The following story appears in Figures Unseen by Steve Rasnic Tem, out this week from Valancourt Books. Steve Rasnic Tem’s writings have garnered numerous awards including the World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award, and Bram Stoker Award. Tem has released a prolific number of short story collections since the late 1970s that have incorporated elements of horror, dark fantasy, and weird fiction. Figures Unseen features thirty-five of Tem’s best tales, selected by Tem himself, along with an introduction by author Simon Strantzas.
He found her on the back porch again, watching the yard through the sliding glass door. He didn’t want to spook her, so he made some noise as he left the kitchen, bumped a chair, and made a light tap with one shoe on the metal threshold that separated the porch from the rest of the house. Then he stopped a few feet behind her and said, “What are you looking at, honey?”
“The rabbit. Matt, have you seen that rabbit?
“That was yesterday, Clara. Remember? I went down there, and I scooped it up with a shovel, and I dropped it into a trash bag. Some wild animal got to it. Rabbits can’t protect themselves very well. That was yesterday.”
“But it’s back.” Her voice shook. “Can’t you see it?”
He followed her gaze to the lower part of the lawn, where it dipped downhill to the fence. Shadows tended to pool there, making the area look damp even though it hadn’t rained in almost two months. Beyond were a field of weeds and wildflowers, and the line of trees bordering the old canal. Beyond that was the interstate. You couldn’t see it, but you could certainly hear the traffic — a vacillating roar that you could pretend was a river if you really tried.
The skinned and bloody rabbit had appeared there yesterday at the bottom of the yard, eased out of the shadows as if from a pool. And here was another one, its front legs stretched out toward the house, its body gleaming with fresh blood. This must have just happened. They must have had some sort of predator in the yard.
“I see it,” he said. “Something got another one.”
“Something terrible is happening,” she said. “I’ve been feeling it for weeks. And now this rabbit — I see it every day. Sometimes just after sunrise, sometimes just before sunrise. I thought I was going crazy, but now you see it too. What do you think it wants? Can you tell me what it wants?”
Matt looked at her: her eyes red and unfocused, lips trembling. She was somewhere else inside her head. She was wearing this old green tube-top thing. She’d never looked good in it. Her back was knotted, her shoulders pushed up, her arms waving around as she spoke. He figured she must be crazy tense if he noticed it — he never noticed things like that.
He felt sorry for her, but he also felt scared for himself. The woman he had loved had been gone for years, and now he was left with this. He wasn’t a good enough person to handle something he hadn’t signed up for.
“It’s not the same rabbit, Clara. There must be a predator loose in the neighborhood. Probably just a big cat or maybe a dog. It’s just a dead rabbit. I’ll go get the shovel and take care of it. There’s nothing to get upset about.”
He didn’t really understand how her mind worked anymore. But maybe his being logical helped her. No one could say he hadn’t tried.
“There’s blood all over him,” she said. “He’s all torn up. Can’t you see that something terrible is going to happen, that something terrible is happening? Can’t you see it?”
She continued to stare at the rabbit in the yard. She wouldn’t turn around and look at him. It felt creepy, talking to her back all the time. He didn’t dare touch her when she was like this, like a fistful of nerves. He didn’t think she’d looked at him full in the face in days.
“It was a wild animal. It had a savage life. And something got to it. It’s not like a cartoon, Clara. Rabbits can’t protect themselves very well. Real rabbits in the wild, their lives are short and cruel.”
They hadn’t had sex in a long time. He’d been afraid to touch her. You can learn to live with crazy, but you can’t touch it. He couldn’t let her drive, and when he left her alone she called him at work every hour to complain about some new thing she’d suddenly realized was wrong. Their GP kept prescribing new pills for her, but he was just a kid, really. Matt was sure the fellow had no idea what was wrong with her.
“I haven’t been feeling right, Matt. Not for a very long time. Something terrible is going to happen — can’t you sense that?”
“I know that’s what you feel, but just go lie down. Let me take care of this, and then I’ll come join you.” But he knew she wasn’t hearing, the way she stared, glassy-eyed and the edge of her upper teeth showing. He stood in front of her and whispered, “Go inside now. Please.” When she didn’t respond he stepped closer to block her view of the yard and put one arm around her, gave her a bit of squeeze.
“Honey, just go inside and lie down. I’ll join you in a few minutes. Maybe I can even figure out what’s killing these rabbits, and I’ll deal with the thing. You just go inside.” Hopefully she’d be asleep when he was done. When she was asleep he could grab a drink, watch some TV, relax and unwind for once.
He grabbed a shovel and a trash bag and some gloves and started down the slope of the lawn. He’d generally neglected that part of the back yard. The ground there had always been mushy, unstable. He didn’t know much about ground water, septic systems, any of that stuff. But he figured it must be some sort of drainage issue, maybe because of the old canal, or maybe because of an old broken septic system, something like that. It didn’t smell too bad, just a little stagnant most of the time, a little sour. Only sometimes it stank like rotting meat. But they couldn’t afford to fix it whatever it was, so he’d just tried to ignore it.
The carcass wasn’t where he had seen it. In fact he couldn’t find the rabbit anywhere. He thought about that mysterious predator, and went back to the house and grabbed the rake that was leaning against the wall by the sliding glass doors.
He stood still, the rake held in both hands in front of him, raised like a club. He still didn’t see the rabbit. He felt unsteady, and shortened his grip on the handle. He imagined that the predator, whatever it was, had dragged the body off somewhere. Some of the more dangerous animals in the region — coyotes, a wildcat or two, once even a small bear — had been known to wander out of the foothills and follow the canal into the more populous suburbs. He crept down the lawn toward the fence, afraid he might lose his footing. The grass looked shiny, slippery, as if the earth beneath were liquefying.
He detected a subtle reddish shadow as he got closer to the fence, and then saw that it was a spray of blood. The body had been pushed up against one of the fence posts, eviscerated, but still clearly some version of rabbit. He was glad Clara couldn’t see this. It must have suffered terribly, ripped and skinned alive, all gleaming, bright-red muscle, damp white bone, strings of pale fat. But the muscle had no business being bright red like that, like some kind of rich dyed leather. He’d skinned squirrels with his dad — he knew what a dead, skinned animal looked like, so dark and bruised. But this? This looked unreal.
He bagged it and trashed it, then brought out the hose to wash away the blood and any loose pieces of meat. That’s what you did with this sort of thing. That’s how you handled it. You cleaned up the mess and then you went on with your life. Later he grabbed his binoculars and studied the field and the trees beyond, checking for any signs of movement. He saw nothing. If he had been ambitious he would have climbed over the fence and walked through the field to the row of trees that bordered the canal. He could have followed that canal into some other place. The water might not be running through the canal anymore, but it was still a passage to something, wasn’t it? But he wasn’t ambitious. And he didn’t want to go there.
Matt drank and watched TV until about midnight. The house was a mess — Clara hadn’t cleaned in weeks. He couldn’t abide a messy house, but he worked all day — he didn’t have the time. But if he had the time he knew he’d do a great job. It wasn’t that hard keeping up a house — you just had to understand how to manage time and not let it get away from you. He hadn’t signed up for this. He’d tried — and you owed your wife at least to try. But everybody had limits. You couldn’t expect a man not to have his limits.
She didn’t wake up when he crawled into bed with her. Good thing — she’d ask about the rabbit, and he didn’t want to talk about that damn rabbit anymore.
He woke up once and saw her standing at the window, looking out onto the back yard. He started to say something, started to ask her what was wrong, but he stopped himself. He was tired, and he knew what was wrong.
He woke up alone. He didn’t like waking up alone, but he didn’t want to answer any of her questions. He fell back asleep, and when he woke up again the room was bright from the sun coming through the window. He’d overslept, but at least it was the weekend. Nothing important ever came up on the weekend. They’d stopped doing the important stuff a long time ago.
“Clara, you up here?” She didn’t answer. “Clara!” Nothing. He got his pants and shoes on and went downstairs. He still couldn’t find her. He felt a little panicky, and he was mad at himself for feeling a little panicky. He made himself be methodical. He went back upstairs and searched each bedroom as he went down the hall. He wasn’t sure why they had all these bedrooms — they didn’t have any kids. They had way too much house, but he’d gotten such a good deal on the place.
He felt a pressure building behind his eyes. He tried to shake it off. He went back into their bedroom and looked in the closet and in the master bathroom. He got down on his knees and looked under the bed. There were several socks, another larger, unidentifiable piece of clothing. He made a note to sweep under there later.
He called again from the top of the stairs. “Clara! Are you in the house?” Nothing. No steps, no rustle, just the soft hum of the refrigerator. He went downstairs and jerked open the front door, a little too hard. It banged against the rubber bumper mounted on the wall. He hadn’t realized it before, but he was beginning to feel pretty angry. Maybe she couldn’t help it, but this was ridiculous.
She wasn’t lying on the front lawn again, thank God. And the Subaru was still there, which was a big relief. Matt thought about getting in his car and driving around looking for her. But she could be anywhere, and besides, he knew that once you started chasing after someone like that it never ended, not until you’d given yourself a heart attack. She was a grown woman — he shouldn’t have to be searching for her.
He made himself stop. Most things got better that way: taking a break, waiting. People needed to be patient, not make such a big deal out of everything.
He went out to the porch and sat down. That’s when he saw her kneeling down at the bottom of the yard, her back turned to him. Just like she always did. Her shoulders were heaving.
He slid open the door and stepped outside. “Clara?”
She didn’t speak, but he could hear her crying. Then he saw the blood streaks on her sleeves. He started running. “Clara!” Not again. Not again.
He came up behind her and grabbed her by the shoulders, twisting them to stop her from whatever she was doing. He grabbed both of her hands and raised them, trying to get a good look at her wrists. Her forearms, his hands, everything slick with blood. “Where’s the knife, Clara!”
She looked up at him, wide-eyed and dull. “No knife. I didn’t see a knife.”
He couldn’t find any cuts on her wrists, her arms, her hands. He looked down at her knees, and then the grass, and then the bloody bits he was standing on. He jumped back in alarm. It was another rabbit, skinned and gutted, its flesh weeping fresh blood.
“It’s back!” she said, her voice rising. “It’s back!”
“Dammit, Clara. It’s not the same rabbit!”
She stared at him, her face tilted. “But how can you tell it’s a different rabbit? How do you know for sure?”
He started to explain, but what was there to explain? “Because this is real life. We live in real life, Clara! Just stay right here. I’ll get something to cover it with, and then we’ll go wash you up, okay?”
He ran into the garage and grabbed a drop cloth, and on his way out he grabbed the rake, too, just in case of, just in case he needed it. But when he got back Clara was gone. The rabbit was still lying there, but there was no sign of Clara in the yard. How could she have moved so quickly? He stared down at the rabbit. It looked like all the others, as far as he could tell. One huge eye, pushed almost out of its socket, stared up at him.
He looked around the yard, the edge of the house, inside the house. He couldn’t find her anywhere. He gave up. He imagined her walking around the neighborhood, her shirt bloody, her arms and hands bloody. Somebody would call the police. Well, the hell with it. He’d done everything he could.
Matt left the rabbit and went back inside. At least he could clean himself up. At least he could get that much done.
After his shower he grabbed a jar of peanut butter out of the fridge and stood at the kitchen window digging two fingers into the jar and eating the peanut butter right off them. Looking through the window into the porch and then through the sliding glass doors made the yard seem a pretty safe distance away. He could still see the fields and the line of trees beyond, and he was sure he’d be able to see any movement out there if there was any. But there wasn’t any. After a while he collapsed into that old chair on the back porch and sat watching the yard for a couple of hours. It was midafternoon by then and he hadn’t had any lunch. He supposed he could find something in the fridge to heat up, but then maybe Clara would come home. Fixing him something might occupy her, keep her mind off things.
He was actually pretty surprised she hadn’t shown up yet. If the police had picked her up they would have come by now. He was used to her being anxious, but she usually snapped out of it after an hour or so and managed to get going on whatever needed to be done. He’d call some of her friends but that woman Ann had moved away six months ago and he didn’t know any of the others, if there were any others. Clara never made friends easily, at least not since he’d known her.
He couldn’t get over those damn rabbits. Whatever had gotten to them, it must have wiped out an entire den. Why had the thing left its kills in his yard anyway? Like a house cat dropping the mouse it slaughtered at your feet. But you had to trust your eyes — most of the time it was the one thing you could trust.
Clara needed to be back soon. She’d always been this timid thing, couldn’t protect herself worth a damn. Terrible things happened to timid creatures like that. She knew. That’s why she kept saying that. Well, terrible things do happen, Clara. It wasn’t too hard predicting that.
He must have dozed, because the back yard suddenly looked dimmer. That shady bit down by the fence had grown, spread half-way up the yard toward the house. Lights were popping on over at the neighbors’.
He sat up suddenly as a chill grabbed his throat. “Clara!” he yelled as loud as he could to scare it away. Still no answer. He listened hard now. The refrigerator still hummed. It was like he was living by himself again.
He could check with all the neighbors, but the last thing he needed was for everybody to know his business. He could call the police, but would they even take a report? Maybe if he told them Clara was a danger to herself. She’d cut her wrists more than once, but she’d always botched the job. Timid people like that, he reckoned they intended to botch the job.
He thought about talking to some young policeman, trying to explain how Clara was, trying to explain about the skinned rabbits, how they must have a predator in the neighborhood, and how the cop would act deliberately patient, and condescending to this older guy who had just called in about his missing wife, who’d only been gone a few hours, probably on some impulsive shopping trip. Matt couldn’t bear it.
She’d been a lovely girl when he’d met her — pretty, and shy. She’d made him feel like he was about the greatest man in the world. Then she got nervous, and then she got old, and surely she was crazy now. Maybe if he was truly a good man he could handle that — he’d stick with her and make the best out of a sad situation. But people had to be realistic. Good men were few and far between.
Flashing red lights broke through the trees on the other side of the field. They made it look as if parts of that line of trees bordering the old canal were on fire. But then the wind shifted the branches a bit and he could see that he was mistaken. There were scattered fires on the interstate beyond. And many more lights and faint, but explosive noises. People shouting maybe. Or cars being pried open like clamshells to get to the meat inside. The Jaws of Life, that’s what they called them. But only if the people inside were still living. If not, then they were the Jaws of Death, weren’t they?
The radio was right by the chair, so he could have turned it on. But he’d rather wait until Clara showed up and then they could learn together what terrible thing might have happened over on the highway. Matt supposed it was an unhealthy thing in people, how listening or watching together as the news told the details of some new disaster tended to bring couples and families together.
He sat and watched the red flashes and the burning and listened hard for the noises and the voices until it was dark enough for the automatic yard lights to come on. The gnawing in his belly was painful but he had no interest in eating, assuming eating was even the sort of remedy required.
He could see everything, except for that shadowy region down near the fence. He could see the rake where he’d left it, and the folded-up drop cloth. But there was no sign of that rabbit. Something had moved it, or maybe — and the idea made him queasy — it hadn’t been completely dead. Skinned, but not dead. Crawling around suffering.
As Matt’s eyes grew weary he found himself focusing on that area of shadow. It had always seemed odd that the longer you stared at a shadow the more likely you were to find other shadows swimming inside it. Something moved out of the edge. In the border between dark and light a skinned body lay in the slickened grass. Bleeding heavily, and this one much too large for a rabbit. Stripped to muscle and bone, it was an anatomical human figure made real. The skin over part of one breast remained. And when it reached its scarlet arms toward the house it called his name.