Preview: A Tainted Soul

Annaya’s school bus would round the corner in about thirty minutes. I still needed to trudge over a mile in snow-covered gravel to collect her. I glanced up at the clock hanging on the wall. Shit! Make that twenty minutes now.

I gave the kitchen table a final appraisal. A tablecloth of bubblegum pink plastic draped over its modest size, the bright color clashing charmingly with the faded floral striped wallpaper and aged appliances. Annaya’s birthday cake sat nestled in the center, presiding over the room. Two candles—a waxy, chunky one and zero—waited patiently to be ignited. On either side of the cake, two chipped plates and cups, the same dishes we use for dinner each night, lay in their usual spots. The frugal yet cheerful setup belied the magnitude of the dread creeping over the barren tundra toward our home until it inevitably swallowed us whole. 

I took one last look at the decor and let out a breath of satisfaction. I plucked Annaya’s birthday present from the chair and smoothed down an errant wrinkle in the tablecloth. Proud of my attempt at domestic tranquility, I strode through the front door—ready to greet the day’s celebration. 

The remnants of last week’s snowstorm gave way to a soggy, icy slush that seeped insidiously into my sneakers with every step I took. A sound, something between a hiccup and a hiss, cut through the frigid air. I slowed, eyes drawn to the weathered wooden fence protecting our trailer from the looming frozen wasteland. A hunched figure lurked, obscured by rotten posts— valiantly standing their last watch. 

Gnarled hands, devoid of fingers, jabbed violently through the gaps in the fence. The Dead’s presence was nothing new, but their recent surge in aggression was unnerving. Just the previous night, Annaya woke to the horrific sight of our neighbor’s deceased dog, standing on her pillow, snarling inches from her face. When I rushed into her room, the rotting mutt snapped its head to where I stood in the doorway. It opened its decomposing mouth to release a chilling bark as if I startled it, which resulted in viscous fluid splattered across Annaya’s blanket. Then, without warning, the canine Dead dove through the open window—leaving me in stunned silence. 

I shook my head, discarding my macabre thoughts, and focused on navigating the slushy path. Annaya’s gift, neatly wrapped in the brightest paper I could find, shifted under my arm as I sidestepped the yawning divots in the neglected gravel path. The slush finally infiltrated my worn-out sneakers and began its conquest of my threadbare socks. I imagined the medical bills I wouldn’t be able to pay if my toes succumbed to frostbite by the time I reached the bus stop. A wry chuckle slipped from my throat. I should have thought to double up on socks or swap my sneakers for the secondhand galoshes kicked off by the door. I shrugged, resigned with the idea of losing a toe, and clutched Annaya’s present tighter. 

A symphony of laughter and squealing bicycle tires pulled me from my internal chastising. Children, swaddled in thick woolen coats and vibrant snow boots, zipped past me on a rainbow of colored bikes. Their joy was infectious—my smile was genuine. One child, his freckled face all but hidden beneath a fuzzy scarf, broke from the pack and circled back to me. 

“Hey, Ms. Samantha,” he lisped, the gap where his two front teeth used to be, whistling with each word. “Whatcha got in the box?”

“It’s a birthday present for Annaya.”

His eyes widened, and then he beamed, his missing teeth making his smile even more endearing. “Happy birthday to Annaya, Ms. Samantha!” He saluted me with a gloved hand before pedaling off, the tails of his scarf flapping as he raced to catch up with his friends. 

I often found myself wishing Annaya could form friendships and experience the innocent camaraderie of childhood. The vibrant, effervescent girl I once knew had slowly withdrawn into a shell, a cocoon of anxiety that was heart-wrenching to witness. Annaya played alongside a little Dead girl at the nearby park when we lived in Washington. I never felt the urge to intervene because the Dead never did more than watch. That’s just what they’ve always done. Until they didn’t.

The severe crunch of tires on wet gravel extracted me from my apparent trance. 

Sheriff Mort maneuvered his rust-encrusted Bronco to a stop beside me. “Off today, Sam?” he greeted, a jovial twinkle in his eye. 

“Yup.” My gaze drifted shyly to the worn paths carved into the gravel road. 

His lips curved into a knowing grin as he retrieved a cigarette from his pocket. “I hear today is a special day.” He deftly slid the cigarette between his lips while depressing the car’s cigarette lighter. “How old’s your little now?”

“Ten,” I replied, a fond smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. 

The Sheriff nodded, his eyes reflecting a glimmer of nostalgia. “Ten’s a good age to be. Bring her by the station later today, okay? We’ll do something special for her.”

His unexpected kindness warmed my heart, and I found myself smiling. “I’ll do that.”

With a final wave, Sheriff Mort pressed the accelerator, and the Bronco rumbled back into motion, leaving me to resume my trek to the bus stop. And my thoughts. 

When the local diner went under that summer—forcing me out of work—we moved to Montana. The years we lived there, I saw an escalation of concerning occurrences between the Dead and Annaya. The Dead took up residence outside our quaint cabin, an ever-present threat. A few months before her birthday, they became physical, something I had never witnessed in all my years with my Sight. Each day was an exercise in searching for toys they disturbed or pulling her hair out of their grasp. The final straw came when a festering feline Dead attacked Annaya as she played in the flower bed, its barely intact claws slicing through the delicate skin on her hands. I knew then that we couldn’t stay. The decision to relocate wasn’t just inevitable; with the restaurant in town cutting my hours, it was necessary. 

A sudden jolt of icy cold bit into my leg, causing me to stagger slightly before regaining balance. Unwittingly, I stepped into a sizable hole, drenching my pant leg to the shin in the frigid slush. I hopped forward with a grimace and repositioned Annaya’s gift snuggly under my arm. 

We moved to the YK Delta the year Annaya turned eight. I landed a job at the grocery store, where I found myself knee-deep in crates and cans, arranging items, and managing inventory. It was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of waitressing or the cash tips, but the pay was decent and afforded us a quiet life just outside town. Yet, despite the change in scenery, the Dead’s incursions persisted and escalated to such an extent that Annaya needed stitches on more than one occasion. After CPS showed up at the emergency room for the third time, I realized I couldn’t handle this by myself.

At my wit’s end, I hired a private investigator to track down someone who understood the Sight—my estranged brother. Our last meaningful conversation was twenty-two years ago, shortly after our aunt passed. In her will, she’d bequeathed her homestead to Brandon and her prized Gremlin to me—along with whatever money remained in her savings after settling her accounts. I received a whopping $3,462.59. Brandon and his wife Erika wanted it all. Driven by greed, they accused me of manipulating our aunt. I stood my ground—we fought—and our paths separated. I swallowed the bitter pill of my pride and mailed a letter. I didn’t let him know about Annaya because that would just make things more volatile between us. 

As teenagers, we made a pact to never have children. We feared passing down the Sight; we believed our curse. How can one truly live when death shadows your every step? However, one crazy alcohol-fueled night changed everything for me. 

Months went by with no response. I sent another asking about Erika. A year passed without a reply until I received a small letter smudged with black fingerprints and smelled of dirt and old motor oil. I sat outside the house in the Gremlin and tore into it. A small newspaper clipping fluttered into my lap. It was an obituary…for Erika. The date of her funeral was three years before Annaya’s birth. I mailed more letters in hopes we could reconcile, but they always came back stamped with RETURN TO SENDER. 

The distant rumble of an approaching engine demanded I leave my anxious thoughts for now. I squinted down the road just as the familiar silhouette of the school bus crested the hill. A guttural groan from my right snapped my attention to the sprawling land that served as a buffer between our inconsequential existence and the vast, untouched Alaskan tundra. Six Dead were standing not ten feet shy of the bus stop, in varying stages of decay. The drone of the bus engine reverberated through the chilled air in the distance as it approached. The Dead fixed their hollowed gazes on the bus, void of life yet eerily sentient. An image of a moth transfixed by the siren’s call of a lightbulb passed through my mind. The quiet chattering of their teeth began to crescendo, each gnashing note intensifying with every inch lost in Annaya’s approach.

I held my breath; the icy air around me suddenly turned heavy with dread, as if the landscape wished to suffocate me. I hastily placed Annaya’s birthday present on the slush-covered ground, readying both arms in case I needed to grab her up and flee. I glanced over my shoulder at the gaggle of Dead and was struck with terror at how still they went. 

The hiss of air brakes startled me as the bus came to a complete stop in front of us. The folding doors creaked open.

“Hey, Sam!” A familiar voice greeted me, momentarily easing my tension. 

“Hey, Loretta,” I replied, forcing a small smile. “How was the drive?”

Loretta shrugged her smile not quite reaching her eyes. “Can’t complain. Annaya’s making her way from the back. She’ll be out in a second.”

“Thanks, Loretta.” My gaze flicked back to the Dead, who remained unsettlingly still.

Annaya came into view, her hair tangled and her shoulders slumped. She kept her gaze trained on her feet, only looking up once the gravel crunched under her scuffed shoes. The Dead responded to her presence, their disjointed bodies shuffling forward in grotesque unison. Annaya quickly snapped her gaze towards them, her eyes wide with alarm. 

“We should go home now,” she whispered, shifting anxiously. Her gaze never strayed from the Dead. The animalistic sounds they emitted sent chills down my spine. 

“You’re right, baby. We should.” I bent to retrieve her gift from the ground. 

“Now, please?” she pleaded. 

I motioned for her to walk ahead. I fell into a quick step behind her, forming a silent barrier between her and the Dead. If they chose to attack, my only option would be to snatch her up and run. A rhythmic grinding had me dragging my eyes to the left. The Dead moved as a group, their pace slow but predatory, hunched low with their hollow eyes locked onto Annaya. I shifted my body closer to the group, hoping to provide her a few extra seconds if the need to run arose. I could see our trailer in the distance but feared we wouldn’t make it. 

The Dead lunged with a chilling shriek and a speed so shocking I nearly lost my footing. Annaya didn’t hesitate. She dropped her backpack and darted off, her tangled hair whipping behind her like a frayed flag in a storm. Released from my stupor, I sprinted after them, easily closing the distance with my long strides. But the grim reality hit me: they would reach her first. I pushed my legs to their limit and flew past the Dead. Before my legs could give out, I leaned in to grab Annaya by her jacket and swung her into my arms so her legs wrapped around my waist. Not looking back, I ran even harder.

“I caught you,” I managed to gasp out between ragged breaths, my laughter carrying a shaky note of relief. Annaya’s small hands tightened around my neck, her face buried into my shoulder. Despite the burning in my chest and the growing weight of my legs, I forced myself to keep running at a grueling pace. The wails of the Dead began to recede and fade with each footfall. 

Once we crested the steps of our rundown trailer, I threw open the cheap door and slammed it shut behind us. “Maybe we should make running home a regular thing,” I attempted a chuckle to ease the tension. I collapsed onto the couch, trying and failing to slow my frantic heart. Pulling Annaya’s face away from my shoulder, I brushed her hair out of her eyes and offered her a weary smile. “Though, I might keel over if we do it too often.” She let out a small chuckle. “We can’t have that, can we?”

“Nope, we sure can’t.” I gently slid her off my lap and sat her beside me. “But what we can have is cake!”

“Cake sounds good.”

“Come on, it’s on the table.” Annaya jumped up and skipped over to the table while I remained on the couch, taking a few more seconds to catch my breath. 

“Mom! Come on!” Annaya called out from the kitchen. 

Throwing my head back, I groaned melodramatically, “I’m coming. I’m coming.”

Nails scraping against wood sounded from the front door, a mocking reminder of how alone we truly were. Our celebration would continue, but we needed to leave the trailer, and the YK Delta, tonight.

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