About twenty-five miles out from Gaylord’s Creek, we stopped to settle a dust witch.
Dust witches are stupid things, and I wanted to push on, but Francis insisted. He gave me the lecture on how little evils get to be big evils if you leave them alone long enough, blah blah blah, no one else to do it, got to do your duty if you want to carry the sword, and I finally said, “All right already!” just to get him to shut the fuck up.
The dust witch had caught an abandoned house—well, a shack—with all the windows broken and the porch leaning off to the left. There really wasn’t much mischief it could do out here in the lonesome, but all I had to do was imagine kids daring each other into exploring or something, and I knew Francis was right.
I knew Francis was right anyway. I just hated like poison having to admit it.
I got my sword out of the trunk. Its name was Stella Mortua. John Ray hadn’t had a clue, but Francis told me what it meant: The Dead Star. The sword had been through some wars of its own before I ever got my hands on it. The scabbard was half duct-tape, and the sword-hilt had been wrapped and rewrapped in electrician’s tape so many times that Francis said it looked more like the handle of a tennis racquet than a sword, but I didn’t care about that. The blade was gleaming and deadly and perfect, and so what if the rest of it looked like something I’d found in a garage sale?
I heaved the trunk shut and came around to the driver’s side, where Francis had rolled the window down. He squinted up at me behind his sunglasses, but didn’t say anything. Francis was a little afraid of me, and I liked it that way.
“This better not take long,” I said, and I turned and stomped across the front yard before he thought of anything to say.
Francis had only been working with me about five months, since John Ray died. Francis had words for everything. He called me the Circuit Rider, and he called himself the Anchor. Fancy mumbo-jumbo, and John Ray would have laughed himself sick. And then probably kicked Francis’s skinny ass to the curb and shouted some names after him, too, like sissy and queer boy and pansy. But John Ray was dead and Francis was all I had, so I couldn’t do the same, even when I wanted to.
I had to stop stomping when I got to the house, because otherwise I’d’ve put a foot straight through the porch floorboards.
I turned. Francis had gotten out of the Ford and was standing beside it, one hand gripping the open door like otherwise he thought he’d blow away. “Do you—” His voice squeaked and he had to start over. “D’you want me to come with you?”
“I think I can manage a dust witch, Francis,” I yelled back, and he kind of crumpled in on himself like I’d smacked him.
His damn problem, not mine. I swung back around and yanked the warped screen door open. It wobbled out about halfway and then stuck, but that was enough space for me to slide through.
The dust witch was waiting for me.
I’d been wrong about how much mischief it could get up to: It wasn’t very big, but it was nasty-smart, smart enough that it must’ve gotten at least one person—eaten them or absorbed them or whatever it is exactly that things like that do with their prey. It had learned enough to pick things out of my head, to show me a screaming girl with her face half gone, then a burly man with no face at all, nothing but shadows because that’s all I’d ever seen of him. It didn’t spook me, because I’d been up against bigger and smarter things than this, but when it shifted back to the screaming girl, it must have dug a little deeper, because it had her scream my name as if I could have saved her.
“You fucker,” I snarled at it, and I cut it in half with Stella Mortua.
There wasn’t much substance to it, but it splintered, shooting bits of itself off every which way. I tracked down every fucking splinter and killed it, and every one of them screamed my name.
I didn’t tell Francis any of that when I came out. Just slammed the car door and said, “We’re clear. Now, come on already, and let’s go meet the Devil.”
Francis started the car without a word.
I was beaten to death when I was sixteen years old.
Lucky for me, I don’t really remember it—it’s all noise and blur. I don’t even remember if it hurt or not. I mean, yeah, I can pretty much guarantee it hurt like a motherfucker, but I don’t remember it. And I’m okay with that.
I breathe and sweat and all the rest of it, so you’d never know I was dead once, although I’m told my eyes are weird if you look at ’em long enough, and I don’t show up on recordings. Not answering machines, not cameras, not computers. They say that’s one of the ways you tell a vampire, but I’ve never met one. Francis says he thinks they’re a myth.
Violent death isn’t the only way to become what I am, but it’s a good start. It puts you over the line, so you can see the weird shit most people spend their lives not seeing, and if somebody finds you in time, like John Ray found me, and puts you back together and gives you a sword … all they have to do is point you in the right direction.
You figure out the rest of it pretty damn fast.
Me and Francis had been hearing rumors about the Devil being in Gaylord’s Creek for days before we got there. You know how in a church wedding, the bride comes real slow down the aisle and there’s the groom waiting for her and all the guests standing and watching on either side? That’s what it felt like to me, like I was the bride and the Devil was the groom, and all those people with their rumors and their whispers were the guests. It was kind of freaking me out.
There wasn’t much of Gaylord’s Creek, and it looked like all the other little towns covering the mid-south like acne. At first, it was hard to see what was wrong, but there was nobody sitting on their front porches, although it was a nice day for that part of the country. No kids on the sidewalks, and no sign there ever had been kids: no bikes, no toys, no hopscotch grids in chalk. We stopped at the first gas station we found, and when I went in, the middle-aged guy behind the counter just looked at me like he couldn’t remember what I was for or what he was supposed to do. Which, okay, stoners look like that a lot, but I couldn’t smell a hint of weed on him, and his forearms said he’d been doing some pretty heavy cutting. Francis insisted on finding the elementary school, and there were no kids there either, unless maybe they were all in the gym. The doors were closed, and there was a funny kind of humming noise that neither of us liked. Whatever this town had, it had it bad.
Gaylord’s Creek had one motel, a skanky roach-trap called the Sundown Inn, out on the edge of town—the sort of place that existed so people’d have a place to go and commit adultery in peace. Francis paid cash, signed us in as “Edward and Lisa Fisher,” and made some loud, fake, and completely unnecessary comment about his “niece.”
The desk clerk wasn’t buying. She was a heavy woman with a bad perm and eyes like marbles. She looked at Francis, buttoned-down to within an inch of his life, and looked at me, and I could see what she thought we were doing.
“I feel like freaking Lolita,” I muttered at Francis as we left the motel office.
“What? Oh, nonsense, Morgan. You know I’d never—”
“Yeah, I know you’d never.” And maybe it’d be better if you would, I thought. Things had been way easier with John Ray, since we could screw instead of fighting all the time. “But that desk-clerk sure thinks we’re headed straight for the horizontal tango.”
“Morgan!” And my Christ, he even sounded like an uncle—or a fussy old-lady aunt.
“What?” I said as he unlocked the door. “You think I don’t know about that stuff?”
I went in, headed straight for the shower. I stripped off my clothes as I went: leather jacket, black t-shirt, pause for the sneakers, hooked down my jeans, draped my bra over the bathroom door.
I stopped, glanced back at him, hoping I looked as much like a centerfold for a Playboy‘s “Girls with Ink” issue as I felt like. “What?”
“Shouldn’t you, um…” He couldn’t even look at me, and I felt a little better about things. He was staring at the gross polyester coverlet on the bed, and going redder and redder and redder.
“I’ll ask around once I don’t stink like a gorilla’s armpit. Okay?”
“Are we on some kind of schedule here, Francis?”
“No. I just feel that…”
“Ten minutes tops. Whatever’s out there can wait that long.”
“Yes, of course,” he said, not believing a word of it, and I went to take my shower, all the time knowing that Francis was right. I was goofing off on a job, and John Ray would have smacked me upside the head for it. But Francis wasn’t John Ray.
Showered, armpits shaved, and I got my fighting clothes on. Blue jeans, combat boots, black tank top. All my earrings in, seven silver on the left and seven gold on the right, but no other jewelry except for the ink: upper arms, shoulders, and my back all the way down to the tailbone. Francis had hissy fits about leaving all that skin exposed, but he didn’t understand. The tattoos were mine in a way the sword could never be.
“We got glamor?” I said to Francis. I always did.
He winced. He always did. “Yes,” he said. “I cast the glamor while you were in the shower.”
I slung the sword on my back. “Thanks, babe.”
“I know, I know. Dignity, respect, working relationship, yadda, yadda. I’ll just go kill the Devil now, okay?”
I slammed the door on my way out.
I started at the motel office. The clerk who’d checked us in and given me that catfish look had gone off-shift. The new guy was maybe a couple years older than I’d been when I died, skinny, pimply, total bottom-feeder. If Francis had goofed—it did happen, even if he’d never admit it—nobody’d believe this doofus when he tried to tell them he’d seen a chick with a sword. So I went in, and turned out I didn’t need to worry, because I knew what he was looking at as I came up to the counter, and it wasn’t nothing to do with Stella Mortua.
He did pull himself together—maybe he’d been chewed out before for staring at women guests’ tits. “Nice tats.”
“Thanks. Look, I heard things about this town. You know. That’s why I talked my uncle into coming here.”
“Oh, right. And where is your … uncle?”
I itched to make him pay for that, to grab a handful of his greasy hair and bang his head a couple times against the counter. But he wasn’t the job. I shrugged and said, “Lying down. You know, long day.”
“Gotcha. So you looking for some action?”
“Particular action. You know what I mean.”
“That’s hardcore stuff, baby. You sure you’re up for it?”
Call me “baby” again and you’ll find out. “That’s my business,” I said. “I know what I’m looking for.”
“Yeah? And what do I get for helping you?”
The rotted jack-o-lantern leer said he had some ideas, but I wasn’t going there with him. I pulled a twenty out of my back pocket and put it on the counter, then put my hand down on it. “You tell me what I want to know and you keep your mouth shut about it, and Mr. Jackson is all yours.”
“Okay, honey,” he said, and he gave me the lowdown on what the Devil was doing in Gaylord’s Creek. He’d obviously only caught the edges of it—not like the guy in the gas station—so he didn’t know everything, but he knew they were worshipping the Devil in the new Baptist church out on Lafayette Road, and he showed me where it was on the map. It took me fifteen minutes to get that out of him, along with a whole disgusting avalanche of gossip, then I let him have the twenty and cleared out of there before he got any bright ideas.
I wanted another shower, but that would have to wait. And I wished to hell I had a driver’s license, but that’s one of those things dead girls just don’t get to have.
I’d have to go get Francis instead.
I got my first tattoo before I died. My friend Sissy drove me into Chattanooga on her learner’s permit and handed me her older sister’s driver’s license that she’d snitched—and boy did she get in trouble for it, too—and I walked up to the guy in the tattoo parlor and just dared him to say anything about me not being Becky Huddle, twenty years old and with a perfect right to be doing this. And he hadn’t said a word, just done the tattoo and taken my money.
Sissy was dead now. And not dead like I was, but dead for real. She died in a car accident on I-75, when her boyfriend’s Mustang lost an argument with a semi. John Ray got me the police report. Police said Bobby’d probably been doing a hundred and twenty when he lost control and jumped the median.
Sissy never had a chance.
I took the stairs two at a time, headed up to tell Francis that my commitment to personal hygiene wasn’t going to be the end of the world and would he get his ass into the car already, swung into the hall, and stopped.
Our door was open.
Sweet freaking Jesus.
I’d heard Francis lock the door behind me. He drove me nuts, but he wasn’t stupid. I edged a little closer and saw the splintered notch torn out of the jamb, the tongue of the deadbolt still sticking out of the sagging door. Oh God don’t let this be what it looks like. But I already knew it was.
There were signs that Francis had put up a fight. The ugly table lamp was broken, the chairs overturned, the nasty coverlet dragged halfway off the bed. His glasses were lying, like some weird metal bird, just inside the door. It took me a moment to bring myself to touch them, but I picked them up and folded them and stuck them in the neckline of my shirt. They’d probably stay there okay, and I could give them back to Francis as soon as I found him.
I set off running like a freaking greyhound out of the gate.
The new Baptist church was even farther out of town than the Sundown Inn, a big ugly barn, still kind of raw-looking, and standing by itself in the middle of a field, all dead grass and cracking red clay.
At the crossroads where Lafayette met Gaylord’s Creek Road, there were three little white crosses kind of kitty-corner across from the church, two of them together and the third a couple feet away. I could feel the bad mojo all around this place, that dusty, stifling, humming silence.
I knelt down and pushed the dry grass out of the way. There were names on them: JOANNE HARLEN and CYNTHIA HARLEN together, with BRIAN SULLIVAN off by himself. This was where I needed Francis, and I touched his glasses for—I don’t know—some kind of comfort. Francis had the brains and the know-how. I just had the weird-shit radar and the sword. So about all I could do was follow my instincts. I leaned forward again and put my hand out, palm forward. I didn’t touch the crosses, because my mother was a drunken bitch, but she didn’t raise any fools. I just held my hand in front of them, like you do when you’re testing to see if a stove burner’s on. I could feel the humming in the bones of my hand. Joanne first, then Cynthia, then I reached sideways to Brian, and I got this sudden, sick, black cramp, and all my fingers clutched in at the cross. I snatched my hand back before it touched the wood, and my heart was thumping in my chest, because it’d be better to be barbecued upside-down than to touch anything sending off vibes like that.
Now I knew who was in the church—at least the important part. It might be a woman, a man, a sister, a brother, a mother, a husband, but it was somebody for who Joanne and Cynthia Harlen had meant all the world, and the moon and stars besides—somebody who had seen the Devil in Brian Sullivan.
I stood up, stretched my back, reached over my shoulder to loosen Stella Mortua in its scabbard. I spared a thought for my posture, because it was one of those things that Francis was always on about—and right, too, dammit—and then I started for the church.
The clerk had kind of hinted around, enough that I’d figured out that things didn’t really start to rock and roll until midnight. And that was fine. I didn’t want the party, just wanted to do my job and go. The only thing in the church parking lot was this old white Ford Aerostar that looked like it’d been sitting there since roughly the Civil War. There was a Jesus-fish on the back, and the bumper had one of those stupid-ass stickers: MY CHILD IS AN HONOR STUDENT AT JEFFERSON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. That would most likely make it Mr. Harlen who was waiting in there for me. Mr. Harlen and the Devil.
Damn you, Francis. Don’t you dare be dead.
The bitchkitty here was that the Devil knew I was coming. The Devil must have known I was coming for days, just like the groom at the end of the aisle waiting for his bride. And that was bad, because that was some serious power. It would’ve started out a dust witch, like the thing I’d killed earlier that afternoon, but it must have been building out here for years, decades, with nobody near enough to give it shape and color, until the boneheads in Gaylord’s Creek went and built a church smack on top of it. And there was the crossroads, and there was the accident, and there was a man whose grief needed someplace to go.
I touched Francis’s glasses again for luck and opened the front door of the church.
The reek of the Devil rolled out to meet me. Incense, sweat, burned meat, fear—they’d been worshipping him here for weeks. I stepped over a body in the foyer. Its head was gone, but both hands were still clutching a cross. The heavy humming silence was even worse here. It dragged at me like humidity. Too much power, too long building, I thought and decided I’d already been as cool about this as I needed to be. I drew Stella Mortua.
“Gracious,” a voice said out of the shadows. “What’s a little girl like you doing with a great big sword like that?”
God, I whipped around like a slingshot. And there he was, seven feet of hulking darkness, horns, wings, and mad little red eyes. After a second, I could pick his stench out of the general foulness of the church: sulfur and rotten meat and burning rubber. I felt the power spinning off him like glass.
I went forward, sideways a little, and swung Stella Mortua at the Devil, aiming to cut him straight in half. And the Devil did this lame-ass pirouette, like some freaking ballet dancer, and twirled right out of the way of the sword. And then he laughed.
“My poor lamb,” he said, “did you really imagine that that would work on me?”
I so did not feel like getting into a conversation with the Devil. “Where is he?” I said, circling left.
“Now that would be telling. Shall we play hide-and-seek, my lamb? I’ll hide your lover, and you seek for him.”
I moved in again. He parried with one leathery wing, and the stench was about enough to knock me flat. But he looked puzzled, which was a funny thing to see on a guy with horns.
“I assumed you knew, lamb, when you came storming in. I hold your lover captive.”
And it still took me a second to figure out what he was talking about. “Francis? You think I’m sleeping with Francis?” I hooted with laughter. “I’m not here for Francis. I want the guy who made you.”
“No one made me,” he said, and he was all offended, along with being confused. “I am the Prince of Darkness, and I made myself.”
“Oh, puh-leeze,” I said and drove in again. He knocked Stella Mortua aside with his forearm, but he was off-balance with the whole Francis thing, and instead of slamming me into next week, he kind of waved at me like I was a fly, and I rolled my wrists and came back hard and low.
Stella Mortua sank into his thigh, screaming, and he screamed right along with it. Most stuff on the material plane wouldn’t touch things like him, but the inscription on Stella Mortua’s blade, Francis had told me, said, I bring death as I am wielded. Planes of existence didn’t so much matter.
The Devil went lurching sideways and he looked just horrified, with his mouth in this little “o” and his eyes almost bugging out of his head. “You can’t…”
“Wanna bet?” I said, and I took the Devil’s head off.
The corpse toppled over sideways, getting this completely disgusting black stuff all over the carpet. I was ready for something even worse to come screaming out, because I’d seen Alien, but apparently nobody in Gaylord’s Creek had, because the body just lay there and the black stuff sort of steamed. And it made the smell about ten times worse.
I held my breath, because I didn’t feel like me puking was going to be any use to anybody, and went after the head. It had rolled into a corner, the eyes and mouth still gaping. I picked it up by the hair—this kind of mohawk-thing that felt like it’d been made out of the world’s oldest and nastiest mop—and went back out onto the front walk where I could breathe. After a minute, the Devil blinked, and the red eyes rolled up to look at me.
“Hi there,” I said. “Let’s try this again. The guy who made you. Where is he?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Wrong answer.” I swung the head against the door—not real hard, but moving pretty fast. It howled. “The man who made you. I know you can feel him, so tell me where he is.”
“In the Sunday school,” the Devil said, starting to cry. His tears were black and they smelled like sulfur. “Upstairs in the Sunday school. That’s where.”
“Okay. Good. Tell me where I find the stairs.”
The head was bawling now, like a toddler who’s had a cookie taken away from him. It was losing its identity along with its power. But it told me where to go.
I don’t know much about the organization John Ray and Francis work for. John Ray never answered questions—and he’d pop me one if I kept after him. Francis would probably tell me, but by the time Francis came along, I’d figured out that I didn’t want to know.
So I don’t know how they knew John Ray was dead, or how they knew where to send Francis to find me. I don’t know how they chose Francis, with his glasses and his tweed jacket and his fussy old-lady ways. Couldn’t be more different than John Ray if they’d done it on purpose, which maybe they did.
We were down in Florida, hunting an alligator-spirit. I know how goofy that sounds, but in actual fact, it wasn’t goofy at all. Some nut who thought he was a shaman—which he wasn’t, because we asked the local medicine woman and boy, did we get an earful—anyway, this nutjob walked out into the Everglades and sacrificed himself to the alligators. He hadn’t been a shaman, but the swamp didn’t need him to be.
What happened to John Ray was like this. We went out—on a Wednesday night, not that it matters—and tracked down the alligator that had killed the guy, half by my weird-shit radar and half by this gizmo John Ray cobbled together like a dowsing rod.
I killed the alligator and came out of it with a couple broken bones in one hand, more bruises and scratches than anybody could count, and a genuine alligator bite just above my left knee. Lucky for me, he hadn’t been able to get any real purchase, but it was still going to take the rest of the night for John Ray to make me heal.
That’s the part that always reminds me I’m dead. It takes a fuck of a lot more to put me down than a normal person, but I don’t heal on my own. Somebody’s got to do that for me, and that’s what first John Ray, and now Francis, is for.
John Ray was bitching about that as we started back, and he did not fucking listen to me when I tried to tell him something still felt weird. So even though I know I shouldn’t, I still kind of feel like it was his own fault that he got eaten. Because something was still weird, and he wouldn’t check his fucking gizmo or even quit giving me the hysterical chick look, which was my very least favorite of all John Ray’s looks.
He was getting about fed up enough to hit me, and I was still trying to argue with him, when this bull alligator reared out of the swamp and took his head off in one bite.
I did scream. Just for the record. Screamed and grabbed Stella Mortua and disemboweled the fucking thing before it could get away. And I spent the whole rest of that night slogging around that square mile of swamp, blood dribbling down my leg and my hand hurting like I’d stuck it in a fire, killing alligator after alligator.
Because, as it turned out once Francis got there and explained everything, that it wasn’t just the alligator that killed the guy that got infected with the bad mojo, it was every alligator that had eaten him, down to the last finger-joint.
I didn’t know that then, of course. I just knew my weird-shit radar wouldn’t shut up. I don’t know how many alligators I killed that night. I lost track after five.
Apparently, one stupid nutjob can go a hell of a long way.
Finally, finally, that crawly weird-shit feeling shut up, and I dragged myself and about fifty pounds of mud out of the swamp and back to the ugly ramshackle little motel John Ray’d booked us into. I left his body in the swamp because I didn’t know what else I could do with it, but I went through his pockets first, got our room key and his wallet and car keys and half a handful of good luck charms that hadn’t fucking worked when he needed them.
I locked the door behind me and took a very long shower. I couldn’t heal myself, but I washed all the mud and blood and God knows what out of my bites and scratches. Everything hurt like holy hell, and I wished painkillers worked on me, but I don’t metabolize them any more or something. Francis explained it once but I’d tuned him out.
At least I can still sleep, although I don’t dream. I staggered out of the shower and went face down across the nearest bed, and that’s the last I remember until nearly fifteen hours later, when I was woken up by somebody pounding on the door.
Which turned out to be the motel manager, because there was a guy asking for me down at the desk, and I wasn’t answering the phone.
And the guy at the desk, of course, turned out to be Francis.
The Sunday school room made my eyes hurt. Bright colors, big windows, kid-sized furniture, all just what you’d expect. Except that somebody’d collected all the black crayons they could find and done some heavy-duty redecorating. One wall was just the names Joanne and Cindy, over and over again, floor to ceiling and corner to corner. The outside wall and the left-hand wall were devoted to Brian Sullivan: how he did the work of the Devil, how he let the Devil into Gaylord’s Creek, how he was the Devil. It was like the visual equivalent of the smell in the foyer, and it threw me so bad that at first I didn’t even see the guys on the floor.
One was Francis, tied and gagged, laying on the floor under the windows like a lumpy roll of carpet. He had a nasty, swollen gash on the side of his head, but his eyes were open, and he shuddered all over, like a dog shaking water out of its coat, when he saw me. That’s me, the freaking U.S. Cavalry.
The other guy was the one I was after, the one I was guessing was Mr. Harlen. He was sitting in the middle of the floor, all hunched up with his arms wrapped around his knees, and he was funny to look at, like those floaters you get sometimes in one eye or the other, like he was there, but he wouldn’t be if you turned your head. I knew what it meant, although I’d never seen anything quite like it before. The power that had got the Devil up and running was eating away at this guy’s reality, using him up like a tank of gas. He hadn’t been down there worshipping the Devil with the rest of Gaylord’s Creek. He’d just been tucked away up here in his own private church of hate, getting more and more lost. Anybody can open the way for something like this, whether you do it by accident or on purpose or sort of in between, but this guy hadn’t just opened the door. He was standing in it, holding it open, and I was willing to bet he hadn’t even noticed it was destroying him.
Christ, I thought. I may really have to kill him.
And I was still standing there, wondering if I could do it—wondering if I was even allowed to do it—when Francis made this kind of screaming noise around his gag. His eyes were wide and staring past my leg. I whipped around, and oh, yeah, there was the other freaking shoe that I’d forgotten about—the desk-clerk from the Sundown Inn, the one who’d been gone the second time I went by the office. And now I knew what she’d been doing.
I just managed to dodge the baseball bat the chick had aimed at my skull. I ducked back, regrouped. Feinted right, threw the Devil’s head left. It screamed as it flew, and the chick’s head snapped around after it like a retriever watching a tennis ball. I reversed Stella Mortua and clocked the chick with the hilt. She went down with a grunt and lay still.
I grabbed the head again—leave it alone and it might be able to work up enough juice to roll itself back downstairs to its body—and then I sheathed Stella Mortua and hunkered down to ungag Francis.
“Francis,” I said, “what do I do? What do I do with him?”
“Who is he?” Francis said, not real loud and kind of croaky, but he sounded so much like himself I could have kissed him.
I put the head down, wedged it between my knees, and started on the knots around Francis’s wrists. “His last name’s Harlen, I think. His wife and daughter—” I jerked my head at the Joanne-and-Cindy wall “—were killed in a car accident in front of the church, along with a guy named Brian Sullivan.”
“Ah, yes,” Francis said. The rope came free, and he began rubbing gently at his wrists while I went to work on his ankles. “I had rather been wondering about Mr. Sullivan.” I turned and saw the fourth wall, the one I hadn’t got a good look at. It was a prayer for the damnation of Brian Sullivan, with the black crayon so thick that it was actually kind of shiny.
“Wow,” I said.
“Yes. Fire and brimstone have nothing on Mr. Harlen’s imagination.”
The Devil’s head, still stuck between my knees, began to giggle.
“Morgan,” Francis said, like he knew he didn’t want to know but he had to ask anyway, “what is your trophy and why is it laughing?”
“That’s the Devil,” I said, and the last knot finally gave way. “Or I guess maybe it might be Brian Sullivan.”
The head made a godawful noise, like the screech of fingernails down a blackboard. “Not that name! Not that name! That’s not what I am!”
“But of course it is,” Francis said, sitting up and giving the head the look he gave newspaper accounts of hauntings and rains of frogs and stuff like that. I remembered his glasses for the first time in forever, looked down, and hey, they were still right where I’d stuck them. I gave them to him, and he put them on. But he was still talking to the head: “That’s all you can be, for that is the only Devil Mr. Harlen knows.”
The head was changing. It was getting smaller and losing its horns. The nasty black mop-mohawk turned into ordinary brown hair, and the bones of the face kind of softened, and the little red eyes got rounder and paler and finally came up blue. Brian Sullivan had been just another high school dumbass. Like Sissy’s boyfriend Bobby Grant, and for a second I understood, all the way down, what Mr. Harlen meant.
But at the same time— “Jeez,” I said. “Can’t you do better than that?”
“Nil nisi, Morgan,” Francis said, but he was looking at Mr. Harlen. “Brian Sullivan is, after all, dead.”
Mr. Harlen moved, and I jerked my head around, but it was just that he was rocking a little.
I turned back and said to the head, loud and careful, “So what happened, Brian? How did you become the Devil?”
The head just goggled at me with its stupid blue eyes. It didn’t know. It wasn’t really Brian Sullivan any more than it had really been the Devil. This was Mr. Harlen’s show, when you got right down to it. So after a minute I said, “How did Brian Sullivan become the Devil, Mr. Harlen?”
And there was this long, long pause while Francis and I held our breaths, and then Mr. Harlen said, “He killed them.”
I looked at Francis, and he looked pretty much the way I felt. He didn’t want to kill this guy, but he knew as well as I did that we couldn’t shut down the badness here with Mr. Harlen sitting in the way like a kind of human doorstop. Leave him alone long enough, and the Devil’s body downstairs would just grow a new head.
Talk him down, I thought. “But it was an accident, wasn’t it? I’m a stranger here, Mr. Harlen, so you got to explain it to me. Wasn’t it an accident?”
“Oh, it was an accident all right,” Mr. Harlen said, and made this kind of horrible barking noise that I guessed after a second was maybe supposed to be a laugh. “He accidentally ran into my wife’s car after he accidentally started driving home after he accidentally had seven beers. Or maybe eight. It might’ve been eight. His friends couldn’t remember for sure.”
“Oh.” I looked down at the head, and it stared back up at me like a fish. “God,” I said, “you were just as stupid as you look.”
“So’s your face,” the head said and started giggling.
I smacked it to make it shut up. “Mr. Harlen, I am so sorry about your wife and daughter. But, you know, Brian Sullivan isn’t the Devil.”
That got him moving. He was up and towering over me like a grizzly bear. “You look at what he did and you say he’s not the Devil?”
I stood up, got in his face. “Here,” I said and shoved the head at him. “Here’s Brian Sullivan. Does he look like the Devil to you?”
The head whimpered.
Mr. Harlen stared at it. “That’s Brian Sullivan?”
“It’ll do,” I said.
He reached out and took the head. I let him. Francis made this kind of hissing noise, like a teakettle, but I could feel what was happening—what needed to happen—and this was the only way to make it work.
Mr. Harlen stared down at the head. It stared back up at him, sniveling. After a couple centuries had gone by, Mr. Harlen said, “He’s dead.”
“Yes,” I said.
He looked at me. “You killed him.”
“No. He died with your wife and daughter.” And I could feel it now, that place where Mr. Harlen was wedged like a doorstop. I could feel all the angles and all the force.
“But that was a lie,” Mr. Harlen said and he sounded so damn lost. “They said he’d been buried a week, and I saw him walking out of the Sunday School room, laughing. I saw him.”
And that was how the damn door got opened in the first place. “No,” I said.
“Honest to God, Mr. Harlen, Brian Sullivan is dead. Whatever you saw, it wasn’t him. Cross my heart and hope to die.” It was a child’s thing and I already was dead, but I crossed my heart anyway because I didn’t know how else to reach him, and his eyes followed my hand.
He looked down at the head. “Dead. Drunk and stupid and dead.” He looked up at me and said, like you might point out to somebody that their shoe’s untied, “He’s not the Devil.”
The head popped like a soap bubble.
Mr. Harlen came free and the door swung shut. His eyes rolled up in his head and he went down like a rag doll somebody’d dropped. I checked, and his pulse was beating. I didn’t know whether he’d ever be okay, or how loose you’d have to define “okay” to make it work, but he was alive and he wasn’t weird to look at any more. He was still human, and I figured that was the best I could do.
“Okay,” I said to Francis, “let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”
My Gramma Nancy belonged to one of those just-this-side-of-crazy sects—or maybe just the other side of crazy, depending on how you feel about speaking in tongues. And the summers when I had to stay with her because Mom’s latest boyfriend was even more of a waste of oxygen than the one before, she’d take me to her meetings. That’s what she called them, every Wednesday and every Saturday, and then all day on Sundays, standing out in the Clinch River singing hymns and doing full immersion baptisms on anybody who’d stand still for it. And I’d hide in the back, where Preacher Fulkes’s rolling eye wasn’t likely to light on me, with Candace Meacham and Lori Temple, and when things started getting scary, we’d hold hands. And if you think we so much as looked at each other during the school year, boy do you not remember a thing about growing up.
Preacher Fulkes had talked about the Devil a lot. He told us that the Devil walked among us, that we couldn’t see him because he walked in human skin, but that he could see us, always. The Devil was watching us, waiting for the moment when we could be tempted to sin and damnation and the eternal fires of Hell. I can remember standing there in the river, the mud oozing up around my toes and the sun and the heat and the humidity and the mosquitoes and Preacher Fulkes’s voice explaining the torments of Hell as if he’d been there himself to witness them. People fainted, from heatstroke or fear or what Preacher Fulkes called “rapture,” and he just kept talking. I had nightmares until I died that Armageddon had come and the righteous had been swept up in the Rapture and the only things left on Earth were me and Preacher Fulkes’s voice.
Gramma Nancy’d known I was going to Hell. The last time I’d visited her, when I was thirteen, before the lung cancer carried her off, she’d made me step up for baptism three weeks running. I’d come back up, gasping and pawing the water out of my eyes, and the first thing I’d hear would be Gramma Nancy’s raspy voice hollering, “Wash away the sin! Wash the stain of evil out of this child!” And then the whole meeting bellowed, “Amen!” like a bunch of cows.
Gramma Nancy said she was washing my mother out of me, like Mom was tomato sauce and I was a white shirt. But I knew that what she’d been seeing had nothing to do with Mom. At thirteen, I hadn’t known what it was, but now I did, and if I was going to Hell for it, that was just too freaking bad.
I’d worry about that when I got there.
Late, late that night, in a motel in some town half the state over from Gaylord’s Creek, I was sitting in bed, in my Braves t-shirt and ugly plaid boxers, watching an old X-Files episode. Mulder and Scully were dealing with creepy twin girls who used words I didn’t know.
Francis was in the bathroom, practicing first-aid on his head. I’d offered to help, but he’d told me to go to sleep. And although that wasn’t happening, I got that what he meant was he wanted me to get out of his way. And I could do that. I sat and watched Mulder and Scully, and the creepy girl twins turned out to have a bunch of creepy lady twins, and it was all the government’s fault, like it mostly was on X-Files. The credits were rolling, and I was waiting for Buffy, which was up next, when Francis turned out the light in the bathroom.
“What’s ‘exsanguinate’ mean?” I asked as he came into the room, looking pretty tidy for a Johnson & Johnson first-aid box.
“To drain completely of blood,” he said automatically, and did a double-take that made me grin. “What on … No, don’t tell me.”
“X-Files. You know, if they’d taught us words like that, I might not’ve flunked English three times.”
I’d hoped I could duck the I-told-you-so’s, but it looked like that wasn’t happening.
“You, um, you saved my life today.”
Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. After a second, I said, “Yeah?”
“I didn’t think you would. Thank you.”
“I know what you are and I know … I know that you don’t like me very much. I wouldn’t have blamed you.”
“Jesus Christ, Francis, what is this? I’m the one got you in trouble in the first place. I wasn’t going to leave you there.”
“But you … I …”
“Besides, you were right about the dust witch.”
That time, he couldn’t even get any words out, the poor bastard.
“Francis,” I said as kindly as I could, “Buffy‘s on in a minute. Call us even, and let it go, okay?”
“If you’re sure…?”
“Yes. It’s working out, Francis. Don’t mess with it.”
“All right,” he said, although he still didn’t sound completely sure. “If it’s working.”
“Hey,” I said and grinned at him when he met my eyes. “We’re still kicking ass. We gotta be doing something right.”
And, just a little, Francis smiled back.