Authors: Brian Martinez
Peter Johnson looks around to find the source of the inhuman voice, seeing Mary instead, slinking away, the woman who hurt him, made him bleed, and his rage makes him forget that bit of strangeness and focus on her. On making her bleed.
With sharp waves of pain he gets to his knees, then his feet, pulls the blade from his thigh meat and stomps after her. He descends on Mary as she reaches the small, red-brick porch. He helps her to her feet with one jerking pull and puts the blade to her naked neck.
“Where you goin’, girl?” He presses his mouth against the side of her face, his spit running down her cheek. She reaches out to Kevin, a silent scream for help, and he fights even harder, pulling so hard the skin peels from his ankle where the tentacle teeth are dug in. Feeling him try to escape, the tentacle splits into many. More still appear from the shadows to clamp down on him, grip his legs and back, and he cries out in pain.
“What the-?” Peter Johnson stares at the strange chains wrapped around Kevin's body. Mary, knowing this is her only chance, stomps on his toes with the heel of her shoe. She slips out of his grasp and runs for the door.
He follows after her across the small porch, but she reaches the doorway and to his surprise jumps over Kevin and into the house.
Peter Johnson sees his chance to kick a man in the face who needs a kick in the face, and he's never been a man to pass up the opportunity. He takes a long step forward with his left foot, almost up to the doorway, and winds his right foot back as far as it goes before swinging it forward, directly at Kevin's mouth.
His foot never connects.
He feels something hit his leg just above the knee. A blur of black noise pours from the house and a moment later he's tipping backward, pulled from his feet. The world turns upside down and slaps him upside the head.
His vision flashes white inside his skull. A solid grunt forces from his mouth and then the floor is sliding under his back, and he tries to hold onto the doorway but something shoots out and claws his hand free of it, gouging the wood with some kind of hook or claw.
Pulled away, the night sky turns to door frame turns to ceiling turns to a wall with Kevin and Mary huddled together, watching him move down the hallway and away from them.
They listen as The Self Works on him.
Butcher knocks on the door for the third time, this time louder. For five minutes now he’s stood on the officer’s doorstep, alternating between making a racket and calling the phone number that was on file back at the station- a file he didn't exactly ask permission to look inside. All he's gotten for his troubles has been the sound of an old, cheap phone ringing somewhere inside the old, cheap house.
He waits a minute in silence, strains to hear any sound coming from inside the bungalow, but other than a few birds chirping louder than they have the right to at such an early hour, there's nothing.
He moves to the window and peeks in. Between the slats of the vertical blinds, he can make out the shapes of a plain living room littered with beer cans and magazines, clearly a space occupied by one man living on his own. The similarity to his own place, the idea that he and Banks share some trait, a kind of bachelor's demeanor, makes him more than a little uncomfortable.
On the small table next to the couch there’s a framed picture of an old man, a father or grandfather, and it’s odd to consider that Banks might hold any human other than himself in a position of respect. But the interesting thing about it isn't the photograph it holds, who it is or what it might say about Banks, but rather the reflection in the frame's glass, the way it moves and flashes in random patterns: it's clearly a television, and it’s clearly turned on.
He knocks once more, just to be sure, before he picks the lock and slips inside.
After checking two bathrooms, two bedrooms and one small room with only a dusty weight set and a pile of towels in one corner that smells of old sweat, Butcher comes around to the living room and the glaring television. On it a man yells about a football player not earning his paycheck until Butcher turns the power off and the screen cuts out.
He picks up the beer cans and looks inside them, smells them, finds the few drops of beer left in all but one are sticky and dried up. He takes a sip of the one unfinished beer- it’s completely flat.
The magazines spread across the coffee table and under the couch all feature the same thing: big-chested girls in bikinis, holding heavy firearms. Butcher looks at the framed picture on the corner table, the older man in the photo meeting his eyes with an over-bearing frown. “Don’t look at me,” Butcher says, “you raised him.”
Katie adjusts her bra in the jukebox’s reflection. She pulls her V-neck shirt of a band she’s never heard of down, then up, then down again to show just the right amount of cleavage. She's found there’s a formula to keep the guys generous with the tips- turned on without feeling they’re being taken advantage of. Not to mention not wanting to hear it from her father, whenever he actually decides to come out of the backroom. But he can complain all he wants- let her wear turtlenecks for a month and see what he says when profits drop like a rock tossed in the creek.
Satisfied with the amount of skin in the glass, she takes the key to the front door and opens up for the day. Eleven in the morning. Too early to expect any kind of respectable business, but there’s always the occasional drunk looking to sneak in during his lunch break and get one out of the way. She can usually squeeze a twenty out of a drunk, and if it’s one thing Shallow Creek isn’t low on, it’s drunks.
As expected the door doesn’t give any customers, so Katie goes behind the bar, grabs a rag and starts wiping fingerprints off the bottles, figuring she might as well get it done before her dad asks. This way she can read a page or two of the book she’s been nursing the past two months. At least that’s the plan- but plans always take a backseat to tips.
Katie stretches for the half-empty Jack Daniels, but she’s surprised to see a man looking back at her in the mirror between the bottles. She spins, caught off-guard by the unexpected face, to find an officer tipping his hat.
“Jeez, am I that ugly,” Butcher asks, seeing the breath caught in her chest.
“Holy crap, you really scared me.” She lets out a nervous laugh. “Like the boogeyman snuck into my bed.”
“I promise you that's not the case.”
“What, you're too good for my bed?”
“I’m not the boogeyman.”
“I know that, you’re Officer Butcher, the newest, shiniest thing in Shallow Creek.” She throws the dirty rag down and leans on her arm. “What brings you to my doorstep so early in the morning. Looking for a drink?”
Everything in Franklin Butcher wants to say yes, to take his hat off, pull up a chair and throw back a few, but he catches a look at himself in the metallic curve of the beer tap, like a fun-house mirror elongating his face, and just below it the glint of morning light off the hunk of bronze pinned to his chest.
“Nothing so fun. I’m here on a bit of unofficial business.”
“My favorite kind. What can I do you for?”
“You can tell me if you’ve seen Banks lately.”
She shakes her head. “Can’t say that I’ve served him the past few days, sorry.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine.” He pauses a moment. “Have you seen him anywhere else in town?”
“We are talking about Officer Banks here, right? Don't tell me you misplaced one of your own.”
He looks around the bar, making sure they're alone. "Can I tell you a secret, Katie?"
"Of course," she says, leaning in.
"Banks and I aren't exactly peas and carrots, if you get my drift. More like oil and water. I get the feeling he's been avoiding me, so I'm just trying to beat him at his own, dumb game."
"Oh," she says. "That's not much of a secret. Banks has that effect on everyone."
"I'm getting that. He's made a lot of enemies in town?"
"He probably pisses someone off once a day just by getting out of bed, but enemy is a pretty strong word. That would take someone actually giving a shit about him long enough to hold a grudge, know what I mean?"
"All too well. What about family? Does he have anyone, maybe someone he doesn't talk to much?"
“Not that I know of. My best guess is Banks hatched out of a rotten egg some ugly-ass mama bird didn't want. The couple times I saw him in church he was by himself, and he didn't talk to anyone from what I could tell.”
He mulls over the information for a moment before realizing Katie is still giving him eyes. "You've been a help, Katie. Just do me a favor and don't tell anyone I came here. I don't want the Sheriff knowing about this bullshit Banks and I have going."
She leans in closer. "You can sneak in here any time, Officer. My door's always open."
“I'll pretend not to understand what you mean.”
Butcher leaves the Limestone and gets back into his car. Main Street is waking up, as it tends to around this time, cars pulling in and out, folks looking to grab something to eat, tourists wandering in to ask about the hiking trails. He remembers how he'd promised to take Jake on those trails not long ago.
He takes a long-needed sip on his flask before pulling away.
On her knees, a sponge in her hand, Mary inspects the floor for blood. She brings her face an inch from the hardwood and listens carefully for anything that might break through it. Next to her is a box of baking soda and a bottle of vinegar.
“There's one,” she says, spotting a tiny, dark droplet nestled in the seam between two boards.
Kevin watches her from the couch. “They'll get it if you just leave it alone.”
"That's exactly why I'm doing this." She pours a bit of baking soda onto the spot until it's covered up completely, then dabs vinegar onto the rag and rubs the rag over the bloodstain, scrubbing hard. It comes right up, as if it was never there.
As if Peter Johnson was never there.
Mary scans the rest of the floor but doesn't see any more. She's already done the entire hallway and half the living room, starting with the room where The Self disassembled the man, and the entire way she found little more than this- a few missed drops. It would almost be impressive if it wasn't wholly disgusting.
A click-clacking sound rises up from the basement. The couple freezes in place, listening to it grow louder. It moves into the kitchen, Kevin on the couch, Mary on the floor, neither breathing.
From around the corner something appears, moving with determined speed. Its twenty bone fingers scuttle along the floor while its garden snake body sways to balance its tails, and it approaches Mary with the smiling teeth of a crooked, old man. She begins to hyperventilate, thinking it’s coming for her, The Self, it’s gotten too hungry or too impatient or too whatever it feels and now it’s coming for her.
The smiling snake thing rushes up to her and stops. It sniffs the rag in her hand intently.
"It's vinegar. And baking soda. I was cleaning up the-"
"Bloodd," it gurgles. Then it snatches the rag from Mary, turns and scuttles away. When it’s out of view, she bursts into tears.
“It's alright,” Kevin says, but inside he's having a hard time drumming up any real compassion for her. It couldn't be any more clear that her actions brought this on, and he did try to warn her. He tells her to get up off the floor and she does, joining him on the couch with wet, puffy eyes.
“How are we supposed to do this ten times,” she asks.
“It's only nine now.”
“I can't do this, Kevin. This is insane.”
“We have to do this. It's us or them, simple as that. The Self wants a certain number so that's what we do.”
“A certain number of people.”
“Are we having this talk again? We can go through this a thousand times and beat ourselves up over it, but in the end we’ll still have to do what it says, so let’s skip past all that and work on planning the next one.”
She wipes her eyes and gives him a hard look. “Skip past it?”
“I can’t turn it off. I can’t stop caring about people enough to kill them.“
“Don’t make me the monster when I’m trying to be strong for the both of us. You can be mad if you want, but the truth is there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you safe.”
Her face softens. “I know that. I do.” She grabs his hand, holds it tight. “Listen, I can’t do what I did with Peter Johnson again. I can’t keep bringing people like that.”
“You’re not staying here with that thing, that’s out of the question.” He thinks back to Mary’s face as she was dragged down the hall. The clot’s voice as it threatened to do terrible things to her.
“The last thing I want is to be here, alone with it all day.”
Kevin sighs, relieved to hear it. “You’re not wrong. Our first try barely worked, which means the next time might go better or it might not. If someone manages to get away, call the cops, we’re dead.”