At long last, here’s a new original Heather Lee short story after the drop.
© 2015 Heather Landis. All rights reserved.
“Come on, kid.” Dad’s voice grated across the still air, pulling my gaze from the thing in the pit. “Wind’s died. We need to get on in. Start dinner and your lessons.”
I followed his crooked shadow and wisps of pipe smoke back up the hill. He had told me that morning we’d finish Great Expectations after dinner, and I looked forward to seeing how it ended. The sun began to slide behind our farmhouse as we reached the yard and put our tools away. Empty chicken coops sagged together in the east corner, reduced to a pile of scrap for future repairs. I tried to remember what chicken tasted like.
A faint whiff of baked macaroni and cheese drifted through the kitchen door. I took a deep breath and the smell disappeared, a reminder that Mom was gone. The reality of her passing hadn’t set in yet. She was still with me, an olfactory haunt that turned up when I was thinking about other things. Sometimes it was her food, sometimes her perfume or the laundry soap she made. Dad never noticed the smells. I had learned to stop asking by then.
He lit the kerosene lamps while I sliced potato bread, my mind returning to the thing in the pit. We had killed dozens of them since they started moving in from the east, shambling through the underbrush like the monsters in one of my mildewed horror comics. Dad called them combis. He wouldn’t tell me what they were, and most of the time I didn’t think about them. They were just part of the dual duty we had to the towns; we grew our crops and intercepted wandering combis.
The pits were how we fulfilled that duty. Dad didn’t enjoy killing, so he never let the combis suffer. Today was no different, but this kill bothered me. Its frantic squawks sounded like a child pleading as Dad took aim with his pitchfork. This one seemed to have a purpose, straining toward the west like it was trying to get somewhere. Its eyes were almost shining with desperation. For the first time I wondered why they kept moving across our place. Where were they going? That question kept me awake as the moon rose.
The next morning I set out to patrol the pits and fences. Mom had always taken that task so Dad could focus on the farm, back when we still had livestock. Crops had become more important after all the animals were gone, so Dad still focused on the farm and Mom’s chores had fallen to me. I thought about her while I walked our perimeter, wondering if I did things the way she did. Probably. Urgent, clicking chirps interrupted my thoughts of her when I reached the third pit.
A scaled combi stood at the bottom, dead leaves rustling beneath its hooves. Five green feathers on its head vibrated as it arched its neck and stared at me. I stared back. Dad and I found some strange mixtures on our land, but I had never seen one like this. Intelligence lurked behind its unblinking black eye: intelligence and purpose. The eye compelled me to speak.
“You’re a smart one, aren’t you?” The combi skittered sideways and whistled, feathers vibrating again. I laughed. Heaven help me, it was sort of cute. My heart sank at the thought of Dad bringing his pitchfork to dispose of Five Feathers.
I realized I had named it. That was new. As I considered this development, the little combi chirped. I felt like I was being addressed.
“What do you want?” I asked. It trundled forward a few inches and chirped again, jerking its head toward the shallower end of the pit and clicking. Of course it wanted out. Any animal would, and combis were the closest things we had to animals anymore.
“Are you speaking to me?” A firm click. I scuffed my feet on the edge of the pit, trying to make a decision so I could finish my patrol and get to the fields before Dad came looking. My sense of duty was weighing on me, but I couldn’t bring myself to let him harm this thing.
The chirping resumed, melodic components punctuated with soft clicks. It sounded so heartfelt. I couldn’t ignore the urge to help this four-foot abomination get to where it needed to be, so I lowered the ramp we used to clean the pit and let Five Feathers out. I had never been face to face with a living combi. It stopped at my feet, raised its head to look me in the eye, and trilled once. I wondered what would happen to it as hurried off through a clearing to the west, feathers flopping in the morning sun.
The other pits lay empty as I passed them on my route back to the house. I couldn’t tell Dad what I had done. He’d turn me in and we’d receive a demerit on our count. I wouldn’t get any answers about the combi, but I would get put up in the square for failing in my duty. No one could know. I spent the rest of the day in the fields and did the evening perimeter walk with Dad, secure in my decision as we came upon the third pit.
Oh god, I forgot to pull up the ramp. It still leaned against the shallow ledge, pointing straight to a trail of disturbed leaves leading west. Dad stopped and turned to me with narrowed eyes.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” I said nothing, knowing my face had already given me away. His jaw tightened. “Damnation, kid. You’re just like your mother.”
I blinked at him, unsure what to say. Mom never spoke of combis other than to tell Dad when one was in a pit. When she didn’t come back from patrol that morning, I thought they killed her. He never told me differently. Had she let one out?
“You don’t know what will happen, why we have to do this. It’s necessary.” His grip shifted on the pitchfork handle and I understood what he was going to do. I understood what had happened to Mom.
Her perfume drifted past us on the evening breeze. This time he smelled it too, jerking his head up to look for the source of the scent. Movement in the underbrush beyond the pit caught his eye. “Wait here,” he said, and stomped across the clearing. I waited, afraid to move, while the sun slid lower and the wind died. He didn’t come back. When a chorus of clicks echoed through the trees, I knew he wasn’t going to. I ran.
Returning to my house alone felt strange. No crooked shadow slid over the dead grass in front of my feet. No lessons waited to be read before bedtime. I wondered what to make myself for dinner. Dinner for one. Dinner for me. I sat at the kitchen table and stared at the unfinished loaf of potato bread, realizing I had no idea what to do when the constables came for our count. I needed Dad. Tears pricked my eyes as the faint scents of pipe smoke and baked mac and cheese mingled in the stillness.