Final girls, p.1
Final Girls Copyright © 2017
by Seanan McGuire.
All rights reserved.
Dust jacket illustration Copyright © 2017
by Julie Dillon.
All rights reserved.
Print version interior design Copyright © 2017
by Desert Isle Design, LLC.
All rights reserved.
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
____Table of Contents
For Mishell who, like me, would probably enjoy
therapy more if it came with a chainsaw.
THE WOOD is dark and the wood is deep and the trees claw at the sky with branches like bones, ripping holes in the canopy of clouds, revealing glimpses of a distant, rotting moon the color of dead flesh. The light it casts turns everything cold and cruel, like something better buried and forgotten. It would almost be better without the moon. They would be running blind without the moon, yes, but at least if they were running blind, they wouldn't have to see.
They run through the skeleton trees hand-in-hand, two girls separated by a handful of years that seemed like an eternity only a few short hours ago (a few short hours ago, before they were alone in the world; before they were orphans, before they knew the taste of their mother’s blood, the glittering trails of their father’s tears; before they were everything either of them has left). Those years don’t seem to matter anymore. They hold each other tight. They keep running. They keep running.
They have to keep running.
The scarecrow hunts when the moon is full; that’s what the old woman at the library information desk had told them when they’d asked about the quaint local festival their parents had dragged them to. “See to it you don’t think you’re anything worth the harvest,” she’d said, and she’d laughed like a wheat thresher, all loud noises and sharp edges, and they’d left feeling unsettled, ill-at-ease with this strange farming town and its dead-eyed teens, who watched them go with something like hunger and something like hope.
They hadn't known what harvest really was, not then, not there, not when the streetlights were flickering on bright against the gloaming, not when there had been music from the town square and the taste of mulled cider sitting sweet and somehow cloying on their tongues. They hadn't known what it meant to reap, to sow, to sacrifice.
They think they have some idea now. Understanding is a bitter seed. It can be planted in near to any soil, but water isn’t what brings it to bloom. It needs to be fed with other, dearer things, things that, once spilled, can never be replaced.
Things like a mother’s heartsblood, red and hot and somehow less than it ever should have been. A mother’s love is infinite. Shouldn’t her blood, unfairly spilled, be the same?
Things like a father’s arms, broken until the bone blooms through the flesh like the petals of some strange, uncultivated flower, a weed growing where it has no business being, fed by screams and accompanied by the sound of muscle tearing.
Things they never wanted. Things they can’t forget.
The younger girl stumbles, her foot catching on a root. For a moment, she is falling, suspended in the air, and she knows that if she touches the ground, she is lost, because those are the rules of this strange place, this strange game. They didn't volunteer to play, they didn't ask for this in any way they knew or understood, but here they are, and the game goes on around them, and she is falling, she is falling, she is going to die.
Her sister's hand catches her wrist and draws her up short, her nose so close to the soil that she can smell its dark goodness, the promise of another season, the promise of rest. Her mother's screams still echo in her ears. It would be…good, to let go, to surrender, to be harvested.
“Diana, come on,” hisses her sister, and if the soil smells like the future, her sister's voice sounds like the present. It sounds like survival.
“I’m sorry,” whimpers Diana. She gets her feet back under herself, and they’re running, they’re running, they’re running together, for the first time ever—the first time in their lives as sisters—they are running together, instead of running apart.
The end of the wood looms ahead of them. There is safety on the other side. The scarecrow only hunts within the city limits, and if they can just get over the border—if they can get past the sign that welcomes the unwary to this pastoral slaughtering ground—they’ll be free. All they have to do is run.
The trees drop away, and they are running across open ground, through the dry grass that whips at their knees and thighs, grabbing what it can, slowing them down as much as it may. Still they run, and Kim holds fast to Diana’s wrist, and they are sisters, they are survivors, they are doing this together. Everything they were before they came here is behind them now, and soon they will be free, soon they will be able to start to heal, soon—
A single long step will carry Kim over the borderline (it isn’t visible, but still she can see it, see it glimmering bright as starlight in the gloom, and she thinks stars are the color of freedom, and she thinks she’ll never laugh at the girls who wear glitter eyeshadow again) when the scarecrow looms out of the dark, as she has always known it would. On some level, she knew that this was all too easy.
She has a second. She has a chance. She has a choice. Let her sister go and let her momentum carry her to safety, or…
Kim stops running, digging her heels into the soft soil and using the shock of her sudden stillness to catapult her sister over the line, all but hurling her onto the road on the other side of the city limits. The scarecrow howls. Diana screams. Kim smiles and closes her eyes.
“Look away, Di,” she says, and she has no doubt her sister can hear her, just as she has no doubt the reaper’s blade is rising, bright in the moonlight, black with blood. “S’not a slaughter, it’s a sacrifice. S’not murder if you go willingly. Be good. Be good, and look away—”
The knife comes down, silver and rust and terrible.
The world goes to static, and away, taking her sister’s screams with it into the void.
> END PROGRAM?
There was something terribly, ironically old-fashioned about the green words blinking on the black screen, a prompt waiting—possibly forever—to be answered. Esther turned a questioning look on the man next to her, resplendent in the sort of white coat she had believed doctors only wore in the movies. Which still might be the case. She was only an observer here, after all, sent to report on this revolutionary new form of therapeutic healing. It would make sense for them to have put their best feet forward, to have donned the scientific equivalent of black tie and tails to make her feel more like they were doing real work here, and not the fringe science equivalent of spinning stories out of fragmented childhood dreams.
(Esther was, perhaps, being slightly unfair in that assessment; she was aware of her prejudices, and of how much care she’d need to take to keep them out of her final report. She was also aware that those prejudices were the reason she’d been selected for this assignment, which was viewed by most of her peers as a privilege she hadn’t earned—after all, she was the layman reporter on a staff of scientific experts, the one whose job it was to put hard science into soft words that the casual reader could understand. Her colleagues didn’t know where she’d come from. They didn’t understand why this was so
“Well?” she asked, when the man didn’t reply to her silent question. “Is this where you end the program?”
“This is where we wait,” he said, a chiding note in his voice. She wasn’t being properly impressed, and it was starting to wear on him. “The program just completed its standard cycle. If there were no errors, and no complications, it will compile itself fully, do a complete physical assessment of the subjects, and release them from their pods.”
“The subjects being Kim and Diane Nappe.”
“Yes. Ages thirty-seven and thirty, respectively. We get a lot of siblings with a six to eight year gap in their ages—not quite enough for the older sibling to have willingly become a sort of surrogate third parent, not quite narrow enough for them to have felt like they were ever really children together. It’s an awkward interval. We help.”
The question was a barb, designed to sink deep and draw blood when it was ripped loose. The man—the technician—paused before he said, “That’s a question for Dr. Webb, I think. I’m just making sure the Nappes wake up from their ‘nap’ without complications.” He smiled at his own joke, teeth bright against dark skin.
Esther didn’t rise to the cue. “When will I see her?”
“She’s currently in an exit review with another group of subjects, which is why we’re monitoring the Nappes. She’ll be joining us once she’s done.”
“I was promised full access to the doctor, and I—”
“Believe me, Miss Hoffman, we want you to have it as much as you do. This program has been dogged with misunderstanding and confusion since its inception, and we want the public to understand what we can do here, especially since Dr. Webb is preparing to open a second facility. We looked you up before you came. We know who you are, and we know you aren’t inclined to like us.”
Esther stiffened. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” said the man calmly. “To be honest, that’s why Dr. Webb approved your request to document what we’re doing here. There’s no way your past won’t come up at some point during the discussion that follows. It’s inevitable. So if you approve of us, we must be legitimate.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Then we’re doing something wrong.” He sobered. “I swear to you, we’re improving lives and healing wounds that were once thought to be unhealable. We’re making the world a better place. If you say we’re not, then we’re either presenting ourselves badly, or we’re all deluding ourselves. Either way, we need to adjust.”
“You sound very sure of yourself.”
“Because I am.”
On the screen, the words disappeared, replaced by Initiating scan. The man’s smile blossomed anew.
“There were no issues in the shutdown or the compile. It’s scanning them now, and when it finds that both of them have been cleanly disconnected from the virtual environment, it will wake them up.”
Instincts honed by years of chasing the story surged to the fore. “Will I get to speak with them?” asked Esther, voice suddenly sharp.
“Not immediately,” said a new voice.
They both turned, Esther wary, the man smiling.
“Dr. Webb,” he said. “So kind of you to join us.”
The woman in the doorway answered with a grin. “I’m always right on time,” she said.
Esther had seen pictures of Dr. Jennifer Webb in the promotional material she’d been given to read on the plane, and on the institute’s website, where the woman was always posed carefully, artfully, in ways which drew attention to the largeness of her eyes and the kindness of her smile, rather than to the roundness of her waist or the mole low on her left cheek, like a misplaced spot of eyeliner.
In person, Jennifer Webb was short, round, and crackling with the sort of electric energy that came from the passionate, the brilliant, and the hopelessly misled. Esther didn’t know which of the three applied to Dr. Webb. It could have been a blend of all of them, one bleeding into the next until they became utterly indistinguishable from each other.
“Hello,” she said stiffly, and extended her hand. “I’m Esther Hoffman, from—”
“I know where you’re from,” said Dr. Webb, not unkindly, and shoved her way between them, taking over the controls. “Looks like our terrible sisters are about to come out of isolation! Let’s bring up the view screens, shall we?”
A touch of a button and the floor-to-ceiling screen had become a virtual window on a small, dimly-lit room in which two sealed, gunmetal gray pods rested. There was space around them, sufficient for four more, and blue lights darted around their edges, chasing each other like silvery fish. As Esther and the others watched, the blue lights slowed, stopped, and disappeared altogether. The lights came up in the rest of the room as the pods began to open.
The two women the pods revealed were recognizable as the girls from the horror movie Esther had watched play out on this very screen, but only barely: it was something in the shape of their faces, in the way they wore their bones. They were so much older than the girls she’d seen that it seemed almost like some sort of cruel trick, like she was being shown their mother and her sister, rather than the girls themselves. They were dressed in loose-fitting blue pajamas, with sensors connected to their temples and chests.
“The IVs are part of the pod,” said Dr. Webb. “They have to be seated by hand—Charles here takes care of that during the initial descent—but they’re extracted automatically when the reification process begins. It’s best for the subjects to wake with each other, not with a medical team. This is when we find out whether the therapy has done its job.”
“Do they know they’re going to be watched?” asked Esther.
“Monitoring at all times is a part of the therapy, and is disclosed in the initial releases,” said Dr. Webb. “Unpleasant as it sounds, we even monitor subjects when they visit the bathroom once they’re on the premises.”
“Because of the overdose,” said Esther.
Dr. Webb frowned. “Unfortunately, yes,” she said. “We can’t allow that sort of situation to arise again.”
“Mr. Parker never regained consciousness, if I recall correctly.”
“Which you do, or you wouldn’t have raised the subject.” Dr. Webb shook her head. “Mr. Parker was unable to distinguish our reality, the real reality, from the one we had crafted for his therapy. Upon being told he’d have to live here, instead of there, he harmed himself. We’ve taken steps with our screening and intake procedures, to be sure that sort of thing never happens again.”
The two sleeping women’s chests rose and fell in a steady rhythm for several seconds before one of them—the elder—took a deep, hitching breath and opened her eyes. She blinked at the ceiling above her, looking confused. Then, with a gasp, she sat up and looked wildly around her, seeming to relax only when she caught sight of her sister.
Slowly, with shaking hands and trembling legs, she pulled herself into a sitting position and stood, tottering to her sister’s pod.
“Di?” she said, reaching for her sister’s face. She hesitated for a moment before gently caressing her cheek. “Hey, you. Wake up.”
Dr. Webb smiled to herself. “Before they started treatment, they could barely stand to look at each other. Kim nearly backed out of the program when she learned her pod would be in a room with her sister’s pod, even after we assured them that they’d never have to be awake in the same room. Look at her now.”
Esther looked. Kim was studying her sister with concern, protective wariness, and yes, love. It was the sort of love that was virtually impossible to fake, and it was entirely focused on the sleeping Diana.
“Success,” said Dr. Webb.
Diana opened her eyes.
She blinked at her sister. Then, sweetly, she smiled. “You got away,” she said, and Kim laughed.
Behind the glass, Esther frowned.
“Yes, but how does that justify what some have called ‘borderline emotional torture’?” asked Esther. “Surely the risk you’re taking with these peoples’ minds is more careless than therapeutic.”
“I think you have some misassumptions about what we do here,” said Dr. Webb. “Will you let me give you the standard spiel, if I let you ask questions about it afterward? That may fix the places where we’re not on the same page.”
“Or it may not,” said Esther. “I assure you, I did my reading before I came here.” Not that there was much reading available. The website, the publicity materials, the pieces Dr. Webb had metered out into the world—they were shallow things, never going into sufficient detail to exhaust even Esther’s understanding of the science behind the therapeutic techniques. It had taken less time to read everything than it had to fly to the institute’s location.
Esther didn’t see a way to avoid it. For better or for worse, Dr. Jennifer Webb was the face of and guiding force behind the Webb Virtual Therapy Institute, bearing the jibes from late-night comedians and unpleasant nicknames with calm, unwavering grace. If Dr. Webb didn’t want her there, her article would be dead on the vine, and someone else would get the assignment.