Madison is a senior at PLU. She has spent many years honing her writing craft and is grateful to Saxifrage for the opportunity to publish her work. She finds writing fulfilling, and will continue to write whatever strikes her fancy in the years to come.
The Brightest Color
In London there is a patch of trailer park crammed between two major overpasses. The trailers in the park are wedged among piles of junk and rusted husks of cars bought for scrap that will slowly disappear over the years, melted by the rain. Some of the trailer owners have tried to spruce things up by painting the trim in cheery colors and propping them on stilts so they’re not wallowing in the mud. But it’s a rather futile effort in James’ opinion. The stampede of vehicles that roar across the concrete bridges overhead constantly send dirty water cascading down. The grit drips down the white walls of the trailers below and leaves them stained.
James thinks the nicest part about living in this well of mud is his unobstructed view of the sky.
Skyscrapers loom on the other side of the overpasses. But while their shadows cast darkness on James’ trailer a good percentage of the day, they were built in neat, straight lines. They do not lean across his house like the oak tree he remembers from the place they lived in before. Skyscrapers do what they were built to do. They pierce the sky like blunt needles. And in doing so, they stay out of James’ way.
It’s not like the sky is ever very interesting to look at. Usually, it’s cloudy, the dismal gray woven so tight across the sky it strangles the sunlight. But when James looks up, although it is gray, it is wide, and it is open, and he can breathe a little easier.
When Da is yelling at Nan a little too loud, James can only take so much of the noise before he starts to feel claustrophobic. When the walls begin to close on him, he likes to haul himself up to the roof and sprawl out. He keeps his dark eyes fixed on the sky. His pale skin and reddish hair are the only spots of color around besides the off-white and the mud and the perpetual gray.
Da is going on about the bills this time, and Nan is yelling back about how he has no right to talk to his mother that way. After all, it wasn’t her fault his daft wife up and left him. They get closer and closer to throwing around more than words. James, who is tired of hiding bruises beneath the long sleeves of his tracksuit, decides to make himself scarce. He cranks open the window in his little closet bedroom and climbs out.
His pale bare feet slip a little against the shiny metal sides of his trailer, but he’s been working out with his mates whenever he gets the chance. His arms burn, but he manages to pull himself up onto the roof and sprawl out with a sigh.
Tiny droplets tickle his face. James rolls his head to the side, fixes his eyes on the skyscrapers, and watches the rain soften their precise edges—
For a moment, James thinks he’s imagined it. Then—
“Oi! You ignorin’ me, bruv?”
Reluctantly, James rolls his head to the other side.
There is a person sitting on the roof of the trailer next door, which had been empty for months. They have the hood of their ragged sweater pulled over their head. Dark hands with glued-on nails curl over the metal edge of their roof like claws. White teeth flash from the shadow of the hood. James has never seen them around before, but he remembers that someone moved in a couple days ago. He’s not really in the mood for playing nice with his new neighbor, but he can still hear the yelling venting up from his bedroom window, and he’d rather talk than listen to that.
“Hi,” James says, reluctantly.
“Whatchyou doin’ up here?”
“Relaxing,” James says. He feels the roof shudder. Da probably threw a chair against the thin walls again.
“That so?” The person tilts their head. “Looks to me like you’re tryna catch your death. At least, that’s what my Nan would say.”
“My Nan would probably say that too.” James rolls his head back to look at the sky. The rain is loud enough now that he can’t make out what’s being said beneath him. He tries to send the message that he is done talking.
The person keeps talking. “Then what are you doin’? Don’t you have any sense, bruv?”
James feels a flare of irritation. “I have plenty of sense.”
“Don’t look like it from here.”
The water is starting to sting against his cheeks. James can feel his pale skin beginning to warp red. He rolls his head to the side and glares. “What about you, then? You’ll catch your death out here too.”
“Nah.” Their hand flops dismissively. “I’m tougher than you are. I’ll be fine.”
“Oi,” James growls. He can’t take that kind of talk lying down; Da would never forgive him. He rolls to face them and starts to push himself up to glower at them at eye-level. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ve got more layers,” the person says, flapping the sides of their coat like scruffy leather bird wings. He can feel their eyes looking pointedly at his thin t-shirt, which is steadily soaking through. “It’s logic, bruv.”
“Whatever,” James moves to flop back down. His hands slide out from under him, slipping in the rain on the cheap laminated roof. He lands smack on his face with a yelp of pain. He rocks back on his knees and curls in on himself to assess the damage.
“Ow, fuck,” James gasps into his hands, which are cupped around his extremely tender nose. And then, because it sounded too much like he was crying, he says it again. Louder. Meaner. “Fuck.”
“Hey,” the hooded person says. “That don’t look good, bruv.”
James wants to scream at them, tell them to fuck off already. But the rain is pounding on his back and it feels better to just press his forehead against the frigid roof and breathe.
He hears a rhythmic tapping, more regular than the rain. He looks up, hands still pinched over his nose.
The person is watching him, their nails clicking against the metal bindings on their roof. Their form is a little blurry, a little indistinct. It could be the rain, or it could be the tears welling up in James’ eyes as his nose throbs in time with his heartbeat.
“Oi,” the person says. “Why don’t you come with me? My Nan can fix you up.”
His instinct is to say no, but his other option is to go back in the trailer with his face covered in blood. If his Da sees him, he’ll take the blood as a sign he needs to teach James a lesson. His Nan will try to intervene, and there will be more yelling and more bruises that James is getting sick of hiding.
James wants to scream, but he forces himself to nod instead. He reaches across the narrow gap between their trailers. The blood flows sluggish and hot down his face. Stark against his pale skin, it is now the brightest color in their little cesspit of mud.
The hand with its painted nails wraps around his in a gentle iron grip. James scoots closer to the edge and lets them pull him off the roof.
His stomach slams into the edge of their roof hard enough to make him grunt, but he holds tight to them and their other hand comes up to curl into his shirt. They haul him up. He almost loses his shirt, but he makes it in the end.
“You good?” they ask. James is close enough to smell the faint hint of cigarette smoke that clings to them like a cloak. He nods.
“Come on, then,” they say, scooting across the narrow roof until their legs dangle over the other side. James slides over as well, shifting his weight forward and bracing himself for the faint stinging jolt that will roll up his ankles when he hits the ground—
A hand snatches him by the collar. He chokes for an instant, and blood drips into his mouth. Then the hand is gone, and he is firmly back on the roof.
“Oh no you don’t,” they say firmly. “I saw you climbin’ out of that window and I ain’t doin’ none of that parkour shit. I,” they say with all the pomp and ceremony of someone announcing the bloody Queen had arrived, “have a ladder.”
James squints past them, and sure enough, there’s a ladder nailed to the side of the trailer. They disappear down it. James swipes his arm across his mouth, spits out the blood, and moves to follow.
He lowers himself to the ground. His bare feet squelch in the freezing mud. He shudders and peers through the downpour. He sees the sheen of their leather coat disappear through the door of their trailer. James licks the iron salt from his lips and follows them.
He closes the door behind him and looks around. The inside of their trailer is full of color. There are posters on the walls and blankets thrown over the cheap couch. James can’t remember the last time he saw this much color. Probably not since the autumn they left the old place, he decides, when the oak tree bled golden.
Something warm slides over his lips, and he suddenly remembers he is bleeding and freezing. He opens his mouth—
“Come sit down,” they say. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
James clears his throat, stubborn. “Where’s your Nan?”
“Don’t have one,” they shrug.
“What?” he says.
“I don’t have one,” they say. “Not anymore, at least.”
“I just thought maybe you might want to get out of there,” they say. They busy themselves with filling the kettle. James stares at their back, acutely aware he is dripping blood on their carpet.
“I . . .” He starts to speak, then stops. He thinks about the yelling, the way the walls rattle when his Da and Nan really get into a row, the bruises under his clothes. He clears his throat. “Thanks.”
They give him a bright smile. “Don’t mention it, bruv. Sit down, sit down. Here, take this.” They hand him a wad of tissues. He bunches them up and presses them to his nose. They wave him to a chair, and he sits down reluctantly.
“Sorry,” he says, his voice thick through the tissues stuffed up his nose.
“Don’t worry about it,” they say. “Anytime. Stay as long as you want.”
The rain drums on the roof. The pain in his nose is fading. James closes his eyes and breathes.
Samina knew something was wrong when the crickets went silent.
Before the crickets died, her trek along the deserted road had been rather peaceful. Not a single car had passed her, and the harvest moon hung huge and luminous in the sky. Only the wind rustling the wheat fields on either side of the road and the dull scuff of her boots on pockmarked asphalt kept her company.
Her feet had started to ache two hours ago. She kept her eyes on the ground, concentrating on moving one foot in front of the other. Left. Right. Left. Each step brought her closer to the next town, the next meal, the next chance at hitching a ride out of this godforsaken wheat-filled hellhole.
Samina was so focused on just keeping herself moving that she didn’t notice the silence at first. When she realized the gentle chirping had vanished, she glanced up.
The moment she raised her eyes, the wind stopped. Samina tightened her grip on the worn straps of her backpack and glanced around. She could see for miles in either direction. The only thing out of the ordinary was a billboard planted by the wayside about a half mile down the road.
Tattered and rickety-looking, the billboard shone like a beacon in the darkness. Four lamps flickered dimly atop it, casting light on the black-and-white paper faces of three women. They were varying ages, but they all had the same eyes. Samina’s eyes. The eyes that had been passed down to her from her ancestors who traversed this wheat field back when buffalo roamed it, before they had been confined to the reservation.
Beneath the pictures were bold red letters: HAVE YOU SEEN THESE WOMEN?
Their faces were the only things Samina could see clearly in the darkness, and she thought back to that afternoon, when she had seen their faces for the first time.
Samina had just sat down at the counter in the tiny town’s only diner with the cheapest plate of eggs and toast on the menu when her eyes were drawn to the newspaper lying under her left elbow. The picture of the women was front and center. A coffee ring made the ink bleed across their faces, but she could still see their eyes.
“We call them the Billboard Ghouls.”
“What?” Samina coughed. He hadn’t spoken to anyone in days. She looked up at the diner’s only waitress. The waitress’s pink nails clacked against the ceramic mug in her hand. Her hair was bleached blonde and stick-straight. Dark eyes gleamed from where they were almost lost in the many wrinkles sunk into her face. She was the opposite of Samina, whose hair was dark and curly and too young for life to have yet carved lines into her skin.
“The Billboard Ghouls,” the waitress repeated, as though Samina was slow. “The three girls that have gone missing over the past few months. They went walkin’ down old Route 99 and they ain’t ever come back.”
“Why do you call them the Billboard Ghouls?” Samina was not easily spooked, but a story like that might have merit. She slid the butter knife she had used on her toast up the sleeve of her ratty sweatshirt. It never hurt to be prepared.
“Well, some hotshot journalist thought ghouls sounded an awful lot like girls. It was more dramatic, sold more papers. I’m honestly surprised you ain’t heard of it if you’ve been around these parts a while.”
“I’m just passing through.”
“Ah, yes,” the waitress squinted at Samina’s dusty clothes and unwashed hair. “You have that look about you.”
Samina glared at her from beneath the fringe of her clumped bangs. She slapped down the few bills she had and stood up. Hauling her backpack on made her shoulders scream, but she just clenched her jaw and turned toward the door.
“Don’t be hasty now, sugar,” the waitress said. “Going down that road at night is a damn fool idea. Everyone knows there’s somethin’ lurking down there. There’s a reason all them girls went missing.”
“I’ll take my chances.” Samina didn’t appreciate the waitress’s trying to spook her with some bullshit local legend. She pushed open the door.
“You’re better off stayin’ here and heading out in the morning,” the waitress called after her. “I’ll even let you sleep in one of the booths.”
“No thanks.” Samina slammed the door and didn’t look back. She planted her feet on Route 99—the only road out of town—and started walking toward the sunset.
It wasn’t until it had been full dark for nearly an hour that Samina managed to calm her fury at the waitress’s words. Samina had been sneered at enough on the reservation; she refused to take that shit anymore.
Still, the story of the Billboard Ghouls stuck with her. Seeing their faces again, lit up like angels in the dead of night, made Samina feel cold. She did her best to ignore the eerie quiet that fell after the crickets went silent; she even ignored the wind dying and focused solely on keeping her feet moving until she reached the next town. Anything to keep from listening to the insistent little voice in her head that nagged and sounded an awful lot like the waitress, whispering that she should have swallowed her pride and accepted the offer of hospitality. Sure, it would have been brutal to make the trek along this road in the blistering heat of day, but at least she would have been able to sleep on a cushioned surface. That was more luxury than she’d been blessed with in nearly a week.
The faint rumble of an engine jolted Samina out of her thoughts. She blinked, surprised to find she was already almost level with the billboard. Habit made her look over her shoulder, take stock of the truck that was coming closer. It was an old-fashioned pickup. White paint all chipped to hell, rusted in some places. Samina didn’t think much of it, merely moved onto the dry gravel shoulder of the road to give the driver as much space as possible.
Instinct made her glance at the truck again as it cruised by, and what she saw made her heart stop.
The cab was empty. No one was driving.
The truck slammed on its brakes. Its taillights flared a burning red in the darkness. Samina stood frozen as it started to turn around about a quarter mile down the road. She felt like a rabbit pinned beneath the eye of a fox when its headlights fixed her in its beam.
The engine roared. The truck raced toward her.
Adrenaline burned through Samina. The next thing she knew she was running through the wheat field toward the billboard. She stumbled over uneven ground and winced when her ankle twisted. But all she could hear was the roar of the truck, getting closer and closer. Samina ignored the pain and kept moving. She kept her eyes fixed on the iron rungs bolted into the closest billboard post. If she could just get to that ladder and climb it, she would be okay.
She swore she could feel the heat of the truck’s grille as she threw herself at the ladder. She scrambled up, ignoring the pain in her lower back as her backpack slammed against her spine. Her hands were scraped raw by peeling rust by the time she hauled herself over the last rung and onto the catwalk that ran in front of the faces of the billboard’s three solemn angels.
The wood creaked under her and she was breathing so hard her chest ached. The truck’s engine was nothing more than a faint rumble now over the blood pounding in her ears. Carefully, Samina peeked through a hole in the wood. The truck was directly beneath her, idling with its headlights fixed on the base of the ladder. There were no ruts in the wheat behind it, no evidence that it had torn across the field and tried to run her down.
It’s okay, Samina told herself. I’m safe. Trucks can’t fly. She almost laughed hysterically at the thought, but she was too focused on catching her breath.
The engine cut out, and so did the headlights. The driver’s side door swung open. Samina watched as something hulking and black slid out of the cab. It twisted, and she had the unnerving feeling that it was grinning at her.
Then the shadow moved. It went to the base of the ladder and started climbing toward her.
Samina scrambled backwards. The weight of her backpack slowed her down. She yanked it off and held it in front of herself like a shield just as the shadow appeared at the top of the ladder. Pressing herself back into the unforgiving frame of the billboard, Samina held her breath. One of the dim lights hung directly above her head, putting her in the only spotlight for miles around.
The lumbering thing stretched to its full height. It shuffled towards her. It avoided the weak shafts of light cast by the flickering bulbs, sticking close to the edge of the catwalk. When it finally stopped, it was directly in front of her, just out of arm’s reach. Its features were just outside the circle of light.
“What are you?” Samina whispered. “What the fuck do you want?”
The thing shifted. It leaned forward, and for the first time Samina saw its face. It was a podgy old white man with a scruffy beard and thinning hair. Its eyes were black as pitch and perfectly round, like someone had taken balls of tar and sunk them into its skull.
It smiled at her. Its teeth were yellow as the harvest moon and sharpened to razor points. And there were too many of them to count. Samina shuddered.
“I’m just your average passerby,” the thing said. Its voice sounded all too human, but there was nothing human about the way it was growing bigger with each passing second, until it loomed all around her. “Saw you walkin’ and thought I’d offer you a ride, like I did those other girls. Nighttime ain’t no place for a pretty girl like yourself to be alone, ya hear? Come with me, and I’ll take real good care o’ you.”
Samina stared at it, and suddenly felt the weight of the eyes of the women plastered to the billboard behind her. Her heartbeat was starting to slow, the panic dissipating enough she could start to hear her own thoughts again. She would be damned if she ended up like them, dead at the hand of a white man’s rapacious ghost before she could make a life for herself on her own terms.
It shuddered. Shadows leaked out of the corners of its eyes and it scowled. “You best reconsider, missy. There ain’t nobody that tells me no.”
“Now there is,” Samina said. She shook the stolen knife from her sleeve, dropped her backpack, and lunged forward. The blade sunk into its chest, and it screamed. Samina backed away. Its wide mouth with its yellow teeth snarled and snapped. It groaned and howled and then it stopped, staring at her with fury in its terrible dark eyes.
“You’re gonna regret that, little missy,” it said. Samina heard a pop and whirled around to see the first of the billboard lights get snuffed out by the thing’s shadow. Sparks exploded, raining down in a shower of blessed light. Wherever the sparks fell, the shadows skittered away.
An inkling occurred to Samina, and she whirled to find the thing grinning at her, smug as it killed all the lights except for the one she was under. Each time, sparks rained down. Each time, its shadows scurried away.
When there was nothing but darkness around her, it smiled and said, “Ain’t so smart now, are ya? Just come quietly, little missy, and I promise I’ll be nice.”
Samina bowed her head and took a deep breath. “Okay,” she whispered, acquiescent. Clutching her backpack to her chest, she shuffled forward. The white man’s ghost shifted to let her out of the circle of light, and the moment she was level with it, she threw herself at it, backpack first. The force of her attack shoved it under the light and into the billboard. Its grin faded. It screamed in pain and rage as its skin began to bubble and blister under the light. Dark spittle erupted from its mouth and flecked her face.
Samina grabbed the knife from its chest and stabbed it again, right in one of its big black eyes. But not even a knife to the brain was enough to kill it. Samina had the sickening feeling that only one thing could kill it, that only one thing could cleanse it.
It was a gamble, and if it didn’t work, she was dead. But Samina felt the weight of the Billboard Ghouls’ eyes and the fire of her own fury. And she decided it was worth it, to do her damnedest to kill this wretched thing for what it did to them and what it tried to do to her.
She yanked her knife from its eye and used it to break the last light shining overhead. For an instant, she felt the thing surge against her as its strength returned with the darkness. For an instant, she was sure it would kill her.
But then the sparks fell. And its snarl of unholy rage changed to a blood curdling scream as the sparks set it aflame.
Only Samina’s backpack saved her from being consumed by the inferno as the thing shuddered and raged and threw itself back against the billboard. The old wood caught fire just as fast as the thing had, and the light from the suddenly towering column of flames finished the work Samina had started.
Within a minute, the thing was whimpering on its knees. Its teeth gleamed and then melted as the rest of it crumbled into ash.
Samina stood close enough that sparks singed her, but she did not move until the thing was completely gone. Then she went to the billboard and sank down and leaned against it as it smoldered, the remains of her backpack smoking at her feet.
Far below, the crickets began to sing again.