“Seven Times Seven” by A.C. Wise

The cusp of twilight is blue, bruised grey, then red where a lit sign like a fresh wound shines against the dark. Jax slows the car, easing into a wide lot with trucks parked to one side, gas pumps in the middle, and a long, low building that is not a diner, or a convenience store, or anything discernable on the other side. They climb out of the car, hissing a sharp breath of pain as they do. They’re bleeding.

A glance shows blood sticking the fabric of their shirt to their side. They’re afraid to peel it away; they don’t want to look at the wound. They don’t want to look at what caused it. Not yet.

They check their pockets. No wallet. No phone. Only a pack of cigarettes with the edges dented soft, along with a cheap plastic lighter. Their hands shake; they try twice to spark the wheel and hold the flame steady. The wavering light shows their knuckles scraped raw.

They remember punching bone, and shake the memory away.

Inside the car, crumpled fast food wrappers line the passenger footwell. On the seat, there’s an old-fashioned plastic kitchen timer the color of dirty snow. Jax leans in to retrieve it. They don’t want to remember why they’re here, alone, in the middle of nowhere. Why they’re bleeding, or what they left behind. But the memories intrude regardless.

Seven times seven. That’s how long you have to hold on.

Jax twists the dial, sets the timer on the dash, and listens to it tick down.

Seven times seven. Less than an hour. Not that long. And then…

What if you could have everything you ever wanted? All you have to do is hold on.

Jax tilts their head back, leans against the car, and breathes smoke. The first pale stars show against the dark like spilled salt. They try to banish Marcus’ voice from their head, but it sticks like a burr, the knowledge of everything leading up to this moment refusing to fade.

They didn’t go into the woods alone.

You call it with blood, trap it with salt or cold iron. Then all you have to do is hold on, no matter what you see.

Marcus told them the rules and what to expect, but there’s no way Jax could have prepared. It all sounded like a fairy tale, one they’d only halfway believed. But then the trees had turned from maple and oak and pine to the stunted apple trees from their father’s farm as the creature had picked memories from beneath Jax’s skin and made them real.

Jax glances at the timer on the dash. Seven times seven minutes that’s all. They just have to hold on a little longer, and they can have everything they ever wanted.

Freedom. They can run and keep running, so long as they never look back.

Because if they look back… If they look back, they’ll know. They’ll no longer be able to pretend they don’t remember everything. If they look at the trunk…

No. They don’t want to know.

They flick their cigarette to the ground, crushing the remains under their boot. One lace is frayed, partially undone. They don’t bother re-tying it before climbing back into the car.

The registration in the glove compartment isn’t in their name. There’s a gun there, too, also not theirs. Marcus swore it was only in case of emergency. If things went south, and the creature tried to hurt them. It might not be human, but bullets could still kill it, he’d said. At least he thought so.

Gravel spits and tires scream as Jax pulls too fast onto the empty road. Their foot weights the gas, knuckles white and bloody on the wheel. The needle creeps higher; the timer ticks lower.

Their pulse runs too fast, jittering like they’ve had too much caffeine even though they can’t remember their last cup of coffee.

No. That’s a lie. They remember going through the drive-thru that morning, Marcus handing over a greasy bag of hash browns and two steaming cups of shitty fast food coffee. The ghost-smells of the meal still cling to the upholstery.

And then – incongruous and overriding the grease and salt – the smell of windfall apples suddenly fills Jax’s nose. They grip the wheel harder, clenching their jaw, fighting against the dreams or memories trying to pull them out of the night. Trying to drop them back in another time.

Jax’s foot crushes the pedal, and grass rimed with frost crunches under their boot. Time slips, and there’s a whip-thunk sound as Marcus side-arms a fallen apple against the closest gnarled tree. The fruit bursts, a smell like cider, like fall, like death, fills the car.

In the dark, Marcus’ hair is the color of rust. The same color as the freckles scattered across the bridge of his nose. He’s so close, Jax could bump their shoulder against his with the slightest motion, and so they consciously lean away, though everything in them aches the moment they do.

“Why do you let him talk to you like that?” Marcus frowns. “Why don’t you leave?”

Jax shrugs like the question doesn’t terrify them, and buries their hands in their pockets so Marcus won’t see them shaking.

Fucking faggot. Fucking little queer. Not in my house.

“He’s my dad,” Jax says.

“He treats you like shit.”

Jax doesn’t say: I know. Jax doesn’t say: It isn’t that simple. He doesn’t have anyone else. It’s only him and me. Jax doesn’t say: His cough is getting worse, he’s sick and getting sicker, and who knows how much longer he might have.

Jax doesn’t say that, in their father’s house, love isn’t a thing that a parent has to earn, it’s simply owed. Like obedience. Like respect. And they don’t dare let themself imagine it could be otherwise, because hope is too fragile, too dangerous and painful to hold.

So Jax doesn’t say anything at all, swallowing around a lump like a fragment of apple caught in their throat as Marcus whips another half-rotted fruit at a tree.

“We could run together,” Marcus says, gaze fixed on his boots scuffing the frosted grass. Jax looks at him out of the corner of their eye, but Marcus doesn’t raise his head. His body is tense, like he’s holding his breath, like Jax’s answer could crush him or gift him the power of flight.

Marcus’ hands are in his pockets now too, both of them refraining from reaching for hope – that dangerous, terrible thing hanging in the air between them. They don’t dare.

It hurts, and Jax’s first instinct is to smash that hope flat in the grass before it can grow, because letting it live seems too cruel.

“I can’t,” they say, and their eyes burn. The other words, the ones they want to say, lodge in their throat like thorns.

“Why?” Marcus looks up.

When Jax doesn’t answer, Marcus’ fingers skate across the bruise on Jax’s cheek, still fading.

“Don’t.” Jax pulls their head away.

“Why?” Marcus’ eyes shine, frustration, pain. There’s anger there too. Not Jax’s father’s kind, but Jax sees Marcus’ hands close into fists with fierce wanting. It would be so easy to cross that line – where love denied becomes a thing that can only be expressed by pain. Jax doesn’t believe Marcus ever would, wants to believe he never could, but they can’t be sure.

Marcus closes the space between them, catching the back of Jax’s head and bringing their foreheads close, touching, erasing the rest of the world.

“Why, why, why?” Marcus whispers, like a mantra, a blur of words scarcely differentiated one from the other.

Marcus blinks, and Jax thinks his cheeks might be wet with tears.

“Just tell me why and I’ll never ask again. I will shut the fuck up about it forever if you can just look me in the eye and give me a reason I can understand.”

Marcus’ face is an inch from their own. Less. His words a blurred whisper of heat across their lips. His grip is too tight, fingers wound in Jax’s hair, just short of tugging, just short of taking, as if love really were a thing owed, but he doesn’t cross that line. He waits, patiently, on the other side of it, everything in him begging for an answer Jax can’t give.

Jax thinks of a summer day, a season ago when the apples hadn’t ripened yet and were just starting to grow. Their fingers brushed against Marcus’ between the rows of trees, accidentally at first, and then on purpose, again and again, until finally their lips met, a confused bruising of mouths wild with hunger.

Jax’s father caught them.

The belt buckle split open Jax’s lip. It just missed hitting them in the eye. The taste of blood on their tongue overrode the taste of Marcus until they couldn’t remember it anymore. Marcus could have run then, alone, but he stayed.

And he stays again, now.

“I know,” Marcus says. His fingers unwind gently from Jax’s hair. “I’m sorry.”

He lets go, but he doesn’t step back and Jax wants to beg him to stay like this forever. Part of them wants Marcus to take the choice from their hands with rough desire and demands, because it is the only way they’ll have the courage to cross that line. Alone, they are too much of a coward. Cold air brushes the place where Marcus’ forehead rested, making the distance between them seem even greater. Marcus’ eyes are bruised in the dark, and his smile is the saddest thing Jax has ever seen.

“I’ll wait for you,” he says. “As long as it takes. I’m not giving up.”

Leaves slap the car’s windows as Jax plows through rows of planted trees, crushing windfall apples until the air smells like cider and promise and words unsaid.

“Shit.” They swear aloud, stomp the brakes and the car slews dangerously, coming to a halt just before they crash into a guard rail and the trees beyond, which are not apple, but oak and maple and pine.

Jax lets out a shaky breath. On the dashboard, the timer ticks down.

How much longer can they bear up under this assault on reality? How much longer until they can’t tell here and now from there and then? Until they blunder into the road thinking it a row of apple trees and meet an oncoming car.

Jax rolls the window down. Cold air slaps their face, grounding them, but it isn’t enough. They get the car door open just in time, seatbelt off and stumbling to the back tire to vomit up thin bile, spitting the sour taste from their mouth.

They are going to have to look. They are going to have to face the thing in the trunk and know for sure what it is they brought out of the woods. The dreams could merely be memories. They could. But they don’t know for sure.

(They know. They do not want to know, but they do.)

On the other side of a grass margin, headlights sweep the divided highway lanes, but Jax’s side is blissfully empty. Eerily so. They have no excuse not to open the trunk, no one else will see.

They kick the tire spattered with their sick, then do it all at once, like ripping off a bandage. Two quick strides to the back of the car, trunk wrenched up with such force that it bounces back and almost slams again. The motion sends fresh pain spiking up their side.

The thing in the trunk is Marcus, curled fetal, wounded but still alive. A swell of pity, a swell of desire, a swell of love and relief because seeing him Jax knows for certain they didn’t kill their best friend. There’s still time to get him to the hospital. Everything will be okay.

Except it isn’t Marcus in the trunk, Jax knows that too. It never was. They ran, like a coward, too late. And they left Marcus behind.

They let out a shuddering breath, and their vision clears. The thing in the trunk is pale. The color of bone. Curled on its side. If its eyes were open, they would be black – like deepest night, like ink wet and spilled, going on forever. Horns or antlers push up through wispy filaments of hair. Or maybe it isn’t hair. Maybe it’s fine strands of fungus, the kind that grows networks underground, connecting fruiting bodies to let them talk to each other through miles of dirt. The things growing from the creature’s head might not be horns or antlers either, but more fungus. Its pale flesh might not be the color of bone, but the color of a quiet, spongy, terrible thing growing in the dark.

Even unconscious, it is still dangerous, it can still tap into Jax’s memories. Still make them see things they don’t want to see, things that (they hope) aren’t real.

They could get the gun from the glove compartment. They could end it all now.

The timer on the dash ticks down. Almost seven times seven minutes gone. All they have to do is hold on.

The world lurches beneath them again, and Jax grabs for the car to steady themself, but instead of the car, Marcus catches their elbow, letting his hand linger and offering a reassuring smile as they tromp through the woods.

“Here.” He stops so abruptly Jax almost crashes into him.

All the trees look the same to Jax, but Marcus obviously sees something special in this spot in particular. Despite the sun, Jax is cold.

They want to say: go back. They want to say: this is a mistake. But their breath is caught up between their ribs, aching. Because they know, somewhere deep down where they don’t want to admit, that Marcus is doing this for them. He’s doing this because still, even after a year, Jax remains afraid. He’s doing this because even though Jax’s father can barely stand on his own now, sick and weak and dying, Jax still doesn’t have the courage to run on their own. Marcus is doing this because he knows Jax better than they know themself. Or rather, he knows the things they do know about themself, but will never admit aloud. Marcus knows the wish Jax would make if they do find the creature together and manage to hold on for seven times seven minutes.

Jax would wish for their father die.

For the hiss of oxygen fed through the tube beneath his nose that’s been helping him breathe for the last year to simply stop.

For the thread of guilt and obedience and duty woven over a lifetime to snap.

And that then, finally, if that were to happen, for the courage to take Marcus’ hand and run.

Marcus pulls a flimsy packet of salt from the fast food restaurant out of his pocket. The smile he flashes Jax is the most beautiful thing in the world. Light breaking through the trees, and the belief that hope is a thing that could never shatter. That love is something earned, not owed. That together, they will be okay.

Marcus rips the packet and spills the salt in a line on the ground. His pockets are stuffed with packets, and he repeats the action until he’s made a rough circle on the leaves.

Marcus whispers a string of words. He cuts his hand, and scatters blood on the ground. He steps back, turns around three times, and holds his breath. Jax watches him in awe.

The creature does not appear, it grows. It sprouts inside the salt-circle on the ground and it’s like watching a time-lapse video of a body fruiting from the leaf-fall. Becoming a shape like something human, only not at all. Bones press outward against its skin. The knobs of its spine and the curve of its ribs, the jutting angles of knees and elbows. It unfurls. Antlers crown its head through wispy hair and it opens its eyes. They are black all the way through. They are promise and they are courage, wanting and desire fulfilled. And Jax falls into them.

They step into the circle, reaching without meaning to, made all of hunger and impatience, tears running from their eyes.

An unholy sound like wind piping through hollow flutes of stone and an animal in pain shatters the silence in the woods. Marcus grabs their arm, or tries to, shouting too late, the circle of salt broken.

They remember the thing colliding with them, knocking them down. Bounding past them on all fours to fall on Marcus, having a taste for his blood and wanting more.

A white face, mouth and chin red.

They ran at the creature to tear it off Marcus, struck it as hard as they could with all the rage they couldn’t turn on their father, for years of abuse, for years of rained blows and cutting words. For a year of slow, terrible dying with Jax chained to his side out of duty, because there was no one else, jaundiced eyes seething with resentment and disgust even as Jax stayed and did every fucking thing for him.

Jax’s fists meets stone. The creature changes, and their fists meet tree bark. The skin over their knuckles splits, but they keep going, screaming rage, screaming out all the times they wanted to run, take Marcus’ hand and never look back, but didn’t. The raw sound of grief comes from their throat instead of love, instead of all the words held back over the years. Their fists strike bone and they keep on punching.

The creature under them writhes. It gets a hand up somehow, reaching for its own head to snap the tine off of one of its antlers with a terrifying sound. It swings, driving the bone point into Jax’s side, howling and weeping as it does.

Through a haze of pain – red and black and red – unlike anything Jax has felt ever before, they hear a voice inside the sobbing.

“Please. Jax, please.”

Jax blinks and the horror of realization falls on them all at once, even worse than the pain. It isn’t the creature on the ground beneath them; they’ve been striking Marcus, who looks up at them with a face sheeted in blood, a snapped branch in his hand that he drove into their side to stop them.

“I’m sorry,” Marcus whispers. “I’m sorry.”

The bone-pale thing crouches nearby, watching them with impassive black eyes – not smug, not satisfied, not anything at all. Jax reels back from the ruin of Marcus below them.

One of Marcus’ eyes is swollen shut, his lips bloody. Fresh terror grips them. What if it wasn’t a mistake? What if they had wanted to hurt Marcus deep down? What if they are as small and afraid as their father, lashing out at the person who loves them the most because their own lack of courage isn’t a thing they can pummel into the ground?

The creature had moved, as if to slink away, and Jax had thrown themself at it for real this time, catching it and dragging it back to Marcus’ car. And then they’d run.

Panicked, unreasoned flight. They weren’t cognizant of leaving Marcus behind. (Or they hope they weren’t.)

All you have to do is hold on for seven times seven minutes. That’s all.

Marcus’ grin, holding up the timer. Seven times seven, like something out of a fairy tale.

Forty-nine minutes. It had seemed an impossibly short time. But that was before they saw the creature. Before it opened its mouth and opened its eyes and Jax saw all the things they never wanted to see about love and desire and hunger and pain, bound in bone-colored skin.

Now they are standing outside their best friend’s car in the middle of the night, on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, staring at a nameless, unnamable creature.

And their best friend is somewhere behind them in the woods, dead or dying. They ran. They left him there. After so many years of not running, of staying in a place where they were hated and abused, too late, they ran. And they left Marcus behind.

Hold on.

Jax slams their palms against the car. The pain shocks tears from their eyes. They breathe hard, trembling. The thing in the trunk shivers. It wakes.

“I’m sorry,” Jax says, and they mean it and they don’t. They just want all of this to stop. They want to start over again and have it so none of this ever happened.

The creature’s dark eyes are so wide, and Jax is falling into them, and they can have everything they ever wanted. A father who loves them. A mother who stayed. A body that doesn’t weigh them down. And Marcus.

“Just…” Jax says, and, without meaning to, they reach for the creature again.

It screams.

A high-pitched, tea-kettle whistling, alarm klaxon, world-ending sound. Jax wants to back off, to let go, but instead they grip tighter.

Love isn’t owed. It isn’t won through pain. It is earned.

“Please,” they whisper through clenched teeth, an aching jaw.

Marcus said all they had to do was hold on. It sounds like a lie. Because fairy tales don’t fix the world. There aren’t magical creatures who grant wishes, who undo hurt and pain and make it so fathers love the child you are instead of the child they want you to be. Nothing can grant you the power to be comfortable in your skin if you aren’t capable of giving that gift to yourself, and nothing can make you brave enough to say the words aching inside you when you can’t, won’t, will never let them go because every possibility you can imagine following on those words is pain.

“Please,” Jax says, and their grip tightens.

Love isn’t owed. It isn’t won through pain. It is earned.

They feel bones beneath mushroom-soft flesh. The scream fades to a terrible, piteous, keening sound. The black black black eyes overflow like ink spilling onto bone-colored skin. The circle of Jax’s fingers is iron; their tears are salt.

They close their eyes and see Marcus in the orchard, smell the rotten smashed fruit and frost-tipped grass. They feel the heat of Marcus’ forehead pressed against theirs, the strength of his grip, and the knowledge of how quickly wanting can turn to hurting, how quickly pain is born from anger.

But Marcus’ wanting never became hurting, his anger never gave way to pain. Marcus was angry at the world, not Jax, and underneath his wanting lay love and trust and giving way.

Marcus let go.

Marcus gave them space.

Marcus waited.

He could have run when Jax refused, but he stayed. Until Jax was ready to dare the roads together, running, but only as far as Jax was willing to go.

Marcus gave them time to realize the complicated chains of hurting and want and withheld approval that bound them to their father were of their own making. He gave them space to learn how to let go. That, not wishing, is what will save them.

Jax opens their eyes. The creature in the trunk weeps and shivers. It is terrible, but no longer terrifying. Jax wants everything from it, and it has nothing to give.

Its flesh is soft, easily bruised. It can give the appearance of being bark, of being stone, of being immovable and uncaring and impossible to break, but it is none of those things.

Love is earned.

Jax opens their fingers and lets go.

“Run,” Jax says.

The creature’s eyes widen. It crouches on the lip of the hood, and Jax knows if it waits a moment longer, they will tear it apart. They will go to the glove compartment and get the gun and pull the trigger over and over again. Because anger teaches anger, and they need someone to blame for all the years they wasted. Because the creature is there and its skin is easily bruised and it is easier to believe in wishes and fairy tales than to do the hard work that needs to be done.

Nightmares still leak from the creature’s skin, but for the moment, all Jax sees is a bone-pale thing, afraid and sad, and then it is gone, running and running, hunched on all fours, sprinting along the white broken line that dots the center of the road.

Jax turns away.

Their side aches, blood still sticking fabric to skin.

Marcus is lost in the woods and they have to face the fact that they left him behind. This situation may be impossible to repair. It may be too late.

They have to face up to the fact that they have a choice to make, and no one will make it for them. There are no wishes. No magic words.

The sky on the cusp of midnight is the darkest color a bruise can be, before it tips over into healing and begins to fade.

It can’t be that far back to the place they left Marcus. Less than an hour’s drive. Seven times seven minutes. That isn’t too long to hold onto hope that everything will be okay.

They close the trunk, leaving a bloody handprint behind. They open the door. Twist the timer’s dial and listen to it tick down. They take the wheel. And drive.

A.C. Wise is the author of the novels Wendy, Darling and Hooked (forthcoming, July 2022), along with numerous short stories. For more, find her online at www.acwise.net.