Chapter 11

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Gray cradled his mother's skull in his arms. Humming softly, he smoothed the few remaining clumps of dark hair, tucking a few strands behind what was left of her right ear. He studied the gnarled digits on his left hand. Such an easy task was complicated by the merging of the middle three fingers into one large and clumsy appendage. His pinkie was nearly absorbed into the stump and he imagined before long, his thumb would be gone too.

Dusk was approaching and Gray readied himself to disembark from his camp. He had slept the day away after ending a night of hunting that lasted up until the first signs of the paling dawn sky. Hunting was becoming much more difficult. He could see easily enough at night; his eyes having adjusted quite well. But prey had become scarce. He was hungry.

With his good hand, the right one, Gray rotated his mother's skull until she looked him in the eye. "Shh. It's alright mother," he whispered. "You needn't worry. I'll find something for them." He scanned the nearby grounds. Sitting atop a large stone, on the tip of a small hill, Gray had a good view. The earth sloped downward in every direction, allowing him to scan the lengthening shadows. It was just after dusk, when all of the dark patches came together into one mass of pitch black stretched across the land that he felt most at home. That was where he was meant to roam, in the gloom. He was the embodiment of a nightmare, after all. It had taken some time to comprehend this, but he understood now.

While his thoughts sometimes seemed fuzzy, he still knew enough to keep to high ground. A better perspective. Better angle of attack.

Gray raised his snout into the air. Snout. Funny, that's how he thought of it now. Wasn't really much of a nose, at least not like it used to be. It wasn't much longer than it had been, but broader. He wasn't sure how he remembered this, as he couldn't envision the face he had before, nor much of his life. Occasionally, bits would come to him in flashes, much like the way sunlight twinkles off water's surface. Regardless, it was better now, his nose. Stronger. Able to pick out things - animals scurrying beneath the lowest boughs of nearby shrubs or among the tall blades of grass in a field. It had taken awhile to hone his skills, but his snout had detected many a meal and he expected it to discover many more. But animals had grown smarter now. They understood what kinds of things were out there, hiding, waiting.

Things like Gray.

Pulling the skull close, he rolled over onto his knees. His keen sense of smell had picked up on something close by and Gray sniffed the air deeply. After peering in every direction, he inhaled again.

"Smell that, Mother?" he whispered into the void that was her left ear. "Skunk!" He snarled and spat. "Goddamned, rotten skunk!"

Gray removed a brush from his blue backpack and ran it through her hair. "Sorry. I didn't mean to swear. Just hungry, that's all. And skunks are too foul to eat, even for me. I tried one before. The meat tasted ruined. But I didn't waste the carcass...would never do that. I left it. I knew something would eat it."

Balancing the skull on his mallet of a left hand, he stroked the fine hairs with the brush over and over, like when she used to allow him to do when he was little. A child. At least, he thought he had done so. Had he really been a child once? Memories had become so foggy lately. Again, he found it difficult to understand if what he remembered had truly happened or if it was something that his corroded mind had imagined.

Cupping her detached head, Gray gazed into the deep, dry sockets where her eyes had once been, wide and full of promise. He had loved those eyes. Deep brown, with specks of amber near the edges. He had never seen any like them. As Gray's vision jumped from one to the other, he thought he remembered gazing into his Mother's cheery orbs, long ago, when his name had been....something else.

Even then, in the face of calamity, she had been able to inspire hope. And the child with a different name had not been afraid. That child had known peace. Comfort. Somehow, he remembered that about her.

Gray's eyes were wet, and a drop of saltiness spilled from one of them into the corner of his mouth. He glanced skyward at the distant heavens and screamed. Then he did something he hadn't done in a long, long, time. He prayed. But when he returned his gaze to his Mother, he found not those shining brown eyes, but sunken contours, with brittle remnants of tissue stretched across the gaps.

And he wept. 

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