This story is paired with “Red Riding Hood” from Children’s and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
Meo was lost in an imperfect memory. She rocked on a porch, pressed against the sharp folds of her mother’s blouse, as humming vibrated against her. Wind tickled loose hairs across her cheek as she opened her eyes to the glare of the sun on her mother’s white shirt and the piercing green of grass stretched out before her. She filled herself with a rich, savory scent, as a plate of food appeared on a table beside her—yellow onions, succulent moist chicken, sticky-soft dumplings—the smell filled her with warmth. Her mother stopped humming and asked, her voice continuing to reverberate against Meo, Hungry?
This was Meo’s earliest memory, yet so much remained unknown: how the grass had been able to grow, the taste of the food, what her mother had looked like. When nothing more presented itself to add to the memory, Meo stood and stretched, clenched fists reaching above her head, her red hoodie flaring brightly in the afternoon sun. Her stomach growled as the crop sphere behind the school erupted in mist, automated chemical sprays trying to coax the worn-out plants into producing more food. She turned away from the sphered fields to gaze across the city, where her path home lay. From the school’s roof, Meo could see the glimmering blue spheres close by and beyond them the forest, where the shadows of apartments loomed over the streets, the only protection from the environment a thin layer of concrete. Once upon a time, forests had trees, but not anymore. Now spheres protected what trees were left and the towering apartments were called the forest instead.
Meo stood a moment longer in the cool sun, as the last vibrations of memory left her—
stomach raw from the remembrance of food—before slinging her backpack onto her shoulders and moving toward the ladder from the roof. After her first week at St. Wilgifortis School for Girls, Meo had decided to hide on the roof after the final bell, waiting until the other students had left. She was the scholarship girl, educated with the sphere-folk, yes, but her home the forest. She did not fit in.
She wound her way through the school, trying to ignore the remnants of gossiping teenagers that had yet to leave. As she walked through the main doors, sunlight gleamed through the sphere and onto her, its heat more gentle and cool than she was used to. She forced her long legs into even longer strides, the black tights of her school uniform pulling against her muscles. Night had usually fallen by the time she arrived at the apartment building where she and her grandmother lived. A flashlight and a can of Mace hung on clips from her backpack, though she’d only used the Mace once before—to little effect—but the flashlight she used almost every night, especially during the winter.
She filled herself with the scent of pine and grass, as she passed the squat building where the nuns slept beside the copse of evergreen trees. Meo stood by the trees for a moment, listening to the breeze rustle pine needles, a sound she had never heard until starting school. As she left the blue tint of the school’s sphere and stepped into the real environment, her skin tingled from the change in temperature—cool to burning hot. Sweat immediately drenched her. Even during winter, the sun scalded outside the spheres, which was why the forest folk slept with the sun and awoke with the moon. But the city’s center did not need such precautions, for the spheres protected them from the sun’s harsh rays. The smell changed upon leaving the sphere too, from grass and pine to what smelled like singed flesh. While the scent of clean air inside the school still smelled strange to her, like chemicals and medicine, she did love the sweet, nasal scent of grass and pine.
As she headed home, she gazed at the beautiful homes encased in blue-tinted spheres. Each house was different: some tall and dark, casting long shadows over their lots, others sprawling and round and white, stretching to the very tips of their sphere. She looked forward to spring, when gardens would bloom and she could see flowers. The forest was monstrous in comparison—gray concrete stretched high and wide like a stormy sky, each apartment exactly alike. No flowers or grass or pine trees. No smells you wanted to bury your face in.
She stepped from the evenly paved sidewalk into a narrow alley that led to the forest. Shadows thickened with the onset of twilight and she clicked on her flashlight, its small stream of light flickering out, reflecting off the broken glass and remnants of skyscrapers that littered the street. Meo kept close to the buildings, not wandering too far into the open where the majority of sharp glass lay. The war eight years ago had hit this part of town hard, making the radiation too high for people to live there—but that’s what made it such a safe path for Meo to walk home from school. Meo hurried through the alley, the Mace rattling against her backpack in the silence of the deserted streets. She understood why, with both Meo’s parents dead, Granny insisted she carry the bright red cylinder of Mace, but she knew it was pointless. It was too late for her, though Granny didn’t need to know about that. The savagery of the forest marked all its inhabitants.
As she turned onto 32nd Street, two blocks from her apartment, she heard a strange noise. The noise emanated from a fractured giant, a once-upon-a-time library, one of Meo’s favorite haunts on the weekends, even though the radiation sometimes sickened her. The noise sounded like a whimper—a high-pitched sob. It was a sound she remembered, and remembering, she covered the flashlight with her hand to dim the light and edged toward a punctured hole in the broken-down library. She peered through it as the whimpers softened into a pant.
“Are you okay?” she called into the darkness. The pants continued. She uncovered the flashlight and stepped into the rubble-filled room, scanning for the source of the soft, sobbing sound. Seeing nothing, she continued farther inside before spotting it, a mound of fur lying atop a pile of old books and papers. She crept closer, hardly believing what lay in front of her. The sides of the animal heaved with the pulse of its whimpers and, as she shone the light upon it, she recognized the animal from her Experiencing Extinction class—a wolf; a predator. Yet there were no more animals outside the spheres, and certainly no more predators. She reached toward the wolf, curious to feel its fur, but as she touched it, its teeth lashed out, barely missing her hand. Fear squeezed her stomach and she bolted from the room.
The wolf did not follow. Meo ran the two blocks to her apartment; less from fear the closer to home she approached than from excitement. She had an idea, an idea that would make her grandmother forget about her pain—about the encroaching death cancer would soon deliver.
* * *
Meo’s grandmother slept in a bed in the living room covered by a thick, scarlet afghan. Granny awakened as Meo clicked closed the heavy metal lock on the door.
“Food’s on the table,” Granny said, her voice husky with sleep. Meo glanced at the plate of Instant-Cal Granny had warmed up for her before and, forgetting her hunger in her excitement, let her backpack slide to the floor and moved to her grandmother’s bedside. “I have a surprise for you,” Meo said, and told her grandmother of the wolf and her idea to bring it home. Granny’s eyes brightened as Meo spoke and she began to tremble. Meo looked closer at her grandmother as the trembling continued, her words falling away as she noticed the drool clinging to the corners of her grandmother’s mouth, the dark hollows beneath her brown eyes—the same eyes Meo had, except Granny’s looked shinier today, as if coated in sweat. Her gray hair lay in patches on her head, tangled and matted, and she had pulled the scarlet afghan all the way up to her broad chin, even though it was hot inside the apartment.
Meo went to one of the kitchen cabinets, took down a glass, and filled it with water. She peered inside Granny’s pill box and saw all eight brightly colored pills, forgotten. Bringing the pills and water to Granny, she decided her plan would have to wait until the following morning. Thankfully, the next day was a weekend, so she didn’t have to be at school. As she watched Granny swallow the pills, water dribbling down her chin, she hoped the wolf would stay put until then.
Granny motioned for the rifle above the television and Meo brought it to her. As Meo ate the dry, flaky dinner at the kitchen table, her grandmother polished the rifle, which had been given to her by her father, Meo’s great-grandfather. Granny had never used the gun before, for even in her childhood animals had been nearly extinct, but it had been passed down through the generations anyway.
By the time Meo had washed and put away the dishes, Granny had fallen asleep. Meo took the rifle from her grandmother’s side, tightening her hands around its cold, heavy power. It smelled like blood to her, though she knew it must be her imagination. She placed the rifle back above the television before turning out the lights and going to her bedroom.
She lay awake for many hours, hope and hunger gnawing at her. When she finally fell asleep, her favorite stuffed animal, a rabbit, clenched to her chest, nightmares haunted her, but the next morning all that remained of the dreams was a feeling of dread.
Her grandmother greeted her with excitement, ready to carry out the plan, though Meo had hoped she had forgotten.
* * *
The sun shone through crannies and holes in the broken library, providing enough light so that Meo could clearly see the wolf standing in the room’s center, as if waiting for her. Its ribs jutted out of its patched, grey fur and its eyes gleamed greenly. With a spoon, she scooped a piece of food out of a bag and dropped it on the ground, stepping backwards, away from the wolf. She and Granny had microwaved several boxed dinners that morning and put the food in a bag for Meo to use to lure the wolf. It smelled better than it tasted, and was enough to send the wolf trotting on spindled legs toward her, scooping up the food in a single bite as Meo backed away and out of the library, dropping another piece of food.
A hot wind rushed through the fragmented skyscrapers and pulled at the red hood of her jacket. The wolf was hungry enough to follow Meo through the alley and toward her apartment, eating the dropped food as they went. A weak growl vibrated from its throat whenever she stopped and looked at it, and she wondered how she could have been frightened of it yesterday.
Soon she found herself beneath her apartment building, just in time for the food was beginning to run out. She turned toward the wolf, her stomach heavy, and left a piece food on the doorframe of the building, another on the first flight of stairs. A part of her wished it would stop following her. The wolf’s musty scent filled the narrow stairwell and Meo tried to keep one floor away from it. Everyone in the building still slept, so there was no one to notice Meo and the wolf.
Meo opened the door to her floor, walked toward the rooms she shared with her grandmother, and dropped the last piece of food on the floor. She waited for what seemed like minutes with the apartment’s door gaping open, before the wolf came out of the stairwell. Its body trembled as it approached the food, and as the wolf finished the last bite, Meo made a clicking noise and disappeared into the kitchen where her grandmother waited. The kitchen still smelled like microwave dinners.
Meo slammed the door shut as the wolf staggered inside, flinching with the release of the bullet, less from the gun’s loud shout than from the splatter of the wolf’s blood and brain. Granny leaned onto a chair at the kitchen table with the rifle clenched in her hands, her face pale yet smiling widely. The wolf’s dead body shuddered onto the floor as awakened neighbors began pounding on the door, and Meo felt dizzy, just able to open the door before running to the bathroom to vomit. But nothing would come up, despite the heaviness that filled her stomach, as if stones were lodged deep within her.
She took a long shower. As she stood under the hot stream of water, trying to wash away the heaviness and blood, she told herself what she had done was worth her grandmother’s smile. The wolf had been starving, after all; it never would have made it. Its destiny should be the same as the rest of its kind.
Neighbor’s voices drifted in and out of the bathroom as the shower’s water turned cold, but still Meo stood beneath it. By the time she stepped into the kitchen, her skin wrinkled and raw from her too-long shower, the neighbors had cleaned up the mess of death from the kitchen and disappeared. But two plates loaded with thick, cooked steaks sat upon the table. Meo’s stomach growled.
Margaret Kingsbury lives in Nashville, TN where she works as an English adjunct and as a book-buyer at a used bookstore. Due to working many years at a bookstore, her house is resplendent (overwhelmed) with books, which she obviously needs for writing research. You can find her work online in March’s Expanded Horizons and in the print anthology Battle Runes: Writings on War. Follow her @MargaretKWrites.