Along a stretch of grayscale sand, swept smooth and clean by the wind, a set of unusual footprints appeared. No one made them. None that I could see, anyway, which was troubling to begin with. But more worrying was how the footprints raised instead of imprinted, moonlight glinting along the outlined relief. As if someone walked upside down beneath a thin layer of the ground.
Walked in my direction. Sedate, even steps. Yet the tranquility of the pace unnerved me. Not quite stalking, but unhurried in the manner of a confident hunter.
Very little nearby could afford me shelter. Just empty desert and scattered boulders. I made for the nearest of these. The footprints turned to follow, steps widening, as of running.
At that, I sprinted away. Yet a glance behind revealed the footprints widened even further apart, stretching more than any person could stretch their legs. Gaining on me.
Just as I caught the boulder’s rough surface, one of the footprints raised beneath the sole of my foot.
Pain seared up my leg as the print fused through the bottom of my shoe to my skin. I screamed as my foot sank into the sand. Keeping my grip on the boulder, I lifted myself and my free foot from the ground, hauling on my trapped foot. The sand pulled back, growing hotter…
…until at last my foot came away with a sickening rip of skin.
I flopped upon my stomach across the boulder, dripping blood. Gasping. The footprints walked around to face me. Staring them down with all the bravery I could muster, I hoped they couldn’t appear on stone.
The mysterious footprints remained there, unmoving, for the rest of the night. Just as dawn touched the desert, pinking the gray sand, every footprint within view vanished.
I had the rain to thank for my recent growth. Days and days of cool moisture, seeping through the roof and the walls. Water stains spreading outward the way I spread my fuzzy gray-green tendrils along the ceiling corner I called home.
Not ready to send my spores spiraling throughout the house. My children to seek new homes in bathrooms, in closets, in the attic where raindrops echoed. Not yet. But soon.
I was born in the load of damp laundry left in the washing machine. Left for so long that I and my siblings dried out into dusty spores, ready to explode into the air the second the lid opened. The old man coughed his usual, rattling cough when he shook out his forgotten pants, shook us loose, breathed in my siblings. Restarted the wash when he smelled the must. Forgot his laundry again.
I myself drifted to my corner of the ceiling. One little spore latched onto crumbling plaster, farthest from the windows. Farthest from sunlight. Closest to a single leaky shingle.
After the rain stopped, I grew flaky. Dusty. My spores drifted downward in twos and threes, gentle and graceful. Below, the old man sat at a peeling dining table, coffee mug within reach. A handful of my children landed in his drink. He took a sip. Sighed.
Soon after, the old man died. No one found him for a long time, and when they took him away, his body carried a few of us as passengers. Expatriates to a new country. Colonists.
No longer oppressed with cleaning solutions — not that we were much to begin with — we spread. Grew. Overtook every damp corner and dark crevice. Made the leaky house our own. I remained near the ceiling, bloated, oversized. Satisfied with my place and position.
Until two women entered the house.
One looked a little like the old man, just younger. Scraggly hair. Short. Clean. To the other woman, she pointed out my siblings, my children, their homes. Me.
The second woman wore a white jumpsuit that covered her from head to toe. Blue latex gloves on her hands. An industrial mask dangling around her neck. To the first woman she said, “It’ll be several days before anyone can come in here. I’ll let you know when I’m done.”
The scraggly-haired woman dismissed, jumpsuit woman donned her mask, large filter disc on the front, straps gripping her head. She hefted a heavy, blue plastic jug from the floor. In her other hand, she wielded a long metal rod at the end of a rubber hose attached to the jug. A squeeze of the trigger and harsh chemicals sprayed across my family clustered beneath the ancient dishwasher. Their screams curled my edges.
The monster murdered most of my family living in the kitchen and dining room before she reached me.
As she stretched the rod to reach me, the dark nozzle tip filled up my vision. I shrank back, quivering. This was it, only… I stretched as well, peeling myself from the ceiling and the walls in one swift motion. Leaping downward, I wrapped my fuzzy, misshapen tendrils around the nozzle, squirming past the end just as the spray released.
A muffled noise of surprise sounded behind the mask. The rod swing and shook beneath me as I scrambled down its length, bringing myself within jumping distance of her face. She dropped the rod just as I launched myself.
A scream to match those of my family tore from the woman. I had my feathery tendrils dug into her filter, but this held me at bay. She wrapped both hands around me, rubbery latex scraping at my mass, as I snagged the edge of her mask. Pushing against the soft skin of her cheek, I wriggled behind her defenses. Her fingertips clawed away a chunk of me just as I vanished from sight.
More muffled screaming. Rolling around on the dining room carpet. The woman tore off her mask, gasping for air, but by then I had already crawled into her mouth. Down her throat. She got up onto hands and knees, hacking and coughing, clutching her neck where I writhed around inside. Getting comfortable.
With a long, unraveling rip, the carpet beneath her split open. My family living beneath stretched for the woman above. She slumped over, gasping. Unresistant. Spongy clumps of mold hooked into her jumpsuit, dragging her down. Beneath the carpet. Into the damp wooden floor. Below even that to the rotting foundation.
The disturbed carpet flopped back into place. Beside the inexplicable gash lay the dropped chemical container. No other trace of the woman remained.
Now no one enters the house. Abandoned to the vagaries of nature, it belongs to us and we flourish here. I nestle in the throat of a corpse, pleased with my new location in this deep, damp darkness. Ready to grow.
Old boards creaked beneath my boots as I meandered across a rotting footbridge. In the entrenchment it crossed lay the mere memory of running water in the layer of mud at the bottom. Leaf loam littered the ground beneath wide-spaced trees. I had my gaze upward, regarding the rustling branches above, when a hand grasped my ankle and yanked.
Pain shot through my hip as I slammed into the damp wood. My full length slithered over the edge, beneath the handrail that I couldn’t reach, despite my outstretched hands. Flung forward, the muddy creek bottom rose up to meet me. I landed with a squelch, muck packing into my nose and mouth and eyes as I flew backward.
I vanished beneath the dark overhang.
At my first attempt to sit up, I smacked my head against the spongy underside of the bridge. Feeling around revealed brittle twigs, damp leaves, goopy ground. A bumpy hand holding my ankle.
I sucked in a sharp breath.
At the same time, a voice full of gravel said, “You must pay the price to cross.”
My eyes adjusting to the darkness revealed the outline of a hulking figure. Hair sticking out everywhere. Knobby ears. Stooped posture. Lengthy arms.
My voice shook. “With what?”
A creaking, as of stretching skin. Rancid meat smell wafted over me. “One skill. The ability to forage.”
My jaw clenched. I carried little food with me, surviving on edible plants. So if I gave up this skill now, I could starve.
The grip on my ankle tightened. “That, or I eat you.”
When later I scrambled from beneath the bridge, I found every plant looked the same. While the bridge troll safely chowed down on berries, I would have to pick up a foraging guidebook to relearn all over again.
Question marks surrounded me. Big, pale, spray painted on every trunk as far as I could see. Glowing in the gloom beneath the spreading branches of enormous pines. All facing me, like the disapproving gaze of a fussy uncle.
Just a moment ago, the forest had appeared as any other cluster of trees. Embarrassment overtook me as I realized I had just stepped uninvited into someone’s home. No direction looked like a safe retreat, so I huddled in on myself. A single crow squawked overhead.
Nothing happened. Except, every time I blinked, the question-marked trees jumped closer. Soon, they crowded around me, no space between their trunks, bark creaking against bark. Looming over me. Punctuation marks demanding answers. Yet I had none, for I knew not the question.
“Um,” I said at last. “I sense you don’t want me here. How can I leave?”
The base of every single trunk bowed sideways. Each curved in the same direction. Each question mark now flipped upside down.
By my feet, a carpet of yellowed pine needles rustled. A matted layer of them rose up into the shape of a mouth. Pine cones lined the lips like nubby teeth.
Smug as inexorable, tunneling roots, a voice drawled, “How indeed?”
At that, the forest swallowed me up in one gulp.
Sometime later, it spat me out again. I clawed my way past twisting roots and through a smelly layer of rotten loam. When my fingers broke free, I dug myself out, spitting up pine needles and dead leaves.
Once upright, I pawed muck from my eyes. A quick turn revealed the forest had dumped me at its edge, on the side from which I had entered. As I coughed up the last granules of dirt, I determined to take the long way back around.
In a disintegrating room stood a girl in a white dress. She had her back to me, hem trailing among broken bricks.
She was about to begin.
“What’s that sound?” She turned toward the wrecked wall, then she stumbled backward and fell over. Her form drifted apart like fingers raked through mist.
After a moment, she reappeared with her back to me.
This was my fourth viewing. Tourists come to see the ghost girl replay her last moments had all left. I blew out a soft breath.
“What’s that sound?” the girl said again, turning.
“Shhh…” I said. This time, I heard a dry, slithering rustle.
Now the girl turned wide eyes upon me. “It’s coming,” she whispered. Voices trickled in from another room.
“Just stay quiet,” I replied. Back then, I had stepped away to inform her parents of the danger and missed the next part.
The girl crept up to a spectral, boarded up window. Peeked through a gap in the planks. I moved closer to see what she saw.
A single eyeball, looking back at her.
The girl screamed and fell backward. A gasped breath. Then the entire wall blew inward, several bricks slamming into her. She lay stunned with a monster towering over her. Long, scaly body coiled up, feathered wings fluttering, single eye roving.
Her parents and I raced in. We all had screamed, “No!” But now our mouths moved soundlessly. For us, I said, “No.”
Snapping the girl up in its sharp metal beak, the creature flapped away into the night.
The girl reappeared with her back to me, but she turned around. “Will you come back?” she asked.
My heart sank. No matter how many times I returned to bear witness, she continued to make this request.
On a clear desert night, the crush of shifting sand from just outside my tent woke me. I lay on my bedroll in the dark, listening to the unmistakable sound of footsteps approaching. The gait of my visitor… lurched. Or hopped. When it stopped next to my tent, the shadow of a lengthy, humanoid shape limned against the distant, star strewn sky. Antlers protruded from between long, drooping ears.
It whuffed an animal breath.
My eyes found the tent zipper, expecting any second to see it begin to inch open. Against the canopy between me and the creature lay my bag. I could think of nothing within that would help me.
From the other side of that insubstantial nylon wall, a voice called with a high, thin quality that echoed away into the dunes. “Wanderer,” the creature crooned. Only the word it spoke did not sound like any word for wanderer.
Yet, somehow, that strange word meant me.
It was my name.
Instantly, though, whatever I had heard slid sideways in my mind. Gone, with only the lingering sense of rightness left behind.
I yanked the zipper down and snatched the tent flap open. As I ducked out, I glimpsed the flash of a glowing pair of wideset eyes. “What did you just sa-” I began.
But outside, no tall creature stood. The sands all around were empty but for a set of rabbit tracks leading away from my tent into the night. No second set showed the creature’s approach.
Hope sliced neatly from my chest. Along the graceful crest of a dune, the glint of starlight was a cruel, knowing grin.
When the moon drew too close, we retreated indoors and barred the windows shut. Mystified, I helped with the task of preparing for a siege, but once the work was done, I tried to be on my way. The townsfolk would have none of it.
“It’s just a lunar eclipse,” I argued. I was standing in the night dark dining room, satchel over my shoulder.
“Shh!” my host hissed at me. She held a trapdoor open while her children filed into the basement beneath her kitchen, ladder steps creaking under their feet. One of them, a dark, curly-haired child, glanced at me with alarm written across his face before he vanished below. “You’ll bring them on us,” she continued in a harsh whisper.
Outside, a low rasp echoed from the driveway. Every one of us froze, listening. To me it sounded like a plastic bag of wet aquarium marbles rolling across concrete. Rattling. Squishy. Through the dining room window, I spied twin beams of moonlight, roving independently of each other like small, pale spotlights. The creature crossed into the yard and then back to the driveway, around and around the cars parked there. Its slow, insidious motions had a questing, hunting nature.
The moonbeams cut across the window and I dropped to the floor, holding my breath. Glancing to see whether the creature had spotted my host, I found that she had already scuttled downstairs in the wake of her children. She had the door cracked just enough to see me, her eyes wide in the gloom. I crawled to join her on quiet hands and knees.
As I descended into the dusty basement, lowering the trapdoor behind me, I murmured, “Maybe you’ve got a point.” They shuffled to give me space and I let the door fall closed.
The wonder of such a thing hasn’t yet worn off. Keith said it best as he took his seat next to me: “Nice to finally be on this side of the table.”
Which was to say, on the signer side. How right he was. At the time, I was too nervous about how the event would go to really appreciate the reality that I was signing books, not just getting one signed. But looking back, I’m a little awed at past Summer. That was really me. There’s even photographic evidence to prove it wasn’t a dream.
The signing itself was two hours long and that first hour passed like a blur, with several of my friends and family turning out to snag a copy of the book for themselves. With a bit of gimmicky brilliance, both Dallas and I had the idea to bring candy (since Halloween was soon) and I brought colored sharpies in a spooky box for fans to select for our signatures. Those are probably the most psychedelic copies of Road Kill out there. Though I tried my absolute best, I still messed up on one signature as I tried to write out his nickname instead of his real name. We sold most of the box, all but ten books — far more than I expected for a first signing — and signed some stock for Dallas afterward.
Keith West is the first of the other anthology contributors I’ve met in person. He turned out to be courteous and willing to talk writing shop with me, which we did for the last part of the signing when things slowed down. We were both riding in the first-signing boat and I was impressed with his enthusiasm for the craft. You can visit his blog at Adventures Fantastic.
Burrowing Owl Books itself is a cozy bookstore on the square in Canyon, filled with a comfortable array of new and used books. Its shelves are close enough to be cozy, but its open floor plan and high ceilings ward off any sense of claustrophobia. Dallas Bell, the owner, was incredibly helpful and cheerful as she guided us both through our first signing. Overall, it’s one of my favorite places in Canyon to visit.
If you missed the signing, you can still purchase a paperback copy of Road Killon Amazon.com for $19.95.
I did a lot of research beforehand over what to expect at a book signing. The Tricked Out Toolbox was a huge help with preparation guidance and I would recommend taking a look at their tips for your own signing.