The Reddening

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Sarah Bodnar

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Jury

It's raining, but not water—red mist drips from the sky, speckling my face. They collect and drip down my chin, leaving a trail of ruby dots in the pinkening snow.

It's not like the snow was pristine to begin with. Tracks of all kinds litter the forest path: hoof prints of devil-horned moose, the webbed toes of fanged beavers, three equidistant dots of vulture talons perforating the ice. In some places the snow has been reduced to slush, revealing the mud underneath.

Trudging onward, I squint up at the scarlet sky, the blood moon, eyelashes crusty and sticky with red. It's not yet midnight—the man in the moon is sideways now, still sleeping, lazily rotating like a rotisserie beast. At midnight he'll face the earth. At midnight his eyes will open, and all caught will be slaughtered, blood absorbed by the night and stored in the clouds until next year's Reddening.

Grandma's house isn't far away. I should be able to make it. The freckled pocket watch claims I have ten minutes to go.

A mouse, coming up beside me. Its fur is matted, dragging one mangled leg behind itself, yet still frantically scurrying. Its eyes blink furiously in the red mist. It shakes. It keeps going.

The low whine of a wolf, behind us. It huffs and puffs, lungs whistling as if something's collapsed. The cadence is off, not a trot but a waltz as it limps; ONE two three, ONE two three. It starts to pass us, ignoring the easy meal of the mouse. Mangy silvery blue fur. Lip curled back in not a snarl, but a wince.

Its presence worries me. It means the chasers are getting closer. They're starting to run out of lesser prey.

I scoop up the mouse, beginning to jog, then run. The mouse quivers in my palm, burrowing its head in the meat of my thumb.

Wolves howl behind us, shaming the blue-hair for leaving its pack. Their chorus splits the night, desperate, until it starts to fall apart, several singers cutting off in high trembling yelps. The song ends with gushy splatters.

Grandma's house is up ahead, revealed bit by bit as we round a bend. I see the light from the window, warm and orange, lit by the ever-candle on the sill. Grey stone. The gurgling crick is just a trickle, down to one thin maroon stream that'll dry up before midnight.

There's a ramp, leading up into the house. A few worms squirm up it, a beaver dragging itself in, tail leaving a thick red streak. It uses its teeth to help pull itself, skull trembling as its fangs gouge the wooden plank.

It's right there. One hundred meters away.

A bird by my ear, flapping wet wings. It's flying too fast to catch skyward drops, ramming into the mist head-on and giving its feathers a gradient.

With every inhale red freckles my tonsils, tickling me into hacking coughs. My ribs hurt. I may throw up. I would, if my stomach wasn't an empty casing. 'Grandma's banana bread, Grandma's meat pie,' I'd dreamed as I'd started my walk earlier, foolishly paying no mind to the time.

I hear it—the chasers' crunchy scurrying. The imps are barely three feet high, but fast and cruel. Their sharp laughter bounces off the trees.

I glance desperately at the moon—surely he's not facing us already, is he? No, he still has three minutes to go, eyes serenely shut on the hell beneath him, snoring.

A splitting cramp veins up my side, from calf to ribs, stopping my sprint like I'd stepped in tar. The mouse jumps out of my hand, scrabbling ahead. My heart thunders with sharp pains, the cramp encasing the muscle as I fight to breathe.

Animals pass me; scaled birds, crippled chipmunks, violet-eyed deer, trolls. All without a backwards glance. My lower lip contorts and trembles as I watch straight ahead, the deer bounding into the house with such speed that its antlers puncture the opposing wall.

I'm close enough—thirty meters away—to see her, my grandma, a sliver of her face through the doorway as she rocks in her chair, toe tapping and rumpled plaid blanket stretched across her lap. She's suturing together a mouse's tiny elbow tendon, half-moon glasses slipping down her nose. Cheeks soft-looking like a half-collapsed pastry. A horde of animals gather around the fireplace, regardless of species, fur warming as their flanks puff and deflate with sick pants.

I swallow, ripping myself out of fear's paralysis to drag my leg forward. It's half-numb and unable to bend correctly as the muscles spasm, carving a sickle shape in the snow.

"Grandma!" I call, but she can't hear me. No one inside can hear me. It's the rule.

I swing my leg forward, sweat and red blurring on my face. They're getting closer, the chasers, rounding the bend, looking out at the clearing. Their laughter makes me half-deaf. Their broken chains and leashes rattle.

Ten meters away. I'll crawl if I have to.

Thirty seconds to midnight. The moon is yawning, pupils flickering under his pockmarked eyelids.

"Grandma!"

She frowns, but doesn't hear me, glancing at her wall clock. 'Julie should be here by now,' I can hear her thinking, but she turns back to her suturing.

Out on the coasts, the crimson waves will be starting to crash, monstrous on the Red Halloween. In suburbia, children will cuddle up to their parents and grandparents, chasers running through the streets and apartment hallways, chortling and clawing at glass windows and wooden doors. They'll destroy cars with their rattling chains and climb onto rooftops, mimicking the voices of loved ones to lure out their prey.

Ten meters away. My body is in hell, razor-like pins and needles enclosing my indisposed limb. This close to the bottleneck, animals swarm past me, knocking against my knees, tangling between my feet. Fifteen seconds to midnight.

The chasers' frothing, lolling tongues garble nonsense. Squelching as a pack of them overtake a deer. Ripping and tearing, wet chewing right off the bone.

Seven seconds. I'm at the bottom of the ramp and start to hobble up it, pushed and shoved by the mob.

Something rams into my bad leg, right in the weak flesh behind the knee. I fall forward, hand extended safely into the house. My nails dig into the old wood, heaving myself forward as I'm trampled. Elbow, head, shoulder, torso—

The mist fattens into plump drops, drops into a deluge. The moon wakes up.

With the flow of the animal stampede I manage to haul my legs inside right as a chaser snaps at my ankle. It snarls at me, blood-soaked fur sticking to its face. Its feet stomp angrily as it bounds around the doorframe, snapping at the barrier. Behind it, the world is ensconced in maroon, whipping wind yanking autumn leaves from the trees. It's a battlefield, a blood bath of twitching desperate corpses who think they still have a chance—

The hem of grandma's paisley dress blocks my view as she steps in front of me, closing the door and snicking the lock. Her pink slippers scuff the hardwood floor as she turns next to the window, blowing on the ever-candle—it only dims to a small spark, refusing to die. Outside, the moon shrieks back at the earth, angry to see the squirming trespassers. Bright red forks of lightning snap across the sky, cracks resounding through the valley—

Grandma tugs the curtains shut. Her smile is warm as she turns around. "I'm so glad you made it, Julie. Meat pie?"

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