The other side of the mountain
After a few hours, I realized we were walking downhill. The ice fog, steaming up from the snow about us, gave me the impression we were walking inside a tunnel and, dissipating now, lifted that dark heaviness one feels when in tunnels. A new stillness came over me. I dare say I felt somewhat lighthearted, considering all that had gone before.
Lilith too was improving. Her body, morphing back into its human form, seemed to break the terrible grief that had assuaged her over Lincoln’s passing. Her grief remained but I felt it subside to a point that did not literally have me falling to the ground in despair every time Lincoln, our good dog, crossed her mind.
With every downhill step, we both felt lighter. The black, mountain rock, hard ice and snow, gave way to softer ground. Little pastures of green grasses littered the widely spaced forest about us. The trees, perfectly spaced, allowed a full bushel of Wormwood’s light in, giving easy nurture to all that lived beneath, and I wondered at that light. Which sun was it that graced that strange sky above us now? I could not tell, for all about us the mountain rock rose in near vertical columns, blotting the horizon from my view. But the light, it was there and it was promising.
Every now and then, we came across beds of wild flowers. These burst into the light of the forest in such vivid yellows and purples I, at first, thought them to be gaudy neon signs begging me to come shop. I stopped and laughed at myself, at my foolishness, at my thinking of home. But seeing the deep, brown shadows cast by the trees and how these shadows complimented these colorful beds, I quickly forgot my home and for the first time here, enjoyed Wormwood for being Wormwood.
The air too was warmer. I breathed easy here and with each breath, I felt refreshed and invigorated, ready for anything. And if it were not for the alien skeleton roads crisscrossing our path, I could swear I was home and safe in some alpine setting anywhere on Earth.
The trees were a slender Pine. They reminded me of the Longleaf Pine, a native of the American Southeast, the Carolinas in particular. A place that reminded me of happier times: summer vacations, a girl, a honeymoon, a couple, and then children. In Wormwood, bits and pieces of me were everywhere, and while lost in these thoughts of home, I saw my first bird in Wormwood.
We rounded a smooth boulder about the size of a small house. Sitting atop this grey rock, we saw a large bird picking at some small dead animal it had caught. The bird was surprisingly colorful and, as we approached it, it looked up at us, squawked once, and then went back to its business.
“What type of bird is that?” I asked of Lilith.
Lilith, her mind on Lincoln (always on Lincoln), said, “I do not know. It is not a creature of our world.”
I stopped and stared, my attention between the two, the bird first and Lilith second.
“What do you mean you don’t know? I thought you knew everything.”
Lilith turned to me with difficulty. Her body, still trapped in the process of transmutation, made her reptilian torso swiveling upon perfect human legs, ungainly; she almost fell, but she put a hand out and I caught it quickly, holding her giant frame steady.
“I never said that.
“I know only those things of our world, Earth.” She pointed a knotted arm at the bird and said, “This bird could be from anywhere, but it is not of our earthen seed. It is not of us. Surely, you did not expect a universe in which we were to be left alone?”
“Well, er…, no. But I thought you were a creature of the universe’s beginning?”
She lifted her head and barked out a hoarse sound through her elongated throat. It sounded like an angry screech. “Oh, no, exnzpat, I, as Adam Kadmon, am a far newer creature. My division was a beginning, but of Earth only–not of other worlds. For on each of those other worlds, there is some other Adam Kadmon that I know nothing of.”
Startled, I stood digesting this information and after a few moments, I asked, “And how many worlds is that?”
Even though her skin was still lumpy, bulgy, and yellow, I recognized the unmistakable shrug of “I dunno” beneath it all. “I have no idea, exnzpat, billions, but probably trillions, and as time progresses, many trillions more.”
Amazed, I looked at the bird. It had the greens and reds of a parrot and it pecked happily at the dead mouse or whatever it was that lay trapped between its feet as any other bird on earth would. I didn’t need to ask how it got into Wormwood, a Thin Place, of course. Its new life here seemed to do it no harm, even though the trees here seemed to be from earth and perhaps its meal also.
I sighed, and changing the subject, asked, “Which way now?”
Lilith pointed to a single skeleton road that jutted out the side of a nearby pasture and crossed a saddle in the mountain like a bridge. The road disappeared into stony promontory of rock and forest some fifty feet beneath us. The road’s sleek black shape merged completely into the peak’s thick, green woods. Intrigued, I asked Lilith, “And this will take us to the Dark Tower?”
“No. But the foolish mother of your child is held captive there.”
“We will need her.
“…unfortunately,” she added. And I could not help but notice her tone was one of regret.
* * *
Mia dug through the glove compartment, and finding an envelope, removed its contents and placed the little piece of string into it.
It was a curious thing, she thought. It was unexpected. She knew it held a power but what power that might be, she did not know.
She checked her rear vision mirror and pulled out into traffic. It was pointless to continue onto work, and besides, she had real work now.
Within an hour, she was home. It was Tuesday afternoon and Ben was still asleep. She went quietly into the kitchen and made a muffled call to work to call sick on the house phone. She apologized profusely to the duty nurse for not calling earlier. And to mollify her and, not to have her sick-bank docked, Mia told her superior she would volunteer for tonight’s late shift to make up for today; begrudgingly, and because the roster had not yet been filled for the night, the duty nurse agreed.
Mia hung up the receiver.
In the bedroom, Ben’s snoring was loud and heavy, his breathing labored and wrong. On a few occasions, he frightened her with silence but seconds later, a heartfelt implosion of air filled the house as air rushed deeply into his lungs, and he returned once more to his rumbling, stumbling and difficult slumber.
Mia listened, worried. It was music of sorts and she knew its tune. Sometime soon, she must mend him once again.
Ben’s nightshift ran from midnight to 9am and she wondered how he had fared during the night. As always, her day shift began before he returned. They rarely saw each in the mornings.
Mia went to the sink to clean his dirty breakfast dishes and sighed: Ben’s fear of exnzpat, or the man who claimed to be somebody other than exnzpat, she knew now, after visiting the house, to be real and justified. And Mia was glad she had made the detour to exnzpat’s rental to see it for herself.
With the dishes dried and put away. She sat heavily at the kitchen table.
She pondered that rental home, that dragon. Its manufacture was great, but whose? There was only she. Over the last seventy years, she had killed all challengers to her throne–a newcomer–it was impossible.
Ben’s breathing stopped and she held her thoughts until he breathed once again. She sighed, for she loved Ben as much as she loved life itself. More, she knew, than being Magus, Queen of Earth.
It must be then, as she had already deduced, a Magus of the future. It was an extraordinary thing and yet, not impossible. She herself, using surrogates and vestigial golems, had walked into the future many times, albeit no more than a few hours ahead of real time, and so why not?
But the real question remained, why the past? There is nothing gained from time spent living in forgotten hours. There is no power back there–back here. Only the future had power. Even a Pretender knew that.
From her purse, Mia brought out the crumpled envelope. She laid it carefully upon the tabletop and stared at it while Ben snored restlessly and desperately in the other room.
* * *
The decision to enter the house had been her hardest, far harder than following executionerofthewill to begin with. Long before he pulled off the freeway, Becky realized where he was taking her.
She had been to the house before, just days after the murder. She had been with another clerk from the office, the sheriff, and one of his cousin deputies, Bob E. What the sheriff hoped to achieve by dragging them all down there she had no idea until she saw the television crews mounting pavements, lawns, and hedges for a glimpse of the home they were already calling ‘The Rental House of Horrors.’
The house, ringed by a yellow ‘POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS’ tape, seemed to attract more people than it repelled. Becky saw at least five people moving inside the yellow line, all of them police officers from the three local branches: city, state, and county. Outside the line, maybe ten times that in number, but mostly the people there were gawkers, the same types who descended upon car accidents and fires like vultures, waiting, watching; hoping to become one with the drama–their handhelds held up high above their heads to get a glimpse of a corpse or two; it was pathetic.
Public vehicles blocked the street: fire trucks, police cars, and two vans from the coroner’s office took up the whole of it. And because of it, three ambulances were relegated to spots in front of the neighbor’s house. They waited with their rear doors open–black and hungry, grinning mad-like, expecting corpses. Becky blinked once and the visage evaporated. Instead of hungry demons, she saw men and women in their paramedic uniforms sitting comfortably on folded backend trailers, talking and smoking; waiting for their turn. Their gurneys were ready, and Becky shuddered; she saw neatly stacked black baggies folded tidily into piles atop each, and no matter how hard she blinked, that vision did not evaporate.
Across the street, on hastily erected scaffolding were television reporters with cameras. They looked to Becky stringy and ugly; piled ants climbing upon dead-insect ugly, and so crawling, with their monocular, digital eyes, they simply stared and waited too.
Either side of the house, on the two lawns that boarded the house, there were other reporters, newspaper people she guessed. They did not have the fancy equipment of the television crews. A camera, a notebook, a cell phone; altogether they seemed lost and out of place in the world of instant news reporting.
At the back of the house, there was no one. The yellow line went back and around, but the property fell away into a wooded area and there was nothing back there, and to keep it that way, Becky saw several bored city police officers in blue uniforms wandering about aimlessly on the scrubby lawn there.
Becky’s boss, the sheriff, infamous for his inappropriate, angry outbursts, did not let the horror of a multiple homicide put a single dent in his stride. It took fifteen minutes to walk from their parked car to the house, and at each ponderous step, the great man seemed to find an expletive for each one.
Bob E, his portly cousin and second in command, struggled to keep up under that hot June sun. And by all accounts it was hot, but not so hot that neither Amanda R, the pretty blonde clerk from the Records office, nor Becky, were slowed by it. And Becky, well, she found the weather that day quite pleasant. And to hear the two heavy men beside her huffing and puffing like a two enormous locomotives and sweating like two oversized pigs trapped in a sauna, Becky could not help but smile at the absurdity of their mission.
The county executive, a wise man, and the man who did the actual work in the office, had told the sheriff flat out to stay away, and so had the other lawyers in the office that day, and so, with few takers, they grabbed at the only two good-looking women whom they could control, to accompany them. It was a photo op., nothing more. Becky and Amanda R eye-candy for the cameras and, weirdly, for he had done this in the past, it gave the sheriff and his office some legitimacy to be at the scene of a crime to begin with.
When they came up to the yellow line, the sheriff leveled all his bile at a young state trooper standing guard in one corner of the yard.
“Get the f— outa our way,” he said to the poor man, who immediately recognizing the two beefy cousins, pulled up the yellow tape and let them pass without a single challenging word.
Becky had never been to the scene of a murder before. She thought the place inside the yellow line to be deathly silent against the backdrop of the other side, an illusion perhaps, because the line was nothing more than plastic tape and yet inside it, everything seemed somehow hushed and divine, just as one feels walking into a church. However, her boss, his heavy breathing aside, did not seem to notice this. His voice boomed about the little space as if he were shouting into a wide, box canyon.
“Who the f— is in charge around here?”
Becky recognized an FBI agent she knew. He was standing to one side of the front door. Nobody paid him any attention and, on seeing the sheriff and his little troupe, came forward to introduce himself. The FBI man, already inside the yellow line and wearing a suit, looked important and, the sheriff assumed it true and shook his hand warmly, thinking the man to be something other than FBI.
“Sheriff, I’m wondering if you can help me,” the FBI man began. “Trooper S has denied me access to the crime scene. Could you perhaps….”
Becky remembered him: the FBI man was the single homicide detective for their part of the state. He shared an office with the single drug enforcement man for their part of the state, and the single boarder control man for their part of the state. These three oddballs worked out of an eight-story IRS building near city hall. Becky had heard that the three men actually shared a single office because there was really no room for them there at all, which, to Becky’s shrewd mind, saw the arrangement as a modern stratification in America’s criminal hierarchy. Becky herself, in her second year of law school, knew no one who was interested in actual guns-and-fists criminal law. The money was in corporate law and taxes and that was that. Matt E, several years ahead of her, did work for the county prosecutor’s office, but it was only to further his political ambitions. He came from money and so now only power mattered.
The FBI man finished speaking and the sheriff looked confused. Becky could tell he had no idea what the man had said.
“He wants to tag along, sir. He’s a homicide detective with the FBI.”
The sheriff looked at Becky as she spoke but as soon as she finished speaking, he looked immediately to his cousin for confirmation. Bob E nodded. The sheriff’s mind clicked as he thought: clearly, the state troopers had kicked the guy out. It would piss them off royally if he let him come. And he wore a suit too, a nice one at that. And to the sheriff, whose mission here was free publicity for his upcoming election, being seen with well dressed, important, good-looking people was all that really mattered, said finally, “Sure, why not. Let’s go.”
But no one told them what they would see inside. All any of them knew was that a multiple murder had been committed. Nobody said anything about dismembered bodies. Nobody said anything about children.
Bob E pushed open the door. A city policeman with a baby-round face caught it. The man’ face was laundered white as a hospital bed sheet, and he whispered, so low that Becky barely heard him, “You don’t want to come in.”
He didn’t say ‘can’t’ and Bob E pushed on the door harder. The man pushed back. “You don’t want to come in,” he whispered again.
“Yeah we do. That’s why we’re here. Open the f— up!” said the sheriff putting a beefy hand on door and, using his weight, leaned into it.
The gap in the door widened. Becky, at the rear of the little group, caught sight of men and woman moving as if in slow motion about tables covered with white cloth, a feeling of foreboding came to her then. It made itself manifest in her head as a chorus of husky-skinned, African tribesmen beating upon war drums. The sound took hold of her, shaking her, and as the contents of the room were suddenly realized, the drummer’s thumping vibrations became greater still.
Inside the house, Becky saw men and women garbed in white doctor’s smocks and masks, none looked up from their respective tables, as the sheriff, leading the way, entered the room, so absorbed were they in their tasks, none seemed to notice his entrance at all.
Becky was confused: she thought she saw a child’s arm lifted up and away from the table by a woman standing before it.
Becky put her hands to the side of her head: the drums–their shuddering pulse had increased. Drums filled her head completely now, drowning the world out. And in one of those instant flashes of light where the human brain cannot make sense of what it is really seeing, Becky thought she had just walked into a hospital operating room, for there seemed to be an operation going on, for she saw there was blood everywhere.
The drumming slowed, becoming more evenly spaced. And the respite allowed her mind to reevaluate and to collect.
Becky knew the people wearing white smocks to be from the coroner’s office and not regular hospital staff as she at first assumed. They were employees of the county.
The policeman with the baby-round face saw there was no stopping the sheriff and he relaxed his hold on the house. He let them pass. And entering the house proper, the policeman whispered once more, “You don’t want to come in here.”
And Becky’s brain adjusted, measuring the truth that was set out before her. And seeing it, the drumming in her head quickened to a vigor that had not been there before, and she saw that the policeman was right. She did not want to be in there.
Of those in the room without masks or smocks, she knew only a few. Those she knew worked for the county and kept regular business in the sheriff’s offices. Of the others: state troopers from the homicide division clustered into two small groups of three. They spoke softly with each other, discussing items of evidence, she supposed.
The house was small. The front door led right into the living room. On the left, a corridor led to the bedrooms and on her right Becky saw the living room merge into a tiny dining room, and beyond that, a door led to a kitchen. She could see the corner of a refrigerator there and so she knew it to be a kitchen.
A sort of Doppler shift occurred just then and the drumming became cleaner and sharper–the house now known–the sane world she had always known–suddenly lost its grip upon her.
And of those white clothed tables and those employees of the coroner’s office, their pristine whiteness blotched in blood, did their work with a sort of tireless passion Becky had never known. Their work was important and their concentration to their task came from the very depth of their inner beings. Five tables! Only five, but they filled the whole of the house and perhaps the whole of this new and alien world!
Becky felt ill, terribly ill. Beside her, Amanda R gripped her arm in terror, and in turn, Becky did the same.
The coroner’s team stood numbly sorting and assembling human body parts. All of them lost in the deep attentiveness that such high entropy demanded. They passed body parts back and forth between themselves, as if playing one of those card games wherein each player trades cards with another to make a suit whole.
In Becky’s immediate range of vision, for as the drums strengthened, her vision seemed to narrow to a point, one white, blood smocked woman studied the arm of a child–turning it first left and then right to see it better. Next, she studied the fingers of the hand and then looked to a serration upon a bone that extended out beyond the elbow. At last, she attempted to fit it to the lump of flesh on the table before her, and then deciding it was wrong, she passed it on to the next table as if she was simply working a production line job.
Becky gasped aloud. The drumming in her head became tremendous and she saw little tears roll down the production worker’s face and then disappear into her mouth beneath her mask, wetting it completely.
Drums and pinpoint focus was all Becky knew. Her world now was a beating, pulsating void at the end of a dark funnel. Suddenly, inside Becky’s head, a voice came. “Up here!”
The voice rolled away as quickly as it had come, disappearing out of the funnel’s range above her. It seemed real but it could not be so.
Then there came another voice, but this one angry, accusing, and full of passion.
“I told you to wait outside!”
Becky’s vision expanded slightly and the drums too, abated slightly. She looked down her funnel and at its end stood the robust frame of Trooper Samantha S.
Samantha S was a large, broad shouldered woman of northern European stock. She was smart, rising to the rank of detective within a few years of service with the state. She could shoot bull with the lawyers of the court as easily as she could handle a gangland shootout with the worst the state had to offer. Her male compatriots admired her, the judges laughed with her. The documentation she compiled for her arrests was inerrant. Becky’s tenure as a clerk for the county required her to research case law on behalf of the numerous county attorneys. Becky had found Samantha S’s preparations for court beyond reproach and needed little else but the signature of the prosecuting attorney and the presiding judge.
Samantha S had the disposition of a big, friendly lion, and indeed, her tightly bound dirty blond hair gave her the look of a real lion as she paraded her captives proudly about the courthouse. Samantha S was afraid of nothing.
Becky’s upbringing had never brought her into contact with women like Samantha S. Samantha S represented a type of woman that was foreign to her–strong but not just physically strong, confident too. Samantha S was a secure woman–in all ways; she carried herself with ease in her polished trooper boots and men yielded to her as if she were superglue. Samantha S was everything Becky was not, and she was everything Becky wished she could be.
The FBI agent pushed ahead of the sheriff and took the brunt of Samantha S’s challenge. Her words, after all, belonged entirely to him. And as he moved forward, Becky, Amanda R, Bob E, and the sheriff involuntarily closed the gap vacated by him, returning it to the huddle they had had when they entered the house, for the horrors of the house seemed to demand it. The great bulkiness of the sheriff and deputy were natural barriers, and the two girls sought their shelter from the sights beyond.
Above the drums, Samantha S’s voice growled dangerously across the macabre, red and white landscape, “Get out. I told you to get out and stay out! Get out, NOW!”
And that other voice. That disembodied other voice, came to her staccato between each pummeling drumbeat, said, “It_is_time!”
Just then, the barrier broke. Bob E began to push backwards, toward the door they had just come through, the most natural of exits, but the sheriff had other ideas. For he must have been acutely sensitive to the television cameras outside, for he stumbled forward, and Becky was suddenly reminded of the idiom: “A bull in a china shop,” for that was exactly as he appeared in the most literal and comical of senses. The sheriff broke forward as Bob E pushed backward. Amanda R and Becky went with Bob E. The FBI man held his ground. They were a complete muddle. The FBI man pointed a finger at Samantha S and hissed, “There’s something I need to show you. Something outside!”
“I don’t care. Get out–get out the lot of you!”
Meanwhile, the sheriff, blanched as beech wood, staggered into the mêlée of tables and body parts. He seemed to bounce off people, living and dead. He knocked about in random like a ball in a pinball game, hitting tables and such, lurching and swaying, he ran amongst it all, dumb and senseless as a lanced bull.
Becky heard a sob break from Amanda R’s pretty lips. Bob E’s substantial body continued to push her and Amanda R backward, almost out onto the steps, almost, but not quite. The round-faced policeman, who had let them into the house to begin with, was crushed up between doorjamb, wall, and the rest of them, trapping them all together like a bulwark, as Bob E continued his blubbery retreat. The last Becky saw of the sheriff before all Hell broke loose was of his back disappearing into the kitchen. Becky heard a screen door slam and knew he had left the house.
Samantha S flicked her head. Her great, yellow head of hair came down and enveloped her face in a halo of gold. She took two steps toward the FBI man to best him; and just then, a shrieking howl came from above their heads. It was an appalling sound. It froze Samantha S midstride; it caught her like a boxer in still-frame.
Shocked, no one moved.
The howl was as thin as it was long. It was a piercing sound, almost a screech. It came from above and echoed through the house as if it were a grotto deep. The sound of it was outrageous, electric almost, for it stopped everyone; from nerves in toes to neural pathways in heads, no one could move.
And then it came again.
It cut them: it was the scrapping of one’s fingernails across a chalkboard sound. It was wretched and it was wet. Filled with bile and fouled with anguish it pierced the hardest heart of the hardest of its listeners. It was guttural; it was a cry of disgust. It was a cry of despair; it was the cry of a broken man.
And, frozen in place, everyone looked to the ceiling.
The seconds passed as if they were eons and suddenly, as if on cue from some cosmic conductor, everyone burst into motion at the same time.
The coroner’s team of five, who had been handling body parts, put their pieces down and covered their masked faces with their bloody-gloved hands. The FBI man advanced on Samantha S as if he planned to wrestle her. The ungodly howls seemed not to have fazed him one bit. Samantha S was looking up. Her body: statuesque, firm, and ready for war with whatever demon had had that sound, ignored the approaching FBI man.
Becky looked to Amanda R’s pretty face.
And the howl came again.
Amanda R’s eyes rolled white in her head and she tripped backwards in a faint, releasing her grip on Becky’s arm.
Her faint was a like a dam bursting. Amanda R, its plug, and now pulled, Becky came next. The two girls tumbled down the three small steps that made the entranceway into the house, and together, fell into a heap on the lawn. Fearing Bob E was about to follow them, Becky rolled aside and looked up. She saw Bob E, his face pale and terrorized, slamming the door behind him. He held it fast. Using the doorknob, he kept the door locked in its jamb by his heavy and ample presence. Clearly, as Bob E saw it, whatever monster had made that terrible noise in there, should remain in there.
Becky, shaking from fright and from the horror of what she had just seen and heard, stood and helped Amanda R to her feet. The two girls brushed grass off their dresses forgetting completely the audience behind them. Amanda R seemed not to know where she was and Becky was worried she would collapse once more to the ground, so she took her arm to steady her, and together they stood on the lawn and looked at the house.
The television cameras behind them were rolling. The howling screams, the two falling girls, and the fat deputy squeezed out of the house like pus from an overripe pimple was the explosive event they had been waiting for. Every eye now, human and digital, was riveted to the house and the people standing directly before it.
Becky heard retching noises coming from the side of the house and she knew the hacking coughs belonged to her boss. Ever the politician, the sheriff had exited the kitchen and had vomited under the cover of the attached garage and the police vehicles parked therein.
And just as the next ear-piercing howl came, the sheriff stumbled out from under the garage and stepped out onto the lawn. He came toward Becky and Amanda R, who looked to him to be two small deer caught in a hunter’s nightlight. He saw Bob E holding the door and wondered what he was doing. And when he reached the girls, a tremendous blast of yelling voices stopped him in his tracks. A nightmare seemed to have broken loose inside the house and the din of it, as the people inside grappled with whatever had made that god-awful sound, was just as dreadful to hear as the wretched sound itself.
Becky saw the sheriff’s face puffy and raw. She saw Bob E still keeping his grip on the doorknob, but when the stink came, he released it immediately and stepped away from the door.
The stink was the coppery stink of death. And where it had not been present before, it was there now in abundance.
Taking careful backward steps, Bob E backed away from the house, and taking comfort in the company of his cousin and the two girls on the lawn, the original huddle was reformed. Together, they stared at the house and imagined the drumming battle that seemed to be taking place in there, but for the stench….
Becky heard drums struck and cymbals clashed. The cadence of the battle seemed metered to the rhythm of the drums in her head. All of it together shook and squeezed at the house, leaching from it its stink. It was paranormal in essence, for surely it could not be real, Becky thought; but it physically touched her–it touched them all.
The stink was the very physical manifestation of Horror’s psyche! And the horror of that Horror overwhelmed every sensation now. The smell of it drowned out the roar of scrambling and fighting coming from inside the house and only the drums rose above. Becky, its eye, felt herself falling. The stink of the house was so powerful and so pervasive it seized everyone and everything within its immediate vicinity in a rushing, whirling vortex-like grip.
As Becky went down, she watched amazed, as the TV people and the other people out in the street staggered and swayed. They tried to catch one another as the rude earth came up to meet them.
And the drums beat on. Becky’s head was full and, like a waterfall, the billowing flow of magic pouring round the house caught them all in its golden, spinning flood.
The drumming came faster still.
The stink had grasped at them all as if it were a hungry beggar. Its presence was indelible and they felt it like slime upon their skins. Becky, on her knees, brushed at her arms and face in an effort to rid herself of the pungency that clung to her skin.
Inside the house, the rabble there became more distinct. Becky heard a man shout, “Get back all of you.” It was the voice of the FBI man. It sounded to Becky he was running when he gave the command.
There was a sudden screech of wood on wood and Becky imagined a game of musical chairs in there, only the chairs were tables scraping across the hardwood floors weighted by the body parts of a mother and her children.
Becky heard more running and more shouting and more drums–always the DRUMS. And Becky looked to Amanda R for guidance, but none came from her. Amanda R lay heavily on the ground, retching noiselessly. Her face, stricken white, was bloodless.
The sheriff, on his knees, groaned and held his head. Bob E looked much the same; but lying upon his side, he vomited a clear liquid onto the green grass with loud, painful sobs.
“Look out! He’s here–there–in the attic! Get him!” roared the great voice of Samantha S.
The stench was devastating. Felled before it, everyone yielded before it. It broke them. It crushed them. It was as if they had been transported to another world with a gravity twice that of Earth’s, and the people wriggled and writhed hopelessly like half-crushed beetles as the new world beat down upon them.
Becky heard a woman scream, not Samantha S’s, probably one of the coroner’s people.
Suddenly the front door burst open. It was the FBI man.
“We need help, NOW!”
Nobody moved. Nobody could move. And the FBI saw that bizarre sight: everyone outside the house fallen and disabled upon the ground. If he was surprised, he said nothing about it, only seeing what he saw and knowing no help could or would come, he slammed the door behind him and went back into the chaos alone.
But the sight offered Becky through the open door was one of bedlam. Tables were tipping and overturning; there were people running, there were people screaming. They shouted obscenities; they shouted to God for help; and it was odd, Becky thought, as she lay stiff upon the ground, the contrast between there and here. For the FBI man and the insides of the house were unaffected by the stink of death.
The noise inside the house grew and grew, building like a military tattoo, percussion Allegro, its crescendo, the scream of a man and something wooden snapping and then suddenly, silence. Absolute, dead, silence.
And with the coming of the silence the debilitating smell disappeared, and it did so instantly.
People leapt to their feet as if they had discovered them for the first time. Like Lazarus rising, they looked about, amazed. That which had taken place was so unusual, so unnatural, that to give it name the cleverest among them might have said, Magic; but that was wrong, for everyone knows there is no such thing as magic, and so, everyone of them, in the street and on the lawn and about the house, forgot. Even the television cameras filming in the street rolled backward and digitally erased those few minutes where the human-world about the little house, collapsed and rolled in pain. It was as if it never happened. The only one who remembered any of it was Becky, and when she mentioned it to people afterwards, they had looked at her queerly, as if she were mad. And after a time, even Becky forgot.
But now on their feet, everyone outside the house remained unnaturally still until the door opened.
And when the door opened Becky saw six men atop one another, piled higgledy-piggledy, as if playing a game of rugby. The man on the bottom, his head, facing the open door, was nothing but blood. Becky tried to look away but found she could not. Of the pile holding down the bloodied man, Becky saw Samantha S immediately atop the man. Her grey trooper uniform, stark in contrast against the blue of the city policemen and the brown wool of the FBI man.
Becky watched a slow pass of handcuffs. They moved carefully down the pile to Samantha S. Samantha S held one of the man’s arms. She twisted the arm up, deliberately keeping it taunt at an awkward angle under her chest. When the cuffs reached Samantha S, as if telepathically controlled, each police officer shifted his weight to accommodate Samantha S’s positioning of the cuff upon the bloodied man’s wrists. Within seconds, with the job done, and the man’s hands locked securely behind his back, the men piled off but for Samantha S, who remained sprawled across him, keeping him firmly glued to the floor. One of the coroner’s technicians came forward holding out a nylon tie wrap. The FBI man took the wrap and knelt behind Samantha S. He grasped at the man’s inert legs, pulled them together, and latched his ankles tight, and only then, did Samantha S move her powerful frame off the bloodied man and stand. She looked down at him pitilessly. Samantha S was covered in blood. She seemed not to notice.
The man did not move and Becky thought he might be dead. Samantha S and the men who had held him stood round him, looking down at him, breathing heavily. He had made them fight. Hogtied now, they looked on him as if seeing him for the first time, for he fought them like a wild animal would have. And indeed the man did have the look of a wild animal to him, but…
His head seemed like a flapjack. But that wasn’t right. Like a curious dog, Becky tilted her head to see him better and to analyze exactly what it was she was seeing. And suddenly, it came to her. The face and head were in different places! Horrified, Becky saw the skin barely attached to the bone of the head. Rudely cut, the face looked carved. Chunks of facial tissue hung from the man’s head. It lay, spread out before him like a mat, inert and dead, upon the hardwood floor like the carved blubber of a slaughtered whale. His eye sockets too, filled with maroon, dried blood appeared to be only two reddish pinpricks painted there to give the impression of eyes. And seeing him thus and knowing him as a head with no face, the drums burst into life again. She slammed her hands to her ears and held her head tightly at the noise of them.
The FBI man knelt beside the man. He stretched out his arm and with his fingers touched them at the bound man’s neck. The man flinched and the FBI man pulled his hand away in surprise.
“Well, he’s alive… but it’s pretty clear he needs immediate medical attention.”
One of the Troopers went to the door, looked about. He shouted to his men out on the street. But all of them, as with all the others outside the house, remained motionless. They stood, but remained dazed, still stupefied by the supernatural swirl of death-stink that had laid hold of them. “Get that ambulance crew in here.” Was what he shouted.
And when the first of the paramedics moved, Becky saw people began to shake their heads and shake their bodies. They moved about, opening and closing their mouths, rubbing at their faces, and pulling at their hair. For whatever strange sensation the stink had induced in them, it lingered. They shook and worked at their bodies, shaking themselves free from the powerful magic that had enveloped them.
Paramedics brought a gurney from behind the yellow line. They took it through the open door and laid it beside the bound and bloodied man. Samantha S and the others, in an instant, made the transfer. Large leather straps with brass buckles completed the ensemble, and the gurney and the faceless man became as one. The man did not struggle.
Samantha S led the way. Covered in blood, she was an awesome sight and the crowd gasped appreciatively as she pushed her way past the sheriff and Bob E as if they were nothing more than two oversized, ridiculous baboons. No big game hunter could have been prouder or looked stronger at that moment. The gurney came up behind Samantha S with four men, two on either side; they bore her prize and grinned at the audience like a pack of excited hyenas.
Amanda R shied away from the man’s torn and ripped head as it rolled toward them. But Becky, caught in a place somewhere between abject horror at the rubbery mess that once had been a man’s head, and her girlish, star-struck admiration for the Amazonian, Samantha S, could not move. Fixed to the ground, she was breathless.
The bound man suddenly lurched in his straps and his bearers feared he would tip the gurney. They stopped beside Becky to right the thing. Samantha S came forward, pushing Becky aside with one powerful hand. Samantha S reaffixed the man into his proper place. And while she did this, the skinless, bloodied head of the prisoner turned to look at Becky. Its sightless beady, red eyes, and limp, hang-hole of a mouth began to speak to her: “Becky?”
Becky jumped back in terror.
The head spoke once again: “Becky. It’s okay, I’m here. Take my hand.”
His hand was somehow out in front of her. How he had extricated it from his bindings, she did not know. And slowly, as if in a dream, she reached for it. “Wakeup, child,” said Samantha S–but no, it was a woman’s voice, but it did not come from Samantha S.
“We have far to go. We have little time for your troublemaking.”
And Becky woke. Before her was executionerofthewill, or rather exnzpat inside the body of executionerofthewill. Immediately behind him, Scar, and beside Scar stood Lilith, her hands resting impatiently on her naked hips.
* * *
Becky took my hand and I asked, “Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”