by Skeeter Cornwall
When I jerked awake, Lacy was standing over me; her tiny hands coated in icy mud and pressed to my chest. She left two palm prints on my nightgown like the ones we’d made in the sandbox with Plaster of Paris and hung above the sink.
“Lacy. Lacy, honey. What happened? What’re you doing?” I sat up and covered her forehead with my palm. She’d gone to bed with a stomachache after our trip to the confectionary to buy candy apples for her classmates. Her skin now felt like chilled plastic. Around her, the moonlight cast a blue halo, her face a dark pit under hair turned cobalt.
A night lark cried outside the window as I shook Lacy’s shoulders. Her bare legs were caked in mud up to her knees. The panic in my voice silenced Richard’s snores and he stirred alongside me, his warm whiskey-breath curdling on my back.
“Richard. Richard, call the doctor. Something’s wrong.” I scooped up Lacy, her nightgown dripping and smelling of wet leaves. When I squeezed her tight, her breath burst out in a fog.
The bathroom light hummed. I tugged Lacy’s nightgown over her head and let it drop to the tile. Her body was malleable as putty. The pale skin hung over her ribs like wet paper mache. I hit the hot water. Steam rose from her skin under the shower spray and, as her color returned, she groaned out one word in a voice not her own.
Gravel crunched under my tires like falling rain. I braked in front of Indulgence Confectionary. I gathered my purse and slammed the car door. The wind whipped through my hair.
The bell over the door jangled and the sugary smell of the place crawled up my nose. Rows upon rows of unusual candies, many molded into menacing shapes. Caramels fashioned into shrunken heads, chocolates shaped like spiders, wax fangs.
I dinged the bell on the service counter and stared at the shelf above, lined with black licorice crows. The same hunched woman from the day before hobbled from the back room.
“Your candy has done something to my little girl,” I said, my neck hot. I pointed to the dish above the woman’s head with the label marked only “For Abel.”
The old woman fished across her blouse for her glasses hung from a chain.
“You!” The shopkeeper backed into the shelves. She reached over her head and steadied the rattling dish. Her eyes went black. “Yours is the child who climbed up and took from Abel.”
“Who’s Abel? It’s the only word Lacy said after she ate your candy. Who is he? Your pagan god?”
The old woman gripped the rosary around her neck and mumbled prayers in an Eastern European tongue.
“Please, my daughter won’t wake up. Dr. Black can’t tell us what’s wrong.”
“You have taken from him.”
A cloud blotted out the sun and the room fell dim. My teeth chattered.
“I, I don’t know what you mean.”
“Your daughter. She has taken from Abel’s altar.” She shook the tray, filled with golden candies. I dredged my memory, trying to recall if I’d seen Lacy reach for that dish.
“He will take it back from her.” The woman curled and looked at the floor. “He will take it back from her in blood.”
“Oh God, Morgan. She was asleep. I swear. She was sleeping like an angel.” Richard met me at the door. Behind him, Lacy lay pale and naked, convulsing on the hardwood. “Next thing I know she’s crouched on the floor eating something. And she chewed right through her fingers. Sweet Lord, she ate half her hand!”
Blood pooled under Lacy’s wrist. She jerked on the floor, growling the name “Abel.” I clutched the sides of her head but couldn’t stop the spasms. Her rolled-back eyes turned to milky pools. Froth oozed down her chin. Across her sunken stomach and budding chest, red blisters streaked, as though etched by the devil’s finger. The air swelled with the stench of burnt skin.
I stood over her, mesmerized by Lacy’s feral chant of “Abel,” my eyes locked on the crosshatch scrawl bubbling from the flesh of my child.
A fleck of gold glinted from the puddle of Lacy’s blood and what was left of her hand. I bent and plucked out a foil-wrapped candy. An “X” streaked above Lacy’s navel. And I finally saw it: the blisters formed a map of our town. I wiped blood from the golden candy, slipped it in my pocket, and walked out into the autumn chill.
The foil crinkled as I unwrapped the candy on the front steps of the confectionary. The “X” on Lacy’s stomach had been etched above this spot. The rusty swings from the playground across the street moaned in the wind. I slipped the chocolate between my lips and pushed through the door. I was going to meet Abel.
Inside, the candy shelves melted and toppled. The floor swirled into a muddy slough that sucked at my feet. I heard a crunching sound, as if insects gnawed the plaster.
The window fogged. Behind the pane a blurred face rose up and then flickered out. I could see nothing of Abel but his blue-gray haze.
“Why don’t you come inside?” I asked.
“I already am inside.” His voice was like crumpling paper. He kept to the corner of my eye, even when I turned my head.
“I’ve come to pay for my daughter,” I said, tendons rising along my arms. “Spare her. Take me.”
The mud burbled at my feet. The dripping form of a young boy emerged; hollow eyes and a gaping, toothless mouth.
My voice never wavered as I said, “Come take what’s yours.”