By Amanda Downum
12 June 2006
It was closing on midnight when Seth found the gas station, a dirty nameless place on the edge of a dirty little town. The old car shuddered to a stop, needle on E.
Traffic had backed up just miles from the Texas border, the asphalt artery of I-35 clogged with cars and diesel-belching semis. Maybe construction, or an accident, but he couldn't risk a roadblock. They must have dropped his prints by now.
Seth pulled up to the pump; he didn't have enough money for this, but stealing another car would be too stupid even for him. He ran a weary hand over his face and got out of the car. Sweltering air filled his lungs, filmed his skin. The blacktop steamed, spitting back the day's heat.
A dog moved in the shadows by the door, big oil slick of a beast. It watched him for a moment, red tongue lolling, before giving way. A flickering beer sign washed his hand red as he reached for the door. Seth froze, then shook his head as the illusion vanished. He was tired, was all, too tired. There was no blood on his hands anymore.
The door chimed as he walked in and he squinted against the stuttering fluorescent lights, the ugly-bright colors. His eyes burned with want of sleep. Music blared from a stereo behind the counter, all snarling guitars and guttural vocals, and Seth winced away from the noise.
"I'm about to close," the girl at the cash register said, her voice tired and bored. Tiny bird-boned girl, swallowed by her black T-shirt. A sparrow trying to pass as a crow. Dyed-black hair piled sloppy, a few inches of brown sugar showing at the roots, lips painted black and glossy as licorice. Metal gleamed in her nose and eyebrow.
"I just need some gas." He pulled a five out of his wallet. Not nearly enough. He glanced around the empty store, tried not to look at the register. "Where am I, anyway?"
"Nowhere," she said, taking his money, "but it's called St. Christopher." Her nails were bitten down, flecked with purple paint.
"Do you know what's going on down the highway?" He tried to keep his voice casual.
"Roadblock." The register clacked shut, and the printer began to stammer out a receipt. "Cops are looking for some psycho killer. They say he's headed this way."
She glanced up just in time to see him tense. Her eyes widened at whatever she saw in his face.
His vision tunneled.
Her narrow throat convulsed as she swallowed. "I'm only fucking with you. It's just construction—they're always tearing up the road."
Her voice faded under the hum of blood in his ears. Plastic creaked as his scarred hands tightened on the edge of the counter.
Calm down. Breathe.
"Jesus . . ." She had one hand under the counter and tension trembled up her skinny arm. "They are looking for a psycho, aren't they?" Her nostrils flared as if she could smell the death hanging off him.
"Put the gun down," he said, soft like he was talking to an angry dog. So tiny—her bones would crunch under his hands, brittle and wet. He shuddered, shoulders tightening against the image. The taste of tinfoil filled his mouth.
He was losing it. Too damned tired. Wound too tight.
She shook her head, stepped back. A revolver, too big for her knobby wrists. The steel gleamed cold and harsh.
"That thing's older than you are." He let out a breath and the red haze began to clear from the edge of his vision. He wouldn't slip. Not this time.
"It works." Her hands were steady, finger inside the trigger guard, but not squeezing. Not yet.
"Have you ever shot someone?"
Her eyes narrowed, delicate lids smudged with makeup and not enough sleep. "Have you?"
"Yeah. I don't like it."
"It's too easy. Makes you stupid."
She met his eyes and her nostrils flared again; the silver stud in her nose flashed. The gun lowered, her finger easing off the trigger. "Are the cops really looking for you?"
Seth hesitated, but he never could lie for shit. "Yeah, I think so."
"What'd you do?"
"Killed one, in Oklahoma City."
The music growled in the background as she paused. She didn't point the gun at him, but she didn't put it away, either. "Did he deserve it?"
"I thought so." He chuckled humorlessly; it came out an ugly sound. "He got rough with a girl, thought a badge should get him a free ride."
She studied him, black gumdrop lips twisting. "Did the girl appreciate being rescued?"
He sighed. "No. No, she freaked out, ran off screaming." He shook his head. Story of my life, right?
"What's your name?" the girl asked.
"I'm Sephie. You want something to eat?"
Dogs followed them as she led him down the empty main street, the big black hound and half a dozen others. Sephie bared her teeth when one got too close and the dog fell back with a yip.
"Quiet town." Seth's boots crunched softly against ragged asphalt.
She snorted. "It's dead. Everyone who could get out got gone years ago."
"Saint Christopher is the saint of travelers." He'd had a little gold medallion once—he wondered where he'd lost it. Probably in the joint, in a lockup somewhere. They all blurred together lately.
Her laugh was dry and hollow. "That doesn't help those of us who're stuck here."
They passed the town square. Broken windows grinned in the lamplight, yellow and jagged-toothed. Boards on windows, chains on doors, a little lawn in the center all gone to brambles. Dust whispered in the wind, the breath of ghosts. Seth's neck prickled.
A dog howled in the distance. Sephie shuddered, and the other dogs whined.
She took him to a narrow diner down the street. The air smelled of grease and burnt coffee and the one tired waitress's cheap perfume, but at least it was cool. Sweat dried on Seth's back, itched against his scalp.
Sephie didn't speak until their food came, and he didn't press her. She looked stretched tight too—something had her nervous, and it wasn't the killer across the table. Dark eyes flickered toward the window, and the night beyond.
She toyed with her food for a minute, pushing pieces of pancake back and forth through a puddle of syrup. "I need to get out of here."
Seth kept sawing at his steak. It'd been long enough since he ate that he didn't care how tough the meat was. "Where to?" The light burned his eyes, bouncing off the yellow counters and straight into his brain.
"Anywhere you're going. Anywhere but here."
"And you think traveling with a wanted criminal would be the way to go?" The jukebox played, Patsy Cline out walking after midnight, and no one was around to eavesdrop, but he still pitched his voice low.
"I need someone who can take care of himself."
Seth snorted. "Honey, that sure as hell ain't me, or I wouldn't be here. How do you know I won't kill you, hurt you?"
"You could have done that already." She wiped a drop of syrup off her lip.
He shook his head. "No offense, but that's some damn stupid logic."
Her lips skimmed back in a grin. "And no offense, but I'm not scared of you."
He shook his head again, looked at her twig-fragile wrists and tried not to smile. Maybe he shouldn't judge, though—he'd known some scrawny little fuckers who could kill quick as a snake and twice as cold.
The door chimed and Sephie paled. Seth turned.
Just a bunch of kids, and he almost relaxed, but the waitress startled too, nearly dropping a pot of coffee. A whiff of fear cut through the greasy air.
The kid in front—a rawboned rangy boy maybe Sephie's age—looked at them and grinned like a fox. Sephie was so tense she practically vibrated. Seth's blunt fingers tightened on his knife and fork.
The kid swaggered over to their booth and leaned in, too close, a grin splitting his gaunt stubbled face. He smelled of musk and cigarettes.
"Made a new friend, Sephie?"
"Leave us alone, Caleb."
Her voice was flat and brittle and Seth tensed at the buried fear. He already wanted to rearrange Caleb's smile. Muscles knotted with the effort of holding still. He couldn't keep losing it like this. But she had asked for help.
Caleb reached across the table and snatched a piece of bacon off her plate, crunched it between long teeth. "If you're hungry, babe, I'll find you something better. Something sweeter."
Her eyes narrowed, makeup crinkling at the corners. "Leave us alone." Brittle, but not cracking yet.
Seth gave Caleb a silent three-count before he grabbed the boy's wrist. "The lady asked you nice." He squeezed till bones shifted. Caleb's nails were long as a girl's, thick and hard, and embedded with dark half-moons of grime.
Seth's grip would leave bruises, any harder and he'd break bones, but Caleb just grinned down at him, all mocking brown eyes and sharp teeth. Then he twisted free, wiry muscles shifting in his forearms.
"I'll be waiting for you, Sephie." And he turned and walked out, his friends falling into formation behind him.
Seth flexed his hand, knuckles cracking. "Is that what you're trying to get away from?"
She nodded, looking tiny and lost.
It was a stupid idea. But his life had been a series of stupid ideas for so long, what was one more? He took another bite of his rubbery steak. He'd need someone to keep him awake, anyway.
"Let's get some gas in the car and we can get out of here."
The dogs were gone when they left, silence echoing down the narrow streets. Caleb was nowhere in sight.
"Is he your boyfriend?"
Sephie frowned, stared down at the dust scuffing around her boots. "Once, yeah. Something like that."
"And he hasn't figured out that past tense part yet?"
"Caleb's real good at ignoring things he doesn't like." Moonlight washed her face pale and grey, darkened the circles under her eyes.
"And there ain't nobody else who'll help you?"
"There's nobody left. My folks are gone. All the people I used to know either got out of town when they could or fell in with Caleb."
Seth's skin tightened as they neared the square, and he raised a hand, cutting off whatever Sephie was about to say. Shadows shifted amid the briar-choked lawn, more than just trees. "Will this guy try something," he asked softly, "or is he all mouth?"
"Mister, his mouth is bad enough."
Caleb melted out of the trees, his buddies hanging back in his wake. The swagger was gone now, and he moved lithe and quiet. Seth remembered how easily the kid had broken his grip. He wondered if Sephie would really use that gun.
"Were you coming to see me, Sephie?"
"I'm leaving. You can stay here and piss on trees all you want, but I'm not putting up with your shit anymore."
Caleb moved closer, hands loose at his sides, grin harsh and bright. "Sure, babe. And what are you going to do when you get hungry? Did you tell your new friend about that part, or were you going to surprise him?"
Sephie's fists clenched. "Go to hell."
Seth's vision started to narrow, and the metal taste crept into his mouth again. He glanced from side to side, making sure no one was flanking them. Something slunk through the shadows, but it was only a dog. Caleb's friends seemed happy to wait and watch the show. Voices dulled as Seth's heartbeat thudded in his ears.
"Come with me," Caleb said. "If you want to leave so bad, I'll take you. I'll take you anywhere you want to go. I'll take care of you, Sephie. Keep you safe. Make you strong."
"You'd make me a monster."
"Too late for that. I don't see a suit of shining armor on your new friend. Or do you just like him because he smells like blood?" He cocked his head and his eyes gleamed in the sodium glare.
Sephie stepped sideways. "Come on," she said to Seth. "Let's get out of here."
Caleb reached out and caught her arm, so fast Seth could barely follow. "It's not that easy."
It was Seth's turn to smile. "Sure it is." He grabbed the front of Caleb's shirt, hands tingling with adrenaline. "I hate to beat up kids. Get out of here."
Caleb twisted free, fabric tearing. "You should have stayed out of this, old man."
His hand flickered, a pale blur, and Seth's head rocked back. A second later his cheek began to burn, and moisture dripped down his neck. Not a punch—the kid had clawed his face open.
Sephie lunged in, grabbed Caleb's shoulder. "Caleb, don't—" He shoved her back without looking, sent her sprawling in the street. His friends moved closer, still waiting.
"Run," Caleb growled. "I'll give you a head start."
In response, Seth punched him in the face.
Or tried. Caleb was too damn fast. He ducked around the swing, darted in close. Seth glimpsed a mouthful of teeth and jerked back in time to take the bite in the shoulder instead of the neck. It felt like getting bit by a Rottweiler, and he grunted as pain ran down his arm like hot grease. He wrapped his good hand around Caleb's neck and squeezed till the kid let go.
It took all his strength to keep Caleb off him. Shadows and yellow light twisted his features into something ugly, blood dripping down his chin, staining those long teeth. He snarled something, but Seth couldn't hear it, couldn't hear anything. Seth kneed him in the balls, punched again and hit this time. Fire in his knuckles—he must have laid his hand open on the kid's teeth.
Thunder shook the air. Caleb dropped back, crouching on the balls of his feet. Seth staggered away, shaking his head against the blood-haze. Adrenaline turned his nerves to razorwire.
The gun gleamed in Sephie's hands and a plume of dust rose off the ground in front of Caleb's friends.
"You think I won't?" The words reached Seth through a long tunnel.
Caleb turned toward her, started to rise. The revolver roared again and he fell back with a shout. But she missed, or didn't mean to kill. Blood dripped down his arm, soaked his black shirt shiny in the moonlight, but it was nowhere close to fatal. The air was thick with copper and salt.
The fight had turned them around and the snarling trio stood between Seth and Sephie and the street leading to the car. Someone must have heard the shots, but the square stayed dark and silent as the last echoes died off.
Sephie backed away, gun trained. Seth moved with her. Blood dripped off his fingers and the haze began to clear. He felt the pain circling, waiting to bite.
They stepped onto the sidewalk, a row of buildings at their back. "There's a key in the outside pocket of my purse," Sephie said, shifting the bag with a twist of her hips. The gun didn't waver. Caleb and his boys watched them from a respectful distance.
Seth found the key, unlocked the padlock and chain on the door behind them. It creaked open into darkness that smelled like mold and sawdust and he followed her inside.
"You stay here?" Seth asked later, sitting in the sticky dark upstairs. No electricity; candlelight gleamed against broken windows. Dogs howled outside, and Caleb cursed on the street below.
"We used to hang out here when we were kids. It was like a clubhouse, or something. I got the lock later, when things with Caleb got bad and I wanted a place to hide sometimes."
"I get the feeling there's more to all this than a lousy boyfriend." Seth sat on a broke-backed old couch, his bloody shirt crumpled in his lap, wrapping a half-assed bandage around his shoulder. The bite wasn't bleeding too bad anymore, but it burned, leaking fire through the muscles in his right arm. His cheek hurt worse, the scratches stuck together with a half-dozen bandaids.
"A little more than that, yeah." Candlelight caught glints of yellow in her eyes, and in the shadows she was all bone-sharp angles and pale skin and black lips.
She fell silent for a moment and Seth finished the bandage, rinsed his hands and face with the bottle of water she'd given him, and tugged the torn shirt back on. Movement hurt, but he'd had worse.
"You want to tell me what Caleb was talking about down there? What it was you didn't tell me to begin with? You strung out?"
"No, I'm not a junkie. That'd be too simple." A lighter cracked and sparked, lined the curve of her cheek in orange light. Smoke drifted through the musty air.
"You got another of those?"
She tossed him a pack of Camels and he tapped one out, lit it off the candle guttering beside him and sucked in a grateful lungful of smoke. He watched smoke curl, waited for her to speak. It didn't take very long.
"A man came through town a year ago." She turned away from the light, her voice drifting out of the dark. "A wanderer, a magician—a one-man sideshow, we thought. He told us things, Caleb and me and our friends. Secrets. His smile—" Her voice caught. "He took us down to Hell. He showed us the cracks in the world, all the seams people were never meant to see."
A rock thudded off the back wall. Caleb's friends, watching the back of the building while Caleb paced in the street out front. The gunshot didn't seem to have slowed him down much.
"We were just kids. Bored, half crazy from living here, this town dying all around us. We talked big, all the places we'd go—L.A., New York, New Orleans—but we all knew we'd never get past Lovegrove or Ardmore." She blew out a plume of shimmering smoke. "You ever felt trapped, like you could just chew your leg off if it would get you out?"
Seth snorted. He must have been that young once, but he couldn't remember it now. "Yeah. I know trapped."
"We were just kids when we followed him down there, into the between places. He taught us all kinds of tricks. How to steal secrets from the dead. He showed us what gravemeat can do. We ate, and it changed us."
Another pause, another bouncing rock. "You think I'm crazy?"
"Eating dead people does seem a little fucking weird, yeah." His mouth pulled to one side; it hurt his face. Tobacco and paper rasped as he took a drag, cherry flickering between his cupped fingers. He started to reach for the little cross he wore before he remembered he'd lost that, too. "But all the prison shrinks think I'm crazy, and I can't argue, so maybe I shouldn't give you too hard a time. Caleb, on the other hand . . ."
Her laugh was harsh. "Yeah. Gravemeat was one thing, but it wasn't long till Caleb wanted something . . . fresher. That was when everything went to hell."
"The dead may not care what happens to them, but I'm rather partial to all my bits and pieces."
She turned toward him, smoke leaking out of her nose. "I'm sorry you got hurt. I was too scared to leave on my own, and I thought maybe . . ."
"You thought maybe the big crazy guy could look after you."
"Something like that, yeah."
"Honey, I can barely look after myself most days." Sweat trickled down his scalp, stinging his cheek and a few other scrapes he'd picked up along the way. "You could just shoot him, you know."
"Yeah." She moved out of the shadows, perched on the crooked arm of the couch. The cigarette trembled in her hands. "I've done a lot of crazy shit, but I've never killed anyone. And . . . I thought I loved him once." She ducked her head, brushed a quick hand over her eyes. "God, I'm such a stupid bitch."
After a minute, he reached out with his good hand, patted her shoulder. His palm engulfed her fragile bones.
She tensed for a second, then leaned in a little closer. Her skin was cold, only a little sticky, and he could feel the tension knotting her muscles. He thought maybe he should hug her, or say something, but he wasn't sure how or what. Probably a good thing he'd never had kids, or a woman who stuck around long enough to need comforting.
"Caleb was right, anyway. After we started . . . eating . . . I don't think I can just give it up anymore. Hell, I can never even quit smoking. I don't know what I'll do."
It made his head ache—he'd never been good with complications. Things went crazy, and then he did, and then someone usually ended up hurt. You could never count on a junkie for a damn thing, and he wasn't sure if needing to eat people was better or worse than needing horse in that regard.
Sephie ducked her head again, trying not to let him see her cry. Such a tiny little thing. He still needed someone to keep him awake.
"Why don't we worry about that after we get out of here."
She looked at him, piercings winking in the light. "We?"
Yeah, it was definitely a stupid idea. "I said I'd take you out of here. But if you try to take a bite out of me, I'm leaving your ass on the side of the road."
He picked up the gun off the rickety table. Too big for Sephie, too small for him, like a toy. His hands remembered, palms and fingers molding against steel. He glanced at Sephie. Fucked up, no doubt about that, but no blood on her hands. What was a little more on his?
Caleb still paced outside, shadow flung this way and that by the street lamps. He glanced up as Seth moved by the window. "Goddamn it, Sephie, come out and talk to me."
Broken windows shivered with the echo of the shot. A sliver of glass slipped free and shattered on the sidewalk. Caleb fell, a dark halo spreading on the ground around him. He twitched, tried to sit up. Seth squeezed the trigger again. The kid stopped moving.
He set the gun down again and scrubbed his hands on his dirty jeans. Sephie stared at him, eyes shining, one hand pressed over her mouth.
"You ready to get out of here?"
After a minute she nodded. "Yeah. I'm ready."
And he followed her out into the dark.