AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Two - "Evocation of the Protector"

Chapter 2. I'll update this with wicked and wily illustration in short order. This one needed a little more editing to make it serviceable to mine eye.

I want to thank you for the kind words and anxious demand that I did not expect! Please let me know how you feel about this as it goes or at the end or whatever. LOVE YOU ALL!

Chapter Two - Evocation of the Protector

Tad had sweat through her clothes as she slept. The sheets of the strange bed had coagulated into one damp mass and tangled around her ankles. Her black hair curled and stuck to her cheeks. Before she opened her eyes her arm moved automatically to the other side of the bed and clutched at a limp swath of blankets. She opened her eyes and stared at the emptiness. He had been dead for months and she still expected to find him next to her. She turned and looked at the gun on the nightstand she had found underneath the mattress early that morning when she first lay down to sleep. The clip was full. It made her rest easier. The last time she held a weapon was after Houston died and she had put a hole in the Contractor who killed him.

I don't want to think about that. She abandoned him back to the grave of memory and bit back the sharp morning grief that always greet her when she woke like coughing up a lungful of water. If it wasn't him . . . then it was the others.

She sat up and looked at her leather-strapped wristwatch. The glass was foggy with condensation. She shook her arm to try to clear it, but the watch had stopped. She threw off the bed sheets and the chill air from the open windows blew over her body. She shivered away the heat of sleep. The room was bare except for a broken lamp on the nightstand and a shorted-out television hanging unevenly on the opposite wall. Shorn wires where a projector unit has been torn out by the roots jutted like spider's legs from the ceiling. The stalk and orb of the unit was discarded in the corner of the room in a bed of chipped plaster as if destroyed in a fit of anger. Next to the bed on the floor was her duffel bag. She rummaged inside briefly before producing a bright pink phone.

The phone was dead, though she hit it twice to make sure. Squinting, stifling a yawn, she stepped onto the hardwood floor. She stomped her left leg down hard to defeat a burgeoning cramp. She walked to the window and set the phone down on the sill. Outside all she could see was a wall of trees beyond the slice of unkempt yard in the gray morning mist. A red rubber ball was half deflated in a thicket of weeds. After checking once to make sure her phone was catching a charge on the photovols she went into the kitchen.

She stretched her arms across the hallway and peeled some of the crumbling wallpaper off with her fingernails. She avoided the living room and the bathroom because of the rancid stink wafting out from them. In the kitchen, filthy with ancient decaying newspapers, mold encrusted walls, and a sagging ceiling, Tad tiptoed her way towards the sink. The green and white tiled floor was infused with grime. She tipped over a plastic cup with a black mold growing out of it and covered her mouth when the putrid smell hit her. The sink was one of the only clean spots, since yesterday when she had unearthed and disposed of the rotting dishes and wiped away most of the mold. The other cleared area was the rickety aluminum table and a pair of matching chairs.

She let the water run cold and brown over her hands until it was clear, then she scrubbed her face and slicked her hair back. The soaked strands hung to her shoulders and dripped down her back and she shivered again. She remained with her hands resting on the edge of the sink and her head bowed to let the water drip into the sink.

Last night she'd dreamed she was back in Porton with her brother at the Bezel Room. Some friends from school were there – even though she had never been to a real school – and they were strange to her, not her real friends. She drank and smoked cigarettes and danced with them. Being back on The Cord felt comfortable, felt right in this dream. Her brother was the same as her real brother and he had forgiven her for running away to the Agrats. He smiled and ruffled her hair and raised a glass to the strange people who she recognized as her friends but were not her friends.

"Welcome back, Tabitha," he said. She had started crying and the strangers surrounded her and started dancing. She remembered that her friend's were all dead and the dream ended. Then there was another dream, also with her brother, but he was the stranger. He didn't recognize her either. He had no memory of her and he got angry when she confronted him with the truth of it. When she touched him to comfort him or maybe to reassure herself that he was really there, standing in front of her in the white hall of their parent's house on the damp streets of Porton, his body fell away into clumps of mud.

That was a dark dream.

But as the sweat dried on her body the dream began to evaporate from memory. Her old life returned to its place. She was lucky to dream at all – even if they only reinforced her doubt. I did not run away, she told herself, I survived.

She looked in the busted refrigerator for any sign of food or something similar to food. She grabbed a jar of pickles with enthusiasm but swore when she saw that only the juice remained. With this in hand she worked her way around a pile of soggy books towards the porch.

She knocked the screen door open with her foot. The porch had a bench and a pair of iron chairs arranged around a potbelly stove, and she sat on the former while wrestling with the cover of the pickle jar. She liked the porch because it was clean and quiet as the wild that crept under the cracks in the pine slatted walls. Morning birds chirped. The road beyond the front yard was desolate and Tad would not have been surprised if even two vehicles passed during the course of any given day. It was more likely that a convoy shuttling Contractors from the Carnac Cities through the Colored Mountains might pass at any moment. She listened to the birds and for any sign of the rumble of treads or the pulse of helicopters that always preceded them. All was quiet in the wilderness around the abandoned house. She felt safe. Rested.

The jar finally popped open and she took a big gulp of the salty solution inside. The juice was a cool sting on her throat and her lips puckered in satisfaction. She found a long earthen pipe on the edge of the bench. It was rough and unglazed with a white clay stem and bowl that looked like they were carved from bone. There was a brown stain on the bench and ashen smudges on the floor where the pipe had been cached countless times. She smiled at the thought that someone had loved this spot so much. She felt connected to that long-gone whoever. She picked up the pipe and sniffed the bowl. The smell was sweet and dry.

I should smoke this. No use letting it waste away here. She set it down gently and stood to retrieve a lighter from her bag. She spotted something outside at the edge of view. At first she thought it was a log or a dead rodent. She stepped closer.

It was a man's barefoot. 

The jar dropped from her hands and smacked the floor. Tad spun and reached for the door inside. Her knee struck the bench as she grabbed the door handle. She bit her fingers to keep herself quiet and crouched under the cusp of the screen. She raised her eyes slowly over the sill to look at the man lying in the driveway. He didn't move. She could only see his back in the shadow of the house. His jacket had ridden up his torso and his thin gray body wracked with small, labored breaths.

He’s alive! She opened the door outside and kept her head down. She scanned the road and the long hill that ran its length. No signs of life. The Cord, the massive power cable that connected Paternach generators the Cities, was the only feature on the landscape. The sky was clear underneath scrolls of gray clouds. She approached carefully.

The man was tall and had long angular limbs that protruded from underneath his ragged clothes. His hair was long, greasy, and matted around his head, which seemed unusually large. She knelt next to him. His bearded face was contorted, wracked in a frozen nightmare. A vagrant, maybe. But then why out here, a half a day from anything, with no shoes and no shirt underneath his threadbare jacket? She gently rolled him over onto his back. His chest was hairy and glossy with sweat. The left side of his stomach was raw and red like it had been repeatedly slapped or whipped. She explored his head for a wound. Finding none she looked at his hands and noted the dirt packed under his rough fingernails. Then she sat him up, slung his arms around her shoulders, and started to drag him towards the house. He was significantly lighter than he looked. She carried him easily over the gravel of the driveway and the patch of lush lawn in front of the house. His frame was like an empty bag filled with air. She pried the porch door open and grunted as she forced him over the threshold.

Tad took a deep breath and set the man down as delicately as she could manage. She searched his pockets and set out the contents on the iron table. A card-fold with two cards in it was in his right pocket. One was an Autoterm access card used to track a credit account at public labs. There was the man's face with the same shock of hair and beard and the collar of what looked like the same jacket. The card said his name was Holm Aegis. The other card was gold but blank on both surfaces and heavier than average plastics. There were tiny ridges on the card's surface invisible to the eye when she held it up to the morning sun. She returned these to the outer pockets and scrounged in the inner one. She found a memory storage device that was dented on one end, and a photograph folded in on itself many times.

The photo fit in the palm of her hand when unfolded. The picture was very dark and covered in a fine red dust. Examining it closely she made out the glint of an eye over a flat white cheek. A hand by a face. The curve of a vessel, or an arm, she couldn't be sure. She thought there must have been a double exposure, because on one half of the picture, the left side, was a pool of water reflecting the light from a flash. But the other side of the picture was clearly taken with no flash and contained red-tinted, ethereal forms. She stared at it, but her eyes blurred the more she tried to excavate the image from the darkness.

She folded the picture again. She pinched the weary wool fabric of his jacket between her thumb and forefinger and pulled it away from his chest. She slipped the photo back in his pocket. As it fell into place the man's eyes opened.

"Uh, hello?" she said. She stepped backwards and held her hand behind her back.

He clawed his way to a sitting position as if throwing off a suffocating weight. He looked all around, his eyes wide and glassy like fired stone. He gazed unblinkingly at the world; first at the sky and then scanning over the lawn at the road. The tendons in his neck tightened and his jaw tensed. His cheeks convulsed and his lips moistened with spit. Tad leaned towards him to put her hand on his shoulder - as he had not acknowledged her presence and she wondered if he’d even heard her - but he wretched forward suddenly, grabbing his abdomen. He groaned so weakly that it sounded like a scream from far away. He looked at his shaking hands and alternated at pawing his stomach and side and investigating his fingers like they weren’t working right. She realized he was looking for blood. He turned, mouth wet, squinting, searching her face. He grabbed her wrist. 

"Did you see them?" he whispered with a darting glance over his shoulder. Then his attention was on her again.

"Who? There's no one," she said, pulling away from him. He let her go as quickly as he had grabbed her.

"No-one," he said. He lowered his eyes and sighed deeply. His chest sank back behind his jacket like a beast withering into a cave. He tried to stand but stumbled and collapsed near the bench. 

"Whoa! Hold on there, buddy," said Tad as she tugged on his sleeve and wrapped his arm over her shoulder. He steadied himself while clutching the red lump on his side, now going black and blue with bruise.
He looked at her for the first time. He looked at her hair, half dry on top but otherwise still damp with water. At her face. At her loose tank top and her underwear.

"You are in your underwear?" he said as if asking the time. Tad searched his eyes as she held him. His face was white and brittle but without the lines of age. His eyes were anxious but without desire.

"Yep," she said. She remembered her brother's face in the dream. How she had tried to tell him: It's me. It's your little tadpole. I need you. How he had denied her. She smiled at the stranger, "But don't get any ideas." It felt weird to say that, to have no instinctual fear of this stranger, but that’s what it was. She helped him into the house.


"Did an old man used to live here?" the stranger asked as he looked into the living room. It was a graveyard of magazines half burnt in a forgotten fire, of cigarette butts in a dozen ashtrays dotting the rolling heaps of rubbish like exotic birds. There were scorched holes where someone had destroyed the walls' internal branding projectors. The whole of the room was coated in the typical semi-matte paint imbued with crystals that translated the projector's data into images. Someone had dismantled these, but a long time ago. Tad was sure the previous occupants had been evicted by Bank Two.

The stranger rested his head on the door jam with his back to her while she dressed in the bedroom.

"I don't know. I suppose so," she said, "There's a lot of dirty magazines and car parts in the garage." She pulled her long johns on. They were an inch looser in the hips since Porton and she tucked the elastic band over into her underwear.

"I see," Holm said, sounding as if he didn't see at all, "Do you live here now?" She shook her head and smiled, wrapping her short, dark denim coat around her and zipping it up. 

"No. Just passing through." She sat on the bed and slipped on her frayed running sneakers with leather strips bound around the soles to extend their life. She walked to the window and tried to open it by putting her shoulder under the jam. The wood creaked as the swollen sash inched up and a waft of humid air stirred the papery curtains. She picked up her phone and put it into the pocket of her coat. The sun was high over the trees, a red swirl in the yellow sky, insects buzzing in swarms outside in the warming day. 

"The house is abandoned, then," Holm said turning toward Tad, "Where are you going . . . after this?" He looked at her with an open, child-like drive to understand, even raising his hand as if to tug on her sleeve like some beggar kid might. She pivoted away briskly.

"I don't know you, buddy," she said grabbing her duffel and pulling the cord tight. He stepped away from her and shuffled toward the kitchen on his bare feet. 

"Yes. That's right. I suppose," he muttered, so quiet that Tad could barely make out his words, stuffing his hands dejectedly into his jacket pockets. He stopped. He pulled out the cards that Tad had already discovered. He held them up to look at them, his other hand jerking up to his head and running absently through his hair. He moved into the kitchen and made straight for the table, carelessly kicking away the garbage in his path. She followed and sat opposite him at the table that she had cleaned off. She knocked over a bottle that had been hiding behind a stack of newspapers.

"What the hell are these?" he said to himself, examining the cards again and again, flipping each one over, trying to split the cards lengthwise, cupping them over his ears as if they would whisper some secret to him. Tad was utterly confused by his sudden change in temperament.

They're his plastics. It doesn't make sense . . .

"What are you doing?" she said as she stooped to grab the bottle that she'd disturbed. There was a brown, almost amber gold liquid inside. Her mouth watered as she lifted the heavy, sloshing glass. She popped the cork and sniffed. The sweet sting of bourbon hit her in the face. 

"Nothing," he said, "I'm Holm Aegis." He dropped the cards and held out his right hand to her in a firm offer. She took it slowly. When her hand was in his palm he enthusiastically squeezed.

"Tabitha," she said, trying to find some hint of deception in his manner. She knew his name, but plastics could be faked. His eyes were searching and expectant, and she had to say something. Might as well be the truth, she thought. "I'm an Agrat, I live off The Cord. My whole family is dead. My boyfriend died just before I came out here."

She waited for a reaction. He coughed, covering his mouth.

"I'm . . . I'm sorry to hear that. What's an Agrat?"

"Are you serious?"

Suddenly he grew excited, his legs shaking beneath the table, a coat of spit forming on his lips. He spoke in a nervous blurt.

"I'm afraid so. I don't remember much. I keep seeing these shapes when I try to remember, strange shapes, in gold and pink. I remember a mountain. I have a feeling that I should be there. I know I should, but I don't even remember where it is, or where I am. Actually, that's all I know. All I remember, I should say. Someone is after me-"

Tad snorted to stifle a laugh. She knew all about that.

Holm talked right over her: "Almost got to me last night. I didn't even remember my own name until one of these . . . one of these people after me said it. There was a helicopter. A dog and a cat, I think . . . a bunch of dead deer too, which was weird. First thing I remember clearly at all, actually, is getting caught in a bear trap last night."

With that he rolled up his left trouser leg and swung it up over the table where it landed with a thump. There were scars in a circle around his leg, dried blood, but not the open wound he would have, or should have had, if his story were true. Holm blinked.

"That's odd," he said. Tad cleared her throat and Holm removed his foot from the table. She leaned over and put her palm on his forehead, pulling up his eyebrow to see the whites of his eyes. 

"You don't look sick," she said, sitting back down and picking up the bottle of whiskey.

"I remember very clearly the trap. The pain. Oh, it was horrible!" Holm said, his face twisting with the memory. "I guess now it just itches." And to confirm this he reached down to his leg and scratched it through his trousers.

Tad pulled on the whiskey, the fluid bubbling as she tipped the bottle back. She took a long gulp and felt the burning in the back of her mouth, the rush of heat through her sinuses. She snorted once to control her salivation.

"Did you say something about shapes?" she asked, wiping her mouth.

"Well, they're seeds, or grains of wheat or something. They arrange themselves into a pattern. Shapes." Holm placed his palms flat on the hard surface of the table, fingers splayed wide, drumming up and down. "It makes me very nervous to talk about that." 

His fingernails were so black at the tips that he might have been digging in wet earth, but they did not leave a mark on the table, or any trace of oil or grease or condensation. She leaned forward on her elbows and pushed the whiskey towards him with a finger. The glass squeaked.

"But you brought it up. You told me about the shapes," she said, eyeing the bottle between Holm's outstretched hands as he tentatively grabbed the neck. 

"It's hard to explain. I feel like . . ." he paused and brought the bottle to his mouth, letting the rim rest on his lip, before tilting it back. He coughed and sputtered but most of the alcohol remained in his mouth. His bottom lip leaked and some dribbled into his beard, "I feel like they're supposed to mean something to me. I feel like if I could just understand them, put them in the right order, I could remember. Maybe I'm just crazy."

"Could you draw these shapes, if we got some paper?" Perhaps it was a code. He probably was crazy.

"You might have followed me here," he said, eyes dropping to the table, hands flattening again.

"You might have followed me. Come on, tell me about the code?" Tad asked, retrieving the whiskey from Holm's hand. 

"I'm not sure it's a code. Did I say that? It's a bunch of lines in a row making a pattern, intersecting. Could be something . . . I don't know."

Some booze had pooled in a crescent on the table underneath where he had let the bottle rest. He twirled his finger in the liquid absently. Serpentine figures that seemed random and mundane took shape. Tad glanced at them so as not to draw attention to her looking. The shapes. A number? An eye. Or an 'E'. Or an eight . . . but then it was scribbled over by something else. Holm wasn't even looking at his hands anymore, but at the bottle.

Tad took another drink, pulling long and hard, shutting her eyes so they wouldn't water, though some tears slipped out from under her eyelids. She forced herself to keep from looking at the shapes that Holm scrawled vacantly in front of her.

She gave him back the bottle. 

He interrupted his automatic writing to drink some bourbon, a smaller sip this time. His cheeks awakened in a pink flush above his gnarly brown beard.

"I think I must be looking for someone, or I was before it all got blasted out of me somehow. Hey, maybe you know . . . what is this 'Hundun Co.'?" He picked up the blank gold card and showed it to Tad.

It had changed; there was a picture of Holm, his name printed in bold black lettering on the top 'AEGIS, HOLM', him with a trimmed beard and close-cropped hair, weighing at least ten pounds more than in his present state. The card had a water-mark, like two hands without thumbs splayed outwards from where they were connected at the base of the palms. Underneath it were the words 'Hundun Co.'. She had never heard of it. It might be unique to the Accelerated Cities, though even that was doubtful, because the council would have briefed her about it. What if the council didn't know? Maybe she would have to find out. She wondered if she had stumbled on a bit of luck with this stranger coming out of nowhere. Not that she could trust him, or anyone, but he might have access to certain resources.

The Agrat council had sent her away with her bag and a map and she had given herself a less than one in fifty shot at returning home before it was too late. She had gotten through Montana before the news reached her that those she'd left to save were dead and the thing that killed them was spreading. Maybe it wasn't a plague, but that's what they all called it. The council had asked her to travel alone, and she had, for fifteen hundred miles. She was not sick, she was sure, but it had not seemed worth the risk until this moment. Everything had been loneliness and doubt since she'd left.

"I've never heard of this Hundun Co. But listen, I haven't been completely honest with you."

"I imagine that I didn't expect you to be."

"Huh. Well, I've got a job to do. In the Accelerated Cities. There's someone I'm supposed to meet who can help me. I can't really tell you about it."

"But not because you don't know."

"Right. I know but I'm sworn to silence," she said, even though there was so much she didn't know, so much the council wouldn't have told her.

"Whereas . . ." Holm trailed off, brow furrowed. His face darkened, lines deepening into shadows. He seemed to age in that moment as if whatever his forgotten burdens were the weight of them still fell heavily on him. Tad nodded and sipped some more whiskey, pushing on the table with a foot to balance her weight on the back legs of the chair.

"Forget about that. Maybe we can help each other out," she said, cradling the bottle in her lap. He leaned forward with his hands under the table and spoke in a faint whisper.

"There's nothing you can do to help me," he said.

"Sure there is," she said letting the chair fall back on all four legs with a slam. She slid the bottle over the dampened table forcefully and it started to tip over, but Holm caught it before it fell. He drank, swallowing twice, or three times.

"This stuff is very good, thank you for letting me have some."

"Some?" She smiled. The alcohol had done the trick. He was as loose as she needed. "Anyway, we can travel together. Both going in the same direction, as I see it."

"I don't see how you can know. . ." he said before his voice withered into silence, unsure of the utterance, letting the words die as he reevaluated saying them at all. He rose and shuffled through the trash to the kitchen window. The bottom half was painted over but the top panes were clear for light. He stared out the window for a long time.

Tad rocked back and forth on her chair. She was getting pretty drunk. She licked sweat off of her upper lip and focused on Holm. She needed someone to help her. Someone to finish the last of it off. Into the Cities.

Can't go alone anymore. Can't do it.

Holm was a gray outline in her blurry vision, a sharp streak in the afternoon light. She closed her eyes.
"I can help with these shapes, I swear," she said, and realized she was slurring and possibly lying so she shut up. When she had first come to the house, last week or the week before, she was attracted to it. Indeed she could not make herself leave. She thought of the tobacco pipe on the porch. She had promised herself she'd smoke it. But she must go on. There was another promise. She needed to find a woman named Darling.

They had asked her to bring back the root.


They talked all day in between the drinks and the silence. Tad fell asleep on the porch trying to find a lighter for the pipe. Holm watched her as the long shadows of dusk started to fall. She said, "Don't be afraid James," before resting her head on his shoulder. She started to snore and he sat still as an ancient glacier melting away.

She slept - and on the edge of perception, threatening to invade the clear glass of her mind, she dreamed. A nightmare in a black cloud that kept her balanced on the knife-edge of waking for fear of getting lost forever in its soot. A purple fog that choked her with violent invisible hands. She fell, falling . . . falling, her hands bound to her sides. She felt the hot breath of a monstrous wind. The sky was cut by the mountain tops and blood poured down, drowning the world, all the faces of everyone she ever knew screaming and climbing on top of one another as they tried to survive. Above a star or two blinked down dumb and lonely. She fell toward the blood. Then she came to rest soft on the rippled skin of some great beast and she felt ancient folds and knots with her hands as she groped for purchase. A tree billowed, a fury of leaves covered her sight, and dogs barked beyond the midnight line, howling inchoate from everywhere at once. She twisted and sweat.

She woke caressing the bench on the porch where Holm had been. She only realized she was awake when she touched the cold clay pipe.

But she still heard dogs barking up a storm.

Holm was in the doorway to the house. His face was black under the thatched roof, the dim orange light from inside casting a vast shadow. She could sense he was listening, looking for something in the wind-whipped darkness.

"What is it?" she asked groggily, following his gaze. There was a haze over the embankment and through that the silent swirl of wildflowers in the ditch across the road. Out of the vast blackness a light grew. Down the road westward high-beams tore away the night.

Holm reached for her. He clasped her shoulders like a sleepwalker with half the will of a waking man, the sleeves of his jacket pulled around his forearms, pale and blue like marble in the moon. His eyes rolled up and were milky white, but he spoke in a clear ringing tone which sliced through the cacophony of the wild dogs. 

"They are coming for me. Who I was telling you about."

He cried out suddenly and covered his eyes. She spun to face the road as a helicopter burst over the hill, and two armored personnel vehicles barreled down the highway in front of the house. Holm pulled her back with him as he collapsed through the door. More AV's passed with the ripping sound of treads on asphalt and the crunching whir of reinforced tires. The flap of the helicopter resounded throughout the house like it had landed right on top of them. Lights flooded through the windows for a moment and then passed again, only to be followed by another light, and another. Holm scurried through the trash on the floor like a rat escaping rushing water, his mouth open in a twisted scream. 

The pitch of the helicopter's blades faded, and the lights went gray and dim. But Holm clutched the air and beat at his side, stifling whelps of pain. Tad moved to cover him with her arms, to hold him down somehow, and she put her ear to his back. He responded immediately by vomiting near the chair where they had sat and drank. His body heaved with the expulsion.

"Contractors. They're gone," she said patting his arm gently, not certain if he was truly sick or just terrified, "I don't think they were after you."

His breath regulated as he coughed and spit out the last of the regurgitated bourbon, sour smelling on the tiled floor. 

"It's not that. The hunters. You hear the dog. Coming closer," he gasped. 

Not many dogs. The echoed bark from the forest coalesced into one shattering boom. Just one.

It was a single beast that neared the house as the Contractor caravan passed. Somewhere out back near the edge of the yard. She pushed off of Holm to stand but he snatched her wrist and pulled her down - his breath hot and acrid. 


"Don't go too far outside. Come back if you see anything," he said, his voice like a commanding bell. 

"Sure," she said, sure he was crazy. Some switch of sanity had been flicked off; by the loss of memory, the helicopter, his flight, whatever. But he did seem so sure. And she heard the barking . . .

She approached the back door through a little alcove where canned peas had split open and congealed into a gray mass next to the toilet that served as the bathroom. The dog had ceased its howling suddenly. Cut off mid-cry. The flickering light bulb above the toilet hissed and popped in place of the animal sound. She hesitated with her hand on the door. The first three fingers of her left hand touched the bare wood frame under three or four layers of paint. She saw the dry peels of green, white, and yellow as she pushed the door open a crack.

A black pillar of night greeted her. She pushed forward and the door creaked loudly, catching a gust of wind. It swung open and slammed against the house. The wind roared through the trees, tossing their leaves like lolling heads on broken necks. Her eyes adjusted slowly to the dark. First the end of the paved steps became clear, then a tree stump with a blackened top and a pipe with a clothesline strung to a nail pounded crooked into the back wall. 

Further on under fallen branches there was an abandoned garden. Soil a deeper black than the night and punctured by crawling vines and pointed weeds filled the back of the yard, separated from the woods by a decrepit hedge. A handful of rogue tomato plants were all that remained of the garden. Black fruit rotted on the vine and a sharp stink bristled Tad's sinuses. The smell was almost good for a moment, filling the hole in Tad's appetite that the whiskey had only worsened.

But then she saw the corpse.

A massive dog was splayed out in the center of the garden. A reservoir of blood still pumped onto the ground from its split belly. The tongue hung out of its mouth and a long line of wet saliva caught in the moonlight. Tad looked up at the sky, far north, away from the moon, where blue clouds dark as the wide-open dog's eyes rolled closer and closer. She stepped closer and felt the steam from its warm blood in the air. She forced herself to look at it again. The thing was larger than her, with primate-like arms that ended in padded claws twice as long as any dog she'd ever seen. It was almost ape-like except for the wolf snout and canine eyes. The gray fur was coated in a purplish stain from the deluge of blood.

She felt a drop on her hand. Rain, she was sure. Then another drop and one more before a searing bolt of lightning laved against the black night. Everything was blue and white for the shutter of an eyelid. Human forms moved toward her. Mute faces between the trunks of the trees over the top of the hedges. But they were not faces at all.

A whisper hissed out from between the broken bushes, a seething sound so long that Tad was sure the noise could not be a human articulation. She moved away from the carcass. A terrible blast of thunder rocked her on her heels before she ran back inside.


Illustration by Jeb Ebben


  1. I was confused by the tense change between the first two chapters. Initially I'd supposed that the the change to past tense after the present of the first would indicate that its events occurred prior to the first?