Zoey was a better person than me.
That’s not self-deprecation. That’s a fact. She was kind. She had compassion in her soul. Years after the ‘Hungry’ incident, she found a way to forgive the old woman who hurt her.
I didn’t want to.
I still don’t want to.
That’s all the proof needed.
“Liam… what is that?”
I looked down to my plate. On it was a small slice of breaded meat, an ice-cream scoop dollop of mashed potatoes, and a miniature roll.
“Umm…. chicken fried steak?” I replied. We were seated in a Denny’s during the lunch rush, so our words were insulated in our little restaurant booth by rushing waitresses and the dull hum of other conversations.
Zoey moved her gaze over to her own plate, where the same version of the meat and potatoes sat, but twice as large, and joined by a pile of green beans. “Why is it so much smaller than this one?”
“I got the 55+ version,” I said. “Smaller portion size.”
“It’s cost effective,” I retorted before I realized my mistake.
Zoey raised an eyebrow at me. “I thought you said that you rebalanced the budget we had left, and that cutting out the majority of the Great Plains meant that we could get back to regular spending.”
“I did, and we can. It’s just… I’m not that hungry.”
Zoey gave me an accusatory stare.
I sighed and surrendered. “...and it’s still not a bad idea to save our money in general. But the hungry thing is true too.”
Zoey stabbed her potatoes a couple of times, then groaned and laid her head on the table. “Great. Now I’m too depressed to eat.”
I frowned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to guilt you or anything. What you got is perfectly fine.”
“It’s not that,” she said, waving her hand to cut me off. “It’s just… this is not the grand adventure I promised. I figured we’d be rolling down Hollywood Boulevard loaded to the gills with chintzy tourist trap bobbles by now, not poking at old lady plates, trying to stretch our pennies.”
“Did your plans include secretive shadow governments, or faith healers with pet demons?” I asked.
She shot me one of her patented Zoey looks, this one being the one she used when she thought I was patronizing her and wanted to let me know that she didn’t like it. “No.”
“And do you want to take back anything we’ve done together?”
Her face softened. “No.”
“Then we’ll just have to keep doing the best with the curve balls we’ve got.” I sliced into my cut of meat. “And I think we’ve done a pretty damn good job so far, if I do say so myself.”
Zoey watched me for a second, then scooped a fork full of mashed potatoes into her own mouth.
“What’re we doing here, anyway?” I asked, looking out the window. Outside, there was nothing but flat scrubland topped with the dried remains of dead wild grasses.
“Faces,” Zoey replied. “Nothing spooky in the area, so we grab some interviews and leave.”
“Is there anyone we want to talk to?”
Zoey reached over and flipped up her laptop, scrolling through something. “I’d like to interview at least one Native American for the project. There’s a reservation a few miles East of us that we can try: White Cloud.”
“Hmm.” I sat back.
“Everything okay?” Our waitress, a young woman with a thick midwestern accent, had walked back up to our table.
“Yeah, yeah, everything’s great,” I said.
She nodded and started to leave. “Alright. Well, take care and enjoy the casino.”
“Casino?” Zoey asked.
The waitress stopped and blushed slightly. “Sorry. Overheard a bit of your conversation. White Cloud Casino, that’s where you’re headed, right?”
“Reservation, actually,” Zoey said, straightening up a bit. “We were hoping to talk to some Native Americans in the area.”
Something I couldn’t read crossed the waitress’s face, and, after doing a quick glance around, she approached our table again. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“The Indians are real nice folk at the casino and off the Reservation, but they get a little… upset, when others end up on their land. Not a huge fan of outsiders, if you catch my drift.”
“Suppose you can’t blame them for that,” Zoey noted. “Is there anyway we could talk to them? We’re doing a documentary project, and we’d really appreciate the chance to include their perspective in it.”
The waitress furrowed her brows. “I don’t really think so. They tend to keep to themselves most of the time. But… well, there is old woman Crow.”
“Crow?” Zoey asked.
Someone from the kitchen yelled something and the waitress jumped. “Oh! I have to get back to work. But Crow lives on Juniper Street towards the East end of town. She might be able to get you in touch with someone.”
Zoey watched her leave, then raised her glass up. “To rolling out of this town soon.”
I clinked it.
Juniper Street was a small trailer park set out in the dust. Actually, it was a rather depressing sight. Squat structures laid on top of cinder block foundations. Dirt streets that were mere suggestions in the ground winded through the area. Wrecks of cars sat like tombstones in the dead spaces that served as lawns.
“Is this it?” Zoey asked.
I squinted at the trailer in front of us, a beige carcass with the withered remains of garden planters in the window spaces. “Yeah, that’s it. We got the directions three times, Zoey. We couldn’t have messed it up.”
Zoey clasped her arms around her. “Just… I don’t know.”
“You want to bail?”
She paused for a moment. “No, let’s at least give her a shot.”
I turned the camera on, but kept it pointed at the ground. It was something we did to capture what was going on around us before we asked for permission to use the footage; if they did say no, we could still use clips of stuff and the audio it contained, just in case it did end up being necessary to use.
Zoey took the lead. She walked up the wooden ramp to the trailer door, paused again, and then knocked three sharp raps on the front door.
No one answered.
I raised an eyebrow at Zoey.
She frowned, then knocked again.
I sighed. “Well, seems like…”
All of a sudden, there was a BANG and the door cracked open a few inches. Through the opening, at waist level, was the barest hint of a gnarled old face and a cloudy eyeball; I realized she had to be seated, probably in a wheelchair, for her face to be that low.
“What do you want?” she croaked in a voice that sounded like breaking wood.
“Miss… Crow?” Zoey guessed.
The woman didn’t respond.
“Um… My name is Zoey, and we’re doing a film project. ‘Faces of America.’ We’re interviewing people across the country and putting their stories together, and we wanted to include you and maybe some more of the Native Americans around here in it.”
She still didn’t respond.
“Miss Crow?” Zoey asked.
“You people,” the old woman rasped, “you people are all the same. You take and you take and you take from us, and when there’s nothing left to take, you set us up on stages and say, ‘oh, these poor souls’ so you can pretend that you care. So that you can pretend you have a heart.”
“Er…” Zoey seemed at a loss for words. I’d never seen her at a loss for words.
“Go!” the woman snapped. “Get off my property! Leave!”
Zoey blushed and did a little head nod. “Sorry to have disturbed you.” She motioned to me, and we both made our way down the ramp and back to our R.V.
Just as we got to the door, there was a tap tap tap from behind, and we turned to look.
The old woman was at the window now. In view of the pane of glass, her full face was now visible: clay-red skin aged with uncountable wrinkles, one eye closed shut, the other white and nearly blind, thin and stringy hair falling from her head to in front of her face.
I’m not someone that judges people based on appearance, or throws around insults about looks. I like to think I’m better than that.
But if I’m honest, the only word I could think of for her at that moment was ‘hag.’
She grinned a smile that was more gum than teeth, pointed a gnarled finger at Zoey, then creaked “hungry.”
Then she moved away from the window and was gone.
“Well, that went about as poorly as it could have gone,” I said.
We were back at the Denny’s. Zoey had requested that we stop for dinner early, which hadn’t surprised me; she’d just picked at her food during lunch after that little discussion we had, boxing most of it up to take back to the RV. Her appetite had returned with a vengeance, though; she’d ordered the steak dinner platter, added an extra side, and had already made a few hints about dessert.
I stuck to my ‘55+’ portion.
Zoey swallowed the mouthful she had been working on and shrugged. “Well, just means it’s back to the original plan.”
“The casino?” I asked.
Zoey nodded. “The casino.”
“And you aren’t worried about what that waitress said, given what just happened? About those guys being unfriendly to outsiders?”
Zoey waved her fork in a dismissive gesture before stabbing it into a roasted potato chunk. “It’s not like we’re just marching in there, demanding things. We talk to them, we ask nicely. If they say no, we leave. No harm, no foul. Besides…” she took a second to look around the room, then leaned in for a whisper, “I don’t quite believe everything that waitress was insinuating.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You don’t?”
“I can believe that they’re surly, but dangerous? They’ve got little reason to interact with the community here, and I’m sure little empathy given how they know the government here just took and took and took their ancestor’s lives away until all they had was one little patch of dirt. You get two groups of people close together and build a wall between them, and they’re always going to be certain that the other group is full of evil hoodlums waiting to do them in.”
She stuck the potato in her mouth, chewed for a few seconds, then swallowed. “And if I’ve learned anything doing this thing, Liam, it’s that people will jump on any opportunity to tell their side of the story. For most of them, they probably feel this is the only time anyone will actually listen to them. That’s the whole reason why I want to do this ‘Faces’ project so much. All of us, every human on this planet, live our lives in insulated little bubbles, surrounding ourselves with people who look like us and talk like us and think like us, never challenging ourselves with…”
I smiled and slowly began to tune her out. I loved how much passion Zoey had for her projects; it was one of the things that made her Zoey. But after the seventh time of hearing the same argument again, you can’t help but mentally skip it, no matter how much you like the person behind it.
Right as Zoey got to the part about how you can only feel empathy for a face if you know the person behind the face, our waiter came and saved me by asking if everything was okay. Zoey asked for the fudge sundae; I requested a box for the rest of my food.
Conversation interrupted, we lulled into a silence.
“Wonder what she meant by ‘hungry’,” I mused.
“Probably some metaphor,” Zoey guessed. “Like how us white people always want more, never satisfied with what we’ve got. Always hungry.”
“Well, she hit the nail on the head with you,” I said.
Zoey gave me a look, and I instantly knew that my mouth had once again dug myself into a hole I couldn’t get out of.
She narrowed her eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well…” I stammered, “I just meant that… what, with your natural ambition, and…”
“Fudge sundae,” our waiter interrupted, placing a large bowl of ice cream and chocolate sauce in front of us. “Anything else I can do for you two?”
“No, we’re good,” Zoey replied. She waited until he had walked off, gave a long look at the ice cream, then back to me.
I sighed. “Shall I forfeit my rights to the mattress tonight and sleep on the couch?”
She smirked and stuck the spoon in her mouth. “You’re forgiven. And yes, you should.”
It was Sunday, so the casino was closed. Zoey had called ahead (it had a hotel attached, too, so there was someone to talk to) and had managed to arrange a meeting with someone in the casino’s management to talk about our ‘Faces’ interview for the next morning. With nothing else to do, we retired to the RV to work on various pieces of editing and updating, then called it a night.
I grimaced as I stretched myself out on the stiff couch cushions and mentally scolded myself for letting my stupid mouth operate without forethought again.
Oh well. It was only going to be one night.
I closed my eyes and, after about fifteen minutes of tossing and turning, finally managed to drift off to sleep.
Dink clatter clink.
For a few fuzzy moments, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I was lying on the couch of the RV. I had been sleeping…
...and there were the sounds of someone else with me in the room.
I leapt to my feet, grabbed a metal baseball bat that I had bought during one of my more paranoid moments, and immediately scanned the room.
“Shit!” A figure in the shadows jumped back. From the dim light of our open mini-fridge, I could just make out the shape of…
“...Zoey?” I realized. I put my hand on my chest and placed the bat back at the end of the couch. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I was just getting a midnight snack.” She waved the leftovers box from her Denny’s lunch.
I laid back down on the couch and threw an arm over my eyes. “Just hurry up and get out of here.”
“Will do,” she whispered. After a few more moments of clattering and the brief hum of the microwave, I heard her patter out of the room. Another round of tossing and turning, and I’d managed to drift off again.
The light from the closed blinds gently tickled me awake.
Groaning slightly, I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Sleeping on the couch always gave me a fuzzy soreness all over, and I just sat there for a moment, letting the ache subside. Then I grabbed my phone and checked the time.
Seven in the morning. No way Zoey would be awake yet.
No matter. I got up and started my morning routines. Coffee maker on. Shower, shave, and fresh clothes. My stomach began to rumble, so I opened up the freezer and grabbed the box of ‘pancake sausage on a stick’ we had inside.
It felt suspiciously light.
I stopped, felt the weight in my hands, and opened the top.
It was empty. Empty, that is, save for the trash of the microwavable breakfasts. Thin sticks and plastic wrappers were shoved inside, pancake-sausage combos they once contained now gone.
I reached for the other box of breakfast foods we had, these little mini egg and cheese sandwiches.
It, too, felt strangely weightless.
A look inside confirmed more of the same: wrappers, small papers the sandwiches had been wrapped in, but no sandwiches themselves.
A small twist of worry began to sit in my stomach.
I opened the fridge. The little yogurt cups we had were gone. The saran-wrap sandwiches we had gotten from a local farmer’s market were gone. Even the two apples we had bought from the same place were missing.
The only thing still inside the fridge was the Styrofoam box I recognized from our Denny’s dinner last night.
Hesitantly, I shook it.
It felt empty.
“Holy shit….” I muttered under my breath. Last night, someone had gone through all of our food.
And there was only one suspect.
“Mornin’” Zoey grumbled from behind me. She gravitated over to the coffee maker and began to pour some into a mug.
I turned to her. “Get a little hungry last night, did we?”
“I’m sorry about waking you last night, okay?” she replied. “Let’s just move on from that.”
Even I could see the guilt on her face.
I held up the box of pancake sausages. “What the hell, Zoey?”
She blushed. “So I got a little carried away last night…”
“Carried away? Carried away? Zoey, you ate a whole week’s worth of food in a single night! All of the food here, gone.”
“I’m sorry!” she said. “I’ll replace it! It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“Any stomach pains?” I interrupted.
She looked taken aback. “What?”
“Pains, in your stomach.”
“Nausea? Feeling overly tired? Diarrhea?”
“They’re symptoms of intestinal parasites,” I explained. “Might be why you went on a crazy eating binge last night.”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “You think I have parasites?”
“It’s either that or a magic curse,” I said.
She groaned and threw a hand up. “Of course. Old woman Crow and that ‘hungry’ comment.”
“Hey, you remember the promise we made after ‘Red Like Roses’? We have to take this stuff seriously. And besides…” I lowered my voice. “...eating that much food isn’t just unhealthy, Zoey. It’s unnatural.”
She sighed and collapsed in the booth. “You’re right, you’re right… I don’t have any of those symptoms.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I don’t have parasites, Liam.”
“We should really take you to a hospital, anyway. Just to make sure.”
Zoey eyed me. “You know we can’t. Not with the money we have right now.”
“And I think we both know who the more probable culprit is.” I sat down across from her.
Neither of us spoke.
“What do we do?” Zoey asked. She’d gone very pale and very quiet.
“Same thing we did last time,” I replied. “We hit the books and find a cure.”
Zoey nodded, but she didn’t meet my eyes.
“Hey.” I grabbed her hand. “It’s going to be okay. Not only did we catch this thing early, but we also know what we’re dealing with this time. We’ll be able to nip it in the bud, no problem.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” A small smile returned to her face. “You’re always right.”
We did our search at the library.
I didn’t seriously think that we’d luck into the same solution twice, that by finding the books Crow had used to weave the spell, we could reverse engineer a cure. But it seemed stupid not to try. Failing that, we could always go back to our old standby: the internet.
And at the very least, the library’s free wifi could help with that.
Before leaving, we also tried my homebrewed ‘pure as snow’ spell, the one I had crafted to undo the ‘red like roses’ spell last time. Once I had finished, Zoey complained of immediately feeling dizzy and weak, then bent over the floor and threw up. For the next five minutes, she complained that she was so hungry it hurt before reporting that her appetite had finally shrank back to its normal, dull throb.
We both agreed not to try it again, but at the very least, it confirmed something important:
It was definitely magic.
Seeing as how we hadn’t gotten to replace my car yet from our altercation with Jones, and as it’d be unlikely that the public library would have RV parking, we had to take the local bus to get there. And modern metropolis Cherokee was not; it took nearly a half hour for the bus to get there, and another hour and a half to get to the library.
While on the bus, I saw Zoey biting at her fingernails. At first, I wrote it off as a nervous tick, brought on by worry.
Then I noticed her swallowing.
I grabbed her hands, and the way her face flushed informed me that she knew she’d been caught trying to satiate her hunger in an unhealthy way. I kept holding them until we got to our stop, then went into a corner store nearby and bought a bag of Chex mix.
“Here,” I said, handing it to her. “Sneak this in with you. Eat it one piece of a time, and chew each piece fifteen times before you swallow it. No cheating.”
“Seriously?” she whined.
“You put your insides through hell already,” I said. “Any more major binging, and I’m worried you’ll damage something. Stick to the Chex mix.”
She gave me a very frustrated look, but slipped the bag into her hoodie pocket.
The library wasn’t very big, but we still managed to find a relatively quiet corner to set up shop in. I began by checking the books inside, but my luck with Jenny didn’t repeat; the little cards they used to have were all taken out, leaving only empty paper pockets. And from my scan of the shelves, there weren’t any books even remotely close to talking about real witchcraft or occult spellcasting.
I gave up and returned to my computer.
The internet was less than helpful, though. I found references to an Irish legend about the Fear Gota, or phantom of hunger, and the Chinese ‘hungry ghosts’. There were tales about insatiable Wendigo and the bottomless stomach of something called a ‘Nian.’ But each were treated as little more than a curious folktale or historical side note, explained away with comments about internal parasites, ancient religions, and cultural warnings about cannibalism. None of it was taken with any amount of seriousness, and therefore none of it speculated about causes, or how to cure it.
The Wendigo curse sounded the most like what we were going after. It gave the person an incurably destructive appetite, and it was Native American in origin, the same ethnicity as our attacker. Alright, Native Americans from the Southern area of Canada, but still, closer than Ireland or China. And it was actually described as a curse.
Supposedly, there were ritual dances you could do to exorcise the thing, like a demon. But the Algonkian people had never shared the knowledge with outsiders, and from what I was reading, it seemed likely that the last person who actually knew what they were doing when it came to this stuff was killed when he tried to escape from jail after his last Wendigo exorcism, taking his precious knowledge with him to the grave.
I took a moment to process how I, a self-described lover of facts and reason, was angry and frustrated with a group of modern law enforcement accidentally killing their fleeing suspect after the abuse he heaped onto his victim because of some silly superstition.
The irony was almost tangible, and I felt like I appreciated much more about what Archangel meant when they said ‘this side of the Veneer.’
I paused as a picture caught my eye: the drawing of a naked man, wild fury in his eyes, clutching a half-devoured human arm like a drowning person clutching a life preserver.
Zoey couldn’t get that bad…
The sound of tearing paper came from somewhere I couldn’t see. I stopped, listening.
A few shelves away. I got up and snuck closer to the noise.
There was a shape bent over the floor. Underneath it, books, covers, and scattered and torn papers were everywhere, like the aftermath of an explosion. The person over them opened one of the books, tore a page out with a long RRRRIIIIIPP, crumpled it into a ball, then stuck it in her mouth and chewed.
“Zoey?” I said quietly.
Zoey turned around to face me. Her mouth was so stuffed with paper that her cheeks puffed out, as if she was some sort of demented mental patient pretending to be a hamster. Drool dribbled from the corners of her mouth and onto the floor.
With a great effort, she swallowed the mass down. I could see pain twist across her face before a bliss that you normally only see on drug users took over.
“I just...needed something,” she explained.
I reached a hand out. “C’mon. Let’s go home.”
“It’s only for a bit,” I said.
Zoey looked to me, then to the bedroom of the RV, obviously unsure.
We’d managed to make it back on the bus and back to the RV without any major incidents. Once there, I told Zoey what I wanted her to do.
As I expected, she didn’t like it.
“It’s not that bad, honest,” she said. “I think I’m learning to control it.”
“Then you can control it in there,” I rebutted.
“So you’re just going to lock me up like a wild animal?” she snapped. “Like some… rabid dog, ready to attack?”
“Please, Zoey. This is for your own good. With the curse on you, you can’t control your own actions. We need to make sure you don’t hurt yourself when another one of these impulses come.”
“It was just paper!”
I stared at her.
“I guess you’re right.” She absently kicked at the pile of stuff at her feet; nearly everything except the mattress and the other furniture had been removed from the room. I wasn’t sure what would look like food to Zoey’s feverish mind, but I didn’t want to find out. “What are you going to do?”
“Stay here, within earshot of you the whole time” I said. “Keep working on how to remove the curse.”
“But I can help with that!” she protested.
“Not if we’re both worried about you losing control again,” I replied. “Please, Zoey.”
She gave me a small frown, then nodded.
I gently guided her into the bedroom and closed the door.
I took an elastic bungee cord and wrapped it around the door handle, then to the nearby window handle, until the slack had gone extremely tight. Then I clipped the ends together, ensuring that the door was now unopenable.
I took a look at the clock.
I sat down at the booth, opened my laptop, and started the research again.
At two PM, Zoey spoke.
Still seated at the booth, I paused.
“I… I was thinking about something,” Zoey’s voice said from behind the door. “I want to see what you think.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Well…” She stopped for a minute. “When you tried that homemade spell, I threw up everything I had eaten, right? And all I had after that was the Chex mix. So really, if I ate something now, it couldn’t hurt me, right?”
I sighed and went back to my laptop.
“A-and really, seeing as all I had was that Chex and the paper, it’d be more healthy for me to eat something now. Actually, I really should eat something now. To help flush my system out. Right Liam?
At five PM, there was rustling and banging from behind Zoey’s door.
“There has to be something!” I heard her growl. “He can’t have taken everything! There has to be something he overlooked! Maybe I dropped something. Maybe there’s crumbs of something. THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING!”
I shook my head, then closed the laptop and left the RV.
When I got back, I immediately checked the clock.
Seven PM. Using the city’s buses, it had taken almost two hours just to get what I had left for.
I walked up to Zoey’s door and gave it a brief knock. “Zoey?”
“I have something. For dinner.”
There was an immediate flurry of noise and the door gave a brief thunk as Zoey pressed her weight to it. “I’m here, I’m here.”
I took the small sandwich I had bought, unwrapped it from the plastic wrap the store had put it in, and put it in a paper bag. Then, I strained against the bungee cord and managed to crack the door open just wide enough to get the bag through.
Zoey snatched it from my hand. Violently. I withdrew and let the door slam closed as I listened to the sound of greedy, slobbery eating from behind it.
“That’s it?” Zoey asked. “One sandwich? That’s it?”
“That’s it,” I confirmed.
“I HATE YOU!” she yelled. “WHY WON’T YOU JUST DIE? WHY WON’T YOU JUST DIE SO THAT I CAN GET OUT OF HERE AND YOU CAN STOP STARVING ME?!”
There’s a thump sound and I heard her start crying.
“I’m sorry, Liam. I didn’t mean any of those things. I’m sorry.”
I placed my hand on the door. “I know.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“Hush,” I whispered. “I’m going to find a way out of this, alright? Just like last time. It’s all going to be okay.”
“Okay,” she sobbed.
I walked over to the booth and started back on my research.
A few minutes later, I heard the sounds of Zoey tearing the paper bag into pieces, chewing them up, and swallowing them, one by one.
I was in the middle of a nightmare.
Pretty much everyone I had ever known was crowded into the RV: my parents, Zoey’s parents, old classmates, everyone. Nobody could go outside, the hungry ghosts were terrorizing the land, but no one minded, because they were all here for one thing:
Strapped to the table was a young, Native American girl, cut, bruised, and thin as a skeleton. Her eyes were angry and black, and she kept snarling and snapping at anyone that came near her.
She had a Wendigo inside her, and everyone had come to see me exorcise her of it.
Like a theater performance.
Problem was, I wasn’t sure I knew how. I had notes on how to do it, but I’d lost them, and I was frantically searching the bedroom of the RV, the one place not completely crowded full with chatting guests.
“Where is it?” I was muttering to myself. “Where is it where is it where is it?”
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
It was Zoey. She’d entered the room and had a concerned look on her face.
“The notes. The notes for the Wendigo dance! I can’t find them!”
She frowned and cocked her head. “You know you’re dreaming, right? You could just… wake up.”
“No, I can’t,” I said. “I’m the only one who knows about the exorcism ritual. If I don’t save that girl before this dream ends, no one will. I can’t just…”
“Sshhhhh…” she said, drawing me in close and placing a finger on my lips. “Forget about the girl. You need to wake up.”
She smiled. “Because, Liam, yoUR PLAYTHING HAS ESCAPED.
I jolted awake, heart pounding.
It was as black as void outside the RV’s windows. I groaned and rubbed my eyes, then glanced over at the wall clock.
Two in the morning.
Last I’d checked, it was close to eleven. I must have dozed off at some point.
I wiped up a small puddle of drool, then quietly walked to the back of the RV and gave the bedroom door a soft knock. “Zoey? Are you still doing okay?”
That didn’t necessarily mean anything. She could just be too sullen to respond. Or, more likely, she was asleep.
Still, something just didn’t sit right with me.
Quietly cursing myself for being so paranoid, I left the RV and headed outside. I could just peep in a window, make sure she was still okay, and go back to…
One of the windows was gone.
“Zoey?” I ran up to the blank space where the window should have been and scanned the inside of the RV. The bedroom was fine, barren and calm, no signs of a struggle.
And no Zoey.
As I shifted to try to get a better view, there was a sharp crack underneath my foot. There was the window, metal frame and everything else still attached, fallen onto the ground.
I picked it up and examined the edges. The soft ribbing of rubber and calk, designed to keep the pane in place, was torn and frayed, as if it had been stabbed. And then pushed out, maybe? If it was on the ground out here, then the person who removed it that way would have been inside the RV.
My eyes finished adjusting to the dark, and I saw what I had missed before: footprints in the wet mud, leading from here to the night beyond.
I followed as quietly as I could, until I found her kneeling in the ground, hands deep inside the carcass of something rotten, too far gone to fully identify: a deer, or a coyote once maybe, but now just rancid meat and fur drenched in sticky black bile.
The stench alone almost made me gag.
It almost made me faint.
“Liam?” Zoey turned around and smiled. That rotten blackness made from dead blood and liquified gore was caked on her hands, on her clothes, on her face. When she smiled, it dripped from her gums and painted her teeth black. “Look what I found!”
I swallowed down the sour acid trying to rise out of my throat. “Y-yeah. I see.”
“Y’know, I’m not usually one to go for this kind of stuff, but…” She grabbed a bone that still had some flesh hanging off of it, sucked it like spaghetti off of a fork, then placed the bone between her teeth and cracked it in half with a loud CRUNCH. “You wanna try some?” she asked, still gnawing on the bone in her mouth.
I forced more acid down. “N-no, I’m good. Listen, I was thinking about earlier today, about what we said to each other…”
“Oh, that.” Zoey took the bone out of her mouth and swallowed something. A stream of saliva and more of that nasty fluid leaked out of the corner of her mouth. “Listen Liam, I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I was just frustrated and upset and it all came out wrong.”
I held up a hand. It helped block out the sight of the carcass. “No worries. In fact, I think you were right, so I went and got something for you. Back in the RV.”
Her eyes lit up. “Food?”
“Yeah, food. It’s… it’s in the RV. Follow me.”
Standing and smearing more of that rotten tar-like substance on herself, Zoey walked behind me until we came back to the RV.
I stopped. “You… should probably close your eyes.”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “Why?”
“Because, the stuff I got… it’s like a surprise, alright?”
“You’re acting weird,” she complained, but shut her eyes.
“No peeking.” With a shudder, I grabbed her hand still dripping with the remains of her grisly feast and walked her inside, then sat her down in the passenger’s seat of the RV.
“One more thing…” I added, “I’m going to tie you into this chair, alright? I’ll hand feed you, okay?”
With her eyes still closed, she furrowed her brow. “What? Why?”
“It’s a lot of food, and in your… condition, I don’t want you to scarf it all down at once. I want you to savor it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Zoey…” I whispered, “you trust me, don’t you?”
She paused. “Yeah, alright, fine.”
I took out the heavy nylon rope from our emergency road kit, the one that was supposed to be used for towing, and wrapped it snugly around her five times before tying off the ends and clasping the metal hooks together. I silently cursed myself for never joining boy scouts; I just had to hope that the same pretzel-knot tie would hold tight if I did it over and over and over again.
“Alright,” I said. “I’m going to be right back, Zoey. I promise.”
She stared at me for a second, before several emotions flashed over her face. “You… you lied!”
I stepped away, heading towards the door. “I’m going to fix this all Zoey. I’m going to make you not hungry anymore.”
“LET ME OUT OF HERE!” Her screams were so loud I could hear them outside the RV, and I was glad that we’d decided to park on the side of a country road in the middle of nowhere instead of a crowded RV park to try and save money. “LET ME OUT OF HERE! Liam, if you don’t untie me right now, I’m going to eat the FLESH off your FACE, YOU HEAR ME?”
“I’m sorry.” I could hear a tiny sniffle in her words. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I said that. I didn’t mean it. Just… untie me, okay? We can forget about all this. You hear me Liam? LIAM?!”
I didn’t respond. My thoughts were too busy racing through my head. What was I supposed to do? I’d spent a whole day looking things up, researching potential cures, and all I’d accomplished was chasing my own tail. I was no more knowledgeable about hungry ghosts or Fear Gotas or wendigos than when I first started; all I had was dozens of memorized articles of poorly written wikis and ‘top 10 scariest’ lists. I was spinning in the dark, and Zoey was getting worse.
I couldn’t do this.
Not on my own, anyway.
I didn’t like what I was about to do. If there was any other way, I would have taken it. In a heartbeat.
But there wasn’t, and Zoey’s life was on the line.
There was a sudden rush of cold through my bones, the flap of wings, and behind me, thirty to forty feet away, was a figure in a sick green hoodie, faded jeans, and a face shrouded in shadow.
If he had a face at all.
LIAM, the familiar, echoing words spoke in my head, WHAT CAN LAPLACE’S ANGEL DO FOR YOU TODAY?
“I need your help,” I said. “I need you to fix Zoey.”
FIX? FIX YOUR TOY IN THERE?
I shivered, only partly from the night air. “Yes.”
He cocked his head for a moment, as if listening to something. NO.
I blinked. I hadn’t been expecting that. “No?”
THE THING THAT GNAWS ON HER SOUL IS BEYOND MY POWER TO REMOVE.
“Oh, I see. So you’re saying you’re too weak to help me.”
There was a sudden flash of blinding blue light and a feeling like all my nerves had been replaced with raw electricity. I collapsed to the ground, spasming, hearing some strange WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP pound in my head, sending new waves of pain from my scalp to my toes with each strike. My vision slowly began to collapse into a tiny tunnel of light…
...and then it was over, and Sam was standing over me, pinpricks of eyes shining bright and sharp teeth stretched into a snarl.
DO NOT MISTAKE ME FOR SOME SIDE-SHOW VEGAS ACT WITH CHEAP PROPS, DISCIPLE, it snarled. MY POWERS STRETCH TO CORNERS OF TIME AND SPACE THAT YOU CAN NOT COMPREHEND, LET ALONE ACCESS. AND DO NOT MISTAKE ME FOR SOME WAYWARD GORILLA YOU CAN CON WITH HONEY WORDS AND CLEVER RIDDLES. I AM MADNESS. I AM THE AVATAR OF INSANITY. I AM NOT STUPID!
Another wave of that crackling torment hit me, then let up. Once I could focus again, I noticed that Sam was staring off into the distance, watching something I couldn’t see. Then, it looked back down, and it’s teeth were stretched into a smile.
I CAN NOT HELP HER.
“Why not?” I demanded.
BECAUSE THE THING THAT TORMENTS HER IS A CREATURE OF THE DEEP EARTH. It stretched its hands out and waggled its fingers. THERE ARE THINGS OF THIS REALITY, DISCIPLE, AND THERE ARE THINGS OF OTHER REALITIES, AND THEN THERE ARE THE THINGS OUTSIDE OF REALITY ITSELF, REALMS THAT LIE PERPENDICULAR TO SANE TIME AND SPACE. THE THINGS THAT ARE NOT OF REALITY CAN NOT AFFECT THOSE THAT ARE OF REALITY, AND THE OPPOSITE IS TRUE TOO.
THAT THING, it declared, pointing to the RV, IS A BEING OF THIS REALITY, AND I CAN NO MORE LAY HANDS ON IT THAN YOU CAN TAKE OUT A KNIFE AND STAB ME TO DEATH.
“But… but Jones!” I protested. “With the demon! You fought him, and he was from this… reality, right?”
I FOUGHT THE DEMON, it responded. THAT WAS A CREATURE OF THE REALMS OF NONREALITY, ALLOWED ACCESS INTO THIS WORLD BY ONE OF THE WORLD, AND AS SUCH, WAS MINE TO ATTACK AS I PLEASED. BUT JONES, I COULD NOT TOUCH. IT WAS UP TO YOU TO OVERPOWER HIM.
“So that’s it then?” I spat. “I’m just supposed to leave Zoey to the curse.”
The tiny lights that were his eyes shone a little brighter. THERE IS ONE WAY. BUT YOU MAY NOT FIND IT… AGREEABLE.
“I’ll do it!” I shouted. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it!”
The smile crept just a few inches wider. THEN ASK JONES.
I stopped. “Jones? Reverend Jones?”
He nodded. HE IS OF THIS REALITY, AND HE IS INFATUATED WITH THE MAGICS OF IT. HE WILL KNOW WHAT TO DO.
555-109-0661. PROVE YOUR METTLE, DISCIPLE. BEND THE OLD MAN TO YOUR WILL.
I scrambled away, barely registering the flap of wings or the tiny release of pressure on my mind, letting me know that Sam was gone. I grabbed my phone, jabbed in the numbers, then pressed it up against my ear as hard as I could.
It rang once, then twice, before a wavery and uncertain voice said “Hello?”
“Jones?” I asked. “Reverend Jones?”
“Who is this?” he demanded. “At this time of night? I should…”
“It’s Liam,” I said.
“With the car…” I tried. “You sent a…”
“I know who you are,” Jones’ voice spat. “You think I could just forget the newest dark disciple so easily?”
“I need your help.”
Jones laughed. “You? Need my help? Oh, this is rich, boy.”
“Zoey’s been affected by some sort of curse,” I continued. “I need to know how to reverse it.”
“And what makes you think I would help you, foul thing? Why would I assist an evil in the making?”
I felt my face grow hot. “You? Calling me evil?”
“This is pointless.”
“Wait! Wait…” I took a moment to collect myself. “You affected Zoey with something. The black spot?”