“Are you okay?” The woman held her arm out towards the squatting Ghoul. “Do you need help?”
Ghoul stayed still, willing the human to lose interest and wander off. Worse creatures than Ghoul frequented the alley, and it was best if the woman not stick around to find out.
“I’m Katie. I work a couple blocks down. Near the tunnels.”
The human’s arm had dropped a bit, but she kept chattering. Her soft, lilting words made Ghoul’s shoulders want to relax.
“I walk past here every day. Well, not every day. Just on days I work. Tonight, I was walking faster because of the rain, and I thought about you.”
Ghoul held her squat. The lower vantage point felt safer in the human city, where the trees stood alone. If she had a canopy of branches above her, she would scramble up and away from this encounter. The human would never find her.
With her bony knees close by her head and her palms planted on the asphalt, she was ready to spring into the air if the human moved closer.
“See, I usually walk in the tunnels, especially when it rains, but they were closed tonight. Crime tape. And…” The human paused to squint into the alley, as if she couldn’t quite see Ghoul in the fractured light. “I usually see you in those tunnels, the ones near my shop, and I wanted to make sure you were okay. There was blood.”
The last part was rushed and breathless, so quiet a human would have strained to hear what she said. But Ghoul heard the low warbling behind the human’s words. It was almost a mewling. The human was bright-eyed, like the young ones in the trees, and just as vulnerable.
Ghoul shifted from foot to foot, hands now clasping her ankles. She knew why the tunnel was closed. She touched her matted hair that was twisted into bloody dreadlocks.
The human studied Ghoul’s face and glittering eyes. “Anyway, I thought you might be cold outside the tunnels, with the rain and all.” She removed her coat and placed it on the ground. She rocked back on her heels for a moment, and when Ghoul didn’t come forward, she ducked her head and hurried off, her arms wrapped around herself.
Ghoul tracked the human’s steps, artless as her younger sisters, as they faded into the dark, certain such a creature would be killed by the predators that roamed this territory.
Despite Ghoul’s camouflage, the human was able to track her while she foraged in the tunnels beneath the city. Ghoul didn’t look like a threat while hunched on the floor or leaning against the wall. She was small, and her naked limbs were slender. She just hid in the shadows, dark eyes gleaming behind her shaggy hair. The many humans that took shelter in the tunnels paid her no mind.
Ghoul crouched in the shadows as the last of the commuters passed, their eyes fixed forward, ignoring the bodies that slept along the tiled walls. One by one, the small shops along the tunnel closed for the night, and the humans dwindled until only those with guarded walks and suspicious eyes braved the remaining night. These were the ones Ghoul followed. Hearing their footfalls echo in the empty corridors made her nostrils flare with anticipation.
The night prior, a man in a raggedy coat made his way through the tunnel, his glassy eyes staring down at his feet as if willing his wobbling steps into a straight line. Despite his best efforts, he lurched side to side. His swaying made his confusion worse, and he searched the blank walls as if looking for a way out, he saw a man quickly approaching him. The man’s face brightened when the man reached out with thick arms and bundled him into a tight
embrace. Both men ignored the waif who crept closer as they wrestled. They enjoyed a moment of intimacy before the predator struck.
A guttural yell echoed, followed by the sounds of tussling and the slap of feet on the tiled floor. Gurgles thrummed against the walls, but they tamped down quickly. By the time Ghoul’s thin form rose from the corner, the wet smacks of the dead man’s spasming arms had stilled. The man’s arms were tangled, and his throat was cut and gaping. Half-moons of blood traced the ground where he had kicked his legs. His face was slack, his mouth loose and open, pressed against the bloody floor. A meaty tang of blood and adrenaline wafted up from his corpse and was carried to the nose of Ghoul on a breeze.
The attacker left the body where it lay, and Ghoul had him all to herself.
She scrambled to him, all knobby legs and pale monkey arms, and slurped his blood from the ground. It was rare she got so fresh a kill. Ghoul threw her head back, hair splattering her back with blood. The stripes would help conceal her as she moved between shadows.
She relished the cooling blood against her face, coating her body and legs. The man did not flinch as she pulled a gobbet of flesh from his neck and chewed it enthusiastically.
Katie returned a week later and walked farther into the alley. Ghoul watched from her den of pallets and cardboard. The human woman stepped carefully around the jumbled piles of trash and debris, her eyes searching for movement.
“Hello? I’m not sure if you remember, but I’m Katie. I thought I’d come by and see how you’re doing.”
Her high voice echoed between the building walls, a clarion to things that might hunt her. This silly human didn’t seem to understand. An alley where the bodies disappeared afterwards was especially appealing to the more sinister predators in the area. No one ever found the bodies stacked around her den, the bones picked clean, but predators will hunt where they can corner their prey.
Ghoul stood on two feet and walked toward Katie, her practiced gait meant to mimic a human teenager. Her long shirt hung over her bony legs, and filth streaked her face and arms.
Katie’s human face crumpled with worry.
Ghoul and her sisters could never camouflage the black eyes that marked them. It mattered less in the forest, but Ghoul had to adapt when she moved into the city. She had to evolve.
“You look cold.” Worry was clear in the human’s voice. “You didn’t like the coat?”
Ghoul looked to a nearby garbage pile, to where she had discarded the girl’s gift.
“I don’t want you to be cold.” The human’s voice was wheedling again.
Ghoul went to the pile, picked up the coat, and put it on, her eyes never leaving Katie’s.
Katie beamed at Ghoul. She was as mercurial as a young one who mourned their prey, then delighted in ripping it to bits.
The coat hung to Ghoul’s knees and was quite warm. The fabric felt soft against her grimy skin. The shirt had been a concession, camouflage to avoid detection in the human-filled city, but the coat felt like too much, too…human.
Ghoul preferred not to be tied to anything other than her hunting sisters in the forest. Together, they could decimate a body and flock back to the trees in a few hours. They draped themselves with the flesh of their prey and fashioned their hair into trinkets. Most humans dismissed them as myth, but there were those who looked for them, who ventured deep into the wilderness and became injured or lost. Tales of arboreal women descending to carry off the dead left out how they picked the bodies clean and scattered the bones.
Ghouls had no words, only grunts, groans, and wails. They called to each other as they clambered through the trees, trusting the front to lead them, trusting each other to gather the feast. Ghoul’s sisters wouldn’t beam, show all their teeth like this human, but they would take care of each other when needed.
Ghoul remembered. She had adapted. She had evolved.
She didn’t need the coat to stay warm, but she kept it on. The happy murmurs of the human sounded the same as her sisters’ cooing.
Ghoul sat away from the golden bands of sunlight that stretched across the alley. The rays illuminated a sticky pool of drying blood and drag marks that extended back into the alley to where she’d stashed the body for a nighttime feeding. The thick man had left it, confident his kill would disappear. He moved through the areas where Ghoul scavenged, quietly and with certainty, and he visited the mouth of the alleyway often. His pleasure seemed to grow each time he found it empty.
Ghoul would get lazy if he continued to range through her territory. A full belly and the sunlight were already making her sleepy.
The humans lived in cities and rarely ventured into the forest like they had in her mother’s time. Back then, her sisters had to search far and wide for prey, giving their meager meals to the young one’s first. Ghoul had left them, her gaunt frame shaking with hunger, determined to find prey on her own. She’d walked until she found a human, dead and abandoned, slumped against a building. She’d fed until she was bursting. No humans were around to scare her off her meal, and no sisters were around, forcing her to share. She’d decided to stay because food was plentiful, and she remained alone because it would be impossible to move through the city in flocks.
To the humans, she was just another feral being who lived on the streets, and she moved among them with ease. True predators moved among the humans too, but these predators were different from the bears and big cats of the forest. They hated their prey, and they killed not for food, but for sadistic enjoyment. There was no honor in what they did. No respect for the dead.
They just left their prey lying there, mutilated and uneaten.
Even the rare ones who took trophies only took small tidbits. The human predators were useful, but their prey often went to waste. There was too much left over for only her to eat, no sisters to share in the kill.
She licked the blood from her hands and wiped them off in her hair, dreamily tightening its coils. The pleasant aromas of spilled blood and human scent mixing with her own inside the coat reminded her of sleeping with her sisters after a meal.
Lost in memory, she nearly missed the intruder.
The coarse hair on Ghoul’s back stood on end as she let out a guttural, ratcheting cry that boomed throughout the alley. The startled human jumped as Ghoul leapt at them, her hairy back arched and her face a twisted mask of fury.
“It’s me!” the human shouted. “It’s Katie!”
Ignoring the human’s words, Ghoul scuttled forward, teeth bared, her grinding call rumbling from her chest.
Katie stumbled back, putting distance between herself and Ghoul’s raging body that twisted into monstrous angles, barely contained by the splitting coat. Katie fell to her knees, her body flattened in supplication. She raised a trembling hand like before, smooth like Ghoul’s young sisters, the pad not yet callused, the claws too short to drag prey up into the branches. Tangles of blue and rust hid her face, but Ghoul knew tears were in her eyes, hot and terrified, like any young one begging for comfort.
Ghoul squatted and quieted her growl to a pant. Her arm trembled as she reached out, like it did whenever she climbed into the treetops, hot blood thundering between her ears. Katie’s fingers worked against Ghoul’s until they were no longer hooked in, an attack position meant for gouging out eyeballs and ripping out tongues. The human’s skin was soft and downy, so unlike Ghoul’s course hair. But their slender limbs felt the same.
Katie reached out to touch Ghoul’s face, but Ghoul shied away, then retreated to her den. She did not bother to hide its location this time, just crouched there in the open and stared at Katie until she left.
The autumn rains came back, and to keep warm, Ghoul curled into the fetal position inside the human’s coat. She’d piled trash bags around her den to create a protective barrier against the coming winter, which made the air inside the enclosed nest hot from her body heat and breath.
The den was cozier than what she’d built in the forest. The human buildings stood against the wind better than the trees, which swayed and whipped when the winter storms came, plus their remains didn’t rot like the branches she used to gather. She was warm enough with only herself, her nest nearly complete. It would be easy to tell herself she didn’t need her sisters. Had she still lived in the forest, they would still be gathering, still preparing for the winter. They’d crawl into a heap of bodies, bony arms and legs entangled atop a nest of prickly pine needles, and still, they would shiver. The sticky smell of resin and warm bodies would be cloying, nearly overwhelming, by the time winter finally broke. If they hunted fresh creatures, the humans would surely smell their nest in the dry, cold air and avoid it. Ghoul never worried that her den would be found in the city, since here, everything smelled of humans and rotting things already.
“Hello? It’s me again, Katie.”
Ghoul shifted to look out through the slits she’d left between the piles of garbage. The human stood at the mouth of the alley, looking around to see if Ghoul was there.
“It must be cold out here, having rained all night.” The human smiled sheepishly, her eyes searching the piles of trash where she’d seen Ghoul emerge from before. The warble was in her voice again. “You could come back with me to the shop. It’s warm there. I can get you something to eat.”
The human watched for movement, then dropped to the ground. She squatted and relaxed her posture, purposely looking small and nonthreatening, mimicking the stance that had let them touch before.
Ghoul gaped at the kneeling Katie, this false sister of the city. Katie found Ghoul’s eyes between the bags and smiled. Vulnerable. Like a fawn grazing thoughtlessly at the edge of a meadow, its slender neck stretched as if offering to have it torn out.
If Ghoul were the human’s sister, she’d have taught her to perch high and hide in the trees. She’d have counseled her to never climb down until she was fast enough to run from the beasts, and even then, only with the others.
But there were no trees here. Only beasts.
“Hey girl,” the thick man said, and Ghoul tensed.
Katie swore under her breath. She might have been naïve to the ways of the forest, but she was still a city girl, and she knew she’d let her situational awareness slip. She stood and faced the man who blocked the alley opening. She refused to look startled. Ghoul would have been proud of Katie’s grit, had the girl not first put herself in so much danger.
The thick man’s eyes were amused. They smiled as he searched the alley for any possible witnesses.
“Imagine my luck, finding you alone.”
The thick man had brought Ghoul many meals. Her den was stocked for the winter with the bodies he’d left on her doorstep. Such a predator would no doubt kill a young one like Katie with hardly a thought.
Ghoul had adapted to the city, to denning alone.
She had evolved.
But she would still protect her flock.
Ghoul threw off her human clothes before she charged the man. Coarse hair stood up like spines from the prominent ridge down her back, doubling her girth. She snarled as she launched herself at him, her thin legs clamping him like a vice when she landed, her fingers scrabbling for his eyes.
The thick man screamed and contorted his body, trying to throw her off, but Ghoul clung tight the same way she would when gripping a body that she’d scavenged with her sisters, fighting for her piece. Her teeth, built for ripping meat from the bone, were just as effective when the prey was still alive.
Katie stood frozen as Ghoul fell upon him, slurping at the blood spurting from his neck. Katie’s eyes, wide with wonder and fear, were the last thing Ghoul saw before burrowing into flesh. All was a red sheen while she scrabbled at his arms, skin curling under her claws, while she smacked and swallowed until the blood slowed to a trickle and the thick man stopped kicking. Gore dripped down her cheeks when she finally looked up.
The young human had bravely stood her ground, even watched as Ghoul did her hideous work. She learned how to take down the beasts that threatened her, and she did so without looking away.
Ghoul left the meat and crawled to Katie, her body so low to the ground, the wet ropes of her hair dragged along the pavement. The young one’s eyes blazed in her pale face, and Ghoul called out to her, a low trill of notes, a song of victory and kinship.
Katie yodeled back, a halting imitation, but so similar they could be sisters.
Copyright © 2023 Victoria Nations