What Big Teeth – Rose Szabo

Somewhere in the night forest, the boy is running. I cannot smell him, like my sister Luma and our cousin Rhys can, his sweat and his fear. But I can hear him, as well as the creak of branches, the rustle of the leaves that stir underfoot. He’s moving from the birch stands onto the pine needles. I can hear the pounding of his blood, the frustrated sob he tries to keep in his mouth as his legs struggle on the unfamiliar ground. Our other cousin Charlie is here too, clattering through the streambed below on new shoes. He’s clumsy and young, but he has other talents. So do Rhys and Luma, who changed as soon as we left the house and now run on all fours, so silent that even my ears can’t pick them up. I left my shoes on the porch, and my bare feet are whispers on the pine needles, but I’m sure that they can hear my heart beating wild excitement. It’s spring dusk. A thin crescent moon slices upward through the sky. The boy bursts out into a clearing, full of tall grass and the burrows of small animals. This is the choke point. The boy puts his foot in a rabbit hole and falls. I glance past him, across the clearing, until I spot a pair of luminescent eyes.

Rhys tilts his head up and rumbles. Now. We all converge at once: Rhys from the right, me from the left, and Luma pounces from behind with both forepaws. The boy goes sprawling onto his stomach under her weight, rolling as we let him get up, scrabbling through the wet grass and trying to get his feet under him again. Charlie stumbles out of the dark and plants his hands on his knees, wheezing a little. The boy crawls for Charlie. He is saying run. And then he looks at us and notices that Charlie is showing no fear. He begs him for help. Rhys and Luma nip at the boy’s ankles while I climb onto his back, riding him as they drag him backward into the dark.

The boy is still yelling at our cousin. Charlie finally gets a breath into his lungs, straightens up. He pushes his glasses up his nose and trots along after us as we recede toward the tree line. “Don’t you all ever get tired of this?” Charlie asks us while the boy cries for us to let him go. “Don’t you want to play something else?” Rhys lets go of the boy’s ankle for a moment, cocks his head up at Charlie, panting, grinning now from a human face. “No,” he says. We drag the boy back into the shadow of one of the big pine trees. Someone’s yelling for us back at the house. It sounds like the visiting banker has realized his son is missing. “What should we do with him?” Rhys asks.

“Boil him up into soup,” Luma says. She hates soup, but the joke is lost on the boy, who sobs harder. Charlie is restless, looking around. “I’m gonna make him forget. We’ll get in trouble if we don’t.” “Wait.” I hold up a hand. I feel something that’s new, some hungry hollow little place inside me. “I think … I want to eat him.” Rhys slaps me on the back, and Luma squeals with delight.

I’ve never wanted to eat anybody before, and they’re proud. “You can’t, though,” Rhys says quickly. “We promised Grandma,” says Luma. “Alright.” I plant my hands on the boy’s shoulders and start to climb down off of him. As I do, my mouth stretches wide like a yawn, although I don’t feel tired. “Let’s go—” And then something happens that I do not understand. I’m sitting on the pine needles, my jaw aches unbearably, and the boy is gone. ONE I opened my eyes, and I was on the train. I was the only passenger left.

How long had I been asleep? I looked down to make sure I still had my things: my straw hat, my suitcase stamped with the letter Z. I’d hung on to them this whole way, through sleeping on a bench in Penn Station and sprinting to catch a train in Boston, ever since I’d left Saint Brigid’s School for Young Ladies this time yesterday. Thinking about it, I ran my tongue over my teeth again. No matter how many times I did it, I could still taste copper. The door at the far end of the car clattered open, and I jumped. Just the conductor, coming down the aisle to check on me. He looked nervously down at me, and I felt guilty, wondering if he could tell I was on the run. “You the stop in Winterport?” he said. I nodded. His eyes had wandered down to my suitcase.

“You got people there?” he asked. “I’m kin of the Hannafins, myself.” People up here were like this, I remembered suddenly. Always wanting to know about your family. “The Zarrins,” I offered. He twitched like a rabbit before settling himself back down. “I thought you might be,” he said. “They don’t leave Winterport much, do they?” “I did,” I said. “I haven’t been back in eight years.” Once I said it I froze, terrified he’d ask me why I was coming back now.

I rummaged frantically in my mind for a convincing lie. But he just smiled at me tightly and touched his hat. “We’ll just be slowing down, not a full stop,” he said. “Don’t worry, people do it all the time. When the whistle blows the first time, get ready.” He disappeared, and I stared out the window and watched the landscape for a while. It had been almost summer in Maryland, but as we rumbled across the bridge that divides New Hampshire from Maine, I saw a few stubborn patches of snow clinging on beneath the pine trees. I’d been angry when I’d gotten on the train, and that had kept me in motion. But the weather chilled my anger and crystallized it into fear. Maybe there were good reasons I wasn’t supposed to be at home.

I had a vague, half-remembered feeling that it wasn’t exactly safe. It all felt faded and vaguely ridiculous. None of it seemed plausible when I held it up to the light. But if it was true, if I was right, then I needed to be home again. After all, there was no other place for me in the world. Not after what I’d done. Lucy Spencer flashed in my mind for a moment then. Her red hair coming out of its braid, her face twisted in that expression people make right before they start screaming— And then the whistle was blowing. Get ready, he’d said. I hefted my suitcase, clapped my hat on my head.

Time to go visit my family. The conductor came back to open the door for me as the train slowed. He couldn’t even look me in the eye. He mumbled something that sounded like “Be careful,” and then we were rumbling slowly past a platform, and I was stepping out into the air. I felt a jarring, sickening sensation of the world rising up to meet me. I staggered, let go of the suitcase, and hit one knee on the wood of the platform, the train still trundling behind me. I crawled away from it, feeling like I’d been in an accident. It was moving faster than I’d thought, when I was on it. I told myself not to be weak. I made sure I hadn’t scraped my knee; I didn’t want anyone around here to see my blood.

I got to my feet, checked to make sure my suitcase hadn’t popped open in the fall, and took a moment to get my bearings. The platform was deserted. Beyond it the single cobbled street of the town bent like an elbow out into the ocean, with houses lining the crook. Along the water were docks where fishing boats bobbed up and down at their moorings. The sun was going down behind the tree-covered hills, bathing the town in alternating stripes of red light and shadow. Three young boys knelt in the street, their handme-down coats straining threadbare over their backs. I found myself watching them closely, my eyes locked on them. They were using a stick to try to loosen one of the cobblestones. One of them looked up and saw me, and froze. I watched him reach down as though he thought if he moved slowly enough I wouldn’t see him.

His dirty fingers scrabbled at the edges of the stone until he held it in his hand. I saw his fingers clamp shut around it, and I saw the muscles in his shoulder begin to tense. I tensed, too, sinking down lower, ready to duck or run forward. It was like he knew me. Like he knew what I’d done. “You there!” An old man hobbled out of a store, waving a walking stick. The boys scattered, tearing off across the cobbles. I shuddered like someone being woken up from a dream. The man brandished the stick halfheartedly after the boys, but it seemed like he’d already forgotten them as he turned to look at me up on the platform, shielding his eyes to see me more clearly. I clambered down to meet him.

He was bent at the shoulder, his blue eyes cloudy with age, and he wore a clerical collar. “Ah, young Eleanor,” he said. “I … I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t think I know you.” “Father Thomas,” he said. “Your grandmother didn’t want to introduce you to me until you were older.” He had the same sharp, staccato accent as the man on the train. “But I know about all of you.” He winked. I blushed, not quite knowing why, wondering what it was exactly that he knew.

“Well, thank you for … chasing them off.” “My job. Pastor of Saint Anthony in Winterport. Here to help the lost.” He chuckled a little to himself. “Do you need directions up to the house?” “I think I remember. Who were they?” “Oh, them? Kids from town,” he said. “They don’t understand that you’re safe enough. I suspect there’s something instinctual that makes ’em want to throw rocks at Zarrins.” His matter-of-factness chilled me.

But I’d known my family was dangerous, so why was I surprised that other people knew it, too? “I don’t think they’re expecting me,” I said. “Will that be a problem?” “The Zarrins have never much liked unexpected company,” he said. “But they are expecting you. Your grandma sent Margaret down this morning with a note, asked me to greet you.” I hadn’t seen that coming. “I’ll walk you as far as the church,” he said. He offered to take my suitcase, but I said I’d manage. He hitched along beside me, leaning on his cane. The whole way I thought I spotted people watching us—a twitch of lace curtains at a window, a rustle as though someone had just ducked behind a hedge. It was almost funny.

But then when we got to the weathered clapboard church, and he went away up the path and in through the door, nothing about it seemed funny anymore. I was alone. At the edge of town, the road went nearly straight up a steep incline into a copse of silver birch. The climb was hard; my suitcase banged against my already bruised leg, and I started carrying it in my arms. The wind curled through the trees, blowing through my uniform until I couldn’t stop shivering. A car crawled along behind me for a while, and then passed me at a crest when the road widened. At school, cars would honk at us as we walked in groups; boys would lean out and ask us if we wanted a ride and the nuns would yell at them to leave us alone. Not here. I wondered if the driver recognized me, or just the direction I was walking. I came to the place where the road forked.

To the right, it became a bridge that spanned a narrow sound and traveled onward up the coast. To the left, a dirt road that darted directly up the steep slope into the deep woods. Trees made a tunnel overhead. It was beautiful up there, in the darkening forest, but I sensed that it was not a place to be caught alone at night. I bent my knees and adjusted my gait to move silently, then crept forward. Birds sang here, and wild creatures rustled in the bushes. My ears pricked at the small sounds. The geography settled into place around me. To my right down the tree-lined slope: a streambed that carried a torrent of meltwater every spring, eventually pouring off a cliff into the sea. A little to one side of that, there was a line in the woods where it transitioned from birch to aspen.

And a little farther up the path, visible in glimpses as I climbed steadily, was the front lawn. I rounded a bend, and the trees fell away, and all that remained was the house. It loomed over the landscape. Towers and porches and balconies and bay windows. Story after story of decorative gingerbreading, crown molding, sunburst emblems, recessed niches, and high gables, and all of it covered in gray scalloped shingles, like scales, and at the very top of the highest tower, the creaking weathervane in the shape of a running rabbit. It was hard to look at: not all of it fit in my view at once, even after I took a few steps back. I realized that now, it scared me. It was too much. It felt oppressive, a giant squatting at the top of the world. I stared the house down, willing it to blink its windows first.

And then I took a few quick steps across the narrow band of lawn, planted my foot deliberately on the first step, and launched myself up to the door. It was black. Not painted: black wood, with twisted carvings and a brass horsehead with a ring clenched in its teeth. I lifted the ring and let it fall. No answer for a long moment. Behind me the wind ran up my spine and made me shiver. I reached for the knob and threw the door open. A moan filled the air, a window open somewhere that pulled the air from the door through the house, turning the front hall into a throat. As soon as I stepped forward into the house, suction yanked the door shut behind me and the sound of the ocean sloughing against the cliffs on the far side of the house faded to a whisper. Other than that, there was no sound, except for somewhere down the hall, a heavy clock ticking.

I looked around with heart pumping, my hands locked around my suitcase. The entry hall soared two and a half stories, the ceiling lost in darkness somewhere overhead, the rails of the second floor lined with unlit post lamps. The central staircase snaked down in two streams from the upper floors, joining in the middle and unfurling into the front hall, covered in carpet the faded red of a tongue. The walnut wainscoting gleamed, but the baseboards were scratched and scarred, and the wallpaper, printed with scenes of men hunting stags, lay tattered in places. An age-spotted mirror stood propped on a narrow hall table that also held a cut glass dish of desiccated peppermints. The walls were lined with portraits of dim figures, paintings of sprawling landscapes, lovingly rendered still lifes of animal haunches and goblets overflowing with wine. Things I remembered but didn’t recognize, as though I’d seen them in a movie, or a dream. I felt suddenly dizzy. I wanted to sit down, but what should I sit on—the chair carved in the shape of a grinning devil? A long bench lined with a dozen briefcases with deep gouges in the leather? A pile of twine-tied packages all stamped with FRAGILE and a picture of a skull? Maybe I should just keep moving forward. There were the stairs.

Somewhere, two stories up, was my childhood bedroom, and maybe if I could make it in there, shut the door, I would be transformed back into someone who belonged here. But that seemed like a long way to go on legs that were longing to carry me down—to the floor, or ideally back to town, to the train, to safety. But there was no train. I couldn’t leave now, I told myself. Where would I even go? The front hall was lined with portraits. I got close to them and studied them in turn, trying to see who I could remember. The largest was an oil painting of a squat, grinning young man with impressive sideburns, holding a team of white horses by their reins while they reared and foamed and rolled their eyes. My grandfather, I thought, but not the doting, laughing man I remembered—he looked fiendish. Next to him, an array of men who looked like him but with varying expressions: a skittish man in a red sweater who must have been my father. A sleek boy with a jagged smile in the same sweater as my father’s picture, but faded and frayed.

And there were women here, too, all with sharp cheekbones, olive skin, dark eyes, nothing like my flat, wide-mouthed face. I scanned the whole room and could not find a single photograph of me. I closed my eyes and steadied myself on the newel post at the base of the stairs. And then from farther back into the house, I heard a voice call out, “Eleanor! Is that you?” I’d know that voice anywhere: it was clear and gentle, like the bell on a buoy. It cut through my fear and touched me. Mother. She used to sing to me, when I was little. And she was here. “Where are you?” I called. “The back garden, dear.

” She sounded happy. “Come through the kitchen, it’s fastest!” Mother. She had soft hands and she’d let me braid her long hair when I was a child. Suddenly my reservations left me, and all I wanted to do was see her again. I quickly followed the hallway to the door that led to the kitchen. I was about to be back with my mother, and then everything would be alright. I opened the door, and as it swung open, I realized someone was standing there, waiting for me to open it. I’d forgotten about Aunt Margaret. She stared straight at me from under her ragged tangle of hair. She looked like the women in the portraits, but wilder: sallow skin, bags under her eyes, her clothes covered in grease stains.

She frowned at me and muttered something I couldn’t make out. She didn’t like to be stared at, I remembered, and she didn’t like to be spoken to. I could work around this. I averted my eyes and held very still. Slowly, she shuffled back a few paces from the door. “Mother?” I called out again, more tentatively. “Just follow my voice, dear!”

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