Classic stories of the West seem to revel in the vast spaces and the wide open vistas; the very isolation that living on the frontier must bring with it. Filamena Young returns to Mars in a follow-up story to “Mars Ain’t No Place for Ladies”. — ed, N.E. Lilly
“I said ‘get’ and go on out.” Geraldine told her unwanted intruder.
Terry, a young wife from the homestead down the road stood looking slack-jawed as Geraldine shuffled her slowly back into the red sands and cold winds of the Martian landscape.
“And you can tell that son of mine, if he wanted to check up on me, he could do so his own damn self.” That wouldn’t happen, of course. The Companies had their contracts with the miners. Six months on, six months off. All in all, it was a fine deal for the miners. The wives tended to be less convinced.
Geraldine wasn’t a wife. No, she was pushing seventy, and had long ago lost her husband—God rest his soul—to one of the Earth pandemics ten years ago. Geraldine hadn’t planned to retire to Mars, she hadn’t come for a better life and a chance to get off of the over populated Earth. No, she’d come because her baby son, her smallest child, had begged her to join him on his homestead.
“I’m no good with housework, you know that mom. Besides, I ain’t gonna be able to attract a woman on my own. It isn’t like you ever get to see your grandbabies on Earth. They all live too far away. You come up here and help me find a woman and you can have all the grandbabies you want.”
One grandbaby would have sufficed. Instead of grandbabies, old Geraldine Lewis sat in her rocking chair, saying her rosary along with a ’vid of her priest back on Earth praying for the sounds of children playing and waited for Maury to come home from his six months in the mines.
Terry and some of the other young wives came by to check in, but she couldn’t truck with their skinny legs and helpful smiles. Plus, Geraldine was losing her sight for real and there wasn’t any way she’d have a moment’s peace if Maury found out about that.
No. Better to keep ’em out and wait for Maury’s six months to come up.
Still, it got lonely, like you’d have to imagine, and the way wind howled against the windows made Geraldine cold on the inside. “Can’t break the windows.” She told the wind. One of those howls started up just as soon as Terry took off on her speeder. “They ain’t glass anyhow, just that new plastic. They won’t break just on account of the wind.”
She pulled her shawl up tighter around her and turned up the volume on the ’vid, and silently rebuked herself for talking with no one around. Maybe when she’d been younger and her husband was still alive, talking to herself from time to time was an alright thing, but now it was a sign of senility. Just another one of those damn double standards where the young could do a thing the old couldn’t.
That god-awful wind persisted, and against reason, Geraldine pushed herself to her feet and trudged to the door to look out the fine plastic-glass panels along the side. When she moved the curtain there aside, all she could see was the swirl of red sands dancing with itself on the back of the wind. “Wouldn’t take two hours out there.” She said to herself. “Wouldn’t take two hours out there and that sand and cold would mummify me.”
Not so much a horror she could see, since she really couldn’t see anymore, Geraldine’s fancy went off to vaguely remembered pictures of Mars and ’vids of the wilds out there since terraforming hadn’t really taken the way they’d hoped. Her fancy superimposed in her fuzzy image the twisting puffs of sand, colored red with iron just like blood was. She didn’t see the dark spot in that twisting wind as it sped towards Maury’s little homestead.
She heard gun shots in the distance though. Large caliber rifles. Someone chasing someone else off.
Then she heard another sound, a sound like a thousand tea kettles all with different pitches, whistles at the same time. That did the job of making her colder than the winds could have if they wanted too, and she let go of the window shade and stumbled, then tripped, away from the door.
The horrible wailing went on Geraldine fought against legs too weak and aged in order to get back to her feet. She’d heard that bats her age would shatter hips at the merest touch. Not she. No, not from one stumble while something making noises that terrible seemed to be coming to her door.
Well intact, if aching with a newly forming bruise, Geraldine did finally pull herself up by a chair and took up a cane she loathed to use. On her feet, it occurred to her just how silly her response had been. Screaming tea kettle monsters—indeed.
No, what she likely heard was some kind of speeder. She’d heard highwaymen and the kinds of trouble they were causing the homesteaders. It was likely that and nothing else.
And if it was that, she was in some very real trouble. A rifle ain’t no good if you can’t see to use it.
A shot gun was another story, however. With that in mind, Geraldine carried herself to Maury’s gun cabinet and felt her way through. She didn’t have much practice, nor was she any kind of natural shot. Luckily, with a shotgun, all she needed to do was point it in a direction and hope the arthritis didn’t stop her from pulling the trigger.
She imagined she painted a pathetic image, a bent and crooked old crone hugging a shot gun to her chest while one shaking arm supported her weight on a cane. She thought of her youth, she’d been a thing to look at once, she’d had children to hold to her instead of shotguns and fantasy.
She missed Maury.
That was when the horrible din started up again, closer now then it was before and growing closer. She envied the eyes of the young wives, as well as their legs, and hobbled with the weapon to her rocking chair. This she pointed towards the door and sat down, rocking slowly and waiting.
It didn’t take no long suffering time for something to happen. Geraldine had barely gotten all through the Lord’s Prayer when the door splintered open with a startling force behind it. Her ears told her, her eyes said only that the shape at the door was gone now and something dark sped past the door and down the hall in the direction of where she sat.
It, what ever it was, stopped in front of her.
“Reckon if your here to rob me, you’re likely to get yourself shot first.” Geraldine told the shape. At her age, she had no fear of death. It was no longer a thing unfamiliar to her.
It did not answer in any words she understood. Rather, it made a soft hissing noise—a noise that sounded a lot like pain. Then, this tall thin dark shape shot off in the direction of the basement door. There, she thought, it would be trapped since they had no cellar doors. Also, she thought about it, standing up, she thought she smelled something a lot like blood in the air. Blood, but different.
The trip to the basement stairs was exhausting enough that she decided not to follow the shape down in. Instead, she leaned on the door jam and called down. “I ain’t gonna shoot the injured. No use you bleeding to death in my son’s basement. Ain’t no way he’ll get a woman to come marry him if he’s got a haunted basement. Why don’t you come on up here?”
There was no answer beside from the huffing sound the figure made when it breathed. It couldn’t have been more than a few steps down.
“What?” she asked in a huff. “You don’t speak American or something? Don’t right know what the hell other language they brought up to these colonies but maybe some Spanish. Hablo Americano?” Her accent was, of course, insulting, but she didn’t know.
What answered was a significantly softer version of the hissing she’d heard on the back of the red wind earlier. Pitiful, and she had just enough pathos left in her old bones to detect pain.
“You’re hurt bad.”
“You just, you just stay there.” She said after a moment thinking. With that she stood up and went to the kitchen and found the box of sweets she’d hidden in a cabinet. Maury thought she shouldn’t have sweets. She thought it was none of his business.
“Now look.” She told the breathing sound down the basement stairs. “I know you’re hurt, sounds like you’re probably afraid too. I reckon though if you wanted to hurt me I’d already be done fer. Gun or no gun. So,” she sat on the top step and opened the box, speaking just as soothingly as she could, like she did when Maury was just a little guy. “So why don’t you have a chocolate and we can do what we can for what ever is hurting on you.”
It stopped breathing, and that silence stretched out longer than Geraldine could take. “Son? Really, I don’t mean no harm.”
She didn’t hear it breathing again until it was almost on top of her, hovering over her. It was tall and from what she could see awful thin with arms just a little too long to be alright. It looked as if it were wearing some kind of skin tight leather suit. It smelled a bit like wet iron, like blood. The box of sweets in her hand rattled, she couldn’t follow the movement of the figure’s hand as it darted into and out of the box with a piece of chocolate.
It made another pathetic whistling noise.
“There, now, see here? How we’re all safe and sound? I don’t see good no more, but why don’t you let me see what’s bleeding. You know what blood is? Owie?” Maybe her tone crossed the language barrier, or maybe it understood her, but she found the figure setting its wrist into her outstretched hands. Her eyes were just too bad to notice it had a few extra joints in its fingers. Up along its super thin arm she could dimly see the leather parted and red blood oozed out a bit. It wasn’t a bad wound, it just must of felt like it, and she took a handkerchief which she wrapped around its arm and bound it tight. The thing flinched when she tightened the knot and all but pulled away.
“It’s alright.” She soothed. “Geraldine ain’t gonna hurt you. Just like a great big space baby, aren’t you? Now, I’m sure that hurt, but it was just a little bit of shot, I’ve seen much worse. We’ll keep it clean and you’ll be just fine. So, comer, I’ll sing you a lullaby like I did for Maury when he was a little man.” Geraldine held her arms out in an open and inviting fashion. She was lonely enough, she decided before the stranger came to her, lonely enough that it didn’t matter to her who it was, so long as it was here and so long as it didn’t have pretty legs and think less of her just on account of her age.
The figure settled its weight down into that open gesture, much to her surprise, and even set a head on her shoulder.
“Ain’t that better?” She wrapped her arms around the thing carefully and started to sing something low and sweet and meant to sooth a sad child.
She never saw for sure the monster that rested in her arms. The shimmering iridescence of its oil slick green skin, nor its liquid black narrow eyes. She couldn’t see the spikes that extended back from its almost featureless face. She didn’t know what she held in her arms and comforted, and if anyone had told her, she just wouldn’t have believed them.
When some time had past, these things are difficult to gauge when the weight of suffering rests in your arms, and the sharp copper smell had all but left the room. The stranger was breathing more evenly, and once or twice she heard a trill sigh that sounded off, but peaceful after a fashion.
That peace broke with a pound on the door and Geraldine’s old heart skipped in her chest so hard she all but figured it might not start back up.
“Mrs. Lewis? Mrs. Lewis? Are you alright in there?” The pounding continued and she knew they wouldn’t let her alone, not with the panic in their words.
“Go and hide,” she whispered and pointed down the basement stairs and prayed for understanding. The stranger hissed softly and moved away from her. With all the creaking and groaning that went along with it, Geraldine got to her feet and shuffled slowly to the door calling out, “I’m here, what’s all this noise?”
To her surprise, the men at the door, tall and armed by the fuzzy outlines of them she could make out, had already pushed their way in. “Sorry for the trouble, ma’am. We come after a—” the lead man hesitaited with his words and maybe played with his hat, “—poacher we think came this way. Wouldn’t have barged in, but this one’s squirrelly.”
“Did something to the yaks,” said another man. “Something bad.”
“I think I hit him, so he might be desperate,” said the lead man, likely the sheriff the way he talked.
Geraldine scowled and tried to justify what she was hearing with the shivering stranger in her basement. She couldn’t and so she said; “no one like that has come through here, fellas, so why don’t you push on.”
“We’d love to ma’am. Hate to interrupt your afternoon and all, but just in case he’s in here and you don’t know about it, I’m afraid we’re gonna have to have a look around.”
It would have given away too much if she argued, so she just shuffled to the side while the men went about searching her house from attic to basement. She held her breath and sat down on the hallway steps, waiting for shouts or gun shots and screams.
When someone from the basement shouted, “ain’t down here,” Geraldine started breathing regular again.
“Well,” the man in charge told her as the posse headed for her front door, “looks like you was right. Tell you though, he might still be out there, so you watch out and lock this door after us.”
“Any word if any of the boys from this shift at the mine heading home anytime soon?”
“I wouldn’t know about that, ma’am. Lock this door.”
The screams of the wind swallowed the posse back up as soon as they were out the door, which Geraldine did in fact lock after. In the moments that followed she realized just how much she missed the sound of someone else breathing in the house with her.
She felt weaker now, tired beyond reason when she dragged her bones to the basement stairs.
“Hello?” She called down into the gloom she couldn’t see into even with the lights on. The open black mouth of a door way gave her no answer. “Hello, son, are you down there?” Again she heard nothing and knew there was nothing down there to lure to her with chocolates or the promise of love and comfort. The injured thing, hearing its pursuers must have left the basement by the storm doors.
“Ain’t no kind of child they can’t take away from me!” Trembling, she sank to her rear on floor weeping. “Damn them, damn them to feel like I do.” The vague curse filled the air, but was answered by the same thoughtless quiet.
Other works by Filamena Young
- Mars Ain’t No Place For Ladies (Dec 23, 2007)