Moving to a new town was not on Hattie’s to-do list for the summer.
Her arrival in Applewood brings nothing but strange things to her doorstep. A bendable boy guards an abandoned orchard. A cactus gives her a bullet. A monster made of oil stalks those around her.
And nobody can see them but her.
When traveling consultants show up on her doorstep, a chance encounter with the boy named Jack forces them to confront the monsters and their intertwined fates. Worse yet, the lives of the people she loves now hang by a thread.
When her world collides with another, Hattie must make a choice: save herself or save her parents.
1— A WHIFF OF GASOLINE
A figure stood stretched and alien on a distant hill. As the car rounded a second hill, the figure vanished behind the waving switchgrass and wild rye.
“Did you see that?” Hattie asked her parents. Their trip was in its final stages. Her mom’s head lolled on her shoulder and her dad drove in tired but pleasant expectation.
“See what?” asked her dad.
“Look. There!” The land fell back. Sure enough, there was someone on the hill, someone like an afternoon shadow, thin and elongated. Her mom craned her head and squinted.
“There’s nobody there. Don’t stare at the sun.”
But Hattie wasn’t staring at the sun; she was staring at the figure. Was she the only one who could see it? Maybe she had spots in her eyes from the strong afternoon sunlight, but were spots people-shaped?
“I dunno, that looks like somebody.”
“Well, I don’t see it.” Her mom twisted in her seat to face her directly. Cassandra Flores was pretty, with pink cheeks, dark-brown hair curling over her shoulders, and the bright, sharp look of someone with something to say. But however she stood or sat, whatever her posture, she always gave the impression that she was about to fold her arms over her chest. Hattie’s heart deflated. She recognized the beginnings of a talk. “Listen, Hattie. I wanted to talk to you about…Well, you know.” Her mom smiled at her. “You. You’ve got to be more out there. Do you understand?” Hattie did understand but didn’t like it. She was good enough at soccer that she would be welcomed in a game. What more did she need to do? “I want you to be more social now that we’ve moved to a new place. This is a new start. I want you to have more friends. And I want people to have a good impression of you. That’s how you make friends and get ahead in life: by making good impressions.”
Her dad cut in, “Personally, I think if you make one good friend, that’s better than a passel of them.” Plump, with a trimmed, black beard, combed black hair, and a green argyle sweater-vest, he had the attitude of someone taking a long pleasant stroll. His new position as a computer engineer made him shine with cheerfulness.
“I guess,” said Hattie slowly. Her mom broke out in a relieved, genuine smile.
“Good! Well, you have all summer before school starts to make friends.”
Hattie’s plans for the move did not involve making friends. In their old neighborhood, Hattie had one friend, a tiny girl she had befriended in kindergarten. Their houses were close enough that Hattie could run out her door, hammer on her friend’s door, and yell “Kate! I found a nest of ladybugs! Come see!”
She would later find the scientific name of the ladybugs in the library reference books. Her eyes would drift down the page, down the Latin names which looked like spell words. She could be lost in her world learning the names of ladybugs, grasses, and birds, not minding that she did this alone.
She had a goal to learn how to braid her dark-brown hair to keep it out of her penny-round face and penny-bright eyes. Her newest plan was to not be like her mom, who thought it was fine to ignore the uncanny.
They moved at the beginning of the summer, two weeks after school let out. Their car trundled along the bends in the road, heavy with their belongings. The prairie hills smoothed, and dogwoods dotted the grass, their branches hanging over the road so that mottled sun licked the car. Houses peeked through the trunks in flashes of painted siding and brick. Finally, the trees fell away and before them sat their new neighborhood with its green lawns shining from the water of whisking sprinklers. Hattie thought that this place might be okay but was too loyal to Kate to say it out loud.
Hattie’s new house was blue as an elephant and two stories tall. Inside was wood floors and white walls with a narrow stair to the second floor.
“Your room is upstairs,” said her dad, hoisting her backpack out of the trunk and handing it to her. “Go see. And tell me if anything needs to be fixed before I leave to meet my boss.”
Her room was behind a small door on the left side of the hall. The seashell-blue walls were freshly painted; the chemical smell lingered. The large window on the wall directly across from the door—her new window, she told herself—framed a strand of birch in the backyard. The house ticked and creaked like a ship at sea in the raging wind.
She took out her notebooks and toys and arranged them on the dresser. They didn’t look as good as they did on her old dresser in her old room. She didn’t understand why they had to move when her dad’s old job was perfectly fine. She didn’t know what higher salary and corporate benefits meant and was angry enough not to care.
Her dad had soothed her by saying, “You can call Kate whenever you want!” But why not just stay so she could see her whenever she wanted? She did have other friends, but Kate was her bestfriend. Now, she didn’t know when, or if, she would see her again.
Her mind drifted back to the person on the hill. What if she would never figure out if the ice cream man really lost his eye in a fight with a terrorist or if the seventh-grade biology teacher really did give donuts to kids who got As on tests? Maybe that person was still there. She thundered down the stairs—already a new pleasure, to thunder down stairs—and ventured outside.
It was one of those summer days where the heat simmered pleasantly, the grass breathed out a nice roasted smell, and clouds built up into castles. Behind the house, the backyard was hemmed by a toothy fence. Beyond the fence, apple trees. They stooped over fallen apples, which littered the ground and released their sickly-sweet odor. She had overheard her dad tell her mom that there was an old apple orchard nearby, but he hadn’t said how close. She squeezed through the fence and walked under their branches to explore.
As she hiked on, the pale gold grass grew as high as her waist and buzzed with insects. Soon the trees stopped being neatly ordered and began to crowd out the sunlight.
“What are you doing here?”
Hattie jumped. A boy stood not far from her, where the light was dimmest. He had thick black hair parted to one side and black eyes. Every bit of him was thin and long, even his mouth and nose. He looked distinctly wrong in a way that she couldn’t put her finger on.
“I’m just walking,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
He took one step and covered two yards. His mouth cinched tight and one eyebrow arched in suspicion. He looked older than her, not by much, but old enough that an adult might listen to him if he decided to get her in trouble. “How did you get in?”
“I walked. I live over there.” She pointed. “I’m Hattie. I just moved here.” She could not help feeling slightly unsettled by him. Up close, she understood what unsettled her: his arms, legs, and fingers were longer than normal and they seemed to bend like rubber, rather than hinge at the joints. “What’s your name?”
“Jack,” he said in a clipped voice. “Hate to be rude, but you need to leave before my uncle finds out you crossed the boundary. He won’t be happy.”
“Boundary?” Hattie asked. “The fence?”
“Yeah…a fence. You reallyshouldn’t be here,” he added. “He doesn’t like trespassers.”
“Oh. I guess I’ll see you around then?”
“Sure.” He didn’t move except to fold his arms, and she realized he wanted to watch her go.
“Well…nice to meet you.” She intended to walk back up the road, but she was caught coming out of the orchard. Her mom’s hands jumped to her hips, and Hattie instinctively tuned out the scolding. But she couldn’t escape. Under her mom’s eye, she trudged back inside to help unpack. She was left frustrated and aching to know who was on that hill and what Jack was doing in the orchard.
Sometime shortly after dinner, she heard the front door opening and her mom’s voice. “Oh hello! It’s nice to meet you!”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” said a familiar voice. She missed what followed, so she cracked open her bedroom door to listen.
She heard her mom say, “Traveling consultants! For what?”
A different, new voice answered her. “All kinds of things. We travel to all parts of the country to talk to people about the problems in their lives and teach them how to fix them. It’s a very rewarding job. We have our own practice and a very generous salary.” The owner of the voice sounded like he had a head cold and was reading from a bad script.
“Hattie? Hattie, come meet our new neighbors!”
Hattie went down the stairs into the dining room. Four strangers sat at the dining table, chatting with her parents. There was a man and a woman both with inflated, shiny, pink skin, butter-yellow hair, and forearms as round as hams. One of the people at the table was the boy from the woods. His eyebrows jumped when he saw her, but he quickly became interested in the half-eaten pizza on the table. The fourth person, a teenage girl, was skeletal with ghostly blonde hair like cobwebs and a dreamy, bored face. Her skin was so transparent that Hattie could see delicate blue veins through her arms and neck. She studied the floorboards and did not move to acknowledge Hattie in any way. One hand made secret movements, as if spelling words in air with her fingers.
“Everyone,” said her mom with a gracious movement toward her. “This is my daughter, Hattie.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said the two other adults together, as if rehearsed.
“We are the Lipid family,” said the man in a voice as high as a mosquito’s.
“I’m Jack,” said the boy, leaping up for a handshake. He gripped her hand until she squirmed. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said, holding her gaze. She caught the significance and, in confusion, could only nod. She guessed that he didn’t want her to admit she’d been trespassing in front of his parents.
“This is Jane, my…cousin,” Jack added.
“Hi,” said Hattie politely. Jane ignored her.
Her mom didn’t miss the rudeness, but also didn’t call attention to it. Instead, she addressed Jack and Jane. “So what school are you two attending? Hattie’s only twelve, so she’ll be going to Applewood Middle School.”
“We’re not going to school,” said Jack stiffly. “We’ll be working with our uncle En Law in his practice and then we’ll move to another town.”
“Unfortunately,” the fat man squeaked, “because there are so few specialized consultants in this world, we must travel to make sure as many people benefit from our services as possible. And En Law is the best. Everyone wants to have him.”
“Maybe we can meet him sometime,” said her mom. “Where is Mr. Law’s practice?”
“En Law,” said the woman, enunciating each word. “His first name is two words. Common mistake. His practice isn’t on the main road. Take Gunter Road through the forest straight there and you can’t miss it.”
Hattie’s dad was standing a little off to the side, nodding occasionally and eyeing the half-eaten pizza. At last, he tore his eyes away from it. “What does he practice?”
“Sorry, what?” asked Jack after a moment. Jane had frozen. Her hand clenched.
“He’s a consultant, right? Is he a law consultant? Tech? Finance?” He continued amiably as Jack and Jane caught each other’s eyes. “I used to be a tech consultant before we moved. Well, I’m still a consultant, but an in-house one. How is he able to support a small practice all the way out here instead of in the city? I’d love to know.”
Jack’s face was neutral the way a schoolboy’s face was neutral before telling a whopping lie. “Why don’t you come visit? He’d love to tell you how.”
“Will do,” said her dad cheerfully.
Hattie thought the visit would never end, but finally the four guests said their goodbyes. Her mom sighed happily. “We’re so lucky to have good neighbors this time. Remember the Hutchinsons?”
Her dad grabbed the remaining slices of pizza. “It would be nice if they were law consultants. If my employer wanted to expand, they could partner with them.”
“They were kind of weird,” Hattie pointed out.
“It’s not polite to say so.” Her mom pinched her lips as she cleared the table. After a moment, she admitted, “They are a little strange. That girl gives me the goosies.”
“I don’t think they were normal.”
Her mom gave her a hard look. “What did I tell you about being nice?”
“I didn’t say it to them! And you think so too!”
“It’s a good thing they didn’t find out how you really behave. They probably would have suggested that I take you to a behavioral consultant!”
“Girls,” said her dad soothingly before his attention drifted to his phone.
Hattie muttered something about going to bed and escaped up the stairs. Each stomp was a satisfying boom in sync with the three words running through her mind: I-hate-them-I-hate-them-I-hate-them…
Tomorrow will be better, she thought and tried to force herself to cheer up. There was nothing to worry about. She would simply avoid them.
“It will be better,” she said to the ceiling.
Her mom announced at breakfast that she was going to host a block party Sunday night to get to know the neighbors. “We’ll have it in the backyard, hang some lanterns on the fence, make some good food…” Her mom, buoyed by her own cheer, bobbed away. Hattie knew this meant more work. She scarfed her pancakes, grabbed her backpack, and snuck out.
It was a clear and sunny day, and the town of Applewood was not so far away that she couldn’t walk there on her own. The rolling prairie surrounded the town like a reef, golden green with switchgrass, bluestem, and coneflower; it lapped at the apartments which lined the city center. Sleepy cafes clustered inside them, toward the center. Their patios were full of parents gossiping with one eye on a group of children who scribbled on the sidewalk in the nearby park. The park was scruffy with dried grass, and at its center, a fountain blossomed into a leaf-choked pool. Applewood looked nice in the way that meant everything interesting happened elsewhere.
After she browsed the dusty windows and read the menus taped to the cafe windows, she found herself looking into a narrow alley. On a wall, just above eye level, hung a small brass sign with an arrow pointing into the alley: En Law’s Consulting Firm.
When she ventured farther into the alley, she saw a plain red door with another sign: En Law’s Consulting Firm. No Legal Advice.
Then what does he do? Hattie wondered. She circled the building. Shops below, office space above. No clues. Why did they have a consulting firm here? Wouldn’t they be downtown? Nobody would find them here except by accident. But she didn’t know a lot about consulting. Maybe there was a good reason. Eventually she gave up, opting to kick rocks around town and browse the windows of the few shops until she grew bored and started back home. Maybe she would find something in the neighborhood.
The road leading from Applewood to the neighborhood cut straight through the prairie. Though she was short, she could see for miles. The prairie was so empty to either side of the road that she noticed a black speck in the distance, like an inkblot on the sky. The speck looked like a person walking with a sway like a heat wave. It might be a statue, albeit an ugly, abstract one. But then how could it walk? And who would make a statue with a face as featureless as the surface of an egg and a body dripping black? It dragged its melting feet through the grass, and a long slick of oil marked its trail far beyond the hills. Beneath the oil, the coneflowers wilted, and the smell of petrol blew across the prairie.
Hattie watched it trudge through the grass. She was weirded out by it, but more than that, she wanted to know what it was.
“Hey!” she called. It moved on methodically. “Hey! Can you hear me?”
Nothing. Hattie found a decent rock and winged it at the thing. The rock clipped its shoulder with a splatter of oil and bounced into the grass, but otherwise the thing did not respond.
“Hey!” The boy from before, Jack, stood near the Applewood city sign holding grocery bags. His horrified gaze switched from her to the thing.
“What?” she called back.
“Is it yours?”
“No.” Why would it be hers? “What is it?”
He gave her a baffled look. When he’d called out, the faceless head had turned, as if looking at him. It slogged in a broad arc and clumped toward him. Jack’s face changed from confusion to alarm.
He snapped, “Hey, stop it!”
“I’m not doing anything!”
But he strode off at a clip, glancing back over his shoulder. Perplexed, Hattie watched him go. The thing sped up. It struggled forward, squelching as it passed her, and slimed onto the road after him.
With nothing better to do, Hattie followed it. How did it move? It seemed to be made entirely out of oil. How did it not lose all the oil? It didn’t seem to be getting smaller or drier. What was it? She couldn’t get too close to it. The smell was nauseating, so she held her T-shirt over her nose and mouth.
A young man in a button-up and slacks talking on his cell phone hurried into their path. He veered into the oil-thing. Hattie winced, but he kept walking and talking; his shirt was spotless. Maybe he’d missed it? A car honked behind her. She hopped to the curb to get out of the way. The thing didn’t. The car smashed through it, oil showering its hood, and all that was left was a smeared puddle. Passing cars tracked the oil across the road, but the tracks shrank back into the puddle. When no cars passed for a minute, the puddle shivered. The surface bent as if someone poked a finger into the center. Stretching, stretching, stretching, high into the air until, with a plip, the point separated from the puddle and hung in the air like a suspended marble. More drops quickly joined the first drop as if magnetized, raining up to it until the surface of the liquid funneled. The oil sculpted itself and reformed the oil-thing again. Finally, it trudged onward to its destination. Not one of the mothers sitting at the cafe spared a glance. The children, who definitely would have done something had they seen the oil-thing, continued playing as if nothing beyond their game existed.
Excited, Hattie kept close to it. It slopped down the sidewalk, seemingly heading to the alley. Hattie heard someone hammering on a door. Jack’s panicking voice rang out, “Hey! Guys! Let me in! Is anyone there?”
Worry crept in. The thing was crawling faster. She ran ahead of the thing and saw Jack peering through the windows of the practice. She shouted, a moment before the oil-thing sloshed into the alley, a moment before Jack’s face distorted with terror, and a moment before the thing arced in a long jet of oil and pounced on him.
Hattie screamed as Jack grappled with it. Its limbs flowed around the thrashing boy. Each of his blows landed with a sucking noise, but did nothing. It enveloped Jack, who fought desperately and yelled. “Help! Jane! En Law! Help!”
Hattie trembled. She needed to stop it. She needed to run. She needed to get help. She needed to hit it with something…
The hands melted together and draped across Jack’s mouth to smother his cries. Hattie slung her bag off her shoulder and whammed it into the thing’s head with a shriek. The head exploded with a magnificent splatter and showered them both in reeking gunk. Jack staggered out of the loosening grip. Oil was smeared across his stark face and dripped from his ruined clothes. The oil body toppled and splashed into a puddle of itself.
All became still. His grocery bags had spilled apples, peaches, and cans into the oil. Two of the mothers from the cafe craned their heads into the alley, their cell phones lifted to their ears.
Jack looked from her to the puddle, then to the women watching them. His expression changed from shock to forced determination.
“We need to go,” he said. He dug through his pockets and took out a fistful of oil-soaked receipts in a wad. He lobbed them at the patch of oil. “It’ll re-form. Come on—go!”
They ran past the women, though they called out. Jack dashed down the prairie road toward the neighborhood, but after a few steps, he veered off and sprinted into the forest. Hattie followed with burning lungs, stumbling as the undergrowth whipped and stung her bare legs. Before long, they were engulfed by the wind-whispery sycamore and locust, as if they’d vanished from the world.
They stopped their breakneck pace when Hattie finally fell, scraping her knees and palms. Jack paced as she got up, muttering, “Come on, come on.”
“Can’t,” Hattie wheezed. All her days of sitting inside and reading were catching up to her. She pulled herself up using branches to lean on like an old woman. Her thoughts were scrambled.
Jack’s eyes darted to everything that moved. His cheeks worked as if he were biting them. He stopped pacing. “Are you really human?”
Hattie gaped at him.
“Say something!” He seemed poised to hit her.
“What?” she said dumbly.
“How can you see and touch the stroilman?”
“Stop saying what!” His cheeks worked harder and he began pacing again. “You could see it, right?”
“What did it look like?”
“A person made of oil.”
“And you have no idea what it was?”
“And when we first met, you had no idea there was a boundary between the orchard and the forest.”
He threw up his hands. “What is happening?”
If he didn’t know, who would?
She asked, “What was that thing? The stroilman?”
The wind strengthened, carrying a whiff of gasoline. Sniffing deeply, Jack’s expression strained. “Listen. Go home and take a bath. Put on fresh clothes and don’t keep anything that you wore today. Dump it all far from your house, so the stroilman won’t find you. And stay inside for a few days. It might be roaming around looking for you or me. Since ordinary people can’t see it, it can go anywhere, including your own house.”
She imagined the stroilman oozing up the stairs one step at a time.
“And please, please don’t tell anyone else what I’ve told you. Not Jane, your mother, nobody. Got it?”
“But what’s going on?”
Jack looked at her with such fright she knew he’d been about to ask her the same thing. “I don’t know. I’ll find you later.” He ran into the orchard and was swallowed by the trees.
The water gushed from the showerhead with a rolling, scalding cloud of steam. Hattie scrubbed herself all over until she felt boiled. As she stepped out and redressed, she was careful not to touch the clothes heaped on her floor.
Her mom was folding the laundry in her room, entranced by the food channel. Hattie, counting her blessings, picked up her clothes with a pair of salad tongs and dumped the whole lot into a plastic garbage bag, tossing the tongs in, too, just in case. She did not trust Jack, but she trusted her gut and it said to bury her clothes in the forest far away from her house.
She left by the back door like a thief. The sky blushed with evening light. Crickets chirped and the porch of the house across from hers was filled with murmuring neighbors sipping iced tea. Hattie tried to look as casual as possible as she walked down the road toward the birch forest with her bag of clothes. She waved to them and smiled but once out of sight, she sprinted into the woods. How far did she need to go? Could the stroilman follow her back home? What if there was more than one? What if it was watching already? Driven hysterical by her imagination, she flung the bag at the base of a tree and frantically scraped dirt over it until it was completely hidden.
The sun had sunk when she finished, and the deep turquoise sky was freckled with stars. The night wind ghosted through the treetops, whistling. She walked home quickly with the hairs on her neck rising like a million antennae. It wasn’t safe here, she could feel it, so she took off in a blind panic. She slipped and scrambled to her feet without noticing her stinging knees; her breath sawed through her throat. When she reached the neighborhood, it was agony to walk normally again, let alone briskly, while smiling, waving, and trying to breathe naturally.
The windows of her neighbors’ houses seemed like spotlights. On her driveway was a shining patch of oil. She squeaked and backpedaled, but there was no trail leading to or from it. It was only a genuine oil patch.
She didn’t turn off the lights that night; her sleep was shallow and dreamless.
About the author
Erin Fuller aka E.C. Fuller grew up in small town Oklahoma, not too far from her current home in Tulsa. Along with awards and mentions in multiple local writing contests, Erin’s work has also been featured in The Tulsa Review, Metaphorosis Magazine, and Hexagon Speculative Magazine. Influenced by everything from Russian fairytales and Lemony Snicket to Adventure Time and Legends of Zelda, Erin aims to create immersive fantasy worlds that grab the reader and keep them guessing until the end.