Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Kokab Zohoori-Dossa
I’m a sick kid before anything else, and every sick kid needs to know a few things to function. Every sick kid needs to know how to find peace. Instant, absolute peace. The type of peace that your life will never offer up without crushing you in return.
Right before my mother gets up, trying to rush to get breakfast made before my beast of a father gets hungry, I find that peace. You let him get too hungry and he’ll fuck up the entire kitchen. If he eats enough the night before, though, he’ll stay asleep until late in the afternoon, so it’s good to get him something big at night. Find the fucker something with a lot of meat. It’s not my problem, so I don’t worry about it.
If Old Yoan does her job and feeds the beast, I get to sit on the roof for a while and watch the stars disappear. Something about the way they sift off into nothingness calms me. They’re still there, still doing what they do, but they stop existing to my naked eye every morning.
One of our neighbors has this big garden with a little stream running through it. Who knows how she made it, the Prima looks like a real jackass to me, but it’s there. You can hear the little bamboo water fountain tapping against the concrete border in the morning, scaring away the deer. My father breaks it about twice a month so he can get early meals, but she always puts another one up.
I sat on the roof and listened to the little taps, counting my breaths to them. My hands shook as I pushed strawberries over my horns, watching the red gunk run down until my bare hips soaked. Yoan hates when I do it, but I need to prepare myself. Old Bro told me once that sick kids have to prepare for chaos just like preparing and planning for peace. I need to do this. I need to see my horns covered in blood, but I’ll be damned if I hurt myself in the process. Strawberries work fine.
We have our own garden, but it’s mostly a graveyard. My siblings are all little trees down there, little reminders of what really goes on in my house. Big Dumb Ass Prime Boar killing everyone and his pretty wife spinning on her heels, ignoring it.
My phone vibrated, tapping too hard against the roof, and I stared at it for a minute before answering. Hate hearing his voice early in the morning, but it was a different type of day. A ‘get it over with‘ kind of day.
“Will they be there tonight,” an airy voice whispered, and I wondered if his crumpled paper bag of a wife was close enough to warrant it.
“As far as I know.”
“Good. Be a darling and double-check beforehand, will you? I don’t want to send the Boars to an empty field. They get restless.”
“Did you ask Mr. Leroy to put my friend in quarantine? I don’t want her to be-”
“Sure, sure, of course I did! Or I will. Either way, it’ll be fine. Just get the job done.” The line went dead, but I held the phone a second longer, biting back anger.
There’s always something irritating going on, but I just do my best to survive until my parents die and I inherit my fucking house. I’ll move Junnie in, and we’ll do whatever the fuck we want. That’s what I think about on the roof. Shit, that’s what I think about whenever I get the chance.
Me, the stars, and Junnie watching the population die out before we do.
A click vibrated through my pelvis. The damned horns are growing inward now. Soon, I’ll be some mangled freak like Jewel, and maybe Old Yoan will take me out back and shoot me in the spine or something. Bury me alive or some shit. She wouldn’t want a mess to clean up. One of the fucking Prime Boars could have me as a meal, keep it simple.
Didn’t make a big deal about it, though. Sometimes shit clicks. It’s just how it is.
The old lady, Sayan Whatever, watched me too intensely. It always took me a minute to get the stomach to speak around the fumes wafting from her clothes, and that was only after enough wind blew. Part of it was the stench. The rest was the thought of Yoan or Aba hearing the type of shit I say when they’re not around. Or Old Bro. Or Junnie.
Sayan stood in the field, waiting with that ugly hood pulled up over dirty hair. My gut turned like it always did when I searched her body. She didn’t have any horns, somehow. The people she represented were from way on the other side of the world, and we didn’t see many in places where Horns lived. They stunk. They could barely protect themselves, and they were probably the worst affected by Tivah apathy, but I had trouble finding an alliance with them, either. I could sympathize with people who lost their horns, sure—but being born without any at all? Her body looked incomplete.
“Are we going to speak, Tivah?”
“Not a Tivah, obviously,” I said, motioning to my jagged hip horns. “And not on Nameless land. Show some respect.” I ushered her away, but I really just didn’t want Old Bro to see us. The weirdo sat with his back to us far over by the field’s edge, hands clutching something. Sayan laughed and moved without question. I cracked my neck in response, and she shut up.
We walked further out, avoiding the sacred land, but I observed the concrete structures while we talked. Memorized the sections of the homes, made a note of every exit I saw. There were curtains in the windows high up in the building, and I noted that too.
Sayan opened her mouth, releasing whatever gas rotted her teeth down to the nerves, but closed it before I could get annoyed. It was our fourth time talking, and every time the smell ate at my skin.
Take a fucking bath.
“So it’ll happen tonight,” I said, trying not to breathe. “You found enough Rots that believed you were the real thing?”
“Yes. They seem sure The Rabbit should be old and withered. Many will come.” I nodded—that made sense. No one knew what the Rabbit looked like, but everyone went apeshit over elders and their ancient advice. Somehow, living a long time meant you’d proven more than being able to eat on time and take your medicine. I knew enough old fools to call bullshit.
“Don’t leave me wondering. How many?”
“Double digits. You’ll have a good start to your little rebellion. They are eager to be cured.” Her soiled dress blew in the wind, and I turned my head to avoid the smell.
“Rebellion? Fuck off. Stop saying dumb shit and do what I told you to do. I just need them in that field tonight. Keep telling them to come, I want as many as you can bring that are too far gone, OK? And make sure they tell people, like their family or whatever. I want word to spread once it happens.” She smiled a little, black gums peeking from behind her lips.
“It will spread. That flyer is doing wonders. Even the Prime Boar, Old Bro, had a few.”
“Hasan to you. Don’t work them up or anything. Just get them here, then fuck off.” I started to walk away, stopped, then looked her in the eyes. “There’s a mangled one with a big mouth … did you see her at any of the recruitments?” She squinted and the crust from her eyes fell in clumps. I tried not to gag on the gum I was chewing.
“They’re all mangled. Shame, really.”
“We don’t need your sympathy. They’re all mangled, but this one’s bad,” I said, describing my friend Jewel’s horns. The old woman nodded.
“A nasty, crass girl.”
“Right, that’s her! I don’t want her here, so run her off if she shows up. Pretend to cure someone or something. She’ll leave quick as hell. So tonight, right? The Boars should get here around midnight or one, who knows with them.”
“Yes. You’ll get your audience tonight.”
“Good. Remember what you’re supposed to do with the room on the top floor?” She looked up, squinting.
“Right. Pour gasoline over everything up there and light it up. The door, everything. Make sure there’s no way out.” The slow way she nodded irritated me.
“I’ll do that. The entire building will burn-“
“Just the top room. Don’t go overboard.”
“Fine. If The Rabbit does show up and heal them, what will you do next? Surely the Tivahs will need to reconsider their current strategy? They wouldn’t euthanize healthy Horns.” I stared at her for a long time.
Why would The Rabbit show up?
“You can’t cure Horn Rot, bitch. Stop asking questions. Just do what I said.”
I washed the putrid smell off of me and went to school, but I thought about gasoline all day.
For the last six weeks, I’ve listened to Lyria and Yoan ‘debate’, and Junnie started listening about three in. We got to listen to it, and so did all of our friends, classmates, teachers, dentists, bus drivers, everyone on the fucking planet. Junnie pretended not to notice the attention, but I noticed.
I’m Lyria, and I’m going to find a cure for Horn Rot because blah blah blah, you can’t kill them before I’m a superstar. Everything is about me and my dead husband, don’t talk about him. Insert a clip of her dead husband putting her through a fucking wall and try to feel bad for him.
I’m Yoan, and I’m going to push for people with Horn Rot to be euthanized because the Tivahs will like me more and give me shit. Insert a clip of Yoan locking herself in the bathroom and drowning out her tears with the shower every time I mention that I might die eventually.
Insert clips of our families having dinners together when Junnie’s dad was alive, and Yoan and Lyria having the same damn arguments. Insert clips of nobody ever speaking up for Junnie and me without there being a caveat. Two big ass Boars going ‘Yes Dear’ and grunting while their wives insulted their children.
Every debate felt closer and closer to our mothers pulling the plug on our friendship, and it was in their power to do that. Rots don’t get to escape right after high school. I can’t live on my own like this, not really, so I’m probably stuck in my house until I fucking die. Junnie won’t ever get to move out. Old Bro even forfeited his right to their home so she could have it, and that’s admirable, but she doesn’t need it. She’ll be with me, and I’m not letting anyone run her off.
Fuck debates. Fuck begging and crying and talking. I’m the daughter of a Prime Boar, a genuine Prime Boar. I’m an action type of Rot.
“Is your mom coming to talk to your teacher today? About the grade,” Junnie asked, yawning. I stopped her from walking into class, and she yawned again, moving out of the way of the other Rots filtering through the door.
She stayed up too late watching TV all the time, waiting for her brother to come home. The thought of having to stay up and worry about a Boar, a Prime Boar at that, irked me. He died or lived, but it was his responsibility, and it was one he didn’t take lightly. Junnie and her mom were always trying to baby him, but Old Bro wasn’t a pussy. He was the one that taught me how to fight my old man. He was the one who pushed me when I wasn’t feeling well. At least, he used to be reliable. Now he chased sick bitches and skinned rabbits all day.
You learn interesting shit when you follow him, though.
I cracked my neck, sighing into my shoulder, and there was that click again. Maybe it wasn’t my pelvis, but there was a feeling somewhere in my lower torso.
“Fuck no. Does she ever help me when I need it? Publicly?” Junnie only smiled in reply. I ignored the heat that went through my body, looking away, then looking back.
Airhead. Pretty little fucking airhead.
Her bad eye jerked, more blood-red veins spreading across, so she closed it.
Would never say it to her, but that eye was badass. As soft and quiet as she spoke, sometimes Junnie looked like a fucking war hero. Gigantic horns jutting up into the sky, eye bloody and dead, that little evil smile she does haunting her face. Thinking about it kind of sends a jolt through me. Not like that … whatever, it does stuff to me when I don’t keep it in check. Anyone would feel some type of way about a girl like her.
Our legends are dainty Rabbits that kiss and heal. Bullshit. Junnie’s a legend, a living legend, and she looks like she got bludgeoned by a giant. The rotten horn is spotted, and I swear there’s death trapped in each discolored spot, looking for a way out—Junnie’s wild.
“You should’ve just done the work in the first place. Jeez. Why don’t you ask my mom to do it,” she said, her voice squeaking a little. “The grade is important, Lewish. We’re already behind enough. We don’t need any extra trouble getting into college.”
“Nah, your mom is as bad as my mom. Don’t be foolish. Who gives a shit about grades, anyway? You think I’m wasting my time at college? Let them fail me.” She gave me a little annoyed tick, rubbing fingers over her dead eye.
“You should care,” she said simply, the healthy eye cutting at me, and I wanted to slash my throat before the blood could reach my face. Hate blushing. Hate how easily she makes me blush. I played with the bottom of her shirt a little, forcing eye contact. Junnie didn’t shy away, standing as close as she could with my hip horns jutting between us, but let her face harden. “Moron. Dipshit.”
“Whatever. I’m not begging for an A,” I whined, trying to figure out how to beg for an A. Junnie shrugged, annoyed.
“Nobody likes an idiot, least of all me. Get it together. Anyway, dimwit,” she said, the smile bursting back onto her face, “Let’s get going. You can’t afford to miss any more lessons, not as dumb as you are.”
I’ve been trying to tell Junnie something about Old Bro for a while now. Can’t get it past my throat. It just kind of jumbles up in there, and then I’m playing with my hip horns, and then I’m moving on to other shit. I just don’t know if she’ll forgive me for ruining that Subprime Boar’s image. Junnie’s odd like that. You can’t ever really tell what she’s thinking, especially when it comes to her family.
Every sick kid needs to know how to hide their emotions, but I fail at it. It’s a weak spot. Junnie is my salvation there. We sneak into movie theaters or trick people into giving us rides, all off the strength of Junnie’s smile and ditsy expressions.
I paced, swallowing too hard. Junnie turned to follow me, and I put my hand on her neck quickly. Gotta do that shit all the time. The bitch acts like she’s not carrying two giant death traps on her head. I’m scared I’ll hear a click one day and she’ll fall over and snap her spine in half.
“Hey, be careful,” I muttered. I let my hand sit at the base of her neck for just a second. Junnie’s skin is volcanic. It’s always hot, always boiling. It’s like a fever that never goes away. If the weather goes down, I keep my hands on her. Not like … not in that way, not anything obscene. That’s not how it sounds.
“I’m fine,” she whined a little, moving my hand, but she wobbled backward and damn near flew down the stairs. I held her arm, used to the clumsiness.
“Why is everyone so damn serious lately? Let’s just go to class, Lewish.” I steadied myself, staring too hard at the door. Couldn’t find it in me to talk about Old Bro, so I settled on her mother.
“Your mom is going to fuck everything up, you know that? If she keeps acting like this, my mother’s not going to let us hang out anymore. You want that?” Junnie turned red, staring at the door with me. Everyone else was already inside.
It’s hard to convince Junnie that anything is wrong with her family, even the smallest damn thing. You couldn’t show her how crazy the bitch was. I watched Lyria walk into walls, talk to her hands, chew on her shirt. Time went on, and Lyria lost balance a lot. She turned red even when she wasn’t blushing. Nobody pays attention around here, not really, but the bitch was sick. I’d never even seen her antlers shed, and every other bitch with antlers went bloody once a year.
Something was off about Lyria.
Junnie finally stopped biting her lip. “She wouldn’t do that. Mrs. Kendal isn’t-“
“Mrs. Kendal is too busy trying to fit her head in some leathery Tivah pussy to care about you, sick girl.”
“Do you have to say things like that? Why the hell would I want to think about that?” She didn’t wait for me to respond, yanking away a little too hard and opening the door. She turned at the last minute, nearly drowned out by the classroom chatter.
“Tell you what! You’re a smart Rot, Lewish. Get them both to shut up for once.” She went in, but I just stood there staring after her. What a thing to say to someone like me. Someone about action. Someone who would kill for you.
What a thing to say to someone who cares about you more than anyone else in the world.
Old Bro told me once that sick kids have to learn faster, and you receive the best lessons from your enemies.
I met Igna Tivah when I was young. I’ve never been young enough not to be afraid of her. It was the way my mother fawned and stood straight and nodded eagerly when we were in front of them. The way my father barely spoke, staring at the ground. The way they erased the family hierarchy I was used to and replaced them with their own, how quick it was, how overwhelming. It taught me about class dynamics before I could even participate.
Big men and confident women just turn into men and women around a certain class of Horn. They lose their adverbs and adjectives.
I still had one of my brothers around then, and Igna liked him for some reason.
“Oh, look at those shoulders! He should join the military when he’s old enough,” she said once, pulling his face up to look at the cut of his jaw. My mother looked like she would burst into pure energy, but my father grumbled to himself. We were in their gigantic forest behind their house, Jodice cooking on the grill. They liked to throw these feasts every summer, inviting only their family and a select few healthy Horns. The Tivah line was enormous, and you could see their homes lined up beyond the forest.
“I would like that,” my brother said. Igna knelt in front of me, smiling, and touched my head horn. It was brown and red, thick, and had a nice curve to it. My mother was always proud when someone touched it. There was some sheen that other horns didn’t develop until they were elders, so we got stopped a lot. She cried herself to sleep when I lost it.
“And you’ll be a beautiful Prima!” I stared at her. I’m not some tomboy that always wanted to be a Boar or some shit. I don’t mind being called a Prima. But I didn’t have any attachment to it. Still don’t.
There was something empty about Igna. She gave me a big smile, pinched my cheek, and then walked over to Jodice. They’re married, I think, but it’s always unclear. They weren’t affectionate. They didn’t interact physically. Every few seconds she snapped at him, and then he eyed me too long not to notice. The way his horns looked scared me.
They were flat, but not like Igna’s. Maybe he shaved them.
Later, Jodice pulled me to the side, smiling sweetly. He had more energy than Igna, more personality, but he spoke with an aristocratic tone that I hated.
“You’re friends with the little sick girl, aren’t you? Lyria’s daughter?”
“Yes,” I said, and I didn’t leave any room for doubt. Even then, I’d kill for Junnie.
“A shame. You should watch the company you keep. Do you want to know a secret about Lyria? About why your mother hates her so?”
And he told me without me saying yes. And I watched my mother talking and socializing, watched her brilliant smile, her white teeth. I watched her mouth moving, and I started crying, Jodice’s words sinking into my skin. She turned, embarrassed, and rushed over.
“I’m so sorry, Jodice! She’s not afraid of you, I promise! We’re used to luxury!” My mother yanked me away before I could say anything, pulling me to the side of the mansion.
“Are you insane? You’re actually going to embarrass me like this?”
“How could she do that to you? How could anybody do that to you?!” She stared at me, mouth open.
“Surely, Jodice didn’t tell you…” We stood outside until I calmed down. She wouldn’t talk about it. Wouldn’t give me her opinion on it at all. She just stood next to me, straightening her dress. I thought about it a lot later. Old Yoan never wants me to see her crying, or emotional, or anything. She never wants anyone to see her that way.
“Fix your face. They may look uninvolved, but they’re essential to our place in this world. Do what Jodice says even if it kills you.” I got myself together, and I took her hand, and we went back in.
We stood there, the smell of cooked animal bringing drool to my father’s mouth, and I couldn’t help but note how empty all of the Horns around me were, except my mother. She glistened and glowed all over that room, kissing so much ass that her breath probably smelled like shit. Igna was the emptiest, leathery and primped, staring at me every time she could, probably trying to suck the youth out of my body.
Yoan deserved better than Igna. She deserved better than Jodice.
My father would kill my brother not long after that, right after his Horn Rot diagnosis. And I’d never see Igna’s vacant smile again. Once I had my diagnosis, she refused to let me on the property. Not even in the parking lot.
Jodice didn’t seem to mind as long as I did what he said.
I remember how hollow they were, and I remember the story about my mother and pretty little Lyria, and I think about it every time I push a strawberry onto my horns.
I caught Jewel rushing out of a class she’s been TAing this semester. Rushing is a mean way to describe it, honestly. The girl can barely move, definitely can’t bend her knees that much, so she goes gradually when she moves at all. It’s hard to imagine any more places a horn could grow on a single body. Hard to imagine her own body hates her so much. Sometimes I think the only reason she hasn’t succumbed yet is Junnie saying her stupid little prayers for her every night.
“Hey, listen,” I said, grabbing her shoulder horn gently. She still winced, struggling to turn and move my hand at the same time. “What are you up to later? Want to come watch a movie with Junnie and me?”
“Sorry, kid, I’m busy tonight. Maybe, I mean. I’m probably busy tonight.” There was a hint of amusement on her face, and then misery, and then she just looked annoyed with me. I tried to look friendly.
“It’s a really good movie. A Rot stars in it and everything. Not a bad case, obviously, but she’s still a Rot.” Jewel gave me a disinterested shrug, so I switched course. “You know Lyria has that crazy big kitchen. We’re going to try to cook. Might be fun, you should come along.”
“And have Old Bro flicking my horns all night? I think I’ll pass-“
“He’ll be busy.” She shook her head and moved to walk toward the door, but I grabbed her shoulder horn harder this time. The look she gave me moved my hand faster than my muscles could.
“Lewish, what do you want? I’m tired.”
“You’re staying in tonight, right? I’m surprised your dad hasn’t sent you back to quarantine yet. It’s around that time.”
“Nope. He’s thinking about it. Can’t stop the old piece of shit from thinking about it.” My brain blanked out, so I moved to grab her, then stopped and let out a sluggish laugh.
“Well, either way. You should stay in tonight. They might have a game at Rodio. It’ll be crazy out.” Jewel made a face. I wanted to grab her chin and make her promise me, but I didn’t.
“Probably. I don’t know. There’s something Grimlynn keeps trying to get me to go to-“
“Don’t go! Heard about it, it’s bullshit. Just stay in somewhere. You don’t have to hang out with us, just stay home.”
She waved me off, rolling her eyes. “You gotta get over this rivalry with Grimlynn. She can barely walk, why do you care what she says or does?”
“It’s not that- ” Jewel nodded absently, headed to the door. I wanted to make her promise, but she hurried off before I could get a breath in.
Damn. Dammit, dammit, dammit. I tried.
Can’t save everybody—casualties in war and all that. I played with my phone a little, thinking about making a call or two, really wanting to try harder. Instead, I swallowed the guilt and kept waiting for my mom. Junnie would be with me, and that was enough.
I kept seeing flyers on the way to the Nameless forest. Maybe I put up too many of them. Ms. Gorton was putting up so many of her own that I had to figure out a way to drown them out, make sure no one could tell the difference.
People don’t want me around, but they treat me better than the other Rots. I’m Yoan’s daughter, after all. I’m Aba’s daughter. You fuck with me, one of them makes sure your life or your body is ruined. I don’t take that for granted, and I make sure Junnie benefits from it as well.
All Junnie has is a hippie brother and an insane mother. Am I supposed to leave her to that?
My mom tried to ban Junnie from our house once, way back when her rivalry with Lyria was worse, and I dug up two of my siblings’ trees. She waited until the Prime Boar left for the day and then replanted them, sobbing to herself all night. I dug up more in the morning, and more the next morning, and on and on until she got the point. She slept out there for three nights, crying when my dad wasn’t home, damn near gagging on her grief.
Can’t stand the way she cries, but I’m my mother’s child. Who can she blame?
Old Yoan tried to get Ms. Gorton fired once, so I broke all the house windows. That time backfired on me. She locked me in my room and started whistling, walking around. I smelled the gasoline but didn’t go out the window yet. I’m on the third fucking floor with horns that point at vital veins, and one slip will kill me. So I stood my ground until thick smoke started coming under the door. But she wouldn’t set her own inherited home on fire, would she? She wouldn’t destroy something that belonged to me once she was gone?
The smoke was so thick that even the open window didn’t help. I did end up slowly crawling out, shaking all the way down the side, worried I would stab myself and bleed to death. Almost snapped one of my horns. She laid outside in a bikini, middle of the fucking night, sipping a beer through a straw. Watching me. I stood there crying in fear, and she just laughed, leaning back in the lawn chair and crossing her feet.
“Oh, my! Is the house on fire? Hm. I’m glad you were able to escape! And such a big fire, how did it spread so quickly? Must’ve been the broken windows fueling it, I guess. What a blessing.”
Nobody knows about this, and after the fire department was gone, she just had the house repainted and the furniture replaced.
I learned pretty heavily that my mother was as dangerous as my father, especially when cornered, and I haven’t fucked with her since. To her credit, she stopped being so openly hateful to Junnie. I think she even likes her now.
Point is, I don’t worry about saving Yoan. I don’t worry about my father. I worry about Junnie, worry about pulling the wool from over her eye, and protecting her. And I won’t let anyone take her away from me.
Later, I went back to the Nameless Forest. Watched Sayan walk around for a bit, pulling gasoline canisters into the concrete building. When she wasn’t close enough to see me, I ducked in and went upstairs.
There was a room at the very top of the building with a locked entrance, and I’d gotten familiar with the hall leading to it. The girl, she heard me coming. I wondered if she waited for me now. I got real close, sliding my hand up and down the door, and whistled.
“Hey.” There was silence, then low shuffling. “I’m going to burn you alive, bitch,” I taunted. She didn’t respond. I ran my hand along the wood again, letting my nails dig in.
“Does anyone else know Old Bro has a little forest whore up here? You think I don’t know why you crawled out the woods in the first place, dirtball? Can’t wait to smash your face in. Come talk to me real quick.” She sighed, and I heard metal moving. It slid to the door and then quieted.
“Old Bro loves you little sacred sluts. Somebody asked me to hurt you, so I guess he’s the only one. Open that window so you can hear the screams tonight. It’s all your fault. You’d better listen to them crying for your help, whore.” The sounds of chains hitting the ground rang out as she sat up, panicked.
“Jodice says hi. You hear me, Rabbit?”
My stomach tightened with joy when I heard her struggling around. There was a muffled noise, something like a gasp, and then the window opened.
“Can’t wait to feed you to my dad,” I said, tapping harder on the door.
“Maybe I’ll feed you to mine,” she whispered back. I started to speak, then felt a big ball of anxiety come up instead. There was a low breathing sound behind me, rough and quick like an animal getting ready to charge. The smell of saliva filled the hall, the type only massive beasts leave. I smiled but didn’t look, cracking my neck.
“Oh, you again, huh? You think I’m afraid of some wet deer?” The sound of hooves on the steps grew louder behind me. “That ain’t your dad, slut. I know who that is. I want to see him do something other than slob and grunt and die. Didn’t he do that enough when he was alive? Am I supposed to get scared of some sick ghost? Send a real Nameless, not some loser obsessed with one.”
There was stunned silence in front of and behind me, and then the noise disappeared altogether. I listened for a while until I heard sniffling, satisfied.
“Oh, I guess you can’t, huh? They’re all fucking dead because of you. Stay in the woods or burn, bitch.”
There are plenty of things I believe in, but most of them come back around to Junnie. I don’t give a shit about a stag, a rabbit, or the people who follow them all. As long as they leave Junnie alone, I’m good.
Lyria pulled a gun on me once. Shot at me. We don’t talk about it, but she did.
When she took Junnie and hid with her, scared someone would kill her over the Horn Rot, I found them. You don’t get to take Junnie away from me. Since day one, I knew she would always be mine, my best friend or whatever, and you don’t get to withhold her from me.
I found the house they were hiding in. It was easy if you knew the Gortons. They were obsessed with Nameless land, with the Nameless in general. A bunch of dirty, diseased Horns that piled into concrete homes and washed up once every century. As if being dirty was some indication of intelligence or some shit.
I crawled in the window into the plain little shack way in the Nameless forest. I played cards with Junnie, who was bored out of her mind.
“She wants me to meet some lady with no name,” she whined. Those horns weren’t as big yet, but they still doubled the length of her body. “An animal lady. I do not want to meet her!”
“Maybe she’ll help you,” I muttered, but I didn’t believe it. Nobody helped sick kids, especially not other sick people.
We played two games before the door opened, and then ragged breathing moved towards us. I looked up just in time to see Lyria with a huge gun, pointing it at me. Junnie shrieked, knocking all her cards to the ground. The only thing I felt was annoyance.
Lyria looked bad. Frazzled, hair everywhere, cloak dirty. I’d never seen her look so average, and I didn’t like it. My own mother could be having a stroke and would still apply her makeup before she went to the hospital.
When I opened my mouth, Lyria pulled the trigger on the hand cannon. The gunshot went over my head, but I didn’t flinch. She put it to my temple, still hot, so I put my cards down.
“You tell anyone where we are, and I’ll kill them,” she said, voice shaking. “I’ll burn them alive. Everyone you fucking love, I’ll burn them.” I shrugged.
“I won’t tell. See you later, Junnie!” I hopped down and walked out, ignoring Junnie’s embarrassed screeching. My heart thudded in anger, some type of vicious outrage that I’ve never let go of.
Lyria liked to burn shit. I knew a story about her, knew a story about her that she didn’t want anyone to know, but I knew she liked to burn shit already. Old Yoan knew, I knew, and Jodice knew. And I remembered. I remember every time a strawberry bursts on my horns.
I know my enemies and my competition, and I put them all together in my head. They all lose themselves to fear. They can’t deal with change in the slightest, with being uncomfortable, with losing. I’m a sick kid. Been a sick kid all my life. Change and discomfort are the only things I know. My enemies have nothing on that.
The sicker she got, the more Lyria lashed out. I didn’t want her actions, past or present, to be blamed on her sickness when she finally reveals it. Fuck that. I want that bitch to face what she did to my mother.
I knew Junnie would be easy to convince once she saw the truth. Once she understood what my mother saw all those years ago. She’d see the scared doe holding a hand cannon to a child’s head for what she was, and she’d let me do what I wanted.
Night crawled over the horizon fast, and then I wished the morning would come. Even with Junnie’s giant horns across my lap, my hand on her stomach, the television blaring, I couldn’t get Jewel out of my head. Idiot, hobbled bitch. I tried to convince myself she would just stay home but couldn’t lie. You tell a Rot something’s going to happen and they’re going to go see it. We don’t get much entertainment.
No way she believes in the Rabbit. Relax. She’ll stay home.
It was no use. Couldn’t get the idiot out of my head, and then I couldn’t get her out of my chest. The thought of her burning …
Can’t hurt your friends, not the people who would put their life on the line for you. I didn’t want to be there when the shit started, but I figured I could get in, warn her, and get out. I tapped Junnie. She sat up without complaint, pulling blankets over her head and around her horns. The bowl of popcorn moved as if it was glued to her lap.
“Hey, gonna head out for a sec. Watch something else until I get back, I want to see the rest of this with you.” Junnie looked up, the thick fleece wrapped around the back of her horns and draped over her face like a veil.
“Wait, where are you going this late?”
“Damn, mind your business for once. I said I’d be back.” I stood, trying to get out the door quickly, but a loud crash rang behind me. Junnie groaned in pain.
“Moron,” I grumbled, rushing to help her up. A woozy laugh escaped her mouth.
“I’m going … shit, hold on. I never get out of this damn house.” She bent over, holding her horns with shaky hands. “I’m going with you, or you’ll have to tell my mom why I died flopping after you.” I rubbed her back, sucked my teeth, and let her come along.
There’s no quick way to get to the Nameless forest unless you take a cab or even the bus, but Junnie can’t fit in either, so we walked. She’s surprisingly good at long distances, even with the horns weighing her down. And she didn’t ask me where we were going, which I love.
I eyed my watch a lot, wishing for once that Junnie had stayed behind. It took triple the time to get there on foot. By the time we made our way through the forest, I could see smoke pushing up into the sky. I grabbed Junnie’s hand.
Every sick kid needs to pick their battles. I know my horns will kill me if I fall, if I move too quickly, if I sneeze too hard. Even with the patches Yoan makes me, I’m always a liability. Junnie can’t run, can’t jump, can barely navigate properly. She waited while I stood there trying to decide if it was even possible to save Jewel, and then the screaming started.
I couldn’t stop Junnie from turning and peeking through the trees, and then it was too fucking late.
Opportunity is a rare thing, and I never let it pass.
Junnie crept forward, a shiver going through her, but I heard coughing and stopped. Through the trees I could see the concrete building, the little room with the curtains, and no fire up there.
“Fucking useless stank bitch-” There was another cough, this one deep from the chest, and I turned to see a teenage Prima pulling herself through the woods, both legs broken, one arm doing all the work. One of her horns was solid wood, thick and healthy. It took a minute of staring for me to see the ugly purple bruising on her wrists.
Wood Horn whore.
I eyed Junnie, but she was absolutely frozen in horror. I grabbed her shoulder and whispered in her ear, “Hey. Wait for me by the road. Don’t move until I get there.”
“They’re burning them,” she muttered, eyes wide. I yanked her arm until she turned around.
“You want to be next? Go wait for me. I’ll be right there, I promise. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” She nodded, dazed and afraid. I watched her walk as fast as she could back toward the road, and then I went after the Wood Horn.
The Wood Horn pulled herself away, barely acknowledging the pain she must’ve been in. There was a little blood trail behind her that I stepped over with glee. She noticed me but didn’t say anything, just kept pulling herself forward. I let her get far enough from Junnie for my comfort. A log caught my eye, and I wrenched it from the ground.
“You jumped out of that window, slut? That’s insane. At least I know you listened to me.” I moved closer, bracing the log in front of my horns.
“Thought you were gonna burn me,” the brat said to the dirt, still pulling forward. I walked faster, laughing.
“Yeah, well. That would’ve fit into my little revenge plot perfectly, but I’ll have to deal. Maybe next lifetime.” One close glimpse at her legs made my stomach turn. It looked like every bone in her body crunched up in her upper torso. With one foot on each side of her, I raised the log as high as I could.
Damn Wood Horns really have a death wish.
She turned slightly, listening to my breathing, but I didn’t care. The Tivahs wanted her dead, and I promised. I was going to set Junnie and me for life and we were going to sit on that roof every fucking night.
Every sick kid has to make a choice.
“Lewish, no!” Junnie grabbed my shirt, frantic, but I yanked away from her.
“Relax. It’s nothing, I promise. Why don’t you walk home? This is kind of like homework. I just need to get it done.” Part of my heart ached at the thought of Junnie seeing me kill the damned bitch, but I had to do it while there was a chance. The Rabbit disappeared like the moon every night, barely giving me time to think about her.
Junnie’s too sweet. She’s too soft and fragile and innocent. I looked down at the bleeding girl and held the log up higher, and I should’ve just fucking done it. The way she just sat there, though, it made me hesitate. Shouldn’t she be afraid or something?
There was a noise behind us. Probably that beast checking on its little friend. Junnie grabbed my shirt harder, trembling.
“Lewish? Don’t. Please.” The noise moved closer, close enough to blow hot nostril smoke at us, and grunted. I threw the log to the side, rage taking over, but didn’t turn. I didn’t want to look at him, concentrating on its shadow flickering over the Wood Horn.
The stag was massive. It breathed more hot smoke into the air, most of its attention on me. I looked over to Junnie, wondering if she could see it, but of course she could. Of course she could see him.
“You think I won’t kill her,” I growled. “You think I won’t beat her fucking brains in just because you’re here?” When I finally turned, it stared at me, blowing out another breath, and then the little bitch burst out from under me and jetted into the woods. I couldn’t grab her in time, couldn’t even figure out how she was running on those mangled fucking legs. The stag moved towards us.
“Lewish, she’s going to bleed to death out there, we can’t just leave her,” Junnie screamed. I tried to keep hold of her, tried to ignore the big fucking stag walking toward us, but she ripped away from me and rushed off as fast as she could with two massive horns on her head. I wasn’t stupid enough to move. The stag tried to follow them, nearly smashing into me when it curved and turned.
“Lukas!” I screamed, and it stopped. My breath sat in my chest; it really fucking sat inside my chest until I had to hold myself up with the trees. The stag grunted, moving back to me.
“Yeah, I know who you are! Stop fucking around. You want your daughter to die? Are you that busy playing security for a Wood Horn? Why?” He lowered his head, watching me, but didn’t move. I sucked my teeth. “You’re useless. Fucking useless. Why are you so obsessed with a fucking teenager? Thought your dick only got hard for the fucking Name-”
And then it hit me. It hit me so hard I nearly toppled over, and the stag could’ve laughed.
She’s not the Rabbit. She’s a Nameless.
Junnie ran off after the brat. She left me standing there, surrounded by burning Horns, screams digging into my ears. I watched her running at full speed, holding her horns, going after some diseased piece of shit instead of caring about me.
The Rabbit’s daughter. What else would she be? Why else would Jodice want her dead? And that made her father …
A real fucking Nameless Wood Horn. I couldn’t believe it.
The stag gave me an apologetic grunt and walked away, barely out of my sight before it disappeared into the darkness.
I listened to the screaming, the ugly screams pouring from the field, but I couldn’t move. Jodice really got me. Junnie would never forgive me if I killed a relic, would she? She would never forgive me. And she’d never believe her mother did this, flyers or not. Lyria wouldn’t touch a Nameless.
They’re going to turn Junnie against me. Everyone is doing their best to, I can feel it every time I’m away from her. But I’m not losing without a fight. I’m pulling her up on the roof with me, right under the stars, and we’re going to watch the world burn.
Every sick kid needs to know how to find peace. Every sick kid needs to know how to defeat their enemies. And I’m no ordinary sick kid. I’m Yoan’s daughter. Aba’s daughter. There’s no stag, Rabbit, dying mother, weak brother, or crazed tyrant that will keep me from achieving my goals.
I want Junnie, and I get what I want.