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Warning: there are violent scenes of torture/death.

The Stray Dogs - 39. A Touch of Madness

The woods were still and silent, the trees standing tall like vigil guardians. Crow moved through them, snow crunching beneath his feet. Two dead rabbits dangled from a piece of cord strapped to his belt. As soon as he got home he would skin them and prepare them for stew. After dinner he would give Aunt Lena a bath and get her ready for bed.

For almost a year it had been this way, day in and day out. He got up and fixed Aunt Lena breakfast. His life had become a repetitious cycle of tasks all geared towards keeping Aunt Lena and him alive. Though town was just two miles away they were isolated, alone. The only time Crow went into town was when he absolutely had to. He loathed to leave Aunt Lena alone for long periods of time as she’d started trying to hurt herself lately and even more he loathed to brave the disgusted looks and whispers the townspeople threw his way when they saw him coming.

Within the blink of an eye he’d been thrown into adulthood. He’d stopped telling himself it wasn’t fair long ago. No one else was going to help Aunt Lena. The town healer had only visited once to tell him Aunt Lena would die - there was nothing she could do, nothing she would do was what she really meant. Crow had no choice but to step up whether he wanted to or not, and Aunt Lena was all he had left, all he’d ever had. Yet with each passing day, week, and month he wished more and more death would take her. He was ashamed of these feelings but he didn’t know how much longer he could go on like this.

At long last he reached the wood’s clearing, coming out just beside the chicken coup. He followed his footsteps still imprinted in the snow up to the back door of the white cedar and pine house and let himself into the kitchen. He set the dead rabbits in the pail he kept by the door. He would skin them in a moment but first he wanted to check on his aunt. He went through the dining room to the parlor and climbed up the steps. Aunt Lena’s bedroom was at the end of a long hallway just past his bedroom. He crept carefully down the hallway so as not to wake her in case she was asleep. He peeked inside. She was laying on her side in her four poster canopied bed. Her back was turned to him. It seemed she was asleep and had not woken up since he’d left. He let out a sigh of relief.

He went back down the stairs to the kitchen and began the process of skinning the rabbits. With a large, sharp knife he made a long vertical slit in their bellies. With one and then the other he pulled off the skin and then the legs. Two of the most important things Aunt Lena had taught him was how to make rabbit traps and skin what he caught. It was a good survival skill to use year round but it was especially important during the winter months when temperatures tended to plummet below zero. Within minutes he had the rabbits fully skinned and ready to cook. He’d just finished tossing the remains in the trash can and wiping down the counters when he heard the sound of shattering glass from upstairs.

“Shit,” he said. He slammed the knife down on the counter. Wiping his hands with a dish towel, he ran into the parlor and took the stairs three at a time. He found his Aunt Lena sprawled on the floor. She had broken a pottery vase and was now cutting her arms with it. “I want to die!” she wailed; blood was streaming from the cuts. “It hurts, my head always hurts! I’m tired of the pain! I want to dieeeee!

Crow went to her and tried to pry the shard of glass from her fingers without cutting her further or cutting himself. It wasn’t easy. Though the tumor had affected her mind it didn’t stop Aunt Lena from fighting. When she threw her fits she could be very strong and violent.

“Let go!” Crow shouted. The glass was biting into his fingers and palm, cutting them both. Blood was dripping on her nightgown.

Leave me alone!” she wailed. “Let me die!

“Get back in bed,” he said. With bloody fingers he started scooping up shards of the glass. He was bleeding everywhere - they both were.

With a howl Aunt Lena threw herself at him, slapping at his back. “Get out! Get out, get out, GET OUT!

In the end Crow had to wrestle her over to the bed and sit her down. Scooping the glass back up he went into the bathroom and threw it in the bathtub along with the remains of the vase. He cleaned and bandaged his cut hands. When he went back into the bedroom to do the same with Aunt Lena she seemed to have calmed down. Her cheeks were flushed from crying. He led her into the bathroom, cleaned the wounds, and bandaged them up. With a sponge and a bucket of soapy water he cleaned up the blood and helped her change into a fresh nightgown. He put Otis Redding on the record player for her. After several minutes Aunt Lena seemed to come back into herself.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” she said, “I don’t know what got into me.

“You didn’t hurt me too bad.”

She shook her head. “You’re just a sixteen-year-old boy, Crow. You shouldn’t have to take care of me. The lapses are getting worse. I’m a danger to myself and to you. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did anything to you.”

“Nonsense. I’m going to take care of you. I have nothing better to do.”

“I can’t do this anymore.” There were tears in her voice again. “Not another day.”

Crow looked at her. His lips trembled and his eyes had gone glassy with tears. “What are you saying?”

Aunt Lena clenched her jaw, obviously determined to keep the tears at bay. “You know what I’m saying.”

Crow began to weep. He stood up. Suddenly he hated this room, this house, and this town. He hated his life. He wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else. “You can’t ask me to do this.”

“I am asking you. Begging you.” Gently she took his bandaged hand in her bandaged hands. For years, decades I’ve healed people, their injuries, their illnesses. This is the cost and I must pay it. Either way I’m going to die. I know I shouldn’t be asking you this but I am.”

Crow knew his aunt spoke the truth and deep down inside he knew, like her, he couldn’t do this much longer. Each day seemed to drag for an eternity, its own private hell. More and more he found himself resenting her, resenting her illness. But also he was afraid. What would he do when she was gone? How would he survive in this town, where everyone hated him? There was nothing for him here.

Her death was inevitable; there was no magic in the world that could prevent it from happening. It was only a matter of time.

“How?” he asked.

“Go to see the town apothecary,” she said. “She can give you something that will make it quick and painless. It will be just like going to sleep.”

He went to the window and looked out. Pale daylight lit one half of his face while the other was in shadow. His face was anguished, haunted. He couldn’t bring himself to look at his aunt though he could feel her eyes burning a hole in his back.

I’m not really thinking about doing this, am I?

A voice spoke in his mind, answering. It was a familiar voice, seeming to come from a great distance: Crow, you need to wake up. This isn’t real.

Crow frowned. Where did that come from?

He forced himself to look at his aunt. “I’ll do it. But I hate you for asking me. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”

She nodded and laid down. Crow tucked her in then pulled on his coat and boots. With all the snow it would be a long walk into town, one he wasn’t looking forward to.

He stopped in the doorway, looking back at her.

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His eyes bulged out of his head and for a moment he was sure he might scream.

It was not Aunt Lena that lay in her bed but a monster. Mostly goat but part human it looked back at him with red eyes, its hooves dangling over the edge of the bed. The curves of its antlers were covered in blood.

Crow heard another distant voice echoing inside his head: It gets in your head and makes you see things. There’s been times where I’ve seen my victims...the people I’ve killed. They taunt me. And other times it’s like I relive things. Memories. And it feels so real. Only there are...discrepancies…

Crow clenched his eyes shut and shook his head. “I’m not really seeing what I think I am,” Crow said. “I just need some more fresh air. A walk into town will do me some good.”

He opened his eyes again. Just as he suspected it was not a demon that lay in bed but Aunt Lena and she had fallen asleep.




 

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