Hey! It looks like you're new here. You might want to check out the introduction.

The Grass isn't Greener · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event

The fox bled into the pond. Its front paws and head floated half-submerged at the water’s edge, as if it had decided to take a nap mid-drink; its sharpest tooth stuck out from under a curled lip; its fur swayed in the ripples; and from the hole in its chest, it turned the water, and the floes of ice and snow on top, a faint, bright red.

I dropped the rifle in the snow. My shoulder ached from the recoil. My shaking fingers were covered in gunpowder.


I just wanted to kill the nightmares.


I just wanted them gone.

Dad ran up beside me, crunching the snow beneath his boots. He placed his big hand on the small of my back. Five dead rabbits hung limply over his shoulder, tied to his rifle.

“What’s wrong, Honey? Why did you fire?”

He followed my line of sight down the hill. To the pond.

“Fuck,” he said, and he broke out into a huge grin. “Nice shooting, Skye! Wow!”

He slung the rabbits off his shoulder and skipped down to the pond, laughing a song. I tried to wipe the gunpowder off my hands.

“Little Skye’s first kill!” Dad shouted to the forest. “At the age of thirteen, ladies and gentlemen!”

The trees responded in a great gust of wind, sprinkling evergreen needles on us.

Dad skipped right up to the fox, nudged its shoulder, and inspected the hole in its chest. “Right in the heart,” he said. “I like your style.” He looked back at me and laughed. “Skye, what’s eating you? You were begging me to come hunting with me this morning.”

I sat back and tucked my hands behind my knees. I’d never told Dad about the nightmares. The foxes running over my frozen body. The blood dripping from their mouths. The smiles on their faces.

“I want to go home,” I said.

“Alright, alright, in a second.”

Dad bent down, balanced on his toes. “Not usually this big,” he mused. He prodded it with the butt of his rifle. “Or this orange.”

He grabbed the tail and stood up with it.

“Dad!” I cried.

He held it out of the water and let it drip like a spinning, bloody towel.

“Oh, relax, honey. It’s a good thing you killed it!” His face suddenly grew serious. “Tricky little fuckers, these ones. Illusionists. Shapeshifters. Ooooo!”

We watched the corpse rotate in the air like a hypnotist’s watch.

Then Dad smiled at me. “Get a grip, Skye. Do you believe everything your old man says?” With that, he flicked the body into the water, and I nearly shrieked. Dad sidestepped the splash and came bouncing back up the hill, pride written all over his face.

“A-aren’t we bringing it home?” I asked.

He frowned “No. If we bring a fox into our home it’ll attract other foxes. Dead or alive. And the hens wouldn’t appreciate that kind of company, besides. And look! We’ve got plenty today.” He repositioned the army of dead rabbits over his shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go see your mother.”

With his free hand he grabbed one of mine and brought me in for a hug. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel proud, then, our hands clasped tight, hunter-to-hunter. But it took me forever to turn my head away from the body. The dead fox, in the clear, reddening pond, bumped into a piece of ice and rotated in the water, its mouth agape, and its eyes shut.

The wind picked up, and the trees bent and swayed overhead. They sounded like they were moaning. They sounded angry at something.

I picked up my rifle, and we went home.

The scene replayed in my head over and over again.

It was the same fox from my nightmares, it had to have been, with the stark black nose and the burning, bloodshot yellow eyes. The white patch of fur around its right eye. It was the same fox that shows up at the end, parts the sea of wiry, clamoring foxes, licks the blood from its lips, and presses its teeth to my neck.

And then he was there, in broad daylight, moving fast as a blur and stopping for a drink. A quick break before it would terrorize me again in the night. I hadn’t even thought. I’d just aimed, exhaled, and fired, like Dad taught me. No different from the beer cans.

Except it didn’t dent, fly comically into the air. It just whimpered, fell asleep in the water, and bled.

I stayed close behind Dad as we walked through the moaning trees. He was a big man, broad from his shoulders to his waist. He could hug me and still grab either of his biceps. His hands and his beard were dirty, as was his brown hair, poking out from under his plaid wool cap.

Our boots crunched in the snow, and the sleeves of our coat scraped against our bodies. On the way out, we had to crouch, walk slowly, tuck our colorful hats into our pockets, but now we walked quickly home, uncaring of how much noise we made. We only had to worry about being followed.

Were we being followed?

I stopped and turned around. Nothing behind us but our footprints.

Dad didn’t even slow down.

“I’ll leave you behind, Spooks,” he said.

Home was a modest farm situated at the edge of a large plot of land that we called ‘the valley’. The forest surrounded it on all sides. The three of us lived in a skinny, two-story house, with a ventilated basement for skinning and tanning hides. A single, flat-topped hen-house stood next to the farmhouse, surrounded by chicken wire. Several times every winter, Dad or I climbed onto the roof and shoveled the snow off to keep the whole thing from collapsing.

I stripped out of my jacket, boots and snow pants, sat at the kitchen table, and gripped my mug from this morning. The smell of coffee was faint, but not gone. It mixed with the gunpowder from my fingers, and gave the whole kitchen a bitter stink.

The pelts on the walls hung still. Their fur looked fresh and shiny, like they’d just been killed that morning. Rabbits, otters, martens and voles, black bears and brown bears and grizzlies. A set of moose antlers hung above the stove.

No foxes, though.

This was where we ate living things—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And in the basement, I skinned animals with my knife, and set the bones aside to make broth. We sold their fur to people from the city, and used the leftovers for wallpaper.

Death had always surrounded me. Ever since Dad clasped me on either shoulder and told me I would start earning my keep, death had been part of the routine, like coffee, or bedtime. But I’d never caused death before. I’d never watched movement, breathing, emotion, every sign of life, stop. I’d never seen so much blood.

Dad walked into my view, and I jumped. The table creaked under his weight as he sat on it, hands folded on his lap.

“Well?” he said.


He smiled with his eyes closed. “Aren’t you gonna go upstairs and tell your mother the good news?”

I hung my head. “Sure.”

“I’ll get started on dinner.” He tapped me on the shoulder. “Nice shooting today, Sweetheart. I think I’ll take you out more often.”

I walked past him.

Going upstairs felt like entering a tunnel. Dad once told me that when he and Mum first bought the farm the house had been made of gypsum and plaster, but the two of them bought stacks of pine planks and covered every wall and ceiling with them. “Best decision we ever made,” he told me. “What’s rustic living if it looks like the city?”

It never bothered me before, and yet, today, everything felt tighter to me than normal. The knots in the pine stared at me like eyes and swirled like storms. Every step creaked. I was more aware of how much every sound bounced off the thick walls, and how little traveled into the next room.

I shook off the unease and let out an angry sigh. Dad was right. Get a grip.

I passed pictures of the three of us, and the two of them, and the one of me, all of us smiling and happy. They were old pictures.

I knocked on my parents’ room, but I didn’t have to.

“Mum?” I said. “It’s me.”

She was right where we left her that afternoon, sitting by the window. Her black hair hung over the back of her chair, all the way to her waistline. It was straight and untouched by hairties in over a decade. Her soft white hands sat plaintively on her lap. As always, she wore her white pajamas.

Every morning, she would watch the sun climb out from under the horizon, and make its way above the house, leaving her with a little burn. In the evening she just stared at the shadows, and the pink, snowy mountains in the distance. She beamed at them; she was radiant.

She hadn’t left the house in months. The last time she’d even set foot on the porch, that was all she managed, before panicking and rushing back inside. “Two steps tomorrow,” she’d said. That was four months ago.

“Hi, Mum.”

She jumped and placed a hand on her chest. “Oh, Skye. You scared me. How was the hunt?”

“It was good,” I said. I squeezed my fingers together, chewed on my lip.

“Sweetie, what’s the matter? Are you still having nightmares?”

I shook my head. “No more nightmares,” I said. “I think they should be gone now. I mean, I hope so.”

“Well, that’s wonderful news,” Mum said. “You know, I have nightmares sometimes too.”

Of course you do, I wanted to say. “I know, Mum.”

“But there’s no need to worry. They’re not real.”

“Mum, I killed something.”

Her face grew serious.

“I didn’t want to. I mean, I did, but I wish I hadn’t.” Stupid, childish tears clouded my eyes.

Mum smiled and took my hand from me. “There’s no need to worry,” she soothed. “You know, I will always protect you.”

I felt a tug at my heart. I tried to imagine her standing between me and an angry bear, or rescuing me from a burning building, but I failed. All I could see was the other way around.

“Yeah, Mum. I know.” I nodded.

She smiled. “There we are. Much better. No more blue Skye.”

Something screamed.

Birds bolted from the trees, cawing in anger. The hen-house broke into a panic. But they all paled in comparison to the screams coming from inside the forest. Anguished screams, rising and falling, never pausing for breath. I couldn’t tell if it was laughing or crying. Insanity in sound.

I clutched Mum’s hand. She turned her head at me, and then towards the window.

I rushed to the window and slammed it shut, but the screams seemed to get louder. Angrier. My shoulder ached. I could feel the gunpowder on my fingers.

I hadn’t killed the nightmares at all.

I’d set them free.


When the fox stopped screaming, Mum tutted behind me.

“Well, now,” she said. “That was a little melodramatic, don’t you think?”

I looked back at her. “That didn’t freak you out?”

“Why would it? It’s only a fox, sweetie. Foxes are the kindest, warmest creatures there are. Once you get to know them.” She tapped her nose with one finger.

“Dinner!” Dad called up the stairs.

Mum bounced once, then stood from her chair. “I was just feeling peckish,” she said.

Outside, the birds settled back into their nests. The hens clucked, chortled, and eventually went quiet themselves. Like nothing had ever happened.

Trembling, I stretched a hand out to Mum and took her downstairs.

If the screams had bothered Dad, he didn’t show it. He stood at the stove, swaying his hips and humming; three chicken breasts sizzled in a well-oiled pan. The oil crackled and sprayed on his shirt, across the counter, and even on the splatter guard standing up against the wall. A salad bowl surrounded by stray lettuce and chopped zucchini sat on the counter.

Watching Dad cook was like watching work pile up in front of me. He moved fluidly and quickly, and by the time the meal was ready the kitchen looked like it had just been used to feed twenty people, instead of only three. It was my job to clean up after him. Part of earning my keep.

Most nights, we ate in silence. Those were the best nights. But Dad was in a chatty mood ever since the hunt. Maybe it was the thrill of the dead fox, or the promise of money hidden in those rabbit hides. He finished most of his meal before I even started, and then leaned back in the chair, smiling at Mum as she carefully cut her food.

“So!” he said. “Skye tell you what she did today?”

Mum’s knife stopped suddenly. “No,” she murmured. “I don’t think so.”

“Bagged a fox.” Dad flicked his eyebrows up his face. “Didn’t even need my help.”

Mum put down her cutlery. She stared down at her hands. “Oh,” she said. “A fox. That’s nice, Honey.”

“Can we talk about something else?” I said.

“What?” Dad replied, “It’s the most interesting thing that happened to us today.”

I cleared my throat. “Mum.” I placed my hand on hers so she would look at me. “What did you do today?”

Mum tried to look my way, but failed. “I…I—”

Dad slammed his fork on the table. Mum and I jumped.

“The fuck do you think she did today, Skye?” he barked. “She stared out her goddamn window. We’re gonna talk about what we did.” He flicked his knife between us. “Because that’s actually interesting.”

After a moment, he straightened his back. He raised his hands innocently. “Look… I’m sorry, you two. I just don’t know why no-one’s as excited as I am.” He beamed at me. “Skye’s first kill.”

I sawed off another piece of chicken.

They weren’t always like this, Mum and Dad. I can remember when I was small—just tall enough to see over the dinner table if I stood on my toes—watching them cook. They would sing a duet together that my Dad had taught my Mum—passed down through generations. She would reach up and touch his face mid-dance, and they would both freeze, grinning like fools. They only ever moved when I, loudly and proudly, gagged.

I adored their love story when I was a kid, even if I hated the fact that it was, well, theirs. The student studying abroad in a subject he realized he hated, happening across a frustrated young girl living with an overbearing family. The nighttime flings. The promise to leave together, buy a farm miles away from any city, and live off the land. Mum took some convincing, at first, with the hunting. But Dad told her stories of furs keeping the natives warm, of babies wrapped up in a bear’s fur coat, and she relented on two conditions. The animals couldn't be endangered. And the killing had to be useful—their death couldn't be a waste.

And then I came along. And wherever I fit into their lives, that's where I stayed.

Years passed, and they changed. Dad became irritable. Mum discovered the frightening horror that was her own shadow. And I, finally becoming old enough to create long-lasting memories, could only remember them for what they were now.

They both started feeding me the same tired line. They weren’t always like this. Your Dad was never so short-tempered. Your Mum used to be so strong, you know, before she became as frightened as an orphaned rabbit.

But Dad didn’t get angry all that often. And Mum was a lot braver than Dad gave her credit for. On a good day.

I would do anything to see her touch his face, and for them to freeze, just one more time.

Dad was the first to finish his meal, so he stood from the table, wiped his hands with his napkin, and threw it on his plate.

“Get the dishes, Skye. I’m gonna check on the hens.”

He stomped away. He swung open the first door, but paused before opening the screen door.

“What the f…fuck?”


All I could see was him at the door, staring down through the screen, his mouth hanging slightly open. He threw his gaze at me, then back down.

“You know anything about this?” he asked.

I stood and went to him. My heart doubled its pace.

Sitting on the front porch, in a patch of wet wood, was the dead fox. Curled up in a soft little ball, it seemed to be only taking a nap. It was still dead, but it had finished bleeding. A single fly buzzed around its head as it agonized over the best spot to land.

“What kinda sick bastard…?” Dad snapped in my direction. “Plastic bag. Big one.”

I fetched an old Aldi bag from a drawer in the kitchen, handed it over, and stepped way back.

Dad put his hand through the bag, opened the screen door and grabbed the body by its rear end. He tried to wrap it up in one go, but its head flopped to one side and grazed his arm.

He squirmed. “Christ alive.”

When he was done, he tied the bag off and hucked it along the wall towards the garbage bin. Then he stepped outside and turned in a uneven circle.

The forest shook. A crow cawed, innocently.

He came back inside and shut the door. “Must have crawled here or something.”

“It was dead.”

“Maybe not all the way.”

“I shot its heart.”

Dad rubbed his stubble. He swore. “Start carrying your knife with you,” he said. “And know where your gun is at all times. Got it?”

Just when I thought my heart couldn’t beat any faster.

I set my alarm clock forward an hour. Something told me I would need an extra few hours of sleep, but one was all I could afford. I got out my stuffed bear—the one Dad made me, out of real fur, when I was five—and placed it in front of the screen of the clock so it couldn’t mock me with its glow while I failed to fall asleep.

I pat the bear on the head. “Thanks, Bub.”

I leaned my rifle against the bedpost—within reach. I slid into bed, flicked off the lamp, and under the warmth of three blankets, I shivered.

Just get to tomorrow, I thought. Tomorrow is better than today. It always is.

I don’t know when I fell asleep. All I know is, for the first time in weeks, I didn’t have the nightmare with the screaming fox. I had a different one.

I woke in a world of thick mist, already standing. Branches covered in pink flowers poked out of a thick mist, just out of reach. Petals spun to the ground. The sun burned softly behind the sky, but the mist held strong against it. I wore some kind of white dress covered in bare, red tree branches. It was more comfortable than anything I’d ever worn in my life.

In front of me was a statue of a fox sat on its hindquarters, nose pointed up and to the side, mid-sniff.

I discovered I couldn’t control my body, in the most unsettling way possible. I tried to move, found that I couldn’t, and then felt my body move on its own.

I squatted down in front of the statue, sitting on my knees. I traced my fingers along a hole in the fox’s chest. A dried trail of blood made its way to the floor, where it disappeared. Shot in the heart.

I reached up to touch its face—again, not because I wanted to, but because I had no choice—and I pulled back. I brought my hands to my lap again.

I’m sorry, I said. I made a mistake.

The statue growled faintly, and its chin, in a bizarre, fluid movement of rock, bent towards me.

I’m sorry, I said. Tears plucked at my fingers. I made a mistake.

It stopped growling, pounced, and I woke up. I tried to scream. I tried to thrash, roll over, dodge the fox, but I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t move.

I felt as cold and still as if I was frozen.

The room was dark, but the knots in the ceiling were still just about visible. I couldn’t look at anything else. I could swear they were moving, spinning like whirlpools in the wood.

I tried to sit up. I failed. I was awake, but my muscles weren’t. I turned my eyes down to see the clock on the dresser, but then I remembered I’d put the bear in the way.

That’s when I saw the yellow eyes.

At first, I thought it was another stuffed bear. Just taller, skinnier, and orange. But then I saw the signs of life. It was breathing—heavy, and labored, but alive. All over its fur stuck together, wet and shining in what little moonlight the room had. It licked its paw, pushing pieces of dried snow onto the floor.

It had a white patch of fur around its right eye.

I tried to yell, but my chest fought it, and all I did was groan.

The dead fox—for it couldn’t be anything else—hopped off the dresser and disappeared. I searched the ceiling and willed my body to move, or even to scream.

Dad. Mum.

I shut my eyes.

This isn’t real. It’s dead.

The bed shifted. I whimpered. The blankets brushed my legs slightly. I felt a paw beside my ankle, and then another between my thighs. Then on my waist. My stomach. My chest. My neck.

The fox came into view, its black nose an inch away from mine, and I realized I had it wrong. It wasn’t a shambling corpse come back to life to haunt me; no, it wasn’t rotten, only withered. Its orange fur was graying in places. Its whiskers were curled in random directions. And the tiny part of me that thought this was all a bad dream quietly died.

The fox opened its mouth and panted. Saliva dripped onto my nose. I smelled death in its every breath. It trembled and growled, and the bed vibrated.

I’m sorry, I croaked. I made a mistake. No sound came out.

The fox inhaled—suddenly and loudly, like only a human could—and it screamed in my face.

My ears throbbed and I couldn’t cover them. I thought it was dying. Like its lower half was being ripped to shreds, but it kept its yellow eyes trained on me, its teeth bared. Tears blurred its image.

Finally, I screamed back. My body returned and I flung all my limbs at once, swatting at the fox, diving forward and grabbing my gun. I rolled onto my back and aimed.

Gone. I was alone.

Down the hall, footsteps charged towards me. Dad came flying in the room.

“Skye! What the hell is wrong with you?”

I sat up and aimed around the room. “W-where’d it go?” I blubbered. “I c-couldn’t move. Where…?”

Dad put a big hand on the nose of the rifle and pushed it into the bed. Then he took it out of my hands and set it against the wall.

“Skye,” he warned, sitting next to me. “You were having a nightmare. Relax.”

“I was awake.”

Dad shook his head. “Never had sleep paralysis before?”

“Sleep… what?”

“It’s like dreaming and being awake at the same time. It’s a lot of fun.” He tapped me on the forehead. “But it’s all in here. Got it?”

“But—The fox.”

Dad placed his rough hands on my cheeks and pulled my attention towards him. “There’s no fox,” he said. “Okay?”

I swallowed. “Okay.”

“Let’s not become your mother, Skye.”

My heart sank. I had no response to that.

“Night, Sweet’ums.”

He left before I could beg him to stay. He closed my door softly, muttered to himself in the hall, then slammed the door to his and Mum’s room.

The sheets were strewn all around me. I got out of bed, breathing unsteadily, and re-made them. The work calmed me down, just like Dad always told me. Put yourself to use. Demons can’t get you if you’re busy.

I passed the dresser and moved the bear to see the clock. Quarter to one. I decided I would put myself to work tomorrow. I would keep the farm running all by myself, if I had to.

I put one hand on the dresser and shrieked, pulling it back.

It was wet.


Sleep never returned, and despite what I’d hoped, the sun never came out the next day. I spent the next several hours on my side, clutching my bear, staring at the pitch black sky outside, and the flecks of snow sticking to the window. I listened for signs of the fox. But I heard nothing. The temperature dropped. The cold cut through blankets, hair, skin and bone. At some point the black sky turned gray, my alarm went off, and I went downstairs.

Dad and Mum were up; he stood at the stove frying eggs in a pan, while she sat at the table, readjusting her cutlery every few moments.

“Good morning, Skye,” Mum said. “How did you sleep?”

“Wahey!” Dad called. “It’s Spooks! Glad you could join us.”

I crossed my arms and sat in the chair. My eyes begged me to let them close. My brain fought to keep them open.

Dad sighed dramatically. “Well, since you’re here, you can make yourself useful. I need some more eggs.”

“Oh, you’re too hard on her,” Mum said. “Can’t you see she’s exhausted?”

Dad’s face darkened. He scraped at the eggs stuck to the pan. Some of it fell to the flames below and hissed. “Shut up, Dear,” he whispered. “Skye, get some eggs.”

Mum patted me on the knees and nodded, as if giving me permission.

I felt lightheaded as I stood, and I grabbed the table for support. The room swung like a pendulum—one way, then the other, and back again. I teetered my way to the front door, going by muscle memory more than by sight. I steadied myself on the knob, pulled it open, pushed on the screen door and walked out, letting it crash behind me. I rubbed my temples. Just get to tomorrow. But it was tomorrow.

A plastic bag flew by and I instinctively caught it.

An old Aldi. With a hole torn through it.

I stepped off the front porch, wandered into the valley, and let the bag flutter away. I fell to my knees. My stomach lurched ahead of me, and I almost hurled.

The hens weren’t in their house. They were in pieces. All around me, scattered across the valley, in a mess of feathers, meat, and blood. Every last one of them.

I clasped my hands over my mouth. Tears ran over them. I felt around for the ground as if it had left me, and I sat back to cry.

“Dad…” I muttered, then, “DAD!”

It took him a minute to come out, and it felt like hours. Brown feathers and down swirled around me in an invisible twister. The hen closest to me took a good look at the dirt, one eye hanging out of its socket.

Dad’s footsteps came thundering out of the house behind me. He had his rifle drawn; his face was wild. I hid my face in my knees.

“Show yourself!” he screamed. “COME OUT HERE!”

I only heard what he did next. It started with steps, skids, running back and forth. Then his rifle clattering into the dirt, a grunt, and what sounded like the axe being yanked out of its stump.

Then, “Fuck!” and the sound of the axe thudding into the side of the hen-house. And out again. Another curse, another thud. “FUCK!”

Then he gasped. He sprinted over to me and grabbed his rifle. I couldn’t help but look up.

At the far end of the valley, perched silently at the edge of the trees, were two foxes, with white patches of fur over their right eyes. One was dead, its fur coming off in the wind. It hung from the mouth of an older version of itself. The old fox dropped the larger fox to the ground and licked its lips.

Dad fired. A nearby tree splintered, but the fox didn’t flinch. It licked its paws.

“Shit.” Dad fumbled for his breast pocket for another bullet, but came up with nothing. “Fuck. Skye!”

He dug his fingers under my armpit, and I yelped.

“Honey, for fuck’s sakes! STAND UP!”

He ripped me off the floor with one big hand and shook me until my legs worked. A hard vein pulsed in his forehead. His eyes went on a wild journey all over my face.

“Why are you so afraid of a goddamn animal? It’s not intelligent, it’s not out to get you, it’s not even that fucking big! Get a hold of yourself!”

His voice was breaking apart. His fingers pressed my muscles, my nerves, and instead of answering him, I tried to break free.

“Are you listening to me?” he barked.

“Let go!”

Suddenly, a soft, white hand—like a tree branch emerging from the mist—reached out and touched the opposite side of his face. Mum, holding her pajamas up at the chest to keep them out of the dirt, had appeared out of nowhere, like a beam of sunlight through the clouds. She turned his head towards her.

“Dear,” she said. “Let’s not scare poor Skye. She’s all we have.”

Dad let go of me. His mouth quivered. He placed his hand over hers.

“You’re outside,” he said.

She pulled him in. She placed her chin on his shoulder, and nuzzled it gently.

“Come with me,” she suggested. “I’ll make everything better. I always can.”

Dad swallowed. The end of his gun fell to the grass, and Mum took his hand. He let her lead him away.

“Be good, Sweetie,” she said to me. “This won’t take long.”

Off they went. I watched, this middle-age couple meandering away, like lovers on a beach. They walked to the front door, then through it, and up the stairs. Dad dragged the butt of his rifle on the floor, knocking it against every stair.

The fox.

I spun around. At the far end of the valley, the dead fox lay in a bundle on the ground. The old one crept across the valley, its head up, its eyes wide, and its nose sniffing like mad.

It saw me looking, and it bolted. It grabbed the bigger fox by the scruff of its neck and dragged it into the trees.

I ran inside and grabbed my rifle.

Maybe it was anger that hurled me into the forest; maybe it was guilt, not for the dead fox, but for the hens, and for everything that was happening to my family; or maybe it was that childish thought that I could solve everything with my first idea. But I wasn’t sorry anymore. I made no mistake. I would kill every fox in the forest if it meant the nightmare would end.

But I knew I only had to kill one of them.

I barreled through the snow, my rifle clutched in both hands. I hadn’t thrown on my jacket on—my pullover, and my rage, were warm enough.

A set of paw-prints weaved through the trees, lined with scattered orange furs, and the soft, worm-like imprint of a tail. I followed it up to where it ended, suddenly, at the bottom of a thick evergreen with low-hanging branches. Needles fell from bouncing branches above me, and there I saw the orange blur, skittering through the branches.

I chased them for all of two seconds before I tripped on a root and landed hard on my elbows. I still held my gun. Pushing myself back to standing, I scanned for them again.

Nothing but snow and moaning trees all around.

I spun around and cursed. In the moment of rest, my body felt twice as heavy, my eyes reminded me I hadn’t slept in over a day, and I fell to one knee.

The trees, quietly but surely, caught fire.

“What the…?”

One by one, flames appeared silently from the sky and spread downward through the branches. My face grew hot. Flaming needles fell around me, but they vanished before they reached the ground. I could taste the smoke. A fox screamed, echoing from everywhere at once.

I should have run. Dad had trained me for forest fires. Get to a clearing. And the valley wasn’t too far away. But despite the smoke, and the heat, I stayed there. I held my rifle to my chest, and closed my eyes.

“This isn’t real,” I whispered. “It can’t be.”

The heat dissipated. I could breathe again. A pair of crows cawed overhead. The forest was back to its cold, unfeeling self.

A branch shook above me. I looked up. The fox—its dead friend deposited somewhere else—gazed at me with curious yellow eyes. It repositioned itself and tilted its head.

“What are you?” I wheezed, but then every part of me screamed, Who cares? so I aimed.

The fox flinched.

A gunshot pierced the forest.

My finger shook, tapping the trigger. I hadn’t pressed it yet.

The gunshot had come from the farm.

“Mum? Dad!”

I sprinted away, tripped and landed back on my knees, got up, and sprinted again. I kept my eyes down, leaping over branches and rocks until I was out of the forest. I ran across the valley faster than I ever had in my life.

I ripped open both doors, threw my rifle to the floor, and shot up the narrow stairs.

“Dad! Mu—”

I stopped cold at the top of the stairs.

The scene was something out of a painting. Dad, huddling himself in the corner of the door-frame, clutching his rifle, looking in. Mum’s long black hair, and her soft, white arm, hanging over the end of the bed. A trail of blood running down her arm onto the wood floor.

Knots of wood watched from everywhere.

“Mum?” I muttered. “Mum?”

Dad clutched his shoulders. “She… She looked like… one of them.” He took off his hat and buried his face in it. “She looked like…” He wheezed, then suddenly inhaled. “It tricked me,” he snarled. “It fucking tricked me.”

His anger petered out as fast as it had come.

I stepped over him. He pawed at me to stop, and I swatted his hand away. He wailed and hid his face while, outside, the forest screamed.

When I looked back, my mother was gone. Her body had been replaced. Hanging over the bed, dripping blood from its nose and teeth, was a dead fox.


I had always been dreaming. That was my first thought. My whole life leading up to this point had never been real. Somewhere, in a bed made of cotton and wool, I slept soundly, and soon, I would wake up from all of this, and go downstairs to have breakfast. Somewhere, that was true.

Somewhere, I still had a mother.

I sat at the kitchen table, clutched my mug so hard I thought it might shatter and cut my hands. A still smell of death hung over everything, and for a moment, I thought it was the pelts.

Dad came downstairs slowly—the softest I’d ever heard him walk. He put a single, rough hand on my shoulder, and squeezed. With one finger, he scratched. The same finger that had pulled the trigger.

I slouched away from it.


He walked around to the opposite chair, the scene upstairs still written all over his face, and sat down. What did he see, when he looked at the bed? A person, or an animal?

“She said she was sorry,” Dad said.


He shook his head, remembering. “We were asleep. Or… I was. She touched my face and she”—he pointed to his ear—“whispered it to me. She said she was sorry. She made a—”

“Mistake,” I finished.

“…Did she say that to you too?”

I didn’t answer.

Dad looked down at his hands. “And then I… I turned over, and…” his eyes turned red and overflowed. “I saw… it.”

Before I knew what I was doing, I tried to solve my Dad like he was a puzzle. I tried to consolidate this broken, crying man, with the angry beast I’d seen in the valley. The beast who grabbed me, yanked me around, yelled in my face. He made me want to run inside and never leave. Find somewhere safe, enclosed. And then Mum stopped him.

I’ll always protect you.

“You tortured her.”

Dad looked up at me. He frowned. “What did you say?”

“Mum wasn’t scared of everything.” I met his eyes. “She was just scared of you.”


“You tortured her until she broke.”

Dad pointed a finger at me. “Skye, that’s enough. That’s a crock of shit and you know it.” He wagged his finger. “It’s that fox. It’s tricking us. Turning us against each other. Illusions, remember? But it’s just one animal,” he said with a nod. “You and me, Skye. We can kill it.”

I didn’t answer.

He slammed his fists against the table and stood.

“Don’t ignore…”

The table caught our attention. It vibrated under his fists. He pulled them away, but it kept going. It rumbled. Then it shook. I let go of the mug and watched it slide away.

The dishes and glasses in the cupboards clattered. The pelts hanging next to the walls moved for the first time in years.

I dodged Dad as he ran to the screen door. He pressed his hands against the frame. His face glowed white in the moonlight.

“Skye,” he said. “What time is it?”

“Almost lunch?” I guessed.

He didn’t answer.

I ran to the nearest window. The sky was black. The stars were out. The moon was full, and round, and painted a faint, bright red.

The house stopped shaking.


The windows exploded.

A wave of fur washed over me and swept me onto the floor. Paws struck me, teeth nipped at my arms and legs, and snarling, growling, and gnashing came from every direction at once. I threw my arms over my head and crawled under the table, screaming.


A thousand of them, all with white patches on one eye, all of their whiskers curling with age—they stormed inside through every window, came up from the basement, flew down from upstairs, and rushed the front door.

Dad whirled around. He swung his arms and brushed the foxes off him one by one, but they kept coming. He swore, went to run upstairs for his rifle, but they ran over him like a wave, and pushed him backwards down the steps. I saw blood, bits of fur, and pieces of skin, fly in the air. A single big hand stuck out from the pile and reached towards me.

I saw an opening and ran out the door.

There were miles of foxes. They flooded the entire valley, came spilling out of the forest, spurred on by the beating red moon above. I kicked at them as I ran, but they were so fast; I missed every time. I crashed into the dirt and covered myself as they ran over me.

There was a burst of wood and nails as Dad shoulder-charged the door and came outside. He sprinted to the hen house—pieces of his face missing—and wrenched the axe out of the side.

“Come and get me!”

They did. With wide, hurricane-like swings he chopped at them, but they only seemed to ride the axe, get flung away by it, and run straight back for him. He swung and swung as they climbed, shaking them off every time.

Until one got up to his shoulder and sank its teeth in his neck.


He swung the axe right for it, and it jumped out of the way.

A terrible snap echoed through the forest.

I picked myself up and ran.

I thought I’d never make it across the valley, that I’d collapse and be overrun before I even passed the hen-house—but suddenly I broached the trees. The foxes were gone. I was alone.

I kept running. Any step now would be my last.

My body separated from my mind. Like a dog owner running short of breath, my body let go of the leash, let my mind run away, and collapsed to the floor.

I fell to my hands and knees, crawled over to the nearest tree, and sat up against it. I didn’t have my rifle, my coat or my snow pants or my boots. Numbness crept up from my fingers and toes, worked its way to my chest. I let it happen without so much as a shiver.

I thought of home. My father in the valley. My mother on the bed. And I never knew who either of them were.

A twig snapped in half, and I jolted awake. Ten feet from me, stalking slowly on all fours, was the old fox. It bowed its head and disappeared behind a tree. In a moment, it reappeared, holding the fox I killed in its mouth, now two days old. A third of its fur was missing, the rest of it clumping and ready to fall.

I tried to slide back, but I was already against the tree, and even that failed movement took so much strength.

“Go away,” I warned it. I had nothing to back up the threat. “Please.”

The fox kept coming. It dropped the body at my feet and sat back, its head bowed. It opened and shut its eyes with effort, as if struggling to keep awake. It shifted and nudged the body, almost rolling it over.

“I don’t understand,” I whimpered.

It came close to me. I inhaled sharply, and it stopped, then approached slower.

It poked its nose into my pocket, pulled out a knife by the blade, and set it down by the body. It nudged it again, and nearly lost its balance.

Realization struck me. Tears flooded my eyes.

“I can’t,” I told the fox. “It’s been too long.” I reached out and took a clump of fur, tossing it aside. “See?”

The fox stayed still, its ears flat against its head. Snow fell around us, slowly, as if it didn’t want to interrupt, but it couldn’t help but fall, and hoped we’d forgive it.

“Was he… your son?” I guessed.

The fox hung its head, then raised it again. I realized a bow looked a lot like a slow, meaningful nod.

Then it jolted upright, and I flinched. It moved a few feet away, sniffing the ground, locked itself into a trance and began to dig.

Next to him, a pond shimmered in the sunlight, and I realized the sky had turned back to normal.

The pond?

Yes. The same pond where I’d killed this creature at my feet. How had I ended up here? The water and snow showed no signs of blood anymore, as if someone had come and scrubbed it clean.

The old fox whined. It could barely get its paws in the earth. It winced as it worked, back and forth and back and forth, getting slower by the second. I shuffled over on my knees, and helped. It took us over an hour. The dirt got more and more frozen as we went. By the end we had a hole three feet deep, as wide and long as it needed to be to hold a fully-grown fox.

The old fox nudged his son in the hole, and I pushed the dirt over him. I flattened it, the fox spun around on top of it, and lay down.

I left the fox and went back to the tree. I sat cross-legged and fell asleep.

I woke up with something on my lap. Furry and orange, like a small fire, the old fox rested there, sniffing at something in the air.

Praying that it understood english, which I was pretty sure it did, I told it two things.

The first thing I said was that I was sorry. That I made a mistake. And while I meant every word, I hoped that, somehow, it—he—knew that I was speaking for someone else, too. Someone who’d wanted to say those words for years, but could only manage it in her dreams, where she didn’t feel any pride, and where she didn’t have to protect someone.

The fox nestled its nose into the crook of my knee. I think he understood.

The second thing I said took a while to prepare. I needed time to think, to picture. I fought every part of me that wanted to think of the past, and the present, and instead thought about the future. It took a while to convince myself it existed.

I had to bury Dad.

He would rest somewhere in the valley, I decided, far from the house, but not too far. I might be able to finish by the time the sun went down, though it would take years to come up with the right words to say.

Then, I would have to separate Mum into two people. Separate who I knew, from who she was. Her body—its soft, white skin, and its tender, frightened hands—was gone now, never to touch anyone again. If it had ever existed at all. The body in my parents’ room was only an animal. Something I had never seen breathe, or cry, or touch, or live. It was as natural as a plant, sprouting up from the earth as if it had always been that size, just waiting to be plucked and taken home, and to be made useful.

I stood, shaking, and leaned against the tree. The fox jumped out of my legs and stared up at me, searching for something in my face. I think it knew what I was about to say.

“It’s not too late for her.”

I picked up my knife, and we went home.
« Prev   5   Next »
#1 · 3
· · >>Miller Minus
I'm not entirely sure I understood exactly what was going on by the end, but that only added to my impression of an unholy masterpiece.

I want to give you a good review, but I'm not sure I can. It's intimidating.

But christ on a bike this is good. Every word feels carefully picked. By the end, every line lands like a precisely swung hammer. Guh. Loved this.
#2 ·
This story got awfully rocky as it went along. Each time my reading-carriage was jostled, if you'll forgive the metaphor, I found myself saying "Oh! is that what this story is about?" I mean, stories can be about many things, sure, but in short story land the degree of difficulty is ramped way up if you're going for layered. And when there's as much as there is going on in this story, I tend to see patches of arcs and ideas being shown, but none of them follow a trend, or even interact with their adjacent arcs or ideas.

So, what is this about? Skye learning to become a hunter? The importance of not creating waste? The slow realization (which was not so slow, for me) that Dad is abusing Mom? The fox family separated in two? The feud between these two families? Are we supposed to be deciding who's at fault for all this? These are yes or no questions, keep in mind--I didn't miss anything that happened, but I had trouble following along.

It was a bumpy ride, is all I'm saying.

This comes into play strongest at the ending. Author, if "let's go home and turn mommy dearest into a scarf" was your best idea for an ending, what was your second-best idea? Any ending can work depending on what's behind it, but for me, that didn't feel like the clincher to this story. I think that if you ask yourself what you really want to focus on, and maybe strip some other things down to the minimum, everything would flow a little better.

Other than that, prose is good! I thought Skye's voice was well established, and I was at the very least invested in what happened to her and her famjam.

Thanks for writing and best of luck in the shakedown!
#3 · 1
· · >>No_Raisin >>Miller Minus
Very nice:

But I have a spotty track record of being able to figure out jigsaw puzzle stories like this. And in this one, author, I don't find that I've got enough pieces to put it all together.

The way I see it, Mom's a kitsune who married Dad against the wishes of her family and came to America with him. I'm assuming the foxes are Mom's relatives come to further express their disapproval, but I can't figure out why it's all happening now. Did it take Mom's family all these years to track her down? And why are they attacking Skye in her dreams? Kitsunes are tricksters: wouldn't they try to lure her onto their side, try to turn her against her father, maybe even try to convince her to kill him? Like the others above, I'm not sure what happens at the end, and I found myself wondering where they get their bullets. Do they make their own? Do they have a truck somewhere that they use to drive to the nearest settlement once every month or two?

The writing's really good, but I need more puzzle pieces to get the full picture.

#4 · 1
· · >>Miller Minus
Alternate Title: Good Hunting

Two things I liked:

1. Man, that opening paragraph. The prose for the whole story is punchy and technically solid, but that opening salvo manages to use more than one semi-colon in a single sentence and make it look elegant. Granted, that level of complexity is never really seen again, but Kitsune has easily my favorite opening of all the entries this round. Hooked me immediately, and of course the strength of the prose made good on that promise.

2. Of all the entries, this probably also had me thinking the most. About what it all means, about Skye's perspective, about her relationship with her dad, about whatever the hell that ending was. There's a lot to take in with this story, in that like what >>Baal Bunny said it's not a narrative that makes all the pieces of its puzzle clear to the reader. There are parts, especially the ending, where I'm left wondering about what the author hoped for me to take away from it, but in like a good way?

Two things I didn't like:

1. Unfortunately, despite a strong first leg and an intriguing ending (to put it one way), Kitsune is too long. Or rather I don't think the length is justified, given how little material we've actually got to work with. You'd think there would be a lot of backstory and world-building in a story that focuses on a mythological creature, but we actually get to know very little about Skye's situation. There is a conspicuous lack of context as to why Skye's family life is the way it is, or even what kind of world these characters live in. You could say the abstractness of it is due to the fable-like nature of the plot, but here's the thing...

2. While I do like the idea of a fantasy being entering an otherwise realistic setting, if handled well, Skye's perspective and home life are too gritty for me to become fully invested in the fantasy aspect. The 1st person narration feels ill-fating of a story of this type, since fantasy fables tend to be told in the 3rd person. There's also too much cursing (which sounds weird coming from me) for the setting and vibe we're going for here, and the language combined with the dad's attitude threaten to propel the story into edgelord territory.

Verdict: A nicely refined dark fantasy that unfortunately has one too many things holding me back from loving it. By no means bad, though.
#5 · 5
>>Baal Bunny


Thanks for your comments gentlemen, and thanks so much for the medal. Big ups to everyone this round; I know we weren't all crazy proud of what we submitted but everyone's a winner for doing so.

I originally had plans for writing this big long retrospective titled "Let's All Laugh At Past Miller" where I would describe my thought process and jovially detail how everything came crashing down by the time the writing period was over. Seriously, this story took a mind of its own, and it escaped me. When I wrote this line:

Like a dog owner running short of breath, my body let go of the leash, let my mind run away, and collapsed to the floor.

That was inspired by the story itself. No... Please... come back...

So your reviews (and those in the chat) fell on some issues I had seen coming, and plenty I didn't, so this is one of the most useful rounds I've ever been in. Thanks so much.

Also, I wanted to share one line from the retrospective that wasn't to be:

Awww, look at Past Miller go. Such confidence. Such focus. He thinks he's Cold in Gardez.

See you next time!