I can only imagine the awful loneliness that overpowers some people living on the frontier. How much worse would it be when home is over 200 million miles away? — ed, N.E. Lilly
Red dust gathered in the crannies of the hand crocheted blanket Caroline had Lilly wrapped up in, as she stood on her porch watching the boys unload supplies for her and load up her husband.
Marty was smart enough to stay quiet as a big gust came and painted his one side in dust for a minute. One of the boys who had been jabbering about something was coughing now, spiting dust out.
“They say it might have been the iron rusting in ancient times. Mars used to have water on it a million years before us humans showed up to terra-form,” one of the older men explained to the young kid while clapping him on the back as he coughed. “You’ll get used to rust in your lungs, rest of us about eat the stuff.” The rest of ’em all laughed.
Caroline didn’t see the humor, trying to listen to the sound of her baby’s sleeping breath over the bitter winds that blew the dust around.
“You keep that rifle clean and loaded and with you at all times. They say they caught those rustlers causin’ trouble couple of weeks past, but I ain’t so sure.” Marty was all serious as he instructed his wife, as he had a hundred times before. “You’re a long way off from town out here and no one got no right to be anywhere on our road. If it ain’t supplies or me comin’ home, you shoot first. You get me?”
She did and she nodded and she looked down at the blanket holding Lilly. Marty made his way back up on the porch as the last of his stuff was thrown on the back of the transport and lashed down. He moved in on her, putting his arms around her waist so much as the baby would allow and spoke soft to her. “It ain’t all bad, sweetness. If I was home all this time it ain’t like I’d be able ta keep my hands off of you. You got enough work just taking care of my little girl for me to fill you all up with babies again, huh?”
She smiled a little, but it was sullen on account of how she wasn’t done punishing him yet for going off on another three month-long shift at the mines. He smiled back and kissed Lilly on the cheek by pushing a little blanket away from her chubby cheeks. He put the blanket right back where it was and gave Caroline a similarly sexless kiss before heading to the transport.
She watched him nod as the transport kicked up a little storm of dust and jetted off to the iron mines.
Days moved their way on into weeks and a month or maybe more as they did under a distant Sun. Lilly kept herself busy growing and becoming inquisitive and proving pretty quickly that there weren’t no such thing as ‘child safe’ even in an age when man could live on Mars.
There was a few head of cattle to tend to. Yaks, thanks to some careful breeding and hormone treatments, could handle the Martian cold, and so anyone who could afford the land had a ranch with a head or two.
Back on Earth, Marty could have afforded a one bedroom apartment, maybe, and that was even with Caroline working to help pay the bills. Here, he had his own ranch with a house that had too many bedrooms for a single mother to tend. That’s why they made the move.
That’s why Marty was just as well owned by the Companies, and why Caroline had spent this last month alone with her baby who wouldn’t recognize her daddy’s face.
But anyhow, Caroline had Lilly and those yaks. They didn’t need much in the way of tending. She just made sure they’re feed was growing alright and that they were clean and sometimes she would talk to them because she kind of figured they liked the attention. When she’d trim them for their wool they’d be a world more cooperative about it if she talked to ’em real kind and maybe sing to ’em.
Just on that particular day, they were more restless than normal. She had Lilly strapped to her back like she always did when she had to go out. Her little angel looked so cute all bundled up with little baby goggles to protect her eyes from sand.
The yaks were near a water trough, shuffling in a tight group and just about groaning instead of their normal moos of greeting.
“Woah there, girls, what’s gotten into you?” Caroline moved in among the cattle, petting two of them along the flank. A third, a bull-yak with a protective streak, snorted air out in Caroline’s face and shuffled a little away from her. “I hope you all don’t need a vet, the lines into town have been down all week. You’d tell me if you were sick, right?”
She waited a minute like she expected they might answer. They didn’t and she blushed at herself.
She thought of rustlers and other things that might spook a yak and suddenly regretted strapping on the baby but not her rifle.
More tense because of the thinking, she looked across the empty ruddy landscape and muttered to the bull, “you’d tell me if something was out there, wouldn’t you boy?”
The bull just snorted and Caroline felt embarrassed again.
“Hell with it!” She quickly checked the water, which was fine, and hurried back to her house, trying to convince herself that she wasn’t spooked, and if she was spooked, it weren’t but nothing.
In another week’s time, she’d all but forgotten the incident. However, when she went on out to look in on the yaks, they were just as foul and snorting as they’d been before. Difference being, this time, she’d remembered the rifle and left Lilly in the house.
They’re feed was just fine as it oughta be, water too, so the mood made even less sense and put Caroline right on her edge again.
“I’m going to call the doctor you all, this is getting out of”“”
The yaks shorted and as a group, backed off from the trough and coincidently, Caroline.
Caroline turned her head because her eyes caught movement and told her neck to go before her mind could process.
There. Twenty meters off, maybe more, something dark, a shape, a thin awkward man rushing between dust clouds. He was there, he was gone, and so Caroline’s shot hit nothing but dust.
As her mind got a chance to catch up to it, and she processed it, she blushed again at herself. Of course there couldn’t be nobody out here, and if there was, there wasn’t no way they could be that tall, or that skinny, or move that fast, like so fast as a hover jet. It was bound to happen, she told herself, her own mind frighting her with illusions like them crazy people in deserts who think they see water. Mirage, she thought the word was. Only, her mirage was dumb. Who wanted to see giant rustlers out to steal cattle?
Was it only three weeks later? Had Marty really been gone two months or three? She’d look at the calender to tell herself, and then forget just as soon as she wasn’t looking at it anymore.
However she counted it though, after lunch and Lilly settled down for a nap, Caroline set herself down to have a good cry into Marty’s favorite coffee cup. He wasn’t sentimental, it was what she had.
Also, she had a kind of feeling like something was watching her, a feeling she pushed away until she could force the last of the really hard sobs out of her burning chest and breath a bit. She could hear her mother’s voice as they parted in the space port to leave Earth behind. “Don’t you lose him in that red sand. Don’t you lose him.”
Her father hadn’t come to see them off, neither did he write or appear in her mother’s message ’vids.
A dust storm started to holler outside the kitchen window and she got up to wash her face in the sink, looking out that window as she went.
Too fast, something moved past it.
‘Something’ being tall and black and like a man if a man could be pulled and stretched out like taffy.
Caroline did just exactly what any woman oughtta, she screamed and jerked away from the window. Then she did what any good frontier wife oughtta, and grabbed up her rifle and headed for the front door.
In a flurry of red sand that swirled up into her ankle-length skirt, she pulled the door in and stepped out onto the porch and traced the horizon with her rifle. “I know your out here, rustler! I saw you and I’m not gonna ask nice for you to get!”
She could hear the yaks howling and she started into a dead run in that direction, without even a coat, the chill Martian air bit her skin and lungs when she breathed it in. There, again, as she approached the feeding troughs, a dark something stood stock-still for a fleeting moment next to the bull-yak.
“You get away from my cattle!” She was a good shot when it was from the hip, and she didn’t have time but to twist her body at it and fire, aiming wouldn’t have given her any edge.
She thought she hit it. Shot like that should have hit and should have left a staggering body waitin’ to die.
Instead, the figure was once again gone and yaks, startled by a shot into their midsts stampeded off from the troughs. There was plenty of space, they’d run themselves out, so it didn’t even register as a thought.
Caroline was still trying to put together what she’d seen in the moment before she’d shot.
The thing had skin that wasn’t black like she’d first thought, but had a deep green iridescent sheen like a peacock feather from back home on Earth. It looked wet, though it couldn’t have been or the dust woulda stuck to it all over.
Even though she was sure that it was facing her, looking at her, she was sure it didn’t have no face.
She tried to tell herself it was just a tall skinny man in a leather suit.
Then she heard the sound of breaking glass and Lilly screaming. Not many things in the known universe move faster than a mother afraid for her young.
Something moved from the back of the house, near the baby’s room, but getting to the baby was paramount, and she couldn’t be sure it was anything since the dust had kicked up so hard.
When she got back into the house, choking and shaking, Lilly was sitting up in her crib crying and rubbing at the dust in her face. The window near her cradle had broken, letting the storm in. The window had broken out.
Caroline grabbed her little baby up into her arms and locked them both into the bathroom for a few hours.
It was about six in the AM when Caroline woke up stiff on the bathroom floor, Lilly tucked up next to her and mouthing like she was nursing, blissfully oblivious to the whole of the world.
Careful, she moved sleeping-Lilly into her room and tried the line into town. The way things were supposed to work, she had an emergency line to the sheriff like all the other frontier households, and someone would be out on a speeder in ten minutes while a call was sent to the mines to bring Marty home.
Of course, the line was down, and Caroline had heard tell from some of the other miner’s wives that the foreman and his men didn’t always let that emergency call go through. Sally Green had her baby, died, and Harold didn’t know till the end of his shift near three months later.
Sitting down next to Lilly on the bed, rifle across her lap, she hung up and tried the line about six more times. A line she didn’t figure on ever needing, anyhow.
Her girl’d be asleep at least another three hours, and she had to tend to that broken window. She stepped out into the hall, took up an old sheet and headed into the room to see to the damage.
She’d gotten the sheet tacked up when a series of sounds made her go white and run to her bedroom. First, Lilly was crying like she knew a half second before there was gonna be something awful on the back of the wind.
A half heart beat later, screams twisted in the air, locust-like sounds that all but overcame the yak’s cries. She hadn’t ever heard yaks scream like that, but there wasn’t anything else it could be. Screams like those poor animals were been skinned just where they stood faster’n they could die. All while the chorus of locust-like sounds pitched and undulated as if it had something to do with the Martian wind.
She had to get out to the cattle.
She couldn’t leave Lilly alone.
By the sounds though, by the time she’d gotten the baby even half bundled it’d already be too late.
Choice made, she grabbed up her weeping daughter and tried to block out the terrible sounds.
By lunch time, with no appetite at all, and there weren’t any new noises from the range.
By two, she’d decided she had to know for sure. Had to see and tell herself all wasn’t what it seemed, or if it was, she wasn’t imagining it. Lilly wrapped and double wrapped, rife cleaned and loaded, she headed out to the corral. Ten feet away, the iron smell in air was corrupted by something more ruddy, you couldn’t tell by the soil, but blood had been spilled.
There weren’t much left of the carcases where she’d found all three, which was just as well. She had the brief idea of burning them on account of disease, but she wasn’t sure if there was enough of ’em left to even go up.
She’d liked those yaks.
Now it really was just her and Lilly.
Back in the house, she found the emergency line was sort of working and she transmitted out that she needed help. It sounded to her like about half the message got through, and she just hoped it was enough. She’d know in ten minutes though, right? After all, ten minutes by speeder, that as the arrangement.
Fifteen minutes passed, another twenty after them. Hours crawled along and Caroline decided she wasn’t hearing from the sheriff. She’d try again tomorrow, she told herself, things would be better tomorrow. She just had to get through tonight.
Three AM rolled up and Caroline lay in the dark staring at the ceiling. She hadn’t gotten undressed to sleep, favoring instead to redress and sleep in her husband’s pants and shirt with her boots on, ready.
She got up finally at quarter after and satisfied her childish concern by throwing open her closet door to prove to herself there weren’t nothing in it. She blushed, and paced while waiting for her heart to finish pounding so she could lay back down.
Only, her heart skipped when she thought heard a sound from the kitchen.
She’d check it out, it wasn’t anything, but she’d go check it out real fast to put herself at ease so she could sleep.
Closing her bedroom door shut behind her, she crept down the hall, the poly-boards they used in Martian houses never warped like wood, so she could be sure there was no squeaky spots to avoid, or creaking doors between her and the kitchen.
The hall opened into a sitting room before she could get into that kitchen, and while it appeared empty, the door of the refrigerator hung open, spilling dingy yellow light into the sitting room in a long slice that illuminated broken eggs on the floor.
The eggs hadn’t jumped out of the appliance on their own, and so she lifted the rifle to scan the sitting room with its barrel.
Only, the barrel stuck out from her for about two or three feet.
What was standing in front of her, now, out of no where, was closer than the business end of her firearm.
She’d been wrong to say it had no face as she slowly lifted her eyes and it craned its head down. The face just hadn’t registered from a distance as it was so streamline in the iridescent green leather skin, slits for breathing, maybe a mouth, liquid green all one color eyes with a second blinking membrane like on a frog. Nictitating, or something, she’d heard the word but didn’t want to remember it now.
It looked all angles and sharp, two or more feet above her with arms longer than her own. If it had an expression of fear or surprise or rage, she’d never have been able to tell in its streamline face.
What she did know, or think that she knew, was that it was ancient, a face that had seen the passing of millennial or more. The weight of age and otherness that wafted off of its blank expression made her feel like she needed to sit down, or lay down and be still under it.
As her eyes went wide with that recognition, its head tilted somewhat to the side, and a softer, but still terrible locust-sound fluttered out from a mouth slit. That sound was primordial, older than the red earth and made her blood ice.
Instead of killing her, it lifted a leathery hand, long fingers with too many joints, towards her face and she held her breath.
From down the hall, she thought she could hear Lilly stir and she prayed the girl didn’t wake and draw attention. Prayers that were immediately rejected as the baby shrieked out afraid of being alone in the dark in an unfamiliar place.
The thing, the ancient thing before her bugged its liquid eyes and was gone just as fast as it had appeared in front of her, the door to the house thrown open and hitting against the wall behind it the only indication of which direction the creature had gone.
She stood numb, Caroline did, for a good few minutes before she could remember what part of her body was used for walking. Lilly’s cries for attention became the final motivator. It turned out just to be a matter of a soiled diaper, and being in the kind of shock Caroline was in, she solve the problem without putting much thought to it.
Not too much later she tended to the door and windows. The kitchen table and chairs, made of the same poly-board in rustic fashion served as makeshift boards to nail over any portal into the house. Besides, taking an ax to that and most of the rest of the furniture in the house was somehow freeing.
She saw the ancient things two more times in the nights that followed. Once it was a passing face in the window of the kitchen, great dark bulging eyes peering deeply at her from between slats in the boards nailed across it. Once later, she saw its whole figure standing near the door, its shadow cast through slats watching her as she held her baby close. Neither time did it approach, no was it too shy to stand there and watch until she went somewhere else.
Several times she heard its horrible locust-like sounds high and shrill on the back of the wind when a sand storm had picked up. The sound made Lilly cry.
She’d heard stories of miner’s wives snapping in the emptiness of their lives. She had no real evidence of what she saw except for the broken eggs in the kitchen, which when she cleaned up, left nothing. There’d been the Yak bodies, but that could have been some queer rustlers meaning to terrorize the locals. There were a million things that could explain away what she thought she saw.
That’s why she didn’t explain anything when Marty came home. She didn’t tell him why he found her cocooned in the house, eating just enough of the supplies to keep her breast milk going for Lilly, and nothing more. She didn’t explain how the yaks got killed. She just told him she was going back to Earth, she was taking Lilly, and if he was smart, he’d do likewise.
Marty didn’t argue. He didn’t even make her parents pay for the ticket when he saw the look in her eyes and the changes in her face.
When she did reach home and her mother finally got up the courage to ask her what had happened, she simply explained; “I lost him up in those red sands, ma’ma.”
Other works by Filamena Young
- No Child of Mine (Nov 15, 2009)