Hollis’ head pounded, her eyes feeling sunken, her tongue like sandpaper. Her body was failing her, giving up in a petulant fit because she’d not been able to find water. The land around her felt cool, though, as it did after rain, and the smell of earth was sharp and distinct in her nose. She peeled one eye open, then another, and her heart soared. There, perched on a rock a few feet from her, was a silver thermos.
Without hesitation, she leapt for it, downing the icy contents, not caring that it splashed over her neck and soaked her flannel as well as her grimy, once-white shirt. Her belly protruded with the intake of water, but she craved more, a new need making itself known: salt.
It was as if someone was reading her mind and answering her each time. She’d knocked the package of peanuts and raisins and chocolate off the rock in her haste to quench her thirst. She now tore open the small pouch and slid every last morsel into her awaiting, salivating mouth. Barely chewing, the food slid into her stomach, satiating her for the moment. She sat back, gripping the thermos as though it were her lifeline. In a twisted way, it was.
A subtle movement in the trees ahead of her caught her eye, and her once light and happy chest seized with terror.
There he stood, the golden-eyed beast, the one who’d held her, who’d ran his fingers through her hair. She gulped, for in the daylight, he was much different. His bare chest glistened with droplets of water, running down the rivulets of his muscles. Her eyes wandered down his long torso, puzzled at the swath of hair near his navel, before they roamed back up to his face, his deep brown hair dripping wet and shining in the sunlight.
Her muscles tensed, her stomach rioting, but the feeling wasn’t altogether unpleasant. With no hint of emotion, he sauntered forward before he crouched in front of her as he had last night. She leaned back, eyes darting to the fallen, decaying leaves on the ground to her left.
“What do they call you?” he asked, unrelenting. She shivered at the deepness of his voice. He waited.
“Hol-Hollis,” she whispered finally.
“Haul-lis?” he repeated, the name seeming difficult for him. She peeked at his curious face, feeling herself redden as she nodded. He rocked back, falling onto his butt, still studying her with his arms propped on his knees in a casual manner. She was thankful he still wore his shorts.
“I am Oberon,” he said, and she peeked at him again, pulling her bottom lip in-between her teeth and worrying it before she offered him a slight nod. His hand reached out in a flash, and she jerked away with a sharp intake of breath. He slowed his movements, changing his course from her face to her hand. He grasped her wrist, eyes boring into hers.
“You are young, or old?” he asked, heavy brows pulling together. Hollis began to shiver in the cold morning mist.
“Umm, y-young, I suppose,” she said, wondering how he couldn’t tell.
“You do not have children,” he said, more of a statement than a question. She reeled at his words, eyes bulging and staring at him with the full force of her gaze. She shook her head quickly, lips parted.
“Why do you hide?” he said. Again, she felt herself reeling, but felt it best to answer his strange questions. If she kept him talking, perhaps he wouldn’t be bored and force himself on her.
“It’s dan-dangerous, people, umm…there aren’t a lot of people around here, anymore…” she trailed off, wondering how he didn’t know this.
“Humans are rare?” he asked, voice piquing in interest. She gave a subtle nod as his thumb brushed over her wrist. She stared at him, bewildered by him. She knew him, somehow, yet there was no way she could know him.
And then her reality came crashing down on her.
“Holy fuck,” she whispered, staring at him anew. He quirked his head to the side.
“Who is fuck? How is he holy?”
She shook her head, more frightened now than she had been.
“How…how did you get here?” she asked. He frowned, squinting at her, and she felt the reprimand in his gaze.
“You need not worry about that,” he said, voice ringing with finality. She blinked a few times, dumbfounded.
He stood, towing her up with him.
“We leave for the West, Haul-lis.”
She tugged against his pull, and he stopped, giving her an irritated stare. She felt tears threaten.
“Please,” she said. “Please, I need to go home, I was lost, and I have to see if…if…” her chest seized, her free hand flying to her lips to block her sobs. She felt Oberon release her wrist, heard his intake of breath.
“You have family.”
She nodded, not alerted to his unearthly ability to read her yet. There was silence for a moment, then:
“I will take you, but I will not leave you. You will die, tiny human,” he said. She glanced up at him, his squared jaw ticking. It made sense, now, why he spoke as though he were from an ancient land, but she was too fearful of his retribution to ask anything more pressing. She sniffled.
“Why are you helping me?”
He leveled her with a portentous stare.
“You need not worry about that.”
“I…I don’t know my way home,” the small woman admitted, cheeks flaming. Having already guessed as much, Oberon had sought out which direction they should head. He’d passed a homestead after the crash of that flying contraption, and it was there they would go now. It would only take a few hours.
He lead the way, her pace slowed by her stature and lack of strength, and her thoughts swirled about him with a buzzing as incessant as a swarm of bees. Her constant fear was of him hurting her, which made her rather compliant. He didn’t mind that for now. Her other fears dwelled on her family, whether or not they were alive. Oberon knew that answer, but also knew to keep it to himself. The tiny Hollis would have to see for herself. Then, and only then, would she come willingly.
The day was cool, the clouds overhead oppressive and threatening lighting as evening drew near, but by then they would have shelter. He stayed alert, keen, watchful eyes and attuned ears searching for any sign of a threat. The machete in his hand was light to him, ready for its next victim. He itched for it, a natural predator.
Hollis’ heart fluttered, and he paused, glancing through the trees. There, perched in picturesque silence, was the cottage he remembered. A deep melancholy filled his chest, the trees crying out to him of the tortures they’d witnessed. He winced at the vivid display, hand shooting out and gripping her arm as she rushed past. She whirled, sapphire eyes bright, brow knitted, as he gazed down at her.
“Are you sure, tiny human?” he asked. He felt something at their contact, a flash of another gruesome scene, a woman who could be this one’s twin, drowning in her own blood. He released Hollis, the sight verging on unbearable. She nodded, stepping back, waiting for him to follow. He stood still. She turned and fled into her home, and he waited, one heartbeat, then two, and by the third, her anguished, tormented screams filled the woods, the trees committing the sound to their collective, ancient memory.
He sat on the steps until dusk, listening to her sobs, wincing at the deafening crashes as she tore her home apart in fury. She finally calmed, and he stood, unfurling himself and peering into the darkness. She sat on a stool in the kitchen, staring at nothing, the bodies of her maternal protectors strewn behind her. He pulled open the door, getting a feel for the space as he entered. He could shield off the scene of their deaths until he found solace in which to dispose of the bodies.
He stood next to Hollis, her white shirt now stained with blood.
“Go clean yourself. I will prepare food,” he said, attempting a gentle tone. She jumped out of her stupor, quivering in his shadow, unable to meet his gaze.
“I…I have to…bury them, next to father and Willow…” she trailed off, her voice quiet as a whisper. He frowned.
“Not now,” he said. She glared at him, the motion quick and hot and surprising him.
“Do not tell me what to—”
Just then, a clap of thunder sounded, and rain pelted the tin roof. She clamped her mouth shut, eyes widening in angst.
“Tomorrow,” he said, his voice holding a promise. In truth, the rain would end well before dawn, and he would take the task upon himself, for she needn’t worry about something as somber as digging a grave.
She chewed her lip, about to turn and glance again at the massacre. He caught her chin, his eyes scolding her. She stood as he released her, skirting around him and to a small room, returning with a change of clothes. Keeping her eyes on the floor, she scurried to another room, sealing herself inside. He took the opportunity to string up a long bit of cloth, stretching it across the living area as vacant eyes watched his every motion. He gazed back, knowing what it was like to die.
Hollis scrubbed herself raw, stuck in a stupor as the shower sputtered and spit, the rain overhead thunderous on the tin. It was one of her most favorite sounds.
She reached for her razor, sliding it over her calf without a second thought, not knowing when she’d have the chance to shave again. With a disheartened smile, she reminisced on the time she’d caught her mother shaving. Being a loud, curious pre-teen, she’d asked why her mother did that, to which she’d laughed and shrugged, saying old habits die hard. The next day, Hollis attempted to shave her legs and arms, proud of the final product but bleeding like a stuck pig. Her mother had sent her to bed without supper.
Two days later, Willow followed her act, always in the wake of her brash, adventurous younger sibling. Their mother had rolled her eyes and said she gave up, but that they’d have to pay for razors with their own chore money. Hollis felt her sad smile, her heart breaking all over again.
Her time lost in the woods had prepared her somewhat for a tragedy, but seeing it, knowing her intuition had been correct, was a whole other beast to tackle. She stifled a sob, letting the warm water splash over her face and hide her tears. She held a palm to the tiled wall, holding herself up as best she could. If she faltered now, if she lost her wits around this creature, she would lose her life. And she’d made her promise to her mother. She had to keep it.
She didn’t feel a shift in the air as the bathroom door opened, the steam swirling and escaping, but she did smell the beginnings of dinner. She picked her head up, fear choking her. She sensed she wasn’t alone.
“Tiny—Hollis?” he corrected, his deep voice sounding concerned. It seemed he was learning how to inflect when he spoke.
“I’m alright, I’m…almost done,” she said, voice wavering.
“You are bathing?”
His tone was full of curiosity now.
“It’s called a…shower…” she sputtered, wiping excess water from her face, praying he’d leave soon. She screamed as the crinkly curtain was shoved aside, cool air blasting her naked body, her feet almost sliding out from under her. She turned away, covering herself as best she could.
“What are you—get out!” she yelled, peeking over her shoulder. He wasn’t staring at her, however; his golden eyes were fixed on the shower head, confusion written on his perfect face.
“Is this rain?” he asked, sticking his hand under the water.
“No! Just…go, please, you can take a shower later,” she said, her cheeks flaming. His eyes fell to her, then, and she didn’t miss the way they widened.
After a moment, he frowned and nodded, backing away. She reached out and yanked the curtain shut, breathing a sigh of relief when the door clicked closed.
She dried and dressed, frame wracked with trembles as she cracked the door open, her fear mounting once more. He’d made no other moves to touch her today, but as night fell around them, she worried her fate was being sealed. The smell of onions and potatoes wafted to her, and without a thought, she glanced backwards, surprised to see her mother’s old bed sheet strung up across her living room, effectively hiding their bodies from her.
A wave of sadness crashed upon Hollis as she stared at the crisp white linen dotted with purple blossoms, recalling what the fabric had felt like on a sleepy summer’s night as a child, crowded together and reading under the light of a lantern.
The silence in the kitchen drew her attention, and she turned away from the memories before she drowned in them. Oberon stared at her, fixated. She blushed, ducking her head and creeping forward, stomach grumbling despite the horrors she’d just gone through.
“Eat,” he commanded as she fiddled with her sleeves, feeling naked once more under his penetrating gaze. She cursed herself for choosing to wear shorts. Unable to meet his demanding eyes, her tears fell straight to the floor.
“Why are you doing this?” she whispered, voice wavering.
“Because I found you.”
“That doesn’t answer anything,” she fought back, jerking her head up. His calculating eyes simmered, his jaw set. It was strange to see a man in her home, in a space so surrounded by femininity that any maleness had no place.
“I fought for you. I won. I will always win, tiny woman,” he said, as though it were completely obvious and she were dumb. She felt deflated in an instant.
“Why…what do you want from me?” she asked, wringing her fingers together, tugging at the sleeves of her old sweatshirt. He quirked his head to the side as the potatoes sizzled. She wondered how he knew to cook, assuming he’d just been created. Probably some technology implemented into his brain, she thought. It had become standard practice for the wealthy, something her grandmother had detested.
“I do not think you understand the world yet, Hollis,” he said, eyes searing. She glared at the truth in his statement, angry at the unfairness of it all.
“And you do?” she spat. His eyes narrowed, and his lip curled into an malevolent smirk.
“Your ways are strange, but all instincts are still the very same.”
“What?” she breathed, reeling. Still the same? Hadn’t he just been brought to life in a sterile lab a few days ago?
“They would have taken you, one by one, and killed you when they were bored.”
His truth, coupled with that strange, piercing gaze, sent chills up her spine as lightning flashed in the distance. His words confused her, as they had the night before. I will not take you.
“What do you mean?” she asked, hating her upbringing with a fervency. He scowled.
She stared on, still stumped, but catching on. Her mother had used a different word, one that sounded more sinister, and—though blurry—she remembered the major details of such an event. She felt her cheeks flame in sudden shame.
“You…you won’t?” she asked, feeling so small in his consuming presence. He was so strange, yet so human-like, she felt at odds with herself at how he was created. Abomination, her grandmother had said.
He moved the iron skillet from the stove as thunder rumbled over the mountains, the lights overhead flickering. The time he took to answer unnerved her.