Matt Spencer, The Night and the Land
Book I in The Deschembine Trilogy
The Night and the Land
Publisher: Damnation Books, 2013
Length: 251 pages
Sally found her way into Harmony Parking Lot, through a short tunnel off High Street. She’d held out hope for an all-night diner, someplace where they wouldn’t bother her if she sat a while. Local businesses and apartments encased all the cracked concrete on three sides with a rocky weed-choked rise on the fourth. Everything looked closed.
So why had she picked this town? So far, it was like a winding, hilly maze of overgrown foliage and jutting old-time architecture. Roads and sidewalks stretched and twisted in odd shapes over the mountain-shrouded terrain. Well, it was good as anywhere on the map, not that she carried one. Vermont had been the closest neutral territory. New England in general had always been fairly safe for civilians from either surviving line, a small miracle considering what fine camouflage its deep forests, granite mountain ranges and rolling terrain provided when the feuds heated up. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to run or fight for a while.
Her duffel bag was strapped to her shoulders like a regular backpack, biting at the circulation, pulling her neck muscles taut. It was a good kind of ache, more stabbing and quickening than this cold air. Her narrow hand slipped into the pocket of the denim jean jacket at least two sizes too big, fingers curling around the money she’d taken from the dead man three days ago in Pittsburgh. When the pocketknife fell against her knuckles, she felt crusted blood on the grip, like caked, dried syrup built up on the rim of a plastic container. The dead man had provided food from his flesh and organs, a night’s shelter in that dirty apartment, and money from his pockets. The money would buy better food, hopefully nicer lodgings.
She wouldn’t have ended up in Pittsburgh if the kids she’d hitched with hadn’t kicked her out. They’d been fighting amongst themselves, and somewhere the fight had become about her. The driver should have asked before stopping for hitchhikers, someone said. So next thing Sally knew, she’d been dumped off. When she realized where she was, she’d panicked. From there, she’d been out for any sanctuary she could find.
Sure, the man had said, he had food at his place, and sure she could stay with him. Even on the street, she must have known it was a bad idea, but she’d been so hungry and tired...
As she walked towards his kitchen, he stepped into the doorway, blocking the path. She laughed it off and tried to push past, but he shoved her against the doorframe so her shoulders strained back. Years ago, a man called Talino had pressed her from behind, breathing like that... except they’d been in a dining room bigger than this man’s whole apartment. Talino had been the one holding the knife, while others watched. This time Sally pulled hers, along with those old reflexes ingrained since childhood. When she stabbed the man, he gasped and folded like anyone, holding on like she might rescue him from drowning, like he forgot she was the one who’d stuck the blade in him or why. Once he was dead, the first thing she remembered was the money in his pockets. She fished it out hurriedly, before the blood seeped out of his shirt, then down through his jeans ‘til it looked like he wet himself pissing blood. Shereally thought that would be the end of their involvement. Then her hunger made it harder to think.
She remembered turning away from the refrigerator, closing the door fast, wrinkling her nose against the grease smell of leftover fried chicken and moldy pizza. She had to clean up, get out of those stained clothes, decide what to do next. But she shook so bad that she could barely wash her hands. The bloody smell wouldn’t stay out of her nose, kept invading her brain thicker, like even in death he’d found a way to violate her. Not the blood drying on her clothes, but what still seeped out of his dead trunk in the doorway. The blood and the flesh...
Then came Talino’s regal voice again: Ah, but we almost forgot. We have a recovering Spirelight’s daughter in our midst, and she didn’t get to eat before she sat down. The edge trailed her throat, before Talino pressed the handle to her palm and guided it towards the table. Go ahead, little Spirelight girl. Cut off a piece to eat. You start cutting, or I do.
In the dead man’s kitchen, Sally squeezed her eyes shut and saw Talino’s dining room. As she tasted the first bite, the others chanted their malignant incantations. Had she been thirteen or fourteen back then? She still carried the same pocketknife, and she’d just used it. What did it mean — how was it different — to kill one of the earth-line people? With a sob, she remembered cutting from the body on Talino’s table. She smelled the one in the doorway, and she imagined tasting it like Talino made her taste the runaway girl.
Except — no, wait — she wasn’t remembering or imagining anymore, because she was kneeling in the doorway, cutting. No matter how nasty it smelled, the chanting told her brain it was the sweetest scent ever. So she tasted... and kept tasting.
Sally had slept on the dead man’s couch. He said she could, after all. The next morning shehauled ass to the bus station.
At the far end of Harmony Lot stood a crumbling vine-covered brick building. Up the rickety back stairs, three shapes sat watching. By their casual murmur, she knew they didn’t mean to spy on her. Still, she felt more and more attention coming her way. Ambling closer, she peered up into darkness. The shapes leaned forward, probably to see if they knew her. Two girls, one guy... Just kids, probably around her age.
“Hello.” The melodious female voice was young and spacey. “We help you?”
“Uh, yeah,” Sally said. “Is there any place open that sells food?”
“Um, well, you know the town at all?” The guy didn’t pause for an answer. “’Cause if you go down to the end of Main Street, then about... a mile up Canal Street, there’s Price Chopper — I think they’re open twenty-four-seven. Oh, and I think an all-night diner just opened up that way, too, but I’m not sure. I hear it’s pretty sketchy, though. You old enough to drink?”
Sally shook her head. The guy was cartoonishly thin and long-limbed, his boyish face lightly bearded, dark hair almost long and shaggy enough to camouflage his unusually long neck. He wore an army jacket, fingerless gloves, and loose jeans cut off below the knees.
“Well, I was gonna say, I think the two bars down that way serve food sometimes.” He pointed up the street. “If you order food but no beer, maybe they won’t give you shit.”
Sally leaned on the railing, considering it.
One of the girls bent forward so some light fell on her. She was plump and moon-faced with short, ratty hair that might be red. “Are you from around here? You know anyone in town?”
Sally shook her head again. “I never even heard of this place ‘til a few days ago.”
“So... you don’t got anywhere to stay?”
“Nope. I was just now sorta trying to figure that out.”
The girl who might have red hair stood up and hugged herself. “Hey, you know what? Let’s go inside ‘cause it’s freezing out here.”
Funny thing was, Sally hadn’t noticed any of them reacting to the cold ‘til now. She agreed, though, now that someone mentioned it.
The second girl still hadn’t spoken. She looked up, small and curvy with a great black bush of dreadlocks. She had a broad nose and full lips, with skin pale enough to stand out in the night... the closest Sally had ever seen earth-line skin come to glowing. Above her ragged skirt, a torn sweater tumbled dangerously low off one smooth bare shoulder. “Jake won’t mind?”
“Jake won’t be in ‘til like noon tomorrow,” said the shorthaired girl. “If he bitches, I’ll kick his butt.”
Sally headed up. “Thanks. My name’s Sally.”
“Hi, I’m Liam,” said the guy. “This is Clover” — he indicated the shorthaired girl — “and this is Bethany.” He pointed to the pale African-featured girl.
Sally followed them through the back door, then through a cramped, musty storeroom. By the street lamps through narrow windows, she made out some kind of restaurant, all rustic wooden surfaces and quaint homespun adornments. Liam and Clover lit candles and oil lamps. Sally looked around for signs of electricity, saw none. Heat pumped from somewhere, though it was still chilly. Was that a faint gas odor? The straps of her duffel bag slid from her shoulders, and the descending weight almost pulled her over backwards.
Bethany trudged around a great oak table to a stuffed shopping bag. “We’d give you something to eat, but all we really have right now is bread. And some oranges, somewhere around here. Is bread okay?”
Sally was already on her way around the table. Bethany handed her a long loaf of French bread. The outside was a hard, flour-dusted crust, the inside all soft sourdough goodness. “Thanks,” Sally said, mouth partly full. “That’s wonderful.”
Bethany giggled. “What was the last thing you ate?”
“A really nasty ham sandwich.”
“So what’s your story, anyway?” Liam drifted back over. “You, like, homeless, or what?”
“Hey, that’s cool.” Clover came over and tore herself a chunk of bread.
Bethany added, “Yeah, it’s pretty standard around here, actually.”
“So are you guys homeless too?”
Clover and Liam looked at each other then shook their heads. “Well, I am, sort of,” said Bethany. “I’ve been mostly just sleeping here, or on rooftops along the other side of Main Street — I can show you how to get up there with no one seeing sometime if you like — then working during the days. I think I’ll be moving in with some people soon. C’mon, have a seat. You look ready to fall over.”
“Thanks.” Sally hadn’t guessed how grateful she’d feel, just to flop her bony ass on the long high-backed bench. “So what’s the story with this place?”
“The Common Ground?” said Liam. “That’s a good question lately.”
It turned out the place was a kind of non-profit all-organic diner, the oldest community-owned restaurant in Vermont, no less. They’d run into money problems, hadn’t had electricity since spring. So the place wasn’t officially up and running, but the local hippies still had the doors open most days, whipping up dishes on the fly, serving them to whomever came in, taking donations. At least they had a gas stove, so they could still cook, just a matter of getting fresh ingredients daily. Would the situation be fixed soon? Again, good question.
“Do you have to get home any time soon, Liam?” Bethany scooted closer to Sally.
“Nah, I’m good for, like, another few hours. I don’t have to work for another two days, which, like, never happens to me, so I’m chillin’ while I can.” He packed and sparked a glass pipe, caught a deep drag and passed it to Clover, who’d set to tuning an old acoustic guitar.
Sally caught the musty, piney aroma. It had been months since she could relax enough to accept cheap beer, let alone weed. Then Bethany leaned on her and held the pipe in front of her face. Sally reached, paused... Look where she’d ended up last time she got too comfortable too quick with a group of kids. Still, the scent smelled like green wafting relaxation, of a depth that’s hard to resist when you’ve forgotten how it felt. As she took a deep drag, she noticed Bethany hadn’t leaned away. The cold was tolerable, but it was nice to absorb someone else’s body heat. After another hit, Clover retrieved her guitar and strummed the first soothing cords of some gentle old tune. By and by she started singing, too low and soft for Sally to catch most of the words, though the sound was too soothing for that to matter.
“So where you come from originally?” Bethany asked.
“Virginia.” When Bethany asked more questions, Sally named some towns and cities she’d stayed in, odd jobs she’d worked, and dodged everything else. Nice and stoned, she decided Bethany by candlelight was the most beautiful sight on earth. Not that she’d mind cuddling up with Liam or Clover, either, except she wouldn’t interrupt the latter’s music for the world. Instead she put her arm around Bethany, saw her smile. The closest Sally had ever seen to an earth-line to an earth-liner who glowed... Was that why Sally already liked this girl so much? Maybe that was part of it, to feel warmth and acceptance, if just for a moment, from someone who felt even a little closer to that world Sally hadn’t been part of for years. That, or she just couldn’t remember the last time she got laid, that business in Pittsburgh had probably put her off guys for a while, and hell, Bethany was hot.
How old did Bethany think she was? Glancing over the full, soft face, Sally guessed Bethany was about her own age. Except how old did she, Sally, look? She’d be eighteen in a month if she figured right — or was it seventeen? Nineteen? — but people often took her for much younger. Of course the earth-line date was there every time you looked at the TV news, but she’d long ago lost track of the Spirelight Refugee calendar. The oversized coat made her look even smaller, the way her skinny neck and wrists stuck out with so much space around them.
Bethany’s hand slid inside Sally’s coat, sending tickling shivers through her. The hand was cold, so Sally placed her own over it, felt warmth set in. Before she knew it, Bethany’s other hand found hers.
“Yeah, I know, my fingers are so stubby and silly-looking...”
Without answering, Sally gazed at the round fingertips in the candle glint, running her own over them like a child playing at the petals of the first flower she’d ever picked. When she looked up, Bethany’s wide smile was a cartoon caricature of lusty sweetness. Sally peered closer, made sure she saw correctly, and wondered how she’d been so dense.
Across from them, Liam stood up. “Well, I think it’s time to go home, head to bed. Clover, you wanna help me find some blankets for Sally?”
Smirking, Clover set her guitar aside. “Sure, I’ll get ‘em.”
“And... Bethany. You sleeping here again tonight, too?”
Bethany nodded and smiled sweeter.
“If Sally’s still here when Jake comes in, you’ll make sure he doesn’t throw a fit?” He looked at Sally. “Jake’s one of the people ‘round here who’s sort of a manager. He’s technically in charge of getting this place running in the mornings, or as, like, close to technical as anything gets around here. I sorta help run things too, so I have a right to say it’s okay for you to sleep here. Just sometimes he gets twitchy.”
Clover slapped Liam’s arm. “I told you, don’t worry.” She turned to Sally. “I’ll talk to him before he comes in, let him know what’s going on, so he doesn’t throw a hissy-fit.”
Once Clover and Liam drifted off, Bethany leaned over and kissed Sally. As Sally reclined against the bench, Bethany kissed a little harder and a tongue flicked across Sally’s teeth. Bethany’s mouth tasted sour-sweet and she smelled musty and earthy. To Sally’s stoned senses, they painted the air with the girl’s life — something wild, but in a playful, wonderful, gentle way, the essence of a warm, good, safe place with well-meaning, unaffected people . The loose folds of Bethany’s sweater seemed to catch of their own will on Sally’s thumbs, fingertips gliding blindly up tough-soft skin.
Bethany righted herself coyly as Liam and Clover came back with the blankets. What the hell was Sally jumping into here? Just a little precious relaxation. Even if she stayed in Brattleboro a while, Bethany didn’t exactly seem out to tie anyone down. Besides, it was too late and cold to go exploring this strange new town.
Copyright © 2017 by Matt Spencer