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 Virus caught up to Windom at a Shoney’s some fifteen miles across the Tennessee border. Dude was hard to miss. Six-foot-ten, three hundred pounds, the word KILL tattooed across his forehead. Windom watched the Virus enter, but kept his head down, pretended to keep eating his bland catfish and soggy green beans. No need to cause a scene. Not yet.The Virus plodded to where the hostess, a petite blond with crooked teeth and big dumb eyes, stood shuffling menus. She smiled up at the Virus, didn’t say shit about his imposing size or his face tattoo. Windom guessed she was used to seeing all sorts of characters in these truck stop buffets. “Just one, sir?”“Meeting a friend,” the Virus said, his voice gravel in a paper cup.He and the hostess turned to the dining room. Windom waved. May as well get to it.The Virus followed the hostess toward Windom’s table. He didn’t bother sitting. The hostess—her name tag said, Greta—glanced from Windom to the Virus. Crooked teeth bared into a too big smile. Eyes darted between the two men. Blinked.“You gonna sit?” she asked.“Sit when I want. Leave a menu.”“Okay, sure thing,” she said, still smiling, so used to being bossed around, she thought it was normal. She only existed to please. Did her damnedest to walk on eggshells with everyone. All the time. At least that was what Windom gleaned, just from focusing on her mannerisms, her aura, the empty space he detected where most people had a multitude of thoughts. “You just lemme know you need anything, ‘kay?”She sashayed away from the table. The Virus looked down at Windom, narrowed his eyes.“Think you know why I’m here.”“Reckon I do. No need to rush things. Grab a plate. Get some food. I recommend the catfish.”“I didn’t come here to eat.”“You always need to be so serious? Relax a little.”The Virus sniffed. Convinced by the aroma, he nodded. “All right. Better not try anything funny.”“Course not. I know my audience.”The Virus went to the buffet and returned with a loaded plate and sat down. He bit into a chicken thigh, tore a huge hunk of meat and dropped the almost bare bone back to the plate. He chewed with his mouth open. Windom hated that shit.“So, how do you plan on doing me in?” Windom asked.“It matter? End result’s the same.”“Look at you, brushing up on your philosophy.”“What?” He spit out a wayward chunk of bone.“Never mind. For your information, it does matter. I’d like for you to make it as quick as possible. Surely, that doesn’t surprise you.”The Virus scarfed the skin from a chicken leg and gnashed the fat with his mouth open. Made a squishy sound. “Funny, you thinking you deserve an easy way out of this.”“Didn’t say I deserved anything. Just saying what I want is all.”“I hear ya. Don’t mean I’m gonna listen.”“Yeah, I figured as such, but I’m still curious. How do you plan on doing it?”“Doing what?”Windom sighed at the Virus’s mental density. “Killing me.”The Virus stopped chewing. Dropped a mostly eaten chicken wing back to his plate. He folded his hands. Stared real serious like, then smiled.“Here’s what I’m thinking. First I’m gonna chop your dick off and shove it up your asshole.” Windom nodded, genuinely intrigued, and motioned for the Virus to go on. “Gonna shove it up your asshole so far…hmm, well, I would say you’d be pissing every time you open your mouth, but you won’t have much time to do that once I get done with you.”“Not to mention, that would only work if somehow my bladder was still attached.”The Virus narrowed his eyes. “You know I don’t like smart motherfuckers.”“You’re right. Sorry.” Windom grinned. “Go on.”“Well, after I shove your dick up your ass…”People around them started to stare.“Might want to keep it down, huh?” said Windom.The Virus leered at an old man in a denim shirt. “Fuck you looking at, old timer?”“Focus, you’re here for me, remember.”“Right. Anyway, after I shove your dick up your ass, I’m gonna plug the wound with my fist and fuck it. Fist fuck you from both sides.” He chuckled. “I get bored with that, and ‘pending you’re still alive, I’m gonna gouge out your eyes and feed ‘em to ya.”“Well, shit, that’s just mean.”“Course, I may just bypass all that shit and just shoot you in the back of the head.”“Course, this is all pending I let you.”“Fuck you say?”Windom got the disbelief in the Virus’s voice. Yeah, sure, Windom had a reputation for being dangerous, but his appearance was about as physically unthreatening as a sparrow standing its ground against a mountain lion. Probably even more silly to a guy the size of the Virus.Windom pushed his plate full of green beans and a mostly eaten filet of catfish aside and revealed the symbol. All angles and curves, an eye at its center, he’d drawn it on the table in red chalk five minutes before the Virus entered. The hitman’s brow furrowed, wrinkling the black letters in the word KILL.“Hell is that?”“Look closer.”The Virus leaned forward and Windom mumbled the words taught to him when he was a boy, in the arrangement his grand pappy said was older than God. The Virus sucked in a ragged breath. Windom gripped the sides of the Virus’s head and slammed it against the table. KILL met ancient sigil. The Virus spread through the cosmos in time immeasurable, in an eternal instant. And he screamed. His third eye finger-fucked by the Hand of Glory. His screams became gurgles. The back of his head exploded, shot pink and red brains like a geyser. Some hunks stuck to the ceiling.Windom released the Virus. He rose from the booth and grinned at the slack-jawed, wide-eyed spectators.“I bid thee good day,” he said, and mumbled more of the strange words, stopping time long enough to leave the Shoney’s and walk, whistling, toward the highway.
Melissa locked the door to the bedroom and stripped naked. She pulled the page ripped from Katie’s journal and unfolded it, stared into the eyes of the man Katie called a demon. The man Katie called Samael.
She imagined the eyes turning to red orange, like twin match heads. She touched the fingers of her left hand to the demon’s lips. She licked the fingers of her right hand and reached down to touch herself. Her womanhood tingled as she massaged its lips. She fought the urge to close her eyes. Stayed focused on the face in the sketch. The eyes reddened. The flames in their irises began to sway. The fiery tips curled and trembled.
Dale continued to strum. Eyes closed. Lost in the music. He pictured his father seeing the man he had become. He pictured his father not being afraid to admit to dreaming of better things. Todd stood before him, wearing a dark suit and tie, his typical banker’s outfit. His short hair was thinning. A breath brought the scent of pungent, expensive cologne.
Dale continued playing, imagined looking into his father’s eyes. Blue, soft, as usual, but Dale noticed something different about them now. An intensity that he had never noticed in them before. They looked, for want of a better description, young, Dale thought.
The song looped back around. Dale played. More on beat, more confident. His father’s hair darkened. Lines in his face were smoothing out. He looked shorter, not looming over Dale the way Dale always imagined him. The black jacket started to fade, to tear.
“You came into my life,” Dale sang, “black-haired, blissfully damaged.”
Like Melissa, he thought and wondered how much his life mirrored his father’s. What had his father been like before becoming the man Dale knew? Who was he singing about? Dale and Katie’s mom didn’t have black hair, and she never struck her as damaged. At least not in the way worth singing about.
The jacket fell from his father’s shoulders like so many dirty rags, collected around his feet like dust.
The fire spread. Every row of books engulfed in angry red tongues. The top of the bureau burned. The floor turned to orange molten rock.
Katie sat up, drew her knees to her chest. The Cosmic Heart burned beside her, a pulsing flame, beating in time with her heart. The book that claimed to hold secret cures smoldered. Black smoke seeped from between its pages.
The woman spoke like a skipping CD.…blood is diseased…blood is diseased…blood is diseased…
Melissa’s sex dripped, making her fingers wet and sticky. Natural lubricant ran in channels in the lines of her hand. She thrust her head back, gritted her teeth against a moan that could draw attention from the rest of the house.
Someone whispered in her ear. Words indecipherable. Full of seduction, but not without menace.
Her breath quickened. A notion inside her warned her against proceeding. Against finishing.
But I’m too close now. I’m on the brink.
She kept her gaze fixated on Samael’s. Watched the flames dance in his eyes. His lips moved. She swore they fucking moved. His tongue slipped out, ran across his pointed teeth.
I’m imagining this, she thought, but knew she wasn’t. Warmth engulfed her. Her legs jerked. Toes made fists.
She couldn’t help herself, a whimper escaped her lips. The black and white sketch of Samael colorized. Flesh became flesh. Scars became pale and textured. The fire in his eyes swirled like spiral galaxies of burning brimstone. Her fingers slipped between his lips, into the warm wetness beyond the paper. The points of his teeth pressed into the pads of her fingers and drew blood.
The scream ripped away the image of his reverse-aging father. Dale opened his eyes and stopped strumming. He tore the headphones from his ears and set the guitar against the edge of the deck. The second scream tore him to his feet, sent him barreling toward the house. He jerked open the back door and entered.
The scream belonged to Melissa. He had never heard her outright scream before, but he had heard her yell, heard her cry. The sound from upstairs was a ragged, wet combination of both.
He bolted up the stairs, heart pounding heat through his veins. His foot caught on the top step, and he pitched forward. Held his hands out for balance and fell against the wall.
Opposite the hallway from his room, Katie’s door flung open. Dale and his sister exchanged wide-eyed, urgent glances. They met in front of his room. He fumbled with the door knob. It was cold to the touch like he held a block of ice. He withdrew his hand, paused for a confused split second.
“What is it?” Katie said.
Dale ignored her question, took the knob and cranked it over. A chill greeted him when he opened the door. Katie crossed her arms against the draft. The cold bit through his clothing, almost hurt, but subsided upon his entering the room.
Melissa was gone.
“What the fuck?” he said. “Where the fuck is she?”
Her clothes lay in a discarded pile beside the bed. The blanket was bunched at the footboard. Her head had left an imprint in the memory foam pillow. No other sign of her remained.
Dale crossed the room, peered under the bed, into the closet. Her name passed his lips at irregular intervals, a repetitive manic chant. He started pushing aside furniture, kicking walls.
“Dale,” Katie said, her voice a decibel above a whisper.
He ignored her. Started knocking books and framed photographs off the dresser. Stopped saying Melissa’s name, replaced it with angry curses.
He spun to face his sister. Tears blurred his eyes. He ran past her, into the hallway and scrambled down the stairs. Yanking the front door open, he stepped outside. His gaze flicked across the yard, across the street. He called her name. Listened for a response. Breath pulled in and out, turning his cries hoarse. His blood rushed and he started to shake.
A warm hand closed around his shoulder and he fell to his knees. He punched the air, mumbled another string of obscenities.
“We need to call the police,” Katie said, a single tremor breaking the otherwise level manner of her voice. “Let’s go inside.”
Dale clenched his fists, tried to slow his breath. The air outside was warm against his skin. He wondered where the frosty draft in his room had come from and how it managed to make the doorknob so cold.
Katie loaded the last box into the U-Haul and sat beside Jake on the front porch. Dale wandered the yard, picking up the shattered remains of the guitar and throwing them in a paper grocery bag. The sun was on its way down, but the air was still hot. Dirty sweat had pasted Katie’s shirt to her skin. Jake tried to put an arm around her, but she leaned away.
“I need a shower,” she said.
He took a whiff of the air. “Damn, yeah you do.”
She punched him on the arm. He laughed. She tried to join him, but her own chuckles came out broken and dry.
A solid brown box truck turned off Route 32 and onto the dirt road. Katie stood as the truck parked behind the Uhaul. The driver hopped out, carrying a box in thick, hairy arms. He approached, set the box down in front of Katie and scanned it. He gritted his teeth, not quite smiling at her. He smelled like apricot-flavored tobacco dip.
“Need someone to sign for this. Is Todd around?”
The sound of her father’s name made Katie’s belly clench. “No, but I’m his daughter.”
“Good enough.” He held out the electronic tablet and handed her a stylus. She signed. The driver nodded. “Appreciate ya.”
She carried the box back to the porch as the driver returned to his vehicle. Dale walked up beside her.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It’s for Dad. From… Les, one of his friends.” Her brow furrowed. “He died a little while back, a few months before Dad.”
Katie knew more than that about Les. She knew Les had been the father of Chloe. He’d been killed by that demon. Bringing any of this up would open a can of worms she didn’t know how to close. If Jake didn’t already think she was certifiable, telling him what she knew about Les would leave no doubt.
“You gonna open it?” Dale said.
She looked from him to Jake. Jake nodded for encouragement. She dug her fingers under the flap and pulled, tearing tape and cardboard. Crinkled newspapers covered the box’s contents. She sifted through the packaging.
The first book had a worn, leather cover. Its pages were yellowed and gave off a dry, sweet smell like dust and old glue. The title, The Cosmic Heart, was printed on the cover in faded Old English. Katie ran her fingertips over the lettering, reached under the cover, and opened to the first page.
“At the center of the universe one heart beats, pumping energy into everything,” she read aloud. “In the beginning it was perfect, but now its blood is diseased.”
“What the hell kind of crazy shit is that?” Dale said.
Jake laughed at Dale’s comment and Katie remained silent. She flipped a few pages a head, skimmed more lines, but refrained from reading them aloud to prevent further ridicule.
“Some kind of religious text,” she said.
“The Cosmic Heart,” Jake said. “Never heard of it.”
“Me neither. Must be from some occult religion or something.”
“Why would this Les guy want Dad to have it?” Dale said.
She ignored his question, dug through the rest of the packaging, and came up with another old text. This one had no title or even a cover. Instead, a symbol drawn in charcoal decorated the top page. Stars, animals and shapes spiraled into the central image. Her breath caught. Her eyes watered. She opened her mouth and tried to express what the symbol made her feel, a sense of familiarity and the sensation that she held something very powerful. She opened to the first page.
Within these pages, you will find the secret cures to cosmic ills.
She closed the book, taken with the intense urge to read it and the other tome from beginning to end. They’d drive the truck to the storage facility, then she would send Jake home and lock herself in a room so she could examine each book’s contents. The possibilities of what they contained, and curiosity as to why Les would have these sent to her father gnawed at her. Only the books and how they’d ended up in her hands mattered to her. Everything else, her family, re-enrolling in school, Jake, lacked such pressing importance. She knew then that she was on the verge of discovering something that would change her dramatically, even more than she already had in these last trying months. She wondered if anything would be left of her when it was all said and done.