Bridget convulsed. She sat upright against the panel of the van, gasping and pawing at her face.
Miranda grabbed her shoulder. “Bridget! Bridget, hey—”
“Oh my god,” Bridget wailed. Her fingers found the blindfold and she ripped it from her face. “Miranda?”
“It’s me. Yeah. Bridget, please…please tell me it’s you.”
“I’m awake,” she realized, her eyes welling with tears. “I’m…back. I’m back. I’m here. Oh my god. I was on the other side, Miranda. I saw the other world. Her…her old world.”
A noise across the yard caught Miranda’s attention. One of the blindfolded farmhands groaned and rolled over on the ground. Another, further away, pushed himself up from the mud. He pulled the blindfold from his eyes and blinked in confusion.
The rush of wind faltered and slowed. The unnatural thundering from the orb overhead rang out with a deafening fanfare for a moment, then the air grew suddenly still.
The orb quieted and a dense silence pressed down upon the hilltop.
“Yes!” laughed Juliana’s voice. “She’s coming! She’s going to be…so proud of me!”
A tremor rolled through the hill. A groggy farmhand who had managed to get to his feet was thrown from them. The van rocked on its suspension and Miranda pulled Bridget close.
“I was…in this beautiful dress,” Bridget recalled. “I had all this, like, jewelry, and gold, and a big book…”
“Quiet,” Miranda whispered, glancing up at the orb.
“I was…I was, like, a priestess. We were at a…we were at the temple. I was the high priestess.”
From behind the van, Miranda heard the sound of rock scraping against rock. The soil beneath them continued to tremble.
“There was a ceremony,” Bridget exclaimed. Miranda shushed her.
“And now,” Juliana roared, “my coronation.”
The circle of crows spread away from the orb, flocking lower over the clearing.
“No more waiting! I’m ready. So ready. I’m the biggest…there’s ever been. And getting…bigger.”
The orb replied with a deep ringing.
“I’m ready. I’m ready…to meet her. Let me…meet her.”
Bridget clutched Miranda’s arm. “There was a ceremony,” she repeated, eyes bulging. “There was a sacrifice.”
The orb rang out again.
“And the queen…she ate the whole thing.”
Miranda opened her mouth to beg Bridget to stop, but froze as the flock of crows exploded into a flurry of motion. The orb blasted out a discordant tone.
Several of the crows swept down and flapped around one of the farmhands. He leapt up in terror, flailing uselessly at them and trying to stumble away.
Dozens more joined. Miranda watched as the birds clawed at him, seizing his clothes and skin. After a few moments they began to drag him across the mud.
“Oh my god,” Miranda breathed.
One of the other farmhands, discarding her blindfold, turned to run from the clearing. Another flood of crows swarmed after her.
“What’s happening?” asked Juliana’s voice, full of nervous excitement. “Is she…pleased with me?”
More birds raced through the yard. Miranda heard the other farmhands, out of sight, screaming.
She reached up and yanked on the van’s doorhandle. It unlatched with an awful creak and the door slid partway open.
With some prodding, Bridget jumped up inside. Miranda heaved her bulk in after and hauled the door closed just as a cloud of crows dragged a wailing farmhand past.
Bridget and Miranda huddled behind the backseat, slouching as low as possible to keep out of sight. Desperate shrieks drifted in through the broken windshield, soon muffled by the incessant cawing of the crows.
A low, primal growl echoed across the hilltop.
“What…what is she doing?” came Juliana’s voice, wavering. “But…”
Miranda peered over her belly. In the van’s rearview mirror, knocked askew, she could see a portion of Juliana’s pale, quaggy flesh.
“What are you doing?”
The growl became a roar. Even from what little of Juliana’s mass Miranda could see, she could tell that Juliana was quivering. Suddenly the fat shifted violently.
“No!” her voice croaked. “Please…it’s me! I’m supposed…but I…I’m the heir!”
The mass shook again. The van rocked, suspension creaking, as something huge slammed into it. Bridget and Miranda looked up: a roll of Juliana’s flab was pressed up against the windows.
“But I’m different! I’m better! I’m bigger! You promised!”
The orb’s ringing ceased.
“But…I’m the fattest,” Juliana begged. “I’m…I’m so big…the biggest…there’s ever…ever…”
Miranda glanced from the mirror to the windows, but was too low to see anything but the crows overhead.
Juliana’s voice shrank to a choked whimper. “Oh my god,” she realized. “I’m so small.”
She screamed. The hill quaked. The van bounced with the tremors; the wall of fat heaved against it and rolled it over. Bridget and Miranda cried out and thrashed helplessly within. The sound of buckling metal and shattering glass joined the cacophony of crumbling stone outside.
They lay in muted shock for a minute. Everything outside the van seemed to have finally been silenced.
Miranda moved to sit up. Bridget slid off, apologizing as she pushed against Miranda’s belly.
“Stay here a second,” Miranda muttered, collecting herself. She squeezed her bulk around the bench and shoved open the van’s back door.
It fell open with a thud. Miranda peeked out and saw only an empty sky. The orb had disappeared and the thousands of crows had dispersed. In the distance, the thin shadows of their flocks floated toward the horizon.
Miranda crawled out into the mud and staggered to her feet, steadying herself against the overturned vehicle.
She stared, letting her vision focus. Nothing remained in the center of the clearing, save the darkness of a wide, open pit where the barn had stood. Juliana was gone.
“Oh my god,” Miranda breathed, stumbling forward.
Debris surrounded the mouth of the pit. Shingles and timbers littered the clearing; a few of the beams hung over the crater’s edge. Miranda carefully picked her way through, looking for any sign of life.
A slight breeze fluttered across the yard, only to stop after a moment. Miranda froze and realized that the air was reversing direction. Half a minute later it changed course again.
Miranda reached the edge. Swallowing, she grabbed a toppled beam for support and peered down into the pit.
It opened straight down into utter darkness. Despite a hole wide enough to swallow a barn, no light reached to any surface within its depths, as though the entire hill were hollow.
Miranda straightened and took a long breath. Her stomach whined and she gave it an absent knead.
Grimacing, she looked again into the pit.
Deep in the shadows of the abyss, a pair of immense eyes opened, vast and inhuman and lit with a pale yellow glow. They blinked and turned to gaze up at Miranda.
Miranda recoiled. She spun away and started back toward the van, shouting for Bridget.
A rumble echoed up out of the cavern behind her: the hauntingly familiar gurgle of indigestion.
Huffing and bouncing, Miranda hobbled on as fast as she was able. Bridget flopped out from the overturned van and raced over. Arm in arm, they scrambled for the path downhill.
The hilltop shook underfoot. They reached the path and hesitated, Miranda’s legs burning and her lungs heaving. She nodded as Bridget tugged at her and forced herself to shuffle onward.
They looked out over the fields below. Whately Hill was the only rise in sight, a swollen mound bulging up from the otherwise flat Iowa plain.
Esmee slinked into the boardroom, stack of folders and notepads pressed to her chest. The other consultants and department heads milled about in a few cliques, posturing and grinningly smugly.
Wishing she’d managed to arrive before the crowd, Esmee ducked behind one of the groups, pretending to study a plaque on the wall. Assuring herself that she was now sufficiently out of view, she furtively reached to adjust her waistband.
After a moment, though, the button of her skirt slipped free from its hole. Esmee froze, feeling her face flush and her muffin-top sag out from the unfastened skirt. Buttoning it had been no small task that morning and there would be no saving it now.
She took a long, careful breath and slid her stack of papers lower, concealing the plush swell of her midriff but revealing how little of her blouse she’d managed to button. Hoping the exposed cleavage wouldn’t attract too much attention, she spun on her feet and slid into a chair at the end of the table.
Opening a small notepad, she scribbled down a reminder to try the new Pilates class. It was an admission she’d avoided for months now, but she could only blame the dryer so many times for shrinking her clothes.
It had seemed to impossible and had begun so suddenly, like a nightmare, without any discernable cause. Esmee half-wondered if she’d been somehow infected the night, all those months ago, when she’d had dinner with a barely recognizable Miranda Whately.
She recalled the sight and shuddered.
The room quieted. The various cliques dispersed and sat themselves around the table, opening their folders and sipping at their coffees. One set a tray of doughnuts in the middle and Esmee’s heart sank.
The well-groomed chairman took a seat and cleared his throat.
“There’s an…appetite issue at hand,” he announced with a grim smirk.
Esmee’s stomach rumbled.
The chairman motioned to a nearby intern, who activated a slideshow on the far wall.
“For those of you not in the loop, we got a series of reports earlier this year about a…” He searched for an appropriate word. “…glut of related arrests in the western part of the state.”
The slide show transitioned to a map of Iowa.
“Throughout these counties here, over a period of about four weeks in August and September, police were called to a couple dozen attempted burglaries, home invasions and personal attacks, all remarkable as ‘out of character’ for the usual populations. The perpetrators were all found ‘severely agitated, unresponsive to communication, and in a state of undress.’ Their targets were usually grocers and convenience stores, homes in which dinner had just been laid on the table, or pedestrians who happened to be eating on the go.”
He nodded to the intern. Several photos flashed across the screen. The final image showed an obese young woman wearing nothing but jogging shoes and a strange mask, emblazoned with a seven-armed sigil.
“Even after arrest and often even after sedation, the perpetrators continued to display a ravenous, insatiable appetite.”
Esmee forced her eyes away from the doughnuts. The chairman flipped a page in his notes and the rest of the table promptly followed suit.
“The behavior subsided slowly, but not without serious lingering effects. Once regaining some lucidity, it was determined that every arrested subject was a resident of the same place: a little farming township called…” He squinted at his notes. “Kade.”
The intern indicated its location on the map.
“We’ve had several of the subjects transferred to our labs here for observation. Toxicology reports aren’t showing anything, but the local authorities are convinced that this is some unknown new narcotic. Obviously, if that’s the case, I’d say it’s something an innovative company like ours would benefit from knowing more about.”
An older boardmember raised his pen. “A bunch of fat, naked farmers staggering out of a cornfield with the munchies? You sure that’s the market Silver Key wants to be in?”
The chairman shrugged. “It suggests something powerful at play. That’s something I’m interested in. I propose we get a research unit out to this ‘Kade’ place.”
“How much access do we have?” asked a woman further up the table.
“Limited, at the moment. We’ve greased enough palms in the area to keep the weird parts out of the news. If we can get a foothold in town, we can set up a satellite lab without drawing too much attention.”
The old man looked around the room. “Anyone know anyone in the area?”
They sat for a long moment in frowning silence. Esmee took a long breath and cleared her throat.
“Miranda Whately,” she offered.
The chairman nodded slowly. “Blonde gal? Used to have your job, I believe?”
Esmee grimaced. “…yeah. Uh, I remember her saying she had family out that way. Right in Kade, I think.”
“Well, that’d be somewhere to start.” He exchanged a knowing glance with someone across the room before turning back to Esmee. “Miranda…Whately. Alright. See if you can track her down.”
Esmee clutched her overcoat closed and turned up her nose.
The roadhouse was nearly empty. The smattering of patrons sipped at their beers, all but ignoring the lanky dancer twirling halfheartedly on stage.
A faded banner hung askew above the door. “Udders!” it proclaimed in cow-spotted letters, “Iowa’s finest gentlemen’s club.” Esmee shook her head and let out an audible sigh.
A heavyset man at the bar turned and scratched at his beard. His perturbed expression brightened quickly as his gaze found Esmee. “Help you, ma’am?”
She watched his eyes measure her, as though they could pierce her coat. She stiffened. “I’m…trying to get in touch with an old friend of mine. Do you have anyone named Bridget working here?”
“Bridget?” he echoed, trading a glance with the bartender.
Esmee rubbed her temples. She’d already visited two other clubs and had broken her vow to avoid fast food. “I remember her saying she worked at a…place like this. I think she was a dancer.”
The manager and the bartender looked at her, both clearly trying not to laugh. Eventually the manager jerked his thumb toward a door past the bar.
“That Bridget?” he chuckled.
Esmee stepped over, trying to peer through the door, until realizing he’d indicated a large poster on the wall. She froze and craned her neck to gaze up at it.
Bridget’s image smirked down at her, face gleaming with makeup and pigtails flitting out from beneath an oversized cowboy hat. Her zaftig figure bulged against her knotted-up plaid blouse and laughably short denim shorts. She clutched an overflowing pitcher of beer in each hand.
“Wow,” Esmee coughed. “Yeah, I think that’s her.”
She scanned the poster. It advertised Bridget’s showtimes: all the primetime slots, with extra shows on the weekends. Evidently there were souvenir posters and shirts for sale, as well.
“Is she in today? Can I borrow her for a minute?”
The bartender busied himself with a glass. “She’s not in today, no. And won’t be back anytime soon.”
Esmee furrowed her brow.
“We let her go,” the manager admitted, casting a wistful glance at the poster.
“Oh.” Esmee thought for a moment, plucking her phone from her pocket. “Can I ask—”
“Didn’t want to, of course,” he continued. “She wasn’t always much of a dancer, but after she took a little break last summer, man, she came back…changed.” He closed his eyes. “Cambe back with this new, sexy energy. She suddenly had this, like, aura about her.”
The bartender nodded in agreement. “Suddenly she’d get up on stage and could be just…mesmerizing. Everyone was loving her and you could tell she was loving being up there.”
“Started selling out every night she was in. Best four of five months of business I think we’ve ever had.”
Esmee forced a polite smile.
“Course, you know what success does to you young folks. Started to go to her head.”
“And other places,” added the bartender, pushing out his midsection.
“Comes with the popularity. Lots of admirers sending gifts, buying attention…that sort of thing. Too many free drinks…too many chocolates…too many nights on the town being wined and dined. Can hardly blame her.” He shook his head. “She’d never been our skinniest gal, but it wasn’t too long before she’d put on fifty, sixty pounds.”
“At least. Big boobs, big butt, obviously we’re cool with that here. But a big ol’ beer belly bouncing around on stage?”
“Wasn’t much dancing at that point, either. She’d get out of breath just squeezing into her costume. And the drinking…” He slapped his knee. “You remember the holiday party…sorry, ma’am. Not to disparage your friend.”
Esmee held up a hand. “Well, she’s not…it’s…I’m actually looking for a mutual friend. Someone I used to work with who I…fell out of contact with. I haven’t had any luck with her phone but, last I knew, she was living with your Bridget.” She turned her face from the poster’s gaze, involuntarily sucking in her own stomach.
The bartender set down his glass. “Roommate? You mean Miranda?”
“Talk about putting on weight,” laughed the manager. “That gal—”
“Please,” Esmee begged, spreading her palms, “I just need an address.”
Bridget’s trailer lay nestled in the furthest recesses of the park, all but hidden from the world at the end of a curling gravel road. Esmee’s sleek luxury coupe attracted no small amount of attention from the neighbors as she navigated through.
The driveway was empty, save for an unusual number of trash bags and recycling bins. One had fallen onto its side, spilling a mountain of pizza boxes and fast food containers into the overgrown yard.
Esmee sidestepped a Chickin Kitchin bucket and picked her way toward the front porch. She held her nose, but couldn’t help but glance at the mess of garbage. Every bin was filled to the brim; one of the recycling bins contained nothing but emptied beer and liquor bottles.
The flattened cardboard of a box of wine fluttered up in the wind. Esmee clutched her coat tight against the bitter Winter chill and jabbed a shivering finger at the doorbell.
There was no ring and no response. She knocked on the door, a little more violently than she’d intended, and it flapped open.
Esmee stood back a moment. “Miranda?” she called. “Bridget? Hello?”
Nothing replied but the icy wind.
“Hey, it’s Esmee. I tried to call.” She stamped her feet against the cold, glancing up and down the road. “Look, I’m gonna come inside…”
She backed into the trailer and pulled the door shut behind her. It flapped open again and she realized the latch was broken.
Esmee stiffened. She slipped a hand into her purse and gripped her phone. Stepping cautiously around more discarded bottles and food containers, she made her way into the living room.
There was no one inside. She called out again but got no response.
She unbuttoned her overcoat and took a long breath, staring in turn at piles of accumulated clutter, at the stack of plates on a nearby TV tray, at a box of Bridget’s frighteningly skimpy costumes, and at the ratty sofa. One of its cushions seemed to have been all but flattened.
Avoiding the kitchen, Esmee pushed open a bedroom door. It took some effort, as a chair had fallen behind it. She managed to force her way through, but her blouse unhelpfully untucked itself in the process.
She bit her lip, feeling the brass of her belt buckle press against the flesh of her muffin-top. After a minute of fumbling with the blouse, she gave up and let it hang.
A scale caught her eye in the corner of the room. She started toward it, but stopped herself.
One foot of the bed had broken. The frame was propped up by a block of wood, but the mattress still notably sagged.
A yoga mat had been unfurled on the far side of the room. A couple of small handweights lay beside it. A set of enormous workout clothes were draped over the back of a nearby chair.
Esmee stepped closer, reaching for the broad-strapped tank and curious to see its size, only to freeze.
The chair faced a desk, covered in old files and leather-bound books. Drawn on several of the folders was a curling, seven-armed sigil. One of the books was open to a page that showed an old stone tablet featuring the same glyph.
Esmee opened her phone and swiped through her pictures to an image from the chairman’s presentation: a mask with the same design.
“Oh my god,” she breathed.
Her stomach whined. Esmee ran a hand through her hair and set down her purse.
Shoving the chair aside, she leaned over the desk and leafed through the various papers. There were academic articles, newspaper clippings, hastily scrawled notes, and a few strange old playbills. Pulling open the desk drawers, she found a bundle of envelopes. Each was addressed from the archives department at Thalia University.
They were empty. Esmee frowned and dropped them back into the drawer. Her stomach gurgled again.
“Okay. Fine. I give up. Dinner.”
She stalked back into the living room, slinging her purse over her shoulder and eying the assortment of take-out boxes strewn across the dining table.
“Something tells me I’m not going to find a salad in this town,” she muttered, absently massaging her exposed roll.
Her eyes landed on an overturned fried chicken bucket and lingered longer than she would have preferred. Underneath the bucket, though, she noticed another envelope.
She crossed over and brushed the trash aside. The envelope was open and still contained its missive, a handwritten note on university letterhead.
“Miranda,” it read.
“I Wish I had better advice for you. I know the last six months have been miserable and confusing. You and your friend haven’t done anything to deserve any of this. Unfortunately, with Thalia’s copy of the play still missing and Professor de Chiel still unavailable, we have very little to go on.
“I don’t know how your bracelet made its way back to your doorstep, but you wrote that a gemstone had been added to it. This suggests to me that our fears weren’t unfounded: other branches of your family are still active in their pursuit of power and are aware of your experiences last summer.
“You need to leave. As soon as possible. You and Bridget have seen firsthand what the people dedicated to these ideas are willing to do to get their way. You are both in danger and should get out immediately. Pack as little as possible, don’t speak to anyone, and get rid of your phones.
“I’m sorry I don’t have anything better to tell you. I can only hope this reaches you before it’s too late. The two of you were looking to start over, you said, so if nothing else maybe here’s your chance. Just probably not what you thought.
“There was an idea I had, though, based on something you mentioned a few letters ago. You said your latest diet hasn’t been going very well. I think this may actually be a sign. My advice: no more dieting. Being part of the Whately bloodline has made you a target, but being the heaviest of the remaining candidates may afford you some special protection. If anything, it might actually be safer for you to keep putting on weight.
“It’s just a theory, since I don’t have access to the primary sources, but it’s something. Try to keep that advantage. I’ll keep trying to track down the books.
“Good luck. And remember: it’s worth keeping all this secret. People read about these incredible artifacts or world-shaping beings and immediately start dreaming about how they can get their hands on them or harness their power. I’ve read enough in this job to see that it’s a fundamental misunderstanding. These texts aren’t invitations. They’re warnings.”
Esmee folded up the letter. She glanced around, listening, and caught her reflection in the mirror.
Avoiding the sight of her pooching midsection, she sucked it in and closed her coat. She slipped the letter into her purse, shuffled back out onto the porch, and opened her phone.
A large crow lighted on the porch railing. It cocked its head and stared up at her.
Esmee stared back. It studied her with one eye, then the other. After half a minute, it spread its wings and leapt back into flight.
She watched as it flapped up. It circled the trailer a few times, let out an ugly screech, and turned to soar out over the cornfields.