Brendan Detzner's work has previously appeared in Pseudopod, Chizine, and the Book of Dead Things anthology. He curates the monthly Bad Grammar podcast, and hosts the monthly Bad Grammar reading series the second friday of every month in his home town of Chicago. You can get details by looking him up on Facebook or checking out his web site at www.brendandetzner.com.
It was two o'clock in the morning. Veronica knew for sure now that she was being followed. She'd circled the block three times, a quiet row of identical houses. There were no streetlights, no anything for at least half a mile in every direction except for the two of them, passing the same signs for the same real estate agency over and over again.
She switched off her headlights and turned to the right. She turned again, and kept turning, twisting back and forth, leaning gently on the gas pedal.
She rolled down her window as she tapped on the brake and took a deep breath. She couldn't do this when the car was moving, it made her dizzy, but now that she'd stopped it was like taking off a blindfold. Every tree was like a human face, a unique signature fighting to be read through the pesticide and the fertilizers. She knew how many people lived in each house, where the dogs were walked. A half empty beer can cut insistently through the night.
They were driving, that was new. She wondered if it had taken them as long as it had taken her, if it had scared them, who'd had to pin whose neck to the floor before somebody got behind the wheel.
She remembered her first time, stomping on the gas petal and letting the tires squeal as she circled around the parking lot...
They were still behind her. The beer can got closer, the smell got more and more obnoxious. She pulled over very suddenly and got out of the car. The beer can was on the ground under a soccer goal. She walked out into the middle of the field.
They parked their car behind hers, struggled to get it into park, and opened the doors hesitantly, like they were afraid it might not let them go. Their postures changed as their feet touched the grass, the spring came back to their step. There were four of them, all male, all bigger then she was. They fell into formation as they walked towards her, the tallest one in front and the other three behind him.
She didn't move, didn't look them in the eye, didn't do anything. The field was dark, but she could smell sweaty children, rotten apples under the trees. The leader stopped about twenty feet away. Two of the others circled around on either side of her.
The third dropped down onto his haunches. This wasn't an ordinary pack, it couldn't be, they'd already sent so many. All four of them were probably leaders themselves, probably pinned whelps' necks to the floor and fucked whoever it was they wanted to fuck. But they were a pack now, for the moment. Somebody had to be the bitch. The leader smacked the bitch in back of the head and he scrambled out into the center of the circle they'd made. He spit on the dirt and clawed at it. He rose up for just a second to rub his soiled palms against his face and hiss, then turned around and stuck his butt in the air. He did it slowly, a little sexier then he would for just anyone. More feminine. He was making fun of her.
She didn't move, didn't react. She could smell their discomfort, the sweat on the back of their necks. This was not a small thing. You might have a display like this directed at you once or twice in your life, when you tried to push too far past your station or got too slow or lazy for the position you had. It was a humiliation. She should be foaming at the mouth, ready for violence.
But she was just standing there.
She was everything they'd heard- a monster, twisted inside beyond recognition. They were scared now, something new for them, maybe, maybe. She felt sorry for them.
The bitch scampered back behind the leader and they hesitated for a moment before they closed in. Veronica liked fighting, and she was better at it then anyone she knew, but sometimes it was just so easy. People would give you presents- their throat, or their rib, or their elbow, or the side of their head. All you had to do was take them. The one on the right ran towards her. His mouth was open; his tongue was hanging out and his fangs had emerged from their hiding places behind his teeth. He reached for her and she twisted her body, letting his arms go past her on either side. She stuck out her hand and dragged her nails down across his face. She smelled the blood, felt her own heart rate spike and her fangs push against her gums. He cried out. She laughed and jabbed at his eyes with her fingertips.
She stepped to the side and pushed him backwards. He was screaming now. She heard feet shuffle on the dirt behind her, moving forward, hesitating as she drew blood, finding his courage and charging again just as she pulled his screaming packmate back towards her. They collided and fell over on top of one another. She cackled and kicked them both in the head until they stopped moving.
The leader was still standing there. He didn't know what to do. She saw the bitch's posture change. Why should he act like this when the leader didn't do his part? The bitch hissed. The leader didn't answer- another sign of weakness- and stepped forward, towards Veronica.
It was all she could do to keep her tongue from flopping from her mouth like a dog. Her fangs were bared and little bone spikes had emerged from her fingertips, splitting her skin and letting her blood mix with the others'. This was the best part, when all the juices were flowing. She tried to step outside of herself enough to enjoy it.
The leader tried to close the distance but he was slow, scared. The bitch hissed at him again. The leader turned away from Veronica and the two packmates stared into each other's eyes.
They pounced on one another simultaneously and started fighting. They rolled around in the dirt, trying to get their teeth onto one another's throats.
It took a second for Veronica to figure out how to respond. She picked a direction and ran like a deer through the soccer fields. Her claws and teeth retracted as her heart rate settled, and soon she was just a girl jogging.
She made her way to the edge of the neighborhood and crossed a street with four lanes, busy during the day but empty now, and stopped at the patch of grass dividing the road.
She took a deep breath. She couldn't smell them, they hadn't followed her.
She laid down on the grass and started laughing. She couldn't help it. It was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever seen.
She recovered a few minutes later and got up. She only had a couple of hours left and had things to do, more things now that she'd gotten blood on her clothes. There was a Goodwill trailer in the corner of the parking lot of a nearby grocery store. The trailer was locked but there were cardboard boxes sitting outside of it. She dug through them, found a flannel shirt that fit her, and took a quick look around before she changed. She didn't care who saw her but she'd found that people looked at her funny when she didn't have all her clothes on.
There was a convenience store about a quarter mile away on the same road. It never closed. She walked there. She was tired already from the fight. She needed to get another car somehow, but that'd wait for tomorrow night.
She entered the store. The lights on the ceiling seemed impossibly bright. The cashier waved at her.
She smiled, nodded, and tried to get her tongue in the right position. This was embarrassing- even after all this time, the simple things were still hard. She finally squeezed it out.
She sounded like she had a cold. The cashier smiled back.
"The usual for you tonight, young lady?"
"Okay, okay, go ahead."
She smiled and went straight for the candy aisle. Her preference was for bright colors, anything sweet or sour or fruit flavored. She avoided chocolate- she'd tasted it once when she'd bought a donut for the sprinkles and thought it was disgusting. She kept loading up until she couldn't carry anything else, dumped everything onto the counter, and turned towards the magazine rack. She returned holding a stack of magazines. The cashier rang her up. She dug into her pockets and pulled out a wad of bills. The cashier straightened them out one at a time and put her change down next to what she'd bought.
She took the bills and shoved them back into her pockets, but left the coins where they were.
"You know, it adds up when you leave those behind. If you don't want to take them that's fine, but they belong to you."
"Good-bye," she choked out, and left the store. The cashier watched her go.
It wasn't far from the store to where she slept. She'd made herself a small lair in the attic of a parking garage stairwell. It hadn't been disturbed yet, but if it ever was she'd just find another place. There was a pile of rags in the corner. She laid down on top of them and started eating.
She started out slow, holding each piece of candy up to the light coming in from the high corner window, licking it and savoring the flavor before chomping it to dust. She reached into the other bag and pulled out her magazines, started flipping through them. She went through the tabloids quickly. Photography didn't interest her very much.
The comic books she saved for last. Her fingers seemed to vibrate as she opened the first one. She spent a lot of time on each page; she couldn't read, and was only dimly aware that she might be missing anything. She looked at the pictures, up close and from far away, right side up and upside down, watching them transform from things she hadn't seen before to things she had.
Her favorites had a girl with long black hair, just like hers. When she first saw them she ran to the cashier and pointed at the covers, too excited to speak.
The cashier just laughed.
"You like her? That's Veronica. Yeah, she looks just like you."
Veronica read and ate candy until she fell asleep. She woke up again as the night fell, still smiling and remembering. Dreaming. Veronica like to fight, Veronica liked to drive. But this, this, this was what Veronica loved.