Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Real Animals

The bear has been stalking the taxidermy garden for ten weeks now, ever since Raffi showed up. Sometimes it disappears for a few days or a week, but it always comes back. Prowls the perimeter, looking for weak spots. From inside the taxidermy garden, Raffi feels the bear’s presence tugging on her, as though it has become the pole of her personal compass.

The taxidermy garden isn’t a real garden. It’s a ski chalet, or what used to be a ski chalet, all hand-hewn logs and wood stoves and floor-to-ceiling windows crowded with snow-capped mountains. The only plants are bodies and the bodies are not exactly taxidermied, but that is the closest word Raffi can find for whatever it is that her friend Kay is doing to them. What Kay does is take the corpses down to the basement and empty them of their insides and fill them with new, longer-lasting substances. She turns their wounds into decorations the same way she used to take pieces of wood and seal their knots and whorls with shimmering teal enamel so that flaws metamorphosed into features.

The bodies lounge on couches, sit at the dining room table, lie in perpetual slumber in the chalet’s many beds. The bodies belong to people Raffi knows. The town in northern Montana where she has lived for her entire life had a population of 246, before this all began. There aren’t 246 bodies in the taxidermy garden, but there are a lot. Kay saves as many people as she can.

Raffi wishes the taxidermy garden were less beautiful. The people in it are not what she would call lifelike—their angles are too strange, their stillness not at all like that of sleep. But this makes them somehow more lovely, the way they wear their own death like an adornment, like a diamond necklace, like an elaborate and absurd peacock-feather hat. When Raffi looks at her old neighbor whose leg is now made of concrete, it pours out of him so naturally that it is difficult for her to remember that once he had a leg made of flesh, back before the mountain lion tore it off and he ended up here. If it were less beautiful, she thinks, it would be easier to remember how things used to be.

• • • •

The taxidermy garden would not be possible if the animals—the mountain lions and bears and coyotes and so forth—acted like real animals. If they ate their prey, if they dragged it off to dens or into the underbrush, if they stripped flesh from bone, there would be nothing left for Kay or Raffi or Buck to find and haul back to the chalet and put in the garden. Then again, if the animals were real animals there wouldn’t be any need to have a taxidermy garden at all.

• • • •

Kay’s husband Buck is a hunter who never seems to find any irony in the deer he shoots or the cuts of venison he stores in the freezer. The night before Kay’s wedding, while she and Raffi folded place cards, she told Raffi that this was what won her over in the first place, this lack of humor, the way he approached everything so seriously. “You can trust a man like that,” she said to Raffi. “He’ll never go looking for something that isn’t there.” Raffi had wanted to ask if he would see the things that were there, but she knew better. Ever since she and Kay had swapped best friend bracelets back in the second grade, they’d had an understanding—they would never ruin things for one another. The world did enough of that already.

Now Buck protects the taxidermy garden, walks along the electric fencing that circles the perimeter of the chalet’s grounds, the butt of an AR-15 pressed to his shoulder. It was Buck who found Raffi, half out of her mind, dragging Graham’s body behind her. She’d hauled it all the way from town, each step more impossible than the last. When she saw Buck—the big solid shape of him, looking exactly the same as always—she’d sat down on the hard ground and waited for him to find her. He took the whole situation in at a glance, threw Graham’s body over his shoulder and carried it off. When Raffi didn’t follow, he returned and threw her over his shoulder too. He’d delivered her to Kay as if she were just another body.

• • • •

At dinner—venison, of course—Raffi sits across the dining room table from Buck and Kay, next to Marta, the woman who used to own the diner on the outskirts of town. Marta has gray hair, coiled into a bun, and a wide grin that is almost, but not quite, like the one she used to flash whenever Raffi slipped into the diner to splurge on a cup of coffee or a plate of pancakes. The wrinkled flesh of her neck slips seamlessly into wood now, a smooth, varnished oak that disappears beneath the collar of her shirt.

Buck and Raffi argue about the animals while Kay stares out through the windows at the sunset. The sky is ferociously red, the mountains stark. Kay looks like she isn’t listening, but periodically she pushes her foot against Raffi’s leg under the table. Raffi takes it to be support, but it might be Kay’s way of telling her to shut up.

“The aliens don’t give a fuck about us,” Buck says. “They just kill because killing’s fun. Because they’re living inside the animals, and that’s what animals have always wanted to do.”

“You think dogs have always wanted to kill people?” Raffi asks.

“They’re descended from wolves, aren’t they?”

Raffi thinks about the dog she and her husband Graham had, a shepherd-husky cross named Bo. After the animals changed, Graham took him out into the backyard and came back in alone. She woke in the middle of the night to the movement of him sobbing next to her. “That’s bullshit,” she says now. “They’re not dumb. There’s a logic to all of this.”

“There’s a logic to a hawk eating a rabbit,” Buck says. “That doesn’t mean the hawk is the next Einstein.”

Kay nudges Raffi harder under the table. Raffi grabs Kay’s foot with her hand and doesn’t say anything else, only holds it there and watches the blood-red sky fade to orange, then indigo.

• • • •

That night before the wedding, Kay looked up from folding place cards and said, “Well, what about you? What made you fall in love with Graham?” Raffi can’t remember what she said. Something about the kindness of his laugh, maybe, or how sweet he was with her aunt—the person who’d raised her, closer than a parent. By the time Raffi and Graham got together, her aunt was dying from one of the new tickborne illnesses, and Graham always found ways to help her without making it seem like he was.

Whatever answer Raffi gave Kay though, it wasn’t the real one. Raffi knew, even if she rarely acknowledged it to herself, why she had fallen in love with Graham: He was there. Everyone in her life, it felt like, had left or was in the process of leaving. Her mom, when Raffi was hardly old enough to know what it meant; Kay, off at art school on the West Coast, promising to call, to visit, but leaving nonetheless; her aunt, a little more of her gone each day, no amount of wishing on either of their parts sufficient to stop the progression. Against all of this absence, Graham was resolutely, undeniably present. Although, of course, he isn’t anymore.

• • • •

It takes Kay a long time to finish taxidermying Graham. Ten weeks since Raffi watched him disappear into the distance, his head bobbing over Buck’s shoulder. Ten weeks that he’s been down in the basement, a place Raffi has never gone, though she often imagines what it looks like. Sometimes she thinks about Kay down there with Graham, running her hands over his body. She wonders if Kay talks to him while she works; she wonders what Kay might say.

Raffi doesn’t know if the delay is because Kay has a large backlog of bodies and Graham must wait his place in line, or if something about him is difficult to repair, or if Kay is trying to do a particularly good job for Raffi’s sake. Or maybe she’s just buying Raffi some time before she has to look death in the eyes.

Regardless, Raffi appreciates the reprieve. Instead of living in the world where Graham is dead, she is living in the one before she knew he existed. She has found her way back to a time when the world was a small snow globe designed for her and Kay alone. To the years when they spent every day together and then called each other at night to share all the thoughts they’d had in the hour since parting.

When they’re together now, Raffi finds herself thinking about how they used to go camping as teenagers, just the two of them. Their Walmart sleeping bags were never warm enough for the deep chill of Montana nights; they always ended up huddled for warmth, their bags zipped together. A tiny enclave of heat in the middle of so much cold.

• • • •

The first time Raffi saw the aliens was before they were in the animals, back when they were still just liquid. Her aunt wanted to go see them, and, as she often put it, “one of the perks of dying is that everyone has to do what you want.” The pools had been around for a while by then—long enough for biologists to deem the extraterrestrial microbes both inert and innocuous, long enough for general fascination to fade. The government still monitored the larger pools, but there were too many of them appearing and too many other ecological catastrophes unfolding. Everyone in Raffi’s town knew there was an unmonitored pool in the caldera a few hours away.

Raffi drove her aunt the three hours over winding mountain passes, creeping around the turns, hands sweaty on the steering wheel. They had to hike out to the pool and Raffi was afraid: that it would be too much, that they would make it halfway there and her aunt would keel over, and Raffi would be left alone in the mountains with no way to fix anything. If Kay hadn’t been away at school, she would have come with them; the whole thing would have felt like an adventure instead of an ordeal. But Kay was gone and her aunt wanted this, so Raffi would try to help her have it.

It was a fall afternoon and the air smelled like snow and the sky was slate gray. Raffi’s aunt held onto her arm and together they walked up the path, one step and another and another. Every ten or twenty minutes they stopped to rest. Raffi’s aunt was breathing hard, her grip on Raffi’s arm growing heavier, but she smiled every time their eyes met.

The pool sat in the very bottom of the caldera, maybe fifteen feet across. The aliens looked like water, if the water were laced with golden dust. When they got there, Raffi’s aunt didn’t say anything, only un-looped her arm from Raffi’s and stripped off her clothes. She walked into the water without a pause, without a shiver, and Raffi felt as though there were a fist clenching her voice somewhere deep inside her. She couldn’t say a thing. She could only watch, could only wait for her aunt to turn around and come back to her.

• • • •

The first time Buck suggests going after the bear, the three of them are in the kitchen butchering a bighorn sheep. Kay and Buck stand side by side in front of the butcher block, the shape before them looking strange and diminished without its skin. Raffi sits at the kitchen table next to Buck’s old hunting friend. Kay has replaced the eye he is missing with a glittering hunk of mica and—in spite of his unnatural stillness—anytime Raffi glances over he appears to be watching her skeptically.

“I know,” Raffi says to the hunter, “you could do much better. Too bad you can’t take over for me.” Raffi was a vegetarian before, and now Kay gives her simple tasks with clear instructions. She cuts things into slices, she salts or smokes or debones. She listens to Kay and Buck talking quietly as they disassemble the sheep.

“. . . if I can’t kill the bear in our territory, then I’ll follow it into its own. Catch it sleeping and put a bullet in it.” Buck’s voice is uninflected, as though he is talking about building a fire or cooking dinner.

Kay’s butcher knife clatters onto the block. “No,” she says, “absolutely not.” Her hands are bloody; there is a crimson smudge on her forehead.

Buck doesn’t look up, only shrugs as he methodically saws off one of the sheep’s legs.

• • • •

All her life, Raffi has fought to need no one. To be able to take care of herself and the people she loves. She has learned to move towards the things that scare her. She has broken bones in the pursuit of fearlessness: her collarbone mishandling a rifle, her fibula while hurtling down a mountain. She can feel the ghost of this part of herself shifting halfheartedly, pacing around with a ghost-gun, insisting that she’ll go with Buck to hunt the bear. Look, the ghost says to Kay, I can protect you, too. But the ghost, that old urge, it doesn’t have any power anymore. All this fighting to be strong and capable and for what? For the swipe of a paw, for gold eyes in the dark. Raffi didn’t even cry after Graham died, she just got to work hauling his body. None of it matters. Let Buck load his guns and shoot their dinner. Let the animals tear the world down. Raffi doesn’t have anything left to prove.

• • • •

During the days, while Buck is outside patrolling and Kay is tending to her catalog of corpses in the basement, Raffi wanders through the taxidermy garden, talking to the people she used to know.

“I’m sorry I tried to use you as a replacement for Kay,” she says to the woman standing in front the picture window in the living room. Her throat glimmers a deep fuchsia where Kay filled in the claw marks. “I was so lonely and then you moved in next door to me and Graham, and I thought it was the universe cutting me a break.” Their friendship had been a thing of effort: plans made and rescheduled and reluctantly attended. It had intensified the ache of Kay’s absence rather than diminishing it.

“I hated the nights you came over to our house,” Raffi says to Graham’s best friend, a broad-shouldered man with a smile that had always slipped easily into a smirk, though it wouldn’t anymore. He was sitting on the toilet in one of the taxidermy garden’s many bathrooms, reading a magazine. Raffi perches on the sink. “You made Graham into the worst version of himself,” she says. “You made me wonder why I married him. He was always better than you, though.”

“Thank you for taking such good care of my aunt,” Raffi says to an older woman in a rocking chair who had been her aunt’s hospice nurse. “I always told myself I was going to find a way to tell you what it meant to me, how you eased the hurt of things a little just by being there, how your voice soothed her at the end. But every time I thought about it, I got to missing her so much I had to put the whole idea away.” In the afterwards, Raffi felt like an astronaut, floating through a vast emptiness, rebounding off space-detritus. Even Graham, and Kay when she flew back for the funeral, were far-off planets, barely visible in the distance. But the nurse saw her on the street one day, said, “Oh, honey,” and pulled her into a hug so tight that Raffi felt, for a moment, grounded.

• • • •

The next day Buck heads out with a large rucksack on his back. That night, when he doesn’t return, Kay climbs the narrow staircase to Raffi’s bedroom in the attic. There are other rooms in the house—so many rooms—but most of them had their own bodies by the time Raffi arrived, and she didn’t like the idea of being just another immobile form. The room in the attic is more comfortable to her than the rest of the house anyway, with its low sloping ceilings and its twin bed. She feels contained by the small space, embraced.

Raffi moves over to make room for Kay who sits down on the bed next to her, pulling the comforter up over her knees. It is like they are twelve years old again, having a sleepover, but they are not twelve, and Raffi can’t remember the last night she and Kay were alone, without husbands or other friends, without the intrusion of the outside world.

“Do you think he’s okay?” Kay asks, and Raffi nods, although she is trying not to think at all. “I can’t believe he went out after it. Or I can, but I don’t want to.”

“He’s always been persistent.”

“Remember when that coyote kept hanging around the house and I was afraid it would eat the kittens and he didn’t say anything, just presented me with the pelt a few days later like it was a bouquet of flowers?”

Raffi remembers. Raffi remembers Kay and Buck’s entire courtship, how unthreatening he had seemed at first, so quiet and focused on killing things. It had seemed impossible that someone like Kay would fall in love with a person like that. That someone like Buck could take Kay away from her.

“Guess we should have joined the ranks of the valiant deer slayers,” Raffi says. It was what they always called the boys, then men who spent lunches debating the merits of synthetic versus real deer-urine lures. They look at each other, silent for a moment, then burst out laughing.

“If only we’d seen this coming,” Kay says, as they start to sober up, setting them off again. They’re close enough that Raffi can feel Kay’s laughter, and she leans into it, hungry for the way their edges had once blurred together. She knows they’re a little hysterical, maybe more than a little. She can feel tears pressing against the edges of her laughter. It’s just—who would have known that the end of the world would feel so ridiculous?

• • • •

People in Raffi and Kay’s little Montana town realized what was happening a beat or two before the rest of the world. It’s not that they were more observant, only that they were more surrounded. In a town like that, you’re never alone. Moose, elk, bears, coyotes, deer, mountain lions, porcupines, bison, sheep, beavers—at night you can’t swing a flashlight without seeing the shine of eyes.

Raffi can still remember the first one she noticed: a bald eagle, spreading its wings with a click-click-click like a kite unfurling, like bullets entering the chamber of a gun. For Kay, it was a moose whose eyes glowed pure, molten gold. And Buck saw a grizzly, he told them later, sitting on its haunches and admiring the metallic glint of its claws. “It looked like it was smiling,” he said, and they shuddered because Buck, of all people, was not one to see something that wasn’t there.

• • • •

When Raffi’s aunt was in the final stages of dying, she had strange dreams, and when she woke she would come into the room where Raffi slept on the floor and stand over her until Raffi woke too, and then she would pour the dreams into Raffi, as though she were an overfull pitcher and Raffi an empty bowl. The dreams were all variations on a theme, and the theme was:

There will come a day, not too long from now, when people will be afraid to leave their houses and bears will walk through the streets of the town with the swagger of men. It will be quiet in the houses, even the ones built on a foundation of shouting. In one house, a father will sing a lullaby to his children: snow keeps falling on down that mountain, putting the bears to sleep. He’s been singing the lullaby since the children were born—he’s singing it now—but soon it will feel like a prayer. In another house, a woman will say I told you so, I told you we should have left, I told you we should never have come here. The person she is speaking to will say nothing. In another house, a boy will rock his brother in his arms saying, shh, shh, it’s all right. Outside, the bears will walk down Main Street, ignoring the traffic light as it blinks from yellow to red to green again. They will lumber and sway. They will stop to smell a tumbled tricycle; they will amble on. In the park, there will be a pile of dead dogs, buzzing and seething with the business of decay, but the bears won’t bother the bodies. It’s only the humans they’re coming for.

• • • •

Buck comes back from hunting the bear a few days later, not victorious, but alive, which feels like almost the same thing. While he was gone, the taxidermy garden held its breath. Kay lingered in the basement even longer than usual, climbing up the stairs to Raffi’s attic late in the night, the two of them staying awake until their conversations felt like a dream they were sharing.

When the door opens and Buck shoulders his way in, there is a sense of exhalation. They decide they will take the day off from their typical pursuits—killing and preserving and talking to the dead. Buck loads the wood stove in the living room all the way up so that the air grows warm and amiable. Kay opens some of the dusty bottles of liquor that sit behind the bar in the corner, irreplaceable now. She pours them each elaborate, personalized cocktails in glasses so delicate it seems preposterous that they still exist. Raffi finds a cardboard box of Christmas decorations in a closet and drapes the living room’s bodies in tinsel and silvery baubles so they can feel included in the celebration in spite of their inability to imbibe cocktails.

They drink until they can’t remember they ever lived another life. They try on each other’s personalities so that for a while Raffi is the stoic hunter and Buck is the taxidermist. “Do me,” Raffi says to Kay in Buck’s gravelly monotone, and Kay says, “very accurate,” raising her eyebrows suggestively, which makes Raffi not want to be Buck anymore. Kay-as-Raffi drapes her legs across the lap of a sculptor whom she once did an exhibit with, and says, “Look, maybe I can’t bring you back to life, but at least I tried.” They drink until the bodies aren’t bodies anymore, until they’re people who can talk and laugh and respond to questions. They drink until the room spins, and Raffi imagines it is spinning fast enough to shake off all the animals lingering outside it. At some point, they fall asleep, and when Raffi wakes later, Kay is nestled into the crook of Buck’s arm, and the room is cold. She pushes herself to her feet, staggers her way back to the attic.

• • • •

When Kay finishes with Graham’s body, she comes to find Raffi, who is curled up in a leather armchair in the study, reading one of the cheap paperback thrillers that line the shelves.

“Do you know where you want him to go?” Kay asks.

“Do you know that if you replace all the bad guys in these books with bears and wolves, it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of our current situation?”

Kay raises her eyebrows. “Do you want him up in the attic with you?”

Raffi shakes her head, looks down at her book. The wolf sped off into the night, his tires spinning against the wet asphalt, but Marianne knew he’d be back soon . . .

“Do you want to come with me and we can pick a place together?”

Raffi shakes her head again. What she wants—other than a million impossible things—is for Kay to keep working on Graham down in the basement. To live forever in limbo, to have Graham’s body neither gone nor present.

“I’ll find him a good spot, then,” Kay says, more of a question than a statement, so Raffi nods. Kay rests her hand on Raffi’s shoulder, squeezes it hard. When they were kids, they believed they could transmit thoughts by touching each other’s skin and concentrating so hard it felt like their eyes would pop. But Raffi is wearing a thick sweater, a layer of scratchy wool between their skin, and after a final squeeze, Kay is gone.

• • • •

The worst part of what happened to Graham—the thing that keeps Raffi from being able to talk about it, even with Kay—is what didn’t happen to her. This is what keeps her up at night, what turns her stomach and aches her head and makes her contemplate taking all her clothes off and walking out into the snow (she has heard that hypothermia is like going to sleep). When the bear came and smashed through the planks they’d nailed over their windows, when Graham threw himself in front of her, when she tried to pull him back and pleaded no no, when the bear so casually swiped a paw across Graham’s face, almost like a lover’s slap but for the cracking of bone loud in Raffi’s ears, when Graham crumpled to the ground—Raffi thought, okay then. She had always been so afraid of death, of the great endless nothingness of it. But okay, she thought, okay, let this be the end.

The bear stood on its hind legs and looked down at her. Its eyes were a gold so bright they hurt to look at.

“Come on, then,” Raffi said, and her voice sounded unfamiliar. “Come on.”

But the bear didn’t. It looked at her and looked and looked and then it turned and dropped back onto four feet and padded silently out of the house, leaving Raffi alone with Graham’s body.

• • • •

Sometimes when Raffi is wandering through the taxidermy garden, she imagines herself a docent in a museum. These are what humans looked like, the docent says. See how they stand and sit and gaze out into the middle distance. These creatures used to think themselves the pinnacle of evolution, the top of the food chain, the rulers of the world. Look how fragile they are, made of flesh and bone, so easily punctured, so easily broken. See what became of them, see what is left.

• • • •

The bear is back again. It is mostly invisible—heavy paw prints in fresh snow, coarse fur tangled in fencing—but its presence tugs at Raffi. One night at dinner, she feels eyes on the back of her neck and when she turns, the bear is visible just beyond the electric fencing. Its gold eyes glint in the dusk, emitting their own light. When Raffi turns back around, she sees Buck watching.

“You should leave it be,” she says to him, unsure of whether she is trying to protect him or the bear.

“So it can find a way in and kill us while we’re sleeping?”

“So you don’t get killed yourself.”

Buck doesn’t respond but Raffi knows that the inside of his mind is a gun. When she was young, she begged her aunt to teach her to shoot, hated the idea of the boys in her class knowing something she didn’t. That first time at the range, she jumped so hard at every gunshot that afterwards her back and neck were sore for days. She had loved the feeling.

• • • •

Raffi doesn’t talk to Buck about it, but secretly she is convinced that the aliens are saving the planet. What bigger threat is there to Earth’s survival than humans? What more destructive force? When she thinks about the polar bears and tigers and bees dying, about the glaciers melting and the oceans warming, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and whales washing up dead on the beaches, when she imagines the mountain landscape she loves so much teeming with life again, a decade or a century in the future, she can feel something that is not so far from relief.

• • • •

Raffi finds Graham in one of the garden’s most luxurious bedrooms, stretched out on the king-sized bed. He is reading a book of poetry, and Raffi wonders if this is a gift Kay is giving her, this new version of Graham. He is some of Kay’s best work, the lines of his body so precisely him and not him, all at once. The crevasses in his face have been filled with a gold substance that is the exact color of the animals’ eyes. Seeing him is like seeing a stranger wearing Graham’s skin. Still, she climbs into the bed with him, rests her head on his shoulder. It is hard beneath her cheek.

They lie like that, not talking, the light gradually shifting in the room. Graham reads poetry—Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.—and Raffi closes her eyes and tries to imagine a world where they are both here together.

“I’m sorry,” she says, after a while. “I can’t imagine it. You and Buck never really got along.”

Graham says nothing. Raffi feels herself slipping back into old habits, half-truths and empty spaces. She pushes herself up onto an elbow, looks him in the eyes. “I’m sorry,” she says again. “I was so unhappy and I couldn’t figure out how to put it into words. I don’t know when the things we wanted stopped being the things I wanted.”

Graham says nothing.

“I don’t know if I ever wanted those things, or if I only wanted to want them.”

Graham says nothing.

“It made my aunt so happy to see us together, to know that I wouldn’t be alone after she died.”

Graham says nothing.

“I’m sorry,” Raffi says.

And nothing.

• • • •

At night on her way to the attic, Raffi overhears Kay and Buck arguing behind the closed bedroom door. She tells her feet to keep walking, but they disregard her directions and slip stealthily closer instead. It is mostly Kay’s voice she hears, the cadences of it familiar even though Raffi can only make out a handful of words. She doesn’t need the words to know what they are saying. That the garden must be protected, that the risk is unnecessary, that they each want the other to stay alive, that they are furious with this desire.

Back when Kay and Buck first got married—only a year or so after Kay had finished art school and come back home—Raffi waited for Kay to call her up and complain. She waited to see her own discomfort mirrored and therefore diminished. She waited for their similarity of circumstance to return them to the kind of intimacy they’d had before Kay left and Raffi, taking care of her aunt, stayed. But Kay didn’t complain. She settled into married life like it was a bespoke jacket, sewn perfectly to her measurements. She flourished, developing a name for herself, content with Buck’s stolid affection.

Raffi wants to push the door open, wants to tell them that it is too late, now, to be arguing. But she doesn’t. She listens until their voices grow soft, and then she leaves.

• • • •

The next morning, the taxidermy garden is uncomfortably quiet. Raffi wanders from room to room, checking in with the various inhabitants, until she finds Kay in the master bedroom, sitting on the floor at her mother’s feet. Kay’s mother is wearing an elegant silk bathrobe, reclined in a wingback chair with one leg crossed over the other. Raffi sits down next to Kay. The carpet is so thick that it’s like sitting on a pillow.

“Buck’s gone,” Kay says. Raffi thinks, of course, but she doesn’t say anything, just puts her arm around Kay’s shoulders. Kay slumps into her. “He left a note,” she says. “He said he’d be back in two days, that he’d only be gone the one night.”

Raffi wants to comfort her but she can’t think of anything to say that is both comforting and true. “He made it back last time,” she says after a long pause.

Kay shakes her head, pushes the palms of her hands into her eyes. She looks up at her mother’s calm, lined face. “She was the first one,” Kay says. “I had no idea what I was doing.” She traces her finger over a seam that runs up the back of her mother’s leg.

“She looks just like herself though,” Raffi says. “Even more so somehow.”

Raffi wishes, suddenly, that her aunt had waited a little longer to die, that instead of her body decomposing into nothingness deep beneath the ground she could be here in the garden with them.

“It was her old Siamese cat that got her. Isn’t that the world’s worst joke?”

They sit in silence for a bit, Raffi’s hand resting on Kay’s knee.

“Do you know she used to clean this house?” Kay says. “It’s how we knew it existed and had the electric fence. We always joked about what a nutjob the owner was, having an electric perimeter in Montana, as if we were living in Alaska.”

“Didn’t save him in the end though, did it?”

“Can’t say as I feel too sorry. He was always a dick to my mom.”

“Now she’s got the master bedroom,” Raffi says.

“She sure does.”

• • • •

Instead of going down to the basement like normal, Kay says, “Let’s make popcorn on the wood stove. If he’s going to take off like this, he deserves to miss out.” It is a treat to eat something that isn’t rice or meat, to watch the kernels pop and jump.

“Remember how we used to stuff bags of popcorn into our bras to go to the movies?” Kay says, and as soon as she says it, Raffi does, the memory crystalline and gleaming like a marble in the sun.

They finish the popcorn, but Kay still doesn’t go. “Pick me a good book,” she says, and they lie on opposite ends of the couch, their legs touching under a blanket. Raffi gives the old woman sitting in the armchair her own thriller, propping it carefully in her lap. They read each other the best lines aloud, let the animals become punch lines: The bear arrives in Texas looking for trouble on a Friday in June, his fedora tilted at a jaunty angle. When Kay finds bits she likes, she nudges Raffi with her foot. The room is warm and smells like popcorn; even the old woman looks like she’s enjoying her book.

• • • •

That night, up in the attic, Raffi waits, although she tells herself she isn’t. When she hears footsteps on the stairs, she tries not to think about what it means that Kay only wants her company in the moments when Buck is gone. It is cold in the attic and Raffi’s body aches with loneliness and she will take what she can get: spare moments of time, the heat of Kay’s shoulder pressed up against her, the easy understanding that belongs to them and no one else.

“I’m having doubts,” Kay says, “about the taxidermy garden.”

Raffi understands that Kay needs to talk about something that is not Buck, that it is her turn to create for Kay a world where Buck is not somewhere in the darkness with golden eyes watching him. “What kind of doubts?”

“Well, not doubts so much as nightmares. The bodies keep talking to me.”

“What do they say?”

“They want to tell me everything, all the details of their lives and what it’s like to be dead and how it was when the animals killed them. They talk and talk and talk and then I wake up and I’m so tired.” Kay tilts her head so that it rests against Raffi’s, and Raffi closes her eyes into the closeness. “They tell me about the things they miss most: red velvet cake, a favorite song, television on a rainy day. It’s never what you think it’d be.”

Raffi matches her breathing to Kay’s.

“What do you miss most?” Kay asks.

Raffi tries to recall. It is like looking for a word in a language she has mostly forgotten. How long has it been since it all began? The first attacks, the comprehension that blossomed like a bruise. Before is a dream.

• • • •

Sometimes Raffi can’t help but wish that she could climb into Kay’s skin with her. Sometimes she wants to hold her so tight that their boundaries dissolve. Sometimes she wants to say, when we die—tomorrow or next month—can you taxidermy all of me inside all of you so that I never have to be alone again?

• • • •

By the time the sun sets the next day, Kay has given up the pretense of reading and is staring out the window. She is so still that Raffi watches for the movement of her chest, waits for Kay to blink to reassure her that she is not alone with a roomful of bodies. Raffi is afraid she is watching something in Kay break that she will never be able to repair, their snow globe finally cracking, the water readying itself to rush out. She brings Kay strips of jerky to chew on. She watches Kay watch the window. When the window has darkened to a mirror so that it’s impossible to see anything other than the reflection of the wood stove’s flames, Raffi takes Kay’s hand and leads her up to the attic.

They lie down side by side in Raffi’s little bed, both of them still in their jeans and sweaters. They are touching at the shoulders and hips. Raffi feels fiercely grateful to have Kay here next to her. Miserable, yes, but alive, and needing her.

“I shouldn’t have let him go,” Kay says.

“You didn’t.”

Raffi takes Kay’s hand, and Kay holds on tight enough to make Raffi’s fingers ache.

• • • •

Buck does not come back the next day, or the one after that. Kay and Raffi don’t talk about where he is or what might have happened to him. They hardly talk at all. Kay doesn’t go back down to the basement. She doesn’t brush her teeth or change her clothes. Her hair tangles and the shadows under her eyes deepen and she smells of sweat and anxiety. Raffi orbits her, afraid to let her out of sight, afraid that if she stops willing Kay to be a person, from one breath to the next she will transform into a body.

• • • •

Before Raffi’s aunt got sick, Kay and Raffi were going to leave together. Kay would go to art school and Raffi would go to the neighboring liberal arts college and study biology and they would live together and everything would be the same between them, but the world would be better. It had all felt so real that even after Kay left, Raffi could close her eyes and see the little apartment they would have shared. Maybe this was the reason for the gap that grew between them—every time Raffi talked to Kay, this other life became a little less vivid, as though the color was draining out of it and into the version in which Kay had a roommate from Portland and Raffi was working at a dude ranch and letting one of the wranglers take her out to dinner every now and then. Raffi’s aunt had told her to go, but Raffi would not. So Kay went alone, and Raffi stayed and went on dates with Graham and took long hikes alone through the mountains and tried to hold onto every minute of time she had left with her aunt.

• • • •

On the sixth day of Buck’s absence, Raffi wakes in the watery light of early morning and Kay is not in bed with her. Before her eyes make sense of what she’s seeing, she’s halfway down the stairs, some sixth sense ringing alarm bells so loud that she can hardly think. She is so ready to fling herself out the door that when she sees Kay pulling on her boots in the mudroom, she feels as though she has run into a wall. She gapes, gasping for breath. Kay meets her eyes, but only for an instant.

“At least Buck told you he was going to leave,” Raffi says.

Kay flinches. “It wouldn’t be fair, asking you to come with me.”

“You haven’t asked me anything.”

Raffi is furious. She can’t stand to be in the room with Kay a second longer. She turns around and walks back into the house, digging her nails into her palms. She wants to slam the door so hard behind her that the glass shatters. She wants to say, fine, if that’s what you want, just go, it’s not like you haven’t left before. She wants to rewind the movie of their lives until they’re thirteen years old zipped into a sleeping bag cocoon, and pause everything there.

She isn’t paying attention to where she is walking; her attention is still with Kay, who even at this moment might be walking out towards the animals. Fine, Raffi thinks, fine, fine, fine. She bumps into someone in the hallway and for a moment she thinks it is Kay, conjured forth by her anger, before she realizes it is just another body. An older man who used to plow the roads. Raffi puts her palm against his chest, pushes him hard and he topples backwards with a crash. She kicks him—this is what he gets for not being Kay, this is what the whole world gets for falling apart—but his body is a hard thing now and her toe makes a cracking noise, a throb of pain shooting up her leg.

“Why are you kicking Henry?”

Raffi turns around and, this time, it is Kay. She shrugs, her vision swimming.

“I’m sorry,” Kay says. She looks lost, a small child looking for her parents. She and Raffi never fight, haven’t since they were kids. Even when things began to collapse between them, it happened quietly, wordlessly.

Raffi wants to comfort her, but she imagines waking up an hour later, the only breathing occupant of the taxidermy garden, and doesn’t say anything.

“It felt like having you here meant that maybe I’d make it back. That there’d be something to make it back to.”

“I’m a person, not an anchor,” Raffi says. “Not another of your bodies.”

“I’m sorry,” Kay says again. “All of this—” she gestures vaguely around her “—I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m so scared of losing everything, everyone.” She reaches her hand out, and Raffi can’t help herself, she takes it. Kay’s fingers are cold.

“Do you want to come with me?” Kay asks.

Raffi doesn’t know if there is any space left for the things she wants, but the idea of being left behind again is unbearable. She nods.

• • • •

Raffi tells Kay she needs time, and Kay doesn’t argue. “I’ll be in the basement,” she says, “just yell down when you’re ready.”

Back in the attic, Raffi sits alone on her bed and breathes in for a count of five, out for a count of five, the way she did after her aunt died: one breath and one breath and one breath. “That’s all it takes to keep living,” one of the hospice nurses had said to her. When the trembling inside her stills, she dresses in her warmest clothes and climbs back down the stairs.

It is full morning now, a bluebird day, and the sun streams through the windows and makes Kay’s creations gleam, reflecting off bits of metal and glass, polished wood and leather. Raffi walks from room to room, saying her goodbyes. The strangeness of it all seeps through her, as though in preparing to leave she is able to see the taxidermy garden clearly for the first time. But the strangeness only adds to the beauty, more undeniable than ever in the sunshine.

In Graham’s bedroom, she rests her cheek against his. “I hope being dead is like existing in the moment before waking, when anything could happen,” she says to him. “I hope when we wake up, we’re birds or bears or rabbits.”

So many rooms, so many bodies, but eventually she is standing at the top of the basement stairs. She and Kay pull on their boots together this time. Raffi loads one of Buck’s guns, slings it over her shoulder. It is heavy, menacing. She thinks of her aunt saying, “Don’t aim at something unless you want to kill it.”

Kay opens the door and cold air and light pour in. Behind them, the taxidermy garden is silent, bodies watching through the windows as they walk away. A bird wheels overhead and Raffi puts her hand on the gun, but it is only a speck in the sky. She takes a breath. In her mind’s eye, she sees her and Kay’s bodies, transformed in ways she can’t yet imagine, lying together in her bed in the attic.

Raffi takes Kay’s hand. Somewhere, the bear is waiting. Somewhere, Buck’s body is lying alone, ready to come home to the taxidermy garden.

Em North

Em North is a writer currently living in Baltimore, MD. She teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University where she received her MFA. She was a member of the Clarion Workshop class of 2019, where she was awarded a Delany-Kushner-Sherman The Future is Queer scholarship. Prior to pursuing her MFA, she worked as a physicist, snowboard instructor, and horse trainer, living in eleven states in ten years. Her nonfiction can be found in The Threepenny Review, Catapult, and Best American Experimental Writing 2020. This is her first fiction publication.