Forests collapse under the serrated jaws of the beast devouring the land and sky, curdling the atmosphere with its rabid hunger. It leaves graying pillars of salt and bone and crumbling buildings in its wake. When the air calms, it’s thick with strings of dust motes like wayward galaxies.

The beast senses a being nearby, a creature with Potential igniting in their veins. Hatred curdles its stomach and it bellows. Violent shockwaves warp the air again. The exhalations ripple for miles ahead. Animals scramble through forests and drive themselves into ravines to evade the incoming tide of death. The people, their instincts dulled by decades of ease, are stunned in their tracks. They awaken minutes later, sluggish and unaware of the venom now numbing their veins, before moving on.

 

Drifting along a mountain road twelve miles away, Agatha jerks her head upward, just in time to steer her car back into the lane. The Toyota fishtails over the rain-slick road, the headlights like pinpricks guiding it through a spiraling abyss. She grips the steering wheel and clenches her teeth as she struggles to correct the turn. The car moves beyond her control, operating with another mind. Agatha practices her breathing exercises—inhale for three, deep exhale for five—to maintain her focus and to keep the fear at bay. But it happens again. Another suffocating wave of drowsiness hits her, and her foot slips off the gas pedal. The oldie playing on her radio distorts in her ears as the car swerves sidelong into a guardrail, cutting out when Agatha’s head cracks against the door window.

 

***

 

Agatha taps her boot against the houndstooth suitcase spilling clothes onto the road. A necklace of glass stars shimmers across the black asphalt. As a girl, Agatha would stand on her terrace, raise her thumb and index finger and pluck stars from the speckled night sky. Now they’ve fallen from heaven—or rather, from her windshield. She reaches down and grabs one glittering in a puddle like a discarded diamond. It becomes a ruby as she rolls it between her fingertips. She flicks the glass away then jams her fingers in her mouth and sucks. A strange sweetness dances across her taste buds.

“Must’ve been that pie I ate,” Agatha mumbles then cocks her head back to savor the taste, thinking back to the roadside diner and its kind waitstaff. She nearly drove past it: a relic half-swallowed by climbing vines that rippled with pearl-colored blooms as she walked to the door.

Inside, in between bites of lumpy beef—the chunks still visible where the cook had dug out the spoiled meat during preparation—Agatha stared at the yellow potted flower sitting at her table. Spying it in her peripheral, the flower seemed to crane its pencil-thin stem toward her, and its leaves lay flat on the tabletop like it was a supplicant bowing at an altar. She reached out to it, letting her mind wander but staying alert and ready to pull back if the flower twitched even a little.

“What if I just lived?” she’d told Taylor weeks ago, who had loved this defiance but still begged her to change her mind.

“It’s an honor to die to maintain the order,” Taylor had insisted. But Agatha’s obstinance drove them apart. She left home before she woke up in restraints—or Taylor betrayed her—and had managed to escape notice for weeks now. But then the beast emerged and initiated the reckoning.

“On the house.” The cook planted a dry slice of pie in front of her. “It’s not fresh, but it’s better than the canned stuff we got in the back,” he said. Agatha smiled and almost forgot to thank him. The peck on her hand, a small feathered kiss, had distracted her. When she turned back, the flower was withered and brown. A deep blush stained her knuckle.

 

Agatha rubs the mark now and tingling surges through her arm and spreads a floating sensation through her chest. She’s only felt this once before when she and a friend smoked a spliff as they sat on Agatha’s fire escape overlooking the dank alley cutting through their housing block.

“Added some pretties from out back,” her friend said as he lit it up. “Ground up a few dandies and violets just to see.” The car horns and angry shouts below them became a symphony that lulled her. Agatha’s mind bonded to the organic life around them; the connections branched out wildly. One snagged on an entity lurking underground in the distance.

It was tugging at her, draining her, when all the connections shorted and the energy burst nudged her upward. She had to crawl back inside when her feet kept lifting off the ground no matter how hard she tried to keep them anchored. Agatha just knew she’d float to the moon, upside down, her feet leading the way of her escape, until the high wore off and she plummeted toward the grimy streets and the growling entity lying in wait.

 

The sensation relaxes the buzzing in her head. Agatha leans against her wrecked Toyota and takes in her surroundings. The clouds list in the indigo sky. The moon waxes bigger. The ringing clears from her ears, giving way to the faint whisper of leaves fluttering in the woods. An animal shrieks from beyond the tree line then releases a low undulating cry that hushes the life around it. After a pause, a chorus of toads bark in the underbrush and crickets peep and titter until they resume their song in harmony along the low grass. Agatha’s breath sounds loudest of all, long and labored.

 

Puuuff

 

Puuuff

 

Pu—

 

“What do I do now?”

She longs for her words to find a home in another’s ears, if only to feel less alone. But there was never a companion by her side when she needed one. And there would never be one. She only has a fading memory, the bright spark of surprise as she watched seedlings rising from the ground, sipping on the sweat left behind from when Taylor once lay beside her. Agatha shakes her head and stares at her wrecked car.

“What the hell happened?”

One minute I was singing, she thinks. Then the next— It was like the time she’d gotten a root canal. She was counting backwards, staring at the doctor, her vision obstructed by the plastic mask. She felt a slow tugging on the back of her mind like she was being unzipped and then her consciousness puddled into nothing.

Twisted metal screams as Agatha pulls open the back-passenger door. She dives across the backseat, grabs her faded blue duffle bag and reaches into the front to get her backpack. Her shoulders tense as she pulls on the pack and slings the duffle over her right shoulder. She pauses as something wriggles from her nose and tickles her lip. Agatha wipes her nose with the back of her sleeve and as she scans the road she does not notice that the back of her hand is smeared, but not with blood.

The road ends in pitch in both directions. Agatha was never going back to the city anyway, but she hadn’t a clue where she was headed in the first place. She could give up. Just stop running and claim that moment as what she really wanted, had always wanted: unfettered freedom. But an instinct in her crushes the idea as soon as she thinks it. She has to keep moving.

Agatha watches her breath one last time—puff— then steps off the road into the mud and wet grass. She doesn’t know where she’s going, but she wants to move. Her nerves jangle in alarm, a primitive side of her now awakened. She has to go, has to get moving. Escape. A mile away from the road, the breeze stills in the branches. The leaves remain taut and frozen. A hum fills the air like a cooling unit struggling in the heat. She stops and closes her eyes. A distant noise pulls her attentions. It’s coming from the right. She opens her eyes and hikes toward it.

She pauses to stroke the branches and vines hanging for the surrounding trees. They remind Agatha of her greenhouse back in Redding. A memory drags her to the summer she and Taylor made love amongst the orchids and moss growing madly in the humid backroom. “Mindless rutting,” Taylor jokingly called it, but Agatha felt herself transforming in the space. Then Taylor was gone, and Agatha lay naked on a bed of moss, feeling it tingling against her dewy skin. She wanted to gather it up and draw it to her like a mother cradling a newborn. She entertains the same urge now, if just for a second, to strip naked and hold the vegetation against her skin.

Agatha isn’t completely emerged from her daydream when she steps forward, so she doesn’t see the ground sloping downward. Her foot juts out and she rolls her ankle. She reaches out to grab hold of a low branch to catch her balance, but her hand slips against the bark, scraping her palm. Her hands search wildly around her as she tumbles and slides down several feet before regaining her balance. She sits in the upturned dirt for a few seconds then stands up to check herself. Dirt fills the cuts on her palms. Her fingertips bleed a strangely viscous blood. But there’s no time to dwell on it. She brushes her palms against her pants, futilely, since they are now covered in dirt too.

“Today is just not my day,” she huffs before moving forward, slower now as she nurses a limp.

Something tickles her face again, and again Agatha swipes at it, but it does not wipe away. She violently paws at her face before tearing at it. Then, it is gone, fallen into the shadows before she lays eyes on whatever it is. The humming in the air strengthens to a rumbling that rattles Agatha’s core. She stops at a tree with staggered branches. She drops her duffel to the ground, cinches the backpack tighter around her and climbs upward until she reaches the treetop. Through the canopy, she sees tree silhouettes sailing against the night sky a few miles away. Earth is being tossed asunder, and a shadowed thing like a mountain looms and growls. The branch beneath her quivers.

As Agatha climbs down, her body rocks in time with the vibrations curling the air. A wave pulses through her from head to toe. Her eyes droop and her mouth falls open. Her grip slackens and she is too relaxed to catch herself. But she does not mind the fall. She feels as if she is drifting along an orgasmic wave.

 

***

 

Agatha smells the ash before she opens her eyes. Feels the light dusting in her curls and coating her skin. The acrid taste on her tongue gags her. She shoots upright, snorting and hacking the ash from the back of her throat.

She raises a hand to steady herself and finds it has sprouted leaves. Her arm raised to the moonlight, she sees that her skin is now rough and textured. She gasps at the flower sprouting from her upper lip, brushing against her nose. She pulls at it until pain ripples across her face and she holds a violet with bloodied roots in her hand.

The rumbling dims from the east. Agatha’s heart thunders in her ears and her stomach seizes from pain. She can feel the devouring thing’s hunger. It’s familiar to her. An image flashes of her upside down, the moon at her feet and a persistent tugging from beneath the earth. This once-buried entity recognizes her too and halts its pace.

A vicious bellow clouds the air.

Agatha screams and claws at her ears. Her vision blurs as the air lashes at her. Pressure strains against her skull, threatening to explode. She knows it will crack and she’ll be dead if it does not relent. The pressure pushes her down toward the ground until she lies curled in her own petaled tears. Then the bellowing stops. The beast waits for the death throes of its unwilling sacrifice. Agatha digs her fingers into the ash covered soil and lies still.

After an eternity, the devouring thing turns back toward the mountain and crawls forward. Creatures flee under the gathering storm clouds of uprooted oak trees. Upturned earth mutes the toads’ and crickets’ once-hopeful nocturne under its crushing weight.

As if hearing her silent prayers, the clouds stretch across the night sky and blanket the moonlight. Agatha uses the cloud cover to get away unseen. She rolls onto her hands and knees and pushes herself up. A stomach cramp folds her in half once more and she retches. Seeds gush from her mouth and splatter on the ash-covered soil. She shucks off her backpack, the duffel now lost, and gathers the seeds inside before donning the pack again.

Agatha jogs across the dead earth, weaving around desiccated animal carcasses and pillars that were once trees or man. The dust muffles her footfalls. There is no sound except the zippers tinkling on her backpack and her heartbeat rushing in her ears. This is a familiar anthem, the one that pushes her onward every day since she last cupped her orchids—growing them had been her one act of resistance against the mandated passivity—and tearfully abandoned her greenhouse. She deserves to live. Nothing is going to take that away from her.

Agatha pauses to catch her breath. She pats the seeds in her backpack. They stretch against her hand beneath the soft fabric. They are growing, changing. Pungent air burps up from her throat and she releases a melody that fills the air with sweetness.

DW McKinney, 2020 TNSF Web Resident, received degrees in biology and anthropology. She gave up working in an office to nurture her love for storytelling then went back to the office when she wasn’t making any money. Her work centers blackness, womanhood, identity, mental health, and motherhood, as well as the fantastic and magical. She recently won Boston Accent Lit’s “Wicked Short” Nonfiction Contest and is the reviews editor for Linden Avenue Literary Journal. She lives in Nevada with her husband and two children. Follow her on dwmckinney.com.
Help us disrupt the Southern literary landscape.