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The First Annual Demonic Road Trip

The First Annual Demonic Road Trip

A Novel by
Gordon Cameron

Table of Contents

 

Prologue: The Escape

Chapter One: Holy Water Mishap

Chapter Two: Negotiations

Chapter Three: Preparations

Chapter Four: Road Trip

Chapter Five: Meet Pock

Chapter Six: May Lake

Chapter Seven: Some Unwanted Company

Chapter Eight: Mono Lake

Chapter Nine: Meet Adolfo

Chapter Ten: The Labyrinth

Chapter Eleven: Tow Strap

Chapter Twelve: Talking to the Bees

Chapter Thirteen: San Juan Bautista

Chapter Fourteen: The Mission

Chapter Fifteen: The Eck Chamber

Chapter Sixteen: Operation Cauldron Acquisition

Chapter Seventeen: And Out to the Beach

Chapter Eighteen: Meet Abbey Street

Chapter Nineteen: The Aquarium

Chapter Twenty: Meet Kroe-Vogk

Chapter Twenty-One: Where’s Spencer?

Chapter Twenty-Two: Attack of the Giant Dog

Chapter Twenty-Three: Grand Theft Auto

Chapter Twenty-Four: Knuckle-Bombs

Chapter Twenty-Five: Meet Henry

Chapter Twenty-Six: Waldo Saves the Day

Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Great Collapse

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Everyone Goes Missing

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Meet Officer Pete

Chapter Thirty: The Night Ceremony of Return

Chapter Thirty-One: Back to Monterey

Chapter Thirty-Two: The Photograph

Chapter Thirty-Three: A Big Wall of Water

Chapter Thirty-Four: Giddy With Exhaustion

Chapter Thirty-Five: Meet Bill the Skown-drill

Chapter Thirty-Six: Knuckle-Bombs and Seawater

Chapter Thirty-Seven: A Familiar Face

Chapter Thirty-Eight: A Race Through the Labyrinth

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Limbo

Chapter Forty: The Inversion

Chapter Forty-One: Utopia

Chapter Forty-Two: The Djoom

Chapter Forty-Three: A Tree of Life

Chapter Forty-Four: No Small Company

Chapter Forty-Five: A Brakken Brew-Ha-Ha

Chapter Forty-Six: Free Fall

Chapter Forty-Seven: Lost in Purgatory

Chapter Forty-Eight: Nee-Lo-Tahk

Chapter Forty-Nine: Attack of the Sluff

Chapter Fifty: Tahk Gets to Drive

Chapter Fifty-One: Meet the Mountain Demon

Chapter Fifty-Two: Attack of the Giant Tree

Chapter Fifty-Three: Spanner Neaps?

Chapter Fifty-Four: What’s Wrong With Charles?

Chapter Fifty-Five: Litterbugs

Chapter Fifty-Six: The Big Cliff

Chapter Fifty-Seven: Non-Elective Surgery

Chapter Fifty-Eight: Trouble at Death-Nale

Chapter Fifty-Nine: The First Tree

Chapter Sixty: Xototl Departs

Chapter Sixty-One: Practical Joke

Chapter Sixty-Two: Attack of the Bull Brakken

Chapter Sixty-Three: Gold Doubloons

Chapter Sixty-Four: We Buy Your Gold

Chapter Sixty-Five: Goodbye’s and Hello’s

Chapter Sixty-Six: Penny and Daphne

Chapter Sixty-Seven: Some Trouble With Bill

Chapter Sixty-Eight: Poor Dental Hygiene

Chapter Sixty-Nine: The Torglijk

Chapter Seventy: A Call for Help

Chapter Seventy-One: Home Stretch

Chapter Seventy-Two: An Important Delivery

 

 

The First Annual Demonic Road Trip

by Gordon Cameron

 

Prologue: The Escape

 

 

Charles was sitting in his favorite chair pretending to read the paper. That chair used to be my chair, but now it smells bad, so he can have it. He isn’t the big scary type of demon with the jagged teeth or the razor sharp claws or the scary horns. No, Charles is more the unkempt, won’t take care of himself and won’t even put on a clean shirt when I ask him type of scary. On first inspection, he looks to be a big lump of nothing remarkable, and on a second or even third inspection, one might conclude he’s nothing more than an over sized, lazy oaf. But since he’s incredibly shrewd and wily, he must never be underestimated because looks can be deceiving.

He has a frumpy face that, in a moment of weakness, I sometimes pity. And he still has a black eye from yesterday when I caught him eating my peanut butter without permission. I hadn’t even opened it yet, and it was chunky, but what upset me most was that he doesn’t even like peanut butter. He only ate it because he knew I was planning on making cookies later and knew it would aggravate me. Needless to say, we were exchanging blows within seconds of my catching him.

Charles can’t be happier when I’m upset, and truth be told, the feeling is mutual. I can’t help but feel a twinge of delight when I’m able to bring him any suffering, physical or emotional; it’s all good.

Unfortunately, he heals quickly, and his eye will be as good as new in only a day or two. Even wounds that would be considered quite serious to humans, like a pencil in the throat or a fork in the ear, don’t phase Charles all that much. Sure, he hollers and whines, but he quickly settles down, especially when food is offered up as an apology.

What Charles really hates is fire. In fact, he hates fire more than anything, and that works in my favor. But I’ve learned I can only threaten him with an open flame as a last resort, and for good reason; demons are highly flammable and difficult to put out.

His mouth is sort of contorted and scrunched off to the side. I’ve asked Charles what happened, but he says he doesn’t remember. I expect he was either born that way or it was some punishment he earned long before I ever set foot on planet Earth.

I don’t know who named him. It’s certainly not a very demonic sounding name if you ask me. I expect his parents are to blame, but he doesn’t remember a lot about his childhood; at least he says he doesn’t. I guess that’s possible considering his age. He thinks he’s about eight thousand years old, give or take a century, but claims it’s all a bit hazy now. I’m not sure if I believe him and expect he remembers lots of stuff but doesn’t want to talk about it, but I’ve learned not to ask too many personal questions because whenever I do, we end up fighting.

I told him once he should change his name to Skull-Devil or Death-Rattle or Jagged-Bone, but he thinks Charles is appropriate because it suits his superior intellect.

Of course, as my personal demon, his primary duty is to demoralize and criticize me in any way he can, which includes reminding me of my fears, failings and regrets — day after day, week after week, year after year. Fortunately for me, he’s becoming noticeably more feeble minded, or maybe he’s just losing interest in performing his duties, but his job performance continues to go downhill as the years go by, which is fine by me.

Charles was once a master of bringing misery into my life with a steady barrage of discouraging, degrading comments and his subtle but constant reminders that life is ultimately meaningless, but as I’ve aged, his steady drone of negativity doesn’t have the impact it used to, or perhaps I’m getting better at ignoring him. Although I have to admit, once in a while, when my guard is down, he can still insert a negative thought that sends my mood in a downward spiral, but I’d rather not dwell on such moments.

I’ve never understood why I can see or hear him, and it’s not fair. Other people don’t have to see or hear or smell their demon, so why should I?

The only other spanner I’ve met is my neighbor, Bertrand. He died four days ago. It wasn’t from anything sinister. He just got old. I hadn’t had the chance to visit with him in the past months, but I’m still going to miss him.

When we first met, Bertrand told me that he and I were spanners, a rare breed of human who happens to be born with one foot in the physical and the other in the spirit world, and so too are the spanner-demons who are assigned to us. When I asked him how he knew this, he claimed that his demon, Gary, had let it slip in a moment of weakness. That doesn’t surprise me in the slightest because Gary is a blabbermouth and couldn’t keep a secret to save his life.

Gary comes over almost every day to watch TV with Charles, and I don’t mind because it gives me time alone. Also, Gary’s a pretty likable pest. He’s much less annoying than Charles, but maybe that’s only because he’s not assigned to me. But we’ll get back to him later.

Where was I?

Oh, so Charles showed up on my fourth birthday, and I’ll never forget how scared I was when I first saw him, but after explaining who he was and handing me a birthday card with a hundred bucks in it, I figured he couldn’t be so terrible and decided I could get used to his grotesque appearance and unpleasant smell. But I could not have been more wrong. Now Charles goes with me to the store and to work. He goes with me when I run or go for a bike ride. He goes with me on the rare date. He never lets me out of his sight, and never ever stops talking and has to continually make inane comments about my every flaw, no matter how insignificant. I’ve made twelve serious attempts to ditch him but have come to the realization that he’s going to be here until the end. Ugh.

 

The last time I tried to ditch Charles was twelve years ago. It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and I had gone out into the back yard with some gardening tools while Charles watched suspiciously over the top of his Calvin and Hobbes book. He had read that thing at least ten times, but he loved Calvin and Hobbes, and I expected he would read it until it fell apart.

I can still remember he was wearing his reading glasses — the ones with no lenses. He only wears them because he thinks they make him look smarter, but it doesn’t work; he still looks dumb.

So I was out digging in the dirt, and he was in the living room supposedly reading, but I could feel his eyes on the back of my head and knew he was just waiting for me to make a break for it. I could feel it down in my bones. I thought to myself, “Here I am, Charles. Just digging up weeds and planting tomatoes. Nothing to see here, right? I’m just gardening with no plans for escape, you wretched beast.”

Thinking myself clever, I continued to dig and plant, and dig and plant until I heard him snoring. His snores are wet and bubbly, like air trying to squeeze through rotting garbage. Don’t get me started about his breath. I’ve never been able to figure out how he can stink so much. I mean, he’s half spirit, so he shouldn’t any smell at all. But no. And would it kill him to take a bath or put on some deodorant, say, once a month? Maybe his stink comes from his rotten soul seeping out through his ears. I don’t get it.

So I was digging in the dirt and Charles was snoring like a freight train — a wet, ugly freight train, and when he rolled over towards the wall, I saw my chance and took it.

He had stayed up late the night before, and I knew he was up early making coffee because I could smell it brewing long before dawn. Even his coffee smells terrible, and no, he never offers me a cup. And even if he did, I’d refuse. I prefer tea. Charles hates tea. Whenever I offer him some, he’ll accept it, but as soon as he tastes it, he’ll spray it across the table in disgust, and when I ask him to clean it up, he just says that I made him try it, so I should have to clean it up. But he’s the one who spit it all over the floor. And before you know it, we’re in another knock-down, drag-out in the back yard, so why even bother? He’s such an incredible jerk, but I guess that makes sense considering he’s a demon and all.

 

So Charles was sleeping like a baby, rumbling like a heard of bison stampeding over an expanse of soggy garbage. Coffee doesn’t seem to have any effect on him because he was out like a light. I can tell when he’s faking it, and he wasn’t faking it, because I can tell. I would be long gone before he even knew what had happened.

Quietly putting down my digging spade, I carefully sidled to the back fence, put my right foot up on the lower horizontal beam and pushed myself up. The board squeaked a little but not too much. Fortunately for me, Charles had a golf game playing on the television, and as usual, he had the volume cranked up because he liked the background noise.

He has to have the television on all the time. You’d think he might want to play some nice music once in a while or even enjoy the silence, but no; that was out of the question.

Lifting my left foot up to the next horizontal beam, I pushed higher, and when the upper one creaked much too loudly, I froze. A check on the integrity of the fence should have been made in a trial run because it’s those little things that can ruin an otherwise perfectly planned escape.

But Charles continued snoring. It’s impossible for him to fake a snore. I know his fake snore, and that was definitely his real snore shaking the house off its foundation.

Cresting the top of the fence, I dropped down on the other side into dog poop and scraped it off as best I could before tip-toeing across the neighbor’s back yard with Agnes, the chihuahua, yapping frantically at my heels. I had expected Agnes would be inside and should have checked to see if the coast was clear first. Agnes is as dependable as any dog ever was. She yaps first thing in the morning and at dusk every single day. She yaps at falling leaves or ladybugs or even her own shadow, and Charles would probably not be roused by her familiar bark. And since her owners pay her no mind any other time, I was fairly confident they wouldn’t bother to investigate the source of the dog’s distress. So with Agnes in tow, I reached the side gate and peaked over. My escape route seemed clear, but I was unable to release the latch on the outside. It wouldn’t budge, and Agnes was increasing the volume and frequency of her yapping that if translated would mean something like, “He’s getting away! Quick! Help-Help!”

Grateful to be wearing jeans instead of shorts when Agnes sank her teeth into my pant leg, I ignored her and peered over the gate to find a padlock on the latch. So in order to keep moving, I was going to have to climb over and do it quickly because Charles wasn’t going to remain unconscious forever.

The gate had no horizontal boards to use as steps, so I was going to have to reach up, grip the splintery top and haul my doughy self up and over to freedom. Holding my breath, I tried not to grunt as I hoisted myself up, and for a moment, Agnes, still attached to my pant leg, rose up off the ground with me, but after deciding I wasn’t worth the trouble, she let go and dropped back to the ground where she continued to alert the world of my violation into her domain.

While traversing a rickety, wooden gate, the most difficult part is the apex maneuver. Balance is everything, and there’s a high probability that great suffering can be achieved if the maneuver is performed improperly. Keeping one’s center of gravity directly over the top of the fence is essential while rotating one’s torso, legs and feet over to the other side. If not executed with precise timing, the entire load can quickly become unstable and cause the support columns — in this case, my arms — to fail. Then gravity can, and did, take over.

At least I was spared a free-fall all the way down to the sidewalk below. My descent was mercifully interrupted when, first, my forehead came into contact with the top of the fence. Then my elbow slammed into the latch just before my knee collided with a two-by-four leaning against the house. My downward motion was finally brought to a halt when my right shoulder and hip slammed into the walkway.

Agnes stopped her tirade for about two seconds, but when she heard me groan and realized I wasn’t dead, she resumed her call for assistance.

Standing up and assessing my condition, I discovered no major injuries, so that was good. I did have a scraped forehead and a bruised elbow which hurt, but neither were bleeding. My knee hurt as well and would probably bruise nicely in a short while.

Having wasted too much precious time and with no desire to find out how much longer Charles would continue to nap, I knew I had to keep moving or all would be lost.

 

My escape had been prepared with ingenious planning. It had to happen during his morning nap when the sun was up and demons aren’t as agile. The previous day, Charles and I took my Pinto to the mechanic’s for a tune up, and the car was ready but still there. Little did Charles know, I had paid for the work over the phone and had asked the mechanic to leave the key under the seat and was relieved when my demon didn’t ask who I had been talking to because I’m not a skilled liar, and we most assuredly would have come to blows.

Charles and I had been involved in more fistfights than I can remember. He was fairly skilled with a swift uppercut or his overused elbow to the neck maneuver, but over the years, I had mastered the double-knuckle-fist and my favorite, the rotary palm strike. The injuries I’ve received over the decades have been more than worth the satisfaction of seeing his smug face all banged up and caved in. I have to admit, I’ve always felt great satisfaction whenever I was able to disfigure or dismember him, and as I mentioned, his injuries were only temporary. His ear grew back only three days after I lopped it off, and his big toe was as good as new in less than a week, but Charles sounds like an agitated housecat when he fights. He yowls, screams and carries on much more than the situation calls for. I wish he would fight fair because when he starts to squawk, I always let up out of a sense of compassion and almost always regret doing so.

Fortunately for me, Charles is only allowed to use physical violence in self defense. It’s some demon rule that he’s pretty much obeyed so far. Yeah, he’s big and a bit scary looking, but he has flabby arms and a pretty weak punch. That’s why he’s learned to grab a weapon early on in a fight. If he can get his hands on a stick, rock or hammer before I’m able to maim him, I usually just call a truce. He might be a poor puncher, but he’s pretty good at swinging a garbage can or a tire-iron, and a garbage can against the head is more painful than it sounds.

Charles has really strong legs though, and over short distances, he can run like the wind. I’ve learned that running away is not a wise tactic during battle and try to avoid, whenever possible, his long-distance body slam.

 

As soon as I reached the sidewalk, I started to feel something like elation. I was going to be free, and Charles would be in big trouble for letting me get away. That would serve him right.

Sprinting the twelve blocks to the auto shop, I hopped in my Pinto and headed north. There was no logical reason to go north, which is exactly why I went north; Charles wouldn’t expect it.

I drove twenty miles in a state of giddiness because I had done it. I was free.

In the two weeks leading up to the escape, I had been particularly nice to Charles and had deceived him into believing that everything was fairly tranquil between the two of us. I had even bought him pizza the night before. He, of course, didn’t offer me a single piece, but I didn’t raise a fuss. Instead, I quietly ate my chicken soup, thinking, “Not much longer, big guy; I’m going to be free of you forever.”

 

Heading north, I started singing “Fifty Ways to leave your Demon”. Charles had not even seen it coming. It had been a masterful plan, and I was its creator. I could just see him waking up from his nap to find me no longer in the backyard. He would get up, lumber about the house in a stupor and search everywhere. Then finding me gone, he would throw a temper tantrum, and forgetting to put on his pants, he’d run out the front door in a panic.

He never told me what the punishment was for a demon who misplaced a human. He just said it was none of my business, but I didn’t really care. In my opinion, as long as Charles was in trouble, I was happy.

 

Some thirty miles later, I slowed into a 25 zone as I came into Snelling, and as I headed around a sharp curve, there was none other than Charles with his hands on hips, standing in the road right in front of me. I swerved to get around him, and as I tried to speed past, he took two steps forward and hurled his disgusting self up on my beautiful car. I can still remember every movement like it had happened in slow motion. His flabby arms outstretched in front of him, he flew through the air like a grungy, grotesque super hero wearing a dirty t-shirt, and he was grinning ear to ear when he slammed down on the hood and dented it in.

In desperation, I swerved sharply to throw him off, but he held onto the windshield wipers and only rolled slightly to the right and then left, grinning brightly at me through the windshield, reveling in the fact that I had failed once more.

My anger quickly turning to fury, I sped up and swerved harder, but seeing Charles sloshing back and forth like a big bag of grinning mud, I lost my mind. Pushing the gas pedal to the floor, I raced through town to build up speed, but Charles didn’t appear to be concerned in the slightest. No, he was utterly delighted over my desperation and outrage. When the Pinto achieved its maximum speed of sixty-three miles per hour, I locked the brakes and skidded to a stop, sending Charles off the hood with both windshield wipers still in his grasp. He was able land on his feet for an instant before his momentum sent him stumbling backwards. With arms flailing wildly, he toppled over and rolled on down the middle of the highway for a surprising number of revolutions. And in that moment, I thought that perhaps I still had one last shot at freedom, so I punched the accelerator to the floor. My tires peeled out before getting traction, and when I hit him, the left side of the Pinto bounced up in the air and the front, driver’s side wheel landed right on his face with a satisfying crunch, providing me with a mild sense of euphoria.

Being high centered on his belly and unable to move forward, I pushed down on the gas paddle and leaned out the window to admire my handy work. The friction generated by the tire spinning against his nose and forehead was causing him to smoke nicely. I can still remember his right arm flailing about, frantically grabbing the air for something to pull him free, and that moment had been nothing less than sublime.

For effect, I let off the gas and revved. Again, I let off of the gas and revved, and each time another cloud of dark smoke rose up from beneath the car. Charles was yelling something, but I wasn’t very interested in what he had to say. But for fun, I leaned out the window and shouted back, “What!”

He tried to speak a second time, so I revved the engine some more and repeated the process until the smell of his scorched face started to make me a little queasy. Rolling up the window, I continued on with my fun until Charles remembered that he could lift the Pinto and roll clear. When he carelessly dropped my car down with a bang! I rolled the window down and reprimanded him: “Hey, careful, you could hurt the suspension.”

Charles stood up, brushed himself off and attempted to recover some dignity by pulling his overalls out of his crack. Then glaring all the way, he lumbered over to the passenger’s side and tried to open the locked door before grumping, “Come on.” After pointing at the lock, he folded his arms impatiently.

Seeing his blackened, caved in face and the smoke rising off his forehead caused a guffaw to rise up, but I dared not let him see my joy. Instead, I reached over, popped the lock and pushed the door open. Charles squeezed in and placed the windshield wipers in back before facing forward. He then folded his arms and continued to smolder in silence.

Coughing at the smoke, I asked politely, “Could you roll down your window? Your face is making my eyes water.”

He said nothing as he rolled down the squeaky window.

Unable to help myself, I suggested, “Stop thinking so hard, Charles; there’s smoke coming out of your ears.”

Not saying a word, he glanced over before quickly looking away, and in that moment, I knew I would never again try to ditch my demon.

 

On the way home, at Charles’ behest, we stopped at the Town Frosty for lunch. I ordered a pastrami burger with fries and a water. Charles wanted a double-bacon cheeseburger, fries and a large RC Cola, but they didn’t have RC, so he ordered root-beer instead. Charles knew they wouldn’t have RC, but he always found it highly annoying. I think he just liked having something to complain about.

My demon handed me a twenty dollar bill, and I placed the order because, of course, the restaurant employees couldn’t see, hear or smell him, and I was thankful for that because he looked a tad frightful even by demon standards.

 

And since that last attempt, I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m tethered to Charles for life. He will forever be placing negative thoughts in my head, and I will, in turn, attempt to do the same to him because I’m not going down without a fight. I must never let him beat me and will always be thankful that he’s a sub-par demon. I would love to find out how he found me so quickly, but I won’t ask him because he’ll just gloat, and I can’t stand it when he gloats.

 

 

Chapter One: Holy Water Mishap

 

Last night, Charles and I were watching a documentary about pyramids and mummification and how the Pharaohs wanted to take all their wealth into the afterlife. We both agreed it was pretty interesting, and during a commercial, I told Charles, “When I die, just part me out, you know, donate my organs to the living. Who cares? I’m gone. I don’t need them.”

For a moment, he sat there in silence, pushing fistfuls of popcorn into his face. Then, with a mouthful of popcorn, he replied, “ You know, when you die? That’s it . . . It’s all over. You’re gone. Kaput.”

Popcorn tumbled out of his open mouth, bounced off his belly and disappeared down between the cushions, and he didn’t even try to recover them. But when several popcorn kernels flew across the room on “kaput”, I scowled and calmly asked, “Hey, could you please be more careful? And how do you know what happens when we die? It’s not like you’ve ever died and come back.”

“Oh, I just know.”

I blinked at him several times and asked, “Uh-huh? Okay, if this life is all for nothing, then why are you here? And why do I have to look at your big face?”

Charles slowly pronounced each word through another mouthful of popcorn, “Because, dummy, I’m a spanner.”

Sitting back in my chair, I looked at the TV, then at Charles, scoffed and chuckled, “Because you’re a spanner? What kind of an answer is that?”

Charles took a slurp off his soda, gargled and explained, “You don’t have to believe me. I’m just telling you how it is. Go on and cling to your little belief in eternal life if you want, but this is it, bud. You might as well accept it.”

I sat in silence a moment before pointing at him enthusiastically and suggesting, “Hey, remember when you mentioned that refresher course you were considering? That would be a great idea, you know? Go back to school for a while and brush up? Hone those demon skills? Because your talents are lacking, to say the least.”

“Oh, that’s not happening. I mean, just look at you. You’re a mess.” He gestured at me and then himself with both hands, proudly announcing, “I? . . . am a master of my trade..” His eyes actually twinkled when he started to laugh in that condescending tone that made me want to pull his lips off.

“Stop it, Charles.”

Not only did he not stop, he laughed harder.

“Charles? . . . Stop.”

He wouldn’t stop. In fact, his laughter continued to grow more and more annoying until I was forced to lob my vial of fake holy water at him. He thought it was genuine holy water, and sometimes I was forced to bring it out and wave it at him when he was jumping on the couch, chewing on the furniture or when he wouldn’t stop complaining about being out of ice-cream.

The vial made a distinct poink! sound off his forehead, and I thought the cap was screwed on tightly, but I was wrong because the contents spilled out on his face, and Charles flared up in a violent whoomph! of bright, yellow-orange flames.

Being a demon, Charles doesn’t react well to holy water, and I discovered a long time ago that he doesn’t react well to fake holy-water either. Apparently if he believes it’s real, then it’s real. His eyes bugged out, and he started screaming as he jumped to his feet, sending the popcorn bowl and all its contents flying up in the air. And as it came back down, it appeared to be snowing in the living room.

Spilling his coke all over his lap and wailing in agony, he managed to collide with the ceiling fan that happened to be set to its fastest setting. And in the span of about three seconds, he went from being annoying, stuffing-his-face, full-of-malarkey Charles into flaming, screaming, running around, afraid for his very existence Charles. Fortunately, he managed to smash through the sliding glass door and tumble out into the backyard before he was able to set the house on fire.

After getting up, having a nice stretch, picking my teeth and tying my shoe, I went in search of the fire extinguisher. I finally found it buried under a pile of old, broken patio chairs in the garage and grew somewhat concerned to find it only had about ten percent left on the pressure gauge.

“Uh-oh.”

I wiped the dust and cobwebs off the tank and casually strolled in the direction of the screaming, figuring that if there wasn’t enough fire retardant left inside, I could resort to using the garden hose. And if that didn’t work, I could smother the flames with my trusty shovel and ample amounts of dirt.

Trying to get a bead on him wasn’t easy, and I was forced to chase the bonfire formerly known as Charles around in circles, pleading, “Would you stop already? Hang on. Come back.”

Charles’ whole head was engulfed in flames, but I was well aware that he would burn a long time before completely turning to ash, so I wasn’t overly concerned, just yet. As he frantically slapped at his head and continued to run around the yard, I shouted, “Charles, stop! For crying out loud, would you just hold still for one second?”

But he couldn’t hear me over his own screeching. He was just fanning the flames by running around. What an idiot. He had completely forgotten about stop-drop-and-roll. What a drama king. He was way overdoing it, and all of the commotion was putting the neighborhood dogs in an uproar. Agnes was at her favorite hole in the fence, leading all the other canines in a frenetic protest, and I could barely hear myself think, what with all the commotion.

I finally caught up and blasted him with the extinguisher, and when I had finally succeeded in putting him out, he stood there looking like a big, burnt cream puff, glaring back at me indignantly for a while. And if looks could kill, I would have been dead right then and there.

Then, without saying a word, he turned and skulked back inside, so I called after him, “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was . . .”

Ignoring me, he proceeded to his room and slammed the door hard to emphasize his opinion on the matter.

I sighed, put down the extinguisher and followed him inside and down the hall to his door. After listening a moment, I gently knocked twice and asked, “Hey, you okay?”

I waited patiently.

He didn’t respond, but I knew the silent treatment was short lived because Charles was allergic to silence. In fact, he loathed any moment of relative quiet, no matter how brief.

I tried again. “Charles? I’m sorry. I thought the cap was screwed on tight. It’ll never happen again, okay?”

Still more silence, so I tried again: “I’ll pay for the back door, okay? That wasn’t your fault.”

Through the door, I heard him mutter, “Go away.”

I muttered back, “Okay, I guess I’ll go clean up the glass. If you come out later, maybe we’ll make more popcorn, and you can do the butter. Would you like that?”

After more silence, he finally responded with a feeble, “Okay.”

Charles came out ten minutes later and watched in silence as I finished picking up the last pieces of glass. He even brought out the vacuum and ran it over the carpet to pick up the popcorn, and after we made new popcorn, the remainder of the evening was fairly calm.

Just before he turned in for the night, he mumbled, “‘Night, jerk,” so I replied half-heartedly, “‘Night, freak.”

And after he turned in, I chuckled at the thought of Charles slapping himself in the face in an attempt to put out the flames. I wish I had a camera that could capture a demon’s image. Somebody should invent that because I would buy one. But I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with sketches for the time being.

 

Chapter Two: Negotiations

 

The next morning, we were sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast. I had oatmeal with raisins and a cup of black tea while Charles was working on a box of glazed donuts and a liter of RC Cola, which he was chugging straight out of the bottle at room temperature, and when he had emptied the bottle, he let out a belch that shook the windows. I had to admit that his belches were pretty impressive, but his belch breath could melt paint off walls. Fortunately, nobody else could see or hear or smell him, nobody except me. I was just lucky that way. I quickly opened the window to clear the air while Charles went back to reading the paper.

He mentioned that the county fair was offering free admission on the opening day and that maybe we could go, and after I agreed that that might be fun, he pointed out the surplus store had RC Cola on sale and we only had twelve liters left so maybe we could get more, so I said I’d put it on the list.

Charles then closed the paper and looked down at his lap in deep thought before looking up and clearing his throat.

“Um, Gord?”

“Um, Charles?”

I-I have to go away, to a-a-a . . . thing? And, um . . .” He looked me in the eye and added, “And-and . . . I need you to go with me.” He nervously cleared his throat a second time.

“Go with you?” I guffawed. “Uh, no, but thanks.” I chuckled again at the notion.

Drumming his fingers on the table, he muttered, “I knew you were going to say that.”

“Well, duh.” I took another drink of my tea and asked, “So where are you going?”

“I want to make a deal with you.”

He’d been practicing this conversation because he was getting nervous, so I asked, “A thing? Really? Demons have things now? You’ve never had a thing before.”

“ Yes, demons have things. It's a-a -a . . . It's called a Gathering.” He cleared his throat again.

I said it more than asked it: “Demons have gatherings . . . Right.”

Charles sensed my skepticism. “We do, and it’s important, and I have to go. Now, would you at least consider going?”

“No, I’m not going to any demonic gathering — especially not with you.” I added, “Where do you have to go?”

“Mono Lake.”

“Mono Lake?

“Yeah, Mono Lake.”

“The big lake east of Yosemite? Why?”

“You ask a lot of questions.”

“Doesn’t that seem like a reasonable question?”

Charles thought about this a moment before replying, “Yes, it does.”

“Okay, then why Mono Lake?”

He started to get annoyed. “Just because, okay?”

“No. Why there?”

“Dang it. I can’t tell you. What does it matter?”

“You can’t tell me? Is that a big demon secret? Is Mono Lake the secret entrance to Hell?”

“What? Of course not.” He absently started kicking the table leg. “No more questions.”

“Of course not? Ah! So, it’s the secret entrance to Hell . . . Cool.”

After stuffing another donut in his face, Charles explained with a full mouth, “Look, you’re on a need to know basis. It’s certainly not my decision that you should go, okay?” He started to stutter: “And-and why do-do-do you-you humans have to know every stupid little detail? I’ve already said more than I’m supposed to. Look, j-just come along and enjoy the drive. Y-you’ll have fun.”

Barely able to understand him, I had gotten the gist of it, so with folded arms, I gave him my final answer: “Oh yeah? Well, I’m not going.” But after a few seconds of silence, I asked, “What kind of deal?”

With folded arms, Charles remained silent, and I could just hear those tiny, little gears turning in that pea-brain of his. He absently stuck a big, sausage sized, index finger deep in his ear and started twisting back and forth. A moment later he removed it, and to my chagrin, it was loaded with a big glob of wet, gooey glop. Charles examined the glop as if it were a priceless diamond before he popped it unceremoniously in his mouth. Then, wiggling his lips, he savored the subtle nuances of texture and flavor.

“Stop that!” With utter revulsion, I asked, “Why do you have to do that? And at the table?” I hurled the salt shaker at him.

And it would have beaned him in the forehead, dead-center, if he hadn’t caught it. Daintily setting it back down, he put both hands out on the table, leaned forward and begged, “Please?”

Leaning away from his breath, I locked my fingers behind my head and yawned, “Not on your life, bub. Why in the world would I want to do you any favors? You’ve been a burr on my butt for as long as I can remember.” I shook my head to accentuate my decision. “No, you’re going alone.”

Having lost my appetite, I got up, took my bowl to the sink, turned on the water and asked, “And why do you have to go to this, this thing anyway?”

Charles pushed himself up with a grunt, lumbered over next to me, dropped his soda bottle in the recycle bin and sighed heavily but said nothing. Sensing he was about to say something important, I kept my mouth shut to give him the space to carefully choose his words.

“Gordo, you’re not a normal human, and I’m certainly not your typical demon. Neither of us is normal, and . . .”

“Um, Duh?” Immediately regretting my interruption, I apologized, “Oh, sorry. Please go on.”

He continued: “. . . and as spanners, we straddle the physical and spirit worlds. It’s why we can interact, and it’s why I can experience the pleasures and pains of the mortal realm. I’m spirit and I’m flesh.”

“Yeah, You’ve told me a hundred-million times. But why me, and why you?”

“And I’ve explained that too. I don’t know why we’re this way, but I like being a spanner. Only a small percentage of demons get the privilege of being able to interact with the physical world and with people. But I get to eat, drink, sleep, watch TV, drive the car and wear clothes just like you. I’m incredibly lucky, and I know it.” He cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve never told you this, but I savor my time up here on the surface.”

I blinked at him, not once or twice, but three times. “You’re not kidding, are you?”

“No, I’m not. I-I get to feel the air in my lungs and the sun and the wind and the rain on my skin.” He actually smiled as he continued: “The things you take for granted are precious to me. And food? Man alive, have I told you how much I love food?”

“No, Charles, I’ve never noticed.” Looking him straight in the eye, I asked, “So, why are you telling me this now?”

“Gord, I need you to go with me, but I can’t make you. They want . . .” Charles’ eyes grew wide as he stopped short and slapped both hands over his mouth.

But I was all over his slip-up like white on rice: “They? Who are they, Charles?”

“Uh, I mean, we . . . You know, Gary. Um . . . he and I want you to go.” He forced a fake laugh.

Gary and Charles had become fast friends over the past few decades, and Gary was constantly breaking the rules by leaving his human unattended while he popped over for short visits that tended to last all day. I don’t think Bertrand had ever minded too much. I certainly wouldn’t mind if Charles wandered off. He could take as much time as he wanted.

Not about to buy his attempt at deceit, I asked again, “Who are they, Charles?” I gave him a hard shove to the shoulder, but he didn’t seem very intimidated.

“I can’t tell you, alright?” He sighed heavily and stuttered, “I-I-I-I can’t.”

“Yeah, You can’t or you won’t?” I squinted at him and lowered my voice: “Exactly who wants me to go with you to your little gathering, Charr-ly? Hmm?”

Ignoring me, Charles furtively searched around for any eavesdroppers before whispering, “If you go, I’ll give you a month of silence. Not a peep!” He then added, “Absolutely nothing.” He pointed at his chest repeatedly. “I won’t say a word.” He zipped his lips to emphasize the offer.

With folded arms, I watched him suspiciously, but he was neither smirking nor snickering, nor were there any gaseous emissions of any sort being released from his person.

Wow. A month with no Charles was definitely tempting. I could have some real peace and possibly even enjoy life for a change. I would be able to relax and live in the moment.

Clearing my throat, I demanded, “I want a year.”

Charles responded with derisive laughter, his thunderous voice booming loud enough to cause the dishes to rattle in the drying rack. “A year? No way. I can’t give you a year! I’d be reassigned.”

“You’d lose your job?”

“No, moron, I’d be reassigned, to someone else.”

“Reassigned, huh? Oh, golly.” I faked sincerity: “Wouldn’t that be a shame?” I clicked my tongue.

Charles snarled, “Okay, you can have five weeks, but that’s my limit.”

With eyes closed, I shook my head in feigned regret. “Naw, five weeks isn’t enough. Sorry. Have a nice trip, big guy.”

Charles wasn’t the best bargainer in the world. He was too impatient. I knew I’d have to be patient to squeeze the best deal out of him, so I decided to take my time. Besides, haggling always upset Charles, and upsetting Charles always brought joy into my world. Grabbing my gloves and helmet, I finished the opening negotiations: “If you want me to go, it’ll have to be a year. Take it or leave it. I’m going for a ride.”

Charles watched slack-jawed as I went out to the garage to get my bike, and as soon as I shut the door, I could hear him growling in the kitchen.

How much time might he concede? Could I possibly get a whole year with no Charles? I dared not hope for such a thing.

Charles followed me into the garage wearing his flip-flops, explaining, “Look, I can’t do a year. They’d never approve it.” He moaned and added, “Nobody gets a whole year, not even administrator types with all their connections.”

He was whining already. That was a good sign.

“Nobody, you mean, until now.” After checking the brakes, tires and gears and finding everything in ship-shape, I hopped on.

The primary concern was to appear utterly unconcerned about his plight, so I messed up his scorched hair and encouraged, “Try to keep up, big guy.”

I took off down the road towards the bike path, and Charles quickly caught up, running alongside, lumbering, wheezing and sounding like a moose with a cold. I glanced over, grimaced and said, “Oo, Charles, you really need to eat better. I mean, just listen to you.”

He had trouble speaking through all of the huffing and puffing, but that didn’t stop him from trying: “I-I-I’ll pay for-for everything. It’ll be like a free va-va-vacation.”

“A vacation? Right. I don’t care about that. I want a year away from you or no dice.”

Charles tripped on a crack in the sidewalk but only stumbled and grunted heavily before finding his balance, and when he recovered, he pleaded, “Dang it, Gordo, maybe — just maybe — I can get you six weeks, okay?”

Charles sounded like he might be showing signs of asthma, but I knew that demons couldn’t die from heart attacks or anything else, but to be sure, I thought it best to push him to his limit, so when I reached the bike path, I took off and called back, “Naw, can’t do it! One year or nothing!”

He began to catch up, and as the rhythmic slapping of his flip-flops against the pavement and his wheezing grew louder, I stood up on the pedals and pushed as hard as I could. From behind, Charles complained loudly, “Ah! Come on!” but not having a choice, he increased his speed, and after he closed the gap a second time, he growled, “All right, Two months!” His wheezing was getting worse as he gasped, “But it . . . it’s not going to-to be (wheeze) easy!”

Without looking back, I shook my head and called out, “Can’t help you, sport! Really wish I could!”

Since he sounded like he was about to keel over at any second, I was impressed that he was keeping up so well, and since I was having so much fun, I maintained a good clip for another eight miles before stopping under the shade of a massive eucalyptus.

Charles caught up a few seconds later, soaking wet, red-faced and panting furiously.

I inspected him with one eye closed and asked, “Why do you insist on wearing those ridiculous flip-flops? They can’t be comfortable.” I took a swig from my bottle.

“I told you. I-I don’t like . . . (wheeze) shoes. My . . . (gasp) my feet need to . . . (wheeze) breathe. I hate (gasp) . . . I hate sweaty feet.”

We had had this discussion many times before, but it annoyed him when I asked, so I asked, “Yeah, but flip-flops? You look ridiculous, and they keep falling off your feet.”

“I don’t care how they (wheeze) they look. You’re the only (wheeze) only one who (wheeze) who can see me anyway, so shut . . . shut up about it.”

I took another drink of water and turned back towards home, and Charles’ shoulders slumped with the thought of making the return run, but he was soon behind me, and when he was within earshot, I asked, “Would I get to go inside this gathering or whatever you call it?”

“Huh? No, of course not. Humans aren’t allowed (wheeze) inside.” Chuckling at the notion, he added, “Not a chance.”

“Why not? I wouldn’t get in the way.”

Charles repeated my words to himself: “Get in the way? You’re (wheeze) you’re funny. You can’t go in, Gordo. You don’t understand. These are arch-demons.”

“So what? I’ve never met an arch-demon. Are they friendly? Or are they like you?”

Charles growled, “Would you stop asking so (wheeze) so many questions?”

Delighted to see him getting testy, I offered, “Three months.”

Letting out another low growl, he spasmed with irritation and gave in: “All right!” He growled again and agreed, “Three months.” He growled a third time and added, “I am in (wheeze) in so much (wheeze) trouble.” Not paying attention to where he was stepping, he tripped and fell face first into the bike path with a wonderful whoomph! before rolling and bouncing several times. I glanced back in time to witness the tail end of his accident and had myself a most satisfying belly laugh. Charles, however, did not see the humor in the situation.

 

Back home, after he had regained his composure, Charles drew up an air-tight contract in triplicate. He loved contracts because he usually ended up getting the better end of the deal. That fact made me a bit uneasy, but all I would be doing is going on a stupid road trip. Charles had the document drawn up and ready for signing before dinner because, I suspected, he wanted to finalize the deal before I had a chance to reconsider.

And it read as follows:

I, Gordo, agree to accompany my designated spiritual antagonizer or DSA, Charles, to the Forty-Second Thousand, Three-Hundred and Thirteenth Annual Gathering of Spirits in (blacked out), California, and as antagonizee, I agree to remain within a predetermined distance of said spiritual antagonizer’s choosing at all times for the duration of the trip.

In exchange, said antagonizer will not speak, write, gesture or attempt to communicate with me in any other form for a duration of three consecutive calendar months of my choosing in the near or distant future. I also agree that any attempt on my part to travel out beyond shouting distance from said spiritual antagonizer during the three day journey will render the agreement null and void. This binding contract only valid within North America. Void where prohibited.

I liked the part about getting to pick the non-Charles months. He probably put that in there so I wouldn’t chicken out before I signed; he was shrewd that way.

I put the contract down and asked, “What’s this? North America? What’s that for?”

Charles stopped bouncing his slinky and looked up. “Huh? Oh, I just want to cover all my bases and avoid any monkey business on your part if you ever leave the continent.”

Eying him suspiciously, I muttered, “Hmm, interesting.”

It all seemed pretty innocuous, and demons do have a ton of rules that make absolutely no sense. They were similar to people in that regard. I gave him a good, long, suspicious squint and asked, “What’s this shouting distance nonsense? That’s pretty vague.”

Charles stopped playing with his slinky again. “Huh? Oh, you know, it’s just the maximum distance that you can hear me when I shout your name.”

“So, say about seven or eight miles then?”

Charles scowled. “No. It’s more like one city block.”

I scowled back. “Okay, that would be about a mile.”

He sighed heavily. “You know perfectly well that you can’t hear me from a mile away. Fine, you want it to be a mile. We’ll call it one mile, but you better come when I call.”

“Okay, give it . . .” I impatiently wiggled my fingers at Charles, indicating the need for a writing utensil.

He handed me his sticky, maple syrup covered pen, so I grimaced and asked, “Can’t you eat with a fork?”

Shrugging, he replied, “I suppose I could.”

I growled, and as soon as I signed the contract, a sinister smile spread across his face and his eyes darkened as he let out a deep, evil cackle.

I lobbed the pen at him, and it stuck in his hair. “Oh, knock it off, Charles.”

He stopped laughing and shoved an index finger in his ear. “Sorry. I couldn’t help myself. I’m so funny.”

“Yeah, about as funny as a cold sore.”

As soon as the contract was in his hands, I felt a wave of dread envelope me like good-quality plastic wrap. Maybe I should have thought it through a little longer. I hadn’t really considered all the unintended consequences, but it was too late. When I turned away, I caught his reflection in the window. Charles was wearing a mischievous grin, but when I whirled around, he asked innocently with a straight face, “What?” And when I only leered at him, he asked again, “What?”

 

Chapter Three: Preparations

 

The departure date was two days away, and Charles was nervously pacing around the house, getting prepared, mumbling chants and making strange vocalizations I had never heard before. He organized his wardrobe and even cleaned up as best he could, and when he asked me to take him to the car wash and spray him down with the pressure washer, I happily agreed.

The pressurized water made him stagger at first, but as soon he found his balance, he actually seemed to like it. I don’t understand why he doesn’t bathe more often. Well, yes I do. It’s probably some kind of passive-aggressive behavior directed at me; he knows his stink bothers me, and that makes him happy.

An amazing amount of grime, slime, crud, ooze and dirt came off, but even under the intense blast from the spray wand, those weird, barnacle looking things attached to his back refused to let go. We then used the industrial vacuum to clean out the gunk, dust and lint hiding inside his fat folds, and to our surprise, even a mouse scampered out from one of his crevices, ran down his leg and scurried away across the parking lot. And in less than two minutes of use, the vacuum clogged, so we had to move on to the next one and then the next, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy who had to empty those things.

 

After he was cleaned to our satisfaction, we headed to Big Boy Clothing Outlet to look for a suit, but because of Charles’ oblong torso, they didn’t have anything that came close to fitting, so I whispered, “Darn, it looks like we’re going to have to pay extra and get you measured.”

Charles, who was busy struggling to put on a jacket six sizes too small, looked up from under his armpit and asked, “Yeah? And who exactly is going to measure me?”

“Um, dummy, they got a guy here that . . .” Realizing what I was suggesting, I stopped short and corrected myself: “Oh yeah, well, you’ll have to measure yourself then.”

Struggling to free himself from the navy-blue affair, he asked, “Uh, do you think I’m physically capable of doing that?”

“Sure. Just do your best, and we’ll estimate any measurements you can’t reach.”

Charles finally freed himself from the jacket and asked politely, “Would you measure me?”

With my hands in the air and laughing nervously, I backed away. “No . . . Way. Nuh-uh. No. Not on your life.”

“You have to,” he whined, “If I do it, I’ll get it wrong. You’ve seen how I measure stuff. Come on.”

“No way, Charles. I can’t. Remember when I had to pull those porcupine quills out of you? I still have nightmares about that. No.” Shuddering with revulsion, I added, “Ugh, even the thought makes me gag. Why do you have to be so . . . so gross?”

He pointed at the counter. “Look, there’s a measuring tape. Come on. Please?”

I looked at the tape and at Charles. Then I looked at the tape and at Charles before cringing and suggesting, “Just wear your old suit. It’s a great suit.”

He whined, “It’s not great. It’s all charred and torn from our trip to the wildlife refuge. Remember?”

I didn’t remember, so I had to ask, “What trip?”

“The fight we had on the way home? You know, the road-grater and the gas-can? And the high tension wires?”

I laughed out loud. “Oh, yeah.” I chuckled again. “That was great. You ended up lighting that whole field on fire.”

Charles ignored me. “Well I can’t wear it now. I’d be a laughing stock.”

I sighed as I picked up the measuring tape and muttered under my breath, “Three months. Three months. Three months. I can do this.”

 

It took over ten minutes to get him measured correctly because he was too ticklish and kept giggling and jerking away, and even though I held my breath, I still gagged several times. I then took his measurements to the counter and picked out a nice, navy-blue fabric before we headed back out to the parking lot.

“Okay, they’ve got your order. He said we can pick it up on Friday morning.”

“Friday? But we have to leave on Saturday. Can’t they do it faster?”

“Friday comes before Saturday, remember? What’s wrong with you?”

He whined, “I want more time to make sure it’s right.”

“You have a whole day. Just take a deep breath and relax.”

“I can’t. Everybody is worked up about this Gathering. Something’s going on. Even the birds are nervous.”

On our way to the car, I asked, “What could be going on?”

“I don’t know. What if there’s a big reorganization going down? What if I get reassigned?”

“They’re not going to reassign you. You’re doing a great job.”

Charles looked at me and asked, “I am? Really? You’re not just saying that to be nice?”

I laughed bitterly and explained, “No, I’m not. You know, back in the day, you tricked me into saying and doing things that I’m still ashamed of, and every now and then, you’re still capable of filling me with misery, worry and regret. You don’t deserve to hear this, but you should get a promotion. Now please get in the car.”

Gawking at me in disbelief, he argued, “But you always say I’m a terrible demon.” He blinked several times before he began to well up.

Alarmed by his embarrassing display of emotion, I quickly changed the subject: “Where do you want to eat?”

Cracking a smile, Charles kicked the tire and suggested, “How about Indian?”

 

That night, I dreamed I was being chased by a large shadow demon. It was nothing more than a silhouette with eyes that shone like the sun, and it bristled with power as it closed in. With nowhere to hide, I raced across the middle of a flat, empty expanse, and when the shadow caught up, it lifted me up and held me tight as it searched my mind. Nothing but a terrible darkness, even the light around it seemed to fall into it as if being pulled down into a kind of gravity well.

I tried to rage at the shadow but could make no sound. Something or someone else was inside it. Another consciousness was there. Another consciousness was in control, and as we looked into each other, the ground turned to liquid and we dropped away, down into darkness.

 

The next morning, Charles asked if I could give him a haircut, so after breakfast and an extended search for scissors, I had him sit cross-legged on the garage floor. After donning my coveralls, gloves and goggles, I wrapped my head in an old sheet and tucked it in. Having performed this procedure before, I knew that anything, living or dead, might come flying or scurrying out of that wasteland he called a hair-do.

His hair smelled like rotting compost, burnt hair and cheap cologne and was the texture of tangled rope and still contained a collection of sticks, gravel, dirt and bugs that had refused to come out even after direct exposure to fire, the pressure washer and several industrial sized shop-vacs.

Searching for an acceptable place to begin, I groaned and grumbled, “Yuck, Charles, why can’t you keep your hair maintained so it doesn’t get like this?”

And his reply was absolutely brilliant in its simplicity: “I dunno.”

Two more mice abandoned his head and ran off in search for more peaceful accommodations when I started soaking his hair in Drain-O and then oven cleaner. It took over an hour to get it looking halfway presentable, and in some spots, I even had to fire up the weed-eater to get through the really gnarled stuff. When I was relatively satisfied, I handed Charles a mirror and stepped back to admire my handy work.

Charles daintily patted his hair and angled the mirror in different directions while I nodded and admitted, “Hmm, not bad if I say so myself. You almost look . . . Well, I wouldn’t go that far.”

He looked up and asked, “What? What do I almost look?”

“You almost look halfway presentable, you know, for a demon.”

My words actually made Charles smile. In fact he was in such a good mood that he spent the next hour humming the score to “Oklahoma” while cleaning the kitchen without even being asked, and he actually used real cleaning chemicals instead of just a wet paper towel. And he even used the broom instead of just kicking the crumbs up against the baseboard. Needless to say, I was in complete shock.

That evening, I offered to take him out for pizza, but Charles wanted to stay home and read through his pristine copy of Glurk’s Guide to Demonic Rules and Regulations – Volume Seven just in case they decided to test him at the Gathering. He admitted that it was better safe than sorry, and I couldn’t argue with that.

So we ordered take-out and spent the evening going over the questions he thought they might hit him with. His weakest areas were the chapters on good mental and physical habits for healthy living. Charles was repulsed by all the rules — which he never followed anyway — on proper diet, grooming habits and exercise, and he didn’t hesitate to voice loudly his disdain for “all that garbage”.

 

On Friday morning, we picked up Charles’ new suit, and as soon as we got home, he rushed straight into his room to try it on. When he came out, he raised his arms out and rotated around three times. “What do you think? Huh? Well? How do I look?” When he finally stopped rotating, he looked down at his new jacket and carefully began picking off pieces of microscopic lint.

I looked him over carefully and noted, “The Howdy Doody tie’s a nice touch. You’ll definitely be turning heads at this, uh . . . thingy.”

Charles corrected me: “It’s called a Gathering.” He looked up with puppy-dog eyes and asked, “Really? I look okay?”

“Well, yeah, um, I’d say so.”

Charles inspected himself in the mirror. “Yeah, I look pretty good.” He groaned, “I’m so nervous. I wish we could just get it over with.”

Why I bothered to offer up any support was beyond me, but I actually said, “Don’t worry. It’ll be fun. You might even meet someone.”

Charles sighed deeply and said, “Gord, I don’t know what I’d do if they put me with another person. I’ve been with you for such a long time, and you’re, uh, well, you’re like family.”

His words made me a little uncomfortable, but I replied, “Um, yeah, I’m kind of used to you too.” I couldn’t believe what was happening. Were Charles and I being nice to each other? No. That was not possible.

Before he could say something else that might freak me out, I added, “Well, you better go change. You don’t want to get it all mussed up.”

Charles stood in front of the mirror, flexing his arms in at least a dozen body builder poses before replying, “Yeah, okay.”

 

We had Chinese takeout for lunch. On the menu was cashew chicken, fried rice, chow mein and sweet-and-sour pork. Charles, as usual, picked out his vegetables and gave them to me, and, as usual, he was still hungry when we were finished, so he fetched a bag of cookies and a liter of RC Cola for dessert. And after he had finished downing the liter, he ripped off a truly momentous belch before wiping his greasy hand on the chair.

“Hey! Use your napkin, you slob!” I fired the remote at his head, and it bounced harmlessly off his skull with a satisfying clack! but he hardly even noticed.

Looking over at me blankly, he asked, “What? Oh . . .” He daintily wiped his hands with his napkin even though the damage was done.

I rolled my eyes and sighed, “You’re an unmitigated pig, you know that?”

Charles chuckled, “Yeah. Ha ha — unmitigated.” He looked up and cleared his throat. “You know, Gary was summoned to the Gathering too, so I told him he could ride with us. I hope that’s okay.”

My heart skipped a beat, and I calmly asked, “What? . . . Gary? And when were you going to mention this?” I hung my head and groaned.

“Why? He needs a ride, and we’re going anyway.”

“Charles, it’s not okay. You have to go tell him to find another ride. With all our camping gear and your big, old self taking up the whole back seat, we don’t have enough room. Why did you do that?”

“Well, Bertram just died, and Gary’s going to be reassigned, and it’s a difficult time for him. I thought he’d appreciate it.”

I folded my arms and grumped, “Well, we can’t take him. I agreed to go with you and that’s all. No Gary. Come on, man. What’s the matter with you? Please, you have to go tell him.”

After Charles pouted for a few seconds, he muttered, “Okay.”

There came a knock at the door, and then the doorbell rang which was followed by another, louder knock before the bell rang three more times in rapid succession. I looked at Charles, and he looked back at me. It was Gary’s good-mood knock that we had heard a thousand times before.

Charles strained to get out of his chair, saying brightly, “Hey, that’s him now.”

“Charles! Don’t you dare!” I whispered forcefully and waved my hands in protest. “We’re not here!”

“It’s okay. I’ll just tell him what you told me.”

As he headed for the door, I pleaded, “Charles! He can’t go! Do not answer that door!”

Charles waved me off as he headed for the door, so I put my face in my hands in despair because I knew where this was going.

Gary had his face pressed up against the screen door in great anticipation. He asked loudly, “Hey, anybody in there?”

He bore a slight resemblance to Charles with a few exceptions. His baby-blue eyes drooped down giving him a slightly sad expression, but his mouth was bent upwards at the corners forming a permanent grin. He had one over sized tooth in the top front that angled out and pushed down on his lower lip ever so sightly, just enough to give him a slight lisp, and he had a simply tremendous nose that looked like it had been intended for some other demon twice his size and had been mistakenly attached to his face. It was spectacular.

Gary’s right ear was bent forward, and he had a burnt spot on the top of his head where his hair refused to grow, and when I asked him what had happened, he changed the subject. Charles said later that Gary had been caught up in a tribal dispute with some neighboring demons several centuries ago while on assignment with a Paiute tribe up in Northern California.

As soon as the door opened, Gary bounded in, waved at Charles and at me in separate gestures and said in his outdoor voice, “Hi guys!” Sporting an over-sized, dirty t-shirt with the sleeves torn off and tattered khaki slacks, he smiled brightly. He was, without a doubt, the most cheerful demon I had ever met, but with only Charles for comparison, I suppose that wasn’t saying much.

I put my best face forward: “Hey Gare. Sorry to hear about Bertrand. He was a good guy.”

Gary nodded. “Yeah, I’m going to miss him. We were together for ninety-two years. Can you believe that?”

I was alarmed to see he had a backpack on his back and a walking stick which meant he was ready to go, and I was so tempted to kick Charles really hard right then and there.

“Yeah, that’s a long time, isn’t it?” I flashed a desperate look at Charles and asked, “So, how soon until you get your new person?”

“I haven’t heard anything yet, but I hope they hurry up. I’m so bored.”

I nodded politely. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Being bored is, uh, boring.”

Gary guffawed, hiked up his pants and said, “I really appreciate you letting me tag along to the Gathering. You guys are the best.” He flashed a big, genuine grin of very crooked, greenish-brown teeth.

I tried to catch Charles’ eye a second time, but the big dope was busy trying to pry a piece of fabric out of his front teeth, so I tried to send him a mental message: “Tell him he can’t go, you mutton-head!” but my telepathic powers were lacking, and Charles proved this by cheerfully asking, “Hey, the more the merrier. Right, Gordo?”

And in that moment, I promised myself that as soon as I caught Charles alone, he was so dead.

They both looked to me in anticipation.

I blinked several times, then grimaced and admitted ruefully, “Well, that would be fine, but we really don’t have room in the car for all three of us.” I shrugged and added, “Sorry, Gary.”

Gary’s demeanor dropped three octaves when he looked at his feet and muttered, “Oh, yeah. Um, okay.” He let out a long, disappointed sigh.

And before he could counter with some cockamamie idea of riding on the roof, I added, “Hey, but maybe we’ll see you there, huh? And we can hang out, right?”

The room was silent a moment, and I realized I was holding my breath. If Charles said one word, I would soak him in fake holy-water right where he stood, and I would not extinguish him until he was nothing more than a blackened pile of ash and bones out in the front yard.

But Charles decided to help some more and asked, “Hey, Gare, what about Bertrand’s old pickup truck? The one in your backyard? Could we take that?” Charles looked at Gary and then at me.

I didn’t reply because I was too busy envisioning my victory dance around Charles’ smoldering remains.

Brightening instantly and nodding, Gary replied, “Yeah, it only needs a windshield, but other than that, it’s dependable.” He eagerly looked back and forth at Charles and me, hoping against hope.

I could feel my usual, good-natured, friendly demeanor slipping away, and I frowned and asked, “No windshield? No, I can’t drive that far without a windshield. Nuh-uh. No way . . . Sorry, Gary.”

After another uncomfortable silence, Charles brightened and asked, “Gary, didn’t Bertrand wear a motorcycle helmet when he drove that thing? Do you still have it?”

With eyes wide, Gary nodded vigorously. “Yeah! It’s still in the truck. You could wear it, Gordo, you know? To keep the bugs out of your teeth.” He chuckled with anticipation.

They both looked to me like expectant little kids on the verge of getting to go to Disneyland. These were vile, wretched creatures, spawned or born or whatever, in the bowels of hell, whose sole purpose was to bring misery and sorrow to the hearts and souls of human beings. They deserved nothing more than my eternal, white-hot disdain and complete animosity. But since Gary had a dependable truck with lots of room for all three of us and our gear, how was I supposed to say no?

Knowing I had been beaten, I lowered my head in defeat, and a cheer rose up from both of them. They gave each other a high five, but Gary missed and accidentally slapped Charles in the face.

Two demons wasn’t part of the deal, and I thought for a moment about backing out of the whole thing. Was this going to be worth it? The answer was still a resounding yes. Three days with these yahoos and then three months without a peep out of Charles? It was still worth it. Maybe.

 

Gary talked me into letting him stay over. He said he didn’t like being in his house anymore because it was too quiet without his person around. At first I said no, but after twenty minutes of incessant begging from the both of them, I caved and said okay, but only if Gary agreed to sleep out in the truck so I didn’t have to listen to his snoring. After he agreed, the three of us walked over to Bertrand’s house to take a look at our ride.

I was surprised when the primer-green, ’63 Chevy C-10 started up without any hesitation, and the engine sounded strong considering it was over half a century old with over three hundred thousand miles logged. The cab and engine smelled like old oil, grease and dust from another era, and the seats were ragged and torn. The headliner was gone and the dash was cracked and yellowed from decades of baking in the hot, valley sun. But even so, Bertrand must have taken good care of the mechanics because there was no play in the steering and even the suspension felt nice and tight.

After we got it back home, Charles and Gary swept out all of the old papers, cans, sticks and leaves, and they even wiped down the inside and cleaned the windows and mirrors. I expected the oil to be as black as road tar, but it was as clear as light maple syrup, and the rest of the engine looked good, the belts and hoses were shiny and tight, and the radiator fluid was slick and green. Against my advice, Charles decided he needed to taste antifreeze and claimed it tasted like licorice, but five minutes later, he threw up.

 

That evening, we made omelettes. I had to use a separate pan because the guys put eggshells, old coffee grounds and some smelly, rotten potatoes in theirs. I couldn’t bare to watch when they decided to add a week-old chicken carcass that had been fermenting under a June sun in the outside garbage can.

I thought it would be fun to watch an episode of Nature about migratory birds but was quickly and loudly voted down, and we ended up watching three episodes of Andy Griffith instead.

Just after eleven, we set Gary up in the back of the Chevy with a pillow, a blanket and a flashlight, and I left the side door to the house unlocked in case he got hungry and needed to come inside for a midnight snack. When he asked me to tuck him in, I suggested that Charles would do it, but he didn’t want Charles, and he wouldn’t let me leave until I relented.

 

 

Chapter Four: Road Trip

 

At first light, I awoke to the sensation of something very squishy and annoying being pressed repeatedly into my cheek. Opening one eye, I found that the offending object was a finger, so I slapped it away and looked up to see a big, ugly face blinking down at me. I groaned, closed my eyes and rolled over, face-down, hoping that maybe Charles would get the hint and go off and die a slow, painful death.

He whispered happily, “Gord, it’s time to go. Get up, lazy pants.”

I raged at him through my pillow, “Get out of here!” and all was quiet again.

Good. He had taken the hint and gone away.

But then, the big finger was back, and it poked me in the shoulder as its owner whispered, “Hey, daylight’s burning. I made your tea the way you like it.”

Wow. Charles made tea? There’s a first. I rolled over on my side and, in my gravelly, morning voice, pleaded, “Man, we’ve got all stinking day. Just give me another hour. Please.”

Then Gary announced at a volume much too loud for the wee hour: “Gordo, rise and shine. Carpe diem! We need our driver. Up and at ‘em.”

I groaned a second time and wrapped the pillow around my ears. Why was Gary up? He never got up before sunrise. That demon slept a solid twelve hours every night. But, no, not today. So I resigned myself to the fact that as soon as I was awake, I’d have to kill both of them.

In the hopes they would go away, I ignored them, but Gary poked me in the ribs with his walking stick and chanted, “Road trip. Road trip. Road trip.” He chuckled and grabbed my shoulders, shaking me vigorously and cheering, “Wooo!”

I sat up with eyes closed and grumbled, “Curse you both. Curse you for all eternity.” But my curse only elicited another high-five between the two of them. Gary, of course, missed and slapped Charles in the nose.

 

The truck was already packed, and Charles had even made chicken sandwiches and a thermos full of ice tea for the road. He had been kind enough to put a pillow on the driver’s seat to cover up the worn spot where the spring was poking through, and he had even cleaned Bertram’s motorcycle helmet and placed it up on the dash.

I didn’t want them both riding up front, but Charles and Gary argued that we should all be up front so we could plan our trip, and after about a minute of arguing, I gave in and they both crammed into the cab. Gary got the window seat first, but they agreed to switch in Mariposa.

After fueling up and putting air in the tires, we made our way across town and headed east on Highway 140. The air was still nice and cool before dawn, and swarms of flying insects began hitting us in the face before we were even up to speed. I had only swallowed two gnats before deciding it was time to test out the helmet, so Charles steered while I pushed it down over my head to find that it fit pretty well, and to my great delight, I realized I could barely hear their bug crunching and their overly detailed commentary regarding the assorted flavors and textures.

Charles and Gary had mastered the art of high-speed bug eating. They claimed that the secret was to open your mouth as wide as you could, and the wind would rush in and push your cheeks out, and this would help to catch even more. I thought they looked like whales feeding on plankton. After we had passed through a particularly dense swarm, they faced each other and compared mouthfuls before chewing, and when Gary laughed, I made the mistake of inspecting his catch and immediately regretted doing so.

We reached the first foothills on the far eastern side of the valley, and the glow of the sunrise ahead had the effect of lifting my spirits. Above the distant peaks of the Sierra Nevada, long stretches of bright, red and orange cirrus clouds were hugging the horizon, putting on a dazzling show. I lifted the visor on my helmet, smacked Charles on the shoulder and asked, “Wow. Would you look at that?”

With open mouthfuls of bugs, Charles and Gary only blinked back at me. Then looking at each other, they shrugged.

But I continued: “That is what it’s all about. It’s the unexpected stuff that makes life worth living.” I gestured at the sky.

With his mouth still full, Charles replied, “Big whoop. It’s a sunrise.” As he spoke, bug bits flew out of his mouth and hit me in the face.

So I had to disagree: “It’s not just a sunrise, Charles. That is amazing.”

Charles looked at Gary, shook his head and sighed, “Humans.”

Gary chuckled and agreed, “Yeah, Humans.”

With my mood elevated, I decided to leave them alone and enjoy the view, but when an aphid hit me in the eye, I pulled the helmet visor back down.

 

The sun rose, and the the air warmed, and the bugs became less frequent as they flew away to hide for the day. The road continued higher and higher as it meandered up through the foothills. The green grass of spring had all but dried out, turning the rolling hills a soft, golden brown. Cows dotted the landscape here and there, and in small groups, they happily grazed and moseyed their way to seemingly nowhere in particular. We were rolling through Cathy’s Valley when Charles stopped yammering about which Thundercat was toughest and started talking about food, and when he and Gary got quiet, I could see out of the corner of my eye that they were staring at me expectantly and waiting for me to look over. And knowing what they wanted, I ignored them with every fiber of my being.

Finally, Charles complained, “We’re hungry.”

With eyes forward, I replied, “No you’re not. You’ve been eating bugs since we started.”

After a brief silence, he repeated himself: “Gord, we’re hungry.” He thought a moment before adding, “We want ice cream.”

I replied in a monotone fashion, “Too bad. We don’t have any. Have one of those sandwiches.”

Ignoring me, Charles suggested, “Come on. Let’s get some.”

Gary asked brightly, “Are we getting ice cream?”

Nodding vigorously, Charles declared, “Yeah.”

I spoke without emotion: “No, we’re not.”

Gary cheered and asked, “What kind?”

So I elaborated, “No kind. We’re not getting any kind.”

Holding out his hand, palm up in front of Gary, Charles added, “Any kind we want.”

Gary cheered again and declared, “Yes. I want rocky-road.” He slapped Charles’ hand as hard as he could.

Feeling a twinge of annoyance, I kept my cool and politely declared, “We’re not getting ice cream. You’ll get it all over the place like you always do.”

Charles shook my shoulder vigorously, assuring me, “No we won’t. We promise.”

Gary slapped Charles’ shoulder several times and agreed, “No we won’t. We promise.”

They didn’t deserve ice cream. They didn’t deserve anything. What they deserved was to burn in a lake of fire forever and ever, but Charles and Gary continued to stare at me until I sighed deeply and gave in: “Okay, we’ll take a break in about twenty minutes.”

The visor on Bergstrom’s helmet was badly splattered anyway, and I had bugs stuck in my hair and splattered across my shirt, so a quick stop wouldn’t hurt.

Twenty minutes later, we rolled into Mariposa and into the parking lot of the local market, and before we had even come to a complete stop, Charles hopped out. Unfortunately, he didn’t land as gracefully as planned, and his flip-flop slid sideways causing him to stumble forward and fall head first into the pavement.

Gary nimbly hopped out, put his hand out to Charles and teased, “Have a nice trip. See you next fall.”

Charles reached up, grabbed his hand and muttered, “Huh, never heard that one before.”

I parked the truck, set the brake, climbed out and suggested, “Why don’t you two stay here? It’ll be faster that way.”

They responded in unison, “But we want to go in.”

“No. You’re too easily distracted. What flavor?”

After replying in unison, “Rocky Road,” they exchanged two high-fives, left hand and right hand, which was followed immediately with two hip-bumps.

I rolled my eyes and said, “Okay, I won’t be long.”

Charles pulled a couple of crumpled twenties out of his coveralls and handed them over, and as I headed into the store, he called out, “And get soda! And chips!”

Without looking back, I waved my arm in the international sign for ‘whatever’ before going in.

 

Somewhat embarrassed about being covered in bugs, I tried to make my way to the bathroom without being seen. Aisle two was empty, but sure enough, when I was halfway down, two women rounded the corner at the other end. As I tried to hurry past, they stopped talking, and it was only after I had reached the other end that I remembered I was still wearing the helmet.

I cleaned up as best I could before finding the ice cream section, picking out two gallons of rocky road and making my way over to chips and soda.

 

The guys had dreadful eating habits. I’ve tried countless times to reason that their diets were going to make them sick. Maybe not next week or next year, but someday it would catch up to them, but they wouldn’t listen because they loved junk food and saw no reason to change. So after finally realizing the futility of my efforts, I gave up. If they wanted to fill their bodies with that garbage, it was their money, and I wasn’t going to argue anymore. Why should I care?

 

I grabbed two liters of RC Cola and two jumbo sized bags of pretzels, paid and headed back outside to find Charles and Gary were nowhere in sight.

Searching the parking lot, I thought, “Wait, I’m the one who’s supposed to ditch them . . .Well, they couldn’t have gone far.”

I couldn’t help but wonder why they would just take off without leaving a note. It didn’t match their style, especially when they knew they were getting ice cream. I placed my purchases in the cooler and started down the road on foot. The breeze on my back, the oak and pine covered hills and a bit of walking was just what I needed after spending an hour on the road. What more could I ask for? Maybe a little trip would do me some good. Maybe getting out of town for a couple of days would help me get some well needed perspective.

After only a few minutes, I noticed a peculiar footpath leading away from the pavement up into the brush. It was slowly pulsing in and out of reality; in one moment, it was just an inviting path up the side of the mountain, and a few seconds later, there was nothing in front of me but a dense wall of brambles and brush. Charles had created passages through thick vegetation before, so I assumed it was his doing. And at the trail-head were two sets of freakishly large footprints leading away. One set was barefoot with an over-sized pinkie toe, which I recognized as Gary’s. The other set of feet, it appeared, had been wearing about size fifteen flip-flops.

I waited for the trail to be fully substantial before hurrying forward.

The slope turned out to be much steeper than it had appeared from below, and I was soon huffing, puffing and stopping frequently to catch my breath. In fact, the terrain eventually became so steep that I had to turn my feet sideways to keep from slipping backwards. How Charles had managed to climb this hill in flip-flops was a bit of a mystery.

After several more minutes of huffing and puffing, I spotted a large venue of vultures riding a thermal not far to the north, and wondering if they might be circling over the two runaways, I promptly headed in their direction.

 

Charles had a tendency to attract buzzards when we were outside. In fact, when I was twelve, I remember playing in the backyard one morning while he was sitting in the grass nearby searching for bugs and worms. While happily munching on a cricket, he leaned back and looked up, so I followed his gaze to see a group of large birds circling around overhead. And as soon as I spotted them, they starting gliding down in easy circles and landing in the yard. One of them hopped right up to Charles, flapped its wings and sat down next to him. Two more followed the first and made themselves comfortable. Then the rest ambled up around my demon, sat down and started preening and behaving as if Charles was one of them. I watched in quiet awe as they cawed, jabbered and preened for almost two hours before finally gathering themselves up and flying away, one by one.

 

Another ten minutes of climbing, panting, stumbling and resting, and I was directly underneath the circling vultures. Charles and Gary were sitting cross-legged with their backs to me and had not sensed my presence. I knelt down and waited, and as soon as I had made myself comfortable, they both started chanting softly, “Ee-woe. Ee-toe. Ee-loe. Ee-no. Og-broe,” repeating the words over and over as the vultures began to descend. I stayed perfectly still as twenty of the birds landed and gathered in a circle around them.

It wasn’t long before other birds came flittering and flapping out of the forest to join in with the strange assemblage. Three red-tailed hawks, eight ravens and countless little birds began dropping out of the sky and squeezing in close. I watched in amazed silence as Charles and Gary continued their chant while more birds joined in. None of them seemed agitated in the slightest. In fact, they all behaved as if they were part of one large flock.

Realizing I was holding my breath, I resumed breathing before getting to my feet and moving quietly towards the congregation. I figured my presence might disturb them but was able to move in close without ruffling a single feather. I knelt down and took slow, deep breaths. A red tailed hawk was close enough to touch, but I dared not push my luck.

Charles must have sensed my presence because he looked up at me, but soon his eyes were closed again as he continued to repeat the words, “Ee-woe. Ee-toe. Ee-loe. Ee-no. Og-broe.”

I sat down slowly as more birds of every shape and size continued to land. By the hundreds, hummingbirds, ducks, egrets, bald eagles, seagulls, more ducks, blue herons, green herons, more buzzards and still more ducks dropped out of the sky in a steady stream. Within only a matter of minutes, the population swelled to what must have been over ten thousand. What struck me as particularly odd was that none of the migratory birds seemed the least bit frightened about being in the proximity of so many raptors.

A blackbird landed on my head and made himself comfortable. And deciding my lap would make a nice spot, a mallard hopped up, sat down and began preening. I had to resist the urge to touch his metallic-green head when he craned around to give his tail feathers a vigorous grooming. Spotting my finger, he must have thought it was food, because he nibbled at it for a moment before deciding it wasn’t to his liking.

Last but not least, a spectacular parliament of owls, some three or four hundred strong, silently swooped down and settled in the branches.

The chanting finally ceased, but Charles and Gary continued to remain motionless with eyes closed until, as if with one mind, the birds started clicking, popping, clattering, chirping, cawing and making every other bird noise imaginable. Their exotic vocalizations had a strange, wonderful harmony I had never before experienced, and my spirit was lifted as I lost all sense of time. The chorus might have lasted a minute or an hour; I couldn’t tell. But when the birds had gone quiet and I came back to the here and now, I could see that the sun had advanced some ten or fifteen degrees higher. I could have listened to their music all day and wished they would start again, but when the owls rose into the air and glided away in complete silence, I knew it was over. Without so much as a nod of recognition, the rest followed, and in no time, the three of us were alone.

Gary climbed to his feet, put his hands on his hips and nervously searched the area, muttering, “A miskreant? Oh great. That’s just what we need.”

Charles stood up and nervously glanced at me before scanning the area, and I could hear the fear in his voice when he said, “The vultures and eagles were certain.”

I stood up, brushed the loose feathers off my pants and asked, “Certain of what?”

Gary picked up a long branch and held it tightly in both hands like a weapon. Swinging it back and forth, he explained, “The hawks spotted an honest-to-goodness miskreant moving east into the high country this morning.” He swung the stick even harder and added, “They’re even meaner than Chubrix, and in a one-on-one match, I’ve heard that some of them are as powerful as Fallen.”

Nervously searching for a stick of my own, I asked, “A miskreant? What’s that?”

Charles found a stick and while testing its integrity against the trunk of a nearby pine, he warned, “I don’t think a stick is going to help much if we’re attacked. We should probably get back to town in case it’s still in the area.” His stick broke in half on the next swing.

Finding a seemingly sturdy branch, I picked it up, knocked the bark off and asked, “You guys are kidding, right?”

When they both shook their heads, I couldn’t find the slightest hint of kidding in their expressions.

After finding another stick, Charles urged, “We better get back to town.” And without another word, he headed back towards the trail.

Gary glanced at me before taking out after Charles.

Dumbfounded, I called out, “What’s a miskreant? Hey, wait up!”

They both turned back and shushed me but were kind enough to wait until I caught up. We hurried downhill as fast as the loose, steep terrain would permit, and I began to understand the extent of their fear when I lost my balance and fell headlong into the brush and neither of them pointed or laughed. In fact, Charles actually stopped, came back and helped me up, and when he actually brushed me off, I knew he was not himself.

 

Charles was visibly relieved to get back to town, and he brightened even more when, back at the truck, he tore into his ice cream and devoured it in less than a minute. After Gary had finished his, they scarfed down most of the pretzels and washed those down with soda. They would have shared, but they knew I didn’t want any. And of course, their scarf-fest was followed by a round of impressive belching.

I dug a carrot slice out of the cooler, and after taking a bite, I did my best Bugs Bunny impersonation by wiggling it between my fingers and asking, “Uh, what’s up, doc?”

Charles just looked at me with one eye closed, but Gary chuckled and repeated the line: “What’s up, doc. Ha-ha. That never gets old.”

I pointed at Charles’ shoulder and muttered, “Uh, you got some bird poo on you. You might want to . . .”

He attempted to flick the white pile off his shoulder, but when it stuck to his finger, he simply rubbed it into his shirt, licked his finger and declared, “Mmm, minty.”

I grimaced, “Ugh! Don’t . . .” I shuttered with revulsion. “. . . do that!”

Looking up, Charles asked sincerely, “Do what?”

I groaned and changed the subject: “So, what exactly is a miskreant?”

Slapping Gary’s hand away when Gary tried for another handful of pretzels, Charles declared, “Mine. You already had your share.”

Gary jerked his arm away and sulked while he rubbed his imagined injury.

Charles turned back to me, and in a lowered voice, he explained, “Um, miskreants are descendants of the Fallen.” He grabbed a large handful of pretzels, shoved them into his face and continued with his mouth full: “A very long time ago, the arch-angel, Metatron, decided to stir up trouble by slipping into Limbo and telling the miskreants that they were not eternally doomed like the Fallen and that someday they could be redeemed, so . . .”

I interrupted, “Metatron? Really?”

“Yeah, Metatron. What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s just not a very angelic sounding name.”

“It’s not?”

“No, it sound like a giant robot.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but that’s his name. If you have a problem with it, you better write a letter.”

Nodding in agreement, I replied, “Maybe I will.”

Losing his train of thought, Charles growled under his breath, and doing so must have helped him remember because he continued: “Oh, um, yeah, so the miskreants were stunned over this revelation, so they went before the Fallen and asked why they should have to pay for the crimes of their ancestors, and when the Fallen couldn’t provide an acceptable answer, the miskreants demanded their free will be returned. Of course, their demand was reasonable and quite simple; all they wanted was the right to choose their own path and a chance at redemption.” Charles cleared his throat and added, “Of course, the Fallen weren’t stupid. They knew that freeing the miskreants would have a domino effect; other demons would demand their freedom as well, so they had to refuse the request.”

When Charles stopped again to see if I was still listening, I blinked several times and asked, “Mmm-hm? And then what happened?”

So he continued: “In a nutshell, the miskreants revolted, and there was a short-lived, but spectacular battle, and the miskreants lost. And for their treachery, what little free will they still possessed was sealed away inside them. And to add insult to injury, the Fallen cast the miskreants out of Limbo and banished them up to Earth’s surface until the end of time.”

Charles stuffed another handful of pretzels in his face and finished: “So . . . the Fallen, who had, themselves, been cast out of Forever, went on to banish their own children out of Limbo.” He chuckled. “ I guess some things never change; kids will be kids.” On that note, he released a rumbling, subsonic belch that slowly increased in pitch and volume until it reached a rather disturbing but impressive crescendo.

Waving away the foul air, I asked, “But why not just give the miskreants their free will? What’s so bad about that?”

Charles chuckled before replying, “Um, the Fallen make our work look like child’s play. They exist to bring pain, destruction and misery to the lives of people, but unlike us, they do it out of spite. You see, if even a single miskreant were to regain its free will, it could infect other miskreants and maybe even infect other drakk-demons, like brakken or djoom. No, the Fallen would never allow it because it would spell the end of their reign over Limbo, and Purgatory too, for that matter.”

I asked, “Then why do you have free will?” I took another bite of my carrot and added, “I mean you’re a demon too, right?”

Charles fluttered his eyes with annoyance and spoke calmly, “Because surface demons, like drones and spanners, are under the governance of arch-demons. We’re merely civil servants on Earth. The bottom line is people need us.” Charles smiled brightly, displaying a mouthful of crooked, yellow-brown teeth.

“But that doesn’t answer my question. Why do you have free will?”

Charles puzzled over my question before shrugging his shoulders and admitting, “Heck, I don’t know. Why do you have free will?”

I blinked at him three of four times before forming a worthwhile response: “Uh, because we’d be really boring if we didn’t?”

Spitting out his soda when he laughed, Charles replied, “Free will ain’t helping your species much, is it? You’re boring anyway.”

I guffawed. “Yeah, right, Charles. You’re one to talk.” Stealing a few pretzels before he could stop me, I asked, “Have you ever seen one of those miskreants?”

Charles’ gaze drifted out to infinity as he searched his memory. He scratched his head, sighed and remembered: “Once, and I hope that was the last time. Uh, let’s see, it was 1852. I was assigned to a carpenter named Enoch Hutsel — a good man of strong faith, through and through — and try as I might, I could not influence that guy, even when he was a kid. Curse his parents.”

“Uh-huh?” I mocked, “Lousy, stinking parents. Poor you.”

Ignoring me, he continued: “So Enoch decides to come out west to work as a carpenter because he knows he can make a decent living in California after the Gold Rush. Well, we had been in San Francisco only a few weeks . . .” Charles stopped talking to see if I was paying attention.

So I said, “Yeah, Uh-huh?”

“Mine.” Charles slapped Gary’s hand away before continuing: “. . . So while he was working on a roof near Telegraph Hill, I was trying to depress him with his mounting debt and ailing wife, you know, the standard stuff? So I’m trying to convince him that she could die or be permanently disabled. Maybe I could get him to fall off the roof or bang his hand with the hammer. Heck, I would have been happy to just give him an ulcer.”

“Yeah Charles, always there to lend a helping hand.” I rolled my eyes and shook my head in disgust.

Ignoring me again, he went on: “So I spot this great big, pitch-black shadow a few blocks away, strutting along on all fours like it owned the city, and it’s heading straight towards us, coming up the hill like it’s searching for something.” Charles’ brow furrowed as he remembered: “That was an image I’ll never forget. That thing made no sound at all, and it’s eyes blazed like the sun.” With closed eyes, Charles shook his head slowly before adding, “So knowing right away what it was, I crouched down and hurried to the back of the roof to hide. I knew that even if it didn’t spot me, it would eventually catch a whiff of me and tear me to shreds, and I tell you, I’ve never been more frightened before or since.” Charles shuddered as he stared off into space.

I nudged him and asked, “And then?”

“Huh? Oh! . . . So I sense it getting closer, and I start to panic and think of jumping down and making a run for it, but I know I won’t be able to outrun something that big and powerful. No, my best chance is to stay put. Miskreants are said to move like dark-lightning when they’re on the hunt.” He grimaced. “Ugh, just remembering that thing gives me goosebumps.”

Trying to lighten the mood, I asked, “So did it eat you?”

Charles closed one eye in mild disgust before returning to his story: “So I’m waiting and waiting, and I’m sure it’s going to jump up on the roof at any second. Oh, I was so scared. I just crouched there for the longest time, trying to control my breathing — because I’m a noisy breather, and sometimes my nose whistles.” He looked at me and asked, “Did you know my nose whistles?”

I looked at him in disbelief. “Did I know your nose whistles? Why do you think my hair is gray, Charles?” I chuckled with disdain.

Charles only blinked at me a few times before going on: “So, I’m cowering in terror and can’t hear a thing, and even though I’m sure it’s stalking me, I have to force myself to refrain from whimpering or, worse yet, panicking and bolting.” He closed his eyes and grimaced, and his voice began to tremble as he spoke. “So I look down past my feet, and it’s right there at the roof line, looking up at me! I know I’m a goner and try to run, but I can’t! I’m frozen in place, not by fear, but by that, that thing! It has control of my mind! Ugh, it was so awful!” He shuddered again.

Growing somewhat impatient, I had to ask again, “So then it ate you?”

Charles’ eyelids fluttered again with annoyance until he collected himself and continued in almost a whisper: “It takes its time crawling up to me, and I try to close my eyes against that blinding, white gaze, but I can’t. It stays focused on me as it creeps closer, and even if I could move, there’s no way I can fight it. This thing isn’t just big, it’s big-big and radiating some weird, ancient power.”

I asked, “And then it ate you?”

After Charles gave me his perfunctory stink-eye, he punched me in the shoulder to emphasize his irritation. “Would you stop?”

“Hey!” Even though it didn’t hurt, I rubbed my shoulder.

Riveted by Charles’ story, Gary grumped, “Yeah, Gord, let him finish.”

“Thank you, Gary.” Charles continued in a whisper: “So it brings its face right down in front of mine, and I mean we are nose to nose. It’s breath is like a furnace. It’s, ugh, it’s smelling me.”

“It smelled you and didn’t run away? Wow.”

Paying me no mind, Charles went on: “So I want to call out for help, but I can’t speak. It’s staring into me with those bright, horrible eyes. It’s reading my mind!” He shuddered again. “At first it hesitates, but then it grabs me by the throat and starts squeezing. I try to pull its hand loose, but its grip is like stone, and I’m sure it’s going to pull my head off.”

Unable to help myself, I muttered under my breath, “Hmm, I think I like these miskreants.”

Glaring at me, Charles grumped, “It’s not funny, Gordo. Do you know how long it takes for a spanner’s head to grow back? Well, do you?”

I raised my hand and replied, “Wait, I know this one. Two minutes?”

“Two minutes?” He rolled his eyes. “It takes at least ten days. How would you like to walk around with no head for ten days?”

“I wouldn’t like that. But, for you, it might be a good thing.”

Charles sighed and said, “And as I’m about to lose consciousness, it releases its grip, stands up and sniffs at the air.”

I sighed with disappointment. “Aw, it didn’t eat you?”

Charles rolled his eyes and huffed. “No, you idiot, it simply backs away and disappears down the side of the house. Well, I hurry back up to the front in time to see it bolt on down the street and disappear around the corner, and in all that time, it didn’t make the slightest sound — like it’s there, but it’s not there.

I surmised, “So, it got a good whiff and realized you were past your prime. That’s one smart critter.”

“What? No.” With hands firmly on his hips, Charles requested, “Would you stop?” He gave me another dirty scowl before finishing his story: “To this day, I don’t understand why it didn’t squeeze my head off. I’ve heard from a reputable source that miskreants consider demon heads to be a delicacy.”

Gary argued, “No, you’re thinking of Chubrix. Nobody knows what miskreants eat.”

“Really? Where’d you hear that?”

Gary shrugged. “I don’t remember. I think it was Xototl.”

I asked, “What’s a Xototl?”

Gary asked Charles, “You’ve never told him about Xototl?”

Charles nervously stuffed his hands in his coveralls and muttered, “I don’t talk about him. Xototl scares me. I don’t think he likes me.”

I chuckled and asked, “He doesn’t like you? Sounds like someone I’d like to meet.”

And they both responded at the same time, “You will.”

Heading for the front of the truck, Charles asked, “How about we get moving?” He opened the door, gestured for Gary to get in and declared, “It’s your turn to be in the middle.”

Gary’s shoulders drooped, and he looked to the sky in despair and whined, “Aw, I don’t want the middle.” He looked at Charles and suggested, “You sit in the middle again. You like it.”

Charles guffawed. “No, I don’t. I like the window like everybody else. Nobody likes the middle, Gary.”

Gary insisted, “Yes you do. You love it more than anything.”

Charles rolled his eyes, chuckled and suggested, “Okay, forget the middle then. How about some road-surfing?”

Gary’s eyes grew wide as he gave Charles a solid shove and said brightly, “Now you’re talking.”

So while Charles struggled over the tailgate with a loud grunt, Gary gracefully vaulted up into the back, landing like a graceful demon ninja. Then, standing up with knees bent and arms out for balance, he smiled brightly and happily declared, “Road surfing!”

With hands on hips, I studied the idiots while trying to digest what I had just learned. Finally, I asked, “Wouldn’t it be safer for you guys to ride up front? You know, with that monster creeping around out there?”

Gary replied, “If it’s hunting us, it’ll attack at night, and besides, miskreants travel overland, away from roads. They don’t like the noise or smell of traffic.”

Gently rapping Gary on the side of the head, Charles asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that back in the woods?”

Gary rapped Charles back. “Because I wanted to see if you’d get scared.” He laughed. “And you did, you big chicken.”

Charles huffed and replied, “Thanks a lot, Gary. I’ll remember that, pal.”

Gary snickered again as he contorted his body into what I assumed was the proper position for road surfing.

As I climbed into the cab, Charles instructed, “Don’t swerve too hard or we’ll fall out.”

So I replied, “Uh, you really shouldn’t give me ideas.”

 

 

Chapter Five: Meet Pock

 

Heading through Midpines and east up along the Merced River, the knuckleheads remained in back with arms outstretched and knees bent as they leaned into each curve to keep from falling out. Needless to say, while heading around the sharper curves, I couldn’t help but speed up to see if I could get them to take a tumble off the side, but to my disappointment, they were surprisingly good at keeping their balance. Even when I jerked the wheel, they would just stumble, grab the railing and laugh, and when I tried to upend them by locking the brakes, they just stumbled forward into the back of the cab. I tried gunning it, but they merely stumbled back to the tailgate and grabbed hold. I think I was having even more fun than they were.

As we continued higher, the temperature dropped, and the cool mountain air was a welcome change from the sweltering valley we were leaving behind. Some thirty miles later, when we reached the entrance to Yosemite, Charles pulled his lifetime pass out of his fanny-pack, reached up and wiggled it in front of me. He might be eternally annoying, but when we traveled, he did prove useful at times.

And besides being able to provide free admission to all the national parks, Charles was a bottomless ATM. I told him I didn’t care where he got his money as long as it was legal, and he always defensively declared that his income was completely legit before quickly changing the subject.

Soon after we were through the gate, Gary’s rumpled, gaunt face appeared outside my window, right next to my head, his floppy skin flapping and rippling in the wind.

So I cranked the window down and asked, “May I help you?”

He timidly replied, “Can we go up to Tunnel Lookout? Since we’re right here anyway?” After a moment’s hesitation, he added, “Um, Charles wants to go too.”

I knew he was referring to the famous viewing spot where much of Yosemite Valley could be photographed and marveled over. We usually made a point of going up there whenever we came to visit. Just like with all of nature, any photo taken there would never do the view justice. Pictures just couldn’t come close to capturing the grandeur of The Valley, and Charles and I agreed that Yosemite had to be experienced first hand to get the full impact.

I glanced through the rear view mirror at Charles who was sitting cross-legged with his fingers locked together behind his head. He was gazing up at the canopy of trees and massive walls of granite racing past, and it occurred to me that since I had agreed to accompany him on this trip, he had all but ceased even the lamest attempts at tempting, ridiculing, angering or demoralizing me. I wasn’t sure why, but maybe he was just too distracted to bother, or maybe he was grateful I had agreed to go. Either way, I wasn’t about to mention it for fear he might start up again.

Tunnel Lookout wasn’t too far out of the way. It might add maybe an extra twenty minutes to the trip, so what the heck; I was ready for another break anyway.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea.” Unable to help myself, I shouted, “Honk!” as I grabbed Gary’s nose and squeezed, but I immediately regretted doing so because it was slimy and cold. After looking at my hand in disgust, I wiped it on Gary’s shirt as he let out a triumphal, “Yes!” An instant later, he was gone.

Both demons became unusually quiet as we entered the west end of the valley. The light and even the very air itself seemed to become charged with a strange, ancient power that could bring on a sense of giddiness I could find nowhere else, and as always, Yosemite erased every negative thought in my head, replacing them with a sense of wonder.

Turning right on Wawona Road and continuing up the hill for another mile, we arrived at Tunnel Lookout. Brimming with eager anticipation, Charles and Gary were on their feet and leaning against the back of the cab as I maneuvered into the parking lot. I was a bit surprised to see so many cars so early in the day, but it was, after all, the middle of June and the height of tourist season. The lot was almost filled to capacity, and folks from around the world were crowded up to the edge of the terrace in their quest for that photograph that proved beyond a reasonable doubt to friends and family that they had, indeed, set foot in Yosemite.

Spotting a vacant parking space, I pulled in, and Charles and Gary were out of the truck and shuffling across the parking lot before I came to a stop. I climbed out and had a good stretch before drinking in the view and scanning the crowd on the slim chance that another spanner might be in the vicinity. But as usual, all I saw were normal people. I knew there were hundreds of demons in the crowd — one for every adult — but since they were merely common drones, I couldn’t see them, and I was grateful for that because having to see Charles and Gary was more than enough for one lifetime.

The guys were sitting on a low, granite wall some distance from the crowd. With their backs to me, they were mindlessly bouncing their feet against the other side while gazing out at the vista spreading away before them. Gary was pointing at different peaks on either side of the valley, telling Charles the names of each one, while Charles was nodding and pretending to be impressed. I sat down next to them and gazed out across time and space. My pulse slowing and the tension in my muscles fading away, I imagined the immense river of ice, long gone now, grinding through the valley, while over the eons, the mountains of granite had pushed relentlessly higher. I loved feeling so small, but what I loved even more was watching the smiling, laughing people and their reactions to what they were seeing. We were all here together in awe of creation and in a profound gratitude to the people who had fought so valiantly to protect such a wondrous place. I’ve long believed that if I could pick a place to die, I would choose Tunnel Lookout because when I stand in a place so awesome, I can’t help but know that everything is going to be okay after all.

I pulled my sketchbook out of my pack and started a quick sketch of the guys. Since they can’t be photographed, I had taught myself how to draw in order to have some kind of record of what they look like. Charles didn’t like my sketches very much, and whenever I finished one, he’d look at it and asked if he was really that ugly. I explained to him that I wasn’t very good and that he wasn’t nearly as ugly as I made him out, and he took that as a compliment.

After I had finished, I tucked my sketchbook away and started bouncing my heels off the wall in unison with them.

“Okay, what’s this one?” Gary started singing a tune with no words: “Baah-dump, Baaah-dump, Bah-dump-dump-dump, bah-dump.”

Charles answered right away, “Oh, please. I Dream of Jeannie. Do a harder one.”

“Okay, okay, How about this? Dope-Ee-dope-ee-dope, dope-eee-dope-dope-dope . . .”

Charles cut him off, “Beverly Hillbillies. Come on, do something new.”

Gary thought hard before his next attempt: “Ok, um, Baah-bap-baddy-bap-baddy-bap-bap-bap, bah-bap-baddy-bap-bap- bap . . .”

I cut him off. “Gilligan’s Island. Too easy, Gare. You need new stuff.”

Charles said, “Ok, wait. Baah-bap-Eee-dap-dap . . .” He paused and added, “. . . Dap! Dap!”

Gary squinted at him in bewilderment. “What? Hold on, do some more.”

Charles did the same rhythm again and said, “Come on, think.”

I tried to help out: “Gary, you did that one yourself last week.”

Gary grumped, “He’s doing it wrong. I can’t tell . . . Do it again.”

So Charles vocalized the theme song a little more fervently, as if doing so would help make it more discernible.

Gary shoved Charles and grumped, “That isn’t anything. You’re just making it up.”

Charles repeated it: “Baah-dap-Eee-dap-dap” He paused half a beat before adding, “Dap! Dap!”

Gary shrugged his shoulders.

I raised my hand. “I know!”

Placing his hand over my mouth, Charles ordered, “No, don’t tell him. He knows this.”

In response, I grabbed his wrist and twisted hard until Charles cried out, “Hey!” Yanking his arm away from me indignantly, he growled, “Jerk.”

“No, you’re the jerk.” I held up the back of my hand in a most threatening manner and asked, “You want some of this?”

Ignoring me, Charles turned back to Gary and sang the tune again.

Gary, completely flummoxed, shrugged his shoulders and asked, “Is it The Waltons?”

Charles put his hand over his eyes in despair and confessed, “You don’t deserve to know. That’s it. We’re going to have to leave you here.”

Laughing nervously, Gary argued, “No, you’re not.” Looking to me for reassurance, he asked, “Right, Gordo?”

I said, “Charles, stop teasing him. Nobody’s leaving nobody nowhere.”

Making an ugly face at Charles, Gary muttered under his breath, “skwurn-heap.”

Charles snarled back, “Kwarog.”

We all jumped when a voice from behind said, “Oh, good. I caught you in time.”

I turned around to find a lean, white-haired man, shielding his eyes against the morning sun. Gauging from the deep wrinkles, bright eyes and alert demeanor, I guessed him to be an exceptionally healthy octogenarian. Not far away, was a spanner-demon that closely resembled a cheetah but was roughly twice the size of an adult elephant. Twisting and swirling in and out of existence like the edges of a storm-cloud, it was panting hard like it had just run a good distance at a great speed.

My heart skipped a beat, and my first instinct was to dive over the wall and run, but I forced myself to remain calm and stammered, “Uh, you-you caught us in time? In time for what?”

The stranger took a step forward, and after searching the area, he looked me straight in the eye and whispered, “It’s following you and will try to stop you. When it does, use this . . .” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a green handkerchief that had been twisted and tied into a knot. He held it out, and without thinking, I took it, and being unprepared for how heavy it was, I almost dropped it.

I asked, “What? What do you? . . .”

Raising his hand for silence, he continued in a whisper: “Only use it on the infant. If you come across an adult, run as fast and as far as you can.” He examined all three of us, one at a time, before asking, “Do you understand?”

Charles and Gary both nodded, but I scowled and declared for the record, “You’re a spanner.”

Squinting at me, he chuckled. “And you’re very observant. Here.” He removed a white handkerchief from his other pocket and unfolded it, revealing a small, steel canister. After unscrewing the lid, he grabbed a pinch of powder between his thumb and forefinger and flicked it at Charles.

My demon reeled back, coughing and wheezing and waving his hands in an attempt to get the cloud away. “Hey! What? . . .” He couldn’t continue when his coughing grew more severe.

The stranger took another pinch and flicked it at Gary before he was able scramble to safety, and once satisfied with Gary’s coughing fit, he carefully put the cap back on, returned it to his pocket and explained, “It’s demon balm. You can thank me later.”

Standing up, I demanded, “Demon balm? Who are you?”

“Me? I’m someone who wants you to evade capture, if that’s okay. And I want you to come find me if . . . I mean when you make it back.” He gestured at the green handkerchief and thought for a moment. “Yeah, it might work, but then again, it might not.” He rubbed his chin before deciding, “No, it should work.”

If we make it back? I don’t . . .”

Ignoring me, he continued, “Everything has a reason, and every moment has a purpose. This is not an accident. Right here . . .” He pointed at Gary and Charles, at me and then himself, “This is not random.”

Glancing suspiciously at Charles while he continued his wheezing, I suspected my demon knew something about this guy. No, this meeting wasn’t random; it was more like a glimpse at a hidden agenda. I shoved the handkerchief in my pocket, nodded and asked, “Um, only use it on an infant? An infant what?”

The stranger sized me up. “Good man. What’s your name?”

“Uh, Gordo.”

He nodded, cracked a wry smile and put his hand forward. “Gordo? . . . Pock.”

I shook his hand to find his grip much stronger than expected.

Pock withdrew a piece of paper from his pocket, held it out and said, “Come find me when you’re ready.”

As he was turning to leave, I demanded a little too loudly, “What? . . . Wait. Now, just a second.”

Pock stopped, turned and whispered, “Patience, spanner, you are going to need it.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “If, I mean when you return, come find me.” His eyes lingered on Charles and Gary a moment before turning away, and without looking back, he said, “No such thing as luck; everything has a reason.”

The three of us watched in silence as Pock leaped high into the air and landed gracefully on top of the cheetah demon. He clicked his tongue twice, causing the steed to turn and take off down the highway at an impossible speed.

Scribbled on the paper was nothing but, “Pock: San Juan Bautista”. I shoved the card in my back pocket and glanced up in time to catch Gary giving Charles a worried look, and I realized then that they knew something.

Charles chuckled and spoke nervously: “That guy was bonkers, right?”

I glowered at Charles. “Was he?” I stood up, hopped off the wall and headed for the truck.

Charles was right behind me. “Hey, where you going? Wait up.”

I stopped and demanded, “Okay, out with it. What do you know?”

Charles paused before asking, “Know? What? Am I supposed to know something?”

Holding his gaze, I folded my arms and said nothing, and after only a second, my demon looked away, shoving his hands into his pockets and groaning. “Gord, I’m not supposed to say. Please don’t ask.”

I reached out and lifted his chin until I had eye contact. “Well, if you don’t want me to head back home, you’re going to tell me what that was about . . . Charles, if we make it? If we make it?” My voice was loud enough to catch the attention of small group of tourists.

Sometimes, I had to remind myself that from a stranger’s perspective, I was arguing with thin air, which tended to cause bystanders to become somewhat uneasy.

Charles sighed. “The arch-demons, well, they need your, um, your . . . help.”

In disbelief, I repeated his words, “The arch-demons need my help?” I guffawed before raising both hands in surrender and snapping, “That’s it! I’m out. You two are on your own.”

“Gord, please . . .” He held my shoulder.

I sighed and said, “Charles, you two take the truck. I don’t want to be a part of this-this-this Gathering. No way. See, you’re forgetting I don’t want to help demons with anything.”

“B-But . . .”

“Stop stuttering. I’m done. I’m not helping any arch-demons with anything. Remember? You’re the bad guys!” Shoving his hand away, I turned and headed for the truck.

Charles was right behind me, and Gary, who didn’t want to miss anything, quickly brought up the rear.

Charles’ voice was shaking and stuttering when he asked, “But what about our-our contract? Y-you won’t get your vacation away from me. You don’t want to miss out on that, do-do-do you?”

I kept walking. “I don’t need a vacation, Charles, and really, I don’t deserve it. Why should I get a break from you? Nobody else gets a break. It’s-it’s just life.” And when my own words hit me, I sighed heavily and repeated the words: “It’s just life. It’s just how it is.”

“N-no! We had a-a-a deal. Y-you have to go, Gordo.” He was actually trembling.

Increasing my pace, I explained, “Look, all of this was leaving a bad taste in my mouth to begin with, and then I find out that there’s a miskreant on our tail? And now I’m supposed to be a part of your unholy dealy-o out in the desert? I must have been out of my mind.” I tossed him the keys and added, “Remember, don’t drive until after dark.”

He caught them with a downward swat and asked, “But how will you get home?”

“I’ll hitchhike. Look, I’m sorry. You both know I shouldn’t be going to this-this . . . thing, right?”

They both shook their heads.

“Yeah, well, now you know, so good luck, and I’ll see you when you get back.”

Charles was silent a moment before speaking slowly and softly: “If you don’t go, I won’t be coming home. Xototl said he’ll reassign me if I can’t persuade you.”

I stopped in my tracks.

He had me. He knew it. I knew it. Gary knew it. I couldn’t risk getting some new demon. It was a certainty that any other demon would be more effective than Charles, and that was the last thing I needed. Seeing no other options, I put my hands on my hips and looked at my feet.

The knuckleheads needed me to go, so I would just have to go, but I sure wasn’t going to help any arch-demons. No, I would do as little as possible in order to hang on to Charles. It wasn’t wrong for me to lie to these things. They had been lying to humanity since the creation of our species. They existed to deceive, corrupt, destroy and harm wherever and whenever possible. Maybe, I thought, I might even get the chance to return the favor.

I grabbed Charles by the neck, and while gently strangling him, I told him that I really hated his rotten, smelly guts.

He only coughed a little, and while waiting for my strangling to stop, he brightened, flashed a big smile and asked, “You hate my guts? Does that mean you’ll go?”

Continuing to choke him, I admitted, “Well, a contract is a contract.”

He sighed deeply and actually welled up a little, and when I saw the relief in his demeanor, I loosened my stranglehold.

Charles and Gary were hungry, and so was I, so when we got back to the truck, I distributed the sandwiches. Gary and Charles each got three and I got one, and with a mouthful of food, Charles declared that he hated my smelly guts too, so I gave him a thumbs up.

Chapter Six: May Lake

 

The guys opted to stay in back for the trip up to Tioga Pass, and who could blame them? We departed Tunnel Lookout and descended back down to the valley floor before making the loop past El Capitan and then heading up and out of the Valley. I was tempted to ask Charles to drive for a while, but imagining a park ranger spotting the truck rolling down the road with nobody in the driver’s seat, and me, sitting in back, gawking slack-jawed up at the scenery, made me think otherwise. So I had myself a brief pity party because it just wasn’t fair. I wanted to ride in back too.

At Highway 120, we turned east, and on the way up towards Tuolumne Meadows, we were glad to find the temperature dropping as we gained elevation. We were rolling along in a rumbling, rattling beast of a truck, but the mountains, the cool air and the deep, blue sky seemed to vibrate and shimmer in a kind of silent harmony.

Driving along, my mind began to wander, and I began to wonder about the arch-demon, Xototl. At times, Charles had told me how intimidating arch-demons could be, but he always ended up saying that I would just have to meet one in person to really understand. What could arch-demons possibly want with me? I expected they already knew I would refuse to help them, and I knew, or at least was fairly certain, they couldn’t harm me, but my anxiety level was gradually increasing about meeting Xototl.

Like most people, I prefer a nice, stable little routine. I like having a general notion of how the day is going to unfold, and tomorrow was not a day I could even hope to predict. It was going to be well outside what I considered business as usual. What I think bothered me most was the nagging feeling that after this trip was over, nothing would ever be the same.

Winding our way through the high country, it occurred to me that we had plenty of time to get down to Mono Lake before dark. In fact, we had the whole day, so when I spotted a sign pointing towards May Lake Trail Head, I turned off and headed up the side road until we arrived at a small parking area.

There was no point in rushing down into the heat of the desert, and a short, vigorous hike would do us some good. My passengers weren’t quite as enthusiastic and groaned in stereo at the thought of having to exercise. I knew, or hoped rather, that once they got moving, their attitudes would improve. All they needed was a little motivation and possibly a couple of swift kicks.

“Come on. It’ll be fun,” I said as I strapped on my fanny pack and shoved my water bottle into its holster.

Charles and Gary exchanged one of their silent looks before Charles kicked a nearby boulder and moaned, “Yeah, you always say that, and then it turns into another one of your trail of tears.” His shoulders slumped and he looked to the sky, pleading, “Do we have to? What if that miskreant is around here?”

I looked to Gary and asked, “Didn’t you say those things attack at night?”

Shrugging, Gary muttered, “Well, that’s what I heard.”

“See, Charles? It’s safe. You’re safe. We’re all safe.”

When Charles began banging his head against the side of the Chevy in protest, I feigned indifference: “You don’t have to go. In fact, why don’t you just sit right here like a couple of lumps and look at each other for, oh, two hours, and you’ll never know what you missed.” I turned towards the trail head and added, “Bye, now. I’ll be back when I’m back.”

Gary shuffled up next to me, glanced back and waved for Charles to come along. Charles let out another long, plaintive moan before setting out after us, and by the time he caught up, he had found the perfect walking stick and was whistling “Edelweiss” out of tune.

 

Just as I promised, the journey to May Lake was short, and when we arrived, there wasn’t a hint of wind, and the surface was as smooth as glass. Some twenty other hikers were sitting or milling about along the shore or taking pictures or preparing themselves for the next leg up to the top of Mount Hoffman or out into the back country.

I took a deep breath, drank in the vista and asked, “Do you guys want to go higher?”

Gary vigorously shook his head in silence, while Charles put his fingers in his his ears, looked away and pretended not to hear me.

So I headed for the shoreline while agreeing, “Me neither. This’ll do nicely. Come on.”

We found a large, unoccupied slab of granite on the shore and made ourselves comfortable. Fortunately, I had a tube of sunblock in my pack that I’d forgotten to use before starting out, so I applied it to my face and arms first because I knew it would be gone by the time Charles and Gary were finished. Between them, they probably had more surface area than five human beings, and their skin was amazingly dry all of the time. I thought they needed a professionally administered, skin-care regimen but wasn’t about to push it.

After a few minutes of idle banter, the stunning beauty of the lake and the mountain towering over us took over our thoughts and we became quiet. The warm sun, the deep-blue sky and the staggering mass of cliffs were nothing less than hypnotic, and the points of light dancing across the water’s surface like a thousand memories boggled my mind. I was at peace.

Gary leaned precariously over the edge to gaze down at his reflection in the water. It was obvious that if he lost his balance, he would roll in, and Charles and I would find the occasion nothing less than hilarious. Charles pointed and gestured we should give him a nudge, but I objected to such a prank because I knew that with Gary, payback would come when we least expected it.

Charles agreed, “Yeah, Gary’s a good guy, but his acts of revenge are served up cold and completely unexpected.”

I nodded absently and asked, “What do you suppose he’s doing?”

Charles shrugged. “He’s either admiring his reflection or searching the lake bottom for something to eat.” My demon stretched out his legs on the slab and leaned back to gaze up at the sky.

“Hey, Charles?” I asked.

“Yeah?”

“Why did Pock say there’s no such thing as luck?”

At first he was silent while he pondered the question. Then as he began biting pieces off a pine-cone, he theorized, “I don’t know, maybe he meant that everything is preordained, that nothing is random, right?”

“Yeah, I think so. But why tell us that?” I tossed a small rock in the lake and watched it sink to the bottom. “So, you really didn’t know him?”

Charles found a rock and lobbed it in. “No. I thought it very odd that he found us. Somebody must have told him where we were.”

I nodded, “Yeah, but why come all the way up here to give me some heavy rock? Why not just mail it or something? Why here and why now?”

Charles tossed another rock, and as it sank to the bottom, he theorized, “Heck, I don’t know. Maybe he needed to look you in the eye.”

I pulled the green handkerchief out of my pocket, untied the knot and opened it. Inside was a green stone shaped like a knuckle-bone, and even in the bright daylight, I could detect a faint, green glow emanating from its center.

“Dang, this thing is as heavy as a brick. I should have left it in the truck.” I picked it up to find it slightly warm, and when I held it up in front of the sun, I could make out a barely discernible aura flitting about the edges like the sun’s corona during a total eclipse. Without taking my eyes away, I noted, “Pock said to use it, but he didn’t say how.”

Coming in closer for a better look, Charles mumbled, “Maybe you eat it.”

Ignoring him, I asked, “He said don’t drop it. Should I drop it to find out what happens?”

With raised eyebrows, Charles replied, “Sure, just let me get far away before you do.”

Shaking my head, I declared, “Nope, I’m going to find out right now!” I raised the object high above my head and swung my arm down hard like I was going to slam the thing against the ground.

Charles’ eyes bugged out as he jumped away, letting out a sharp, high-pitched scream.

Unable to contain myself, I guffawed. Then pointing at him, I laughed heartily and declared, “You should have seen the look on your face!”

To Charles’ annoyance, I continued to laugh. At first, he scowled and growled, but then he cracked a smile, laughed and muttered, “You jerk.”

I placed the knuckle-bone back in the handkerchief before tying it up and shoving it back in my pack. Chuckling one last time, I added, “That was priceless.”

A lone hawk cried out as it passed overhead and disappeared over the treetops.

Gary started throwing stones in the water, explaining that he liked the deep plunk! sound they made. This gave Charles an idea, and he started wandering around gathering up rocks and boulders which he used to build six cairns around me, all the while explaining that I was in cairn jail for being such a terrible human being. In response, I informed him that he was insane because no jail — spirit or otherwise — could hold the likes of me. But unimpressed with my boasting, he continued to build.

I lost track of time as I sketched the two of them playing, and as usual, I found it difficult to put much detail into my work because neither of them would hold still for more than a few seconds at a time. So opting to do the details later from memory, I just roughed them out instead, and I was so engrossed in my work that I didn’t notice a boy of about ten years climbing up right behind me to see what I was drawing. Looking over my shoulder, he whispered, “Whoa, that’s good!”

Startled, I gasped, whirled around and exhaled. “Oh . . . wow, I didn’t see you there.”

“Sorry.” He snickered before leaning in and examining my work. “I wish I could draw like that.”

“Thanks. You could if you want to. It just takes practice.”

My heart skipped a beat when the boy looked out at Charles and Gary, but when he made no overt signs of seeing them, I expected he was merely comparing the actual landscape with the one in my sketch.

Examining the sketch a second time, he asked, “I like how they’re ugly but not very scary, you know?” He blinked up at me and asked, “Do you have any more drawings in there?”

“Huh? Yeah. Here . . .” I handed my sketch book over, and as he started thumbing through it, I looked up at the guys and shrugged my shoulders, and they both shrugged back.

The boy looked at the next sketch, then out to where Charles and Gary were standing. He turned the page, looked at the next sketch, and again, he looked in their direction as if he were actually comparing my drawings with their likenesses. He did this several more times, but not once did he seem to acknowledge their presence.

From the trail, a woman’s voice called out, “Spencer, if we don’t keep moving, we’re going to fall behind!”

I turned to find a woman approaching. She smiled and apologized: “Sorry. He isn’t supposed to talk to strangers.” She gave Spencer a stern look and asked, “Right?”

Spencer pointed at my sketchbook and gestured for the woman to come closer. “Mom, you should see these. He’s really good.”

As Spencer’s mom moved closer, she gave me an unusually warm smile. Smiling back, I forced myself not to gawk.

When she arrived, she said, “Sorry about the intrusion.”

“Oh, no, that’s quite all right. I appreciate the compliment.”

Nervously messing up Spencer’s hair, Mom explained, “Spence is the toughest critic I know. You must be pretty good.” She glanced out towards Charles and Gary, but I couldn’t tell if she was looking at them or at the lake beyond. And after searching the area, she looked down at my sketch book and asked, “May I see?”

Dumbfounded, I blinked at her a few times and replied, “Huh? Oh, yeah. Sure.” I handed my sketchpad over and explained, “It’s just a-a hobby, you know, I do it for, you know, for fun.” I chuckled weakly.

 

Who were these people? And why were they so curious about a stranger’s sketchbook? I thought of just coming out and asking if they were spanners, but it was probably just wishful thinking on my part. Maybe they were just friendly. If they were actually spanners, wouldn’t they just come out and say so? I know I certainly would — especially to another spanner. No, they couldn’t be because I couldn’t see Mom’s demon, so I kept my mouth shut.

 

Spencer’s mother silently and slowly thumbed through every page of my book, looking up at me several times in the process, and when she had finished, she looked up and said, “Wow. These are good. You have quite an imagination.”

My mind drew a blank, and at first I didn’t know what to say, but after a moment of staring and blinking, I finally replied, “Wow. Um, thank you. That means a-a lot, you know, a lot to me.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the idiots giggling with delight over my plight.

She thumbed through my book a second time before asking, “Do you paint?”

“Um, no. It’s-it’s just something to, you know, to do f-for . . . fun.”

She gave me another bright, warm smile and said, “These are good enough to exhibit. Have you ever considered putting on a show?”

Pointing at myself, I asked, “Me?” and chuckled, “Oh, no, I . . .”

She interrupted, “I don’t want to seem pushy, but these should be seen. Why don’t you think about it and give me a call sometime?” She began foraging around in her pack.

“A call? Uh, sure, okay.”

Producing her card and handing it over, she added, “I think your stuff would sell like hotcakes. They’re very unique and full of such wonderful detail.”

I took her card and forced a smile. “That’s, um, very inspiring. Thanks.”

When she smiled back, I thought she was trying to think of something else to say. I was trying too, but my brain never functions properly during momentous occasions. Desperate to keep the conversation going, I scanned her card and asked, “Carmel, huh? We, I mean I live in Merced.”

She nodded. “Oh yeah, Merced, the gateway to Yosemite.”

“Right. It’s not Carmel, but it’s okay.” I forced a weak laugh.

She smiled warmly. “Well, I hope you give some thought to turning your talent into something more than a hobby.”

Nodding, I stammered, “I-I-I will. You’ve made my day, really.”

“My friends call me Abbey,” she said as she set down her backpack and put her hand out.

“Hey, just like on your card.” Forcing a weak laugh, I shook her hand and cleared my throat. “I’m Gordo. Nice to meet you.”

After a nice, firm shake, I tried to let go, but she continued to hold my hand while she searched my eyes and then the entire perimeter of the lake. So with nothing better to do at the moment, I maintained my grip.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“Huh? Oh, um, no. I-I just thought I heard something.”

To my disappointment, she let go and declared, “Well, I suppose we’d better catch up to our group before we lose them.”

Pointing my thumb over my shoulder, I said, “Yeah, and I better catch up with-with, uh . . .” I looked back at the knuckleheads who were arm in arm, dancing the waltz by the water’s edge. They were actually doing a pretty good job, but I couldn’t tell who was leading.

I stuttered, “. . . with, with my, um . . . group.”

Before they both turned to leave, Abbey glanced in the direction of the knuckleheads and said, “Be careful out here. You never know what you might run into.”

Blinking uncomprehendingly, I replied, “Hey, you be careful too. I heard Bigfoot is in the area.”

After Abbey Street let out a genuine laugh that, I’m pretty sure, brought time to a halt, they hiked up over the rocks. And just before they went out of sight, she turned back one last time, searched the lake again and looked at me with a look of concern, but before I could call out to ask if everything was okay, she dropped out of sight.

The dopes continued to circle around, hand in hand, in perfect waltz fashion, and it appeared that Gary had taken the lead, but they really needed some music to keep better time.

“Ha ha,” I said sarcastically, “You guys are hilarious.” Not wanting to encourage them, I tried to sound annoyed and resisted the urge to smile.

They finally stopped, stepped away from each other and bowed respectfully before turning and bowing to me in unison, but there was no way I was going to applaud.

Shuffling over, Charles spoke in a deep, hill-billy drawl. “She was purr-dy, Gordo.” And to no one’s surprise, he started giggling.

I stammered, “Oh, please . . . that? That was, uh, just business.” But I was pretty sure I was blushing.

Gary mimicked Charles’ southern drawl: “Yeah, Gordo, She was purr-dy.”

I had to use all my will not to laugh out loud. Squinting at both of them, I replied, “Oh, baloney. You two think all humans are gross. Don’t give me that ‘purr-dy’ garbage.”

Charles sat down, picked up his half eaten pine cone and admitted, “Oh, you’re right. We do. Human beings are disgusting. Don’t get me wrong, but for a person, she didn’t make me want to purge.”

Continuing with his hill-billy impression, Gary asked slowly and sincerely, “Gord? Is she gonna be our new momma?”

At that, Both Charles and I looked at each other and guffawed, and while messing up Gary’s hair, I informed him that he was a jerk.

Gary responded by looking at his feet, and grinning from ear to ear, he whispered to himself under his breath, “Good one, Gary.”

 

The hike back down to the truck was much easier for some reason. I expect it might have had something to do with less gravitational resistance. Being so invigorated, we thought we could handle a nice run down the trail. Charles only fell on his butt once and called for us to keep going, but we stopped and waited. Why he refuses to wear sneakers instead of flip-flops is beyond me.

Even in the high country, it was starting to get warm, so when we got back to the truck, the numb-skulls went straight for the cooler, pulled out a liter of root-beer each and proceeded to chug them down. I chose water instead.

 

Chapter Seven: Some Unwanted Company

 

During the next leg of our journey — which turned out to be an extremely short one — Gary stretched out in back while Charles rode up front. Slouching down in the passenger’s seat, he flung his right elbow out the window and lifted his big, disgusting feet over the dash, through the missing windshield, and dropped them down on the hood with a terrific bang! Pleased with the loud noise they produced, he started bouncing his heels up and down on the loose hood, causing it to squeak and rattle. Hoping he would get tired and stop, I tolerated his behavior for about a minute, but when he increased the pace and intensity of his banging, I glared at him several times in the hopes he would get the message. Then I tried some glowering, but that didn’t work either. Finally, I had to speak loudly over the rumble of the engine: “Hey? You know, that’s pretty annoying, right?”

Charles looked at me and then at his bouncing feet. He looked at me a second time and then at his bouncing feet before figuring out what I was referring to. “Oh, yeah . . . right.” And after a few more bounces, his feet managed to settle down.

With great relief, I sighed and said, “Ugh. Thank you!”

“You’re welcome.” He pointed off to our right. “Hey, look at the deer.”

I spotted the herd and nodded. “Mm-hmm?”

Pulling his feet back in, Charles asked, “Hey, did you know that some demons have antlers?”

“No, I didn’t. I knew some had horns but not antlers. What do they use them for?”

Charles snorted loudly and spat something horrid out the window before replying, “Same as deer; they use them for combat when they’re rutting.”

“Hmm, you learn something new every day. So do the ones with horns use them the same way? Do they bonk heads like mountain goats?”

“Yeah. Except they’re running towards each other at about the speed of sound when they collide. It’s fun to watch them stagger around when they’re knocked silly.”

I chuckled and admitted, “I’d love to see that.”

“Yeah. Bring earplugs. It’s pretty loud.”

 

Growing up, I used to pester Charles to describe the demon-drones that weren’t visible to me, so he would take me to the flea-market or the lake, and we would sit for hours while he described the wide assortment of demons passing by. Being the blabber mouth that he was, Charles would have to strike up conversations with these invisible beings, and for me, it was like listening to someone jabbering on the phone and only getting one side of the conversation. I would have to interrupt him constantly to find out what the other demon had said, and most of the time, he didn’t mind. I have to admit, I’ve always been grateful to him for giving me that glimpse into the spirit realm.

As I grew older, I came to realize that, like spanners, drones are pretty unremarkable overall. They do their jobs without thanks or reward simply because they have to and certainly not because they want to. With some exceptions, drones and spanners understand that their work is a necessary evil. They certainly don’t enjoy what they’re doing, but somebody has to do it.

I have always been amazed at the variety of demons that walk the Earth. Once I asked Charles why they came in so many shapes and sizes, while humans beings were pretty much the same, and he explained that since demon DNA mutated much more rapidly than human DNA, every new generation carried drastic changes in physical and intellectual characteristics. And when he explained that humans mutated much more gradually from one generation to the next, I asked him why he thought that was. He said something odd that I never forgot; he said that humanity was an enormous tree in the desert. I asked him what that meant, but he wouldn’t say and changed the subject.

 

“Hey, Charles?”

“Yup?”

I cleared my throat and asked, “What did her demon look like?”

He looked over at me. “Who, Abbey’s?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, she was watching us from that stand of trees across the trail. I thought it odd that she wouldn’t come any closer.”

“She wouldn’t? Why not?”

“Heck, I don’t know. Maybe she was just shy. I should have gone over and said hi.”

“Yes, you should have, you dummy.”

Untangling a stick from his hair which he started using as a toothpick, Charles added, “And she was a real looker too. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s just that Abbey Street kept looking over in your direction, and I was wondering if she might be a spanner or something. Her son was doing the same thing.”

Charles laughed. “Naw, not those two. I know spanners, and those two were definitely not spanners. I would have made eye contact if they were.”

Sighing with disappointment, I nodded just as Charles perked up, pointed at something up ahead and cried out, “Ooo, look! A store!”

I had to agree: “Yup, that’s a store all right.”

He pleaded, “Can we stop?”

“No. you just ate.”

“Please?”

“No, you just ate.”

In a more plaintive tone, he asked, “Please?”

Sighing again, I let up on the gas. “All right. If you stay in the truck. No wandering off.”

Charles nodded, turned around and rapped on the rear window to catch Gary’s attention, and when Gary looked up, Charles did the chug-a-lug gesture, causing Gary to sit straight up, wide-eyed and nod vigorously with approval.

We found a parking space, and Charles pushed four twenties in my hand before I could even unfasten my seat-belt. He instructed, or more precisely, ordered, “Bring back a bounty of beloved, brown beverage, buster!” He then grumbled, “I bet they serve nothing but galswallow at the Gathering. Bleck.”

Galswallow is apparently very nutritious if you’re a demon. It’s made from negative human emotions like sorrow, anger, fear and shame, and it collects in large lakes down beneath the surface of the Earth. Mining-demons swim across the surface of these lakes, slurping it up. They then regurgitate the stuff out into gigantic reservoirs for future consumption. Charles used to drink it until, over the last century, he became addicted to soda, and now he claims that galswallow tastes like blarrgh, whatever that is.

For clarification, I asked him, “Just soda? Nothing else?”

“Get pretzels and jerky . . . and-and-and . . . oh! Get chocolate too.”

I obediently accepted the crumpled wad of dirty twenties and went inside to find a store filled to capacity with high-spirited tourists from every possible walk of life. The aisles were filled with day-trippers who barely set foot on the ground and veteran RV’ers who were restocking their camping supplies, and of course, the hard-core back-packers who were restocking for the next trek out into the high country. I loved hearing the variety of different languages and enjoyed trying to figure out what they might be saying. Two German tweens were trying to convince their parents to buy a pack of candy, and behind me, a young Japanese couple was whispering to each other, cringing and giggling over a jar of peanut butter.

Arriving at the beverage section, I loaded my basket with six liters of soda before proceeding over to the junk food section to collect the rest, and while I was unloading the bottles onto the checkout counter, the clerk said, “Something tells me you’ve got kids.”

“Yeah, this is for, um, my niece’s birthday party. There’s a bunch of them. It’s crazy.” I forced a laugh.

The clerk smiled and said sincerely, “Sounds like fun.” After ringing me up, she handed my receipt over, and said brightly, “Well, I hope you have a good time.”

I replied, “You too . . . um, I mean, you have a good time too — you know, later, after you’re finished working . . . You have a good time too.”

Not knowing how to respond, the clerk only blinked at me, so I rolled my eyes and made my way as quickly as possible through the front door.

Back at the truck, Charles and Gary were, once again, nowhere in sight. Scratching my head, I muttered,Now where’d they go?”

After loading the drinks into the cooler and searching around the parking lot, I wondered if perhaps they had gone off to get an update from our feathered friends, but instead of fretting over their absence, I decided to take a walk back down the highway towards the visitors center to enjoy a moment of solitude. They were big boys and I was sure they could take care of themselves. I figured they would be impatiently waiting for me at the truck on my return. If they couldn’t be bothered to leave a note, then neither could I.

I had not walked five minutes when I heard Charles shouting my name and calling for help from out in the forest, and as I took off after him, I grumbled, “This better not be a prank.”

I ran for several minutes before hearing him yell again, even more frantically. Altering my direction towards the sound of his voice, I attempted to pick up the pace, but because of the high altitude and lack of oxygen, my sprint was short lived. When Charles shouted again, it was apparent he was getting farther away and I was heading in the wrong direction, so I adjusted course a second time and continued on. After another fifteen minutes of scrambling over dead trees and through thick underbrush, I stopped to listen to the perfect silence.

I shouted into the trees, “Charles!” and waited for a reply, but except for the soft rush of the breeze, all was quiet.

I called out, “Gary!” causing a hawk to take flight.

Uncertain what to do and limping from a sore ankle, I sat down on a boulder to assess my options.

“Ah, dang it. Come on guys. Where are you?”

I shouted again, “Char-rrles!” but my voice was quickly absorbed by the forest.

I continued to listen for a long time, but no sound — human, demon or anything else — came back.

Rubbing my leg, I felt a sense of dread rising up. The minutes ticked by in silence until I asked of a passing cloud, “Now what?”

Unable to decide whether to keep moving or wait, I shouted as loud as I could, “Gary! . . . Charles! . . . Where are you!”

Even if I could find them, I wasn’t sure how I could help. The only things demons are afraid of are bigger, meaner demons. What was I supposed to do if he was being attacked by that miskreant thing? Maybe I could politely ask it to shoo. Even if it was the miskreant, I probably wouldn’t even be able to see it.

“Gordo!”

I jumped up as Gary came racing through the trees at top speed, his eyes wide and crazed with fear. Before trying to speak, he put his hands on his knees and gasped for air. Finally he looked up and wheezed, “Do you still have that green handkerchief?”

I patted my front pocket and replied, “Yeah?”

“Let’s go!”

He raced back the way he had come, and I chased after him. We ran for an agonizingly long time, and just as I was about to collapse, we arrived in a small clearing. Gary pointed up at a massive, old Ponderosa where Charles was clinging desperately to one of the lower branches and kicking frantically at a combination humanoid, animal looking shadow that was climbing up after him. The sight of the phantom stopped me cold, and for a moment I thought of turning and fleeing. It was like nothing I could have imagined. While it had two arms, two legs, a body and a head, its entire surface was eerily featureless. It seemed to be pulling light into itself rather than reflecting it, and as we moved closer, it became apparent that the light around the phantom was indeed bending inwards and vanishing on contact with its surface, giving the shadow a strange, iridescent aura. Its entire body was like a hole in the world; it was there but not there. It was negative space, a mere silhouette.

The shadow looked down, and when it locked its gaze on me, I couldn’t help but gasp. Its eyes were like two suns, and I could feel right away that it was searching my thoughts. It knew my fears and my weaknesses, and it knew what I had in my pocket.

It dropped to the ground with a graceful ease and turned to face me, and as I tried to remove the handkerchief, my muscles tightened until I could no longer move my arms. So I tried to turn and run, but my legs were frozen as well. The shadow continued to scan my soul, and I tried in vain to push it away.

What was it searching for?

With eyes narrowed, it took one step forward and then another. Again, I strained to break its mental hold, but my legs and arms were like stone. The shadow stopped and crouched down in preparation to pounce just as Charles dropped out of the tree. He cried out as he charged forward, and as he landed on it, Gary rushed in wielding a large branch, echoing Charles in both volume and ferocity.

The shadow released my mind, and I was able to move. I pulled the green handkerchief out of my pocket and opened it to find the knuckle-stone hot and radiating a brilliant green glow. Juggling it back and forth from hand to hand, I tucked it back into the cloth, took aim and waited.

The shadow bucked, spun and lurched in an attempt to throw Charles off. Gary tried to whack it with his branch, but the beast easily wrested the weapon from Gary’s hands and flung it away.

As Charles was bucked high into the air, he shouted, “Now! Throw it!”

I took a step closer, took the knuckle-stone out of the handkerchief and fired. My aim was absolutely dismal and I would have missed, but the projectile curved in and hit the creature right in the forehead before flashing brightly and vanishing.

I looked to Gary, but he only blinked back at me, so we both looked to Charles, who asked, “What now?”

Gary shouted, “Attack!” He lifted an unwieldy, dead pine tree off the ground and started dragging it towards the shadow, but how he was going to use it as a weapon, I had no idea.

The beast took a step forward, all the while keeping its gaze locked on me, its slow, confident movements reminding me of a large cat on the hunt. Not even its footsteps could be heard against the dry pine needles.

Again, my arms and legs seized. I could not move, but my vocal cords still worked. In desperation, I growled and showed my teeth, but I expected if the creature had a sense of humor, it would have found my bluff amusing.

Time seemed to stop. My heartbeat slowed and I couldn’t tell if I was breathing. I could no longer feel my body. It seemed I was watching the events of my eminent death unfold from far away.

When the creature took another step, Charles and Gary charged. Charles landed on top of the thing and remained there for a full three seconds before being bucked into the sky.

Breaking his dead tree over the monster’s head, Gary raged, “Stop!” And to our surprise, the creature complied. It stopped, shuddered and became motionless. A slight vibration started in its head and shoulders before growing steadily into a violent tremor that spread down its entire body. It convulsed several times and was still, and after its eyes faded to a dim glow, the thing toppled over sideways, landing with a heavy thud.

Immediately, I regained control of my muscles, and after Gary and I exchanged another look of amazement and fear, we cautiously moved in to find that the shadow’s torso was rising and falling.

Plummeting back to Earth, Charles slammed into the ground nearby, and after he had climbed out of his crater, he staggered forward, whispering, “Is it dead?”

Gary whispered back, “No, it’s breathing. But let’s make sure.”

Charles and Gary started poking the shadow with their sticks, so I had to ask, “Guys, you think that’s wise?”

Of course, they both thought that some exploratory poking was the correct course of action and continued doing so for a full minute, and when they had had their fill, the three of us stood in silence, marveling over the beast. With its eyes closed, it had no discernible features, and although it was breathing, it made no sound. Feeling the heat rising from its body, I moved closer and reached out my hand.

Grabbing my wrist, Charles whispered, “No!”

I paused, withdrew my hand and asked, “So is this that miskreant thing?”

Charles nodded. “Yeah, but it’s just a baby. Maybe two or three-thousand years, tops.

Nodding, I admitted, “Huh, just a baby? It’s kind of cute.”

Charles gawked at me in disbelief. “Cute? Oh yeah, he’s just adorable.”

I reached down, pressed my open hand against its body and immediately felt a rhythmic vibration spreading through my hand and arm. The energy had something like a warm, almost musical undercurrent riding through it.

Charles grabbed my arm again and pulled it away, scolding, “Gord! That thing could infect you!”

Blinking up at him, I quickly grabbed his hand, pulled it towards the shadow and argued, “No! You have to feel this!”

At first Charles resisted, but when he reached down and made contact, he gasped, his eyes went wide and he whispered, “It’s . . . It’s like pure energy!”

When the miskreant twitched, we all jumped back and ran to the safety of a nearby tree to watch. After several more twitches and a shudder, the shadow slowly opened its eyes and pushed itself up until it was standing on all fours. Wobbling and weak, it lifted its head and took one tentative step forward, and when it looked at us, we quickly ducked out of sight behind the tree.

Gary whispered, “Come on! Let’s get out of here!”

Charles and I both shushed him and poked our heads back out, but when we saw the miskreant heading towards us, we ducked out of sight again.

I whispered, “It’s coming this way! Scoot! Scoot!”

Trying to keep the tree between us and the shadow, we carefully inched our way around the trunk, and we were successful for a full rotation until the shadow changed directions. Ending up face to face with it, with no other options, we froze in our tracks and held our collective breath. But instead of eating us or shredding us to pieces, the shadow carefully examined each of us before turning and striding away through the forest, back towards the highway.

We looked to each other for an explanation, and when none was forthcoming, Gary stood up and called out an indignant, “Hey!”

But the shadow completely ignored him as it disappeared into the trees.

Again, I looked to Charles for an answer, but he only shrugged, so I shrugged back at him while Gary took off after the miskreant, shouting, “Hey! . . . Wait up!”

We quickly found it wouldn’t be possible to keep up with the creature because of its incredible speed. Mostly I just followed the sound of breaking branches up ahead and the shouts coming from Charles and Gary as they chased after it while pleading for it to slow down.

To my great surprise and complete bewilderment, we arrived back at the truck to find the shadow climbing over the tailgate and into the back of the Chevy, causing the truck to groan and sag under its terrific weight.

Clapping my hands vigorously, I scolded, “No-no-no-no. Stop that.”

Ignoring me, the miskreant circled around three times before sitting down and making itself comfortable, so as soon as I reached the truck, I lowered the tailgate, pointed at the ground, and in my sternest voice, ordered, “Get. Out.”

The miskreant glanced at me for only an instant before it started rubbing its face over its shoulders and chest in a manner resembling a cat grooming itself

Clapping my hands loudly, I tried again: “Come on. Out.” I pointed to the ground more forcefully, but the miskreant only glanced ever so briefly before resuming its grooming.

Nudging Gary, Charles said, “Come on. It’s not that big. Let’s push it out.”

They climbed up and positioned themselves between the shadow and the cab. Then with a whole lot of groaning and grunting, they pushed with all their might, but the miskreant didn’t even seem to notice. Charles asked me to help, so I climbed up into the back, and the three of us tried pushing, pulling and rolling the beast. We grunted, groaned, wheezed and growled, but the shadow seemed to have welded its massive butt to the truck bed. And after about five minutes with no success, Gary slid down next to the miskreant and whined, “He’s too fat.”

Not to be outdone by some dumb shadow-demon, I suggested, “Hey, what if we outsmart it by luring it out?” I grabbed a bag of cheese-puffs, jumped off the tailgate and pulled out a handful. Then holding one up, I wiggled it enticingly. “Hey, look what I have. You want a cheese puff? Crunchy? Cheesy? Come on.” I clicked my tongue a few times before losing patience and grumping, “Stupid monster! Get out of there!”

The creature paused only a moment to give the cheese puff a brief inspection just as a large group of tourists walked past, and when they realized I was yelling at an empty truck, they gave me some quizzical looks and made sure to give the lunatic lots of extra space.

I put my hands on my hips and exhaled hard. “Well, what are we supposed to do? That thing must weigh as much as the truck.” Shoving the cheese-puffs into my mouth, I crunched them up with agitated vigor.

Charles finally stopped pushing against our unwelcome stowaway and stood up and suggested that if I accelerated quickly, the miskreant would simply tumble off the back. Then we could ditch it before it even knew what had happened. And after Gary and I agreed that Charles’ idea was nothing less than brilliant, we piled into the cab and headed out onto the highway.

Getting up to speed was exceedingly difficult with such a heavy load, and in no time, traffic started to pile up behind us. We continued east until Gary spotted a side road and shouted for me to turn at the last second. I cranked the wheel hard, causing the truck to momentarily lift up on two wheels as we bounced off the highway, and when we slammed back down, I was sure we had cracked something important. I applied the brakes and dropped the stick into neutral before politely suggesting, “You two lumps, get out. We need to lighten the load if this is going to work.”

With groans of protest, Gary and Charles climbed out, and with hands in pockets, they watched intently until Charles got impatient and yelled, “Okay! Hit it!”

So I replied, “Uh, you might want to put the tailgate down first.”

They both hurried around to the back and unlatched the gate, dropping it down with a loud bang! So I pushed the clutch in, shifted into first, revved the engine and popped the clutch. But the engine only lurched forward a few inches before choking and dying. I tried again with the same result, and after the third try, I could smell the distinct aroma of burnt transmission fluid. Sighing deeply, I whined, “He’s too heavy, and I’m going to wreck the tranny if I keep it up.” Climbing out and leaning up against the rail to inspect the immovable shadow, I asked my two companions if they had any better ideas.

Gary stepped forward and asked, “Why don’t we just take him with us? He’s not in the way.”

I squinted at Gary. “Take him with us? It’s not a him, Gare. It’s an it. And no, it could be dangerous. We have no idea what it might be capable of.”

“Aw, but look at him. He’s not dangerous.” Gary reached up and rubbed and patted the miskreant on the back to show how cuddly it was. “See?”

Not believing my ears or eyes, I looked at Gary in disbelief. “Uh, Gary? What if it reverts back to its aggressive self? We don’t have any more of those-those green knuckle-rocks. Do you want it to eat Charles?”

Examining Charles while considering my question, Gary finally replied with, “No, not really. Charles does have his uses.”

Charles sneered at Gary and grumped, “It would probably eat you too, you know.”

Gary shook his head and argued, “No, it wouldn’t. It would be too full after it was finished with you.”

I looked at Charles and asked, “Why was it after you anyway?”

Charles shrugged, pointed at me and theorized, “I bet it was after you. I was just the bait to get you away from the highway.”

Gently stroking the miskreant’s back, Gary pleaded, “Look at him. He’s not dangerous.” In a deep, lovey-dovey voice, he asked the shadow, “You’re not dangerous, are you? No, you’re a goo’boy. You’re not going to eat anyone, are you? Who’s a goo’boy?”

The miskreant stopped and studied Gary for maybe half a second before continuing on with its grooming.

Charles growled, “Would you stop that? Ugh.” He kicked the tire and added, “Less than an hour ago, it was going to tear me to bits, and now you want to keep it? . . . Gord? Would you tell him how stupid he is?”

“Gary, you’re stupid.” I drummed on the truck before declaring, “But unless we have any other ideas, we’ll have to bring it along for now. Hopefully it’ll get tired of being on the highway and leave on its own accord.”

 

With our new, unwanted passenger, the truck handled like it was hauling a load of wet cement, and as we slowly gained speed, I asked, “Did anybody check the spare before we left? We could have a blowout any second now.”

Charles and Gary asked in unison, “What spare?”

In no time, we had a line of cars piling up behind us, so I had to pull over to let them by. Fortunately, we weren’t far from Tioga Pass, and the down hill stretch would prove much easier, provided the brakes were sound. The truck had been stopping successfully so far, but I didn’t like the metal-on-metal grinding noise they were starting to make. The next time I pulled over, in spite of my objections, Gary decided to ride in back. He said that if the miskreant started to behave strangely, he could bang on the window for me to stop.

So I replied, “Yeah, if that monster starts to act up, we’ll just scold it or give it a cookie to calm it down. Or better yet, I’ll drive the truck into a ravine, and those of us who survive the crash can run for our lives.”

As we continued eastward and upward, Charles continued to become more uneasy. He sat sideways to keep an eye on our passenger, and I really couldn’t blame him. I was nervous too. The miskreant’s blinding gaze and the power it exuded were enough to make me want to just ditch the truck and hitch-hike the rest of the way to Mono Lake, but I had a feeling that our stow-away would simply follow us on foot if we tried doing so. We had seen what it was capable of, and if that thing was just a baby, I had no interest in meeting an adult. Thanks, but no thanks.

 

 

Chapter Eight: Mono Lake

 

We passed through Yosemite’s eastern gate and headed down the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. The tall pines and green meadows gave way to sheer, rocky cliffs and barren, treeless vistas as we clattered, rattled and bounced our way down into The Great Mono Basin. I was enjoying a moment of peace and quiet when Charles reached over, gently shoved my head sideways and complained, “I’m hungry.”

Instinctively shoving him back, I grumped, “Hey, easy on the hair. It took a lot of work to get it like this.”

He didn’t miss a beat: “Yeah, it looks good. What’d you use? A pair of hedge clippers?”

His laugh was a little too boisterous, so I gave him my mandatory stink-eye and quipped, “Have you looked in a mirror lately? You look like you got yours cut in a . . .” But remembering who had just cut his hair, I quickly shut my yap.

Charles chuckled before getting serious. Looking back at the shadow-demon, he spoke in a whisper: “Gord, that thing came after me. It ran right past Gary and came for me.”

I glanced over and asked, “Were you taunting it?”

“Huh? No. Of course not. We were sitting on the tailgate waiting for you when we saw it charging at us. And wow, it’s crazy fast . . . Gary tripped when he hopped off the truck, so I was in the lead, and that thing shot past him and came after me.”

“So how did you manage to outrun it for so long?”

“When I got to the trees, I did some zigging followed by some well timed zagging. It wasn’t easy; I’ll tell you that right now.”

“I’m impressed. And in flip-flops even.” I pulled over at the next turnout, and as another line of traffic went by, I theorized, “I think Gary’s right; it was luring us away from the highway, and the best way to do that would be to chase the faster runner.”

Charles pushed his hair out of his eyes, sputtered through closed lips and declared, “Yeah, maybe. I’ll just be happy when we can get rid of it.” He sighed deeply and asked, “What could it possibly want with us?”

“Who knows.” I glanced through the rear-view mirror to find Gary was trying to get the miskreant to shake hands, but the shadow didn’t seem at all interested in learning a new trick. Gary tried lifting its foot or paw or whatever it was, but couldn’t get it to budge.

As soon as the line of cars had gone by, I pulled back onto the highway.

Charles gasped, slapped his forehead and cried out, “Oh, no!”

I recovered from a panic swerve and asked, “What! What’s wrong?”

“I forgot my suit!” He groaned, looked at me and declared, “We have to go back.”

“Are you nuts? We can’t go back.”

As my words sank in, Charles sank down into his seat, groaned again and whined, “I can’t go to the Gathering like this! What will everybody say?”

Gripping his shoulder firmly and shaking it, I explained, “They’ll say that you’re just too cool to care how you look.”

Charles folded his arms, scrunched his face into a look of utter annoyance and said something like, “Humph!” and “Murmph!” He then kicked at the dash with his foot and stubbed his tow in the process.

Chuckling over his little hissy-fit, I said, “Hey, I’m the one who should be upset. Do you really think I’m going to fit in? . . . Huh? Do you?”

My demon quickly brightened and explained happily, “No way. You’re going to be the biggest freak there.”

“See? Everybody will be staring at me, and they won’t even notice that you’ve gone casual. Relax, big guy. Take a deep breath. Life is good.”

Charles’ smile grew bigger, “Yeah? Life is good, isn’t it?”

Smacking him on the shoulder, I replied, “Heck, yeah. You’ve got me, you’ve got Gary and now you have that, uh, thing for your new pet.”

Pet?” Charles pondered my words before replying, “Gord, that’s not even funny.”

“I concur.” Sneaking a peek at the miskreant through the rear-view mirror, I declared, “We’ll ditch it as soon as possible.”

 

As we descended into the valley, the temperature climbed quickly, and the warm, steady wind through the cab caused my lips to dry out, and since I was tired of wearing the helmet, I asked Charles to search around for anything that might help. He actually found an old tube of lip balm and a pair of scratched up sunglasses in the glove box and handed them over. The balm was dried and crusty but it did the job, and the glasses looked ridiculous, but at least they blocked the wind.

Laughing at me, Charles declared, “You look like Easy Rider.”

“You mean Peter Fonda?”

“Yeah, Easy Rider.”

“His name’s Peter Fonda. He’s what they call an actor? Easy Rider was the movie.”

Pondering this fact a moment, he admitted, “I like motorcycles.”

“Yeah, I know. You’ve told me about eight-million times.”

“But not those loud ones; they hurt my ears. I like the quiet ones . . . Gord, we need motorcycles.”

“We can’t get motorcycles, Charles.”

“Why?”

“First, because you can’t drive it in public because you’ll freak everyone out, and second, because you’ll crash and burn, and you don’t like being on fire, remember?”

After contemplating this fact, Charles was forced to agree: “No, that’s true. Fire is stupid. Well, what about one of those three wheelers?”

“Same problem. I’d have to drive, and I don’t like motorcycles, so it would just sit in the garage, and we’d end up selling it after a few years — just like the dune buggy, the pool table, the hang glider, the rabbit hutch, the kayaks, the . . .”

“Okay, okay, I get your point.” Charles went quiet for a moment. Then grinning brightly, he glanced over and poked me in the ribs. “I think she liked you.”

“What? The one back at the . . . ?”

“Yeah, at the lake. Abbey Street? She liked you. You should call her.”

Not believing my ears, I suspiciously squinted at him and asked, “Aren’t you supposed to talk me out of taking chances? You’re not supposed to encourage me. What’s wrong with you?”

Still smiling, he argued, “There’s nothing wrong with me. She was nice.”

“Ah. And her demon was pretty nice too, right?” I punched him in the shoulder.

“Well, yeah, she was.” Still grinning, he continued, “It’s not often you see a clean, healthy demon in fancy hiking clothes like that. She must take good care of herself.”

I chuckled. “Uh-huh? And you thought maybe you’d like to get to know her?”

When Charles couldn’t stop grinning, I shoved him hard and suggested, “Well, maybe it’s time for you to start taking better care of yourself too, huh? You know, shed some of that weight and make yourself a little more attractive?”

“I don’t know. Its so hard to keep it off. Every time I start, I end up giving up and getting even bigger.” He unconsciously started banging his feet against the hood.

Pulling over again to let another line of cars go by, I asked, “You want to try something?”

Looking at me suspiciously, Charles asked, “Uh, like what?”

“When we get home, you go back to eating nothing but galswallow — absolutely no people food.”

Charles grimaced and made a fake, gaggy face. “Ugh, galswallow!” He produced his fake vomiting sound that always made me laugh because it sounded so real.

And after he had finished, I suggested, “Well, how about just one week?”

When Charles folded his arms, looked out the window and muttered, “Bleh,” I could tell he was pondering the idea. He then asked, “One week? Okay, but not until we’re home.”

 

Mono Basin came into view, and I realized I didn’t know where we were headed. Charles must have read my mind because he pointed at a distant hill and explained, “We’re going out to the north shore, and from the top of that hill there, we’ll make our way out to that big island, right there.”

“On a boat?”

Charles laughed. “A boat? No, we’ll use the labyrinth, silly.”

I felt myself tense up. “The labyrinth?”

“I’ve told you before. It’s the network of tunnels inside the Earth, but it can’t be accessed by mortals, so . . .”

“But I’m a mortal. How am I supposed to get out there?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you can take a boat.”

“That’s what I just said.”

“No, you didn’t.”

I rapped him in the head with my hat as we arrived at the eastern terminus of Highway 140, and after turning north on 395, we headed north through Lee Vining.

Suddenly perking up, Charles asked, “Ooo! Can we stop? I’m thirsty!”

I looked at him in disbelief. “What? For crying out loud, we just got six liters of soda in Yosemite. No, we’re not stopping again.”

Charles banged his heel on the hood and declared, “It’s gone; Gary drank it.”

“He couldn’t have drunk all of it.”

“He did. There might be one left, but it’s Doctor Pepper.”

“Well, have that then.”

“I don’t want that; it makes me gassy.”

Pulling into the parking lot in front of the grocery store, I let out a deep sigh and declared, “Charles, it’s soda; they all make you gassy.”

“Doctor Pepper is worse.”

“That’s not possible.”

“It is too.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Yes, it is.”

I got out of the truck and held out my open hand in anticipation, and Charles pulled out forty bucks, handed it over and said, “Get jerky too. Hickory smoked if they have it.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I then asked Gary, “How’s your new friend?”

Gary replied, “He’s okay, but I think he might be kind of slow. He can’t learn any tricks.”

“Gare, he’s not a dog. He’s an apex-predator-shadow-demon.” I placed my hand on the miskreant’s back as it sat unmoving, looking up at the sky. I followed its gaze to find it was watching several small tufts of spindly, white cumulus swirling around in the invisible turbulence.

Gary patted the miskreant on the haunch and suggested, “We should call him Sparkles.”

Nodding, I held back a laugh and asked, “Yeah, isn’t that a little bit, um, dainty?”

Gary grumped, “No. It’s not dainty. It fits him because of his eyes.”

Charles offered, “How about Twinkles?”

Before I headed for the store, I suggested, “Or maybe Twinkie. Or how about kill-dozer? . . . Back in a second. Could you both please refrain from wandering off?”

Charles jumped out. “Can we come in if we stay with you?”

“Oh, alright, but only if you promise not to linger or dally.”

They both agreed, so we walked single file towards the store, and I could tell from their shadows on the pavement that they were mimicking my awkward, slumped-over gate. They said I walked like a goober, but I explained that my walking style was unique, distinctive and debonair.

Before going inside, Gary turned back and pointed sternly at the shadow-demon, commanding, “Sparkles? You stay.” And Sparkles behaved admirably by remaining motionless as he continued to watch the sky.

The knuckleheads instructed me to purchase ten liters of soda, four bags of potato chips, red-vines, ding-dongs, two bags of jerky, more cheese-puffs and an arm load of assorted candy bars. We didn’t take long at all, but by the time we returned to the truck, Sparkles was heading on up the highway. He hadn’t even left a note or given a look back or anything. He just left.

Unloading the contents of the cart into the truck, I muttered under my breath, “Good riddance. I was wondering how we were going to get rid of it.”

Charles nodded and agreed, “Yeah, that’s a relief.”

But Gary wasn’t nearly as pleased. In fact, he cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting, “Sparr-kless! Come back! . . . I’m sorry!” And to our surprise, he ran off down the highway after the demon, yelling, “Sparr-kless! Wait! Up!”

Charles and I exchanged a look, and unable to help myself, in my best Foghorn Leghorn impression, I said in a southern drawl, “That boy, I say, that boy ain’t right.”

Ignoring me, Charles called out, “Gary! Let it go!” And he took out after them.

I called out, “Hey!”

Not receiving so much as a glance back, I pondered the new development and considered my options. I could stay put and watch three demons get smaller and smaller as they headed north on 395, or I could get in the truck, turn around and head home — that one seemed pretty enticing at the moment — or I could walk after a potentially dangerous shadow-demon and two idiots to wherever they might be headed. The thought of walking down a high-desert highway under a mid-June sun did not give me the warmest of fuzzies, so my last and probably best option was to get in the truck and ride along behind the trio from the underworld to find out where they might be going, although I had a pretty good guess they were headed for something called a Gathering.

But when I tried to start the truck, I only heard a sickening rurrr! . . . rurrr! and then another rurrr which finished off with a resounding rurrr. Holding the key in the “on” position, I pushed down on the gas repeatedly and begged the truck to please start. Then I tried banging on the steering wheel and pushing the gas peddle to the floor as hard as I could over and over. Finally, all that could be heard was a lovely clicking sound coming from the starter — a clear indicator that all was lost. The battery was dead, and I had failed to put jumper cables in the truck for such an eventuality.

With head bowed, I began gently banging my forehead against the steering wheel for a while, and that helped a little.

“Okay. Okay.”

I had a broken truck, and the idiots, I mean demons, were getting away, and I knew that in order for the contract to remain valid, I had to stay within shouting distance of Charles. In my defense, I could argue that he was the one who had left me behind, so it wasn’t my fault, but I was pretty sure that any arch-demon would find in favor of Charles.

But why would my demon abandon me? Charles knew I couldn’t enter the Gathering without assistance. He had mentioned that the entrance to the labyrinth was at the top of the big, round hill on the north side of the lake. He must have figured I would follow along, and it turned out he was right.

I grabbed my hat, sunglasses, fanny-pack, water-bottle and lip balm, and since there was no windshield, I decided that locking the truck would be pointless.

Had Sparkles sabotaged the truck while we were in the store? And why would a miskreant want to tag along with a group like us anyway? Gary should have let him go. Stupid Gary. Stupid Charles. Stupid Sparkles. Stupid me.

Chapter Nine: Meet Adolfo

 

Far ahead, the highway was shimmering under a bright, afternoon sun. I had to keep wiping the sweat from my brow and closing my eyes from the dust every time a vehicle whizzed past, but was grateful for the occasional cloud drifting over to momentarily protect me from the heat. I could see that Charles had caught up with Gary and seemed to be trying to convince him to give up on the miskreant and come back, but I suspected any attempts would fall on deaf ears. Gary bonded with every animal he ever met almost immediately, and the shadow-demon was more like Gary than any living creature. The miskreant was a kindred spirit, and now it had a name. Sparkles, the demon who could pull your head off just as soon as look at you, had become Gary’s rogue puppy. I made a mental note to kick Gary when I caught him.

But I had to admit, our situation wasn’t all Gary’s fault. Even if he had not run off, the truck would still be dead. We didn’t have any tools, but maybe there was a mechanic who was still open and would be happy to start a new job on a Friday afternoon. Yeah, right.

I had to focus on one thing at a time and would deal with figuring out how to get home after the dumb Gathering was over. Hoofing up the highway, I had to stop repeatedly to remove pebbles from my shoes, and my right knee was acting up. I called out to Charles and Gary repeatedly, but they either couldn’t hear me or were ignoring me or a little of both. Charles claimed he had hearing loss, but I was suspicious because he always had excellent hearing whenever I tried to quietly open a bag of crackers at the opposite end of the house.

The sun reappeared from behind a cloud. I rubbed the sweat off of my brow and neck and adjusted my hat as I power walked down the highway, but it seemed like the distance between me and the guys was growing. They were walking at an unusually fast pace, and I could no longer see Sparkles. Maybe we would never see the creature again, and that would be just fine by me.

At full volume, I shouted again, “Hey! . . . Wait! Up!” For good measure, I added, “You bone-heads!”

Gary finally looked back, and a moment later, Charles looked back too, and when they both waved for me to hurry up, I put my hands out in the universal sign for ‘what gives?’ and waved them to come back, but they simply gestured for me to hurry up before turning away and continuing on. So we walked and walked, and then we walked some more. The highway ran along the edge of Mono Lake for a stretch, and the cool air coming off the water’s surface was welcome. In its vastness, the lake looked more like a sea, and the water looked so inviting that if I had not been in hot pursuit of two ding-bat demons, I would have made my way down to the shoreline to soak my feet.

About a quarter mile later, as I was emptying the gravel out of my shoes once again, a rusty Ford F1 rumbled past and pulled over before backing up to me. In the back of the pickup was seated a hulk of a spanner-demon who was casually plucking on a guitar that seemed more like a ukulele in his giant hands.

Once my shoe was back on, I stood up and greeted the giant with, “Hey, you’re a spanner.”

Not missing a beat, the demon replied, “Hey, so are you.” He then continued right where he had left off on John Denver’s Sunshine while he hummed along.

I went up and peered through the passenger side window to find an elderly gentleman with jet black hair and wrinkled, deep brown skin squinting back at me. He was wearing a well-worn straw hat and a white, button-up, sleeveless shirt. After giving me a genuine grin that revealed a mouthful of flawless, white teeth, he asked, “You headed to the Gathering?” His accent was musical and pleasant to the ear.

Blinking at him until his question gelled in my sun addled brain, I finally replied, “Uh, yeah. Well, I’m trying to anyway.”

He gestured up the highway at Charles and Gary. “Are they with you?”

“Yeah, the big one’s mine. The skinny one’s a friend.” Squinting at their shrinking backsides, I added, “I think they’re trying to ditch me.”

The man chuckled and declared, “We can’t have that. Get in.”

“Thanks.”

I pulled hard on the door, and when it didn’t budge, the man pulled a pile of papers, pens and other assorted items across the seat towards him before reaching over and fighting with the door. After a brief but vigorous struggle, it popped open, and I climbed in. The stranger forced the stick-shift into first and released the clutch, causing us to lurch forward, and as soon as we had gained speed, he searched for second gear with several firm downward tugs until he found it, and we lurched some more.

With eyes straight ahead, he explained, “She might be old, but she’s dependable.”

“How many miles you got on her?”

He leaned forward to check the odometer: “Uh, five hundred fifty-one.”

“Five hundred fifty-one miles?”

Shaking his head, he corrected, “Five hundred fifty-one thousand. Should I pick up your demons?”

“Um, naw. The walk will do them some good. Besides, I’m mad at them.”

Shrugging, he replied, “Okay, then.” The driver then jammed the stick into third, and the Ford lurched once more.

As we passed by Charles and Gary, I leaned out, stuck one thumb into each ear and wiggled my fingers at them while making the most ridiculous face possible, and to my delight, they both gave me the same palms-up ‘what gives?’ gesture I had given them earlier. And after I was finished pointing and laughing derisively at them, I turned back to the driver and introduced myself: “I’m Gordo.”

The driver chuckled and said, “You don’t look very gordo to me. I’m Adolfo,” He reached out his hand, and I shook it.

Pointing his thumb over his shoulder, he added, “And that’s Guillermo.”

Turning around to find Guillermo’s back practically covering the rear window, I noted, “You’ve got a big one there. He’s a little bigger than my Charles.”

“Guillermo? Oh, he’s not going to dry up and blow away any time soon. That demon has an appetite you wouldn’t believe.”

“I can imagine. Yeah, Charles is eating all the time too.”

Adolfo asked, “Does he still eat galswallow?”

I chuckled and explained, “Oh, no. He’s hooked on people food, more specifically, junk food.”

Adolfo nodded. “Yeah, that’s Guillermo too. He hasn’t touched galswallow since I was a kid. Now all he wants are breakfast cereals, pop-tarts, candy-bars and soda, so now he looks like a walrus.”

Chuckling, I replied, “Yeah, and you can nag and nag until you’re blue in the face, but they have to help themselves. Charles doesn’t care what it’s doing to him. It’s his life, so I’m not going to lose sleep over him.”

Adolfo glanced over. “Yeah, but we’re the ones who buy it for them, so we’re complicit, right?”

I nodded. “That’s true, but he knows how to wear me down until I give in. It’s a war of wills, and Charles can out-will me any day, so it’s easier just to give him what he wants from the start.

Adolfo nodded. “Exactly! They’re like little kids! They know they can wear us down!” He went quiet for a moment before asking, “What about that skinny one?”

“Oh, Gary? His eating habits are worse than Charles’, but he has the metabolism of a hummingbird and never stops moving, so he stays skinny. I think the only whole foods those two ever eat are whole pizzas and whole hot-dogs.

Adolfo chuckled and asked, “They were both summoned? To this Gathering?”

“Yeah, Gary just lost his person and needed a ride.”

“Lost his person? Did he die?”

“Yeah. Bertrand was our neighbor. Gary and Charles have been buds as long as I can remember.”

Adolfo nodded as he turned off the highway.

We headed east down a pot-hole infested, side road, and bracing myself against a vigorous jostling, I asked, “I’ve never been to a Gathering before. Have you?”

“No. Guillermo said humans aren’t invited to Gatherings, so he’s anxious.” Adolfo was silent a moment before asking, “I wonder what they want with us? They better not ask me to help them because I won’t.”

“I won’t either. I’m only here so I can keep Charles. He’s annoying beyond words, but I could do a lot worse.”

“Me too. If I don’t come along, I lose Guillermo, so I didn’t have a choice.”

So I nodded and declared, “Me too! I’ll be glad when this is over and we can get home.”

Adolfo grunted in agreement and asked, “So you walked here?”

I smiled weakly. “No, we broke down in Lee Vining. We started out from Merced this morning.”

“Oh, Merced. I know where that is. Guillermo and I drove up from Dolores Hidalgo. You know it?”

“Yeah, that’s in Mexico. Was it a long drive?”

“I took my time, so it took three days.” He glanced over. “Your Charles? Is he good at his job? At being your demon?”

“Not so much these past few years, and that’s fine with me. He’s done enough damage for one lifetime. I think he’s pretty satisfied.”

“Guillermo is getting like that too. As I get older, he doesn’t try so much. I’m no longer afraid of dying. My faith is strong, and I know in my heart that everything will be fine. Guillermo knows it too, so his heart just isn’t in the work anymore.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I don’t envy them, you know? They’re on the losing end, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Sometimes, I have to admit, I even pity them.”

Looking over, Adolfo said, “You and me? We are lucky.”

Squinting, I asked, “You think we’re lucky? I don’t know. Sometimes I’d like to try being normal for a change.”

Adolfo shook his head and looked me in the eye. “Be careful what you wish for. Someday we will find out why we were given this gift, and someday might be sooner than we think.”

“A gift, huh?” Not knowing how to respond, I simply nodded and said, “Hmm.”

We bounced along the so-called road for a few miles as it wound up and around a great, wide hill until it came to an abrupt dead-end about halfway to the summit.

Adolfo parked the truck, killed the engine, and taking a deep sigh, he asked, “So, you ready for this?”

I slowly shook my head. “Heck, no. I want to go home.”

Adolfo chuckled. “Me too, brother. Me too.”

As soon as I wrestled the door open and climbed out, I took in the serene beauty and staggering expanse of The Mono Basin. Pointing at the largest island in the middle of the lake, I asked, “So the Gathering is out there?”

Guillermo gracefully vaulted out of the back of the truck, landing hard enough to shake the ground. His voice was wonderfully deep and gravelly when he spoke: “Yes,” he said, “we can’t see the citadel yet, but it’s right out there.” The giant demon pulled a duffel bag out of the back, opened it and removed an enormous suit, and after he had put it on, Adolfo helped him with a pair of enormous, back loafers.

I couldn’t help but ask, “Where on Earth did you ever find shoes that big? Those have to be size forty.”

Adolfo corrected me: “They’re forty-fours. Mama made the suit and the shoes by hand in seventy-one when Guillermo outgrew his old ones.”

“Your Mom’s a spanner too?”

Adolfo shook his head. “Oh no, but she’s always known I spoke the truth about Guillermo. She never doubted me, and she even told me that my ability had to be a blessing, but she asked that we keep it a secret, and I’ve never told another soul.”

I blinked at him a moment and said, “Wow. I’d like to meet your mom.”

Adolfo gave Guillermo a good brushing down and straightened his jacket before Guillermo gestured for us to follow him up to the summit. Turning to lead the way, he sighed nervously and muttered, “Okay, here goes nothing.”

I searched back the way we had come for Charles and Gary, and finding them nowhere in sight, I set out after Guillermo and Adolfo. We climbed only a short distance before arriving at the bottom of a cliff that spread along the summit in both directions. And before us, a deep crevice cut down into the rock face, down into the dark. Guillermo stopped, nervously searched the area and spoke quietly: “This is it. I was hoping someone would be here to meet us.” Unsure about what to do, he paced back and forth several times before muttering, “I better go in and find out how to get you two out to the island.” He took roughly ten steps down into the crevice and vanished into thin air with a loud whomp!

Adolfo and I exchanged a look of surprise, then alarm and then fear.

“Gordo,” he whispered, “I don’t know about this. This is the entrance to the labyrinth, the spirit world. Do we belong here?”

The weight of his question was like a slap in the face that brought me to my senses, and I suddenly had the desire to run away as far and as fast as I could, but I simply replied, “Hmm, don’t know. I doubt it, but we’re here now, right?”

Adolfo whispered, “I-I . . . don’t want to go in there.” He leaned against a massive boulder and slid down to the ground.

I did the same, and we sat the in silence waiting and wishing for Guillermo to hurry up and get back. Ten minutes went by. Then another five, and still nothing. Adolfo picked up a stone, and as he tapped it nervously against a boulder, he tried to reassure himself as much as me: “We must not panic. Guillermo will be back any second now, and we can get this over with.”

A few more minutes passed, and when nothing happened, I decided to go see if Charles and Gary were in sight. I slapped Adolfo on the shoulder and whispered, “Be right back.”

Adolfo got to his feet and said, “I think I’ll go with you.”

Moving back downhill, away from the entrance, we could see the sun had disappeared behind a thunder storm rising up over the eastern Sierra, and when I saw the flashes of lightning and heard the distant thunder, I remembered that I’d left my coat in Bertrand’s Chevy. It might have been a warm June day, but at over sixty-five hundred feet in elevation, I expected we might be in for a chilly evening. The storm appeared to be building up over Tuolumne Meadows, and I wondered if Abbey Street and her son had found a safe place to ride out the weather.

I was relieved to find Charles and Gary not far away, and better still, Sparkles was nowhere to be seen. I waved to them and shook the gravel out of my shoes while they headed up the hill.

Out to the east, a waxing gibbous moon had just cleared the horizon, and its reflection was gleaming on the smooth surface of the lake. A slight breeze rolled through the basin, and the distant call of a coyote sent a shiver down my spine. And in that moment, I had the strangest sensation that I was standing on a different world, far away, out on the other side of the galaxy. It was as if I was experiencing some type of galactic deja vue — that all of the events of the day had happened in the exact same sequence a very long time ago, or perhaps they would occur again someday, out in the distant future. But before I could get my mind around the sensation, it was gone.

When the guys reached us, Charles was puffing like an old steam engine, and he could barely get enough air to form the words: “Thanks (gasp) for picking (gasp) us up (wheeze) jerk.” Leaning over, he put his hands on his knees while he tried to catch his breath.

I mockingly replied, “There (fake gasp) wasn’t any (fake gasp) room.” Unable to resist, I continued to imitate his infirmity: “Did you see (fake gasp) the size (fake wheeze) of that (fake gasp) demon?” And for good measure, I added a few more exaggerated wheezing sounds.

He could only muster a dirty look in response before wheezing, “Where’s (gasp) the truck?”

“It wouldn’t start. Do you think I followed you on foot for my health?”

He looked at me suspiciously and asked, “It wouldn’t start? I bet you flooded it.” Having regained some strength, he stood upright.

“No, Charles. I didn’t flood it.” I folded my arms to accentuate my annoyance.

With his hands on his hips, Charles explained, “You always flood it. You’re too impatient. You have to treat an old vehicle like that with finesse.”

I wasn’t going to argue with him. It was turning into a very long day, and I was wiped out, on edge and had no desire to turn a trivial disagreement into an ugly altercation.

Or did I?

Keeping my cool, I asked, “Did it ever occur to you that Sparkles might have sabotaged it?”

Alarmed by my accusation, Gary interjected, “What? Sparkles wouldn’t hurt the truck! He-he-he likes us!”

I corrected him: “Liked us.” I turned back to Charles. “And another thing, Chuck . . .” I hit the ‘k’ hard to annoy him. “. . . why did you take off on foot like that? Maybe you knew the truck wouldn’t start?”

Stunned by my accusation, Charles’ mouth dropped into a frown and his eyes darkened as he said in a low, menacing growl, “I didn’t know anything.

Were the two of us really headed for a knock-down, drag-out at the entrance to the labyrinth? I knew it wouldn’t be wise, but in my rapidly deteriorating mood, I was starting to hope so. Glowering at him, I took a step forward and accused, “Yes, you did . . . Ah, now I get it. That’s why you were being so nice to me on the ride here. You were lulling me into a false sense of security!” Standing in front of him, I put my index finger in the center of his chest and poked him on each word: “You. Are. A. Liar.” I then proceeded to give him a substantial, double-handed shove.

Staggering backwards, Charles’ face twisted from a look of surprise into his rage-face which he’d been working on for a very long time. I always thought it was fairly impressive, but he didn’t scare me one bit.

Growling in a whisper of seething, white-hot rage, he suggested, “You-you! Sh-shut your! S-stupid face, h-human!” Giving me an exploratory shove to my forehead, he barked, “I didn’t touch the stupid truck!” Then, spraying demon spit all over my beautiful, beautiful shirt, he growled, “Take it back.”

I shoved him again. “Or what? You’re going to tell the arch-demons? . . . Why did you sabotage the truck, Charles?” I gave him another double-handed shove, sending him two more steps back, and when I saw the flash in his eyes as he roared, I knew it was on.

I wasn’t keeping time, but the whole thing was probably over in less than a minute. I was mad. Charles was mad. I had caught him in a lie and everyone knew it. And whenever I caught him, a brawl was usually how we resolved the issue, what with the biting, the kicking, the hair pulling, the tripping and the handful or two of dirt in the face, not to mention the mandatory cries of pain and the howls of agony. Gary and Adolfo rushed in to pull us apart, and after I accidentally elbowed Gary in the ear, Adolfo was able to restrain me with a masterfully executed full Nelson. The old coot was a lot stronger than he looked. And Gary, after a great deal of scuffling, slapping and some hair pulling, was able to restrain Charles in a similar manner.

Struggling against our peace makers, Charles and I tried in vain to get in one more swipe at each other, but all we were able to exchange were dirty looks and some well placed verbal insults.

Gary, obviously more upset than anyone, pleaded, “Stop it! Stop it! Somebody’s going to get hurt! Ow! You two are acting like animals! This isn’t funny!”

Adolfo calmly agreed, “Fighting never solved anything, you dumb gringos. You two are old enough to know better.”

Before Charles or I could even begin to argue our points, the ground started to shudder. At first, it was only a minor tremor, but in seconds, the shuddering grew into a violent back and forth, up and down lurching, causing the five of us to stagger about like drunken sailors in a bouncy house. The quake continued to grow stronger, and the ground bucked and rolled like a ship caught in a storm. Substantial whitecaps started forming across the surface of the lake, and large slabs of rock up on the hillsides started breaking loose and sliding down. While up on the higher peaks, even larger rocks began to break away and tumble down, creating great clouds of billowing dust in their wake. And as the quake continued to build, we dropped to our hands and knees in an attempt to avoid being injured. The ground swelled up and down, again and again. The land under us began cracking and popping under the strain, and the entire Mono Basin started filling with dust. And in no time, the opposite side of the lake disappeared under an immense shroud that continued to push forward until it had covered the islands. The dust cloud rolled up and over us, and the world became almost as black as night. After about a minute that seemed more like an hour, the earthquake stopped abruptly, as if someone had flipped a switch, and with the exception of the distant thunder and the residual landslides, everything was quiet.

Barely able to see my hand in front of my face, I started coughing, and when everyone else join in, Adolfo instructed, “Hurry! Cover your mouths with your shirts!”

Doing as told, I pulled my shirt collar up over my nose and mouth, while out in the dark, I heard the sound of cloth ripping and Charles growling in frustration, and after another distinct tearing sound, he grumped loudly, “Dang it!”

I whispered, “What’s wrong?”

He whined, “My head’s too big. I tore my collar.”

I moved towards his voice. “Here . . .” I held out the green handkerchief Pock had given me and suggested, “. . . try this.”

He found me and took it, and his raspy voice came out of the gloom: “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Gary whimpered, “I can’t see anything. I don’t like this.”

Charles answered, “Gary, we’re demons. We love the dark.”

“Well, I don’t like this kind of dark. It’s creepy.”

I could hear Charles walking towards him, encouraging, “It’s okay. Nobody likes this kind of dark. But the dust will settle soon and it’ll be light again.”

Gary was silent a moment before he whispered, “Can I stand by you?”

And Charles replied, “Huh? Yeah, sure.”

I heard Gary’s big feet shuffle over the rocks until Charles yelped in pain and Gary asked, “Was that you?”

“Yeah, you could say that. You poked me in the eye.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

 

 

Chapter Ten: The Labyrinth

 

The world flashed white, and a blast of hot, compressed air slammed into us, knocking us all to the ground. At first, I thought it had been a lightning strike. On my back and partly conscious, I couldn’t move or hear anything except the ringing in my ears, and when I tried to call out, I couldn’t form any words. Rolling over to my side, I gasped when I spotted two enormous shadows floating down the hillside, heading straight at us. Even the dust in the air around them seemed to recoil at their presence. In the dark, all I could make out was a sickening, pale light that was seeping from their eye sockets and gaping mouths like a disease. The larger one locked eyes with me, and its gaze had the effect of draining both my strength and sanity. I tried to cry out but couldn’t make a sound, and to my dismay, I still could not move.

With a terrifying speed, both giants were on us. The first shadow scooped Adolfo’s unmoving body up into the sky and examined him for an instant before turning away and heading back up to the summit. The second, with eyes still burning into me, reached down, its enormous hand squeezing so tight I couldn’t breathe, and as I felt myself begin to rise up into the air, something dropped out of the sky and landed on my attacker’s wrist. It was the miskreant, and I knew right away, he was trying to protect us.

Glancing back at me for an instant, Sparkles began tearing into the giant’s arm with some kind of metallic lightning that pulsated and crackled from his fingertips. My captor let out a baleful shriek as its arm tore open and a gusher of black fluid sprayed out. Withering before its rage and desperately wanting to cover my ears, I could not move a muscle. The giant spun about, waving its arms wildly in an attempt to shake Sparkles off, and the world became nothing more than a blur as purple, jagged bolts of energy continued to radiate out of the miskreant and tear into the giant’s arm.

The giant reached across with its free hand and grabbed Sparkles, and when it was unable to tear the miskreant away, it let out another shriek as it charged back towards the summit. The bolts of energy streaming out of Sparkles intensified until the arm — and us with it — separated from the body and fell. And I could feel the wind rushing past as we gained speed, and even in my oxygen-deprived haze, I knew I was too high to survive, so all I could do was close my eyes and brace for impact.

But none came, and when I simply stopped falling, I opened my eyes to find I was back on the ground. The severed fist loosened its grip, and I was able to breathe again.

The shrieking obscenity clasped its oozing stub as it writhed and contorted itself into impossible shapes, and after a few seconds of watching it turn itself inside-out again and again, I had to look away. Gasping for air, I pressed my thumbs into my ears but could not block out the shrieks of agony and rage. The giant’s hatred passed through me like fire, and when I was sure I wouldn’t be able to endure another second, the world became quiet.

Prying the ghastly fingers open, I rolled away and retched at the smell of ooze flowing out of the severed hand.

No longer on all fours, but standing up on two, hind legs, Sparkles was right next to me, shivering and obviously weakened. He had saved my life. I instinctively reached out and touched his foot, and his energy flowed through me, causing my vision, equilibrium and sanity to slowly return.

The one-handed obscenity leaned down and took a good long look at both of us, and expecting it to attack a second time, I crawled behind Sparkles, but the giant turned away and disappeared back into the labyrinth in a blinding flash of light.

 

I rolled over on my back and didn’t move for a long time. When the dust had cleared enough for the lake to come back into view, I finally found my voice and called out weakly, “Charles? . . . Gary?”

They both called back, and I could hear that they were every bit as stunned as I was.

Sitting up, I looked around and asked, “Are you guys okay?”

Gary’s voice was shaking: “Th-they took a-a-a . . . man.” Sounding stunned and far away, he spoke again, “They took a-a-a human being.”

Staggering to my feet, I tried to regain my balance while checking myself for injuries, and with the exception of the fat lip that Charles had served up and some lingering nausea, I seemed to be fairly functional. I brushed the dirt off my arms and legs and explained, “His name’s Adolfo. He, um . . . he was here for the Gathering, like us.”

Charles got to his feet, gawked at the miskreant in wonder and whispered, “I can’t believe it; Sparkles saved you.” Charles approached the shadow demon, patted his shoulder and declared, “You saved my human.”

Ignoring Charles, Sparkles continued to focus on the entrance to the labyrinth until, moments later, the entrance flashed again and Guillermo stumbled out, coughing and gasping for breath. He hammered his fist against his chest and raised an index finger while trying to regain the ability to speak, but he continued coughing as he stumbled forward. His eyes were wild with fear when he finally got out the words, “They! They! They! . . .” But another spasm of coughing kept him from continuing. His suit was scorched and torn, his shoes were missing and he had a long scrape down his right arm. His right eye was swollen and bruised, and most of the hair on the right side of his head had been burned away. In between more coughing, Guillermo was able to say, “Th-the Fallen . . . they took Adolfo, and they-they’ve damaged the citadel.” He wheezed and sputtered, “They-they-they . . . took my human. We tried to stop them, but they laughed and kicked and tossed us about like fodder.” Through another fit of coughing, he asked no one in particular, “How could this happen?”

The entrance to the labyrinth flashed again, and there, standing at the summit, was a real-life, honest-to-goodness arch-demon. Easily twenty times more massive than Guillermo, he wore a robe comprised of thousands of glittering, stone slabs that clinked and flowed over each other as he walked. From top to bottom, the garment was covered in strange symbols that continually changed shape. His deep-set eyes, over-sized nose and ears were similar to Gary’s and Charles’, but what set him apart besides his size, was his massive jaw and the dark fire radiating from his gaze.

The ground shook with each step, and when he was towering over us, Charles, Gary and Guillermo dropped down before him and placed their outstretched hands and faces against the ground.

The arch-demon rumbled, “You have just had the pleasure of meeting the offspring of The Dragon, or the Fallen, if you will.” His voice was as ancient and rugged as the mountains, and I could feel each word resonating through my bones.

With furled eyebrows, the arch-demon leaned forward for a better look at me. “Spanner?” He asked in almost a whisper, “Why didn’t they take you?”

I stammered, “They-they tried.” Pointing at Sparkles, I explained, “Uh, he stopped them.”

Examining Sparkles with an even deeper scowl, the arch-demon asked, “A miskreant protected a human? Nonsense.”

“Yes, he-he-he did, j-just,um, now.” Gesturing at the severed hand melting into a puddle of black goo, I stuttered, “S-See? Sparkles, um, I mean this-this miskreant did that.”

The arch-demon rubbed his chin and muttered, “An infant miskreant attacked a Fallen? To protect a human? And survived?” Taking a long, careful look at Sparkles, he declared, “That’s not possible.” The arch-demon turned back to me, crouched down and spoke softly, “Well, spanner, I cannot tell you how pleased I am that you are safe.” Slapping himself in the chest, he declared, “I am Xototl.”

Dumbfounded, I gawked up at Xototl until Charles kicked me in the leg with the side of his foot.

“Hey.” I kicked him back before realizing he was trying to spur me into a response. “Oh!” Looking up, I introduced myself: “Um, I-I-I-I’m . . . G-Gordo.” I put my hand forward and waited.

Xototl looked at my tiny hand and chuckled before holding out his pointer finger. Grabbing it with both hands, I shook vigorously. Xototl chuckled again before stomping his foot and rumbling, “Demons, get up!”

Charles, Gary and Guillermo immediately jumped to their feet and stood at attention, all three of them looking utterly terrified.

Xototl took another long look at Sparkles, shook his head in disbelief and muttered, “A miskreant saved a human from the Fallen; now I have seen everything.” Without another word, the arch-demon turned away and lumbered back towards the summit, calling out, “Come along now.”

After a round of puzzled glances and shrugs, we followed Xototl up to the crevice where the arch-demon gestured for Charles, Gary and Guillermo to go through. The three demons promptly obeyed and vanished one by one. Sparkles, however, hesitated, and after glancing back at me, then forward, then back once more, he backed away and emitted a low growl.

Xototl approached the miskreant and gently nudged him forward, and when Sparkles wouldn’t budge, the arch-demon explained, “He doesn’t want to go below ground. Miskreants are not accustomed to being separated from their precious sky, not one bit.” Patting Sparkles on the shoulder, he said, “If we go first, he will follow. Now that he is bonded with you, he will not let you out of his sight.”

“He’s bonded with me?

Xototl nodded and rumbled, “He has.”

“But he let me out of his sight on the way here. He ran off without so much as a good-bye.”

“He may have been out of your sight, but you were not out of his.” Xototl held out a length of his robe and instructed, “Hold on tightly. No matter what, do not let go.”

As soon as I had done as instructed, I asked, “What happens if I let go?”

“You would fuse with the interior of the Earth and die a horrible death.”

“Ah.” I cleared my throat. “Um, okay, that’s good to know.” For clarity, I repeated his warning, “Let go of robe; die horrible death. Got it.”

Xototl rumbled, “Here we go, spanner.” He stepped into the labyrinth, and I stepped with him, and the reality I had always known peeled away, and a single point in space expanded outward and engulfed us.

 

The labyrinth was nothing like a dark, subterranean tunnel I had been expecting, and as we were carried forward by an invisible force, the entire planet below came into view. Most of Earth’s interior was, for lack of a better description, transparent, and although I knew we were moving through solid rock, it appeared as if we were flying through an immense, hollow sphere. And as panic took hold, I almost let go of Xototl’s robe and had to shout to be heard over the roar: “We have to turn back! Please! I can’t do this!”

Xototl called back, “Take long, deep breaths! We will be out in mere seconds! You are doing fine!”

Forcing myself to breathe slowly and deeply, I repeated the words in my mind,“Don’t let go and you’ll be okay. Just don’t let go and you’ll be okay.”

Rushing forward, I could make out most of Earth’s surface. Far beyond the mantle, out past the inner core and clear across to the opposite side, mountain ranges, oceans and even the lights of distant cities across Asia, Africa and Europe seemed as clear as if I were looking at them from orbit, only everything was in reverse. A hurricane was making landfall in Malaysia and a massive dust-storm was rolling across the interior of Australia. And for the first time in my life, I spotted a hint of the Aurora Borealis glowing dimly over northern Canada.

And branching off, heading away from us in every possible direction, were thousands and then millions of passageways, weaving their way all around the interior of the planet like a fantastically intricate ant colony. Far out in the distance, tunnels blended together until they appeared to be nothing more than an enormous, glowing mat of spider webs, their intricate patterns closely mirroring the human infrastructure up on the surface, while thousands more passages descended down towards the mantle until they merged into one mammoth tunnel that dropped away vertically and disappeared into the Earth’s opaque core.

Enveloped inside a swirling cloud and an electrical field consisting of thousands of bolts of lightning that were rapidly flashing and flickering in and out of existence, the core brought me a sudden and overwhelming sense of anxiety, but before I could hope to make sense of what I seeing, we were flung back up to the surface into the center of a vast, circular plaza surrounded by simply immense spires that towered high up into the evening sky.

Xotol ran forward a few steps before sliding to a stop. I, on the other hand, stumbled forward as I tried to remain standing, but momentum won out and I crashed into Charles, sending him careening forward. Fortunately, I was unharmed thanks to his abundance of flab. Charles, however, crashed headlong into the smooth, hard floor, producing a deep gong sound that reverberated back and forth across the cavernous space.

As soon as I rolled off him and climbed to my feet, Charles grumped, “Hey, why don’t you watch where you’re going, you clutz? That hurt.”

Not wanting to create a scene among strangers, I used my indoor voice and asked, “How was I supposed to know we would stop so suddenly? Here . . .” I reached out my hand to help him up, and he took it. I grunted and groaned as I strained to pull him up, but I wasn’t nearly strong enough, so he rolled over on his belly and shot me a dirty look while clumsily getting to his feet.

A few seconds later, Sparkles rocketed out of the Labyrinth and slammed into Charles, sending him rolling and sliding across the slick floor, not unlike a two-legged, two-armed hockey-puck. And he kept sliding a surprisingly long time before finally coming to a stop out on the other side of the plaza.

 

Out beyond the spires, across the lake and the mountains beyond, the dust had all but cleared, and the brightest stars had begun to appear overhead. And to my surprise, I could detect their movement across the sky. In a matter of seconds, twilight faded away into night. The storm over the Sierra was putting on a high-speed light show with lightning flashing rapid fire, reminding me of time-lapse footage often seen in nature documentaries. While off to the east, the moon was perceptively rising higher.

The hundreds of spires encircling us were whiter than sea-salt and taller than any skyscraper I had ever seen, and the glow of the moon reflecting off them made them seem to be generating their own, internal light. Turning three full circles in an attempt to make sense of what I was seeing, I whispered, “Wow,” and then, “Cool.” Gary shushed me, so I shushed him back before Charles shushed us both.

A sprawling crowd of astonished faces started to close in from every direction. Xototl cleared his throat and began vocalizing at an almost subsonic frequency to the fiends, wights, ghasts and possibly a hundred other species of demon which, to me, weren’t nearly as hideous as Charles had described. Their eyes were wide with curiosity and what I thought might be a hint of apprehension.

Xototl shouted, “Abolu ernas cruktum!” And when he waved them away, they all responded with something like, “Eechah!” before taking flight into the dark sky above. And as soon as the great cloud of demons had departed, Xototl gestured for us to follow. “We have to hurry,” he rumbled, “Please come. This Gathering cannot happen, but Xocotl wishes to meet you.”

Crossing the plaza, I could see out in the darkness, thousands of glowing eyes following our every step towards a spectacular archway at the base of one of the towers, and as strange whisperings began to rise up in our wake, I nudged Charles and whispered, “What are they saying?”

Charles happily explained, “Oh, them? They’re just expressing their shock and horror over your grotesque appearance.”

Gary elbowed Charles and corrected him: “No, they’re not. They’re talking about Sparkles. His presence frightens them because he’s descended from the Fallen. Technically, he’s a drakk-demon.”

As soon as we reached the archway, an arch-demon emerged from the tower who stood roughly twice as tall as Xototl. Engulfed in dark, purple flames that flickered and danced around the surface of his robe, he called out, “Tahk-chool!” His voice bounced around the plaza, sending thousands more frightened demons fleeing into the night sky.

Charles, Gary and Guillermo dropped to the floor, prostrate, but Sparkles casually strolled up in front of the arch-demon, sat down and started grooming, and the arch-demon carefully examined Sparkles before letting out a deep, rumbling laugh. “A miskreant has been liberated!” His last word sent a few thousand more wights, fiends and other assorted demons flying away into the night.

The arch-demon turned to me and asked, “But how? . . . How did this happen?”

The entire plaza became perfectly still as every spirit in attendance watched and waited for my reply.

Feigning ignorance, I stammered, “Um, well, I, uh, I’m not sure, r-really. I . . .”

Holding my gaze, the arch-demon nodded slowly. His mouth slowly formed into a smile, and he chuckled again before declaring, “It is a wise man who is slow to reveal his secrets, especially to those he regards as the enemy. But we will prove ourselves worthy of your trust. You can count on it.”

Not knowing what to say, I forced a weak smile.

The arch-demon knelt down before me, and after a quick inspection, he said, “Please, call me Xocotl . . . You must be curious why we’ve called you here.”

I nodded and muttered, “Um, y-yes, I-I-I am.”

Xocotl explained, “We need your assistance, or I should say, we need the assistance of all spanners. It’s time to . . .” His voice trailed off, and he rose to attention and listened intently to the silence.

Folding my arms tightly against my chest to hide my trembling hands, I asked, “Time? Time to-to what?”

Neither Xocotl nor Xototl heard me. They exchanged a look of alarm, and as the world started to shake, Xocotl tightened his hands into fists and bellowed, “Ixlit! Where are they now!”

A rickety, old gargoyle, even by gargoyle standards, crawled out of the shadows and cowered before Xocotl, gargling, “The Fallen have forced their way into The Lake Victoria Citadel! We have to help!”

Lifting his arms above his head, Xocotl began to chant, his voice steadily growing in volume until I could feel the words rumbling through the floor and into my bones. Xototl and the thousands of others who were creeping out of the shadows and into the starlight, joined in. Even Charles, Gary and Guillermo started to repeat something like, “Uus-tha bont ahmu-nol,” again and again.

High overhead, swarms of fiends, wights, snipes and a multitude of other spirits descended out of the night sky, gathering together in an enormous, swirling mass just above the plaza floor, and each time they changed direction in perfect unison like a great flock of starlings, they saturated the air with a sound similar to ocean waves crashing against the shore. I watched in both fear and awe as thousands more continued to join in. My heart pounding, I watched as the swarm whipped itself into a frenzy. The instant Xocotl and Xototl lowered their arms and stopped chanting, the swarm shot past us in a long, clamoring spiral of unbridled energy on its way towards the labyrinth. And like an enormous whirlpool, they spiraled down and disappeared into the entrance.

Looking down at me, Xocotl asked, “Human, we could use the miskreant. Would you care to release him?”

I shrugged and explained, “Yeah, but, uh, he-he’s not mine to, you know, command.”

Shaking his head, Xocotl assured, “He will obey you.”

“I don’t know. He hasn’t responded to any requests so far.” Turning to Sparkles and pointing at Xocotl, I instructed, “Sparkles, go with Xocotl. Good boy.”

Xototl shook his head. “You mustn’t be flippant. Speak from your heart.”

So I tried again in earnest: “Sparkles, go with Xocotl, please.”

And when Sparkles merely glanced at me before turning away and closing his eyes like a self-satisfied house cat, I gestured at the miskreant. “See? He doesn’t care what I want.”

Chuckling, Xocotl explained, “He has heard and will obey.” The arch-demon turned to Charles, Gary and Guillermo and ordered them to rise, and the three of them, with heads lowered, quickly and clumsily got to their feet.

Towering over them with arms folded, Xocotl rumbled, “Look at me, spanners.” And when the three of them obediently looked up, the arch-demon instructed, “You three will accompany the Gordo to figure out how the miskreant was freed.”

Raising my hand, I cleared my throat and stammered, “Uh, are-aren’t you f-forgetting something?”

Without missing a beat, Xocotl replied, “Am I forgetting that you won’t help us?”

Trying not to reveal my surprise at his accurate guess, I continued, “Um, well, yeah. I agreed to come to your little ho-down, but-but that’s it. I-I’m not helping you. I mean you’re demons, for crying out loud.”

With a flash of something like irritation in his eyes, Xocotl approached me and admitted, “Xototl, you win. He doesn’t want to help. I owe you five bucks.”

Resisting the urge to back away and trying to keep the quaver out of my voice, I declared, “Of course I won’t help. Would you help you? You know, if you were in my shoes?”

Taking another step closer, Xocotl asked, “And what about the Adolfo? Will you stand by and do nothing while the Fallen make off with your brother?”

I craned my head back to meet his gaze, and try as I might, I couldn’t keep the shaking out of my voice: “What do you mean, my-my-my brother?”

Taking another step forward and leaning over, Xocotl whispered, “Adolfo is your spirit-twin. His power is paired with yours, and you are going to need him. You must bring him back.”

His breath smelled like moldy bread and possibly peanut butter, but I didn’t budge an inch as I argued, “I-I-I must . . . do nothing of-of the sort.” Gesturing at my companions, I announced, “There’s your rescue squad. They’ll be happy to help . . . You’re welcome.”

Smiling, Xocotl shook his head. “These three can escort you through Limbo, right up to the entrance to Utopia, but they cannot go in.”

“Limbo? I-I-I’m certainly not going down into any Limbo.” Looking over to find my demon watching me intently, I asked, “Charles? Why didn’t you ever mention any of this?”

Obviously wanting to respond, Charles lowered his gaze and remained silent.

Xocotl explained, “Utopia is sanctified, so any demon fool enough to set foot there would be destroyed.”

Scowling at him, I argued, “Yeah, but-but not permanently. Only the body is destroyed, and-and-and they’re given a new one and brought back, r-right?”

“Wrong. Any demon — drakk, drone, arch or otherwise — who ventures into Utopia, is destroyed for good, even beyond the end of time. They are not reconstituted. They never return.”

Not knowing what to say or think, I vigorously wagged a finger at Xocotl for a short while. He was asking me to save my spirit-twin, whatever that was, but I had absolutely no desire to go traipsing down to the underworld, especially not with Charles as my guide. I was being asked to follow my demon, who had, on more than one occasion, completely lost his way at the grocery store. No, what I really wanted was to vacate the citadel and get home as soon as possible.

Seeing my loss for words, Xocotl continued, “You must find a way to free an adult miskreant, one powerful enough to clear a path through Limbo.” Looking off to infinity, he asked, “The man who brought you the green stone? We could not see him clearly. Is he the one?”

My anger overtaking my fear, I scowled up at the giant and spoke in almost a whisper, “You’re spying on us?”

Xocotl chuckled and asked, “Really? You’re just realizing that? I have news for you, mortal; we watch and record all of you, all of your words and deeds, from cradle to grave; that is what we do.”

I pointed an accusatory finger at Charles. “I thought that was his job, not the whole lot of you.”

Xocotl actually rolled his eyes before pointing at Charles. “He merely does our bidding; he’s nothing more than one, tiny cog in the vast machine.”

Appearing offended, Charles opened his mouth to object, but Gary rapped him hard in the chest. Then shaking his head ever so slightly, Gary successfully encouraged Charles to keep his big yap shut.

Xocotl startled me when he knelt down and met me face to face, and I winced not only from his overwhelming presence, but at being at such proximity to his big, hot breath.

The arch-demon spoke slowly and clearly: “Spanner, the Fallen will stop at nothing to find out how you freed this miskreant. You are in peril, and we can help, but we need your help in return.”

Sighing deeply, I confessed, “His name is Pock. He was the one who gave us the green stone, and I-I think I know where he is.”

With every ounce of my being, I wanted to tell Xocotl and Xototl and everyone else within earshot to please just go take a long walk down a short pier. I wanted to go home and forget everything, but the Fallen had taken Adolfo, and they had tried to take me. I had seen for myself the pure, perfect evil in their eyes. I had seen a real, living human, purported to be my spirit-twin, stolen away by something quite real and incredibly evil, and I knew with certainty that what I had witnessed had not been an illusion or a dream. It had happened.

Xocotl had all but convinced me that I would be instrumental in getting Adolfo back, and I was quickly coming to the realization that I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t try.

Xototl, who had remained silent, stepped forward and interjected, “If we are to help our Tanzanian friends, we had better hurry.” Gesturing for Xocotl and Sparkles to follow, he headed towards the labyrinth, declaring solemnly, “Time is precious. There is much more you will need to know, but it will have to wait. The sun is rising.”

Without so much as a farewell or thank you, both arch-demons, with Sparkles right at their heels, hurried away towards the labyrinth, causing the floor to vibrate under their footfalls.

Alarmed by their impending departure, I called out, “Um, what about me? How do I get out of here?”

Xototl stopped, turned back and instructed, “Hold on to a member of your escort, and you will pass through unscathed. Remember to hang on tightly until you’re back up on the surface.” He then vanished into the entrance.

Xocotl went next, and with a bright flash and a loud bang, he too was gone.

Sparkles at least had the decency to glance back as if to say good-bye before stepping through.

 

Suddenly dismayed, Gary grabbed my shirt with both hands and asked, “How could you let him go! Sparkles wasn’t just your friend! He-he was our friend!” With tears in his eyes and trembling lips, he blubbered, “Oh . . . Sparkles, how could you?”

I blinked at Gary in disbelief for several seconds while carefully choosing my words: “Shoot, Gary, you heard them; they need Sparkles’ help, and now we don’t have to worry about feeding him, right?”

Patting Gary on the shoulder, Charles teased, “How about we go catch another one as soon as we get out of here?”

Not amused in the slightest, Gary slapped Charles’ away and scolded, “That’s not funny! I don’t want another miskreant. I want Sparkles!” For good measure, he shoved Charles hard, sending him stumbling back several steps.

Charles put up both hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, I was kidding. I’ll bet you a dollar as soon as they return, Sparkles will come looking for us . . . Xocotl said he was bound to Gordo, right? So take a deep breath and buck up, huh?” Charles headed for the entrance, calling back, “But we need to get out of here right now!” And he popped out of sight.

Guillermo shrugged at me and lumbered back to the labyrinth where he vanished in a flash.

But still not consoled, Gary looked at me soulfully and whined, “I don’t want him to be gone! Oh, Sparkles!”

Repressing the urge to laugh, I asked, “Gary, how could you become so attached to that, that thing so quickly? I mean, really.”

He sniffed hard and muttered, “You don’t understand. You have friends, and you have Charles, but I don’t have anyone. Sparkles was my best friend.” With his lower lip still quivering, he shoved me pretty hard. “And how can you say that? He-he saved you.”

“Well, shoot, I know, but-but I’m really sorry. You know, Sparkles liked you too, and I bet he’s going to find us as soon as he can.”

Gary wiped his nose on his sleeve before looking up and asking, “You think so?”

“Yeah. We’re not getting rid of him that easily.” I gave him a friendly slap on the back and asked, “So are you ready to get out of here?”

“Yeah, okay.” Gary furtively looked all around, and when he saw no arch-demons in sight, his mood brightened as he cracked a mischievous grin and whispered, “Hey, you want to see something weird?”

Did I want to see something weird? Not really. I had seen enough weirdness in one day to last a lifetime, but to buoy Gary’s spirits, I decided to go along.

“Sure. What is it?”

“Okay, I need a strand of human hair.”

He approached and tried to pull a hair off my head, but blocking his attempt, I said, “Wait a sec. Let me do it.” I tried to just yank one, but pulled out about twenty. “Ow. Here. This better be really weird. I don’t want to be disappointed.”

Taking my hair, he thanked me before backing away. “Oh, you’ll like this. Now get back.”

I stepped back ten steps.

“Farther.”

Stepping back another thirty steps, I asked, “Far enough?”

“Yeah, that’s okay, I think . . .” He tossed my hair out into the air, and when it flashed brightly and vanished, he explained, “My uncle taught me this one at the citadel on Preble Island, but it should work here too. Are you watching?”

Half interested, I nodded politely. “Yeah, I saw. You made it go away. Truly amazing.”

Gary huffed impatiently and grumped, “That wasn’t it. Now, watch.”

As if on cue, the strands of my hair reappeared and began to float higher, and they kept on going until I lost sight of them.

“Hey, that was pretty nifty. How’d you do that?”

I started to approach, but he raised his hand for me to stop and told me to wait while he searched the early morning sky, and after impatiently waiting at least twenty seconds, I asked, “Gary, do you remember the time differential? We really need to get . . .”

Before I could finish, a shockingly deep, loud blast shattered the peace, sending a powerful jolt through my consciousness. The air inside the citadel began to shimmer and vibrate, and to my alarm, the entire central plaza started to shrink all around us.

Either Gary and I were getting bigger or the world was getting smaller because, in a matter of seconds, the two of us were over a hundred feet tall, and as panic began to take hold, I calmly asked, “Uh, Gary? That’s a great trick you got there, but can you make it stop now?”

But Gary didn’t seem to have the ability to make it stop because one second later we were over three-hundred feet high, and all Gary had to say in response was, “Oops.”

Oops? What do you mean oops, Gary? How do you turn it off?”

He muttered under his breath, “Uh, I probably should have just used a short segment of one strand like last time. Uh-oh.”

The rate at which we were growing accelerated, and a few seconds later, we were half the height of the towers, so I suggested, “Gary, seriously, I’m very impressed, but I don’t want to be big. Make it stop . . .” Then, remembering my manners, I added, “. . . please?”

Obviously as scared as I was, Gary only replied, “I don’t know how! Last time, we-we-we only tripled in size, and-and-and then it-it-it . . . wore off! And we shrank back down!”

“And you just did twenty hairs?”

Gary shook his head. “More like forty?” he guessed before forcing a weak laugh.

There was no time to get upset or place blame. I was the idiot who had given him a bunch of my hair without finding out what he had in mind. Well, the bright side was that if I died under the crushing mass of my new super-sized body or grew out into space and couldn’t breathe, I wouldn’t have to worry about figuring out what was wrong with the truck or dealing with Charles or paying taxes ever again; so at least there was that.

Several seconds later, we were taller than the highest spires in the citadel, and a few seconds after that, the entire structure only came up to our shins, so to keep from destroying the place, I carefully stepped over the spires and out into Mono Lake. Gary did the same, but in another few seconds, the entire lake had shrunk away beneath our feet, and two seconds after that, the entire Mono Basin was under my left foot.

Our heads were in the stratosphere, and not in a good way. Jetliner contrails were zipping past at waist height, and as we grew, we continued to bump into each other and had to keep backing away to make room. Gary was already in Nevada and Utah, while I had one foot in California and the other out in the Pacific Ocean. Because the air was becoming so thin, I had to shout to be heard: “Gary! I don’t like this! There has to be a way to make it stop!”

“I don’t know how! I think it has to wear off!”

“Well, if it doesn’t wear off soon, we’ve got a problem!”

He responded with, “Yeah! I think you’re right!”

So we grew and grew, and when we kept on growing, I braced myself for the agony of rising up out of the atmosphere and not being able to breathe. Although, I had to admit, the Earth was really quite beautiful from our vantage point and was sorry I couldn’t take a moment to enjoy the view.

Above us, the blue sky turned black, and as the blackness deepened and our bodies expanded up towards the emptiness of space, we both took in one last, deep breath.

The stars and the Milky Way became visible, and seconds later, the Earth disappeared beneath our feet, and we expanded up into deep space. I was happy to find I wasn’t dead, but to be certain, I slapped myself in the face, and it hurt, so I figured I wasn’t quite dead.

“Gary! There has to . . . !” I couldn’t hear my own voice. Of course, no air meant there could be no sound, but how was I breathing? Maybe I wasn’t. I couldn’t be sure, one way or the other.

Shrugging at me, Gary shook his head before cupping his hands around his mouth and shouting back, “What!”

I couldn’t hear him, so I shrugged before shoving him away when he bumped into me again.

Our rate of growth continued to accelerate, and the entire solar system shrank away until the sun was eclipsed by my shoe. Then the other stars began to shrink away by the hundreds, then thousands, and then by the tens of thousands. Soon millions and billions of stars were shrinking away until we found ourselves no longer confined within the Milky Way Galaxy. The wonderful, shimmering spiral that was once our home quickly shrank down until it was nothing more than a little, fuzzy splotch and then, just a little dot. Soon the dot had blended in with millions and billions of other galaxies, and it was around then that I realized we were pretty big. By the millions and then billions, the galaxies continued shrinking away until they had all merged into a single, bright, fuzzy ball of light. And the fuzzy ball continued to shrink down, smaller and smaller, and smaller, until it was just a tiny point.

“That’s it,” I thought, “We can’t get any bigger. We’ll have to start shrinking any second now.”

Since we were about to run out of universe, we would have to stop growing, but it turned out I was only partly correct. Three seconds later, we banged our heads into the edge hard enough to leave a mark, and when our feet pushed up against the opposite side, I thought, “Oh, this isn’t good at all.”

We still didn’t stop growing, and after filling the universe to capacity, Gary and I started to be squashed together like a couple of big sardines, which made the situation quite uncomfortable and fairly awkward for both of us. The fabric of space-time must have been a particularly high quality material because instead of tearing, it kept stretching as we continued to grow.

I was not enjoying myself, and I could tell by the look on Gary’s face that he wasn’t having much fun either. I found myself wishing that all this growing would just stop. I didn’t want to die and was pretty sure Gary didn’t want to die either, but death was starting to look like the most likely outcome, and just when I was sure I could take no more, we broke through the outer membrane like two big, ugly butterflies emerging from a cocoon.

Being outside the universe is a fairly strange experience to say the least. No longer in empty space, we were floating in what felt like absolutely nothing, so I couldn’t help but wonder why I could see, far off in the distance in all directions, billions of points of light. And right before we started to shrink, my last thought was, “So, what are those lights then?”

Gary’s uncle’s trick wore off with a vengeance, and we shrank back down at an impossible and slightly nauseating speed. We shrank back into the universe, and in no time, we were surrounded by galaxies that rushed up and surrounded us like some kind of anti-gravity snow flakes. Soon we were back in our own Milky Way and then back in our own solar system, and a moment later, our feet clumsily made contact with Earth, on the western side of North America. We shrank down into The Great Basin, and a half second later, we found ourselves standing on Mono Lake. And just at the right moment, we both took a step back into the middle of the citadel before shrinking down to our pre-really-bad-idea, original size.

 

We both stumbled and fell to the floor. I rolled over on my back to look up into a bright, morning sky. We had survived.

I took several deep breaths as reality congealed around me. Then, looking over, I asked, “Uh, hey, Gary?”

After a long silence, he answered, “Yeah?”

“Let’s never do that again, okay?”

There was another long pause before he casually replied, “Yeah, okay.”

As soon as we had regained our equilibrium, we made our way back to the labyrinth, and as untold thousands of terrified demons watched from the shadows, I had a strong sense that they were more than happy to see us leave. Grabbing Gary’s shirtsleeve tightly, I asked, “Did that really happen or was it all in our minds?”

Gary grabbed my shirtsleeve and replied, “No, it happened, but it happened here in the spirit realm, so the only evidence is in your mind.”

“So we weren’t physically growing through space? It was all just in spirit?”

Gary nodded, then shook his head. “Yeah, I mean no, it happened, but it didn’t happen.”

After nodding and muttering, “Ah,” I looked down at my feet and asked, “Then why are my feet wet? And why is there a knot on my forehead from hitting the edge of the universe?”

Gary inspected our wet feet, and after touching his own knot, he frowned and asked, “Well, isn’t that strange?”

Shooting him a quizzical look, I stepped forward with him, and we suddenly found ourselves shooting back under the lake. I couldn’t help but look down at the disturbingly unnatural core of the planet, and seeing it a second time filled me with an even greater dread but also an overwhelming curiosity. I had always been taught that the Earth’s core was nothing but a massive ball of molten iron, and not a huge, spinning ball of smoke and lightning, and if I had had the ability to do so, I would have happily purged the image from my mind.

 

 

Chapter Eleven: Trusty Tow Strap

 

Charles happened to be standing right in front of the entrance, waiting impatiently with crossed arms and a tapping foot, and since he was standing in our path, we couldn’t help but slam into him as we exited the labyrinth, sending the three of us stumbling and staggering to the ground in a chorus of grunts, growls and groans.

Of course, Guillermo seemed more complacent about our delay. Seated on a boulder nearby with a long blade of grass in his mouth, he was whistling Do You Know the Way to San Jose? by Dionne Warwick, and as soon as Gary was back on his feet, he opted to join in.

Charles grunted loudly as he stood up. Then after recrossing his arms, he waited silently for an explanation, so as soon as I had achieved a mostly vertical stance, I apologized: “Uh, sorry.” And when he showed no sign of accepting my gracious apology, I added, “ I know, you’ve been waiting a long time, right? — the time differential and all that?”

But “sorry” wasn’t going to cut it because he stayed there with his stupid arms folded and an annoyed expression plastered across his big, dumb face. To emphasize how utterly annoyed he actually was, he asked, “Do you know how long we’ve been waiting? Huh? Do you?”

I made an educated guess: “Um, fifty-three years, twelve days, and two minutes?”

Charles sneered before responding a little too sarcastically, “Ha . . . ha.” But his laughter didn’t seem sincere at all. With arms folded even more tightly, he asked, “Really, how long do you think we’ve been waiting?”

I looked to Gary and guessed again: “Well, we were about three minutes behind you, so thirty minutes?” I beamed proudly at my mathematical prowess.

Gary nodded and agreed, “Yeah, thirty minutes.”

Without letting up on his foot tapping, he corrected us. “We’ve been waiting for twenty-five hours.

I didn’t believe him and told him as much: “Nuh-uh.” And to express my doubt over his preposterous claim, I blinked at him several times before suggesting, “Shut up.”

Wagging an angry finger at me, Charles suggested, “No, you shut up. We’ve been waiting here since yesterday . . . and-and-and . . . now? It’s tomorrow! We wasted a whole day!” He opened up his arms for added effect. “It’s tomorrow!” He growled a little, which was actually more of a snarl with a grunty flare.

I exchanged a guilty look with Gary and muttered, “Oops. No wonder I’m so tired.”

A twinge of annoyance began to rise up inside me because I didn’t owe Charles an explanation. If it weren’t for him, I’d be home, so I bristled a little and asked defensively, “I said I’m sorry. What else do you want?”

His tapping ceased. “What were you doing anyway? What took so long?”

“Um, Gary was, uh . . .” I glanced at Gary who subtly shook his head, so I tried to cover: “. . . Uh, I just wanted to have a quick look around. You know, that citadel is impressive.” I searched the island to find the massive tufa towers were no longer visible.

Charles didn’t believe me one bit, but thankfully for everyone, he let it go and sighed, “Yeah, right. Well, we better get going. It’s not safe here.” Turning away, he raced down the hill towards Adolfo’s truck, calling back, “Shot gun!”

Gary protested immediately with, “Hey, no way!” Chasing after Charles, he pleaded, “You cheated! I didn’t know we were leaving! I wasn’t ready!”

Without slowing or even looking back, Charles called out, “Of course, we’re leaving! We have to go find that weird, old spanner, um, Pock, the one that gave us that green rock!”

For an instant, I actually felt a twinge of gratitude towards Charles. He had been waiting for us an entire day and hadn’t even pushed the issue to its ugly conclusion. He had actually let go of an injustice against him. I suppose there was a first time for everything.

I called out, “Uh, guys? It’s Adolfo’s truck. Doesn’t Guillermo decides the rules for shotgun?”

Guillermo shrugged at me as we headed down, but when we arrived at the Ford, he decreed that since Charles had called shotgun first, Gary could either sit in the middle or in back.

Bowing his head in defeat, Gary muttered, “I guess I’ll sit in back.”

Before climbing in, I patted Guillermo on the shoulder and told him that we would find Adolfo. But Guillermo only nodded politely and forced a weak smile before whispering, “Xototl and Xocotl should have foreseen this attack.” Resting his massive hand on my shoulder, he added, “I’m worried, Gordo, but I appreciate your kind words.”

After everyone had piled in, I found the keys under the seat where Adolfo had put them, started the truck and headed back down to the highway. Soon the gentle bouncing and the warm sun reminded me how exhausted I actually was. Even though my consciousness had been unaware of being thrust forward a whole day, my brain was demanding sleep, so I glanced over at Charles and asked nicely, “Hey, can you drive? I’m too tired.”

Already distracted with digging gunk from under his big, yellow toenails with a screwdriver he had found on the floorboard. Charles looked up and replied, “Huh? Well, I’m tired too. How about you get some coffee? I want to stop anyway. I’m starving.”

“Coffee will make it worse. I have to close my eyes . . . Come on, Charles, I know you can go for days without sleep. All it does is make you punchy.”

Charles sighed. “Yeah, but it’s still daylight. What if we get caught?”

“Just wake me up and we’ll switch spots.” Even I knew it was a lousy idea as I said it.

Charles scoffed and asked, “Yeah, right. Um, aren’t you forgetting something?”

“No. What?”

“Bertrand’s Chevy?”

I was surprised that Charles had remembered it before I did. Groaning loudly, I admitted, “Aw, dang it. I guess you’ll drive this, and I’ll have to drive the Chevy. Ugh.”

Charles scraped out a big, yellow-green mound of lumpy, gooey goodness from under his toenail and examined it a good while before popping it in his mouth like a piece of gum. And he even spoke while chewing on it: “Hey, why don’t we let Gary drive?” He guffawed over his own comment while loudly smacking on the abomination.

Incensed by the disgusting display, I punched him hard in the shoulder. “Would you stop that! Ugh!” Shuddering, I clenched both hands into fists in disgust. “You are so sick! I should kick you out and let you walk, you freak.”

Not knowing what I was carrying on about, he asked defensively, “What?” Then realizing his offense, he stopped smacking and apologized, but not sincerely.

Regaining my composure, I asked, “What? Why can’t Gary drive?”

Charles laughed again before looking over at me in disbelief. “You’re telling me you don’t remember when we let him drive the Buick up to McSwain?”

I then remembered the truck full of live chickens and the faulty guard-rail and grimaced. “Oh, yeah.” Shuddering at the memory, I admitted, “That was awful.”

Charles laughed again and added, “And you had to take the blame!”

I nodded and said, “Thanks to Gary, I have to get my eyes tested every time I renew my license. No, you’re right; Gary can’t drive.”

After excavating some more toenail goop, Charles hinted that I was forgetting something crucial by staring at me using his patient yet condescending look.

At first, I didn’t understand and said as much: “What?” Then it hit me like a slap in the face; Bertrand’s truck wouldn’t start. My head slumped forward and I groaned, “Aw! We don’t have time for this.” Grasping the steering wheel tightly and shaking it, I growled, and even though growling didn’t solve the problem, it felt good.

I muttered, “Okay, think-think-think.” I poked Charles in the shoulder and declared, “I’ve got it. We’ll abandon the Chevy and take this home instead.”

Loading his screwdriver with still more goop, Charles asked, “Um, isn’t that littering?”

I rolled my eyes. “No, it’s not littering, Charles. That truck’s a classic. Somebody will want it.”

Still thoroughly unimpressed with my idea, he suggested we tow it home, so I grimaced at his idea and asked, “Do you know what that would cost? A round trip for a tow truck would be about eight hours.”

Not looking up from his intricate task and without thinking it through, he surmised, “Two dollars?”

Blinking at him, I huffed, “Yeah, Charles, two dollars. Right.” I then had a flash of genius: “But we could tow it. There’s a tow strap in Bertrand’s truck.”

Looking up, Charles raised his eyebrows and asked, “Hey, you know what McGyver would do? He’d use wire and duct tape.”

So I had to ask, “Why on Earth would McGyver use duct tape and wire if he already had a perfectly good tow-strap?”

Charles rolled his eyes. “McGyver wouldn’t have a tow-strap. He’d have to improvise with whatever he could find.”

“Well, if it’s okay with you, we’ll use the tow-strap because we have a tow-strap.” I then asked, “Have you ever been towed before?”

Charles wasn’t paying attention as he gathered up his toenail treat and balled it up between his fingers in preparation for another feast. In disgust, I reached over and slapped his hand, sending his snack out the window. In dismay and outrage, he cried out, “Hey! I was going to eat that!”

“I know you were. It’s disgusting.”

Donning his best scowl face and sounding absolutely serious, Charles calmly ordered, “Stop . . . The . . . Truck.”

“For that . . . that glob of ick? No. Way.” Instead, I sped up.

He calmly said, “Gordo? Stop . . . the . . . truck.”

He was a little too calm, I thought, like a calm before a storm, but I could be calm too, and using my calm voice, I replied, “No, Charles, now stop being so gross.”

Growling menacingly, he grabbed the steering wheel and cranked it towards him, causing us to veer off the road and into the rocks, the truck bouncing and lurching violently. When we slammed hard into the culvert, the pickup went up on its two right wheels until we were precariously balanced. And what became immediately apparent was that we were either going to roll upside down or drop back down onto all four tires with a mighty bang. Either way, I was convinced that the next few seconds were going to be somewhat interesting. And in the three second interval where we were balanced perfectly, the truck didn’t move an inch, and with the exception of Gary’s frantic screaming coming from the back, all was fairly calm. Fortunately, when Gary lost his grip and tumbled out, we had the weight required to drop back down onto all four tires.

Slam! . . . squeek-squeek.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had punched Charles as hard as I could, and since his shoulder fat had the same properties as memory foam, my attack only left a temporary impression in his shoulder. He actually looked surprised, like he had just been sitting there minding his own business, and I was the guilty party who had almost rolled the truck. After the initial sock wore off, he barked, “Hey! That hurt!” Rubbing his shoulder to show me that it had, in fact, hurt, he jumped out of the cab and ran off looking for his missing snack.

Calling out, “Charles! Get back here!” I slumped down in the seat and rubbed my face in disbelief while Gary got to his feet and brushed the dirt and gravel off his face and tongue.

While Charles was out scouring the countryside for his yum-yum, I climbed out and inspected the tires to find not one had blown out during the landing, which I thought was nothing short of a miracle.

Charles came running back and announced the recovery of his happy-meal with a hardy, “Hey! I found it!” Holding it up to the sky victoriously so we could all bare witness to his success, he popped it in his mouth and chewed it into oblivion with the greatest of vigor and satisfaction.

Once we were all back aboard and rolling again, I cranked the wheel back and forth to see if there had been any noticeable damage to the steering or suspension, and to my relief and surprise, everything still felt tight. I glanced over at Charles and asked, “So where was I? Oh yeah, so I’ll tow you, and you’ll be the brakes for both of us.”

Picking his teeth, Charles asked, “Why can’t you just use your brakes?”

“Because I want to avoid braking as much as possible because you won’t have enough reaction time before you rear-end me, so I’m like the train locomotive and you’re the caboose, okay?”

“I’m the brakes for both of us? That doesn’t sound very safe at all.”

“Well, it’s not. You’re the one who has to keep us from going too fast, especially on the sharp curves and the steep down-hill stretches, understand?”

“But what if my brakes go out?”

“Huh? Don’t say that. In fact, don’t even think it. We have to stay positive.”

He actually had a good question, and I wished he had not brought up the possibility. I half suspected he only brought it up to make me nervous.

Charles asked again, ”Well, what if they do? Do I jump out?”

“What? No, you don’t jump out. If you lose your brakes, you just slam into me and I’ll slow us both down.”

“Got it; slam into you if the brakes go out. Very good. Piece of cake.” Thinking some more on the matter, Charles finally asked, “So is this legal?”

His barrage of questions was making me more nervous by the second, but compared to what we had just been through, I told myself that this was mere child’s play and that I needed to take deep breaths, stay positive and have faith. And after a moment’s hesitation, I reassured him with, “Sure, it’s legal.” I then flashed him a bright, disingenuous smile.

Scoffing, Charles replied, “Yeah, right.” With folded arms, he slid down into the seat and put his feet up on the dash, leaving two big, greasy footprints on the windshield. He then chuckled and muttered, “You’re a criminal.”

Without looking over, I mumbled under my breath, loud enough for him to hear: “Yeah, and you’re just the sweetest little angel.”

 

We arrived back in Lee Vining to find Sparkles grooming himself in the back of the Chevy like he had never been away. He didn’t even bother to look up as we piled out of the Ford and gathered round to greet him.

Overjoyed, Gary tried to leap up in the back of the truck, but he caught his foot on the tailgate and went face first into the truck-bed with a loud bang! He then rubbed his face and hoisted his pants before giving Sparkles the biggest of bear hugs. “Sparkles! You’re okay! I didn’t think we’d ever see you again, buddy.” Gary actually kissed Sparkles on top of the head, and fortunately for Gary, Sparkles didn’t seem to mind.

But Gary’s tone quickly changed and the scolding began: “Don’t you ever leave us again.” He wagged a finger for added effect, but Sparkles only glanced over and sniffed Gary’s face indifferently before going back to his meticulous grooming.

The truck had not been towed, but there was a warning notice under the windshield wiper. We spent some time arguing over which truck Sparkles should ride in. I thought he should ride with me because his heavy mass would be easier to pull in the front vehicle, but Charles thought that more weight in the truck being towed would give him more breaking ability, and when I tried to explain that all the extra weight would increase his downhill momentum, Charles would have none of it. And just as I finally gave in and agreed to leave Sparkles in the Chevy, the miskreant vaulted out and strode over to the Ford in his creepy, shadow-demon style. Leaping in back, he sat down with a loud thud and the distinct sound of bending steel.

I glanced over at Charles who shrugged and surmised, “So, it looks like he’s riding in the Ford then?”

Rubbing my chin, I had to concur: “Uh, yeah, I guess so.”

 

The tow strap was frayed, but it looked like it might have enough integrity for a trip through the mountains. Guillermo was kind enough to test it out by tossing it over a branch and lifting himself up off the ground, and to our relief, it didn’t break or even rip, so I backed up the Ford until it was directly in front of the Chevy. Then, carefully tying the two together, I secured the excess strap so it wouldn’t drag before standing on top of the taught line and bouncing up and down. When I noticed Sparkles watching, I thought maybe he was making sure I was doing it right, and since he didn’t say anything or show the slightest hint of concern, I figured he approved.

All the ice in the cooler was melted, so we picked up a fresh bag and some more drinks. Charles couldn’t find RC, but he found some Shasta to get him through the trip home. Guillermo only wanted water, saying he was still too keyed up for anything sweet, and I told him I felt the same way.

Gary asked Sparkles what he wanted, but Sparkles declined comment, so Gary bought him a water anyway which Sparkles politely refused.

While we sat around quenching our thirst, we agreed to wait until dark before starting out. The risk of being busted was too great during daylight hours, plus the traffic would be lighter at night. I then took advantage of the down time to grab a quick nap in the Ford. The truck was warm, but a light breeze was blowing, so after rolling the windows down, I was asleep in no time at all.

 

In my dream, Sparkles and I were trekking across an endless expanse of desert, the miskreant just ahead of me with his gaze fixed on an immense flock of what had to be millions of birds riding the thermals high above. While straight ahead, out on the horizon, a massive anvil cloud was billowing up into the sky, rolling and rumbling as it expanded up and out, darkening the land as it spread until it was directly overhead. And as soon as the sun had been blocked out and the sky went dark, the frenzied birds flew away, crying out some kind of warning.

Heeding the birds, I turned to follow them away from the clouds, back to the sunlight, but Sparkles continued forward.

Not knowing whether to follow the birds or the miskreant, I stopped, and after a brief indecision, I chose to follow Sparkles. We walked and walked, and the skies continued to darken until the ground beneath our feet bucked and cracked as hundreds of Fallen rose up and charged forward in a wall of boiling hatred.

 

Charles and Gary were still napping when I jerked awake. With a towel over his face and his feet out on the hood, my demon was slouched down in the Chevy, while Gary had found a good spot in the back of the Ford curled up next to Sparkles. Guillermo, however, was wide awake, sitting cross-legged on the pavement, masterfully playing Classical Gas on his guitar. So I went over and sat down on the tailgate to have a listen, and when he finished, I applauded quietly and said, “Very nice. Did you teach yourself?”

“A little. Mostly I learned by watching Adolfo’s father when he was teaching Adolfo.”

I nodded. “Your guitar looks like it was built by a master. I love all the inlay.”

Holding the guitar up and examining it, Guillermo explained, “Yes, Adolfo’s father made this as a gift for Adolfo when he turned fifteen. You should hear them play; they make me look like a novice.”

I chuckled. “Hey, you never know. Maybe I will someday.”

Guillermo glanced at me before looking at his feet and whispering, “I failed him. I should have been there to protect him.”

“What? Oh, pish-posh. How were you supposed to know he’d be taken? Not even the arch-demons saw it coming.”

Guillermo shook his head and argued, “I should have known. I saw how the cattle were reacting to Adolfo ever since we were summoned to the Gathering. They were trying to warn me, and I ignored them.” He grimaced and admitted, “I know Adolfo isn’t just any old spanner. He’s more than that, and so are you. When they come for you next time, we will be ready.” He was silent a moment before adding, “Gordo, when you said we’re going to find him? Well, I believe you’re right.” As he spoke, a look of determination appeared in his deep-set eyes that I couldn’t help but admire. His almost Neanderthal brow disguised an obvious high level of intelligence, and his calm, steady voice almost made me believe he spoke the truth, that perhaps we would somehow find Adolfo and bring him back.

A great belch followed by a long, drawn-out yawn emanated from the Chevy. Then on top of the hood, Charles’ toes wiggled and both feet slapped together three times before sliding off the hood and dropping into the cab, out of sight.

I got to my feet and muttered, “Well, it looks like our other driver is conscious. I suppose we should get this over with.”

With guitar in hand, Guillermo jumped to his feet and headed for the Chevy, and as he passed the open window, he reached in and messed up Charles’ hair before Charles could fend him off.

“Hey!” Charles grumped, “Quit!” He shot Guillermo a dirty look and muttered something about his hair-do before sitting up and buckling his seat belt.

After apologizing to Charles, Guillermo chuckled, climbed in back and sat down.

I reached into the back of the Ford and gently shook Gary’s shoulder, and when he didn’t respond, I squeezed his cheeks together and announced, “All right, Gary, wakey-wakey. Time to go.”

Gary sat up, looked around and rubbed his eyes. “Are we home?”

“We haven’t even started yet. Why don’t you ride up front with me?”

He yawned deeply before whining, “But I want to ride in back with Sparkles.”

“Sparkles is fine by himself. Why don’t you come and talk to me so I don’t nod off?”

Gary hugged Sparkles like it was their last good-bye before climbing into the cab and buckling up. He turned, looked back at the shadow demon and instructed, “Stay, Sparkles. Good boy.”

I climbed into the Ford and waited for Charles to give me a thumbs up. Then I waited some more and then a while longer until I finally muttered, “What on Earth is he doing?”

Without even looking back, Gary replied, “Betcha he forgot to push in the clutch.”

Sure enough, Charles was fighting with the stick shift, so I leaned out and yelled, “Push the clutch in first!”

After nodding and looking down for a moment, Charles looked up and gave me a thumbs up, so I gently pressed on the accelerator while slowly letting out the clutch, and the truck crept forward until all the slack had gone out of the strap. I gave it some more gas and let the clutch out a little more until the engine strained, faltered and died.

Leaning out the window, I called back, “Did you release the parking brake!”

Charles nodded before disappearing below the dash for an unnecessarily long time. He finally resurfaced and gave me another enthusiastic thumbs up.

I leaned out once more and yelled, “Are you sure it’s in neutral!”

Charles fought with the stick-shift some more before looking up and giving me another thumbs up, so I gave him one in return.

I started the Ford, and to my surprise, we both began to creep forward, and with the combined load of Sparkles and the Chevy in tow, it felt more like trying to pull a freight car. As soon as we reached the highway, Charles hit the brakes hard, causing both trucks to jerk to a halt, but I was able to kick in the clutch before the Ford could stall. Charles finally let off the brake, and when the traffic cleared, I pulled out onto the highway.

“We’re moving!” After Gary slapped my shoulder, chugged down a celebratory swig of Root Beer and belched out the word, “Terrific!” he grinned proudly.

 

Gary and Charles loved pronouncing words and phrases while emitting large quantities of carbon dioxide and other assorted mystery gases into the atmosphere, and with their encouragement, I would on occasion, try to imitate their talent but could never seem to master the art of belch-talking or, as Gary called it, bellocking. The goal was to say as many words as possible in a single belch, but I could barely get out two or three syllables at best. Gary held the record for many years with the belch phrase, “She sells seashells by the seashore,” but Charles beat him a few years back with, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” It was funny to hear him do it, but he cleared the room with the combined odors of soda, popcorn, cheesits and worms.

 

As we started to gain speed, I glanced over, slapped Gary on his shoulder and said, “Thanks for riding up front. I appreciate it.”

Gary belched out the words, “No problemo.” Then, in his normal voice, he asked, “Are we going back the same way?”

“Unless you can get us home via the labyrinth.”

Increasing our speed, I carefully shifted into second, causing both trucks to bounce against the tension in the strap. And after several more bounces, I was able to shift into third and make it down to the gas station in order to fill up the tank and check the oil, belts, hoses and tires. Practically every piece of plastic and rubber under the hood was dried and cracked, which didn’t give me a whole lot of confidence, but Adolfo had driven his truck from Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, so maybe it would last another six or seven hours. The nap had helped but I was still groggy, so to be on the safe side, I grabbed a small coffee. Gary didn’t like coffee very much, but since I was having one, he wanted one too. He filled his sixty-four ounce travel-mug with so much sugar, cream, mustard and ketchup that there was only enough room left for about two cups of actual coffee. The clerk gave me a suspicious look when I hefted the mug up on the counter, but she only charged me the soda fountain price. I think she might have felt a little uneasy about my overly untidy appearance and just wanted to see me on my way.

 

Heading west up the eastern slope of the Sierra and seeing no signs of billowing steam, smoke or flames rising up from under the hood, I began to feel a bit more optimistic that we might just make it all the way home. Patting the dashboard, I encouraged the truck with, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

Gary took a big gulp of coffee before joining in: “You think you can. You think you can. You think you can.” Then, to my dismay, he decided I needed to try his concoction and shoved his over-sized drinking container in front of me. “Try it. It’s really good.”

Pushing his mug away, I replied, “No way. That’s poison. You violated your coffee, Gary. There should be a law.”

No, there shouldn’t. Just try it.” He held it up again.

“Ugh, okay.” To shut him up, I took the tiniest sip from the straw and cringed. “Ah! Gah! That was every bit as horrid as I expected, and then some. What’s in there? Hot sauce?”

Gary sounded proud: “Yeah, it’s good, huh?”

“No, Gary, it’s not good.” I smacked my lips loudly in disgust. “I bet galswallow tastes better than this, this . . . coffee. Bleh, it’s too sweet!” I pushed it back at him.

Rolling his eyes, he explained, “It’s an acquired taste, and your taste buds aren’t sophisticated enough. Well, too bad for you.” He took another long slurp from his straw.

Glancing over, I replied sarcastically, “Yeah, I’ll have to work on that.”

 

As night closed in and we wound our way back up into the high country of the eastern Sierra Nevada, we came to discover that one of the headlights on the Ford was out, and having a broken light made us an even more attractive target for a ticket. As the highway became steeper and we lost more and more momentum, I had to shift down into third and press the gas peddle all the way to the floorboard. We were maxed out, but at least we were moving forward. I thought if Sparkles would just get out and push, we could double our speed, but Sparkles was too busy stargazing.

 

Arriving at Yosemite’s eastern gate, I remembered I didn’t have any money, so I whispered, “Ah shoot. Gary, do you have any cash?”

“I have a roll of pennies. Is that enough?”

“Not even. We need Charles’ senior pass. Could you . . . ?”

“Oh! Here.” Gary brightened as he reached into his front pocket. “I’ve got mine right here.” He pulled out his lifetime senior park pass and handed it over.

“Gary, you’re the man.” I gratefully accepted his pass, but suddenly it occurred to me that towing a vehicle might not be permitted through a national park, and better yet, from the perspective of the gate attendant, I was towing a vehicle with no driver.

“Uh-oh. We might have a problem,” I whispered as I tensed up. “Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.” Taking several, long, deep breaths, I tried to stay calm as we slowed down.

Charles applied the brakes too hard, and we lurched to a stop before reaching the tollbooth, but whoever was inside didn’t seem to notice. After Charles let off the brake, I inched us up to the stop sign and waited until the ranger came out and welcomed me to Yosemite. She said it would be twenty dollars, and when I presented Gary’s pass, she pointed out I was bringing in two vehicles.

I laughed nervously as a panic rose up inside, and my voice shook as I explained, “Oh, right, um, my wallet’s in the other truck. I-I-I’ll be right back.”

Before she could respond, I opened the door, climbed out and hurried back to the Chevy to find Charles with an index finger firmly ensconced in his nostril. He couldn’t be bothered to remove it while asking, “What? What’s wrong?”

Holding out my hand, I whispered, “Hey, I need your pass.” I wiggled my fingers at him.

As soon as he figured out what I was requesting, Charles dug into his pocket until he began to frown. “Hmm,” He muttered, “It was here before. I wonder . . .”

I sighed with exasperation. “We’ll just pay cash then. Give me twenty bucks.”

Charles looked at me expectantly. “Umm, what do you say?”

Resisting the urge to strangle him, I replied respectfully, “Give me twenty bucks, please.”

Charles nodded with satisfaction. “That’s better. Here.”

Wiping the twenty dollar bill and then my hands on my shirt, I whispered, “Ugh. Why is it so sticky?”

He remembered, “Oh, that’s where I left that popsicle . . . Oops.”

I thanked him and ran back to the gate to show the ranger, and after she gave me a quizzical look and handed me a map of the park, she expressed her sincerest hope that I would have a nice visit, so after thanking her, I desperately tried to get the stick-shift into first, grinding the gears in the process.

We were in.

And as we pulled away from the gate, I let out a deep sigh of relief and whispered, “Wow. I can’t believe she let us through.”

Gary surmised, “I bet it’s because it’s night. They probably aren’t as strict or something.”

“Yeah, maybe. Give me five.” I held my hand up and waited..

Gary examined my hand for any signs of a hidden practical joke, and seeing it was safe, he slapped it as hard as he could, hurting us both in the process.

Once we were back up to the dizzying speed of forty-eight miles per hour, I glanced back at Sparkles to find him looking up at the night sky like he was searching for something, his bright eyes lighting up the darkness like two searchlights. I couldn’t help but wonder what he could be looking for or what he might be thinking, and for that matter, why he was still with us. I couldn’t understand how, after being under a curse for countless thousands of years and now being free to go anywhere he wanted, he chose to tag along with the likes of us in the back of a beat up, old Ford towing a beat up, old Chevy through the mountains in the middle of the night.

I glanced over at Gary to find that, under the pale yellow and blue lights of the instrument panel reflecting off his features, he looked, if only for a moment, just like Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.

“Gare?” I asked, “Do you think the Fallen will come after us? You know, because of Sparkles?”

Pondering the question, he replied, “They took a big risk coming up to the surface like that, and they paid for it. The Fallen are vulnerable and clumsy up here, kind of like sea lions on dry land. It’s down in their own realm where they’re so dangerous, and Sparkles certainly gave them pause. I guess it depends on how desperate they are to get your secret.”

I corrected him, “Pock’s secret.”

Gary nodded. “Right, Pock’s secret.”

The cool night air swirling through the cab was invigorating, and the drone of the truck was strangely comforting as we continued ever higher towards Tioga Pass. We sat in silence for a long while until I finally looked over and admitted, “I don’t think I care for those Fallen very much. They’re mean.”

“Gary chuckled, “Shoot, you and me both.” He looked down at his hands and muttered, “They’re pure hatred, Gordo. Their sole purpose is to bring real suffering and destruction to your kind.”

“Isn’t there a way to, you know, . . . kill ‘em?”

“Well, not really. They can only be destroyed by their own doing.”

“You mean suicide?”

Gary nodded.

“Are you sure?”

Gary nodded again and whispered, “Don’t tell anyone I told you, but every life form ever created will live as long as it wants to. Spirits, animals, plants, people, microbes and everything else; their spirit can’t be destroyed at the hand of another.” He looked around nervously to make sure no one was listening.

I looked around too, but with the exception of Sparkles, who didn’t seem interested, it seemed the area was secure.

Seeing my look of skepticism, Gary added, “And any creature who chooses to remain alive will continue to grow forever and ever. We have no limit.”

I frowned at him. “But the Fallen don’t deserve to live forever. They’re evil.”

His eyebrows arched up and he asked, “Is it for us to say who should or shouldn’t be allowed to live? A lot of folks would say that Charles and I deserve to die, but you know we’re just doing our jobs.”

I harrumphed. “Well yeah, but you have to wonder if the Creator knew what he was getting into when he gave every living thing eternal life.”

Gary chuckled and mumbled, “Um, no comment.”

“Oh right, you’re not allowed to talk about a higher power.”

Gazing out into the dark, Gary repeated himself: “No comment.”

 

As we made our way through Tuolumne Meadows, the orange flickering of campfires out in the woods created dancing, phantasmic shadows that gave the pines the appearance of giant beings that were flailing and writhing about in agony, but around those campfires, I imagined the hundreds of families sitting out under the stars, talking and roasting marshmallows and poking the fire with a stick while they watched the embers break, pop and slowly burn down into ash. As Gary watched the night fires moving past, he asked, “Did you ever do any camping?”

“Me? Yeah, my parents used to take us when we were little. I used to . . . no, never mind. You’ll think it’s stupid.”

“What? No, tell me. I promise, I won’t laugh.”

Grimacing, I admitted, “Well, I loved to wander out into the dark and look back at the campfires and pretend I was a member of a prehistoric village who was returning back home from a long hunting trip.”

Gary looked at me and smiled. “You did?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I imagined the whole village would come out and welcome me home, and I would share my catch with everyone.”

“What was your catch? A squirrel?”

“No. Sometimes it was an elephant and sometimes a dinosaur.”

Gary chuckled, “An elephant? How did you carry it?”

“Oh, I was strong.”

Gary laughed. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Slowing down on a straightaway to let a car go by, I asked, “Gary? Do demons get lonely?”

He glanced over and guffawed. “Do we get lonely? Well, yeah, of course, and it’s all your fault.”

“My fault? What did I do?”

“Why do humans have to keep moving around all the time? Why aren’t they ever happy where they are?”

“Um, I . . .”

“We have to follow you wherever and whenever you go, and we have to start over too, and I don’t like it one bit. You humans are so restless, and it gets really old, you know?”

“Well, I . . .”

“Why don’t you try staying in one place for a change? You all move away because you think there’s some magical answer out there somewhere, that something better is waiting for you out over the horizon.”

“ I . . .”

“But you get there and find out that everything is the same — that you are still you.” He actually sounded a bit peeved as he continued: “And-and-and . . . we don’t get a say! No, we just follow along, leaving friends and family behind! Do you know how hard it is for demons to make new friends? Well, do you?”

“I never thought about it like that. It’s like you’re in the military; you go where you’re told.”

Gary snorted. “At least in the military, you get to retire. For us, it doesn’t end — human after human after human. You mortals grow up and grow old and you’re done, but we have to start over with a new assignment . . .” He shook his head and sighed. “. . . clear until the end of time.”

Realizing I had hit a nerve, I said, “Sorry. I should not have asked.”

“That’s okay. It felt good to vent. I like talking to you.” He punched me in the shoulder.

“I like talking to you too.” I punched him back a little too hard, but he didn’t seem to mind.

As I was building up speed, flashing red-blue lights came into view a good distance back, so I moaned, “Oh, no. This isn’t good, Gare . . . Oh, please go on by. Please go on by.”

“What? What’s wrong?” Gary asked, craning his head around to see what had caused my distress.

“It’s the cops.”

With his hands to his mouth, Gary gasped. “We have to outrun them! Go! Go!”

“Outrun them? Towing a truck and-and-and a-a . . . two thousand pound miskreant? I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

Thinking a moment, he suggested, “Let’s go off road! We can ditch them in the woods!”

“No, I think I’ll just pull over and hope for the best. Maybe they’ll go on by.”

As soon as the patrol car caught up, Charles hit the brakes, causing both trucks to lurch to a stop in the middle of the highway and the patrol car to skid right up behind the Chevy.

Whispering, “Charles! You idiot!” I pushed down on the gas, but the Ford’s engine only strained against the load. Looking in the mirror, I frantically pleaded, “Let off the stupid brake!”

Realizing the error of his ways, Charles took his foot off the brake at the same instant I gunned it, and the Chevy lurched forward as the Ford to jerked to a halt, and both trucks slammed together with a terrific report of metal against metal which echoed nicely off the nearby mountainsides. The initial collision knocked the Ford forward, causing the strap to go taught again, and both trucks were pulled together in a second, less violent collision. And since all was lost, I pulled as far as possible off the highway before cutting the engine.

An agonizingly long time passed before the driver’s door opened on the vehicle with the pretty red and blue lights. A boot hit the pavement, and a moment later, a second boot appeared that looked very similar to the first. I desperately tried to think of an excuse, but nothing came to mind. and since there was no logical way to explain what I was doing, my next thought was to climb over Gary, jump out and race out into the deep, dark security of the wilderness. Maybe the park ranger was close to retirement, or maybe he had a bad knee and wouldn’t give pursuit. I had no connection to either truck and could hide in the woods until morning and hitchhike home. The demons would just have to fend for themselves somehow. We were in crisis mode, after all, and it was every man for himself. But then it occurred to me I had left my wallet and my driver’s license in the Chevy, so when the ranger found it, he would know exactly who had run off into the woods. Completely out of ideas, I decided to remain calm and await my doom with as much dignity as I could muster.

Glancing back, I spotted Charles hanging halfway out the driver’s side window, almost upside down, holding my wallet in his hand. His belt loop must have caught on the door lock because his pants were being slowly pulled down over his hips as he slipped towards the pavement. A moment later, he slipped out of his pants, dropped to the pavement in his boxers, got to his feet and started sprinting forward. He reached me in the nick of time and handed over my wallet. I gave him a discreet thumbs-up, and he nodded appreciatively before staggering up to the front bumper to catch his breath. The park ranger approached on the passenger’s side. Pointing his mag light around the inside of the cab and then in my eyes, blinding me in the process, he spoke cheerfully, “Good evening.”

Shielding my eyes, I replied, “Good, um, evening, sir.” My quavering voice was that of a man who knew he was guilty and was about to be hauled off to jail.

The officer asked, “Sir? Could you tell me what you think you’re doing? Trying to tow an unmanned vehicle with a strap? I am impressed but would love to know how you’re keeping it on the highway.”

Oh, uh, yeah, right.” I spoke slowly and clearly, “I-I-I myself, am towing this truck to-to-to my house, right? Be-because it won’t start? I-I think it’s, it’s the alternator, but-but . . .” I sounded like a robot for some reason. My fingers were all tingly, and I thought I was having either an out-of-body experience or a panic attack. And while the ranger remained silent for an uncomfortably long time, I tried in vain to make out his face behind the blinding glare of his flashlight.

Finally, he spoke cheerfully, “I’m going to need to see your license, registration and proof of insurance.”

“Oh, uh, yeah, sure.” Leaning across Gary, I wrestled with the glove box, and when it wouldn’t open, I jerked harder, but still, the latch refused to budge. I checked the key ring in the hopes that there would be a key for the glove box, and alas, there was none. And when Gary started jerking at the latch, I discretely slapped his hand away.

Banging on the box a few more times, I explained, “Um, this, um, this isn’t m-my truck. It-it’s a, . . . it’s a friend’s? And I don’t know how to-to-to, uh, get in there.”

I knew I looked and sounded as guilty as sin.

The ranger pointed his light at my face, then at the glove-box, and then at my face again before requesting, “License, please.”

Leaning across Gary, making him grunt, I handed the ranger my license. He sounded terrifyingly official when he instructed, “Sir, please wait here. I’ll be back.” Before I could respond, he was clomping back towards his vehicle.

Breathing hard and drenched with sweat, I tried thinking happy thoughts. I thought about being home, sitting in the backyard with a nice cup of tea, listening to the birds. But it didn’t work, not in the slightest. What I needed were some better happy thoughts.

To Charles and Gary, I whispered, “Well, it looks like you guys are walking home. They’re going to take me in and impound both trucks.”

They both protested at the same time.

Gary simply delivered a plaintive, “What? No!” With arms folded, he slouched down in his seat in protest and declared for the record, “I hate walking.”

Charles, who had returned to my window, let his shoulders slump as he whined, “We don’t even know the wayyy.”

“Well then, you’ll have to follow the ranger to the station and wait until they release me.”

Exchanging a knowing look with Gary, Charles whispered, “Hey, let’s make a run for it!”

I glowered at him. “Are you insane? They’ll put me in jail. I’m not going to jail, Charles!” I shoved his big, gooey face and his hot, smelly breath away from my personage.

But he sprang back and whispered, “We just cut the strap! I’ll go get Guillermo, and we just take off! We disappear into the night, never to be seen again. It’s brilliant!”

I searched his eyes for any sign that he might be kidding, but he wasn’t kidding; he was just stupid. Shoving his face away a second time, I suggested, “Just stop talking, Charles. You’re obviously brain dead.”

For a fraction of a second, I actually considered his idea. But just as quickly, I came my senses and declared, “No, I did the crime, and now I get to do the time.” I slumped down into my seat in defeat as Guillermo moseyed up to see what we were talking about.

He asked, “Gordo? Do you think you’ll go to prison?”

I pointed my thumb at Charles. “I would if I listened to this knucklehead.” And as I squinted in disgust at Charles, he defiantly squinted back.

I then added, “I’ll probably lose my license though.”

Producing a pocket knife, Guillermo asked, “Why don’t we just cut the strap and make a break for it?”

Hearing this, Charles brightened and explained, “Hey, see? Great minds think alike.”

I slouched lower and muttered, “Guys, we’re not running. Just everybody please relax.”

Yeah, if only I could heed my own advice.

Several more minutes passed before the ranger returned. And in a more forceful, official tone than before, he asked, “Sir, would you please step out of the vehicle?”

I thought to myself, “Ah, poop,” but kept my mouth shut and climbed out.

The look on Charles’ face didn’t help the situation one bit. His expression was of someone watching me head for the gallows, and I so dearly wanted to slap it right off his face.

From the patrol car, the police radio filled the air with lots of indecipherable chatter, but I clearly heard “all units” in there, and before the ranger turned away, he pointed a stern finger at me. “You stay right here. Don’t go anywhere. You understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

The ranger hurried back to his car and climbed in, and a moment later, the patrol car spun around with a squeal of the tires before tearing away to the east. Even Sparkles seemed mildly surprised by the development.

Alone on the highway, Charles, Gary, Guillermo and I looked at each other in silence until Charles declared with outstretched arms, “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”

Both Gary and Guillermo agreed and nodded fervently. Guillermo raced back towards the Chevy, calling out, “Come on!”

I glanced up at Sparkles for an answer, but he didn’t seem to have an opinion on the matter.

Gary grabbed my hand and pushed the keys towards the ignition. “Wow! I thought you were a goner!”

Resisting him, I growled, “Stop it, Gary. You heard him. He said I have to wait.”

Looking up to the sky in disbelief, Charles exhaled deeply. “That was a suggestion, Gord! That fine officer was saying that if you’d like to lose your license and pay a big, fat fine, then you should sit here patiently, perhaps for hours, until he returns! Yeah, that’s an excellent idea! Let’s do that!” He slapped his forehead and bugged his eyes out at me, and as my fear began to turn into annoyance, I grumped back, “Hey, it’s me who’s in trouble if I get caught! You guys can say and do whatever you want, but you won’t take the heat!” Pointing at my chest, I declared, “I will!”

I then mockingly smacked myself in the forehead and bugged my eyes right back at Charles before climbing out of the truck and pacing back and forth on the empty highway. To the east and west, the road was deserted. There wasn’t a single set of headlights to be seen, and with the exception of the wind through the trees, not a sound could be heard. We were completely alone. Maybe for once, the boneheads were right. They were demons, but perhaps they had a point. Why should I have to sit here and wait to be punished? For crying out loud, we were being careful. Yes, I had to admit that towing a truck over the Sierra at night might be a pretty stupid thing to do, but it wasn’t gross negligence or public endangerment or anything like that. Charles might not be a registered driver in the great state of California, but he would certainly qualify if he could take the test. I knew for a fact that he was a competent driver and we weren’t doing anything wrong, dang it.

I growled, exhaled sharply and relented: “Okay! Let’s get out of here!”

Pumping his fist, Charles let out a triumphant, “Yes!” before sprinting back to the Chevy.

Gary hopped in the Ford, chuckled and suggested, “Now that we’re gangsters, we’re going to need gangster names. I’ll be Gruesome Gary. Charles will be known simply as The Lump, Guillermo is Guitar Man, Sparkles isn’t the criminal type, so he’s just Sparkles, and since you’re the ring-leader, you’re El Gordo.”

“El Gordo?” I shrugged and played along: “Yeah, I guess that’ll work.”

 

All through Yosemite, I kept waiting for the pretty red and blue lights to reappear in the rear view mirror, but when we reached the unattended west gate and headed out of the park, I felt almost giddy with relief. Overall, Charles did a decent job as brakeman, or brake-demon, with only two exceptions: The first time was when he failed to slow us down enough, and we careened onto the shoulder of a rather sharp curve. I had to hit the brakes and he crashed into me, and after we had both regained control, I looked back to see him slap himself in the forehead in the universal gesture for “wow, that was stupid.”

The second incident occurred as we were rolling into Mariposa when Charles dozed off and drifted off the pavement, and before I even knew what had happened, he had over corrected and fish-tailed back onto the highway, but thanks to Sparkles’ tremendous bulk, the Ford worked as an anchor, and Charles was able to keep the Chevy from flipping. Immediately after that, I looked back to see him chugging down a liter of soda and slapping himself repeatedly in the face.

The last excitement of the trip occurred on the outskirts of Merced when I was jolted to attention by a large shadow passing right over the hood of the truck and heading straight back up into the dark. Wondering if my subconscious had been playing tricks on me, I searched the sky, and seeing nothing but stars, I attributed the hallucination to psychological trauma induced by the events of the past few days or perhaps by my lack of sleep.

We arrived home just after three, and I didn’t even have the strength to disconnect the tow-strap or haul anything into the house. I didn’t care who slept where or who was hungry. As far as I was concerned, everything and anything could wait until morning. Sparkles could do whatever Sparkles wanted. I just didn’t care. And as I headed for the house, Charles called out from the Chevy, “Hey, should I try starting it?”

I called back, “Go ahead, but I guarantee it’s dead.”

Charles fired up the Chevy on the first try and revved it a couple of times before shutting off the engine and getting out, and when he started snickering, Gary joined in, and when even Guillermo thought my blunder was pretty funny, I knew right away I’d never hear the end of it.

Without turning back, I muttered, “Oh, shut up,” and shuffled through the door, leaving it open for the others. I headed down the hall and into my room where I collapsed on the bed. And the last thing I remember was Charles asking me where the extra blankets were. Without opening my eyes, I reached over to the end-table, found a big candle and hurled it at the sound of his voice, and hearing the satisfying thud of candle against something like a nose or a forehead, I smiled. My fatigue induced act of violence worked because the light went out and the door gently closed.

Chapter Twelve: Talking to Bees

 

In my dream, I was with Adolfo and another spanner out in the middle of a great expanse of barren nothing. The three of us were in a panicked state because the two of them were sinking into the ground and I had no way to pull them to safety. Grabbing each of them by the hand, I held on with all my strength, but the force pulling them under was too strong and they soon disappeared beneath the surface. I began to dig after them as thousands of miskreants closed in around me. I braced for an attack, but instead, they dove down into the ground, creating millions of ripples that radiated out across the hardpan. Turning around in circles and seeing no other options, I dove in after them.

 

I woke before dawn to find Sparkles sitting out in the backyard, looking up at the night sky. I went out to join him, and when he didn’t say anything, I mentioned, “I just had a dream about you. Well, about your kind anyway.”

Sparkles was completely silent. His eyes were like two searchlights sweeping randomly across the stars. Placing my hand on his back to find his skin warm to the touch, I whispered, “Thanks for saving me. I don’t know why you did, but I appreciate it.”

Sparkles ignored me and continued scanning the sky, and before I turned away, I added, “I’m going back to sleep. Please don’t upset the neighborhood dogs.”

In the reflection of the sliding glass door, I caught him watching me go back inside.

The rest of the night was uneventful, and I slept like a rock.

The next morning, I awoke to find everyone still asleep except Sparkles. He was still out back, staring straight into the blazing sunrise, so after I had a cup of tea in hand, I went out and pulled up a chair next to him, but the miskreant didn’t so much as glance over when I sat down.

I mumbled, “And good morning to you too.” I took a sip and asked, “Didn’t your momma ever tell you not to stare at the sun?”

Sparkles didn’t react to my attempt at conversation. At least he didn’t show it, so we sat together in silence, listening to the birds and the hum of the distant traffic until, a few minutes later, Charles shuffled out wearing his Bigfoot robe and Bigfoot slippers I had bought him for Christmas. Carefully holding his over-sized cup of coffee in one hand, he rubbed the top of Sparkles’ head with the other, and after he finished, he settled down into his industrial-strength lawn chair — the one I had custom made for him after he succeeded in breaking three others with his over-sized self. The three of us sat quietly for a full twenty seconds before Charles began to snicker.

Scowling at him, I asked, “What?” But then I remembered: “Oh, yeah.”

He didn’t give me grief about it, and for that I was grateful, but I knew he’d wait for some time to pass before really rubbing it in. Kicking his feet straight out in front of him and bouncing his toes together, Charles declared,“We did pretty good though. You’re not in jail, huh?”

I shook my head and grimaced at the unpleasant memory. “Yeah, I’m not in jail, but that was too close for comfort.” Glancing over, I added, “When we were coming into town last night, did you see that big bird?”

He squinted at me and asked, “What? Like an owl?”

“No, much bigger, like a pterodactyl or something.”

“You saw a pterodactyl?”

“Well no, but something really big flew right in front of the truck and straight up into the sky. I was hoping you’d seen it too, or maybe I was hallucinating.”

“No, I didn’t see anything but your taillights, the highway and a whole mess of stars until we got home. How big was it?”

“It was big-big, even bigger than Guillermo, and I didn’t see any wings, but it was just a flash and then gone.”

“No wings?” Charles bounced his toes together a few more times. “Brakken don’t have wings, but they also don’t come up to the surface, and even if they did, they’d never allow themselves to be seen.” Charles shuddered and added, “Ghastly beasts, they are — ugly as death.”

I finished my tea and declared, “Well whatever it was, I hope that was the last of it.” I stood up, stretched and poked Charles in the shoulder. “Guess what you get to start today?”

Charles looked up at me wide-eyed and blinked, his eyes darting back and forth nervously before he asked, “Start? You mean our trip to find Pock?”

“Nope, you get to start your week-long galswallow fast.” I gave him my most sincere vampire laugh: “Moo-ha-ha-ha!”

Leaning way back and rolling his eyes, Charles cried out to the sky, “Noo! Not yet! I’m not ready! You-you said when we got home, but we’re not really home. We’re just passing through.”

I shushed him with, “Bup-bup-bup. Now, we shook on it, remember? You start today. It’s time to man up.”

Putting his face in his hands, Charles groaned at his feet and pleaded, “I was going to make omelets for the guys. Can’t we wait until we get back?”

“No. You’re starting right now.” Messing up his already tousled hair, I added, “I’ll make breakfast for them, and I have an idea how to make galswallow taste better. Come on.”

In the kitchen I brought out the blender and the hot sauce and had Charles go out into the garage to fetch one of the ten gallon buckets of his finest galswallow, which apparently never goes bad — not ever. First we filled the blender half full with the black, mucusy sludge, and when I tried to speed up the pouring process with a wooden spoon, it caught fire as soon as it came into contact with the concentrated, negative human emotions. Examining what was left of the handle, I muttered under my breath, “Oops . . . Bleh.”

Charles nodded, “You’re darned right, bleh, and it doesn’t taste good either.” He brightened up as he asked, “Want some?”

I cleared my throat and blinked at him. “Uh, do you want me to die?”

Without saying a word or forming any kind of expression, Charles just blinked at me twice, so I spoke more adamantly: “Charles? Did you hear me? Do you want me to die?”

He was able to hold his poker face for maybe another second before covering his mouth and snickering, “No comment.”

“You’re in a weird mood this morning.” I punched him in the shoulder and scolded, “Be nice.”

“No, you be nice.”

Pointing my thumb at myself, I corrected him: “I’m always nice.”

Charles scoffed and countered with, “Yeah right, and I have lovely breath.”

After I’d finished pouring the galswallow into the blender, I added the entire bottle of hot sauce, put the lid on and hit the highest power setting. The blade turned slowly against the thick glop before gaining momentum, and in less than a minute, we had our new concoction.

“Wait. I’ve been saving this for a special occasion.” Charles reached into the back of the fridge and pulled out an old Tupperware that had probably been sitting in there since the previous century. Holding it up proudly, he removed the lid and whispered, “Check this out.”

Leaning in and giving the mystery container a sniff, I was immediately and utterly appalled by what I smelled. “Oh! Ah! . . . Charles, You can’t possibly . . . !”

“Oh, don’t be such a wimp. It’s just old clams, mayonnaise and some vacuum cleaner lint. It’ll balance everything out.”

Before I could stop him, he dumped the contents into the blender and stirred it in. He then got his favorite mug out of the cupboard while thinking aloud that I might actually be on to something.

I pointed at his mug and warned, “Uh, remember the last time you poured galswallow into a plastic mug?”

Charles looked at his mug and chuckled. “Oh yeah, it melted.” Switching to a glass glass, he poured the ooze, and it flowed like lumpy motor-oil. I cringed at the smell, which was fairly similar to the conglomeration of odors one might experience at a landfill, and thought that, like Gary’s coffee, maybe it was an acquired taste.

When Charles tasted it, his eyes grew wide and he admitted, “Hey, this is almost good!” He gulped it down and exhaled loudly, and after producing a tremendous belch to wrap things up, he suggested, “Hey, next time, we’ll use more hot-sauce, and maybe I’ll add some sour milk.”

I nodded, “Yeah, sour milk would give it a nice, creamy texture. And we could add some maggots to give it more pizazz.” I imagined Charles forgetting to secure the lid properly while powering up the blender filled with maggots and decided I had better be around to help when he tried it.

Charles lifted the blender, tilted it back and chugged down the contents before fetching another bottle of hot-sauce for a second batch.

Gary and Guillermo shuffled into the kitchen with eyes blinking and noses sniffing the air at the enticing aroma. They wanted to try it too, so Charles made six more loads of the horrid swill before they had had their fill. Charles and Gary repeatedly urged me to try it, but I politely refused, and to their dismay, opted for oatmeal instead.

 

After breakfast, we began preparations for our trip to San Juan Bautista. Pock had instructed us to seek him out when we were ready, and we figured we were about as ready as we’d ever be. With nothing to go on except the name of his town and Pock’s unusual first name, we decided that if Pock had the resources to know when we were passing through Yosemite and had been able to intercept us with such uncanny accuracy, then surely he would know when we arrived in San Juan Bautista.

Charles asked Guillermo if we could take the Ford, and the giant, guitar-wielding demon said without hesitation that that would be fine, but he didn’t have any gas money, so Charles slapped his pockets and proudly declared, “That’s my department.”

Racing in from the backyard in a panic, Gary wondered if anyone had seen Sparkles, but before any of us could reply, he hurried out the front door. A few seconds later, he returned to inform us that Sparkles was grooming himself in the back of the Ford, possibly in preparation for the next leg of our trip.

Being that it was just going to be a day trip, we only loaded the truck with five gallons of galswallow. If Charles was going to try dieting, then Gary wanted to try going without people food for one week too, and after all three demons had brushed their teeth with bleach — at my request — we locked the front door.

Due to their size, Sparkles and Guillermo had to ride in back, but neither seemed to mind. Gary wanted to ride in back with the miskreant, but there wasn’t enough room for him to get comfortable. And to Gary’s chagrin and overzealous protest, Charles called shotgun a split-second sooner, but rules were rules, and Charles got the window seat first.

The gas gauge was reading below empty, so our first stop was the gas station on the way out of town. Charles caught himself short when he started to ask me if I would pick up some drinks and chips, so it was necessary for Gary and me to point at him and poke fun at his short-term memory loss, and Charles wasn’t at all amused when I performed a checklist to make sure he wasn’t having a stroke, but Gary and Guillermo laughed, so I was happy.

In late June, any temperature below a hundred degrees was more than welcome. We passed a digital temperature gauge on the way out of town that was reading 102, and it was only ten in the morning. But I had plenty of water, the demons had plenty of their horrible gunk and Sparkles had whatever it was Sparkles had. The miskreant didn’t seem to mind being out in the sun in the slightest. In fact, he continued glancing up every now and then. I explained to Charles and Gary that we should never challenge Sparkles to a sun-stare contest because he would probably win, and while we were trying to figure out why the miskreant kept looking at the sun, Gary theorized that Sparkles might be solar powered; perhaps looking at the sun was how he got his strength.

I kept hitting Gary in the leg when I had to shift, and when we were out on the open highway and gaining speed, I couldn’t get the stick into fourth because his big, knobby knee was in the way. I gently pushed him towards Charles and asked, “Hey, could you scoot that way a half inch? I need to shift.”

Wiggling but unable to scoot, Gary declared, “I can’t. Charles’ big butt is taking up the whole seat.”

Charles was quick to defend himself: “I can’t move. There’s no room.” He made a motion like he was trying to scoot over, but he didn’t move a millimeter.

Gary pushed against his shoulder and accused, “Yes, you can. I can see space between you and the door.”

“I need that space. I’ll get too hot if I’m touching the door. Ow. Gary, quit.”

So I intervened: “Charles can’t you just scoot one inch so I can shift, please? After I’ve got it in fourth, you can move back this way and recover your precious air flow.”

Charles glowered at Gary before scrunching himself up against the door, and when Gary slid over next to him, I was finally able to shift. Unfortunately, Charles was not familiar with the Ford and had not latched the door properly, so when Gary smooshed up against him, the door swung open, and Charles let out a high pitched scream as he tumbled out. He was able to reach up and grab the door handle just in time, but his forward momentum pushed the door all the way open. Gary grabbed one of his feet, but the other one slid out and started bouncing against the highway speeding past below.

Charles screamed again, and just in case we hadn’t noticed, he screamed some more and shouted, “Pull me in! Pull me in!”

Gary pulled on Charles’ foot with all his might, but Charles’ belly was already outside and suspended in the air above the blur of highway. Charles then put forth the idea that I might want to, “Stop the truck! Stop the truck!” And just in case I hadn’t noticed what was happening, he squealed again at a higher frequency: “Stop the truck!”

I let off the gas, but there was no place to pull off, and since there were several cars right behind me, I didn’t dare hit the brakes. I searched in vain for the emergency flasher switch and a place to pull off when Charles’ flip-flop broke off in Gary’s hand, sending Charles’ second foot flopping out of the cab. And for an instant, he ran alongside the truck while clinging to the door handle for dear life. I would say he took about eight mighty steps before disappearing behind us, and I was able to catch a glimpse of him, rolling and bouncing along the highway for a moment, not unlike the world’s ugliest tumbleweed. I was glad to see that he had the sense to tuck himself into a ball to minimize damage, and the ugly tumbleweed, formerly known as Charles, continued spinning, bouncing, squealing and grunting as it veered away from the highway, down the embankment and back up the other side of the culvert where it launched into the air for a good while before disappearing over a large cluster of nasty thistles, brambles and stickers. A few seconds later, I spotted a pull-out and slowed down before carefully maneuvering off the highway, and when we had reached a full stop, I killed the engine and looked at Gary who was holding up Charles’ broken flip-flop, so we both grimaced.

 

We had an exceedingly difficult time finding Charles because he had proven surprisingly aerodynamic and had flown much farther than we had estimated. It also didn’t help that the weeds were dense and the ground was uneven and difficult to navigate. Fortunately, Guillermo produced a machete from under the seat which helped our progress tremendously. He hacked, slashed and chopped at the dry weeds and dead branches, and after making a few wrong turns, dead-ends and corrections to our course, we finally found the demon in question.

Apparently, Charles had slammed into a massive, dead oak tree, and a broken branch had impaled him right through the center of his torso. He was wriggling valiantly in an attempt to slide off the offending branch but didn’t appear to be making any progress.

Arriving at the tree, with his hands firmly on his hips, Gary looked up and queried, “How did you get so dang high?”

Wriggling both feet in annoyance, Charles called down, “How am I supposed to know? I just did.” Grunting loudly, he strained to pull himself forward over the branch before bleating, “Ow! Would you guys please help!”

After analyzing the situation a minute, we realized we had a problem. Charles was pinned to the tree and at least thirty feet off the ground. With folded arms, I tilted my head and observed, “It looks like we’re going to need a saw.” Scratching my head, I asked, “Guillermo, do we have a saw?”

Guillermo shook his head. “No saw. Just this . . .” Raising the over-sized machete for my inspection, he offered, “I could probably chop through that branch in a few blows.”

Examining Charles’ situation a second time, I admitted, “I don’t know. There’s not much room between him and the trunk, and you might hit him with the blade.”

Guillermo grunted in agreement before he continued to clear the rest of the tall weeds away from the tree.

Gary raised his hand, so I pointed at him and asked, “Gary?”

Clearing his throat, he suggested, “What if I climbed up there and kicked that branch? It might be brittle enough to break loose.”

I shook my head. “Same problem. You’d probably kick him in the head and make him smarter.”

A voice came down from above that sounded like Charles, and it said, “Yes! Try that! I want down!”

I shrugged at Gary. “You think you can get up there?”

“No problemo.” He did a perfect nasal impression of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man: “I’m a very good climber — yeah, very good climber.” He then carefully pushed his way through the stickers and up to the trunk where he began searching for the best route up.

Guillermo, Charles and I watched in silence while Gary made one decision after the next as to where to put his hands and feet. And as he slowly and carefully made his way up to Charles, he almost fell when a large chunk of dead bark broke loose under his grasp, but being the agile demon that he was, he quickly and successfully lunged at a higher branch to save himself.

Squinting up at Charles, I asked, “Hey, how’s it going up there?”

Charles grumped back down, “Oh, never better. This is the kind of thing I dream about doing all the time.” He exhaled heavily with annoyance.

I could tell he wasn’t being sincere, but instead of scolding him, I tried to keep his spirits up: “That’s good to hear, buddy. How’s the view?”

He leered down at me. “The view? Oh, the view is nothing less than spectacular. I can see the weeds and the highway. And hey, isn’t that the truck? Wow, what a view! You know, come to think of it, I don’t even want to come down because I’m having so much fun!” He broke off a small stick and hurled it at me.

After dodging the projectile, I replied, “Well good, I’m glad your making the best of a difficult situation. Hang in there. You’re doing great.”

He glared down at me a good, long time before barking at Gary, “Can’t you go any faster? My spleen itches.”

Gary was breathing heavily now and could barely talk: “I’m going (gasp) as fast, as I (gasp) as I can, Charles!” He strained and pulled himself up to the next branch. “Ow!” He put his finger in his mouth and whimpered.

I called up, “Charles? Can’t you you just slide off that branch and drop down? Just put your hands and feet behind you and push against the trunk.”

Charles actually considered my idea, and a moment later, he bent his knees and put his feet flat against the trunk behind him. He then reached back with his hands and pushed, grunting and straining and sliding a good four inches before crying out, “Owwie! It hurts!”

I cheered him on: “Hey, it’s working. Do that some more!”

Charles growled back, “Hang! On! It’s harder to reach now. Ungk!” He pushed again but only moved an inch. Exasperated, he whined loudly, “I can’t move any more!”

Gary reached for the branch next to Charles and pulled himself up, and after maneuvering into a sitting position, he pivoted. Then, while holding the trunk, he kicked at the offending branch, but instead, gave Charles a solid kick to the ribs.

“Ow! Careful! That hurt!”

“Sorry.” Gary tried again, but again, he kicked Charles in the ribs. “Ah! Oops.”

Charles tried to slap Gary but couldn’t reach him. Instead he yowled, “Cut it out!”

Gary pulled himself up until he was standing on the branch that had impaled Charles and suggested, “You might want to hang on.”

So Charles inquired, “Hang on to what?”

Gary jumped up and came down on the branch, causing the whole trunk to shake violently and Charles to bark, “Ow! My liver!”

“If I can just . . . !” Gary jumped up and down again, and the branch cracked loudly on the second try. “Almost there!” He bounced up and down repeatedly, and the branch cracked again.

Desperately dangling from the failing support branch, Charles pleaded, “Wait! Wait! I need something to land on!”

I offered up what I thought was some good advice: “When you land, make sure to tuck your legs and roll. You know, to absorb the impact.”

Ignoring me, Charles called down, “Guillermo, could you catch me?”

Pondering the request, Guillermo opted to decline: “You’re too heavy. Just roll when you hit, and you’ll be fine.”

Charles whined, “Please? I’m going to break my leg.”

Guillermo shot me a worried look and sighed before calling back, “Okay, I’ll try.” He positioned himself under Charles, putting his hands up like he was getting ready to catch an incredibly fat football.

Gary landed on the branch one last time and it broke free, and as Charles dropped away, Gary tried to grab hold of the trunk. But the bark broke lose under his grip, so he found himself in free fall directly above Charles. And they both landed on top of Guillermo in a chorus of grunts, squawks and groans before tumbling to the ground and coming to rest in a heap of assorted, motionless demons.

Applauding their heroic effort, I called out, “Good job! You saved him! Now we don’t have to leave him here.” I grinned brightly at my hilarity, but nobody else made a sound. In fact, they weren’t even moving. Mildly concerned, I approached the heap of dead demons and prodded each of them with a stick and suggested, “Hey, quit faking. Get up.”

And it worked because the three of them untied themselves from each other and struggled to their feet before brushing themselves off.

Charles tugged at the branch sticking out of his chest, and when it wouldn’t budge, he grabbed it with both hands and tugged again. “Ow. It’s stuck. What do I do?” He tugged a third time. “Ow.”

Examining the branch carefully, I instructed, “Don’t worry. We’ll have it out in a jiffy. Lie down on your back.”

Charles looked at me and then the others, and with no other options on the table, he complied. Once flat on his back, he asked for us to please be careful. Gary confidently stepped forward, and while holding the branch firmly in both hands, he reassured Charles, “Don’t you worry. This’ll be as easy as falling off a log. Come on, guys.”

So with Gary’s foot firmly pressed against Charles’ shoulder, I grabbed the branch with both hands and put my foot down on Charles’ throat so he wouldn’t lift up when we pulled. Guillermo put his foot on Charles’ lower ribcage and got a solid, two-handed grip on the branch.

I advised, “Okay, Charles, if you relax, it’ll pop out more easily. Alright, guys, on the count of three, we pull straight up as hard as we can. Ready?”

They both nodded, so I started a countdown. “One? Two? . . . Three!”

We pulled as hard as we could, but the branch didn’t budge. Clenching my teeth, I strained even harder while holding Charles in place. At first, the patient performed like a trooper. He only growled loudly with his mouth closed, but when he could take no more, he cried out in agony, “Stop! Stop! It’s not working! Ow! I said stop!”

We stopped pulling and inspected Charles for damage, and except for his red-face and his wheezing and groaning, he was fine. Rubbing my chin, I pondered the patient for a moment before theorizing that there might be a knot on the branch that was caught up on his spine. Or maybe it had lodged in between a couple of ribs. I reached for the branch again, informing Charles, “We’re going to have to stand on top of you. Hold still.”

Charles quickly sat up, pushed me away and growled, “Ow. Stop. No more.” As soon as he had caught his breath, he added, “I’m fine. Now please help me up.”

Gary grabbed him by his left hand while Guillermo grabbed his right, and after lifting Charles to his feet, we gathered around to inspect the branch protruding out of his chest. Guillermo offered to knock it loose with a sledge-hammer, and Gary and I thought that was a great idea. Charles, however, did not. He claimed it would loosen up in a few days and fall out all by itself, so if we didn’t mind, could we all just stop hovering. Gary warned Charles that the branch would slowly fuse to his innards and that Charles’ body would grow around it like a tree grows around a piece of barbed wire or an old bicycle and that he would have to put up with it until the wood itself decayed, which could take centuries.

As soon as Charles harrumphed at Gary’s admonition and said he didn’t care how long it took, a gentle hum began to fill the air. It continued to get louder until the sound seemed to be coming from every direction. We looked up at a darkening sky to find millions of bees were swirling down all around us. I wasn’t afraid of honey bees but found the sudden appearance of such a vast swarm somewhat alarming and thought for a moment about running for the safety of the truck.

Seeing the fear in my eyes, Guillermo whispered, “Don’t worry. They must have a message. Just remain calm and you’ll be fine.”

As if acting as one, the swarm enveloped us, and since they didn’t appear agitated, I decided the best course of action was to do as Guillermo instructed.

They landed everywhere. They started to cover me, and soon there were so many that I had to strain to remain standing under their collective weight. Seeing that I was calm, Charles, Gary and Guillermo began humming together in an ascending frequency until they were in harmony with our fuzzy, little visitors.

Being covered in live bees is pretty much indescribable. It tickled a little bit, and I had to resist the urge to brush them off of my face. The humming grew louder as they continued to land, and I had to close my mouth and eyes. In no time, my face was completely covered. They became so heavy that in order to remain upright, I had to shift my weight, causing hundreds of them to become animated by my movement, and when nobody stung me, I was exceedingly grateful. One bee decided to take a peek in my ear, and his little wings were so loud that I had to use all my willpower not to wave my hands in the air and do a complete freak-out-spaz-and-dash for the truck. Fortunately, the little explorer quickly grew disinterested with my ear canal.

As soon as he had vacated my head, an overwhelming desire to start laughing rose up inside. My eyes started watering as the ridiculousness of the situation hit me like an over-sized water balloon, and I kept telling myself repeatedly that I must not, no matter what, start laughing. For a few seconds, I was able to remain calm until, no longer able to fight off the inevitable, I snapped, and the tears and a fountain of laughter flowed freely. I laughed as hard as I ever had, and even though I knew I was a goner, I could not stop.

The bees turned out to be surprisingly good sports though. Instead of stinging me, they rose harmlessly into the air, giving me the chance to open my eyes to a very dark, bee-filled world. The loud, steady hum was all around us, and the bees had covered everything in sight. They blanketed the ground and the trees, and Charles, Gary and Guillermo appeared to be nothing more than three, large mounds of bee related activity.

Once my momentary insanity had abated and I began to quiet down, the bees immediately started covering me again, and with all the nonsense out of the way, I was able to remain still and listen to the rich, multi-timbred hum. At first, I could discern a faint oscillation. Then, as I listened more carefully, I detected something that sounded like whispering. Not sure if I was imagining the whispers, I focused in until I could hear a distinct but foreign language woven into the sound which was hypnotically musical in nature. Unable to understand what they might be saying, I could at least tell that the bees were, in fact, communicating with the guys.

I gently nudged a few of the insects away from my eyes and looked up to find the sky was shimmering and pulsing with what had to be billions of bees, and in that moment, I was glad to be alive. I hadn’t felt such a sense of peace in a long time. I was covered in bees and somewhat surprised at the realization that I was actually happy. I could have listened all day, but to my great disappointment, they began rising up and flying away in every direction. And in less than a minute, the entire cloud of life had flown away, and there was nothing above but blue sky.

The three demons opened their eyes and looked at each other and at me but said nothing, so I asked, “Well? What did they say?”

Gary asked Charles,“You want to tell him?”

Shaking his head, Charles answered, “Not really.” He looked to Guillermo and suggested, “You tell him.”

Guillermo looked around nervously, cleared his throat and whispered, “Gordo, we’re being followed.”

Nervously searching the area, I asked, “By what? Another miskreant? Sorry, no more stowaways. This tour is full.” I glanced at Sparkles to make sure I hadn’t offended him, and fortunately for me, it seemed I had not.

“No, by brakken.” Guillermo explained, “The bees spotted three of them near your house this morning, so they sent out the alarm up and down the valley, but by the time they had amassed a swarm large enough to attack, the brakken had fled west.”

I frowned and asked, “Can’t they go after them?”

“We asked the same thing, but they said they can’t abandon The Bloom.”

“Hmm, so that so-called bird that swooped over the truck last night could have been one of those-those . . .”

“Brakken.”

I nodded. “Right, brakken. So, what are they? Are they dangerous?”

Guillermo nodded. “They’re every bit as mean and hate-filled as the Fallen, but it’s possible they’re only tracking us. Word has certainly spread about what happened at Mono Lake, and the brakken will know what Sparkles is capable of.” Guillermo looked away as if he was considering whether to say more, so I spurred him to continue, and he met my eye and added, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the bees are convinced that the Fallen are preparing for a seismic attack, but they don’t know where.”

“You’re kidding. How can a bunch of bees possibly know what drakk-demons are planning deep down inside the Earth?”

After gingerly pulling a lost bee out of his nostril and setting it free, Guillermo explained, “The bees are detecting a surge of dark energy rising up along fault-lines to the west, and the Fallen are the only ones capable of causing that.”

The hair stood up on my arms. I scowled and asked, “Dark energy? The Fallen cause earthquakes?”

Guillermo nodded. “They do, and when they detect a fault is ready for a slip, especially near a large population, they can release enormous amounts of dark energy into the area to increase both the magnitude and duration of the quake. Nothing makes the Fallen happier than mass-scale, human suffering.” Guillermo’s eyes darkened. “Do you remember the big quakes in Haiti and in Chile? And Japan and Indonesia? Those would have been much smaller events had they not been amplified.”

Scoffing bitterly, I asked, “Those Fallen are real darlings, aren’t they? What do they have against people?”

All three demons grew visibly uncomfortable by my question, but I wasn’t letting it go: “Guys? Why are they so anti-human?”

Charles and Gary looked away while Guillermo looked down at his feet and kicked nervously at the ground.

I sighed, “Ah, another one of your forbidden topics. Right, okay, don’t tell me then.” I kicked at a piece of bark before brushing my hands together and wiping them on my shirt. “I didn’t want to know anyway, so there.”

Actually, there was a big part of me that really didn’t want to know because, it seemed, the more I learned about the spirit realm, the more I longed to return to the good old days of being ignorant about such matters.

 

Chapter Thirteen: San Juan Bautista

 

His torso-branch wasn’t exactly pleasant to behold. In fact, it was downright grotesque, but since Charles refused to let us operate, he would just have to live with it. Sparkles could have easily pulled the branch out, but he made no sign of wanting to help, and we had no way to communicate our request.

Before climbing into the driver’s seat, I made certain that the passenger door was securely latched and stuffed my sweatshirt behind Charles so the section of branch poking out his back wouldn’t tear up the upholstery when he jostled about.

Because of the cooling effect of the wind, we were all happy to get back up to speed, and clear across the valley, traffic was light and the Ford ran like the wind all the way out to San Luis Reservoir. But as soon as we started to make the ascent past the lake, we quickly lost momentum and dropped down to forty-five and then forty. I moved over into the slow lane, and soon even the big trucks were passing us. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we summited Pacheco Pass and started to gain speed.

Heading down the western grade, Charles slapped Gary’s hand and grumped, “Stop touching it, Gary. It won’t come out.”

“Hey, I have an idea.” Gary searched the floorboard. “Can I draw something on your stake?”

“No. You cannot.”

Gary came up from the floor. “Ah-ha.” He displayed a ball point pen to Charles and tried again: “Come on, let me draw something. You’ll like it.”

Charles swatted at Gary’s pen. “No. Draw on yourself.”

“That’s no fun. I want to draw a face on it.”

“First of all, it’s not a stake; it’s a branch. And secondly . . . and secondly? No.” Charles rotated his body so that his torso branch was pointing safely out the window.

Leaning forward so I could see Charles, I asked, “Hey, how come a stake can kill a vampire but not you? I mean, it went right through your torso, so shouldn’t you be dead?”

With folded arms, Charles replied to the hills whizzing past, “Vampires aren’t demons. They’re un-dead. Everybody knows that.”

I couldn’t see his face but was pretty sure Charles was rolling his eyes.

Reaching around behind Gary, I tapped Charles on the shoulder and suggested, “Hey, let Gary draw on your stake. It’ll give him something to do, and maybe he’ll stop fidgeting.”

Turning back to Gary, Charles asked, “Do you know what you’re going to draw?”

“Yeah, but it’s a surprise.” Gary shook the pen rigorously and tested it on his hand to find it still worked. He then leaned over so that neither Charles nor I could see what he was drawing. Charles tried several times to see, but Gary shielded the branch with his arm, and when Charles leaned in to sneak a peek, Gary face-palmed him away, ordering, “Get back. You’ll see when I’m done.”

Charles whined, “Ow, quit bumping it.”

“Well, stop moving then.”

 

We descended down to Pacheco Creek Canyon and west towards San Benito Valley until Charles spotted a sign that read, “Casa De Fruta – next exit.” Of course, he ordered me to stop, but I told him we couldn’t because it was urgent that we find Pock. In response to my explanation, he begged, “Please? I’m hungry, and I promise we’ll be quick.”

“Charles, no. We have to keep moving. This isn’t a leisure trip, and besides, no people food for a week. Remember?”

Outside my window, Guillermo’s enormous face appeared right next to me. Pointing at the exit, he spoke loudly in my ear, “Case de Fruta!”

Practically jumping out of my skin, I momentarily lost control of the truck while Guillermo pointed at the sign a second time, informing me that they even had a merry-go-round. As soon as I had regained control of the vehicle, I reasoned with the three of them, “You guys, in case you forgot, we’re on a mission. Do you want to rescue Adolfo or waste precious time riding a dumb merry-go-round?”

And in perfect unison, they replied, “Merry-Go-Round!”

As I took the off ramp, I wagged my finger at Charles and warned, “No people food, so don’t even ask.”

Charles let out an exasperated sigh. “Can’t I start when we get back home?”

“No. You already started. You now have six and a half days left. Good job.”

Moaning loudly, Charles gestured at his injury. “But I’m wounded!” He fake wheezed and stammered, “I-I need comfort food.” He wheezed some more and asked with all the passion he could muster, “Do you want it to get infected? I could die.” There was a slight quaver in his voice that actually made him sound sincere.

I couldn’t help but guffaw before asking, “Isn’t demon blood a disinfectant?”

“Um, no . . . ?” He quickly changed the subject: “Can’t I just get some chocolate covered raisins? To raise my moral? You know, give me the will to keep going?”

“No. If you’re hungry, you have plenty of galswallow in back.”

In his highly annoying, whiny voice, Charles pleaded, “But it’s Casa de Fruu-taaa.”

“Okay, you want to be like that? Then we’ll just get back on the highway so we don’t have to argue about it.” I pretended to head across the intersection toward the west bound on-ramp.

In a mild panic, Charles placated me with, “Okay! Okay! I’ll quit.”

He sulked as we pulled into the parking lot and found a space but brightened quickly as soon as he caught sight of the merry-go-round.

As I set the parking brake and opened the door, Gary lifted his head from his secret masterpiece and asked, “Okay, what do you think?”

On the end of Charles’ branch, he had drawn, down to the smallest detail, a very accurate likeness of the newborn alien creature from the original Alien movie.

I chuckled and said, “That’s great, Gary.” I laughed again and added, “Nice shadowing there.”

Charles laughed too. “It needs some red for blood, but it’s good.” He then mimicked the scene where the alien baby breaks out of John Hurt’s torso by grabbing his branch with both hands and slumping over in his seat with a nice death rattle to finish off the performance. Gary and I both laughed at his brilliant portrayal of the iconic scene, and even Guillermo chuckled from the back of the truck. Sparkles, however, was thoroughly unimpressed.

After watching Charles chug down a half gallon of galswallow, Guillermo and Gary decided they wanted some too, and although I was offered some, I chose water and some of my trail mix. Gary then brought the bucket up to Sparkles and held it up. “Here, you need to eat. It’s good for you.” But after looking at the galswallow and then at Gary, Sparkles simply turned away, so Gary put the bucket back down and asked, “Why won’t he eat? He has to eat something sooner or later.”

Slamming the truck door and shoving the keys in my pocket, I theorized, “Maybe he doesn’t eat food. Maybe he’s solar powered.” I headed across the parking lot and waved our group forward. “Come on.”

Gary caught up and said, “Hey, that was my theory first.”

“Well, it’s the best theory I’ve heard yet, so I’m stealing it.”

“You can’t steal a theory. Whoever comes up with it first, owns it.”

“Well, maybe we thought of it at the same time.”

Gary shoved me pretty hard before theorizing, “Yeah, and maybe you’re a theory thief.”

Even though it was only his first day, Charles tried once more to talk me into letting him take a reprieve from his diet, but standing my ground, I said no and walked away before he could start begging.

The merry-go-round wasn’t crowded, so Gary and Charles were able to get horses next to each other. While Guillermo, too big to fit on a horse, simply stood on the platform and held onto the pole as he went around, but he looked like he was having just as much fun as they were. The ride continued to rotate for a surprisingly long time, so I motioned to Charles that I was going to go over to the duck pond to wait, and he gave me a thumbs up.

At the pond, I leaned up against the guard railing and watched as hundreds of baby catfish raced about trying to snatch breadcrumbs off the surface, and as I watched them swirl and flitter about in search for more, I found myself wishing I had something to contribute. Being off the road and out of the truck felt good, and I took a deep breath and let the tension of the highway fall away. Not far away, a mother and her two kids were tossing pieces of bread to the ducks, causing the birds to paddle to and fro, creating a menagerie of sunlit tendrils of light that danced and swirled about on the water’s surface.

I found myself wondering about Abbey Street and her son at May Lake. Then I thought of Pock and wondered if we would ever be able to find him. And finally, I cringed at the memory of Adolfo being lifted up into the sky and spirited away by that devil. I could still clearly see the face of the Fallen that had grabbed me and lifted me up, and when I remembered its sunken eyes, blackened with malevolence and an incomprehensible rage, I shuddered and made an effort to repress the thought.

Sparkles, who had silently sneaked up next to me, was looking at something across the pond, and seeing him caused me to jump and gasp with alarm. After regaining my composure, I scolded in a whisper, “You know, I’d really appreciate it if you’d tell me when you’re approaching. Maybe clear your throat or drag your feet or something?”

Instead of apologizing, Sparkles let out a low, almost subsonic growl as he stood upright in what looked to be a fighting stance.

“What’s wrong?” Following his gaze, I noted, “You are an odd one, aren’t you?”

But when I spotted two pairs of black and silver eyes glaring through the slats of a fence, I went cold. A half second later, two shadows poured through the gaps and onto the ground where they reconstituted into something only a mother could love, and I had to wonder why anything so awful had ever been brought into existence. With no ears, and noses that were just single holes in the middle of the face, and over-sized eyes bulging out of elongated, over-sized heads, the they began darting rapidly about in an insect like manner as they crept forward. But what I found much more disturbing was their menacingly over-sized mouths and the serrated edges on their ridiculously over-sized teeth.

As one of the horrors began to approach silently from the left side of the pond and the other from the right, Sparkles dropped back down onto all fours and emitted a louder, rumbling growl, causing all the ducks and peacocks to scatter and the fish to dart away into the shadows.

I whispered, “Sparkles, please help me.”

Sparkles’ gaze darted back and forth from one beast to the other. I frantically searched for something to use as a weapon, but finding nothing available, I took off a shoe and brandished it menacingly. The nearest phantom came within striking range, and Sparkles lunged, causing it to jump out of reach. The miskreant stopped, turned, and charged the second one with the same effect, and the first one resumed its approach. I knew I was going to draw some unwanted attention to myself, but in that moment, I wasn’t too concerned how anyone might react. I wasn’t about to be taken away by any drakk-demons, not without a fight anyway. As soon as the first one drew near, Sparkles lunged and caught it, and as he clamped down and tore into it, the thing let out a blood-chilling screech that shocked me to my core.

The miskreant and his opponent began rolling about on the foot path in a violent struggle, so I took the opportunity to flee from the second one around the pond, but it was much too fast and would be on me in a matter of seconds.

When I heard Charles cry out, I glanced back to see him closing in on my pursuer, and with a fury I had never heard before, he raged again, “Get away from him!”

My demon was unrecognizable. His skin had turned pitch-black and had fractured into thousands of shards of something like broken steel. A thick horn resembling a rhino’s jutted from the center of his forehead, and his eyes were like fire. Charles lunged and landed squarely on top of the beast causing it to shriek, buck and roll, but Charles roared back and began hammering his fist hard into the malleable head. Together they spun around and bounced up and down like a cowboy on a bucking bronco, and Charles continued punching the creature as hard as he could just above the eyes, which seemed to have the desired effect.

Across the pond, Sparkles was locked in a death struggle with his opponent, and Gary, now twice the size of his normal self and covered in glowing spikes, was trying to bash the beast with a two-by-four, if only it would hold still, but Sparkles and the phantom were rolling around too fast, and all Gary could do was wait for the right opportunity.

A third phantom shrieked as it charged from the shadows, and an instant before it landed on me, I was lifted into the air and tossed out into the middle of the pond. And as I tumbled through the air, I looked back to see the phantom slam into what looked like Guillermo, knocking him down on his back. Grunting hard, Guillermo reached up and grabbed the thing around the neck, straining to keep it away from his face. He tried to flip it over on its side, but it was too powerful and massive to be upended.

Coughing the water out of my lungs, I shouted, “Gary!” Catching his eye, I pointed to Guillermo, and Gary rushed to Guillermo’s aid, bringing his two-by-four down against the phantom’s head with a resounding thunk! He raised it and slammed it down again, and then a third time with even more force.

As soon as Sparkles had positioned himself on top of his opponent, he brought his arm back and drove it clear through the demon’s head and into the foot path, causing the creature to let out an awful, howling groan before spasming and jerking about in every direction, yanking Sparkles along for the ride until he was able to remove his fist. With eyes filled with rage and confusion, the phantom staggered to its feet as a black and yellow ooze gushed out of the gaping hole in its head. Sparkles lunged again, but the thing stumbled out of the way and rose up into the sky. And when it spotted me, it shrieked again.

When Sparkles reached Guillermo, he grabbed the beast by the neck with both hands and twisted hard, producing a horrendous cracking sound as the head flopped over onto its shoulder. The demon writhed and convulsed while Charles, Gary and Guillermo lifted it and tossed it out into the water, causing it to immediately erupt in a flailing, shrieking ball of black and silver flames,

Raising my arms to shield my face from the heat, I watched in horror as the beast, now engulfed in fire, locked eyes on me as it rose up. I wanted to cry, not with compassion, but with hatred. And I wanted to let it know that what it felt towards me was mutual, so moving directly underneath the creature, I scooped up as much water as possible and splashed it repeatedly. When the spray found its target, the beast flared even more brightly, shrieking and contorting as it rose higher.

The third demon, now surrounded by Charles, Gary, Guillermo and Sparkles, raged defiantly. Sparkles was on it in an instant, and it seemed he had learned a great deal from fighting the first two because before the creature even knew what hit him, Sparkles snapped its head backwards, and as the beast staggered around in a circle, clawing at the air and making gurgling noises, the guys hoisted it over their heads and hurled it out into the pond. The thing, now engulfed in flames, let out a broken, gurgling shriek as it rose up, and as soon as it had joined its companions, without so much as a farewell, the three of them flew west at a terrific speed until they had disappeared over the hills.

 

As he helped me out of the pond, Charles asked, “You hurt?”

Somewhat in fear of his menacing appearance, I hesitated, but as Charles began to change back into his usual, boring old self, I reached up and grabbed his hand, and he easily hoisted me up out of the water and set me down on the footpath.

Unable to form any words, I only nodded before collapsing in a dripping heap, and as I sat in a stupor, they inspected each other to see who was injured and who wasn’t. Charles had received a nice bump on the head when he was bucked off the phantom, and Guillermo had a tremendous gash going from his left shoulder all the way down to his left hip and a big bruise forming on his right forearm, while Gary, to his great dismay, had somehow acquired a splinter in his pinky finger. Sparkles was the only one in our group who appeared unscathed, and even though he didn’t seem to be sullied or injured in the slightest, he sat down and began grooming.

I was soaking wet and my shoes were missing. My knee was bruised from smacking into the bottom of the pond. Seeing me search around, Guillermo handed my shoes over and suggested, “You’ve attracted a bit of an audience. Maybe we should go.”

He was right. A group of onlookers had gathered to witness my splashing about and yelling, and for all I knew, somebody had called security, so after I put on my shoes, Charles helped me to my feet and steadied me as we headed for the truck. I tried to thank them for saving me but couldn’t form the words. I was shaking from a rush of fear and anger and even a sense of overwhelming gratitude for what four demons had just done to defend me. If it had not been for them, I would have been taken down inside the Earth by those wretched things.

At least twenty sets of eyes, fortunately all human, followed me as we left the area. Several kids were giggling, and I overheard one girl comment that I was weird, and one boy was asking his mother if he could get in the pond too.

Out in the parking lot, I spotted a security guard watching me, but seeing I was leaving and no longer a nuisance, he remained by the market while he watched me go, and after I gave him a wave, he waved back and disappeared inside.

When we reached the truck, I pulled out my keys, but my hands were still shaking and I dropped them.

Charles volunteered, “You want me to drive? It’s not much farther.”

“I-I want you to, b-but, you know, I . . .” And as I began to well up, I knelt down and pretended to tie my shoelace so the guys wouldn’t see.

Of course, Charles was too thick to leave it alone, or he was just oblivious and tried again: “Why don’t you take a breather and let me drive.”

Without looking up, I shook my head and pointed at the sun to remind him that he couldn’t drive in the daytime, and after regaining my composure, I finally stood up and asked Charles why he had never gone all demonic on me when we were fighting. He pondered my question for a moment before explaining that he had never really been mad-mad at me, and that I was usually just very annoying.

I grimaced and admitted, “W-well, that’s good. Dang, you were actually kind of scary back there.”

This caused Charles to grin proudly, and while making a fake frowny face, he growled, “And don’t you forget it, buddy.” He then growled some more for effect.

I chuckled and shoved him away before pointing at Guillermo’s injury. “What are we going to do about you?”

Guillermo squeezed the gash together and muttered, “I’m okay. I’ll just sew it up when we find some string or wire or something.” When he let go of his wound, it spread wide open to display his inner gooeyness in all its gory detail. Of course, we all grimaced at his innards, and Gary suggested we should get him stitched up as soon as possible because he was so gross.

Climbing into the cab, I paused and said, “Thanks guys. I . . .” but again, my voice broke and I began to well up, so I just left it at that, and with the exception of Sparkles, I think they knew what I was trying to say.

We then piled back in, and Sparkles hopped in back, sat down with a heavy thud and resumed searching the sky. Following Sparkles’ gaze, Charles whispered, “They’ll send more next time. They were only gauging our strength.”

“That’s just great.” With head bowed, I sighed and asked, “Okay, can we go home now?”

 

Chapter Fourteen: The Mission

 

Back out on the highway, my mood improved a little when patches of marine fog started to drift by overhead and the first invigorating ocean smells could be detected. Charles, who was seated in the middle at Gary’s insistence, kept bumping elbows with me, and even though I found it annoying, I kept all protests to myself. Instead, I glanced down at his torso branch and asked, “So will your skin and bone really grow around that if you don’t get it out?”

Drifting back from some faraway place, Charles said absently, “Huh?” Then realizing what I had asked, he replied, “Oh, uh, yeah, I suppose I should get it out in a few days.” Tugging at the branch, he added, “Ow.”

Turning on my signal and making a left onto 156, I asked Charles if it still hurt, and he only nodded and replied, “Yeah, a little bit. But what’s more annoying is the itch.” He scratched at his chest to show that it did indeed itch.

Gary offered up that we should saw it off at the chest. That way it wouldn’t be so inconvenient and Gary would get to keep the alien drawing before it was ruined.

Shaking his head adamently, Charles argued, “No way. I want to get all of it out.”

And I agreed, “Yeah, I would too.” I thought a moment before rapping him on the shoulder: “Hey, I’ve got it. We tie you to a tree and then tie another rope to your branch. Then, with the other end tied to the back of the truck, I take off at full speed, you know, to make it quick and painless. And the stick pops out, and you’re as good as new.”

After Charles thought about this, he smirked and admitted, “Yeah, that might work.”

Gary offered up, “And drill a hole through the end of your branch and tie the rope through it.”

Charles disagreed, “Yeah, but a hole could weaken the wood, and it might break easier.”

Unable to help myself, I corrected him: “It might break more easily, Charles.

Charles looked at me and explained, “Yeah, that’s right. It might break easier.”

So I tried again: “It might break more easily.”

Charles looked over at me in silent bewilderment before turning back to Gary and declaring, “No holes.”

Raising both hands in submission, Gary relented: “Okay, have it your way. It’s your torso.”

“Yes I will, and yes it is. Thank you very much.” Folding his arms to finalize the dispute, he bumped his branch in the process and whined, “Oww.”

Gary snickered before he could catch himself, and doing so caused Charles to backhand him in the chest hard enough to produce a loud thump, so Gary instinctively grabbed his chest and cried out, “Hey!” but the assault didn’t stop him from giggling some more.

Scowling, Charles scolded, “It’s not funny, Gary. I’m wounded.”

Putting on his most serious face, Gary solemnly agreed: “You’re severely wounded, and I . . . am very concerned . . .” But unable to control himself, he snickered some more. Again, he tried in vain to collect himself and declared, “We’re all very concerned for your well be-e . . .” He snorted and laughed.

Looking to me for support, Charles demanded, “Gord, tell him to stop being such a jerk.”

Without conviction, I muttered, “Gary, stop being a jerk,” but Gary was too far gone, and we all knew from experience that he wouldn’t be serious until he got it all out of his system.

I gently punched Charles in the shoulder. “And you should stop being so thin-skinned. After all, how many demons do you know who have a built in coat-rack?” Keeping my gaze straight ahead, I could feel Charles’ eyes burning a hole into the side of my head. I didn’t dare look over, because if I did, seeing the look of complete disgust on his face would cause me to lose it as well. Fortunately, Charles decided to stew rather than be drawn into a childish squabble. He slumped down in his seat and grunted with feigned indignation, and after a minute of driving in silence, I messed up his hair and promised, “We’ll get some rope and get it out of you, and we’ll do it your way.”

He perked up a little and said, “I’d appreciate that. And how about you? How are you doing?”

Surprised by his question, I glanced over and asked, “Me? . . . Oh, I’m not sure, but I know I’m much better off than if I had been on my own when those things attacked.”

Searching the sky, Charles surmised, “It must have come as a shock to see brakken up close.”

I had to agree: “They are ugly, aren’t they? Not nearly as disturbing as those Fallen things though.” Searching the sky, I added, “I don’t know if I’ll ever want to be on my own again.”

 

Even in heavy traffic, it didn’t take long to get to San Juan Bautista. I pulled into the parking lot in front of the local market, hopped out and gave the hood a solid slap. “Be right back. I’m just going to see if anyone inside has ever heard of Pock.”

Hoping they would stay with the truck, I hurried for the front door, but sure enough, Charles and Gary were quickly in lock-step behind me, walking as quietly as they could so I wouldn’t hear them, so I turned around and explained, “Um, guys? We’re not getting anything. Please, I’ll just be one stinking minute.”

And of course, Charles took the opportunity to begin our usual bargaining routine: “But we’ve never been here. We just want to look around.”

Letting out my standard sigh of exasperation, I politely suggested, “Please, stay here. It’s just a dumb store like every other store you’ve ever been in. They sell groceries and assorted household goods.”

Charles whined, “You have to let us go. We’re your bodyguards now. I think I might have seen another brakken up on the roof.” He pointed up and asked, “Gary, isn’t that one right there?”

Squinting at the roof, Gary asked, “Where?”

I should have known better, but his words sent a hard chill down my spine. I searched the roof and asked, “What! Where?” Then realizing his deception, I shoved him hard enough to send him back a few steps and scolded, “Charles, that’s not funny!”

Charles kicked at the asphalt and promised, “We won’t hold you up, and we won’t ask for anything. Right, Gary?”

Gary wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy watching a line of ants carry food down into a crack in the asphalt. When he finally looked up, he asked, “Huh? No. I mean, yeah, what Charles said; we’ll be good.”

Still holding his guts in with both hands, Guillermo caught up and asked, “Can I go too?”

I sighed and relented: “Hey, it’s a free country. Come on. I’m only going to be a minute though.”

Charles made a good point. What if I was attacked again? On my own, I was a goner, but with these guys as my line of defense, at least I stood a chance. It was comforting to see Sparkles sitting in the truck, utterly indifferent to us, because when Sparkles was at ease, I figured we could be at ease too.

We weren’t inside for ten seconds before Charles and Gary spotted a massive display of RC Cola, and they almost had simultaneous coronaries right then and there.

I tried to head them off at the pass: “Guys, you just said . . .”

Charles clasped his hands together and showed me the most disingenuous smile I had ever seen. Gary did the same, and at the exact same time, they both begged, “Please?”

With my hand over my eyes, I whispered, “You’ve got to be kidding . . . No!”

Undeterred, they tried again: “Please?”

Fervently wagging my finger at both of them, I whispered more passionately, “You just promised that we . . . !” But how could I say no when they had just saved my life? So much for their new diet. You can lead a horse to water, blah blah blah.

Finding a cart, I pushed it up to the cola display and grumbled, “All right. How many?”

Charles and Gary were actually giggling when they performed a hip-bump that succeeded in knocking Gary to the floor. Instead of helping Gary to his feet, Charles turned to me and ordered, “All of it!”

“We don’t have enough room for all of it. I’ll get ten liters, okay?”

Nodding vigorously, my demon chattered, “Yeah-yeah-yeah!”

Guillermo pointed out that the soda was room temperature, but Charles explained that it was better that way. I asked Guillermo if he wanted anything, and he asked if we could get some twine for his injury, which of course was an excellent idea. At the checkout, I asked the cashier if she’d ever heard of anyone called Pock, and she said that she would remember a name like that, and it didn’t ring a bell, so after I thanked her and paid, we headed outside.

“Here you go.” Handing Guillermo the twine, I surmised, “Now we need some sort of needle.”

“Thanks. I have something that should work.” Searching around the truck bed, he picked up a large, rusty nail and proceeded to tie the twine tightly around the head. He then began to sew himself up as if he were darning a sock, causing me to wince and avert my eyes from the gruesome sight.

Leaning up against the back of the truck, I absently patted Sparkles and asked, “Well, guys, any ideas?”

Charles tugged on his branch with one arm while chugging down a liter of soda with the other, and when he finished, he burp-talked, “Let’s go for a walk.” He then tugged his branch a second time and burp-talked, “Ow.”

We all agreed that a walk was in order, but Guillermo needed a minute to finish tying off his stitch work. It looked pretty professional, and I asked him if he had done that kind of thing before. He showed off a long scar that ran all the way down his back and another one on his calf, proudly declaring, “This one was when Adolfo shoved me into the Grand Canyon, and this one was when he drove over me with the tractor.”

I had to admit that they were impressive scars and told Guillermo that he and Adolfo’s troubled history sounded similar to my relationship with Charles. Guillermo chuckled and admitted, “Adolfo and I don’t fight nearly as much as we used to. Heck, sometimes, he even treats me like a friend.” The big demon’s grin vanished, and he sighed and muttered, “I miss him.”

Attempting to sweet-talk Sparkles into going with us proved unsuccessful, so we walked a block in the hopes that he’d change his mind, but when he remained motionless, we returned to the truck to try something else. Slapping my hands against my knees, I spoke cheerfully, “Come on, Sparky! Let’s go walk-walks! Come on!” I clapped my hands and whistled until Sparkles rudely turned his head in the opposite direction.

Gary huffed and explained, “Gord, he won’t come if you call him Sparky. He doesn’t like that.”

“Did he tell you he doesn’t like it?”

“Well, not in so many words, but I know he doesn’t.”

Rolling my eyes, I tried again: “Sparkles. Walk-walks?”

To our surprise, Sparkles leaped out of the truck and bounded off down the street on all fours. In an attempt to keep up, we chased after him at a full sprint. The miskreant rounded the corner and crossed the street before heading out across a large, grass-covered plaza towards the front of Mission San Juan Bautista. The miskreant abruptly stopped, sat himself down and began grooming right next to a familiar, white-haired man leaning against a bronze statue.

The rest of us arrived out of breath, and before I could ask Pock how he had summoned Sparkles, he held up a small, iridescent seashell and blew into it. The shell produced no sound, but Sparkles perked up immediately and leaned forward to inspect Pock and his summoning device.

Pock chuckled and declared, “Hey, it works. I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to try it out.” He reached out and gently put his hand on Sparkles’ shoulder, and while slowly shaking his head in wonder, he whispered, “Just amazing. I mean a real life miskreant. You’re more wonderful than I could have imagined.” Pock turned, smacked my shoulder and exclaimed, “You did it. You did it!” Then, slapping my back repeatedly, he declared, “This is a very good day.”

I explained, “Uh, you did it too. I just used that-that . . . thing you gave us. I threw it at him and he-he . . . he changed.”

Squinting at me, Pock asked, “He changed?”

“Well yeah, he stopped hassling us, but then, well, we couldn’t get rid of him, so here he is.”

Nodding and clapping his hands with delight, Pock replied, “That thing you used was a knuckle-bomb. I made it myself. What do you think?”

“I think it worked.”

“Yes, it did, didn’t it?” With his hands on his hips while admiring Sparkles, Pock asked, “So does it have a name?”

Gary stepped forward and glowered at me before stating firmly for the record: “His name is Sparkles, not Sparky.”

Pock laughed. “Well, I guess that’s somewhat apropos, isn’t it? Hi, Sparkles.”

Putting my hand on the miskreant’s shoulder, I asked, “Do you know how to communicate with him?”

Pock raised his eyebrows. “Me? Oh, no. This whistle is all I have so far. See, miskreants communicated in the first language, and that’s older than time itself. Like the rest of their culture, their language was taken from them after they were defeated by the Fallen. No, Sparkles may not even be able to comprehend words. He’s been under the curse his while life and has the mind of a newborn now that he’s free.”

Pock draped his arm over Sparkles’ neck and whispered, “You’re free. A miskreant has been set free.” Shaking his head, he looked at me and whispered, “But I fear we’ve kicked the hornet’s nest and have upset a great many hornets in the process.”

Not finding his words very comforting, I replied, “Great. Well, I wish you would have told me what I was doing when you gave me that-that . . . knuckle-bomb.”

“And if I had told you what you were doing, would you have used it?”

I exchanged a look with Charles before replying, “Well, no. Of course not.”

Pock nodded. “Right. Your fear, although justified, would have kept you from doing what you had to do.”

So I countered, “My fear would have kept me safe. We’ve been attacked twice now. Once at the Gathering and again less than an hour ago.”

“Yes, I know, and yet, here you are, talking to me.”

I pondered his words before muttering, “I don’t like being afraid. It’s not a good feeling.” Pointing an accusatory finger at him, I explained, “And you deceived us.”

Shaking his head, Pock disagreed, “I gave you the means to take the next step. Up until now, you’ve been living for yourself. You’ve merely been seeking out security and comfort while avoiding anything you find unpleasant. I assure you, there’s no shame in that; it’s called human nature. But I have to warn you that from now on, you will make those around you your priority, and in doing so, you will have to sacrifice.”

Pock had a lot of nerve telling me my future as if it were fact.

Not knowing how to reply, I changed the subject: “Did you know that a spanner was kidnapped by the Fallen? And they would have taken me if it hadn’t been for Sparky, um, Sparkles?”

“Yes, I’ve heard. It was only a matter of time before the Fallen became so brazen, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am that you’re safe.”

Taking a deep breath, I gestured at Sparkles and explained, “He saved me both times. He stood up to a Fallen and beat it.”

“Yes, I know that too. It’s nothing less than astounding.”

“How could you know?”

Gesturing at a large number of ravens up in the trees, Pock explained, “Word travels fast when there’s news of a miskreant fighting a Fallen.”

“What? You talk to birds?”

Pock nodded. “I’ve immersed myself in the Sumerian, Chinese and Egyptian languages, among others, and with a great deal of practice, I’m beginning to discern some basic fundamentals of the first language. It actually emerged from and has many similarities with bird-speak.”

Not knowing what else to say, I asked, “Seriously?”

“Yes. Seriously.” Closely examining Sparkles, Pock continued, “I’ve been given the gifts of time, curiosity and the eck-collector, and finally, I’m seeing the fruits of my labor in this freed miskreant.

Gary perked up and asked, “Eck-collector? What’s that do? Collect eck?”

“Good guess.” Grinning mischievously, Pock whispered, “Eck is why you’re here, and eck is why Sparkles is free. Please come. I have some things you’ll want to see.” Gesturing for us to follow, he headed towards the church.

Following Pock only a few steps, I stopped and looked back to find the demons glancing at each other and at their feet in an uncomfortable silence until I remembered, “Oh . . . right. This is sacred ground. You can’t go in.”

Charles responded with a well-deserved, “Du-uh.”

Turning back, Pock slapped himself on the forehead. “Oh, of course. Please forgive my oversight.” He returned and withdrew a familiar, silver canister, opened it and explained, “This will allow you to enter without the unpleasant side effects.” He flicked a pinch of sparkling, green dust at each demon, and everyone but Sparkles started coughing profusely.

Leaning in to get a better look, I asked, “What is that?”

Pock screwed the cap back on. “It’s demon balm, or a mixture of eck, sage, eucalyptus, lemon-zest, poison-oak oil, a micro-gram of holy water and a few other, um, unpleasant ingredients. It’s taken years to find the right balance, and I have to admit, Eck and holy-water do not get along well.” He chuckled. “But I finally got it to work. Now if I could just stabilize it to make it more permanent.”

After Gary stopped coughing, he asked, “Pock, where’s your demon?”

Pock came out of his reverie and admitted, “Oh . . . well, I uh, I don’t actually have one any more.”

Gary and Charles exchanged a look of surprised bewilderment before Gary asked, “But how is that possible? Every human has a demon; it’s the law.”

Pock chuckled and whispered, “And for every law, there are exceptions.” He put the canister in his pocket and explained, “You see, I’ve used demon repellent on every demon assigned to me, so the arch-demons finally gave up.” He thought a moment before adding, “It seemed like a good idea at the time, but looking back, maybe it wasn’t such a wise move on my part.”

Glancing over at Charles, I asked, “Really? Sometimes the thought of not having a demon around sounds wonderful. Maybe you could teach me how to make my own repellent.”

“I could, but be careful what you wish for. After so many years of being on my own, I miss the challenge of having a demon in my life. Yes, life is peaceful now, but I feel less alive without someone around to test my spirit.” Pock turned towards the mission and muttered, “I guess the grass is always greener.”

Charles, Gary and Guillermo hesitated as we approached the front door, but nothing bad happened; they didn’t burst into flames or explode, not even a little. Pock opened the heavy wooden door and led us into the dark, cool interior. The rich scent of burning candles, the old wood and adobe, the rays of dusty sunlight streaming through the windows and the stillness of the interior were a welcome change from the bright outdoors, and I had the sensation that time itself had come to a standstill on the day the mission had first been opened over two centuries ago. Looking around, I imagined the first occupants sweeping floors, cleaning windows and teaching the locals how to read and write and thought to myself how different life must have been back then. I wondered what it would be like to travel back to that era to try living a more simple, unhurried life. But in reality, I knew our ancestors had to toil constantly to have enough to eat, and they certainly had never enjoyed the medicine or technology or the abundance of entertainment we did. No, 1812 was probably a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Pock led us across the nave to a side door that opened out onto a small cemetery under a grove of ancient olive trees. Once outside, he approached one of the buttresses, and after making certain that nobody was watching, he whispered, “Guillermo?”

Surprised to hear his name, Guillermo pointed at himself and asked, “Me?”

“Yeah. Could you lift me up? Normally I’d just climb, but since you’re here . . .”

Without hesitating, Guillermo grabbed Pock around the waist and effortlessly hefted him up onto his shoulders.

“Wow. Perfect. Thanks.” Reaching up, Pock pushed hard against two seemingly random bricks, and a moment later, a rumbling and grinding could be heard coming from under our feet and inside the walls. I heard a distinct click, and after a brief silence, a cacophony of metallic squeaking and rattling filled the air. Pock pulled the two bricks back to their original position before instructing, “Okay. First floor please.”

Frowning, Guillermo asked, “Huh?”

“You can set me down.”

“Oh . . . right.”

As soon as Pock was safely back on the ground, a long seam outlining a formerly hidden doorway appeared in the side of the mission. It quickly spread vertically before arching up and over in a perfect half circle and back down to the ground. The area within the seam faded until a glassy surface covered in odd symbols became visible. Seconds later, the newly revealed door slowly slid vertically into the ground, revealing a steep stairwell leading down and out of sight. Directly above the stairwell, an elaborate copper and wrought-iron framework looped and twisted its way through and around the recess before spreading like a tangled web of vines down along the walls until dropping out of sight on both sides of the stairway. Cables, pulleys and gears gleamed brightly with wear, while rest of the framework had taken on the blue-green patina of decades or possibly centuries of oxidation.

Pock descended down into the dark as a cool breeze rose up to greet us. And without looking back, he motioned for us to follow.

 

Chapter Fifteen: The Eck Chamber

 

As we started down, Charles whispered, “I have a sneaking suspicion not many people have seen this part of the church, huh?”

I whispered back, “I think I’ll second that suspicion.”

Before heading down, Gary turned and slapped his knees. “Come on, Sparkles!” He clapped his hands together and pointed at the stairway. “Walk-walks?”

But Sparkles responded by plunking down under an olive tree and grooming himself in a vigorous manner. So with head tilted and arms folded, Gary grumped, “Sparkles, don’t you have any curiosity?” Gesturing again a little more fervently, he sighed deeply and grumped, “Okay, fine, stay here then, Mister Boring Pants.”

I called back up to Gary that Sparkles wanted to work on his tan, causing Gary to give me a highly skeptical scowl before following us down. We descended about fifty steps, give or take a step, until the stairway opened out onto a small, circular landing. The curved wall was completely covered in intricate, bas-relief carvings of strange creatures and highly intricate geometric shapes that were difficult to discern in the limited light coming from above. Pulling two small flashlights from his pocket and handing one to me, Pock explained, “The lock to the inner door is embedded here in the floor. One moment . . .” He pressed the floor in three places with his heel, and after a few seconds, another loud click was heard from somewhere in the wall. After another brief silence, more hidden gears and chains rattled and banged and squeaked to life as a second door slowly dropped away on the opposite side of the rotunda while the door above slowly closed.

Flicking on the flashlight, I pointed it around the chamber, and what I saw caused me to gasp in amazement. I whispered, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

The round floor, the entire wall and domed ceiling were formed from something like black, polished glass, and with no visible seams, the intricate bas-relief carving around the room was a single representation of a great battle between hundreds of Fallen and what appeared to be thousands of miskreants.

I whispered, “What is this?”

And Pock whispered back, “It must be a depiction of the second great war, the one between the Fallen and their offspring, the miskreants.”

Slowly panning my light along the wall, I asked, “Second great war? What was the first one?”

As soon as he was at the top of the lower stairwell, Pock explained, “The first one? That was when the Fallen got a little too big for their britches and tried to have themselves a little coup d’etat and were subsequently tossed out of Forever.” He began to descend down the next flight of stairs, calling back, “Look alive now. This next flight’s a doozy.”

We followed him through the second doorway and down a much longer staircase, down into the Earth. Both sides and the arched ceiling overhead were completely covered in countless battle scenes involving legions of exotic looking demons of every possible shape and size, standing in preparation for battle. And before them stood long lines of Fallen who were swinging giant scythes and cutting down anything that happened to be in their way.

I whispered, “Wow. Look at the detail. This must have taken forever to carve.”

Pock replied, “If it was carved. This may have been molded like clay or perhaps created through some sort of photographic process.”

The stairs steadily became narrower and smoother until we had to hold onto the indentations in the walls to keep from slipping, and to our surprise, we found that the walls were warm. In fact, they felt strangely alive. Another hundred steps lower, we rounded a bend in the stairway to find ourselves at the top of an even longer tunnel dropping precipitously down into the dark.

Charles whispered, “Is this place as old as the mission?”

Pock whispered back, “Oh, it’s much, much older.”

Gary whispered, “Why are we whispering?”

Pock replied in a whisper, “We don’t want to wear out our welcome.”

Gary whispered, “Wear out our welcome? You mean someone is down here?”

Pock nodded. “Well, yes and no. You’ll understand when we reach the bottom. It’s not much farther now.”

The stairs led down about another two-hundred steps before opening out into a grand, arched tunnel that continued to expand until it opened out into a simply immense, domed space, too vast to be discerned. The wall of the chamber curved away to the left and right and high up overhead, disappearing into a vast, silent darkness. Pointing my light in every direction, I tried in vain to comprehend what I was seeing. Even my beam was swallowed up by the shear immensity of the space. The size and beauty was staggering. It had to be much older than a couple of centuries, and how anything could have been constructed on such a scale with modern technology, let alone ancient technology, seemed hard to comprehend. The perfectly smooth floor stretched away into the dark, and the nearby walls that were visible were covered with otherworldly spirits and beings who seemed to jump out into the room in gravity defying poses. The sculptures were as varied as they were enormous, and the variety of fantastical creatures, struggling against each other in silent battle, seemed frozen in space and time high over our heads. And it seemed that at any second, the thousands of demons and otherworldly creatures frozen to the wall could suddenly spring to life and come crashing down in an explosion of fury and desperation. My heart beating faster, not from the climb down, but rather from the ferocious grandeur of what I was seeing, I chuckled in disbelief and whispered, “This . . . this can’t be real.”

“Oh, it’s real, and it’s about to get more real.” Heading out into the dark, Pock asked, “Do you feel them?”

I had been repressing the sensation of being watched, but as soon as Pock mentioned it, I had the feeling we weren’t alone; that, somehow, the sculptures above were aware of our presence and were merely permitting us to enter.

“This way. Almost there.”

In awed silence, we followed Pock out across the expanse, and as we walked, it became apparent that the space was a great hemisphere, much larger than I had first imagined.

Sounding dumbstruck, Charles asked in a whisper, “How is this possible?”

Pock chuckled. “I’ve asked myself that same question since I first came down here. It shouldn’t exist, but here it is. One thing is certain; if human beings had a hand in building this, they had help.”

As we neared the center of the chamber, a huge, black sphere came into view out in the gloom. We moved closer until we saw that it was hovering over the floor and appeared to be formed out of the same, smooth glass as everything else. From high above, hundreds of pairs of massive pipes twisted around each other as they extended down out of the darkness and ended up at the top of the sphere.

It took much longer than I expected to reach, and once we were under the massive object, we could hear a soft, rhythmic boip? boip? boip? coming from within. And before I could ask what it was, Pock explained, “The eck runs down those lines into this container.” Reaching up, he gently slapped the sphere, causing it to rumble low and long like the world’s biggest gong, and after the reverberations finally faded, he declared, “It’s an eck-collector. You know, for collecting eck.”

Gary stepped forward and whispered, “Wow. Can I try that?”

Pock smiled. “According to many images on these walls, this sphere was also used as a musical instrument. If the creators built it for such a purpose, then go ahead, knock yourself out.”

Gary approached the eck-collector and sheepishly looked at me and Charles before slapping the sphere good and hard, and even though I had plugged my ears in preparation, I could feel a single note vibrating through the floor and on up into my bones. Pock and I had to keep our ears plugged for a long time before the sphere finally stopped ringing.

Charles, Gary and Guillermo all looked at each other in wide-eyed amazement before the three of them burst out laughing.

Rolling my eyes, I suggested they grow up, but Charles paid me no mind and stepped forward with a big grin and a sparkle in his eye. “Wow! Can I try that?”

Gesturing at the sphere, Pock cringed but said, “Go nuts.”

Telling Charles to “go nuts” when he was near any type of percussion instrument was probably not a good idea, let alone a percussion instrument of such immense scale and potential deciblage. I quickly planted an index finger into each ear and grimaced at the impending cacophony as Charles brought his forehead back and smashed it into the bottom of the sphere. I thought my teeth might shake loose and half expected the whole room to come crashing down around us from the vibration that ensued. To keep the sound going, he continued bashing his head against it, harder and harder with each blow. With his ears plugged too, Pock glanced at me and chuckled.

Deciding the eck-collector wasn’t nearly loud enough, Gary and Guillermo quickly joined in, pounding it with their fists and causing it to ring even more loudly until Pock and I decided to back away. The demons continued on with their drum session, like I expected they would, because once given the okay to make unnecessary noise, there would be no stopping them.

The sound continued to grow in intensity until a strange thing began to happen. Even with ears plugged tightly, I could hear new, incredibly complex notes, and together, the notes actually started to harmonize in a very foreign but soothing manner. Soon, other distinct, exotic sounds began to rise up from within the clamor, much in the way a symphony sounds when its warming up before a performance. And in no time, the entire chamber was saturated with a perfectly rich, wonderful music, like nothing I could have imagined, and the very surface of the eck-chamber — the floor, the walls and the ceiling — started to glow in a soft, blueish-green light. Previously hidden details became visible in the sculptures all around us. The smooth, black surfaces brightened into richly textured cloth, metal, wood, stone, flesh and blood, and the eyes of the giants looked to be alive. Even the miskreant’s eyes started to blaze brightly.

Utterly entranced, I lost all track of time until the guys eventually had had their fill and stopped drumming, and we listened with great satisfaction as the music bounced around the space until it faded back into the perfect stillness. And with it, the green and blue glow faded from the expanse. And with the exception of our dinky, little flashlights, the room was dark once more.

Charles, Gary and Guillermo happily gave each other multiple rounds of high-fives while Pock moved under the eck-collector. He reached up and grabbed a massive valve, and with a heavy grunt, he cranked it a quarter turn until a bright green goop oozed out of the spigot with a disgusting, wet sklorsh-ploop? as it plopped into a shallow recess in the floor. He gestured for us to come closer, so we gathered round to have a look at the mystery sludge.

Squatting down, Pock gazed into the hollow and explained, “You’re looking at pure, unrefined eck.”

I certainly didn’t understand but nodded politely. Upon closer inspection, I could see that eck wasn’t solid green. Swirling beneath the surface like snowflakes in a snow-globe were tiny sparks of every color of the visible spectrum, and some hues I had never before seen. Undulating and twisting about as if alive, just under the surface, a consciousness seemed to be watching and waiting. The stuff was so beautiful to behold thatI had difficulty looking away.

Pock whispered, “I’m convinced the primary reason this place was built was for this.”

We all continued gawking in silence, so he continued: “That knuckle-bomb I gave you? It’s made from refined eck.”

Charles and I asked at the same time, “Refined eck?”

“Yes. After years of trial and error, I got it right.”

Frowning, I stammered, “But-but where is it coming from? I mean we’re pretty far underground. Is it coming out of the Earth?”

Raising his eyebrows, Pock pointed at me. “Good guess, but no. It’s coming out of those who travel through the Earth. You see, eck is life energy stolen from the Fallen.” He beamed brightly.

Trying to make sense of his words, I gave him three, long blinks and asked, “It’s evil?” I took a step back.

He shook his head. “Oh, no. Fortunately, it’s just a substance, and like anything else, it can be used for good or evil. It’s, um, spirit energy.”

Shaking my head in disbelief, I whispered, “How can it not be evil, you know, if it comes from the Fallen?”

“Well, can it be evil if you used it to free Sparkles from his curse. Would you describe setting him free as an evil deed?”

I sighed and admitted, “Well, Sparkles is certainly eccentric and not what I’d call overly affectionate, but he doesn’t seem evil. Well, not lately anyway.”

Turning away and heading under the eck-collector, out into the dark, Pock called back, “Come on. There’s much more to see.”

On our way across to the other side, Pock theorized that whoever had built the eck-collector had obviously wanted to supply humanity with eck, and he was convinced that the chamber had been built a very long time ago, long before the church above and before Europeans or even Asiatics had set foot in North America. He surmised that the structure could be a hundred thousand or possibly a million years old, if not older because the sculptures on the walls depicted a visual history, starting from before the Big Bang, up to the present day and out into the distant future, clear out beyond the end of time. And while he had not been able to decipher the writings, he showed us markings under each scene that appeared to show the number of years since The Big Bang. He had been able to figure out their numbering system by using known events, like the formation of the Earth, the introduction of life, the mass extinctions of dinosaurs and the introduction of people.

He brought us before a huge panorama depicting artificial solar systems that had not yet been built and great wars that would not occur for millions of years. Pock showed us a scene of a planet sized starship carrying an entire civilization across the galaxy and fantastically detailed maps tracing the journey. And according to the date, that particular migration wouldn’t take place for another fifty-five million years, give or take a century. Although intrigued, I had to remind him that the depiction had to be fictional because nobody knew what the future had in store.

Slightly bemused, Pock replied, “Nobody? You sound awfully certain about such a big question. What about everything we don’t know? What about the ones who built this place?”

Gazing up at the intricate maps and images, I answered his question with a question: “Isn’t the future unknowable because of free will? How do we know these aren’t made up stories?”

Without hesitation, Pock asked, “Well, what about God? Does He know the future?”

I scowled a moment and answered, “Um, I don’t believe He does.”

Pock nodded and surmised, “Or He does know, and the entire story of our universe already played itself out before time even began. We only believe we’re free to do as we choose, but we’re really just living out completed stories and can’t see the ending from our oblique perspective.”

I pointed at myself. “But I have free will. When I reach a fork in the road, I choose which path to take. It’s what makes me alive. I mean, why would God create a bunch of robots destined to ride on a rail going from point A to point B? That universe would be a very dull place. In fact, it would be called a dulliverse.”

“Yes, but you’ve never been on the ride before, and even though it was preordained, it still appears new to you, and you believe you’re free to choose. Wouldn’t you still learn a great deal and be so much wiser after the ride?

Charles let out an exasperated sigh and started to fake snore. He then declared in no uncertain terms, “Bore-ing!”

I tried to punch him, but he jumped away, so brandishing my fist, I told him to hush up. Turning back to Pock, I argued, “But I don’t think that’s why we were created. God would be able to see the outcome of everything He had made and lose interest. I know I would. He created us with free will so He wouldn’t be alone. Human beings can surprise Him, make Him laugh and maybe even teach Him a thing or two. No, I bet you a dollar the future is wide open and completely uncertain, even to God Himself.”

Pock nodded. “As wrong as it may be, your argument is compelling, and I will take that bet.” He gave me a slap on the shoulder, held out his hand and declared, “Sooner or later we’ll find out, huh? One dollar then.”

I shook his hand and agreed, “Someday we will. A dollar it is.”

We moved along a seemingly unending line of murals, each with elaborate vistas depicting great battles, fantastical ceremonies and other-worldly landscapes, while Pock explained, “I’ve spent almost fifty years experimenting with eck and now believe its possibilities are endless. Eck is nothing but energy, and energy can be harnessed and converted into anything.”

Without taking his gaze from the wall, Gary asked, “Yeah? What have you discovered?”

Pock stopped, pointed his light up into the dark and replied, “Eck is demon essence, and this chamber works like an enormous magnet, drawing that essence off the Fallen when they pass by, and they don’t even know it’s being taken.” The old man chuckled before continuing: “Well, over time, that essence is distilled inside the collector, but, get this, I’ve discovered a way to distill it even more by simply . . .”

The entire chamber began to rumble and glow for several seconds, and when it had subsided, I asked, “What was that?”

Pock chuckled. “That was an earthquake. Perfect timing. Now, listen . . .” Pointing up at the sound of fluid flowing through the pipes, he explained, “That earthquake was actually a group of Fallen racing past, and as they went by, this chamber stripped away a small amount of their life energy which you now hear flowing through those pipes.” Pock lowered his gaze. “This chamber was built next to the San Andreas Fault which happens to be a major passage used by The Fallen . . . Neat, huh?”

As the pipes came alive with the sound of flowing eck, I chuckled and muttered, “Unbelievable.”

“And take a look at this . . .” Pock led us along the wall until we arrived at a panel portraying two eck-chambers identical to the one we were in. He explained, “Unfortunately, I can’t figure out the location of these two without first deciphering the language.” Reaching up and running his fingers over the exotic symbols, he added, “It’s possible we may never decipher it; however, I believe this knowledge will be revealed when the time is right. But not knowing where the other eck-chambers are located may be for the best. Ignorance can be an excellent security measure.” Turning away and waving for us to follow, he continued: “It took about five liters of eck to create the one little knuckle-bomb I gave you, so if we’re to create one strong enough to work on an adult miskreant, we’re going to need a more efficient method.”

Guillermo chuckled and interjected, “So the Fallen’s own life energy is the secret ingredient for breaking the Fallen’s curse. I love it.”

Pointing at Guillermo, Pock agreed, “Yes, I do too, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am. You see, this discovery changes everything.”

Guillermo offered, “So what do you need from us? How do we help?”

Hesitating a moment, Pock explained, “In order to distill a bomb that will be strong enough, we’ll have to refine the eck down here. I’ve already gathered most of the equipment, but I could use your help getting it down here.”

“No problem. I’ll do it.” Guillermo flexed his biceps and grinned.

Pock chuckled. “Thank you, but there’s one piece of equipment that won’t be so easy. You see, we’re going to have to, um, borrow one of the cauldrons from the mission, and, well, it’s kind of heavy.”

Charles stopped scratching his belly, perked up and asked, “Uh, what’s a cauldron?”

Pock explained, “It’s just a big cooking pot, big enough to refine enough eck and still have enough room to mix in the other agents.”

Charles hiked up his britches and asked, “What’s an agent?”

I whispered, “It’s the same thing as an ingredient.”

Raising his eyebrows in understanding, Charles declared, “Aah, so it’s just like cooking.”

I frowned and asked, “How on Earth would we get it down here?”

Pock nodded and replied, “Well, I measured the narrow spots on the stairwell, and I think it should fit, and with all of us working together, we would simply roll it down.”

My eyes bugged in alarm before I asked, “Uh, we’re going to roll a huge, cast-iron cauldron down all those stairs?”

“I know, it won’t be easy, but with these three assisting, I think we can pull it off.” Pock thought a moment before cheerfully adding, “And I have rope.”

Well, at least Pock had rope. That should simplify things.

Guillermo was pretty strong and Charles and Gary weren’t exactly push-overs. They had held their own pretty well at Casa de Fruta, so maybe rolling a cauldron down a long flight of stairs wouldn’t be such a challenge. After all, how heavy could one cooking pot be?

With my hand raised, I asked, “Are the folks working in the mission going to just let us take their cauldron? And what if we get caught? I want to help, but I’m allergic to jail.”

Pock assured me that we wouldn’t get caught because we were merely “borrowing” the cauldron after the mission had closed and everyone had gone home for the night.

Not yet convinced, I asked, “But what about security? Aren’t historical sites like this full of cameras? And guards?”

Pointing at me, Pock replied, “Why, yes they are, but you and I won’t be doing the borrowing.” He gestured at Charles, Gary and Guillermo and added, “They will.”

Pock went on to explain that he and I would wait for the three demons at the top of the stairway out behind the mission, so I scowled at him and asked if the sight of a cauldron rolling all by itself through the hallways of the mission might raise some concerns with members of security. Then I dared inquire as to the size of said cauldron.

Pock replied matter-of-factly, “Oh it’s big and heavy, and no, the guards mostly rely on motion sensors and perimeter alarms to do their work for them, but I have a route the demons can follow to avoid setting off those detectors, and I can disable the alarms on the doors we’ll be using. So you see, it’s practically fool proof.”

I didn’t like the sound of any of it, but if Pock said we needed a cauldron to create a knuckle-bomb that was powerful enough to release an adult miskreant from the curse, gain its allegiance to help us to navigate safely across Limbo and into Utopia to find Adolfo and bring him back to Earth, then, by golly, we needed a cauldron.

Clearing his throat, Pock added, “Oh . . . uh, one more thing. I have to ask you demons to promise to never, ever reveal what you’ve seen today, not to anyone. Not ever.”

Without hesitation, Guillermo and Gary raised their elbows out sideways as high as they could, locked their fingers together over their heads and wiggled them about while making the demon promise, which I always referred to as the “pledge of jibberish”.

They chanted, “Umbah glumboji munkko. Ooji goomboli blarg.”

But Charles, with his hands on his hips in a defiant manner, asked, “And what if we don’t want to pledge secrecy?”

I rolled my eyes and moaned, “Oh, Charles, come on. Please don’t be difficult.”

“What? I’m just asking. What if I didn’t want to, you know, hypothetically speaking?”

Pock pulled a brown canister from his pocket and replied, “Then, I’d be forced to use this.”

Laughing nervously as he backed away, Charles asked, “Ha ha ha. What’s that?”

Pock opened the lid, showed the contents to Charles and explained, “See? It’s defiant-demon-dumb-down. You inhale one pinch and all your memories of the last few months are completely erased. There might be a few side effects as well, possibly some, well, fairly unpleasant ones.”

Charles grimaced at the smell and backed away some more. “What kind of side effects?”

“Well, there is the off chance that you could be turned into a drooling, smoldering demon with an intelligence quotient of around seven or eight for the rest of your days.”

Charles took another step back, quickly raised his elbows as high as they would go, locked his fingers over his head and wiggled them while reciting, “Umbah glumboji munkko. Ooji goomboli blarg.” And as soon as he finished, he gestured that Pock might want to please put that defiant-demon-dumb-down away.

 

Chapter Sixteen: Operation Cauldron Acquisition

 

During the climb back up, Pock told us how he had taken an oath to watch over the eck-collector. He was the seventh steward to protect its secret since its discovery in seventeen-ninety-seven. Eight men, including two spanners, had known of its existence when it was first discovered, and they knew right away that such a discovery had to be kept hidden from the world until the chamber could be better protected and understood. And they were proven correct because, as the years went by, more and more miskreants were spotted skulking through the area, behaving as if they were searching for something. So in 1812, the mission workers, convinced by the spanners that the miskreants would eventually discover and destroy the eck-chamber, decided to build the newer Mission San Juan Bautista directly on top of the entrance. And in doing so, they succeeded in hiding the chamber and sanctifying the entrance.

The original eight took their secret to the grave and had only passed down the knowledge to a small group of successors who had committed their lives to the protection of the eck-chamber, and they in turn found others who vowed to take over when the time came.

Pock also explained how a mixture of eck and a precise amount of Parmesan cheese and cough syrup would temporarily conceal him from all types of demon, and he had been thrilled to discover that when he took dried eck and mixed it with ground acorn meal, it worked as demon bait — if ever there was a need for such a thing. He had also discovered that eck, even in its raw, unrefined state, when applied topically, could remove some malevolent hexes and curses like gout, lumbago, acne, hair-loss and halitosis.

And a few months prior, Pock had discovered that he could refine eck down into a super concentrated state and mix it with trace amounts of holy-water to form a knuckle-bomb, and he had been waiting for an infant miskreant sighting in order to try out his theory that the curse could be removed, and when he had received word from the local ravens that an infant miskreant had indeed been spotted at Tunnel Lookout stalking Charles, Gary and me, he had sent an urgent request for Edmond to whisk him to intercept us so he could deliver the knuckle-stone. Pock admitted he had feared he wouldn’t find us before the miskreant did.

Squinting suspiciously at Pock, I asked, “But how did you reach us so quickly? It has to be over a hundred miles as the crow flies from here to Yosemite.”

Pock brightened and said, “Ah, yes. Edmond is a speed-demon. He’s very fast when he has the incentive and is quite useful, that is, when he can be located. Which reminds me, I still haven’t paid him for carrying me to you.”

So I had to ask, “What does a speed-demon require as payment? I pay Charles with ice-cream for doing his chores.”

“Edmond prefers either refined sugar or rocket-fuel, but being that rocket-fuel is so expensive and hard to acquire, I opt to pay him with sugar.”

Nodding, I muttered, “Ah, yes, sugar.”

Pock admitted that he had not yet figured out how to get such a massive knuckle-bomb up to the surface after it had finished curing. He explained that it was going to be the size of a bowling ball but would weigh more than a refrigerator, and when I suggested with a straight face that we should build a cargo elevator, I was the only one who laughed.

After an uncomfortable but brief silence, Gary theorized that Guillermo could carry a refrigerator up hundreds of stairs without breaking a sweat, so Guillermo proudly flexed a bicep and grinned, showing off a mouthful of crooked, brown teeth.

Thanking Guillermo for his generous offer, Pock warned that our biggest challenge would be in finding a solitary, adult miskreant and delivering the knuckle-bomb to its intended target, so Charles, who had been unusually quiet, told Pock that hitting a miskreant might not be too difficult. He explained that when I had tossed the knuckle-stone at formerly evil Sparkles, my aim had been terrible, but the bomb had homed in on him like a guided missile. My demon admitted, “That thing flew through the air like it had a mind of its own.”

Pock’s eyes widened. “Oh? That’s good. That’s very good. Then I will keep the ratios just as they are.” With arms folded, he thought aloud, “We’re going to need a way to launch the payload at our target, like a cannon, you know, a big one. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” He thought some more and added, “Or maybe we could set a trap. You know, if these bombs can find their intended target on their own, then perhaps they will be drawn to a miskreant when it passes by.”

Gary chimed in once more: “Like the magnetized sea mines they used in World War Two?”

Pock pointed at Gary. “Exactly.” He lowered his voice as if guarding an important secret. “The crows say the miskreants have been discretely migrating into the ocean, and the Fallen have stopped using them for their dirty work, and nobody knows why. The Fallen are using brakken instead, as you’ve recently discovered.”

“But what about Sparkles?” I asked, “Why did the Fallen send him after us in the first place?”

Pock stopped, blinked at me and asked, “Why, indeed? I’m not entirely sure they had a hand in his actions . . . Ah, here we are.”

When we reached the upper landing, Pock showed me how to trip the latch to the upper door: “One push here, one here and one heavy push right . . . over here, and that’s it.” Behind the walls, hidden gears and chains rattled, clanked and banged away as the outer door began to open.

I repeated his actions: “One here. One here and one heavy push there.”

Giving me a thumbs up, Pock declared, “Yes. Perfect,”

As soon as we were outside, Gary called out to Sparkles like he hadn’t seen him in years before running up and bear-hugging the featureless shadow. Sparkles, who had not moved an inch since we left, gave Gary a cursory sniff before looking away.

While we took a moment to recover from the climb, Pock said he knew a demon who might be able to help us find an adult miskreant. “That is,” he admitted, “if we can catch him in a good mood.”

Squinting at Pock in the bright daylight, I asked, “And who would that be?”

“His name is Kroe-Vogk. He can often be found in the bay near the Monterey Aquarium.”

“Kroe-Vogk? Is he friendly?”

“Well, no, and with his bad back, he’s usually in a foul mood, so . . .”

“He lives underwater? Is that normal?”

“No, not at all. He claims the saltwater is good for his arthritis and his hydrocephalus, and he likes hiding down in the cold and the dark where nobody can bother him.”

“Huh, I didn’t know demons could get arthritis.”

Charles argued, “Yes, you did. Remember? I told you I had some arthritis in my thumb.” He wiggled his thumb at me to help jog my memory.

Squinting at his digit, I replied, “That’s not arthritis. That’s from our trip to San Francisco, when you stuck your thumb into that pile driver to see what would happen, remember?”

Charles’ mouth opened as he remembered. “Oh, yeah,” he muttered while looking down at his bent thumb and wiggling it again.

Holding out a small aluminum canister, Pock explained, “Here’s some demon repellent. It’s unrefined eck mixed with stink-weed, honey, coffee grounds, and just the tiniest drop of holy water. Demons absolutely hate it, so just smear a little bit on each arm the next time you’re followed. And whatever you do, don’t get it in your mouth. And don’t get it on these guys because it would not be a pretty sight.” He thought a moment longer before adding, “Oh, and if you put it in water and throw it on a drakk-demon, it’ll light them on fire — much more effective than just plain old water.” Pock chuckled as all three demons slowly backed away.

Taking the canister, I thanked Pock and admitted, “This will put my mind at ease.” I opened it up and took a big whiff before Pock could stop me and immediately regretted it because demon repellent, I discovered, was hands-down the most vile smell in existence. Fortunately my belly was empty, so I only dry-heaved.

Once I was finished spitting out the taste, I thought aloud, “Oh wow, that’s some potent stuff. I guess I shouldn’t eat it then?”

Pock laughed and agreed, “No, you should not. Try applying a small amount once in a while so you can get used to the smell.”

“I don’t know if I want to get used to that. Ugh.”

Pock explained that it would be wise to get accustomed to it so I would be ready to use it in an emergency. I reluctantly agreed and grimaced as I smeared a tiny bit on my forearm, admitting. “I guess it’s better to put up with the smell than be carried off by brakken, huh?”

Pock only nodded while quickly backing away.

Seeing the demons reaction brought me some comfort and even a twinge of satisfaction. The stuff didn’t just work, it worked well. And after I rubbed the horrid gunk on my arm, I assured the guys, “See? All gone. Come on back.”

When they refused to come any closer, I sniffed my arm and gagged, which made everyone laugh.

Pointing at a cluster of eucalyptus outside the wall, Pock explained, “See that stand of trees? Most of what we need is hidden out there. Some of it’s kind of heavy, so try not to lift with your back.” He turned to me. “Gordo, you better wait downstairs. The mission will be closing soon, so it’s best if you stay out of sight.”

“Hey, I can do that.”

Looking up with his mouth open, Charles protested, “What? He has to help too. That’s not fair.”

“I can’t Charles. They’ll see me and kick me out. Quit your whining.”

Stomping the ground with one foot, he repeated himself more fervently, “That’s not fair.”

Gary shoved him and said, “Oh, buck up, Charles, This will only take a minute. Gordo has to help us get it down the stairs.”

And Gary was correct. They were back in no time carrying propane tanks, gas lines, a large propane burner, gloves, frocks, a welding mask, and the heaviest part: a massive, plaster mold that Guillermo was carrying on his shoulder.

The trip back down to the chamber went smoothly until the propane tank Gary was carrying slipped from his fingers and bounced down the stairway creating a terrific racket. Expecting it would explode, we plugged our ears and shielded ourselves, but it rolled, bounced and tumbled out of sight, causing the entire stairwell to pulse a bright, fluorescent green in sync with each impact. And as soon as it stopped rolling somewhere far below, Charles chuckled and mumbled, “Butter fingers.”

Gary chuckled too and declared in no uncertain terms, “Oops.”

I asked Pock, “Do you think the inhabitants of the eck-chamber enjoyed that?”

Shaking his head, Pock whispered, “I seriously doubt it. Try to be more careful, guys.”

We hauled the equipment out to the eck-collector where Pock and I took a break. Charles and Gary had some fun with putting the bright end of the flashlights inside their mouths to make their cheeks glow. Thinking it was a hoot, Guillermo had to try it, and the three of them entertained themselves for a surprisingly long time. After they had calmed down, Pock pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket, unfolded it, spread it out on the floor and declared, “Okay, here comes the fun part. Please gather round.”

The paper was a map of the mission with a hand-drawn, yellow line running from the central courtyard into the main church where it meandered around before finally ending out back in the cemetery. The demons were instructed that if they would simply follow the marked path, the motion sensors wouldn’t be triggered, and they should try to be as quiet as possible and take their time while rolling the cauldron because it was cast iron, quite heavy, and capable of creating an excessive amount of unwanted noise if handled improperly. Pock emphasized that if they stayed calm and moved slowly, then Operation Cauldron Acquisition should go off without a hitch. The demons looked at Pock with a bit of uncertainty and then at each other. All three of them were nodding slowly, but they were also fidgeting nervously.

Charles raised his hand and waited until Pock called on him.

“Charles?”

My demon cleared his throat and asked, “If-if-if, uh, if we run into a guard and-and he, um, say, he blows a whistle or tries to-to-to call out on his phone, should I take him out?”

Pock blinked twice and asked, “Um, take him out?”

“With a body-slam.” Pointing at me, he explained, “It works great on him when he’s being annoying.” Charles chuckled. “I can knock him ten meters.”

I had no choice but to correct him: “Oh please, two meters at most.”

Pock blinked in bewilderment. “Uh, why don’t we hold off on body slamming the guards unless it’s absolutely necessary.” Glancing at me nervously, he continued, “You guys probably won’t see anyone at all . . . Look, the cauldron is right, um, here.” Pointing at a spot in the inner courtyard, he went on: “You’ll want to empty out the wood and anything else inside so it doesn’t rattle and bang while you’re rolling it. Guillermo, I have no doubt you can tip it up on its side and start it rolling. Charles and Gary, you two stay out in front to guide it. Just be careful not to let it roll over any toes.”

When the demons looked at each other again with even more uncertainty, I had to admit they were making me a little uneasy, but I held my tongue.

Gary raised his hand. “So-so-so, um, so where should we put the stuff that’s inside the cauldron?”

Pock glanced at me again before suggesting, “Well, you could put it on the ground? Preferably out of your path so you don’t run into it?”

After thinking about this and nodding, Gary made a note to, “Put stuff out of way.”

Charles raised his hand, and when Pock called on him, he asked, “Will the cauldron be hot?”

Blinking at Charles, Pock repeated the question, “Will the cauldron be hot? Um, no, it won’t be hot.”

Charles queried, “But it’s a cauldron, right? Aren’t they hot? Like in the movies?”

Pock calmly answered, “They don’t use this one anymore. It will be a nice, ambient temperature, I promise.”

Satisfied with that, Charles rubbed his chin while nodding ever so slowly.

Looking at his feet, Guillermo slowly raised his hand.

Pock gestured to him and asked, “Guillermo?”

“After we’re done, can we eat?”

Charles and Gary nodded whole-heartedly in agreement.

“Yes, after we get it safely downstairs, we can eat.” Pock looked around and asked, “Any more questions?”

We all looked at each other, and when nobody seemed to have any more questions, Pock clapped his hands together. “Okay, good. This is real simple, guys. You just go to this spot, right here, and roll it back to us, making sure to follow this path — into the chapel, then left and up to the middle, here, and right, out to the center, then left, up to the abbey, right and then another quick right and back to the outer door, okay?”

The three of them studied the map carefully for a long while, pointing and tracing with their fingers while mouthing directions quietly to themselves, and as the seconds ticked away and they continued to study the map, I realized I was sweating. Pock and I exchanged another worried look, but neither of us said a word.

Pock finally instructed, “Guys, you just come into the church, turn left, right, left, right and another quick right and you’re at the door.”

Looking like deer in the headlights, the three of them nodded slowly.

Pock raised his hand, sighed and explained, “It’s okay. When you’re in the church, I can guide you from the back door. Don’t worry, you’ll do fine. You . . .”

Gary interrupted, “I’m scared.”

Pock assured Gary that there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. He then informed us that the guards had just finished their first round and were settling down in front of the television. Clapping his hands together, he spoke cheerfully, “Now, let’s go get our cauldron.”

I gave each demon a back-slap of encouragement while Pock banged against the wall three times with his open hand, and after pushing down on the walkway with his right heel, the rear door to the mission clicked and swung open with a heavy groan. Pock assured the demons one last time that they were going to do great and this was going to be easy, but if they ran into anyone at all, they were to set the cauldron down gently and hightail it on out of there. He then gave each one a send-off by slapping him on the shoulder and whispering, “Slow and quiet is the key.”

Gary stopped, turned around, scowled and asked, “Wait. Do we have an abort word?”

Charles nodded in agreement. “Yeah, we need an abort word, in case things go bad in a hurry and we need to, you know, abort.”

Guillermo nodded too. “That’s a good idea. Just in case.”

Pock and I exchanged another look before Pock suggested, “How about, ‘Abort! Abort!’ ?”

The demons didn’t seem very impressed, so I offered up, “How about ‘run!’ ?”

But Charles, Gary and Guillermo only glanced at each other like Pock and I were both idiots.

Rolling his eyes, Charles muttered ruefully, “Humans.” He then raised an index finger and suggested that the abort word should be nothing other than ‘chicken chimichunga’.

His eyes opening wide, Gary nodded vigorously as he agreed, “That’s perfect. Let’s go.”

Guillermo also agreed that chicken chimichunga was nothing less than brilliant, so they headed inside and crossed the nave with a new air of confidence. I was tempted to call after them to break a leg but didn’t want to create any confusion at such a critical moment. A moment later, they disappeared through the opposite door leading to the inner courtyard.

So it was out of our hands, and the demons were on their own. Pock and I leaned against the side of the mission while we watched and listened intently through the doorway. And the seconds and then minutes began to tick by.

Pock drummed his fingers together nervously as he asked, “You think they’ll be okay?”

I played it real cool. “Oh, them?” Waiving at him dismissively, I chuckled. “Pshh-ah. Those three are the brightest demons I’ve ever met. No, they’re going to perform valiantly.” I cleared my throat. “No, we don’t have a thing to worry about. They’re much smarter than they let on.”

Pock looked at me sideways. “How many demons have you met?”

“How many? Um . . .” I counted up on my fingers. “. . . Including Sparkles, Xototl, Xocotl, and your speed-demon? What’s his name? Edmund? Um, seven. Well, seven spanners. I’m not counting brakken or Fallen.”

Pock repeated my word in a thoroughly unimpressed, monotone voice, “Seven.”

I nodded. “Oh yeah, those guys will follow your instructions to the letter and be back here in no time. Yeah, no, we’re fine. They’re fine. Everything is just fine.” I cleared my throat nervously again.

Pock was kind enough to agree: “Yeah, they did seem pretty confident. I bet you’re right.” But he couldn’t stop drumming his fingers together in an unsettled manner.

Straining to hear any hint of activity that might arrive from the courtyard, we both fell silent. And for a couple of minutes, we could hear nothing but a few unintelligible murmurings followed each time by a forced shhh! which was much louder than the murmurings themselves. Pock and I exchanged another worried look as the murmurings grew louder and more frequent, occasionally accented by more shhh! sounds, and we both became alarmed when the louder murmurings turned into actual arguing. Finally, we heard a “no!” and then a “wait!” and then the clunkety-clunk! of boards falling haphazardly onto a hard surface. This was followed with a muffled cry of pain, shattering glass and the sounds of more boards hitting pavement. I put my face in my hands and groaned quietly while Pock bowed his head and whispered a prayer. Next we heard “It’s on my foot! It’s on my foot!” which was followed by the sound of Charles squealing like an indignant pig. Finally, the distinct sound of a very heavy, metallic object rolling across stone reached our ears. Exchanging another look, I puffed out my cheeks and exhaled deeply while Pock mimed the act of wiping sweat off of his brow.

But after a few more seconds of rumbling, we heard an awful crunch! And a crack! that sounded like very old, wooden support columns breaking and splintering. This was followed by another heated exchange of unintelligible words before a long, terrible silence filled the entire mission. Absolutely no sound reached our ears. I would have preferred screaming or arguing or priceless relics breaking rather than complete silence. Ten seconds passed by, then twenty. Pock looked as nervous as I felt.

I whispered, “Should we go check on them?”

Shaking his head, the old man whispered back, “Too risky. Let’s give them some time.”

A half minute passed before we heard all three demons yell in unison, “One? . . . Two? . . . Three!” The sound of cracking timbers then clay tiles sliding off the roof and smashing into the floor reached our ears. This was followed by the glorious sound of a large, metal object rolling over stone. Whatever was rolling was obviously moving much too fast, but since it was getting louder, we knew at least it was heading in the right direction. A moment later, when a tremendous boom! shook the entire building, causing pieces of adobe and plaster to separate from the walls and ceiling and crash to the floor, I assumed the demons had crashed the cauldron into the other side of the church.

Gary was the one who sounded the alarm. He was shouting, “Chicken-chimichunga! Chicken-chimichnunga!” at the top of his lungs, and Charles shouted back, “Be quiet! You’re going to ruin the mission!”

Ignoring him, Gary shouted, “Charles! You’re on fire! The balm is wearing off!”

Over all the commotion, I wondered why none of the alarms had been tripped. We had been incredibly lucky so far, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before the jig was up. We were running out of time.

I frowned at Pock and asked, “Did Gary just mention that Charles might be on fire?”

Before Pock could respond, Charles appeared on the other side of the church covered in the bright glow of orange and yellow flames, and if it hadn’t been for the crazed screaming and the frantic terror in his eyes, I’m sure I would have found his appearance quite comical. We waved and called for him to get outside, but he didn’t need any encouragement. As the flames grew and spread, he dashed across the nave and through the outer door, screaming and hollering along the way.

I wanted to shove him to the ground, but I couldn’t grab him for fear of burning my hands, so I yelled, “Charles! Stop, drop and roll! Stop, drop and roll!”

Alarmed, Pock whispered forcefully, “Keep him away from those leaves! Throw dirt on him or something! I’ll be right back!” He hurried away into the church.

Heeding Pock’s advice, I started hurling handfuls of dirt at Charles’ head, for all the good it did. The wind he was causing by running around in circles was just fanning the flames higher.

I tried again. “Charles! For crying out loud, just stop, drop and roll!” I stuck my foot out as he ran by and was able to trip him up, and after ordering him to stay down, I hurled several handfuls of dirt at his face without success.

Rolling back and forth, Charles was able to snuff out most of the fire on his arms and torso, but his entire head continued to burn brightly, so with no other option, I continued flinging fistfuls of dirt and gravel at him. A few seconds later, Pock blasted Charles with a fire extinguisher until he was just a pile of foamy, white propellant and blackened, smoldering, pickle-faced demon. His face, I thought, might still be in danger of reigniting, so I flung one last handful of dirt for good measure.

From the other side of the church, a chorus of grunts rose up, followed by one, long, strained grunt and the sound of more cracking, splintering wood and more clay shingles crashing to the ground. I was dearly tempted to throw up my hands, race for the outer wall, climb over and keep running. Maybe I would head north, or maybe I would go east. I could just keep going and forget any of this had ever happened. Instead, I buried my face in my hands and groaned.

Putting the extinguisher down, Pock slapped me on the shoulder and declared, “Ah, there they are.”

On the other side of the dust filled abbey, a massive iron sphere, guided by two untidy demons, rolled through the doorway, ringing and rumbling as it was moved forward.

Cupping his hands around his mouth, Pock whispered excitedly, “Guys! Left! Left! Right there!”

Gary scurried out in front of the pot and put his hands up to slow its forward momentum, but his bare feet couldn’t get traction, and he started to slide across the smooth stone. But after a great effort by both demons, they were able to wrestle it to a stop before slowly turning it left.

“Um, Pock?” I noted, “Guillermo is starting to smoke. One of us should go spray him with the extinguisher.”

Pock whispered back, “I will if he flares up.” He gave Guillermo and Gary a thumbs up and instructed, “Okay, good! Now take it halfway up and turn right!”

The demons rolled the pot forward and brought it to a stop with great difficulty before turning it ninety degrees to the right.

Pock whispered, “Great! Now out to the center and left!”

It seemed the demons were finally getting the hang of maneuvering. They rolled the cauldron out to the center of the nave, made a left, brought it up to the alter and swung right, then right again, down the aisle to the outer door.

Pock and I quickly discovered the cauldron was even heavier than it looked when we helped roll it outside. We stopped and listened, and only the sound of one last tile sliding off the roof and smashing onto the courtyard walkway could be heard. Then, when nothing but sweet, victorious silence filled the cemetery, we helped Charles to his feet, checked him over for permanent damage, and finding none, we carefully maneuvered the cauldron to the top of the stairs and stopped.

Sparkles, only slightly interested, was watching but didn’t seem eager to help.

Looking at the cauldron and then at the stairwell, I admitted, “Hmm, I don’t know. That looks pretty snug.”

Eyeballing the stairwell, Pock theorized, “It should fit if we can keep it up on its side.” He inspected the cauldron, then the stairs, then the cauldron again as he fiddled with his beard and muttered, “Well, shoot.”

“What? What’s wrong?” I looked down the stairs to see what Pock might have realized.

The demons looked concerned too, but they were too breathless to speak.

With his hands on his hips, Pock frowned down at the darkness and then at the cauldron. “Dang, this thing is heavy, and those stairs are really steep. I-I fear this might be a bit of a booger.” Pock sighed and instructed, “Okay, demons, you three steady it from the front, and Gordo and I will guide it from back here.”

Charles groaned, “Can’t we take a break first? I smashed my toe, and it’s throbbing, and I inhaled a bunch of smoke.” He coughed forcefully to demonstrate that he did, indeed, have the early symptoms of a pulmonary related disorder.

Guillermo, who also thought a break was a good idea, held up his right hand, displaying three fingers that had been smashed into his palm, causing the rest of us to grimace with compassion at the gruesome sight.

And Gary, not to be excluded from the pity-party, complained sorrowfully, “And I got another splinter. Look!”

We leaned in to see that his right thumb did have a tiny, red dot that might have been an irritation caused by a microscopic splinter, but Pock wanted to get the cauldron safely underground before we took a breather. And with both hands on the side of the cauldron, he urged, “Let’s just get this part over with, okay? It’s all downhill from here.”

The three demons looked at each other nervously as I clapped my hands and encouraged, “Okay, guys, we can do this. Everybody get pumped up and take deep breaths.” To encourage the troops, I clenched my fists, bared my teeth and growled, “Grr!”

The three demons only humored me with a half-hearted, “Grr.”

“Yeah, that’s it. We can do this, dang-it. Grr!”

“Grr.”

On the count of three, we lifted the cauldron up on its side and carefully rolled it up to the top step.

Pock grunted, “Okay, brace yourselves, guys. We’re right there. Slow and steady wins the race. One step at a time.”

Pock and I gave the cauldron a gentle nudge, and when its weight shifted from the top stair down onto Charles, Gary and Guillermo, the three of them grunted loudly, straining for only a fraction of a second before the cauldron rolled over them and started to gain speed. The clanging and banging it produced was even louder than I would have expected. Pock and I plugged our ears and watched in horror as it bounced away with what looked like Charles flopping and banging all over the place as he was flung around it. It appeared he had managed to get the strap of his flip-flop caught on one of the cast iron legs, and every time it completed another rotation and landed on him, there arose a terrific whoomph! that sounded like a car with a flat tire going down the highway. And Charles let out at least eight or nine grunts of agony before reaching the first landing, rolling across the floor and slamming into the opposite wall with an ear-splitting Clang! Rattle-rattle! and a foit? that I surmised was Charles breaking wind.

Both Gary and Guillermo were lying on their backs on the stairway, groaning. Pock looked at me wide-eyed and I gawked back at him before rushing to their aid. The two of them weren’t too banged up. They had impressions in their backs shaped like stair steps, and Guillermo’s nose had been slightly squashed in. After helping him up and brushing him off, I asked Guillermo if he was okay, and he replied with a nasal, “Yeah, I think so.” He touched his nose and added, “Ow. That thing’s heavy.” He tugged at his nose in an attempt to pop it back out.

Grimacing sympathetically, I told him that it looked painful and that we would have to get some ice on it as soon as possible, but he said he’d be okay.

Pock helped Gary to his feet, brushed him off, fixed his hair and straightened his clothes a bit. Somehow, Gary’s face had escaped damage, but his chest was caved in, and he wheezed when he said, “Wow, that thing’s kind of heavy.” And after wheezing some more, he suggested that we might want to come up with a different plan.

I asked Pock if we could lower it down with the rope, but Pock shook his head and bemoaned the fact that the cauldron was just too heavy and would pull us all down along with it. He then put his hands on his hips and sighed deeply.

Down below, a muffled voice rose up from the darkness. It said, “Umpth, i-shoo guyzz arn shoo bizhy, I cooshuze shm’elp ‘ere.”

Pock flipped on his flashlight and hurried down, calling back, “We need to get the outside door closed.”

Down on the first landing, we found the cauldron resting upside down on Charles. His only visible parts were two hands and two feet that were poking out and wiggling impatiently. A groan emanated from under the cauldron, followed by a muffled, “Ow. Dishings hebby.”

Reaching down and putting both hands under the rim, Pock whispered, “Come on. The door-latch is under him.”

Together, we reached down, lifted the cauldron and rolled it out of the way as quietly as possible. Charles did not appear to be in any shape to be rolled, so grabbing him by his feet, we dragged him unceremoniously to the center of the room for closer inspection. Once my demon was clear, Pock stepped on the correct combination of pressure points, and the outer door began to close. We waited and listened for the sounds of alarms or shouting guards, but nothing but chirping birds and the wind in the trees could be heard.

As the upper door closed, the second door leading down opened. I switched on my flashlight to find Charles an absolute mess. His head was flat, and his nose had been pushed all the way into his face. He blinked up at me like a deflated beach-ball with eyes, so I grimaced and said, “Ew, Charles, you don’t look so good. Um, your head is all, well, it’s flat.”

But he only replied with some unintelligible mutterings: “Zhoo woont lookood eedur, mishter!”

I shrugged my shoulders and asked, “So, does it hurt?”

“Duh hit hrrrt? Duh hit hrrrt?” He nodded impatiently and declared, “It hrrth, alummmph.” He raised his arms, gesturing that he needed help sitting up, so Gary and I pulled on him until he was in a seated position. Charles tugged at his torso-branch to find that it had been jarred loose in the mishap, so with one hard tug, he pulled it out and tossed it away. So at least he had that going for him.

I pointed my flashlight into the hole in his chest to see if there were any more wood fragments left inside, but the hole looked clean. I whispered in awe, “Ooo, would you look at that?” My light went right through Charles to light the wall behind him. Unable to help myself, I whispered, “Yuck. This is one holy demon.”

“I want to see!” Taking a look through Charles’ hole, Gary gasped in disgust. “Eww, it’s all gooey in there. Gross.”

Pushing Gary away as he tried to stand, Charles muttered, “Woojoo shtop gookin inshiid ee!”

Guillermo squatted down next to us and whispered, “What’s he saying?”

Charles tried again. “Ished shtop gookin ishiid ee! Iss shrude!”

Raising my hand, I explained, “Wait, I’m not fluent, but I do speak a little smash-face. He, uh, he says he’s so happy to have survived the fall and, uh, he’s very happy to be working with such a terrific group of guys.”

Glaring, Charles corrected me with, “Nashodd I shed’dall!”

“Why, thank you Charles. You’re a terrific friend too, even if you are a bit testy at times.”

Charles growled ad grumped, “I dintshay zhat edur!”

“Sorry, no time for hugs right now. We’ve got work to do. Now please, try to be serious.” I punished him with a swat to the back of his hand, to which he quickly jerked away in surprise.

Pock walked around the cauldron and gave it a careful inspection. Finally, he said cheerfully, “I don’t see any cracks. That’s a relief.” He walked around it several more times, shining his light over the entire surface. “I don’t think we’ll be so lucky if we let it roll all the way down to the bottom. If it cracks even the tiniest bit, it’ll be useless.” Sighing deeply, he asked, “Anybody know where we could find a gravity-demon?”

After looking at each other and determining that none of us knew, or had ever heard of, a gravity demon, we sat in silence pondering our situation until I heard a strange, two-toned whistle emanating from Charles. I pointed my light at him to find that he was breathing through his squashed nose.

He scowled back at me defiantly and grumped, “Wharrmph?”

So I suggested, “Try to breathe through your mouth, please. That’s annoying.”

“Yrrognth shnnurrf mrummp-hrrund!”

I shushed him and explained, “We can play patty-cake later. Not right now. Honestly, Charles, try to focus.” Turning back to Pock, I asked, “So what do you suggest?”

Pock knocked on the cauldron a few times and thought aloud, “You know, if we could pad it to soften the impact, it might survive the trip to the bottom.

“What if we filled it with padding instead? You know, to reinforce the interior?” I looked to Guillermo and asked, “Do you think you could fit in there?”

Pock shrugged and nodded. “That’s not a bad idea.”

Guillermo’s eyes widened as he took a step back and explained, “It’s too small, human. Even if I could squeeze in, I’d never be able to get back out.”

At our urging, Guillermo attempted to squeeze inside, but he was correct; there was no way he was going to fit. So Pock glanced at Charles and asked, “What about you? Could you fit?”

Charles vigorously shook his head. “Shmr-rumph Nosh! Inotgittn-n’dare! Shlubbber-mump!” With both hands raised, he shook his head some more.

Grabbing him by the hand and tugging, I encouraged Charles: “Oh, come on. You’ll be protected inside, and it’ll be over before you know it. Stop being such a baby.”

Desperately trying to pull away, Charles explained, “Muurrlerrb! Mrrrnch-phhlurble!”

Gary grabbed Charles’ other hand and said, “Come on, smash-face, you need to learn how to take one for the team. Now get in there.”

Using supportive words and gentle but firm tugs and shoves, the four of us cajoled a less than willing Charles into the cauldron. We finally got him to lower himself down and curl and scrunch inside. He was pretty snug, but with a bit of shoving, poking and cramming, we were able to get most of him down inside.

“Hang on. I’ll be right back.” Pock hurried up the stairs before reappearing a minute later with a pile of dirty old rags. And after dumping them next to the cauldron, he instructed us to pack them down between Charles and the side of the pot in an attempt to keep it from cracking.

A muffled voice from inside the pot cried out, “Idoewanndoshish! Shnrugll-mup! Lemmout! Lemmout!”

Pock frowned and asked, “What’d he say?”

I cheerfully translated, “Oh, Charles says he’s quite confident this will work surprisingly well, and he’s honored to help out, and-and, oh, um, he’ll be patiently waiting for us at the bottom.”

Charles cried out once more, “Glarrgll-mummph! Lemmout!”

Playfully messing up his hair, I replied, “Oh, stop teasing. We can’t race you down, you big silly. You know you’ll win.”

After we finished stuffing the rags between Charles and the cauldron, we stopped to examine our handy work. With folded his arms, Pock realized, “This is going to be really loud.” He then whispered, “Darn, we should have given Charles some ear plugs.”

“Ur-pugz?”

Pock asked Guillermo to do the honors, so Guillermo gently lifted the cauldron up on its side, and the four of us rolled it over to the top of the stairway. For a moment, I hesitated and thought to voice my concern about the terrific speed the cauldron would reach on its long journey down, but we had pretty much crossed the Rubicon and were out of options, so I held my tongue, hoped for the best and rapped against the cauldron. “Okay, Charles,” I advised, “if you start to panic, remember the safest place to be is in there. Whatever you do, do not jump out.”

Instead of a reply, we only heard muffled whimpers coming from under the rags.

Leaning over, Pock addressed the cauldron: “Yeah, and try to push against the sides with your back and feet. It might keep you from flying out on the ride down.”

Charles still didn’t reply, but the whimpering increased in volume.

And after the four of us looked at each other with a great deal of uncertainty, I took a deep breath and tried to keep my voice calm: “Okay, on the count of three. One? . . . Two? . . . Three!”

We pushed the cauldron forward, and it quickly bounced and rolled away. The clang of the metal against the stairs was terrific at first, and as it gained speed, it became so loud that we had to plug our ears. And with every impact, the cauldron became airborne for greater intervals until it reached the curve in the stairwell and smashed into the wall with a terrific gong! We all flinched as it bounced out of sight, and the cacophony slowly diminished as Charles spun, bounced and sailed on down to the eck-chamber far below. We held our collective breath and listened as the cauldron finally reached the bottom and rolled along for a surprisingly long time before finally coming to a stop.

Cupping my hands around my mouth, I called down, “Hang on, Charles! We’re on the way!”

 

We reached the eck-chamber to find the cauldron had rolled far out into the chamber with Charles still tucked safely inside. After pulling the rags out, we tugged and poked at Charles until he twitched.

I patted him on the shoulder and asked, “Hey buddy, you okay? How was the ride?”

Charles only groaned and let out a pitiful, “Shnnr-rglug.”

Tilting his head, Gary asked, “What was that?”

So I translated, “He said it was, uh, terrific, and he wants go again.”

“Shnnr-rglug!”

“Yes, we heard you the first time.” I put my hand on Charles’ head so he wouldn’t bang it on the rim while we guided him out. “There you go. Upsey-daisy.”

To my surprise, his head had already regained much of its roundness, and his nose had started to protrude back out of his face a little. I assumed the bouncing down the stairs along with the high centrifugal force had knocked and stretched his head back to its original shape.

When Pock had finished looking the cauldron over, he sighed with relief and muttered, “It looks okay.” He looked up, grinned brightly and declared, “We did it.”

We finished extracting Charles and rolled the cauldron underneath the eck-faucet before lowering it down on its feet and maneuvering the rest of the equipment into position.

Rubbing his hands together, Pock declared, “Wow, it’s time to test it out.” He opened the giant valve, and the bright green ooze began to flow freely into the cauldron. And as we waited for it to fill, Pock attached one of the propane tanks to the burner before opening the valve and lighting the flame. Beaming like a kid in a candy store, he stepped back to admire our handy work.

 

In less than a half hour, we were staring into a cauldron of steaming, bubbling eck. Strange sparks of multicolored lights were mesmerizing as they spiraled and whistled out of the pot and up into the air where they popped and produced a strange groan that sounded like relief.

Pock joyfully looked at each of us and whispered solemnly, “Guys, remember this day . . .” He even choked up a little before continuing, “. . . because today we made history.” He shook his head slowly, wiped his eyes, smiled up into the darkness and whispered, “It’s really working.”

Now can we eat?” Patting his belly as evidence, Gary declared, “I’m starving.”

Charles couldn’t agree more. His speech was slowly but surely becoming more intelligible when he asked, “Yah, cahnweeach?”

 

Chapter Seventeen: Out to the Beach

 

Back up at the top of the stairwell, we stopped to listen for any telltale sounds of trouble outside, and when all seemed quiet, Pock opened the upper door. Once outside, the old man asked if I would attempt to close the door before showing me the correct combination. Guillermo lifted me up, and after only three tries, I pushed the correct sequence of bricks. As soon as the outer door was no longer visible, we crept down to the large wall surrounding the graveyard and quietly scrambled over. Climbing over first, Guillermo helped Pock and me down the other side. Gary then scrambled over, and we dragged a battered and bruised Charles over the top until he plummeted down into the stickers in a heap. Sparkles, who had barely noticed our return, bounded over the wall after us and followed at his own leisurely pace. I, for one, was very glad to see him at ease.

 

Nobody cared where we ate, so we agreed to stop at the first restaurant we spotted, and it didn’t take long to find a little Mexican place. At the front door, Pock stopped short, rubbed his chin, looked back and then at us and said, “Guys, I’m going to go back to keep an eye on the eck. This is too important.”

Opening the door and gesturing for Pock to come in, Guillermo asked, “Not even some chips and salsa?”

Pock shook his head. “Thanks, but I don’t want to leave it unattended.”

I asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to come in and grab a quick bite first? Charles is buying.”

Shaking his head again, Pock admitted, “I’m too excited to eat anyway. Now that I know you’re safe, I’m heading back down.” After some thought, he advised, “Check with the cuttlefish at the aquarium. They’ll know how to find Kroe-Vogk.”

I frowned and asked, “Check with the cuttlefish? As in cuttlefish?”

Pock nodded. “Yeah, cuttlefish.” He asked Charles, “Have you ever communicated with fish before?”

Charles, who had still not fully recovered, shook his head and replied, “Noosh.”

Gary raised his hand.

Pointing at him, Pock asked, “Gary?”

“I have, but only in making small talk like ‘good morning’ and ‘nice weather we’re having’. Fish just stare at me like I’m going to eat them and swim away. They’re rude.”

I laughed, “They’re not rude, Gare. If you could catch them, you would eat them. They’re smart, and they like it better when they’re not being eaten.”

Gary turned to Charles and asked, “Charles, are fish rude?”

Charles nodded and declared, “Fissh-rr exshremery rood.”

Guillermo agreed too: “Fish don’t like demons, Gordo. Whenever I’m traveling along the bottom of the ocean and cross paths with any type of fish, big or small, it will usually swim up, bite me and hurry away for no reason. They’re just mean.”

So folding my arms to show my skepticism, I asked, “What about dolphins? Are they rude?”

The three demons nodded vigorously and Charles claimed, “Shoot, they won’t give ush the shime of day. What we eversh-oo to the dolphinsh? Noshing, that’sh what.”

With raised eyebrows, I noted, “Well, you learn something new every day.”

Pock explained, “The fish at the aquarium have a thick, Pacific Ocean accent. They speak the same basic language as birds, but it can be difficult to understand. Just listen carefully, and you should get the gist of what they’re saying.” He paused and asked, “Guillermo? I was hoping you could stay and help me while they pay Kroe-Vogk a visit.”

Without missing a beat, Guillermo replied, “I’ll go where I am needed. What will I do?”

“As the eck begins to thicken, it’ll become difficult for me to stir on my own, and you can help by transferring the final mixture into the mold.” Putting his hand on my shoulder, Pock spoke under his breath: “Gordo, please be careful, and don’t forget about the repellent.” Handing me his miskreant whistle, he said, “And take this. It might come in handy. I don’t know what its range is, so you’ll want to test it when you have a chance.” He removed a green handkerchief from his pocket, handed it over and added, “These are my last two knuckle-rocks. They might help against brakken, but don’t try to use them on a full-grown miskreant. You’ll only make it angry.”

“Thanks.” I squinted at him suspiciously and explained, “You know, we’ll be back in five hours, tops.”

Pock sighed. “I hope so, but we don’t know where we’ll be next week or tomorrow or even in the next hour.” He glanced at his feet and back up before asking, “Do you know how to make God laugh?”

I thought a moment and guessed, “Um, steal an antique cauldron, stick a smelly old demon in it and roll them both down a long flight of stairs?”

Pock chuckled and said, “No. Just tell Him your plans.” He grinned brightly, causing his skin to wrinkle up like a dried prune, and it occurred to me that, although he was spry, lucid and strong, Pock could easily have been over a hundred years old.

I absently repeated his words: “Tell Him your plans. Ah, I get it; there’s no such thing as chance — everything is preordained and freedom of choice is an illusion.” I nodded and smiled weakly.

Pointing at me, Pock said, “Right. Everything has a reason, and the future is set in stone.”

“Yeah? We’ll just see about that. And if you’re wrong, you owe me a dollar. And I’m not going to forget.”

Pock chuckled and replied, “You might as well pay me now.”

Pock then suggested that Guillermo grab some dinner before heading back down to the chamber, and Guillermo was more than happy to oblige, and as the old man turned away, I asked, “How do we reach you if something comes up?”

He shrugged and said, “You can’t.”

“Don’t you have a phone?”

“I don’t. But if you have news, tell the birds and I’ll hear about it within the hour.” Finally, he instructed, “Guillermo, knock five times on the back of the mission, and I can open the door from the eck-chamber.” And as soon as Guillermo nodded that he understood, Pock headed off down the street and disappeared around the corner.

 

It was a warm evening, so we took a table on the patio. Charles wanted three enchiladas, two large burritos and a large Fresca. Gary wanted three tostadas, four quesadillas and a large Fresca as well. Guillermo politely requested eight large beef burritos and a glass of milk, and after placing their orders, I asked for a large chicken burrito and a glass of water for myself. The waitress asked me if I was expecting more people in my party, so I gave her the standard response that I suffered from a gland condition and a hyperactive metabolism, and if I didn’t eat constantly, I would die. Like most people, she wasn’t sure if I was kidding, so she didn’t say anything else while collecting the menus and hurrying away with my order.

Sparkles, who had opted to remain outside, climbed up on top of the trellis and found himself a nice spot directly overhead, causing the support beams to groan under his weight. At first, I was a uneasy at the thought of some two thousand pounds of miskreant crashing down on top of me while I was trying to eat, but after telling myself that Sparkles knew what he was doing, I tried to relax.

The waitress soon returned with the drinks and placed all four of them in front of me, and as soon as she left, I handed Charles and Gary their sodas and Guillermo his milk. The knuckleheads raced to see who could finish first, and Charles won, of course, with a resounding belch that jangled the wind-chimes.

The service was fast, and when the food arrived, I had to slap Charles’ hand away until the waitress had left. Once she had departed, I told them that we had to say grace, causing Charles to give me an obligatory, that’s-not-funny glare, so I distributed the plates and asked them to please eat discreetly, but all three of them ignored me and had their plates cleaned in less than a minute. After only a few bites, I pushed my plate away. All of the excitement of the day had killed my appetite, so when Charles and Gary graciously offered to eat the rest of my burrito, I cut it in half and handed it over, and they attacked it like a couple of starving pig-dogs.

Leaning forward, I whispered, “I wonder if Pock is telling us everything. He was acting like we might not be back soon.”

Charles spoke with his mouth full: “Oh, Gord, you think everybody is hiding something. You even thought I was hiding some big secret on the way to the Gathering. You’re so paranoid.” He let out a condescending chuckle.

I blinked at Charles several times before correcting him: “Uh, you were hiding something, Charles. You didn’t bother to mention that Xocotl and Xototl wanted my help. Remember?”

With no reply at hand, he blinked at me several times before changing the subject: “Shoot,” he said, “we run over to Monterey, find this Kroe-Vogk, he shows us how to catch a miskreant, and we return — easy cheesy.” When he burp-talked ‘easy cheesy’, his breath smelled like cilantro, refried-beans and Fresca.

I wrinkled my nose and fanned the air. “Nice one, Charles. They’ll probably pick that one up on the seismometer across town.”

Not to be outdone, Gary grinned mischievously and warned, “Oh yeah? Brace yourselves.” He lowered his chin and was silent, and after a few suspenseful seconds, he opened his arms wide, raised his open mouth to the heavens, and with a tremendous, rumbling pillar of gas, burp-talked, “Rubber-baby-buggy-bumpers,” three times in a row.

Over the years, I had learned to time their belches for the sake of posterity, so I started counting to myself, “One thousand one, one thousand two . . .” and I made it all the way to ten before he ran out of gas. Charles, Guillermo and I exchange a wide-eyed look of amazement while Gary folded his arms and played it real cool like it was no big deal, and because we had just witnessed history being made, we applauded slowly and sincerely.

Charles tried to repeat the tongue twister: “Uh, rubber . . . bubber-bumper, no wait . . . rubber-buggy . . . baggy, wait, I got it . . . rubber-bumpy-baby-boogers.” Growling in frustration, he tried again: “Rubber . . . No, rubber . . . bubby — Rrr!” He pounded the table with his fist.

I tried to help: “Charles, just say it slowly — rubber-baby-buggy-bumpers. See?”

He tried again: “Rubby, no wait . . . rubber-bumpy-bubber . . . Rrr! Rubber! . . . bubby-bumper! . . . bumpers.” He punched himself in the head, but it didn’t help. “Rugger-mubber, bugger bum . . . Rrr!”

Guillermo, Gary and I exchanged a knowing look that made Charles even more determined. He figured if he spoke with greater volume and force, he could get it right: “Rubber! Baby! Bumm . . . Rubber! Bumper! Rrr!”

I encouraged Charles: “Practice makes perfect. You’ll get it someday.” Then, with an outstretched hand, I wiggled my fingers impatiently at him.

Charles absently handed me two twenties before trying again: “Rubby, gubber, bummer . . .”

We headed for the checkout counter, and after I paid the cashier, Gary elbowed me so I wouldn’t forget the mints. I grabbed four, but Gary elbowed me a second time and whispered, “What about Sparkles?” And even though I knew the miskreant would only give it a sniff, I grabbed one for Sparkles too.

Outside, we bid Guillermo adieu, and after thanking Charles for dinner, he moseyed off down the street towards the mission.

I took a deep breath and searched for Sparkles to find he had wandered off. And after not being able to locate him, we began calling his name. Remembering the whistle, I brought it out and was about to blow it when I spotted him up on top of a building across the street, standing on his hind legs and staring at something directly overhead. Following his gaze, I spotted three small dots that were too far up to discern, and when the marine layer thickened, it blocked whatever they were from our view.

I asked Charles, “Did you see that?” And when he nodded, I asked, “Were they brakken?”

Charles shrugged. “Mm, not sure. Too high.” Searching the sky, he stuttered, “But, um, we-we-we . . . should probably get going. No point in pushing our luck.”

Gary and I nodded vigorously in agreement, and we kept our eyes on the sky while doing the quick-step back to the pickup. As we piled in, Charles called shotgun, but after a brief squabble, we convinced him it was Gary’s turn to have the window. Grumbling and huffing, Charles struggled into the cab and scooted his rotund posterior over to the center. A few tense minutes passed before Sparkles finally appeared and hopped in, causing the truck to groan and sag.

The fog continued rolling in nice and thick, but Sparkles kept his gaze on the sky while we headed west on 156. After struggling to get the stick into fourth, I released the clutch and asked, “Are those the same ones that attacked us back at Casa de Fruta?”

Without taking his eyes off of the sky, Gary explained, “No, these were different. Those last three have to go back down for repairs.”

Seeing me white knuckling the steering wheel, Charles explained, “You can relax. They won’t get any closer while Sparkles is with us.”

Glancing over, I asked, “Yeah? Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure. They won’t tangle with him again in such small numbers. They’re more interested in learning how Sparkles was freed from the curse.”

I groaned and declared, “Okay, let’s turn around and go home now and have everything go back to the way it was before we started this dumb trip.”

Charles messed up my hair, chuckled and tried to encourage me: “Gord, you heard Pock; this is your path. Just try to have more faith . . .” With eyes wide, he gasped at his own words before quickly covering his mouth with both hands.

Not believing my ears, I gawked at him and asked slowly and clearly, “What did you just say?

Gary, also not believing his ears, gawked at Charles in astonished silence.

Charles tried to change the subject by wondering aloud what time the aquarium might close. He then nervously glanced over at me before looking straight ahead, but I continued to stare at him in silence before calmly and slowly saying, “No, I want you to repeat what you just said, Charles. What should I have more of?”

He rubbed his nose, crossed his arms, quickly glanced at me again. He then faced forward, chuckled nervously and asked, “Repeat what? What are you talking about?” He laughed again, even more pathetically.

“You know, repeat what you just said. What should I have more of, Charles?”

He scratched his neck, rubbed his ear, and gave me a shove. “Shoot, ha ha. I don’t remember! Um, rubber-bugger-bumpy . . . Ooo, don’t you just love this-this cool, ocean breeze?” Again, he laughed nervously before picking his teeth with a fingernail.

Since he was being so forgetful, I decided to remind him. Poking him in the shoulder, I spoke loudly: “You were going to tell me to have more fai . . . !” I guffawed as Charles clamped a hand over my mouth and held his index finger in front of his lips, shaking his head vigorously. I shoved his hand away, swerving the truck in the process, and growled, “I’m not going to shush! I know what you said! You said . . . !” Both Charles and Gary waved their hands and shook their heads, so I glanced over at them and scowled. And when I looked over a second time, I scowled even harder and declared, “Oh, please. You’re afraid of getting in trouble? The arch-demons can’t punish you now. They need our help, so relax already.”

They both shook their heads and Charles pleaded, “Gord, demons aren’t supposed to ever mention. . . you know, that. It’s in the top three!”

Chuckling with delight, I asked, “Oh, yeah? Well, what are the other two? You know, so I’ll be sure to steer clear of those as well.” I was grinning brightly, but neither of them thought I was being very funny. In fact, they both looked about as serious as a couple of toothaches. So I sighed and said, “Okay, okay, we’ll change the subject.” Chuckling once more, I gently punched Charles in the shoulder. “But I heard you. Shoot, who would have ever thought that you would ever tell me to . . . oh, never mind.” Elbowing my demon, I muttered, “Hey Charles, rubber-baby-buggy-bumpers.”

Charles visibly calmed down and tried again: “Rubber-bubber . . . bump . . .” When he punched the dash in frustration, Gary and I laughed at his speech impediment, and Gary’s laugh was, as always, infectious, so Charles couldn’t help but laugh too.

 

We headed south for another twenty minutes on 101, with all four of us keeping an eye out for brakken, before jumping onto 156 and making our way west towards Castroville, and just as we reached Highway 1, Sparkles vaulted out of the truck and landed nimbly on the side of the highway. And without so much as a look back, he bounded down the off ramp and headed west towards the dunes. The truck lurched hard when he jumped out, and I had to struggle to keep it from flipping.

“What the . . . !” I over-corrected causing the truck to fishtail left and then right, and after a few breathless seconds of steering into each skid, I was able to bring us to a stop on the shoulder. Putting it in reverse, I asked, “Now where’s he going?”

In unison, Charles and Gary replied, “To the beach!”

“Dang it! The Aquarium’s going to close!” In my haste, I popped the clutch, and the Ford lurched backwards before it choked and died. After growling under my breath, I asked, “Gary, could you please tell him to get back here?”

With both hands cupped around his mouth, Gary shouted, “Sparr-kles! Come back!”

But Sparkles, undeterred from whatever he thought he was doing, continued to tear through the sand like some big creepy, four-legged dune-buggy.

Gary quickly unfastened his seatbelt and tumbled out the window before sprinting off down the freeway embankment, shouting, “Don’t worry! I’ll get him!”

Starting the truck and backing up to the off-ramp, I speed-shifted into first and headed down the ramp. Gary waved for us to stop and pick him up, but believing that catching Sparkles should be priority, I sped on by, and while he attempted to grab the tailgate, Gary tripped and dropped out of sight in my rear-view mirror.

 

We arrived at the beach parking lot just as Sparkles was cresting the last set of dunes. I shouted, “Hey!” but he was too busy kicking up a flurry of sand and scrambling over the summit. A moment later, the bright eyed shadow disappeared down the other side. I parked and Charles and I climbed out, and bracing myself against a brisk wind, I trudged out towards the surf with Charles in tow.

An impressive flock of seagulls that was circling over Sparkles was making quite a racket, and we were able to follow their calls through the thickening fog and fading light down to the shoreline where we found the uncooperative miskreant sitting in the sand, staring out at the gray nothingness.

I stood directly in front of him with arms folded tightly so he could see my annoyance, and grumped, “Sparkles, you idiot.”

Kicking sand on my feet, Gary said in between gasps of air, “He-he’s . . . not a-an idiot!” He then shoved me, declaring, “He-he’s smart!”

I looked up at Gary and asked, “How’d you get here so fast?”

Panting a few more times, Gary replied, “I ran.”

In order to see around me, Sparkles leaned to one side, so I stepped in his line of sight in an attempt to block his view, but he simply stood up on his hind legs. Frowning up at him, I called, “Hello-oo?” but he wouldn’t even look down, so I waved both hands over my head to try to get his attention. “Sparr-kless! Let’s go-o!”

Deciding it was an opportune time to frolic, Charles kicked off his one remaining flip-flop before he and Gary headed out to the surf, giggling like a couple of kids.

“Guys, this isn’t play time. We’ve got to get him back in the truck.”

Charles turned and sighed before trudging back up to me and explaining, “Gord, you know he won’t go back to the truck until he’s good and ready. Give it up. Besides, I bet the aquarium is closed by now. We’ll have to find Kroe-Vogk tomorrow.”

A large piece of kelp flew through the air and wrapped itself around Charles’ big head with a loud shlopp! And to Gary’s utter delight, it slid down the side of Charles’ face before dropping into the sand. Gary burst out laughing as he fled the scene, and Charles chased him, declaring, “Oh, you are so dead!”

Charles was right. We could beg, push, prod, chastise, cajole and bribe the miskreant, but Sparkles would only go back to the truck when he felt like it. Four days ago, we were trying to figure out how to ditch him, and now we were changing our itinerary to accommodate any eccentric whim he might have.

Standing motionless, with his blazing eyes beaming into the fog, Sparkles reminded me of a two legged lighthouse. Following his gaze, I whispered, “What’s out there, Sparklers? What are you looking for?”

Remaining completely motionless, the miskreant said nothing.

Carefully searching for even the slightest detail on his body, I walked around him twice. He was nothing but a void, and looking at him was like looking into empty space. He was darkness, a perfect silhouette with radiant eyes. I reached up and touched his arm to find he was still hot, but I sensed something else too, something barely discernible. I had not noticed it before, and when a strange pulse of energy started to move up my arm, I pulled my hand away. His power didn’t seem malignant, but I didn’t want to push my luck.

Searching the fog, I whispered, “Are the miskreants calling you?” And when he didn’t reply, I sat down in the sand, kicked off my shoes and socks and picked up a handful of sand. Letting it fall through my fingers, I tried to imagine how many grains I was holding. I then reclined back and locked my fingers behind my head and watched the growing flock of seagulls circling overhead, and to my surprise, their numbers had increased by at least a factor of ten since we had arrived.

“Oh, are you talking to them? If you are, tell them it’s okay to poop on you but not on me.”

Sparkles continued to ignore me, so I closed my eyes and listened to the crashing of the waves, the cries of the birds and the occasional yelps of laughter coming from Charles and Gary as they attempted to go out as far as possible into the surf without getting their pants wet. The warmth radiating up out of the sand and the sound of the surf were just what was needed to fall to sleep.

 

Alone deep inside the Earth and unsure whether I was blind or there was simply no light source, I heard, somewhere out in the distance, voices calling for help. And as I made my way toward them, I realized I couldn’t tell if I was walking in a straight line. They called out from ahead, then behind, then high above and then below. I called back, “I can’t find you! I can’t see anything!” But the voices begged me to hurry, so with outstretched arms, I broke into a run.

What if there was a wall in front of me? Or a cliff? My instinct was to turn back, but I kept running. Behind me was a deep blackness, and somewhere ahead was a hateful, cruel consciousness warning me to go back. There was a palpable power coming from the consciousness, but there was also fear.

Off in the distance, a light appeared, and as I moved towards it, I could make out a figure moving towards me. After a long while, I could finally discern the figure was holding a light source. I called out, and the figure raised the light up. And when we met, I could see it was Sparkles. The miskreant opened his eyes and whispered,“Keep going forward.”

 

I sat up with a jolt to find myself alone on the beach. The fog had lifted to reveal a vibrant evening sky. After searching north and finding nothing but sand and waves, I spotted Charles, Gary and Sparkles off to the south, standing out in the surf. And as I headed towards them, I noticed the seagulls were no longer circling over Sparkles. They had moved out over the water.

When I reached them, Charles pointed at a small cluster of black dots appearing, disappearing and reappearing between the swells.

“What are those?” I asked.

Charles whispered, “Can’t you hear him?”

I whispered back, “Hear who? Sparkles?”

Nodding, Charles pointed at the black dots. “He’s talking to those otters.”

I whispered back, “I don’t hear a thing. What are they saying?”

“Don’t know. It’s quite musical though. Imagine a hundred symphonies playing one perfect, solitary note at the same time.”

I frowned. “Huh? What does one perfect, solitary note sound like?”

Charles shrugged again. “You asked me to describe what I hear. That’s the best I’ve got.”

And Gary agreed, “That’s a pretty fair description, really.”

I frowned at Sparkles and whined, “But I want to hear too.”

Charles rapped me lightly in the chest. “Well, instead of flapping your yap, try listening for a change.”

I gave him a dirty look and tried to smack him back, but he dodged out of reach, so taking Charles’ advice, I moved next to Sparkles, closed my eyes and listened, but the roar of the surf and the cries of the seagulls were the only sounds to be heard. I forced myself to focus, but Sparkles seemed as silent as the grave. Sighing heavily, I grumped, “I can’t hear anything.”

“Yes, you can.” Charles squinted at me and rubbed his chin. “How were you able to hear the bees this morning? Huh?”

“I don’t know. I just heard them talking underneath the hum.”

“Yes, but did you hear them with your ears or your whole being?”

“With my ears. I could hear them.”

Charles squinted at me. “Are you sure?”

“Am I sure? Yeah, I’m sure.” I thought a moment before adding, “I think.”

“Try again. This time, listen with your heart and not your ears.”

I smirked at him and muttered, “You sound like one of those mountain guru yogurts.”

Charles whispered, “I think the term is yogis. Now pipe down and try again.”

“No, you pipe down.” I took several long, deep breaths and tried to clear my mind.

Charles said, “There’s only right now and right here. It’s always been now and it will always be now. There is no before or after, no yesterday or tomorrow.”

His words made no sense, but for some reason, they helped me focus. I closed my eyes and listened, and for several minutes, I heard nothing out of the ordinary. And as I was about to give up, a distant but clear tone became audible. It was intertwined in a chorus of what sounded like faraway voices. Trying to understand such a strange dialect wasn’t possible, so I just listened, and just as with the bees, an overwhelming sense of giddiness soon took hold. I was able to repress the laughter only a few seconds before losing control. Slapping my hands over my mouth to try to muffle the laughter, I only made things worse and ended up snorting loudly through my fingers. I probably should have moved away from Sparkles so he could finish his conversation, but the words were too wonderful and, I might add, hilarious. So remaining right where I was, I laughed until I cried. The beauty of what I heard started to give me a renewed sense of optimism, and my anxiety started to fade. The voices weren’t in my imagination. They were real.

Knowing I was acting inappropriately, I continued to laugh and no longer cared. Fortunately for me, Sparkles showed no sign of being even the slightest bit annoyed. I wasn’t sure how much time passed before the miskreant ended his conversation with the otters, but the voices stopped all at once, like someone had flipped a switch. I wanted Sparkles to continue, but he was obviously finished because he sat down in the sand and started grooming.

Grabbing my stomach, I chuckled one last time. “Ow. That was too funny.” I wiped my eyes dry, stood up and scanned the waves for the otters, but they were gone.

Patting the miskreant on his back, I asked, “What did you tell them, Sparky? I hope you weren’t rude.”

“His name isn’t Sparky.” Gary scolded, “His name’s Spark . . .”

In stereo, Charles and I loudly interrupted, “. . . Sparkles!”

Surprised by our sudden outburst, Gary frowned and muttered, “Well, it is.”

Now in a greatly elevated mood and using my annoying, nasal voice, I mocked, “His name is Sparkles.”

Gary became unusually quiet as he glowered at me, and I could see the gears spinning in his head as his mouth curved upward into an evil grin that made me suddenly afraid for my personal safety.

Backing slowly away, I warned, “Gary? Whatever you’re thinking, you just stop it. You hear me?”

Gary took two steps forward. “You know, Charles? Don’t you think Gord’s a little too dry for being at the ocean? I’m thinking it just doesn’t seem natural, does it? In fact, I would say it seems so very . . . very . . . wrong.”

Backing away, I replied defiantly, “The only thing wrong here is-is-is . . . your face! Don’t you come any closer, you freak.

The same devious smile spread across Charles’ face, and to my dismay, he agreed, “Yeah, Gary, he does seem a little too dry, now that you mention it.”

Charles joined Gary in stalking me, and together, they slowly and purposefully closed the gap with their stupid, grubby, outstretched hands. After losing my footing and falling backwards, I quickly sprang to my feet. Laughing nervously, I warned, “Okay guys, not funny. I can’t get wet right now. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m coming down with something.” I forced a cough that would not have fooled my own mother. “I think I have a fever too. Do you want to me to die?”

With both hands pressed against his cheeks, Charles mocked, “Oh, no! You have a fever? That’s terrible! Hey, I know how to get a fever down. A nice . . . cold . . . bath!”

Realizing they were going to take their shenanigans much too far, I hurled two handfuls of sand at them and fled for my life. They both, of course, were immediately in hot pursuit, giggling and ordering me to take my medicine like a man. It wasn’t a fair race because demons have bigger feet than people, and it’s much easier for them to run through sand. In no time, they caught up and lifted me like a sack of kicking, screaming garbage.

In desperation, I railed, “Guys, this is not acceptable! I’m reporting both of you, and-and-and insist you get transferred to somewhere terrible! Put me down! I’m telling Xototl!”

I twisted, kicked, wriggled, punched and pleaded, but it was all for naught. Charles had me in a headlock and Gary held my feet tightly as they hurried down to the cold, dark, merciless sea. And through maniacal giggling, Charles replied, “I seriously doubt I can get transferred now. Actually, I think you’re right, Gordo. Xototl isn’t about to punish us. He needs us!” After brief contemplation, he let out, “Moo-ha-ha-ha!”

In desperation, I pulled out the heavy guns: “Guys, look, if-if-if-if you don’t do this? We’ll get pizza tonight, o-okay? And-and any toppings you want and-and-and, um, cookie dough too, okay? And you can put bugs, worms and-and whatever else you want on them, and I won’t even complain. How’s that sound?”

Shaking his head, Gary sadly declared, “Sorry Gord, it’s out of our control now; you’re going in.”

To no avail, I twisted with all of my might while Charles and Gary continued to giggle maniacally, and their laughter would have been contagious if their actions had been even the slightest bit funny. I had to keep myself from laughing because to join in would be expressing my approval over their inexcusable behavior.

The thugs proceeded to carry me out into the surf where they waited for a big wave to roll in, and like a perfectly timed gift from above, a massive swell gleamed and glinted under a setting sun on its way ashore.

Charles cried out, “Perfect! Look at that! Okay, wait for it. Wait for it. One? . . . Two? . . . Three!”

And just as the monster wave smashed into us, they swung me high and let go, and at the last instant, I took in a deep breath and closed my eyes before going under. I knew it was going to be cold but not exactly how cold. Rolling along under the surface with no sense of up or down, I finally hit bottom and discovered I was upside down when salt water started going in my nose. I twisted around and pushed against the bottom, launching myself back up to the surface where I choked and gaspd.

Charles and Gary casually strode back up to dry sand and watched with glee while I floundered and stumbled around in the surf for a while. Another sizable wave rolled in, and before it knocked me under, I saw them give each other a high-five, and suddenly their antics seemed even less hilarious.

After a little more floundering and stumbling, I was finally able to regain my footing, and not unlike a shipwrecked pirate, I pushed my way out of the ocean and trudged up to my assailants, glaring at them with all my being. Shivering violently and through chattering teeth, I muttered, “T-t-too c-cold. I-I’ve g-got, got t-to g-get b-back to the-the t-truck. I h-hate you-you both . . . a-a l-lot.”

But I had only shuffled a few steps before Gary pointed at the water and muttered, “Uh-oh.”

Out in the swells, not far from where the otters had been moments before, an extraordinarily large, featureless head with blazing eyes was rising out of the water.

“Y-you’ve g-got t-to-to b-be kidding,” I whispered while instinctively backing away.

The giant began plowing through the water towards the beach, and it was the first time I had ever seen Charles truly afraid. When he and Gary glanced at each other and stepped in front of me, I could tell by their expressions that we were in trouble. At another time or place, I would have found the sight of the two of them standing up against an oncoming mountain of ferocity as somewhat comical. Instead, I was filled with a profound gratitude for their willingness to put themselves in grave danger to try to protect me, and I knew if we survived, I wouldn’t forget it.

Charles found a short piece of driftwood which he picked it up and brandished valiantly, while Gary did the same with a broken Frisbee. If they were going to stand their ground, I was going to stand mine, for all the good it would do. I searched around for something to use as a weapon, but all I could find was the other half of the Frisbee. With no better option, I picked it up thinking at least it might produce a nice scratch.

From out of nowhere, Sparkles slid to a stop directly between us and the oncoming leviathan. And standing upright, he clenched his hands into fists as a low rumbling began to rise up from deep inside. His surface started to change from its usual, black nothingness into something resembling hot, jagged stone, and the heat radiating off him was so intense that the sand around his feet started to liquefy.

The adult miskreant stopped in the surf as it gauged Sparkles, and when its eyes narrowed and its head lowered, I could tell it was going to attack. In response, Sparkles’ inner rumblings grew louder and he leaned forward, and as the two miskreants sized each other up and down, I spotted a small piece of blue plastic poking out of the sand and pulled at it to find a plastic shovel. It probably wouldn’t come in very useful in fending off a demon the size of a three-story house, but I brandished it along with my piece of Frisbee anyway.

Gary whispered, “What’s it waiting for?”

Charles whispered back, “I think it’s confused. It doesn’t know what to make of Sparkles.”

With eyes locked on Sparkles, the adult continued to rise up as the water cascaded off its back, and after reaching its full height, it strode up onto dry land.

Removing the green handkerchief from my pocket, I opened it to find both knuckle-rocks spinning wildly. I grabbed one and brought it back to throw, but Gary grabbed my arm. “Gord, no! You’ll enrage it!”

Trying to pull away, I asked, “Wh-what else are we s-supposed to d-do? Just s-stand here like, like s-sheep?”

Gary let go and whispered, “Gord, remember what Pock said? Don’t use it on an adult!”

I scowled at him for a moment, but then remembering Pock’s warning, I lowered my weapon.

Glancing back, Charles whispered, “Listen! They’re taking! No, they’re arguing!”

Taking long, deep breaths, I tried to clear my head to hear, but I could detect nothing but the clamor of a lot of very upset seagulls, the roar of the surf and Sparkles’ deep rumblings.

Charles gasped. “Oh, no. It’s sounds like they’re shouting at each other. They don’t trust each other! Uh-oh!”

Taking another step forward, the adult miskreant hurled a large, translucent sphere of something resembling warped space, and it slammed smack into Sparkles’ chest before engulfing him completely.

Charles hissed, “It’s the curse! They’re going to take him back!”

Sparkles kicked and punched at the web-like aura as it wrapped around him like some kind of evil shrink-wrap. He flipped over, rolled in the sand and let out a death-moan. And after a being motionless for several seconds, he raged with enough ferocity to repel the curse, but as soon as it regrouped in mid-air, it attacked a second time, enveloping him even more tightly. No longer aware of the cold, I blinked in horror at the outrage unfolding before us. Knowing Sparkles would not be able to free himself and unable to assist, my mind seized.

“Gordo!” Grabbing my shoulder and shaking me, Gary yelled, “Hey! Those knuckle-rocks! Use them on Sparkles!” He had to shake me even harder before I regained my sanity.

“Huh?” I blinked several times before understanding his words. “Oh, right!” I threw the first knuckle-rock at Sparkles, but even standing so close, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a miskreant. My aim being absolutely dreadful, the stone flew away at a ninety degree angle from its intended target. But it quickly curved back around, sped up and punched into the side of Sparkles’ head with a loud fomp! The miskreant spasmed several times and let out another horrible groan, but the curse still held fast.

Charles cried out, “This one is stronger! Throw the second one! Throw it now!”

He wasn’t getting an argument from me. I took careful aim at Sparkles, drew back, fired and missed by a mile. But fortunately, the second knuckle-rock curved back around and hit him in square the head. The curse continued to keep its hold until Sparkles rose to his feet and tore it off. It then tried to flee, but Sparkles had other plans, and after a brief but frantic struggle, the miskreant wrangled it to the ground and began pulling it apart, causing the abomination to let out a shriek that burned at my mind and made my knees buckle.

The curse convulsed and writhed before finally letting out a death shudder. Sparkles stood upright and defiantly flung the curse’s limp remains back at the giant, and when it hit the water, it erupted in a pillar of contorted, broken faces that shot up into the sky and vanished.

Bristling with fury, the giant slowly lifted its head, and I was just able to cover my ears before it raged. At the same moment the adult rushed forward, Sparkles charged down to greet it, and just before they collided, he leaped up, dug in and began sending bolts of black electricity into the giant’s neck. The adult smashed its fist into Sparkles’ head, knocking him loose, causing him to go limp and drop into the surf. The adult reached down, grabbed him and flung him out into the sea where his body hit the water and sank.

Charles and Gary charged forward, screaming and yelling as they mutated into their berserker forms, but the bluff didn’t work very well because as soon as they were in reach, the adult swatted them both with one hand, sending them pinwheeling up into the air and out over the bay until they subsequently smacked into the surface and sank like a couple of rocks.

When the miskreant looked up, locked eyes with me and seethed, I brandished my Frisbee fragment and stammered, “Ah, p-p-poop.”

It’s eyes darkened as it studied me for a moment, but instead of attacking, it turned, charged back into the waves and disappeared below the surface. And except for some very upset seagulls, the shoreline was serene once more.

 

Chapter Eighteen: Meet Abbey Street

 

The waves slid up over the wet sand and retreated in great, wide sheets back to the sea, over and over, like they had done since the Earth cooled. I was alone.

Soaking wet and shivering like a leaf, I scanned the ever darkening sea under a twilight sky. I wasn’t sure how long demons could hold their breath and had never timed Charles to find out, but figured they would be able to stay under for a good while, if not indefinitely.

As soon as my heart rate returned to normal, I began to realize how very cold I was. My fingers, toes and ears hurt, and I was shivering violently. In an attempt to warm myself, I sat down in the sand and pulled my knees up against my chest just before the ocean erupted in a fountain of spray as the adult miskreant charged back up onto the beach, completely covered in a blanket of marine life. Crustaceans, jellyfish, lampreys and vast swarms of tiny critters were biting and stinging it. Even an assortment of otters, shark, squid, mollusks and a host of other marine animals had attached themselves to its body and refused to let go. The giant shrieked as it dropped to its knees, brushing and pulling its attackers off and angrily crushing them by the hundreds inside its fist.

Seagulls, pelicans, sand pipers and scores of other bird species rushed in and swarmed the giant. By the thousands, they dropped out of the sky and began pecking and scratching angrily. The giant, unable to fend off so many, crawled through the sand, slapping and pulling at its attackers. And to my amazement, even the injured birds hurried back into the fray. The giant swiped wildly at the air, and with some exceptions, most of the birds simply parried out of the way before swooping back in for a counterattack. Overcome, the miskreant got back to its feet and shuddered before turning and staggering back towards the water. The otters ended their assault and dropped away, but the sharks refused to give up the fight and remained clamped onto its legs, tenaciously wriggling back and forth. And as quickly as it had appeared, the giant stumbled back into the waves and was gone.

Seeing the coast was clear, I hurried down to the battle scene and began the unusual chore of picking up and transporting, one-by-one, hundreds of sea-creatures back to the water. My fingers stung from the cold, and I knew my core temperature was precariously low, but I wasn’t about to stand by while the injured and stunned flopped about helplessly in the sand. Keeping my hands well clear of its sharp teeth, I carried a small shark back to the water. Still worked up from the heat of battle, he wriggled violently in my hands and shot away as soon as I put him in the surf. I went back up, picked up another and carried it down to the surf to send it on its merry way, and as I trudged back and forth, I kept an eye on the waves for any sign of my friends. The minutes continued to tick by, and my concern turned to worry, but focusing on the task of picking up little heroes, one at a time, and carrying them down and dropping them in the surf, I was able to keep my wits. After about fifteen trips, I discovered I could place many more animals in my shirt and carry them down together.

Finally, to my great relief, Sparkles reappeared out in the waves with Charles tucked under one arm and Gary under the other. The miskreant stumbled back up to the beach and gently laid both demons in the sand before having himself a nice sit.

I finished putting the last of the sea animals back in the water, including the casualties, and surveyed the area to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anyone. Seeing my job complete, I trudged back up to check on the guys. I nudged Charles’ nose with my foot until he sat up straight and purged a surprisingly large quantity of sea water, so I used the same method on Gary with the same outcome.

Shivering violently, I knelt down and asked, “Are y-you o-ok-kay?”

In response, Charles coughed out a sand dollar and inspected it. “Bleh,” he declared before looking up and blinking. “Uh, yeah, I think so.” To my surprise, he coughed out a live flounder.

Pointing at a short piece of driftwood sticking out of his head, I asked, “How did th-that get there?”

“How did what . . . ?” Charles reached up and yanked on the wood. “Ow.” He pulled again, but it wouldn’t budge. He tugged harder, but it only yanked his head sideways. “Ow . . . Ah, dang it.”

I crouched next to him. “Here, let m-me have a tr-try. I-it l-looks like if you just twist it, it’ll j-just pop right . . . out . . .” I twisted in one direction and then the other, but it only rotated Charles’ head up and down.

“Or-r, m-maybe n-n-not.”

“Ow. Stop. It’s caught on my brain.” He sighed deeply. “Ah, well, that’s just great.” Slapping my hand, he leaned away so I couldn’t fiddle with it anymore.

I pondered Charles new head ornament a moment longer before turning to Gary and asking, “How ab-about y-you? You look ok-kay.”

Giving himself a quick self inspection, Gary muttered, “I think I’m good. That miskreant had a nice uppercut though. Ow.” He rubbed his jaw as he searched around. “Where’d it go?”

Standing up, I replied, “Heck, I-I d-don’t know. It t-took off b-back into the w-water.” I gestured at the sea. “Out that w-way.”

Gary nodded, stood up and hugged Sparkles, declaring, “Don’t you worry, we’ll never let them take you.”

We inspected Sparkles to find his head had been bashed in, but his injury didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest. Gary gently touched the damaged area and asked, “He’s hurt. What should we do?”

“Wh-what can we d-do? We’ll k-keep an eye on-n it and h-hope that he-he heals up-p as q-quickly as you two . . . Oh, I’m s-so c-cold.” In an attempt to warm up, I started jogging in place.

Pointing at his head, Charles cleared his throat and declared for the record, “Um, I’m injured too, you know.”

To placate Charles, Gary and I gave his so-called injury a brief inspection before turning our attentions back to Sparkles. Patting the miskreant on his back, Gary asked with great affection, “You okay, Buddy?”

“G-guys. I’ll b-be in th-the tr-truck. T-too c-c-cold.” With arms folded tightly, I made my way over the dunes and back to the shelter of the pickup. Getting in out of the wind was an improvement, but I started the engine and cranked the heat up to its highest setting before putting my fingers over the heater vents in the hopes of feeling them again.

Several minutes later, Sparkles, Charles and Gary appeared over the dunes, and to my surprise, nobody called shotgun. Gary happily sat in the middle, and Sparkles hopped in back without any hesitation or argument. Glancing over at them, I asked, “Well, the aquarium is definitely c-closed by n-now. What do we do?”

Charles leaned forward and looked me straight in the eye while he mocked my speech impediment: “W-We’ll G-Gordo, w-why d-don’t w-we get a r-room and g-go t-to the aq-aq-aquarium to-tomorrow?”

In response, I quickly reached around Gary and whacked Charles in the head before he could duck out of the way. I scolded, “D-don’t make f-fun, Charles. I have h-hypo-th-th-thermia.”

“N-no y-you d-d-d-don’t. Y-you’re j-just c-cold, you b-big b-b-baby.” He even snickered.

I wanted to taunt him by saying, “Rubber-baby-buggy-bumpers,” but I was shivering too hard, so I had to settled for, “Y-you t-t-twit.”

 

Fifteen miles south, we pulled into the first hotel we spotted to check for a vacancy. My teeth had stop chattering a little, but I was still drenched to the bone when I entered the lobby, and after explaining to the receptionist that I had been thrown in the ocean by a couple of terrible, terrible individuals, she told me that an assault like that should be reported to the police. Flashing Charles and Gary a quick stink-eye, I told her she was absolutely right, but my assailants would be long gone by now, and I had not been able to get a good look at them, but I was sure that karma would prevail in the end. Even though I was dripping all over the lobby, she took pity on me and upgraded my room to one with a view, so I thanked her and kicked Charles when she wasn’t looking. At first, he kicked me back, but when he realized I needed cash, he pulled out his roll of cash, removed the rubber-band, peeled off twelve twenties and stuffed them in my hand.

The receptionist handed over my key and receipt before pointing out that there was a sea-cucumber attached to the top of my shoe. Discovering she was indeed correct in her assertion, I told her I would return him to the ocean right away. She offered to have one of the staff take it down to the water, but I told her I didn’t mind taking it myself. Gary offered to deliver the echinoderm — that’s what he called it — back to its home, so as soon as we were outside, I handed the squishy little guy over. Cradling the cucumber like a baby, Gary shuffled off towards the beach.

I called out after him, “Hey, we’re in two-seventeen.”

Without looking back, he replied, “Okie-doke.”

The room only had one queen-size bed, and I shouted dibs a half second before Charles, but he said it wasn’t fair because he had had an arduous day and needed a good night’s rest. After explaining that rules were rules and that he might want to go pound salt, he wanted to know what that meant, but I didn’t really know for certain, so I told him it was probably an old expression and sounded disrespectful, so it seemed appropriate. He agreed that it did indeed sound disrespectful and he would have to remember to use it some time.

Gary had yet to return by the time I was cleaned up, so Charles and I went out to look for him with Sparkles in tow. We found him at the water’s edge where he had started work on an extremely ambitious sand-castle. Squatting in the sand, he was talking to the sea cucumber, and as we arrived, he explained, “This is Sir Walter Cucumber, and this is going to be his house, Shabby Abbey. He lives here with his twelve basset-hounds and a rooster named Mitchell.”

At Gary’s behest, Charles and I squatted down next to the castle to assist with some desperately needed upgrades, and as I got to work on the main hall, I asked, “What does Sir Walter do for a living?”

Without missing a beat, Gary replied with a straight face, “He’s a produce inspector, and he takes his job very seriously. The public relies on Walter to ensure that the food supply is always safe for consumption.” So Charles and I simply looked at each other before nodding with approval.

With both hands, Charles pulled a large supply of wet sand over to the castle and explained, “I’m going to build Sir Walter’s lab right here. He’s going to need access to all of the latest testing equipment.”

“Good thinking.” Gary then explained, “Sir Cucumber will need the most powerful microscopes, centrifuges and incubators for his staff.”

I volunteered, “How about a break-room over here?”

After only a moment’s consideration, Gary approved: “Yeah, that’s where the workers will play pinball and go swimming in the indoor swimming pool. And don’t forget the air-hockey table and the batting cage.”

“And the bowling alley?”

Nodding enthusiastically, Gary pointed at me. “Absolutely.”

Sparkles feigned disinterest, but I was pretty sure I caught him watching us at least twice as we added our upgrades to Shabby-Abbey. We built a library, a study, a theater, a gymnasium, an observatory, a bomb shelter and twenty other rooms that Walter would certainly need in his daily routine. Finally, we agreed that the castle needed a mote which took more work than all the other rooms combined, and when we had finished, we stood back to admire our handy work.

Brushing the sand off his hands and shoving them in his pockets, Gary sighed and muttered, “I wish the four of us could live here. That would be terrific.”

To be nice, I went along with him and agreed: “It would, wouldn’t it?”

Gary sighed again and spoke wistfully: “Gord, if you could have two demons assigned to you, I could stay with you guys.” Absently smoothing the sand on the outer wall, he added, “I don’t want to be reassigned somewhere far away.”

And before considering the ramifications of what I was saying, I replied, “Yeah, I wish you could stay too, but that’s not how it works, right?” I immediately wanted to kick myself for speaking, but the words could not be unsaid, and they just floated in the air over my head, refusing to dissipate.

Gary’s eyes widened, and he suddenly perked up and declared, “You know? It is allowed under special circumstances!”

“Yeah, but special circumstances? That wouldn’t happen with me, right?”

“Well, it’s rare, but with all that’s happened, you might fall under a special circumstances category now, you know? If we claim you’re a high-priority, high-risk target —which is true — and you need extra protection — which is also true — they might be willing to assign me to you!” Smiling brightly, he asked, “Wouldn’t that be great?”

I had the sudden urge to run out into the surf and start swimming west towards Asia. I could take on a new identity as a produce inspector in Nepal. But instead, I stammered, “Uh, well, I-I don’t know. I suppose we could ask Xototl.”

Why wasn’t I shutting up? Ugh. What was I thinking? I had just given Gary the green light to apply to be my second demon? Somewhere along the way, I had obviously lost my mind.

Beaming brightly, Gary responded, “Yeah? Really? O-Okay!” He then happily resumed working on Shabby-Abbey, cheerfully whistling the theme to the TV show, Flipper.

With Gary’s permission, Charles placed Sir Walter out in the water. And as soon as he had returned, he declared loudly he was suffering from chronic hunger fatigue syndrome. Gary and I confessed we were pretty hungry too, so we headed back up to the room while debating what to get. They both wanted pizza, but I wanted Chinese, and both sides made a compelling argument. It was true, they had thrown me in the water, thus nullifying my offer of pizza. But then again, they had also stood between me and a full-grown miskreant; and that, in their opinion, meant they got to choose. But I stood my ground because pizza wasn’t very healthy; it was mostly bread and cheese, and we needed to be alert and have our wits about us, so we needed Chinese food. And Sparkles, we agreed, didn’t get a vote.

Up in the room, they argued I could order a veggie pizza, which was just as healthy. I knew they were full of baloney, but being too tired and hungry to argue anymore, I relented, but only if we went out.

Giving each other a celebratory high-five, Charles and Gary demanded I give them a high-five too. I relented, but immediately came to regret it when Charles slapped my hand hard enough to make it sting. Rubbing the pain out of my fingers, I asked, “Are you two going to go out all wet like that? You’ll get sick.”

Charles, who was doing an utterly ridiculous victory dance, replied, “We can’t get sick. Besides, we didn’t bring any spare clothes. Did you pack anything for us?”

“Why on Earth would I pack for you two? You’re big boys. You can take care of yourselves.” Walking around in circles, looking for my reading glasses, I asked, “All right. Who took my glasses?”

Pointing at my forehead, Gary informed, “They’re on your head.”

“Oh . . . right.” Reaching up to find them right where I had left them, I muttered, “Well, what do you know?”

Gary chuckled and did an impersonation of me in a low, nasal voice as he spun around acting confused. “Where are my glasses? And where are my keys? And where are my shoes? Oh yeah, and where’d I put my brain?”

“That doesn’t sound like me at all, Gary.” I patted at my pockets and asked, “Where are my keys?”

Charles pointed and yawned, “You left them in the bathroom.”

“How could you know that? You haven’t even gone in there.”

Smugly closing his eyes, Charles informed, “You were spinning them on your finger when you went in, and now you don’t have them, Einstein.”

And to my chagrin, he was right.

I clomped down the stairs with two giggling demons in tow, and we headed out to the truck and piled in as Sparkles bounded around the corner of the hotel. He raced up and hopped in back like he had been performing the maneuver his entire life, causing the truck to sag and groan under his excessive mass.

Following the map on the back of a purple pizza pamphlet Charles had picked up in the lobby, we found the place after only a few wrong turns. Being as tired as I was, I was grateful we didn’t have far to drive and traffic was light.

Through me, Charles ordered a large Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza with extra thick crust. Gary wanted a large with anchovies, mushrooms and extra tomatoes and cheese, and when Charles and I looked at him for an explanation, he claimed he was trying to broaden his horizons. I ordered a large combination and was sure I’d only have a few slices, but the two-legged garbage-disposals would easily inhale it for breakfast. At my behest, the demons ordered root-beer because, I warned, if they drank caffeine at such a late hour, they would be up all night, and we needed to be up early. I opted for a nice, refreshing glass of chlorinated ice-water.

We picked a table with a good view of the television so the demons could watch a soccer game that was on. I didn’t mind having my back to the television because I was able to keep an eye on Sparkles peacefully sitting out in the truck like a good miskreant. Taking a long drink of water, I wiped my mouth and leaned back while the two of them, with heads tilted up, gawked at the television.

With clenched fists, Gary cried out, “Kick it! Kick it! You’re open! . . . Aww!”

Rolling the hot pepper jar in my hands and unable to help myself, I informed him, “Uh, you know he can’t hear you, right?”

Gary looked down. “Huh?” He frowned at me and explained, “Of course he can’t. I’m willing him to kick it with my mental powers.”

Seeing the words ‘pre-recorded’ at the bottom of the screen, I explained back, “Gary, this game was over hours ago.”

Charles shook his head and muttered, “Oh, Gord, you’re such a wet blank . . .” He stopped mid-sentence and craned his neck up over the privacy wall for a better look at something that had caught his eye. Charles then whispered, “Hey, isn’t that your girlfriend from Yosemite?”

“What? . . . Where?” I turned around and peaked over to see Abbey Street and her son sitting in a booth at the other end of the restaurant. I quickly ducked down and whispered, “Wow, it is. They must be stalking us.”

“Yeah, right.” Charles leaned way out into the aisle to get a better look. “Didn’t she say she worked in Carmel?”

“Yeah, that’s right. Huh, talk about a coincidence.” Playing down the situation, I calmly took another sip of water.

Well?” Charles asked as he splayed his big, grungy hands out on the table.

“Well, what?” Taking another sip, I nervously drummed my fingers against my glass.

“You have to go say hi, dim-wit. This can’t be a coincidence.”

“Yes it can, and it is. Please, Charles, let’s just leave them alone. Besides, I’m tired and wouldn’t know what to say.”

Charles sighed deeply. “Oh, you have an excuse for everything, don’t you?” He sounded annoyed when he added, “You never take any risks.”

My jaw dropping in disbelief, I whispered, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re the one who’s talked me out of taking chances my whole life, Charles.” For effect, I pointed at him and added, “You did that.

Picking at his thumbnail, Charles admitted, “Well, you didn’t have to listen, did you?”

“Yeah, you got that right. I should have never listened to you, ever.” I dropped a piece of ice in my mouth and chewed vigorously.

Standing up, my demon declared, “I’m going to go see what they’re talking about. Be right back.”

Grabbing his arm, I hissed, “No, Charles! Don’t you dare eavesdrop on them! It’s not right. Just leave them alone.”

He jerked his arm away. “Oh, puh-lease. I’ll only be a second.”

“Charles! I order you to stop this instant!”

Charles gave my head a solid shove before casually strolling away. I never understood why he had to swing his arms so high when he walked. He probably only did it to annoy me.

When Gary jumped up, I pleaded, “Come on, Gare. Please don’t be like him. It’s not right.”

“I know it isn’t. That’s why I’m going to keep an eye on him, to make sure he doesn’t make anything up, because you know he will.”

I raised my eyebrows at him and blinked in astonishment at Gary’s insight before agreeing, “Yeah, you’re right. He will.”

There was a gap in the privacy wall where I could spy, and I watched with ever increasing dread as Charles and Gary sat down at the empty table right across from their targets. Both demons leaned way over and listened intently as my heart began to beat faster. I knew what he was doing. He was trying to fix me up. Stupid Charles was sticking his stupid nose where it didn’t belong. Why on Earth was he playing match-maker instead of match-breaker? I was perfectly happy being alone day-in and day-out, week after week, month after month, year after year. It was my life and I knew how to live it better than he did. He certainly had a lot of nerve.

Almost a whole minute passed without anything out of the ordinary happening, but then to my amazement and horror, Abbey Street stood up, crossed the aisle and sat down across from Charles. And when she leaned forward and looked him right in the eye, I became fairly confident that Charles was incorrect, that Abbey Street was a spanner after all.

She wagged an accusatory finger at my demon. So in response, Charles put both hands up in the air defensively in an apparent attempt to calm her down, but this only seemed to rile her more. Then she pointed at Gary and spoke a little more loudly. With his mouth wide open, Gary pointed at himself in disbelief. He put his hands out, palms up, trying to plead his innocence, but Abbey Street was having none of it. My heart was beating wildly because I knew it was only a matter of time before my so-called accomplices ratted me out. The arguing grew louder and the accusations were obviously flying. Charles must have taken exception to something she said because now he was pointing a finger at her and using his outdoor voice. I still couldn’t make out any full sentences, but from her I picked up a few words like “dare” and “nerve” and “stalking” and “report”, while from Charles’ corner, I was able to discern “yeah” and “but” and “lady” and “unreasonable”.

I had to make a decision. I was stuck between walking over there, fessing up and trying to explain everything that had just happened in detail or go with the option that seemed much more to my liking; I could run for it. Sparkles and I could head back to the hotel and hide, and I was sure that after some searching, Charles and Gary would eventually figure out where we were staying and make their way back on foot. And when I saw Charles’ big, sausage-sized pointer finger wagging in my direction, the decision was clear; I had to bust-a-move, and I had to bust-a-move post haste. So, accidentally slapping my water across the table, I crashed into the waitress as I stood up and succeeded in knocking the two pizzas out of her hands, which landed face down on the floor. But being short on time, I only whispered, “Oh poop” and “sorry” as I fled for the exit.

Behind me, I heard Abbey Street call out brightly, “Hey! You!”

I knew who she was addressing and what her choice of conversation topics would be if she were to catch me. I did not want to look back, but the polite part of my psyche overrode my better judgment, and I looked back to find her walking briskly towards me with her son right behind. And behind him, the two oafs were struggling to get up from the table. I had no doubt that Charles and Gary weren’t the least bit interested in protecting me from an attack. No, they were merely interested in being rubber-neckers at the scene of my demise. So having zero interest in finding out what she had to say, I barged through the door and power-walked across the parking lot as fast and as casually as possible. At the truck, I sicked Sparkles on her, but it didn’t work. He merely looked at me, then at my approaching assailant and back at me again. I fumbled with the key as her footsteps continued to get louder, and my blood went cold when she called me by name. Oh great, she remembered me, so now she would know how to find me.

“Hey! Wait!”

Yeah, right. Thanks, but no thanks. I wasn’t waiting.

After finally unlocking the door and getting in, I dropped the key on the floorboard, and of course, it had to bounce under the seat.

I thought aloud, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” as I frantically felt around in the cramped darkness for something resembling a key. And after pulling out a coffee cup, a sock, a fossilized banana peel, a granola bar and an assortment of old napkins, I found it. Then after wasting several more precious seconds with fumbling to get the key in the ignition, the truck roared to life. Abbey Street reached my window, and we made eye contact a split second before I gunned it, and even in the dim light of the parking lot, I could tell she had the greenest eyes I’d ever seen. They almost seemed to fluoresce under the pale yellow street lights.

I’m sure I would have peeled out, but Sparkles was too heavy, so the truck slowly and laboriously accelerated across the parking lot.

Why was I running? I hadn’t broken any laws. It was just an instinct — a spur of the moment reaction to the situation. Why had I opted to take the cowardly path of running instead of just explaining things? Well, I wasn’t sure, but I had made my decision and was sticking to it, and as I pulled away, I caught a glimpse in the mirror of Abbey Street and her son sprinting towards a white Nissan, and my heart skipped a beat when I knew she wasn’t giving up the chase.

I then spotted two big, wet demons, running right behind the truck at full speed, waiving their arms wildly for me to stop. I bounced out onto the main road and fishtailed in a stylish right turn, causing Charles to slam into the side of the pickup before bouncing backwards and landing flat on his back. Sparkles could have just reached out and picked up both nitwits and set them in back, but for some reason, he opted not to. Unable to wait another second, I popped the clutch and pushed the gas pedal to the floorboard, causing the the engine to buck and groan as the pickup lurched forward.

Of course, the stop light at the corner was red, and as I slowed down, I spotted the white Nissan bounce out of the parking lot, skid sideways and peel out on its way towards me.

Charles and Gary caught up just as the light turned green, and I hit the gas as they lunged for the tailgate, causing them both to drop out of sight. And when they got to their feet, I could see their arms high in the air, raised in the universal signal for “Hey, thanks for nothing!”

Whispering to myself, “Sorry guys, this is a crisis,” I shifted into third.

Why were strangers chasing me? It wasn’t like I had robbed them. I had been minding my own business. It was Charles who had caused this. Stupid Charles and his big dumb face — he had ratted me out, and I was certain he told Abbey Street that I was the mastermind behind his little eavesdropping scheme. He was a weasel, and I should have never taken him out for pizza. Well, never again. I was sick and tired of being so nice.

The next light was red when I arrived, but since there was nobody else in sight, I ran it, whispering into the rear-view mirror, “Try and catch me now, crazy lady.”

The crazy lady must have read my mind because she ran the red light too, and to my dismay, started to close the gap. That little white scooter-car of hers had some real power, and I was coming to realize I wouldn’t be able to outrun her in stop-and-go traffic. No, they were going to catch me, and I was going to get yelled at or much worse.

Coming up on the next intersection, I spotted a sign pointing left towards beach access, so I cranked the wheel and braked hard, almost flipping the truck in the process. Fortunately, Sparkles had the presence of mind to lean into the turn which put the truck back down onto all four tires.

She wouldn’t dare follow me out onto loose sand in her little scooter-car. Doing so would prove extremely foolish, and she could even get stuck. I, on the other hand, had a manly truck with manly, deep-tread tires that could handle any off-road environment, so I sped down towards the beach with Crazy Lady closing in. I wasn’t sure if I could actually drive out on the beach but was out of ideas and, I noticed, almost out of gas.

But I was in luck. The far corner of the parking lot was covered in sandy tire tracks and, according to the sign, vehicle access out to the beach was permitted. So gripping my steering wheel tightly, I held my breath as I plowed up and over the dune, and I didn’t start breathing again until we were heading down the other side. When I reached the wet sand, I eased up on the gas, looked back and waited.

The crazy lady wouldn’t dare chase a strange man out onto a dark, deserted beach and risk getting stuck, especially with her son in the car. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Abbey Street’s engine revved and her wheels spun as she got airborne on top of the dune. Charles and Gary were right behind her, still on foot and still waving for me to wait up.

Surprised by her tenacity, I gunned it, causing the tires to peel out until they found enough traction to carry the heavy load out into the dark unknown. I was becoming more and more alarmed with each passing moment. Abbey Street was much too determined, and I was starting to think that maybe she wasn’t all there in the head. Maybe she was even dangerous when highly annoyed.

As frightened as I was, I didn’t dare go speeding down such a dark beach. There might be people out on a midnight stroll, and I didn’t know the terrain. Sooner or later, I could encounter a small creek or estuary and end up stuck in the mud. Even if I had wanted to speed, it wasn’t going to happen because the truck started sputtering, coughing and wheezing. It regained power for a few seconds, sputtered once more and died. As we coasted to a stop, I tried to get it started but was pretty sure all was lost. Sparkles and I were out of fuel, but since Sparkles didn’t seemed to care one way or the other, I was alone in my desperation.

Two headlights came up behind us and stopped, and when the driver’s door opened, I grabbed the key, hopped out of the cab and started to run north into the safety of the night. I figured if I kept running, I could find my way back to the highway at dawn and hitch-hike back to Merced.

Sparkles hopped out of the truck and decided he wanted to tag along, so I pointed at him and at my pursuer and ordered the miskreant to, “Get her!”

And just as I expected, he maintained a nice leisurely gate at my side without even a look back.

Abbey Street shouted, “Hey! Wait up!”

I wasn’t falling for that one. Yeah right. That was the oldest trick in the book. Did she think I was that stupid? Well, apparently, she did. No, there would be no waiting-up of any kind. Certain she was off of her cracker, I decided to increase my pace and was able to keep a pretty good speed for a full minute before running out of steam. I had pretty much skipped breakfast and had only enjoyed four bites of a burrito for lunch, and my “dinner” was now in a garbage can a couple miles back at the pizza joint.

It was over. My pace slowed as Abbey Street closed in for the kill. Hearing her footsteps closing in gave me one last surge of strength to push forward, but it was short lived. I stumbled and went down head-first into cold, wet sand. I didn’t even have the strength to put out my arms and quickly discovered that the sand in my mouth tasted like the ocean for some reason. I didn’t even bother rolling over on my back to breathe. It would be quicker if I just suffocated.

I prayed silently that Crazy Lady would show some mercy by doing me in as quickly as possible and felt somewhat betrayed when Sparkles sat down next to my soon-to-be corpse and started grooming. I couldn’t help but wonder why he would protect me from those horrid Fallen and their brakken minions, but would let a random, crazy lady deliver the last, mortal wound. It didn’t make any sense. Sparkles didn’t make any sense.

The footsteps slowed down and stopped right next to me, and Abbey Street’s voice asked, “Are you dead?”

Muffled by the sand, I replied, “Almost. It won’t be long now.” Curious to see what kind of weapon she had chosen, I rolled over on my back. Maybe it would be a machete or a hammer or a crowbar, but I hoped for a rusty old double-barrel shotgun which would prove much more efficient if aimed properly.

Only slightly winded, she declared, “I remember you.”

Wiping the sand from my eyes, I squinted up and muttered, “I remember you too.”

She took a step closer and reached out her hand. “Three days ago. May Lake. Tuolumne Meadows.”

“Yup. May Lake. Small world, huh?” I took her hand and she pulled me up into a sitting position.

“Thanks.” I ran my fingers through my matted hair and spat sand from my mouth. “Pooie. Ptooie . . . plah! Hmm, that doesn’t taste half as good as you’d think.”

Abbey Street nodded thoughtfully. “Mm, I bet it doesn’t . . . You know, you ran that red back there. That was pretty careless.”

Squinting up at her, I explained, “Uh, you ran it too, Speed Racer.”

Charles and Gary caught up, huffing and a puffing, so gesturing at Abbey Street, I did the introductions: “Charles? Gary? Abbey Street. Abbey Street, this is Charles and that’s Gary.” I tried wiping the sand off my tongue, but ended up doing more harm than good. “Pluh!”

The guys gave her an awkward wave and said hi in stereo before looking at their feet at the same time.

Abbey greeted them without emotion: “Hi again.” She turned back to me and asked, “So, are you stalking me?”

I guess it was an appropriate question, but it wasn’t what I had expected. Trying to make sense of her words, I repeated them: “Am I stalking you? Am I stalking you? Um, no? I’m not stalking you. I don’t stalk.”

With thumbs hooked in her belt-loops, she eyed me carefully for a time. “Hmm. Why did you take so long to answer that?” She squatted down close and looked me in the eye. Hers were a radiant green, and even in the dim reflection of the city lights off the low fog, they reminded me of demon eck, but I thought it best not to mention that.

Instead, I replied, “Uh, well, I was going to give a sarcastic answer but couldn’t come up with a good zinger. You see, my mind isn’t firing on both cylinders at the moment.”

She chuckled and smiled warmly. “Both cylinders? Just two then? Hmm, not a lot going on in there.”

“No, and that’s the way I like it.”

After we eyed each other suspiciously, I asked, “Are you stalking us?”

“Huh? Well, no . . . I mean, no.” She scoffed. “Why would I be stalking you? We were eating our pizza in peace long before you even came in.”

This made a lot of sense, so I said, “Yeah. That makes sense . . . Maybe.”

With folded arms, she asked, “What do you mean ‘maybe’? . . . I live here, and you live in Merced, right? What are you doing over here? And why were your goons listening in on a private conversation with my son? Huh?”

Now insulted, Charles looked at Gary and then me, mouthing, “Goons?”

I gestured for him to keep quiet, and thankfully he complied.

I sighed and explained, “It wasn’t my idea for them to spy. In fact, I objected. The truth is that, well, Charles was trying to play match-maker.” I chuckled over the ridiculousness of it all.

Abbey Street frowned. “Demons don’t play match-maker. They play match-breaker. Come on, what’s going on?”

I nodded as I scooped a respectable amount of sand out of my ear. “You’re right. Effective demons don’t behave like that, but I can assure you, Charles hasn’t been right in the head lately.”

With a raised a finger, Charles opened his mouth to protest, but when I flashed him a dirty look, he abruptly shut his big yap.

She eyed the three of us like she was contemplating a stinky, dead whale, and it made me a little bit uncomfortable and somewhat annoyed because I was almost certain we were nowhere near as unpleasant as a stinky, dead whale. Remembering I was sitting in wet sand, I moved to get up, and when I wavered, Abbey Street held me by the elbow and shoulder until I was back on my feet.

“Thanks.” I attempted to brush the sand off my keister as two more doors opened and shut on the Nissan and Abbey Street’s son and someone I presumed was her demon approached.

Abbey Street did the introductions: “You’ve met my son, Spencer, and this is my demon, Agatha.” Glancing at Charles and Gary, she admitted, “And I’m afraid I already forgot . . .”

I interrupted, “Oh, uh, that’s my demon, Charles, and this is Gary.”

Spencer chuckled. “See, Mom? They’re not dangerous at all.”

Charles and Gary looked at each other, simultaneously mouthing, “Dangerous?”

Clearing my throat, I adamantly agreed, “Of course we’re not dangerous.”

But Charles took exception and corrected me. “Speak for yourself. I’m dangerous.”

Ignoring Charles, I asked Abbey Street, “What gave you that idea?”

She pointed at Sparkles. “When I first met you in Yosemite, I sensed a strong source of evil in the vicinity, and I wasn’t sure if it was coming from you three or this miskreant and decided to play it safe.”

I blinked three times. “Um, I see.”

Charles eyed Abbey Street suspiciously and cleared his throat. “Uh, but the miskreant wasn’t with us at May Lake.”

“Well, it must have been stalking you, and I didn’t realize it at the time.”

I exchanged a quick look with Charles and Gary as my assailant continued: “And, well, after you sent your demons over to spy on us at the restaurant, I knew you guys had to be harmless.”

I looked at Charles and Gary and scoffed. “Hey, we’re not that harmless. And-and I didn’t send them to spy on you.” Pointing an accusatory finger at Charles’ big face, I explained, “That was his idea.”

Pointing at himself, Charles asked incredulously, “Moi?”

I shoved Charles and grumped, “Charles, I asked you not to go eavesdrop on them, remember? Or was that too long ago for your feeble brain to recall?”

Charles actually rolled his eyes. “Oh, well, um, actually, I’m pretty sure it was your idea, even against my sage advice.”

Shoving her hands in her pockets, Abbey Street approached Sparkles and asked, “Is it okay to touch it?”

Gary answered first: “Yeah, he likes it when you scratch his neck.”

Charles muttered, “How do you know what he likes? Did he tell you?”

Gary nodded and shook his head before claiming, “Well, no, but I can tell by his body language.”

Ignoring the morons, Abbey explained, “This is why I chased you down.” She reached up, touched Sparkles on the neck and whispered, “Wow, it’s so warm.” She walked around Sparkles before reaching up and putting her hands on him. She smiled brightly and said, “It’s made of energy. Wow. It’s just an infant, right? Do you know how old?”

I replied, “Charles thinks he’s around two to three thousand years.”

Gently touching the side of Sparkles’ head with the back of her hand, she chuckled in amazement. “It’s just an infant. And those eyes — they’re amazing.” She looked back at me. “Why do you say it’s a he?”

I shrugged and explained, “Well, it’s got to be a he. I mean, look how tough he is.”

She looked back up at Sparkles and started talking to him like a puppy: “You are so pretty. Yes, you are. Do you have a name, little lady?”

Gary was quick to correct her: “His name is Sparkles.”

Looking at all of us in disbelief, she snorted, “Sparkles? No, really, what’s her name?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I know, it just sort of stuck.”

She laughed again and repeated, “Sparkles. A demon like you is named Sparkles? Well, okay,

I guess.”

Taking exception to her derision, I challenged, “Well what would you call her, I mean him?”

She tilted her head in thought. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe Esmerelda? Or Tabitha?”

I rolled my eyes and chuckled. “Esmerelda? Sparkles would eat you if you called him that.”

She folded her arms again and admitted, “Uh-huh? I’m surprised the three of you are even alive after giving her a name like Sparkles. I mean . . .” She scoffed. “. . . really.”

I folded my arms tightly and admitted, “You know, I don’t think he cares what we call him. Overall, he’s pretty easy going.”

She nodded and asked, “So how did you break the curse?”

I glanced at the guys who were distracted with Agatha and weren’t paying attention.

“Uh, I . . . A curse? Don’t know nothing about no curse.” I laughed nervously.

She nodded and said, “Fair enough.” She patted Sparkles on the shoulder. “However you did it, this is a really big deal and word spreads quickly. The Fallen are going to be very interested in finding out how you did it.”

I chuckled bitterly. “Yeah, tell me about it.” Realizing my goof, I felt my face grow hot.

She tilted her head, yawned and asked, “So what brings you over to the coast anyway?”

I hesitated before coming up with the perfect response: “Um, we’re, uh, heading for the aquarium. We’re trying to find, um, someone who . . . who might be able to help us with, uh, something.”

“Hmm, that’s pretty vague. Help you with what?”

“Uh, this individual might help us find another . . . certain individual, that we need to, um . . . find.”

I didn’t notice her son standing right next to me and jumped when he said, “I bet they’re looking for Kroe-Vogk, Mom.”

Abbey Street inquired, “Are you looking for Kroe-Vogk?”

Trying to maintain an air of discretion, I scratched my head, frowned and explained, “I’m really not at liberty to disc . . .”

Smirking at her son, Abbey Street declared, “Yup, they’re looking for Kroe-Vogk.” She yawned again. “You should ask the cuttlefish. If anyone knows how to find him, they will.”

“Cuttlefish? The weird looking, little things with those little tentacles?”

“That’s them.”

I frowned some more. “How do you know all this? And how do you know about the curse?”

“Tell me how you broke it, and I’ll tell you how I know.”

“I can’t. I . . .”

Spencer interrupted, “Can we go with you?” He then looked up at his mother and asked “Can we go with them?”

Shaking my head, I replied, “Well, this is a mission of the utmost urgency and it could be dangerous, so I don’t think . . .”

For some reason, Abbey Street and Agatha glanced at each other knowingly and chuckled, so I grumped, “Well, it could.” With arms folded more tightly, I asked, “You don’t believe me? Okay, Charles, tell them.” But to my dismay, I turned to find Charles and Gary were laughing too.

“Why are you laughing?” I raised my hands in surrender and confessed, “Okay, it’s not dangerous at all. Actually we just wanted to get out of the valley heat, and we like seafood, so we thought . . .”

Charles interjected, “No we don’t.”

Glaring at Charles, I asked in a rather menacing tone, “We don’t what?”

He calmly replied, “Gary and I don’t like seafood. You know that. What’s gotten into you?”

Thoroughly fed up with my demon, I tried to make his head implode with my thoughts, but it didn’t work — not even a little. He just stood there, grinning and smacking on a piece of gum he had probably found stuck to the bottom of a table somewhere.

Struggling to keep my composure, I blinked long and hard before admitting, “No, right, they don’t like seafood. We all like otters though. We came over to see the otters.”

Smacking his gum and opening his big mouth wide on each chew, Charles replied, “Uh, no we didn’t.”

Unable to contain myself, I took three steps forward with fists clenched and growled, “You lousy, stinking . . .”

Charles’ brow furled, his fists clenched and he barred his teeth in anticipation, and for added effect, he asked, “You want a piece of me?”

I snarled, “You lying traitor.”

Before I could tear off a piece of him, Abbey Street stepped in between the two of us and put her hand on my shoulder while Gary and Agatha held Charles back. He only struggled and growled a little before calming down, and I would have pushed my way through and taken a cheap shot, but the flash in Abbey’s green eyes, which must have been a reflection off the waves, stopped me in my tracks.

Patting my shoulder twice, she announced, “So, it’s settled. We’ll meet you in front of the aquarium tomorrow morning, say, ten?” I’ve got my family pass, so it’s on me.”

“Huh? Thanks, but no. It’s too . . .”

Before I could explain the great danger inherent to our mission, she turned and headed back to her car. “Come on Spence. It’s getting late.” She stopped in front of Charles and looked up, speaking loud enough for me to hear: “The next time your human wants you to eavesdrop, tell him it’s not polite, okay?”

In between smacks, Charles said, “Yeah, okay, I will.”

Without another word, the three of them climbed in, and Abbey Street started her car, and as they began to turn around, I ran after her, calling out, “Hey, any chance I could catch a ride back to our hotel? We kind of ran of out of gas.” I looked at my feet and then back up.

Glancing at the Ford and then at me, she frowned and said, “But you’re all wet and sandy.”

From the back seat, Spencer offered, “He can sit on my towel, Mom.”

On that, Abbey Street agreed to give me a ride, but she explained that Agatha needed to sit up front or she’d get carsick and asked me if I minded sitting in back. I told her I didn’t and thanked her, and when Gary, who had silently crept up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and cleared his throat, I jumped.

He explained, “Gord, we’re not out of gas.”

So I had to disagree: “Huh? Yes we are.”

“No, it has two tanks. All you have to do is flip the switch on the dash.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought you knew.”

Scratching my head, I looked out at the ocean and then at Abbey Street before smacking myself in the forehead. “Well, what do you know about that? It has two tanks.”

They waited around long enough for me to get the truck started. Then with a wave, they headed back along the beach. And the three of us watched as the headlights grew smaller and smaller until her car turned left and disappeared over the dunes.

We stood in the dark for a while, listening to the surf crash against the shore before sliding on up over the sand, fizzing and bubbling. The breeze seemed to have warmed a little, but I was still shivering and, I realized, bone tired. Staring out into the dark, I spoke to no one in particular: “She was nice.”

Charles and Gary both agreed with polite nods and unintelligible mutterings, and if Sparkles had an opinion on the matter, he wasn’t letting us in on it.

When I asked Charles what he thought of Agatha, he put his hand on his chest, looked up to the sky and sighed, “I think I’m in love.”

Gary and I exchanged a look of incredulity while Charles gazed up into infinity and asked, “Do you guys believe in love at first sight?”

We both shook our heads and I explained that there was no such thing as love at first sight. Real love was something that grew over time through shared joys and hardships, but Charles wasn’t having any of that noise. Agatha was the one for him, and he was going to do everything he could to win her affections.

On our way back to the hotel, we got stuck in the sand at the top of the dune, so at my behest, Charles and Gary got out to push, but it was no use. Then after several minutes of pleading with Sparkles to get out because he was too fat, he finally hopped out and we were able to get moving again.

Back at the hotel, the demons decided they should get the bed because they had saved me twice in one day, and that was worthy of special treatment. I corrected them by explaining that without Sparkles, we would have all been whisked away to Limbo, so he was the true hero. But I was quick to add that Charles and Gary had performed admirably and their valor was greatly appreciated.

Taking my praise as an act of relinquishing the bed, Charles flopped down hard, snapping something in the mattress, and when he actually said, “Besides, I paid for the room, so I get the bed,” I pretty much became apoplectic and ordered him to get up, but some pounding on the walls by our hotel neighbors reminded me to use my indoor voice. So I quietly explained to both of them that they had embarrassed me in front of Abbey Street, and wagging my finger at Charles, I pointed out that he had dared lay blame on me for spying on her, and that act of betrayal was not going to be forgotten so quickly, so he was not getting the lousy, stinking bed.

They weren’t listening though, and Charles went on to explain — with Gary nodding the whole time — that if it wasn’t for them, I would never have met her, so they had done me a big favor because they knew I liked her, and now I would get to see her again in the morning. After quietly and respectfully explaining that they were both full of beans, I asked how I could possibly like her if I didn’t even know her, for Pete’s sake. But the idiots weren’t buying my claim and were convinced that as sure as the sun would rise tomorrow, I was definitely smitten by Abbey Street. Too exhausted to argue another second, I relinquished the bed. It was just another day and another defeat.

I spread a blanket out on the floor, over on Gary’s side of course, because I knew Charles would forget I was there and step on me when he got up for his three-o-clock trip to the vending machine. I then asked the guys if they could watch the television with the closed captions instead of the audio, and after a bit of moaning and groaning, they agreed to do so, and I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 

In my nightmare, I was lost down in Limbo and was certain I would never find the way out. And as I wandered along in the dark, through one long tunnel after the next, I began to hear thousands of voices calling for help. I followed their cries, but as I got closer, they became silent. I cried out that I didn’t know how to find them and asked them to guide me, and when the voices responded, they were coming from behind.

And when tens of thousands of eyes came into view straight ahead, I was filled with an overpowering dread and hatred, and when I turned away, they began to follow. I started to run, and they increased their pace until they were hissing and screeching right behind me. The floor vanished, and I dropped away into empty space. I continued to fall for a terribly long time until I was blinded by a bright flash. The scene changed, and I found myself standing on the shore of an ocean that had been drained of every last drop of water. And towering next to me was the Fallen that Sparkles had fought at Mono Lake.

Spreading out before us, the ocean floor was a flat, barren expanse of nothing, while at the very bottom, cutting deep into the Earth, a fissure wound its way clear out to the horizon. And as thousands of miskreants began rising out of the fissure and spiraling high into the sky, the Fallen leaned down and spoke in a whisper of seething rage: “Once again, you will fail.”

 

 

Chapter Nineteen: The Aquarium

 

I awoke to the smell of coffee and the sound of the door closing gently as Charles and Gary quietly slipped out. I figured they were being kind enough to let me sleep in while they went down to have some fun on the beach. A minute later, I could hear Gary out in the parking lot trying to convince Sparkles to go with them, but after several attempts, he gave up. Sparkles apparently had a much more important agenda of sitting in the truck doing absolutely nothing.

The sun was above the horizon, the sky was bright and blue and I was surprised at how rested I felt. Waking up invigorated was a rare thing, and I attributed it to the ocean air and being so exhausted the night before. I wanted to push the dream away and forget it, but something told me to remember as much as I could, but by the time I had achieved full consciousness, I remembered nothing but an empty ocean with a hole in the bottom.

I skipped the coffee and opted for tea instead, and after downing a cup, I headed downstairs to find the lunkheads. Sparkles spotted me, and as I reached the first floor, he was out of the truck and bounding up next to me.

“Well hello, you creature-from-another-world, you.”

He was his usual, stoic self and didn’t respond, so we made our way down to the beach in silence.

The guys had finished making necessary repairs to Shabby Abbey and were busily building more rooms. After admiring their handy work, I said, “Wow, guys, good job. Let me guess, is that a miniature golf course?”

Gary looked up from his work. “Huh? No, Gord, that’s the arboretum. Sheesh.”

“Oh yes, of course. It is an arboretum, isn’t it? And a splendid one at that.”

Charles sat up, called me over to his side of the abbey and asked, “Can you guess what this room is?”

“Hmm, is that the meth lab?”

He looked at me blankly and scowled. “No, it’s our private, three-hundred seat movie theater.”

I rubbed my chin and nodded. “Very nice, but I’d hate to see the tax bill on this place.”

Leaning over his work, Charles explained, “We don’t pay taxes because we live in our own sovereign nation.”

“We do? Oh good, but . . .”

“But what?”

“Well, we’re going to need our own power and water and waste disposal company, right? And we’ll also need our own military too.”

Charles and Gary blinked at me before rolling their eyes at each other.

“Well, I’m just saying . . .” I sat down in the sand and watched contentedly while they added more rooms to the castle. After a time, I pulled my drawing pad from my pack and sketched them in action. I added Sparkles’ likeness and a fishing boat out on the sea to give it some depth, and for fun, I added the the head of an adult miskreant watching from out in the surf. And when I was satisfied, I closed my pad and asked, “Who else is hungry? I’m starving.”

Without looking up, Charles nodded slowly. “Starr-ving. How about waffles?”

I shrugged and admitted, “I was thinking of something in more of an eggs and bacon type arrangement.”

“That sounds good too.” Looking at his watch, Charles advised, “We should get going if we’re going to be on time for your date.”

I was compelled to correct him: “It’s not a date.”

“Yeah? Well, what is it?”

“Well, I don’t know. It’s-it’s . . . a thing, but it’s not a date.”

“It’s a double date.” He snickered. “Did you ever think you’d be double-dating with your demon?”

“Shoot no. Not in a million years. Demonic, double-dating? . . . Or how about daring, demonic, double-dating.”

Charles added, “Daring, dystopian, demonic, double-dating.”

I chuckled and asked, “Are we mentally ill?”

Grinning brightly, Charles admitted, “Yeah, but only severely.”

Gary asked, “How about daring, dystopian, demonic, double-dog dating?” He chuckled to himself while putting the finishing touches on Shabby Abbey.

I had to ask, “So where is Sir Walter anyway?”

Without missing a beat, Gary informed me that Sir Walter had to fly to an emergency conference at the United Nations about a possible salmonella outbreak and should be back in a couple of days.

 

We checked out and headed down Highway 1 across Monterey and towards Cannery Row until Gary spotted a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that we decided to try. Through me, they both ordered five waffles covered in strawberries and whipped cream. The waitress sadly declared they didn’t have RC Cola, so the guys wanted Doctor Pepper, and after I decided on an omelet, bacon, hash browns and a glass of water, we found a vacant table outside. As soon as the food arrived, Charles shoved a forkful of waffles and strawberries in his mouth, chewed it up and opened wide for Gary’s inspection, and Gary examined the contents carefully before declaring, “Easy. That’s the Eiffel Tower.”

Charles nodded. “Right. Okay, your turn.”

Gary shoved an entire waffle in his mouth and chewed vigorously, contorting his face while manipulating the mash. Finally he asked, “Okay. What’s this?”

My first inclination was to avert my eyes from their disgusting competition, but unable to help myself, I had to see what he had created. Leaning forward and squinting into Gary’s mouth, Charles guessed, “Is it, uh, an overturned boat?” He looked to me for a second opinion.

I sneered and explained, “Nah, it’s Half Dome. See? He even did the little dent and the overhang at the top. Nice touch.”

Pointing at me, Gary declared I was correct and had to take a turn. So I adamantly shook my head and argued, “Nobody can see you, remember? You two can do whatever you want, but I’m the visible one, so, uh . . . no.”

Charles took a long draw off his straw and let out a calamitous belch. He then calmly informed me that I had to take a turn because those were the rules, and you don’t mess with the rules.

Shaking my head even more vigorously, I explained that I was going to pass and that Charles would have the honor of taking my turn, but instead of respecting my wishes, they both began pounding the table, chanting, “Gordo! Gordo! Gordo! Gor . . !”

I rolled my eyes and sighed. “Oh, all right. Just one time though.” I proceeded to take a bite of omelet and added some hash-browns for good measure before chewing it up. I thought a moment before deciding on the perfect object. I then chewed and pushed and pulled and chewed some more, and after only a minute of working on my masterpiece, Gary impatiently drummed his fingers on the table and complained, “Dang, you’re slow. What are you making, the Taj Mahal?”

Charles slapped Gary on the shoulder and snickered. “No, Gare, he’s probably doing a self portrait.” This made both demons laugh for some reason, even though it wasn’t the slightest bit funny.

Raising my hand for silence, I leaned forward and whispered, “Okay, huddle up.”

They both leaned in and waited. Charles sounded a drum-roll and said, “Okay, let’s see.”

Opening my mouth wide for a few seconds, I closed it and waited to see the amazement in their expressions, but they both looked at each other and then back at me in complete confusion.

Charles sneered. “What the heck was that?” He waved me forward. “Come here. We need another look.”

I let out an exasperated sigh and whispered with my mouth full, “Okay, but quickly.” Even though they didn’t deserve a second viewing, I opened my mouth and showed them my masterpiece before eating it.

Leaned back and sneering in confusion, Gary guessed, “Was it a-a-a . . . a football?”

Sighing a second time, I dropped my head in despair.

With an utterly baffled look on his face, Charles guessed, “Uh, was it a spaceship? Like maybe a flying saucer?”

I informed the dolts that it was in fact the moon, and they looked at each other blankly before they started to snicker, so I grumped indignantly, “Oh yeah? That was a darn good Moon! You’re just jealous.” I then flicked water at them and informed them that they were punks.

 

We finished our breakfast and agreed it was pretty good before deciding to kill some time by wandering around downtown. As we passed a small shop with colorful kites displayed in the window, Gary pressed his hands and face up against the glass and suggested we should get kites because he had not flown a kite in, like, forever. He sighed and said how he missed the olden days. Then looking at Charles and me, he asked again if we could get kites. Charles explained that it was June and there wasn’t much wind back home due to a semi-permanent, subtropical, high-pressure cell and suggested that we wait until October or November when kite flying season returned. Gary countered Charles’ suggestion by pointing at the colorful flags flapping across the street and saying, “But there’s lots of wind. Look.”

Charles sighed. “Yeah, there’s wind here, but back home it’s just a hot, windless valley. You would have to be constantly running to keep it in the air, and it would just end up in your closet. And besides, you don’t even know where you’re going to end . . .” He caught himself short, but it was too late, so he finished his sentence with, “. . . up.”

Gary looked at both of us with sad, puppy-dog eyes and then down at the ground, muttering, “I know. But I want to stay with you.”

I put my hand on his shoulder, and against my better judgment, I said, “We’ll see what happens, okay? You never know.”

So it was official; I had lost my mind.

 

We arrived at the aquarium fifteen minutes early to find Abbey Street, Spencer and Agatha waiting out front. Abbey’s smile was bright and infectious, and I was taken aback by her charm, but seeing she was slightly nervous helped put me at ease.

Almost skipping right up to us, she said, “Hi guys. We were wondering if you’d show.”

Deciding to use some of my wit to help break the ice, I asked, “So, this is where they keep the fish, huh? Ah-ha, ha . . .”

Slapping his hand over his eyes in dismay, Gary groaned, and although Abbey Street didn’t laugh, she helped me by changing the subject: “Thanks for letting us tag along. We haven’t been here since Christmas.”

Resisting the urge to point out that she was getting me in on her pass, I simply replied, “It’s our pleasure.” I then looked down and said hi to Spencer.

Squinting up at Charles and me suspiciously, Spencer asked, “Are you guys still fighting?”

“Oh, because of last night? Naw, that’s not fighting. Heck, we do that all the time.” Slapping Charles on the back, I added, “That’s how we kid. Right, Charles?”

Charles was too busy gawking at Agatha to reply, and she in turn was gawking right back at him. I almost thought I could hear songbirds singing and violins playing over their heads. So after clearing my throat, I repeated more loudly, “Right, Charles?”

Several seconds passed before Charles came back to reality. “Huh? Oh, yeah. Right, we want to see the fish.”

As we headed for the entrance, Abbey took out her membership card, showed it to me and asked, “My treat?”

“Yeah, thanks. That would be great.” I had to force myself not to stare, but her eyes had turned an impossibly vivid green in the bright light of day.

To Charles and Gary, she spoke apologetically: “You guys will have to pay your own way though. Sorry.”

Charles and Gary glanced at each other and then at me for an explanation, so I gave them one: “She’s kidding.” Giving Charles a friendly shove, I muttered, “It’s called a joke.”

They both forced a weak chuckle and nodded politely before Agatha tucked her hand through Charles’ arm and spoke loud enough for everyone to hear: “Don’t mind her. She’s not right in the head. You see, she was dropped on her noggin a few too many times as an infant.”

Abbey Street glanced back at Agatha and replied, “Speak for yourself, lady. Takes one to know one.”

We maneuvered into the members-only line and found ourselves through the gate in mere moments, and once inside, I realized I was grinning for no particular reason.

Smiling up at me, Spencer asked, “You like fish too?”

I admitted that I did, and he asked what we should see first, so I asked if he knew where the cuttlefish were. After some thought, Spencer pointed to the right and replied, “They’re over that way.”

Charles and Gary moaned, so I folded my arms at them. “What? That’s why we’re here, right? To ‘see’ the cuttlefish?”

Abbey Street gave me an odd look while Charles got right in my face and whined, “Gord, we haven’t been in here in, what, twenty years? Ever since you got all old and crusty, you don’t want to do anything fun. Come on, can’t you just enjoy living in the moment for a change?”

Abbey appeared right next to Charles, all up in my face, asking, “You just want to see the cuttlefish and leave? That’s crazy. Here, come on, we’re going to give you the full tour.” She grabbed me by the arm and dragged me forward, saying, “Come on, you stick-in-the-mud.”

I held my ground, causing her to spin around, but she wouldn’t let go and tugged again a little harder, so I had to lean back to keep from being pulled forward. “Uh, guys?” I argued, “We have to remember why we’re here.”

Suddenly, another face appeared right in front of mine that looked like Gary’s. And it quipped, “Yeah, have some fun for a change, you old curmudgeon.”

Overwhelmed by the onslaught, I gawked in disbelief. “But we have to . . .”

Abbey Street pulled harder until I stumbled forward, and while leading me towards the kelp-forest tank, she asked, “When was the last time you were here?”

Stumbling along a few steps before finding my footing, I knew I could escape from her hold but didn’t really see any good reason to do so.

I replied, “I think about twenty years, give or take a decade.”

“Then there’s a lot of stuff you’ve never seen. Now come on.”

Stupid Charles and Gary and Abbey Street were correct in their assessment. What would a few hours hurt? The cuttle-fish weren’t going anywhere.

The kelp-forest tank was bigger and more spectacular than I remembered. The way the light flickered and bounced through the towering spires of waving, green stalks seemed almost hyper-real, and the brightly colored fish seemed as interested in us as we were in them. They stared back with a sort of blank curiosity swimming past, and I thought if they could speak, they would say, “Look what I can do, and I don’t have a worry in the world, so, ha on you.”

As soon as Charles, Gary and Agatha arrived at the tank, all the inhabitants hurried away to the opposite side, schooling together and watching nervously, so I admitted, “Hey, Charles, you were right. They don’t like you.” Pondering this, I asked, “It it just spanners, or do fish dislike drones too?”

Charles nodded. “Oh, it’s just us. Can you believe that? You’d think they’d realize by now that we aren’t the bad guys.”

When I reminded him that he was, in fact, the bad guy, Charles wagged a finger at me and defended himself: “Uh, we’re not the bad guys, and you know it.”

Agatha, who had yet to let go of Charles’ arm, agreed: “Tell him, Charles. I’m tired of all the negative press. We’re just doing our job.”

And when I snorted and said, “Wow, Charles, she sounds just like you,” Charles simply gave me his big, dumb, self-satisfied grin and a solid face-palm.

In retaliation, I put Charles in his place by sneering defiantly. I then whispered to Abbey Street, “Do you have a minute?”

Without taking her eyes off the tank, she replied, “Yeah, sure.”

I gestured for her to follow me over to a quiet corner of the lobby, away from the crowd, and once out of earshot, I tried to find the right words. I rubbed my chin, looked at her, then the floor and then back up before clearing my throat and asking, “So, uh, are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

She hesitated a moment, and I expected she was weighing her choices between telling the truth and feigning ignorance. Finally, she confessed in almost a whisper, “You’re still being followed . . . but this time, it’s not a miskreant.”

When she searched my eyes, I was able to discern brilliant-blue flecks of color sprinkled randomly across her deep green retinas. Forcing myself to break from her gaze, I smirked and replied, “. . . Yeah, no, this time it’s an attractive art dealer and her son. Ha ha.”

“Gordo, you ever heard of ne’er-do-wells?”

Frowning as I searched my memory, I admitted, “Ne’er-do-wells? Don’t think so.”

“Yeah. Well, there are two right over there.” She covertly pointed at the open space in front of the information booth.

I scanned the area but could see nothing out of the ordinary. “Right there? They must be drones because I can’t see them.”

“They’re not drones. They’re drakk-demons who inhabit a realm outside space-time, so they can’t be seen, even by spanners. These guys have been tracking you, well, at least since last night. They were following you when you came into the restaurant to spy on me.”

“Hey, I told you. I wasn’t . . .”

She chuckled. “I’m kidding. I know you weren’t.”

“Oh, Ha-ha. You’re too funny.” I searched the spot again, but seeing nothing but shiny, happy people moving about, I asked, “Are they dangerous?”

“Not directly. They’re not in our universe, so they can’t touch us and we can’t touch them. They must be tracking you to find out what you’re up to.”

“Great. Well, the more the merrier, I suppose.” I raised my hand to wave at them like I could see them, but Abbey pulled my arm down and warned, “Best not to antagonize them. I said they probably can’t touch us.”

“Ah, right. Don’t antagonize the ne’er-do-wells. Got it.”

“You do understand what a big deal it was to break the curse on, um, Sparkles, right?”

“I’m slowly beginning to understand. And how did you hear about that?”

“A little bird told Agatha. Well, actually, a whole flock of pelicans told her, and she told me.”

“You know, I’m beginning to think that birds are just a bunch of blabber-mouths. They can’t keep anything to themselves.”

She laughed brightly and agreed, “Yes, they are the world’s gossipers, and we love them for that.”

“I suppose we do.” Absently tapping my shoe against a nearby pillar, I asked, “But what does all this have to do with you? You know? Why are you here?”

Nobody was within earshot, but she spoke in a whisper: “Fallen don’t send ne’er-do-wells to track just anyone. You scared them, and I think you scared them bad. They want to know how you freed the miskreant, and to be honest, so do I.”

I looked at the floor and then back up to meet her gaze. Abbey seemed sincere, but I wasn’t about to blab about Pock or knuckle-rocks or the eck-collector to a stranger. Charles had never mentioned ne’er-do-wells before, and she could be making them up to gain my trust. Realizing my arms were folded, I put them back down before asking, “So you’re doing this on your own?”

“Well, yes and no. Kroe-Vogk asked me to check you out before he would bother to speak with you, and when I saw a free miskreant, I have to admit, I became very curious.”

“Kroe-Vogk? He knows we’re looking for him?”

“Every non-human life form in the western hemisphere knows about your little encounter with that adult miskreant on the beach. It wasn’t exactly a low-key occurrence. And the three of you were present in Mono Lake when that other spanner was taken, and now you’re out here? It’s pretty obvious what you’re doing.”

Tensing up, I asked, “And what are we doing then?”

“Um, you’re going to try to rescue that other spanner.”

“Dang! And what else do you know?”

“I know about your little tussle with the brakken yesterday and that you stopped on a sight-seeing trip in San Juan Bautista. Then you had lunch, but you weren’t hungry, and that’s about it.” She searched my eyes. “So, what do you need from Kroe-Vogk?”

I cleared my throat and stammered, “It’s . . . it’s not for me to, um, say.” I looked away, then back up and added, “I don’t even know who you are. I mean, I just met you, you know?”

Abbey Street nodded, tucked her arm through mine and said, “Fair enough, you can tell me later. I’m very patient.” She brightened and asked, “So, have you done any new sketches since May Lake?”

“Let’s see, since May Lake? I’ve done a few, but nothing special.”

“Hmm, I’ll be the judge of that. Let me see them.”

“Wow. You’re kind of pushy, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not. I’m inquisitive.”

I scoffed. “Compared to you, Charles is a humble, Buddhist monk.”

Her eyes got wide. “Oh yeah?”

I tried not to smile. “Yeah.”

She tried to contain her smile too. “Is pushy a bad thing?”

“I’m not sure. I guess it doesn’t have to be, in small doses.” Searching for the ne’er-do-wells, I asked, “Are they still there?”

“Yeah, right there. Plain as day.”

“What do they look like?”

“Oh, they’re hideous.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. But not just surface ugly, you know? It’s that kind of ugly that radiates from inside — the ugliness of contempt.”

“So, how can you see them?”

“I have no idea. I was born with the ability to see, or sense, all forms of life. I can see your life-force, and I can even see the cloud of microscopic life-forms living in you.”

Frowning at my hands, I asked, “Really? You can see my bugs?”

Abbey Street nodded. “The best way to describe it is that your life-force is a sort of purple-blue aura and your microbes have a collective yellow-orange tinge.”

Realizing she wasn’t kidding, I asked, “Well, wouldn’t that all blend together into a brown aura?”

“No. It’s hard to explain. It’s not really color like you’re thinking. It’s something more like visible frequencies, and no, they don’t blend.”

I blinked repeatedly and stuttered, “So-so-so, you . . . ? You can see every demon here? Including drones? What else can you see right now?”

Searching the bustling crowd flowing through the main hall, Abbey chuckled. “It’s pretty hard to describe. This place is filled with life all the way to the ceiling.” She asked, “Did you know that a lot of drones can fly?”

“Huh? No, I thought most of them were like Charles and Gary, you know, foot shufflers.”

She laughed. “Spanners like Charles and Gary used to fly, but over the past century, with their access to an unlimited supply of junk food, their wings withered and dropped off.”

My eyes bugged. “Really? He’s never mentioned that.”

“He probably doesn’t want you to know so you won’t try to make him eat galswallow.”

“How do you know that?”

“Kroe-Vogk told us.”

“Um, so you’re friends with this Kroe-Vogk?”

Abbey Street became visibly uneasy. Looking away, she replied in almost a whisper, “Yeah. He’s helped us immensely and we’re indebted, but . . .”

Spencer and Gary raced each other to our location, and after skidding to a stop and informing Gary that he won, Spencer asked, “Hey! What are you doing over here? Come on!”

We followed them over to one of the octopus tanks where a big one was crawling across the glass. The cephalopod’s shape and movements seemed so alien yet so familiar. Charles, Gary and Agatha kept their distance so the octopus wouldn’t retreat into its cave, but Abbey, Spencer and I pressed up into the back of the crowd for a better look. I had always known about octopi being intelligent animals, but seeing one in person brought the fact home. As it moved, it made eye contact with the people standing nearby, but when it looked at me, it stopped, and such an abrupt halt made several people turn around to see what it might be looking at. I casually turned away and pretended not to notice, and as soon as I had retreated from the crowd, I glanced back to see the octopus continue on across the top of the tank.

Spencer tugged on my shirt and asked, “Did you see that? That octopus stopped and looked right at you.”

I chuckled and surmised, “Yeah, it was probably looking at its reflection in the glass.”

Shaking her head, Abbey argued, “It was looking right at you.”

And Spencer smiled when he asked, “Is that one of your gifts?

I frowned at him. “Gifts? I don’t think so. What gifts?”

Spencer explained, “Everyone has gifts. Maybe you just found one of yours.”

“Yeah? And do you know any of yours?”

He shrugged. “Not yet, but Kroe-Vogk says whatever they are, they’re going to be quite useful.”

I looked to Abbey Street for an explanation, and she said, “Maybe one of his gifts will be cleaning his room. Now that would be useful.”

Spencer huffed and whined, “Mo-om,” causing Abbey and me to have a laugh at his expense.

 

I had more fun in the next two hours than I had had in a long time. Charles, Gary and Agatha kept wandering off, and even though we tried to keep up, we kept losing track of them, but we didn’t mind because it was their job to keep track of us. On our way across to the eastern wing, I went out front to check on Sparkles to find him happily sitting on the sidewalk, looking up at the sky. He acknowledged my presence with a quick glance before looking away. If the miskreant was able to detect the ne’er-do-wells lurking about, he certainly made no indication that he was concerned.

Abbey Street described ne’er-do-wells as nothing more than tall, thin phantoms that radiated a disdain for humans. They had no eyes, arms, legs or head, and she admitted that if they had any kind of face, she couldn’t make it out, and when I thought aloud that it must be awfully lonely to live outside time and space, she said I shouldn’t loose too much sleep over it.

Arriving at the otter tank in time for the feeding, we found Charles, Agatha and Gary sitting down in front with the kids. Abbey and Spencer had seen the feedings many times before, and I was ready to sit down, so we moved away from the crowd and found an empty bench.

Leaning forward to compare their facial features, I asked, “Two spanners in the same family? I mean, what are the odds?”

Abbey explained, “Oh, Spencer’s adopted. Kroe-Vogk had a hand in that. He wanted to be sure Spence was raised by another spanner.”

“Oh? You two look related.” I looked at them even more carefully. “Wow. You look like mother and son. I sure wish my parents had been spanners. They could have helped me grow up with Charles and better understand how to deal with the trauma of being so, um, unusual.”

Abbey nodded as her gaze went to infinity. “Isn’t that the truth? As a kid, there was nobody to talk to. Mom didn’t like it when I mentioned Agatha, but I can’t blame her. It’s a terrifying thought to learn that spirits, whose sole purpose is to make us absolutely miserable, are living right here among us. I wouldn’t want to know either.”

Nodding, I glanced down at my wet shoes and asked, “So do I pass the test? Will you tell Kroe-Vogk to see us?”

Eying me warily, she muttered, “Mm, I suppose you might be worthy. We’ll ask the cuttlefish if Kroe-Vogk’s around.”

“You know about the cuttlefish too?”

“Yeah. They’ll know if he’s in the vicinity. We’ll head over there next, and Agatha can ask them. She’s earned their trust, so they’ll talk to her . . .” She stopped and added, “. . . on the condition that we go with you to see Kroe-Vogk.”

What choice did I have? I suppose I could have refused, but then what? I might run the risk that the cuttlefish would refuse to talk to Charles or Gary, and I certainly didn’t speak cuttlefish. I was fairly certain that Abbey Street was on the level. For all I knew, she was already acquainted with Pock and knew everything about eck, but too much was at stake and I had to be careful.

So I said, “Well, okay. You can come, but try not to get in the way.” And try as I might, I couldn’t keep a straight face.

Her eyes went wide as she tried to sound indignant: “Get in the way? Me?” After she huffed, I put my hand out, and she shook it a little too hard. I tried to let go, but she held on until I shook her hand a second time, causing her to laugh. And when Spencer laughed and told me I was weird, I told him he was weird too.

At their urging, I described some of the highlights of the unpleasant years with Charles and all the misery he had bestowed on me. I even gave them the ugly details of the protracted wars we had fought and even admitted to some of the knock-down, drag-out fist fights we had had when I was in my teens, twenties and even a few in my thirties, and they quickly got a picture of our deeply turbulent past. Considering what Charles and I had been through, Abbey and Spencer were surprised we got along so well. I explained that we usually got along better when we were traveling and that having a common cause had gone a long way to bring us to an extended but temporary truce. After the otter feeding had concluded, the demons appeared from the crowd laughing about something, but all three quickly went quiet when they spotted us.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

Charles waved it away dismissively. “Oh, those otters are hilarious. You should have seen them.”

“Otters, huh? Right.” I gave the three of them a suspicious look as we headed for the cuttlefish exhibit.

When we arrived, Agatha asked us to stay out of earshot, so we backed away and watched from a safe distance while she stood motionless with hands and forehead pressed against the tank. At first, the strange animals approached cautiously, but as soon as they recognized her, they swarmed up to the glass, doing happy, little loop-dee-loops and zig-zags. Agatha began making strange hand gestures, pointing at us and then herself. She made more gestures and pointed at us again, and as soon as she was finished, the cuttlefish started swimming around in surprisingly intricate patterns that seemed like a form of communication. Rapidly swirling, scattering and regrouping, they finally became motionless for several seconds before arranging themselves into geometric shapes, dissolving quickly from one to the next. First they formed a basic sphere, then a cube, then a pyramid, and the shapes became more complex until they were shifting and swirling into intricate designs I didn’t recognize. Agatha replied with long, flowing gestures until she finally pressed her head against the tank and became motionless. The cuttlefish responded by swarming up in front of her until Abbey’s demon finally stood up and returned to us, seeming somewhat solemn. Sighing heavily, she declared, “He’s out there, but he’ll only speak with the Gordo.”

With a furled brow, Abbey asked, “Did they say why?”

“They only said Kroe-Vogk will meet with the Gordo right away, one click north-northeast of the aquarium.” Then turning to me, Agatha asked, “Can you swim?”

“Well, yeah, but-but that water’s too cold. Couldn’t I rent a kayak and row out?”

Agatha thought a moment before replying, “Abbey can get you out there, but you’ll probably have to get in the water when you arrive.”

I looked to Abbey and asked, “I have to get in the water? For how long?”

I could see a glimmer of worry in her eye, but Abbey only shrugged and asked her son, “Do you think he’d fit into grandpa’s wet-suit?”

Eyeing me over, Spencer said it might be a little tight around the belly but would probably fit.”

Sucking my gut in, I asked, “Why do I have to get in the water? Can’t he just come out onto dry land for a minute?”

Abbey shook her head and smirked. “Oh, no. Not Kroe-Vogk. Come on, we’d better hurry.” Looping her arm through mine, she headed for the entrance, practically dragging me along until I found my footing.

Charles put his palms out in protest and opened his mouth in disbelief. Chasing after us, he whined, “But we didn’t even get to see the jellyfish yet.”

Gary echoed Charles’ sentiments exactly: “Yeah, the jellyfish. And what about the puffins?”

I glanced back as Abbey dragged me away, explaining that we would get our hands stamped and come back later. Then after a flash of brilliance, I asked, “Why don’t you wait here? You can watch for me out on the viewing deck, you know, in case I need to be rescued.”

They looked at each other with big grins, and while attempting to perform a high-five, Gary accidentally slapped Charles in the eye. Rubbing his injury with one hand, Charles waved after us with the other, calling out that they would stay put and watch from outside. He then instructed us to, “Have fun!”

Agatha chased after us and asked if she could stay with Charles and Gary, and Abbey said that was a good idea, causing Agatha to beam as she went chasing after the guys.

Abbey rolled her eyes and whispered, “I think they’ve already fallen for each other.”

I chuckled. “Poor Gary. Now he’s a third wheel.”

To my surprise, Spencer asked, “Isn’t three wheels more stable than two?”

I chuckled over his question and admitted that I would much rather ride a bicycle than a tricycle any day because they’re more versatile, and to this, he wondered aloud if he was a third wheel. His Mom quickly knelt down, gave him a big bear hug and said, “You will always be my first wheel, kiddo, and don’t you forget it.” She kissed him hard on the top of the head, causing him to giggle, squirm and protest, “Mom! Not cool. Not in front of the weirdo.”

Abbey offered to drive us in her car, and I gladly accepted, but when Sparkles strolled up to us in front of the aquarium, we decided to take the pickup instead.

 

Chapter Twenty: Meet Kroe-Vogk

 

Their house wasn’t far from the wharf. It was a cozy, little Victorian cottage with a small yard and a partial view of the bay, and even with my demon nowhere in sight, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy. After parking the truck and climbing out, I pointed at Sparkles and told him to stay. But Sparkles was busy gazing up at squirrel who was scolding him from a branch overhead, so he ignored me completely. I patted him on the back and praised, “Good monster.”

As Abbey was fiddling with the keys at the front door, someone inside let out three thunderous barks. Seeing my concern, she explained it was only Barney who was about as dangerous as a kitten. To my relief, she was right. Barney was as friendly as they came. With a maniacally wagging tail, he sniffed and licked each of us in turn, making sure everyone got their fair allotment of attention.

Wiping the slobber on my shirt, I asked, “What kind is he?”

Abbey went inside and gestured for me to follow. Flipping on the light, she theorized, “He’s a rescue horse. We think he’s mostly labradoodle.” She lead me down a narrow hall, into a back bedroom filled with chairs, mattresses, boxes and portable closets, and after climbing over a great mound of clothes to a wet-suit lying on the floor, she warned, “Catch,” and tossed it to me before making her way back.

“Let’s see. Yep, it’s all here,” she declared while gently pushing Spencer back into the hall. “Try it on, and if you need help, just yell and we’ll send Barney in.”

I was slow to get her joke, and after I finally blinked and nodded, Abbey smiled warmly and closed the door. A moment later, she asked from the other side, “Hey, do you want tea or coffee?”

I replied, “Tea would be great. Thanks.”

I had never donned a wet-suit before, but it went on easily enough. I had suck in my gut to get it to on and then headed to the kitchen for inspection. Holding out my arms, I rotated a full circle. “This look right?”

Barney let out one bark at my strange behavior, but Abbey nodded as she came up and tugged here and adjusted a little there, muttering, “Yeah, pretty good fit. Now you won’t freeze to death if you have to dive.”

I blinked hard. “Uh, dive? I don’t know how to dive. Like dive down in the sea?”

Abbey finished pouring the tea and served us. She then sat down at the dining-room table and gestured for me to come join her, and once I had taken my seat, she explained, “Kroe-Vogk doesn’t like the sun. He says it makes his head blister, so he might want to meet with you down at the bottom of the bay.”

At her declaration, I thought it would be more fun to inhale my tea rather than drink it, but it didn’t go well at all, and I turned a bright red and coughed for at least a minute before clearing my windpipe and regaining the ability to speak. Still not believing my ears, I repeated what I thought she had said: “The bottom of the bay?”

Nodding, she explained, “Yeah, but don’t worry. Kro-Vogk’s an excellent swimmer, and he’ll carry you down.”

I cleared my throat one last time. “Uh, but I like breathing.” Cracking a grin, I wagged a finger at her. “Aah, you’re joking, aren’t you?”

Abbey Street asked her son, “Spence, am I joking?”

Without looking up from his book, Spencer shook his head and muttered, “Nuh-uh.”

Searching for a hint of levity in either of their faces, I argued, “But . . . but . . .”

“Don’t worry. Just hold your breath and hang on tight. Just pretend you’re on a ride at the fair, and it’ll be over in no time.”

“I-I don’t like the sound of this. If he doesn’t like the sun, can’t we just meet somewhere nice and shady?”

She shrugged. “I suppose you could, but that’s not what Kroe-Vogk wants.” Gently patting the back of my hand, she asked, “What are ya, yella?” Her smile was so endearing that I had to force myself to focus on what she was asking.

I couldn’t help but smile in return while responding, “Heck no, I ain’t yella. Not me, Jack.”

“It’s pronounced Ab-bey. You know, short for Abigail?”

I nodded. “Right, Ab-bey. Got it. Not Jack then?”

“No.” She lightly kicked me under the table before suggesting, “Good. Now drink your tea like normal people, and we’ll go load the kayak.” And to my great disappointment, she withdrew her hand.

I humbly replied, “Yes, ma’am.” Then blocking my mouth from Abbey’s view, I whispered to Spencer, “Your mom’s bossy.”

“Spencer glanced up from his book and muttered, “Tell me about it.”

Abbey gently backhanded Spencer on the shoulder and grumbled, “I’ll show you bossy, buster.”

And without looking up, Spencer giggled.

I whispered to Spencer, “And she’s violent too.”

 

We spent several minutes shoving, tugging and pleading before Sparkles would deign to scoot a few inches to one side so we would have enough room for the kayak in the back. We then over-secured it with several lengths of rope before driving down to the bay. Abbey guided me to her favorite launching spot, and as soon as we entered the parking lot, Sparkles was out of the truck and heading for the water. We set the kayak on the shore, and curious to see what I was in for, I tested the water temperature with my hand and declared, “Brr-rr! Please thank your dad for letting me borrow his wet-suit.”

Putting the paddles in the boat, Abbey replied, “I will when I see him. He’ll be glad it’s getting some use.”

Spencer and I climbed in and sat down before Abbey pushed off and jumped in back.

Spencer called out, “Bye, Sparkles. Don’t forget to write.”

Sparkles, not comfortable with good-byes, followed us out into the water until he vanished below the surface. And as he followed us out, he created a wake that reminded me of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, only much, much creepier.

Rowing a little too vigorously, I announced, “Hey. Look at me. I’m a sailor. Wow. I’ve always wanted to go canoeing. How am I doing?”

Smirking with approval, Abbey nodded and explained, “You’re doing fine. But for future reference, this is a kayak. Also, you don’t have to row so aggressively. Slow and steady will get us there.”

“Oh, right. Kay-yak.” I reluctantly eased up on my impressive power strokes.

Not wishing to slow down, Spencer objected: “No, Mom, faster! Stroke! Stroke!”

Offering up her oar to her son, Abbey asked, “Would you like to row?”

“No thanks, you’re doing great.” Spencer then spun back around and faced forward.

I took a deep breath and exhaled. “This is wonderful. Wow, I could do this all day.”

Sparkles seemed to agree with me as he gracefully glided past the kayak, swimming like a big, shadow-iguana, but without the long tail.

We reached the aquarium in no time to find Charles, Gary and Agatha out on the deck, but the guys were obviously caught up in an active conversation with Agatha and didn’t notice us until Agatha spotted us and pointed. They all gave us enthusiastic waves, so we waved back. When Abbey stopped rowing and declared us close enough, I raised my oar out of the water and asked, “So, can you give me some pointers? You know, with Kroe-Vogk?”

“Pointers? Um, yeah, let him do the talking. He doesn’t have much interest in what mortals have to say, and if you want his help, be as honest as possible. He’ll know if you’re lying. Oh, and his appearance might come as a bit of a shock, so brace yourself.”

“A shock? Like how?”

“He has a huge growth on the side of his head. It’s hard to describe, but try not to stare.”

“Right. Okay. So can I change my mind? I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Too late. Look.” Pointing straight down, Abbey whispered, “Hmm. He’s never on time. He must be eager to meet you.”

I gasped at the enormous shadow rising up from the depths. It was moving fast and looked like it was going to crash into the bottom of the kayak, but a moment later, a dark-green and exceedingly ugly head rose out of the water right next to us. Kroe-Vogk was similar in size and general appearance to Xocotl, except much older and more difficult to look upon. Abbey was correct; the growth on his head was truly repulsive. It sagged and jiggled like a dead jellyfish as he rose higher. With arms folded tightly, Kroe-Vogk glowered down, giving me the impression he wasn’t pleased in the slightest to meet me. When he leaned in for a closer inspection, I wanted to look away in disgust but forced myself to meet his gaze.

Kroe-Vogk was nothing like Xototl or Xocotl. His presence, size and underlying animosity were unnerving, and I had to steel myself against a growing dread. Kroe-Vogk wasn’t hiding the fact that he wanted nothing to do with me. A low, disapproving rumble rose up from inside him, and the look on his face was one of an arch-demon who would not mind squashing me. His voice agitated the water’s surface when he growled, “What have you brought this time, Abbey? Another human looking for another favor?” He sneered and growled again.

In an attempt to explain my presence, I raised my finger and said, “Uh, I . . .”

“Quiet!” Glaring at me in disgust, he barked, “Was I talking to you?” Then in a much softer voice, he turned to Abbey Street and grumbled, “Oh, how I hate this-this awful sunshine.”

Not frightened by the giant in the slightest, Abbey replied, “Sorry for the intrusion, oh foul and ignoble one, I believe this one may have important information you’ll want to hear.”

“Mm . . .” Kroe-Vogk turned back and inspected me for an uncomfortably long time until he chuckled bitterly and asked, “A mortal with useful news? That will be the day.” He scoffed disdainfully. “So, out with it, human, what have you brought?”

Unable to keep my wits or find the correct words, I stuttered, “Um, I was . . . I-I mean, I wanted to, uh.”

Leering at me like I was a dead slug stuck to the bottom of his foot, he asked, “You wanted to what? Learn how to speak?” Rumbling with laughter, he suggested, “Why don’t you take a deep breath and try to focus? I know it’s not easy, but try forming a complete sentence, you know, one word at a time.”

I nodded wholeheartedly and tried again: “Yes, right . . . I, uh, we . . . we need your help.” Having formed a whole sentence, I exhaled hard. Now that I had uttered something coherent and had not been eaten, maybe it would get easier.

Kroe-Vogk snarled again, giving me a sense that we weren’t going to be the best of friends. He growled, “You need my help? Or do you just want my help because you’re too lazy or incompetent to do it yourself?”

Forcing a quick laugh, I glanced over at Abbey, but her expression was indiscernible before she looked away.

Leaning in close enough for me to smell a hot, decaying fish smell on his breath, Kroe-Vogk growled, “Why are you looking at her? She’s not going to tell you what to say.” His brow furled and his pupils constricted down to two dots before he asked in almost a whisper, “You can’t answer a simple question?”

Before I could respond, he plunged beneath the surface and rose back up, growling, “I’m drying out, already.” He looked up at the sky, snarling, “It’s that ghastly sun. If only there was a way to snuff it out for good.”

Completely deflated and bordering on panic, I tried again: “We, uh, we need your help. It-it’s kind of important. I-I can explain.”

Kroe-Vogk warned, “For your sake, this had better be good, but I have a sense you’re wasting my time . . . Well, come on, get in.”

Spencer and Abbey carefully balanced the kayak as I rolled off the side, and as soon as I resurfaced, Kroe-Vogk growled, “Hang on to my robe with both hands.”

I looked to Abbey for guidance, and she subtly tilted her head that I should do as Kroe-Vogk instructed, so I found a handhold on his slimy, putrefied robe.

Kroe-Vogk rumbled, “How long can you hold your breath?”

“Me? Um, I’m-I’m not sure. Maybe a minute?”

“Ninety-five seconds is what you will need if you don’t want to breathe water. Do you understand?”

“I, um, yes . . . I understand.” I looked to Abbey, who attempted a weak smile, but I could see the fear in her eyes. She puffed up her cheeks and plugged her nose, I suppose, to show me how to hold my breath, so I puffed out my cheeks and plugged my nose to show her I understood.

Kroe-Vogk instructed, “When you’re ready, take a deep breath, and we’ll dive. Understand?”

“I, uh, yes, I do.”

Taking several deep breaths, I tried to calm myself. I would have preferred testing out my breath holding skills but didn’t expect Kroe-Vogk would be willing to wait and suspected he wasn’t too concerned about my well being either way.

Ninety-five seconds. I could do that if I stayed calm, but what if I had to sneeze or got the hiccups on the way down? Then what? After inhaling as deeply as I could, Kroe-Vogk descended, taking me along with him. I made the mistake of trying to see where we were going and got salt water in my eyes, and the last thing I could tell was that we were heading towards a dark ravine at the bottom of the bay. The light faded rapidly, and as we descended, the pressure in my ears increased. To occupy my mind, I counted the passing seconds as the darkness closed in. Ten. Twenty. Thirty seconds passed. When I reached sixty, my lungs began to burn. I had to stay calm because if I panicked, I was in serious trouble. Only thirty-five seconds more. I opened my eyes a second time but could only make out dark cliffs rising up on either side of us. I looked up and was able to spot just the faintest glow shrinking away, and in the middle of that bit of daylight, Sparkles, who had apparently tried to follow, had turned around and was heading back to the surface.

My eyes burned. The silence was so complete that I could hear my heart beat. My fear was turning to panic. I had to remain calm. Every fiber in me wanted to let go and push back towards the surface. The burn in my lungs grew hotter. I needed air and I needed it soon. Time was running out, and as I started to feel the first twinges of losing consciousness, stars appeared around the fringes of my vision. I had lost count. How much longer?

Being it was too late to survive the journey back up, I could only hang and pray the trip would be over soon. Why had I agreed to this? I was going to die.

Kroe-Vogk stopped his descent and turned sharply, and after racing laterally through complete darkness for several seconds, we banked up and breached the surface. Inhaling deeply again and again, my impending blackout started to recede and consciousness slowly returned. Kroe-Vogk reached around, lifted me off of his back and placed me onto a solid surface where I slumped down to my hands and knees and continued to gasp for air. Wherever we were was dark, but not too far away was a dim light-source that revealed the area enough for me to make out slithering shapes that were scattering and disappearing into cracks in the rock.

After regaining my balance, I got to my feet, and my fear began to turn into anger at having been dragged down into the depths. I had almost died for apparently no good reason. It was, after all, just a dumb cave. But remembering Abbey’s advice, I suppressed my desire to ask or say anything. Instead, I waited. Expecting that Kroe-Vogk was probably waiting for me to speak so he could yell again, I determined not to give him the pleasure.

The cave was unnaturally cold, even colder than the sea above, and my ears and fingers were already aching. I reached out and touched the wall, and when my wet hand stuck to it, I quickly pulled away before my skin could fuse to the stone. Tucking my hands under my armpits and jogging in place, I made a real effort not to say anything about the severe temperature.

On my second glance over at the mystery light-source, Kroe-Vogk warned, “Don’t even think about it.”

Ignoring him, I headed over to investigate, causing Kroe-Vogk to roar, “Stop!” loud enough to make my ears ring.

He climbed out of the water and slumped to the floor. I watched him in silence, and he returned the favor. His eyes were burning into me, and in the low light, I could detect a pale, empty glow emanating from them. So this was what it was like to be trapped under the ocean, at the mercy of an unpredictable and particularly irritable arch-demon. What had I been thinking? Pock had assured me this individual would show us how to catch a miskreant. So had he been wrong? Or had Pock been a willing accomplice? And if Abbey Street had really known this giant’s true nature, why had she let me come down into his lair? I had trusted her too quickly. I had let a complete stranger lead me to my doom and wanted to kick myself for being so gullible.

Soaking wet and shivering, I squatted down and wrapped my arms around my legs. Even my hair was starting to freeze, and as the seconds and then minutes ticked by, I became more tempted to complain. But I waited and waited, and waited until, after a painfully long while, Kroe-Vogk started snoring. Glancing over to find his eyes closed, I was tempted to shout or even better, go over and kick him. But on second thought, I feared that doing so might not not have the desired outcome.

Kroe-Vogk’s snoring grew louder until curiosity got the better of me and I decided to sneak over and take a peek at the mystery light source. Taking slow, careful steps in sync with each exhale from the arch-demon, I reached a pile of boulders. Quietly and carefully, I scrambled up and peaked over to find a pool of strange, viscous water, and swimming around inside were two of the most intensely luminescent sea creatures I had ever seen. In fact, they were so bright, they appeared to have their own auras, and as I watched them swimming around in circles, frantically searching for an escape route, I thought of scooping them up and releasing them out into the sea. But at what cost? I would be trapped far below the surface in the lair of a really grumpy and possibly dangerous arch-demon who happened to be my ride out.

Why would he do this? Couldn’t he get his giant, arch-demon hands on a flashlight? No, he had to hold these creatures against their will. Anger welled up inside, and again, I had a powerful urge to go over and kick him and demand an explanation. Demons preferred dark places, and Kroe-Vogk was certainly a demon, so he didn’t need these little guys, and they didn’t need to suffer. I always knew to pick my battles carefully, and this seemed to be one I wouldn’t win, but I suddenly didn’t care. He had no right.

So before thinking it through, I scooped up the creatures, and as gently as possible, held them against my chest while tiptoeing back to the entrance and setting them in the water. I almost fell backwards when they both turned and looked up at me. In my mind, I clearly heard the words, “nos tamen non obliviscar,” before they shot away into the tunnel like a couple of luminescent torpedoes, leaving me all alone to await my doom.

Kroe-Vogk must have sensed the sudden loss of light because he snorted, coughed, wheezed and raged, “What have you done!”

Backing away from his voice, I stammered, “I-I had to let them go. Th-they were dying.”

He let out a growl that filled me with a cold dread, and as he moved closer, he seethed, “They were mine!”

Backing away some more, I argued, “They-they . . . don’t belong to-to anyone.”

Kroe-Vogk stopped his approach and went silent. Then a sharp clack! clack! rang out, and there was light. The arch-demon placed two bright blue stones on the floor and squinted about the cave, and when he spotted me, he growled, “How long was I out?”

Resisting the urge to make a wisecrack, I answered, “Not long. Maybe fifteen minutes.”

Slowly chewing on something in his mouth, he grunted, snorted and hacked before demanding, “Now you can tell me how you freed the miskreant.”

Buoyed by the fact that I was still alive, I took two steps forward and lied: “Really, I-I don’t know. He was free when we . . . uh, when we found him.”

“He? You mean the infant?” Studying me and scratching his belly, the arch-demon leaned forward and growled, “You are lying . . . So I will ask you again. How did you do it?”

“I-I really don’t know.” Taking another step closer to try to hide my fear, I suggested, “Why don’t you ask Sparkles? I mean the miskreant. Ask him what-what h-happened.”

He snarled, “Men do not name demons! His name is Tahk-chool.” The foul spray flying from his mouth hit me repeatedly with each word. Studying me for an uncomfortably long time, he admitted, “I don’t speak the miskreant language . . . But you already know this, don’t you? Ah, aren’t you a clever one?” He hocked and spat out a large glob of awful that moaned pitifully as it slowly began crawling across the floor.

Feeling my courage and my disgust for this giant growing stronger with each passing second, I asked, “Yeah? And how would I-I-I possibly know that? Less than one week ago, I-I had never even heard of a miskreant, and-and five days ago? I had never seen one. And-and now, I’ve got one following me around wherever I go, because supposedly I released it from some stupid curse? And you happen to think that somehow I had a hand in it? Well, isn’t that just dandy? Would you rather I make something up?”

Perhaps I had poured it on a little too strong. My words hung in the air like an acrid smoke while Kroe-Vogk pondered me in silence, and as his brow furled and his upper lip curled into a snarl, I had to make a conscious effort to keep breathing and hold his gaze. I thought it was a pretty good performance on my part. I had thrown just enough irritation into my tone that he might buy it. I certainly didn’t have any qualms about lying to this creep. He was arrogant and inconsiderate, and I just plain didn’t care for him. Taking another step forward, I lowered my voice and growled, “And his name is Sparkles because I said it is. Tahk-chool? Yeah, that’s just dumb.”

Kroe-Vogk continued to glare in silence, but I refused to avert my eyes, and even though I knew he could pound me into a pancake at any moment, I held my ground. It almost seemed he was trying to gain access to my mind in search for the truth, and when he found it, he would have no more use for me and would either eat me, drown me, or just leave me to freeze to death.

Finally, he nodded slowly and growled, “Mm, so you have some fire in you. Maybe you’re not the pathetic leach I took you for. But you still have a problem . . .” He closed his eyes, lowered his head and nodded off again.

I cleared my throat and asked loudly, “I have a problem? What might that be?”

Kroe-Vogk jerked awake and looked around in confusion. “Huh? Oh, it’s you . . .” His vision cleared before he explained, “You want my help, but I’m going to need something in return.”

I nodded and agreed, “I-I wouldn’t have it any other way. And what do you have in mind?”

“Simply tell me how you freed the miskreant, and I will help you.”

Unable to resist, I produced an annoying buzzer sound. “Uh, I don’t know how, remember?”

Kroe-Vogk growled, then mumbling something to himself, he began counting on his fingers until he asked, “You say you don’t know? Well, maybe I believe you, and maybe I don’t, but time will tell.”

His grin caused me to close one eye in disgust. I wasn’t sure what those horrible things crawling around in his mouth were and didn’t want to know, but they were much too large to be maggots.

Kroe-Vogk spat out another one of his phlegm creatures and asked, “So, you will perform a little task for me instead. Do you agree?”

“Do I agree? You want me to promise to perform a task without telling me what it is? Bzzz! Wrong.”

Kroe-Vogk clenched both fists, and the muscles in his shoulders and neck knotted, and if looks could kill, I would have been a goner. He strode up, knelt down and put his face right in front of mine, causing me to gag at the stench. I couldn’t help but take a step back and grimace at the hot smell of ancient death and decay rising out of him.

With venom in his voice, he whispered, “You will fetch a small supply of mud’d. A simple task, really. And after you bring it to me, I will assist you.”

Not knowing how to respond, I started at the beginning: “Mud’d? Why can’t you get it yourself? You’re surrounded by mud’d.” I hit the D hard to annoy him, and it worked.

His eyes darkening with irritation, Kroe-vogk explained, “This is a different kind of mud’d, the kind that comes from far below. Once you retrieve a bucket full, I will assist you.”

I shook my head. “Oh, no. I am not going to . . .” Stopping short, I asked, “Far below what?”

Growling and baring his teeth, Kroe-Vogk asked, “And why not?”

At my own peril, I blurted out, “I-I-I . . . don’t trust you. You see, after I bring this-this . . . mud’d back to you, what’s to keep you from just killing me? I-I . . . I haven’t even explained what I need.”

He smiled deviously before letting out a spiteful laugh. “Oh, you haven’t? It’s obvious, really. Even if I didn’t know before, I do now. You want to catch a miskreant.”

I couldn’t help but shudder with disgust at his smile, and as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. His voice dropped to an almost subsonic level when he continued: “And I know how to catch one. What do you think of that, mortal?”

It was then that I realized what he was planning. He would help us locate an adult miskreant, and as we were preparing to remove the curse, he would simply take our knuckle-bomb, and we would be powerless to stop him. For all I knew, Kroe-Vogk was allied with the Fallen and was planning to hand over Pock’s discovery. No, that was not going to happen on my watch. I would die before I allowed the secret of eck to fall into Kroe-Vogk’s hands. I had to bide my time and agree to his terms until I could come up with some kind of plan. Pock would know what to do.

Taking a deep breath, I tried to steady my nerves as I prepared to make a deal with a devil. Finally I whispered, “All right. I’ll fetch your precious mud’d if you’ll promise to deliver an adult miskreant into our hands.

Kroe-Vogk’s eyes turned bright yellow, and two horns pushed up out of his head as he hissed, “Our agreement must be set in stone. Hold out your hand.”

I hesitated at first, but it was too late. I couldn’t back out. I held out my shaking hand, and Kroe-Vogk withdrew a featureless, black cube from his robe, held it out between us and let go. But instead of dropping to the ground, the cube remained suspended in mid-air where it crackled and hummed, and as it started to grow, bright-red bolts of energy began ricocheting about inside. Once it had tripled in size, Kroe-Vogk ordered, “Place your hand on it.”

Examining the cube for only a second, I shook my head and asked, “Can’t we just shake on it?”

Kroe-Vogk’s voice was distant and broken as though he was speaking from beyond the grave: “This will be binding and will not harm you. Put your hand on the surface.”

I carefully did so and tensed up as I waited for the thing to zap me or explode or suck my soul out of my body. Kroe-Vogk pressed a massive index finger against the opposite side until it began to grow even larger, and I instinctively tried to pull away, but my hand was fused inside. And when I felt something brush against my fingers, I panicked and pulled even harder, crying out, “Get it off me!”

Laughing at my fear, he asked, “Are you true to your word?”

I stopped struggling. “Yes! Now please . . . get it . . . !”

Before I could finish, the cube shrank back down and dropped to the floor, and Kroe-Vogk’s voice returned to its former, melodious timbre when he declared, “It’s done.” Returning the cube to his robe, he explained that miskreants were fantastically elusive and were only seen when they wished to be, so he would have to speak with an expert or two on the matter while I was away.

“Away?” I asked, “All I’m doing is getting some dumb old mud’d. How far can it be?”

Kroe-Vogk grinned. “The mud-d I need will be volcanic in nature.”

“Volcanic? So I have to get it from an active volcano? Any one in particular?”

“Preferably one with accessible mud pots. And mind you, if you try to fake it, I will know.”

“Mud pots? Well, which ones have mud pots?”

“That’s not my concern.” He belched long and loud, producing a cloud of gas that made me dizzy and slightly nauseous, before he continued, “Oh, and one more thing. If you’re not back in one week, our deal is void, and I’ll find another source.”

Sensing he was just making the last part up, I had to ask, “Why don’t you just send one of your demons to get it? You are an arch-demon, after all. Can’t you just clap your hands and make it happen?”

Kroe-Vogk sneered and said, “Demons and volcanoes do not mix. I need a human to do it.”

“But I thought demons loved fire and brimstone and all that stuff. How odd.” This time, it was I who scowled at him, and knowing I shouldn’t ask, I asked anyway: “Are you in allegiance with the Fallen? I think that maybe . . .”

With bared teeth, Kroe-Vogk reached down, grabbed me and lifted me up, and I could tell by how hard he was squeezing that he wasn’t pleased, and because of the pressure against my chest, I was only able to whisper, “Ow! Too tight!” With both hands, I pushed back as hard as I could, but my effort only caused him to tighten his grip.

Breathing heavily through clenched teeth and spraying wet, putrid matter, he raged, “I should bash your head in! You worthless slug! How dare you!”

“I! . . . I can’t breath! Too tight!” I wheezed, “I-I’m sorry! Not funny! I take it back! Please let go! It won’t . . . !” With my last breath, I wheezed, “It won’t happen . . . again!”

Seeing the terror in my eyes, Kroe-Vogk began to smile as he squeezed harder, but when I began to lose consciousness, he put me down and gave me a solid shove, sending me staggering to the floor.

He growled, “Cross me again and it will be the last thing you do. Do you understand?”

On hands and knees, I only nodded.

The arch-demon glanced left and then right as the gears spun inside his head. He then gave me the darkest, most sinister smile before declaring, “Then we have a deal, human.”

I would have to tread carefully. This arch-demon reeked of betrayal and malevolence, and I trusted him about as far as I could throw him. Even if he wasn’t working with the Fallen, his motives had to be sinister, and I was determined to find out about mud’d before delivering it into his hands.

After I found my voice and agreed, “Yes, we-we-we . . . have a deal,” I hesitated, cleared my throat and asked, “What’s your interest with Abbey’s son? You encouraged her to adopt him? That seems an odd thing for an arch-demon to bother with.”

Kroe-Vogk shook with rage. I could tell he was weighing his options, and there was a real possibility he would smash me under his foot. He lowered his voice and asked calmly, “It’s Gordo, right?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Gordo? You will never mention what has transpired here to anyone. And if you know what’s good for you, you will stay away from Abbey and Spencer Street.” He then seethed, “I give you my word, if you harm my relationship with them, you will rue the day you were born.” He crooked his head, raised his eyebrows and hissed, “Do you understand?”

I lied: “Harm your-your relationship? I couldn’t care less about your-your relationship with a couple of strangers. I-I was just curious.”

“Strangers?” He laughed bitterly. “I’m not a fool. They are spanners, like you.” Shoving me towards the entrance, he warned, “If you value their safety or your own, you will not speak with them again.” The giant lifted me and whispered, “You have one week, meat-bag. Now, get out of my sight!

I took a deep breath before Kroe-Vogk flung me back into the water like a sack of chum, and as soon as I went under, I could feel myself being pulled by an invisible force through the tunnel and up to the top of the ravine. The force released me, and as soon as I had stopped moving, I opened my arms wide and kicked and paddled as hard as I could towards the surface. On my way up, I expected the world around me to brighten, but all remained dark, and I had to question if I was even headed in the correct direction. How could it be night? I had only been down for a short time.

Reaching the surface, I gasped for some well needed oxygen before gazing up at a star-filled sky that was accented with just a last glimmer of twilight. Abbey, Spencer and their kayak were nowhere to be seen, and the aquarium was dark and empty. Unable to wrap my mind around what could have happened, I was at first somewhat disoriented by the unexpected passage of time, but then recalling how time had moved so quickly in the Mono Lake Citadel, I figured that Kroe-Vogk’s cave must be part of the labyrinth. So with no better option, I started swimming for shore and hadn’t dog-paddled more than a minute when I was startled by the sight of two bright lights heading straight at me at breakneck speed. Seconds later, they came to a stop directly under me and floated up, and as I rose up on Sparkles’ back, I scolded, “Dang it, Sparkles, you almost gave me a heart attack. How about a heads-up when you’re approaching. You know, maybe make a little ‘beep-beep’ or something, so I know it’s you?”

But Sparkles couldn’t be bothered with anything like an apology. He simply floated in the water in complete silence as if waiting for something.

“Oh, right. I see.” I reached both hands around his neck, and as soon as I had my fingers locked together, I said, “Giddy-up!” and he took off across the surface like a speedboat from the netherworld. Unprepared for the sudden change in velocity, I cried out something like “Wooah!” and “Aaah!” and almost lost my grip. But once I had achieved a better hold, I started to enjoy the terrific speed and told him to go faster. Sparkles must have understood the gist of my request because he doubled his speed, but the force of the water was so great that I lost my grip and tumbled away behind him. And after resurfacing, I called out, “Sorry.”

Sparkles didn’t seem too upset over my blunder and simply slowed down and came back around to pick me up. On the second try, I locked my fingers around his neck more tightly.

“Okay, I won’t let go this time. I promise . . . Giddy-up.”

He took off again, and soon we were going so fast that we were skipping across the surface. In fact, we skipped all the way back to where we had launched the kayak, and when Sparkles skidded and bounced up onto the shore, I let go, rolled off him and slumped down in the grass. Sparkles sat himself down next to me and began scanning the bay and sky.

Following his gaze, I asked, “Sparkles, am I insane? Is any of this real? Are you real?” And when he didn’t provide a satisfactory response, I changed the subject by asking, “And where the heck are Charles and Gary anyway?”

 

I half expected my traveling companions had run off with that Agatha. The three of them had completely forgotten about my being carried down under the sea by Kroe-Vogk, and I would have to remember to thank them for abandoning me. Would Charles leave me for Agatha? No, he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He was my demon. Wow, was I actually concerned about losing Charles? I really was losing my mind. He sure seemed crazy about her though. Sure, they just met, but they did seem like a good match.

Thinking that Abbey and Spencer would be wondering what had become of me, I decided to contact them. Hopefully they weren’t annoyed I had taken so long, but I expected she was quite aware of the time differential inside the labyrinth. She was certainly aware of much more than I was, and she had very green eyes too.

Looking up at the stars began to lull me to sleep, and I knew if I dozed off, I’d probably get rousted by an officer or two and didn’t want to explain why I was sleeping on the shoreline in a wet-suit while in possession of a pickup truck owned by a man from Dolores Hidalgo who had most likely been reported missing by his family.

The thought of descending into the Earth, finding Guillermo’s human and bringing him back from Utopia was overwhelming, and I had to remember to focus on one thing at a time. The first step was finding volcanic mud’d for arch-jerk, Kroe-Vogk, so that’s what I would do. With a bit of effort, I forced myself to my feet, patted Sparkles on the shoulder and muttered, “Come on, Sparky Malarkey, let’s go find the guys.”

 

Chapter Twenty-One: Where’s Spencer?

 

The truck was right where I had parked it, and Abbey’s kayak was fastened to the back, so they must have headed home and would be expecting me to head that way on my return. Hopefully Charles and Gary were there as well.

I searched the Ford for anything that would help me contact Adolfo’s family. Maybe I could find an email address or a phone number or even a home address, but the only thing in the glove box was the owner’s manual, a dried out pen, a fossilized breath-mint and a registration that had expired in nineteen-seventy-four. It showed Adolfo Hidalgo as the owner of the Ford, but the address was in Mexico City.

“Spark . . . !” Before I could finish calling him, Sparkles deftly landed in back of the truck and sat down with a resounding thump!

We reached Abbey and Spencer’s house to find most of the lights were out, but her car was in front of the house and the flicker of television light could be seen coming from the living room, so I decided to take a quick peek to see who was awake. I suggested to Sparkles that he might want to stay in the truck for the time being, and when he seemed to concur, I crept across the lawn and peeked in.

Abbey and Spencer were nowhere to be seen, but Charles and Agatha were holding hands on the couch, and Gary was lying belly-down on the floor, absently kicking the coffee table with his bare feet. They were watching an early episode of Star Trek which I recognized as “The City on the Edge of Forever” because Captain Kirk was talking to Joan Collins’ character in the scene.

First I tried rapping my knuckles lightly on the glass but nobody heard me. Charles was flapping his mouth, and I suspected he was going on about how he knew every plot to every Star Trek episode ever made. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I expected he was spewing out his opinion that Kirk was a much better captain than Picard. Kirk? Yeah, right. Everyone knows Picard is the superior captain.

And Gary was much too busy plowing through a grocery-bag full of popcorn to concern himself with such trivial matters. It appeared he was getting more on the carpet than in his mouth as Gary was wont to do.

I yelped when I turned to find Sparkles right next to me, and when he peered inside, his eyes lit up the living room like the rising sun, causing all three demons to turn simultaneously. Gary pointed at us and said something, and I heard Charles reply, “Well, duh,” as he got up and shuffled over to the front door. I waited as he fiddled with the dead bolt, and then I waited some more. Still, there was more fiddling, so I waited a little longer. And after some more fiddling, Agatha came over and opened the door, scolding, “Well, it’s about dang time. We had left you for dead. Welcome back.” And as soon as she winked at me, I knew I liked her.

Stepping aside and waving us in, she said, “I bet you’re hungry.”

I paused and muttered, “No, I better not. It wouldn’t be appropriate to come in uninvited, you know?”

With her head lowered, she held my gaze. “Huh? You are kidding, right? I’m inviting you, ya big dummy. This is my house too. Get in here.” She grabbed my arm and pulled me in.

Charles pointed at me, snickered and said, “She called you a big dummy, you big dummy.”

With arms folded, Agatha looked up at Sparkles and surmised, “I think you’ll fit. Come on in.”

But Sparkles only glanced at Agnes and then at me before sitting down on the front lawn where he started to groom.

After explaining that Sparkles was more of an outdoor demon, I scowled at Charles and Gary and whispered, “Thanks a lot for waiting, guys. That was real big of you.”

“We did wait, broccoli-breath. Abbey told us to come back here with them because she knew you’d head here when you were finished.” Charles lumbered back to the couch, flopped down and whined, “Ah, it’s a commercial.”

Gary dropped back to the floor with his bag of popcorn and asked, “I still don’t get it. So why did they travel back to the olden days?”

Charles kicked him in the leg. “Did you fall asleep? They have to repair the time-continuum because Bones broke it.”

Gary kicked Charles back. “Oh, when he jumped through that gate? That’s right. So, what’s Spock building then?”

Rolling his eyes, Charles explained, “He’s building a device that can interface with his tricorder so they can figure out how McCoy altered the past.”

Opening his mouth wide in understanding, Gary declared in no uncertain terms, “Aah.” He then crammed another enormous handful of popcorn into his face.

Agatha sat down next to Charles and instructed me to make myself at home. She added, “There’s stuff in the fridge, and there’s pizza and homemade stroganoff. Abbey’s a great cook.” She covertly elbowed Charles in the ribs.

I folded my arms and replied, “Uh, thanks, but you know we should probably get going. We’ve got an errand to run.”

Charles and Gary looked up and asked simultaneously, “What errand?”

I sighed and grumped, “We’ve got to fetch some stupid mud’d.”

Both demons looked up in dismay, and Charles protested first: “But, we just got here, and Abbey said we could stay! Come! . . . On!”

Gary echoed his sentiments: “Yeah, Gord, come on.”

“Guys, we have to go. I’m sorry, but we have to go find some volcanic mud’d in exchange for Kroe-Vogk’s help.”

When they exchanged their usual look of confusion, I asked, “Do you two have to do that every time I open my mouth?”

They asked at the same time, “Do what?”

“That-that look you give each other.” Realizing my arms were folded, I put them back to my sides and explained, “Look, Kroe-Vogk said he’d help us if we get volcanic mud’d for him. It’s not that complicated.”

“Some mud’d?” Charles smirked and asked, “Well, how about if we leave at first light? You look terrible. Come watch TV.”

I was exhausted and Charles knew it, and sitting down and taking a load off seemed tempting, but I knew the second I relaxed, I would be asleep. And Charles knew it too — the conniving rat.

Studying all three of them suspiciously, I asked, “Abbey said it was okay?”

They all nodded in the affirmative before Agatha scooted closer to Charles and patted the seat cushion, ordering me to sit.

“I can’t. I’m all wet.”

She hurried away, came back with a towel and laid it out on the couch, so I shuffled over, sat down, let my head drop forward and muttered, “I’m too old for this.”

Charles leaned forward until he could see me. “So how’d it go? Your visit with old what’s-his-face?”

“With Kroe-Vogk? Uh, it went, um, great . . .” I glanced at Agatha. “. . . Kroe-Vogk is an, um, he’s an interesting arch-demon. Uh, he’s patient and kind and warm and generous and . . .”

“Gordo, you can save the baloney for Abbey and Spencer. You and I know what Kroe-Vogk is, and he’s none of those things. He’s a self-serving, pessimistic, angry old devil.”

I glanced up, and when she nodded, I came clean: “Ugh, he’s the worst. I haven’t met many demons in my life, but so far, he’s definitely my least favorite.” I shuddered and added, “For a minute there, I thought he was going to kill me.”

Agatha chuckled. “Demons can’t harm humans, ever. You know that.”

To myself, I thought, “Yeah, tell that to Adolfo.”

Instead I replied, “Yeah, I thought that until today. But you should have seen him. I don’t think he has much regard for rules.”

Agatha scoffed. “You must’ve got him pretty riled. Well, good for you. What did you say?”

Looking around at the three of them, I whispered, “I asked him about Abbey and Spencer.”

Agatha’s eyes got wide, and she giggled into her hand. “Oh! I’m sorry. I should have warned you.” Giggling some more, she said gleefully, “Yeah, I bet he went ballistic.”

I blinked back my fatigue, yawned and asked, “What on Earth is his interest with them?”

Agatha shrugged. “I don’t know, and even if I did, Kroe-Vogk ordered me not to discuss their relationship with anyone, ever. Even when Abbey asks me about Kroe-Vogk’s intentions for Spencer, I have to feign ignorance, which is mostly true, but I have my suspicions, or should I say, my fears.”

I blinked hard and asked, “Really? Fears?”

She thought a moment. “I shouldn’t be talking about this. Could we change the subject?”

“Agatha? What kind of fears?”

Even though Star Trek was back on, Charles and Gary were listening intently now. Agatha checked the hallway for any eavesdroppers and spoke in the softest whisper: “I think Kroe-Vogk is grooming Spencer.”

Grooming him?” Exchanging looks with Charles and Gary, I asked, “In what way?”

Leaning in close, Agatha explained that Kroe-Vogk had invited Spencer to go with him to two Gatherings in the past year, and neither Abbey nor Agatha had been invited. And when she hesitated, we begged her to continue, so she admitted that Spencer was only gone a few hours and had come back in high spirits but had became quiet when his mother asked him about the other demons in attendance. Agatha became visibly angry when she said, “I mean, come on, a Gathering is no place for any human, let alone a kid! I mean he’s not even old enough to have his own demon yet! I tell you, they’re grooming him because of his gift, and they’re going to take him away.”

I frowned and asked, “His gift? What gift?”

With her hand on mine, she checked the hallway again and whispered, “I don’t know, but that Kroe-Vogk is rotten to the core. I think he’s preparing to corrupt Spencer, and there’s nothing I can do but watch it unfold.” She wiped at her eyes, sniffed and admitted, “It feels good to tell you. I’ve been carrying this for too long.”

Seeing the sincerity in her eyes renewed the anger I had experienced during my visit with Kroe-Vogk, and I whispered forcefully, “Agatha, you have to tell Abbey. Her son is in danger.”

Her eyes growing large with fear, she shook her head vehemently. “No! You don’t understand. If Kroe-Vogk expects anything has changed, he’ll take them both! I-I’m sure of it!” Her mouth began to quiver, and she put both hands to her face, stammering, “I-I don’t know what to do.”

She began to sob, so I put my hand on her shoulder and tried to stay calm as I whispered, “If you don’t tell his mom what you know, she can’t protect him.”

She sniffed hard and started to tremble. “I-I . . . You don’t understand. There’s nothing she can do.”

Agatha wept uncontrollably into her hands for a while, and after she had regained some control, I explained to her that we knew someone who might be able to help. I explained that this friend was wise in the ways of demons and I trusted him with my life and that we would seek his advice.

She blew her nose on Charles’ shirt and asked, “Really? What’s his name?”

Rubbing my neck, I admitted, “Um, I can’t tell you just yet. I, uh, I can’t even tell you why I can’t tell you.”

She studied me for a moment and nodded. “You’re telling the truth, aren’t you?” Grabbing Charles’ sleeve, she blew her nose again and asked, “Is this friend demon or human?”

“This friend . . . is-is a real friend, I’m sure. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Agatha reached over and gave me a big bear hug, causing Charles to scowl, so while she was holding me, I made a stupid face at him, causing him to huff with annoyance. After she released me, she leaned back, looked each of us over and whispered, “You three have given me hope. You see, I don’t sleep much anymore. Everybody is talking about how desperate the Fallen have become and how it’s making them more brazen and-and . . . I’m scared. I’m scared for people and for demons. Nobody knows what’s going to happen . . .” Starting to weep again, she continued, “ . . . But I’m so grateful you’ve come into our lives.” She looked out the window and smiled. “And there’s a real-life miskreant digging a hole in our front yard. Who would have thought that one would walk the Earth of its own free will ever again?” She wiped her eyes. “If one can be freed, then maybe . . .”

I whispered, “. . . Then maybe two can be freed.”

She used Charles’ shirt once more, smiled and said, “Yeah, or maybe even three.” She wiped her eyes again before standing up and declaring, “Gary, you’re out of popcorn. I’ll go make more.”

With a full mouth, Gary replied, “Okay.” He handed the bag over, and she disappeared into the kitchen.

I looked at Charles, and he looked at me. I shook my head, sighed and buried my face in my hands. “Shoot, Charles.”

“What? What’s wrong?”

I looked up and whispered, “You heard her. Everything is wrong. Don’t you feel the weight of it all? I-I-I just made a pact with a truly rotten arch-demon, and I-I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. I don’t know which way is up.”

He smirked at me and chided, “Oh, you poor baby.” Searching the room, he asked, “Now where did I put my violin?” Gently cuffing my head, he said brightly, “Buck up, little camper. You did what was necessary, right?”

“I don’t know. That’s the point. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Yes you do. You just don’t think you know. Do we need Kroe-Vogk’s help or don’t we?”

“Um, we do, I think.”

“Yeah? And were there any other options?” He whispered, “Is there any other way to catch an adult that can lead us to Adolfo? Without Kroe-Vogk’s help? Any that we know of?”

“No.”

“Then you made the right choice. You moved the ball forward. That’s the only way to win the game. You take what you have and do what you have to. You move the ball forward.” Charles leaned forward, and for a moment, he seemed like a complete stranger when he said, “You have to stop imagining what might go wrong and imagine what could go right, and then you do everything you can to make it happen.”

I couldn’t believe I was hearing such words of optimism and support coming out of my demon’s mouth, and I wondered for a moment if Charles had been replaced by an imposter. I frowned at him as his words sunk in and finally admitted, “You know, sometimes you’re not as dumb as you look.”

He gasped mockingly that his feelings were hurt before responding with a sarcastic, “Why, thank you. You’re too kind.”

I yawned, “I know. And tired too. I’ve got to get some beauty sleep. Tomorrow might be a long day.”

Charles wrinkled his nose, waved his hand in front of his face and declared, “Man, one word — dental hygiene.”

Somewhat offended, I countered with, “Oh yeah? Well, you wouldn’t smell any better if you had just spent half a day at the bottom of the ocean in an arch-demon’s lair, now would you? And what about you?” I leaned forward and sniffed at the air, bracing myself for a whiff of his stink, but to my astonishment, he smelled like lavender and sandalwood.

“You cleaned up? And of your own free will?” I chuckled, “It really is the end of the world.”

Folding his arms and smiling proudly, Charles replied, “Yes . . . I . . . did. So ha-ha on you, jerk.”

Without looking up from the television, Gary said, “What do you expect? He has to smell good for Agatha.”

Charles kicked Gary’s foot. “You took a bath too. So shut up.”

I whispered to Charles, “Gary has to make a good impression too, you know. Agatha might have friends.”

Charles snickered and whispered, “Yeah, she does. Gary was interrogating her about them earlier.”

After kicking Gary and muttering, “Gary, you stud,” I stood up and headed for the door. “See you kids in the morning.”

Charles grabbed my belt-loop and tugged. “Why sleep out in the truck when you can have the couch? Gary and I are set up in the garage.”

Grabbing his hand and twisting hard until he let go, I explained, “Because I want to. That’s why.”

They looked at each other, and I was grateful when they didn’t argue the point. After retrieving my travel kit from the Ford and brushing my teeth, I gave them a final wave before heading back outside. Sparkles was facing away from the cab, but he was lighting up the street with his eyes, so I used my jacket to cover my head from the glare. The seat was too short for me to stretch out, so after opening the passenger door for more leg room, I was asleep in no time at all.

 

In my dream, I had died and was on my way to Utopia. With no fear for the future and no concern for the past, I found myself flowing down a river of souls on our way to a great, shimmering populous out on the horizon. Still distinct and still myself, I was one with the others drifting along with me, and as we moved, I realized that I loved everyone and they all loved me in return, and we reveled over our very existence.

When we reached the heart of Utopia, the Spirit-Fire came into view. And seeing it floating over an endless, clear sea, gleaming in the sunlight, I couldn’t help but marvel at it’s beauty and immensity. We drew near until it became apparent that the Fire was nothing less than a galaxy of humanity, slowly rotating around a blazing center, and since it couldn’t be real, I had to be dreaming. And as it turned out, I was.

 

“Gord! Wake up!” Charles was up in my face, much too close for comfort and whispering loudly, “Spencer’s gone!

Being in such a deep sleep, I had trouble fighting my way back to full consciousness, but I was able to open my eyes, blink up at him, frown and shove him away before pulling my jacket back over my head.

Not to be deterred, Charles tried again: “Gordo, come on, you have to wake up! Did you hear me? Abbey’s son is gone!”

I opened my eyes again, blinked the world into existence and asked, “Mrrmph?”

Shaking me, Charles commanded, “Wake. Up. Now!” He delivered a couple of light slaps. Then, squeezing my cheeks together with thumb and forefinger, he shook my puckered face. I slapped his hand away and used the steering wheel to pull myself up. And while blinking at my assailant, I muttered, “What’s a Spencer?” I rubbed my face and mumbled, “Ugh, I need caffeine.”

Charles handed me a cup of what looked, smelled and tasted like coffee. It wasn’t tea, but it would have to do, and after taking a sip, I exhaled loudly and thanked him.

Muffled sobs were coming from the house, and Charles looked worried. He pointed his thumb over his shoulder and whispered, “This is bad. This is really bad.” He lowered his head and repeated himself: “This is really, really bad . . . Kroe-Vogk must have summoned him.”

As my brain-fog began to lift, I asked, “Her son? Spencer? He was here last night, right?”

Tugging on my foot, he ordered, “Get up. We have to go find him.”

I could hear Abbey’s distressed voice coming from inside. Charles helped me out of the truck, and we tip-toed into the living room to join Agatha and Gary in an eavesdropping session. Abbey was on the phone in the kitchen. Speaking in a horse voice, she said, “No, Dad, he was fine. Everything was fine. We were getting along great. Yeah, no, he wouldn’t run away . . . Yes, I’m positive. Huh? No, I called Eddie’s mom. He’s not there . . . Dad? Listen, I have to tell you something, and I know you’re not going to believe this, but I have to tell you anyway. Yeah, it’s about my . . . Yes, Dad, Spencer has it too. Yes, Dad . . . yes he does. I’m telling you, he does. Look, I don’t expect you to believe it . . .What? No, do you think I’d be joking at a time like this? . . . I’m sorry, I know, it didn’t matter before . . . I-I just kept it to myself, but you have to know the truth.” Weeping openly, she whispered, “They took him, Dad. They took my son.” Her voice broke. “I should have known, and now . . . and now I don’t know if-if . . . if I’ll see him again . . . I-I . . .” She couldn’t form the words. “Dad? I love you. I have to go, okay? Yes, the police are on the way. I’ll call back as soon as I can. Okay, bye.” She set down the phone and continued to weep.

I gulped down the rest of the coffee before looking at Charles and whispering, “Kroe-Vogk took him. This is my fault.”

Charles pointed at something across the street, so I turned to find Sparkles standing upright and gazing straight up. Before I could ask, my demon explained, “He’s keeping an eye on our new company.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” I hurried to the window as my stomach tightened and followed his gaze up to three hovering dots high above our location.

“Great. Do you think they’ll attack?”

Charles laughed derisively. “Not while Sparkles is around. They’ve been up there since first light.”

I lowered my head and sighed deeply. Then rubbing my face, I whispered, “I’ve got to talk to her.”

He whispered back, “Careful what you say.”

I nodded. “Right.” But on second thought, I countered, “No. I’m telling her everything.”

“What? No, Gord. You can’t.” Charles tried to block me from going into the kitchen, but I shoved past him, went into the dining room, took a seat across from Abbey and waited in silence.

Barney, who was lying at Abbey’s feet with his head on the floor, politely acknowledged my presence by thumping his tail against the tile.

Abbey looked up with swollen, red eyes and spoke slowly and softly: “I need to know what you said to Kroe-Vogk.”

Hiding my shaking hands under the table, I explained, “We made a-a deal. I’m supposed to fetch volcanic mud’d for him. In return Kroe-Vogk said he’d help us catch an adult miskreant. The meeting didn’t go well, and I said some things that made him pretty, um, angry.”

“You did? What did you say?”

“I teased him, and I asked him about you and Spencer.”

Her eyes darkened. “What did you ask him?”

“I-I asked him why he had such an interest in you two. It didn’t make any sense, his being an arch-demon and all. And, well, he got pretty upset and picked me up and threatened to kill me.”

Her fists tightened. “Kroe-Vogk threatened to kill you? He can’t do that.”

I nodded. “Right. And he told me to stay away from you and Spencer or I would regret it. Abbey, I-I don’t know what to say.”

She wiped her tears away and repeated my words: “Kroe-Vogk threatened to kill you and-and told you to stay away from us?”

I nodded.

She wrung her hands together, and her eyes darted about the floor in search of an answer until she realized out loud, “He took him. That devil took my boy.” With a clenched jaw, she hissed air through her teeth as she gripped the table with both hands and lifted it like she was trying to break off a piece. Her lip trembled violently as she spoke to the ceiling: “All this time. Oh, I’ve been such a fool. Oh, Spencer.” Her voice broke again. “I’m so . . . sorry.” She put her face into her hands and sobbed.

Resisting the temptation to put my hand on her shoulder, I sat quietly and looked out the sliding glass door into the backyard where a mocking bird perched on an alder branch was welcoming the new day by twittering out every possible note in his repertoire. My chest was too tight and my pulse was too high. Taking long, slow breaths, I willed myself not to panic. The police were coming, and they were going to want to know everything, and I didn’t have a plausible explanation for anything. In fact, from any cop’s point of view, I looked as guilty as sin and was sure they would take me in, but I couldn’t afford to be locked up. I couldn’t spare the time.

Abbey’s dining-room and kitchen were decorated with a wide assortment of elves. What must have been thirty different pairs of elven eyes were watching me from the walls and the top of the refrigerator, and I couldn’t help but wonder why owning such an extensive, elf ensemble seemed so endearing.

Abbey looked up and wiped her eyes, and after blowing her nose, she warned, “The police will be here any second. They’re going to consider you a prime suspect, of course.”

“Of course? But I didn’t do anything.” My chest tightened up even more. It was one thing to think I was headed for jail, but quite a different sensation to hear it spoken out loud.

She blew her nose again and explained, “They don’t know that. All they see is a stranger staying here on the same night my son disappears.”

Looking to the elves for a plausible explanation to give the police, I asked, “What should I say?”

She raised her eyebrows as she looked off into infinity. “I don’t know, but muddying a lie with some truth is always a good idea. It’s true we met in Yosemite and I wanted to see your sketches. And you were bringing them over here to show them to me. That’s false, but it gives you a plausible reason for being in the area.” She thought some more and added, “We ran into each other at the restaurant. That’s true. And we decided to go to the aquarium together — also true. And I invited you to stay here; true again because I told Agatha you could stay.” She blew her nose again.

I closed my eyes and sighed. “And your son is missing the next morning.” I put my face in my hands. “They’re going to lock me up.”

“You know what? You’re right. They will.” She stood up and grabbed my arm. “Come on. You have to go.”

When three loud knocks shook the front door, I exchanged a look of desperation with Abbey, and she whispered, “That’s not your truck, right?”

I nodded.

“Good. Then they can’t track you to it.”

Squeezing my hands together to try to keep them from shaking, I groaned and said, “They’ll see that I was with you in the video logs at the aquarium and at the pizzeria and when I filled up at the gas station.” As panic started to take hold, I whispered, “This isn’t happening.”

I wasn’t cold, but my whole body was shivering violently. There was no explanation that would satisfy the police, I certainly couldn’t afford a lawyer, and I could not go to jail. So with no other option, I headed for the back door, whispering, “I have to go.”

She grabbed my arm, turned me around and said, “No, wait. You better turn yourself in. I can vouch for you and tell them I yelled at Spencer and he ran off to punish me.”

I shook my head and confessed, “Abbey, I can’t be locked up.” I took a long, deep breath, then another and explained,“You already know about the other spanner who was abducted at Mono Lake.”

“Yeah?”

“To get him back, we have to corner an adult miskreant and remove its curse.”

“What? Why?”

I sighed deeply and declared that I had to trust her before carefully articulating every word: “This is going to sound crazy, but we need an adult to guide us through Limbo. And-and we’re running out of time. If we don’t get to Adolfo soon, he won’t be able to return to his mortal life.”

“Limbo? Adolfo?”

Three louder, more impatient knocks rattled the front door.

“Aah nuts, I have to go. I’ll call as soon as I can.” Opening the sliding glass door, I stepped out on the patio before leaning back in and whispering, “Abbey, I-I’m so sorry. This is my fault.”

She wiped away a stream of tears and nodded as she tried to smile. “Where will you go?”

“We have to find a volcano.”

She furled her brow, but instead of asking another question, she asked that I call as soon as possible, and after gently closing the door, she turned and headed for the living room.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two: Attack of the Giant Dog

 

I scanned the sky until I spotted the three brakken. They had drifted lower and seemed to be preoccupied with Sparkles in front of the house. I knew if they spotted me, they would surely swoop down and whisk me away, so stealth was a priority. Spotting two green squirt guns on the patio table, I crept over and examined them to find them empty. I brought them over to the faucet and popped open the plugs, and with one eye on the sky, I filled each one. Finding them to be free of leaks, I dropped a pinch of demon repellent into each reservoir. After they had foamed up, I replaced the plugs and stuffed one weapon inside each front pocket.

“Now, try and catch me,” I whispered as I crept out to the back fence.

In my attempt to scale the vertical slats, I found myself wishing I had changed out of the wet-suit because with all the added weight, getting over to the other side proved to be a bit of a challenge. Once on top, I found the neighbor’s backyard was several feet lower than Abbey’s. Undaunted, I swung my feet over and started to slowly lower myself down, all the while making a monumental effort to keep from grunting too loudly. Then, gripping the top of the fence, I dropped down until my arms were extended straight up, but since it was still a long drop to the ground, I hesitated and almost changed my mind. I could end up breaking my ankle on impact. But the problem was that I didn’t have enough arm strength to pull myself back up, so changing direction was no longer a viable option.

“Okay, one, two . . .” I reminded myself to drop and roll on impact. “. . . three!” I let go and plummeted for even longer than anticipated, and when I hit the ground, I let my legs collapse under me. As I rolled, my knee hit something hard and yellow, and it produced a very loud squeak! as a bright shaft of pain shot down my leg, causing me to hiss quietly in agony while rolling over to my hands and knees. I examined myself to find my wet-suit quite muddy, but it seemed none the worse for wear.

Scanning the yard, I gasped at the sight of a ridiculously oversized dog tearing around the corner of the house and rushing straight at me at an alarming speed. It looked to be maybe half Great-Dane and half woolly-mammoth and would easily eat me in maybe three or four bites. As I tried to rise up to flee, I lost my footing and slipped back into the mud, so all I could do was close my eyes tightly and hope for a quick death, but the beast stopped inches from my face and let out one deep woof!

I opened my eyes to find his whole body was wagging right along with his tail. He looked at me, then glanced down at the rubber dinosaur and then looked at me once more, so I whispered, “Oh, here. Take it. Go away.” I handed the mammoth his toy, but instead of leaving, he took it daintily in his teeth, dropped it in front of me, took a step backward and waited expectantly. But having zero interest in playing, I left it on the ground and stood up, sternly pointing at the house. “Go home. I don’t have time.”

Undeterred by my rebukes, the beast continued to wag his tail as it let out an incredibly thunderous and insistent bark, and to reinforce his wishes, he barked again.

I grimaced and pleaded, “No! Please! Okay, here . . .” I grabbed his toy and tossed it across the yard, causing the mammoth to tear out after it. I took the opportunity to hurry across the backyard toward the front gate, but before I could reach the corner of the house, the beast was back. He gingerly dropped his dinosaur at my feet and waited impatiently but politely, so I grabbed his toy and threw it out to the back fence, and the mammoth tore out after it.

I sprinted to the gate and was relieved to find it unlocked, and after it was open, I scanned the front yard for any sign of activity. Seeing none, I strolled as casually as a guy in a muddy wet-suit can stroll out towards the sidewalk. But in my haste, I forgot to shut the gate, and when I turned to go back, the mammoth rushed through with his tail wagging furiously.

Again, he dropped his dinosaur at my feet, so I sternly pointed at the backyard and forcefully whispered, “No! Go home! Bad dog!” And when he didn’t respond to my command, I tried to grab him by the collar, but he obviously liked being chased because he romped about just out of reach.

Changing my strategy, I went back to the gate and tossed the dinosaur into the backyard, pointing and whispering, “Go get it!” But to my dismay, the mammoth had lost interest and informed me that I should try to catch him with a thunderous Worrf!

Dismissively waiving my hand at him, I grumped, “Fine, suit yourself.” I then headed north down the sidewalk with the mammoth trotting right behind me.

“Would you go home? You’re going to get hit.” I pointed at his house and stomped my foot, but my actions delighted the mammoth to no end, and he barked at my foot. And before I could react, he locked his teeth onto one of the straps attached to the wet-suit and began tugging furiously, causing me to stumble left and then right.

I scolded “No!” and “Stop it!” as I tried to pull the strap out of his mouth, but his jaws were too strong. He only growled defiantly and pulled harder.

“Let . . .” I leaned away from him with all my weight and tugged again on the strap. “. . . Go!”

But the mammoth only growled more menacingly through closed teeth as he shook the strap vigorously, almost knocking me over. Unfortunately for me, the wet-suit was of good quality and all his tugging and shaking didn’t even create the slightest tear. I thought that if I could just wriggle out, I could get free, but as I fought with the sleeves, the mammoth gave one mighty tug and pulled me down to the sidewalk. He growled happily at my being upended and tugged several more times, dragging me a few inches back towards his house with each tug.

As I was grabbing the strap with one hand and his nose with the other in order to separate the two, I spotted three brakken plummeting straight down with their awful, bony fingers splayed apart. In the hopes they wouldn’t get a good hold, I quickly pulled my knees up against my chest, forming myself into the smallest ball possible. The first brakken clamped one claw onto my belt-strap and the other onto my collar. The second one landed hard and pulled one foot out straight and held on tight with both claws, and, together, they started rising up. I flailed violently, punching and scratching at them until the third one grabbed my other foot. And together, while holding me upside down, the three of them lifted up into the air.

Unwilling to accept defeat, the mammoth, still attached to my belt strap, growled menacingly as his front feet lifted off the ground, while above, the three brakken struggled with the unexpected weight. The mammoth growled and shook his body in protest when his hind feet lost contact with the ground. In an attempt to encourage him, I growled down at the dog, and to my surprise, he reacted by violently twisting his body around in circles in a highly annoyed manner.

In spite of the added weight, the brakken continued to lift us higher. They rose a little and dropped a little. They rose once more before dropping, but their overall progress was taking us higher while the mammoth showed no sign of giving up or letting go.

As soon as we reached the treetops, Sparkles leaped out of a nearby elm and slammed into the brakken holding my right foot, sending the six of us spinning and careening right into a large eucalyptus. We slammed into the trunk before crashing through the branches on the way back down. Fortunately I landed on one of my attackers, causing it to let out a tremendous shriek when my elbow slammed into its soft underbelly. To my amazement and dismay, the mammoth still refused to let go of my belt strap, and as soon as he had regained his footing, he started pulling, which prevented me from standing.

Sparkles and his opponent rolled out into the street where they came to a stop. The brakken was able to break free for a moment, but as it tried to flee, Sparkles tackled it and started bashing it about the head. In desperation, the brakken twisted around and gnashed, but the miskreant dodged out of the way before grabbing hold and punching the thing into submission.

The other two brakken regained their footing and came at me until I withdrew the squirt guns and began squirting as fast as I could. Left, right, left, right, left, right. I couldn’t help but find the act to be more than satisfying when both of them burst into flames. They raged as they tried to extinguish themselves, but the fire quickly spread across their writhing bodies as they both retreated back into the sky. Once I could no longer hit them, I suggested they come on back down so we could talk out our differences, but they weren’t interested in talking or anything else as they continued to burn. And without so much as a farewell, they both shot away towards the ocean.

Out of immediate danger, I turned my attention to Sparkles. He was holding his opponent in a headlock and seemed to be waiting for me to interrogate it. Every time the brakken tried to struggle or shriek, Sparkles tightened his hold around its neck, cutting off the air supply and silencing its melodic voice. Slowly and steadily, I trudged towards Sparkles’ captive, but with the mammoth still in tow, I had to lean forward and take one step at a time in order to drag him along.

When I reached the prisoner, I looked into its dead eyes, grimaced and whispered, “Ugh, you’re so ugly.” Aiming both squirt guns at its face, I added, “You’re pretty foolish too.”

I wouldn’t dare risk getting demon-repellent on Sparkles, but the brakken didn’t know that, and when it turned its head away and closed its eyes, I actually felt a twinge of pity as I tapped it on the head with my squirt-gun. “Hey, up here.”

The demon opened its eyes, and I searched its gaze for anything that could be mistaken for a soul, and seeing nothing but pure contempt, I stepped back, pointed my weapon at its forehead and spoke quietly and slowly: “Tell the Fallen we’re coming for Adolfo.”

The brakken’s face darkened, and its eyes blazed with hatred as it hissed, “Oh, you’re too late. That one is dead.” The sound of it’s voice sent a chill down my spine, and when it started laughing under its breath, I had heard enough. Pushing the squirt-gun against its forehead, I whispered, “You’re a liar.” I gently squeezed the trigger until only a few drops of repellent solution dripped down its face and ignited. I quickly stepped back as the beast started to burn and writhe under Sparkles hold. And Sparkles, being the highly common-sense type miskreant that he was, let go of the brakken and gave it one more solid punch to the throat for good measure. After the brakken tumbled over a nearby garbage can, it shot up into the air and retreated out towards the ocean, shrieking and leaving a contrail of demon smoke in its wake.

The giant dog was at least considerate enough to wait before giving one last tug which pulled me to the ground. Then, having lost interest, he let go and moseyed over to Sparkles where he proceeded to lift his leg and mark him with two quick squirts. Sparkles didn’t seem to mind in the least. In fact, he just stood there and watched while the offending deed transpired. I, however, took exception and scolded, “Hey, stop that!” and the giant dog simply let out one last woolf! before turning away and padding back to his house.

 

Charles and Gary rounded the corner at full speed, racing straight at us, and even though he was carrying two full buckets of galswallow, Gary arrived first. He set his load down and patted me on the back. Then, searching the sky, he spoke breathlessly: “We . . . we thought they got you.”

Charles arrived, huffing and puffing. Scanning the sky, he wheezed, “We thought . . . we thought they got you.”

“They did get me, but Sparklers got them back.” Patting the miskreant on the shoulder, I inquired, “Is it me, or is he getting bigger?”

Squinting at Sparkles, Charles declared for the record, “It’s just you.”

I inspected the piece of driftwood sticking out of Charles’ forehead and asked, “Did you know you still have driftwood sticking out of your forehead?”

He gave me a look that only Charles can give while snidely replying, “Yes, I am aware of this fact, thank you very much.”

“Oh, okay. Just checking.” I blinked at him several times. “So why don’t you pull it out?”

“We tried yesterday. Abbey clamped it into the vice in her garage while you were off on your little visit with Kroe-Vogk. She, Spencer, Agatha and Gary tried to pull it loose, but it wouldn’t budge.”

“Mm, you’d think it would just pop right out of there. I mean, there can’t be much to keep it from coming out.” I gave Charles the biggest, most insincere grin I could muster.

In a high, nasal voice that was supposed to sound like me, Charles mocked, “You’d think it would just pop right out of there.” He finished off insulting me with a good, solid shove to my personage.

Ignoring him, I searched the street up one way and down the other and told them I had to get out of sight because I was officially on the lam.”

Gary frowned and squinted at me. “On the lamb?”

I explained, “It means I’m a fugitive. The police are looking for me.”

Gary frowned harder. “But you didn’t do anything.”

“I’m a suspect with no plausible excuse.”

Gary kicked the sidewalk and declared, “That’s not fair.”

Charles scoffed and explained, “Life’s not fair, Gare. You should know that by now.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three: Grand Theft Auto

 

For lack of a better direction, we headed west, if for no other reason than to put some distance between us and Abbey Street’s house and the police. We walked in silence for two blocks until Charles came up next to me and asked what the plan was. I smirked and replied, “I’ve been pondering that myself. Most importantly, we have to get out of sight. If I remember correctly, there’s a park up ahead, and I was thinking we could hunker down while we plan our next . . .”

Gary interrupted me: “Can we stop and get something to eat first? I’m starr-ving.”

I had to concur that I was hungry too and suggested, “Let’s try up ahead. It looks kind of businessey.”

So Charles had to ask, “Is businessey a word?”

I declared, “It is now.” Glancing down at the buckets of galswallow, I asked Gary, “Why are you still lugging those? Can’t you just ditch them?”

Charles answered impatiently, “Noo, Gord, I’ve told you a hundred-billion times; we’re not allowed to waste galswallow.”

“You never told me that.”

“I did too, but you never listen.”

I frowned at him and at Gary’s heavy load and asked, “Well, can’t you just hide them and come back for them later?”

Charles impatiently replied, “Noo, Gordo, I also told you that if galswallow spills on the ground, it’ll eat its way down through the Earth, and guess who gets to clean it up?”

“Uh, you?”

“Uh, yeah, me . . .” He pointed at Gary. “. . . and him.”

Frowning some more, I asked, “Well, why don’t you just eat it so you don’t have to lug it around?”

Charles huffed over the ludicrousness of my question and patronizingly explained, “We don’t want galswallow. We want people food. Du-uh.”

Nodding, I replied, “Oh, I see.”

I wasn’t about to try to get him to stick to his diet because I was in no mood to bicker. If Gary wanted to lug a couple of heavy buckets of sludge around, who was I to get in his way?

“Uh, Gary?”

Gary set the buckets down, massaged his fingers and asked, “Yeah?”

“Why are you carrying both of them? Shouldn’t Charles carry one?”

Gary sighed and admitted, “Well, he offered to play rock-paper-scissors, and the loser had to carry both, and, well, I chose rock, and Charles chose dynamite, so . . .”

“Ah. I see. So he cheated.”

“He did?”

“Yeah, he did. Were you aware of the existence of dynamite at the outset of the challenge?”

“Well, no. That’s a new one to me.”

“Right. You were only aware of the three weapons mentioned in the title of the game.”

On this, Gary held up a bucket of galswallow in front of Charles until he reluctantly took it. I think Charles didn’t argue the point because he knew he should have to carry both for cheating.

Three blocks later, we came across a small corner market. Charles handed me two twenties and I ducked in, keeping my head down as much as possible to keep from being caught on camera, but a muddy wet-suit wasn’t exactly the most appropriate attire to be wearing when trying to remain anonymous. I grabbed three pastrami sandwiches, two liters of budget soda and an orange juice, and at the checkout, I explained that I had to wear the wet suit all day because I had lost a bet. We moved around to the side of the market and sat down against the wall, and with the exception of Gary, got down to the business of breakfast.

Scowling at us, Gary asked, “But what about Sparkles?”

I tore open the wrapper and took a bite, and with a full mouth, I asked, “What about him?”

“You didn’t get him anything.”

I mumbled, “Mmm, I thought that you could share your sandwich.”

“Huh? But I’m hungry, and it’s not very big.”

I examined his sandwich and the serious look on his face before explaining, “Gary, it’s a foot long, and it’s piled high . . . And have you seen Sparkles eat or drink anything yet?”

“No. That’s why he’s hungry.”

“If you can get him to take a bite, I’ll go back in and get him one.”

Gary spent the next five minutes, to no avail, trying to get Sparkles to take a bite off his sandwich until he finally asked, “Why won’t he eat?” With his hands on his hips, he frowned at Sparkles and added, “Not even galswallow.”

Charles and I both gave him a courtesy shrug, and I offered, “I think you’re right. He must be one of those solar powered miskreants.”

Pondering this possibility, Gary asked, “Really? You think so?”

I said matter-of-factly, “That’s your theory and I’m sticking to it,” and took another bite.

 

After breakfast, we continued west until arriving at a small park. To be on the safe side, we made sure there were no patrol cars in the area before quickly shuffling across the road and through the trees until we found a nice, shady spot that was fairly hidden from traffic.

“How’s this?” I asked as I slumped down onto a patch of grass under a twisted, old spruce. And once comfortable, I declared, “Yeah, this’ll work.”

As if he were pondering the secret to the universe, Charles cupped his left elbow into his right hand and put his left thumb and index finger to his lips, and after a moment of deep contemplation, he muttered, “Well, hmm, I think I would have picked that spot over there, but if you really want this spot, I suppose it’ll have to do, so um . . .” He trailed off.

I craned my neck around to see where he was referring to. “That spot? It’s too close to the road, and there’s hardly any shade.”

“Yeah? But it’s better for people watching.”

“You’re right about that, but we don’t want to watch people. This is called laying low. You can go over there if you want. Nobody can see you.”

Instead of being agreeable, Charles had to walk around my tree several times, all the while scanning the area and saying “hmm” as if he were trying to come to terms with my choice. So I kicked at him and grumped, “Charles? Would you just sit down? You’re making me nervous.” I patted the dirt next to me and said in a friendlier tone, “We need to brainstorm our next move.”

“Isn’t it lying low?”

“Huh?”

“You said laying low. I think it’s lying low.”

“Oh yeah, lying low.” Under my breath, I muttered, “Grammar Nazi.”

Charles sat down and cupped his ear. “What was that?”

“Huh? Oh, nothing. It’s just my allergies acting up.” Rubbing the end of my nose with the back of my hand, I muttered, “Very itchy.”

Gary squatted down next to me and whispered, “Gord, we should steal a car and get out of town before they find you.” He pointed at a line of parked cars out on the street. “How about that Jag right there? I could hot-wire it in under twelve seconds, and we’d be on our way home.”

“We’re not going home, Gary. We have to find a volcano.”

Gary grimaced, inhaled hard and asked, “Uh, you know demons and volcanoes don’t mix, right? How about a nice, quiet mountain instead?”

“No, it has to be a volcano so we can get volcanic mud’d for Kroe-Vogk.” I looked at both of them and asked, “So, where’s the nearest volcano?”

Charles raised his hand. “Mount Vesuvius. That’s a volcano. I know because I did a stint in Pompeii. In fact, I was there when it was destroyed.” He chuckled merrily at the memory.

My eyebrows went up. “But how did you get away? I thought Pompeii was destroyed in a matter of seconds.”

“All the demons were evacuated before the ash flow hit.”

“What? But what about your human?”

Charles rubbed his neck uncomfortably. “Well, the arch-demons wouldn’t let us warn the mortals. We had to just get out.” He kept his gaze lowered as he searched his memory. “I was tempted to tell my person, but I didn’t dare defy the higher-ups, and after the city was gone, the arch-demons told us about a certain group of chemists in Pompeii who were devising mixtures that could repel demons and that knowledge had to be erased.” He was silent a moment before adding, “Looking back now, I wonder if they had actually discovered eck and were figuring out how to harness its power.”

“Yikes. If that’s the case, they might have had access to another eck-chamber.” Pondering his suggestion, I sighed and declared, “No, Vesuvius is too far. I know there are volcanoes closer than that. We are on the ring of fire, after all.” I absently picked at the bark on the trunk while pondering California’s geologic makeup. “How about up north? Mount Lassen’s a volcano. Would it have mud’d?”

They both shrugged and Charles asked, “Can’t we just get regular mud? They have plenty of mud up in the estuary, and it’s nice and stinky.” He licked his lips at the thought.

I shook my head. “Kroe-Vogk specified it had to be volcanic, and he’s not somebody to be trifled with. No, genuine, volcanic mud’d might be our only bargaining chip in getting Spencer back.” I looked at both of them. “Why do you suppose he wants mud’d, you know? I mean if it’s harmful to demons, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Charles surmised, “He’s probably going to use it as a weapon. Maybe he’s planning on poisoning someone, huh? I bet he has lots of enemies.”

“I bet he does. Shoot, I just wish . . .” I pulled a piece of bark off and chewed on it.

Charles urged me to finish: “You wish what?”

“We need to know what he’s thinking. I mean, what would he want with Spencer? Yeah, the kid’s a spanner, but he’s just a kid. I mean he doesn’t even have his own demon yet.” I broke the bark in half and inspected the interior. “Have you guys ever heard of an arch-demon kidnapping a human being before?”

Charles nodded. “It’s almost unheard of because the punishment for taking a human against their will is death.”

My eyebrows went up at this. “He’s risking his life?”

Charles nodded. “Oh, Absolutely.”

“I thought demons couldn’t be destroyed.”

“They can’t be destroyed by demons, but Kroe-Vogk has broken one of our ten commandments, and the punishment for defying any one of them will come down from . . . well, never mind.”

“Oh, yeah? So, what are the other nine?”

Looking up into the canopy, Charles recited, “Um, a demon must never hold a human captive against its will, even for its own good. And, uh, a demon will do everything possible to infect the heart and soul of his or her person, with regret, fear and doubt. And, um, a demon must never infect the soul of a child.”

I squinted and asked, “So what defines a child?”

Charles caught a cricket that was hiding under a leaf and popped it in his mouth, and while chewing it up, he explained, “It’s not physical age but the ability to discern right from wrong. A kid can be anywhere from two to ten years of age when they get their demon. And some folks are never eligible.” He then continued with the list: “A demon will never reveal himself to any mortal, and number six is, um, a demon will never reveal the last four commandments to any mortal, ever.”

“Shut up. You’re making that one up.” I tugged at his forehead branch. “Come on.”

“Ow. Knock it off.” He swatted me away. “Gary? Tell him.”

Gary, who was busying himself watching a line of ants in the dirt, looked up, blinked twice and asked, “Huh?”

“Please recite to Gordo the last four commandments.”

He shook his head fervently. “No way, Jose. Forget you.”

Charles looked at me, chuckled and asked, “See?”

I nodded slowly and asked, “Hmm, does one of them instruct demons to never reveal the existence of a supreme being?”

When Charles looked down, picked up a piece of bark and began nervously twisting it apart, I chuckled and said, “You already broke that one anyway. And you haven’t been doing everything possible to infect my heart and soul, well not lately.” I studied him for a moment and admitted, “You’re a pretty lousy demon, Charles. Are you going to be destroyed at the end of time?”

“Huh? Well, I certainly hope not. See, my plan is to beg for forgiveness at the end — kind of like what you’re planning, right?”

“I suppose so, but don’t you have to actually be sorry for your crimes? You know, to be forgiven?”

“Well, yeah.” Charles glanced up at the sky. “I’m sorry for what I’ve done in the past, and I’m sorry for what I may do in the future. I’m genuinely sorry for being such a dope.” He then looked at me and asked, “Aren’t you?”

“I don’t know. I mean, how can I be sorry for crimes I haven’t yet committed? If I was really sorry, I wouldn’t commit them in the first place, right?”

“We’re flawed, Gordo. Every sentient being in Heaven, Earth, Hell and everywhere else — spirits and mortals — we’re all broken. The supreme . . . uh, I mean . . .” Covertly pointing a finger straight up, Charles muttered under his breath, “. . . That certain Individual wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I gasped mockingly and elaborated, “So in other words, we have the right to make mistakes. It’s okay to be flawed.” With fingers locked behind my head, I stretched, yawned and declared, “Darn, Charles, your very existence breaks one of your commandments; the very fact that I can see you gives me faith.” I poked him in the shoulder.

Charles rolled his eyes. “Oh, you know good and well that for every rule, there are exceptions. You and I and Gary and Agatha are exceptions.”

I added, “And Guillermo and Abbey and Spencer too.”

Charles popped a worm in his mouth and nodded as he chewed it up. Then after looking around for any eavesdroppers, he leaned forward and whispered, “Gord? You remember those ne’er-do-wells in the aquarium? The ones Abbey Street was describing?”

“Uh, yeah, but how could you hear her? You were out of earshot.”

Charles chuckled and admitted, “I, uh, I read lips.”

“You what? You never told me that.”

“Are you kidding? Tell you that and give away one of my most powerful weapons? Yeah, right.”

I shot Charles an indignant look. “I should have known! That’s how you knew every time I was planning an escape.” I shoved Charles hard and informed him that he was a jerk.

He chuckled and asked, “Well, you know how she said those ne’er-do-wells were following you? Well she was wrong; they were following her son. Kroe-Vogk must have sent them.”

“They were following Spencer. Of course.” As I began drawing random shapes in the dirt with a stick, I asked, “How was Kroe-Vogk able to take him without being seen? I mean Sparkles was right out in the front yard last night. He would have protected the boy.”

Charles found another worm, slurped it down and explained, “Kroe-Vogk didn’t have to come anywhere near the house. He could have easily slipped a summoning hex into the kid’s mind which could have been activated at any time.”

“So Spencer just woke up and climbed out the window?”

Charles nodded and said, “Probably.” He then pointed at my dirt doodles and smiled. “Hey, you just drew the Old Language symbol for ‘eternity’.”

I scoffed. “Yeah, right. I’m just doodling.”

Charles cleared his throat and said Gary’s name, but Gary was too engrossed in his ant colony to hear, so Charles flicked a piece of bark at him which bounced off Gary’s head.

Gary looked up and grumped, “Cut it out, Charles.” He grabbed the bark and threw it back.

Charles dodged the projectile before pointing at my scribbles. “Gary, what’s that?”

Leaning over to see, Gary declared, “Duh. It’s the symbol for eternity,” before returning to his intensive insect research.

So Charles declared matter-of-factly, “Told you so.”

I told him it was just a coincidence, so he said, “Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.”

“Hmm.” I flicked a piece of bark at Sparkles and confessed, “Charles, what are we going to do? I’m running blind here.”

“You’re not the only one.” Charles flicked a piece of bark at Sparkles and replied, “Gordo, we’re all wandering backwards into the dark. We don’t know where we’re headed, but with the little knowledge we have, we pick the best path and keep going.”

“But if we’re walking backwards in the dark, how can we possibly pick the best path?”

“Well, we have to guess with what little information we have.”

“Hmm.” Not knowing how to respond, I asked, “So where would you go if you were an arch-demon trying to hide a human?”

“I have no idea. Except he won’t take the kid into Limbo and definitely not Purgatory. He’ll have to stay on the surface if he wants to remain hidden.”

“Yeah? Well, could he take him down into that lair of his?”

“Oh, no, Spencer will be treated like royalty. He’ll be made very comfortable and feel completely safe. It will be much easier to deceive and groom him that way.”

“Deceive him? How?”

“I’m not sure, but if Kroe-Vogk is as rotten as he sounds, he could deceive the kid into believing right is wrong and wrong is right. He could even convince Spencer his own mother is the enemy. What really worries me is not knowing the nature of Spencer’s gift. I don’t believe even his mother has a clue. I expect if she did, she would have gone to greater lengths to protect him.”

Rocking back and forth, I groaned, “We have to find Spencer.”

Charles agreed, “Yes, we do, and that mud’d is our bargaining chip. Once we have that, I doubt we’ll have to seek out Kroe-Vogk. He’ll come looking for us. ”

“Right. Okay. Well then, I guess we need a volcano . . . Ugh.” I jabbed the heal of my shoe into the dirt as I thought aloud: “We can’t exactly walk to Mount Lassen. We’re going to need a truck or something large enough to carry this guy.” I nodded at Sparkles and asked, “Should we have Gary steal, I mean borrow something?”

“I suppose that’s one option. It’s risky though. Once the vehicle is reported as stolen, you run the risk of getting caught, and that would be bad.”

“Yeah, it would.”

When Gary looked up and asked why not just sneak back and fetch Adolfo’s truck after dark, Charles explained that the truck would be impounded as evidence and had probably already been taken away, and his words only intensified my sense of dread. The police were looking for me. I cringed at the thought of being “at large” and thought about digging a hole and climbing in. I could pull the dirt back over me and be done with it all, but trying to breathe dirt didn’t sound like a whole lot of fun either, so I just wanted to go home and hide. Balling my hands into fists, I took deep breaths and wished aloud, “Oh, man, I want to wake up.”

Charles laughed at me. “Buck up little camper. It’s never as bad as it appears when you’re in the middle of it.”

“In the middle of what?”

“Of it. You know, in the middle of the storm? We’ll find a way through.”

“Wow. You’re right. I have to stay positive.” I looked up and asked, “How about Amtrak? Don’t they have bus service from the aquarium? You two and Sparkles could ride on top.”

They looked at each other and responded simultaneously, “Nah.”

“Why not? It would be fun. Charles, why are you rolling your eyes?”

Charles explained, “Uh, remember the last time you had us ride on top of a train?”

Remembering the occasion, I chuckled before I could stop myself and replied, “Oh, yeah, that’s right.”

With eyes wide open, Charles nodded in earnest. “Yeah, now you remember. How quickly we forget! I have no desire to get slammed into the top of a tunnel doing ninety miles an hour ever again, thank you very much.”

Gary added, “Me too, Gordo. How could you have forgotten already?” Shaking his head in a disappointed manner, he tisk-tisked me.

Forcing myself not to laugh again, I admitted, “Okay, you’re both right. I don’t know how I forgot, but you have to admit, that was a long time ago.”

Charles’ eyes bugged. “A long time? You call nine months a long time?” He wagged a finger at me and added, “That was the same week you talked me into riding bikes with you down the back road out of Mariposa with shoddy brakes. Yeah, that was a real hoot.” He rolled his eyes again.

“I already told you, I didn’t know the brakes were disconnected. You’re never going to let that go, are you?” I folded my arms and sighed. “Okay, what do we do then? Walk?”

Pointing at the row of parked cars on the street, Charles asked, “How about that old truck there? It’s all dirty and covered in seagull poop. Maybe they won’t notice if it goes missing for a little while.”

As soon as I spotted the beat up, sixty-something International Harvester with a dented front bumper and a missing driver’s side window that had been repaired with plastic and duct tape, I cringed at the thought of having to drive such a wreck clear up to the north end of the state, but beggars can’t be choosers, and Charles might be correct; that thing might not be missed.

“Eee-gad. She is a looker, isn’t she?” I asked, “Okay, what’s one more crime to my resume?”

Charles stood up and whispered, “Gary, if you can get it started, bring it around the block, over there.” He pointed out to the other side of the park.

Gary nodded and whispered, “Yeah, right, if it starts.” He pointed at the galswallow and asked, “Could one of you carry my bucket?”

When Charles didn’t volunteer, I said I would carry it, so Gary stood up and brushed the leaves off before requesting that we wish him luck.

I whispered, “Good luck.”

And Charles whispered, “Bad luck.”

Gary sneered at Charles before hurrying away, and we watched him sprint through the park and across the street, and even Sparkles took an interest when Gary reached his target, leaned over and put his hands on his knees while he caught his breath. First he tried the driver’s door to find it locked, so he went over and tried the passenger side door, but it was locked too. He then waved at us for some reason and went back around to the driver’s side and punched the plastic out of the window. Then, with some difficulty, he pulled himself up through the window where he managed to get his pants hooked on something, and as he wriggled to get free, it became apparent that a belt loop had hung up on the locking mechanism.

So I had to ask, “Why didn’t he just reach in and unlock it?”

Charles gave me a shrug and spoke with a classic, gangster-movie accent: “It’s all pawt of Gary’s mastah plan, shee? He’sh gotta go through the window, shee? Or it’ll never woik, shee?”

“Who’s that? Peter Laurie?”

Remaining in character, Charles replied, “Peter Laurie? Aw, you’re all wet, Gordo! You’re way off! Way off! I tells ya! Shee?”

When Gary finally figured out where he was hung up, he unhooked himself and tumbled into the cab out of sight, and after several seconds, his head popped up and then disappeared, and a few seconds later, he sat up in the driver’s seat. A moment later the truck roared to life, and Gary revved it a few times before waving again. Deciding it was probably not wise to wave back in the middle of a car heist, I opted to give him a subtle nod instead.

Once he was headed down the road, we hurried over to the opposite side of the park. Charles reminded me that if anybody were to look at that Harvester, they would see a truck rolling along with no driver, so I told him I was well aware of that fact and genuinely hoped that nobody was watching because if they were, we would have to slink away in search of another ride.

We reached the other side of the park just as Gary pulled up to the curb, and after he pulled the rest of the plastic and tape off the window, he asked with great sincerity, “Can I drive for a while?”

“Good job, Gare. No, you can’t drive. It’s daytime and we’re in a busy area, you big doof.”

He laughed. “I’m a big doof? What’s that?”

Charles informed him, “A doof is the same thing as a genius.”

Gary asked, “Really?”

Charles nodded with certainty. “Oh yeah. You know, Einstein and Newton were two of the biggest doofs ever.”

I secured the galswallow buckets in back, opened the door and gestured for Gary to scoot to the middle. Then Charles hopped in on the other side and slammed the door much too hard for my liking.

Just as I was leaning out the window and calling out, “Spark . . . !” he landed in back with a bang! and a multitude of loud groans from the springs before sitting down right in the middle, and all I could see through the rear-view mirror was his back and part of his big, round silhouette of a head. But I was thankful he wasn’t facing forward and blinding me with those blazing, lighthouse eyes.

Revving the motor, I noted, “The engine sounds good, and it has a full tank. We’ll have to remember to top it off when we bring it back.”

Charles leaned forward and corrected me: “If we bring it back.”

“No, when we bring it back. And we’re going to leave fifty cents for every mile we put on it, because we’re not thieves, Charles.” I emphasized his name to make my point.

Not missing a beat, Charles argued, “Yes, we are. We’re car thieves.” He chuckled at the notion.

Searching for the right response, I pushed down on the clutch before maneuvering the stick into first, and when everything seemed solid, I let off the clutch and applied a modest amount of pressure to the gas pedal, and we were on our way to Mount Lassen.

At the stop sign, I admitted, “Well, yeah, we’re thieves, but it’s for a good cause, so shut up, Charles.”

 

I was tempted to make a casual cruise past Abbey’s house to see if Adolfo’s truck might still be out front, but Charles convinced me it was too risky. “And besides . . .” he added, “. . . Even if it’s still parked there, what could you do? And what if they’re watching her house and spot you? You’d be caught like . . . like . . .” He tried to snap his fingers but couldn’t get them to make a noise, and when he tried again without success, he opted to clap his hands and say, “. . . like that.”

I guffawed. “Like . . .” I snapped my fingers loudly. “. . . that?”

Gary laughed. “Yeah, you’d go down like . . .” He snapped his fingers loudly. “. . . that?”

Charles tried again to snap his fingers, but when they wouldn’t function properly, he whined, “What’s wrong with me? I’m a freak.”

Realizing I was only in second gear, I shifted into third and declared, “Yeah, but you’re our freak, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four: Knuckle-Bombs

 

With the exception of being joined by three more brakken who remained at a safe distance high above, the trip back to San Juan Bautista was uneventful. For a while, Gary tried without success to teach Charles how to snap his fingers, but when Charles started to get a blister on his thumb, they decided to give it up.

 

Pock and Guillermo were sitting in front of the mission near the statue of Saint John the Baptist when we arrived, and when we asked Pock how he knew we were coming, he said he didn’t. They had just finished pouring the first batch of refined eck into the mold and had come up to get some sun while it solidified. He asked if we wanted to take a look, and, of course, we were all eager to see the final product.

“Well, come on then. It should be just about cool enough by now.” Heading towards the mission, Pock pointed up at the brakken. “How long have they been following you?”

Squinting up at the sky, I replied, “Since Monterey. That’s the second trio today. We had a little scuffle with another group this morning, and if it hadn’t been for Sparkles, they would’ve taken me away.”

“Good. Good.” Looking up at the miskreant with a furled brow, Pock asked, “Is it me, or is he getting bigger?”

Charles, of course, replied, “It’s just you.”

 

Charles, Gary and I took turns telling Pock and Guillermo about the events of the past two days, and Pock seemed especially interested in our run-in with the adult miskreant on the beach even more than my encounter with Kroe-Vogk and the subsequent kidnapping of Spencer Street. He was thrilled to hear that his little knuckle-rocks had been effective in thwarting the attack on Sparkles and was amazed when I told him how we had been assisted by thousands of assorted sea creatures, including a valiant sea cucumber named Sir Walter.

Putting his arm over the miskreant’s back, Pock whispered, “Sparkles, now that you’ve been freed, the Fallen will be terrified that others could follow, and they won’t give up until they have you back in their control.” He turned to me and warned, “And they’re not going to stop until they find out how you freed him.”

“Uh, you mean how you freed him.” I withdrew my squirt-guns and explained, “That’s why I’m packing heat now. These contain tap-water mixed with a pinch of your demon repellent. Watch this . . .” Pointing my weapons at Charles and Gary, I exclaimed, “Pew! Pew!”

They both went wide eyed and dove out of the way, and when Charles got to his feet, he scolded, “Not funny, Gord! What if one of those misfired? Huh?”

Even more incensed than Charles, Gary scolded, “How could you? Shame on you, Gordo.”

“You’re right. I am so sorry.” Using all my will to not laugh, I shoved my weapons back into their respective pocket holsters.

After he had finished scowling at me, Gary noted, “Guillermo, it looks like Pock’s been working you pretty hard.”

Nodding, Guillermo smiled wearily and said, “Hard work is good for the soul.”

We reached the front door where Sparkles turned, headed back out to the plaza and sat down in the grass, and like a patient cat waiting for its prey to come within range, he intently watched the brakken circling round overhead.

Pock removed the container of demon balm from his pocket and flicked a pinch into the face of all three demons, and as they hacked and coughed and carried on, he explained, “This batch should last longer than the last one. I added more breadfruit and eck and a little less paprika.”

Inside the gift shop, Pock told the attendant that I was with him, so she simply smiled and waved us through. We made our way to the inner courtyard where the massive cauldron had been sitting to find the area cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. We all glanced at each other, and for good measure, I said in my outdoor voice, “I sure hope they catch the jerks who did this. They should lock them up and throw away the key.”

And Pock muttered under his breath, “Careful what you wish for.”

We headed through the mission and out to the cemetery where Pock suggested I try accessing the stairwell, and after we were fairly sure we were away from prying eyes — human or demon — Guillermo hoisted me up with a grunt.

Looking down, I pointed at one of the bricks in the buttress and asked, “This one?”

Pock patiently asked back, “Well, is it?”

I pushed on it, and it yielded with a faint click. I reached over to my left as far as I could and pressed the one on the corner which yielded with a louder click, and the hidden door began to grind open.

Guillermo lowered me down, and Pock nodded approvingly. “Good. You were paying attention last time.”

“Um, not really,” I explained, “I just picked the bricks with bright green fingerprints on them.”

On the first landing, we grabbed the flashlights, and after I had successfully closed the outer door on the third try, we made our way down to the bottom, which wasn’t without incident because I kept looking up at the murals and managed on one occasion to lose my footing and tumble into Charles who was less than sympathetic to my blunder.

Down at the lower landing, we headed out across the great chamber, and as we closed in on the cauldron, I sniffed the air and noted, “Ooo, that smells good. Is that the refined eck?”

Looking at me like I was bonkers, Pock asked, “You think that smells good? Well, please don’t taste it. There’s no telling what it might do to you.”

With wrinkled noses, Charles and Gary stayed a good distance from the cauldron, and Charles had to admit, “Ugh, that smells awful, Gord. What’s wrong with you?”

I examined Charles incredulously. “What’s wrong with you? It smells like-like feshly baked chocolate chip cookies or something.” I inhaled deeply to reinforce my opinion. “Aah.” I waved the demons closer. “Come smell.”

Charles and Gary refused my invitation. Guillermo, however, drew near, but after plugging his nose, he said in a nasal voice, “Gord, you’re not well. Even Pock can’t stand it.”

Pock shook his head and agreed wholeheartedly, “They’re right. Your nose is malfunctioning, son.”

To be sure I was smelling what they were smelling, I took another deep breath to find the air filled with the smell of melted chocolate, mint, sage and maybe the slightest hint of rose petals. Shaking my head in disbelief, I declared for the record, “That smells wonderful. I can’t believe you people.”

Pock walked around the cauldron, gave the plaster mold a light kick and observed, “Well, it feels nice and solid.” He squatted down and tapped at the green material in the pouring hole with a screwdriver, producing a high frequency tink-tink. He looked up, smiled and declared, “It sounds ready . . . Guillermo, could you give me a hand?” The old man unscrewed the vice, untied and unwrapped the straps and gave the mold a good kick. Then he and Guillermo each grabbed an embedded handle and tugged, grunted, then tugged and grunted with greater zeal, but the mold refused to separate. Charles, Gary and I joined in, and grunting furiously, we pulled with all our strength until, without warning, the mold popped apart, sending the five of us staggering backwards to the floor.

An intensely bright green sphere dropped out and rolled across the floor until it bumped into Charles, and when my demon reached down and touched it, he quickly recoiled and exclaimed, “Ooo! It feels . . . alive! Look, there’s something moving in there.”

Approaching the sphere and leaning in close with his hand to his ear, Pock whispered, “Do you hear that? It’s humming.”

Imitating Pock, I nodded and asked, “Why would it hum?”

“Hmm. I don’t know, but I sure hope it’s stable.”

“Stable? Like it could explode or something?” I took three steps back.

“Well, I’m not sure, but it just occurred to me that refined eck might have some kind of critical mass that could yield, well, um . . . some unexpected results.”

I took a few more steps back before repeating his words: “Unexpected results? You never mentioned that before.”

“I know. I didn’t expect it to come out looking and sounding so . . . so bright and-and . . . active. It’s obviously full of energy, and newly discovered forms of energy have a history of yielding big surprises.”

I nodded slowly. “Uh-huh? So should we try to, you know, set it off?”

“Set it off? That’s not a bad idea. But how?”

After a moment, I suggested, “Hey, Charles, we’ll get away to a safe distance, and you can hit it with that hammer to see what it does.”

Frowning severely, Charles asked, “Uh, why don’t you hit it with the hammer?”

Raising my arms up for him to see, I explained, “Because my arms are thin and scrawny, and you can hit harder. That way we can find out if it’s safe.”

Charles pointed at Guillermo. “He’s five times stronger than I am. I vote for Guillermo.”

Gary raised his hand. “I second that motion. Guillermo doesn’t carry on like Charles when he’s injured either. He’s much more stoic when it comes to pain.”

So Charles took exception: “Hey, have I been complaining about this?” He pointed at the piece of driftwood sticking out of his head. “Huh? Have I?”

Inspecting the stick protruding out of Charles’ forehead, Gary admitted, “Well actually, no, you’ve been pretty stoic, come to think of it. Okay, I change my vote to Charles.”

I raised my hand. “I second the motion. Charles should do it.”

Pock raised his hand. “I vote Charles.”

And when Guillermo voted for Charles too, I picked up the hammer, handed it over to old Driftwood Head and cautioned, “First just tap it lightly, then harder and then even harder. That way we can get a sense of how much of an impact it can take before it explo . . . I mean before it reacts. And we’ll stay back to observe the results.”

Looking at the lot of us in disbelief, Charles was forced to object by stammering, “What? I’m not, I mean I don’t want . . . !”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “We’re all impressed by your courage.” Turning to the others and gesturing at my demon, I asked, “Is he the man or what?”

We all cheered until he cracked an embarrassed smile, so in unison, we started chanting, “Char-les! Char-les! Char-les!”

Charles examined the sphere and then us. He then nervously looked at the sphere again and pleaded, “But I-I-I don’t want to blow up.”

Slapping him on the shoulder, I explained, “You won’t blow up. It’s just a precaution, you know, to make sure it’s safe, And I’m going to tell Agatha about your bravery. Can you imagine how impressed she’ll be?”

“You’re going to tell Agatha?”

“Well, yeah, I’m going to call Abbey later, so I’ll ask her to tell Agatha about how you put yourself in harm’s way for the greater good.”

Charles began to whimper, but when he accepted the hammer, the rest of us hurried away, got belly down on the floor and covered our ears.

Unsure how to begin, Charles looked at us, then at the eck-sphere and then at us again. He walked around it, examined it and knelt down, and as soon as he gave it a tentative tap with the hammer, he rolled away. But when there was no Earth-shattering kaboom, he picked up the hammer again and went over to give it a harder tap before repeating the defensive maneuver. And each time he returned to the sphere and whacked it a little harder, he rolled away like it was going to reach critical mass and cascade into a full-blown, nuclear explosion. But by the seventh try, he seemed to have built up some confidence because he wasn’t quite so jumpy. My demon called out that it seemed stable and gave it another solid whack, then another, and again, even harder. But on the tenth try, he drew his arm back and hit the bomb as hard as he could, and the area around him flashed brightly as a translucent bubble expanded outward and enveloped him. In the next instant, the bubble collapsed back down to a point with a loud FOOMP! pulling Charles down with it.

And both he and his hammer were nowhere to be seen.

We jumped up and dashed back to where he had vanished, calling out his name, and once on the scene, I searched around, calling out, “Good one! Now come on out!”

Pock cautiously approached the dark sphere, knelt down and whispered, “Look. It’s getting bright again, like it’s recharging.” He reached out and touched it. “Wow. It’s getting hotter too.”

Sweeping the beam of my flashlight in every direction, I called out, “Charles! . . . We can’t see you! Give us a signal or make a noise!”

When Charles didn’t reply, we each picked a direction and headed out, calling out his name, but we soon concluded that he had probably left the building. And after we had gathered back at the bomb, Gary scratched his belly, sniffed and admitted, “Well, at least we know not to hit it with a hammer.”

Rolling the bomb under my shoe, I wondered aloud, “Where do you think he went?”

Pock frowned and shook his head. “I, uh, I have no idea, but maybe we should go look outside.”

 

We searched the mission grounds and the surrounding neighborhood, then combed the downtown area before coming to the conclusion that Charles was probably somewhere else, so we decided the best course of action was patience. He could be anywhere. He might have even ported into the labyrinth somewhere, and since time itself moved more slowly down there, it could take days or weeks or even months before he returned. So all we could do is wait and see.

We decided that Gary would accompany me to Mount Lassen while Pock and Guillermo continued to make more knuckle-bombs and keep an eye out for Charles in case he returned, and before we departed, I asked Pock if there was any way to contact him if we ran into trouble. He admitted he didn’t have much use for a phone, but if we needed to send him a message, Gary could simply tell the birds, and they would be more than happy to deliver it. On that note, he slapped me on the shoulder and wished us a safe and speedy journey.

Rubbing my shoulder, I noted, “Ow. You’re pretty tough for an old guy. Well, I guess if all goes well, I figure we’ll see you sometime tomorrow.”

“Then let’s pray all goes well.” He gestured at Guillermo and Gary. “Well, they won’t, but I will.”

I nodded. “Right. Got it. Because demons don’t pray.”

But, to our surprise, Guillermo disagreed by declaring, “I pray.”

Nodding, Gary confessed the same thing: “I pray too.”

I scowled at both of them before informing them that praying was a violation of the demon code, but Guillermo explained that they’d only get in trouble if caught and actually promised to pray for our safe return, and Gary claimed that he would too. I searched both their faces for the slightest hint they were pulling my leg, and when I saw only sincerity in their eyes, I admitted, “Wow, guys, I apologize. I didn’t know. Charles doesn’t pray, so I just assumed you were all the same.”

Gary chuckled. “Charles says he doesn’t pray. He thinks if he admits to praying, you’ll think he’s weak.”

“What? Why?”

Gary shrugged. “Because he’s Charles.”

I chuckled. “Good answer.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Five: Meet Henry

 

With brakken still in tow, we drove around San Juan Bautista one more time in the hopes of spotting Charles, but after searching every side street we could find, I turned onto Highway 156 and headed west towards 101 until Gary cleared his throat and asked, “Uh, you’re going this way?”

I glanced over. “What? Yeah, this is the way north.”

He made a scrunched up face like he had bad gas and muttered, “Sure, if you want to fight Bay Area traffic in the middle of a weekday.”

“Huh? But this is the way to Mount Lassen.”

“Yeah, it’s the shortest distance, but you’d be better off going back over 152 to 5 and then north; it won’t take as long.”

I glanced over again. “Are you sure?”

Gary kept his gaze forward while replying, “Positive.”

“Well okay, I’m promoting you to official navigator.” Pulling off at the next exit to turn around, I asked, “How do you know that?”

Gary slouched down and put his elbow out the window. “Have you ever heard of Arlington Springs Man?”

With my upper lip tucked inside my lower one, I searched my memory before shaking my head and admitting, “Nope, what’s that?”

He’s more of a who than a what. He was my assignment, and so was his son and his grandson. In fact, I’ve been assigned to this region for over thirteen-thousand years now. I know I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, but I know the west coast like the back of my head.”

“I think it’s like the back of my hand.”

“Huh?”

“It’s the back of your hand. You know the west coast like the back . . .”

“Oh, it is?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm, and all this time I’ve been saying it wrong.”

I studied Gary for a moment and chuckled. “Sometimes I forget how old you guys are.” Messing up his hair, I declared, “You are really, really old. Maybe I’ll start calling you Gramps.”

After he chuckled, I asked, “So am I supposed to know about this Arlington Springs Man?”

“Not really. His only claim to fame is that they found his remains out on Santa Rosa Island, so he’s famous for living here on the West Coast, you know, back in the day.” Gary’s gaze drifted out to infinity as he remembered: “I sailed from the Philippines, up the coast of China, across the Bering Straight and back down into North America with seven generations of his ancestors.” Smiling at the memory, he continued, “Those were great times. Sure, it was rough, and my assignments, I mean humans, had short lives, but the world was ours for the taking, and I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to travel from one horizon to the next, never knowing what we might find. We were some of the first to set foot on an entire continent of forests, marshlands, mountain ranges and prairies that held a seemingly endless amount of wildlife. The herds often stretched as far as you could see!” He smiled again and sighed. “We were free.”

Realizing I was drifting off the pavement, I corrected the truck and asked, “What was it like to survive from one day to the next, not knowing where your next meal would come from and not knowing where you’d be the next day?”

Gary slouched down, put his feet up on the dash and said, “Gord, it was wonderful to live in the moment, but I have to admit, with every passing generation, my job keeps gets easier. You modern humans are so quick to worry about every trivial thing.” He chuckled and admitted, “Charles once told me that he could have you worrying about your future ten years out. You mortals are making it much too easy for us.”

I nodded as I pondered what he was saying. Then when I noticed the engine was revving too high, I shifted into fourth and muttered, “Oops.” Glancing over at Gary, I asked, “But how did we get so anxious? I mean, we’re afraid of our own shadows and don’t know why.”

And he didn’t miss a beat: “Gord, your problem is you’re so isolated. Too many of you spend a majority of your years separated from the world, and it’s making you sick. One vital element that your so-called “civilized” world is rejecting is community, you know?” He leaned out and looked up at the sky. “Human beings are gregarious creatures, and when you spend so much of your lives alone, you open the door for us to go to work.”

We drove for a while in silence until I finally chuckled and muttered, “That’s too funny.”

“What is?”

“I think I actually miss Charles, but don’t tell him I said that.”

Gary laughed. “I won’t. I miss him too.” He reached out, peeled a dead dragonfly off the top of the side-view mirror and popped it in his mouth.

“Gary?”

“Yeah.”

“Could you chew with your mouth closed?”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry.”

 

On the way east, we stopped at Casa de Fruta and worked over a couple of turkey sandwiches while we watched the brakken circle around overhead. After I finished my lunch, I put my arm over Sparkles, gave him a squeeze of affection and asked, “Gare, does he seem bigger to you?”

Tilting his head and eyeballing Sparkles carefully, Gary declared, “Yeah. No. Well, yeah, maybe. Well, no, probably not.”

“Uh-huh? So I’ll put you down in the ‘yeah, no, maybe, no’ column then.”

Gary nodded and replied with his mouth full: “Right.”

I crumbled up my wrapper, tossed it into the trash and said, “Back in a few. Just going to make a quick call.”

Under his breath, Gary sang, “Gordo’s got a girlfriend.”

I squinted at him. “Oh please, I just want to find out if there’s any news on her son.”

Gary sang again, even more brightly, “Gordo’s got a girlfriend.”

Before heading for the pay-phone, I showed him the back of my hand and snarled, so he raised his hands defensively while feigning a look of abject terror.

 

The phone rang six times before going to voice-mail, and try as I might, I couldn’t keep the quaver out of my voice: “Hi Abbey. It’s Gord, I mean Gordo. Um, I-I just wanted to let you know th-that we’ve made some progress towards finding an adult you-know-what. We’re stopped at, um, oh yeah, I better not mention where we are, but we’re on our way to get that thing I told you about — the thing Kroe-Vogk wants? — the thing that might help find your son, I hope.”

I cleared my throat and tried to steady my voice. “Uh, so I just wanted to check in and see how you were doing. Oh yeah, uh, I know how you’re doing. That was dumb. Well, okay, wish us luck, and I’ll call back as soon as I can.” Clearing my throat again, I added, “Oh, and Charles has turned up missing, not by foul play or anything. It was more stupidity on my part. I’ll tell you about it later. But we’re staying optimistic and expecting he’ll find his way back home someday soon. Oh, and could you tell Agatha he was performing a very courageous deed when he vanished? I’m sure he’d appreciate that. Uh, okay, well, we’re going to get back on the road, so . . .” I almost told her to hang in there, but instead, I cleared my throat and concluded with, “Abbey, there . . . there aren’t any words, so I, uh, I’ll just say good-bye for now.” I hung up the phone and made sure my eyes were completely dry before heading back to Gary.

On my return, he was busily tossing pieces of bread to the catfish when he asked, “Did she answer?”

“No, I left a message.” I sighed and admitted, “Shoot, I really wanted to talk to her.”

“She’s probably at the police station filing a report. Try again later and she’ll answer.”

I pulled myself back from three different worse-case-scenarios racing through my mind — back to the here and now. “Huh? Oh yeah. Try later. Good idea.”

 

As we rumbled, rattled and bounced our way over Pacheco Pass and down towards the San Joaquin Valley, the temperature climbed about fifteen degrees. Only two days and nights had passed since we had last been in Merced, but it felt more like a year. The world seemed so foreign, and I didn’t feel like me or know what I was doing anymore. Winding down the east slope, I was dearly tempted to just keep going east and head home, and when I got there, I could go in my house, lock the door and hide away from the new reality crushing down on my every thought. But there was no way to jump off this train because it was rolling downhill with no brakes. The brakken wouldn’t fly away and leave us alone just because I was scared. Sparkles wasn’t about to say, “Good job, Gordo. We’ll have somebody else take over from here. You get your old life back now. See you around.” No, I knew Sparkles wasn’t along for this ride simply because he thought I was his papa. Behind that fiery, indiscernible gaze, I suspected he could see things that would scare me to death.

Gary, seeing the look on my face, gently shook my shoulder and said, “Hey, it’s not that bad. You still got me . . .” Pointing his thumb at Sparkles, he added, “. . . and you’ve still got the big guy.”

Taking a deep breath, I surmised, “You know, wherever Charles ended up, he’s still schlepping around with that piece of driftwood stuck in that big, bulbous head of his.

Gary laughed at the thought. “Yeah, if he is down in the labyrinth, he’s going to be ridiculed mercilessly all the way back up to the surface. We should have tried harder to get it out.”

“I don’t know. It seemed like it was making him smarter and nicer. I was going to try to talk him into leaving it in.”

Gary laughed again. “Yeah, and better looking.”

I looked over at him and asked, “Wow, how do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“You’re a demon, for crying out loud, but you live so close to the laughter.” I shook my head in amazement. “I’m a human, and my sense of humor pales in comparison to yours. That doesn’t make sense. You know, I’m starting to wonder if you’re an imposter.”

“I don’t know, I just love to laugh, even at the stupid stuff. You know, Gord, if you keep our perspective, everything just seems so ridiculous.” He went quiet before adding, “We all have our lot in life, right? And for demons, ours is as unpleasant as it gets. We spend our lives tearing down instead of building up, but in the end, I know it’s for a good reason.”

“A good reason? Like what?”

“Like elevating humanity to the next level.”

I let his words sink in. “The next level? What’s that?”

“Oh, never you mind.”

“Ah, right. Well, I still don’t envy you your job.”

 

After passing San Luis Reservoir and dropping back into the valley, we headed north on 33 for a few miles before hopping on northbound 5. In an attempt to get some relief from the rising temperature, I fiddled with the air conditioning dials to find the fan didn’t work. Gary slid the rear window open, and when Sparkles leaned down and poked his head inside the cab, Gary placed his hand on the miskreant and asked, “Hey, buddy, are you hot? You want some water?”

Glancing at Sparkles, I declared, “The day we see him eat or drink anything is the day I’ll eat my hat.”

“Okay, I’ll remember you said that. How do you want it prepared?”

“Probably baked with a little butter, some salt and pepper and a squirt of lemon.”

Gary laughed. “It’s a hat, not a fish.”

I wiped my forehead and panted like a dog. “Wow, it’s getting really hot.”

Gary examined me and chuckled. “You know, correct me if I’m wrong, but would it help if you got out of that wet-suit?”

I opened the front of the wet-suit and declared, “Hmm, You know? You might be onto something there.” I lowered my voice. “Hey, if Charles ever returns? Could you please not mention that I . . .”

Raising his hand, Gary solemnly declared, “I’ll take it to the grave.”

I pointed at him. “Aah, I see what you did there. Good one. Thanks.”

Cracking a grin, he replied, “No problemo.”

I took the next off ramp, pulled into a gas station and removed the wet-suit, and my internal body temperature must have dropped some five degrees in less than two minutes. After rolling it up and stuffing it behind the seat for safe keeping, I climbed out, had a nice, long stretch and declared, “I’m as thirsty as a rhino. Let’s go get something cold.”

“Me too.” Gary fished around in his pocket, withdrew a roll of twenties and declared, “My treat.”

We both chose sixty-four ounce cups loaded with ice. I opted for ice-tea while Gary had me pour a little of every flavor into his. Grimacing over what he was making me do, I warned, “You know, this is going to be awful. Have you ever made it like this before?”

“Yeah. It’s the best.”

When I had filled his cup and added a lid and straw, I handed it over, but he refused it and suggested, “You try it first. Trust me.”

“Uh, no thanks. I don’t want to die . . . Here.” I pushed it back at him.

But refusing to take it, he encouraged, “Come on, just one sip. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s like climbing a mountain; you can at least say you did it.”

“Ugh. Oh, all right.” I took a sip from his straw, smiled brightly, and in my most cheerful voice, declared, “Hey, that’s even worse than I expected.” Smacking my lips, I closed my eyes tightly and grimaced. “You need help, man. Th-that’s just . . . vile.”

Gary took a sip, and with eyes closed, he slowly shook his head in unbelieving ecstasy while declaring, “Woah. Mmm. That is so good.

Unable to find the words to properly convey my dismay, I could only blink at him before walking away.

Back out under a blazing sun, we noticed that the three brakken had been joined by three more. They were circling high above the Harvester like vultures casually riding around on a thermal, and even from such a distance, I could see the hatred in their eyes. But since there were only six, I wasn’t too concerned. If they wanted to come on down and have another go, I’d be happy to sick Sparkles on them.

Back on the freeway, Gary talked me into playing twenty questions, but he referred to the game as infinite questions because the rules were that we could guess as many times as needed until we figured out the object in question. At first, I hesitated to play because the calm of the open road was giving me a chance to process the events of the past week, but I gave in when he said I could go first and could pick anything in the universe. He also urged me to pick a really, really hard one.

I was silent for a long time while deciding on my mystery person, place or thing. In fact, I took a little too long for Gary’s liking. He waited a full minute before taking another long sip from his straw and gargling, “Don’t you have one yet?”

“No. Be patient. You said pick something challenging, right?”

Ten seconds later, he asked, “How about now?”

“No. Not yet. Hang on.”

And ten seconds later: “Now?”

“Oh, Okay. I have one. It’s, um, an animal.”

“Is it living or dead?”

“Yes.”

“Huh? Is it living or dead?”

“I can only say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

“Is it living?”

“Hmm . . . Um, yeah, it’s living.”

“Why did you hesitate?”

“I had to think about it for a second.”

“It’s living? Is it Sparkles?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s too easy, Gordo. You have to pick harder stuff.” Gary thought for only a few seconds before declaring, “Okay, I’ve got one. It’s mineral.”

“Uh, is it a pull-tab off a can of Fresca left on the side of the highway near the Eerie Canal in 1974?”

“What? . . . No.” Letting an annoyed sigh, he instructed me to do it correctly. “Come on. You have to narrow it down. Start big.”

“Oh yeah, okay. Start big? Um. Is it The Oort Cloud?”

“The Oort what? No. What’s that?”

“It’s the theoretical source of comets way out on the edge of the solar system.”

He rolled his eyes. “Do it right, Gordo. This is a good one.”

“Okay, is it volcanic mud’d?”

“It is! How’d you get it so fast?”

“I’m psychic. See, when you have a thought, you have to hide it from me by not thinking about it.”

Squinting at me in disbelief, he asked, “Yeah, right. How do you not think about something?”

“It’s easy. You just think about something else.” I let him ponder my words of wisdom as I took a long sip off my straw.

Frowning at me, Gary argued, “No, because while you’re trying to not think about something, you start thinking about it, because . . . because it’s the thing you’re not suppose to think about. I want you to not think about a potato. See? You can’t do it.”

Holding my hand up for silence, I declared, “Okay, wait one second. Okay, there; I’m not thinking about the object in question. See? It’s easy.”

Gary guffawed. “Yes, you are! You have to! It’s not possible.” He shoved me hard. Then, pointing over at the southbound lanes while banging his head against the roof in an attempt to stand up, he cried out, “Look! Spanners! Look! Look!” Gary quickly put both arms outside and waved frantically at a man and woman in a white Mercedes moving past in the opposite direction. And, of course, I waved as well. One demon’s head was poking up through the sunroof while another one was sitting in the back seat. All four occupants had spotted us and were all waving back excitedly as they shot past.

Eyes wide open, Gary exclaimed, “Wow! Spanners! Did you see that?”

“Yeah, I did.”

We watched in amazement as the Mercedes disappeared over a low rise. Gary grabbed my shoulder and shook vigorously, declaring. “Turn around! We have to catch them!”

“I would if I could, but did you see how fast they were going? We’d never catch up in this old bucket, especially with Mister Big Butt in back.” Glancing back at Sparkles who was standing up on his hind legs at full attention, I added, “Look, he spotted them too.”

Letting out a sigh and slumping down in his seat, Gary whined, “Darn. Of all the luck. So close and so far away. I wish there were more spanners in the world.”

“You and me both. If you include Adolfo and Pock, and Abbey and Spencer, and of course, you, Charles and Bertrand, I’ve met seven.”

“Seven? Hmm, you should probably get out more, Gordo. You’re a recluse.”

“I know, I should, but . . . Hey, look, here they come!”

Gary gasped with delight before banging his head on the door frame in an attempt to poke his head out the window, while far behind, the Mercedes had zipped past a big-rig and was easing over into the slow lane. In no time, it had moved right up behind us, and the driver produced two quick flashes from the headlights, so we waved at our pursuers and pointed at a sign that read “Patterson – Next Exit”.

As soon as we reached the offramp, Sparkles, being the impatient miskreant that he was, leaped out of the truck, landing gracefully on all fours and slowing his gate until he was trotting along next to the Mercedes. We parked in front of a diner where Gary and I eagerly jumped out as the Mercedes pulled up next to us. A well-dressed, slender man of perhaps seventy grunted heavily as he climbed out of the passenger’s seat, and with his hands on his hips, he gazed up at Sparkles with his mouth wide open. From the driver’s side, a woman who had to be his daughter, gracefully stepped out and approached. The man turned and looked me over before giving me a big, warm smile and declaring, “Well, I’ll be. I can’t believe my eyes.” He closed his door, came over and sized me up and down a second time. “Let’s have a look at you here.”

Putting my hand out, I realized I was grinning from ear to ear. “Hi. It’s so good to . . .”

Before I could finish, the stranger gave me a big hug, and as soon as he set me down, he declared, “You realize, we’re going to need to know everything about you and your demons.” He gestured at Gary and Sparkles before introducing himself: “I’m Henry, and this is my daughter, Emily. And this is my demon, Waldo, and that’s Emily’s demon, Rita.”

Feeling like a six-year-old making new friends on the playground, all of my self consciousness had vanished as I said, “Wow. Hi guys. I-I can’t tell you how-how good . . .” My voice broke, so I tried again. “This is like finding . . . Ah, shoot.” I looked away and dried my eyes.

Henry put his hand on my back and spoke like a long-lost grandfather when he said, “That’s okay, son. We’re thrilled to meet you too.” He chuckled. “My ears are still ringing from Emily’s scream when she spotted you.” He guffawed. “All three of them demanded I turn around on the center divide so we wouldn’t lose you.”

“Wow. Well, I’m Gordo, and this is Gary, and that individual is a miskreant we call Sparkles. He’s not very sociable, but he is pretty tolerant and doesn’t eat much, so we let him tag along.”

The four of them slowly approached Sparkles, and Waldo put his hand out and asked, “Is it okay to touch him?”

Showing it was safe, Gary patted Sparkles on the back. “Yeah, go ahead. He likes it.”

Tentatively touching Sparkles’ shoulder, Waldo asked, “Is this the one we’ve been hearing about?” Running his hand along Sparkles’ shoulder, he declared, “Wow, he-he’s like pure energy, but he’s not here.”

Gary was like a ten-year-old with a turtle at show-and-tell when he replied, “He’s here alright. We picked him up in the mountains a few day ago. He’s super strong, but don’t worry, he doesn’t bite. And he’s very clean too.”

Emily reached up and put her hand on Sparkles’ neck, whispering, “He’s so strange! Look at the fire in those eyes and just look at his body! Yeah, it’s like he’s real, but he’s not real . . . Amazing.”

Giving Sparkles an affectionate pat on top of the head, Gary admitted, “Yeah, he’s pretty weird, but we like him that way.”

Henry reached up, touched the miskreant and declared, “What a magnificent demon . . . Waldo, how come you’ve never mentioned these before?”

Squinted at Henry in disbelief, Waldo countered, “I did so mention them. You just don’t remember. I’ve talked about miskreants on multiple occasions, and every time I try to bring up anything about the spirit-world — anything at all — you get bored and drift off into your own world or you just fall asleep.”

Henry chuckled. “Oh, I must confess all that demon stuff bores me silly. Listening to your demon stories is better than taking a sleeping pill.” Henry winked at me. “Are you kids hungry?” He nodded at the restaurant and muttered, “Something in there smells pretty good.”

I wasn’t hungry in the slightest but was sure Gary could eat non-stop if given the chance, and I didn’t just want these people in my life; I needed them. Charles was gone, and Gary and Sparkles were good company, but they weren’t people. I desperately needed another living human being to talk to, and if only for a short while, their turning up was a perfectly timed godsend, so I looked to Gary and asked, “Gary, are we hungry?”

Tilting his head with one finger on his raised chin, Gary considered my question aloud: “I am feeling a bit peckish, now that you mention it.”

 

Henry was a retired train mechanic from Long Beach, and he and his daughter were heading home from his sister’s funeral up in Oroville. He told us that he was the last living member of his immediate family of seven kids, and like me, he had been the only one who could see his demon. He had grown up believing he was the only one in the world with his ability until, in his mid-twenties, he spotted the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. The encounter had happened at a summer concert in the park, and she was standing next to a demon, so after going over and introducing himself, he asked if she was aware of a demon standing next to her. Well, after the woman told Henry that she was quite aware and hugged him like a long, lost friend, she began to cry.

With a lifetime of stories to share with each other, Henry and Cara had hit it off immediately. And six months later they were married, and within another five years, they had four happy, healthy kids. The fourth had been Emily, and Henry could tell early on that his daughter was a spanner when she would reach her hands up and smile at Waldo whenever he entered the room.

Henry also told us about his tumultuous relationship with Waldo and how his greatest weakness was cigarettes. All Waldo had to do to make him fall off the wagon was light one up, blow the smoke in Henry’s face and wait an hour or two.

Henry sighed and admitted, “I’ve tried to quit at least twenty times, but he always comes up with an excuse for me to relapse, and every time I catch a whiff from Waldo’s cigarette, I tell myself that I’ll quit next week. I know I have to quit because those things are killing me, but I don’t have the willpower.” He glanced over at Waldo and muttered, “This guy’s good. If I were his boss, I’d give him a raise.”

Waldo snorted. “A raise? I wish. Unfortunately, this is all pro-bono.” He elbowed Gary. “Yeah, we do it for the love of the job and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Looking at him to make sure he was teasing, Gary nodded. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got a paycheck though?”

I frowned and asked, “A paycheck? What would you spend it on?”

Gary immediately declared, “RC Cola, vanilla ice-cream and corn-chips. Oh, and I’d buy a sailboat so you could take Charles and me on a trip around the world.”

Emily, who had been silently gazing out the window at Sparkles, asked Gary how long he had been assigned to me. Gary and I glanced at each other before I cleared my throat and explained, “Oh, my demon, Charles, kind of . . . well, he vanished this morning, and we haven’t figured out where he’s made off to just yet. Yeah, Gary here is an old friend who’s in between assignments.”

Henry’s eyebrows went up. “Your demon ran off? Wow, I wish Waldo would do that. Then I could inquire as to the whereabouts of Waldo and mean it.” He laughed heartily. “Get it? Where’s Waldo?” He laughed again even harder.

I glanced over at Emily in time to see her roll her eyes, and it was then I decided to tell them everything — well, almost everything. I told them about most of the events of the past six days in great detail, and they were utterly fascinated and asked a flurry of questions. Gary, of course, had to correct me a couple of times on the details surrounding Sparkles.

It seemed so odd telling strangers about the surreal events that we had gone through, and I could see that sometimes they wondered if I was telling the truth, but seeing a real live miskreant sitting in the back of the Harvester went a long way to support the validity of my story, and Gary, always nodding and saying, “It’s true,” over and over, didn’t hurt either.

I admitted to how frazzled and worried I was, and that we didn’t know if we would ever be able to find Adolfo Hidalgo or Spencer Street or even Charles, but we had to try.

“. . . and so that’s where we’re going right now — up to Mount Lassen. It might be a long shot, but it’s all we have.” And when I had finished, I popped an ice cube in my mouth and chomped on it with restrained vigor.

They looked at me and then at each other in silence before Henry declared to his daughter, “Sweetheart, isn’t it obvious? We have to go with them!”

Emily’s expression immediately dropped, and she asked, “What? Right now?”

Henry lowered his voice. “You heard him. This is too important, and we can help.” He looked to me and asked, “What do you think? Could you use some help?”

Emily put her hand on her father’s shoulder. “Dad, they don’t want strangers inviting themselves to . . .”

I interrupted, “Actually, we’d love your company . . . I say the more the merrier. That’s what I say.”

And Gary chimed in: “I say that too — the more the merrier — I say that.”

I added, “And, besides, you’re not strangers anymore. How long have we known each other? Forty minutes? Shoot, we’re practically family.”

Emily’s eyes sparkled when she smiled and replied, “That’s very nice of you to say, but Dad’s . . .”

Henry interrupted, “Do you have a container for the volcanic mud’d?”

I shook my head. “Well, no. We haven’t really thought it all . . .”

“It’ll have to be a thick, metal container, you know, so it won’t melt. And something with a sealable lid, you know? So the mud’d doesn’t dry out.”

Gently patting her father’s back, Emily explained, “Dad, I have to get home. Summer school starts next week, and I have to get ready.”

“Next week? I thought you said late June.”

“It is late June.”

“Oh, already?” He frowned but then quickly brightened. “Then, my dear, it would appear we are parting ways.” He turned to me and declared, “I accept.” He then withdrew his credit card, waved at the waitress and admitted, “Well, this is an odd day. Only this morning I was having a strong bout of the blues, and now I’m almost giddy.”

I warned, “I hope you don’t mind the heat. We don’t have . . .”

“Son, I love the heat. Now what are we dawdling around for? We have a volcano to climb or assail or drive to or whatever.”

 

Back outside, I pointed out our brakken friends to Henry and Emily, explaining that there was a real possibility we could be attacked again and I couldn’t guarantee his safety. He squinted up at them, and after counting to six out loud, he asked, “And you say that demon-repellent of yours is effective? Well then, let ‘em attack.” He gestured at Sparkles. “Plus we have The Sparkles to defend us.”

Gary was quick to correct him: “It’s just Sparkles.”

Henry squinted at Gary. “Huh?”

Gary repeated himself: “It’s not The Sparkles. It’s just Sparkles.”

Henry chuckled, “Oh! Yes, right, Sparkles then.”

I followed Emily over to their Mercedes where she fetched Henry’s tote bag. Handing it over, she whispered, “Could you make sure he keeps his phone charged? Otherwise he’ll forget and I won’t be able to reach him.”

“I’ll plug it in right now.”

“Thanks. This is all so strange, letting Dad go off with a total stranger like this.”

“I know you could stop him from going, and I’m grateful you’re not.” I kicked the curb and added, “We can really use his help right now. Even more, I need his company. I’ve seen things in the last week that have, well . . . changed me. A week ago, I would have said that our meeting here was just a coincidence, but now I’m not so sure.”

She smiled warmly and replied, “By destiny or chance, I’m glad we met, and I’ll worry about Dad.” She lowered her voice. “You see, he doesn’t have much time left, and I think his going with you might be just what he needs right now.”

I almost asked her to explain, but when her lower lip began to quiver, I told her that we would keep him safe and he would be on a train bound for Long Beach by tomorrow or maybe the day after.

To my surprise, Emily gave me a big hug before returning to her father and giving him an earful about taking his blood-pressure medication and making sure to call and not doing anything too strenuous and eating the right foods and on and on. In response, Henry nodded dutifully and kept saying, “Uh-huh? Uh-huh?” but he seemed too distracted with Sparkles to pay close attention.

Emily hugged her dad and Waldo and even Gary before admitting, “You know, as crazy as this sounds, I half wish I was going with you.” She chuckled to herself.

And when she was finished ordering us to be careful, Gary opened the passenger side door to get in. But I suggested to him, “Hey, Gare, how about you ride in back with Waldo and Sparkles?”

“Huh? Oh, okay.”

Gary hopped out, and Henry slapped him on the back, thanked him and climbed in, and before I started the truck, I handed Henry one of the squirt guns. Turning it over in his hands, he asked, “What’s this for?”

I pointed up to the sky. “There’s demon-repellent in there. Just be careful not to hit our guys. They won’t appreciate it.”

“Why? What’s it do?”

“Demons catch fire if they get it on them, so . . .”

Examining the weapon, Henry opened his mouth and nodded. “Ah, I see. Very nice.”

I made sure Henry’s phone was charging before starting the Harvester, and we waved to Emily and Rita as we pulled out onto the road, and as they waved back, I could see Emily crying, but neither Henry nor I made mention of it.

 

On the way north, Henry told me about his family and how he had turned into a working-stiff after his kids were born. His adult life had consisted of working, spending weekends with the family and sleeping, so he hadn’t had much opportunity to run into other spanners, but not for a lack of searching. In all his years of looking, except for the one he married, he had never met another one.

We both agreed that the odds of a spanner giving birth to another spanner was astronomical, but Henry was convinced that with two spanner parents, the odds were greatly improved. With his daughter out of earshot, he confided that he was a big worry-wart like me, but he admitted that he didn’t see Waldo as a demon anymore but almost as a friend. Sure, it was Waldo’s job to tempt, harass and degrade, but Henry was the one who was ultimately responsible for his own thoughts and actions, and, unlike me, refused to lay the blame on his demon.

We must have spent an hour hypothesizing about why we had been born as spanners. We were just ordinary people who wanted to live simple, peaceful lives and wanted nothing more than to leave the world a better place than we had found it. Henry wondered if our gift, or curse, had been just a naturally occurring, random mutation or if the cards dealt to us had been consciously handed out by a higher power, and as we went back over our lives, searching for similarities that might give us a clue, we came up with a few: we were both left handed, we were both fairly antisocial, and we both had a strong faith in a conscious and loving God. But, so what? Anyone who had spent a lifetime with a demon at his side couldn’t help but harbor a faith in a higher power. In other words, we agreed, seeing was believing.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six: Waldo Saves the Day

 

We were north of Sacramento when I thought of trying Abbey’s number again. Henry offered to let me use his cell, so I exited the freeway when we reached Woodland, and when we spotted a hardware store, Henry suggested that he, Gary and Waldo could go shopping for some mud’d collecting equipment while I made my call. After they had gone in, I dialed her number, but the phone went to voice-mail after six rings. Instead of leaving a message, I hung up and climbed out of the truck to stretch and say hi to the shadow-demon in back.

“Hey Sparkzilla. How’s stuff?” I put my hand on the miskreants shoulder and jerked away quickly with five burnt fingertips. “Ow! What’s . . . ?” Following his gaze up to the sky, I saw that twelve more brakken had joined the first six. They were circling around and glaring down, and as my eyes adjusted to the bright sky, I spotted five more flying in from the north. My shoulders slumped and my stomach tightened as they slowly descended. A deep, rumbling growl began to rise up out of Sparkles as he stood up with his fists clenched, his pitch-black surface beginning to fracture and radiate a deep shade of crimson and orange.

When the brakken reached the tree-tops, they spread out and circled the truck in a wide arc, never taking their eyes off Sparkles. I withdrew my Squirt-Gun of Suffering and tested it on the ground to find it still in working order. “Sparkles, please don’t let them take me,” I whispered as I joined the miskreant in the back of the truck. My heart was beating hard and I was drenched in sweat. My hands were shaking, and to keep my knees from buckling, I had to lean against the back of the cab.

“This is not good, Sparkles.” In case he hadn’t heard, I declared again, “This is not good.” But judging by the low rumblings coming from inside him, Sparkles felt the same way.

Patiently and methodically, the brakken continued to tighten their circle until, one-by-one, they dropped out of the sky and disappeared behind nearby cars, and as they slowly crept forward, they began to make the most awful retching, pulsating staccato vocalizations. Panic began to take hold when I realized they were coordinating their attack, and seeing no avenue for escape, I spun around several times as they moved closer. There were too many even for the miskreant, and it quickly became apparent that at least half were going to attack Sparkles while the rest grabbed me and carried me away, and although a victory appeared impossible, we were not going down without a fight.

The first ones came into view from behind a nearby minivan, and I could see right away these were nothing like the brakken we had encountered before. Even in the bright light of day, these phantoms were phasing in and out of reality and didn’t seem entirely real. Their grayish black bodies, fading and flickering in and out of existence, seemed to violate the laws of nature.

With hands and arms tingling, I had the overwhelming sense of watching the scene unfold from far away. I was in a hazy, disjointed dream where a vile swarm of brakken were tightening the noose in the middle of a sweltering parking lot, and it was going to be the last thing I would ever see on Earth. I also thought it somewhat odd that the image of an uninteresting array of vehicles, all parked in neat rows, suddenly seemed so beautiful and so fleeting.

“Okay, Sparkles, here we . . .”

Before I could finish, two brakken slammed into Sparkles from behind. He spun and reached around to pull them off when he was hit by a third that knocked him sideways. Still on his feet, the miskreant grabbed the third one by the head and crushed it in his hand before slinging the writhing, screeching beast at the next incoming cluster. Spinning wildly through the air, the severely wounded brakken smashed into the group, sending all of them careening backwards. A fourth one landed on Sparkles, and then a fifth, but he remained upright, his skin becoming perceptively brighter and more fractured as a dark, flickering smoke started to rise out of him.

I fired my squirt-gun out into the approaching swarm, and the repellent made contact with six individuals who shrieked maniacally as they burst into flames and fled back to the sky. Firing again, I hit another one in its open mouth, causing its head to burst into flames. It immediately rose up into the sky, writhing and shrieking.

Before I could fire at the next four, something slammed into me from behind, and I lost my footing as my squirt-gun was knocked out of the truck. The world spun and my ears rang as powerful, sticky hands pinned me against the hot steel of the truck bed. Another set of hands grabbed my ankles, and I tried in vain to pull free.

Sparkles drove his fist deep into the face of one of his attackers, and as he continued to turn a brighter shade of red-orange, he tore the head off one brakken and another, and then another. He punched, snapped and shredded them in disassembly-line fashion as they came forward. And as he cut through the oncoming river of hate like a hot knife through butter, he started moving faster and faster until his hands were nothing but a blur. He bashed at them and tossed them away like rags, and with each one he disabled, Sparkles let out an eerie, mournful cry that made me want to weep. He hated what he was being forced to do.

When the front end of the truck lurched up at a steep angle and the back rose until we leveled off, I knew we were airborne. The brakken were going to take the entire truck with us on board, and as we began to rise higher, I strained desperately to free myself from my captors, but their grips were like steel. I twisted and writhed but could not move. Sparkles grabbed two more, and before they knew what had hit them, he smashed their heads together and flung them overboard.

Down in the parking lot, I heard Gary let out a war-cry. Waldo and Henry were shouting too. A moment later, as the sounds of fighting rose up, the truck lurched to a stop in mid-air, and when it lurched again, we began to drop. The clang of metal-on-metal and the sickening clunk of metal on bone were followed with a chorus of screeching and wailing, and seeing my captors momentarily distracted, I spasmed with all my strength and was able to pull myself free from their hold. Reaching up and wrapping both hands around the neck of the nearest one, I squeezed with all my might as I locked eyes with the thing. Dearly wishing to look away, I continued to squeeze down until the beast opened its ghastly mouth in a silent disapproval. My second attacker wrapped its arm around my neck and tried to pull me free, but I would not let go. I squeezed my thumbs deep into its clammy neck until a black ooze began to flow from its mouth and over my fingers, and I couldn’t help but gag at the acrid stench. With my air supply officially cut off, I began to black out but refused to let go, and as my vision faded, the arm around my neck let go as Sparkles lifted my attacker up and bashed its head against the top of the cab. The beast went limp, and after Sparkles snapped its neck, he tossed it away, and it spun out of sight.

Three more dropped out of the sky, almost knocking Sparkles from the truck. Staggering backward, he caught himself on the rail before reversing direction and tearing into them.

Seeing the effect I was having on my opponent, I continued to squeeze its neck until its eyes bulged and its nose and mouth oozed even more freely, emitting an aroma of rotten death. Gasping for air, the demon reached down and clamped both claws around my neck and squeezed, and again, my vision began to fade. Knowing I was out of time, I pushed my thumbs down into its throat with all my strength until it loosened its grip. I then slammed its head into the bed of the truck repeatedly until it seemed mostly unconscious.

Two more brakken dropped out of the sky and hit Sparkles, sending the pile of them tumbling off the back and out of sight. I was on my own.

“Oh, no . . .” I suddenly had the sensation of being in an express elevator when the truck rapidly rose straight up into the sky. Seconds later, our ascension stopped and we started heading in a westerly direction, and the sounds of fighting below began to fade into the distance. I released my opponent and leaned over to see Sparkles tearing into nine more in a flurry of fists and feet. The remaining, uninjured brakken, realizing I had been successfully separated from my guardian, broke away from the miskreant and rose up to assist with carrying the truck, and as the Harvester and I were carried away, the assault I expected never came. My kidnappers knew I wouldn’t dare jump, and they probably had orders to deliver me unharmed because I had knowledge the Fallen would be eager to retrieve.

Far below, Sparkles bashed through fences and scaled buildings in an attempt to keep up, while farther back, I could see that Gary and Waldo were chasing after me but weren’t making the same kind of progress. Farther still, back in the parking lot, Henry was waving good-bye, so I waved back. Even from such a distance, I could see that he was holding a shovel covered with thick, black, brakken ooze, and I made a mental note to thank him for his help if we ever met again, but that wasn’t looking too likely.

 

If I had not been on my way to a certain doom, I would have really enjoyed the view above Woodland, but since my immediate future seemed so bleak, there was no way to put a positive spin on the situation. Whoever had sent these brakken after me could very well have the know-how to rip the knowledge of eck from my mind, one way or another, and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of torture devices the Fallen might use on human beings who refused to cooperate. But I expected they would be quite creative when it came to efficient information extraction.

In desperation, I searched for a body of water to jump into, but I knew that at such a height, my fall would most likely mean certain death, but maybe certain death was the preferred option. I wanted to kick myself for dropping my squirt gun. If I still had it, I could have burned these guys to a crisp, and they would have peeled away in hot, flaming agony until there weren’t enough of them to keep me aloft, and the truck would slowly drift back down to the ground. But it was not to be.

Then I remembered the gun I had given to Henry and wondered if he had actually taken it into the store. I didn’t remember seeing him put it in his pocket, so maybe he had set it on the seat or the floorboard. I peaked through the window but couldn’t see it. The rear window was narrow, but I might just fit through. I didn’t dare try climbing around through the door because the brakken underneath the truck would spot me and quickly put an end to my shenanigans. The squeeze through the window turned out to be incredibly snug, and as I squirmed and wriggled my way into the cab, I promised myself that if I ever made it home, I would give a healthier lifestyle some serious thought. Stupid Charles always set a terrible example. Just because he was having waffles didn’t mean I should have them too. It was his fault I was out of shape, and if we were to ever meet again, we were going to have a serious talk.

Grunting quietly several times, I was finally able to pull myself through, and as carefully and quietly as I could, I tumbled down onto the seat, causing the truck to list to one side. I grimaced at my reckless action and held my breath as I waited for one or more of my captors to fly up to investigate, but none appeared.

My heart skipped a beat when I spotted Henry’s squirt-gun under the seat. I grabbed it and sat up, my heart beating faster at the thought of another fight. There had to be at least fourteen brakken carrying the truck, but I had a squirt gun full of liquid fire.

I gently pushed down on the passenger lock and rolled up the window until it squeaked about halfway up. I cringed and braced for an attack, but still, none came. Not daring to roll it up any more, I turned around and slid the rear window closed until it shut with a light click. After locking it, I slid over to the driver’s seat and took several deep breaths while I tried to stop my hands from shaking.

We were already out beyond the city limit, flying over mostly farmland, so in the event of a crash landing, the truck probably wouldn’t land in traffic or on a house. I looked back but didn’t see any sign of Sparkles, Gary or Waldo, not that they could help anyway, not unless they could grow wings.

The truck seemed to be rising higher, so I couldn’t afford to wait. That first step was a doozy, and I didn’t want it to get any doozy-er. If I could just set enough of them on fire, the most likely outcome would be that the truck would come crashing down pretty hard. On that thought, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to buckle my seat belt, even if it was the old, over-the-lap style with no shoulder harness. I fastened it, cinched it up and took five deep breaths. What I would have given to see any kind of lake or pond up ahead that might absorb the impact even a little, but I did spot, right in our path, an enormous stack of hay bails, and it appeared we would be directly over it in a matter of seconds, so there was no time for delay.

I gently opened the driver’s side door, and although it had not squeaked before, it groaned loudly. I looked down at the same instant the brakken beneath me looked up, and we made eye contact.

As I fumbled with the squirt-gun and took aim, the brakken screeched out the alarm, so while its mouth was open wide, I gave it a sample of Pock’s home-made, country-style demon-repellent, and my aim was spot on. The repellent went straight down its throat, and the demon flared up from the inside out. It was a beautiful sight to behold as the creature dropped away from the truck, burning, twisting and shrieking in agony. The Harvester lurched downward, and we dropped for several seconds before the remaining brakken were able to gain control. As soon as we stopped falling, I took aim at a second one and fired, hitting it in the shoulder. The beast flared up and careened away, spitting, writhing and screaming.

“Hey, this is too easy.”

I regretted my words as soon as I had uttered them. The sky went dark, and I looked up to see an enormous, pitch-black, snake-like creature passing in front of the sun. It slithered through the sky like it was swimming through water as it closed in fast, and with the exception of two glowing eyes and a long, undulating silhouette of a body, it was featureless. To avoid being eaten, I leaned as far right as I could an instant before it bit the driver’s side door off the cab, causing the truck to spin around and tip wildly.

Grabbing the steering wheel tightly with both hands, I closed my eyes and whispered, “Please, not yet. I want to live now.”

The truck performed a complete barrel roll before the brakken were able to regain control and get us back on course, and while upside down, I caught a glimpse of where we were headed. Up in the distance, an enormous, black hole leading into the side of a hill had come into view. I figured it was an access point to the labyrinth, and as soon as I spotted a dense, black soot rising out of it, I gasped and pleaded silently, “No, no, no. Please, no.”

We were directly over the haystack, so I leaned out and fired at another brakken, then another and another, and each one quickly flared up before dropping away, screeching with rage and agony. As we started to drop, the truck flipped over, and I took aim at another one on the driver’s side, but it ducked out of sight before I could fire.

A deafening explosion of breaking glass and steel cracked the air, and the truck lurched again as the snake tore the passenger door off. As the truck rolled, another brakken was flung into view. I took aim and fired, but the wind and the rapid spiraling motion of the Harvester caused me to miss.

Without enough brakken to keep the Harvester airborne, we continued to spin and tumble out of control. I couldn’t make sense of up or down as I clung to the steering wheel, and as we continued to gain speed with each passing second, I became more and more convinced that the impending crash landing was going to be fairly unpleasant.

Spinning faster and faster, all I could make out through the windshield was a blur of haystacks, horizon, sky, upside-down horizon, haystacks, horizon and sky. And as I braced for impact, I closed my eyes and whispered, “Okay, but please, God, make it quick.”

We landed wheels-down, and I was slammed into the seat as my head was bashed into the steering wheel. And before I lost consciousness, the last thing I remember was a chorus of wet, grating, victory shrieks in my ears as sticky, cold hands reached in and pulled me out. Every fiber in my being wanted to fight back. I wanted to tear into them. I wanted to kill them. But my vision blurred and I blacked out.

 

Regaining partial consciousness, I sensed my body being carried overland toward the cave entrance until my lungs were assailed by an overwhelming stench of death. I opened my eyes to a vision of hideous faces grinning down at me as I was pulled and tussled about, but with no control of my arms or legs, I couldn’t kick, punch, bite or dig my nails into them. There was no way to prevent them from carrying me down into that hole. Helpless, I closed my eyes and despaired.

Seconds passed, and the world around me darkened. Believing I had been taken underground, I forced my eyes open once more to see millions of birds swooping out of the sky from every direction. Shrieks of outrage erupted from the thirty or forty brakken who were carrying me. They let go of me and shot up to the sky to greet their attackers, and as much as I wanted to bear witness to the start of such a battle, my brain had other plans and shut down completely.

 

I awoke flat on my back with a pounding headache. Most of the sky was filled with the squawks, caws and cries of what looked to be millions of very agitated birds and the outraged screeches and shrieks of several hundred brakken. A vast flock of ravens was diving and spiraling about in every direction, clawing and pecking at the demons, while high above, the sky-snake twirled, twisted and contorted itself in a desperate attempt to outmaneuver a vast swarm of blackbirds, so numerous and agile that they had engulfed the snake and were mercilessly clawing, pecking and scolding it. The snake’s roar shook the air, but the blackbirds were not to be deterred and refused to let it escape as they continued tearing into it with an ever increasing ferocity.

The crows and ravens, assisted by a smattering of hawks, jays and pigeons, continued to relentlessly tear at the brakken until, one by one, the demons began to break away and flee down towards the safety of the labyrinth. On their way past, they didn’t try to grab me. Judging by the looks in their eyes, they were far too overwhelmed and exhausted to even bother with one little mortal. Little did they know, I was dizzy with a concussion, and two of them could have easily overpowered me and dragged me on down.

Wincing at the welt on my forehead, I tried to will myself back to full consciousness. Thinking it wise to get out of their escape path, I staggered to my feet and stumbled away from the entrance, but since the area was nothing but grass and hills in every direction, I had no adequate place to hide. Instead, I reached for Henry’s squirt-gun to find I had lost it. With no other means to defend myself, I found a small boulder and picked it up, and as the world continued to spin, I thought it best to sit down and make myself less conspicuous while the battle continued.

I couldn’t help but feel a profound sense of joy and awe over what I was witnessing. I had always loved birds, but never before had I felt such a profound kinship and gratitude towards them.

Eight more brakken gave up the fight and swooped down towards the cave entrance, and as they flew past, they noticed me, and to my dismay, decided to take me with them. As they closed in, I raised my rock, bared my teeth and hissed, “Come on!”

Unfortunately, they didn’t buy my bluff, and before I could stand up and run, all eight were on top of me, clamping their jagged talons around my arms and legs. I cried out and was able to land only a few punches before being subdued, and as I was lifted up into the air, I cried out a second time, but my voice was lost in the clamor.

Seconds later, something smashed into our hovering ensemble, sending the lot of us careening back to the ground. I looked up to see Sparkles sliding to a stop in a cloud of dust, and as he turned to face my captors, the shock-wave he had created in his wake, caught up to him. The sudden sight of the shadow-demon combined with the wall of compressed air was enough to cause the brakken to drop me, but it was too late for negotiations, and after grabbing two of them and smashing their heads together hard enough to fuse, Sparkles grabbed two more and stuffed the head of one down the throat of the other. And when he cracked the fifth over his knee, pulled the head of the sixth clean off and handed it to the one with the brakken stuck in its mouth, the last two had seen enough and fled for the cave.

Sparkles didn’t appear to be in a merciful mood because he quickly caught them and disfigured them both almost beyond recognition. I watched in amazement as all eight staggered, stumbled and fell repeatedly in their attempt to reach the entrance. The two with their heads fused together had a particularly difficult time navigating the uneven terrain.

Seeing I was out of immediate danger, Sparkles approached to give me a thorough inspection, so I greeted him with, “Nice moves, big guy . . . Hey, you’re hurt.”

He was covered in claw and bite marks from head to toe, but they were perceptively shrinking away before my eyes.

“Nice trick.” I suggested, “Maybe you can teach me how to do that some time.”

Without saying a word, he dashed away to the cave entrance where he crouched down and waited, and as another brakken flew past, he jumped high into the air, caught it, snapped its neck and dropped it to the ground like a rag, and with its head bent far over to one side, the brakken stood up in a bewildered daze and blinked at Sparkles before staggering on down into the tunnel.

Sparkles quickly caught another one and snapped the neck until its head was upside down and facing backwards. It simply blinked in complete astonishment at Sparkles before staggering away into the darkness like a drunken pirate.

I was simultaneously in awe and fear of his herculean strength. The fight must have put him into a kind of overdrive, transforming him into some kind of a demonic berserker, and when the last twenty brakken had witnessed what Sparkles could do, they fled up into the foothills with an enormous cloud of angry ravens hot on their tail. Higher up, the blackbirds continued to give the sky-snake a terrible time. They weren’t offering any mercy or opportunity for escape, and try as it might, the giant could not break free. Sparkles raced out and positioned himself directly under the snake, and looking up like a hungry wolf, he waited patiently for the snake to fall within reach.

With my wits slowly returning and confidence restored, curiosity got the better of me, so I made my way back down to the cave entrance to have a look inside. While I could see absolutely nothing, I could hear whispering coming from far below. It wasn’t clear, but when I heard my name uttered, a chill shot down my spine, and I quickly backed away. And when someone or something again whispered my name, the sound of its voice filled me with renewed dread. Knowing perfectly well what they were after, I feigned ignorance by asking, “What do you want?”

The voice was barely audible, and the words came slowly and concisely: “You. Will return . . . that. Which you. Have taken.

“Taken? I haven’t taken anything. I . . .”

“You. Will return. The miskreant.”

As I continued to back away, I asked, “Miskreant? What’s a miskreant?”

A chorus of hissing and howling and wailing exploded up out of the dark, and the voice threatened,“You. Do not. Want. This path.”

While continuing to back away, I argued, “I don’t know, I-I kind of like this path.” I squeezed my hands together tightly to keep them from shaking.

After a brief silence, a horrible rage began deep and low before increasing in frequency and fury as it rose up from below, and as my mind and soul were assaulted, I covered my ears in vain to try to block out the onslaught.

The voice whispered, “Do you. Wish. To live. In fear?”

The seething chorus in combination with that voice burned at my mind and caused me to stagger. Steeling myself, I forced down the tears and asked, “Fear? F-f-from you? Th-that’s pretty f-funny.” My voice wouldn’t stop shaking. I dearly wanted to find even the smallest amount of courage, but dread and hatred were in control. Speaking slowly and calmly, I asked, “You-you want Sparkles? Why don’t you-you come . . . why don’t you come out and-and get him yourself?” I fired a rock into the cave and asked, “Or are y-you a bunch of-of-of . . . cowards?”

The air around me began to rush towards the entrance, and the ground began to shake, just a tremor at first, then quickly increasing in strength until the world spasmed and knocked me to the ground. The wind rose into a gale which soon became strong enough to roll me over, and in no time, I was rolling helplessly towards the entrance. Clawing at the dry grass for a hand-hold and finding none, I searched desperately for a rock or maybe even a rabbit-hole, all the while, wishing I had kept my big yap shut.

The force of the wind grew exponentially stronger, and finding nothing to stop my forward momentum and blinded by dust, I approached the entrance, rolling faster and faster.

“Somebody! Help me!”

As I shouted the words, I felt a hand wrap tightly around my wrist, and someone yelled, “Gotcha!”

I stopped rolling, and my feet rose up into the wind as two more hands grabbed my other wrist. Forcing myself to open my eyes, I saw Gary and Waldo struggling to pull me away from the entrance. Tightly grabbing their wrists and holding on for dear life, I tried to keep my head down. Together, they took one step and then another, and as we moved farther from the mouth of the cave, the wind subsided until my feet were back on the ground. Then without warning, the wind dropped away to nothing, and the three of us stumbled forward.

A moment later, a chorus of death rose up out of the cave as two towering shadows appeared at the entrance. Before they reached the sunlight, they stopped. The shorter one was missing its left hand, and I surmised it to be the Fallen who had tried to abduct me at Mono Lake. These were the ones who had taken Adolfo. Even in the shadows, the giants ghastly features could be discerned, and their eyes were filled with a pure, perfect hatred, but when they stepped forward into the light, I reflexively averted my gaze. Not wanting them to see my weakness, I wrapped my arms around myself to try to stop the shaking and forced myself to look up, and my nerves were steadied when I saw their bodies smoldering in the direct sunlight. These beasts had weaknesses of their own. They were not gods; they were merely demons.

Hissing in unison, they declared,“So be it. Mortal. You’ve made. Your choice.” Their voices were like acid in my mind, and I had to resist the instinct to to turn and flee. What could be the reason for the existence of such obscenities? Why had they ever been given the gift of life?

As soon as they had spoken, Sparkles charged, but as he sailed through the air, both of them vanished, and the miskreant hurled down into the entrance and out of sight.

 

The world was suddenly calm. Far away, a cow let out one long, lowly moo, and I could hear the quiet drone of a jet high overhead. The giant snake had fled, and the blackbirds and ravens were moving across the evening sky towards a distant grove of eucalyptus trees, probably to rest and tend to their wounds, while all across the hillside lay the bodies of countless birds who had not been so fortunate.

“Oh no, it’s closing!” Gary rushed the entrance, calling back, “We have to get him out!”

As the cave entrance started to close, we could hear renewed wailings and shrieks of agony erupting from inside. Sparkles must have been creating a bit of a ruckus in there,but I knew he needed to get out right away, so remembering the whistle Pock had given me, I withdrew it and blew into it, and as expected, it produced no sound. I blew again and again, but Sparkles didn’t reappear, so I filled my lungs and blew as long as I could.

The entrance was half its original size when Gary reached it. He jumped high but couldn’t reach the lower edge, and when he landed, he cupped his mouth and cried out, “Sparkles! Get out of there!”

Waldo and I reached the entrance seconds later and could only watch helplessly as it continued to shrink. Sparkles’ head finally appeared in the entrance. His eyes had gone dim, and we knew immediately he was in trouble. From behind him, hundreds of emaciated hands grabbed and clawed at him in an attempt to pull him back in. Sparkles turned and threw a whirlwind of punches into the darkness until he was overwhelmed and disappeared once more.

His eyes wild with fear, Gary looked to me and stammered, “What do we-we-we do! I-I-I don’t . . . I don’t . . . !”

Seeing him start to panic caused me to do the same. I couldn’t think straight, and even if I could, there was nothing to do but watch the door between us and Sparkles close, splitting us apart probably forever.

“Gary!” I slapped him in the face. “Hey! We need to focus! Please!”

But Gary was rambling complete gibberish, and I wasn’t sure if he was speaking in another language or if he had just blown a fuse, so I turned to Waldo and said as calmly as I could, “We can’t lose him. Please help.”

Waldo looked into my eyes and then up at the closing door. He closed his eyes, grimaced and groaned and confessed, “I-I-I . . . I can get him out.” He grabbed Gary by the shoulders, shook hard and shouted, “Hey! You two have to get me up there! Come back!”

As soon as Waldo slapped Gary’s face, Gary stopped babbling and blinked several times, and after he was himself, he grabbed Waldo’s shoulder, arguing, “No! You can’t go in there! They’ll tear you to pieces!”

Waldo had tears in his eyes when he explained, “Gary, I . . . I-I’m a ticker, and I . . .” He grimaced again. “I’ve got less than a year left.” His voice cracked. “I suppose this is as good a day as any, huh?”

Gary searched Waldo’s eyes. “A ticker? But they’re extinct. You-you-you’re making that up.”

Waldo shook his head. “I’m not extinct yet. Now get me up there before I change my mind.”

Gary locked his fingers together to form a stirrup, and I did the same, and after Waldo put his hands on our shoulders, we lifted him as high as we could until he reached up and grabbed the lip of the entrance. He looked down and said, “Please tell Henry . . . tell him I’m sorry.” And as soon as we both nodded, Waldo pirouetted around to face us and started swinging his legs. And in five swings, he had gained enough momentum and altitude to flip all the way up, around and down into the darkness.

With arms wrapped around my shoulders, I groaned, “What have we done? He’ll die in there.”

“Nobody dies, Gordo, you know tha . . .”

The flash and subsequent concussion erupting out of the entrance knocked us both backwards through the air. We landed, bounced, tumbled and came to rest in time to see Sparkles shoot out of the labyrinth not unlike a four-legged missile. He sailed out across the sky and didn’t return to Earth until he was out past the Harvester, and when he tried to land at a full sprint, he lost his balance, rolled, skidded and rolled some more before coming to a complete stop.

When Sparkles didn’t get up or even move, Gary tore out after him as the last remnant of the cave shrank away to a point and vanished. Still reeling from a possible concussion and half blinded by dust, I carefully shuffled and stumbled down the hill after him and had not gone far before coming across a young crow with a broken wing. It was jumping about in an attempt to get airborne and seeing me approach, he cawed as if requesting some assistance, or maybe he was warning me to keep my distance. I thought a moment about wringing his neck so he wouldn’t suffer, but we were on the same team, and I wasn’t about to euthanize an ally. Instead, I decided to try to coax him into following me.

Kneeling down in the grass near my injured comrade, I clicked my tongue, but the crow tilted his head at me as if to say, “I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that.” He flapped his good wing and hopped several hops in my direction, which I expected was more out of curiosity than anything else.

“Hey, little guy . . . or girl.” I clicked again.

The bird stopped and looked me in the eye, first with his left and then with his right, but when I put my hand out, he jumped back and scolded me with one loud caw.

“You know,” I explained, “if you stay out here with that bum wing, you’re going to get eaten. Do you want to get eaten? Well, do you?”

The crow seemed to ponder my question a moment before flapping his wings, rising up in the air and dropping back to Earth. I stood up, casually walked over and tried to grab him, but he was having none of it. He jumped out of reach before giving me a good tongue lashing, so I tried again but was scolded just as severely.

“Well shoot, maybe I can’t help you. Coyotes have to eat too, I guess. Do you want to become coyote poop?”

It seemed a shame, with all of the dead birds everywhere, that the movements of a live one would attract any predator passing through the area. He would probably be the first one eaten.

“Okay, I’ll corral you over to Gary. Maybe he can talk some sense into you.”

With arms opened wide and a great deal of effort, I was able to maneuver the bird out towards Sparkles and Gary. And by the time we reached the truck, the bird was fed up with me. Hopping over to Sparkles, who had regained consciousness, it flew up on his shoulder where it proceeded to give me another vigorous earful. Sparkles gave the bird no notice whatsoever. Seeming somewhat wobbly for a miskreant, he remained seated in the grass while nursing his hand with what I presumed was invisible demon spit, but I couldn’t be sure.

Pointing an accusing finger at the crow, I grumped, “You ingrate.”

So Gary asked, “Why is he an ingrate?”

Squinting my disdain at the bird, I explained, “I try to save him and all he does is yell at me.”

The crow continued to caw at me, but from the protection of Sparkles’ shoulder, he did so less vigorously.

Gary went over and, while gently stroking the top of the crow’s head with three fingers, he asked, “Can we keep him?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I doubt it, but I guess it’s up to him. He sure seems content up there.”

Gary leaned in until he had eye contact with the bird and spoke softly: “You want to go with us? Huh?” Looking up, he declared, “His name’s Maven.”

I wrinkled my nose and scratched at my head. “Maven? . . . Maven the Crow?”

Gary chuckled. “No, dingus. Maven the raven. He’s a raven.”

So I was forced to disagree: “Naw, that’s a crow.”

Gary disagreed right back at me: “He’s too big to be a crow, and you see that purple sheen on his wings? Ravens have that.”

So I argued, “Nuh-uh. He’s a crow.”

“Huh-uh. He’s a raven. Why do you think his name’s Maven?”

I was too tired and dizzy to argue the point, for all the good it would do, and as I tried to sit down, I tumbled to the ground and declared, “Oh, I don’t feel so good.” Touching the massive knot on my forehead, I decided to lie down before I passed out. Once horizontal, I groaned and moaned in the hopes of getting some sympathy, but nobody seemed to care.

Gary finally came over and gave me a cursory inspection. “Hmm. You don’t look too good either. Maybe you should see a doctor.”

Grateful for the attention, I squinted up and replied, “I think I just need to lie here a while.” Sniffing at the air and wrinkling my nose, I asked, “Why are you covered in stickers and cow poo?” Giving him a closer inspection, I added, “And you’re all wet.”

He nodded. “Yeah, we had to cross a canal to get out here. Sparkles had no problem jumping it, but I didn’t quite make it to the other side.”

“Mmm, darn, well thanks for coming to my rescue.”

“You’re quite welcome.” Gary thought a moment. “Henry’s still back in town. We’ve got to go get him and let him know what happened to his . . . um, to Waldo.”

“Yeah, right.” I felt my head again and added, “Ow. Um, I hope I still have his phone.” I felt my pocket and found his cell, and as I pulled it out, it rang, so I hit the answer button and held it to my ear. “Uh, Hello?”

“Hey, Gordo! Good Lord! Are you guys okay?”

“Hi Henry. Well, I’ve been better. I took a nice bump to the noggin, and it’s a little sore, but . . .”

“Thank Heavens!” Exhaling into the phone, he continued, “I don’t even know my own number and had to call my daughter to get it, and wouldn’t you know? I couldn’t remember her number either . . . Hey, remember when we had to memorize phone numbers? We’re just too reliant on computers these days, I tell you . . . Well, so after you guys went off into the sky, like you did? I couldn’t believe that! What a sight! You getting carried away in the truck by those-those things? Ugh. Man, they’re so ugly! I never would have guessed. So after you flew away? I had to go back in and try to find a phone. Well, at first they told me I needed to use the pay-phone, but when I told them I didn’t have any way to make a call, and could I please use their phone for just two minutes, they still wouldn’t let me. But fortunately, one of the managers was passing by and overheard me trying to explain my dilemma, and he let me use the phone in his office, and I was able to call my daughter, and she gave me my number so I could call you. The manager’s name is Floyd, Floyd DePuy; he’s a good guy. He got me coffee, and it was strong. Can you tell?”

Holding the phone up so Gary could hear, I put it back to my ear and replied, “Yeah, Henry, you sound like you’re wide awake. Ow. Look, I don’t know how we’re going to get back to town. The truck took a little tumble and it’s ruined, so . . .”

“No it’s not.” Gary wiped his nose on his sleeve, then his sleeve on his pants.

“Huh?” I looked up and argued, “Yes it is. It got chewed up by a sky-snake. Then it fell out of the sky, Gare. It’s broke.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s still running.” He sniffed hard, making that disgusting air-sucking-snot noise before continuing: “I started it up when you were out there harassing that poor bird.”

“I wasn’t harassing it. I was saving it.”

“Uh-huh?” He sniffed again. “Well, it’s running, and we can get it down by building a ramp out of those hay-bails.”

My head throbbing nicely, I asked, “Ow. Henry, did you hear all that?”

“Yeah. No hurry here. Floyd says I can use his office as long as I need, and he has every issue of Nat-Geo from the past forty years in his collection, and I haven’t looked at a single one in over seven years. I really shouldn’t have canceled it, but you know, I was starting to develop a bit of a hoarding problem, and the wife says to me, she says, ‘Henry, you’re a hoarder, and it needs to stop,’ so that was one of the things that had to go, along with twenty-two other subscriptions, including Stained Glass Quarterly, Civil War Times and my whole collection of Kite Life. Did you know the largest kite ever flown was nine-hundred and fifty square meters in area? I bet you . . .”

“Henry, I have to tell you something. It’s about Waldo.”

There was silence on the phone. “Yeah? How is he?”

“Well, I’m not sure. Did he ever tell you he was a ticker?”

“What? No. What’s a ticker? And what do you mean was?

“I’m not really sure, um, Henry? He’s gone. He-he sacrificed himself to save Sparkles. He didn’t have to, and well, he’s a hero, Henry . . . Ow.”

There was another long silence on the other end. “He’s gone? But, I don’t understand.”

“He went down into the labyrinth, and we didn’t see what happened, but I think he-he detonated himself, and the explosion knocked Sparkles back out to the surface.”

“Labyrinth? L-look son, if you’re funning me, I don’t think it’s very amusing.”

“I wouldn’t joke about this, Henry, I’m really sorry. Look, my head is killing me, and I have to lie down before I black out. We’ll pick you up as soon as we can, okay? It might be a while. I-I can’t think straight.”

Still more silence. Then: “Yeah yeah, okay, take your time, Gordo. I’ll, uh, I’ll be in Floyd’s office.”

“Okay, We’ll see you in a while.”

I hung up and sighed heavily. “Ah, Gary, I’m so tired.” I dropped down into the grass and fell fast asleep.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Great Collapse

 

In my dream, I was in low orbit around what seemed to be a glittering galaxy of people, perhaps a hundred billion strong, possibly over a trillion. With everyone zipping about like electrons, I expected they couldn’t hold still even if they wanted to. By the tens of millions, many were shooting straight up from the top of the galaxy in a narrow stream on their way up above the atmosphere and out into space, while many millions more were rushing down along the same path.

How could I possibly know so many people? And how was it that they were all such close friends? I felt like a child again. My worries were gone, but I couldn’t help wondering what we were all doing gathered together inside a vast sphere of light. And why were all these dead people in such a hurry?After all, if we were dead, wasn’t it time to slow down and enjoy the moment?

A woman rushing past must have heard my thoughts because she stopped to tell me about the work that had to be finished before the end of time. And when I asked her what would happen at the end of time, she said she wasn’t sure, but it was going to be bigger and better than anything that had come before. And when I told her I recognized her from Earth, she looked at me carefully and said she remembered me too. She had wished that we could have been friends, but her son’s disappearance had destroyed her and she had blamed me, and as she hurried away, she called back,“Mortals are such silly creatures, aren’t they?”

 

I woke under a perfect twilight sky, and the brightest stars were starting to appear. Venus and Jupiter were showing off high in the west, and a gleaming pinpoint of a satellite was gliding by overhead, while a light smattering of cumulus clouds on the western horizon looked as though they had been set on fire. To top it off, all across the hillside, a hundred-thousand crickets were happily chirping to each other in perfect harmony. Taking it all in was exactly what I needed to find my bearings. Henry was waiting, but I didn’t want to move just yet. I needed to be still a little longer.

After a few minutes, I took a deep breath and sat up to find my brain still throbbing against my skull. I got to my feet to find the Harvester parked nearby. Gary must have single-handedly built a ramp, or more like a stairway, out of hay bales and rolled the truck down off the top. Thanks to the stupid sky-snake, the doors were gone, but it still looked drivable.

“Good job, Gare.” I yawned, rubbed my face, touched the bump on my head and grumped, “Ow.”

Gary was talking to Sparkles with his back to me, and all I heard was ‘chocolate-chip’, ‘burnt’, ‘kool-aid’, ‘hot dogs’ and ‘reciprocating saw’, but not wanting to risk getting him started. I decided not to ask.

He turned around and asked, “Huh?”

“Getting the truck down. Good job.” I pointed at the Harvester.

“Oh, yeah. The ride down was kind of bumpy, and I almost flipped over . . .” He chuckled and added, “ . . . but it worked.”

Sparkles looked as though he had completely recovered. The light in his eyes had returned to their former brilliance, and he looked as solid as stone. He even appeared to have grown some more in just the last few hours. Maven was still perched on his shoulder, and I couldn’t help but be amused to notice that every time Sparkles groomed even the tiniest bit, the raven groomed himself as well.

I reluctantly asked Gary to drive us back to town, and of course, he eagerly accepted the task.

We both expected Maven would panic and abandon us when Sparkles jumped in back, but the bird hung on and only flapped his wings twice to keep his balance. Why he looked at me when he cawed was a mystery. I had done absolutely nothing to offend the bird in quite some time, but I guess Maven didn’t see it that way.

Hoping to find the squirt-gun, I made a quick sweep of the area with no luck. And once we were loaded up, I searched around for the seat-belt to find it had been torn away by the sky-snake, curse that thing wherever it was. On second thought, I withdrew my sky-snake curse. Maybe the sky-snake wasn’t so terrible. Maybe it was cursed like the miskreants and had been forced to attack us against its will. Maybe, deep down inside, the giant sky-snake was lonely and wanted to be friends. Then again, maybe my concussion was making me delusional.

 

We bumped, slid and bounced our way across open pasture until we reached a small, dirt road which Gary followed until we arrived at an unlocked gate. After I shut the gate behind us and climbed back in, Gary navigated the back roads this way and that, and after only a few wrong turns and a few more dead-ends, he got us back to town and back to the hardware store where our new friend was waiting out front. Henry stepped out to the curb and waved as we pulled up.

“Well, you’re a brave one, letting your demon drive.” Henry slapped the top of the cab and asked, “You want me to take over?”

I had been so preoccupied that I forgot about the risk of letting Gary drive all the way across town, and Gary was having too much fun to remind me. I licked my dry lips and accepted: “Oh, yeah. Thanks.” I could barely speak because I was so dehydrated.

Henry put the ooze covered shovel and two galvanized ash cans in back next to the buckets of galswallow, and after he tied them down, Gary and I slid over, and he climbed in. Once behind the wheel, he asked, “Who hungry?”

Gary and I both both nodded enthusiastically and replied in unison, “I am.”

Gary ordered pancakes, a Denver omelet and an extra side of hash-browns and, of course, more toast, even though his order already came with hash-browns and toast. Henry got the mushroom burger with fries and a glass of milk. I ordered bacon and eggs, over easy, and hash browns, and cheap food never tasted so good. I couldn’t scarf it down fast enough and chugged at least four large glasses of ice water before I started to feel re-hydrated, and I felt about a thousand percent better by the time we had finished. And as the last remnant of headache was fading away, I raised my water glass and made a toast: “To Waldo, for saving Sparkles and for protecting us. May we see him again someday.” It was lame, but at least it was something.

Both Gary and Henry raised their glasses, and after we all clinked, Henry looked down and twisted his napkin, and his voice broke when he admitted, “I-I-I . . . I’m going to . . . to miss him, the big lunk.” He wiped his eyes and asked, “What’s a ticker anyway?”

Gary blinked hard. “Um, I’ve only heard of them. Apparently when they reach a certain age, they just explode, you know? And it’s not a little explosion either. I heard they were designed for some unknown purpose but slowly mutated into tickers over time. I sure didn’t know they could go off at will, you know? Waldo sacrificed himself for Sparkles, and you should be proud.” Gary picked up his plate, and after licking the remaining scraps up with his massive, blue-gray tongue, he added, “Oh, and he said to tell you he was sorry.”

Henry frowned. “Sorry for what?” He looked down and smiled. “I’m not sorry. I’m proud of him. Because of Waldo, I’m the man that I am.”

I leaned back in my chair and declared, “We should be proud too. They failed. We’re still here.” I raised my glass again and toasted, “To us and to Charles. May he find his way home soon. We miss him, but don’t tell him I said that.”

After we clinked to Charles, Henry tried to pay the bill, but Gary wouldn’t hear of it, and after they argued for a while, Henry looked to me for guidance.

I shrugged and muttered, “Uh, you better let Gary pay, or he’ll get violent.”

Gary gasped and scolded, “No I won’t! I won’t get violent! Don’t tell him that, Gordo!” He looked at Henry and explained, “I’m not violent, ever.”

So after I apologized and set things straight, we headed outside. Still a little dizzy and exhausted, I knew it wasn’t a good idea for me to drive, so Henry offered to take the wheel. I happily accepted before climbing in back and flopping down next to Sparkles and Maven, and as we headed north up Highway 5 towards Mount Lassen, I put my hands behind my head and gazed up at a sky full of stars. And if there’s a better place to fall asleep than in the back of an old pickup, under a summer night’s sky, next to a big, scary shadow-demon, I don’t know about it.

 

Two hours later, we stopped in Red Bluff for gas. Gary told me later that while we were filling up, I sat up, looked in the cab and asked him if I could borrow his skateboard. I then dropped back down and went back to sleep. Well, I sure don’t remember that, but I think he was telling the truth.

 

We arrived at the front gate of Lassen Volcanic National Park just before sunrise. The cold, mountain air had brought me to consciousness a few minutes earlier. I was shivering when the truck stopped and had to huddle up next to Sparkles to keep my teeth from chattering, but he didn’t seem to mind. Maven, however, wasn’t pleased, and he flapped and cawed at me before accepting my intrusion and settling back down.

Henry had his lifetime senior pass in hand, but the toll booth had not yet opened, so we rolled on through.

Before heading into the park, we decided to stretch our legs at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor’s Center, and as we were climbing out, the parking lot and everything else started shaking. Searching the sky and then the surrounding area for any sign of trouble, I muttered, “Ah, not again.” But there was no sign of brakken, sky-snakes, Fallen or any other type of drakk-demons in sight.

A handful of other park visitors who had jumped out of their cars as the quake grew in magnitude, started recording the event with cameras and phones. After about a minute of shaking, debris began sliding and tumbling down off the steeper slopes. The landslides continued to grow in number and size as the earthquake intensified. Most of the other visitors seemed thrilled to be witnessing such a rare event in such an unusual location, but I didn’t feel any such joy. I wanted it to stop, and with each passing second, Henry, Gary and I became more unnerved. Several minutes passed, and the quake still refused to subside. Instead, it grew stronger. Another minute ticked by without letup, and another. The landslides continued to get bigger until large boulders, some as large as cars, began breaking loose and tumbling off the higher peaks.

Henry had to speak loudly to be heard: “I think it’s time to go, son! This is a volcano after all!”

The rumblings continued to grow more violent, and the sound became deafening. A moment later, the sky darkened out beyond the ridge as a plume of ash and rock shot up into the sky, quickly blocking out the daylight. High up on the ridge, a shower of rocks and ash began to rain back down in a cacophony that sounded like a train wreck. The dozen or so other spectators had seen enough, and they jumped in their cars and raced back down the highway towards the exit.

Henry and Gary, who had jumped back in the truck, motioned for me to get in, but in that moment, I was so dumbfounded by what was happening that I remained standing slack-jawed in awe and confusion, gawking up at the immense tower of ash rising higher into the sky.

It didn’t make sense. Just as we arrived, the volcano decides to erupt? What were the odds? Lassen had not had a major eruption in a century, and a major eruption at the very moment we show up was too much of a coincidence. I finally came to my senses, raced back to the truck, jumped in and exclaimed, “They knew we were coming here! The Fallen! Come on, we have to get to the mud-pots!”

Gary and Henry looked at me in disbelief, and Gary’s eyes were wide with fear when he argued, “Gord, we have to leave! Demons and volcanic ash don’t mix! And I’m pretty sure humans don’t fair too well in these conditions either!”

I shook my head. “I-It’s not far from here! And look, the wind is blowing most of the plume out to the east!”

Henry agreed with Gary: “We’re going to die if we stay here, son! That wind could shift at any second!”

I took several deep breaths and shook my head adamantly. “Guys, we have to get that mud’d!”

Without another word, Henry shifted into drive and headed us up the mountain, towards a tower of ash that was now climbing into the stratosphere. And when the world cracked and shook again as an even greater ash cloud that dwarfed the first shot skyward, Gary started muttering under his breath, “We’re going to die. We’re going to die. We’re going to die.”

Seeing the second ash cloud boiling up gave me second thoughts, but before I could utter any regret over my really, really bad idea, we arrived at the Sulfur Works parking lot. The wind changed direction, and the ash cloud rolled over us, the sky grew very dark and the hot ash began to cover everything in sight. Switching on the headlights, Henry turned on the windshield wipers, for all the good it did, and since he was running blind, he stopped the truck in the middle of the parking lot and declared, “I can’t see. We’ll have to continue on foot.” Dropping the stick into neutral and setting the parking brake, he covered his mouth and said, “Let’s go.”

“No, I’ll go while you turn around.” And before he could argue, I jumped out, grabbed a can and the shovel from the back and instructed, “If I’m not back in ten minutes, you have to . . . No, I can’t think like that. I’ll be back, I-I promise.” I grabbed Gary’s shoulder. “Gary, there’s a blue tarp behind the seat. You and Sparkles can hide under it.”

“Yeah, right.” Gary hopped out and fished around until he found the tarp, and once he had unfolded it, he threw it over Sparkles and Maven before crawling underneath.

I pulled my collar up over my mouth and trudged up the trail towards the springs. I could barely see where I was headed and was already coughing and didn’t even know where the mud pots would be or if we were in the correct area. The force of the eruptions continued to grow, and I dreaded the notion that they might just be a precursor to an even greater event, perhaps something like the cataclysm that had destroyed Mount Tehama some ten-thousand years ago.

Out in the darkness, up ahead, someone called out my name, but the eruptions were too loud, and I couldn’t understand the rest of the words. I cupped my hands together and shouted back, “What! I can’t hear you! Over here!”

Again, I heard some more yelling, but my name was all I could make out. My mind raced as to who or what it could possibly be. Then, wondering if it was another attack, I stopped in my tracks. I was alone without a squirt-gun and quite vulnerable. Uncertain about whether to continue on, I looked back to find Sparkles right in my face. I cried out and stumbled backwards, and as soon as my heart started beating again, I scolded, “Dang it, Sparkles! Please don’t do that!”

Still perched on Sparkles’ shoulder, Maven had his head tucked under his wing with his eyes closed. Sparkles, however, did not appear the least bit phased by the ash. He gave me a cursory glance before proceeding on up the mountainside towards the mud-pots or my death, whichever came first. We had not walked another ten steps when the voice again called out, “Gore-dough!” My name was followed by some more indecipherable jabber. It sounded like Charles, but I couldn’t get my head around the idea that he was nearby.

Shouting back, “Hey! Right here! Where are you!” I headed towards him.

As the roar of the eruptions rose to a din, Charles shouted again, so I shouted back and changed direction, and after stepping into a fumarole and burning my foot, I tripped and rolled downhill a good distance until my fall was cushioned by some large boulders. Grasping my knee in agony, I looked up to see Charles’ silhouette moving towards me. He stumbled forward, and when he spotted me, he stopped and asked, “Hey! What are you doing out here!”

I raised my hands for assistance, and after he lifted me to my feet, I shouted, “Thanks! We thought you were gone for good!”

Cupping his hand around his ear, Charles requested I repeat myself: “What!”

With my hands cupped around my mouth, I tried again: “We thought you were gone for good!

Charles shook his head. “No!” Then after pointing at himself, he explained, “I’m right here!”

“I can see that! That’s good!” I pointed at the driftwood stuck in his forehead and shouted, “Hey, you still have driftwood stuck in your head!”

Charles felt at the driftwood. “Yeah! It’s stuck in my head!”

The mountain exploded again, and as the sky grew even darker, I cupped my ears at him. “What!”

He tried again. “Yeah! It’s stuck in my head!

I nodded understanding. “Oh, yeah! Right!”

Charles pointed up at the sky and declared, “This is a volcano! And it’s erupting!”

I looked up and got some ash in my right eye before replying, “Oh yeah! I hadn’t noticed! Thanks for the update!”

Even through the gloom and with only one working eyeball, I recognized Charles’ annoyed look before he shouted, “We have to get out of here! This thing is just building up! Did you walk here!”

“Yeah, Charles! We walked all the way from San Juan Bautista!” I rolled my one good eye at him, so he gave me his look of profound annoyance that I had missed so much. Charles then pointed at Sparkles and declared, “He’s causing this! We were tricked! Come on!”

“Sparkles is causing this! How!”

Charles shook his head. “I’ll tell you later! Let’s go!”

“No! I have to get the mud’d! Let go!” I pushed his hand away.

“Gord! Kroe-Vogk didn’t send us up here to get mud’d! He sent us here to get rid of us! Now come on!”

Right away, I expected Charles was correct in his assertion that Sparkles’ presence here must have set the eruption in motion. It was reasonable to assume that if the Fallen could destabilize geologic hot spots with their very presence, then miskreants, being the direct descendants, could have the same effect. Sending us here might have been a ruse to get us killed, but I knew that Kroe-Vogk was hedging his bets and wanted the mud’d for something. I was so close, and a one or two minute delay wasn’t going to determine whether we lived or died. I pointed out to Charles that his shoulder was on fire, and while he was patting it out, I took the opportunity to run past him before he could block me. I shouted back, “Follow the path down to the truck! Hurry up!”

Following the smell of rotten eggs, Sparkles and I soon arrived at a small, bubbling pond, and as quickly as I could, I jabbed the shovel into the mud and hoisted the glop into my bucket, repeating the process ten times before Charles grabbed my shovel and flung it away.

“Hey!”

Now smoldering profusely, my demon picked up the bucket and snarled, “That’s good! Now come on!” Not interested in my reaction, he stomped away down the mountain in a huff.

Struggling to keep up with Charles, I continued patting out the spot fires that kept igniting on his back. A titanic roar cracked the air, and the ground lurched hard as another mammoth plume of material pushed into the sky. And in that moment, I became fairly convinced that we weren’t going to survive.

Much to Maven’s chagrin, Sparkles scooped me up under one arm and Charles under the other before bolting back to the truck in a matter of seconds. We couldn’t even see our ride until we were right next to it, and as football sized chunks of pumice started smashing into the ground, all I could think to say was, “Sorry, guys! I blew it! . . . I’m so sorry!”

Henry shouted, “Gordo! Shut up and get in! Now!”

“Wait!” I patted out three more spot fires on Charles’ back and ordered, “There! Now get under the tarp!”

Sparkles hopped in back as Charles hoisted the mud’d over the rail, climbed in and crawled under the blue tarp, and from underneath, Gary cried out with delight, “Charles!” And judging from the ruffling of the tarp and Charles’ loud complaints, I expected Gary was attempting to hug him.

Henry released the brake and maneuvered the Harvester back out onto the highway, pretty much driving blind. We slowly started to gain speed, and he fought desperately to keep the truck on the road as the world around us lurched and bucked. Our driver had tied his shirt tightly over his nose and mouth and was leaning out the door in an attempt to see, but even the painted lines on the highway had disappeared under a deepening blanket of ash. Nothing but a pitch-black void lay ahead, and the chances were great that we would plunge into the canyon if we kept moving forward, but if we stopped, we would certainly be buried alive.

Looking back, I could see nothing but Sparkles’ eyes shining into the gloom behind us, so I pulled out the whistle and blew it, and Sparkles turned around. He stood up on his hind legs and faced forward, shining his intense, searchlight eyes out ahead of the truck.

“Yes! Good, Sparkles! Stay like that!” I reached out as far as I could and wiped the ash off the windshield, so Henry came back in and scooted towards the middle for the improved view. When he tried to use the windshield wipers, they wouldn’t budge under the weight of the ash, so to keep the view clear, I continued reaching around and clearing it off as best I could.

The next eruption hit, and the truck became airborne for an instant before slamming back down. Somehow, it remained intact and we were still moving forward, but Henry lost his grip on the steering wheel, and we went into a sideways skid right up to the edge of the ravine before sliding to a stop.

With my heart in overdrive and my voice shaking like a leaf, I noted, “Nice save, Henry! Keep it up! You! . . . Y-you can do this!”

Henry gawked at me with eyes wide before finally nodding. He then backed up the truck and headed over to where the road used to be. I thought if he gripped the steering wheel any tighter, he would pull it right off the column. Lurching and shaking and bouncing our way down the highway, we began to encounter larger and larger stones raining down all around, many that would easily crush us if they found their mark. A smaller, baseball-sized stone lodged itself in the center of the hood with an ear splitting bam! and another smashed into the top of the cab with the same nerve-jarring outcome. All the while, Sparkles remained motionless with eye-beams focused straight ahead. The minutes felt like hours, and I had to take long, deep breaths to keep from freaking out, but I continued to reassure Henry again and again with, “You’re doing great! We’re going to make it!” I repeated the sentiment whenever he seemed like he was about to hyperventilate, and it seemed to help.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached Highway 36 as the ash cloud parted, and we drove back out under a bright, morning sky. The elation we felt was complete, and although the eruption had not abated and we were far from safe, Henry and I started to breathe again. We glanced at each other and started laughing. I slapped him on the shoulder and shouted over the roar, “You did it, Henry! We’re going to make it!”

“I don’t know about that! But at least we can see!” He slowed down at the stop-sign, and after another deep breath, he turned west.

We continued on without incident for a full five minutes until reaching the town of Mineral, where everything went downhill in a hurry. At first, I couldn’t understand how or why we had become weightless. One moment, we were driving down the highway as it cracked and bucked before our eyes. It wasn’t the most ideal of driving conditions, but it was at least manageable. A moment later, everything was falling, including us. We gasped as the violent shaking action of the eruption vanished and the road dropped away, leaving our tires spinning in mid-air. Everything in sight that wasn’t nailed down began to rise up. Logs, stones, parked cars, pine needles and loose soil seemed to become weightless as the world fell away. Even the branches of the trees arched upwards like the entire forest was pleading to Heaven for mercy. All we could do was watch in horror as the ground dropped, and because the town of Mineral and everything else was falling faster than we were, it seemed as though we were rising up into the air.

There was no time to speak or even think. We were smack-dab in the middle of an enormous collapse. The whole region was falling into a massive caldera, and in only a few seconds, we would no longer exist. The landscape shifted, warped and broke apart as we followed it down. We were floating, or plummeting, above what remained of the the forest, and when the horizon came into view, I gasped at the immensity of the devastation. It looked like we were falling into a gigantic mouth as it devoured everything in sight from one horizon to the other, and maybe because we would be squashed instantly when we hit bottom and weren’t going to suffer, my panic turned into a giddy calm.

“Hey, Henry?” I asked.

Henry seemed calm when he replied, “Yeah?”

“Sorry I got you into this. I . . .”

“Nothing to be sorry about, son. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I mean, wow.”

“Right. Okay.” I took one deep breath and then another before closing my eyes and waiting for the end, but oblivion was not forthcoming because gravity suddenly returned, and as we were slammed down in our seats, I opened my eyes to find we were still high above a world that was dropping away into an ocean of ash and chaos. And not only were we floating, we were moving higher.

I looked over at Henry, whose eyes and mouth were open as wide as they could get, and I would have laughed at his expression if I had not been equally amazed. The world below continued to drop as another gargantuan column of ash rocketed up into the sky, and far off to the north, still another column of even greater dimension rose up in a beautiful, billowing tower of destruction. And when all four pillars of ash caught the morning rays of the sun, they blazed in a dazzling blend of orange, yellow and red and looked to be on fire. Still another column shot up into the sky far out to the northeast, and soon after, the area around it started to collapse, doubling the size of the caldera in a matter of seconds. And since there were no words that could do the moment justice, we just sat in our flying pickup, watching in stunned silence while the world rearranged itself before our eyes.

I looked back to find what appeared to be Gary and Charles still huddled under the tarp. Sparkles, however, was standing upright, grasping both rails tightly and shaking violently as he carried the truck forward through the sky. Maven, still clinging to his shoulder, was flapping his wings vigorously in what might have been an attempt to help.

I slid the rear window open, shook the blue tarp and cleared my throat.

But the tarp didn’t move, so I shook harder and suggested, “Hey, wake up in there.”

The tarp lifted, revealing two frightened demons blinking out at me.

I pointed up at Sparkles. “He’s carrying us.”

Charles pulled the tarp away and scowled. “Miskreants can’t fly.” He looked at me and spoke more adamantly: “Miskreants can’t fly!

Sparkles had not grown wings or an engine or even a helicopter blade, but there was no doubt he was keeping us airborne and carrying us west towards the edge of the cataclysm, so Charles was simply wrong in his assertion.

When another eruption billowed up almost directly below, Sparkles banked hard left and forward in an attempt to veer us out of harm’s way, and the truck banked hard with him. Trying to remain aboard, Henry and I grabbed hold of the steering wheel and held on for dear life.

“The mud’d!” Gary lunged for the bucket and was able to grab the handle, but he lost his footing and stumbled across the truck. Charles lunged and grabbed his wrist just as Gary flipped over the railing, and the momentum slammed Charles hard against the side, causing him to grunt loudly, but he was able to hang on. And after a few seconds of Gary swinging about over the void, Sparkles completed the evasive maneuver, and Charles had enough leverage to pull Gary and the mud’d bucket back in.

And before anyone could comment, Sparkles lurched forward, causing the truck to swing almost straight down. We braced ourselves against the sudden change as another column of ash shot up into the sky directly behind us, coming so close that we could feel the intense heat radiating out of it.

I decided not to ask Sparkles to pick up the pace. The fact that we were still alive was more than I could have hoped, and he was probably going as fast as he could given the circumstances. And as we slowly moved farther and farther away from imminent danger, I started to breathe again, and Henry did the same.

 

Some twenty miles later, after Sparkles had set us down at the new terminus of Highway 36, near the top of a dramatic cliff face, he staggered and slumped to the ground. Maven, now perched on top of his head, squawked at the lot of us for not doing more to assist his friend. In no mood to be chastised by the irritable bird, I carefully made my way up to the edge of the cliff to survey the devastation, but most of the caldera was enshrouded in a cloud of ash that happened to be rolling slowly and steadily in our direction.

All those people who had tried to escape the park didn’t have a chance. They were gone. And all the people who lived in the surrounding area must have had just enough time to grab their pets and a few precious belongings before jumping in their cars and driving maybe a few minutes before the world collapsed beneath them. They were all gone, and they were gone because of me and my arrogance.

Charles, Gary and Henry followed me up to the precipice, and together we watched the pillars of ash continue to fill the sky with more and more material. All twelve plumes had merged into a vast river of gray that was flowing out towards the southeastern horizon. The cloud already looked as if it had reached Nevada and was well on its way to encircle the planet.

I sat down in the middle of the highway, lowered my head, groaned at the realization of what I had done and admitted, “This is my fault. I did this.”

Charles was the first to disagree: “Oh, balderdash. There is no way you could have known, Gordo. Kroe-Vogk is responsible for this. He knew Sparkles would trigger a collapse. The Fallen must be in control of him. We were tricked.”

Henry agreed, “To blame yourself for this is madness, son. You are not responsible.”

Charles squinted at Henry and asked, “Hey, who are you?”

Without looked looking up, I introduced them: “Oh, Charles, Henry . . . Henry, that’s, uh, Charles.”

Charles happily observed, “Hey, another spanner. Hi.”

Smiling warmly, Henry shook Charles’ hand while he explained that his daughter was a spanner too and how we had come to meet and how he wanted to help us rescue Adolfo. Charles nodded approvingly and expressed his gratitude over Henry’s impressive driving in Lassen Park. My demon then asked, “You guys got anything to eat? I’m starved.”

Gary replied, “No. We left the cooler in the Ford. But you can have galswallow.”

Charles grimaced and asked, “You got any hot-sauce?”

Gary winced and replied, “Ah, that was in the cooler too.”

Charles grimaced again. “Ah, dang,” he whined, “I’m so hungry.”

Without looking up, I asked, “Where did you end up, anyway? And how on Earth did you find us?”

Squinting out at the the billowing chaos, Charles scolded, “Hey, don’t think I’m not mad at you for making me test that stupid knuckle-bomb, you know. Oh, by the way, they’re not very stable.”

I stood up and brushed myself off. “We gathered that, Charles, right around the moment you vanished.”

“That’s when I figured it out too.” He cleared his throat. “I reappeared in the labyrinth, somewhere under Mongolia. I didn’t know where I was until I happened upon a small school that was giving a class on the art of instilling envy and jealousy in people. I decided to sit in for a while and was glad I did because it was very informative, but then I remembered you guys would be worried sick, so . . .” He stopped to measure our reactions carefully.

Both Gary and I nodded emphatically, and doing my best to keep the sarcasm out of my voice, I echoed his sentiments: “Oh, yes, worried sick, Charles.”

Charles eyed me suspiciously before continuing: “. . . So I caught the shuttle back to North America — San Francisco to be specific — and with all the stops along the way, it took over twelve minutes to get there. Then I just hopped into the labyrinth and shot from San Francisco to here — that took another ten minutes. I figured this would be a good place to start, you know, since we had talked about obtaining volcanic mud’d? Well, I surfaced just south of Mount Lassen and ran the rest of the way overland. That was good timing, huh?” He then looked down and whined, “But now my feet hurt.”

Examining Charles’ feet to find he was still wearing only one flip-flop, I pointed out, “We’ve got to get you some new shoes.”

“Flip-flops?”

“Wouldn’t you rather wear something with more arch support, so your feet don’t hurt?”

“No. Flip-flops. My feet need to breathe.”

“That’s what socks are for, Charles.”

He considered this fact and declared, “Mmm, no. Flip-flops.”

“Okay, okay, flip-flops then.”

After Charles gave Henry another looking over, he asked, “Where’s your demon?”

Henry sighed and muttered, “He blew up.”

Gary took it upon himself to explain that Henry’s demon had sacrificed himself for Sparkles yesterday, and Charles’ eyes opened wide. “Wow. Really?”

I nodded. “Yeah. He was a-a . . . ticker? He set himself off to save our Sparkles, a very heroic deed.”

“Wow, a ticker, huh? I thought they were extinct.” Charles looked up at me. “I don’t think I could do that. You know, set myself off before my time was up . . . What was his name?”

Henry, Gary and I answered in unison, “Waldo.”

“Waldo?” Charles guffawed before he could stop himself. “Um, sorry, I wonder where he is.” He started snickering.

Gary chimed in: “Oh, I get it. Where’s Waldo. Ha ha.” He beamed brightly, but when he saw me glaring at him, his grin quickly turned to a look of great solemnity.

I shoved Charles. “That’s mean. The man’s demon just blew up, Charles. Show some compassion.”

Charles countered, “Yeah, but he’s not dead. His body was destroyed, so he’ll have to go back for a refit and be as good as new in no time . . . Duh.”

Henry perked up. “So could I get him back?”

Charles smirked and shook his head. “I doubt it. They’ll get you a replacement as soon as possible, and Waldo will go to someone else when he’s ready. They don’t like having people wandering around demon-less, you know.”

Henry picked up a rock and tossed it off the cliff, and we watched as it plummeted down out of sight. Then Gary tossed a boulder off, and we watched it descend silently down. In no time, we were all lobbing stones out into the void. And after an extended, therapeutic rock-throwing session, Henry suggested, “That ash cloud is moving this way pretty fast. Perhaps we should get moving before it arrives.”

Sparkles had recovered enough to pull himself up into the truck and flop down. He had grown so heavy that the truck springs almost bottomed out under his weight. Fortunately, he opted to flop in the middle to balance the load. We were all relieved to see that he had recovered a little. The creepy shadow-demon had saved us once again, and we all agreed we owed him yet another solid.

On our way west towards Red Bluff, a convoy of seven firetrucks heading in the opposite direction raced past. I flashed my headlights in an attempt to warn them of the danger, but they didn’t stop or slow in the slightest, so I had to turn around and chase them down to get one of them to stop, and I told the driver that just up the hill, the highway had been destroyed, but he didn’t understand. I further explained that everything was gone and the highway ended at the top of a sheer cliff, and when I used the word ‘caldera’, he looked at me like I had a foot growing out the top of my head, but he finally radioed the other trucks of the possible danger ahead and thanked me before continuing on at a less frenetic pace.

 

The highway must have been closed off to the public down around Red Bluff because only a few highway patrol units and two more fire engines raced past. Seeking some news, I turned on the radio to find the emergency broadcast system had usurped every channel and was repeating a message that a major seismic event was occurring in the Lassen, Tehama, Plumas and Shasta County areas and listing the towns that were under mandatory evacuation. Residents were being directed towards the safest evacuation routes available, and in the event that evacuation was not possible, residents were urged to remain where they were, seek shelter and remain calm. Listeners were also urged to collect as much safe drinking water as possible and to bring livestock and pets into shelters. Information would be updated as received.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Everyone Goes Missing

 

Some forty miles later, Red Bluff and the valley beyond came into view, and even from miles away, it was evident the town was in chaos and Highway 99 was at a standstill. There was no point in getting stuck in traffic until the roads cleared, so I pulled off the highway and cut the engine. Finding Henry fast asleep, I quietly climbed out of the truck and whispered to Charles, “No point in going into town. The road is one long parking lot. What do you think?”

Blowing through his closed lips, making the sound of a snorting horse, Charles declared, “I think I’m hungry.”

“Can’t help you there, bud. You want some nice grass?” I pointed at the tall grass growing along the highway.

Charles looked at the grass, then at me. He looked at the grass again and then at me and explained, “Uh, not that hungry.”

The plume from the eruption had tripled in size in the past thirty minutes and would be over us in at least another thirty. Even from such a distance, we could feel the eruptions in our bones as they continued hurling vast amounts of hot ash and rock high into the sky. I had never felt such a profound sense of guilt and remorse and knew if I continued to marinate in it, I would make myself sick. When all was said and done, thousands of people would be found dead or missing, and many more were still in grave danger. It was my fault, and there were nothing that Charles or Henry could say that would convince me otherwise. I would not mention it again, but I knew the truth and was ashamed. This disaster had been caused by my arrogance, and Kroe-Vogk had known exactly how to play me. Who was I to believe I could outsmart such an ancient being?

Like an enormous amoeba, the ash cloud continued to creep over us until the sun was virtually snuffed out. To keep from igniting, Gary and Charles quickly crawled back under their tarp, and to pass the time, they started playing infinite questions.

I was so grateful that Sparkles was still with us. His eyes beamed through the darkness like two headlights shining through the ash at nothing in particular, but it was better than the featureless gray that enveloped the world.

Besides daylight, the ash had also removed all sound. I had not even noticed the birds singing in the trees until they had fallen silent, and their singing, now gone, made the darkness all the more disconcerting. The distant sounds of traffic were also gone. The only sound was the sporadic rumbling of the eruption and the thunder created by bolts of lightning as they tore through the cloud somewhere overhead.

I quietly got back in the cab and slouched down. The gridlock in Red Bluff wasn’t going to be clearing any time soon, and it was anyone’s guess as to how long the ash would hang around, but there was nothing else for us to do but wait and hope the caldera didn’t continue to expand.

Thirty minutes passed before Henry woke to a bout of coughing. I had already pulled my shirt up over my mouth, and he did the same.

“Where are we?” he asked.

Without looking over, I answered, “Near Red Bluff. The roads are at a standstill.”

He sat up and yawned, “It sure is dark.”

“Yeah, I don’t like this.” I put one foot up on the dash and sighed.

As soon as Henry agreed he didn’t like it either, the air began to buzz. Barely noticeable at first, we soon felt like we had been immersed in a massive electric current. The hair on my arms and head stood up, and I sensed that if I touched anything metal, I would receive a powerful shock. A few seconds later, a sonic boom hit the truck, and the static quickly dissipated. And an instant later, the radio went silent.

“What on Earth?” Searching up and down the dial to find nothing being broadcast, I surmised, “Hmm, whatever that was must have blown a fuse.”

Henry theorized, “Maybe that sonic-boom was a jet or a really fast pigeon.”

I agreed, “Right, one of those supersonic, rocket pigeons.”

Putting one foot up on the dash, Henry asked, “How long was I out?”

“About forty minutes.”

“Hmm, I could sure go for some breakfast.”

I nodded. “Yeah, me too.”

“What do you say we drive into town and look for some grub?”

I started the engine. “Yeah, maybe traffic is moving now. We sure can’t tell from up here anymore.”

We found Red Bluff dark and eerily quiet, and when we reached the first stop-sign, we knew something was amiss. Highway 99 was still one long line of cars, but they had all been abandoned. There wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere. A chill shot down my spine as I made a right turn and slowly headed along the shoulder towards the freeway.

Henry spoke first: “This isn’t possible. There has to be somebody around.” He craned his neck in every direction in an attempt to spot another living soul.

Trying to disguise the fear in my voice, I suggested, “Let’s cross the freeway and head downtown. Maybe we can find someone who can tell us where everybody went.” I scanned the spectrum on the radio again, and finding nothing, I theorized, “Maybe the ash-cloud is interfering with the signal.”

Henry looked every bit as frightened as I felt, and while searching for stations himself, he muttered, “Uh, the radio was just working.”

“Yeah, it was . . . I-I don’t like this. Henry, make everything normal again, please.”

We passed by the gas stations and fast-food stops near the freeway to find Red Bluff devoid of any kind of activity. The lights were on, but it seemed as if everybody had simply abandoned what they were doing and walked away. Lines of cars were backed up at the drive-through windows, while other vehicles were parked next to gas pumps with nozzles still inserted into gas tanks. My first thought was that everyone had headed out on foot to a public shelter in one of the county buildings, but there were no tire tracks or even footprints visible in the blanket of ash that covered everything.

In order to cross the freeway, we had to drive up on the sidewalk, and at the top of the overpass, I stopped the truck, set the emergency brake and climbed out. And when I went over to the railing and peered down at Highway 5, my heart sank.

What is going on?”

Even in the dim light, we could see a smooth blanket of ash that had completely covered the freeway. There wasn’t a single tire track anywhere. The interstate was littered with vehicles, but not a single one had moved since the ash had started falling.

The earth shook again, so I instinctively grabbed the guard railing. After it subsided, I cupped my hands and shouted, “Hello!” to the west and again to the east, but my voice was absorbed by the ash in the air.

From behind us, muffled barking broke the perfect silence. I walked back to find two dachshunds sitting in the front seat of a Volvo, furiously wagging their tails. They barked with more zeal as I approached, and I hesitated only a moment before opening the door and setting them free. They gave my shoes a quick sniff before running up to Henry to make sure he was okay, making lots of little dog footprints in the ash along the way. And after the two of them cleared Henry of any skulduggery, they set off down the west side of the overpass with noses close to the ash, as if in search of a missing owner. I tried calling them back, but they were on a mission and not to be deterred. Searching the overpass for any other footprints, human or animal, and finding none, I knocked on the railing — more to see if it was real than anything else — and climbed back in the truck.

When Henry was back in, he whispered in a shaky voice, “There aren’t any footprints anywhere, but those dogs left footprints, and we left footprints. This doesn’t make any sense.”

My voice was shaking too: “I-I know, but there has to be an explanation. As soon as we find someone, we’ll know what this is all about.”

On the way into downtown, we passed a coffee shop, and the smell of cooked bacon, sausage and eggs was enough to entice Charles and Gary out of the truck before I could even come to a stop, and they were pushing through the front door as Henry and I climbed out of the Harvester. The lights were on, and smoke was drifting out of the kitchen, so I went into the back to find blackened sausage links, eggs and bacon crackling and spattering on the burner. I turned the grill off and noticed a radio blaring static, so I turned the dial from one end to the other but found nothing but white noise, so I shut it off too.

From the dining area, Henry called out, “Gord, you hungry?”

Twelve tables contained plates of eggs, sausage, bacon, toast and hash-browns, and most of them had not been touched. Charles and Gary were devouring somebody’s breakfast, so I scolded, “Guys, that’s not yours. You can’t . . .” But before they could argue the point, I realized the foolishness of my comment and changed my tune: “Oh, what the heck,” I declared, “I guess as long as we pay for it.” I sat myself down at another table and dug in, and Henry did the same.

With his mouth full, Charles replied,“We don’t have pay for this. They’re going to throw it all out anyway. We’re actually doing the