IN MY DREAM, I see myself standing on a precipice, overlooking a great chasm like a black wound cleaving the earth. I can’t see across it. I’m only able to make out a faint smudge on the horizon. There’s no bottom to it, only an infinite descent into darkness. My toes creep over the edge, and I wobble. I’m pushed from behind by a fitful gust of wind that carries the smell of old ash. I spend too much time thinking about what it would be like to tumble forward, to give in to the wind and let myself fall. To plummet down into the darkness. I’m tired and it feels like it would be easy. But as I teeter there on the edge, my heart lurches and I stumble back.
“Hey, Thomas, we’re back. Wake up.”
I’m shaken and it shatters the dream. It fades away, and I’m back in the front seat of the Cadillac, my face pressed against the window. Wakefulness brought with it awareness, inch by inch. The glass was cold against my cheek. I saw a vast, slate-gray sky and muddy fields beyond, and I ached in more places than I could count.
“Dammit, Swift,” I groaned and sat up, stretching and wincing when my back popped in protest. “I told you to shoot me and dump my body in a field.”
“No such luck.” He smiled from the driver’s seat. He had lost his sunglasses at some point, and his hair was a wreck. “Still work to do, right? You have to dispose of that idol so the dog men from the swamp can’t ever use it again to make an army of hideous freaks.”
I experienced an awful moment of lucidity as Swift spoke. As I processed his words, the things actually coming out of his mouth, I thought about my life. I tried to laugh but ended up cringing, my arms wrapped around my aching ribs. “All right, all right. Fine. Jesus.”
It was an ugly morning after an ugly night. Which followed after an unending number of ugly days. Winter had been a vicious thing, wetter and colder than any before it in recent memory. My home felt like something out of horror movie as we approached. Squat and rough-hewn from grey stone, its murder-hole windows glared out at the world. The gnarled old ash my great-grandfather planted towered over it all. Bare and blackened limbs reached out like gnarled hands in every direction.
I pulled my satchel up from the floorboard and settled it on my lap. I turned to look at the tree. “Pull up to the tree. I’ll feed Gus.”
Swift tossed me an unpleasant look. A heavy frown. But he slowed the car down to a cruise as he approached the tree. Gravel made a rolling staccato as we went. A hundred tiny shotgun blasts under the tires. As we pulled closer, a shape stirred under the branches and rose. A goat. It shook itself off as it stood. All shaggy fur and curling horns, its eyes locked onto the car and watched as we approached.
“I hate that thing, Thomas,” Swift said in a hushed voice. “I really do.”
“Aw, but he loves you.” I managed to crack something like a tired smile.
“He doesn’t love me, he wants to eat me.”
I laughed a little. “Just drop me off here, I’ll feed him and meet you inside.”
Swift nodded, and the Caddy rolled to a stop. I felt around in my satchel for a moment, then unbuckled and jumped out. Swift waited for the door to close behind me before he was off down the lane again. I shook my head and sighed, then looked over to the goat.
It stamped an impatient hoof at me, staring.
“Morning, Gus.” I waved. “Got something for you.”
The goat stamped again. Its hoof sent up a little cloud of dirt. A length of blackened iron chain bound it to the tree. It licked its lips. Its eyes locked onto my satchel. It took a small step forward and made a quiet, hungry bleating sound.
“Yeah, you know what’s coming, don’t you?” I inched my way forward while reaching a hand into my bag.
It tended to be full of all the things a dedicated practitioner of the arcane arts might need. My fingers brushed against stumps of chalk and candles. There was an old notebook with tattered pages. Its edges had gone soft with wear. There were other things, but I stopped when I got to a hard, lumpy object.
I pulled out a crude statue carved to resemble—charitably—a rotund woman. The wide spread legs revealed fanged genitalia. Massive, distended breasts hung down over the belly. The face, though, resembled a wolf. Or maybe a dog. The mouth was open and howling, pointing upward. Whether in agony or joy, I’d never know. But the thing was hideous. A cult of shape-shifting mutants had been using it to turn kidnapped victims into mindless beasts.
Swift and I had found them trying to build an army for who knew what crazy reason.
Gus bleated. I looked up from the statute to see the goat had moved to the limits of its chain, stretching it taut. It stamped its hooves back and forth on the ground in an impatient little dance. A long pink tongue flashed out, and it licked its lips again.
“All right, all right. Breakfast time, you weird-ass thing.” I tossed the statue into the air.
It landed and tumbled along the ground, rolling right up to Gus. The goat cried in triumph and dug in, chomping at the ugly idol. There was a noise. Something invisible popped. Somewhere far away, I heard the echo of power fading. I gave it a moment. Waited. In a few seconds, Gus finished. It devoured every last splinter of the statue.
Without so much as a thank you, it turned around and trotted back to its bed among the roots of the ash tree.
“Yeah, you’re welcome,” I mumbled before turning to head to the house.
The Cadillac sat out front. Mud covered the car. A night of tearing through the countryside had left it in desperate need of a wash. I noticed a tiny little hybrid electric car next to it. It looked like an overgrown roller skate with delusions of grandeur. One of those things the commercials say can run for ten million miles on a teacup of gas. Someone had decided it would be a good idea to paint it a putrid shade of green, somewhere between sea foam and pea-soup vomit.
I frowned. “Dang it.”
For a moment, I wondered how hard it would be to scale the walls. I could try to break in through my window. It was an old building. Over a hundred years ago an insane wizard, my great-grandfather, built the thing in the style of a fortress. It could stand up to the monstrous forces of the Other Side, and then some. Colossal stone blocks made up the walls. Rough and brutal, the whole thing stood like a squat gargoyle on the landscape. The front door was imposing, a slab of metal on industrial hinges. A series of locking bolts went down one side. My personal addition to the house.
I decided to get it not long after my great-grandfather came back from the dead. He blew the old door off the hinges. Then he tried to murder me and my friends.
I sighed and squared my shoulders. “No way around it, then.”
Swift had left the door unlocked when he went in and used the magic password to drop the house’s other defenses. I whispered them back to life after I opened it and slipped inside. I glanced around the gloom of the entryway. I strained my ears and listened…I couldn’t hear anything.
Which meant Swift either made it to safety or got waylaid and made victim to an unfortunate fate. I took a cautious step forward, and another, making my way down the dim hallway. I passed the living room and poked my head in. Nothing. The TV and lights were off.
I continued along and stopped dead in my tracks when a sound further ahead, from the kitchen, caught my ears.
“Oh no,” I whispered and held my breath.
Laughter. People were laughing. More sounds came to me as I listened. Talking and moving about.
“Damn it.” I hung my head.
“I know you’re out there, brujo,” a voice called out from the kitchen. “Get your ass in here and eat breakfast.”
I stayed quiet. If I didn’t say anything, if I made a run for it, I could make it. Then the smell hit me, and my stomach made the decision. It growled, and I doubled over in hunger.
“Damn it,” I said again.
I was five kinds of exhausted, but breakfast smelled amazing. I dragged myself into the kitchen and squinted at the lights. There was a large, ancient wooden table off to one side of the room with more chairs around it than was necessary. Most the folks who lived in the house ate in their rooms.
There are an awful lot of counters and cabinets. My mother had been something of a professional hobbyist when it came to the culinary arts. The kitchen was her sanctuary.
In recent years, the microwave saw more use than anything. At least from me. I was a master at cooking an assortment of noodle dishes, both in and out of Styrofoam cups.
But today, someone else dominated the kitchen. A terrible force of nature.
She stood at the stove with her back to me, working over a skillet of bacon while many other things simmered on the flames nearby. Her hair had been pulled up into a severe bun, but she wasn’t wearing her work clothes. Instead of her usual denim coveralls, she wore a floral-printed dress that cut-off below her knee. It was bizarre. Not what I was used to.
I shot a look over at Swift. He sat at one of the barstools along the counter, hunched over a plate piled high with bacon and eggs, shoveling food into his mouth. He spared me a glance and shrugged.
“What day is it?” I scratched my head and pulled up a stool next to Swift. “You don’t have work today?”
“Sunday, brujo,” Rosa said without turning to look at me. She reached over to flip an egg in a skillet with a practiced hand. “No work today but the Lord’s work. Church. You should go. Good for you soul.”
I feigned gagging as I sat down. A steaming carafe of fresh coffee sat nearby, next to some empty mugs. I poured myself a cup and cradled it in my hands. It smelled dark and heavy. Rosa made coffee strong enough to stand up on its own. Strong enough to make a dead man twitch.
A few heaping spoons of sugar rounded it out.
“Maybe next week?” I sipped at the coffee and sucked in a breath. It was about the same temperature as boiling lava. I sipped it again. “Today I was thinking a nap, possibly a movie?”
Rosa turned around, wielding a skillet in each hand. One loaded down with bacon, the other with eggs. She had a face that resembled a hatchet. Or a bird of prey. Fierce, dark eyes peered out of a tanned face, taking in everything.
She had been living with me ever since I destroyed her house. I mean, I didn’t actually destroy it. A pair of rampaging ogres did that. But they were technically after me when they did.
Despite everything else, she was an amazing cook and a compulsive cleaner. In the last few months, I’d eaten better and my house had been in better condition than it had in years.
Swift continued shoveling food into his mouth. He used a slice of buttered toast to mop up the yolk and scraps.
“Maybe find a minute to clean that dump you call a room.” Rosa speared me with a withering glare. “You know Hack’s been wanting to get you out in the garden, too.”
I did my best to pretend I was listening. I nodded and grunted while loading up a plate before digging in. I didn’t realize I was so hungry until the first bite. When I tried to remember the last time I ate, I drew a blank.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I mumbled around a mouthful and slurped up coffee.
“So, what the hell had you out all hours this time?” Rosa leaned against the counter. She cradled a cup of coffee close to her face, under her chin. Her gaze locked on me and didn’t waver.
The weight of that stare transfixed me. I forced down the mouthful I’d been working on and sighed.
“Mad cult of mutant dog shape-shifters trying to take over the town with an army of mindless slaves.” I shrugged.
She made the sign of the cross with one hand. “This town, I swear.”
Swift chuckled, done with his food. He sat back in his seat. “Tell me about it.”
I shot them both a look. “Maybe things have been getting a little out of hand lately. But hey, no horrific cosmic gods of destruction or their monstrous servants have come knocking. Yet. It could be worse, right?”
I sighed. “Okay. Yeah, things are really starting to come off the rails.”
“This is the second time this month that someone or something has nearly destroyed the town.” Rosa gathered up the dirty dishes and put them in the sink. “Something’s up.”
“It is all getting to be a bit much,” Swift added.
“You can thank my great-grandpa for that.” I stared at my empty plate and cup. “When he killed Devlin, he took out the only thing keeping all the other monsters in check.”
“Folks are going to start noticing.” Swift ran a hand through his hair. It all bounced back in a disheveled mess. “It’s getting dangerous.”
“People are already talking.” Rosa kept her hands busy rinsing off dishes at the sink. “They whisper. Talk about monsters. You need to do something, brujo.”
“I need to do something?” I sputtered. “Like what, exactly? I’m doing the best I can trying to put out the fires I can get to.”
Rosa turned around and marched her way to me. She spun me around on my stool to face her. You could call her diminutive—if you didn’t value your life. My blood turned to water in the face of her seething glare.
“Fix it,” she said, each syllable like a hammer driving a nail.
“All right.” I raised my hands as if to ward off an incoming blow. “I’ll do…something.”
“Good.” She nodded once and then turned away on her heel. “I’m going to church. You clean your room, it’s disgusting. I’ll be back later. Swift, we’re having dinner tonight. Clean yourself up, you look terrible.”
She swept out of the kitchen and down the hall like a whirlwind. A moment later, I heard the door slam shut and she was gone.
“Think I’m going to go back to my place, grab a shower, and take care of some things.” Swift stood and straightened his jacket. He reached out a hand and patted me on the shoulder. “Try to get some rest, Thomas.”
I nodded as he left.
I found myself in the kitchen, staring at an empty cup of coffee. The rising sound of static filled my ears.