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Bus Fare by CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan

She knows there was a town here once, because the deserted streets are lined with deserted, boarded-up buildings. The roofs of some have sagged and collapsed in on themselves, and one has burned almost to the ground. If there was a town here once, there must have been people, too. So, she thinks, maybe only their ghosts live here now. She’s seen plenty of ghosts, and they usually prefer places living people have forsaken. These are the things the albino girl named Dancy Flammarion is thinking, these things and a few more, while the black-haired, olive-skinned girl talks. The girl is sitting on the wooden bench with Dancy. She’s barefoot, and her clothes are threadbare. She might be fourteen, and she could pass for Dancy’s shadow. Dancy glances from her duffel bag to the faded bus sign, but she doesn’t look into the talking girl’s eyes. She doesn’t like what she’s seen there.

“Are you sure the bus still stops here?” she asks, interrupting the girl, who said her name was Maisie. Maybe, Dancy thinks, people named Maisie look different in South Carolina than they do in Florida and Georgia, because the girl doesn’t look much like a Maisie.

“Last anyone bothered telling me,” the girl replies. She doesn’t have any luggage, not even a duffel bag, and Dancy is pretty sure she isn’t waiting on a bus that may or may not come. “I still don’t understand why you gave up a perfectly good ride and decided to Hound it instead.”

“Hound it?” Dancy asks, and the girl who might be named Maisie jabs a thumb at the faded Greyhound sign. The thumbnail, like all her other fingernails, is thick and chocolate colored.

“The sun was setting,” she says. “That’s why I didn’t stay in the car. The dead boy and girl in the trunk were waking up, and the Bailiff said they’d be hungry, and how it would be best if I walked a while.”

“The Bailiff,” Maisie says and smiles. “Yeah, I heard of him. Man ain’t got no right name, you know.” And then she stares silently at Dancy for a while. Dancy watches the empty streets of the empty town. She sees a huge black dog cross the street.

“You sure seem to know an awful lot of things,” Dancy says to the girl.

“That I do,” Maisie admits. “That I do. You’re getting a reputation, Dancy.”

That’s what the monster in Waycross told her, and the crazy women in the big house in Savannah, and the Bailiff, he seemed to know, too.

“You’re like Joan of Arc, right?” the girl asks.

“No,” Dancy tells her. “I’m not like Joan of Arc.”

“How’s that?” Maisie wants to know. “You got yourself an angel who tells you where to find the monsters, and then you kill them. You’re just a crazy girl doing the righteous work of the Lord. Sounds like Joan of Arc to me.”

“I’m not like Joan of Arc,” Dancy says again. “And I’m not crazy.”

“Have it your way,” Maisie sighs and lights a cigarette. She offers one to Dancy, but Dancy’s never smoked a cigarette in her life, and she doesn’t mean to start tonight. “How old are you, anyway? Fifteen?”

“Sixteen,” Dancy tells her. “Seventeen soon now.”

“You ain’t got no folks?”

“Not anymore.”

Of course, Dancy suspects Maisie already knows the answers to all the questions she’s asking, and this is just going through the motions. She knew about Bainbridge, and the old man with the caged panther, the cat who was really a woman, and Maisie knew about the Bailiff and the vampire children, the monster in Waycross who wore other people’s skin because it didn’t have one of its own. She knew about the nine women in Savannah who were cannibals and dug up corpses and…did other things she’d rather not wonder about. She knew how many of them Dancy’s killed. So, she knows all that, surely she knows how old Dancy is, and that her mother and grandmother are both dead.

Dancy sits back down on the wooden bench near the Greyhound sign, trying not to dwell on how thirsty she is, or whether or not a bus will ever show up, or what it means that the girl calling herself Maisie knows so much. The night is almost as hot as the day was, though at least there’s no sun. No sun, so she doesn’t need the raggedy black umbrella leaning against the bench. The air smells like cooling asphalt, kudzu, and pine trees. And it also smells like dog, which is the way that Maisie smells.

“Why do you smell like dog?” Dancy asks, gazing at the street, trying to catch another glimpse of the big black mutt she spotted a few minutes before.

“That’s not a very polite thing to ask a stranger,” Maisie says, pretending to be offended.

“The way you keep asking me questions, didn’t think you’d much mind. You ask a lot of questions.”

“And you don’t smell so sweet your own self, Dancy Flammarion.”

It rained a few days ago, and that’s the closest Dancy’s come to a bath since the night she stripped down and bathed in a muddy stream. And that bath, it was before the Bailiff and the dead children found her hitchhiking along Route 76, but she’s having trouble recalling exactly how many days have passed since then.

“It’s just sweat,” Dancy says. “Just dirt and sweat. I don’t smell like a dog.” There’s an old Coke machine outside an abandoned gas station across the road, and she wishes the gas station weren’t abandoned and she had change for a cold drink.

Maisie sighs, very loudly, and she asks, “So, you just wanna cut to the chase, then? Stop dancing round the truth of the matter?”

“You ask a lot of questions,” Dancy tells the girl for the second time. And finally, she makes herself turn and look directly at the dark-haired girl. In the moonlight, the girl’s eyes glint iridescent red, like the eyeshine of alligators and possums.

“The night’s young,” the girl tells her. “And I like some sport before dinner. Didn’t think you’d mind all that much. Didn’t think you’d care one way or the other.” The girl who says her name is Maisie smiles and shows off a lot more teeth than she ought to have. Maisie takes a last draw off her cigarette and flicks it away.

“I ain’t scared of you,” Dancy says, trying hard to sound like she means it. She looks at the duffel bag, but tries not to look like she’s looking. The handle of the big carving knife is sticking out of the bag. Maisie, she’s one of the one’s the seraphim didn’t bother to tell her was coming. That happens sometimes.

“Hardly thought you would be, not after all you done and seen, little Miss Joan of Arc cutting a swath across the countryside, laying all the bad folk low. Figure you ain’t smart enough to be scared of nothing.”

“Someone sent you?” Dancy wants to know. “The women in Savannah, did they send you after me?”

“No one sent me. We got curious, when we heard you’d be passing our way. Then this bitch made a bet. I drew the short straw, that’s all.”

“Sometimes I don’t know they’re coming.” Dancy says it out loud, though she hadn’t meant to, had only meant to think those words to herself.

“Well, that makes it a tiny bit more fair, don’t you think, not getting the drop on people.”

“You ain’t people. I don’t kill people.”

“Strictly speaking, Snow White, that’s not exactly factual. Not Gospel truth, I mean.”

Dancy gives up on the duffel bag, because there’s no way she’d ever have time to reach it and get hold of the knife before the olive-skinned girl who smells like a dog will be on her. She turns back to Maisie.

“You ain’t the first ever called me that, you know. Snow White, I mean.”

“I expect not. That mop of cornsilk hair, those pink rabbity eyes, that skin like you been playing in the flour bin. Figure you hear it a lot.”

“Ain’t never met one quite like you before,” Dancy says, which isn’t true, but she’s stalling for time. If she has another minute or two, maybe she can think of a way to reach her knife or some other way to stop Maisie from eating her. “I never really believed in werewolves. Didn’t know they were real.”

Maisie furrows her brow and leans a little nearer Dancy. Her breath stinks of raw meat. “You’re kidding me. You hitch rides with vampires, but you don’t believe in werewolves?”

“Oh, now I do,” Dancy says. “Sure. Just not before.”

A warm wind stirs the underbrush at the edge of the road and the beard of Spanish moss in a nearby stand of live oaks. Dancy smells herself sweating—fresh sweat, not stale—and Maisie wrinkles her nose and flares her wide nostrils (which didn’t seem quite so wide only a few seconds before).

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Maisie says, and she produces something from…well, Dancy isn’t sure where she was hiding it, but now there’s an old cardboard cigar box in the girl’s hand.

“That’s mine,” Dancy tells her. “I lost it—”

“—when you murdered them poor folks down in Waycross.”

“Weren’t folks, neither of them.”

“Kinda depends on your point of view,” says the olive-skinned girl who claims her name is Maisie.

“Well, it’s mine. So you should give it back.”

“I should?” the girl asks, and looks inside. “Mostly just a bunch of junk,” she says.

And maybe it looks that way to her, or to anyone who isn’t Dancy. In her head, Dancy counts off the contents of the cigar box, all that’s left of her life before all that was left to her was the road and her knife, the seraphim and the parade of horrors it expects her to kill. She glances over her shoulder, and she’s not at all surprised to find the angel looming behind the bench, looking over her and Maisie. The seraphim’s tattered muslin and silk robes are even blacker than the night, than the dark inside the deserted shop fronts. They flutter and flap in a fierce and holy wind that touches nothing else. The angel's four ebony wings are spread wide, and it holds a burning sword high above its four shimmering kaleidoscope faces, both skeletal hands gripped tightly around the weapon's silver hilt. It stares down at her, and makes a sound like thunder that surely isn’t thunder.

Just this once, she thinks, while Maisie paws through the cigar box. Just this once, you could do the deed your own self. Seems like I earned that much.

The angel doesn’t answer her, but Dancy knows its moods well enough to know it’s not about to intercede. Those aren’t the rules, and it never breaks the rules. She looks at Maisie again, who’s taking stuff out of the box and lining it up on the bench between them. So far, there are two plastic checkers (one black, one red), a tiny, battered copy of the New Testament that had been her mother’s, and her grandmother’s rosary, a spent shot gun shell she found at the edge of the road, two buttons, a green crayon, and a little statue of the Virgin Mary.

“It’s mine, and you should give it back,” she says to Maisie.

“You know better. Ain’t nothing ever that easy.” Maisie takes out a Patsy Cline cassette and a rubber band, then lines them up with all the rest.

“Maybe I could win it back,” Dancy suggests, not taking her eyes off all the meager treasures she’d never hoped to see again. “Maybe we could have some sort of contest, and if I win, you gotta give it back.”

Maisie looks up from the box. Her red eyes glimmer, and Dancy sees that her eyebrows meet in the middle, though they hadn’t before. Maisie is holding a matchbox between those dark nails that have become claws. Inside the matchbox is thirty-five cents in pennies, dimes, and nickels that Dancy found along the highways.

“What do you have in mind? And what’s in it for me? I had in mind I’d just eat you and be done with it. Why go complicating the situation?”

“Thought you wanted some sport?”

Maisie stars at her, and Dancy wonders how her eyes can have eyeshine, when there’s no light shining on them. There’s the moon, she thinks, then pushes the thought away.

“What you got in mind,” the girl asks her.

“You any good at riddles?”

The girl, who is very slowly becoming not so much a girl, but something else, replies, “Not too shabby. Is that what you propose, a riddle game?”

“Yeah, and if I win, I get my box back, and you let me go. You win, I won’t put up a struggle.”

The girl thing scratches at her chin and seems to consider the offer. “Just three riddles,” she says, “so there can’t be no tie.”

“Fine, just three riddles.”

“And I go first.”

“Fine, you go first.”

“But how do I know you ain’t gonna up and renege if you lose?”

“Everything you heard about me, ever heard of me telling lies?” Dancy asks.

“No, but still and all. I’d like some insurance.”

Dancy Flammarion glances at the angel again, and it stares back at her with all its eight eyes. Maybe you’re gonna help after all, she thinks directly at it. “Yeah, okay,” she says to the werewolf. “I swear on the name of my angel I won’t go back on my word.”

Maisie looks surprised and chews her coal-colored lips. “That’s a lot more than I expected. You’ll say its name aloud and swear on it? You do that, you can’t lie.”

“That’s what I just said, ain’t it?”

Maisie stops taking Dancy’s treasures out of the cigar box and nods her head. “Deal,” she smiles, flashing all those sharp teeth. Her ears have grown to points, and each one has a small tuft of hair at the tip. Behind Dancy, the seraphim makes an awful, ugly noise and beats its wings, but she ignores it. The angel had its chance to help, but it was willing to stand by and let her be eaten and not even raise a finger to help, after all she’s done just because it told her to.

“I get two riddles,” Maisie says. “You just get the one,” which hardly seems fair. The game’s rigged in the werewolf’s favor.

Dancy almost doesn’t protest, but then says, “We could have five, instead. Five riddles, and I get two, and you get three. Still, no chance of a tie. Like you said, night’s still young.”

“Ain’t that young,” the werewolf says, and licks at its lips with a mottled tongue that’s too long for a fourteen-year-old girl named Maisie. “You don’t like the terms, I can always keep the box and eat you right here and now, get it over with.”

“Fine,” Dancy sighs. “Three riddles, you first,” and then she swears on the name of the seraphim. She says its name aloud, which she’s never done before. This time, she can tell Maisie also hears the thunder, and a trickle of blood leaks from the werewolf’s nose. She wipes it away and grins.

“God’s own fucking magic,” she says. “And here I thought all I’d won was a free meal and a notch on the bedpost.”

“You ain’t won nothing yet,” Dancy tells her. Then she reaches out and picks up the red checker. Maisie doesn’t try to stop her. “Your move,” she says to the crimson-eyed girl.

“I don’t have to tell you, Dancy Flammarion, you lose this first one, and I get the second one right, that’s all she wrote. Won’t be need of a third riddle, it goes that way, will there.”

“No,” Dancy scowls. “You don’t have to tell me that. Being an albino doesn’t make me stupid.”

“Just let me think a second.”

Dancy shrugs and says, “the night’s not that young, Maisie.” She rubs the checker between her thumb and index finger. She smiles, wishing her smile was half so unnerving as the werewolf’s.

“Then you answer me this, Joan of Arc,” says Maisie, and she recites:

“Although it never asked a thing
Of any mortal man,
Everybody answers it
As quickly as he can.”

Dancy shuts her eyes, because sometimes she thinks better that way. She closes her eyes, though maybe that’s not the best thing to do when you’re sitting on a bench with a werewolf who wants and fully intends to eat you. She lets the four lines run over and over again in her head.

“You don’t know, do you?”

Dancy opens her eyes and sets the checker back down between them. “A knock at a door,” she says, and the words come out more triumphantly than she’d meant them to come out. Maisie glowers and stares at the gravel and weeds between her bare feet.

“My turn,” Dancy says, and she already knows the riddle she’s going to ask. She’s known it since she was a little girl:

“Green as grass, but grass it ain’t.
White as snow, but snow it ain’t.
Red as blood, but blood it ain’t.
Black as ink, but ink it ain’t.”

“Your grammar’s atrocious,” the werewolf grunts and continues staring at the space between its feet. It repeats the riddle aloud several times. Dancy reaches into the cigar box and takes out her old St. Christopher’s medal. The silver’s tarnished, but she feels better just holding it, because St. Christopher’s the patron saint of travelers, and she’s been traveling for what feels like a very long time. It feels like she’s been traveling her whole life.

“Don’t know, do you,” she whispers hopefully.

But Maisie snaps her fingers, her claws snicking together like a pair of scissors. “A blackberry,” Maisie says and raises her head. Her hair’s a lot longer than it was, shaggy and almost not like hair at all. Almost like a mane. “A ripening blackberry. That’s it, right?”

“Yeah,” Dancy says, then opens her hand and glares at the medal in her palm. First the angel, now a saint that’s supposed to be watching over her, but clearly isn’t. Tonight, she thinks, all Heaven’s gone and turned its back on me.

“So, this one, she’s the bitch of the litter. She’s all do or die. You better stew on it long and hard.” And then Maisie says:

“Red in the valley,
Red on the hill.
Feed it, live it will.
Water it, it will die.
This is true, and not a lie.”

This time, Dancy doesn’t shut her eyes. Maisie’s a lot more wolf than girl now, her face become a muzzle, her legs the long, powerful hindquarters of a beast. There’s only deeper shades of night waiting in back of Dancy’s eyelids, and it’s bad enough sitting across from the monster as it is, with only moonlight. The sun’s hard on her skin, and she’s rarely wished for sunrise. But she wishes for it now, even though it’s still hours away.

“How do I know you’re gonna keep your promise,” she says. “I gave you insurance, but you didn’t give me nothing but your word.”

“Then my word’s all you got, Snow White. You know the answer or don’t you?”

“You didn’t set a time limit,” Dancy replies, then repeats the riddle aloud. “Red in the valley, red on the hill…”

“That’s what I said,” Maisie says, only she sounds more like she’s growling now than talking.

Dancy ignores her. She knows the wolf is a deceitful, wicked demon, that it’s only trying to distract her, trip her up, make it harder for her to concentrate. “Feed it,” she continues, “live it will. Water it, it will die.”

“This is true, and not a lie,” the werewolf growls, then makes a noise that Dancy supposes is meant to be a laugh, if wolves could laugh.

A minute more comes and goes. Then five, and ten. Then Maisie (if she still is or ever was a Maisie) growls, “Times up.”

“No,” Dancy says. “We didn’t set a time limit.”

“We didn’t not set a time limit, and I’m bored and hungry, and I say time’s up. You don’t know the answer, and sitting here all damn night long ain’t gonna help you conjure up the right answer.” There’s finality and a faint hint of exasperation in the creature’s gruff voice, and Dancy knows there’s absolutely no point trying to reason with it. Maisie never intended to let her live. The riddles were nothing but a game of cat and mouse.

“Yeah,” Dancy says, sparing another quick glimpse at the angel. “You win the game.” She’s pretty sure she’s never seen the seraphim half so angry before. When she looks back at the werewolf, it’s gotten up off the bench and is standing on its hind feet. It towers over her, grown at least a yard taller while they traded riddles. The girl’s clothes hang in shreds from the lean, ribsy body.

“Looks like you don’t get enough to eat,” Dancy tells the wolf and points at its ribs.

“Tonight I will,” it sneers, and saliva drips from its mouth and spatters on Dancy’s duffel bag. “Tonight, I get a feast.”

Dancy nods, gripping the St. Christopher’s medal as tightly as she can. “What big eyes you have,” she says, then flips the medal like it was a quarter, and it strikes the werewolf squarely in its right eye. There’s a sizzling sound, and the smell of burning pork. A second later, there’s a soft pop when the monster’s eye boils and bursts. It howls, a howl that’s nothing but pain and anger, and it clutches at its face, trying to brush away the smoldering talisman seared into its flesh.

“Wasn’t even halfway sure that was gonna work,” Dancy mutters, and she leans over and draws the carving knife from the green canvas bag. The blade shines dully in under the moon. “Thought maybe that was just in books.”

Maisie lunges for her then, its steaming jaws open wide as the gates of any hell, its left eye blazing and nothing but a scorched black pit where its right had been. Dancy swings the knife, her sword, opening the werewolf’s throat from ear to ear, slicing through jugular and carotid arteries, through muscle and larynx, cutting all the way to the bone. The blade lodges firmly in a vertebra, and as Maisie, gurgling, stumbles backwards, the knife’s yanked from Dancy’s hand with enough force that she loses her balance and falls hard on her hands and knees.

“It’s a fire, puppy,” she says, not caring whether or not the beast can hear her. “The answer’s a fire.”

#

An hour later, and Dancy’s dragged Maisie’s naked body into the woods behind the bus stop. Dead, she became nothing but a fourteen-year-old girl again, so she wasn’t all that heavy. Dancy covered her decently with magnolia and sycamore leaves and with branches torn from bushes. She figured the coyotes and wild dogs, maybe coons and feral pigs and whatever else sniffed out the corpse, would do the rest. Now, she’s back at the bench, wiping the blood from her knife and she holds the cigar box tucked under one arm. All her treasures are safe inside it again, everything but the St. Christopher’s medal, which melted away to nothing. The seraphim has gone, took its leave the moment she killed the werewolf that meant to kill her, and Dancy knows it won’t ever be back. It said not one word as it departed in a veil of flame and smoke, but there wasn’t anything it might have said she didn’t already know. It plays by the rules, laws older than the universe, and she’s sure there’s always someone else willing to do its bidding.

“That’s only fair and right,” she says, and slips the knife back into the duffel bag. “I was scared. I didn’t want to die, not here. Not tonight. So, I went and took your name in vain. I spoke your name, used your name, then cheated. I’m not gonna say it ain’t fair. I knew better.”

But Dancy Flammarion’s never been on her own before, and that part frightens her almost as much as Maisie did. On the road alone and no shelter in a storm, and no angelic host to tell her where to go and what to expect when she gets there. She’s already done so much damage that every speck of evil, every fiend for hundreds of miles around, knows her name. They whisper it in their hiding places, and make plans for her undoing. And if she needed proof that the hunter has become the hunted, the werewolf was precisely that. She doesn’t need to be told twice.

There’s a rumble, and for just half a second, there’s hope it might be the seraphim. That maybe her sin wasn’t so unforgivable, after all. But then she sees the headlights of the Greyhound bus moving towards her through the deserted town. Dancy stares up at the night sky for a moment, all the stars, the empty space between the stars, and the moon that must have been the girl’s goddess, but couldn’t be bothered to save her. Any more than the angel could be bothered to save Dancy. As the bus pulls to a stop, raising clouds of dust and grit, she shoulders her heavy duffel bag and waits for the door to swing open.

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