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.
Her father’s eyes held a vitality she’d never seen in them before. He looked much younger, almost her age. When he smiled at her, the expression didn’t look put on. It seemed effortless. He stepped towards her and a warm draft brushed across her face and encircled her. She relaxed in its embrace, feeling at ease for the first time since her world fell apart. Again, she felt removed from her surroundings, but not as she did in the church; she felt instead as if she stood in a different reality, a place behind the scenes of everything familiar.
Her father raised his hand. That strange green light glowed in his palm and he opened his mouth to speak.
“It’s okay,” he said.
He motioned for her to come and she approached belly aflutter, heart still slamming. He approached, too, moving far more confidently than she. They met and locked hands. She cried and felt no shame, because she and this apparition of her father were separate from the rest of the world. She could see it, but she didn’t acknowledge it and it didn’t see her. The veil only existed on their side, like a two-way mirror for the spirit world.
She drew closer to her father. He helped her forward and pulled her in for an embrace. Heat radiated from him. The closer she got, the less comfortable the heat made her. She felt like she did the time she fell asleep on the beach and got a terrible sunburn. He snaked his arms around her. She looked up at him. She needed to see him. She needed to know this was real. Maybe then she could ignore this awful heat.
He opened his mouth and leaned in for a kiss.
“Dad, no,” she said and tried to pull away.
The heat in his core increased. She squealed in revulsion and tried to worm her hands between them to push him off. Her father grinned. His blue eyes turned the color of burning coal. His mouth opened wider. A red tongue lolled between the lips and split in two, leaking yellow pus that dribbled down his chin. Finally, Katie kicked free and fell hard on her butt. Painful vibrations rocked their way up her spine.
When she looked up, she met the burning gaze of the monster that took everything from her. His hands were hooked into claws. Katie screamed and flailed and kicked, too panicked to regain her feet.
But then, something else broke through her fear: a pure rage unlike anything she ever felt in her twenty-one years, a rage she never before thought could live inside her.
She rose and tackled her assailant to the ground, screaming like a banshee with its hair on fire.
The voice cut through her fury, distant and muffled. She swung her fists, pounding the face of the demon who had ruined her and her family. The voice crying her name took on a more anxious tone. A hint of pain slipped through. The face changed into Jake’s. He held her hands, but cringed against her.
She jerked her head side to side, checked her surroundings for any sign of the demon. Dale stood at the edge of the woods, Melissa on his arm. His eyes were soft and wide. Melissa’s eyebrows were cocked.
“Jake, oh my God,” Katie said, and fell into his arms.
“What the hell was that?” he asked.
“I…I don’t know. I thought…never mind…I just…I think I need to lie down.”
“Sure. Sure. I’ll take you to the car.”
He took her to the black Corolla and she plopped down in the passenger seat.
“So, what was that all about?” Jake asked as he lowered the seat for her.
“Fuck if I know. Probably having a goddamn nervous breakdown.”
“Should we call Ruthanne?”
Ruthanne was her therapist, a middle-aged hippy with an office that smelled like cinnamon. The office was the only place Katie felt safe. She wanted to say ‘yes’ so badly, but there was still so much to do.
“I’ll call her, just…after today…after Dad’s house is cleaned up.”
“I can pitch in, too,” Dale said, coming up behind Jake.
“Sure Melissa will be cool with it?” Katie asked.
“She’ll have to be. I want to help you.”
Katie took her brother’s hand and squeezed it. After she released him, Dale and Jake rejoined Melissa and walked back to the church. Katie curled up against the passenger seat and watched the black, swirling storm clouds through the dirty windshield.
The rented Ford Focus pulled up to the house where Dale grew up. He cut the engine and pressed his forehead against the wheel. The last time he’d been here, he told his father that he didn’t want his life, because his father’s idea of life was complete bullshit, a bad fucking play where the actors weren’t told they were acting but still faked every daily motion. Or at least that how he’d wanted it to come out. Wasn’t hard to envision his diatribe being far less eloquent. Probably a lot more vulgar. Now Todd had died without them ever reconciling.
“Well, here we go,” he said. He turned to Melissa. She had her feet propped up on the dashboard. Her phone rested on her knees and she typed a message to a guy whose name Dale didn’t recognize. Dale felt a flare of jealousy, but pushed it away. “Thanks for doing this with me.”
She finished the message and put the phone back in her purse. “You so owe me a trip to the beach after this.”
The beach was the only place he ever saw Melissa smile.
“It’s a deal,” he said.
“I can’t promise I won’t slap your sister or mom for saying something stupid though.”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that. Who starts a fight at a funeral anyway?”
“You don’t know my family.”
Dale didn’t pursue the matter further. They got out of the car and he slipped his arm around her shoulders. As they neared the front door of his old home, he felt nauseous, and his skin grew hot. He made himself ring the doorbell.
The door swung open. The woman on the other side couldn’t be his sister. She had grown up so much since he left. Her features held a weariness no amount of makeup could hide. He wondered what happened to her. He knew about the break-in, but not much beyond that. Katie had relayed only scant details. When he asked if she needed him to come home, she said not unless he was ready to talk to Dad. Fuck that.
Resentment toward their late father aside, he felt like a real shit right now. He and his sister fell into an embrace. The frame in his arms was thin and frail, as if it would break if he squeezed too hard. He almost cried, but he didn’t want to be weird. Especially not with Melissa standing behind him. She didn’t like oversensitive men.
They broke the hug, made introductions and went inside. Jake met them in the kitchen and offered them breakfast. The four of them sat down around the island in the kitchen. Katie took a gulp of black coffee, but didn’t touch her food.
“So did you lose your phone?” she said.
“What?” Dale said.
“You didn’t answer any of my messages.”
“I didn’t think you were coming.”
“He said he was sorry,” Melissa said.
A heavy silence full of shifting gazes fell upon the group. Dale’s face grew hotter.
“You’re right,” Katie said. “Let’s just…I’m glad you’re here. Both of you.”
“Thanks for reaching out,” Dale said.
Melissa gave a tight smile that held anything but warmth, nothing like her smiles at the beach. They finished their food and dressed for the funeral.
A Presbyterian pastor presided over the service, with most of the religious language removed. Katie was never clear on what her father believed or didn’t believe, and her mother was no help, so she went with something in the middle. She sat between Jake and her mother. Dale, Melissa, and Keith all shared the row with them. They showed solidarity, despite how fractured their family had become. The entire time, Katie felt as if she sat in a glass cage. The preacher’s words sounded muffled. Every few minutes, Jake tried to take her hand, but she kept her hands folded in her lap. She focused mostly inward, recalling the day her father died. She remembered the beaten expression on his face and the defeated words that conflicted with his determination to find some sort of answer for everything that had happened, to try to find Chloe.
She hoped he found whatever he was looking for, but resented him all the same. In his last few years, he seemed perplexed more than half the time, lost in his own thoughts, dreaming of that self-fulfillment he neglected for so long, perhaps.
She touched the scar on her cheek. It was mostly faded, but still rough to the touch.
“You okay?” Jake whispered. She lowered her hand and nodded. He tried to touch her knee, but she pulled away.
The pastor called Katie up for the eulogy. She left what she’d prepared in a folded paper stuffed deep in her dress pocket and improvised something formal, but sweet.
Dad was extraordinary. Blah blah blah. He was always a dreamer. Blah blah blah. I love you, Dad.
She finished, but felt no weight lifted off her shoulders. At her pew, she told Jake she needed some air, and she stepped outside.
A gray sky greeted her. She leaned against the cold brick wall and stared across the grassy acreage spread in front of the church. Thick woods surrounded the grounds and made her think of fairy tales and magical places, but there was nothing magic about this place. The preacher’s words rung hollow. Her eulogy, full of sweet words, came out cold. Headstones filled half the field around the church. This was a dead place.
She longed for the fire. At least it was warm.
As if in response, something pale and green glowed between the trees. The amorphous shape expanded and contracted. It floated some five yards into the woods.
Katie pushed away from the cold bricks and tromped down the chapel stairs. She crossed the headstone-laden field, hypnotized by each movement of the illuminated shape. Though she expected it to brighten as she drew closer, it seemed instead to grow dull. She got halfway across the field, and the light slipped behind a thick pine and disappeared.
She glanced over her shoulder. Part of her wanted to go back and write off the strange apparition as some trick of the light. Another part compelled her to move forward. She felt as if something awaited her in the woods she needed to see.
She reached the edge of the field and stepped through a carpet of undergrowth until she reached the tree the light slipped behind and peeked around its trunk. The light was gone. A bizarre scent drifted under her nostrils. It was milky and sweet and reminded her of her childhood friend Maddie. Something about that made her sad. Though she still kept in contact with Maddie, they weren’t nearly as close as they used to be. But it was more than that. It was her father. It was trauma that robbed her of a life without fear. It was something undefinable and very old, something that had been with her since she was born, or maybe even before that.
Her gaze scanned the expanse of pine trees, moss-covered rocks, and bushes she could never name. She heard no animal sounds. Usually the woods were full of life’s music: birds whistling back and forth, bugs click-click-clicking. But now she heard nothing, nothing but her thundering pulse.
Her father stepped out from behind one of the trees.
At school. It’s drizzling outside. I started revising my romance novel, and I’m eager to get back to it this afternoon.
The first 5-7k words are so rough, I cut them, and wouldn’t you know it? The story is already stronger. Of course, now it’s a novella (I hate that word; I think I’ll follow Carlton Mellick III’s cue and say “short novel”). I’m weirdly okay with it.
20-30k words is plenty to tell a story. Start in medias res. Cross the point of no return. Reverse the goal at the midpoint. Reach rock bottom. Ascend to a satisfying conclusion.
I haven’t the attention span for subplots, and I will hereby stop trying, unless I really hatch some good ones, or get offered money to write a book of a certain length.
My model of storytelling comes from Star Trek (TOS) and The Twilight Zone. I’m serious. If you want to write a lean, mean story, analyze the fuck out of each of those show’s episodes.
Now, that said, if I want to make a living at this, that means I have to up my productivity. When Saint Sadist comes out on March 16, it will be my third this year. Not bad.
I want to do more, and I can do more. It may be tough to get more than one or two more releases out there this year, but we’ll see. I’ve been reading How to Write Pulp Fiction by James Scott Bell and getting a lot of inspiration. I like this new productive me, and I aim to keep at it.
Look for my romance book to drop in May. I’ll be using the pseudonym Jamie St. John, but that’ll be our secret.
The entry that follows is the first chapter to Blood and Brimstone, an apocryphal continuation of the story begun in my debut novel, Flesh and Fire. I would strongly encourage familiarity with the material before you embark on reading this tale. Otherwise, you may be a bit lost. Flesh and Fire is available on Indie Bound, Amazon, and wherever else books are sold, as part of a flip book with a zombie novella by Jonathan Maberry. Readers of FLESH AND FIRE may find this scene familiar. However, it should be noted that this time around, it’s told from a different perspective, and shows a piece not originally included in the manuscript.
Katie woke on a hard wood floor. Glass gleamed in shattered pools around her. She didn’t recognize the living room, with its lavish entertainment center, granite ledge, and leather furniture, but she felt like she should. The faces in the family photos hung from the wall were vaguely familiar. One of the faces maybe belonged to her.
I’m home. This is my house, but what the hell happened?
She tried to move and winced. Too disoriented by pain and confusion. Blood leaked from her cheek and splashed against the floor. Shards of glass dug into her palms.
Gagging sounds drew her attention to the hallway. A lean naked man stood over a prone, kneeling woman. The woman wore a black blouse, its buttons torn open. The naked man had the woman’s dirty blond hair clenched in his fists. Her face was pressed against his pelvis, her cheek bulging with something.
This is my mother. And she’s blowing a guy with me in the room. Me in the room, injured and confused. Something’s not right.
Of course, Katie could be dreaming. Some feverish nightmare brought on by a looming illness, or something funny in Jake’s weed. Where was Jake? Hadn’t he been with her earlier in the day? She didn’t remember him leaving.
This wasn’t a dream. The pain hurt too much. Everything that didn’t hurt was far too tactile. Confusion still clouded her thoughts.
Her mother’s head lolled side to side, eyes closed, as if the man’s penis contained a powerful sedative. She’s not awake. He’s raping her.
And she remembered. This man had broken in and attacked them during a heart-to-heart discussion about the state of their family. They’d discussed sitting down with Dad and trying to rebuild something together. Katie had even floated the idea of Skyping with her estranged brother. After they agreed to work on the family again, Katie had seen this naked man standing in the window, and she had screamed.
Katie tried to call out to her mother now, but could only produce a wet croak. The man’s buttocks tightened and untightened as he thrust into her mother’s mouth. Katie’s hands brushed a larger shard of glass. She glanced from it to the man assaulting her mother. She hesitated, remembering how he had walked across the sea of shattered glass like some macabre Christ, jagged grin emblazoned on his face like he enjoyed the pain.
Doesn’t matter. He’s human. You can stop him.
Katie tried to rise again. She bit her lip to avoid crying out as she got to her hands and knees. She needed the element of surprise. Her fingers closed around the shard. She held it like a dagger. Propping herself up on one knee, she teetered and almost fainted. Biting harder on her lip kept her sharp. She stood and stalked toward the man fucking her mother’s mouth.
The hallway seemed to stretch for miles. Every step dulled the pain. With every thrust of the man’s hips, rage moved to eclipse her fear. She passed the closet on her right, the stairs on her left. She crossed the doorway leading to the dining room. She came to the foot of the stairs, at the edge of the foyer. On her left side, a bloody handprint marked the door to her father’s studio. In front of her, the man continued his assault on her mother, not noticing Katie advancing with the shard of glass.
Katie raised the sharp object. She pointed the tip at the man’s jugular. In the small windows at the top of the door, she saw the reflection of herself, about to become a killer. About to kill for her family. Maybe the only thing worth killing for. She cast a final glance down at her mother, eyes half-closed and rolled to their whites, lips leaking spit and pre-cum. The image tightened around her heart like a noose around the neck of a man condemned to die.
That moment’s hesitation earned Katie an elbow to the face. She fell backwards and lost the shard, heard it clinking against the floor somewhere nearby. The naked man collapsed upon her and pinned her to the floor. Katie’s mother slumped and fell in a crumpled heap, still unconscious, mercifully unconscious.
Katie tried to squirm free, but the man was too strong. She screamed in his clutches. She cried out to a god she didn’t believe existed. The man’s eyes turned to fire and her prayers fell silent. His face became a grimace. The fires in his pupils dimmed.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I know nothing else I can do.”
Well, gang sometimes you gotta know when to admit defeat. I’ve learned over the last year that I don’t yet have the reach, or the temperament to run a Patreon. But the good news is that the content I was posting there is now going to be available here for free! You can still donate to me if you’d like, but it’s not a requirement.
The entry that follows is the prologue to Blood and Brimstone, an apocryphal continuation of the story begun in my debut novel, Flesh and Fire. I would strongly encourage familiarity with the material before you embark on reading this tale. Otherwise, you may be a bit lost. Flesh and Fire is available on Indie Bound, Amazon, and wherever else books are sold, as part of a flip book with a zombie novella by Jonathan Maberry. Now, without further ado, I’m happy to present the opening chapter of Blood and Brimstone, entitled “Land of Shades.”
Hell wasn’t so bad before the Christians came down. We didn’t even call it Hell back then. Of course, it was no Heaven (assuming there is a Heaven, and my guess is, if the zealots are here, there isn’t). It was simply the Place of the Dead, the Land of Shades. Not so different from the Land of the Living, really, just darker, a bit grayer. It was them, in wrath borne out of disappointment, who brought the fire, and made everything burn. Their philosophy: if they can’t have their promised salvation, then all must suffer.
I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Windom. I’m one of the Devil’s sons. He has many children. Not for the reasons you may expect. He harbors no delusions of undoing God’s creation. He just likes to fuck. Fuck, and gamble, I’m told. I’ve never actually met him. He’s not what you’d call a present father.
But that’s all right. I’m provided for. There are homes across the world, run by a select few for the sole purpose of sheltering Satan’s children. The place I grew up is right outside Texarkana, smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. Imagine that. A bunch of demon hybrids coming of age among truck stop churches and pornographic megastores. Oddly fitting, I think.
Well, anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. How the Christians ruined Hell.
I suppose I should start at the beginning. This is no epic, so in media res is out of the question.
It all started with a doomsday preacher who was born of a virgin a little over two thousand years ago. His primary message, like those spoken by other prophets of doom, was double-sided. The end was nigh, and there would be a great day of reckoning, but for a select few, salvation was promised. Now, this fella was unlike others of his kind in that his message really caught on. Matter of fact, it still resonates with a great number of living souls, and I kind of understand why. It’s hopeful. People like hope. It’s the most powerful drug there is, and one of the few legal ones. Some of you reading this might even be on this particular strain of hope. I don’t fault you for it. Somewhere along the chain of evolution, guilt and shame entered into the equation. You, as a species, started feeling bad about doing what came natural. Well, according to this doomsday preacher, all your perceived wrongdoings could be taken away, you just had to (get this) believe that they would be taken away, and just like that: there you went into the arms of the Lord.
Unfortunately for this fella, the religious establishment didn’t much care for his message of forgiveness. For them, only strict adherence to religious law (which, if you think about it hard enough you’ll see, keeps them in control of your life) is the only way to salvation. What he was preaching, well, that could really screw with the power dynamic. So, they had him killed. Crucified. Fucking nasty, even for the ancients.
When he died, he came here. Crossed the Ruin into darkness just like everybody else. I guess he was disappointed.
Now, I don’t know if he was the Son of God, but somehow he brought fire to this place, and this fire was not like the fire in the living world. These flames never went out, and as more of his followers came down, they joined him in torching everything, and if a shade got caught in one of these fires, they either suffered or turned into a fucking demon.
That’s what happened to my father. Some say that in life he was a great warrior. Others say he was a hedonist. I imagine he was a little of both. Like I said, I don’t know all that much about him. There’s a lot I don’t know, I reckon. Relatively, I’m not very old. Something like seventy is my guess. I can’t be a hundred percent sure, because, well, after my fortieth, I just stopped aging altogether. Since I stopped aging, I stopped counting, but I think my guess is accurate.
So, that’s that. That’s how Hell became, well, Hell. At least that’s how it’s been relayed to me by the old timers. I’m telling you all this so that you’ll have context for the tale I’m about to tell.
It begins with a girl, and no, it isn’t that sort of story, though she was very pretty. Sweet, too, I suppose, but also, maybe just a tad too curious. Of course, I can’t blame her. Given how her story begins, well, let’s just say if the same thing happened to me, I’d want answers, assuming I didn’t know what I know: answers only exist to raise further questions. Such is our fate: to die wondering.
But I’m not here to share a philosophy. I only wish to tell you a story. After all, stories birth our dreams, and our dreams make the fire bearable.
Today sees the release of a book that took so much out of me, I didn’t finish another for over two years.
WE ARE THE ACCUSED
A mad god lusts for power. Two demon lovers lust for death. An ancient man seeks to devour plagues natural and supernatural.
All converge on the small town of Blue Brook, Pennsylvania to wage war unlike any other, yet strangely familiar.
Bianca is an Afghanistan war veteran turned police detective whose ex-con high school sweetheart has just come home. Boone is a boy entrusted with immense power and living with a mother who’s struggling to hold their family together. Lafferty is a priest with many secrets.
All are caught in the middle of something beyond their understanding. The inner and outer darkness of each doomed soul must be faced.
And blood will be shed.
WE ARE THE ACCUSED is now available on Amazon.
Read an excerpt right here.