I wrote the first part of this, the prologue bit, something like two years ago… then wrote the bulk of the rest in two fits (plays have acts, symphonies have movements, writers have fits) a few months ago, then finally decided I was done tweaking words and I had to bite the bullet and post it. So, here it is.
My career as a writer of thrilling back-cover copy that lures the reader in isn’t going well, is it?
That Thing We Do On Weekends
There were a lot of them. Or very few, depending on how you wanted to look at it.
For example, there was the man who liked to call himself Professor Black. He had taken on the task of protecting mankind from technologies it was not ready for. Relics of Atlantis and Mu, before their atomic war. Castoffs from passing spaceships. Most of all, though, he fought the Breakers… paradigm breakers, people who skipped technology ahead a hundred years or more. One of the products of these Breakers, a perfectly human-seeming robot built from 1960s transistors and plastics, traveled with him, providing an always-useful amount of physical might and near-invulnerability.
This story isn’t about him.
Then there was the group which others simply referred to as the Trio. The daywalking half-vampire, the werewolf attack survivor, and the would-be prey of a demon who had turned the tables and bound the demon within her. They focused, mostly, on beings like those which had created them: The supernatural monsters of myth and legend, the night-dwellers who preyed on humanity.
This story isn’t about them, either.
Another team called themselves the Next. The five of them were aware that something was awakening in mankind, that seemingly random individuals could manifest superhuman powers of mind and body, often without control or conscience, and they sought such people out, to train them if they could, but, more often, to prevent them from harming others, no matter the cost.
Does it need to be mentioned that this story isn’t about them?
And there was the one who didn’t have much of a given name. The Stranger, the Wanderer, the Lost Soul… he let people use whatever name they wanted. He had no allies or guardians, or favored foes. He came when there was trouble and he left when it was over.
No, it’s not about him, either. Or any of the rest.
Sometimes they would meet. Their spheres of interest occasionally overlapped. They had a sort of intuition, something within them that recognized a kinship, a kinship not of kind or ability, but of spirit. While there was often conflict, there were also brief alliances.
This story is not about one of those meetings.
However, it does begin with a meeting…
The bar was dim, dank, depressing, and probably a few other words, not all of which began with ‘d’. It stank of stale beer, rancid grease, and souls abandoned by the roadside. Dale Hawthorn knew why he was there, but refused to dwell consciously on it.
He saw her, and he knew, somehow. It was nothing nameable. She sat at a corner table, watching the crowd. Late twenties, maybe. No attempt at makeup or clothing worth noting, though there was only one reason anyone attended this particular bar, and it wasn’t for the quality of the beverages or the personal charm of the bartender.
Still, she was female, and here, and that meant men veered towards her, only to see her eyes, and then veer away.
Dale didn’t veer away, though he was tempted when he got close and she kept her gaze locked on his for a long time. Instead, he silently gestured at the empty chair, smiling, and she sighed wearily, too tired to compose a lie about waiting for her boyfriend. She gestured randomly, a wave that could mean either ‘whatever, sit’, or ‘get lost, asshole’, or possibly both, concurrently.
Following ancient rites, he signaled for a waiter. One — bored, long-haired, and torn-shirted — eventually arrived.
“Scotch,” she said, without waiting to be asked.
“Guinness,” he said. The waiter wandered off, without so much as a grunt to acknowledge he’d actually heard their order.
There was silence for a while. She broke it.
“This is the part where you say ‘Hey, didn’t we go to school together?’ Or, maybe, you tell me about your portfolio.”
“Who did you lose?” he asked, non-sequitorially.
“What? How did.. why would…”
The waiter returned, giving him the scotch and her the Guinness, then ambled away before they could crudely impose on his time by asking for something else. She reached across the table, took her drink, swallowed half, and pushed his glass towards him. He took a small swallow, and frowned. Warm and flat.
“I know the look,” he finally said, in answer to her pre-waiter question.
She snorted. “Bullshit. Probably did something with your phone, found my picture in the paper or something. That’s got to be a new low for scummy pickup artists.” She gulped the remaining half of the scotch. “Sister,” she said, then paused an instant before adding “Cancer.”
Dale nodded, but didn’t reply. He waited until she’d dragged the waiter back, ordered another scotch, and finished it. Then he shook his head, just a bit. “Not cancer.”
She glowered at him, daring him to continue. He did.
“You keep looking over to the mirror,” he said, tilting his head towards it. It was in desperate need of cleaning, but did serve to present a brown-tinged and dim reflection of the place. Most of the patrons avoided looking at it, as if not seeing themselves here somehow meant they could pretend this wasn’t the kind of place their life choices had delivered them to.
She missed a beat, as he’d gone off-script, but recovered quickly. “I’m trying to look at something that’s not you, so that means my sister didn’t die of cancer?”
“Except… I think you are looking at me.”
She laughed derisively, but only after a moment’s twitch, a second’s hesitation to process what she’d heard. “And they say women are vain. But if I wanted to look at you, why wouldn’t I just look at you? Why the mirror?”
“To see if I cast a reflection, I’m guessing.” He took another drink of the beer. Unsurprisingly, it was warmer and flatter. “I do, as you’ve probably noticed.”
She left without replying.
He met her again, a week later. She was leaving work. She looked right past him at first, then recognized him.
“I’ve got a can of mace and a cop buddy on speed dial.”
He sighed. “Look, I just want to talk. I think it would be good. For both of us.”
“Girls only go for stalkers in crappy romance movies. In real life, pulling that shit leads to you screaming and clawing at your eyes while I punch 911. Then comes the restraining order, after you spend a weekend in holding with a 300 pound biker named ‘Bubba’.” She walked away.
He took a single broad stride to catch her, putting his hand on her shoulder. She spun, her hand already halfway into her purse. He blurted “I saw my best friend turned into a gelatinous blob by an alien ray-gun.”
She stopped, the canister firmly gripped in her hand, her thumb on the release button.
“Aliens are real, too?”
“If vampires are, why not?”
Silence, for a few seconds. Then she nodded, barely more than a twitch, and stated her terms in staccato phrases.
“Someplace public. Well lit. Clean. Busy. Starbucks at Fifth and Abraham?”
She smiled very thinly, seeing a suspicion confirmed. “Thought so.”
“Not that. Everything else is fine, just… I’ve heard some things about Starbucks. Uhm… there’s a McDonalds next door to it, though.”
“Tomorrow, noon. Katherine, by the way.”
Extending his hand, he said, “Dale.”
She shook it with the hand not holding the mace.
He was a little surprised to see her, but there she was. They ordered separately and he followed her to an unoccupied table, her need to be in plain view warring with her need to have a back to the wall.
Once more, she spoke first. “So. You want to talk.”
“Your sister. My friend. And us.”
“What about any of them? It’s over, done. She’s dead, buried, and… and won’t…” She stopped, stared downwards at the Rorschach patterns formed from two decades of ketchup stains in the Formica.
He finished her sentence. “Be coming back.” He paused a second, saw a flash of expression on her face, and added, “Again. Be coming back again.”
She looked up, her eyes glinting with a mixture of relief and revelation. “Yes… I… I couldn’t say that, to anyone, to my folks, my friends, no one… how could I.. where would I even start…”
“I understand. Really.”
She started in on her fries. “So, what do you tell people?”
“He died in a plane crash in Brazil. That’s why there’s no body, I claimed. I lied to his family, to his fiancée, to everyone.”
She nodded, slowly. “Now, you go around every day, pretending like you don’t know truth. Seeing shadows, jumping at everything, because you don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”
“Yes. Frankly, it sucks.”
“Like a drunk sorority girl.” She blushed, suddenly realizing what she’d said. “Sorry. Rude.” She laughed. “Wow. Haven’t laughed in forever.”
“It’s the fries, clearly. They’re like beer.”
“Clearly.” She downed a handful. “So, ray gun?” She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
She stood. “Kennedy Park’s nice this time of year. And the sun won’t go down for a while. Walk?”
Three days later, they were wandering an art festival, slowly making their way past booths full of Etsy also-rans and velvet Elvii and homemade pickled something-or-other.
“And then they just left. ‘Sorry about your sister, have a nice life, bye.'”
“I got more or less the same thing. They set up the plane crash story, put records into computers all around the planet in a minute, but I think that was more for their convenience than for my sake.”
“How do they do that? Not the computer thing. The leaving thing. How do you smash someone’s world, then walk away without giving them something, some sort of…”
“Psychological glue? Something to help put the pieces back together?”
“Yeah. That.” Her fist clenched. “Just walking off, leaving the mess behind, patting themselves on the back for saving the day.”
He shrugged. “They’re busy, I guess. Yours… yours acted like professionals?”
“They didn’t send me a bill. Yet. I know what you mean. They’d seen it all, done it all before. Constantly spitting out catchphrases and slang to each other. They might as well have been fixing the plumbing.” She picked up a set of Beatles dolls made from recycled USB drives, feigned interest in them, set them down. “It didn’t really click until now, but I think… that part was almost scarier than what happened. This wasn’t new. This wasn’t weird. I was just one more job for them. That says so much about the world, about what’s real. The grief, the loss, the pain… there’s a shit-ton of books and websites and stupid movies on Lifetime about how to deal with that part, with how to move on… but how do you move on from having the rug pulled out from you?”
“You find someone else lying on the floor.”
Three months later, they’d signed the lease on an apartment they found tolerable enough. Building a relationship solely on shared trauma doesn’t work, but they’d discovered enough about each other to find they could share things besides their pain. It wasn’t a love story for the ages; they acknowledged that. It was honest, though, and that was more than most.
Dale came back after a late work meeting, to find Katherine freeze-framing and rewinding the news. He glanced over at the few seconds she was reviewing. Yellow police tape around a plain-looking suburban home, a crawl about “two bodies recovered”. A few seconds, replayed over and over.
He studied the screen more closely as she watched it, again and again.
“It’s them, isn’t it? Your group?”
She inclined her head, slightly, then clicked the ‘off’ button to shatter the hypnotic spell. “Yeah. Had to be.”
“The Mustang? It was only in-frame for a second or two…”
“They’re good at avoiding cameras. But no one’s perfect.” She stood, heading to the kitchen to stare at the fridge, to see if something had magically appeared since last night. “Maybe not. Lots of people own red 1967 Mustangs.”
“And park them a half block from the site of gruesome murders?”
She sniffed at a bottle of milk, contorted her face into a sneer of disgust, and put it back on the shelf, perhaps in the hope it would become fresh again by tomorrow. “Yeah. Not likely.” She shut the fridge door. “I don’t know why I was watching that. It’s a hundred miles from here. Not our business, right?”
He took out two cans of chili, began to fill a pot.
“I… I don’t know. I want to say no. It’s… we know things, now. Do we ignore them?”
Katherine leaned against the counter, trying to not block the path to the stove. The kitchen was not large. “Did you ever think, what if Bruce Wayne were fat and slow?”
Dale stirred the semi-solid mass of congealed reddish glop, waiting for it transform into something that seemed edible. “Huh?”
“Batman. You’ve got to know the story. His parents got killed, so he decided to put on long underwear and fight crime.”
He whacked at the red blob with the edge of a wooden spoon. “I’m not following you.”
“He was lucky, right, that he was born to be really buff and smart. If he’d been a normal guy, it wouldn’t matter how much he worked out or how hard he studied. He could only go so far. That whole ‘work hard and you can do anything’ crap your parents and teachers tell you is bullshit. Not everyone’s going to win a gold medal or the Nobel prize, even if they work way harder than the people who do.”
Dale contemplated the slowly burbling chili. “I’m still not getting it. Sorry.”
She sighed. “We both lost someone to horror. We’ve been force-fed the red pill, we’ve seen what’s behind the curtain. So what do we do, now that we know? Just eat canned chili and watch the news?”
“I can go get KFC, if you’d like…”
“No! That’s not what I meant. I’m trying to say…” she grunted in frustration.
He abandoned the chili and stepped towards her. She leaned into his arms, and they were silent for a moment.
“It’s OK. I did know what you meant. You want to do more… but we’re not them. If we fought a werewolf, we’d be dog chow. We don’t have magic, or alien weapons, or kung fu. We’re basically useless. It hurts.”
He felt her nod a bit, then she lifted her head up suddenly. “Chili’s bubbling over!”
After dinner, they clicked on the TV, still freeze-framed where it had been.
“A hundred miles from here?”, Dale asked.
“We should go.”
“You need to work on your listening skills. I said, why? What for? What’s the point? Whatever’s there, they’ve probably staked it or burned it or covered it in gummi bears or whatever they have to do. And if they haven’t, well, you’re right. We’d be useless.”
“That’s why. Well, the first part of it is why. They’ve done whatever it is they have to do, then vanished. Just like they did to you. Just like mine did to me. Whatever brought them there is gone, but…”
Katherine saw his thought. “But there’s survivors left behind. Someone else, lying on the floor…” She grinned, slammed her fist on the couch in a moment of sudden glee. “We’re not useless. We can do something.” She bounded to the computer and started pulling up maps, then news reports from the area, seeing the shape of the negative space left by what was not said.
He began getting out clothes and folding them into a suitcase. “Every couple needs a thing they do on weekends. This can be ours.”
She laughed. “Sure beats antiquing!”
Many weekends. Many places. Large cities, little towns, dismal slums, wealthy suburbs.
They were sitting in a Nevada diner where the menus had been printed in the sixties, with the prices all covered over with new amounts written on white tape, layer after layer, a geological column of inflation. Across the street, the ruins of the sheriff’s office stood, surrounded by yellow tape and construction equipment. On the other side of their worn and pitted table sat a worn and pitted woman, who kept glancing nervously out the window at the work going on.
It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. Only one waitress was on shift, and she was nowhere to be seen. It was quiet and private.
“I don’t think they connected it to me, but I can’t be sure. Sheriff already has it in for me.”
Dale nodded, then took a sip of coffee, which had been lukewarm when it was delivered and which hadn’t defied entropy to heat up since then. “You think your ranch hand was involved, though?”
She looked around, then shook her head. “I dunno. I mean, it doesn’t make sense, but it kinda does. Everyone wants to pretend it didn’t happen, and maybe it didn’t.. maybe I didn’t see what I thought…”
Katherine decided no amount of ketchup could cover the elephant-grey meat of the hamburger well enough. “About seven feet tall. Purple. Nasty claws, shaggy black hair, one horn?”
The woman nodded. Katherine continued. “Tore the place apart, scared the piss out of some people, but didn’t really hurt anyone?”
The woman nodded again.
“You saw it. It was real. So’s a lot of other shit. We can help a little, maybe, if you want to tell us some more.”
“Well… for months, the Sheriff’s been trying to get me to sell. His brother’s some fancy developer, wants to put up a casino, but I’m not interested. Sheriff scared off almost everyone who worked for me, so I took a chance on this guy from out of town, looking for work, no questions asked. Seemed nice. Quiet. Called himself Daniel Flag. Hard worker. Not too hard on the eyes, either.” She glanced at her audience. “Hey, just because I’m too old to hike up the mountain doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the view.”
At the lack of any reaction, she continued.
“So, about a week after he starts, some of the Sheriff’s bully-boys come ’round, plannin’ to burn me out. I don’t know what happened next, exactly. I think…” she stopped, suddenly.
Dale spoke softly. “If it helps, there’s hardly anything you can say that we won’t believe. We can tell you our stories, if you want. You’re not alone. There’s a lot more of us than it seems.”
The rancher looked Dale in the eyes. “Hearin’ that… that helps. OK. He.. Daniel… I think he became that monster. He tossed their pickup truck a clean hundred yards. I heard a gunshot, a rifle crack, .357 Remington… know the sound well, been shootin’ since I was a girl… and when I looked around the place later on, I found just that kind, twisted into a pretzel. Some gas cans, too. A few smashed up trees. Daniel… I found him pretty much naked, near the barn. He made up some story ’bout how he’d tried to stop them but they knocked him out, claimed he didn’t know what finally scared ’em off, but even then, I knew.”
“The Sheriff was pissed,” she continued. “Decided if they could scare off Dan, I’d be really alone. So they hauled him in on vagrancy charges, and then, a few hours later…” She pointed out the window. “Dan left after that, said he figured they’d leave me alone now, but he had to go.” Her eyes narrowed. “You ain’t goin’ after him, are you?”
Dale and Katherine shook their heads, then Dale added, “Did it help? Are you OK now?”
The old woman laughed.
“Aw, hell no. If anything, it’s worse. Before, it was mostly just about money. Now, it’s personal. Sheriff blames me for what that creature did, makin’ him look the fool. People used to fear him, now they snicker, they figure he’s makin’ up stories ’bout a monster. As to what happened to the building… gas leak. That’s what they’re saying.”
Katherine tapped her index finger on the table, thinking. “You know what’s scarier than big purple monsters?”
The rancher shook her head.
Dale took out his phone. “Who are you thinking of? Goldberg?”
“Nah. Matsuka. Jenny Matsuka.”
Dale punched the keys.
“Ms. Matsuka? Hi. This is… you remember me, good. OK, Jenny it is. Anyway… you know how you said you were really grateful, how you’d do anything to help us? Well, as it turns out…”
After a few minutes, he hung up. “She’ll be out here in under a day, armed with enough orders, subpoenas, and requests for hearings to keep you safe through the winter, and probably forever.”
The woman stared. “Thank.. thank you. I don’t know what I would have… “
Katherine shrugged. “It’s what we do.”
“Are you leaving now?”
Dale shrugged. “Do you want us to?”
“No… no. I’d like to talk some more… I can fix you something, back at the ranch, a nice dinner. ” They exited the diner and began piling into her pickup, squeezing a bit so they could all fit in the front seat. She kept talking. “And you… you know what’s going on, don’t you? With Daniel?” She sighed. “But lemme guess. You can’t tell me, it’s all some hush-hush secret, I’m better off not knowin’, right?”
As the truck sputtered off, Katherine answered. “Wrong. We don’t do that cryptic secret mysteries crap. That’s what they do.”
“Short version,” Dale began, “is that Daniel’s granddad, of the same name, worked on the first atomic bomb… and one of the people who survived the attack at Nagasaki called up a powerful demon, an oni-spirit, to take revenge. Then things got really confusing, a couple of decades passed, and the spirit attacked the grandchild instead of the real target. Now, he wanders around, hoping for a cure, trying to keep the spirit in check… but his control sometimes slips, and you saw what happens. We can give you the long version later, if you like.”
The woman was silent for a few minutes.
“And here I thought he was just some government experiment or something. Ancient Japanese curses? That’s real?”
Katherine laughed. “Curses. Crashed UFOs. Werewolves. Mind readers. Thinking machines. Witches. V..” she paused, took a breath. “Vampires. All real. Really real.”
“That… that lawyer you called…”
“Her boss could produce this kind of super mind-control drug in his sweat. He shook hands with you, you did what he said, no matter what.”
“You two went and stopped him?”
They both laughed, a little sadly, and Dale replied. “No. We don’t do that. We… show up afterwards. We see odd stories in the news, pick up some things, and drop by if we can. To see if we can help.”
“Why? I mean, don’t think I ain’t grateful, ’cause I am, but, why?”
Dale shrugged. “It’s just sort of… this thing we do on weekends.”
“Hang on. Lemme get you some beers.”
Katherine watched the middle-aged man amble into the kitchen. They were sitting in the living room of a nice enough suburban home in North Carolina. Only one man, Carlos Solis, lived here now. It was instantly obvious that, until recently, there had been several more. The pictures were still on the walls. The bedrooms were still furnished.
It was a setting they’d seen too many times, on too many weekends. The aftermath, when the monsters were dead but the wounds were still fresh. It was, they’d realized, hard to not let it become routine. That’s what they did.
“Does he seem a bit off?”
Dale ran his finger through the dust layer on the coffee table. Long married, suddenly widowed. Housekeeping wasn’t a priority. “Well, about a week ago, he took his family to their beachfront timeshare, and then he saw most of them eaten by fish-men. Eaten if they were lucky. That makes anyone off.” He looked at her for a moment. “We know that too well.”
“Yeah. My point. We’ve seen this too many times, not to mention every damn morning when we look in the mirror, and… I’m saying, something’s not right. More not right than usual. Whatever.”
“Everyone takes pain differently. Maybe he just…” his voice trailed off.
Katherine glanced at the door leading to the kitchen. Mr. Solis wasn’t coming through it. Dale’s silence had another cause. He was staring at the coffee table.
He spoke slowly and quietly. “The remote. Just as dust covered as everything else. A week home, and he never turned on the TV? Not even just to have the noise to try to blot out the screaming in his mind, even for a moment?”
Carlos returned, bearing beer.
“Only two?” Dale’s voice was as casual as he could make it, but there was still a slight crack. “Nothing for yourself?”
“Nah. Don’t drink.” He handed the bottles to each of them, and a bottle opener to Katherine.
Katherine took the opener and placed it at the rim of the cap. The metal was twisted, a little. She wouldn’t have noticed it under most circumstances, but she was on edge, and she’d opened more bottles than she really wanted to think about. This has been opened before, then resealed. A good job. Just not perfect.
She set the bottle on the table. “Sorry, not thirsty. Maybe later.”
Dale quickly imitated her.
Carlos seemed nonplussed. “You sure? I got some Coke, or I can mix you up some iced tea…”
Dale felt a deep fear begin to spread along his spine, a primal instinct raising hackles evolution had dispensed with eons past, the reptile brain’s awareness of a lurking predator in the high grass.
Katherine smiled, warmly and sweetly. “Got any 7-up? Or just some ice water?”
Mr. Solis shook his head. “Nah. Never liked that brand, and the water here’s lousy. Sulfur.”
“That’s alright, then. Now… we’re here because, well, we thought it might help if you had someone to talk to, about what happened.”
Carlos shook his head. “Already talked to the cops, to Father James, to the family… I’m really sick of talking. Are you sure you aren’t thirsty?”
Dale shook his head, then picked up where Katherine had left off. This was almost a formula by now, as hard as they fought not to let it become one. “You couldn’t tell them everything, though. What was the story you were given? Boating accident?”
Mr. Solis nodded. “Yeah. You think it wasn’t? That I’m lying?”
“We know, Mr. Solis. Fish-men. They have other names, but fish-men works. Humanoids from before the dawn of man. Ancient things, occasionally called back. We can guess a lot. Someone came to help you… a bit too late for your family. They didn’t really do much to help you after that, they just gave you a cover story and took off. Is that correct?”
“That’s right. So, why are you here?”
“Mostly,” Katherine said, “to let you know you’re not alone. To give you someone you can be honest with. It helps more than you’d think.”
“They send you? Professor Black, and them?”
Katherine laughed. “Oh, hell no. I doubt they even know we exist. I sure hope not.”
“Oh.” Mr. Solis looked disappointed.
“But,” Dale began, “if they left you in the lurch… like they tend to do… we might be able to help. We know people. People who can help.”
Carlos shook his head, then began to snicker. “Really? That’s it? That’s all you do? Go around, talking to people? The Professor didn’t send you? Or the Trio? Or any of them?”
“No… no. We’re on our own…” Dale was standing by then, as was Katherine. “I think maybe this isn’t our kind of thing…”
Carlos stood, sort of. His body was trembling, no, writhing. Something was moving under the skin. His voice changed, deepening. “Pity. We saw you following. Following them all. Following ones we never knew of. Thought they sent you. The clean-up crew. To find what they missed. To make sure the silence was not broken. Thought you’d be useful to us. A connection between them all. But you’re nothing. Useless.”
The thing that was not Carlos Solis laughed again. “Glad you didn’t drink. My children are precious. It would have been tragic to waste them on you.”
Neither Katherine nor Dale bothered to answer. They were sprinting for the door.
The shell of Carlos Solis tore itself apart. What was left was essentially a skeleton made not of bone, but of something with dozens of branching, twisting tentacles. A thick, segmented tube formed the spine, and from it sprouted rib-worms and arm-tendrils. It stood on flexible cylinders of cartilage and flesh which terminated in splayed, starfish-like feet. Placed at the top of the worm-spine was a human brain, riddled through with thousands of writhing and burrowing things as fine as hair. Two eyeballs, held in the mouths of squirming, serpentine stalks of tissue, kept the fleeing pair in view.
The not-arms shot out, extending three times their length, and the leechlike fingers grabbed at what they could, seeking exposed flesh, as a corrosive liquid vomited out of the ten tiny, tooth-ringed mouths. Dale screamed in pain as the fingers found his skin, even as he struggled to ignore it and twist the doorknob. Katherine’s own scream was of rage, as she spun back towards the thing and grabbed its hand and tried to keep it from reaching her.
The thing just kept laughing, its voice emerging out of the maws of the rib-worms, just a touch out of sync, creating a strange echo.
“What idiocy! Stumbling into the charred ashes left after an inferno, in case some child’s doll remained intact to return to them! How you survived long enough for us to notice you is…”
There was a shriek like someone had stepped on the tail of God’s cat, and the creature exploded in a hundred different ways, each and every tentacle torn apart from within, as if their collective gullets had been lined with dynamite. What remained of the hand dropped away, leaving Dale and Katherine leaning on the wall, panting in terror and relief, Dale’s hand still twitching futilely at the locked knob.
Two men emerged from the kitchen. One seemed to be in his mid-20s, handsome in a bland sort of way. The other was sixty-ish, wearing a dark grey suit and holding a mechanism best described as the unholy offspring of a Walkman and the last dregs of a Radio Shack going out of business sale.
He didn’t look up from the machine as he adjusted it, talking off handedly. “Well, that’s that, then. Sorry it took so long, needed to locate the proper frequency curves. Venusian brain-eating vermiforms. Nasty critters.”
The other spoke. “Professor, I’m hearing something. Low ultrasonic.”
“Yes, yes. It’s…”
“Probably the bottles. Damn thing kept trying to get us to drink.” Katherine walked back to the coffee table, grabbed one, then smashed it. A dark, fizzing liquid spilled out, and writhing in the puddle was a long, slender worm. The shattered neck of the bottle was still in her hand. She smashed it into the thing, grinding the sharp edges against it until it was a bloody, shredded mess.
“You guys can probably handle the other one.” She dropped the remains of the bottle and tugged on her shirt, where the clutching hands of the thing that was not Carlos Solis had tried to grab her. “Shit, this is ruined.”
Dale was just glaring at the newcomers, his breath still coming in ragged gasps, daring them to say something. Finally, the younger did. “Hello. I’m sure this is very shocking to you, but be assured, you are now safe.”
Dale stopped wheezing long enough to sneer. “Is that what you told Mr. Solis when you sent him home from the beach?”
“At the time, it was accurate. He was safe then.”
The older one finished his work with the machine. There was a brief hum and a sudden pop, and the remaining bottle of beer shook slightly as the thing within it exploded, decorating the interior of the glass with gobbets of pale white flesh that slowly peeled away to be concealed once more by the darkness within.
“You’ve got to forgive my friend. People skills aren’t his strong point. We’re sorry for your loss. Where you… friends of Mr. Solis? Relatives?”
Dale looked at him. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“Of… of course I do… you’re, uhm….”
“Dale Hawthorn, age 28. Encountered approximately 18 months ago during the recovery of a Betelgeusian anti-baryon weapon.”
“Yes, see, we remember you… erm… what are you doing here?”
Katherine exploded. “What the hell do you think? Cleaning up your mess! Doing the job you’re too damn high-and-mighty to do!”
“Madame, please! We did just save you from a horrific fate!”
“Professor,” interrupted the other. “The circumstances and evident personality traits compel me to consider these might be those we’ve been hearing about. ‘The Angry One’ and ‘The Stiff One’.”
“The hell? Hearing about?”
“You are, kind of. You could loosen up a little bit, you know.” She shrugged. “But, it’s who you are, and it works for you.”
The older man coughed. “Uhm… excuse me… if you could explain to me what’s going on…”
Katherine grinned, not pleasantly. “Heh. Now you know what it’s like. Not that it’ll do any good, I’m betting.”
Sitting amidst the ruins of a man’s life, not to mention his body, they explained.
When they were finished, Professor Black shook his head. “Oh no, no. That just won’t do at all. Never mind the risk you’re putting yourselves in… it was just lucky we picked up the signals on the sub-etheric wave as we were passing by… but you could put countless others in danger. Think! If these creatures noticed you, who else might have? You’re crossing lines, blurring boundaries, giving people too many pieces of the larger puzzle! You must stop!”
Katherine’s voice was perfectly level. “Or what?“
“There is a high probability the harm you will create outweighs the good you purport to accomplish.”
Dale sighed. “Have you looked in a mirror lately?”
Katherine took his hand. “Aww… our first date.” Dale smiled back at her, then turned to the other two. “No. We’re not stopping because you tell us to. Maybe if you have this kind of talk with everyone else, we wouldn’t be needed… but you don’t, so, we are. Case closed.”
Professor Black sighed. “I did what I could. I just hope you decide to stop before you do something that can’t be fixed. Alpha, come along.” He stopped and turned to the other two. “We’re going to call in a report that we saw a broken window. The police will be here to investigate eventually, so that someone finds Mr. Solis’ body and tell his family. What’s left of it. I’d recommend you both skedaddle. And please… stop. Mr. Hawthorn, I’ve saved your life twice now. Twice is very rare. Three times has never happened as long as I’ve been working, and I’ve been working a very long time.”
The drive back was mostly silent.
The key clicked in the apartment door, and it opened, releasing the odor of slightly-spoiled food, the salad purchased the week before in the hope of eating better, then discarded, untouched, Friday evening, as they’d worked out the connection between the ‘accidental drownings’ in North Carolina, the poor catch reported by local fishermen, and the fires on the offshore rig a week before that. Now the brown-green mass teetered precariously atop the trash can, daring either one to make the next move in the game of Garbage Jenga.
Katherine collapsed into the couch. Dale flipped listlessly through the accumulated bills, ignoring any not marked ‘final notice’, then peered into the fridge, in case elves had put anything in there while they were gone. If they had, he’d toss it, of course. He knew about fae food. Fortunately, or not, they hadn’t. Thursday’s pizza might still be good.
He started to put the slices, as stiff as the cardboard they’d been fetched from, onto two paper plates. “Microwaving kills germs, right?”
“When’s the last time we screwed?”
Non-sequiters are a part of any long-term relationship. Dale considered the question. “Uhm… wasn’t it… three weeks ago, at that motel with the giant moose head in the lobby, in that town where the High School principal was a were-moth?”
“No. We’d talked about it, but it never seemed to happen.”
“Yes… you’re right. So it was…”
“When doesn’t matter! The fact we’re even having this conversation is what matters!”
The microwave beeped. Dale ignored it. “We can eat later.” He tried to sound vaguely amorous. “No time like the present, right?”
“No, honey. Sorry. We just drove six hours and my favorite shirt got torn up by a.. a… whatever. Worm thing from Mars, or some stupid shit like that.”
Dale’s well-taught instincts overcame his exhaustion, and he didn’t say ‘Venus, actually’. As hard as it was to remember when they’d had sex in the past, he knew better than to eliminate any chance of it in the future.
Falling back on prior plans, he took the pizza, tongue-burning hot in some places, still partially congealed in others, out, and brought the plates over. Katherine reached for hers, then set it on her lap. She stared at it as if the patterns of yellowish cheese, fire-engine-red pepperoni, and gravel-grey sausage might reveal the future.
“Maybe those two were right. Maybe it’s time to quit.”
“Why? Because they gave us their boilerplate speech number seventeen, ‘You’re tampering with things man was not meant to know!’? Or because we almost had our brains devoured by the worms from V..Mars?” He paused. “The latter is a stronger argument, I admit.”
“Not either. We started this… why?”
“First, I do not sound like that. Second, no. Because we felt like we couldn’t just live, day to day, pretending the world was normal, when it’s not. Well, are we living any better not pretending?”
Dale looked around at the clutter, chaos, and confusion. Both worked full and part time jobs to make the money needed for weekends driving cross-country, and the rates of even the sleaziest motels added up over time. When not working, or traveling, they sought out targets, tried to winnow out the extraordinary tragedies from the ordinary ones, which meant they spent a lot of time seeing humanity at its worst, looking for things literally inhuman.
“We’re helping people.”
“We’ve helped how many, now? Fifty? More? And it’s not just us any more, is it? Remember, way back, that ranch lady in Nevada? Got a message from her, two weeks ago. She’s fostering two kids whose parents got possessed by wasp demons. And that rich jerk with the haunted paintings? He’s actually become slightly less of a jerk, funding relocation for some folks, get them away from all the reminders of what they’ve been through. We’ve kicked the rocks at the top of the mountain. The avalanche’ll keep happening without us.”
“So, is that it? Quit? Let the rocks fall without us?”
“Sure. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m tired. You’re tired. Skip a week. Maybe two. Eat food we cook.”
“We can try.”
“Try? How hard can it be? Not doing something is easy! It’s what everyone does! Just watch the news, make some sad noises, wonder why the world’s such a damn mess, then turn on ‘Who Wants To Dance With A Midget Millionaire Bachelor’ and forget about it all! Everyone else does that! So can we!”
“I’m sure we can.”
The artificially light tone of his voice jarred her. “You don’t care? Keep on, or don’t, all the same to you?”
Dale set his plate down on the arm of the couch. The grease soaking through it wouldn’t do much more than add another layer of intricate patterning to the Pollack painting of stains already there. He walked the very short distance to the living room window and looked out over the other buildings in the complex. Dawn, cruel-hearted harpy, was already beginning to shove back the night, offering little hope for rest before the week began anew.
“I care. I want to keep doing what we do. I think the rocks need a lot more help falling. I also care about you, about us. I’m the stiff one, remember? I can only imagine what I’d be like without you. Inside, I’m barely keeping from screaming. Always. I measure out my feelings in teaspoons so that I don’t explode. Without you… it would be eyedroppers. If that. So, between the world, and you, I choose you.”
“Oh, great. Now I get to feel guilty. Thanks.”
Dale thumped his fist on the glass. “Now I know how you feel talking to me. Misunderstandings all around. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty.”
“Doing a good job despite not trying. If you were trying, I’d probably be slitting my wrists.”
“OK. We’re tired. We’re stressed. We nearly got eaten by some worm thing from outer space. Let’s just drop it for now. The world isn’t going to end if we don’t settle this tonight.”
Katherine took a listless bite of pizza. “Saving the world’s their job. I wish I knew what ours was.”
Dale sat back down on the couch, and reached for the remote, then put it aside. It was best not to take a chance, not to risk accidently catching a hint of a story that could get them making plans for next weekend. “So do I.”
Saturday came, and they were home, the first time that had happened in longer than either could remember. It had been an odd week, a week of ducking out of restaurants if CNN was on the big-screen, a week of trying not to read the sections of newspaper that coworkers left in the bathroom, a week of trying not to overhear someone talking about how their aunt was acting odd or if they’d heard about that wave of arson up north, two cities away. A week of trying to talk about planning dinners, or about seeing if that movie that looked sort-of-maybe-funny was at RedBox, or about finally meeting each other’s relatives. A week of walking on eggshells balanced on land mines.
Katherine looked at dinner, something with chicken breast and wine sauce and mushrooms. Dale made it from raw ingredients, not a box mix. Another first in too long.
“This is nice.”
“Oh, thanks. I was worried the chicken was overdone.”
“No, I mean… this. Everything. Being home. Being normal.”
He sat down across from her. “It is. I’m not sure what to do tomorrow. We’re not looking at a five hour drive back from wherever we’d have ended up.”
“Not having to hold someone’s hand while they shake, and sob, and finally open up about how their dachshund breathed fire and tried to eat their soul.”
Dale paused mid-bite. “You think that arson thing in Greenville was hellhounds?”
“First thing to burn was an old antique store. You know what they’re full of.”
“Cursed this, ancient that, blasphemous…” he slammed down the fork. “Damn it!”
Katherine tilted her head, bemused. “That’s usually my line. Me angry, you stiff, remember?”
“We were supposed to not be doing this!”
“OK, I take it back. You don’t need to loosen up. I like you stiff. No, that wasn’t a come-on line. Well, maybe a little. Anyway, I didn’t mean to research it. The hens were clucking about it in the office, and…”
“It’s alright. I’m sorry. Just sort of… no. I wonder if this is what it’s like when cops or firemen retire, and they read in the paper about something, and they think ‘I should have been there, I could have helped…'”
“Yeah. But if we want this…,” she said, gesturing at the table set with real plates, holding real food, “we have to give up… that. That thing we do on weekends.”
“I know. I do want this. I do want life, normalcy. That’s why I went to you, in the bar. I recognized something in you, the same kind of scar I had, and I thought, ‘I need someone who understands.'”
She smiled, warmly. “It’s at least more romantic than ‘Man, she’s got great tits.'” She laughed. “Former boyfriend gave me his ‘Why I hit on you’ story. Note: Former.”
He took her hand. “We can make this work. Being normal. Let the rocks fall on their own, right?”
The phone rang.
Dale sighed, and answered it. The voice at the other end was deep, rumbling, and had other qualities that defied easy description. “Mister… Hawthorne?”
“Yes?” Dale flipped to speaker. Something was very off, here, and he needed Katherine to hear it. She often noticed the oddities first.
“You don’t… know me. I am called Adam Shelley.”
“Don’t know you, but I know of you. I think I saw you once, leaving Hardinsburg last October. Didn’t look like I’d expected.”
“No… neckbolts.” There was an echoing laugh, and both Dale and Katherine felt a chill.
Katherine spoke. “Look, if you’re calling to deliver some cryptic warning and tell us to back off, you’re too late. We got that speech from Robbie and the Professor. We’re done.”
Robbie? Dale mouthed.
Explain later, she replied, shaking her head.
“Oh… that is disappointing. I had… hoped… no matter. Farewell. “
“Wait!” Dale and Katherine said together, then stared at each other.
“Yes?” came the voice.
“What were you calling about?”
“I dispatched… a beast… in Greenville. There was… a woman there… her lover called it… sent it on one who had wronged her… it…”
“Yeah, we can kind of guess the rest from the papers.”
“She who survived… is fractured. She can be… reassembled… or she can fall to pieces. I… am good at breaking. Not at fixing.”
Katherine and Dale looked at each other.
“We’ll… think about it.”
The call disconnected.
They looked at the slowly cooling chicken.
“Greenville is, what, four hours away?”
“If we leave now, we could be there by midnight… track her down tomorrow morning, have most of the day to try to help her, be back here by not too late Sunday night… well, Monday morning.”
Katherine sighed. “We shouldn’t. We were supposed to be trying to…”
Dale nodded. “You’re right. We have to learn to say no.”
Katherine nodded. “Totally.”
“This is what we agreed to. We have to support each other.”
“If we put the chicken into some Tupperware, we can nuke it when we get back. Should still be tolerable.”
“You do that. I’ll get to packing. If you’re done before I am, Google up the cheapest motel near to town.”
They don’t have powers or abilities beyond those of mortal men. They have no ancient lore beyond that which can be found with a web search. They appear in a succession of low-cost, unfashionable rental cars, and lack any distinctive mode of dress or signature style. They do what’s needed, not out of guilt or heritage or divine mandate, and if pressed for a reason, they will shrug and say, “It’s what we do.”
This story, somewhat obviously, has been about them… and about all the others, the legions of the left behind, the forgotten, the abandoned, all those whose lives keep going on after the interesting part is over. Every story is a universe, and that universe begins long before the first word and continues long after the final period.