On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 16

The cracks in the foundation really started to bring the house down with this one. I love the research I did on Edmonton, and fully intend on visiting that beautiful city someday. But apart from that, this chapter is all over the damn place, and you don’t get any feel for why it’s here, apart from the painting scene. This kind of tonal dissonance only gets worse from here, so buckle up, kiddos.

Chapter 16

If Calgary was a sweet fever dream, then Edmonton was a long, luxurious afternoon nap.

When Garrett and Brianna talked about the trip, they only made the loosest of plans – cities they’d like to see, a few tourist spots both had heard about or looked up on the Internet, or a few bits and pieces that friends and family recommended. Other than that, they wanted to play things by ear. Though Brianna did have to get back to the Hammerdown eventually, neither of them were pressed for time so long as the ghosts regularly checked in with news on crimes Garrett could report to Monica.

They’d left a lot of room in their schedule for the major cities, not sure what they’d expect or how long they’d want to stay, and when it came to Edmonton, both agreed later they were glad they hadn’t set anything in stone. Weeks could have been spent there, taking in shows, the nightlife, the food, the shops, the parks.

Coming from Rankin Flats, one of the dirtiest, smoggiest, ill-kept cities in the United States, Edmonton was practically fastidiously clean. Hardly a hint of smog touched the sky, helped somewhat by the day’s breeze, but also thanks to the long stretches of beautifully maintained trees lining the highways and streets. Glittering skyscrapers rose in the distance, but lacked the glaring industrial façade of most of the aging buildings in the Flats.

Though traffic was bogged down slightly thanks to the early morning work traffic, the arterial flow was at least steady and Brianna had no trouble navigating her way around.

“I wish you’d tell me where we were going,” Garrett groused good-naturedly. It was hard to be irritated with Brianna that morning, especially given the exuberant way in which he’d been woken up.

“Nuh uh.” Slowing to a stop for a red light, Brianna growled, “Gimme.” He held up a blueberry fritter and she turned her head for a large bite. “Oh, that’s goo-ood,” she moaned, largely for his pleasure, and was delighted when Garrett flushed a little bit.

With his thumb, he wiped a dab of blueberry filling from the corner of her mouth and she caught the digit with her teeth, giving him a teasing wink. “Not that I’m complaining, but what is even going on today?”

“I’ll tell you, but only if you promise not to go all self-serious on me again.”

“Again? What are you talking about?”

“Nope. Promise.”

Amused, he said, “All right.”

“Pinky swear.” She held up the finger in question.

“What are we, six?”

“Pinky swear!”

Looping his pinky with hers, he said solemnly, “I, Garrett Beavis Moranis, do swear to not be so self-serious. Again. Whatever that means.” Before she let go, he added, “I also swear, I have the craziest wife on the planet. Who I love dearly and from whom I would love a repeat performance of this morning. Amen. Wait. Do I say amen?”

“No. But I like it.” Brianna bounced a little in the driver’s seat. “Okay, I am still feeling kinda like I need to pay up for the wedding bet-”

“Brianna-”

“Pinky swears are for life!” She caught him raising his hands in peaceable defeat. “I wanted to make today kind of a special day for you. I mean, I would do all this for you anyways-”

“Oh thank God,” he said, remembering the pounding on the walls from the room adjoining theirs at the hotel.

“-but… I don’t know. Today I thought we could do some stuff I think you’ll love.” Suddenly shy, she said, “But if you want to know, I’ll tell you, and we can do some other stuff.”

“No, this is perfect,” Garrett said, knowing her mood was shifting. And it was. He grinned. “It’s weird, but I kinda like surprises. They’re… not something I’ve gotten used to yet.”

That was an understatement. Garrett had spent a decade and a half essentially on his own. Until Brianna came into his life, he hadn’t celebrated a birthday with anyone living since he was a teenager. During the first one he spent with Brianna, they’d been working a job together and she’d brought along two slices of a caramel layer cake from a mom-and-pop bakery they both liked. He’d been so shocked and thrilled by the normalcy and kindness of the gesture that he wasn’t able to speak for a full minute.

“Then I’ll try to surprise you every chance I get. Like… oh, say, when we go to bed, I’ll wear a Freddy Krueger mask.”

“Only if I can bring a chainsaw.”

“Deal.”

“Listen, Bri-”

“Pinky swears!”

“All right, all right, I admit defeat.”

“Good. Donut me.”

* * *

One of the peculiar awakenings Brianna had caused in Garrett early in their relationship was a desire to learn more about art. Up until the point when she’d moved in, his walls had been barren. He’d thought of his condo as a means to blend in and little else, and had not personalized it in any way, keeping it as sterile and cold as his mind.

But when she stormed into his life, one of the first actions Brianna had taken was to get a picture of the two of them together. It was still the centerpiece of their living room – would always be, if he had his way about it. In just a few days, she’d peppered his walls with her own hobbyist photography as well as family pictures, more snaps of them together, and a few cheap prints she’d collected through the years from garage sales and swap meets. Brianna’s favorites were mostly abstracts or more symbolic pieces, but she’d also hung up a poster of a cityscape of a little fictional Italian villa, originally done in rich, vibrant hues that jarred in a fascinating way with the washed-out sunset behind it. It had been a present from a distant relative, and she hung it mostly because the walls needed decoration rather than any real fondness for the painting, but Garrett latched onto something about the print. One evening Brianna had come home to him trying to learn how to set the desktop image to a JPEG version of another one of the artist’s works. Ever since, he’d become something of a budding art fan, despite knowing nothing about it – though she secretly envied his complete lack of bias for what was considered “good” art. Everything he saw, he judged with fresh eyes and opinions.

It wasn’t much of a stretch then for her to make their first stop the Art Gallery of Alberta. With oddly angled walls of windows and swooping curves mish-mashed together, the exterior looked to Brianna as though it were melting, and after a minute of dumbstruck staring, Garrett agreed readily.

Inside, the bustle was just starting, and they managed to get in ahead of a tour group. Where the exterior of the building felt playful and wild, the interior’s first floor felt more warm, inviting, and mellow. A staircase sept up around one of the building’s central lighting fixtures, and they followed it up to a more professional and austere second floor. Their pathway weaved among several different rooms, all painted in different hues of lights and darks to better emphasize the paintings. Variable lighting for each work cast the photographs, paintings, and exhibits in everything from mellow lows to sharp highs.

Standing in front of a photograph of a train, Garrett whispered to Brianna, “Why’s the lighting so different from piece to piece?” Behind them, someone’s cough sounded suspiciously like a snicker and Garrett, who’d fought shapeshifters, cannibals, and psychopaths of all sorts, sagged like he’d been hit.

Brianna missed this, absorbed in a painting of the Mounties. “The lights emphasize different aspects about the works,” she said distractedly.

He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he already felt stupid. “Oh,” he said, as if this made perfect sense. Nearby, the child ghost sniffed the air, as if she could smell something delicious.

The works themselves were beautiful, harsh, thought-provoking, baffling, moody, cheerful. The exhibits seemed to focus quite a bit on Edmonton, Albertan, and Canadian in general history, and several audio pedestals played various facts about both the works and the moments in history depicted by the artists. They learned a lot, though a large portion of the intricacies of Canadian governance went over both their heads.

While Brianna sought out a bathroom, Garrett wandered up to the third floor. Here the focus was on Canadian history through art, and Garrett took in a few pieces before a red-framed painting caught his eye. Wildly out of place next to two photographs of life in the Rocky Mountains circa the turn of the 20th century, the painting was of a wary-looking woman, her hair snarled and hanging low past her bottom, kneeling next to a campfire, a dripping piece of meat between her fingers.

She bore a long-healed scar down one arm, and several animal bones pierced the skin between her knuckles and under her lower lip. Forever caught halfway between guilt and unmasked fear, something about the woman caught Garrett’s mind and he felt himself sinking into the painting. Beside him, the child ghost stepped up, and he was barely aware she was keening softly. Something tightened in his skull, and his ears thrummed with the rush of blood. Wrooom. Wrooom. Wrooom.

He wanted to tear this painting down. He wanted to burn this building to the ground. He wanted to find the artist who had captured this woman and cram his fucking brushes through the soft fatty chicken wings under his arms before Garrett drew his knife and carved hell upon his chest and stomach and groin and-

“Garrett?” Brianna asked.

At her touch, he jumped like a caught trout and the moment was broken. The memory of his rage vanished as quickly as it came on, and he stared between his wife and the painting on the wall. “I… it was…” It was what, though? This was just a painting of some woman time forgot, lost in the vagaries of life in the mountains. “Guess I got caught up in this one,” he said, smiling weakly.

Brianna looped her arm through his. “Can’t blame you. It’s a fascinating picture.”

“Fascinating. Yeah.”

“You okay?”

Garrett blinked, once, twice, a third time, and the last of the fog in his mind was gone. “I am.” Hesitant and not sure why, he kissed her cheek. “Missed you.”

“I was only gone for a few minutes, goof.”

“I know.”

After a lengthy look through the gift shop where they bought a couple of small poster prints for their guest bedroom, Brianna led Garrett back out to the Durango. Halfway to the parking lot, she stopped and turned to him. “Did I do something wrong?” she asked, a note of frustration in her voice.

“What? Why?”

“You looked like you were about ready to kill someone in there. If I screwed up and brought you somewhere you didn’t want to visit, just tell me. It’s not like we’re locked into this.”

Something tugged at his memory but he couldn’t place it. “I… no. Sorry. I think that painting reminded me of something. The way she looked, the surprise and fear on her face… I don’t know. It bothered me.”

Placated – or at least pretending to be – Brianna started walking again. “Good. I was hoping we could visit a few more museums later this week. There’s a science one I know might not sound like the most exciting thing, but…”

“Whatever you want, I’m happy to come with. Besides, I like science.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Mmm hmm. Especially anatomy.”

“Oh God, I know where this is going.”

“Female anatomy.”

“Yup.”

“Specifically, your female anatomy.” He paused, thinking. “But if they had that on display, I might be a little pissed.”

Brianna snorted. “You and me both.”

* * *

The rest of that day found them hitting up a water park at the West Edmonton Mall, their first taste of what would turn into a favorite landmark of theirs on their trip. Brianna was surprised that Garrett was a mallrat, but he explained that one of his favorite ways to pass the time when Murphy was working was to wander malls in Vegas or Rankin Flats. It was the people watching, he explained.

In any case, both of them were staggered by the scope of the mall and promised themselves plenty of time to explore its nooks and crannies. That afternoon though was devoted to waterslides, an enormous wave pool, and Garrett blatantly devouring his wife with his eyes in her new one-piece, the top and bottom separated by a series of thin strings that nicely showed off her stomach. With their wild gluttony over the last week, Brianna had been worried about it not fitting, but it hugged her just fine, he told her. At one point, resting against a wall, Garrett pulled her to him, her butt pressed against him, and he whispered into her ear that whatever she had planned next, he wanted an hour in between. What he murmured to her after that made her go bright red, and she agreed. It wasn’t long before they headed for the Durango and their hotel.

The cylindrical Chateau Lacombe had been one of the few places Garrett had firmly wanted to try. A few of his world-traveling poker acquaintances had reached out to him to offer congratulations on the wedding, and one of them, a man of practical but quality taste who Garrett trusted implicitly on these sorts of things, firmly recommended the concierge-floor rooms. Although the room was a bit pricier than anywhere else they’d been staying, the Lacombe was worth the investment when they saw the spectacular wide view of Edmonton sprawled out below them.

While Brianna took in the view, Garrett wrapped his arms around her. He began to undress her, ignoring the view, ignoring everything but her. The urgency with which he tore at her buttons made her think he meant to just take her, no foreplay, just hot and hard right there. She was right about the position – he pushed her hands against the window, bending her slightly, but he had other ideas as to the foreplay, and knelt behind her.

“This is your d… day,” she gasped, secretly hoping he’d keep doing what he was doing.

He pulled back just for a moment. “This is what I want. This is what I always want. Your pleasure. You’re so fucking sexy, Brianna.”

When he said it like that, and set back to work, his practiced tongue finding every sensitive inch of flesh, she gave in and let him explore, play, kiss, lick. Only when she rode the high of a hiccupping orgasm, his name escaping her lips, did Garrett rise and undress. He took her from behind, practically shoving her at the glass. It was the best sex of their honeymoon so far, and when it was over, she nearly collapsed on wobbly legs. He helped her to bed, brought her a glass of water, and went to get one for himself. As he sipped, taking in the sprawl of her hair, her bent legs, the slightly dazed smile, he asked almost casually, “Now what else did you have in mind for tonight?”

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 15

Skipping 14, onto 15. Some of it doesn’t make sense out of context, but that was always going to be the case with this thing. Almost certainly the first few sentences would have been cut. Marlon Lord is a name I didn’t mention since the first Rankin Flats novel and almost assuredly I was the only one who cared that Garrett never brought him up apart from that one conversation. This was my attempt at closing a loophole of sorts, as Pitt, the first man Garrett killed, is brought up frequently but never Marlon Lord.

Anyways, here you go.

Chapter 15

Taking off her seatbelt to stretch, Brianna said, “You don’t talk about him much.”

“Barclay?” Garrett asked, confused. “Or Pitt? Barclay’s just a footnote, really. And Pitt-”

“No, no. I mean Lord.”

Garrett’s face went sour. “Yeah. It still doesn’t sit well with me. The craziest ones never do.” Marlon Lord had been the second man Garrett killed. It was an accident. The vigilante had been trying to get the man to go straight, and he’d come unhinged and drew on Garrett. In the ensuing fight, the gun went off accidentally, killing Lord outright. “It was so damned… unnecessary.”

She reached out and squeezed his thigh. “Like you said, if it hadn’t been you, it could’ve been anybody he attacked.”

“Oh yeah, he was a nutjob. Still feel sorry for the poor bastard, though.”

Around them stretched the plains northeast of Drumheller. They’d taken a leisurely eastern route, circling up towards Edmonton in a vaguely crescent moon direction. If they’d gone straight to Edmonton, the trip might have only taken three hours, but both of them were of a mood to wander, both in mind and body. The sun’s bloated belly was starting to dip on the horizon, and soon it’d be time to start thinking about where to settle in for the night, but for the moment, they just cruised.

Brianna flipped through a few radio stations. Lusty Galavant fizzed on for a brief few seconds, then was swapped out with a new Halsey song. She let it play for a minute, trying to enjoy the music, but finally flicked the radio back off again.

Garrett glanced over, then back at the road. “I get the feeling you want to talk about something.”

 “Yeah. Kinda.” Her hands drummed a soft beat on her hips, and quietly, she asked, “Are we bad?”

“For what?”

“We’ve… killed people. I’ve killed people. And I don’t regret it.”

Garrett snorted. “You did the world a couple of favors.”

“I’m being serious.”

“So am I. Ransom would have kept killing. In that mental ward, you would’ve been…” His hands tightened around the steering wheel as he contemplated her near-rape.

“And let’s not fool ourselves, we murdered two of the Princes even if we weren’t the ones to pull the trigger.”

“Fair enough. Look, this is the same question I asked myself back then with Pitt. Was I becoming something awful when I murdered him? The answer was no. Not because he deserved to die, but because of Murphy. His moral compass is what eventually saved me from the depression that question was bringing. Murphy saw that I struggled with the choice about Pitt. We tried to find a better solution, bringing the law down on him. Any time I question if I’m doing the right thing, I weigh it with him. And now you. You two are my real mirrors. What I see of myself in you, that’s my measure for if I’m doing right or wrong. I’m close enough to you to know you’re not becoming some maniac. We’re not going off the deep end, righteously speaking.”

“That’s… a good answer.”

“Rambling, I know.”

“Nah. Just more crap I need to chew on.”

His smile was a grim, nasty thing. “For what it’s worth, this doubt, it never goes away. It’ll keep you up at nights. Almost as much as all the monsters and psychopaths.”

“Something to look forward to,” Brianna said drily. The conversation drifted off, and she turned her attention to a paperback. They were usually comfortable in their silences – she was a bit chattier than him, but wasn’t so emotionally needy as to assume every silence meant he was annoyed with her. Quiet was sometimes just that – quiet. But Garrett kept casting glances up at the rearview mirror, once, twice, three times, and she couldn’t concentrate. “Now it’s your turn. The hallucinations?”

“Yeah. Not surprising considering that family, I guess.”

“Ransom or Vernon?”

“Neither. It’s…” He ran a hand over his face, mystified. Hadn’t he told her about the child? The Roadkill Museum? “I can’t believe I forgot about this.”

As he filled her in, starting with the walk he’d gone in back in Irisville, Brianna frowned. At the part with the stuffed dog, she shook with anger, and when he got to the little girl, she glanced at him in befuddlement, the eyebrow on the good side of her face arched. “Like Rowen?”

“No, this girl was older. Or bigger, at least. Just starting to develop, um…” He waved a hand at his chest.

“I can’t say anal and you can’t say boobs. Ain’t we a pair, raggedy man?”

“Oh, I know that reference. I know it… damn it. Tell me.”

“Beyond Thunderdome.”

“Shit. But no, definitely not Rowen. And this hallucination has ribbons. When I think about Rowen, she doesn’t have ‘em.”

Brianna mulled it over and shrugged. “Weird. Maybe you caught her face in a news report or a newspaper or something, you know?”

“Hey yeah,” Garrett said, thinking it over. “That could definitely be it. Glossed over something and my subconscious grabbed it out of the air.”

“And with you stressing about those kids…”

“Definitely makes sense,” he agreed. “High five, oh sexy wife of mine.”

And in the backseat, the ghostly child stared up at the mirror, her eyes glossy and dull. Hungry. She was getting so hungry.

* * *

As Garrett and Brianna worked out that night in their hotel in Vegreville just blocks away from a three-story aluminum Easter egg, Andy Waldon sharpened his knife until the edge gleamed under his hobby light, listening to the neighbors’ TV, his mouth locked in a tight grimace.

Always the same fucking video game. Always when Andy came home from the end of his second job washing dishes. Always when he was at his most frustrated.

The kicker was he’d liked the Burick kids. Liked their mom, too, with that tasty brown skin and those huge, heavy tits she kept locked up. Not long after Andy moved into the duplex, he’d worked his first job – a magician and entertainer in Vegreville and Edmonton – for some young ones, and the Burick kids had been there with their mom and dad. When Andy stole away for a minute for a slice of cake, she’d sidled up to him, and there’d been a little horseplay. Nothing much, just a handjob through his silky pants, but good holy fuck, her wide smile and those smoky eyes had been locked up tight in his jerkoff mental safe ever since.

But Mr. Burick? He was a grade-A dickhole. A car accident left him with a bum leg, and now he worked from home, doing tech support while he spanked it to Asian porn. And he got paid twice what Andy did. Fucking prick.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, his being home wound up rendering his kids almost feral, especially once the mom ditched them for a grocery store owner five blocks down. Andy had been a little hurt when she’d caught his eye hauling out her stuff. Not that she owed him, but still, there had been a little spark there.

But now Mr. Burick let his kids do pretty much whatever the hell they wanted. They’d wandered through Andy’s side of the duplex twice before he’d started to learn well enough to lock up. They’d stolen his grilling set out of his backyard and used his good spatulas and tongs to play in their cat-shit infested sandbox. And worst of all was the fucking endless noise. Day and night those kids played video games. Well, just one, really, and that was even worse, because Andy heard the theme song every waking (and sleeping) moment. The gunshots as they blasted alien invaders rocked him awake at all hours, until he was left blue in the face screaming at the walls for them to shut up, shut up, shut uuuuup.

And still they didn’t listen.

Mr. Burick would limp over, hamming it up on his cane, and apologize, looking not so much sheepish but like the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Andy had a sneaking suspicion Mr. Burick knew about the handjob his wife had given him and actually encouraged his kids to be complete little nightmares.

Tonight, Andy would show Burick. First would come his car’s tires. Without those, the fucker wasn’t free to drive on down to the liquor store and booze himself up enough to not give a shit about his kids and that stupid game. Then Andy would call Burick outside, point out the tires, say, “Gosh, what a world we’re coming to when kids just do whatever they want,” and then… and then…

Andy licked his lips. What came after the “and then” was up to Burick. Andy wanted him to fight. Just a little. Enough to give his kneecap a good kick, maybe see if he couldn’t rebreak it. Yeah. And if the little shits were watching, he’d just unzip his pants, drop ‘em, and take a nice, hot piss right all over daddy dearest. Give those shits something to carry with them the rest of their life. Andy’d go to jail, almost certainly, but he’d called in the noise seven times and nothing had been done. Seven. Horsefucking. Times.

Enough was enough.

He gave the blade one last lick with the whetstone. Time to do this. He stepped out of his garage, humming to himself. First came the tires. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. His knock on the Burick door was polite, cheerful, almost. Neighborly. He slid the knife into his waistband under his shirt and prepared his best “sorry” face.

The heat washed over Andy as footsteps approached the door. Something passed through him, an energy shaped like a fist, and grabbed hold of his spine, his lungs, his mind. Thought fled him, only the dull, thudding rage and everything that had led up to this moment.

When Mr. Burick answered the door, meaning to ask Andy if the kids were being too darn loud again, he stopped and clapped a hand to his mouth involuntarily. On his knees, Andy was sucking in great big gasps of breath, eyes squeezed shut, veins in his arms and forehead throbbing. Craziest of all, his hair was turning a stark white.

“I wanted to fuck their mother!” Andy shrieked. “I wanted to fuck her while you were in the next room! She jerked me off and it’s all I thought about for weeks the noise it hurts the noise was too much I was gonna cut you just a little just to teach them a lesson I was gonna I was gonna I was…” Andy’s voice dried up and he croaked like a bullfrog before he collapsed sideways. At least he didn’t have to deal with the noise anymore.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 13

Short one today. Enjoy!

Chapter 13

Brianna expected the call days later, perhaps when one of the couple was emptying their pockets while doing laundry. But they were only an hour away from Calgary, Garrett’s mood still fixated on the fast-coming future.

“Hello?” Brianna said, tucking her book under her armpit.

“How did you know?” Jenna asked, her voice thick as syrup. Crying. She was crying.

“Know what?”

“Don’t tell me this wasn’t you. You snuck us the cash when we took the photograph, right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

There was a long pause, and Jenna breathed so quietly she could hardly hear, “We were going to have to go to a shelter. Just for a little while, until Lorne could land on his feet or I could find something better than temp work.”

Garrett glanced at Brianna and she nodded imperceptibly. He focused back on the road again, though his eyes flickered occasionally to the back seat. His hallucinations, she thought. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“I know what it must seem like, us going to the park like that-”

“No. You don’t explain anything to me. Your lives are your lives. You gave your kids a good memory to hang onto. That’s not…” Brianna was crying now. “You just don’t explain yourself to me, that’s all.”

Jenna was silent for a much longer period of time, and Brianna thought she’d hung up. “If you’re really serious about heading for Drumheller, will you do it? Send our kids a picture of you with the dinos? When we’re okay again, I want to have it developed. So they have something to remember you by.”

“Of course,” Brianna whispered. “Goodbye, Jenna. God bless.”

* * *

Among the hills of Drumheller, Brianna and Garrett cozied up under an enormous dinosaur, its jaws wide. Together, they smiled at the camera as though the world wasn’t a broken place, as though the kids they were posing for would live beautiful, rich lives full of happiness, never wanting for anything, that the cash they gave their parents would sprout and grow and solve all their problems. They smiled for the lie all youth are told – that kindness and goodness are enough to change the world. Five minutes later, as they held each other sitting on the edge of a nearby fountain, a text came through, the last one they’d ever get from Lorne or Jenna. “Angels.”

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 12

Skipping 11 today. More side story garbage. Bleh.

Not much to say about this one. It’s grammatically rough and their are writerly problems with trying to describe two couples making separate road trips. I liked the family in this, and had this made it to publication and the series gone on much longer, I would have liked to have seen them transplanted to the States, maybe becoming a semi-regular part of the cast. That’s my problem. I write all these side characters and kinda then want to explore their stories until there’s no stone left unturned. Good problem to have, I guess.

Chapter 12

They passed out together in a heap of sheets and blankets, Garrett’s arm draped over her. This time, it was his snoring that kept her awake for a very long time, but she didn’t mind. Lord knew he endured it enough times for her.

The story had made her giggle, and she whispered to him all the reasons she loved him, and there were many. Sometime early in the morning, Brianna finally fell asleep, only to wake once to a vision of him standing at the window, nude, muttering to himself. It sounded as though he was having a conversation with someone. Tibaldo or Virgil, she assumed, come back with something they’d forgotten to tell him. She mumbled for him to come back to bed, but sleep washed back over her before she knew if he did or didn’t, and in the morning, she’d forgotten the whole thing.

* * *

Their morning was dominated by a pair of titanic hangovers, but after a simple breakfast of eggs, hash browns, and what seemed like a few pounds of bacon, they both felt marginally better. Armed with travel mugs of a dark roast, they made their way to their last stop in Calgary, the Olympic Park.

Both of them were fans of mini-golf, and were surprised to find there was an eighteen-hole course overlooking the Rockies. Garrett said, “Bri, I’m happy to do whatever you want, but the way I feel, could we do that first? I think if I went ziplining right now, my head would explode.” Since she’d just taken two more aspirin for her own splitting headache, Brianna agreed.

They wound up playing just behind a family from Calgary, who made the trip up to the Olympic Park every year. The couple – the woman about the same age as Brianna, the man maybe twenty-two or twenty-three – tried to let them play through when their rambunctious little ones started dueling with their putters, but Brianna and Garrett were so amused by their antics that they just wound up playing together.

The father – Lorne – looked as exhausted as Garrett felt, and kept stealing unhappy glances at his children. A couple of times, the wife – Jenna – took his hand and whispered something in his ear. Lorne would nod, smile tersely, and return to his cheerful self, never once letting his children see the worry or doubt in his eyes.

Lorne and Jenna’s children told Garrett and Brianna they had to go to “Dumbbeller” (or Drumheller, as Jenna corrected them gently) to see the dinosaurs. Garrett and Brianna’s plans weren’t firmed up yet, though they’d been thinking of heading west to Banff instead of east. But the children’s enthusiasm was so infectious that Garrett grinned at Brianna, shrugged his shoulders, and she responded in kind. What the heck, those glances said. Brianna exchanged numbers with Jenna so they could send the kids a picture of the dinosaurs.

Unexpectedly, Garrett said as they prepared to part, “You mind if we all got a picture together? The four of us? And your kids?” Brianna raised an eyebrow at this. Garrett liked having his picture taken with anyone but her as much as he liked a colonoscopy. The others agreed cheerfully, though the strain in Lorne’s voice was audible. This was not a man who’d been expecting kindness today, and it was weighing him down.

They roped in a passerby into taking their pictures with their cellphones. Garrett wrapped an arm around Lorne’s shoulders like they were old friends, drawing a real look of surprise from Brianna until she saw the flicker of his hand after the shot, slipping bills into Lorne’s back pocket with ease. The couple glanced back bemusedly over their shoulders as they headed for a rundown sedan.

Brianna linked arms with Garrett as they watched the family take off. “You’re the best man I know.”

“That guy was in a hard spot,” Garrett said quietly. “Might have just fed an addiction. But those kids’ clothes were a size too small, Jenna was wearing yesterday’s jeans, and given the way Lorne’s stomach was growling, I’m guessing he hasn’t eaten since yesterday at least. They were saving pennies in every way possible. You don’t come to a place like this with your kids if you’re doing that. Something was wrong. Really wrong.” He turned to Brianna. “When I borrowed your purse to dig for gum, I took what you had in cash. We’ll hit up an ATM later and-”

She dropped her purse on the ground and whipped her arms around his shoulders, kissing him hard for a good long minute, her eyes open as she studied his face. When she pulled back a little, she said quietly, “I love you.”

“I’m pretty fond of you too.”

* * *

After a quick zipline down the mountain, they were both ready to pack it in and head east. They passed back through the edge of Calgary, stopping for gas, snacks and a lengthy tour of a bookstore’s sidewalk sale, where Brianna stocked up on a few trashy romance novels and a new thriller from Emily Carpenter.

Brianna stowed her books in the rapidly dwindling space behind their seats, and shut the door. Garrett was on the other side, taking in the sign for a Tim Hortons on the other side of the street. “Okay,” Brianna said, and thumped the top of the SUV. “To Dumbbeller we go.”

But Garrett didn’t move. It took her a moment to realize it, but he was shaking. It was so minute that she thought at first it was a trick of her eyes. Blurriness caused by the day’s heat, perhaps. But no, he was shaking. “Garrett?” she asked. He didn’t answer, and she came around the side of the car. “Hey, what’s up?”

“I…” He turned to her, pale, his forehead glossy with sweat. “I don’t want to leave.” His voice was small, a child crying for a sweet, and her heart rose and broke and rose again, all in the space of time it took to grasp his hands. There were no words to say. Their time there in Calgary was past. After a while, his chin dipped just a little, an acknowledgement that they had to go, had to leave this bubble in time behind.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 10

Today’s chapter comes with a pair of stories, one funny, the other, not so much.

The funny:

Before I wrote this, I told a close friend about this chapter’s opening scene, dealing with the aftermath of Brianna wanting to try anal sex. She got a good laugh out of the idea, and I promised I’d send her the scene when I finished with it. I did, except her dad was also a Facebook friend, and when I saw the same last name, I clicked on him instead of her, and then proceeded to send him the scene in question.

You read it now and it’s pretty tame, but I was mortified. We both got a pretty good laugh out of the mistake.

The not so funny:

The build-up to this scene didn’t actually begin in this novel, but in Band of Fallen Princes. This all eventually got edited out in future drafts, but one of the running jokes in that book’s first edition was that Brianna and Garrett were arguing a lot about post-wedding plans until Brianna told him she wanted to try anal, which salved any objections he might have had about anything to do with the wedding or afterwards. Pretty dumb joke, and I eventually edited it out because this book would never be released, meaning the punchline never came.

Except I made mention of the anal sex joke on Facebook, and it wound up costing me a friendship, one I hold dear. even now. People took joyous sexual experimentation and turned it into something charged, as though I were making personal attacks against humanity. Our philosophical differences on the matter still haven’t been resolved. I love them dearly. I hope they see this and understand the spirit in which it is written. It hurts that this paltry scene is the thing that broke us, but I’m also not going to say I’m sorry for it.

Being a writer and putting down the things you want to write about is always going to cost you something. That’s something they can teach you but you never understand until it happens. Garrett and Brianna’s story, one of sacrifice, of love, of the cost of living a good man’s life, is one I stand by. I’ve said it before and reviewers have said it too – this isn’t the story people wanted in its end, but it’s the story I told. The price I paid along the way hurt, and the irony that the jokes that cost me friendships never even made it to print beyond a first edition stings.

But if you think I’d do anything different about this journey, I don’t know what to tell you. I have always tried to be of a certain character. I believe in love in all its various forms, so long as you’re not hurting someone. This scene wasn’t ever meant to be anything more than a funny joke, but along the way, it became something of a symbol for me, of what I will stand for.

Anyways. Here it is. And the funniest part of all, it’s kind of a shitty chapter anyways.

Chapter 10

It was not the fun night either one of them had been hoping for.

When they walked to the restaurant the next morning, Garrett opened the door for Brianna, not thinking about much at all but getting his hands on a breakfast burrito. Instead, she turned her head and snapped, “Don’t think I can muster up the brain cells to hold the door open for myself?”

Fuck, he thought. He held doors open for her often. So did she for him. It was just a general act of kindness, not some chauvinistic bullshit. “Just was ahead of you, hon,” he said carefully.

She brushed past him and headed straight for the bathroom. “Feels like someone shoved an arm up there,” she muttered, making damn sure it was loud enough for him to hear.

The hostess, who’d overheard too, glanced from Garrett to the bathroom, trying not to stare. “Um. Table for two?”

He followed the hostess through the restaurant and sat down, ordering himself a coffee and Brianna an iced tea. The waitress gone, Garrett had just enough time to start looking at the menu when Brianna came walking out. Her gait was a little more ginger this morning, and to an outside observer, she looked as though she might’ve just woken up. She’d spent only a minute trying to brush out her hair and do her makeup that morning before she’d thrown all her things into her overnight bag in a huff, leaving her with a bit of foundation and a wild, wind-blown hairdo. In a move of supreme idiocy, Garrett had commented that he liked it, that she looked beautiful naturally, and had to endure five minutes of an icy tirade as to why she didn’t need to wear makeup if she damn well didn’t want to. That he’d been trying to tell her so seemed to make no difference whatsoever.

As she neared, her already sour expression went even darker. She jabbed a finger at the hard wooden chairs of the table. “Really, Garrett? Really?”

For a moment, he was confused, but when she grabbed their menus and headed for a much more padded booth, it clicked. Oh, this was going to be a day.

She barely glanced up at him when he slid into the booth across from her. For a time, there was nothing but glacial silence from her. Their waitress came and took their orders. Brianna finally glanced up and asked as sweetly as she had been just yesterday, “Does the Big Fling come with latkes?”

“We can swap out the potatoes for it, would that work?”

Brianna thought about it. “Can you just bring me a side of them along with the potatoes?”

The waitress smiled. “Sure thing. How about you?”

“Just a breakfast burrito, I think.”

Brianna’s smile slipped. “That’s it?”

“I… yeah?”

“So I’m gonna eat this huge meal and you’re just going to sit there and pick at a little burrito? Like I’m-”

“A Big Fling too, then,” Garrett said, cutting her off and getting irritated now.

“Oh now you’re just ordering to make me happy? Right, that’s real big of you.”

Garrett looked up at the waitress, hoping for some kind of moral support here, but she was pointedly looking down at her pad. “I… just throw some food on the table for me. The Big Fling. Whatever.”

The waitress scurried off and Garrett leaned forward to whisper, “For fuck’s sakes, Brianna, you’re the one that wanted to try it.”

Picking up a table menu listing their dessert specials, Brianna snapped, “I know.”

Garrett waited, trying not to drum his fingers impatiently on the table. “And? Are we just going to snipe at each other all day?”

Brianna sighed and put back the menu. “No.”

“Look, I told you how I felt and I meant it. Anything you want to do in bed or not is up to you. We won’t ever try it again.”

Brianna glanced down at the table and blushed. “Well, don’t say that.”

“I…” Garrett closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead with his thumb and first two fingers. “What?”

“I mean, there were parts of it I liked.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. Let’s not just rule it out, that’s all.”

Garrett folded his arms on the table very neatly, and sank his head down on them, trying to decide if he was fighting back a shout, a laugh, or a cry for sanity.

“Pain in the ass,” Brianna whispered, and he groaned.

When the waitress came with their food, he was still seated that way while Brianna browsed her phone, a pleased smile lighting up her face.

* * *

Calgary was a feverish dream of places, people, food, culture.

The zoo.

What was left of Brianna’s malleable mood swings departed when she stood in front of the giraffe enclosure. The long-necked beauties lazed around, munching on leaves high in the branches, but one, smaller than the others and lacking their sure footing, plodded towards her, its head lowered, huge eyes glowing even despite the bright morning sun. Its mouth was drawn up and slightly pooched, as if it were lost in a pleasantly dull memory. Brianna didn’t notice as her hand fell away from Garrett’s and she moved closer to the giraffe, slowly, hardly daring to breathe. It lowered its head even further and drew to a stop, dipping a little as if curtsying to Brianna. Brianna curtsied back. The giraffe blinked, the only time since it started towards them, and lifted its head, satisfied with whatever it had come to investigate. It turned and lumbered away, leaving Brianna shaking from the singular rapture of that moment in time.

There was no more anger between them that day.

After the zoo came a vast indoor garden. Twice among its leaves and greenery Garrett thought he saw the child from the day before, but she was gone in a flash each time. It grew easier and easier to dismiss her as a part of his fractured mind, same as his other hallucinations.

Their afternoon was capped off with a visit to the Calgary Tower. Garrett knew all was truly well when they stood on a glass observation deck and Brianna nuzzled into him like they were a pair of old, comfortable socks rolled together.

Still, though, the stop in Irisville started something in his mind, shadows at the corners of his consciousness.

Their second day found them at Calaway Park, Brianna much readier to take on the rigors of hard seating. The amusement park swarmed with guests that day, but the ride lines moved swiftly. Garrett hadn’t been to an amusement park since he was maybe ten, and Brianna had never been to one period, despite having always wanted to. Together they rode the Vortex five times, shouting like children, and the bumper boats twice. On a Ferris-wheel type ride called the Balloon Ascension, they posed for a kissing selfie and wound up necking like it was the first few weeks they were together. Every ride in the park they could fit into, they jumped into together, stopping only for soft pretzels and frozen lemonades.

In the early evening, they finally stumbled out of there, exhausted, hungry, dehydrated, and madly, madly in love with each other. They went shopping that night, browsing several art galleries, crafts and gift shops, and a bookstore. Brianna found a lovely painting of a field of black-eyed Susans that Garrett agreed would make the perfect thank you for Rose and Ed for helping so much with their wedding. They hashed out how to best transport it home, but the gallery owner solved the problem for them by agreeing to ship it. The paperwork took some time, but one of the biggest to-dos in Canada was now firmly taken care of.

They ate dinner close to their hotel, and when it came time to return to the Kensington Riverside Inn, Garrett sobered up with every step. That was the night they’d meet up with Virgil and Tibaldo, if they’d received their message at the condo about Chloe Iver. Sensing his mood darken, Brianna didn’t try to fill the silence, which he appreciated. However, she did keep his fingers entwined with hers, and that was okay too.

There had been many ghosts on the trip – dozens in Lethbridge, a few here and there along the roads, hundreds in Calgary – but Garrett had been ignoring them for the most part. If they found out he could see them, he’d be inundated with requests to get messages to loved ones, to try to send money to a sick relative, to right any number of wrongs they’d done in life. When he’d first started to see ghosts as a teenager, Garrett had tried to deliver three messages to the living from ghosts he and Murphy met. All of them had ended with the living looking for more answers than he could provide. It didn’t take them long to realize the obsessions it would create with the dead would be unhealthy for the living – catastrophically so. One woman, who’d been on the verge of starting a new relationship with a man, had called it off and became fixated on the idea of bringing her late husband back to her. She’d lost her job, her family, and had eventually wound up having a complete nervous breakdown. Never again, Garrett swore to himself, and from that day forward, usually Murphy or his other ghostly allies usually acted as a buffer between him and the ghosts they dealt with.

Virgil and Tibaldo though were old friends – well, perhaps not “old” in the sense of the time they’d worked together, but in the last ten months or so, they’d helped Garrett fight a number of battles. Virgil, a Texan with a droopy mustache and clothes resembling those found at an 80s cowboy-themed strip club, had almost lost his essence trying to help save Brianna once. A holdover from the early 90s hip-hop era with his high, tight fade and designer turtleneck sweaters, Tibaldo oozed cool, easy charm that even Murphy couldn’t pull off in his fancy suits. Where Virgil had been a bounty hunter in life and excelled at tracking criminals in death, Tibaldo was more of a people person, and largely handled the day-to-day business of re-establishing a central waypoint in Rankin Flats for ghosts to converse, drop news, and sometimes take up jobs working for Garrett when they were needed.

The two ghosts were early, talking animatedly in the midst of the shrubbery outside the Kensington Inn. Virgil caught sight of Garrett, gave a nod, and resumed listening to the wildly gesturing Tibaldo.

“-can’t tell me he’s as good as Tiger Woods. You just can’t. You’re comparing a damn middle-aged fat white dude with the greatest sportsman of all time. Period.”

“Michael Phelps says hello,” Virgil grunted.

“Yeah, all right, yeah. But Tiger Woods has done way more for sports than Harry Hamm.”

“I didn’t say all of sports,” Virgil said, folding his arms across and through his chest. “I said for professional wrestling.”

“No, you definitely said-”

Garrett grunted, “Hey, you two assholes want to talk shop? Or are we just gonna play chatty Cathy all night?”

 “And a cheerful fuck you to you too!” Tibaldo said, turning as Garrett held up two fingers to indicate to Brianna the ghosts were talking.

Virgil’s mouth puckered. “Really? ‘Oh hey, Virgil, thanks again for finding all those ghosts to protect the wedding.’ ‘Oh gee, Garrett, you’re very welcome.’ Asshole.”

Garrett grinned, feeling more at ease. If there had been a problem back in the Flats, they wouldn’t have been so casual. “It’s good to see you guys.”

“It really is,” Brianna agreed, then amended, “Well… I mean, it’s good for him to see you guys for us. Oh hell, you know what I mean.”

Tibaldo laughed. “If I was alive, Moranis, you’d have a little bit of competition for this one.” It wasn’t the first time Tibaldo had vocalized his intangible liking of Brianna. Garrett was relieved the man wasn’t real – he was sure Ty must’ve racked up a hell of a lot of notches on his headboard.

“Let’s head inside and bullshit,” Garrett said. “Don’t want the locals thinking I’m too crazy.”

With the threat of an emergency run back to Montana alleviated, the tension of the evening seeped out of Brianna, and she flopped on the bed to listen to Garrett’s side of the conversation. He sat beside her, absently rubbing her back as he filled in the ghosts on what Monica and Annalise had told him about Chloe Iver.

“That’s about all we know too,” Virgil said, sitting on a corner table, his legs swinging through the edge of the wood like a child’s. “The cut they found on her, the smile thing, it matches up with the same ones we’ve been finding on drugs all across the city.”

Tibaldo nodded. “Our best guess-” Virgil cleared his throat and Tibaldo shot him a scowl “-Virgil’s best guess, which I happen to agree with, is that you’re not the only one who figured out the math on who actually murdered Maddox Iver. Whoever’s been supplying the Band of Princes must’ve tracked her down.”

“Yeah, but how?” Brianna asked when Garrett repeated all that. “I mean… she was out in the middle of nowhere.”

“That’s a good point,” Tibaldo agreed.

Virgil shrugged. “He followed her. He had someone watching her. Who knows? In any case, we’re not finding much else. We’re trying to track down the supplier, but he’s careful. His middlemen get a call, they go to a place, they pick up the drugs, and they leave a lot of cash. We’ve got some names there for you for the police, but for every one we’re finding, there have to be a hundred more across the city.”

“Are they using the same places twice?” Garrett asked. “Could just stick a man on the drops to watch who comes and goes.”

But Tibaldo was already shaking his head. “Nope. At least, not often enough that we’re seeing a pattern.”

While Garrett wrote, the ghosts gave him a list of dealers. “That’s not much to go on,” Garrett said as he sent the list to Monica, “but you’re doing good work. Keep it up. And seriously, thanks for all the eyes at the wedding, Virgil.”

“We’ll have some bills we need to square up on that end,” the Texan said. “Mostly people I made promises to about cash being sent to relatives. Sorry for not asking first, but I figured you’d be okay with it.”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

“How’s the city?” Brianna asked, wiggling her shoulders as Garrett worked her upper back. “They haven’t said that yet, right?”

Garrett smiled. “No, they haven’t.”

“The cartel’s in an uproar, It isn’t pretty, but there’s not much we could do even if you were home,” Tibaldo said, tapping his fingers against and through his pants. “There’s no one to follow it all back to. It’s just random violence and aggression.”

Garrett understood. Without a clear indication people were going to commit a crime, there was no way to stop them if they decided to just go for it. Tibaldo’s network of ghostly allies caught what they could, but in a city with the sheer scope of Rankin Flats, whose population was slated to surpass New York’s in less than two decades, their efforts were at best a stopgap. Garrett did what he could, but he had to accept very early on in his career as a vigilante that he was just one guy.

“Legion’s been smart. They moved their power players to Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago,” Virgil added. “They weren’t going to have a repeat of the Finsons.”

“Hasn’t been much noise on their end,” Tibaldo agreed. “But give it a week or two and they’ll be out recruiting the dregs in full force. I guarantee it.”

Garrett relayed all that to Brianna. “Anything else?” he asked.

“Went by the Hammerdown before we headed for the airport,” Tibaldo said. “Place looks like it’s doing fine.”

After hearing that, Brianna thanked them. “I’ll have to give Marnie a call, maybe on the road tomorrow,” she mused. “Couldn’t hurt to check in.”

There was a bit more planning, mostly about their travel plans in case they needed to meet up again, but they all agreed that if there wasn’t a need, the ghosts didn’t have to travel from the Flats. Their business finished, Garrett stood up and walked the ghosts to the door. “Murphy get going to Europe okay?”

Virgil snorted. “Gone like a shot the minute he knew you two were safe in Helena.”

“Good.” A pang of loneliness struck Garrett unexpectedly. Being with Brianna was an amazing journey, but he didn’t feel entirely complete without his best friend there too.

When they were gone, Garrett and Brianna both decided drinks were in order. And there just so happened to be a bar very close by.

A few drinks turned to many drinks in a hurry when word got out that they were on their honeymoon, and when they finally managed to stagger back to their hotel room, Garrett had to lean on Brianna for support.

“I’ve never seen you this drunk,” she said, giggling.

“Don’t think I’ve ever been. Hey, let’s go… let’s go golfing. Like… right now. Let’s go hit a ball of buckets.”

Her giggling turned into full-blown laughter. “Neither one of us needs to be driving.”

“We’ll walk!” he proclaimed, and stumbled over an imaginary curb.

“I tell you what I want to do,” Brianna said, stopping and turning him towards her. The dark heavy scent of his cologne sent a little tingle up and down her spine, and she ran her fingers up and down his chest.

“Shit, Brianna, I think I’d see three pussies right now instead of one. I’d probably try to stick it in your thigh or something.”

Now she was the one who needed support, so hard was she laughing. “All right, all right. Hmm. How about you tell me the next part of the story?”

“Oh right!” he said, brightening. “The story! Take me home, pretty lady, and I’ll make word love to your ear holes!”

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 9

Spoiler warning – here’s where we start to get into territory that will eventually be reused in a Seven Heroes novel. And I gotta tell you, I’m kid of excited about it.

Apart from that, eagle-eyed readers will notice some slight discrepancies between this and the first chapter’s opening. There’s also a point in this chapter when Garrett is sorta kinda speaking to one man and inside a building and maybe bumps into him on the steps. I can’t honestly remember if this is the same guy, but it’s definitely coming across as a glaring error. Again, edits would have ironed this out. You’ll start to see that a lot. My writing is a bizarre mix of editing on the fly and “screw it, leave it for edits.” Some nights I can’t sleep without fixing a scene or even just a sentence. Other times I sleep like a baby. Weird, I know.

Irisville is one of the only places in this novel apart from Rankin Flats that’s fictional. I didn’t want to make anywhere real seem as dreary as this place necessitated.

Anyways, enjoy. You’re about to brush shoulders with the Not-Right Man.

Chapter 9

By the time they finished in Vulcan, they decided to stop for the night somewhere outside of Calgary and visit the city fresh in the morning. With a little searching, they found a cute bed and breakfast in a small town named Irisville, not too far from Calgary, but with enough mileage that they could get a peaceable night’s sleep without the bustle of the city.

The town was roughly the size of Vulcan, maybe a little larger, but it lacked any of that city’s flair and looked pretty farming-centric. More wheat and barley fields greeted them on the way in, but this time, the earth smelled more like rot to Garrett. Brianna didn’t smell it, but she suspected the freshly-cut wheat was screwing with her sinuses.

A few cars rolled up and down the streets, mostly hovering around a few bars and restaurants. A gas station’s bright orange neon sign reminded Garrett uneasily of Hamber, and he wasn’t shocked in the slightest when his hallucinations popped up in the backseat.

Their bed and breakfast was located a few blocks from the main thoroughfare. The two-story home looked out of place among its brethren on the street, not because the other houses were cheaply constructed, but because the landscaping was so meticulous and well-cared for. The shrubs outside the bed and breakfast had been well-pruned, the lawn was done in a pleasant diamond formation, and despite the late June dry heat, cheery flowers leaned over leafy greenery in flower beds scattered tastefully throughout the yard.

The building itself could have used a coat of paint and the garage was pockmarked with dings, but by and large, it was a beautiful place. As they pulled up, their host, a stout man wearing a flower-print Hawaiian shirt and slacks, limped outside to greet them. Nick insisted on helping them with their luggage up to the second floor, and once he heard they were on their honeymoon, he bubbled over with congratulations.

“And you came to my bed and breakfast,” Nick gushed. “That’s perfect!”

The interior was split up into four distinct suites. They were the only guests for the night apart from a surly long-term renter they saw only once the next morning, and so they were given the master suite without any extra charge – “Because it’s your special time!” Nick exclaimed. The walls were covered in a light pinstripe pattern that made Garrett’s eyes hurt, but the bed looked plenty big, the light quilt and comforter soft and inviting, and the rest of the room’s furnishings pleasant in a generic sort of way.

“I owe you both an apology, though,” Nick said, wringing his hands together. “I won’t be able to provide breakfast tomorrow. I know, it’s in the business name, but we had a tragedy here a few days ago.”

“Oh, what happened?” Brianna asked, genuine concern in her voice. She’d already decided she liked this garish man.

“One of our own passed away,” Nick said, his eyes flickering away for just a second. “It was a terrible thing, an unexpected tragedy.”

“We’re very sorry to hear that,” Garrett said.

Nick’s smile was tight-lipped and didn’t touch his eyes. “Thank you. I’ll call ahead to the restaurants in town, let them know you’ll be coming by. They’ll charge your meal to me.”

“That’s very thoughtful,” Brianna said, giving Garrett a meaningful look.

“Yes, it is,” he murmured. “Thank you.”

Nick excused himself shortly after showing them around the common room downstairs and the patio out back. Both just needing a moment to relax, they settled into their room early. Brianna laid down on her stomach, chin resting on her hands as she watched her husband pick through a magazine rack on an end table. A scribbled note had been left on the rack – “Take a book, leave a book.” She’d maybe leave her copy of an R. S. Belcher novel she’d finished up on the road to Vulcan. As much as she’d liked it, it deserved to find another reader.

“Thank you,” Brianna said quietly. “For today. The golfing and… everything.”

Garrett dropped a magazine back into the rack and smiled over at her. “Of course.” He picked up another one and thumbed through it.

His skin held the soft dark glow of a sunburn, and Brianna examined her own hand. Damn cheap sunblock, she thought to herself. They’d need to pick up something more effective before Calgary tomorrow. They didn’t have any firm plans for there yet, but someone at the barbeque mentioned how much they liked the Calgary zoo, and she thought that sounded like fun. That’d mean more sun, though. The forecasters were practically bemoaning the death of rain for all time, or so you’d think listening to them.

It was still early and the stores were open. They could head down there, get some sunblock, some personal items, and maybe come back and make some noise. Brianna felt… alive. Crackling with energy. Maybe they could go dancing, work some of it off, but this didn’t look like the sort of town where people danced at bars. Maybe they’d just run, get what they needed, and she’d come back here and tear Garrett’s clothes off, the way he liked to do with her. Yes, she was feeling alive and sexy and…

Adventurous.

There was something she’d never done before, something she’d talked to Garrett about before their wedding. Now, Brianna thought. Now’s the time. She had everything she’d need, but she wanted a while to shower, to prepare.

Garrett sat on the edge of the bed, absorbed in his magazine. Brianna reached out and pawed at it, forcing him to glance over at her. She gave him her best innocent smile, both sides of her face turned up. “Hey,” he grumbled. “I’m reading…” He checked the magazine cover and frowned. “May… mason… Masson… Something arty.”

“I need you to do me one last favor for the evening,” she said calmly, nervousness and excitement fighting to bubble over into her voice. Brianna was shocked at how well the words were traveling out of her mouth. A little caravan of fibs, she thought, amused.

He set aside the magazine. “What’s up?”

“We need sunblock with a higher SPF. Mind running to the store?”

“We can get it tomorrow morning before we head out. Hey, that reminds me-”

“Garrett,” Brianna said sweetly. “Darling. Hush now.”

“I…” He sighed. “Okay. Sunblock. Want anything else?”

Was there anything Brianna didn’t have that she hadn’t prepared for? No, she didn’t think so. Thank God the Canadian border guards hadn’t given her too much shit about the little bag of personal items she’d brought with, or she might have chucked the whole idea out the window. No… no, she wouldn’t have, Brianna thought, blushing hard. She’d wanted to try this for a while, “Beer, maybe.”

“It’s early. We could hit a bar. Hey, I’ll tell you the next part of the cross story.”

Inside, Brianna was cackling maniacally, but she let her smile slip just a hair, hoping the twinkle in her eyes wasn’t giving too much away. “I think I’d like a night in. And I’m gonna need some personal time while you’re out.”

“I… what?” Garrett was finally starting to catch on to something, but he had no damned clue what his crazy wife was up to.

“Forty minutes.” A devilish idea crossed her mind. If Garrett was any other man, she wouldn’t do it, but her trust in him was complete. Electric warmth spread from her neck down through her spine and lower still, and she parted her lips involuntarily. Brianna wanted to pull him inside her, right there and now. Patience. This was going to be good. “No. I’ll text you when I’m ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“Garrett.”

“Yes?”

“Go.”

* * *

After grabbing his wallet and his phone, Garrett headed downstairs. At first, he’d though to bullshit with Nick for a while about Calgary and what to visit there, but a note on the common area table mentioned he’d be out for a while, along with a phone number he could be reached at.

Garrett wandered outside and down the street towards the highway. Brianna. She could be such a mystifyingly goofy woman sometimes. It was why he loved her, but damned if he could understand her half the time. Oh well. Whatever made her happy, he supposed.

On the main road, he turned this way and that, glancing at the rows of businesses. Most everything had the look of hard times in Irisville – the stone foundations of several of the buildings were badly cracked, graffiti on one wall shouted “KARDINALL.” Garrett had no idea what the hell that meant. He picked a direction at random and started heading that way. Hardware store, a real estate office, a grocery store that looked to be sagging into the earth. He grimaced. Probably could have researched this place a little better, he thought.

On his way back up the other side of the street, a sign in the distance caught his attention – “Roadkill Museum and Gifts,” with an arrow pointing down a residential street. Garrett mentally shrugged and headed that way. Only ten minutes into his walk, he had plenty of time to spare. Maybe he could pick up some brochures or something there.

The rot stench from earlier grew worse, pickling Garrett’s eyes with its not-quite-rightness. Only as he approached a ramshackle old square building, its paint long ago having given up the fight to the sun and the elements, did he think just how much the almost-tangible scent reminded him of the investigation into the shapeshifter a year prior. With Murphy and Brianna, he’d looked at the murder site of a Rankin Flats cop, and there he’d discovered a feeling in the air, a scent like this one. This was nowhere near that intense, more like an unpleasant bit of gas that just won’t clear a room.

An old wooden sign beside the place’s front door proclaimed “Roadkill Museum – Irisville’s Number #1 Attraction!” The sign kept Garrett’s gaze for a while. Everything about the place felt wrong, felt off, and it wasn’t just because of the redundant number sign. Before the front door was a stoop, and he climbed the two steps up to it reluctantly, his hand reaching for the door before he could catch himself.

The cramped interior was lined with glass display cases, poorly lit by a couple of dim white bulbs. Thinking at first of Fort Whoop-Up and the furs on display there, Garrett thought the items inside might have been smaller examples of those. No. These were dead animals, stuffed and given little outfits. Here was a mouse, wearing a top hat and leaning on a tiny glossy cane. There a guinea pig in tiny Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, complete with a pair of ultra-tiny sunglasses. There a pair of skunks, her in tiny lingerie, him in a pair of heart-spotted boxers.

From a backroom, someone yelled, “Out in a minute!”

If Garrett responded, he didn’t realize it. In one corner was a dog, a mutt, sitting on its butt with its paw raised like it was eternally waiting for a high five. Though it looked nothing at all like Brown Dog, his and Brianna’s lovably bedraggled pet for several months, Garrett felt his gorge rise and had to leave. Ignoring the man coming out of the back, Garrett backed out the door and headed towards the center of town.

“Weird fuckin’ place,” he muttered to himself, and turned. There, on the front steps, was a pale-haired weathered man, smiling a little wolfishly at his discomfort. And beside him, standing on the steps, was a girl in a long brown dress, its sleeves too short for her arms. Her shoulders were wide, her head too big for her neck, and her hair was long and gnarled in spots.

None of that was what unsettled Garrett, what made him believe he was hallucinating.

Children did not have the same kind of life-ribbons of their adult counterparts when they died. If they were younger than about sixteen, give or take a year, they didn’t even stick around in the afterlife – they ascended, usually in a swirl of colors far beyond what was normal to adults, a rainbow of joy and beauty. It was always a sobering sight, but heartbreakingly beautiful too.

This child then should not exist, he told himself. She was a hallucination. Because at her feet were a pair of ephemera, darting and playing.

Garrett blinked, and she was gone.

* * *

It didn’t make much sense to buy Brianna’s requested purchases and then just sit around, so Garrett found a bar a block beyond a convenience store. He could have a drink or two and get out of the hot sun, then hit the store before he headed back to the bed and breakfast.

The Taswell was a curious blend of cheery, neon-colored lighting and cockroach hotel austerity, as though the budget had run out after they’d bought the fancy color-shifting tubes behind the liquor bottles. A few barflies hovered near the rough-hewn bar, most of whom gave him a hello. That was one thing he’d noticed pretty much universally about Canada – people were mostly polite.

The bartender, a harried collegiate-looking kid with an unfortunate bleach-blond hairdo that reminded him of Guy Fieri, came down the bar as Garrett settled onto a stool. “What can I get you, buddy?”

Garrett glanced at the list of beer, and ordered a cream ale, something he’d never heard of. It was light, and pretty good. When the rest of the room heard his accent, they plied him with questions, mostly about what he was doing in the area and why he wasn’t back at the bed and breakfast with his wife, something he had no good damn answer to.

He was just starting in on his second beer, this one a darker brown that tasted vaguely fruity, when Nick walked in the door. He looked around, spotted Garrett, and for a heart-stopping moment, he thought something had happened to Brianna. But their host broke into a grin and beelined straight for him. “Hey, buddy!”

That was twice in less than five minutes Garrett had been called that. He grinned and shook Nick’s hand. “Hey, buy you a beer?”

“I should be the one buying you a round.” The man leaned over the bar and plucked a glass from the clean ones.

As Nick poured himself a beer from the taps, the bartender muttered, “Just help yourself, dickhead.”

“Will do, cheers,” Nick said, and raised the mug at the bartender. Turning his attention back to Garrett, he sipped the head of foam and said, “Just out for a rip?

“I… sorry what?”

“Out for a little walk?”

“Yeah.” He fell back on the excuse he’d been telling the others. “Brianna wasn’t feeling so well and wanted to have a minute to herself.”

Nick nodded sagely as if this made perfect sense to him. “One of my pals spotted you comin’ in here. Thought I’d make sure you two were settling in okay.”

“Oh, yeah, no, everything’s great.” Garrett tried not to think about the little girl he’d seen. Just his mind working overtime. Had to be.

“Sorry to be in and out so much, but that’s the business of death, I guess. Gotta all try to do our part,” Nick said, suddenly going glum.

“I’m sorry again for your loss. For the whole town’s.”

From down the bar, an elderly man snorted, choked on the snort, and coughed out a spray of phlegm. The guy beside him whacked him on the back until the old man raised an unsteady hand. “Jacob was a shitpump and you know it, Nick. Cousin or not.”

Garrett frowned. “Oh hell, your cousin? Now I’m really sorry.”

Nick raised a hand off the bar in a “it’s nothing” gesture. “Distant, but I think we’re all distant cousins here.” There was a general chorus of agreeable grunts and snickers. “Jacob was a… complicated guy.”

The same old timer shook his head in disgust. “For fuck’s sake, Nick, he was as complicated as a rock.” To Garrett, he said, “Jacob thought with his prick, and that’s about it. Royal asshole.”

“Crazy how he died,” the bartender said, coming over to refill Nick’s quickly emptying mug.

“How’s that?” Garrett asked.

The bartender looked at Nick uncomfortably, who sighed and gave him a go-ahead roll of his fingers. “Heart attack,” the bartender said, his voice full of disbelief.

The old-timer’s back-patting companion nodded agreeably. “I saw it. Helped haul the body away. White as a sheet. And Edie kept babblin’ about how he was shouting nonsense at the end. How he was apologizin’ to her about goin’ there to… well, guess what a man waitin’ in the bushes for a woman to come home would want.”

Nick started to say something, but Garrett’s cell phone buzzed. He apologized and turned away to check his message. Brianna.

She’d sent a picture. It didn’t entirely register what he was seeing at first, what she was dressed in, or the way the camera was angled at her butt, but once he figured it out, he stared stupidly at the photo for a whole ten seconds, unable to think beyond a primal, howling need rising in him. The girl and Nick’s cousin weren’t forgotten, but they were shoved to the back of his mind in a heartbeat. Even his own name was a suddenly foreign concept. His wallet was in his hand in a flash, a bill being dropped on the counter. “Gotta go,” he mumbled, and headed for the door, trying very hard not to sprint and failing miserably.

The bartender snickered as the door slammed shut. “Somebody’s about to have some fun.”

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 8

I mentioned with the last batch of chapters you can start to feel the book go off the rails. That’s maybe not the right way to describe it. There are really two books to this one, the travel novel, which is… eh, fine, I guess. And then there was the story-within-a-story, the garbage half. You can feel how little that half impacted the story I found I really wanted to tell with this chapter.

Also, Lethbridge and Vulcan are both real places and sound tremendously cool. I can’t wait to visit them for myself someday.

Chapter 8

Blinking as if she were just waking up, Brianna grabbed his arm as Garrett hopped off the back of the Durango. “Wait. You can’t stop there.”

As he stretched, he turned and grinned. “Sure I can.”

“But… did you get caught again? What was so important about the book?”

Garrett yawned. “Don’t quite remember right offhand. Maybe some poutine would refresh my memory.”

Brianna slid off the back end and shut the hatch. “Oh, you jerk face.”

“Yeah, but it’s an adorable jerk face.” He leaned in for a kiss, and after she cracked a hint of a smile, she obliged.

* * *

They cruised down the main streets of Lethbridge, windows down and gawping like the tourists they were. It was a pretty city, sitting mostly flat with a few rolling hills and the distant Rockies as picturesque backdrops. Garrett was driving now, and Brianna snapped a few pictures.

Around the man-made Henderson Lake, the waters churning from the winds and several watercraft, was a beautiful park cut here and there by walking trails. Brianna snapped away, catching a gaggle of ducks as they erupted from the lake and took flight. She followed them with the lens until they were hidden behind a grove of elms. She fell back in her chair, grinning like a loon. At a red light, Garrett glanced over. “Happy?” he asked.

Quick as a bird, she leaned across and pecked his cheek. “Happy.”

Just a block away, they found the Japanese gardens Garrett had seen mentioned online. A tour would start in a few hours, so they decided to travel out to Fort Whoop-Up first. Out of the city and near the Oldman River in Indian Battle Park, the fort – or a replica, as they later found out – sat at the base of a sharp hill among the coulees. It looked as rustic as if it had come from the 19th century. A thick wall made of rough-looking dark timber walled it in, and several wooden buildings within seemed straight from some of the pictures they’d seen in Western lifestyle museums in Montana.

Once an illicit whiskey trading post founded by Montanans looking to trade in the area, the Fort had evolved into a legitimate stop for travelers coming through the area in the late 19th and early parts of the 20th century. Brianna and Garrett took in the exhibits inside, and bullshitted a bit with the curators, most of whom were posted near old equipment from the Fort’s storied history, and although neither of them were particular Western history buffs, they found themselves amused and entertained by the staff, so much so that they almost didn’t notice the time slipping away. After buying a few souvenirs, most notably a beautiful hand-carved miniature of a buffalo that Brianna adored, they took selfies together in front of a sign warning, “Keep Out, Ya Varmits.” A kindly Canadian couple from Grande Prairie offered to take their picture together, and as Brianna squinted one eye shut and gave her best Popeye snarl, Garrett mused to himself silently just how strangely normal his life was for the moment. She didn’t understand why he pulled her in for a hug before they left, but that was okay. It was all okay that day.

They headed back for the Japanese gardens, both of them ready for something relaxing. The gardens were as peaceful as they hoped, and they walked hand in hand while the tour guide, a cheerful young woman dressed in traditional Japanese garb, explained the aesthetic designs of the park as related to the human soul. Brianna was entranced by it, but Garrett felt like an intruder amongst the quiet, his own soul never very much at ease those days. In a gazebo, as Garrett held Brianna from behind, he nestled his head on her shoulder and stared out at the stream slicing its way gently through the greenery, wishing for all the world he could feel a part of the calm, but what lay within his heart could not so easily slip away.

* * *

“Oh. My God,” Brianna moaned, eyes closed in rapt ecstasy.

Gravy-topped cheese curds sat atop mountains of fries between them. Their mistake was ordering two different kinds – the servings weren’t just large, but massive. There was no way they could eat all the food before them. No way.

But they were sure going to try.

Brianna couldn’t make up her mind as to what kind to order – she’d tried authentic poutine in Rankin Flats, but she had to know if there were any differences, just to make sure. Another kind on the menu was topped by several types of bacon and ham. The cogs in Brianna’s brain nearly exploded until Garrett suggested they try both, since they hadn’t eaten anything solid since breakfast early that morning.

“Can we spend the next thirty days here? Like in this booth?” she asked Garrett as she speared a chunk of maple sausage.

“Sure. We’ll probably have to arrange something bathroom wise with the owners, but what the hell.”

There were no more words, not for a long time, just the noises of two very hungry people enjoying the goofy things in life gorging themselves on pure heavenly heart-attack inducing bliss. Eventually the feeding frenzy slowed to a semi-normal swing of their forks, and they managed to start something approaching a conversation.

A quick call to the golf course confirmed that there were going to be plenty of people looking to fill out a team. From there, still absently picking at the pork-infused poutine, Garrett browsed hotels. They mulled a few over, and found a very decently rated one just a few blocks away from a little park and only a few blocks from the restaurant.

But they were in no rush, and sat and talked for a while. Good talk of nothing at all – a movie Brianna wanted to see when it came out in a week and the best bits about a Jess Mountifield novel she was reading, Garrett mostly listening, letting the food lull him into a near-stupor. Soon they realized they were the last ones left in the restaurant, and their waiter was hanging by the kitchen door waiting for them to leave and casting infrequent glances at his watch. They left a large tip to make up for keeping him late, and left hand in hand.

Though they were pleasantly tired, once they were checked into their hotel, they decided on a walk in the dusk. The park, whose name they never caught, was almost unoccupied at that hour. For no reason, one of Garrett’s depressed moods started to attack the edges of his consciousness, and when a jogger turned a corner ahead of them, it wasn’t the face of a willowy man he saw, but one of his hallucinations. Without thinking about it, Garrett leapt in front of Brianna, and the jogger, thinking he was crazy, stopped, slowly backed away, and turned around to run the other way, casting glances back over his shoulder.

As Garrett bent over nearly double, trying to will the phantoms of his past away, Brianna took his hand. She said nothing, just letting him find his way back to peace with her presence, and soon they headed to the hotel.

When they returned to their room, Brianna flopped on the bed, pulling him down with her. They lay together, just looking at one another, his smile finally returning, and for a while they just touched each other gently. It was as though they were teenagers, awkward and trying to determine what the other wanted, and soon she was giggling quietly, and he just rubbed her arm, smiling too.

“What do you want to do tonight?” she asked. “Loved that poutine, but it left me feeling wildly unsexy. Sorry.”

“I know what you mean,” he said, and rolled over onto his back, feeling like a listing ship as full as he was. She scooted towards him and rested her head on his arm. It was an uncomfortable position and he’d have to move soon, but for a while, he let it be.

After a few minutes, she sat up and glanced at their luggage. “Hey, you want to watch our wedding video? I don’t remember a damn thing about it except you. It’d be nice to see what actually happened.”

Garrett laughed. “You were pretty out of it up there.”

She punched him lightly in the leg. “Hey now. I was distracted by all the hot groomsmen.”

“August will be incredibly pleased to hear you say that.”

Brianna laughed and pushed herself up to fetch her laptop and the external drive her mother had sent along. As she set things up, Garrett meandered into the bathroom to get a drink of water. He stared into the swirling maze of colors forming in the mirror and closed his eyes. “You’re not taking this trip from me,” he whispered to the demons that haunted him.

When he returned, Brianna was sitting at the head of the bed, her tongue jabbed out of the corner of her mouth as she started up the video. Excitedly, she patted the bed beside her without looking up, and he felt the unspoken tension in his mind ease up just a hair. It would be all right, he thought.

Yeah, right, the voice in the back of his skull whispered.

* * *

Brianna golfed terribly, Garrett even worse, they both were mildly sunburned despite their sunblock, and the tournament was delayed halfway through due to a torrential burst of rain that ended as quickly as it came on.

And they had a riot.

Their partners were a tall, nearly unintelligible French Canadian, a local transplant from Ontario – or that was what little they understood, anyways. His speech sounded slurred and their conversations with him were peppered with a lot of blank stares and misunderstood phrases. At one point, he threw up his hands and just started writing his side of the conversation on a notepad, along with little doodles that were, surprisingly enough, quite good. In just three holes, he’d managed to draw a rough approximation of a cityscape, and once the tournament was over, he gave it to Brianna with a pat on the shoulder. She made absolutely sure that made it into a photo album later.

Their other golfing partner was a plump young local college girl who reminded Brianna a bit of Marnie, her second-in-charge at the Hammerdown Gym. Her accent was almost nonexistent save for a few vowel lifts. She explained that most everyone from Alberta, or at least that neck of the woods, anyways, generally spoke much like their American counterparts south of the border. At most they sounded like North Dakotans, she said, adding a “you betcha” and a “dontcha know” to Brianna’s delight.

They came second to last, but the golf course was so beautiful they didn’t mind. It wove around the river and the coulees, in full sight of the gorgeous trestle bridge. The girl explained its history and of the need to have a bridge that crossed the various rivers and streams in the area. Each of them outplayed Garrett, who couldn’t hit a fairway shot if his life depended on it, but the girl obviously had a little crush on him, giggling and asking bunches of questions directed right at him alone. More than once, Garrett glanced apologetically at Brianna when the girl lined up a swing. Brianna just shook her head and grinned.

Brianna did take second in a “closest to the hole” challenge, and for her effort, won a gift package including a shirt, sports towel, and an umbrella. After the tournament, at a barbeque back at the club house, they ran into their swinging friends from the boat, though this time, thankfully, no one tried to convince Garrett or Brianna to swap partners.

As they ate Andouille sausages and burgers together, Garrett’s cell phone went off. He glanced at it – Monica. He shook his head and shut off his phone. Within a minute, Brianna’s went off, and he glanced sideways at her. “Oh that can’t be good,” she murmured, and excused herself.

She headed for a quiet corner, and called Monica back. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Brianna, hey.” Monica cleared her throat. “Ah, there’s something you and Garrett should know.”

“Did something happen with Sloan and you?” Brianna’s eyes went wide. “Wait, you two didn’t get hitched or anything, did you?”

“What? No. Listen. It’s not anything that should alarm you two, but they found Chloe Iver. And… it’s kinda fucked up.”

Brianna caught Garrett’s eyes across the way, and made a come-on gesture. He gave their friends a quick smile and hurried over. “What is it?” he asked, as Monica was filling her in.

“Chloe Iver. She’s been murdered.”

“Fuck me,” he muttered. “How?”

A motorist had been walking his dog on a deer trail near a rest stop between Great Falls and Rankin Flats. The landscape was hilly and covered in brush, so no one noticed the body until the guy’s dog jerked on the leash so hard that the dog managed to get free and rush to the corpse. The guy who discovered her told the Highway Patrol it was like she’d been mummified. Her corpse looked as though it had been in the brush for weeks, not a matter of days, so much was she dried out. Her skin was as hard and tough as shoe leather, and her innards had shriveled into hard little nubbins, almost raisin-like. All of this was incredibly strange. Monica had seen her the night of the fight between Garrett and Dash Pendleton, and that had only been days ago.

“Whatever this was, guys, it was definitely more your neck of the woods than us regular police know about,” Monica said. “Cause of death was a knife wound. And we spotted one more thing – you know that smiley face on the cocaine we found with Dash Pendleton?” They remembered. “Well, whoever did this left a smiley carved on her hand. Same exact kind, like a parenthetical mark and a short, rounded slash.”

“Fuck,” Brianna muttered.”

“If her ghost was still around,” Garrett said, “it’d be long gone by now, especially given what happened to her in that city. Besides, I’m not sure… I’m pretty certain she wouldn’t be sticking around in the afterlife.”

“Hell?” Monica asked. “I can’t believe I just asked that.”

“I don’t know. She was willing to help Maddox do a lot of crazy shit, even before he started to tool her up. I’d guess so, but I have no idea. Have you contacted Annalise?” Annalise Fox was an FBI contact, and one of the very few people who knew about the weird shit in the world.

“She was my first call.”

“Do you need us back there?” Brianna asked. Garrett wasn’t sure whether to kiss her or be disappointed, but she had a point. They had an obligation to help out if they could.

“No. If you don’t think the ghost is around, then there’s not much we can follow up on.”

“Leave a note back at the condo,” Garrett said. “On our wall in the War Room. I’ve got a couple of friends in the city, they’ll get the word out. If she’s around in the Flats, they’ll find me up here.” He gave her their vague travel plans for the next few days since they were now headed north instead of making a westerly circuit. They agreed to come up with a few firm meeting points for their ghostly contacts to meet them, and Monica hung up.

For a while, neither of them said anything, just taking in the barbeque and the laughing, happy golfers around them. “None of them have a clue,” Brianna said.

“It’s kind of nice that way,” Garrett said, picking up on what she was saying. “You think about the pandemonium it would cause and it’s just… nightmarish. The Salem witch trials, but on a worldwide scale.”

Brianna nodded. “Yup. And you think about how many monsters just Hamber alone created, and you wonder… how many are out there? How much shit do we just not know about yet?”

“Hey, not all of us are monsters,” Garrett said lightly.

“You know what I mean.” She took his hand. “You suppose there are any other good ones out there? People with sight or power or whatever?”

“There’s Sloan.”

“Yeah, but her power came from Desmond, and he made her into a monster. And now she’s just one of the rest of us.”

“A catalyst is what she called herself. I guess that works for me too.” Garrett sighed. “I don’t know. I’d hope that there are people better than me out there with these kinds of curses, because if I’m the best we have… we’re fucked.”

“I don’t believe that for a second. You’re the best man I’ve ever known.”

He shook his head. “I’ve murdered. In cold blood. And I’ve let people die so that my hands weren’t stained. There have to be better ways than that. There just…”

Garrett trailed off, and she let the conversation die. Sometimes he needed his moods, needed to wrap himself up in his emotions so he could cast them off later.

When they headed to their SUV later, she finally added, “For what it’s worth, I’m glad.”

“About what?”

“That it’s you making those decisions. If someone else had your kind of power, your training… what would they do with it? You think you’re evil, but you’re not. Think about all the hard decisions the people in the military have to make every day. Are they evil? Are they wrong?”

“No, but…”

“I trust you way more than I trust them. And I think they’re heroes.”

He pondered that for a long while to come.

* * *

It was still relatively early in the afternoon, and they agreed they’d seen what they wanted to from Lethbridge, so they headed northwest. Their plan was to explore Alberta and British Columbia during their honeymoon, then maybe explore the eastern half of the nation during another vacation sometime in the coming years. With the Band of Princes case still fresh in their minds, they needed the time to recover. A month away from their city, no matter how much they loved it, gave them an opportunity to recharge their batteries. They were not superheroes. Their minds had been battered and nearly broken by the last year and a half, and both of them were grateful Monica hadn’t asked them to come home.

 Annalise Fox called them on the road to Vulcan, a town Brianna particularly wanted to visit on their way to Calgary, and gave them much the same report as Monica had. “If either one of you two is thinking about coming back to the city,” she said icily, “don’t. The police and the FBI existed before you, and they’ll exist after you’ve kicked the bucket. We can do this the old-fashioned way while you two are gone.” Despite her tone, Brianna and Garrett weren’t fooled. Though Annalise was as warm as a milkshake, her clinical nature came from a lifetime of professionalism, not dislike. They were not friends, but they made for excellent business partners of a sort, and a deep mutual respect had been formed by all three.

Roughly halfway between Lethbridge and Calgary, Vulcan was, by outward appearances, an unassuming little plains town, Huge combines rolled through wheat fields, kicking up a fresh-cut scent that they slowed to enjoy with the windows down. There was a reason Brianna had Garrett drive that stretch. In the last fifteen miles to the city, she tested lens after lens on her camera, unable to sit still even for a minute.

And there it was – first the edge of the town, then a small park and Brianna shouted a wordless yip of glee while Garrett, amused, gaped at it. On a stone platform was a Star Trek starship (he made the mistake of calling it a spaceship, and Brianna’s exaggerated huff of irritation reminded him of a cartoon nerd he remembered from his childhood but couldn’t quite place). She was taking photos even before the SUV came to a stop.

The woman Garrett saw on a day-to-day basis was generally a slow-boiling stew of emotions and quirks, but Brianna at her most adorable was when she was able to fully geek out. He knew that wasn’t always possible with him – she tried to teach him patiently the ways of Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica, and the dozen other science fiction and fantasy movies, books, and shows she loved, but he was a slow learner and didn’t quite sometimes get the appeal of the genres.

But he loved that she loved things with such innocent purity, such absolute untainted joy. It delighted him when she shoved the camera at him for her to pose in front of the starship. He even laid down flat on his back to take a great forced perspective shot that made it look like Brianna was lifting the ship above her head. Within a short distance was a neat solar tree, and they grabbed a few pictures of that as well.

When they’d finally tired of the little park, Garrett and Brianna headed to a spaceship-shaped tourism center. Inside were shelves lined with Star Trek memorabilia, and Brianna grabbed Garrett’s hand as she pointed out stuff she recognized. Throughout the rest of the building, there were life-sized cardboard cutouts of many of the show’s stars along with various costumes they could try on. With Garrett’s sister August on speakerphone, she was an endless stream of enthusiasm as Garrett took pictures upon pictures.

When August had to get back to work and they’d hung up, Brianna stopped for a moment and glanced at Garrett, suddenly shy and uncertain. “I know this isn’t your thing,” she said.

“Stop,” Garrett said, reaching out and holding her shoulder. “It’s not. But that doesn’t mean I’m not having fun. You know how much I love seeing you happy. That’s all I need.”

“You know what would make me really, really happy?” she asked, moving closer, a shirt in one hand. She stood just inches away, a little smile spreading slowly across her face.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“You could…” Brianna said, leaning in to whisper into his ear. “…put this on.” She shoved the shirt at him and stepped back, grinning.

“Uh uh. I’m not playing dress-up.”

“Oh come on.”

“Nope.

“Please?”

“You’re not breakin’ me, Bri.”

She batted her eyelashes. “You’re really, really certain there’s nothing I can do to change your mind?”

He sighed. “I’m not wearing the ears, though.” Three minutes later, as another tourist snapped their picture together, Garrett growled, “Can I take these ears off now?”

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapters 5 & 6

A two-fer today, mostly because I gutted almost all of one chapter for this. Also, we’ll be skipping over chapter 7 in its entirety. Here’s where you start to see the novel start to go off the rails. Brianna’s emotional state is all over the place, which would have been fixable in edits, but as it stands, it reads a bit eclectic.

I do want to mention that the exploration of Canada, which really gets its start here, was the best part of writing this novel. My friend Andy Shelgrove ehlped me come up with a tentative “where would they go and what would they maybe visit,” which I then researched and made a travel plan for the characters. That part took me a couple weeks, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. I would love to re-enact this journey someday, start to finish, and then explore he rest of what Canada has to offer at my own pace.

Anyways, enjoy? I think you’ve seen the best of what the novel has to offer, so from here on out, it’s all downhill. At the very least we’ll have some fun throwing popcorn at it.

Chapter 5

Blah blah blah (this part edited out because it would have melted eyes from its awfulness)

* * *

Brianna glanced up from the address book, startled as Garrett stopped talking altogether. “So where’d they take you then?”

“I forget,” he said slowly, as if pondering the idea. “Guess it might take me a while to remember.”

“You said you’ll tell me bits of the story when I ask,” she said, pursing her lips.

“And I will, but the storytelling battery’s dead and there’s a twelve-hour recharge.”

Brianna laughed. “Jerk. I like the way you tell it, though. You’re pretty good at it.”

“All Murphy. He’s been feeding me stories for so long it just must’ve rubbed off.”

She shook her head adamantly. “Don’t think so. Telling a story isn’t something you learn. People can teach you how to smooth the edges a bit, but you want to tell a good one, you need to have all the tools pretty much from the start.”

For that, she got a kiss, and a kiss turned to something more. “Brianna,” he whispered as he pulled back, “the mind is willing, but the flesh…” He smiled apologetically. “But we can have fun in other ways.”

“Yes we can,” she said. He started to kiss down her neck and across her chest, but she had other ideas and was soon off the bed. The look of disappointment on his face was alleviated when she brought him his digital camera.

“Be right back,” she said, leaving him shaking his head and laughing. God, he loved when she dressed up for him. He wished he was a lovemaking machine like from one of her romance novels, but there were other ways to show his appreciation and he pondered which one he’d do when she got back.

It took her about ten minutes to get ready. Still utterly exhausted from the wedding, it was everything Garrett could do to keep his eyes open, but for her, his heart, he stayed awake. And when she finally called out to him to be ready with the camera, he grinned and turned it on.

In she strolled, her butt towards him in a pair of cheeky panties, just a little bigger than a regular thong with little cute cut-outs on each of her cheeks. The panties were almost covered by one of his dress shirts, and atop her head at a saucy angle was a trilby hat. Her dark hair spilled down her back, and she glanced over her shoulder, trying to look sexy and giggling too hard to quite pull it off.

Garrett didn’t care one bit as he snapped picture after picture. Soon she was crawling on the bed towards him, sliding up his torso, his chest, her knees splaying across his head, and one last time in that bedroom, Garrett helped convince her that this place, this ramshackle home in the middle of nowhere, was somehow magical.

Chapter 6

In the morning, both of them well-rested and ready to move on, they ate a quick breakfast of some of their cherries and canned raviolis from the cupboard. Brianna washed the sheets and the bedding while Garrett gave the carpet one more thorough cleaning and dumped the ashes from the stove into a bucket. He took the remains of the fire outside, ran some hose water into the bucket until he was absolutely sure there were no hot embers, and dumped the wet mess into a mud puddle, just to make doubly sure.

From his wallet, he left a pair of hundred-dollar bills folded neatly under a coffee mug on the kitchen stove, where the occupants couldn’t miss it but no one peeking in casually could see it. With the rains abated, he took the luggage out to the SUV while Brianna wandered through the place one last time.

In the bedroom where they’d slept through the night, she found a notebook and ripped out a piece of paper. If Garrett saw this, he’d probably disapprove, but Brianna felt a connection with the place and the family. It was wholly illogical and dangerous, but she wrote out the note anyways, folded it in half, and left it in front of the pillows. When she glanced up, Garrett was at the door watching her. She opened her mouth but he just nodded and smiled.

* * *

“Canada, we are rubbing our touristy junk all up in your face!” Brianna shouted out the window at the Rockies. She pumped her fist in the air and wiggled around in a happy little dance. Driving, Garrett tightened his grip around the wheel and looked grimly ahead. When she leaned over for a kiss, he pulled away, scowling. “Oh, don’t be like that. I said I was sorry.”

“Cocaine, Brianna?” he asked icily.

“Sorry, sorry sorry sorry,” she sang out, sounding anything but.

“Was there any part of you that thought, gee, these border guards might not find it funny to joke about us having ten pounds of nose candy in the car?”

“Sooooooooorrrrrrrryyyy?”

“Oh hey, it’s fine, I wanted to spend an hour having them pull the whole SUV apart. It’s too bad we didn’t bring the van so they could’ve found our secret stash box. That would’ve been even more fun to explain!”

“Hey, crossword puzzle time. S blank R R Y. Can’t quite figure out the second letter.”

“Look at the clue for sixteen down. Dumb shit you obviously shouldn’t say to a border guard.”

Brianna reached out for his thigh and batted her eyelashes at him when he glanced over. “I’ll make it up to you.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Yeah? How’s that?”

“Mm, I think I’ll come up with something.”

“Well… all right. But it had better involve you in a Mountie outfit riding a moose.”

“I’ll ride this moose.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

With a pleased little giggle, she retracted her hand and grabbed her iced tea. Well, it was less ice and more melted water and tea after they’d had to leave their drinks in the car while the vehicle was searched. When she’d taken a sip, she leaned back out the window and shouted her glee, and Garrett, unable to stay mad at her, grinned too.

They’d stopped at Babb on the way for much-needed caffeine and to drop off the thank you cards. There were more that would need to be made out – despite their wishes that no one bring wedding gifts, their guests had ignored them and brought a small mountain of them to the wedding. They hadn’t had time at the reception to go through all the gifts, so Ed and Rose had hauled them home for them, to be opened when they got back from their honeymoon. Brianna felt a bit bad about not getting all the cards out in a timely fashion, but the thought of thirty days of poutine, Aphrodisiaque beer, sight-seeing, camping, and lovemaking somehow managed to salve the guilt.

Their trip up through Babb meant they were traveling parallel to the Rocky Mountains in all their glory. Both of them had been to Glacier National Park many times, but only Brianna had been across the Canadian border to Waterton Lakes, the Canadian half of what she considered to be the most beautiful area in the world – or at least what she’d seen of it, anyways.

The Rockies rose up to their west like a ridged spine, the tips still coated in blankets of icy white even in late June. Forests of pines swept up to meet those caps, and though the day would get warm, that early in the morning the air had the crispness of late autumn. She was almost chilled when they were stopped at the border thanks to her less-than-well-advised joking.

But now the sun was well up in the sky as they cruised slowly to Waterton. The mountains dropped precipitously to the plains to the east, giving them two wildly distinct views depending on if they looked right or left. The town of Waterton itself lay on the edge of a large, wind-dappled lake. When the gusts died, the waters were so clear as to be achingly beautiful, and Brianna longed to dip her toes in it even knowing it had to be freezing.

Since Garrett had won the bet about there being a key at the house they’d stayed at, he picked a boat tour, but on the way through the beautiful town, Brianna spotted a sign and her jaw dropped. “Garrett. Garrett Garrett Garrett.”

“Yeah?”

She pointed with a trembling finger, her eyes wide. “That place is called Wieners of Waterton.”

Garrett glanced over and did a double take. “Well… crap, we have to get a picture there first.”

“Right?”

They did, and though they were both full from breakfast, the manager laughed and gladly took their photo together as they posed. Brianna kissed the man’s cheek, leaving him flushed and laughing even more. As they got back into the SUV, Brianna sighed happily. “Wildly appropriate first touristy picture together.”

As it turned out, the boat tour wasn’t starting for another forty minutes, so they hit a hiking trail. One of the more popular and easily accessible routes, handfuls of other tourists made their way along it too, and Brianna finally heard her first “aboot” from a couple from Ontario. She managed to keep her mad giggling under control until they were a few hundred yards away, then buried her head in Garrett’s shoulder and shook with muffled joy. When she came up, she said, “Married.”

* * *

“That’s a mountain goat!” Garrett said, his nose pressed almost to the window of the boat.

Brianna practically shoved him aside to get a glimpse. “Oh wow,” she breathed. Both of them had seen the animals before in Glacier, but for each of them, it had been years. She raised her camera, focused the long-range lens, and snapped a few pictures.

“You’d get a better shot from the back of the boat,” a helpful middle-aged woman suggested from the seats to their right.

Garrett reached out and squeezed Brianna’s hand when she went a little green. She was normally just fine with boats, and enclosed like they were, she felt like she was looking out from a moving room. But with the story about her scars fresh on her mind, she had a little bout of anxiety on the open-aired tail, her first in years. Garrett noticed her sickly turn and hurriedly tried to back out of the tour when she told him the reasons, but she had insisted adamantly they stay. They found seats right up near the middle, and once her stomach had settled, she found to her delight she was really enjoying herself.

“I get seasick,” Garrett said, his lips drawing down as he shuddered. “Can’t stand it. I think it’s the fresh air or the three pounds of clams she had me eat last night on a dare.”

“Three pounds?” the woman asked, laughing.

Catching Brianna’s grateful glance, Garrett winked. “Oh yeah. Mistakes were made.”

The woman turned back to her traveling companion, shaking her head. Brianna brought her lips next to Garrett’s ear. “Thank you,” she whispered.

In response, he draped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed her to him. Before the mountain goat passed out of view, he mused, “Your dad really did have a goatee like a goat.”

As the boat made its way around the lake, they struck up a conversation with the couple behind them when they came in out of the sun from the rear deck. Middle-aged and on a second honeymoon themselves, they were from Edmonton and fired off a bevy of places Garrett and Brianna just had to see. When asked if they were headed home after Waterton, the couple shook their heads.

“There’s a golf tournament in Lethbridge tomorrow. That’s our morning and afternoon, then east to see our kids in Winnipeg,” the husband offered.

Garrett glanced at Brianna. “Golf tournament?” he asked the couple.

“Oh yeah!” the wife said cheerily. “Gorgeous course. Right up near the river.”

“Hey, you two don’t golf, do you?” the middle-aged man asked. “Got cousins we’ll be playing with, but there’d be some stragglers probably looking for two more to join in.”

Brianna opened her mouth to protest. When she told Garrett how much she’d enjoyed Waterton with her friends, he’d been really interested in doing some hiking and camping in the area. Besides, golf really wasn’t his thing. But he jumped in first. “We wouldn’t be too late to register or anything?”

“Oh gosh no,” the woman said, tittering a little. “And Lethbridge is just the most adorable little city.”

“You’ve gotta go to Fort Whoop-Up,” the husband agreed.

“Fort Whoop-Up?” Brianna asked, laughing.

“Oh yeah! It’s neat! And the Japanese gardens. Sandra just loves those.”

The woman – Sandra – sighed happily. “I do.”

“Garrett, you don’t want to spend our honeymoon playing golf,” Brianna protested.

Grinning, he rubbed her shoulder. “But you love it, and if there was something I’d want to do-” here, he gestured at the water “-you’d do it in a heartbeat. Already have. Besides, it kinda makes a weird sort of sense.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, if we come back on a loop down through here, and cap things off with some camping like we’d talked about, we could just drop south and swing by your mom’s on the way home. It’d save us a trip back out there for the wedding stuff.”

She thought about making a defense against going, but that actually was a really good plan and she’d heard some good things about Lethbridge’s golf courses.  They talked some more, and decided the best course of action was to head to Lethbridge that afternoon. The tournament started early in the morning and they could get in some sightseeing that afternoon and evening before finding a hotel.

Garrett almost invited the couple to lunch, but before they got off the boat, the husband pulled Garrett off to one side. “Your wife, she’s very pretty.”

“Uh, thanks.”

The man grinned. “This, ah, this might be a bit awkward, but do find my wife attractive?”

Taken by surprise, Garrett tried to be polite. “Um, she’s very nice.”

“Think about this. Maybe we meet up after the golf tournament, huh? And we think about a little, ah, swinging action?”

“Uh, that’s very… well… not really our thing,” Garrett said, caught somewhere between a vague desire to punch the man and laughter.

From behind him somewhere, Brianna sputtered out something like a choked chuckle, and she caught up to them as they were getting off the boat. The other man’s wife glanced at her husband and shook her head, smiling a little. “Ah, well,” the man sighed. “We had to try.”

Brianna and Garrett made it all the way back to the Durango before they came together in a heap, both of them laughing so hard it brought tears to their eyes.

* * *

“Hooooly crap balls,” Brianna breathed as she slowed for the scenic turn-off.

“That’s a… what, a bridge?” Garrett asked, leaning forward and squinting through the windshield.

It was. Just outside of Lethbridge, steel trestles rose up an astounding height – from their perspective, it had to be hundreds of feet. Latticed steel stretched from the ground to support the dark trusses in a complex pattern of engineering ingenuity. It crossed over canyons carved into the hills around Lethbridge by the St. Mary River, which they’d been following off and on the last day, and several other streams and coulees. It stretched on for what seemed like forever, reaching for the distant mountains and rolling hills alike.

Brianna turned off and backed into a parking spot. Ever since Waterton on the road east, her mind had been far away, trying to comprehend things she could barely comprehend, let alone try to put into words. She tried not to let it affect her mood, but the euphoria of being on their honeymoon was shifting into something stranger, something melancholier. She hadn’t felt like this since the shapeshifter case, although it lacked that feverish intensity.

Her hands shook as she reached for the keys to turn the engine off. Garrett didn’t notice, and got out of the car slowly, eyes locked on the bridge and the city below. “Incredible,” he breathed as he walked around the back of the Durango. “Just incredible.”

Shivering like it was the dead of winter rather than a muggy day, Brianna came around her side. Without a word, she opened the back hatch and dug out her camera and the lens case. Her fingers still trembling, she nearly dropped it and swore.

Garrett finally tore his gaze away and glanced at her. “Hey, you…” Stopping short when he saw her tremble, he ran his fingers down her arm. “What’s up?”

She sniffed hard and put the camera down to hug him, burying her head into his shoulder, great shakes wracking her whole body. Though she was unashamed of her frequent bouts of crying – they could come on at a moment’s notice if she was happy or sad or for a million other reasons – she did not cry now. Mystified, Garrett held her and stroked her back. Finally Brianna sniffed again and pulled back long enough to murmur, “I got boogers on you again.”

Remembering an emotional moment early in their relationship when she’d seen him off to visit his family in Florida, Garrett smiled. “Mark of pride, remember? Means someone loves me enough to leave ‘em on my shirt.”

She laughed softly. “I’d forgotten that somehow.” Her head came to rest again on his chest, and she hugged him tight as she stared out at the trestle bridge. The wind ran its fingers across the St. Mary, muddying its surface. Another car pulled in, and they both ignored it as she let herself get lost in the moment. Finally she pulled away again, and he leaned down to kiss her cheeks, then her lips, gentle little pecks, small unspoken questions that he didn’t need put to voice.

“Want to take a walk?” Garrett asked, nodding towards a little hiking trail that looped back around after a quarter of a mile or so. She nodded, and he took her hand as they closed up the Durango and locked it.

The vibrant gold-green grass rose nearly to knee height. The night’s rains left the scent of the earth rich and damp, accented by white-headed onion-scented plants. It made Garrett’s stomach rumble. Below the hill, a small stream cut a weave through several coulees and stretched towards Lethbridge. A chubby chickadee gave them a whistle as it flitted in the branches of a massive poplar. Garrett tried to whistle back at it, but the bird didn’t fall for his tricks and only eyeballed them to make sure they came nowhere near its roost.

Brianna squeezed his hand and rubbed at her nose with a tissue from her purse. “I didn’t mean to let it overwhelm me,” she said barely above a whisper.

“It’s beautiful,” he agreed.

“No. I mean, it is, but… we’re here. We made it.” She let go of his hand reluctantly and waved her own out towards the city, stopping when the noonish sun glinted off her gold ring. “You know how you sometimes think that things aren’t real?”

Garrett shuddered. He’d seen her dead, once – or a doppelganger of Brianna, anyways. Lost to a horrific act of torture, the sight of the remains of her body had fractured his mind and left him doubting reality in his darkest moments. “Yeah.”

“I get that sometimes too. But it’s more like… I don’t want to plan for anything. No, that’s not right. I mean… it’s hard to hope that the future will be real. Our future. I kinda didn’t let myself think we would actually get married, or come here, or… any of this. And we’re here. In Canada. We’re married.”

Instead of responding, Garrett leaned down and plucked a pink wildflower. Alone from the packs of other blooms, it seemed to strain not towards the sun, but towards the parking lot and the cars below, as though it were begging for a ride. He turned Brianna’s chin up towards him and nestled the flower behind her ear, taking a moment to run his knuckles through her long dark hair. “We’re here,” he whispered, trying to ignore the madmen at his back shouting and cackling for his attention. “We’re married. This is real.”

“I thought we’d be dead,” Brianna said quietly. “Or one of us would be in prison, or…”

Garrett kissed her slowly, taking his time, their lips making their words for them as his hands roamed up and down her back. When he finally pulled away, her mouth parted and her eyes fluttered back open. “I know,” he said. “I thought the same thing.”

Brianna turned back towards the city. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“What happens if it’s not always like this? You and me?”

“What do you mean?”

“What happens if it’s not the Legion or someone that kills one of us? What do we do if it’s ten years down the line and we fall out of love? Or one of us cheats on the other one? Or we just can’t stand each other anymore?”

Garrett tried not to let a laugh bubble out of him. Twice now, he’d had to apologize for days on end for his natural tendency to laugh at her sometimes weird ideas. “Do you want to cheat on me?” he asked.

“No, of course not. But I’ve seen you look. Like when Rose is breastfeeding.”

His face reddened. “I didn’t mean to.”

“I didn’t want to sound like I was accusing you. You’re a guy and she’s drop-dead gorgeous. If you didn’t do a double-take when she’s got her nipple out, I’d be worried about you mentally.”

“But do you think I would really cheat? Brianna, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m nuts about you. There’s never going to be anyone else because…” He shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know how to explain it. Every woman I’ve ever been with, none of them ever made me feel… awake. You do.”

Her sigh was a thing of irritation, and he had no idea why. “No, I don’t think you’d cheat. It’s just an example.”

“Then…” Garrett puzzled that over for a minute. “What are we talking about?”

“I’ve looked too. There are so many guys that come into the gym that it’s hard not to. And I don’t mean to, but what happens someday if I decide, oh, hey, Jimbo is sure one sexy-ass piece of man meat, and I’d sure like to see his dumbbell, if you know what I’m saying?”

Garrett did laugh, then, and she cracked a smile too. “Jimbo? I don’t think I could compete with someone named Jimbo.”

“Right? Or you, seeing Darlene Mabel Fluffenwiezen come out of the locker room, her hair wet, and you lock eyes….”

Laughing even harder, Garrett wrapped his arms around Brianna and kissed her forehead. “I can’t say what I’d do to Miss Fluffernutter-”

“Fluffenweizen.”

“-but until I meet her, Brianna, I swear to you, you’re the only woman I ever want in my heart. There’s a long stretch of road between glancing at someone hot and dropping my dick in her. That’s not something I’m ever going to do because even if we wind up fighting like cats and dogs and hating each other to the point where we bring knives to bed, you’re the only woman in the entire universe I want Lorraine Bobbiting my ass.” Brianna opened her mouth, but he wasn’t done. “And if you ever decide I’m… well, I’m not enough… just… I don’t know. Talk to me, I guess. I’m gonna love you forever, Brianna Moranis. And that means always wanting you to be happy, no matter what. If that’s not with me…” Garrett shrugged uncomfortably. “I’d be insanely jealous, but I’d-”

She stopped him from talking for a while until someone down the path cleared their throat and they heard the giggling of children. A woman and her two boys were coming up the path. Brianna blushed, and they pulled away from each other and started walking back towards the Durango. “I want to tell you it’s always going to be you too, Garrett, but that’s how these things always start, don’t they?”

 “When did I become the voice of romance and you the prag… prag…”

“Pragmatic one?”

“Yeah. That.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I just… worry.”

“This is one of those times when I can’t fix things by talking and need to just let you chew on it, isn’t it?”

Brianna smiled. “Yeah, pretty much.” They arrived back at the Durango a minute later, but before he could walk around to the passenger’s side, she caught his hand. “But there is one thing you can do.”

His eyebrow raised, he said, “There are people around, but hey, I’m willing to risk a ticket for indecent exposure if you are.”

Her swat on his arm was light and her face finally broke into something approaching good cheer. “Later, goof. Tell me a little bit more about Francesca and the cross.”

“Here? Now?”

“Sure.” Brianna opened the back hatch of the Durango again and sat on the lip, pulling him down beside her. Despite his desire to go explore Lethbridge, when her fingers wrapped around his wrist, he was hers. Shuffling around until he found a comfortable spot, he wrapped an arm around her waist and took in the enormous trestle bridge while he thought about what to say next.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 4

If you read only one chapter of this whole thing, read this one. There are no monsters or horror to be found, but there are ghosts, of a sort.

The bright spot of this novel, and in my opinion, one of the better chapters I’ve ever written, this one really set the tone for what I would have aimed for throughout the rest of the novel and would have served to foreshadow the end of the series. Brianna’s melancholic nature throughout this book was also meant to serve as a reminder that it’s not only Garrett that’s suffered throughout their time together. On Hallowed Lanes may have been a honeymoon novel, but it was also not-so-subtly a story about how the metaphorical honeymoon ended for the two of them.

If I had stuck to that central theme as opposed to trying to shoe-horn in the stupid side story about Garrett and Murphy, this book would have worked as an accompaniment to the series proper. As it stands… well, you’ll start to see things go off the rails in a few chapters.

Enjoy.

Chapter 4

It only took them three minutes to find the key. Around the side of the house was a set of old wooden benches topped by a variety of withered potted plants. Under the third pot was a key duct taped to the bottom. She ripped it off and carefully made her way back through the puddles to Garrett.

After a quick high-five, she tested the key in the lock, but hesitated before she opened the door. “You’re sure no one’s around?”

Garrett nodded. “Took a look in the windows. Mail’s stacked on a table, and there’s a cobweb in a door frame. There’s an antique clock that’s stopped too, but that’s not a sure bet.”

She grinned. “Even without your better half, you’re still pretty good at this.”

“Thanks, I try.”

Inside, they checked beside the front and back entrances to make sure there wasn’t a home security system. The walls were bare but Garrett warned Brianna that if the cops came, they should just tell them the truth – they needed to get out of the weather and fully intended on leaving behind some money for the trouble.

“Should we be careful about fingerprints?”

Garrett shook his head. “We’re protecting ourselves against Mother Nature. At most, we’d get slapped with a misdemeanor.”

The interior had last been redone perhaps in the seventies, with wood paneling in the living room and a plush carpet struggling to identify itself as either orange or brown. Two well-worn couches covered in crocheted blankets and more modern throws faced a small flat-screen TV, ringed with a selection of mostly comedy and romance DVDs. A large wood stove squatted in one corner, its ugly black exterior contrasted somewhat by a pair of beautiful antique brass lamps beside it.

In the master bedroom was a queen-sized bed covered in a light blue comforter and a quilt that looked to be handcrafted. A picture on the single nightstand was of an older couple, her with a tangled swirl of frizzy white hair and a twinkle in her eye, him with a half-formed smile that seemed to speak volumes about his hesitance about the rollercoasters in the background. Reflexively, Brianna lifted it up and blew a minute layer of dust off the picture. There, she thought. That’s how it should be.

If the living room’s general décor spoke of the seventies, another bedroom seemed taken straight from a photograph of the era. A rainbow-colored denim-lined armchair sat underneath a bronze reading lamp, flanked by an end table loaded with books – Bernard Malamud, Stephen King, thin volumes of Vonnegut, and Judith Rossner. Some of the volumes looked as though they’d fall apart if they touched them. A short coffee table loaded with ancient textbooks on biology and math sat at the foot of the bed. Decoupaged Christmas ornaments hung from the ceiling at random intervals. Though kind of ugly, it was obvious some care had gone into their creation. Several pictures on the walls showed a young woman with a pair of kids and the older couple from the master bedroom.

A third bedroom looked to be a much younger woman’s room. A faded E.T. poster on the wall and a pair of well-worn Care Bears on a shelf jarred with the rest of the room, which seemed much more modern than the other two bedrooms. A computer maybe ten years out of date was pushed against one wall on a rickety old drafting desk, and stacks of high fantasy and romance novels bulged out of bookshelves and on stacks on every conceivable surface.

In the kitchen, a calendar on the wall showed a number of dates throughout the last half of June and the earliest parts of July circled off, with a big X on the sixth. There was only one note in the circles – “VACAY!” Garrett grinned and tapped it. “We’re good.”

In the split-level basement was a wall covered in dress hats – fedoras, pork pies, Stetsons, bowlers, even a large sombrero. Much of the furniture down there was stacked to one side and covered in sheets, save for a pool table and a tan loveseat. Brianna plucked a flat-brimmed boater hat off the wall and tried it on before she spun and winked at Garrett. “Whaddya think?”

“Hmm. I like it. Needs less clothes, though.”

She took off the hat and they returned upstairs. Garrett checked the windows to see if the storm was abating and jumped back a foot when a blade of lightning seemed to strike the moment he glanced out. “I think we’re stuck here for the night,” he grumbled.

Brianna glanced around at the worn furniture and the pictures on the wall, at the evidence of a family through the generations. Even as she vaguely understood that they would never grow old together, not with the work Garrett did, she wished for nothing else but to be this couple, to live to see their grandchildren together. “Could be worse,” she said, reaching for Garrett’s arm. “I kind of like it.”

* * *

Brianna started a fire in the old stove in the living room while Garrett brought in their luggage. “Freaking Montana,” she muttered as she lit the balled-up newspaper under the kindling. “Have to start a fire in June.”

As Garrett set about scrubbing the carpets where they’d tracked in mud – an eternal neat freak, he felt guilty about it and wouldn’t let it go – Brianna wandered through the house a second time, looking at all the photos.

The earliest ones, most of which were hung in the master bedroom, depicted the older couple as fresh-faced and were in black-and-white. He was round-faced, earnest-looking, and in every picture with his wife, he looked a little pleasantly confused, as though he couldn’t figure out why the woman on his arm was with him. She was almost always smiling or laughing, and in several they were giving each other smooches while glancing askance at the camera.

In later pictures, a little squirt of a baby joined them, chubby and either squalling or smiling. She grew up rapidly in the photos, first as a teeny toddler in a dress that hung down to her feet, then later as a determined child atop a rusty bike on the dirt road leading to the home. In her teenage years, the pictures depicted her as more serious and almost always with a book nearby. In one, the photographer caught the teenager without makeup, her nose almost pressed to a window, her breath fogging the pane, a mug in one hand and a pair of glasses in her other.

Then the woman was older, her hair longer, her frame filling out rapidly. Pregnant, but there was never a man in the photographs. Just the young woman, either alone, with female friends, or with the parents. In a hospital bed, looking exhausted but happy, holding a baby in a white cap. Then, without much of a break, another shot of her late into another pregnancy, then holding another baby, somehow even happier than the first shot.

The two children, a boy and a girl, started to grow up in the pictures. Brianna guessed the young mom had taken over the role as photographer in the family. She showed up in the shots infrequently, looking a bit wearier but no less happy. The children, a chubby long-haired boy and a wire-thin girl with her grandmother’s mischievous smile, were often at play or posing goofily for the cameras. There was one last shot of them with the young mother, perhaps at a Christmas pageant or something. The woman was wide-mouthed, caught forever in the midst of saying something, and the girl was laughing while the boy posed like a body-builder, growling at the camera while he flexed.

The mother was in no more photos after that.

Brianna wandered around, sure she’d missed something, but no. In later photos, the children grew up, the boy into a serious-looking man rarely without a sport coat, the girl into a plump woman almost always with her grandmother in tow, the both of them laughing. The grandfather disappeared from the photographs too, and that was sad, but that was the natural order of things. The mother, though, was just… gone. No more laughter. No more wonderment. No more of anything. Just the grandmother and her daughter’s children.

Brianna began to weep silently, unsure as to why. As Garrett called for her, she returned to that last photograph of the mother, pressed her fingers to her lips, and brought them to the glass.

Garrett came to her, and she wrapped her arms around him, unable to explain to him why she was crying. “Make love to me,” she whispered to him, taking Garrett by the hand and leading him towards the grandchild’s bedroom. Not the young mother’s. That place was sacred, and belonged to this family alone.

* * *

Afterwards, as Garrett lolled against the stacked pillows, Brianna picked up one of the young woman’s books and flipped through it. She’d slipped on her panties, but apart from that, both of them were still nude, and Garrett was thoroughly enjoying the view.

He’d thought her earlier tears had sprung from the waking nightmares springing from their life together, and he’d felt guilty, but he said nothing. Brianna never wanted his apologies, not when the work he did as a vigilante meant so much. Besides, their lovemaking had put them both in a better mood, and now he languished in the after-sex bliss as he watched his wife page through the books, sometimes clicking her teeth with a fingernail. At one point, she stalked out of the room, murmuring to herself, and returned a minute later with her phone to write down the names of several of the books.

“What are you doing?” Garrett asked, a lazy grin plastered across his face.

“I thought I was pretty on top of my fantasy writer game, but this woman has this shit on lockdown. I haven’t heard of half these writers and almost all of them look interesting.”

“You’re such a sexy nerd.”

Brianna reached out and squeezed his leg absent-mindedly as she finished typing out another name. After a while, finally satisfied, she returned her attention to Garrett. “It’s still early. I think I’m gonna run out to the SUV and grab the thank-you cards. I can wrap them up before we hit Babb tomorrow.”

Garrett patted the blanket. “Forget the cards. We’ll send what you did today and get the rest in Canada. Come to bed again.”

“Mm.” She looked at his nakedness and parted her lips just slightly. For a moment, he thought he’d won, but finally she shook her head. “That’d cost a fortune, I think. I can do this now, and you can tell me the first part of the story.”

Like a child being denied a treat in line at the grocery store, he gave a long-suffering groan. “Fine. But I’m helping you.”

“I lost the bet.” A week or two before the wedding, Brianna had wanted to try out a crazy idea – no sex in the days leading up to their marriage. They’d turned it into a bet as to who would crack first. In the tail hours of their reception, Garrett had pulled a dirty trick and made Brianna practically dizzy with need when he pulled her away for a quiet moment. She’d agreed reluctantly he’d won the bet, and as payment, she had to write up the thank-you cards.

“Forget the bet. The sooner we get them done, the sooner I can get back up in you.” He grinned slyly.

“You know just what to say to a woman to make her naughty bits all messy.”

“I know.”

She chewed on the end of a finger for a while. In the end, his hand, which had wandered south of his hips as he watched her with a growing intensity in his eyes, was what convinced her. She wanted that hand to be hers, damn it. “Fine. But I still feel like I owe you.”

His hand stopped. “Brianna, don’t ever feel that way.”

“I was just jok-”

“No,” Garrett said, and sat upright. His eyes were cold now. Almost angry. “I don’t think you know the depth of what you’ve done for me. The darkness you pushed back.”

“Garrett, I-”

“That’s not a joke you ever tell me. Without you, the anger, the depression… I don’t know how much longer I could have survived it. Just the day before we met again, I was losing it. I beat a man nearly to death. That’s not an exaggeration, Brianna. He’ll never, ever think right.”

“He was a Legion fuckbag.”

Garrett shrugged. “And he deserved what he got. But that doesn’t mean I should have done it. You calmed me. You are my heart.” He took her hand and pressed it to the center of his chest, and breathed deeply. “Do you feel that?”

“Yes.”

Lower. “Do you feel this?”

“Yes,” she whispered as he stiffened.

“They’re yours. My breath, my body. Yours. You owe me nothing. You take what you want when you want it.”

“Yesss,” she hissed.

His fingers locked with hers and he stood up. She studied his eyes, at the need and the fire there, and gasped when he let go to spin her towards the bed. Taking her hands again, he planted them on the bed, and she glanced over her shoulder, giving him the little nod he wanted. He let out a thin grunt, gripped her panties in his hand and yanked them down her legs.

When he took her, he was not gentle. He pushed his need into her, his gratitude, his existence. He showed her his intensity, how much he craved her, and it was good, so very good, and she cried out with it, loving it, loving him.

* * *

Afterwards, Brianna was so knock-kneed that she needed a few minutes to recover. Garrett slipped out to the SUV, dressed only in his boxer briefs, and retrieved the cards. The rain hadn’t let up. Good, he thought. This place meant more to him than a hotel.

Inside, the spray of a shower was going from the bathroom beside the guest bedroom. he stocked the fire before returning to the bed they were using. Brianna came out of the shower moments later, draped in a plaid robe with more holes than fabric. He took back up his position at the head of the bed and made room for her.

Once they came up with a good system – she’d do five thank yous while he addressed the cards, then they’d switch – she nestled into him a little tighter and he began to speak as they worked. “All right. The cross in my safe.” Garrett smiled, his eyes going vacant for just a moment as he was lost in memory. “Let me tell you about the first woman I ever loved.”

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 3

Today’s chapter is a big one, if you were looking to find out the backstory about Brianna’s scars. This is a story that never actually made it into the series, leaving her scars a mystery that never really needed to be solved. She had them, she dealt with them, the end. But it’s a story I wrote as early as The Ghost at His Back. It always felt out of place, and it did here too. Almost certainly it would have been left on the cutting room floor.

Chapter 3

The first crack of thunder sounded like God was tearing apart the skies. In the passenger’s seat, Brianna jumped and knocked the wedding thank you cards from the lap board onto the floor. Head buried in the work, she hadn’t noticed the angry gray clouds on the horizon.

Garrett glanced over. “Acts of nature don’t get you out of losing the bet, by the way.”

“Har har,” she muttered as she undid her seatbelt and scrunched over to pick up the errant cards.

“One fell between my legs,” he said, eyes locked on the road.

She leaned over to look. “I don’t see it.”

“It’s right between my hips. Try feeling around with your hand. It’s there somewhere. Possibly inside my zipper.”

With a snicker, she patted his thigh. “Nice try.”

“I thought you’d appreciate that.” Another harsh crack of thunder followed a brilliant fork of lightning, and this time, it was his turn to jump a little. “At least it’s not-”

“Don’t you say it,” she said, and immediately winced as rain starting thwapping against the windshield. “Oh damn it to hell.”

Putting aside the cards for the moment – had she really only managed just fifteen? It felt like fifty – she cinched back up her seatbelt. There was no light misting, no lead-up to the downpour. The sky just decided to open the floodgates.

Garrett flipped on the wipers, but as much water as they were sloughing off, the road was still barely visible. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Can you check to see how big this storm is? If you have reception?”

She pulled out her cell phone. “Pretty good bars,” she murmured. They were somewhere just north of St. Mary, heading for the Canadian border and Waterton just beyond. The weather report looked grim. “Um. Shit.”

“What?”

“It looks like there’s a cold front that’s pretty well settled right on top of us. They say there could be bad weather for two days.”

“Shiiit,” he muttered, and gripped the steering wheel tighter. They were now going no more than thirty with their lights on. They’d been following a duo of RVs, families probably with the same idea they had about a visit to Canada, but the big vehicles were now no longer in sight.

“Maybe we should find a spot and pull over,” Brianna said. “I don’t mean to tell you how to drive, but…”

“Yeah, I’m remembering Thanksgiving too.” When the two of them and Murphy had gone to scope out the church they’d eventually be married in, a wicked snowstorm had nearly trapped them on the road. “Okay, yeah, call them out if you see them.”

Another streak of lightning, and thunder rocked the car. Brianna wasn’t normally ever afraid of thunder or lightning, but her hand sought out Garrett’s before she remembered he was white-knuckling it. She squinted through the rainstorm. “I kinda wish we had Murphy with us.”

“I’d rather he not be around for the things I want to do to you,” Garrett said, but the lightness in his voice couldn’t hide the worried glances he kept casting on the edges of the road.

“Okay, I see… yeah, house off in the distance, I think? Maybe there’s a turnoff.”

He missed that one, and the next one too. Out of the torrents, one of the RVs suddenly loomed and he tried not to jerk the car as he swerved around it. “Motherfucking cock… face.” He frowned. “I can’t even come up with a damn swear.”

“I’ve never seen rain like this,” Brianna murmured, leaned forward so she could see just a little better. “Us and bad weather, I swear.” Remembering the tornadoes that had wrecked Rankin Flats and which may or may not have been partially their responsibility, she winced. “Sorry. I… didn’t remember until I blurted it out.”

She expected Garrett to get mad, but instead he just nodded. “No, I got what you meant.” There. Another house. He slowed to twenty, putting on his emergency lights, then fifteen.

“There’s the turnoff, a hundred yards, maybe.”

“Good catch,” he said, and eased even slower. The same RV they’d just passed rocked around them, the driver hammering on the horn. As if that wasn’t enough, another peal of lightning hammered down, though this one was a little bit further than the last had been. “Just in time,” he said.

He pulled onto the gravel road and tried to find a spot to turn the car around, but wound up needing to go all the way to the house to do it. It was a ranch-style single story place, with an addition that might have had a second floor, or a split-level basement with a raised first floor. He turned around, parked, and shut off the Durango. Brianna unbuckled and leaned over to kiss him. “You are a most excellent driver,” she said, trying not to shiver when the next boom of thunder rattled the car.

No lights from the house came on, so they just stayed there, watching the rain go from terrible to even worse. It just didn’t let up. “I used to be terrified of thunder and lightning as a kid,” Garrett said absently, his hand finding hers and squeezing.

“You? Afraid of anything?”

“Oh yeah. I was scared of a ton of stuff. Mom used to tell this story about me thinking…” He started snickering, and Brianna grinned without even knowing the joke. “…I used to think the toilet would grab my wee-wee… that’s what she called it. I thought it would…” He started to laugh so hard he had to pull his hand free and steady himself against the steering wheel. “I thought the toilet would… it would grab my penis and flush it down too. So I’d sit down backwards so I could look at the water when it flushed, just in case.”

Brianna laughed now too, trying to imagine Garrett as a little kid just learning the basics of potty training. “I wish I could’ve seen that,” she said.

“Oh, yeah, that’d take all the wind out of my masculinity,” he said, his laughter now falling into fits and snorts. “I haven’t thought about that in… oh hell, twenty years?”

Reaching under the seat, she slid the back of her chair down and twisted on her side, more of less curling up. “What else are you afraid of?”

His laughter fell away, and in the backseat, Ransom Galbraith popped through the door and made himself comfortable. “Heya, friend!” he boomed. Garrett closed his eyes and reached over to Brianna, feeling out the realness of her.

“Losing you,” he said quietly, then before he could ruin the mood entirely, he added, “But when I was a kid? Ladybugs. Fire trucks because of the noise. Oh! An older cousin of mine told me crust on bread was poisoned and I wouldn’t it until I was… oh, maybe ten? Dad finally had enough, sat me down, and practically shoved a peanut butter and jelly into my mouth.”

Brianna giggled. “Ladybugs?”

He shrugged. “They don’t do anything. They just sort of… crawl all over you, don’t they?” Garrett leaned his seat back too and glanced over at her. She was watching him, amused, her almond eyes twinkling. “What about you?”

“Mm,” she said, calculating. “This and that.”

“Oh, come on, I told you about reverse cowboy Garrett, now you tell me.”

“You were gonna find out eventually,” she said, her face going serious. “It’s about my scars.”

“Oh, shit,” he said and grimaced. “If you don’t want to tell me the story yet…”

“No, it’s fine. I kinda knew this was where it was heading anyways, and I promised you a story for a story, didn’t I? You’ll tell me about the cross, and I’ll tell you about…” She blew out a breath through her nose and cleared her throat. “So. I used to like this boy. Drew Clayton. Huge outdoorsy kid, hunter, big on rodeos, nature, that sort of thing.”

“How old were you?”

“Fifteen, he was sixteen. God, I was such a dork. Everything he liked, I had to try and like too, and everything he didn’t, I was just too good for all of a sudden.”

“Like all of us when we’re that young.”

Except you were in Vegas trying to start your own life at that age, she said mentally, her heart rising in her throat. “I guess so. Back then, my parents had just finished the divorce, and I was angry at dad because I thought it was his fault. So when Drew told me boxing and fighting was all just a big betting scam, I started spewing that bullshit too. I was such a little bitch to Dad.” With a sad little smile, Garrett reached out to caress the scarred side of her face with his thumb. She liked that he didn’t try to soothe her. Sometimes owning guilt was a healthy thing. Burdens were meant to be carried so backs grew stronger. “All I could think about was Drew, Drew, Drew, and Mom Mom Mom. But I was still staying with Dad because Mom hadn’t quite got her life in order yet on the East Coast, and I wanted to be close to my friends and Captain Ding Dong.”

Garrett laughed. “Was Drew a bad guy?”

“Bad? No. And what I’m gonna tell you, promise me you won’t go beat him up or anything. This is all ancient history and I’ve moved way past it.”

“I promise.”

She brushed his thumb with her own. “Good. Drew put together this thing, a weekend near Missoula, camping, hiking, and whitewater rafting.”

“Sounds fun.”

Brianna shivered. “It did, yeah. Dad told me not to go, of course. ‘You’re not gonna go up there and fuck him in the woods for two days, Brianna.’ I really should have listened, but I was young and… you know, hormones. So I didn’t. Of course I didn’t.” She sighed. “There were five of us. Drew, me, two kids from Drew’s grade, and his younger brother Marty. He was kind of a quiet kid, he could be really sweet or he could just come out of nowhere with big emotional outbursts.

“Drew was – still is, I’m guessing – really good with him. They were only a couple of years apart and Marty looked at him like he was his hero. They had all the usual brother squabbles, but Drew could take care of him, sometimes even better than their parents.” Brianna shifted uncomfortably. “I bonded pretty well with Marty on the way up to Missoula. He loved dad jokes and I knew a bunch. When we got to the campground, he didn’t try to touch me or anything, but he was really affectionate and sweet and it was kinda clear he was crushing on me a bit. Anyways, we busted out the kayaks, they were these little tandem things, and we had a good first run down the river. It wasn’t really dangerous, but there were some pretty big rocks and…” She trailed off and bit her lip. “Um. We made it through. Drew was with Marty, I was with one of Drew’s friends, and the fifth met us downriver with the car. Pretty fun stuff and Marty wanted to go again. With me.”

There was quiet for a while, and Garrett rested his hand on her shoulder. His eyes were closed as he imagined her at that age with her friends. He would have been… twenty-one? Twenty-two? Funny. The story she’d wanted him to tell her on their honeymoon would’ve been right around that time too.

“I thought I could do it, and for a while, Marty really had fun. I told him more jokes out on the water, and he was laughing and having a good time. But he saw something in the water just as we were clearing some rocks, I don’t know if it was a fish or a bit of wood or something, and for some reason, it upset him. Drew was in the other boat, just in case, and he tried to calm Marty down, but… we flipped.” Brianna’s voice grew softer. “I’m glad Drew got his brother first. If something had happened to him, I don’t think I would have turned out okay in the end. My feet, they got tangled up in the boat and my face… I was dragged under. At first, I didn’t feel anything. I thought I was going to drown. I was so freaked out I never even noticed the rocks cutting me up. I fought and fought to get free, to get my head out of the water. I was sideways and kicking and if I just didn’t panic, I might have… well, who knows what would have happened?”

Garrett’s hand returned to her scars, and cupped her chin lovingly. “That must have been terrifying.”

The breath she drew was shaky. “It still scares me to think about it. There was this moment when I started to kind of go dark, when I was still in the water and I thought this is the end, this is how I go, and all I could think about was Dad telling me not to do this… and it kind of pissed me off.” Brianna laughed, but it was quiet, introspective. “I finally quit flailing around and got my hands under myself. When I shoved up, I did most of this-” she waved a hand at her scars “-but I wasn’t drowning anymore. I knew I couldn’t stay like that for long, and Drew and the others were already on shore and couldn’t do much for me. So I looked down at my feet. The kayak, I’d managed to kick through the side of it and that’s what was snagging my foot. Wriggled out of my sneaker, which took forever, and managed to yank my foot free.”

“Holy shit,” Garrett murmured.

Brianna nodded. “When I was clear of the boat and I could get my feet under me, I managed to wade close enough to shore that our friends could reach me with a long stick. That was… well, it was hell. I was so tired. All I wanted to do was take a nap but I was still riding the high of getting loose. They managed to get me out of the water and about then I realize I couldn’t see anything but red in my one eye. They got me bandaged up and to the car and I was bleeding so bad I fainted. I damn near died of blood loss but they got me to the hospital in Missoula. I was in and out of surgery for a couple of days. The first thing I remember is… um…” She cleared her throat, tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. “Dad and Mom. It was the first time they’d been back together since the d-divorce. I didn’t know how bad things were, not yet, and I thought Dad would get m-mad at me. But he just hugged me and started c-crying.”

Brianna couldn’t speak for a few minutes. Garrett rubbed her arm gently, up and down, and twice leaned over to kiss her wet cheeks. She held his face the second time, eyes closed, just needing the feel of him as much as he sometimes did with her.

“I had some family and friends show up. Never Drew and Marty, though. I had to have a few surgeries to try and repair the nerve damage and I was out the first couple of weeks of school. When I came back, Drew wouldn’t talk to me. He couldn’t even look at me. It wrecked me, all the way into college. I was a virgin until I was nineteen because I kept wondering if all boys were like that.”

“What about Marty?”

More tears and she wiped at her nose with the back of her hand, sniffling. “I tried to talk to him a few times, to tell him it wasn’t his fault. It always made him really upset and scared. He apologized but he… he couldn’t handle seeing me. I check in on him now and then on Facebook. He’s doing good these days. Working on a farm in Bozeman and he seems really happy. Even got married.”

Garrett’s voice went cold. “And Drew?”

“Remember, you promised.”

“I know. But I can still dream about kicking him in the balls for not coming to visit you.”

Brianna rubbed his chest, lost in memory. “We finally talked one time when I came home from college for a week during the summer. He cried. I cried. It was messy. We got over it, though. I haven’t talked to him in probably three years, but last I heard, he’s down in Livingston. He and Marty don’t live together, but I think Drew wants to be close to him. His brother’s keeper and all.” She smiled a bit at that. “And that’s my whole scar story. Well, most of it. The doctors wanted to do some reconstructive stuff, skin grafts, and my parents wanted it for me, but… I don’t know. When I was finally done with the neurologists, I thought… well, I thought I could endure this. I was never going to look normal again, but… I don’t know that I ever cared about normalcy anyways. People staring just makes me want to be even more, um, me. And I was, what, I was going to get a whole bunch of plastic surgery and stuff to maybe, just maybe, look a bit more like my old self? I didn’t want that. I wanted to look like… well, me.”

“You might think this is me propping you up or something, but I’m glad. What you look like, I like it. I like the character. I like you.” He shrugged. “I’d like you anyways, I think, but you’re right. The scars kind of reflect your soul. You’ve lived through some shit and you’re more of a badass mofo for it.”

Brianna giggled. “Mofo? Does anyone still say that in 2017?”

“I do.” He leaned over to kiss her again, longer this time, and then he brushed her eyes with his lips, and her forehead. The rain hammered down still when his hands wandered across her body and her lips met his again, staring into his eyes as her fingers played in his hair. When she finally let him come up for air, he whispered, “Want to take this inside?”

Eyes fluttering as his hand stroked her thigh, Brianna murmured, “What do you mean?”

“Rain’s not letting up. We’re not going anywhere until it does. No one’s around so I say we sneak in and camp out.”

“You don’t have your picks.”

“I’ll bet you, mm, first touristy pick tomorrow I can find the key in five minutes. Out here in the country, you lock yourself out, it’s a half an hour walk at least until the next house. In the winter, that’s death. They’ll have a key somewhere close by the door.”

“You’ll get soaked!”

“For my wife, I’ll suffer.” He gave her thigh one last, long rub, and whispered, “Back in a minute.”

He popped open the door, slid out on the running boards, and immediately fell flat on his face in the wet muck. “Garrett!” Brianna gasped, trying not to giggle.

His hand came up, wavered uncertainly, and found the floorboard. He pulled himself to his feet, spluttering and caked in mud. “Uh. Slick out here. So… you know, careful.”

She opened her own door too and was out in a moment. Careful to keep a hand on the SUV for balance – it really was slick – she came around the back. Garrett grinned sheepishly at her as she grabbed his hands and tugged him towards the house. “Hopeless, Moranis. Utterly hopeless without me.” “Truer words have never been spoken.”