Don’t Forget to Be Afraid
Since the divorce, Marie and her daughter have been plagued by bats. The summer is haunted by the manic flurry of wings. Marie reads all the childhood trauma books, watching Annie for signs, but her daughter seems more curious than anything else.
With a backpack of almond butter sandwiches, and Robert the Rabbit tucked in the bottom, Annie explores the overgrown ski trails and long-abandoned cabins around their new home. The lodge is on the grounds of a family ski camp, the type that was popular a century ago; Annie imagines teenagers, not much older than herself, flirting and laughing up here, with their mothers and fathers and their tiny feuds, all long dead.
While Annie creeps around the cabins, Marie fills her Divorce Journal. Is it significant that her daughter’s rabbit is named for her absent father? She makes a note, imagining a family counselor may need to know this.
“Wasn’t the rabbit named long ago? When Annie was small?” The counselor may ask.
“Sure, but why not change the name now? Or throw the thing away?” she would counter.
“Is that what you would do, Marie?”
Marie slams the book shut, paces by the windows. Sometimes she joins Annie on her hikes, and they sing to brighten the quiet forest. Sometimes they scream, to see how it sounds. At home, they seek the gaps where the bats get in, tiny holes to be plugged. It’s impossible for Marie to sleep in her bed, knowing the batwings will come. Each night, she slips into her daughter’s room and holds blankets down over their heads, creating a tight bubble of chamomile-breath. In the rafters above, a soft frenzy.
It becomes their ritual: Marie says don’t worry and Annie says I’m not. Marie has spent her life trying to think of everything horrible before it happens – as if by naming the worst outcomes she can ward them off – and is confounded by Annie’s response. Does her daughter not realize the million violences that could befall them, out here on this no-name road? Doesn’t she know that last week a girl was stolen from sleepaway camp on the other side of the mountain? Or that, in the spring, a deranged hunter shot a boyscout leader in the face, and of the scattered and terrified scouts, two still haven’t been found? Marie draws the blankets tighter.
“You should,” she whispers into Annie’s hair, “be worried.”
“Try to sleep,” Annie mumbles. “They’ll leave in the morning.”
It occurs to Annie that her mother is summoning the bats. Each evening as they sip tea in the kitchen, listening to the faraway groans of a rusted ski-lift in the wind, Marie says, “they’ll get in again tonight. I can feel it.” And they do. How long has she been cursed with this power? Annie stares as her mother begins another cautionary tale, something about a family on the mountain, murdered in their sleep last winter.
“Stop telling me this,” Annie says, crashing her cup with a splatter.
Marie continues, “Only the little boy lived, Annie. Do you know what he told the police? He said he heard wolves howling downstairs. But it wasn’t wolves. It was his parents, dying in agony on the floor.”
Annie wonders if she has the gift too, if she can gather her own certainty to match her mother’s. Sitting tall, she says, “That won’t happen to us.”
“Anything can happen.” Above, a hollow chirping as the night’s first bat streaks along the ceiling. “Do you know what my mother did, Annie? She left one day when I was in kindergarten. She left, and she never came back. That’s how I know anything can happen.”
From overhead, the flutter of a gathering swarm. Annie has heard this story so many times that the words no longer mean anything.
“What do they want?” Annie whispers. “If we prop the front door open, maybe they’ll chase the moths outside. We can wait it out in my room.” Marie looks up at her in wonder.
“And if something worse comes in?”
In the dark, Annie pats her mother’s arm. “Mom, just pretend it’s a game.”
“Why are you so calm? You sound like your dad.”
“Find your enemy’s weakness. What’s your biggest fear? Is it bats?”
“No. It’s you being assaulted and murdered. While I’m forced to watch.”
Annie jerks her hand away. “Why would someone do that?”
“Why does anyone do anything?”
Annie considers the question. She ate a muffin this morning because she was hungry; she brushed her teeth because that’s what you do; she farted into Marie’s pillow because she hates her mother; she made Marie an extra-honey chamomile because she loves her mother. There is a sound, then, that infiltrates her pondering. A pawing sound at the bedroom door, a heaving wet breath. Something nudging into the room.
For a moment, despite feeling Annie cuddled against her, Marie sees her daughter there at the doorway, on all fours and snarling. It’s a dog. Marie and Annie shriek together, petrified. The room echoes with the sound. Clumsy in its panic, the dog scrabbles back out, through the kitchen and away. Marie follows, to bolt the front door, and Annie is alone. She finds Robert, dampens his old fur with her breathing.
Three bats peer down, now four. Shoulders high and huge, claws wrapped around the top of the door. Tapping and ready. Annie tilts her head, like a dog hearing a painful note. She doesn’t mind bats, with their soft puggish faces, but these have wide, square jaws, open glittering eyes. They are enormous.
“They’re mocking us,” Marie says from the doorway. As soon as she has spoken, the bats open their grinning mouths in a chattering chorus of laughter. They swoop and dive.
Annie crawls out of bed and sprints to the closet, emerging with two tennis racquets, one for each of them, her teeth a gleaming smile. “Be very still,” she whispers, “and listen.” In pure darkness, Annie waits to swing, poised and taut, anticipating the moment of impact, the limp body tumbling to the floor.
Emma Brewer is a fiction and humor writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Points in Case, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She is working on a collection of what she affectionately calls “vengeance lit”. Find her on Twitter @emargaretbrewer
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