Little Pink Mammals by Zachary Ashford
“What is it?”
Jamal crouched to one side of the rushing water, gently poking at something with a twig. With the rain pelting down in its relentless fury, he shrugged. “Some sort of baby animal.” He wiped his hair out of his eyes. “What should we do with it?”
Completely hairless except for black fuzz around mouse-like ears, it wriggled like a worm on a hook. “It’s lucky it’s so wet. The ants would be all over it otherwise.” Chris pointed to the ant-nest the boys stirred up on dry summer days.
“What the fuck are you guys doing?” Dom, still pretending to be tied to the execution sticka street-sign post now devoid of its signwas never the most patient of people.
“Come look,” Jamal called back to him.
He ran the short distance across to his two friends. “Just kill it.” He prodded it with a finger. “It’s gonna die anyway.”
“What if its mum is looking for it?” Chris asked.
Jamal looked at Chris. “Dude. It’s not gonna last that long.” A crow cawed from the power-lines on the other side of the stream. “Its mum ain’t coming. It probably got eaten by something else already.”
Chris waved a hand dismissively. “I don’t think we should interfere with nature. What if there’s like a miracle or something.”
“No, we’ll just be hurrying nature along. It’s the right thing to do.”
“Well I ain’t doing it. It’s fucked.” Chris sat on a rock and rested his head in his arms.
Jamal gestured at the prone little mammal, pink and vulnerable in its helpless struggle against the whims of the three boys who may as well be giants they were so incomprehensible to it. “Dom, d’you wanna put this thing out of its misery?”
“No way. Ain’t my job.” The curly-haired joker balled up a handful of wet mud. “I just wanna get back to the game. Won’t get too many more opportunities to race before the storms are gone for the year.”
“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” Jamal said. “We’re gonna put it on that rock Chris is sitting on and we’re gonna race through the pipes like usual. Only difference is this time, the loser ain’t going to the execution stick.”
“Yes, Chris. The loser’s gotta do the deed. It’s only fair.” He pinned Chris with his eyes. There was nothing malicious in them. There never was. Instead, there was a world of compassion. There were no secrets between the two boys and Chris knew Jamal understood why he was so against it. Jamal picked the abandoned creature up and carried it to the flat rock, even stroking it gingerly. Its eyes were closed and none of them knew whether that was because it was too young to open them or whether it had just been away from its mother too long. The crow on the powerline watched with an alabaster eye and cawed and cawed and cawed. Once Jamal had rested it sympathetically on the flat plane of the rock, the boys walked to the starting point of their race on the other side of the three huge storm drains. Not one of them said a word.
“Are we doing the count?” Dom asked. It was one of the few times the others had seen him solemn.
“Those are the rules.” Jamal pivoted his body board awkwardly.
Chris felt the cool water from the lake’s overflow pressing against his ankles as he stood on the ledge looking into the tunnel his storm drain presented. “You ready?”
Jamal nodded. So did Dom. “One, two…” Chris chanted, banging a flat hand against the concrete storm drain. The other boys joined the chorus.
“…and a big fuck you to the last one who makes it through!”
Chris launched his board with all the power his sixteen-year-old legs could muster and dove into the water sweeping through the tunnel. As he approached the end, he saw the other two boys burst across the grid and speed down into the creek. The task would be his alone.
Jamal held a hand out to him as he climbed out of the water and Dom patted him on the shoulder. He fought back a tear and refused to ask for best of three. They all knew the rules.
The pink thing was still prone where they left it. The crow hadn’t taken its chance to swoop in and steal the prize away. “I feel like we should say a prayer or something,” Chris said, holding a large rock in his hands, “but I don’t know any. Instead I’m just gonna say what they do in the movies.” He hefted the rock above his head. “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Amen.” He waited for the others to repeat the ‘amen’ and brought the rock down, crushing the tiny thing’s head with one savage blow. It didn’t twitch or spasm. It just died.
When he arrived home, Chris went straight upstairs to shower and wash the mud and rain away. The guilt would stay with him a while longer, but at least he could get warm and clean. He towelled off and when he was done dressing himself, he was surprised to see his nan standing this side of the closed doorway in his room, staring at him with red-rimmed eyes. Her long bleached blonde hair was pulled back in a rough ponytail and the dark roots were visible above her forehead, contrasted her pale skin. “Geez, Nan, knock will you? You almost caught me getting changed.”
As he said it, his dad’s familiar knock pounded on the door. “Chris, get your shoes on. Your nan’s in hospital.”
“What? She’s…” His nan was gone. Where she’d stood there was only empty space. What the fuck? He swung the door open. “She was just here.”
“Now’s not the time. Get in the car.”
While the doctor spoke to Chris’s dad, John, Chris sat on the ergonomic plastic seat of the hospital foyer. Nan wasn’t even in a room of her own. Clearly beyond hope, she had been triaged off to one of the curtained areas near an information desk and waiting room.
His dad explained Chris’s story away by saying it was his subconscious. “I was calling you even while you were in the shower,” his dad said on the way into the hospital. “If you saw her, it’s because you heard me, even if you didn’t comprehend it at the time. You picked up on it and your brain manifested it.” Even if that was true, it didn’t explain the fact Nan was wearing the same thing he’d seen her in then as she was now: A casual blue summer dress. Her hair was pulled back in the same pony tail. He’d have mentioned it if his dad wasn’t preoccupied.
“…Yes, it’s a fair question, Mister Boyle, but although none of us can ever discount the idea of miracles, I have to tell you that in my thirteen years, I’ve never seen a brain pattern as diffuse as your mother’s.” It seemed obvious to Chris that the ventilator and all the other trimmings were a token gesture. The doctor, as compassionate and professional as he was, could do nothing for Nan. In all fairness, it was probably too late before she even arrived. She was no better off than the little pink mammal he’d put out of its misery earlier in the day.
“And if she somehow pulls through?”
For a moment, Chris thought the doctor’s face was about to reveal some raw emotion. “If you’re asking what quality of life she would have, it’s impossible to predict, but with a brain pattern like this,” he tilted the clipboard and x-rays forward, revealing a brain swimming in dark shadows, “she would require around-the-clock care.”
Chris would never forget the way his father looked at him then. In a strange way, it was remarkably similar to the look Jamal had shared with him at the creek. It said, Yes, Son, this is what it looks like, but we’re going to do the right thing here. Your mother, well she suffered, she suffered long and she suffered hard because she kept clinging to life, but your nan, my mother, she’s peaceful and she’s at rest and there’s nothing they can do. It’s time to say goodbye.
Chris held his breath and balled his fists into his eyes. He tried to be somewhere else, but the only place his mind would take him was that flat rock by the overflow. He was there and his father said, “I’m sorry, Chris.” The boy couldn’t help but picture his father holding a heavy rock high above his head. “Turn them off,” John said. “Let her go.” The rock came down.
Tears pouring out of his eyes like the rainwater cascading out of the lake’s overflow, Chris stood next to his dad as the doctors disconnected the machines. He held his nan’s hand and he cried and cried and cried. They stood beside her bed as the machines were disconnected and her breaths became wheezing rasps. The doctor wiped a leaking trickle of pink saliva from the side of her mouth and a few moments later, he nodded sympathetically to them both. “She’s gone.”
Sleeping restlessly, Chris felt a weight press down on his mattress. Head heavy from crying, he’d at first thought the dog was sneaking up onto the bed. Then he’d felt a hand rest gently on his calf. When he opened his eyes to see who could possibly be in his room his spine grew cold at the base of his neck. Nan, surrounded by a strange blue aura, was there. That same regrowth marred the roots of her hair and she watched him with eyes that were wells of infinite regret. He sat up, ignoring the pounding of his heart. “Nan?” he said, waiting for her to freak out like ghosts do in the movies, expecting her to scream in his face or to rot and disintegrate before his eyes, but she didn’t move. She just stared, her lips quivering, and reached a cold hand out to his face.
Shaking like a crying baby, he raised his own hand, not wanting her to touch his bare skin. At the hospital, he’d kissed her forehead while she lay in death’s repose like a woman in an open casket. It had been like kissing a cold stone covered in a thin veneer of vinyl. He could still feel that texture on his lips and seeing her hand come towards his face was more than he could bear. He closed his hands around her frigid fingers. Don’t, don’t, don’t. The touch didn’t come. When he opened his eyes to see if she was still there, she had faded into nothingness.
“I wouldn’t worry about it, dude. Your brain does fucked-up shit when you’re grieving. It’s probably just that.” Jamal turned on the PlayStation and passed Chris a controller. “You wanna be player one?”
Chris took the controller and scrolled through the characters available, looking for members of the X-Force team. “Hey, thanks for coming ’round today. You’re a good dude.”
Jamal selected his character. “Don’t thank me. You’d do the same for me. At least you would if I had a nan.” He checked his watch. “Plus, we’ve got time for a few games before my last driving lesson. Come Wednesday, I’ll be driving us to school.” He held his hand up for a high five, and Chris dutifully tagged it.
“Trust me, though. I know grief. When Mum died this didn’t happen.” Tears threatened to surge over the levy, but he held onto it. “I feel like she’s trying to tell me something.” He thought of her hand reaching out and the sadness in her eyes. “She’s not coming to hurt me.”
“Who’s not coming to hurt you?” John had emerged from the hallway. He had two empty longnecks in his hands. Shirtless, his tattoos were on show. On one arm, a crucifix with a classic catholic Jesus nailed to it, and on the other, the virgin Mary held her hands in clasped prayer.
“Nan. I saw her again last night.”
His dad sat the empty beer bottles on the table. “Chris, you’ve been through a lot for a kid your age and we all have different coping mechanisms. If this is what’s working for you, I get it. You need to know that it’s not really your nan, though. It’s just your brain. Your subconscious.” John wrapped an arm around his son. “We’re going over to her house later. There’s lots to sort out after someone dies. Maybe you’ll get some closure there.”
There was no point arguing. Chris knew what he’d seen, but he’d learned after Mum’s death that Dad didn’t want to mope around. Keeping himself busy was his coping mechanism and if that meant Dad didn’t want to grieve until the funeral, who was Chris to argue?
Chris had always been impressed by the shillelagh hanging on the wall. Its club head supported by two nails, it had long been his favourite thing about Nan’s house, and while this one was little more than paraphernalia, he’d been told they were a traditional weapon. That had appealed to him as a young boy and it still appealed to him now. Despite that, it wasn’t the shillelagh that held his attention today. While his dad rifled through papers in the small filing cabinet Nan kept by her computer, he was supposed to be putting the small trinkets Nan had littered all over her shelves and the family photos she had plastered across her walls into boxes. Amongst the framed photos, one watercolour painting in particular had caught his attention. In it, a familiar-looking old woman leant forward in her armchair, knitting needles resting in her lap and a look of shocked horror crawling across her terrified face. If you followed her gaze, an even older woman pressed her hands against a window. Her hair blew to the side as if some wind whipped it wildly. This older woman’s mouth was open in what appeared to be a dreadful scream. He plucked it off the wall and turned to call his father.
Nan was sitting in her chair, once again staring at him. This time, she pushed herself to her feet and walked towards him, her eyes never leaving his. With the corner alcove behind him, there was nowhere for him to run. If he wanted to get away, he’d have to go past her, and while he didn’t think she was here to hurt him, it took everything he had not to piss himself at her approach. She strode closer and closer, taking a step and then another and another until, finally, she was within touching distance. But even then, she didn’t stop. Didn’t reach a hand out towards him either. She kept moving forward until her nose was only the width of a hair away from his…
She screamed louder than he’d ever heard anyone scream in his life. He felt cold air, stinking of the grave, rush against his face and he slumped back against the wall where he slid to the floor just as his old man came around the corner.
“How you going with clearing that... Shit, boy. You okay?” He rushed over to the crying boy and took the painting out of his hands. He ran a hand over it and sighed. “Never noticed this one before, huh?”
Chris shook his head. He’d noticed that there was a painting there, but he’d never paid attention to it in the past. Not that it mattered. How could he tell his dad what had just happened?
“You know what this is supposed to be?” He tapped the ghostly woman in the window. “Your great nan—my nan—she thought a banshee came to her on the night her sister died. Told the story all the time. Told anyone who’d listen.” John held the picture up and examined it. “A banshee’s like a spirit that screams right before someone you love…”
“I know what a banshee is.” Chris crossed his arms. “Why’d you believe her and not me?”
His father smiled at him sympathetically. “You think I believed her?” John sighed. “She might have believed it, and if it helped her cope then whatever, but we always knew it was just the folklore of an old woman. These things aren’t real, Chris.”
Finally, the day of the funeral came. Afterwards, back at home, Chris sat with his father and Jamal at the kitchen table. John, who was several beers down, had been quiet since they’d left the crematorium, but he eventually spoke when Jamal rested tickets to a local gig on the table. “You know I’d want you to make the same decision for me, Chris.”
“Sorry, what decision?”
John’s morose eyes met his son’s. “To say enough’s enough.” He swigged from his longneck. “What we went through with your mother, you should never have to do that again. If I’m ever sick the way your nan was, or if, God forbid, sick the way your mother was, I don’t want you to prolong it.”
Chris couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Mum wanted to live, Dad. She wanted to beat it.”
“I know. And for a while there, I thought she might, but I couldn’t bear to suffer like she did. She was a tough woman. A tough, tough woman.” He upended the beer and drained it. “I’m going to get some sleep, boys. You enjoy your concert. Remember I love you.” As he walked down the hallway towards his bedroom, Chris watched him walk right past Nan like she wasn’t there.
A lonely tear rolled down her eye.
“A fucking what?”
“A banshee,” Chris said. “It’s like this spirit that warns you someone’s gonna die.” He held out his hand. “That’s why you’re going to give me your keys and I’m going to drive. You’re pissed.”
Jamal gestured at Dom for support. None was forthcoming. “You don’t even have your licence and you’re fucking pissed, too.”
Chris considered this for a moment. “Nah, I’m tipsy. I’ve only had two or three beers. You’re sloshed and you’re not driving.” He wiggled his fingers. Give me the keys. C’mon. “Tell him, Dom.”
“I think he’s right this time, dude.”
Once they were all in the car, Chris dropped the clutch and fishtailed the vehicle out onto the road. Jamal, who was riding shotgun, queued up a song on the CD player. Dom unclipped his seatbelt and leaned through the gap between the driver’s and passenger’s seats to high-five Jamal. Chris craned his neck. “Put on your fucking seatbelt.” And then the car ploughed into a traffic light.
From his position in the driver’s seat, Chris heard the horrible cacophony of death’s orchestra in scintillating detail. Dom flew forward and the windscreen shattered as the inertia took him through it. His head was the narrow point of pressure that made the first connection with the glass and it pushed down into his chest with a percussive crumpling sound that accompanied the popping of his vertebrae. As he died, he made a strange little noise for just a split-second before he was thrown out of the vehicle like projectile vomit. Blood stained the road where he skidded across the tarmac.
The momentum of the car prevented it from lurching to a crumpling stop; it smashed the traffic light out of the ground and they careened over it. The steering was shot, the airbag was inflated and Chris was powerless as the passenger side of the car crunched into the concrete barrier gilding the roadwork zone. The car folded inward as it flipped and rolled. Chris’s bones broke like eggshells, but Jamal’s head slammed into the window, and as the car finally stopped rolling, a star-picket, planted firmly in the ground to hold up hi-visibility netting, punched through the door and impaled him. The vehicle rested on its side and Chris looked at Jamal with the panicked eyes of a wounded mammal. He knew instantly that although his own bones were broken, he was nowhere near as badly hurt as Jamal was. When he looked at him, all he could see was a little baby, a tiny pink and hairless mammal that couldn’t even open its eyes.
Jamal shivered and he tried to say something.
Blood seeped from his mouth instead of words, but Chris knew what it was his friend had tried to say. Chris, kill me. Kill me. He would never hear his name without hearing that bloody gurgle again. He knew Jamal would die and he could hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles in the distance, but it was too late. Dom was already dead. Jamal would join him soon.
The gurgling moan sounded again. Jamal flapped his mouth like a fish ripped from the water only to suffocate on land. “Kill me,” he gurgled. “Kill me.”
As Chris moaned in despair, he saw his nan standing outside the car, her eyes alive with horror. She had tried to warn him. She had tried to warn him and he had gotten it all wrong. He had gotten it all wrong and he had killed his friends.
Jamal begged him again to kill him, to end his suffering, but all he could think was I already have. I already have. He pictured himself lying Jamal on a flat stone below a cawing crow. He pictured himself raising a hefty rock above his head. He pictured himself smashing his friend’s head to paste.
His nan still stood outside the car, crouching as if to look through the shattered windows and as the wash of the red and blue lights engulfed the vehicle, his screams dovetailed with hers. They were in turn drowned out by the deafening sirens, and all he could think about was his mother’s choice to suffer, the choice given to his father and the way that tiny pink mammal he had killed in the rain a few days ago had no choice at all. If the boys had not acted, it would have been the crow, that ancient symbol of death that took it. He stared at his dying friend, another tiny pink mammal, and knew that this time he would wait for that crow to take its prize.
Zachary Ashford's debut novella, Sole Survivor - a drop bear survival horror - is out on March 26 through Unnerving Magazine's Rewind or Die series. His Short Sharp Shocks! The Encampment by the Gorge is available now on Amazon. When he's not teaching, writing or listening to metal, he's watching bad horror films with his fiancee and wondering whether it's time for a cheeky beer. Some of his previous work has been published in Dark Moon Digest, Kyanite Press, the Elements of Horror: Earth anthology, and Trickster's Treats 3.