Nicole Tanquary, author of Cheshire (a horror short featured in Campfire Tales), is rumored to be considered for Ellen Datlow Best Horror of the Year! Ellen has been editing science fiction and horror for over thirty-five years and has seen everything from the worst to the very best. If this is true, then we’re honored.
Enjoy a sample of Cheshire
Jocee’s fingers curled in on themselves, around a little flesh-wound that was just beginning to sting. She tried to think back to when she and the others had lined up to wash their hands in the class sink … had the cut been there then? She couldn’t remember. At the sink, she had been focused on the promise of apple juice and graham crackers for snack-time, not cuts.
She sat cross-legged with the other students in a semi-circle on the carpet floor. Ms. Elli was reading them “The Lorax” for story time. The Lorax was one Jocee knew already; her older cousin Richie had been a big Dr. Seuss fan, and she had inherited his children books when she was born. He had scribbled in them with his Crayolas when he was little, though. So in Jocee’s book, the Lorax’s orange fur was waxed over in blue, turning it a dingy brown color. The bright orange in the teacher’s book didn’t look quite right to her.
Thinking of Richie’s books made her think of the big crayon box in the playtime cabinet. Most of the crayons were old, broken in half and crumbling, but still, you could find all kinds of colors in there if you looked hard enough. Really pretty colors too, like Burnt Sienna and Midnight Blue. Jocee doubted that Ms. Elli would let them color in her Dr. Seuss books. The pages were clean, fresh from the school library. Almost alien to the books on Jocee’s shelf at home.
Jocee rubbed her hand against her calf, eyes turning briefly from a field of Truffula Trees to examine the wound. It was a little nick, right across the upper end of her pointer-finger. It was red still, but with dried-out, brownish edges.
The skin around the cut, though … it was starting to go red, swelling up until it was almost shiny. Jocee bit her lip, rubbing her finger harder against her leg to massage away the sting.
She waited until the story was done, when Ms. Elli had sent everyone out with pencils and huge slabs of paper to practice writing their names. Then she went up to Ms. Elli, holding her finger gingerly in the air. “May I have a band-aid?” she asked, like she was supposed to. Jocee’s mother always told her to put a band-aid on a cut right away, to keep the germs from getting in. The pain in her finger was turning to more of an ache by now. Like a sore stomach that made you sick if you thought about food.
As Ms. Elli smiled and got out the band-aid box, Jocee’s insides tossed and turned. In the corner of her eye … the very bottom corner, almost hidden by the curve of her cheek … she thought she saw a gleam.
She turned that way and found nothing but abandoned puzzle pieces. Still, it had been very clear.
A smile. A smile made of shiny-white teeth.
Shivers started at the base of her neck and wriggled down into her feet. The smile hadn’t been a nice one. Jocee didn’t yet know the word ‘sneer,’ but instead thought to herself that it had been a little like the Cheshire cat’s smile, from Alice In Wonderland. The Disney version had always scared her, especially that dark forest where the pink-and-purple cat lurked in the trees …
The idea solidified in her mind, and Jocee decided that, yep, the smile she had seen belonged in the mouth of Cheshire cat.
The world might’ve looked a solid black from her bedroom window, but Jocee saw now that it was more of a gray; the white snow reflected up into the clouds, staining their bellies with sickly-dull light. Powdery sheets of the stuff had been falling since midday, but with the disappearance of the sun the flakes had thickened, turning puffy, sticky, piling up on layers other storms had left behind weeks ago.
Jocee’s feet dug fresh tracks into the snow, which was almost to her knees. The wind was at her back, pushing wet, chilly strands of hair around her face. The trees around her were naked, moaning in the snow-edged wind.
Ice was starting to melt into the bottoms of her shoes. But by now, the needly-feeling in her fingers and toes had gone away, replaced with a numbness that was slowly creeping up her extremities. Her baggy Led Zeppelin shirt billowed against her waist, reminding Jocee that she had (on purpose?) forgotten the winter coat hanging in her closet. She wore no hat, no hood. The warmest thing on her were her sweatpants, and they were soaked with snow-melt and turning clammy against her legs.
Jocee could feel a little niggling voice in the back of her head. What the Hell are you doing? Get back to the house where it’s warm, no living person should be out in this. She pushed the voice deeper and deeper inside her head, until it could only yammer to itself. Her eyes were fixed on the space ahead of her.
She was not giving up this time.
Cheshire’s brown gaze was settled on the back of her neck. Jocee had been feeling his stare for the past ten minutes or so, though she couldn’t see him just yet. She forced one foot forward, then the other, feeling them sink into the snow’s heavy cold. She wouldn’t let Cheshire have the pleasure of seeing her afraid.
Her thoughts spun outwards, desperate to find alternate routes to busy themselves with, but there was nothing – nothing besides the freezing snow. This whole situation was ridiculous. How had she even gotten here? It was Cheshire’s fault, she knew that much. But when had this whole thing even began? This chase scene that had gone on for years and years now?
Kindergarten, she answered, to herself. That’s when this mess started. The good old days of clay sculptures and glitter-glue. A smile came, painful on her winter-dried lips. That first day in Kindergarten, Jocee hadn’t known that Cheshire had touched her, save for that little cut mark he had left on her finger. Even though she’d seen his smile, she hadn’t found out where the cut had came from until a week later, when he came again. In the meantime, the spot had swelled under the band aid, itching like a rash. She had kept rubbing it … looking down now, Jocee could see the scar tissue built up from then, white and hard against the pink tip of her finger.
“What are you doing?” Cheshire’s question came from somewhere behind her.
Jocee shoved her hands into her armpits and plowed ahead, fixing her gaze on the unbroken white beneath the trees. She could hear footsteps crunching on the snow, following her from maybe fifteen meters away.
When had Cheshire first spoken to her? Not the first time they had met, he had come to her as a stray dog, not a person, as she had been standing and waiting for the bus. Jocee’s brow furrowed in thought. Maybe it was when he came into her room – that had been when he first introduced himself, wasn’t it? A week after he gave her the cut?
Read the rest of the story in Deadman’s Tome Campfire Tales