On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 23

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

Chapter 22

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

He floated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jeez. That’s… dark. And creative.”

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

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

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

“That’s not really what I meant.”

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

“I… never mind.”

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

“It’s going to piss you off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baby, stop.”

“I know I’m being crazy but-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep, should’ve never said anything.”

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

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

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

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

“Mm hm.”

“When else?”

“The Lacombe.”

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

“Uh huh. That morning outside the diner.”

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

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

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

“Bingo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right?”

“So what are yours?”

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not even close. You?”

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

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

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

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

She glanced over. “You damn well better.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed. “What?”

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

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

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

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 20

Still with me?

Why?

Chapter 20

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

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

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

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

Wasn’t it?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were moody the whole drive over.”

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

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

“Is that what we’re doing? Fighting?”

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

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

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

“PMS?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled, hesitantly. “Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. Because that’s what I want.”

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

“I’m not.”

“Why do I feel like you are?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 19

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

Chapter 19

It wasn’t all pleasant in Edmonton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It shows.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said I’m sorry,” the guy yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“Same,” he growled.

And miracle of miracles, the childly ghost had disappeared.

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapters 17 & 18

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

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

Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do it,” Garrett said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about?”

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I ask what brought this on?”

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

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

“Or if you felt resentful.”

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

“Yeah.”

He kissed her forehead. “Doing better?”

“Much.”

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

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

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

“What?” she asked in utter disbelief.

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

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

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

Chapter 18

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

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 16

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

Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Again? What are you talking about?”

“Nope. Promise.”

Amused, he said, “All right.”

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

“What are we, six?”

“Pinky swear!”

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

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

“Brianna-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only if I can bring a chainsaw.”

“Deal.”

“Listen, Bri-”

“Pinky swears!”

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

“Good. Donut me.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Garrett?” Brianna asked.

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

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

“Fascinating. Yeah.”

“You okay?”

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

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

“I know.”

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

“What? Why?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah?”

“Mmm hmm. Especially anatomy.”

“Oh God, I know where this is going.”

“Female anatomy.”

“Yup.”

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

Brianna snorted. “You and me both.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 15

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

Anyways, here you go.

Chapter 15

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

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

“No, no. I mean Lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For what?”

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

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

“I’m being serious.”

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

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

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

“That’s… a good answer.”

“Rambling, I know.”

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

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

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

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

“Ransom or Vernon?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Beyond Thunderdome.”

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

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

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

“And with you stressing about those kids…”

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

And still they didn’t listen.

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

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

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

Enough was enough.

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

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

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

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

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 13

Short one today. Enjoy!

Chapter 13

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

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

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

“Know what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 12

Skipping 11 today. More side story garbage. Bleh.

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

Chapter 12

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m pretty fond of you too.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 10

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

The funny:

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

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

The not so funny:

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a breakfast burrito, I think.”

Brianna’s smile slipped. “That’s it?”

“I… yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

The zoo.

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

There was no more anger between them that day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Michael Phelps says hello,” Virgil grunted.

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

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

“No, you definitely said-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

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

Garrett smiled. “No, they haven’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventurous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready for what?”

“Garrett.”

“Yes?”

“Go.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garrett blinked, and she was gone.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I… sorry what?”

“Out for a little walk?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s that?” Garrett asked.

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

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

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

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

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