Dogwood Stains

By Kaleigh West

Louie's parents were crushed by a herd of wild zebras. According to her aunt Mala, this was because some asshole chose to set a zoo free during the Collapse. Louie didn't actually know what a zebra was, but this fun fact was always met the same way upon delivery—a flash of initial shock, followed by a shrug which said: “It figures.” Nothing was all that shocking to folks anymore, not even a few zebras. Not when Wildmen in animal masks plagued their town—stealing, raping, and killing for sport.

"Autumn." Body filling the entire doorway, Samson needed no preamble (Louie learned this word from one of Samson's books). When he spoke, the walls shook. "Winter tells me a new group is on their way from Atlanta. I need you cleaned up and ready to go when they arrive."

Aunt Mala—Autumn— glared her response.

"Aloisa, why don’t you come hang with me while Autumn gets ready for work?” Samson asked.

"Yes, sir." As Louie spoke, Mala tightened her jaw, shifting her glare to the girl. Mixed feelings stirred deep in Louie’s gourd. Her aunt was about to dress up like a fall-colored nymph and fuck whomever Samson saw fit. In exchange, Samson would take Louie out to learn some new skill. Louie told herself that her training was the silver lining for her aunt, and that it would be a shame not to enjoy it (someone ought to?). Plus, the day might come when they could run away, and it’d be best to have the skills necessary to survive beyond Samson’s reach—or worse, against the Wildmen.

"Summer," Samson addressed the wheat blonde woman as they passed her quarters. “Train’s coming in from Atlanta. Rumor has it they want to start their own market. I want to know everything.” He winked at Louie. Coldly, he turned back to Summer, adding, "And if Johnson is with them again, let's not have a repeat of last time, shall we?"

She bristled. "Samson, Milo is off limits to the clients. He is my son."

"And Johnson is the one who owns the train. You know, the one that brings all of our clients, that moves our commerce, our livestock. He decides whether the train stops in Withrow. "

She stared in disgust. Finally, Summer  spoke through clenched teeth. "I understand."

"If the train doesn’t stop in Withrow, what do you think happens?”

“I understand.”

“Johnson can have whatever he wants."

Summer glanced away. "I said I understand."

Samson smirked. "Not understanding wasn't an option."

Louie did not understand, but she didn’t want to seem naive (another word from his books), so she said nothing as they left the town. Under a sun-shattered sky, She marched in the behemoth shadow of her mentor. His shoulders mimicked the ridge of Appalachia looming large in  the north. A film started behind her eyes, offering flashes of those same shoulders, flexing bare in a blur of skin against skin. Her cheeks burned hot, embarrassment sneaking up her neck. She’d accidentally seen him naked the night before. She tried to focus on anything else, but her mind kept reminding her of the knot he and Winter made with their limbs. She wondered if such shapes could be made with hers… maybe tied together with Milo’s?

Samson led her past the pit where the bodies—too many for the survivors of the Collapse to properly bury—had been burned. The stench of ash and incinerated flesh lingered in the air. Impossible, as it had burned out almost two decades ago, but she could swear her nose detected that vile odor, another remnant of the world Before. Louie’s life had divided comfortably into sixes; she was born six years after the Collapse, making her one of the oldest in the new generation. Her parents died six years later, and the last six years of her life had brought her and her aunt here—to Withrow, a town in the Shadow of Appalachia... If the pattern continued, then  another big shift was about to occur; only 158 days remained until her thirteenth birthday.

 For her, there was no Before, and yet she often wondered if anyone she knew lay at the bottom of that pit. The desire to peek inside tickled her senses. She pushed it away, knowing that staring into the abyss wouldn't bring her the answers she craved. There’s nothing in there anymore anyway, she thought, picturing blackened stains void of any humanity.

“Alright, Aloisa,” Samson used her real name on these adventures. It made her feel like an adult, like he respected her. He never called any of the other women by their names, just by their titles—Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn. “Have you been working on your archery lately?”

“A little.” And by a little, she meant every spare moment she could sneak away. Samson’s eyes weren’t on her, though, instead focused back on the mass of buildings that made up Withrow. Was he checking to see if they were alone? Was he going to ask her what she saw?

“Samson!” Milo’s  voice cut through her thoughts. Louie didn’t look up, just wedged her bow between her legs so that she could string it. Samson had it made specifically for her—the fit was just right. Her mentor demanded she focus on her training, so she did. She didn’t watch Milo’s thirteen-year-old frame cross the tall grass, nor did she see the way he glanced into the pit, nor did she notice how tall he was growing or the feelings that particular fact stirred in the space beneath her ribs. Nope, she was stringing her bow. Focused.

“Hey, Lou.” Milo’s greeting clipped short, flippant. Like he hadn’t almost kissed her two days before and avoided her since. He might have smiled at her, but she was using all her power to ignore him, nocking an arrow to fire into the target marked dogwood trees.

“Are we shooting today?”

"We are," she bit.

"Why didn't you come get me?"

She finally looked at him, petulant. "Sometimes you aren't invited."

Samson stood stoic… Was he disapproving? Annoyed? Or worse, was he bored? Samson wasn’t the official leader of Withrow, but everyone knew he was in charge. These outings were a courtesy. As the keeper of the Nymphs, he knew the intimate secrets of everyone who frequented the routes in and out of their market town—whether important or trivial. He wouldn’t be a glorified babysitter much longer. If only puberty would go ahead and slap Louie like it had Winter and Spring a few years before—like it was slapping Milo—then maybe she could get Samson’s attention.

Her mind spit images of his naked body again, the curve of his back, the arch of Winter’s…

Don't be stupid, she chided. He’s a grown man.

Samson's face lit up, something brewing behind his dark eyes. “I have an idea,” he said, a heavy hand rested on Milo’s shoulder. “Let’s try some target practice.”

“Perfect! I’ll get my bow!”

“No, boy.” Samson squeezed, halting Milo mid-step. A wave of concern rose in Louie's stomach, cresting somewhere beneath her lungs.  Samson's ideas were rarely fun or friendly. “Today, you’re the target.”

Louie’s heart hit her feet. Milo’s big, brown eyes darted between them. “But I—”

She protested. “Sir, I don’t—”

A grin split Samson’s lips. “Run.”

As though Milo had somehow converted stammering into a motion, he stuttered out into the trees. The same trees he and Louie had wandered out into two nights before, searching for Wildmen in the dark while the adults slipped into drunkenness. The same trees where he’d hidden, then jumped out to scare her, pretending to be the infamous Fox, the cutthroat leader of the Wildmen. The same trees where they had stood just inches from each other, where she waited for him to kiss her, her heart reverberating against the hollows of her chest. It did the same now, as Samson whispered over her shoulder.

“Now, Aloisa, I know you’ve been spying. I know you’ve seen Winter and me, and I know you know about the Fox.” 

The Fox? Flashes of fire, tokens, and talismans burned behind Louie’s eyes. She hadn’t meant to see them. She knew she should have looked away, but their nudity glued her eyes on them. Curious, questioning… she’d never really seen anything like it before. She knew what her aunt did, knew to call it fucking, but to see it?  Behind them, she saw the mask. The Fox.

“What do you know about the Wildmen, Aloisa?”

Her guts knotted as Milo darted into the trees before her. Slowing his stride, he reached the furthest target, questioning. Would she shoot him? He wasn’t sure. Neither was she.

“I know they’re rapists and murderers, sir,” she answered.

She could feel Samson standing over her shoulder, his weight shifting. His eyes were back on Withrow, a town full of people sleeping next to their own oppressor. They had no idea. “The Wildmen believe in Chaos, Louie.”

His use of the familiar caught her off guard. In her sites, Milo trembled.

“What have I taught you about Chaos?”

His books. Samson always gave her books, books on gods, and monsters, and… the Chaoskampf. Louie leaned forward, her arm cramping from the taut string as she  tried to recover mythology from memory. “Why believe in Chaos?” she mumbled, releasing her arrow. It flew high, over Milo’s head. Frustrated, she gazed up at  her mentor. “It's all over the myths—the god of the sky takes on the god of monsters—the chaotic serpent of the sea—and Chaos loses. Yahweh destroys the Leviathan, Zeus traps Typhon, Thor crushes the Jörmungandr.”

Samson smirked.  The look was condescending. Normally, she strove to make him proud. She'd do anything for him, reciting lines of text from book after book. But now she was disappointed. How could this man—this larger than life man—subscribe to something so... so stupid? “It’s what your books teach," she spat. "Marduk beats Tiamat in Babylon, Ra versus Apep in Egypt, Indra and Vritra in India..."

The Fox snickered. "You think Chaos was destroyed? Look around. The other gods may try to fight, try to contain, but in the end, we all devolve into Chaos. Now fire again, and this time,” a shadow passed through his voice, deadly calm. “Hit him.”

Louie set her teeth. She met Milo’s eyes across the grove, those deep, brown eyes that had inched so close… His lip trembled, lips that had almost grazed hers. Milo was a boy, but he was, in a way, hers. She nocked another arrow, took aim, and winked.

Above his head, her second arrow nearly split her first.

“I like you, Aloisa. Honestly, I’m relieved you know my secret.” I like you, Aloisa. The ice in his words implied otherwise. “Now, I can put you to use without having to make you a Nymph. But you have to show me that you have the skills for it.”

The twelve-year-old summoned all of her courage.  “I’m a good shot, sir... but I  don’t want to shoot him.”

“You will only ever be as good a shot as you are when it matters.

Milo’s feet shifted eagerly. Cowering before the target, his tense body itched to run. Did he wish he had kissed her?

“If you can’t make the shot, we’ll both know where you belong. Men pay a fair price for girls your age. Pretty soon you won’t have to worry about whether or not little boys like Milo like you.”

“Mala won’t let you sell me.”

Samson spoke on the back of a sigh, sounding bored . “The Wildmen are under my control, Louie. How long do you think your aunt can hold out against a hoard of ‘rapists and murderers,’ as you put it?”

“You can’t!”

“Hit him.” The words were cold, calm, but ignited a fire in her veins.

“But sir…”

“Aloisa.” Gripping her shoulders, he lowered his face level to hers. “Chaos is about creation. It’s about welcoming opportunity when it  chooses to bestow it upon you. I am extending you an opportunity. You can kill for me, or you can fuck for me. The choice is yours.”

Inside, she trembled. What could she do? She couldn’t go back and unsee. What options did she have? She played her only card. “And if I tell everyone you’re the Fox?”

Samson sneered. “Then I will level Withrow and start over somewhere else. I am more devastating than any bomb. You weren’t alive when they lit up the skies, but trust me—this world used to be filled with people, and you know what every one of them had in common?”

She shook her head. Her gaze darted to Milo, wound up like a spring and ready to shoot in any direction. Run! She begged. Run!

“They wanted to be controlled. That’s all anyone wants, darling.” His hand grazed her cheek gently, pulling her attention back to him. He spoke with a kindness akin to love. “To not be responsible for making tough decisions. I have a vision for you—one where you aren't serving some asshole with your body, where you’re not enslaved as a wife, or a whore. Where you are in control.” The cold returned to his words. “But to be in control, you have to be able to choose.”

The edges of her lashes flittered; Milo’s lanky frame darted off into the woods. He made his own choice. But with each crashing step, Louie’s options dwindled, disappeared. The rest of her life—and Milo’s—stretched out between them. Both could be long, but was the cost of her freedom worth his?

With near silence, her arrow struck him between the shoulder blades. As he hit his knees, a crater of pain opened inside her, a pit like the ones they’d dumped the bodies in so many years before. Sadness consumed her like the flames that had consumed them. Outside, her shoulders quaked, her body heaved with sobs. Shame blossomed like stains at the heart of a dogwood bloom. She'd made her decision. No going back.

Above her, Samson flashed a fox-like grin.