Authors: Brian Martinez
“Rock and a hard place,” he notes with little joy.
The rock starts to come loose. With no other options left he looks below for the landing least likely to kill him. The options are grim.
It gives. The rock dislodges and Butcher falls. He keeps his eyes down, ready for whatever landing may come.
Something grabs his hand.
A human hand, attached to a human man- a welcome change. He's thin and bald, with a gray goatee and a dark, circular scar at the center of his forehead.
“How about we save the introductions for later,” the man says, his voice strained.
“I can agree to that.”
Butcher reaches up and grabs the man's hand with both of his. Together they pull him out of the abyss and onto solid ground. Butcher catches his breath, the cool rain on his face, and sizes up the stranger. The darkly-dressed man doesn't look any older than fifty, yet he has some rough miles on him.
Butcher wipes his mouth and comes away with a palm covered in thick, black blood. “Don't worry,” he says, “it's not mine.”
“Good thing. If you bled that color I'd have to kill you.”
Butcher throws him a look as he stands.
“The name's Messenger. I'm a friend of Father Curtis, or I was until you let him die.”
Butcher leans in close to the man. “You think that doesn't piss me off?”
“It had better downright devastate you. He was a good man.”
“I know that.”
“He was also your best chance at understanding the pile of dog crap your life just became. Now it'll take a bag of luck the size of this sinkhole for you to live more than a few months.” He looks Butcher up and down. “I don’t know what he saw in you, but I had a lot of respect for that old man. That's the only reason I bothered coming here.”
“If you’re so intent on honoring his memory you could have shown up ten minutes earlier.”
“I wasn't needed then.”
“You could have fooled me, I almost died down in that damn pit.”
This time Messenger gets in Butcher’s face. “There’s a lot more going on here than your brain can wrap around, kid. Rule one: I go where I’m needed, when I’m needed. There’s not much say in the matter.”
Messenger scowls at him. “You can just forget about convenience and coincidence from here on in. You think it's a coincidence you came to this town? You were drawn here like the others, pulled in by its energy. What you do once you get here is on you.”
Butcher picks the tin box up off the ground and holds it out. “Now it’s on you.”
Messenger shakes his head. “I have my own burdens.”
Butcher steps away from the man and sighs, exhausted.
“What's the problem now,” Messenger asks.
“Father Curtis called it a gift. But it's a curse.”
“It's neither- it's a choice. As strong as the Gods are, choice is always stronger. Choice is the one immutable currency in existence. The Gods can trick us, they can influence and terrify and confuse us, but in the end the choice is always ours.” His face softens. “As is the guilt that comes with it.”
Butcher looks like he's going to be sick. “I stopped going to Sunday school because I didn't believe all that stuff, now you're telling me there's more than one?”
For a moment Messenger relates to Butcher. He remembers when it was all so new for him, too, the terror that came with vast knowledge.
He says, “Let me tell you a secret, Butcher- people who talk about God as an old, white man in the sky have something to gain from giving power to old, white men. There are Gods, I assure you, but they don’t come in long, flowing robes, or any other form you’d be familiar with. They live outside reality. Outside time. Their voices are like a hundred billion whispers, repeating, echoing, mocking, agreeing and disagreeing all at once. So if someone ever tells you that God speaks to them, don’t believe it unless they’re screaming and trying to rip their ears off.”
Butcher motions to what's left of the church. “How could Curtis know all that and still be a priest?”
“Because true faith isn’t blind. Curtis believed in a world in which all things are possible. Now that you're on the path, you might be inclined to agree.”
With no fanfare, Messenger turns to leave.
“Hey,” Butcher says, “aren't you going to stay and help?”
“Well, gee, thanks.”
Messenger turns back to face him. “Understand, this town isn't the only weak point between worlds. There are others.”
“How many others?”
The man's face appears much older. “Too many,” he says. Then he turns and walks away, past the church's naked foundation and toward the garage with the missing doors. Butcher calls after him, asks where he’s going, but the man ignores him.
“The town’s that way,” Butcher shouts. “Old fool.” The tin box tucked under his arm, he jogs to catch up. Just ahead of him, Messenger walks around the garage and out of sight.
Butcher rounds the corner a moment later. “There’s nothing this way but-”
He stops in his tracks. There’s no one here- no Messenger, no transportation, no sign of life, only a faint smell lingering in the air like someone struck a match. In the mud, the man’s footprints simply stop.
“Of course you disappeared,” Butcher says. “Did I really expect anything else?”
A sharp noise from behind makes him jump. He turns to find a wet, filthy dog looking up at him, even its drooping tongue caked with dirt.
“Looks like we’ve both had a rough night.” He bends down to check the tag and recognizes the address as Kevin and Mary’s. “Felix, huh?”
The dog’s wet tail wags enthusiastically.
“Listen up, Felix, I’ll make you a deal- you can stay at my place, but if I find out you're hiding a monster in there, I'm chopping your nuts off. Sound good?”
Felix licks his hand.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
As they pass it by, Felix looks down into the sinkhole and whimpers softly.
“It's not your fault he turned out to be a jerk.” The dog looks up at him, small and dirty, waiting for whatever comes next, putting his full faith in Butcher the way people keep doing. “Tell you what,” Butcher says, “tonight we'll get you good and cleaned up. Tomorrow there's a little boy I want you to meet.”
Butcher and Felix get into the hearse and drive home, the clouds dark and full up ahead.
Across Shallow Creek, in the shadowy backroom of Maycomb Real Estate, Meredith paces under red light. She taps her fingers together, making strange shadows on the floor.
“You're sure he has the book now,” she asks.
“Yes.” A man's voice answers from the dark.
“This Butcher boy is a tough one, but he's playing nicely into my plan. I'll have to possess him before he becomes too powerful.”
“Forgive me, mistress, but why didn't you take the book for yourself from the beginning?”
She spins to face him. “Idiot, only one from that bloodline can touch the book!” Her pupils are pinpoints of black, yet she never loses control. A moment later her voice is as calm as if she'd never yelled. “Why do you think I had my beauties cause the sinkhole? Butcher and the priest needed to find each other before The Self did.”
“The priest would have given it to him eventually.”
She waves off his words. “I can't wait around for a cop and an old fool to make friends. Humans take too long in matters of the heart.”
“And if Butcher figures out how to use it?”
Meredith walks toward the man, slowly, accentuating each step. “That's why you're so important to me, my lovely. I need you to watch him, steer him, make sure he falls into my arms before he learns too much.” She runs a long finger along her jaw and down her neckline. “You can you do that for me, can't you?”
Sheriff Green steps into the light. His eyes are drunk with desire.
“For you, mistress, anything.”
Meredith Maycomb smiles, her lips shining like a drop of venom. “Good,” she says. “When my kind is victorious, we'll protect those who aided us.”
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