Jayde knew exactly what that smell was. It was incense and pot and food left out too long. It was unwashed pets with matted coats. It was ripe clothes that needed to be turned into rags but were still being worn. All smells she’d grown up with it.
Her mother brought her to this house on the edge of Lawrence well after sundown. They drove up in their old Geo Tracker, windows open and the air finally cool after a hot day of driving through Missouri and Kansas without air conditioning. The sun had been down for an hour, but the vinyl of the dashboard and door panels were still sticky with heat.
The house was old, with a big wraparound porch, set far back from the road and surrounded by bushes and trees. The yard had tricycles and plastic bats and other toys that signaled children, a sign that awoke more anxiety than excitement.
Jayde and her mother went inside, and her observations about the house produced more anxiety.
The door had no lock.
The house had no A/C
The light fixtures had been replace with candles.
The kitchen had no stove.
The first thing Jayde had to do was say hi to her mother’s new friend, a man named Darren who would guide the commune and restaurant they’d come to be part of. He had short hair, glasses, and a square head, like a stone man from a Pacific island. The others in the house were introduced too, but with less importance, as they merely waved to her with whichever hand wasn’t holding beer or kombucha. But Darren stayed closer to her, his hand resting briefly on the top of her head. They all commented on the usual adult things, how cute she was, how much like her mother, how one of the women had a little boy there about her age and he was already asleep but we know you’re going to be good friends.
She went up two flights of stairs to her room. Jayde had never been in such a tall house before. It smelled different up there, more like old wood and wet air and green plants just outside the open window. Her mother tucked her in and went down to join the others, and Jayde fell asleep wondering how they would eat without a stove.
During the days, Jayde’s mom took classes with the other students and tended a large plot of vegetables that Jayde hadn’t seen on their dark drive in. It was so big that, the night before, she just assumed it to be another of the many weedy fields.
Jayde played outside with the other child there, a boy named Kale. They were not allowed to sit in on the classes or work in the garden. Kale was a year younger and quite a bit smaller, but he was kind and funny. One of the first things she told him was that she didn’t like the food.
“You get used to it,” he said. “Fruit is the best. Have you had figs? Figs are good.”
“Don’t they cook anything?” she said. Jayde had already asked her mother this, and was hoping for a different answer from another kid, someone who’d been here a while. But his answer was basically the same.
“No. Cooking is bad for you. It makes food into cancer. Darren, he says we eat like how Adam and Eve used to eat, which is better than what we do now.”
Jayde sighed and stuck the hand trowel she was playing with into the dirt. They had milk and vegetables for lunch. She wanted a hotdog more than anything.
Kale tapped her shoulder and pointed into the woods beyond the garden.
“Did you see it?” he said.
“It was a deer. There’s lots of animals out here, even really big ones. Do you want to go look?”
They walked through the woods, finding only squirrels, and came back for suppertime.
Jayde saw the fireflies on her third night. She had never seen anything like it. It reminded her of an animated movie about little fairies that lived in trees. Darren brought her a jar, and she and Kale ran into the overgrown lawn where they compared methods for capturing the bugs. In a short time they had more than two dozen in the jar. It glowed like a lamp.
Kale brought one last bug to her and ripped it in half as though he were breaking bread. At first, she thought he was trying to gross her out, which she would not let him do, but he took her hand and gently stuck the gooey, still bright abdomen to the back of her finger. Again, she thought it was supposed to disgust her, but then she understood.
She held it up for both of them to see, her fingers taut so that they could admire the glowing emerald ring he’d gifted her with.
But there was something else, past her hand. Two lights, shining steady, bigger than any firefly, peeked out at them from the edge of the woods. As soon as Jayde pointed at them, they were gone.
As long as the sun was out, the insects were vicious and never ending. Mosquitoes were the least of it. There were ticks in the tall grass, and they also fell from the tree branches. Horse flies and deer flies bit so hard that they felt like someone pinching with fingernails. Even the mown parts of the lawn were off limits because of the chiggers that crawled through any fabric and left welts that Jayde couldn’t leave alone, that bled with her constant attention. The worst were the seed ticks, little tiny red dots that crawled up her feet and infested the surface of her legs, making every inch feel itchy, like her skin had taken a life of its own. After a couple weeks, Jayde refused to go play in the long grass of the yard or further back into the trees. Her mom was alarmed by the red marks that pocked her daughter at the waist, the ankles, the neck, the wrist. She told Darren that Jayde needed more than essential oils, that the bugs were too attracted to her.
“This will pass once she adjusts,” he said. “Look at me. I’m out in the yard, and I’m not all bit up. Once the toxins are out of her system, this won’t happen. I wonder… are you giving her treats? You said she likes Kit Kats. That could cause it.”
Her mother got offended, said they were as devoted as anyone.
“Then why are you asking for poisons to put on your daughter?” he said, and that was the end of it.
The mention of a Kit Kat made Jayde’s mouth water.
Jayde’s third floor bedroom was so high above the yard that it felt like a lookout tower. From one angle she could see a few lights from buildings near the bridge and downtown, but mostly she saw the area near the house and the woods surrounding them. As summer wore on, she spent more and more time looking out the window. The house was now “off the grid” as the adults put it, so they operated by daylight and candles alone. The sun didn’t set until nine but she was put to bed at eight, even though she wasn’t tired yet.
The adults stayed up, despite the darkness. Sometimes they lit fires in the fire pit in the yard. They drank homemade wine. Many of them, including her mother, came and went from Darren’s first floor bedroom, a room that had its own small porch. They probably thought she didn’t know what was going on, and she didn’t entirely, but she knew it had to do with sex. Some of the adults were noisy. One of the voices might have been her mom. She didn’t want to know.
Even without a fire or a candle, an adult or two would walk out into the dark alone, to look up at the stars, whisper into a forbidden cell phone, or simply to urinate. These occurrences were the best. She learned the most about people when they thought they were alone. But no one was alone in this house.
It was when people went outside that she saw the spots of light again. They would slowly grow brighter, like a pair of candles newly lit, the flame building. The lights grew brighter, then they moved, like two bugs traveling in unison. But she knew it wasn’t bugs. It was probably an animal, some curious deer or coyote who just wanted to see what they humans were up to, maybe even make friends.
She watched, willing it to come into the clearing, but whenever it got to the edge, the adult outside would come in and the lights disappeared. Just once, she saw a long shiny nose, like the wet muzzle of a happy dog. Wouldn’t that be nice, if her friend was a stray dog they could adopt?
In the morning, she scanned the edges of the trees for the animal but never saw it. The bugs were still so bad that she would hardly leave the porch. It was better to watch from a distance and hope the creature came to her.
Jayde’s mother returned from downtown with bags of fruits and vegetables. While others put the food away, she took Jayde aside and drew out a small bottle of bug spray, which she gave to her daughter. The bugs left her alone then, but she had to be careful of Darren, whose nostrils flared if she got too close, and he looked at her with those wide-open, wild eyes of his. They were always like that, like he was taking everything in all at once and it was overwhelming him, though he was too afraid to admit it.
Darren’s restaurant in town had just opened, so he and the others were too busy to see that she was arming herself with all kinds of modern tools. Besides the bug spray, she had found a keychain LED light for getting to the bathroom at night instead of a stupid candle. She liked to point it out the window at night and turn it on and off, as if she was communicating with the fireflies in the trees, as if she was part of their city and not isolated in her bedroom.
Her only companion on these long nights was the creature in the forest. It stared out with its bright eyes, and she flashed her light back at, imagining she was sending a message of friendship that the animal was only too happy to receive.
Work at the restaurant had picked up, requiring more “cooks” and servers. That meant they’d need more help at home, which finally got Jayde and Kale into the garden. They could help pick some of the vegetables. Darren had to be there to teach them. It seemed now that he had to be everywhere, or that other people always had to be around him. No major or even minor event could happen without his presence. And if he was there, he was leading the way.
Today they were deep in the garden, on their knees between the spinach and tomatoes, picking snap peas. Darren had already explained how to pay attention to the fuzz, how they should feel when squeezed lightly, and how that should show the difference between ready ones and those that needed time to mature. No matter how much he talked, though, she and Kale couldn’t get what he meant. Some of the ones he said were ready were tiny, and others were big.
“Close your eyes, honey,” her mother said. She stood back with the others, watching at a distance. Jayde didn’t like how far away her mother often was now, or how other adults in the house would sometimes come to tuck her in at night, like they were becoming her parents, too.
“That’s a good idea,” Darren said. “That’s what I want you and Kale to do. Close your eyes. Feel the peas.”
Kale went first, grabbing on to a small one. “Is this one?” he said.
“No,” Darren said, swatting Kale’s hand away. “That is not ready.”
Then Jayde had to try. It wasn’t any different with her eyes closed. Some were big, and some were small. She settled on a medium one.
“Very good,” Darren said. He pulled the pod off the plant and held it up victoriously. The other adults applauded. He handed back to Jayde. “Here, enjoy it.”
Eat it, now? she thought. But it hadn’t been washed. She wiped one hand on her shirt, then used that hand to polish the pea.
“Don’t wipe the dirt off,” Darren said. “Eat it. We are made of the earth, and someday we’ll return to it.”
“But it gets stuck in my teeth.” Jayde’s mother had talked about this eating dirt business back when they were living with her grandmother. Thankfully, her grandmother wouldn’t have any of it, the dirt or the justifications.
“You’re a complainer, Jayde. Complaining won’t ever do you any good.” Darren was like this. He talked to her in ways other adults didn’t.
“My grandma said you wash dirt off vegetables because the dirt wears down your teeth.”
“Well that’s not true. That’s what we call conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually wrong.” He cast a glance at Jayde’s mom, who, as usual, couldn’t return his stare. He turned back to Jayde and put his hand on her bare calf. “The natural world only hurts those people who want to be hurt. Do you…” he cut himself short, but she heard the question anyway. Do you want to be hurt?
“We don’t have to talk about this now,” he said. “You’ll get it, sooner or later. Now try the pea pod.”
Jayde put the dirty vegetable in her mouth, snapped it in half, and chewed. Darren finally took his hand off her thigh.
From then on, Jayde was allowed in the garden while Kale was not. He played just outside the chicken wire fence, his lonely games progressing in violence. He thwacked at the tall weeds with a long stick, and then when the sticks broke, used a mallet to drive them into the ground, so far that they disappeared in the pounded earth. Still later, Jayde saw him stalking through the grass, suddenly leaping with his mallet to strike an unseen enemy. After an entire morning of this, she realized he was hunting grasshoppers.
She preferred watching him to working in the garden. Picking peas was the easy part, especially once she realized no one checked on the quality of her picking. They simply took the full baskets of vegetables and set them by the driveway for small van that constantly traveled back and forth between the house and the restaurant. When not harvesting, she had to weed. Weeding made them better than conventional farming, Darren told her, because those farmers relied on pesticide, which was unnatural.
“I thought cooking made it poison,” she told him.
“Yes, and so do pesticides,” he said. “All of it is an affront to nature.”
She could have asked him what “affront” meant, but preferred weeding and picking to talking with Darren.
All the weeds had to go so that there were enough nutrients for the vegetables. Well, not all the weeds. Dandelions were allowed, because they weren’t weeds. Unless they’d already turned to seed, in which case they became weeds. And she had to be careful of the plants that looked like weeds but weren’t, the arugula and carrots and potatoes. If it didn’t have an identifiable vegetable growing from a stalk, it looked like a weed to her. One day, she yanked the tops off a dozen parsnips before another adult stopped her. He slapped her hands, just like Darren, and spouted off about things she didn’t understand, margins and seasonal growing cycles. Jayde didn’t even know the man’s name.
One afternoon, Kale collected a pile of rocks from the road and, using a stick from the woods, began batting the rocks into the garden, pelting Jayde and whomever else happened to be inside.
Kale’s mother tried to calm him. “Kale, honey,” she said. “We don’t throw rocks.”
Another man said “You need to stop him right now, Tanya, or I will.”
“You know what happens when I get forceful,” she said. “He just gets more stubborn.”
They continued working in a tense silence, the gardeners at their plants, Kale reassembling his pile of rocks. He kicked them together, then began carefully stacking them in a little pyramid. Jayde thought maybe the anger of the adults had reached him and he knew better than to continue.
She heard another cracking sound, and a rock fell between her and the man. He stood up and pointed his trowel at Kale. “That’s it you little shit,” he said. He marched toward the edge of the fence. Kale sped up his attack, hitting one stone after another. Any that came close to the man, he knocked aside with his trowel.
If not for Kale’s mother, the man might have jumped the fence. She ran ahead, to the garden gate and beyond. Normally placid and slow, she moved quickly, wrapping Kale in her arms and stripping the stick from his grasp. The man paused at the fence, scraping his trowel across the top. The grating sound of metal on metal made Jayde’s teeth hurt. As Kale cried and cursed in his mother’s arms, the man went back to work.
“That wasn’t right,” Jayde’s mom said. “You threatened that boy with violence.”
The man snorted. “Darren’s right. You bend too much.”
Her mom shook a pepper plant, bringing the top all the way to the ground before letting it go. “I’m not a tree, Mark. I’m life producer, and I bend. Unlike you.”
The man, Mark, shook his head. “Yeah, you’re a real earth mother,” he said.
Outside the garden, Kale’s mother was dragging him away. She held him under the arms, pulling, while he wailed and dug his heels into the soil. Jayde’s mother gave up on arguing and put her energy into extracting weeds.
A pinch on Jayde’s ankle reminded her to take care of herself. She swatted the mosquito and asked to be excused for the restroom. Really, she needed to reapply her bug spray. Nature, like people, doesn’t hurt those who want to be hurt. It hurts those who are most vulnerable.
That night, while watching out her third floor window, Jayde saw Kale step out alone in the yard. He’d never left the house after dark, not without adults watching. He walked right to the edge of the garden. She wondered what he was doing only for a moment, only until Kale lowered his pants and started peeing on the green beans growing up the fence.
Jayde got out her keychain light and started blinking it at him, hoping he would turn around, look up and see it. She wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone, even if the adults had separated them.
He finished, but didn’t turn around. Kale walked forward, to the woods, as though he saw something there. Jayde looked and saw the two dots of light that belonged to her animal friend.
She was immediately taken by a sense of injustice; that was her animal friend, the one she’d reached out to. She should be the first one to meet it. It wanted to see her anyway. Why hadn’t she gone out at night to see it, like Kale?
Jayde got out of bed and quickly but quietly descended the stairs. If Kale got to run around at night, so would she. Who would stop her, the angry adults? They were too busy sleeping off long days at the restaurant.
She tried to open the screen door quietly, but it creaked and then slipped from her hand, slapping into the doorframe. Now she would have to go quickly, in case her mom or some other adult came to investigate. She held the button down on her light and walked out to find Kale.
The grass was tall, and when it swiped against her legs it tickled, reminding her of all the bugs that could be crawling on her. She just had to hope that the bug spray she’d put on that afternoon was still working.
Once in the trees, the grass died back and she had to walk around scrubby plants and fallen branches. The light barely lit her way enough for her to see the ground.
“Kale,” she said. “Kale, where are you?”
He had disappeared. In the short time it took her to get outside, he was no longer in the yard and not in the woods. But she did see another friend through the trees.
The two dots, reflecting her light, or the starlight, seemed far away but got closer surprisingly fast. And they didn’t bob up and down like she expected, but almost floated towards her, the head kept incredibly level while the body moved.
The eyes were her height, maybe taller. And below them, another reflection began to shine, this time in a horizontal line. They were teeth – long, bright teeth.
It wasn’t a friendly animal.
Jayde stepped backward while the creature took two steps forward. The long snout materialized out of the dark, blackish-blue in color, like the shell of a beetle. Its big paws, with long toes almost like fingers, settled softly on the ground in front of its body, more like a person trying to walk on all fours than like an animal. Unlike a person, it had a long alligator tail, the distant tip swishing in the brush.
She continued to walk backwards, but her heel caught on something, a twig or a root, and she nearly fell. By the time she regained her balance, the creature was right in front of her.
The head was huge, maybe the size of a horse’s. The skin really was blue, like a pond at night, and almost perfectly smooth, except for the wrinkles around the mouth and eyes. She could smell it now too, something earthy and clean. It smelled more like a wet stone than a wet dog. It sniffed her back, its nostrils flaring, and its head turned away quickly, as if it didn’t like the smell of her. But it returned to staring at her.
The little LED light she held flickered and in those fractions of a moment between light and darkness the creature’s mouth opened and closed in flashing succession: wide and gaping, then clamped shut, faster than anything she’d ever seen. Still its eyes held her, its body nearly surrounding her.
The muscles in her thumb twitched so she held the light in both hands, holding down the little button with all her strength. Then she heard the voice behind her, at the edge of the trees, by the yard.
“Jayde?” Kale said. “What are you doing? I can see your light. I know you’re looking at something.”
The monster raised its head to look behind her.
“Go inside, Kale,” she said.
“What are you looking at?” he said.
The monster sniffed. It took a step away from Jayde.
“I said go inside!” she said.
The darkness blurred around her. She swung back to the creature, to fend it off with her light, but it was gone.
Kale screamed. She looked at where he’d just been and saw the humped form of the creature. It jerked its head near the ground, lifted something in its jaws, and then cut through the yard, obscured by the tangle of trees.
Jayde ran to where she’d last seen Kale, holding the light in front of her like a magic blade pointed tip-first. The creature took him, she knew it. She shined the light into the yard as best she could, but the range was so short. All she could see was the blood left on the grass.
Jayde overheard the policemen talking.
“You know, this has actually happened before here.”
“Yeah, a long time ago. The guy who built the house, he was found on his porch, all ripped to shreds.”
“Yeah. I guess it got his wife and kid, too.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Heard it from the animal guy they brought in. He thinks it’s because of the drought. Mountain lion gets hungry, starts traveling around, settles on whatever small animal he can find.”
“Got to be careful, living by the river. I heard they travel all along river corridors. Fucking hippies should have thought of that before they shut off the power.”
“No kidding. I hate having to haul the floodlights out. It’s going to be light out in a few hours. Do we really need to do this now?”
The men kept talking, complaining about their jobs, and Jayde did not notice someone walk up behind her. A hand clamped on to her and spun her around. Fresh tears had sprung up from her mother’s eyes, and she pulled Jayde in tight to her as she knelt down.
“Don’t you dare go off in the dark,” her mother said.
There were a lot of arguments, after the police left, about what should be done. Some people wanted the power to be turned back on. Some wanted to buy a rifle for protection. One woman said, no matter what they did, she was leaving.
Darren wouldn’t hear any of it. The house was his, the project they were engaged in, as he put it, was his, and there would be no electricity to tie them to the outside world. There would be no murdering of animals, even predators. They would simply have to be more careful and aware than Kale was. They shouldn’t have children there in the first place, Darren said.
Based on this, and other things he’d said, his attitude towards Kale’s death was quickly deemed cold-blooded. He tried to claim it was rational and instinctual, which led to new arguments, ones Jayde couldn’t follow, about Darren and his callous treatment of others, his megalomania, and many other complaints about the bureaucracy of the house.
In the end, most of the people decided to leave, including Jayde’s mother.
It took time to pack things and separate belongings that had become collective over the last few months. Darren went swiftly up and down the hallways, shirtless, darting around like a distressed lizard looking to scare away predators. He began claiming that this and that were his things, though they obviously weren’t, and more fights took place, prolonging their departure.
Jayde found her mother and pulled at her skirt. “We have to get out of here before dark,” she said.
“Don’t start with me,” her mother said. “We’ll go when we’re ready.”
Jayde was ready. She’d packed what few things she could long ago and now only waited, looking out the windows into the trees.
The sun was setting by the time Jayde’s mother was ready to go. Others had already left, and a couple who were staying busied themselves reordering the kitchen.
Darren stood on the porch, dramatically holding a bare candle in both hands, like an angry Christmas caroler. He glared at Jayde’s mother as she packed the car. When her mother tried to talk to him, he turned his head away.
Jayde and her mother got in the car, finally ready for another long trip back home. Her mother tried one more time to talk with Darren through the open window while Jayde scanned the woods.
That’s when they appeared: two little glowing discs in the woods, a blue body behind them. Its head slowly emerged from the brush, still barely visible in the dark. Jayde’s breath caught in her throat. There it was, the creature that hunted her, that killed her one friend. Its head cleared the woods, and those long front legs. But its beady, glowing eyes weren’t fixed on her. They were on Darren. It put one paw in the lawn, then another.
“Mom,” Jayde said, more of a terrified exhalation than a word. She pointed.
Her mom saw it immediately. She leaned forward over the steering wheel and stopped her breath. Jayde felt a moment of satisfaction, because if her mom saw it, then it was real. Even if they didn’t know what it was, it still existed. It wasn’t just her fear. Everyone shared it.
“What the hell?” her mom said. She turned the key and pawed at the control panel, but by the time she turned on the headlights, the creature had gone.
“What was that?” he mom said. She put one hand on the door, as if to step outside and take another look.
Jayde reached out and took her mom’s wrist.
“Let’s just go,” Jayde said.
Her mom backed out of the driveway, looking behind her, too distracted now to care about Darren still sulking on the porch. She turned the car so as to swing it around, so she didn’t have to back all the way down the country driveway. When she did, Jayde saw the eyes return, two sparks hot as fire in the woods, and the blue snout pushing through the leaves, aimed at the tall, wiry man blowing out the bare candle held in his fist.
The tires spun as her mom put the car in drive, kicking dirt up off the lawn, the car issuing a warning to the night.
Chris lives in Colorado, where he helps run the writing center at Colorado College. His work has appeared in The Hopper, LandLocked, West Trade Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, and others.