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.
Well, gang sometimes you gotta know when to admit defeat. I’ve learned over the last year that I don’t yet have the reach, or the temperament to run a Patreon. But the good news is that the content I was posting there is now going to be available here for free! You can still donate to me if you’d like, but it’s not a requirement.
The entry that follows is the prologue to Blood and Brimstone, an apocryphal continuation of the story begun in my debut novel, Flesh and Fire. I would strongly encourage familiarity with the material before you embark on reading this tale. Otherwise, you may be a bit lost. Flesh and Fire is available on Indie Bound, Amazon, and wherever else books are sold, as part of a flip book with a zombie novella by Jonathan Maberry. Now, without further ado, I’m happy to present the opening chapter of Blood and Brimstone, entitled “Land of Shades.”
Hell wasn’t so bad before the Christians came down. We didn’t even call it Hell back then. Of course, it was no Heaven (assuming there is a Heaven, and my guess is, if the zealots are here, there isn’t). It was simply the Place of the Dead, the Land of Shades. Not so different from the Land of the Living, really, just darker, a bit grayer. It was them, in wrath borne out of disappointment, who brought the fire, and made everything burn. Their philosophy: if they can’t have their promised salvation, then all must suffer.
I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Windom. I’m one of the Devil’s sons. He has many children. Not for the reasons you may expect. He harbors no delusions of undoing God’s creation. He just likes to fuck. Fuck, and gamble, I’m told. I’ve never actually met him. He’s not what you’d call a present father.
But that’s all right. I’m provided for. There are homes across the world, run by a select few for the sole purpose of sheltering Satan’s children. The place I grew up is right outside Texarkana, smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. Imagine that. A bunch of demon hybrids coming of age among truck stop churches and pornographic megastores. Oddly fitting, I think.
Well, anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. How the Christians ruined Hell.
I suppose I should start at the beginning. This is no epic, so in media res is out of the question.
It all started with a doomsday preacher who was born of a virgin a little over two thousand years ago. His primary message, like those spoken by other prophets of doom, was double-sided. The end was nigh, and there would be a great day of reckoning, but for a select few, salvation was promised. Now, this fella was unlike others of his kind in that his message really caught on. Matter of fact, it still resonates with a great number of living souls, and I kind of understand why. It’s hopeful. People like hope. It’s the most powerful drug there is, and one of the few legal ones. Some of you reading this might even be on this particular strain of hope. I don’t fault you for it. Somewhere along the chain of evolution, guilt and shame entered into the equation. You, as a species, started feeling bad about doing what came natural. Well, according to this doomsday preacher, all your perceived wrongdoings could be taken away, you just had to (get this) believe that they would be taken away, and just like that: there you went into the arms of the Lord.
Unfortunately for this fella, the religious establishment didn’t much care for his message of forgiveness. For them, only strict adherence to religious law (which, if you think about it hard enough you’ll see, keeps them in control of your life) is the only way to salvation. What he was preaching, well, that could really screw with the power dynamic. So, they had him killed. Crucified. Fucking nasty, even for the ancients.
When he died, he came here. Crossed the Ruin into darkness just like everybody else. I guess he was disappointed.
Now, I don’t know if he was the Son of God, but somehow he brought fire to this place, and this fire was not like the fire in the living world. These flames never went out, and as more of his followers came down, they joined him in torching everything, and if a shade got caught in one of these fires, they either suffered or turned into a fucking demon.
That’s what happened to my father. Some say that in life he was a great warrior. Others say he was a hedonist. I imagine he was a little of both. Like I said, I don’t know all that much about him. There’s a lot I don’t know, I reckon. Relatively, I’m not very old. Something like seventy is my guess. I can’t be a hundred percent sure, because, well, after my fortieth, I just stopped aging altogether. Since I stopped aging, I stopped counting, but I think my guess is accurate.
So, that’s that. That’s how Hell became, well, Hell. At least that’s how it’s been relayed to me by the old timers. I’m telling you all this so that you’ll have context for the tale I’m about to tell.
It begins with a girl, and no, it isn’t that sort of story, though she was very pretty. Sweet, too, I suppose, but also, maybe just a tad too curious. Of course, I can’t blame her. Given how her story begins, well, let’s just say if the same thing happened to me, I’d want answers, assuming I didn’t know what I know: answers only exist to raise further questions. Such is our fate: to die wondering.
But I’m not here to share a philosophy. I only wish to tell you a story. After all, stories birth our dreams, and our dreams make the fire bearable.