Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

A Home in the Dark

Californians don’t even get out of bed for less than a 5.0.

What is more annoying is that any temblor at all is classified as an “earthquake,” thereby making the news, which prompts a flood of emails and phone calls from the East: “Are you okay?!

Trust me, we’re fine. We didn’t even notice the calamity and probably slept through it. If a luxury liner takes on a little water, that’s not news; if the ship keels over or sinks, that’s news. If a racecar driver whined to national media about a slight rear-end shimmy at 180mph, he’d be laughed out of the pit, whereas if he crashed and made a fireball, it would be noteworthy on the old daily feed. Most Southern California quakes are akin to one misstep while strolling. It might throw your balance off for a moment, but you keep walking. Think of how your bed wiggles side-to-side when a cat jumps onto it, or your partner merely seats him or herself on the opposite end. That’s what most local seismic events feel like. It’s not worth mentioning until skyscrapers keel over and fissures swallow cars. But everybody has seen certain movies, and in their dark, secret hearts they want to hear that bridges have collapsed and wholesale panic reigns, because that would serve us all right for living on the Left Coast, Sodom to New York’s Gomorrah.

The irony is that many of those “are you okay?!” messages come from zones that catch twenty tornadoes per year. Or cities so frozen that the dead cannot be counted until the spring thaw. Or New Orleans.

Most of my fellow Los Angeles sinners hear quake news the day after, usually during wakeup coffee, since for some mystical reason a lot of the minor temblors strike unerringly between two and five am. These little ground shivers start far out in the desert and radiate the same as ripples in pond water, diminishing in force as they peter out. Or the infamous San Andreas fault will hiccup while it (and you) are fast asleep. Maybe it just had a nightmare and needs a drink of water. Maybe a dinosaur woke up. Or perhaps somebody (not you) just had themselves some terrific sex. Did the earth move for you, too?

By the time there is a rumble and some odd motion, by the time you can ask yourself is it a quake, it’s over. One view holds that frequent tremors are a good thing—it’s the earth adjusting itself. Take that, you smug Midwesterners, living in your fool’s paradise where nothing ever wiggles. One day without warning your entire town will plummet into a yawning crevice, because your topography has failed to compensate tectonically.

In Los Angeles, when the whole city shakes, it’s from movies bombing at the box office on opening weekend . . . especially those bloated CGI tentpoles with budgets in excess of the gross national product of many small countries.

The notorious Northridge quake of ’94 struck at four-thirty during the wee hours. It’s called the Northridge quake even though the epicenter was in Reseda, about sixteen miles from my house in the Hollywood Hills, which isn’t as glitzy as it sounds. That was a 6.7 magnitude for twenty seconds, reaping a tally of fifty-seven dead, 9,000 injured, and a gross cost of around twenty billion dollars. By the time it reached my house, it knocked some books off a shelf and assassinated a dinner plate, which left me short one matching place setting and became bothersome enough that I had to buy an entirely new set of dishes. Tragedy is relative.

The way I discern a mild quake is by glancing at a candle sconce that hangs down from my fireplace mantel. It’s made of cast iron in the shape of an owl. If that thing is rocking to and fro on its own, it’s either an earthquake or my house is possessed by a sardonic poltergeist. I felt a nudge and glanced at the owl. Sure enough. It was three o’clock in the morning, the “midnight of the soul,” as some poets would have it—although that reference actually comes from an old hymn, “If, On a Quiet Sea.”

I was up and feisty at three am, because that’s when I can get the most work done. Phones and texts and tweets and prompts all subside by ten o’clock, and anybody who comes banging on the door after that deserves to say howdy-do to a gun muzzle. The clock measures seconds more prudently. Even my online connectivity seems more forgiving at night. You can feel the hostile outside world ease its grip just a notch for downtime, relaxing into the more ancient rhythm of tides and phases of the moon. I have never understood why regular citizens still cling to the outmoded notion of keeping an invasive telephone right next to their sleeping place—“for emergencies,” they’ll always tell you. Right. Then again, I would never permit a TV screen in my bedroom, either. It would make me feel like an invalid. And since most of the walking world has eagerly embraced the notion of constant, unrelenting contact, it only makes sense for them to be hooked up even while they’re asleep . . . and if that’s not an Orwellian dilemma, I don’t know what is.

Not that I’m a Luddite. What I was doing was writing and proofreading online manuals for Javascript—that’s right, helping strangers navigate the chop of internet commerce, meta-indices, interoperability consortia, HTML validators, and are your eyelids getting heavy yet? I’ve even touched upon such exotic topics as Tesla’s free energy converter—you can actually see the genius’ blueprints online—and the realities of copyright law in an age where most common users get all huffy if you tell them everything they see is not for free, and stealing is still stealing.

In fact, it’s the job that helps me turn off all the “devices,” since being nakedly tracked on a 24/7/365 basis seems too much like additional wage work. I won’t say our brave new world is bad; I’ll just say some aspects seem more aimed at obliterating my privacy than they should be.

I was working from home—what once was called “telecommuting,” but that never caught on—in the middle of the night, without having to dress for the job, comfortably at home in the Hollywood Hills.

Again, not as red-carpet as it sounds. My house is above the flats in Beachwood Canyon but not nestled in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, which is on a whole separate mountain (Mount Lee). My house was here before most of the others in the Canyon, built in 1926 during the first construction rush attendant to the Hollywoodland real estate development. Time passed and people built more houses, virtually anywhere they could fit, resulting in a mad mashup of architectural styles all chockablock with each other. The badly-maintained, serpentine meander of roads that feed this area is more sundered and pocked than the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and practically none of the residents ever use a garage for actual parking—the overage of vehicles parked curbside exacerbates this urban arteriosclerosis and keeps the fire department screaming about access. Each resident has visitors, and company means more cars, and non-locals rarely have any skill when it comes to parking on steep and already-narrow streets. Fat Navigators and Escalades jut into the roadway and quickly steam up your kill urge. It’s a jungle up here. People don’t walk. They have their people walk their dogs or air out their children. The only pedestrians you see up here are lost tourists, looking for the goddamned sign that’s in plain sight. They think it’s a restaurant or amusement park or something you can go to in order to enjoy an entertainment experience. You see bumper stickers that read: Why is it called tourist season if we can’t shoot them?

The interesting distinction of my house is that, against the odds of rampant super-development, there is a vacant lot to either side. It’s nestled into the backside of a mountain, designed to relax against the bedrock instead of somersault downhill if there’s a seismic event. If it was earthquake-bolted, then the structure would be married by girders to the rock, which would vibrate everything loose. The ’50s and ’60s homes cantilevered out of the cliffside are in more danger of rattling downward than my place.

To my immediate south there is a deep valley—more a fissure—which offers a drop of about fifty feet from my rear patio. There’s a huge fallen tree full of termites spanning the deepest point, where underbrush has grown unchecked. Of course it’s technically a lot, but only a lunatic or a filthy-rich gambler would ever think about building something there—you’d have to blast out the entire hillside from above, then build a “stairstep house” straight down. It was easy enough to look up on the internet, and turned out to be so unbuildable that it was astonishingly cheap.

The empty parcel to my north is on the same kind of land I am (the top of a hummock). It sold to a buyer eight years ago and ever since then the fellow has been fighting the zoning commission over variances for the home he plans to build there. Lately, ominous heavy trucks have shown up to pour immense foundation caissons of concrete that required anchor holes thirty-five feet deep. Construction will take at least another eighteen months. I suppose it was inevitable. The eventual eyesore will rise to three stories, but the lot is set back and to the left of my view, which means I’ll never even see it from anywhere except my kitchen.

I’ll know it’s there, though, crowding me.

Which is why I wanted to buy the other lot, the one with the dead tree. To keep from being surrounded. A bargain at the price, especially for land in Los Angeles.

That wasn’t very likely, though. The economy was not cooperating with my dreams. This year made last year look like a birthday party (clowns and all), and last year had been dire. I was running out of breath in the mortgage marathon, gliding on fumes and hoping to place my few meager work bets appropriately. One gig can change everything—especially in Hollywood—but the trick is nailing that one gig in your sights with the bottomless stealth and patience of the high hide . . . then taking it down like a former lover and not giving up until you’ve feasted on its heart.

My creditors were not likely to appreciate my good intentions—another reason for avoiding voice messages that always mispronounced my name. After a suitable grace period, minions came to pound on the door to ascertain whether the property was, in fact, occupied. This happens as a matter of course. Tenants often die without telling anyone.

The entire nation was defaulting on its obligations and ducking the check faster than a hanger-on at a group dinner, but such parsimony was accepted, even encouraged so long as you were the size of a bank or a political campaign, the size of history’s other Big Lies, the super-size of “too big to care.” Those of us not powerful enough to raise our own debt ceiling were doomed to scandal and ill repute. Even mighty Kodak went bankrupt just prior to the 2012 Academy Awards, and kicked up a minor brouhaha about removing its imprimatur from the venue for the high-profile distribution of golden statuettes (not solid gold—never, in fact—but a gold-plated alloy that put the unit cost for making an Oscar at about five hundred bucks per, in case you were overcome with curiosity).

It had been a down year. It happens, and your tale of woe is no worse to you personally than someone else’s travail is to them. Nonetheless, the harpies of finance were unwelcome as I tried to hold fast and scan the barren ocean horizon for signs of land. The stress can sneakily deplete your metabolism of vital nutrients, and before you realize it, you become lightheaded, exhausted, and angrier than usual.

I was at that precise precipice of disorder when I caught a man skulking around outside, taking pictures of the house. This was the same day as the ground’s most recent predawn shudder, the last mini-quake that would rake in the messages of concern from afar: Are you okay?

Whole books have been written about the global allure of the Hollywood sign, and the reasons tourists make hadj to photograph it. If you drive up Beachwood any time—even in the middle of the night—there they are, trying to immortalize themselves in the vicinity of an icon they only vaguely comprehend, arms outstretched in bizarre, balletic poses, pretending to “hold up” the sign for the camera, absurdly proud that they are the first to have thought of this perspective trickery, confidently smug that “it wasn’t what I thought it would be,” as though they had devoted any thought to the process at all. One does not see famous people on the hoof, for this is a neighborhood where neighbors keep to themselves, except for the usual irritants such as the “homeowner’s associations” made up of bored hausfraus, the unfamous, or the busybodies.

Adjacent to Griffith Park and Bronson Canyon, the hillside clusters of homes are backed up to the wilderness area surrounding the Mulholland Dam. The manmade reservoir is called Lake Hollywood for the same reasons the concrete spillway that bisects the San Fernando Valley is called the L.A. River—to confer a false sense of nature in the midst of the urban. The real neighbors in this locale are the often-startling wildlife: deer, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, skunks, rattlesnakes, and all their prey. The coyotes are savvy, organized, and know which day is garbage day; they compete with the Mexican scavengers who come to raid the recycling bins. They (the coyotes, not the Mexicans) will boldly snatch your housecat or small dog for a snack if it wanders into the world. The dreaded rattlers are more rumored than seen, more feared than experienced, but the phobia generates from the concept that they can fit through the same small apertures through which lizards, scorpions, spiders, and impossibly tiny mice often gain access to even a secure home. Most often, if you spot a rattler, you need do nothing. They buzz as a warning, and unless cornered, will flee as fast as their snaky belly scales can transport them, which is very quickly indeed. Just how fast, you can never know if you’ve only seen them on TV or behind glass.

Ever-frantic and meddlesome, local citizens’ groups wax dictatorial about animal encounters, advising you to lock up your offspring, call Animal Control, and live in a tightly-wound state of perpetual panic. Above all, they caution, don’t feed the critters. I called bullshit on that long ago, saddened that such people would never experience the wonder of seeing a deer standing on their front lawn in the predawn. The beasts were here before us; they lived here, and we needed to appreciate the fact that they had allowed our cohabitation, not that they had been given a vote. A lot of my leftovers went over the side, into the valley with the broken tree, half as tribute and half as practicality—my garbage disposal had clogged up once and I never wanted that nightmare to happen again.

Sometimes, though, the wildlife got pushy and failed to abide by the unspoken covenant of inside versus outside. Such as the time my car began to malfunction as a result of a giant rat setting up housekeeping in the engine bay. It was the inviting warmth of the motor that attracted this invader; during a cold snap it must have seemed like a resort, parked there by the narrow curb. Rats love to gnaw things; if they don’t, their teeth grow out of control. This one chewed up my hoses and wiring. I opened the hood one afternoon to put in more power steering fluid (my first guess as to what was going wrong with the car) and was confronted with a wonderland of shredded plastic, a nest of repurposed insulation and Styrofoam littered with nut husks, orange peels, and little ratty footprints. Quite without warning, very much like Whack-A-Mole, a startled rat head poked up from the engine configuration and withdrew just as quickly to make his escape. He hit the street with an audible thud and I watched his enormous rat caboose beat a double-time retreat down into the underbrush to the south. The damned thing was practically the size of a meatloaf; how the hell had it squeezed itself into the convolutions of the motor?

After getting the engine refurbished, I saturated it with a repellant—never was a substance more aptly named, since this was composed of such ingredients as dried blood (the first item on the label), seaweed, ammonia and other noxious compounds, guaranteed to drive away the hardiest of creatures. It stank up the car for a month but performed as advertised. Lesson learned and logged. It was so vile you had to wear latex gloves and a paper filter mask when applying it, because if it got onto your garments you could smooch them goodbye.

Even pushier, the goddamned tour buses were starting to snake up onto my street, invariably getting lost right in front of my house, or worse, disgorging outsiders and foreigners to snap odd angles in their ceaseless pursuit of the Hollywood sign.

The guy I caught in front of the house that afternoon was not a tourist. I spotted him through the kitchen window and immediately knew this was some minion of the bank, sent to photograph my home in preparation for more harassment.

Like the rattlesnake, I had been cornered just enough to strike.

I went outside and braced him before he could jump in his Prius and get away. I had a gun tucked into my pants when I did it.

California is a state in which you have to be extremely cautious when it comes to the deployment of firearms, even as a threat. On the topic of defending one’s home and hearth against bad guys, here is how a friend with the LAPD put it to me:

You can’t shoot them in the yard even if it is your property. If you do shoot them in the yard, drag them into the house and put a weapon in their hand. A butcher knife will suffice but a gun is better if you’ve got one that doesn’t trace to you. You have to establish that you acted in fear for your own life, not like Dirty Harry. You have to establish that there was no other option. Now you know and I know that a reasoned discussion is probably not going to take place in the midst of an intrusion. But if you put them down, be ready to prove they were intent on doing you bodily harm . . . you might even have to injure yourself to prove it. Simply shooting someone doesn’t prove what the Penal Code calls “specific intent to kill.” The idea is that you acted to prevent violence, not cause further violence.

Thus, if I walked out onto a public street and stuck a gun into the face of Prius-boy, I would be committing a crime . . . unless the gun was unloaded, and stayed tucked as an implicit threat rather than a definitive one. If I waved the gun in his face, I would be guilty of the diminished charge of “brandishing a weapon in a threatening manner,” something almost impossible to prove, even though the mere act of pulling your jacket aside to exhibit a weapon counts as “brandishing.”

From the window, the guy with the Prius had the rodential look of a frustrated screenwriter remanded to menial subsistence tasks. He was antsy and did not want to be here. He was like a process server or a meter maid, slogging through a job he hated (and which no one would ever thank him for) in order to reap a wage.

I thought of squirting him with the noxious animal repellant. That would at least fuck up the rest of his day and cost him some duds, and return some degree of the headache I had suffered at the whims of his fiscal masters.

It wasn’t the day for rapier-like gestures.

Once I was on the boil I frothed over more quickly than I ever could have imagined, the black, pent-up rage (born of one humiliating month after another of mounting debt) hitting critical mass almost instantaneously. I charged up my walk, yelling at the sonofabitch to remove his ratty ass from my sight. He spotted the gun instantly; I never even had to touch it.

“I’m calling the police!” he blurted as he backpedaled. His thumbprinty tortoiseshell glasses made his eyes two blank white circles.

“I’m standing on my own property,” I said.

“You’re threatening me!” He dropped his keys and awkwardly dipped to retrieve them while monitoring me.

“I’m threatening that camera.” I pulled the gun, a lovely nickel-finished Sig .40, and placed it atop my mailbox, still on my property. I didn’t need it. Two steps more and I was between Prius-boy and his car.

He retreated rearward, toward the high curb that was the only barrier to the deep crevasse of the empty lot below. If you weren’t careful while parking, your wheels might bump over it and you’d be halfway to a nasty end-over-end plummet. His eyes prayed for intervention but there were no dog walkers or joggers to bear witness. He was still formulating his next half-assed protest—something about how I had no right—when he crossed one foot behind the other and stumbled over the curb.

To either side of my frontage there is a classic old Hollywoodland streetlamp from the 1920s, an upright concrete post with a single apothecary globe and the un-nostalgic designation of “CD-803” to denote its style. The globes are high-impact weatherproof plastic now, and the bulbs upgraded to modern halogens. Every time the power goes out in the Hills—that is to say, almost every time the Santa Ana winds blow harder than a breeze—the timing on the street lights gets screwed up. I remember that when the invader with the Prius and the nosy camera fell down the hillside, the streetlamp was on even though it was mid-day.

I had been working all night. Slept until noon. He had assumed I wouldn’t be home, just like a burglar.

Next to the southern streetlamp is a gnarled pepper tree. When the guy got tangled in his own legs and fell, he grabbed for the streetlamp. He grabbed for the tree. He missed both and gravity took him. He made a little whup! sound as he fell.

On top of the mountain bedrock there is a layer of permeable topsoil laced with frangible caliche. Rain and wind belabor it to treachery. If you try to plant a foot in it for purchase you’ll sink ten inches, your center of balance will be thrown, and you’ll still fall. Nine times out of ten, the branch you grab to arrest your descent will uproot or disintegrate. I learned this when I once roped down into the depression to harvest some paddle cactus for my front yard. It was growing wild all over the lot, threaded through vines and dead wood. No way I would attempt going down there without a belaying line; it was just too steep. I made it to the curb in time to see the guy’s feet flail up into the air as he began a backward somersault and started a minor avalanche of loose rocks and debris. Many of the stones are shaped like dinosaur eggs, and locals collect them to decorate their walkways. Weather delivers them regularly from the constantly-eroding hillsides.

The man fell all the way down, disappearing into his own self-generated dust cloud. The sliding sound was akin to a heavy bag dragged quickly over gravel. The gauntlet was brimming with pointed sticks, rusted metal, critter nests, jagged stone, and decades-worth of poisonous litter. In seconds the only sound was settling rockfall. The dust cloud wafted away, hazing the air, almost the same as if there had been another minor earthquake.

I picked up the guy’s camera, dropped near the curb next to the streetlamp, a place where you could regularly find the morning-after effluvia of late-night curbside sex. Balled tissues, dead twelve-packs of lite beer, the biologically translucent Glo-worm of a flattened condom or two, once a single shoe, once a pair of viral-looking Jockeys (hanging from the tree). It is dark and remote enough up here to tempt wily fornicators lacking a safe house in which to fuck. Up by the scenic lookout near the reservoir, you could sometimes see parked cars with no earthly reason for being there . . . until you spotted the steamed-up windows and the pressed ham against tinted glass.

There was no cry for help from below. The Prius was still parked in front of my home.

Dammit.

I couldn’t depend on the coyotes to eat the guy with anything approaching haste.

The day had just gotten larger. I stood guard, watching, waiting, and nothing new happened. After what I thought was a suitable period, I reluctantly went back into the house to fetch my climbing rope.

Just as I had when hunting cacti, I jerry-rigged a rudimentary harness with a six-foot piece of rope looped back on itself and secured with fisherman’s knots. You twist the loops into a figure-eight and step into it. I tied off against the streetlamp and began to back down the nearly seventy-degree slope, carefully.

The air smelled of allergen-laden vegetation, dust, and creosote bushes. Ten feet down from street level, the valley was a mausoleum of haunted house trees, broken edges jutting up no differently than pungi sticks. A lot of transients had pitched a lot of garbage down here, despite the residential trash receptacles up and down the street. Aluminum lawn chairs, now rusted to match the foliage. Crushed beverage cans, shattered bottles, even the butt of an old refrigerator poking up from the strata like the prow of a half-sunken ship. From my balcony vantage I could discern none of these things in detail, because new growth had interlaced to form false canopies and hidden deadfalls. Somehow the spooky branches shifted position to foul the straight line of my rope, and I slipped, planting my hand into a dark jellied mass of some animal or foodstuff in mid-decay, still moist.

Further down, there were bones—small animals, eaten by bigger ones. Looped around the intact neck of a Corona beer bottle with a logo at least twenty years out of date was a pet collar for some long-lost companion named Erky. Tiny paws and hearts alternated around its sun-bleached surface. Small dog or large cat, Erky had been delivered to pet heaven a long time ago. You always saw posters and homemade flyers for MIA pets down by the Beachwood Market. They faded over time and were replaced by new flyers, new victims.

My descent quickly became a sort of archeological tour, like that stretch of highway in Colorado that takes you through history one layer of sediment at a time. I had no idea there was this much sheer stuff down here. Rotten chunks of plywood. Twisted spires of forsaken rebar. Sundered foundation concrete frosted with asphalt, as though someone had torn up an old road and dumped it into the nearest available open space rather than truck out such cumbersome waste. An ancient bicycle that had somehow gotten folded double, tires long decomposed to fibrous spiderwebs. A wealth of cubbies and sinkholes in which whole tribes of creatures could set up housekeeping unobserved.

It took me twenty minutes to rope down to the bowl of the valley, which rose again to present a rock wall to the curve of the residential street below mine. This was the furthest a person could conceivably fall . . . and there was no person other than me. The line of rope defined the path of a spill, and there was no chance Mr. Prius had taken an abrupt turn on the way down. It was against physics.

He had fallen down the hillside and vanished as though swallowed by the earth. I know; I checked. It was unlikely that he had rallied enough to climb out to the next street; surely a tumble such as his would have snapped a bone or two. I would have heard him. I had expected to find him unconscious and bleeding. My hope was to assist him back to the world, explain my situation in the face of this larger catastrophe, and beseech some small human mercy or common understanding, which was foolish—this guy represented the bank.

My foot sank into a scatter of junk with the sensation of grinding crushed ice underheel. The pile was mostly dried brittle bones, the leftovers of some wild food-chain picnic. Among them I found a nearly intact skull, elongated with pronounced canines, bigger than a rabbit or raccoon skull. It was from a coyote. Something down here had eaten a coyote, or it had opted to die and decay in this hidden spot. Or other scavengers had enjoyed take-out. There were redtail hawks here, and whole murders of ravens. Even seagulls, occasionally. They swooped down and snatched prey and had been known to lose bits of their quarry in flight. Once I found a single white cat paw on my deck and had to suss out how it might have gotten there.

Some unseen thing slithered heavily through the lean-to of dead eucalyptus branches to my right. I froze the same way I did whenever there was an earthquake, waiting to see if that was all. I backstepped into more bones with a potato-chip crunch. Gravity had brought them to rest here, a bargain bin of two-for-one calcified runes.

There was a little clotted spout sticking up, which turned out to be the mouth of a small, squared-off bottle. A shred of petrified label clung to it with an insectile iridescence, but was unreadable. There was embossing near the neck of the bottle and when I wiped away the scabs of dirt I could see that it read 3-in-1.

Jesus. 3-in-1 oil had not been in stoppered glass bottles since 1910, when they went to screwtops (I looked it up). This could not have been idly loitering around the surface for a century, waiting for me to pick it up as casually as dropped change. For antique bottles, one had to dig. Unless a seismic event helped push ingrown treasures upward, as is the nature of earthquakes.

Near the bottle, already mottled with dust, I found an iPhone, still warm.

I pocketed these finds and wasted the last few moments of waning daylight in a half-hearted look-around that could not honestly be called a search. There was no Prius guy down here, and I was in trouble.

During my grubby ascent, a hypodermic pain pierced my thigh and I instantly concluded I had gotten nailed by a bougainvillea vine. It’s not much of a fantasy to claim these plants, émigrés from South America, are actively malign. Used as decoration by people who don’t have to tolerate close contact, its woody tendrils invade and dominate adjacent plant life while its fat, annelid roots steal and hoard groundwater from competitors. The vines bristle with waxy black thorns that are mildly toxic. Sweep the vine aside and two or three more thorns will invariably bite you. It fits my definition of a parasite since it thrives on murdering its neighbors. The puncture in my leg, beneath my pants, began to itch madly.

Later, with the now-empty oil bottle on my desk, I noted that no pestersome phone calls had come in for the day. Of course not—they had sent a guy to photograph the house. Some hammer was about to fall.

The call list on Prius guy’s iPhone confirmed that he was acting on behalf of one of my mortgage companies. His car was still parked out front—locked and alarmed. If it sat there for longer than two days I could call a special number and have it towed as an abandoned vehicle. It happens often up in the Hills, and the Prius was on the hot list of desirable autos for theft, conveniently enough.

Any second I expected hostile banging on the front door by a man who would resemble a revenant from a zombie movie or The Monkey’s Paw writ new, demanding his camera and iPhone and at least a quart of my blood. Or worse, police cars with flashing lights and a waterfall of questions.

Note that I said the “now empty” oil bottle, above. After I took a hot shower to wash off my climb, I found a hobo spider perched on the comforter of my bed, near where I had flung my trousers. It had crawled out of my pocket, hence out of the oil bottle, to sting me for disrupting its routine as I climbed out of the valley. I should have smashed it in revenge, but instead plonked a drinking glass over it to scoop it up for closer inspection.

Hobo spiders are locally mistaken for the dreaded brown recluse, mostly because . . . well, they’re brown and their bite can raise skin lesions. It’s an aggressive little beast because it can’t see very well. I found out that it is a funnel-webber, an import from Europe in line with the gag that goes nobody in L.A. is actually from L.A. It raked its metallic legs along the inside of the inverted glass, impotent and imprisoned, now. Its life was up to me.

The reflex to eliminate him didn’t feel right. I had invaded his territory, usurped his home and stuck it in my pocket, and if anything his response sting was more in the manner of a toll to pay. I finally walked out onto the rear deck and cast him back into the valley from which he had come. I worked over the tiny ulceration on my leg with Benadryl.

My appetite had zeroed out and sleep was a joke.

Waited. My TiVO was two-thirds full but no drama could engage me since I already had a better one of my own.

Had a drink. Didn’t help. Ditto cigarettes.

A hundred times, I looked out the front door peep-hatch to see if the Prius had magically vanished. It was still sitting there, squat and inviting only as a new nightspot hang for the rat with the big butt, or his posse.

The night was cool and clear. My house is at the same elevation as the observatory in Griffith Park, two mountaintops to the east. The hardier stars shone against the barrage of city light, stubbornly declarative, almost arrogant since their light took so long to reach us that they might not exist anymore. Carl Sagan once said the Earth was a dot, a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. My problems meant nothing to the universe at large.

That’s when the earth below my feet decided to shake again. This was more than a wiggle, it was a rumble as the ground tasted and tested a modified arrangement. A five-point or better, the kind where they advise you to get under a lintel or dash outside. I was already outside.

Some of the stars above me blotted out. Maybe they were dead, or had all clicked off at once in an unlikely group, but that wasn’t it.

There was an enormous shape, rising up from the valley, blocking the starlight the way an ancient redwood can bisect a postcard view, dominating it. It wavered almost mesmerically in a kind of cobra dance—albeit a cobra with a mouth that could swallow a limousine. I could not see a face, features, or eyes, just the absence of light where it lingered, but I knew it was looking down at me. I thought of Prius guy’s camera, inside on my desk. Yeah, the flash of a strobe would solve—and probably end—everything.

There had been no earthquake.

The dark jaws distended and a steaming tube of putrescence was ejected to splatter the lawn five feet from my shoes. Amid the strings and tatters of partially-digested tissue was most of a human skeleton, topsy-turvy in order. And a pair of half-dissolved tortoiseshell glasses.

The shadow withdrew into the earth.

Gloved and masked, I gathered the bones into a trash bag which I disposed of far from home. I got rid of the glasses separately, as I did the camera and iPhone, less their destroyed chips. I never found the guy’s car keys, which was normal for my credit line of luck.

Two days later the Prius was towed away by the city.

The spider bite eventually healed, leaving a tiny white scar. It took several months to subside. Among the general effects of the venom I found out that it was purported to cause “intense headaches, abnormalities of vision, and feelings of malaise.”

Construction on the lot to my north was halted due to unanticipated geo-thermal stress fractures in the concrete, so read the report that judged the ground beneath that one lot to be unusually unstable, more so than the original survey had reckoned.

I still toss leftovers over the side. Coyotes and other wildlife come to eat the offerings, and sometimes, something larger eats the eaters. There are rumors of a mountain lion loose in the vicinity. Pets continue to go missing, as is normal for this neck of the woods.

You’ve seen dog’s paws twitch while they’re sleeping. If you stumble in your mind while dozing, you’re not really falling down, but the galvanic jolt of your body is enough to wake you up. Nowadays when I feel the house get jostled by that stealthy tremor in the dead of predawn, I don’t fear earthquakes as much. I know that it is only the guardian of this old place, dreaming.

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David J. Schow

David J SchowDavid J. Schow would prefer not to be remembered solely for writing the screenplay for The Crow, assembling the exhaustive Outer Limits Companion, or coining the term “splatterpunk” (although he is perversely proud of getting that word into the Oxford English Dictionary). His  short stories have been regularly selected for over 30 volumes of “Year’s Best” anthologies across three decades and have won the World Fantasy Award, the ultra-rare Dimension Award from Twilight Zone magazine, plus a 2002 International Horror Guild Award for Wild Hairs (his compendium of “Raving & Drooling” columns written for Fangoria). His novels include The Kill Riff, The Shaft, Rock Breaks Scissors Cut, Bullets of Rain, Gun Work, Hunt Among the Killers of Men, Internecine, and Upgunned. His short stories are collected in Seeing Red, Lost Angels, Black Leather Required, Crypt Orchids, Eye, Zombie Jam,  Havoc Swims Jaded, and a not-to-be-named new book.

His bibliography and many other fascinating details are available online at his official site, Black Leather Required: (http://www.davidjschow.com). He lives and works in his beloved Los Angeles. Google him, by all means.