Austin Comic Con

This weekend I tabled at Wizard World’s Austin Comic Con with my friends Max Booth III and John Wayne Comunale. Between meeting readers, we talked all the joys and frustrations of this writing life. We also debated Midsommar and the new Creepshow series, caught up on small-press gossip, and talked shop in general.

We met a ton of new people, some of them aspiring writers themselves and others just excited about books. I thought about giving shout outs, in case some of these wonderful folks drop by my blog but I’m bound to forget someone and don’t want anyone to feel left out.

It’s been a tumultuous eighteen months for me. Talking to my buddies reminded me I’m not the only one who’s struggled. Due to lots of ongoings in our scene and my own mental health issues, I’ve reevaluated who my friends are and who I intend to keep as mere acquaintances. When I first got into this writing scene, I wanted to be everybody’s close friend. As I’ve continued doing my thing, I’ve been reminded of how unrealistic such a goal is.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to decide whose flaws are worth tolerating and whose aren’t.

But the ones who you really gel with and don’t prove themselves toxic are goddamn priceless. I never expected to get rich doing this writing stuff but I did expect to make some of the best friends I’ve ever had. That expectation has been exceeded over and over.

I’m happy to see John Wayne doing well for himself. He’s one of the hardest working writers I know and it’s nice to see it pay off. The two secrets to his success, I think, are his positivity and his nearly militaristic organizational skills. I work hard and I’m positive. Organized? Not so much. That’s something I intend to work on once National Novel Writing Month is in the rearview.

Speaking of. That’s going well. I’ve got 21,000 words on a new manuscript and had a major breakthrough that allows me to combine two narratives I really enjoy into one book. I won’t say much except it’s a coming of age cosmic horror novel. I think there’s a lot to explore by marrying those subgenres. Lots of cool opportunities to play with opposing themes.

I grabbed and already read the first issues of Chaotic Flux, Kinetic, and Lady Frankenstein and the Mummy’s Brain, plus an old issue of Marvel’s Chamber of Chills and the first trade of a series called Cover of Darkness. I don’t read comics often but when I do, I tend to enjoy them. Indie stuff seems to be where it’s at these days, as in literature as well.

I’ve been able to write the books I want to write thanks to the small press. I hope eventually I’ll get to do this for a living but that’s still a ways off. And honestly, things are pretty good. The reviews for Saint Sadist reflect exactly what I wanted the book to do. I’ve got a decently paying screenplay gig in the works. I’ve got two releases slated for next year.

Also, this anthology just went up for preorder: The Big Book of Blasphemy, edited by David G. Barnet and Regina Garza-Mitchell, it features stories by Brian Keene, Ryan Harding, Wrath James White, Monica O’Rourke, myself, and many, many more. My story, “Sister Scar,” is basically a Hemingway-esque WWI story but nunsploitation. You preorder The Big Book of Blasphemy right here.

Last but not least, Blood and Brimstone, the sequel to Flesh and Fire has come to an end. It’s serialized on my Patreon the last few months. You can read it in its entirety here.

That’s it for now, gang. Take some time this week to appreciate the people in your life. You’ll be glad you did.

Blood and Brimstone, More Pages

Here are 25 more pages of Blood and Brimstone, the sequel to Flesh and Fire. We’re coming up on the end. If you want early access to the final two entries, you can have it by becoming a patron for as little as a dollar. Enjoy!

———-

Windom watched the woman spill into the black, fire-encircled hole. Less than a second after she disappeared, the fire blinked out, leaving the room in darkness and no sign that fire had touched the walls at all. No burns. No stink of smoke. Not even any heat.

Of course, this didn’t bother Windom any. He knew all about this sort of thing. Fires that burned steadily, but never consumed. Black portals to dark dimensions. When you’re the son of the devil, you’re privy to all sorts of strange information. Like knowing how to dispatch men twice your size and crazy enough to tattoo KILL on their foreheads. Like knowing about the groove and how to follow it.

Windom stood at the threshold of the room. Even saw those books he’d been charged with retrieving, stacked on the bedside table. His mission objective rested on a table less than ten feet from him, but he didn’t move.

While the mysterious fire intrigued him none, the woman who disappeared into the black, naked and in the throes of ecstasy, haunted him in her wake. She had seen his world before. She had seen his world and survived. Living had made her desperate. She smelled like ghosts. Everyone had ghosts, but she had a lot for someone her age, and the stink of one spirit, one demon, in particular clung to her good. Windom couldn’t mistake the scent. It was too pungent. Too distinct.

Samael, surrogate son of the devil. A badass dude, for sure, but that didn’t make the fact that Old Meat and Magma gave him special treatment any less painful for a flesh and blood hell spawn like Windom, like Windom’s estranged brothers and sisters.

Windom didn’t even meet Daddy Devil until his fifteenth birthday. The night after the failed baptism, a clay-skinned giant came to warn him about the Guards of Christ. The devil’s minion then collapsed into a dozen two foot tall reptilian humanoids. The creatures scrambled toward Windom’s bedroom window, and the imp bringing up the rear turned and beckoned with a clawed, three-fingered hand for Windom to follow.

The imps led him to a safe house where he met other kids like him. Apparently, Windom’s father got around.

The safe house didn’t stay safe for long. A hitman for the Guards torched the place. Windom escaped but still didn’t know how many of the others did. He was ten when it happened. He drifted for five years, learning to survive on his own as he went from town to town, from unsuspecting caretakers to abandoned shacks where he could squat until someone noticed him.

Daddy Devil contacted him face-to-face only when Windom reached the age of fifteen because, at that age, the devil deemed him able-bodied and useful. In return for a respite from the pursuits of the Guards, the devil needed Windom to retrieve a lion-headed amulet found in the Afghani mountains. Daddy Devil loved his magic artifacts. He didn’t use them. Contrary to popular lore, he had no aspirations of overthrowing heaven or causing earthly tribulation. He just liked making deals that benefited him, collecting shiny objects and fucking, not at all unlike the people who feared and demonized him.

Collecting shiny objects was Windom’s specialty; that and staying alive. The devil’s other kids had their own skills that their father exploited.

But Old Meat and Magma and Samael got themselves a paranormal bromance.

Windom walked to the wall where just moments ago the black hole had been. He touched the surface. It was cool on his palm. The groove pulled at him, wanted him to turn around and grab the books, but he closed his eyes and did his best to ignore it. There was something more important there, beyond the wall, through the recently closed portal.

Windom dug a stick of chalk out of his pants and drew a spiral over the spot where the hole had been. The groove wanted him bad. It felt like a hand had dug into his back, locked its fingers around his spine and was tugging at him to go to the books.

He glanced from the symbol on the wall to the books, groaned and tromped to the night table. He gathered up the tomes and walked back to the wall. He put his hand on the spiral and waited for the portal to reopen.

———-

The two bullet holes in the front door of Ruthanne’s house froze Jake in his tracks. He thought about calling the police but decided against it. If those bullet holes were recent, someone in the neighborhood would have already called and the street would be packed with officers. His gut warned him otherwise, but he kept moving forward. Even though his gut was usually right, his curiosity always overrode it, usually by convincing him that everything would be fine if he just trod lightly.

The front door, hanging ajar, made him pause again. His hand went to his pocket. Fingers closed around his phone.

“Ruthanne?” He pulled out his phone, hovered his thumb over the ‘9’ button. “Ruthanne, if you’re okay, say something.”

Several seconds passed. Jake’s gut clenched. An awful dread came over him. He imagined entering the home to find Ruthanne murdered. Blood everywhere. Her corpse sprawled across the living room. Maybe in pieces. He considered his phone. Thought again about calling the police.  

“Jake?”

Her voice shook him from his morbid reverie. He pushed through the door. The living room had been ransacked. An armchair leaned on its side. Coffee table glass littered the area rug. Pictures hung askew.

“Ruthanne?

She stumbled out of the hallway, wrapped in a bathrobe. Her hair was wet, her eyes dark. Her bottom lip trembled when her gaze met his.

“What happened here?” he asked.

She collapsed to her knees. He ran to her, took her in his arms without thinking about it. He said her name over and over, asked if she was okay, if she was alert.

“Do you need me to call an ambulance?”

She shook her head. “No, I just…can you just…let me go. I’ll be okay.”

He glanced at his arms, encircling her, withdrew them and backed away. She rose to her feet, took a slow, stabilizing breath. He followed her to the couch. This had shaped up to be a weird fucking day. He used to see his life as a Scrabble board, filled with tiles that spelled out new words. While he didn’t see the game as finished, he viewed it as a gradual process, each word an experience. When things started to fall apart with Katie, as she withdrew, and then disappeared altogether, he felt as if, little by little, tiles had fallen loose, leaving misspelled, incomplete words. Today, with Katie’s reemergence and bizarre behavior, and now sitting in the devastated living room of Katie’s therapist, he felt as though unseen hands had taken the Scrabble board and shook, spilling every tile, dismantling everything he knew to be true.

“So, which one of us starts?” he asked.

Ruthanne looked down at her hands, then moved her gaze to the shattered coffee table in front of them. She took another breath and began to speak. 

———-

“So you nervous?” Lyle asked. “I’m fucking nervous. Always fucking get nervous the night before a gig.”

Lyle puffed on an unfiltered cigarette. Dale had never seen him smoke.

“I mean, a little, but I don’t know. Playing out is what we do this for, right?”

“Guess so. I had a rhythm guitarist who fucking hated playing shows. Didn’t even really like recording. Just stayed in his room all the time. He’s dead now.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah. Oh well.” Lyle laughed, took a heavy drag from the smoke.

“Hey, maybe you should take it easy.”

Lyle shook his head. “I’m good.”

Dale somehow doubted that. He even thought Lyle’s brushing off the mention of his late friend was a sign his friend was in a bad way.

“You sure you’re okay?” Dale asked.

Lyle snuffed the cigarette in an ashtray. He shrugged one shoulder.

“I don’t know. Maybe we can jam out. Run through the songs again.”

Dale considered this. “All right. No way some extra practice is going to hurt.”

“Maybe we could even write something new.”

Now Dale got nervous. For months, he and Lyle had worked at perfecting his father’s songs, rehearsing what were, essentially, obscure covers. He had never tried to write a song. Doing so had occurred to him, but the idea of sitting down and composing something new daunted him. He stood.

“Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Dale slid open the glass balcony door and stepped into Lyle’s apartment. They didn’t want to risk any power outages the night before the gig, so Dale had come over in the afternoon to rehearse and spend the night.

Lyle shuffled in behind Dale. “Fuck it, man. You never know. It might be fun.”

Dale picked up his guitar and put it over his knee. He shot Lyle a half-smile. Lyle shouldered one of the many guitars leaning against the wall and nodded.

“Come on, man. Play something. First thing that comes to mind.”

“But…”

“Come on, man. Nothing puts my nerves at ease like writing.”

“All right,” Dale said and exhaled.

Dale strummed a chord and hit another immediately after.

“Okay, two chords. One more to go and we’ve got a starting point. How many awesome songs have just three chords?”

“About as many bad ones,” Dale said.

Lyle gave another nod of encouragement. Dale strummed each chord again, found a third. The two men exchanged smiles. Dale followed the same progression, this time picking single notes. After a few measures, Lyle’s bass picked up a groove and for a good ten minutes, they played through something resembling a song. When they finished, Dale looked up at Lyle.

“Well, that was good, right?”

Lyle laughed. “Nope, but that’s okay. Let’s try something else. Fucking, you know, get mad or something.”

Dale thought about Melissa. He thought about how she up and left him without so much as a warning. He thought about her shitty attitude the entire weekend of his father’s funeral. He thought about the boy, whose name he didn’t recognize, who she texted. Dale loved her. He missed her. Sometimes, though, he wanted to confront her. Fantasies played through his head. In some, he embraced her. In others, he told her how badly she’d hurt him. He imagined her kneeling in the rising tide and smiling at him.

He wanted to scream. He wanted to hit something. He chewed his lip and fingered the frets of the guitar, trying to find the perfect chord to express the maelstrom of emotions churning to life within him.

Lyle kept his gaze fixed on Dale, but didn’t speak. He let Dale have total concentration.

Dale’s hand drifted up to a B minor and started playing muted eighth notes. He strummed at an urgent pace. He slid down to a G, keeping the tempo quick. Lyle nodded when Dale returned to the first chord. The two-chord melody possessed a certain energy Dale liked. He stopped chewing his lip and felt a smile form. Lyle joined, the bass throbbing beneath Dale’s riff. 

They played the verse until it got tight. Dale improvised lyrics, a line here, a word there. Dale switched things up, incorporating a chorus: a bar of E minor, a bar of C, and two bars of G.

Lyle had a hell of an ear and combined with standing close enough to see Dale’s actions on the fretboard, he managed to catch up without losing a step. Soon, the song came together. Dale’s images grew clearer, and he improvised vocal melodies. He found a chorus he liked, screamed it over the frantic strumming. He went to repeat the words and the room darkened.

“Fuck,” he said and stopped playing.

“Damn, guess I got faulty wiring too,” Lyle said. “Let me check the fucking, what do you call it, the fuse box.”

Lyle’s lanky shadowy figure stomped to the kitchen. Silverware clanged together as drawers opened.

“Shit,” he said. “Dale, where do I keep my flashlights?”

“How should I know where you keep your flashlights?”

“Ah, what good are you?”

More rummaging. Dale leaned back on the sofa, closed his eyes. Heat thrummed beneath his skin. His hands shook. The song he had written played over and over in his head. The rush that accompanied composing his own song far exceeded the excitement of learning how to play his father’s songs, but dread flowed below the surface of his elation, and the dread brought questions bubbling to the top.

How did the lights go off here?

We weren’t plugged in, so it couldn’t have been a case of too much power.

But what if it’s the wrong kind of power?

What did that even mean?

He thought he knew, and that scared him. 

Lyle switched on a flashlight in the kitchen. He held the beam of light under his chin, illuminating his face. He stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes back in a mock death face, giggled, and marched to his bedroom.

Dale thought about the night he first learned one of his father’s songs. How he could have sworn his father materialized in front of him. How Melissa disappeared while he played.

His phone rang. The screen lit up, bathed the end table in soft blue light. Dale shifted to the end of the couch and picked up the phone. Melissa’s name and phone number displayed themselves underneath of a photo of her standing on the beach in a purple bathing suit, hair blowing in the wind, full lips parted and showing her white smile, eyes dark and bright all at once. He pressed the ANSWER button and clutched the phone to his ear.

“Hello?”

A burst of static, then, “Dale, it’s me.”

“Melissa?”

More static filled his ear, mostly white noise, but the occasional voice whispered through the sharp fuzz. They spoke too quickly or in a different language, and Dale couldn’t decipher the words. Melissa’s voice broke through again.

This time, she said, “Find me.”

Find me.

The call ended.

“Melissa? Melissa!”

He called her back and got a message that said the number had been disconnected. The heat under his skin intensified. Crawled up his neck and filled his face. He broke out in a sweat. He dropped the phone as if someone told him it had belonged to an Ebola patient.

The lights came back up.

“Fuck yeah,” Lyle yelled from the other room.

Dale blinked, gazed in his friend’s direction, but said nothing. The trembling in his hands increased.

Find me.

Lyle strode into the living room and stopped in front of Dale. His brow creased with concern.

“Dude…dude, you good?”

Dale tried to find the words, but only a dry croak escaped his lips. Lyle stepped closer, put a hand on Dale’s shoulder.

“You need a fucking drink or something, man?”

Dale opened his mouth to speak again but nodded instead.

Lyle went into the kitchen and returned with two beers. He handed one to Dale.

“Heard your phone ring. Want to talk about it?”

Dale shook his head. “N-not really.”

“Fair enough. Some shit about us losing power here, too, huh?”

Lyle walked toward the armchair opposite from Dale.

“Hey, uh, can you, um, do you mind sitting next to me?”

Lyle turned and raised his eyebrows. He considered, shrugged, and said, “Sure.”

He plopped down next to Dale and took a pull from his beer. They sat in silence for a while. Could have been three minutes. Could have thirty. Dale lost track of time.

“So,” Lyle said, “you sure you don’t want to talk about it? You can. I’ll fucking listen. Bandmates are basically family, bro. Y’know?”

Dale downed half his beer in one pull, belched and set down the bottle. Fuck it, he thought, and he told Lyle everything. He started with getting the news his father had died. He told Lyle about their strange relationship and how it had led to Dale joining the Marines. He talked about Melissa, how both intense passion and emotional distance characterized their romance. He talked about the funeral. Katie’s episode outside the church. Cleaning out his father’s house and finding the album full of songs that now made up his and Lyle’s setlist. Teaching himself how to play “Blissfully Damaged,” and hearing the scream right before Melissa disappeared. He concluded with the phone call, received as he sat in the dark moments ago.

Lyle opened his mouth to respond and closed it, not a second and a half later. He raised his arm closest to Dale and lowered it in even less time. He sighed, raised his arm again, and wrapped it around Dale’s shoulders.

They sat there like that for a moment, staring ahead, saying nothing. Lyle took a swig from his beer. Dale nuzzled into the embrace and closed his eyes. In the darkness, he heard her speak again:

Find me.

———-

“Well, fuck,” Ruthanne said after Jake told her about the botched sex ritual.

“Pretty much my reaction.”

“I didn’t realize she was so far gone.” Ruthanne shook her head. “I should’ve known.”

“There was no way you could’ve.”

“It’s my job to know these things.”

Jake thought about everything they discussed and his head spun. The notion that Katie, a woman he had spent the last two years of his life loving, had gone off the deep end overwhelmed him. He wanted to crawl inside a small dark place and never return. He wasn’t used to feeling helpless, which was why he left her in the first place.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I mean, I can start with Carlyle and try to find out why the hell that man came and…”

She couldn’t finish her sentence and Jake nodded. She had to know the prospect of someone stealing her thoughts and memories through some kind of magic sounded crazy. He couldn’t blame her for not wanting to repeat it. Part of him didn’t even believe her. Part of him thought maybe she had imagined it because whatever else the man had done to her was too horrible to recall. She believed it, though, and Jake felt certain the man’s attack had something to do with Katie. That being the case, he wanted to do everything he could to protect Katie, but he worried he was in over his head.

“Maybe we should call the police,” he said.

“What would we even tell them? Anything we tell them will make them think we need to be checked in on.”

Jake lowered his gaze. “Guess you’re right.”

“I mean, we could just have them check on her. Leave out the part about the strange man and just talk about her strange behavior.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to shame her.”

They stared at each other for several beats, not speaking. 

“Okay, you’re right,” she said. “How about you check on her, and I’ll go visit Carlyle? We can meet up later and compare notes.”

“This Carlyle guy, do you think he’s dangerous?”

Ruthanne got up from the couch and marched to the kitchen. She dug a pistol out of her purse and brandished it for Jake. Something like a lead ball dropped to the pit of his stomach. His cousin had accidentally shot herself dead when she was eleven, and ever since, he’d always had an aversion to firearms. Ruthanne put the gun back into her purse.

She tried to harden her features, but her lips trembled and redness flooded her face.

“For his sake, I hope he’s not.” 

———-

They drove to the gig without either of them mentioning the previous night’s embrace. Dale didn’t even know what to make of it, of what it meant, or if it meant anything at all. What he did know is that it felt nice. It had been so long since he had experienced intimacy with another person. Even with Melissa, there had been intense moments of passion, particularly in the bedroom, but not a lot in the way of intimacy.

Dale and Lyle had held each other all night. There had been some hair-stroking, and for a little while, after the lights came on, some hand-holding. Dale wasn’t sure if Lyle was gay, and Dale didn’t feel anything immediately sexual in their cuddling. In a way, that was what had made it feel more special. The time spent in Lyle’s arms brought a peace like he hadn’t experienced in months, maybe even years. All-day, questions ran through his head. Will we cuddle again? Do I want to cuddle again? What does this mean?

On the ride to the gig, they just blasted a playlist made up of Judas Priest, Death, Queensryche, and Slayer. Dale wasn’t much of a metalhead, but the churning guitars and screeching vocals got his blood pumping. Helped propel him further away from his conflicting emotions. Helped amp him up to perform.

Lyle pumped his fist as he drove, screaming along to the occasional verse. Dale turned to stare out the window, concealing the smile his friend inspired. He never worried about laughing or smiling at Lyle’s behavior before, but now, it was weird. He closed his eyes, and let the music surge through him.

The club was called The Boot. Redbrick structure. Front wall decorated with a purple neon cat peeking out of a blue neon cowboy boot with red neon eyes. They pulled around back to unload their equipment. When they finished they stepped back outside and Dale leaned on the back wall while Lyle paced and smoked.

“Can’t believe you’re not fucking nervous,” Lyle said. “This is your first show. I’d be pissing my pants.”

“How do you know I’m not?”

Lyle laughed at that. “Thought your pants looked a little dark.”

Heat filled Dale’s cheeks as he joined Lyle in laughter. He was nervous, even if he didn’t show it. He had never played in front of anyone but Lyle. What if the crowd hated his dad’s music or Dale’s singing voice? Memories of the previous night and its implications also lingered. On top of that, he missed Melissa.

And then there was the matter of the ghosts. It was one thing for his apartment to be haunted, but another thing entirely for the haunting to follow him to Lyle’s house. He found himself thinking of a book he read, Come Closer by Sara Gran, where a malevolent spirit follows the protagonist from childhood and into her adult life, eventually possessing her and causing her to do terrible things.

If he only had the suspicious power outages to look to as evidence, he thought he could dismiss any notion of the supernatural. However, his dreams as of late had been troublesome and very vivid. In them, sleep paralysis gripped his body. It felt as if a multitude of hands held each of his limbs and the sides of his head, pinning them to the bed, and one large hand pressed against his chest, keeping his torso planted. Melissa would appear. She’d come up from the floor, splinters, and sawdust sticking to her naked flesh in a honey-like goo. Her once dark eyes burned with blue fire.

Dale had never been the type to stress himself over dreams, but these nightmares had an intense vividness to them. He could feel the heaviness on his extremities. Smell honey and charcoal.

Suspicious noises had also taken up residence in his apartment. A scratching sound on the walls made him think the place might be infested, but the landlord had called in an exterminator who’d found no sign of rats.

The occasional crying that interrupted his solo practice sessions disturbed him much more. He thought, at first, that it was a neighbor, but the sobbing sounded too close as if it came from somewhere in his apartment. Sometimes, he thought the cries sounded like Melissa.

He considered moving, but breaking his lease would cost him twenty-five hundred dollars. Besides, he thought now, if the haunting could follow him to Lyle’s house, it could probably follow him anywhere.

Ghosts or no ghosts, what about last night’s damn phone call?

Find me.

What the hell did that mean?

One of the bar employees stuck his head out the back door and told Dale and Lyle that they were on in ten minutes.

They were the third act of a bill featuring multiple bands. If not for Lyle, who had a good reputation from his previous projects, they would have gone on first. Dale was glad they weren’t going on first. The idea of opening a show wracked his nerves, even more than the idea of playing a gig at all.

Dale took the stage with his guitar slung over his shoulder and gripped the microphone pole to steady himself for a passing moment in which he thought he would faint. He closed his eyes and remembered his reasons for wanting to play. The anger. The pain. The need to discover.

He began the set with the opening bars of “Blissfully Damaged.” Once he was playing, he couldn’t stop. An energy filled the club, surged through him. By the third song he felt a sense of cosmic synchronicity, where even the chaos, even the mistakes sang in harmony with everything else. The sweat pouring from his hair into his eyes and over his lips. The strain in his throat as he sang words written by his father. The throb of Lyle’s bass a cosmic heart beating at the music’s center. And the crowd, dark silhouettes against the dim, pale bar lights, a sea of swaying shadows.

He closed the set with the as-yet-untitled new song he and Lyle had written the previous night. Images of his father and Melissa danced in his mind’s eye. He played and sang, no longer sure which of them he hoped to find, wondering if it no longer mattered, wondering if he could now move forward and heal, only calling on these wounds when he needed to create, to shape something that resonated. If he could finally put ghosts to rest. If he could drive all restless spirits from his house.

He leaned over the edge of the stage, clutching the microphone, guitar hanging from the strap around his shoulder. He sang the final words of the song in a howling refrain.

“Now, sleep. Now, sleep. Now, sleep.”

———-

Carlyle lived like Ruthanne expected he would. As one of the rare people to make money in academics, his house sat on several acres in the sloping foothills of Tucker County. Several trees lined the long driveway leading to the front of the house. Judging from the red Jaguar parked next to the west wall, she guessed the professor was home. He still hadn’t returned any of her calls.

She rang the doorbell and banged on his front door. No one answered. A minute and a half passed. She hammered on the door again. Heavy footsteps approached the door from somewhere inside and stopped on the side opposite Ruthanne.

She glanced up and noticed the peephole.

“Shit,” she said and tried to step out of its view. If Carlyle hadn’t been answering her calls, of course he wouldn’t open the door for her.

The door flung open. The man that stood in the entrance was a withered version of the confident professor she had once known so well. Bags under his eyes, dark as bruises. His hair stood up in tangles. The scruff on his cheeks indicated he hadn’t shaved for days. The body odor emanating from beneath his wrinkled shirt indicated he hadn’t bathed in just as many.

But she didn’t get to examine him for long. He grabbed her elbow in an iron grip, yanked her over the threshold, and slammed the door behind them. 

———-

When she didn’t answer the door, Jake used the key Katie had given him after her father passed away. He knew she was home. Her black Corolla was in the driveway. He stepped inside and closed the door.

“Katie?”

He almost didn’t go forward. The quietude unsettled him. He feared he’d find her dead. Given all her bizarre behavior as of late, compiled with the grief from her father’s death, he worried she might have done something to harm herself. Though he had always thought of her as a strong person, even the strong sometimes got overwhelmed and lost their battles with themselves.  Even with suicide out of the equation, he worried Ruthanne’s attacker could have gotten to Katie by now. While Jake doubted psychic abilities were employed, he had little doubt the man had extracted the information needed to find Katie. Ruthanne had made that much clear. Though he didn’t like guns, he now wished he had brought some kind of weapon. A baseball bat. A handful of rocks. A Molotov cocktail. Something.

He felt pretty confident his fists were useless. He hadn’t been in a fight since middle school and lost most of the ones he entered.

Jake stepped deeper into Katie’s house and called her name again. With no signs of a struggle in any of the downstairs rooms, he relaxed a little. He climbed the stairs and headed for her rooms.

The bathroom sink held burned remains similar to what Katie had left in his sink. The same strange symbol was drawn on the mirror in red lipstick. He checked the bedroom and found the sheets rumpled but no sign of Katie. No sign of the books either, he thought. Wherever Katie had gone, she had taken them with her.

Of course she did.

He plopped down on the bed and folded his hands. His shoulders fell into a heavy slump, as if he had a thick log balanced across them. He clenched fistfuls of the sheet. He and Katie had fallen asleep together in this bed more times than he could count. They made love under its blankets on multiple occasions. Sometimes they read to each other, which was something he liked best of all because it held a special kind of intimacy.

Jake released the sheets and put his face in his hands. Too exhausted to cry, he just sat there, losing himself in the spotty darkness as the heels of his hands pressed into his eyelids. As a child, he used to imagine the exploding pale shapes were ghosts screaming silently in a forever black chasm. Sitting on the edge of the familiar room, weighed down by grief and uncertainty, he imagined himself and Katie as two of those ghosts. Lost forever. Screaming without sound. Unable to find each other in the blackness.

Jake dug out his phone and dialed Ruthanne. The call went straight to voicemail.

———-

“Let. Me. Go.” Ruthanne jerked her arm out of Carlyle’s grasp and reached behind her for the door handle.

He reached over her shoulder and slammed his palm against the door.

“Don’t,” he said. “It’s not safe for you out there.”

She crossed her arms and stared at him. “What do you mean by not safe?”

“I’ll tell you. Just come in, okay?”

“Why should I trust you? I scanned you that symbol, you never call me back, and then someone I’ve never met before attacks me in my home because he’s looking for books.”

“You were attacked?”

“Yes.”

“By who?”

“I have no idea, but he… never mind. You know something. Otherwise, you wouldn’t tell me it wasn’t safe out there.”

Carlyle pushed away from the door, backed away from Ruthanne. He heaved a sigh and pressed his lips together. His eyes darkened.

“I didn’t…I didn’t think they’d leave you alive.”

“Yeah, well, he did, and I have a gun. Unlucky for you.”

“Don’t be foolish, Ruthanne. We all have secrets we need to protect. I wanted to call and warn you, but I couldn’t risk endangering myself. I’m glad you’re alive.”

“If anything happens to my client…”

“Spare me the action hero dialogue. Let me make you a drink.”

“Not thirsty, but you can have one if it will get you talking.”

He nodded. “Follow me.”

They came to an open kitchen with high ceilings and marble countertops. Carlyle stepped behind the bar and began making himself something that looked like a martini.

“So, who are these people? The ones who want those books.”

“I don’t know enough. I guess none of us really do. But there are groups who operate outside of everything. Behind the scenes, if you will. Allegiances vary, but they all want the same thing: power.”

“What’s your association with them?”

“Until the other day, I didn’t think I had any. I sent that symbol to an old colleague. I recognized it, but I wasn’t sure what it was. He called me immediately, asking me where I got it. When I refused to tell him, he threatened my children. Recited their names, addresses, where they worked. I had no choice.”

“You could’ve gone to the police.”

“He assured me his network was so vast that if I did call the police, it would stop nothing.”

“You believed him?”

“What choice did I have?”

“Right. Family. I get it. So, what now?”

“What now? Now, we move on with our lives. Forget this whole thing ever happened.”

“I can’t do that. That man, whoever he was, got inside my head. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover from what he did to me. Even if I could, I have a friend who’s in danger, if everything you’ve said is true.”

“Maybe he’ll leave her alive too. You said he got inside your head?”

“He took my thoughts, things I knew, just by touching me. Having your secrets stolen is painful.”

“I’ve heard of people with such ability. Usually one of their parents is…well, I don’t want to sound crazy.”

“My definition of crazy isn’t what it used to be.”

“A demon. One of their parents is a demon. Or they learned the skill over centuries in the underworld, which I suppose would make them a demon themselves.”

Ruthanne’s head spun. Demons. Here she was, a woman of science, considering the existence of demons. The whole thing sounded bonkers, but she couldn’t deny the things she had been through. Even if there was a scientific explanation for how a man could steal her thoughts, it was far outside the realm of what modern science understood. Science fiction, she thought, though the sensation of having her thoughts torn away fell more within the confines of horror if she absolutely had to place the events of the last twenty-four hours in a literary genre.

“All right, so you’re not the bad guy,” she said. “Do you have any idea what this man or these men might do to my client if they find her with those books?”

Carlyle shook his head. “I haven’t the slightest.”

“I have a friend checking on her.” She dug into her purse. Carlyle tensed, thinking of the gun she mentioned. “I want to call him and see if he’s found anything.”

“Be my guest.”

“Maybe I’ll take you up on that drink after all.”

He nodded and went back to the kitchen. Ruthanne dialed Jake’s number. He answered on the first ring.

“Ruthanne. I tried calling.”

“I’m sorry I missed it. What’d you find?”

“A whole lot of nothing. Her car’s here, but she’s gone. Those books too.”

Ruthanne tensed. “Does it look like anything happened?”

“Not really. I mean, it looks like she tried another ritual, but nothing else. Maybe we should just try the police.”

“I don’t know yet. I’m talking to Carlyle.”

“How’s that going?”

“Either he’s playing his cards close to his chest, or he’s full of shit. I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Well, figure it out soon. At this point, reporting her missing feels like the only right thing to do.”

“Just hold off a little longer. I want to see what else I can get out of him.”

“All right, fine, just…if I don’t hear from you soon, I’m calling the cops.”

“That’s fair,” she said and disconnected.

Carlyle handed her an extra dirty martini. She slammed half of it, winced against its salty burn.

“She’s not at home. Her car’s in the driveway. She tried some kind of crazy sex ritual. Twice. What happens when these people find someone who has their precious books?”

“I always assumed ritual murder, but if she’s missing, I don’t know what to think. What kind of rituals was she performing?”

“I’m not even sure.” She told him what Jake found in his bathroom after Katie tried to cut herself during sex. “You ever hear of something like that?”

“That ritual can be used for any number of things. Usually based around whatever the performer wants. Do you know what it is your client wanted?”

“I’m not sure. She was pretty far gone last I saw her.” Ruthanne killed the rest of her drink, forced herself not to ask for another. “Is there any way we can figure out what she was up to?”

Carlyle’s face tightened. Almost a ten count passed before he said another word. Finally, he sighed. “Maybe there is. I just don’t know if it’s wise for me or you to go down this path.”

“Well, if they didn’t kill her, they surely aren’t going to kill your family. I mean, right?”

“If they had killed her, we surely would have known. From what I know about these people, they’re obsessed with ritual. Your friend not only would have found your client dead, but the body would undoubtedly be arranged in some bizarre display.”

“So helping me won’t get you into any trouble, will it?”

“Perhaps not. At this point, I do feel like I owe you. I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of this.”

“Way it sounds, you’re caught in the middle too.”

“This is true, but I should’ve known better.”

“So how are you going to help me?”

“Let me make a quick phone call. In the meantime, call your friend. Tell him not to involve the police yet. Tell him you may be onto something.”

“Who are you going to call?”

His features brightened. He suddenly looked decades younger.

“Ghostbusters,” he said, winked, and left the room.

Blood and Brimstone, Next 25 Pages

The end is nearly here. Get caught up and read the next 25 pages below.


While his sister obsessed over the books, Dale made good on his promise to himself and began the process of starting a band. He used the money he saved from cooking meals on base to put a deposit down on an apartment in Escondido. He thought living off base would be important to him pursuing music. Once he was settled in, he downloaded Garage Band on his computer, bought a high quality microphone, and recorded several demo tracks, cover versions of his father’s songs. He posted ads on craigslist and local musician sites. When the ads yielded no results other than spam, he had a stack of business cards made and started going to local clubs where live music was advertised.

The first musician he met was Lyle Reeves, a long-haired kid with birdlike features who sipped bourbon on the rocks. Dale approached Lyle because he liked the kid’s Deaf Heaven tee-shirt. They hit it off pretty quickly since they both came from the northeast. Living in San Diego, Lyle missed having seasons; Dale did not. Lyle thought Dale’s decision to enlist was admirable, really cool, and something he could never do. Lyle had moved to San Diego for a girl. Dale said he totally understood that, said he was looking to start a band for the same reason, sort of. Turned out Lyle played guitar.

“But everyone’s a fucking guitarist, so you need me to play bass, fuck it. I’ll do it.”

“Just don’t bail on me when a guitar-playing gig comes up.”

“I wouldn’t do that. You seem cool.”

Dale handed him a business card and a demo CD. Three days later, they sat down at Dale’s house to improve upon the songs. Lyle had thought the tuning was cool and had already sketched out some rough bass lines. It was a good thing Lyle was okay with following, because Dale’s playing still needed some polishing. After almost twenty minutes, they fell into a nice groove. Halfway through a song, they synced perfectly, and the lights went out.

———-

Finding a drummer proved more difficult. Lyle had been right in his assessment that everyone’s a fucking guitarist, but all of the drummers Dale met were already committed to two, sometimes three bands. He put out more ads, went to shows, and asked other musicians if they knew anyone. Lyle did the same. After weeks of coming up empty, Dale and Lyle just went in on a vintage drum machine and opted to use it until they found a flesh and blood drummer.

During this time, Dale thought a lot about Melissa. He wondered where she was, and if she was alive. He called the local police in Pennsylvania to check if anything turned up. His calls were met with tones of clinical indifference, despite words of sympathy and insistence that they “understand how difficult this must be.”

She came to him in dreams where they would drive to the beach, and he would watch her kneel before the waves as they splashed over her head and shoulders, flattening her raven hair against her face. Sometimes her eyes and a smile would peek through her wet hair and give him a warm feeling. In the dreams, he would know she had been missing and would want to ask her where she had gone and why. But ultimately, he would choose not to ask. He much preferred just relishing their time together.

Each night he woke up empty. The warmth replaced by intense body heat, as if in the grip of a fever. Sometimes he cried, but mostly he just wished he could. The pain didn’t go away when he and Lyle played music, but it felt more meaningful, like an offering for the ritual, for his communion with the spiritual. Even with the tinny beatbox backing up the guitars, the music took on a soul of its own, he and Lyle serving as mere conduits.

The lights went out more often than not. He thought maybe it was faulty wiring, overwhelmed by him and Lyle using too much power, but the landlord’s electrician said he found nothing wrong with apartment’s breakers. Maybe the electrician was just seeing what the landlord wanted him to see, but Dale wasn’t so sure. He felt crazy thinking it, but it crossed his mind more than once that his apartment might be haunted. 

Elsewhere…

When he opened his eyes, Windom was in another state and it was nighttime and the Devil was long gone, leaving behind a smoking pile of charred goat bones. Windom bent to kiss the blackened skull and licked the ashes from his lips.

———

Carlyle never did call back and never answered his phone either. Ruthanne started to think about Katie’s warning that people who spread the knowledge within the books would be killed. A silly prospect, sure, but whenever she lay awake in the dark and heard a shuffling in her backyard or walked an empty street alone, it didn’t seem so silly.

Four nights after her session with Katie, she tried Carlyle one more time. She hung up after four rings, tired of leaving the same voicemail. She tried reading to take her mind off things and when that didn’t work she called Jarvis.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Netflix and chill with my girl, Gracie.” Gracie was his cocker spaniel.

“Guess that means you don’t feel like coming over.”

“You really should consider getting a dog.”

Why the hell does he have to make everything a joke? “Do you want to come over or not?”

“You must need me bad.”

“Shut up. Forget I asked. Have Gracie lick your balls tonight.”

“Hey, Ruthanne.”

She hung up on him. Jarvis wasn’t exactly her boyfriend. She saw enough dissatisfied married people in her practice to know that commitment didn’t appeal to her, but she liked having him as a go-to on nights she didn’t feel like being alone. Nights like tonight.

She set her phone down and switched on the television in hopes that reruns of Outlander would distract her. There was nothing like hot guys and historical settings to help her forget her troubles.

In the middle of a particularly boring sex scene, someone knocked on the door. Ruthanne jolted. For a second, she feared the worst: some home invader rapist had decided to pay her a visit. As more seconds passed, she thought the knocker was a drunk who had inadvertently come to the wrong house. After ten seconds, she reached the logical conclusion that Jarvis had decided to come over after all. Part of her didn’t want to let him in. Out of spite for him making her needs a joke, she considered letting him stand out there all night.

Another knock piqued her curiosity enough to at least pause the television, come to the door and see who it was. If it was Jarvis, she would let him sweat it out. If it was a drunk who stumbled to her doorstep by mistake, she would tell him he has the wrong house and ask him to leave. If he didn’t honor her wishes, she would call the police.

She peered through the peephole.

No one was there.

Kids. She hadn’t thought of that: some neighborhood kids looking to have a little fun playing knock-knock, zoom-zoom. Figures, she thought.

She half-turned away from the door and someone knocked again. She tensed and brought her eye back to the peephole. Again, no one was there.

“Jarvis, if that’s you I’m gonna sell Gracie to a dogfighting ring.” She waited. “Jarvis?”

Nothing. She remained in position, tried to breathe quietly, listen for anything.

Voices broke through the silence from somewhere inside the house.

Ruthanne yelped. She spun and scanned her surroundings. Jarvis didn’t have a key and even if he did, the voices didn’t sound like his. A male and female talking back and forth. About movies. On demand.

She tromped to her TV. No longer paused, the television had switched to her cable provider’s guide channel and the associated advertisements. She shook her head and gave a dry laugh and picked up the remote to switch off the television she heard another knock. She killed the TV.

“I’m calling the cops, asshole,” she said.

She went to her closet and pulled the .357 her father gave her as a housewarming gift from the top shelf. She made sure it was loaded and went to the dining room to fish her phone out of her purse.

“You can put the gun down. I just want to talk.”

Ruthanne froze. The voice was cool, level. The words came through crystal clear despite coming from behind the muffling door.

“Then why the horror movie theatrics?”

“It’s all part of the ritual, dear. I see no point in questioning it, long as the rituals work. Now, are you going to open this door?”

She aimed the gun at the entrance. “Fuck. No.”

“Now, dear, there’s no reason to use that sort of language. As I said, I just want to talk. Seems you have some information I need. Harmless enough, right?”

Ruthanne took one hand from the gun and reached into her purse. Her fingers closed around her phone’s smooth edges. The knob of her front door jiggled. She panicked. Dropped the phone, put both hands on the gun, and fired, once, twice. Two splintered holes opened on the door.

Her skin got hot. She broke out in sweats. Legs wobbled. She nearly collapsed.

“Oh, God,” she said.

She never expected to use the gun, let alone on another person. In the ensuing seconds, her emotions dipped and peaked from the horror at possibly taking another human life and relief for her safety against a potentially deadly intruder.

She crept to the door. Outside the holes, she saw her porch was empty. She reached for the knob but didn’t lower the gun. She realized too late she left her phone in the kitchen.

No big deal. Someone else heard the shots. Someone else called.

She unlocked the door and turned the knob. The door pushed in on her. One hand grabbed her wrist and twisted, wresting the gun from her grasp. Another hand closed over her mouth. She was forced back into the living room, over the edge of her area rug, and pinned to the floor.

The man on top of her was lean and sandy-haired and incredibly strong. His youthful features remained calm as he restrained her. His soft baby blues unsettled her most of all; they examined her in a clinical, calculated way, no different than if she were a specimen in a petri dish, in a way she hoped she never came across to her patients.

Sirens sounded in the distance.

Thank God. Someone called.

Dear God, please get her in time.

Get here before he kills me.

“I do apologize for barging in like this. If only you would have let me in, I wouldn’t have to be so,” he paused to consider his word choice, “forceful.”

The sirens were getting closer, but not nearly fast enough. She squirmed beneath him. Her free hand clubbed his shoulder. Her muffled screams sprayed saliva on his palm.

The man took his hand away and suspended the palm in front of her eyes. She inhaled to prepare another set of screams, but her breath caught at the image drawn on his hand. It was the image Katie had drawn, the one from the book, the one she had scanned to Carlyle the other day. She thought about what Katie had said, how people who shared the books without permission would be killed. The idea had seemed so ridiculous then, but now so real, so unavoidable, she feared death loomed mere seconds away.

In her field, she sometimes wrestled with existential questions and often treated people who obsessed over many of the same issues. She knew that most of the time, death was seldom planned, often coming on the heels of a sudden shift—control of a vehicle lost, rapidly spreading cancer, a gunman choosing your work or school as a place to make a final, violent statement—and nothing ever really prepared you. Panic overtook her. She thrashed beneath her assailant, tried biting his hand as it lowered to her forehead.

When he touched her, everything went warm. Her skin tingled. Something pulsed before her eyes, a fire full of contorted faces. She smelled singed hair. Her body wanted to writhe, to fight free, but paralysis had overtaken her.

What happened next was invasive. Worse than any home intrusion, as bad as any rape, something entered her mind, explored the deepest caverns of her thoughts. Tore memories from her, desires and fears, secret knowledge, forgotten childhood moments. This was worse than death. 

———-

Jake opened the door and Katie stood on the other side. He had dreamed of this moment when she would come back into his life, only in his dreams, it was nighttime and raining, not the sort of bright, warm afternoon where it felt like nothing important could ever happen. She stood there on his porch holding one of those damn books in one hand and her purse over one shoulder. She wore no makeup, didn’t need any. A loose pony tail held her hair back. The hem of her flowery dress danced above her knees.

She smiled.

They just stared at each other, taking each other in, washed in the purity of silence.

He didn’t speak, didn’t need to, and he stood still until he no longer could. Then he stepped forward and embraced her. She still felt way too thin, like she wasn’t eating enough, but her skin was warm. Vibrant energy flowed between them. He thought, for the first time in months, that maybe things would finally be okay. Okay with them, but more importantly, okay with her.

It hurt too much watching her withdraw, watching her obsess. He had reached a point where he doubted he could be any help staying with her. Thought it would be better to leave her to herself. Figured that if given time, she would reemerge from the dark. He knew she was strong enough.

As he held her, he hoped that she had.

Five minutes later, they were sitting on the sofa in his apartment, water for tea boiling in his kitchen. They still hadn’t said anything. He wanted to let her start. She wouldn’t have come unless she needed to talk.

She waited until he went to check on the water and came back with two mugs of peppermint tea. She smiled, thanked him, and looked into the steaming liquid as if searching for answers.

“I missed you,” she said. “A lot.”

“Did you?” The question slipped from his lips. He hadn’t meant to say it, and hearing the sharp way it came out, he immediately wished he hadn’t.

“I did, really. Guess I can’t blame you if you don’t believe me. I needed this though, to explore.”

“I know. Did you find what you were looking for?”

She uttered a dry laugh. “Not even sure what I was looking for.”

“Sometimes I don’t think anyone ever does.” 

She cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, people have this vague concept of faith and they put names on things to make what they feel easier to digest. It’s all just energy, really. Some people can’t handle that. I’m not even sure I can handle that. I mean, they say energy can never be destroyed, that it can only change its form, so what does that really mean? What happens after this, you know?” Katie said nothing. Jake wondered if he was talking too much. “Anyway, sorry. This isn’t about me. It’s about you. I’m glad you’re here, but I’m not sure why you’re here.”

She set down her mug of tea, untouched and still steaming. “It doesn’t have to just be about me. It can be about us.”

She inched closer to him and put her hand on his thigh. His skin tingled under her light touch. Warmth spread to his groin. He looked away from her, tried not to think about what he was feeling. Part of it was primal lust; he hadn’t slept with anyone in almost six months, not since he had left Katie. The other part of it was deeper, a desire to be closer to Katie again.

“Are you sorry I came?” she said.

“Of course I’m not. I just wish I understood you.”

“I wish I understood me too.”

“Maybe you should try talking to me about it. Ever since all that shit happened with your mom you’ve just been more and more closed off. It’s only gotten worse since your dad died, especially since you got those damn books. You even brought one of them over.” He pointed to her purse. “I just wish you didn’t forget that I’m here for you.”

“I didn’t.”

“It feels like it. You never tell me anything.”

“If I told you…”

“I’d think you were crazy, right? You’ve made that perfectly clear, but what bothers me, Katie is that you never even bothered to try.”

“Do you believe in the supernatural?”

He almost laughed, but reminded himself that this moment was crucial if Katie was to trust him. If Katie was to let him in again. If they were to rebuild. He gave the only answer that made sense.

“I’m not sure. I know what science says, but I also know there’s a lot out there we don’t understand.”

“Ghosts?”

He shrugged.

“Demons?”

“Katie…”

“Well?”

“You mean, like literal demons?”

“You said there’s a lot out there we don’t understand. Why doesn’t that allow for ghosts and demons?”

“Next thing I know you’re going to ask me if I’ve met your friend Jesus.”

“Jake. If you want me to open up to you, I need you to be open.”

“All right, all right, lay it on me.”

She started with her father. She explained how before Todd met Katie’s mother he had been involved with a junky named Chloe. More than involved, in love, but because of her unstable lifestyle, he left her. Jake knew most of this, but let Katie talk through it.

“Chloe died of an overdose and my parents settled down to start a family. Dad never really stopped loving Chloe though. He regretted how it ended. Maybe even that it ended at all.” She frowned. “I have no doubt that he loved my mother, and I’m absolutely certain he loved Dale and me, but Chloe was a wound that never healed and last year she came back.”

“Like literally?”

Katie nodded. Jake strived to keep a poker face. She hadn’t been this open with him for so long, and the last thing he wanted to do was screw things up. It all sounded crazy, sure, but he had to let her finish, because she believed it and he loved her. Even if a large part of him wanted to run far away, move and change his number. It was one thing to entertain the idea of the supernatural, but another thing entirely to insist that you had had a supernatural experience.

“She didn’t come back alone. That man who attacked my mother and I, she was his slave in Hell.”

“Like Christian Hell?”

“Eh, from what I understand it’s kind of a mix of everything. Has most in common with the Greek realm of the dead. Kind of just a shitty place to be, but no hierarchy or I don’t know. You don’t have to do or not do something to get there. People just kind of end up there.”

“Are we gonna go there?”

“I don’t know.” She shook her head and stopped to chew her lip. Jake got the feeling that whatever she planned to say next would be the hardest for her to talk about. Which was crazy. How could any of what she’d told him thus far have been easy to talk about? “Anyway, she caught up to my dad and he was trying to help her escape that place for good by finding her a proper resting place. Not holy ground or anything like that. Just a place that makes her happy, I guess. The man who attacked us, Samael, he came for us to try and get our father to release Chloe to him.

“He took us downtown to where Dad and Chloe used to have an apartment together and she gave herself up. Went back with him to Hell.

“The last time I saw my dad, he said he had to find her.”

“And now you’re trying to find him.”

“Melissa too. I feel responsible for that.”

“That girl was trouble. You can’t possibly think you had anything to do with her going missing.”

“She had my drawing of Samael. Must have gotten it from my journal. I know that’s not much in the way of evidence, but I can’t help but think…”

He took her hands and caressed the knuckles. She sniffed and blinked. Her eyes were red with the threat of tears.

“Of course I’ve been coming up empty. I’ve prayed to gods old and new. Read passages aloud, even tried some of the rituals. My room probably looks like something out of one of those eighties satanic panic movies. Don’t know if it’s me, or that the books are just full of shit, but nothing seems to work. I feel like I’ll never see Dad again or know what happened to him, and I’ll never find Melissa.”

“Have you talked to Dale at all?”

“Once.” She told him how Dale was channeling all his energy into music. How it seemed like Dale was healing.

“That’s good. He hasn’t heard from her at all, I’m assuming.”

“No.”

There was a long stretch of silence between them.

“So, what happens now?” Jake asked.

“I need your help.”

“Anything.”

She kissed him. At first, he resisted, but her mouth was like coming home, and he gave in to its warm, wet touch.

———-

She told Jake to meet her in the bedroom, then went to the bathroom with the book and her bag. The dumped the bag’s contents on the vanity and opened the book to the marked page. The instructions laid out on the pages were for a ritual that employed sexual energy to gain power, in this case, the power to open a doorway between Earth and the Land of Shades. She felt awful using Jake for this, but the truth was she didn’t belong in this world anymore.

Answers and knowledge were all that mattered to her now. The fiery dreams had come to intoxicate and intrigue, rather than horrify, in her time since acquiring the books. She dwelled on the black portal, encircled in flames and promising answers. Or promising nothingness, which, if there were no answers, nothingness would be preferable.

As she sifted through the items spread out on the vanity, she thought of her father. She thought of the time the family went to Jersey Shore. They went every summer, but the time that stuck out in her memory most was the summer after sixth grade. She recalled specific images: the Ultimates comic hidden between the pages of an issue of The Economist and the way her father had blushed and winked at her when she spotted it; her parents holding hands, but not looking at each other, as they sat in their beach chairs; Dale throwing a Frisbee to a loose pit bull and their father’s nervous anger as he asked other beachgoers who owned the dog; and the way her father had run in after her, bypassing the lifeguard, as a riptide took her away, away, away. He had clutched her to his chest, saltwater mixing with tears on his cheeks, as they paddled to the side and eventually made their way back to shore.

She wiped her own tears away and picked her lipstick from the pile of items, uncapped it and drew a red circle on the mirror. Inside the circle she drew a spattering of stars and one bulging eye. She closed the sink’s drain. She lifted a lock of her hair, clipped when she was seven and detached this afternoon from the page of her childhood diary where it was taped, and dropped it into the sink. She added wormwood, two silver coins her grandfather had given her, and a dollop of holy water.

“Katie?” Jake called from the bedroom.

“I’ll be right out,” she said.

She licked the index and middle fingers of her left hand and slipped them down her pants, under her panties. She rubbed until she lubricated, then smeared the juices across the items in the sink. Grabbed a lighter and set the contents on fire.

The prayer she whispered was in a foreign tongue, something between Latin and Greek, and she hoped she got it right. She blew out the flame and got naked. She reloaded her purse, making doubly sure her pocket knife made it inside, and exited the bathroom.

After I’m gone, Jake’s really going to think I’m crazy.

———-

Katie’s naked body was every bit as perfect in its imperfection as he remembered. He took it all in. The purple, quarter moon scar just below her left hip where she had fallen off a horse and onto a jagged stone during a family trip to Texas. Her slumped shoulders. Her belly pale around the dark, tiny navel. Auburn hair draped over her shoulders and tops of her fist-sized breasts. The ghost of a scar on her cheek from where Samael struck her. She half-smiled. Her eyes were dark.

Her stance exuded power, dominance. A new Katie stood before him, purse clutched in her right hand, not quite the old Katie, the bright and sweet girl who was quick on her feet and full of energy, but this Katie had also risen above the black cloud that had weighed her down for so long. She had reassembled herself out of the bombed-out, twisted remnants of her old self, reemerging as a new being, a goddess among women.

Jake wondered what loving her would be like now. How much had she changed? His manhood slid under the top sheet into a stance, anticipating her, although he was also a little afraid.

She crossed the room, her bare soles whispers on the laminate flooring. 

Her warmth radiated the closer she got to him. His legs tensed and relaxed. His fists grasped the sheets. She was walking slowly, making the wait all the more torturous. She peeled the sheet off him, exposing his wiry, naked body, and tossed the purse on the side of the bed. He thought it odd, at first, why she had brought it with her, and guessed maybe she had a vibrator with her. Bringing her to climax sometimes posed a challenge, which made her impatient in spite of his attempts to put her at ease, so she sometimes brought help.

She crawled on top of him, burning hot. Her sex brushed his leg and left a smear of estrus from his kneecap to his middle thigh. Part of him wondered what had her so turned on. A much larger part didn’t care, his emotions driven away by animal need.

Katie put her lips around him and he took a sharp breath in through his teeth. He closed his eyes, focused all his attention on her circling tongue and the warm spasms her licking incited in his pelvis. She released him, embraced his hips with her thighs, and slid his member into her wet warmth. As she slid all the way down, he tensed and almost came immediately. He clamped his teeth into his bottom lip, took two handfuls of ass. She leaned down and whispered in his ear.

“You better not, not yet.”

Confident he had stifled his orgasm, at least for now, he nodded. “I won’t.”

“Good.”

She leaned back and rocked her hips. Her hair swished side to side between her shoulder blades. Her eyes rolled back, half-closed. A soft moan passed between her lips. He relished her familiar musky scent, caught a hint of something smoky as if she had been standing next to a campfire. He tried to roll on top of her, but she pinned his shoulders to the mattress and shook her head. The seductive glint in her eyes almost made him melt.

She rode him until she neared her climax. His lingered close behind. She reached for her purse, still moaning, still clenching her thighs. Her hand reemerged, holding something shiny.

Jake’s limbs clenched. She raised the blade. He thought she was about to pull a Basic Instinct. He shouted her name. She drew the blade across her left breast. Blood spilled over her nipple and dripped onto Jake’s belly. She was mid-orgasm as his erection withered. He pushed her off of him and rolled to the floor. 

“What the fuck?” he yelled. She stared hard at him, then lowered her gaze. “I mean, seriously. What the actual fuck?”

She sat on the edge of the bed and shook her head. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

“Understand? Katie, what…I mean…” He raked his hands through his hair as if he could excavate the information he needed from beneath his scalp.

Katie wiped the laceration with her fingertips and licked the blood. Jake’s stomach lurched.

“I think I better go,” she said.

“Yeah…”

She climbed out of bed, wrapped in the top sheet and tromped to the bathroom. 

“Katie, wait.”

She stepped into her panties, started to pull the dress over her head.

“Katie.”

She stuffed her bra and the knife back in her purse and strode to the front door.

“Hey,” he said, trying to inject firmness into his voice.

She looked over her shoulder as she opened the door. Tears glistened on her cheeks.

“Forget about me, Jake.”

“But I…”

She walked through the door and slammed it behind her.

———-  

Ruthanne crouched underneath the hot stream of her third shower in twenty-four hours. Alcohol buzzed in her head, but did little to numb the trauma. She hadn’t called the police, because she couldn’t collect herself enough to describe what happened to her. Her thoughts were a whirlwind. Not only had the strange man invaded her mind, she thought he had done some kind of damage in there too. She felt like she was coming down from an intense and unpleasant acid trip.

The shadows in her home morphed into wormy black vines that grew across the walls and ceiling. Static hissed through every beat of silence. She tried turning on music or the television to drown it out, but voices whispered in strange tongues under the familiar sounds. Only the steady, patter and warm caress of the shower soothed her. But it was a primal sense of security, like curling in a blanket against the cold, a lullaby to a child, or a cool, dark place for a spider to nest. She could only relax and break her tension, but she could not collect her thoughts. Every attempt to talk herself down resulted in sobbing gibberish. She feared she would stay like this forever, and live out the rest of her life banging her head against the wall of a padded room.

The first time her phone rang, she ignored it. She kept her eyes closed and let the water paste her hair to her neck and shoulders. She focused on her breathing and tried to lull herself back to that primal state of relaxation, like someone trying to sleep through an alarm they didn’t quite have the energy to get up and switch off.

The caller left a message. Not even a minute passed before the phone rang again. She squeezed her eyes tighter and pressed her teeth into her bottom lip until she tasted blood. She cursed and shut off the water and wrapped herself in a towel.

The phone had stopped ringing by the time she got to it. The number didn’t come up as one of her contacts and she didn’t recognize it. She doubted she would recognize anything in her current state. She listened to the message and tried to ignore the crawling shadows and whispering static.

“Ruthanne, it’s Jake, Katie’s boyfriend. I need to talk to you. Can you call me back?” He gave his number and disconnected.

She tensed at the mention of Katie. Her patient, one who she sometimes thought of as a friend, had something to do with the man who attacked her. She made herself return Jake’s call.

“Ruthanne,” he said.

She whimpered, unable to form words. The shadows inched closer and retracted, never touching, but always too close.

“Ruthanne, are you there?”

She closed her eyes, breathed deep, and squeezed out a stuttering response against the perpetual static.

“Jake. Is Katie with you?”

“That’s what I need to talk to you about. Can I meet you at your office?”

“N-no. My home.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Juh-just…” She winced, pinched her eyes tighter and took another deep breath. She sputtered out the address.

“I’ll be right over.”

She grunted and disconnected. The static buzzed. The shadows crawled.

———-  

Windom’s earliest memories were of the sunroom and the blocks. Even during his tender youth, he understood the power of words and symbols. He impressed his mother’s friends by spelling out words he couldn’t possibly know, in languages even his mother didn’t know. He remembered knowing on a subtle level that he shouldn’t know these words or these symbols, as they had never been taught to him. But he saw them when he played, so he spelled them with blocks or drew them.

When he was seven, his mother told him he had reached the age of reason and it was time for him to learn about his father. She used to be married to a man named Russell. One night he was late coming home from work and he put a baby in her. She didn’t tell Windom how he put a baby in her, but Windom knew about sex, the same way he knew about the power of words and symbols.

According to his mother, after his conception, she went into the bathroom to shower. When she came out, his father was gone. There was a knock at the door, police. They said her husband had died in a car wreck on the way home. Time of death: two hours ago. Her initial thought was how that was impossible; she had just seen her husband, just been with him. But they assured her the time of death was accurate, offered their condolences, and left her to weep alone.

In the depths of grief, revelation fell upon her. God had given her a gift, the gift of seeing her husband one last time before he moved on from this world forever. She already felt the stirrings of life within her and the pregnancy test only confirmed it. Nine months later Windom was born.

“You’re a miracle, baby,” she had said. “I want you to get baptized. You’re old enough to decide for yourself.”

She proceeded to tell him about Jesus and how he died for Windom’s sins, for everyone’s sins. All he had to do was accept that as fact and let the preacher at First Baptist put him in the water and everything would be okay from there on out. And Windom said the prayer as his mother instructed, asked Christ to come and live in his heart and went to church with her that Sunday to get baptized.

The preacher was a severe-featured man, his cheeks and forehead flushed pink, his eyes dark and hooded. Said his name was Adam and he was grateful to meet another saved soul, though he hoped to see Windom and his mother in church more often now that Windom had accepted Jesus. The ceremony took place in the middle of that Sunday’s earliest service, and those pink cheeks turned ash white when Windom’s feet touched the water’s surface. Windom glanced down. Deep red now clouded the once clear pool. Adam dropped Windom and backed away, fist in mouth and eyes wide.

In the bloody water, Windom felt no fear, not even as the preacher cursed him and the congregation gasped and wailed. He knelt, bowed his head into the crimson fluid, and saw the face of his true father. 

Sometimes he wondered if Jesus still lived in his heart, even though he was the son of the devil.

———- 

Katie returned home, desperate to go to Hell. She spilled her purse onto her bed, grabbed the remaining wormwood, lipstick, and the vial of holy water and tromped to the bathroom. She blocked up the sink. Dumped the rest of the wormwood and holy water inside. Rummaged through her vanity drawers until she found her grandmother’s silver earrings and dropped them in the sink. Removed her dress and underwear, stuck her finger inside her vagina, and rubbed the resultant fluid around the rim of the sink.

She grabbed the lipstick and scribbled the symbol of eyes and stars upon the mirror. She glanced around, knew she was forgetting something, and ran to the bedroom to retrieve the dagger. Holding the blade up to her hair, she hoped the ritual would work. The book recommended a little girl’s lock of hair, for best results, but didn’t say a grown woman’s hair would be all bad. She cut through and watched the lock drift into the sink. Then she set the hair on fire.

She sprawled herself on the bed and reached between her legs. She massaged furiously, but in her desperate state, her orgasm wouldn’t come. Tears came instead.

———- 

The books are here.

Windom stopped in front of the three-story house with the circular window high in the foyer and the stone façade. This was upper-middle-class suburbia and there wasn’t a lot to distinguish this house from the others on the street. It was the groove that made the place stand out, a feeling he got whenever he was close to something he pursued. The groove thrummed within him as the energy inside the house pulsed. Something else sizzled beneath.

The books were in the house, but magic was too. Desperate magic, the most dangerous kind. Windom had crossed paths with many would-be magicians in his lifetime. Most of them ended up dead or crazy. Magic was nothing to fuck with if one didn’t know what they were doing. The one practicing magic inside the house was a novice, a well-read novice, but a novice nonetheless.

If he didn’t stop them, there was no telling what sort of destruction could take place. While the slim chance existed that they would succeed in their ritual, Windom didn’t care to risk it, not when he was standing so close to the action. A badly performed ritual could open an interdimensional tear that would spill out countless monstrosities into this world before someone strong enough came along fast enough to close it. Other times, a ritual gone wrong just caused an explosion. Depending on how much energy is involved, the explosion could be catastrophic.

What a pain in the ass, he thought. While he was enjoying the respite from being pursued by the Guards of Christ, he had hoped retrieving the books would prove a simple task. Preventing amateur magic from causing a disaster was the last thing he wanted to do with his time. He groaned and approached the front door.

The poor fool doesn’t know what they’re dealing with.

He took hold of the knob. Closed his eyes and willed the lock to come loose.

But they’ll die just the same.

———-

Katie thrust her hands into her hair and pulled on her locks until the pain became unbearable. She screamed away the frustration, forced herself to refocus on the task at hand. She wrung out her hands and lay back on the bed.

Relax. It won’t happen if you’re not relaxed.

She thought about Jake. Imagined happier times. Remembered how they were before the assault, before her father’s death, before her all too brief reunion with Dale, before these goddamned books. The memories that came to her were, at first, not even sexual. She remembered sitting on the hood of his car, drinking Old English and passing a joint back and forth. She remembered meeting between classes just to hold hands and walk the halls. She remembered how he always listened. He used to be the best listener, no matter how much they’d been drinking or smoking, always so attentive.

This drove away the unpleasant thoughts of how she’d withdrawn from him and their awkward encounter earlier in the night. She felt more at ease, her limbs loosened, her breath coming easier.

She touched herself again and conjured an image of how good Jake looked with his shirt off. He was no bodybuilder, maybe one-fifty soaking wet, but without clothes what muscles he did have were clearly defined, chiseled. She thought of his eyes as they stared deep into hers. Those soft blues were the prettiest she’d ever seen on a man, possessing an almost feminine delicacy. They always held a certain light, something that made her believe him every time he said he loved her.

She thought about him wrapping those arms around her, his lips like cotton on her neck, his hardness a testament to his need for her.

She imagined him between her legs, her finger a stand-in for his tongue. Her climax went from a distant light as she wandered a cave of frustration to the imminent illumination of everything beautiful. The crevice in the darkness was widening, letting pale fire inside, fire that grew along the baseboards of her bedroom, fire that climbed her walls.

Her belly clenched in fear, her orgasm starting to shrink away, but she talked herself through it, assured herself that the fire held the answers. In the fire, she could reconcile her losses. She could find answers to ease her uncertainty. She could find…

Revenge.

The single word spoken in her mind brought sense to all of this.

The man who assaulted her and her mother would be there, in the fire, waiting. She could take from him what he took from her. Use the wisdom from the books to launch some sort of attack.

The climax neared. The fire swirled around a fixed point on the wall, opening a black portal, a portal to the void, a void that stared back, a void where monsters lived, where she would make her own personal demon pay for his sins.

She rose to her feet, careful not to interrupt the impending orgasm, careful to step gently across the carpeted floor. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. Held her free hand palm-first against the black. Flames licked at her wrist. Burned, but she maintained her focus.

She thought she heard someone coming up the stairs, their footsteps deliberate but soft. She ignored the sounds. Bit her lip in the moment before release. The little death throbbed through her. Loosened her lips, expelled a cry.

The door to her room swung open. She opened her eyes.

A man stood in the frame, dressed in black denim and outlined by fire. He cocked his head to the side, raised an eyebrow as he studied her. Something about his look made her feel less afraid than she thought she should be when a strange man walks in on her masturbating. He examined her with interest and curiosity, unmarred by animal lusts.

Before she could gain more from studying the strange man, the flames around her wrist solidified. It felt like half a dozen tiny hands grabbing hold. They pulled her forward, through the ring of flame, into the black.

The strange man’s eyes flicked wide as Katie tumbled forward, engulfed in a fire made of impish hands. He didn’t move to help her, only watched. Then she was gone from the room, and she was falling.

Night in the Lonesome October

I’ve been reflective lately.

Yeah, you say, what else is new?

Hear me out.

Ten months ago, I grudgingly returned to social media. I’m not proud. I definitely did it to sell books, but something else happened. I made some new friends. That was pretty cool. And yeah, I did sell some books, which was also pretty cool.

But I still saw a lot of the ugly things that drove me away in the first place. Hypocrisy, petty arguments, dismissive comments, and manufactured outrage.

Then I got tired, frustrated and depressed.

Back in June, I restarted The Mangum Show podcast. Recorded a ton of content. Paid for a logo. The works.

Unfortunately, I ran into some technology roadblocks. Skype recordings are inconsistent in terms of quality. I can’t seem to figure out editing in Audacity. Then my MP3 converter just decided to stop working.

I got tired, frustrated and depressed.

Marketing yourself, man. I’ve done a lot of it this year. Even paid for some ads, which produced mixed results.

Through these last ten months, I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve learned videos get the most attention on this site. As a result, you should expect more videos.

I’ve learned social media is STILL toxic for me. I won’t be deleting my accounts again, but I do plan on cutting back my time on there significantly.

I’m working full-time again, so time is more precious than ever. I want to spend it on things that are worthwhile.

Videos that bring more visitors to this site. Patreon-exclusive content. The Mangum Show will continue, too, albeit in a different format. Plus, writing, writing and more writing.

This is probably not a particularly organized blog entry, so much as it’s me thinking aloud. If you’re still here, thanks for indulging me.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: this October, I’m reading lots of Richard Laymon and Bryan Smith instead of watching the same movies over and over again.

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.

Extinction Peak-A Novel of Dinosaur Horror

I’m about to make what will likely be one of my final passes on Extinction Peak, my dinosaur horror novel. Some of my work comes from my subconscious and flows rather easily. This book was not one of them. I wrote the first draft almost five years ago. The version that exists today has only the title in common with that old draft.

Weirdly, this book will likely be more fun to read than some of my other titles. It relies heavily on world-building and action, not symbology and style. That’s not to say it lacks depth. If you’re looking for it, my thesis will present itself. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

Jeff Burk made it official the Monday after Killer Con, so I’ll announce it here: Extinction Peak is set for publication in 2020 by his new press Section 31 Productions.