shuddered as it deflated, like a time-lapse vision of starvation. But it didn’t make a sound. Her face and Ryan’s face relaxed into soft anonymity, their limbs folding together until they were indistinguishable, then contracting and shifting until the body before her was smaller than Lauren. Thinner, definitely, and maybe a head shorter, subtle and girlish in its curves. Her curves. Her hair was thick and frizzy and crimson, her freckles splashed across her face and chest like a field of stars. She stood nude and awkward, staring at her hands, swaying uncertain on her feet. Lauren stepped out of the circle of iron, gripped the sword and hesitated. Then she wrapped her armored arm around the girl. The Sympathy sagged into her.

Her eyes darted back and forth across Lauren’s face. Taking her in. There was something alien in the girl’s expression, an emotion that Lauren had never seen on a human face. Maybe, she thought, it was an emotion that belonged to the dark unfinished corners of the world, something restless and raw. But there was a current of something familiar there, too: a sort of eagerness. The Sympathy smiled up at Lauren, then out the door into the labyrinth. And then back again, intent, like she was ready now, like she was ready to leave.

© 2012 Eric Gregory.

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Eric Gregory

Eric GregoryEric Gregory lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is working toward his MFA at North Carolina State University. His stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Futurismic, Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction, and other publications. Find more at ericmg.com.