Case Q. Kerns
Protected Land

My share of the morsel should have lasted for at least a week or two keeping me nice and steady two or three days if I really wanted to get drenched and lose my feet. I needed to float away for a little while before I could even begin to think about what had happened to me and Kelsie. About all those different little bodies and how they worked so well together.

The van that had come for us was matte black. We’d scraped together enough morsel to take the edge off for the job just a little trickle. Two ski masks were laying on a bench in the back with a note asking we wear them to hide our faces. There were no windows. It made sense they wouldn’t want us to find the house again.

The man with the nice sunglasses who’d approached us the day before about robbing his parents for him told us to steal a solid gold egg, about the size of a chicken’s, sitting in a wicker nest. It would be on top of the desk in his father’s study on the first floor. He’d told us it really stood out.

The van stopped and we put our masks on before the door opened.

“Mine smells weird,” Kelsie said.

“Get over it,” I responded.

“It’s strong,” she said. “Like somebody pissed in it.”

“This won’t take long.”

We got out next to a perimeter brick wall. I couldn’t make out any street signs or landmarks or even any other houses it wasn’t a familiar neighborhood. The driver kept his distance and pointed to a door along the wall without grumbling a word.

It was unlocked. Kelsie gestured for me to go first.

When we entered, the trees and bushes were so dense and high up, we couldn’t see anything else, but there was a single path leading down what appeared to be the middle of the property. We must have walked for two minutes through the thick and still no sign of a house. It was lush and terrifying like an enchanted forest where my greatest dreams and nightmares lurked around every corner. I could have sworn it moved, reaching in every direction and crying out in hunger as if it was getting dry like me and not because of the wind.

“How big is this place?” Kelsie whispered.

We heard a sound in the near distance. Something opening, like an automatic door. Kelsie took out her knife.

“It’s probably from one of the other houses,” I said.

“What other houses?” she asked. Kelsie seemed real scared, which was troubling because she was a lot tougher than me. They call her Muscle Junkie around the neighborhood. Me, I’m just skin and bones. I’d like to say I was the brains of the operation, but I don’t know.

“Let’s just go a little further,” I said.

After another minute, we started to hear rustling. Not all of it coming from one direction. We stopped. The sounds kept closing in on us. It didn’t sound like anything large, but a thousand little machines linked to one control panel.

“Are we really here?” I asked.

“You’re not that high,” she responded.

We stared at each other for about a second before we ran back the way we came. Whatever we heard out there picked up its pace. It sounded like it was right on our heels and moving ahead of us on both sides. I was about ten yards in front of Kelsie.

I could see the outline of the perimeter wall. I made it to the door, but it was locked from the outside. I shook the handle and then turned to my right to see if there was a way out along the wall.

They started coming out of the bushes and trees on both sides of me. At least a dozen of each. They were everywhere. Familiar, but not the same as I’d ever seen them. Raccoons and squirrels intermingling like a fucking squadron.

“Run,” I screamed, sprinting back away from the wall.

Up ahead on the path, more of them emerged from the wild vegetation, cutting us off. It was an ambush. The animals behind me began to move past me. They surrounded Kelsie and she was soon swallowed up in a blanket of critters, working together and tearing away at her. She cried out. There were so many of them I couldn’t get near her. They completely ignored me. Not one bite. I saw a lot of red, but it could’ve been their blood. Kelsie was quick with her knife.

Someone whistled behind me and when I looked back, the door was open. I could hear Kelsie screaming as I ran away. Once I got outside the property, I was grabbed from behind and thrown into the back of the van. We drove off.

When I got out of the van, we were in a parking lot with only one car. I knew the area. We weren’t close to anything but abandoned warehouses and maybe some squatters who didn’t want to be seen. The man in the passenger seat of the car was the man with the nice sunglasses from the day before. I walked over, too dry and full of varmint fear to devise an escape.

“It all went wrong,” I said. “We never made it to the house. There were so many of them. She’s still there.”

“Did you wear the masks?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I answered, bewildered by the question.

He handed me an envelope full of cash.

“But we didn’t get the egg.”

“You tried your best,” he said. “No one could have foreseen such a thing. You deserve this for your trouble.”

I looked at the money.

“They’re eating her,” I said.

“Maybe she got out,” he said. “We’ll go back and look for her. It’s the least we could do. You’ve done enough already.”

“We never even saw a house,” I said.

“It’s a large estate,” he said, calmly. “And my parents fancy themselves horticulturalists.”

The car drove away, and the van followed, leaving me stranded. I walked nine miles to our neighborhood and scored as much morsel as I could with the money.

I think that was at least a day ago, maybe more. I zoned out for a while, so it’s hard to tell. Still no sign of Kelsie, but I’ve been wearing her clothes to remind myself to keep an eye out for her. They’re a little baggy on me. The morsel is pretty much gone from my system. Sadly, I lost some of the flood to sleep.

I’ll start with just a pinch from her half. If she makes it back to me, she won’t know how much I got, not exactly. I’ll tell her I couldn’t find Izzy and had to go with some rando who has higher prices. I’ll comment how good it is though. She’ll understand even if she knows I’m lying. I’ll give her everything that’s leftover and tell her to take it all. Unless she wants to share. It’s always more fun when we get wet together.

Case Q. Kerns lives and works in Massachusetts. He grew up in Buffalo and later received an MFA from Emerson College. He has stories forthcoming in The Literary Review and The Harvard Review.