Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Grief Eater by Christina MacKinnon

Emily trudged up her driveway, dragging her tired baby brother Max with one arm, the other straining to pull a (hopefully dead) monster behind them in a little red wagon. Its broken body, now a mess of limbs and oozing parts, lay under a medley of straw and Halloween decorations, hastily thrown together to hide the gore from Max’s eyes.
“We’re going on a hayride. A haunted hayride,” Emily had said, and he believed her.
She was pretty sure.
Her breath came out hard in visible puffs: the driveway was on a steep incline to the street and it was a chilly November night. She’d given Max her gloves, which were comically large on his little toddler arms. Her cold hands were bare, slippery with a greenish muck that she assumed was Nanny’s blood. Emily had never killed anything larger than a wolf spider before, but she felt oddly calm.
It wasn’t the first dead body she’d seen. Her mother’s funeral had been  open casket. At the wake, women fussed over Emily while munching on cream cheese and jelly finger sandwiches, crumbs falling on Mom’s good rug.
“Imagine, eleven years old! Girls without mothers lose their softness,” the Pastor’s wife said, top lip tucked against her teeth, “Though of course, your mother always was a hard woman.”
They were now halfway up the driveway, and Emily paused to rub her hands together for warmth. Max yawned.
“Haunted Hayrides always happen in the dead of night, because it’s scarier,” Emily told him. Max didn’t respond. After Mom died, he stopped talking entirely, the house now eerily quiet without his endless babble: Mama, Dada, Emmy, Bird, No…
Nanny appeared at their door a few weeks after the funeral. Dainty, blonde and smelling of rose water: a photo negative of Emily’s mother, from whom Emily    got her height and broad build. Nanny’s details were vague: she  was  from  the church, volunteering to help grieving children.
“It’s my calling.” She explained, smiling, a spittle of drool escaping onto her blouse. She winked at Emily. “You know, like from God.”
Dad let her stay, or didn’t stop her - really, he barely seemed to register she was there at all; so busy in the backyard shed most of the time, working to fill the recycling bin with whiskey bottles. Nanny set herself up in Mom’s old sewing room, a pink suitcase on the bed and a small trinket dish on the dresser in which she placed two old coins.
“Don’t ever touch those, girl,” Nanny threatened.
I don’t want your dirty pennies, Emily thought, incredibly curious.
In the days to follow, it became clear Nanny wasn’t much help: always dodging diaper duty, a horrible cook. Not surprising since she didn’t seem to eat. Today Emily caught her staring out of the kitchen window at Dad’s empty shed. He had just left for an overnight work trip.
“What are you doing?” She asked Nanny.
Nanny’s pupils were pinpoints. “I’m hungry,” she murmured. “Then maybe you should eat,” Emily rolled her eyes.
Nanny’s neck twitched. “I think I will.”
That night, Emily woke up to a noise. It wasn’t the wind, or a creaky door, or an old radiator. It tittered and scratched. It was not a human noise. And it was coming from Max’s room.
Grabbing the softball bat from her closet, she tiptoed into the hall, which was now pitch black. She could feel breath on her skin, the air itself inhaling her, and she paused, light-headed and scared. Then Max screamed, his poor shrill baby cry, and Emily forgot caution, rushing into the nursery.
Spider was the word Emily’s brain produced to make sense of what she saw

wrapped around Max’s crib, but she knew it was Nanny. A black hole of teeth for a face, eight jagged insect arms with claws wrapped around the bars, bits of blonde hair sprouting on top of the bulbous body. Two coins for eyes, which were now looking at her.
A leg snapped out and grabbed Emily by the waist, swinging her up to the ceiling. Emily screamed, her metal bat slipping out of her arms and landing on
Nanny’s body below. Nanny screeched, dropping her to the floor. Emily hit the ground, and with a burst of panicked energy, picked up the bat and cracked it as hard as she could against Nanny’s body. There was a lot of screaming. The crunching noises were horribly loud. She brought the bat down again, again, again. She hit the legs, the body, that hungry mouth.
When Nanny was finally still, a mess of crumpled limbs, deflated, Emily went to Max, who was whimpering. She held him close to her chest.
“This is just a Halloween game, okay?” He said nothing, like always. She thought of her red wagon. “Let’s go on a hayride. A haunted hayride.”
Emily was almost to the top of the driveway now. A hiss sounded from the mess of limbs in her wagon, emanating from a tuft of blonde hair.
“Take a coin, girl.”
She heard the voice in her head. It sounded desperate.
“Take a coin, and I’ll eat your grief and leave you light and soft, like the other girls. Ribbons and roses and lipstick.”
Emily paused at the top, catching her breath. “No thanks,” she said, pulling out a box of matches. “I take after my mother.” She struck one and dropped it in   the dry hay, as titters and pops erupted from the wagon.
She lifted Max into her arms. “The best hayrides have bonfires.” They stayed there a long time, until the last flames burned out, and all that remained were two old coins. Emily turned back to the house. “I’ll carry you home.”
She thought he was asleep, but she heard a quiet murmur in reply, “Mama. Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama.”

© Christina MacKinnon

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