Happy Halloween! Have a story for trick or treat. (It’s a Halloween story, so please take that under advisement before you read.)
The Next Assistant
by Laura E. Price
There is very little for this assistant to do.
He sleeps poorly, lately, because the hump has gotten too big to allow him to lie comfortably on his back or his side, and it’s heavy on him when he sleeps on his stomach, pressing him down into a mattress that was old when the first assistant slept in it, years ago. When he does sleep, he dreams–but not his dreams; he has never been farther than the woods around the manor, and so these dreams he has of walking down a street, of seeing other people, sounds and smells in a cloud around him, these dreams can’t belong to him.
Eventually he gets up, hauls himself and his slowly-enlarging hump to the laboratory, where he picks his way through the blooms and roots that line the walls, creep out the broken windows, hide the bloodstains the first assistant could not wash away. He stands near the bulging head of the master’s creation and listens, to see if it needs to eat.
There are muffled noises from inside, weak and wet, and he may go on about his day, such as it is, and put off worrying where he will find food for the plant. The village that once nestled down the hill has long since faded away, taking with it the violent and the transients the previous assistants used. The plant feeds less often, now, takes longer–months–to digest, but this assistant knows to be cautious.
(He is glad that the girl is no longer screaming. He didn’t know she was still alive. He didn’t know the plant would eat live food. He worries that it might have developed a taste for it, and when will he find another person hiding in the woods? If he does find someone, how will he catch them, with the hump getting bigger every day?)
His chores now mostly consist of plucking dead leaves from the plant and making sure it has water. The hump makes it difficult to use the pump, to lug the buckets, but he manages three before he has to sit down and catch his breath.
The sunlight is green and yellow through the leaves that block the windows. He remembers seeing them, waving and gently translucent, as he opened his eyes for the first time: something lovely before the memories from his predecessors (cleaning the remains of the master’s wife from her rooms; cold water from the pump spilling over his hands; the master’s screams as he was eaten; the periodic cracking as the glass came out of the windows; butchery and blood-scent in the kitchen; boredom and quiet and loss; struggle and messy death; the vegetable smell of the laboratory) flooded his mind and sat him up, sap-sticky and gasping, to turn and see the split-open husk of the previous assistant. He knew what to do next; he remembered disposing of all the others.
When he goes back to his mattress at the end of the day, lays down on his stomach, he remembers the dreams. He imagines walking down a street, himself, or through the woods with no plan beyond the walking. The hump undulates gently on his back.
He cannot move very well, anymore, and he tires so easily.
He concentrates on the dream, on how it felt–the memory of the first assistant’s feet on cobblestones is dim, the smells and sounds faint, but he tries–willing the idea of somewhere else into his blood and his bones along with the muffled, wet noises and the way she smelled when he hit her; he wills it to take root beside the knowledge of where the well is and how to use the pump. Perhaps, like a weed, it will crowd the rest out and spread.
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