When I was 24, four very important things happened to me. First and foremost, I bought my first car. A second generation Ford Thunderbird, it was my first truly selfish purchase. It represented the freedom I had been searching for since I was a child, growing up in the booming industrial heart of upstate New York. Second, I passed the Bar Exam, and proved that I was worthy of being a lawyer, possessing the intelligence and recall to defend the liberty of others. Third, I stabbed a man who I probably shouldn’t have, because it was the only right thing to do under the circumstances. And fourth, I was recruited into a secret society. The Order of Set. I had written the name Randall Creed in the secret history of the world, in blood and splintered bone. I had been the greatest fighter the Order had trained in living memory.
It had been 34 years. The truth about the legal profession had been revealed to me, and I’d understood that I’d make much more money, and be able to do more for those who really mattered to me, by taking away the liberty of others. The man I’d stabbed had died happily of lung failure, surrounded by family, and well-loved by his community, the dark things in his past forgotten. And the Order of Set was down to me. The last remaining member besides myself had died in a hospital bed more than a year ago. But I still had the Thunderbird. It was a Ship of Theseus, every part of it replaced at some point or another. The philosophical implications had great weight to other men. But I knew the truth. I pressed my foot down, the engine roared, and the soul of the Thunderbird roared with it. You couldn’t kill a thing’s soul by changing it one part at a time.
The predawn light was blue, filling the air as I roared up Interstate 81, towards the small town. My sister in law, Iris, had settled down there along with my brother, Oliver. They’d been happy together. Until my brother had gone on one last mission with me, against my desperate plea. We’d brought a dozen men with us, the hardened core of the Order of Set, for one last grand stand against the dark things in the world. The fourteen of us had set out into that stinking Cambodian jungle, and I was the only one who’d come back. Mostly.
Part of me was still stuck there, in that jungle. Part of me would always be stuck there. I hadn’t seen Iris since I’d brought her the news, hadn’t seen her and Oliver’s son. The boy would be about eight years old, now. I wondered what kind of man he’d become.
If he were anything like his father, he’d be something special.
The lazy hills of upstate New York rolled past me. I let my mind wander, admiring them silently, an arm hanging out of the window. I was rich. I was, in certain circles, famous. I’d done things most men wouldn’t have dreamed of. I’d fought monsters, I’d seen things that could bring a man to tears, I’d been trained to be more dangerous than most people could imagine. But there was no room for dangerous men in the world, anymore. Things were growing calm. Sure, there were still things in the night, but they had grown withdrawn, fearful. Men like me had shown them that they couldn’t prey on humanity, so they simply had to live in symbiosis. Faeries, demons, and the dead. They didn’t make trouble anymore.
I wasn’t necessary.
I watched the curve of a hill. It had turned a brilliant mélange of fiery red, brilliant yellow, and deep ochre. Death gave things a brief, ferocious beauty before they wound up all turning into a mass of undifferentiated brown. One last swan song before the grave.
I fucking hated how metaphorical life was becoming.
My eyes caught the sign as I went past. It was one of the old, classic green signs, showing the route, the name of the town. It jerked suddenly.
I spun my head as I passed, and the grind of the rumble strips filled the air as I briefly moved onto the shoulder, before pulling back into the lane, grateful no one else was on the road. I stared back into the mirror at the still highway sign, and tried to remind myself that it was just a trick of the light or a sudden gust of wind, a momentary flash of anxiety. I set my eyes on the road in front of me, flicked the turn signal, and pulled onto the long off-ramp.
A large wooden sign on the way down into town. A sign proclaimed it ‘The best little town by a dam site’, and I rolled my eyes. It was the kind of rarified humor that could only survive in very specific environments like this. It was beneath me. But I still felt a little ripple of amusement. It was so very like Oliver.
It was a small town. In fact, it was a village; The town census had the count at under a thousand people living in the area. It felt like it, too. The city center was a pizzeria, downtown was a strip of franchises catering to truckers and family road trips. It was small. It was out of the way.
I didn’t like that. Out here, in the sticks, there were still the occasional monsters. I knew Binghamton had a moderately large community of undead, who mostly kept things quiet. But in a rural area like this, things could still prey on humans. It was dangerous for her.
It had been dangerous for her.
It wouldn’t be now, though. She was with Oliver. I’d gotten the news last night.
Iris had been the light of my life, even when she’d chosen Oliver over me. Brilliant, vibrant, energetic, she’d been a damn heroine. She never took shit from anyone, and the people who tried to hurt her suffered for it. I’d defended her honor, once, and she’d never forgiven me for it, especially considering the trouble it had gotten me and Oliver in. She lived decently, and did her best, and I’d sent her a stipend every month as my way of saying ‘Sorry for getting your husband killed and leaving your child without a father.’ Once a year I’d get drunk, trying to work up the courage to tell her that I was sorry, to talk with her just one more time, and by the time I was uninhibited enough to try, I was too uncoordinated to pick up the phone.
And now I’d never get the chance to apologize. I drove across the small bridge out of town and up into the sticks, and started up the steep grade of the hill. There was a scenic overlook at the top, and I pulled over for a moment, staring down over the village. A lonely pair of golden arches stood on a high pole, a school by the massive dam. The sun was just beginning to rise, and I watched as the light swept across the valley, pouring gold down the brilliantly colored trees.
I was stalling, I knew. Trying to keep a few more precious moments of this time. But I had to face facts.
Iris was dead.
Little Horace had walked down the long driveway the day before, and told his neighbor that his mom wasn’t moving, tears in his eyes. The neighbor had called the local hospital, then me, on instructions Iris had left to Horace. Heart attack, he’d said.
I rested a hand on my chest, and felt a sympathetic pain. The world gets us all, in the end.
I got back into the car. To hell with my self-indulgent melancholy. That didn’t matter. What mattered is that Horace was alone in the world, and I’d be damned if I’d let that state of affairs stand. I’d never had children. There’d only been one woman for me, and she’d chosen someone else. But I’d damn well make sure that her son was taken care of. It was the least that I could do for the two of them.
I got back into the car, and started it up, driving down the road. My stomach growled, and I resolved to get some groceries when I got the chance. I tried to remember what the hell kids liked. Breakfast cereals?
Engrossed in the question, I nearly missed the turn-off for the small driveway. It was lined by houses on either side, a large field of harvested and fallen corn across the road from it, stalks turned brown by the oncoming fall. The driveway itself was terribly rutted and unstable, and the big heavy Thunderbird bounced up it like some kind of primeval cougar the size of a rhinoceros, bounding from rock to rock as it climbed the hillside. The trees closed in sharply, forming a curtain overhead that hung heavily over the small road. It felt disquietingly like a set from a slasher movie.
Then the house came into view, and that feeling evaporated. The small concrete pad that Oliver had begun before he died still stood as the beginnings of a garage. The house itself was modest, tasting heavily of the 70s, and looked downright friendly, even in the midst of the pre-dawn darkness. And there was a light on in the kitchen.
A crow called as I walked up the steps towards the house, three raucous caws that echoed through the forest as it took off from its perch. I shot it a brief look. Crows were trouble. Then I shook my head, and climbed the stairs to the small porch leading into the kitchen.
I opened the door, and saw Horace. There was no mistaking him. He looked an awful lot like his father had at the age of eight. A little overweight, dark hair, bright-eyed, he looked up. “Uncle Randall?”
“Uh… Yeah.” I frowned. “You know me? We’ve never met.”
“My mom always showed me your pictures.” The boy lowered his head. “I thought I should make something. I don’t know how to do much, so… Um, it’s eggs.”
I looked into the pan. For the efforts of a kid whose head barely reached above the counter, they looked damn good. “Your mom-” I paused for a moment, the words strangling my tongue. I took a deep breath, and continued. “She let you cook?”
“She likes when I cook. She told me I should be a chef someday. She helped me make a lot of things.” The boy looked down, and I was struck by the calmness. He’d found his dead mother the day before, and now, he looked unbothered by talking about it. I wasn’t one to judge how people reacted to the loss of loved ones, but it was still worrying. “Did you have an okay trip here? Mom always told me you lived in New York City. Was it a long drive?”
“Not too bad,” I said, and checked the eggs. “They look good. Mind if I make some coffee to go with it?”
Horace made a face, but pointed over at the coffee maker. I nodded, and slipped the old grinder out of the cabinet, beginning to grind the half cup of coffee beans remaining in the fridge. The whir saved me from a minute or so of awkwardly attempting to make conversation. I set the coffee to percolating, and checked the eggs. They were nearly ready. I opened the fridge, and took out a block of cheese, selecting the chef knife from the large knife block by the table, and began slicing. Horace looked up at me. “Are you going to take me away?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m afraid that I live in New York City. I don’t want you to be alone, up here. Why, are you worried about leaving your friends at school?”
“I don’t really have many friends,” said Horace, lowering his head, frowning. “The other kids don’t like me much. They say I’m weird, they make fun of my name…”
I nodded softly. “You should’ve heard what the kids called me when I was young. Your father, your mother, and I… We were all kind of weird, too.” I smiled. “Being weird isn’t a bad thing. Normal people never accomplish anything. So, what will you miss, here?”
“I don’t like the people a lot, but I like the place. The house, the cute little salamanders and stuff… I don’t want to leave them behind, Uncle Randall.”
“Well, things change, but it’s not always a bad thing. There’ll be lots of interesting things in New York City. The kids might even treat you better. Do you do anything for fun?”
“Oh! I’ve been reading this book, it’s by this British guy, and it’s about police, and there’s a dragon-”
There was a sudden, sharp scream from upstairs. My eyes widened, and I grabbed the knife, running up the stairs. There were three bedrooms and a bathroom at the top of the stairs. The scream had come from the bedroom on the left. I grabbed the doorknob, and threw it opens.
Books lined a low shelf. A set of neon green stars and moons were pasted to the ceiling, small, but glowing faintly in the low light of the shaded bedroom. A small bed sat in the corner. And on the bed, sitting curled up on a black towel, was a small fox with black and silver fur, its eyes focused on me.
I had spent the last thirty-four years of my life fighting monsters. There is no single thing that gives away all supernatural creatures. There are simply a variety of little tells. The fox’s distinctive markings, a silver ruff around its shoulders. Its intelligent, sparkling eyes.
The nine fucking tails.
They vanished in a heartbeat as the creature saw me. Not quickly enough. I moved forward, seizing the fox by the back of the neck, pinching down hard. The fox went stiff, and I flipped it onto its back. The chef knife twirled in my fingers as I pressed the sharp edge against the creature’s throat. It stiffened, partially from the scruffing, partially from the weapon.
“Uncle! Please, don’t hurt it!”
I didn’t move my hand, even as Horace stood by me, his hands on my hand, trying- without success- to pull the knife away. “Wild animals are dangerous, Horace,” I said, never taking my eyes away from the fox’s, keeping my gaze locked on it. There were many monstrous foxes. Three had the features that I had seen, and none of them were particularly beneficial creatures. They were demons, and not things I was going to allow in the house.
“It didn’t do anything bad! It was hungry, I just wanted to feed it and let it go again!”
“When you feed a hungry animal, Horace, it becomes used to you. It comes back to you, again and again. Once you start feeding it, it becomes very difficult to stop.”
“Please don’t kill it,” Horace said, and I could hear the tears in his voice. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I did it, but please don’t hurt it, it was my fault, it didn’t do anything wrong.”
I took a slow, deep breath, and cursed inwardly. The boy was as soft as his father had been. As far as he knew, the thing was a harmless animal which he had taken in. Telling him that it was a potentially soul-eating monster was a possibility- He was young, he might believe me- but it would mean opening him up to the existence of monsters. The thing I’d promised his father I’d never do.
“I’m going to take it out to somewhere far away from here, so it can’t find its way back. Then I’ll let it go, and I won’t kill it. You… Take a shower, have breakfast. Smells like the eggs are burned.”
The boy shrank away, his head lowered, as I lifted the fox roughly. It let out a little whine of protest, and I gave it a dark look, carrying it downstairs. They could be fearsome, but if it needed to be fed by a human boy this far from civilization, it wasn’t that dangerous, and probably wouldn’t have stood a chance against me.
I didn’t think it was one of the Fae varieties of foxes. The differences were only loosely documented. Not many people spent enough time around the monsters to gain their trust. Most of what we knew was from experimentation. Often violent.
I set the fox down on the passenger seat, releasing the scruff of its neck, and gave it a very cold look. “I have been killing demons for the last thirty-four years. I recognize them very well. I know what you are, and I have absolutely no doubt in myself. If you give me trouble, I don’t care what I promised my nephew.” I flashed the knife. “I’ll gut you. Now behave.”
It sat very quietly on the chair, in exactly the way a wild animal doesn’t. I took the driver’s seat, and pulled out. I turned north on the road, driving onwards. After a minute or so, I felt its eyes on me.
“Don’t even dare. I know what your kind does. I know what you’re like. You were going to prey on a child? My brother’s child?” I shot it a hard look. It returned the gaze levelly. “You’re all fucking animals, no matter how you try to ape humans.” I gritted my teeth. “Fucking soft-hearted boy.”
My stomach growled loudly. The fox gave me a look, and I waved a hand at it. It was a beautiful creature, which was likely the whole point. Lean, with dark hair that stood out brilliantly with strands of silver. I sighed. “The boy’s the only thing I have left of my family. Whether you’re good or bad, in your heart, you’re still an animal. You could do him harm, without even meaning to. I can’t take that chance. You should be glad I’m letting you go free.”
It continued to stare at me. “Fine! Fuck me for a fool.”
I pulled over into the parking lot of a McDonalds, and stepped in. A few minutes later, I was out again, with two sandwiches. I started the car again, setting one of the sandwiches in front of the fox. It happily ate away at the sandwich, showing surprising grace and delicacy as it did so, licking its chops hungrily. I was somewhat less graceful, and spilled a blob of ketchup onto the leather arm-rest between us. The fox licked it away obligingly. “You’re not going to get me to like you more by being cute,” I said. “I’m extremely wise to that trick.”
I came to a stop at the edge of a large grassy lot, 20 miles from the house. I opened the door, and the fox jumped out, and settled on its haunches, staring at the car.
“If I ever see you again,” I said, and gestured meaningfully with the knife. “You’re going to be a tasteful scarf.”
It didn’t respond, and simply stayed sitting where it was as I closed the door, put the car back into drive, and sped away. I watched it in the rear view mirror the whole way. It never moved.
When I returned to the house, Horace was sitting at the table, his head lowered, his arms crossed. He’d shown more emotion over the fox than his own mother. That was… something. I poured myself a cup of coffee, and sat across from him. “You’re a lot like your father, you know. He cared dearly about things. Everything, even the things he shouldn’t have. Like me.” I smiled. “It’s not the worst flaw, but it is a flaw. You have to be careful about what you open your heart to. It has to be the right things.” I shook my head. “You shouldn’t care about an animal the way you would a human. They’re not like us.”
The boy sat, his arms crossed, his head lowered. “They’re a lot better than some of us,” he said softly.
“Horace… I know losing your mom was hard, but-”
“She’s not dead.”
I shook my head. “You have to accept-”
“She’s not dead! I saw her, this morning!”
I was quiet for a second. I shook my head. “We’re going to the funeral this afternoon. Then I’m taking you down to New York City. We’ll get you transferred to a school down there. I know a few private schools. Somewhere nice, somewhere that can encourage you.” I rested a hand on his shoulder. “You need to be able to let go of these things, Horace. You need to be able to face reality. You can’t just run away from it.” Though privately, I was grateful that the boy was simply in denial, rather than a sociopath.
“Okay,” said Horace, lowering his head, an unhappy expression on his face.
“She’s not dead,” he repeated. I smiled.
“Well, no faulting your willpower, is there, son?” I patted his shoulder. “There are some things we can’t change. But I wish I could agree with you.”
He was silent, his head lowered, his arms crossed as he leaned his head heavily on both of his arms. The two of us drove down into town to the local morticians. I left him in the car with one of his books, while I joined the mortician to see the body. The viewing would be later that day, with the funeral sometime next week.
She was still beautiful. That surprised me a great deal, the black and silver hair hanging around her shoulders. Her features had gained some wrinkles, but I didn’t really see those. I saw her face as it had been when she was a young woman. To me, she’d always be like that, even in death. Age couldn’t destroy that kind of beauty. It couldn’t hide who a person had been when they were young, and vivacious. To the eyes of love, beauty never really died.
“We found something of an… abnormality,” said the mortician, looking deeply nervous, his fingers tapping together, as he tried to find out the right way to break the news to me. I lifted my head, and frowned.
“How’s that? She had a heart attack, didn’t she?”
“That’s what the coroner had thought, at first. But, well- While I was preparing the body, I noticed some irregularities.” He coughed. “Her heart has been removed.”
My knuckles tightened around the table, my breathing growing faster, my eyes narrowed. That fucking fox. “Mister Creed?” asked the mortician, nervously.
I shook my head, and eyed the man. Balding. Pale skinned. I leaned in close, and narrowed my eyes, but he wasn’t a ghoul. He was unnerved by my expression, though, taking a quick step back. “Will it interfere with the showing, or the burial?”
“No, I don’t think so, but-”
“Then proceed with that. I’ll take care of anything else.”
I drove Horace back to the house, keeping my eyes sharp on our surroundings as we drove. “I always liked that dinosaur,” said Horace.
“Mmm?” I asked, frowning down at him, and looking at the sign retreating into the back window, of an overtly cartoonish dinosaur. It looked like something out of a comic strip, and sat on top of a sign for the local park. “Fan of dinosaurs, huh? You know, I fought one, once.” I gave him a grin. “Still have its head in my apartment.”
The boy snorted softly, giving me a doubtful look. “That sounds dumb. They’re extinct.”
“Yeah, that’s what the boys at the club told me, too.” I winked at him. “I’ll show it to you, some time.”
When we returned to the house, I let him return to his bedroom and entered Iris’ room.
The old king-sized mattress she and Oliver had shared still sat in the middle of the room. Four small windows let the morning light flow, diffuse and serene, into the room. I stared silently at the bed. Half of it was disheveled, unmade. The other half looked as pristine as the day Oliver had left for Cambodia. A small stand rested on the shelf above the bed. Oliver’s ring, a simple band of gold, was mounted there, glittering in the light.
I slowly sank down onto the bed, and rested a hand over my eyes, trying to push the tears back. I felt old as dirt, my bones aching. There’d been a time when I was one of the most dangerous men in the world. That time was gone. The elixir that the Order of Set had made, the cocktail of metaphysical equivalents to anabolic steroids, didn’t work anymore. There had been a lot of theories as to why. The world was emptying out of magic. The ingredients for it were losing their potency. The gods didn’t care about our mission anymore. It didn’t matter. I was getting old, and Horace was the last thing I had in the world.
My eyes drifted aside, to the kendo set. Oliver had grown interested in it, but he’d always preferred talking to fighting. It looked to be in good condition, probably another of the things that Iris had kept maintained in her love for him. A little way of remembering the dead. I drew one of the wooden swords, examining it for a moment. I’d always been a boxer, but it was beautiful. I carefully lifted the kendo set, and took it down to the car, stashing it in the back seat. It would be nice to have something to remember of them.
“So, you’re a lawyer?” asked Horace, leaning forward on the table on his elbows. I nodded. “Do you help people?”
I paused. “Not as much as I used to.”
“Used to be, I loved public service work. But the thing is, the help I gave them was always temporary. I’d bail them out of some stupid mistake they’d made for themselves, and then they’d just get themselves into another. I’d see the same people, over and over again. It wearies the soul, knowing that you’re not really changing anything, just perpetuating people’s cycles. You have to learn, Horace, that you can’t save everyone. Sometimes they’ll just try to drown you along with them, in a panic.”
“Is that why you never came to see mom?” he asked, his eyes downcast. “She missed you a lot. She always wanted you to come visit, but you never did. She was afraid to call you, because she said…” He was quiet for a moment. “She said she called you something terrible.” He looked up at me, clearly wanting me to continue. I sat silently for a moment, staring out the window. The golden autumn sunlight poured down across the trees, and a great wind swept through the valley, knocking leaves down and sending them in twirling patterns. I let out a soft sigh.
“I think it’s about time we got down there for the viewing.”
“Do we have to?” he asked, looking uncomfortable. “It’s not really her.”
“The viewing isn’t about the person who died. It’s about your feelings, and the feelings of the others who knew them. The dead are beyond pain, son. They’re beyond suffering and loss. Those things are the privilege, and the burden, of the living. And I imagine there are a lot of people in town who’d be glad to see you, to know that you’re okay.”
Horace was quiet for a second, and then a determined, fierce expression flashed across his lips, as he nodded. “Do I need some kind of fancy shirt like yours?”
“Hell no,” I said, shaking my head. “Can’t stand people who buy dress shirts and ties sized for children. I’ve had to spend most of the last forty years in one of these, I’m not going to make anyone do it before they absolutely have to.”
The viewing, only partially to my surprise, was full of people. Iris had bonded with the people here. Simple people, what I might even call yokels because I was a bastard to my very heart, but decent. They gave Iris well-wishes. Her body was surrounded by a half dozen displays of flowers, her cheeks flushed with makeup. Somehow, it made her look less alive than when she’d been lying, chilled, on the slab. The well-wishers stopped to ask Horace how he was doing, and though the boy was uncomfortable, he didn’t complain, or try to avoid them, instead thanking them for their kind thoughts.
We eventually arrived in front of the body. I saw Horace staring down at it, a brooding expression on his face. “You know,” I said, “Your father, your mother, and I, we all always believed in reincarnation. The idea that when you died, you came back, in some form or another. That you got another chance. That maybe, you’d get to see the people who had died again, come back with them, visit them time and again.” I studied those features, and thought about what had killed her, and hid the fury bubbling in my stomach. “It’s a hopeful thought, anyway.”
“Yeah,” murmured Horace, staring down at his mother’s face. “That sounds right.”
He didn’t have much to take with him. A large crate of books, clothes, a few things I took from Iris’ room, including some of his ID. He watched the house as we left, and waved softly to it, his expression melancholic. He still didn’t cry, though. “You alright, Horace?”
“Yeah,” he said, though it was obvious he wasn’t. He sank down into his chair, arms crossed, his head lowered, doing his best to hold back tears, I could tell.
“It’s not easy when things change. It hurts to let go of what you used to know. But you’ve got to keep moving with the times. You can’t get caught up in the past, in what happened.” I pointed forward, into the night sky, as the sun set. “You’ve got to keep pushing forward. Keep moving forward, one step at a time, no matter how much it hurts. And in time, things get good again. The bad times always pass if you keep fighting.”
The two of us drove quietly through the small town on our way out to the highway, and I noticed how many Halloween decorations there were. October 30th, and the next day was promising to be a Halloween to remember. One of the houses stood out as we passed, its decorations nearly stacked atop one another, ghosts hanging stuffed from the branches, plastic spiders the size of dogs, and a tremendous grinning inflatable witch. There was always one house like that. I felt more cheerful as we passed through the town, and out the other side, and onto the highway. Horace frowned out through the driver side window, past me. “Huh.”
“Doesn’t that sign look like it’s walking?”
I turned my head in time to catch a flash of blue. Then there was the terrible sound of shrieking metal, and the car bent under the impact. Everything went black.