Forever Lands forever gone?

I keep thinking about removing Forever Lands from being offered on Amazon. I don’t know why, except all the times I roll over that novel when I’m looking through my sales figures, it sorta depresses me. I think that book and its failure to invite any readership whatsoever was the start of my current two-year long bad mojo.

I don’t know. It doesn’t really hurt anything being in circulation, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Let’s face it starting off a book with a child being transformed into a monster probably wasn’t the smartest move. And I seriously misjudged people’s desire to read a fantasy novel that was both a little different and a whole hell of a lot slimmer. Plus, it’s also just kind of bad.

In any case, if you want it, grab it now. I keep leaning in the direction of taking it down, and I think I’m one bad mood from doing it.

Second why of the day

Why oh why in Mare of Easttown are the chief and the sergeant sitting around talking about details of the case like the other wouldn’t know the missing victim was a drug addict? They’re both obviously very well aware of the specifics.

Just start the show from an earlier point. Or have this conversation with someone who is new to the case. Or… literally anything other than this strange exposition dump.

Twenty thousand words under the sea

Sometimes, you know it isn’t going to work out, but you try to stay together for the scenes. You know it’s going to hurt them most of all, but still, you just can’t take any more nights being disappointed by the plot. And you will be disappointed by the plot, no matter how much you wish it was otherwise.

Okay, horrible jokes aside, this one sucks. I thought I had enough meat on the bone to flesh out a novella/novel thing and it just doesn’t work. I think the characters are strong enough I’ll keep notes on them, but the plot stinks. It keeps wanting to stray into areas that aren’t my wheelhouse, namely art theft, and the things I need to research (alarm systems, pressure plates, etc.) aren’t exactly things I can just search out on the Internet. Maybe someday I’ll be famous enough that me asking experts about this will seem less criminal-minded and more eclectic, but let’s be real, this thing needs to be tossed in the garbage. Or in reality, backed up in my usual spots, then I can hopefully start clean and change it into something different.

What are you going to do?

Visibility without Twitter and Facebook

One of the things I worry about not being a part of social media is book visibility, but this last week has, if not proven, at least provided a good sample of evidence that I don’t need it. Sales are up, KENP numbers are up, everything seems to be good on that end and I’m a lot less stressed about people being… well, people. Win-win.

I’ve also been watching Harley Quinn in small fits. It’s a great show, sort of along the lines of something like Archer or It’s Always Sunny in terms of its humor and crassness. It throws jokes out so rapid-fire sometimes that the misses don’t really matter, and the hits are pretty damn great. The voicework is top notch too, with Kaley Cuoco as the headliner being a fantastic choice for the role.

Mortal Kombat (2021), Doom Patrol, and Fire Emblem

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.

Doom Patrol

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!

I’m off Twitter and Facebook so… hello!

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.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapters 36-39 (The End!)

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.

Chapter 36

Irisville.

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.

* * *

“Closed.”

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.

“Right?”

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?”

“Promises, promises.”

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.

Chapter 37

“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.

Chapter 38

 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…”

“Hm?”

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.”

“Right!”

* * *

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?”

“Yeah?”

“This is going to sound corny.”

“Okay.”

She grabbed his hand. “Really corny.”

“Hit me.”

“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.”

“Nope.”

“Didn’t do it for you?”

“Not even close.”

Chapter 39

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.”

“That’s not-”

“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.”

“Brianna-”

“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.”

 “Goof.”

“Huh?”

“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.”

“Corny.”

“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.

“Murphy.”

* * *

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…”

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 35

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.

Chapter 35

“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.

“There’ve been-”

“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.

“Awake.”

“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.”

“Huh?”

“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.”

“Sorry?”

“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.”