Peer into DARKNESS with Kathe Koja’s “Teratisms”



With award-winning, superstar editor Ellen Datlow’s “superb sampling of some of the most significant short horror works published between 1985 and 2005” Darkness being featured as part of the Humble Horror Book Bundle, we’re sharing excerpts from nine select stories over the next seven days.

Our next glimpse comes from “Teratisms” by Kathe Koja.

“Beaumont.” Dreamy, Alex’s voice. Sitting in the circle of the heat, curtains drawn in the living room: laddered magenta scenes of birds and dripping trees. “Delcambre. Thibodaux.” Slow-drying dribble like rusty water on the bathroom floor. “Abbeville,” car door slam, “Chinchuba,” screen door slam. Triumphant through its echo, “Baton Rouge!”

Tense hoarse holler almost childish with rage: “Will you shut the fuck up?”

From the kitchen, woman’s voice, Randle’s voice, drawl like cooling blood: “Mitch’s home.”

“You’re damn right Mitch is home.” Flat slap of his unread newspaper against the cracked laminate of the kitchen table, the whole set from the Goodwill for thirty dollars. None of the chairs matched. Randle sat in the cane-bottomed one, leg swinging back and forth, shapely metronome, making sure the ragged gape of her tank top gave Mitch a good look. Fanning herself with four slow fingers.

“Bad day, big brother?”

Too tired to sit, propping himself jackknife against the counter. “They’re all bad, Francey.”

“Mmmm, forgetful. My name’s Randle now.”

“Doesn’t matter what your name is, you’re still a bitch.”

Soft as dust, from the living room: “De Quincy. Longville.” Tenderly, “Bewelcome.”

Mitch’s sigh. “Numbnuts in there still at it?”

“All day.”

Another sigh, he bent to prowl the squat refrigerator, let the door fall shut. Half-angry again, “There’s nothing in here to eat, Fran — Randle.”

“So what?”

“So what’d you eat?”

More than a laugh, bubbling under. “I don’t think you really want to know.” Deliberately exposing half a breast, palm lolling beneath like a sideshow, like a street-corner card trick. Presto. “Big brother.”

His third sigh, lips closed in decision. “I don’t need this,” passing close to the wall, warding the barest brush against her, her legs in the chair as deliberate, a sluttish spraddle but all of it understood: an old, unfunny family joke; like calling names; nicknames.

The door slamming, out as in, and in the settling silence of departure: “Is he gone?”

Stiff back, Randle rubbing too hard the itchy tickle of sweat. Pushing at the table to move the chair away. “You heard the car yourself, Alex. You know he’s gone.”

Pause, then plaintive, “Come sit with me.” Sweet; but there are nicknames and nicknames, jokes and jokes; a million ways to say I love you. Through the raddled arch into the living room, Randle’s back tighter still, into the smell, and Alex’s voice, bright.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

Mitch, so much later, pausing at the screenless front door, and on the porch Randle’s cigarette, drawing lines in the dark like a child with a sparkler.

“Took your time,” she said.

Defensively, “It’s not that late.”

“I know what time it is.”

He sat down, not beside her but close enough to speak softly and be heard. “You got another cigarette?”

She took the pack from somewhere, flipped it listless to his lap. “Keep ’em. They’re yours anyway.”

He lit the cigarette with gold foil matches, JUDY’S DROP-IN. An impulse, shaming, to do as he used to, light a match and hold it to her fingertips to see how long it took to blister. No wonder she hated him. “Do you hate me?”

“Not as much as I hate him.” He could feel her motion, half a head-shake. “Do you know what he did?”

“The cities.”

“Besides the cities.” He did not see her fingers, startled twitch as he felt the pack of cigarettes leave the balance of his thigh. “He was down by the grocery store, the dumpster. Playing. It took me almost an hour just to talk him home.” A black sigh. “He’s getting worse.”

“You keep saying that.”

“It keeps being true, Mitch, whether you want to think so or not. Something really bad’s going to happen if we don’t get him —”

“Get him what?” Sour. No bitter. “A doctor? A shrink? How about a one-way ticket back to Shitsburg so he —”

“Fine, that’s fine. But when the cops come knocking I’ll let you answer the door,” and her quick feet bare on the step, into the house. Tense unconscious rise of his shoulders: Don’t slam the door. Don’t wake him up.

Check out the Humble Horror Book Bundle which includes works from  Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Joss Whedon, Joe Hill, Max Brooks, Robert R. McCammon, and Dan Simmons.

For more info about Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, visit the Tachyon page.

Cover by Ann Monn.