No one, not even Bridget, could remember how it started, and yet by the winter term, it was common knowledge that she’d taken over the old smoking area and, for a price, would answer one—just one—question about the death of her friend, Samantha. Year Nines were especially bloodthirsty. Balancing on the threshold between childhood and everything after, they demanded to know things like: Did her brains wash off your parka afterwards? Did she die right away? Did you actually see her head come off?
Bridget charged an extra 50p for that last one.
The teachers knew she traded in gore and often skulked in the car park adjacent to the smoking area during lunch—wraiths, lost against the tarmac in dark grey coats, just waiting for an opportunity to lecture her about unhealthy grieving habits, but Bridget was doing just fine, thanks. In fact, it helped to break the crash down into a nod yes or a shake no, to mythologize—and not only helpful, but lucrative. Sammy had been a practical, worldly girl; she would have approved of Bridget’s enterprise, even if it came at her own expense.
Today, though, the car park was haunted by another specter. She watched as something dark slinked behind the head teacher’s Ford Escort—something shaggy and quadrupedal and vaguely canine. Bridget clenched her fists, knucklebones undulating into place beneath her skin. It didn’t reappear, the dog, but to see it at school…
Too close. She’d have to kill it after all.
Can you kill Death?
A welcome distraction in the guise of a Sixth Form boy came sidling up to the smoking shelter. “Hey, Fridge.”
He was rolling a cigarette. “Busy?”
“Piss off,” she said mildly. “You’ve had enough questions out of me.”
“Not everything’s about Sam, babe.” Mardy licked the Rizla’s edge, sealed it, and offered her the first smoke. Crud ran under and all around his nails. She refused. She hated the taste of cigarettes—she might as well shovel ashes straight into her gob—and Mardy knew that, but he was the sort of person who always offered.
He lit his cigarette and sat next to Bridget, their thighs touching. She was pretty sure Sammy wouldn’t have approved of this, which, if she was being honest, was rather the point. The only thing spoiling her triumph—the worm in the apple, the shit in the pool—was that Mardy kept calling her Fridge. Frigid Bridget.
“I know you’re not frigid,” he’d said teasingly, the last time they’d been alone. His hand snaking up her skirt, fingertips twanging her knicker elastic. “It just turns out you’re a stone-cold bitch, giving up someone’s last moments for money.”
“She would have given away mine for less,” was Bridget’s knee-jerk reply, and then, angry at herself for letting an ugly truth slide out—always a risk when you were grieving a girl like Sammy—she’d called him a wanker and told him to get off her coat. By the time she saw him again, the fire in her gut had gone out, and now she couldn’t even remember its warmth.
Frigid Bridget, the stone-cold bitch. Fine. Whatever. As long as she could shoot straight, it wasn’t the worst moniker to leave school with.
“My dog had her litter,” said Mardy. “Did you want one of the puppies?”
“Not really,” Bridget replied, slipping her scarred right hand into her pocket. She’d been scared of dogs ever since a Jack Russell took a bite out of her when she was small. It was one of her earliest memories. Other people, when they thought of dogs, conjured up caramel eyes and wagging tails; all she could think of was the flash of snapping teeth. To her mind, it made perfect sense that Death would take this shape—they both trotted at your heels, deceptively docile for years and years, until one day…
“They’re all gums, though,” said Mardy.
“The mum isn’t.”
Mardy smiled. His teeth were the same yellow as good salty butter. “Okay.” He shrugged. “I was just asking in case you wanted to, you know, come over.”
“Are ditches not good enough for you anymore?”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, they’re cleaner than my sheets. Definitely your parka. But, ah, actually, my mum wanted to say hi.”
This tore her attention away from the creature lurking behind the Ford Escort. Mardy had never invited her home. They were each other’s sordid little secret. Bridget liked it that way. She thought he felt the same. After all, who wants to be seen dating Fridge?
“Do you want your mum to say hi?”
“You’re not half selling it.”
“Forget it, then.” He flicked away the cigarette, barely done. He enjoyed the prestige of being Someone Who Smokes at School more than actually smoking. There were sweeter flavors. His look turned sly. “Do you want to skive instead?”
By skive, he meant find somewhere quiet and fool around. And she wouldn’t even be expected to do anything—she never touched him. She’d tried to once, but was too self-conscious of her scars. Better, easier, faster to lie back and concentrate, pretend she was alone. Sammy had said sex was supposed to be fun, dummy, but Bridget found herself worrying too much about the faces she pulled, the sounds she made. Whether or not she had a double chin. What Mardy thought about while he was down there. Sammy? Other girls, other boys?
Bridget—well. Bridget just thought about Death.
“I can’t today.” She told him she was on, which was a lie.
“We don’t have to do stuff every time.”
He was hurt, she realized. Good: let him hurt. “What else is there? Talking? I hate football, you hate Nirvana.”
He gestured past the school to the PE grounds. “You used to play football.”
“Sammy used to play football. I played hockey. Dick,” and she stomped off instead of untangling the dreaded knot of jealousy, guilt, and self-doubt in her breast, woven as tight as any string of fairy lights. Sammy had tangled them expertly. She’d done it when they’d stood in their PE kits by the side of the gym, waiting their turn at badminton, and Bridget’s eyes had lingered a little too long on Mardy. Sammy had put her hand down the waistband of Bridget’s shorts, tugging out to demonstrate the snug fit and down to reveal her stretchmarks—which Sammy, of course, didn’t have.
“Mardy doesn’t go for dumpy girls,” she’d said, and everyone within earshot had sniggered.
The alchemy between two people is never perfect—it can’t be—but normally there are pressure gauges. Checks and balances. Other hobbies, other people in orbit around the nuclear pair. With Sammy and Bridget, one nasty, the other reticent, there were no such distractions. Left to curl up on themselves like ingrown hairs, the girls calcified into something mean and bitter. An animal that bites itself as often as grooms.
In the last months of Sammy’s life, they’d finally begun the messy process of pulling apart. Sammy started hanging out with other girls. They called her Samantha, which felt classy. They passed tampons under the toilet stall doors to each other, and as a rule, anyone else caught short on the loo with stained knickers around their ankles who dared call out for a pad got slung with palmfuls of pearlescent liquid soap out of the wall dispensers. When it dried, it looked disgustingly like spunk. No doubt these new friends indulged Sammy’s worst tendencies, but Bridget didn’t have to care. At last, she’d gained some distance, a little autonomy—which was exactly what made the night of the crash so unfair. They no longer had any right to be out together; it was a trip for old times’ sake, and not even a good one! Now Sammy was dead, and it seemed Bridget would never escape her.
They’d been speeding home on Sammy’s moped after seeing a gig in Great Yarmouth, Bridget riding pillion. Her small stature, which Sammy had often sneered at, ended up saving her life: shorter than her friend by a foot, the sheet of metal that slammed into Sammy’s face when a haulage lorry jackknifed in front of them merely grazed the scalp of the girl perched behind her.
Everything was a blur now, but she was sure… Well, reason conspired to twist things, but there had been flat, empty fields either side of them for miles until the last second, when Bridget was certain she’d caught sight of a monstrous dog on the grass verge.
Black fur matted by peat.
Two red, very round eyes.
Sammy didn’t see it. She was watching the road and the lorry ahead, the corrugated metal sheets that would shortly kill her bouncing loose in their bindings. But Bridget saw the creature, smelled it, and recognized Death.
This was fen country, after all. If you’re born and raised in Norfolk, you can’t help but carry Shuck in your bones.
Bridget jerked upright. Marshland slid past the window, sectioned off and made sensible by dikes and culverts. Just now, there had been a huge, hunched shadow. On the verge. Like before. Guts cold, Bridget grasped the emergency brake and pulled.
“Stop the bus!”
The driver braked so hard the back end of the vehicle swung round. The other passengers shrieked and made a grab for anything that would make them feel safer — the seat in front, their belongings. Bridget staggered up the aisle to the door, shaking hard. The driver was on his feet.
“What the bloody hell was that for?”
Bridget’s face greyed. “I just… I need to get off.”
He was all too happy to jettison her by the side of the road. She bent double over the tarmac, letting the wind snatch away the stringy bile hanging from her mouth. The bus continued along its backcountry route without skidding or blowing a tire or spontaneously exploding, despite the premonitory prickle of her scalp. Nor was there a dog, though she found fresh scorch marks among the nodding heads of saxifrage.
The clouds were lined with sickly yellow by the time Bridget arrived home, her feet soaked through from overgrown grass. She lived with her Grandpa Frank in a squat stucco-finished farmhouse hidden by trees, half an hour from anywhere interesting. As she approached, something about the air felt rank.
She turned into the drive, heart jolting her ribs.
Shuck was waiting for her on the front step. He engulfed the front step—there was no way past him. Her school, her bus, now her home, closer and closer. The crash should have done for her. In the smallest of increments, Death was trying to amend his mistake.
Bridget hauled in a breath. “Oi!”
Shuck’s attention narrowed.
She cast about for a projectile, grabbed a large rock that had broken off the boundary wall, and chucked it at the dog. It thumped him in the ribs. A smaller animal would have sprung out of the way. His matted fur simply absorbed the impact.
His ears swiveled back. He bared his teeth and pushed off the front step as if to start towards her.
“Don’t you dare,” she yelled, throwing another stone. This one caught him on the muzzle. He didn’t even flinch; the red eyes stared throughout. A third hit his neck. Then the porch light flicked on, and the encroaching dark was burned away. Shuck melted into the Norfolk twilight, and warmth flooded the gravel as Grandpa Frank popped his head outside.
“Is that you shouting, Bridge?”
She pushed past him grimly. He smelled of engine oil. “I thought I saw someone hanging around. You need to start locking the bloody door, Grandpa.”
“Mind your language, eh?” He scratched his whiskers with nicotine-colored fingers. “You’re late.”
“Bus trouble,” she replied, which covered a lot of ground. She left her wet shoes on the porch. The walk had worn out the toes of her socks, so she pulled those off too and dumped them straight in the kitchen bin. Then she threw herself upstairs.
“Hey, dinner’s waiting for you!”
“Be right there.”
She spent precious little time in her room anymore, and it had taken on an anonymous quality—the Soundgarden and The Verve posters were gone, living on as pale rectangles in the paintwork. There were no childish knickknacks dangling from the ceiling. After the crash it had been easier to strip everything away and start again; but she hadn’t, yet. Started again. The bed linen was blue, an old set of Grandpa Frank’s. The other linens in the cupboard, either Sammy had slept in over the years or they’d been Sammy’s. She wasn’t ready to pick through that minefield. And no photographs had graced the nightstand since she was young. It was too eerie to see her mum smiling cheerfully, ignorantly from inside a cheap Woolworths frame. In the same way it was eerie for Sammy to have jerked her head at the haulage lorry and said as they kicked off, “Wouldn’t want that to fall on you.”
Pretty soon, the lorry’s contents would be slicing her into ribbons. The subtle fingers of Death plucking an unsubtle chord.
Bridget groped under her mattress. She felt the long, hard double barrel of a shotgun. Grandpa Frank’s shotgun. It had a walnut stock and two round, unblinking black eyes, good for staring down something big. She’d fetched it from the shed.
Just in case.
The window on the landing overlooked the front of the house. Bridget spent her nights perched on the sill, the break-open shotgun dangling from the crook of her elbow. The vigil, while comforting, was an impotent gesture — the only shells she’d found in the shed had been badly stored. Moisture had corroded the casings. If, by sheer luck, they still slotted into the chamber, the powder inside was almost certainly ruined, to say nothing for her aim. Her mum had taught her to shoot a long time ago, but they’d fired at clay pigeons in their own time, in good light.
Death would come by night and he wouldn’t wait for her to shout, “Pull!”
While she kept watch, Grandpa Frank snored, oblivious, and that was a comfort, too. Her mum had slipped away, you see, unwitnessed by all except the early hours—terrifyingly easy in every way Sammy’s demise wasn’t—and since then it had played on her mind that Death could seep undetected like rot.
Whenever her eyes threatened to close, she prowled the dark house noting every hazard: exposed wiring, glimpses of Victorian wallpaper, the old boiler. Invisible. Innocuous. Well, a dog can nuzzle as well as bite. Sometimes, before retiring to her post on the landing, she would slip her cold feet into Grandpa Frank’s wilted army boots and stand a while on the gravel drive. Test the air for the smell of singed undergrowth.
Doing just that, she saw a pair of eyes burning in the murk. No huff of vapor gave him away—but then, she reasoned, Death had no need to breathe. She brought the shotgun up. Her pulse jumped in her fingertips, unsteadying the barrel.
“Come on then, Cujo,” she muttered, sounding much, much braver than she felt.
But Shuck was in a voyeuristic mood that night and ventured no closer. They stood off until the sun broke over the tree line and the red eyes resolved into bike reflectors abandoned in the grass.
Bridget laughed bleakly, a sticky film of plaque dulling the gleam of her teeth.
She walked into town later—she couldn’t bring herself to trust the bus—and purchased two boxes of shells from the Outdoor Store. The man behind the counter was a friend of Grandpa Frank’s, so the sale was made on a knife-edge—on the one hand, he knew the family to be responsible gun owners; on the other, Bridget looked like she was one bereavement short of a breakdown.
“All right, love?” he probed.
“Yeah,” she replied, setting the coins atop the counter, “just finishing my Christmas shopping. My granddad wants to take me shooting over the holiday,” gambling that his friendship with Grandpa Frank was the distant kind that wouldn’t elicit a phone call.
“Keepin’ well, the two of you?”
“We’re fine.” Not reassuring enough for him to release his grip on the shells. She switched gears, cranked a smile. “We’re good. Cheers. I’ll tell him you asked.”
Her purchase complete, Bridget stamped out of the store. Thank God for shoe chains; brown slush had frozen into rigid wrinkles overnight and made a rink of the pavement. The high street looked pitiful—the council had strung lights across the road that flashed in a cheap artifice of movement: holly-wreathed bells flicked left, right, left, right; a tree illuminated itself from the bottom up. And the window displays, so inviting by night, bordered as they were with spray-on snow, stared haggard and hungover at the locals as they passed by. Too early for the cafés to open; too early for much at all except the gritting lorries and the troublemakers.
Too crisp and sober by far for Shuck. Safe, then, to linger.
Bridget watched someone dress a mannequin in the Oxfam shop’s window. The slip dress they were pinning into shape skimmed the knees. Slinky, in a bubblegum-and-butterfly-hairclips kind of way. It was something Bridget would have liked to test drive, if the spaghetti straps didn’t practically forbid a bra and the satin didn’t cling quite so much around the middle.
A boy yelped, “Try it on for us, Fridge!” Bridget tucked her chin and looked around. Mardy was there with his mates, but it wasn’t him who’d shouted; he was already smacking their arm and coming over to her, his hands thrusting into the pockets of his bomber jacket. His cheeks were pink as if they’d just been pinched.
“Hey. Spending your hard-earned money?”
She drew the plastic bag containing the shells behind her. The Outdoor Store didn’t brand its bags, but its contents were visible up close.
He nodded at the slip dress in the window. “Were you going to try it on?”
Bridget shrugged. The last time she’d strayed from softened plaid, jeans, and Doc Martens, Sammy had laughed in her face.
But Sammy wasn’t here anymore, was she?
“It’s not the kind of thing I wear,” said Bridget quietly. “It wouldn’t suit me.”
It was Mardy’s turn to shrug. “You’d look great.”
She glared at him, and he met it. No smirk played around his mouth, except the one that said he didn’t know how to proceed when girls refused compliments—she could see his mind working out where to tread next. Backtrack or push forward? A joke? Either way, his expression was genuine—vaguely baffled, even—and his friends were jeering, calling him back, yet he ignored them. It was all the affirmation she needed. Bridget set her shoulders and strode into the charity shop. She asked the assistant to unpin the slip dress, please, she’d like to see how it fits, feeling quite outside herself. Once the curtain was drawn across the door to the changing cubicle, she had to brace herself against the wall for a moment and let her brain catch up to her racing pulse.
She set the bag down and peeled everything off except her knickers and socks, then dropped the dress over her head and scrutinized her reflection.
She hated it immediately.
Why was her skin so pallid? She disappeared against the satin. Why were her thighs wider than her hips? Why did her knicker-line have to protrude? You had to create the illusion of going commando in dresses like this; everyone knew that. And why was the thermostat set low enough in here to harden her nipples? She folded her arms across her chest, shame burning the back of her sinuses.
The curtain suddenly clinked aside and back into place. “Told you you’d look great, babe,” whispered Mardy.
Her breath caught. She covered her face with her hands. Her voice dripped mortification. “Oh my God, get out.”
He giggled. “The manager will see me.” He was so close that he couldn’t not put his arms around her waist—there was nowhere else for them to go. He bent his head to hers, the smell of chewing gum mixing with tobacco and his own faint musk. “Are you going to buy it?”
“Are you actually taking the piss? I want to burn it.”
“Why?” Mardy drew back as far as the cubicle would allow and appraised her. She felt his hands wander down to pinch at the hem, check its length. “It’s nice. Different. You do want it, babe. I saw the way you looked at it in the window.”
She replied, “It looked better on the mannequin,” but what she meant was, it would look better on Sammy. How tired she was of having to navigate the crater that girl had left behind.
“Er, no.” His hand cupped her bum. “Can’t do this to a mannequin.”
She snorted and said, “You’re an idiot.” He shushed her and drew her face into his chest to stifle her response, and they stood like that for a long moment. His heart beat through his jacket, sure and steady against her forehead, and his fingers slowly curled into her hair as a different mood took hold. Their exhalations were too loud in the tiny space. She felt movement in his trousers. The response from between her own legs? Nothing.
“You need to go,” she whispered.
The curtain twitched. He sighed. “She’s standing right there. I’m going to get a bollocking.”
“You should have thought about that earlier.”
He shifted. His tone changed. “What are the bullets for, Fridge?”
They both looked down. Amid her discarded clothes, the plastic bag had spilled its secrets.
“Shooting,” she said.
“Shooting what?” Easy question, easier lie, and yet Bridget couldn’t think of one—rabbits, birds, beer cans, anything would do except this strange, guilty silence. The longer it stretched, the angrier she got. Mardy lowered his voice. “Shooting what?”
“Oh, myself, I don’t know,” she snapped. “Can you get out now, please? I’ve asked twice.”
Without a word, he dashed for the door. The manager yelled at the back of his head, and the look she gave Bridget then, you’d think she’d stepped in something. “Leave, before I call the police!” Bridget didn’t need telling twice; she was already jumping into her jeans. She ran from the shop the second she was decent—still, after all that, wearing the slip dress. Flustered with embarrassment, she hardly felt the cold. At the next alley, she flung her bag and bra down and started buttoning up her top.
Mardy was already there, getting his wind back.
“Are you okay, Fridge?”
He said the word with such delicacy, as if she was the cornered dog about to bite.
“My name’s Bridget,” she fired back, “and I’m fine.”
“Sure? You just said you were going to blow your head off.”
“It was a joke, Mardy.” She shoved her arms into her coat sleeves and zipped up the front with a quick, sharp rasp.
“A really bad one.”
“Well,” Bridget served—buttons askew, bra swinging from her hands, she found herself shouting without knowing why—“I’m grieving, so.”
“Yeah,” he volleyed, “you’ve been through shit, I get it. But this whole attitude, like you’re the first person to lose a friend, is getting really fucking old, Fridge.”
Lose? Lose? Sammy wasn’t a set of keys.
She wasn’t a friend, either. The feelings would be cleaner, surely. The grief would be simple, with no savage relief muddying the water. She’d never had the courage to ask anyone after the crash: Is it okay if I hated her?
“Have you ever seen,” she said, voice trembling uncontrollably, “someone you know turn into meat?” Her eyes looked like glass: glistening, even the whites. She held up a hand to stop his reply. “She was meat, Mardy. Roadkill. Her clothes were the only thing that looked human.” She gasped for air that wouldn’t come. “No one should ever have to see that.”
Mardy started forward. “You’re having a panic attack.”
“Don’t touch me.”
She charged past him into the dull grey of the street. The scattering of people there murmured to each other—look, it’s the girl whose friend died in that awful crash—and Bridget turned her back to them, gritting her teeth. How long had Sammy been dead? Long enough, and yet somehow Bridget was still being defined by her.
She hadn’t helped matters, of course. She hadn’t broken new ground, only kept to the grooves Sammy had carved for her. The same choice of college, the same clothes, the same stomping ground. Even the same boy. A rat in a cage pressing the same old buttons, a slave to dopamine. No more. She passed a beggar, a collection tin for the PDSA, a wishing fountain, and she threw coins their way until she had nothing else left to give.
They sat for dinner, she and Grandpa Frank, at the tiny kitchen table. He couldn’t abide chat at mealtimes, so they ate in near silence; their spoons scraped the bottoms of their bowls and their mouths worked gingerly around the microwaved lasagna. However, it was companionable. Grandpa Frank didn’t ask much of her — he never had. Not the most paternal of men, he simply got on with his routine as if she’d never come here, as if she was passing through. Sometimes he asked about school. Exams. Never sex or the sanitary products in the bathroom. Never Sammy, for which she was grateful. And each night, when he finished his meal, he would rinse his bowl and spoon and set them to drain, pop open a can of Coke—a sole concession to sugar—and plant a whiskery kiss on the crown of her head without saying a word.
Tonight, she grasped his hand as he made for the living room. He glanced down and frowned.
“I’m heading straight up,” she said.
Grandpa Frank gestured with his Coke. “Generation Game’s starting.”
“It’s the eighteenth.”
The date of the crash. Always the date of the crash. He needed no further explanation. He muttered something gruff about time passing and patted her shoulder. “Sleep well, then.”
Off he went in search of his leather recliner, clearing his throat with a cough. The TV murmured to life. She sat unmoving for a while in the darkening kitchen, until she heard Grandpa Frank scrunch up the can of Coke like he always did when he was done. She scraped the rest of her meal down the sink and washed her bowl and spoon, placing them neatly on top of his, and helped herself to a swig of milk and a Wagon Wheel. By the time she padded to the living room, the half temazepam she’d crushed into his food had done its job.
She didn’t allow herself any guilt as she tucked a rug around his legs. The shotgun had a bark to it, and she didn’t want to startle him.
She loaded the shells by touch in the hallway. On that dim winter’s evening, electric light felt like an imposition. Plus, it would suggest wakefulness to anyone lurking outside, and—she snapped the gun closed with a grimace—Bridget wanted Shuck to let his guard down. She wanted to be close enough to hear a whimper when she pulled the trigger.
The gravel out front was rimed with frost. Every step sent cracks whisking across the skein of ice, as if the house perched upon water. She paused to listen when the ground finally turned to noiseless grass. The cold ached against her eyeballs. She heard the distant hush of tires on tarmac and the ticking of the clock in the house behind her, but nothing organic—no crickets; they perished in autumn, singing lullabies to their eggs—nothing living except her own breath and her own blood throbbing in her ears.
She tiptoed between grass and stone. Years of Sammy jumping out and scaring her by shouting Woof! in her face had trained her to expect surprises; she didn’t blink twice when a dark shape skittered along the tree line, snapping twigs in its wake. Her glove was too bulky for the trigger guard. She bit it off and readied a finger, wincing as her scar met the burn of cold steel. The gun bucked, spitting shot. The boom echoed, then crackled as shot tinged off the trees, before silence restored itself. Already, she knew she’d missed; the peace was too thick, loaded. Watchful. She glanced back toward the house. She knew Grandpa Frank lay within, and yet its windows stared gauntly as if plucked out. As if the structure had stood empty for years. It was quite a distance away, further than she’d realized. Had she given Shuck room to double past her?
Her lips peeled apart, skin splitting. “Shit,” she whispered shakily. How could she be so stupid?
Frost dampened everything—feeling, fear, even adrenaline. With a sense of unreality, Bridget lumbered stiffly around the garage, stepping through undergrowth, to check the back of the house. After that, she would go inside. Warm up.
She hesitated, pinned between the wall of the garage and a holly bush. The voice had come to her as if from underwater.
She looked over her shoulder towards the front drive.
Two red lights.
She whirled around to face them. Fired.
The lights fell; something heavy hit the gravel, gurgled. Steam lashed the sharp air. The wind brought iron with it. She stared, shotgun limp in her hands. A strange, twisted protuberance spun in the air, round and round, accompanied by a fast click-click-click.
Like…like a bicycle pedal and chain.
She’d shot Mardy.
Halfway to his side, her legs gave out. She wailed an approximation of his name and her voice broke, ripped by grief. Starlight picked out the speckled texture of his torso: he glistened like ground beef. She crawled towards him; she touched his wounds, expecting to sink her fingers inside him, but found him peppered with something coarse and dry. And he stirred, conscious! She gasped; at that range, buckshot should have torn him apart.
“Bridge,” he breathed.
She touched his face. It was a wonder he had a face. The man at the Store — he must have swapped out the shells, given her rock salt instead. Dangerous, but not always lethal. Less than useless against a creature like Shuck. She threw the shotgun aside in despair.
“Mardy,” she whimpered. “I’m so—so sorry.”
“I heard a gunshot.”
She sobbed. Of course he’d been on his way to check on her. Of course Mardy would do that. She’d fired into the trees and probably hastened his coming.
Her chest hitched. “I need to go and phone an ambulance.”
When she turned around, Shuck was standing over them.
Her hand moved for the shotgun—idiot; it was unloaded, and what were the shells in her pocket going to do, exactly?—but Shuck got there first. A streak of white teeth. Splitting pain. She screamed herself hoarse, but of the two souls nearby, one lay dying, the other lay drugged. No one was coming to help. He yanked her into the murk of the trees, and she tried not to look at her arm as the dog’s teeth degloved it, but she felt every bone in her wrist grind to dust, and thought she would pass out.
Past the trees, across a ditch into open marshland, Shuck came to a halt and dropped her ruined arm onto the pale, frozen grass. Each green blade was encased as if by glass—a field of sparkling teeth, their tiny points reflected in the sky far, far above. A lower jaw, an upper jaw, and the fens a wet tongue between them so flat as to discern the curvature of the Earth.
It struck Bridget, then, that she had been brought across some boundary. That although he’d let go of her, she’d never left Shuck’s mouth.
She lay sprawled on the ground for some time, if time could be measured here. Ice crystals formed on her lashes. Slowly, the wilds returned. A raft spider tiptoed beside her head; a fen cricket burrowed into the rich soil; a pair of dappled curlews gracefully dipped their downturned bills amongst tussocks of cocksfoot and red fescue as the giant dog curled around her and licked warmth into her cheeks. His breath was foul.
Will you never learn?
A tired, resigned sort of hatred settled in her limbs. Her head lolled away from him, a million teeth stabbing her cheek. Several yards and several lifetimes away, blue lights flashed on the side of the road. A police car. An ambulance. A jackknifed haulage lorry. If she concentrated, she knew she would recognize the smoldering remains of a moped. Of the smear that had been Sammy, she saw nothing.
A woman in a high-vis jacket was loping in Bridget’s direction, the beam of her torch sweeping the smoking debris, searching. Bridget watched her advance for an age; she watched for so long that by any reasonable physics, she should have been found, but for all the woman walked, she came no closer.
Oh, Bridget’s body was found, certainly. But this moment was only a simulacrum of that one. A holding pen. A threshold between life and everything after.
Heartsore, as she always was when the truth rushed back in, Bridget turned away from the crash. She had been here many, many times. Had failed to move on many, many times. At least her end was calm. Private. She’d crawled far enough away from the accident to find a little tranquility, which turned out to be a blessing and a balm when she surfaced raw from every failure. What must it have been like for Sammy to return to this moment, that wretched, inhuman state, again and again as she reconciled with her own Death?
Not for the first time, resentment softened into a resemblance of grace.
Shuck lay his muzzle upon his front paws and looked at her pityingly.
You tried to kill me again.
Until she accepted him, she was stuck on a loop. Playing infinite projections over which she had minimal control. This, he had explained. Meanwhile, the world continued on without her. While she was lucid, she asked, “Grandpa Frank?”
Is still safe and well. Mardy, too, though I don’t know why you fixate on that boy. He thinks of you not one bit. Her face crumpled at this. The Mardy she always conjured was not the Mardy she’d known. Shuck snuffled at her neck. Peace, child. It is the way of things. Are you ready to try again?
Bridget shook her head. She grasped a handful of his greasy scruff, tight enough to imprint the sensation of a fist onto her mind. Something to anchor her, force a reckoning. Something to give her courage for the next attempt. “I need a minute.”
A minute, a millennium. He sighed, nostrils flaring close to her face like the twin barrels of a gun. I can give you all the time in the world, Bridget.
G. V. Anderson’s short stories have won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and been nominated for a Nebula. Her work can be found in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Tor.com, as well as anthologies such as The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. She lives and works in Dorset, UK, and is currently writing her first novel