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.”

On Hallowed Lanes – Chapter 2

As I noted yesterday, I’ll be publishing a chapter a day of my never-published, kinda-crappy novel On Hallowed Lanes, the sequel to Band of Fallen Princes that never was. Today’s chapter is an interesting one, because the dialogue is unedited and so ham-fisted, especially towards the end. Almost certainly that last conversation between Garrett and Tess would have been cut out entirely or at the very least diluted from its current sugary sweetness. Anyways, enjoy!

Chapter 2

After a quick stop at a car wash and a gas station, Garrett and Brianna headed for a farmer’s market near the state’s capitol building. As they browsed the stalls, Brianna kept pulling ahead of Garrett. She hadn’t spoken more than twenty words to him since the hotel. He tried to be patient, to not let his irritation show through, but he finally had enough when she pointedly ignored his call that someone was selling a treat he thought her mother might love.

When she stopped to sniff at a soy wax candle, Garrett leaned in and muttered quietly, “What would you have done, Brianna? If he’d asked you, what would you have said?”

For a moment, he thought she meant to hit him, but instead, she wrapped her hands around his neck, pulled him to her, and kissed him. It was a long kiss, though chaste – she simply needed to feel the press of his lips against hers, to feel him against her. He breathed in her strawberry lotion, and he lost himself for a moment too.

“Ma’am, um… I’m really going to need that back if you’re not going to pay for it,” the vendor of the soy candle said.

Without looking, Brianna tossed it back on the table and finally opened her eyes. She pressed her head against Garrett’s chest, and he held her for a while.

“Is there anything we can do?” she asked softly, so quietly he couldn’t hear.

“We gave him what he wanted, hon.”

He felt her nod against him, slowly, and he ran his fingers through her hair, wishing to God this would be the last time he’d ever hurt her and knowing they had a lifetime of him failing her ahead of them.

After buying some of the rhubarb bars Garrett had found – he’d been right, rhubarb was one of Tess’s favorites – and a couple of pounds of Bing cherries, they drove to the copper-domed capitol building, which Garrett had never seen before. He shared Brianna’s fondness for visiting the out-of-the-way sites and tourist traps alike, and cracked her up when he shot at least a dozen pictures as they drove by with a nice little easy-to-use digital camera one of her cousins bought for them as a wedding present. Her own high-tech old college camera was nestled in its case behind the driver’s seat. She planned on getting back into photography both for pleasure and for their vigilante work, and the honeymoon trip to Canada was the perfect time to hone her skills.

The drive from Helena to Seeley was about an hour and a half. Garrett had originally balked at the idea of stopping at Tess’s before they headed to Canada, but as Brianna had reminded him, he loved Tess dearly and it afforded them a chance to make one of the prettiest drives in Montana – and for a state loaded with beautiful scenery, that was really saying something.

Brianna took the first shift driving, since she knew Helena better. On the highway west of the small capital city, Garrett reached into the glove compartment and produced an iPod. It was Brianna’s pre-wedding gift to him, loaded with songs she’d picked for him on his trip from Rankin Flats into Lennep. She caught his hand as he went to plug it in. “No,” she said, smiling just a little painfully. “That’s for you. If we listened to it together, it might lose some of it’s magic.”

“What? But there’s some good stuff on there.”

“I know. Don’t make fun of me?”

“Of course.”

Her fingers tapped against the steering wheel. “It’s a piece of me I want you to have all to yourself for when we’re not together.” Brianna caught him opening his mouth and shook her head. “I mean when we’re apart, not… the other thing.” She couldn’t bring herself to say “dead,” not with Leon’s cancer still hanging in the air.

Garrett squeezed her thigh. “Okay. I like that. Whaddya want to listen to then?” He stuffed the iPod back into the glove compartment. “Did you want me to dig out yours?”

“I didn’t make a mixtape for this,” Brianna said, an odd note of tension in her voice. She didn’t meet his eyes and focused squarely on the road.

Taken aback, Garrett smiled. “You? Not making a mixtape?”

She laughed, but the tension was still there. “I know, right? I thought… I don’t know, I thought we’d wing it. What’s a road trip if there isn’t some spontaneity, right?”

Instead of music that first leg, they talked. Of good things, of the worst of things. Garrett told her how he’d found out about Leon’s cancer, but also how Murphy had peeped on Monica and Sloan’s first kiss – or first kisses. Garrett wasn’t certain because the ghost had been coy about it, but he was fairly certain things between Monica and Sloan had been a fair bit more hot and heavy than just kissing.

“From the way Monica sounded this morning, I’m with you,” Brianna said. “She definitely had that so-good sound to her.”

“So-good sound?”

Brianna grinned. “Something Clarice used to say. It’s short for never been screwed so good. I’m guessing Sloan’s making up for a bit of lost time with a whole lot of enthusiasm.”

Garrett burst out laughing, and like that, whatever rift there had been between them vanished. The sparse landscape surrounding Helena broke into forests and a wild mix of gentle hills and sharper mountains in the distance. Traffic was light and the day’s projected rain clouds were nowhere to be seen.

While Brianna talked about her bachelorette party and her trip to Lennep the previous morning for the pre-wedding stuff, Garrett just soaked in the surreal nature of the day. Married. Him.

They’d met when Brianna was about to graduate from high school, but back in those days, Garrett hadn’t thought much about her. The daughter of the owner of the gym he liked in town, she’d seemed like a spirited, friendly sort, but he’d been in his mid-twenties and had largely been ignorant of her peeping on him when he’d work out in the Hammerdown Gym. When Brianna left for college on the East Coast, he put her out of his mind entirely, save for occasional grunts about her progress on the rare occasion when her dad Danny talked about his personal life.

Brianna’s intent had been to be a big executive somewhere out there, running her own company and kicking ass in the business world. But somewhere towards the tail end of her Master’s degree, she’d realized just how much she missed her dad and Rankin Flats, and decided something much smaller and familial was her future, not a Fortune 500 company. She’d been staying with Tess in North Carolina those days, and after receiving her Master’s and a teary goodbye, Brianna moved home and helped her father run the Hammerdown.

That was about when Garrett met her again, and had been utterly, totally lost from their first few minutes together. Brianna had been brave in a way that attracted him more than good lucks or a rocking body could have done, and although she had a great ass, she could hardly be called a beauty – though Garrett thought she was. It was clear from those first few minutes that there was chemistry that couldn’t be denied by either one of them.

Everything those first few weeks together was a blur of insanity. Garrett thought at first he could never be with Brianna because of the work he did as a vigilante, but Murphy convinced him to take a gamble on happiness and try to convince her about the nature of the weird things he could see. She’d made a leap with him, one he still couldn’t fathom to this day, and together, they’d begun a series of strange, often horrific adventures together. She endured a lot in that time – her father’s murder, kidnapping, and more brushes with death than either one of them could count. But surprising Garrett each and every time, Brianna managed the storms with him – hell, even better than him. He was an emotional and spiritual wreck. She was occasionally given to fits of crying and bursts of anger, and there had been a month or two when she’d been on the verge of a nervous breakdown trying to come to grips with everything, but Brianna’s shit was mostly together in a way that never ceased to amaze him.

Lost in memory and trying to convince himself this was all real, Garrett barely noticed when she finished a story about a mutual friend getting hammered at the bachelorette party. “You okay?” she asked.

Garrett turned and took her hand, bringing her fingers to his lips. “Never better,” he said, and meant it.

* * *

Among the ancient elegance of the pine forests and the sprawl of the Mission and Swan Mountains, a visitor new to the area could have been forgiven for thinking Seeley Lake was a solitary beauty, but all a person had to do to realize differently was walk about a hundred yards in any direction to find more lakes, more heart-swelling perfection. That stretch of Highway 83 had captured Tess Reeve’s imagination, and when she’d followed her daughter back to Montana earlier that year, it was there she found her dream house.

Her home in North Carolina had been a beauty too, two stories of an old farmhouse that had seen a lot of love and updates since its conception in the 1930s. But when Tess’s ex-husband was murdered and Brianna adamantly decided to stay in Rankin Flats, Tess realized she didn’t want to be so far apart from her daughter. Part of that decision had been a mild distrust of Garrett, who looked like a boxer’s punching bag on the best of days. But Tess had come to love her future son-in-law in her own way, thanks largely to a trip they’d all taken to Las Vegas.

Her home hadn’t sold easily, despite a booming market, but a young couple with twins on the way had finally met her bottom line asking price, and Tess packed up immediately for the fresh air and mountains of Montana. Garrett’s sister Stephanie, an accomplished carpenter, accompanied her on a house hunt through the Seeley area, and together they’d found a gorgeous, if slightly ostentatious, two-story log cabin home for just under three hundred thousand. It wasn’t lakefront like Tess had hoped for, but those homes were so far out of her budget as to practically make her choke. Still, she was only a ten-minute walk away from her favorite lake – Holland – and she had easy access to the highway in winter, something that would be a necessity in the harsh Montana weather. Stephanie declared the house’s bones to be surprisingly fit for the price, with some work needed in the attic and roof, as well as a great deal of chinking the walls with a poly foam and vinyl coating. Despite Tess’s best efforts, Stephanie begged off doing the work herself despite loving the home. She just didn’t have a lot of experience working with log cabins and showed Tess to a coworker on a project Stephanie helped with in the late fall when she first came to Rankin Flats to be closer to her brother.

That work was still ongoing – the weather had only settled down the last month. Two boarded windows glared at Brianna and Garrett as they pulled into the driveway next to Tess’s Kia. Tess had been at the wedding and reception the night before, and had driven home in the early hours despite Brianna’s protest that they could get her a hotel room. Like her daughter and her ex-husband, Tess was of a particularly gleeful stubborn mind and she’d steadfastly refused.

Garrett yawned as he slid out of the passenger’s side of the Durango, twisting this way and that. They had a month’s worth of traveling ahead of them and already he felt like he was road-sore and ready for a long nap. The fresh air did him some good, though. The sharp tang of the pines mixed with the rich, almost-coffee like wet earth. His cabin up in the Belt Mountains definitely had the pine scent, but it was drier, dustier. This felt fresh and new, life abounding all around him. In a funny way, it reminded him of the difference between a dusty old bookstore as opposed to a big book chain with a coffee shop somewhere inside. Both were extremely pleasant in their own way, but subtly different.

Above them, on the second-floor deck, a door slid open and Tess thumped out. Where Brianna had inherited her frame from her mother, she didn’t have Tess’s weight problems, largely thanks to the gym and her active lifestyle. But Tess had been working at shedding the pounds, dropping at least ten since moving back to Montana. The hiking trails around Seeley really helped.

“Mr. and Mrs. Moranis,” she squealed, and Brianna bounded up the stairs to envelope her in a hug. “Am I the first one to call you that today? Tell me I’m the first one.”

“You are!” Brianna said, and hugged her mom again. “Oh, thank you so much for everything, Momma.”

“I didn’t-”

Brianna buried her head in her mom’s shoulder. “Don’t, okay? You did so much. You kept me from going crazy and you loaned me the ribbon and the bracelet and…” She continued, but her words were unintelligible among her choked sobs. Tess just held her daughter and rocked with her, cooing softly as Garrett joined them. Over Brianna’s shoulder, Tess nodded and smiled, and he mouthed, “I’ll get our things.”

Inside, the log house was somewhat dark, thanks largely to the height of the trees around the living room. Tess had livened it up with a number of eclectically varied lamps that gave the room a soft feel of dusk even at noon. Her furniture had been moved cross-country from North Carolina, and Garrett tried not to grin at the leather couch, remembering some very fun things he and Brianna had managed to do on it one night around Christmastime.

Brianna had yet to find the nerve to sell most of her father’s things, so Tess had plucked a few bits of furniture and mementos from the storage unit they’d used to hold it all, along with some framed photos. The old man’s style might have best been described as “dollar store chic,” but combined with Tess’s enthusiasm for weird little knick-knacks, his solar powered whirling toys and the small foreign flags of the places Danny had been to made a certain sort of sense within the house.

Once Brianna managed to get her tears under control and splashed some water on her face, she joined Garrett in unloading the Durango. Their friends Ed and Rose and Garrett’s sisters had volunteered to haul everything from the wedding back to Rankin Flats, but Garrett and Brianna still wound up with a vehicle full of stuff they didn’t need for the trip. Most of all were their wedding clothes.

“We’ll come back for all this when we get a free weekend after the honeymoon,” Brianna promised Tess as she carefully hung her dress on a silk hanger. “And just let me know how much it is to have cleaned. I really appreciate it.”

Tess shook her head. “You’re not paying for it.”

“Mom, you’ve gotta go all the way to Helena to drop it off and pick it up. That’s a lot of time.”

“Sweetie, I love you, but you know how this argument ends.”

Brianna frowned. “With me. Paying you.”

Garrett listened to their light squabbling as he hauled in an unmarked box and tried on a smile. He’d never had this sort of relationship with his own mother and the chatter left him a little lonely. Trying not to let it show, he set the box on the couch. “I think we’ve got more wedding presents that got mixed in with our stuff,” he called to the pair when it seemed like he wouldn’t be interrupting. He dug out his keys, picked one he rarely used, and sawed through the tape.

Brianna came out of the bedroom just as he was pulling back the flaps. “Oh baby, no, that’s not-” she gasped, but it was too late.

Tess joined her daughter’s side. “What is it?”

Garrett was already standing up with a certain long-handled battery powered toy. He frowned at it. “Is this a massager?” he asked, the obviousness of it not quite hitting him yet.

“Oh. My God,” Brianna whispered, her hand over her eyes. “Oh my God, Clarice. You little bitch.” Her friends had bought her a box’s worth of sex toys and accessories as gag gifts for her bachelorette party. Clarice, her closest friend from college, had been the ringleader. Brianna intended on only taking a few things with her across the border, like the edible massage oils, silky blindfolds, and a couple’s vibrator with a remote control the guy could operate. It seems someone had repackaged the box to include absolutely everything, even the absurdly huge vibrator Garrett was now holding.

Helpless, Brianna started snickering, followed by her mom. It finally dawned on Garrett what he was holding, and he dropped it like a snake twisting in his arms to bite at him. “Boy,” he said, his face flushed. “This is. Ah. Well, this is one way to start an afternoon at the in-law’s.”

* * *

A spare bedroom had been converted to Tess’s office. Cool air from a cranky old air conditioner blasted them as they sat on either side of Tess, watching her pull up the wedding videos on her computer.

Tess was, by trade, a video producer, specializing in editing packages for small sports teams and even a wrestling promotion just getting its feet under it. Garrett had seen examples of her work before, but he’d never seen her work so early in the process, and she guided him slowly through what she’d like to do with their wedding videos.

“I’ll cut some of the extra stuff for a video you can post online. It’ll just have the dramatic moments, put into a few minutes’ worth.”

“But we’ll still have the whole thing for our personal videos, right?” Garrett asked, uncertain if that was a dumb question or not.

Tess smiled. “That’s why I wanted to rush home. I’ll put together a longer, better-produced video with the whole ceremony and the highlights from the reception, but for your honeymoon, I came home and started compressing and transferring the originals so you could have them on your trip.” Seeing Garrett try to figure that out, she added, “You’ll have a lower quality set of videos that don’t have any sort of edits, but you’ll be able to watch all your wedding and the videos the cameras took at the reception.”

“That’s amazing, Momma,” Brianna said, and pulled her mom to her so she could give her cheek a big smack. “Thank you.”

Garrett echoed her statement, a little out of his element but no less pleased. The ceremony was still fresh in his mind – Brianna said she could hardly remember anything except him, whereas his senses had gone hyperactive. The wedding had seemed more in focus than any other moment of his life save possibly for meeting Murphy as a teenager, but he knew how easy it could be for the brain to think it remembered everything when it had actually filled in the gaps.

Despite their desire to hit the road, Tess managed to convince them to stay for lunch, despite them having just eaten breakfast. Brianna pulled Garrett away and whispered in his ear, “It’s just an hour.”

“It’s fine,” he said, and meant it. “I can arrange the Durango and get everything good to go. Relax. Enjoy the time with your mom.”

She pinched his butt and left him to go help chop vegetables for a salad. He headed down to the Durango, trying valiantly to wave off the hundreds of mosquitos threatening to eat him alive.

Though everything they didn’t need was already unpacked, Garrett liked neatness and took a few minutes to rearrange their luggage and situate their emergency kits where they could get to them in a hurry. He checked the tires and the spare for the second time in as many days, and finally satisfied, he finished by making one last check of their passports, insurance information, and everything they’d need to make the border crossing easy.

Someone thumped out onto the deck and came down the stairs on the opposite side of the house. Thinking it was Brianna taking the long way around the home, Garrett shut the Durango and unhurriedly strolled around the building. Not Brianna – Tess, and she was talking on her phone, so quiet he could barely hear her at first.

“-I’m trying. I’ve got them staying for lunch, but I’m not sure how much longer than that I can keep them here. Oh, I like that, Clarice. What’s the latest anyone bet? Jeez, that’s late, but… yeah, maybe I can talk them into it. Uh huh.”

It all came together for Garrett in a crashing wave. Tess and Clarice and probably some of their other friends had put together a pool on how late Tess could keep them there. He thought about jumping out and giving Tess the scare of her life, but he had a better idea, and crept back the way he came and headed upstairs.

Inside, Brianna was putting the finishing touches on a trio of roast beef sandwiches. “Hey, baby, I was just going to call you-”

“We don’t have much time,” Garrett growled.

Brianna cocked her head, grinning just a little bit. “Here? Now?”

“No, not that. Well, maybe that, but just listen.” He filled her in on what he’d heard, and Brianna swore almost silently. “Who would Clarice have brought in on that?”

“Probably the girls from the party the other night,” Brianna said, musing on cash she’d seen being discreetly passed around. “Which means Rose, and Rose can’t keep anything from me.”

They heard Tess coming up the back stairs. “Call her,” Garrett whispered urgently. “Find out what time she or Ed had picked out. We’ll stay till then and split the money with them. Teach them all a lesson.”

Brianna laughed and darted for the bathroom. Garret took her spot, fixing up the sandwiches and adding a copious amount of horseradish sauce to Tess’s, knowing she hated the stuff. A little personal revenge, he thought, trying not to snicker.

Tess came through the living room to the kitchen. “Oooh, you cook too,” she said, giving him a megawatt smile that Brianna had definitely inherited from her.

“Only the best for my wife and my mother-in-law,” Garrett said, trying not to look smug. “Nothing says culinary masterwork like deli sliced roast beef on Wonder Bread, right?”

Tess smiled and fetched some pickle spears from the fridge. She arranged them on the plates next to the sandwiches, and Brianna came out of the bathroom, humming to herself. An hour, she mouthed to Garrett, who gave no indication he’d seen.

They sat down to eat around the living room’s coffee table. Tess took one bite of her sandwich, tried not to gag, and tried to pass it off politely, as Garrett tried his damnedest not to bust a gut laughing.

* * *

A deer crossed the dirt driveway, uncaring about the humans seated up above it on the deck as it headed for what was no doubt some delicious foraging action. It glanced up only once, seeming to give Brianna a little knowing look. Hello, it seemed to say, hello, you wild and beautiful thing. Are you as free as me?

“I am,” Brianna said, smiling, and the doe carried on with its lackadaisical deer business, disappearing into the woods without a trace.

“Sorry?” Garrett asked behind her as he balanced on a stepladder to hang a bird feeder.

“Nothing.”  Brianna yawned and stretched luxuriously with her hands on the railing, her spine cracking pleasantly. “Saw a deer. Keep your camera ready. Today we’re seeing a moose. I can feel it.”

They wouldn’t, but on the drive north, they would see plenty more deer, some with spot-coated fauns both curious and terrified of this huge world around them. At Tess’s, though, Garrett only grunted and finished wiggling the cup screw into place. He connected a snap hook wire, adjusted the length so the bird feeder would hang low enough for Tess to reach it, and hopped off the ladder. “There we go.” He glanced up and frowned. “Bit uneven with the other two.”

Brianna turned and joined him, wrapping her arms around his waist as he cocked his head this way and that, examining the screws. “It’s perfect,” she said, and kissed the back of his shoulder. She leaned her head against his shoulder blade, feeling the rhythm of his breaths. Perfect. After a while, she murmured, “The story about the cross in your safe.”

“Yeah?”

She pulled back just a little, her hands still tucked around his stomach. “Is it sad?”

He laughed. “No. Well… parts are, I guess. But it’s a good one. Long.”

“That’s what she said.”

“And that’s why I married you.” He turned and kissed her nose. “And I think it breaks up into nice chunks. I’ll tell it to you over our trip. When you’re feeling sad or you want a piece of it-”

“That’swhatshesaid!” Brianna blurted again.

“-I’ll tell you part of it. And without Murphy around to correct me all the damn time, I’ll tell you the way it really happened. Starting with me being a Mr. Universe winner and the thousand-woman harem I was running.”

Brianna started to say something, but the deck door slid open and Tess thumped out. Judging from the scowl on her face, they both guessed what was coming next. “So Rose told you?”

The couple glanced at each other and grinned. “Yup,” Brianna said. “I think we’ll use the money on water balloons and squirt guns.”

“It’s a nearly five-hundred-dollar pool,” Tess said sourly. “And I was gonna get half of it no matter who won.”

Garrett raised an eyebrow at his wife. “With that kind of cash, we could probably afford some really, really big squirt guns.”

“It would make for the best summer ever,” Brianna agreed.

Tess sighed. “Well, she called up everyone a minute ago. We all agreed you two won.” She dug in her purse and produced an envelope stuffed with cash. “Here.”

Brianna snatched it and glanced through the sheaf of bills. She gave a low whistle and jammed it into her pocket. “So many water balloons.”

The Durango loaded up with all the snacks and drinks Tess could foist upon them, along with an extra travel pillow and two books on CD (“I don’t care if you like Janet Evanovich, just take it in case you need something to listen to”), a pair of mismatched travel mugs, and an old lap desk for Brianna and the wedding thank you cards. She also dug through her wallet for all the stamps she had. By the end of it, Garrett thought for sure they’d be stripping the house bare of Tess’s things.

“Mom,” Brianna interjected when Tess was trying to haul out some folding lawn chairs, “I love this, but we’re not going to have room for anything else and-”

Tess dropped the folding chairs, and sobbed. It was just once, a great, heaving sound that she quickly hid, but her daughter rushed to her and folded her up in a hug. Her voice muffled, Tess said, “I know. I just… you two have everything so under control. Your dad and I, when we were your age, we were scraping everything together and we had to ask for so much help and you two, you don’t need me and it’s…”

Garrett came to them both and draped his arms around them. “I need you,” he said quietly.

“Me too, Mom,” Brianna said, crying for what felt like the thousandth time that day.

They pulled apart and headed for the SUV. Tess clutched Garrett in one last hug. “Thank you for being so good to my Brianna,” she said, her voice shaky but resolute. “And I want you to do me one thing.”

“What’s that?” Garrett asked, thinking she meant postcards, or pictures, or a souvenir.

 Tess pulled away from him and dabbed at the corners of her eyes. “You don’t have the best memory of the word, but from now on out, I want you to try to call me mom.”

Garrett fell quiet, unable to say anything. Memories flooded his mind, of his own mother and the day he’d come home to her sitting on the floor cutting out pictures of him from the family albums. Of her and her church friends trying to exorcise the demons out of him at home, throwing him down forcibly on a coffee table. Of being a teenager, scared and alone save for Murphy on a bus to Las Vegas. He didn’t speak to his mother for a decade and a half, and when he was finally called home, it had been to her terrified, mumbled screams moments before she’d passed away. Ostensibly it was from complications from a stroke, but Garrett knew the truth. His mother was so scared of seeing him again it had killed her.

But Tess was not that woman. Once she’d gotten over her apprehension about him and his strange lifestyle, Tess had been nothing but kind and caring. She had a tough streak to her, sure, but she was as fundamentally good as her daughter. He tried to work out what to say, what to think. “Tess, I…” Somewhere behind him, one of the hallucinations that haunted him roared in laughter.

Brianna linked arms with him. “Mom, maybe give him time, huh?”

A few beads of sweat rolling down his forehead, Garrett said quietly, “It’s okay. Better than okay. I just… wasn’t expecting it. Thank you. Um. Mom.”

He hugged Tess again, and this time it wasn’t Brianna crying into her shoulder, but her husband.

On Hallowed Lanes – Chapter 1

With nothing new coming down the pipeline from me until realistically January, I thought it would be fun to release parts of my unpublished novel On Hallowed Lanes. This was the sequel to Band of Fallen Princes, and takes place immediately after the wedding in that novel (we’re talking the very next morning). It follows Garrett and Brianna exclusively as they honeymoon through Canada.

Two warnings here – this one has a ton of sex. If that ain’t your thing, I recommend moving on. Also note that certain plot points from this novel will be recycled for use in a future Seven Heroes novel. If you don’t wish to be spoiled there, please skip this entirely.

Also note there will be whole swaths of this story cut because it was utter garbage. These sections are why it was never published. I like a lot about this novel and I plan on recreating this trip for myself someday when us Americans can learn to play well with others. But it was problematic, it’s unedited, and it’s nowhere near the quality of the other Rankin Flats novels. I am posting this entirely as an oddity, nothing more. Don’t take any of this as canon or anything like that. It’s just a fun way for you and I to kill some time during the fall doldrums.

Here we go!

Chapter 1

Edie Gagne never knew why Jacob waited around the side of her house. She didn’t even know he was there until he fell onto her fresh cut grass, his hands grasping for something that wasn’t there. His hair, just minutes ago blonde and fine like corn silk, now was as ashen gray as the remains from her wood stove in the middle of winter. She dropped her groceries, the eggs landing with a wet splat, and rushed to him, barely registering a momentary warmth as though she’d passed through a sunbeam on an otherwise chilly day.

With one hand reaching into her purse to call an ambulance, Edie dropped to her knees to press two fingers to his throat, just like the TV shows she liked to watch. She could feel no pulse – whether that was because her fingers were in the wrong spot or because Jacob Joyner was already dead, she didn’t know, but by the time the paramedics came, Jacob’s spirit had already risen from his body and been snaked down into hell.

* * *

The previous night, Jacob watched her dance with the fat Indian. Their Pussy Minister, as Jacob thought of him, would have probably corrected him and told him “First People,” not Indian, but Jacob had zero fucks left to give about political correctness. The whole damn world had gone soft as his ex-wife’s ass, and he hated it. Hated it so much it felt like he was boiling in his own skin.

He’d asked Edie for a dance a week ago. Even put on some of that country shit she liked, the real twangy stuff, the singer sounding like a constipated basset hound howling at the moon. He’d put a hand on her shoulder, giving her his best grin, the one that’d won him a dozen conquests in high school and college, and she’d actually pulled away. Jerked away, really. Her words might’ve sounded polite, but he could see the revulsion there in her eyes.

Who the fuck was she? Jacob was the best-looking guy in Irisville, maybe even Lethbridge, and she was just a stuck-up prude. She should be grateful he even gave her the time of day, let alone a mercy dance and maybe a little bit of a good fuckin’ later.

Time had pushed the denied dance to the back of his mind, mostly. Well, that, and a waitress down in Lethbridge spread her legs for him two nights later, her cellulite jiggling with every thrust of his cock. He’d closed his eyes and thought of Edie, her dark hair, those stormy blue eyes. When he grunted her name, the waitress balked, but he kept her shoved down to the mattress, his hands encircling her throat while he finished. She’d thrown him out, threatening to call the police for assault, but he’d known she wouldn’t call. Then the cops would know just what a slut she was, and Jacob could always tell them she’d begged for it. They’d believe him, if they were guys. They knew what women liked just as well as he did.

A week later, back at the bar, when Jacob saw the enormously fat Whiteknife ask Edie to dance, he’d thought there was no way she’d accept, seeing as how she’d turned him down just like that. But no, Edie had laughed – giggled, actually, and maybe blushed a little at something Whiteknife said – and finished her drink before she took his hands and rushed to the raised dance floor. Veins practically burst in Jacob’s forehead, and he gripped his whiskey and water so hard he cracked the glass.

The slut. The whore. And she liked Whiteknife. That was what baffled him. Despite the rivers of sweat running down the Indian’s forehead, she was practically humping him right there. Jacob had to get out of there, but he couldn’t bring himself to go far from the bar. Instead, he sat in his old truck, watching the entrance. Maybe she’d leave alone. Maybe she was just being polite to the guy, giving him a little thrill so he could tell his friends.

But no, there they were, coming out the door an hour later, her following him to the sidewalk. They exchanged a few words, Whiteknife laughed, and she darted her head up and pecked his mouth before she whispered something in his ear. Whiteknife slipped an arm around her back and kissed her harder, and Jacob nearly turned the key in the ignition to run them both down. “Fucking fucks,” he muttered, gripping the gearshift.

When they broke for their cars, Edie followed Whiteknife. It was clear where they were going – his place, the little ramshackle trailer off Highway 3. Why? Her place was nicer, bigger. It struck him hard – because Whiteknife’s was closer. She couldn’t wait that long to fuck him.

Jacob spent most the night a half block from that trailer, imagining Edie riding that fat asshole, imagining them sneering at Jacob’s failure and Whiteknife’s success. By the time false dawn rolled around, Jacob had decided on action. He’d show Edie what a real man could do for her. She’d come so hard when he took her that she’d forget Whiteknife had even existed. It would take some luck. He’d need to get close to her house, surprise her when she was coming in the door, then… yeah. Yeah, this could work, he mused to himself. A little tape across her mouth, and he had a pair of handcuffs for the ones that liked the rougher stuff.

When everything was ready, Jacob headed for Edie’s house. Twice out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw someone, a little girl, standing on the side of the road. Tired, he thought. He’d need a nap after this was done. Hey, yeah, he could cuddle with Edie later. Women loved that shit.

He parked his truck at the Wok Box down the street, not too long after dawn. Irisville was always a bit slow to get going, and Edie’s hedges had grown out of control. He took up behind them around the side of the building. He kept thinking he saw the little girl, just quick glimpses. It was growing constant now, little flashes at his periphery. And he was warm, uncomfortably warm, like someone was pressed up against him.

“Jacob.”

He couldn’t whirl, not among the wild branches, but he jumped a foot and turned as quickly as he could. “What? Who?”

“Jacob.”

Again, behind him. A branch raked his eyes as he turned again. Through stinging tears, he saw her. A child, maybe a teenager, her breasts just nubbins in her old brown dress. Her bare feet were caked in crusted dirt, but that wasn’t what drove Jacob’s gaze down. Flitting around her ankles and through the earth itself were a pair of ribbons, one almond, the other a pale chartreuse.

“What the-?” Jacob asked, before the little girl plunged her ephemeral hand through his gut and gripped his spine. The pain was a shriek trapped inside his vertebrae, and every inch of his body hummed as he tried to get loose. He couldn’t make a sound as Edie cruised down the street. Couldn’t speak as she opened her car door. All he could do was listen to the voice in his head, hear the words smash together, share the images being dredged up from the bottom of his mind, stuff he’d locked away for years, decades, things he’d done, things he’d said, and die when his heart finally buckled, not from pain, but from the guilt. Jacob Joyner died because for the first time in his life, he’d finally seen.

The child let his body drop to the ground. In another moment, the warmth of Edie Gagne passed through her own. The woman never even knew she was there.

It was best that way.

* * *

Their left hands joined and stretched towards the ceiling. The gold bands were simple and unadorned, perfect parallels to their roughly-made engagement rings.

“Married,” Brianna said, and giggled as she turned her hand this way and that.

“Married,” Garrett confirmed, letting her guide his hand.

“Married!” she shouted, and laughed like a lunatic. She kicked off the covers and sprang to her feet on the bed. Completely nude, she bounced up and down, her head nearly hitting the ceiling. “Married married married!”

He laughed and grabbed her ankle, intending to pull her down to him, but instead she grasped his wrist and tugged him to his feet, and together they were as mad as children for a while, her laughing, him just riding the waves of her ecstasy, drinking her in.

All around the bed were the remains of the lilies he’d asked be strewn around the room when he made the arrangements for their honeymoon suite. On an end table next to the bed was a champagne bottle in a bucket of dissolved ice. Neither of them had managed tot ake their hands off each other long enough the night before to drink it. Somewhere behind them was a pile of their clothes, his tuxedo and her wedding dress. They hadn’t even bothered with the luggage.

Brianna wrapped her arms around the back of his neck, and he had just enough time to say, “I have dragon breath going-” before she caressed his lips with hers, suddenly gentle, suddenly sweet. They smelled like sweat and sex and neither  of them cared, lost in their own universe as her eyes fluttered and his hands raked across her naked back.

When she broke away, her breath coming quickly, she brushed his cheeks with her palms. “Married,” she whispered before she giggled again and hopped off the bed to prance to the bathroom.

Garrett laughed, but something had been weighing on his heart and he knew he had to tell her soon before she found out from someone else. He dropped and sat on the edge of the bed closest to the bathroom. “Bri, there’s something I gotta tell you.”

The sound of tap running, and she spat once, twice. “Yeah?” she called out. “Is it just how amazed you are that you married the finest sexy-ass woman in the world?” She spat again and turned off the tap. She leaned out and smiled, even with the scarred half of her face, which took her some effort. When she saw his expression, she popped the hotel toothbrush out of her mouth and asked, “What is it?”

Garrett patted the bed beside him. “I told you there was a secret I wasn’t telling you, because someone asked me not to.”

“Yeah?” She sat and reached for his hand. “You’re scaring me.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” He sighed. “It’s Leon. His cancer… it’s not getting better.”

Her toothbrush dropped to the floor, and he filled her in. Their friend, a former rancher who had once saved her life, had brain cancer. His treatments hadn’t helped, and he and his doctors had agreed that the fight had been lost. Garrett told Brianna he had months, maybe more if he was lucky, and she broke down, huge tears rolling slowly down her cheeks.

“He didn’t want anybody to know until after the wedding. I only found out by accident. Monica and his family are the only ones that know.” There was more. Leon and Monica, another friend of theirs, had been dating for the last six months, and had decided to break up amicably. Leon wanted to travel the world with his sister, and despite Monica’s vows that she would stay with him to the end and take time from her work as a detective, he had asked her not to do that for them, that he’d be much happier knowing she was protecting people. That had led to more relationship drama, though of a much more pleasant sort. Monica’s roommate and best friend Sloan had been crushing on her for a while, and finally was unable to help herself from making a move, one that Monica had surprisingly reciprocated.

When Garrett finally finished talking, he tried to pull Brianna in, to hold her, but after a moment, she started shaking her head against him and shoved him away. He opened his mouth and she slapped his chest – not hard, but enough to make a loud clapping sound. “You… you asshole!” she shouted.

He jerked away as if she’d actually hit him. This was the price he’d expected, though. “Baby, I’m sorry, but it’s his life and he-”

“You don’t keep things from me like that. We promised each other. We told each other no secrets.”

“I know. But this was…” He paused. “I don’t have any excuses. The man is dying. He asked. I promised. I’m sorry.”

Brianna bit her lip, cutting off whatever she was going to say to him next. Instead, she reached for Garrett’s cell phone. Hers was still out in the Durango along with most of their stuff.

The rancher’s voice was bright. “Hey, married man! Wasn’t expecting to hear from you for a few days.”

“You’re an asshole too, Leon,” Brianna said dully, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hands. Garrett got up and grabbed a box of tissues from a table in the corner. He handed them to her, and though she eyed him like he was a snake, she took a handful anyways.

Leon hesitated. “He told you.” It wasn’t a question.

“First thing.”

“Don’t be mad at him, Brianna. Please. I asked him to keep it a secret. I… I guess I wanted your night to be your night. You know that reception would have turned into a pity party and that’s not how I wanted to leave things. I wanted good memories. I got them. And don’t be pissed at Monica either. I was the one to pull the trigger on that.”

As they talked more, Garrett ducked into the bathroom to do his morning necessities. He picked up their clothes from the floor, draped Brianna’s dress across the bed, and pulled on his slacks and his dress shirt. After checking his pocket for the keys, he leaned down to kiss the top of Brianna’s head. “Back in a minute,” he murmured. At least the look she gave him that time wasn’t quite so murderous, just sad.

He wasn’t sure which was worse.

As he stepped off the elevator on the first floor, the rich scent of coffee and bacon nearly pulled him into the communal dining area before he fetched their luggage, but he resisted mightily and headed for the front doors, nodding at the bored-looking clerk as he passed by. Outside, he stopped to shake his head at their SUV. He’d seen the way Marnie and Wilfred had decorated their vehicle the night before, but he’d been too inebriated with the joy of actually being married to have paid much attention to the details. The “Probably Having Sex” sign on the rear window was flanked with hearts, and along the rear bumper were the remains of a floral arrangement, wrecked by the trip from Lennep to Helena. He hoped someone had taken pictures.

After grabbing their luggage, he headed back inside. This time, the allure of breakfast overpowered him. If he gripped the handles of the luggage together, he could roll them with one hand and grab a plate of food for him and Brianna with the other. The plan, as silly as it was – all he had to do was run back up to the room and then back down – seemed like a feat of engineering genius in the moment and he seized upon it.

A half-dozen couples and families ranged throughout the room. One of them, a deeply-tanned man in a ballcap and a neon yellow shirt, glanced up and hooted, “You must be the groom with the SUV outside.” His accent, thickly Texan, reminded Garrett of a story he’d promised to tell Brianna on their honeymoon.

All eyes in the room locked onto Garrett, and he shrugged uncomfortably, smiling a little at the chorus of congratulations. “Uh. Yeah, thanks.”

“I think it’s just sick what you have on those windows,” an older woman said, jabbing a piece of the crust from a bite of toast in his direction. “There are children here.”

“Oh hush,” the older gentleman at her table said mildly. He was the only one who hadn’t glanced up, absorbed in a newspaper’s crossword puzzle. “They’re young. Let them be.” Then much quieter, he mumbled, “Lord knows we did it enough at their age.”

The room erupted into laughter as the woman dropped her piece of toast and stormed out of there. Garrett tried to offer her a half-hearted apology, but the man she was with just sighed and shook his head. Garrett loaded up a plate with muffins, sausage, bacon, and fruit, and eyeballed a tray holding jugs of various juices. With the orange juice, he could make Brianna mimosas with the champagne upstairs.

“Help you with something?” the Texan asked behind him.

“Think I’m gonna come back down for some orange juice. We got a bottle of champagne and-”

The Texan turned and took in the room. “Anyone object to this fella takin’ the orange juice?” Every soul in the room gave them a cheerful go-ahead, and the Texan grinned widely. “Lemme help you out.”

He took the tray of food and juice carefully while Garrett went ahead with the luggage. Outside the room, Garrett settled the luggage against the wall while he unlocked the door and took the tray from the good Samaritan. “Let me just get this inside and I’ll be happy to pay you for the trouble.”

The Texan looked as offended as if he’d insulted his mother. “Please. Least I can do. Enjoy your honeymoon, and congrats again.”

As the other man ambled off towards the elevators, Garrett slipped into the room. Brianna was still on the phone, curled up in bed on her side with a sheet half-raised up around her waist. Garrett settled the tray of food next to her and kissed her cheek. She smiled at him, a little sadly perhaps, but the tears and the anger were gone. He overheard Monica on the other end, and ducked back out to the hallway.

Sitting on the luggage was a twenty-dollar bill. The doors of the elevator closed just a heartbeat after Garrett saw it, too late to thank the stranger. As much money as Garrett might have, there was a time in his life when he had to break into homes just to survive, living off canned food stolen from pantries, the guilt of taking fighting a churning battle in his guts with the need to stay alive. Of all the kindnesses extended to them on their honeymoon, and there would be plenty, that twenty-dollar bill was the most personally touching to him, and later, when he slipped it into a photo album at Brianna’s mother’s house, both of them were baffled as to why his hands were shaking so bad.