Dark Days Indeed

I’m sitting, alone, in the quiet compound.  It’s a new kind of quiet, the kind that makes my fingers itch.  I power up the complex and incredibly elegent Control System.  The hum of the various tech is the only noise.  My Wife and The Boy are safely out of the way down South, past the kipple, at the Cassandra Orchard. 

“Bye-bye!” I waved to the Boy as we strapped him into the armored vehicle.  “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm” he said. 

“He sounds more and more like his Uncle Israel every day,” I grabbed the Wife around her waist and pulled her in close, kissing her roughly. “But, you know; not undead.”

She pushed me back.  “This stinks, hubby,” she sneered.  “I ain’t no yeller bastich. I should be up on the rough roof-top under my ghillie, with a fifty-cal and a thermal scope, not running down to The Garden!” she slugged me in the arm, hard enough to let me know that she cares.

 I leant in and kissed her gentle on that spot on her temple that I love.  “Babe, I don’t want no one but you watching my six.  But this ain’t the fast-flash to bang time, see?  This is where we play it real cool and smart, and careful-like.   Besides,” I cuffed her gently on the chin and grinned at her crooked.  “I’m a lot better off if I don’t have to worry about you two.”

“Oh, Nicky” she said, leaning in and nuzzling me but good.  I swelled up and felt all warm and tingly.  We kissed again, and she climbed into the Desert Highliner, slamming down the hatch before I could notice the wet on her cheeks in the dim light of the control panel…

But that was this morning.  By now, Wife and Boy are safely off the grid, down at the Garden.  It doesn’t show up on satellite, GPS, or most maps made after 1900.  The phone only rings when it’s someone you want to hear from.  Plus: beer tree.  They’re safe.  For now.

 From what I have to do now.  I make sure that the System is running smoothly: Laird McQ installed some new software since we got back from The Devil’s Punchbowl.

BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM!

Sigh. 

I hit a few switches and the floodlights snap on, illuminating the perimeter wall of The Compound.  The minefields are on, the 1st-floor doors and windows are wired with 1,000 k volts of electricity.  The windows on the 2nd floor are sealed shut with motion detectors, heat sensors, and air-current displacement monitors.  The roof has razor-wire, tanglefoot gas dispensors, flares and claymores on trip-wires and pressure-pads. 

No one is getting in.  Not even a ghost: a neural-electric web is in place in the walls.  Professor Victory hates ghosts.

I sit down on the leather couch opposite the massive HD television and pour myself a shot of Irish whiskey.  I speak softly, but audibly for the microphone: “Teleconference Brain Trust.”

The TV screen glows as it comes to life, a series of boxes filling the huge screen.   Miss Twist looks tired but in good spirits in the upper-right hand corner, the cocktail glass in her hand looks chilled to perfection.

“Hey darlin'” I drawl, toasting her with my glass.  She flashes dimples and returns the gesture, sipping from hers.  “How’re things up North?”

She shrugs, spread sher hands out in front of her.  “It’s kinda boring.  I miss my beau: Perfect Tommy is still on site out in the desert, dealing with that vehicle that came through the temporal disturbance I told you guys about-”

I hold up my hand to interrupt.  “You told us about a what?” I all but snarl.  Miss Twist’s eyes narrow to slits.  “Don’t take that tone with me, boy” she speaks slowly and clearly, pointing one finely-manicured finger at me through the TV set.  “I communicate something to your camp, it ain’t my problem if you are out of the loop.  Look to your own,”

I toss back my shot and nod.  “Ok, you’re right: I’m sorry.  I’ve been a little tense lately,”

The upper left-hand box of the TV stops being black as the feed to New York patches through.  Mr. E is standing in front of a brick wall, his fedora pulled low, the collar of his trenchcoat-turned up.  “Good evening, heh-heh-heh-heh!” he intones nastilly. 

“Why are you wearing your inkblot mask?” I ask him.

“Er-  no reason,” he shrugs.  I pour myself another shot of Irish and sip it.

“Ooh, is it a cocktail conference?” asks Mr. E.  “Hey, honey?  Could you-”

“Oh, sure!” I can hear Nova off-camera opening a fridge and cracking a can.  I can hear the hiss of the widget.  She steps into frame and hands him the beer and a glass.  “Hi!” she waves at the camera and then steps back out of frame.  Mr. E rolls his mask up over his mouth and sips his stout.  

The box below Mr. E ceases to be quiet as Professor Victory’s lair appears in a burst of static.  He’s got his bourbon glass half-full and looks flustered.  “Whasssssuuuuup?” he drones, topping off his glass.  “Sorry.  I’m not late, am I?  No?   You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve been having.  Did you know it was Bourbon Heritage Month?” he asks anxiously.

“I had no idea,” I respond, sipping the Bushmills.

The lower right hand box on the screen lights up to a laboratory somewhere in the heartland.  A blue-haired scientist wearing a lot of lacy black under her lab-coat is on the screen with a hand-crafted silver goblet in her hand.  “Howdy?” she snarks, glancing up and around the screen.  “Is this how we became the Bastard Bunch?” 

“Welcome, special guest.   Vivian, you are on-line with the Brain Trust.  Miss Twist is a legal and financial genius, as well as running her own Field Team in the northlands.  Professor Victory is our resident global technocrat, as well as a paranormal investigator.  Mr. E is a boogeyman that lives in the darkest shadows of black ops.  And Dr. Hands…”

Right on cue, and late as always, in the center of the screen, is Dr. Israel Hands.

“And I’ll form the head!” he enthuses.  “Brains” he adds as an afterthought, toasting us with a bottle of wine.
There is a terrible screech: feedback.

“Could you turn down yer intercom?” says Professor Victory.
“Mine is turned down, did you-brains-check yours?” replies his roommate.

They could be on the same monitor, of course, but it spoils the effect.

“-Dr. Israel Hands is a healer, global shaman, and all around nice guy; for a half-zombie.” I finish, trying not to roll my eyes.  “Everybody, please welcome recently activated reserve Team member; Toxic Viv the Poison Lady.  She deals in things that ain’t healthful.”

“Pretty crazy brain-trust,” purrs the Poison Lady.  “But what are your credentials?  And what am I calling you these days?  I haven’t seen you since-”

“You call him Reverend Doctor Syn, lady!” chirps Mr. E  “He’s been running black-bag and dirty ops missions for the past seventy years, and the guy is only 32!”

“He’s Tactically off-the-charts, deadly with most small-arms, ruggedly handsome-” adds Miss Twist, popping an olive into her mouth.

“He’s a certified preacher in the Outer Church, Our Lady of the Broken Spine, defender of the ggrrrrrrrrra-weak, known associate of judeo-chthonic entities, and struggling artist,” continues Dr. Hands.

“He’s a fucking combat mage and he doesn’t even know it: tightly controlled solipsistic non-magic(k).  He doesn’t believe he can die, so he’s virtually indestructable,” finishes Professor Victory. 

I spit Irish whiskey on the glass-top table in front of me and wish I had a cigarette. 

“It’s not so much non-magic(k) as it is luck manipulation, like Longshot!” enthuses Dr. Hands.

“I’m a- you know what?  I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear most of that.  Anyways, let’s get down to brass tacks: Labor Day weekend, my Field Team made a hell of a discovery:” I raise the remote in my hand and click it: floating in front of each of us, whether in LA, Seattle, NYC, Bloomington, or even West LA, is a three-dimensional sphere the size of a VW bug, rotating slowly.  Sphere is the wrong word.  It’s more like a giant lumpy ball of neon-green play-dough dipped in something with a half-life of fifty thousand years.

“Ooooh, pretty!” gasps Miss Twist.  “Can I touch it?”

“It’s a -slrrrrrrrrrrpppp- hologram, so: no,” says Dr. Hands. 

“Actually, yes.  You could.  It is a hologram, but it’s being projected 3-2 into Real Space from a dimensional satellite currently in a holding pattern in the Crawl: it’s outside of our world, but it’s simultaneously at our fingertips despite our distance,” says I.  There is a moment of silence. 

“The Crawl?” queries Professor Victory. “Like, crawl-space?”

“Between worlds?” asked Mr. E.

“The Bleed?” asks Miss Twist. 

“Picture several universes, or dimensions, layered one-on-top of the other-” begins Dr. Hands long-windedly. 

“I know what the fucking Bleed is, Israel, I read comic books,” snaps Miss Twist.  “I just didn’t know we had the tech to use the fucking thing!”

“We don’t, not yet” says I.  “But we’re obviously going to very soon, thanks to Perfect Tommy,”

“Ow,” says Miss Twist, rubbing her temples.  “I hate time-travel shit,”

“So we can touch it?” asks Mr. E “Should we?  I’m not going to,”

I shake my head negatively.  “Laird McQ explained it to me: there is about six to twelve inches of shared space around the thing.  Once you reach into that shared space, any temperature or gravitational, or soul-sucking, properties of the thing would effect you, so only people who have something to contribute touch it.  Carefully.  With precautions.”

“Back to the matter at hand,” I say, using a 17th century basket-hilt rapier as a pointer.  “We found this thing in the middle of the desert, in a well-protected cavern deep inside The Devil’s P- in the desert,” I finish lamely.  “I don’t think any of you should actually touch it” I add hastily.  “Except for Toxic Viv, and maybe Doc Hands.  Cause, you know: Zombie.”

Toxic Vivian has put on a shoulder-length glove and is scraping some goop off the side of the gently pulsing glowing thingie.  “This is soooo awesome!” she breaths, scraping the goop onto a slide.

“It feels like play-dough, and tastes like baby-food!” chortles Dr. Hands.  “Hey, it’s melting my skin!”

“Dude, we’re in the same house.  Could you not play with the possibly dangerous intra-dimensional substance while I’m in the other room?” says Professor Victory.

“They’re roommates,” I explain to the rest of the Brain Trust.

“Looks like a giant alien took a dump,” says Miss Twist.

“Right idea, wrong orifice” grates Mr. E

“Are you saying-” begins Miss Twist.

“If he’s saying it’s a giant egg sack, filled with some sort of energy radiating life-force, than he’s right!” shouts Toxic Viv, leaning over a bank of computer read-outs.  “There are, like, a shitload of potential life-forms in that thing!  Most of them really, really unhealthy to be around.”

“Grrrhmmm.  It doesn’t taste fertilized,” says Dr. Hands speculatively.  “It tastes like burning!”

“I have to go put out my roommate,” apologizes Professor Victory, running off his screen.  We can all hear a door slam, and then he comes onto Dr. Hands screen and douses him with a chemical fire extinguisher. 

“Is your dog and monkey show over?  Because this is a big discovery” states Mr. E flatly.  He rolls his ink-blot mask up again and sips his beer. 

“Yeah, kinda huge,” I say.

“And giving off a ridiculous amount of energy, just radiating!  It’s off the charts!” gasps Toxic Viv. 

“What kind of energy?” asks Miss Twist.

“Well, thats the thing… I can’t really tell.  All of them?”

“Nonsense!” exclaims Mr. E heavily. 

“There are at least nine forms of energy,” says Dr. Hands, no longer on fire but only smoldering.  “Energy cannot be destroyed or created, but it can change forms,”

“The walking text book speaks some truth,” says Professor Victory.  “But what gives?  What is it?”

“Highly fucking toxic,” says Viv. 

“It’s unprecedented!  It’s amazing! It’s… could this be what the inside of a black hole looks like?” enthuses Professor Victory.  “Sooooo scary.  Though, you know: I thought it’d be black!”

“How can we use it, who wants to stop us from using it, and who wanted us to find it?” queries Miss Twist.

“What led you to where it was? Random chance? Treasure map?” asks the Poison Lady as she records the levels of sound being emitted from the specimen globules. I fidgit nervously in my seat.

“Yeah, who would benefit from my having this thing…” I wonder to myself.

“It is older than anything we know,” says Mr. E grimly.  “It is one of the eggs of the World Serpent,”

“The Ouroboros Worm?” I gasp.

“The Uroboros Snake?” shouts Professor Victory.

“The Dragon Ourorboros?” squeaks Toxic Vivian.

“That ring symbol, what eats it’s own tail?” says Miss Twist.

“slrrrrrrrp,” drools Dr. Hands.

“Yes,” says Mr. E in a voice that makes ice cubs shiver with cold.  “However you spell it.  Or pronounce it.  It is the Infinity Wyrm.  One of the Deep Secrets of this world.  And we’ve uncovered a piece of it.  You’ve uncovered a piece of it, Syn.  Think about that.  What was your 2nd tattoo going to be?  Meant to be?”

I glance at my right shoulder and squirmed a little on the couch.  “The Ouro-well look here!  It’s a hard design, and I haven’t found one I really want…”

Mr. E is shaking his head on the monitor. “Instead you got a tiny religious icon,”

“Totally saved his ass when that -mmmmmmmmmgggggggg-vampire tried to get him in Malibu,” points out Dr. Hands.

“Eeew, there are vampries in Malibu?” shudders Professor Victory.

“Nonsense!” roars Mr. E.  “Not anymore, there aren’t…. moo-hoo-hoo-ha-ha-ha!”  He sobers up almost instantly.  “Er, look: this is big.  You’ve come across a true piece of The Mysteries-”

“A piece of you?”

“Wha-No!  The M-Y-S-T eries, not Mr. E’s!” he shouts.

“Myst was cool,” giggles Miss Twist.

“Oh, mysteries,” sighs Toxic Viv.  “Totally.”

“It’s probably your Dreaming, the big snake,” enthuses Professor Victory.  “You’re getting it inked on?  Totally a sign,”

I glance down at my hand, I’ve been aimlessly waving the sword around.  The point of the rapier is glowing white hot and has scored what looks like an 8 into the hardwood floor.  Wife is going to be pissed I didn’t use the family brand.  I gasp and look more closely at the figure-eight. 

“A true piece of The Mysteries?” I say, standing up.  “Yeah, we’ve found one all right,”

I walk away from the slowly rotating in-not-quite-real-space globular egg-sac of the Great Worm.  I slide open the glass door to the deck, deactivating the security grid as I go. 

“What are we going to do with it, Rev?” asks Mr. E 

 “Do you have a plan?” asks Toxic Viv.  “And is it terrible?”

“He’s -grrrrrrrrr- forming one: I recognize the set of his shoulders.  I am a licensed massage therapist, after all,” grunts Dr. Hands.

“Where is the World Snake now?” asks Professor Victory plaintively.  “At the bottom of the Mariana Trench?”

I light a cigar and stare up at the night sky.  “She’s asleep- for now.  We want to keep her that way, we tread careful, savey?”

“But where-” begins Toxic Viv. 

“When the snake wakes up, the moon will writhe…” I begin.

I hear a gasp, as if the world’s imperilment was night and whip around to look at the monitors.  

I can hear Nova’s voice coming from off-camera: “Erik, you’ve spilled stout on your rorshach mask, now the inkblots aren’t symetrical!”

 In light of the coming darkness, these are dark days indeed.

Burden in my Hand

Labor Day Weekend ran hot in Los Angeles County this year.  Very hot. 

 “Sweet merciful Jesu, ’tis broiling!” muttered Sir Eamonn as he climbed down the rock-face behind me.  I nodded and swished a little water around the inside of my mouth.

“Might help if you took off the chainmail, buddy,” I said.  Sir Eamonn glared at me as he adjusted the shield strapped to his back.  He glanced around.  “Dragons, varlet, dragons,” he scowled, loosening his blade in its sheath. 

“OhMyfuckingGodJustfuckingLetMeRest!” shrieked my Wife, collapsing along the desert trail, face-first into the talcum-powder-fine dust that lined the path.  The Boy climbed up onto my shoulders from his Yoda Harness and looked down at her from under the brim of his French Foreign Legion kepi.  “Mamamaaa?” he inquisited.

 “Did you know, that there was that time we were lost on the plains of Leng, and there was wormsign, and I said that it couldn’t be any worse?” asked Princess Lady Adventure Girl Dame Eden, the long gauze veil hanging from her conical hat flittered and fluttered in the light breeze that swept down through The Devil’s Punchbowl. 

 DUM-DUM-DUM-DUM!

“What was that?” asked Lady McQ, shielding her eyes from the glare and scanning the canyon walls.  “Injuns?” posited my wife, lifting her dirt-caked face from the dust and gasping.  “Tend yer scalps!” she said, rolling onto her back and reaching out to me.

 “Gunga Din!  Help!” she moaned, and the Boy laughed as I poured the water into her mouth.  “I can’t believe we’re off the marked path, on the hottest weekend of the year, miles from a bar, lost and with limited water in The Devil’s Punchbowl!”

 DUM-DUM-DUM-DUM!

“Ach, nae wha the fuch?” garbled Laird McQ, resting the barrel of the elephant gun on his shoulder, and scanning the canyon walls.

“Hey!  Buster, you find something else to scan!” snapped his wife, smacking him in the shoulder.

“Ach, slotted by me own bon wench,” grunted Laird McQ, but he went to scanning the foot of the canyon walls anyhow. 

“Avaunt!” mumbled Sir Eamonn through dry, cracked lips, pointing to a distant storm-cloud that covered the vast breadth of the Antelope Valley. 

“We were promised milkshakes,” said Princess Lady Adventure Girl Dame Eden primly.  “We are not amused.  There was that time, when we were rapelling down the Cliffs of Insanity, and the blood-hawks were coming for our eyes, and I said it couldn’t get any worse?”  Her knightly brother sort of nodded his exhausted, sweat-stained head and tried not to follow his plumed helmet to the ground, where it crashed and rolled up against my Wife.

The sky was the color of a crow in the distance, and closing in fast.  In the high desert, you can often see the rain coming, the air is so clear.  It was like that.  And there we were, at the bottom of a canyon formed by God only knows what, known only as The Devil’s Punchbowl.

BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM!

“Oh, Christ,” mumbled my Wife, her bloodshot eyes resting on the rapidly closing-in clouds.  “We’re gonna get washed away in a flash flood.  Drowned, during the hottest weekend of the year, in the middle of the desert, in the fucking Devil’s Punch-”

BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM!

“FUCK OFF, WE GET IT!” she shrieked, shaking her fist at the sky. 

“So how has work been?” asked Lady McQ, heaving my Wife up over one shoulder and Sir Eamonn over the other.  She foraged on ahead, pushing through the mesquite and sage.  Princess Lady Adventure Girl Dame Eden gamely followed, holding up the hem of her pink gown as she carefully picked her way between catci. 

“Works been ok,” I wheezed, swinging the Boy down into my arms, to give my aching shoulders a break.  My chest felt like a smoldering coal was lodged in between my ribs.  My eyes were stinging from the sweat pouring down into them, despite the bandana & boonie hat I had on my head.  My calves trembled as we trudged up the steep path. 

It was because of work that we were here, indirectly.  I do a lot of thinking and reading, sitting on the loading dock.  And I was doing research… and I found out something about a spot out in the desert.  A spot called-

The Devil’s Punchbowl.

BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM!

“Ach, laddie!” whispered Laird McQ, elbowing me in the ribs and pointing back the way we’d come.  He wasn’t showing the strain of the hiking and sweating.  He plays soccer.  Er, football.   

“What is it, McQ?” I muttered back.

“Ah ken, we’re bein’ shadowed!” he whispered to me.  He pointed along the route we’d taken, but I couldn’t see anything.  I was too tired, to heat-beaten and too dehydrated.  Laird McQ tried to hand me the large bore weapon he’d been carrying for me, but I shook my head and stared him hard in the eye.  “You have to do it, Laird.  You.  Think of sniper movies, and you’ll be fine.”

He looked glumly at me, and then furtively back at his wife, while working the hammer of the side-by-side elephant rifle.  I wiped the burning sweat from my eyes and peered intently back down the trail.  The Boy craned his neck to peek as well, his tiny teeth bared defiantly at whatever or whomever dared to follow us.

“Make sure you aim for center mass,” I hissed at Laird McQ, who carefully pulled the first trigger of the elephant gun, setting the hair trigger forward.  “They normally travel single file, to hide their numbers.  Punch the leader K-5, and you’ll probably knock down whoevers right behind him too…”

Laird didn’t nod, didn’t say anything, but his index finger kissed the set trigger of the bench-made weapon, and it BOOMED! The .700 Nitro Express round roared on it’s way, travelling 2000 feet per second.  So, as you can imagine, it was less than a second before we heard a roar from the bushes we’d left behind as the massive bullet slammed into it’s target.  But it wasn’t Tusken Raiders, or Injuns that had been trailing us that day…

“Frak! Recoils a wee bitch!” shrieked Laird McQ.  “Shoot again!” I screamed. 

Just then, my cell-phone rang.  I lifted it to my ear and said “Yes?” as Laird fired the 2nd barrel after the first.  The report of the rifle caused me to drop the cell-phone, and the Boy caught it, holding it to his ear upside down, so that the receiver was at his mouth and the speaker at his ear.  His brow furrowed, the Boy muttered a quick “MmmmmmMMM!” before nodding and handing the phone to me.

“Yeah?” I snapped, starring back down the path the way we’d come.  “Speak!”

“Hey, Rev,” said the familiar dulcet tones of BabyJ.  She was chewing and swallowing, and I could hear the murmur of voices and silverware in the background.  “What’s the rumpus?”

Then the Giant Spider broke from the underbrush and rushed right at us.  I heard Lady McQ gasp and say: “To arms!” and then Sir Eamonn suddenly hurtled into the beast’s legs, his heavy armor and weaponry CLANGING as he slammed into the creature, already bleeding from two massive bullet wounds, now knocked ass-over-tea-kettle by the diminutive warrior.  I glancer over my shoulder, as Lady McQ rolled up her sleeves and leapt over Laird and the Boy and myself, and went at the monster fist-to-claw.  My Wife was laying on her side, pulling a can of OFF! out of a pouch and beckoning Princess Lady Adventure Girl Dame Eden to her.

“So whatcha up to?” chewed BabyJ. 

“Are you at a fucking steak house?” I hissed.  I could hear the chewing stop.  “Calling me from a steak house, where they have things like cold beer and martinis and, dare-I-say-it, steaks, while I am battling hostile arachnids somewhere out past the barrier mountains?”

“N-no,” said BabyJ cautiously.  “I-I, Dr. Hands and I… we’re just, um… calling to see how work has been!”

“Oh, fine” I said suspiciously.  “Medium rare, right?”

I could hear Dr. Hands over the sounds of cutlery and revelry.  “Ask him -grrrrrrrbrains- ask him if they’ve found the thingie yet, that they are looking for.”

“The thingie?” asked BabyJ, I could hear her hand covering the phone, but that never works well.

“DIE BITCH!” screamed Lady McQ, and the earth shook as she locked her fists together and hammered them down on the Spider’s hairy skull.

“Yeah, you kno-BRAINS- the McGuffin!” cheerily said Dr. Hands. 

“Where are you, anyways?” BabyJ asked, no longer muffled as she had likely removed her hand from the receiver.

I started to open my mouth to reply but didn’t, due to ducking, as Lady McQ hurtled past me and slammed into a boulder which splintered under the impact.  Boy was she pissed.  She dug her heels in and launched off the ground, rocketing back at the spider and nearly 60mph.

“I think they’re out at-BRAINS!-The Devil’s Punchbowl,” said Dr. Israel Hands. 

BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM!

“Hey, this connection is all weird, did you hear that?” asked BabyJ.  “Our waiter is here, I have to go,” she hung up on me quickly.  I could practically hear the sizzle of blooming onion.  If I had any spit left, my mouth would have been watering. 

Laird and the Boy had grabbed Sir Eamonn by the gorget of his breast-plate and pulled him clear of the terrible conflict: Shelob Vs. Lady.  Lady was strong, to be sure, and the spider was weakening from the two giant bullets that had struck it and the pounding the amazon was delivering, but we were in it’s natural hunting ground, worn down by hours and hours of burning sun and constant dehydration.  Shelob was fading, but Lady was fading faster.

“Pull!” shouted my Wife, and Princess Lady Adventure Girl Dame Eden hurled the can of bug spray towards the combatents.  “Aw!” shrieked Sir Eamonn, pushing his visor back.  “You throw like a girl!”

My Wife aimed carefully and fired the .38 hold-out piece she often forgets she is holding out, and WHUMP! the canister of poison exploded over the spider, the fine acrid mist settling onto it’s furry hide.  Lady McQ took the initiative as the monster roared and trembled, and drove her piston-like forearm deep into the creature’s skull, killing it outright.

“Gosh,” I said.  “ah-ah-ah!” laughed the Boy.  “There was that time when Mom grabbed the giant squid by the tentacles and spun it over her head and threw it really far?” asked Princess Lady Adventure Girl Dame Eden.  “That time, that was pretty neat,”

My Wife was collapsed, exhausted, and I ran to her, plying her dry mouth with wet kisses.  “Eeeew” said Sir Eamonn and Princess Lady Adventure Girl Dame Eden in unison.  “Maa, di-di-da ma hoooooOOOO?” giggled the Boy, grabbing his toes and pulling himself from a sitting position onto his back.  Laird McQ leaned on the impossibly long barrel of his elephant Gun and reached out to gently cup Lady McQ’s chin in his hand.  Her right arm was covered in greenish spider ichor, so a lack of embrace is perhaps understandable.  “Ah love ye, always have!” he cheerfully brogued. 

“So-so, tired!” gasped my Wife.  “Are we…. there yet?”

I nodded, glancing down at the map that the Boy was helpfully pouring water on.  “Waaaaa!” he shrieked.  “I know, sweetheart, but it isn’t thirsty,” I said as I took the map away. 

The storm clouds were closer, and we were many miles from the edge of the canyon. 

“We’re looking for the mouth of a cave, and that is a cave over there,” said Princess Lady Adventure Girl Dame Eden pointing at a rocky overhang.  “At last!  A dungeon crawl!” enthused her knightly brother, apparently fully recovered at the thought of buckling his swash and brasting a pate. 

“Was it… such a good idea… to search for the McGuffin?” wheezed my wife as I poured the last of the water down her throat.  I shrugged.  “Worse case scenario, we die and go to hell.”

“Heh,” laughed Laird McQ, reloading the elephant gun.  His wife stood next to him, wiping the gore off her arm with a towel.  “We’re Quaker, we don’t believe in hell!” 

“Or violence!” laughed Lady McQ.

And then we all laughed.  Because sometimes you just have to.  But the sun was still beating down, and we were almost out of water, and the rainstorm was getting closer, and the mouth of the cave was very dark…

Deep in The Devil’s Punchbowl

BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM!!

A Gentle Man’s Jihad

So there I sat, looking at my bare feet sticking out into where the gravel and dirt roads intersected. 4am, give or take. I saw a faint blueish-green light in a field far off to the right, and later felt the hot air displaced as something big and impossible to see swooped low through the still summer night.

I don’t know how much time passed. Minutes, probably, but it felt like hours. The scarecrow’s post remained empty, and I felt cold fingers creeping up under my skin: “Jesus, that horrible thing is probably stalking around right now…” I giggled a little. Get it? Stalk? Scarecrow? Corn?

Then I saw someone sitting across the crossroads, he was chuckling too. I saw him because he was lighting a cigarette off a flame in the palm of his hand. His hair was shorter than last time I saw him, but that was the 90’s. Times change. Still, the same hooked nose. The same dark eyes. Maybe a bit heavier, but those high cheekbones still made it look like he was always sucking in his breath.

“Hey there, killer,” he rasped. What a voice. Ragged. Like cheap bourbon run over jagged gravel. “It’s been a long time. It’s been quiet nights in Pandemonium, of late,”

I nodded, feeling a little strength returning to my limbs. Maybe because I felt cold, rather than the languid summer malaise I’d been feeling up till I heard that familiar sandpaper laugh.

He tossed a pack of cigarretes across the road, they landed inbetween my legs: Marlboro Reds, of course. I tossed them back.
“I quit, thanks anyway. How’s your sister?”

He shrugged, looked vaguely uncomfortable. “Crazy as ever.  Feh, kid: look around you. Animals dying in the streets. It’s like… the fall of Rome or something. Hey, did you watch that? On HBO?”

I shook my head. “I was a Deadwood man.”

Floyd yawned and waved a dismissive hand. “Figures,”

He stood up and stretched. Jerked his head to the path off to my left.
“I hear you need work, hoss.”

I shook my head slowly, trying to work the kinks out. Yeah, I wasn’t paralyzed anymore. Which means this probably wasn’t a nightmare.
“You got nothing I need, Floyd,” I said, trying to sound tough.

His eyes met mine at the crossroads. “I need a… a loading dock supervisor. You can supervise, right?”

I folded my hands in my lap. The tattoo over my left breast felt like it was just getting inked, even though it’s almost a year old. “Good money, hoss. All you gotta do is… supervise. Rents late, right?”

I glanced up at the sky: I didn’t recognize any of the constellations. Floyd sighed.
“It’s only temporary, hoss. Just work, okay? Nothing long-term,”

I crossed my ankles and popped my knuckles, yawning as I did so. I glanced past Floyd, down one of the roads and saw a herd of cats streaming silently acros the dirt road in the waning moonlight. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Among them was a young girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old and naked as the day she was born. Her hair streaming out behind her, and she ran as silently as they did.

We’ve had a long and sometimes tricky association, Floyd and I.  We first met when I was 19, the first time I thought I was going to die.  He’s never exactly lied to me, but I don’t trust him.  Reputations can be a bitch, as I’ve since learned. Debt can be an even bigger one.

Floyd yawned, his jaw opening wide, his tongue lolling out of his mouth like a dogs. He grinned up at the moon and spat into the dust on the side of the crossroads. A black stain splashed on the gravel.

A deep “brOAW!” cracked through the night as a frog suddenly croaked in the underbrush to my right and then burst apart; splattering me slightly with swamp brine.

“Sorry,” muttered Floyd. “Startled me…”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll take it. No tricks? Just a job? Just work, right? Temporary? I owe you nothing?

Floyd grinned that big white-toothed grin of his and I felt my bowels twitch. I heard his car coming up the road: that same old lime-green Geo Metro.

“You’ll love it, hoss. 9-5. Nice and quiet. And why would you owe me anything? I’m paying you for services rendered, no fine print, trust me.”

I wagged a finger at him, managing to keep it from shaking too much. “I don’t think you’d be wantin’ to be trying to trick me, old snake,” I told Floyd. I had a glimmer of an idea. I exhaled suddenly, thinking back to conversations Mr. E and I had shared. Smoking, cigarettes…

Floyd’s eyebrows arched up his smooth forehead, almost meeting at his widow’s peak. “Well now. Why would I be wantin’ to be trickin’ you, meat?”

I struggled to my feet, my rubber-band legs wobbling beneath me as I leaned on the split-plank fence and got my balance. “Well, um: It’s kinda what you do, dude,” I said shakily. I rubbed my palms on my jeans, my hands were sweating.

Floyd laughed that cat-pissing-on-liter laugh of his. He lit another cigarette off the glowing ember perched on the filter of the one in his hand. He closed his fist around the spent butt, and dragged the smoke from the fresh one deep in before exhaling casually. He shook the dead butt into his pocket.

“Can’t be too careful these days, killer,” he purred. “It’s awful dry out here. Wouldn’t want to start a fire.”

My legs sagged a little, but I managed to turn away from him and smile into the dark. I could see beady little red eyes at ankle level in the pitch black: fucking weasels in the corn.

“I just don’t want to start any trouble for you, Floyd. That’s all,” I said, an honest desperation in my voice.

Floyd’s narrow hands slithered over my shoulder and patted me on the biceps, his long slender fingers gripping me above the elbow. I hadn’t heard him get up, but he was there most rickey-tick; I could smell his charnel-house breath without turning my head.

“No problem at all, just helping an old friend,” he rasped into my ear. “Why would that be any trouble?”

I shrugged. “Well, it’s just that… I mean… I got a. I got obligations now…”

Floyd laughed and hopped up onto the fence, facing me. The rodents in the witchgrass hissed quiet little rodent sounds and scurried off.
“Yeah, hoss. That’s why we’re havin’ this conversation. It’s all about family,” he looked really sincere. He leaned in, his eyes studying me. On second whiff, his breath didn’t seem that horrible at all. Kind of minty. “Or- obligations? Is there something you ain’t telling me?”

I shrugged and reached over to him, my eyes not leaving his as I dipped into his pocket and pulled out the cigarettes. I shook one out and tapped it on the fencepost. “No, nothing. Why?” I glanced furtively over my shoulder as the lime-green Geo Metro pulled to a stop. No driver, natch.

Floyd held out his hand, flame cupped in the palm, but didn’t quite come in range for the cigarette. He was staring into my eyes. “Who you been truckin’ with, these days? Zombies, actors, parents, creative types-”

“You already said Actors,” I interrupted.

Floyd sneered: “Yeah, and then I said creative types. Parents…” he got a faraway look in his eyes. Then the flame in his hand went out and he snatched the cigarette from my lips.

You sonofabitch. Them?!” his eyes were narrowed to slits. The pupils looked less round/black and more like a cat’s. Probably just the squinting.

I stepped away, hands out-stretched: “Hey, you said this was just a friendly little-”

SHUDDUP!” Whew. A blast of charnel breath again. I guess he can lose concentration, or something. “Aw, sheeeeeit, you two-timing, no good, pencil-dicked, cocksucking, desert-rat! With those fuckin’ trollops?!” He was kind of doing a jig on the top rail of the fence. The legs of his pants looked really weird where his knees were bending backwards.

I looked ashamed. “Hey, c’mon Floyd. I-I didn’t wanna tell you. I mean, we’ve known each other for a long time… I didn’t wanna hurt yer feelings.”

He was back on the road now, pacing. His hair was coming loose in his rough-skinned fingers as he nervously tugged on it. I don’t think he was really talking to me so much as…

“…fucking Outer Church was bad enough, bullshit secular-beliefs, bullshit beastly priest! Our Lady of the Broken Spine indeed! Goddamn Cthonic cunts! I have never ever liked Italian food! And now!” he was spitting fire. Literally.

I shrugged. I opened my hands: “Hey man, you weren’t around. Ok? I’ve been trying to figure things out… and why not, you know?”

He back-handed me then, and my ass was sticking through the windshield of the Geo, my legs on the hood, the back of my head uncomfortably leaning back against the roof. I peeled myself out, safety-glass popcorning all around me, and rolled off onto the road: ouch. Now my face is bleeding, my back hurts, and I’ve got gravel to pick out of my hands and the tips of my toes.

“I’ll tell you something, Reverend,” spat Floyd. “I told you I’d bail you out. And I’ll set you up working for one of my Horsemen… but I am soooo pissed at you. No holiday cards, no visits to Pandemonium! It was bad enough when you didn’t know who you were, but this? Believing in that craptacularly unimpressive Trio of sagging Crones? The annoying trinity of latin-monickered moos? The three motherfucking mothers? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND!?!” he was roaring now. He’s so immature and over-sensitive, it always comes to this. My way or the highway. Me-me-me-me. No wonder we’re always squabbling: we’re a lot alike.

I grinned ruefully at him, picking a sliver of granite out of my palm. “Shit, Floyd. I didn’t say… wait, Rupert Murdoch is one of the four horsemen?”

Floyd sighed and sat down on the hood of his car, cross-legged. He rubbed his spindly fingers over his beak of a nose, his eyes shut. When they opened again, they were back to normal. For him.

“Ah, crap. Fine. Mater this, mater that. Whatever. Believe in what you believe in. Let them have your soul, if thats who you are.” He started swaggering down the gravel road, his feet kicking up dust as he went. “You start work on Monday, if you still want a gig,” he was picking up speed now, and I had to strain to hear him over the clop-clop-clop of his feet, the horseshoes striking sparks on the rock. “No strings…”

And then in an unfolding rush of black wings, he was gone. The Geo Metro’s headlights turned off and it drove away, it’s tiny motor puttering in the dark.

I finished picking the slivers of stone and safety glass as best I could and tore up my shirt to wrap around my feet. I glanced around at the crossroads: the scarecrow was back on it’s cross. Creepy bastard. I threw a quick benediction in it’s general direction, just in case, and picked a direction. I glanced down as I left: the cigarette was sitting there next to the fence, bent but not broken. I glanced around, hearing the hum of crickets starting up again, glancing up and seeing familiar constellations returning, winking back into the night. I pocketed the cigarette. For later. When I could find a trashcan. I read somewhere that the filters take forever to decompose, and that squirrels and rabbits are attracted to the sweet smell of the packing, and who wants to be responsible for little bunny foo-foo getting squashed by a car?

I started walking, the sun was rising. The funny thing is, Floyd and I are similar in a lot of ways. We both lie pretty good. I’ve always found the best lie is the lie of omission. I never said that I worshipped or followed Le Tre Madri. Do I believe in sighs, tears and shadows? Of course I do, Momma Reverend Doctor Syn didn’t raise no fool. But what I’ve discovered isn’t those creepy old biddys, or how to avert the Zombie Apocalypse (though surviving it I am still looking forward too), or the best way to skin a cat (I always say start at the tail, but I’m always wrong). I mean, I’ve discovered many things in the last years, it’s why my beard is shot through with grey. But Floyd can think what he wants. I know the truth.

Sometimes the truth is closer to home.

The sun is rising when I make it to the highway. I see a familiar red car parked outside of an all-night diner. I limp in, the bell jingling, and slide into a booth opposite my Wife who has a cup of coffee and a .357 snubnose on the formica in front of her. I raise my eyebrows at her and nod at the piece.

My Wife’s eyes are red, and she’s sniffling. “I wasn’t getting good service. I don’t think they wanted to serve me at first.” I nod. Because I’m very understanding. I glance around.

“…” I start to say, but my Wife points over to the pinball machine, where The Boy is sitting on the face of the game, watching the lights flickering beneath the glass. “dadadadadada-da?” he asks it. The he nods vigorously, as if the light sequence has told him something. He carefully backs off the edge of the machine and trundles over to me, grunting. His face lights up, and I feel pretty good for the first time in a long time.

“So, everything okay?” asks my Wife. I shrug.

“Eh. Nothing a few cold beers won’t fix. I got a job,” I say, hugging the Boy. I reach across the table and pat her hand, and then give her the cigarette. Her eyes light up and she glances at me.

“As soon as the Boy is asleep, let’s Do It, and then smoke this!” she grins. I smile back at her. We try not to ritually sacrifice each other. Try to plant a beer tree. Try to raise an Attack Boy. It’s a life.