Chapter Six.

Chapter Six.

posted in: Serial Chapter | 0

Detectives Bolland and Martinez waited outside a Catholic school gymnasium. It was Sunday afternoon. The last of the parishioners stood outside the church across the street, chatting up the priest. He had his keys out, ready to lock the doors the moment these old folks finally went home.

“All these stupid missions…” Jake bounced a stray dodgeball off the brick wall. “It took me eight years to make detective. All I ever wanted to do when I was a kid, you know? Solve crimes, bust crooks, keep the streets safe.”

“Me too.” Sarah said, half listening while deleting emails on her phone.

“This is a waste of our time. I became a detective to do detective work.”

“We’re helping people.”

“Are we? Martinez, look…” Jake caught the ball and walked over to Sarah. “You’re a good cop. You’re my partner. Our dads worked together back in the day. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

Sarah looked up from her phone. “What’re you getting at?”

Jake frowned, trying to think of the right way to put it. “Every time you bring in your friend to fight invisible demons with his magic dog, I respect your judgement a little less.”

A moped buzzed across the school parking lot, wobbling unsteadily around parked cars. Ben waved to the cops. Sarah waved back.

“They’re only invisible to you, Jake.” she said.

A white van came around the corner, following Ben. There was a large mural was painted on the side depicting three wolves — two black, one white — running across the snow by moonlight. Sarah sighed.

Ben rolled up to the curb and kicked out his kickstand. The van parked behind him. Marcus stepped out, duster blowing in the wind. He nodded to the cops, smiling smugly. He strutted to the back of the van and popped the rear door open. Three wolves — identical to the ones painted on the van — jumped out and lined up along the sidewalk.

“This is different.” Jake said.

Marcus palmed a few treats and popped one into each of the wolves’ mouths. Jake went over to him, flashing his badge and keeping his distance from the wolves, who watched him with dark eyes as they chewed.

Ben hoisted Toby out of his basket and onto the concrete. The dog shook and stretched, heading to a nearby fire hydrant. Sarah grabbed Ben by the shirt and pulled him in close.

“You brought the wolf guy?!” she whispered.

“Marcus is cool!” Ben said. “We’ve been texting back and forth. He knows a lot about yokai and stuff. He can help us.”

“Are you sure we can trust him?”

Ben shrugged. “If he wanted to kill me, he had a pretty good opportunity at the forest preserve.”

“That’s not really–“

“Hey Sarah?” Jake backed away from the wolves as they stood and approached him. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

“Go get coffee.” Ben said, “We’ll get rid of the thing before you guys get back. What is it, anyway?”

Marcus sniffed the air. He plucked the dodgeball out of Jake’s hands and held it in front of the wolves, who sniffed it intently. The priest walked past, froze when he saw the wolves, then kept walking a little more quickly.

“It’s a foot with a face.” Sarah said. She didn’t look happy about this. Toby lifted his leg to pee on the fire hydrant then glanced at Ben.

“Roger that.” Ben said, turning away to give Toby some privacy.

 

The lights were out as Ben, Marcus and their canine companions entered the gymnasium. Ben found the light-switch near the door and clicked it.

All the way on the far side of the room, atop a pile of ripped-up gym mats, stood a severed human leg. At the top, where the knee would be, grew a tuft of light brown hair. On the front of the shin, a human face with a single large eye gasped. Its nostrils flared. Gym mat stuffings dribbled from its mouth.

The foot shrieked and bolted. Marcus whistled, and the wolves chased after it. Toby ran with them. Ben went to follow, drawing the Onislayer, but Marcus stopped him.

“Let ’em run.” Marcus said. “The dogs need the exercise.”

The sentient foot hopped like a bunny around the edge of the gym, circling it. The wolves and Toby followed. Toby was out ahead of wolves now. His tongue was hanging out the side of his mouth. He looked hungry. The foot bounced past the humans and briefly made eye contact with Ben.

Tasukete!” said the foot. “Aieee!”

It tried to hop out the door but the wolves boxed it in, forcing it to stay inside the gym. They herded it back towards the mats.

“I hate the ones that look like rearranged body parts.” Ben said, holstering his weapon. “They’re unsettling.”

Marcus grunted. “You ever meet the old man with the eyeball in his ass?”

Ben laughed. “Yeah dude, he’s basically my arch-nemesis. This one time he–“

Toby barked. The windows rattled. A shadow started to form around him, tentacles whipping off his back. The foot with a face squealed in terror.

Īe!” said the foot. “W-Warui inu!”

“Toby!” Ben closed his eyes and held his pointer fingers to his temple. Toby slowed down a bit and the shadow around him faded.

“You in his head right now?” Marcus rubbed his chin. “That kakawari shit is insane. I don’t do it like that.”

“You’re not bonded to them?”

“Only the old-fashioned way. I tried with the first one, Jordan, but neither of us took to it. You can’t do it with three inugamis, anyway. That much conflicting sensory information would make your brain melt out of your skull.”

Ben nodded. “Where’d you get three inugamis, anyway?”

“Back in my early 20’s, I was teaching English in Japan, down in Kunisaki.” Marcus made a Japan-like shape with his hand and pointed the the bottom of his palm. “I was hiking up near Futagoji Temple, alone, and I slipped on some loose rubble and broke my ankle. Jordan found me and led me to the temple, to safety. If it wasn’t for that wolf, I probably would’ve died up in those mountains.”

The wolves and Toby had their fur tentacles out, poking at the terrified foot sporadically, but not hurting it, just taunting it. There was a cruelty to the act that Ben didn’t like.

“A couple years later, an old Buddhist monk saw me in town, with Jordan, and offered me his wolf. He wanted to make sure someone who knew inugamis could take care of Pippen when he died. The white one, Longley, I didn’t get until I was back in the states. Dental hygienist in Ohio found me on the internet. She wanted to go straight and get married, basically the same deal as the monk. There aren’t really shelters for these. If you ever want to give it up, you have to find someone. What about you? How’d you and the dog get hooked up?”

Ben went through the basics, about how he had been hired to walk Toby just as the Children of Tengu attacked, forcing the inugami to bind himself to Ben for protection. He talked about Dragon Mask and his family watching over the inugami for generations, whether the inugami liked it or not. He went into a lot of unnecessary detail about how Emily Gritz, the leader of the Children of Tengu, had fallen deeply, passionately in love with him before she died. That part wasn’t true, but this guy didn’t know that.

“So,” Marcus said, lighting a cigarette. “An old luchador taught you everything you know about inugamis and the other yokai.”

“Tatsuya, yeah. I don’t think you should smoke in here. This is a grade school.”

Marcus nodded, but didn’t stop smoking. “The cops find the demons, they call you, and then the dog eats the demons. So what do you do?”

“Uhh, well,” Ben reached back and drew his weapon. “I’ve got the Onislayer. Demons burn at its touch. Also, with the kakawari, Toby can’t be hurt unless I’m hurt, so–“

“But if you’re in there with the bat–“

“It’s more of a sword.” Ben said.

“If you’re in there with the paddle, aren’t you getting injured a lot?”

“Yeah, constantly. I got my hand cut off a few days ago.”

“So how is it better to have you in there, actively involved, than if you stayed out of it?”

“I…” Ben didn’t have an answer. The foot was slowing down now. The face on its shin was panting. The wolves weren’t playing with it anymore, and were actually hanging back, trotting along, looking kind of bored. Toby, on the other hand, was in full beast mode, big and black and bear-shaped, his eyes glowing red. The chase had riled him up.

“Toby!” Ben shouted. “Cool your jets!”

“I wouldn’t normally do this, but…” Marcus dropped the cigarette butt and stomped it out. “I can train you with Toby. I can make you integral to the operation.”

“Uhh,” Ben laughed nervously. “No thanks. Tatsuya’s already–“

“I’m sure Tatsuya is a great fighter, but he’s had one inugami that he didn’t really get along with. I have three. I know how to handle an inugami. You gotta be the alpha dog.”

“Alpha dog. Right.” Ben said. Toby barked. The whole gym shuddered. The foot whimpered. “Toby! Come on!”

“Show the dog his place. You can’t be in there swinging your paddle around, you gotta be stand back and supervise. See?”

Marcus whistled. The three wolves sped up, zooming past Toby and pouncing on the foot.

“These animals are the ultimate killing machine.” Marcus said. “You shouldn’t need a weapon.”

Toby kept running, passing the foot and the wolves. His eyes were blank. He wasn’t focused on the foot. The rage had taken him. The door opened behind Ben and Marcus, and Jake stepped into the room holding a large coffee.

“Hope I’m not interrupting–“

Toby leapt on him, claws out, growling. Jake’s coffee went all over his shirt.

“Hey! No! Toby!” Ben stepped towards them but was swatted away by flailing tentacles.

“Jesus! Shit!” Jake shouted. The inugami snarled in his face, teeth bared. Jake tried to crawl backwards but the beast kept him pinned. “Get him off of me!”

Marcus stepped forward, casually dodging tentacles, and pulled a small metal tube from the inside pocket of his duster. He placed it to his lips and blew. There was no sound, but the wolves all looked up. The foot, still alive, whimpered. Toby blinked and backed away from Jake.

The cop scrambled to his feet, dripping with coffee. He pointed at Ben. “Control your mutt, Carter!”

Sarah entered carrying three coffees just as Jake stormed out. To him, it had simply been a small orange dog jumping on him. He had no idea how dangerous the situation truly was.

The beast sat, staring at Marcus and his dog whistle, head tilted to the side. Marcus stepped towards him, continuing to blow. He pulled the whistle away and shushed. He gently placed his hand in front of the beast’s face, an inch from his snout. The giant black inugami form slowly faded until only the Shiba Inu remained.

“What the hell just happened?” Sarah looked past Toby and saw the wolves tearing the foot to shreds. It let out one final pained shriek. Both she and Ben winced at this. Marcus did not.

“This one me?” Marcus took one of the coffees from Sarah, sipped it. He turned to Ben, pulling out a flip phone.

“Tomorrow morning. Meet me at this address.” He sent a text. Ben’s phone buzzed. “I’ll teach you the most important lesson you’ll ever learn.”

 

Ash sat at her desk, trying to focus on Taylor’s math homework. She had a mouth on the back of her head. A talking mouth. Last night, when she’d tried to show Mrs. Greco, the woman had been unable to see it, and Ash had been unable to describe it. When she tried, her thoughts got all jumbled, her words slurred. Mrs. Greco thought Ash was faking it to get out of the extra homework. Sensei Tatsuya could help her. He would know what to do. She just had to make it to Tuesday night, and then–

Muffled shouting reverberated through the wall. Mrs. Greco was yelling at Sophie again. It wasn’t fair that she and Ash had to bear the full brunt of Mrs. Greco’s wrath. Taylor was probably on the couch, playing on her phone, watching old TV for the sixth straight hour in a row.

“I can stop it, you know.” said the mouth on the back of Ash’s head.

“Shut up.” Ash said. “You’re not real.”

“All I need is your permission. Can’t you see, young samurai? You have power now. You can help her.”

The muffled shouts grew louder. Ash took a deep breath and wrote down the answer to the problem on her worksheet.

Sophie started crying. A strand of Ash’s own hair reached down and plucked the pencil out of her hand. She got up and went to the door, opening it a crack.

Sophie was standing in the dining room, a picture of dinosaurs in her hand. Crayons were spilled all over the floor. Tears streamed down her face. Mrs. Greco had her hand clenched around Sophie’s wrist. Her face was twisted in anger, her lips curled back in a cruel sneer. Taylor was laying on the couch, pretending not to pay attention.

“Ash!” Sophie said.

Mrs. Greco’s spun around and pointed at Ash. “Finish your homework!”

Ash shut the door. Several strands of hair were operating independently, each clutching a different part of the door.

“I can end this.” said the mouth.

Ash closed her eyes and made fists. “Do it.”

Her neck cracked, and her head spun at an odd angle. Another crack, and her head rotated a full 180 degrees. The mouth smiled. Ash’s body rose off the floor.

The door opened again, the tore from its hinges. The creature emerged from the darkness, its hair propping it up like spider legs, its small human body dangling limply.

“Mom,” Taylor said, without looking up from her phone, “Ash is out of her room again.”

One of the hair limbs shot forward and wrapped around Mrs. Greco’s wrist. Sophie looked up and screamed.

“Damn it, Ashley.” Mrs. Greco said, unsure why she couldn’t move her wrist. She saw Ash standing in the TV room, looking a bit off. “What did I just-“

The creature darted forwards and wrapped all of its hair limbs around the woman. The four or five cats in the room howled, scattering. Taylor looked up from her phone for the first time, saw Ash standing near Mrs. Greco, arms outstretched. Sophie kept screaming, frozen in place. She could see it. She could see the monster.

The tendrils of hair wrapped around the woman, tightening. She gasped. Blood dripped from her mouth.

Sophie turned and ran towards the kitchen, opened a cupboard, and climbed inside of it.

“A…Ashley…” Mrs. Greco gurgled. The hair tightened around her. Blood pooled in the whites of her eyes.

The mouth smiled.

Chapter Five.

Chapter Five.

posted in: Serial Chapter | 0

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!”

EAT BIRD.

“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.”

Ben smiled.

 

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.”

Chapter Four.

Chapter Four.

posted in: Serial Chapter | 0

A piercing howl rang out through the field, rattling the trees. The blob creature shuddered and a crack opened at its center. Ben’s arm shot out. Sarah holstered her gun, dropped to her knees and grabbed his hand. Toby’s head turned from side to side, searching the air for the origin of the sound.

Two more howls, overlapping the first, vibrating at a dissonant frequency. Sarah felt queasy. Toby yelped and flopped onto his chest. The blob retreated back into the trees as Sarah dragged Ben out of it. He tried to stand and dropped. His left shin was broken, his foot twisted in entirely the wrong direction.

The howling stopped. Ben turned to Toby, who looked as confused as he was.

NOT TOBY, the dog thought.

Out in the field, a tall man stepped up onto a grassy knoll, revealing himself. He wore a black leather duster with flaps over the shoulders, like you might see at a renaissance faire or in a pirate movie, and he had long dreadlocks, down past his shoulders, which waved gently in the wind.

“Your mom was right,” Sarah said. “Here come the pervs.”

The man put two fingers to his lips. Fweep! Three huge dogs, two black, one white, trotted up next to him. Shadow tentacles whipped around on their backs.

“Oh shit.” Ben muttered unconsciously. Toby’s tail wagged briefly.

Fweep fweep! The man whistled. The dogs bolted out across the field, towards them. The man slowly, casually followed. Two of the dogs rushed past Ben, Sarah and Toby, straight into the woods. The third, the white one, stopped next to them. It was the biggest dog Ben had ever seen, with jagged claws, long whiskers, piercing red eyes and curved fangs poking out of its mouth. Wait.

“Is that a wolf?” he said. Sarah reached for her gun again.

Suddenly, the blob of mud and leaves burst from the trees, slithering across the grass and recoiling when it got close to the white wolf. Tentacles rose like cobras off the wolf’s back and began stabbing at the blob in quick, staccato bursts, much as Toby had done earlier. The other two wolves emerged from the trees and did the same. Fwip fwip fwip fwip fwip.

The creature was surrounded. Each time it chose a direction to flee in, it was met with snarling wolf jaws. The flurry of tentacles chipped away at the mud and leaves, and the blob began to shrink.

TOBY KILL, Toby thought, hobbling over on his three good legs, getting in there and stabbing at the blob along with the three wolves. TOBY KILL. TOBY EAT.

Sarah gripped Ben under the armpits and dragged him a little further from the action. The man in the duster stopped next to them. He winked at Sarah.

“Keep it in the circle!” He gave three quick whistles. “Come on, now!”

The blob creature was much smaller now. Most of the leaves were gone, and a bit of grey flesh had been exposed beneath the mud. Toby and the wolves advanced on it, increasing the pace of their attack. The shadow around Toby grew more opaque.

TOBY KILL. STINK MUD. TOBY KILL.

More mud flaked away. The creature thrashed and rolled. The skull of the deer it had eaten, one antler still attached, popped out and rolled up to Ben’s feet. He kicked it away.

The blob creature flipped onto its back, revealing a grey fleshy surface, like an uncooked liver, and a round mouth encircled with pointy teeth. It looked like a leech, but about four feet long and two feet wide. The mouth hissed.

Fweep! The man whistled and the wolves dove in, chomping down on the giant leech. The creature made one final lurch towards the trees, then went limp. The wolves ripped its flesh away in thick chunks, chewing, swallowing, their faces drenched in purple-black goo. Toby glanced at Ben, gauging his reaction, then also dug in. Ben could feel the leech’s life force flow into him, fixing his leg. A sharp twinge of pain hit him in his shin.

“Shit!” he said, “Sarah, you gotta set my bone, it’s not healing right!”

Sarah nodded. She knelt down by his leg and held his shin with both hands.

“Sorry.” she said.

She cracked the bone into place. Ben screamed and fell back, laying on the ground. He listened to the gruesome sounds of the wolves eating the big slug, and watched the leaves flutter in the trees above him. The pain faded. He sat up and wiggled his toes. All better. Toby put his back leg down. He was all healed up too.

“Your superpowers are disgusting.” Sarah said.

She stood and helped him up. He instinctively went easy on his left leg, but it didn’t really hurt. They both remembered the weird guy standing next to them. He was watching the wolves eat with great interest.

“Umm, excuse me,” Sarah went over to him, got into his eyeline. “Hi there. Who are you?”

He reached into his duster and handed her a business card. “That your inugami?”

The man gestured to Toby, who was up on his hind paws, his entire head deep inside the leech carcass.

“Toby’s with me.” Ben picked up the Onislayer and brushed grass off of it. “Are those wolves?”

The man nodded, smiling. “Toby. May I?”

He approached the wolves feasting on the demon leech. Generally, when people asked Ben about “the inugami”, they tried to murder him and take Toby right after, so Ben followed him, Onislayer at the ready. The man tore off a piece of meat and held it in front of Toby, leading him away from the carcass. He put his hand up and whistled. Toby sat.

The man held the floppy hunk of flesh right in front of the dog’s nose, paused, then chucked it straight up in the air. He clapped his hands together.

Voosh! A tentacle shot off Toby’s back, snaring the piece of meat like a frog’s tongue. He guided it into his own mouth and chewed.

“My man!” The guy kneeled and pet Toby behind the ears. “He’s very good. You’ve trained him well.”

“Thanks. I did.” Ben said, unconvincingly. He wondered if Tatsuya taught Toby those tricks. Tatsuya never had the kakawari, he and Toby were never close. Maybe his dad? Or his great-grandfather. Toby was about five hundred years old, it could’ve been anybody.

The guy held out his hand. “Marcus Alcindor.”

“Ben.” Ben said, shaking it. “You have inugami wolves.”

“I do.” Marcus whistled three times. The wolves looked up from their kill then lined up next to Marcus. One of the black ones had a bit of leech flesh dangling from its mouth.

“This is Jordan, Pippen, and Luc Longley.” The white wolf, slightly bigger than the others, burped.

Ben nodded and leaned over to Sarah. “Cause he’s white.”

“I get it.” Sarah squinted at the business card then handed it to Ben. “This says you’re a professional demon hunter. What are you doing here, Mr. Alcindor?”

“Hunting demons. Hey!” Jordan tried to snatch the meat hanging off Pippen’s snout. The wolves growled at each other. “No! Go eat!” The wolves grunted, heads down, and turned back towards the leech. Marcus pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his hand.

“I tracked this sucker all the way down here from McHenry. It’s been feeding its way along the Metra tracks. Left a lot of deer bones.”

“You been doing this long?” Sarah said.

“Decade or so. Used to be more of a hobby. Me and the wolves would go out and find one or two a month. Demon population’s picked up a lot in the last year. Damn things are everywhere.”

“Yeah, uhh, pretty weird, right?” Ben said. Toby walked in circles to keep the wolves from sniffing his butt. Apparently, not taking part in standard canine butt-sniffing was a Toby thing, not an inugami thing. “I’m actually something of a demon hunter myself. Pro bono. I don’t like charging for it.”

“Your loss.” Marcus said. The wind picked up. He looked in the direction of it. Sniffed. “Call me next time you guys find something too big for one dog. I’ll come help. We can trade tips.”

Sarah frowned. “Well, I don’t-“

“Yeah, totally!” Ben said. “We can always use more people, right?”

A pocket of air escaped from the dead leech with an audible fart sound, and the carcass deflated a bit.

“Maybe we should shove that back into the forest.” Sarah said.

“Eh,” Ben shrugged. “Anyone who can actually see it has probably seen much worse. What do you-“

He turned. Marcus and his wolves were gone.

“Heh. He does that too.” Ben smiled real big. “That guy’s really cool, huh?”

Sarah grunted noncommittally. She walked up the hill Marcus had come down from, to look out at the parking lot, where she saw Marcus and his wolves running towards an unmarked white van. Ben knelt down and pet Toby.

“Where’d you learn those commands? Huh?” He attempted to whistle and failed pretty miserably. Toby yawned and burped. Big night.

Down in the lot, Marcus opened the back of the van. Two of the wolves hopped in. One of the black ones was sniffing something. Marcus grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and shoved it roughly into the van, slamming the door behind it. Sarah got a good look at his license plate before he drove off.

“Do you think I could pull off a coat like that?” Ben said, tugging at his mud-soaked hoodie.

“That depends.” Sarah said. “Are you a steampunk vampire?”

 

Sunlight beamed in through the glass block window and straight onto Ashley Ocampo’s face. She groaned and turned away. She opened her eyes. What time was it? She checked her phone. 10 AM. She didn’t remember going to bed last night. She was sitting at her desk, doing her homework, also doing (ugh) Taylor’s homework, and then–

10 AM?! Ash shot out of the bed, pulled on pants and grabbed her backpack. She was late for school! She was hopping and putting on a sock as she opened the door.

Cartoons blared on the TV. Taylor was sprawled out on the couch. Sophie was on the chair next to her, watching upside down, kicking her feet.

“Why aren’t you guys at school?” Ash said.

Taylor snorted. “It’s Saturday, dingus.”

“Saturday…” Ash tried to think. That couldn’t be right.

“Nice job on my homework, by the way. The teacher said it was a big improvement over my usual stuff.”

Ash looked down at her backpack she was holding and pulled out her notebook. It was all done, but the last few answers seemed off. Like they weren’t in her handwriting.

“We’ve got that big essay due next week, so keep it up!” Taylor laughed a loud honk, like the noise a donkey or a seal makes.

“Sophie!” Mrs. Greco stomped in the room, frazzled. “I told you to clean up the dining room! There’s paper and crayons everywhere!”

Sophie sighed, somersaulted off the chair, and headed for the other room.

“Hey Mrs. Greco, was I…” Ash felt like she was still asleep. She had a headache in the back of her head. “Did I go out yesterday?”

“You went to school, you came home, you did your homework, and you went to bed. Barely said a word. I wish there were more days like that.” Mrs. Greco muttered. “Are you even ready for your class?”

Right! Lucha class. Ash had private lessons with Sensei Tatsuya on Saturday mornings. She turned to go back in her room and change. As she did, Mrs. Greco gasped.

“Sophie! God damn it! Where did you get those?!”

Sophie walked back in the room with her arms full of books — Celebrity tell-alls, romance novels, self-help through real estate. Trashy mom books. They all had crayon on them.

“I ran out of paper.” Sophie said.

“You–” Mrs. Greco grabbed Sophie’s arm.

“Ow!” Sophie cried, dropping the books. Crayons scattered on the floor

“You do not go in my room! Do you understand?” She dragged the girl into the kitchen.”You do not take other peoples’ things! Damn it! How many times…”

Ash’s head throbbed. She felt a burning sensation along the back of her skull, from her neck to the top of her head. Her hair shifted.

“What’s wrong with you?” Taylor said, staring at her.

Ash slammed her door.

 

“Moonsault Double Foot Stomp!” Sensei Tatsuya shouted.

Ash did a backflip off the top rope, landing with her feet together on the mats. There wasn’t enough room for an entire wrestling ring in the Lucha Dojo, but Tatsuya had put together one corner that the kids could practice aerial moves on.

Hai! Good! Keep your feet straight, you don’t want to twist an ankle on the landing.”

Ash smiled, bowed, and climbed back to the top of the corner piece.

“Let me think…Shooting Star Elbow Drop!”

Ash leapt off the rope, did a backflip in midair, and landed elbow-first on the mats. Had an opponent been lying where she landed, they would not have gotten up after that.

“Aha! Good! You are improving each day, niña!” He helped her to her feet. “I have seen real wrestlers struggle to do these moves! Keep it up and you will be a real luchadora! You could go pro!”

“Sensei…” Ash said. “I need advice.”

Tatsuya grunted.

“Mrs. Greco, my, uhh, caregiver. She’s being…” Ash wasn’t sure how to put it. “It’s bad, and I need to fix it, but I’m worried that trying to fix it will make it worse. I don’t know. Forget it.” She turned away.

“Niña…Ash…” Tatsuya knelt down in front of her. “If someone is hurting you–“

“No. Not me. She’s not…nobody’s hitting anybody. She’s just mean. She has one real daughter, who sucks, and doesn’t have to do anything. Me and Sophie do all her homework and chores. I think we’re just there so Mrs. Greco can have money.”

“You are sure of this?”

Ash nodded. “I’m angry all the time. You know? My mind goes blank and I just want to scream and smash everything. I think I might be going crazy. I’m trying to stay true to the Bushido, but it’s hard.”

Tatsuya nodded. “A code is most important when it is hard. Otherwise, it is just words. I know a police officer. A good one. She can–“

“No!” Ash said firmly. “No police. They’ll just move me to a different home. I don’t want to lose this place. I hate St. Felix’s, but I can’t lose the lucha dojo. Please.” Ash looked like she might cry. “I don’t have anything else. I need to fight.”

“You have the warrior’s spirit,” Tatsuya stood and walked over to the mini-fridge behind the counter. “I too had it when I was young. I started fighting in matches when I was only a few years older than you are. I was big for my age. I was good. My father did not approve. He wanted me to take over the family business. You want a vitamin water?”

Ash nodded. “What was the family business?”

Tatsuya tossed her a bottle and took two for himself. “Er…’Pet Care’. I had no interest, but I could not shame my father, so I was forced to wrestle in secret. He wanted me to be an ordinary man. I became more than a man.”

“A samurai.” Ash said.

“A dragon.” Tatsuya clicked on the light above the glass case containing his luchador mask. The burning incense smoke around it glowed in the lamp light.

Mascara de Dragón contra El Diablo Guapo! Duk duk duk!” The sensei punched the air in rapid succession, making punching sounds with his mouth. “K.O.! Fuera de combate!”

He spun, twisting around the counter and rolling onto the mats. “Mascara de Dragón contra Super Juan!”

Tatsuya grabbed his own bicep and struggled against it, as though he were wrestling himself. Ash snorted. Vitamin water dripped out of her nose.

“El Oso Grande! Mil Mendosa! Angelo Atomico!” Tatsuya rolled, kicked the air, flipped to his feet, doing a sort of mock battle dance against multiple opponents. “Eventually, they called me up to big leagues. America. Short notice, one of their guys ripped a tendon. Big money. Not really. Big money for me.”

He cracked open one of the vitamin waters and chugged it all in one go.

“So you went to America?”

“No.” Tatsuya crunched the plastic bottle between his hands. I didn’t come to America until decades later. By then, fighting and tequila had taken most of my youth. I had to stay local for the family business.”

Ash was confused. “I thought you didn’t care about that.”

“I didn’t. But my father did.” Tatsuya tossed the smashed bottle towards the garbage can. He missed. “If a samurai is unwilling to sacrifice, they have already lost. A samurai fights for what they believe in. No matter the cost.”

He grabbed his second vitamin water off the counter and twisted it open. “If, in the future, you want to talk to the police…Tell me.”

Ash nodded. She pointed at the clock. “2:30. Big Ben coming soon?”

“Big Ben cancelled his Saturday lesson. He has a date tonight.”

Ash made a face. “Gross.”

“Yes.” Tatsuya said solemnly. “It is gross.”

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