The boy never goes out in daylight.
Oh, he could, and some do . . . but he doesn’t. Maybe that’s why he is still alive. He holes up in crawlspaces during the day. There are five houses he uses in rotation, all abandoned, none occupied by the dead or the living. As the world spins and sunlight and shadows travel the rooftops of his little town, he listens for a floorboard creak that doesn’t belong, hoping he won’t be discovered by the familiar boogeymen that have made this world their own since the dawning of 10/31—werewolves and witches, mummies and zombies, and other nameless things the boy would rather never see.
The boy isn’t very large. The way things are these days, he figures that’s a plus. He is less of a target at night, and for this reason he has come to trust the darkness. Strange to trust darkness in a world overrun with nightmares . . . but that’s the way it is.
It is not an exciting life. At night, the boy forages. He clings to the black spaces, shunning lightning flash and Jack o’ Lantern glow. During the day, he matches his silence with stillness. Occasionally, he dozes. Mostly, he spends his time with a flashlight and books, or sometimes a magazine. He likes the old ones with gory covers and pictorial articles about monsters, because they teach him secrets about the things he wants to avoid. On cold days he waits among wall studs and insulation, and on hot days he tucks himself next to cool concrete foundation. He lurks between sour earth and floorboards that rarely creak with tread inhuman or human, and he moves little or not at all, and he reads and learns, and he waits for night.
He waits until the pumpkins start to scream.
The pumpkins sit on porches. They sit there night and day. Some of them for years now. The ones that survived grew and thrived in ways that most pumpkins don’t, while the others rotted long ago. After the first calendar page was left unturned in the wake of 10/31, those ordinary pumpkins began the fast slide from orange to black. Within days their mouths were choked with cobwebs of mold. Within weeks their eyes collapsed into noses and their grins sagged into rotten frowns, as if with some strange withering disease. The ones that didn’t sluice away in the first rains petrified long ago. Those that remain are dry mummified memories of a world that no longer exists, as much a part of ancient history as candy, and costumes, and the idea of trick or treat itself.
But those other pumpkins, the ones that thrived—
They also sit on porches, but like sentinels. Survivors call them Jacks. They gleam, as if freshly waxed at the pumpkin patch. Razor teeth bear the dewy shine of pumpkin-sap, giving the illusion that a carving knife had touched them only seconds before. And they scream just as twilight disappears, a signal to the new masters of this bleak world as surely as a cockcrow once marked time for those who trod an older and brighter one.
But the Jacks are quiet in the daylight, unless something gives them cause not to be. Something like a cat. The Jacks like cats. And this particular Jack, waiting unnoticed on a porch, is no different.
But this particular cat is wary. It knows things have changed. This suburban block, its entire world. The family that cared for it is gone, and the place that was once its home is now a hovel for a brutish monster that (long ago) bashed out doors along with the frames which held them in order to accommodate its bulk. Just down the block, that creature sleeps (in daylight) on a pile of mattresses heaped on the sagging living room floor. Were the cat to scent those mattresses, it could still identify a faint trace of its owners. But then again, it would also scent them on a pile of gnawed bones long forgotten in one corner of the kitchen.
But the cat has survived, though there is much that has disappeared from its world and its memory. It has forgotten its own name, and other once-familiar behavioral triggers are buried so deeply they might as well be forgotten—the vacuum snap of a cat-food can opening, the heady scent of a catnip mouse, the rhythmic music of its own purr.
But some memories and some triggers—the enduring kind—have kept the cat alive, and one of those is still familiar, even in this new world.
That is the scent of a rat.
A hard fist of hunger swells in the cat’s belly as it creeps toward a fat knothole in the sagging porch. Its green eyes spy rat droppings along the railing that borders the hole, along with threads of gray-black hair around the splintered edges of the hole itself.
Close enough now, and still crouching, the cat waits for a meal to appear. It will wait a long time if it has to, but the watcher behind it will not wait. The Jack is ready for a meal, too. The cat has not even noticed it, for the huge pumpkin seems nothing more than an inanimate object. The Jack’s jaws gape silently, stretching into a spiked cavern of a maw. And it is only when that spiked cavern yawns wide that the cat becomes aware. Not of danger. For the cat is only aware of a meaty smell more enticing than a rat, a sudden scent that makes its stomach rumble in a way even the largest rat never could. Yes. This is a scent that stirs very old memories. It’s a T-bone fresh out of the butcher paper kind of scent, and it triggers a hardwired feline response.
The animal turns, just a little dizzily, ready to pounce on the prize. Already half-hypnotized as so many other animals have been by the Jacks, the cat is just about to spring directly into the mouth of the creature which has lured it when—
A young woman shouts: “Bad kitty! SCAT!”
The cat springs from the porch, not even seeing the shadowy figure sitting on a garden swing a dozen yards away. The Jack sees that figure clearly, eyes brightening to fiery red in seconds, gaping jaws ready to scream an alarm. But in this moment seconds might as well be hours, because this game is played much, much faster.
“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,” the young woman says. “Or not.”
She fires a sawed-off shotgun.
The Jack disappears along with a fat circle of wall.
The Remington’s recoil bucks the swing backwards, and the young woman laughs as she takes a little ride. Back and forth, back and forth. Meaty orange guts drip down the ventilated wall, and the swing rocks some more as the Jack expires. And the chain creaks for a while, and the woman laughs for a while, and then both sounds are gone at the same time.
A few final splats on the porch, and all is quiet. The young woman sets the sawed-off shotgun on the swing, within easy reach. There’s room for two here on the old-fashioned glider, but she’s a solo rider. At least she has been until now. Just her and her pal Remington. That’s the way this ride goes, and every ride she’s taken for the last year, since the dawn of 10/31.
It used to be different, of course. Used to be . . . for a lot of people. And lately she’s been thinking. Just lately she can’t stop wondering if maybe, just maybe it would be easier if she wasn’t alone. Not the way she used to play it in that other world before this one. But different this time. Different, like—
No. The woman shakes the thought away. She doesn’t like to think. Not too much. That causes trouble, stirs things up. Old things and new things. So she looks around instead. There’s no sign of movement. The cat is gone. All that’s left is her wheelbarrow parked next to the swing. It’s heaped with her belongings, and she rises long enough to burrow into a canvas sack and dig out a can of Friskies.
The young woman figures the cat will return if she gives it a reason. Pop. Whisper. There’s a faded fluorescent green Frisbee hiding in the dead weeds of what used to be the front lawn, and she snags it without getting scratched by prickles. She fishes a clasp knife out of her pocket and opens the blade. By the time she’s emptied half the cat food onto the Frisbee, the scrawny black furball is poking its head around the weather-beaten front gate.
“Hey,” the young woman says. “C’mon. It’s chowtime.”
The cat regards her. She finishes dishing up and slides the faux bowl onto the cracked cement path that snakes from the front gate to the porch steps. Then she settles back onto the swing, raises one boot and tucks it under one knee, and knives a slab of cat food into her mouth.
“Ummm,” she says. “Salmon. You’re missing a treat, stupid.”
The cat looks at her, still considering. It seems like it takes forever, but the young woman kind of admires that.
And then the cat comes.
Not to her.
To the food.
The young woman can’t understand why the others are taking so long.
Because there are always others.
That’s why she fired the sawed-off shotgun. Oh, sure, she doesn’t like Jacks. She would have smoked that nosy little first-alert hunk of monster anyway. But she wants to know if there are others around, especially the more serious variety of shamblers from the dark. She’s dead tired and she needs to sleep somewhere safe tonight, and this gone-to-seed suburban block of sleepy little nowhere seems as good a place as any to rest her head.
Long story short: that’s why she did the dirty with her kick-in-the-door Remington. She figured it would wake up the neighbors. She doesn’t want any neighbors tonight. No. What she wants is to drop fifty milligrams of Diphenhydramine Hydrochloride and sleep like the dead. Hence: the shotgun and the rest of the armory that waits in the wheelbarrow. Hence: the waiting for neighbors.
The young woman smiles. Fifty milligrams. Such a neat little number. She thinks of the old days, and other drugs she never measured with numbers. Ones that weren’t so neat, and the places that matched them—
No . . . no. Right now, this place is all that matters . . . this place.
And this place is quiet. Like: proverbial tomb quiet. It’s only been maybe half a minute since she smoked the Jack, but she’s already impatient, mostly with herself and the memories that chew at her from around the corners. So she closes her eyes and thinks of the fifty milligrams. That’s comforting. And ten seconds beyond the comfort zone she decides that she actually did get lucky and find herself a hunk of deserted post-apocalyptic paradise.
And: whoops. That’s when the front door creaks open at the house next door, and the young woman opens her eyes just in time to see the first neighbor.
She puts down the cat food can and grabs the shotgun.
It’s not a gargoyle, or a goblin, or a zombie.
It’s a boy . . . sixteen or seventeen, maybe.
But on the scrawny side.
If the boy hadn’t been asleep in the crawlspace when the shotgun went off, he never would have taken a chance like this. But he was asleep. Not dozing this time. Dreaming the sweetest kind of dream—a rescue operation. Marines rappelling from choppers. Shock troops on the ground. Monsters screaming and gunfire barking. Demon blood running in the gutters. All in the middle of the day.
So the boy exits the crawlspace double-quick, expecting that the cavalry (in some form) has arrived at long last. After all, he’s certain he heard the gunfire—maybe he heard some of the other stuff, too. He advances through the dark house, banging down the hallway like a drunk, yanking the front doorknob. He hasn’t yanked a doorknob that way in a long time, not since that last unwary, expectant night when he went trick or treating and left the old world behind.
No Marines in the street.
No Marines at all.
Just one person there waiting . . . a woman. Maybe eighteen? Maybe twenty? She’s sitting on the porch swing in front of the old Miller place next door.
At least he thinks it is a woman. It’s hard to tell. She looks a little bit like a few of the witches he’s seen. And no . . . she doesn’t have a broom. She has a shotgun, and it’s pointed right at him. That makes it difficult to concentrate. On the woman, especially. Because she is dressed like a witch, or someone’s idea of a witch. Big boots . . . the kind the boy’s dad always called Doc Martens even if they were really some other brand. Ripped black hose and a ruffled black skirt. A tight orange-and-black striped sweater and—
“Don’t move,” the woman says.
Their eyes lock. Hers are behind a mask. Not an expensive one. A little blonde princess mask, chopped off just under the pert little plastic nose so the boy can see the woman’s lips and the violet scar that slices past them and—
“You’re moving again,” the woman says. “I told you not to do that.”
This time the boy freezes. He thinks maybe he should raise his hands, but that would be moving too, wouldn’t it? Maybe he should ask her if he should do that. Maybe—
A rumble-of-thunder kind of sound, just across the street. Only bigger than thunder. Angrier. Like part of the world just caught a big left hook and is pissed off about it. The boy’s head jerks to see. Oh, no. He’s moving again, and he wasn’t supposed to do that.
But the woman is moving, too.
She rises, whirling, a sawed-off shotgun in her hands.
A cyclops bursts through the ruined doorway of the house across the street. Scaled and the color of a dead fish, the monster ducks its huge head and dips its shoulders as it clip-clops off the porch, pug-dog nose twitching as it catches human scent. Then it leers, and the bloodshot eye in its forehead blinks a single time, narrowing as it spots the young woman with the gun. A moment later the cyclops is charging, head inclined beneath a horn as thick as a rhino’s horn, hooves bucking a double-gallop beat across the cracked pavement of Maple Street.
Just that fast, the woman puts the shotgun to work. Thunder fills the street, each blast severing the previous one’s echo. The storm of sound caroms between sagging houses, and the monster roars in reply. Windows rattle. Stray shot bucks off the pavement, shattering one window and pockmarking another as the woman continues firing, hunching tight, her muscles tensed against the Remington’s recoil, her cropped red hair flying back as if blown by a heavy wind. The cyclops hunches, too—staggering backward with each blast as shot excavates a cavern in its belly—first stripping dead-fish scale, then flesh and muscle, and at last the part the killer with the shotgun thinks of as the chewy center . . . the sweetest secret treat of all.
The hot stink of gunpowder wraps the woman like a shroud. The sawed-off shotgun is empty now. She drops it and draws a revolver from the holster strapped around her waist. She cocks the hammer as the cyclops totters on cloven hooves, its blood spattering cracked pavement like red rain. The monster’s massive chin tilts forward, and then it avalanches.
The pavement bucks and ripples as the horned beast meets the street.
The woman’s back is already turned when that happens.
She advances on the boy.
“They call me Bloody Mary,” she says, her footfalls marking the spaces between her words. “What’s your name?”
The boy barely hears the question. The half-a-princess mask and the eyes inside it say more than words. The woman’s eyes are piercing. Burning. Below them, that violet scar runs like an arrow from the woman’s cheek to her jawline, and it points at the revolver below, at Bloody Mary’s finger on the trigger. That finger is twitching—just a little, and not enough to pull the curved bit of metal—but the finger doesn’t stop.
Twitching . . . twitching . . .
The cyclops is twitching too. And then its hooves rattle against bloody roadbed one last time and it’s dead. The boy still doesn’t speak. The woman does. “It doesn’t really matter,” she says, breaking the silence that seems very small in the wake of the shotgun roar and the roar of the cyclops. “I mean, your name. If it’s Joey or Mark or Bill. Those kind of names don’t mean anything anymore. Names should mean something more now. They need to get up and talk and tell you something. That’s all they’re good for.”
Bloody Mary turns and leaves the words hanging in the air, like the stink of gunpowder. At least, it seems that way to the boy. And the next thing he knows, the woman has yanked a chainsaw alive. She sets to work on the cyclops’ horn, whirring metal teeth spitting fragments of bone and flesh as she severs it like a dead branch.
The horn hits the street. Bloody Mary picks it up, hefts it, turns, and enters the house the boy exited. At that moment, the boy is ready to run. He glances at the front porch of the old Miller place—the shotgunned hole in the wall and the dead Jack puddled before it in a melted heap, already buzzing with flies the size of rats. He eyes the cyclops, waiting for another twitch. He stares up the street and down, listening for a werewolf’s howl, or the shuffling steps of a mummy, or the heavy tread of a stitched, dead giant charged with lightning and dark magic.
After all, another monster might have heard all that noise . . . and that means another monster—or more than one—might be coming.
But the boy hears not a single footfall.
The only thing waiting for him is the woman’s voice, coming from the open door.
“You get one chance,” she says, “and then this door closes.”
That night is the first one (in a long time) that the boy spends as he’d once spent so many nights—in a house, in a room filled with bright light, with another person. But not his mother, and not his father, and not a brother or sister. All those people are dead.
Bloody Mary is not like any of them. She sits at the dining room table, the disassembled shotgun spread across the wooden surface. The room smells of gun oil and propane, and the only sounds are the hiss of the camping lantern in the middle of the table and the scrape of little metal brushes she uses to clean the Remington. The black cat is sleeping on a bundle of blankets in the corner, and though Bloody Mary says nothing about it, she often glances at the animal. The cyclops tusk lays on the edge of the table, the meat around the root turning black. Though Bloody Mary stares at it, too, her thoughts are elsewhere now . . . and so are the boy’s.
“When you killed that Jack,” he begins. “The one on the porch of the old Miller place. Did the lights go on?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, did its eyes start to glow before you killed it? If that happened, someone might have seen you . . . and the house, too.”
“You mean something might have seen me. Back at Halloween Central Control, or whatever you want to call it.”
“Yes.” The boy stares down at his hands lying in his lap, suddenly nervous about the light in the room, and the drapes that aren’t drawn, and the windows that reveal nothing but opaque blackness out in the street. “I guess that’s what I mean.”
“Uh-huh.” The violet scar on Bloody Mary’s cheek bends like a drawn bowstring as she smiles. “You think that something would care about you? Specifically? Something smart . . . something that’s actually in control? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Well . . . ”
“Like maybe: the gods of this new world, or the dead god from the old one, or maybe the universe itself? You figure one of those things would single you out for special attention?”
“I don’t know anything about gods or the universe. I only know that it doesn’t pay to take chances. And I know the Jacks see things, and then the other things come. They’re like guard dogs. A few weeks ago I was scavenging in one of those big warehouse stores and a Jack saw me. The next thing I knew, six goblins riding giant bats were flying around the parking lot. A couple of them got inside the store, and I barely had a chance to hide. They almost found me and—”
“Nice little story. I’m sure it has a happy ending, and you scuttled away and hid like a roach. But why do you think the Jacks would care about you? Specifically? You’re no threat. You’re not even much of a meal. You’re not even two bites.”
“Yes I am.”
“Not for a werewolf, you’re not. Right now you’re barely even two bites for me. And I’ll bet that cat over there would chew you down to gristle and bone if it was hungry enough.”
The boy looks down at his hands. They just lay there in his lap. He has to admit that his fingers are very narrow, and his palms seem like they can barely hold the skin that covers them. Truthfully, that is the case, so he doesn’t say another word.
“You’re thinking,” Bloody Mary says. “That’s a start.”
The boy nods, but he doesn’t speak.
“Look at me,” Bloody Mary says, and the boy raises his head. Their eyes lock. And he’s surprised at the eyes inside the half-a-princess mask. Because even in this moment—here, in a room like this, with a cat curled in the corner—Bloody Mary’s eyes are piercing . . . burning . . . angry . . . just as they were in the moments after she killed the cyclops.
“You’ve got a lot to learn before something cares enough to notice you,” she says. “Someone, too. That’s Lesson One—remember it.”
Bloody Mary’s head inclines. The scar on her cheek points at the work on the table below. She reassembles the shotgun. Clicks, snaps, metallic slaps. The sounds remind the boy of a machine running. Then Bloody Mary loads the weapon, each sound percussive, measured. After that, it is quiet in the room.
“You can sleep where you want,” Bloody Mary says finally. “I’m sleeping upstairs.”
When Bloody Mary climbs the staircase to the second floor and the door to the master bedroom closes, the boy wanders through the other rooms with a flashlight. He can’t settle in any of them, so he goes to his usual spot—the crawlspace above the second floor.
He doesn’t realize until later that the bedroom below his nest is the one where Bloody Mary is sleeping. He lays there in the dark, listening, but she doesn’t make a sound. Soon the silence is almost hypnotizing, and it seems to ring in his ears. Then he begins to hear other things, echoes from the day—the shotgun blasts, and Bloody Mary’s words, and the sound of the Remington being cleaned and assembled. Each sound seems to have its own particular cadence, and together they seem to lull him more than the silence as he considers the woman in the room beneath the crawlspace, and who she might have been before, and who she is now. And those thoughts travel in circles, and the circles form suppositions that lead to Bloody Mary’s eyes, and her mask, and her scar, and the things she carries, and the boy’s thoughts follow that path . . . ’round and ’round and ’round.
Before he knows it, he’s asleep. It’s a long sleep, and deeper than any he’s had in the last year. When he awakens, he is disoriented. Then he remembers the events of the previous afternoon, and the previous night.
The first thing he feels is safe.
That is a surprise.
He rolls over, grabs the flashlight, and thumbs the button. Bloody Mary’s face is only a few feet away, behind the half-a-princess mask. The flashlight beam catches her eyes, and—
Teeth flashing, the woman slams the pistol against the boy’s head. The flashlight flies from his grasp, and the batteries pop out, and then it is dark. Now she’s on top of him, straddling him. His arms are pinned against ceiling joists, and she jabs a stiff index finger behind his jaw and below his ear and his mouth comes open like a picked safe. Then her revolver is between his teeth, and she jams it deeper, deep enough so that he tastes gun oil and gags on it, and he thrashes, arms trapped beneath the hard bones of her shins, and then—
Bloody Mary is still. Absolutely. Like something dead. On top of him, bent over him, unseen but undeniable. She doesn’t move an inch, and neither does he.
“Lesson Two,” she says. “Never let your guard down.”
The gun barrel slides from the boy’s mouth.
By the time he catches his breath, Bloody Mary is gone.
The boy swallows, and he tastes blood.
It begins that morning. First, the chainsaw. Then, the sawed-off shotgun. Neither comes easy to the boy. But he keeps at it—that day, and the next, and the one after that . . . and into the next week. Soon he doesn’t look so much like a scarecrow dancing with a hurricane when he works with either tool.
That’s what Bloody Mary calls them: tools. She has others, and the boy learns about them. They are smaller, and the boy likes them better. A hatchet. A combat knife. A revolver.
At night, they sit in the house. Sometimes they talk, but not about the things the boy wants to know. There are many things he wants to ask Bloody Mary. He wants to ask about the mask she wears. He wants to know who she was before, and how she came to be the person she is. These are the things that used to matter before 10/31, the things people called secrets. But as he watches and learns, he begins to think that maybe secrets aren’t really that important anymore. Because whoever Bloody Mary is now, she is not the person she once was. Anyone can see that much is true. Anyone who heard her name would understand.
And there are other things that matter to the boy, anyway. The things Bloody Mary teaches him. And a million little things that wouldn’t seem to matter to anyone at all. The hiss of the propane lantern at night. The rustle of her black skirt against her legs, and the cadence of her boots on the hardwood floors. The open window beyond the dining room, and the things that might be lurking on the other side of it . . . or might not. The smell of the mint tea Bloody Mary brews, a foraging prize with mingled scents of peppermint, lemon grass, and spearmint. The shotgun, positioned just so for an easy grab. The cat—comfortable now with both of them—curled next to the Frisbee plate on the floor. The boy calls the cat Blackie; Bloody Mary calls it Spike. The cat doesn’t pay much attention, unless either word is followed by the vacuum pop of a cat-food can.
And so the nights become a kind of routine, almost comfortable in the wake of the day’s lessons. As always, there are never many words between them. So as the night stretches on, the boy reads his familiar books and magazines, only now he does not read them by the glow of a flashlight. Bloody Mary works the cyclops tusk with a long thin knife, paring . . . notching and excavating . . . carving. One night she tells the boy about the art of scrimshaw, and whalers from the days of old, and the bones and teeth and tusks of creatures once thought to be monsters. That same night she finishes embellishing the tusk and sets it on the table.
Immediately, the boy recognizes the chainsaw etched on the side. “Life imitates art,” Bloody Mary says. “Sometimes. And sometimes life runs in circles. And there are monsters everywhere—for everyone, for everything, for every time and place. Those aren’t lessons, but I do believe they’re things that are true. Sometimes.”
Bloody Mary spins the tusk on the table, and when it stops the killing point is aimed at the boy. He sips his tea, considering her words. The hiss of the propane lantern seems louder in the silence. He stares at the tusk, at the etched chainsaw waiting there. He can almost hear it growl. He takes another sip of tea. All of a sudden, he’s sleepy. Too sleepy. He rises and tries to take a step, but it’s as if he left his legs behind him on the chair.
The boy topples and goes down hard.
Bloody Mary stands over him. He hears the dull rattle of a pill bottle in her hand.
“Lesson Three,” she says. “Never trust anyone.”
Then she gets out the handcuffs.
The boy doesn’t know if it’s the thunder that wakes him or the rain, but there’s plenty enough of both to go around. Lightning flashes fill the sky, bathing the pasture before him in harsh white light. Has to be he’s a good piece out of town. Grass and mud stretch to an indistinct treeline, and between him and that there are only sheets of rain.
Walls actually, for it’s coming down even harder now. The boy shakes his head, clearing the cobwebs, waiting for another lightning strike. A peal of thunder . . . boom . . . and then a hard slash of crackling white splits the sky like a hammer-strike on black glass. And in that moment he spots Bloody Mary’s wheelbarrow, twenty feet away, near a clutch of old oaks. But there’s no sign of Bloody Mary, and the wheelbarrow is empty.
The boy starts to stand and feels a pull against his wrist. Another flash of lighting and he sees he’s handcuffed to a post, the empty handcuff locked around an old eyebolt screwed into rotting wood. Probably used to chain a bull here, he thinks. And then, just a little dizzily: Bulls must have seemed like monsters, once . . . Once upon a time . . .
He doesn’t know why he thinks that. He doesn’t know why Bloody Mary drugged him, or locked him to a post, or why the wheelbarrow is sitting twenty feet away as empty as a broken promise. He only knows that the crawlspace scavenger who lives down in his gut doesn’t like to be exposed this way. Before he learned to use the tools, being trapped in the open was his greatest terror, and now that push has come to shove it doesn’t seem like that has changed.
So his first impulse is to run. He jerks against the eyebolt, but it holds firm. Must be the rotted post is not so rotten. But he has not been trained to give up easily. He jerks against it again and—
A pool of light starts to spread behind him, somewhere over his shoulder. Not white light, like the lightning; this light is orange. Ten feet away, in the mud by a leaning barbed-wire fence, the glow grows brighter, spilling across the muddy pasture. The boy turns to face it, and he finds something waiting—something with triangular eyes and razor-cut teeth.
A Jack. Its eyes flare as it spots the boy, and orange beams cut through the black night and the rain and shine directly on him. Panic knots the boy’s chest—just for a moment—and Bloody Mary’s words mock him in memory: “You think that something would care about you? Specifically? Something smart . . . something that’s actually in control?”
The Jack starts to scream. And now the boy’s anger rises, because the sound tells him that something does care . . . something dangerous. He yanks against the cuffs again, and the short chain makes a sick little clicking sound that isn’t even a rattle. Metal slices his wrist as he yanks one more time, and harder, but the eyebolt doesn’t budge and neither does the old post. Then another lightning flash explodes above him, and he spots something in the mud at his feet.
Bloody Mary’s revolver.
Just as he bends to snatch it up, two sounds rise beneath the storm.
The screech of a bat . . . and a goblin’s cackle.
The boy’s head jerks up. The screaming Jack is in full hellfire blaze now, and he doesn’t need lightning to see the things riding toward him in the night sky. They’re coming for him. Goblins mounted on bats, black reins in their clawed hands and bits jammed into the bat’s fanged maws.
A grin creases the reptilian face of the goblin riding point, and his fanged teeth part like a rat-trap. He roars a command, one-handing the reins, jerking them taut. His mount’s wings dip, and the great bat dives, and as another bolt of lightning rips the night the goblin sets a meat-hook whirring on a long chain held tightly in his other hand.
The boy does not hesitate. He fires the revolver. No panic now; no anger. Just a conditioned response. Six shots in the cylinder, and he burns them down quickly. A head-shot blasts the goblin with the meat-hook out of the saddle, and the twisted green monster hits the ground a full second before a rain of his own skull fragments slice through the mud. The second rider makes it closer, and this time it takes two shots, but the boy kills the goblin just the same. The dead rider pulls rein with a reflexive jerk so that the giant bat piles into the barbed-wire fence, launching the goblin’s corpse into a headfirst slide that ends in the blazing glow of the Jack’s screaming smile.
Three more goblins fall dead in a handful of seconds.
And that’s it. The boy has done his worst, and the revolver’s tapped. The only thing left is his twitching finger, and the hammer falling on an empty shell casings, and more goblins coming his way.
Too many more.
The boy sucks a deep breath and waits for the inevitable. That’s when Bloody Mary’s sawed-off shotgun starts to boom. Again and again. By the Halloween blaze of the Jack, the boy spots her charging through the rain, orange light gleaming against a blacker slash of motion in the black of night, the tail of Bloody Mary’s thick leather duster flapping in her wake like an escaped shroud, blasts of Remington fire exploding from her grasp and carving a trail before her.
Mounted goblins dive from the sky, investing dark faith in their numbers, mistaking the young woman with the riot gun for easy prey. But there is nothing easy about Bloody Mary, and she does not stop until the work is finished. Soon the goblins—and the Jack—are all dead. And then it is over, and all that remains is the lightning and the rain, and a pair of retreating bats cutting a path through the storm.
Heading for parts unknown.
The boy wakes in a barn. In truth, he hasn’t slept very well. During the night, rats ran circuits in the hayloft and above his head, their claws scrabbling over the crossbeams. Big ones . . . ones that made a fine meal for the cat, who wears the expression of a satisfied glutton as the boy wakes and pulls on his boots.
Bloody Mary eyes him from a dark corner. Her clothes are drying on a rail. She’s wearing cargo pants and a black t-shirt, and she’s busy cleaning the mud off her boots. “You did well last night,” she says, always spare with a compliment. “Now it’s time to move on.”
The boy sits up, rubbing his wrist. It’s still raw from the handcuffs, and his fingers are swollen. “Maybe another week. Another week and I’ll be ready—”
“You’re ready now. You proved that last night. I’ve taught you all I can . . . well, almost. The only thing left to learn is the easy part, and you’ll learn that today.”
“The easy part?”
Bloody Mary smiles. The scar on her cheek arches.
“Pushing the wheelbarrow,” she says. “Even a zombie could handle that.”
The wheelbarrow is heavy. The boy discovers that right away. There’s the shotgun, the chainsaw . . . all the other tools. The boy wonders why Bloody Mary travels this way. Even now, it’s not hard to find a car and fix it up so it will run. But Bloody Mary says that it’s better to take things slow . . . and, anyway, most places are exactly the same now. There’s really nothing different to see anywhere, so there’s no real need to cover lots of ground. The only thing out there is more emptiness, and the occasional monster to fill up the corners.
So the boy hefts wooden handles and pushes. Maybe five or six miles a day. Sometimes less. Sometimes more. Soon blisters fill his shallow palms and line his narrow fingers. Then the blisters heal, and he sprouts a second set. When those crust over, his hands are bigger than they were when he spent his days in crawlspaces.
And so he pushes. The next day, and the day after that, and one more, and then another. The next time dead skin peels from the boy’s hands, the flesh beneath is thicker, and callused.
That’s when Bloody Mary gives him a pair of black gloves.
By that time the boy doesn’t need them, but he wears them just the same.
It goes like that for a long while. A year . . . nearly two. Enough time that the seasons make the circuit, and run it ’round again, and Bloody Mary and the boy mark summer nights and winter nights with shared memories of other nights that came the year before. And then another morning comes, and the memories are put away, and (sometimes) new ones take their place in the course of the coming day.
Most memories are marked in time with the percussive sound of gunfire, or the whirring roar of a chainsaw, or the sharp wet sound of an axe cleaving meat from bone. Others are marked with softer sounds—the wet sizzle of a Jack’s flaring eyes, the dragging whisper of a mummy’s footfall as it passes through a dead cornfield, the crackle of storm-blown leaves as they crumble against a hungry zombie’s unblinking face. These are sounds to remember, and they linger long after they are gone. But the boy holds other memories closer, for things are different now. He is different. Older. Not a boy anymore at all.
And the memories he holds closest are those of Bloody Mary. He does not understand why. In some ways, she has treated him no better than the shadowy things that ran the world to ground. By that token, she may be little better than a monster herself. But Bloody Mary is also the one who has kept him alive. He knows that much is true. She taught him; she trained him. And they are together, and have been, and will be. That is true, too.
Maybe that is why he guards his memories (jealously), even as he guards her. He holds them close and keeps them safe, and he shares them not at all. Her smile, the curve of her scar, her piercing eyes behind the half-a-princess mask. The ride of her muscles beneath her skin, and the sound of the first breath she takes after she falls asleep. The way she talks to the cat when she thinks he isn’t listening. The easy glide of her walk, and her hand on his shoulder when she wakes him, and the sound of her brush as she rakes it through her red hair (much longer now than that first day on Maple Street).
Other memories are tangible . . . almost touchstones. The scrimshaw cyclops tusk, buried deep in a canvas bag that holds the young man’s belongings. Or the black gloves he wears each day. Or the revolver that turned five cackling goblins into carcasses on a storm-swept night, which he wears low-slung in a holster on his hip.
These are the things he values most—the tangible and intangible. He cannot think of them as possessions, for he does not own them, any more than he owns Bloody Mary. Still, there is nothing he holds dearer. There is nothing he thinks of more often. And that is a mystery to him. For all he knows, bundled and wrapped and knotted ’round a dozen roses all of it might be nothing more to Bloody Mary than a fistful of memory’s grist, but to him it means so much more.
To him, it is everything.
And so is she.
“You should move,” Bloody Mary says. “It’s stupid to sleep under an apple tree—those things are going to thud on you all night.”
The young man doesn’t say a word. They are in an old orchard. He has been foraging (alone) all day in a nearby town while Bloody Mary swam in a river and baked herself on a rocky ledge in the sun . . . with the sawed-off Remington in easy reach, of course. Now they are camped beneath apple trees, branches untrimmed for years, ripe fruit there for the taking. Earlier, the young man convinced Bloody Mary that it was not a good idea to have a fire, because (if anywhere) this valley of oak and low fog and two-lane country road was true pumpkin country. It was always best to be wary in such places, where Jacks seem to thrive, but now he thinks better of it. Though the day was like summer, the crisp night air has turned chill. It’s cold enough (and windy enough) that apples have begun to fall. He wishes he’d built a fire.
The cold doesn’t seem to bother Bloody Mary. She lays beneath the stars on a patch of earth still open to the sky, cocooned in a down sleeping bag. Zipped up tight, the cat curled at her feet. She calls the bag a “mummy bag,” and the young man always says that it is well-named. He figures it’s a deathtrap. Something grabs you in the night while you’re wrapped up in such a thing, it could drag you all the way to hell before you had a chance to get free. That’s why he sleeps under loose blankets. “Like a hobo,” Bloody Mary says.
And, of course, that’s why he is cold tonight.
“You’re still awake?” Bloody Mary asks.
“Yes,” he says, happy to put his thoughts away.
“Me, too,” she says, sitting up.
Her pill bottle rattles, and then her canteen sloshes. There go fifty milligrams. The young man knows she won’t be awake for long.
“You should watch that stuff,” he says.
“That’s why I’ve got you. To protect me when I put my brain in neutral.”
“I knew there was a reason.”
“That’s one of them, anyway.”
That stirs him. The young man waits for Bloody Mary to say something else, wondering if she will. And after a long while she does, but it’s nothing he expected.
It’s a question. The only question, really . . . the one they never talk about.
She’s staring up at the stars when she asks it.
“What do you think happened? I mean, really?”
The young man considers his answer. He’s weighed multiple theories, some of which made the rounds before the world took its final tumble into darkness. All of them make some kind of sense, in one way or another. A rift between dimensions, the collapse of barriers between worlds. A curse related to forgotten rites of pagan western cultures (see: Celts, see also: Druids). A reality born from a collective unconsciousness grown too dark. The rise of the devil, the fall of god . . . and every hypothesis that fit (not so neatly) in between. But the young man likes the simple answers best, and he knows the words he speaks are true.
“The monsters came,” he says. “That’s what happened.”
“And now they’re everywhere,” Bloody Mary adds.
“Yes . . . and everyone.”
Bloody Mary says nothing to that, and the young man says no more.
A moment later, her first sleeping breath is caught by the rising wind.
She’s under now . . . Fifty milligrams deep. Dreaming her dreams, and they’re of him, as they have been lately. She doesn’t even know his name, and maybe she shouldn’t find out, because those things never worked out very well for her pre-10/31. But maybe this time—
And then there’s a sound. It drops through her dream and finds her. A thud . . . or a couple of them. Harder thuds than apples would make falling on a sleeping man—
Bloody Mary tries to stir, but she’s so far under. Next comes a groan, and then another. Louder this time—a guts-kicked-in kind of sound. And then another sound, an undeniably brutal one, like an axe handle slamming unprotected flesh.
Suddenly, Bloody Mary’s eyes flash open. She’s not fifty milligrams under anymore. There’s a full moon, and by its glow she sees the monster standing there, looming over the nest of hobo blankets. The blankets are a twisted tangle, and she hates to think of the man (whose name she doesn’t even know) wrapped in them, because that would mean that he is dead, and—
Just then, the monster drops a broken branch on the ground, as if he doesn’t need it anymore. Nothing stirs in the blankets. Nothing else moves, anywhere. And then the creature whirls as if catching her scent on the night air, and it sees her.
The cat stirs at her feet. One glance at the monster, and it hisses and bolts. Bloody Mary struggles with the mummy bag, but the creature is too fast. And strong. The stitched things charged with lightning and dark magic are all like that, and this one is no different. She can see its sloping head in the moonlight, the scarred nightmare of a face, the bolts in its neck and the black black clothes. In a moment the thing is on top of her, and it snatches the mummy bag by the neck and drags Bloody Mary across the open patch of orchard.
She’s thrashing now, but there’s no way to gain enough leverage to escape, and the thing swings her to the side for even trying. The ground is like cement, and a breath blasts out of her as she hits it. She’s on her back, and the monster straddles her, staring down, the moon riding low behind one squared-off shoulder. Bloody Mary squints into the cold brightness, trying to focus. They’re beneath a gnarled fruit tree. The branches are like some terrible web, and from the web dangles a chain, and on the end of the chain is a meat-hook.
It seems the creature is grinning now . . . a crosshatched mess of a grin. It snatches up the mummy bag. Bloody Mary kicks, but there’s no way out. And before she draws another breath the meat-hook is right there, inches from her face. Just as she’s ready to taste it, the monster threads the spike through a canvas loop on the neck of the bag and lets the woman hang.
The branch creaks. The monster’s face comes nearer—sunken eyes piercing . . . burning.
“Lesson One,” it says. “Never trust anyone . . . except me.”
Bloody Mary blinks. She recognizes this voice . . . knows it as she knows her own.
And then it comes again. “You asked me my name once,” he says from behind the mask. “I didn’t have one that mattered before, but now I do. I’ll tell it to you.”
“No,” she says, staring at the stitched-horror mask, the green skin, the black clothes that aren’t a costume. “Everyone knows your name . . . everyone.”
“I think you’re right,” he says. “The same way they know yours. The same way they’ll know both our names . . . together.”
His black-gloved hands reach out and slip the mask from Bloody Mary’s face. One finger traces the scar on her cheek, then five comb through her hair. He peels the glove off his other hand, brushing her lips with a finger.
She pulls off his mask.
He pulls her closer.
“Happy Halloween,” he says.
© 2013 by Norman Partridge.