ASTRAL SON - no formatting

Cover of ASTRAL SON - no formatting

Chapter 1

Flint crouched inside of the doorway between the kitchen and the den.

“No.” An aching groan slipped up his throat. His heart fell into his twisting stomach as he patted the woman’s cold, pale cheek, and turned her head on its side.

“You idiot!” He clenched his teeth and pressed his wet face against her arm.

Her long hair, dark like his, stuck to her lips and sprawled across the floor. She looked uncivilized like that- like an animal, he thought.

“What’s wrong with you? You promised”- Flint cleared his nose- “What did you do?”

He hadn't bothered shutting the front door, and the glow of the pink evening sky painted his mother’s flesh deceptively warm and vital. Her skin, in death, was smoother than in life. Where branching veins once protruded from her thin forearms, was now drab and plastic, aside from a speck of scabbed blood in the bend of her elbow.

Flint studied these things, and hoped he could one day forget.

Crushed slag crunched and popped from the driveway outside of the little house. A brake rotor squealed.

The scattered papers on the floor around him fluttered as Flint scrambled to his feet. Red and blue flashes of light strobed along the walls.

“Police department,” a man announced as he climbed the porch and leaned his torso in through the front doorway. His small, nearly spherical frame barely stood half as tall as the door. One hand held a beam of white light that hid his face, the other rested on his holster.

Flint shielded his eyes from the bright flashlight.

“Sir, would you mind steppin’ out here where I can see you better?” the officer asked. “You the one who made the call?”

Flint wiped his eyes and stepped over his mother’s legs. He drew in a shivering breath. “Yes”- he cleared his throat- “Yes sir.”

“Just hang tight.” The officer swept the flashlight’s beam from Flint to the floor behind him. He glanced once more at Flint, removed his hand from his hip, and stepped toward his mother's body.

“She your momma?” he asked, pressing two nail-bitten fingers against her neck.

Flint opened his mouth, but there was no sound. He cleared his throat. “Mhm.”

Something from behind tapped against his arm, like the palm of an icy hand. He flinched away from the touch and turned to see what it was, but discovered that he’d only backed himself into an empty corner.

“When did you find her like this?” The officer turned her wrist. A small, plastic syringe fell from her half-clasped hand.

Flint sniffled. “Uhm, I don’t know.” He pressed his eyes shut. A stream of warm, brackish tears rolled over his cheekbone. “Right before I called﹣twenty minutes ago, maybe. She was supposed to be getting clean.”

“Sir, why don’t you come visit with me? Get some fresh air,” another officer, a silhouette in the doorway, asked.

"Sure."

Flint stepped out onto the old, cement porch. Overhead a fat moth and a thousand gnats spiraled around an unshielded light bulb.

Vehicles slowed as they passed the tiny, off-white house. Their driver’s faces turned toward Flint, illuminated by flashes of red and blue. They cared for only a moment.

“Just take a deep breath,” Officer Warren said. The rolled cuffs of his black uniform stretched snugly around his arms. “Is this your home or hers?”

Flint looked over his shoulder, back through the doorway.

Standing above his mother’s body, the other cop scribbled in a leather backed notepad.

Flint thought of apologizing for the unsightly predicament. Properly illuminated, it was apparent that she’d been dead for some time. Still, a part of him half-expected the bright, incandescent light to wake her from her nap.

“It's her house. I just moved back in last week.” His voice cracked, and his eyes stung as tears worked their way back up their ducts. “This isn’t supposed to happen. She was getting better. She was smiling, just yesterday.”

“So you’re here to help her get clean?”

“She's been sober for eight months. I'm staying here because I lost my job. She said I could stay until I get back on my feet.” Flint could feel his heartbeat pounding in his ears. “She wouldn’t do this. Why would she leave?”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” He drew a deep breath and glanced inside at his partner, who dropped something into an orange, plastic bag. “The medical examiner has someone coming out. These things take some time. Why don’t we get you away from here for a bit?”

Flint nodded. He pressed his hands against his face, dragging them across the bit of patchy stubble his genetics allowed him to grow.

“There’s a counselor back at the station. You can talk to her. And we'll get a statement written where we won’t get eaten up by mosquitoes.”

Flint stared into the leafy peppermint that grew like a weed around the porch. His cheeks, where his tears had dried, felt tight and sunburnt.

Past the peppermint and the gravel driveway, Mr. Leedey stood at the corner of his trailer beneath an old tin flood light. Over the years, Flint’s neighbors had likely grown accustomed to the occasional sheriff, but since Margaret’s recent stint as a bachelorette, the visits were less common.

The old man raised a trembling hand and hobbled back toward his patio door.

“Is that something you’d want to do?” Officer Warren asked.

“Sorry,” Flint mumbled. “Yeah, sure.” He thought of where his mother would go, and how she would get there. She was a burden for someone now- a thing that would get moved from place to place, straining backs and invoking revulsion.

“Hey Mike, I’m gonna run him up to the station. He don’t need to see all this.” Officer Warren leaned against the dented, aluminum door.

The first cop was still crouched on the floor. He spoke incomprehensibly into the radio mic that hung over his chest, and looked up impatiently. “Go ahead. M.E’s got someone on the way. No cleanup, so I should be right behind ya.”

Officer Warren patted Flint’s back between his shoulder blades. “You know where the station’s at?”

“I do, but I don’t have a car.” Flint sunk further into himself.

Officer Warren glanced over at the milky-yellow Trans Am, which sat rusting in the driveway in front of his patrol car.

“Doesn’t run.” Flint said.

“Shame. What is that? An eighty-six?”

“Yeah. It was my dad’s.”

A half-mile up the road, an irrigation canal ran beneath a short bridge. Before the county installed a chain-wrapped gate, Flint’s father had driven the old Firebird along the bank and wandered onto private hunting lands. There, he had sat against a tree and put a .357 round into his forehead. That story, and a handful of old photos, were all Flint knew his father by.

His mother drove the car for a month or so, parked it, and pledged to one day put it up for sale, but never did.

Officer Warren broke the silence. “Come on, I’ll give you a lift. You want to ride front or back?” He flashed his porcelain-white teeth.

Flint faked a smile and stepped from the porch, taking care not to soak his shoes in the puddles of rainwater that lay hidden beneath the unkempt weeds.

Officer Warren climbed into the patrol car, leaned over the center console, and lifted the lock on the door. “Just kick that shit out of the way.” he said, brushing a few articles of trash from the black, leather seat.

“You’d think it would be the county that responded this far out of town.” Officer Warren twisted in his seat, looking through the cage and rear window.

Flint watched the beam of the headlights bounce and expand as they backed down the driveway.

Officer Warren spun the steering wheel and pulled the gear shifter into drive. “I guess they drew this area into the city so they could have the paper mill’s tax dollars.”

Flint stared through the thick window and watched the power lines climb and fall between the poles. As a boy, he thought that if they drove fast enough, he could get home before the cartoons made it through the wires. A friend tried to clarify how electricity worked. The same boy also claimed that he could walk through walls and teleport, so Flint took his lesson with a grain of salt.

The radio in the dashboard clicked. A staticky voice called for units in Lanely Hills to worry about someone else’s problems.

Flint’s thoughts raced and repeated relentlessly. He hoped she had been too high to be afraid. He wondered if he’d still have a bed to sleep in, and he scolded himself for the selfish thought.

“You’re not alone you know?” Officer Warren said matter-of-factly. “That dope’s gettin’ everybody out here.”

Flint swallowed.

“Just last week I got a call for a woman- seventy-six years old- overdosed in the tub. You know it’s bad when grandma-” he glanced over at Flint. “Sorry.  You get desensitized after seeing all this junk.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Flint said. “I’m pretty numb myself.”

Officer Warren nodded and twisted a knob on the radio.

As the police cruiser bounced and rocked into town, Flint fought to stay out of the darker places in his mind. But the thoughts came anyway. He was alone. No father to make proud, and no mother to love. Twenty-one, but an orphan all the same.

He wondered if they were together somewhere, his mom and dad. And he daydreamed of what that place must be like, and those thoughts made him happier, so he stayed there.


Chapter 2

Downtown always smelled wet, like a parking lot after rain.

As he stepped out into the dark parking lot outside of the police station, Flint felt a small sense of relief. Some small part of him had feared that he'd become a suspect. Officer Warren had been adamant about Flint seeing their on-duty counselor, but Flint just wanted to be back home.

He knew that particular part of town quite well, having spent many of his twenty-year-old Saturdays at any one of the area’s run-down nightclubs and music venues. He always felt like the odd man out at those places, and he felt similar on that empty sidewalk.

A dump truck stopped and hissed beside him at the intersection.

He marched forward, following the peeling cement buildings that formed a wall alongside the two-lane road, and watched his feet pass over overgrown cracks in the concrete.

A stranger or two hobbled past him as he neared the less decrepit parts of town. Flint tried to seem as normal as possible. He didn’t want them to worry for him. They’d pass, his chest would grow tight, and he’d catch the breath he’d forgotten to take.

He was relieved as streetlights came into view. Further ahead was Davey Street; a small strip of one- and two-story restaurants and nightclubs. It wasn’t Freemont, but there was alcohol, and, sometimes in the back alley, gambling. Beyond that, after a turn and seven miles, he could be home.

“Young man.” A voice called from behind.

Flint looked over his shoulder.

A tall man, dressed like a wealthy Las Vegas cowboy, propped himself against the wall with one foot, beside a neon-lit window.

He curled a fat, smoldering cigar inside his right index finger. “I don’t mean to bother, but by God do you look familiar.” He raised a bushy, white eyebrow.

Flint squinted at the man’s dark, weather-beaten face. He wasn’t good with faces. “Sorry, you must mistake me for someone else.” Flint tucked his hands into his pockets, and turned back to the sidewalk ahead.

“It’s uhm-” His thick, gravelly voice continued from behind. “Flint, I believe. Right?”

Flint stopped.

“I was real good friends with your mama. But I don’t reckon you remember me too well,” the man said.

“I don’t think so. Sorry.”

“That’s quite alright. You was just a little one back then."

Flint stood silently, and watched the man pull a drag from his cigar.

“How is your mama by the way?” His eyes were cold and grey, piercing but kind. The silver hair behind his ears was matted and damp, perhaps from sweat.

Flint swallowed. “She passed away.” He’d heard others use that expression about their dead. He did think it sounded better that way.

The man shook his head and adjusted his wide-brimmed hat. “I’m sorry to hear that, son.” He rubbed the end of his cigar against the brick wall and showered the sidewalk with quickly fading embers.

“When did she-?”

“Today. Just a while ago.” Flint looked down at his dusty sneakers.

“You’re kiddin’.” The man pushed himself from the wall with his boot, and put his hand on Flint’s shoulder. “C’mon. Let me buy you a drink,” he said, ushering Flint toward the bar’s entrance.

“Thanks, but I really don’t feel like-” Flint had to crane his neck to meet eyes with the friendly gentleman. His breath smelled of whiskey.

“Nonsense,” he interrupted. “One drink. For Margaret.”

Flint looked down the road at the circles of orange light that extended out toward his home. “Sure. One drink.”

The man nodded and stretched out his club-like hand. “Name’s John. Nice to meet you again, Flint.”

A pungent fog of burnt tobacco wafted from within the bar as John opened the door. Wooden ceiling fans spun beneath the dark, exposed rafters. From a dusty corner above the pool tables, modern country music played quietly through a buzzing speaker.

John squeezed himself into a cushioned booth seat. “I just can’t believe that about ol’ Margaret.”

Flint rubbed the back of his neck, and sat across from the old man.

“She was a hell of a woman. World’s worse off without her.” John gazed down at the scuffed up table and ran his fingers down his moustache. “That’s a damned fact.”

“How exactly did you know my mom?” Flint asked.

John’s chest bounced as he chuckled. “Let’s see. I met Margaret at about the same time your father did.” He shook his head and smiled. “Me and her grew quite fond of each other, I think. I was never really good at readin’ her. Also, I was much older than she was. You know how those things go.”

“Yeah.” Flint nodded.

“Your daddy and her started going together. Me and him didn’t get along too good there at the end.” John raised his hands from his lap and slapped them down on the table. “That was that.”

Flint scratched his scalp underneath his dark, wavy hair. “I didn't know him too well, my dad. At all, really.”

“You ain't missing much.” He smiled with a wince. “I apologize, that was rude,” he said, chuckling.

“Don’t sweat it.” Flint shrugged. “Mom never said much about him. You might as well be talking about a total stranger.”

A thick, exaggerated country twang belted out from beside them. “How’re you doing tonight? Can I get you something to drink?” The petite waitress tilted her head and forced a smile. Her orange hair was knotted loosely in a half-bun, half-ponytail atop her head.

“You like beer?” John asked.

“A little,” Flint replied. He wasn’t a drinker, but it didn’t feel like a bad time to start.

“Two house lagers then.” John nodded his head toward the pretty waitress.

Flint half-smiled at her and drew his attention back to his strange new friend. John shifted in his seat.

“So y’all dated back then? Or you were just friends?” Flint asked.

The waitress stepped closer. “So. . .drink? No drink?”

Flint looked up at her. “Hm?”

She raised her brows and widened her hazel eyes.

“Yeah. Just the two house lagers,” Flint said.

“Two lagers.” She spoke to herself. “Okay I’ll have those right out.”

Flint watched her walk away and shook his head.

“Guess she can’t hear too good,” John said.

“Guess so.”

Flint’s shoulders relaxed, and his lips began to tingle as the waitress delivered beer after beer to the two men. They laughed beneath the once-ornate stained-glass fixture that hung over the table as the room around them filled with community college kids and tired laborers.

John leaned an arm on the table, rocking its uneven leg off of the floor. “You like card tricks boy?” he asked.

Flint shrugged and nodded.

John patted his breast pocket. His golden ring clinked against a small pearl snap button. He patted the other pocket, and pulled from it a blue and white box of playing cards. He set them on the table, opened the box, and shuffled them with a rapid flickering.

“Watch closely now,” he said, twisting his neck toward each shoulder with a loud crack.

Flint blinked and tried to focus his cloudy eyes.

John turned his head away, fanning the glossy cards out before Flint. “Just grab one.”

Flint pulled a single card from the center of the fan, a four of hearts, and held it face down in his palm.

“Got one? Alright. Take a look and put it back. Anywhere you want,” John recited methodically.

Flint replaced the card.

John reshuffled and set the deck in the center of the table. “Are you a bettin’ man, Flint?” He raised his chin high, looking down at Flint from beneath his absurd wide-brimmed hat.

Flint glanced between the man and the deck of cards suspiciously.

John rolled his eyes. “It’s just a friendly wager. I don’t want your money,” he chuckled.

“Good. I don’t have any.” Flint smirked. “What are we talking about? What’s the bet?” he slurred.

John perked up in the worn leather seat and smiled, sucking air through his teeth. He tapped his calloused fingertip against the stack of cards. “I bet you I can get your card out of that deck before you can.”

Flint smiled and shifted his hand to the center of the table, nearly toppling the stack cards.

“Hold your horses boy.” John held his arm out in front of him. “On the count of three. You win, and I’ll get you a date with that pretty waitress you’ve been eyeballin’.”

Flint glanced at the girl with the fiery hair. “Wait a minute. What makes you think I’m looking for a date?”

John stared. “What? You don’t like women? Would’ya rather a date with me, boy?”

Flint cleared his throat. “And if you win, what do you get?”

“I just like winnin’.” John pursed his lips and looked to the ceiling. “I can take an I.O.U, I suppose.”

A nasally laugh coincided with a snort from someplace behind Flint. He twisted in his seat and peered over the backrest to see a young brunette two booths back, covering her mouth and turning bright pink. Three others at the table leaned around her, smiling at the cellphone in front of her face.

The man sitting beside her, sporting a baby-green polo, looked away from the bright screen. “What are you looking at, psycho?” he shouted.

The brunette slapped his arm and sheepishly lowered the phone into her lap.

The wide-eyed man held his gaze as his other friends snickered.

“What an asshole.” Flint shook his head as he turned back to his drinking partner.

John looked at him without expression.

“What was that, you little shit?” the man shouted from behind. Silverware rattled as he bumped his knees against the table.

Flint laid his face into the palm of his hand. “Jesus Christ,” he sighed.

“Jace, quit it,” a girl said.

“Behind you,” John said coldly, focusing on something above Flint’s shoulder.

Flint lifted his face, dragging his cheeks and nose up through his hands. He exhaled slowly and opened his eyes.

A flesh toned snippet of light flashed in his peripherals. His chin twisted like lightning, as what felt, and sounded like a ten-pound hammer, crashed into his cheek.

The sound of flesh slapping flesh, followed by a thump against the vinyl-seat, cracked through his skull. A fiery sting throbbed from his chin to his ear.

“Stop it!” a girl’s muffled voice shrieked from somewhere outside of his darkened vision.

Flint blinked until he could see again. “What the-” He groaned and felt like vomiting.

John stood above him, a cloudy silhouette, shifting in and out of focus. His mouth moved, but Flint couldn’t make out his words over the ringing and shouting. Flint winced, cupping his hand around his jaw.

“Oh my god,” the waitresses’ voice echoed.

He swayed in the booth seat, looking for the comforting voice. She sounded close.

A thin, freckled arm appeared through a denim shirt, piercing John’s midsection as if it were made from vapor.

John didn’t seem to mind.

Flint squeezed his eyes shut and stretched them open, straining to understand what was unfolding before him.

“Are you okay?” the waitress asked, patting his chest.

John’s eyes narrowed as he looked down stoically from above her. He rotated slowly, his body separating from hers as he stepped away.

“Hey, look at me.” Her voice drifted into the murky, grey fog that enveloped his vision. “Look at me...”


Chapter 3

Flint sat cross-legged on the cold, hardwood floor of his childhood bedroom. Toy cars, torn picture books, and a collection of plastic action figures, most missing a limb or two, littered the space around him.

A soft, fuzzy glow filled the room, illuminating places that light usually didn’t touch.

He imitated the sounds of heavy machinery, clunking and scraping, as he snapped together flimsy segments of orange racetrack.

There was yelling from another room in the home. Flint glanced at the door.

He rolled to his back, sliding beneath a steep arch of sagging track, and pulled down on it, inspecting its resilience. Stretching with all of his might, he reached his fingertips to the book above his head, ‘A Mother, A Meal, A Microwave’, and slid it toward him. Carefully, he flipped it vertically, and steadied it beneath the arch.

More voices from the kitchen, “I really don’t give a shit Margaret!” a man screamed.

Flint spun around, grasping a small, green, plastic shovel. He wedged it between the cookbook and the track, and nudged it for assurance. He scooted from beneath his spiraling circuit. It was just like the one from TV.

Flint walked around his bright orange speedway, pausing to switch a blue car for a red one.

“I don’t give a damn. Let the little shit hear. Ain't like he’s gonna. . .” the muffled shouting continued.

He clicked the red convertible into the launch pad at the bottom of the track. Anxiously, he held his finger above the cylindrical button that stuck out from the side. He pressed it and the car bolted down the track. It shot up the steep bridge, angled sideways on the bank, twisted through the loopty-loop and CRASH! The sound of shattering glass came from the kitchen.

Flint sprung to his feet, knocking the shovel from beneath the big hill, and ran for the door. He grabbed a hollow baseball bat from the corner and twisted the doorknob.

“Flint. Wait,” a familiar voice whispered.

Flint turned around to see a boy, slightly older than him, sitting on the edge of his bunk bed. His coppery bowl of hair was cut straight, just below his earlobes. “You’re not supposed to go in there, you know that.”

“Hi, Nelson.” Flint glanced back at the door. “I think my mom’s in trouble.”

The boy stood from the bed, and sat in the center of the room. He hoisted the sturdy cookbook, and wedged it back beneath the hot-wheels track. “Let’s play cars.” His purple and green windbreaker was dusty, as usual.

Something shiny poked out of his corduroy pocket and drew Flint’s eye to it.

“C’mon, I’ll be the Ferrari,” Nelson said.

“Okay.” Flint sat on the floor across from Nelson and picked up a monster truck with a big green skull, engulfed in flames, on the side. He held it with its undercarriage facing up, spinning the wheels with his thumb.

“Where ya been?” Flint asked.

“I been exploring, I went to the moon Flint.”

“No way. What’s it like? Did you see aliens? ”

“Well, it’s gray, and quiet, really quiet. And you can jump so-” There was another crash from the kitchen, and a solid thump on the wall. A woman shrieked.

Nelson jumped to his feet.

“Wait right here. I gotta go Flint. See you.”

Nelson sprinted to the door. He reached high for the doorknob, opened it, and shut it behind him.

Nelson would come and go like that. He never used a door to get in, but sometimes left through one. Flint wondered when he would see his friend again.

“What the fuck?” his mom’s boyfriend shouted.

Outside, a car door shut, and tires screeched against pavement.

“Flint? Honey?” His mother’s head peeked into the room. Her smudged mascara was smeared beneath her eyes, and streaked across a pink lump on her cheekbone. She sat on the floor beside him, and rubbed her thumb against his cheek. She smiled. “I’ll never let another bad man come into this house. I promise.”

“Did Nelson scare him?” Flint asked.

She shook her head and sighed. “I love you Flint. Things are going to get better. I promise. God is looking out for me and you.”

“Love you too Momma.”

The room faded as the bar had, and Flint slipped from his mother’s arms, grasping at her ankles as he was pulled into the emptiness below. He stared up into the box that was his room, surrounded by the infinite blackness of nothing. He tumbled and somersaulted. It was cold, and somewhere in the distance he heard a snore.


Chapter 4

Flint gasped as he awakened, bouncing gently on his mattress. He squeezed the sheets beneath him tightly, until he was sure that he wasn’t actually falling. His grip loosened with relief. Above him was his ceiling, and across the room was his wall. Beneath him he felt his bed. He wondered how he’d gotten back home, and alive for that matter.

He remembered his mother’s powdery blue skin, a sucker-punch, and a mustached cowboy. His mouth was dry and tasted like modeling clay and sour milk.

Everything will go back to normal, he thought. He was home now, but it felt as unfamiliar as the foggy memory of a dream.

Flint tumbled from his bed and wrapped his arms around himself, shielding as much of his body as he could from the cold, stagnant air. He was surprised, and somewhat relieved to still be wearing his blue jeans. Burrowed deep in his skull, a stabbing pain throbbed as he gained his balance.

His bare feet felt like scotch tape against the icy, hardwood floor.

“Shit, shit. What time is it?” a soft, familiar voice spoke from behind him.

Flint leaped sideways, nearly tearing his thin black curtains from the rod as he skidded into them.

With a ball of bunched blanket in her lap, the young waitress sat upright on his bed. She yawned and scratched her ribs. Her hair, let down in a tangled, fiery mess, hung over her shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” Flint asked, still partially shielding himself with the drapes.

“What?” she asked.

“How did you get here?” Flint looked around the bed for clues. “How did I get here?”

“You can’t be serious.” She wiggled her little finger in her ear, poking her pink tongue from the corner of her mouth. A tattered Led-Zeppelin tee shirt that once belonged to the too-old-to-wear, but too-lazy-to-throw-away portion of his closet, covered her torso.

Flint shook his head in disbelief.

“You’re serious.” She pushed Flint’s heavy blanket down below her feet.

Flint brushed his fingers through his hair, tugging at the small, twisted knots. “I must’ve blacked out,” he said under his breath.

He hadn’t brought home many dates over the years. Actually he had brought home exactly zero dates over the years. It wasn’t that he had a problem obtaining the interest of girls. The problem persisted more in gaining the courage to explain to them that they would have to hitch a ride with one of his buddies, and that when they got to his house they would have to sneak through the window to avoid waking his mother, whom he still lived with as a fully grown adult.

“Okay.” Flint shook his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember. Did we-”

She playfully dropped her jaw. “Did we what?”

“You know,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

The girl pulled a cell phone from under his pillow, looked at it, and slid it back into its place. “Did I have sex with you?”

Flint stared silently.

“Wow. You really did black out, didn’t you? No. We didn’t.” She smirked. Her pale, freckled cheeks turned rosy pink.

He rubbed his temples. “Yeah.”

He noticed the clothes spilling over the lip of the plastic laundry basket at the foot of the bed. Soda cans, food wrappers, and an assortment of other junk cluttered the desk by the window. He wished he’d had a chance to clean his room.

She flopped back onto the pillow and pulled the warm blanket to her chin. “You had me fooled. You were acting pretty weird. But I thought that punch must’ve sobered you up. You seemed alright to me.”

Flint stretched his jaw side-to-side. “This is going to sound bad, but can you remind me what your name was- is?”

“Typical.” Her teeth peeked out through her lips. “It's Abbey. You goin’ to sing me off to sleep again?”

“What?”

“It was beautiful. Wildly out of tune, but very nice,” she giggled.

“Awesome,” he said sarcastically. “Well. Abbey. I’m going to go shower and see if I can avoid any more embarrassment. Make yourself at home.” He gazed around his littered floor once more and cringed.

He drug his feet to the restroom, showered, and brushed the foul taste from his mouth.

In the kitchen it was dark, and heavy. The doorway to the living room was littered with tatters of torn paper, and yellowing Polaroid photographs recently removed from a stack of three-ring binder photo books. Flint knelt down and picked one up. His mother sat on the trunk of a sunflower-yellow 1980’s Trans Am, young and pregnant without a care in the world.

Between the photo books, and the torn, yellow pages with phone numbers and addresses, was a void in the clutter, a clean section of flooring the size and shape of a prone human. He imagined her sitting there crying in her vomit and old memories. Above that, on the old wooden door frame, a scale of lines was scribbled with dates beside them that had marked his growth as a boy. Nearest the floor, at the first line, was his father’s handwriting. It was only a date, “3-17-1995”, however, to Flint, it was a reminder that his father was more than just a man in a photograph.

“Hey, you want t—” Abbey started cheerfully. “Oh, are you alright?” she asked, peeking her head around the door.

Flint snapped out of his expressionless gaze. “Hm?”

“I’m starving. Wanna go get some breakfast?” Abbey asked.

“Sure.” Flint stroked the recessed numbers on the doorframe with his thumb.

He rummaged his things together, and walked outside to a very feminine VW Bug parked askew in the driveway. Short snippets of the previous night came and went, snapping like firecrackers before retreating into smudged, watercolored images.

Beside the lump of dull grief in his belly was an uneasy feeling of uncertainty and anxiety, like any second the world was going to open up and swallow him, and his new friend.

***

The little red bug bumped and swayed along the interstate. Flint caught himself squeezing the handle above the door a couple of times before feeling foolish and biting his nails instead.

A massive sixteen-wheeled Mack semi-truck whipped out of its lane, narrowly missing the tiny hatchback cruising in front of Flint and Abbey.

“Seriously!” Abbey’s southern twang seemed even more exaggerated when pointing and shouting at passing vehicles.

“Pull your head out of your ass!” she shouted.

Flint unclenched his eyes, relaxed his outstretched legs, and checked to see if she’d noticed his cowardice. “What exactly happened at the bar last night?” Flint asked.

Abbey shifted her concentration from the road to Flint, still scowling. “Which part?”

“Whatever you can tell me.” Flint tongued the rubbery flap of torn flesh on the inside of his cheek. “Should I be worried?”

“I don’t know. You seemed a little lost. You were obviously not in your right mind, talking to yourself about cards or something.”

Abbey paused before quickly adding, “Which is totally understandable, considering what happened with your mom.”

Flint perked up in the little leather bucket seat. “Right! The magic trick.”

She looked at him from the corner of her eyes. “What?”

“Nothing.” Flint smiled. “And after that? What happened after that?”

“Well, I was coming to bring you another beer and out of nowhere, that prick snuck behind you and punched you. Hard. I don’t know what he was on about but-”

Flint interrupted. “Wait.” He looked at her confused. “Back up. Before I got hit, what happened?”

“Like I said, you were just drinking and talking to yourself. I thought you were off your rocker, but I guess that punch sobered you up. I got you cleaned up, and you spent the rest of the night as sweet as can be.”

His head nearly collided with the window as Abbey overtook three lanes to enter an off-ramp. “I was with that guy, John. He was doing some kind of card trick.”

Abbey laughed, tilting her head back against the headrest. “Very funny.” She looked at Flint and smiled. “I like you, Flint.”

Flint’s eyes darted around the car as he further scrutinized his memories. She continued to smile as she sped down the access road. He could almost see John’s face in his mind. It was less an image, and more a feeling. Like a dream on the cusp of his memory.

Abbey hand-cranked her window down, and lit a minty cigarette. Flint craned his neck nonchalantly and watched her exhale through her nose. Smoke wisps danced and skated along the dashboard before being swiftly vacuumed through the cracked window.

“Anyways,” she said. “You told me about what happened with your mom, and that you were going to walk home, and you don’t seem threatening, so I offered to take you.”

The smell of burned tobacco was drowned out by the stench of downtown Lanely Hills. The rotten wind that blew in from the paper-mill mingled with the air moving through the town’s many vagrant-filled alleys, creating a slightly sweet, slightly suffocating pungence.

Abbey veered into the parking lot of an old Waffle House. A scraggly old man walked his bike past the car as they stepped out. “Fine day, Fine day,” he mumbled, holding out a mitted hand as he went by.

Inside, they took a seat at the far end of the restaurant. The plump waitress poured them each a cup of coffee and took their orders. Flint looked at the menu, did a couple of elementary math problems on his fingers beneath the table, and decided that he’d be able to pay for both of their breakfasts. He figured it was the least he could do to show his appreciation for her babysitting him.

“Thanks,” Flint said.

She tilted her head. Her hair tickled the table in front of her. “For what?”

“For getting me back home alive.” He had a hard time maintaining eye contact with most people, but with her it was nearly impossible for him.

She squinted as she grinned. “You’re very welcome. I can’t believe you’re handling everything so well.”

Flint took his elbows off the table and put his hands in his lap. “Yeah well-” He looked at the wet floor across the room. “I don’t know if it’s hit me yet.”

A man seated three tables behind Abbey caught Flint’s attention. The man had a neatly-trimmed handlebar moustache and a denim, pearl-snap shirt. He tapped his finger nail against his coffee mug to a slow, rhythmic beat. Flint’s stomach began to flutter, and the warmth rushed from his face. The man looked up from his menu. He smiled, nodded and looked down into his mug, gently swirling its contents.

Flint felt Abbey staring at him and eased his eyes toward her, his chest heaving in-and-out.

“Are you alright?” she asked with worry in her eyes. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Wide eyed, Flint leaned over and looked at the man again. “Look behind you.”

“What?” Abbey twisted in her chair. “What exactly am I looking for?” She turned back to Flint and leaned toward him. “Do we need to leave?” she whispered.

Flint tapped his feet nervously, now half-sitting on the bench-seat. “Who dresses like that?”

Abbey looked behind her again, her head turning, scanning the room. She smiled nervously. “Who?”

The night before was slipping back into his memory. John was a charming gentleman from the bar. He was a bit rough around the edges, but not quite threatening. Flint wondered what he’d forgotten about the man and why he felt so afraid.

Flint looked over Abbey’s shoulder, meeting eyes with the man once again. He felt compelled to break into a full sprint for the door. Fear of embarrassment alone kept him in his seat.

Abbey turned and looked over her backrest. John took a sip from his mug and seemed to sarcastically tip his hat with his forefinger and thumb. Flint smiled back and locked eyes with Abbey and started to speak but was cut off by the look of confusion on the girl's face.

“Flint, are you messing with me or not?”

Flint pressed his hands against the table and whispered loudly. “You don’t see the fucking cowboy sitting right behind you?”

Backing deeper into the seat, Abbey glared back at him silently.

Flint shook his head. “Sorry. I- um. I don’t know what-” He cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “I’m going to step out for a minute. I’ll be back before the food. Sorry.”

Flint stood, banging his knees against the table as he exited the booth.

John stood also. He gulped down the rest of his steaming coffee and followed Flint toward the doors.

Flint noticed the husky man through his peripherals, trotting behind at a distance.

Outside, the frigid air splashed around his face. He exhaled and instinctually covered his mouth and nose. A guttural laugh came from behind, and a massive hand slapped him between his shoulders.

“Those folks from up North are proud of how miserable their cold is. They don’t know about this wet cold. You step outside and you might as well be swimming in the Arctic Sea.” John flicked open the lid to his lighter and began to burn the tip of a cigar.

Flint was holding his breath.

He squeezed his hands into a ball, wiggling his fingers tighter. He stared up at the towering man and spread his feet, waiting for an opening to sock the old man.

“Settle down there buddy. You're lookin’ at me like I took your lunch money.” John laughed, holding one hand on his ten gallon hat, the other with a finger hooked through his belt loop. He looked similar to the man he remembered from the bar, but there was something different about him. Flint couldn’t put his finger on it. It was as if he was wearing a thick coat of make-up. Even the complexion of his clothes, the same outfit as the previous night, seemed vibrant and unworn.

“Easy, partner. Relax. What’s got you all worked up?” John squinted his cold-grey eyes.

Flint looked into the window behind John. Abbey was laying her cheek on her fist looking back out at him. Turning slowly, Flint walked nonchalantly to the side of the restaurant, out of Abbey’s view. “Are you following me?” he asked.

John nodded.

Flint stepped back and examined his face. The man was as stoic as a statue. “Well, do you mind telling me why?”

“I need your help with somethin’.”

Flint stepped back. “Are you kidding me? I don’t even know you. Are you even a real person?”

John furrowed his brow. Disgust washed over his face. He seemed to fight it off and smile again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, apparently I’m the only person in this fucking town who can see you.”

John adjusted the cuff on his denim shirt. “So what?”

“So what?” Flint threw his hands up. “I don’t know. Either I’ve gone completely insane, or I’m talking to ghosts now.”

“You’re not crazy. And I’m no damned ghost either. Us meeting was for a reason, Flint. I want to help you. I want to find out what happened to your Momma.” John spat on the greasy concrete. A yellow sheen glistened on his lip.

“What? I know exactly what happened.”

“Do you now?” John asked.

Flint shook his head. He couldn’t help but wonder how insane he looked speaking to the brick wall. “She overdosed. I saw it with my own eyes. There’s nothing to find out.”

John rubbed his stubbly chin. “You may not want to believe it. That’s easier, but Margaret was murdered.”

Flint was hyper-aware of the paleness of his face. Any slither of courage he was sporting moments before had faded into a weak, whimpering fight to appear normal. The tires of the passing cars were as muffled and soft as his own heartbeat. “What are you talking about? Murdered? By who?”

“That’s what I need your help for. We’re gonna get to the bottom of it. For Margaret.”

Flint stood squinting at the man, or the wall, without saying a word. It made sense, if he was crazy, then surely his hallucinations would be just as absurd.

John dug into the pocket of his tight blue-jeans and pulled something out. He grabbed Flint’s arm and stuffed an item into Flint’s hand, holding it there for a moment with his thumb.

Flint couldn’t see what it was, but it was light, and stiff, like a folded piece of paper.

“I don’t think I should believe you.” Flint stared intently at the pores in the man’s broad nose. He looked at the reddening skin at the base of his neck, and individual glistening hairs of his moustache. Flint waited for them to disappear, for his mind to slip up and reveal its tricks.

John let go of his arm and put his hand on his shoulder firmly. “I’m real,” he said, and began to walk back toward the restaurant’s front.

“Don’t be late,” he shouted as he rounded the corner of the building.

Flint unclasped his hand from around the small object. It was a small blue playing card. Between the four red hearts was a note, scribbled in red ink.


Chapter 5

Flint had painfully said his goodbyes to the waitress and accepted the likelihood that he may have blown his future chances with her. She continued on her way to work. Flint insisted that he’d walk the quarter-mile to the city bus stop on 11th street. Going it on foot wasn’t too difficult. Lanely Hills was ironically located in the flat, coastal plains of South Texas.

He had only ridden the bus a handful of times while he was working for a landscaping company who gave out paychecks from their office downtown. But, he knew that if he followed the paths of exposed soil along the grassy roadside, he was bound to find a bus stop eventually.

Flint sat on the bench beside the road and pulled the slip of paper from his pocket, double-checking his destination. “Does this go near Magnolia Ave?” Flint asked the woman seated next to him on the bench.

“Mhm,” she grunted, never looking up from her supermarket sales insert.

“Thanks.”

After some time, the boxy city bus rolled in front of the bench and stopped with a pop and a hiss. Flint creaked up the steps and dropped a buck fifty in the fare box. The interior of the bus was relatively nice. The seats were no longer two rows of bench seats, as they had been the last time he’d ridden, but rather three rows of individual, recently upholstered chairs with armrests. More difficult to sleep in, but perhaps that was the purpose.

Flint slid the folded card from his pocket. “Corner Magnolia & 11th. Under the pretty gal,” it read. He laid his head against the cool window and bounced along with the bus. Across the aisle, an elderly couple rested their heads on one another. Flint watched them for a moment, smiled, and looked back out the window.

The bus jerked and came to a stop. Flint shuffled down the aisle along with three other men, craning his neck to avoid the light fixtures on the roof.

Out on the street, Flint spun around, looking for the cowboy and the pretty gal. As the tired bus driver pulled the lever to close the doors, for a moment Flint wondered why he'd taken that bus.

Protruding from a thicket of tallow trees and stiff brown bushes was a tall, steel billboard. On it, a young, but authoritative blonde woman smiled out across the town. Amanda Parker, Real-estate Agent, the bold font below read.

Flint walked along the dirt path beside the road for a few paces, looked over his shoulder, and took a sharp turn into the block of trees. He approached the massive, iron legs that held the woman above the canopy and searched between the thicket of trash and shrubs for John. Again, he wondered why he continued to ignore his better judgement.

“Hey boy!” a gritty voice shouted from behind. Flint jumped, sliding his sneakers along the dried grass as he spun to face the familiar voice.

“Jesus Christ. You scared me.” Flint said, holding his hand against his chest.

John jerked his leg upward, tearing his leather boot free from a web of blackberry vines. He looked up with a grin on his face. “I’m glad you changed your mind. Hope you wasn’t waiting too long.”

Flint leaned against one of the billboard’s cylindrical supports. “What are we doing out here anyway?”

John swept his pants legs with his calloused palms and tucked the tail of his shirt back into his waistband. “I told you. We’re gonna make things right for your momma. What do you think you’re out here for?”

“I- I don’t know.” Flint stared at the ground, and the faded clusters of empty beer cans. He slid the folded playing card from his pocket and held it in front of him. “This was my card. From the bar.”

John nodded. “We had a deal.”

“Why do I feel like I’m losing my mind?” Flint asked. “None of this feels right.”

“You ain’t crazy. You just want the truth. That’s what we’re here for. The truth. I know you may think me a ghost, or a voice, or whatever you keep telling yourself, but if you just trust me, I’ll answer everything.” John’s eyes stared intently. They seemed to vibrate subtly, illuminated by specks of dimming sunlight beaming between the trees. “Can you do that?” he asked.

Flint took a deep breath and nodded his head. “Fuck it.”

He followed the man deeper into the overgrowth. Doubt and shame prodded the back of his mind. Still, there was some feeling of intimidation from John. Flint watched him carefully as they walked, waiting for everything to go wrong. At the same time, he felt a sense of responsibility to follow him, to not disappoint.

“Just a little further over yonder.” John pointed past a viney patch of chinaberry trees.

At the edge of the small, urban forest, a rusty fence of barbed wire, supported by what appeared to be nothing more than old cedar limbs, guarded what was beyond. A tiny house, crooked and faded blue, sat nestled in a yard of weeds and scrap metal.

John pressed his boot onto the bottom wire of the rusty fence and spread the top wire above with his hand. He motioned at Flint to crawl through.

“Whose house is this?” Flint whispered.

John palmed the top of Flint’s head and shoved him through to the other side of the fence, before shakily ducking across himself.

Flint followed John closely along the sapling-lined fence, toward the rear of the house. They crept up an old, rotting porch, and knelt beside the dripping air conditioning unit that hung from a window. John scooted in closer to Flint, nearly touching heads.

“What are we doing?” Flint whispered urgently.

John shushed him.

“No,” Flint said. “I don’t know what you-” A solid thud reverberated through the house.

John stuck his head up above the air conditioner and knelt back down. “Would you quit your bellyaching for a minute?” he whispered.

Flint shuffled his feet and leaned against the paint-chipped wall. He pressed his teeth against his lip nervously. “I’m not going to-”

“Shh.” John looked over his shoulder at Flint.

“Fuck,” Flint mouthed silently.

John looked through the algae-smudged window again. “Check the door.”

“What? No,” Flint said, leaning away from the glaring cowboy.

John mimed turning the doorknob, and gave Flint a light shove. “Trust me.”

Still crouched, Flint edged closer to the old, rust-speckled door. He raised his shaking hand and twisted the knob. It rotated and the door slipped inward with a tick. Flint’s eyes were spread wide open as he looked back at John.

John nodded his head towards the door. “Go,” he whispered.

The rubber seal on the bottom of the door swept against the floor quietly as it opened. Muffled voices, obviously from a television program, chatted cheerfully from somewhere inside. Flint breathed shallow breaths through his widened nostrils and followed John into the battered little home.

Flint stood with his back against a set of cabinets, only able to see periodic flashes of a squalid kitchen. The moist air smelled overwhelmingly of cats and mold. Cobwebs and cracks littered the walls, illuminated by the alternating colors of a television in another room.

John eased toward the room, his right hand clenching his pocket to keep its contents from jingling. His other hand reached into his waistband, above his crotch, and pulled a small, silvery revolver from beneath his shirt.

Flint froze in place, just before the doorway in the kitchen. He almost spoke up, but instead only raised an unnoticed finger. He watched as John laid the revolver gently on its side on a small table just inside the room.

Flint tiptoed into the musty room, sliding his fingers along the wall to keep himself oriented. Clothing littered the bare plywood floor and, with the flashes of light, he took care not to trip over the filth.

At the center of the room sat a burgundy recliner. In it, a man, a shirtless mound of fatty flesh, snored deeply, sucking air through his open mouth.

Distracted by the man, Flint’s foot tapped an empty Gatorade bottle on the floor, sending it into a gentle spin. The recliner creaked, and the man snapped his mouth shut.

Flint looked up from the plastic bottle, wincing. “What the fuck are you doing?” he rasped.

John was standing above the recliner, holding an obsidian-black pistol inches from the man’s head. His shoulders swelled up and down as he trained the gun on the fat man. He reached his hand down into the chair and held a piece of plastic out toward Flint. It glinted orange in the light. He tossed the piece of plastic to the floor in front of Flint. The small syringe rolled to stop at his feet.

“Damned junkie,” John said in disgust. He turned back to the man and clicked the safety off with his thumb.

Flint held his hands in front of him and took a step further into the room. “What are you going to do, kill him? Are you crazy?” he whispered.

A mist of saliva, sprayed from John’s mouth. “He killed her! This is the man who killed your mother, Flint. You want the truth, well here it is!” he shouted, jamming the barrel of the pistol against the man’s head.

“Wh-” The fat man let out a sedated moan. “What is this?” he mumbled, swatting drunkenly at the pistol.

John forced the man’s head back into the chair with the barrel of his gun.

“No. I’m not- this is insane.” Flint stumbled backward, feeling for a way out of the room.

John turned and pointed the barrel toward Flint, taking a half step in his direction. “You’re staying. Don’t you move, dammit. I won’t miss.” He motioned to the wall inside the room with the pistol.

A flash of red infomercial light lit up the other gun John clumsily left lying on the entry table.

“Where do you think she’s been getting the dope from, Flint?” John screamed.

Flint grabbed at the revolver on the small table, fumbling it between his hands. He struggled to get his index finger to the trigger, and pointed it at John.

“That’s enough!” Flint shouted, locking his elbows and staring at John down the metal sight.

“Help!” the man screamed in a pitiful, slurred cry.

John’s mustache rose at the corners of his nose. “You’re a coward.” He shook his head and swung the pistol back toward the whimpering man.

Flint tensed his shoulders and squeezed the trigger with his trembling index finger, and winced away from the deafening pop. His wrist flung back from the recoil. The bullet passed through John just as Abbey’s body had the night before.

The man in the chair jerked as bone and brains peppered the yellowed wallpaper beside him.

John’s arm lowered and replaced his firearm in his waistband. He stepped gently toward Flint. He spoke, but only a muffled humming broke through the ringing in Flint’s ears.

With his mouth hanging slightly ajar, Flint hesitantly peeked around John. The fat man was eerily still. Sparkly, red fluid streamed down his neck and trickled through his belly hair. A misshapen mass of dark crimson, torn and stomach-churning, oozed beside his temple.

Flint continued to train the barrel on John’s chest. Tears dripped from his quivering eyelids.

John pushed his hands out in front of him. His voice began to sharpen. “You did good,” he said, inching closer to him. “You did good.”

Flint shook the gun toward the cowboy. “Stop!” he shouted.

“Don’t you fire that thing again,” John said. “Two pops, somebody calls the cops.”

“I fucking shot you!” Flint shook the gun again. Stammering backwards, he lowered the revolver and let it hang in one hand.

“What you did was just. That pile of shit is the reason your momma’s going in the ground tomorrow,” John said.

The television’s flickering lights bounced along the torn walls of the little room, but John’s dim figure seemed to not reflect any at all. His shadow never moved.

John reached for Flint’s limp hand and pulled the gun from his grasp. “Look son, we need to hurry on out of here, in case someone did call the law.”

Outside, a car door slammed shut. Flint looked at the front door, holding his breath. Soft footsteps grew louder as they approached the house. There was a knock at the door.

“Mark?” a male voice called from outside. A shadow appeared behind the crooked blinds.

“C’mon,” John whispered as he shimmied around Flint.

Flint grabbed John by his forearm and held firm. “I’ll tell them this was all you. That you forced me here.” Flint pressed his teeth together as he glared into John’s eyes. “Those are your guns, not mine.”

There were three more loud bangs on the door. “Mark? I got twenty, I’m sick man. Hook me up.”

“You do that and they’re gonna put you in the looney house, boy.” John yanked his arm away and walked back to the fat man’s body. He pulled a dirty wash-cloth from beside the man’s recliner and wiped down the revolver. With the washcloth over his thumb, he flipped the cylinder out to the side and dumped two brass casings into his palm. John wriggled the gun into the fat man’s clutch and positioned his arm on his shoulder.

The window to the right of them creaked as someone wiggled it from the outside.

Flint and John walked softly but briskly back through the moldy kitchen, wiping the doorknob with the cloth as they snuck out the back. Across the cluttered lawn, the waning sun peeked above the tree line.

They jogged along the property line back toward the rusty fence. Flint’s heels pressed deep into the waterlogged soil. In the back corner of the yard, where the shoulder-high weeds met the trees, John spread the barbed-wire so Flint could duck through. He let the fence loose and stood across from Flint.

“We ought to split up,” John said, looking back toward the old house.

“Wait.” Flint hunched over, panting. “What am I supposed to do?”

John pulled his wallet from his pocket and pinched out a stack of green bills. “Get a room and lay low for the night. I’ll be around.”

Flint watched him as he turned and walked along the back fence line, toward the other end of the yard. He hoped he wouldn’t see him again.


Chapter 6

Flint stumbled through the cover of trees and thorns. Nocturnal insects were beginning to sing their songs, drowning out the sounds of the city. Images of that man’s leaking scalp flashed through his head.

Crouching and maneuvering through the brush, Flint tried to retrace his footsteps. The fading light of the sun sank lower, and the shadows grew longer on the forest floor. Pointy branches jutted down from above, grabbing his clothes and snapping against him as he went. He pushed forward, looking for an opening between the trees.

A humming, wavering whisper echoed from the shadowy distance to his left. Flint let go of the thorny reed he was pushing aside, and stood motionless. He looked to the sky, where the clouds had changed from orange to purple. Other than the bugs, it was silent.

As he turned to move again, he was halted by an echoing cry in the distance. A groan came from over his shoulder, and a wisp of cool, foul air slid past his nose.

“Who’s there?” He snapped around quickly.

Though faint, the sobbing felt intense. There was an aggression to it. Whatever it was, in the dark, Flint felt like its prey.

Digging his sneakers into the crackling sticks and soft soil, he shoved himself through the dense vegetation. The crying grew nearer, and Flint pushed harder, taking no notice of the thorns tearing at his cheeks and neck. Fear resonated from his gut. He jerked his legs upward, untangling his feet from the thorny ropes. The sound of the wailing man rushed toward him.

“No more!” the voice cried.

With the scream, Flint could hear the lips and teeth and tongue moving to form the sounds, right by his ear. He could feel the dampness of its breath.

A loop of vine, lying along the ground, snared his foot and sent Flint tumbling to the dirt.

He held his chest as he attempted to catch his breath. Scratches on his arms stung and seeped. His blue jeans sagged below his waist, splotched with mud and torn at the ankles.

He lifted himself from the ivy and twigs, and looked cautiously over his shoulder. It was quiet again.

Only a yard from where he'd fallen, crimson tail lights flickered behind a bush. He ducked below the shrubs. Though he’d blend in nicely with the city’s wandering vagabonds, the thought of being out in the open terrified him.

He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and struggled to punch the keys with his vigorously shaking hands. It rang.

“Hello?” A beautiful southern twang came through the phone.

“Abbey?”

“Flint?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I could really use some help right now, could you come pick me up?” Flint said, catching his breath as he spoke.

“Where are you?” Abbey asked.

Flint crawled beside the tangle of shrubbery he was hiding behind and looked for some sort of landmark to orient himself. Outside of the woods, across the street, sat a sickeningly familiar building. Black and white police cars sat in rows, behind a chain link fence.

“Shit!” Flint whispered, as he ducked back behind the bushes.

“What?”

“Um, just come to the uhm-” Flint pounded the dirt, phone in hand. “Just meet me down the road from the police station.”

“The police station?” she asked worriedly. “Are you in trouble?”

“No, I just- I’m lost, and tired. I don’t know why I called you.” Flint rolled to his back, and covered his eyes with his hand.

“I mean, I guess I can punch out early,” Abbey said with hesitation.

“Right.” Flint paused. “You’re at work.” He tried to sound calm. “You know what, I’ll figure it out. Don’t worry about it.”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll be right there.”

Flint sighed. “Thanks.”

He slid further away from the street, dragging his head against the trunk of a young tree. He closed his eyes and tried to think of nothing, but flashing images of the dead man overtook his mind’s eye. He pressed his eyes closed harder to erase them from view. His mother’s words whispered softly through his head, “It’s just a bad day, honey.”

A hard knot swelled in his throat, and warm tears fell without restraint. He rolled to his side and pushed his face into the soggy leaves. Since childhood he’d always felt ashamed to cry. In middle school he spoke often with the counselor, a bulldoggish Desert Storm veteran. He told him that it was okay to cry, and shared that he himself cried at times. But Flint didn’t trust him. The counselor made sure he took his pills each day, and made his imaginary friend disappear.

A phone rang and Flint jolted out of what felt like sleep. He grabbed it quickly and tucked it to his body to silence it. “Hello?” Flint whispered.

“I passed the police station. I don’t see you anywhere,” Abbey said.

“Hang on,” Flint grunted, pushing himself from the dirt. He wiped his face, and brushed off his clothes the best he could. “I see you. I’m coming.”

Flint sprinted across the street and buckled himself into the Volkswagen.

“My word. What happened to you?” Abbey said, examining Flint’s tattered clothing.

“It’s a long story.” Flint shook his head. “Please, let’s go. I’ll explain when I’ve got my head back together, but we need to go.”

Without a word, Abbey started down the road, dodging potholes that would likely total the poor little car. “Is it rude of me to point out how strange this is?” Abbey asked, keeping her eyes on the road.

“Just drop me off there,” Flint said, pointing to a little “L” shaped motel further up the road. An ancient, neon “No-Vacancy” sign lit up the street side. Whether it was there stylistically or out of frugality, Flint wasn’t sure, and didn’t care.

Abbey turned into the sparsely populated lot, and raised the parking brake lever.

Flint opened his door and slid through the small space between it, and the jacked-up pickup truck beside them. He craned his head into the window and kept his eyes peering down into the floorboard. “Thank you. I promise I won’t be a bother anymore,” he said, closing the door and turning toward the old brick motel.

“Excuse me?” Abbey shouted with a half-angry smirk.

Flint turned and crouched his head back into the car. “Hm?”

Abbey switched off the ignition, grabbed her purse and started toward the front of the motel. “C’mon,” she said, walking past him.

Flint caught up with her as she walked through the front door. A hefty woman, wearing a flowy, floral-blouse, sat behind a desk in the small office. Despite the chime of a small bell fastened to the top of the door, she didn’t look up from her book.

“Do y’all have any rooms available tonight?” Abbey asked smiling, with her elbows resting on the desk.

“What are you doing?” Flint whispered.

The clerk sucked air through her teeth, and laid the book face-down on the desk. She peered up at the couple, eyeing Flint from head-to-toe with a raised eyebrow.

Flint saw his reflection in the large, gold-trimmed mirror behind the clerk. His hair was frizzled and matted with sweat and dust. His own bloodshot eyes gazed back at him. The effect of his unpleasant appearance was magnified times a thousand, standing beside the beautiful redhead.

“All the hourly suites are full,” the woman said, obviously under the impression that Abbey was looking to use the room to make a few bucks from a lonely man, down on his luck.

Abbey cocked her head to the side and looked at Flint with her wide hazel eyes.

“For the night will be fine,” Flint said.

“Hm, well look at you.” The woman pursed her lips and clacked away at the keyboard with her long nails. “Seventeen A. Checkout is at eleven.” She held a brassy key by the paper tag attached to it, and set it in front of them.

They walked back through the door and followed the front of the building until they caught sight of 17A. Flint had to kick the base of the door to free it from the jamb.

Inside was a surprising contrast to the outside of the building. The bed was warped, and the comforter looked like used sandpaper, but the rest of the space was somewhat modern. Against the wall, atop a large, red-varnished chest of drawers sat a tiny flat-screen television, secured to the wall with an assortment of bolts, screws, and hardened epoxy.

Abbey stepped through the doorway with an elegant spin and flopped back onto the queen-sized bed with a thud. “Oh my God, is this thing made of plywood?” she giggled.

Flint emptied his pockets and sat at the end of the bed, watching the girl rub her arched back. Her thin arms stretched out across the mattress, and she let out a sigh.

His mind went quiet and he felt the tension leave the muscles in his face.

Abbey had her head propped up, half-smiling back at him.

“It’s been a very strange day,” Flint said.

Crumpling the bedsheet in front of the pillows, she spun around and laid her head on his thigh. “Tell me about it.” She rolled her eyes. “I just gave a ride to some strange forest-man.”

“Oh yeah?” Flint smiled.

“Yeah. And like a genius, I followed him into a place where people have definitely been murdered before.”

“You didn’t have to come in,” Flint said. “I promise. I’m fine.”

“You’re a strange kid Flint. You’ve piqued my interest.” She poked his belly. “And I clearly don’t have the best judgement.”

He felt strange. It was like he was away from himself, standing over in the corner of the room, watching his awkward body try to play it cool. As he watched, he felt proud of the guy on the bed. It was comforting to leave him with the responsibility.

Flint rubbed the bridge of his nose between his eyes. “I think I’m losing my mind.”

“Flint, you’re dealing with a lot right now. You just lost your mama. You found her like that. I’d be worried if you weren’t a little mixed up.”

“No. This is different,” Flint stuttered. “I’m like, literally going crazy. I’m- I’m seeing things. I’m hearing things,” he said frantically. “I don’t know what’s real.”

Flint straightened his back, and tried his hardest not to look like a lunatic. His mouth opened but he held his tongue from confessing even more. He’d played this moment out in his head a thousand times. Albeit in a nicer environment. He worried that he’d ruined it already.

“You’re gonna get through this. You’re not crazy. Trust me, I know crazy,” she said, looking up from his lap.

“There’s this guy.” Flint shook his head, looking across the room. “The one from the Waffle House. He’s like a real guy. At least he seems that way. John. He asked me to meet him-”

The little television across the room flickered and caught Flint’s attention. There was a tick and a faint electrical humming coming from the television. The black screen pulsed with a hundred shades of grey. Flint’s heart pounded as a monochromatic face formed in the pixelated chaos. It spoke through the speakers, the voice resonating as a sizzling static.

Abbey didn’t seem to notice. She stared at Flint, tapping her fingers along his thigh.

The smudged face grew brighter, the dark eye sockets became more defined. “She’s gonna think you’re off your rocker, boy,” John’s shifting head warned from within the screen.

“Flint?” Abbey’s voice seemed to call out from a distance.

The TV spoke again. “She won’t understand what we’ve done.”

Flint turned his head back to the beautiful strawberry blonde. Her gaze stayed fixed, waiting for a response.

“My Mom’s funeral is tomorrow,” Flint said.

Abbey grasped his hand and stroked her thumb against his knuckles. She seemed fixated on the horizontal scar spanning the width of his hand. An eleven year old disfigurement, thick and calloused. He’d sliced it clean to the bone on a snag of chicken wire while fleeing one very territorial rooster. His uncle pinched the two ends of flesh together, and with a butterfly bandage and a line of super glue, covered the white tendons beneath.

Flint thought for a second that he would tell her the story. Over time the tale had become so stale that he figured he would just bore her. Instead, he brushed his fingers through her bangs and looked into her eyes. He laid her back on the hardened slab of a mattress, and her breath flowed sweetly past his ear. The television buzzed again, but he ignored it.


Chapter 7

Flint opened his eyes. Unfinished slats of white pine ran horizontally beneath the top bunk mattress. His elder cousin’s infamous, window-rattling snores must have awoken him. How an eleven year old could produce that many decibels was perplexing to say the least.

Slowly, the numbing pressure that pinned him to his bed subsided. His heart pounded, thumping in his ears. The itchy blanket that he’d fallen asleep with still covered him down to his toes. He was sure he wasn’t dreaming.

Emanating from the shadows behind him, a metallic tone sent a chill down his spine. Ping. It resounded and faded into an oscillating echo.

Flint imagined the slackened chain of a flag pole, bouncing about in the wind. It rang again. “That wasn’t it,” he thought.

He worried that he was dreaming. In dreams, there were less limitations on the creepy crawlies and shadowy monsters. Sometimes they chased him. Sometimes they whispered into his ear, paralyzing him as he slept.

Wide-eyed, he stared at the wall and flexed his mind, trying his hardest to awaken himself.

The sound continued, growing louder, and more frequent, as it jumped out from behind him. Suddenly, it stopped. A wave of humming vibrations buzzed in the center of his forehead and crawled throughout the rest of his body. Sure that he was experiencing death, he lay frozen and embraced the chaotic sensation.

The waves collapsed, falling below the place where he now felt his body. His cousin’s rumbling snores had ceased.

Ping. The sound came from within his head.

Something solid and cold, a piece of ice perhaps, tapped the back of Flint’s head. Images of long toothed vampires and fat-headed boogiemen crowded his imagination. He squeezed his eyes shut.

Ping. It resonated around his skull to his lips like a painless charge of electricity.

Rolling to his other side, Flint decided to face the incessant ringing head-on. His eyes focused on the darkness. At first, there was nothing. Then, a faint illumination, a sort of foggy glow, manifested around a framed Looney Toons poster that hung on the wall above his dresser.

He rolled his legs from beneath the blanket and moved toward the dim light. He examined it closely. Bugs was there, Yosemite Sam, Porky, and the rest, all standing in the foreground, smiling cheekily. But, behind them, something was moving.

Traversing the crest of a painted hill, was a man-shaped speck of pink. Flint extended his little finger toward the thing. As he pressed against the glossy paper, his finger passed through it and continued into the wall behind it. He scratched his head and stepped on the lip of his sock drawer.

Slowly, the poster consumed his arm, up to his elbow. It was cool inside, and something tugged at him, like a thousand strings reeling him further inside. Excited to finally meet his cartoon friends, he allowed the wall to swallow him whole.

“Hello?” Flint called out.

The fields of textureless paint were empty. The peach toned sky surrounded him like a seamless igloo, and a thick, beachy wind shook the trees that sat atop the distant horizon. He hadn’t remembered trees in the poster on his wall.

Ping. It rang again.

He shifted his vision toward the sound and his eyes met those of another boy, staring back at him.

“Nelson?” Flint’s tongue poked through the hole where his front tooth had fallen out, as he grinned.

Nelson smiled and squeezed Flint’s hand in his own. “Hey bud, long time no see.”

Flint stepped backwards, scanning the boy from head to toe. “It’s really you, ain’t it?”

Nelson’s hair had grown long, curling up before the coppery locks touched his shoulders. His jeans were dark below the knees, dripping with water.

Flint pursed his lips. “Where have you been?”

“I’m sorry, Flint. I got myself in trouble. And then, well, I got kinda lost. Had to climb through the dirt for a while. It’s a long story.” Nelson puckered up one of his cheeks. “I spent forever trying to find your room again, but it looks like you found me instead.”

Flint kicked the waxy earth at his feet. “Tootsie died a couple weeks ago. She got bit by a cottonmouth runnin' down by the canal.” Flint shook his head and smiled. “Remember when she used to chase you into the pantry and Momma thought you were a mouse? She got so spooked.”

They both chuckled. “Of course I remember! She was a good pup. I’ll miss her too, bud. Sweet tootsie.” Nelson snapped a perfectly round fruit from a small, leafless bush. He tossed it into the air a couple of times as they walked toward the base of the steep hill.

“Clint’s staying with us again. He ain't as mean as he used to be. Me and him play video games together now that I’m old enough,” Flint said.

Nelson bit into the rubbery fruit. “You know, even when you get old, or sick, or whatever, we’ll still be friends? No matter how long.”

“I know, I just wish you weren’t imaginary is all,” Flint sighed.

“Well, you just keep imagining me and I’ll visit as much as I can.”

“You got it.”

As they walked, the landscape didn’t change much. The rolling hills, the four clouds against the gradient shades of orange, recycled endlessly.

The air seemed to shift slightly. He could feel it in his stomach. As he spoke, his words cut the air, and felt hollow. His feet became light, and he realized that he wasn’t actually walking.

“What’d you get in trouble for?” Flint asked.

A blurriness began to surround Nelson, distorting his face as if he were standing behind old glass. “I didn’t listen to my teacher.”

Flint could feel an unstableness overtaking his strange dream. Despite the world spinning around them, he tried his hardest to concentrate on his friend, to keep him alive. “I didn’t know you went to school,” he said.

Nelson chuckled. “Yeah, the teacher doesn’t like it when I come here.”

Flint blinked and found himself a hundred yards away, atop another smooth, striped hill. The air was thick. It swirled around him like an ocean current. “Nelson!” he yelled.

His friend stood across the valley, absolutely still. His muffled voice echoed back, but Flint couldn't understand him.

Flint blinked again and the sun had gone out. A raspy snore rattled the windows of his bedroom. He rolled to his shoulder and looked for the picture above his dresser, but couldn’t see it through the darkness.


Chapter 8

Twice that week he’d shared his bed with her. Wisps of strawberry hair tickled his nose. Despite the evening’s gratifying finale, he daydreamed of time travel and how he would change it all. Of all of the possibilities throughout the parallel universes, his was only bitter-sweet. He’d implicated her in what he’d done. He was selfish, and she would have to pay.

As Flint daydreamed, Abbey drifted further into sleep. He nudged his fist against her shoulder, and waved his hand in front of her eyes. Her body lay paralyzed in slumber. Taking care to not disturb her, he slid from the rigid bed and pulled the comforter over her bare chest. He leaned above her and brought his lips near hers, paused and backed away.

Quietly, he shuffled across the carpet, crouching in the dark in search of his scattered garments. He clothed himself with his torn shirt from behind the headboard, the muddy pants on the nightstand, one sock he dug from beneath the blankets, and his shoes beside the air conditioner.

Before he left, Flint noticed a small sticky-note pad by the phone on the desk. He wrote, “Sorry”. He crumpled the paper and dropped it in the trash can. He took the pen again and wrote the same thing on the next sheet. Flint balled it up, squeezed the paper tightly and threw it in with the first note.

Tip-toeing in the darkness, he crept toward the door.

Illuminated by the blue radiance of the glowing flood lights, the empty parking made Flint nervous. He took a sharp turn around a corner, to the side of the old brick building.

On the other side of the small alley where a row of air conditioner units buzzed, he stumbled upon a small, rectangular swimming pool in the rear of the motel. Despite the chilly breeze and the late hour, an older couple embraced each other, wading in the near corner of the bedraggled pool. Flint raised a few fingers as a polite offer of salutations, but swiftly realized his greeting had gone unnoticed. One woman kissed the other’s chubby neck and they rolled into the water giggling.

Further, a small pathway cut through the un-manicured shrubbery. Flint stopped and leaned against the wall of the little hardware store on the other side. He fiddled through his phone and found a number he hadn’t called in years, and wondered if it still belonged to the same person.

“Hello,” a tired woman mumbled.

“Aunt Karen, I hope I didn’t wake you up.” He knew he did, but nonetheless meant to be polite. “I’m sorry for the late call, but I need to ask a favor.”

“Clinton?” she asked.

“It’s Flint. I’m in a bit of a bind. My ride to mom’s funeral kind of fell through.”

“Flint?” She sounded confused.

Flint felt guilty for not keeping in touch over the years. “Yeah,”

“I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for days. Are you okay?”

He could sense the urgency in her voice. “I’m fine. Just trying to get my head around all of this.”

“Where are you? We went by the house to find you, me and Lonnie were worried sick. Why haven’t you called? Why didn’t you come by?”

Aunt Karen once served as a sort of part-time mom. She filled the vacancy when his mother left one. He would spend the night at her house playing computer games and drinking non-powdered milk, while his mom and her friends had one of their ‘adult nights’. She was a saint, though she did come off as a bit snobbish on occasion.

“No, I’m actually in town at the um. . .” Flint hesitated, scanning for a landmark or familiar street name. “. . .on Willis, across from the shamrock station.”

“Are you safe? Stay right there. We’ll be there in a minute.” she said with a tremble in her voice.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Flint made his way across the four-lane road and sat down on the bus-stop bench. He rubbed his calves, sore from last night's excursion. As far as midtown goes, he thought, this is probably a relatively safe place to be. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the plexiglass awning.

In his imagination, he played through the oddity that had been his recent life. Intricate plots in full color, the memories felt like childhood dreams. He felt some smidgen of egotism, perking his shoulders and creasing his lips. He smiled at his ability to manifest such detailed make-believe. Perhaps I am losing my mind, he thought. If so, will I ever get it back?

He remembered John’s face, and brought the image closer to clarity in his mind. John spoke whatever Flint wanted him to speak. Flint removed his mustache and replaced it with purple lipstick. John was made to apologize in Flint’s daydream. He apologized for killing the man with his hands. He tapped his head against the plexiglass and shook John from behind his eyelids.

In the real world, cars whooshed by periodically. A group of sighing people waited then boarded a bus. Flint kept his eyes closed all the while, imagining and dozing off intermittently. Aside from a few brushes of the leg and the occasional loud talker, the bus queue left Flint alone.

The sound of chattering metal awoke him. To his left, a woman, grey hair poking out of her headscarf, was slowly making her way down the street. He looked down in his lap and saw a dollar bill and a small assortment of coins. Flint grasped the money and hustled behind the woman. Startled, she twisted toward him and pressed her dark, leather purse against her waist. He could see the apprehension in her eyes.

Keeping some distance, he extended the handful of change toward the woman.

“Did you leave this with me?” he asked.

“Yes. If I had more to give, I would.” she said apologetically.

Flint was flustered by the heartwarming gesture. “Thank you so much, but I’m not homeless. I’m just waiting for someone to pick me up here.”

She released most of the tension she was holding in her posture. “Oh my, I just saw you sleeping there on that bench and- I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“Not at all, I am playing the part pretty well,” Flint said pinching his shirt and inspecting its griminess.

“Well you can keep it. It’s just a little change.” She shooed Flint’s hand with her own.

“I can’t. Just give it to the next one down the way,” he insisted.

“Don’t you worry about it, I keep a little extra in here for those folks.” She patted her purse. “I make this walk five days a week. It makes me feel a little safer knowing I’ve got some friends lookin’ after me. You have a good night, young man.” She smiled and continued her stroll away though the orange circles of light on the broken sidewalk.

On his way back to the bench, he was startled by a whistle. It was the kind of three toned whistle someone uses to get your attention. The shadow of a man waved from a monstrous pick-up truck in the gas station parking lot across the intersection. Flint jogged over the road and stared up into the cab of the unnecessarily tall truck.

“Hey buddy, hop in,” the man said.

“You have no idea how much I appreciate the help, Uncle Lonnie,” Flint said as he climbed into the truck.

“No problemo, kid. I thought you were about to start walking off.”

“Oh. No, I was just trying to give that lady her money back,” Flint said, embarrassed.

Uncle Lonnie put the transmission in drive and shot him a quick glance. “Lady?”

“Yeah.” Flint blushed. “She saw me sleeping and gave me some change, she must have thought I was a bum.”

“She must have been pretty little, because I didn’t see no ladies. Plus, you are a bum, that’s why you’re bumming a ride from me.” Uncle Lonnie pushed Flint’s shoulder and grinned.

“That’s fair,” Flint said.

“It’s good to see you again, dude. I’m sorry about your mom, you know. She was a great woman and she loved you kids so much,” he said

Aunt Karen and Uncle Lonnie had money. Flint often wondered just how rich they were, but it always felt like the wrong time to ask. Aunt Karen worked with money for energy traders out of Austin, and Uncle Lonnie worked in oil. There were rumors throughout the family, however, that they were legitimate millionaires.

Flint was surprised when Uncle Lonnie turned down the same street he would visit as a kid. It was a cute house, nothing extravagant, sporting custom tin shutters and blatantly plastic pillars by the front porch. The yard, however, was a sight to see. They had managed to jam-pack every square foot of premium turf with stone fountains and pristine garden exhibits.

“Flint!” a thin woman, wrapped in a nightgown, shrieked from the doorway. She stepped carefully from the porch and wrapped her arms around him.

Although he now stood inches above her, he felt like a child again.

“C’mon in. I couldn’t sleep after I got off the phone. Hell, it’s about time to wake up and get ready anyway. Did Lonnie find you alright? I told him by the hardware store but I couldn’t remember if I told him right.” She held onto his shoulders tightly.

“Yes, ma'am. I’m sorry for bothering y’all, I really appreciate all of the hassle.”

“Stop. You know we don’t mind. Plus Lonnie will do just about anything to get out in that damned new truck of his,” she said.

Uncle Lonnie leaned in and pecked her on her cheek. “I’m going to try and get a couple more hours in before the sun wakes me up. G‘night baby, g’night, Flint.”

“You look exhausted. We turned Clint’s old room into a yoga studio, but you’re welcome to sleep on the sofa. There’s pillows and blankets on the ottoman. And if you wanna shower, you can use the one in Clint- I mean- the studio.” She had new wrinkles beside her eyes, and her auburn hair had grown dull.

Flint finished washing up after a mild crisis, trying to figure out which of the dozens of products were shampoo. A pair of oversized fleece pajama pants and a blank, baby-blue T-shirt were left for him on the countertop. They smelled of old wood and cobwebs, but the garments were still an improvement from what he’d had on before.

In the center of the den, as they called it, was a big, poofy leather sofa. His Aunt and Uncle had amassed an extensive collection of things: electronics, antique signs, taxidermied creatures, trinkets and knick-knacks. Somehow they managed to tastefully jam-pack it all in the tiny room.

“Coffee?” Aunt Karen called out from the kitchen.

“Yes ma’am. Sure,” he replied, obviously more cautious about not waking Lonnie than she was.

She sat down at the other end of the couch and placed his mug in front of him as she sipped from her own.

“It’s chock-full of milk and honey. I wasn’t sure how you have it now, so I just made it the same old way.” She chuckled to herself.

“It’s perfect,” Flint replied.

“Margaret used to hate me for giving you kids this stuff. She would chew my butt out up and down the street.” She glared into her mug.

Flint faked a smile.

The coffee was much sweeter than he remembered, and the milk was bland compared to the flavored creamers he’d grown used to. Drinking it as a child made him feel like one of the grown-ups, chatting at the table about baseball cards and diseases and politics. Now, he felt a bit childish and wondered if she was drinking the same mix.

“Flint, your momma loved you. And your brother. She struggled, and she hated herself for it, but she loved y’all.” Her tone sharpened, and she postured herself matter-of-factly.

“I know it. There’s nothing we can do now. I just wish she would have told me what she was going through. It’s frustrating, she never gave me the chance,” he said.

“Me too, me too.” She shook her head. “I’ve already been sad too much this week. Let’s be sad tomorrow.” She stood and walked over to a bookshelf, littered with tin figurines and die-cast cars, and pulled a big, green photo binder from between the books.

She dropped the photo-binder on the little glass-top coffee table. Small, rectangular photographs filled the pockets on the first page, bleached yellow with time.

“That’s me and your mom at that old wax museum over on 8th Ave. This is us at Depeche Mode in Houston. Not really my scene, but your mom was crazy about them.” She scrolled her fingers over the old photos as she turned the vinyl pages.

Coffee-milk in hand, they sat and laughed at the outdated hairstyles. He heard stories he hadn’t heard before and basked in the nostalgia until the sun peeked through the blinds.


Chapter 9

Unimpeded by dreary clouds or black umbrellas, the morning sun gleamed brightly. It was a beautiful day, but not for a funeral. The river across the way babbled and echoed the song of a mockingbird. Funerals needed smooth gray clouds, maybe even a light drizzle, or so Flint thought.

He shuffled slowly behind his second cousin Neil, who only recently returned from the Middle-East the prior month. He was an Army guy, and he was having a much easier time carrying the casket than Flint. The Pall Bearers walked as they were instructed, down the alley, between the graves, toward the pile of clay-red dirt. The ritual felt strange, like escorting a parade float.

The mahogany-red casket with gradient hues, changing in the sunlight, jabbed into his shoulder with each step. Flint struggled to keep his side aloft, put to shame by the other four grown men. It felt like steel, but had the clunk of fiberglass as the group placed it on the stand that would soon lower it beneath the earth.

“I would like to welcome all of you, family, friends, all who came here to lay to rest and say farewell- heck, perhaps see you later to Margaret today.” The short bowling ball of a man slipped a rectangle of cardstock from the lining of his ash-gray morning jacket.

He squinted over his gold-rimmed spectacles at the paper, and cleared his throat. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste.” He paused and smiled across the sparse gathering. “Rolling stones?” he asked, tucking the note back into his coat. “No? Okay.”

Distant family and close friends, most of which Flint had never seen before, stood half-encircling the mound of red dirt. Margaret's best friend Denise dabbed her eyes occasionally with a handkerchief.

The director snickered and then continued. “But in all seriousness, my name is Ronald Caldman and I’m honored to conduct this service today for Margaret and for her loved ones she leaves behind.”

The man continued his monologue after explaining that in this day and age we should no longer mourn our dead, but celebrate them. Flint didn’t feel like celebrating.

Aunt Karen delivered a short eulogy, telling some of the stories she had shared earlier in the morning over coffee milk. Afterward, Denise stumbled through a few lines before becoming incoherent, and returning to her seat.

Flint wondered why he hadn’t felt the urge to cry. The tragedy had faded some. His mother’s death fell in the shadow of what his life had become since.

A puffy-haired boy, maybe seven, stood in front of Flint, brushing the short grass with his shiny, brown loafers, wishing he were somewhere else. Flint raised his arm slowly, pressed his finger against the center of the boy’s back, and quickly returned his arm to his side.

The boy looked back at him, waiting for some adult to scold him for daydreaming.

“Sorry,” Flint said, relieved that his hand hadn’t passed through the child like a ghost.

The director’s words faded, and Flint retreated into his head. He stared at the headstone, his mother’s rock. The slab of fresh granite sat flush with the earth, adorned with a square placard of brass. It read:

Margaret Stelly Hainsen

1969-2014

Forever in our hearts

Beside it, sat another rock, smaller, and chipped at the edges. It had been years since his mother had taken him to see it.

Jason Flint Hainsen

1968-1996

Father, Husband, Giving Soul

A preacher, presumably Baptist, although Flint wasn’t sure, read a passage of scripture as the short man in the morning jacket turned a small crank, and lowered Margaret into the hole, atop bright-green nylon straps.

“Flint.” Aunt Karen nudged him.

“What?” Flint snapped his head toward her.

She nodded toward the funeral director, who Flint hadn’t noticed standing right in front of him.

The man held a shiny black shovel, almost as long as he was tall. He leaned the handle toward Flint. “Would you like to?” he asked.

Flint took the shovel and apprehensively scooped a pile of clay-dirt onto it. Heavy chunks of the soil thumped loudly against the casket lid. He winced, thinking of how noisy it must be from inside.

After the ceremony, an assortment of strangers embraced him, patted his back, and gave their condolences. “Great woman, make her proud, kid,” one distant uncle demanded.

His Aunt wandered away from an elderly couple as they themselves departed, and walked hand in hand with Uncle Lonnie toward him. Her black mascara was streaked outward along her high cheekbones.

“Flint,” she said, holding his hand between her thumb and forefinger. “How are you doing?”

“I’m okay. Thanks.”

“Everyone’s meeting back up for dinner downtown in an hour. You should come.” She squeezed his hand tighter.

“Actually, I think I’m just going to hang around here for a bit.” Flint pulled his hand from hers and tucked it in his pocket.

“What? Right here? Are you sure?” she asked, trying to make eye contact with him.

“I just don’t know any of these people. I don’t even think they liked Mom.”

“Don’t say that,” she said.

The puffy haired boy glanced at Flint as he passed them with his parents.

“Who is that?” Flint asked.

Aunt Karen glanced at the family, and then back at Flint. “Who?”

Flint’s eyes widened. “You can’t see him?” he nearly shouted. “The kid, right there.” Flint flung his pointer finger out toward them.

“Who? Timothy?” She scrunched up her face. “Are you sure you’re okay.”

“Yeah-I just- Everything’s kind of weird.” Flint swallowed.

“Karen.” Uncle Lonnie was leaning against the grill of his pickup truck.

“Coming,” she called back.

“Okay. Call when you want us to pick you up. You can stay with us as long as you need. And I know it's a bad time, but I should be hearing from the probate attorney in the next few days, we’ll keep you in the loop.” A flood of tears swelled back along her bottom eyelids. She wrapped her arms around Flint and hugged him tight.

Flint nodded, and Aunt Karen and Uncle Lonnie left in procession with the rest of the guests.

A decorative bench sat beside the cement road that branched toward each asymmetrical block of graves. Flint sat and watched the funeral staff remove the chairs and tables and stack them on a trailer for takeaway. He hoped that the bench he was sitting on wasn’t someone's memorial.

It was a beautiful cemetery, far away from the whirring white noise of the city. Throughout the place were headstones of cement and granite. Closer to the center of the cemetery were large vaults and mausoleums. Most of the grand structures had become patinated and eroded, relics from a wealthier past. The common man was stacked upon his wife's casket beneath a modest plaque like his mother’s.

After some time, the roar of machinery filled the quiet resting place. A faded-yellow backhoe grumbled its way between the plots and tracked toward the pile of clay dirt. The tractor pushed and dumped the soil into the hole, filling feet of the empty space with each pass. Not nearly as romantic as the movies portray, Flint thought.

Over the noise of the mechanical undertaker came a shout. It did not come from the direction of the two workers heaping the dirt into the hole. Flint twisted around, there was nothing, only the hill brown grass and old tombstones. There was another shout. Flint turned once around once again. Past the hill, along the fence at the back of the property, a man, hardly a speck of color from that distance, waving his arm over his head.

Trying to get someone's attention from that distance seemed a futile effort to him, surely meant for another person. Flint turned again to the roaring machine.

“Flint!” the man shouted.

It took him a few seconds to realize that it was his name being called. The voice itself wasn’t necessarily familiar, and something inside made him hesitate to turn around.

The approaching man’s smile grew larger as he bobbed toward Flint, stepping briskly between the graves.

All warmth fell from Flint’s body, his face was a lifeless piece of cloth. Stuck in time, like a glacier, he stood in disbelief, and terror.

Nelson. Flint was surprised he even remembered the name. Over the years he’d occasionally reminisce of the boy who could walk through walls. He was told by his mother that he was too old to have a friend of the sort, but he never truly forgot.

Flint met the man’s warm smile with silence. He shook his head and stepped backwards.

“Flint!” he cheered. “It’s been a lifetime.” He outstretched his lanky arms and pulled Flint into a hug. He smelled like fireworks.

“No,” was all Flint could let out with a weak exhale.

The man leaned back, inspecting Flint with his head cocked to the side. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember me.”

“Wh-?” Flint looked behind him, watching his step as he backed away.

His old friend slapped the crest of his shoulder, and squeezed it. “Hey, hey. Don’t freak out dude.”

“You’re not real.” Flint shook his head. His mouth was dry, like sandpaper. He bumped his heel against the curb of the cement road.

“Flint,” Nelson said. He looked over his shoulder and all around the cemetery. “I need you to calm down, bud.”

Flint grabbed his arm and threw it to the side. “No.” He held out his hand as a barrier. “You’re just like him.” Flint looked down at his own hands, feeling repulsed by them. “Get the fuck away from me.”

Flint turned and stomped back toward the parking lot, hoping that his Aunt had come back for him. He clenched his jaw and pulled shallow breaths through his nostrils. His wide eyes darted around the grassy earth in front of him. He closed them tight and shook his head.

“Flint, wait. The same as who?” A hand grabbed him by his shoulder.

Flint jerked away from him. “Shut up!” he screamed.

The workers, filling a metal bin on a trailer with the hoisting equipment from the service, looked up from their tools. Flint turned sharply, hiding his face.

“Shit!” He stopped and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Birds continued to sing and squawk from the trees.

Nelson circled around him, and stopped to face him. “Hey. It’s weird, I know. But these people are going to think you’ve lost your mind if you don’t relax.”

Flint threw his hands out beside him. “I’m talking to my imaginary friend. I have lost my mind!”

Nelson was smaller than him when they were children, though he bragged about being older. Now, he stood a full head taller. His face was just as round and boyish, and he still wore his sandy hair swept to one side of his head.

“You’re not real.” Flint walked around him, hating himself for even acknowledging him.

“Remember when you got stuck in the pecan tree in the backyard? You cried for what? An hour?” His voice grew more distant as Flint stomped away.

Flint halted just before the fence line, and saw the murky river beyond the hexagonal wiring. The current carried debris, swinging it around miniature whirlpools. It was so close he could leap, if not for the fence.

“That day. How did you get down?” Leaves crunched beneath his feet as he approached.

Flint remembered the tree. It’s why he still despised heights. It stood in the backyard for most of his childhood, lush, monumental, but most importantly it littered the yard with delicious pecans each fall. He went up, hoping to feel a cloud as Nelson had, but became paralyzed upon seeing how well he’d done.

“I helped you, did I not?” Nelson said. “I got in a lot of trouble for that by the way, for interfering. I was real then, wasn’t I?”

Flint raised his eyes. He didn’t say anything. He tried to see through him, to see the air that the hallucination must have been occupying.

“You’re not crazy Flint. It’s me. I’m real. Always have been.” He raised his thin brows.

“I’m traumatized.” Flint nodded confidently.

“What?” Nelson asked.

“That’s what they said when I was a kid. My mom-” Flint stared from miles away. “It traumatized me. You and John, you’ll go away. I’ve just got to rest.”

“Believe that if you want, dude. Either way, these things you’re seeing, they’re not going to stop. No matter what meds, or shrink you talk to, or whatever,” Nelson said. “I’m your friend Flint. I always have been.”

He was a well-made hallucination. Flint studied him. There were frayed strings dangling loosely from the cargo pockets on his thighs. Rusty freckles dotted his cheeks, static and unchanging, and the dark pupils expanded and contracted between his hazel-green corneas.

“You were my imaginary friend,” Flint said sternly. “Imaginary.”

“Call it what you want. But that other imaginary guy you met, is dangerous. And I promise-” Nelson looked at him with a piercing stare. “If you pretend that this is all just pretend, he will make your life hell in a very real way.”

“Well, you’re too late,” Flint said.

An old gentleman, dressed in a Sunday suit, was walking between graves along the edge of the cemetery a few yards away from Flint. A slightly younger woman supported him with interlocked elbows as he hunched along, a bouquet of purple and yellow flowers in his frail hand.

As they passed, Flint looked around inconspicuously until he could no longer hear their chatting. He grabbed Nelson’s hand with his own, half expecting it to pass right through. It didn’t. Flint turned it over and then again, inspecting it thoroughly. The pads below each finger were hardened and calloused.

“Meat and bone,” Nelson said.

Flint let go of his hand and put his back against the chain-link fence. It squeaked and flexed under his weight.

“Look man, I’ll tell you what. Come with me. I haven’t seen you in years. We can just catch up, two friends.”

Flint sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “You said he’s dangerous? How do I know you aren’t?”

“Me and him aren’t the same,” Nelson snapped. “I can explain everything, but not here.”

“Okay,” Flint said reluctantly.

“Okay.” Nelson nodded and patted Flint on his arm. “Why don’t you call a cab for us and I’ll pay you back when we get to my house?”

Flint reluctantly agreed, even though he wasn’t sure how much cab service cost in the first place.

***

In the backseat of the dusty white Crown Victoria, Flint wondered if he was the only one in the rearview mirror. The driver didn’t speak much, or didn’t speak much English. He hadn’t addressed them as a plural. Also it wasn’t too obvious who he was looking at when he greeted them, because one eye was lazy and Flint couldn’t tell which one was doing the seeing.

“Here, just on the left,” Nelson said to the driver, extending his arm between the front seats. He was pointing at a skinny old home between two empty lots, crooked and aging. The cab driver swung the car over and stopped abruptly against the curb. Flint withdrew thirty-two dollars from his wallet, five dollars more than the little ticker in the dashboard displayed.

“Keep the change,” Flint said. Then after a pause, still holding one end of the bills. “I didn’t tell you to stop, did I?” He asked.

“This not the right place my brother?” The driver replied in a puzzled Mediterranean accent.

“No it is. I think...I mean, who told you to stop?” Flint asked maniacally.

“Your friend. All is ok?”

Flint grinned, relieved. “Yes, all is ok.”


Chapter 10

The decrepit two-story house, mostly hidden by years of vegetation, still wore its now peeling, original seafoam paint. Gothic protrusions jutted out from the surrounding overgrowth. The structure seemed to be more window than wall. The panes of glass were algae-green and warped with time. Such potential for grandeur wasted.

If it had been located three streets over, it would have been in the ‘historic district’. It would have been renovated and filled with a white, upper-middle class family with a shih-tzu. But it stood on 14th street and not 11th.

“The door’s around back,” Nelson said, checking over his shoulder before rounding the corner to the side of the house.

Nelson stopped after noticing that Flint wasn’t following him. “Dude,” He sighed. “It’s super sketchy, I know. But, please, move your ass before someone sees us.”

A narrow, leafy path wrapped around the side to a set of old glass doors. A white powder fell from the aluminum tracks as Nelson slid them open. A small step up and they stood in a large carpeted room, empty other than a heavy wooden table against the wall.

“Lights work?” Flint asked, pointing to a dusty, crystal chandelier dangling above.

“Sometimes.” Nelson kicked off his shoes, a pair of scuffed, leather hiking boots.

“So, are you like squatting here or what?” Flint asked as they walked through the warped door frame into another dim room.

“I like to think of myself as more of a sitter than a squatter,” Nelson replied “I’ve only been here a handful of times. But, trust me, all I’ve done is keep this beauty alive.”

Orange, matted carpet spread around the large central room, curling up before it touched the walls. Geometric shapes of different sizes were imprinted into the floor, left from furniture of the past. In the corner, before a large panoramic window, rested a nylon sleeping bag and a small blue backpack. A smooth, red-stained staircase stood beside the swinging saloon doors. It went up steeply and hooked around to a loft overlooking the spacious room. The sun shone through an octagon shaped skylight and projected dancing shadows along the walls.

“Well it is beautiful, I can’t believe it’s been left abandoned like this.”

“It doesn’t take long for forgotten things to wither and crumble,” Nelson said, scraping his thumb against the chipping paint.

Flint felt his glare, prodding. “Where’s the pisser?” Flint asked. “I’ve been holding it since the funeral.”

“Umm, down that hall. Third door on the right. I think.” Nelson nodded toward the dark corridor. “There’s water in the jug by the toilet. Pour it in and it’ll flush,” He yelled as Flint walked down the hallway.

Flint’s gazed back from a cloudy mirror. He hardly recognized himself in Uncle Lonnie’s big suit. He stared at himself and thought nothing. He scolded himself for being so gullible, and wondered if he and his reflection were alone in that house.

Back in the big room, Nelson sat Indian-style on the floor and unfolded an auburn lacquered wooden box. Inside were an equal number of small, porcelain, brown and white chips.

“Everything come out okay?” Nelson chuckled to himself.

Flint nodded.

“Do you remember Acey-Deucy?” Nelson grinned, folding the box out into a decorative game board.

“No. Looks familiar though. My grandma had something like that, she tried to teach me, but I think I just played around with the chips.”

“No? I could’ve- Here, have a drink. You can learn something today.” He handed a glass of warm cognac to Flint.

“You can be white, and I’ll be brown,” He said, dropping a handful of the chattering discs of ceramic in front of Flint. “You can roll first. Whatever you get, move that many spots on my side.”

Flint gulped a mouthful of the aromatic liquid and rolled the dice. “Where have you been all these years?” He tapped his chips to the fourth and fifth triangles.

“I lost my way for a bit. But, I’ve been trying to get back ever since,” Nelson replied. “See, I rolled doubles so you count twice.”

“Lost your way? Why come back now?” Flint asked.

“Because now is when we need each other.”

“Excuse me if this is rude, but-” Flint poured more of the amber liquid into his little glass. “You’re in my head. Right?”

“No.” He looked at Flint coldly. “Acey-Deucy!” He shouted and popped Flint on the bicep with the tips of his fingers.

“I don’t think I believe you.” Flint watched him suspiciously.

“If you roll and get a one and a two you scream ‘Acey-Deucy’,” He shouted again. “It means I win.”

“Not the damned game. I’m talking about you. I remember playing with you, my imaginary friend. But, I can see you. I can touch you. The freaking cab driver saw you.” Flint was beginning to feel the liquor. It flushed his cheeks with warm, fresh blood, and made the air flow cool through his nostrils.

“It’s weird. Trust me, I know. I’m still trying to understand it myself. And I’m not expecting you to suspend all disbelief. But right now, I just want to get reasonably drunk and play with my best friend.” He raised his glass. “That’s right! Pick any number for doubles and use that, then roll again.”

Flint raised his own glass. He turned his eyes back to board and tried to blink away an encroaching fog. “I think reasonably drunk is creeping up on me pretty quickly. What is this stuff?”

Nelson picked up the fat bottle and spun it in his hand. “It’s all in French. Found it up in the attic with this game. But it’s flammable and didn’t smell like pee so I’m drinkin’ it.” He picked up a brown chip and set it on the ledge running down the middle of the board.

“It sucks, what happened with your mom. She was such a sweet woman.”

“Yeah.” Flint tried not to think of it.

“Man would you get frustrated when you would tell her about me. You’d go on and on, and she just played along, talking to the floor beside you.” He fell to his elbow laughing through his nose.

“You did make things pretty awkward around there. Thanks for making me look like a schizo.” He tried to hold back, but joined in the laughter.

“I don’t know. I was a kid dude. I was still learning the rules.” Nelson fumbled a die in his palm. “And breaking most of them.”

Straw colored light from the waning sun crept through the ancient house. As the air cooled, old wood and concrete cracked and popped as it settled.

“Do you want me to show you?” Nelson slurred, leaning with one hand on the scattered chips.

“Hmm?” Flint struggled to keep his eyes open.

“Where I’ve been? Do you want me to show you?” he asked.

“Yes. The moon, wasn’t it?” Flint grinned and dragged his finger through the air, resting it at the ceiling.

Nelson smiled. “I can’t believe you remember that. But, no, not the moon. I think we’ve drank enough. Any more and I might ruin this beautiful carpet.” Nelson pulled Flint standing with him.

“Yep, I’m more drunk up here,” Flint slurred. He held the wall to stop the room from swaying.

Nelson led Flint to the big staircase that went to the loft. On its side was a small door, about shoulder high, that he hadn’t noticed before. It didn’t have a knob or handle, but a small copper latch.

“The basement,” Nelson answered to Flint’s confused expression.

He unlatched the door and swung it inward. Stale wind brushed past them as they descended the creaking stairs. Flint could barely see the vague, cloth-draped shadows, faintly illuminated by the small moonlit window near the ceiling.

“Not a lot of houses with basements around here, huh?” Nelson asked.

“I don’t think so. I heard the ground’s too soft.”

They stumbled carefully along the path between the cloaked objects. Perhaps the ghostly forms were priceless antiques, abandoned by occupants who forgot about the little door in the stairs. Maybe beneath the dusty canvas tarps, more imaginary men, or monsters waiting to ambush them. The silver moonlight exposed only the tops of the obstacles, leaving the floor below pitch-black. The musty air flowed through his nostrils like syrup, leaving him hungrier for air with each breath.

At the back of the room, Nelson stopped before a wall of ancient brick. Its peeling paint held pockets of water where it lifted from the stone. Patches of rusty mold crept from the floor and climbed toward the ceiling.

“This will be odd to you. Try and stay conscious. Okay? Can you do that?” He took his jacket off, and laid it atop one of the dusty tarps.

“Yeah, I think so.” Flint stepped back as the man reached for something in his pocket.

It had an intimidating glow. A knife, no bigger than the palm of his hand. Streaks of darkened silver spread through the lightning white blade like a titanium grained tree. The handle, studded with gold, was wrapped tight in gory-red leather. He stuck the point of the luminous blade against the wall at his feet. He pressed hard and drug the blade upwards with a raspy scrape. Pulling it horizontally over his head, the luminous blade made the shadows creep and expand throughout the room. He pulled the knife down again, leaving behind a crudely etched rectangle exposing the red bricks beneath the paint.

“Hold this,” Nelson demanded, extending the leather handle to Flint. It stung his palm with a hyper-rapid vibration that only made him squeeze it tighter. The sensation travelled through his fingernails and deep into his bones and tendons. The energetic tingling stopped abruptly before his elbow, where it spun and twisted inside of him like a cyclone. He wanted to drop it, but it felt as if it were pulling into him and he knew he shouldn’t.

“And if we find the right spot. Aha! There we go.” With his fingernail, Nelson plucked at the top left corner of the rectangle etching. He ticked away at it like finding the end on a roll of masking tape.

“Do you still have Kashvi?” He looked back over his shoulder at the glowing knife, still clenched in Flint’s hand. “Good. Don’t leave her here or we won’t be able to get back very easily.”

“Back? From where?” Flint asked.

Nelson got his fingernail beneath the corner he’d been picking at and pinched it between two fingers. He pulled the corner and peeled a thin layer of brick wall away from whatever alien substance that hid behind it. As it fell, it flopped and folded like a wet cloth. As it tore from the fabric of itself, it grinded and resonated like a sandpaper zipper.

On the wall, above the slumped over folds of fabric-like stone, a dark emptiness took shape. Textures of grouting and bumpy mold remained, but the surface no longer resembled anything terrestrial. It was a doorway of icy, black stone. Feathery pinholes of grey light, astronomically distant, floated across the soft obsidian rectangle.

Flint’s wide eyes, reflecting the pulsating glow of Kashvi, turned from the door to the man who created it. He tried to speak but couldn’t.

“Well?” Nelson said with a slight grin.

Flint’s voice came out as a crackling whisper. “What is it?”

His friend, the boy that came from the walls, clasped his hand into his own. He looked nervous, but sure.

Nelson stepped over the skin of the old brick wall and into the glassy abyss. The parts of him that entered were distorted beyond the surface of the doorway. As his second boot slid through, the material wobbled and rippled like a molten galaxy.

Flint’s hand sank into the surface of the doorway after Nelson. As his face was pulled closer to the precipice, his heart fluttered furiously. He tried to resist the pull, but it was too strong. Holding his breath, he turned his head and slipped out of the basement.

The immeasurable expanse of shifting space resisted him. Nelson’s grip tightened, pulling him through the darkness like cool molasses. The faint silver shine of the knife sparkled from what seemed light years away, but he felt its whirring energy still firm in his grip.

Rushing toward them like a falling star, a dark wall of swirling opaqueness overtook the space and wrapped around the two men. Like being pounded into the ocean-floor by a wave, Flint’s body, or whatever he was in, tumbled and meshed with the wall.

Suddenly, the squeezing of the space around him ceased, and he viewed the knife in his hand at his waist. He gasped for a trembling breath and rubbed his eyes clear.

Nelson stood hunched over beside him panting. “Fuck.” Nelson coughed. “I must have cut too deep.” He winced and spit into the shallow lake of grey dust that coated the floor. “I should probably have adjusted for the two of us.”

Flint’s teeth chattered, and he looked for anything still to focus on.

Where they’d arrived wasn’t completely unlike where they’d come from. A wall of jagged, white brick stood behind them. Cut out of it was an identical swirling portal of blackness. There were other walls, miles away. Softly rolling plains of grey clouds consumed the top of them and filled the space between.

Nelson took the glowing knife from Flint and with a powerful thrust, jammed it into the bottom-left corner of the doorway. He scooped a pile of grey dirt over it with his hands, covering most of the blade.

“Makes a fine doorstop too,” he said with a smirk.

“Where are- and how? Did we?” Flint stuttered, spinning around with his hand tucked in his hair.

“One at a time,” Nelson chuckled. “This is where we ‘imaginary’ folk call home.”

“What?” Flint scowled.

“Nobody can agree on what to call it. Most here just call it this side, as opposed to that side.” Nelson pointed back at the doorway. “But the people from that side call it the astral plane. Or whatever. It’s not very important honestly.”

Flint shook his head and tried to slow his breathing.

“And that? What’s the knife? A uh- freaking portal opener or something?” Flint realized that any feeling of drunkenness had left him completely. He seemed to have left his inebriation back in the basement.

“Kashvi. The Teacher gave her to me a long time ago. The cause of most of my troubles to be honest.” Nelson adjusted the tail of his shirt with his dirty hand.

Flint laughed nervously and paced a few steps back and forth, rubbing the grime from his neck. “No offense if I seem skeptical. I mean, I’m seeing it all, but I don’t know. I’m having a hard time believing what’s coming out of your mouth.”

“None taken,” he replied “I wasn’t even sure if I could take anyone through there. I was worried you’d end up scrambled eggs, stuck in The Between.”

Flint twisted his glare to his friend abruptly. “And a teacher gave it to you?” Flint asked.

“The Teacher. She runs the place. We should get going.” With his foot, he pushed a little more dirt from beside the massive wall onto the glowing knife.

Between the distant walls, mountains of dusty canvas stretched into the fog in all directions. Their summits flapped in the winds a hundred feet in the air. Overhead, they echoed like the sails from a thousand storm-beaten ships.

Nelson walked diligently in front of Flint, leading him in zig-zags through the cloth monoliths. One after another they passed them, leaving footprints like astronauts on an alien planet. A soft wind, bitter and stale, poured over the path. Flint noticed the urgency in Nelson’s steps. He stomped along beside him, trying not to fall behind.

“It feels like we’ve been walking for miles, how much further?” Flint pleaded.

“That’s a good question.” Nelson stopped and broke his uncomfortable silence.

“You don’t know?” Flint asked, exasperated.

“It’s different each time, things aren’t as definite here. That’s how this place is.” Nelson turned slowly, scanning the landscape around them. “If I hadn’t fudged the cut, we could’ve been there already.”

“The cut?” Flint asked.

“The doorway.”

“Oh.” Flint wondered if his body was sleeping somewhere. If he was dreaming, he hoped to remember when he awoke.

A soft shuffle, like paper falling from a desk, fluttered ahead in the direction they were walking. Nelson slid his feet as he turned toward the noise. A wisp of suspended dirt swirled beside the base of the heavy canvas that hung from the mountain. He reached for his belt and looked down at the empty sheath.

Flint watched him, uneasy with his reaction.

“Who’s there?” Nelson called out. He stepped softly, with his shoulder leading him.

“It looked like it went behind the hill over there,” Flint said quietly.

The dust had settled and the air was quiet, save for the popping fabric in the sky. Flint balled his fists and walked toe to heel behind Nelson. He wasn’t sure if a fistfight was even a viable option there, but Nelson left behind Kashvi, and he wasn’t sure what there was to be afraid of in the astral realm.

“It was right here,” Flint said, pointing toward the large fold of canvas they were approaching.

“Get back. And keep your eyes on the ground.” Nelson crept closer.

Flint didn’t listen. He stepped out wide, and saw it. It was the first bit of color he’d seen since they’d entered that place. It had the form of a man, but stretched out and sickeningly thin. Pink flesh wrapped tightly around the creature’s sharp bones and twitching muscles.

Unmoving and unbreathing, it stood hunched beside the unbeaten path. Its belly was sunken and famished, recessed beneath a spiky ribcage.

Flint saw the eyes. The two fist sized holes, surrounded by wrinkled flesh, ran straight through to the open space behind the thing’s head. Flint was breathless, and his heart paused with a solid thump.

“Flint!” Nelson screamed. He grabbed Flint by the chin and twisted his head away from the creature. “Run!”

They sprinted as hard as they could. Flint could feel the thing, behind his neck, reaching out to pull him into the shadows. He looked back. It stood in the same spot, its dark, pitted eyes still fixated on him.

“What the fuck was that thing?” Flint yelled over the sound of their stamping feet.

“Drog. Don’t look back,” Nelson panted.

Ahead, a structure emerged from the blanket fog. It appeared at first to be just another wall, jutting into the clouds like the others. But against the wall was a staircase, standing inexplicably with not nearly enough rigidity to support its weight.

Flint slowed to a stop beside Nelson at the base of the towering steps. Despite Nelson’s suggestion, he looked over his shoulder. The drog wasn’t behind them, but that didn’t make him feel any safer.

“Really?” Flint asked between gasping breaths, dumbfounded by the magnitude of the stairs.

“Unfortunately,” Nelson murmured. “C’mon, once we’re out of here it gets a whole lot easier.”


Chapter 11

A slice of glowing moon hung low in the sky like a silver Nordic vessel. Spectacular nebulae of purples and pinks irradiated the field of clouds that settled below the stairs.

Flint threw his leg up the last step and lifted his other to the platform at the top of the staircase. He stood in awe, looking out across the giant chamber.

“That thing, the drog. What if it finds the door- the cut?” Flint asked.

Nelson reached the platform and stood hunched over, with his hands on his thighs. “Very unlikely.” He spit over the edge. The ball of saliva was taken by the wind as it fell.

“I mean, could it get through?” he asked.

“Drogs aren’t that bright. Even if it stumbled on the cut, it couldn’t pass through without Kashvi,” Nelson said.

“What are they?” Flint asked.

“They’re like- parasites. They’re evil as shit dude. Come from the lower realms. They’re technically not beings so the teacher doesn’t really bother with sending them back.” Nelson scoffed.

“Right,” Flint said slowly.

Fixed in the wall, at the center of the platform, was a wooden door. The copper knob was worn, with specks of green oxidation. Nelson grabbed it and twisted it. Sunlight, and a blade of warm, dry air burst through the opening.

Flint shielded his eyes with his forearm as he followed Nelson into the bright light. The wind whistled and kicked up red dust along the side of an arid highway. A crackled desert stretched out to the horizon, clinging on to dried, stubby shrubs that shook in the wind.

“Are we out?” Flint looked down the long, vacant highway, which ran parallel to the wall.

“Out of where?”

“Out of there. The astral, or whatever you call that god forsaken place,” Flint asked, turning back to the door, and the other side of the towering wall.

“No.” Nelson laughed. “This is all the Astral Realm. We’re just on another floor. And there’s only one way out.” Nelson nodded back toward the door.

“How much further?” Flint asked.

Nelson looked toward one end of the stretched blacktop, and then the other. “Hm.” He shrugged.

“Are we lost?” Flint asked.

“No.”

“You don’t sound too sure of yourself. If we are, I say we just go back to Lanely Hills now.”

Puddles of mirage glinted on the pavement in the distance. Flint held his hand against his forehead and looked to the sky for the source of the overwhelming white light. As he realized that no sun, or comparable star hung in the sky, one appeared.

“It’s difficult to explain. Everything’s kind of lost here,” Nelson said, stretching his arms to the horizons. “Things, places, people, they don’t like to stay put. If just one person thinks something’s in Antarctica, it might be there.”

Flint scratched his head beneath his dark hair. “At least tell me there are cars here, or horses. Anything but more walking.”

“No cars. And no horses,” Nelson chuckled.

“Great.” Flint thought of going back. He could still see the onerous cascade of stairs through the door, and he didn’t feel invited by them.

“But.” Nelson paused with a pointed finger. “We don’t need them,” he added.

Flint flicked a speck of red sand from his uncle’s blazer.

“Like I said, we can decide where things are. And we are things.” He nodded, seeking Flint’s understanding.

“So you can just think me to the teacher’s house?” Flint asked questioningly.

“I could think a you someplace. That’s not what I’m talking about.” He stopped abruptly. “Back there in the normal world intention moves slow. You have to plan, act, and wait for an outcome. Here, it’s instantaneous, to varying degrees,” Nelson explained.

“Like in a lucid dream.” Flint had experimented with lucid dreams as a teenager, and even read some books on the subject. He was only successful a handful of times, and most were glossed over with attempts at flying and sex, lots of sex.

“Exactly!” he exclaimed excitedly. “But in a dream you have total control. Here you have an opinion. If the universe agrees with you, it is fact.”

“So we teleport?”

Nelson struck a satisfied grin. “We stretch.”

“Stretch?” Flint asked, mildly irritated by the theatrics of it all.

“Yes. Think of where you want to be, visualize it. Reach out and grab it tight, then let go of where you started.” Nelson stepped out onto the asphalt of the dusty highway. He looked to the colorless sky and stopped before he touched the center line.

“Wait. If I don’t know where-” Before Flint could finish his sentence, Nelson’s spine jolted into a sharp arch. In a second, the anterior of the rigid man disintegrated from him. A multicolored vapor trail of his clothes and skin expanded as they separated from his body. The rear vertical half of him stayed intact, unmoving for a moment before thrusting forward and collapsing into the rest of himself with a soft electric crackle.

Flint stood there, beside the road, staring at the pavement. After a moment he decided to move. Chips of dried earth crunched beneath his feet as he cautiously walked to where his friend had vanished.

“Nelson?” Flint spoke to the air that swallowed his friend. The wind roared against his cheeks.

“Okay,” he reassured himself.

He closed his eyes and raised his chin to the sky as Nelson had. “Teacher,” he whispered to himself. He shook the tension from his arms and shoulders and shuffled his feet. “The Teacher.”

He imagined a classroom. A vague, stock image with empty desks and posters on the walls. He clenched his eyes harder and tried to solidify the image in his mind. There was a figure in the ill-defined room, the back of a woman in a dark gown. Motionless, she stood facing a chalky blackboard.

A strained groaning gargled from his chest to his throat. His jaw slackened and his breath stopped. His abdomen flung forward, taking him to the tips of his toes.

Flint held onto the thought of the room and the woman. His eyelids never lifted, but suddenly, his vision was flooded with flashing imagery. A highway, a dried cactus, silhouettes of men, a copper lake, ancient mountains, and a classroom, all stacked beside each other and upon one another. Wind, like a jet engine, roared in his ears.

An energetic barrier slammed into him, and stopped his flight.

He sat in an empty classroom, at a desk facing the gowned woman at the blackboard. A cloth headpiece hung down her neck. It tousled side-to-side as she tapped a stick of chalk against the slate.

Flint lifted his hands from the steel desk and took in his surroundings. “Is Nelson here?” he asked the woman.

She continued to slice away at the board with the chalk, inscribing indecipherable numbers and letters.

“Are you The Teacher?” he asked.

The tapping ceased and the woman slowly lowered her arms to her sides. She gently set the half-worn stick of chalk in the aluminum tray that ran along the bottom of the board.

Flint looked at the door in the corner of the room and quietly turned his legs from beneath the desk.

A bony hand reached further along the aluminum tray, and with the same flowing ease, plucked up a flat wooden stick. She rotated toward him brandishing the ruler beside her paper-white neckerchief. Her opaque, sunken face scowled, curling her lips around her pointed nose as she stomped toward his desk. A burgundy crucifix bounced and clinked against the other ropes and beads that hung around her cowl.

“Nelson!” he screamed out. A rusty bolt snagged the leg of his pants.

The bony woman stopped at his desk and raised the ruler into the air. Flint flinched and cowered his head into his elbows as she swung the stick downward. It slapped the tabletop with a deafening pop.

He squeezed his eyelids shut harder, and brought the image of Nelson into his mind’s eye. A handsome man, standing alone in an abyss of darkness, smiling as if he had just told himself a joke. In his head, the image became solid and Flint latched to it. The room shifted. The cold, metal desk he was lying on became soft and permeable. His body stiffened as the land passed around him again.

A warm hand rested on his neck.

“Hey bud. It’s about time,” Nelson said quite cheerfully.

Flint ripped the hand from his neck and stumbled away from it. He opened his eyes and saw his friend crouched, looking up at him.

“I’m done,” Flint said. “That’s it. I want to go back. Now.”

“Flint. We’re here,” Nelson said, pointing to a square, beige building in the center of an empty parking lot. It was something like a dentist office or modern condo. Around the isolated lot, rolling hills of faded greens and yellows, extended endlessly toward the horizon.

“I don’t care. How do I know something in there won’t try and kill me?” Flint shouted.

“I’m sorry dude,” Nelson pleaded. “What happened?”

Flint scoffed. “What happened? You left me. That’s what happened!”

Nelson held his hands out in front of him. “You’re right. It was a dick move,” He said. “I came right back and you were gone. I wanted to see if you could do it without me holding your hand.”

“Why?” Flint threw his hands above his head. “Why are we here? In- in this nightmare?”

“Because we have to be!” Nelson shouted.

A full moon had taken the sun’s place in the charcoal sky. A single star, or what looked like a star, hovered and twinkled just above where the hills met the sky.

“I promise, no more surprises. Please, just come see The Teacher. And then we can go straight back to the house,” Nelson said.

Flexing his jaw, Flint turned toward the building. He shook his head. “Alright.”

Clusters of incandescent bulbs flickered intermittently as they walked across the vacant lot.

“This is restricted area. State your name or leave now,” A brute of a man barked, nearly bursting the seams of his white uniform as he postured in front of the door.

Nelson grinned up at the giant. “What’s up Sven? You look about as cheery as ever.”

“State your names. Or leave,” Sven repeated.

“Stickler for the rules, this one,” Nelson muttered to Flint, hiding his mouth behind his hand. “Ahem. Nelson Germander and Flint Hainsen would like to request an audience with The Teacher.” He held back his shoulders and turned his chin pretentiously. “Please.”

Sven stared at Nelson, and then Flint. He unlocked the door and pulled it open.

Inside, a thin hallway ran parallel to the front of the structure. Evenly spaced along the creamy-white walls were identical, red-cushioned chairs. At each end of the hall was a crimson door.

Flint followed Nelson to the door on the left. Hanging on the outside, and cast in gold, a fish ate its tail and formed a circle.

Nelson knocked softly and walked inside.

Ferns in porcelain pots and humanoid figures carved from wood decorated the corners of the dark room. In the center, a Persian rug, intricately woven with swirling pictures of men and men-like monsters, covered most of the floor.

On the rug sat a woman, cross legged, and beautiful in all aspects. Her chestnut skin, smooth and flawless, reflected the warm yellow candle light like a satin dress. A thin champagne-pink cloth, ornate with dozens of gold medallions, draped from her shoulders and hid her breasts.

“Come in, sit down,” the woman said. Her accent was ancient and foreign.

Before her on the rug rested an oval tray, set upon dark wooden blocks. Nelson crouched and sat as she was, and Flint followed suit.

She opened her opal eyes. “Oh, you’ve brought a guest?”

“I hope that’s alright. This is the one I’ve been telling you about,” said Nelson.

Her meticulously shaped eyebrows raised with curiosity. “Ahh, I see. Young man, are you aware of this man's obsession with you?”

Flint forced his gaze away from her eyes. “No. No ma’am.”

“And do you know who I am?” she asked.

“The Teacher?” he stammered.

“That is my profession. My name is Amira. I cannot recall yours,” she said softly.

“Flint.”

He found his eyes wandering between her flowing fabrics and the silhouette of her curved figure behind them. He lowered his head and thought of apologizing.

“Of course. Flint,” she agreed. “And Nelson. You do know it is unnatural to bring him here. The act is forbidden for good reasons. Why do you risk yourself?” She lifted her chin and settled her stare on him.

“I know. I’m sorry, but one of the demons I was after, he had contact with him there, in the physical plane. He’s getting braver,” Nelson said.

“Is this true?” She turned to Flint.

“Demons?” Flint questioned.

“John.” Nelson said.

A chill ran up Flint’s spine. “No. You said ‘demon’. Like a demon, demon?” Silly images of hoofed goat-men flashed through his mind.

Amira seemed to notice him struggling with the context. “A demon, a tulpa, a fragment. They have many names. It is a broad category.”

“But he’s evil? That’s why you call him a demon?”

“It depends on where it is at. It’s relative. Some trespass and do bad things. Some are only lost. Give me your hands, let's see your demon.”

Amira stretched her hands lazily before the small tray. Flint had to lean far across it to reach her. A wisp of pungent incense smoke stung his nose. It smelled of beeswax and copper.

She grasped his palms with her thumbs and smiled toward the ceiling with shut eyes. The white smoke swirled in a vortex and shot above them as it was licked by the candle flame. With the smoke, the world spun too. Flint closed his eyes and felt bliss. Her hands were comfortable, they cradled him in his mind and he laid within them and hoped that he could stay there eternally.

“What is his name?” her voice asked from the darkness.

“John,” Flint replied, irritated to be interrupted, but not awoken.

Amira’s grip tightened and tugged at Flint, shaking him in his distant daydream. Aside from the goddess’s firm grip, the only sensation that remained was a pressure behind Flint’s closed eyes as if he were staring into the back of his skull. His mind floated in the emptiness.

Their eyes sprung open and met each other’s simultaneously. Her's, complex and glowing, broke the gaze and looked to the floor. With her palms she lifted herself from her meditative pose and stood above him.

“Interesting,” she said, looking to Nelson and back to Flint.

“What?” Flint asked.

“The demon. He made you kill.”

Flint’s face soured. Images of that night flashed through his mind. Blood dripped from a dark punctured skull. A lump in his throat held his speech. He nodded and felt the guilt in his bones.

“Like I said, it was urgent. I wouldn’t have-” Nelson began.

“Would you like any tea?” Amira interrupted.

Flint nodded.

She turned and looped three fingers through three brass cups from a table near the wall. She lined them along the wooden tray beside the incense.

Nelson continued, “You know I would never bring anyone over. But Flint can stop him. I know it.” He stared like a child waiting for a response.

Steam began to rise from the teacups, backlit by the candlelight. Each cup was full to the brim with tea, and Flint was sure it was never poured.

“You should not have brought him here. These are the rules. It is my responsibility to keep order on this plane,” she said.

Nelson raised a finger to interject.

“But,” she added. “Perhaps the circumstances will have me look the other way.”

Nelson sighed in relief. “Thank you Teacher.”

Flint’s tension relaxed also. He took a brass cup and sipped some of the hot tea.

“It is paramount that in dealing with this situation, that the two of you have a duty of confidentiality. No one, and no thing can know you are travelling between realms.” For the first time that night, she wasn’t smiling. “Am I clear?”

“You have my word,” Nelson added.

Amira looked to Flint.

Flint clumsily wiped a dribble of tea from his chin. “I’m sorry, what do you mean by ‘deal with this situation’?

“It is obvious, is it not?” she asked.

Flint thought for a moment. He didn’t like it when people asked a question after they had given you the answer. It was obvious that there was a situation. A very strange one indeed. But he was still having trouble imagining how you dealt with an imaginary astral ghost cowboy, or whatever he was.

“Obvious. Right.”

“Good. Nelson will need you. It seems this demon has some interest in you. But be very cautious, if given the chance he will turn you into something much worse than what you’ve seen today,” she said sternly.

“I’ll keep him safe. Not a scratch,” Nelson said.

Amira took a sip of tea. “I suggest you obtain assistance from Pov. He’s in your St. Louis. I’ll inform him.”

Nelson furled his brow and cleared his throat. “All due respect, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. We can handle this with just the two of us.”

“If anyone will find this demon, it is Pov. Go see him. Give him something to do other than his cheap parlor tricks.”

“I’m not letting everything I’ve worked for be ruined by that rat,” Nelson snapped. “Please, I can handle this.”

She exhaled sharply. “It’s not up for discussion.”

Nelson’s nostrils flared. “Right.” He nodded.

“Please. I’ve got work to do.” Amira motioned her arm toward the red door.

Sven opened the glass doors and Flint and Nelson stepped back into the dimly lit parking lot. Atop the dark, hilly horizon, miles away, the speck of neon starlight pulsated like a beating heart.

“Let’s get back home,” Nelson said.

“What about St. Louis? Can’t we just stretch there?” Flint asked.

“I wish. Like I said, there’s only one way out. In theory we could try and cut another door, but the chances of ending up where you want are one in a trillion.”

Nelson closed his eyes and took a deep breath, relaxing his muscles from his scalp to his toes. “Focus on me,” Nelson muttered.

With his eyes closed, the gravity seemed to shift and pull Flint’s chest from inside him once again. A charge of energy snapped through his bones. Each molecule of him separated and shot through the air. He opened his eyes and for only a moment he saw Nelson, flying in front of him at light speed through an electrifying tunnel of greyish-purple clouds.

They stopped without a skid. Nelson’s knife sent illuminating pulses through the dirt at the doorway it had cut.

“A lot easier coming back.” Nelson reached into the dusty soil and yanked the knife from the brick.

The door in the wall began to close as the folded stone mended itself at the edges. Before it sealed, Flint followed his friend back through the dark portal.


Chapter 12

The aroma and sound of sizzling bacon filled the air and served as a catalyst to Flint’s awakening. Light from the morning sun peeked between the rotten wood that covered the windows. Wrapping the fleece blanket he slept with around himself, Flint stood from the floor and stretched his back.

“Good morning bud!” Nelson exclaimed from across the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room.

“Morning,” Flint groaned.

Nelson was bobbing and swaying to an inaudible tune, clicking a pair of tongs along with the beat. “Breakfast is just about ready.”

Flint drug his feet through the hallway, to the musty bathroom and urinated for what felt like an eternity. Afterward, he made his way back to the kitchen where Nelson was setting the table on the floor beside the fireplace. He placed the electric hot plate between the two of them.

“Did you sleep alright?” Nelson asked, exposing his chewed food as he spoke.

“No.”

“Me either. There’s no insulation left in this place,” Nelson said.

Flint took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, trying to overcome his swaying vertigo. He poked at a piece of meat wedged between his teeth.

“What?” Nelson asked.

Flint looked at his friend, confused.

“What do you want to ask me? I can see those gears turning over there,” Nelson said.

Flint fidgeted with a strip of bacon. His stomach ached as he folded and twisted the caramel flesh, straining amber grease from its fatty edges. “He said he knew my mom.”

“Who?” Nelson asked.

“John.”

“Don’t let him get into your head Flint. That’s all he wants. It’s what he needs. They feed off of that stuff.”

“He knew things about her. And where we went last night, that fucking place-” Flint shook his head. “Demons? Tulpas? How do you know so much about John? Why are you chasing him?”

"Slow down. Relax." Nelson smiled. "You know chess, right?"

Flint inhaled slowly. "I'm really not in the mood for another board game."

"No," Nelson chuckled. "John is like a chess piece. Easy to control, mostly harmless."

"I'll have to disagree," Flint said.

"Well, let's say I was losing this game of chess and decided to quit. Flipped the board. Now there's a hazard. Every poor soul walking by gets hurt as they step on the piece. I can put the piece back where it belongs, or I can throw it in the trash. Either way it's my responsibility to clean up the mess."

Flint glared at his old friend. "So John is your fault?"

Nelson diverted his eyes. His Adam's apple bobbled. "It's complicated. But, yes. Right now we need to worry about finding him before he hurts anyone else. One more question, any more can wait until we're on the bus to St. Louis.”

A chorus of mockingbirds and morning doves sung in the trees outside the abandoned mansion. Flint thought of Abbey.

He wondered if she would believe him

Flint wrapped the blanket tighter around himself. “Why a bus?”

“What? Do you want to walk?” Nelson asked sarcastically. “Plus, it’s a whole lot cheaper than flying.”

“How much is it?” Flint asked.

“It’s one-forty-seven a piece so-” He tapped his finger against his leg in thought. “Plus food while we’re out there,” he muttered. “Three-fifty.”

“Three-fifty?” Flint exclaimed. “I guess we will have to walk.”

Nelson laughed. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll just have to get creative.”

The two of them sat in front of the crumbling, limestone fireplace for some time, bouncing their feet and occasionally raising a finger before lowering it in defeat. The walls creaked and groaned, interrupting the silence.

“What about your aunt and uncle? Maybe they could spot you.” Nelson raised his eyebrows.

“No,” Flint said quickly. “I don’t want to get them involved."

“Involved in what? You don’t have to tell them what it’s for.”

“I killed someone Nelson!” Flint snapped.

“I’m not dragging them into this mess.” He clenched his teeth, wincing at the thought.

“Hey.” Nelson pointed a strip of bacon at him. “You did not kill anyone. That was him. You have to know that, or he wins.”

“Yeah, well when they find my prints all over that place, they won’t be looking for him,” Flint said. “For all I know they’re questioning my Aunt right now.”

Nelson pushed his hair down through his fingertips, scratching his scalp. “We’ll work something out.” A vein protruded from the center of his forehead as he stared at the bile colored floor. “But we’ve got to hurry.”

Flint studied his old friend as he drifted off into thought. He was the same boy. He looked like the right side of those age progression pictures that hung in the entryway of the supermarket. Even the boys and girls from high school were almost unrecognizable just a few years after graduation. But, Nelson looked intentional, designed maybe.

Flint tapped his foot and rubbed the backs of his teeth with his tongue. “You said we’d have to get creative,” he said, breaking the silence.

“Yeah, unless you want to walk 750 miles.” Nelson smirked. “Whatcha got?”

“It’s risky. And I’m not in unless you’re one-hundred percent in.” Flint took a moment to gather his thoughts. “I was working a job out in the east end a while back, over at the train terminal. A contracting company. Roofing, sheetrocking, drop-ceilings, handy-man stuff.”

Nelson interrupted. “We don’t have that kind of time, man. And without a social security number or any other earthly credentials, I don’t think I’m the best candidate for employment.”

“No listen. He pays under the table an-” Flint started.

“I appreciate the good work ethic. I do. But every day that passes, John grows more comfortable and more dangerous,” Nelson interrupted again.

“If you’d let me finish,” Flint said.

“Sorry.”

“He paid a few of us in cash. One time he went out on vacation before paying any of us. He gave me the combination to the safe to get it out myself,” Flint said. “The guy's a drunk.”

“So steal it?” Nelson said. “Flint.” He looked at Flint disapprovingly.

“I don’t like it either. But, we only take what we need and put it back as soon as we get back to town,” Flint explained.

Nelson sat and pondered for a moment. The look he gave, sent flutters through Flint’s stomach. He felt like he hardly knew the man. But that look. The look your sweet grandpa gives you when he hears your first curse word.

“We’ll be paying back a lot more than money,” Nelson uttered. “Karma always gets hers.” He nodded at his own statement.

“We’ll pay it back. The karma too.”

“Shit.” Nelson shook his head. “Well, what’s the plan?”

The two of them rummaged through old cabinets and dusty shelving collecting things they might need for their heist, subsequently tossing most of it aside as unnecessary. More acey-deucy was played and they chatted about politics and love and by association, about Abbey. Nelson acquitted Flint for his abandoning Abbey in the hotel that night. Women come and they go, and they take and they also leave, he said. Even he once had a love affair and left a woman broken hearted, he told.

As the cool-pink luminescence of a cloudy sunset painted the walls, and after Nelson washed the dishes and obsessively swept a patch of dusty hallway, reluctantly they left the old mansion.

***

They trotted on for an hour or so and kept to the well-lit paths, despite Flint’s insistence that they be discreet.

Finally, long after the sun had set, the two men stood beneath a freeway overpass, watching a small modular building for signs of movement.

“Looks empty to me,” Nelson whispered.

“Definitely. He never stayed longer than it took to check a few emails.”

Stepping out from beneath the overpass, they took care to stay in the shadows. Flint tried to look as nonchalant as possible, as they crossed the freeway access road, and followed the shoulder toward the long gravel driveway.

“Is that the only way in?” Nelson asked as they jogged toward the front door.

“Yeah.” The cold air stung Flint’s lungs.

“How are we going to get in?”

The two of them crouched beside the small aluminum staircase in front of the building. Flying insects swarmed around a floodlight beside the door.

“I don’t know, I could kick it.”

Nelson rolled his eyes. After a moment he shook his head and trounced up the aluminum steps to the door.

“Give me your wallet,” Nelson demanded.

Nelson worked a long deactivated, ultra-high interest credit card from one of the slits in the leather billfold. He grunted and curled his tongue over his top lip as he worked it between the door and the jamb. After a moment, something clicked, and the door squeaked open.

Nelson sighed in relief.

The small office was dark, lit only by a blinking light on the desktop computer.

Flint scurried to the back of the room and swung open the door to a wooden cabinet in the corner.

“In here,” he said.

The big silver dial clicked as he spun it, and subtler clunks and mechanical ticks echoed from inside the small black safe. He pulled the thick, metal door open as Nelson hovered above him. A leather envelope sat atop a stack of manila folders. His fingers fumbled with the zipper as he tried to open the navy blue pouch.

“Flint,” Nelson whispered. His eyes widened as a band of yellow light pierced through the blinds and passed over his face.

Flint stood, holding the money pouch, and watched the pair of headlights come to stop behind the window. He slammed the heavy safe door and shoved the envelope into his pants. Desperately, he darted his eyes around the room. His heart pounded and his vision blurred. There was nowhere to go.

His old boss and a scantily dressed woman who definitely wasn’t his wife stumbled up the driveway giggling in drunken bliss.

Shoulder to shoulder, Flint and Nelson stared at the door and waited for it to open. Beside them, a white ceramic chicken was perched on the desk. Flint snatched it into his hand and walked closer to the door, breathing rapidly through his nose.

“No,” Nelson huffed between his clenched teeth.

Boots clunked up the metal steps and stopped.

“What?” The woman giggled.

“Left the got’damn rubbers in the truck. Hang on.” He stomped back down the stairs.

Nelson motioned his head toward the spot where the ceramic chicken had rested before. He slid his dagger from its sheath and tugged Flint by his collar, pulling him to the floor beneath the desk.

“We’re fucked,” Flint whispered.

Nelson’s face glowed blue as he pressed the knife's blade to the floor. He cut a sloppy rectangle, slightly larger than two of the laminate tiles.

Feet pounded back up the stairs. The doorknob turned.

One leg at a time, Nelson lowered himself into the cut, as if he were entering an icy pool of water. Flint followed him, squeezing Nelson’s jacket tightly and sinking into the glassy barrier between the worlds once again.

Weightlessly he was suspended, paddling his hands for movement and holding his breath. To either side of him was an infinite charcoal blackness. Above him and below him were two squares of light, only slightly out of reach and drifting horizontally in opposite directions. The thought of swimming to the wrong escape and facing an angry property owner, and the idea of being stuck eternally in the boundary between realms were equally terrifying. A blast of color exploded in front of him and a hand grabbed his elbow, yanking him from the in between.

“Jesus Christ,” Flint said, his voice shaking.

“I guess it is a kind of baptism. Nelson the Baptist,” Nelson said, amused by his own wit, as he pulled Flint from the ground.

“More like a crucifixion,” Flint said.

Nelson jabbed Kashvi into the corner of the portal.

Tall, crooked buildings stretched up from the sidewalk and into the hazy sky. Buzzing tubes of neon gas illuminated the signs along the ground level storefronts. The air was still and smelled of smoke. Wisps of light streamed down the city streets, ghosts of automobiles, swerving and passing through one another.

“Looks like they’re having a good ol’ time in there,” Nelson chuckled, peering down into the cloudy square at their feet. Inside the murky portal, two vascular calves with spirals of coarse leg hair, jerked rhythmically.

“So, what? We wait until they’re done and go back through?” Flint asked.

“Seems like that’s the only option we've got. Just sit back and enjoy the show.”

“No thanks.”

Flint looked out in awe at the otherworldly cityscape.

The signs above the doorways to the empty shops and restaurants were almost legible. Squinting his eyes from across the street, Flint tried to read one of them. Each time he blinked, the unfamiliar letters appeared to shift and change shape. Half of an ‘F’ changed to a triangle. A ‘J’ transformed into an ‘N’.

The spectral lights continued to whiz by. Timing them carefully, Flint sprinted between the lights, stopping to let others pass. He stumbled backward as one of them swerved and passed through him.

“Don’t go too far, we can’t leave this exposed out in the open,” Nelson shouted, still musing over the peepshow in the sidewalk.

With his hands curled around his brows, Flint peered between the metal shutters covering the shop’s window. Shelves, half-full of bags, boxes and blurry advertisements, sat abandoned in the darkness. A figure rose from behind the counter near the back of the store.

“There’s someone in here,” Flint said, moving quickly to distance himself from the window.

“Well, we are in the middle of a city, you know,” Nelson replied.

Flint tiptoed back to the window. “Who is he?”

“How in the hell should I know?” Nelson replied, not allowing himself to be distracted.

The figure, seemingly human shaped, waved in a welcoming manner from behind the counter. Flint raised his hand slowly and waved back. “Can I go in?” he asked.

Nelson looked up from the floor. “Sure. But be careful. Just in and out, it doesn’t look like he’ll last much longer.”

Flint continued to watch through the slats of metal as he approached the door. He opened it and saw the figure in the light. It was a well-postured, cheerful looking gentleman. He raised his eyes above his circular spectacles and nodded.

“Good evening sir! What can I do for ya t’day?” the man cheered.

Flint cleared his throat. “Just having a look.”

The man squirted the countertop with a plastic spray-bottle and polished it with a white cloth.

“Well if you need anything, I’ll be right over here,” he said.

Flint nodded. He walked the aisles between crooked, wiry shelves. There were bags of chips, bleached and deflated. Along the walls, behind cracked refrigerator doors, were rows of caramel-colored glass bottles corked and labeled in more indecipherable lettering. Flint picked up a little tin car, a toy that his great-grandfather may have played with as a child. He put it back, making sure the wheels set back in line with the dustless spots they occupied.

“Tourist?” the shopkeeper asked.

“Oh. Yeah. I think so,” Flint replied.

He flipped the damp towel over his shoulder. “Some fellas are so proud. Business guys like myself. They think they do better treating you folks like second class citizens. As if good service is reserved for locals.” He shook his head.

“Is this your store?” Flint asked.

“Sure is. Had another one just like it back on the other side.” His plump, rosy cheeks eclipsed most of his eyes as he smiled.

Flint walked between the aisles, stopping at the counter where the strange man stood. In front of him sat a small box of silver bells, no bigger than Flint's thumb. He picked up one after another, shaking each, but none made a sound. He flipped them and noticed that all were missing the tongue. Swirling designs, unique to each bell, were etched into the shiny metal. Flint rubbed his thumb across one the engravings, a small boar chasing an even smaller rodent of some sort.

“That one should work,” the man said, perking up one bushy eyebrow.

Flint shook it between his fingers. It rang faintly, followed by a high pitched hum.

“Gotta hold your tongue just right.” The shopkeeper winked. “I make ‘em right here in the back.”

“How much?” Flint asked.

“That, I’ll do for thirty cents.”

Flint reached into his pants pocket and uncrumpled one bill from the rest. The shopkeeper held the one-dollar-bill close to his eyes. He squinted as he flipped and turned it.

“On the house,” the man said, handing the wrinkled note back to Flint.

“Really? Thanks.” Flint leaned to the side and stuffed the bell into his pocket.

“Have a fine afternoon,” the man tipped his rounded hat that sat loosely on his head. “And welcome to town.”

“Flint!” Nelson’s voice travelled from across the city avenue in a hushed, but urgent holler. “Get over here.”

Flint let the door of the little shop close behind him. Cautiously, he walked back across the street, trying to avoid being hit again, just in case the first one was a fluke.

“Hurry. C’mon.” Nelson waved his hands frantically as he crouched on the ground. The whites of his eyes were nearly the only thing that could be seen through the darkness, and they weren’t looking at him.

Flint looked over his shoulder, down passed the storefronts and vibrant billboards. A mob of silhouettes moved beyond the smoggy haze. Dozens of the shadowy things walked pointedly toward them. A few seemed to be in pairs, connected and stumbling over each other.

Flint crouched beside Nelson on the sidewalk. “Should I be worried?”

“I don’t know. But, we’re about to find out,” Nelson said, his voice shaking.

“I don’t think we should,” Flint said.

Nelson motioned to the ground beside him. “Well it’s them- or them.” The veiny legs were still thrusting against the desk beyond the dark little rectangle. “Just stay by me.

Whatever they are, we’ve got to keep them away from the cut.”

As they approached, the mob of shadows became clearer and the shapes became more human. Three of them pulled each other to the steps of a tall building on the next block. The nude bodies collapsed into one another, and their limbs flailed as they savagely jerked and grinded together.

Echoes of ecstatic moaning grew louder as the others approached. They clumsily crept closer, stopping only for the occasional writhing spasm.

“Nelson, we’ve got to go back through,” Flint said.

“And wait for the police to take us to jail? We can’t afford it.”

More pairs and threesomes of the over-aroused horde slumped to ground straddling and bobbing above one another. They crossed the intersection and their cries grew louder. Their skin popped and slapped together. People from the back crawled over others, who stopped to frolic on the pavement.

“What is this?” Flint screamed in disgust.

“It’s drawing them here,” Nelson said, pointing to the cut.

Back to back, they stood encircled by the crowd of entranced bodies. Flint held his breath as their collective pungence tainted the air. A jittery hand reached from the circle and grasped Flint firmly by neck. Several more tugged at him and he was jerked into a bare, fleshy chest. Nelson pulled at the nape of his jacket and a section of the interlocked orgy collapsed onto them.

“Fuck it,” Nelson blustered, as he ripped his dagger from the concrete beside the cut. The limp fold of cement that once covered the square portal slowly began to sew itself shut. The blurred, glassy images from the other realm faded as it sealed.

A hundred hands stopped pleasuring the swarm of genitalia, and instead covered the army of lascivious being’s cowering eyes. The blade’s radiant glow stunned them, and Flint wriggled from beneath their sweaty flesh.

Their eyes became clear, and they looked at their naked bodies. Some smiled, but most wore the look of disgust, or shame. Then, one by one, as their humanity returned, they shrank into pools of greyish vapor that hugged the ground and blew away with the night’s breeze.

Nelson still held his dagger above him, panting. “Dreamers.” He paused. “They’re awake now.”

Flint collected himself and tried to regulate his own breathing. He closed his eyes and laid his face in his palm. “That was the most disturbing thing I think I’ve ever seen.”

Nelson said nothing.

“What is a dreamer?” He waited for a response, but there was only silence.

Turning around, he noticed that one creature still stood, unaffected by Kashvi’s light.

Engrossed in a deep gaze with the thing’s empty eyes, Nelson was paralyzed. A thin sheet of skin was stretched tightly over where the drog’s mouth should have been. A popping groan resonated from the fleshy diaphragm.

“Nelson!” Flint screamed.

The drog raised a spiny hand and wrapped its yellowed nails around the crown of Nelson's skull. Its pointed thumbnail sank into his skull behind his ear, but the wound did not bleed.

Behind them, the cut in the sidewalk continued to fold into itself. It was half the size that it was before. Inside, it was dark, and he wasn’t sure whether it was the black abyss between the realms or the office on the other side.

Flint’s chest rose and fell. His fingers fidgeted between one another. He clenched his teeth, and charged his shoulder into the creature’s bony rib-cage with a hollow thump, and bounced to the ground. The growling stopped and from his peripheral, Flint could see the seductive pits within the drog’s face.

Kashvi continued to pulsate. Flint reached for it, and snatched it from Nelson’s death-grip.

On his way to his feet, he raised his arm and thrust the quicksilver blade forward. Up to his fingers, it embedded itself in the drog’s bony sternum.

With a gravelly shriek, it reached for its wound, but before it could remove the dagger, the drog’s limp body collapsed to the dusty curb.

“Nelson. Wake up,” Flint said, cradling his friends head above the sidewalk. He patted his cheek, looking back at the closing portal. “Come on. Wake up.”

A murky haze cleared from Nelson’s eyes. “What happened?” he grumbled.

“A drog had you. The cut is closing.” Flint said, pulling at Nelson’s arm. “Hurry we have to go.”

“Wait. Where’s Kashvi?” Nelson patted and pulled at his waistband.

Flint let go of his arm and left him on his hands and knees while he pulled the knife from the drog’s crumpled carcass.

“Christ that’s a big one!” Nelson exclaimed.

“Quick. It’s almost shut!” Flint grunted as he tugged Nelson toward the cut in the sidewalk. They squeezed through, and after a turbulent float through the void, they emerged under a heavy oak desk inside of a small darkened trailer.


Chapter 13

The boy bit his finger and he felt pain.

A straw-brown rope swung like a pendulum in front of him. The thick cord hung from nowhere, all the way down to a half-foot above the couch where he’d drifted off to sleep. The frayed end tickled his toes as it made its parallel pass over him. He’d hoped to tell the time, but the section of wall he remembered holding a clock, was bare.

“I can’t climb that. Not that freakin’ far,” he whispered.

The rope unfurled and squirmed, forming evenly spaced knots that stretched endlessly to the dark heavens above. The boy smiled. It swung in front of his nose and he grabbed it, sending through it a rippled wave. He strained to pull his torso from the mustard-yellow couch, but with each hand-over-hand, he became lighter, until at last he felt his feet pop away from whatever was restraining them.

“Freezing,” he shuddered, as the light of the living room lamp faded below him.

After a thousand knots of thick rope passed beneath him, he stopped climbing. The space above was black, and so was below. The boy was growing disappointed. Usually in his awake dreams, as he called them, he would find treasure, or fly, or at least almost catch a peek at the neighbor-woman changing.

“I can see you down there! You’ve almost made it!” a wavering voice shouted from above.

He looked up and saw a pinprick of golden light at the end of the knotted rope. Intrigued once again, with dangling legs, he flung his hands over one another, pushing the knots down into the darkness below.

“A bird?” the boy asked himself as he climbed.

He slowed his ascent as the perched bird’s massive size became evident. Its golden glow faded and became increasingly focused with each bit of elevation he gained. The single magnificent bird separated into three, as the golden light shifted and divided. The giant condors stood shoulder to shoulder, perched on the white oak branch that suspended the rope.

“Closer!” the middle bird boomed. Its car-sized head tilted quickly side-to-side, getting the boy in view of each of its massive eyes.

He stopped again, beneath its scaly toes.

The bird to the left bent below its breast and blew a wind of warm air from its nostrils. “Come on. Don’t be scared!” it screeched into the boy’s mind.

The boy flinched and shook his head.

The bird on the left, mostly black with small under-feathers of crimson and gray, plucked him from the rope by his trousers. It dropped him with a solid thud onto the gritty branch.

“There!” the bird screamed.

“Aiden. Be nice to him,” the middle bird echoed.

Aiden twisted his head, and in a fit, shuffled further down the branch.

“Who are you guys supposed to be?” the boy stammered.

“Well that’s Aiden. You’ve already met. This is Algos. I am Balban,” the middle bird said.

Algos, the bird to the right was only slightly larger than the other two. His head hung low and his glassy eyes glared down into the darkness beneath the branch. “Does dying hurt?” a soft voice sobbed from his direction.

“What?” The boy furrowed his brow.

“Algos!” Aiden screamed furiously.

The boy’s head pounded. His spit tasted like fireworks. Pulses of sharp pain crept up behind his eyes as he tried to make sense of his strange dream.

“What is your name, boy?” Balban looked at him curiously.

He thought for a moment. He remembered his mom and his dad, his sister, the girl next door, all of their faces, but none of their names. He thought of his own face, what he looked like in the bathroom mirror.

“Nelson? I think.”

Algos sobbed, stomping his claws and snapping his beak. “He doesn’t even know who he is! He doesn’t even remember!” he cried.

“Shut up you crybaby!” Aiden squawked.

The middle bird stood tall and extended his chest. “Quiet. Both of you.”

The other behemoths cowered. The feathers behind their necks spread up and out, revealing their pinkish skin beneath.

“Okay I’m ready to wake up now,” the boy said nervously. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself back on his mustard-yellow couch. That couch, he thought. My mom’s couch. That ancient thing. What was her name?

He opened his eyes and the massive condors were still all peering with their jet black eyes.

“Nelson was it?” Balban asked. He bent over and looked the boy in the eye.

“I don’t know. Maybe,” Nelson stuttered.

“Well Nelson, don’t you worry. It will all come back to you soon enough.”


Chapter 14

THWAP! Flint’s head bounced off of the bus’ rattling window and whipped across the headrest, nearly head-butting Nelson. A cluster of agitated dew droplets formed a circle on the outside of the glass where his head impacted it.

Nelson’s sleeping head, at least it looked asleep, was cocked uncomfortably to one side on the pink and baby-blue headrest.

“Jesus!” Flint covered his mouth as Nelson’s eyes popped open spontaneously and focused on him.

“Hi,” Nelson said with a playful smile.

Flint settled back into his seat. “What was that?” Flint asked.

“What was what?”

“I thought you were asleep. You almost gave me a heart attack,” Flint complained.

A little scruffy headed boy in the seat in front of them was snickering at the conundrum, which he apparently had caught the whole of. He was wearing a Cardinal’s baseball cap that was three sizes too big for his head. His mom looked also, giving the two of them a judgmental glance, before turning back toward the front of the bus.

“Nah, I don’t sleep. These people might find that a little strange,” he explained with a smile. “But I tell you. If I could have one thing back, I’d choose sleep.”

An announcement came over the speakers in the ceiling. “ALRIGHT FOLKS, WE HAVE OFFICIALLY REACHED THE GATEWAY TO THE WEST, THE GREAT CITY OF ST. LOUIS MISSOUR-I. WE WILL BE ARRIVING AT THE STATION IN T-MINUS 8 MINUTES. PLEASE GET YOUR IMMEDIATE BELONGINGS IN ORDER AND ROUND UP ANY TRASH IN YOUR SEATING AREA THAT NEEDS TO BE DISPOSED OF. AGAIN THANK YOU FOR CHOOSING GREYHOUND.”

Flint liked the driver, he was cheery, and surprisingly so given the nature of the job. His oversized legs spilled over his springy chair and peeked around the small manila curtain behind him. There were a few instances of nervousness, brought on by some questionable overtakes and late night drifting about the lanes. Other than that, he was a welcome addition to the week’s events.

“It’s just a tad bit creepy is all,” Flint said.

“Sorry,” Nelson replied, still smiling.

His dagger was inconspicuously printing through his sweatshirt, and Flint watched him continue to check compulsively for it throughout the drive.

“Thanks for saving me the other night. I don’t think I got the chance to say,” Flint said.

“Me?” Nelson whispered. “Are you kidding me, you’re the one who gutted that drog. I was almost a goner.”

The thought made his hair stand on end.

The bus hit what felt like a crater, and they bounced in their seats. Flint thought about the absurdity that seatbelts on buses were exclusive to adults. A girl from elementary school bit the tip of her tongue clean off, he remembered. She was turned around chatting about boy bands or something and in the next moment she was left with a permanent speech impediment.

“LADIES AND GENTS WE WILL BE APPROACHING THE STATION IN JUST A MOMENT. OH, AND WHEN YOU EXIT THERE’S A JAR ON THE CONSOLE. DON’T FORGET TO PULL OUT THOSE FAT WALLETS. YOU DON’T HAVE TO PUT THE WHOLE THING IN, JUST THE TIP,” the driver announced merrily.

The overly hair-sprayed woman in front of them turned around again and scoffed. She waited a moment for their solidarity and rotated back when she got none.

Flint twisted in his seat. “And, what in the hell do you mean you don’t sleep?”

Nelson thumbed through a stapled brochure that he’d found tucked in the back of the boys chair. “I just don’t sleep.”

“But you used to,” Flint said.

Nelson shuffled in his seat, looking slightly uncomfortable. “What?”

“You said you wish you could have it back.”

“Did I?” He bit his lip and set the little book in his lap.

Flint nodded. “So you haven’t always been there, in the astral realm?”

“No,” Nelson said. “Not always.”

“Well, I'm confused.”

“Precisely why I haven’t brought it up,” Nelson replied. “C’mon, we need to get off.”

“So. Where were you before?” Flint asked.

“Here. A long time ago.” Nelson looked out of the window.

“Hold up. You mean you were a human? Like a real person?” Flint noticed that he was shouting and leaned in close to whisper, “How’d you get over there?”

“I died.”

“You died?” He was shouting again. “That’s where we go when we fuckin’ die?”

“No,” Nelson said. “Not everyone. You can end up in all sorts of places. That realm is like a uhm-” He searched for the word. “A staging area. For people like me.”

Flint's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean? What were you like, when you were alive?"

Nelson looked toward the line of passengers making their way to the front of the bus and nudged Flint with his elbow. "C’mon, we’re gonna miss our stop.”

Flint held out his arm, blocking Nelson from the aisle. "Why does everything have to be so cryptic? I deserve to know. What do you mean, people like you?"

The driver twisted in his seat and looked down the walkway. "Gentleman. I can't take you home with me."

Nelson pulled his coat from the luggage rack above the seats and put his arms through the sleeves. "Selfish people. People who think of death as a convenient escape."


Chapter 15

The address Amira had written down was only an icy mile-and-a-half walk from the bus station. Still blocks away, fragrant breezes of roasted corn and fried anything overtook the smell of the city and helped guide them to the carnival.

Packed tightly into the overflow parking lot of an aged shopping center, the squeaky rides lit up the sides of the surrounding buildings with a rainbow of colors. Protruding above the others, one ride let out a scream of both terror and amusement every five minutes or so as it dropped its passengers in a free-fall before catching them ever-so-gently.

“Kind of a weird place for a carnival, don’t you think?” Flint asked.

Nelson paused to think about it. “I guess,” he replied.

“So is your friend from here? Or The Astral?” Flint asked.

“First of all, we’re not friends. And yes, he’s from here.”

“You think he can find John?”

“Amira rarely intervenes in any of my crap,” Nelson said. “But when she does, there’s a good reason for it.”

A man in a heavy coat and floppy beanie sat in a chair beside the gate, charging for entrance and stamping hands. He lifted his head from the chain link fence as they approached. “Tickets.”

“For the two of us,” Nelson said, handing the red coupons to the man.

Grabbing each of their wrists, he stamped their hands with a navy-blue star.

“I’m looking for someone that’s supposed to be working tonight.” Nelson tried to look charming. “His name’s Pov. Short guy, does psych-”

“No.” The man leaned his head back against the fence and shut his eyes.

“I’m sorry?” Nelson said.

The man sighed. “No.”

Nelson looked to Flint at his side, scrunching his eyebrows. “Thanks,” he said. “Dickhead,” he added out of earshot.

The two strolled in and started along the outside loop of the festivities. They passed rows of faded game booths and peeling food shacks, trying to politely ignore the incessant begging for their money.

“Who do you think smells worse?” Nelson asked.

“Huh?”

“Us or them?” he asked, pointing to a leathery man standing beneath a string of colorful teddy bears.

Flint chuckled. “Probably too close to tell.”

Nelson darted off the rocky path to one of the rickety, nicotine tinted trailers. An assortment of sun-bleached T-shirts hung from clothespins above a backboard of under inflated balloons. A boy’s father patted him on the back as they stepped away with their heads lowered.

“Five dollars, five darts. Everyone’s a winner,” a cigarette smoking woman rasped as she tucked a wad of one dollar bills into her apron.

“What about them?” Flint asked, pointing to the boy and his father.

“They lost.”

“How about I just buy one outright?” Nelson propped himself against the countertop that divided them.

“Well,” she started. “We ain't really s’posed to do that.”

She threw up her index finger as Nelson began to speak. “But, we ain't gotta tell nobody neither.” Long yellowed teeth peeked from her lips as she smiled. “Since you so cute.”

“I’m flattered. How much?” Nelson asked.

Clicking her tongue she squinted at the string of old shirts. “Twenty five.”

Nelson lifted his elbows from the counter. “A piece?”

“No way.” Flint nudged him. “We barely have enough as it is.”

Nelson spun around and whispered, “We smell like shit. We look like shit. And...You’ve got half a drog on your shirt.”

He hadn’t even noticed the specks of maroon liquid spattered along his left shoulder. He pulled his shirt away from his body and reluctantly sniffed it.

“Still,” Flint said. “Twenty-five dollars?”

Nelson turned back to the carny, who was just ending a nasty coughing fit. “Two for thirty.” He smiled. “Since I’m so cute.”

“Forty,” she countered.

“Deal. I’ll have that one please.” He pointed to a large, faded-black shirt that hung above him. Printed on the front, an obscenely patriotic eagle stood in front of a star spangled banner, gazing out over a magnificent canyon.

“The bear one,” Flint said unenthusiastically.

They paid from their wad of crumpled cash and stepped to the side of the trailers. Nelson’s new threads were nice and form-fitting. Flint slipped on the baggy white tee with the felt grizzly head ironed on the chest. Given the lack of options, he was satisfied just to be clean.

“He should be around here somewhere."

“What does he look like?” Flint asked, watching the crowds weave through the maze of festivities.

“Old and fat, probably. It’s been a good while since I've seen him,” he said. “I hoped I wouldn't have to again. But, I’ll know when I do.”

They rounded the corner near the back of the fairgrounds, walking beneath a flashing Ferris wheel. Scanning the area along the Spaceship-5000, The Annihilator and other crudely assembled hunks of steel, they closely observed every old, chubby man on site.

From the crowd, a familiar head of fiery red hair caught Flint's attention. Her delicate shoulders perked up in the cool wind. Their eyes met and she smiled, before darting into the shadows between two concession stands.

Nelson's chatter slipped away into the crowd.

“Hey!” Flint called out. He jogged after her behind the trailers, slipping past the plastic barricades and into the alley behind the carnival.

“Abbey. Wait!” he shouted.

As she peeked back at him, Flint could tell her expression had turned sour. She began to walk faster, stretching her long legs further with each step. Wrapping her arms around her torso for warmth, she began to jog.

“Abbey, it’s me!” he screamed, ignoring the confused looks of the fry-cooks and custodians who were out back, enjoying their smoke breaks. “It’s Flint.”

She looked back again and turned behind a large concrete staircase at the base of an old building.

“I'm sorry!” he yelled before the dark corner.

After the stairs was only a wall. Flint spun, looking up and down the alley between the buildings.

“Flint,” a familiar voice said from behind him.

Flint jumped. The sight of the man made his vertebrae stiffen and his knees lock. The cowboy in the pearl-snap shirt sucked a drag from his fat cigar.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” John peered into Flint’s eyes as he exhaled a cloud of white smoke from the corner of his mouth.

Flint took a step away from John and looked back toward the carnival. He swallowed. “I thought- She was just right-”

“Abbey?” John asked.

“Where the fuck is she!” Flint screamed, poking his nose right up to John’s. He could feel his rage rising within, shaking his breath and stinging his eyes.

John shifted to the side, laying his hand on Flint’s shoulder. “Are you still seein’ things boy?”

“Don’t play with me. Where is she?” Flint demanded through clenched teeth.

“Well, I reckon she’s at home. In Texas.” He puffed his cigar. “What are you doing up here in Missouri anyways?”

“I’m seeing a friend.” Flint stopped himself. “I’ve got nothing to say to you.” He turned and began walking back toward the lights.

“Tell Nelson I say hello,” John said.

Flint stopped.

“I’ve been watching you Flint. You’re walking the wrong path, son.”

Flint stomped back toward the cowboy with his fists balled. He grabbed a handful of his collar and twisted him closer. “I can’t stop thinking about what you made me do. It’s burned into my mind- in my nightmares. Don't talk to me about doing wrong.”

“You avenged your momma Flint. What you did was justice. Nothing wrong about that.”

Flint let go of his shirt with a grunt. “Justice? That was murder.”

John dusted his shirt with the backs of his fingers. “Feeding Margaret them pills was murder. Giving her them needles was murder. That man got what he deserved.”

“I’m not going to listen to a demon’s reasoning on what is right or wrong,” Flint said.

“Demon?” John pushed himself from the wall he was leaning against and looked down at Flint. He looked healthier than he had when they last met. He looked stronger, more alive. “What kind of nonsense is that boy fillin’ your head with?”

“I’ve seen what you do,” Flint said.

“Nelson's dangerous, Flint. Unpredictable and reckless. And you need to stamp out that fire before it burns the pasture.” His cigar’s cherry crumbled into a shower of glowing, orange fireflies as he twisted it against the brick wall.

Flint grinned. “How about this? Come with me and you can do it yourself. Or, wait here and I’ll bring him to you.” He started back toward the carnival, squeezing his fists tightly to hide their shaking.

“I wouldn’t spend too long out here, Flint,” John shouted. “The law will be paying close mind to anybody skipping town during a homicide investigation. Wouldn’t want them to wrap your girl up for providing sanctuary that night.”

Flint didn’t look back.

John continued to shout. “Nelson’s lyin’ to you. You’d do best to stick that dagger of his right through his heart.”

A beam of white light shone from behind the building as he approached the carnival. “Can I help you?” Flint couldn't see his face, but he could tell by his voice that the officer wasn't smiling. “Sir, you can’t be back here. There’s Porta-John’s up at the front.”

Flint turned back to where John had been. Other than the glowing embers on the pavement, the alley was vacant.

“Sorry. I was looking for my friend.” Flint smiled and walked around the cop, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground.

“Well he shouldn’t be back here either,” the officer added.

Out of sight of the cop, his brisk walk turned to a jog. Slipping on the loose rock, he turned the corner and propped himself against a brick wall. He pulled his phone from his pocket, and scoured through the names of people he’d forgotten.

It rang. “Hello?” An orchestra of clanking silverware and giggling women filled the background.

Her soft twangy voice asked again. “Hello?”

Flint stayed silent. She sounded safe.

He dropped his cell phone back into his dirty jeans and hurried into the colorful lights and screaming children.

Nelson stood beneath a thin, purple canopy, supported by two wooden stakes. Speaking with him was a little round man. Long, wispy strands of greying hair hung over the shoulders of his woolen coat. He seemed uncomfortable. Not to speak, but to be standing.

“If it were my wish, I wouldn’t have had you seek my help.” Pov’s neck jiggled as he threw up his hands.

“Then why not just tell Amira where we needed to look?” Nelson asked.

“She’s the one who gave the location to me,” Pov said.

Flint rushed beneath the little shelter, grabbing ahold of Nelson’s arm. “John. He’s here.”

“You saw him?” Nelson asked.

“Yes. He said he’s been watching us,” Flint said.

Nelson lifted the bottom of his shirt and grabbed the handle of his dagger. “Where? Show me.”

“You know he won’t let himself be found,” Pov said.

“He was back there, just outside of the carnival. We talked and then he just vanished,” Flint said.

“Damnit.” Nelson jerked his hand away from his knife.

“It’s a distraction. He knows that we’re close to finding the others.”

“Others?”

Pov pressed his hands against the little card table as he waddled beside them. “John’s counterparts.”

“There’s more?” Flint cocked his head back at his friend. “Why keep that a secret?”

“That’s like asking a kitten why it purrs,” Pov said.

Nelson scowled at the man. “Shut up.”

“I do apologize, I haven’t introduced myself.” Pov extended his hand, decorated with dull rubies and black ovals of stone. “I’m Pov. I’ve heard a lot about you Flint.”

“It seems like everyone has lately.” Flint shook his hand, continuing to cast a glare at Nelson.

The buck-toothed soothsayer shuffled around the two of them and pulled a couple of chairs away from the little, cushioned card table. “Please, have a seat. There’s no need to tire ourselves.”

Nelson sat beside Flint. A crystal ball rested on an ivory pedestal in front of them. “It wasn’t a secret. John’s our main concern. As for the others, I haven’t heard a peep from them in years. I assumed that they were happily living out their days in the lower realms.”

Pov scooped a group of scattered tarot cards into a pile. “To be fair, I only just informed your friend that Algos was stirring up trouble again.” He squared the cards into a deck and cupped them in his palm. “But, he does have a knack for only sharing what he deems necessary.”

Nelson shook his head. “Yes, well maybe that’s because some people can’t help but share too much.”

“I accept that,” Pov said.

“Algos is a demon? Like John?” Flint asked.

“Yes. Well that's one word for what he is,” Pov said. “He’s why Amira sent us here. With the information she gave, we should be able to locate him. He’s not the brightest of the bunch.”

“How many more are there?” Flint asked.

“Just one other,” Pov said.

Nelson shuffled in his seat. “Aiden.”

“We’re closed! You’re all going to do great things, your relationships will flourish, and I see great wealth in your futures,” Pov shouted. The short queue of shivering teenagers that had amassed at the sideless tent scurried away.

“After we find him, what then? Won’t he just slip away like John?” Flint asked.

“I cut a hole in his chest and watch him turn to ash,” Nelson said.

Pov rolled his eyes. “No, we question him. Hold him as a ransom if needed.”

Nelson slouched in the stiff, metal chair and fiddled with his dagger compulsively. “When do we go?” he asked.

“Right now if you’d like.” Pov slid the deck of cards into his coat pocket. “I’ve got a room at the Hampton outside of town if you’d like to get cleaned up first.”

Nelson stood and slid the chair beneath the table. “No, we’re ready.”


Chapter 16

“Are they expecting us?” Nelson asked.

The foggy, yellowed headlights of the old, wood-trimmed station wagon beamed down the driveway, bathing the house in antiquity. Someone poked their finger through a set of white blinds, and watched them approach from the window.

“Of course,” Pov said, slowing to a stop beneath a crooked white oak tree. He swung his squeaky door open and pulled himself from the car.

Beside the front door of the two-story plantation-style home, a light flickered on.

“Here,” he demanded, extending a black, canvas duffel bag to anyone willing to grab it. He shook it for a moment, before Flint took the heavy bag from his hand. An assortment of junk tumbled about the car as Pov searched for something.

The bag was heavy and Flint had to call upon his other hand to share some of the lopsided thing’s weight.

“Wonderful.” Pov slammed the tailgate closed. “Nelson. In your floorboard, do you see a box of apophyllite crystals?”

Nelson sighed and sat up straight in his seat, quickly scanning the assortment of things that had kept his feet from comfortably resting during the drive. “No,” he said.

“Drats.” Pov tapped his cheek with a bejeweled finger. “We’ll have to do without.”

As they walked down the dirt driveway toward the house, the front door opened, and a couple stepped out onto the porch. The two silhouettes stood in front of the open screen door, huddled close to one another in the cold air.

Flint and Nelson followed closely behind Pov as he waddled his way passed the garnished flower beds toward the concrete steps.

“Mister and missus Stewart, I presume?” he called from a distance.

“Yes.” The man cleared his throat.

Pulling himself along the handrail, Pov waddled up the six concrete steps and leaned against a decorative pillar. “Pov Monroe. These are my associates Nelson and Flint.”

The man grabbed Pov’s hand and shook it. “I’m George. This is my wife, Linda.”

Linda looked older than George. Her straight blonde hair was parted down the middle, exposing a valley of grey roots. Her cheeks rose and covered dark half-moons below her eyes as she smiled. “We’re so glad you came. Come inside, please,” she said ecstatically as she ushered them through the doorway.

Linda pushed a comforter blanket off of the white leather sofa that sat in the middle of the room. “Please, sit,” she said.

George sat awkwardly on a matching recliner on the other side of a glass coffee table.

“Smoke?” Linda offered, as she lit a cigarette of her own.

“No thank you,” Pov replied. “Though the habit still calls out to me.”

She took a big drag from her cigarette and blew the smoke down toward her chin.

“When we spoke on the phone you said you were having activity of some sort?” The duffel bag rested on Pov’s lap, covering his midsection up to his chest.

“Oh all kinds. Isn’t that right George?” Curling her fingers in front of her mouth, she clicked her nails against her teeth.

George nodded.

“Mhm. Specifically, what sort of things have you been experiencing?” Pov asked.

She tapped her heel against the floor. “It started, what? About a week ago honey?”

George looked up at them. “Yeah.”

She continued, “Footsteps, knocking and banging around, little things going missing. And the nightmares. Tell him about your nightmares Pookie.”

Pov jotted in his palm-sized spiral notepad as he listened, looking up only to show his attention in a nod. He looked rather professional despite his peering above his luggage like a toddler.

George rubbed his hands along his stubbled cheek. “I don’t know. Just regular bad dreams I guess. About our daughter.”

“Mhm. No full body apparitions, strange odors, disembodied voices, electrical malfunctions?” Pov asked, peeking up from his notes.

“Well.” Linda looked over to her husband who was tapping his fingers on his thighs. “The other night I was sleeping in our daughter’s room and I thought I heard a voice.”

“It could have been me getting up for work,” George interjected.

Linda continued, “I woke up to this voice- like a muffled groan.” Her eyebrows raised above her beaming eyes. “But when I tried to sit up to see what it was, I couldn’t move my body.”

Pov closed the notepad around his pen. “Sleep paralysis. It’s a fairly common occurrence associated with supernatural phenomenon.”

“But that’s not all. There was this person, I don’t even know if I could see it. Maybe out of the corner of my eye. It was more of a feeling, like there was somebody standing in the doorway, watching me.” Her eyes stared blankly at the table between them.

Goosebumps crawled up Flint’s neck, causing his eyes to flutter. A thin, black kitten passed by the doorway to the kitchen and Flint turned embarrassingly quick to see what it was.

“Interesting.” Pov tapped a few dots into his notes and then shut it again. “Is your daughter home?”

Linda glared at her husband.

“She passed a few years ago. Cancer,” George said sorrowfully. He sighed. “Linda thinks that maybe she is trying to communicate with us.”

Pov grasped Mrs. Stewart’s palm. “I wouldn’t rule that out as a possibility. It’s not uncommon for loved ones to attempt to visit us again on this earthly plane.”

Nelson rolled his eyes at Flint and shook his head inconspicuously.

Rocking himself forward and standing from the recliner, George motioned toward a staircase leading upstairs. “Would you like to see her room?”

“Yes. If I may.” Pov let Linda’s hand loose and propped himself up from the sofa.

With Linda in the lead and her husband behind, they made their way over to the stairs in the corner of the room. Pictures in assorted frames lined both walls as they went up. In them, a couple smiled, bright and glowing. At their side was a young, yellow-haired girl, no older than ten years in the most recent photos.

Upstairs, and down the hall they came to a door, garnished with stickers, and thick, foam flower petals. Linda cracked it open and reached an arm inside to flip the light switch.

George spoke from the top of the stairs. “Linda didn’t want to change anything, it’s just like she left it.”

Aside from the pink, wooden furniture, boy band posters, and heaps of plush animals, there was just enough space in the small room for them all to stand in the center. Except Mr. Stewart, who stood facing away in the hall.

Linda spoke under her breath. “He hasn’t been in since she passed.”

Pov squeezed past them back into the hallway. He spoke quietly with his hand on George’s shoulder. “It’s going to be okay. You need to do this,” he said.

The man took a deep breath and turned to face the doorway. He clenched his teeth together and pressed his eyes closed.

Pov patted him on the back, looked at him reassuringly and worked his way back over to Linda with her husband in tow. He pulled each of their hands to his chest and closed his eyes. He breathed, pulling air loudly through his nose and letting it slip out through his throat with a groan. After only a moment, he opened his eyes.

“There’s definitely something here. I think we can make contact.” He rolled a chair from beneath a small glass desk, and an outdated boxy computer. He plopped down in the seat and pointed at Flint. “We’ll need more chairs.”

“There’s some downstairs,” George said. “I’ll show you.”

George turned and rushed back into the dim hallway.

“Your boss. Is he always like that.” He asked as they creaked back down the staircase.

“I think so. Do you actually believe in this stuff?” Flint asked.

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” George looked back at him. “He’s. . . touchy.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t mean anything by it,” Flint laughed.

George opened a door in the downstairs hallway and dug out a couple of pristine plastic and metal folding chairs. “I bought them thinking that we’d have guests over,” he said as he shut the door.

Flint stopped at the bottom of the steps, in front of one of a small yellow picture frame. Mr. and Mrs. Stewart were holding the grinning young girl by her hands, swinging her above a pool of water.

George stopped behind him. “I just want everything to get back to normal. I want my wife back. Whatever it takes.”

Flint nodded. He thought of sharing some words about how he could relate, but decided that what George felt was a different thing completely.

In the center of the room, they unfolded the chairs in a circle, as Pov instructed. Pov pulled a fat, cylindrical, bone-white candle from his bag and placed it on the floor in the center of the circle.

He returned to the chair and caught his breath. “Okay. We’re going to perform a séance. This should give us a better idea of whether or not there are any entities in your home.” He looked around the room for approval.

Linda nodded, as did George.

Pov asked them all to hold hands and try and feel each other’s protective and loving energy. He clicked the switch on the baby-blue lamp in the corner. All the light, other than that emanating from the flickering double wicked candle, left the room.

Flint tried for a moment to feel the energy Pov spoke of. He concentrated, but felt nothing. It was hard to determine what was real, and what was part of the act.

“Are there any spirits with us tonight?” Pov asked.

The silence continued. The hum of the air conditioner stopped.

“Is there something you want us to know? We can only help you if you make yourself known,” he said, and waited for a reply.

Everyone’s faces aimed down toward the candle. It danced around, the two flames licking each-other, combining for only a second, then separating once more.

“Your daughter, what was her name?” Pov asked.

“Josephine,” George replied.

“Josephine? Are you with us Josephine? Give us a sign that you are here,” Pov spoke to the candle.

Nothing moved but the flames. Linda spun her head, looking around the dark room.

Pov hunched over the candle, and extinguished the flames with a quick burst of breath. The room was absolutely black.

It took a moment for Flint to locate the candle’s fading ember as it shrank and disappeared. A dead silence rang through his ears. He pushed himself backwards in his seat, scraping the tip of his shoe against the carpet.

“Baby is that you? Mommy is here!” Mrs. Stewart shouted out. She squeezed Flint’s knuckles tighter in her hand.

“Sorry. I was readjusting,” Flint said ruefully.

Something slid along the floor, across from Flint and behind where he’d seen George sitting. It moved again, barely audible and settled with a soft bump.

“Flint. Please,” Pov said.

“That wasn’t me,” Flint whispered. Something tapped him on the forehead. An icy liquid rolled down the bridge of his nose. Slowly, he reached for his face, but felt only his dry, and somewhat oily, skin. “That was weird.”

“What is it?” Pov asked excitedly.

“Something dripped on me,” Flint said.

“She loved swimming! Baby is that you? It’s daddy. Let me know you’re here baby,” George cried out.

“Okay, I need everyone to stand,” Pov said. “I think we’re having trouble making clear contact. We’re going to try and channel through ourselves. Close your eyes, clear your mind and try and relax.”

A nauseating, sharp odor of cheap alcohol filled the air. It stung Flint’s nose. A breeze swirled around Flint, and chilled him from within.

Pov shushed them. It was silent.

Nelson writhed his fingers, clenching Flint’s hand tighter. A subtle buzzing, like brushing the static from a sweater, sizzled in the air. Something, or someone ran through the middle of them, followed by a hurried slam of a door. The noise stopped.

Flint opened his eyes. He could see, but the candle remained extinguished. The frilly comforter on the bed, the old desktop computer, the sunflower pull strings on the ceiling fan, whatever the opposite of light was, is what they were made of.

To his left, Mrs. Stewart was standing, frozen and completely unmoving. Across from him, Mr. Stewart was just as motionless. Still holding her hand tightly, was one of two Pov’s in the tiny bedroom. The other Pov was standing beside the closet with Nelson.

“What in th-” Flint jolted away from another person that stood before him. He walked to the front of the stranger’s body and looked up and down at its face, his face.

Pov looked away from his conversation with Nelson. He chuckled. “Welcome to astral projection kid.” He spread his arms upward ostentatiously.

Flint opened his mouth but struggled to push the words past the lump in his throat.

“Don’t be alarmed, you’re not dead.” Pov shook his head giddily.

Watching his body out of the corner of his eye, he stepped around it, and walked swiftly toward the closet.

“Stand back,” Pov whispered, as he reached for the doorknob. “Back.” He shooed them away with his hands.

The colorless walls of the room glistened with moisture. It dripped down to the floor, and squished in the carpet beneath their feet.

Pov swung the door open. It hit the wall with an echoing thud. Inside, beneath the rack of tee shirts and once-worn dresses, a man sat, hugging his knees to his chest.

The man peeked up from behind his forearms, shaking. Strands of his wet, black hair stuck to his cheeks, and his face quivered in fear. He dug his head back down to his knees.

Nelson pushed passed Pov and leaned into the doorway. “What’s your name?” he demanded.

The man cowered from him and began sobbing fiercely. His dark denim jeans sparkled with the same liquid that coated the room.

“Look at me!” Nelson shouted.

His cheeks were gaunt and splotched with a patchwork of thin hair. Lifting his quivering face from his arms, his pitch black eyes darted between the men. “I’m so sorry,” he cried out, wincing and looking away.

Nelson knelt to the floor in front of him and grabbed the shaken man by his shoulders. “Where is he?” he screamed.

The man wailed. “He made us do it. I liked you. But I had to, for him.”

“Shut up!” Nelson screamed. He pushed himself away from the doorframe of the closet and pulled Kashvi from her sheath, illuminating the room in a gradient, silvery-blue. He clenched his jaw and stuck the point of the curved blade in the wailing man’s face.

“Do it! End me! I deserve it!” the man begged, lifting his chin and exposing his bony throat.

Nelson raised the blade above his head.

Flint lunged toward his friend and grabbed his tensed wrist. “Stop! What are you doing?”

Pulling his arm free, Nelson lowered Kashvi back to the man’s neck. “Where is he?” he demanded again.

Pov held his arm in front of Flint. “Let him handle this,” he said calmly.

“Handle what? Who is that?”

“A demon,” Pov said.

“What kind of demon is gonna beg to be killed?” Flint couldn’t help but feel sadness for the man. If he was to be believed, he was as much a victim as Flint was.

“His demon,” Pov said somberly. “Algos.”

Flint turned away from the stubby man’s arm, pulling his coat away from his grip. From his peripherals, a glint of silver caught his eye. The bell with the buffalo etching hit the carpet and let out a reverberating ring that bounced around the room like a laser against a mirror.

The wailing ceased. Slowly, the demon craned his neck, and looked to the floor at Flint’s feet. The grey interior of his cavernous pupils, illuminated by Kashvi’s light, fixated on the bell. He pushed his hand to the ground and tried to stand, but Nelson shoved him back to sopping wet carpet.

Algos raised his eyes and squinted. “I remember you. You were just a baby.”

Nelson threw his arm above his head and thrust the blade powerfully into the closet.

The man cowered, covering his face with his spindly hands.

The blade pierced the sheetrock beside the demon’s head. Nelson ripped it through the wall, arching the cut around him. He raised his leg and drove his foot into the man’s sternum, blasting him through the wall and tumbling into the void behind it. The wall flapped in the cosmic wind of the obsidian portal, and slowly began to mend itself.

Nelson sheathed his knife and leaned against the door frame. He pushed himself forward, slamming the closet door shut with the heel of his foot as he walked away. On his way back to the séance circle, he placed his hand on Flint’s shoulder and patted it.

“Well that’s that,” Pov said, still looking at the closet door. “We should head back over now.” He spun around and walked back to the circle of chairs. Like a drop of water combining with another, he stepped into his other body.

Standing nose to nose with his own copied self, Flint closed his eyes and leaned into it. The room flipped around him vertically. He felt his eyelids crack open and he was once again standing in the lightless bedroom. He felt Linda’s warm hand again. She was squeezing, cutting off the circulation to his fingers.

“I hear her,” Pov uttered robotically. “Josephine, is that you?”

“Baby girl! We miss you,” Mrs. Stewart cried.

Nelson twitched Flint’s hand.

Pov let out a droning hum, and then a gasp. “She says you did everything you could, and not to blame each other for her passing. She misses you and she wants you to know that she’s happy.”

Linda let Flint’s hand loose. Nelson was pulled to the side as Linda collided with her husband.

“Honey, me and dad love you so much,” she sniffled.

“She’s fading. She says she has to get back to heaven now.” Pov sighed dramatically and feigned catching his breath. “She’s gone.”

“That’s it?” Mr. Stewart asked.

“She had one more message.” Pov’s voice was weak and trembling. “She said she wants you to change this room. It’s too hard on the both of you.”

“Of course,” Mr. Stewart said.

The lamp clicked and lit the room.

Sitting in the chair, Pov rested his elbows on his thighs.

“You’re doing God’s work. Thank you,” Mr. Stewart said as he sniffled into Pov’s shoulder.

Nelson looked at Flint and shook his head, grinning.

“I’m sorry, but we must go. These things take their toll,” Pov said.

The couple nodded, wiping their tears.

Pov patted them on the back and he, Nelson, and Flint made their way back to the old wood-paneled station wagon waiting in the driveway.


Chapter 17

From house to house, coffee shop to city park, they had driven the old station wagon to every tip or report of paranormal activity Pov could get his hands on. Days of hunting for astral demons, and still John had managed to keep his whereabouts unknown.

Flint had played along while Pov moved Ouija planchettes and feigned possession from lost loved ones.

“I’m telling you. We’re getting close. I can feel it,” Pov said. He sat hunched over the computer in the hotel lounge, scrolling through local classifieds.

“You said that yesterday. And the day before that, and the day before that,” Nelson said.

“Well if you hadn’t kicked the only person that may have info into the pits of hell,” Flint said.

“The lower realm,” Pov interjected matter-of-factly.

“Hell’s not too far off,” Nelson said. “And look, I take all the blame. But, if you had any idea what that thing and his brothers put me through you’d understand.”

Pov tapped his fingers on the laminate-wood desk as he scrolled past already clicked links in the help-wanted section on the monitor. An older gentleman a few seats over was also staring intently at his screen. He sat close and browsed through flesh colored boxes.

Flint stopped biting his fingernails. “Can’t we just cut into the astral and stretch to him? He seemed like he recognized me, I bet I could have got him to talk.”

Pov turned in his chair, looking at Flint grimly. “No,” he snapped before turning back around.

“Why?” Flint asked.

Pov spun around again, his head cocked to one side. “Why? Because it’s dangerous, that’s why. There are things down there that are worse than hell.” He looked back at the computer. “Plus Amira most definitely wouldn’t allow it.”

Nelson sat on the desk beside them. “She might. All things considered.”

Pov leaned back, his top-heavy center of gravity nearly tipping backwards. He rubbed his hands down his patchy, stubbled face.

Nelson continued. “We’re running out of options here. John’s not stupid. He doesn’t want to be found. And every week we spend looking for ghouls in people’s attics, he gets stronger.”

“I understand that Nelson. But, I know Amira as well as you do. It’s not going to happen,” Pov said.

“There’s no harm in asking. If she gives the O.K, then I’ll go down by myself,” Nelson said.

Pov’s head hung low. A tisk of displeasure squeaked through his over-bitten lips. “Okay. We will ask, but you let her know that I said it’s a bad idea.”

After meticulously clearing the computer’s search history and uninstalling the web extensions he used to mask his activity, Pov powered down the computer and skulked back toward the elevator with Nelson and Flint.

Pov’s shoulders seemed to perk up when he ran into conversation with a young woman who worked in the hotel maintenance department. Despite his awkwardness he was able to guess a few minor details from her private life and leave her either impressed, or fearful of her safety.

They stopped just outside the elevator on the top floor while Pov squinted at the evacuation placard beside the doors. Flint and Nelson followed the waddling man around a corner and into a cutaway in the hall.

Pov produced a small, silver key from his pocket and unlocked the door labeled ‘Machine Room’.

Nelson shook his head.

Pov smirked. “What? I’ll give it back to her.”

On either side of the room were two sizeable steel elevator motors with pulleys and cables that whirred and grinded and then would fall silent until the next elevator passenger sent them spinning again. Attached to them were massive control boards with mechanical relays and circuits, flicking and cracking like aluminum popcorn.

“We should move quickly. Make the cut,” Pov said.

Nelson carefully engraved his astral door into the fibrous, sound-proofed walls. He peeled back the thin layer of physical matter and let it fall to the floor. Hand-in-hand they stepped into the rectangle and floated toward the astral realm.

Flint closed his eyes and waited anxiously to emerge on the other side.

His insides settled back into their organized places and he felt solid ground beneath his feet. Shaking the cobwebs from his head, he stumbled into Pov.

The dusty floor vibrated beneath his feet. A bright orange sky expanded toward the hazy horizon and radiated its blinding light on the alien world. In the distance, mile wide shadows cast on the ground by towering metallic pylons, provided a cool place to focus their watering eyes.

Pov shook his head, throwing his cheeks into a noisy jiggle. “By god. I do not miss taking that route.”

Nelson jammed his knife into the ground beside the cut. “Tourist,” he scoffed.

“I’m much happier making the trip with my body lying safely on my bed.”

“Come on. No shortcuts today,” Nelson said.

The troupe trekked along, trying to pay no mind to the little flurries of movement in the vast, mechanical terrain. In the distance, between the towering columns of steel, a pyramid of swirling debris bounced and skated across the land. The inverted tornado stretched its spindly tail into the sky, past the point where the atmospheric haze hindered sight of it. Flint worryingly tracked it’s trajectory as they marched on.

“This ought to be far enough,” Nelson said, shading his eyes as he looked back at the wall.

Nelson put his hands on Flint’s shoulders. “Remember how to stretch? Just concentrate on me. Don’t want a repeat of last time, do we?”

“Got it,” Flint replied.

“Can you keep up, old man?” Nelson asked.

Pov scoffed. “Old man?” Before he could finish rolling his eyes, he dematerialized and was zapped from existence.

“Ready buddy?” Nelson asked.

Flint nodded. He closed his eyes, arched his back, and felt his atoms separate in an electrifying fizzle. They stretched and grabbed hold of the place in his mind. A roaring ocean wind rushed around him in the swirling tunnel, and then he was still.

It was almost night there. The bright orange sky was now only a sliver in the sunset, beneath the layers of crimson and magenta. To Flint’s surprise, The Teacher’s compound sat in the same parking lot as it had on his last visit.

“Names,” Sven said, blocking the door. He didn’t look them in the eyes.

“Sup Sven. Nelson Germander, Flint Hainsen, and Pov—” Nelson spun around to look at Pov curiously.

“Monroe,” Pov said.

“And Pov Monroe.” Nelson smirked. “We need to see The Teacher.

Sven stepped aside and opened the door. The air inside smelled of cinnamon and tobacco. Flint wondered what food was like in the astral realm.

“It’s probably best if I speak with her alone,” Nelson said.

Pov nodded.

Nelson opened the red door with the golden snake.

Flint was able to catch a glimpse of the beautiful woman sitting in the center of the room. He craned his neck, looking through the crack as the door closed.

Flint sat beside Pov on the velvet cushioned chairs against the wall. “You really think that she won’t let him go?” he asked.

“Amira is his guide. It’s her job to make sure he stays on his path to enlightenment. There’s nothing enlightening about that god forsaken place.”

“Have you been there?” Flint asked.

“The lower planes? Yes. When I was a young fellow, beginning to experiment with my travels here. Only a couple of times, and always by accident.” He brushed his thinning ponytail with his palm.

“It’s hard to imagine that anything could be worse than this place,” Flint said, looking through the dark window behind them.

“There is more variety here than our world could have a million times over. Good and bad.” Pov looked over toward the red door and back at Flint. “He’s likely to be in there a while. I’d like to show you something.” He tilted his head seeking agreement.

“Alright,” Flint said.

“Close your eyes. Concentrate on me. Stretch to where I go.” Pov grabbed his hand. He took several deep breaths and exhaled abruptly. Flint followed suit.

A vibrating warmth sizzled within him. The whirring pulsations resonated from his toes to his head and wrapped around him like a blanket. His body stretched, then snapped like a rubber band to someplace new.

He let Pov’s hand loose. Overwhelmed by euphoria, he gasped and gazed out upon the dreamy world.

“This is my little home away from home.” Pov stood in his peripherals smiling back at him. “What do you think?”

Massive waves of turquoise sea roared toward the beaches of golden sand where they sat. Poking their backs through the wall of seawater, schools of orcas bobbed in and out, erupting sparkling mists of seawater from their blowholes. At first Flint worried that the cresting waves would reach them and wash them from the shore. But, as soon as the roaring giants drew close, they sunk into an emerald swell that lapped gently at their toes in the sand.

“It’s beautiful.” Flint struggled to find his words.

“And it’s real,” Pov said calmly. “As real as all of the things you’ve grown to know on that physical sphere of dirt we call Earth.”

Flint pressed his hands against the wet sand. It broke into clumps, and fell over his fingers. “I just don’t get it.”

“It isn’t easy to put in words.” Pov said.

“No. I don’t understand why Nelson and Amira and Sven wouldn’t be here. Without all of the demons, and drogs, and darkness,” Flint said.

“Well, because they can’t be. They’re stuck. This place is only a micrometer above all of those scary things.” Pov looked to the deep blue sky. “Nelson can go left, right, down, but not up. Not until he gets rid of those demons.”

“They’re keeping him there? How?” Flint asked.

“Because they took something from him, and with it, his ability to ascend. It’s how this all works.”

“And you know how to get rid of the demons?” Flint asked.

“God no. Nelson’s problems are his own. I’m here because I owe Amira a debt,” Pov said. “But, they do need to be stopped. When John stepped into the physical realm, he signed his own death warrant.”

Flint slid his hands into the cool sand behind him, and watched the ocean. The water swelled. The orcas sprayed, and the wave collapsed, infinitely.

Pov turned toward him. “What’s your paradise, Flint?”

“I don’t know.” Images of mountain cabins and palm tree hammocks flashed through his mind. But like the pictures in a magazine, they weren’t his.

“No?” Pov squinted at him. “Surely there is somewhere you’d rather be than Lanely Hills.”

“You got a time machine?” Flint asked sarcastically.

Pov shook his head. “Unfortunately not.” He raised a perkish index finger. “How about this. Close your eyes, fixate on something positive, or nothing at all, and take us there.”

Puzzled on where to start, Flint closed his eyes and watched the static colors painted on the backs of his eyelids. He thought of smiling and his cheek spasmed involuntarily. Pov’s stubby fingers clasped his hand and, in a moment, there was movement in the world all around him.

When the motion stopped and he opened his eyes, he saw only the night sky. Weightless, his legs dangled in the open air that surrounded him. A tightness clenched his chest, and his stomach became nauseatingly hollow. Far below him on solid ground, a rooftop sat beside a familiar street.

“The police station?” Flint asked. The perspective was new, but he was sure of it.

“I don’t know. You brought us here,” Pov said, floating beside him.

“I can try again.” Flint tried to balance himself with his arms to his sides.

Pov rubbed his chin. “No. Surely there is a reason that you thought of this place. Whether intentional, or not.” He began to descend slowly, sinking below Flint’s feet.

Nervously, Flint followed him down toward the inviting asphalt below.

The front door of the station was propped open. Fluorescent lights flickered from within, illuminating an elongated trapezoid of the vacant parking lot. Behind the long, wooden lobby desk was an empty chair. Flint looked for the distracted blonde clerk, but she, nor anyone else were present.

“Go on,” Pov said, noticing Flint’s hesitation.

Walking slowly around every dark corner, and past each short corridor, the pair saw no one. At the back of the station, a bluish light spread across the tile below a single open door. As they approached it, a mumbling voice came from within.

Pov and Flint locked eyes, and hugged the wall outside of the room.

The voice inside the room spoke again. Flint couldn't’ make out her words, but she didn’t sound pleased.

Flint peeked his head around the door. “Abbey?” He stepped into the doorway, frozen there.

“Hello?” She said, visibly frustrated. She sat in the center of a room at a metal table, her strawberry hair frizzed and undone.

“Abbey. What are you doing here?” Flint eased into the room, checking the corners for others.

“Hello? If you’re just gonna have me sit all day, I’ll just leave.” She stared at his stomach.

Flint looked behind him. “What are you talking about? Are you in trouble?”

“You know her?” Pov asked from outside the room.

“Yeah,” he replied. “She’s a friend.”

Abbey looked to the ceiling and sighed. She groveled under her breath. “Ridiculous.”

Pov bumped past Flint and spun against the wall inside the room. “Someone’s coming,” he whispered. Footsteps echoed down the hall.

Flint flattened himself against the wall on the opposite side of the door. “Abbey. Why are you here?” Flint whispered.

“She can’t hear or see you Flint,” Pov said.

“Thank you!” Abbey said sarcastically as the detective walked in the door.

His hairline was sharp and square. A black, trimmed moustache sat beneath his nose. Sliding the steel chair from beneath the table opposite Abbey, he sat and dropped a yellow folder onto the table. “Sorry. I had a mother and son who killed the step-dad.” He plucked a wad of white gum from his mouth and dropped it in a trash can. “So. Flint Hainsen. He was a boyfriend or-?”

“Can anyone tell me what this is all about?” Abbey’s scrunched forehead began to redden.

The detective opened the folder and scribbled something inside. “You tell me.” He stared at her blankly.

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told that last guy. We hooked up, he ran off. Why are all of y’all treating me like I’m some kind of criminal?”

“Ma’am, all we are trying to do is rule you out as an accessory,” the detective said. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

“Accessory to what?” Abbey shouted.

“Look, I’m gonna shoot you straight. We received a tip that you were with Flint the night all this went down, and you helped him skip town. Now-” He clicked his pen and slid it down his shirt pocket. “Is there anything, maybe some information you forgot to share with Detective Hodgkins, that you wanna tell us?”

Abbey folded her arms. “I’m going to want a lawyer.”

The detective smirked, holding his palms out toward her. “Now, now. These are simply questions. You’re not under any obligation to stay and answer them.”

Abbey stood from the table, sliding her chair from behind her. She stormed out of the room with the detective in-tow.

“Abbey, wait!” Flint reached for her as she stomped through the doorway. His hand passed through her as if she were a hologram. He followed the detective and looked to each end of the hallway. It was empty.

He grabbed Pov, who was standing behind him, and shook him. “What is this?” he shouted.

“I’m not certain,” Pov said, plucking flint’s fingers from his collar.

“Are we still in the astral realm? What just happened? Did it actually happen, or was it just my-, my intention?” Flint looked back down the hall again.

“I— I don’t know. There are places where the realms seem to mesh.” Pov looked around the room curiously. “It’s possible.”

Flint ran his hands up his face and pulled his hair. “Shit! It’s my fault. We’ve got to go.”

“There’s no need to panic. We’re not even positive that we are in fact in such a place.”

“I’ve got to go. I’ve got to fix this. We’ve got to get Nelson,” Flint said. He thought of the teacher’s compound and the velvet chair. He snapped through the swirling astral wormhole and slammed back into the chair, sliding it along the wall.

Sven stormed through the front door, furling his brow as he stared down the hall. Pov rematerialized in the chair beside Flint.

“It’s just us! It’s just us!” Pov shouted, as Sven stomped toward them.

“Names!” Sven shouted, reaching for the little round man.

“Pov and Flint!” Pov stuttered.

Sven let go of Pov’s coat and calmly walked back through the glass doors. He crossed his arms and continued his watch at the front of the building.

Nelson swung open the red door beside them and stormed past without a word. Flint and Pov stood and followed him through the front doors.

“What happened?” Pov asked, trying to keep up.

“Nelson. We’ve got to go back to Lanely Hills,” Flint said.

Nelson clenched his jaw and took a few more steps into the parking lot before stopping to look into the sky with closed eyes. His back arched and he vanished into the air.

“Well,” Pov said. “That can’t be good. C’mon”

Flint and Pov shot after him at breakneck speeds, slamming to a cushioned halt before the giant wall. Nelson was kicking up dust as he stomped toward the rectangular cut.

Flint jogged to catch up to him. “What happened back there?”

“She forbid it.”

“We’ll find another way. But first, I’ve got to go back to Lanely Hills. The police are questioning Abbey,” Flint said. “I’m sure John’s involved somehow.”

Nelson bent over and pulled Kashvi from the floor. The door began to slowly reconnect from the bottom corners.

“No,” Nelson said.

“No what?” Flint asked.

“I’m going to the lower planes.” He brushed the dirt from the glowing blade.

Pov clumsily stumbled beside him. “Don’t be stupid. If you disobey-”

Nelson shook his head. “It’s the only option we have left. I’m done chasing ghosts.”

Flint chimed in. “We have to get back to Lanely Hills. I can’t let her get blamed for this.”

“How do you know she needs help? Who’s telling you this?” Nelson asked.

“We stretched someplace. Me and Pov. It was just like back there in the real world. We saw her in the police station. She was being questioned for what I did to that man,” Flint said.

Nelson turned to Pov.

“It’s true.” Pov nodded.

Nelson paced between then, biting his finger. He stopped in front of the cut. It continued to seal itself shut. “Okay, okay. Let’s go.”

One behind the other, they climbed through what remained of the astral doorway. They were swept through the dark, viscous layer between the realms.

Flint found himself standing back in the elevator machine room. He was beginning to get used to the sickness that came with traveling between the realms. The cut sealed itself and the wall reverted back to its original state.

“Nelson?” Pov called out from across the room.

Flint walked around one of the elevator motors. Pov poked his head around one of the many aluminum cabinets.

“What’s going on?” Flint asked.

“You son of a gun.” Pov stomped over to the wall where the cut had been.

“What?” Flint watched him curiously.

“He stayed. The bastard stayed,” Pov huffed, throwing his hands high above his head.

“In there?” Flint asked, pointing to the wall.

“He’s gone to the lower planes,” Pov said. “Alone.”

Flint rubbed his palm against the foam paneling. Cancerous powder crumbled to the floor, and slight vibrations resonated from where the cut had been.

“What do we do?” Flint asked.

Pov sighed. “We go help the girl I suppose.”

“What about Nelson?”

“He made his choice. Don’t worry about him. He’s competent enough. Stupid, but competent.”


Chapter 18

The boxes of junk came in armfuls down the elevator, through the lobby, and across the jam-packed parking lot. Flint was only slightly upset about missing the complimentary Thanksgiving brunch in the Hotel cafe. Ever since his mother’s falling out with Aunt Karen, their Thanksgiving meal was had at the local BNB Buffet. He’d have to miss that now too.

Pov slammed the tailgate and shimmied his way into the driver’s seat. Luckily, he’d let the car run as they gathered their things. Warm air radiated from the vents, smelling of rust and moth-bitten clothes.

“She still not answering?” Pov asked.

Flint locked his phone and slid it between his thigh and the leather seat. “Nah. I think she blocked my number.”

“Smart girl,” Pov said.

“Yeah.”

“You couldn’t do that when I was your age,” Pov raised his eyebrows. “Best you could do was to have yourself omitted from the phone book.”

As they drove South, the towns became smaller, and the air thicker. Smooth walls of stone, cut from the hills by the winding highway, towered beside them and blocked the sun. Pov adjusted the dial on the old radio as each classic rock station lost signal and faded out.

“Farewell misery.” Pov waved as they passed a blue sign welcoming them into Arkansas, ‘The Natural State’.

The invisible line that separated the two states didn’t do much to filter out the poor care of the littered roadsides. It did, however, bring Flint a bit of relief.

As a child, Flint’s mother had taken him to Arkansas to evacuate ahead of a hurricane named Michael, supposedly brewing in the gulf. He didn’t remember too much from the trip, other than a tiny trailer park with a young girl he was sure he’d marry. Now an adult with the internet at his disposal, he was certain that Michael wasn’t a storm.

“Hungry?” Pov asked, already slowing with his turn signal clicking.

“Sure.” He wasn’t, but Nelson still held the little bit of cash they had left, and he wasn’t sure if there was going to be another offer further into their trip.

They bounced and squeaked into the pothole-ridden parking lot of a two story diner just off of the highway. There were no other cars in the parking lot, which was understandable considering the lack of signage at the establishment. If it weren’t for the small neon light in the window, Flint probably would have assumed it was abandoned also.

Inside, Pov was quick to remove his hat and address the young hostess beside the door. “M’lady, you look stunning this afternoon.”

Flint cringed and pretended to read a yellowed newspaper clipping that hung in a frame on the wood-paneled wall.

She smiled. “Just the two of you?”

Pov nodded. “A booth preferably.”

“Not a problem, follow me.” She flashed a metallic smile as she grabbed two worn menus from a tray behind her podium.

As they made their way to the back of the diner, their footsteps thumped loudly on the planked flooring. Other than the wobbly squeaking of the half-a-dozen or so droopy ceiling fans, it was totally silent. Flint was uneasy, but he was unsure why.

They shared the dusty saloon with only one other soul. He sat near the window, reading a magazine above a bowl of steamy soup.

Flint and Pov ordered their drinks: Sweet tea for Flint, and orange juice with ice for Pov.

“You don’t talk very much, you know?”

“I’m sorry,” Flint repeated his rehearsed response, to the observation he’d heard uttered a million times.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Pov said. “Believe it or not, back when Nelson and I first met, he was the same way. Now you can’t get him to shut up.”

Flint sat up in his seat. “Did you know him before he was in that place?”

“Oh no, he’d been long dead by then,” Pov replied.

The young waitress set their glasses on the edge of the table atop folded napkins. Pov thanked her with an uncomfortable glare, and she reciprocated with an equally uncomfortable look. As a man totally lacking in physical appeal, Pov’s confidence was bewildering to Flint.

“How did you two even meet?”

Pov inflated his cheeks and chuckled. “That’s a very long story.”

Flint shrugged. “Like you said, I’m not a talker. But I’m pretty good at listening.”

Pov grinned and took a gulp from the sweaty glass. “There was this book on astral travel. I had been practicing for a while, but I still had no clue what I was getting into. I read the book. It claimed that anybody who was anybody had something called a guide. Somebody to lead you through all of the muck.”

“Like Amira?” Flint asked.

“Precisely.” Pov nodded. “Anyway, I did as the book instructed and called out to my guide, should the universe bestow one upon me. And just like that- he snapped his fingers. “He appeared.”

“Nelson?” Flint leaned away from him.

“No. The man was John.” Pov raised his eyebrows.

“John was your guide?”

"God no," Pov chuckled. “Just a good listener like yourself I suppose. He played me like a fiddle. See, back then he was bound to the lower realm, as he should be.” His face drooped with sorrow. “He knew of Nelson, and his illegal travel between realms to visit a friend. Oh, he filled my head with all sorts of nonsense about bringing balance and enforcing the law of the realms. He convinced me to seek out Nelson and lure him into the lower realms.”

“What?” Flint looked at him in disgust. “How could you trust him?”

“The same way you did,” Pov snapped. The sagging, stubbled skin around his cheeks grew taught as he clenched his jaw muscles tight. His balled fists pressed against the table. His eyes followed something above Flint. Slowly, he turned his head, meeting a dark figure that approached their table.

His chest trembled. “You son of a bitch,” he said to the man in the grey overcoat.

Flint sank into his seat as he recognized the man. A dry, choking knot grew in his throat.

“Go on now. Don’t cut a good story short on account of me.” John’s golden ring sparkled beside Flint’s head where it rested on the booth. He smiled as he ran his fingers down his moustache, grooming the ashy whiskers. Sharp odors of cologne and tobacco filled the air surrounding the table.

“Do you mind?” John asked, gesturing his hand toward the open space beside Flint.

Flint kept his eyes fixed on the smooth glassy table, watching him from the corner of his eye. As John moved to sit beside him, it took all of his effort to keep himself planted firmly where he was.

“Don’t worry, he can’t hurt you. He’s just the projection of a coward here,” Pov said, staring down the demon.

John snapped his head toward the buck-toothed man, his head bobbing as he laughed quietly through his nose. His leg pressed against Flint’s thigh as he plopped down, pushing him deeper in the booth. “You believe that don’t you, Flint?”

Fuck you, Flint thought

“Boys.” John clasped his hands together in front of him. “I must admit, I’ve been a ball of nerves lately. I’ve still got quite a bit of business to take care of around here, but that all gets hard to do when I’m having to look over my shoulder every step of the way. Do you know how that feels?”

Flint’s lips twitched as he resisted their turning up, revealing his disgust. He breathed deep, wishing he had Kashvi for himself. He imagined how he’d disembowel John and watch him grow opaque and wither into nothing.

“C’mon Fl-” John began as he grabbed Flint’s leg to give it a friendly squeeze. A reverberating whine echoed from his pocket. John paused and grinned nervously. “What you got there?” he asked, staring at the bell shaped protuberance in Flint’s pocket. A hollowness passed momentarily through his eyes.

Flint pushed his hand away. “Don’t touch me.”

John extended his hands in front of himself apologetically. “Relax partner. I was just wonderin’ was all, no need to get your britches in a bunch.”

“What do you want?” Pov demanded.

“Oh, I don’t want nothing. I just wanted to share my. . .” He wiggled his chin. “. . .Jubilation. As I was saying, it’s a whole lot easier for me to move around without having to worry about your friend and his little knife. Lucky for me, it looks as if the coward went and took himself out on his own accord.”

“He didn’t ‘take himself out’. The only coward here is you. Why is it that you only show your face when he’s not around?” Flint asked.

John scoffed. “Oh, so now you can speak?”

“What are you doing here anyway? Shouldn’t you be down there protecting your little demon friends from big, bad Nelson?”

John’s smile turned to a scowl. He turned in the seat and drew his face close to Flint’s. “Why don’t you keep that mouth shut, boy?” He jerked his arm and swiftly clasped his fingers around Flint’s neck, robbing him of air.

Flint grabbed John’s arm and clawed at his wrist. Blood pressurized inside of his skull, and hot tears filled his eyes.

Pov rattled the table as he sprawled across it grasping for John’s arm.

The strangulation was beyond the physical sensation of being choked. A darkness came from within the demon’s stone-like eyes. He wasn’t starving his brain of oxygen, he was pumping dread into it.

“That’s my land. Where things go to die. Where they are sent to die. I like you Flint, but so help me god- I will snap you in half and drag you down there to watch your little buddy die.” Dirt-brown saliva ran between his clenched teeth. “Do you understand me, boy?”

“Sir?” a faint voice called out.

John’s ravenous breaths slowed and his fingers, which were digging deeply into Flint’s esophagus, loosened. He blinked and his eyes seemed to change.

Flint gasped and choked for air after John released him from his vice. “Fuck you,” Flint rasped, closing his eyes to catch his breath.

“Excuse me?” The curly-headed waitress stood at the end of the table, her mouth agape.

John raised himself from the table, invisible to the young woman. “He’s gone. He’s left you again. Go home, Flint.” He shook his head and looked at each of them before walking back toward the front of the building.

“Is everything okay over here?” she asked, examining the scattered utensils and toppled glassware.

Pov settled himself in his seat, breathing deeply. “Yes ma’am. It must have gone down the wrong pipe,” he said, pointing at the river of sweet tea spilling to the floor.

She jumped backwards, clutching her apron, as Flint lunged from his seat, throwing himself toward the invisible cowboy.

Pov grabbed his wrist tightly, holding him back. “I think we’re about ready for the check.” He turned to Flint and locked eyes with him.

“Sure. Okay. I’ll be right back,” the waitress said hesitantly.

“Give me that bell,” Pov said, darting his head toward the door. “Quickly.”

Flint stretched his leg and pulled the shiny instrument from his pocket, slapping it into Pov’s lanky hand.

“Interesting,” Pov muttered as he shook the bell, which emitted no sound.

“What?”

“Like this bell, it appears he’s found a way to exhibit a higher degree of influence on our realm than is typically seen.” Pov passed the bell back to Flint, hesitant to release it.

“What does that mean?” Flint asked.

“Nothing good. Perhaps he’s getting bold with Nelson being in the Lower Realms. There’s no use trying to fight him ourselves. And, it may look a bit silly on those,” Pov said, nodding up at a small, blinking camera, watching the diner from above.


Chapter 19

Pov cleared his throat. "Flint."

The remnant of a snore erupted from Flint as his eyes shot open. Smudged lights hurt his under-lubricated eyes. He twisted in the rigid, leather seat, and looked out of the window into a dark, but familiar landscape. Deep within his shoulder, a tinge of pain unfurled as he adjusted his seatbelt.

“How close are we?” Flint moaned. He smacked his mouth. His tongue tasted sour.

Pov folded the crinkled map he’d been using to navigate, and tucked it into the door. “Very close.”

Along the highway, rows of sapling pines created a strobing effect with the moonlit ground as they passed. The roar of tires and the wobbling view through the rattling window was hypnotizing. Flint’s eyelids drooped once more.

“Flint.” Pov poked a stubby finger into his arm.

“Hmm?” Flint groaned. He tried to swallow. The lump in his throat felt as if it were bleeding. He wrapped his hand around his neck and tried to swallow again, wincing through the discomfort. Catching his breath, he looked over to Pov who was leaning far onto the steering wheel.

“Point the way young man,” Pov said.

Flint looked around for a sense of direction. Blocks of steel sided buildings and garages lined the feeder road. He hadn’t missed Lanely Hills. He hardly thought of it while away. The quiet, grey monotony only reminded him of what he’d lost there.

The old station-wagon bobbed like a river boat along the old two-lane highway. Looming aromas of sulfur and vaporized cooking oil blew in through the vents as they drove by the refineries and fast-food restaurants.

“What if she’s not working tonight?” Pov asked as he jammed the shifter stick into park.

“I don’t know. We’ll find her,” Flint replied.

“If you say so.” Pov climbed from the car and stretched his short legs.

Flint looked behind him, down the quiet sidewalk and headed for the door. The booming strums of a country song’s bass guitar thumped louder as he opened it.

In the corner, two men in oil smudged coveralls stood above a pool table. One of them, the larger of the two, walked to the bar with a lit cigarette. Flint and Pov took a seat beside him on the metal stools.

Pov’s feet dangled above the ground like a child's. Green and red tinted ballasts hung from the bare rafters in the ceiling and illuminated the carved up counter.

The large man whistled, craning his neck to the side. “Abbey!” he called out. “Need ‘nother one.”

“Alright. Just a sec.” Abbey walked around the corner from the kitchen, holding a tower of glasses, pinned beneath her chin. She knelt and clinked them together as she arranged them beneath the bar.

Flint watched her, unnoticed. His tongue felt fat and swollen. He opened his mouth, thinking it might choke him.

The man seated beside them held a folded bill between his fingers. He squinted as smoke from the end of his cigarette crawled up his face.

Abbey took the money, and pulled a frosty beer from a refrigerator behind the counter. Her curls lifted from her shoulders as she spun around to place the bottle on the counter.

“Thanks darlin’,” he said, baring a yellowed grin.

She opened the cash drawer and then slammed it with a clunk. “Now what can I get for y- Flint?” Her eyes met with his. “What in the hell are you doing here?” she said more quietly.

Flint looked over his shoulder. “Abbey, I’m so sorry.”

“Save it.” Abbey pressed her lips together. “You know the cops are lookin’ for you, right?”

“I know. That’s what I needed to talk to you about.”

“Is that why you left me at that motel?” Abbey snapped. “What happened that night? Were you running then too?”

“No- I mean- I just didn’t want to get you wrapped up in all of my crap,” Flint said.

She rolled her eyes. “Well it’s too late for that now.”

Flint leaned toward her, across the scuffed and carved up counter. “Abbey, if I knew the cops would shake you down I would’ve never asked for you to help me.”

“How do you know I talked to the police?” Her eyes, like handcrafted marbles, examined him under her furrowed brows.

Pov cleared his throat. “Abbey, Flint here has been terribly worried about you.” He raised his index finger. “In fact, we drove all the way down from Missouri just to make this right.”

Flint closed his eyes and bit his lip.

“Missouri?” Abbey questioned. "What did you get yourself into, Flint?"

Flint sighed. “It’s a long story. What did the cops have to say to you?”

The other greasy man who was playing billiards now stood beside Flint and looked at Abbey smugly. “Everything alright over here?”

“It’s fine,” Abbey said.

He looked at Flint and moved a lump of tobacco inside his lip with his tongue. “A’ight.”

Abbey waited for him to return to the smoky corner beside the window. “They were just bein’ real pushy, wanting to know where you were, who you were, what do I know. . .”

“What did you tell them?”

“I told ‘em the truth. That I didn’t know shit.” She shook her head. “What did you do, Flint?”

Flint stared silently into her eyes and swallowed. He fought back tears and tried to ignore the replay of his evening with John.

“Well, y’all should probably get going. Before another cop shows up to harass me on account of you,” she said, looking toward the door.

Flint wasn’t ready to leave. Words spun in circles in his head as he thought of a way to make things right with her. But, he just sat there, nauseous and ashamed.

“If they come bothering you again-”

“I won’t say anything.” She rolled her eyes.

Flint shook his head. “Abbey.”

“Go,” she said coldly.

Flint nipped at the inside of his lip with his teeth nervously.

“Well that settles that.” Pov lifted his coat from his lap as he stood, throwing it around his shoulders. “C’mon Flint.”

Flint nodded and followed Pov back through the door and into the cold.

The station wagon sputtered and started with a cough of white smoke. Pov left the engine turning in place. He sat silently, with his hands on the thin, plastic steering wheel. Water droplets blew with the foggy breeze, clinging to the windshield. They combined, reached their peak, and rolled into glistening streams.

“Seven-hundred-fifty miles.” Pov said.

“What?”

“We could have been looking for Nelson,” Pov said.

“You heard her.” Flint scoffed. “What we saw, it was real.”

Pov turned toward him. “Perhaps. But, she didn’t want your help after all. Did she?”

“It doesn’t matter. John’s doing this. He told me back at that carnival that he'd do something like this. We have to stop him.”

Pov jiggled the gear shift and put it in drive. “Well we can’t do that without Nelson. There’s no use in finding John again if we can’t kill him. I’ll project to Amira tonight. I’ll just need a bed. Your house is nearby, right?”

Flint thought for a moment. “No. They’ll be watching my place. But, I know somewhere they won’t be.”

***

Flint navigated Pov through the sleepy suburbs. They drove across the bridge that separated old-town and new-town. Slowly, they came to a stop in front of the old abandoned mansion.

Flint led Pov along the bushy path beside the house, gathering spiky burrs in his shoelaces. He wondered if someone else had claimed the dwelling as their own while they’d been away. Part of him expected to see Nelson, drunk and playing board games on the living room floor.

Inside, it was dark and undisturbed. Nelson’s sleeping bag was still in the corner by the fireplace, rolled neatly and tied with a bungee. Flint ducked, startled by the headlights of a passing car.

“So this is where he was hiding out?” Pov asked, feeling his way along the antique wallpaper.

“I don’t see how he could sleep here all alone. Place gives me the creeps.” Flint opened a curvy-trimmed cabinet door, above the greasy square of linoleum where a stove once sat.

“Nelson is a strange individual,” Pov said.

“Yeah well, I’m still not one-hundred percent convinced that he isn’t imaginary.” Flint thought of a young Nelson, sitting with him beside the bunk beds.

“There was a time I too thought myself crazy for believing all of this. You’ll get used to it.”

Flint felt his way from one doorway to the next, gliding his fingertips along the walls. He flicked an unseen light switch and nothing happened.

Pov followed close behind, occasionally bumping his hand into Flint’s back.

Flint flipped another dead switch. His hand brushed against something that made a metallic clack. He blinked and stretched his eyes wide, struggling to see the outline of the staircase in front of him.

“What is it?” Pov whispered.

Flint slid the bolt out from the lock, and slowly pulled the creaking door open. The air smelled of old cardboard and wet mothballs. “The basement,” he said, staring down into the lightless cavern. “It’s where I saw him cut for the first time.”

Pov stood beside him. “Well go on. If he’s been back, perhaps he’s gone down there.”

As he descended the stairs, he ran his hands along the rough bricks and all their imperfections. His index finger brushed a small, hard thing that scurried away along the wall, a beetle he hoped. The stairs flexed and creaked behind him as Pov’s followed.

Flint took care to not bump into the piles of blanketed junk. He thought of the drog and the thundering canvas on the other side.

“Oh yes,” Pov whispered. His hand slid across the wall, swiping a crystalline powder from the brick. “Is this where he made the original cut?”

“I think so.” Flint put his hand on the cool bricks where the interdimensional portal had been. He felt nothing but stone.

Pov brushed the grime from his hands. “Oh well.”

A dust-filled beam of white light swept across the room. Flint shot his eyes to the front of the basement, from where it came. The light swung by again, and stopped on the staircase.

Pov crouched behind a blanketed table.

Flint raised his hand in front of his eyes and froze.

“Let me see your hands!” A stern voice shouted.

Flint threw his hands in the air above his head, blinded by the flashlight.

“Both of you, don’t move!” The man shouted.

A second officer jogged passed the first, down into the basement. Guns drawn, they stalked toward them. One grabbed Flint’s wrist and twisted it behind his back, clasping it to his other with the sharp metal cuffs.

“Move.” The one restraining Flint shouted as he pushed him toward the stairs.

“What is this about? Ow!” Pov hollered.

“I don’t know genius, does this house belong to you?” the cop asked sarcastically.

Outside, Flint watched as Pov was tugged toward the back of one of the police cars. The handcuffs pinched the skin on his wrists as he sat against them in the other car. The officer, an all business bald macho-man, tapped at the keys of his dashboard computer.

The officer’s eyes glared at him from the rearview mirror. “Looks like you’re a wanted man, Flint.”


Chapter 20

Flint counted the beats of his heart. He ran his fingertips along the smooth, painted cinder block wall beside his bunk. Above him, an air vent whirred as it emitted it’s bone chilling wind. Two weeks ago he waited hours for it to make a clicking noise and stop blowing. But, due to budget constraints or just another cruel punishment, apparently the Bend County Jail hadn’t upgraded to modern thermostat technology.

Fifteen minutes since the last set of jingling keys marched passed his cell, like clockwork, they came again. An exhausted jailer peered into the cell through the glass window. The jailer slipped a key into the steel door, which clunked and thumped internally before being pulled open.

“I hope it’s not Fox-fucking-news again.” His cellmate said, climbing down from the metal bunk above him.

Flint swung his legs from the plastic pad he’d been told was a mattress and slid his feet into his foam slippers.

Lunchroom chatter filled the dayroom outside the cell. Most of it was friendly banter, but there was the occasional screaming match or, at least, hushed arguments.

Flint walked into the open room, making sure to keep his posture and expression consistent with how he’d portrayed himself the days before.

A few inmates read books at the long cafeteria style tables. A couple of guys, usually the same ones, pulled their mats from their cells and laid out in front of the old, bolted up CRT television. As always, Flint sat at the table in the corner of the dayroom, by the main door.

“Mister Flint. What’s up my amigo?” a wrinkled old man who sat in the chair across from him said. His pearl-white teeth shone beneath his bushy, grey mustache.

“Morning Gutti,” Flint replied.

Gutti was in for his fifth DUI. Rosy cheeked and grinning, even the grumpiest of inmates couldn’t find a way to put him on their bad side.

“You meet with that lawyer of yours yet?” Gutti spooned a glob of pink yogurt into his mouth.

“Nah, still haven’t heard back.”

“I told you. Them public defenders take their sweet time. If you want, I can hook you up with my guy.” Gutti pointed his spoon at Flint.

“Thanks.” Flint half-smiled. “But, I doubt anyone’s going to keep me away from prison.”

“Bro.” Gutti cocked his head to its side. “I told you stop with all that negativity, man. You’ll be back in the free world in no time.”

The metal door behind them clunked. A guard propped it open with his leg and pushed a squeaky cart through before the door swung closed.

“Gutierrez,” the guard said, handing an envelope to Gutti.

“Hainsen.” He slid a rectangular package, wrapped in torn, manila paper to Flint. A note was pinned to the package beneath a rubber band.

“Would you look at that?” Gutti exclaimed. “See, positive thinking. It’s working already.”

Flint turned the package around and slid the paper to the side. The aroma was refreshing. It smelled clean, like a new set of playing cards or a backpack on the first day of school. Scribbled in black marker was a name and address:

Rodger Monroe

111 Main St.

Lanely Hills, TX, 77777

“Go ahead, you first,” Gutti said, nodding toward the package on the table. “Just like Christmas morning.”

Flint tore the paper from the package. Underneath was a thin softcover book with vibrant images of neurons, stars, and ghostly human forms. ‘Adventures away from your body’, the title said. The envelope contained a triple folded sheet of blue-lined notebook paper. In blue ink there was a crude sketch of a leafless tree, split down middle, right to the roots. Above the tree, in swooping cursive, a note read:

“Flint,

Our friend still hasn’t come back from down there. I’m afraid he may be in real trouble. Read the book and meet me at the tree. I’ll be waiting.

-Pov"

“Well? Lawyer? Lady Friend?” Gutti prodded.

“Just a friend.” Flint tucked the letter back into the torn envelope and slid it beneath the cover of the book. “Your turn.”

Gutti pulled a pair of black-rimmed glasses from his pocket and peered through them at his letter. “Oh no. Well it was nice knowing you,” he said, folding his spectacles.

“What?”

Gutti laughed and slapped the letter on the tabletop. “I’m kidding! My lawyer says I got my court date moved up. Positive thinking bro.”

“Congrats. I’m happy for you,” Flint said. It was a glimmer of hope that Flint’s day could be coming soon. He’d learned that the right to a speedy trial didn’t have any well-defined parameters. Some, like Gutti, had spent two months or more waiting to go to trial.

Gutti kissed the paper and stuck it back in the envelope. “He’s the real deal man. You sure you don’t want me to set you up?” He snapped his fingers. “I know you say you ain't no killer, but he gets the best plea deals in town.”

“I’ll think about it,” Flint said.

Flint took his things from the table and walked back to his cell. He laid on his chilly bunk and opened the little book to the first page.


Chapter 21

Flint counted the beats of his heart. He ran his fingertips along the smooth, painted cinder block wall beside his bunk. Above him, an air vent whirred as it emitted it’s bone chilling wind. Two weeks ago he waited hours for it to make a clicking noise and stop blowing. But, due to budget constraints or just another cruel punishment, apparently the Bend County Jail hadn’t upgraded to modern thermostat technology.

Fifteen minutes since the last set of jingling keys marched passed his cell, like clockwork, they came again. An exhausted jailer peered into the cell through the glass window. The jailer slipped a key into the steel door, which clunked and thumped internally before being pulled open.

“I hope it’s not Fox-fucking-news again.” His cellmate said, climbing down from the metal bunk above him.

Flint swung his legs from the plastic pad he’d been told was a mattress and slid his feet into his foam slippers.

Lunchroom chatter filled the dayroom outside the cell. Most of it was friendly banter, but there was the occasional screaming match or, at least, hushed arguments.

Flint walked into the open room, making sure to keep his posture and expression consistent with how he’d portrayed himself the days before.

A few inmates read books at the long cafeteria style tables. A couple of guys, usually the same ones, pulled their mats from their cells and laid out in front of the old, bolted up CRT television. As always, Flint sat at the table in the corner of the dayroom, by the main door.

“Mister Flint. What’s up my amigo?” a wrinkled old man who sat in the chair across from him said. His pearl-white teeth shone beneath his bushy, grey mustache.

“Morning Gutti,” Flint replied.

Gutti was in for his fifth DUI. Rosy cheeked and grinning, even the grumpiest of inmates couldn’t find a way to put him on their bad side.

“You meet with that lawyer of yours yet?” Gutti spooned a glob of pink yogurt into his mouth.

“Nah, still haven’t heard back.”

“I told you. Them public defenders take their sweet time. If you want, I can hook you up with my guy.” Gutti pointed his spoon at Flint.

“Thanks.” Flint half-smiled. “But, I doubt anyone’s going to keep me away from prison.”

“Bro.” Gutti cocked his head to its side. “I told you stop with all that negativity, man. You’ll be back in the free world in no time.”

The metal door behind them clunked. A guard propped it open with his leg and pushed a squeaky cart through before the door swung closed.

“Gutierrez,” the guard said, handing an envelope to Gutti.

“Hainsen.” He slid a rectangular package, wrapped in torn, manila paper to Flint. A note was pinned to the package beneath a rubber band.

“Would you look at that?” Gutti exclaimed. “See, positive thinking. It’s working already.”

Flint turned the package around and slid the paper to the side. The aroma was refreshing. It smelled clean, like a new set of playing cards or a backpack on the first day of school. Scribbled in black marker was a name and address:

Rodger Monroe

111 Main St.

Lanely Hills, TX, 77777

“Go ahead, you first,” Gutti said, nodding toward the package on the table. “Just like Christmas morning.”

Flint tore the paper from the package. Underneath was a thin softcover book with vibrant images of neurons, stars, and ghostly human forms. ‘Adventures away from your body’, the title said. The envelope contained a triple folded sheet of blue-lined notebook paper. In blue ink there was a crude sketch of a leafless tree, split down middle, right to the roots. Above the tree, in swooping cursive, a note read:

“Flint,

Our friend still hasn’t come back from down there. I’m afraid he may be in real trouble. Read the book and meet me at the tree. I’ll be waiting.

-Pov"

“Well? Lawyer? Lady Friend?” Gutti prodded.

“Just a friend.” Flint tucked the letter back into the torn envelope and slid it beneath the cover of the book. “Your turn.”

Gutti pulled a pair of black-rimmed glasses from his pocket and peered through them at his letter. “Oh no. Well it was nice knowing you,” he said, folding his spectacles.

“What?”

Gutti laughed and slapped the letter on the tabletop. “I’m kidding! My lawyer says I got my court date moved up. Positive thinking bro.”

“Congrats. I’m happy for you,” Flint said. It was a glimmer of hope that Flint’s day could be coming soon. He’d learned that the right to a speedy trial didn’t have any well-defined parameters. Some, like Gutti, had spent two months or more waiting to go to trial.

Gutti kissed the paper and stuck it back in the envelope. “He’s the real deal man. You sure you don’t want me to set you up?” He snapped his fingers. “I know you say you ain't no killer, but he gets the best plea deals in town.”

“I’ll think about it,” Flint said.

Flint took his things from the table and walked back to his cell. He laid on his chilly bunk and opened the little book to the first page.


Chapter 22

Flint tried to think of positive things to raise his vibrations to the higher realms, but it was no easy feat while standing in hell. Bloodied faces and shadowy entities flashed in and out of the stretching tunnel as they ascended. They whispered discouragements and their wishes of death.

Pov hummed a melancholy tune as he carried the other side of Nelson’s lifeless body. Fear and sadness clobbered them like turbulent winds.

Flint thought of Gutti. He could escape this hell without even trying, he thought.

Suddenly, a lightness overcame them. He hadn’t even noticed the force that had been weighing him down.

Ahead, Sven stood at the front of Amira’s compound, guarding the door as always.

“We’ve got to get him to Amira,” Pov grunted, pulling Nelson’s arm tighter around his neck.

Nelson’s skin was ice cold. Black, spidery veins spread from a central point on his forehead, and surrounded his eyes.

“Help!” Flint screamed as they drug the limp body across the parking lot. Pebbles of tar coated rock dug into his feet as they pressed on toward the building.

Sven didn’t budge, standing tall with his interlocked arms resting on his massive chest.

“Open the door!” Pov shouted, standing before him.

Sven lowered his gaze on them, unblinking. “You two,” he said, then nodded his head toward Nelson. “Not him.”

“What? It’s Nelson!” Pov pleaded. “He’s dying!”

Ridges of muscle flexed and shifted along Sven’s jaw. He lifted his chin and looked back across the lot toward the mountainous horizon. “Then none,” he said coldly.

Flint threw Nelson’s arm from around his collarbone. He darted beneath the man’s thick arm and reached for the silver handle on the door behind him.

Sven slammed his hand against the door, pinning it to the frame. Orange reflections flickered and wobbled along the glass. He spread his legs wide, driving his bent knee into Flint’s gut.

“Leave,” he demanded, as Flint lay on the ground.

Amira appeared from behind their reflections in the thick glass. She pressed against the door and pushed it open against Sven’s hand. “Allow them through,” she said sternly.

Sven stepped aside, and they pulled Nelson through the entrance. The door closed and the giant gazed out toward the horizon once again.

“In here.” The golden coins hanging from Amira’s garb clinked and jingled as she hurried toward the door on the right side of the hallway lobby. She grabbed the handle to the blank red door and swung it open, rushing inside.

A trail of mud streaked along the white marbled floor as they dragged him in behind her. Soft, blue, sourceless light illuminated the corners of the ceiling and reflected off of the stone carved chairs that lined the walls. A lone, white stone table sat in the center of the square room. Carved channels in its surface ran around its edges and into a hole on the furthest end.

“Lay him down there,” she said, pointing to the slab of stone, and walked to the wall at the back of the room.

In front of the bare wall was a chest, its edges sharp and made from the same white marble as the rest of the chamber. Along the lid and down the sides, spectacular inlays of bright silver flowed around it like rivers of mercury.

Flint and Pov hoisted Nelson’s limp body atop the marble altar. His soot covered head rested in a shallow bowl that was cut away from the stone.

Amira knelt before the peculiar chest and opened its lid. A green light glowed from within, casting her long shadow upon the ceiling. She reached inside and turned toward them, bearing a short, slender sword. Sprawling cracks of emerald light peeked out from within the silver blade.

“Wait. What do you need that for?” Flint said, holding his hands out toward her.

She continued forward, her sword swaying with her arms as she approached the table. “Be calm.”

She gripped the sword with her left hand, holding it parallel over Nelson’s motionless body. The blade flickered and grew blindingly bright.

The three stood over Nelson as the sword hummed with energy, their eyes reflecting the fiery emerald glow. Flint tapped his fingers against the cold, marble slab. Pov’s mouth hung agape, his breathing heavy and strained.

Shimmering flecks of silver-green light fell from the sword like an embery mist. The light cascaded over his body and flowed down through the altar’s carved channels.

Nelson’s leg jerked. His blood-red eyes shot open, and his neck arched back violently. He drew a slow, popping gasp for breath.

“Hold him still,” Amira said.

Pov and Nelson each held an arm against the table. Nelson’s body flexed and thrashed, slamming the heels of his dirty boots onto the bleach-white stone.

“Something has attached to him,” she said.

Nelson turned his head to its side as she placed her soft sand colored hand on his forehead.

Amira’s voice grew low and powerful. “Balban! Leave him,” she chanted.

He continued to thrash, recoiling from her touch.

“Algos! Leave him.”

“Aiden! Leave him,” she shouted.

Nelson became still.

There was a thud beneath the table.

Flint unwrapped his fingers from Nelson’s arm. He crept backwards, watching the dark space beneath the altar.

“Aiden,” Amira said, gripping her sword tightly in her hand. She sidestepped along the edge of the wall, pointing the sharp tip down at the demon.

He was a hairless brute of a man. Just moments ago he had been standing with the others, coaxing Flint’s father to pull the trigger. Aiden struggled to free his hips from the narrow space beneath the slab.

“Are you this unwise?” Amira asked.

Aiden pushed against the floor, rising to his feet. He tugged at the tail of his torn black tee shirt, and spat on the floor beside him.

“On your knees,” Amira demanded, drawing the sword closer to his face.

“You first, bitch.” He scowled and grinded his teeth with a terrible screech.

“I will not ask you again,” she said.

Aiden grunted. He spread his hands and began to crouch, and then he charged. His muscular shoulders carried his weight forward as he threw himself toward her.

Amira didn’t flinch. Quickly tilting the blade back, she struck the hilt of the sword against the demon’s skull. His body stiffened and tumbled to the ground beside her. Screaming, he climbed to his feet. Bright-red blood streamed from the top of his head and pooled on the floor at his feet.

Amira pointed the blade at the demon’s chest.

“Tell me where Balban is and I will allow you to return to the lower realms where you belong.”

The sword shimmered and bathed the white walls with its color.

Aiden shifted his gaze around the room. “Where I belong?” His nostrils flared as he screamed with rage. “Where do you belong, Gypsy? Balban told me all about how you got here.”

“Where is he?” she asked slowly.

Aiden's teeth crunched and grinded. “Fuck. You. Whore.”

“Where?” Amira demanded.

“No!” Aiden grunted. “No. He’ll make us whole again.” He breathed maniacally, his wide neck burned red and glistened with sweat. The tendons writhed over his knuckles as his fingers twitched and fidgeted. Springing from the floor, he turned, and charged toward Flint.

Flint stiffened, and covered his face with his arms.

Amira’s sword arced downward, slicing a smoldering gash through the charging demon. The wound separated him, splitting his torso from shoulders to waist. His severed corpse tumbled and laid in half on the floor. It smoldered and dissolved into sizzling embers, and then wisps of smoky ash.

Amira lowered the pulsating blade. She looked at the charred powder scattered across the floor. “Are you injured?” she asked Flint.

“No,” Flint uttered. “I’m fine.” He peeked around The Teacher, focusing on Nelson whose chest began to feebly rise and fall.

Pov walked over to the table and began to whisper. “Nelson.” He lifted Nelson’s head from the stone and patted his cheek. “Come on, come back to us.”

Still in his defensive posture, Flint examined what was left of Aiden. He looked up and down, from the floor to Amira, his knees locked in place.

“What in the hell was all that about?” Flint asked.

Amira wiped the blade of her sword against her gown. “It appears that these demons are getting bold. He was able to possess Nelson in his weakened state.”

“If John wanted Nelson dead, why not just kill him? Why come here?”

“I don’t believe it was Nelson he wanted dead,” she said.

There was movement on the table. Nelson craned his head forward and grabbed the empty sheath still fastened to his hip.

Pov placed his hand on Nelson’s chest. “You’re okay. You’re safe,” he said reassuringly.

Nelson grabbed his arm, and darted his reddened eyes around the room. “Where’s Kashvi?” Mud soaked hair slid from his grimy face as he jerked his head around.

Pov looked at the leather sheath. “I don’t know. I hadn’t noticed that it was missing.”

Nelson’s loud, raspy, breaths slowed as he rested his head back on the slab of marble.

Flint stepped carefully around the disintegrated demon bits strewn about the floor. A queasiness spread over him as he approached his friend.

Pov crouched beside Nelson and whispered quietly in his ear, eyeing Flint as he approached.

Nelson squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away.

Flint stood above him, unsure what to say. He winced at the pain that was tugging at him from his core. The man before him didn’t look like the man in the old Polaroids, and in his feeble state, he didn’t look much like Nelson either.

Nelson turned toward him and opened his eyes, his lashes suffused with tears. “I’m sorry.”

“Is it true?” Flint asked.

Nelson’s lip quivered as a tear ran down his cheek. “I wanted to tell you.” His voice cracked.

Flint clenched his teeth. “Bullshit.”

“I wouldn’t let him. It is against the rules,” Amira said.

Flint hardly opened his mouth as he spoke. “You’re a coward.”

“I was,” Nelson said.

Amira took a step toward them. “Your father has fought hard to rectify his choices from that life.”

“You left her. And she died because of it,” Flint said.

“I know.” Nelson looked away.

Flint shook his head in disgust. “And now you’ve dragged me into this-” He looked around the stone chamber. “-this nightmare. I’m sleeping in a fucking jail cell somewhere right now because of you.”

Amira walked pointedly around the marble altar, stopping just beside Flint. Her presence was overwhelming. “That is Balban’s doing. Your father has been protecting you and your mother since you were a child,” she scolded. “Against my commands I might add.”

Flint held his arms out to his sides. “And look where it’s got me.” The silky fabric of Amira’s sleeve brushed against his arm as he pushed past her and walked towards the door.

“Where are you going?” Pov asked.

“I’m leaving.” Flint stepped through the doorway into the hallway. “Like he did.”

He could he