One and Only, Chapter 4 (the rest of it)

Okay. Here we are. The last of chapter 4 in my ongoing serial novel ONE AND ONLY. You can read previous chapters (and the other sections of chapter 4) right here. Getting chapter 4 right was a real bear! I think that’s because it’s a big turning point in the story. A moment where separate threads start to come together.

The clip above is from what, in my opinion, is the most explosive two minutes of television. Not just wrestling television, but ALL television. It’s a breaking point in one of my favorite slow-burn heel turns in wrestling. Bret Hart, after being screwed out of the championship multiple times, loses his mind on pretty much everyone, shoving promoter Vince McMahon and saying “shit” on network television in the process. It all ends with a brawl between four of the promotion’s top stars at the time. The goal was to build excitement for the pay-per-view for the following weekend, Wrestlemania 13.

That’s not what I’m doing here. I won’t end this chapter with a prompt to buy the rest of the book if you want to see what happens next, though I admit that I considered it. What I am thinking about is big buildups that lead to the next act. I think that’s where we are here.

Let’s do a quick recap. Mason (who’s scenes thus far are in the first person) has unknowingly brought his girlfriend back from the dead. It’s his fault she’s dead and though he performed a necromancy ritual, he’s still sure that he failed. His late girlfriend Marybeth has indeed come back from the dead, and she’s not alone. Something monstrous has overtaken her. Because dead girls make for bad hosts, this same monstrous thing has now jumped into the body of Caroline, a friend of Mason’s, after dispatching two police officers and three of Caroline’s friends. One of those murdered friends is Amber, sister to indie wrestler Aldous the Blade, who’s just won the championship and wants to know where his sister is. Things are about to come to a head, folks, and this big confrontation will lead us into the second part of the story. The underworld portion, if you’re following Dan Harmon’s story circle, I guess.

4

Mason’s father was having a very bad night. He was having a very bad week. Hell, it was more than that. He was having a very bad second act. While the little girl playing on the race track that he’d built on the living room floor earlier that night gave him plenty of reason to be grateful, the void left by the death of his wife made its presence known more times a day than he could count. On top of that, he now had to worry about Mason. That boy was losing his mind as far as Miles Bell was concerned. The worst part was he couldn’t exactly blame the poor guy.

Yes, losing Donna to cancer was a real gut punch. But he saw it coming. Something about adulthood helps you expect bad shit to happen. You learn that you’ll soon know more dead people than living. At Mason’s age, though, shit like what happened to Marybeth just wasn’t supposed to happen. Still, he wasn’t exactly crazy about how Mason had handled it. Digging up her corpse? Performing some half-assed ritual? What the hell was all that? He knew his boy was weird, but there was weird and there was… whatever Mason was. Bizarre? Unhinged? Sick? He didn’t care to think of his son in those terms at all.

Most days, he felt like completely falling apart, but then he looked down at little Sheila. Running her little Hot Wheels around the racetrack. Making all kinds of cute coos and sighs. Occasionally looking back at him with the most loving expression. A deep love embodied there that he just didn’t feel like he’d earned.

Life could be beautiful, even in spite of the pain. Even in spite of … he cast a glance at the stairwell. He shifted in his seat and fought the urge to check on Mason again.

5

I had to go on foot. It was a lot slower than driving and a hell of a lot slower than astral projection. But still, I could feel the earth under my feet, the vibrations of its resistance. The worst part was I didn’t even know exactly where I was going. I had to stick to side roads and dark wooded paths. When I found what I was looking for, I wished I hadn’t.

One corpse, blackened and still smoking, lay in the middle of the trail. It smelled like overcooked hamburger. Another lay beside it. It was a girl I recognized. One of the twins, Farrah or Felicity. Her neck was bent at an unnatural angle, all the way backwards, so that the back of her head was nearly flush with the skin between her shoulder blades. Her eyes were frozen open in an expression of agonized horror. Her hands were claws, clutching for a life that had long ago left.

I got the awful notion that this was all somehow my fault. I had no proof. It was just a feeling, but it was a strong feeling. It felt like knowledge. Was this what religious people meant when they talked about faith? A strange certainty contrary to evidence? It was this unproven certainty that kept me from calling police. I’d be in deep shit if they so much as suspected my hand in this. I wasn’t sure how they could, but I was sure they would.

I scanned my surroundings. My heartbeat accelerated like the fist of a frustrated door knocker. I saw nothing in the darkness save for gray outlines of trees, but I knew I wasn’t alone. Someone had killed these two poor girls. I glanced down at the still smoking body. Whatever did this couldn’t be too far away.

I checked my phone and saw I wasn’t too far from the road. Spooked out of my mind, I headed for it. At least beside the road, I wouldn’t have dense woods on all sides. Deep shadows from which anything could jump out at me. No room to run.

When I reached the road, my feet stuttered to a stop. The wreckage of Caroline’s car lay before me. It looked like someone had smashed it like a beer can on the head of a frat boy. My guts plummeted. My pulse throbbed between my ears, heavy and sounding so much larger than something that could possibly be contained inside me. I felt the sight of my friend’s crashed car in my neck and shoulders. It weighed me down so heavily that my legs buckled, and I could hardly breathe. My hands and knees pressed into the pavement. I hardly felt the pain.

The sounds of approaching footsteps broke through the numbing despair. They belonged to an imposing shape.

6

Aldous “The Blade” Armstrong approached the broken-looking kid kneeling beside the smashed-up car. He still wore the championship belt around his waist. He still stunk and his blood was still up from the match with Trashcan. The sight before him made him shake. He recognized the car but didn’t want to believe his instincts. It was Caroline’s car. Amber’s friend Caroline. Where the hell was Amber?

He thought he recognized the kid as he walked past but didn’t take time to look closer. More than anything, he wanted to check the car. Make sure no one was inside. The way it was all wrecked, he didn’t think anyone could’ve survived whatever had happened.

The kneeling kid was whispering something Aldous couldn’t make out. He tried to ignore it, but the sound of it skittered across his brain like so many spiders. He looked about the car, the repeated whispers never stopping. The frame was bent and twisted. All the glass was blown out. Across the mangled hood, something dark glistened in the moonlight.

“Jesus,” he muttered. He turned to the distraught kid. “What happened?”

The kid didn’t look up. He just kept whispering nonsense. Aldous used the toe of his boot to nudge the kid in the forearm.

“Hey, kid.”

The kid looked up. Aldous definitely recognized him. Went to Amber’s school. Miles or Manny or something. Or maybe Jason. Mason? His eyes were wide and jerky. His lips were moving, but he’d stopped speaking. After looking Aldous over, he frowned.

“What are you supposed to be?”

Aldous was taken aback by the comment at first, then remembered he was still wearing his gear.

“I’m a wrestler. I came from a show. What happened here?”

The kid’s confusion faded. Even in the darkness, Aldous see the color drain from the kid’s face.

“I don’t know. They’re all dead.”

Something squeezed the Blade’s heart.

“Who? Who’s dead?”

The kid pointed behind him.

“Two girls. Back in the woods.”

“Who? Do you know them?”

“Twins. Farrah and Felicia or something. And this car … it belongs to my friend Caroline.”

“Jesus fuck. Was there another girl with them? Amber?”

“I don’t know,” the kid said, sounding like he had glass in his throat.

“Fuuuuck,” Aldous said. He ran for the woods, leaving the kid, broken by the road.

7

I didn’t have the will to follow the wrestler into the woods. I hardly had the will to rise to my feet. What a coward. What a fucking joke. I had it in me to shove my girlfriend off Sunset Cliffs. I had it in me to try bringing her back from the dead. And I couldn’t bring myself to do anything now. Something was very wrong here and it went beyond a bad car wreck. The inkling that this was somehow my fault had become an absolute certainty by this point.

I shifted and slumped. Faced the woods. There was nothing there to see, but it beat staring at the wreckage of Caroline’s car. I didn’t like the way the blood shimmered on the ruined hood. I didn’t like how fucked up the car was despite no sign of impact. Maybe it was a hit and run, but all sorts of alarm bells were going off in my head telling me this was something so much more. Something big and monstrous.

I peered into the darkness. The trees stood like towering, gray skeletons, their branches like witch’s claws. I could no longer hear the wrestler’s footsteps leading away from me. I wondered if he’d reached the bodies yet.

That was Amber’s older brother. I’d heard a little about him. Amber was kind of a bitch most of the time, but I didn’t want her to get hurt. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. If only I’d been able to bring Marybeth back… maybe I could bring back everyone who’d died tonight. Maybe … maybe … maybe …

From deep in the woods, I heard a scream. It seemed to go on forever. It grew louder and louder. Whoever was screaming was headed my way. And fast.

The body flew by me. It flew like a projectile of hard flesh. It crashed into Caroline’s car and plopped to the pavement beside me. It was the wrestler. He lay there twitching and bleeding from the mouth.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God…”

I faced the woods, unable to look at the dead wrestler. Even though I was afraid to see whatever had done that to him, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I had to see. This was why people in horror movies didn’t run right away: they didn’t really believe what was coming. They didn’t even really know what was coming. I sure as fuck didn’t and I couldn’t move because I had to see it. I had to see it to believe and I hoped that I’d believe in time to run.

When it came for me, it wasn’t what I expected.

It was Caroline. She was levitating, her feet three inches from the ground. Her eyes were glowing electric blue and her hair was blowing back though there was no breeze. I spoke her name. Her features twisted and she cocked her head.

“Oh,” she said. “You must mean this body. Why don’t you try looking closer?”

“What?”

“You never were a smart one, were you?”

The levitating fiend groaned and then something happened which I can’t possibly explain but I fucking swear to you it happened. Caroline split into two. From the top of her head to her genitals, she tore herself apart, but before I knew it, after much bulging and twisting and churning, she reformed herself into two women. Caroline stood on the right and a half-liquified corpse stood on the left. When the girls spoke, they spoke as one.

“It’s me,” they said. “Your one and only.”

Turned out I was a necromancer after all.

One and Only, Chapter 4 (continued but not concluded)

As I mentioned in the previous entry, last week sucked. It sucked so bad that I only managed to post part of ONE AND ONLY, Chapter 4. Basically, I was high AF on allergy medicine, I terminated a professional relationship with a friend (it was the right decision, but still hard), and I found out a cat I rehomed will soon need to be put down. Though I still wrote every day, I could seldom put down more than a page worth of material. Everything was clouded. Focus was limited.

This week has been slightly better, but I’m still far from 100%.

On the flip side, I got completely caught up in in the game DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB. I finished playing today and my awe has not gone away. It’s a truly extraordinary game. Even if you’re not a gamer, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s exactly what I want to see in terms of interactive storytelling. It employs the sorts of tonal shifts that really get me excited about art.

On Tuesday night, while recording the show I co-host with Kelby Losack and J. David Osborne, I got a bit heated when we discussed so-called “cancel culture.” Getting things off my chest that I’ve more or less stayed quiet about the last 3 years felt good. This isn’t damage control or anything. People who know me know that I’m kind. I don’t need random people on Twitter to think so. I also don’t think I said anything unkind. Being an artist or someone who cares about the arts often means you hold free expression sacred. I want more diverse voices in art and (maybe especially) politics. Even those of people with whom I disagree. That should be a given, but it is not.

I’d like to tie all of this into today’s chapter of ONE AND ONLY (you can catch up on previous chapters here). I think it’s important to focus your thoughts into what you’re writing that day. Make each moment revolve around your narrative like planets around a star. That said, it’s not always possible, and it’s equally important to let go and embrace chaos, too. Everything began as chaos and to chaos we will return.

This isn’t the rest of the chapter because, like I said, I’m still not 100%. But it’s more of it. I’ll try to post more between now and Monday. Fingers crossed. Thoughts and prayers. Jack off on a hyper-sigil. Whatever works!


3

My astral journey took me to Caroline’s house in Quincy Ridge. I drifted, unseen, to her bedroom window. The room beyond it was dark. I tried to get closer to the glass, tried to will myself through the glass, but couldn’t quite manage it.

She wasn’t in her room. Out with friends, I guessed, but wasn’t it late? It was a school night, after all.

I drifted downward toward the picture windows that looked into the living room. The lights were on and her father was pacing. Her mother was sitting on the sofa, face buried in her hands. Something was very wrong.

I tried again to press into the glass. I tried calling out. The house kept me out. My voice would not speak. Panic fluttered through me. Someone’s powerful hand took hold of me. I rushed back to my body. It was like waking from a dream, only if I were hungover. Everything felt heavy. My eyes snapped open.

Dad was leaning down over me. His hand squeezed my shoulder hard.

“Dad, what the—”

He released me and took a step back. The darkness of my room obscured his expression.

“I thought you were having a nightmare,” he said.

I sat up and shook my head.

“It wasn’t a bad dream. I think my friend’s in trouble.”

Even in the dimness, I detected his frown.

“What are you on about?”

“I… Maybe it’s nothing.”

He stood there breathing heavily. Matching my breaths. We were both at some end. We’d run out of rope. I knew he hated that he had to take care of me like this. I hated that he thought he had to take care of me like this. Like I couldn’t take care of myself. But I would take care of Caroline. Wherever she is, whatever’s going on, I had to find out and help her.

I had to go looking for her, even if it meant disobeying my father. Even if it meant scaring him and breaking his heart anymore than I already had. Some things were just worth the risk.

“If there’s something you need to tell me,” he began.

I took a deep breath, did my best to sound nonchalant.

“I’ve been trying to reach Caroline. She’s probably just out with friends, but I … I don’t know. I just want to talk to her. With everything going on, I just feel, well, really alone.”

Dad took a step forward and touched my shoulder again, more gently this time.

“You’re not alone, okay. You got me. You got Sheila.”

I knew he meant well, but he didn’t understand anything. He hadn’t been my age in so fucking long, there was no way he could hope to understand what I’m going through. Sure, he’d buried my mother a couple of years back, but he knew she was sick. She’d been sick a long time. It sucked, but it was the way life was. Me, I was trying to fix things that I had fucked up. At least with trying to resurrect Marybeth. With Caroline, it wasn’t my fault, I just wanted to help a friend. He had no idea what that was like. He didn’t really have friends. He only knew how to be a parent. And he wasn’t even good at that.

“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound appreciative.

“You’re going to be okay.”

“Yeah, I know.”

He gave me a hug, and I hugged him back. I waited to hear his footsteps fade away from my door before I prepared to sneak out of my house.

One and Only, Chapter 4

I’ve been posting a new chapter of my book-in-progress ONE AND ONLY each Monday. It’s a genre I’m jokingly calling Splatter Romance. Though I coined the term, there are precedents. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3. FRANKENHOOKER. HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT 2. DEAD ALIVE (aka BRAINDEAD). I think horror with a strong romantic element makes for a compelling narrative. We’ve all been in love and we’ve all been scared. It’s something we can all relate to.

However, I want to emphasize the irreverent splatter of the aforementioned films. While some good movies have come out of the so-called “elevated” horror movement, I do sometimes worry that the genre has lost its sense of fun.* Cartoonish gore and dark humor were, for a long time, staples of the genre. So much so that I spent most of my teens not watching comedy because, frankly, I was getting it from horror films.

Now, despite this, I don’t think this book has found its humor yet. Maybe it has and I’m missing it. Maybe it hasn’t and I’ll find ways to bring it out in its second draft.

Then again, a teen who’s bad at magic bringing his girlfriend back from the dead despite her wishes and only to yield disastrous consequences is situationally funny. At least I think so.

Anyway, here’s part of chapter 4. Due to a truly hellish couple of days (notice I didn’t blog yesterday), it’s not ALL of chapter 4. I will post it little by little throughout the week. After all of chapter 4 is posted, I will edit the first four chapters, collect it into an e-book, and release it on Amazon next month. I’m following the comics model with this book. An 8-12,000 word “issue” every month until the novel is done. Expect this to be a 10-issue miniseries. 2020 the squeak-quel is shaping up to be just as nasty as its predecessor, but I still maintain that this will be a year of me trying new things.

If you are not caught up on the story of ONE AND ONLY so far, you can see the archived, preceding chapters that here.

*There are obvious exceptions to the rule. Shoutout to movies like BLOOD QUANTUM, FINGERS, CRAWL, and THE POOL for keeping horror fun.


FOUR: UNTITLED

1

Dad hid my keys and started driving me to school again. He picked me up as soon as classes let out and drove me straight home. He set a curfew and checked in on me every hour throughout the night like he was a tech on the psych ward, I his unsafe patient. Worst of all, he kept Sheila from me. If I were unstable enough to try bringing my girlfriend back from the dead, I couldn’t be trusted alone with my little sister. I’ve never been so miserable.

After three days of it, I called Caroline. She’d always been a friend, and even though talking to her again had caused the fight which led to the end of Marybeth’s life, I thought if I could reach her that she might make me feel better. The call went straight to voicemail. I tried again.

Her phone must be off, I thought. Unless she’s ignoring me. I pushed the thought away. There was no reason she would be. She’d even told me after Marybeth’s fall that I could call her if I needed anything. Perhaps I should’ve called her sooner. Maybe then, I wouldn’t be in the predicament I was in. No botched necromancy ritual, and I don’t get grounded for life.

Not to mention the Curry family would still have their fucking Pomeranian. I’m lucky I didn’t get E. Coli or something from eating that damn thing. I got up and paced my room for the fourth time that night and probably the twentieth time that week.

“I need to get out of here,” I said to no one. But my ass wasn’t going anywhere. Of course, maybe my ass, my corporeal form, didn’t need to leave. I hadn’t pulled off astral projection before, and God only knew how badly I’d fucked up at necromancy, but maybe I could get this shit to work this time. Maybe I could get out, see Caroline. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to communicate with her or anyone, but at least I’d be out of my fucking room.

2

The first time I tried it, I lay in my bed, the very same bed I lay in now. I tried to relax without falling asleep. I focused on her. Where I thought she might be at that time. I imagined leaving my body, watching it from above as my true self drifted across the room. I imagined these things, but I could not make these imaginings manifest. They remained neutered and numb like unclear images behind glass or beneath water. Rippling and unsteady. Blurry.

I was much younger then. Young and dumb. Woefully inexperienced.

I approached my bed now, a failure again, but disallowing myself to think of these failings. This was a new experience, initiated by a new me. The me that failed to project years ago and the me that failed to bring Marybeth back from the dead were gone now. I could do this. I just had to concentrate and believe that I could.

I lay on my back and closed my eyes. I breathed, but only through my nose.

I didn’t think about why I wanted to see Caroline. Doing so would conjure my failures. A failure could not do what I aimed to do, and therefore, the failure had no place in this moment. Instead, I focused on Caroline. Where I thought she might be. I imagined leaving my body, watching it from above as my true self drifted across the room. I tried to relax without falling asleep.

When I began to sink, I thought I was losing consciousness and nearly broke my concentration to tell myself to wake up. Some primal instinct kept me from doing this. Something I was dialed into. It was the same thing I thought I’d been dialed into the other night by Marybeth’s grave. I didn’t pray that it was for real this time or allow myself to wonder. I simply told myself that it was.

I sank into the bed, and then I was ascending.

ONE AND ONLY, Chapter 3

THREE: THE BLADE

1

Aldous Armstrong put the finishing touches on the black, curved blade painted across his eyes and took a step back to examine himself. His eyes were intense. His hair blond and gelled into a sharp point. His torso looked cut to shreds, nearly unrecognizable from the flabby, pale body he used to see in the mirror. After spending hours a day in the gym and eating a diet consisting strictly of fish, eggs, and fruit, he’d sculpted himself into a new form, erasing the malleable weakling he could hardly stand to look at. He was Aldous “The Blade” now. Tonight, he was supposed to win the belt. Everything had led to this.

He checked his phone one last time. The message from his sister said Caroline had just picked her up. They were going to get some beer, then come check out his show. He didn’t like them breaking the law and wished she would just let him pick up beer for her. She never listened. An hour had passed since the message, and she hadn’t sent him a follow up to let him know they’d arrived safely.

His thumb hovered over the screen to type a reply, ask her if she was here. Someone knocked on the bathroom door.

“Hey, Blade,” the guy on the other side said. He didn’t recognize the voice, but Sal the promoter had new volunteers every show. “You’re up.”

“All right,” Aldous said. “Coming.”

He set down the phone and opened the door.

2

“What are you doing, Caroline?” Amber called from the road. “We’re gonna be late.”

Caroline ignored her, walking deeper into the woods, though the apparition had long disappeared. It was no apparition, she told herself. It’s Marybeth.

She pushed aside a flimsy branch and ducked under a sturdier one. Every step down the rocky path sent painful vibrations up her legs. She took out her phone and switched on the flashlight app. Newly illuminated, the dark woods didn’t look real. It was as if the trees themselves were ghosts, too, and not just the girl she was following.

A bird took off overhead, its wings moving with heavy grace. It sounded like an owl. Her footsteps made heavy, lonely sounds. The girls on the road, still calling after her, but not daring to give chase, sounded far away. To see how far she’d wandered, she risked a look over her shoulder. She could still see the outline of her car. Its headlights. The three dark shapes of her friends on that lonely country road.

“Caroline,” someone said.

Their voice was a whisper. Caroline shined her phone in its direction. The light reflected off of two dark eyes, looking almost like distant stars. It showed a gaunt form, hunched over in the woods. She peered into the shadows for a better look.

“Marybeth?”

“It’s me,” she said, holding out her arms. “Please help.”

3

“And action,” the kid behind the camera said, a slight tremor in his voice.

Aldous didn’t recognize him either. Another new face. He hoped the kid knew what he was doing. Aldous was about to cut a legendary promo. He couldn’t have the footage all shaky. He paced while the camera rolled to stay in character. The interviewer, longtime friend Julie Blazer began.

“Aldous ‘The Blade’ Armstrong. Tonight’s the night. You finally get your shot at the Broken River Wrestling championship. What’s going through your mind?”

“I’ll tell you what’s going through my mind!” he hollered. “Tonight’s the night, yeah, just like you said. I’ve waited my whole life for this. The dreaming. The training. The fighting. It’s all led to this: the Blade, one on one with Trashcan Tommy for the Broken River World Title. What’s going through my mind? I’m hearing Trashcan’s words as he stood over me a month ago while I was handcuffed to the ring post, kneeling in a puddle of my own blood. He said I’ll never get a chance at his belt. He said even if I did I’d never beat him. Well, Trashcan Tommy, I’ve got my chance tonight, and you may think I can never beat you. You may think that because Black Metal Steve and Doom Dog Harris will be in your corner, but I’ve always had the odds against me. I like having the odds against me. I’m gonna take on Black Metal Steve. I’m gonna take on Doom Dog Harris. And then, what then, Trashcan Tommy? It’s gonna be just you and me, and you know that, one on one, you ain’t got a chance of holding onto your championship. It’s coming home with the Blade, yeah!”

“And, Blade, you said last week you wanted to dedicate this match to someone special. Do you want to say who it is? Are they here tonight?”

He thought of the message from Amber and how long it had been. He hoped she was in the audience tonight with her friends. If the young cameraman had everything set up correctly, this interview would be on a live feed for people in attendance.

“This match is dedicated to my sister, Amber. She’s here tonight, and she’s gonna watch me win, yeah!”

4

Caroline approached Marybeth with her arms outstretched. In the shadows, the other girl’s features were difficult to make out, but Caroline could tell there was something terribly wrong. Had she been buried alive? Had she been embalmed alive? No way could she have lived through the fall off the cliff, yet here she was, very much alive. She glistened with a thick liquid.

“Marybeth, what happened to you?” Caroline asked.

She almost asked if the other girl was okay, but she knew better. The reaching hands of Marybeth looked gnarled and bony, like skeletal claws. But Caroline kept approaching her. If her classmate and friend was sick or hurt, she wanted to help.

As she drew closer, an offensive odor wafted toward her. It stung her nose and made her eyes water. It reminded her of stagnant water and bad food. She realized, too late, that the smell was coming from Marybeth. The girl who’d been the love of Mason’s life was decaying at an incredibly fast rate. Clumps of skin turning into hot honey and falling like wet rags around her feet. Caroline’s bottom lip quivered. Her bladder threatened to let go. Her feet locked into place against the advice of every voice in her head.

“Please, no,” she said in a quavering whimper.

Marybeth’s melting hands grabbed fistfuls of Caroline’s hair, pulling her into a noxious kiss.

5

The Blade tromped to the ring, fists balled at his sides, head lowered like a bull ready to charge. Cheers filled the audience. He was old school, born in the wrong era. The wrestling business had gotten away from itself in the last few decades, becoming less and less serious, more and more winking at the camera. When he walked down the aisle, he aimed to project believability. He was an artist and as tough as a five-dollar steak.

He stopped at the bottom of the ramp and surveyed the scene. An audience of a few hundred, standing room only. They were packed into Heathenish Brewery, known for its IPA and grimy, underground hip hop shows. The wrestling fit in perfectly because the promotion treated itself like a shoot, keeping kayfabe like one of God’s commandments. It wasn’t WWE because it was real as fuck.

He looked for Amber’s face among the crowd. Tried to spot her friends, too. He didn’t see them, but maybe he’d missed them. He didn’t take more time to look. It was time to hit the ring. He leapt onto the apron and grabbed the ropes. He reared back his head and screamed his trademarked war cry. People yelled along with him. He was the babyface. People were ready to watch him win.

The lights went down. A grimy dubstep song played over the PA. Trashcan Tommy sauntered out with Black Metal Steve and Doom Dog Harris in tow. They made for an intimidating sight, like the Road Warriors of old with a twenty-first century facelift. Spiky helmets topped their heads. Their cut torsos glistened with water and sweat. As they approached, the Blade paced the ring, never taking his eyes off his opponents.

Mikey Clegg was the referee for the bout. He was a wiry kid, but Blade thought he was super-cool. Knew a lot about the business. His house was full of memorabilia from the old days. Bills from defunct promotions like Mid-South and Stampede Wrestling covered the walls of his room. He even had a replica of WCW’s big gold belt hanging above his bed. Blade liked shooting the shit with him. Now, though, it was all business. All theater. Each actor playing their part.

The trio of heels climbed onto the ring apron. Mikey stepped forward waving his hands and pointing to the back. He was yelling that he wanted Black Metal and Doom Dog to head backstage, so they wouldn’t interfere in the match.

The Blade stepped forward, putting his hand on Mikey’s shoulder.

“Let them stay,” he said. He pointed to the bejeweled belt around Trashcan’s waist. “For that, I’ll take all three of em on if I have to.”

Right on cue, Black Metal and Doom Dog slipped through the ropes, coming at Blade full steam ahead. The Blade put out both his arms for a double clothesline, dropping both heels to the canvas. Black Metal got up first. The Blade hugged him for a belly-to-belly suplex, slamming him to the mat. While he rolled out, Doom Dog swung for him. The Blade ducked the blow and grabbed Doom Dog by the nape of his neck, aiming to throw him out of the ring. Before he could, Trashcan attacked from behind, clipping the Blade’s knee.

The bell rang. Shit was on.

6

“Caroline, what the fuck?” Amber said. She was now standing on the edge of the woods. “You better not make me go in there after you.”

“I think you’re gonna have to,” Farrah said.

“Hey, fuck it,” Felicity said. “She wants to go exploring the woods at night, that’s her prerogative. Let’s go watch some pro ‘rasslin’!”

Amber and Farrah flashed her angry glares.

“What?” she asked. “I’m just sayin.”

“I’m not going in there unless you two come with me,” Amber said.

“Or if you’re crazy like Caroline?” Felicity said.

“What the fuck, bitch?” Farrah said. “That’s our friend.”

“And I’m your sister, so?”

“Are you two coming with me or not?” Amber asked.

The twins exchanged glances. They nodded and followed Amber into the woods.

“Caroline,” Amber called out, switching on her cell phone light.

No one answered. The others called her name, too.

“Where do you think she is?” Farrah asked.

“I wonder if a bear got her,” Felicity said.

Farrah backhanded her on the upper arm.

“There aren’t any bears around here, dipshit.”

Something crashed in the nearby shrubbery. It sounded like an old, dead tree fell over with a series of splintering cracks.

“What was that?” Farrah said.

“I’m betting a bear.”

“Shut up about the bears,” Amber said. “Caroline! Where the fuck are you? This better not be some fucked up joke.”

The woods settled in the wake of the fallen tree. The silence made Amber want to turn and run back to the car. It was the sort of calm that only preceded a storm.

“I think we should go back to the car,” she said.

“What? Why?” Farrah asked.

Felicity was already on her way back.

“Just … this doesn’t feel right,” Amber said, brushing past Farrah.

“But what about Caroline?” Farrah pleaded. “What if she’s in trouble?”

“We’ll call somebody,” Amber said. “We’ll wait by the—”

Before she could finish, Felicity’s feet lifted off the ground.

7

The uppercut lifted The Blade into the corner. Trashcan was a snug worker, but the Blade hardly felt a thing. He made it look good though, buckling against the corner and kicking his legs into the air. Trashcan grabbed the Blade’s throat in a mock chokehold. Mikey yelled in mock outrage, counting toward a disqualification loud enough for the jeering crowd to hear. Trashcan released the hold at nine and walked away to work the crowd while the Blade collapsed to his knees in mock weariness.

It was an Oscar-worthy performance, and he hoped Amber was there to see it.

Trashcan stomped back to the corner to resume doling out punishment, but the Blade surprised him with a single-leg takedown. The small crowd erupted as the Blade tried to transition into a leg-bar. When Trashcan squirmed to the ropes, allowing for a break, the crowd booed. They were buying in, Blade thought. They were true believers already, but him and Trashcan were just getting started.

The Blade let his opponent stand. Trashcan threw a roundhouse. Blade blocked it and countered with one of his own, spilling Trashcan to the outside. Blade hit the ropes once, twice, then went for a dive. Trashcan moved. Blade caught himself and spun back into the ring. He made a beckoning gesture at Trashcan Tommy. Trashcan gave him the finger. He went to leave the ring in pursuit, but Mikey grabbed him and yelled for him to stop. The Blade feigned outrage, gesturing at the retreating Trashcan and yelling.

The Blade backed away as Mikey began to count Trashcan out. As planned, Black Metal and Doom Dog hit the ring. Doom Dog kicked Blade in the gut. Black Metal lifted him in a fireman’s carry and dropped him for a Death Valley Driver. They subsequently rolled out of the ring, leaving Blade laying.

Outside the ropes, Trashcan spread his hands and conveniently agreed to come back inside. He slipped through the ropes and onto Blade for a quick cover. One. Two. Blade kicked out. Trashcan pulled him into a sitting position and clamped on a painful-looking, but safe headlock. It was time to build heat.

8

At first, no one knew what the light around the levitating Felicity was. When it began to crackle, when her screams of surprise and fear became cries of agony, Amber could tell her friend was on fire. Suspended in the air and burning like an effigy.  Felicity’s screams were soon joined by her sister’s and by Amber’s, too. The woods seemed then to fill with screams. A chorus of pain and terror, far too loud and layered for three voices. Soon, Felicity stopped screaming and dropped, smoldering, to the rocky path. This brought fresh screams from her friends.

Amber backed away from the crispy corpse while Farrah drew closer.

“Don’t,” she managed to mumble.

Farrah had no reply. She just kept approaching her dead sister. Her screams had turned to whimpers. Mumbled words of grief that Amber couldn’t make out, but she imagined their meaning. She had no sisters, only her brother Aldous the Blade. She remembered the time he’d been in an awful car accident. He was sixteen and had just gotten his first car, a red Audi. Someone t-boned him at the intersection of Beacon Hill and Swamp Rd. The Audi was totaled. Aldous was almost lost, too. She remembered how scared she’d been, watching her big brother in the hospital bed, wondering when the machines would flatline to indicate the end of his life. That pain she’d imagined could not compare to what Farrah felt now. Amber’s had been imagined, her fears never realized as Aldous made a miraculous recovery, mounting a comeback like the wrestler he’d soon become. Farrah’s agony was all too real.

Amber took another step back and bumped into something. It felt human, soft and feminine. She spun.

“Caroline?” Her friend was standing there, saying nothing, wearing a blank stare. Amber’s tone sharpened with worry. “Caroline?”

Behind her, Farrah commenced pathetic wails of grief. The remains of Felicity smoked like hamburger left too long on a hot pan.

Caroline’s lips twitched. She still hadn’t spoken. Her eyes were hard and expressionless.

“Caroline, what’s going on? Where’s that girl? We have to get the fuck out of here.”

All of this spilled out of her mouth like loose M & M’s from candy machine. In response, Caroline touched Amber’s chest with two fingers. It looked like a light touch. It was a light touch. But somehow, Amber was now barreling backwards. She crashed into Farrah and the cremated remains of Felicity crunched beneath them. The girls screamed, flailing and smacking each other as they scrambled to their feet.

Farrah reached hers first and sprang for the car. Something yanked her back onto the corpse of her twin. Amber got up and ran, her friend’s screams dying behind her. She hated herself for doing this, leaving her friend to die, but she wasn’t a goddamn superhero. No way she could fight the … whatever the fuck in control of Caroline’s body.

By the time she got out of the woods, they had fallen silent. All she heard was her own ragged, rushing breath as she piled into the car and shut the door behind her.

Fuck. Caroline had the keys.

Amber looked back toward the woods. The killer in the guise of her friend stood on the edge of the road. She held the keys and jangled them tauntingly.

NO!” she screamed. “GODDAMN IT!

She considered leaving and running, but maybe if she kept the doors locked, she could be safe. Maybe… Caroline dropped the keys and raised her other hand. She looked as though she meant to clap.

“Oh my God, what the fuck, what the fuck?” Amber whined.

When Caroline’s hands came together, incredible crushing pain enveloped Amber.

She died before she could realize the car had collapsed on her.

9

It was time for the Blade to make his comeback. Trashcan Tommy whipped him into the ropes, setting up a pop-up powerbomb. Blade telegraphed the move, diving over Tommy’s head and hooking his legs under his opponent’s arms. The sunset flip drove Tommy back-first to the mat. Tommy rolled back to his feet. Blade was there to meet him with a clothesline. Tommy jumped up and met another clothesline. When Tommy got up a third time, Blade kicked him in the gut to set up the Blade Runner, which was a variation on the old Stone Cold stunner.

Before he could apply the move, Doom Dog slid into the ring. Took a swing at Blade, who ducked it and gave Doom Dog the Blade Runner meant for Trashcan. Black Metal Steve was next, attempting a tackle, which Blade sidestepped, sending Black Metal sailing out of the ring.

Trashcan had regained his bearings and wrapped his right hand in what looked like brass knuckles but was actually made of foam. Trashcan swung. Blade blocked it. Kicked Tommy in the gut and successfully hit the Blade Runner. He covered Trashcan Tommy for the one-two-three. The bell rang. New champion.

As the Blade raised the belt in the air, he scanned the audience once again and wondered where Amber was.

One and Only, Chapter 2

One of my current books in progress is called ONE AND ONLY. It’s a horror story with a strong romantic element at its core. Think RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 or FRANKENHOOKER. You can read the first chapter right here.

I’m posting the second chapter of ONE AND ONLY here. This afternoon on my Twitch channel, I will do a deep-dive into this chapter, breaking down my process sentence-by-sentence, and answering any questions you may have about the story, my currently available books, wrestling, or writing in general. Festivities start at 3 pm, central time.

After chatting with my friend J. David Osborne, I’ve been obsessing about the idea of early access to art (a common practice in video games, but very new in the world of fiction) and the growing interest in the meta-narrative behind creative content.

I’m a few chapters into this book. The goal is to post a new chapter each Monday morning and do a corresponding Twitch stream about each chapter in the afternoon. I hope you’ll join me.

TWO: CAROLINE

1

“Wake up, Marybeth.”

The speaker had an unfamiliar voice. She’d heard those three words many times before. From her parents. From her sisters. Once from a guidance counselor who said that she lived in a fantasy world. This one came from none of these people.  She thought then that maybe it had come from Mason, but that didn’t sound quite right. No, this voice belonged to someone new. So, who was it then?

Come to think of it: where was she? Someplace cold. Someplace dark.

Everything hurt like hell. Her eyelids felt like someone had tied weights to them.

She heard footsteps. Someone was coming.

“Wake up, Marybeth.”

That voice again, though maybe, she thought, not so unfamiliar. It had a buttery quality. It was soft, yet forceful. She tried to replay it in her mind as she lay there in the dark, aching, cold, and stiff.

“Wake up, Marybeth.”

This time, she felt her lips move when the voice spoke. She was the speaker. She was commanding herself to wake, but she didn’t want to! The place where she’d been before was … it wasn’t anything. It was a dreamless sleep. It was … She was dead.

Except, she wasn’t.

It all came flooding back to her. The confession to Mason on the cliff. The attempt at a kiss. The hate that flashed across his face before he shoved her over the edge. The fall. So much pain.

Her eyes flitted open. She was still somewhere dark and cold but was unconfined.

Was she in a field? Expecting pain, she was afraid to move.

The footsteps drew nearer. Became louder. Two sets of them. Men with flashlights. They stood over her. The younger of the two looked fresh out of high school, with his boyish features and slender build. His badge said his name was Olsen. She couldn’t tell if he was naturally as pale as he was now, or if the sight of her had drained the blood from his face. The older cop chuckled, sounding like a weasel. His badge said his name was Brandt.

“Necrophile’s night out, eh?” he said and elbowed Olsen in the ribs.

Olsen’s upper lip curled in disgust.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Kid, you want to be a cop, you’re gonna have to learn to have a sense of humor. Grow a set.”

“You’re such an ass.”

Brandt gave another weaselly chuckle.

“An ass who you report to, remember.” Olsen gave an uneasy nod. Brandt cocked his head and gave Marybeth a once over. “Pretty little thing, though.”

“Get up, Marybeth.” Her lips didn’t move, but she heard herself clear as HD sound. “Get up and kill them.”

What? No, I…

“I wasn’t asking.”

She felt herself rise like the light end of a seesaw. The two cops gasped. Brandt even cried out. It sounded girlish. With a glance around, she realized she was in a cemetery. She’d been buried alive. Or she’d died and somehow come back.

Olsen raised his hands.

“Ma’am, it’s going to be okay.”

She felt herself grin so widely that she thought the corners of her mouth might split.

“Jesus Christ,” Brandt muttered.

“Okay?” she heard herself ask. “I’ve never been better.”

She lifted one hand, spread the fingers to make a choking claw. Brandt lifted off his feet and slid through the air.

“Damn it, Olsen!” he yelled. “Help me!”

He fell into her grasp and she squeezed. He writhed, kicked his legs, and tried to pry her fingers free.

“Fucking shoot her or something,” he said in a strangled voice.

Olsen fumbled with his firearm. She held out her other hand, palm out. Olsen lifted off his feet, too, but unlike his partner, he sailed backwards. He smacked a thick oak, back-first. His limbs flopped, and he grunted. Marybeth made a fist. He floated forward several feet, stirring as he tried to regain control. She opened her palm again, and he flew back against the oak. This time, he went limp. She lowered her hand, and he collapsed in a heap of dead weight.

Brandt had given up on worming free. He had his gun drawn, pointing it at her in a shaky grip. She took a deep breath in. Brandt tried to steady his hand, reaching over her arm, using both hands. Pointing the barrel right at her face while she kept inhaling. While the air rushing into her grew stronger. While his face came with it. He screamed and dropped the gun when the flesh ripped free. He put his hands to the glistening red mask he now wore, sobbing in agony and disbelief. She let him fall to the ground. He was still screaming when she left the cemetery.

2

Caroline put on a sweater two sizes too big, tucked her blonde hair under her bicycle helmet, and pedaled out of her parents’ garage. She rode the bike out of her suburban neighborhood onto Sugar Bottom Road, which was heavily wooded. When she reached an unmarked dirt path, she turned onto it. The grinding hiss of the gravel under her tires broke through the Juice WRLD on her headphones. The woods were dark and cool, serene. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one had followed her.

Russell sat on the stoop of his trailer, clutching a tallboy of Pabst between his knees. A fire blazed inside a circle of stones. When he saw her, he nodded once and stood. She leaned her bike against an evergreen, took off her helmet, and approached him. They embraced. She put the side of her head against his chest and listened to his heartbeat. It was strong, like him. He slinked his fingers through her hair and guided her head so that she looked up at him. His eyes were like ash. His features sharp.

They kissed. Gently at first, then much harder. She could feel him growing against her and all the excitement and fear and need and guilt that came with their looming copulation. They pulled away from each other, holding only each other’s hands. He nodded toward the fire. He’d set up a blanket beside it. She smiled up at him and led him to it. They undressed. The fire felt warm on her naked skin as she pulled Russell on top of her.

When he entered her, she looked down between them, zeroed her focus on their perfect connection. How she made him glisten as he moved inside her. He began slowly. She lightly drew her nails down his back, stopping to squeeze his buttocks. He increased his rhythm and force. He smiled at the way she moaned, which she liked to see because she knew that meant she made him happy. She studied the veins that pulsed in his arms. The dark hair that hung in his eyes, swaying lightly. The fire hissed and crackled, its tongues curling around each log, making her warmer, making him warmer. As she watched the flames dance, she thought she might come this time. Something was building there. Something vibrant, tingly, and hot.

She rose her hips to meet him. He moaned his approval. Slid his hands under her butt. It didn’t last much longer after that. He finished a few seconds too soon, stopping her at the edge. She didn’t protest or ask him to help her along. She simply embraced him, holding him to her until he softened, imagining him melting into her, the two of them becoming one.

3

They disconnected, and everything felt cold. She wrapped herself in the blanket and scooted closer to the fire. He stepped into his pants and reentered his trailer to grab another PBR. When he returned, he brought over two camp chairs and sat in one of them. She saw he’d brought out two beers, too. He offered her one.

“No, I’m D.D. again tonight.”

He made a sound in his throat and smirked.

“What?” she asked.

“I wish you’d stay with me one of these nights.”

She moved from next to the fire and sat in the chair next to him, taking the blanket with her.

“One of these nights, I will,” she said and took his hand.

He took his hand away, downed half the first tallboy and grimaced. He picked up a rusty pole and stoked the fire. She watched him work, sparks and ash flying up all around him.

“You still love me?” she asked.

He looked over his shoulder at her, eyebrow cocked.

“Of course.”

“What about when I get old and gray?”

He set down the poker and knelt in front of her. He put his hands on her bare knees. They felt warm. She started to open for him again, but he applied enough pressure to hold her legs in place.

“I don’t love you because your young,” he said. “I love you because you’re real.”

She ran her fingers through his hair like she was petting a loyal dog.

“I don’t feel real sometimes.”

“You are though.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

She just laughed. There was so much about her that he didn’t know. She reached over and took the half-drunk Pabst. She tilted the can, spilling its contents over and between her thighs, giggling at the liquid’s chilly touch. He stared up at her, eyes widened.

“Don’t want your precious beer to go to waste now, do you?” she asked.

He relented his grip, allowing her to open for him. Then, he lowered his head.

4

“Did you have a nice ride?” Caroline’s mother asked.

“Sure did!” Caroline said, giggling to herself at the double entendre.

She began to cross the living room to march upstairs.

“Gonna be around for dinner?”

“No, I’m going out with the girls.”

“Why am I not surprised?” her mother said with a laugh. “Your leftovers will be in the fridge.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

Caroline went upstairs to the bathroom. She got the water going hot and stepped under the spray to rinse off Russell, dirt, and smoke. As she washed herself, she thought she should probably tell him to stop coming inside her. Sure, she was on birth control, but there was no such thing as being too careful. The last thing she needed was a baby. Her parents would say she had too much going for her, but she didn’t know about all that. She did know that she was too young.

After her shower, she dressed in a form-fitting maroon sweater, mid-rise skinny jeans, and sneakers. She straightened her hair and sprayed herself with some Light Blue. When she tromped back downstairs, her mother stepped in front of her, holding a bowl of stew.

“Last call,” her mom said.

“No, thanks. Smells good though.”

She gave her mom a peck on the cheek and skipped through the front door toward her car. The blue Ford Fusion had been a gift from her parents upon her acceptance to ASU. She had no intention of going.

5

First, she picked up Amber who lived in a neighborhood with houses three times the size of the houses in Caroline’s neighborhood. Amber didn’t throw it in anyone’s face. She did the opposite, often seeming embarrassed by her parents’ affluence. She always made Caroline pick her up and drop her off at the park across from her development even though Caroline had seen her house more than once and everyone knew the area in which she lived. Caroline had once seen Amber punch a dude in the nose for suggesting her riches made her a spoiled brat.

Now, she was sitting on a park bench, staring down at her phone. Caroline gave the horn a light honk. Amber looked up and brightened, springing to her feet and running toward the car.

“Hey, girl,” she said, sliding into the passenger seat.

“Hey yourself. What’s up?”

Caroline put the car back in drive and pulled away from the well-lit park.

“Did you see this shit?” She shoved the phone in Caroline’s face. The headline practically screamed: GRAVE OF BELOVED GIRL DESECRATED. Before she could read the smaller printed details, Amber yanked the phone away. Caroline put her eyes back on the road. “Some pervert dug up Marybeth Carlyle’s grave.”

“Oh, God.”

“It was probably your creepy friend.”

“Mason’s not creepy,” she said.

“Babe, come on. He seems nice, but let’s be real. When we were all talking about that dumb Hereditary movie, he took some weird book out of his backpack, opened a page and said: ‘here’s Paimon right here.’”

Caroline giggled.

“That was three years ago. I’m sure he’s … matured a little.”

“Oh, I’m sure.”

As they drove toward the Clemente twins place, they had to drive past the part of the woods where Russell lived. Caroline turned to look at the passage leading to his trailer but kept her thoughts to herself.

“Speaking of weird,” Amber said. “I can’t believe that Roderick kid just lives back there. What does he eat? Squirrels or something?”

“I’m sure he goes food shopping, Amber.”

“Still. What kind of guy just lives in the woods?”

The kind of guy that I like, she wanted to say, but she kept silent. Sometimes secrets mattered more than pride.

When they reached the house of the Clemente twins, Caroline gave the horn two taps.

“And now we wait,” Amber said. “Want to take bets on how much time passes before they come out?”

“No,” Caroline said.

“You’re no fun.”

The twins—Farrah and Felicity—came out wearing matching green hoodies and black leggings. They slid into the back seat. Caroline pulled away from their house.

“Are you guys seriously riding without music?” Farrah asked. Caroline and Amber looked at each other. “I don’t know how y’all do it. Put on something fun.”

Before Caroline could touch the radio, something screeched from next to Farrah as a death metal song blared from Felicity’s phone.

“Ugh, turn that shit off,” Farrah said.

“You said you wanted music,” Felicity said, laughing.

The twins fought over the phone, guttural growls from the lead singer providing an absurd soundtrack to the tussle.

“All right knock it off,” Amber said, swiping the phone and silencing the music.

“Hey,” Felicity whined.

“You don’t get this back until I know you two are gonna behave. If we’re going to buy that beer, we can’t just act like a bunch of little girls.”

“Oh, please,” Farrah said. “All you have to do is show Ted behind the counter a little skin and he’ll let you have the whole store.”

“For free,” Felicity added.

Amber looked at Caroline for backup. Caroline pulled the car back onto the wooded road.

“Well?” Amber asked.

“Well, what?”

Well, aren’t you gonna say something? Defend your best friend’s honor?”

Well, they do have a point,” Caroline said, barely containing her laughter.

Amber looked ahead and stuck out her lower lip stuck out in an expression of mock hurt.

“Fine,” she said. “Still not giving you bitches back your phone.”

“Hey, come on!” Felicity said. “Don’t be like that.”

Something shadowy slumped out into the road. Caroline kicked the brake pedal, pressing it all the way to the floor. The car lurched to a halt. Its headlights flooded the figure which had walked right out in front of them. It was a girl and Caroline recognized her.

“Marybeth,” she whispered, while her riding companions shouted over each other.

Marybeth turned away and staggered off to the woods on the other side of the road.

Before Caroline could even take a moment to evaluate what she hoped to do, she threw the car in park, unbuckled her seat belt and opened her door to get out.

“What are you doing?” Amber asked, her voice sharp with disapproval.

Caroline didn’t answer. She sprinted into the woods after Marybeth. After the girl that, as far as she knew, died over a week ago in a tragic fall off Sunset Cliffs.

One and Only, Chapter 1

I’m doing something a little different today. One of my current books in progress is called ONE AND ONLY. It’s a horror story with a strong romantic element at its core. Think RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 or FRANKENHOOKER. My first book FLESH AND FIRE is about a guy who unintentionally brings his lover back from the dead. This project explores similar themes, but the main character’s actions are far more intentional (he’s an amateur necromancer) and they don’t yield the results he hopes for.

I’m posting the first chapter of ONE AND ONLY here. This afternoon on my Twitch channel, I will do a deep-dive into this chapter, breaking down my process sentence-by-sentence, and answering any questions you may have about the story, my currently available books, wrestling, or writing in general. Festivities start at 2 pm, central time.

After chatting with my friend J. David Osborne, I’ve been obsessing about the idea of early access to art (a common practice in video games, but very new in the world of fiction) and the growing interest in the meta-narrative behind creative content.

I’m a few chapters into this book. The goal is to post a new chapter each Monday and do a corresponding Twitch stream about each chapter. I hope you’ll join me.

ONE: MASON

1

“Nothing lasts forever, son,” Dad said and clapped me on the shoulder like he was imparting some great wisdom on a child, not a seventeen-year-old.

We were standing graveside. Marybeth’s casket had just been lowered into the earth. I could no longer see my reflection in its black surface. Everyone else was gone, even the preacher and the undertaker, even her parents and sisters. The sun felt warm on my back. It didn’t feel like the right day for a funeral. There should’ve been gray skies, some rain. This was the first funeral I’d gone to for someone who wasn’t an aging, ailing relative. Marybeth was my fucking girlfriend. Nature should have detected the storm inside me and taken its cue. She deserved something far more poetic than this. That is, if I didn’t know she’d be coming back on this very same night.

Nothing lasts forever, son, my dad’s words echoed in my mind.

“Yeah, we’ll just see about that,” I said.

I could feel him turning to gawk at me.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” I said.

He kept staring at me. I could feel him trying to make sense of my words, trying to make sense of me. He never would. No one ever did. No one except for her.

I hadn’t spent the last week eating dog meat just to let her die.

2

“Is this seat taken?” MaryBeth asked that day at the diner.

Considering the sheer magnitude of how she would impact my life, you’d think her opening line would be something far less cliché, but what do you want? We were just kids. I looked up from my notes and steaming, black coffee and saw her standing over me. By far, the most stunning girl I’d ever seen, mainly because she was giving me attention. Girls mostly ignored me. I knew the score. Dorks like me only ever got rejected, humiliated, emasculated. Yet, here she was, all legs and golden hair and fuck-me blue eyes, asking if the seat across from me was taken.

I was at a diner called Katrina’s. I usually came here after school to study spells when I should’ve been studying trig.

When she looked down at my notes, which contained a crude sketch of the Tree of Life, I instinctively covered them.

“Why are you so afraid of letting people see who you are?”

Not what you like, who you are. I had to admit that was an even more compelling opening line and perhaps one more befitting of what we would become.

“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s just … do you really want to sit with me?”

She made a funny face then. Her lips smirked, but her eyes told a different story. I thought she was sizing me up, seeing a challenge, wanting to take it on.

“Why else would I have asked?” she said.

“I dunno.”

She laughed. I laughed a little, too.

“So, can I?”

My gaze flicked to the empty booth across from me, as if some ghost were sitting there and would be offended if I let her slide in beside it. Then, I looked back up at her. She raised her eyebrows. They were the most interesting eyebrows I’d ever seen. Meticulously plucked. Darker than her hair.

“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”

She smiled again, less a cool smirk this time. It was warm. It made me feel warm in my chest.

3

On the way home from the funeral, I looked out the window of my Dad’s Ford pickup. Most of the roads around us were densely wooded, broken only by old colonial homes and ranchers. Intersections reminded us that we didn’t really live out in the country. Strip malls and Walgreen’s pharmacies, and banks and fast-food joints awaited us at nearly every traffic light. I loathed those little glimpses of the real world. Those breaks in the landscape of my dreamland.

I fantasized about driving these roads again at night after all the shops went dark. I fantasized about forbidden magic and waking the dead.

We picked up little Sheila from the Warren place. Dad made me get out of the car with him, and I groaned but did it anyway, shuffling after him like I was much older than seventeen and suffering from a near-crippling case of arthritis.

But when the door opened, and little Sheila came running out, screaming my name and bypassing Dad to throw her arms around my waist, I felt myself smiling, felt my eyes brimming with tears that wouldn’t come during the funeral. I hugged my little sister back. Dad watched us embrace and smiled, too.

Mrs. Warren came out and he handed her a check and thanked her. I helped Sheila get buckled in her car seat, then entered the passenger door.

“I pick a card!” she yelped.

I grimaced.

“No, I’m not feeling up for it,” I said.

“Please, Mason? Please?”

Dad cocked an eyebrow at me. I sighed.

“Okay,” I said and produced my worn deck of cards from my coat pocket.

She chose a Jack of Clubs and I guessed it correctly. She beamed at me and asked how I knew. I told her I was a magician, but it wasn’t magic at all, really. Just a trick I learned from watching videos on YouTube. I’d never done any real magic, but I would. I was determined to try it that night. And it would be big and beautiful and terrible, and by the time it was all said and done, Marybeth and I would be together again.

4

“Have you ever tried any spells?” Marybeth asked me that day at the diner.

My cheeks got hot and I looked off to the side, out the window, into the near-empty parking lot.

“Oh, so you have?” she said. “I bet it’s something good. Tell me.”

“It’s embarrassing.”

She giggled and took my hand across the table. “You can tell me.”

“I once tried astral projection.”

“And? What’s so embarrassing about that?”

“I did it so I could visit a girl I had a crush on. Like, at her house.”

She laughed, but it didn’t hurt. It didn’t seem mean.

“Tell me about her,” she said.

I told her about Caroline. A cheerleader. Way out of my league. Talked to me sometimes but only because she didn’t see me as a threat. Short, but full of huge energy. Single, but only interested in flings with guys who played on the sports teams.

“I know. So typical, right?” I said.

“If she’s hot, she’s hot. Do you still like her?”

“No. That was freshman year. It wasn’t meant to be. I made peace with that a long time ago. Besides, she’s not very smart.”

“Why not? Because she didn’t know such a nice boy like you was crushing on her?”

“No, nothing like that, but come on. Stupidity’s a big turnoff, right?”

She laughed again and it was like a classical suite played by the reincarnation of Mozart.

“Yes,” she said. “I would say that stupidity is a huge turnoff. Thankfully, you seem pretty bright.”

Her eyes twinkled like Christmas lights.

“Thankfully?” I asked.

5

When I got home with Dad and Sheila, I went to my room, but I could hardly sit still, let alone sleep. I took out my notes and books on magic, studying the spell I intended to cast that night. Dad knocked on the door, and I stuffed everything under my blanket, taking out my trig book and school notebook.

“Come in,” I said.

He opened the door and looked me over.

“You don’t have to study,” he said. “You’ve had a tough day.”

I fumbled for something to say.

“Want to play some video games with Sheila and me?”

“Maybe later,” I said, forcing a smile.

He sighed and looked at his shoes. When he looked at me again, he wore a grimace, like he’d just taken a pull of strong whiskey.

“You know, it’s okay to cry,” he said. “It’s not … un-manly or anything.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“If you need to … if you need anything, just let me know.”

I looked down at my trig book and all the sigils I’d drawn in the margins.

“I think I need to study,” I said. “It will help take my mind off things.”

He straightened and looked me over again. I wondered what he was looking for. Some tell I was lying? I really needed him to leave but lacked the heart to say it. He gave me a curt nod and granted my wish. I stuffed my trig book back in my backpack and took my spell book and notes from under the blanket.

I began reading again from the beginning. I could leave no margin for error.

6

“How do I know you didn’t use some kind of love magic on me?” Marybeth asked with a devious glint in her eyes.

We had just finished making love and were sitting on the roof outside my bedroom window. She had her head in my lap. My head was in the clouds. I was sure it was she, not I, who’d cast a spell. I’d never properly been with a girl before. In the moments it lasted, all the noise in my head—the voices who said I wasn’t good enough, the images of my mother’s wasted figure in the hospital bed in those final days, memories from times I lay in the dark and begged to leave my body and see forbidden things—fell silent. Intangible things fell into place. We moved together with the rhythm of the universe. I was sure of it.

Perhaps we’d cast spells on each other, with each stroke of my hand across parts of her flesh, each kiss, bite, scratch, and rock of our hips, we came to own each other, because it was meant to be. We were divorced parts of a whole, finally reunited.

I’d closed my eyes when I climaxed but saw so much light. When we came apart, I’d felt so cold.

On the roof, I considered her words. How do I know

I guessed she didn’t. How could she? But maybe she needed some reassurance.

“I wouldn’t do that to you,” I said. “I’m not even sure I’d know how.”

She sat up and stared into my eyes.

“What if I died? Would you use necromancy to bring me back?”

“Yes,” I said, and kissed her before she could say anything else.

7

I tried to pry the padlocked cemetery gates apart wide enough for me to climb through. Their hinges groaned, but the gates hardly budged. I cursed and went to the wall beside it. If I got a running start, I could probably scale it. I looked around to make sure the houses on the nearby street were still dark and listened to be sure no cars were coming. I threw my backpack over the wall, backed up and ran and jumped. My arms found purchase on the top of the wall, but the momentum and my weight caused my elbows to skin on the surface. I winced but did not loosen my grip. It took tremendous effort to lift myself over the wall. I had to keep reminding myself that I was doing this for Marybeth. That she was worth it. That we’d be together again before the night was over.

I climbed over the top of the wall and jumped down, landing beside my bag. I took another look around and listened to ensure I was alone. Save for some crickets, I was the only one out here. I shouldered my backpack and went on.

I was afraid a flashlight would draw unwanted attention, so I had to rely on moonlight to guide me. All the headstones looked the same: gray buoys in a dark sea. I had to get close to each one to read the engraved names. When I found hers, I knelt in the freshly turned earth and pressed my forehead to the cool stone.

“Don’t worry, my love,” I said. “We’ll be together again soon.”

8

“Do you ever dream about flying?” Marybeth asked.

We were holding hands and standing on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. It was sunset, and a cool breeze raised gooseflesh on my arms. Or maybe it had been her question.

“Sure,” I said. “As a kid.”

We met each other’s gaze and I kissed her, but it was brief, and I got the impression she was somewhere else despite her corporeal form standing beside me, despite her hand in mine. She stared across the sea.

“The horizon always made me sad,” she said. “Like there’s something more, something beautiful, just out of sight.”

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Have I ever been?”

I imagined her releasing my hand and walking over the edge of the cliff, magenta fire rising in her wake.

9

I started at one in the morning, digging with my hands because it needed to be intimate. I made a circle in the dirt around the grave, yanking up clumps of grass and soil.

The panic didn’t start until I took the kerosene from my backpack. I’d stolen it from Dad’s garage. He’d miss it and probably blame me, ask if I was a pyro, setting woods on fire and that kind of shit. He had no idea. After pouring the liquid into the moat I dug, I sparked a utility lighter and lowered its flame to the combustible liquid. When the fire encircled me, my panic died. My heart thudded rapidly with anticipation.

I began to dig again. This time, I use a spade.

I worked through pain. Through exhaustion and panic. Through fire I had to reignite more than once. When I exposed the coffin, the moonlight shone in such a way that I saw my reflection in its lid. I took it as a good sign.

The lid fought hard to stay shut. I used a crowbar and pried so hard that I shed tears of exertion. When the lid finally broke open, I collapsed against the dirt, regaining my breath, one ragged inhalation after another. I made myself stand, closed my eyes, and took a slow, calm breath before looking upon her.

Marybeth, my love, was still perfectly preserved. It was still so soon after her burial.

No worms would taste her flesh.

I embraced her and lifted her out of the grave, positioned her like Christ, and I began to chant for her to wake, glancing down to her closed eyes, willing them to reopen.

Someone strong grabbed me by the back of my neck. Whoever it was, they pulled me out of the grave and flung me, over the fire, to my back. I looked up to see my father glaring down at me.

“Dad, I…”

“I don’t even want to imagine what you were doing.”

“Where’s Sheila?”

“She’s in the car.” I looked behind me. His car was idling in front of the cemetery gates. Right next to mine. His was a big, luxury SUV, mine a hooptie I’d bought for less than a grand. A grand I’d gotten with his help. “And you’re lucky she’s with me, otherwise I’d make you clean this mess up, even if it took until morning.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked, fighting back tears with every ounce of willpower that I had.

You’re going to get in your car and drive home. I’m going to follow you. Once we’re on the road, I’m telling the police I saw someone messing around up there. If you pull over or try to run from me, I’m calling them back and telling them it was you.”

“But Dad…”

“Get in the car now.”

I opened my mouth to protest. I felt hot all over. I wanted to kill him right then. Smack him over the head with the spade. Decapitate him while he was down and out.

But I’d already made a big enough mess of things.

Marybeth wasn’t coming back. She wasn’t coming back, because…

Because nothing lasts forever.

“Yes, sir,” I said, getting to my feet and following Dad out of the cemetery.

10

“Did you fuck him?” I asked Marybeth, the last time I saw her alive.

“No,” she said, looking down at the waves, splashing the base of the cliff.

The sun was nearly all the way down.

“Well, then maybe we can still…”

She shook her head.

“Why not? I forgive you. It was just a kiss.”

“Maybe I’m not ready to forgive myself.”

“Come on, that’s stupid.”

She met my gaze.

“So, I’m stupid now?”

“No, just … you hurt me, but I’m not mad at you, so you don’t need to be mad at yourself.”

“You don’t understand,” she said.

“Sounds like you think I’m stupid.”

“I don’t. We’re just seeing things differently and I don’t know.”

I tried to make sense of what was happening. I tried to make sense of how everything that had transpired between us previously could lead to such an unceremonious end. Things made sense when I was with her. She said things made sense when she was with me. If only I hadn’t started talking to Caroline again. Yeah, we were just friends and always would be, but it bothered Marybeth for some reason. Probably because she remembered my astral projection story. Instead of listening to her, I told her she was controlling. We had a big fight. Our only fight. We hung up on each other, and now here we were. At least she had the decency to tell me to my face.

I wanted to apologize and offer to take her home. Lick my wounds and move on. I really did. Honestly, I really did.

Instead, I tried to kiss her. She’d told me my kisses made her crazy.

Maybe they could change her mind. Work some magical spell.

She turned her face away, not giving me the chance to try.

And then I pushed her. Without so much as a second thought, I pushed her.

As she screamed on the way down, I feared I’d hear that scream for the rest of my life. The silence after her fall was even worse.

I fell to my knees at the cliff’s edge, but before any tears could fall, something shifted within me. A powerful notion inside urged me not to cry. Not to mourn. This was the best thing that could have ever happened to us.

It was an accident. Yes. I hadn’t pushed her. It was an accident. And then I’d bring her back, just like I’d told her I would do. I’d bring her back, and she’d have no choice but to give herself to me forever. She would be mine once again. For the first time in the near twenty-four hours since our fight, I felt hopeful for the future. Darkness had fallen upon the isolated cliff, but I was full of light.