We followed a strict if unconscious structure in those early meetings: We took turns, giving each a share of time to talk about our lives and deliver our spooky stories. We might as well have been sitting around a campfire.
Dr. Sayer told us this commonly happened in groups. Eventually, she said, the group would stop telling, and start working. Most of us did not know what that meant, and the rest of us pretended not to know; telling was risky enough. A crisis in the group can speed that process along, like a shock that starts the heart beating.
Martin’s attack was the first of several shocks to hit the group. Barbara learned about it the next day, when Jan sent out an email to the group. Stan, who never checked his AOL account, was the last to know; Jan had left a follow-up message on his answering machine.
Harrison, of course, was the first to know. After Jan called, he hung up and sat on the bed, thinking hard.
“She’s looking for me?”
He turned. Greta was sitting in the armchair across from the bed, her arms around her knees. She was still naked except for the boy’s jockey shorts.
“I think she’s figured out you’re here,” he said. “She’s intuitive like that.”
“So what did she say about the attackers?”
“Nothing much. Martin doesn’t seem to remember, or else he didn’t get a good look while they were beating him.”
“I’m going to have to tell the group about the Sisters,” she said.
“Like you said, Jan’s intuitive. She’s going to ask me sooner or later. It’s time to tell the story.”
Harrison and Greta’s relationship—their offline, outof-band, extracurricular relationship—started after the second meeting, when she finally accepted his offer to drive her home. They barely spoke during the drive, the silence broken only by Greta’s monosyllabic directions, then a final, awkward “Thanks.” The next week he took her home again, and it became a regular thing. They began to talk, her short questions always aimed at getting him to talk about his childhood, and because he would not talk about that, they talked about the only thing they had in common: the group. Soon their comments became post-meeting debriefs, which became all-out dissections. The drive home became too short; they would sit in his car outside of her apartment building (a grim chunk of poured cement allocated for student use) and perform the weekly autopsy.
Harrison wasn’t sure whose idea it had been to go to the pub their first time. They’d walked out of the meeting to his car and Greta said, “Maybe we could . . . ?” and Harrison said, “I know a place.” And that became their new regular thing. He drank doubles of Kilbeggan. She ordered Sprite.
Greta saw things that he missed entirely. Barbara was clinically depressed, she said; you could tell in the way she talked about her family. “All her stories are about how the boys did this with their father, or did this other thing on their own. She doesn’t seem to be in their lives. She’s watching them, like they’re on TV.” And in the next meeting Harrison would surreptitiously study Barbara, and sure enough he would see the deep sadness behind the mask of helpfulness and empathy.
Yet in other ways, Greta was hopelessly naïve, especially when it came to the men. For example, she’d noticed that Stan’s eyes were permanently glued to her chest, but found this to be completely innocent. “He’s an old man,” she said. “With no hands! How does he even masturbate?”
“I’m not sure he has even the basic equipment anymore,” he said. Her eyes went wide; this hadn’t occurred to her. He said, “So how about Martin, then? He’s got the hots for you.”
“What? No. He barely looks at me.”
“Because he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He flushes when you come in.” Later, after Martin told the group what he was seeing through the glasses, Harrison wondered if he was wrong about this.
“How about you?” she asked. “Are you looking at my tits?”
“That’s beside the points. Point. See what I did there?”
“Everybody thinks I’m the quiet one,” she said. “But you’re the one who never talks.”
“I do so. I talk all the time.”
“No, you comment. What have you shared about yourself? We don’t know you, we just know that guy in the books.” She always turned the conversation back around to the paperbacks. “Jameson Squared,” she said. “Monster Detective.”
“And that is such a misleading title,” he said. “It makes the kid sound like he’s the monster. Like ‘child psychologist.’”
“Child psychologists are monsters,” she said.
“No, I mean—”
“I know what you mean. Jesus, Harrison.”
“Now that would be a good series character. Jesus Harrison, Divine Detective.”
“You also deflect through humor,” Greta said.
Every pub session, after they’d finished diagnosing the problems of the other people in the group (including Dr. Sayer), Greta would hound him about the books, trying to nail down what was real, what was made up, what was only exaggerated. She seemed to have memorized the entire series.
The mundane facts—the NPR facts, he called them—were that the town of Dunnsmouth was reduced to kindling by a hurricane. Hundreds dead. It was quite a story for perhaps a week, and then the world moved on. Then, two years after the tragedy, a wife-and-husband team of “paranormal investigators” published a “nonfiction” book about the true, unreported supernatural intrusion that was only interpreted as a hurricane. One of the main characters was a teenage boy, the transparently named Jameson Jameson. Harrison had made the very bad mistake of talking to the couple while he was recovering in the hospital. Soon after, he made it a life goal to someday punch the paranormal investigators in their pair of normal faces. The list of punchees later expanded, first to the editors at Macmillan who ginned up a “fictional-but-what-if-it’s-not-eh?” series of adventures featuring a character named Jameson Squared, then to the producers at the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) network who created a homegrown movie he would have called unwatchable if so many people hadn’t told him they’d watched it.
“You can’t blame people for wanting to tell your story,” Greta said. “You’re a hero.”
“That’s bullshit,” he said.
“Not total bullshit,” she said.
“You’re an optimist. Let’s agree that the glass is half full of shit.”
“You saved an entire town!”
“If by ‘saving’ you mean that slightly fewer people died than every single fucking person, sure. Totally saved it.”
“That’s not what—”
“Dunnsmouth was a clusterfuck, top to bottom,” he said. “The books don’t tell you how close we came to losing everything. I was seventeen, Greta. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I didn’t know how far out of control the situation was. Everyone should have died. Not just everyone in town—everyone.”
She stared at him.
“I’m not being dramatic,” he said. “Okay, maybe a little. I’m sure there would have been a few survivors, somewhere. But not on the eastern seaboard.”
“But that didn’t happen,” she said. “You must have done something right.”
“Sometimes fortune favors the stupid.”
She shook her head. “You keep doing that. Making quips.”
“‘Quips’? Who says ‘quips’?”
“Mocking quips is also a quip.” She frowned. “And trust me—I am not an optimist.”
On the June night Martin was beaten, Harrison and Greta had left the meeting and walked to the pub as usual. They did not notice that Martin was following them. Greta was upset that Martin kept pressuring her for details.
“He has a point,” Harrison said. “You know what happened to the rest of us. It’s your turn.”
“I’m not interested in taking turns.”
She had already told him fragments of her story. She’d grown up on some kind of all-female commune out West; they called themselves the Unveiled Sisters at first, then just the Sisters. She’d been raised by her mother; dad was some variety of asshole who’d not been part of her life since she was very small.
Greta said, “Martin just wants to know about the scars. And the monster.”
“I’m assuming they’re related.” He retrieved their drinks. After they’d taken their first sips, he said, “So. The scars.”
She stared at him.
He said, “Are you afraid I won’t believe you? Because I can promise you there’s no shit too weird for me.” He put his hand over hers. “Nothing you say can scare me off.”
Greta seemed to move without moving. He jerked backward, chair legs squealing. For a moment she became, somehow, more real. He felt suddenly naked. Like prey.
He’d yanked his hand away from her, and he tried to cover by rubbing the back of his neck. He’d experienced flashes like these before, these intimations of the hidden world, but he could never predict when they’d hit, and they never lasted for longer than a second or two. For that he was thankful. Seers like Martin had a shitty time of it.
“Or,” he said, putting on a smile, “maybe you can.”
“Drive me home,” she said. Then: “Not my home.”
Harrison’s apartment was the latest in a string of apartments, and though he had lived there for two years, he’d not finished unpacking. Barely started, actually. He’d set up his laptop and some speakers on the dining room table, but his books were still in boxes. The kitchen cabinets were empty. He had managed to set out a few special items on the shelves in the living room, mementos from his childhood. Photos of his parents. A few hand-carved stone statues from the bottom of Dunnsmouth Bay. A framed copy of his high school diploma, still stained with blotches of black ichor. A skull that looked like a goat’s skull but was not.
Greta moved around the room, looking at them with undisguised curiosity. She stared for a long time at the picture of his mother and father and the three-year-old Harrison, squinting into the sunlight on a California beach. She ran her hands along the shelves. “Is this gold?” she said, hefting a disc the size of her palm. The edges of it looked as if they’d been chewed, and the thing on its face was no human king or president.
“It’s harder to spend than you think,” Harrison said. “I suppose I could melt it down.”
“Right.” She returned it to the shelf, then stood with her back to him. “So you’re squatting here?”
“No sheets on the bed, empty scotch bottles on the counter. Even the carpet smells like liquor.”
“If you want to leave,” he said. “I can drive you back.”
“Sit,” she said, and gestured toward the bed. She moved six feet away from him and pulled off her long-sleeved T-shirt. Underneath she wore a thin white wife-beater. She pealed that off as well.
“Oh,” he said. He hadn’t meant to speak aloud. He didn’t want to spook her. And he thought he’d been prepared for this; she’d shown her arm in one of the earliest meetings. But this . . .
The scars covered her from the base of her neck and continued past the waistline of her jeans. The swirls and nested blocks he’d seen on her arms were even more closely packed across her chest, more dense than a Mondrian painting, crowded as an Escher maze. Even her breasts—compact runner’s breasts—were covered in ridges and sworls.
She shook her head at him. He didn’t know what that gesture meant, or even if it was directed at him. Then she unzipped her jeans and stepped out of them. She left on her underwear, small gray boy shorts with a black waistband, and kicked off her Chuck Taylors. There was a moment of awkwardness as she bent to peel off her black athletic socks. Then she stood.
The scars scrolled down each leg, swarmed her feet, wound through her toes. She weathered his gaze with eyes open.
After a time she turned to show him her back. No space larger than a couple of inches had been left unfilled. She was a Torah, a labyrinth.
“The Sisters gave me my first brand when I was seven years old,” she said. She turned again, and showed him a tiny square on her left bicep. “This. It was my birthday. I was so happy.”
“Happy,” he said skeptically.
“My mother had already decorated herself with beautiful designs,” Greta said. “They were tattoos, not scars, and nothing . . . mystical. But so full of color. I remember tracing them, my nose so close to her skin, staring at the pictures so hard I thought I’d fall in. On her left arm was a tattoo of an ivy-covered gate. I thought that if I looked close enough between the bars I could see to the other side. God, I loved them. She added to her collection pretty frequently. Sometimes she let me come with. This was before we joined the Sisters, before we left my dad, when I was little. I remember the hum of the needles, the tiny pinpricks of blood. Once I asked if it hurt, and she said, Of course it does, honey. Everything beautiful hurts.”
“That’s kind of fucked up,” Harrison said.
“Tell me it’s not true,” she said. Without waiting for a response she said, “This one they gave me a few days later.”
Over the next hour she guided him through a tour of her body, though she never let him come closer than a few feet to her. Her skin was both the map and the territory: She told him how and when she acquired each brand, and how much she loved the Sisters. “This one took weeks to heal,” she said. “It felt like the whole summer.”
She was talking about a jagged design near her navel. Looking at it made him queasy. “I know that symbol,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed.
“And that one, on your leg. And there was another on your back—two, I think. Related.”
“How?” she asked. “Where have you seen them?”
“The other side.”
“What does that mean?”
“That I was over there?” he asked.
“That they’re on me.”
“I don’t know yet.”
Harrison’s cell phone buzzed. He glanced at the screen—not many people had this number—and then picked it up. A few minutes later he hung up and told Greta that she would have to tell them about the Sisters. “The doctor and Martin, at least.”
“Might as well be the whole group,” Greta said.
“Yeah,” he said heavily. Then: “You can probably keep your clothes on, though.”
He said it jokingly, but suddenly she was embarrassed. She came out of the chair and started scooping up her clothes.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “Are you leaving?”
She wouldn’t answer him. He said, “What happened to the Sisters, Greta? Are they still out there?”
“They’re dead.” She pulled on one of her shoes. “All dead. Whoosh.”
She finished dressing, then stared at him, hands on hips.
“What?” he asked.
“I still need a ride,” she said.
At the next meeting we were all shocked by Martin’s appearance, in both senses of the word “appearance”: shocked at the bruises and bandages, and shocked that he had come to the group at all. He looked like a zombie from his video game: his face misshapen by the beating, still swollen in yellow and purple. One arm was in a cast from wrist to elbow, and the fingers themselves were wrapped, making it look like one of Stan’s stumps.
Jan had tried to tell him that he did not need to come to the meeting, and she’d understand if he wanted to drop out entirely. She would see him in solo therapy if that’s what he wanted. But no, Martin was determined to attend. He needed to see the others, and he needed to be seen.
“God damn, kid!” Stan said. “God damn!”
Martin put down his bulging backpack and took his seat next to Barbara. She touched his shoulder and said, “I’m so sorry. How are you holding up?”
He didn’t know how to answer that question. He was upright, so was that holding up? His body ached. His bones felt as shaky as Tinkertoys. Even under this blanket of Vicodin—he was still taking four a day—spikes of pain would shoot up his spine with no warning. When he turned his head too fast, his vision swam.
Oh, and the world without frames. It was so strange to see without filters—to see this group without protection. The only advantage was that he could almost forget that Greta was a monster.
“I also need to find a new place to crash,” Martin said.
“Why’s that?” Harrison asked.
“I got kicked out,” Martin said, which was not a lie. He kept the explanation vague, making it seem like a problem about money and roommates. Only Jan knew the whole story.
Stan, though, was still outraged on Martin’s behalf. “You can’t kick a man out of his home!”
“Where are you going to live?” Barbara asked.
“I’ll think of something,” he said.
Harrison said, “If you need some help—”
“From you?” Martin said.
Harrison started to say something, then seemed to think better of it. He glanced at Jan as if asking her permission to proceed. “Dr. Sayer told me that Martin was attacked right outside the bar where Greta and I were talking. We’d met there several times. After almost every meeting, actually.”
Stan raised his eyebrows.
“To talk,” Harrison said.
“Uh huh,” Stan said.
“I—we should have told the group. I apologize for that. If we’d been more open, then maybe—”
“Maybe I wouldn’t have stalked you,” Martin said.
“You really did that?” Barbara asked him.
“She left wakes,” Martin said. “Ripples in the air.”
“Really?” Stan said.
Barbara said to Martin, “Do you want to talk about the attack?”
“No,” Martin said. He looked at Greta: straight on, from beneath eyelids puffy from the beating. “I want her to talk about it.”
“The cut was very small,” Greta said. “Maybe an inch long.”
Her voice was so quiet. Martin leaned forward, thinking, Finally.
“The razor was so sharp I didn’t feel it.”
Barbara made a noise, a tiny intake of breath, and Martin looked up. The woman’s eyes shone with unshed tears. What was going on with her? he wondered. In the first meetings Barbara had been so composed, knees together and voice calm, as polished as a Nordstrom’s saleslady.
Greta said, “All I remember was the ice cube the Sisters rubbed over my arm first. Then one of the other elders distracted me, making faces, and when I looked down they were placing a thin piece of gauze in the wound.”
“In the wound?” Barbara asked.
“You twist the gauze, like you’re rolling a joint, then you lay it in there. They have to keep open. The skin has to raise before scarring. You cut the skin of a child, you have to be careful or they’ll heal up without a trace.” She said this matter-of-factly. “Every successful brand comes from delayed healing.”
Greta described how the cuttings proceeded, from tiny incisions to longer, more intricate designs. They concentrated at first on her arms, then legs, so that she could see them. “The Sisters wanted me to love them as much as they did.”
“The sisters, the sisters,” Stan said. “What the hell kind of sister would do this?”
Martin almost laughed. Stan was the king of outrage.
“The Sisters,” Greta said, and then Stan heard it the way they did: a proper noun, capitalization required.
“I was related to only one of them,” she said. “My mother. It was kind of a commune.”
“In the what—the nineties? Who the hell still lives on a commune?”
“It was Oregon,” Greta said.
But Stan was steamrolling now. “Well where the hell were your teachers? Your neighbors? Didn’t anybody notice they were cutting up a little kid? You weren’t in God damn Africa.”
“I was homeschooled,” Greta said evenly. “All the daughters were. The Sisters were self-sufficient. Everything we needed was on the farm, and the only time I saw outsiders was when I helped set up our stand at the farmers’ market, or when the fuel-oil truck came.”
“That’s terrible,” Barbara said.
“No! I loved it there,” Greta said. “And the Sisters loved me. More than they did the other girls.”
Stan said, “You’re telling us this commune was all women?”
The old man’s voice had a strange tone to it. You old perv, Martin thought.
“She’s telling us that she was in a cult,” Harrison said.
“It’s more complicated than that,” Greta said.
“It always seems that way,” Martin said. “From the inside.”
Greta jerked in her seat. Martin saw the monster erupt in her, flashing white-orange like the mouth of a blast furnace. He grunted in pain. The light had brought tears to his eyes.
He didn’t understand what had happened. He wasn’t wearing the frames.
Greta said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Martin held up a hand. He was still seeing spots. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .” When he looked up, Harrison was staring at him, his eyes narrowed as if measuring the space between them.
“You okay, Martin?” Harrison asked.
“I’m fine,” Martin said.
“So are you still in it?” Stan asked Greta. “This cult?”
Jan said, “I don’t think it’s helpful to keep using that word.”
“It’s over,” Greta said. “When I was sixteen, there was a fire. An old bus was parked too close the main house. The bus caught fire, and that spread . . .” She shook her head. “Everything fell apart after that. There were news stories. The survivors turned on each other. The whole community disbanded.” She grimaced. “I know the farm wasn’t perfect, but I still miss it.”
“Wasn’t perfect?” Stan said sarcastically. “They cut you!”
Jan said, “Greta, you said the Sisters loved you more than the other girls. How so?”
“All the daughters were marked on their seventh birthday. Then again every month, just tiny little cuts. We were all trying to get our first square. But I wanted more. I asked for more. The other girls dropped out one by one. But I kept going.”
The designs became more elaborate, the cuts deeper. By the time she was thirteen, she told the group, all the other girls had dropped out, and Greta was the sole object of the elders’ attention. The scars covered her arms and legs. She ached constantly. Her skin wept blood. Some mornings after a ritual she woke to find herself glued to the bed, skin and bandages and T-shirt and sheet transformed into one thing, cemented by blood. But still she wouldn’t stop.
She had her first period while laid out on a table, naked from the waist up. The elder women were carving the next ring of a spiraling symbol into her stomach, and they cried with joy when they saw the spots in her underwear. They stopped early that day, but the remaining sessions were longer. She was a woman now.
“I could take the pain,” she said. “I was the queen of pain. I got so I could breathe through any session, two hours, three. Sometimes I felt like I was floating above the table. I felt like I was opening myself to something greater.”
Greta paused, and Martin risked a glance at her. She was smiling shyly. She said, “They told me I would be worshiped.”
“And you believed them?” Stan asked.
“They were already worshiping me,” Greta said. “Every time they put the knife to my skin it was like . . .” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“A prayer,” Barbara said.
“Yes,” Greta said. “Like that.”
The elders talked to her while they cut, telling her stories of the Hidden Ones. These were creatures in exile, cousins to angels, who wanted to reenter the world. Greta—little Greta!—was the key to opening that door. The symbols that she wore were like candles to their more fierce flames. Like to like, they said.
The sessions continued—once a month, twice at most, because the wounds needed time to ripen into high-ridged scars. The weeks of recovery were harder than the cut days. She constantly ran a low-grade fever. Antibiotics accompanied every meal. Some days she never left the cabin she shared with her mother.
Then Greta had to explain to the group that it was not really a cabin, but a rusting VW camper van, immobile for a decade, squatting in high grass. It was clean, though, and dry, and she and her mother were happy to have it. The Sisters had taken in Greta’s mother when she was running from her boyfriend, a dangerous man. This was not an unusual story at the farm. Many of the women were hiding from dangerous men: husbands, boyfriends, fathers. The founders of the farm, back in the ’70s, were three middle-eastern women who fled first their marriages, then mainstream Islam. They had decided upon a different course. They welcomed other women, of all races and religions, and slowly introduced them to the mysteries of the Hidden Ones.
One night the fever climbed, and she couldn’t sleep. She tore at the bedclothes, crying. Then suddenly a man was standing beside the bed. A man, but also a column of smokeless flame; both those things at once. He was beautiful. His eyes were half lidded, his lips slightly parted. The flame pulsed with his breath. He frightened her, and aroused her. She opened her legs to him, but he refused to come any closer. She thrashed and wailed. Still he wouldn’t move.
In the morning, when Greta told her mother what she’d seen, her mother burst into tears and ran to tell the elders. The news spread instantly. When Greta walked through the farm to the showers, the women and children stared at her.
“I felt like a rock star,” Greta told the group. “And then it got weird.”
“Ohhh,” Stan said. “Then it got weird.”
A few weeks after her sixteenth birthday, the mood at the farm changed. The elders whispered just out of earshot, and studied her with worried expressions. Then she overheard her mother pleading with one of the elders, saying, She’s not ready, she’s too young.
Greta was worried, but not scared. She’d been raised up in full knowledge of her uniqueness—she was made unique. Still, she didn’t demand that the elders tell her what was going on. She would not ask even her mother—at least in public.
“That night I confronted my mother,” Greta said. “I asked her, Is it happening? Is it finally happening? And my mother broke down. Started crying. She kept saying, They can’t make you, I’ll help you get away.”
Greta shook her head. “I think I laughed at her. I know I felt like laughing. Because why would I ever leave? This was my home. This was where I was loved. But my mother was so upset. She took my hands and said, ‘Aunty Siddra is dying. She’s coming here to perform the ceremony.’”
“Did I miss something?” Stan said. “Who the hell is Aunty Siddra? Was what finally happening?”
“My wedding day,” Greta said.
Silence crackled like a static charge.
Then Stan asked: “To who?”
“The human torch guy,” Martin said.
That only exasperated Stan more. “But what does that have to do with her scars?”
Greta started to answer, and Harrison said, “They were trying to make her look attractive to something from the other side.” He glanced at Greta and she held his gaze for a moment, then looked down.
“That’s what you were seeing before,” Harrison said to Martin. “She’s not a monster. She’s monster bait.”
The convoy (Greta told them, her voice soft but insistent) arrived in the afternoon, grinding and thumping through the potholes in the gravel road. First a boxy sedan with a cracked window, then a pickup truck with a blue tarp flapping over the bed, and last a school bus. Or rather, a former school bus; this one was hand-painted in reds and oranges, obliterating the yellow and black. The three vehicles drove up to the farmhouse and parked in a semicircle before it. The bus seemed somehow larger than the house, and instantly became the capital of their little community.
Half a dozen women emerged from the pickup and car, smiling and stretching. They were dark-haired women in jeans and T-shirts, some in head scarves. Sisters came hurrying in from the fields, and the elders called out names, drew the visitors into hugs.
Greta watched from the periphery. The bus door did not open. A figure moved behind the wide windshield, another dark-haired woman who reached up and tugged the curtains closed. Greta realized the vehicle was a kind of RV. Most of the bus’s side windows had been filled in, and the rest were curtained. The roof was piled with luggage.
Her mother called Greta’s name, and the girl stepped nervously forward. The visitors exchanged looks, then one of the women approached Greta, holding out her hands. Greta didn’t know what to do, so she held out her own hands, and the woman laughed and took them in her own. “Little sister,” the woman said, and suddenly the rest of the visitors were surrounding her, touching her, laughing with her.
Finally they withdrew, and the elders moved off into the farmhouse. The bus remained sealed, its engine keeping up its watchdog rumble. Was Aunty too ill to leave? Greta’s mother had said she was dying. How old was the woman? Greta had heard stories about her since she was a child. Siddra was the only surviving member of the three original founders. She lived somewhere far away, and Greta had imagined a mansion, a fortress, a treehouse. Anything but this ramshackle bus.
All that afternoon Greta never strayed far from the vehicle, her eyes moving between the side door and that big curtained window. No one entered or exited.
Her mother came back to the cabin very late, and Greta pretended to be asleep. Her mother stood over her in the dark, breathing. Greta watched her silhouette through half-lidded eyes.
Then her mother knelt beside the mattress. Her clothes smelled of some strange spice. She touched Greta on her hip. “Oh,” her mother said quietly. “Oh my daughter.”
She was going to try to talk her out of it, Greta thought. She held her body still. If she waited long enough, her mother would give up.
Then her mother said, almost breathing it, “You are so lucky.”
The next morning, her mother set out a pretty, pale green dress that still had the JCPenney tags. Greta stood very still at the bathroom mirror as her mother combed her hair and—a first—applied mascara to her eyelashes. “Pout,” her mother said, and touched Greta’s lips with coral lipstick.
Together they walked to the center of the farm. Greta resisted the urge to take her mother’s hand. The fields around them were empty, but sisters stood on the porch of the main house, or in the doorways of their campers and cabins.
Greta and her mother stopped in front of the bus, looking up at the door. Nothing happened. Greta glanced at her mom, and then the door of the bus folded open. One of the dark-haired women from last night stood at the top of the stairs beside the driver’s seat, holding the metal handle of the lever with a cloth, as if it were an oven mitt. She smiled and gestured for her to come in.
Greta stepped up. The inside of the bus was twenty degrees hotter than outside. The dark-haired woman was sweating.
Greta realized her mother hadn’t stepped up after her. “You’re not coming?” Greta asked. She tried to keep her voice calm.
Her mother’s lips were pursed, her eyes gleaming. “I’ll wait for you here,” her mother said. “Go on.”
The bus door closed. The dark-haired woman touched Greta on the shoulder, then gestured for her to sit in a chair in the middle of the room. The woman walked past her to a wall made of faux wood paneling that did not quite meet the curve of the roof. A curtain covered a doorway, and the woman disappeared behind it.
Greta smoothed out her dress and controlled her breathing as if preparing for a new cut. Everything in the room seemed to be wrapped in layers; couches covered in colored sheets piled with blankets topped by pillows; scarves over purple lamp shades over tinted bulbs; rugs askew atop other rugs. Color upon color upon color. The air too was almost liquid with incense and wood smoke and the smell of strong coffee.
Too much. Too much.
She began to sweat. In front of her was a low cloth-draped table, perhaps a storage trunk, upon which were set nine or ten candles, burning in small glass cups of green and purple and yellow. The little flames seemed to fill up the room with heat. On the other side of the table was a huge armchair that Greta assumed belonged to Aunty Siddra. The arms of the chair had once been upholstered, but now they were bare wood, scorched black. The velour seat cushions, however, looked new.
The curtain moved, and it was as if an oven door had opened. Hot air swept over her and made her shrink in her chair.
Aunty Siddra appeared. She was a collection of spikes and angles, like a burnt tree still standing after a forest fire. And she was marked, too. Candlelight limned every ridge and scar.
Greta started to get to her feet and the old woman waved for her to sit down. She moved slowly, as if her limbs might snap under her own weight. She settled into her throne-like chair one bone at a time.
The woman wore a sleeveless shirt and a skirt that hung to her knees, so arms and hands and shin bones were visible. Every inch of visible skin mirrored Greta’s; the designs were the same. They were two copies of the same document, penned decades apart.
No, not copies. Not exactly. The woman’s forehead was branded, where Greta’s was unmarked. The top scars made a jagged line, as if a serrated knife had sawed away at her skull, and that line curved inward at each end.
Aunty Siddra smiled. “Candy?”
The woman held out a glass bowl full of what looked like dusty marbles. “Go on,” she said.
Greta did not want any candy, but she took a reddish brown lump. The surface felt crusty, like a sugar cube. She held it to her nose, then put it in her mouth. It tasted of some spice she didn’t recognize, like licorice but not.
Aunty smiled as if she’d trapped the girl. “I bet you don’t get much candy in this shit hole,” she said.
“Not much,” Greta agreed.
Aunty popped a candy into her mouth. “I didn’t expect a white girl. But I guess vanilla is the hot new flavor.”
Greta didn’t know what to say to that.
“Do you know why you’re here?” Aunty Siddra asked.
“I think so.”
“Hmm.” The woman leaned back. “Guess my age.” When Greta said nothing she said, “Go on. Don’t be shy. Sixty-five? Seventy?”
Greta shook her head.
“I’m fifty-two,” she said. “Fifty-two.” She looked at the ceiling.
Greta sat still for a minute, two. Suddenly Aunty Siddra looked at her. “There was supposed to be a revolution. We were supposed to form our own society. And the Hidden Ones would be our nuclear deterrent. You know what a nuclear deterrent is?”
Greta nodded, though she wasn’t quite sure.
“Yeah, well, the revolution’s always around the corner. We just wanted to have our weapon in place. And once we made our deal with foreign powers—well, you know, don’t you? One from our side, one from theirs.”
“‘A bridge and a bond,’” Greta quoted from her lessons.
“Right,” Aunty Siddra said. “But that doesn’t mean you have to do everything the other guy says.” She sat up straighter. “Listen to me, this is important. Don’t ever let go. Hold tight to the reins. You can do this, yes? Because we need a woman who won’t flinch, who can take it. Who can hold on to that son of a bitch, no matter how much it makes you hurt.” She gripped the sides of the chair. “Are you that woman?”
“Yes,” Greta said. “I am.”
“Thank God,” Aunty Siddra said. “I don’t think I can hold out much longer.”
A final step was required, Greta told the group. She was to come back in an hour after they prepared the bus for the surgery. Back in her cabin, she stared at her face in the bathroom mirror. She ran a finger across her smooth forehead, saying goodbye to it. Her mother pestered her with questions she didn’t know how to answer. What was Aunty Siddra like? Was she nice? Did she approve of Greta?
Greta shut the bathroom door on her mother and sat down on the closed lid of the toilet. She was sick to her stomach, and her skin felt clammy.
Before the hour was up, a neighbor came to their camper and banged on the door. “Something’s wrong,” she said.
A crowd had gathered around the bus. The door was open, and dark-haired women were hurrying in and out. Greta went in without asking for permission. Aunty Siddra lay on the couch. She was not moving. One of the women sat cross-legged on the floor, holding her hand.
“What’s the matter with her?” Greta asked.
“Cancer, child. It’s all through her.”
“But—but what about. . . ?”
“Sit.” She pointed to the huge chair Aunty Siddra had occupied less than an hour ago. Greta did as she was told. She put a hand down on the chair arm, then quickly lifted it; the arms were coated with black soot.
The dark-haired woman said, “Someone get the knives. Hurry!”
But it was too late. Aunty Siddra had taken her last breath.
“And then . . . .” Greta told us. “The fire.”
“I was the only one who made it out of the bus,” Greta said. “I crawled out, between the legs of the women. The fire seemed to jump from Sister to Sister. And then it spread to the farmhouse, the other outbuildings.”
“I don’t understand,” Barbara said. “Where did the fire come from?”
“It was the Hidden One,” Greta said. “Aunty Siddra had let go of the reins, and it was free.”
“They fucked it up,” Harrison said. “They didn’t complete the ritual. They were supposed to move the thing from the old lady to Greta—one bottle to another. But they didn’t get it done before the first bottle broke.”
“What are you talking about, bottles?” Martin asked.
“You know what they call ‘hidden one’ in Arabic?” Harrison said. “Al-jinnī.”
Martin thought for a moment, then got it. “Oh come on!”
“It’s just a word for something they don’t understand. It’s not Barbara Eden, or Robin fucking Williams.”
“We’re already out of time,” Jan said. “Next week we can—”
“Nobody move,” Martin said.
Harrison and Barbara looked toward Jan.
“Please,” Martin said.
“What is it?” Jan asked him. “What do you have to say?”
Martin turned his broken face to Greta. “So. These Sisters. They thought you were special.”
“Special enough to kill for?”
“Oh,” Barbara said. And Stan said, “What?”
“The people who attacked me,” Martin said. “Some of them were women, I’m pretty sure. Maybe all of them. And they were protecting Greta.”
“There are no Sisters,” Greta said. “The fire killed everyone. Everyone but me.”
No one spoke. Martin saw that Harrison was staring at the floor, lost in thought.
Most of us were watching either Martin or Greta. Jan, however, was watching Harrison. He was staring into the middle distance with a thoughtful look on his face.
“End of story,” Greta said. She looked at Martin. “Happy now?”
He wasn’t happy. But he was satisfied.
We knew each other, at first, only by our words. We sat in a circle and spoke to each other, presenting some version of ourselves. We told our stories and tried out behaviors. Dr. Sayer said that the group was the place for “reality testing.” What would happen if we exposed ourselves and shared our true thoughts? What if we talked about what we most feared? What if we behaved according to rules that were not predicated on our worst suspicions?
Perhaps the world would not end.
For Stan, the group was his opportunity to test the assumption that every living person was repulsed by him. Decades of personal experience had convinced him of this. Understandably, he’d taken the position that the best defense was being offensive. He shouted at medical staff. He accused doctors of minimizing his problems before they could even hear his complaints. He stared at people on the street, daring them to look away.
Being a psychologically savvy person, he knew that the others might perceive his house as an expression of his inner defense mechanisms. He’d grown up in this house, and had returned to it after his experience with the Weavers. It was his castle, his fortress, and defended by palisades of junk. Every room was filled, with narrow paths winding through the piles of broken appliances, books, clothing, children’s toys, lawn equipment. Only the Medicaid-paid staff dared enter, and they didn’t stay long; home health workers were on the lowest rung of the medical economy and they didn’t collect hazard pay.
Dr. Sayer, had she known about his living conditions, would have been more likely to reach for the DSM-5 for a label; hoarding was a cousin to OCD and its victims sometimes responded to SSRIs. A steady dose of Paxil could do wonders in a small minority of patients.
Stan, however, knew that the house was not his problem, people were.
So it was that he’d surprised himself by inviting Martin to spend a night or two there, “just until he found a new place.” The invitation had been Barbara’s idea. She’d cornered him after the meeting in which Greta had told her story, just to “brainstorm.” She played upon his conscience, daring him to help someone in greater need than himself. “Mentor him,” she’d said. Of course, she’d never been to his house either.
Martin regretted accepting the invitation almost as much as Stan regretted offering it. There was something about Barbara, however, that made him want to be a better person. Perhaps it was because she seemed to think he was, despite very little evidence, already a good person. Both Martin and Stan didn’t want to disappoint her.
Stan’s driver, the bearded young man who seemed about the same age as Martin, said, “You’re staying with him?” He shook his head in disbelief, and when he unlocked the door to the house he chuckled in a low voice that reminded Martin of every cafeteria bully he’d known in middle school. “Enjoy your stay.”
Martin shut the door behind them. “What an ass-hole.” Then he looked up to see the condition of the room.
For a long moment he couldn’t think of anything to say.
Stan suddenly seemed angry. He gestured at the goat path through the mess and said, “Kitchen’s through there.”
“Got it,” Martin said, and began to push Stan’s chair—slowly, and with many small corrections. His cast made it difficult. And still he couldn’t think what to say about the house. He was appalled but also fascinated. The way through the maze of the front room was like a series of D&D traps, set with hair triggers and hidden pressure plates. Move a broken microwave off a stack of National Geographics and a boulder might burst through the wall and flatten them.
Martin thought about bugging out as soon as possible, but where else could he go? His checking account was down to gravel and his credit card had been scraped clean by the hospital and pharmacy. He needed to go back to work, to get looking for a new place to live, but the thought exhausted him. The beating had beaten something out of him. What had been lost, however, was a mystery; Stan would have called it gumption, or resilience. To Martin it felt like he’d sloughed off some other, tougher self, leaving behind a fragile pupa. All he wanted to do was sleep.
But that was looking to be impossible in Stan’s house. There was hardly any space to lie down, and nowhere to even sit safely. They passed a door that was ajar, but behind it was a wall of floor-to-ceiling crap like a dead end in a closed-environment game level. The kitchen was a wreck, full of non-foodrelated junk. Why was there a black safe sitting atop the stove?
Martin said, “I don’t know, Stan, maybe I should—”
“Try upstairs,” Stan said. He pointed at twin pillars of boxes. Between them was a narrow opening.
Martin slipped into the gap and discovered a set of stairs that led to a miracle: three bedrooms and a tiny bathroom, empty except for an appropriate amount of furniture. The rooms were dusty but not dirty; someone, at least in the past couple months, had cleaned them. This was higher ground, saved from the floodwaters of Stan’s compulsion by the lack of a ramp or chair lift.
Martin returned to the first floor, moving slowly so as not to aggravate his ribs. Stan looked at him expectantly.
Martin wanted to say, This is the first time I’ve been thankful for lack of handicap accessibility. Instead he said, “This is perfect. Thanks.”
“You’ll be safe here,” Stan said. “You wouldn’t believe how many guns I have.”
Greta didn’t show up for the next meeting. She’d sent Jan a text saying that she needed to work on something on her own. The tone, Jan told them, did not seem to rule out an eventual return; but when Jan texted her back, she got no further reply.
It was left to the group to deal with her departure. It was a rejection, a wound. We spent three weeks talking about it, assessing the damage, assigning blame. Martin thought Greta was a coward. Stan thought she was striking back at them for forcing her to talk. Harrison thought she just needed a break from the group and would be back when she needed them. Barbara, however, refused to take Greta’s exit as a sign of aggression or weakness. “Maybe she got what she needed,” Barbara said. “The group’s job is to patch us up so we’re strong enough to go do what we need to do. We’re not supposed to be here forever.”
What surprised us—the remaining members, that is, if not Dr. Sayer—was that we were able to talk about it so deeply and so well. Dr. Sayer seemed to do very little; she made comments that would nudge our little boat back into the stream and we would do the rowing ourselves. When we fell back into storytelling—and Stan was still our most frequent offender—one of us would nudge us back into the now. What mattered was what happened between us.
One week he was talking again about his time with the Weavers, the days he spent in that barn, in the nest of ropes that stretched between the rafters and the poles. He seemed to remember every kindness that the Pest, the smallest Weaver, had done for him, even as he watched his friends die, one by one. “Their mistake was killing the cop. If Bertram Weaver hadn’t had done that, they would never have found me. I would have made my last visit to the smokehouse. But the cops burst in, and Bertram tried to rush them—”
“Stan, you’ve told this story before,” Barbara said. “When you go on and on like that, it’s like you’re demanding that I tune you out. The more you talk, the less I can hear you.”
Stan lifted the oxygen mask, inhaled deeply. We’d seen this delaying tactic before. Often it ended any meaningful interaction with the old man. But this time he lowered the mask and said, “Then you’ve trapped me. If I talk you don’t listen, and if I don’t talk . . . what am I supposed to do?”
“Tell us something you’ve never told before,” Barbara said. “Something real. How do you feel, right now?”
“I feel sorry,” Stan said. “I don’t mean to bore you. I don’t know why I do that. I just . . . fill the room.”
“I’m more concerned about what you’re not saying,” Barbara said.
“Are there things you’re not telling us?” Martin asked.
“Of course there are,” Harrison said. “We all have secrets left.”
“Whenever you’re ready, Harrison,” Barbara said.
Harrison laughed. “I’ll let you know.”
Despite Greta’s absence, a lightness seemed to have entered the meetings. The gloom around Barbara (which only Jan and Greta had noticed) had lifted. Martin seemed to be healing. He was still living with Stan, but he’d gone back to work, thanks to a phone call and earnest letter from Dr. Sayer. He told the group he was adjusting to life without the frames. He knew the dwellers were lurking just out of sight, and he never forgot that, but he could function as if there were no dwellers. “I just tell myself to act like they’re not there,” Martin said one week. “And sometimes I can fool even myself.”
“Amen,” Harrison said. “That’s my primary maintenance strategy.”
“How so?” Jan asked.
“You know. Act normal. Pretend we don’t know what we know. But it’s so . . . tiring. I start to hate people for their ignorance. Their complacency. Sometimes I see a couple people sitting around laughing and I think, What the fuck do you think is so funny?”
The rest of us were nodding. Even Jan.
“I want to be like them. But I can’t. We’re not safe. There are things on the other side that want in—the dwellers, the Hidden Ones. And scarier shit.”
“They whisper,” Martin said.
“Yes,” Harrison said. “Always trying to get someone to open the door.”
“Like Aunty Siddra,” Barbara said.
“And the Weavers,” Stan said.
“Well, the Weavers were just psychos, right?” Harrison said. “Nothing like the thing that burned down Greta’s farm.”
Stan said, “I do not agree with that.”
“I’m not saying they weren’t scary,” Harrison said. “But they didn’t bring over monsters.”
“They wanted to become the monsters,” Jan said. She sounded almost angry.
Harrison looked at the others, seeing if they’d noticed her tone.
“And they got halfway there,” Jan said. She looked up. “Stan, tell them about the Spidermother.”
Stan flinched as if he’d been slapped. Tears filled his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.
“It’s okay, dear,” Barbara said. “What is it?”
But Stan was staring at Dr. Sayer. “How do you know about that?”
“It was in the police reports.”
“Back up,” Martin said. “Spidermother?”
“That’s what her boys called her.” Stan rubbed at his eyes with his sleeve. “Mrs. Weaver. That’s who they were feeding.”
“Fuck,” Harrison said.
“They kept her in the smokehouse,” Stan said. “They were afraid of her, but they loved her too. She looked . . . pregnant. Or like those starving kids in Africa, with the big distended bellies? The rest of her, her arms and legs, were like sticks. And filthy. But the worst part was her eyes. There was something wrong with her eyes. She had too many of them.”
Martin bent forward in his chair. “What?!”
“Inside her sockets. She had two in each socket. Small, shiny black . . . spider eyes.”
“Another fucking hybrid,” Harrison said. The rest of us looked at him. “If something’s made it across, it can taint people. And their children. You get things that shouldn’t exist.”
“The Scrimshander,” Barbara said. “Half dweller, half human.”
“Yeah, him,” Harrison said. “And others.”
“But you killed it, right?” Martin asked.
Harrison shrugged. “Probably. Other people thought they killed it too. It’s hundreds of years old. It may not be killable.”
“What are you saying?” Stan said. He was frantic. “The Spidermother may still be alive? They burned her out. The whole place went down. I heard her scream. You can’t tell me that she’s still out there.”
“I’m sure she’s not,” Harrison said.
“Don’t coddle me!” Stan said.
“I’m sorry,” Harrison said. He surprised himself by sounding as sincere as he felt, or perhaps the reverse. “I shouldn’t have said that. I just . . . I don’t know if any of these things obey the same rules we do.”
“But that’s what you’re here for,” Martin said. “You’re the official dragon slayer.”
“I’m here, in this group, because I used to think that was my job.”
“Maybe it’s all of your jobs,” Jan said. “Each of you is on the hero’s journey.”
“Oh no,” Harrison said. “Leave Joseph Campbell out of it.”
“The Mormon guy?” Stan asked.
“Joseph Campbell,” Martin said. “The monomyth? Star Wars? Damn it, Stan, read a book.”
“It’s a pattern you see in many myths,” Jan said. “A hero leaves the everyday world, and crosses over into the world of the supernatural. He gains magical helpers, faces great trials, fights strange forces, and wins a great battle. Then he comes back to the normal world with a boon—a gift. A reward.”
“That’s not my story,” Harrison said.
“Well I crossed over,” Stan said. “And what reward did I get?”
“Knowledge,” Barbara said. “We get to find out things that no one else knows. We get the gift of understanding.”
“Screw that,” Stan said. “I want my hands back.”
Harrison was the first to leave the building, but he stood for a while, scanning the sidewalks. Barbara caught him loitering. “Can’t fool me,” she said. “You still want to rescue the damsel.”
“But who’s going to rescue me?” he asked.
She laughed, and said goodnight. After a few steps she turned and said, “I always meant to ask you, did you see the portraits it carved?”
“I’ve seen photographs of some of the bone carvings,” she said. “But I’ve never seen a piece in person.”
“I found its lair once,” Harrison said. “A cave set in a cliff. Half the time it was underwater, but we crawled in there once at low tide. He’d made driftwood shelves to hold them. It looked like a hobo art gallery.”
“What were they like?” she asked. “The scrimshaw.”
“Horrible,” he said. “And beautiful. Every bone came from someone he’d killed, but the portraits themselves . . . Somehow he made these people seem more than lifelike. They were just lines etched in the bone, some crosshatching, not even any color. But still. You know how they say an artist can capture someone?”
She tilted her head, thinking this over. “Take care of yourself, Harrison.”
Later, we would hear how Barbara spent her night. She had supper with husband and sons, and washed the dishes while the boys tussled in the yard. It stayed light so long in the summer. After a while she rounded up her sons and kissed them on the tops of their heads. Then she kissed her husband goodbye. “Don’t forget their soccer jerseys are in the dryer,” she said.
After that, details were sketchy. We know she arrived at her apartment and locked the door behind her. She filled the big clawfoot tub with hot water, and arranged the mirror over it. A chair was pushed close to the tub to act as a side table for her tools and supplies: the straight razor; the rolls of medical tape; the bottle of Vicodin. There were still plenty of pills left when they found her. She wasn’t trying to knock herself out, just dampen the pain enough to let her finish the job.
It was time to claim the gift. To finally know. She removed her clothes and climbed into the bath.