“Hey, go tell that kid his mom is dead!”
Terra Joy pressed her finger into Grant’s back. He took an involuntary step forward, sloshing his drink over his hand. The gravel beach crunched as he staggered another few steps to catch his balance, bringing him within inches of the roaring campfire. Grant teetered for a precarious moment, flirting with the flames. He felt the heat tingling on the tip of his nose and lips, before falling back and righting himself.
Across the campfire, in an old lawn chair more rust than metal, Terra Joy’s grandmother reached into a bag and stuffed another plug of chewing tobacco into her lower lip as she watched him. The old woman, Ella, had not shown the slightest concern at the sight of Grant almost falling into the fire. She’d only sat there, watching.
Perhaps she was senile.
Grant did his best to smile. A smile to help soothe his nerves. Ella smiled back, something ugly and wrong with her mouth, and Grant averted his eyes as quick as he could. He didn’t know her well enough to do anything else.
“Jesus! Could you be a bit more careful!” he hissed to the woman behind him.
Terra Joy laughed. Worse, her entire Family laughed. They were dotted in little groups here and there, talking among one another in the pitch black underneath looming pine trees. They had all turned from their conversations to laugh at Grant, like shadows come to life, only the whites of their eyes and teeth visible. Grant started to shrink back toward the fire when Terra Joy’s arms wrapped around his waist.
“Awww, is my wittle Monument scared?”
Grant shook her off, trying to straighten his already straight hem lines. Trying to shake off… something else. He put down his now empty drink on the ground and dried his hand off on a patch of dry leaves. Still, there was something wrong that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“I almost fell into a fucking campfire and I’m on an awkward date with a girl I just met, and oh it’s at her family reunion, so yes I’m a little bit put off. And quit it with the nickname. Monument? That’s no kind of a nickname. I told you I don’t like it.”
It was a shit nickname, too. It sounded like what his schoolmates had called him as a child. Monumental Grant Morris. Though their relationship was only a week old, and Grant couldn’t be sure of much, he was sure if Terra Joy knew he had been fat as a child that she would leave him in a heartbeat. After the way she had reacted to finding out he was poor there could be no doubt.
“This isn’t our first date, wittle Monument. And I think we both know I’m more than a ‘girl you just met.’ Aren’t I, wittle Monument? What do you think your mom would say if she knew you’d abandoned her for some stranger?”
Terra Joy leaned forward, and pressed her lips to Grant’s own. His heart pounded like it wanted to crack open his ribs. Grant’s neck seemed to swell until it felt like his collar was strangling him. All thoughts of his mother, on hospice care and attached to a dozen different beeping pieces of medical equipment with no one to monitor them or tend to her -alone in her trailer for the last seven days- fled Grant’s mind completely.
There was only Terra Joy, and the pleasures she offered. Her lips left his after an epoch. Terra Joy leaned in close again, and whispered into his ear.
“Now, go tell that fucking kid his mom is dead.”
There was a boy standing in the approximate middle of Terra Joy’s family gathering. Dressed poorly, the boy stood there staring at the river and had not moved once since Grant had arrived at the reunion an hour ago. The boy stood there alone, with a slack-jawed stare, almost drooling. Well, Grant figured, every family had at least one person with special needs.
“Isn’t he your cousin or something?” Grant leaned back in for another kiss, but Terra Joy took a step backward, further into the dark and further toward the child.
“Cousin? Yeah, I guess. Ella says so. Come on, let’s go tell him. It’ll be a scream!” Terra Joy shouted, loud enough for everyone to hear although they couldn’t have known what she was talking about.
It was that sort of bold crassness, that malicious breaking of social norms, that had first attracted Grant to her. That had lit a cold fire burning in his heart. And the fact that she wanted him with that same cruelty? That she wanted him with that same animal need? Grant’s whole body shuddered with pleasure and it was an effort to keep walking straight.
“You’re so fucked up,” Grant muttered under his breath, too quiet for any ear but his own, but spoken in the same way he would have said I love you.
Red spots, barely discernible in the darkness, came to Terra Joy’s pale cheeks and they only made her more attractive. It was impossible to tell if the spots came from anger or happiness, and Grant loved the danger of not knowing.
There was a ping behind him. Terra Joy’s disgusting grandmother was using her spittoon again. The sound of it stopped Grant for some reason. The sound seemed to reverberate through his entire body. Grant looked around at Terra Joy’s family, dumbstruck, and bewildered at how he had found himself to be there.
First, he had gone skydiving. Had that only been a week ago? He’d felt dead on the plane, thinking of his mother, feeling rotten for having pawned her jewelry to get the money to go do something as stupid and as selfish as skydiving, but hoping that looking his own death in the face might help him remember what it was like to be alive. Then, Terra Joy had been there on the plane with him out of nowhere. She had somehow, against all laws and regulations, convinced the instructors to let them do their first jump solo. Part of Grant had objected, yes, but another part was thinking of how nice it might be to not pull the cord. If he didn’t pull the cord he wouldn’t have to go back to the little trailer with his dying mother… Then Grant and Terra Joy had found each other falling through the night sky. Terra Joy had kissed him, pulled his cord and she had not left his side since.
They’d raced cars, while she blew him. They’d skied down a mountainside with only the light of a crescent moon to guide them. Later, they’d stripped one another naked in the snow, daring frost to bite them as he fucked her in the ass and felt that this and only this was what it meant to be alive.
How had they come to be at the reunion again?
How had he come to be at the reunion?
Was his mother still alive?
There was a group nearby with Terra Joy’s Uncle Richard and his wife Rose and a tall gaunt boy. For a moment, Grant was overcome with the scent of dog piss, as if he’d wandered into the lair of a wolf. The smell of it overpowered him and he doubled over, retching.
Grant turned again and there was Terra Joy’s Uncle Silas and his wife Melanie, talking to their ostentatious teenage son who was wearing, of all things, a top hat. Strange clothing choices must have run in the Family because their daughter, Lisbeth, who looked like a porn star, wore white long sleeve gloves with a sparkling dress cut so low she might pop out. Lisbeth met his gaze and smiled.
“Why cousin, your friend is looking a little lost. I worry if you don’t let me steal him from you that he might just Break your Name,” Lisbeth said.
Dumbfounded, Grant turned his head one way and another trying to clear his thoughts. Something was wrong here, too. Something off like the wolf smell of the other group. When Grant looked at this particular gathering, in the back of his mind, he could hear the flap of leathery wings.
“I’d never break her heart,” Grant murmured.
For some reason that made everyone laugh again.
“Do you need an intervention, niece? Why, there’s all sorts of things I’m sure this young man Wants,” Terra Joy’s Uncle Silas stepped forward, smooth and aristocratic. His hair was combed straight back, his eyes like dark pits in the night. “What do you say, Monument, what do you Want and what don’t you Need?”
Terra Joy’s other uncle, Richard, blustered in, swarthy and sweaty, stinking of body odor, cigars, and whiskey.
“Don’t fucking listen to that slick fucker! He’ll make you regret it in the end. He’s the worst of us and even I hate him! Silas never met a person he wouldn’t betray even his own Family. Listen, I get where you’re coming from son. I hate that ol’ bitch just as much as you. Making you do all those chores, counting out her pills, changing out her bedpan, eating your life day by day. I’d’ve killed her forever ago. Put something in her IV bag. It’d be a mercy but don’t forget that she deserves it too.” Grant felt one of Richard’s large hands guiding him away toward the far side of the clearing.
“Stick with me, kid. I knew you could have been mine the second she brought you over-”
In a half second lull of silence, there was another ping. Terra Joy’s grandmother had struck her spittoon again. Grant peered over Richard’s shoulder and he could see Ella standing on the other side of the campfire.
“Enough! You will do it right or not at all! Terror of Joy, attend your Monument! Complete the Ritual!”
Something wrong about the mouth still, Grant thought. Something wrong about the way she’d said Terra Joy’s name. Still… Grant couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Terra Joy was by Grant’s side again, the rest of the Family having retreated back into their groups, but now they all watched him nakedly, as if wanting something of him he could not understand.
“This is awful! Just because this is my first big run they don’t have to treat me like a kid. They’ll ruin everything!” Terra Joy moaned.
“Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll charm them,” Grant slurred, 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!” she whispered. “Grandma Ella is the worst! All she does is talk about the old days. How the traditional forms are best! I wish she’d just die already! She’s as old as the dark itself! Some of us younger girls deserve a chance to lead!”
Seated again, Ella 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.
“Lead what?” Grant asked between giggles.
“You wouldn’t understand. You’re too stupid. Even after all I’ve done for you, you’re just too stupid.”
Terra Joy adjusted the spaghetti straps of her blouse and sighed.
“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.”
Ella’s eyes flickered orange in the reflected firelight. The old woman was watching him.
Grant swallowed hard, wishing he’d thought to keep quiet. Wishing, for a moment, that he’d never met Terra Joy. Suddenly, Grant wondered if any of the pleasures he had experienced with Terra Joy were worth the cost.
A gust of wind batted at the flames of the fire and for a moment Ella’s eyes seemed more yellow than orange. They seemed to glow with their own light. The drunken confidence and love of competition that Terra Joy usually gave Grant fizzled away like champagne bubbles. Ella’s eyes were the hangover.
Ella’s eyes had still 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?” Grant asked in a weak voice.
“Culinary arts,” Terra Joy snapped.
Were the old woman’s eyes truly yellow or was it just the fire? Ella’s eyes dragged at him. Grant felt as he had before Terra Joy had found him. Awkward and ungainly. He was a dumb little chubby fish in a pond full of sharks. A stupid kid 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! The choice to reclaim power! You insufferable old witch!”
Terra Joy walked forward until she was no more than a few inches from Grant’s face. Her ample cleavage pressed up right against his chest. Terra Joy smiled as she laid a hand on his cheek. Grant took his hand and put it on her hip and smiled.
“Do you want danger? Do you want to face death so you can find the thrill of living? Will you do whatever it takes, at whatever cost, to seek out Terror for your own Joy? With me you can have Joy beyond knowing. Joy beyond what you could ever find elsewhere. Joy so great you could never comprehend its source. And with me you can face your Terror of such Joy. Would you give anything for that?”
Terra Joy’s breath was silk against his skin. Swallowing, Grant reminded himself that there were things to learn here. Pleasures to be had with Terra Joy. What other girl would fuck you while your sick mother called you, with what sounded like her dying breath, to ask when you were coming home?
“Yes,” Grant croaked.
“Fuck yes!” shouted Terra Joy, loud enough to echo off a rock face on the other side of the river. It didn’t startle Grant. It was almost as if he expected it. “First fucking one! You hear that, Ella? I got my first one!”
Terra Joy skipped away toward the river, the other pockets of her Family slinking toward her from out of the shadows. Terra Joy stripped off her clothes, laughing. The Family congealed around her like drops of water adhering to one another. They flowed toward the river like a shadowy rivulet. Other clothes joined the pile. The whole reunion, except for Ella and the special boy, was stripped naked and walking into the river.
Grant looked back toward his car. He thought of getting in and driving away. Except…
There was nothing to go back to.
He’d already told his mother she was dead to him. She’d been delirious, probably surprising even herself that she’d managed to get to the phone and make a call, but she’d understood what he’d told her. Grant’s words had left his mother weeping while Terra Joy brought him to climax. It had been the most thrilling experience of Grant’s entire life.
Grant took a small step toward the river.
The Family had gathered around Terra Joy, embracing her, complimenting her beauty, raising her up over their heads and the river. No sight could be more beautiful than Terra Joy’s naked body by moonlight. Grant hesitated by the light of the fire, feeling too awkward to move. Was he supposed to strip now, too?
The Family said things to one another and it took a moment for Grant to realize whatever was said, it wasn’t said in English. It sounded cruel, harsh, almost like growling.
“If you run, you might make it.”
Grant jolted and turned around. Ella regarded him from the other side of the fire. He lowered his hand from his throat, realizing he’d already undone the first few buttons of his shirt.
The old woman spit into the brass spittoon.
There was a coppery scent in the air. Grant couldn’t quite pin it down. Again, there was something wrong with Ella’s teeth. Some sort of genetic deformity, perhaps?
“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,” Grant took a few steps toward the river.
The old woman cackled.
“I’m fine, child. I’m just old. I don’t have the hunger as they do. It is the Ritual that excites me. The Rituals of Breaking and 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 came from behind Grant.
Terra Joy’s Family seemed at intervals to be flying out of the river in twenty or thirty foot arcs. One of them appeared to be floating above the water’s surface doing back flips. Silas hovered in the air without falling, an expression of intense boredom write plain on his face.
In the middle distance was the boy, the one Terra Joy had pointed to earlier. He no longer looked slow or dimwitted. He looked lost. Small with a great shag of black hair. He looked dirty and uncared for. Above all, he looked terrified.
The Family began playing catch with decapitated heads. Grant looked closer to the river and saw tents that hadn’t been there a moment ago, along with a barbecue and some coolers. The campsite held everything that a normal family reunion might have on hand. Things Terra Joy’s own reunion had lacked.
The tents were ripped apart. Slash marks had destroyed the fabric as though savaged by a giant animal. One of the Family dove for a catch and missed. The head landed a few yards away, obscured slightly under a bush, staring at him. The face was young and female. The eyes were hazel.
“Hey kid,” said Grant, with numb lips he couldn’t even feel, “I think your mom’s dead.”
The boy still stood there, still not doing anything. Granted noticed a spreading wet spot on the front of the boy’s pants.
Grant turned back to Ella.
She grinned. Her teeth were long and sharp. Carnivorous.
“We are fresh awoken, Reunited, and the time for Breaking is upon us. You are the Monument 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.