One Stop, Part 4

At last, the conclusion to One Stop! Here are the preceding installments, part 1,  part 2,  and part 3 if you need to catch up.

One Stop, Part 4

 

He thought she’d be in the bathtub. Wasn’t that what women did for home births? But she wasn’t there. Just red smears on the white tile.

He followed her trail of footprints, red half-moons tracing a gory waltz through the living room to the glass sliding door. Half open, the chill wind sent the curtains spinning.

John turned on the back lights, lighting up the backyard like a stage, every black blade of grass thrown into sharp relief. He staggered out across the lawn, trying to call her name, but it choked in his throat and came out a whisper.

“Kari?”

Reaching the edge of his property, he tried again. “Kari! Natalie Kari Hammond!”

“That’s not my name.” She lay behind the woodshed. Naked, russet leaves stuck all over in her black, black hair, like a crown woven by ravens. Blood was smeared down her thighs. In her arms she cradled a tiny bundle, swaddled in a piece of fur.

Relief made his knees weak. He tried to approach her, to embrace her and found himself unable to move. “Thank God you’re okay.” He swayed as if drunk. “Did you — Is that the baby?”

“I thought you’d be home later,” she said, her voice hoarse yet lilting.

John frowned in surprise. He hadn’t heard her sound like that since the beginning of their courtship. He’d thought those old ways dead. Surely it was the stress of the birth. She shrank away from the light as he studied her. She hated to be seen wild.

“But you called,” he managed at last. “You begged for me.”

“You should know me better than that.”

A queer feeling descended on him, a horrific déjà vu embedded in a sinking understanding that he’d been a total fool. She was so beautiful. What had he ever done to deserve her? He couldn’t remember.

“Please let me go, Kari. I want to hold the baby.”

“Where is Luke?”

“I left him. But you knew that, didn’t you? It doesn’t matter, he’s an adult, he can handle himself,” he babbled, desperate to keep talking, to find some magic phrase that would ease the quiet despair from her face. “The baby — is it a boy or a girl?”

“There are three girls. And three boys.” She shifted her body so that he could see five more furry bundles cuddled up behind her. “A perfect number.” She smiled, flashing white teeth. “It is unusual for my people to have singletons.” The babe in her arms squeaked and she set it down with the others. “I am sorry John. I love you. But you cannot touch our children, not after you abandoned your own flesh and blood. I will not allow you to taint them with the curse you now carry.”

He knelt in the damp grass. “I had to choose. I chose you.”

Gathering up her children in her long white arms, she rose and stood over him. “You thought I wasn’t strong enough to bear solitude, and you know well what I am, though we have both pretended not to know. So you left your brother with alone with a forest revenant.” Her hair drifted around her like a cloak. “And if you really loved me you would know that I would never beg, that I would die before I would beg.”

John watched his children cuddle against their mother. Only their faces seemed human to him, and their eyes stayed closed. “I thought they would be more like me.”

“In time they may grow to be so.” She turned away from him and slipped into the darkened wood. Bowed and broken, John pressed his hands to his face. Her voice called back to him one last time.

“Find Luke. Save him. Only then will I return.”

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