Blood and Brimstone, Next 25 Pages

The end is nearly here. Get caught up and read the next 25 pages below.


While his sister obsessed over the books, Dale made good on his promise to himself and began the process of starting a band. He used the money he saved from cooking meals on base to put a deposit down on an apartment in Escondido. He thought living off base would be important to him pursuing music. Once he was settled in, he downloaded Garage Band on his computer, bought a high quality microphone, and recorded several demo tracks, cover versions of his father’s songs. He posted ads on craigslist and local musician sites. When the ads yielded no results other than spam, he had a stack of business cards made and started going to local clubs where live music was advertised.

The first musician he met was Lyle Reeves, a long-haired kid with birdlike features who sipped bourbon on the rocks. Dale approached Lyle because he liked the kid’s Deaf Heaven tee-shirt. They hit it off pretty quickly since they both came from the northeast. Living in San Diego, Lyle missed having seasons; Dale did not. Lyle thought Dale’s decision to enlist was admirable, really cool, and something he could never do. Lyle had moved to San Diego for a girl. Dale said he totally understood that, said he was looking to start a band for the same reason, sort of. Turned out Lyle played guitar.

“But everyone’s a fucking guitarist, so you need me to play bass, fuck it. I’ll do it.”

“Just don’t bail on me when a guitar-playing gig comes up.”

“I wouldn’t do that. You seem cool.”

Dale handed him a business card and a demo CD. Three days later, they sat down at Dale’s house to improve upon the songs. Lyle had thought the tuning was cool and had already sketched out some rough bass lines. It was a good thing Lyle was okay with following, because Dale’s playing still needed some polishing. After almost twenty minutes, they fell into a nice groove. Halfway through a song, they synced perfectly, and the lights went out.

———-

Finding a drummer proved more difficult. Lyle had been right in his assessment that everyone’s a fucking guitarist, but all of the drummers Dale met were already committed to two, sometimes three bands. He put out more ads, went to shows, and asked other musicians if they knew anyone. Lyle did the same. After weeks of coming up empty, Dale and Lyle just went in on a vintage drum machine and opted to use it until they found a flesh and blood drummer.

During this time, Dale thought a lot about Melissa. He wondered where she was, and if she was alive. He called the local police in Pennsylvania to check if anything turned up. His calls were met with tones of clinical indifference, despite words of sympathy and insistence that they “understand how difficult this must be.”

She came to him in dreams where they would drive to the beach, and he would watch her kneel before the waves as they splashed over her head and shoulders, flattening her raven hair against her face. Sometimes her eyes and a smile would peek through her wet hair and give him a warm feeling. In the dreams, he would know she had been missing and would want to ask her where she had gone and why. But ultimately, he would choose not to ask. He much preferred just relishing their time together.

Each night he woke up empty. The warmth replaced by intense body heat, as if in the grip of a fever. Sometimes he cried, but mostly he just wished he could. The pain didn’t go away when he and Lyle played music, but it felt more meaningful, like an offering for the ritual, for his communion with the spiritual. Even with the tinny beatbox backing up the guitars, the music took on a soul of its own, he and Lyle serving as mere conduits.

The lights went out more often than not. He thought maybe it was faulty wiring, overwhelmed by him and Lyle using too much power, but the landlord’s electrician said he found nothing wrong with apartment’s breakers. Maybe the electrician was just seeing what the landlord wanted him to see, but Dale wasn’t so sure. He felt crazy thinking it, but it crossed his mind more than once that his apartment might be haunted. 

Elsewhere…

When he opened his eyes, Windom was in another state and it was nighttime and the Devil was long gone, leaving behind a smoking pile of charred goat bones. Windom bent to kiss the blackened skull and licked the ashes from his lips.

———

Carlyle never did call back and never answered his phone either. Ruthanne started to think about Katie’s warning that people who spread the knowledge within the books would be killed. A silly prospect, sure, but whenever she lay awake in the dark and heard a shuffling in her backyard or walked an empty street alone, it didn’t seem so silly.

Four nights after her session with Katie, she tried Carlyle one more time. She hung up after four rings, tired of leaving the same voicemail. She tried reading to take her mind off things and when that didn’t work she called Jarvis.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Netflix and chill with my girl, Gracie.” Gracie was his cocker spaniel.

“Guess that means you don’t feel like coming over.”

“You really should consider getting a dog.”

Why the hell does he have to make everything a joke? “Do you want to come over or not?”

“You must need me bad.”

“Shut up. Forget I asked. Have Gracie lick your balls tonight.”

“Hey, Ruthanne.”

She hung up on him. Jarvis wasn’t exactly her boyfriend. She saw enough dissatisfied married people in her practice to know that commitment didn’t appeal to her, but she liked having him as a go-to on nights she didn’t feel like being alone. Nights like tonight.

She set her phone down and switched on the television in hopes that reruns of Outlander would distract her. There was nothing like hot guys and historical settings to help her forget her troubles.

In the middle of a particularly boring sex scene, someone knocked on the door. Ruthanne jolted. For a second, she feared the worst: some home invader rapist had decided to pay her a visit. As more seconds passed, she thought the knocker was a drunk who had inadvertently come to the wrong house. After ten seconds, she reached the logical conclusion that Jarvis had decided to come over after all. Part of her didn’t want to let him in. Out of spite for him making her needs a joke, she considered letting him stand out there all night.

Another knock piqued her curiosity enough to at least pause the television, come to the door and see who it was. If it was Jarvis, she would let him sweat it out. If it was a drunk who stumbled to her doorstep by mistake, she would tell him he has the wrong house and ask him to leave. If he didn’t honor her wishes, she would call the police.

She peered through the peephole.

No one was there.

Kids. She hadn’t thought of that: some neighborhood kids looking to have a little fun playing knock-knock, zoom-zoom. Figures, she thought.

She half-turned away from the door and someone knocked again. She tensed and brought her eye back to the peephole. Again, no one was there.

“Jarvis, if that’s you I’m gonna sell Gracie to a dogfighting ring.” She waited. “Jarvis?”

Nothing. She remained in position, tried to breathe quietly, listen for anything.

Voices broke through the silence from somewhere inside the house.

Ruthanne yelped. She spun and scanned her surroundings. Jarvis didn’t have a key and even if he did, the voices didn’t sound like his. A male and female talking back and forth. About movies. On demand.

She tromped to her TV. No longer paused, the television had switched to her cable provider’s guide channel and the associated advertisements. She shook her head and gave a dry laugh and picked up the remote to switch off the television she heard another knock. She killed the TV.

“I’m calling the cops, asshole,” she said.

She went to her closet and pulled the .357 her father gave her as a housewarming gift from the top shelf. She made sure it was loaded and went to the dining room to fish her phone out of her purse.

“You can put the gun down. I just want to talk.”

Ruthanne froze. The voice was cool, level. The words came through crystal clear despite coming from behind the muffling door.

“Then why the horror movie theatrics?”

“It’s all part of the ritual, dear. I see no point in questioning it, long as the rituals work. Now, are you going to open this door?”

She aimed the gun at the entrance. “Fuck. No.”

“Now, dear, there’s no reason to use that sort of language. As I said, I just want to talk. Seems you have some information I need. Harmless enough, right?”

Ruthanne took one hand from the gun and reached into her purse. Her fingers closed around her phone’s smooth edges. The knob of her front door jiggled. She panicked. Dropped the phone, put both hands on the gun, and fired, once, twice. Two splintered holes opened on the door.

Her skin got hot. She broke out in sweats. Legs wobbled. She nearly collapsed.

“Oh, God,” she said.

She never expected to use the gun, let alone on another person. In the ensuing seconds, her emotions dipped and peaked from the horror at possibly taking another human life and relief for her safety against a potentially deadly intruder.

She crept to the door. Outside the holes, she saw her porch was empty. She reached for the knob but didn’t lower the gun. She realized too late she left her phone in the kitchen.

No big deal. Someone else heard the shots. Someone else called.

She unlocked the door and turned the knob. The door pushed in on her. One hand grabbed her wrist and twisted, wresting the gun from her grasp. Another hand closed over her mouth. She was forced back into the living room, over the edge of her area rug, and pinned to the floor.

The man on top of her was lean and sandy-haired and incredibly strong. His youthful features remained calm as he restrained her. His soft baby blues unsettled her most of all; they examined her in a clinical, calculated way, no different than if she were a specimen in a petri dish, in a way she hoped she never came across to her patients.

Sirens sounded in the distance.

Thank God. Someone called.

Dear God, please get her in time.

Get here before he kills me.

“I do apologize for barging in like this. If only you would have let me in, I wouldn’t have to be so,” he paused to consider his word choice, “forceful.”

The sirens were getting closer, but not nearly fast enough. She squirmed beneath him. Her free hand clubbed his shoulder. Her muffled screams sprayed saliva on his palm.

The man took his hand away and suspended the palm in front of her eyes. She inhaled to prepare another set of screams, but her breath caught at the image drawn on his hand. It was the image Katie had drawn, the one from the book, the one she had scanned to Carlyle the other day. She thought about what Katie had said, how people who shared the books without permission would be killed. The idea had seemed so ridiculous then, but now so real, so unavoidable, she feared death loomed mere seconds away.

In her field, she sometimes wrestled with existential questions and often treated people who obsessed over many of the same issues. She knew that most of the time, death was seldom planned, often coming on the heels of a sudden shift—control of a vehicle lost, rapidly spreading cancer, a gunman choosing your work or school as a place to make a final, violent statement—and nothing ever really prepared you. Panic overtook her. She thrashed beneath her assailant, tried biting his hand as it lowered to her forehead.

When he touched her, everything went warm. Her skin tingled. Something pulsed before her eyes, a fire full of contorted faces. She smelled singed hair. Her body wanted to writhe, to fight free, but paralysis had overtaken her.

What happened next was invasive. Worse than any home intrusion, as bad as any rape, something entered her mind, explored the deepest caverns of her thoughts. Tore memories from her, desires and fears, secret knowledge, forgotten childhood moments. This was worse than death. 

———-

Jake opened the door and Katie stood on the other side. He had dreamed of this moment when she would come back into his life, only in his dreams, it was nighttime and raining, not the sort of bright, warm afternoon where it felt like nothing important could ever happen. She stood there on his porch holding one of those damn books in one hand and her purse over one shoulder. She wore no makeup, didn’t need any. A loose pony tail held her hair back. The hem of her flowery dress danced above her knees.

She smiled.

They just stared at each other, taking each other in, washed in the purity of silence.

He didn’t speak, didn’t need to, and he stood still until he no longer could. Then he stepped forward and embraced her. She still felt way too thin, like she wasn’t eating enough, but her skin was warm. Vibrant energy flowed between them. He thought, for the first time in months, that maybe things would finally be okay. Okay with them, but more importantly, okay with her.

It hurt too much watching her withdraw, watching her obsess. He had reached a point where he doubted he could be any help staying with her. Thought it would be better to leave her to herself. Figured that if given time, she would reemerge from the dark. He knew she was strong enough.

As he held her, he hoped that she had.

Five minutes later, they were sitting on the sofa in his apartment, water for tea boiling in his kitchen. They still hadn’t said anything. He wanted to let her start. She wouldn’t have come unless she needed to talk.

She waited until he went to check on the water and came back with two mugs of peppermint tea. She smiled, thanked him, and looked into the steaming liquid as if searching for answers.

“I missed you,” she said. “A lot.”

“Did you?” The question slipped from his lips. He hadn’t meant to say it, and hearing the sharp way it came out, he immediately wished he hadn’t.

“I did, really. Guess I can’t blame you if you don’t believe me. I needed this though, to explore.”

“I know. Did you find what you were looking for?”

She uttered a dry laugh. “Not even sure what I was looking for.”

“Sometimes I don’t think anyone ever does.” 

She cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, people have this vague concept of faith and they put names on things to make what they feel easier to digest. It’s all just energy, really. Some people can’t handle that. I’m not even sure I can handle that. I mean, they say energy can never be destroyed, that it can only change its form, so what does that really mean? What happens after this, you know?” Katie said nothing. Jake wondered if he was talking too much. “Anyway, sorry. This isn’t about me. It’s about you. I’m glad you’re here, but I’m not sure why you’re here.”

She set down her mug of tea, untouched and still steaming. “It doesn’t have to just be about me. It can be about us.”

She inched closer to him and put her hand on his thigh. His skin tingled under her light touch. Warmth spread to his groin. He looked away from her, tried not to think about what he was feeling. Part of it was primal lust; he hadn’t slept with anyone in almost six months, not since he had left Katie. The other part of it was deeper, a desire to be closer to Katie again.

“Are you sorry I came?” she said.

“Of course I’m not. I just wish I understood you.”

“I wish I understood me too.”

“Maybe you should try talking to me about it. Ever since all that shit happened with your mom you’ve just been more and more closed off. It’s only gotten worse since your dad died, especially since you got those damn books. You even brought one of them over.” He pointed to her purse. “I just wish you didn’t forget that I’m here for you.”

“I didn’t.”

“It feels like it. You never tell me anything.”

“If I told you…”

“I’d think you were crazy, right? You’ve made that perfectly clear, but what bothers me, Katie is that you never even bothered to try.”

“Do you believe in the supernatural?”

He almost laughed, but reminded himself that this moment was crucial if Katie was to trust him. If Katie was to let him in again. If they were to rebuild. He gave the only answer that made sense.

“I’m not sure. I know what science says, but I also know there’s a lot out there we don’t understand.”

“Ghosts?”

He shrugged.

“Demons?”

“Katie…”

“Well?”

“You mean, like literal demons?”

“You said there’s a lot out there we don’t understand. Why doesn’t that allow for ghosts and demons?”

“Next thing I know you’re going to ask me if I’ve met your friend Jesus.”

“Jake. If you want me to open up to you, I need you to be open.”

“All right, all right, lay it on me.”

She started with her father. She explained how before Todd met Katie’s mother he had been involved with a junky named Chloe. More than involved, in love, but because of her unstable lifestyle, he left her. Jake knew most of this, but let Katie talk through it.

“Chloe died of an overdose and my parents settled down to start a family. Dad never really stopped loving Chloe though. He regretted how it ended. Maybe even that it ended at all.” She frowned. “I have no doubt that he loved my mother, and I’m absolutely certain he loved Dale and me, but Chloe was a wound that never healed and last year she came back.”

“Like literally?”

Katie nodded. Jake strived to keep a poker face. She hadn’t been this open with him for so long, and the last thing he wanted to do was screw things up. It all sounded crazy, sure, but he had to let her finish, because she believed it and he loved her. Even if a large part of him wanted to run far away, move and change his number. It was one thing to entertain the idea of the supernatural, but another thing entirely to insist that you had had a supernatural experience.

“She didn’t come back alone. That man who attacked my mother and I, she was his slave in Hell.”

“Like Christian Hell?”

“Eh, from what I understand it’s kind of a mix of everything. Has most in common with the Greek realm of the dead. Kind of just a shitty place to be, but no hierarchy or I don’t know. You don’t have to do or not do something to get there. People just kind of end up there.”

“Are we gonna go there?”

“I don’t know.” She shook her head and stopped to chew her lip. Jake got the feeling that whatever she planned to say next would be the hardest for her to talk about. Which was crazy. How could any of what she’d told him thus far have been easy to talk about? “Anyway, she caught up to my dad and he was trying to help her escape that place for good by finding her a proper resting place. Not holy ground or anything like that. Just a place that makes her happy, I guess. The man who attacked us, Samael, he came for us to try and get our father to release Chloe to him.

“He took us downtown to where Dad and Chloe used to have an apartment together and she gave herself up. Went back with him to Hell.

“The last time I saw my dad, he said he had to find her.”

“And now you’re trying to find him.”

“Melissa too. I feel responsible for that.”

“That girl was trouble. You can’t possibly think you had anything to do with her going missing.”

“She had my drawing of Samael. Must have gotten it from my journal. I know that’s not much in the way of evidence, but I can’t help but think…”

He took her hands and caressed the knuckles. She sniffed and blinked. Her eyes were red with the threat of tears.

“Of course I’ve been coming up empty. I’ve prayed to gods old and new. Read passages aloud, even tried some of the rituals. My room probably looks like something out of one of those eighties satanic panic movies. Don’t know if it’s me, or that the books are just full of shit, but nothing seems to work. I feel like I’ll never see Dad again or know what happened to him, and I’ll never find Melissa.”

“Have you talked to Dale at all?”

“Once.” She told him how Dale was channeling all his energy into music. How it seemed like Dale was healing.

“That’s good. He hasn’t heard from her at all, I’m assuming.”

“No.”

There was a long stretch of silence between them.

“So, what happens now?” Jake asked.

“I need your help.”

“Anything.”

She kissed him. At first, he resisted, but her mouth was like coming home, and he gave in to its warm, wet touch.

———-

She told Jake to meet her in the bedroom, then went to the bathroom with the book and her bag. The dumped the bag’s contents on the vanity and opened the book to the marked page. The instructions laid out on the pages were for a ritual that employed sexual energy to gain power, in this case, the power to open a doorway between Earth and the Land of Shades. She felt awful using Jake for this, but the truth was she didn’t belong in this world anymore.

Answers and knowledge were all that mattered to her now. The fiery dreams had come to intoxicate and intrigue, rather than horrify, in her time since acquiring the books. She dwelled on the black portal, encircled in flames and promising answers. Or promising nothingness, which, if there were no answers, nothingness would be preferable.

As she sifted through the items spread out on the vanity, she thought of her father. She thought of the time the family went to Jersey Shore. They went every summer, but the time that stuck out in her memory most was the summer after sixth grade. She recalled specific images: the Ultimates comic hidden between the pages of an issue of The Economist and the way her father had blushed and winked at her when she spotted it; her parents holding hands, but not looking at each other, as they sat in their beach chairs; Dale throwing a Frisbee to a loose pit bull and their father’s nervous anger as he asked other beachgoers who owned the dog; and the way her father had run in after her, bypassing the lifeguard, as a riptide took her away, away, away. He had clutched her to his chest, saltwater mixing with tears on his cheeks, as they paddled to the side and eventually made their way back to shore.

She wiped her own tears away and picked her lipstick from the pile of items, uncapped it and drew a red circle on the mirror. Inside the circle she drew a spattering of stars and one bulging eye. She closed the sink’s drain. She lifted a lock of her hair, clipped when she was seven and detached this afternoon from the page of her childhood diary where it was taped, and dropped it into the sink. She added wormwood, two silver coins her grandfather had given her, and a dollop of holy water.

“Katie?” Jake called from the bedroom.

“I’ll be right out,” she said.

She licked the index and middle fingers of her left hand and slipped them down her pants, under her panties. She rubbed until she lubricated, then smeared the juices across the items in the sink. Grabbed a lighter and set the contents on fire.

The prayer she whispered was in a foreign tongue, something between Latin and Greek, and she hoped she got it right. She blew out the flame and got naked. She reloaded her purse, making doubly sure her pocket knife made it inside, and exited the bathroom.

After I’m gone, Jake’s really going to think I’m crazy.

———-

Katie’s naked body was every bit as perfect in its imperfection as he remembered. He took it all in. The purple, quarter moon scar just below her left hip where she had fallen off a horse and onto a jagged stone during a family trip to Texas. Her slumped shoulders. Her belly pale around the dark, tiny navel. Auburn hair draped over her shoulders and tops of her fist-sized breasts. The ghost of a scar on her cheek from where Samael struck her. She half-smiled. Her eyes were dark.

Her stance exuded power, dominance. A new Katie stood before him, purse clutched in her right hand, not quite the old Katie, the bright and sweet girl who was quick on her feet and full of energy, but this Katie had also risen above the black cloud that had weighed her down for so long. She had reassembled herself out of the bombed-out, twisted remnants of her old self, reemerging as a new being, a goddess among women.

Jake wondered what loving her would be like now. How much had she changed? His manhood slid under the top sheet into a stance, anticipating her, although he was also a little afraid.

She crossed the room, her bare soles whispers on the laminate flooring. 

Her warmth radiated the closer she got to him. His legs tensed and relaxed. His fists grasped the sheets. She was walking slowly, making the wait all the more torturous. She peeled the sheet off him, exposing his wiry, naked body, and tossed the purse on the side of the bed. He thought it odd, at first, why she had brought it with her, and guessed maybe she had a vibrator with her. Bringing her to climax sometimes posed a challenge, which made her impatient in spite of his attempts to put her at ease, so she sometimes brought help.

She crawled on top of him, burning hot. Her sex brushed his leg and left a smear of estrus from his kneecap to his middle thigh. Part of him wondered what had her so turned on. A much larger part didn’t care, his emotions driven away by animal need.

Katie put her lips around him and he took a sharp breath in through his teeth. He closed his eyes, focused all his attention on her circling tongue and the warm spasms her licking incited in his pelvis. She released him, embraced his hips with her thighs, and slid his member into her wet warmth. As she slid all the way down, he tensed and almost came immediately. He clamped his teeth into his bottom lip, took two handfuls of ass. She leaned down and whispered in his ear.

“You better not, not yet.”

Confident he had stifled his orgasm, at least for now, he nodded. “I won’t.”

“Good.”

She leaned back and rocked her hips. Her hair swished side to side between her shoulder blades. Her eyes rolled back, half-closed. A soft moan passed between her lips. He relished her familiar musky scent, caught a hint of something smoky as if she had been standing next to a campfire. He tried to roll on top of her, but she pinned his shoulders to the mattress and shook her head. The seductive glint in her eyes almost made him melt.

She rode him until she neared her climax. His lingered close behind. She reached for her purse, still moaning, still clenching her thighs. Her hand reemerged, holding something shiny.

Jake’s limbs clenched. She raised the blade. He thought she was about to pull a Basic Instinct. He shouted her name. She drew the blade across her left breast. Blood spilled over her nipple and dripped onto Jake’s belly. She was mid-orgasm as his erection withered. He pushed her off of him and rolled to the floor. 

“What the fuck?” he yelled. She stared hard at him, then lowered her gaze. “I mean, seriously. What the actual fuck?”

She sat on the edge of the bed and shook her head. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

“Understand? Katie, what…I mean…” He raked his hands through his hair as if he could excavate the information he needed from beneath his scalp.

Katie wiped the laceration with her fingertips and licked the blood. Jake’s stomach lurched.

“I think I better go,” she said.

“Yeah…”

She climbed out of bed, wrapped in the top sheet and tromped to the bathroom. 

“Katie, wait.”

She stepped into her panties, started to pull the dress over her head.

“Katie.”

She stuffed her bra and the knife back in her purse and strode to the front door.

“Hey,” he said, trying to inject firmness into his voice.

She looked over her shoulder as she opened the door. Tears glistened on her cheeks.

“Forget about me, Jake.”

“But I…”

She walked through the door and slammed it behind her.

———-  

Ruthanne crouched underneath the hot stream of her third shower in twenty-four hours. Alcohol buzzed in her head, but did little to numb the trauma. She hadn’t called the police, because she couldn’t collect herself enough to describe what happened to her. Her thoughts were a whirlwind. Not only had the strange man invaded her mind, she thought he had done some kind of damage in there too. She felt like she was coming down from an intense and unpleasant acid trip.

The shadows in her home morphed into wormy black vines that grew across the walls and ceiling. Static hissed through every beat of silence. She tried turning on music or the television to drown it out, but voices whispered in strange tongues under the familiar sounds. Only the steady, patter and warm caress of the shower soothed her. But it was a primal sense of security, like curling in a blanket against the cold, a lullaby to a child, or a cool, dark place for a spider to nest. She could only relax and break her tension, but she could not collect her thoughts. Every attempt to talk herself down resulted in sobbing gibberish. She feared she would stay like this forever, and live out the rest of her life banging her head against the wall of a padded room.

The first time her phone rang, she ignored it. She kept her eyes closed and let the water paste her hair to her neck and shoulders. She focused on her breathing and tried to lull herself back to that primal state of relaxation, like someone trying to sleep through an alarm they didn’t quite have the energy to get up and switch off.

The caller left a message. Not even a minute passed before the phone rang again. She squeezed her eyes tighter and pressed her teeth into her bottom lip until she tasted blood. She cursed and shut off the water and wrapped herself in a towel.

The phone had stopped ringing by the time she got to it. The number didn’t come up as one of her contacts and she didn’t recognize it. She doubted she would recognize anything in her current state. She listened to the message and tried to ignore the crawling shadows and whispering static.

“Ruthanne, it’s Jake, Katie’s boyfriend. I need to talk to you. Can you call me back?” He gave his number and disconnected.

She tensed at the mention of Katie. Her patient, one who she sometimes thought of as a friend, had something to do with the man who attacked her. She made herself return Jake’s call.

“Ruthanne,” he said.

She whimpered, unable to form words. The shadows inched closer and retracted, never touching, but always too close.

“Ruthanne, are you there?”

She closed her eyes, breathed deep, and squeezed out a stuttering response against the perpetual static.

“Jake. Is Katie with you?”

“That’s what I need to talk to you about. Can I meet you at your office?”

“N-no. My home.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Juh-just…” She winced, pinched her eyes tighter and took another deep breath. She sputtered out the address.

“I’ll be right over.”

She grunted and disconnected. The static buzzed. The shadows crawled.

———-  

Windom’s earliest memories were of the sunroom and the blocks. Even during his tender youth, he understood the power of words and symbols. He impressed his mother’s friends by spelling out words he couldn’t possibly know, in languages even his mother didn’t know. He remembered knowing on a subtle level that he shouldn’t know these words or these symbols, as they had never been taught to him. But he saw them when he played, so he spelled them with blocks or drew them.

When he was seven, his mother told him he had reached the age of reason and it was time for him to learn about his father. She used to be married to a man named Russell. One night he was late coming home from work and he put a baby in her. She didn’t tell Windom how he put a baby in her, but Windom knew about sex, the same way he knew about the power of words and symbols.

According to his mother, after his conception, she went into the bathroom to shower. When she came out, his father was gone. There was a knock at the door, police. They said her husband had died in a car wreck on the way home. Time of death: two hours ago. Her initial thought was how that was impossible; she had just seen her husband, just been with him. But they assured her the time of death was accurate, offered their condolences, and left her to weep alone.

In the depths of grief, revelation fell upon her. God had given her a gift, the gift of seeing her husband one last time before he moved on from this world forever. She already felt the stirrings of life within her and the pregnancy test only confirmed it. Nine months later Windom was born.

“You’re a miracle, baby,” she had said. “I want you to get baptized. You’re old enough to decide for yourself.”

She proceeded to tell him about Jesus and how he died for Windom’s sins, for everyone’s sins. All he had to do was accept that as fact and let the preacher at First Baptist put him in the water and everything would be okay from there on out. And Windom said the prayer as his mother instructed, asked Christ to come and live in his heart and went to church with her that Sunday to get baptized.

The preacher was a severe-featured man, his cheeks and forehead flushed pink, his eyes dark and hooded. Said his name was Adam and he was grateful to meet another saved soul, though he hoped to see Windom and his mother in church more often now that Windom had accepted Jesus. The ceremony took place in the middle of that Sunday’s earliest service, and those pink cheeks turned ash white when Windom’s feet touched the water’s surface. Windom glanced down. Deep red now clouded the once clear pool. Adam dropped Windom and backed away, fist in mouth and eyes wide.

In the bloody water, Windom felt no fear, not even as the preacher cursed him and the congregation gasped and wailed. He knelt, bowed his head into the crimson fluid, and saw the face of his true father. 

Sometimes he wondered if Jesus still lived in his heart, even though he was the son of the devil.

———- 

Katie returned home, desperate to go to Hell. She spilled her purse onto her bed, grabbed the remaining wormwood, lipstick, and the vial of holy water and tromped to the bathroom. She blocked up the sink. Dumped the rest of the wormwood and holy water inside. Rummaged through her vanity drawers until she found her grandmother’s silver earrings and dropped them in the sink. Removed her dress and underwear, stuck her finger inside her vagina, and rubbed the resultant fluid around the rim of the sink.

She grabbed the lipstick and scribbled the symbol of eyes and stars upon the mirror. She glanced around, knew she was forgetting something, and ran to the bedroom to retrieve the dagger. Holding the blade up to her hair, she hoped the ritual would work. The book recommended a little girl’s lock of hair, for best results, but didn’t say a grown woman’s hair would be all bad. She cut through and watched the lock drift into the sink. Then she set the hair on fire.

She sprawled herself on the bed and reached between her legs. She massaged furiously, but in her desperate state, her orgasm wouldn’t come. Tears came instead.

———- 

The books are here.

Windom stopped in front of the three-story house with the circular window high in the foyer and the stone façade. This was upper-middle-class suburbia and there wasn’t a lot to distinguish this house from the others on the street. It was the groove that made the place stand out, a feeling he got whenever he was close to something he pursued. The groove thrummed within him as the energy inside the house pulsed. Something else sizzled beneath.

The books were in the house, but magic was too. Desperate magic, the most dangerous kind. Windom had crossed paths with many would-be magicians in his lifetime. Most of them ended up dead or crazy. Magic was nothing to fuck with if one didn’t know what they were doing. The one practicing magic inside the house was a novice, a well-read novice, but a novice nonetheless.

If he didn’t stop them, there was no telling what sort of destruction could take place. While the slim chance existed that they would succeed in their ritual, Windom didn’t care to risk it, not when he was standing so close to the action. A badly performed ritual could open an interdimensional tear that would spill out countless monstrosities into this world before someone strong enough came along fast enough to close it. Other times, a ritual gone wrong just caused an explosion. Depending on how much energy is involved, the explosion could be catastrophic.

What a pain in the ass, he thought. While he was enjoying the respite from being pursued by the Guards of Christ, he had hoped retrieving the books would prove a simple task. Preventing amateur magic from causing a disaster was the last thing he wanted to do with his time. He groaned and approached the front door.

The poor fool doesn’t know what they’re dealing with.

He took hold of the knob. Closed his eyes and willed the lock to come loose.

But they’ll die just the same.

———-

Katie thrust her hands into her hair and pulled on her locks until the pain became unbearable. She screamed away the frustration, forced herself to refocus on the task at hand. She wrung out her hands and lay back on the bed.

Relax. It won’t happen if you’re not relaxed.

She thought about Jake. Imagined happier times. Remembered how they were before the assault, before her father’s death, before her all too brief reunion with Dale, before these goddamned books. The memories that came to her were, at first, not even sexual. She remembered sitting on the hood of his car, drinking Old English and passing a joint back and forth. She remembered meeting between classes just to hold hands and walk the halls. She remembered how he always listened. He used to be the best listener, no matter how much they’d been drinking or smoking, always so attentive.

This drove away the unpleasant thoughts of how she’d withdrawn from him and their awkward encounter earlier in the night. She felt more at ease, her limbs loosened, her breath coming easier.

She touched herself again and conjured an image of how good Jake looked with his shirt off. He was no bodybuilder, maybe one-fifty soaking wet, but without clothes what muscles he did have were clearly defined, chiseled. She thought of his eyes as they stared deep into hers. Those soft blues were the prettiest she’d ever seen on a man, possessing an almost feminine delicacy. They always held a certain light, something that made her believe him every time he said he loved her.

She thought about him wrapping those arms around her, his lips like cotton on her neck, his hardness a testament to his need for her.

She imagined him between her legs, her finger a stand-in for his tongue. Her climax went from a distant light as she wandered a cave of frustration to the imminent illumination of everything beautiful. The crevice in the darkness was widening, letting pale fire inside, fire that grew along the baseboards of her bedroom, fire that climbed her walls.

Her belly clenched in fear, her orgasm starting to shrink away, but she talked herself through it, assured herself that the fire held the answers. In the fire, she could reconcile her losses. She could find answers to ease her uncertainty. She could find…

Revenge.

The single word spoken in her mind brought sense to all of this.

The man who assaulted her and her mother would be there, in the fire, waiting. She could take from him what he took from her. Use the wisdom from the books to launch some sort of attack.

The climax neared. The fire swirled around a fixed point on the wall, opening a black portal, a portal to the void, a void that stared back, a void where monsters lived, where she would make her own personal demon pay for his sins.

She rose to her feet, careful not to interrupt the impending orgasm, careful to step gently across the carpeted floor. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. Held her free hand palm-first against the black. Flames licked at her wrist. Burned, but she maintained her focus.

She thought she heard someone coming up the stairs, their footsteps deliberate but soft. She ignored the sounds. Bit her lip in the moment before release. The little death throbbed through her. Loosened her lips, expelled a cry.

The door to her room swung open. She opened her eyes.

A man stood in the frame, dressed in black denim and outlined by fire. He cocked his head to the side, raised an eyebrow as he studied her. Something about his look made her feel less afraid than she thought she should be when a strange man walks in on her masturbating. He examined her with interest and curiosity, unmarred by animal lusts.

Before she could gain more from studying the strange man, the flames around her wrist solidified. It felt like half a dozen tiny hands grabbing hold. They pulled her forward, through the ring of flame, into the black.

The strange man’s eyes flicked wide as Katie tumbled forward, engulfed in a fire made of impish hands. He didn’t move to help her, only watched. Then she was gone from the room, and she was falling.

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