The Virus caught up to Windom at a Shoney’s some fifteen miles across the Tennessee border. Dude was hard to miss. Six-foot-ten, three hundred pounds, the word KILL tattooed across his forehead. Windom watched the Virus enter, but kept his head down, pretended to keep eating his bland catfish and soggy green beans. No need to cause a scene. Not yet.The Virus plodded to where the hostess, a petite blond with crooked teeth and big dumb eyes, stood shuffling menus. She smiled up at the Virus, didn’t say shit about his imposing size or his face tattoo. Windom guessed she was used to seeing all sorts of characters in these truck stop buffets. “Just one, sir?”“Meeting a friend,” the Virus said, his voice gravel in a paper cup.He and the hostess turned to the dining room. Windom waved. May as well get to it.The Virus followed the hostess toward Windom’s table. He didn’t bother sitting. The hostess—her name tag said, Greta—glanced from Windom to the Virus. Crooked teeth bared into a too big smile. Eyes darted between the two men. Blinked.“You gonna sit?” she asked.“Sit when I want. Leave a menu.”“Okay, sure thing,” she said, still smiling, so used to being bossed around, she thought it was normal. She only existed to please. Did her damnedest to walk on eggshells with everyone. All the time. At least that was what Windom gleaned, just from focusing on her mannerisms, her aura, the empty space he detected where most people had a multitude of thoughts. “You just lemme know you need anything, ‘kay?”She sashayed away from the table. The Virus looked down at Windom, narrowed his eyes.“Think you know why I’m here.”“Reckon I do. No need to rush things. Grab a plate. Get some food. I recommend the catfish.”“I didn’t come here to eat.”“You always need to be so serious? Relax a little.”The Virus sniffed. Convinced by the aroma, he nodded. “All right. Better not try anything funny.”“Course not. I know my audience.”The Virus went to the buffet and returned with a loaded plate and sat down. He bit into a chicken thigh, tore a huge hunk of meat and dropped the almost bare bone back to the plate. He chewed with his mouth open. Windom hated that shit.“So, how do you plan on doing me in?” Windom asked.“It matter? End result’s the same.”“Look at you, brushing up on your philosophy.”“What?” He spit out a wayward chunk of bone.“Never mind. For your information, it does matter. I’d like for you to make it as quick as possible. Surely, that doesn’t surprise you.”The Virus scarfed the skin from a chicken leg and gnashed the fat with his mouth open. Made a squishy sound. “Funny, you thinking you deserve an easy way out of this.”“Didn’t say I deserved anything. Just saying what I want is all.”“I hear ya. Don’t mean I’m gonna listen.”“Yeah, I figured as such, but I’m still curious. How do you plan on doing it?”“Doing what?”Windom sighed at the Virus’s mental density. “Killing me.”The Virus stopped chewing. Dropped a mostly eaten chicken wing back to his plate. He folded his hands. Stared real serious like, then smiled.“Here’s what I’m thinking. First I’m gonna chop your dick off and shove it up your asshole.” Windom nodded, genuinely intrigued, and motioned for the Virus to go on. “Gonna shove it up your asshole so far…hmm, well, I would say you’d be pissing every time you open your mouth, but you won’t have much time to do that once I get done with you.”“Not to mention, that would only work if somehow my bladder was still attached.”The Virus narrowed his eyes. “You know I don’t like smart motherfuckers.”“You’re right. Sorry.” Windom grinned. “Go on.”“Well, after I shove your dick up your ass…”People around them started to stare.“Might want to keep it down, huh?” said Windom.The Virus leered at an old man in a denim shirt. “Fuck you looking at, old timer?”“Focus, you’re here for me, remember.”“Right. Anyway, after I shove your dick up your ass, I’m gonna plug the wound with my fist and fuck it. Fist fuck you from both sides.” He chuckled. “I get bored with that, and ‘pending you’re still alive, I’m gonna gouge out your eyes and feed ‘em to ya.”“Well, shit, that’s just mean.”“Course, I may just bypass all that shit and just shoot you in the back of the head.”“Course, this is all pending I let you.”“Fuck you say?”Windom got the disbelief in the Virus’s voice. Yeah, sure, Windom had a reputation for being dangerous, but his appearance was about as physically unthreatening as a sparrow standing its ground against a mountain lion. Probably even more silly to a guy the size of the Virus.Windom pushed his plate full of green beans and a mostly eaten filet of catfish aside and revealed the symbol. All angles and curves, an eye at its center, he’d drawn it on the table in red chalk five minutes before the Virus entered. The hitman’s brow furrowed, wrinkling the black letters in the word KILL.“Hell is that?”“Look closer.”The Virus leaned forward and Windom mumbled the words taught to him when he was a boy, in the arrangement his grand pappy said was older than God. The Virus sucked in a ragged breath. Windom gripped the sides of the Virus’s head and slammed it against the table. KILL met ancient sigil. The Virus spread through the cosmos in time immeasurable, in an eternal instant. And he screamed. His third eye finger-fucked by the Hand of Glory. His screams became gurgles. The back of his head exploded, shot pink and red brains like a geyser. Some hunks stuck to the ceiling.Windom released the Virus. He rose from the booth and grinned at the slack-jawed, wide-eyed spectators.“I bid thee good day,” he said, and mumbled more of the strange words, stopping time long enough to leave the Shoney’s and walk, whistling, toward the highway.
The police found no evidence of foul play. No sign, other than her absence, that she had even left the room. No one in the neighborhood saw her leave. Since her clothes were left behind, she would have run away naked. How no one had noticed a naked, fit woman in her early twenties running around the suburban streets baffled the police, and Dale when he stopped to think about it. But it wasn’t like she could have vanished into thin air. That was just stupid.
After a long, difficult night of providing the officers with photographs (“she doesn’t usually smile this much,” Dale said, as he printed out and handed over a picture from their last day at the beach) and all other pertinent information on Melissa, Dale lay awake until a quarter to six in the morning. Then he just paced the room, thoughts racing. He couldn’t wrap his head around any of it: the sudden disappearance, the unseasonable chill in the air. He thought about how upset she had been. And the scream.
He wondered what his next step would be. Will it hurt more if I stayed here or if I went back to base? Both places contained reminders of painful things. Home, his father and other fractured family relationships, relationships he couldn’t imagine trying to rebuild now as he panicked over Melissa’s disappearance and fought to hold off the grief from her potential permanent loss. On base, the reminder of her would be constant. For the first time in his military career, he considered going AWOL. He could hitchhike across the country and look for…for what? For myself? What a cliché.
He decided to go back to base and immerse himself again in training and work. At least that would give him something else to think about. Throwing himself into his on-base activities had worked before. Surely, he thought, it would work again.
Still, as he booked his ticket back to San Diego, his hands trembled. Tension pressed into his neck and shoulders. He hovered the cursor over the COMPLETE ORDER button, took a breath, and clicked. He considered leaving without saying ‘goodbye,’ thought about writing a note and setting it on the island in the kitchen, or maybe just sending a text.
Best to face Katie, tell her in person. You owe her that much. Probably a lot more.
He waited until she woke. He didn’t expect Jake to be there, but Jake came by that morning to check on her. They sat down to another mostly quiet breakfast. This time Katie cooked. Halfway through the meal, Dale worked up the courage to break the news.
“I changed my flight,” he said. “Think it’s better if I go.”
Katie looked up from her plate and frowned. “When are you going?”
He hesitated, felt poised to jump off a precipice so high that he couldn’t see the bottom. “Tonight.”
Jake slammed his fork down, but said nothing. Dale stared across the table, but Jake wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“I just,” Dale began.
“You don’t need to explain anything,” Katie said. “Just…do what you have to do.”
“No, you’re not,” she said.
He opened his mouth to say more, thought better of it and sighed. He downed the rest of his food, barely tasting it. No one else said a word, not until it was time to say goodbye.
Katie and Jake walked him to the door that afternoon. He brought the guitar with him. Katie lowered her gaze, gave the guitar a once over, and looked up at Dale, her eyebrows raised. She hummed, something close to a grunt of approval, but not quite.
“Yeah,” Dale said. “Thinking of playing again. Got Dad’s songs on my MP3 player and thought it might be cool to learn them.”
“That’s nice. That’s really great.”
They embraced, then released each other. Dale and Jake made eyes at each other. They stared without speaking. Katie glanced between them, sensing the tension.
“Let me help you with your things,” Jake said.
Dale nodded. He didn’t need help, but from Jake’s look, he guessed his sister’s boyfriend wanted to talk to him about something. He handed Jake his suitcase. Katie stayed by the door and watched them walk to the car.
Dale popped the trunk to the rental car. “So what’s up?”
Jake stayed mostly quiet, but Dale could hear his uneasy breathing behind him. Dale turned. Jake chewed his lip.
“Don’t suppose you could stay?” he asked.
“Katie needs you, man. Hell, I could use some help with her too. She’s been kind of a mess lately.”
Dale loaded his guitar in the trunk. “I can’t.”
“You run out of leave?”
“It’s not that. I just…it hurts too much to be here.”
Dale shut the trunk, opened the back door and took the suitcase from Jake.
“I can’t blame you.” Dale stuffed the suitcase in the back seat, kept his back turned to Jake. “It’s what you’re best at.”
Dale spun to face Jake. “What the hell did you say?”
Jake withered, looked like he already regretted his words, but Dale wasn’t about to let him off. He took a step forward.
“You don’t know a fucking thing about me.”
“Look, all I’m saying is…”
“I heard what you said, asshole, and I don’t fucking appreciate it.”
Jake held up his hands. “Hey, listen…”
“No, you listen.” He stuck his finger in Jake’s face. “Just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean I don’t care about my sister. You don’t fucking ever…”
Jake slapped Dale’s finger out of the way. Something broke inside of Dale. He lunged forward, tackled Jake to the ground. Katie yelped, or maybe it was Jake; Dale wasn’t sure in his moment of perfect, blind rage. He reared back, rammed his fist into Jake’s nose. Felt the mash of cartilage, the spray of blood, and just like that, his rage dispersed like fog in front of a fan. He rose to his feet, heart thrumming, guilt welling.
Katie started to cross the yard. “What the hell are you doing?”
He looked up, opened his mouth to answer, but Jake’s heel smashed against his kneecap. He pitched forward, landed face-first against Jake’s shoulder.
“Fuck,” he groaned.
Dale rolled over, clutching his already swelling eye. Jake rolled on top of him.
“Jake, no. Stop it.” Katie hooked her forearm around Jake’s throat and pulled him back. Dale got up to lunge forward, but Katie stuck herself in front of him. “Both of you, just…hasn’t the last couple of days been hard enough?”
Dale and Jake glared at each other over Katie’s shoulder, but her presence had done its job. No more punches would be thrown. Jake pressed his shirt against his bleeding nose. Swelling forced Dale’s eye shut. Both men sucked in deep, seething breaths.
Katie took Dale by the arm, turned him away from Jake.
“Come on, let me get you some ice.” She glanced over her shoulder at Jake. “You too.”
Her voice was husky, tired, defeated. Dale felt like the biggest asshole in the world and couldn’t decide if that would make leaving easier or harder. He followed her inside, head down and got some ice for his eye. The second time he went out the door that day, no one said a word. He drove off, wounds tender and chilled.
Melissa locked the door to the bedroom and stripped naked. She pulled the page ripped from Katie’s journal and unfolded it, stared into the eyes of the man Katie called a demon. The man Katie called Samael.
She imagined the eyes turning to red orange, like twin match heads. She touched the fingers of her left hand to the demon’s lips. She licked the fingers of her right hand and reached down to touch herself. Her womanhood tingled as she massaged its lips. She fought the urge to close her eyes. Stayed focused on the face in the sketch. The eyes reddened. The flames in their irises began to sway. The fiery tips curled and trembled.
Dale continued to strum. Eyes closed. Lost in the music. He pictured his father seeing the man he had become. He pictured his father not being afraid to admit to dreaming of better things. Todd stood before him, wearing a dark suit and tie, his typical banker’s outfit. His short hair was thinning. A breath brought the scent of pungent, expensive cologne.
Dale continued playing, imagined looking into his father’s eyes. Blue, soft, as usual, but Dale noticed something different about them now. An intensity that he had never noticed in them before. They looked, for want of a better description, young, Dale thought.
The song looped back around. Dale played. More on beat, more confident. His father’s hair darkened. Lines in his face were smoothing out. He looked shorter, not looming over Dale the way Dale always imagined him. The black jacket started to fade, to tear.
“You came into my life,” Dale sang, “black-haired, blissfully damaged.”
Like Melissa, he thought and wondered how much his life mirrored his father’s. What had his father been like before becoming the man Dale knew? Who was he singing about? Dale and Katie’s mom didn’t have black hair, and she never struck her as damaged. At least not in the way worth singing about.
The jacket fell from his father’s shoulders like so many dirty rags, collected around his feet like dust.
The fire spread. Every row of books engulfed in angry red tongues. The top of the bureau burned. The floor turned to orange molten rock.
Katie sat up, drew her knees to her chest. The Cosmic Heart burned beside her, a pulsing flame, beating in time with her heart. The book that claimed to hold secret cures smoldered. Black smoke seeped from between its pages.
The woman spoke like a skipping CD.…blood is diseased…blood is diseased…blood is diseased…
Melissa’s sex dripped, making her fingers wet and sticky. Natural lubricant ran in channels in the lines of her hand. She thrust her head back, gritted her teeth against a moan that could draw attention from the rest of the house.
Someone whispered in her ear. Words indecipherable. Full of seduction, but not without menace.
Her breath quickened. A notion inside her warned her against proceeding. Against finishing.
But I’m too close now. I’m on the brink.
She kept her gaze fixated on Samael’s. Watched the flames dance in his eyes. His lips moved. She swore they fucking moved. His tongue slipped out, ran across his pointed teeth.
I’m imagining this, she thought, but knew she wasn’t. Warmth engulfed her. Her legs jerked. Toes made fists.
She couldn’t help herself, a whimper escaped her lips. The black and white sketch of Samael colorized. Flesh became flesh. Scars became pale and textured. The fire in his eyes swirled like spiral galaxies of burning brimstone. Her fingers slipped between his lips, into the warm wetness beyond the paper. The points of his teeth pressed into the pads of her fingers and drew blood.
The scream ripped away the image of his reverse-aging father. Dale opened his eyes and stopped strumming. He tore the headphones from his ears and set the guitar against the edge of the deck. The second scream tore him to his feet, sent him barreling toward the house. He jerked open the back door and entered.
The scream belonged to Melissa. He had never heard her outright scream before, but he had heard her yell, heard her cry. The sound from upstairs was a ragged, wet combination of both.
He bolted up the stairs, heart pounding heat through his veins. His foot caught on the top step, and he pitched forward. Held his hands out for balance and fell against the wall.
Opposite the hallway from his room, Katie’s door flung open. Dale and his sister exchanged wide-eyed, urgent glances. They met in front of his room. He fumbled with the door knob. It was cold to the touch like he held a block of ice. He withdrew his hand, paused for a confused split second.
“What is it?” Katie said.
Dale ignored her question, took the knob and cranked it over. A chill greeted him when he opened the door. Katie crossed her arms against the draft. The cold bit through his clothing, almost hurt, but subsided upon his entering the room.
Melissa was gone.
“What the fuck?” he said. “Where the fuck is she?”
Her clothes lay in a discarded pile beside the bed. The blanket was bunched at the footboard. Her head had left an imprint in the memory foam pillow. No other sign of her remained.
Dale crossed the room, peered under the bed, into the closet. Her name passed his lips at irregular intervals, a repetitive manic chant. He started pushing aside furniture, kicking walls.
“Dale,” Katie said, her voice a decibel above a whisper.
He ignored her. Started knocking books and framed photographs off the dresser. Stopped saying Melissa’s name, replaced it with angry curses.
He spun to face his sister. Tears blurred his eyes. He ran past her, into the hallway and scrambled down the stairs. Yanking the front door open, he stepped outside. His gaze flicked across the yard, across the street. He called her name. Listened for a response. Breath pulled in and out, turning his cries hoarse. His blood rushed and he started to shake.
A warm hand closed around his shoulder and he fell to his knees. He punched the air, mumbled another string of obscenities.
“We need to call the police,” Katie said, a single tremor breaking the otherwise level manner of her voice. “Let’s go inside.”
Dale clenched his fists, tried to slow his breath. The air outside was warm against his skin. He wondered where the frosty draft in his room had come from and how it managed to make the doorknob so cold.
“What a fucking dump,” Dale said.
His father’s house stood at the end of a dirt road in the middle of a field off of Route 32. Though newly built, it had a lived-in, old homestead feel. Dale half-expected to see a couple of donkeys in the yard, along with some chickens and goats. He wondered how much of the field belonged to his father. He found it hard to believe the old materialist had traded a three-story, five-bedroom house smack dab in the middle of Suburbia, USA for a shotgun shack, unless the land was part of the deal.
“He wanted something as basic as possible,” Katie said.
“Hmm,” Dale said.
Katie told him their father had gone through some significant changes, but Dale still had a hard time letting go of the image of his father as a stiff banker who dressed in suits and bottom-lined everything. Could his father have changed that much? Was there a whole other side to him Dale had never seen?
As they got closer to the house, Dale saw splintered shards of wood and unraveled strings were strewn across the porch. He recognized the split remains of a guitar’s fretboard laying across the stairs.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Not sure. He broke it a little bit before he died. Can’t imagine why.”
Katie unlocked the door and opened it for Jake and Dale. Melissa had stayed behind, said something about not feeling well. Dale guessed she just didn’t feel like spending the day cleaning a dead man’s house. He couldn’t exactly hold that against her. She probably thought his obligation towards Katie was weird. She’d never met her mother and her father was in and out of rehab. She had no sense of loyalty when it came to family.
Funny thing was he didn’t think he did either, but when he saw Katie break down in the woods something shifted in him. He found himself wanting, more than anything, to help her. To salvage whatever pieces of his family remained. To try to reconnect.
Inside the house, a closet door was hanging open. Notebooks were stacked inside, some pages scattered on the carpet around the door. It looked as if his father had been going through them, maybe even moments before the heart attack.
Dale walked to the closet, picked up a notebook, and flipped to a random page. Song lyrics covered the paper, front and back. Even his father’s handwriting looked different than what it grew into. It looked less rigid, more flowing.
“I had no idea he wrote so much.”
“It used to be his life. Before us.”
“He can’t blame you guys for stopping,” Jake said.
“I second that, Jake,” said Dale and tossed the notebook back into the closet. “It was like he lived a double life. Remember when we were kids? He didn’t even let us in his study.”
“He barely let himself in,” said Katie. “And I’m not blaming him, Jake. There’s a lot about him we don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know.”
“Yeah, well, whatever,” Dale said. “Let’s just get this place cleaned up.”
Jake nodded. Katie wandered upstairs without another word.
Dale bent down among the notebooks and started organizing them, placing them back into their boxes. When he finished, he carried them, one at a time, to the Uhaul Jake rented and loaded them in the back. Down to the last two boxes, stacked on top of each other, he lifted the top one off and the bottom one’s flaps opened. He frowned, lowered the box in his arms, and approached the open box. Several CD cases were resting on top of everything. He grabbed one. The cover showed a much younger version of his father he wouldn’t have recognized had he not seen some old photos at the funeral. His father was holding a black guitar that looked like the one that lay in pieces on the porch. He gripped the CD tightly and hurried to the kitchen where Katie was boxing up some plates.
“Hey,” he said and she turned to him, her eyes pink with irritation from tears and lack of sleep. “I, uh, found one of these CDs. Do you mind if I take this one?”
Her face creased. She went pale, and Dale thought she might puke.
“Forget I asked,” he said and turned to put it back.
“No, I’m sorry. Go ahead. I just…it’s been a trying week.” “Well, I’m here for you, okay? I’m sorry I haven’t been.”
“What about Melissa?” “She’ll be fine. I’ll just promise her a trip to the beach.” They exchanged weak laughs. He held up the CD. “I’m gonna put this in my car before I forget.”
Katie nodded and Dale left the kitchen. He went outside and opened his rental car. He tossed the CD onto the passenger seat and stared into his father’s photographed eyes. He let them hypnotize him and tried to understand who the man used to be and why he changed. He wondered if it had anything to do with why his father died.