NaNoWriMo 2013 – Arboretum

Chapter 5

By Rody Rowe

“Thank you God for ugly women.” This was the first prayer Dr. Robert Shore uttered every morning as he peered into the hall mirror, while putting on his Rolex and straightening his silk tie.  The second paid homage to his earthy father.  “And here’s to you Dad, for this fine Frankie Avalon face.”

For two years they did research, debating one visage over the other. Dad leaned toward Robert Mitchem, a handsome ruggedness to take his son into old age, but he finally prevailed and the boyish, sweet Frankie was teased out of his unremarkable face. The true genesis of Father was in giving the nose a small tweak, so the countenance would be his only, with the Boy Wonder peeking through.  Yet, the greater measure of this father’s love lay in his rich generosity toward his only son.  What other boy was so beloved, that his father would begin to slip him into the surgery starting on his twelfth birthday, embarking on an apprenticeship to the most sacred of callings?  By the time he entered med school, he had over a thousand hours of surgery under his hand.  Such a delicious secret it was to attend grand parties with the movers and shakers of The Emerald City, and know you had been the one who sculpted their chins and breast and thighs. How they would cringe if they knew their vanity was a gift from just a boy.  

This was a surgery morning, so as he picked up his keys to his Mercedes, he reached out as he always did, touching the cheek of Marilyn on the way out.  The photo of Monroe, the left side of her face laid open, had been secretly taken by his own father during one of her few nips and tucks.  Dad had given it to him on his graduation from medical school.  The inscription read, “The great beauty of the world comes from our hands.”  

He had insisted that Julia follow the same protocol of all his patients, and arrive at his private surgery-spa the night before to be pampered by his team, and be ready for the scapula within moments of his arrival. To be ready to cut and not cut was unbearable to him. Did he have any qualms of operating on his own wife?  None. In fact, what kind of husband would he be to allow his wife to be tended by someone less skilled? 

O god, how long I have waited for this morning!  It had been six years since he laid eyes on her the first time. Brought in by her mother for a simple scrape to remove a birthmark botched by a local quack.  By the end of the pre-op interview, he was in lust for the plain Julia Eubank and wondering where he could procure a heart for her ghastly mother who clearly must be hooked to some hidden machine.  He had never considered marriage since cutting was the singular, profound source for his sexual pleasure. As the glistening line of scarlet faithfully followed his steady blade, he spontaneously ejaculated, and then stayed hard as a walnut in winter until the bloody scrubs were tossed in the toxic waste containers.  If that wasn’t enough to take matrimony off the boards, he was also chaetophobic, afraid of human hair.  As an adult, electrolysis was a gift of grace, even though terribly painful, and he was named in the same breath with Teli Savalas, as one of the bald and beautiful men of his generation. Yet, he would never be free of the memory of the trembling shock that went through him when his adolescent eyes beheld his first bush.  Really?  His young mind rebelled.  You’ve got to be kidding! Really?  He had gotten through as a boy by not coming in until the surgical wraps were in place, and in his own practice solved the problem by insisting all patients be free of all, and he meant all hair. Yet, looking across at that sad girl years ago, he suddenly realized she was perfect for him. Without being completely conscious of it, he had been searching all his life for his own Marilyn, his own ugly duck to transform into a swan.  She had such a voluptuous body, and the rest in such need of his genius.  The fact that the first surgery on this 19 year-old was a failure only fueled his plan.  The birthmark was a rare endodermal one, meaning it stained right through to the bone.  The only solution was to graft a whole new cheek, or….?   When the patient awoke, he shared the sad news but wondered if both of them would consent to come to lunch with him at his club.  He thought the mother would go into false labor right there in his examining room. Since Julia would do whatever her mother wanted, the courting began.  Julia would become his crowning jewel.  He didn’t rush things because he found he could get aroused just thinking of cutting into Julia, and after all, he was ten years older. Take no wine before it’s time.  Wasn’t that some low-end wine brand’s slogan in the 70’s? 

So this morning had finally arrived.  As if in blessing, the fog had been banished by early rain and the air bore the balsam and salt tang of the best of  Northwest summer days.  In their two years of marriage, Julia had been everything he had hoped for—a dutiful, compliment, and cheerful pleaser.  Some women would have complained about the home electrolysis he preformed on her with such relish every week.  Not Julia.  Some women would sulk about his need to sleep separately. Not Julia. Some women would think it odd that he needed to have to have a thick, very rare medallion of beef at Ruth Chris’s Steak House every time before sex, and then insist on bringing home an uncooked cut for later.  Not Julia.  She truly did feel more beautiful in his capable hands, so when he gently presented the first surgery option three years ago, just to bring her ears off her head a bit and reshape her nose, she completely trusted that he had her best interests at heart.  

“Can we do it in the summer so my nursery kids won’t be scared by the bandages?”

“Dear Heart, of course.  We don’t need to do it all, you know.  You are so close, so very close to perfection.”

“No, no,” she quickly countered, rubbing her stars nervously, “I want to.”

“Good girl!”  He said with a fatherly pride.

“And we’ll leave my stars alone?”

“Absolutely.  They’ll become your unique signature.”

Usually, he had something apocalyptic and grand, like Wagner on the IPod, but today it was all Frankie A.  On a loop, he’d placed “Beauty School Dropout,” “De De Dinah” and “Let It Be Me.” The plan was to do some facial feminization, scraping down the jawbones and raising the cheeks, and reshaping her eye sockets, finally erasing the down-home kid and replacing her with aristocratic elegance.  On his arm, his hand made jewel, would be his finest advertisement. What he didn’t tell her, the rest of the surgery plan, would be the biggest mistake of his life.

Three hours in, all had gone perfectly. The face was done. His two assistants were finished with the cauterizing and bandaging and had exposed the breastbone.  You’ll be so grateful for the perky breasts I’m about to give you. I will also shorten the muscles in your chest and back eliminating your stoop. Why, I’ll have to make sure you drink lots of fluids, or you’ll get dehydrated from an ocean of thankful tears.  As he touched the scapula to her sterile flesh, cadmium yellow with disinfectant, the IPod abruptly left “Let it Be Me” and drumming filled the room. 

“Can somebody fix that?”

One attendant went to the machine and reset it.  Again the scapula pricked the flesh and the drumming returned.

“Don’t look at me Doctor,” she pleaded.  Maybe it’s broken.”

“Sounds like Tulalip stuff.  My uncle’s a tribal dancer.”

“Please.”  His jaw was tight. They could now see the anger flashing in his eyes.  Both began to locate sharp objects close at hand. He was prone to throw things.  “All right. Focus.”  Suddenly, Julia’s hand came up and brushed the bandage where the stars were on her cheek.  Everyone fell back as if they’d grabbed a live wire.  Shore quickly glanced at the monitor.  “She’s way under.  Just a reflex.” As he moved back to the body, in his mind’s eye, a scene unfolded.  He saw a tribal long house being pushed over by a bulldozer.  Looking around he recognized this as the property upon which Barbara Eubank’s palatial home now sat. He smelled the sweet pungency of fresh cut timber and heard trees falling somewhere in the woods.  In the distance, he saw a women standing by the edge of a lake and waving for him to come.  Julia? He walked to her and she pointed into the water.

He shook his head to clear it. Asked to have his brow mopped. He steadied his hand, took a deep cleaning breath and made the first incision in breast reduction. It was his last. 

Out of the lake of her breast, poured several antlered buck followed by dozens of wild hares, packs of raccoons, hundreds of birds of every species common to this part of the world and thousands of mice.  All had burn marks from the electric fences.  All were rabid and thirsting for atoning blood.  He felt them rip into his groin and begin to claw up his belly and chest. He must have fainted, because he awoke in his own recovery room next to his wife, with both assistants worrying over him.

“God doc!  You scared the shit out of us!  Should we call an ambulance?”

“No, no!”  He tired to sit up; felt light headed and went back down. “I’ll be fine, just give me a minute.  She okay?”

“Yeah. Fine.  She ought to be coming out of the anesthetic in a few minutes.”

Trembly, Robert Shore changed out of his scrubs.  Then, as a man wise enough to know he has met a monster who cannot be sated, wrote out clear instructions for the evening shift, including a warning that to deviate at all from his wishes meant immediate loss of employment and a probable law suit. His wife was to remain through the night in the recovery center and a car would come for her in the morning.  

On schedule, the limousine picked Julia up but took her back to Barbara’s house. They pulled up behind a moving van and before she could exit the car her mother was upon her.

“What have you done? Oh God, what have you done?”

“Mom, what are you talking about?”

“You know what’s in that van?  Your things.  All your things.  He’s left you!”  She threw a note into Julia’s lap. 

“You opened a private letter from Robert?  Mother!”  Through tears she read, Dear One, I am so sorry.  I’ve tired my best, but you are just too good for me.  I am going away for a while.  Please don’t try to find me.  I will be trying to put my life back together, and I pray you will do the same.  As ever, Robert.

That evening as Yamashita was doing an evening walk around the grounds, he came upon the oddest thing.  It appeared as if a grazing animal had eaten a swath of grasses down to the lake.  He decided to camp out at dusk the next night, and that was the first time, to his astonishment, that he saw Julia on her hands and knees gnawing her way down the lawn.  He was about to rise and go to her when he saw Barbara come out of the mist, calling her name. He watched as she went to Julia and began to berate her for such lunacy. Maybe I should intervene.  Just then Barbara screamed as hundreds of mice rose out of the still waters and swarmed all over her. He leapt up, and upon reaching her beat the vermin off, using his jacket as a shield.  He had never seen a person in such terror and physical agony.  Everywhere he looked the mice had taken small chunks out of her flesh.  Was it his imagination or were other animals watching the attack from the periphery of the forest?  As he carried Barbara back to the green house she fainted from shock and blood loss. He laid her down, and went back for Julia who appeared to be in a deep and pleasant sleep. When he brought her in, Barbara was sitting up, stark terror on her face.  There was not a mark on her, but the attack seemed to have aged her a decade at least.  “Get her away for me, please, oh god I beg you Toshi, please get her away.” 

Chapter 7

Danny felt a chill seep into the core of his body. In the frozen moment between when the light had burned out and the actions he would take momentarily, he reviewed what he knew and what he didn’t know. Barbara, looking like death, had been alone with his wife. Shortly after that, Julia had fainted and then had been restored by a mysterious flower in the Arboretum. And now his wife was not only uncommunicative, but she seemed unconscious, transfixed by something unknown, transported into a realm where her grandfather, Pete, was alive and communicating with her.

Briefly, Danny wondered if rather than looking for forgiveness from her wretched mother, Julia was actually seeking release, or something else altogether, but what? Was she captive to a haunting of some kind? A spell? This was certainly more than a bad dream and a bit of sleepwalking. Standing in the dark with his hand on her arm, his terror and confusion turned to anger. What sort of experiment had Barbara made of her own daughter? And for how long?

Almost by force, Danny tugged at Julia, pulling her out of the blackened room into the light of the hallway. He virtually dragged her through the house, back into the cold, dank bedroom and closed the door behind them. The moment Julia sat on the bed she collapsed and lay on her back, eyes closed, lips parted, breathing steadily and slowly. Danny leaned over her and touched her forehead. The warmth was returning to her flesh, and as it did, the room, too, began to warm. How odd!

Turning on every light in the room, for he could bear the darkness no more, Danny turned the little lock on the knob of the door. Short work could be made of this useless lock if someone really wanted to get in–who was he expecting anyway?–but he felt more secure with it engaged. He knew what he had to do, and didn’t relish doing it for one second, but now was the time he’d hoped would never come.

A year earlier, when Julia’s craving for her mother’s presence seemed to suddenly increase, a text message appeared on his phone from a number he didn’t recognize. It read: I’m not far away. I never have been. I’m glad you love her, but you don’t know everything. One day you’ll need this number. Keep it. I’ll come to help. Danny knew it was from that pervert doctor she’d been married to before, knew that the bastard was a coward and a jackass. He assumed that Robert Shore was just fucking with his head. But he HAD saved the number. He’d written it down on a piece of paper and buried it at the bottom of his nightstand drawer, thinking that if any trouble ever came to Julia he would know where to point the finger.

Now, after today’s bizarre happenings and tonight seeing Julia walking about like an empty body, he knew he needed to take action–get to the bottom of what was going on. He dug into the drawer until his fingers felt of the folded paper. He pulled it out, grabbed his cell phone off his side table, and dialed.

“Hello,” came the sound of a deeply tired voice.

Whispering but fierce, Danny breathed his words venomously into the phone, “Listen, you asshole, what do you know? You’d better tell me.”

There was silence. And then, “Has it started to happen again?”

“Has what started to happen? Start talking Shore.”

“She’s awakened when sleeping and begun to move about the world as if her soul has departed from her body, right? She’s doing and saying things that make no sense, and though you call her name, you can’t reach her. Am I close?”

“How the fuck do you know any of this?” Danny spat into the phone.

“Because I saw it. On the operating table, I saw what was in her veins and how the anesthesia effected her, and again at her mother’s house I saw an otherworldliness that sent me running. And I’ve spend a handful of years mulling this over, Danny. I believe I know what’s happening. I can help. And I owe it to her to do that.” There was another silence on Shore’s end of the phone. “I owe it to her,” he repeated.

Danny wasn’t going to argue with that. Robert Shore had been willing to indulge his God fantasies on Julia. That put him in the same category as Barbara as far as he was concerned. And while Danny didn’t know if he could trust Robert’s apparently repentant spirit, he did need whatever Robert knew about Barbara and this trance of Julia’s if he wanted to help his wife.

“Meet me at the villa,” Shore said. “In a half an hour.” Then he hung up, leaving Danny holding his dead phone to his ear.

Shit, Danny thought. But before he could decide whether or not he would go into the night back to the dark mansion that housed his rotting mother-in-law, he heard Julia stir behind him on the bed.

“I’ll go with you,” she said softly. “I need her to forgive me.”

“You don’t need anything from her, Julia. You need her to leave you alone.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Enlighten me,” he said.

“Unfortunately, you’ll be enlightened in due time, love.” There was a weary sadness in her voice, a fragility that frightened Danny, but that made him more determined to free her from whatever had her in its grip. He felt her reach over and touch his back; a shiver rang up his spine. “That was Robert on the phone, wasn’t it?” she asked.

Danny only nodded.

“He can help.” She’d never spoken to him about her ex-husband before, and now, somehow, he could help? Danny couldn’t remember feeling more befuddled or anxious in his life

*****

In a half hour they were pulling onto the grounds of Barbara Villa for the second time in twenty-four hours. Remarkably, though the grounds were pitch black (even the lights in the animal cages were turned out), the huge greenhouse that sat just outside the mouth of the Arboretum was lit up like it was open for business. Danny turned off the headlights as they rounded onto the long, winding drive and pulled forward gingerly in the thick Northwest night fog until he was almost alongside the shed that housed the Arboretum’s tools and fertilizers–fifty yards from the greenhouse. Almost before he turned off the engine, Julia had unlatched her belt and was climbing out of the car. Danny rushed out of the car on his side so he could come along beside her and take her hand. He didn’t want her to wander off onto the grounds–or into the ether of another trance.

Together, they inched their way toward the light of the greenhouse, and soon they stood at the doorway. Inside, bright fluorescents shone from above with a heat that called forward the feeling of a warm summer day, a welcome sensation on the skin after trudging through the nip of the fog.

Two steps inside the greenhouse and Julia froze as her gaze landed on something. She broke free from Danny’s hand, screamed and threw herself on the body of a man–a very, very old man–who lay mangled and twisted in an unnatural position on the ground between pots of flowering rhododendrons. His skin was dry to the point of crumbling as he disintegrated on the floor of the greenhouse. Out of his curled mouth dribbled a green thread of mucous and the crusting skin of the lips was covered in fresh blood. The eye sockets were empty. His clothing, though freshly laundered and clean, were of an era long past. This man, Danny thought, had been dug up out of the ground and dressed in clothes that had been hanging in the closet since the 1960s. He watched in horror as Julia prostrated herself across the grotesque being and sobbed. My god, who was he?

Beside him lay another body, one of the two zookeepers who cared for Barbara’s menagerie of exotic animals. He was dead, too, but freshly so. His throat was torn open and his larynx exposed and bleeding. One of the animals? What else? The rotting man Julia cradled with the blood around his mouth? Surely not! And how did he end up here? What was going on?

Time stood still for Danny O’ Shea, a building inspector who’d fallen in love with a shapely girl who had seemed simple and innocent to his worldly eyes. Things had not been as they seemed.

“Julia,” he dislodged himself from his frozen place in the doorway of the greenhouse. She didn’t respond to his voice. “Julia,” he nearly shouted as he reached her and tried to pull her away from the oozing, crumbling body. “Who is he, honey?”

A deep disembodied voice spoke then. “He’s her maternal grandfather, Peter Zecula.” Now a man stepped out from behind a large tropical tree with lush, monstrous foliage. He had to be Robert Shore, so like Frankie Vallie was he–only on steroids, large and muscular. Robert moved closer. “He’s been dead for decades. Or should I say undead? Apparently his victim here didn’t quench his thirst in quite the right way. I wonder why?”

Danny stood between the scene of his wife with the wan creature she caressed and Robert’s carefully sculpted personage. He pivoted his head between the two and then landed on the dead zookeeper between them. My god, had he lost his sense of normalcy altogether? He reached for his phone. “I’ve got to call the police for this poor fella. An ambulance won’t do him any good now.”

“I wouldn’t bother,” Robert said shaking his head sadly.

“Why the hell not?” Danny was angry again, jolted out of his shock back into the common decency of his blue collar sensibilities. “You can’t leave dead people who’ve obviously been attacked lying around like their lives don’t matter, you ass.”

Robert stayed calm. “Have you ever tried to make a cell call from these grounds before?”

“No.”

“There’s no service. Only the landlines work.”

From the direction of the house there was a scream. Both men turned away from each other and inclined their ears toward the ghastly sound. There was no way to know if it was animal or human, but it was distressed. That much was certain.

Robert turned back to Danny. “And so it begins. Get your wife and meet me in the foyer. We’ve got a long night ahead of us.”

Chapter 8

by Nancy Canyon

The foyer smelled sweet and putrid at the same time, like death.  Danny had smelled the same smell in some of the crawl spaces he’d bellied under.  Yes, it was usually mice or rats that stunk up old buildings and sewer tunnels, but on occasion he came across the corpse of a small animal, eyes hollow, gums pulled back over snarling teeth, and fur matted with blood, which always scared the hell out of him.  It was in those moments that he often lost his cookies. 

It was the same smell Danny had protected Julia from the awful night they’d finally seen Barbara.  He recalled heading down the hall, his arm wrapping her, shielding her fragility, her tender heart.  They’d seen Julia’s mother, her shriveled skin, the patch of white hair, those terrible green gleaming eyes and knew that something in the doctor’s treatment had gone dangerously wrong. 

Danny’s stomach tightened now, not wanting it to turn on him, so he swallowed repeatedly, forcing the bile to stay put.  And secretly, even though his wife seemed to be familiar with a horrific world he knew nothing of, he wanted to remain strong for her. 

“Danny, the smell,” she said, so weakly.

“It’s okay, dear.  Here,” he said and handed her his clean handkerchief to cover her nose.

Poor Julia had experienced enough stress since that awful visit to put someone in a mental hospital.  One thing he could say for her; however, was that she was sturdier than her waifish demeanor appeared.  He turned to her in the dim light, squeezing her hand more tightly…partially so as to not let go of her inside the eerie and possibly life-threatening Barbara Villa, but also, and this was hard for him to admit, he’d feel more secure himself.  She looked up at him, eyes wide, the kerchief pressed over her nose and mouth.

“Where’s Robert?” he whispered.  “We left the greenhouse at the same time.  Maybe he’ll be coming in through back entrance?”

“I don’t know,” Julia mumbled, her voice so childlike beneath the cloth that Danny wanted to forget it all.  He wanted to turn around and take her home, no not to their home, but to his Uncle’s.  He realized what he really wanted to do was get in the car and drive and drive and drive until they were far away from all of this.  They could be across state, to his Uncle’s house in Spokane in a little over four hours.  They could rest in the upstairs bedroom with the dormer and the mullioned windows looking out on snowy Manito Park.  Yes, they’d sleep soundly under eiderdown, wrapped in each other’s arms, the smell and visions of all this wretchedness far from their dreaming minds.

“Eeeewwwaaaeeech,” the sound was sudden and piercing.  Danny jumped, nearly stumbling into a pillar. Julia dropped to a squat, throwing her arms around his legs like a child. 

“Danny,” she shrieked.

“What the fuck…” Danny said, looking up just as the black shape struck him, knocking him backwards.  There was no way he could step back to keep himself from falling as Julia’s arms hugged his legs too tightly to allow any movement. 

The flying creature swooped again and despite his flailing arms reaching for the pillar, Danny’s great bulk hit hard on the marble floor, his hip, the same hip he’d injured in the crawlspace accident while inspecting a house built on a burial ground.  The stop-order he’d placed wasn’t necessary, as the ancestors rose up, taking things into their own hands before any violation could be filed. 

“Danny, oh my god,” Julia screamed. “Are you hurt?” 

Groaning, Danny surveyed the dim foyer.  He saw the shadowy wings, great in their size, much larger than he’d expect of a bat…flying toward them.  “Lookout,” he yelled, throwing his arms around Julia, protecting her, he thought, from the final attack.  But as he moved, he realized she was limp in his arms…and still his legs were bound. 

“Dammit, Julia,” he hissed, “let go of me.”  He reached down, trying to loosen her arms.  At the same time, the bat was nearly upon him again.  Letting go of Julia, he flung his fisted hands overhead, making impact, slugging the giant creature, hearing the sickening crunch as his fist struck its skull.  The animal tumbled off to his left, landing slightly behind him.  Scooting forward, he forced Julia’s arms from his legs.  She’d passed out, he guessed, and though she was a petite woman, he could barely budge her.  It was as though rigor mortis had set in. 

“Julia, darling,” he called, shaking her gently.  “We’ve got to hide.  Julia!  Goddamnit, not again.”

And then he heard it, the awful scream that had called them to this hell hole in the first place.  And in the background, barking dogs.  The sickening smell grew stronger, seeping through the dim light, trailing along a smoky yellow haze, swirling around them. Danny started to cough, covering his mouth at what he described to himself as the smell of urine or blood or a septic wound.  Some foul things bothered him terribly, ever since he was a young man and had worked in the chicken plant.  Guano.   

“Julia,” he cried, his heart thwacking inside his chest like a cleaver.  They had to get up from the floor.  A scratching sound came from behind him.  He turned quickly, seeing nothing.  Where the hell’s that pervert, he wondered.  “Robert….” he yelled. 

He thought he heard footsteps coming from down the hall.  Momentarily, his heart lightened. 

“Daaaannnnny.” His name cut through the air, riding the noxious scent, hissing near his right ear in a pitch that felt obscene.  Then a flash of light and blackness.  

* * *

Danny’s  head ached, the back of it that is.  He turned slightly.  There was a lump as large as the apple he’d eaten earlier, centered on his occiput.  His stomach growled.  That’s all he’d eaten and suddenly he felt the hollowness in his stomach aching as well.  He ached in other places too.   His fingers hurt.  Not in a bad way, but as if they’d been asleep.  And his hip.  And his cock. 

Where was Julia?  He needed her.  He wanted to make love to her.  He wanted to feel safe in her arms.  He wanted it worse than anything.   “Julia, darling?  Julia?”

He was cold.  Where was the eiderdown cover, the soft mattress, the cozy room overlooking the park and the snowy night in Spokane?  Had he dreamed it? They could be there in no time at all.  Or maybe he was there.  He opened his eyes.  Everything was dark.  All he had to do is get up…go to the window, pull back the curtains and look out at the snowy park, glowing in moonlight.     

He started to weep.  Where was he?  “Jules?  Sweetheart?”

He was lying on a cold, hard surface, and the room smelled strange, like animal fur, a rat nest, mold.  He was reduced to blubbering, big Danny O’Shae crying until snot ran out of his nose.  He reached his hand to wipe it away, but a band bit into his flesh.  He jerked hard, but the leather didn’t budge.  Then he checked the other wrist, also tethered.  Jerking his fists in a fit of rage, he went from blubbering child to enraged, Danny O’Shae, building inspector, weight lifter, ex-football player…. He couldn’t budge. 

“Danny?”

“Julia, thank God.”

“Where are we?” she said.  “I just felt something.  Oh my god, get it off of me.  Get it off.”

“Julia, I can’t move.”

“Get it off, Danny.”

“My wrists are tied, darling.  It’ll be all right!”

Julia screamed.  “Oh, oh, oh….it’s gone now.  I’m okay.  I’m okay.”

“I think you’re close.  Are your wrist’s tied?”

“Yes, Danny,” she whimpered.  “I’m so sorry.  This is all my fault.  I’m a failure.  As a daughter and as a wife.  If I’m not dead soon, I’ll kill myself.  It’s the stars.  I’m jinxed.  Forever jinxed.”

“Darling, don’t say that,” Danny said, wanting to weep again. He controlled the urge this time, sniffing loudly.  “Where are we? Do you know this place?  It smells like a basement…a wine cellar perhaps?”

“It’s the cellar yes, where Mother keeps her expensive vintages.”

Danny wiggled his fingers, felt the edge of a knot.  He fussed at it, remembering the dogs barking.  Maybe that is what he smelled.  A kennel.  They’d locked the dogs in the darkest bowels of Barbara Villa that night.  And now they’d been replaced.

“Danny, I think I wet myself,” Julia said.  “Oh, I’m so embarrassed.”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Danny said.  He could feel the knot loosening in the palm of his hand. 

“What was that thing, the thing that swooped down on us?”

“I couldn’t see well…but I think it was a giant bat.”

Julia whimpered.  “I must have passed out.  I dreamed of animals.  All kinds of animals.  They were crawling everywhere.  All over me, biting me terribly.”

“You did that trance thing again.”  Danny got one hand free…and reached to loosen the restraint from the other.  “This table’s so cold.  And rough.  We’re laid out on stone.  Oh my god…this is a….”

* * *

All Robert ever wanted was to get back at Barbara for taking away his beautiful Julia.  Yes, he had his little “problem” with the sight of blood, but it never compromised his ability to make a face more beautiful, to make it better than right for this wretched world.  He had the ability to take wretchedness and make a god from a wreck of a person, a god who could rise up and be more than he or she could ever imagine being. 

Now he was alone with her, the witch, his former mother-in-law.  And he was in her bed, her foul breath wafting over him like toxic waste.  When he’d first arrived, he’d heard Danny and Julia and was heading toward them when he saw the shadow leave the sick room and flying down the hall into the expansive foyer.  As it flew, the lights dimmed behind it.  Some trickery, he expected, as shadowy light is easier to attack by.  Besides, he knew how it worked with the undead…light meant its demise.  Not ambient light, not the light of a candle, say, but bright light.  That’s what he needed now.  A light as bright as day, as bright as the lights he used for surgery. 

But it all happened sooner than he expected; far sooner. He sneaked into her room to find the floodlight he knew was kept in the closet.  The doctor used it to mix his potions.  The huge closet was a makeshift laboratory.  Elliot Troutman had confided in him when Julia and he were still together.  They, the doctor and his nurse, were working on a remedy for poor Barbara’s condition.  No one knew what that condition was…certainly not Julia.  Now they’re gone.  Fired, but for what reason?  Robert wondered if they knew what they were really dealing with?  He wondered if they realized the only remedy for Barbara’s condition was a stake through the heart.  Or bright light…which was why he’d been banging around in the closet when he felt the sting. 

He’d slapped his hand over his neck and turned quickly, violently even, thrusting his other fist upwards, catching her under the chin.  She went down, but only momentarily, as her condition bestowed her with the strength of Hercules.  Yes, it came quickly, the foot to the groin, and he was on his knees, whining like a little girl.

All he wanted now was for her to be dead to the world, and to his eyes.  He turned on his side, backing away from her.   If she were to fall into a comatose state where the undead rest, he had a chance of escape.  He knew it wasn’t really sleep and certainly there wasn’t anything restorative about it, as only blood could resuscitate, fuel the creature for all of eternity.  But at least it would quiet her enough that he could make a break for it. 

For now; however, he was lying naked next to Barbara.  He was, for all intents and purposes, her next victim. 

“I love you,” she crooned.  “I always have.  Do you know how it hurt me that you chose Julia over me?”

When hell freezes over, he thought.  “Barbara, love will come to us eventually, but right now, we need to help Julia.  She’s infected with something…the plant, or maybe something inherited.  You have a heart…I know you do.  You alone can save her.”

“Shut up,” Barbara ordered. She levitated off the bed, her fangs popping out, growing is size and dripping affluent. “I want to savor this moment.  I have Adonis in my bed.  I mean to stretch our time together into eternity.”

“No, Barbara.  No….”

“Didn’t you feel the prick?”

Robert reached a hand to the back of his neck.  Two tender welts marred his perfect hairline.  “My god, Barbara.  I thought…”

2294 words

Chapter 9

Barbara, married to Gordon.

Daughter Julia. Star scars on cheek in crescent. Botched plastic surgery.

Barbara 40+ when Julia was born. Julia is 36.

Villa Barbara, east of Seattle.

Humane Society donor, turned off electric fence. Put up barbed wire.

Tropical arboretum, three stories.

Toshi Yamashita, master botanist, fired in January. No reaction, made her mad.

Since then, added animals and birds. Hired two zookeepers at high salaries.

Attorney Elliott Troutman, 40 years, since before Julia’s birth.

Tells her to bring back Yamashita. He returns, hires own staff, all high salaries.

ET hates to tell Julia that mom refuses to see her.

Julia married to second husband, Danny O’Shea. Building inspector. Big man, easygoing.

Julia firm jaw, weak mouth, fleshy. Preschool teacher.

Dogs. Yelping and occasional screams.

Danny hates Barbara and her willingness to die without seeing Julia.

Dr. Fogarty, fired at 8:10pm. His nurse, Ingrid Muhl.

Dongs to kennel in Bellevue. Now in bed with Barbara.

Dr. Robert Shore, Julia’s first husband, plastic surgeon.

Gorgon comes out with leashed dogs.

2: Danny did two tours in Afghanistan.

Danny doesn’t believe Barbara is dying, based on his experiences.

Eyes not blue, but now yellow-green.

Five dogs taken downstairs to wine cellar.

Smell of decay from the bedroom.

Fogarty and Ingrid argue privately in another room.

Plants in arboretum are growing too fast. Odor from bedroom is here as well.

Danny helps Julia into the car. He sees Yamashita looking up at Barbara’s room.

Barbara stares down from the second-story room.

3: Julia has a seizure, howling.

Yamashita sends word to Barbara that “it is time.” Yori, Katsu are twins.

Big flower’s petals cradle Julia’s scalp. Julia calms down.

Leaves reach into her birth marks and into her skull. She screams.

Dogs: Orchid, Thunder, Ibis, Basilisk, Rhone.

4: Danny drives Julia home. Flashback to meeting Barbara.

5: More flashback, to Julia’s first marriage and surgeries.

Barbara’s house built on Tulalip tribal land.

Dr. Shore has a vision of animals during surgery on Julia.

Dr. Shore sends Julia home, abandons her after surgery.

Julia sleepwalks and eats grass. Mice attack Barbara, but it’s a vision.

Barbara wants Julia removed from the house.

6: Flashback of sleepwalking.

Barbara in Julia’s nightmare, her mouth sealed shut and dark-red.

Julia tried to call Grandpa Pete, who has been dead for years.

Light bulb explodes, Julia’s eyes are white.

7: Julia may be haunted by something in Barbara’s house.

Danny calls Dr. Shore.

Julia walks “as if her soul has departed from her body.”

Danny takes Julia to meet Dr. Shore at the villa.

At the greenhouse, Julia sees an old man.

One of the zookeepers was killed by an animal or by the dead man, Peter Zecula.

Robert Shore says he’s been undead for decades.

No way to call with no cell service.

8: Danny and Julia go to the house.

A black shape, like a huge bat, strikes Danny, and he falls.

Julia goes unconscious. The scream recurs, and the smell worsens.

The dogs start barking. Danny hears footsteps and is knocked out.

Danny wakes alone, with a lump on his head, confused.

Danny and Julia are tied to a cold, hard surface in the wine cellar.

Julia dreamt of animals biting her.

Probably tied to the surface of a vault.

Robert looks for a floodlight in Barbara’s closet.

Barbara bites Robert, and he is now in bed with her.

Barbara was of two minds, and she had no idea if anyone knew it.

Of course, Thunder knew. Thunder was the alpha bitch.

Barbara had gotten what she wanted, an exotic dog that no one else could match. Gordon had paid to have Thunder shipped from Romania, via East Germany, via West Germany. He had paid dearly, as it turned out.

From the moment Thunder arrived, looking like a miniature greyhound with a poodle’s tail and a wolverine’s teeth, Gordon had stayed as far from Thunder as he could. His skittishness around the admittedly twitchy dog amused Barbara’s cruel side at first, but when she saw how Thunder looked at Gordon, with her enormous black eyes sucking in light and energy, even Barbara felt pity for him. At times, she thought Thunder was sucking Gordon into those glittering onyx orbs.

The day Barbara woke to find Gordon lying cold and lifeless beside her was the first day she found Thunder lying even closer to her, between the widow and the corpse, looking smug. What did you do? Barbara almost asked, before she caught herself. There was no blood, no physical trauma. The autopsy showed that Gordon had had a tremendous stroke, one that essentially liquefied part of his brain.

When Gordon started coming to her in dreams, urging her to import companions for Thunder, she began to doubt her sanity. Basilisk’s arrival calmed down Thunder and made Barbara worry less about her choice in canines. But when she found her father dead in his bed down the hall, Basilisk lay beside Pete, and it wasn’t long until Pete came to her in dreams and told her she needed three more dogs to complete “the work.”

The work. What did that mean?

She thought she could rid herself of the Pete nightmares when Thunder whelped, but she produced only two pups, Rhone and Ibis. When she could leave her babies for a few minutes, Thunder began to wander the house, as if in search of the missing third pup. That was when Barbara really began to wonder what she had done to herself—and perhaps to her daughter, who did matter to her, pitiful as she was.

Barbara thought four dogs were enough, so she ignored Pete and Gordon when they came to her in dreams and ordered her to obtain the fifth pet. But when she started waking to find Ibis staring at her with eyes as black as Thunder’s, she got jittery. She heard, over and over, a female voice, whispering:

Un caine mai mult. Un caine mai mult. Night after night, in a voice that had to belong to Ibis. Speaking a dog language? Barbara made an attempt to transcribe what she had heard, and she took it to a linguist at the University of Washington.

“Did you read this in a book?” she asked.

“I heard it on the radio.”

The linguist asked for a few minutes to call a colleague, and after the two of them made allowances for possible phonetic spelling, the linguist returned to Barbara.

“The best we can figure out would be a Romanian phrase, but it doesn’t mean much. You’ll be disappointed.”

Barbara was not used to disappointment, and she prepared to berate the so-called expert.

“We think it’s Romanian for ‘one more dog.’”

Barbara surprised herself and the professor by running from the office, screaming.

As soon as she reached Villa Barbara, she found the contact information for the breeder from whom she had bought Thunder and Basilisk. At the time, he had been a go-between for Communist Bloc breeders, but now, he freely offered contact information for his Romanian source.

“It is best that you buy from him direct,” the German said. “I am not fond of that breed now.”

And so, to end her nightmares, she brought over Orchid.

To end her nightmares.

It took Barbara a few months to realize that she was missing a lot of time. She would wake up in the morning, already making breakfast, then visit the Arboretum, with her belly full but her mind empty of memories regarding her meal. She would be asked if she really wanted to do what she had ordered her staff to do, chiefly by Toshi Yamashita, when she was in the greenhouse, or by Elliott, when she was in the villa. Assuming that she knew what she was doing, she always affirmed her prior orders.

When Julia was in her twenties, Barbara realized something about her five dogs. She had bought Thunder and Basilisk before Gordon’s death, when Julia was a child. And the dogs were still young, nearly twenty years later.

Certainly, white dogs wouldn’t go gray, but how had Barbara not noticed their failure to age? The blackouts she hid from Julia, Robert, Elliott, and especially Dr. Fogarty might have diminished her faculties enough to keep her from noticing the dogs’ long-lasting youth, but none of the others had remarked upon it, either. That was when Barbara, the real Barbara, knew they were all screwed. It was also when she did what was best for Julia and sent her away, to where the dogs couldn’t reach her. Even so, tales of Julia’s nocturnal wanderings showed that one of the animals, probably Orchid, was getting into Julia’s mind. Just as Thunder had taken out Gordon, and Basilisk had done in Pete, Julia was doomed without intervention during Barbara’s lucid spells.

How odd that the few moments when she seemed the cruelest were the only times that she could finally express her love for her daughter.

* * *

The previous evening, Barbara had awakened to find her doctor and nurse gone, a few of the aides fluttering about, and the dogs blessedly absent for the first time in a decade or more. The next thing she knew, she was looking down at Toshi, standing near the greenhouse, who seemed to be giving her a knowing look.

And now, she was in bed with Robert, Julia’s ex! What had possessed him to try to seduce her? And then, Gordon told her to sleep, and she knew blackness again.

* * *

Once Danny got his feet untethered, he was able to creep over to Julia and untie her bonds. He had trouble walking after having his ankles bound so tightly, and Julia was even slower to regain her footing. Danny’s head pounded from the blows that had knocked him cold, first from the huge bat, and then . . . from someone else.

“Robert was supposed to meet us,” Danny said. “Do you think he tied us up?”

Julia gave a horrified gasp. “Danny, no! I know he means well. I don’t know what he thinks is happening, but as weird as he is about his art, he’s being honest with us.”

“Then let’s find him. Whoever tied us up may have him, too.”

Danny felt his way past what could only be the lid to a stone burial vault, one equipped with a restraint system. He’d never been in the wine cellar, thanks to his refusal to kiss his mother-in-law’s ass by running down for a bottle, but had the cellar been set up as a torture chamber? Surely, Julia would have been aware of it.

He could still smell urine on Julia’s person, but the odors of dog and damp faded when they made their way quietly up the stairs. When they reached the main level, the dogs began their high-pitched yipping. Danny hated those animals more than he thought he could hate anything, even the creatures he found under houses he was inspecting. He didn’t know why he found them more than simply annoying, like other yippy dogs, but perhaps it was Barbara’s horrid aura that made perfectly innocent dogs seem to be monsters.

“Maybe I should have come up here alone,” he whispered to Julia. She clutched his arm in reply. “You would have been safer in the cellar,” he continued.

“No.”

They had to reach the second floor. Someone had turned out all of the hall lights; perhaps the Gorgons had left Barbara alone, possibly to die, and gone to bed. Maybe the person who had cold-cocked him and tied them up was lurking and waiting to repeat the process.

Danny stepped over to the wall to minimize the chances of an attack. Julia followed him closely, her breath sweet but hot on his neck. Up the stairs, one slow step at a time, treading gently to avoid any creaks. The first landing, more steps, and finally, the second floor.

Danny put out his hand to stop Julia and found her breast, rather than her arm. She giggled, and he heard her clap her hand over her mouth. He had to fight a chuckle himself, despite the fear coursing through him.

He had to think about the floor plan. If they stayed to the right and passed two doors, the would be facing Barbara’s master suite, where they had seen the dogs exit the room before they went to the Arboretum and Julia had her seizure.

One door, two doors . . . and Danny stepped slowly across the hallway. He put his ear to the door. If he had the room right, he might hear Barbara breathing. And maybe he would hear the silence he longed for.

No, he didn’t hear silence; he heard heavy breathing, and a slurping sound. Suddenly queasy, Danny wondered if the dogs were eating Barbara’s corpse. He turned the doorknob.

It wouldn’t turn. Locked. Damn.

He put more pressure on the knob, and it gave. Not locked, just old. The click seemed to echo in the hallway, but the breathing in the room didn’t stop. He opened the door a crack. He heard Julia tiptoeing up to him a moment too late; he flicked on the light switch, and Julia screamed.

He nearly screamed himself. His breath caught in his throat, and he gagged, thanks to both the smell of the room and what he saw.

Barbara, withered and sagging, sat astride Robert. She was lapping at his throat, her breasts hanging like water balloons over his belly. The only good thing about the scene was the look of disgust on Robert’s face. After just a couple of seconds, Barbara turned and glared at Danny. Her eyes were the catlike greenish yellow he had seen earlier. Then, for a moment, they turned blue.

“What am I doing?” she screamed. “Get Julia out of here!” Her eyes glowed green again, and Danny noticed that she had grown fangs.

Robert used the distraction to roll out from under Barbara. She grabbed at him, but Robert thumped to the floor.

“Get the floodlight from the closet!” he yelled. Danny looked wildly around. The huge closet stood open, and he ran to it.

“Where’s the floodlight? Why?” No matter why, he was going to turn it on. He saw a glint of glass, and he reached up and pulled the floodlight off the shelf. There was no cord; it was battery-operated. Knowing Robert had a plan, Danny turned it toward Barbara, hoping to blind her temporarily.

He pressed the button, and the light blasted the room. Barbara screamed, but before Danny could really focus the light on her, Thunder sprang from beside the bed and latched onto his arm. The lamp fell onto the carpet, still lit, but with the light facing the carpet. A smell of burning wool masked the vile odor of Barbara’s body.

Thunder held his arm, not really trying to rip into him. He heard Julia scream, and she dove for the light. She picked it up and aimed it at her mother, and then Orchid surged from the other side of the bed. Robert tried to grasp her, but although he grabbed one hind leg, she wriggled free and leapt at Julia. The light fell again, still lit, and Robert crawled over and reached for it.

Thunder let go of Danny’s arm and growled at Robert, but Orchid simply sat on Julia’s chest, staring into eyes that had again gone vacant.

Chapter 10

Julie’s blank stare and limp body sent shivers again up Danny’s spine.  Was she possessed by some spirit that seemed to override her senses?  What part did these dogs play in this debacle?

There was little time to contemplate her welfare as the dogs were bristling and baring their teeth.  They looked at Danny with the same green eyes he had seen on Barbara.  Were they the source of this eerie scene?

Robert crawled across the room while Barbara began to shriek.  Soon the dogs took up the sound with loud howls.  They were connected.  Robert reached up to Danny.

“Come away”, he whispered.  “Julia will be alright.”

Danny fought with himself.  How could he leave Julia now?  What would happen to her?  He pulled on her arm, but she did not budge.  The dogs moved closer to her and Orchid gently put her mouth at Julia’s throat. 

“We must leave!”  Robert said desperately.  “You are putting her in danger staying here.”  “I need to tell you something.”

Danny began backing out of the room and Robert, half standing, limped behind him.  As they reached the hallway, the howling and shrieking ceased.  Orchid moved back from Julia’s throat and sat attentively watching the men in the hall.

“What was so important that I had to leave my wife with those beasts?” Danny asked insistently.

Robert’s voice dropped to a whisper.  “Not here, you idiot.”

They backed down the hallway to the foyer. 

“Julia is clairvoyant.” he stammered  “Those dogs have been controlling her for weeks.

Danny scoffed.  “Julia has ESP?”

“Yes, and if you would reserve your judgement, you would realize that it explains many things.” Robert replied confidently.

“So, you don’t know this for sure.”  “You are guessing.” Danny said blandly.

“It is a pretty good guess, if you ask me.”  “I think Barbara has the same problem.”  Robert said pointing to the room.

“Where did these dogs come from?”  Danny inquired.

“That is just the thing, I think Elliot’s behind all this.”  Robert replied.

“Elliot, that stuffed shirt?”  “He only does what Barbara demands.” Danny sneered.

Suddenly, there was the sound of flapping wings.  “Run, Danny, Run!”  Robert shouted.

*****************

Out in the arboretum, Toshi Yamashita continued with his preparations.  He had collected roots and other plant parts and had them stewing in a pot.  The same putrid fragrance that had emanated from Barbara’s room filled the building.  Mr. Elliot had given him specific times and phases of the moon.  This made perfect sense to Toshi, as this is how it had been done for thousands of years in his country.  Dr. Fogarty had resisted the use of this concoction on Barbara and had been fired for it.  Now, nothing stood in his way in preparing it.  One more ingredient to add, which Mr. Elliot knew nothing about, Wolf bane.

Outside the glass building, Danny hid from whatever it was that Robert saw.  It must be that bat thing.  How did it fit in with all of this mess?  He peered through the fogging glass.  He wiped the glass carefully as not to alert anyone who might be inside.  He saw Yamashita bent over a large pot on a makeshift stove.  What is he upped to? he thought.  The stench he had become so familiar with, waffed out under the door.  Somehow, Yamashita was involved in all this.  Danny burst through the door and caught Yamashita by surprise.

“What in the hell are you doing?” Danny shouted.

Yamashita drew himself up as tall as he could manage.

“I am trying to help.” He said flatly.

“Help?” “How?”  Danny demanded.

“I am trying to protect Julia from the influence of those dogs.” Yamashita replied.

“Well, how does that concoction help?” Danny asked more quietly.

“It is a recipe that Mr. Elliot gave me.” “It was meant to keep Julia free of the influence of the dogs.”  he said.

“Why doesn’t it work for Barbara , then?”  Danny asked, not really caring about Barbara, but from a sense of curiosity.

“She is too far gone.  That is why I made you bring Julia to the flower of death.”  Yamashita said calmly.

“Flower of death!” Danny shouted.  “Why would you do that?” “Why didn’t you tell me?” he said with an overwhelming sense of dread.

“It spared her, didn’t it?”  “It took the death from her, as it did for Barbara.” Yamishita explained.  “We need to get this to Julia, and spread it over her body.” Yamashita pointing to the door.

“How do I get past the dogs?” Danny inquired.

“You leave that to me.”  Yamishita continued.

 The flapping got louder, as Robert clung to the floor in terror.   A half bat, half man, stood glowering over him.

“What are you?”  Robert asked as the words quivered from his throat and he held his arms up over his face.  The creature did not stir.  Robert began to feel a stabbing pain at the back of his neck, as it descended down his back.  He gasped and grabbed for his back.  A howl sounded from the dogs in Barbara’s room.  Robert felt a throbbing, pulsating mass begin to tear the skin on his back.  Blood dripped down his side, as wings began to stretch forth from the tear.  His skin began to turn black, and glistened with scales.  His thighs doubled in size and his feet broke through his shoes.  Claws clacked on the floor as he stood.  He looked like the mirror image of the creature he had feared.

As the two creatures turned for Barbara’s room, Yamashita entered the front door.  They turned and hissed at him with long snake-like tongues.  Toshi Yamashita stood, unafraid.  He held the Wolf bane out before him and they backed away from him.  Danny stood behind Toshi, like a human shield.  They crept forward in unison and the creatures continued to back away.  Danny noticed the torn clothes and shoes on the floor.

“They ate Robert!” he gasped.

“No!” “That is Robert now.” “We can not help him.” Toshi explained.  “We will deal with that later.”

Down the hall, they crept, one step at a time, while the creatures backed up, hissing as they went.  Eventually, they found themselves at the door.  Now, it was a toss up as to who would leap upon them.  Toshi drew out a vial that glowed green with an other world look.

“Hold this out in front of you, Danny.”  Toshi commanded.

Danny grasped the vial and complied.  Toshi held the creatures at bay.  The dogs whined and cowered and backed away from Danny.  Grabbing Julia with all his strength, Danny was able to pull her from the room.  Toshi and Danny each took an arm with one hand and held out their concoctions with the other.  The creatures and the dogs kept a respectable distance.  As they reached the foyer, Toshi reached in his overalls and produced another vial of the green glowing substance.

“Cover her with this!”  Toshi demanded.

Danny did not hesitate, handing the first vial to Toshi to keep back the danger.  Danny gagged when he opened the vial.  Swallowing hard, he began smearing the contents of the vial over Julia’s body.  Nothing happened.  Danny sat down hard.

“Are we too late?” he asked with tears welling up in his eyes.

“Be patient,” Toshi replied, “it takes time.

Finally, Julia’s eyes began to flutter and they looked normal.  She stared up, and then, suddenly sat up.

“Take it easy, now” Danny quietly cautioned.

“What is going on with all the animals?” she asked

“You mean the dogs and the bat people?” Danny asked.

“No,” she replied with a quizzical look on her face.  “I mean the dead animals that have been talking to me.”

“What?” Danny looked bewildered.

“We don’t have time to talk about that now,” Toshi urged.

  “Quickly, we must get out of this house!”

************

Coming up the driveway was Elliot, Dr. Fogarty, and Ingrid.  The headlights flashed across the front of the house.  Elliot gasped as he saw Toshi and Danny carrying Julia from the house. 

“What is he upped to?”  “That little Jap!”  Elliot spat out the question between clenched teeth.  “We need to stop him.”

“What are you talking about?” Dr. Fogarty demanded.

“That Jap is trying to undo everything!”  Elliot shouted.

Out at the fence, there were animals gathering.  They pushed on the fence, and it nearly caved.  A tall dark figure hovered beside them.  He was covered in buckskin and beads.  His feet did not touch the ground.  He urged the animals on.  At that moment, the first rays of dawn broke over the surrounding hills, and he vaporized.  The animals ceased and began slowly to recede into the trees.  Julia gasped.  “The animals.”

Chapter 11

Daylight came on strong this day, changing everything. Even Danny, confused and frightened as he was, felt a sense of beginning, of renewal. The arboretum glowed as the sun rose, filtered through leaves from plants ripped from gardens, jungles, and laboratories across the world. The small group gathered outside Villa Barbara stood stunned by the beauty. The entire arboretum shone like a decorative prism, throwing off light and hope, and as they approached each other, they noticed the gray tones of early morning turning warm on the faces of everyone, save Elliott. Elliott was a man confined to gray; gray suit, gray eyes, gray skin, and a sobering voice. He had always been both serious and subdued. He had always seemed the perfect advisor, content to stay in the background, to watch over Barbara and the villa, quietly and competently, if a touch pompous when pushed. The thing was, he was rarely pushed. Not by people as ordinary as these.

Now, Elliott had Dr. Fogarty all over him, actually pulling at his suit coat, demanding in his overblown British accent to know what Elliott had meant by his outburst in the car. He’d made a mistake, one of few he could remember. He’d panicked and there was no room for it. Everything depended on remaining calm. These people must trust him, as Barbara always had. They must lean on him. And most importantly, not on Yamashita. Yamashita was a tool, gifted, sure, but perhaps more unstable than he’d thought. Elliott shook off Fogarty’s hand. “Really, Dr. Fogarty, have you forgotten your manners?” He turned to Julia and Danny and smiled his best, I can see you’ve been through a great ordeal and I’m here to help smile. “Julia. Danny. I’m so glad to see you’re both alright. We heard terrible things were happening here. We were all worried, of course.” He gestured to the doctor and his stolid, severe nurse, making it awkward for them to distance themselves from Troutman as they’d have to argue the fact that they cared, that they were worried too. Nurse Muhl shook her head, but she looked more judgmental than confused. She couldn’t help it; she just had one of those faces. Even in the rich yellow light of one of the prettiest mornings they’d had in months, she looked flat, like she’d been peeled out of a coloring book before she was finished being created.

Danny puffed out his chest and scowled. “We’re not okay, Troutman, not by a mile.” He pulled Julia closer. “You have no idea what we’ve been through in there.” He looked to Yamashita for support but couldn’t find him. The man had a knack for disappearing, like, sure, here I am with a potion that will save your wife’s life and now, poof, gone, you’re on your own. Perfect, thought Danny. He knew they weren’t really safe anywhere, but he sure as hell believed they had a better chance away from the villa, now more than ever. There were . . . he almost couldn’t form the thought. There were creatures. Julia had said animals just before the sun came up, but she was wrong. Back in the house, what he’d seen, they weren’t animals. Or people. They were evil. He wasn’t a taxonomist or an anthropologist, but he knew enough to know true evil when he saw it. The green of Barbara’s eyes. The odor of decay in that house.

Troutman nodded and tried another smile. “Okay, okay, I understand, Danny. I didn’t mean to upset you. Now, I need to know how Barbara is. Julia, I’m sure you want to know your mother is okay, don’t you? You’ve always been so loyal to her.”

“Of course I do,” Julia shouted, and then gulped. “Sorry. I don’t know why I yelled at you. I’m not myself.”

She didn’t know the half of it, of course. Elliott longed to sit down on the grass, albeit still damp and him in his worsted wool, and talk about being human and the forces that control each of us, the things beyond our understanding. He felt a need to connect to Julia, something new, beyond his desire to protect her all these years even though he knew he was the worst possible person for the job. Still, he cared. Maybe she could understand? Forgive?

He looked at Danny, who was unusually quiet and obviously thinking hard, straining his pedestrian brain, Elliott thought smugly. No wrapping your head around this one, Danny O’Shea. Better off trying to find the truth in the bottom of a beer, or was it whiskey? Irish, maybe both. “Danny, what can you tell me about Barbara? Please. We’re all concerned.”

The laugh Danny let slip had a bit of the devil to it, and warmed Elliott’s stunted heart. He wasn’t alone after all. Even normal, decent people like Danny fell prey to the forces here, didn’t they? Eventually, they’d all fall. Even Yamashita, who’d gotten away once before, and against all reason come back. Even he would fall.

Just then the sound of a pack of dogs howling cut through the chatter and the sounds of Danny’s and Troutman’s feet on gravel, shifting as they all tried to take the measure of one another and to understand if, and how, they could leave this place behind. Everyone froze, then looked to the house.

“The dogs,” whispered Julia. She reached for her temple with one hand and screamed.

Dr. Fogarty rushed to her side. “Julia? What is it?”

Danny shook her a little too roughly, but hell, did he have a choice? “Stay with me, Julia. Stay here.” He looked at the doctor. “She goes . . . away sometimes. Like a seizure. A trance. Fuck . . . I don’t know what it is. I have to get her out of here.”

Elliott shouted, “No,” and Julia jumped, startled. Elliott recovered. “You can’t go. What about Barbara? We can’t leave her.”

One of the dogs barked, high and afraid, and then the howling again, as if they didn’t realize the moon had gone. Elliott knew he should go to them. He felt the need to be closer to the Gorgons, to the Center, the thing he could never explain, felt it like a gnawing pain, making it so, so difficult to continue this polite conversation, though he’d been doing this dance for most of his life, one foot in the normal world, one tethered to a force he was powerless to refuse. And Barbara? He cared, in his way, about her. He didn’t want any of them to suffer more than they must. But it wasn’t up to him, was it? His was to keep them all close. Julia had to stay. Danny could go, sure, but he wouldn’t. Like all foolish men who give their hearts away, he’d stay with Julia, even though he must know what she’d become. He’d seen glimpses. He had to know.

It was Danny who finally spoke. “Barbara’s dead. There’s no point trying to help her now.”

“No, Danny, that’s not true. Tell the truth, Danny. You always have to tell the truth.” Julia was shaking, her voice full of fear and reproach, like she was talking to one of her preschoolers. “Mother is not dead. She’s just not well. We need Toshi. Hurry.” She was coming to life now. “Hurry. We have to help her.”

“No, Julia. Listen to me. We can’t help her. We have to get away from here.” Danny felt more afraid looking into Julia’s determined, reckless eyes than he had in the house. “Julia. Please. I’m begging you.”

“I can’t go.”

Elliott sighed, coughed.

Danny hissed in his direction, “Troutman, you miserable prick. Barbara told me to get her out of here. Julia, remember? No, maybe not. But she did. She didn’t want you to see her like that.”

“I can’t go,” Julia repeated quietly. She stared toward the fence, where the animals had been, and slowly sat down, spreading her hands out on a tuft of moss growing between the flagstone pavers of the entry garden.

The dogs howled. There was the sound of glass breaking somewhere inside the mansion, though it wasn’t necessarily alarming to Julia or Danny or Elliott. Fogarty and Muhl, however, were visibly alarmed. The doctor said, “Julia, I think you should listen to your husband. Run along home. I’ll send for a colleague to see about your mother, I promise.”

“You shouldn’t lie to people, Dr. Fogarty.” Julia was back in the classroom, her voice edged with something sharp, pain, or was it rage?

“No, quite right. Of course not. It’s just that your mother made it clear she won’t have me see her any longer. I can’t say any more than that.”

“Then you should go.”

Elliott was trying to decide what to say when the first drops of a decidedly unpleasant rain began to fall. This was no Seattle mist, this was rain that demanded shelter. The doctor and his nurse headed for the car, but they’d never make it down the drive. Water pooled, mud churned, branches began to fall. The others ran to the arboretum because it was warm and full of light and it wasn’t the house. Inside, they found Yamashita, poring over the contents of an old text. He didn’t look up.

Elliott felt a brief moment of peace, a reward of sorts, he understood, for keeping them all close, and then he heard the scratching of the dogs’ nails against the arboretum door. Would they find their way in? Would they punish him? He looked at Yamashita, at his folly, this trying to understand, to know, and felt quite sad, in his way. “Toshi,” he said, “Don’t you have something to offer us to drink? We’re cold and soaked through.”

Yamashita stood gracefully and nodded. “Of course. My apologies. Coffee is this way.”

Danny, Julia and Elliott followed him deeper into the arboretum as if everything would be fine with a cup of coffee in hand. But none of them could ignore the lingering scent of the potion still bubbling on a small burner nearby, nor the crashing of the dogs’ sleek bodies into the door, again and again, followed by yelping, scratching, and renewed assaults. They were coming, the animals, the creatures, and more. It was all happening, finally, Elliott thought. A reckoning, a rightening. Justice. Punishment. They would all know soon enough why they were here. But for now, they would drink coffee because in Seattle, in the rain, and especially in the morning, this is what people did. They shared something, anything. Coffee, wolf’s bane, blood, fear. Elliott reminded himself not to feel so much. It just didn’t pay.

Chapter 12

They sat at the teak wood table in uncomfortable silence, all except for Yoshi. He sat in resolute silence, or stoic peace – however one would sit if one were a tiny Japanese man certain of his fate. There was nothing about him that gave this away but it was clear all the same.

Outside dogs growled and smashed themselves at the walls. The rain beat the glass roof angrily and the wind whipped through the trees with unaccountable vengeance.

“Mr. Yamashita,” said Danny, draining his coffee mug. “This is all very nice and cozy but we need answers. What the hell is going on?”

Yoshi did not glance at Elliott. It was not necessary. “The outside wants in,” he said.

Lightening cracked through the sky, illuminating everything with cold white light. Miss Julia ducked her head as Danny grabbed her into his arms then the thunder came.  It ripped through the air around them, shaking the foundation and making the world stop. In the wake of the deafening roar, the dogs cut off their barking and slavering. Even the wind conspired to blow the rain in a different direction, and for a heartbeat, everything was quiet.

Elliott did not move a muscle. Neither did Yoshi.

Then the sound of rain poured back into the world and everyone breathed out.

“That’d be one way to put it,” said Danny. His voice was the practiced sarcasm of middle class and Yoshi appreciated it greatly. He had respect for this man. If anyone were to survive this day, it would be him. He would see things set right for Miss Julia.

“I think I need to find my mother,” said Julia. Elliott didn’t even blink. Yoshi felt the injustice of that. No emotion. Nothing left to manipulate.

 “You may certainly go and find Miss Eubank but I will stay here for now. There is nothing out there for me,” said Yoshi.

 “Are you for fucking real?” Danny hadn’t shouted but Julia flinched all the same. She turned her head to her lap and kept it there. “My wife and I are not going out there. Fuck Barbara. If she’s not dead, she should be. I don’t know what the hell she is but she ain’t alive. And even if she was alive, she’s done nothing but hate Julia since the day I’ve met her. I’m not helping that bitch out for love or money. I don’t care if she’s got money coming out her asshole, I don’t need it and we don’t need this shit. In all the time I’ve known her, she’s never let Julia be at peace.”

“That’s not true—“

“Jules, I love you but I can’t let you make excuses for her anymore. I always knew she was a horrible beast but you didn’t see what I saw back there. She wants you dead Jules. She wants you more than dead. I am sure of it. We need to get out of here.”

Danny stood up suddenly, knocking the table with his hip. “Look, we can probably make it to the car if we run. I don’t see the dogs anywhere.”

Yoshi knew what he had to do but it pained him all the same.

“No Mister Danny,” he said. “You cannot leave. There is nothing out there for you either. We are protected here.”

At the last sentence, Elliott’s eyebrow raised up in a disapproving arch.

“What do you mean by that?” said Danny.

“He doesn’t mean anything,” said Elliott quickly. “Yoshi is full of tales from the motherland or the homeland or Green Gaia or whatever the hell it is he worships in that stupid little temple garden. Julia is right, if the dogs are gone we can probably make a run for the house. Maybe we can find her.”

“You are fucking nuts. I’m not going after that, whatever it is. If we can run anywhere, we’re running to the god-damned car.”

It is my mother,” said Julia. Her voice was small and hard but she was still looking down into her lap and Danny did not notice. Yoshi did though. He knew what would happen next. In his mind, he started chanting the prayer poem he had learned as a child. Outside, sheets of rain, dark and sinister, bruised the landscape, stomping out whatever daylight was left.

“It’s not your mother Babe, it’s some fucking monster. We can’t go help her. She’s gonna kill us.”

Julia lifted her head and looked directly at Danny. Her eyes were vacant slits of white.

“She wouldn’t dare.” The voice coming from Julia’s mouth was not her own. It was old and tired and very very angry.

Yoshi’s reflexes were quicker than most men his age. He jumped up, and stood in front of Julia, blocking her from leaving the table.

“Miss Julia, your husband is right.” He said. “We must not leave. We are protected here.”

You are protected here Mr. Yamashita. You have always been protected here. But you will not be for long. The stink of death is everywhere now.” She stared at them all with empty eyes. “I will not hide any longer. They will recognize me or perish.”

She stepped around Yoshi and walked to the door.

“Don’t let her go out there you stupid man!” cried Elliott. “She’s going to ruin everything!”

“Of course she will. She is meant to.”

Danny, stunned into inaction at his wife’s change of heart, shook his head and regained control of his emotions. “Jules, you can’t go out there, You can’t face that thing. He held tightly to her arm so that she couldn’t open the door.

Behind them, Elliott puffed out a great breath of air, exasperated with the gardener. “You fool! You set this up, didn’t you? You got everything you asked for, you got the employees you got the money you even got the stupid iron pot you needed so damn bad. But you couldn’t stop this, could you? You knew that before you came back, didn’t you? Why did you come back then?”

“The same reason you did not leave Mr. Elliott. I came back to see it through to the end. This is wrong. All of it. You think you are creating immortality for a grand patroness. But all you are creating is abomination. Miss Julia deserves to know the truth. Can you give that to her?

Elliott did not meet the man’s eyes. “You were supposed to keep it contained. I have paid you handsomely because you said you could do that. She is the only thing they ever wanted. Once they have her, it will be over. They will show no mercy to us.”

“Mr. Elliott, the only one here I see with without mercy is you. Let her finish this. It is hers to finish. It may mean death. But if we are very lucky, it will be quick.”

Outside, another great bolt of lightning shook the sky. In the brilliant light, Danny saw the outlined in the storm, waiting patiently in front of the arboretum. Farther off, toward the back of the property, he thought he saw something else. He was trying to decide what it was, or if he had imagined it when Julia turned her vacant eyes on him one last time.

‘I love you Danny,” she said this time, in her own voice. Then she slipped her arm free and stepped out into the storm before he could stop her.

The dog Danny knew as Orchid, allowed Julia to move freely past her but as soon as Danny took a step in her direction, she lunged at him with needle-like teeth. He kicked out at her, avoiding her teeth by a split second, and fell back into the doorway. As soon as he was over the threshold, the dog stopped her attack.

“Wait Julia! You need me!” Elliott turned and ran out the door after her. Danny turned away, not wanting to see him torn apart. But the dogs did not attack. They growled and snapped but otherwise allowed him to follow Julia as she walked with ghostly steps, down the path to the house.

Danny watched them go, frantic with fear. “What do I do? Yoshi, what do I do?

“We cannot do anything for her now, Mister Danny. We can only prepare for what will come.”

Danny whirled around at him “I think you better start talking right now.”

“Yes, I think I should.”

By the time Elliott reached the back stairs, his worsted wool was worse for the wear but he didn’t care. Julia would never be able to stand up to the pack. She wasn’t alpha enough. She’d never been able to stand up to her mother before the trouble started, it would be impossible for her now.

 He twisted the back door handle and peeked into the mud room. Foot print shaped puddles led along the floor to the kitchen. He knew they wouldn’t end there.

Tiptoeing, as quietly as was possible in a huge house build from creaking wood, Elliott made his way along the long carpeted hallway to Barbara’s room but stopped halfway, not wanting to get any closer to the pack. They reacted to his presence the way one might react to a fly, irritated but not concerned. Elliott chose to stand in shadows and listen.

 “What have you brought me, dear Elliott?” said the thing. It had dropped the pretense of humanity now. The voice that came out of Barbara’s mouth was shrill and grating.

“Y—Your daughter, my lady,” said Elliott, backing away but the dogs began to growl again and he stopped moving.

“You have very good timing,” said the voice. “I was just about to go looking for you. Come in my child, I am eager to have a look at you.”

From far away, Julia felt her arm reach up and push the door open all the way. Inside the dark the stink of death and decay took on a life of its own but she did not react. Her nose being as vacant as her eyes. She felt her hand move again, this time up to her face where it brushed her hair away from her cheek, displaying a constellation of angry red scars. The thing in her mother’s bed hissed and squirmed uncomfortably.

“Put that away you fool,” it said. “Your birthright means nothing to us.”

“It does to me,” said the vacant eyed Julia and shut the door behind her.

Outside the room, the dogs began to howl.

Chapter 13

Toshi was correct, Julia reminded herself. She possessed a power that the being inside her mother’s body could not overcome. It was a power she had been given at birth, really before her birth, when her cheekbones formed. Her birthright, her destiny. Her responsibility.

She heard the dogs outside react to her bare cheek. They didn’t growl or bark; they howled with pain that faded into a whimper, a sign that they shared the discomfort of the Ibis-being lodged in her mother’s body. It was true, what Grandpa Pete had told her when she was in her trances. “You are your mother’s salvation,” he told her each time he visited. “You will save her from your father’s fate, from my fate. And I will be here to protect you.”

She looked around, as if remembering his words would make him materialize. Basilisk, as clever a dog as he was, would not be able to use the part of Grandpa Pete’s brain to prevail over the rest of him. When Grandpa Pete came back, revived enough to fight on her behalf, they would find the way to eradicate the beings Mom had unwittingly brought onto the grounds of Villa Barbara.

For now, she had to divide before they could conquer. The dogs didn’t dare approach her, and her mother’s possessor, the part of Ibis that would have killed her by now, were it not for Dr. Fogarty’s ministrations, cowered under the force of Julia’s stars. Patience, Julia, she told herself. Grandpa Pete is coming. Elliott and the Ibis-demon thought Julia was a sacrificial gift. She and Grandpa Pete knew better.

*****

Now that Robert most likely couldn’t explain what was happening to Julia, Danny wondered if he had ever felt so helpless. Maybe in Afghanistan, under mortar fire. No, that wasn’t this bad. “Toshi, spill it.”

“The coffee, Mister Danny?”

Danny smacked his forehead. “Tell me what you know.”

Toshi sipped at his coffee and smiled. Danny smiled back; Toshi’s coffee had that effect. “Mister Elliott is the puppet of Rhone. Mrs. Barbara is inhabited by Ibis. Orchid is supposed to join her soul to Miss Julia’s, but the stars are a talisman to prevent possession. That is the quick version.”

“These dogs are evil, I know, but demons? Come on, Toshi.”

“Oh, Mister Danny, if you do not want to believe me, your disbelief will not change the facts. You remember when Mrs. Barbara sent me away?”

“Of course.”

“I felt very fortunate to go. And when Mister Elliott recalled me, I asked for my own helpers, because I could not trust anyone here, other than Miss Julia and you.”

Danny laughed bitterly. “I do believe that, Toshi. Is there a dog after me?”

Toshi shook his head vigorously. “No. Thunder killed Mister Gordon with her mind. Basilisk killed Mister Pete with his mind. All of the dogs have their role assigned—”

“Wait!” Danny held up a hand. “Julia was what, ten, when her dad and Pete died? That would make Thunder and Basilisk twenty-six years old. Julia would have told me that something was wrong with those dogs.”

“Oh, Mister Danny, no one talks about the dogs. They were here when I arrived twenty years ago. They have not changed, though the puppies grew up.”

“What? Did you feed them some potion you made out here, like that green toxic waste I had to rub on Julia?” Danny gagged at the thought.

“I did nothing for the dogs. I would not do so. They are beyond evil. Some have killed, others wait to kill, and then they will kill again.” Toshi bowed, as if to recognize their power.

“We have to get to Julia and help her do whatever you think she has to do.” Danny stood, but Toshi grabbed his arm.

“We cannot escape the Arboretum today, unless much work is done by others. At night, yes, because the Tribal Elder who watches over the grounds uses his strength to overpower the dogs. He is gone until tonight. You must trust me to help Miss Julia from here. Trust me and another.”

With no other plan, Danny decided to do what he would have done in Afghanistan: let the locals show him how to win the battle. “Okay, I trust you, Toshi. What are you going to do?”

Toshi stood and, to Danny’s surprise, double-pumped his fist in the air. “You will not be sorry, Mister Danny, but you must be patient and believe.”

Danny sat back and crossed his arms. He had just experienced a long night of weirdness. How much stranger could it get?

Toshi walked over to the hearth, where he had brewed the potion that saved Julia. He moved aside the full pot and placed a clean one on the grate. No wolf’s bane this time. He was not trying to fend off the dead, but call them forth. He pulled three leaves from the tree that had saved Miss Julia’s mind, and he gathered more of the roots that had formed the green ooze that saved her body from Orchid. Quickly, he brought the mixture to a boil.

Always impatient when he didn’t know what was happening, Danny found himself fidgeting on the seat. Toshi was cooking, and then he gathered up a large bucket of the new mixture and walked over to where the crumbling Art Deco relic of a corpse lay. Danny jumped to his feet to see what was Toshi was going to do.

And then, despite having seen some soldiers’ feet blown off, and the intestines of others spilled onto Afghani soil, Danny had to turn away and vomit when he saw Toshi’s next move. Toshi dribbled the herbal concoction on the body Julia had cradled, the creature that had, Danny thought, killed the zookeeper. The zookeeper, now covered in flies, still lay beside the corpse, but Toshi didn’t sprinkle him.

The anti-baptism complete, Toshi stood back. Danny held his breath, then he screamed when the rotting corpse gathered itself and stood shakily. Toshi turned back and, for the first time, showed contempt for another human being: for the war-tested soldier who was babbling like a baby about a reanimated corpse, even after everything he had seen over the past couple of days.

“Mister Danny, I would like to introduce to you Mister Peter Zecula.” Grandpa Pete approached him and held out his hand in greeting. Fighting to regain control of his emotions, Danny swallowed and made himself take the cool, leathery, slack hand. A quick shake, and Grandpa Pete began to shamble toward the door. Toshi ran to open it for him.

Outside, the dogs snarled at Toshi and the . . . what? Corpse? Zombie? Danny had no words for what he was seeing. Knowing these dogs, Danny expected them to make short work of the bone-in jerky that Toshi was delivering to them. But as they snarled, they kept themselves at arm’s length.

Grandpa Pete moved slowly forward, but he turned when he approached Basilisk, the dog Toshi said had killed him. While the other dogs milled about, crisscrossing their paths and bumping into each other, tails low, Basilisk sat on his haunches and stared down Grandpa Pete.

“Masilish,” Grandpa Pete moaned. “Cuh here.” As if hypnotized, Basilisk stood despite himself and lurched forward, whining with each step. At last he came eye to eye with Grandpa Pete. The old man reached down to pet him, and Danny winced at the probable outcome of that move.

Grandpa Pete placed his hand on Basilisk’s head. Danny could have sworn he saw tears in the dog’s eyes. Grandpa Pete placed his hand on Basilisk’s muzzle, grasped it, and jerked his hand sideways. The dog’s neck cracked, and Basilisk slumped to the ground. The other dogs stopped whining and set up a howling that made Danny cover his ears. He couldn’t look away, and that was how he saw a green jet of foul energy leap from Grandpa Pete’s eyes into those of Basilisk. The dog twitched once and lay still. The other dogs wanted to approach to nuzzle him, but Grandpa Pete stood straight and bellowed: “Begone!”

The dogs scattered. Toshi gave out a war whoop. When Grandpa Pete began to stride toward the house, Danny felt immense relief wash over him, and he headed for the door. Toshi grabbed his arm again.

“No, Mister Danny, the other dogs will soon regain their courage and their power. We must let Mister Pete do his work. You and I have another task to perform here anyway.”

“What task is that, Toshi?” Did he really want to know?

“We must go to the far corner of the Arboretum.”

Danny waited. Finally, he said, “Go on.”

“And we must take the potion with us.” Toshi’s eyes gleamed with excitement.

“Okay.”

“And then we must dig up Mister Gordon and pour the potion on him as well.”

*****

Watching the stalemate between the Ibis-demon in Barbara and the unexpected power Julia was displaying (damn that Yamashita, being right for once), Elliott Troutman found himself unprepared when the howling began in the Arboretum. A jolt of electricity ran through him, and he felt himself somehow weaker. He saw Ibis draw back as well, giving Barbara a moment of strength and clarity.

“I love you, Julia!” she said, before Ibis regained control and gleamed green eyes at Julia. But it was long enough; Julia smiled a triumphant smile at her mother-figure.

“I will save you, Mom.” No you won’t, Elliott thought to himself. It’s supposed to turn out differently. It has been waiting twenty-five years to come to pass.

Elliott then heard an unexpected sound. Julia and Ibis-Barbara heard it as well; all three looked around. Footsteps, soft and irregular. They approached the bedroom. Finally, the door inched open.

“Uh, Mrs. Eubank, do you care for your breakfast?” It was one of the Gorgons, and as she spoke, her voice grew weaker and less assertive. She slipped out without waiting for an answer, and the door snicked shut.

“Silly bitch,” Ibis-Barbara muttered. “I’m starving.”

“You can starve, whoever you are,” Julia snarled. Elliott raised his eyebrows. Julia? Really?

The footsteps came again. Either the original Gorgon had grown some ovaries, or she had sent another Gorgon in her place. Elliott reached over and opened the door.

“Thank you, you pissant twerp,” said a somewhat disheveled Peter Zecula.

Chapter 14

Julia recognized her grandfather.  How could she not?  He was the same tall, lanky, white-haired gent he’d always been, except he was dead now.  Sort of.  His eyes were luminous bright, though of uncertain color,  and his teeth were black and yellow and his skin, such as it was, looked like peeling old parchment.  The white hair on his head was tufted,  sparse,  and a mouse, or some such creature popped out of the top of his head, and  scurried down his neck.  Julia suppressed a shudder and re-thought the letter she’d written to Robert Kirkman asking to be an extra on The Walking Dead.

If he hadn’t looked so bloody awful, she might have run to him, calling out for Grampy, but these past days, weeks, really—her mother’s long death vigil—had both sapped her strength and given her strength.  She knew now and for a fact that she could trust no one, Danny excepted.  Danny, strong, capable, brave, equal even to the plumbing in hundred year old houses, Danny could fight anything in this world, but not this, not her family.   My family, Julia thought, glancing between Peter Zecula and Barbara Eubank—or what was left of them—was not of this world. Perhaps it was her turn to protect the man she loved.  If anyone had to wrestle with these demons, Julia must do it. They were her demons.  They were her fucking family, more’s the pity. 

“You’ll pardon me if I don’t call you, Grampy, I hope” she said to Peter.  “I know we’re blood relatives, but I’m trying to distance myself, to understand.  I’m sick of these goddamn trances where I float between one world and another, my eyes like white slits, and am powerless and lost.” 

“Of course, dear.  I can still call you dear, can’t I?”

“You can.  Block that door so that Elliott cannot snivel out of here.”

“I beg your pardon, Julia!”

“You’ll beg more than that before I’m done,” she snapped, “you snake.  And don’t give me that shit about attorney/client privilege.  Before we leave here, I will know the truth!” 

From the bed where the shards of Barbara lay, there came an unearthly wailing, and the claw-like hands scraped at the air, as though trying to swim toward them. 

Julia stroked the stars on her cheek, as if for solace or inspiration. She turned to the remnants of her grandfather who indeed did block any exit from the room.  In fact, Zombie Peter looked to have bloated and expanded to actually fill the doorway.  The shrieking from the bed continued, but Julia  paid it no mind. To Elliott Troutman she said,   “What foul deeds have you perpetrated on my mother?”

Elliott gave a lawyerly laugh, which is to say a thin, twitchy imitation of a laugh. “Cut the Shakespearean invective, dearie.  You are but a means to an end.  And besides, everything I have done I have done for Barbara. I have done for love.”   He looked  toward the wizened, nasty, yellowed creature there on the bed beside the growling dog.   “I loved her!  I have always loved her!  I have always loved you, Barbara, and you spurned me!”

“No! Don’t tell her!” Came the cry from the bed and the dog too howled. 

Though Elliott did not move, he seemed to float some spectral emanation from himself toward the blistered being on the bed.  “It’s true!  I’ve done her bidding!  All her bidding!  All of this—”he swung his arm around the gorgeous trappings of the palatial room, “this and the beautiful arboretum, and work of  that genius, Yamashita, yes, of course Gordon paid for it, it was Gordon’s money, but I—”

“My money!” cried the zombie Peter, “I earned the goddamned money! I worked all my life fleecing investors, watering stocks, taking people’s life savings, and their defaulted mortgages, and their insurance payments over lifetimes and then giving them fuck all!  I spent my life amassing a fortune!   My wastrel son just inherited!  And I threatened to cut him off at the knees when he brought home the girl who worked the candy counter at the Bijoux Theatre, and announced he’d married her!”

There came a cackling from the bed, “You know you loved the smell of popcorn, old man!  I could get you every time with popcorn!  Once I’d snared you in my honey trap, you didn’t dare say a word against me!”

“Peter!” cried Julia, “You didn’t….”

“Once or twice,” the zombie shrugged.  “It wasn’t that great.”

“NOT THAT GREAT??”  came the shriek from the bed and the dog stood up and barked wildly, looked as though he might lunge at the zombie.

“Sit!” cried Julia.

 The  dog sat, though the creature on the bed seemed to choke and babble Not that great?  Not that great? 

Julia  returned to Elliott who was cleaning his glasses and suppressing a smirk.  “Go on.”

“Gordon paid for it,” Elliott insisted, ignoring the zombie, “but it was all Barbara’s doing. She was insatiable!  Insatiable!  She sought not mere youth, but immortality!”

“I believe I heard Mr. Yamashita say it was not immortality, but an abomination,” said Julia coldly.

“It wasn’t supposed to be,” Elliott offered, “but it did go horribly wrong.”

From the bed came another shriek and the creature that was Barbara seemed to scrabble through the bedclothes, her thin Victoria’s Secret nighty sticking here and there to her hideous blobulous frame.

“She’s older than she looks,” said Elliott, as the mass that was Barbara landed on the floor and the dog jumped down beside her. “Ask her about the French Revolution.  Go on, ask her?”

“What the double fuck?” said Julia, “Moth—Barbara—whoever you are!  Is that true?”

“It began long before that!” shouted Elliott, “in the age of witchcraft and in a galaxy far far away, where Mr. Yamashita’s ancestors invoked the ancient gods and created elixirs to stave off death for the chosen few! They took the essence of any sentient being!  Why do you think all those animals got fried on the electric fence!  I ask you! Oh God, Barbara! It’s all going to come out now!”

The creature, unable to stand upright nonetheless mobilated itself, seemingly without legs, propelled only by venom and centuries of hate and wickedness and stinking self-interest. The dog seemed to nudge the huge gelatinous blob along toward Elliott and Julia.

Julia wanted to run away from what looked like Mama the Hutt,  to flee what was beyond comprehension and would answer to none of the laws of man or gravity, but she knew that she must face and fight these demons, or be forever their subject, their toy, their pawn.  If she had any chance for freedom or happiness with Danny,  then whatever lay within these walls and the glass gorgeousness of the arboretum must be met.  If she failed to defeat them, it would not be for want of trying.  She stroked her star-stained cheek again, the birthmark that had always somehow defined her began to glow, warm to the touch.  A birthmark must just as easily be a birthright.  She glanced around the chamber and grabbed one of the many IV’s standing like a rank of skinny taxis.  She  picked it up, wielded it  like a sword and pointed the bag full of amber liquid at the dog and the creature on the floor.  “Back!  Get back! Or I spray you with this!”

They advanced ever closer and Julia whipped off end of the bag and pointed it, spraying the dog who yelped and leaped and ran around chasing its tail. When the liquid splashed on  the creature on the floor, it rose up in a towering fury, cackling.

Bad choice, thought Julia, flinging the IV at the creature, but still determined not to run.  She pushed Elliott out of the way, and  ran to the dressing table with its diamond dust-backed mirror and array of crystal vials.  Still holding the IV she smashed the mirror and shards flew everywhere.  She picked up the biggest one and turned toward the creature.  “There!” she cried, “See yourself!”

The creature collapsed into a maudlin heap and the dog returned and licked it back toward the bed while it muttered   “I’m melting, melting, what a world, what a world….”

Julia took the shard of mirror and turned it toward Elliott who paled and put his hands up before his face. 

“I beg of you, don’t!”

“Do you, too, want to talk about the French Revolution, Elliott?”

“No, no….”he cowered beneath the shimmering glass.

“Then tell me the truth of it.”

“Of what, Julia?  What?  Yamashita wanted a MacArthur Fellowship and if he’d gotten one, we’d never have been able to hire him.  Or a Nobel.  He’d have been happy with that! But his means and his end were infernal and no Swede was ever going to vote for him!”

“How infernal?” She glanced back to the zombie.

“Well, Mr. Yamashita brought me back to life,” said  Peter who was no longer bloated, who, in fact, had diminished somehow in that je ne sais quois zombie way.   “At least he brought me back.   My yacht,” he began to blither, “my yacht!  My kingdom for a yacht!”

“What has Yamashita and his arboretum to do with me?” Julia demanded of Elliott,  “with this?” and she pointed to the beautiful glowing stars across her cheek. 

“I did it for love,” said Elliott with a whimper.

“What?  Love?  You? Don’t make me laugh,” cried Julia. 

Near the bed the dog began to yip,  and the heap of animate ectoplasm with hair and claws and eyes like great round big-veined jawbreakers began to gurgle and protest, “Don’t, Elliott…. don’t… I beg of you.  Come with me, if you want to live……”

“To live with you and be your love?  That’s all I ever wanted, Barbara, your love! She used me, Julia!  I meant you no harm!”

“You and…..Mother?” said Julia as though she’d swallowed a  hairball.

“You too, Troutman?” said Zombie Peter now leaning in the doorway. “God, Barbara, you really are a nympho, aren’t you?”

The dog nudged the ectoplasmic muddle and it enlarged somehow,  sat upright, and threw its head back as though to open to full-throated laughter, though no sound came from that blackened maw.  

“How much can a man take?” Elliott pleaded. “And yes, I am a man.  A mere man.  A mere mortal, plaything of the gods, the demons’ toy, here to strut and fret my hour on the—”

“Elliott,” said Julia, with a morsel of pity tinging her voice.  “Who has not loved and lost? Please, tell me what I need to know.   It’s a matter of life and death.  Can’t you see that?”

Elliott Troutman wearing a look of judicial inscrutability drew himself up.  “I did her bidding.  She used me.  She used all of us, yes, even you, Peter, even your stupid, well-meaning son, Gordon, even Louis XVI, but she used me most of all because mine was a true love!  I would have done anything for you, Barbara,” he cast a glance toward the bed where the creature had no risen to its ectoplasmic knees and the dog wore a look of canine delight. “I did anything she asked, everything she ever wanted of me, Julia.  I only wanted her to love me, and I was content to stay in the shadows of all her other lovers, knowing that she trusted me when she didn’t trust them.  And then….then,” he drew a short sharp breath through his nose.  “Here comes Fogarty, that   that supercilious Brit with his beautiful Mexican tan and his goddamn smoking jacket and his oily way with words.  I’m the one who went to Stanford, goddamnit!  I always hated those threesomes! And Ursula Muhl!   Oh, those foursomes with Muhl were awful!  And God!  That sick-o, hair-hating doctor!”

“Eeeeuw,” Julia shuddered, “you don’t mean you all did it with Robert?”

“Ha ha ha!”  shouted Elliott joyfully. “Ha ha!  I am glad to have shocked you! To have shocked all of you!” he added with a triumphant look to the zombie who wore an expression of someone who has just cleaned the lint trap at the dog groomer’s.  The zombie staggered from the doorway and collapsed in the chair before the dressing table,  picked up a shard of mirror, and began plucking at the hole from which the mouse had emerged. 

On the floor the  creature’s black maw clamped shut, and yet a voice eked out from some orifice or another, “ Don’t do this, Elliott.  Don’t do it.  Don’t even think about it…..”

Elliott turned to Julia.  “You don’t know how it broke my heart to watch what she did to you all those years, Julia, all those years making you cower and crawl.  She’ll killed the heart in me, and she would have killed you too.  I tried to protect you.   I was the third fairy!”

“What the double fuck?  What are you talking about, Elliott?”

“You know, in Sleeping Beauty,   the two good fairies give her smarts, and beauty, and then Bad Fairy condemns her to death and the third fairy cannot undo the curse, but she can mitigate it?  How can you not remember the story?  I read it to over and over as a child! I so wanted you to know!”

Some morsel of memory clanked about in Julia’s head and heart, like a bowling ball running smoothly down the alley and shattering the row of pins with a satisfying ker-blam! Some recollection of kindness she thought she had not deserved. 

“Julia, all those years I watched her make you cower and crawl, I recognized myself in you, Julia!  I tried to protect you, of course I did!  Julia!  I AM YOUR FATHER!”

Chapter 15

Dr. Fogarty woke with a start to find himself still in the car, Ingrid watching him with something like compassion, the rain still coming down. “I was asleep? What happened?”

Ingrid nodded. She seemed unable to speak. He couldn’t remember her looking more beautiful, though he understood that his idea of beauty was unusual. He had always found her strength and steadfastness immensely attractive. Maybe it was the Brit in him, stiff upper lip and all that sort, or a lingering reverence for all things German, the kind of thing no one talked about in polite London conversation but all understood. The world had changed. People like Ingrid accomplished things. But now something was terribly wrong.

“Ingrid? What’s the matter? Can you speak?”

She simply turned to gaze out the window like a child on a mini-break in the country.

Fogarty felt rage rising inside his chest, his stomach, heat spreading across his forehead. “Fuck. Bugger. That fucking bitch!” And then he howled like one of the dogs. What was happening to him? He thought about the last time he saw Barbara and his stomach turned, which meant something. He was well-suited to be a doctor, not easily thrown off by bodily functions or even death, but what had happened to Barbara so suddenly (or was it sudden? He couldn’t make sense of the timing now, one day a beautiful woman, and months later, this) was sickening. Had he loved her? No, surely not. But he had desired her, and dear Ingrid had understood, somehow, that he was nearly powerless before Barbara.

It started one afternoon nearly as rainy as this, when Julia was ill with the stomach flu. Barbara called him and he hurried to the Villa after checking his hair and dabbing on a bit of aftershave. He looked after Julia, suggested Gatorade, and readied himself to leave. It wasn’t that Barbara frightened him then, it was that she owned him, though she hadn’t paid him enough for all that, still, he was hers. She walked into the study, a room with soaring ceiling and casement windows, rather dark with a touch of a manor house to it all, and Fogarty followed her. No words were exchanged.

She closed the door behind them and made her way slowly to stand behind him, peeling his jacket off, her fingernails grazing his skin through oxford cloth, setting him trembling. He was only a man, after all. What could anyone expect? Barbara undressed him and led him to the tufted leather sofa. When he tried to speak, she roughly grabbed his jaw and shook her head no. He might have been too terrified to be aroused; in fact, later, he wished that had been the case, because she was terrifying, those blue eyes, blood red lips, a heady scent of magnolia and saltwater all around her. There was no saying no. No saying anything at all. He did everything she asked, happily, leaving her quivering, head thrown back over the arm of the sofa, quiet and peaceful for a moment before she snapped upright, grinned at him and left him there, alone, unsatisfied, and more than a little ashamed. It wasn’t that he’d been with her, it was that he hadn’t really made the choice, and he knew he’d never be in control of himself around her. He should have left that day and never come back, but of course he did no such thing. He came back when she called, every time, over the course of so many years, sometimes with Ingrid, sometimes with those damn dogs in the room, all of them like performers in the Barbara Circus. He beat his hands against the steering wheel and thought of her now, yellowed and deformed, surely what she deserved, at the very least. Fucking cunt. She wouldn’t hurt him again, nor Ingrid. Somehow, he would fix things.

__

Inside the Villa, Julia had stepped away from Troutman and lowered herself onto the padded window seat, tracing the pattern of Italian olive leaves on bright yellow, a fabric she didn’t recognize. There used to be a blue and white cushion, when she was young and still allowed to come into her mother’s room, and even when she wasn’t allowed, she would curl up by the window under a mound of ridiculously expensive pillows and stroke the silky threads of the golden tassels until she was calm. Now, the yellow seemed garish and ridiculous and no help in calming her. ElliottTroutman her father? Was it possible? Could she even trust him to tell her the truth? A bit of dried brownish-green crust flaked off her forearm and she ground it into the cushion and glanced toward what was supposed to be her mother to see if she’d be scolded. Old habits and all that. But what she saw was worse than the harsh words she’d come to expect. Elliott was kneeling in front of the hideous creature. The air in the room felt alive with electricity and an odd draft kicked up, like wind blowing past a pile of rotting trash, making her cough and gag.

From the dressing table stool, Grandpa Pete laughed. “Sorry about the smell, Princess. Soon enough, you won’t mind it at all.”

Julia faltered. She had felt so strong earlier, so relieved to see Pete, even difficult as it was to take in the details of what he’d become, and Barbara reaching out to her. She’d been waiting for years for those few words. But were they enough? And now, Pete was not really her grandfather at all. Would he protect her anyway? She wanted very much to make herself small, to crawl back into the corner of the window seat and refuse to see what her mother had become, and maybe what she’d always been. She thought: Is she truly evil? Is she broken inside? Can I even help her?

Pete spoke as best he could. “Hellth youselph. Don be a footh,” which he meant as fool, but she heard as foot and looked down at hers, confused for a moment.

Elliott whimpered and Julia came back to the present and watched with horror as Ibis clamped her jaws around Elliot’s wrist, drawing blood. Julia could smell the metallic tang of it in the air and had the sickening feeling that she was breathing droplets of his blood, along with whatever evil was swirling in gusts around the room. She tried to hold her breath.

In one decisive move, Barbara sunk a claw deep into Ibis’ neck, hulking over the dog as it writhed and growled and finally went still.

Elliott looked up at the creature and smiled despite the hideousness of once-Barbara’s yellowed, swollen form and freakishly protruding eyes and teeth. He thought she’d saved him. He thought, finally, she understands. She loves me. His heart welled with joy and in his head, a full orchestra played the soundtrack from that movie about the guys running that race on the beach, whatever the hell it was.  He couldn’t stop smiling, even though his wrist was dripping blood, coating his hand, throbbing.

Julia didn’t know what to make of this. Barbara had killed Ibis? She loved the dogs. But Ibis was hurting Elliott, so she supposed that made sense. And Barbara wasn’t herself, or not the best version of her Julia could cobble together from memories she treasured: birthdays, having her hair brushed, evenings by the fire. She was adding to the list her mother’s profession of love this day and that she had saved Elliott when Barbara, or the demon, or both, placed a clawed hand on Elliot’s sweaty, nearly bald head and began to squeeze.

Elliott howled. Outside the window, Rhone howled. Julia glanced down at the lawn, where Thunder, Rhone and Orchid were lined up like chess pieces, then looked back at Elliott. My father, she thought. “No!” She screamed, moving as quickly as she could through air like soup, trying to stop the demon inside Barbara, because it had to be the demon. Her mother was cold, but she wasn’t a killer. “Mother, no!”

She was too late. She watched as the creature pulled the life from Elliott Troutman, his body shaking as the dog’s had only a minute before, then slowing as the creature absorbed his spirit and strength and began to shake and change before her eyes. She heard Pete laughing behind her. The creature began to shed skin and to rise up, taller, more whole, its hair beginning to regrow though it wouldn’t be blond this time, it was black and full and tumbled onto Barbara’s shoulders. Her eyes receded a little and her mouth became plump again and she smiled at Julia, triumphant.

Julia shook her head. She went to Elliott, just in case. Hoping. Praying. But he was cold as the stone in the wine cellar. She glared at her mother, this new version of her, a hint of her former beauty showing through but her hands still gnarled and her fingernails still sharp as fangs. “Why?” She shouted. “Why? Why? Why?”

Barbara spread her arms wide and said, “Because I can, Julia.”

Julia began to shiver. She felt Pete’s voice in her head, saying Run, girl. Run now. So she did. She felt an icy sensation sweep across her back and thought, my own mother, no, please, let me be safe from her. Let me be worth saving. But she didn’t stay to find out for sure where she ranked in her mother’s heart. Elliott was gone, and the sight of his pale, limp body on the fine, hand-knotted carpet of Barbara’s bedroom stayed with her and propelled her out of the room and down the long hallway. It felt good to run. She could have run miles, she thought, if she could just get outside, where the air wasn’t full of death and decay, but as she rounded the corner and started down the stairs to the foyer, she saw the two winged demons waiting for her, their claws screeching on the marble floor as they moved from side to side, waiting.

Chapter 16 

By Nancy Canyon (1841)

Julia ducked behind a pillar.  The demons hadn’t seen her or rather they’d noticed movement, but their eyesight is poor in the dim light, so she believed she was safe for the moment.  And she knew that red-eyed winged demons were bargainers.  Lucifer taught them through torment, of course, to bargain for their lives.  It was the one fact Julia could call up in the moment from her grade school library visits.  Maybe she could bargain for her life.

She looked around for a weapon.  Silly, she thought, but her breathing was quickening and she knew a panic attack was eminent.  If she went too far, she’d faint again.  And where would that get her…demon snack, no doubt.  So she tried to expand her rib cage, drawing in air, letting her belly widen.  She’d seen it on TV when Danny was fixing the pipes in the basement.  She’d heard the clanking coming through the walls, and had likened it to knocking spirit, which made her panic.  It was too freaky, those sounds banging all day long, echoing around her childhood home.

 Grampy Pete had told her about the knocking spirits, but she just thought he was trying to spook her.  Sometimes she laughed and he made a frowny face, saying, “What, you don’t believe me?”  But one time, right after the bedtime story was complete, she swore she saw a shadow rise up on the wall behind him, big claws slicing the pale purple wall.  She slid farther down under the covers, saying, “I’m sleepy, Grampy.”   “Nighty night, darling,” he said and left the room  She stayed under there, lying as still as a corpse for the longest time.  She knew to do this because at the summer library reading club, she’d checked out stories about monsters. One such book included an appendix listing antidotes to venom, killing methods for demons, incantations, weapons available to kill different dark creatures from the underworld, and survival methodologies.  She was just a child and had no need to know such things, and really, they spooked the heck out of her, but she’d read them anyway.  Funny, she thought,  how compelling evil is.  No wonder Sunday school preachers warned children to beware of Lucifer’s trickery.

She heard the scrapping now, the swish of huge tails and the whisk of wings opening and closing.  The smell was strong, like burning flesh and dragon dung.  Why did these creatures smell that way?   The dogs got rank, but never did they smell like dragon dung.  She looked around again, thinking there must be a weapon, a frame she could break apart, creating a spear, a drapery tie-back to make a lasso.  Ooh, she wished she had that shard of mirror from her mother’s room.   Then she saw it, a lamp cord.  Cords could electrocute if pulled from the lamp and the wires bared…hot and potentially lethal. 

She heard the demons coming closer, smelled their breath, she was sure it was their breath, smelling as putrid as the mud flats on the bay.  If she were a demon, she’d brush.  Or at least gargle. 

She had to pee.  Her bladder had grown more engorged the longer she’d been in Villa Barbara.  Why hadn’t she ducked into the bushes outside the mansion on the way here.  She’d already wet herself once, so what would it matter if she….  But how disgusting was that?  How low had she stooped?  She reached her fingers to her cheek.  Her stars continued to pulse.  She thought, if she really had some magic, now would be the time for it to activate.  In the books she’d read as a child, she knew birthmarks marked the soul who had magical powers.  So far, she’d only drawn on courage, and even the swearing she’d done in her mother’s room was remarkably courageous.    

She looked around the room for a corner, someplace private she could slip and take care of herself under the cover of a nook or a bench…but then she realized, demons can smell blood and urine and sweat and saliva and other bodily odors and then they’d know exactly where she was.  She was just going to have to hold it. 

She was always seen as frail and sickly.  And the stars, like a curse, meant something different to each family member.  Some of her aged aunts just looked at her and shook their heads.  The books, shelved high so grade school children wouldn’t read them…little ears, little eyes… confirmed the fears of many.  Yes, her nature was sweet, a good girl and when she could admit it, rather sad.  But she had another side to her that had been pushing to make itself known for a very long time.  Anyone raised by a loveless mother would eventually rebel. 

She took a deep breath and dived from behind the pillar and made a flailing dash for the next pillar.  She didn’t want to look, but she did.  And what she saw was more frightening than she could imagine.  The demons eyes were glowing red and their teeth dripped with what looked like blood.  In the corner behind them lay a pile of bodies.  Maybe the demons had killed the servants Barbara kept on staff.  After all, a villa this size took hundreds to run.  The missing greenhouse worker, the driver, the cook, the chambermaids, the handymen.  The pile could even include the mail carrier.  It could even include creatures that manifested from the ethers, hideous monsters with horns and bulging eyes, maybe white eye-demons made trades with red-eyed demons.  All demons had their weaknesses.  Even human demons.

Julia’s stars where really pulsing now and suddenly she found herself mumbling strange words.  Horra shee wimble daw.  Horra shee wimble daw.  She kept repeating this phrase over and over and for some reason, her courage engaged and she was fearless.  She flashed across the room, ripped the cord from the wall lamp and yanked the plug from the wall.  Quickly, she bit off the ends of the insulation so bare wire became exposed.  She knew it could be lethal…she knew the laws of electricity.  She plugged her weapon and jumped out from behind a giant pot brimming with fern.  “Bring it on, fuckheads!”

The demons roared, furious now.  Why she wasn’t sure. Maybe the incantation she’d made up…or had magically emerged from her psyche, where working.  How does one know these things?  The smell in the room was thick and again she swore she could see the stink, like a haze of smoke almost, greenish-yellow and putrid.  The demons swung their heads back and forth and yelled, teeth bared, a roar so deafening the walls in the room cracked and split and chucks of marble fell.  Everything she was sure of in life vanished.  And she wet herself again.  That was it…the turning point.  Her sweet nature disintegrated. 

“Bring it on, I said, fuck-faces.  You are ugly bastards.  Piss on you, chicken-shits.” 

The monsters leapt, covering the short distance in a few leaps, swiping at Julia with giant claws and paws the size of tabletops.  She knew it was over, but really it didn’t matter.  All the pain she’d suffered, her horrible mother, the possibility that her real father wasn’t the father she’d been raised with.  What was left in life for her?  Danny, of course.

All of nothing, Danny always said.  He practiced the mantra in Afghanistan.  It kept him safe, he said.  Ye who hesitates….  She loved Danny and yes he’d be sad if she were gone, but he could be gone now, for all she knew.  She  heard the dogs yelling inside her mother’s room.  And her mother…my god…a bloated evil thing lived inside her.  There was no hope for the woman.  Maybe if she took out these giant reptiles bat-things, the demon inside her mother would disintegrate.

She waved the electrical cord at them, thinking what a pathetic little weapon she had in her hand.  But something happened unexpected as she jabbed it in the demon’s direction.  She was wet and the current caught her dress hem and sizzled, sipping up her body, lighting up every bit of her, smoking a little, flashing brightly.  Too bright for the demon’s red eyes.  And they fell in a great heap, one on top of the other, before her, the exhaust of their breath more putrid than she’d experienced yet, the great frump of their bodies landing on the marble floor causing a burst of wind to jettison down the hall.  All the windows and doors opened and outside air swept in.  and she’d been thrown back against the wall. 

“Rank, fuck,” she coughed and sputtered, and rubbed the back of her head.  Because the blast of electrical current, which she knew from Danny scolding her the day she used her curling iron over a sink full of water in remodeled bathroom, could have killed her.  “Danny,” she cried as she raised to sitting, feeling all her bones in her body whole, though a massive headache from hitting the wall dazed her. Then a spring-like scent filled Villa Barbara and she was refreshed.

Danny followed Yamashita through legs of the greenhouse filled with exotic flowers that smelled of cinnamon and vanilla and plums and roses.  And of course, his Julia.  My god, he was missing her.  What had happened to his sweet Julia?  He almost wanted to weep and his heart felt like it might burst at her smile, her blushing cheeks, her downcast eyes. 

Yamashita turned and looked at him, as if he had read his mind.  No, I’m not a girl, he thought.  Yes, Afghanistan had taken it out of him and yes, he hadn’t been the same since.   But he was not a sappy girl.

If he knew ESP he could communicate with Julia.  It was getting dark outside…the day vanished so quickly this time of year.  And now the rain had started to fall and the incessant pounding on the greenhouse was nerve racking.  And all that coffee he’d drank had really wired him up.  He needed to relieve himself.  He wished he’d spoken up earlier, as they were getting farther and farther into the bowels of the greenhouse, where surely there were no bathrooms, and probably no exits to the outdoors either.

Yamashita carried a watering can with the antidote sloshing around inside.  Robert’s death had been startling.  But Danny had always been jealous, angry even at the dolt.  He wished him dead many times, but he didn’t mean it really.  Did God punish those who wished evil?  Did He save his spite for the real evil ones…like Granpa Pete.  Sheez, what a piece of work.  He shook his head as he walked.  And who knew how many others were lost to the dark lord of the underworld, the vortex that had opened up right here in the middle of Seattle proper, shining its garish light into the heavens above, and into the core of the earth, no doubt, where carnivorous fanged creatures lived. 

Chapter 17

Nurse Muhl rested her forehead against the cool rain-streaked glass of Dr. Fogarty’s car. Fogarty, realizing that his car was stuck in Villa Barbara’s driveway until the storm let up, had fallen back asleep. What was the matter with him? 


Fogarty’s mouth hung open as he snorked a series of beastly snores reminding Ingrid of so many nights she considered smothering him with her pillow. If Yamashita hadn’t rendered her mute, Ingrid would have screamed at Fogarty to close his damn mouth. 


Straightening up and smoothing her still crisp white nurse’s uniform, Ingrid turned back to face the doctor, planning to push him onto his side and end the guttural assault on her senses. Instead, she admired his voluptuous lips, parted beneath his inky moustache, a glisten of drool at the corner of his mouth. Even in sleep he seduced her. Ingrid thought of passing the time in a zestier pursuit, and reached a hand toward Fogarty’s belt buckle.

A skeleton-rattling screech tore Ingrid from her erotic reverie and the Monte Carlo rocked from the weight of a four-legged projectile throwing itself against the passenger window. The pointed tips of Orchid’s untrimmed claws scraped down the window.

Ingrid opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. A howling wind surrounded the Monte Carlo, and Ingrid reached for the door handle to hold it shut, in an irrational fear that the wind might blow it open, or that Orchid might develop opposable thumbs and open it herself. Ingrid’s actions became a self-fulfilling prophecy; in reaching for the handle, she inadvertently opened the door herself. The gust tore the door from the car, exposing Ingrid to the bluster and Orchid’s snarling maw.

And still Fogarty slept?

Ingrid kicked the dog’s head with her white leather nurse’s shoe and scrambled out of the car, hoping her athletic legs could power through the mud and get her inside the Arboretum before Orchid tore her apart. Foiled by her knee-length skirt, she tumbled into the sodden earth, sliding further into a mud puddle as she tried to regain her footing.

Orchid was on top of her then, white fur masked with the slick mud that now coated Ingrid’s uniform as well. Ingrid clenched her eyes shut and turned her head away, bracing for the dog’s bite that would tear the flesh from her neck and pierce her jugular.

No bite came. Ingrid opened her eyes and found herself mesmerized by Orchid’s glowing neon gaze. Remembering vaguely that all five dogs had vacant black holes for eyes, Ingrid felt the tingling of ice running through her veins as a fine green mist flowed from Orchid’s eyes to hers.

The soul transfer complete, Orchid stepped off of Ingrid’s sturdy frame, allowing the nurse to rise from the muck. Ingrid sloshed up the hill to the Arboretum, Orchid walking dutifully beside her.

Yamashita’s cast iron pot smashed through the front window of the greenhouse, shattering pieces of glass that lodged in Ingrid’s Grecian features. Thunder leapt out through the window, followed by a hulking man dressed in a fine brown suit. Though his jaundiced skin hung loose on his face, and he seemed to walk without lifting his feet from the ground, Ingrid recognized him from the portrait hanging above one of the fireplaces in Barbara’s home. Gordon Eubank.

Gordon grunted at Ingrid, and she knew to follow him.

Inside the house, Thunder led them to the pile of bodies the demon bat creatures left behind. At the sight of the groundskeeper with gaping wounds on his arm and leg, Ingrid began to salivate. She knelt down and suckled at his bicep feeling the warmth of his blood soothe the ice in her own veins.

Beside her, Gordon tore into the other bodies, ripping limbs from their bodies and gnawing at their ligaments. He slurped the marrow from their bones, and gouged out their eyeballs, popping them into his mouth like olives from a martini. Gradually, the color returned to his face and his skin tightened to the supple visage of a man in his early twenties.

“Gordon, my love, it’s been too long.” Raven-haired Barbara descended the stairs, wearing a short gold sheath dress that exposed cleavage and shapely legs not seen on her for fifty years.

Gordon grunted, his internal rejuvenation not yet complete.

“I see Yamashita finally finished his potion.” Barbara stroked Thunder and Orchid as she passed them on her way to her husband. “After so many years searching across the globe for just the right plants, just the right exotic creatures whose bodily fluids provide everlasting beauty. Everlasting life.”

Gordon cleared his throat and hocked a steaming and putrid glob of phlegm on the pile of eviscerated carcasses at his feet.

“Dear god, I hope that habit passes once you are fully restored.”

Barbara nudged the pile of bodies with the pointed toe of her gold stiletto, noticing for the first time Ingrid nursing from Katsu’s corpse.

“Nurse Muhl! I thought I sent you away.”

Ingrid met Barbara’s gaze and growled, her neon eyes revealing her canine possession. Something like relief passed through Barbara. “Orchid, I see you’ve finally given up on taking over my Julia. But what does this mean? Am I to be linked to this nurse for the rest of eternity?”

Relief turned to sadness, for she was of two minds regarding Julia’s mortality. On the one hand, she wanted to protect her daughter from the curse of the canines, but Orchid would not stop until she had taken over someone’s mind. Once melded, dog and human could never been torn asunder. Now it was certain, Julia would die a human death. The length of a mortal life was so short compared to forever. She’d wasted so much time pushing Julia away.

Yamashita had explained it to her. Two immortal beings could birth only a mortal child immune to any mystical forces that might give her everlasting life. In an earlier, more reckless time, Barbara had foolishly tried to remove Julia’s mark of mortality, her crimson stars, but Julia’s birthright only grew stronger.

Every curse has an antidote, Yamashita had learned, so he imported the ironically named Flower of Death, which was supposed to temporarily neutralize Julia’s birthright. Somehow, something had gone wrong, and Orchid had not been able to penetrate Julia’s mind, and instead mind-melded with the stolid and silent Ingrid.

***

Julia stumbled through the night to the Arboretum, urine soaked and sparking, calling Danny’s name.

“Julia!” Danny stepped over the broken glass to get to her, throwing arms around her only to be jolted back into the mud by an electrical shock. Standing, he grimaced when he felt the cool slime seeping through the back of his pants. Getting a better look at his wife, he said, “What the hell?”

Julia’s eyes were bloodshot and her birthmark glowed like a roadside flare. “I-I killed the batmen. Chewed through the lamp cord. I meant to shock them, but I guess I shocked myself.”


She tried to run a hand through her mousy hair, but froze when she saw the tiny lightning bolts sparking from her fingertips.

“Your hair,” he said. Julia’s normally flat hair stuck straight up and frizzy, streaked through with white, not unlike the bride of Frankenstein. He longed to hold her and stroke her coiffure into submission, but didn’t want to get shocked again. “Come on, let’s go inside.”

“No. I don’t want to go back into the Arboretum. Yamashita. That flower. Something happened in there. I don’t trust him.”

“Okay. Do you want to go home? Although … I’m a little worried about what your electrified body might do to my upholstery.”

“It’s stopped raining, maybe if we walk around the grounds, it will wear off.”

Danny pulled a pair of leather gloves out of his pocket and slipped them on. Gently, he took Julia’s hand, which sizzled a little against the leather, but didn’t burn through to his skin.

“Are you hungry, Danny? I can’t remember the last time we ate.”

“Yamashita offered me a muffin with my coffee, so I’m not starving. You?”

“Strangely no. How long have we been here? It feels like days.”

“I lost track.”

They fell into a companionable silence, walking hand in hand around Villa Barbara’s lake, listening to the gurgling of frogs. They had married here at Villa Barbara, under a gazebo on a spring day while a rare breed of Northern European swans floated regally across the lake.

Wordlessly, they passed under a vine covered arch into the gazebo and sat down on the bench, looking out at the lake.

An enormous owl flew low over the lake, and Danny noticed a silvery mist hovering above the still water. The wind picked up, swirling the mist into a funnel that opened at the top to reveal a man in buckskin and beads hovering above the lake.

“Danny,” Julia whispered. “Can you see him?”

“Yes. Yamashita told me about a Tribal Elder who watches over the property. I thought he meant a real guy, but he’s not human is he?”

“No. I didn’t even think he was real. I thought I was the only one who could see him.”

They heard the sound of tribal drumming coming from the lake, accompanied by a man’s high-pitched vocals. Glittering ghosts of antlered bucks, wild hares, raccoons, and birds came from the woods and swirled into the mist around the elder.

The spirit of the tribal elder grew in size until he towered over the property, dancing to the traditional song. Julia stripped off her dress and panties, her skin still crackling with electricity, and walked toward the lake.

“Julia,” Danny hissed. “Stop, what are you doing? You could be electrocuted.”

Julia reached the bank of the lake and stepped a bare foot onto its surface, gliding over it as though on ice. With her arms stretched out to the side, she spun around the elder, dancing like an eagle, her soft soprano joining in the tribal song.

Chapter 19

By Mary Ellen Courtney

Danny sat on the edge of the lake and watched his wife gliding around the Elder, chanting in her soft soprano voice, and sparking. Bolts of light shot from her hair and fingertips, illuminating the Elder’s trance-like face. Slowly, from around the perimeter of the lake, animals of all shapes and sizes ventured out onto the ice and began to dance. They joined their individual songs with those of Julia and the Elder. Danny was mesmerized by the dance and by the thought that, without knowing it, he had married into a tribe.

  1. He had first longed to join a tribe while in Afghanistan. He’d never told anyone that. The idea of telling men in Special Forces in Afghanistan that you could see the wisdom of the tribal system you were fighting would have gotten him shunned, at best; sent back to the states for drugs and incarceration at worst. He could be at Gitmo.
  2. If he were to examine it, he might admit that his wife’s stars had reminded him of some of the markings on the women he knew in the Middle East. Strange women. Quiet women. Women like his wife, mystery-keepers. Under less stressful conditions, he would say they were like Julia, simply women in a time and place. But both places were filled with danger and uncertainty. He had never told Julia about any of it, any of them.
  3. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a woman’s voice, with a slight edge of disdain.
  4. “Yes,” said Danny.
  5. “She can never come back to you,” said the woman.
  6. Danny twisted around and looked at the couple standing behind him. It was dark, so he was surprised that he could make them out at all. But Julia’s bolts had the power to illuminate the gold dress and shoes on the woman, which in turn lit up the face and golden hair of her companion. His hair reflected back on the woman and lit tips of gold in her dark hair. They were like a circle of light in the darkness. They appeared young, 20s maybe. Elegant and well kept.
  7. “She’s my wife,” said Danny. “She hasn’t gone anywhere.”
  8. “She’s gone far away, Danny,” said the man.
  9. “How do you now my name?” asked Danny.
  10. “You’ve whispered it in many ears,” said the woman. “You wanted those women to know you, to love you. To love you even after what you had done.”
  11. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are you?”
  12. “Why Barbara, of course. You were always so slow, Danny. Let me introduce Gordon. It’s time you met Julia’s father.”
  13. The chanting and singing stopped, all but Julia’s. The creatures and the Elder looked toward the bank at Danny and the strange couple. Julia opened her eyes and saw the three figures. Her husband looked like he was prostrating himself at the feet of an elegant couple. Her singing stopped. She looked at the Elder who nodded softly.
  14. Julia glided to the shore and up onto the bank. Danny couldn’t see her face, but her hair was snapping and buzzing with barely contained fury, while her fingertips shot bolts that hissed and steamed in the grass. Danny was struck by the fact that his wife seemed perfectly comfortable in her electrified state. She faced the couple. They shied away from her bright light at the same time they seemed drawn to it. Pinned down by it.
  15. “Hello, Julia,” said Barbara.
  16. “Hello, Barbara,” said Julia. “And this must be Gordon.”
  17. “What happened to mother and father?” asked Barbara.
  18. “Gordon is not my father,” said Julia. “And you don’t rank the title.”
  19. Barbara’s eyes flickered. It might have been pain, if she felt pain.
  20. “Elliott only wished he was your father,” said Barbara.
  21. “Because you told him he was?” asked Julia.
  22. “He protected you,” said Barbara.
  23. “From you?” asked Julia.
  24. “From Yamashita,” said Barbara.
  25. “The gardener?” asked Danny.
  26. Julia had forgotten Danny was there. She tore her light away from her parents and focused on Danny. He couldn’t see her features for the brilliant light sparking off her head. He felt unwell.
  27. He tried to stand up, to be a partner to his wife, but his legs were like rubber and he fell back into the mud. He threw up. It looked lime green in her brilliant white light. He threw up again, more than threw up, he projectile vomited green slime all over Barbara’s gold shoes. Shoes already stained with blood. Then again, but Barbara’s feet were gone. Julia’s head jerked up, throwing light in a circle on the grass. Barbara and Gordon had vanished. The only evidence they’d been there was a faint outline of lime green slime glistening around dark grass footprints.
  28. “What did Yamashita feed you?” asked Julia.
  29. “Muffin,” said Danny.
  30. He collapsed and appeared comatose. The green slime oozing out of his mouth quickly turned black, or maybe it was red blood in the dark light. Nurse Muhl appeared out of the darkness in her white dress smudged all over with something. She had smudges on her face. Her cheeks were glowing in the strange light, her eyes, black pools, reflected the sparklers in Julia’s hair.
  31. Wordlessly, she indicated to Julia to lift Danny’s feet while she got him by the shoulders. Julia had no idea Muhl was that strong. Muhl started for the house.
  32. “No,” said Julia. “We’re not going back in that house. Help me get him in our car. I need to get him to a hospital.”
  33. Muhl smiled wickedly, it looked like she had something stuck in her teeth. Julia thought she was out of chills for one day, but Muhl’s smile sent them down the back of her legs. Muhl changed direction and allowed Julia to lead the way toward their car.
  34. Julia could see the Elder on the ice, still, silhouetted in the moonlight that was breaking through passing clouds as the rain stopped. The ears and tails and glinting eyes of her dance partners lined the edge of the lake as they followed her movements. Then their eyes shifted to a spot behind her just as she heard a twang and thud as Danny’s weight pulled him out of her hands.
  35. She turned in time to see Fogarty raise the handle of a shovel and plunge it into Muhl’s chest. He did it two more times as Julia jumped over Danny to protect him. The light from her hair lit up the rivers of strange creatures from a different time and place that flowed out of Muhl’s chest. Fogarty wept. His tears strobed down his cheeks in Julia’s light and burned black spots like drops of acid in Muhl’s body. They hissed.
  36. “Who was she?” asked Julia.
  37. “Nurse Muhl,” said Fogarty. “Until you defeated the dog. I loved her.”
  38. Julia looked at Danny, the man she loved, still comatose. He appeared to be aging in the light. The flow from his mouth had slowed to a trickle.
  39. “I need to get Danny to the hospital,” said Julia.
  40. “They can’t help him,” said Fogarty. “Only Yamashita can undo what he’s done.”
  41. “What has he done?” asked Julia.
  42. “I don’t know,” said Fogarty. “They have failed with you, they need to convert Danny to continue your line.”
  43. “Do they think I wouldn’t notice?”
  44. “They’re desperate,” said Fogarty. “Your mother believes in the power of love.”
  45. “What does she know about love?” asked Julia.
  46. “She knows how to use it,” said Fogarty. “She knows you love Danny. That puts him in danger now.”
  47. “What will she do to him?” asked Julia.
  48. “Everything,” said Fogarty. “Take him to her bed.”
  49. Julia’s stomach clutched at the idea of Danny in bed with her mother. Wanting to be in bed with his mother, which she surely could make him want. Of him waking to the realization of what he had done, with Barbara. It would destroy him. Destroy them both. And Barbara, Barbara was young again. She could have Danny’s child. The child Julia was destined to have. More evil that was half Danny. And Danny would want it and not want it, loathe it and love it in the same breath. She looked at his face. She’d dragged him into this. She knew some part of her would always love him, no matter what he did.
  50. The stars on her cheek twinged. She looked to the Elder for some sign but he was gone. The sky was getting lighter; a new day was coming on.
  51. “I don’t want to take him back in the arboretum,” said Julia.
  52. “We don’t have a choice,” said Fogarty. “We have to go back there.”
  53. “Then I’ll go,” said Julia. “They can’t hurt me.”
  54. “I need your protection now,” said Fogarty. “They will come for me after Muhl. She will come for Danny.”
  55. Julia noticed that she was emitting less light as the daylight came on. She had enjoyed the protection of the light and wondered if it would return when the sun went down, if she would always have sparklers in her hair. She reached for Danny and the tips of her fingers only sparked; the shooting was over.
  56. Fogarty picked up Danny’s legs; he wasn’t as strong as Muhl. Julia picked up Danny’s shoulders and they carried him as gently as possible toward the arboretum. They had to keep stopping to rest. He was a big man and felt more like dead weight than the first time Julia had helped carry him. They rounded the corner of the shed and the arboretum came into view. Just the day before the rising sun had lit it like a glass cathedral and they’d been enthralled with the warmth and sweet odors. This morning it looked dark and cold, like no light could penetrate its icy shell.

Chapter 20

“Let’s put him on the table.” Dr. Fogarty hoisted Danny’s shoulders up and slumped him onto the table. Julia, exhausted from the effort and confusion, let his feet go too early. They fell down the side of the table and pulled the rest of his unconscious body with them. Danny fell with a thump onto pavers.

“Shit,” said Dr. Fogarty.

“Leave him there.”

Both Julia and Fogarty looked up into the serene face of Yoshi. “He will need to be in contact with stone anyway. This way is best.”

Yoshi bent down and pulled Danny’s head up but he back of his hair. Green bile dribbled down his chin and his eyes had gone slack, rolling and sliding around the room, not really looking at any one thing.

“You poisoned him! What did you feed him? Why did you—“ d

“What did you give him Yoshi?” Dr Fogarty spoke in the matter-of-fact voice of a man desperately trying to make everything normal again. But at that moment, a drop of the green slime from Danny’s mouth fell to the ground. It sizzled and popped as it hit the pave stone floor and the veneer of normalcy faded.

“What the hell did you use to poison him?”

“I did not poison him.” Yoshi turned a sorrowful look upon the doctor and shook his head.

“What did you give him then?”

“What he needed.”

Tell us what you gave him,” as she said it, the electricity that had possessed her earlier sparked again, with renewed fervor, lighting up the green canopy above and painting stark shadows on their leaves.

Yoshi flinched. It was the first time anyone had ever seen him lose his demeanor. He looked at Julia. Residual sparks discharged from the ends of her hair. She would not take silence as an answer.

“A mixture of amanita and ergot,” Yoshi said.

“You fool! He will die!” said Fogarty.

“No, Mr Danny is strong. The mixture is weak for one his size.”

“But why Yoshi? Why did you do it?” Yoshi still didn’t answer. He simply looked at her and sighed.

“Have you found the bodies yet?”

“Bodies?”

“Already the hell-hounds are amassing their army. She will feed off of them until the guardians of the gate arrive.”

“Do you mean those two great big wing-y bastards? I killed them back there with a lamp. That’s how I got all electrified.”

“The guardians are not mortal. They cannot be killed by any means available to normal people. They were only sent back to the underworld. They will return for you.”

“Shit,” said Julia under her breath because all of this was getting to be too much. “Why?”

 “You are the key Miss Julia. It is in your birthright. You are mortal.”

“Oh for chrissake, will everybody please stop talking about birthrights and star crossed bullshit and tell me what it is I am supposed to be able to do?”

“You can give death to others.”

Julia rolled her eyes.

“That’s not a super power Yoshi. That’s murder.”

All others, Miss Juila. When I said the Guardians cannot be killed by normal means, that does not mean that cannot be killed. You can give mortality to any creature you choose. Even them.”

Julia gasped. “Is that why they want to kill me?”

“They do not want to kill you Miss Julia, they want to use you.”

“For what?”

“For protection.”

“Protection against what? You said yourself they’re immortal.”

“Yes, and so is the creature Barbara.”

At that point, Danny rolled over onto his side and vomited though he had nothing left in his stomach. Doctor Fogarty waited for him to gain control of his stomach before helping him to a sitting position, head hanging over his lap.

“Oh Danny! Are you okay?” Julia was on her knees next to him in a second. Danny did not look up.

“Do you want some water?”

“No water,” said Yoshi. “He must drink this.” he pulled a small vial of green liquid from his pocket and opened it under Danny’s nose. Julia was about to slap the sinister vial from his hands when Danny’s head popped up, and he took a long breath in.

Without preamble of any kind, Yoshi handed him the bottle and Danny drank.

“What are you doing? Stop giving him all these voodoo potions! You’re going to kill him!”

“His only connection to the spirit world was through you, Miss Julia,” he said it as though it explained everything. “And he cannot protect that which he cannot see. I gave him eyes.”

Danny finished drinking the vial of green goo. His head dropped back to his lap and he gave a strangled moan before shaking his head violently.

“Get away from him. Doctor Fogarty! Help him!” She pushed Yoshi away and draped her arms around her husband. “Danny, are you alright? Danny! Speak to me.”

Danny stopped shaking. Slowly, his head rose and he looked at Julia. His eyes were not there. They had been replaced by two empty pools of nothing, black from corner to corner. They stared at her, through her and beyond her.

“Danny, are you okay? Danny?”

Danny splayed his hands out on the stones in front of him, a look of deep concentration on his face.

“Let him rest a bit Miss Julia. He will speak in time.”

Danny couldn’t agree more with Yoshi. Mainly because he was having a difficult time working the muscles of his mouth. They seemed to be all there but they didn’t really work in the right order anymore. Also, he teeth felt really huge.

He looked around the arboretum. Green leaves closed them in to the confined space of the dining area. The pavers of the floor pulsated slightly with the touch of his fingers and for half a second, Danny felt like throwing up again. He hoped he wouldn’t but he didn’t seem to have much control over those muscles any more either.

The death-smell was everywhere. The air was thick with it. He tried looking around for the source but he knew deep down, he would not find it.

Julia sat next to him, radiating light. Everything near her lit up with the soft glow from her skin. That probably wasn’t really happening. Was it? Danny didn’t know.

Sitting on a chair, near the far end of the table, sat Doctor Fogarty. How had he gotten in here? Where was his assistant, whatshername? He shook his head, trying to dislodge the name but it wouldn’t budge so he gave up and stared straight ahead.

Behind the Doctor, the plants began to sway in their pots. Danny didn’t think much of it at first. The wind had been blowing through the broken window for some time, making them all shiver slightly. But the potted plants swayed with a motion more akin to water than wind and before he was able to stop it, he started to gag.

“No mister Danny, it would be unwise to throw up again.” Danny recognized the sound of the gardener’s voice but the man who helped him sit upright looked nothing like the diminutive Yoshi. He wore long leather robes tied at the waist with a complicated knot. A sword graced his hip though Danny knew no fear of it. His long black hair, shining even in the weak daylight, was fasted at the back of his head in a long pony tail. Where was the gardener?

“I am right in front of you. You are safe. Your wife is with us. She will need your help to escape.”

“Why do you look like a Samurai?” Yoshi smiled at the question.

“Tell me Mister Danny, What more can you see?”

Danny blinked his eyes over and over because eery time he opened them he had to close them again. There was too much going on to concentrate on any one thing. After much blinking and shaking of his head, he got the bright idea to open one eye only. He opened his right eye a sliver.

The daylight outside the Arboretum had been grey and stormy but Danny could see now that it wasn’t just grey. It was oyster and white and gunmetal and starry silver along the edges of the glass panes that made up each outside wall. The leaves inside made of so many greens that he had to look away until his mind could stop trying name them.

There were patterns everywhere. For half a minute, Danny focused on the broad veined leaf of a banana tree. Patterns within the leaves themselves pulled at his attention and he had to blur out his vision so that he would not get swept up in the drama of so much life, stuffed into one small area.

Never before had he seen the plants like this. The background filler of green and brown had become something new, something hungry, something waiting.

 Then he started to see them. A mailman sat on the far bench. Two small boys played a complicated game with stones on the ground. A woman, heavily pregnant, stood holding her belly in. All waiting patiently for their turn. They wanted something and the more he looked at them, the more he understood the madness of their need.

“Do you see them, Mister Danny?”

“I see them. Why are they angry?” He said.

“She told me the mailman was an accident but I know dog bites when I see them. She wanted me to bury him in the garden. But how could I do that? The poor man had a wife and four children. I did what I could for him. His body is at rest underneath the lemon tree behind the bench.”

Danny studied the lemon tree. He had never seen such a tree. The fruit was gigantic, at least as large as a soccer ball—ribboned and lumpy as a human brain. As he stared, he relaxedhis eyes so that his stare was now blurry. That’s when the loops and swirls of the lemon rind formed a pattern. The pattern then resolved into a simple story.

“She tried to hide their deaths from me but these are my grounds. I am not blind when my shovels go missing. I know where fresh holes are dug.” Samurai Yoshi walked around the dining area pointing to different, large leaved plants. To Danny, they all looked vaguely human and incredibly angry.

 “I found them all and brought them here. Those that had fortunate deaths, I gave burial vessels. For the others, I said the prayer poem and gave them the last hope before leaving this world. Some may be too decayed to help. But you will find all willing.”

Julia, who had been sitting patiently near the boys playing their pebble game, looked at Danny with the concern of a mother hen. “What is it Danny? What do you see?”

“Revenge.”

Chapter 23

“Let go”, a deep voice hissed and bit his ear. Startled, Fogerty let go of Julia and was quickly thrown face down on the ground, his hands cuffed in seconds. He was about to lash out at this unwelcome foe, when he felt his torso jerked backwards and a helmet of metal bands being thrown around his head. He howled, trying with all his strength to pull it off as the intruder began to snap the whole contraption together. Who was trying to do this to him and how did he have so much strength? And where in the world had his power gone?  He could feel the cold metal tightening around his brain. How could this stranger have found out his weakness?

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Fogerty spat at the man.

“Making sure you leave Julia to me” whispered the stranger in his ear as he tightened the pressure around Fogerty’s head.

“Really? You think you can stop me from completing my master plan? Who are you, anyway? You’re a nobody” Fogerty sneered. The man took a strange little remote out of his pocket, and started fiddling with it while he held onto Fogerty’s wrists. It was too dark so see what he was doing with it but Fogerty began to hear a hum which started getting louder and louder and the contraption tighter and tighter around his head until he began to scream. The stranger touched the remote and it stopped. Fogerty tried to twist around but the man shoved him back on the ground with his boot. 

“It’s not important for you to know who I am. I’m a nobody who’s got your head in a vise so tight, that I could suck your brain right out of your head if I choose. The element of surprise is a man’s best friend. And this machine is capable of emitting sound waves that will make you wish you had actually died. I’ve been observing you people from the sidelines for quite a while. I had plenty of time to do my research in the c…..” The stranger stopped. “It doesn’t matter where I’ve been. The important thing is that I’ve spent hundreds of hours studying humans and you freaks and the only way to seriously do damage is by destroying your brain. Now, if you do exactly as I tell you, maybe I’ll let up on the pressure, which I’ve got programmed to increase in microscopic increments every 2 minutes. It’s going to get intense real soon if you don’t cooperate. Capiche?” Fogerty nodded slowly. He could feel his eyes starting to bulge out of their sockets.

“Hey, slanty-eyes, pass me the clamps”. Yoshi just stood there trembling, surveying the scene: Julia, face up and unconscious, Fogerty, defenseless in handcuffs with a crown of metal on his head and the stranger with a boot on the doctor’s back. He didn’t know whether to scream or shout with joy that Fogerty was suddenly powerless.

“Bring the clamps and the medical bag and put them on the ground you dumb ass Chink” the stranger yelled. Yoshi snapped out of his trance and trotted over, quickly setting them on the ground. As he straightened, he faced the man. The stranger was tall, wearing a big rain poncho with a ski mask partially covering his face, and piercing dark eyes. Yoshi didn’t remember ever seeing him at the house before but there was something familiar about him. The man took a step and Yoshi jumped back.

“Now both of you listen carefully. You, you quack doctor, are going to do exactly as I tell if you want to keep the little cerebrum you have left. You’re going to turn over real slow, get on all fours and use your instruments to close up Julia’s stomach. I’m going to uncuff you from behind and the chink is going to use the clamps to hold on to your balls. One false move and not only will your brain fly out like chocolate sauce, your balls will become butter on toast”. Fogerty, face down, started to protest and the stranger squeezed the knob on the remote. The buzz got louder and Fogerty gasped. “No sudden moves, ok? Chink here will be holding your balls with the clamps the whole time you’re working on Julia so if you want to keep them attached to you, you’ll do as you’re told. Everybody ready?”

“Sah”, Yoshi piped up.

 “What”, snarled the stranger.

“Permission to speak, sah?”

“What is it?”

“My name Toshi Yamashita, o Mr. Yamashita, o when mispronounce, Yoshi, but I no Chink. I Japanese. I help you to get Miss Julia betta. Olso happy to cut off Fogaty’s balls”. Yoshi broke out in a broad grin. The man stopped and looked at him for a moment, then nodded.

“Let’s do this.” The man carefully unlocked the cuffs on Fogerty while Yoshi gingerly opened his fly and applied the clamps. Fogerty began foaming at the mouth he was so angry but he knew when he was backed into a corner. Better to do what the man said for now. He’d have a crack at him, whoever he was, later on. He bent over Julia, spread out his tools and began stitching up her abdomen.  Even though she’d lost a lot of blood, miraculously she was still breathing so he had no choice but to sew her up. She’d be left with one hell of a scar. He’d make sure of that. His knees began to ache but every time he tried to switch positions, there was Yoshi, smiling at him, giving a very slight pull with the clamps, sending him into a spasm of pain.

“Dammit Yoshi. Can you ease up?”

“I just doing what man tell me. You lucky I no have bamboo to stick in yo stomach and leave tere”, Yoshi whispered.

“Shut up, the both of you” threatened the stranger. “Hurry up and finish.” Fogerty finished sewing and cut off the thread with scissors, tempted to stab Yoshi but resisting the urge. He’d definitely get him later. He surveyed his work. It wasn’t perfect but she would live. The man stepped on his hands as he started to get up and Fogerty yelped in surprise.

“You didn’t think I was going to let you go just like that, did you?” Fogerty’s screams were deafening as the man turned the knob all the way up on the remote. Yoshi jumped back startled, then looked down at his hand and realized he was still holding the clamp with the balls still in them. Two seconds later, Fogerty’s head cracked open, eyeballs sailing through the air, brains cascading everywhere.

Julia opened her eyes and surveyed the carnage. What in the world was happening? She tried to sit up and groaned. She peered at the man standing over her. Who was this stranger and why had he saved her life? She coughed. “Uh, hello? Can you tell me what’s going on?”

He smiled. “Well, Miss Eubank, it’s lovely to see you again. It’s been quite a while since our last encounter” as the man brushed grey matter off his sleeve. Julia squinted. Hard to see him in this light, especially with a mask on but there was something in his eyes. His voice sounded familiar but from where?

“Have we met? Do I know you?” Julia whispered.

“Not formerly but your face is etched in my memory bank forever.  I know quite a lot of your life story. I read everything I could get my hands on, concerning you. I read about your mother, your surgeries, how you met your future husband at the trial, how you were so compassionate and the only one who voted not to convict the man being tried until you were swayed and the jury eventually found him guilty. He got life without parole. You danced off with your stupid husband. Where is he, by the way? He should be here”.  Julia scrambled weakly to get up. Where was Danny? Was he still alive?

“Sit your ass back down, little lady”, the man spat as he shoved his boot towards her stomach. Julia howled in pain.

“Please, please stop. Why are you doing this? How did you get here?” she managed to gasp.

“I’ve been busy. After disposing of the other 10 items on my list, I came for you and Danny.  I will say the first few were a bit messy and difficult and there was a lot of squirming and blood but I finally got the hang of it. After all, I had some good teachers during my time in the can where I perfected my craft. Mr. Walters, the second-to-last item on my list, was a veritable smorgasbord of techniques that I re-invented. I sliced his tongue, marinated it in red wine and served it to him chilled. Then I set him on fire.” He licked his lips and continued. “I’ve been camping out for weeks in the Arboretum to see when I could make my last move. It wasn’t easy with all those stupid dogs and bats and zombies flying around, I can tell you. The helmet is my latest masterpiece. It’s a twofer; works as well on the living as the undead. I was planning to use it on Danny first so you could watch him die slowly. But the doctor ended up getting in the way. What a pity I had to spoil the surprise.”

“Who the hell are you?” Julia shouted.

“Jerry Granville, at your service. Or should I say, your deathbed”, as he took off his mask and smiled.

Chapter 24

There was someone else besides the escaped Jerry Granville who had been studying the situation at Villa Barbara for many years. Jane Yamashita, Toshi’s ex-wife, had hunkered down since their divorce in Portland, Oregon, a safe distance, she hoped, from Toshi’s dabblings in the herbology of the supernatural. When he’d called her to say he’d taken his job back at the Eubank Arboretum, she’d told him to stop contacting her. She didn’t want anything to do with that place, didn’t want to be drawn in to the grief that was sure to befall him there. But Toshi hadn’t stopped calling her.

Toshi called Jane weekly, in fact. And though she never answered his calls, he left detailed and lengthy messages about the goings-on on the “sacred grounds,” as he called the land he worked. Jane knew Toshi called partly because their love had never truly waned, though they couldn’t make the marriage work, and partly because he knew she was the only other person on the planet with skills more honed than his.

They’d met in the Amazon, on a research trip focused on harvesting the blood of insects and oils of tropical plants which, when mixed together in exactly the right combination and applied to beings—alive or dead—in just the right earthly vortex, could obscure what was natural and produce all manner of unusual mutations.

Toshi had hit the jackpot. The land on which Villa Barbara dwelt was a spiritual vortex, to be sure—as full of mysterious energy as the Bermuda Triangle or Easter Island. And to add to his luck, Toshi had stumbled on a job with a woman who fancied herself immortal, a delusional, dying woman with fantasies of power and eternal youth. Toshi could make her dreams come true while experimenting with his tinctures to his heart’s content. But he didn’t know the power of land—not at first, anyhow.

Jane hated listening to Toshi’s weekly voicemails, but listen she did. She listened and took notes when he told her how the Shitzu Caterpillar blood he mixed with the sap of a Blue Orchid Tree produced the effect of turning a human into a large bat, while in dogs, it simply created a more amorous mood. And she took notes when he called two days ago and told her things were slipping out of his control. The spiritual energy of the land, the pure evil of Barbara, and Toshi’s own growing collection of potions and poisons were a lethal combination.

But then when Jane read in the paper that Jerry Granville, the man Danny and Julia had put away when they’d met doing jury duty, had hunted down and killed his tenth juror, she knew he was on his way to find the O’Sheas. And she knew he would use Toshi to get to them. She had to resign herself that she was the only one who could stop the chaos.

Jane, a tiny blond woman with big round brown eyes, a quick mind, and an even quicker wit, had been raised by her grandmother, a Norwegian spiritualist, who’d made enough money talking to the dead relatives of her clients to send Jane to the best colleges—both traditional and alternative in nature. Jane’s studies in botany, parapsychology, and spiritualism were thorough and solid. And although Jane loathed the idea of setting one foot onto the ground of the godforsaken Villa Barbara, she also knew that she was quite possibly the only person on the planet who could unfurl the haunting, unbedazzle the spells and set Toshi free from the hell he’d created for himself.

Maybe she was co-dependent, but she couldn’t stand by and watch him deal with the consequences of his addiction.

Jane felt sure that if she could get to Villa Barbara in time, she could quiet the place, save those who were salvageable and help Toshi cover up the damage he’d done so that no one would know anything more than that the old woman Barbara had died a peaceful death. But if she didn’t get there in time, Toshi would be on his own with whoever was left alive and a crazed ex-convict bent on killing Julia and Danny and disposing of anyone who witnessed the carnage.

She sped North on I-5, trying to remember what her grandmother had taught her of the underworld and how to mollify the angry spirits of the undead when they refused to rest. There was a promise her grandmother used to make to the spirits that seemed to calm them… what was it? Ah, yes, that they would find peace and ongoing youth if only they would move into the darkness and leave the living to finish off their lives. Peace and youth! Could something that simple do the trick?

Her cell phone rang and she saw that it was Toshi. For the first time in three years, she answered.

“Toshi, are you safe?”

“Not much,” he whispered into the phone.

“Can you speak freely?”

“No,” he said.

“Then let me ask you questions and answer quietly,” she suggested.

“Yes,” he concurred.

“Is Granville there?”

“Yes.”

“How many are left alive?”

“Few,” Toshi answered.

“Julia?”

“Yes.”

“Barbara?”

He was quiet.

“Toshi, has she taken in the lives of the others? Has she become young again? Did you give her the reversal serum to help her grow young?”

“Yes,” he said, and she could hear the sorrow in his voice. He was not solely responsible for this, but certainly none of it would have happened if his hunger for experimentation hadn’t been so insatiable.

“How about Danny? Is he still alive?”

“Maybe,” Toshi said.

If she had to guess, Jane would say Danny had succumbed to a Samurai vision or had been rifled away by a blizzard composed of the undead. This is what Jane feared, that the spiritual energy of the land was unpredictable. Tinctures and mixtures whose outcomes could be controlled on neutral land had dire effects when applied at the energetic vortexes on earth.

“This isn’t good, Toshi. I’m on my way. But you must get to the Western Evictus Palm and draw out fresh sap.”

“No!” Toshi said on the other end of the phone, probably too loudly. Jane hoped he hadn’t been heard by whomever, whatever he was hiding from.

“Yes, Toshi!” she said firmly. “It’s over, honey. You must bring this enchantment to an end. You’ve already got the blood of too many souls on your head. If you don’t bring this to an end, I will. I’ve got the bones of the Australian Frilled Dragon and the leaves of the Eucalyptus-Pine hybrid we grafted together back when we were first married. But YOU have to get the fresh sap of the Evictus Palm. Do you understand me?”

She could almost hear the resignation in Toshi’s sigh. “I will,” he said finally. “Come quickly.”

She hung up the phone and saw the sign: “21 miles to Junction I-405.”

“I’m coming Toshi. Just hold on,” she said as she drove under the sign. Another hour and she would be in the fray. She reached over and opened her glove box to check for the fifth time that she had her pistol. Everyone else she could take care of with a potion or a spell, but for Jerry Granville, she might need a gun.

Chapter 28

In the recesses of her mind, Julia tried to fend off the power of the Guardian. The worst of the challenge came from its source: this Guardian was her first husband, Robert, and he had always held a special sway over her, one that had allowed him to talk her into being his special plastic surgery plaything. Now, she could barely fight his will, though the other Guardian would have been nearly as strong against her.

Another fierce jolt shook the ground, and the Guardian had to step to its left to maintain its balance, wings flailing at the same time. It looked down to make sure it wasn’t going to step into the widening crack in the earth. Julia felt its paralyzing hold on her mind snap, and she averted her eyes quickly. The Guardian screamed with rage, but she knew it knew better than to do her any physical harm. Julia was the conduit for the passage from the other world, and only the Barbara- and Gordon-creatures could sacrifice her to the cause.

She didn’t really intend to curl up and die, but it was nice to know how the deck was stacked.

Her gut was ablaze, but the adrenaline coursing through her allowed her to pick up Danny again. She had to be careful; the Guardian couldn’t injure her, but Danny was expendable. Would the Guardian consider that? She looked at its chin and assumed her most authoritarian stance.

“Robert, your friend Gordon is having trouble with that Granville fellow. You would be better off helping Gordon, since you can’t touch me.”

The Guardian emitted a squawk and hopped over her head, its wings sending a rush of disgusting wind through her hair, which sparked brightly once again. In her arms, Danny stirred and wrapped his arms around her neck.

Julia stepped out of the greenhouse. The earth rumbled again, and a glance back showed Julia how close the structure was to falling. Up the hill, Villa Barbara struggled against what seemed to be a gigantic tornado. Occasional chunks of debris flew away, but the black funnel pulsated as if it were a spider’s mummification of a wasp. Was anyone still in there? she asked herself.

Probably just Pete, who might or might not be her grandfather. Could she save him? Judging by the strength of the howling vortex, no. Still, he had saved her from Orchid, and perhaps she could just set Danny down and try . . .

She shook her head. That bad idea came from the otherworldly creatures who were still tugging at her mind. The mailman’s children spoke up to endorse her decision. Take Danny to the driveway, they said. Julia trusted them, though she wasn’t sure why she should trust anyone other than Danny.

But maybe rescuing Pete was the right thing. Though she fought the urge, she took two steps toward the maelstrom that was Villa Barbara. Just then, the vortex spit out another object, and it flew in her direction. It grew in size from what had seemed to be a doll from her childhood to the out-of-control shape of a crash-test dummy. It was Pete, and he landed fifty feet in front of her with a thud she could hear above the whistling roar of the tornado. He skidded down the hill on his face, flesh peeling off and leaving a skid mark behind him. He fetched up two feet in front of her. The voices urging her to rescue him vanished. She turned toward the driveway.

She found that, if she held her breath, she could take five steps without as much pain. Then, she would stop, slowly let out her breath as if she were doing Pilates, inhale again, and take another five steps. The slow pace frustrated her, but she had no choice.

Julia saw an unfamiliar car in the driveway.  Now what? She wanted to cry. This could not be good. She heard footsteps circling behind her. Really not good. She looked back, and for a moment she thought a satchel-laden Avon lady was sneaking up on her. Terrible. Then the woman raised her hand and flashed a pistol. Not an Avon lady, then.

“I’m unarmed” was all Julia could think to say. Danny gripped her more tightly and muttered something almost intelligible.

“Julia? Is that you or one of the dogs?”

Julia almost peed herself with relief, but she’d gotten tired of doing that. “Do I know you?”

The woman, blonde and big-eyed, exuded comfort in this chaos. “I’m Jane. It’s been a long time. You really are Julia still?”

“Still. Again. Something like that. You’re Toshi’s wife?”

“Ex-wife, partly because this mess was going to happen. I’m here to fix things, with Toshi’s help.”

With a gun? Julia thought. Good luck. “How did you know we were in trouble?” she asked.

“Toshi called me and asked me to come.”

What?” Julia stared. “His cell phone worked?”

“Sure.”

“Cell phones have never worked here. Why didn’t that idiot call the frickin’ police?

“Toshi doesn’t always make good decisions. Besides, do you want to explain this situation?”

“Explain it? Hell, I’m going to write a book about it, assuming I live to see tomorrow.”

“My head hurts,” Danny said.

“Of course it does, sweetheart. You got dropped on your head three times in the past half hour.”

Julia’s eyes widened. “Danny? Did you just talk?”

“Yeah. At least I know why my head hurts. How can you carry me?”

She suddenly realized how heavy he was. His torso slipped from her arms, and he landed on his head.

Fuck!” he screamed.

“Sorry, sweetheart. Can you stand?”

Danny stood slowly. He swayed so far that Julia thought he would topple, but he regained his footing.

“My head hurts.”

Julia and Jane exchanged a glance. “Have a seat by my car,” Jane said. “We’ll be right back.” She pointed with her gun at the greenhouse. She and Julia trotted toward the door, which was far enough out of true that its angles were obvious to the naked eye. They had almost reached it when a huge wrenching noise, like rusty nails being pulled from boards, sounded behind them. The entire hillside shook when Villa Barbara imploded.

Stunned to see her childhood home disappear, Julia stood in mute awe. When the clatter subsided, the wind of the vortex subsided, and voices arose from the rubble.

“It’s the dead, coming from the vortex,” Jane said.

“No, it’s the Gorgons,” Julia said. “We’ll have to get them out of there, if we can. But later.” She turned and stepped over the threshold of the greenhouse, Jane trailing her.

Julia could tell that Jane had not expected what they were seeing. To Julia, it was the new normal: the Robert-Guardian and Gordon were standing over a cowed Jerry Granville; Toshi was sitting on a bench, patiently awaiting his ex-wife’s arrival; and a little girl was playing with the phantoms of the mailman’s children. She stood out from them by being substantial, compared to their misty appearance.

“Who are these people?” Jane asked. “Don’t bother telling me who the Japanese guy is.”

“Gordon, Jerry Granville, my ex-husband Robert, who is now a giant bat, and a girl I’ve never seen before. Little girl, you shouldn’t be here.”

The girl turned, and Julia saw her mother’s face. Julia screamed.

“Stop laughing!” Jane said.

“I can’t help it!” Julia screamed with laughter again, and she clutched at her side. “Wow, if I rip my stitches, I’m doomed.”

“What? Stitches?” Julia lifted her top, and Jane turned pale. Her mouth began to flap as if she were a fish out of water.

“Chill, Jane. There’s plenty of time to deal with my liver. Right now, we have to fix this mess.”

“My head hurts.” Julia and Jane turned and saw Danny in the doorway.

“Danny! Back to the car, sweetheart.”

“No,” Toshi said. “I have a drink for Mr. Danny. Then he will know what to do.”

“That’s right,” Jane said grimly. “Danny is the man for this job.”

“Okayyy . . . ” Julia shrugged her shoulders.

“Julia, honey, if you get me away from these monsters, I won’t kill you.” Jerry Granville’s voice sounded weak and plaintive.

“What about Danny?”

“Well, I. . . . Okay, I won’t kill him, either.”

“That’ll leave your little plan unfinished.” Julia waited for his outburst.

Jerry turned red with rage. “No one will keep me from finishing the job!” He clapped his hand over his mouth.

“Right,” Jane replied. “Toshi, give Danny that juice of yours.”

Toshi scrambled around some fallen crockery, leapt across the chasm, over the heads of the waiting red-eyed demons, and handed Danny a beaker full of seaweed-green slime.

“No muffin?” Danny asked.

“Not this time, Mr. Danny. This drink will soak into the muffin in your tummy, and you will be strong and healthy again.”

“Will my head stop hurting?”

“In two to four weeks, if you avoid activity and thinking.”

Danny drank the potion, and Julia saw its effect immediately. My husband is back! she thought. Tears sprang to her eyes. Danny took a step, and the ground rumbled.

“Cool,” he said. He took another step. No rumble.

“Coincidence,” Toshi said. “Now, you go strangle Gordon and the Guardian. I killed the other Guardian while you were playing outside.”

Playing? How dare you?” Julia said, suddenly furious.

“Bad translation,” Toshi said.

Danny strode across the room toward Gordon and the Guardian. They cowered next to Jerry, who suddenly looked to be the least fearful of the three.

You will know when to act, the children had told him. Now, as he stood before the demons, they spoke again: “Do what you must. Now!

Danny reached toward Gordon, and without thinking, he seized Gordon by the neck and threw him into the chasm. One scream, cut short, was all Danny heard, but then he heard what sounded like a hundred raspy tongues licking, licking.

The huge bat blinked at him, looking resigned to its fate. You’re happy it’s over, Danny thought, and a reply came into his mind: “Yes.” Without regret, Danny grabbed his former nemesis by the scruff of his neck and deposited him gently in the pit. A fireball burst forth, and all that remained of the Guardian were ashes that the red-eyed creatures inhaled, coughing.

So he wasn’t immortal, Danny thought. Better to be mortal than to live in that hell.

He looked at Jerry Granville, whose face was a mass of competing tics.

“You wanted to kill my wife.”

“I wasn’t really gonna—”

“You’re a complete ass. Mrs. Toshi, shoot him.”

Jane stepped over to Danny, but Toshi called out. “No, Mr. Danny, I have a better plan.” He brought a beaker of a different brew to Jerry. Drink this!”

Jerry drank. Slurping greedily, aiming to please, he swallowed every bit of the beverage, except for a thin film that stuck to the bottom of the beaker.

“What did that do?” Danny asked.

“It made Jerry Granville immortal,” Toshi replied calmly.

What?” Julia, Danny, and little Barbara screamed. Jane stood calmly, rocking with suppressed laughter.

“Toshi, sometimes you still are fun,” she said finally.

“Now, Mr. Danny, throw him in the pit,” Toshi said. When Danny realized what Toshi had done, he smiled.

“Gladly.” He picked up the screaming Jerry Granville by the throat and heaved him into the pit. Again came the licking and slurping sounds. This time, the screams went on for much longer.

Danny looked at Barbara, then at Toshi.

“I think her youth potion forgot to stop,” Toshi said innocently.

Barbara’s eyes glowed green, and Danny saw that everyone looked away. He, however, engaged her gaze, and the green glow faded.

“Barbara?”

“Yes, Danny. I’m sorry for all the lies I told you. I’m sorry for the things I didn’t say. But more than anything else, I’m sorry for myself—”

“Is she quoting John Denver?” Jane asked.

“Not on purpose,” Barbara said. “I’m sorry for myself, because I let Fogarty and Troutman and Gordon and Pete and those damned dogs keep me away from my baby girl. And Julia, I’m sorry about our lost time.”

Julia let out a sob and ran to Barbara, who stood as tall as Julia’s armpit. They hugged, and Barbara shrank another four inches.

“This isn’t going to work out, darling,” Barbara said, and she jumped into the pit.

No!” Julia screamed. But a basso rumbling throbbed its way up to the surface, cutting off Julia’s grieving. Jane looked up.

“Run.” She said it so calmly that no one moved. Jane turned and sprinted for the door, and finally the others followed. Toshi, Julia, and Danny reached the field in time to avoid the glittering, tinkling collapse of the greenhouse. It fell into the crack in the earth, filling it but not sealing it. A green miasma the color of Toshi’s potions oozed from the crack, and the light breeze carried it over the Arboretum. Within minutes, all of the trees were blackened as if they had burned.

Julia stood sobbing in Danny’s arms. Danny rubbed his temple with one hand and held Julia with the other arm. Jane tentatively laid her head on Toshi’s shoulder, and he hugged her.

“We’ll need to fill in that crack,” Danny said.

“It goes deep, to the center of Hell, and to another dimension,” Toshi said. “We cannot fill it.”

“Then this story is not over,” Julia said.

“I’m afraid not,” Toshi said.

“We need to see if we can save the Gorgons,” Julia said.

“Oh, right,” Jane replied. I don’t want to call the cops, but we’ll have to find someone quickly who can bring rescue dogs.”

“No dogs,” Julia, Danny, and Toshi said in unison.

Chapter 29

After the transfusions for blood loss, and the surgery to repair her liver, Julia spent her convalescence writing a memoir of the last days of Villa Barbara. She didn’t really know what she was doing, but a couple of friends knew she was writing a book about her mom, and they directed her to a memoir-writing class held in Bellingham.

She didn’t mind the commute, because she got a lot of good ideas for the memoir from the drive. Images she had suppressed came surging back when she was in the car, and she always took time to scribble notes before she went to her class.

Finally, she turned in her first chapter to her teacher, Laura Kalpakian. Laura took it and smiled. “Good, Julia. I’m glad you got this first chapter out. It’s always the hardest one.” She glanced at the first page.

“You’re telling it in the third person. Are you sure you want to do that?”

“I am. I want the flexibility of multiple points of view.”

“That’s fine. Now, let me read, and I’ll tell you what I think as soon as I finish reading your chapter. Don’t be nervous.”

Julia watched Laura settle in to read. She could recite the chapter word for word:

Barbara Eubank always wanted what she could not have. Now she wanted not to die, and in this she would probably be disappointed. Life had not prepared Barbara for disappointment, though she had endured some setbacks. Of course she had. She had wanted for instance, a daughter who would reflect maternal glory, a talented child in whose accomplishments Barbara herself would shine, a beauty.  Or perhaps she did not want a child at all, and the notion was Gordon’s.  In any event when Barbara was over forty Julia Eubank came into this world,  born with a tiny set of stars on her right cheek, set into a crescent. In another more blighted era these bright red aberrations might have marked the baby with some sort of evil eye. As it was, her late father, Gordon, thought they signified that his little girl was truly someone special. Her mother, however, set about having them removed. Julia had her first plastic surgery when she was six. The job was botched and she bore the scars and the red stars ever after. Barbara’s gaze always went first to her daughter’s cheek and Julia had picked up a habit, never altogether lost, of stroking that cheek, covering the scars, however momentarily with her fingers.

In other respects, Barbara was more successful in achieving her desires. She had wanted a Provençal villa, although the Eubank home, all fifty acres, was in the hills just east of Seattle where the weather— chill, damp, persistently rainy and gray— better befitted England than Provence. None of that deterred her. The Villa Barbara (red-tiled roof, peach colored walls) overlooked fountains, decks, a pool, tennis courts, guest cottages and an eight car garage. The grounds and gardens, with their own lake, were superb and often used as the setting for fund raisers by the various charities Barbara endorsed. The gardens were so perfect they seemed to have been created, maintained for an institution, not a home. Originally the fence surrounding her property was electrified, but when so many small animals were found fried (and not so small: deer were electrocuted as well) Barbara graciously bowed to protests of the Humane Society. Among her many charities she was a charter subscriber to the Humane Society and could hardly be seen to be inflicting cruelty to animals. She cut the power to the electric fence, and settled for thick coils of barbed wire along the top. And this too contributed to the institutional flavor of the place.

However, even Barbara Eubank could not alter the Northwest weather patterns to suit her Provençal villa.  Still, she had boundless money, ambition, and resolve and after her husband’s death she built an enormous tropical arboretum. This grandiose greenhouse rose up, three stories high, glassed and gorgeous at the north end of the Villa. Barbara visited daily, often taking her solitary meals there amid the leafy canopy. Lascivious orchids drooping from high perches, cascaded in clusters of brilliant yellow with long purple tongues lolling down,  palms and banana trees, thorny pineapple plants abounded, and enormous mango trees on which rosy, breast-shaped fruit clung.  Originally she hired Toshi Yamashita, the master botanist, to oversee her arboretum; he in turn hired a crew of six to see to the perfection of the place. For twenty years Mr. Yamashita endured Barbara’s tantrums when her plants died, never mind that these tropical flowers were not meant for the Northwest, and if the heating system so much as faltered in winter, the effect could be catastrophic. Still he tolerated her outbursts and demands with a Buddha’s stoicism until January when she fired him, and then, still stoic, he took his leave of her without another word. This drove her into more of a fury.

In the six or seven months since Mr. Yamashita left she had enlarged the scope of the arboretum to include small tropical animals and many birds that flitted and screeched in the thick greenery. Now truly, the place was her own private Amazon.  She imported two zookeepers, hiring them away from Woodland Park Zoo at an exorbitant salary without quite adding that she expected them to live there 24/7. They did not have the stoicism of the Buddha. Since then, staffing the place had turned into a nightmare which had fallen on the narrow shoulders of Elliott Troutman.

The aptly named Elliott Troutman, Mrs. Eubank’s longtime attorney had dealt with all of Barbara’s nightmares big and small. He had served Barbara for forty years, longer than Julia had been alive. Ordinarily he would not have insisted, but in this case he did: Mr. Yamashita must return.  Once Barbara had taken against someone, nothing could change her mind, and for reasons unknown she had taken against the quiet, competent Mr. Yamashita. Elliott did not judge or condemn Barbara, did not try to reason with her once she had set her mind to something. However he gave her no choice, and Mr. Yamashita did indeed return, though he negotiated carefully for his contract and he came at a very steep price which Elliott paid. Mr. Yamashita also insisted on hiring his own staff without Barbara’s or Elliott’s approval, and in this Elliott was happy to accede. One less thing to worry about. He even agreed to high salaries for them.

Elliott was a man accustomed to settling difficulties with Barbara’s money. He wished more difficulties could be solved with mere money. There were those who said that Elliott Troutman was cruel and unfeeling, but this wasn’t so. He was simply so very good at masking his emotions that he seemed to have none. Still, he was pained—somewhere deep down in what passed for a heart— that each day he had to inform Barbara’s daughter Julia that her mother steadfastly refused to see her. Every day he met them at the door when one of the few servants left told him they’d arrived. Today he found them in the Villa’s grand foyer, low lamps casting shadows on the cold marble floors. He nodded to Julia’s husband, Danny O’Shea,  said again that Barbara had not had a change of heart. Or a change of mind.  Nothing had changed.

Julia shivered. “We’ll wait anyway,” she said. “You’ll see that she knows I’m here, won’t you, Elliott?” She nibbled her nails and played with her long straight hair. Her mother always told her not to, but she couldn’t help it. Her mother always told her to stand up straight, but she hunched over just the same, as though protecting her soft solar plexus. She had a firm jaw and a weak mouth and her body was fleshy, of comfortable proportions. Julia was one of those people, diligent but not talented; in school she had got good grades, but never excelled at anything. She was a preschool teacher which her mother considered degrading.  She was married to a building inspector whom her mother considered disgraceful.

“If she changes her mind, if there’s any change at all, I promise I will call you, Julia,” Elliot offered. “It’s not really useful for you to be here, to wait, for…for…an unlikely event.”

“We’re here now,” said Julia her words firm, but her voice wavering. “We’ll wait with you.”

Her husband, Danny, a big man a man with easy-going ways, took her hand and they followed Elliott down the long halls, lit only here and there with lamps and littered about with gurneys and wheelchairs, rolling IV’s, the hardware of long-term illness. Barbara had been moved into one of the ground floor suites, and a whole bevy of nurses’ assistants engaged and round-the-clock care administered by Dr. Fogarty and his head nurse, Ingrid Muhl.

The three came into the sitting room outside the sickroom. For all its spaciousness, the room was close, the windows firmly shut and draped. It was decorated in the Villa Barbara’s eclectic style, which is the correct term for people with lots of money and no taste. This room, like the rest of the Villa testified to Barbara’s travels, her passion for shopping and her conviction that her taste was infallible. This conviction was generally upheld by all who knew her.  The walls were paneled in rich wood, and Italian leather couches sat about at sociable intervals. There was a well-stocked bar, and a huge television, muted, blared colorful pictures.

From the sickroom came the yapping of Barbara’s bevy of dogs from whom she was never separated and there was as well a low medical Muzak, the drone of voices punctuated by the occasional yelp or scream, though whose scream, it was impossible to tell.

Julia’s blue eyes were red-rimmed from crying, her face pale, her shoulders more rounded, hunched than usual. “She will want to see me. I know she will.”

Elliott would utter no disloyalty to Barbara. He glanced at Danny, not surprised to see the younger man’s face wreathed in contempt.

Danny O’Shea’s  reactions to Barbara Eubank were not complex. He loathed Barbara. Danny thought that Barbara Eubank was the Chernobyl of Motherhood: a parent who reflexively rendered her child into ash. And never was there a daughter more eager to please her mother than Julia. Her desperate little gestures wishing to be worthy of her mother’s love were touching and pathetic. And now Barbara Eubank was going to die denying her daughter any last sense of forgiveness, of acceptance, inflicting this last wretched cruelty. Barbara was going to burden Julia with a sorrow she would not be able to shed for the rest of her life. Knowing he was powerless to protect his wife grated on a man like Danny O’Shea.

Elliott’s cell phone beeped and his laptop computer blinked, a solitary blue eye. While Elliott took his call, Danny again tried to reason with Julia, urging her to go home, not to put herself through this torture.

“You can leave if you want,” she said. “But I’m going to stay. She might need me.”

“Baby, you know I will never leave you here alone. I’ve always done my best to protect you from her and I’m not leaving you alone with her now. I don’t care if she is dying.” Hurry up and die, Barbara, he thought, hurry up and die already. Her nails were all bitten down to the quick. She brought her blue eyes up to him and Danny was seized with an inexplicable rush of tenderness, love and affection, a thump of hunger, lust and gratitude, that great broth of emotion he always felt for his beautiful wife.

“She won’t leave me without saying goodbye,” Julia whispered.

She’s inflicted thirty-six years of cruelty on you, Danny thought, why not one more? But he did not say this. He did not need to.

She turned to Elliott, her eyes imploring.

“I’m sorry Julia,” he replied, unmoved, “I am a slave to her whims. As are we all.”

“Not all of us,” Danny sniped. No savages in his family.

Elliott turned back to his laptop and Danny and Julia sat together on the couch, holding hands.

“Mother?” Julia whispered.

The door slammed in their faces, catching in the draft a scent of something ammoniac and repellent, of, rot and putrefaction that swirled over them and then plummeted like a spent banner at their feet.

Laura put her hand on Julia’s. “That’s a tough family life, Julia. Is your mom still alive?”

Julia shook her head sadly. “Just as we were getting close, her youth potion shrank her, and she jumped into a bottomless pit.”

Laura stood. “Well, I’m looking forward to reading that chapter. See you next week.”

*****

By the next week, Julia had the courage to bring to class everything she had written about her experience up to that point. She thumped the manuscript on her desk. Her classmates stared at the pile of paper.

“Good work, Julia,” Laura said. “Would you do us the honor of reading one of your chapters?”

Julia chose this one:

The foyer smelled sweet and putrid at the same time, like death.  Danny had smelled the same smell in some of the crawl spaces he’d bellied under.  Yes, it was usually mice or rats that stunk up old buildings and sewer tunnels, but on occasion he came across the corpse of a small animal, eyes hollow, gums pulled back over snarling teeth, and fur matted with blood, which always scared the hell out of him.  It was in those moments that he often lost his cookies.

It was the same smell Danny had protected Julia from the awful night they’d finally seen Barbara.  He recalled heading down the hall, his arm wrapping her, shielding her fragility, her tender heart.  They’d seen Julia’s mother, her shriveled skin, the patch of white hair, those terrible green gleaming eyes and knew that something in the doctor’s treatment had gone dangerously wrong.

Danny’s stomach tightened now, not wanting it to turn on him, so he swallowed repeatedly, forcing the bile to stay put.  And secretly, even though his wife seemed to be familiar with a horrific world he knew nothing of, he wanted to remain strong for her.

“Danny, the smell,” she said, so weakly.

“It’s okay, dear.  Here,” he said and handed her his clean handkerchief to cover her nose.

Poor Julia had experienced enough stress since that awful visit to put someone in a mental hospital.  One thing he could say for her; however, was that she was sturdier than her waifish demeanor appeared.  He turned to her in the dim light, squeezing her hand more tightly…partially so as to not let go of her inside the eerie and possibly life-threatening Barbara Villa, but also, and this was hard for him to admit, he’d feel more secure himself.  She looked up at him, eyes wide, the kerchief pressed over her nose and mouth.

“Where’s Robert?” he whispered.  “We left the greenhouse at the same time.  Maybe he’ll be coming in through back entrance?”

“I don’t know,” Julia mumbled, her voice so childlike beneath the cloth that Danny wanted to forget it all.  He wanted to turn around and take her home, no not to their home, but to his Uncle’s.  He realized what he really wanted to do was get in the car and drive and drive and drive until they were far away from all of this.  They could be across state, to his Uncle’s house in Spokane in a little over four hours.  They could rest in the upstairs bedroom with the dormer and the mullioned windows looking out on snowy Manito Park.  Yes, they’d sleep soundly under eiderdown, wrapped in each other’s arms, the smell and visions of all this wretchedness far from their dreaming minds.

“Eeeewwwaaaeeech,” the sound was sudden and piercing.  Danny jumped, nearly stumbling into a pillar. Julia dropped to a squat, throwing her arms around his legs like a child.

“Danny,” she shrieked.

“What the fuck…” Danny said, looking up just as the black shape struck him, knocking him backwards.  There was no way he could step back to keep himself from falling as Julia’s arms hugged his legs too tightly to allow any movement.

The flying creature swooped again and despite his flailing arms reaching for the pillar, Danny’s great bulk hit hard on the marble floor, his hip, the same hip he’d injured in the crawlspace accident while inspecting a house built on a burial ground.  The stop-order he’d placed wasn’t necessary, as the ancestors rose up, taking things into their own hands before any violation could be filed.

“Danny, oh my god,” Julia screamed. “Are you hurt?”

Groaning, Danny surveyed the dim foyer.  He saw the shadowy wings, great in their size, much larger than he’d expect of a bat…flying toward them.  “Lookout,” he yelled, throwing his arms around Julia, protecting her, he thought, from the final attack.  But as he moved, he realized she was limp in his arms…and still his legs were bound.

“Dammit, Julia,” he hissed, “let go of me.”  He reached down, trying to loosen her arms.  At the same time, the bat was nearly upon him again.  Letting go of Julia, he flung his fisted hands overhead, making impact, slugging the giant creature, hearing the sickening crunch as his fist struck its skull.  The animal tumbled off to his left, landing slightly behind him.  Scooting forward, he forced Julia’s arms from his legs.  She’d passed out, he guessed, and though she was a petite woman, he could barely budge her.  It was as though rigor mortis had set in.

“Julia, darling,” he called, shaking her gently.  “We’ve got to hide.  Julia!  Goddamnit, not again.”

And then he heard it, the awful scream that had called them to this hell hole in the first place. 

“Julia,” he cried, his heart thwacking inside his chest like a cleaver.  They had to get up from the floor.  A scratching sound came from behind him.  He turned quickly, seeing nothing.  Where the hell’s that pervert, he wondered.  “Robert….” he yelled.

He thought he heard footsteps coming from down the hall.  Momentarily, his heart lightened.

“Daaaannnnny.” His name cut through the air, riding the noxious scent, hissing near his right ear in a pitch that felt obscene.  Then a flash of light and blackness.

* * *

Danny’s  head ached, the back of it that is.  He turned slightly.  There was a lump as large as the apple he’d eaten earlier, centered on his occiput.  His stomach growled.  That’s all he’d eaten and suddenly he felt the hollowness in his stomach aching as well.  He ached in other places too.   His fingers hurt.  Not in a bad way, but as if they’d been asleep.  And his hip.  And his cock.

Where was Julia?  He needed her.  He wanted to make love to her.  He wanted to feel safe in her arms.  He wanted it worse than anything.   “Julia, darling?  Julia?”

He was cold.  Where was the eiderdown cover, the soft mattress, the cozy room overlooking the park and the snowy night in Spokane?  Had he dreamed it? They could be there in no time at all.  Or maybe he was there.  He opened his eyes.  Everything was dark.  All he had to do is get up…go to the window, pull back the curtains and look out at the snowy park, glowing in moonlight.

He started to weep.  Where was he?  “Jules?  Sweetheart?”

He was lying on a cold, hard surface, and the room smelled strange, like animal fur, a rat nest, mold.  He was reduced to blubbering, big Danny O’Shea crying until snot ran out of his nose.  He reached his hand to wipe it away, but a band bit into his flesh.  He jerked hard, but the leather didn’t budge.  Then he checked the other wrist, also tethered.  Jerking his fists in a fit of rage, he went from blubbering child to enraged, Danny O’Shea, building inspector, weight lifter, ex-football player…. He couldn’t budge.

“Danny?”

“Julia, thank God.”

“Where are we?” she said.  “I just felt something.  Oh my god, get it off of me.  Get it off.”

“Julia, I can’t move.”

“Get it off, Danny.”

“My wrists are tied, darling.  It’ll be all right!”

Julia screamed.  “Oh, oh, oh….it’s gone now.  I’m okay.  I’m okay.”

“I think you’re close.  Are your wrist’s tied?”

“Yes, Danny,” she whimpered.  “I’m so sorry.  This is all my fault.  I’m a failure.  As a daughter and as a wife.  If I’m not dead soon, I’ll kill myself.  It’s the stars.  I’m jinxed.  Forever jinxed.”

“Darling, don’t say that,” Danny said, wanting to weep again. He controlled the urge this time, sniffing loudly.  “Where are we? Do you know this place?  It smells like a basement…a wine cellar perhaps?”

“It’s the cellar yes, where Mother keeps her expensive vintages.”

Danny wiggled his fingers, felt the edge of a knot.  He fussed at it, remembering the dogs barking.  Maybe that is what he smelled.  A kennel.  They’d locked the dogs in the darkest bowels of Barbara Villa that night.  And now they’d been replaced.

“Danny, I think I wet myself,” Julia said.  “Oh, I’m so embarrassed.”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Danny said.  He could feel the knot loosening in the palm of his hand.

“What was that thing, the thing that swooped down on us?”

“I couldn’t see well…but I think it was a giant bat.”

Julia whimpered.  “I must have passed out.  I dreamed of animals.  All kinds of animals.  They were crawling everywhere.  All over me, biting me terribly.”

“You did that trance thing again.”  Danny got one hand free…and reached to loosen the restraint from the other.  “This table’s so cold.  And rough.  We’re laid out on stone.  Oh my god…this is a….”

* * *

All Robert ever wanted was to get back at Barbara for taking away his beautiful Julia.  Yes, he had his little “problem” with the sight of blood, but it never compromised his ability to make a face more beautiful, to make it better than right for this wretched world.  He had the ability to take wretchedness and make a god from a wreck of a person, a god who could rise up and be more than he or she could ever imagine being.

Now he was alone with her, the witch, his former mother-in-law.  And he was in her bed, her foul breath wafting over him like toxic waste.  When he’d first arrived, he’d heard Danny and Julia and was heading toward them when he saw the shadow leave the sick room and flying down the hall into the expansive foyer.  As it flew, the lights dimmed behind it.  Some trickery, he expected, as shadowy light is easier to attack by.  Besides, he knew how it worked with the undead…light meant its demise.  Not ambient light, not the light of a candle, say, but bright light.  That’s what he needed now.  A light as bright as day, as bright as the lights he used for surgery.

For now; however, he was lying naked next to Barbara.  He was, for all intents and purposes, her next victim.

“I love you,” she crooned.  “I always have.  Do you know how it hurt me that you chose Julia over me?”

When hell freezes over, he thought.  “Barbara, love will come to us eventually, but right now, we need to help Julia.  She’s infected with something…the plant, or maybe something inherited.  You have a heart…I know you do.  You alone can save her.”

“Shut up,” Barbara ordered. She levitated off the bed, her fangs popping out, growing is size and dripping affluent. “I want to savor this moment.  I have Adonis in my bed.  I mean to stretch our time together into eternity.”

“No, Barbara.  No….”

“Didn’t you feel the prick?”

Robert reached a hand to the back of his neck.  Two tender welts marred his perfect hairline.  “My god, Barbara.  I thought…”

Julia was so absorbed in the story that she didn’t notice that one of her classmates had gone to vomit in the waste can.

“Julia, honey,” Laura said tentatively, “Have you thought about . . . calling this fiction, and selling it as a novel?”

“But this is what happened!” Julia said. “We still don’t know who tied us up. Ask Danny. That’s my husband.”

“It’s just something to think about,” Laura said. “In the meantime, if anyone wants to come to a Red Wheelbarrow Writers meeting and read from your memoirs, we would love to hear them. Especially yours, Julia. But there’s a five-minute reading limit.”

*****

Julia showed up at Red Wheelbarrow Writers in Bellingham on the first Saturday of December. After the introductions, people began to read their works, including poetry, pieces of memoirs, and stories. Finally, it was Julia’s turn. She had signed up to read last because of her nerves. And she read this:

“Here’s where you quit your infernal meddling old man!” he screamed at a scared Toshi. “Just hold her legs!” and with this, a gleaming, glistening scalpel appeared in Fogarty’s white, poised hand.

Toshi made a feeble noise. Fogarty backhanded him with his free hand, sending Toshi to the floor. He lay there, motionless and stunned.

“No, Toshi,” Fogarty continued,  “I’m in control again! You and your concoctions! Your interfering! Always trying to protect Julia and her dumb Irish bloke of a husband; always trying to ‘help.’” and with this he gashed the scalpel deep into Julia’s torso, blood like a geyser, everywhere . . .

“I need a liver for Barbara, and I’m using Julia’s, and you aren’t going to stop me, old man!” He made another cut, laterally this time, across Julia’s gaping abdomen.

Outside the arboretum in the red dawn, the howling vortex seemed to intensify . . . Toshi and Fogarty looked up from their surgery/argument.  Suddenly against the windows of the arboretum, the flattened, spent and contorted bodies of Barbara’s over-bred dogs hit. BLAM!!!!!!!! Then slid, seemingly in slow motion, down the wet glass of the arboretum, howling no more. Their garish, painted claws screeching down the glass in what seemed an endless ‘screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee . . . .”

“Oy ya,” Toshi mumbled . . .

“Mother of Christ,” exclaimed Fogarty.

The angry Mailman vortex let out a soul-sucking yowl, spun once purple and toxic against the arboretum windows, made a terrific sucking noise–part of Villa Barbara coming loose, it was pulled into oblivion. The vortex then spun upwards and headed off towards the glowing dawn.

“No doubt after every dog that ever looked cross-ways at him,” said Fogarty, distracted from his cutting-up of Julia’s flesh.

“Yes, very mad mailman, very mad.” said Toshi. “Always very mad–bad man!”

“Shut up and hold her legs!” barked Fogarty, refocusing on his quest for Julia’s ripe liver. He fumbled deeper into his medical bag, producing some evil-looking metal clamps, a plastic bag and a suction cup–and ominous metal feet stirrups.

Toshi, petrified, obeyed.

“You see, Toshi,” he said while he uncoiled the hose on the large suction device, “I am in control here and always have been, despite your pathetic potions and feeble conniving. I am never defeated. Barbara and Gordon and I are as old as the rocks. We’ve been Cavemen and Cavaliers. We’ve seen kings come and go, empires rise and fall. We’ve seen little meddling men like you–and many the lot of you!!! But never have we seen defeat, and never shall we!”

With this, he took his arm and thrust it into the bowels of Julia’s bloody, gaping torso, fumbled about, and began to pull out a mass of bile-ish colored, blood-dripping tissue.

Toshi screamed and let go Julia’s writhing legs. Fogarty lost his grip of her liver, and its biley mass fell back into the cavity of her torso with a deathly sucking noise. Her entire body twitched once and quieted.

Fogarty backhanded Toshi again and screamed “Get me the clamps!”

When Julia looked up, the crowd gazed back solemnly. Finally, a man who had read about going to a café to write began to applaud, and the others followed suit, as they had for all of the other readers.

“Nice horror story,” a woman with short black hair said.

“But it’s not a story; it’s a memoir,” Julia said. She wanted everyone to understand that; for some reason, it was important.

“It doesn’t matter, Julia,” another woman said. “You write very well.”

“It’s a memoir! It’s a memoir! It’s about the time when a doctor cut out my liver in a greenhouse without using anesthesia. Here’s my proof!” She stood and lifted her shirt. The writers gasped when they saw the zigzagging scars on her belly. Thank goodness Danny didn’t mind them.

“Um, we believe you, Julia,” Laura said. “See you next month, everyone. Be sure to tip the server.”

Julia went home with a newfound appreciation of how hard it was to be a writer, especially a misunderstood one.

Chapter ???

In the wake of the vortex, the Arboretum had been thrown into shambles. Toshi Yamashita scrambled in a corner, his hands still clutching his cellphone to his ear, letting the last words his ex-wife spoke to him ring in his memory. He looked out at his fallen kingdom. Entire trees had been uprooted. Flower petals of every color were strewn about the floor. Moist soil and stringy roots spotted every crevasse. All of his work. Destroyed.

But there was still work to be done. The Western Evictus Palm was their only hope.

Jerry Granville’s eyes were empty, sunken sockets ringed in exhausted red and thumb-print dark circles. He advanced towards Julia slowly, savoring each step as Julia recoiled in her fear and pain. Jerry Granville chuckled.

“Please,” she sobbed. “We did—we did what we thought was right!”

“You ruined my life.” The snarl left spittle on the side of his lip.

He clasped his hands around her neck and began to squeeze. Julia squeaked to draw in breath and then—

“Get away from her.” Barbara’s guttural yell came forth from the Arboretum’s entrance. She held Danny’s limp body by the scruff of his neck, letting him drag against the cold floor. In the other hand she held the dog Ibis by the scruff of his neck. At her side was Mr. Eubank, who held the bodies of two more lifeless canines in his grip. Though the bodies of each dog were broken and twisted, their eyes still rolled about in their skulls, shining bright and with immortality. His stare was vacant of emotion, a lifeless puppet that followed Barbara’s lead in simple motions.

Barbara’s eyes flared with the bright green glow of the demon within, pointing directly at Jerry Granville. “My dogs…” she whispered. “My dogs!” Barbara dropped Danny on the floor. His head hit the floor with a hard thump. Julia let out a cry. He did not move.

Barbara stepped over Danny. As she glided across the Arboretum floor she appeared as a flame, her golden dress bathed in the orange light of the sunrise. Before Jerry Granville could even think to raise a fist she shoved him aside, throwing him into an uprooted rosebush.

Despite the throbbing, swollen flesh around the stitches in her side and the shooting pain in her twisted leg, Julia threw herself off the table and tried to scramble toward her husband.

“Enough distractions. Enough delays! Julia, dear, it’s time.” Barbara’s words dripped like poisoned honey from her lips. She stepped on her daughter’s hand with the heel of her golden stiletto. Barbara’s composure was lost to the demon’s will. Her hair whipped wildly about her youthful face. Her lips turned upward in a cruel and desperate grin. Julia thrashed and twisted, trying desperately to tear herself from her mother’s grip. In the struggle one of Barbara’s long nails caught onto a stitch in her daughter’s side and loosened it.

A bright flash of white filled Julia’s mind. The world was momentarily silent, doused in a filter of fog. She saw her mother, felt her hands as she held Julia down in her trance but only heard the low and familiar murmur of many whispers in her ear. She knew them as the dead animals haunting her dreams, but now she knew them as so much more. Beasts of the underworld. Spirits of the dead. Their voices were unintelligible though she could feel their desperation. They shrieked warnings of the end of days, of the imbalanced forces surrounding the Villa. Julia felt them push against the worn veil between this world and the next.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him.

Danny.”

***

The world was drowned in silence.

“Where am I?”

Lost in our world.

“Am I… dead?”

Not yet.

Danny felt nauseous after being absorbed into the ghostly vortex. He felt surprisingly light, as if he could float away into the sky and never come back down.  While inside the vortex he felt as if he was being ripped in two. The anger, the rage, the sorrow of the man’s soul which had conjured the whirlwind stayed with him. For now, Danny suppressed it. Eventually, he lifted his head. Before him, he saw the same world Toshi had shown him. The ghosts of Barbara’s victims were still there, staring at him. Toshi was scrambling on another end of the Arboretum, leaning over a fallen tree. The shocking and unexpected sight of Jerry Granville struggling to stand up from a rose bush Behind Danny lay his body.

He saw Julia held down by Barbara. He cried his wife’s name and tried to throw her off but his hands passed right through them both. Barbara did not respond. Julia’s lips moved, forming the sounds of his name. She could see him, but they could not speak to each other.

“Julia… Julia, hold on!” He did not want to waste the gift that Toshi had bestowed upon him, but… what could he do?

The ghosts of the children looked at him. Even so, they continued to lay with their toys.

“Well?” he begged them. “Help me! What can I do?”

Wait, they whispered.

Danny shook his head, breathing heavily.

Be patient, they pleaded in unison. Danny flinched at the distortion in their voices, so childish yet so devoid of emotion. They pointed to the skies at two approaching figures. Then, they pointed to the ground. Watch. Wait for the gates to open.

“But what’s happening? I still don’t understand. She has her immortality. What more could she want?”

This is the price she pays. This is the price we all pay for her distortion of reality. One of the children bounced a ball casually in Toshi’s direction. The botanist frantically drove a metal tube into the trunk of a fallen tree, extracting its sap into a bowl. Barbara is trying to control the tear so she may keep her immortality, but we know. The botanist knows. The demon within tries to make its escape. So now is the time to be patient. You will know when to act.

Danny tried to speak out again, but they placed their fingers to their lips and shushed him. Be patient.

***

Julia snapped back into the land of the living.

Screeches from above drowned out Julia’s howl. Barbara looked up and smiled. The flap of massive wings stirred the plants in the Arboretum. “The Guardians are here, Julia.”

The two creatures landed on the glass encasing the gardens. Their eyes bulged out of their skulls, and their veiny skin stretched taught over their wicked skeletons. Their talons, oozing with blood, scrambled at the glass, eventually bursting through to send shards showering down upon the lot of them. Julia’s vision began to blur.

Barbara’s laughter rang through the air. She let go of Julia only to have Gordon Eubank take her place in holding their daughter down. Barbara raised her arms up towards the Guardians and the blood-red skies.

The earth below them trembled angrily. The ground began to split in two.  With a massive force of effort, Julia socked her father right between his eyes. She scrambled away and stood up on her good leg. Her eyes grew wide as she looked down into the fresh crevasse and saw waves of red, blinking eyes staring up. Slowly, so slowly, they clawed their way out. From the depths, another vortex erupted, growing rapidly and eventually enveloping the entire Villa in another dark whirlwind.

“Hurry!” she cried out at the Guardians. Her voice was that of Ibis, the demon, the one trying to claw its way out of the skeleton of Barbara Eubank. “The gates of hell are on their way. Yes, this is it, this is the price we pay for immortality!” The bat creatures slowly descended. A wave of green light linked from one of the creature’s eyes to Barbara’s own. The second tried to make eye contact with Julia.

Just at that moment, Jerry Granville grabbed Julia by the arm, breaking her eye contact with the demon. “She’s mine to kill!” he shouted above the noise of the madness. The vortex, Barbara’s laughter, the Guardian’s shrieks, the cracking ground, the shrill scrape of claws on rock, all amalgamated into a cacophony of chaos. With all the chaos surrounding them, it was not difficult for Julia to knock Jerry off balance, to duck and send him flying over her shoulder. Gordon flung himself at Jerry, the last remnants of green ooze falling from his mouth. If this were to work, Julia could not die. She was their protection, their sacrifice, their only way to complete the ritual. 

Julia took the opportunity to make her way towards Danny. In a rush of adrenaline she lifted her husband’s body over her shoulder. She dragged him towards the exit, her swollen abdomen bleeding and her bad leg dragging on the ground. Unexpectedly, she could feel Danny’s chest rise and fall with shallow breaths. Even in the evil surrounding them, she smiled.

Her head buzzed with heady joy. Her hearing was drowned by the whirling wind. Julia did not hear Toshi’s warning.

With a thud, one of the Guardians landed right between herself and the exit. Julia made eye contact with the creature, and a jet of green connected from its eyes to her own. Her body straightened with a sickening crack, and she unwillingly let Danny fall to the ground.

***

Outside, a car pulled up outside with a screeching halt. Jane Yamashita stepped out of the car with a satchel in one hand and her pistol in the other. She looked up at the Villa framed against the sunrise. A whirlwind surrounded the structure, a dark vortex emanating such hatred that Jane had never felt before. It pulled a chunk of thatches from the roof and launched them towards the sky. The ground beneath Jane’s feet rumbled. Cracks in the earth splayed out from the base of the structure.

Villa Barbara began to sway.

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