The old woman looked up from where she was kneeling in her garden, tending to the tiny green shoots that were poking through the soil. “There’s a name I ain’t heard in a while,” she said to the young whippersnapper shifting from foot to foot on the far side of her gate. “I’ve gone by a few others in the years since then.”
“But you are Miz Ellerker?” the kid persisted.
“I was.” She pushed a little more soil around a shoot to keep it safe. “Will that do you?”
“I got a message.” He thrust a clenched fist with a crumpled paper in it over the gate. “It’s urgent.”
“Always is by the time they call for me.” She shifted a little, then looked the kid up and down. “Come here and give me a hand.”
The gate rattled as he pushed it open, betraying the quiver in his arm. “I don’t know much about planting.”
“But you’ve got two hands, I can see, and that means you can hold one of them out for me.” As he did so she slapped her own left hand, bony and twisted from illness in her youth, into his and used his strength to haul herself to her feet. “There we go.” She dusted her knees and assessed the kid again. Barely old enough to be out of doors and yet already taller than her. Not that that was hard, with all the years pushing down on her tired shoulders. “I know what you’re thinking. ‘This is our Last Hope? She’ll barely make it to the end of the street, let alone save us from our troubles.’”
“I…” The kid was blushing under the dirt and sweat. “I didn’t…”
“Just give me the letter and then we’ll see what kind of a chance you might have.”
She had to smooth out the creases, teasing the paper back to a semblance of flat before she could read the words, but it wasn’t like she needed to see them to know what it said. The note said what they always said. Please come. Please help us. We’ll give you what you ask. After all these years, she was still the Last Hope. The requests were the same; only the places changed.
It had been years since the last one, so long that she’d thought they’d stopped coming. Hoped, maybe, but not so much that she’d stopped making sure she could be found. A discreet advert here, a word or two to the right people there, just enough for the truly desperate to be able to track her down.
“All right then,” she sighed. “Just let me fix up a few things. You had to show up in planting season, didn’t you?”
“We couldn’t wait any longer,” he mumbled.
“I ain’t blaming you. Just noting that it’s always the way of these things.” She strolled to the fence that separated her land from her neighbour and hollered until the matron next door emerged. “I got urgent business taking me away for a few days. You mind sending one or two of your youngsters to take care of the planting till I return?”
“Never a problem to have a way of keeping them out of mischief,” the matron said with a smile and a wink at the kid. “What’s left to do?”
“Mainly just watering to make sure they all come through strong. But there’s some potatoes still working on sprouting, and I’d be much obliged if those could be planted when they’re ready.” She fixed the kid fidgeting at her side with a withering glare. “Don’t be thinking this ain’t important. If nobody plants my potatoes what’ll I eat come the winter? Ain’t nobody going to be my Last Hope when I’m starving.”
“It’s urgent,” he said again.
“Ain’t nothing so urgent I can’t set things straight round here first.” She nodded to her neighbour and stumped back into the house with the kid trailing behind her.
In deference to the kid’s anxiety she didn’t spend time straightening all the messes she could see outstanding as she moved around. They could think what they liked about her housekeeping while she was gone. She stuffed things into a bag, nothing but a few essentials for the journey, muttering to herself as she wandered the rooms trying to keep track of it all.
“Do me a favour, kid,” she said when she thought she had everything else prepared. “There’s a large wooden box under my bed. Haul it on out and put it up where I can reach it.” No sense locking her back scrabbling round under there herself when the kid was hopping about with nothing to keep him occupied.
The kid did as she bade him, grunting as he dragged the box across the floorboards and into the daylight. He tried to lift it onto the bed but couldn’t get more than one end up in the air.
“All right, kid, don’t strain yourself,” she said after a minute. “Right there is just fine. Mind out of the way now.”
She bustled him aside and flipped the latches on the box with military sharpness. From beneath layers of sentimental keepsakes she withdrew two things; a small pouch that clinked gently as it disappeared into one of her pockets; and a revolver in a thick leather belt. She buckled the belt good and tight before removing the revolver and opening it with practised hands, inspecting the barrel and the chambers before she snapped it back together and dropped it into the holster.
The kid’s eyes were wide and he swallowed hard. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out and eventually he just shut it again.
“Be a dear and shove that back under the bed before we leave,” she said, nodding toward the box and stumping out of the room. While he was trying to be an unstoppable force, she slipped the pouch from her pocket and checked the contents. Not as much as there used to be, that was for sure, but enough. There were only so many more times she could expect to be called on, after all.
Perhaps it would have been better if she’d stopped advertising after all. She was tired, her bones weighted with weariness, and a quiet retirement in a little cottage with a patch of garden for her vegetables was most of all she could manage. But the call had come, and she’d be damned if she wouldn’t answer it just the same as always. That was what it meant, to be a Last Hope.
The kid, panting from his efforts, was ushered out the door and she turned the key in the lock even though she then just tucked the key under a rock on the doorstep. One last look around the garden, checking for anything she might have missed, and they went out of the gate and away down the road.
“Ask your question, kid. You keep opening your mouth like that and you’ll end up catching flies.”
The kid gaped at her a while longer like she was some kind of mind-reader. At last he found both the words and the courage at the same time. “Where are we going?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “You were supposed to be coming with me to save the town, but this ain’t the way. Not the quickest way, anyhow.”
“Of course it ain’t,” she said, chuckling to herself. “What, you think we’re just going to stride up Main Street and shoot the bastard that’s causing all your grief?”
“That’s why you brought the gun, ain’t it?” He kicked a stone up the road ahead of him, the slump of his shoulders a mere ghost of the full surliness that would come for him given a year or two more.
“This old thing?” She patted the gun on her hip. “Bless you, this is only for scaring off trouble on the road. I wouldn’t waste bullets on your feller. Hell, if you wanted him shot, there were people closer who could have done the job.”
“He’s got them all scared.” His voice dropped so low she had to strain to catch the words. “Put my brother in the dirt just for looking at him funny. Mama just stood and watched, then fixed him his plate like always. Weren’t nothing else she could have done without ending in the dirt herself, so she said, and then who’d take care of the rest of us?”
“And you expect me just to walk up to him with my gun out? You think a man who doesn’t hesitate to put a kid in the dirt will hold off on an old woman?” She laughed again but there was no humour in it. “You never learned about the Last Hope? Maybe that’s for the best, when it’s all over and done. But for right now,” she left the road, aiming for a boulder with a nice flat top under the shade of a tree, “I need to take the weight off my feet.”
“Again?” The kid threw himself down in the dirt as she settled onto the boulder. “We’ll never get there at this rate.”
“You want to take my gun and see if you can save me the bother of the rest of the walk?” She pulled it from the holster and offered him the handle. “You feel free. I’ll be along in my own time to claim it off your corpse.” Ignoring his complaints, she leaned on her knees and waited for her breath to return.
The kid was twitchy, getting to his feet several times to stare impotently up the road or dance around her before flopping back down with an impatient huff. “You remember I told you it was urgent, right?”
She’d closed her eyes, not to sleep but just to rest them, but now her head jerked back up at his words. “I remember.” She wiped a thread of drool from her chin. “And I know it must feel that way. Took you folks so long to find the courage to call for me, you’re afraid it’ll flit away again before I arrive. But I need to know more about what I’ll be facing if I’m to do my job. So why don’t you pass the time here by telling me this bastard’s history?”
“I don’t know the whole of it.” He seemed to shrink into himself, all that impatience and bravado crumbling away. “I was only a kid when he came. We liked him back then. He was all charm and friendliness, and he made Mama smile for the first time since Pop was killed. He said someone needed to do something about all the trouble in the town, and then he said he could be the one to help us.”
“That’s how it starts.” She stretched out, feeling the joints in her back and shoulders crack, and thought of every charming man with a powerful temper she’d ever crossed paths with, right back to her own father. “You’d never have given him the time of day if he hadn’t known how to charm you. That didn’t last though, right?”
“I think it was my fault.” He whispered it to the dirt in front of him. “I was young and careless. I made him angry. He got so angry with me for stepping out of line, and after that it was like no one could make him happy. Not even Mama.”
“If it hadn’t been you it would have been someone else.” She spat on the ground and started the process of hauling herself to her feet. “Sooner or later someone always makes them angry. And once they think they’re being disrespected, they start to see it everywhere.”
The kid offered her his hand, pulled her up without even being asked. He was a good kid. “He whupped Billy Preston for laughing too loud as he was walking by. Threw Old Ma Preston in a cell for a night for daring to complain about it. That was when the town really changed, when they figured if he’d do that to an old lady there was no telling what he’d do to the rest of them.”
“And still you think I should just walk in there and confront him?” She started along the road again. Now the kid had opened up there’d be plenty of time for him to tell her the rest as they walked.
“He’s in there all right.” The kid came rushing out of the town in the early morning light, out of breath but somehow bursting with energy despite a poor night spent dozing in a ditch. “I knew he wouldn’t leave town, not for nothing.”
“Excellent.” She got to her feet, joints popping and cracking as she stretched out as straight as she could. “Now I need you to go back in there and keep an eye on him. Make sure he stays within the town limits, okay? Do whatever you have to. Stick to him like glue and don’t let him leave, you hear?”
The kid gave a sharp nod and dashed away back into the town. He was a good kid, good enough that she almost felt a pang at what she was asking of him. But the choice wasn’t hers; it had been made when he was dispatched with the note begging her to help, and who was she to throw that back in their faces?
One careful step at a time, she measured out the exact centre of the south road into the town, where it always had to start. The ritual demanded an opening approach from the south, though in truth she’d have walked a longer path regardless to get the kid to open up and elaborate on all the ways this bastard was like every other one she’d met. The little details were important; they put the steel in her spine that she’d need if she were to see this through.
When she was certain she had the centre, she looked all around for anyone that might be spying before drawing the pouch out from her pocket. Something small, no bigger than a penny, came out pinched between her finger and thumb and she dropped it onto the ground and covered it over with dirt, stamping down hard until it was hidden.
The pouch went back into her pocket and she stood for a moment, her eyes closed, checking that everything was right. She rested in perfect stillness, grabbing what peace she could before she had to face the storm that was brewing. She allowed herself a moment, but no more, then she nodded in satisfaction and walked away from the town like she’d never planned to go in there.
She was trying not to admit to herself how tired she was when she approached the town from the west. It was only the second way she had to come, and with the sun determined to keep rising higher in the sky there was no time to rest. Everything had to be ready and waiting while the light was still good or they’d have to waste a whole day waiting and risk everything being undone.
There had been a time when she’d have skipped round the whole town and been done in the time it had taken her to plant just one seed and move on. But there had been times when she’d have done all kinds of things, and none of those times were now. Right now, she just had to do the best she could.
Again she found the centre of the road. There was a little more activity in the town now, so she kept the pouch hidden in her pocket and only drew out the seed, so small as to hardly be noticed. Folks had too many worries to pay much heed to an old woman bending down in the road, but when she straightened back up she caught the eye of a man old by most standards but still young by hers, who nodded in acknowledgement and put a finger to his lips.
She stamped this one into the dirt and now when she closed her eyes she could feel both of them humming to each other. It was faint, of course, because there was only half a pattern but at least she could hear the harmony that said her alignment was close enough. She listened a little longer than she needed to, stealing a moment to catch her breath before turning her back on the town once more.
It would have been quicker to go through the town, but she couldn’t enter until all the seeds were planted. There were rules to be followed, and risks to be avoided, and staying outside counted as doing both. The net had to be ready to cast before he had an inkling she was there, otherwise he’d find a way to slip free of it and the town’s Last Hope would be wasted.
A long walk, to come at the town again from the north. A stick to lean on, that would have been nice. She’d not thought to get one, not when all she did was work in her garden and take the short walk to buy things from the store twice a week. Funny how the time could creep up on you, make you realise all your age at once.
The sun was high when the third seed was safely planted, but now she knew she could still make it in time. Just one more to go, and she’d be weary when it was done, but that was just fine. She’d have enough strength for what needed to be done, and once it was done nothing more would matter.
Three seeds hummed loud enough to hear even when she wasn’t listening for them. The north and the south were well-aligned, linked and sharing what they needed in a strong bond. The west was still a little weaker, but its pair was coming. She promised it that as she hobbled away from the town again.
There was a commotion somewhere in the town as she approached it from the east. A great hollering and banging and a high, keening wail that sounded like it might have been the kid. She couldn’t be sure, and even if she could, there was nothing to be done. The fourth seed had to be planted before she entered the town, trouble or no trouble. She just wished the noise hadn’t been such a distraction. It was keeping her from hearing the west properly.
Not that she needed to hear it, not after so many years. She found the centre of the road, just like she’d done with the others. She could plant this seed by measurement, without the lazy get-out of listening to the hum. Measurement, and feel, and the knowledge of where it should be even as the wailing grew more desperate.
The seed went in and it was done. After a moment the hum grew until it blocked out everything else unless she worked to ignore it. The links were right and true; west to east; south to north; and all around the outside. The circle was complete, and the Last Hope would come.
She pulled the gun from its holster and cradled its comforting weight as she marched up the east road into the centre of the town. It was the kid wailing, she saw when she reached the main square. He was there, on the ground, bloodied and crying as a giant of a man stood over him and kicked and kicked and kicked.
“What would you be doing a thing like that for?” she asked, her voice clear and strong so he had no choice but to stop and look at her.
“This doesn’t concern you, grandma,” he said, delivering another kick to the kid’s ribs. “This is a matter of discipline, and round here that’s my job.” The sun, on its way down, shone on the metal of his sheriff’s badge. It left deep shadows in the lines on his face as he visibly tamped down his anger and turned up the charm. My, but he was a handsome one when he wanted to be. “The boy was disrespectful, so I’m teaching him that misbehaviour has consequences. It’ll help him grow into a fine man some day.”
The kid looked at her with bloodshot eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You told me to keep him here. I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
She walked closer, though she was half the size of the sheriff. “This is discipline?” she asked him. “Seems a lot like violence to me. How do you tell the difference?”
“The difference is I’m doing it.” He held her gaze and pointed to his badge. “Folks around here made it my job to enforce proper standards of behaviour.”
There had been a time when his smile and his easy confidence would have convinced her to drop the matter. But that was long ago, back before she’d met any number of men just like him. Men who were so nice you couldn’t believe they’d ever hurt a fly, but their wives always seemed to be sporting poorly-covered bruises. Who were sweetly persuasive until you gave the slightest sign that you disagreed, and then the rage came flaring out. “What if they don’t like the way you’re doing your job?”
And there it was, though he tried to hide it. The tiniest little twitch in his demeanour at the idea of such defiance. “If anyone has any complaints they can bring them to me. My door is always open.”
Closer again, close enough to smell the blood and piss rising from the kid. “He’s had enough and you need to stop.” The gun was right there in her hand but she didn’t raise it.
“You think you can just walk into town and start throwing your weight around?” He was still smiling but his eyes were cold. “You think that little thing gives you the right?” He snatched the gun from her unresisting fingers, snapping it open and scattering the bullets over the kid. “Old woman like you needs to stop giving her nursemaid the slip. It’ll get you into trouble, especially around here.”
There was a crowd forming around them, people creeping out of their houses and shops to see the show. All keeping their distance, of course, but she could see the desperate words of their letter written across all of their faces. Please help us. Be our Last Hope. We’ve been looking the other way so long we don’t know anything else.
“Ain’t the gun that gives me authority.” She squared up to him, looking up at his flint hard eyes, the kid on the ground between them. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. They call me Miz Ellerker.” She held out a hand, brittle and gnarled.
He knocked her hand aside and spat on the ground at her feet. “A Fade witch?” he snarled, glaring around at the crowds. “You dared to set a soul sucker on me?” The flip from charm to rage was so sudden she would have flinched if she hadn’t been expecting it.
The crowd gave no answer, unless you counted the mass shuffling of feet and staring at the ground.
“You’ll come to regret it,” he told them. “I’ll see to that, don’t you worry, just as soon as I’ve dealt with her.”
“You’re mighty confident,” she said, pulling herself a little straighter despite the protests from her bones.
“The Fade works on fear. Everyone knows that, if they know anything about it.” He was looming over her, his breath hot on her face. “I ain’t afraid of you, old woman.”
“Time will tell,” she said, not breaking her gaze. “But who said it had to be you that was afraid? There’s plenty of fear here for me to use. You made sure of that.” She smiled at the flicker of uncertainty in his eyes, and she started to hum.
It was a call, and a response, an acknowledgement and a summoning. She met the hum of the seeds around the town and she pulled them towards her, urging them out of the ground.
The seeds sprouted, bursting up through the dirt and pushing toward the sky. Branches spread, roots dug deep, until the dark trees overshadowed the town. The links between them thickened, becoming tangible, the air turning oily. The lines met exactly in the centre of the town square, right where she stood, and as she called and they pulled, she dragged the sheriff with her into the Fade.
“Miz Ellerker?” The kid was laying on his back staring up at the void where the sky used to be.
“Stay down, kid,” she said. “Close your eyes and wait for this to be over.” He did as he was told. He was a good kid. They were always good kids. Just once she’d have liked an incorrigible rascal, just to see if that made it any easier.
The sheriff had staggered as she pulled him in, but he recovered quickly. “Bitch,” he spat. “You think you can beat me, even in here? I’ll deal with you and then I’ll make every last one of them pay for trying it. Starting with this one.” He went to kick the kid again, but the roots of the dark trees were spreading and they caught his feet. “What in hell?”
Her own feet were bound and the kid was vanishing beneath the tangle of roots. She stood calm, humming a note of welcome. “It ain’t your job to administer discipline in here.”
“I’m going to enjoy killing you,” he said as the kid whimpered inside his cage of roots. “It’ll be slow and painful, I promise you.” The Fade thickened around him, tendrils of dark shadow reaching toward her.
“You think I’m scared of death?” She waved her hand and the shadows blew away on the breeze. “Maybe once, I’ll grant you, when I was young and new to this. But now? Now I stand and talk with her every morning, and I know it’ll be no bad thing when she comes for me. Hell, at least that way I’ll get some peace and quiet.”
She bent, wincing at how quickly she was stiffening. The roots slackened as she stroked them and she eased her feet out. The sheriff tried to copy her, but for him they only tightened.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, stepping around the kid to move up close to the sheriff. “You weren’t wrong when you said the Fade needs fear. It’s built on it. It craves it. I planted the seeds but the dark trees could never have grown if the town weren’t overflowing with fear. And the big secret, the one you were hoping I didn’t know?” She stretched up to whisper in his ear. “You’re the most scared of all of them.”
He lashed out at her then, the back of his fist slamming into her chest. She didn’t fall because the Fade held her up, thickening into a cushion behind her, but something inside cracked, a line of fire through her sternum.
“See?” she coughed, hunching over the hurt. “Got you so scared you had to hit an old woman.”
“You’re no woman,” he snarled. “You’re a soul sucker.”
“I’m the Last Hope for this town,” she said. “You got them all so damn scared they can’t do a damn thing to stand in your way but beg for the Fade. And the Fade always comes when it’s called.”
She winced again as she lowered herself to sit on the ground by the kid. He was entirely covered by roots now. They came nosing around her, but she brushed them aside. “Brave of the kid to try to stop you leaving. I knew I could count on him,” she said, patting the cage that was now thick enough to muffle the cries from inside. “But brave ain’t about not being scared. He was scared when he stood up to you, and terrified when you started beating him. Almost as scared as you were to think folks might stop doing what you tell them. You’ve been lashing out for years, terrified that if you didn’t no one would ever pay you any mind and you’d die of insignificance.”
Every breath burned inside her, but she had to stay calm. The Fade wouldn’t take her, not after all these years. She wouldn’t let it have any claim on her.
“Did you think it would be different when you first came here? When you came riding in as the big damn hero, did you think this was it? This was the time you’d finally get the respect you deserved?”
“These small-town assholes are all the same.” He spat on the ground at her feet. “Never do appreciate all the good I do for them. I try being nice, but sooner or later they all spit in my face. I cracked down harder here, tried to instil some real discipline, and what did it get me? They’d rather call the Fade than tip their hat to me in the street.”
“Seems to me you’re getting every scrap of respect that you deserve. When everyone you meet strikes you as an asshole? That’s the time to consider that the problem is with you.”
The roots were climbing up the sheriff’s legs and over his knees already. The more they climbed, the angrier he got, but that only encouraged them. If he’d been willing to concede a need for change, maybe it might have been different.
“Please,” he said, remembering his manners only when the plants covered his shoulders. “Please. Give me a chance.”
“The time for that is long gone,” she said conversationally. “You already had your chances, and you didn’t bother with any of them until your back was against the wall. By this point I’m just sticking around to see they finish the job properly.”
And with that she just sat, humming to herself with shallow breaths, until the roots climbed over the sheriff’s head. The last word she heard from him was a curse.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the kid, though he couldn’t have heard her.
The town was overshadowed by the dark trees that grew on every side. In a few generations it would be swallowed by the forest, but for now folks were free. In the centre of the square the shadows of the sheriff and the kid lingered, ghostly and unsettling. The crowds had dispersed, but they would never be allowed to forget what they’d done here.
She stood in the square, one hand clutched to her chest where the fire was growing now she was out of the Fade. It was going to be a long walk home.
Another woman was there, crouched in the dirt, weeping over the shadow of the kid. “I hoped it wouldn’t be true,” she said. “I hoped you wouldn’t take him.”
“But you sent him anyway. You gave your kid to the monster so he might pass you by. And not for the first time, either. He told me what you let happen to his brother. Was this one easier or harder to choose?”
The mother rounded on her, eyes blazing with fury, but halfway up something snapped inside her and she slumped back down. “Both were far too easy,” she whispered. “It was them or me, and I didn’t hesitate. Who would make such a choice?” She reached for her child, but her hand went straight through.
“Seems to me you ain’t had many choices worth making in some time.” She placed a hand on the mother’s back. “That ain’t forgiveness, but it’s understanding, and that’s better than nothing.”
It really was a shame about the kid. He’d been a good boy, from all she’d seen. But she’d needed his fear to make the dark trees grow, and there was no coming back from that. They’d been mighty clear that the job needed to be done.
“Just because you made a choice, doesn’t mean you wanted what you chose,” she said to no one in particular. “Just means the alternative was worse. Maybe I’d never have chosen to learn the tricks of the Fade, if my other option weren’t starving to death on the street.” She sighed. “Never took anyone on myself for the learning, but maybe I just never found anyone desperate enough that I’d give them that choice.” She cast an eye over at the trees. They’d see to it that she remembered she what she’d done here, what she’d chosen to do. Just like all the other times that still lingered with her at night.
“Here’s your payment.” The man who’d acknowledged her earlier was at her shoulder, holding out a purse. “Everything as agreed.” He wouldn’t make eye contact with her now, and as soon as she took the money, he nodded and turned away.
The town would die, slowly. The trees would stand forever as a testament to what the folks there had done, and the dark dreams they brought would discourage folks from lingering. But it would die on its own terms now, and maybe some few would escape to better lives. It wasn’t for her to judge. It was her job only to be the Last Hope when they asked her to, knowing the consequences.
With a stout branch claimed from one of the dark trees as a support, she turned her back on the town and headed for home. There were seedlings to take care of, and maybe still some potatoes left to plant.