On Alice’s eleventh birthday, Grandma told her how Mother was taken.
Everyone in town knew the stories, of course. They’d grown up hearing tales of the Grey Ones Who Lived in the Woods, small, bloodthirsty creatures that looked like grotesquely proportioned children with leprosy. They would kill at night, bending the limbs of their victims until the bones snapped, and then leave the bodies discarded in the fields. Sometimes, for reasons known only to them, they would skin their prey and wear the shaved flesh like clothing.
And they were the ones who came for Mother. They hunted her down on a cold wet night when the flat, silver moon hung in the sky like a ball of crushed tinsel, and the surrounding clouds were pregnant with impending rain.
Grandma had sent Mother down to the grocery store to pick up some eggs. It was still light out, and so Grandma had never thought Mother was in danger. She didn’t even start to worry until twenty minutes had passed. Then she left Alice with Uncle Teddy, who was living with them at the time, and set off to look for her daughter. She found her near the post office, lying face down on the concrete. Mother was stripped of her skin, her legs twisted like gnarled tree trunks broken and bent by a violent storm. Grandma screamed so loud and long that lights came on in neighboring houses, and people rushed out to see what the commotion was about. Mother wasn’t the only victim that year. Others followed.
“Others, Grandma?” Alice whispered.
Grandma put her arms around Alice’s small, shivering shoulders.
“Do you remember Violet and Hazel Warren? Emory Matthews? Richard Smith?”
Alice stared up at her with wide eyes. Images of gone-but-not forgotten faces flashed through her mind: the Warren twins, classmates who had invited her to sit with them at lunch in the cafeteria on the first day of school; the elderly grocer, Mr. Matthews, gazing at her from behind the register counter; the crooked grin of Richard Smith as he sat on the lifeguard seat at the public pool, the silver whistle at his throat flashing in the hot sun every time he moved.
The Warren twins transferred to another school last year. Richard got a scholarship to an out-of-state college. Mr. Matthews went to Florida to live with his daughter. At least, that’s what Alice had heard. None of it was true? Were they all really…she had a sudden mental image of them splayed on the ground in crippled lumps, bodies stripped, nothing left of them but sacks of muscle and bone.
She swallowed back a lump of bile and said hoarsely:
“Why don’t more people know about this, Grandma? If everyone knew, we could fight back.”
“Fight back?” Grandma looked down at Alice in amazement. Her eyes were chips of blazing amber. “No, no, no! You must never fight the Grey Ones, Alice! I didn’t tell you the truth so you could do something so foolish. I told you so that you would know how dangerous this world can be. You must protect yourself. You must never go out at night or interfere with the Grey Ones in any way. Do you understand me?”
Meekly, Alice nodded. They spoke no more of it that night. They sat in the armchair together, watching the fire in the hearth turn into a hot, smoking pile of glowing embers. When the room had finally grown dark, Grandma sent her off to bed with a kiss and a brief hug. As Alice went up the stairs, Grandma called after her:
“Make sure you lock your bedroom door before you go to sleep.”
“Yes, Grandma,” Alice said. But the reminder wasn’t necessary. After tonight, Alicek knew she would never leave her door unlocked again. She crawled into her cold blankets and laid there for what felt like hours, staring at the shadows shifting across her ceiling, and trying hard not to think about Mother.
When she finally fell asleep, her dreams were punctured by rotting faces and impish creatures who were nothing but bulbous yellow eyes and ragged, blood-stained teeth. At one point she dreamed that one of the Grey Ones was staring at her through her bedroom window, its clawed hand pushed against the glass outside. She awoke from her fitful sleep with a small cry. It was still dark outside, and her body was trembling and bathed in cold sweat. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. As she rolled over onto her side, Alice suddenly felt a sharp pain in her wrist. She held her arm up to her eyes, squinting in the bleak dawn light that was trickling through her window.
There was a small cut on her wrist, right next to the blue veins that criss-crossed beneath her skin. It was red and fresh-looking, and it resembled a tiny star. It burned as she carefully lowered her arm back onto her bed. She ran her fingers carefully over the sheets, searching for pens or paper clips, anything that might have somehow sneaked in and cut her in her sleep. She found nothing. After a few more minutes, she dozed off.
* * *
“Wake up, my sweet. You’ll be late for school.”
Alice grunted. She felt a hand grab her by the shoulder and shake her firmly. She cracked open an eye. Grandma’s face was leaning over her, her hair illuminated by the sunshine streaming in from the window behind her. She smiled when Alice’s eyes met hers.
“Breakfast is ready. Get dressed and come eat.”
Alice sighed and threw back the covers. She was halfway out of bed when suddenly Grandma’s hand shot out and seized her arm. She raised it to her eyes, and Alice realized she was staring at the star-shaped cut.
“I woke up with it,” Alie said. “I must’ve hit something in my sleep.” Grandma didn’t answer. She merely continued to stare. Then her face went white. “Grandma?”
“Come downstairs.” Grandma’s voice was flat and cold. She released Alice’s arm and walked out of the room.
Alice quickly dressed and went downstairs. Was she in trouble? As she entered the kitchen, Grandma didn’t look at her; she busied herself with setting plates and cups down onto the table. When they finally did start eating, Alice watched her with growing apprehension, feeling too nervous to finish her eggs, wondering what she had done to incur her grandmother’s disapproval. The awful, silent breakfast finally came to an end when Grandma stood up and began to silently collect the plates. Alice excused herself from the table and went to gather up her school supplies in the hall.
“See you later,” she called as she opened the front door.
Grandma came out of the kitchen and handed her a bagged lunch. Bending down, she wrapped Alice in a bone-crushing hug. Alice was inundated by a comforting scent: a mixture of citrus, lavender, and warm bread.
“Come home safely, my sweet,” Grandma whispered. Her voice caught, and Alice looked up at her worriedly. But Grandma gently pushed her away and then retreated back into the house. Alice slowly turned and walked to the bus stop alone.
She managed to put Grandma’s strange behavior out of her mind for the rest of the day, though it came flooding back with crushing clarity when she returned home and found her sitting in the rocking chair in the living room. Grandma was very still, as if she’d turned into plaster. She looked up when Alice cleared her throat, and then stared blankly at her for several seconds---as if she didn’t recognize her. Then she blinked.
“Hello, sweets. Dinner is almost ready. How was school?”
“Dinner? But it’s only four,” Alice said in surprise. Grandma rose to her feet.
“We’re eating early because we have an errand to run later.” Grandma’s smile was odd. Her mouth looked as if it had tasted something bad. “Go wash your hands, honey.”
They lingered over a meal of beef stew and green beans. They even had dessert, which struck Alice as odd, since Grandma didn’t generally approve of sweets after dinner. Finally, when dusk was blooming beyond the frosted window panes, Grandma stood up, pushing her chair back, and told Alice to get her jacket.
“Where are we going?” Alice asked brightly as she emerged from the closet, her face rosy from the warmth of the house, her belly feeling comfortably full. Grandma had already pulled on her own coat, a gray wool garment that reached her knees.
“Are you buttoned up?” she asked.
Grandma reached down to take her hand; her fingers felt brittle and bone-dry, a skeleton’s grip. She led Alice towards the front door and together they stepped out into the cold night. They began to walk down the main road, keeping to the side so as to avoid the cars dashing by. Alice liked watching the headlights flare up in the twilight and spill over the ground in a riot of white flame, before vanishing into the darkness as the cars passed them by, purring.
Alice looked up at Grandma a few times as they walked. Her mouth was a pursed, tight line, and the darkness made the wrinkles in her face look deeper, more ancient. They trudged on for what felt like several minutes before they abruptly stopped. Alice looked around expectantly, but they didn’t seem to have arrived anywhere special. They were in the middle of the street, just across from the post office. The forest of trees that lined each side of the road was dark, but the area itself was well lit; they stood beneath the soft, orange glow of a streetlamp.
“Are we meeting someone?” Alice said curiously.
“Yes,” Grandma murmured.
Alice waited. The twilight closed in around them. A few stars bloomed in the sky.
“How long do we have to wait?” Alice said finally. “Isn’t it dangerous out here?”
Grandma looked down at her with black, wet eyes.
“Yes, my sweet,” she said softly. “It’s very dangerous.”
“Isn’t this where Mother was taken?” Alice said, not so much a question as a confirmation.
Grandma absently stroked the top of her head, gently toying with strands of Alice’s blonde hair.
“She wasn’t taken,” Grandma said in a husky voice.
“I sent her out there.” Drops of thick white tears began to spill down the soft, wrinkled face. “Nobody took her, Alice. She was offered. They all were.”
As she spoke, there was a rustling in the woods behind them. Alice turned, goosebumps creeping up her neck, and saw that the trees were moving. Alarmed, she started to back away, but Grandma yanked her firmly back into the center of the streetlight. It took Alice a moment to realize what was coming at them from the depths of the forest---or rather, who.
Every muscle in her body froze with terror.
The Grey Ones spilled out from the trees like parasites emerging from a gaping, dark wound. Some were crawling on all fours; others walked stiffly on two legs, dragging their knuckles behind them. They were grey and spotty, with giant, pus-yellow eyes, but nobody had ever mentioned the one feature Alice couldn’t stop looking at.
They were far bigger than the eyes, a big, grinning hole that seemed incapable of closing, filled with long, thin fangs. As they got closer, Alice saw they were wearing robes of mottled, decaying human skin draped around their shoulders. They emitted a foul, rancid odor that made her retch. As if that was a signal, Grandma released Alice’s hand. She stepped back quickly as the Grey Ones filled in the spaces around Alice until they formed a ring.
They stared at her, unmoving, for what felt like an eternity. Grandma’s voice came from somewhere among them, drifting out from the darkness:
“I love you, Alice.’’
For a moment, Alice thought she spotted Grandma’s form in the crowd of monsters, but then They started to move and she saw nothing but an indistinguishable mass of grey swarming towards her. She struggled desperately to understand, hoping to see Grandma come running through the crowd to rescue her at any minute.
But nobody came, and soon Alice couldn’t tell where the Grey Ones ended and Grandma began.
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