Authors: Brian Martinez
“I don't have a problem with my spirit.”
“Your drinking problem.”
Butcher looks out the window at the overcast sky. “I don't have one of those, either.”
“Begging your pardon, but every time I see you you're full as a tick.”
“I didn't come here to be counseled.”
“Like Hell-fire you didn't,” the old man blurts. Butcher is taken aback by the priest's sudden outburst. The old man makes the sign of the cross on his chest. “It's nothing to be ashamed of, son. I even know why you do it.”
“Sure you do.”
Father Curtis looks sternly down on Butcher. “You were a teenager when you had your first headache. You'd had headaches before, of course, but not like this one. It was as if your mind was trying to escape your head, like a rat from a sinking ship. But it wasn't just the pain, there was more. You saw things no one else saw. Maybe you told someone about the headaches, about the things you saw, but they started looking at you like you were different. A freak. So you hid it.
“As you grew older you found ways to quiet the headaches. Medicines worked at first but soon the pain was too much for even them. That's when you discovered the bottle. It took the voices down to a whisper. But you see, my son, you've been living this way so long, you know no other way. You've been silencing the voices for so long that you’ve forgotten how to listen to them."
Butcher stares, his skin flush. It takes him a moment to speak. "Just how the shit did you do that?"
Father Curtis offers a knowing smile. "You don't have to do this alone anymore, Franklin. There are others just like you, who see what folks don't, who are special in ways the world doesn't understand yet." He puts a hand on Butcher's shoulder. "You don't have to hide from your gifts anymore."
"Maybe I’m missing the silver lining here, I don't see how headaches and voices in my head are gifts."
"You're not looking at them from the right angle yet. In time they'll serve as blessings. In fact, I'm willing to bet they already have and you just don't realize it. Instincts like yours are far too powerful to be silenced." The old priest’s bushy eyebrows raise up. "Not to mention, the vision pains aren't your only gift."
"Great. Do I get nosebleeds, too? Life-threatening hangnails?"
"The full extent of your abilities will reveal themselves over time. I'm not trying to be evasive, to be honest I simply don't know yet what you're capable of. But that's why I'm here- so we can embark on this voyage together. To learn what role you’re meant to play."
Butcher stands and paces, trying to get a grip on everything he's heard. He wants to dismiss the priest's words as the ramblings of an old fool, but in his heart, at the very core of him, he knows he can’t.
"Hold on," he says, "even if I believe everything you just said, what does it have to do with those things I saw? Visions are one thing, but that was like a monster out of a horror movie. Not to mention it seems like everywhere I turn in this town there's some psycho who either wants to kill me or fuck me." He adds, "Excuse the language."
“The creatures you saw are called The Self. Hunter-gatherers of a sort, though what they hunt and gather is enough to make you lose your eggs. They can’t make babies like one of God’s creatures, you see, they need to steal the flesh and bone of others to grow. Usually they’re weak when they first come through, small, which makes them hard to find.” His demeanor changes to that of a battle-worn warrior. “It also makes them hungry.”
Butcher says, “Come through from where?”
Father Curtis exhales, knowing this moment would come. “It's time you opened your eyes, my son.”
The former Officer Banks leaves the cruiser behind and walks not to the church but around it, looking briefly and with no discernible interest at the large, plastic tarp covering a considerable square of grass behind it, then on to the thicket of trees just beyond. Without slowing he continues into that dark place. His boots sink into the thick layer of dead leaves, fallen sticks and branches. Dirty water bubbles up in the deep treads of his footprints.
In a small clearing where the trees fell sick long ago, Banks stops. He breathes air into recently formed lungs. On the outside he looks like any man, if not a bit larger, but on the inside his design holds vile secrets. Shifting compositions, living entities doing the work of organs. Legs and mouths slipping from place to place. Soon his mock ears pick up the sound of four cars pulling up nearby, their drivers abandoning them by the side of the road.
Four women join Banks in the dark place. Appearing from behind the trees, they form a circle around him. Their faces once belonged to employees of a dental office. Now they belong to The Self. They reach out with crooked fingers and place their hands on him to see what he's seen.
"Wwe have found tthe keeper," Banks reports.
"Yyes, found him ffinally," one of the women says.
"He iss in the church."
“He wwill tell us where it is.”
"We will havve it soon."
“It wwill be ours finally.”
“The kkeeper will tell.”
“Tthe keeper will die.”
“Keeper will become Selff.”
“All wwill become Self.”
“Human beings living four hundred years ago believed with all their hearts that the Earth was the center of the universe. When they looked in the sky, they saw stars and planets which seemed to revolve around them, a sun that existed for their good only. But then came Copernicus, Galileo, men who looked deeper into the abyss with their telescopes, and proved in fact the sun was the true center.”
“I never thought I'd get my science lessons from a priest,” Butcher says.
“Pay attention,” Father Curtis says. “I'm trying to tell you that reality, everything you know, is merely an interpretation of the truth, based on what men see and believe.” He leans in. “What their telescopes couldn't see was an even deeper truth- that ours is not the only world, but in fact one of many. Some call these worlds, dimensions.”
“And that's not all. There are places where the skin between worlds runs thin, where if one knows where to look and how to cut it, the skin can be broken. Through these wounds beasts can pass, hateful beasts bent on mutual destruction. Once here, they manipulate or kill us as they see fit, plotting against one another, always working in the shadows. We call them The Obscured.”
Glass explodes on the men, a simultaneous blast from all sides. Shards cut their skin. Confusion clouds their thoughts. Butcher shakes the vision back into his eyes to see women crawling through the windows, their bodies contorted at impossible angles.
“Freeze,” Butcher warns, knowing it'll do as much good as it did at the Robins house. Spines deformed, finger-claws dug into the window frames, their tongues gargle word-meat.
"Grrab the kkeeper!"
"Kkill the butcher!"
“Yeah, that’s what I figured.” Butcher doesn't bother asking a second time. He draws his gun, pops the safety and fires at the closest woman. The sound is deafening in the small space, yet better than hearing their greasy, decayed voices. The bullet catches the woman at the apex of her climb, her twisted body balanced halfway through the shattered window. It tears through her hand and knocks her back on her perched feet. He squeezes the trigger again. She takes it in the opposite shoulder and falls backward, out the window and to the ground with a loud screech and a thump.
"That was easier than I thought." Butcher turns to find Father Curtis moving toward a door leading to his small office, with one of the women trailing behind trying to snatch at him.
"Get back here," Butcher shouts, but the old man disappears out of view and into the backroom. Butcher shakes his head and takes aim at another woman, this one already crawled through the window and into the church. "I'll give you the chance your friend didn't get: stop where you are and I won't shoot."
The woman chokes out a laugh. "Wwe don't need your mercy. Yyou nneed ours." She lifts her hands up palms forward. They split down the center and tear open forming jagged mouths, the boney teeth chomping away. Meanwhile, to his right, the remaining woman has mangled her way inside.
"We want itt,” one hisses.
"Wwe will have it!”
“Then come and get it.” Butcher tightens his grip, takes aim at the woman with the grinning hands and fires. The muzzle blast is like a solar flare. To his surprise her head bursts like a rotten watermelon packed with firecrackers. It’s a force so far above the gun's caliber, it causes him to flinch and clamp his eyes like a rookie on his first visit to the firing range.
Above the thing’s shoulders there are only remnants of black-lined skull left. Butcher holds the gun sideways, studying it with an incredulous look. It's as if someone replaced his weapon with a more powerful one when he wasn't looking, yet it didn't feel that way just seconds earlier.
No time to think about it now. To his disappointment, even though he tore the head clean off the woman's body, she hasn't stopped coming for him. The skin on her hands bubbles and sprouts rows of tiny eyes around the lips. She stalks him on uneven feet, her odd body adjusting to the change, and he moves between the pews to escape her but finds another woman waiting at the other end.
“Coming through.” He fires on her twice, punching holes in her abdomen and spraying the wall with black blood-stuff. It barely slows her down. Running out of room, he stands up on the pew and prepares to fire down on them.
A loud boom. The unmistakable sound of a shotgun being discharged, from the back of the church. An unseen gunshot is always enough to make Butcher nervous- the sound of a raid gone wrong, control slipping between fingers. Fearing the worst, he calls for Father Curtis but gets no response. He calls out again. Still nothing.
“The keeper is ourrs,” the women hiss, reaching up for Butcher. “He is part of The Self now. Wwe will know all that he knowws.” Their bodies shiver and shake, the headless one forming new growth at the top of her neck.
For reasons Butcher can't grasp, the thought of the priest in the fanged and mutilated hands of The Self enrages him more than he would expect it to. Something in him wants, not just wants but needs to protect the old man, and thinking of him that way, murdered and taken in by these freaks, these monsters, made to play a part in their dirty flesh-game, hollows out some essential part of him.
He steps over the pew and onto the one behind it, then the next, then the next until he's in the last row, and he jumps over that, too, back down to the worn, wooden floor. With both hands on the gun's handle, the shattered window to his back, he trains his gun on the two women, now side by horrible side.
“You might have him, but you don't have me. Believe me, I'll make sure you regret it.”
The headless woman's new head is half-grown and moist as an infected cut. “Youu are not necessary,” the half-formed mouth says.
“You'd be surprised how much I hear that.” A second shotgun blast sounds out, then quickly a third. “I think your victory was a little premature,” he says, allowing himself the smallest sense of relief.
Hands clamp down on his neck. In all the confusion he made an amateur mistake, one that might cost him his life- the window he put his back to is the one he knocked a monster-woman out of not long ago.
He tries to wrest himself from the hands but they only grip down harder, sending a wave of pain through his shoulders and down his back. He cries out as the gun falls from his hand and lands by his feet.
“Tthe Self has no need for you other than your fflesh,” the woman gurgles into his ear. The skin on her right arm begins to shift, the bone and muscle underneath changing, reforming. The limb crackles and groans and grows longer, down the front of Butcher's chest and wraps around his stomach. Then the other changes, wrapping around and around the other way.
Her arms become pink snakes. They pulse, coil and constrict around Butcher's torso until he can't breathe. The air trapped in his chest turns stale and dies.
The woman's scaly skin rubs along his neck, flooding his mind with a wave of images so strong he forgets for a moment he's not breathing. Kevin's face looking back at him, not Butcher him but Self him. The man's expression is enough to turn Butcher's spine to ice. It's not the face of a man who fears for his life, nor the face of a hostage, a victim or a loving husband.
It's the man's true face. The face of a killer.
The shick-clack of a shotgun being cocked pulls Butcher out of the vision. At the opposite side of the church, Father Curtis holds a sawed-off shotgun. A spot of dark blood shines on his lapel.
“Ladies, perhaps we can talk about this in a civilized manner?” He appears to be wearing black gloves on his hands.
Butcher is happy to see the old man, joined a moment later by panic. The lack of oxygen burns at his chest, his lungs a set of squeezed balloons ready to burst. His eyes bulge and water in their sockets.
“Ttell us where it is and he lives,” they tell the priest.
“This is where you expect me to counter-offer, something like, 'How about you let him go and I'll let you live.’ Except I've dealt with your kind before, I know you don't value the individual. A hive-mind, I believe they call it.”
“Wwe are parts of a greater, wwe can't be killed.”
“Maybe not killed...” He tosses something wet to the ground. It bounces twice and comes to a slimy stop by the pulpit. It looks like a serving of raw liver dressed up with thick, articulated hair. “...but you can be stopped. Now take your wicked hands off him before I become upset.”
Butcher sees the priest isn’t wearing gloves at all- his hands are covered in black blood. Christ, he thinks. He ripped the thing's heart out with his bare hands.
“Evven if you stop us, The Self will win.”
“The Selff alwways wins.”
“The otherrs will come and take what we need from your mmind.”
“Not if I destroy it first.” Father Curtis turns the shotgun and plants it underneath his chin. “You can't take my memories if I'm dead.”
The Self women hiss and growl, angry he knows this truth. The snakes loosen on Butcher's chest and he gulps a huge lungful of air, then another, feeling the beautiful sting of it down his throat. He pushes out of The Self’s loose hold and picks his gun up off the floor, aiming it again at the women.
“The next one of you things that touches me gets a cannon up their ass,” he rasps. “Wherever it is you actually keep your asses.”
He motions for the priest to join him. The old man carefully makes his way over, the barrel of the shotgun pressed firmly under his chin and his finger hovered over the trigger. The women watch him closely. They gurgle and grunt, skin shifting, waiting for the slightest mistake. "Unless you want this man's brains all over these walls, I suggest you let us leave quietly. If you pull anything weird I have no problem putting a bullet through his head."
Father Curtis blinks. "Thank you, I think. What do we do now?"
"I was kind of hoping you knew.”
“You’re a police officer, don’t they train you how to handle yourself in emergencies?”
“Strange enough they didn’t teach us about shape-shifters from other worlds in the academy.” Butcher studies each of them. “What are our chances of killing all three without getting seriously hurt?”