Got a nice shout out from Cameron Chaney on his YouTube channel. I look forward to his thoughts on my collection Engines of Ruin.
When she finished sessions for the day, she gathered all her notes and her laptop. She flipped to the first page of her legal pad so it would sit more comfortably in her bag. The symbol Katie sketched that morning caught her eye and made her pause. She studied the image, its curves and angles, the herd of animal impressions spiraling toward its center. There was something undeniably captivating about it, though she was sure she had never seen it before. She traced the angles with her index and middle fingers. The paper hissed at her touch.
Having studied the occult during college, she had a hard time believing she didn’t recognize the symbol. She thought of Dr. Carlyle, the professor who she interviewed for her thesis, and wondered if he would know something about the symbol. A part of her wanted to let it go, but she was worried about Katie.
Every once in a while, in her profession, a client came around who she felt connected to. Something deeper than a patient-therapist relationship existed between them. The first time it happened, she fell in love with a patient named Arthur. She had just graduated and Arthur was close to her age. When they spoke, it reminded her of good music, each instrument a complement to the other, shifting between each voice in perfect time. After one particularly passionate session, he kissed her, and she let him. She even returned his affections. Realizing her error, she recommended him to a colleague and told him they couldn’t see each other personally, or professionally, because it just wasn’t right. Six months later, he committed suicide. Hanged himself in the foyer of his parents’s house.
While Ruthanne had no romantic feelings for Katie, she did think of the young woman as a friend. She had a personal investment in Katie’s recovery. Because of this, she had no qualms going above and beyond to figure out ways to help. She would never let Katie go, not like she let Arthur go. Sometimes a therapist lost a patient, but she refused to lose another she cared for this deeply, especially not when a possible answer lay before her. If she could find out more about the symbol, she might better understand what Katie was going through.
Ruthanne reopened her laptop and looked up Dr. Carlyle’s phone number. She dialed, not expecting him to answer. On the third ring, he picked up.
“Dr. Carlyle? It’s Ruthanne. Ruthanne Weiss.”
“Ruthanne, well, hello. How are you this evening?”
“I’m okay. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you could look at something for me. Can I scan it to you?”
“Sure, you still have my email?”
She read it back to him.
“That’s the one.”
“Great, I’ll send it right over.”
“What are you sending me?”
“It’s a symbol one of my patients drew. I… don’t recognize it, but I thought you might.”
“Still chasing spirits, I see.”
“Did you ever stop?”
“No, I don’t suppose I have. Go ahead and send me the image.”
“Will do. Thanks.”
“So long, old friend.”
They hung up and she went to the office scanner, typed in his email, and sent the sketch of the symbol. She waited, sitting still for the first fifteen minutes, and then she started pacing. When he didn’t call back a half hour later, she tried calling him. No answer.
It’s okay. Just give him time. Maybe he’ll call tomorrow.
She took the sheet from the scanner and stared again at the symbol. It hypnotized her, until she made herself stuff the paper into her bag, and finally left the office.
The books became her life. She ate less, slept less. Sometimes she woke up in the middle of the night to start reading again. She read at work, at school, in bed, and on the toilet. She stopped seeing friends. She stopped going to see Ruthanne.
Jake started coming around less and less. The last time she saw him, he said he could tell he wasn’t wanted, told her to call him when she’s ready to come out of her cave. She wanted to stop him at the door, throw her arms around his neck and say, “Of course I want you. Please don’t go.” Instead, she stood and watched him leave. Once he was out the door, she opened The Cosmic Heart and started reading again.
She never stopped to cry for his absence. Never stopped to think about what her obsession was doing to her life. She just kept reading.
Katie believed that within their pages, she could find some kind of meaning. A cure for cosmic ills? Nothing so dramatic, but she hoped to at least find something, some nugget of wisdom, some piece of magic to help her get her thoughts in order. To help her make sense of what had happened to her family. Maybe help her find out what happened to Melissa. Maybe find out what really happened to her father, somehow.
She supposed this was what it was like when someone began to explore a religion, particularly if they were someone who expected a religion, a faith, to fix them somehow. Like alcoholics who swore off the sauce and gave their addiction to a higher power. Like a CEO who loses all his earthly gains and decides to reject materialism altogether, throwing himself into Eastern thought. Like the child whose family is killed by drone strikes, and grows up to be radicalized, a killer for their god. All different degrees of mad devotion. She wondered where she lay on the spectrum.
Something swam behind the veil. She couldn’t see or hear it—couldn’t even see the veil, really—but she knew it was there. Just. Out. Of reach.
The only things that remained from her life before the books were the dreams. Everything on fire, spiraling into that unfathomable black hole.
Three months after she obtained the books, a call from Ruthanne woke her from a midmorning nap. Hearing her therapist’s smooth, clean voice brought Katie, not just out of sleep, but also back from the brink of disappearing completely into her own head.
“Ruthanne, hey, how are you?”
“Concerned about you. I haven’t heard from you since before the funeral.”
“Is everything okay?”
The question, standard enough, something people asked each other all the time, carried great magnitude. How Katie answered it seemed like the most important thing in the world. Despite that…
“I, uh, I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe I should schedule another appointment.”
And so they did. The next morning Katie entered Ruthanne’s office, comforted by its familiarity. The smells of cinnamon and chili powder. How the building’s temperature never dipped below seventy-two degrees or above seventy eight. She crossed her arms and plopped down in the waiting room, feeling at ease for the first time in months.
She made it a point not to bring the books with her. She wanted to have her head clear for the conversation. Hoped Ruthanne would serve as the perfect sounding board for everything she had been going through.
A door opened and Ruthanne padded down the hallway. She always moved in slow, purposeful strides, feet soft on the ground. Her skin always had a glow to it, like a serene energy pulsed somewhere within her. Katie sometimes wondered if Ruthanne’s catlike manner of movement was all part of an act, something to make it seem like Ruthanne had it all figured out when she was perhaps more damaged than Katie, or any other client. The glow made it seem like more than an act though. Something like that was hard to fake.
Katie knew very little about Ruthanne’s personal life. Once she looked Ruthanne up on Facebook, but most details were hidden from people who weren’t friends, and Katie couldn’t bring herself to send a friend request to her therapist.
Ruthanne smiled and it held a warmth Katie felt she didn’t deserve. When Katie examined the last few months of her life, she saw a woman who had isolated herself, engaged in selfish pursuit of answers while neglecting people who only cared about her. Deserved or not, Ruthanne’s smile Katie even more at ease. She felt okay admitting her own faults around Ruthanne, and part it was because of that smile. So welcoming, so soft. On the way to the office, Katie hadn’t been sure how much she would tell Ruthanne. After that smile, she decided she would confess a good portion.
They said their hellos and Ruthanne led Katie back to the room where their sessions took place. Katie sat in the corner seat of a teal sofa and Ruthanne sat across from her in a flowered armchair. Ruthanne rested a legal pad on her knees, but she seldom wrote in it. For the most part she just listened. Only time she scribbled something down was when Katie said something pivotal, profound, something they could return to later.
Ruthanne waited for Katie to talk. It was a ritual, in and of itself. Sometimes Katie started talking immediately. Sometimes it took almost a minute. Other times, Katie just wanted to scream and beg Ruthanne to talk instead. This time Katie led with an apology.
“I’m sorry I haven’t set an appointment in a while. It’s been a hard few months.”
Ruthanne’s eyebrows raised, imploring Katie to continue.
“The funeral was a nightmare. I had some kind of attack.”
“Like a panic attack?”
“I guess…I mean, I’m not sure. I thought I saw my father in the woods outside the church and…I don’t know. Jake and Dale said when they found me I was just screaming.”
“You said you saw your father?”
“I thought I did. My memory of that day is kind of foggy.”
“I can understand that, but you’re okay now though? No more attacks?”
“What about the dreams?”
“They’re still happening. Pretty much every night, whenever I actually sleep anyway.”
“Are you not sleeping?”
“Not a lot. I got these books the day I was cleaning out Dad’s house. They were intended for him, but, you know.”
Ruthanne’s expression grew somber. Right on cue, but genuine.
“Did the sale of the house go okay?”
“Yeah, some developer bought it. Not the ideal buyer, but I just wanted to get rid of it, really.”
Katie stopped talking, let several beats of silence pass. She worried they were getting off track by talking about the house.
“So, these books,” Ruthanne said, as if reading Katie’s mind.
A nervous laugh escaped Katie and she covered her mouth.
“Basically, they’ve been my life for the last few months. I can’t stop reading them or thinking about them.” Ruthanne frowned. “They’re religious texts. I mean, sort of. More like, I don’t know, esoteric mythology or something. I never heard of them until they showed up at Dad’s house.”
“What are they called?”
Katie told her.
“Never heard of them either. Can you describe the symbol?”
“I can draw it.”
Ruthanne handed her the legal pad and a pen. Katie sketched a rough version of the symbol, about the size of her hand, its points and angles exaggerated, the animals mere impressions. She handed back the pad.
“I’ve never seen that before,” said Ruthanne.
“Yeah, I’ve tried occult message boards in every seedy corner of the internet you can imagine and haven’t come up with shit. It’s very obscure. The book explains it—and The Cosmic Heart’s—obscurity by saying people who share the wisdom without permission would be killed.”
Ruthanne laughed. Katie didn’t.
“You don’t believe any of this, do you?”
Katie kept a straight face, said nothing. Ruthanne took a heavy breath. Worry creased the therapist’s features. She wrote something down.
“Anyway,” Katie said, “my brother’s girlfriend went missing the day I got the books. I found my sketch of the man who assaulted me and my mother in her room. Maybe it’s all coincidence, but I don’t know.”
“Did you tell the police?”
“Of course.” Katie peered out the window. Several cars zipped by on the street below. Sunlight reflected off the window of a nearby building and made her eyes water when she stared for too long. “I guess I’m just looking for answers.”
“We all are,” Ruthanne said. “Especially in difficult times. You’ve had a tumultuous year.”
“I think the answers are in those books.”
“Like their message may help all of this make sense? Sure, I can appreciate that.”
“More than that. The books have these rituals and…”
“You’re thinking about trying them?”
“I wouldn’t recommend that.” Her voice hardened. Katie had never heard Ruthanne take such a tone. “When people are in a fragile mental state, dabbling in the occult, hell any religion, can have an adverse effect on your ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. I did a thesis on it.”
“Maybe, I don’t think I’m so fragile.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“Except, you did.” Ruthanne’s lips pressed together. Katie gave a dry laugh. “You want to talk about the difference between reality and fantasy? I never told you everything about the day my mother and I were attacked. That woman my father was with, the one the man who kidnapped us wanted back? She was someone from Dad’s past, someone who died and came back.”
“At least that’s what he told me, and what choice did I have but to believe him after seeing a photo of her standing next to him when he was twenty-two. So, yeah, it’s safe to say, my ability to tell between reality and fantasy is a little skewed.”
“Are you thinking about hurting yourself?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I have to ask.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. No, I’m not suicidal, homicidal. I don’t own any guns and I’m not fucked up on drugs.”
“I’m worried about you.”
Katie tried to focus on the comforting scents of the office, on Ruthanne’s kind face, even though the jaw was tight and the eyes bore into Katie. She needed to regain her composure. She hadn’t come here to fight.
The session’s time ran out without any other words spoken. This was becoming an uncomfortable pattern in Katie’s human interactions.
Katie handed Ruthanne a check and said, “I’ll call you.”
As she marched down the office stairs to her car, she wondered if she would ever see Ruthanne again.
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.”