Why oh why oh why would you not take five minutes, snap a picture of your menu, and upload it to your Facebook page? Why?!?
I’ve been watching, reading, and playing things.. Let’s talk about them!
Audience surrogates are a tricky narrative device to pull off well. If you’re not aware, these are characters inserted into a story to help ask the expository questions necessary (at least in the writers’ or producers’ minds) to fill out the plot so audiences aren’t left with questions about the world or its rules.
Like most tropes, audience surrogates aren’t good or bad, but you can generally find examples of both. Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins are probably two of the most recognizable audience surrogates. They’re thrown out of their little corners of the world into a new life and new experiences, and we as readers experience that through their lenses. Personally, I don’t like “the one” characters so Harry Potter’s not really a favorite of mine, but the way he experiences the world around him with awestruck glee and trepidation is certainly not at fault.
Then there are blatantly awful versions of these characters. Up until 2021, I’d have told you the worst one in recent memory is the John Myers character from 2004’s Hellboy. Look, I love me some Guillermo Del Toro, but the guy and his scriptwriters have often leaned hard on narrative tropes, and Myers is the tropiest. There’s no depth or nuance to him. He exists solely to serve as the surrogate for the audience, and is completely unnecessary to the plot. Seriously. Watch the movie again. Everything is great about that film but the John Myers stuff and had it been excised, you’d be watching one of the better superhero films.
Enter 2021’s bizarre, almost-mediocre movie Mortal Kombat. It starts fantastically well, with two characters that would eventually become Scorpion and Sub-Zero, arguably the game’s lynchpins. The fight scene between them is short and brutal, and you get who they are without having to be spoon fed a lot of nonsense.
Unfortunately, that’s the one and only saving grace of the movie, and that’s largely thanks to the most bizarre reworking of lore since The Dark Tower movie adaptation squirted out from Nikolaj Arcel and Stephen King’s backsides. The backbone to the earliest games is there – Earth and Outworld’s control are determined by a tournament taking place every ten years. That’s not a terribly complex concept, and it’s worked great for movies before – see Ong Bak, Diggstown, Fearless, Warrior, Enter the Dragon, or about a hundred JCVD movies.
But in true head-shaking fashion, someone – probably a committee of someones – decided that wasn’t enough and they needed to spice up the formula for… reasons. In this film, Shang Tsung gets it in his head to attack and kill Earth’s mightiest C-squad of Avengers before the tournament even starts, apparently not caring about the fact that these people’s arcana – whatever the hell that’s supposed to be – keep popping up on other people when they die. It’s a dumb plan that’s given exactly zero minutes of explanation or reasoning. Not one minute.
That’s true of pretty much everything on display here. Want to know anything about anyone’s backstory apart from Scorpion? Tough. Want to spend a minute to get to know any of the fight scene fodder bad guys? Not going to happen. The movie doesn’t even allow itself or the viewer the chance to experience the scenes or the passage of time. Establishing shots were not something the director or editors were familiar with, apparently. There is a scene where three of the fighters parachute out of a plane, land in the desert, and one character immediately says “I’m tired of walking,” despite there only having been a whopping three seconds between them parachuting and that line. It’s amateurish editing on a scale we haven’t really seen in decades.
But the worst plot offense by far is having this huge cast of characters be wasted on establishing the new king of plot surrogates Cole Young. It’s immediately the dumbest plot device in the movie by simple din of the fact that this fighting tournament only happens every ten years, meaning every new fighter to the tournament won’t have heard of it or know what’s going on. Cole’s existence from the very start makes absolutely no sense because Sonya, Kano, and anyone else that could have taken Cole’s vanilla-ass spot would have fulfilled the same role to the audience.
The Cole character is made even more baffling by not actually fulfilling the very simple thing the character is meant to do. The Mortal Kombat video game lore isn’t the most complicated in the world, so it’s already baffling that they would change up the rules of the universe for the film, but then to have an audience surrogate not actually react or ask more questions about this universe is nuts. It’s straight up godawful writing. Sonya Blade throws in a couple lines about other worlds and Liu Kang spouts some stuff about people having arcana – this world’s version of superhuman abilities, I guess – and that’s literally it. Cole has no purpose, no reason for existence. He’s supposed to be Scorpion’s heir but that doesn’t actually matter because Scorpion himself just up and appears and comes back into this universe because… I don’t know, he can?
It’s a dreadful movie. Stick to the more recent games since IX. That first combat sequence is rad, but for God’s sake, steer clear of this stinker. At least the 90s movie was fun in its stupidity.
Right, let’s move on to something I (generally) really like.
Doom Patrol is an oddity of the very best kind. It’s very deliberate in its attempt to appear kitschy and often is. Like a filthy-mouthed Doctor Who, though, the hokey special effects and hammy characters often conceal something much, much deeper and fundamentally astounding.
Doom Patrol hinges on one central conceit – that it’s okay to be weird. The central characters are the Island of Misfit Toys versions of superheroes, and I really love that concept. Every cast member shines, from Brendan Fraser as a washed-up has-been racer living in a robot’s shell to April Bowlby in the role of a lifetime as Rita Farr, a former actress turned into a stretchy mass of flesh that can barely keep it together most days. Perhaps most surprising is Matt Bomer’s absolutely superb voicework as Larry Trainor. I liked Bomer well enough in White Collar, but this allows him to really show his range and he runs with the ball.
The first season is the real highlight. The second, eh… it loses something in its new character Dorothy, whose struggles with growing from a child to a woman could have actually been really impactful if that was the focus, instead of the team kinda shitting on her all the time. It’s a mistake, but a relatively harmless one, as there are enough other fascinating side stories to pick up the slack.
That first season though is whipcrack smart and inventive. Things you’d think would be played off as one-note jokes become great running gags or often times lead to some really smart episodes further down the line. Take, for example, Danny the Street, a character who’s an actual street. They could have been a one-note thing, a means to shuttle the Doom Patrol between two necessary plot points, but Danny winds up becoming a major part of the show in both seasons, largely as a way to celebrate diversity and community.
Also, major kudos to this show for making Flex Mentallo now one of my new favorite superhero characters. He’s brilliantly dumb and like everything else about this show, incredibly heartfelt. Cannot recommend Doom Patrol enough.
Also, I heart you, April Bowlby. Happy sigh.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Just a quick note here since I talk games mostly on Giant Bomb, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses went and did something weird. I kinda came to dread the game by the time the credits rolled. The plot makes absolutely no sense, the character motivations are reliant only on moment-to-moment needs and are just as baffling as the plot, entire plot threads vanish (seriously, what the hell was up with the woman living inside your brain? Anything? Anything at all?), and the plot structure of Dire Things needing immediate attention but also you have to wait a month in between to deal with them is really dumb.
And then a funny thing happened. I saw there was a new Game Plus mode, and jumped back in to see what carried over. As it turned out, happily, a lot of it. Playing this game with the convenience of not caring about the plot and skipping through it is genuinely the best way to go. I could see myself playing this over a few more times to try and maximize stats, recruit everyone, and build up a dream team of recruits. Why? I don’t really know, except the combat grind – it’s chess but with about five character types – kinda has its hooks on me and I like seeing stats go up. It’ll probably be my RPG of choice until Disgaea 6 drops in a month and change.
What I’m Reading
Right now I’m working my way through the Pines novels by Blake Crouch. I took some time off to listen to a smattering of John Sandford and Craig Johnson novels, but am back on it now. Pines is… interesting. The basic plot premise has me hooked, even if it doesn’t stand up under a lick of scrutiny, and I’m invested enough to want to read it to its end. Do I like it, though? I don’t know. I don’t really find a lot interesting about the characters themselves. They largely exist to push the larger ideas at work in the novels forward, and don’t have a lot of character traits to themselves. For example, the lead, Ethan, thinks a lot about abuse heaped on him in his time overseas as a POW, but rarely does it actually affect him in any meaningful way than memory. Everyone kinda feels detached like that.
I don’t want to talk too much about the overarching plot because the books are worth reading, but if anybody does or has read it, I’d be curious about your thoughts on how any of this is possible. I know I need to not look at it quite so analytically and take it for the entertainment it is, but the books are written so clinically it’s hard not to.
And that’s it! Let me know what you’re reading, watching, or playing. Have a good one, folks!
The title pretty much spells out the bulk of this post. I’ve left Facebook and Twitter (and am in the long, tedious process of cleaning out those dead links from my ebooks, so apologies for that). There’s no real drama to the decision. I just hate logging in and being miserable for the time I’d spend browsing. There’s only so much deliberate ignorance I can stand, and boy, it’s been layered on pretty thick over the last five years or so.
That said, you’re probably going to see more of me here. Follow along, if you like. It’s probably going to devolve into a blog about what I’m watching and reading, which is pretty much what I used Twitter and Facebook for in the first place.
As for the books, Break the Castle is coming along slowly, and my horror collection End Pieces slightly less so. I seem to have lost some mojo in the last year and change, but it’s coming back. Hopefully I’ll have more to share about both soon! Until then, high five, cool person.
Lumping all these together because I think the flow would feel weird if I didn’t. As pleasant as it’s been to revisit Garrett and Brianna, revisiting On Hallowed Lanes has given me a degree of closure on this series. Frankly, I’m ready to be done with Garrett’s mopey nature and Brianna’s pinball personality. I love them to death, don’t get me wrong. But it’s nice to shut the last door on them too.
Notes on these chapters – here you can see the earliest incarnation of the fight Garrett eventually has with Mr. Smyle. At this point when I wrote this, I knew I was either looking at a complete rewrite or I wasn’t going to publish it at all, so the details start to drop away and the fight is more or less lifted straight from my chapter synopsis. It’s short. But I think I more than made up for it when the fight in Smyle wound up being something like a tenth of that novel’s length. No joke.
Looking forward to revisiting the Not-Right Man in the future. I’ve got even more planned for him, and I think he’s going to make a fun, sick adversary for Peter Balan and Quincy Newman.
We now draw the final curtain on Garrett, Brianna, and maybe even one more old friend. Goodbye, my first printed characters. Have a good rest.
What had seemed so pleasantly dull when they came through the first time now seemed to be fogged in menace. Little moved in the town itself, but in every window, Garrett thought, there were eyes that could potentially bring this whole thing crashing down.
They had no time to steal a car. No time to do anything but slip the scarves around their necks, collect their meager weapons, and charge the Roadkill Museum.
* * *
Finally, some good news. They parked the Durango around the back. They had no picks, but the door was flimsy and the locks ancient. It took two kicks from Garrett to send it bouncing back off the wall.
In they walked, and Brianna immediately recoiled. “I have no problem with taxidermy, but this is batshit crazy,” she muttered.
Nothing stirred. The old, musty animals didn’t move, didn’t blink, despite her half-crazed fear that they would. Garrett led the way, digging the mallet out of his waistband. Brianna had the knives, and each of them had a stake jabbing up at their sides out of their pants.
The door to the stairwell was locked too, and he remembered his dream with a shudder. Thanks for watching her for me, the voice in the darkness had said. Garrett reared back and kicked that door open too.
“Jerk. I wanted to kick that door open,” Brianna muttered.
“Sorry. I’ll give you the next three, okay?”
The light switch brought to life gleaming LEDs at odds with the old musty stairs. They took each step carefully but quickly. The basement was a grotesquery of a hobbyist’s shop, almost ordinary with its long wooden table, racks of tools, and a couple of giant steel cabinets lining each side of the room. But in a corner, displayed like one of the animals upstairs, was the body of a teenage girl.
Where Garrett had described her as sort of country-ish, dressed in shabby clothes with long, greasy hair, the body on display was completely nude and had been carefully cleaned up and attended to. Her hair gleamed as though it had just been freshly shampooed, her skin looked soft and well-lotioned, her eyes gleamed from the light.
“Oh God,” Garrett whispered. “Those aren’t her real eyes.”
Brianna closed her own in reflex, and forced them back open. “Is she…?”
“I can’t tell.” He crossed the room and felt her neck. Only up close did he see the wires keeping her upright. Unlike the stuffed animals, it seemed the taxidermist liked to move her around a bit. Around her mouth and vagina were obvious, telltale bruising Not just a sick fuck, but a child rapist and possibly a necrophiliac, but that was put out of contention when Garrett pressed two fingers to the child’s neck and waited. “She’s got a pulse, but it’s barely there.”
“What do we do?” Brianna asked, not bothering to hide the sickness and despair in her voice.
“I…” Drops of sweat rained down from Garrett’s forehead, and he fell to a knee. “Urgh, I can’t… she’s trying to tell me something. But she can’t shut off the hunger. It’s… it’s…”
Brianna rushed forward, feeling for the heat. The child’s spiritual projection – that was what they’d decided to call the ghost – stood between Garrett and the body. Though Brianna couldn’t see it at first, there was a glimmer, maybe from the heat. She forced her mind at it, bringing up all the buried pain of her father’s murder, of her near rape, of Garrett’s mother’s funeral and not going with him. It was like someone inserted a mental straw and was sucking greedily at the emotions. Brianna gasped and fell to one knee too. Garrett’s hand reached out, weaving with pain, and felt for the stake at her side. She tried to stop him, but she didn’t need to. He couldn’t muster up the strength to draw it.
“He’s coming,” Garrett moaned. “He’s coming, he’s coming, he’s coming.” He curled up tight into a ball, the sweat slowly starting to dry up as his body cooked.
Brianna was only slightly better off, but she could hear the thumps. Could hear the jangle of keys and a cheerful, “Hello, visitors.” And then the man was on the stairs, and he was there, the light playing over his face, his body, his gait.
The Not Right Man.
“Get away,” Garrett moaned to Brianna, but the command was useless. She was writhing in pain too, and falling, staring at him with skin so red they looked as though they’d been roasted in a fire.
“Are you feeding on them right now?” the Not Right Man asked the child’s body. “Amazing.”
He strode across the room and knelt beside the two. Tapping his chin with his thumb, he said finally, “I remember you. You came into the shop and ran. I thought you’d pissed yourself.”
Garrett worked his mouth open and closed, trying to suck in air through sandpapery pipes. He clutched at the Not Right Man’s shoes, trying to bring himself to his feet, but the bastard shimmied backwards before punting him right in the breadbasket. He couldn’t even fold up to protect himself.
“Garrett,” Brianna wheezed.
The Not Right Man grinned, and kicked him again. And again. And again. A deep, dry rattle escaped Garrett’s lips.
Brianna’s fingers scrabbled across the clay floor to him. “Gar?” Her hand found his face, and she froze. “Guh. Guh.”
The Not Right Man turned to her. “Oh, she’s cooking him like a roast, sweetheart.” He grabbed Brianna under her armpits and sat her up against one of the metal cabinets. “A little older than I like them, but some of my customers will eat you up.” He toed her groin. “A couple of them, probably literally.”
“N-no,” she whispered. “Help.”
“Your hubby’s dead. Or will be in another minute or two.” He tilted her head back and looked at her eyes. There was something wrong with his. Things moved in his pupils, things she couldn’t help staring at. “Hm. I like the eyes but I don’t have anything like those in stock. Might have to custom order them.”
“Help,” Brianna said again, not to Garrett, but the child. She sought through her memories, picking them out, throwing them at the child. Coming home from the hospital when Garrett was lost to Hamber, waking up without him. The sorrow in his face when they’d first seen the devastation of the twin tornados. How desperately, madly in love with him she was, and the agony of what his passing would be.
“You know what happens to real eyes if you leave them in the body?” the Not Right Man continued. “They get kind of gummy at first. It’s pretty sick. Then they dry out, kinda like a grape. It gets rubbery and there are these little waves of tissue. And it’s all crusty as shit. No, you need to use artificial eyes. I order them from a supplier for the blind.”
Brianna closed her eyes. Help, she whispered mentally. Help.
* * *
Garrett barely sighed out a breath. The next one almost didn’t come.
Brianna was whispering and the Not Right Man kept talking. Darkness wanted to swallow Garrett, but the taxidermist was right there. If he just had the strength to… what?
Memories. Nothing specific, just flashes. Their condo. Brianna waking in the night with his name on her lips. Sorrow. The dream flooded his mind. The man coming down the stairs. The glowing pendant. Thanks for watching her for me.
His throat worked. The breath threatening not to come out slid through, and he sucked another one in. The taxidermist stopped, frowned, and turned. Garrett’s fingers tingled, and his fever crested and waned. Breaths came in easier and easier, and he struggled to reach out. The Not Right Man reared back his foot again, and Garrett took the blow, and another. But then his hand was on Brianna’s leg, and her fingers were there too. He looked at her pleadingly. Understand, he told her. Please. Give me it.
Her hand rose shakily to her side, and with effort, she drew the stake. It fell to her side, rolling away from her hip.
And towards Garrett.
The Not Right Man saw none of this. He reared back his foot again, and Garrett lunged, not far, not up, but jabbing the stake straight down, into the taxidermist’s foot on the ground. It wasn’t hard enough to break the surface of the man’s shoe, but it was enough to startle him and send him crashing backwards.
Garrett forced himself to his hands and feet, not so much tackling the Not Right Man as falling over him. The bastard was laughing, not in some evil, maniacal way, but at the ludicrousness of the situation, being pinned down by a stranger about to shake hands with the reaper.
But Garrett was eye level with something, and while the other man laughed, he reached. His shaking arm had trouble making a grasping motion, but it didn’t take a lot of strength to snap the pendant from the taxidermist’s neck.
The laughing stopped.
“Give it back,” the Not Right Man said sharply. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and he shoved Garrett off him. “Give it back!”
Garrett was almost out of strength, and he didn’t have the will to hold the pendant for long. He rolled away and pushed it towards Brianna. She clutched at it, but didn’t stop there. She grabbed Garrett’s hand, the furnaces in them both dying as they were stoked elsewhere.
“Give it back!” the Not Right Man shrieked. His hands rose to his face, and he began to babble. “Raped so fucking many! Killed! Help me, give it back, give it baaaaaack!”
His shrieks rose to a high pitch, and above them, the child gasped something. The word was unintelligible, but the emotion she shoved at them was clear as day. Gratitude. An end to a waking nightmare. Sorrow, and pity, and a horrible, all-consuming guilt.
“Wasn’t your fault,” Garrett gasped. Brianna nodded.
The Not Right Man’s screeching died down to a rattling whimper. Garrett rose to his feet, unsteady but feeling a thousand times better. He shook his head. “Don’t carry his death to the next life, kid. Up until now, you’ve had no choice. Now you do. Let me.”
Brianna’s hand grasped his. “Let us.”
A tendril of gratitude, then a blast of something strange and powerful, gone before they even had a chance to contemplate it. Ephemera at the last, a thousand colors nearly blinding Garrett in the heartbeat they stuck around. The child was gone.
* * *
They stood above the Not Right Man. Color was returning to his cheeks and it wouldn’t be long before he was moving again. There was no question about letting him live. However this man had kept the child alive, it was born of some unholy magic. Garrett knelt next to him, followed by his wife. There were no words as Brianna gave over her knife. Her hand covering his, they plunged the blade home.
Together, they dragged the child upstairs and wrapped her in a sheet. They were careful, but quick. Brianna wept to have to leave her like that, but there was little else they could do without a long line of questioning and probable jail time. Quickly, they returned to the basement and wiped down everything. In a drawer, Garrett found a case full of syringes like he’d seen in his vision. The liquid inside frothed without him even touching the glass. He overturned the case onto the clay ground, and smashed the syringes under his foot. The liquid seeped into the unfinished basement, leaving only a dark stain. It would have to work.
Back in the SUV, they jerked out of there, shooting out along the backroad leading away from the Roadkill Museum. They had little idea where they were going, just that they had to get away.
An hour later, they were wrapped in each other’s arms. There was only silence between them, and then whispered words and promises.
Garrett slipped into the passenger’s side, and rested his head against the window. “Take me home, beautiful,” he croaked.
But Brianna had other plans.
He came awake out of the blessedly dreamless sleep as Brianna shut her door quietly. As he rubbed at his gummy eyes, she whispered, “Go back to sleep. Just a bathroom break.”
“No, I’m up,” he murmured “We about to the border yet?”
“Uh, about that…”
Brianna grinned as she started back up the Durango. “We were already pretty close to Drumheller. We needed some positive note to go out on here. I wasn’t going to leave things…” A long, sorrowful pause, and then she finally finished, “I wanted something good at the end of this trip. And I know you were regretting missing the Royal Tyrrell Museum, so…”
Garrett held up a hand in front of his mouth, breathed hard into it, sniffed, and muttered, “Ah, hell with it,” before he leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“We’re a half hour out. So that gives us enough time to finish the story.”
“Bri, I told you the truth. Everything up to the guards catching up to us in Beaudette’s house was pretty much the way it happened, then I just started making stuff up because the rest of the story was boring.”
“I looked up some names. Trahan. RJ Gilligan. That sniper. These people really existed. Some of the stuff you talked about really happened.”
“Oh yeah, bits and pieces.” Little kernels of truth among the lies, he thought to himself, and shuddered. I hate you I hate you I hate you sometimes. “Trahan was an informant for the police and some different drug runners and pimps down there. He was a turd, playing both sides. Would’ve wound up dead if we hadn’t sent him to prison. Gilligan, we really did rob him blind, but it was pretty straightforward stuff. Without the money to fence and no one willing to loan him that kind of cash, he was out of business for years.
“And Barclay was a nut, pretty much just like I described him. Neo-Nazi, used to print out a bunch of fascist propaganda bullshit and pin it under people’s wipers. That alone would’ve been enough for us to fuck with him, but Murphy followed him to a good ol’ fashioned cross burning.” Garrett shook his head, grimacing. “It was his apartment we were trying to break into, but he saw it coming, got out the back, and climbed to the top of the nearest building. He shot at us a few times, and then he really did run from the cops and wound up eating it. No great loss there.
“Caspian’s real, but not like in the story. They really are a middle-man service of sorts, one we’ve heard about a few times, but they’re very careful and damn near impossible for us to trace. Francesca never had anything to do with them, though. And Barry and Saul are complete bullsh-”
“Complete villain, that’s what Saul was,” Brianna interrupted. “Because he killed his buddy and kidnapped Francesca. Which you were just going to tell me about. Right?”
“But I told you how it ends.”
“No, you didn’t. So there you were, facing down dozens, maybe hundreds of psycho killer types.”
Garrett laughed and shook his head. “All right, all right. So there we were, facing down dozens, maybe hundreds of psycho killers, crooked cops…”
* * *
Garrett stopped, caught in thought. Brianna glanced over. “What’s up?”
“Does any of this feel weird to you?”
“The story? What part of robot giraffe ninjas isn’t weird?”
“No… I mean… Brianna, we just killed a guy. And I feel… mellow.”
“Whatever that fucking thing was, it stopped being human a long time ago. I’ve got zero regrets about that.” Then she did pause. “Huh. You’re right. There should be… something there. But I feel great. Happy. Not like I want to go on a murder spree crazy, but…”
“Your mind feels clear.”
“Yeah, exactly.” She frowned. “You think that kid…?”
“I felt something there at the end, didn’t you?”
Brianna nodded. “I know it won’t last forever, but for now, this is pretty all right.”
“Yeah,” Garrett said. For the first time since before Hamber – hell, maybe for the first time since he was a teenager – his conscience felt clear. The ever-present throb of guilt in the back of his mind was just… gone. Though he hadn’t seen what had become of the child’s trapped ghost, he glanced up at the sky. “Thanks, kid.”
Brianna gave him another few seconds, then said, “So. Your phone rang.”
* * *
Brianna clapped hard, and reached over the console to squeeze him in an awkward hug. “Aw, best story ever.”
“Not really,” Garrett said. “Best story ever was on a cold night when a very beautiful, kind woman took a gamble on listening to a crazy person talk about ghosts.”
“Eh, too many fart jokes in that one,” Brianna said, but she was smiling, and there may have been just a couple more tears. Not the last she’d shed in Canada, but close. “Garrett?”
“This is going to sound corny.”
She grabbed his hand. “Really corny.”
“You said the honeymoon was over, baby.” She glanced over, blushing. “It’s really not. I don’t think it’s ever going to be.”
“I love you.” The words were simply given, but no less heartfelt from him than the first time they were spoken.
“I love you too. Let’s go see some big-ass dinosaur bones.”
“Then maybe I’ll show you my dinosaur bone.”
“Didn’t do it for you?”
“Not even close.”
In the end, they decided to spend just a little more time together. Tess gave them her blessing, after they promised they’d come to visit her again soon on a free weekend – though it would be her coming to visit them when the August Montana wildfires turned Seeley into an smoky inferno.
Instead, the content couple, wounded but healing together, came down south through Brooks, and stayed one last night together in Taber. There, in a quiet hotel room, Garrett made sweet, slow love to his wife for the last time on their honeymoon in Canada.
They crossed at Sweet Grass, and this time, Brianna made no jokes about cocaine or other drugs, much to Garrett’s relief, though they spent even more time at Customs while their souvenirs and belongings were examined. They didn’t care. They spent the entire time holding hands and looking through pictures – the less sexy, more touristy ones, that was.
In Great Falls, they stopped at the State Fair, eating deep-fat fried round meatballs, and since he’d never been on one, Brianna took Garrett up on the Ferris wheel, where they did some properly long, pleasant necking.
And in the early afternoon, Garrett pointed the Durango towards home, to real life, to Rankin Flats.
* * *
A traffic jam greeted them, of course. It was the Flats’ customary welcome home fuck you, but they endured it as Brianna hooked back up her iPod and played their reception playlist. While they waited for the cars to unsnarl, she leaned her head against his shoulder and stared at the smoggy skyline of the massive city. The glint of sunshine off steel and plastic led her to close her eyes, and she nestled harder against her husband as all around them, people leaned on their horns and shouted impotently out windows.
“Thoughts?” Garrett asked, pulling forward a whopping two feet before dropping the SUV back into park again.
“Just that things are going to be normal again really soon. And normal for us… well…”
Garrett’s shoulder shook with his soft chuckle. “Yeah. Hey. One last time. I’m sorry.”
“Me too. I know we can’t take any of it back, but… do you want to?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
She sat upright and turned. “I mean, that thing drew out the worst of us and threw it in our faces. And we survived, you know? Not just death by soul sucking, but us. We survived.” She bit her lip. “Didn’t we?”
“Bri, if you think telling me any of what you said is going to make me love you any less, I’ve got news for you.”
“I kinda feel the same way.” She settled back against him again, thinking of that little house near St. Mary. Of the woman gone from the pictures. “Someday, Garrett, there’s going to be a darkness we can’t survive. One or both of us, I don’t know.”
“Don’t say it’s not true. Because it is. Even if we live to eighty, there’s going to be a day when one of us wakes up and the other one will be gone.”
“That’s life.” She took his hand and held it to her breast. “That’s the price of this. And this? This is worth that darkness. So long as we know the other one’s always going to be further up the path waiting, there’s nothing out there that can really terrify me anymore.”
“The things I’ve done…” Garrett trailed off, and finally said, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to promise you that. I think when I die, I maybe go the other way.”
“I don’t need you to promise me anything. I know you’ll be there.” She smiled and dug out her cell phone for one last vacation picture of the two of them. Both were half-cooked, sweaty, and exhausted, but it was one of her favorite photos from the whole trip. “And in the meantime, here and now, I promise you, there’s no one else I want to yell horrible shit at.”
His laugh was the music she really needed.
* * *
Forty-five minutes later, they were home. Brianna cried, because that was what she did, and she laughed too, because that was also what she did. Garrett fought down a lump of depression – though he wanted to take dozens of adventures with Brianna, go to a thousand different places, he knew there would be nothing quite like that one in its scope or its raw passion.
They hauled out their luggage and a handful of bags, and headed upstairs to their place. At the door, much like their first night together as a wedded couple in Helena, Garrett insisted on carrying Brianna through the threshold. He saw it before her, and though they both knew Ed and Rose’s gift to them, it still brought him to a halt – the loveseat from their first date at the Guzman’s. Garrett walked his wife to it, set her down gently, and brushed her beautiful dark hair out of her eyes. “You’re home, Mrs. Moranis.”
“With you, I always am.”
“Still true, though.”
The luggage, gifts, and camping gear were brought in, and they were finally able to collapse on to the loveseat together, Brianna cuddled with Garrett like that for a while, then twisted so she could kiss him, softly, gently. They both smelled like sweat and suntan lotion and road funk, but their need grew anyways. A familiar voice said, “Jeez. Tell a fella hi first before you start necking like teenagers, huh.”
Garrett buried his face in Brianna’s shoulder and laughed helplessly. “What?” she asked.
* * *
The ghost wasn’t supposed to be home for another week or two, but as he put it, “Europe’s kinda boring when you’re traveling around alone.” He’d come home three days before, nearly the same time Garrett and Brianna were about to confront the ghost child.
“Wait. You fought… what now?” he asked in dumb amazement.
So they told him the whole story, leaving nothing out – even the ugliest of the ugly. When Brianna got to the part about her admitting she sometimes felt like a third wheel, Murphy tried to hug her. She couldn’t feel it, but the gesture was appreciated anyways. It took nearly an hour to finish the story.
“Holy…” Murphy breathed. “Why didn’t you try to get ahold of us? Of me? Shit, I would’ve been on the first flight to Vancouver, you know that.”
“Your plans in Europe were – and I’m pretty much quoting you here – ‘I don’t know, I’m gonna go see some art and theater and shit.’ That’s not exactly easy to track.”
“Yeah, well, still.” Murphy shook his head. “An empathic comatose vampire ghost kid. That’s a new one.”
About then, the Lees knocked on their door. Wendy had seen the SUV in the lot, and when she told Jin, he’d boxed up a dozen of their favorites from one of his buffets and brought it home to them so they wouldn’t have to cook for a long while. The four of them shared a beer over Hunan beef while the Lees’ daughter Megan ran around the condo with a stuffed caribou they’d bought for her in Edmonton, but after a while, Wendy visibly nudged Jin, who glanced at her and frowned when she did it again.
“It’s their first night home,” she said to him quietly.
“Yeah, but we’re talking… oh.” And just like that, the Lees were heading out the door, their souvenirs in hand, telling them how happy they were the Moranises were home.
When they’d gone, Murphy started laughing. “The Moranises. Never gonna get used to that.”
“You’re telling me,” Garrett said as he got up to fetch another couple of bottles of beer for him and his wife. Good ol’ Pyramid, he thought. As much as he’d enjoyed all the Canadian beer, he’d missed his favorite brand.
Brianna accepted the bottle, twisted off the top, and patted the spot on the loveseat beside her for Garrett. As he plopped down and draped his arm around her, she said, “So. I have four or five days off before I should really head back to work. You fellas got any ideas on how we pass the time?”
“Sleep,” Garrett moaned. “Sweet, glorious sleep.”
“Yeah, obviously that,” Brianna said.
“You know,” Murphy said, drumming his fingers on and slightly through the coffee table he was sitting on. “I’ve been kinda looking for some new shitstains to take down over the past few days.”
Garrett shook his head. “No, Murphy. Not on our honeymoon.”
When Brianna cocked her head curiously, he repeated what the ghost had said. “Hm,” she said, a little twitch in her cheeks. “I don’t think we should rule it out. Doesn’t taking someone down sound like a hell of a way to wind down?”
Garrett started to shake his head, but there was something to it. “Nothing too dangerous? Let’s keep it light. Just until we warm back up.”
Murphy grinned. “Then brother, lemme tell you about this nursing home scammer I’ve been hearing about…”
* * *
Right on the brink of dozing, Brianna said, “So. Garrett told me all about you two and your adventures with Francesca Scarsi.”
“Frances…” Then it dawned on Murphy. “Oh, right, the pickpocket from Texas.”
After waiting for Garrett’s two fingers to go down, she said, “There were some, ah, embellishments.” For an answer to that, Murphy just cocked his head and Garrett gestured with a rolling finger motion that Brianna could keep talking. “Like robot giraffes shooting lasers out of their eyes.”
Murphy opened his mouth, stopped, reached up to scratch through his chin, started to say something else, then raised a hand like a child waiting to be called upon by a teacher. “I have questions.”
“I may have mixed in a few of our other cases for some flavor. And there may have been a lot of beer and fruity drinks involved in some spots” Garrett said, mildly pleased with himself. “Only said amazing things about your role in all of it.”
“Uh huh,” Murphy said, less than convinced. “Do tell.” No longer so sleepy, Brianna sat up while Garrett groaned. “Well,” she said, “Let me tell you how the story really went…”
And we’re down to it with just a few chapters left. If this had been rewritten, the Vancouver/return to Irisville section would have been a much larger part of this novel. As it stands, your torture and mine is almost done. Again, some mild foreshadowing here to events in the Rankin Flats series. I like to think Garrett and Brianna made their trip to Japan someday.
“I know who has the child,” he said.
“What do you mean, has her?”
They threw everything into their suitcases as he explained. Three minutes later, management was knocking on their door. Garrett flung it open, wild-eyed, his shirt only half-buttoned. Two men stood there, one of them a suit, the other one much taller, broader, and meant to look intimidating.
“We’re out of here in ten minutes, I swear,” Garrett said.
“I need to make sure your wife is okay, sir,” the suit said coldly,
Brianna leaned past Garrett. “I’m okay. He’s okay. We’re okay. It was a bad argument but we’re good now. Sorry and we’ll be out of your hair soon.”
“We can’t refund you for-”
“Yeah, fine,” Garrett said. Behind him, Brianna zipped up one bit of luggage and rolled it to him. “See? Gone in five.”
He let the door swing shut behind him. Brianna swept everything off the table and into a plastic bag. “How awake are you?” he asked.
“Good. You’re driving the first couple of hours. I’ll sleep, we switch off like that until we hit Irisville.”
“Are you okay? Physically?”
“Exhausted. Feel like I could drop, but I don’t feel as sick as you did. I think whatever it was doing to me, I stopped it early.” He stopped for just a moment to cross the room and kiss her, hard. “I’ll make this up to you. Somehow we’ll make this right.”
“You forgave me. I’ll forgive you.” But behind her tone was a bit of sadness. It mirrored his own horrible adrift emotions after she’d made her confessions to him.
They did one last sweep through the room. Outside the door, management was still waiting. They flew by them to the elevators. Both men looked as though they wanted to say something as they rode down with the couple, but Garrett and Brianna were too busy kissing to notice much.
On the ground floor, they ran.
* * *
The city skyline had been remarkable in the day, but in the night behind them, the scattered lights and illuminated steel towers were nothing short of picaresque.
“Goodbye,” Brianna whispered, and kissed her fingers before pressing them to the mirror. “We’ll be back someday, maybe.”
“Believe it,” Garrett said beside her.
But neither of them did.
* * *
She was still there. Still connected to Garrett sporadically.
“I hate and love my father,” Garrett said through gritted teeth. “I wish you two would make peace.”
“That’s not so bad,” Brianna said. Compared to the verbal lashes he’d been making off and on for the first hour, it was tame as hell.
“She’s digging for anything she can get. It’s like a tug of war, but the rope is my head. Rose breastfeeding gets me way off. Oh fuck me, that’s embarrassing.”
“Not like I didn’t know it, though.”
He drew in a series of short, rapid breaths and made a grunting sound like he was taking a shit. “Gone again.”
“Out of the car gone? Is she…?”
“No. We’re locked together. She’s not going to murder anyone else until she’s done with me. If I’d known all this, she could’ve killed me back in Irisville and I’d have been happy.”
“Don’t ever say that. Not even as a joke. We don’t carry the burden of the victims of the killers we take down, remember?” That had been something Sloan had said to them in one of their little group therapy sessions. It would have been a lot easier to believe if she didn’t so visibly carry the baggage of her time being controlled by Desmond.
“Yeah. Listen, Bri, about what I said…”
“When you’ve lived through that end of things, it’s easier to pick out the bullshit from the little kernels of truth.” She sighed.
“I do like to take care of you. I’m sorry if it’s overbearing sometimes. And I think you’re beautiful and sexy and however you want to look, you should look.”
Brianna gave him a half-smile. “That one was harsh, but kinda fair. When I came back from Vegas, I looked half-starved.”
“Don’t say that. Please. I wouldn’t love you any less if you were five hundred pounds, Brianna. That’s not hyperbole. However you’re happy with yourself, that’s all that matters to me.”
“It’s been… on my mind.”
“Really, I mean it.”
“No, I mean… Garrett, I keep thinking about trying to get pregnant, and I think I’m going to cut back on the number of classes and YouTube videos I’ve been leading. Just, like, bring down the intensity levels. Family’s really important to me, and it’s kinda been bothering me that it hasn’t happened yet.”
“We’ve only been trying, what, three weeks? Four?”
She smiled faintly. “We’ve never really been great about using condoms.”
“That’s, uh, that’s true.” He was quiet a moment. “You know, it could be a problem on my end too. As many times as I’ve been kicked in the nuts, it can’t hurt for me to get tested when I get home.”
“We could go together. If that helps.”
“Yeah. Brianna, if it is me…”
“Can we not do this now?”
“Sure,” he said awkwardly. “Yeah. Sure.”
The miles – or kilometers, but neither of them had learned to think that way, leading to a very early speeding ticket north of Lethbridge – peeled away, and Garrett tucked back into his seat with a throw and a travel pillow, but all he could manage was rhythmic breathing. Brianna, thinking he was asleep, cried in the early morning hours, and his soul cramped in misery that he couldn’t set it all right again.
Rose’s voice. “Tell her, you idiot.” He smiled in the darkness.
“Where would you go?” he asked. “We missed some places along the way. I hate that we had to leave Vancouver so early.”
“Thought you were asleep.”
“No. I heard you cry. I…”
“Can we just agree to both be sorry and move on?”
“Sure.” Tell her, you idiot. “No. No, we can’t.”
She slowed down rapidly, found an offramp, and pulled off the side of the road. When the car stopped, she leapt out, fists balled, and screamed her frustration into the night.
Garrett got out too, and they met in front of the SUV. She pressed her fists against his chest, and for a moment, he thought she was going to punch him. “You’re so… you’re so…”
His hands fell on her shoulders, and in the low beams, they came together. His tongue darted between her lips, and hers his, a give and take, a dance, a greeting. She dug her fingernails into his back, he balled up little corners of her shirt. Someone roared by, honking, and neither noticed, neither cared in the mad swirl of their hurt.
It was him that pulled away first. “I’m always going to be clingy,” he said. “I’ll always need you.”
“I don’t want it any other way.” She looked down at the ground. “I’ll need your help. Now and again. I know that. It hurts. But I’m my own woman, Garrett. I don’t want you to look down on me.”
I don’t, he almost said, but everything they’d said to hurt each other did have a little core of truth to it. “Okay,” he said simply instead.
It wasn’t an end to their pain, and there would be more to come. But it was the start of their healing and whatever came next.
* * *
Brianna came awake with a start. The sun was well above the horizon now, and the bright light blinded her at first. She held up her hand against it, grimacing, and yawned. “How far?” she murmured.
“Hundred kilometers. Or miles. Not really too sure which.”
She nodded, stretched, and winced when something in her back gave way with a nasty pop and a crackle. “Just one away from Rice Krispies.”
“Nothing.” Her arm brushed up against a plastic bag. Jerky. “Jeez, I was really out of it, huh? Didn’t know we stopped.”
“There are donuts in the back. Just the boxed kind. I ran in and out. Water and energy drinks too.”
“Nice.” Neither of them were much of a fan of energy drinks in general, but now with the need ahead of them, she cracked one open and sipped. “Japan.”
“You asked sometime last night. Where I’d go. I think Canada’s kind of been spoiled for me, at least for a while. I think maybe I’d like to go to Japan sometime if you’re game.”
“Hey, yeah?” He scratched his chin. “Sounds interesting. What’s the imaginary itinerary? What do we see? What do we do?”
“Hm.” She wiggled in her chair and stretched some more, smiling. “Himeji Castle, for sure.”
“What’s that? You know what, assume I’m not going to know what anything there is.”
“Oh, it’s this cool old castle. It’s gorgeous. You like architecture and stuff, right? I think you’d love it. Oh, and Osaka. We’d have fun in Osaka, I think. It’s this big shopping hub, and Japan’s got crazy shops. Like bananas crazy. If I don’t come home with a giant robot doll that transforms into a panda or a little girl or something, I will be sorely disappointed.”
“Now I know what to get you for your birthday.”
She laughed at that, the first honest, unguarded one he’d heard from her in what felt like forever. “Seriously, you could throw a rock at some of that stuff, pick whatever it hit, and I’d be squee-ing for a week. Kind of a lapsed Japanophile. August would be a kick to take with us on that one.”
“Hey, maybe we could do that. Family vacation to Japan or something next year, maybe. Bring your mom along.”
“And Stephanie,” Brianna said, and squeezed his arm. “Gar, I…”
“I know.” He cleared his throat. “So where else?”
She launched into descriptions of some of the themed cafes and bars she’d heard of, and soon had him laughing hard enough to forget what lay in front of them. Not for long, but for a moment, at least, things were okay again.
* * *
“We have no weapons,” Brianna said. “No idea what this guy is capable of.”
“And there was definitely some mystic bullshit going on in the girl’s vision. I saw a syringe. The liquid looked alive. Whatever this guy’s doing to her, I don’t know if it’s… agggh, shit!” he screamed, nearly swerving into the other lane.
Brianna grabbed the wheel for him, steadying the Durango. “What?”
“She’s getting stronger. Grabbing at me again. I knocked over Mom’s curio cabinet when I was eight. I told her it was the dog. The first girl I fucked in high school, I told her I loved her and I didn’t. I stole from a guy when I was twenty, not because he’d done something wrong, but just because he’s an asshole. Never told Murphy.” Then the child’s presence was gone, and he gasped for air. “I need you to drive.”
“Yeah, no kidding.”
They swapped on the roadside. Garrett felt for the young teenager’s mind again, but it was getting harder to pull more from her. Bits and pieces of her childhood, mostly, fractured and broken. Her mind was broken, he understood that. For some reason, she was locked now into feeding on anger and guilt instead of all the emotions in the human spectrum like when she was alive. He gleaned too an uncle, someone who seemed to have her gift. There were more of them out there. How many, he didn’t know, but he wondered.
Weapons. Brianna had been right. They needed weapons. He crawled over the center console and into the backseat to search for anything they could use. Bags of souvenirs, tee shirts, and trinkets weren’t of much sue, so they went into the front seat. Camping gear. That was more like it. He dug out the tent bag. The stakes weren’t super sharp, but they were something – and the mallet he’d brought to pound them in was even better. A lighter. By itself, not much use, but with the unopened jug of lighter fluid? Yeah, that’d work too. The pair of kitchen knives weren’t too shabby either. And far in the back was a tire iron. Not much, but it would have to do.
“Fingerprints,” Brianna said from the front. “What do we do about fingerprints?”
“Did we mail those gloves we found in Edmonton?”
“The winter ones? Will those work?”
“They’ll have to, I guess. Try to remember what you touch.”
He dug those out too, along with a pair of scarves that would have to suffice for their disguises. Brianna’s scars were sometimes a problem when it came to masks, but the scarves were long enough she could wrap up just about everything but her eyes.
“I can see the city,” Brianna said. “Garrett… she’s a kid.”
“I know,” he said grimly. “If it comes to that… I’ll do it.” “No. We do it together.”
Warning – spoilers for a potential future Seven Heroes novel, though the details are going to be changed quite a bit.
To my credit, I actually really liked the closing of this novel, and that really started with these chapters. The child ghost’s big reveal is one of my favorite WTF moments from the series, and it’s too good not to recycle into something I’ll eventually publish. All right, enjoy. Not too much left in the book now.
Two notepads lay on the table beside cups of hotel room coffee and a bag of potato chips. Garrett taped papers with each of the victims’ names on the wall and scribbled notes as Brianna read the details from Annalise’s emailed case files. Autopsy-wise, all the cases were similar, and a wave of numbness hit Garrett when he realized how close Brianna had come to death yet again.
“A sane person would’ve run a long damn time ago,” he said, standing back to examine the pages.
“Pbbbbft. Garrett, if you thought I was sane even before we met, boy, do I have news for you.” She got up to look at the sheets with him. There was one commonality between all but one of the victims – a rap sheet. They were all different crimes though, and in most cases, nothing more than misdemeanors – or summary offences, as they were called by the Canadians. A few had an indictable offence or two – roughly the equivalent of a felony, so they learned.
“Okay, so all these people had criminal pasts. She’s a… what, like a vigilante then?” Brianna asked.
“Yeah, but why you, then? Have you ever been arrested for anything?”
“I had a few parking tickets, but I don’t think she’s killing for those.” She paused, then scrambled for a notepad.
“Did you think of something?”
“No, but I had to write that down. I want to try to write a book someday, and that’s too damn good not to remember. The Parking Meter Slasher.”
Garrett tried to smile but his nerves were too on edge. He turned to the ghost child at the edge of the bathroom. “Why? What’s the connection between them and Brianna? Why leave her alive and them dead?”
The child just looked back. If it understood, it gave no reaction or change in expression.
They worked it over for another hour, but came up with nothing. Finally, Garrett sank into the chair at the table and grabbed up the chips. He munched on one, sighed, and said, “Are you up for a walk or a drive or something? I need fresh air.”
Brianna was silent, looking at the board intently, then back at the chips. “It’s… no, that’s impossible.”
“Everything about this thing is impossible. What are you thinking?”
“Okay. The club, we’re both feeling feverish, both feeling like our anger’s been ramped up a dozen times, right?”
“And it was with you the whole time? It was following you more closely than normal?”
“Yeah, the damn kid was right up on me. Why?”
“And she was right up on me when I went psycho on the road from Jasper?”
He chewed the side of his mouth, brow furrowed. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, it was.”
“My God,” she whispered. “It’s feeding on our emotions.”
“These people all shouted things they were guilty of, right? Blown up or not, it was shit they were carrying around inside. This thing’s drawing those feelings out. Anger. Lust. Guilt. Except it’s not doing it constantly. Look at the times, the dates. It’s practically on a schedule.”
“So when it gets hungry…”
“It’s sucking the emotion out of people, yeah.” She caught his look and shrugged. “Well, it’s a theory, anyways.”
“No, not making fun. Sorry. It’s just… weird. Why take on a ghost’s form then?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet. Or why she let me live. Or why she’s so attached to you.”
Garrett tapped a pen on the notepad. “Okay. Assume this is all true. If she let you live, maybe it’s because you’re not as guilty.”
“But Garrett, the things we’ve done-”
“Apart from us taking on Desmond and him possibly unleashing the tornados to spite us – and I still don’t think that’s true-” he did, but it wouldn’t help to tell her that “do you regret any of the criminal stuff we’ve done? A single bit of it?”
“I…” She frowned. “I guess I would’ve liked to have not killed anybody, but I sure as hell don’t regret it.”
“So the things you said to me, those were what you felt most guilty about?”
“Yeah. I mean, look, I look at guys very occasionally at a gym, but the place is a testosterone fest, and no matter how crazy bad our fights get, I really don’t think I’d ever cheat on you, no matter what I say or worry about. It’s just me carrying around the guilt of looking now and again.” She reached across and patted his hand. “And I know here in my head I’m your best friend as much as Murphy, but by the time I came along, you two were like peas in a pod, and I envy that all the time. And… I never hate you, Garrett.”
He smiled. “I know.” The words still haunted him at night, but then, so did a thousand other regrets and hurts. “So… I’m guessing it has some restraint. Or tries to, anyways. And when it fed on you, it didn’t find enough to hold it over.” He held up the bag of chips. “A snack, but not much substance.”
“All right, yeah, I like that theory. Doesn’t make me feel any less shitty about hurting you, but-”
“Stop. Okay? Stop. They were problems that might have come out eventually. We just sorta ripped the bandage off all at once.”
She drummed her fingers on the back of his palm. “Okay.”
“And as for why it attached itself to me, let’s assume it has something to do with my sight. Not necessarily that I see ghosts, but who knows? Maybe it just felt there was something different about me.”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Sure. That makes sense.”
“But why a ghost? And how do we stop it?”
That, they had no theories, no answers. For another half an hour, they shot back and forth theories, but nothing had the intense rightness of Brianna’s thoughts about it feeding. They finally cleaned up, and headed for bed.
“I’m sorry,” Brianna said as they cuddled together. “As sexy as I was feeling earlier, I’m not really in the mood tonight.”
“It’s okay, baby.”
“But I am gonna have a hard time sleeping tonight. Maybe… um, maybe tell me a little more of the story?”
“There’s only a little bit left. You sure?”
She nodded, and traced a finger up and down his chest. “Tell me how you and Murphy saved Francesca.”
He snorted. “Oh, you have no idea.”
* * *
Garrett got up to get a drink, filling and refilling his cup.
“Were Beaudette’s guys the ones who sent that sniper?”
“Uhhh. Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. See, Trevor’s chief of security had put together all this dirt on Francesca and…”
“…and they couldn’t let anything be traced back to Mr. Beaudette himself, so they hired outside shooters,” Brianna supplied for him, grinning.
Garrett knocked back the water and waved the empty cup at her. “That’s right!” He ducked back into the bathroom, filled it back up again, and rejoined her on the bed.
* * *
* * *
“…was just the son of a bitch to give it to them,” Brianna finished, falling back onto her pillow and giggling.
“Now you’re getting it.” Garrett wiped the sweat from his forehead, his smile fading just a little bit.
* * *
* * *
“Hell tore open its gates that day?”
“Hey, is this my story or yours?” His question was much more sharp than joking.
“All right, all right. Keep…” She glanced over at him and sat up. “Garrett. You’re flushed.”
“So I tipped over the couch and dove behind it. It was the best cover-”
“Brianna, it’s fine.”
“It’s not fine, it’s-”
“It’s making you sick!” she shouted.
“It’s what I deserve,” Garrett snapped. “It’s what I’ve always deserved. What I begged for down in that cavern in Hamber. I almost blew myself up because I thought I deserved it, did I tell you that?”
“Fuck the Blight. I knew what I was and I knew what I wanted. The Blight just pushed me towards it. I would fucking thank the Blight, if it hadn’t stopped me.”
“Stop it, Garrett, you’re scaring me.”
He did stop, panting as he stood up and found his pants. As he yanked his shorts down and pulled them on, hopping on one leg, he said, “You want to know the truth? About Francesca? She was a senile old pickpocket working a fundraising thing trying to earn enough money so she didn’t have to suffer through her dementia in a nursing home in a shitty part of Texas. I caught her on it, the guards thought I was in on the whole thing, and we were both kicked out. I drove her home, she stole my wallet, and replaced it with a gold cross. I have no idea who she took it from, but it was a bad time in my life when I didn’t believe much in God. I was depressed, I’d just killed a man, and here was a cross like a sign from heaven. That’s what fucking happened, Brianna. The whole boring story, right there.”
Through a haze of tears, she cried, “Stop, it’s not you, this thing, it’s pushing you to-”
“Did you know I don’t like when you go all hard body on me? It makes you look like a man, kind of. When you came back from living in Vegas, you were like a malnourished bodybuilder.”
“Stop it, stop it-”
“Those tornados? In another two minutes, I would’ve pulled the trigger. And then I probably would have eaten the gun myself. I would’ve killed you, Brianna, to save a bunch of methed out rednecks and lowlifes. That’s how little you’re worth to me.”
Brianna’s cries were more like screams of pain now.
“You think I’m clingy? You should see the real me. How jealous I am, how much I just want to lock you up forever. And I think I’m better than you too. It’s why I want to fix everything for you all the time. Brianna fucking Reeve, my little wounded bird. I love having you need me. I want to see you fucking beg for it. Me. My money. My protection. Everything I think you need. You’re like the whore from that movie and I’m the guy who wants to make you his pet fucking project. My little ghetto rat. You’re nothing compared to me. Nothing.”
Garrett leaned over the bed, eyes wild, hot breath steaming through his nose like a bull. Whatever words he was going to say next died on his lips when he saw her flinch away from him. His clouded mind cleared–
I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you sometimes
–and he took a step back and turned. The child was right there, hands out, waves of heat rolling from her.
“You want my guilt?” he whispered to it. “You want my pain? My anger? Eat my fucking sin. Choke on it.”
The child inched away, hands lowering uncertainly, but Garrett’s own hand shot out and through it – there was something there, something indefinable, but definitely there – like static in the shape of a person, he thought.
And then he was lost.
A spiky range. Scent of Christmas. Egg yolk flowerheads (dandelions, Garrett interjected, but this was not his dream and the vision paid him no mind). Long grass and thick weeds.
Logs. Crisscrossed. A small black screen (television, he tried to say and his voice sank into the nothing of ignorance). Fingers on a controller, making funny cartoons on the screen do something. White paper on the table. A book, opened.
People talking. Warmth mixed with sadness. Loss. White-hair-big-nose-dad. Big-emotions-cuddly-something-wrong mom. Hungry now, big big empty hole. Mom-Dad-scared-excited. Something is changing in her. Something awakening.
* * *
Serious-worried-excited-teaching-mom. A string of syllables that didn’t quite form right. Something broken. Words broken. Badly broken. Mom-help-belly.
Gnawing belly. A park. Shouting laughing children. A bench. Teaching-mom pointing. Showing her how to eat. To live.
Deep breath, closed eyes. Shaking her head. Try-it-again-mom. Time. Trickles of happiness. Slurping up happy. Warmth. A filling belly. Children don’t notice. Children still playing-shouting-laughing. Cheering-happy-loving-mom. Later, dad-hugs. Cold sweetness on her tongue. Fun music. Dad-dancing, mom-dancing.
* * *
Anger. Books thrown down. Laughing boys. Hurt. Tears. Embarrassment. Anger. Fury.
Closed eyes. Finds the laughing. Makes it more. More laughing. More. More. More. More. More. More. Eat the laughing.
Boys vomit. Boys keep laughing. Boys wheeze. Laughing stops. Boys slip into darkness.
Frantic-scared-angry-mom. Clothes in a suitcase. Harried-scared-frantic-dad pushing her into the back of a car.
Pavement. The yellow line.
* * *
This one is a little clearer.
Her mom’s fingers dancing on her knees in the car. Mountains in the background. Lots of questions, still no words make sense.
Her dad shaking his head, repeating something over and over. He is panicked. But he is trying not to be. Have to run have to run have to run.
The child, sorry. So sorry. Tears. But there is anger too. She wants them to hear. She yells at them.
They turn to face her. Her dad reaches a hand out to touch her face. Metal rushing towards them. Deafening horn.
The smash of metal and glass and nothingness.
* * *
This one is the clearest yet.
Her head lolls back. She can blink, she can move her tongue, but there is nothing below the neck. Nothing.
She is bouncing up and down towards the sunlight. Someone is carrying her. No. She is on something. A board. She is loaded into an ambulance and someone goes very fast.
She is staring up at lights. Then a face. Hands. She tries to make words, but she can’t. The man is thinking about someone he hates. Cannot get her out of his mind. How does she know this? Impulse. There is no trying. She simply knows. The child reaches without thought, drinks his hatred. He feels the heat, stumbles backwards.
The face again. He’s on a phone. He is satisfaction, smugness, wonder. He looks around, and she is lifted onto something and strapped in
She is staring up at nothing, but they are moving again. Fast. He is taking her somewhere. The music is loud. She cannot dance.
There is a ramshackle building. Dead animals posing. A sun-beaten man, tired and cross. He walks out, takes a look at her, shouts some words. The smug driving man responds. Then the new man takes another look at her. A long look. A necklace hangs off his neck, like a tooth. His face is wrong. It is a blur. There is a face and a not-face.
This man is Not Right. This man is a Wrong Man. She thinks about taking his emotions, but there are worms in his soul and when she tries to feed it makes her sick. His eyes widen and he smiles.
She is inside now, the two men taking her down a flight of stairs. She is lifted onto a table. The hospital man asks for something, the Not Right Man turns and digs in a desk drawer. When he spins back around, there is a gun in his hand and a too loud boom. The hospital man falls backwards. There are two more booms and then the Not Right Man is the only one left.
He is sliding her arm up, but she does not feel it. Wire in front of her, and rods. And a needle, full of a blue liquid that does not stop sloshing around. She makes a sound. He stops, smiles, and cinches another wire to her hand. No. Not to her hand. In her hand. More wires. Then he is standing her up.
She tries to fight him, tries to eat all of him the way Mom and Dad say she shouldn’t, but there is something there, something stopping her. She can’t touch him, can’t figure out why.
She is injected with the liquid. There is a fire in her mind, then darkness. She can still feel her heart beat. Slowly. Slowly.
Heart beating. Slowly. Slowly. Distant now as she walks towards town. She is hungry and she can feel emotions from the people she walks through. Happiness, lust, joy. These are there, but it is not what she wants. Not what is feeding her.
She finds the sorrow. Finds the rage. And she is sated.
For a while.
* * *
Garrett sat up, gasping for air. “Brianna!” he screamed.
Someone was pounding on the wall and yelling for them to shut up. She was there, kneeling on the carpet next to him, rolling a cold washcloth over his face. “I thought I lost you,” she said.
Garrett reached up, trying to pull her to him for a kiss, but she flinched away and he rose unsteadily to his feet. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” He shook his head and sighed. “Meant some of it. But not…” Brianna flung her arms around him. There were no tears, but she was shaking. “I hurt you, I’m sorry I hurt you…”
“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” They stared into one another’s eyes. She tried to smile, but there was pain, too much pain, and he pulled away jerkily. “I guess the honeymoon’s over.”
The note Monica left at the condo said to try to meet them at the harbor each morning or evening, but when Garrett saw a group of passing ghosts on the way to the museums in Vanier Park, he groaned, “I’ve been an idiot.”
“What?” Brianna asked. “Why?”
“There are ghosts all around us. All I need to do is grab one of them and ask.”
As it turned out, the four ghosts lost him in the bustle before he could find a parking spot, but an hour’s worth of driving around the park and they spotted another ghost leaning against a fountain outside the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre. The child ghost was back, following them silently, its face masked by its long hair.
The ghost was a short, wiry-haired man in his late twenties, maybe, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved yellow tee shirt. His sideburns came down nearly to his chin. Garrett sidled up to him and said quietly, “I can see you, ghost.”
Lost in his own world, the ghost didn’t hear him. When Garrett repeated himself again, the guy jerked upright and glanced right at Garrett. “Holy shit.”
“Yeah. Holy shit. It’s a long story. I need-”
“Hoo-ly shit!” the guy exclaimed again.
“Listen, I need you to do me a favor-”
“You’re real? You’re really alive and talking to me?”
The man did a shuffling dance, barely lifting his knees as he kicked his feet out. “Oh man, oh man, oh man, wait till Juno hears about this one. Hey, can you call my wife? She lives in Quebec now. Her guy-”
“Do you see this kid behind me?” Garrett snapped.
The guy blinked. “Well, yeah. Sure. That’s weird, though. Can’t say as I’ve seen too many kid ghosts around.”
“Thanks,” Garrett said. He thought about walking off, then sighed. “What’s your wife’s number?”
“You’ll call her? You’ll really call her?”
“Yeah, I’ll call her. Find me a payphone.”
The man whooped, and led them back across the park to a shopping district a few blocks away. Off to one side of the street were a dinged-up pair of payphones. Garrett charged the call to a credit card, told the guy’s wife her new husband was cheating on her and that her first husband missed his nugget berry. That got an emotionally charged silence from the other end, and then the woman asked tearfully who this was. Garrett hung up on her gently, feeling like absolute dog shit. That sort of call never ended well for the living, but they had the information they needed.
The child was real.
* * *
Brianna’s surprise was scheduled for that night. She asked Garrett to get a haircut and a shave, and to dress up nicely. She took off by herself for a little while, promising to meet him at a café near their hotel when she was ready. Half her luggage had gone with her. It didn’t go unnoticed by him that it was the lingerie and fancier clothing half, either.
He did as she asked, splurging on a hot shave in an old-fashioned barber’s shop recommended by the concierge. The barber, an old man missing one of his front teeth and a finger, tended to him carefully but swiftly, the strokes of his razor as sure as Garrett was with his baton. That done, he trimmed Garrett’s hair down shorter than he usually liked it, but it looked good. Stylish, sleek, like a businessman’s. The old man said little and Garrett said little back. When they were done, Garrett turned his head this way and that. It was the best haircut he’d ever received.
“Where’d you serve?” he asked as he paid.
The old man smiled thinly. “Here and there. How’d you know?”
“Only met a few people who handle a knife like that, and none of them started out cutting hair.”
That brought out a short bark of laughter. The man turned to the cash register to make change. “How about you?” he asked, but the space Garrett had occupied was already empty, the only remainder of him the jingling of the bells above the door. The old man glanced at the bill, shook his head, and jammed it into the register.
Garrett’s next stop was back at the hotel for a change. Had he known the barber was so skilled, he could have worn a tuxedo without fear of getting a single hair on him. “Wear something nice,” he murmured as he flicked through the hangers on the rack in the bathroom holding his dress shirts and slacks. He opted for a pinstriped white dress shirt, one he usually reserved for dancing. For slacks, he picked out a tighter-fitting pair of gray dress pants and a black belt. He’d only brought one pair of dress shoes and those were a little scuffed, but they would have to do. After one last glance in the mirror, he sprayed on a little citrusy, leathery Shay and Blue behind his ears. It was from a cologne sampler Brianna had bought for him around his birthday, and it was one of her favorite scents on him. He had a feeling whatever she had planned, this was as much her night too.
Then he was out the door, and heading downstairs. Mind elsewhere, he didn’t notice the seventy-something woman in the elevator giving him the friendly once-over while her husband tried not to glare at her.
The first to arrive at the café, he ordered an iced coffee, unsure if they were doing dinner or not. The ghostly child stood beside the counter, glaring at him. Whatever you are, he thought to himself, I’m going to figure you out. And I’ll stop you.
Her head tilted up and her nose worked the air, sniffing at it like a dog. She glared at him, then slipped through the walls, off to go fuck with someone else’s life.
A woman that may or may not have been his wife came through the door ten minutes later. He stood up fast, the ghost child forgotten about for the moment.
That night, Brianna was made even more beautiful by the short, soft blue dress clinging to her frame. The shoulders were bare, the neckline chastely high but tight across her small breasts. Her long legs were well exposed, gleaming from lotion or some kind of oil, and he gulped to see her in black high heels that helped arch her back. She never wore them. Ever. With every step, the fabric around her creamy thighs threatened to ride up, exposing her to him and everyone else in that place.
Her long dark hair hadn’t been touched up much – he’d professed to her he loved her with long hair, and she’d kept a style similar to that of their wedding pictures, with a little volume and waviness to it, but keeping it simple and effortless. She’d put on more makeup than usual too, emphasizing her eyes and cute little nose while softening her stronger chin and cheekbones. She’d done something with her eyebrows, darkened them, made them pop somehow, and he loved it. Loved all of it.
“Brianna,” he said, barely, audible. “My God, you look stunning.”
She blushed. “Thanks. You look… mmm. I want to drag you off right now, but we have other plans. Ready for your surprise?”
“This… this isn’t it?”
“Oh no,” she laughed. “If I’m getting dressed up like this, there’s a secret mission involved.”
They walked out to the Durango together, arm in arm. She had to stop him from kissing her. “There’s going to be plenty of that later, but for now, I can’t smudge up my makeup. You’ll understand soon enough.”
He walked her back until she was nearly pressed against the SUV’s door, “I want you, now.”
“And I want you. But be patient. I promise, it’s worth it. I hope.”
She drove while he gaped. As nice as the view of Vancouver was, it couldn’t compete with how sexy his wife looked. It was an elegant mix of sexy and classy, and he had to shift around several times in his seat to try to alleviate a growing problem. Each time she laughed softly, and at one point, reached over to brush his cheek with her freshly clipped nails.
Within a half hour or so, they reached a row of shops somewhere south of their hotel. A few cars were at the dry cleaners, but only one of the other businesses had a car in front of it – Patsy’s Pics. Garrett raised an eyebrow. “Did we get super dressed up to have my pants spot cleaned?”
“Might need that when we’re done,” she replied, and hopped out, forgetting she was wearing heels. “Damn it, shit, fuck, I’m terrible in these things. Should’ve gone barefoot until we got here.”
He came around the SUV as she was massaging her foot and wincing. “You okay?”
“Yeah, heel didn’t break on the shoe.”
“Fuck the shoe, are you okay?”
She grabbed his arm and fitted the shoe back on. “Never better.” The wince as she took each step gingerly said otherwise, but she had that stubborn look that said “I will cut you if you point out the obvious” and he just walked with her to the photo shop.
Inside, a long divider blocked anything from view, apart from a desk near the door. A stout woman came around the corner, a binder under one arm. “Wow, Mrs. Moranis, you weren’t kidding, he really does clean up nicely.”
“Um,” Garrett said. “Hi?”
“I still haven’t told him yet,” Brianna said. “Think we should lock the door before he can make a run for it?”
The woman snorted. “Darling, once he sees what I can do, he’ll beg to stay here forever. Trust me, they all do.”
“What is this?” he asked.
Brianna introduced the titular Patsy, who laid the binder on the desk. It was easier to show him, they explained, than try to tell him. “These are all models, you understand?” Patsy asked. “No one will ever see my real clients’ work except the clients themselves. That’s a Patsy guarantee.”
She opened the binder. Inside were tasteful, provocative pictures of women in various states of dress, though never nude. Some were in summer dresses, or jeans and tops that left bare their stomachs, shoulders, or cleavage – usually some combination of the two or three. Others were in lingerie, or posing as though they were just pretending to get out of it. Some smiled, others looked more contemplative, all of them were sexy.
“Garrett,” Brianna said, “I’ve wanted to do this for you since Thanksgiving. I trust you with your pictures, and those are fun, but I thought something more professional would be kind of a memorable souvenir. Something just for the two of us.”
It took some cajoling, but not much. He had concerns about a stranger photographing them intimately, but Patsy explained they wouldn’t be nude, unless Brianna wanted to expose some of the areole around her nipples. That was as far as she’d take it with her, and at most, Garrett would be stripped down to his boxer briefs. Warily, he agreed.
They spent two hours behind the screen wall in a trio of brightly lit sets. With their fit frames, Patsy explained that she thought color photography would show better than black and white, and since they were largely clueless about these things, they agreed. First came five minutes of breathing exercises to loosen them up and help them relax. After that came the pictures.
Brianna had little trouble posing the way Patsy ordered her to, and had even more fun when Garrett tentatively made some requests, leading to one great shot of Brianna sitting up on her knees, back straight and to the camera as she glanced over her shoulder, her hair brushed aside just enough to flash the camera those beautiful eyes while showing off her terrific backside. There were a few wardrobe changes, in which Brianna slipped quickly into some of his favorite outfits of hers.
Just as he helped with her shots, Brianna made a few requests of his and their couple pictures. One of him sitting near the edge of the bed, one leg dangling off with the other knee was drawn up nearly to his chest, particularly set her off, and Patsy snapped several angles of it. They eventually had to settle for him doing more serious poses, as his smile was too nervous and fake to really take a decent picture.
The couples’ boudoir photography was much more chaste than he’d imagined. It was mostly a lot of shots similar to their wedding photographs, just without so much clothing between them. There were a few shots of them kissing, sure, but by and large, they were mostly of the two of them at play, recreating their favorite moments of their relationship. One of their mutual favorites was a shot of him laying on the bed, knees drawn up, while she was holding herself up over him, dressed in simple white underwear, her forehead nearly touching his as they both grinned. In those shots, he found it easy to smile, and Patsy snuck more than one shot of him without Brianna in the frame to make up for the earlier problems.
And then, just like that, it was done. Patsy waited for them both to dress, then explained that Brianna had already a small part of her commission in advance with the rest to come when they knew they were satisfied with the pictures. After that, they’d be delivered digitally without a watermark, and since they had a photo printer had home, there was no need to worry about anyone else seeing the pictures.
Garrett asked for one last shot, the three of them together in nothing more than a friendly pose, and then graced Patsy with a kiss on the cheek. “That was, without a doubt, one of the strangest, nicest evenings of our honeymoon,” he said. “Thank you.”
* * *
When they got back to the hotel, Garrett wanted nothing more than to chase his wife up to the hotel room, help her out of that stunning dress, and make love to her good and properly. Such was his life though that when they opened the doors, he had to rethink that, even as she raced on ahead, dangling her high heels off her finger tips and glancing behind her with a smoldering “come hither” smile.
She stopped when she saw his attention was elsewhere and came back. “The kid again?”
He nodded. “While we were out there, giving each other sexy eyes, that thing…”
“We can’t beat ourselves up. We just can’t.” He wouldn’t meet Brianna’s look, and she used two fingers to turn his chin towards her. “What else can we do? Think.”
Staring at the child gazing coolly back at him, he shook his head slightly. “I have no clue.”
But he was starting to. The child always came back to him. It didn’t follow Brianna – it wanted him for some reason. His sight of the dead? Maybe. Think. If she was evil, really evil, her ribbons would have been black, right? Then again, if she was a child, she should have been sent straight to heaven, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars. So why was she here with him? What did she gain from him? From any of her victims, really?
He blinked and walked with Bri slowly towards the elevators. Okay, if they couldn’t pin down what child was or what it wanted, what about the victims? Why them? What did they have in common? Confessions?
Brianna punched the button for their floor. “You have something, don’t you?”
Garrett frowned. “Yeah, maybe. About tonight…”
“It’s okay,” she said, and turned to kiss his cheek. “How do I help?”
Hope. The name of the town seemed almost cruel, considering what Garrett and Brianna were researching. A pot of coffee between them at a diner near their hotel, they checked and rechecked Garrett’s research.
It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense.
Their waitress came by with their check. Garrett dug out a fifty, laid it on the table, and told her to keep the coffee fresh and hot until they left. When she told them her shift ended in fifteen minutes, he added another fifty and she immediately went to refill the pot.
“What do we know?” Brianna asked as Garrett stood up and paced back and forth, thinking it over. “If it’s a disease, it’s not spreading.”
“At least, not like a normal disease.”
“Do we know if I have anything in common with these people?”
Garrett stopped and turned Brianna’s laptop towards him. On the screen were pictures of all the victims in better times. Men, women. No kids. Nothing about them seemed overly similar, save for the circumstances of their deaths.
He sat back down again and called Annalise Fox. Despite the late evening hour, she answered as immediately and professionally as she always did. He soon had her filled in, and she was looking up information on her side. When he asked for medical case histories and autopsy reports on all the victims, she hesitated.
“I can pull some strings,” Annalise said finally. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll look into it.”
His second call was to Monica. He asked her to put a note in the War Room for the ghosts to meet him sooner rather than later. She sounded harried and exhausted herself.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Dog attacks around the city,” she said. “One cop’s dead, a few teens, some adults. Weird shit, but it’s handled now.”
“Oh hell, I’m sorry. If I’d known…”
“If you’d known and you’d left your sick wife,” Monica snapped, “I’d beat your ass from here to Billings and back. Not an idle threat.”
Brianna caught that and brightened measurably.
Another pot of coffee later and they still had nothing. They returned to their hotel room, disgruntled and scared, but now that they had the scent of a case, and it had brought them back. Their lovemaking was frenetic and fun, drawing a hammering from their neighbors, which sent them into mad fits of quiet laughter, muffled by the sheets and pillows. After their post-coital whispers of love, Brianna slipped down into the brink.
Garrett was too wired on caffeine to sleep, so he slipped out of bed to grab a glass of water and sit near the window. He watched his wife sleep for a while, smiling, then looked out at the parking lot below. Neither of them paid much attention to the town coming in – it had been pretty enough, but the victims and the disease had their minds preoccupied.
The child stood out there on one of the cars, staring up at him balefully. He grimaced. That fucking hallucination could stop anytime it wanted to, he thought to himself. Ever since that damn Irisville, she’d been a pain in his…
“Shit,” he whispered. “Shit shit shit.”
He backed away from the window, mind racing. Hallucination? Or something else?
* * *
Brianna knew something was on his mind, but couldn’t pry it out of him. The child was always there, and he didn’t want to say anything to Bri until they were alone. Plus, when the ghosts came, he could maybe pin his theory down. In the meantime, he played at normalcy.
If he was right, though, what the hell did it mean? A ghost couldn’t manipulate the real world. Sure, Murphy had been able to rouse a response out of Brown Dog, but that animal had been extraordinary. Then again, if this child, this thing, wasn’t a hallucination but a real ghost, then she was an impossibility. Children her age didn’t stick around the afterlife. They just didn’t. He’d assumed his own broken mind had been responsible for her existence, but what if it wasn’t? What if she was as real as Murphy, Virgil, or Tibaldo?
And if she was, how was she doing this?
The thoughts swirled around inside him, nothing quite connecting. But in his heart, he thought he was right, or was at least on the right track. Could she be stopped? Just as the dead couldn’t interfere with the living, Garrett could do nothing so far as he knew to stop the dead. But something had drawn her out of Irisville. Something had connected them. What? Why was he special? His sight of the dead? Maybe. But she hadn’t used it to communicate with him. Hadn’t tried to talk to him in any way.
Brianna said something, then repeated herself. He jerked out of his near-slumber and asked her to repeat herself. Mildly exasperated, she instead pointed.
Lost in thought, he hadn’t realized how much time and distance they’d covered. There, far in the distance, steel spiraled up in the sky, gleaming in the late morning sun. It was beautiful, but all at once, a sense of dreaded finality struck him. This was nearly the end of their journey. With it would come the crashing realization that life in the Flats awaited them again, that soon his endless grind trying to take down the city’s worst would start up again. His heart ached to stay here forever with Brianna, but there was a part of him too that recognized he wanted back in the fight, that he was tired of putting it off.
Vancouver. For Brianna’s sake, he turned, grasped her hand, and smiled.
* * *
Still trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy, they picked their hotel based on a text message from Rose, who had stayed in Vancouver on a weekend business trip a few years prior. The Pinnacle Hotel sat right next to the harbor, and after Garrett checked on the availability, they rented a room overlooking the water. Brianna thought it was too much, but he insisted, walking backwards as he dragged her towards the front doors, making her laugh until she finally gave in and admitted it was a gorgeous hotel.
When they checked in, they went back out to the SUV to bring in their luggage and other necessities. The porter was a fast-speaking Vancouver native, young and enthusiastic, and he was genuinely thrilled – or at least very good at pretending to be – to hear about the places they’d been on their trip, and recommended several city hotspots. Garrett only had really one in mind, though, but he nodded along with the young man anyways, smiling and pretending like everything was just peachy.
Their hotel room was spectacular. The king-sized bed looked cozy and comfortable, and a chaise lounger next to the window was perfect for Brianna’s evening reading. But beyond that was the real prize – the spectacular view of the waters beyond. A little choppy from the wind that day, the harbor practically begged them to walk to it, and so they didn’t deny themselves after they’d arranged their things and tipped the porter.
Hand-in-hand as always, they meandered across the busy city street, and for a good hour, they walked down the sidewalk, taking in the view, the business district, and the jaw-dropping skyline all around them. Edmonton and Vancouver had a fight on their hands for which was the more beautiful city – Garrett said Vancouver, Brianna had liked Edmonton. Both, they agreed, were worth the visit.
There had been a second reason Garrett wanted that particular hotel – the library nearby. The child had disappeared, and though he maybe knew what that meant, a little electric thrill ran through him. Finally, privacy, and not for their favorite casual act. He leaned in and whispered into her ear, “Wanna go to the library with me and neck in the stacks?”
She gave him a curious look. In all their time together, he’d been to exactly one library, and that had been to fight a cartel drug lord. That said, she loved libraries and wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to see one. “Sure?”
He grabbed her hand and ran, checking the glass reflections of the buildings around them to make sure the child wasn’t following. If she was, he didn’t see her.
Outside, the library was a vaguely pyramid-like building with a flattened top. Its windows were tinted a dark steel color, roughly the shade of the crisscrossing beams. The entrance was four enormous sets of glass doors, and he led Brianna through, glancing around wildly for the ghosts.
A desk central to the room overlooked periodicals, racks of non-fiction, and a reading area where a couple of dozen people lounged around in armchairs under pleasantly bright lights. Further back was the fiction. To Brianna, he said quickly, “I think I know what’s been doing this. The kid’s not a hallucination. I think she’s real.”
Her lips puckered as she thought about this. “I thought you said kids can’t be ghosts. And ghosts can’t-”
“I know. That’s why we’re here. She’s gone, which… if I’m right, that means something bad.”
He nodded. “But we don’t know how to track her or who she’ll kill, so we have to use the time smartly. We need to find every book on folklore they have. Anything involving ghost children. We should probably focus it around Canadian stories. I’m going to take the nonfiction. Hit the fiction stacks.”
Her eyes were wide, but her strong jaw was set, and she nodded just once before shooting straight for the front desk. Smart to go to the source like that, he thought. He veered off into the nonfiction, pulling out his phone and searching for books matching his criteria on Google and Amazon. In twenty minutes, he had six books laid out in front of him at a table in a reading room. In another ten, Brianna joined him with four more and a stack of newspapers. He raised an eyebrow. “Every newspaper article I could find on the deaths,” she explained.
They set to work rifling through the books as quickly and thoroughly as possible. There were hundreds of pages dedicated to Canada’s water monsters, sasquatches, and werewolves, but frustratingly little about the undead or ghosts in general. Sightings, sure, there were lots of tongue-in-cheek entries about those – a husband and wife haunting a hotel in Banff, the Boot Hill graveyard and British Columbia Penitentiary, Seal Island… nothing pertaining to ghosts from Irisville or that area.
“Maybe we’re going at this the wrong way,” Brianna thought out loud.
“If you have ideas, I’m open to them.”
“What’s the weirdest part about all this? It’s not the deaths themselves.”
“It’s the confessions,” Garrett said, frowning.
“And if you’re right, remember our reaction at that nightclub? How, um, angry and frisky we got?”
“I like when you say frisky.”
“Yeah, of course I remember.” He smacked his head. “She was there. At least for the nightclub part of it. She wasn’t watching us afterwards, I can guarantee that. We haven’t, uh, done it when she’s around. Too fuckin’ creepy, her being a kid and all.”
Brianna nodded. “So she’s amplifying our emotions somehow. Our guilt, our anger.”
“Doesn’t explain the lust.”
“Residual effects. We were ridin’ high off her supply.” She started stacking the books. “There’s a word for that, kinda, sorta. Empathy.”
Garrett frowned. “Isn’t that just, you know, being decent and receptive to other people?”
“Yes, but no. I mean, that’s one definition. Psychically, it’s about feeling others emotions as your own. Trust me, if you’ve ever played a pen and paper RPG, this stuff’s one-oh-one material.”
He scratched the back of his head. “I haven’t. Wait, did I marry a Dungeons and Dragons nerd?”
“Got me through a lot of boring nights in high school and college. And Rifts, actually. You’d like it. Ooh, so would Murphy. It’s… you know what, never mind.” She looked up books on empaths in Canada. “Okay, yeah. Here we go.” She highlighted a few and sent him the names. They raced back out into the stacks, but this time could only find two of the books. One of them was a nonfiction scientific analysis of psychics and was of no use to them. The other was a fictional novel about a Canadian hitchhiker trying to make it from coast to coast and having all sorts of wacky, transcendental experiences along the way. Garrett dismissed it, as did Brianna, but she took note of the writer’s name. Worse came to worse, it looked like an entertaining read for their last week in Canada.
Defeated, they returned the books to the stacks, and headed out. Brianna wrapped her arm around Garrett’s waist. “We’ll figure this out,” she promised him.
“We don’t even know if I’m on the right track,” he muttered.
“Hey. Chin up. It’s the best idea we’ve got. And doesn’t it feel right?”
He let his own arm sneak around her too. “Lots of bad arrests happen because cops can’t let go of a hunch they think is right even when it’s wrong.”
“We’ll know soon enough, I guess. Either she kills someone, or the ghosts come and tell us she’s real.”
“Or not, in which case, square one.”
“Either way? We try to be here while we’re here. It’s gonna drive both of us crazy, but let’s try to see some things while we’re here. There’s not much more we can do.”
He drew in a breath and blew it out through his nose. “Yeah. Anywhere you want to go?”
“Aquarium, maybe? Dolphins and pretty fish would be pretty calming right now.”
“That sounds like a hell of a plan.”
* * *
The next morning, they saw the headline. Another person dead, this time a college student. His last moments had been seen by dozens of people, all of whom reported him shouting about fucking his roommate’s girlfriend when she was drunk and thought he was the other guy. There was more, too, and some of it was posted on YouTube. Though it was taken down before Brianna and Garrett could see it, their emails had a new message that day from a certain friend in the FBI.
They watched the footage together, all of it, right up until the boy’s end. His screams of pain turned into a dry wheezy gasp for air, as his hair went completely white from the roots on up.
“That could have been me,” Brianna whispered. “Why wasn’t that me?” It was the best question either of them had asked so far, and the one neither of them had answers to.
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.
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.”
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.”
Garrett whines so damn much in this novel. Ugh.
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.”
“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.”
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?”
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.”
“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…”
“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.”
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