“Lie on my back
Clouds are making way for me
I’m coming home, sweet home”
―Darren Korb, “I’m Here”
“It was their idea that I use the other name.” Alison had pressed herself hard against Tracy’s chest. Tracy turned off the lamp and laid with Alison on the bed. Tracy knew exactly who they were: the same they that shrank her, probably the same they that created the gas that led to so much trouble in the first place.
“Witness protection?” Tracy asked.
“No. They didn’t need to move me. They moved things around me. As far as records go, Megan Small never existed as anything other than an anonymous inmate who wrecked the West Coast and probably died, and Alison Daily has no relation to her whatsoever.” Alison sniffed. “A lot of the people who lived here when I was growing up are gone now. Anybody else… they must have gotten some incentive to keep quiet about me.”
“Good thing.” Tracy thought of all the women she had met in prison, and how she had heard from none of them since her release. “Tell me about her.”
“She left. She went away before she was eighteen, and I don’t know everything she got into, but she was in prison when Mom and Dad died. She got out, but not for long. Then you know what happened to the next jail she was in.”
Alison made a noise in her throat, and Tracy recognized the sound of a scream being choked back. The smaller woman was crying again.
“How do you think I feel, knowing my sister killed all those people? Do you have any idea how hard it is to not remember? Even if everyone who knew me doesn’t say so, they know. They all saw what she did. What she turned into.” Alison gulped as though surfacing for air. She looked Tracy in the eyes for the first time since seeing the pictures. “Do you still—”
Tracy’s lips silenced her. “She wasn’t your fault,” Tracy said. “People are only related by accident. But now that I’m with you…”
“I know,” Alison said, “I need to trust you with all this. Tomorrow, ok? I’ll tell you about everything. No more secrets.”
Tracy nodded. “No more.” She enveloped Alison, rolling on top of her and kissing her until she was out of breath.
“Careful,” gasped Alison.
Without her glasses, Alison couldn’t see whether or not Tracy was smiling. “Trust me, remember?” Strong fingers tore away Alison’s clothes and began to explore. That night, the two women slept like possums.
No one saw the ghost walking down Matheson Street. No one was looking, and of course ghosts can let wandering eyes pass through them. If there were any wandering along the storm-pelted macadam they might have rested on an ordinary woman in stolen clothes layered with mud from an unrestful nap in a ditch. But the rain was sloughing off the woman’s earth, making her more wraithlike, less solid, drenching and reducing her.
White lights glared through the darkness: the first car down the street since the woman had crept into the suburb. She sprang across the road like a frightened deer, hurled herself into the swollen swale spilling out over the marshy lawns, let the rest of her mud coating dissolve, slithered through the gloriously cool rainwater, crept up the steep slope from the water into someone’s backyard. A backyard that had been her neighbor’s so many years ago. A backyard that she had played in as a child.
How strange, to think of herself playing. How much stranger, to think that she had once been a child.
She wondered what her old neighbors would think of her now, returned with her face and body as evidence of so many years passed, returned with infamy stretching before her like a dawn shadow, billowing behind her like a dark mantle. How she must appear to a random passerby—slinking through backyards at night like a hungry raccoon—who didn’t know that this was her old neighborhood, that she had grown up and lived and left there long before anyone outside of that place knew her name. Not that she cared what one might think, then or now.
Finally, in her backyard, she fished the knife from the pocket of the pants that were not her own—a man’s, made tight about her waist by fishing tackle—and plunged it into the sodden earth. The heavy rain had made her job easy; her knees were already sinking into the ground as her left arm tore up sod and sifted through the nightcrawlers and liquid soil. Then her blade found the phone line and sliced through. She overturned the stone toad squatting guard beside the back door. Sure enough: the spare key, just where her mother had always hidden it.
She may have become a stranger in her old neighborhood, but she would be damned if she wasn’t going to enter her old house through the front door.
She walked around to the front of the house, up the driveway, up to the front door as though nothing had ever changed.
How strange and wonderful to be back home!
Tracy was a heavy sleeper. She had scarcely stirred when Alison slipped out from beneath her embrace. The smallest of the pair shuddered and rubbed away goosebumps when she stepped out of the jungle climate of her bedroom. Their bedroom. She looked back at the outline of the amazon asleep under sweat-soaked sheets, flickering under the fan’s shadow. Something coiled in her chest like a tightening fist, and it felt good. Alison needed a drink of water (no telling how much weight she had lost in bodily fluids). Tracy would probably wake up hungry as well as thirsty, given the pace she’d maintained for most of the night. Alison had never spent so much time being lifted during sex. She staggered to the fridge like a woman at sea. Easy to believe, listening to the blast of rain against the roof.
Something clinked in the hallway.
Alison went to the front door. Nothing but the storm and the melting light of streetlamps through the rain. She felt like a child again, annoyed at herself for being frightened. She sighed, and a knotted towel fell over her mouth.
Arms entangled hers. Her face hit the rug. She screamed and thrashed and stopped when the weight on her back increased and strong hands twisted her head until she expected to hear cracking. Alison was blind: tears blurred her vision, the house was dark, and her glasses had fallen off.
More pain, in her wrists: they were bound behind her back with what felt like fishing line. Then her ankles. She was rolled onto her back, and fully expected to be killed. Alison closed her eyes.
Her assailant wiped the tears away with the loose end of the towel-gag. Alison felt her glasses being placed carefully on her face.
“Wouldn’t wanna break those again,” whispered a familiar voice.
Alison’s eyes were suddenly very open.
Heavy footsteps in the hallway.
“Here comes the big girl already…”
The invader was prepared. More bonds tied and ready, and something that glinted in the meager light. She slithered into the kitchen, shadowing Tracy.
The tall woman heard a muffled sound near the front door, and turned.
Someone else kicked off from the wall and landed on her back. Tracy reached over her head, couldn’t find anything to grab. The attacker swung her feet into Tracy’s tailbone once, twice, three times, dropped to the floor and struck her behind both knees.
“Goddamn you!” There was pressure on the sides of her neck before she could even try to get up. One arm was squeezing, and the other held something sharp to the big woman’s stomach.
“Just give up, will ya?” the other woman hissed.
Tracy would not. She reached out one hand to snap something. The arm squeezed hard, and Tracy passed out.
Done. Now, the work of dragging the big one to a more convenient place and tying her. Alison gave up struggling when she saw Tracy, limp, being moved to the living room. She allowed herself to be slung over the invader’s shoulder without protest and tied to a chair.
“Well, sis,” said Megan, flicking on a light, “you sure know how to make a girl feel welcome.”
Tracy was dead. She could smell burning meat and hear its sizzling, which wasn’t a good sign.
The air conditioning blew hair across her forehead. Tracy realized she was still alive, and remembered where she had been. Temples, neck, knees, back, and wrists were all sore, the wrists more so for being tightly bound with rope. A towel gag was in her mouth. The dimmed living room lights turned her swimming vision golden, and a golden voice came floating from the kitchen:
Now if you’ve lost your inheritance
And all you’ve left is common sense
And you’re not too picky about the crowd you keep
Or the mattress where you sleep
Behind every window, behind every door
The apple is gone, but there’s always the core
And the seeds will sprout up right through the floor
Coming fully to her senses, Tracy knew she must have imagined the loveliness of the singing. Singing of the sprouting seeds, the voice lapsed into a declamatory snarl and a drumroll of kitchen utensils clattered on the countertop in a crescendo over the half-sung, half-murmured rubato:
Down there in the Reeperbahn.
Megan Small stepped into the living room and bowed, facing Tracy. She twirled the fork and spatula in her hands.
“The album version goes on longer after that,” she said to Tracy, tossing back long rain-damp hair. “Knew you wouldn’t be out for too long if I did that choke correctly.”
Megan was still soaked, and her mismatched ensemble suggested unhappy fates for its many clothing-bereft former owners. She extended a hand to Tracy, retracted it, chuckled.
“I was going to introduce myself,” she said, “but I think my reputation precedes me. That’s one way we’re alike, Tracy.”
Tracy refused her captor the satisfaction of eyes wide with surprise, but she was very surprised to her name from Megan Small’s mouth. Megan must have sensed it regardless. “Didn’t think you were a big name outside of spooky government labs, right?” she snickered. “Well, we shared one back before my big day. It’s a little weird for me, seeing you bigger than bite-sized”—she held a forefinger and thumb an inch apart—“right in front of me, not scurrying around on the floor, not being talked about by creepy old dudes in labcoats looking at before-and-after pictures. Hell, they had me on so many drugs, I was usually seeing about five of you at once.” Megan threw an arm around Tracy’s neck, gave her a chummy punch on the shoulder. “What a night this is for you, huh? Not every day you get held hostage by a celebrity!” A wave of the hand dismissed invisible hordes of fans. She threw on her best Trans-Atlantic accent and gave a regal, Katharine Hepburn raise of the chin. “‘I know, I know, you were expecting someone taller; what can I say, darling, we’re all larger-than-life on camera.’ Must be weird for you, not seeing me from a bird’s eye view or a shaky-cam upshot.”
A hand against the other side of Tracy’s head kept her from recoiling as Megan purred into her ear, “And am I a little quieter than you’re used to?” Tracy held her breath to avoid the woman’s mephitis. Megan smiled warmly at Tracy’s cringing discomfort before turning her attention to Alison.
“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, Ali.” Megan tousled Alison’s hair and spoke with enough mock-sweetness to make Tracy’s teeth ache. “My little sister’s grown up so much since I last saw her! Living on her own like a big girl and everything, even getting fucked on the regular! And what are the chances that you’d hook up with the same sexy, MMA-looking bitch that got ‘cured’ at the same time as me?” She laughed. Tracy cringed and bit into her gag; if she had her eyes closed, she could almost have mistaken it for Alison’s laugh. “And you”—this directed at Tracy, along with the fork in her hand—“are my main reason for coming here, make no mistake. As nice as it is to see the old place and my sweet baby Ali. No, I’m here to be your best friend—not that you have a ton of choice in the matter—and have you join me on a little road trip.”
Tracy snarled a muffled refusal. Megan shook her head and walked away. “Sorry, not really coming through. By the way: gotta say, you’re built like a tank (had to get that rope out of the garage just for you), but I’m not sure you ever learned how to fight. Actually fight, not just hurt someone enough to scare them.” Megan darted back into the kitchen, returned with a steak bleeding out its burnt last onto a plate. She left it to cool on the table across from Alison and Tracy, hovering above it to waft the smell into her nostrils.
“We’ll talk about how the rest of our lives are going to go as soon as I’m clean and fed,” Megan said. She darted her gaze around the house. “Now… I can’t be the only music we have the rest of the night, that won’t work.” She rolled her eyes at her younger sister. “I remember, there was that CD player you used to have, is it in your room?”
Alison did not respond, or even lift her head to acknowledge Megan.
“I’ll assume it is,” sighed Megan. She returned from searching Alison’s room with the CD player, covered in dust, and with Tracy’s half-emptied bag. “It’ll be good for the atmosphere. All this thunder and lightning can get you on edge, and the last thing I need is for you two to be tense. High blood pressure’s not something you want when your circulation’s almost cut off.”
Tracy tugged at her bonds. They were expertly done. Even she couldn’t just rip through so much rope.
“Well, whaddaya know?” Megan said, rifling through Tracy’s bag. “Big Tracy’s got some nice taste in music!” She produced Bone Machine. “This is one of my favorites.” Megan put the CD into the player, and Tom Waits began his gravelly prophesying about the end of the world.
And the earth died screaming…
“I can tell you’ll be good to have around,” Megan said to Tracy. “Now, you two just relax for a minute while I shower and get out of these shitty clothes. Been too fucking long since I showered.” She left the two bound women in the barely-lit living room, taking the steak with her. Alison heard the water running, and hoped desperately that lightning would strike the house and electrocute her sister in the shower. Then they would only have to wait until Tracy had another spurt and freed them. Or she wouldn’t, and they would be in a different quagmire.
She turned her head to look at Tracy, who was still glowering straight ahead. Alison grunted for her attention. Tracy met her gaze, and the fear in the smaller woman’s eyes fueled the rage that seethed at the invasion of this outlaw into their home.
From the CD player, Waits’s sobbing:
I said we’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground
Tracy had expected a long shower. Her first shower after being released had lasted half an hour. Megan instead returned in less than ten minutes, fully naked, and holding a Winchester Model 12 shotgun.
“Of course you didn’t sell Dad’s waterfowl gun,” said Megan, reclining on the loveseat across from her captives’ chairs. “Always looked nice up on the wall in their bedroom. Still think he should’ve put it up in here, but at least I knew where to look.”
There came the croaking chant:
All stripped down
All stripped down
She was just as beautiful as she was on TV, Tracy thought. It made her sick. Megan’s hair, minutes ago long and greasy from neglect, had been cut to shoulder length. It hit Tracy what was off about it, still: no mauve. The hand that wasn’t on the stock of the shotgun was idly drumming fingers against the ample breasts pancaked against her chest. They were not as swollen, nor was the rest of Megan as voluptuous as after her colossal growth spurts, but…
If Tracy could have freed just one arm, she would have punched herself for the pang of lust she felt stab between her legs looking at Megan. The woman was a stone hourglass; everything besides her bosom was hardened, not with workout muscle, but with what remains when too much running and hiding and killing whatever food you can’t steal burns away everything soft inside and out. Tracy had seen it before. But never as attractive as the woman now posed like a painter’s model, aiming a gun at her and her girlfriend, idly scratching a barely-trimmed bush and flexing tired, (lovely Tracy thought with inward disgust) strong legs.
“Just made a call on your phone, sis,” yawned Megan. “Nikki Lonsky should be here from one of the houses next door. You’ll like her. I told her to move here awhile back, keep tabs on you, let me know if the Men in Black were stopping by, any spooky top-secret government stuff, whether or not they were watching over the place, yadda yadda. Didn’t seem like it. Guess they were pretty quick to wash their hands of us once I disappeared and your name got changed. She’s one of a few friends that you and Tracy are gonna be meeting today. She’ll be your—”
Megan’s head jerked up. Her eyes flicked here and there, giving her the mien of a lost dog. She focused on Tracy. The brunette protested through her gag when the woman with the gun pressed her nose into her hair and sniffed deeply. Alison’s reddened eyes grew wide.
“It’s you,” Megan breathed. She shivered. “It’s inside you. The vapor, the growth-gas, I can smell it. I couldn’t before I cleaned off, but now…” Again she sniffed about Tracy. “Mmm, different than mine, not as strong as mine was, but I recognize it. Oh, that’s just fantastic.”
The front door opened to the stormswept street, and a damp sandy-haired woman with a jagged scar under her left eye entered, wringing out her sweater.
“Looks like my spy showed up!” said Megan.
“H-hey, Meg!” chirped Nikki Lonsky. She stiffened when Megan approached to greet her in the nude. Megan patted her on the back, and Nikki went in for a full hug.
“I’m just glad to see you made it,” said Nikki, following her to the captives.
“Nikki: Alison and Tracy. Alison and Tracy: Nikki.”
Alison looked at Nikki Lonsky and recognized, in spirit, any one of the women who had frightened her during visits to Megan in her earliest days of incarceration. Tracy looked at her and recognized a certain type of person. She saw how Nikki looked at her comrade, and Tracy could tell that, as far as Nikki was concerned, Megan Small was still the biggest person in the world.
“Shouldn’t be long before they get here,” Nikki said. “Naomi’s closest, should show up right about sunrise, then I think Joan, and Jami will be last.”
“Last? I thought she’d already started from Maine, what the fuck has she—”
“It’s Jami, Meg.”
“Yeah, stupid question.” Megan sighed and massaged her forehead. She tossed the shotgun in Nikki’s direction. “Catch!”
Nikki cracked herself on the head trying to avoid grabbing the trigger. She leveled it at Alison and Tracy. “Were they trying to break free?”
“Nah, they’ve behaved themselves. But I had to get a little rough with them, ‘specially Big Guns over here,” said Megan, slapping one of Tracy’s sizable biceps. “Ali’s quiet, as usual.”
Alison barked something through her gag.
“Love you too, sis.” Megan again whispered into Tracy’s ear, holding her head still. “Another thing we’ve got in common, Trace: we’ve both gotten used to looking down at people. And I’m already sick of looking up.” She started toward Alison’s bedroom, glanced over her right shoulder and met Tracy’s eyes. Megan winked. “You keep an eye on them until company shows up, Nikki. I’m gonna sleep for a while, in a real bed.” Shuffling and rattling from the bedroom. “Just as soon as I find where Ali keeps her—”
The bedroom door slammed shut. The dark muttering of thunder overhead was soon punctuated by the rhythmic knock of a headboard against a wall. Nikki turned down the music and sat across from the bound women. She smiled uneasily.
“You girls might as well try to sleep a little. This place is gonna be real busy in a few hours.”
Tracy snorted and rocked on her chair. Her head throbbed from trying to will an Opportunity. Alison was breathing heavily.
“Sorry you can’t be more comfy,” Nikki said. “Meg’ll probably let me untie you as soon as AAGH JESUS!”
The house flashed white and the sky cracked. The lights went out. For a little while the storm fell silent as if in apology for the last fiery shout, and the Small house was quiet except for the gasping of a woman postponing her sleep and the high-pitched drone of her electronic lover.