by Kevin Snow

Romani drew back a rawhide bowstring, straining her sore shoulder muscles. From this range, the strong wind made her doubt her aim. She adjusted her angle, eyes still on the target: a balloon with long, sinister arms, weighed down by a bright yellow lantern. It was made up of crude shapes and colors, but their combination disturbed Romani. She had recreated its features from indistinct dreams, more feeling than imitation.

Pop. Her arrow shred the balloon, revealing another one floating a few yards past. She nocked an arrow and widened her stance, trying to stand the way Grasshopper had.

Grasshopper was beautiful, in that innocent, safe way: the golden locks of hair swept over blue eyes, the friendship with fairies, the soothing melody of an ocarina. Maybe that was why Romani believed him. Something so beautiful couldn’t break a promise.

Her older sister had crushes, too—her best friend, betrothed to the mayor’s son. It wasn’t so silly for Romani to feel the same, even if Cremia dismissed her. And, it wasn’t only a crush. Grasshopper was her age, but he carried weight on his shoulders, like her. The duty to save adults who turned away from apocalypse while it bore down upon them.

No, it wasn’t the crush that was silly, but the target. Pop. A cow flinched at the sound, and turned to wander across the field. Romani mumbled a quiet apology.

Maybe the world’s more important than cows. But these cows have names. They rub their necks on bark, and eat apples right from your hands, sweet as sugar. They’re what’s left of Father, the work he did from sunrise till sunset. They might as well be the world.

The night of the carnival, she searched the crowds for him, but he never showed. Some said he’d ridden off into the woods on the lost horse Romani had cared for, his fate uncertain. The grateful way folks talked about him got under her skin, like she was the only one who saw what she saw in him, and so her feelings were unreasonable, even wrong.

Romani nocked another arrow and focused on the furthest balloon. In the daylight, the lantern didn’t shine so bright, nowhere near bright enough. That’s what she recalled most from the nightmares. The loud, enveloping light, like a firefly growing bigger and brighter than the sun, swallowing darkness, blinding even after closing her eyes tight and hiding behind her arms. And then…slim, sleek fingers, impossibly long, searching, grasping.

Pop. The balloon burst, laid flat on the ground in a thin layer.

If Grasshopper wouldn’t protect Romani Ranch, she would. It’s her namesake. ◒


Kevin Snow is a narrative designer who directs indie game projects under the name Bravemule. Most recently, they created The Silence Under Your Bed, an interactive horror anthology about the strange, the spooky, and the macabre. They can be found on Twitter at @bravemule