Child of Nod Teaser

Hey all, my novel, Child of Nod, is due out November 7, so in anticipation, here’s the first chapter. It’s a little bit horror, a little bit fairy tale and myth, and a little bit something else. If you’re interested, you can check out the Goodreads page for the full blurb.

 

Child of Nod

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was dead.

She wasn’t a little girl, but she wasn’t a woman yet, though last summer her breasts and legs had grown and now she was taller than her aunt was. She had red hair that flowed from her scalp, cascaded in ringlets over her slender neck and shoulders, and bounced when she ran. Her eyes were a deep green, her skin a milky white, and overall, people who met her would always tell her aunt what a beautiful young woman she would make someday.

Her name was Alice. A minute ago, she wasn’t even sure of that, wasn’t sure of anything in this new place. It had come to her as she’d looked around, as though a patch of fog had lifted from her mind, and the sun had come blazing through. Then the brilliance was gone, receding back behind a patch of gray, and she was left again with tattered mist that drifted between her thoughts, obscuring answers she felt sure she would need.

The next thing that came to Alice was an awareness of her surroundings. It dawned on her as though someone had thrown a switch—one moment, a dreamlike haze swirled around her, filled with blank shapes, the next, the fog was all in sharp focus. She was sitting in a clearing ringed by trees, black in the low light. Their branches reached to the roof of the earthen tunnel that enclosed them, some even digging into the soil above, and disappeared as if they were fingers sunk in loam. Beneath her, leaves long dead and dry rustled with the movement of her skirt.

She struggled with her disorientation, with trying to remember what she had been doing before. This new place felt off to her, as though she were in two places at the same time, but only belonged to one. Peering at the trees and their branches above, hearing the way they sighed and creaked even without a breeze, wherever this was, she was sure this bleak forest wasn’t where she was meant to be. It certainly wasn’t 54th street or the cottage by the sea. Even as she thought of them, the memories flared and settled in her mind. Life comes at you in bits and pieces, her aunt would have said, and she realized the phrase was another thing she remembered, and wondered how long her mind would continue to feed her like a hamster in a cage.

Alice stood, her legs tingling with pins and needles, and took a deep breath. She smelled the earth around her, and the dry scents of trees and leaves, and faint, but still there, the tang of saltwater. It reminded her of her aunt’s cottage by the ocean, and the soft sand that would squish between her toes when the honey-colored grains were wet. She smoothed her skirt, took another breath, and headed toward what she thought might be the end of the tunnel.

Leaves crunched under Alice’s feet, sending up the smells of dirt and autumn trapped in the layers of dead foliage. At first, she had to stop every few feet and disentangle her skirt or her top from clutching tree limbs, as though they were greedy relatives who wanted to monopolize her time, jealous of her youth. The further she went, the less frequent it became, the grasping branches becoming sparser and losing strength against her determination. Eventually, she was able to walk a straight line as the trees and the flotsam and jetsam underfoot thinned out. Down the path, the gray lightened, and unless merely a mirage, a widening to the tunnel loomed ahead.

Alice stopped for a moment and turned around. The trees and the path behind her lay undisturbed, though she could recall breaking a branch off here, and kicking a pile of leaves to the side there. She looked down and noticed the ground had turned to a trail of hard-packed clay, worn smooth by ages of travel. A rustling in the underbrush to either side of the path made her swing back toward the mouth of the tunnel.

Where there was no one before, a dog now lay in her way, and she took an involuntary step back. She hadn’t thought there would be any animals here—the forest seemed devoid of life: no chatter of chipmunks, no scurrying underfoot, no singing birds. She’d stood in a wooded wasteland. The sight of the dog had startled her, and she froze, trying to calm the pounding in her chest. As she watched, it tilted its head, opened its mouth, and a long tongue lolled out as if to say, “Hello.”

Alice glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could wind back and find a way around, but the walls of the tunnel were far too close yet, and to her surprise, the path had disappeared. Only the scrub brush and leaves littered the fallow ground among the trunks behind her. She looked at the dog again and remembered a trick her aunt had taught her. Memory flared for a moment, bright as starlight, and her mother’s sister hove into view in her mind’s eye—red hair like her own, round glasses, and a generous bosom. She’d taken Alice in when her mother had died, and spent the next years of her life instructing her niece in everything she could. Like the trick with dogs. Alice bent a bit, held out her hand, and tried not to smell like fear.

“Nice doggy… good doggy…”

She repeated it like a mantra as she approached the animal in half-steps. It tilted its head to the side and watched her approach, its eyes a light blue that reminded her of summer skies. When she was less than a foot away, Alice stopped, her hand still out. The dog looked up at her with those blue eyes and seemed to weigh her. She sincerely hoped it wasn’t thinking she would taste good. After a minute, it stretched its neck out, opened its mouth, and licked her palm, its smooth tongue leaving a wet smear on her hand.

A sigh of relief escaped her, and Alice pulled her hand back. She wiped her palm on her skirt as best she could without letting the dog know she was doing it. There was intelligence in its eyes that made her fear it would take something like this as an insult. As if making a decision, the dog stood, and Alice stiffened again, not sure if it had changed its mind. Ah, he. If he had changed his mind.

He glanced at her once more, then turned and padded down the path. A few feet along, he paused and looked back over his shoulder, as if waiting for her. The look made up her mind, and Alice followed, hoping she was taking the right path. The dog started again, and let out a soft snort on the way as if to say, “About time.”

*

By the time Alice caught up with the dog, the tunnel entrance had widened into a wide sky, the hard clay underfoot softening and mixing with sand. The light here was better as well, though she still could not tell where the illumination was coming from. The smell of saltwater was stronger and accompanied the sounds of waves lapping at a shore.

The dog stopped in the middle of the beach, and Alice came to a halt beside him. A wide expanse of water before them disappeared into the distance. A light breeze blew across the surface, sending ripples and waves against the shore. In the low light, the water appeared black, though still clear as glass, and from where she stood, Alice could see the bottom of the lake for several feet out.

Where the water met sand, a small pier made from weathered planks and lashed together with thick cords of rope jutted out into the waves. At its end, a boat of dark lacquered wood with a high prow, a lantern hanging from the bowsprit, and with what looked to be room for two or three people bobbed, tied to the pier.

Sedately, a shadow detached itself from the stern of the boat and debarked. The newcomer was tall, over six feet, and gaunt, even in the folds of the cloak it wore, and Alice couldn’t see the passenger’s face in the depths of his hood. He walked with the aid of a long pole that thumped on the boards of the pier, marking time to his stride, though his footsteps made no sound at all. When he reached the end of the walkway, where the boards met sand, he stopped, and held out a hand, palm up, as though waiting for something.

The dog looked up at her, then at the man on the end of the pier, and back to her. As if waiting for her decision, he let out a huff of air and lay down in the sand. Alice dithered. The man stood there waiting, hand out, as though he could for hours, and never spoke. She checked her gut once, but no internal warning flares soared up from there. Her Uncle Phil, who had been a cop in Chicago, had told her when she wasn’t sure of something, her gut couldn’t lead her wrong. Something about that memory stuck with her, and for a moment, she saw flashing lights and the faint sound of sirens and the steady patter of rain. She shook herself, and it faded.

She considered the boatman for a little while longer, and waited for a hint of anything, but nothing came—no twist in her stomach, like when she had seen the man with the gun—just a quiet expectation in the air. Her stomach dropped out as the world faded again, and she was standing on the subway platform. The man was there, dark eyes and dark clothes, a small black gun in his hand and a sneer on his face. He was pressing against her, forcing her to the edge of the platform. He said something, something she didn’t hear, and then she was falling, and she screamed—

The dog barked once, a sharp warning that snapped her back to her new reality, and she found herself stock still, tears streaming down her cheeks. She drew breath in short painful gasps and her heart pounded, threatening to rise to her throat. She let her lids fall closed and took a deep breath, and forced the fear away, to a place in her mind where she could lock it up until she was ready. After a minute, she opened her eyes. The man on the pier was still there, hand outstretched, unaffected by her episode.

Another minute passed, and Alice crouched down to pet the dog, who laid his head between his paws, and sighed again as she ran her hand through his fur. Her knees were beginning to throb with a dull ache, and Alice let herself down the rest of the way until she was sitting in the sand next to the dog.

Her left hand went on stroking the dog’s fur, and she enjoyed the softness against her palm and the reassuring warmth beneath her skin. She frowned, lost in thought, while her free hand absently dug and sifted through the sand at her side.

“What do you want?” She asked the figure at the end of the pier.

No answer came, and she went back to worrying at the situation like a mouse at a rope. She tried to think of things she had read, stories she had heard before, mentioning a man and a boat. Unfortunately, most of what she knew still seemed shrouded in a gray fog that persisted in her brain. Although, the harder she thought, the more something glimmered in the back of her mind, and she pushed towards it.

She spared a glance at the man, who still had not moved. Something told her maybe he couldn’t go beyond the pier, and as long as she kept her distance, she was fine. The idea flared in her brain again, burning off a bit of the fog, and she grabbed for it.

…turn to page 163, Mythology, and…

Her mind seized on the fragment, and for a moment she was back in Mrs. Rabe’s class, the fragrances of early autumn and late summer drifting in through open windows.

Mrs. Rabe was a short, rotund woman with graying hair, and a stern, grandmotherly air. She was writing something on the blackboard, a name, in flowing script. Calvin, another redhead, sat behind Alice, whispering to a friend. She turned to see who―

Her right hand closed on something hard and cold. And the memory came to her, a flash of light in a dark room. Of course—the dead need pay the ferryman for passage. She looked down, and saw she had been digging a hole in the sand, her right hand caked with soft mud, grains grinding against each other under her fingernails. Something glittered with a dull shine in the dirt in her hand, and she brushed it off, recognizing the shape of a coin. She wondered where hers was, and realized she wouldn’t have had one. They no longer buried the dead with coin. It troubled her, the idea that she could have been trapped on this side with no possible recourse but to swim or languish. For her, it was fortunate that she had come across one someone had lost, though she felt for the poor soul.

And what of the others? Those that had come here in the intervening years and found themselves wandering this endless beach. A second thought occurred to her—how many did actually come here? Surely, those who passed on didn’t all go to the same place. It would be, for the lack of a better term, awkward. If she was dead, that was. She let out a sigh, exasperated with the cloud in her head, and bent to cleaning the coin.

When the disc was as clean as she could get it without walking to the water’s edge and rinsing it, she confirmed it was gold in color, and crudely stamped with a man’s image on both sides. Roman numerals crawled along the outer edges, and beneath the portrait, lettering she couldn’t decipher. While she was looking at it, Dog let out a low warning growl.

Alice followed the direction of his snout and spotted what Dog had already sensed—a naked man sprinting full-tilt down the beach. An idle part of her, the part that remembered old jingles and quotes from TV shows, wondered where his clothes had gone. Then shrugged. Maybe he’d been here so long, they’d simply fallen to tatters. Maybe he was just a loon.

She was frozen momentarily, torn between waiting for him—he was the first human she had encountered since coming to this place, present company, the ferryman, excluded—and running like hell from what appeared to be a madman on a collision course with her.

He drew closer, and opened his mouth, and the words that spilled out made up her mind for her.

“Kill you, kill you, KILL YOU! MY COIN, MY COIN, MYYYY COOOOIIIIINN!”

Alice clambered to her feet and kicked up sand, heading for the ferryman, where he still waited with his palm out. Dog followed, still growling deep in his chest and throat. She reached the cowled figure and slapped the coin into his hand. His fingers closed around it, and he turned, making his way to the boat.

She followed and looked over her shoulder, noting the psycho was closer now, maybe three, four hundred yards away, and still bellowing obscenities at her. She quickened her pace, and a knot of frustration tied itself in her stomach when she realized the tall man in the cloak seemed unhurried and unconcerned.

The dinghy rocked as Alice, Dog, and the boatman stepped in, and he leaned forward to untie the rope and cast off. When finished, he took his place at the back of the boat, slipped his long pole into the water, and pushed off, sending them on their way.

At the same time, the naked man reached the edge of the pier and stopped short, his face, only moments before twisted in rage, collapsing in on itself and giving way to despair. He dropped to his knees and let out a wordless howl. Then the current caught the boat, and he dropped out of sight in a matter of seconds, the only sounds the rush of water against wood, the soft splash of the ferryman’s pole in the water, and Dog’s panting.

The Bear, the Raven, and the Sun

Nora nudged her drink, watching ripples play out on the surface. It was just a shot of whiskey, yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to down it.  So, she would nudge it every now and then, and watch the ripples and think of the way waves might lap at the shore on a summer day. Even without the whiskey, she could imagine sea salt and foam, coral and shells poking half-out of the sand, their surfaces shiny in the early afternoon sun. She could hear the gulls crying as they wheeled above the waves, and further out, see the bright triangle of a sloop or a small fishing boat. Then the burn in her guts would come back, and the ocean would fade – she’d remember she’d never actually seen the sea – and she’d take another shot of whiskey to take the edge off the pain. 

She grimaced when it went down – she had never been one of those people like in the movies, where they toss back the shot, slam the glass down, and ask for another – she’d never gotten used to the taste. It went down hot, and she coughed a little, and then chased it with the beer beside it. Beer was better. Not much, but it wasn’t like fire, and though the whiskey made the acid in her belly that much hotter for a moment, the two blended together just enough to mellow the pain, and make her loose enough to think of anything that wasn’t the black cancer eating away her insides. She took another sip of beer and tried to think of anything else, like how if she managed to down about five more of those, she might finally be ready to finish the bottle of pills on her counter and deprive the pain of its one source of joy, her misery. 

Her stomach protested with a wash of acid that made her want to vomit up the three shots, near-pint, and handful of peanuts she’d forced down over the night. She clenched her jaw and breathed through her nose, and thought nasty words at the nausea until it passed, her hand on her stomach. Her left hand was clenched in a fist, the thumb tucked inside. She’d read somewhere that it was supposed to put pressure on a nerve that helped control the vomit impulse. She wasn’t sure it was true, but with weeks of not keeping food down for more than twenty minutes, ten sometimes, she was willing to give anything a shot. 

A man sat on the stool next to her, bumping her arm and sending it banging into her stomach. She winced and looked over. He looked back with old, kind eyes. 

“Sorry about that.” 

“No problem.” 

“No, sorry about the cancer. I didn’t have anything to do with that.” 

She had just turned away to contemplate the new shot the bartender had placed in front of her, and her head snapped back. If it had moved any faster, it would have made a sound like Indiana Jones’ whip in an open market. The man was still watching her with those eyes. They were odd, she thought. Especially in a man with dark skin. Gold, with flecks of green. She thought she might be mistaken – that they were just a light brown, or the light was caching them in a way that made them shine, but then he inclined his head just a little, and she saw her first thought was right. He smiled, and his wrinkles formed themselves into smile lines and dimples, a sort of seismic joy across the landscape of his face. 

“Looking at my eyes?” 

“No – yeah. I mean – sorry.” 

“No need to apologize.” He laid a thin hand on hers, his skin dry, but warm, his palm calloused. “Got them from a tiger. Had to trade the moon for them, but I got it back.” He winked. 

“What did he get?” She asked, the question surprised out of her by the oddity of the statement. 

“His stripes. And a hangover.” 

She laughed, a sound that came from her so unexpectedly that she clapped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, sorry.” 

“You apologize a lot. Don’t. Never be sorry for a laugh that isn’t cruel.” 

She looked at him closer. At the tweed suit. At the hat that lay beside his left hand, a battered fedora like you’d see a jazz singer wear in the 50s. At his slight build and the white stubble that clung to his head. At his eyes. Kind, but somehow laughing. Not at you, though. No, she didn’t think those eyes ever laughed at a person. Her first thought flittered back into her head, a reminder of the sudden surprise she’d felt. 

“How did you know about the cancer?” 

“It stands out. A person carries themselves a certain way. A little stiffer, their shoulders a little hunched. Like a whipped dog – no offense. It’s a mean thing – it takes and takes and leaves little. Sometimes not even your dignity.” Anger flashed in his eyes just once, so brief she thought for a second it might be the reflection of a reflection – the light from a watch catching the neon, but she didn’t think so. Then it passed, and his demeanor changed. He signaled for a drink, and watched the bartender bring it, then turned to Nora. “You like stories?” 

“Depends. Is it long?” 

He shrugged. “Not so long to tell as it was to live.” 

She thought about it. The tub, the razor blade, the bottle of pills – they would wait. None were clamoring to be first, none were more important than the next. They simply were, an inevitability at the end of a long road. She nodded. “Sure, I’ll listen.” 

“A long time ago – that’s how these things always start, anyways – there was the dark, and man, and man was afraid of the dark.” 

She wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t in the mood for a sermon. Sermons hadn’t gotten her anywhere in the past two years, and praying had gotten her less. She held up a hand. 

“Is this a Bible story? Because – no offense, thanks, but no thanks.” 

He shook his head. “Nope. Probably wouldn’t show up in the Bible. Probably wouldn’t show up in the New York Times.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t make it less true.” He paused and looked at her. “Okay?” 

She nodded and picked up her beer, taking a sip. “Okay.” 

“Where was I? Oh – the dark. So many stories start in the dark. That’s because for a long time, man didn’t have light. They huddled together, in their caves and their secret places, away from the beasts, and they held sharpened sticks and fended off the night when it came for them. They weren’t always successful. Men died. Women died. Children died. Or worse.” 

“Worse?” Despite herself, Nora felt herself already being drawn into the story. The man’s voice was mellifluous, and she could imagine shamans and grandparents and parents telling stories like this to their children, some still babes in swaddling clothes, as they huddled around campfires or fireplaces, in places where their parent’s parents had come up and made a life. 

The man nodded. “Sometimes the dark didn’t kill them, but got inside. Some, it made sick.” He reached out and touched her stomach, with one finger. It was nonthreatening, tender – the touch of a physician. It burned for a moment, as if in response to his presence. He pulled away, and her stomach settled. He continued. “Others, it took. It brought them into the fold and changed them, made them crave the flesh of families, made them hunt their own children. Others, it made generals, great leaders of beasts that had never seen the light. They fought for so long, but the thing about fighting for so long in the dark, with no light at the end, is that you get tired. You just want to sleep. Some simply walked into the dark and didn’t look back.  

So it went, generation after generation, until one day, all the people that ever were at that point huddled together in one cave. They were sore and weary, and began to argue. ‘We should fight until the end,’ some said. ‘We should walk out,’ others said, ‘let the dark take us’. ‘We should lie down and sleep until the end,’ said the third group. It was then that a voice, younger than the others, but still strong, spoke up. ‘We should fight with something they’ve never seen before.’ 

‘And what is that?’ 

‘Light.’  

They shook their heads in bewilderment and scratched their pates and wondered if the young man had gone mad. He held up his hands for quiet, and then told them of a dream he’d had, of a glittering thing that shone in a way that couldn’t be stopped by the dark, of the way the things in the night were afraid of it, and the way the beasts feared it. When they asked where it came from, he told them it was a thing of the gods.” 

Nora stopped him. “This is a fairy tale then.” 

He raised a hand. “Hand to gods, it’s true.” 

“Gods? Plural? You’re not one of those new age kooks, are you?” 

He shook his head and chuckled. “I haven’t been accused of being a new anything in a long time. No, back then there were many gods. But they were busy with their own squabbling and couldn’t be bothered with man. That came after.” 

He continued. “So, the young man told them his story. And they laughed at him. Until he went to the mouth of the cave and stared into the dark. Then, they no longer laughed. They begged and pleaded, and wheedled and cried and finally cursed, saying that if he was going to throw away the future of the clan, then he could rot in the dark with the rest of them. 

Their warnings and curses went unheeded though, and he walked out, into the dark.” 

The man stopped and took a sip of his drink. He paused for a moment, looking around the bar. 

“What happened next?” Nora prompted him. 

“He found the light.” 

“How?” 

He heaved a sigh. “Tests, trials, labors. There are always three – did you know that?” 

She shook her head, and he nodded in return. 

“Three is sacred to one deity or another – the Goddess, God, Shiva – it’s all very mathematical and proper, as things are with their sort.” 

“So, what happened?” 

“Well, he walked. For a long time. And it was dull. There was very little on the Earth at that time, due to the darkness. Not many things could live in it, though somehow man did. I suspect resourcefulness was a gift from the gods, because man could find food in the dark – mushrooms and lichen from the caves, water from the grottos, meat from the occasional lizard that wandered through – though, let me tell you, raw lizard tastes awful. They also found wood from trees that grew in the caves where a lizard had carried a seed, though it grew hard and leafless and completely inflammable. A joke of the dark, I think. 

Anyways, he walked for three days, somehow avoiding the eyes of the dark, and on the third day, came to a stream. A bird – ravens were common even then – had landed on a rock in the stream after some beast or other had wounded his wing, and was trapped. While it wasn’t very deep for a man, it was deadly to a bird that wasn’t made for swimming, so the boy decided he would wade in and rescue the raven. When he reached the edge of the stream, the bird spoke. 

“Look out!” It called. “The water is thick with the teeth of the dead!” 

The boy looked down and saw it was true. Beneath the surface of the water, bone-white teeth glinted in the moonlight.” 

Nora interrupted him. “I thought you said there wasn’t any light.” 

“Moonlight is not the same as light. You know that. Could you grow a tree by moonlight? Frighten a predator?” 

She shook her head. “Sorry.” 

He shook his. “Again. No apologies.” He continued. 

“The boy paused at the edge of the water, and looked. He had his spear with him, and thought ‘maybe…,’ so he laid it across the stream, and it reached the rock. The raven hopped across, holding its broken wing out. Just before the end, it dipped its beak into the water and grabbed a tooth, holding it up as it hopped onto the shore. The boy held his hand out and the raven spat it into his hand. It was long and sharp, and he could feel it ready to bite. 

‘Thank you,’ said the raven. Fasten this to your spear, and you will be able to pierce even the sky.’ 

‘Will you be okay?’ The boy asked.  

The raven bobbed his head. ‘I will be fine. Now go.’ 

The boy strapped the tooth to the point of his spear and went on his way, leaving the raven behind. He walked another three days, until he came to a great forest, one older than even the darkness, and began to work his way through.” 

Nora interrupted again. “Wait. I thought you just said trees couldn’t grow in moonlight.” 

“You’re right – they can’t. I did say this place was older than the dark. Such things did – still do – exist.” He cocked an amused eyebrow at her. “May I go on?” 

She nodded. 

“The boy came to the center of the forest, and there he saw a bear, his leg trapped in one of the night’s traps. He went to the bear and knelt beside him, inspecting his leg. 

‘I think I can get it off,’ the boy said. 

The bear shook his head. ‘Do not. It is a strong tar. Even touching it would stick you hopelessly.’ 

The boy thought for a moment, then using his spear, pried the jaws of the trap apart. The mechanism snapped open, and the bear pulled his leg free. The tar clung to the tip of the spear. 

‘Thank you, boy,’ the bear said. ‘With that tar, you can catch the most cunning of prey.’ He wandered into the woods, leaving the boy alone. After a time, the boy continued on.  

He walked for three more days, leaving the forest behind. By now, his stomach was growling, and his step was unsure. He had come so far, and been lucky in that the dark seemed to not see him. Finally, he came to an arch set in a plain countryside. It had no house, nor any frame, but you could not see the other side through it. He stepped though, and screamed in horror. 

The light was more than he’d expected, more than he’d dreamt. It seared his skin, made his eyes burn. He cowered before it, and flung his hands over his eyes. He lay that way for some time, his hands over his eyes. He cursed the gods and their tricks, and cursed the dark and its cruelty. He trembled, part in fear, part in rage. He could not die here! He could not let the gods have their joke! Slowly, he stood, and through squinting eyes, he picked up his spear. He aimed with a trembling hand. Sweat covered his skin, and his grip was unsure. Still, he pulled back, and let fly. The spear flew like an arrow, like a hawk at its prey. It struck the sun, and with a thunk, sliced off a piece that stuck to the tar. The spear fell away and landed to earth, the tip still burning. 

The boy picked up the torch, and marveling at its light weight and heat, began to walk the way he’d come. He had decided if he couldn’t destroy the thing in the sky, he would steal a piece for his people. Let the gods have their joke – he would use it to his advantage. He walked, back through the arch and through the forest, beside the stream, and finally, back to his cave. Where he went, the light spread, driving back the dark things, making greenery bloom around him. He called out to his people. 

‘Come and see what I have brought!’ 

They came, tempted by the light, and though they shielded their eyes, they rejoiced at the new sights, at the fleeing darkness.  

‘What do we do with it?” They asked the boy. 

In answer, he flung the spear into the sky, and there it stuck. And that’s how we got the sun.” 

“What happened to the boy?” Nora was enraptured. 

The man shrugged. “Some say he is still around, bringing light wherever he goes.” 

“Is that why the dark left him alone?” 

The man shrugged and finished his drink. “Maybe. Maybe he was just small enough to pass under its sight. Maybe it saw the strength in him and knew he was unbreakable.” 

She thought about it and downed her shot. The alcohol made her head swim pleasantly. “It’s nice, but it’s just a story. Thank you for it, but I don’t see how it applies to me.” 

A small look of sadness passed the man’s face. “You don’t? It’s simple, Nora. There is always light to drive back the dark.”  

He tapped her stomach once more, and the pain came, but it was distant. The alcohol must be working. He stood and laid a fifty on the counter, then nodded at the barman. 

“For me, and her.” 

She started to protest, and then laid a hand on his arm. “Thank you.” 

He smiled. “Go home, Nora. Sleep. That thing you’re thinking of can wait another day. And the day after that, maybe you can steal the sun.” 

He walked away, and she sat on her stool, rubbing her stomach. After a while, she stood as well, and left. The cab ride home was quiet, as was her apartment. She looked at the bottle of pain pills on her kitchen counter, and mentally counted them. 32 – that should be enough. She thought of the old man, and took a breath, then went to sleep. 

The next day, she woke, and the pain in her stomach was less. And the day after that, and the day after that. And after that, she drove to the beach. It was a three day drive, and at its end, she stood on the shore and raised her hand to the sky. From where she stood, the sun seemed to fit neatly in the palm of her hand. 

Red, A Tale

A short piece I experimented with. I wanted to do Red Riding Hood with a crime twist, and since I rarely write crime, it was a bit of a challenge. It’s not perfect or something I’ll send out, but it was kind of fun to write.

Red, A Tale

“The Red. The flowers. The grandma. Me.” The Wolf took a drag from his smoke, the Marlboro small between his massive fingers. Claws the side of almonds tipped fur-covered digits, his palm easily the size of the Huntsman’s head. They sat in a cinderblock room, a wide metal table between them, a single bulb in a metal cage overhead. It threw stark shadows on the walls. Smoke drifted up to the light and swathed the bulb in an opaque haze. He spoke between teeth the size of most people’s small finger, muscles in his jaw rippling, his voice like ripping cloth.

He pulled the cigarette to his lips again, the chain looped around his wrists and the ring on the table clanging as steel moved against steel. He blew a plume out.

“What do you want to know?”

“Where’s the girl?” The Huntsman wasn’t small by any standard. He stood over six and a half feet and looked like someone had pulled him from the Steeler’s lineup. Calloused hands gripped the table, and though he had to look up at the Wolf, he had the demeanor of a man looking down.

“I told you. I don’t know. Probably fucked off to Aruba. Maybe Cairo. Maybe one of those places with a hard to say name and no extradition treaty.”

“Tell me about the blood.”

“It’s mine. They hit me with something, and when I woke up, you were there.”

“We’ll see. Since we’ve got time, tell me again.”

The Wolf stubbed out his smoke and sighed. He’d told the story three times already. It hadn’t changed, but he knew this was SOP for the Huntsman. He leaned back as far as the chain would allow and began.

*

She wore red. I shouldn’t have cared. Shouldn’t have even noticed, but there’s something about a woman in red. It’s intoxicating. Heartbreaking. Wild. You think it’s only bulls who love that color? They like the movement. It’s all black and white to them. Me, I like the color. The shade, the depth. It’s the color of roses and heart’s blood.

We met in a little bar by the docks – close enough to smell the brine on the air, not so close you couldn’t smell the pines outside town. I think it was called The Path. One of those little dives you see on the news after someone goes and gets lippy, and the next thing you know, the place is busted up, and three guys are sitting on the curb holding towels to their heads while the cops take statements. She was nursing a whiskey – neat, her hair as red as her dress, her head hung over the drink like she could see the future in it. Hell, maybe she could. Come to think of it in retrospect, I wish I’d had one. Maybe I’d seen what was coming.

She looked up when I took the stool next to her. The pig behind the bar nodded, and I ordered an old-fashioned. Thought about a bloody Mary, but stereotypes are a real thing. I watched the pig work. I think his name was Mortimer, or Marty, or something. All I knew for sure was that at one time he was into real estate, and when he cashed out, bought the bar. The other thing I knew was that he made a mean drink. Now and then he’d burn them, and I’d find myself huffin’ and puffin’.

Not that night, though. The old fashioned was sweet and mellow, and I could feel the buzz in my head, like white noise. I finished it and was about to go – one or two is my maximum these days – when she put a hand on my arm. Two things about that. One – nobody really touches me. I mean, who knows what the Wolf’s gonna do, right? Two – her hands were clean, but her nails were ragged, like she’d been chewing them. I looked over at her.

“Have a drink with me,” she said.

That raised an eyebrow, but I nodded. “Okay.”

I ordered another, and we sat in silence, sipping our drinks. She broke it.

“I hear you do things.” It wasn’t a question.

“Used to,” I corrected her.

“Used to is code for I want to, but someone might catch me,” she snarked.

I shrugged. She wasn’t completely wrong. Some days, the need gets to you. You do your best to ignore it, occupy your time with other things. These days, I built models. I was in the middle of a scale USS Nimitz. I hated it a little bit. The damn glue matted my hair.

“I don’t do that anymore,” I repeated.

“What if you did? Would you do it for money?”

I shook my head.

“What about for a good cause, then?”

I started to shake again and stopped. Maybe. She noticed the pause and rushed in to fill the space.

“She hits me.”

I looked over at her and blinked. “Who?”

“My grandmother. She’s a mean drunk. She hits me and throws my food out, and when she’s not trying to beat me with a broom, it’s words.”

“Words are just words,” I growled. I was trying to pull myself from the conversation. She wasn’t having it.

“Are they? Are they just words when every day you’re useless and stupid and a piece of shit?”

“She’s your grandmother. How rough can it be? You can fight off a little old lady, right?”

She shook her head. “She’s only in her fifties, and strong as an ox. Old Russian farmer. Look at me.”

I did. She must have been about a hundred pounds soaking wet. She was shaking, and I could see that I’d been careless again. This really bothered her.

“Look, if it’s money you want, she’s got an insurance policy. Make her disappear, and I’ll split it with you.”

I wrestled with the decision. I looked closer, to see if she was giving anything away, pulling me into a lie. I saw bruises the dim bar had hidden. Black and blue marks on her arms, beside her eye. I growled involuntarily. In my past life, I’d been a dick. A bastard. A cad. I’d wrecked homes and terrorized villages. But I’d never hurt a woman. I sighed and glanced at Marty. He was busy polishing a glass. I leaned in and whispered.

“Fine. Give me the address.”

She pulled a pen from her purse and scribbled something on a napkin, then slid it over to me. I finished my drink, threw a couple dollars on the bar, and grabbed the note. She grabbed my arm on the way out.

“Call the number there when it’s done. Use a pay phone.”

I nodded and left.

*

The Huntsman looked at the Wolf, a hard expression on his face. “You agreed to kill someone for money.”

“Not exactly. I said ‘fine’, not ‘I’ll kill her’. At the time, I was just trying to get out of the bar.”

“But you went to the old lady’s house.”

The Wolf sighed. “Yeah. I had to see.”

“Tell me about it.”

*

The old lady lived on the edge of town, in a nice suburb called Pleasance. I took my time getting there the back way. People tend to notice a wolf in their midst. Granted, the place was crawling with centaur and dryads, but a wolf – that’s a predator. You watch predators.

I pulled onto a side street and walked the rest of the way, through the little clusters of pine that dotted the neighborhood. Lucky enough, they butted right up against Red’s property, and I was able to hunker down and watch the house. It was one of those nice little ranch homes, painted yellow, black shingles. Sliding glass doors looked out on a decent back yard. Someone kept it up. Strung across the yard was a clothesline, clothing hung from wooden pins and flapping in the breeze.

The sliding door opened, and a woman stepped out carrying a basket. She was large, ponderous breasts over an equally ponderous stomach, sturdy legs and arms, and a knot of steel gray hair perched on the top of her head. She wore long skirts and a patterned blouse, and her face was wrinkled, like earth broken with the weight of years. I could smell vodka and sweat on her even from the pines. It burned my nose, and I sneezed once to clear my nostrils. She looked up at the sound, but gave no indication she saw me as she clipped more laundry to the line.

I waited for her to turn her back, and crept from the pines, moving through the grass until I was just on the other side of the clothing. The door slid closed, and I passed the clothesline, pressing myself against the wall. I could hear the sound of the TV inside, and someone yelling. I held my breath and listened.

“”Worthless girl! This is all you bring home?” I heard the sound of a fist striking flesh, and a cry.

I peeked around the corner and could see the big woman hovering over Red, who had fallen to the ground. She had one arm up in defense. My stomach stirred – most out of anger, I think. Grandmother raised her fist again, and Red scooted back.

“Get out! Get out and don’t come back until you have another hundred!”

Red scrambled to her feet and disappeared around a corner. I heard the slam of a door and running feet. I wasn’t sure I should follow. I wasn’t sure I shouldn’t. But a hurt girl, alone – it didn’t seem right. I got to my feet and ran around the side of the building. The old woman was waiting for me. She stood, looking like a wall with arms, balled fists planted on her hips. I skidded to a stop and looked at her.

“What are you doing in my yard?” She asked.

I ignored the question and tried to go around her. She stuck and arm out and hit me in the chest – like you’d push a child. Turns out, she was strong. I flew back about five feet, hitting the grass with a thump, the breath knocked out of me. I wasn’t sure what the deal was, but she was not manhandling the Wolf without repercussions.

I stood and leapt at her, claws out – teeth bared. It’s as much about psychology as it is force. She cringed, and I hit her like a truck. Despite that, she didn’t go down. A part of me realized that she hadn’t moved. Another part of me had ripped a gouge down one side of her, and blood was gouting out. She didn’t make a sound and instead hit me again.

I twisted, taking the blow on my shoulder. Something popped in my arm, and I let out a howl. I hooked my good arm around her throat and dug in, my claws tearing at her carotid. Blood sprayed, and she started to waver. Her fist found my ribs, and I felt three of them shatter. I could see spots, a sign that it was time to finish it or retreat.

I extended my jaws and fit her head in my mouth. I started to eat, the old woman struggling the whole way. She went down like a live fish, her blood spraying my throat. She punched a couple of times on the way down, and I felt something give way.

Finally, she was down, and I sat on the grass, my breath coming hard.

*

“So, you did kill the old lady.”

“I told you this before. It was self-defense.”

“Huh. You know, we went to the address you gave us. The girl wasn’t there.”

“I’m telling you, I had nothing to do with that. I’ll cop to the grandmother, sure.”

“What happened after you ate her?”

“Someone hit me with a pipe. Or a shovel. I don’t know. Just heard a clang, and it was lights out. When I woke up, it was next to a bouquet of flowers and you kicking me in the ribs.”

The Huntsman was quiet for a minute. The Wolf eyed his axe in the corner. It was polished, the head sharp enough to scare him. Finally, the Huntsman sighed.

“Okay. Maybe I buy the self-defense story. Maybe I don’t. But the girl – where is she?”

The Wolf shrugged. “I. Don’t. Know.”

The Huntsman nodded. He stood and went to the door, knocking on it. It opened, and a uniformed cop stepped through.

“Take him back to the cell. Maybe some time will loosen him up.”

The cop eyed the Wolf, and then the Huntsman.

“It’ll be fine. Won’t it, Wolf?”

The Wolf nodded. The cop took him away.

*

Time spent in a cell is time that doesn’t seem to move. They came for him again what felt like hours later, though it could have just as easily been a few minutes. The cop who’d dropped him there led him through a different set of hallways until they came to another room. He led the Wolf in and shut the door behind him. A woman sat there, behind another wide metal table. She was dressed in a black pencil skirt and a no-nonsense blazer, her hair in a tight black bun. Horn-rimmed glasses, the frames the color of blood, perched on her nose. She smiled when he came in.

The Wolf paused and sat down. He took a deep breath.

“Red,” he rumbled.

“Wolf.”

“What now?”

She opened up the briefcase beside her and began to pull out paper. “Now we make things right.”

He smiled, teeth showing like white daggers. The smile turned into a chuckle and soon became a booming roar. The Huntsman heard it in his office and frowned. But that was the way of things. Sometimes justice was served in the strangest ways.

 

Interview

Here’s a short piece I wrote as an exercise in dialogue and scene building. I’m trying to figure out screenplays, and finding I have to learn them the way I learned novels – short stories to long form. It’s been an interesting lesson.

[FADE IN]

INT WAREHOUSE

KINKADE sits on a simple metal chair. A white backdrop hangs behind him. His hair is shoulder-length, hangs in his eyes. Every now and then he shakes his head and sweeps it out of his face. He fiddles with an unlit cigarette. He is tense – everything about him is sharp, all hard angles. He’s a switchblade waiting to spring.

KINKADE
I don’t think anyone thinks “When I grow up, I want to be a villain.” I mean, it’s a learned response.

INTERVIEWER (O.S.)
How so?

K
You know, the usual causes. Your parents were shitty, so you’re angry. Poor impulse control. Economic uncertainty. Make shitty decisions, win a shitty life.

I (O.S.)
Aren’t those just excuses?

Kinkade shrugs, pops the cigarette in his mouth, chews the end.

K
Sure, they could be. Or maybe they’re catalysts.

I (O.S.)
So tell me about yourself.

K
Me? (scoffs) Not a lot to tell. My parents were normal. Mom was a teacher, Dad was a – salesman? Some fucking thing. It was boring. I got average grades. I did average things. Sports, band. You know, the little shit that means a lot then, and nothing later. If kids realized how little all those things mean, we’d have a goddamn revolution on our hands. (laughs) Can you imagine? Che Guevara, ten-year-old.

I
So, what was it for you? You didn’t wake up one day and decide “This is what I’m going to be,” did you?

Kinkade shakes his head, his hair flopping. He scrapes it back, and pulls out a match, flicking it to life with his thumbnail. The head flares, and he sets fire to the smoke. He inhales, and blows out a plume. He raises one eyebrow.

K
You’re not going to tell me I can’t smoke in here?

I
Nope.

K
Huh. Anyway, what was it you asked?

I
How you got to be-

K
Right, why I’m fucked up. Sure.
(leans in)
So, you got your heroes, right?

I
Sure, there’s –

Kinkade waves a hand.

K
No, no need to give them airtime. They get plenty of that. Anyway. Look, these assholes in their suits with all their gadgets – how many people have that kind of money? Where do they get it? You think the city just gets patched up for free after they get into a brawl? You think there aren’t families out there getting hurt?

I got a theory. I think the same pricks who are ‘saving’ us are the same jackasses who make money from the cleanup. Take me, I ain’t got the best education, or a million dollar penthouse. You know I’m not one of them. Bet you can name at least three people who might be, though.

Money does stupid things to people. It makes them mean. It makes them selfish. It makes them weird. Ever ask one of the bystanders or their family if there’s a fund for widows and orphans? Fuck no. But there’s an orphanage. Guess who owns it?

You ever try to get a stable job in this city? Forget security or first responder. Those guys get the twelve-inch. Only real security’s in construction. How many times a week do these guys tear down at least one monument? Fuckin’ assholes. Too much work to go fight in the corn fields.

He takes a deep breath and chews on the end of the cigarette.

I
You mentioned family. Did you know someone who got hurt?

K
I know lots of people who got hurt.

I
You personally, though?

K
Yeah, me personally.

I
Who?

Kincade sits back and eyes the interviewer. His eyes are cold – almost black. The room seethes.

K
Someone important. That’s the last of those questions.

I
(clears throat)
What are you going to do?

K
Hold on. I’m curious. You’re broadcasting this, right?

I
Yes.

K
So, if I tell you, one of those caped idiots is going to swoop in and stop me, don’t you think?

I
I-maybe.

K
Interesting. You know what’s more interesting?

I
No.

K
They won’t do anything if I don’t do anything. Sure, I can say I’ll do something, and they might show up, question me, make my life hard. Maybe they stick me on a psych hold. But most – no, almost all – of them are Boy Scouts. At least until the actual fight. Then all those oaths and mottos and merit badges go out the window in the pursuit of justice.

(he takes a breath)
You ever see someone with a shattered pelvis? You ever see the way they weep?

I
No, I…no.

K
It’s like watching a wounded kitten. Sometimes they try to keep moving, to get away from the thing that hurt them. They cry and they crawl and they drag themselves inch by fucking excruciating inch until they can’t.

I
Did you see this? Is this what happened?

Kinkade ignores the question.

K
The ambulance is too slow. They’re crying – it’s the worst sound you’ve ever heard, a kind of wounded animal that can’t get enough breath.

I
What did you do?

K
What I had to.

There’s silence for several seconds. Kinkade tosses the cigarette away and crushes it out on the floor. He clears his throat, and picks up a bottle of water from off-screen, takes a sip.

I
What did you have to do?

K
That. Yeah. I’ll show you.

Kinkade stands, and moves – fast. The camera tracks him enough to see him wrap an arm around the interviewer’s neck. There’s a twist, and a loud snap, and the interviewer goes limp. Kinkade walks over to the white backdrop and pulls it down, revealing a wall of C-4. He sits down, picks up a detonator and lights a cigarette, then looks in the camera.

K
Come and get me, fuckos.

[FADE OUT]

 

Ferryman

Here’s an urban fantasy piece that might have gone somewhere, but I felt it was too weak. It’s an older bit, and kind of an exercise in character type and world-tinkering.

Ferryman

 

I drive the dead.  It’s a job.

 

If you were to ask how it started, I couldn’t answer.  The cab has always been there, just like the apartment on 34th, and the clients.  I’m always hard-pressed when I try to explain how or when it began, the gaps in my memory like dark chasms between neurons.  It’s the same black blank that comes to me when I try to make sense of the fact that I can see and speak with the dead, or that I should know the roads they travel.  After so many years, it just is, and I’ve learned to accept it.

 

Still, on some nights, when I’m sitting in the cab, and the meter’s off for a bit, in the silences that come between the drumming of rain on the roof, or the voice of a fare, I catch glimpses.  My mother, dressed in black, humming lullabies in a dim room, twilight filtering through.  My father, a hulking man, dark like mahogany, and depending on his mood, wearing either a fierce scowl, or a smile like moonlight.

 

It was one of those nights when she came to my cab.  Pale skin, the color of milk, and auburn hair that rippled and strayed in the wind.  She was wearing a knee-length dress, the kind of red that reminds you of dark roses, or wine.  She smiled through the window, her teeth straight and just white enough to let you know she’d lived, and got in.

 

My heart ached and let out a pang that let me know if she hadn’t already been gone, I would’ve never had a chance with her.

 

She got in, and closed the door behind her.  In the space of that second, I could hear the wind picking up, playing music on the concrete of the city while the rain increased its tempo against the roof of the cab, as though it wanted to go where she was.  More importantly, I could smell her.  Not in a creepy let-me-borrow-your-hair way, but in the way you notice someone when they pass by.

 

I could smell jasmine and vanilla, the wet musk of her hair, and the cloth of the dress that clung to her like a second skin.  I was trying not to stare in the rearview.  I reached for the meter, and stopped.

 

Her clothes were wet.

 

                You might think a thing like that shouldn’t surprise me.  The thing is, regular people, everyday people, with jobs and kids and mortgages, and most importantly, lives, don’t see the cab.  You only get a glimpse, a chance to ride if you’re already gone.  For this woman to get into my cab, she had to be very close, practically knocking on death’s door herself, and yet I saw only a healthy, rain-soaked lady.

 

I looked into the rearview again, and met her eyes.  They were the kind of dark green you only see on grass in the summer after a good rain.

 

“You sure you want this cab, miss?”  I looked for an excuse.  “I’m off-duty.  Should be another along in a few minutes.”

She smiled at my reflection.  “Yes, this is fine.  I’ll match half your fare if you can take me home.”

 

I thought about it.  I usually kept a pretty tight schedule, but it wasn’t like the dead were short on time.  I turned the heat up in the back a bit, and put the cab into gear.

 

“Where to?”

 

“42nd and Broadway.”  She said.

 

I eased into the street, traffic sparse that time of night.  The cab’s headlights cut the dark, revealed the edges of buildings, sidewalk, and asphalt, the white lines throwing back the light and glowing with a ghostlike quality.  Here and there pedestrians strolled beneath umbrellas, the glow of streetlamps making the black fabric glow in the night.

 

As I drove, I snuck quick glances into the rearview to check on the woman.  She stared out of the window, watching the city slip by.  Streetlight and neon lit her face in flashes as we passed.  She had begun to dry somewhat, though her hair still clung to her neck, and her clothing looked like it would be chilly if she stepped into the wind.

 

Despite her condition, her eyes had begun to droop, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before she was asleep.  I reached up and shut the meter off as quietly as possible, and heard her stir in the back.

 

I turned my attention back to the road, made a right, and drove on.

 

*

 

 

Bram Stoker once wrote that the dead travel fast.  Those dead had never come over the Jefferson Bridge at bar close.  I slowed the cab to a near halt, and waited for traffic to move along.  While I did, I kept an eye out for bicyclers who were crazy enough to still be riding this time of night and for the occasional case of road rage that might flare up and result in the cab being trashed.

 

What I said before – about the living not being able to see the cab.  It wasn’t exactly right.  The living can see the cab, in traffic, or in passing, but not when they’re looking for one.  They won’t go out of their way to hail me, or try to get in.  Most will even walk an extra few feet out of their way to avoid it.  To those people, the cab is dim, a shadow of a shadow in the waking world.  As a bonus, that instinct for the living to avoid it has kept my insurance premiums down.

 

I flicked a glance to the back of the cab.  The woman there slumped halfway between the seat and the window, her cheek pressed against the soft fabric.  I worried that she had passed, and I hadn’t noticed.  I watched for another moment, and saw her chest rise and fall, her pulse beating in the hollow of her throat.  I turned back to the road, and crept forward with the traffic.

 

As we moved, traffic began to thin, revealing a small crowd of uniforms and flashing lights ahead.  Behind an officer directing traffic, was a group of about five others, police and EMTs, gathered around a twisted wreck.  Blood ran from the passenger door, either torn or cut off from the accident.  It pooled on the asphalt, shimmering in the flashing emergency lights, darker than the rain.

 

Between two officers, a black bag lay on the ground, zipped closed.  They stood over it, watching the scene with cool detachment.  Neither could see the middle-aged bespectacled man dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, staring at the bag.  As I approached the officer directing traffic, the man looked up.  He raised his hand, and waved.  I shook my head and gestured at the back, and he let his hand drop.  The look on his face went from hopeful to annoyed, and then, as though he realized he had plenty of time, he nodded, and waved me off.

 

Like I said before, the dead understand.  They have all the time in the world.

 

The officer waved the cab through, and I took the right, moving toward the upper side of town, and the young lady’s home.  I still didn’t understand how she had found my cab.

 

*

 

I pulled onto 30th and Jewel, at the lower end of the shopping district.  Markets and boutiques, small bakeries and specialty shops nestled against one another here.  Tasteful awnings and big plate windows declared the names of the shops, and showed off their merchandise.  Out of the heavier traffic, I relaxed, and slowed the cab a bit.

 

With the meter off, most cabbies would have hurried their fare to the destination, regardless of altruism.  One off, one on, equals more money.  Unlike most cabbies and their fares, I had plenty of time, and no real money to make.  To be honest, the meter was more of an affectation anyways.  Besides, I was enjoying the quiet time.  The rain on the roof of the cab beat out a steady hypnotic rhythm, the woman in the back was sleeping contentedly, and also, she smelled nice.

 

I turned up a side street, and a pair of headlights that had been behind me for some time separated from the stream of cars and followed at a discrete distance.  Probably just a late-night window-shopper, I thought.  My gut knotted, and I doubted the idea.  I took a couple of more turns at a leisurely pace, so as not to let on I had seen the car.

 

I can’t explain why the car behind me, a late-model grey sedan, bothered me so much.  It wouldn’t be the first time I was followed, and probably wouldn’t be the last.  With so many people around, you’re more than likely to share a destination with more than one of them.  Maybe it’s just that I’m not dead yet, and don’t plan to be any time soon, if I can help it.  So, when trouble rears its head, which it does from time to time, I do the only thing I’ve ever really known.  I drive.

 

When zigzagging through the streets didn’t work, I picked a block and circled it, hoping the car behind me would think I just had a window-shopper on board.  He followed, still at a discrete distance, though I got the impression that he didn’t so much as care about being seen as he did about how I’d react.  For the situation being unnerving, I thought I was reacting well.

 

Ten minutes of driving aimlessly hadn’t shaken the car behind me, and I watched in the rearview as it began to gain ground.  The action made my mind up.  I sped up, and pushed the cab around the nearest corner, and then again, making a quick left and a right.  The sedan kept up, and inched closer.  Again, I whipped into a turn and a turn, and the grey car kept up.  In the back, the woman in red stirred in her sleep and murmured, but didn’t wake.

 

Clive Barker once wrote that the dead have highways.  I weighed my options, and did the only thing I knew.  I drove them.

 

*

                I took a left, turning off from the circle I had been driving.  Ahead, the road diverged, splitting into left and right forks.  The fork hadn’t been planned by an engineer, nor laid in a pique brought on by a panic triggered by a lack of roadway.  It was a secret road, laid by a divine hand, and it led to one of a hundred thousand afterlives.

 

I pulled onto the fork while it wended and wound its way between and around buildings, over the river, and past factories and homes.  The road ahead shimmered with a pale haze, as though it had been baking in the sun all day.  The city began to drop away, buildings and utility poles replaced with trees, the lights replaced with stars.

 

I glanced in the rearview, and nearly drove the cab into a small pond that had sprung up beside the road.  The grey sedan was still behind me, a feat that should’ve been impossible for anyone else.  It was still gaining, as well, and I put the pedal down, hoping to at least keep them at distance.  An alarm bell was going off in my head, and I shifted my gaze to the woman in the back seat.

 

She was still sleeping in that easy slouch, though it looked as though she were dreaming now, her eyes dashing out Morse code behind her eyelids.  Whoever she was, and whatever her situation, the alarm in my head was screaming this woman was Trouble, capital T, and if I didn’t get her home soon, I might be better off kicking her out on the side of the road somewhere.

 

I rejected that idea out of hand.  I may deal with the dead, but that doesn’t make me immune to compassion for the living.  Besides, my shallow side said, she’s gorgeous.  She was, at that.  I flicked a glance back at her one more time, taking in her delicate cheekbones, the gentle curve of her neck, and her full lips.  I swallowed hard, and returned to the road.

 

Not wanting to dump a damsel in distress off in the middle of nowhere left me with one option.  Get her home in one piece.  I glanced again at the sedan behind me.  For the first time, I noticed the windows were tinted, and what would normally be chrome on a car was a black matte that seemed to drink in the light.  Something about that one detail, the black instead of chrome, made me uneasy, made my stomach clench for the second time that night.

 

Around the car, the landscape changed in bits and pieces, as though sets were being rolled on and off an enormous stage.  Copses of trees came and went with small ponds and lakes, rivers and creeks.  Grass was replaced by tall waving stalks of wheat, mountains and rivers in the distance.  Here and there, stone benches and homes dotted the fields, and the night slipped to day, the rain tapering off.  The sun shone, and the air took on the hazy yellow quality of a high summer afternoon.

 

Men and women and children walked among the wheat and sat on the low stone benches.  They were young and old, dressed in togas and Victorian garb and modern clothes.  They spoke and gestured and laughed, and the children played in the sunlight.  Idyllic.  A soft sigh escaped me, and the woman behind me echoed it.

 

I checked the rearview, and noticed the sedan still there.  It made sense, in a way that nothing else about it did.  Elysium wasn’t exactly a dangerous road.  They would have nothing to fear here, no reason not to try to catch up, to waylay us.  Even as I watched, the car sped up again, and closed ground.  Curiosity led me to stay the accelerator, and I let them get closer.

 

The sedan sped into a car length, and I got a good look.  In addition to the tinted windows and the matte replacing the chrome, the car wasn’t a true grey.  What I had mistaken for grey was a mottled steel color, blotches of paint spreading across the surface like diseased skin.  Its headlights, which the driver hadn’t bothered to shut off since coming out of the rain, were a pale yellow, and its tires seemed to bulge and ripple, as though they were living things.

 

The sun shone through the windshield, piercing the tint for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of the driver.  A wide figure swathed in the interior shadows of the car, its head resembled that of a bat.  Pointed ears stuck up on either side of a face marked by small black eyes and a pug nose.  Then, we passed a copse of trees, and shadows filled the tinted glass again.  I turned back to the road and tried not to think too hard about what I’d seen.  Things like that only showed up on the deep trips, the ones where men and women with black souls went to burn.

 

I thought about the gun under the seat.  I didn’t keep it for the dead.  It wasn’t like a bullet was going to worsen their condition.  I wondered how it would affect the Neverborn, and hoped I wouldn’t need it.  I pressed the pedal down, and the cab leapt forward again.  Another thought entered my mind, and I wondered how long the engine would keep up.  The gas gauge still lay at three-quarters, and the tires still whispered against the asphalt with hardly a bump.

 

I looked around.  Elysium had always been my favorite destination, what I imagined true Paradise to look like.  The thing behind me didn’t belong here, and I had the feeling if I gave it the chance, it would stop, and wreak as much havoc as possible.  There were places it did belong, however, and I briefly weighed the safety of my passenger against the danger.  In the end, I decided the only safe route was through that danger.

 

Ahead, the road forked again, and I took it.

 

 

*

 

The road down is always quicker than the road up, though no easier.  We drove, and the blacktop began to show wear and cracks, small potholes and ridges in the asphalt.  The shimmer above the road took on a sinister reddish tint, and black clouds slipped over the sun.  Whoever designed the afterlife had a flair for theatrics.

 

As we drove, wheat and fields of grass and trees gave way to sere earth, cracks spreading through the dried sod.  Rivers and ponds became black and brown and brackish, and rocks and boulders replaced the smaller bushes and clusters of flowers.  Each feature of the landscape rolled in and out again, changing the face of the land as we drove, becoming more alien with distance.  Eventually, the cab rolled into a landscape dominated by grey spires of rock standing sentinel over black earth, the cracks glowing with a sullen red light.  Asphalt gave way to red rock, worn smooth over millenia.

 

The sedan behind us had begun to change as well, becoming a sleek grey thing, resembling a long spider with black legs and eyes, its driver a huge man-bat strapped to its back.  It scuttled and moved faster than its size indicated.  Even in the cab, I could hear the scuttle on the rock of the hooked bones that served as its feet.

 

I pushed the cab faster still, and she leapt forward one more time, though with a shuddering protest.  I knew any harder would kill her, and that would be the end.  Still, it wasn’t enough, and the scuttling of bone on rock became louder, the spider’s legs echoing in the landscape.  It reached one of its considerable legs up, throwing a shadow on the hood, and I juked the cab.

 

We zigged to the left, though not fast enough, and the leg came down.  Bone squealed against metal, making my eyes water.  It ripped a hole in the roof, and I tugged the wheel right, tearing free with another screech that set my teeth on edge.  Again it came, and again another hole was punched into the cab before I was able to shake free.  Through the opening above, I could hear the driver making wet grunting sounds in anticipation of the kill.

 

Ahead, the land dropped off, and the road narrowed.  I felt my pulse double as I realized the glow coming from below was fire – not lava, but true hellfire, and I realized where I had driven us.  Even as the cab approached the bridge, something huge and dark rose from the hellfire, wormlike, and slammed itself into the stone.  It turned toward us, its lower half disappearing into the depths, and its mouth opened, a nightmare of impossible angles and razor teeth.

 

A shadow fell across the hood again, and I did the only thing I could think of, a thing I had seen in Top Gun once.  I grabbed the emergency brake, while spinning the wheel.  The car slugged to a hard stop and began to spin.  I felt a weight slam into the seat behind me, and I prayed I hadn’t broken the woman’s nose.  I felt there was a very strong possibility that had she not been asleep, she would definitely be unconscious now.

 

When the cab hit a full one-eighty, I released the brake, and stomped the gas.  For a moment, it seemed the car was going to ignore my request and simply give up the ghost, and then the engine roared, and we shot in the other direction, and under the spider.

 

In the rearview, the spider had reached the bridge, but it was too late for the bat and the bug.  The thing on the bridge opened its mouth, and tentacles sprayed forward, wrapping around both, and pulling them in.  I drove on, with the screams of the damned echoing in my ears.

 

When the land had returned to trees and fields and lakes, I stopped the cab, and check on my passenger.  Still asleep, though a little askew in her seat.  I decided I didn’t want to wake her up quite yet, and started the engine.  We were almost there.

 

*

 

Country gave way to city, and city gave way to residential.  I pulled up to 42nd and Broadway, and cut the engine.  The rain had stopped, and I could see the stars through the holes in the roof.  Behind me, I heard a yawn, and looked in the rearview.

 

She stretched, and smiled back at me.  “Thank you so much for the ride.  How much do I owe you?”

 

She pulled out a wad of cash, and I waved it away.  “Don’t worry about it.  I ended up going a bit out of the way.  I’d hate to charge you for it.”

 

She smiled, shrugged, and put the money away.  A part of me was cursing over that.  The roof was going to cost an arm and a leg to repair.

 

She opened the door, and the wind caught her scent and swept it out of the cab.  It spread her hair, and moved her dress.  She walked to my window, and leaned in.  I could smell her – clean and sweet.  I wondered why they had wanted her, and consoled myself with the fact that you don’t always get answers out of life, poor consolation that it was.

 

She kissed me on the cheek, and walked to the entrance of her apartment, fishing the keys out of her purse.  When she had the door open, she turned one last time, and waved.  I returned it, and pulled out of the drive.

 

On Broadway, I took a right, back downtown, and toward an accident, and a middle-aged man in khaki.

 

After all, I drive the dead.

The City

We are, each of us, dying an inch at a time. It takes the slow creep of years for it to be noticeable. A clutch of crow’s feet here, a spatter of liver spots there, the white of snow on hair. Time is a weight, dragging us into the cold depths of age, and we are the body wrapped in chains, the breath crushed from us by icy water. Morte magis metuenda senectus. Old age should rather be feared than death.

If age is anathema to the human race, it’s the opposite for a city. It’s an invigorator, a shot of stimulant to an already thriving nervous system. Streets and walkways grow wider, their concrete built on the backs of the younger generation, the arteries of the city held up with rebar and lined with asphalt. Its buildings grow with time, wider and taller, reaching for their brothers, reaching to the sky. Its traffic becomes more efficient, sleeker, and cleaner, blood cells undergoing the dialysis of time. With each generation of dying inhabitants, the city gets a facelift – a new patina of chrome and granite and glass, suckling on the symbiotic relationship.

Still, there are places in the city where you can smell the rot. You can see behind the patina and smell the sulfurous eggs and dead refuse of its breath. You can see the suppuration of gangrene on an otherwise healthy limb. It’s the sort of thing that had a doctor examined the patient, he’d recommend amputation. It’s the sort of thing that’ll do a man’s head in if he lets it. If he only stands by and smells the stink and ignores it, just another stranger on the train, never mind that poor sap in the gutter.

I already knew the sap in the gutter. Her name was Rosalind. Someone had taken a straight razor to her throat, and her life pooled around her head like a sanguine halo. Neon reflected in the blood, garish pinks and greens tinted with the remnants of her life. I flicked my cigarette into a nearby puddle and crouched, looking close. She was like the others, pale and lovely and dumped in the street like trash. No other marks marred her body – aside from her throat, she was as pristine as new snow. Well, that wasn’t necessarily the truth, but considering her state, I wasn’t about to quibble details.

I stood and looked at the nearby bar, a dive called Paddy’s. The neon glow came from there, throwing its colors onto the sidewalk in a way that said it cared as much for propriety as it did for what the clientele did under its sign. I walked over, pushing on the plywood that passed for a door. A bell tinkled over the threshold, and the smells of stale beer, sweat, and desperation hit me in the face like a two-ton weight. I passed through the doorway and lit another cigarette, letting the smoke burn the scent from my lungs. The smoke pooled around me in the still air like stagnant water. I pushed my way past the brooding and half-conscious patrons and stepped up to the bar.

The bartender was big – I’d call him half a mountain, but I was pretty sure that this guy made mountains insecure. The voice in my head spoke up.

Beirut, ’82. Killed a kid. Thought he was carrying a bomb. Didn’t use a gun.

It was that last part that made me worry for my safety. For the sake of appearances though, I leaned in. What is it the kids say? Fake it ’til you make it?

“Hey, Everest.” The voice in my head made a choking sound. “You see anything weird outside tonight?”

He looked up, the slope of his brow dropping like an avalanche. I wondered briefly if I should have given him a nickname. I wondered if all my thoughts were going to be brief if I kept taunting this guy. He fixed me with a stare that said my sense of humor was like my guts – better kept inside. After a minute, he shook his head.

“Ain’t seen nothin’, man.”

I ignored the double negative, but I could hear English teachers screaming around the world.

“Nothing? A girl gets cut up not a hundred feet from your door, and you didn’t even hear a scream?”

He shrugged. “Gets loud in here.”

I strangled my own scream of frustration and turned to the room. It wasn’t what I’d call a jumpin’ joint –

Who would?

– but there were a few patrons. Just the usual fare – an old man with a beard as long as his face sleeping in a puddle of drool, a half-glass of some dark brew still in his hand; a couple of skinheads, and a group of dockworkers still in overalls and wool caps. Despite the amount of beer fumes in the air, and the rough clientele, the place was quiet. I was worried it was my personality, and then realized these guys couldn’t see a rose in a field of shit. I raised my voice, but not much. I didn’t want to break up the funereal atmosphere they had going.

“Any of you know anything about the girl in the gutter outside?”

They tipped their heads down, looking into their drinks as if they had answers. Apparently none of them did, because no one looked back up.

“Shitheels,” I muttered.

One of the skinheads must’ve caught that, because he looked up. He rose, half up from his seat. The voice in my head used my mouth.

SIT, BOY.”

The words reeked of age and a rage you couldn’t suppress with ten tons of concrete. There was also command, the kind that comes from expecting others to obey as a birthright. It was a voice you didn’t ignore. It tickled the hindbrain, made the lizard part of people squirm in the best circumstances, and downright wish they’d worn the brown pants in the worst. It was a voice you especially didn’t sass. The skinhead sat back down. The voice chuckled in my head and made a note.

Silas. 28. Likes to kill cats. Once threatened a black man with a knife in a Whole Foods. Saturday.

Today was Thursday. I nodded to myself and left the bar. Outside, the rain had steadied to a gentle patter. It was cold, the bite of autumn on the drops. I flicked the cigarette butt away and looked around. Sometimes your first stop is a goldmine. Others, you get bupkis. It happens. When it does, you lean on your contacts, whether it’s the cops or the press or others. In this case, the ball was firmly in the court of the others. The girl had family once upon a time, though these days maybe it was just the memory of family. Chances were the cops would never notice her missing. Chances were no one would after a week. I knew I couldn’t get justice. But I could get revenge.

I stalked off down the street, knowing my next stop.

*

In some parts of the city, you get a weird symbiosis. Gothic liquor stores. Conservative strip clubs. Neon churches. The Church of the Holy Redeemer was the last. It sat on the edge of what they called Skid Row, and WASP territory, and was an old department store someone had converted into a church with some nice siding, a few bushes out front, and a neon Jesus on the sign. The pastor in charge was someone I’d always liked. I suppose the voice liked him, too. It was always quiet around him.

He greeted me when I walked in the door.

“How are ya, Jimmy?”

I shook his hand. “Good, Frank. Hey, I need the church for a few. Are there any devout I have to worry about disturbing?”

He looked over his shoulder and dropped my hand. “No, should be empty. The ladies won’t be by to clean for a few hours.”

He never asked why I needed to be alone. He just shut the doors behind me and let me do my thing. I think it had something to do with a small matter of extortion I’d cleared up for him a while back. Some people you have to teach the proper way the collection plate works. Either way, it was one of the only places I could meet my contact. I walked past him into the nave and heard the doors close behind me.

Pews lined up like supplicants, facing the pulpit. Behind it hung a large plaster Jesus, the neon man’s twin. Like so many of them, the statue was nailed to the cross, wound in his side, crown of thorns. His eyes turned upwards, though whether in beatification or suffering I never could tell. It always seemed to me that there’s a fine line. I approached the statue and sat on the edge of the baptismal. I waited. The voice in my head began to hum something I didn’t recognize.

Minutes passed, and I was about to leave, thinking my contact wouldn’t show today. I stood, and the statue creaked, the plaster suddenly pliable. I looked up and saw blood trickling from the wounds, thin streamers that pattered to the floor in soft drops. I looked to the face. The eyes rolled slowly in their sockets, as though searching for something, or trying to escape the pain. The statue opened its mouth.

“Jimmy. Make it quick.”

“Someone’s cutting up girls and leaving them lay. I need to find him.”

A moan escaped the statue, and its eyes rolled back until I could only see the whites. It was like looking at fried eggs. Silence, punctuated by the occasional moan pervaded the church. I sighed. Having a daemon on retainer was useful, but it would’ve been nice if someone on the other side would’ve invented Google already. Finally, the statue’s eyes rolled back, and it fixed me with a stare that could’ve boiled noodles.

“Somewhere around Ninth and Bleeker. He was a bastard to find, Jimmy.”

I nodded. “How long do I have?”

“About three hours.”

I looked up at the statue, and reached into my jacket, where I kept payment – a small vial of blood. “Thanks.”

I dropped the vial behind the baptismal, and looked up to see if the daemon had seen it, but the statue was still again. I shrugged and left the nave. Father Frank had beat feet, so I left the way I’d come, the voice in my head humming again.

*

Ninth and Bleeker was a shithole that made other shitholes look like the Ritz. It smelled of garbage and despair, the Steak Oscar of scents. Turned out the building I was looking for was the only one suitable for habitation. It was a squat duplex with a brick facade and a rotting awning over the picture window. I knocked on the door and wiped my hand on my shirt. The man who answered was small, bald, and wearing wire-rim glasses. He squinted at me through the glass. He smelled like piss and vodka.

Titus. 45. Killed Angelica Cortez, Rosalind Peters, Sharon Goldman, the list goes on. This is the guy. Let me out.

I ignored the request for a moment, and instead stuck out my hand and put on a smile that felt as fake as plastic dog shit.

“Mr…?”

He took my hand and pumped it. My skin tried to crawl away.

“Volstock,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“You have an aunt…”

Cathy

“Cathy?”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry to inform you she’s passed away.”

No emotion passed his eyes. I cleared my throat.

“There is fortunate news, however. She left some of her possessions to you. May I come in, and we can discuss them?”

He looked up and down the street, and then back at me. He seemed satisfied I was who I said, and stepped aside. I entered the house. It was dim inside, but not dirty, despite his smell. Everything was just so, the threadbare carpet well vacuumed, the tables and shelves dusted, the furniture coated in plastic covers. It looked like the world’s best-preserved grandmother’s house. I heard the door close behind me and turned. Just in time to see Titus come at me with a knife.

LET ME OUT

I stepped out of the way of his lunging advance and let go, the presence in me pouring out like smoke. Titus saw it and stopped mid-swing, stepping away from the inky pool on his carpet. I could feel it pouring from every hole in my head. He began to back away.

“What the fuck is this?” His voice betrayed a tremor. Finally, emotion.

The pool coalesced, and something began to rise from it. Something tall and horned and the color of hot tar. Its eyes burned orange, and its hands ended in wicked talons. He tried to run, but tendrils of smoke that formed around the thing like a skirt reached out and grabbed his ankles. I could smell burning cloth and flesh as they began to sear through his clothes. They pulled him toward it, and now he was weeping; now he was screaming, more tendrils wrapped around his head, and the noise cut off as his flesh was welded shut. They pulled him to the thing in the middle of the room, and lifted him. His eyes went wide, and I could see the tiny veins in their whites.

My companion, the thing in my head that was now the thing in the world, reached its clawed hands into his chest and pulled out his heart like a child removing macaroni from a picture frame. Blood and gore splashed the room, enough to form a small wave as it rolled across the carpet. The thing, that ancient thing called Legion, dropped the body and dissipated; becoming roiling smoke that once again flowed back into me. When the smoke cleared, it sat in my head, and hummed. I left the way I came.

I reflected as I walked along the dilapidated rows of factories and homes. If age is a weight, 4000 years is a fucking Mack truck tied to your ankles. In that time, I’ve learned three things. One – it’s easier to find God than a conscience. Two – sometimes the dead don’t stay dead. Three – life wears steel-toed boots, and will kick you in the balls first chance it gets. In a world like that, you don’t always get justice. But with age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes knowing that revenge is sometimes all you can hope for. Sometimes, it’s all this world deserves.