“Something followed me home again.” Alicia slung her school bag in the corner of the room and headed straight for the fridge.
It had been a long time since something had followed her home. Now that Alicia was nearing seventeen, Diane thought that she’d stopped bringing home strays.
“Where is it?” Diane asked.
Alicia held a drumstick in one hand and an apple in the other. She waved the drumstick like a negligent conductor. “Outside the front door.”
Diane sighed. She was the one who fed and fussed over the things, overcompensating for her daughter’s indifference to the besotted creatures. She always wanted to keep them, but her husband would never allow them in the house. Anyway, they were always gone by morning, often without a trace but occasionally leaving little mementoes of fur or feathers or scales. The last one had left a large puddle of viscous black goo on the doorstep, as if it had dissolved there in the night.
She opened the door.
“Oh, it’s so….ew.”
Even with her hyperactive mothering instinct, Diane wasn’t tempted to keep this one.
It was bigger than the others, about the size of a labrador. Several large yellowing fangs jutted up from its lower jaw. Its eyes were set wide on either side of a squat skull, and they seemed to roll independently of each other in rheumy sockets. Large black warty bumps covered its dun-coloured hide. As it caught sight of Alicia coming up behind her, it began to drool with excitement, its breath labouring through flattened nostrils. Its paddle-like tail thumped vigorously, sending up dust clouds from the door mat.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” said Alicia sarcastically. “I think I’m going to call him Stinky.” Alicia crouched and offered the creature the drumstick. It extruded a long slimy tongue and used it like a prehensile limb to take it from her. Shards of bone fell like crumbs from either side of its mouth as it ate.
“You call all of them Stinky.”
But Alicia was already walking away.
“What the fuck is that thing guarding the front door? It wouldn’t let me in.” Tim tracked mud in from the back yard across Diane’s freshly mopped kitchen floor. He grabbed a beer from the fridge and stood at the kitchen bench taking long pulls from the bottle.
“Just something that followed Alicia home from school.” Diane refrained from stating the obvious – he was late again, and his dinner was slowly cooling on the table.
“You’re still bringing home strays? Thought you’d stopped all that shit.”
Alicia shrugged. Tim slid into his seat and looked sideways at his daughter as he loaded his plate from the serving dishes in the centre of the table.
“And while we’re on the subject of growing up, don’t you think it’s about time you stopped wearing pigtails? It was cute when you were five. Now it’s just…” He trailed off, looking to Diane for back-up. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”
They were used to Tim’s ritual; he had to spend the first ten minutes or so after returning home from work complaining and criticizing before he could settle into the role of loving husband and father. Alicia slowly batted her lashes at her father, once, twice, her face a serene mask.
Diane studied her daughter. As was the fashion amongst Alicia’s peers, she wore her school uniform cut perilously short, the hem barely covering her butt. Diane had been jokingly calling her the Perpetual Motion Machine since she was a baby; right now she was jiggling one long, lean, tanned leg under the table. Her breasts strained against the fabric of her blouse, and no wonder, Diane thought – it was last season’s. Diane made a mental note to buy her the next size up.
She looks like a stripper in a naughty school girl costume, Diane thought. She pushed the image aside. “How was your day?” she said to Tim, pointedly changing the subject.
He grunted and pointed towards the front door. “Just make sure you get rid of that thing tomorrow.”
Diane studied herself naked in the mirror. Had she been as gorgeous as Alicia when she was seveneen? She had a feeling that she had, but looking at her sagging chin, her crow’s feet and frown lines, her flabby belly and flaccid breasts, it was hard to remember. I look like I’m melting, she thought, and suppressed a hysterical giggle.
Some days she felt like Sleeping Beauty’s stepmother, seething with jealousy whilst her child grew more beautiful every day. On other days, she was the victim, and Alicia the villain, sucking her life force from her to augment her own and leaving her mother a dried up husk. Perhaps I should dig out some old photos, she thought. Her memories could be playing tricks on her. If she were to look back on her youth and find that she had in fact been plain, it would make her aging easier to bear; she need not mourn the loss of something she never had.
Stinky was still there in the morning. It appeared to have grown a little overnight. And, if such a thing were possible, it had become even uglier. Alicia absently scratched it behind one of its scabby ears as she left for school. Tim exited via the back door. He refrained from commenting on it when he returned that night, focusing instead on the blown light bulb in the hallway and the dirtiness of the kitchen floor. The week came and went, and it appeared that Stinky had succeeded where all the others had failed; through a combination of its persistence and everyone else’s apathy, it had inveigled its way into the family.
Diane didn’t know how it was getting so big. She hadn’t seen anyone in the household feed it, and there was no conspicuous plundering of groceries to suggest that Alicia was sneaking it food. And she didn’t think it was getting nourishment elsewhere either; it spent all its time squatting like a gargoyle on their doorstep. It moved only to let Alicia or Diane through, or to defecate in a corner of the garden. Alicia was spending a little time with it now, stopping after school for a few minutes to pet it and talk to it while it salivated happily on her shoes. Maybe that’s all the nourishment it needs, Diane thought. Or, more likely, it was sneaking out to hunt while they slept. She imagined it loping down the road, its jaws closing on someone’s pet cat, the flying fur and agonised squeal as it dismembered its victim, and her stomach turned.
Diane woke with a start. She could have sworn she’d heard a noise. She shuffled through the dark to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Something tugged at her awareness, and she crossed to the front lounge to draw back a corner of a curtain and peer out.
Stinky stood with its paws on the top of the gate. Its head was thrown back, its throat muscles working in a silent howl. It must have been calling at frequency beyond the range of human hearing; although she could not hear it, she could feel it, vibrating in her bones. Her heart raced, her mouth flooded with saliva, the hair on the back of her neck stood erect, and so did her nipples, grazing uncomfortably against her nightgown. She went back to bed and lay awake for what seemed like hours. When she finally fell asleep, she dreamt of King Stinky summoning his army. She dreamt that she watched from the top of a tall medieval tower as hundreds of lesser Stinkys ran through suburban streets to congregate at her door. What do they want? her subconscious whispered. Perhaps if she were to add her howl to King Stinky’s, they could find the strength to break down the door, and they could be upon her in minutes. The thought filled her with a disconcerting mixture of dread and arousal.
Stinky’s siren song must have affected Alicia as well. Either that, or she was coming down with something. She looked pale and felt feverish when Diane pressed the back of her hand to her forehead.
“Go back to bed,” Diane said. “I’ve got to go to work today, but you can ring me if you really need me.”
Even Stinky looked worn out. It dozed on the doorstep and barely looked up when Diane walked past it on her way out. It had become almost as big as a lioness, so it was forced to sprawl in an awkward position with its head and front paws on the door mat, its body on the stairs and its back paws scraping the path.
Lucky bastard, thought Diane. I wish I had the luxury of sleeping it off. Several cups of coffee did nothing to clear the cobwebs from her head. She convinced herself that Alicia needed looking after and left work two hours early. She stopped at the supermarket on the way home, wandered the aisles aimlessly, and ended up leaving with just a king size block of chocolate and a magazine. Sod it, she thought, Tim can pick up takeaway on the way home.
She was dimly aware that something had changed when she got home, but it wasn’t until she was three paces inside the house that she realised what it was. Stinky was not on the doorstep. A quick check out the back confirmed that it wasn’t there either. There were sounds coming from Alicia’s bedroom, muffled through the not-quite-closed door. Diane heard a feminine voice, giggling, and an unidentifiable noise that was like a hybrid purr-growl-slurp. She lingered at the door, alarm mounting, as the giggles gave way to the unmistakable sound of a woman approaching orgasm.
Diane slowly pushed the door open with her fingertips and took a step into the room. Alicia lay naked on her bed, her eyes squeezed shut, oblivious to her mother’s presence. Stinky crouched between her spread-eagled legs, its agile tongue working furiously between them. Alicia arched her back and spasmed with one last breathless scream, then collapsed back onto the bed. Stinky crept up to nuzzle first one nipple, then the other, and came to rest with its full body length pressed against hers. Alicia caressed its bumpy head.
“I love you, Stinky,” she whispered. With her lungs compressed under Stinky’s weight, she sounded how Diane imagined Stinky would talk, if it could.
Diane’s mouth worked soundlessly. That’s not love, she wanted to shout, that’s…
Stinky’s eyes rolled in her direction, its mouth open wide as if it were grinning at her.
Go on, it seemed to say, why don’t you tell her what it really is.
Tracie McBride is a New Zealander who lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children. She won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent for 2007. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 50 print and electronic publications, including Horror Library Vol 4, Dead Red Heart, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Electric Velocipede. She is vice president of the writers’ co-operative Dark Continents Publishing, which released her first short story and poetry collection “Ghosts Can Bleed” in April 2011. Her blog can be found at http://traciemcbridewriter.wordpress.com/