AFTER THE RAINS
by James Kidd
It was twilight when Anna Peabody noticed the little girl on her lawn. The power was still off from the vicious thunderstorms the previous night, and the heat had finally broken. What a blessing, she’d thought last night when the heat lightning gave way to rolling thunder.
Anna lived on her own, on a small farm she’d bought some years back after she’d buried her husband, whose death was as much a relief as the break in this heat. And with some focus, what old timer’s called pluck, she’d rolled up her sleeves and made a solid go of things. She was doing quite well for herself. In fact, she was doing much better than she let on.
Anna rolled the sleeves on her University of Connecticut t-shirt—and oh my, did she love the women’s basketball team there—and stepped out onto her porch. “Little girl,” she called, seeing that the child was about ten years old, “it’s time for you to go home.”
Despite the growing dimness of the available light, she could see clearly, and saw the child hesitate in acknowledgement. The little girl wore an ivory night-shirt with embroidery that made her look angelic. But as she looked closer, Anna could see the dark, smoldering orange and black of her eyes. Those eyes reminded her of the roiling embers in her wood stove in the dead of winter. It gave Anna the creeps; a feeling that her late husband used to describe as “a goose just walked over my grave.”
The odd girl slapped her hands together as if she’d done a job well. She put a finger to her lips, shushing Anna from saying another word. As the girl skipped off into the woods, she waved her hand in an exaggerated “come along” motion, and then seemed to disappear.
Tom Dunne was being tormented by his dreams. The dreams had come back with such a force, he knew once again he’d have to obey the voices. The man in his dreams was calling him “Tommy” and lurked in the darkness.
“Look at me,” the voice said. Tom knew he shouldn’t disobey. The man emerged from a swirl of ghostly mist and lightning flashes, his features hidden in the shadows of silhouette, calling “Tooooommmmmy.”
The man’s voice held the stern patient tone of a man used to getting exactly what he demanded.
In his dream, he sprinted. His arms pumped madly, but the voice kept up. Tom was running down a long, dim corridor now, and there were sheeted bodies on either side of him. The sheets were spatter-stained with blood. The bodies were familiar to him, every one of them seared into his brain. Their last words, the begging, the screams, all of them sacrificed to quiet the man in his dreams. The bodies vibrated, but Tom knew it was just the maggots making the most of the corpses. He could see the fly larva dripping down to the floor from under the sheets, squirming madly on the green tile, and if he listened closely, he could hear their little mouths eating at the flesh he provided.
“Toooooommmmmy!” the voice called, and he felt as well as heard the scraping of a long fingernail on the door. Then, tap, tap, tap. And the tapping was soon all around him. Taptaptaptaptaptap…until he snapped awake, his heart pounding.
The dreams and demands they always contained had been coming for weeks now. Unceasingly. Every time Tom slipped off, the dream picked up where it had last left off. And now, he was barely sleeping. He longed for the smoothness of a deep sleep. His mind demanded it and his body craved it.
He spent weeks of nearly sleepless nights. The rare times he did sleep he awoke so terrified, so shaken, that it was like having gotten no rest at all. His hair became unkempt, his face unshaven, dark circles emerged under his eyes, his right eye twitched, and he was prone to moments of tremors.
Finally he said, “Yes. I’ll do it.”
He drove through the driving rain that night. Blinded by flashes of lightning, his windshield wipers did little more than push gushes of water back and forth. He couldn’t see through the blur and flashes, but that didn’t matter. He wasn’t in control.
He pressed on. He had no choice. And when he got to the woods outside of Anna’s house, he stepped out of his car and stared at her dark house. He stood still and the rain washed over him, plastering his clothes to his body. His body was anchored, but his mind was miles away. All he could think of was the peace he’d soon have once the old woman was finally gone. The man in the dream said it should be a ritual, a ritual so gruesome that it would strike a blind fear into everyone who heard the story. It would be talked about in hushed tones for generations to come. And the ritual played out in Tommy’s squirrel-trap of a mind like some kind of sadistic horror movie, over and over in an on-going loop.
Behind him, a transformer on a light pole was struck by lightning. The blast sent showers of blue and purple sparks out into the night. Tom didn’t react. He still stood unflinchingly, staring at the house and gripping the old Army bayonet knife that his father had left him. Tommy honed the blade until he could dry-shave his arm.
At some point the rain stopped. He heard little children somewhere. Their voices seemed so very far away. Tommy trudged forward like a sleep walker.
Anna was washing dishes and gazing out the window in her kitchen when she saw Tom come from the woods. She felt a rush of fright. He came forth like a shell shocked vet, a raggedy man whose senses have been pushed past the brink of ever returning. His arms and legs moved with an awkward independence and his head jerked back and forth, side to side. It was as if he were a marionette being operated by a frustrated child.
Anna opened the window. “Get off my property or I’ll call the police,” she yelled.
The scary man continued to advance across her lawn, shuffling with the gait of a madman.
For some reason, she remembered something her Uncle Jim had once said: “You only have to be brave for thirty seconds. That’s it. Just thirty seconds. That’s enough time to take action. No one will know you’re scared if you don’t tell them. When in trouble, keep the element of surprise on your side and you’ll have an advantage.”
He was right. It was that thirty seconds, rolled into another thirty seconds and so on that got her to where she was today, and she was damn sure she wasn’t going to surrender any of it to this crazy man.
So she put her hands on her hips, cocked her head, and said with as much determination through the window as she could muster, “Get. Off. My. Property.”
“Heh,” the man said, or it sounded something like that. Suddenly he raised a knife so the blade caught and gleamed in the moonlight.
Despite her bravado, adrenaline traveled up her spine. She raced from the kitchen window to find her cell phone. When she located it on the counter, it was dark. When was the last time she had charged it? The battery was dead.
She heard the knob on the front door rattle. The man was trying to come inside.
She raced for the back door, but not before grabbing her own knife out of the kitchen drawer. She chose the butcher knife, because she meant business.
She burst out the back door, racing to the back lawn. She almost tumbled over the ten-year-old girl who was once again in her yard after dark.
Anna was surprised to see the girl, whose eyes still smoldered with those odd colors. “We have to get out of here!” she told the child. “Let’s run into the woods!”
The child clamped onto Anna’s hand. She tried to pull her hand away, but the little girl’s grip was astoundingly strong.
Tom heard Anna in the back yard, yelling about the woods. He had to catch her before she went there. He gave up on the front door and raced around to the back of the house. He felt far away from his body, as if it were a machine being operated by someone else. He moved with the same cold, purposeful detachment of an attacking animal: the singular focus, the ferocity and speed. The absence of thought, of mercy, paired with the sheer need to absolutely and completely destroy this woman. The chill-thrill feeling of conducting the agonizing aria of her life electrified him and the coursing power he felt made him powerful.
Tom moved so fast, moved so smoothly, his arms and legs pumped in unison, that he was the planet’s ultimate predator, and he was nearly on top of her.
He thrust himself upon her until she was yanked back with a whiplashing force that kicked her legs up and out in front of her. She tumbled down onto the grass. He leaned on top of her and stared into the woman’s eyes. “You will suffer,” he said and once again showed her the cold, honed edge of the curved steel blade.
Anna gripped the knife in her right hand, fending off a chill that shook her anyway. If she could raise the knife, she’d be safe. For now. For the next thirty seconds. And she challenged Tommy’s stare with her own. She leaned forward just a bit, up from the ground.
The man saw her knife. He shook his hand and let out a “Heh.” He stared at Anna, leaned forward, and put pressure on her torso. He grabbed her knife from out of her hand, while holding his own in his other hand.
Her heart was thrumming in her chest and she couldn’t keep enough air in her. Fight for your life, she said to herself. Don’t go meekly. Do something.
She returned the man’s stare. To her he looked like a rabid coyote caught in a trap. In his eyes were a wild, a blood-lusting fury and an unquenchable animalistic rage.
“Anna,” the little girl said. Anna hadn’t realized she was still there.
She screamed at the child to run to the woods. She was breathing hard, staring at the man with the knife. But the man wasn’t moving. He was as still as a snake, ready to strike.
“Why are you doing this!” Anna cried, but only got a sly, rogue’s smile in return.
Tom was shocked. It never played out like this. He was a mean-faced man with slabs of intimidating muscle. When he answered the dream-man’s voices, he was on the women in a heartbeat, and would subdue them with hammer blows from his thick fists until they succumbed. He’d take them inside their house and bind them to a chair with nylon twine and then the ritual would begin. He especially loved the juxtaposition of their nearly unconscious whispered whimpers for mercy and how they’d shriek with such clarity when he first used the knife. But this time was different.
She stared at him. Where was her fear? Tom felt confused. They were always afraid. Why wasn’t this woman afraid?
He looked away, and saw the little girl for the first time.
“Anna, I’ll save you,” the little girl said.
“Honey, run for your life,” Anna pleaded but didn’t take her eyes off of the man.
“You will not hurt my Anna!” The sequins on her night shirt swirled with color, a dazzling light emanated from them, casting harsh dark shadows over the lawn. The girl’s eyes blazed with color, a roiling orange and black that looked like soul-hungry coals about to burst into flames.
The little girl suddenly levitated above the ground, clapped her hands over her head, and spoke. “Dom de no chankra.” It came out softly, just above a whisper, and yet with an unmistakable confidence.
The man leaned away from Anna, while still pinning her to the ground. “Where? What the?” The man slashed at the little girl but his hand passed right through her. And he winced. A fierce cold hurt his hand down to the bone and the knife boomeranged across the lawn.
Anna was spellbound. The girl’s form began to glow with the same roiling orange and black of oxygen-starved flames. “Dom de no chankra!” Each time she spoke it, her volume grew.
Something in the night shifted. The shadows moved.
The girl shrieked, “Dom de no chankra!” until the shriek became a string of unintelligible words, but at some level, at an instinctual level, Anna understood the girl.
The shadows of the night took form. They swirled and condensed and defied gravity. From a depth of darkness, the shadows loomed large and rose around the girl like a cobra’s hood. The girl opened her arms and arched her head back,
“Dom de no chankra!” she boomed in a deep sonorous voice, an impossibly loud directive given by such a fragile-looking child.
Anna was dead still upon the ground and watched. In her heart was the old hope that this son-of-a-bitch would get his, some kind of old-time retribution in the works right here, and she couldn’t look away. Yes, her fear was supplanted by vengeance, plain and simple. She grit her teeth, balled her bony hand into a fist and made slow pummeling motions, a revelatory reflex of her deepest current desires. “Get him,” she spewed like an invective.
The shadows moved like striking snakes, enveloping the man’s body. The shadows swirled around him, binding him in a dark, ethereal iron maiden and the man’s shocked, what-the-fuck expression was quickly replaced by a grimace of eye-bulging terror. Then he started to scream, squirm, and flail. The shadows wrapped him tighter, muffling his movements and stifling his screams until all Anna could see were the gross undulating spasms of an engorged pupa metamorphosing, a nightmare swaddled in a black, swirling shroud. Each crack and snap of a broken bone was followed by a shrill shriek. Anna watched as the man’s twisting torment slowed and his muted screams weakened to silence.
That’s when she heard the noise. At first it was a pit-pat of a dense liquid dripping. Then it sounded like an old-time mop being wrung by hand and it was the man’s blood. The shadows wound themselves tighter and tighter and like a wet towel, the moisture was forced to the surface and ran off.
Anna saw shifts of motion from the corner of her eye and heard a parade of small bodies bustling out of the woods. They moved past her as smooth as warm water and collected around the twisting shadow, fell to all fours, and lapped at the pooling blood on the grass.
And in the moonlight, she could see them clearly, their faces and hands smeared with blood, and to her they looked like frantic children at a jelly jar. They purred like feeding cats.
Anna looked away as she moved to stand up. She had to look away.
James Kidd grew up in Connecticut, moved to New York City, then to the land of Rip Van Winkle. Along the way he’s gotten degrees from The University of Connecticut and from The New School’s Graduate Writing Program. He works as an estimator for a custom cabinet shop in Massachusetts, takes his short dog for long walks, and does his best raising his three kids.