A Safe Place
by Thomas Vaughn
The boy studies my cottage from the edge of the woods. I watch him through the kitchen window. I would estimate his age at around eight or nine, though it is hard to tell when they are malnourished. His coat and pants hang in tatters. It is no mystery why they end up here. I have placed no charms in woods. The birds have not been trained to erase trails of breadcrumbs. Despite what people say, the answer is quite simple.
They have nowhere else to go.
Behind them factories bristle with machines that chop off tiny hands like chicken wings in a butcher shop. Their knees bleed when they are forced to kneel on blocks of wood by reproving parents. They smell the stench of decay coming from the sewers of the Church’s orphanage, the bodies of those who have come before packed like offal in these wretched catacombs. Inside their dwellings they are viewed with contempt, just another mouth to feed. Perverts grasp at them from the gutters with greasy fingers. But most of all, it is the hunger. I keep the fire burning day and night. The smell of food is irresistible.
This one is cautious—a smart boy. The smart ones are always cautious. He has penetrating brown eyes that might flicker with curiosity under better circumstances. But now they are simply inscrutable. He has learned his lessons well. Those eyes study the smoke that trickles from my chimney, some remote calculation working its way through his mind. The lad has not had much reason to trust the world until now. I almost wonder if he is going turn around and wander back into the forest, but then he steps into the clearing, picking his way past the animal pens toward my front door.
It was foolish of me to think he might turn back. They never do that. I am his last hope.
I swing the door open before he has a chance to knock.
“Well now, what’s a fine young lad like yourself doing at an old woman’s door so deep in the woods? You must be lost.”
I smile, my lips cracking like egg shells from the effort.
He mutters something inaudible. I think it is an apology. He sees the fire burning in the corner and the toys scattered on the floor. His lips quiver. A great longing churns behind those eyes.
“I’ve run away from home and I’m hungry,” he manages in a broken voice.
I step aside, allowing him passage. “Oh well! Why don’t you come in? Let a lonely old woman fill your stomach. I’ve always wanted a little boy to keep me company.”
It’s the smell of the stew on the kettle and the cakes in the oven. There is even a small straw mattress in one corner. My cottage promises comforts he has only known in dreams. I watch hunger overwhelm his trepidation as he takes the first step over the threshold. He will not turn back. The thing is preordained to be this way.
“Come and sit,” I coax, ladling a large helping of stew into a wooden bowl at the table. His eyes well with tears of gratitude and I admonish him. “Don’t cry little one. Just eat.”
He dives into the stew while I busy myself in the kitchen. My feet are heavy with the weight of it—this thing I must do. For a moment I wonder if it can be different this time, but I know this is just an empty wish. There are so many of them. I keep up a mindless prattle to put the boy at ease while he devours the food like a starved animal. Carefully the implements of my calling are place on the wooden block before me. The dull glint of the meat saw, tenderizer and deboning knife stare back at me with insect indifference.
He finishes the bowl, then reaches to stroke the head of the large orange cat that has come to snuggle his shins. It is clear he has reached the peak of his contentment on this earth. That is the precise moment that I bring the skull hammer down, striking him behind the left ear. It does not take much force when the blow is precise, and I am something of an expert in these matters. He drops to the floor, his limbs jerking spasmodically. I hit him a second time to make sure. When his body stills, the cat nudges his head. The boy’s face flops into view and I see that the eyes are lifeless. No longer will they behold the ongoing benediction of the seasons.
I return to the wooden block to prepare for the task at hand. It occurs to me to cry, but that will not happen. Old women seldom cry. We have seen too much of the world. Or perhaps we have simply used our allotment of tears. What good will a few more drops do in such an ocean of pain? All I can do is prepare the way.
My stomach growls. Soon I will feast. I smooth the ruined skin of my abdomen to calm the tumult therein, comforted by the knowledge that another one has finally found a safe place.
Thomas Vaughn is a speculative fiction writer whose work encompasses literary horror and dark magical realism. He is a byproduct of the debris field of rural Madison County Arkansas, a place he calls the archive of pain. When he is not writing fiction he is a college professor whose research focuses on apocalyptic rhetoric and doomsday cults.
The website is a little clunky at the moment, but will undergo an overall in January.
Pieces Inspired by this Image
'Children of the Wasteland'
'At the Gate'