Got a nice shout out from Cameron Chaney on his YouTube channel. I look forward to his thoughts on my collection Engines of Ruin.
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 Virus caught up to Windom at a Shoney’s some fifteen miles across the Tennessee border. Dude was hard to miss. Six-foot-ten, three hundred pounds, the word KILL tattooed across his forehead. Windom watched the Virus enter, but kept his head down, pretended to keep eating his bland catfish and soggy green beans. No need to cause a scene. Not yet.The Virus plodded to where the hostess, a petite blond with crooked teeth and big dumb eyes, stood shuffling menus. She smiled up at the Virus, didn’t say shit about his imposing size or his face tattoo. Windom guessed she was used to seeing all sorts of characters in these truck stop buffets. “Just one, sir?”“Meeting a friend,” the Virus said, his voice gravel in a paper cup.He and the hostess turned to the dining room. Windom waved. May as well get to it.The Virus followed the hostess toward Windom’s table. He didn’t bother sitting. The hostess—her name tag said, Greta—glanced from Windom to the Virus. Crooked teeth bared into a too big smile. Eyes darted between the two men. Blinked.“You gonna sit?” she asked.“Sit when I want. Leave a menu.”“Okay, sure thing,” she said, still smiling, so used to being bossed around, she thought it was normal. She only existed to please. Did her damnedest to walk on eggshells with everyone. All the time. At least that was what Windom gleaned, just from focusing on her mannerisms, her aura, the empty space he detected where most people had a multitude of thoughts. “You just lemme know you need anything, ‘kay?”She sashayed away from the table. The Virus looked down at Windom, narrowed his eyes.“Think you know why I’m here.”“Reckon I do. No need to rush things. Grab a plate. Get some food. I recommend the catfish.”“I didn’t come here to eat.”“You always need to be so serious? Relax a little.”The Virus sniffed. Convinced by the aroma, he nodded. “All right. Better not try anything funny.”“Course not. I know my audience.”The Virus went to the buffet and returned with a loaded plate and sat down. He bit into a chicken thigh, tore a huge hunk of meat and dropped the almost bare bone back to the plate. He chewed with his mouth open. Windom hated that shit.“So, how do you plan on doing me in?” Windom asked.“It matter? End result’s the same.”“Look at you, brushing up on your philosophy.”“What?” He spit out a wayward chunk of bone.“Never mind. For your information, it does matter. I’d like for you to make it as quick as possible. Surely, that doesn’t surprise you.”The Virus scarfed the skin from a chicken leg and gnashed the fat with his mouth open. Made a squishy sound. “Funny, you thinking you deserve an easy way out of this.”“Didn’t say I deserved anything. Just saying what I want is all.”“I hear ya. Don’t mean I’m gonna listen.”“Yeah, I figured as such, but I’m still curious. How do you plan on doing it?”“Doing what?”Windom sighed at the Virus’s mental density. “Killing me.”The Virus stopped chewing. Dropped a mostly eaten chicken wing back to his plate. He folded his hands. Stared real serious like, then smiled.“Here’s what I’m thinking. First I’m gonna chop your dick off and shove it up your asshole.” Windom nodded, genuinely intrigued, and motioned for the Virus to go on. “Gonna shove it up your asshole so far…hmm, well, I would say you’d be pissing every time you open your mouth, but you won’t have much time to do that once I get done with you.”“Not to mention, that would only work if somehow my bladder was still attached.”The Virus narrowed his eyes. “You know I don’t like smart motherfuckers.”“You’re right. Sorry.” Windom grinned. “Go on.”“Well, after I shove your dick up your ass…”People around them started to stare.“Might want to keep it down, huh?” said Windom.The Virus leered at an old man in a denim shirt. “Fuck you looking at, old timer?”“Focus, you’re here for me, remember.”“Right. Anyway, after I shove your dick up your ass, I’m gonna plug the wound with my fist and fuck it. Fist fuck you from both sides.” He chuckled. “I get bored with that, and ‘pending you’re still alive, I’m gonna gouge out your eyes and feed ‘em to ya.”“Well, shit, that’s just mean.”“Course, I may just bypass all that shit and just shoot you in the back of the head.”“Course, this is all pending I let you.”“Fuck you say?”Windom got the disbelief in the Virus’s voice. Yeah, sure, Windom had a reputation for being dangerous, but his appearance was about as physically unthreatening as a sparrow standing its ground against a mountain lion. Probably even more silly to a guy the size of the Virus.Windom pushed his plate full of green beans and a mostly eaten filet of catfish aside and revealed the symbol. All angles and curves, an eye at its center, he’d drawn it on the table in red chalk five minutes before the Virus entered. The hitman’s brow furrowed, wrinkling the black letters in the word KILL.“Hell is that?”“Look closer.”The Virus leaned forward and Windom mumbled the words taught to him when he was a boy, in the arrangement his grand pappy said was older than God. The Virus sucked in a ragged breath. Windom gripped the sides of the Virus’s head and slammed it against the table. KILL met ancient sigil. The Virus spread through the cosmos in time immeasurable, in an eternal instant. And he screamed. His third eye finger-fucked by the Hand of Glory. His screams became gurgles. The back of his head exploded, shot pink and red brains like a geyser. Some hunks stuck to the ceiling.Windom released the Virus. He rose from the booth and grinned at the slack-jawed, wide-eyed spectators.“I bid thee good day,” he said, and mumbled more of the strange words, stopping time long enough to leave the Shoney’s and walk, whistling, toward the highway.
The police found no evidence of foul play. No sign, other than her absence, that she had even left the room. No one in the neighborhood saw her leave. Since her clothes were left behind, she would have run away naked. How no one had noticed a naked, fit woman in her early twenties running around the suburban streets baffled the police, and Dale when he stopped to think about it. But it wasn’t like she could have vanished into thin air. That was just stupid.
After a long, difficult night of providing the officers with photographs (“she doesn’t usually smile this much,” Dale said, as he printed out and handed over a picture from their last day at the beach) and all other pertinent information on Melissa, Dale lay awake until a quarter to six in the morning. Then he just paced the room, thoughts racing. He couldn’t wrap his head around any of it: the sudden disappearance, the unseasonable chill in the air. He thought about how upset she had been. And the scream.
He wondered what his next step would be. Will it hurt more if I stayed here or if I went back to base? Both places contained reminders of painful things. Home, his father and other fractured family relationships, relationships he couldn’t imagine trying to rebuild now as he panicked over Melissa’s disappearance and fought to hold off the grief from her potential permanent loss. On base, the reminder of her would be constant. For the first time in his military career, he considered going AWOL. He could hitchhike across the country and look for…for what? For myself? What a cliché.
He decided to go back to base and immerse himself again in training and work. At least that would give him something else to think about. Throwing himself into his on-base activities had worked before. Surely, he thought, it would work again.
Still, as he booked his ticket back to San Diego, his hands trembled. Tension pressed into his neck and shoulders. He hovered the cursor over the COMPLETE ORDER button, took a breath, and clicked. He considered leaving without saying ‘goodbye,’ thought about writing a note and setting it on the island in the kitchen, or maybe just sending a text.
Best to face Katie, tell her in person. You owe her that much. Probably a lot more.
He waited until she woke. He didn’t expect Jake to be there, but Jake came by that morning to check on her. They sat down to another mostly quiet breakfast. This time Katie cooked. Halfway through the meal, Dale worked up the courage to break the news.
“I changed my flight,” he said. “Think it’s better if I go.”
Katie looked up from her plate and frowned. “When are you going?”
He hesitated, felt poised to jump off a precipice so high that he couldn’t see the bottom. “Tonight.”
Jake slammed his fork down, but said nothing. Dale stared across the table, but Jake wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“I just,” Dale began.
“You don’t need to explain anything,” Katie said. “Just…do what you have to do.”
“No, you’re not,” she said.
He opened his mouth to say more, thought better of it and sighed. He downed the rest of his food, barely tasting it. No one else said a word, not until it was time to say goodbye.
Katie and Jake walked him to the door that afternoon. He brought the guitar with him. Katie lowered her gaze, gave the guitar a once over, and looked up at Dale, her eyebrows raised. She hummed, something close to a grunt of approval, but not quite.
“Yeah,” Dale said. “Thinking of playing again. Got Dad’s songs on my MP3 player and thought it might be cool to learn them.”
“That’s nice. That’s really great.”
They embraced, then released each other. Dale and Jake made eyes at each other. They stared without speaking. Katie glanced between them, sensing the tension.
“Let me help you with your things,” Jake said.
Dale nodded. He didn’t need help, but from Jake’s look, he guessed his sister’s boyfriend wanted to talk to him about something. He handed Jake his suitcase. Katie stayed by the door and watched them walk to the car.
Dale popped the trunk to the rental car. “So what’s up?”
Jake stayed mostly quiet, but Dale could hear his uneasy breathing behind him. Dale turned. Jake chewed his lip.
“Don’t suppose you could stay?” he asked.
“Katie needs you, man. Hell, I could use some help with her too. She’s been kind of a mess lately.”
Dale loaded his guitar in the trunk. “I can’t.”
“You run out of leave?”
“It’s not that. I just…it hurts too much to be here.”
Dale shut the trunk, opened the back door and took the suitcase from Jake.
“I can’t blame you.” Dale stuffed the suitcase in the back seat, kept his back turned to Jake. “It’s what you’re best at.”
Dale spun to face Jake. “What the hell did you say?”
Jake withered, looked like he already regretted his words, but Dale wasn’t about to let him off. He took a step forward.
“You don’t know a fucking thing about me.”
“Look, all I’m saying is…”
“I heard what you said, asshole, and I don’t fucking appreciate it.”
Jake held up his hands. “Hey, listen…”
“No, you listen.” He stuck his finger in Jake’s face. “Just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean I don’t care about my sister. You don’t fucking ever…”
Jake slapped Dale’s finger out of the way. Something broke inside of Dale. He lunged forward, tackled Jake to the ground. Katie yelped, or maybe it was Jake; Dale wasn’t sure in his moment of perfect, blind rage. He reared back, rammed his fist into Jake’s nose. Felt the mash of cartilage, the spray of blood, and just like that, his rage dispersed like fog in front of a fan. He rose to his feet, heart thrumming, guilt welling.
Katie started to cross the yard. “What the hell are you doing?”
He looked up, opened his mouth to answer, but Jake’s heel smashed against his kneecap. He pitched forward, landed face-first against Jake’s shoulder.
“Fuck,” he groaned.
Dale rolled over, clutching his already swelling eye. Jake rolled on top of him.
“Jake, no. Stop it.” Katie hooked her forearm around Jake’s throat and pulled him back. Dale got up to lunge forward, but Katie stuck herself in front of him. “Both of you, just…hasn’t the last couple of days been hard enough?”
Dale and Jake glared at each other over Katie’s shoulder, but her presence had done its job. No more punches would be thrown. Jake pressed his shirt against his bleeding nose. Swelling forced Dale’s eye shut. Both men sucked in deep, seething breaths.
Katie took Dale by the arm, turned him away from Jake.
“Come on, let me get you some ice.” She glanced over her shoulder at Jake. “You too.”
Her voice was husky, tired, defeated. Dale felt like the biggest asshole in the world and couldn’t decide if that would make leaving easier or harder. He followed her inside, head down and got some ice for his eye. The second time he went out the door that day, no one said a word. He drove off, wounds tender and chilled.
Dale dug through the closet in his old bedroom. He pushed aside creased and dusty boxes of books. He shifted all the hanging clothes he hadn’t brought with him when he left to one side of the closet. An earthy smell wafted from somewhere inside and took him back to his childhood. He expected to be nauseated, but instead he felt something entirely different. A strange serenity settled over him. He took a deep breath of the scent, and for the first time in a long time, he remembered his father in another light. When Dale was young, his father hadn’t been all bad. They played a lot together: music, video games, basketball. It wasn’t until Dale got a little older that his father started harping on him about choosing a career path. All that stuff Dale had enjoyed was just play, and playtime was over. It hadn’t been a gradual shift either. It had happened seemingly overnight. But before, during childhood, things had been pretty great.
“What are you looking for?” Melissa said.
He smiled at her over his shoulder. “I’ll let you know when I find it.”
“Oh, you tease.” She stuck out her tongue. It was a nice tongue. One he thought about often and one he’d tasted many times.
He turned and peered back into the closet and spotted the black guitar case leaning in the corner. Cobwebs hung between it and the wall. He brushed them off and lifted out the long-buried treasure. He stood it on the bedroom floor and leaned on it, grinning. Melissa frowned.
“I didn’t know you played.”
“I haven’t played in a really long time.” He felt himself darken. “My dad made me stop.”
“Surprised you let him make you do anything.” Her mouth went tight. She cocked an eyebrow. She was pure defiance, the type of bad girl he’d always wanted.
“Different time. Different me. Besides, it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you.”
“Could’ve just run away like me.”
“If only I were so courageous.”
She shrugged, leaned back on the bed. “You gonna play me a song?”
“Not sure I’m ready for that. Besides, this probably needs to be tuned, maybe even restrung.”
“That’s fine. Was hoping to do some reading anyway. Still not feeling great.”
He felt a pang of concern. “Can I get you anything?”
She held up the glass of water on the nightstand. “I’ll be fine.”
“All right, well, I guess I’ll mess with this guitar in another room. Maybe even outside.”
She nodded, rested her head on the pillow. “Okay.”
Dale left the room, brought the guitar and his MP3 player with him. He had burned his father’s songs onto the device as soon as they got back from the storage facility. He was itching to listen to them again, after playing the CD in his car, and felt a crazy urge to learn them. Though he would never completely know this other side of his father, he thought learning the songs, hearing the words would at least get him close. At least enough to see there had been more to the man than the stuffy banker who seemed to love work and money more than anything else. Even family. Sure, as a child, Dale had seen those glimpses of the old man, but nothing like the passion in these songs. He didn’t understand it. They seemed to have been written and performed by another person entirely. The voice that sung over the bluesy chords didn’t sound anything like his father, at least not at first. Dale couldn’t even imagine his father expressing himself with such raw honesty, such energy, such vulnerability.
He went out to the back deck and sat on the edge of one of the loungers. He laid the guitar case across his lap and opened it. A thin layer of dust covered the frets and body, but otherwise, the instrument looked okay. He balanced the guitar on his knee and used the fifth fret harmonic to tune. Once the guitar was tuned, he put his earbuds in and started listening to his father’s album.
He leaned forward, closed his eyes, and let the music drift over him, let it carry him away. He skipped back to the first song, played it on repeat, until he felt comfortable strumming along. Nothing sounded right. He tried various chords until he realized the song was in a different tuning. He tinkered with the knobs until he thought he found the right pitch and tried strumming again. The song started to make sense.
When Katie got home, she went to her bed and opened The Cosmic Heart, but exhaustion weighed down her eyelids and she was asleep in less than ten minutes. The comforter embraced her. She sunk into the mattress. With each beat of her heart, she slipped deeper into oblivion. A woman whispered somewhere in the room. All around the room. Right in Katie’s ear.
“At the center of the universe one heart beats…now its blood is diseased.”
The voice spoke the words in sync with Katie’s heartbeat. It reminded her of some kind of weird experimental song. The voice was at times soft, and other times sharp, threatening. Katie’s eyes snapped open. The room around her was dark.
“At the center of the universe…”
“…one heart beats…”
“…now it’s blood…”
The voice harmonized itself, speaking the same words, but in different tones, creating a wall of oppressive sound. Katie’s heart slammed. She couldn’t move. She tried to scream, but her breath caught. She felt like she was choking.
“…now it’s blood…”
She turned to her book case. All the tomes were bound in old leather. Titles printed in old English, some in languages she couldn’t understand. Other titles were glyphs, symbols she had never seen before, but resonated within her. She felt lost, but like she should know where she is and what is happening. Sparks ignited at the base of the shelf and the first row of books caught fire.
“What a fucking dump,” Dale said.
His father’s house stood at the end of a dirt road in the middle of a field off of Route 32. Though newly built, it had a lived-in, old homestead feel. Dale half-expected to see a couple of donkeys in the yard, along with some chickens and goats. He wondered how much of the field belonged to his father. He found it hard to believe the old materialist had traded a three-story, five-bedroom house smack dab in the middle of Suburbia, USA for a shotgun shack, unless the land was part of the deal.
“He wanted something as basic as possible,” Katie said.
“Hmm,” Dale said.
Katie told him their father had gone through some significant changes, but Dale still had a hard time letting go of the image of his father as a stiff banker who dressed in suits and bottom-lined everything. Could his father have changed that much? Was there a whole other side to him Dale had never seen?
As they got closer to the house, Dale saw splintered shards of wood and unraveled strings were strewn across the porch. He recognized the split remains of a guitar’s fretboard laying across the stairs.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Not sure. He broke it a little bit before he died. Can’t imagine why.”
Katie unlocked the door and opened it for Jake and Dale. Melissa had stayed behind, said something about not feeling well. Dale guessed she just didn’t feel like spending the day cleaning a dead man’s house. He couldn’t exactly hold that against her. She probably thought his obligation towards Katie was weird. She’d never met her mother and her father was in and out of rehab. She had no sense of loyalty when it came to family.
Funny thing was he didn’t think he did either, but when he saw Katie break down in the woods something shifted in him. He found himself wanting, more than anything, to help her. To salvage whatever pieces of his family remained. To try to reconnect.
Inside the house, a closet door was hanging open. Notebooks were stacked inside, some pages scattered on the carpet around the door. It looked as if his father had been going through them, maybe even moments before the heart attack.
Dale walked to the closet, picked up a notebook, and flipped to a random page. Song lyrics covered the paper, front and back. Even his father’s handwriting looked different than what it grew into. It looked less rigid, more flowing.
“I had no idea he wrote so much.”
“It used to be his life. Before us.”
“He can’t blame you guys for stopping,” Jake said.
“I second that, Jake,” said Dale and tossed the notebook back into the closet. “It was like he lived a double life. Remember when we were kids? He didn’t even let us in his study.”
“He barely let himself in,” said Katie. “And I’m not blaming him, Jake. There’s a lot about him we don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know.”
“Yeah, well, whatever,” Dale said. “Let’s just get this place cleaned up.”
Jake nodded. Katie wandered upstairs without another word.
Dale bent down among the notebooks and started organizing them, placing them back into their boxes. When he finished, he carried them, one at a time, to the Uhaul Jake rented and loaded them in the back. Down to the last two boxes, stacked on top of each other, he lifted the top one off and the bottom one’s flaps opened. He frowned, lowered the box in his arms, and approached the open box. Several CD cases were resting on top of everything. He grabbed one. The cover showed a much younger version of his father he wouldn’t have recognized had he not seen some old photos at the funeral. His father was holding a black guitar that looked like the one that lay in pieces on the porch. He gripped the CD tightly and hurried to the kitchen where Katie was boxing up some plates.
“Hey,” he said and she turned to him, her eyes pink with irritation from tears and lack of sleep. “I, uh, found one of these CDs. Do you mind if I take this one?”
Her face creased. She went pale, and Dale thought she might puke.
“Forget I asked,” he said and turned to put it back.
“No, I’m sorry. Go ahead. I just…it’s been a trying week.” “Well, I’m here for you, okay? I’m sorry I haven’t been.”
“What about Melissa?” “She’ll be fine. I’ll just promise her a trip to the beach.” They exchanged weak laughs. He held up the CD. “I’m gonna put this in my car before I forget.”
Katie nodded and Dale left the kitchen. He went outside and opened his rental car. He tossed the CD onto the passenger seat and stared into his father’s photographed eyes. He let them hypnotize him and tried to understand who the man used to be and why he changed. He wondered if it had anything to do with why his father died.
Her father’s eyes held a vitality she’d never seen in them before. He looked much younger, almost her age. When he smiled at her, the expression didn’t look put on. It seemed effortless. He stepped towards her and a warm draft brushed across her face and encircled her. She relaxed in its embrace, feeling at ease for the first time since her world fell apart. Again, she felt removed from her surroundings, but not as she did in the church; she felt instead as if she stood in a different reality, a place behind the scenes of everything familiar.
Her father raised his hand. That strange green light glowed in his palm and he opened his mouth to speak.
“It’s okay,” he said.
He motioned for her to come and she approached belly aflutter, heart still slamming. He approached, too, moving far more confidently than she. They met and locked hands. She cried and felt no shame, because she and this apparition of her father were separate from the rest of the world. She could see it, but she didn’t acknowledge it and it didn’t see her. The veil only existed on their side, like a two-way mirror for the spirit world.
She drew closer to her father. He helped her forward and pulled her in for an embrace. Heat radiated from him. The closer she got, the less comfortable the heat made her. She felt like she did the time she fell asleep on the beach and got a terrible sunburn. He snaked his arms around her. She looked up at him. She needed to see him. She needed to know this was real. Maybe then she could ignore this awful heat.
He opened his mouth and leaned in for a kiss.
“Dad, no,” she said and tried to pull away.
The heat in his core increased. She squealed in revulsion and tried to worm her hands between them to push him off. Her father grinned. His blue eyes turned the color of burning coal. His mouth opened wider. A red tongue lolled between the lips and split in two, leaking yellow pus that dribbled down his chin. Finally, Katie kicked free and fell hard on her butt. Painful vibrations rocked their way up her spine.
When she looked up, she met the burning gaze of the monster that took everything from her. His hands were hooked into claws. Katie screamed and flailed and kicked, too panicked to regain her feet.
But then, something else broke through her fear: a pure rage unlike anything she ever felt in her twenty-one years, a rage she never before thought could live inside her.
She rose and tackled her assailant to the ground, screaming like a banshee with its hair on fire.
The voice cut through her fury, distant and muffled. She swung her fists, pounding the face of the demon who had ruined her and her family. The voice crying her name took on a more anxious tone. A hint of pain slipped through. The face changed into Jake’s. He held her hands, but cringed against her.
She jerked her head side to side, checked her surroundings for any sign of the demon. Dale stood at the edge of the woods, Melissa on his arm. His eyes were soft and wide. Melissa’s eyebrows were cocked.
“Jake, oh my God,” Katie said, and fell into his arms.
“What the hell was that?” he asked.
“I…I don’t know. I thought…never mind…I just…I think I need to lie down.”
“Sure. Sure. I’ll take you to the car.”
He took her to the black Corolla and she plopped down in the passenger seat.
“So, what was that all about?” Jake asked as he lowered the seat for her.
“Fuck if I know. Probably having a goddamn nervous breakdown.”
“Should we call Ruthanne?”
Ruthanne was her therapist, a middle-aged hippy with an office that smelled like cinnamon. The office was the only place Katie felt safe. She wanted to say ‘yes’ so badly, but there was still so much to do.
“I’ll call her, just…after today…after Dad’s house is cleaned up.”
“I can pitch in, too,” Dale said, coming up behind Jake.
“Sure Melissa will be cool with it?” Katie asked.
“She’ll have to be. I want to help you.”
Katie took her brother’s hand and squeezed it. After she released him, Dale and Jake rejoined Melissa and walked back to the church. Katie curled up against the passenger seat and watched the black, swirling storm clouds through the dirty windshield.