It began simply enough.
I’d just moved into a nice rental in the suburbs: a large bedroom in an old Victorian, with kitchen and laundry privileges. It was all I could afford, but the other tenants were rarely seen, it had a huge back yard, and it was peaceful. The house bordered on a patch of woods that gave it an almost country estate feel, even though there were neighbors close by on either side and across the street.
On the first day, I knew the place was special, when a young fawn stepped out of the woods and approached me like she knew me. I didn’t have any food at the time and was frozen in place. When the deer got close enough to realize I wasn’t offering, it quickly turned and bounded back into the thick green underbrush.
Obviously, someone had been feeding the wildlife, I thought. Though, when I’d asked the landlord, she only gave me a blank stare. “Deers carry Lyme Disease,” she said. “Good to know,” I replied. I didn’t want to create any ripples, so I left it at that.
The next time I was in the back yard, I came prepared.
It was as if the deer knew I’d return, and not empty-handed. I had a couple bread heels and some old crackers. The deer walked right up to me, its big eyes watching my every movement. I handed her the first piece of bread. She tipped her head to the side and took it. It was gone in an instant. A few licks later, here and there to catch any crumbs, she was ready for the next piece. She took it all and still sniffed for more. “Sorry,” I said. I turned my hands over to show they were empty. She walked away then, and slipped between the trees. I named her Celeste.
Celeste appeared every time I was in the back yard alone. If someone else was present—the girl who lived in the room across the hall, or the older couple who lived downstairs—Celeste didn’t show. She didn’t like being out numbered, I thought. Animal instinct. Survival. I get it.
It was okay. I didn’t need anyone else to know what I had.
Every night, after work, in the dying light of the day, I’d go out into the back yard and feed Celeste. Her sense of timing was faultless, as if she had been waiting for me and not the other way around. There was a plastic chair next to one of the ornamental trees, and it was there I sat with my offerings. The house’s communal refrigerator always had a variety of fruits and vegetables that sat uneaten, about to turn. I grabbed what I could without it being noticed. As mentioned, Celeste would stay until the food was gone. Sometimes I talked to her about how my day went. Sometimes she let me pet her head while she ate. It was very special, our time together, and would have continued if Hailee hadn’t interrupted us.
“What are you doing?”
She said it innocently enough, but she knew full well what would happen once she stepped into the yard. Hailee was the girl who roomed across the hall. The looks she gave me, in the odd chance our paths would cross, were often tinged with contempt.
Her voice had startled me, and when I turned to see if Celeste had been scared off, she was nowhere to be seen.
“What are you doing sneaking up on me like that?” I said.
“I wasn’t sneaking. I stepped out for a smoke and heard you talking. Who were you talking to?”
Again, that innocent voice. Hailee wasn’t fooling anyone. Especially me. I knew that voice inside and out and knew it only led to bad things.
She stood a few feet away, blowing smoke out of the corner of her mouth. The back door light barely illuminated the yard. I stared into the woods.
“Are those my baby carrots? Are you the one stealing from the fridge?”
“I didn’t steal them. I thought they were mine. Here.” I offered the plastic bag to her.
“That’s alright, you can keep them. Weirdo.”
She was done with her cigarette, and tossed the butt into the grass where it glowed and smoldered. She turned and walked back into the house.
I whispered into the bushes. “Celeste? She’s gone, now. You can come out.” But Celeste didn’t reappear, spooked, no doubt, by Hailee’s intrusion.
On my way inside, I stepped on Hailee’s cigarette butt and ground it into the dirt.
I should probably tell you more about myself. First off, I lied. My job is working for the soup kitchen. It’s part of my work-release program. This house is not a normal rental property. It’s a halfway house. Hailee and I aren’t strangers. We go to the same meetings to talk about our addiction. And the older couple who live downstairs—Dontay and Jerrica—live in separate rooms, but they are a couple, and they are older. So, most of that was true.
I lied because people judge. People look at you and see what they want to see, so you have to get smart and only show them what you want them to see. With me, I seem normal enough. People like me. They even trust me. That’s my gift. With Hailee, I made a mistake. Once. And now she sees me. The real me. And that’s a problem.
Mrs. Adams, “the landlord,” checked in now and then to see if we were doing alright. Any problems with the house? Any problems, in general? Any grievances? As our case worker, she usually gathered us all together to see our faces, to hear our voices, to gauge the sincerity of our behavior. She was good at what she did.
“Brandon’s been stealing out of the refrigerator.”
I looked at Hailee and she smirked.
“Is that true, Brandon?”
“No, Ma’am. I’ve taken it upon myself to clean the refrigerator now and then, and sometimes I throw out what’s gone bad.”
“Dontay? Jerrica? Is this a problem?”
Dontay shook his head. Jerrica said, “Thank God somebody does it. I’ve seen things in there that are beyond nasty.”
“Okay, then. New house rule. Brandon is in charge of cleaning the fridge.”
“That’s it?” Hailee was clearly disappointed I didn’t get into trouble. “He sits in the back yard and talks to himself. It’s creepy.”
I shook my head in disbelief.
Mrs. Adams sighed. “Hailee, just drop it. Maybe if you found a way to contribute to the house, you wouldn’t be so concerned about what everyone else was doing.”
I told you, people tend to trust me.
Hailee’s jaw dropped. She took a dramatic breath, turned and stomped all the way up to her room. Then slammed the door.
“Okay,” said Mrs. Adams. “See you all next week. Keep up the good work.”
You’d think Hailee would have backed off. But Mrs. Adams’ rebuke only made Hailee double down. Every time I came home from work, she was there, in the back yard, sitting in my chair, smoking her damn cigarettes. I began to panic. It had been several days now since I’d seen Celeste. Since I’d been able to get a moment alone in the yard, without Hailee doing something to interfere. The night of our next weekly AA meeting, I decided to stay home instead.
“Celeste? I’m here.” I breathed a sigh of relief when she came out of the woods and approached me. “I’m sorry about Hailee. She can be a real bitch sometimes. Well, all the time.”
I could tell Celeste was angry. Her pupils were large and her nostils flared. She snorted like a horse when I mentioned Hailee’s name.
I held out a celery stick. I’d bought them fresh. Nothing but the best now for Celeste. “It’s okay, I’ll handle it,” I said. Celeste’s demeanor calmed. She took a step forward, sniffed the celery, then chewed it down. When she was finished, I gave her another, and thought of ways I was going to “handle it.”
Three days later, Hailee stopped me in the hallway.
“You skipped out on the meeting. Jeff wasn’t happy. He said he wants to see you ASAP. He’s worried. Where did you go? Your dealer?”
“Are you finished,” I said. “Cause I have to take a piss. Or are going to question me about that, too?” I pushed past her on the way to the bathroom.
“Speaking of piss. Your weekly piss test will tell. Sucks to be you.”
I closed the bathroom door and locked it. I was shaking. I didn’t need to take a piss. I just needed to get away from Hailee. Before I did something I’d regret.
In that moment, I really needed to see Celeste. And I realized then, Celeste was my new addiction. My drug of choice. At times, all I wanted to do was feed Celeste. Her presence meant everything to me. And I didn’t even know what that everything was. All I knew was, when I was with her, I felt strong. Confident. In control. Nothing could hurt me. It was a feeling that I would do anything to preserve.
That night, I lay in bed, unable to sleep. The house had a curfew, there was no leaving past midnight, even to step out for some fresh air. It was on the honor system, but still. It was a way for each of us to look out for each other, make sure we stayed clean.
But I had to get out. I had to see Celeste.
I tried to make as little noise as possible, but in an old house it’s near impossible. Every creaky floorboard seemed to anticipate my footsteps. But once outside, none of that mattered. When I reached the edge of the woods, I called to her. I heard a rustling and called again. The leaves parted and out stepped a person. I was confused. Until I heard laughter.
“Sorry to disappoint.” Hailee must have heard me tiptoeing down the hallway and beat me to the woods.
“What are you doing in there?” I said. I was so angry I was on the verge of tears.
“I’m saving you from yourself, Brandon. Haven’t you figured it out by now? I care, okay? I like you. I don’t want to see you throw your life away.”
Hailee walked up to me then and tried to kiss me. I heard another rustling in the woods and a snort, and ducked out of the way. “You have to get out of here!” I said. “She won’t like it.”
Hailee laughed again. “What are you talking about? Who won’t like it?”
I had barely opened my mouth to explain when a dark blur burst from the woods and hit Hailee in the back. The force of the blow threw her against a tree and I heard a sickening thud. Hailee fell to the ground, face up. In the moonlight I saw her eyes grow wide as Celeste reared up and came down with the full force of her hooves. I shrank away, unable to watch, as Celeste continued her angry barage. When, at last, I opened my eyes, Hailee’s face was unrecognizable.
Celeste stood staring at me, snorting. Her hooves glistened in the moonlight as she pawed the ground. I realized then I had forgotten to bring her food. She looked so angry. So hungry.
I held out my hand. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”
My voice seemed to soothe her, and she sidled up next to me, accepting my affection in place of food. I stroked her neck. She licked my face. “Don’t worry,” I said, caressing her. “I’ll handle it.”
Already, I was thinking of how I was going to hide the body, so no one would ever know. Like the last time. And the time before that.
Kurt Newton’s fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Dark Discoveries, Vastarien, Nightscript and Cosmic Horror Monthly. His latest collection, THE MUSIC OF MURDER, was recently published by Unnerving Books.