Authors: Brian Martinez
Mary doesn't know why she keeps watching. Officer Banks' murder has been a drawn-out car accident up close, a slow-motion, screaming dissection, and yet she's barely missed a second. She wonders if she's sick, mentally ill for watching this ordeal with eyes open. Fascination is one thing, after all, human curiosity, but this is something different.
The man ripping apart above her came here to return their dog. Despite his bad attitude, his eagerness to fight, he only wanted to bring Felix back to them after the dog ran away, and this is the reward he's found: agony. Gnashing of teeth.
As the blood rains down on Mary’s face, her thoughts turn to her mother.
Officer Banks dies. Yet he doesn’t.
As his body is split into so many pieces, so too is his mind. The various aspects of his psyche are torn and absorbed and at once he feels a transfer, a simultaneous upload and download between him and the creature, The Self, as it calls itself. His transition to death becomes something more, a new consciousness, a kaleidoscope of blood and sight and sound, of touch and taste and anger and hunger, like a mirror, a painting, shattering into a thousand million hundred shards. It's the single most terrifying sensation he's ever felt but it only lasts a second, less than a second, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction, and when that microscopic moment has passed it's as if he's stepped beyond time, beyond atoms, beyond any level of understanding achieved by any human being, dead or alive, alone or combined. It's a moment of truth purer than a baby's first breath. Purer than a handshake with the creator.
Officer Banks the person, the individual, slips away. Like a diver stepping off the Mariana Trench he fades away into a crushing, unending blackness, a place from which there's no return.
There's only The Self now.
Mary wipes the blood from her eyes and finds herself face-to-face with Officer Banks' smiling head. She cringes and jumps.
"Itt doesnn't hurt anyyymore, Maryyy."
She lets out a yelp in a voice she barely recognizes, an impulse of the vocal chords. "Good," she says, "he suffered enough."
"We honorr himm."
"You murdered him."
The dead Officer's face, hanging from the ceiling by a tangle of muscle and roots, drops into her lap. She cries out and pushes it away. "Yourr ideaa of deatthh is limmitedd," it says, lazily swinging back and forth. "Humann death is an endd. With The Selff there is nno death, no ennd, onnly The Joining."
Voices from all around repeat the phrase, whisper it in a worshipful voice. "The Joining," say the beetle-claws. "The Joining," say the skinless mice.
"It looks like death to me." Kevin's voice sounds from behind. The officer's head spins to address him, standing at the mouth of the hallway with the woman-head-spider wrapped around his arm, tasting his skin.
"Drew Banks is still here, but he is betterr. He is Self nnow. He will never be alone, nevver be in doubt."
Kevin takes a step forward, straining against the inside-out snakes. "Never marry. Never have children."
"He is childrenn nnow!" The head screams at him in Banks' voice mixed with grinding glass. The skin on his face peels back to show the wet musculature underneath. "The Self is cchild and parent, god and worshipperrr! The Self is everytthing!"
"Why don't you kill us," Mary asks, sounding weak.
She quiets Kevin. The head turns back to her. "I'm not asking you to kill us, I'm asking why you haven't. This man, the one whose head you're in, you attacked him in seconds. Yet we've been living here for two months and we're still alive. For that matter, why didn't you kill him the last time he was here, with all the other men? Why didn't you...join with them?"
"Because it needs us," Kevin says. His eyes look as if they’re reading a highway sign just a little too far away. "It needs us to bring it more food."
"Not ffood," R corrects him before melting into a puddle to be slurped back up by a swarm of mosquito probosces. The woman-head-spider crawls off his arm and hangs off Kevin’s chest. "Nott foodd," she repeats, "to jjoin is nott to be eatten. It iss tto be honorredd. It is The Joining."
“The Joining,” R’s lips say before being sucked up completely.
“The Joining,” Officer Banks’ skull grins.
"The Joining," a crowd of voices echoes behind the walls.
Butcher looks out over Shallow Creek, the stream of water that gives the town its namesake. The underwhelming size of it speaks volumes about the town it winds through- snaked around outcroppings and through fallen trees, down steps of solid rock to form simple waterfalls, it never becomes deep or wide like a river. A kind of furious underachiever, covering all that ground yet accomplishing nothing.
Whenever he came through town, usually on the way to some more exciting vacation spot, Butcher always made sure to visit the creek, even if for an hour. There was something about it that calmed him. Even when Elaine begged him to get back in the car so they could find a place for the kid to eat, he would close his eyes and listen to the trickle of water as it slid over smooth stone. He would block it all out and listen to that sound. Become lost in the inevitable power of its pull.
After a long, hard swig of whiskey, he leaves the cruiser behind and walks along the gurgling creek.
When the Sheriff at his former precinct asked why he would want to transfer to a dead end like Shallow Creek of all places, he’d given the same answer he gave his new Sheriff, and in fact to anyone at all who asked. But the truth was stranger and more vague than easy retirement- it was the feeling that Butcher belonged here. That living here filled a need in him, a kind of deficiency in his blood.
But he’s in the habit of keeping thoughts like that to himself.
In the mossy rocks down by the creek’s edge, a stick too smooth to be natural jumps and shimmers in the water line. It sticks up in the air, wedged between stones, and when Butcher moves in closer he finds it has feathers at the top. An arrow, left behind by careless hunters. With hunting season in full swing plenty arrows and shells make their way into the creek. The problem is, so do the local kids, and accidents have followed.
Butcher can't leave the arrow. If some kid cut himself on it, hurt himself bad, he could never live with himself for not taking care of it when he could have. So he puts his bottle down, gets a good hold on the arrow and tries to pull it out from between the rocks.
It's stuck. Wedged good. He hunches down, grabs it by both hands and gives it everything, pulling with all the force he can drum up. The arrow pulls free, but his hand slips down the shaft- the red-stained arrowhead slices into his palm.
A shock like hot static jolts his body. His sight fills up with images of trees and sky passing by in a blur. His skin washes over in pain, the worst of it in his side. Breath runs hot, then cold. Someone hollers in the trees.
It all hits him in a moment, a flash that lasts less than a second. With wide eyes and open mouth he drops the arrow. He watches the creek's lazy current take it from him, the arrow floating on its smooth surface, around the corner and away.
“Not this again,” he moans, planning to finish the bottle.
Kevin and Mary sit on the same side of their kitchen table, holding hands. The sun is at its highest point in the sky now, the light through the windows softer, indirect, the wind whispering through the trees. In the distance a dog barks. Mary grips Kevin’s hand tighter at the sound, knowing it must be Felix; she’s happy to know he’s alive.
On the other side of the table, a vague human shape made of blood clots and oak leaves strung together with hair faces them with no face. A purple-black tongue works inside a toothy hole in the clot’s neck.
Kevin leans forward in his chair. “What are your demands?”
“Demmands,” the clot-person chokes. “Demmands demands,” trying out the word.
Mary says, “You know what he means. You have a cop’s brain in there, you know what demands are. What do we have to do? What do you want from us, you piece of-”
Kevin squeezes her hand to calm her down. “What do you want to let us go free?”
The clot's neck-tongue licks its lips. “Tthe Self demands tten.”
They exchange a look. “Ten what?”
Mary says, “We can't bring you ten people, that's unconscionable.”
"We're new to this town, we don't even know ten people." Kevin knows The Self feels no compassion. He decides to appeal to its logic instead.
"Tten ddays, tten humanns," the blood-clot says.
"That’s not fair. That's insane."
Behind the couple, cupboards open up and things peek out from the shadows. From under the sink and over the dishwasher, human arms with centipede legs crawl out and toward them, four, five, six of them each with a different finger broken up into a mangled periscope eye.
"Humans can't be rounded up like cattle, it takes time."
The clot wiggles its poorly-stitched fingers. "Ten orr youu." The centipede arms crawl up their squirming legs and backs, digging in with beetle-wing fingernails. The arm on Kevin's seat back reaches up and squeezes the back of his neck hard, the root-veins pulsing beneath the surface of its burnt-paper skin. He winces from the pain.
"You can hurt me all you want, it doesn't make ten any more possible."
The clot tilts its head, consulting the brains its absorbed, analyzing, considering what Kevin said.
It turns its non-face to Mary. The arms on her rear up, responding to unheard commands, and begin to claw and grab at her. The sound of ripping follows; Mary's shirt giving at the seams. Threads pop around her neck and the right sleeve comes loose.
Kevin looks at the pale skin of her exposed shoulder. "What are you doing?"
A hand pulls the sleeve off. Another tugs at the left sleeve until it too rips free and drifts to the linoleum. A third hand claws at the buttons running up her stomach.
"Stop it," Kevin warns the clot. "Stop this right now, I mean it," but its neck-mouth gags on a laugh.
Mary wells up with tears. She reassures Kevin, telling him it’s okay, she's okay, but every button that pops off her shirt and bounces to the floor makes her jump, blink, pray. Her teeth chatter inside her skull as she tells the clot he can go to Hell. It stares back at her without eyes as the hands do their work, more of them on her legs dragging their claws up and down her pants, shredding the material and some of the skin underneath.
"Iff you care for her, you wwill bring ten."
Kevin tries to lunge forward but the hand around his neck, the only arm left on him, clamps down. At the same time the clot's head expands into a tensed cobra hood, ready to strike. Kevin looks over to see what's left of Mary's pants pulled free and dropped to the ground. His wife sits now in only her bra and panties, and already the hands are pawing crudely at those. Small cuts on her body show where the careless nails went too far. He tells her everything will be okay, and he wants to believe it.
One of the hands pulls at her underwear.
“Okay,” Kevin shouts, “okay, we’ll do it.” He sucks in a lungful of air, grasping the true scope of his promise.
“Tten dayss,” the clot says.
“However long it takes.”
“It will ttake ten ddays.”
“Try to be logical about this, we can't go on some kidnapping and murdering spree. The police or the army or whoever will stop us before we can bring you what you want. The whole point of this, this deal of yours, is so we can go free, not to rot in a prison cell for the rest of our lives."
The clot considers this, briefly. Mary lets out a scream as the arms tip her chair over and pull her to the ground. She hits hard, her naked legs flopping against the linoleum. Within seconds the arms grab her up by her arms and legs and hair and drag her out the kitchen door. She fights them with everything, kicking and screaming, but there are too many of them.
Kevin turns to the clot, his voice low. "If you kill her you get nothing. There won't be any more Joinings for you. If you do this I swear to God I'll figure out how to kill you, and I will kill you."
Mary gets a hold of the doorway and grabs it tight. The arms pull on her. One of them crawls up her back and over her head to smother her, but she bites down on its thumb and it retreats, whimpering from the mouth in its palm. She's happy to know she caused it pain, hoping the other caterpillar arms take the warning.
Her moment of triumph is brief. A sack of worm-fetuses explodes from the hallway closet. They tangle her in a net of spider-webs and tendons much stronger than the arms, using corners and handles as leverage. She strains to hold onto the doorway, first two hands, then one, then four fingers, then just three.
She locks eyes with Kevin. Without a word she tells him she can't hold on much longer.