On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 29

Thankfully, here we move out of the dreadful middle third of the novel and into the last. I’ve mentioned it before, but I suck at the midsection of novels. Anyways, the curtain’s finally being peeled back.

Chapter 29

A box of turtles, truffles, cookies, and banana bread between them as Brianna drove out of Prince George, Garrett relayed everything Dr. Dennings had told him. Brianna didn’t interrupt once, stopping only now and then to split a bite between them, feeding her with chocolate-stained fingers.

When he’d finished, Brianna asked, “All of them? All the cases were like that? They start shouting all their sins and crap, and then they dropped dead?”

“She told me they think you’re okay. But if you’re feeling warm even in the slightest-”

“Damn skippy we’ll get to a hospital. But Garrett, you were sick too, remember?”

He did. His own fever was still bugging him now and then, and worse, that damn ghost kid was back. Like he needed the hallucinations on top of all this shit. “Maybe I just had a mild case of it or something.”

“Let’s hope so, but if you’re feeling sick too, you tell me.”

They didn’t bother with music. Garrett was too obsessed with digging up news articles about cases like Brianna’s. Dr. Dennings hadn’t provided him with more information on how long this had been happening, but the Canadian news gave him plenty.

The first cases had been reported nearly a month and a half ago in…

“Huh,” Garrett said. “Irisville.”

“Before the bed and breakfast guy’s cousin?”

“Yeah, looks like there were a few cases there.”

Brianna bit into a truffle. “Ooh, I think this one has… chili powder? It tastes like the hot chocolate Rose makes.” She foisted the chocolate at him and he bit it out of her fingers.

Around the treat, he asked, “Is now really the time to be talking chocolates and desserts?”

“You kidding me? Now’s the only time. If I’m going out, it’s gonna be riding a sugar high.” Her smile faltered when she saw his worried gaze. “Sorry. Gallows humor. I do feel fine, though.”

He returned to his research. “Really does taste like her cocoa, though.”

“I miss them. And Stephanie. And the gym.”

“Really, baby, we can skip the rest-”

“Nope,” Brianna said cheerfully. “Wait till you see what I have planned in Vancouver. Set it up back in Edmonton. Trust me, you’re gonna love it.”

He put down his phone. “What you said about Stephanie-”

“Can that stay between us? Like… forever? I swear, I didn’t mean it. She drives me crazy sometimes, but not nearly so bad as that.”

He nodded. “I need her in my life, though. I hope you know that.”

“I do. And she knows it too. And whatever the hell I said, she is not giving you the sexy eyes. That was a fucked up, horrible thing to say.”

“It’s okay. Really. This virus sounds nasty.”

“Is that what they’re calling it? A virus?”

He searched a few more news stories and shook his head. “Doesn’t look like they’re giving it a name. Get this – in all the cases, the people’s hair went white.”

Brianna jerked down her visor and glanced in the mirror. “Thank God that’s not happening to me. The Nadine Cross look just isn’t me.”

“Who?”

She shook her head. “Never mind.”

Garrett kept reading. “Huh. All the cases were local to Irisville until – drumroll please – one cropped up in Calgary around the same time we were there.” He checked the current date on his phone, then did the math in his head, counting down the days they’d stayed in each place. “Right when we were there, actually.”

Then he talked very little. The cases kept popping up in towns they’d visited. Vegreville. Edmonton. Jasper. By that one, his hands were shaking too much to continue and he dropped his phone into the center console. Plucking a tissue out of a box in the back, he stared out the window, tearing the paper into little bits, unmindful for once of the mess he was making.

Brianna couldn’t stand his nervous silence anymore. “Garrett, what is it?”

He turned to her, dropping the remains of the tissue. “We’re the common denominator. Whatever this thing is, it’s not a virus. And it’s latched onto us.”

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 28

Garrett whines so damn much in this novel. Ugh.

Chapter 28

They left the hospital together the next day around noon. The doctor wasn’t thrilled, but Brianna was feeling better, if not necessarily happier. Garrett walked just behind her out of the hospital. She slowed to try to catch his hand in hers, but his fingers didn’t play with hers the way they usually did. He looked away and muttered something about not wanting to seem too needy. Her heart broke again but she didn’t let go.

Their first stop was a large city park along the Fraser, the same river they’d been boating down a couple of days prior. Together they walked mostly silently, swatting at hordes of mosquitos and watching children shout and play along the well-kept walking path. A couple of families were barbequing, and a lone dog ran wide circles around a grove of white-barked aspens.

The trail was long, and Garrett worried Brianna was still not up for it, so after a half mile, he turned around. She caught his arm and he stopped, not daring to look at her. “Do you want to go home?” She asked the question sternly, not like her meek behavior at all from the last day.

Still, he didn’t look back. “Do you?”

“Please don’t turn this around on me. I hurt you. If what you want is home, let’s go.”

“No. I don’t.”

“Good. Me neither. Come on.”

She started down the trail back towards the Durango, and Garrett strode after her. “Where are we going?”

“To the Ancient Forest, husband of mine.”

“Brianna, I don’t-”

She turned and walked backwards. Her smile was forced, but her eyes really did glitter either with tears or good humor. “Want to go? Of course you do. Maybe not now, but we’re here. We might not ever have the opportunity again. C’mon. Thousand-year old trees. Inland rainforest type… stuff. Gorgeous walking paths. C’mon c’mon c’mon.”

“Fine.”

“Oh, is that enthusiasm I hear, Mr. Moranis? Is that a note of holy shit, we get to see more cool crap? Why, I believe it is.”

“Brianna-”

She stopped, quavering. “Garrett, I’m sorry. If you want, we can be mopey and I’ll spend every minute trying to apologize to you. But I swear, what I said wasn’t what I meant. Believe me or don’t believe me. I know how badly I hurt you. But-”

He caught her wrists, lifted them, and kissed her palms. “Brianna, would you go with me to the Ancient Forest?”

“Ohhh, I suppose.”

* * *

The cedars dwarfed them, but it wasn’t just the size that humbled them, but the idea that these organisms had lived fifteen times over what they would see in their lifetime. They were an ancient testament to a world gone by, one that man now shaped and dominated. The old guard, locked in a rainforest in the midst of western Canada.

It was very hard for Garrett to be upset after that.

* * *

They hauled the last of what remained in the backseat into their hotel room, Garrett grinning slyly to himself. Brianna was mystified, but played along as to why they needed so much room in the SUV.

“You’ll like it, I promise,” he told her. “Well, I think you will, anyways.”

He blindfolded her before they drove around Prince George. It was to be their last night there – the city was nice enough, but they were anxious for Vancouver, one of their last major stops before they swung back towards Waterton for a last bit of camping before heading back down through the border the same way they came in.

His heart still felt like it had been carved open, but this was still the woman he loved, and he would try to make sure she had as good of a time as she could despite the pain between them. He’d even taken the time to make them a playlist, carefully getting her advice so he didn’t accidentally wipe out the one she’d made for him to listen to before their wedding. It was all bad themes from eighties and nineties movies, and she was left guessing as he drove about half an hour from their hotel.

“Okay, is it… an actor signing or something? Like a David Hasselhoff meet and greet?”

“Nope.”

A block later. “Is it a movie marathon?”

“Closer. Much closer.”

“Oooh. I like this. You, me, a dark theater. Why, hello, Mr. Hole in the Bottom of the Popcorn.”

He laughed. “That’s gonna spoil popcorn for me forever.”

“Say that now, but wait till I get to the bottom of the bag.”

“All right, we’re almost there. No peeking.”

“Fine.” She folded her arms over her breasts, pouting as Garrett made a corner.

The window on the driver’s side came down, blasting them both with the night’s still-roasting air. “Evening,” a stranger said.

“Evening,” Garrett replied. “Two for Valerian.”

“Twenty-five bucks gets you both movies.”

The sound of paper wrinkling and being handed over. “Keep the tip.”

“Hey, thanks, buddy!”

To Brianna, Garrett said, “Okay. Now look.”

She lifted her bandanna, and laughed. “A drive-in!”

It was the first one either one of them had been to in their lifetime. The Park Drive-In was already filling up, and Garrett was glad they’d come early. Nestled in the woods around Prince George, it was a beautiful little spot that reminded him of a sandlot baseball pitch, of all things. He liked it, and judging from Brianna’s wiggling and bouncing in her seat, she approved too.

There was only one downside, and he groaned when he saw the signage. “Oh man, if I’d known there was go-karts and mini-golf, we would’ve never left this place.”

Brianna laughed, unbuckled her seatbelt, and leaned over to kiss him. She gave a certain part of him a little squeeze. “You do realize we’re probably getting kicked out of here later, right?”

“But you told me you really want to see this.”

“Trust me. Not as much as I want to do… this.”

“Hm. They have a concessions stand.”

Glancing around, she unzipped him. “Yeah?”

He groaned. “With poutine. And poutine baked potatoes, whatever that means.”

Slowly, regretfully, her hand withdrew and she leaned back in her seat. “We could always eat first and fool around later, right?”

“Now that’s the woman I love.”

* * *

They bid the city farewell early the next morning. The plan was to make the eight or nine hour drive to Vancouver in two legs, but they weren’t yet sure where they wanted to stop along the way.

On their way out of town, Brianna asked if they couldn’t stop at a little cafe called Ohh Chocolat. As she nibbled on the end of a piece of chocolate-coated bacon while carving up her loaded omelet, Garrett got a call. “The hospital?” he asked Brianna and she shrugged. Smiling apologetically to the other customers, he got up and took the call as he made his way outside.

“Mr. Moranis?” the voice on the other end asked. He recognized the voice – the ER doctor that had treated Brianna.

“Yes?” He tried to come up with her name and failed. Murphy would have remembered.

“It’s Dr. Dennings. I’m sorry, but are you busy at the moment?”

“Just sitting down to have breakfast with my wife. Is everything okay?”

“I wanted to speak to you specifically about Mrs. Moranis’s case. I hope you don’t mind.”

Panic rose in his chest. “Is everything okay? Did her labs…? What’s the matter?”

“It’s all right, Mr. Moranis, your wife is all right. But she said something when she came in, about having no control over blurting some awful things about you.”

Damn it, no one was going to let that wound scab over, were they? “Yeah. What about it? Look, if you think I was abusive, I promise-”

“No, no. We, um, had an odd case last night. And I don’t know if you’ve been catching up with the news on your trip, but there’s been an illness. A few individual cases like your wife’s. We didn’t recognize it right away because the symptoms were mild in comparison.”

“I don’t understand,” he said, and leaned against a light pole. “Dehydration? Heat stroke?” Of course there were going to be cases like that across the summer. What the hell was this about?

There was a long pause. “Mr. Moranis, I need you to listen – your wife, as far as we can tell, is fine. You need to understand that before what I say next.”

Garrett glanced back at the diner, his heartrate a freight train trying to go off the rails. “What is it?”

“These cases all have similar symptoms. Extreme signs of heat exhaustion. Catastrophic heart failure. In every case except your wife’s, it’s led to the patient’s death.”

“What are you saying?” he croaked. The world suddenly seemed to be going off-kilter.

“Remember, your wife is fine. We think.”

“You think.”

“I’m sorry I can’t give you more comfort than that. Mr. Moranis, we can’t explain this. Medically, it’s as strange as anything I’ve ever seen or heard of. In the cases where someone was nearby and could overhear, each person was last heard saying… well, horrible things. Grotesque things.”

Garrett’s runaway heartrate slowed to an unsteady beat. “Guilt. Anger.”

“You did hear it. Confessions, almost.”

“Y-yeah. Yeah, I’d say that about sums it up.”

I hate you sometimes. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.

“Mr. Moranis, besides letting you know what to look for, there’s something else you should hear. In all the cases, everything the affected said seemed to be…” Dr. Dennings blew out a breath. “This is… personal. I’m breaking some confidentiality policies here, and…”

“Tell me.”

“The patient last night. Before he died, he told his wife some things. She says she knew some of the worst of it – that he’d been having an affair, but it wasn’t what he said so much as how he said it. She said he was never a vicious man, but he seemed to be trying to… to deliberately hurt her at the end.”

Brianna, trying to tell him her words had been twisted. Garrett hadn’t believed her, not really. He let out a choked gasp of air, and said, “The things were true, but… poisoned, almost?”

“Yes… yes, that’s about what she said. And I did some digging this morning. In every case like this one, where someone overheard a confession of sorts, it was all poisoned, like you say. Mr. Moranis, I saw the way you and your wife were avoiding each other. Anyone could tell you’d just had a fight. I guess that’s the real reason I’m calling you. Whatever she said, whatever pain she brought to you… I don’t know that I have the right to tell you how to run your relationship, but I guess I thought this might be something you needed to hear.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I think I need to go. Thank you, Doctor.”

“Goo-”

But he was hanging up already, and taking unsteady steps towards the diner. Behind him, coming out of the wall of a nearby shop was the ghostly child. He didn’t notice her even as she walked along beside him, idly glancing now and then at him and the sun.

In the café, Brianna was peering through the display at a row of fine chocolates and desserts. She stood upright when she saw him come in. “Had them get a box for your food. Is everything-?” Ignoring everyone around them, he walked to her, placed a hand at the small of her back, and bent her nearly backwards giving her a long, sweet kiss, her long hair nearly brushing the floor. When he helped her back upright, she was giggling, but he couldn’t smile. “I’m sorry I doubted you,” he said

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 27

Again… not edited. Sigh.

Chapter 27

The child-like ghost watched him shuffle around the waiting room, head cocking side to side like a dog trying to understand its master’s voice. The push on the scarred-face-kind-smile woman had been a move born of animal frustration. The child hadn’t meant to do it, much as it never meant to be drawn back time and time again to this weird couple. It had been simply too hungry to ignore the gnawing in its soul for much longer, and had pushed the woman towards an emotional brink to try to draw out the craggy-face-broken-nose man’s anger. It hadn’t worked, and the child receded back into itself. Soon, it would stalk Prince George for another snack, but it sensed the cracks in this man and it wanted its entrée right now.

* * *

The doctor, a delicately-boned attractive woman somewhere in her thirties, came out of the ER, spotted him, and the two met halfway. As Garrett drew a breath, the nurse held up her hands. “Your wife’s stabilizing. We’ve got her on intravenous fluids, and her temperature’s slowly dropping back down to normal.”

“What happened?”

“It looks like heat exhaustion. You said you’ve both been experiencing symptoms for a week?”

Garrett nodded. “Yeah, a week or two.”

“And you’ve been on a long trip?” When he nodded again, she continued. “Given the high temperatures this summer, and all the traveling you’ve been doing, it’s not entirely unheard of that you might be experiencing these symptoms.”

“But we both know to hydrate.”

“You’re hiking, walking outdoors, taking in the sights?”

“Yeah, but…”

“I see traces of sunburns on both of you. It’s not a condemnation, I’m not trying to imply anything. But if you miss even a few hours like this without sunblock, your body’s going to run the risk of overheating. Keep stacking that up over a few weeks, and…” She shrugged. “We’d like to keep her here for observation. At least a day, probably two.”

“However long it takes for her to get healthy. Can I go back?”

The doctor nodded. “We’re moving her to a private room. Follow me.”

She led him back into the ER, weaving through a thin stream of nurses and patients. Brianna, dressed in a pale blue hospital gown, was being helped to a gurney and didn’t see him at first. Her head was down, her long dark hair clinging to her face and neck in sweat-crusted waves. IVs ran from her arm to a plastic bag full of clear liquid. His heart simultaneously leapt knowing she was okay and cracked. He’d finally broken her, and in a way, she’d broken him.

Gingerly, Brianna helped herself up on the gurney, taking the hand of one of the orderlies beside her, and finally brushed the hair out of her eyes as she glanced up. Her hand went to her mouth. “Garrett.”

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he said, stiffer than he’d intended. To the orderly, he asked, “Can I help?”

Brianna reached for him. He took her hand for a moment, but didn’t squeeze back. Her fingers fell away, tapping softly on the side of the gurney. The orderly passed on his offer cheerfully, and as a nurse followed pushing the IV rack, Garrett fell into an uneasy step beside them, looking away from his crying wife.

They were led out of a set of heavy doors to a long corridor. More than a few friendly staff gave them a cheery hello or a smile and a nod of the head, but Garrett said little in return. How do we come back from this? he thought.

The stream of truths – and he didn’t dare let himself believe Brianna had been saying anything other than that – had been so sudden. Had all that been bubbling below her surface? Why hadn’t she told him any of it? And… Doug? His hands tightened into fists. There was no way he could compete with Brianna’s best physical trainer there at the gym. The guy was ridiculously handsome, and didn’t exactly make much of an attempt to hide what he was packing in the locker room either.

And her comments about Stephanie. Where the holy fuck had those come from? His mild headache was threatening to turn into a wall-banger. That shit had been sick, and he didn’t want to believe it had been Brianna talking, but there was still some stiffness between her and Steph that had never been really resolved.

And hatred. She’d said the words “I hate you.” There had been context to it, but… “I hate you.”

His anger left him, and a great, exhausting grief threatened to overwhelm his mind.

“I hate you sometimes. I hate you sometimes. I hate you sometimes.” Her voice rang out in his ears over and over and over again as the orderly and the nurse pushed Brianna into her room. They helped her to bed, pulled a sheet up around her, and she reached out for him again, whispering his name, but all he heard was those words.

“I hate you.”

* * *

Listlessly, he trained his eyes on the television. It was tuned to some crazy science fiction movie Brianna and Murphy both liked, about a man on a train trying to fight his way up to the front. Garrett had never understood it, but then, he’d never really understood half of the things either of them liked. He tried to pay attention now. Anything to take his mind off the morning.

“Do you want some of my Jello?” Brianna asked, her cracked voice mellow.

“I’m good. Thanks.”

“Okay.”

Something about bugs and the people on the train making candy bars out of them, or something. Fuck, he thought, this is nonsense.

“Could you get me some more water?”

He stood up, fast, and grabbed the little pitcher with the straw hanging out. “Yeah.”

She caught his wrist. “Garrett, I-”

“Be right back.” He pulled away from her. He thought about just filling it in the bathroom, but decided to get her some ice down the hallway instead. After asking a housekeeper where he could get more ice, he was led down the hallway and to an ice machine near a cafeteria. He filled the jug both with ice and water, thanked the housekeeper, and instead of heading right back, took a chair to lay his forehead on his hands for a while.

When he looked up, eyes red, a man was reading a newspaper at an adjoining table. The headline, in bold letters, said “ANOTHER DEAD OF MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS.”

A spiteful twig of jealousy of the dead threatened to bloom into a full tree. He stood up, knocking his chair over and excusing himself quietly, and returned to Brianna’s hospital room.

The television was off. She sat with the remote clutched between her hands, not quite meeting his quick look. When he settled the water back on the table and reached for it, she pulled it away from him. “I didn’t mean most of it,” she whispered.

“Which means you meant some of it,” he said.

She nodded just a hair. “Yes.”

“Fuck, Bri, the things you said about Stephanie-”

“That wasn’t me. Not all of it.” She shook her head. “I do sometimes feel like I want to yell at Stephanie. And I do think she’s got issues with you. But what I said, it’s like I couldn’t help trying to twist a knife. And I don’t… I don’t… I don’t know why,” she gasped, burying her head in her clawed hands.

“Yeah, well, it was a pretty shitty thing to say,” he muttered.

“I knuh-knuh-know.”

He was quiet for a long time. “Do you really hate me sometimes?”

“No. Never hate. I get pissed sometimes when you try too much-”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“You get so obsessed with getting the relationship right, with making everything perfect, that you kinda build up these expectations and it’s really intimidating.”

“Okay.” He still didn’t get it. When it came to their relationship, he tried. So fucking what?

“Garrett, I don’t know why I said the things I did. Some of it… some of it’s true, yes. But I swear to you, it’s like something was twisting my thoughts, making me try to hurt you. I can’t explain it.”

“It was the fever,” he finally offered lamely.

“Yeah, maybe.” She turned on her side, careful not to disrupt her IVs. “I’m sorry. I’ve never been more sorry.”

“I know.”

She reached out for him, and reluctantly, he took her hand in his. “I don’t want you moping around here all day,” she said quietly.

“I want to be with you.”

“Garrett, please. Find a nice hotel room. Go do something you want to do. Find us something fun when you jailbreak me out of here tomorrow.”

“You’re staying as long as you need to.”

“The fever’s already broken. I’m feeling stronger.”

“Still.”

“Don’t change the subject. We’ve gotta learn to be comfortable with ourselves, not just with each other.”

“That’s not what I want right now, damn it,” he said, the annoyance not fooling either of them.

“Liar.” The word was gentle, teasing, but there was truth to it. “Stay with me until I fall asleep. And then go find something to do. Promise me, okay?”

“Promise,” he said sullenly, like a child being denied another hour with a favorite video game.

* * *

Prince George could’ve been the most beautiful city in the world and Garrett would’ve never noticed that afternoon.

He floated through the small city aimlessly, barely registering the thick greenery at the edges or the low mountain ranges nearby. His choice for a hotel had been made simply by checking online and finding the first available one. The name of it barely registered in his mind – he walked in, laid a credit card on the counter, got his keycards, and that was that. There was no thought of even unpacking or bringing in their luggage. He just didn’t care.

Brianna texted him and reminded him he’d wanted to see the Ancient Forest east of the city, a grove of cedars said to be a thousand years old, at least. He thought about hitting the road, and even pointed the Durango in that direction, but less than a mile out of town, he turned around and headed back for the hospital. Being a tourist at that moment sounded as appealing as an enema. Maybe he’d wanted to be alone in that room when he was talking to Brianna, but not now. Despite the barbs still ripping at his soul, he wanted to be near her.

He figured she would be pissed if she saw him, so he found a waiting room near her, nodded curtly at a young man flipping through a magazine, and crashed out in a stiff armchair. Five minutes later, he was drifting, not quite asleep, not quite awake.

I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.

His hip buzzed. Startled, he nearly jumped out of the chair, thinking it was someone trying to notify him about a change in Brianna’s health. But no, it was Rose. He thought about punching the ignore button, but decided against it. If they’d heard about Brianna – and by now, they probably had – they deserved to know she was okay.

He thumbed the green button, and said quietly, “Yeah.”

“You idiot, where are you?” Rose’s voice was shrill, and somewhere behind her, he could hear Ed try to say something placating.

“The hospital. I take it you heard about Brianna?”

Rose sighed heavily. “She called. And by the way, she thinks you’re out seeing the sights, or getting drunk.”

“No. She wanted me to. Hell, I wanted to, but… I just couldn’t. Figured she’d be upset if I came back to the room so I’m sacked out in the waiting room.” The guy across from him stood up and tossed his magazine on the chair beside him. Garrett watched him walk out the door before speaking again. “She’s all right, Rose.”

“Like fucking hell she is.” The swearing out of her mouth was surprising, but not nearly so much as if it had come from Ed, who disliked swearing himself but didn’t give a damn if anyone else did it. Still, Rose very only very infrequently dropped fuck bombs. “You know she thinks you hate her right now? I mean, really hate her? She thinks you’re ready for a divorce and it’s tearing her up.”

“Rose… I…” He sighed. “Of course I don’t want a divorce. There’s nothing she could say that’s going to make me stop loving her.”

Something banged on Rose’s end, once, twice, three times, and then his friend was shouting in the phone. “Then tell her that! She needs you, damn it!”

“What she said to me-”

“If you think she meant any of that, really meant it, then you haven’t been paying attention. That woman loves you utterly and completely. Whatever she said wasn’t her. You hear me? It wasn’t her.” Rose stopped, and a harsh sob broke from her throat. “It wasn’t, damn it.”

Then she was gone, replaced by Ed. “What do you need, man? What can we do?”

Garrett cleared his throat. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know how hospital bills work up here, if we pay now or get billed later, or any of that.”

“I’ll talk to their accounting people.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“But what about Brianna?”

“I don’t know,” he repeated dully

“Are you two…?”

“We’ll be okay.” Garrett hung up before Ed could say anything else. He tapped the phone against his forehead. Without another word, he stood up, and returned to Brianna’s room, but didn’t dare enter. Instead, he just leaned against the wall outside her door, staring upwards, praying without knowing exactly what he was praying for.

* * *

Brianna stared up at the ceiling, the arm not hooked up to IVs curled underneath her head. Her eyes were dry, finally, but her throat kept working. She too was praying, trying to convince God to take back the last few hours, to make everything okay again. It was not a prayer she expected to be answered and she was not surprised when it wasn’t.

A nurse knocked and let herself in. “Time to change out your bags,” she said cheerfully. “Need a bathroom break?”

“Please,” Brianna said, and let herself be helped to the small bathroom. When she’d finished, the nurse guided her and the IV cart back to bed.

“You know, your husband could probably help you with that,” the nurse said as she swapped out the bags. “Doesn’t take much to push the cart around and he looks pretty capable.”

“I think he’s off seeing some of the forests east of here,” Brianna said, trying to inject her voice with a note of cheerfulness. “Didn’t want him hanging around here on my account, not when we’re on our hon…” She cleared her throat, and tried to widen her smile. “Honeymoon.”

The nurse snickered and shook her head. “Honey, he’s been outside your room for the last two hours. Not even sitting. Just standing there.”

Brianna jerked her head towards the door. “He… what?”

The nurse’s smile disappeared. “How bad did you two fight, hon? Do we need to maybe call someone? There are people who can help, you know?”

“I don’t…” It dawned on her that the nurse thought Garrett had been cruel to her. “Oh God, I gave you the wrong idea. I hurt him. It wasn’t the other way around.”

“You sure? Around here, we got the cops on speed dial.”

“Absolutely, yes.” Brianna dazedly sat up. “He’s really outside?”

“Sure is.”

“Could you send him in? And… um… does the door lock?”

It didn’t, but the nurse promised her that she could get a little privacy for half an hour or so. It would have to do. In a minute, Garrett shuffled in, looking at his feet.

“I thought you were sightseeing,” Brianna whispered.

“Didn’t want you to think I was being clingy again,” he muttered.

“Baby,” she chided him gently.

“I’m sorry. I’ll go.”

“Stay.” He turned away, and a note of panic entered her voice. “Garrett, please, stay.”

He stopped with his hand on the doorknob, and glanced over his shoulder. “I won’t try to fix things, if you don’t want me to. If you’re not happy…”

“Oh God, Garrett, I love you,” she gasped, and yanked the IVs out of her arm. He turned, slow and unsure, but she was already sitting up, and despite his protests, she was taking off her gown. She knew she looked a mess, clammy and godawfully unsexy, but he crossed the room to her anyways, took her face in his hands, and kissed her so hard their noses banged off one another.

“Never leave me if you don’t want to,” she gasped as he pushed her back up on the bed. “Don’t tell me that, because I never will,” he said, hands finding the button of his shorts, his lips moving across her flesh.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 26

Chapter 26

“I’m sorry,” Garrett said dully.

“You’re driving me crazy apologizing,” she said, only kidding a little. She tried her best not to be irritable, but after the sixth or seventh apology, it was hard to be a saint about things. Her hand rose to her forehead again. Yup. Another fever. Wonderful.

“I’m sorry for that too.” This time, there was a faint hint of a smile on his lips, but his eyes were still flashing their “vacancy” sign at her. He sniffed, and for a moment, she thought he would cry again. That was almost preferable to the apologies. Instead, he grimaced. “Never going to get the smell of gasoline out of the seat.”

Her sigh was a small thing, one she hoped he didn’t notice. Or maybe she wanted him to – just a little bit. “We’re almost to Prince George. My mom will know how. We’ll give her a call and figure it out.”

“Yeah.”

A car pulled around them. From its rear seat, a huge mutt of a dog, its brown jowls hanging low and loose, barked noiselessly at them as it passed, then turned in its seat to keep an eye on them in case they tried any funny business with its masters.

Brianna’s dark mood broke a little “I miss Brown Dog.”

Garrett smiled. “Just thinking the same thing.” Not for the first time, a memory of their furry pet bounding across white sands tickled the back of his mind. A curious memory, because Brown Dog had never been to the beach with them. Elom adlo, a voice whispered, and vanished into the ether.

“Is Murphy still checking the pounds for another dog like him? One that can see ghosts?”

“Yeah, sometimes. He’s not as obsessed about it as he was back in the early part of the year.” That was an understatement. After Garrett’s disappearance into Hamber and Brown Dog’s death, Murphy had been adamant about finding another dog that could hear him, in case they needed to work out a line of rough communication with Brianna again. “There are some he thinks can hear him, but they don’t respond the same way Brown Dog did. He’s got a theory that it was because…” He trailed off, thinking about their poor animal’s last week or two. They hadn’t wanted to put him down, and he’d been suffering.

Brianna reached over and squeezed his knee. “It’s okay. You can say it. Today’s kind of the pits already.”

“Yeah, it is.” Garrett rubbed his nose. “He thinks it’s because Brown Dog was so close to death.”

“What do you think?”

“Honestly? I think that dog was magic. The way you saw his name in the Howell Building, then him showing up to help warn you about Galbraith-”

Brianna nodded, following the logic. “-and then being at the shelter where we were putting the shifter-”

“And then everything with you and Hamber… yeah. Magic.”

“I agree.”

“Yeah?”

“Grab me a bottle of water?” As he complied, digging around in the cooler, she stretched her fingers and continued. “I think we’ve definitely seen weirder things than a… magic dog. That really needs a better word.”

“I got nothing.” He twisted the lid off for her and handed the bottle over.

“Thanks.” She took a long drink, nearly finishing off half the bottle. The fever could go away any fucking time it wanted to, please and thank you. “Yeah, me neither. But I wonder… now you’re going to laugh at me.”

“Won’t. Promise.”

“Please, really, don’t.” Her voice had an edge to it. Two of their bigger fights had started because he’d laughed at things she had to say when she was being serious. “We know something, probably from hell, is connected to the Blight. Virgil thinks he saw him in the Veil in Hamber, remember?”

Garrett did. In one of the visions Virgil had while trapped in the bubble surrounding Hamber, he’d seen a giant red figure out in a courtyard, ostensibly asleep, but his eyes had been the same burning orange they saw whenever something had been corrupted by the Blight.

“Well,” Brianna continued, “we also know at least one time when the other team was helping you out. And I think… maybe there were two times.”

Garrett frowned. “Other team?”

Brianna pointed up at the ceiling. “Heaven. When you were lost to the Blight down in that cavern, you would’ve…” She shivered, unable to say the words. “If they hadn’t helped clear your mind, I think… I don’t know.”

“Agreed.” She shot him a glance, and he raised his hands. “No joke. I definitely agree. Murphy thinks so too. We’ve never, not once, seen anything like that before. I don’t think we can expect angels to fall out of heaven and help us smite the bad guys, but I think someone was up there watching us and maybe got the okay to push things just a little bit. But what’s the second time you think they interfered in things? I don’t remember us coming across anything quite like that.”

Brianna blushed, sure he’d make fun of this. “You.”

“I… what?”

“You’ve never figured out why you just suddenly started to see Murphy, right?”

“Right.”

“Well… what if it was someone up there throwing a switch when they saw the two of you in the same place at the same time?”

“How would they know that we would be a good fit?” Garrett asked, genuinely befuddled. That same voice – elom adlo, it whispered again – said something else in the dark recesses of his mind. In this place, time is circular. A sharp flare of pain numbed out the thought and then it was gone, the wisp of the memory erased.

She shrugged. “We’re talking about heaven. Who knows what the heck they know or don’t?”

“So you think me and Murphy, you and me, all of this last year and a half, it’s just been fate or something?”

“No, I don’t really believe in destiny. I think… hm. I think maybe heaven, or God, or whatever’s pulling these strings is just kind of… setting up the meetings and letting us come to them if we want to. Does that make sense? Like…” She saw a road sign for Prince George, now just a short ten kilometers away. “Like road signs! We pick whether we want to stop or not, but someone’s out there putting them up and making sure we see them.”

He pondered that for a while. “I like that.”

“And that’s my deep and crazy thought for the day.” Her headache was still there, but faded now. Not in a healthy way either, but fuzzy and washed out. Her stomach was flip-flopping too. “Regardless of if Murphy finds another dog like Brown Dog, I was kinda thinking, um, maybe once we got into the routine of things again, with you whacking on bad guys and me sexying it up at the gym, maybe we could get another dog. I’m always gonna be there for you when you come home, you know, but having a little fuzzy buddy around when you’re out with Murphy, it’d really be kind of nice.”

“Of course.”

“I mean, if you don’t want to, say it now, but we did better than I thought with Brown Dog and maybe if we got a puppy or a young dog it would be easier to deal with the messes if we could train it-”

 “Brianna. I already agreed. You don’t have to sell me on it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

She went to take another drink and glanced away from the road, surprised the bottle was already empty. When had that happened?

“Baby,” Garrett warned, then louder, “Brianna!”

She glanced back up, just in time to realize she was drifting into the other lane right in front of an oncoming truck. With a swift jerk of the wheel, they skimmed by with less than a foot between their mirror and the oncoming vehicle, the other driver hammering on his horn. In the backseat, the child ghost leaned forward, her hands making sawing motions like she was carving up meat.

“You’ve gotta pay attention!” Garrett roared.

“Well, yelling’s not gonna help!”

“You almost got us killed! I think a little yelling’s in order!”

“I’m sorry,” she shouted, but her mouth tasted like dried tea leaves. Her hands on the wheel were shaking, and not from fright. She said quietly, “Garrett, I don’t feel so great.”

“Having a heart attack? Cause I sure am.”

“No, I mean it. I think something’s wrong.”

That stopped him. His eyes locked on her and noticed for the first time how intense her flush had become. Sweat had gathered and dried around her neckline, and she looked about ready to throw up. “Hit your emergency blinkers.”

“Yeah,” she said, almost childlike. She fumbled at the button and slowed for the next turnoff. They came to a jerking stop and she almost forgot to put the SUV in park. Garrett leaned over and felt her forehead. Burning up, and hard. His own head was aching, but he’d been drinking more water than she had and he didn’t feel nearly as feverish. He dug in the back and gave her another bottle of water. It didn’t go down well – or at all. She opened the door, undid her seatbelt, and spat back up a thin drizzle of brownish fluid.

Garrett came around the side of the SUV as she tumbled towards the ground, landing in her own vomit. A couple of tears were rolling down her face. “I think throwing up,” she complained, the words nonsensical, and he was helping her to her feet, trying not to panic. What was he supposed to do? He didn’t know, but he flashed back on a memory of a two-a-day practice schedule playing football that left him dehydrated and in the hospital when he was fourteen. The best thing in the world then had been the ice chips the pretty nurse had rubbed over his forehead and lips.

He helped Brianna to the passenger seat and dug out an ice cube from the cooler. When he pressed it to her forehead, she started to giggle and pushed him away weakly. “Tickles,” she said.

“I know,” he said, the panic rising in his voice. “Just please, for me, let me do this, okay?”

“Mm. Because you said it so nicely,” she whispered, and tried to kiss him. Instead, he managed to snake his hand up in time to rub the ice across her lips.

A Sentra pulled off the road behind them, and its passenger, a fishing-cap sporting older man, leaned out to holler, “You all right there, buddy?”

Garrett turned and tried not to shout, “Where’s the nearest hospital?”

The man said something to the driver, a frizzy-haired woman about the same age as him, and she nodded immediately. The man leaned back out. “Follow us.”

Garrett pushed Brianna’s hands and feet away from the door and didn’t bother buckling her in. He ran around the Durango and jumped into the driver’s seat, and when the Sentra shot ahead, he tailed it so closely that if a deer had jumped out, surely he would have rammed them.

“I’m afraid of us,” Brianna said conversationally, making vague little seesaw motions with her left hand. “Did you know that? Sometimes I think we killed all those people during the tornadoes because one of us couldn’t pull the trigger.”

Garrett gritted his teeth. “Baby, try drinking a little more water for me.”

“Back in Edmonton, I wanted to take your money. I wanted you to take care of me. I’m so fucking ashamed about it.”

“Don’t feel guilty, it’s your money too, just… don’t worry about it, okay?”

She ran her tongue out around her lips. “I want to hurt you sometimes. Well, everybody, sometimes. All the suffering, all the shit we’ve been through, and it just makes me want to punch something good in my life. Like when I bit you in Edmonton. I knew what I was doing. I wanted to hurt you. I wanted to taste your blood. And when you get all withdrawn after something bad happens, like I’m not suffering too, and you get all fucking needy, oh God, I hate that.”

“Stop, Brianna.” Where was Prince George? Where the fuck was this town?

“I look at guys in the gym sometime. Perks of the job, I guess. I’ve had a couple of real fuckin’ sexy dreams about Doug Cornell.”

“Stop,” he whispered.

“It’s why I was so freaked out way back in Lethbridge. It’s not you I’m worried about cheating on me. It’s me cheating on you.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Maybe not now, but five, ten years down the line?” She leaned her chin down against her collarbone. “What am I saying? I’m so hot, Garrett.”

“I know, we’re almost to the hospital, it’s gonna be okay.”

“Stephanie-”

“Please, Brianna, just-”

“-sometimes, I’m so jealous of her, I want to claw her eyes out. She loves you, you know that? Sometimes I wonder if it’s more than a sisterly thing.”

“Please, God, stop!” he shouted, wishing he could plug his ears.

“I mean, she doesn’t talk to you for fifteen years? Girl’s got issues and hang-ups like you wouldn’t belieeeeeve.”

They broke out of the forest land and into a small, largely flat city. Finally, the outskirts of Prince George. As they pulled to a stop at a red light, Brianna gripped his arm. “Would you fuck her, Garrett?”

“This isn’t you, baby, it’s the fever talking-”

“Oh, it’s me,” she said, small, wincing, backing away. “I hate you sometimes when you white knight everything. You try so fucking hard all the time and it’s exhausting. I just want you to be you so I don’t have to try to match up to your standards about being so fucking perfect. I want you to be selfish and a fucking prick so I don’t have to feel so shitty about myself sometimes. And you…” By the end of that one, she was mumbling.

He grabbed her hand, keeping his eyes focused on the road, unable to look over. His heart was a whirlwind. What was going on? Why was this happening?

Brianna croaked, “I hate that I’ll never be your best friend.”

That one hurt, maybe more than all the others. “What?”

“You and Murphy. I’ll never have what you two have. It’s always been you two, and it’ll always be you two.”

“Of course you’re my best friend, You and Murphy both are.”

They flashed by a sign – University Hospital was all he caught – and then they were turning again, the Sentra shooting towards the emergency entrance. Garrett jerked up onto the sidewalk, not caring about the looks he was getting, and shot out of the Durango to grab Brianna out of the passenger’s seat. She swatted at him when he opened the door, but in her eyes, he saw a fierce terror, and she was shaking her head. “I don’t know what I’m saying,” she whispered, and then she was falling towards him. With a scream for help he didn’t realize he was making, he caught her, lifted her in his arms, and carried her until a someone, a group of someones, was taking her from him.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapters

Utterly pointless drivel. Almost certainly these would have been cut. At this point I’d checked out of this novel.

Chapter 24

As much as they liked the Canadian Rockies, the relentless heat and the conditions it caused drove them out of Jasper National Park regrettably early, but they promised each other they’d come back, possibly to Banff in the spring during a long weekend. After an early brunch with the Halls, they packed up their things and headed west through the park, stopping a few times to snap pictures of the mountains and a herd of goats crossing the road. The goats were a salve to Brianna, who was still hoping to see a bear, moose or caribou.

They expected plains once they broke free of the park, much as they’d seen throughout the first two-thirds of their journey, but the gently yawning mountains pillowed out to either side of them all the way from Jasper to Prince George. Several rivers and streams danced with Highway 16, first the icy-looking Miette within the national park, then the Fraser, which swooped and swirled through the magnificent canyons joyously, its waters dotted with fisherman and boaters enjoying the blazingly hot summer day.

Life exploded around them on the achingly beautiful drive. Woodpeckers knocked against the soft green and brown-coated trees. Huge fish broached the surface of the river, searching out the swarms of mosquitos and other insects spotting the river’s surface. They played no music, they spoke little for the first couple of hours. Despite her best unwilling efforts, not even the spectral child could break them of the good mood.

After a stop to get pictures and walk a short trail to the waters of the Fraser, Brianna took Garrett’s hand and leaned her head against his shoulder. He could not hear her hum over the cascading waters, but he could feel the vibration from her throat. He wished he could make love to her right there, slowly, tenderly, but in the end, a long, searing kiss had to do.

Back in the Durango, Brianna said softly, “Tell me more.”

After he buckled his seat belt, Garrett took her hand in his, kissed each finger, and started talking again.

Chapter 25

Though they weren’t hungry, the name Gigglin’ Grizzly Pub was too good to ignore, so they stopped in McBride three hours and change after setting off from Jasper. Though they intended on just stopping for a moment, the sleepy, cheerful little valley town won them over completely the moment they eased off the highway.

Brianna hit him as they pulled into the parking lot, then again. “Moose. Moose moose moose!” she shouted, then got control of herself and whispered very responsibly so as to not startle the very distant creature – who could not have possibly heard her in the Durango.

Rubbing his shoulder, Garrett shut off the car. “Got your wild animal fix finally.”

Brianna jerked around in her seat and was yanked back promptly by her seat belt. “Ow,” she muttered, and unhooked herself to grab her camera. “Oh man, oh my God, oh man.” She found it, fumbled the case open, and flicked the on switch before leaning over to kiss Garrett briefly. “I love you so much.”

“I l-” But she was already slipping outside, gently shutting the SUV’s door behind her. “-ove you too,” he finished, and stayed put. If he startled the moose in any way, Brianna would be asking the cook inside the restaurant to serve him up for lunch.

Not daring to move much closer, Brianna kneeled gently in the dry dirt, bringing the camera up slowly. Aside from a couple of other people in the parking lot pointing at the magnificent creature, it felt like just her and the moose, taking each other in and acknowledging that the space between them was sacred and not to be crossed.

Others might have thought moose were ugly creatures with their awkwardly sized heads and giant lips, but she found them stunning, especially when they sliced down through lakes and rivers, gently rippling the surfaces despite their bulk. This one was tall, nearly as tall as Brianna – and she was a tall woman, standing only inches shorter than Garrett’s six two. A female, she guessed, trying to think back to when moose grew antlers. She thought they dropped them in the winter, along the same time as deer, but she wasn’t sure. It grazed on a shrub in an unoccupied along a side road, audible tearing away bits of leafy greens from the bush and chewing unhurriedly as it watched her.

“Hello, moose,” she whispered, and snapped off several shots.

The ghost of the child stood beside her, annoyed that the scar-sweet-scent woman wasn’t responding to her. These two, her and the jagged-face-warm-eyes should have been frothing at each other by now. The girl was tired of the slow trickle of food from them, but now that she wanted her feast, they weren’t responding like they should. She would try harder, she decided. So hungry. So hungry now.

* * *

They came out of the Gigglin’ Grizzly a couple of hours later, Brianna holding Garrett’s arm as her camera swung by her side. She stumbled over nothing at all, and murmured drunkenly, “Stupid cliff!”

“Yeah,” Garrett agreed, clutching his wife’s frame tighter against him. “Stupid cliff.” She was gone to a variety of beer and mixed drinks, bought for them by the slow trickle of locals who’d heard about the moose and come in for a beer and lunch. Once word got around that they were on their honeymoon, once again, the couple had found themselves on the receiving end of a lot of alcohol. Garrett held off, but the bartender told him about a nearby motel. The town was small enough they could grab a room and walk back to the bar to continue the celebration. Seemed like a great idea, especially to a wobbly Brianna.

Garrett dragged Brianna out of there with the promise that they’d be back soon. The motel pickings in McBride were slim, but the places all had spectacular views of the Rockies and the North Caribou Mountains. It was simply the most beautiful little village they’d been through yet, laid out gently in the midst of a flat, lusciously green valley, surrounded by farmland and edged by the same river they’d stopped at earlier that day.

With no wildlife to startle, Brianna launched into a drunken song in the SUV as Garrett looked up the motels in the area. It took him a minute, but he finally recognized it as the theme to Strange Brew, and started cracking up. It had taken all her resolve not to endlessly quote that and Canadian Bacon, and she’d lasted an admirably long time. He hummed along as they pulled out, headed for the Beaver Creek Lodge, a series of small cabins they could rent.

The cabins were nicely spacious, split into a main room with a little kitchenette and a bedroom. Brianna helped Garrett roll in their luggage and flopped on the bed as he brought in their cooler. As he took everything out so he could dump the water forming at the bottom, she said, “We could stay here forever, you know?”

It was an idle comment, but it stopped him cold. He was glad his back was turned to her, so she didn’t see him duck his head against his chest. Hadn’t he wanted this for them? That was what the whole last six months had been about, save for their brief and bloody fight against the Band of Princes. He’d tried to back away from the vigilante life, to live something approaching normal with her.

God, how his heart ached for this. If he thought she was at all serious, he’d be on the line with Ed in a minute, figuring out what they’d need to do to gain Canadian citizenship and buy a house there in that canyon. Slowly, softly so she wouldn’t hear, he expelled the fiery breath caught in his throat and turned, smiling. “It really is beautiful, isn’t it?”

Their time in McBride floated away from them like dandelion fluff caught on the breeze. A pick-up baseball game played by teenagers hooting and shouting at one another while they watched from the grass, passing bottled water and chaste kisses between the two of them as they talked about little of consequence. A trip to the local museum, where they learned about local railroads and farming. A slow walk down two hiking paths, and a stop at the river to take in the views and each other. Some of their new friends from the bar invited them to an impromptu barbeque behind one of the other motels, which grew into a community gathering of sorts. A local strummed a guitar, another traveling couple introduced them to several microbrews including one of Brianna’s new favorites, Vienna amber, and a few people with some steaks and burgers turned into a full-on couple of dozen of people bringing down Hibachis and charcoal barbeques. Brianna’s camera was taken from her sometime in the festivities by a kindly woman who told her to experience it all while she took the pictures for her. Try as she might, Brianna could never remember that woman’s name, one of the great travesties of their journey through Canada.

Their next day turned into more hiking, more exploring. They had every intention of heading to Prince George that afternoon, but two of their newly minted friends invited them out on their boat. Garrett accepted, then winced, thinking about Brianna’s scar story. Sensing his hesitation, she jumped right in, thanking them and agreeing wholeheartedly. Garrett got her away for a moment, and whispered in her ear, “If you feel uncomfortable-”

“If we were kayaking, this would be a different story,” she said, and kissed his cheek. “But thank you for thinking about me.”

The chilly river spray and the heat of the day made for an uneven experience, but beer was plentiful for the passengers and they wound up having a good time. By the time they got back to the dock, it was fast approaching evening, and they decided to stay one more night, taking their friends to dinner and finally crashing out back in their little cabin, sunburned, exhausted, and happy.

* * *

Wary that their McBride friends would somehow manage to keep them there another day, Brianna and Garrett woke up early and slowly packed their things again. They took a last couple of selfies with the mountains behind them, finally loaded up into the Durango, and headed for the gas station. While Garrett filled the tank, he took in the mountains one last time, and without warning, he slumped against the SUV, banging it hard accidentally before he slid down next to the tire, his chest hitching. He couldn’t get the air out, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. It wasn’t real it wasn’t real it wasn’t real it wasn’t real.

“It is,” Brianna said gently, standing above him. She knelt, and pressed a hand to his breast.

“I can’t,” he groaned. “You, this place, it’s not real, oh God, it’s not real…”

She sank down to the ground beside him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. On the other side of the pump, a man was staring, slack-jawed. Brianna shook her head at him, and the man jerked as if he’d been goosed. With a clatter, he slid the nozzle home, opened up the door behind him, and slid into his truck, never taking his eyes off Garrett.

People were coming out of the store, people they’d met. They were pointing now, and whispering, and Brianna didn’t care. She held her sobbing husband, and wished she could somehow put all the broken pieces back into place.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 24

Of particular note with this one are the Halls, a pair of RVers. They’re modeled after my grandparents Jean and Leonard Hall, who spent a great part of their lives RVing back and forth from Palmdale to Sam’s Town in Las Vegas. Leonard used to say of his RV that the mechanics dropped all the pieces of the vehicle in the desert and let the wind blow it together.

Good people, and missed dearly. Nana would have a fit about me including them in a book this full of swearing and violence. Hah. And while I’m thinking about it, if you ever read A Shot at Us, the couple that pull up in the Jimmy at the church are modeled after my parents. Fun fun.

Chapter 23

Had they known there was a fire ban in effect, Garrett might have pushed for them to spend their planned time in Jasper National Park in a hotel instead of camping. Instead, they were too busy bickering over postcards and packages to their friends and families to notice the huge, glaring signs as they paid their fees to enter the park  Garrett was firmly on the side of mailing some of the packages in the town of the same name as the park, but Brianna was set on the notion that the expenses would be staggering and they should just hold off until they were back in the States.

“Brianna,” Garrett said in what he hoped was approaching a reasonable, tolerating tone, “If we cram so much as a napkin in the back end of this SUV, we won’t be able to see through the rearview mirror. And we still have Vancouver and St. George to go through yet.”

“So we’ll rearrange. And what do you mean, to get through? You make it sound like you’re going to war, not vacationing with your wife.”

Still trying not to make little strangling motions with his hands, Garrett said sweetly, “I did rearrange. This morning. You were there. You helped. You sat on the curb and directed me.”

“Oh, now I’m not helping enough?”

The park employee helpfully waved at them. “Hey. You can go on through now.”

Brianna whipped her head so hard to gaze at the man, Garrett wouldn’t have been surprised if she started spitting split pea soup. “Thanks.”

“And enjoy your…” But Brianna was already pulling forward, and the park employee sighed. “…stay in Jasper.” She adjusted her uniform, reaffixed her smile, and waited for the next car, full of happier Australians.

Back in the Durango, Brianna squeezed the steering wheel as she leaned forward and grimaced. “Stupid road butt ache’ll never go away.”

“We’ve got the travel pillows-”

“Yeah, so my knees can bang up against the steering wheel every time we bounce over a pebble. Right.”

Garrett gestured at the mountain spines rising all around the gently curving road. “Oh look, hey, wow, nature, beauty.”

“Same damn mountain range is in Montana,” Brianna snapped.

That stopped him. He thought they’d been mock fighting. But there was a serious edge to her voice. “Okay. Hey. You want to just keep going through the park, that’s fine. I’m sorry I suggested it.”

“I…” Brianna blinked and ran a hand across her forehead. Her fever was back, and with a vengeance. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. Any of that.”

“Are you okay?”

“I… yeah.” She glanced around at the mountains. “They really are beautiful. I didn’t… I want to be here.”

“If you don’t, just say it. We can keep going or go home. But remember what you said to me about not wanting to go anywhere if I’m going to be miserable? That works for you too.”

“I know.” Her tone was harsh again, but she softened it immediately. “I know. I think once I can get out and stretch, and we can do some hiking, I’ll be good. I don’t mean to be bitchy.”

“Hey, it’s not like we haven’t been spending a couple of weeks within feet of each other. Bound to happen.” I guess, he mentally added. Seemed like they were snapping at each other or walking on eggshells more than they were actually talking.

But the Rocky Mountains really did bring back a soothing calm to their world, and in a hurry. The well maintained four-lane highway switched into a single lane road, the groves of aspens gave way to bare-bottomed, top-heavy firs, and with their windows down, the sharp wafting pine scent reminded Garrett of his own cabin. A pang of homesickness washed over him, unexpected and sharp in its longing. As much as he loved the Flats and the state in general, such a feeling had only ever belonged to his family in Florida or when he had to take time apart from Brianna. Homesickness was not something he’d ever applied to a place before. It was new. Beautiful, in a way.

Brianna finally, reluctantly agreed that they should get their friends’ packages out of the way, and they made the titular little town of Jasper their first stop. The postcards were surprisingly reasonable, the packages markedly less so, but at least the Durango was largely livable again. The packaging and mailing took up a solid hour, during which the ghostly child wandered away. Neither Garrett or Brianna seemed to notice their dampened moods lifting, but their snapping and verbal bites eased into a more comfortable quiet as they finished their business.

Cheery Jasper seemed like a bit of a tourist trap, but in a national park, that was to be expected. Still sore from their long drive, Brianna wanted to take a walk, so they wandered the town’s main street. Traffic was fairly light – it was noon-ish on a weekday – but a handful of people meandered here and there, largely hitting up the varied gift shops and a women’s clothing store. Neither of them felt like much shopping after their days at the West Edmonton Mall, so they kept their purchases to the town’s small Super A grocery store. There, they stocked up on some of their favorite camping staples – chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers for S’mores, cheap hot dogs, a pound of hamburger, condiments, and a loaf of bread. They debated on eggs for the mornings, and decided to risk it. After Garrett ran out to check their drink supply, they added a gallon of water, a few six packs of beer they hadn’t yet tried on the trip, and a couple of bags of ice.

Back at the SUV, Garrett unloaded the cooler while Brianna hoisted the bags, glancing around at the scenery, humming a little. When he turned to start loading their drinks, the sight of her there in the sun holding the grocery bags brought back a memory in a rush. Gently, he took the bags from her, set them on the ground, and embraced her, his hands finding each other around her back and not letting go for a full half a minute.

“What’s that for?” she asked as he pulled away.

He scratched his chin. “I hate to bring it up.”

“It’s okay. Tell me.”

“After Danny died… I was being kind of a selfish ass. I should have been focused on you, and all I could think about was that we were pulling apart.”

She smiled sadly. “I remember. Hard days.”

“Yeah. Then there was this morning, I woke up, and you were heading for the door, trying to be sneaky and not wake me up. And I thought that was it. That was the moment I’d lost you.”

She frowned, trying to remember, and shook her head. “I don’t-” Then it dawned on her. “Oh right, I wanted to have dinner with Rose and Ed. Do something normal again.”

“Right! And you left a note for me on the table. I was so wrecked I couldn’t even read it.”

A laugh bubbled out of Brianna, pretty and soft. “And all it said was ‘gone for groceries. Dinner with E and R?’”

Garrett’s own smile gleamed as he lost himself to the memory. “Murphy thought you’d gone too. He was just standing there, watching over me curled up on the couch. And when you walked back in, I… I don’t even know what I thought. I was so wildly confused. Everything in me said you would run. I thought for sure it was over and up until then, I might have thought you’d be better off.”

“Garrett-”

“No, let me finish. I know in my head I’m not good for you. But that day, when you came back, it was the first time I didn’t care. I knew I had to have you in my life. Even if it means someday something horrible happens, I had to stop thinking I needed to push you away. I know I’ve tried a couple of times since then, but… I’m glad you always came back.”

For that, she gave him a kiss and a hug of her own. Into his ear, she whispered quietly, “Will you do something for me tonight?”

“Anything.”

“Would you read your vows again for me? Please?”

His vows. He’d written them the day after their first date, though at the time he hadn’t known they’d someday become the words he’d speak to her on their wedding day. They were words of love and gratitude, ill-written in his childish handwriting and badly spelled, but still the greatest and hardest words he’d ever put down. There was more to them – instructions for her if something happened to him and a few contacts and phone numbers – but the words were the important part.

“Of course.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t get to keep his promise to her that night. He would make good on his word the next night, but their first night at the Pocahontas campsite north of Jasper belonged entirely to the strange Rogier Mesman.

* * *

After setting up their tent at their campsite, they headed first for Whistlers Mountain, which not only afforded them views of the surrounding valleys and mountains, but had a chairlift over to another peak which sounded amazing in theory. But only an hour into their climb up the beautiful trails cutting through groves of trees, Garrett caught sight of a pair of squirrels racing diagonal rings around a fir and was laughing too hard to see the sharply jutting rock right in front of him.

The ankle wasn’t broken, Brianna told him but he wasn’t going any further up the mountain, either. There wasn’t much they could do for the ankle up there on the mountain aside from letting him rest for a bit, but a pair of youthful parents leading a small horde of children and teenagers crossed paths with them not long after they started down the mountain gingerly. The father and his oldest boy hustled back down to their van for a first aid kit. Brianna bandaged Garrett up, and by that point, a ranger had been notified and was on his way with a pair of crutches.

Red-faced and feeling more than a little stupid, Garrett tried to pay the couple, but they insisted that it was their duty as Good Samaritans. That got them a ferocious hug from Brianna, and a mumbled, almost bashful round of thanks from Garrett to all the kids and their minders. They looked after the family as they charged up the hill, all smiles and shrieking and laughter and laughter. Brianna turned to start down the trail, but it was a long minute before Garrett tore his eyes away from the family. Had Brianna really doubted he wanted a family with her? Good God, he was ready for eighteen kids right then and there.

The ranger walked with them back down to the Durango. An irritated, grumpy man, he pointed out several of the mountain ranges around them as they walked, grunting the syllables like he was a sergeant belting out the morning’s commands to his troops. When asked where they could get firewood for a campfire, he stopped completely, practically up on the balls of his feet like he might take a swing. He told them, his words clipped, that if they’d read the signs, they would know there was a fire ban in effect. At the parking lot, he took back the crutches, gave Garrett a once-over, and muttered, “Next time, don’t be an idiot.”

It was, by and large, some of the soundest life advice they’d received in Canada so far.

* * *

Back at the campsite, Brianna made Garrett rest and elevate his foot while she worked up a makeshift ice pack to treat his ankle. He grumbled that he was fine and that he could go hiking if she wanted, but she turned that right back around on him and asked what he’d want to do if she was the one who had been hurt. That shut him up for a while before they started in on what they should do with the burger and dogs they’d bought now that they couldn’t cook them.

The solution for that came from the Halls, two retirees from southern California traveling North American national parks much the same as Brianna and Garrett were traveling Alberta. They were parked in a nearby RV hookup site, and struck up a conversation with the younger couple while they were strolling around the campsites. Garrett offered them the still-chilled foods in danger of spoiling, but the couple instead offered to cook dinner at their campsite. It worked out well for both parties, since Garrett and Brianna had the food and the RV had a stove.

With full stomachs, Garrett and Brianna headed back for their campsite. A man strolled along the road, his long coppery hair tied up in a bun atop his head with a rubber band. His lips cracked apart in a smile as he ambled towards them, bony knees bobbing up and down rhythmically, as though he were keeping time to a tune inside his head. “Wotcher, folks!”

Brianna gave him a polite, friendly smile and a wave. “Hi there!” Garrett echoed her, but his hands were full with the cooler, even more packed now with snacks and plastic baggies full of leftovers. The Halls had been as doting as long-lost grandparents.

“Name’s Rogier.” The stranger pronounced it raj-she. “I smelled the food down in my camp. I thought I would take a stroll, see if I could find the source of this magnificent scent.”

Rogier’s accent was all over the place. Garrett couldn’t pin down if he was French, French-Canadian – an accent they’d heard from a few travelers in Edmonton – or someone doing a bad impression of a New Orleans accent. Rogier never quite settled on any one of those, brutalizing his consonants and trying to sing his vowels.

“Well,” Garrett said uncertainly, but Brianna jumped right in.

“Would you be interested in a bite? We’ve got plenty of extras.”

“I would love some, if you do have extra.”

Brianna gestured at the cooler. “Sure! We’ve got plenty. Got a last name, Rogier?”

“Mesman. And your name, kind lady?”

“Brianna. Moranis. And this is Garrett.”

Garrett grunted something vaguely approaching friendly and headed towards their campsite. Rogier trotted along behind them like a puppy, glancing all around with wide eyes and an easy smile. “Ah, Americans!” he exclaimed when he saw the license plate on their SUV. “Just out for a Sunday drive to our national park?”

Brianna laughed politely. “Something like that. We’re on our honeymoon. Traveling through Alberta and a bit of British Columbia.”

“Get out,” Rogier exclaimed. “Your honeymoon? Congratulations!”

Garrett settled the cooler on the wooden table, and Brianna opened it to offer him a burger, a small bag of chips, and a beer. Rogier made what should have been a short meal into a grandiose affair, asking them question after question about their trip and where they’d been. Not long after he started talking, the ghostly young teenager flickered through the woods, walking towards Garrett with a sullen expression on her face, like she’d been told she was grounded. One beer for Rogier quickly became three after an hour, and when he finally finished off the chips, he gave the cooler a mournful glance.

“You’ve been such good hosts, and I’ve nothing to offer you,” he said. “Can I at least take a picture with you both? I’d love to have this moment to remember you by.” When Brianna cheerfully agreed and Garrett reluctantly nodded, Rogier patted his pockets and swore. “I must have left my camera back with my truck. Perhaps you could take one and send it to me.”

Brianna hopped up and dug out her cell phone from the Durango. The three of them stood together, doing a variety of goofy smiles and poses. Brianna insisted on giving him their leftovers, and finally Rogier bid them a good night. When he was out of earshot, Brianna said quietly, “You sure weren’t friendly.”

“He wasn’t exactly shy about wanting something from us, Brianna. I don’t think our neighbor was such a nice guy.”

“What, you’re pissed about me giving away our food? Garrett, I’ve seen you leave a twenty-dollar tip for a Coke.”

“No, not the food. Did you see the way he got you to dig out your cell phone? He was looking to see what kind of model you had.”

“Oh come on, that’s a stretch,” Brianna protested as she ringed one of their solar lamps around the driver’s rearview mirror. It would be dark soon, and they’d want the light.

“Really? When you got up to grab some napkins from the car, did you see him cataloging the stuff we had inside? Brianna, he was practically drooling.”

She laughed and crossed over to him, cupping his cheek with one hand. “Baby, relax. You see the rotten shit people do so much, you’re imagining it now. Some people are just… people. He needed food and company, we gave it to him. That’s all. You’ll see.”

* * *

The small pup tent retained some of the day’s warmth even after the night threatened to drop down into freezing temperatures. Brianna snored softly – well, for her, anyways – tucked away in their roomy two-person sleeping bag, a travel pillow tucked under her neck. She dreamed of her father and Ransom Galbraith, an old nightmare by now, still wicked but lacking its sharp ugliness. When she came to the part of the dream where Ransom came around the corner of the door, his gun in hand and moving faster than her own – unlike real life, when she’d managed to draw down on him first and put down the psycho fuckstain – she whimpered and came awake, aware for the first time that she was alone.

Just gone to the bathroom, she thought blearily. He’ll be back in a second. Then she heard the voices.

* * *

Given the soft solar lamplight, there weren’t many places Garrett could have sat in waiting comfortably, so he took up a position near a tree further in the darkness, hoping like hell a bear didn’t make him its dinner.

Just as he thought, someone kicked dirt on the road an hour later. For a moment, he thought it might be the Halls – it was coming from their direction, and the thought of the elderly couple being the ones to show up and steal from them would have made an amusing twist. But no, Rogier was just being clever, circling the whole camp and coming around from the other side.

Almost lazily, Garrett rose to his feet, keeping loose. Rogier tested the Durango’s back hatch. No luck. The back door on the passenger’s side. Still nothing. The front passenger door? That was unlocked. Garrett left it that way.

Though not as trained in wilderness tactics as he was in urban stealth, Garrett had enough practice moving through the woods silently from various cases with Murphy that he effortlessly crept up on Rogier until he was just feet away, still ringed in darkness. “You’re a disappointment, you know that?”

The would-be thief jumped hard enough to bang his head on the oh-shit handle. “Motherfuck-”

“Keep your voice down,” Garrett whispered. “Accent’s gone, huh?”

“Fuck you,” Rogier muttered. Now he sounded just like a thousand other Canadians they’d heard in Alberta – that was to say, he had little accent at all.

“You know what I’d do to you right now if it wasn’t for my wife? I’d break every bone in your good hand. We already gave to you, and you’d take more.”

“If it’s a lecture or the bone-breaking, I’ll take the pain.”

Garrett grinned in the darkness. “There was a time I would have obliged you, asshole. But that woman in there, my wife, she still believes in goodness, in decency. I love that about her and I never want it to change. I’m not about to break her heart and neither are you.”

“So… what?”

“In that side compartment, there’s a notepad and a pen. Get it.”

Rogier scuffled around and came up with both. “Okay?”

“Write her a thank you. A nice one, but keep it short. It’s cold and I want to go back to sleep.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You’re going to thank my wife for the food and her generosity. Leave it under the windshield wiper. Then you’re going to vanish, whoever the fuck you really are. If I see you again tomorrow, I’ll get you alone and make good on all my threats.”

Rogier scribbled out a note. Garrett approached out of the night, took it from him with two fingers, gave it a cursory look, and passed it back for him to put it in place. Garrett gestured at the road, and the man took off, practically running. A flick of the Durango’s lock later, and Garrett was headed back for the tent.

At the flap, he stopped to take off his shoes, and stepped in gingerly so as to not drag the muck of the forest floor with him. Brianna was as he’d left her, snoring, her arm outstretched across his side of the sleeping bag. He lifted it gently and slid in with her. She murmured a sleepy question, and he quietly told her nature had called. Slowly he dipped back into sleep, never seeing her smile in the dark.

* * *

In the morning, across the table as they ate Fig Newtons and boxes of tiny cereal dry, Brianna couldn’t stop smiling at him. Garrett tried to frown, found it was an abject failure, and finally asked with an amused lift of his lips what she was smiling about.

“Nothing,” she said. “Just thinking about how good people can be in this world.” And she was. Not Rogier, not like Garrett thought she meant, but him. Always him.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 23

More of the Not-Right Man here, so if you’re looking to avoid spoilers on a future Rankin Flats novel, skip this chapter, or at least the dream sequence. The frank talk about sex afterwards as Garrett and Brianna are road-tripping is actually sort of a highlight for me in this one. You don’t often actually read couples having discussions about kinks in romance-centric books. The kink usually becomes the book itself, which is totally fine. But I wanted this book to be as much about Brianna and Garrett’s exploration of each other as it was a book about Canada and ghosts and goblins. It might read as wonky, and it kind of is, but the core concept was something I probably would have kept.

Chapter 22

Where their exit from Calgary had been sad, to Garrett, it felt like they were slinking away from Edmonton.

It was through no fault of the city, which was itself gorgeous and its people friendly. Taken individually, their experiences there had been pleasant – certainly the quickly-filling back end of their Durango was a testament to the city’s mall, and the art and shows they’d taken in had scratched a creative and intellectual itch in both of them.

But where before, the waters of their honeymoon had been clear and beautiful, now there was a skim of oil on the surface, tension where there had been only minor dapples from their tempers. Both of them were too jovial, too forcibly happy, and they could feel it in the other.

And in the early hours, as Garrett reshuffled everything in the Durango to better accommodate their now now-bulging suitcases and bags, the phantom child strolled out of the hotel, making her first appearance since the fight at the nightclub.

* * *

With three hours to kill until they hit the Rocky Mountains for the first time since leaving Waterton behind, Garrett reclined the passenger chair slightly and folded his hands behind his head. Brianna squeezed his thigh before turning on the radio, tuning in to CKUA. She’d discovered the station played an eclectic mix of music, and wasn’t disappointed when Baggage Blues started blaring after a brief fade-in of a Lusty Galavant B-side.

Garrett grinned at the fitting nature of the blues song and tucked himself in tight against the door. His eyes felt as heavy as bowling balls, but he fought sleep as long as he could, taking in every inch of his beautiful wife as long as he could before his resistance faded.

He floated.

Not in some extrasensory manner, but just as a man is prone to do with a full belly and a spectacular woman at his side to see him off to sleep. For a while, he dreamed of nothing, his mind occupied by the rhythm of the tires on the road – and on a good stretch of highway, there is most certainly a soothing sense of music to the tires on the asphalt. It was their song, really, his and Brianna’s. When they needed solace, they either found it usually in each other’s bodies or in a simple drive, picking a road and just going.

But there was something else in that quiet dreamless peace, something probing at the edges of his mind. Formless, it nevertheless had presence, and he could feel its malice. Softly, he whimpered, barely feeling Brianna’s touch on a subconscious level. Murphy talked sometimes about feeling the edge of existence when he meditated. He said it was like a pulsing membrane, tantalizingly thin but impossible to breach. It brought him calm sometimes to feel it, as though he were just a hand’s span away from his lost love Jade Gibbons.

What Garrett felt was similar, but it lacked the warm, soft beat. This was manic, something pounding at the walls of his existence, begging to be let in. It scared him in its need, in its pleading. This was not something human. His mind shifted from uneasy slumber to a deep dream, wherein he ran from room to room in Ed and Rose’s beautiful two-story house. The windows. The doors. They all needed to be checked against the slavering thing wanting to be let inside. Fight as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t beat this thing. It was made of teeth and it was always hungry, always wanting.

He slammed window after window into place, latching them and checking them twice, and sprinted downstairs to make sure everyone was still okay. Ed sat in an armchair with his humongous back to Garrett, muttering something as he held Rose’s prone body across his lap, stiff as a mannequin. He laid a hand on Ed’s shoulder, but his accountant would not look up, would not acknowledge him. Brianna. Where was Brianna?

Izzie was crying somewhere in the house, quiet sobs at first that turned into great shrieks of pain and fear. Garrett broke away from Ed and Rose, trying to shout for his and Brianna’s goddaughter, but his mouth was cotton and he could not make more than a wheeze. Stairs yawned below him, stairs that did not exist in real life but took hold of his mind in their dream-realness as he accepted them as simply forgotten and raced down.

“Isabel,” he murmured out loud. “Isabel?”

Brianna squeezed his leg and tried to draw him out of the dream. Instead, her voice came through in the dream as he spotted her at the bottom of the stairs. “Garrett,” she said, smiling up at him, holding a child in her arms. It was too big to be Izzie, he tried to warn her, but he couldn’t make the words come out.

“We’re okay. Down here in the dark, it’ll all be okay,” Brianna said. The child in her arms writhed and Garrett leaped down the last five or six stairs, trying to stop what happened next. Brianna pulled back the child’s hood. It was the girl that had been following them, her teeth long and jagged slivers. Still holding the child, Brianna bared one breast, cooing as the child leaned in. Garrett reached out to pull the child away from her, but the child latched on, the teeth tearing into the flesh. Instead of pain, Brianna gave him a beatific smile, and she fell backwards, into the hard-packed earth in that hellish basement, sinking through the ground with the child.

He dove at the ground, tried to dig for her, but she was already gone. Still he dug and dug, his fingertips coming away bloody stumps. From upstairs, Ed sighed heavily, and there was the thump of feet as he headed for the front door. “It’s time you came in,” Garrett overheard him say, and then came more gnashing, meat being torn from the bone as whoever had been out there let themselves gorge on Garrett’s best friend.

Rose stumbled to the top of the stairs, trails of tears streaking her cheeks. “There’s someone to see you,” she said simply, and stood aside to let the intruder down the stairs. His face wasn’t visible, only his shoes and a glowing snaggle-tooth pendant visible, but the man reeked of the sickly sweetness of death.

A scrape of a match against a box, and the man’s hands glowed. His fingers were caked in black dirt, his fingernails cracked and bleeding. “Thanks for watching her for me,” the intruder said, and Garrett woke, gasping.

Brianna cast a worried glance at him. His cheeks and forehead were even redder, and his hair was slicked in sweat. “How bad was it?” she asked quietly.

Garrett pushed his seat back upright and grabbed his sport bottle of water from the center console. Once he’d had a drink, he muttered, “Bad,” and unscrewed the top to splash some on his face. “Know that tweener I’ve told you I’ve been hallucinating?” Slowly he filled her in on the dream’s details, and she frowned.

“Jeez. That’s… dark. And creative.”

Garrett snickered despite himself. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“Do you think she means anything? In a Freudian sense?” The question was wary, tentative, and she stared pointedly ahead when she asked it.

Garrett reached behind the seat and dug in the cooler for a plastic container full of carrots, celery, cauliflower, and broccoli. As he fiddled with the seal, he said, “I don’t know. I keep circling the idea she’s some kind of representation of Rowen, but ever since I saw her and Jade down in that cave in Hamber, it’s… well, it’s not like my guilt is gone, but it’s not as bad. So I don’t think it’s her.”

“That’s not really what I meant.”

Garrett finally managed to weasel the wrapper off the veggie tray and popped it open. “Then what?”

“I… never mind.”

This was getting annoying, but he tried not to let it show. “Come on. Talk to me.”

“It’s going to piss you off.”

“Hon, talking around it is going to piss me off even more.” He snapped into a carrot, and she reached over for a bite of cauliflower. “This honesty thing is a two-way street.”

“All right.” She nibbled on the cauliflower, thinking about it, and turned down the music. “Are you really ready for kids?”

“We’ve been over this. A few times now.”

“I know. I know. But you keep thinking about Rowen, but your dream… I mean, that’s not exactly subtle imagery.”

“You think her tearing your boob apart is my subconscious saying I don’t want kids?” Garrett frowned as he crunched half of a mini-carrot. “Huh.”

“I know I was the one who pushed kids early on. I guess… I mean… if that’s what it is, and you didn’t want kids, I guess I wish you would have told me. If that’s what it is.” She shoved the rest of the cauliflower into her mouth and said around it, “I’d love you anyways. But I-”

“Baby, stop.”

“I know I’m being crazy but-”

“No. I mean it. I’m love the idea of having kids with you. I’m worried about them having my sight, but fuck it, we’ll figure that out together. It’s not like it’s the worst thing in the world.”

“But maybe it scares you deep down because, you know, it’d mean you and Murphy stopping the vigilante thing.”

When they’d first started talking about their long-term relationship hopes, Garrett and Brianna had determined pretty quickly that should she become pregnant, he would put a stop to his vigilantism, at least for the child’s first five years. Similar to his recent six-month hiatus, that didn’t mean Murphy and Garrett’s other spectral friends would stop chasing down criminals – it not only helped protect the living, but it gave the ghosts a hobby, something that was quite rare in the afterlife. While he became the primary child-rearer, Garrett would call crimes in, either to their cop friend Monica or their FBI contact Annalise Fox.

Quietly, he said, “Don’t forget, I’m the one who tried to quit in the first place.”

“And I told you, if you didn’t want back in the life, I’d support you no matter what.”

“No, I know. That wasn’t a dig. I’m not trying to argue. I’m trying to tell you I’m perfectly okay with having a kid.” He finished off the last of the carrot and cleared his throat. “Actually, uh…”

“What?”

His cheeks burning, it was his turn to be coy. “Ah. Nothing.”

“No no no. Talk to me or I get to pull your whole grumpy bit on you.”

“The thing is… uh. Thinking about you pregnant? Kinda does it for me.”

“Mr. Moranis,” she gasped in a mockery of shock. “Not only are you a little bit of an exhibitionist, but you’ve got a pregnancy kink too?”

“All right, all right, you don’t have to make fun of me.”

“Oh come on, it’s cute. And I’m totally using it as ammo.”

“Yep, should’ve never said anything.”

“You just gonna sit back and knock one out thinking about my big ol’ belly?”

He groaned. “Now you’re just making it weird. I mean… the idea of making you pregnant. It’s really, really… yeah.” There was a little pause while he picked out another carrot and chewed for a while. “And an exhibitionist? Me?”

“Baby, think about how many times we’ve done it this trip where people could maybe see us.”

Confused, he did think about it and ticked off fingers. “The other night when we went dancing.”

“Mm hm.”

“When else?”

“The Lacombe.”

“What are you talking about? We didn’t…” It dawned on him. He’d liked taking her up against the glass. A lot. “Oh.”

“Uh huh. That morning outside the diner.”

“Well, we didn’t really have sex, and we had time to kill.”

“And how many pictures of me have you taken this trip?”

“Um. I take it you don’t mean touristy ones?”

“Bingo.”

He finished off another carrot, thought about it, and muttered. “Well, that’s more voyeurism, but… fuck me, I’m an exhibitionist.”

She laughed. “No, you’re not. Just parts of it turn you on, I think. Being dangerous in a safe way, you know as opposed to the secrets you absolutely have to keep? Think about it. Someone catches us having sex, what, they get a little red-faced? That’s the part I think you like.”

Another pause. “Huh. I think you’re right.”

“It’s not that uncommon. We did a whole big thing on turn-ons in a psychology class I took in college. It was really interesting.”

“Is that… I mean, are we okay? I don’t want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable.”

She eased up on the accelerator as she passed a slow-moving semi. The four-lane highway west of Edmonton was split by a grassy median, and had been flat and easy-going. It was a perfect stretch of road to really just chill like they were, and she felt her cautious worry about him being afraid of kids slip away as they lost themselves in the conversation. “It’s fine. Really, and it’s kind of hot in a lot of ways knowing you want me that much. I don’t think I’d let any other guy take pictures of me, but with you… I feel like we’re safe. So long as you let me do the uploading of our vacation pictures to Facebook.”

He grinned. “I probably would screw that up. Be a fine way to give your mom a heart attack.”

“Right?”

“So what are yours?”

“What do you mean?”

Garrett waved a sprig of broccoli at her. “Your kinks. I mean, I know you like a little spanking now and then.”

“Oh, um… yeah. That one’s kind of weird. It’s not like I’m into S and M or anything, but I don’t mind a little pain, I guess. Just a little, though. You’ve got my pleasure centers down to a science.” She shivered thinking about their crazy sex after the bar. “Yeah. Definitely good there.”

“So what else? Got anything you might want to try?”

“This is going to sound weird, and maybe it’ll change later, but… not really. I like making love. That sounds corny, I don’t know, but it’s true. I like the more physical stuff too, don’t get me wrong, but what gets me going up here,” she tapped her breast and her head, “is just kinda plain Jane you on top or me on top. I like it simple.”

“Okay. If you ever feel like things are getting dull, just tell me.”

“Why?” She glanced over, arching an eyebrow. “Are things getting boring for you?”

“Not even close. You?”

“Oh hell no,” she said, a huge grin spreading across her face. “Nope nope nope.”

“Sure you don’t want to swing back to Lethbridge on our way home, see if those swingers aren’t still around?”

She punched his arm, laughing. “You’re the only one I’ll ever want in the sheets.”

“You are too.” He stared out at a grove of nearly-bare aspens, trying to ignore the child in the back-seat riding atop Brianna’s overnight bag. “I don’t think… if something ever happened to you, I don’t know if I could move on.”

She glanced over. “You damn well better.”

“What?”

“You think I’d want you mopey and depressed all your life? Why the hell would I want you to suffer over me?”

“It wouldn’t be about suffering. There’s no one-”

“Don’t say that. Because if something happened to me, I’d want you to find someone amazing in her own right, someone who deserved you just as much as you deserve her.” She sniffed, but she wasn’t crying. “You don’t just help people by beating the shit out of criminals, Garrett. You’re good for people, whether you know it or not. You make them a little braver. A little more… themselves. And I’d want that for someone else. If you met the right person.”

He watched her for a while, not really thinking, not really knowing what to say to that. He could try to placate her, but it would be a lie, and he knew the truth. He’d already experienced the madness that thinking his wife was dead could bring. If something happened to her – the real Brianna – there would be no healing. No coping. Not that he would kill himself, but the suffering would haunt him more than the ghosts he saw. “If something happens to me first, I’d want you to be happy too and find someone,” he finally said. That much was true.

 “Oh, I would. Got someone already in mind,” she said brightly.

He laughed. “What?”

“It’s like you’ve never heard of Bradley Cooper. I don’t even think I’d make it to your funeral. It’d just be a jet ride to Hollywood, a little ‘heeey, let’s ride this Cooptown train,’ and then we’d be bumpin’ uglies on a yacht in Jamaica.”

He spat out little orange bits of carrot and brushed off the dashboard, still snickering. “Good. Yeah, perfect. I like that plan.”

“Should probably just off you right now and go for it.” She thought about it. “Eh, it’d be a shame to let your sexy butt go. You do make excellent mac and cheese.” “I knew you kept me around for something.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 20

Still with me?

Why?

Chapter 20

The phantasmal child did not think in the same way as any human might. Maybe there had been words before steel-crunch-screaming-tires, but if there were, those had been wiped and replaced by ideas and pictures.

Kind-eyes-craggy-face had nearly come close enough to the rage she craved, but not quite. She could have fed off his simple anger, but kind-eyes-craggy-face was better than just a quick snack. He was a table-spread-turkey-happiness. If she was patient and teased it out of him, she could feast for days off him.

How or why she’d attached herself to kind-eyes-craggy-face or scars-strong-happy-heart, she didn’t really know or understand. Memories for her were also an abstract idea – she mostly thought only of the now and the future, of need-guilt-hunger-anger. If there was a wrongness to her insatiable hunger, she didn’t recognize it as such because she simply did not know any better. That part of her mind was gone, or at the very least, in retrograde. In the back of it all there was pain-pain-pain-pain and wrong-man-wrong-man, but lighting on those thoughts and ideas more than a few moments at a time made her sick.

Her latest meal twitched in the morning hours, the words that had fallen out of his mouth now nothing more than a mumble. She did not taste his emotions, not as such – there was no pleasure derived from her food, just satiation. But when she fed on ugly-bad-souls, she felt less guilt. The glass shards of what remained of her mind crunched underfoot when she thought about feasting on kind-eyes-craggy face. Was he bad too? She could feel the darkness in him and wanted to feast on it. That was what mattered.

Wasn’t it?

* * *

The light confused her at first. Thoughts slowly flickered through Brianna’s head like errant flies being lit up by a bug zapper. It was too bright. She was too hot. Her head ached and her mouth felt like grease left to congeal in a pan overnight.

Beside her, Garrett lay on his stomach, head turned away from the sunlight flitting through the window, the sheets bunched underneath him. She’d managed to slip under them after their damn-near all-night play, but he’d passed out on top of the sheets like he’d been slamming whiskey.

Brianna swung her legs over the edge of the bed, trying to piece it all together. They’d both been so on edge last night, and then… The thoughts of what came after made her shiver. Her sex actually hurt and she gingerly padded to the bathroom to check herself. She’d been sore before with Garrett, sure, even despite his relative small size (or so he said – she liked him just perfectly, especially since he made it up in other ways). But this was like bad rug burn combined with about a half dozen muscle pulls.

Whatever Garrett had been coming down with, she could feel it too. Her forehead and cheeks burned with a heat that hadn’t come from the sun. Sexy fun time fever, she thought to herself, less amused than confused. They’d attacked each other, and that man on the dance floor. He’d been a greasy bastard, to be sure, but she’d seen that look in Garrett’s eyes before and knew it had been in her own eyes too. They wanted to destroy that man – not slug him once or twice for being a creeper, but break him thoroughly.

She started the shower before sitting on the pot. Beside her was Garrett’s cell phone. She picked it up, punched the power button, and glanced at the time. “Shit,” she muttered. Nearly two in the afternoon. There went her golf plans for the morning.

In the shower, as she built up a thick lather, the door hinges squeaked ever so slightly. She tensed, not sure why, and waited for Garrett to say something as her fingers worked through her hair. There was a deep breath, then a long, pensive whoosh of air. Still, he said nothing. Didn’t even draw back the curtain.

“Not gonna say anything?” Brianna said. “Fine. I’ll start.” She jerked back the curtain, soapy foam running down her face. “If you ever don’t want to do something, don’t be a melodramatic dick and just say something. Yeah, I wanted to go dancing, but if you’re not up for it, you’re not up for it.”

Her eyes were squinted shut against the shampoo so she didn’t see him lean against the bathroom counter bare-assed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even know I was feeling sick until we got there.”

“You were moody the whole drive over.”

“I… yeah.” He sighed. “Look, I love dancing with you. I don’t have any excuse. I guess I was just in a mood and I took it out on you. I’m sorry.”

She jerked the curtain back in place and let the water rain back over her, sniffling. “I hate fighting with you. Hate it. I didn’t want to do it on this trip.”

“Is that what we’re doing? Fighting?”

“It’s what we do every time you think you can’t talk to me. Every time you go quiet makes us both miserable.”

“Oh come on,” he groused. “I wasn’t the only pissy one of the two of us.”

She snapped the curtain back open again. “Really? You’re gonna say that to me right now? Really? Why the unholy shit turds do you think I was pissy last night?”

“PMS?”

She threw the shampoo bottle at him. Not hard, just lobbed it. He caught it. She expected more of an argument. More of a fight. Instead, he glanced between the bottle and her, sighed, and set it back on the bathtub’s ledge before he started to strip. “If you think you’re getting any today,” she warned, “you’re gonna be sorely disappointed.”

“Just move over and let me get clean before we run out of hot water,” he said.

She did, and he joined her. This wasn’t like their shower at home, with its multiple jets and the bench seat. There was no comfortable way for the both of them to take a shower together, and finally she stepped back out, muttering under her breath, the soap not quite washed off her completely. But in the mirror, she saw him turn, and realized what she’d done to him the night before. “Oh my God, Garrett, your back, your neck.”

He craned his head and looked at himself in the mirror. “Oh wow, you worked me over pretty good.”

She had. Her fingernails had sliced long, angry red crisscrossing grooves all over his back. There weren’t just bite marks on his shoulder, either, but actual deep gouges to his flesh where her teeth had sunk into him. Her tears formed immediately and she whirled so fast she nearly slipped. He yanked the shower’s knobs to the off position and stepped out carefully, taking her in his arms as soon as their footing was more secure. She kissed the wound and cried and cried.

As he guided her back to bed, she blubbered how sorry she was, and he said it right back each time. They fell together on top of the sheets, and he stroked the wet length of her hair, kissing every inch of her face slowly and softly. They didn’t make love, but she thought it was nearly so sweet as if they had and soon her tears eased.

Brianna tended to the bite mark from their first aid kit. He hissed when she doused it in alcohol, but it was all for show. She’d once patched him up after an extraordinarily brutal fight with a shapeshifter and despite broken ribs, a concussion, and multiple lacerations, he’d whined less than this. For good measure, she cleaned out the scratches on his back, too. Though she was prone to scratching and nipping at him when she was really turned on, Brianna had never attacked him like this, and it made her a little queasy to think about it, despite just how damn good the sex had been.

“I can’t believe I did this to you,” she said. The words felt too small. Too hollow.

“I can’t believe I was such an ass to you.” He cupped her face with both hands, thumbs stroking her cheeks. “Can you forgive me, baby?”

She smiled, hesitantly. “Of course.”

“Good. Because it’s about time we finally got dressed and got you out on a golf course.”

“Ah, we missed our tee time. By… six hours.” She laughed a little at his wince. “Yeah. Last night was pretty crazy.”

“So crazy.” He stood up, rubbing the stubbled on his chin. “Let’s give them a call. Maybe they’ve got a late opening. Worth a shot.”

“Baby, if we do that, we miss the hours for the train museum.”

Garrett hesitated. “Look. If you want an afternoon away from me, I’m okay with that. I can go to the museum and I’ll pick up our camping stuff.”

“Is that what you want?” Brianna asked quietly. Her heart felt like it had just been stepped on. Tell him no, you idiot, her mind shouted. She didn’t care about golf. She just wanted to be with him.

“Is that what you want?” he parroted, a muscle in his neck ticking.

“I…” She wriggled closer and wrapped an arm around his chest. “No. It’s really not. I know it’s selfish but I want you with me. Someday we’ll have to figure out how to do our own thing or else we’ll drive each other crazy, but… I don’t want to have to spend any more time away from you than necessary. Not today, at least.”

“Good. Because that’s what I want.”

“Are you just saying that to make me happy? Please don’t do that.”

“I’m not.”

“Why do I feel like you are?’

“Bri, damn it, you’re trying to score points off me when I’ve already told you how sorry I am.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I just… ugh.” She kissed his breast. “Sorry. Post-fight megrims. Why, Mr. Moranis, if you’d like to go golfing with me, that sounds like a lovely afternoon.”

“Good.” For the first time, he noticed the color in her cheeks and forehead. “Are you catching this crap too? Headache, kinda just general blahness?”

Closing her eyes, she nodded. “Yeah. It’s not terrible, but it’s not fun either. Hope we’re not getting the flu or something.”

They finally managed to rouse themselves long enough for her to finish up the rest of her bathroom morning – or midafternoon – necessities. A couple of aspirin and glasses of water helped fight off some of the worst of the dehydration they were both feeling, but they still moved like slugs out to the SUV.

On the drive to the golf course, Brianna said quietly, “Tell me more of the story. I need it today.”

Garrett glanced over at her. She was twisted a little, rubbing his shoulder gently. Fighting with her always made him feel like the world’s lowest shitheel, even when he wasn’t at fault, but their times afterwards were some of their most honest, most caring hours, and in that moment, he felt, as he always did after their squalls, the full extent of just how amazingly lucky he was. “Baby, if you really want the true story, I…”

“You were just about to tell me how you and Francesca tracked down the bad guys. Right?”

A smile broke through, and he settled in. “Right. So there we were…”

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 19

I forget what the cause was, exactly, but this chapter wound up taking me something like four days to write. I think I came down with a cold or something. It reads like a discordant mess as a result, and you don’t really get the feel that the child is influencing things. Instead, it just kind of comes across as Garrett and Brianna being randomly violent.

Chapter 19

It wasn’t all pleasant in Edmonton.

After a day at the West Edmonton Mall spent shopping, traversing a maze, blacklight miniature golfing, and a long early dinner spent at a Vietnamese restaurant feeding each other bites of egg rolls and slurping down hot pots of pork and chicken, Brianna dragged Garrett somewhat reluctantly to see a comedy show at the Varscona Theatre. What had once been an old firehall had been converted and now regularly held plays and various performances for audiences. The show that night was written by a troupe regular, and despite his trepidation and usual disdain for live theater, Garrett found himself enjoying the evening.

Helping buoy his mood were his hallucinations – or lack of them. Neither Vernon Toth or Ransom Galbraith had tainted his mind in days, though he occasionally caught flitters of the tween girl his mind had conjured up. There was no reason to her appearances that he could work out – for hours at a stretch, she’d disappear, then pop in randomly, her gaze unfocused and bereft of any particular emotion.

That entire day, Garrett hadn’t seen her, but when they came out of the theater, she was there, seated on the edge of a garbage can, staring at him blankly. His mood dampened a little, but Brianna, arm looped through his, tugged him towards the SUV, still giggling a bit about one of her favorite scenes. When asked what she’d like to do to cap the evening, Brianna thought for a while and settled on dancing. After such a long day of start-and-stop walking, dancing sounded as appealing to Garrett as a root canal. But he agreed anyways, trying to mask his annoyance for her sake.

And after all, he thought as he tried to wave away the mental fog, hadn’t he asked her what she wanted to do? Asserting his own will after throwing that out there seemed like the sort of dick move his dad Landry used to pull on his own mom. Where would you like to eat, hon? I want a chicken salad! Well, you know, we could get a big pizza and…

Lost to the memories, Garrett barely noticed as Brianna said something. When she spoke his name again, louder, he glanced over, frowning. “Yeah? What?”

“You look like someone just punched you in the stomach. We don’t have to go dancing if you don’t want to.”

The irritation was still there, but it was fading into background noise. “Dancing sounds good. So long as there’s lots and lots of cold beer too.”

That got a little laugh out of her, maybe more than the joke deserved, but the way Brianna was looking at him, he thought she must be wondering if he was seeing hallucinations again. Given the impossible dead child in the back seat, she wasn’t wrong.

 The dance bar they settled on was deep downtown. Even at night, Edmonton seemed so damned clean and cheery. Softly lit bulbs hung from trees lining the avenues, a pleasant accompaniment to the glints from office and condo windows. Traffic had eased up, only mildly congesting the closer they reached the club. People milled here and there, largely younger folks out for a drink or a late dinner, spilling out of bars and gathering on street corners.

The bar – the Tap Shelf – took up the first floor of a three-story brick building. Only a dimly lit sign gave any indication it was there, and they had to circle the block twice to find it. Parking spaces were at a premium, but a car park two blocks away seemed amply lit and secure, judging from the number of people streaming back and forth from it. When they pulled in, Brianna caught Garrett’s hand. “Really, we don’t have to.”

Exasperated and trying not to show it, he said, “It’s great. Really. Great.” To prove his point, he leaned over and kissed her cheek before unbuckling and hopping out. After he tossed his suit jacket into the back of the SUV and Brianna changed her dress shoes into a new pair of flats she’d bought that afternoon off a clearance rack, she took his hand and swung it like they were children. He glanced at her questioningly.

“Reminds me of that night we found out Rose was prego,” she said cheerily. Garrett tried to smile, but the child-ghost strolled alongside Brianna, staring at him with sharply focused eyes, her small fingers working like claws digging at the earth.

A thumping soulful beat greeted them half a block from the bar, and Garrett thought for a teeth-grinding moment the music would make it too loud to think inside, let alone have a conversation. He wasn’t wrong. The minute the door opened and a pair of twenty-somethings jostled out, holding onto each other and laughing as they both bounced off the frame, the music gave him an instant headache, and for a moment, he thought about stopping Brianna and asking her if they couldn’t go the next night instead.

Marriage meant sacrifice, whispered an ugly little part of his mind.

The siren call of alcohol won out over his inexplicable irritation, and he followed Brianna dutifully through a throng of people just inside. Given the brick exterior, he’d expected some kind of swanky “dive bar” like he’d find in a hundred similar places in the Flats – full of mothballed stuffed animals, kitschy neon lights, an old-timey jukebox full of Dave Matthews Band and Johnny Horton, and beer priced like it was made of liquid gold.

But even through Garrett’s saltiness, he could see this was no such place. Plush, brass-buttoned armchairs and cozy couches were occupied not by hipsters, but by a wide swath of people ranging from their smooth-faced twenties to those with more snow in their hair than him. More faux brass made an appearance in the wall sconces giving the seating areas a bright, cheery glow that might’ve come straight from a library in the early 1900’s. And that was just the first third of the bar.

Another third was occupied by a long, onyx-topped bar. Underlighting beneath the bar swirled to the beat of the music, as did the lighting behind the liquor bottles. It was a sharp contrast to the old-fashioned feel of the more communal area, but it actually sort of worked, despite the visual clutter. Off to the side was the dance floor, where two dozen or so couples and singles gyrated to the beat, hands all over each other. It wasn’t swimming with people, so that was where Brianna tugged him to first, taking his hands in hers and walking backwards as she grinned at him, supremely satisfied in her choice for the evening’s activities.

The child walked with her, glancing around coldly, taking everything in without a change in her expression. Garrett tried to reflect Brianna’s cheer, but when she stumbled over someone when she hadn’t glanced over her shoulder often enough, he nearly snapped at his wife. Easy, he told himself. She’s just having a good time. No need to spoil it for her.

The DJ, a chubby man in a tracksuit with neon stripes and a pair of glittery sunglasses, slowly shifted the beat into something more up-tempo, and Garrett instinctually joined with Brianna on the floor. There really wasn’t enough room to do more than a two-step, but on the club floor like that, it was all he really needed anyways. His hands found Brianna’s waist as she draped her arms on his shoulders, darting in for a quick kiss before they lost themselves to the rhythm.

For a while, Garrett thought of nothing but the primal beat, the way his wife moved in his arms, lithe and lively. His anger slid away from him, and at the corner of his perception, so did the phantasmal child. During one of the harder beats, Brianna twirled so her deliciously tight bottom pressed against his groin, and a feral lust rose in his soul as she grinded on him, glancing over her shoulder with a smirk when she felt his response. Together, they moved and flowed. Sweeping the hair away from her neck, he leaned in and nipped her exposed flesh, loving the taste of her sweat as she shivered deliciously. Whispers into her ear were lost on the floor, but she felt the need in those words, the desire. She responded in kind, twisting back towards him, bringing her arms trailing his chest, dipping low, spreading her knees, and he groaned as she came back up and twisted again. His fingers did a little dance of their own around her stomach, finally entwining as he rested his chin on her shoulder and rocked with her. When the song crashed over the zenith, she reached up behind her to cradle the side of his head, pulling him in again to her neck, which he kissed, sucked, and loved while she moaned out his name. Her nails clawed at his cheek, drawing the faintest line of blood, but neither of them noticed. Neither of them cared.

And then the beat was changing again, something more mellow, as though the DJ sensed that in another minute, they’d just tear each other’s’ clothes off right there and fuck, the world be damned. Brianna spun, a devilish smile lighting up the whole of her face, scars and all. “I need a drink,” she panted.

“Yeah,” he croaked. “I’ll get ‘em. Just, ah, dance with me a little longer. Until, uh…” He glanced down, red-faced, as she giggled.

“Oh, but baby, what’s the matter?” Brianna asked, hand trailing down his arm.

“God, maybe not the best time to be touching me.”

“Really?” She stepped in closer, glancing around. No one was paying attention, so she gave him a little squeeze, her grin widening to Cheshire Cat proportions. “Did someone enjoy themselves?”

“Fuck, Bri, if you knew what I wanted to do to you right now…”

Someone jostled her, and the moment was over. She glanced around, suddenly a little embarrassed, and wrapped her arms around Garrett’s waist again. “Sorry,” she said, just loud enough to be heard. “Tell me when you’re good.”

He’d be good when he could drag her into the bathroom, plant her ass on the edge of the sink, and just plough into her, but instead, in another minute, he nodded. While he slipped through the crowd between the dance floor and the bar, she spotted a threesome easing out of their chairs, looking as though they were going to head for the doors. She darted for the open seats, plopping down just before a thin man in thick glasses and a suit could steal it.

The guy gave her a once-over, his gaze lingering on her scars. “You know, usually I’d be pissed about someone nicking my spot, but you? I’ll make an exception if you dance with me like you did that guy.”

Flushed, Brianna held up her left hand, making sure the guy got an eyeful of her wedding ring. Smiling apologetically, she said, “Sorry. One guy only kinda woman.”

The guy pushed his glasses further up his nose. With his just-so-slightly tousled hair, stylish five o’clock shadow, and his strong facial features, she guessed he wasn’t used to hearing the word “no.” “Can’t steal you for just a quick few minutes? No hands, I promise.” He gave her a flash of glinting white teeth that couldn’t have come cheaply. “Unless you decide otherwise.”

Now she was getting pissed, and the creeper was inching closer. “Listen,” she said, leaning forward. “I run a gym-”

“It shows.”

“-and my favorite class to teach is self-defense.” Brianna’s hands folded into fists. She almost wanted this dumb son of a bitch to start something. Could practically taste it, the same way she had when she’d been on the dance floor. Something in her was wild tonight, and she wanted to let it loose. “Now I can tell you three or four different ways I could crush your balls into a nasty little jelly or I can show you. Your call.”

The man’s cheeks went red, and he glared at her. “I was just asking you for a dance. You don’t have to be such a fucking bitch about it.”

Brianna practically purred as she rose to her feet. “Oh, you have no idea what kind of a bitch I can be, dickhead. Back. The fuck. Off.”

The guy gave her one last look before running his tongue over his lips. “All right. Fine.” He turned away, right into the path of Garrett. He glanced over the asshole’s shoulder at Brianna. “Problem?”

“Nothing I didn’t just handle,” she said, settling into the chair behind her again.

Despite the near irresistible urge to punch the guy in the head, Garrett let him pass. Turning his attention to Brianna, he said, “Looked like you were about to tear him a new asshole. Thought you might want help.”

“I can take care of myself, Garrett,” she snapped.

“All right, all right, back with the drinks in a minute,” he grumbled.

It was more like ten, but she used the time to calm herself, letting the beat flow back through her, bobbing her feet in time with it. The DJ was good, whoever he was. His songs never quite ended – they just sort of gently slipped in and out of one another. Another couple of guys tried to get her attention, and she found herself wishing she’d brought her cell phone so she could pretend she was busy having a conversation.

At the bar, Garrett finally caught the attention of a slender young bartender, who batted her eyelashes at him prettily. She gave him a cute little sashay of her ass as she strolled away to bring him back his bottle of the Terrible (a beer he’d thought was ominously named until he actually tried it and proclaimed it his mistress) and a glass of red wine for Brianna. No doubt she was flirting for a tip. His headache was really turning into a full-blown migraine, and why was he so damn hot all of a sudden? When the bartender came back and plunked the drinks on the counter, he slid a bill over, thought about it, and asked for two more bottles. As thirsty and heated as he was feeling, he had no doubt he’d burn through them in no time. The bartender raised an eyebrow, but fetched the beer and started to count out his change before he mumbled for her to keep it and made his way back to Brianna. The ghostly child sat right next to her on her knees, glancing all around and sniffing the air as her hands flexed and unflexed.

Wordlessly, Garrett handed over the glass of wine. Brianna stared at him expectantly and he realized she thought one of the bottles of beer was for her. That was… selfish of him? If it was hot for him in there, it had to be for her, too. He rubbed his forehead with one of the cool glass bottles, and Brianna had to ask him twice if he was okay before he heard her.

“Yeah, no, good. Just hot,” he said, handing over one of the bottles of the Terrible. She offered him her chair, but he declined, forcing a tight smile on his lips. What was the matter with him? His headache wasn’t Brianna’s fault, or his sour mood. She just wanted to have a fun evening and he was ruining that for her. That logic might have worked in his head, but it dampened his spirits even more. He downed a bottle in record time and didn’t so much twist the cap off the second bottle and yank it off.

By that point, Brianna had enough. She stood up, settling her untouched glass of wine on the little table beside her, and jerked her head towards the door. “Let’s go,” she shouted over the beat.

Was this how it was going to be between them? He’d managed to stave off his general anger at the world in the year and a few months they’d been dating, but was he finally getting over the honeymoon phase of their relationship? That was a dumb question. Hadn’t he been happy just a few hours before? What had changed?

In response, he knelt, picked up Brianna’s glass of wine, and handed it back to her gently. In her ear, he said, “Just a little bit of a headache. Dehydrated, maybe. After this next beer, I’ll grab a bottle of water and then I’m taking my sexy wife for another go on the dance floor.” His grin felt more natural. The ghost-child glanced up at the two of them and stood to wander the room, stopping to seemingly listen to conversations between small clumps of happy-go-lucky drinkers and dancers.

His headache did lessen somewhat with a cold drink in him, and Brianna settled back in, eventually relaxing enough that her foot bobbed to the beat again. Garrett’s smile stayed on as he caught a picture of her like that, glass and bottle in hand. It was a good picture, catching her halfway between mockingly high society and more their own speed of goofiness. A nearby couple caught the picture and offered to take one of the two of them together, so Brianna got up so Garrett could settle onto the chair with her on his lap, legs out, laughing with an arm draped around his neck.

With the next change of the beat, Brianna chugged the last half of her bottle of beer, tried to hide a loud belch, and cocked her head questioningly at the slowly emptying dance floor. It was Garrett’s turn to lead her now. The child was on the dance floor too, twirling slowly to a beat of her own, her life ribbons fluttering listlessly at her feet. Garrett forced her out of his mind and concentrated on his wife.

This time, they kept the heat down, but with the lighter dancing crowd came more of an opportunity to throw in more than a few bobs and dips. It wasn’t exactly ballroom dancing, but they let their arms swing to the rhythm and took longer steps side to side, her rhythm following his. He’d studied dancing as part of his combat training to help him gain balance and coordination, and he’d enjoyed it so much he’d stuck with it long past the point when he could have quit. That had been a decade prior, but the feel of the beat brought it back like it had been just yesterday.

Brianna faded into the music, her arms rising in the air, eyes closed and smiling, her own temper forgotten about. Garrett watched her move, throwing a bit more of his body into his own side-to-side sway. His hands sought out her waist, but he kept the contact to that, the anger in him uncoiling. For a while, it was all okay.

After three or four songs, Brianna wanted to learn some silly dance moves, so he tried to show her some perennial favorites. She took to the Dougie, her upturned arms finding the rhythm as easily as the undulation of her hips and taut stomach. A bouncing cross-step of his own design had her flummoxed, though he couldn’t shout loud enough for her to really hear the instructions.

During a funk-infused beat, he tried to show her a Kid N Play, their feet kicking together as they bounced in place – or rather Garrett bounced in place while Brianna sort of hopped, her balance unsteady and her timing off. He tried to transition to a different move, but she kept calling for one more try, even if she was laughing too hard to really focus. But in the swing of one kick, her new shoes, just a touch too large, came loose, and on the upswing of her leg, one went flying off and whacked a guy in the back.

“Hey assholes-” the guy said, snarling as he turned. He caught sight of Brianna and she straightened immediately, the hackles going up on her neck. It was the same creeper as before, now dancing with a hugely-proportioned redhead. The guy grimaced. “Oh, it’s this bitch again.”

Garrett stopped in mid-swoop to pick up her shoe and stood up carefully and calmly. “What’d you say?” he asked as he handed Brianna’s shoe off to her without looking.

“I said I’m sorry,” the guy yelled.

Garrett folded his arms across his chest. They were drawing some looks now, and the child ghost was there, watching them both, her eyes flicking from one man to the other. “Yeah, you are.”

“You didn’t let me finish. I’m sorry for the cocksucker who has to live with this frigid bitch the rest of-”

It wasn’t Garrett’s fist that connected with his jaw, but Brianna’s. The man took the punch, not reacting for a full second before staggering back and crashing to the floor. Shouts and protests rose up as Brianna shook her fist. The guy tried to stand up. Garrett, a mad grin spreading across his face, didn’t let him. His foot found the guy’s chest, and he shoved down, hard. The DJ cut the music and somewhere in the crowd of onlookers, a bouncer was pushing his way through.

“The hell did you say to her?” the redhead squealed. Then she joined in with a kick of her own, looking mighty pleased with herself when her pointed toe made the guy howl.

Brianna grabbed Garrett’s arm. “Baby, we gotta go, now.”

But Garrett didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to let this fucker live. His anger crashed over the dam, and that heat was there again, nearly scorching him. He ground his foot down, snarling words he didn’t understand, rage-fueled gibberish and the child was reaching out to him, her small hands stained with blood. Welcome to the club, kid, he thought to himself.

But Brianna was yanking Garrett, hard, and he stumbled away, casting one last fiery look back at the man as he struggled to his feet. The crowd parted for them, uneasy and murmuring, and the bouncer shouted something to them. Garrett shoved him aside. They slipped outside and ran.

* * *

Brianna couldn’t wait for the hotel. When she saw a parking lot for a large auto parts store, she told Garrett – no, ordered was more like it – to pull in. They slammed the doors and she was across the car, their hands working furiously on each other. Garrett hoisted her up like they’d screwed the very first time, her back against the SUV, legs crossed around him, and when she came, she screamed and buried her head in his shoulder, biting him hard enough to draw blood.

After, when he pulled away from her, he gasped, “I would’ve killed him. Would’ve killed him, would’ve killed him, would’ve killed him.”

Her kisses were frantic, her need still powerful even after the last few minutes. “Baby,” she said in between flutters of her lips against his skin, “baby, holy crap, I just punched him, I can’t believe I did that.”

“Are you okay? Your hand, lemme look.”

“It’s fine.” But he grabbed her hand anyways, kissing it, licking the sweat off it. She palmed his cheeks. Burning up. He was burning up. So was she, for that matter. Someone was turning into the parking lot, and she grabbed his hands. “Get me back to the hotel. Oh my God, I’ve never wanted you more than right now.”

“Same,” he growled.

And miracle of miracles, the childly ghost had disappeared.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapters 17 & 18

I think if I had rewritten this novel in its entirety, there would have been a stronger central conflict born from the discussion about money in chapter 17. There’s a great amount of potential there there, something I touch on in later chapters in this novel. But obviously this came way too late in the story, so it never really had a chance to blossom into the central conflict it could have been.

It may wind up rearing its head in a future novel. I like the idea of exploring guilt over wealth, both from the aspect of the person who’s made the money and that individual’s significant other who may not have had such opportunities. It’s something that’s been told over and over again, but so has everything else under the sun.

Chapter 17

Days passed in Edmonton slowly, days they would take with them, each in their own way. Days of excess, days of quiet reflection, days of conversation, days of beauty, days marred by the sad knowledge that it all had to come to an end.

The fervor of their lovemaking settled into something more normal for them – they still frequently went at it, but the drunkenness of wedded bliss started to approach sobriety. Their home lives began to encroach little by little into their vacation world too. While Garrett met with Tibaldo and Virgil in another unproductive but pleasant meeting, Brianna spent half a morning on the phone with Marnie back at the Hammerdown Gym. By the time Garrett came back to her with a couple of plates of fruit, yogurt, and meats, she was sitting at a table, now conferenced in with Stephanie and Ed as well as Marnie, her brow creased in worry and frustration.

It turned out the men’s locker room at the Hammerdown had mold. It wasn’t bad, not yet, but it would require some extensive work on the plumbing as well. Garrett rubbed her shoulders while she listened to Stephanie explain what would need to go into the project, and who she could call to help with the plumbing side of things.

“In a case like this,” Garrett overheard Stephanie say, “cheap isn’t the route you’re going to want to go, if you can avoid it. Otherwise you’re looking at having the same work done two, maybe three years down the line. If you give me the go-ahead, I’d like to bring in Mya Snider, she runs a crew out of Morristown. She’s batshit crazy good, and batshit crazy in general, mostly because she’ll give you a guarantee on the work. If the mold comes back in the next few years, she’ll make it right.”

“All right, how much would she charge, do you think?”

Stephanie named a price, and Brianna nearly dropped the phone. On his end of the line, Ed whistled lowly. “That’s a bit more than you’ve got in operating, Bri.”

“I know, and if there’s an emergency, and fuckin’ Murphy’s Law says there will be…” Brianna sighed. “Garrett… I hate to ask this, but…”

“Whatever you need,” he said, and kissed her cheek as he leaned down. “Ed, can you hear me?”

Brianna punched the speaker button. “-otcha, Garrett.”

“Take whatever you need from our savings. If there’s not enough, there’s plenty of cash in the safe at home. Stephanie, whatever you quoted for Brianna for your end of things, make sure it’s enough to cover you too. I don’t want you lowballing us and eating it somewhere else.”

Stephanie’s growl was unmistakably a shared Moranis thing. “I can damn well-”

“I’ll add a thousand,” Ed cut in, over Stephanie’s swearing.

“Do it,” Garrett said.

For the first time, Marnie spoke up, “Can I have a thousand extra too?”

Her frustration finally cracking, Brianna laughed. “Trust me, Marn, if the place doesn’t burn down around your ears by the time I get back, we’re definitely talking an early Christmas bonus.”

When the details were finalized, Brianna snatched up a piece of bacon and jabbed it at Garrett. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Shit happens and I told you when we got engaged, my money is your money. Besides, you’ve pulled in ten times that much working jobs with me. At least.”

Still waving the bacon like a wand, she grumbled, “That’s not at all true.”

“No?” With one finger he drew a pad of hotel paper to him and started writing down names and numbers. After two minutes, he shoved the paper at her. Listed were all the jobs they’d pulled together, at least ones with financial gains. When they brought down any wealthy criminals, they split their winnings between themselves and Murphy – or rather Murphy’s son, who benefitted from his father’s help through a discreet trust fund in his name. A large portion of their money now went as well to Sloan Bryant, who saw the funds distributed to the needy through her church and its community programs.

She gave the numbers a glance, then a longer study. She did some figuring of her own, sat back, and said simply, “Huh.”

“Everything we make, everything we have, it’s just as much yours as it is mine. Never apologize for needing something, not when we can take care of it.”

“Don’t say that. What if I took advantage of you? What if I decided, oh, hey, that vacation house in Maui sure is a thing I need? What if I become some sort of casino lounge lizard and just start pissing our money away on gambling and…” She slapped the table and accidentally knocked the breakfast plates off. “Oh, damn it, damn it, damn it.”

Wisely, Garrett sensed this wasn’t the time to laugh at Brianna. Sometimes, the mental and emotional hits she had taken over the last year and a half added up, became too much. He reached across, took her shaking hands, and kneaded her knuckles with his thumbs. “We cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said gently. “We’re gonna have money fights. Shit, we probably should have had one when I bought that stupid bowling alley. Four months of owning that thing and I can count the number of profitable days on two hands. We’re both going to make mistakes, take gambles, need something. That’s life. We prepare for it, but when it comes, we just try to handle it together. Right?”

She sniffed, hard. “That bowling alley really wasn’t our brightest move.”

Garrett laughed and stood up to clean up the mess. “See, there you go.”

As she watched him, dabbing at the corners of her eyes, she thought about how scared she’d been that this man was so impossibly unreal on their first date. The thought melted into memories, of their vow last Christmas to always be honest with each other. “Can I… can I tell you something else?”

“Of course.” He glanced over his shoulder. “What’s up?”

“I kind of…” She brushed stray hair from her eyes and thought for a moment longer how to word things. “I have a bit of guilt.”

“What about?”

“I’m glad. About our money. I know we don’t exactly make it honestly, but it’s not like we’re ripping off good people. And you and Ed, you try to give it back, in your own way. But… I also like knowing that we can do this-” she gestured at their view “-and that you have this big safety net. I feel… safe. Financially, I mean. I guess that’s not very feminist. Or maybe it is. Maybe wanting your partner to be stable isn’t so much of anything as it is just… sane. But I do have some guilt because I know the Hammerdown’s never going to be a moneymaker. If it was just me, I’d barely be clearing a few grand a month, and when something like this happened… I’d figure it out, but I like that we can do this together. I guess I just want you to know… I appreciate you being a rock for me. For Marnie and the gym.”

He tossed the food in a garbage can and took her hands. “Just promise me one thing.”

“Shoot.”

“I don’t know sometimes what lines are too far. So be honest with me. If I make some grand gesture and it really is too much, call me on it. Because you’re my first real committed relationship and… I don’t know. If I jump in to help or give you things and it’s not something you’re comfortable with, please, be honest.”

“Of course, Garrett.” The tension eased and she really did feel better. “Can we… I know we have a big old city to explore, and I think we could walk the mall without spending much, but… today, could we just cuddle and… I don’t know, be here for a while?”

“Anything you want, forever.” He squinted at the window. “Unless it’s a pool boy with a ten-inch dong. That’s just not fair.”

Crying and laughing and shaking from head to toe, Brianna stood up and embraced him, bending slightly so her head could rest better in the crook under his chin. “I’m sorry I’m a basket case.”

“I’m a guy who sees ghosts, hallucinates dead girls, and who, until a very beautiful woman told him recently that he was wrong, thought friendly mutton chops would be an amazing look on his face.”

“It just wasn’t meant to be, hon,” she whispered, smiling against the warmth of him.

“Can I ask what brought this on?”

“Mm hm. You know Grandpa had a lot of money from his companies, but that was before he got really involved in the community. When Dad came along and took over the Hammerdown. he was running it on a prayer, pretty much. Mom, she was even worse off. Her parents… they just didn’t have a lot.” Brianna pulled back a little to look up at him. “I’m not saying I was uncomfortable, but Mom and Dad made a lot of sacrifices, kinda cut a lot of corners of their own lives for mine when I was a kid. I’ve always felt bad about that. Things changed for Mom when I got older, but she still didn’t really find a lot of success until I was nearly ready for college. And Dad, well, you know.” He did. Danny had been a great guy, but the Hammerdown had been a sinking ship until Garrett paid off some of its debt, trying to be stealthy and failing. “When you can come along and just solve problems like it’s nothing, it’s… intimidating. No, that’s not right. Overwhelming. Money like you just okayed, that would have taken Mom and Dad months and months of scrounging. You’ve already bailed that place out a few times and I just… the guilt adds up.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to seem so… flippant earlier. I guess that’s the word. If you feel guilty-”

“Or if you felt resentful.”

“Right, that too. We’ll talk. Same as everything else. And for the record, I don’t resent this a single bit. I love that gym. Helping out makes me feel good too. So don’t feel a bit guilty, okay?”

“Yeah.”

He kissed her forehead. “Doing better?”

“Much.”

“Good. Cause I’ve got a surprise for you. Something I’ve been holding onto for a rainy day. Ah, literally. After our little stay in St. Mary, I bought something online in case we got weathered out of something.”

She pulled away, grinning. “What is it?”

His face grew dour, as though he wanted to spit. “Anime.”

“What?” she asked in utter disbelief.

“I… bought anime. I washed afterwards for hours and hours. Even flushed my eyes out. God, I felt filthy and horrible and subhuman, but… since you like it so much and wanted me to watch it, I thought… I don’t know, we could watch a couple of episodes and I promise I won’t say a peep.”

The same bet that had left her responsible for writing the thank-you cards would have seen him have to watch a season of anime if she’d won instead. Brianna offered up a feeble protest – actually, it sounded like a hell of a way to spend the afternoon with him – but his mind was made up. They raced out and to a nearby store for some sodas, bags of PC poutine and burger-flavored potato chips, and a mess of candy bars, including Mr. Bigs, Wonderbars, Mars Bars, and Caramilks. Junk food, all of it, but it was just the sort of day meant for garbage food and cuddling.

Back at the hotel room, watching a vampire and his ex-cop partner take on the paranormal, Garrett and Brianna eased into a lull together. Though he tried hard to like the show for her sake, Garrett’s eyes kept closing and soon he drifted off into a breezy nap. Brianna shut off the laptop between them, set it aside, and swept the candy wrappers off the bed. She tucked into him, still trembling slightly, but the storm had passed and soon she was breathing easily too.

Chapter 18

Toes swirling in the river as they sat on the edge of a dock, Brianna leaned her head against his shoulder, eyes closed, content. He wrapped his arm around her, snuck out his phone, and took a picture of them together like that. It was a good thing he returned it to his pocket, because what she said next surely would have made him drop it in the river. “I wonder if I’m pregnant yet?”