Tory writes, draws, and codes in Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Drabblecast, and PseudoPod, and her art has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex, and Spellbound.
I can’t tell you what it was. All I know is what it did.
It was last fall, just before Thanksgiving, and I was putting sheets on the bed in Em’s old room, quietly as I could. I had to be careful of my knee, which was acting up again; careful of the noise, since Julie was asleep after a late night grading papers; and careful of Gretchen, our old German shepherd, who got anxious if I stepped out of sight. She was flopped out flat on her heating pad, watching me with shifty eyes. With Em coming home, soon there’d be three ladies to step softly around.
I draped a blanket over Julie’s sewing machine—it was sitting smack in the middle of Em’s old desk—so maybe that old fight wouldn’t start again.
Then the front door creaked open, keys jingled, and the kit-kit-kit of heeled boots meant Em was home. It threw me; she wasn’t due till tomorrow at lunchtime. Gretchen yipped despite my shush. With a splay-legged double-shove, the dog heaved herself up and padded toward the sound as I limped behind her, my knee making popcorn sounds.
Em was in the living room, bag on her shoulder, her back to me. Only Daughter, tall like me and narrow like her mother. With a shaking thumb and forefinger she drew aside the drapes to stare outside at her parked car: a 2001 Honda Civic, old but reliable.
I flicked on the light and startled her. “You’re home early.”
She turned to me. Her eyes were pink and puffy. “Hey, Dad.”
My gut dropped—every time she’s in pain it’s like a plunge off the high dive—but I kept my voice level. “What’s wrong, baby?”
“I was coming up Highland Farm, near the church, where it curves.” She pinched her nose. “I hit something with the car.”
“What, a tree? A kid?”
“A cat, I think.”
My legs went rubber with relief. I closed in for a hug. “Are you okay?”
She gave me a backslapping squeeze and stooped to pet Gretchen, who was circling her knees in a stiff-hipped panic of love. “Yeah, mostly—”
I took her bag. “You hungry?”
“It’s in the trunk.”
“The thing I hit.”
That tender heart’s gonna catch her bubonic plague. “Why?”
“It had a collar on it. Do we have any ibuprofen?” She passed me on her way to the kitchen, shoulders tensed high in self-defense. “There was a phone number, but I didn’t want to call this late. I couldn’t just leave it—”
“That’s fine, that’s fine.” I followed her and checked a cabinet. “Looks like we’re out, baby.”
“I got a monster headache—”
“Did you at least wrap the body up?”
“Yes. Here’s the thing—”
“Was it messy?”
“It might not be dead anymore.”
With trembling hands, she opened the cabinet and got down a glass. “Should have been. Its guts were out. Its neck was like—” She cricked her head to one shoulder. “But the whole drive here—in the trunk—I could hear it scrambling around.”
“Not a tire iron or something rolling around? It’s like a rolling pocketbook back there.”
“No.” The faucet whooshed. “It was very distinctive. Animal. And it made this wuff-wuff-wuff“—she dropped her voice into a slow-motion helicopter chop—”kind of snorting sound. So it’s alive? But I don’t see how that could be, and . . . Well, I’ve never heard a cat do that.”
“So you think it’s, what, a zombie?”
She tossed up a wet hand, spattering the counter in frustration. “No.”
“I don’t know.”
I sat at the counter and folded my hands. There’s always one missing piece. “Definitely an animal, you think?”
“But the cat is dead.”
She shrugged her whole body: obviously.
“Sounds like there’s animal number two.”
She opened her mouth like she was ready to argue, but a look of gray horror washed over her. “Something else climbed in?”
“While I had the trunk open?” She knocked back her water, mulling this over. “I didn’t see anything.”
“Pretty dark on that road.”
“It must have been a bad shock, too. Maybe a few tears?”
She shrugged lightly. “Yeah.”
“It’s probably not a bear, at least,” I said as gently as I could. “Hard to miss one of those.”
That smile was a gold medal. “Right.”
“How did the car handle after?”
“What’s in there can’t be huge or anything.” She drummed her thumb on the glass, walking the question through her memory. “When I braked, it thumped like a bag of laundry.” She looked down at Gretchen, who settled at her feet with a groan. “Twenty pounds?”
Not bad. “Was it still moving around when you parked?”
I pushed up from the table. “We gotta let it out.”
“I know.” Em planted the glass. “It’s going to rip its way to the interior.”
“Put your things down at least. Your room’s almost ready.” Then, remembering: “Don’t wake your mother.”
Me in my work gloves and Carhartt jacket, Em in her old wool pea coat, we circled the trunk of the Civic. It was one of those November Piedmont nights with cold pockets of fog rolling through it. Not much to see on our country road but distant porch lights through the pines. It was a blessing we had no neighbors close enough to watch: I was armed with a long flashlight and an old bed sheet; Em had a skillet and a wastebasket.
The lawn floodlight on the car left one side blinding and the other blink-squint dark. In the house, Gretchen paced and whined behind the screen door, anxious despite line-of-sight.
Inside the trunk, something rolled from side to side and grunted: wuff-wuff-wuff.
“What do you think?” asked Em.
“Possum, maybe? A fat fox? Or a really, really dumb raccoon.” I got in position at the back bumper and pointed at the driver’s side. “Get in, lock up, and pop the trunk. Don’t come out until I say, okay?”
Without a word, Em set her weapons down and got in. At the sound of the opening door, the thing in the trunk rumbled to rest. I stood aside, sheet up like a shield, and counted off aloud: “One . . . Two . . . Three.” Em popped the trunk. No movement inside. With a shuffle-step and cracking joints, I stretched the flashlight far enough to swing the lid open.
Nothing came out.
If I were a critter stuck in a trunk, I would have come out.
“What is it?” called Em.
“Not sure yet.” I planted my heel on the bumper and shoved down. All it achieved was a bullet of pain through my knee. In the house, Gretchen scratched at the screen door.
Em rapped on her window. “Can I get out?”
All I said was “uh” but she didn’t wait. I blocked her as best I could. She hovered at my shoulder for a look at the cause of her troubles. On the gray felt floor of the trunk, between tethered crates of groceries, the flashlight found a canvas bag with a very dead cat inside. Beyond it a potbellied shape slithered out of view.
Em dug her nails in my arm. “Komodo dragon?”
“Naw. It’s got fur.”
We bent down. A sweep of the light found monkey paws and a stubby tail. The slithering thing crammed itself behind a crate, hiding all but wet snout and glinting eyes.
“He’s scared,” said Em.
“He can be as scared as he wants. He’s still gotta come out.” I rapped the car with the flashlight. “Come on, buddy.” The animal shuddered. Em glared at me like I had punched somebody. “We gotta lift him out, Em. Take this edge of the sheet—”
“It’s not right—”
“Stand over there, Em. I’ll take his front—”
“Where we gonna leave him?”
“That’s why we’re getting it out—”
“It’s not his woods.”
“He’s an animal, baby. Woods are woods—”
“He wants to go home.”
The snap in her voice surprised me. Her shoulders were hunched sky-high. Between us, the animal skittered a spooked circle.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because I’m paying attention.”
About that time, Gretchen busted the screen door latch and broke free. She came barreling across the yard as fast as her poor hips could take her. Cat-quick, Em whirled and dropped to intercept her. “Gretchen, no! Stay-stay . . .”
On instinct I lunged between the trunk and Gretchen—dog makes panic, panic makes danger—though I couldn’t say who for. My knee screeched with pain. Em struggled for Gretchen’s collar, but the dog kept squirming toward the car. Her whines escalated to yipping barks. Across the road, a porch light snapped on. I shushed. Em shushed.
From somewhere came a slow, musical rumble. A truck going by? A transformer about to blow? But it didn’t get louder, and it didn’t get softer. And there was a syncopated melody to it—almost jazzy—like a lullaby on a clarinet, if a clarinet could purr.
It was coming from the trunk.
Gretchen went quiet. She stayed in Em’s arms, calm and alert, firm on four legs. Her hips straightened, her head lifted, and her tail wagged like a outboard motor.
For the first time in eight years, my knee felt completely fine.
As the lullaby rumbled on, Em looked at me in amazement. “Do you hear that?”
“I hear it.”
She touched her temple. “My headache is gone.”
The thing in the trunk shuffled forward. Light caught the wet row of fangs in its open mouth, its tongue vibrating as the melody trailed away.
“Take Gretchen inside,” I said. As Em did, the dog gave no whimper, no stutter-step, no sign of anxiety. The thing in the trunk made a light panting sound, and then fell silent. I flexed my knee. The old ache was already settling back in.
Here came the slow kit-kit-kit of Em’s boots. “You felt that, too, right?”
“Handy little trick that thing’s got.”
Em pulled her phone out of her coat pocket.
“You gonna call somebody?” I asked.
“No, no.” She took a picture, flash on low. The thing in the trunk curled in a ball and made a high-pitched sighing sound. “This is just for us.” The nearby grocery bag of dead cat caught her eye. She peered gingerly inside. “He didn’t mess with it.”
“That’s not what he got in for.”
“I think you’re right.” I took the bag from her. “Did he do that purring thing? Before?”
“Maybe. I couldn’t say.” She stared into the middle distance—her remembering spot. “I was crying really loud.”
“I bet. You don’t do anything half-assed.”
She laughed. “Let’s take him home.”
I let Em drive, but I turned off her radio. By the dashboard lights, she looked like her mother at that age: round cheeks, pretty eyes, and a mouth set to bite. But that chin was all mine.
She turned onto Highland Farm, just past the church. It was a new moon and dark as tar. “Up here,” she said. We pulled up a dirt trail to get the Civic as deep in the woods as we could.
“Got the skillet?” I asked.
“What’s it going to do, purr at us?”
“Just in case.”
The thing was scrabbling around in the trunk again, so again I flanked the bumper and pointed Em to the driver’s side. Again I held up the sheet; being this close to home might make the thing more rabbity. Again I counted off, “One . . . Two . . .”
Through the woods ripped a roar that froze my blood. I leaped for the passenger door and Em, wide-eyed, reached across to unlock it, but the roar came again, closer, and with a cracking of dry brush a massive bouldery shape came thundering through the trees. Bear! I waved a fast don’t and retreated, away from the car, away from Em, I’ll be bait if I have to.
It was no bear. It plowed into the clearing and slapped huge monkey paws on the trunk, leaving a deep, crooked dent from hinge to corner. The Civic bounced. The tires raked sideways. Inside, teeth gritted, Em braced herself stiff-armed on the steering wheel. She bent, and I heard the unk-unk of the trunk lever, but the bent trunk lid stuck tight. I tucked behind a tree, ready to run in, ready to run away, whatever kept her safe. I scanned for options; it was a long sprint to the church, longer to the Deer Run trailer park, and nothing but naked trees between.
The big thing tore at the car. With every swing, the long sinew of its back rippled and its pot belly swayed. A taillight shattered. Inside, the little thing set up a keening wail, and the big thing bellowed in sympathy. It pried uselessly at the trunk, gouging stripes in the plastic bumper. Enraged, it shoved the Honda in a gravel-spraying 180.
Em swerved in her seat. One hand disappeared from the steering wheel and reappeared on the inside door handle.
No, Em, for the love of God . . .
The big thing flung itself onto the trunk, paws over tires like it was trying to hug the car open. The panels creaked but held. The little thing’s wail broke into short, sharp yelps.
The driver’s side door popped open.
I ran out behind the big thing, ready to drop the sheet on it, scrambling for a good angle, a way to catch its eye before Em did.
The little one’s yelps turned shrill with panic. The big one slid off the car and sat down hard in the dirt. It rested paws on the bumper and chin on the hood. Then came a deep, musical rumble—a syncopated melody—a lullaby on a bear-sized clarinet.
Complete, deep, ocean-blue relief flooded me from the toes up. My shoulders unwound and my heart slowed to a jog. In the trunk, the little thing’s yelps trailed to whimpers, then fell quiet.
Em stepped out of the car. I locked eyes with her. What the hell are you doing? She eased toward the bear-shape—hands out like she meant to pet it—and she started to hum.
The big thing whirled on her. It dropped to its belly and bristled, snapping white fangs. I ran in behind it, ready to jump on it if I had to. Em hummed louder, nostrils flaring to resonate the sound, straining to reach the same intervals the animals did. As percussion, she jingled her dangling car keys.
The big thing put its fangs away.
“Dad, sing,” she said.
“It’s working. Help me or back off.”
So I hummed with her. I kept the sheet up, but I hummed. Our two voices were louder, fuller, more like the animals’. The big thing backed up a step, flashing eyes from her to me, giving us just enough space to pass to the trunk. Inside, the little thing scrambled. Em and I closed the gap between us. For the big thing to see, she pointed at the trunk lock, rotating her keys to catch the light. With her, I hummed so hard I coughed.
Em sank the key into the lock, turned it sharply, and we both wrenched hard on the ruined lid. It creaked open enough to make a foot-long gap, and a little black shape burst out. It arrowed for the big thing, which stretched enormous arms to clasp it to its chest. We barricaded ourselves behind the car as we watched them tumble together through the gravel, purring and grasping at each other, a muscular tumbleweed of joy.
The little one slipped free and rolled on its back, submissive, round naked belly wobbling for forgiveness, until the big one dipped down its snout to roll it back onto its feet. Together the two streaked into the woods, smashing bark and brambles, purring in dwindling harmony until they vanished altogether. The forest settled into uncanny silence.
With the animals gone, the pain in my knee came throbbing back to life. Slowly my heart quit pounding. Em slammed the trunk lid, which bounced right open again. “I really liked this car.”
“Me, too.” I squeezed her shoulders and found out how bad she was shaking.
“Is it totaled?” she asked.
“I don’t think so.”
I had technical concerns—did the suspension survive? The CV joints?—and the looming apprehension that the big thing would change its mind and come back, but in those seconds it seemed right and safe and wise to stand quietly with Em, offer her an arm, and say nothing at all.
After a moment, she pulled away, her thoughts composed, her courage tightened to the bolt. “Will you . . .” She turned those pleading Only Daughter eyes on me. “Will you be the one who tells Mom?”
Photography by Toni Holtzman. Toni lives in Gaylord, Michigan, where she works as a hospice R.N. by day, and often night. She loves to travel, and recently returned from visits to Rome, Greece, and Israel.
All Special Issue photos are © 2016, Toni Holtzman