WILLIE MORRIS FIXED THE same breakfast every morning. She fried bacon, then scrambled eggs in the leftover grease, spackling them with black cast iron. It was treacherous for her varicose veins and hardening arteries, but she believed it was a pleasant way to grow her soul. Some people pray, she thought. I fry bacon.

Maxine, her ancient poodle crippled with arthritis and cataracts, stayed close, hugging the leg that would soon bend so Willie could offer her some soft eggs, one of the few foods the dog could gum down.

“Hold on, sweetie, it’s comin’,” Willie reassured her. “They have to cool down a little first.”

Maxine licked the thick toes jutting out of knock-off Birkenstocks. Willie giggled at the sensation.

“You better quit it now. You’re gonna get Willie all excited.”

Such playfulness in the Morris kitchen would have shocked most people in the town of Luckau, Oklahoma. They believed Willie to be a loner, a curmudgeon. Her isolation in this tiny cabin five miles outside the limits of the town had earned her spook status among the local teenagers. Not that Willie Morris gave a rat’s ass what anybody thought about her.

She blew on the hot eggs to hurry the cooling along and glanced out the kitchen window towards the road. A peripheral movement startled her. She looked again and almost dropped the pan of eggs.

A hunched human shape limped into her front yard, only to collapse against the gate. Willie squinted her seventy-year-old eyes for better focus. A stained blanket barely covered the body. Willie caught gasps of nakedness as white as the underside of a snake. Several minutes passed and whatever it was stayed in a pile of limbs and blanket.

As she hurried to the door, Willie debated whether she should grab her gun. She only kept it for rabid skunks or thieving coyotes. Trespassers were rarely an issue in these parts. Unnerved, she hoped whatever was there in the yard would not need killing.

Before she could decide, the lump gave a moan that raised prickles on her arms. A deep guttural sound. Not entirely human. More like the last hopeless howl of a dying critter, the kind she heard from the woods now and again. Willie pressed against the window and saw the shape drop to the grass, groaning now . . . obviously in pain. Oblivious to the drama unfolding outside, Maxine barked, a raspy demand for eggs.

“In a minute, baby. We got company.” Willie grabbed her shotgun and headed out the door.

An hour later Willie Morris sat at her kitchen table, staring at the human wreck scarfing down a second skillet of eggs across from her. The dirt-encrusted woman made her think of those zombies so popular with the young people. Matted, oily auburn hair hiding the whitest face she had ever seen. Even spookier, the poor thing seemed unaware of where she was or what she was doing there. At least she had a good appetite. Willie watched the woman dip her face to the plate, using her fork as a shovel — eyes darting back and forth like a skittish dog guarding its bowl.

It had taken all of Willie’s strength to pull her up and half-walk, half-carry her into the house. Not only was she nearly naked under that filthy blanket, but her hands and feet were shredded and covered in mud and blood.

Maxine had quickly set up shop at the stranger’s feet, busy cataloging this unexpected feast of nasty odors. Willie had caught the old poodle enough times rolling in some fresh dung pile in the back pasture to know that Maxine was rejoicing in the outstanding stink of their guest.

The young woman finished her bacon and eggs and downed an entire glass of milk without taking a breath. Willie decided it was time to find out a few things.

“You look like you been through a war zone,” she said, keeping her tone casual.

Her guest jumped at the sound of Willie’s voice but gave no response.

“Your hands and feet are cut pretty bad. Anything else hurt?”

Blank greenish eyes stared back.

“My name is Willie Morris. I live here. What’s your name?”

Her guest retreated deeper into the blanket.

“I’m not going to hurt you, honey. You’re safe here. You understand?”

The stranger gave a tentative nod.

“Now, not being inquisitive — Lord knows I don’t like folks prying into my business — but how long since you had a good bath? I could run you some nice, hot water. Might even have some bubble bath from Dollar General. Have a bunch of old clothes in there that don’t fit anymore, bein’ as how I’m gettin’ big as the broad side of a barn. Probably got five or six different sizes. Whadda ya say? A hot bath and some clean clothes?”

The creature looked up at her, so desperate and lost, Willie had to swallow at the sight. Not more than thirty-five, Willie guessed, but her face seemed much older. Used. Finally, a tired nod.

“Alrighty then.” Willie struggled to sound positive.

“Thank you,” the woman said. Tears swam in her eyes.

“Ah, she speaks. That’s a beginning,” Willie said.

The creature nodded and pointed to herself.


“Well, Gayla, let’s get you cleaned up.”

Willie lightly touched the pale woman’s shoulder, caught off guard by a slight catch in her own throat.

“Then I’ll take a look at those wounds.”