Authors: Brian Martinez
Butcher snaps out of the vision. He reaches for his flask like it’s his gun but he comes up short. Both are back at the car, the gun on the passenger seat, the booze somewhere on the edge of the creek, and for the first time in a long while he wishes he could remember the events of the previous night, especially one that’s affected his dreams so intensely. But the more he tries, the fuzzier it gets.
He continues on past the broken mailbox, hoping the old woman doesn’t hurt herself trying to pick it up, but before he’s taken ten steps he runs into an even bigger problem, one harder to ignore.
A colossal tree lays across the road. Between its heavy, hundred-year-old trunk and the wide spread of branches it wears at its top, the smaller bits shattered and spilled across the blacktop, the road is entirely blocked. Butcher marvels at the sight, made all the more surreal by the lack of anyone to share it with, noting how healthy the web-work of roots ripped from the dirt looks. If he didn’t know better he’d say a tornado passed through town, yet the skies are clear, the ground as dry as sunburned bone.
Another flash kicks him in the head. Ghosted against the morning he sees his dream hand stretched out, the old tree still firmly planted in the distant ground. From far away, past the tree, a tiny dot of blur grows larger and larger in his vision coming straight for him, a stampede of legs and hair the mind can't see. Fear grows dark and heavy in his belly. He turns to run but it's too late; the blur drives into him with a fury of strength and momentum and knocks him off his feet, sending him into the mailbox post with the loud snap of broken wood echoed through his eardrums.
The image fades but the fear doesn’t. He feels his shoulder, that place of the impact, and he winces at the tender muscle. Back home he'd felt the sore spot in the shower, the skin splotched yellow and purple, but he hadn't paid it much attention. Anyone who's stumbled home drunk in the middle of the night knows, even expects, to find some damage in the morning, and as bruises go he'd suffered worse.
As Butcher takes his hand away from his sore shoulder, something about the palm catches his eye. Dozens of dark lines mar the surface. Tiny shapes pushed in and under the skin at all angles. He brings it close to to figure out what he’s looking at.
He looks back at the mailbox, his morning suddenly much worse.
Hot water beats down on Kevin’s gaunt shoulders. His skin is pink, almost red, like a doomed lobster crammed into a metal pot. The air is thick with roiling steam. With his eyes shut tight he can’t see the dark movement at the edges of the shower; the living shadows beyond the steam; swirls of dead, dirty flesh twitching nerves in peristalsis pulse.
A concerned knock at the door. “Kevin?”
Scaled tendons close in on him, dripping with condensation and black run-off. The rotten wall constricts tighter and tighter.
“You’ve been in there a long time.”
He opens his eyes. In the irises, barely visible, something moves.
“Are you okay?”
Chapter Six: Bring Your Own Blood
Butcher's cruiser pulls into the parking lot of the station-house. The tires are caked with mud, but otherwise the car is how he left it the night before.
He hits the brakes and they squeak in protest. In his parking spot, blocking the way, Sheriff Green stands with arms folded. Butcher picks another spot and parks quickly, but by the time he gets out of the car, the Sheriff is already on him.
“I'm starting to not like you, Butcher. What happened to coasting until retirement?”
“I'm not very good at it.”
Sheriff Green snorts and spits on the sidewalk. The glob misses Butcher’s boot by an inch. “You look like hot garbage.”
“I do love your pep talks, sir.”
“And you went to the Robins house again. I told you not to go and you went anyway, which I believe is what they call in those fancy manuals 'disobeying orders.'”
“I was following my gut, like cops are supposed to.”
The Sheriff pushes his finger into Butcher’s chest. “Don’t you dare tell me what cops are supposed to do. I’ve been upholding the law since-“
“Since I was in diapers? Then start acting like it. There's something wrong going on at that house, and not just the house, this town, it’s…” He trails off, scanning the street.
“I don’t know. It’s not normal.”
“It takes one to know one.” The Sheriff takes a second to breathe. “Look, I appreciate that you’re a driven cop, but work a different angle. Go talk to Father Curtis again, he knows more about this town than anyone, especially the not normal parts.”
“That old fool can’t tell me anything I won’t learn by cracking open a bible.”
“Maybe I wasn't clear enough, so let me slow it down for you- if you go to that house again I will relieve you of your position. No transfers, no unpaid vacations. I will fire you.”
“Why do you care so much about those two?”
“I don’t. Shallow Creek, however, is my burden to bear, and I won’t see it turned into a news story because the new guy can't hear straight.”
“Two people are missing, one of them an officer, and you want to act like everything is fine. I may be new to town, but I'm no rookie. So I'll ask you again- why do you care so much if I question these two?”
Sheriff Green stares at him with hard eyes, his jaw muscles working. “The only thing you need to know is that I'm the Sheriff, and you are not,” he says, speaking slowly. “If you value this job at all, even the slightest, you'll listen to what I tell you and follow it like it's gospel. Understood?”
“So long as Officer Banks is missing, you are forbidden to go to that house. If you, or any part of you, gets within a hundred yards of that house, it's your badge. Do you understand what I've told you?”
“And do you agree to it?”
Butcher smooths his hair down and puts on his hat. He says, “You have my word.”
On the other side of town, inside the nice, new building that holds the dentist’s office, Mary sits at the lunchroom table watching her ham and cheese sandwich.
Her stomach growls loud enough to hear, yet she hasn’t taken a bite. Every time she’s about to pick up her sandwich, whenever she even thinks of eating, her thoughts turn to The Self. Chewing. Slurping. Devouring. Absorbing and screaming. Flesh into flesh, blood into blood.
She throws the sandwich in the garbage can and looks up to see one of the front desk girls filling up the doorway with pensive looks.
“Do you need something, April?”
“There’s someone here to see you.” She backs out of the doorway, replaced by Franklin Butcher, his hat gripped in his hand. Mary thanks April, who returns to work without another word.
“I saw your name tag yesterday,” he answers before she can ask.
He gestures to the chair across from her. "May I?" She nods and he takes a seat, his hat on the table between them.
"So," she says, "is this another courtesy call from the department?"
"My partner is missing."
"Oh." She's surprised by the bluntness of his approach. "I'm, I'm sorry."
"You don't have anything to be sorry for, I'm the one who came to your house on false pretenses. I was wrong to scare you and your husband like that. He seemed a little...defensive."
"I suppose you caught him off guard. But I don't see what we have to do with your partner, just because that other man disappeared from our house doesn't make us-"
"Killers, no, it doesn't. That's why I came here to apologize, because you see, my boss, the Sheriff, he feels the same way. He told me, actually he ordered me, not to go back to your house under any circumstances or it would mean my badge."
A sense of relief washes over Mary, just knowing the police won't be stopping by, but with it there's a touch of confusion. Why would the Sheriff say that? No matter, she thinks. Just be happy about it. Take it as a gift. "It's alright, you're just doing your job. I'm sure you and your partner were close."
"Can't stand him. He's a dick, to put it lightly, but he's my partner, you know? Sometimes I stick by my partners past the point that I should. When it's the worst thing I can do."
Mary nods. "Are you married, Officer Butcher?"
"Was. Until recently, in fact."
"I'm sorry I brought it up."
"Don't be. We have an eight-year-old boy together, his name is Jake. Having him is probably the best thing I'll ever do for the world." Mary smiles. He closes the distance between them. “It’s hard to get used to, this divorce shit. You convince yourself you’ll be with someone for the rest of your life- good or bad, sickness or health, blah, blah, blah.” Officer Butcher scratches his unshaven chin, the sound like sandpaper on worn wood. “People turn out to be different than who you expect, and then those vows- when you’re no longer married to the person you took those vows with- what do they mean? We find ourselves tied to strangers, with no memory of when the switch happened.”
They sit in silence, the fluorescent bulb above their heads buzzing on and on. After a moment, Butcher excuses himself and grabs his hat before he heads for the door.
“Was she that bad,” Mary asks.
“Your ex-wife. Was she really so different from the person you married?”
“I wasn’t talking about her,” Butcher says with a sad smile. “I can't help but notice you look like a woman with a lot on her mind. Is there anything you want to talk about?”
Mary considers it. She considers telling this man everything, about The Self, about what it's made them do, about what it's doing to them, especially to Kevin. How it's turned their life into death. Finally she says, “No. No, I'm fine. Please leave us alone.”
Butcher nods. “Private, huh.”
“You said you and your husband are private people. That’s why you didn’t invite me in.”
“Yes, well, we prefer to keep to ourselves.”
He points to the flyer tacked to the board above her head, her address written in bold font across the front. “Then that’s going to be one awkward party.”
Before she can say anything Butcher tips his hat and exits, hollow footsteps sounding down the hallway, past the front desk and out the door. Alone once again, Mary rips the flyer from the wall and throws it in the garbage with the ham sandwich.
Fatty oils seep into thirsty paper, warping the name and address printed on it; a slow, inevitable ruin.
Mary wakes up the day before Halloween with a sense of dread that feels like a ball of worms dying in her belly. To say she slept would be an exaggeration, since she more or less laid in one position all night praying that darkness would swallow her up. After four hours of that torture she turned her alarm off, knowing that Kevin would wake her up if, by pure luck and exhaustion, she actually did fall asleep. It would be easy for him, after all- he never came to bed in the first place.
She walks from the bedroom to the kitchen, ignoring the things that scuttle and wriggle out of her way. The living room is covered in the macabre. Decorations she bought in town, at Kevin's request. Ghosts made of fabric hung from string. A jar of candy guarded by an animatronic zombie hand. Chains of plastic skulls and cardboard bats draped from window to window, the glass covered in adhesive snarls, their faces projected onto the floor by the low-hanging sun.
What fun it would be if it weren't a death trap. A design to lull their guests to sleep, to draw them unsuspecting through the door to their screaming fates.
Kevin stands in the corner of the kitchen drinking coffee. It's all she's seen him eat in two days, and all he has to show for it are two, deep rings of dark skin around his eyes. It's not for lack of trying on her part- she's offered him everything from home-cooked meals to sugar cookies, but all of it has been met with refusal. Silence at best, anger at worst.
She wants to ask him who put the decorations up, him or The Self, but she's not sure which would bother her more.
They spend the day barely saying anything to each other. She keeps busy because the alternative is crying. At one point, she stops herself from dusting a cabinet when she realizes there's no point. Who cares what anyone thinks when they're dead?
An hour before the party is set to start, Mary sneaks off to take a shower. With one hand she holds the glass door closed to keep the evil things from getting in, and with the other she turns the water up as hot as she can take it.
If one of those things gets in with her, she wants it to know pain.
When she steps out of the bathroom, it's in damp hair and ripped sheets that hang from her in ghostly gaunt. Her tired face accentuates the look without meaning to. They aren't even the old sheets, but the good ones, the ones with the high thread count they bought for the move. Last night she took the scissors to them in what started as sad resignation and ended in tight-faced hatred.