A Tendency to Start Fires

There was a girl with a tattoo, and a fire.  The tattoo was of a wisteria in bloom.  It covered her back, the blossoms cascading down her ribs, the branches arching onto her shoulders, the roots disappearing just under her panty line.  The fire was red and orange and white like hot coals at its center and made me sweat even in the cool night.

We’d set the fire at the edge of town, where the water met the earth, the sand soft beneath our bare feet.  She’d leaned in close, and whispered something in my ear, and I didn’t hear over the sounds of wood cracking and fire snapping and the smell of her, which was like smoke and vanilla and sweat.  She wrapped an arm around me and laid her head on my shoulder and the stars burned in their sockets above.

We didn’t make love.  You ask how – with the sand and the sea and the stars and the fire, and I can only answer this way – you don’t piss in a baptismal font when you visit a church, do you?

The night wore on, the fire burned down, and the tide rose, until the waves lapped at the blackened timbers.  Embers hissed and smoldered in the brackish wake, but not us.  We burned bright.

*

                She came to me one night, red hair and plump lips and pale skin shining in the moonlight.  She asked to come in and stood on the stoop looking hopeful and frail, and I stared too long before I moved to the side and invited her.  She stepped inside and kicked off her shoes and we poured wine and sat on the couch.  We talked and I watched the way the light would play on her green eyes or the slightly stained white of her smile.  We lied to each other, and I believed it anyway.  In the small hours, I traced her tattoo with my fingertips.

*

                We lay in bed, the moon full and beaming through a window, and she asked me if I loved her.  I thought about it.  Love is a heavy word.  It has its own weight, its own taste, and its own texture.  Love is a four-letter word that smolders on the tongue after you say it.  The silence stretched between us, and in the end, she got up and pulled me from the bed.

We dressed, and she led me into the city.  We walked down streets and alleys, past empty parks and cold bright neon.  We saw men pressed in close around bright fires burning in barrels and women huddled with their children under sheets of newspaper, shivering in the night.  We passed other men, and other women, clean and fresh and shiny and standing outside clubs, or dining in safe restaurants, oblivious.  We passed tall buildings of glass and steel and short buildings of stone.

We came to the beach, where they sat around a fire dug in the sand, young and strong and beautiful.  They smiled easy and laughed loud, and when she came into their midst, welcomed her with drink and laughter.  She smiled back, and we sat on the edge of the fire while they talked and something played on a stereo in the background.  She laid her head on my shoulder and took my hand, and I could feel the cold in her skin.

The moon sank over the horizon, lighting the water in white waves, and as the conversation quieted, she leaned in and kissed a young man – tan skin, white teeth, bright eyes.  I thought about whether I loved her, and watched him sink into her kiss, watched him struggle with her strength.  When it was over, she turned to the next, and the next, and I watched them, as though in thrall to her, fall to her embrace.

Young pale bodies in repose lay on the sand.  They were cold and still, and the fire was burning down to ash and ember.  I added wood, stoked the fire, and held her hand as the bodies burned.  She was warm.

*

          Her mouth was poison; her mouth was wine.  I felt the stones of her love weighing me down, and still I sifted through the gravel to find the gold.  It was there, the glint of green in her eyes, or the plush red of her lips.  It was there in the smile she flashed like royalty throwing a penny to the poor, or the soft touch of her hand on my arm.

Her cold, dead touch.

And still, I loved her.

 

 

Birth

Alma was angry.  Angry at herself, angry with Kevin, even a little angry with God.  Not that she thought He’d notice, let alone care.  Most of the time, she wouldn’t have taken a thought like that personally, or would have tried to stifle it as blasphemy, a fear her deeply religious childhood had instilled in her.  Most of the time she tried to understand.  If there was a God, she thought, and he was responsible for the whole of Creation, then surely the problems of two people in the cosmos didn’t, to paraphrase Bogey, ‘amount to a hill of beans’.

Today though, she didn’t care.  The anger sat just below her breasts at her sternum, and burned white-hot.  She could feel it radiating out of her like a corrupted heat, and a sudden spike of rage made her wish that it was sending a perfectly clear message of ‘Fuck Off’ – capital ‘F’, capital ‘O’ – to the universe.

She sat at the kitchen table and stared out at the little patch of yard behind their house lit by the midday sun, and willed it to go dark.  When that didn’t work, she stood and closed the drapes to the sliding doors, and then sat back down.  It felt good to sit in the cool dark, and she lowered her head to the kitchen table and closed her eyes.

She found his ring on the kitchen table with a note.  It had already been a long day – clients pushing for more than they were quoted, her boss pushing for more commitment, and her friends pushing for more time with her – so when she opened the door to an empty house, ice dug at the pit of her stomach.  It wasn’t just that the house was empty – Kevin had been late before – it was that it smelled wrong.  Not lived in.  No aftershave and sweat smells that said he had come home on lunch to change after the gym.  No hint of reheated lunch in the air. 

                It got worse the farther she went into the house.  There was no change on the table in the little hall that served as a foyer, though he always emptied his pockets if he had grabbed a coffee in the morning.  There were no dishes in the sink from lunch, coated with a mix of refried beans and sour cream from those damn frozen burritos he loved so much.  She had opened the fridge door to see if anything had been moved, and that ice in her stomach just grew harder when it was evident nothing had. 

                Fighting it down, she had sat at the table, and pulled her phone out to call him, when the note he had weighed down with his ring caught a breeze from the open kitchen window, a corner of the paper fluttering.  She reached out, and slid the paper from under the gold band.  Read the unsteady script written on it, once, then twice, and then balled it up and threw it against the wall as hard as she could.  It bounced off with an unsatisfying ‘click’.  She stared at it, laying on the floor, and screamed.  Once, and loud, but that ice in her stomach melted a little bit, and she was able to sit and think.

She opened her eyes and lifted her head from the table.  The lump of ice was back, this time feeling as though it were crawling through her bowels.  She clenched down hard and gritted her teeth, and the feeling passed.

Self-pity is wasted thought.

She eyed the knives on the kitchen counter, brushed steel handles shining with a dim reflected light.  Her gaze slipped past them to the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink.  Drano, lye, bleach, a dozen other toxic chemicals lurked under there.  Revenge tickled the corners of her mind, and was gone.  She refused to deal with the aftermath.  It made no sense to take a life if you were just throwing your own away in the process.

The hate came on her again like a wave, and she could feel her jaw tighten.  How dare he?  How fucking dare he?  All the things she had given to him, all the things she had given up, not least of which was ten years of her life.  Ten years of swallowing the little things, and sometimes the big things, ten years of lying on her back and letting him fumble around and inside of her, ten years that turned out to be a lie.

The edges of her vision grew fuzzy, and she saw sparks jump in front of her eyes.   She could feel the heat in her face, and pressure behind her eyes.  She would not give in.  There was no reason to cry, no reason to feel anything other than the hate that burned in her stomach.  Even that was wasted, she thought – anger with no direction – so she took a breath, a deep, cleansing breath, and swallowed it down.

It took a moment, but the heat gradually subsided, the pressure behind her eyes, and the aching in her jaw.  The feeling in her bowels – odd, but it felt more personal than that – returned, like a ball of ice forming inside her.  She ignored it, and discovered she was hungry.

She wasn’t a stress eater, so this struck her as somewhat odd, until she realized she had only had a salad for lunch and nothing for breakfast.  She stood, and moved to the fridge, pausing for a moment to decide what she wanted before she opened it.  When she couldn’t decide, she opened it anyways, and grabbed the first thing her hand landed on.

Great.

                It was a package of hot dogs.  She pulled a plate out of the cupboard, and opened the package.  The smell of cold meat hit her full on, and her stomach rumbled.  She shrugged, and pulled a hot dog out and bit into it, sweet and meat swirling in her mouth.  Her stomach growled again, and she took another bite, then another.  The hot dog was gone, and she was on a second one.  Then a third and a fourth.

She finished the package, standing in her kitchen over the sink, and her stomach still groaned and growled.  She dropped the hot dog package, and moved to the fridge again.  She almost flung the door open in her haste.  Again, she grabbed the first thing in sight – a package of raw burger.

Shit, I should cook this.

The thought came and went, and then she was ripping into the package with bare hands, and eating the meat inside in scoops she tore out with her fingers.  In the back of her mind, she was amazed she hadn’t gagged yet, and then it was wiped away.  She was past flavor, past texture, simply eating to fill what felt like a gaping hole in her stomach.

It was over in a matter of minutes, the empty burger package joining the hot dog plastic in the sink.  Alma stood there, her breath coming hard and shallow, and she wiped the back of her hand across her mouth.  It came away red, and she almost retched.  A short struggle and she was in control again.

That ice was back in her stomach, stronger than ever, a cold that seemed to radiate out and send tendrils into her hips and groin.  She ignored it, and waited for it to pass.  Instead, it throbbed and ached, and she decided the best thing to do was maybe sleep it off.

She stopped for a moment, and washed her hands, then scrubbed her face and lips with a dishcloth.  When she was finished, and it came away pink, she made her way to the bedroom.  She slipped out of her socks and pants, and then under the covers.  Fatigue washed over her in waves, and she was only able to hold her eyes open long enough to place her head on the pillow, and then, nothing.

A dream of fire and ice, emotion rolled over her, scalded and froze her at the same time, until she was sure she should crack like pottery.  Images slid by, and she was pulled into them.  A walk over the bridge in the park, making love by the moonlight, fights where words were smashed into hearts as often as doors were slammed into their frames. 

The dreams shifted, tone and place, and she found herself in darkness.  She felt something grab her ankles, thick vines from a dark garden, and she was spread wide.  Pain stabbed through her insides, and she felt blood trickle down the inside of her thighs.  Then she was screaming as something inside began to force its way out, tearing flesh and cracking bone to find the light outside, and it was cold.  She began to shiver, the pain in her hips dulled by ice, and her teeth began to chatter, loud and hard. 

Clickclickclickclick

The clicking sound woke her.  She opened her eyes to darkness.  It took her a moment to realize the clicking sound in the room was from her teeth chattering, and not the refrigerator cycling in the kitchen.  She forced her jaws to stop with an effort, and pulled the sheets closer.  It was no good though.  She had to pee, and when you had to go, fighting that feeling was like trying to swim upstream.

She got out of bed and padded to the bathroom, wiping sleep-bleared eyes.  She flicked on the light, and looked down to lift the toilet lid.  She stopped, and frowned, her brain trying to make sense of what she saw.

Her belly poked out, showing from under her shirt, the skin taut.  She reached down and pulled her shirt up, and ran a hand over the skin.  It was cold to the touch, and tight.  She was still frowning in concentration, panic seeping in at the edges, when whatever was in her womb moved.  She snatched her hand back, and felt her bladder let go.

The urine ran down her leg, a warm stream that left a puddle on the floor, but her mind was too busy trying to crawl in on itself to notice.  She placed her hand on her belly again, and the thing inside moved a second time, its motion like that of an eel in a jar, swirling itself in circles.

Okay, okay, I can figure this out.  We had sex, what, a month ago?  She was having a hard time with math just that moment.  And my period was – shit, that doesn’t work.  Oh God, I’m a mess.

She took off her panties as she thought, and used them to mop up the urine as best she could, then tossed them in the wastebasket.  The shirt was next, and then she turned the shower as hot as she could stand it, and got in.  The water felt good on her back, and for a while, she just stood under it and let it warm her.  After a bit, her thoughts began to order themselves.

Maybe it’s a parasite.  She looked down at the bump in her stomach.  On the other hand, a whole shitload of parasites.

I ate raw burger.  The thought made her stomach twist, but not as much as she expected.  It passed, and she ran a hand over her belly again, almost absently this time.  She was surprised to find she did not mind as much this time when the thing inside moved in response, though her skin was no warmer, despite the hot shower.

The doctor – I’ll go to the ER tonight, and figure out what this is.

Almost as soon as she had the thought, the cold in her stomach, which up till that moment had been a simple chill, intensified.  It grew from the chill of an autumn day into what felt like a blizzard, rushing through her insides and spreading to hips and thighs and deeper, into bone.  She managed to step out of the shower, and wrap herself in a towel, but got no further.

The cold deepened, seeming to wrap itself in the marrow of her bones, and her legs gave out.  She managed to catch herself with her hands as she went down, and at the least was relieved that she would not be nursing a concussion or a busted nose from the fall.  Lying on the floor, she gave a whimper, and was immediately angry with herself.

I am not weak.

She drug herself inch by inch across tile she could no longer feel from the waist down, until she was laying on the warm carpet of her bedroom floor.  She turned onto her back, and tented her legs, the position relieving some of the pressure she thought she felt on her hips.  She lay there for a time, willing the cold to abate, and thought daggers at Kevin.

Fuck you for not being here, and fuck you for being selfish, and fuck you for this. 

Her hands clutched and pulled at the shag under her, as the cold began to throb, a new sensation she was not happy about.   She lifted her head to look down, and screamed, when she saw the skin of her stomach being stretched, expanding at a rate she could not accept.  She threw her head back and clinched her eyes shut, and cursed the world again.

Fuck you, she thought again.  Fuck this, fuck life, fuck fuck fuck.

She was spent, her breath coming in short ragged gasps.  Then the pain came.

She thought she was too numb, but it still ripped through her, like ice turned jagged, and she screamed at the first wave.  It rippled from her womb in a down and back motion, sending cramps through her bowels and back and thighs.  The second came as soon, and she screamed again, unable to clamp down on her reaction.

Alma could no longer see, the pain sending up waves of black and yellow stars that obscured her vision, and cut out all thought.  She felt for her stomach, hands frantic in their motion, and found it was distended even more.  The skin felt so tight, she felt sure it would split any moment, and then, another wave of pain, so sharp and intense it was almost indistinguishable from pleasure.  She screamed one last time, and heard a crack, then another, and another.  Breath was stolen from her, and she was sure those sounds were her ribs giving way.  Then she was still, dead eyes staring at the black that never left her.

*

                She walked through the house, her fingers tracing items as she came across them.  Here a picture, there a vase of flowers, and there a small ceramic heart that held a locket.   None of these things held any value for her.   She thought her mother too sentimental.

                The few lights that still burned in the house seemed to dim as she passed them, her skin, black and dull, as though she had been dipped in matte paint, drinking their glow and returning nothing.  As she walked, small patches of frost formed on the walls and the floor, and then dissipated, leaving only dew drops behind.

She paused in her tour, hearing a key in the lock below.  Her fingers tightened around the shard of bone she held, a piece of her mother.  She thought it fitting, a rib from the woman who birthed her.  His voice echoed through the house.

“Alma?”  He waited, and then it came again.  “Alma?  You home?”

She walked to the bedroom and waited.  For a while, she thought he wouldn’t come, and then he was there, a shadow in the doorway.  She smiled when she saw him, and he thought her Alma.  She moved to him, and he opened his mouth as if to say something.

She slammed the rib into his larynx, the jagged bone ripping through flesh and cartilage.  He tried to scream, and she ripped the bone free, taking his windpipe with it.  Of all things, he would not profane this place with an imitation of her mother.  She stood over him as he gaped and struggled to fill the hole in his throat.  She looked at him, a gaze devoid of passion and mercy alike, and then she made it last all night.

 

Old Scratch

I don’t know this room, Carter thought.  He could feel the weight of the other man’s stare on him, and looked everywhere but.  Not that there was much to see.  The room was small.  His wife would have said cozy, but small was small when the walls were too close, and you could smell the breath of the man across from you, a mixture of coffee and something sweet.

The walls were battleship grey, like the table his hands rested on.  The steel felt cool under his fingers, and he absently flexed them and pressed his fingertips against the metal.  Overhead, a single light hung from a long arm fixed somewhere above the tile ceiling, the light bulb protected behind a cage.  He glanced up at the ceiling and thought it was just like corporate to put a false ceiling in a basement.  Keeping up appearances, and all that.  His gaze drifted from the ceiling to the walls again, and he could feel the man across from him waiting.  No clocks, he noticed, with an internal grunt of dissatisfaction.  Though again, not surprising.  We don’t pay you to be clock watchers, Coombs would have said.

Coombs.  The name filled him with a mixture of anger and loathing, and he was surprised to discover, a little bit of fear.  He thought about that, and realized maybe that was perfectly normal.  The man signed his paychecks, and was the thin blue line between making his next mortgage payment and life lived from his Subaru.  It didn’t make him dislike the little shit any less, with his suits and his narrow rat face and the way he said the phrase step up like it was a magical motivational trigger.  His wife would have frowned and told him not to judge a man until he’d walked a mile in his shoes, but Carter thought Coombs’ shoes probably squelched when he walked.

A feeling in Carter’s gut told him he had another reason to hate Coombs – being that the man was probably the reason he was in this room.  Well, he and that goddamn Margaret.  If she hadn’t been so gung-ho on him taking the report to Coombs, things might have shook out differently.  He almost smiled, remembering the way that sonovabitch’s face had gone white when he saw it.  The other man had made a phone call – probably Upstairs, capital U, and the next thing he knew, Coombs was all smiles again, and Carter found himself sitting here in the grey wasteland with a man – well, he wasn’t sure what to make of him.

As though the thought had reached the other man’s mind, there was the sound of knuckles gently rapping the table.  They made the metal ring in the quiet.  The other man cleared his throat.

“Mr. Carter.”

Carter turned his head, and focused on the man across from him.  He reminded Carter of pictures he’d seen of men from the 50s, and thought he wouldn’t have looked out of place in his grandmother’s photo albums.  He was slight, but skinny wasn’t the word Carter would have used to describe him.  Wiry, that was it.  He wore a short-sleeved white button-up shirt with a breast pocket, and a red cloth tie that looked like something Marty McFly would’ve worn in Back to the Future.  His hair was styled in a brush-cut, bare above his ears and rising into a short spike naturally.  Beneath that, on a simple face with few lines – Carter guessed the man to be close to 50 – he wore black horn-rimmed glasses.  Behind the glass in the frames, he had pale blue eyes that reminded Carter of the sky on winter days.  Carter looked down at the man’s hands, where he was playing with a pen he’d taken from his shirt pocket.

“Mr. Carter,”  the man repeated.  Carter looked up, and the man allowed himself a little smile.  “Good.  That’s good.  I need you to pay attention.”

Carter realized he didn’t know the man’s name.  He was in a tiny room in the basement of a multinational organization, and the thought that he should know the name of the man he shared it with was suddenly very important.

“Sorry,”  Carter blanched.  “I uh, I didn’t catch your name.”

The man across from him stopped smiling and looked him in the eyes, hard.   Carter felt uncomfortable under the gaze, but didn’t drop it.  Finally, the man spoke.

“Foster.”  He didn’t offer a hand, or lean back, or do any of those things, but instead stayed in position, playing with his pen, an old blue clicker model with gold writing on one side.

He turned it over and over in his hands, and Carter thought of those old toys with a wheel and two bars, and when you squeezed them, the wheel would slide down the bars and up a curl at the end before it slid back down again.  He looked up, and saw Foster still looking at him.  Despite the chill of the basement, he felt a light sweat threaten to break on his forehead.

“Let’s not belabor the obvious, Mr. Carter.”

The man’s voice was – well, Carter thought of it as normal.  As white bread as you could get, like Bill Paxton or Bill Pullman.  He always got those two mixed up.  Still, combined with Foster’s demeanor and out-of-time quality, there was something deeply unsettling about the man, a quality that made Carter squirm inside like a toddler in wet pants.  He tore his mind away from those thoughts and looked back at Foster, still playing with the pen.

“What’s the obvious?”  He wanted to needle the man a little.

Foster smiled and stopped turning the pen over long enough to tap it twice against the tabletop.

“You know why you’re here.”

“I do?”

A slight frown, really no more than a flash wrinkling of the skin between the eyes, crossed Foster’s face.  He laid the pen down and reached into his back pocket.  Carter flinched, every movie he’d seen flashing into his mind.  He imagined a sleek pistol, black, the eye of the barrel staring at him right before it barked out once in the quiet of the cinderblock walls.  Foster’s hand came up, and in it was a small leather wallet.  He laid it next to the pen, and folded his hands on top of one another on the tabletop.

“Are you familiar with the concept of risk management, Mr. Carter?”  His tone was gentle, a teacher to student.

Carter gave a little shrug.  “It’s like theft prevention, that sort of thing, right?”

“Close.  What I do is identify and assess the chances of an event happening.”  He gestured.  “Like your example – theft.  Or fire.  Or any other unforeseen incident.  Then I take action to ensure that it either doesn’t occur, or if it’s inevitable, to minimize its impact.”

Realization crept up on Carter.  The report.  He’d known this was a direct result of that, but wasn’t until now, sure of the consequences.  He looked at Foster, and felt himself unclench a little.  Risk management.  This man was a pencil pusher, and this was a debriefing.  He allowed himself an exhale, and felt his shoulders loosen just a fraction.  He thought of his wife again, and another one of her sayings – worry not, fear not.  Foster saw him relax, and gave a small smile.

“Good.  Nothing to worry about here.  Just a routine follow-up, Mr. Carter.”  He picked up the wallet and began playing with it, opening and closing it like a bird on the wing.  Carter could see the photo inserts flipping back and forth; the light overhead catching the plastic and making it glow.  It was fascinating, and a little hypnotic.

“That report, Mr. Carter.  You understand what it represents?”  He went on, not waiting for an answer.  “You plan, and you plan, and you try to see a thing from all angles, like a chess game.  Three moves, five moves, twelve moves out.  Still, there’s always a wild card, and no matter how you plan, you can’t foresee those.”  He snapped the wallet shut, and the leather made a tiny thunderclap.  Carter jumped a little, and felt his face turn red.

“All because some pissant analyst and his assistant decided to do the right thing.”

His knuckles were white around the wallet, and his voice had hardened, taking on an almost audible growl.  Carter blanched and tried to push his chair back from the table.  It didn’t budge, and he risked a glance down.  He saw it was bolted to the floor.  More disconcerting was the drain he saw under the table, a brass plug with square holes.  What the fuck is that for?

He felt the tension come roaring back into his body, and his head started to ache, a dull low throbbing behind his eyes.  Foster was watching him, and Carter briefly wondered if the man ever blinked.  The silence stretched on, became a palatable thing, until he was sure the edge of it would shred his nerves.

Foster broke the silence, his voice light again.  “You’ve got family, is that correct, Mr. Carter?”

Carter nodded, not sure where this was going.

“So do I.  Love them with all my heart. Would you like to see pictures?”

Again, Carter nodded, unsure of where this was going.  He felt off-balance, the sudden change in Foster’s demeanor like the wind blowing warm on a winter’s day.  Foster’s smile reappeared, sunshine breaking through storm clouds, and he lifted the wallet and opened it.  It opened on the plastic dividers, worn but whole, and the pictures behind the protective coating.  He held it out, and Carter leaned in.

“That’s Katie.  Isn’t she pretty?”

Cold swept over Carter and licked down into his belly, sending spikes of fear deep into his stomach.  He recoiled.  The smile held on Foster’s face.

“Oh dear.  I think we’ve had a misunderstanding.  I didn’t say she was my wife, did I?  Here, you should look at this next one.”  He turned the divider over and held the wallet out.

Despite himself, Carter leaned in.  He pressed his hands against the table to keep them from shaking, but rather than comforting, he found the metal cold and unforgiving.  The picture was a little worn, as though it had been taken out and looked at time after time, but the subject was easy to make out.  Carter knew his own son on sight.  One of Katie’s favorites popped into his head – no good deed goes unpunished.  He leaned back in his chair, emotionally frayed.

“What do you want?”  His heart thudded in his chest.

Foster smiled at him.  It was as if the man was getting a perverse pleasure out of this.  Maybe he was.  Carter had read about people like that – guys who liked to slap their women around, maybe tie them up a little, choke them, candlewax on the ass, all that.  It wasn’t his kink, but he tried not to judge.  Not everyone was the same.  This didn’t feel quite right though. He thought maybe Foster liked those things, but thought it more likely he liked those things taken to the extreme.

“I want the same thing you do.  I want Katie and Erik safe and sound.  I want them to be provided for.”  He paused, and closed the wallet, and laid it back on the table, then folded his hands over it.  “I don’t want them to be dismembered and delivered to you piece by piece until you beg me to kill you.”

Foster picked up the wallet and tucked it back into his pocket.  Carter watched, his stomach churning.  Rage was threatening to replace his fear, and he fought against it.  He thought of Katie and Erik, and the consequences he might bring on them.  He thought of his wife, standing in the sunlight, watering her garden, Erik playing in the dirt at her feet.  He thought of her slender fingers holding the hose, and an image came to him, unbidden, of one of those fingers arriving at his desk in a plain brown box, packing peanuts turning red.

His gorge rose, and he managed to turn his head in time to vomit a splattering mess of his lunch on the floor.  An acidic smell wafted into the room, along with the scents of hot shrimp and garlic, and his stomach threatened to rise again.  He took a deep breath and choked it back.  He could feel tears streaming down his face, and he took a moment to wipe them from his cheeks before sitting up.  Carter looked at the man across from him, his head throbbing, and his face hot.  Foster was still wearing that smile, and anger tried to worm its way back into his chest.  He swallowed, hard, and took a deep shuddering breath.

“What do I do?”

Foster opened his hands, a magnanimous gesture.  “Good.  You see reason.”  He leaned back.  “You’ll take a sabbatical.  Take the wife and kid up the coast.  Beautiful country this time of year.”

Suspicion itched in the back of Carter’s mind.  “Why?”  He asked.

“Because you had to get away.  You forged that report; you’ve got an axe to grind.  While you’re gone, we’ll make it go away, and your position will be quietly phased out, and you’ll find a quiet little job in a cozy little town nowhere near here.”

He stopped talking, and leaned forward, his hands folded over one another once again on the table.  Carter thought about the proposition.  He’d lose his job.  Katie would keep her fingers.  A little ember of anger stirred in his chest.  He’d lose the job it had taken him five years to rise to.  Over a bit of misplaced honesty.  The man sitting across from him stared, and he thought he saw the slightest bit of a smirk.  The anger kindled to a flame.  They’d threatened his wife and child.  Over a piece of paper with some numbers on it.  He flashed on the sudden image of him and the family in the car, driving up the coast.  A black semi, going too fast, passes them, and clips them.  They careen off the cliff.  Or, the brakes fail.  Or, they’re shot and killed at a rest stop.  The flame kindled to a bonfire.

Carter looked down, at the pen still on the table, its blue and gold shining in the light.  Foster was still staring at him.  Carter’s hands shook, but he did his best to steady them as he placed them on the table, pressing his palms against the cool metal.

“Well, Mr. Carter?”  Impatience, just the barest hint, tinged Foster’s voice.

The rage galvanized him.  Now or never – another of Katie’s.  He lunged forward and grabbed the pen, then snapped it upward with as much force as he could.  There was a moment of resistance, and then wet heat covered Carter’s hand and wrist like syrup.  His stomach threatened to spill its contents again at the feeling, and he fought it, won.

He looked into Foster’s eyes. They were wide and frightened.  He could see the tiny veins in them, red and angry.  The man clutched at his throat and knocked his hand away, blood pouring from the hole in his neck.  For a moment, Carter watched him, struggling to pull the pen free.  With deliberation, Carter leaned forward again and grabbed the barrel.  He held Foster’s gaze, and with a grunt of effort, he rammed it in until it was too slick to hold.  Foster made a glurk glurk noise, and fell out of his chair, twitched, his leg kicking the metal chair and making a hollow sound, and then was still.

Carter looked down at the floor, and saw a red stream running to the drain.  Well, that’s that, he thought.  He waited, expecting someone to come barreling in the door.  When they didn’t, he stood, and walked over to Foster.  His heart was beating what felt like a thousand beats a second, and he took several deep breaths to calm himself.  He looked down.  The man’s horn-rims were crooked on his face.  Behind the lenses, blue eyes stared up into the bright overhead light.  Carter leaned down and did his best to clean the blood off his wrist and hand with Foster’s tie.

After another minute, when he was sure he had regained control of himself, he left the room.  The hallway outside was empty.  He waited for a beat, listening.  There were no shouts of alarm or pounding feet.  Satisfied, he headed for the stairs.  He straightened his shirt a little, and rubbed at the blood on the cuff.  As he went, he wondered about Margaret, and thought it might be too late.  He thought about his wife in the sunshine instead, and his son playing in the dirt.  He thought about Coombs.  He wondered if the man had any pens on his desk.

 

The City

We are, each of us, dying an inch at a time. It takes the slow creep of years for it to be noticeable. A clutch of crow’s feet here, a spatter of liver spots there, the white of snow on hair. Time is a weight, dragging us into the cold depths of age, and we are the body wrapped in chains, the breath crushed from us by icy water. Morte magis metuenda senectus. Old age should rather be feared than death.

If age is anathema to the human race, it’s the opposite for a city. It’s an invigorator, a shot of stimulant to an already thriving nervous system. Streets and walkways grow wider, their concrete built on the backs of the younger generation, the arteries of the city held up with rebar and lined with asphalt. Its buildings grow with time, wider and taller, reaching for their brothers, reaching to the sky. Its traffic becomes more efficient, sleeker, and cleaner, blood cells undergoing the dialysis of time. With each generation of dying inhabitants, the city gets a facelift – a new patina of chrome and granite and glass, suckling on the symbiotic relationship.

Still, there are places in the city where you can smell the rot. You can see behind the patina and smell the sulfurous eggs and dead refuse of its breath. You can see the suppuration of gangrene on an otherwise healthy limb. It’s the sort of thing that had a doctor examined the patient, he’d recommend amputation. It’s the sort of thing that’ll do a man’s head in if he lets it. If he only stands by and smells the stink and ignores it, just another stranger on the train, never mind that poor sap in the gutter.

I already knew the sap in the gutter. Her name was Rosalind. Someone had taken a straight razor to her throat, and her life pooled around her head like a sanguine halo. Neon reflected in the blood, garish pinks and greens tinted with the remnants of her life. I flicked my cigarette into a nearby puddle and crouched, looking close. She was like the others, pale and lovely and dumped in the street like trash. No other marks marred her body – aside from her throat, she was as pristine as new snow. Well, that wasn’t necessarily the truth, but considering her state, I wasn’t about to quibble details.

I stood and looked at the nearby bar, a dive called Paddy’s. The neon glow came from there, throwing its colors onto the sidewalk in a way that said it cared as much for propriety as it did for what the clientele did under its sign. I walked over, pushing on the plywood that passed for a door. A bell tinkled over the threshold, and the smells of stale beer, sweat, and desperation hit me in the face like a two-ton weight. I passed through the doorway and lit another cigarette, letting the smoke burn the scent from my lungs. The smoke pooled around me in the still air like stagnant water. I pushed my way past the brooding and half-conscious patrons and stepped up to the bar.

The bartender was big – I’d call him half a mountain, but I was pretty sure that this guy made mountains insecure. The voice in my head spoke up.

Beirut, ’82. Killed a kid. Thought he was carrying a bomb. Didn’t use a gun.

It was that last part that made me worry for my safety. For the sake of appearances though, I leaned in. What is it the kids say? Fake it ’til you make it?

“Hey, Everest.” The voice in my head made a choking sound. “You see anything weird outside tonight?”

He looked up, the slope of his brow dropping like an avalanche. I wondered briefly if I should have given him a nickname. I wondered if all my thoughts were going to be brief if I kept taunting this guy. He fixed me with a stare that said my sense of humor was like my guts – better kept inside. After a minute, he shook his head.

“Ain’t seen nothin’, man.”

I ignored the double negative, but I could hear English teachers screaming around the world.

“Nothing? A girl gets cut up not a hundred feet from your door, and you didn’t even hear a scream?”

He shrugged. “Gets loud in here.”

I strangled my own scream of frustration and turned to the room. It wasn’t what I’d call a jumpin’ joint –

Who would?

– but there were a few patrons. Just the usual fare – an old man with a beard as long as his face sleeping in a puddle of drool, a half-glass of some dark brew still in his hand; a couple of skinheads, and a group of dockworkers still in overalls and wool caps. Despite the amount of beer fumes in the air, and the rough clientele, the place was quiet. I was worried it was my personality, and then realized these guys couldn’t see a rose in a field of shit. I raised my voice, but not much. I didn’t want to break up the funereal atmosphere they had going.

“Any of you know anything about the girl in the gutter outside?”

They tipped their heads down, looking into their drinks as if they had answers. Apparently none of them did, because no one looked back up.

“Shitheels,” I muttered.

One of the skinheads must’ve caught that, because he looked up. He rose, half up from his seat. The voice in my head used my mouth.

SIT, BOY.”

The words reeked of age and a rage you couldn’t suppress with ten tons of concrete. There was also command, the kind that comes from expecting others to obey as a birthright. It was a voice you didn’t ignore. It tickled the hindbrain, made the lizard part of people squirm in the best circumstances, and downright wish they’d worn the brown pants in the worst. It was a voice you especially didn’t sass. The skinhead sat back down. The voice chuckled in my head and made a note.

Silas. 28. Likes to kill cats. Once threatened a black man with a knife in a Whole Foods. Saturday.

Today was Thursday. I nodded to myself and left the bar. Outside, the rain had steadied to a gentle patter. It was cold, the bite of autumn on the drops. I flicked the cigarette butt away and looked around. Sometimes your first stop is a goldmine. Others, you get bupkis. It happens. When it does, you lean on your contacts, whether it’s the cops or the press or others. In this case, the ball was firmly in the court of the others. The girl had family once upon a time, though these days maybe it was just the memory of family. Chances were the cops would never notice her missing. Chances were no one would after a week. I knew I couldn’t get justice. But I could get revenge.

I stalked off down the street, knowing my next stop.

*

In some parts of the city, you get a weird symbiosis. Gothic liquor stores. Conservative strip clubs. Neon churches. The Church of the Holy Redeemer was the last. It sat on the edge of what they called Skid Row, and WASP territory, and was an old department store someone had converted into a church with some nice siding, a few bushes out front, and a neon Jesus on the sign. The pastor in charge was someone I’d always liked. I suppose the voice liked him, too. It was always quiet around him.

He greeted me when I walked in the door.

“How are ya, Jimmy?”

I shook his hand. “Good, Frank. Hey, I need the church for a few. Are there any devout I have to worry about disturbing?”

He looked over his shoulder and dropped my hand. “No, should be empty. The ladies won’t be by to clean for a few hours.”

He never asked why I needed to be alone. He just shut the doors behind me and let me do my thing. I think it had something to do with a small matter of extortion I’d cleared up for him a while back. Some people you have to teach the proper way the collection plate works. Either way, it was one of the only places I could meet my contact. I walked past him into the nave and heard the doors close behind me.

Pews lined up like supplicants, facing the pulpit. Behind it hung a large plaster Jesus, the neon man’s twin. Like so many of them, the statue was nailed to the cross, wound in his side, crown of thorns. His eyes turned upwards, though whether in beatification or suffering I never could tell. It always seemed to me that there’s a fine line. I approached the statue and sat on the edge of the baptismal. I waited. The voice in my head began to hum something I didn’t recognize.

Minutes passed, and I was about to leave, thinking my contact wouldn’t show today. I stood, and the statue creaked, the plaster suddenly pliable. I looked up and saw blood trickling from the wounds, thin streamers that pattered to the floor in soft drops. I looked to the face. The eyes rolled slowly in their sockets, as though searching for something, or trying to escape the pain. The statue opened its mouth.

“Jimmy. Make it quick.”

“Someone’s cutting up girls and leaving them lay. I need to find him.”

A moan escaped the statue, and its eyes rolled back until I could only see the whites. It was like looking at fried eggs. Silence, punctuated by the occasional moan pervaded the church. I sighed. Having a daemon on retainer was useful, but it would’ve been nice if someone on the other side would’ve invented Google already. Finally, the statue’s eyes rolled back, and it fixed me with a stare that could’ve boiled noodles.

“Somewhere around Ninth and Bleeker. He was a bastard to find, Jimmy.”

I nodded. “How long do I have?”

“About three hours.”

I looked up at the statue, and reached into my jacket, where I kept payment – a small vial of blood. “Thanks.”

I dropped the vial behind the baptismal, and looked up to see if the daemon had seen it, but the statue was still again. I shrugged and left the nave. Father Frank had beat feet, so I left the way I’d come, the voice in my head humming again.

*

Ninth and Bleeker was a shithole that made other shitholes look like the Ritz. It smelled of garbage and despair, the Steak Oscar of scents. Turned out the building I was looking for was the only one suitable for habitation. It was a squat duplex with a brick facade and a rotting awning over the picture window. I knocked on the door and wiped my hand on my shirt. The man who answered was small, bald, and wearing wire-rim glasses. He squinted at me through the glass. He smelled like piss and vodka.

Titus. 45. Killed Angelica Cortez, Rosalind Peters, Sharon Goldman, the list goes on. This is the guy. Let me out.

I ignored the request for a moment, and instead stuck out my hand and put on a smile that felt as fake as plastic dog shit.

“Mr…?”

He took my hand and pumped it. My skin tried to crawl away.

“Volstock,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“You have an aunt…”

Cathy

“Cathy?”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry to inform you she’s passed away.”

No emotion passed his eyes. I cleared my throat.

“There is fortunate news, however. She left some of her possessions to you. May I come in, and we can discuss them?”

He looked up and down the street, and then back at me. He seemed satisfied I was who I said, and stepped aside. I entered the house. It was dim inside, but not dirty, despite his smell. Everything was just so, the threadbare carpet well vacuumed, the tables and shelves dusted, the furniture coated in plastic covers. It looked like the world’s best-preserved grandmother’s house. I heard the door close behind me and turned. Just in time to see Titus come at me with a knife.

LET ME OUT

I stepped out of the way of his lunging advance and let go, the presence in me pouring out like smoke. Titus saw it and stopped mid-swing, stepping away from the inky pool on his carpet. I could feel it pouring from every hole in my head. He began to back away.

“What the fuck is this?” His voice betrayed a tremor. Finally, emotion.

The pool coalesced, and something began to rise from it. Something tall and horned and the color of hot tar. Its eyes burned orange, and its hands ended in wicked talons. He tried to run, but tendrils of smoke that formed around the thing like a skirt reached out and grabbed his ankles. I could smell burning cloth and flesh as they began to sear through his clothes. They pulled him toward it, and now he was weeping; now he was screaming, more tendrils wrapped around his head, and the noise cut off as his flesh was welded shut. They pulled him to the thing in the middle of the room, and lifted him. His eyes went wide, and I could see the tiny veins in their whites.

My companion, the thing in my head that was now the thing in the world, reached its clawed hands into his chest and pulled out his heart like a child removing macaroni from a picture frame. Blood and gore splashed the room, enough to form a small wave as it rolled across the carpet. The thing, that ancient thing called Legion, dropped the body and dissipated; becoming roiling smoke that once again flowed back into me. When the smoke cleared, it sat in my head, and hummed. I left the way I came.

I reflected as I walked along the dilapidated rows of factories and homes. If age is a weight, 4000 years is a fucking Mack truck tied to your ankles. In that time, I’ve learned three things. One – it’s easier to find God than a conscience. Two – sometimes the dead don’t stay dead. Three – life wears steel-toed boots, and will kick you in the balls first chance it gets. In a world like that, you don’t always get justice. But with age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes knowing that revenge is sometimes all you can hope for. Sometimes, it’s all this world deserves.

Bugs

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy.  That’s what it was.  Travis lifted the package of meat to his nose and sniffed, though all he got was the scent of cool plastic.  He lowered it again and ignored the woman who passed him, a short blonde with her kid in the cart.  He raised a finger and pointed at Travis, and then giggled.  Travis felt his cheeks turn pink, and he turned away.

He waited until he was sure the woman and her spawn were occupied elsewhere, and peered down at the meat.

I don’t like those brown spots.  They look like disease.  

Another voice answered the first.  So, why are you still holding it?

He mentally shrugged and tossed the meat back into the display case.  He pulled a small bottle of sanitizer from his pocket and squirted some into his hands, then scrubbed them together, counting to twelve.  When he was done, he slipped the bottle back into his pants and pulled out a small packet of aspirin.  He tore it open and chewed two, the bitter taste feeling like a cleansing acid to his tongue.  He swallowed and made his way toward the dry aisles.

Couldn’t go wrong with canned food.  Hermetically sealed, vacuum packed, untouched by human hands.

Except…

What?

Except, what if a rat fell in?  Or someone lost a finger?  What if the meat they used wasn’t sanitized?

His head started to throb.  The fluorescents overhead were too bright, and he imagined he could hear them buzzing like nests of hornets above him.  He rubbed his eyes and shook his head to clear it.  After another minute of staring at an array of cans with labels printed with names like Potted Meat Product, SPAM, and Vienna Sausages, he shook his head once more and decided he would have vegetables for dinner.

He picked out a nice ear of corn and a squash, and for dessert, a kiwi.  He didn’t like the hair on them, but he loved the flavor, so he made concessions.  At the front of the store, he chose the self-checkout.  It was a Devil’s choice, really.  More people touched the screens (which is why he used his touchscreen gloves), but no one was handling his food.

The woman from the meat aisle was in front of him, her kid dangling his feet from the leg holes in the cart.  He scrunched his face up at Travis and stuck his tongue out, and made a raspberry.  That wasn’t the sound that came out, though.  Instead, it was a deep buzzing, like that of a bee close to your ear.  Travis started, and dropped his vegetables.  He stepped away, his heart pounding, and headed for the front door.  The register attendant tried to catch his attention.

“Sir – you dropped these.”

He started after Travis with a handful of vegetables like a vengeful farmer.  Travis looked over his shoulder at the approaching teenager, and thought he saw the boy’s eyes flash black in the bright lights.  He lowered his head and picked up his pace.

“Sir, sir, si-bzzzzzzzzz.”

The sound drew a small squeak of terror from Travis, and he broke into a run, barely giving the sliding doors the chance to open before he burst into the parking lot.  He sprinted to his car and ripped the door open.  Once in, he jammed the key in the ignition, and as soon as the engine roared to life, tore out of the lot like all the hounds of Hell were on his ass.

The cashier stood at the sliding doors for a moment, watching the sedan roar away.  He looked down at the vegetables and cursed.  He was going to have to put these back on the shelves now.  He trudged back inside.

***

The doorman greeted Travis with his usual enthusiasm.

“Hello, Mr. Phobos.  Good day?”

Travis glanced up and saw nictating membranes – the third eyelid – flash over the man’s eyes.  The doorman, Joe, coughed, and Travis heard a distinct buzz.  He turned to the side and slipped through the door without a word, careful to keep himself from the man’s gloved hand.  He walked hurriedly down the hall to the elevators, and didn’t let out the breath he’d been holding until the doors opened on his suite.

The suite was white and brass.  He had read somewhere brass was one of those metals that had natural antimicrobial properties – given a few hours, it would sterilize itself.  The white was so he could see any dirt that might pop up and nip it in the bud.  He walked to the sink and washed his hands, his mind free-floating.

One two three four, wash them some more.  There’s more of them today than yesterday, and more than the day before that.  It’s spreading, and someone’s got to do something.

He shut the water off, steam rising from the tap, and sanitized his hands.  Then he made a call.  A lifetime of fastidiousness had made him very precise and exacting – it was why he was so good with numbers – it had also made him quite wealthy.  Being wealthy had its perks – you knew who to call when you needed unsavory things done, no matter how dirty it might get you.

The phone rang twice, and a voice, thick with sleep, picked up.

“‘lo?”

“Harry.  I need a favor.”

On the other end of the line, Harry’s ears perked up.  Favors were always lucrative when it came to Mr. Phobos.

***

The van was idling in an alley that looked like it hadn’t seen a broom or a good rain in twenty years.  Travis pulled his coat and his gloves on tighter, and adjusted his surgical mask.  The little man he was facing was twitchy, a quality that endeared him to Travis.

Man like that knows what’s out there.  Knows the value of vigilance.

The little man, Carlos, opened the van’s doors and swept an arm at the contents.

“At your service, Mr. Phobos.”

The interior of the van was lined with weapons of all shapes and sizes – pistols and rifles and knives and Travis even thought he saw a rocket launcher in the back.  He leaned in and pointed out a heavy-looking automatic.  Carlos picked it out of its lined bed, with a clip and several bullets.  After a moment, he also grabbed a holster, an under-the-shoulder thing made of several straps and leather.

Travis took them, and tried on the holster, then slipped the clip into the pistol and racked a round.  The sound was satisfying, clean.  Carlos watched him.

“You like?”

Travis nodded.

“Fifteen hundr-zzzzzz-ed.”

Travis looked at him.  He noticed the man’s sweatshirt had pulled up around his forearms, exposing skin that was mottled and hard with chitinous scales.

“What?”  He asked Carlos.

“Bzzzz. Bzzz.  Bzzzzzzz bzzzzzzzz.”

Travis shot the man in the face.  The sound ricocheted around the alley, then died away in a distant echo.  He looked at the corpse, green blood oozing from its ruined head.

There, that’s it.  Getting worse.  Need to cleanse them all.

He walked out of the alley, leaving the van and the bug behind.

***

The grocery store was bright.  Too bright, like the things that lived there needed the light, needed the noise, the incessant buzzing from overhead to make them feel at home.  He watched shoppers trudge by, most unaware of the horror they stood in.  One of the stockboys walked by, his corduroys making whispering sounds between his legs, and Travis imagined the insects here liked that.  He sanitized his hands, and walked to the canned meat aisle.

He inspected the cans for the second time that week.  They read with new names – Chopped Meal Worm Bits, Nectar, Exoskeleton Builder, and Caterpillar Meal.  He saw the first of the intruders walking down the aisle, a fat woman with antennae poking from her bouffant.  He waited until she got closer, and pulled the pistol.

She barely had time to register before the weapon roared and spread her brains like a Jackson Pollack over the Kraft products.  Her body fell to the ground and made a sound like a side of beef hitting concrete.  Someone screamed, and suddenly, the store was chaos.  Buzzing came from overhead, the voices of the Overlords.  He shot at the speakers, but that only seemed to anger them.

The stockboy he had seen earlier stepped into the aisle, confusion on his face.  He held that expression for a minute, his mandibles working in terror just before a bullet removed that half of his skull.  Green blood flew and decorated the tiles and he collapsed.

More of them came, with their carapaces and screaming buzzsaw language.  Travis destroyed each and every one, laying waste to their nest.  He was triumphant, his was a glorious battle.  He turned and saw a new threat, a great mantis holding some sort of rod.  The rod roared, and Travis’ arm dissolved into a red agony.  He looked down and panicked.

I’ve been poisoned.

He dropped his weapon and tried to reach his sanitizer.  He needed to cleanse the wound.  Another mantis, bigger than the first, appeared at the end of the aisle, a rod in its hand as well.  The weapon roared, and Travis dove for his weapon.  He managed to grab it just as another buzz from the opposite end of the aisle started.  He glanced over his shoulder, in time to see more of the warriors emerging from the greeting cards.  He raised his pistol.

Filthy bugs! Filthy bug-

The bullet that exploded his brain ended the thought prematurely.

Officer Franklin, only a week from a vacation – somewhere nice, like Cozumel – lowered his pistol.  He looked at Roberts, his Sergeant, then the carnage in the aisle.  Bodies lay strewn about like a child had a tantrum with his toys.  He turned back to Roberts.

“Bzzz.  Bzzz.  Bzzzz.”

Cold Snap

It’s got to be fifteen, twenty below with the wind chill.  It can get to you, the way it creeps into your clothes and saps the warmth from your skin.  If you know anything about physiological reactions, you know your veins drift deeper into your skin in that kind of cold, in order to insulate you, warm you more efficiently.  Your heartbeat slows, your breathing becomes more rhythmic.  It’s as if your body wants to sleep.  The French have a phrase for sleep – le petit mort – the little death.  I wonder if they have a phrase for dying in the cold.

Another thing – the quiet.  It creeps into your head, like a live thing.  If you stop and hold your breath and stand still, you can hear the snowflakes chime against each other, like flakes of steel from a frozen forge.  It’s quiet like that that can ring in your head, the absence of sound as loud as a hammer blow.  I watch the smoke from my cigarette drift in lazy spirals and imagine the smoke making a sound in the quiet, like a snake’s skin shivering against a rock.

Something makes me look out from my deck, across the frozen field that in the summer grows thick sheaves of hay.  Maybe it’s a change in the quality of the light that filters through a hazy gray sky, maybe it’s the crunching sound of snow being compacted across the field.  I squint into the haze and pick out a figure, not more than a shadow at this distance.  I wonder for a moment who the hell would be walking across that field.  I have a rifle in the closet, and think maybe I should get it.  Curiosity gets the better of me though, and I flex my fingers in my gloves, and wait instead.

It’s some time before he gets close enough to see.  I consider going in.  I consider another cigarette.  I wait both those things out, and peer instead into the drifting waves of dry snow that the wind kicks across my vision.  I wonder what this place was like with trees, or with people.  I wonder if there are people any more.  The thought slips away like smoke when the man steps through another wall of snow.  He’s older, his face a tanned map of twisting weathered lines.  His eyes are blue, like ice on a clear lake, and he’s only wearing an old pea coat buttoned to his neck and black slacks that ripple in the wind like small pennons.  His hair is thin and white, and I can see an age spot or two on his scalp when the wind stirs it.  He stops when he sees me, and raises a hand, a slight smile on his face.  I nod.

It’s only another minute, maybe two, before he stops in front of the porch.  His hands are deep in his pockets, and he looks around, as though taking in the small farmhouse and the barn out back.  He nods once, as though he’s made a decision, and looks at me.  The smile still plays a little on his lips, as though he’s tasted something he’s enjoyed.

“Afternoon.”  He says.  I watch him, and after a moment, he sniffs, and goes on.  “You’re a hard man to find.”

“I’m not hiding.”  I say.

He squints one eye a bit, as though weighing me.  “I suppose you’re not.  You are just in the middle of a field in the middle of the prairie in the middle of winter.  Hard to get to, maybe.  Not hiding.”

He’s quiet for another beat, and I can hear the wind stirring the snow, like powdered glass in a breeze.  He looks off to his right, past the house and off to the field.  He purses his lips, and turns back to me.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to invite me up?  Mighty cold out here.”

I feel a bit of shame at that.  My grandfather always believed even the Devil deserved hospitality.

“Come on up.”

He pulls his hands from his coat and lays them on the banister.  They are pale and thin, the skin stretched like parchment, his fingers like spiders.  The nails have a dull luster, and peek above his fingertips like opaque claws.  He pulls himself up, his feet leaving the snow, and I see he is in bare feet, the same color and state as his hands.  I take a step back, and let him up, and hope he doesn’t hear my heart beating timpani in my chest.

He moves up the steps like a snake coils its way around a staff, and stops at the top.  I breathe out, the fear in my chest leaving the air hot and steaming in the cold.  I look to the man, who is watching me with an intent curiosity.  Another round of fear ripples through my chest, and coils its way to my belly.  I can’t see his breath.

I stifle the chill in my guts, and walk to the patio furniture I keep out all year.  I drop into a chair and light a cigarette with shaking hands.  The man sits opposite me, in the chair Martha would lounge in on hot summer nights, a smoke dangling from her fingers, a beer sweating in her other.  I glance over at him and see he has his legs crossed, one bare foot dangling over the cold boards of the deck.  One hand rests on the glass of the patio table, the other on the chair.  He doesn’t speak for a while, just lets me smoke in peace.  He breaks the silence first.

“You know, we’re sorry about Martha.”

I freeze, the cigarette halfway to my lips, and he continues.

“It shouldn’t have happened the way it did.  A woman shouldn’t be without her man at times like that.  At the end.  And a man shouldn’t have to hear about it from some talking head on TV.”

A thick wave of anger rippled through me.  “How would you know?  How did you know?”

He waved a hand, as though counseling patience, or understanding.  I didn’t feel as though I had either, though I did have the time.

“It was the end, right?  The cities went first.  Busy work, the cities.  You barely have to knock on doors or travel.  Just wall to wall people.  Like reaping wheat.”

I remembered.  She’d gone to pick up milk, smokes, and some dinner.  Then the end came.  The sky rolled back, the sun went black, and the world grew cold.  She never came home.

“She was brave, if it helps.”   He said.  “She just..closed her eyes, there in the middle of the street, and waited.”

My anger was kindling to a white flame.  “Why tell me this?”

He shrugs.  “Seems a man would want to know that sort of thing.”

I stand.  “You need to leave.”

He raises a placating hand.  “Not quite yet, Mr. Sorenson.  There’s something you need to know.  A choice you need to make.”

I eye those long fingernails and pale flesh, and think of Romero movies and the long dead, whose fingernails and hair appear to grow even after the breath that drives the body has ended.  I wonder what it is he has to say, and the curiosity drives me back to my chair.  I sit on the cold metal and wait, my hands absently lighting another cigarette.

“Well?”

“You know your Dante?”  He asks.

“I have an idea.”  I was a good Catholic boy once upon a time.

“Your wife is alone, David.  Alone, on a track chased by demons for eternity.  She screams, and they laugh, and whip her.  They flog her flesh until it bleeds, and when it heals, they start over, ripping her flesh again.”

I shoot to my feet, and before I know I’m doing it, I have the old man by his lapel and my cigarette hovers an inch from his naked eye.  He stares at me, his face impassive.  I can see the steam from my breath in the cold, and realize I’m shivering, but he is calm and still and I still cannot see his breath.  He raises one hand and places it on mine, and his skin is like ice.  I drop his lapel and turn away, toward the field.

“Fuck you.”  I say, and watch the wind whip the snow.  From somewhere far off, I can hear the sound of hooves on earth.  The silence stretches.  I turn back to him.

“What choice do I have?”

He opens his hands.  “You’re the last.  The very last.  It’s a special honor, an accomplishment, really.”

I open my mouth to reply, and he holds a hand up again, a listen gesture.  “Your choice, then.  Stay here, and rot, and lament your woman.  Or, find a way to her.”

He leans forward, the most movement I’ve seen from him since he chose the chair.  “The very last, David.  Don’t let her alone.  It’s not right for a woman to suffer without her man.”

He leans back, looks out at the snow, and that slight smile plays across his mouth.  After a moment, he stands, thrust his hands in his pockets, and heads for the stairs.  I watch him step down them, his bare feet slipping into the snow.  At the bottom, he turns back.

“You hear the hooves, David.  Decide, or they will.”

He turns to face the field again, and begins to walk.  I watch him go, until he is a black speck on a whitewashed wall.  The hoof beats are louder after he’s gone, as though the riders follow in his wake.  They probably do.  Behold, a pale horse.

I watch the fields, and imagine if I squint through the screen of snow I can see four shadows, hazy in the distance.  I think of Martha, and her laugh.  I feel numb.  Maybe it’s just the cold, but I have my doubts.  I flick the cigarette, and watch the ember soar and land and flicker, then turn, and head for the door.

I think of the warmth inside, and of the rifle in the closet.