Waves lapped the shore next to the beachfront restaurant patio where Ben and Kaylee sat. Theirs was the only occupied table. Kaylee was talking, but Ben wasn’t really listening. He tugged at the collar of his shirt. He didn’t wear shirts with collars that often, didn’t need to, and it was rubbing his freshly-shaved neck something awful. He was deeply uncomfortable, partially because he was on a date for the first time in (years? decades?) months, but mostly because of the three-story chicken carcass rotting half-submerged in the lake behind him.
A hunk of spoiled meat the size of a small horse peeled away from a rib bone and plunged into the sea. Ben winced as water, invisible to Kaylee, splashed him in the back and ran down his shirt.
“Are you ok?” Kaylee said. She’d ditched her dog walking gear and gotten dressed up too — short floral-print dress, makeup. She looked good.
“Yeah, I uhh….” Ben coughed. “Sorry. I’m sorry. You were talking about stand up?”
The smell of the giant chicken carcass stretched three or four miles past its actual location, blanketing most of the Northeast side of the city — and parts of Evanston — in a distinct funk. Sarah called it the “Poultry Zone”. Ben usually tried to stay out of it, but when Kaylee had suggested this restaurant, twenty feet from ground zero, he had struggled to come up with rational excuses. So, he got there early, acclimated himself as best he could, and threw up into the lake a couple times before Kaylee arrived.
“The stand up scene in Chicago isn’t what I thought it would be. It’s an improv town, you know?” Kaylee paused. Ben nodded. “You can only do the same few open mics so many times before it starts to feel like you’re spinning your wheels. I’m thinking of moving to LA. I have a friend who has his own theater. They put out a podcast every week. I should get in on that.”
“I always wanted to do that.” Ben took a quick, filtered breath through his shirt and forced himself to act normal for thirty goddamn seconds. “Move to LA.”
“Yeah, you’re like a screenwriter, right?”
“No.” Ben said. “Not really. I don’t know. I haven’t written anything since college, and everything I wrote then was just combinations of things I liked. Space cowboys, robot dinosaurs, monkeys with jetpacks. You know. Nerd shit.”
Kaylee shrugged. “I like monkeys.”
“I didn’t really have anything to say. And when I sat down to write after graduation I just…blanked. Nothing. For years. I think maybe I liked the idea of being ‘a writer’ more than I liked writing.” Another smaller piece of meat splashed down into the water. Ben frowned. “Anyway, I’m busy.”
“Well,” Kaylee unconsciously wiped water off the table with her hand. “It sounds to me like you came up with a bunch of excuses after the fact for why you were totally justified in giving up on your dreams.”
Ben looked at her, forgetting for the first time about the rotting chicken.
“Because your dreams are hard.” She smiled. She had a terrific smile. He’d never noticed until now.
“This is a great first date.” Ben said. Kaylee laughed. “You wanna get together next weekend, really dig into my physical flaws?”
“Your nose is a little crooked,” she said.
“I get hit in the face a lot.”
“I’m not surprised. What do you do at night?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you said you’re not writing,” Kaylee leaned in closer to Ben, “And every time we meet up to exchange keys, you’re all tired and surly, and it turns out you get hit in the face a lot? Which we haven’t really gone into yet.”
Ben wasn’t sure how much Sarah wanted him telling people. Their work was mostly off the record. Also, I kill invisible demons was more of a third date revelation.
“Wait, so you think I’m kind of a jerk…”
“That’s accurate.” Kaylee said, nodding.
“…but you asked me out.”
She thought about that for a moment. “I guess I like jerks? That doesn’t bode well for the future.”
Ben laughed. “This is going in your stand up set, isn’t it?”
“I barely have to change anything. Have we ordered drinks?”
“I’m not even sure this place is open.” Ben leaned back to peer into the window. It was dark inside the restaurant. “Are you super into seafood?”
“It just seemed like a date place. I’m gonna go investigate the situation and also pee. Try not to get hit in the face while I’m gone.”
She winked as she left. Ben sighed, unbuttoning the top button on his shirt. Kaylee was very nice, and he was totally blowing this. Not that it was 100% his fault. He glanced up at the gargantuan pile of decomposing meat and bones half-drowned in Lake Michigan…
The dog walker clawed his way up from one man-sized feather to the next, finally reaching the point on the enormous, rampaging chicken where he could stand upright. Tall buildings and the tops of trees whooshed past on either side of him. He was towards the rear of the fowl, somewhere in the dark meat. Ahead, a spinning pillar of flame, a fire tornado, whirled where the bird’s head should have been. Backlit by the fire, facing away from Ben, an anthropomorphic naked human butt with legs crouched amongst the feathers.
Ben drew his Onislayer, which he had tucked painfully into his shirt and pants, and trudged carefully towards the buttlike shirime. The giant chicken swayed with each step. Wind rushed all around. Ben clutched a handful of feathers with his free hand at all times. He was close now. He could feel the heat from the chicken’s flaming head. The butt creature was preoccupied, its single eye deep in the feathers. Ben raised his weapon, ready to strike.
Fire whipped towards him! He staggered back. The eyebutt had a burning feather clutched like a sword in its tiny, atrophied hand.
“Baka gaijin!” the creature said, “Stab me in the back?! You humans have forgotten honor!”
He stabbed his feather-sword at Ben, who blocked it, but just barely. The feather was grown by a demon, and it burned brighter on contact with the Onislayer. Something crunched beneath Ben and the eyebutt and they separated, each stumbling back. The chicken must’ve stepped on a car or something.
“Send this thing back to hell!” Ben shouted. “Before anyone else gets hurt!”
The mouthless butt creature laughed somehow. “This is only the beginning, inugami boy! You resurrected the dog! You defied fate! The door has been opened!”
The shirime lunged for Ben, it’s large glistening eye squinting in anger. Ben dove to the side, almost losing his balance and rolling right off the chicken. The feather-sword was already coming at him again. Ben blocked it, shoved it away, and swung the Onislayer, which the creature dodged with ease. It was a butt with legs, but it knew how to swordfight. Ben had never touched one before yesterday.
“A price must be paid!” said the eyebutt, swinging wildly. Ben blocked as best he could. “I will be rewarded handsomely when I take it from your flesh!”
The butt creature did a quick thrust forward, dodged Ben’s weak attack, hooked one of the spikes on the Onislayer with its blade and whipped the weapon out of Ben’s hand. The Onislayer tumbled through the air before landing in a tree, which quickly retreated into the distance behind them. The tip of the feather-sword poked at Ben’s neck. The eye at the center of the butt seemed to smile. Behind it, the sounds of an engine approached. A horizontal shadow formed in the tornado of fire.
“We shall find the limits of the kakawari when I cut off your-” The engine grew louder, not down on the ground but level with Ben and the butt. A horn honked. “What is that?”
“Purple Line Express.” Ben said.
He swatted the feather-sword away, stepped directly on the eyebutt’s eye and jumped upwards, grabbing the edge of the elevated train platform as it burst through the flames. He hoisted himself up over the barrier and rolled down onto the tracks. His face stopped a mere inch from the electrified third rail, which buzzed menacingly. The horn honked again. Headlights to Ben’s right. The train!
He hopped over the electric rail and scrambled up onto the standing area.The train roared past just as Ben pulled his right foot out of its path. He was sucked a few steps to the side in its wake. The people standing there waiting for the next train were surprised to see Ben, but were oblivious to the three-story flaming chicken passing beneath them. The dog walker ran, jumped down into the set of tracks on the opposite site, climbed up onto the barrier, and leapt back onto the giant chicken. He rolled along its spine before snagging a handful of feather, stopping himself.
He stood and looked around. No sign of the eyebutt.
If they just passed the ‘L’ tracks, the chicken was definitely headed east. Ben took a breath and closed his eyes. An image formed in his mind of the streets below, black and white with a green tint, blurry, always moving. The chicken’s taloned foot smashed into the asphalt, crushing a newspaper box and a stopsign in the process. The inugami dodged the smushed newspaper box and continued its chase. Rough panting echoed around Ben’s head.
“Toby!” Ben said. “You’re doing great! Keep herding it that way!”
“Let’s kill it first!”
A cop car pulled up, driving in the bike lane, keeping pace with the chicken and the monstrous dog. Sarah whistled and waved to the inugami, getting its attention.
“You still got that mind meld?!” she shouted. “Tell Ben to keep the old butt man occupied. I’m gonna swing around from the other direction!”
She swerved to the right and zoomed down a side street. Ben opened his eyes and held the bridge of his nose. He clutched the feathers around him and breathed slowly, letting the inugami’s rage dissipate. He’d been inside Toby’s head before, but never when the dog was in his full inugami mode. It was scary in there. So much anger — pure, directionless, endless. When Toby was a dog, it was buried a little deeper. The inugami just wanted to maul and eat everything near it. Ben wasn’t sure he could–
Something shoved Ben forward. His shirt felt cold and wet. He looked down and saw the point of a giant feather spearing through his chest. He tried to take a breath, but his lungs didn’t work. He spat out the blood that had filled his mouth. Behind him, the eyebutt laughed.
“You think you are very clever,” the sentient butt said, “Threatening me! Forcing me to the return to the Realm of the Dead! I hope you enjoyed your visit there, ningen, because you’re about to–“
The giant chicken stopped suddenly, swayed forward. The eyebutt tumbled over Ben’s shoulders and into the swirling pillar of fire, butt-face first. The creature screamed, rolling in the feathers to douse the flames. Beneath the screams, Ben heard waves. They made it to the lake. He tried to mentally contact Toby, but he always found it hard to concentrate while dying.
“Baka niwatori!” the eyebutt shouted, butt-face smoking. “Be careful! If you fall in the water you’ll–“
A cop car came screeching down Lake Shore Drive, sirens blaring. The driver’s door open and Sarah rolled out onto the pavement. The car slammed into the chicken’s foot with a loud crunch. The avian leviathan tipped forward, losing its balance.
As he fell with the chicken, quickly losing consciousness, Ben saw the inugami leap off the side of a building. Cool black tentacles of fur wrapped around him and pulled Ben away just as he was about to roll into the fire.
The giant chicken plunged into the drink, its flaming head steaming up like a volcano. Moments later, Ben and Toby hit the water and went under.
“Hey! Space case!”
Kaylee snapped her fingers. Ben blinked.
“Is that your moped in the lot?” Kaylee grabbed her sweater off the back of her chair. “I’ve always wanted to ride one of those.”
They sat in the grass together, leaning against the side of the moped, eating takeout burritos. The Blues Brothers danced on a big projection screen at the other end of the public park. It was after ten and getting cooler out. Most of the people who’d come out for the movie had gone home. Beans and rice spilled out from Kaylee’s burrito and onto her lap.
“Dang it, Kaylee,” she muttered, “Get it together.”
Ben laughed. “Do you talk to yourself a lot?”
Kaylee pulled a spare poop bag from her sweater pocket and used it to pick the beans off her dress. “I never used to.”
“Me too. I think it’s from being alone with dogs all day. You get in the habit of saying whatever pops in your head and not expecting a response.”
“Oh God, yeah. You should hear some of the things I say to those dogs.”
“Do you ever sing to them?”
Kaylee took a suspiciously long time to respond. “Never.”
She put the rest of her burrito in the poop bag, tied it shut, and tossed it underhand towards a nearby trash can, missing it completely. Ben smushed his garbage into a ball, lobbed it, and also missed.
“I like you back,” Ben said. “For the record.”
Kaylee scooched down and rested her head on his shoulder.
“Good,” she said.
Ashley Ocampo stood at the bathroom sink, brushing her teeth. The dull, painful itch at the back of her head refused to go away, but something kept her from scratching it. She couldn’t explain it. Something deep inside wouldn’t let her touch her head. Every time she started to, the pain would fade and her mind would wander. Even now as she stood here, alone, her brain kept blinking to other topics. Mrs. Greco’s constant anger. Sophie’s pictures. That thing Sensei Tatsuya said about the police. Maybe he was right. Maybe she should–
Her hair moved.
She raised her hand, then stopped. She should finish brushing her teeth before–
“No.” Ash said. She thought of her Bushido. Self-control. She had to control herself. She had to focus.
She raised her hand to the back of head, ran it along the back of her neck. Every instinct urged her to stop, to do anything else, but she pressed on. She had to know. She reached her hairline, went a little further, then…
She felt lips. She felt teeth. The toothbrush dropped from her mouth and clinked into the sink.
Ash’s own hair whipped forward and wrapped around her jaw, holding it closed, stifling her scream.
“Shh…” said the mouth in the back of Ash’s head. “All is as it should be.”