“Ugh, I can’t believe she isn’t dead yet!”
Terra Joy crossed her arms and pouted in the passenger seat and Grant loved her fiercely for her gross selfishness. For her open hostility. For the honesty of her wickedness. Loved her with a fire burning cold in his heart.
“Isn’t that your grandmother?” he laughed.
Terra Joy fumed.
“So?” she asked.
It was that sort of bold crassness, that malicious breaking of social norms, that had first attracted him to her. She was a Valkyrie, an ancient goddess of war, taking what she wanted by force without apology or remorse. And the fact that she wanted him with that same cruelty? That she wanted him with that same animal need? It was satisfying in the extreme. Like receiving an “A” on a difficult and important test he hadn’t even known he was taking.
“You’re so fucked up,” Grant said, but he was young enough to think that could mean the same thing as I love you.
Red spots came to Terra Joy’s pale cheeks and they only made her more gorgeous. It was impossible to tell if the spots came from anger or happiness, and he loved the danger of not knowing.
“Don’t look! I can’t believe she’s just doing that right out in the open… she’s so gross.”
It was hard to look away from that face at all, let alone follow Terra Joy’s gaze through the dusk, but when Grant saw what she beheld he couldn’t help but laugh. And it was all the more hilarious because it was horrifying to Terra Joy that he should be amused. But how could he not laugh? He’d never seen a woman chew tobacco, let alone a woman in her seventies.
“This is awful! She’ll ruin everything!” Terra Joy moaned.
His range-rover crested a sandy dune, bringing the river into view and Grant found himself riveted. Illuminated by the headlights, Terra Joy’s whole family milled about by the river. Dozens of them, men and women, shifting around by the water enjoying their Family Reunion. Except for the old woman chewing tobacco by the fire.
It wasn’t until later, in those last few minutes of life when the speed of his thoughts would accelerate to his brain’s full potential, that he’d remember that there were no children and wonder why.
“Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll charm her,” Grant said, but he was so nervous it came out of his mouth as a jumble and he cursed himself for an idiot. Terra Joy seemed not to have noticed and he flushed with relief. It wouldn’t do to be weak in front of her. It wouldn’t do at all.
Appearance was everything to Terra Joy.
“I hate when they bring her! Grandma Ella is the worst! All she does is talk about the old days. How it was different! How the traditional ways are best! She’ll be on me about my clothing in no time, wait and see! I wish she’d just die already! She’s as old as the dark itself! Some of us younger girls need a chance to lead!”
The old woman was draped all in black, clothed in something like a shawl or a cape, expression scrunched and jaw working furiously. Her face cratered inward around her mouth like her flesh was made of dough and someone had poked her lips with their finger.
Maybe Terra Joy hadn’t noticed his fumble because she’d been so incensed by the imperfection of her own relative? Didn’t that mean Terra Joy the weak one? Did that make him the strong one? Grant, unable to stop himself, brought a hand up to his mouth to stifle another fit of laughter.
“Lead what?” he asked between giggles.
“You wouldn’t understand. You’re too stupid. Even after all I’ve done for you, you’re just too stupid.”
She adjusted the spaghetti straps of her blouse and examined herself in the mirror for a moment.
“You heard me, don’t pretend you didn’t. That’s so fucking pathetic to pretend you didn’t hear. Never say I didn’t tell you what this was. I’ve been honest with you from day one,” and with that Terra Joy was out of the car.
Grant set his jaw and promised himself that he’d find a way to force an interaction between Ella and Terra Joy. Then he’d get even, and nothing made him happier than when he got even. Nothing in the whole world.
He parked the car and got out to follow, furious.
She always tested him in moments like this, when he felt most vulnerable.
Presently, Ella sat in a fold-out chair halfway between the river and the hill that hid the Family from view. A fire crackled to one side of her. Every now and again, she turned her head to spit in a brass bucket. It made a ping like a small dinner bell.
“Is that a spittoon?” Grant asked, a little too loudly.
Ella turned her head. Her eyes flickered orange in the reflected firelight. Grant swallowed hard, wishing he’d thought to keep quiet. Wished he hadn’t tried to hurt Terra Joy by drawing the old woman’s focus. Wished for a moment that he’d never met Terra Joy. Suddenly, he didn’t feel very strong at all. Didn’t feel that getting even would be possible, or worth it.
The drunken confidence and love of competition that Terra Joy usually gave him fizzled away like champagne bubbles.
Ella’s eyes were the hangover.
In the two weeks since he’d met Terra Joy, he’d done things he’d never thought himself capable of doing. Led discussions in class, impressed professors, been promoted at his jobs. Felt strong and certain and powerful. Yelled at waitresses, insulted random people for physical deformities, screamed at his mother for being poor…
“Hey, maybe it’s not such a good idea for me to meet your family,” but it was a mumble and no one heard him.
Terra Joy stopped and turned, several feet ahead, impatiently motioning for him to follow.
“What? No, it’s not a spittoon. It’s a… I hate that thing. This is so frustrating. I’m going to text my mom.”
Ella’s eyes had not turned from Grant and he felt what could only be described as a goose walking over his grave.
“What business is your family in again?” he asked in a weak voice.
“Culinary arts,” she snapped.
Doubt rushed in. He’d been surprised that Terra Joy cared enough to invite him to a Family Reunion. Understandably, she had wanted them to come later in the day. She’d been insistent they come no earlier than dusk. She explained that way if her family hated him she could minimize the damage. Appearance again. Appearance was important to the whole family.
Were the old woman’s eyes orange or was it just the fire? He felt as he had before Terra Joy had found him. A dumb little fish in a pond full of sharks playing checkers against chess masters.
“Goddamn that old woman! Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing, Ella! I know when my glamours are being fucked with! Fine! See, Ella? The final chance, just like the old ways! You insufferable old witch!” Terra Joy walked up until she was no more than a few inches from Grant’s face and smiled as she laid a hand on the side of his face, “Don’t you want this? Wouldn’t you give anything for this? With me you can have wealth, beauty and power. Wouldn’t you give anything for that?”
Her breath was silk against his skin. Swallowing, he reminded himself that there were things to learn here. Pleasures to be had with Terra Joy.
“Yes,” he croaked.
Grant would get rid of the look of rural Tennessee if it killed him. Isn’t that why he’d worked so hard in school? Why he had done all those horrible things? What was an awkward reunion compared to that?
And besides, there was nothing to go back to.
He’d already told his mother she was dead to him.
Terra Joy had given him a blow job immediately afterward.
It had been the most thrilling experience of his entire life.
He took a step forward. Grant waved hello to the family with what he hoped was a presentable smile, although the whole time he just wished that he’d had braces as a kid.
“Just walk and shut up, your presence is required not your participation,” said Terra Joy.
All of the family turned to watch. All of them silent. All of them staring. They all seemed so young. All so perfect. All but Ella, who still watched him from the other side of the fire as they neared her, the faint sliver of a crescent moon rising up behind her. Only now she seemed to be smirking and…
Grant held up a bottle of wine he’d brought, awkwardly.
“Are you going to intro-” he started.
A woman cut him off.
The woman who ran forward was too young to be Terra Joy’s mother, surely. She couldn’t have been thirty. Not even close to thirty. Perhaps not even twenty-five. The only reason Grant would think, even for a moment, that she was Terra Joy’s mother was because Terra Joy said so.
The surprise stopped him in his tracks. Everyone here was so young. Everyone was so beautiful.
Except the old woman. Except her. Except Ella, to whom his eyes kept returning, for some reason he couldn’t quite place. There was something wrong with that tobacco…
“I see you brought dinner!” Terra Joy’s mother said with a smile.
Something was awful in the woman’s smile. Something not right about the teeth, though it made him feel better about his own teeth.
It was hard to remind himself that these were good people. Attractive people. Rich people. People who didn’t know the ins and outs of what you could and could not buy with food stamps. Not people like his mother who worked dead-end cleaning jobs for fourteen hours a day because they’d been dumb enough to get pregnant at fourteen.
“Just wine, actually!” said Grant.
He held it up and was relieved when everyone laughed, then he had the disconcerting sense that the laughter was directed at him. Blushing, he realized his mistake. No way he should have brought grocery store wine. Not for these people. Better to bring nothing. There was still too much of the trailer park in him, even after all the work he’d done.
The family gathered around Terra Joy, embracing her, complimenting her beauty, whisking her away. He stood still, near the light of the fire, feeling too awkward to move.The Family said things to each other and it took a moment to realize whatever was said, it wasn’t said in English. But it sounded cruel, harsh, growling.
As one, the family jumped in the river, in their suits and fine clothes and began splashing one another. It was so abrupt, so eccentric, and so odd that Grant jolted.
“If you run, you might make it.”
He turned around. The old woman regarded him from the other side of the fire.
The old woman spit into the brass bucket.
There was a coppery scent in the air, but he couldn’t quite pin it down. Again there was something wrong with the teeth. Was it some sort of genetic deformity? He’d read about those in biology. How the Amish were all related to one another, and therefore more prone to dwarfism, polydactylism and a whole other host of diseases. Perhaps there was something similar in this Family.
“Their vanity is the only weakness they share. They love each other so much that they’ll be distracted for a few minutes. You might make it.”
Terra Joy had warned him that Ella hadn’t been the same since moving from the old country.
“Maybe I’ll go get Terra Joy and tell her you’re not feeling well,” he took a few steps toward the river to excuse himself.
The old woman cackled.
“I’m fine, child. I’m just old. I don’t have the hunger as they do. It is the hunt that excites me. The Rituals of Breaking. Watching your humanity fray as terror sets in, your principles crumble, your loves fail, so all that’s left is a scared animal. Ugh, I hate earlobes. They always get stuck in my fangs.”
Ella spit again, something small and meaty. It landed in the spittoon this time with a splat.
Splashes behind him.
Terra Joy’s family seemed at intervals to be flying out of the river water in twenty or thirty foot arcs. One of them appeared to be floating above the water’s surface doing backflips.
They were playing catch with decapitated heads, and suddenly he saw tents that hadn’t been there a moment ago. A barbecue and some coolers. Everything that a normal family reunion might have on hand. The tents were ripped apart. Slash marks as though from a giant animal. One of the Family dove for a catch and missed. A head landed a few yards away, hidden slightly under a bush, staring at him. The face was old and male. Its eyes were hazel.
He turned back to Ella.
She grinned. The teeth were long and sharp. Carnivorous.
“We are fresh awoken, Reunited, and the time for Breaking is upon us. You are the sacrifice selected by Terror of Joy. The Family is abroad. It is time to run.”
That’s when Grant finally noticed what had been bothering him about the tobacco.
It was red.