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.

The Essential Lucas Mangum: Dark Descents, 2

Hi folks, I’m Lucas Mangum. I’m an author of dark fiction with several books published by independent presses. At this stage in my life, I’ve noticed my work has a variety of recognizable themes and motifs. With some heavy revisions, putting them together could almost form a sort of meta-narrative. Now, I’m not deluded: I don’t think I’ve originated archetypes or motifs, though I do believe I’ve made them my own. While listening to an episode of the Weird Studies podcast in which they covered the Sun Ra film Space is the Place, I thought it’d be fun to pull out essential passages that best represented this overarching narrative.

Last week, I kicked things off with an excerpt from FLESH AND FIRE, originally published in 2016. You can read that post right here or you can get the book in its entirety for FREE (that’s right, FREE) by subscribing to my store’s newsletter.

This week, I’ve decided to feature a selection from my troubled, unhinged novel WE ARE THE ACCUSED. I wrote this book while working as a 9-1-1 call taker. I was settling into life as a suburbanite, a role which I’m still not entirely comfortable with. I’ve mentioned in interviews and on social media that I went crazy while writing this book. There’s a moment I’ve alluded to in which you can actually see me, as the author, lose my mind. Maybe I’ve got some bias, given I was there, but I think maybe it will be obvious to you, the reader, as well. I’d be curious to know what you think. Feel free to sound off in the comments or email me.

This book was supposed to be my epic. I had high hopes for it. Unfortunately, mental illness got in the way. I regret it so badly, the publisher and I have agreed to issue a revised edition, which is currently in the works. The scene below depicts the book’s protagonist, Bianca, descending into darkness after witnessing one too many atrocities. Especially troubling to her is, just before this, she slept with her high school sweetheart, which is a huge no-no. She’s a cop and he’s an ex-con. With this on her mind, she goes to interrogate a witness, and finds something far more frightening. Her darkness begins as a coma and evolves into, well, something else. Check it out beyond the break.

If you’d like to have this book before the revised edition is released either later this year or early next year, consider buying from Indiebound, Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

WeAreTheAccused_v2


Morning came with dirty gray light. Exhaustion weighed down all of Bianca’s limbs. Her eyes itched with unrest. Jason snored softly. She could only hear it if she lay still. It was kind of cute and reminded her of nights she snuck out of her parents’ house to stay with him. Her lips twitched with the beginning of a smile, but she made herself get control.  

Back to real life now.  

She left without saying goodbye. She went home to shower and change clothes before heading to work. When she arrived at her office, there was a message for her from Pastor Rickman’s secretary. The message provided the address and contact information for Becky Rogers. Bianca tried calling the Rogers’s residence first, but got no answer. She went back to her car, put the address in her navigation and left the office. Cold Bitch front and center, she did her best to focus on work and push last night as far away from her memory as possible. 

Becky’s house was, like most houses in Blue Brook, modest. A shotgun, surrounded by a chain link fence, its most distinctive feature was the cherry red Pontiac parked in the driveway, all kinds of extravagant in the face of its plain surroundings. Bianca ran her fingers along its sun warmed rear panel as she approached the front door of the house. She raised her hand to knock and paused. Her breath caught. Every muscle tensed.  

The door was ajar. A bloody handprint smeared the jamb. Looked like someone had gripped the doorframe, then was dragged back inside. She reached for her radio and stopped when something rustled behind the door. She reached for her gun instead.  

“I’m a Detective with the County Sheriff’s office. If you can hear me get away from the door and keep your hands where I can see them.”  

The rustling continued. Something crashed and Bianca took a step back. She tried to ignore the blood pounding in her head. Tried to ignore the nagging memory of the time her unit entered an Al-Quaeda hideaway and were greeted by a thirteen-year-old kid with a bomb strapped to his chest. She didn’t fire the lethal shot, but witnessing it scarred her just the same.  

She pushed the front door open with the toe of her boot.  

The balding, large-framed man stopped chewing through his wrist when she entered. He looked up, his expression at once rabid and guilty, like he’d been caught stealing from a church’s collection plate but was too crazed to stop himself. He pulled his arm away from his mouth. One tendon caught between his teeth, stretched and snapped. A beard of blood glistened on his cheeks. His bleeding wrist sprayed his ear and temple, but he hardly noticed. Instead, he rose to his feet and stalked toward Bianca.  

“St-stay where you are. I’ll call an ambulance.”  

She glanced behind him and her stomach flipped. Gristly stumps of limbs were strewn across the room. Knives of various sizes stuck out of the torso of a young boy. A woman’s head hung from the ceiling fan, the fan’s chain looped through her nose and mouth and tied in a knot. The man (Mr. fucking Rogers?) took another step toward her, dizzy and slow, teetering on wobbling legs, but no less menacing.  

“Fuck.” She removed a hand from her gun and grabbed the radio. “This is Detective  

Viteo. I need assistance at…”  

Mr. Rogers crumpled to his knees, but he still reached for her. He reeked like he had taken a bath with a thousand crusty, old pennies. His fingers clawed the air.  

“Viteo, do you copy? What’s your twenty?”  

“I…uh…”  

Mr. Rogers’ eyes bulged. His mouth gaped. Something red stormed between his teeth.  

“Viteo?”  

A plume of the fog shot forward. It darted for her like a heat seeking missile. She stumbled backward and rolled her ankle. She cried out, fell through the door and off the front stoop, managing to tuck her chin in time to avoid a direct blow to the back of the head. The fall still hurt like hell. The radio broke apart under her ass. Her gun went off, the wayward shot exploding a potted plant.  

The red fog swirled over her like a hurricane. Sheet lightning glowed at the cloud’s center. There were whispers and a deep, savage tickle, like ants crawling under every inch of her skin.  She remembered the moon shaped toy that hung above her crib and played Brahms, only the song was slowed down, lower pitched, minor and gloomy. The walls around her glistened with blood. The bars on the side of her crib were twisted, metal tentacles like the remains of a blown-up building. The coppery stink was oppressive. Everything hurt, like she lay on a mattress full of rocks.  

Lumpy forms bulged from the hovering cloud. Amorphous, pulsing protrusions. Expanding, contracting. Unseen hands molded them into ovoid shapes of various sizes. Eyes opened on each of them, eyes wide with panic, terror. Mouths stretched into screams. These were the faces of the dead, Allan and Judith Robbins and their seven children, Andy Gage and Joseph Schroeder, Becky and Mr. Rogers and their only child. All of them had died for the same reason. All of them were sacrifices, and they wouldn’t be the only ones.  

The red cloud pressed on her from all sides. Filled her ears with screams and a sound like tearing paper. Her discomfort increased. The reek of blood blocked her nostrils, filled her mouth and throat, choked her. She would have screamed if she could have. Instead she coughed and gurgled. Writhed on the concrete, wrapped in the amorphous monstrosity.  

It wanted her, this entity. Wanted her to carry out the rest of its mission. It showed her things. Whispered suggestions to the buried monster in her, the same buried monster inside every human. The monster stirred, its waking thoughts poisoned by bloodlust, consumed by the craving to do harm to those its host loved. She witnessed herself smashing Jason’s face in with her pistol and fucking the last twitches of life out of him. Her hands pressed her mother’s head into a hot oily frying pan and inhaled the fumes of sizzling jowl. Pulling out her father’s teeth with pliers and replacing them with shards of glass from a broken bottle of Macallan.  

The monster inside her grinned. In the throes of pleasure, the beast released something like acid that surged through her veins, ignited pain, blinding, all-encompassing pain. She screamed against the choking mist. Willed herself not to give into the awakened monster. Called on, prayed, to her colder self for strength.  

The agony persisted for several more seconds, or several hours. She could no longer tell. She imagined a cold hand taking hers and pulling her from the devouring fog.

The red parted and she fell into an abyss, deeper than black.

Deeper than sleep.

Deeper than death. 

The Essential Lucas Mangum: Dark Descents, 1

Hi folks, I’m Lucas Mangum. I’m an author of dark fiction with several books published by independent presses. At this stage in my life, I’ve noticed my work has a variety of recognizable themes and motifs. With some heavy revisions, putting them together could almost form a sort of meta-narrative. Now, I’m not deluded: I don’t think I’ve originated archetypes or motifs, though I do believe I’ve made them my own. While listening to an episode of the Weird Studies podcast in which they covered the Sun Ra film Space is the Place, I thought it’d be fun to pull out essential passages that best represented this overarching narrative.

The first of these is excerpted from the first chapter of my debut novel FLESH AND FIRE, which you can get a FREE digital copy of by subscribing by email to this blog, or by signing up for my newsletter on my store page.

It depicts the protagonist Chloe falling into the abyss and meeting the demon who brought her. The descent into the pit has always intrigued me. Death of the hero, whether real or symbolic, often comes before the ultimate victory or resurrection, which is all well and good, but I want to know what happens down there in the dark. Is it necessary to descend? If so, why?

In FLESH AND FIRE, her fall is orchestrated by a demon who’s mistaken her for a resurrected lover from the past. Her ultimate revival is also at the hands of another. My reasoning for this is simple: I often struggle with the idea of free will. Do we have it? I’m not sure. Sometimes, I think our actions are mostly up to fate, our programming. It’s in moments where we reject our programming, that we grow and become something better. Chloe, who I clearly see as the hero even though we spend more time in Todd’s head, embarks on her journey due to influences of forces outside herself. Todd, too, acts in ways he believes he’s supposed to act due to the people who’ve guided him. They’ve both been programmed and their story won’t end happily unless they do things contrary to how they’re wired.

This passage is one of the earliest examples of me showing what I call the Engines of Ruin, hands of fate that push us toward destruction, masquerading as choice.

Flesh-and-Fire

If this is dying, Chloe thought, I’d like to do it again sometime.

The brightest light she’d ever seen washed over her, burning brilliant whitish yellow. Blinding, but soft, it reminded her of the sun, finally showing its brilliant face after weeks of rain and starless nights. It brought warmth, security, and a deep sense of euphoria, better than the greatest high, more intense than her strongest orgasm.

Moments ago, she’d been in her room, sinking into the bed below, as if it were a cloud. Her vision blurred and her surroundings fell further away. She gave each of them one final glimpse, pausing the longest on the Yamaha DX7 keyboard, upon which she played all of her music, and the photograph of her and Todd smiling drunkenly as they held each other in the parking lot of the Black Horse Pub.

As she slipped away, she only regretted not being able to tell him goodbye. Maybe even apologize. She settled for humming the melody to “Blissfully Damaged,” a song he’d written for her. Maybe doing so would, through some kind of clairvoyance, allow her to commune with him in her final moments.

The poison killing her now had also destroyed their relationship. She’d been clean for a while, but it hadn’t lasted. Once he’d seen he couldn’t help her, he’d run away. She didn’t blame him. He didn’t really know everything. He didn’t know about the dreams, or the monster that pursued her in them, or how she sometimes even saw and heard the monster when she was awake. She’d never told him and because of this he just saw her as an addict, no matter how much he’d loved her.

Now she’d never be able to tell him.

Now she was dying.

And she accepted it.

Embraced it.

She knew only the light and a euphoric sense of floating. She hadn’t expected this; she hadn’t expected anything. No undeserved reward, no cruel and unusual punishment. Only sleep. Whatever this was, this was better. As she glided through the sea of bright warmth, a soothing swish, like the gentle splash of waves on a beach, accompanied every movement. The place had a smell, too, sweet and strong. Like Mother, she thought, without understanding how she knew.

Natalia, her father’s only true love, had cast a shadow over their lives. She’d died while giving birth to Chloe, and existed only in photographs and Les’s stories. A mythic figure. Unreal in her legacy and tragic in her absence. Thinking of her brought a wave of sadness that broke through Chloe’s ecstasy, like a wind chill on an otherwise warm day. The next thing she knew, she was falling into darkness.

In the inky surroundings, the cries of countless others assaulted her ears. Some of them human, some animal, she could only interpret them as full of agony and fear. Underneath, a dry, gritty sound. Bone against bone, a chorus of grinding teeth.

Her heart hammered like a machine gun. No longer dying, desperation took hold.

As she fell, hands clutched at her from out of the darkness and she screamed. They tore at her clothes and kneaded her skin, pulling her out of the chasm and moaning like diseased animals. She saw only glimpses of the rotting, scaly things as they tore her black dress to shreds.

She twisted and kicked in their clutches, preferring to fall than to be groped. She clawed through a forest of bulbous hands. Something primal was awake within her, a violent will to live as old as the universe itself. Rather than pull away from the creatures and back into the pit, she dove into the tangle of limbs and reptilian bodies. She bit and scratched. She drove forward until she fell again. This time she tumbled down a spiraling wet shaft. She reached the bottom, wounded and bleeding, not yet broken, happy to stand on solid ground.

Dirty crimson light illuminated her surroundings. Pointed rocks grew from above and below. Somewhere nearby, waves crashed against land. Behind her, wailing and gnashing of teeth. The rocks along the wall jutted out like gnarled tree branches. Gray rags hung on them, along with something like hair. Some of them moved. She realized then what they were as the skeletal limbs reached for her.

“Help me,” one rotting mouth said, “please…”

Sobs fell from her mouth as she backed away, her cries echoing in the massive cavern. She turned and ran toward the sound of the waves but in front of her, she heard more bellows of pain. She stopped and looked around. Water splashed upon the shore, blood red in the dirty light. The dome of the cavern gave way to a sky full of swirling fire and black smoke. Panic surged through her, beginning in her heart and spreading like wildfire on a dry field throughout her body until a scream burst from her lips, joining the chorus of terrified, suffering voices. Like them, she had nowhere to go.

A lean, shadowy figure emerged from the blood-red ocean and put his face into the light. Deep angry scars marked his cheeks and brow. His eyes burned with something like rapture. She knew him. He was the monster of her dreams, her rapist and lover, her imaginary friend, her angel and demon, but this was no dream. Every precise detail overwhelmed her senses: the wet jagged earth digging into her feet; the stenches of burning hair and rotted meat filling the air. She had entered a new reality and he had brought her here. She thought of how she had felt guided tonight, by something outside of herself, to buy the heroin, to shoot enough to overdose, and she understood.

Samael approached her, reached out his hand like he was blessing a martyr, and she knew she was destined for pain.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 14 – Free Serial Novel

The Devil was waiting for Windom in the clearing beside the highway, some twelve miles outside of the Tennessee town of Yester Castle. In the blue-gray dusk, the magma bubbling under the Devil’s cracked skin glowed hot and bright, but it was the stink of meat hanging from his cape that drew Windom’s attention.

Windom turned off the highway and met the Devil thirteen paces into the field. The Devil’s lips spread. Windom couldn’t quite call the expression a grin.

“Windom,” the Devil said, voice distorted like wasps lived in his voice box, “I see you’ve once again emerged victorious. When will they learn?”

“When they’re all dead, I reckon.”

“And I reckon there will always be others. Men such as yourself are too dangerous to be kept alive and anyone on earth who meets you learns that all too quickly.”

“I find out who keeps putting out these hits, could take him out and just hide for a while, catch a breather.”

“I’ve never seen you as the type to want to catch a breather.”

“All this running and killing gets old, all I’m saying.”

The not quite smile of the Devil widened. Eyes narrowed into slits. A gnarled claw rose from beneath the cape, stroked his chin. Gave the illusion of considering something, but Windom guessed Old Meat and Magma had already made up his mind about whatever was on his mind.

“Perhaps a side job would provide a nice diversion for the time being. The ones trying to kill you could be…placated…for now.”

“Wish you would do that more often.”

“Then what hold would I have on you.”

If the Devil was to be believed, Windom was one of his sons. Didn’t matter much to Windom. He’d grown up never knowing his father. All he knew was that he’d been born with the abilities to draw deadly powers from symbols that just appeared in his mind, to confuse people to the point where they would remember nothing of their interactions with him, and he didn’t seem to age much. He could be one-hundred-seventy, could be one-eighty. He’d stopped counting at ninety-nine, and he didn’t look much older than forty-five. Didn’t hurt much either.

Windom snorted. “What’s the job?”

The Devil reached over to the side of his cape and unhooked a dripping strip of meat. With his other hand, he caressed Windom’s cheek, slipped a finger inside Windom’s mouth and pried open Windom’s jaws. He held out the meat and placed it on Windom’s tongue. The blood trickled over Windom’s palette, sweet and buttery, a kick of spice, hint of bitterness. Old Meat and Magma used a killer marinade. Windom closed his eyes, closed his mouth and let the meat dissolve.

As the juices leaked into his cheeks and gums, a symbol burned in his mind’s eye. Angry red flames encircled each line. Animals danced in a spiral: a hawk; a wolf; a lion; a fish; an octopus. They moved, disappearing into the symbol’s center and reemerging at its edges. The symbol grew in size and brightness until it blinded him. He gagged on sulfur and vomited light. The light split into two wormy appendages and collected into twin orbs of flame. The orbs became square-shaped; the lights dimmed, revealing levitating books with rugged, parchment covers. One bore the fiery symbol. The other was titled The Cosmic Heart. Windom’s job, his mission revealed itself to him as he dwelt on the tomes.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 12 – Free Serial Novel

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.”

“Yeah…”

“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?”

“None.”

“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?”

“Well…”

“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.”

“Katie…”

“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.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 11 – Free Serial Novel

Blood and Brimstone, the free sequel to my paranormal romance Flesh and Fire, continues below. You can get caught up on previous chapters here.

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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.