The smell of cats was overwhelming even before Ethan had entered the old Victorian house.
Once it must have been cute, cozy or even beautiful but that was long past by then. All that was left of the lawn was ugly pale dirt with what little patches of grass remaining an ugly shade of greenish-brown surrounding tall weeds that somehow grew strong above what was left of the grass. Everywhere there was random junk just tossed around for everyone to see. He saw a tricycle here, a bookshelf there, and a very old television that was probably black and white when it even worked.
The house still looked solid enough but that was where the positive qualities ended. The sides were covered in cracks, the windows, which had been broken many times, were replaced by junk-versions that didn’t match the house in the slightest, and the veranda, which was covered in holes, had a badly broken railing. Unsurprisingly, the white paint of the walls and the blue trim around the windows were all incredibly faded. The blue roof looked like it had been on its last legs decades or more ago.
It was located in Maplewood, a nice, expensive neighborhood between Charlotte and Edmonton St almost dead center in town. It was primarily middle class, borderline upper class, and just west of the horse property neighborhood, Equine Acres, which itself was just west of Lake Chelsea. The nicest area of the city was Edwards Grove, just north of the lake, but Maplewood was more to Ethan’s taste and style. Most of the houses looked like the kind of homes that he had always wanted to grow up in.
The owner was a woman nicknamed Cat Lady Jane and when Ethan thought about it, he guessed must have been someone just like her in every city in America and possibly Britain as well. She was just another strange and lonely woman who, instead of a family, spent her life surrounded by a ludicrous amount of painfully cute felines all fighting for her attention instead of disappearing into college. It seemed unlikely Ethan would find anything unusual to set Cat Lady Jane apart from any of the others but he was unemployed and bored so when she called him and asked him to come, he went anyway.
Ethan parked his car at the curb of 145 Center Way St and walked up the cracked driveway passed a probably broken gold 1967 Dodge Coronet convertible and then up a small path littered with disturbingly cute statues of bunnies and squirrels. They led to the stairs up to the veranda where the faded light blue door of the house awaited him.
When he raised his hand to knock the door flew open.
Jane Downs stood in the shadows of the house and the smell of cat had become instantly overwhelming. Ethan silently vowed not to breathe or touch anything for as long as humanly possible. “Thank you for coming,” she said quickly. “You came armed like I asked?”
“Yeah,” he said and he looked her over.
She seemed like the saddest woman he had ever seen. She had lines on her face that looked like she was crying and when she did smile, it looked like someone laughing in the midst of weeping. She was incredibly underweight, incredibly worn down and seemed overwhelmingly tired.
Yet underneath that, Ethan could see she had once been beautiful. Somewhere in her eyes, which were a vivid ocean blue, perhaps, or maybe the long, luxurious hair that, despite turning silvery gray, was still curly and attractive. It certainly wasn’t her clothes, which was just was a white long-sleeved blouse tucked into a brown skirt with boring brown shoes.
She couldn’t have been much older than sixty-five or so but she looked almost eighty.
“Hello, Ms. Downs.”
“Come in, Mr. Bartlett,” she said and she stepped aside.
Inside the house were countless cats everywhere of all shapes and sizes: cute and ugly, young and old, thin and fat, all wandering about meowing and purring. Aside from them, the inside was actually somewhat clean and neat. The floor was mopped, the walls were smooth and painted white and there was a picture of Jesus on one of the walls. The television was from the early 2000s, the couch was a pleasant white covered in plastic to save it from the cats and the table between them was a classy glass one that had a bowl with some Starbursts candy in them.
“Would you like a coke?” asked Jane.
“Sure,” Ethan replied and he noticed one of the walls had a large corkboard. On its left were pictures of a girl aged from infancy to about twelve or so and on the right were pictures of that girl’s, presumably, many drawings and school awards, of which there were many. Judging by the condition of the pictures and the girl’s straight red-gold hair that reminded Ethan deeply of Sissy Spacek from Carrie, she had to have been photographed around the 1970s.
“My daughter Jessica,” said Jane as she handed Ethan an unopened can of Coca-Cola. “Have you heard of her?”
“A little,” Ethan told her as he opened his drink. Cat Lady Jane, who lost her daughter in the 1970s, went mad trying to find her or so they say. “She’s pretty.”
“Kind too. Kind and gentle.” She bit her lower lips nervously. “She used to play on the train tracks around the old O’Brien Train Station.”
“Would those be the train tracks on the northeast half of the Englestad?” He found himself unsurprised the girl had vanished.
“They say it’s haunted,” she told him.
“Its proximity next to those woods is much more of a problem.”
“Things weren’t so bad then,” she said. “All of us kids played up around those woods. I never—” she shook her head “—what do you know about those woods?”
Ethan thought about the castle, the tower and the gingerbread house and that was just the one time he had wandered into it. “There’s danger out there in those woods, Jane. Nobody should go wandering into it. Probably shouldn’t have built this town anywhere it.”
“I know,” she told him. “I thought something came out and killed Jessica. We found lots of her blood by the tracks but never a body.” She swallowed. “I dream about her, you know. I have these—visions of her trapped somewhere.” She waited to see if he laughed or left but he didn’t. “A witch doctor I hired told me that she wasn’t dead.”
“If the witch doctor wasn’t a fraud, they’d know,” Ethan replied. Witch doctor was the name given to a magician who mastered African magic, usually trained in more than one style as was he, and they seemed to have a leg up on the afterlife over their European trained counterparts. “There is a prevalent belief in magic, contrary to what most religions believe, that she could have been reincarnated somewhere in another body. Dead but not dead.”
“You think so?” she asked sadly.
“Anything’s possible, I guess.” A cute black kitten rubbed up against him. “Scoot you,” he said as he gently pushed it away with his foot.
“What do you think?”
“With those woods, who knows?” The kitten came back and he pushed it away again. “How is that you think I can help you?” he asked as the cat started pawing at him. “Bad kitty. Bad.” He pushed it away yet again.
“Before she vanished she had these nightmares about a monster. A monster that she called the Tall Man.” Ethan looked at her. “If it appeared at the Anglecliff Country Club then it must have come from her.”
“Are you sure her Tall Man is the same Tall Man I saw?”
Jane pointed to a different notice board without even looking and Ethan’s eyes caught onto the picture instantly.
It was a simple child’s crayon picture, crude and badly drawn as was typical of a young child, but it was quite obviously the same creature. It even had the same red suspenders and oversized hands. Below the picture were the words drawn in pink, “Jessie ’70.”
“Forty years ago,” he said and picked up the cat and dumped it on a couch.
“She claimed she could see him in her bedroom sometimes. I even saw him once myself, I think. The thing is he never appeared to others before Jessica disappeared. That can’t be a coincidence.”
“She could’ve just caught onto something, an outer planer creature reaching out to someone. It might have killed her or possessed her or something, it happens sometimes, but I doubt it.”
“Why do you doubt that?”
“Well, someone sent the Tall Man after that blind girl Cameron Carrier which means it’s under someone’s control other than itself. Unless it’s Jessica herself, someone else must be controlling the Tall Man, but if it has nothing to do with Jessica, why was she harmed or taken in the first place. It’s been around a few times in forty years, hasn’t it?”
“Here and there,” she replied and looked at him half in hope, half in suspicion for some reason.
“Killed people, hasn’t it? Walked into the room with that stupid, ‘I don’t give a damn’ look and for some odd reason kills some random person it doesn’t seem to care about?”
“Yes. Just like that.”
“It’s because someone else does control her which makes the question pretty simple, Jane. Who controls the Tall Man? Your daughter is almost certainly connected to it somehow.” He gestured with his head to the drawing. “Find who controls the Tall Man and we find whoever knows what happened to your daughter. Did your witch doctor give any explanation similar to this?”
“She said my daughter was probably gifted with the ability to project the monster out of her dreams and someone who wanted the monster made real is using her. I’ve heard this before but she wouldn’t help me nor would the one before. She said she couldn’t do anything but I think she was too scared to go out on the train tracks.”
“That’s not good. Witch doctors are usually pretty badass.”
“I had others. Some were frauds, some were scared. I think it has something to do with the Engelstad. The Witch doctors that I’m certain weren’t frauds said there is a great evil in those woods and none would help me further than that in forty years. You’ve been into those woods, Ethan. Do you have any idea what might have happened to my daughter?”
Ethan thought about those drained dead children at the bottom of the witch’s tower. “There’s nothing I can tell you that smarter magicians and detectives couldn’t have already told you.”
“I figured as much,” she said sadly. “Then there is nothing you can do to help me.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Ethan told her. “Do you happen to know what is on the twenty-ninth of this month?” She shook her head. “Those witch doctors really were scared not to tell you this trick.”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you familiar with shades?”
“Echoes of a last moment,” she said. “I couldn’t see anything when I tried.”
“Well,” Ethan said, feeling the flying cat fibers seeming to crawl up into his nose, “I can see shades and ghosts. Well-trained magicians like myself often can and psychics are even better if you can find one that isn’t completely full of shit.” He thought he was starting to feel a bit sick there was so much cat stuff everywhere. “It’s a full moon on the twenty-ninth.” He finished off his drink in one try and handed it to her. “You’ll come with me. You’re emotionally connected which may help make it form. I’m not sure.”
“Make it form?”
“Shades are powered by living people who either recall the incident in a traumatic manner or are deeply emotionally connected to the incident or victims involved.” Ethan felt three cats at his feet vying for his attention, the black kitten, an orange tabby and a big fluffy white cat. “Ah hell.”
“Sorry about the cats.”
“It’s fine.” He cracked his neck. “I’ll come back here before nightfall on the twenty-ninth and you can drive me or I’ll drive you to where she died, or was kidnapped, or whatever and I will tell what I see if I see anything at all. Keep in mind that whoever or whatever I may see will appear as they did on the day Jessie disappeared in 1970-whatever.”
“You wouldn’t be playing a trick on me, would you, Ethan?” she asked in a sad voice. “I don’t know if I can handle having my hopes dashed after all these years.”
“If I am you can stab me with my own sword. Speaking of which why did you ask me to bring it?”
“I wanted to see if you were serious. So many so-called monster hunters appear asking for money in advance but they often don’t even have weapons. Show me.” Ethan pulled the sword out and she reached out and touched the blade over the orange runes. “It’s amazing.”
“I had a gun for about a week until Margaret found out and had it taken away.” He slipped his sword back into its sheath. “If we end up those woods, we’re going to have to be careful. Very careful.”
Jane looked hopeful for the first time in possibly forty years and she hugged him suddenly. Ethan felt an intense level of discomfort and a stab of envy for Jessie whose mother, after forty years, still deeply loved her while his own mother had never had a single day when she even liked him. He patted Jane on the shoulder a few times and she pulled away.
“What’s going to happen out there if everything goes right?” she asked. “What can we find out there in the dark under the full moon?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “All I can say is that whatever it is, it probably won’t be very nice.”
* * *
It was a perfect night for shades with moonlight pouring down from the full moon on a cloudless star-filled sky. There was something in the air, something powerful, and if Ethan wasn’t about to possibly risk his life over a forty-year missing person’s case, he would think it was an absolutely fabulous night.
He wore his usual gear: vest, pants, boots and gloves with his sword, dagger and satchel and a black t-shirt. The family was making it very hard for him to enchant, distracting him almost hourly, and he found he wasn’t able to add any new magical weapons despite his large amount of spare time. The only thing he could make in that house were more potions and it was only because he could make them quickly.
Jane rubbed her hands together as she walked up beside him and looked out at the old empty train tracks. They were just northeast of the Englestad, above the 95 Freeway, looking almost, but not quite, abandoned. Trains still came by Bartlett Bay but without the cannery or the fisheries with booming businesses they created around them, there was little reason to stop and the Bartlett Bay Train Station had crumbled into a kind of rusty train yard.
“My father worked here for forty years before he retired,” said Jane as she led him down one of the tracks. “That was the fascination Jessica had with it.” She swallowed. “She disappeared down this very track on Wednesday, July eleventh 1973.”
Ethan was about to speak when he heard a squawk-laugh sound in the distance that sent a shiver up and down his spine. Ethan was suddenly and uncannily reminded of the Disney animated film Ichabod and Mr. Toad where the animals all called out Ichabod Crane’s name and warnings using their own natural animal sounds.
“The Caller,” whispered Jane and she held up her finger to her mouth. After a moment, there was a thud in the woods, like a tree falling, and that squawk-laughter vanished off into the distance.
“You know what that thing was?” asked Ethan.
“I’ve heard that the Native Americans call it a wendigo,” she told him. “They believe this area is cursed or haunted or something and the wendigo is either the cause or the effect of that.”
“I bet our ancestors got this place real cheap,” Ethan replied and he looked at the forest to the southwest over the freeway and west of Wicker St. “I can’t believe you let her play here.”
“Let nothing! I told her never to come here but she didn’t listen! Besides, as I said before my father worked here for forty years and never saw a damn thing, not once, except, well—”
“It’s nothing,” she said and she quickly changed the subject. “Someone at the bar told me you and a Le Sueur girl have a thing going?”
“Winters but yes.” Ethan shrugged. “I don’t normally feel that way around women. It’s weird.”
“You don’t like girls?”
“Oh, I love the ladies. I just don’t usually love them for long.” Ethan saw something flicker in the distance on the tracks. It formed, unformed, then reformed and then he saw it was a young girl skipping down the tracks. She was moving jaggedly like a camera that was running on too few frames but the frames were steadily getting quicker and she was becoming smoother and smoother with each passing instant. In less than a minute, she looked perfectly real except that she was slightly transparent and her body was illuminated in gold as if she was standing in front of a setting sun.
“Women really don’t like that, Ethan,” Jane told him.
“Well, I never lie, so they at least know what they’re getting into.” The shade of the girl continued skipping for a moment and then she stopped, sighed and turned around. Ethan held out his arm, stopping Jane.
“If you see her, describe what she’s wearing! I need to know right now that you’re not screwing with me!”
The girl was very clear and that was not normal. He had never seen a shade like that, one so real he could almost touch, and he did not know any reason why it should be. “She looks kind of like a member of the Runaways. She’s wearing white bell-bottom pants with a white shirt with blue sleeves and a blue collar and hair perfectly straight and red-gold like Sissy Spacek.”
Jane put her hands to her mouth. “What’s she doing?” she whispered.
Ethan rested his left hand on the pommel of his sword and leaned down over the girl who was looking right through him out a world forty years gone. “Where are you now, Susie Salmon?”
Jessie put her hands on her hips and faced a man who limped into the picture right through Ethan. And just who the hell are you? she asked as Ethan stepped aside to get a good look at him.
“She’s talking to a man she doesn’t know and she’s got spunk.” The man looked to Ethan like an unbelievable nerd but maybe that was just the times. He was balding in a manner that made his dull brown hair only grow on the top and sides and they stuck out too far making him almost clown-like. He was very average looking, average in height, average in looks, average in size but he had a creepy kind of smile that set him apart from that perfect theme.
He was wearing a long-sleeved yellow dress shirt, a brown vest, khaki pants with brown shoes, and a dark red bowtie. Over his dark, almost black eyes, was a pair of thick square glasses.
What a pretty young girl, you are? he said to her.
Oh why don’t you go fuck off, she replied.
“Oh I like her,” said Ethan with a smile. “She’s a little bitch.”
“You do see her! What’s—” he held up his hand and she became quiet.
I’m sorry, said the man and he smiled wider. He took a step forward and Jessica took a step back. You’re Jessica Downs. I’m friends with your mother.
No, you’re not. I know my mother’s friends. All her friends are better looking than you. He took another step forward and she took another step back. I’m going to leave now.
Are you going to walk away from me? asked the man. Is that what you’re going to do?
Yeah. Why should I stick around for whoever the hell you are?
My name is Marty. Now we know each other.
Jessica gave him a rather unimpressed look. How old do I look to you, asshole?
I’d say twelve. His right hand had gone behind his back, a gesture Jessica recognized as hostile, and she looked like she was about to run away but then he pulled his hand out to reveal something baffling.
A crystal? What the hell, hippy? It was a crystal shard about the size of a small dagger, perfectly clear and dull, and though Ethan didn’t know what it did, he knew a magical crystal when he saw one.
Okay, Marty, I’ve got to leave now. She rolled her eyes. Have a nice life.
Oh, I will, he told her and he suddenly jammed the crystal against her chest. It wasn’t sharp, not even a little, but it instantly filled up with her blood like it was being poured in from a jar from a faucet. The instant it was full, blood continued to leak out of the other end onto the ground. In less than half, a minute there was a huge pool of blood on the tracks and Jessica’s skin was white as snow.
“Fuck me,” said Ethan.
“What happened?” cried Jane. “What did you see?”
Ethan had no idea exactly what to say and his mouth opened to tell her something, possibly the truth because he had nothing else in his mind, when suddenly a voice spoke out and made all the tiny hairs on his body stand up on end.
Acceptable… a cold voice had whispered ever so quietly.
Ethan tilted his head over and saw a figure formed out of the darkness. It was a woman, or at least had the body of one. It was shapely, beautiful and young formed out of shades of very dark shadows. He could make little out except that basic shape, the nightmare crown that looked like a dozen blades sticking up out of her head and the eyes, which were glowing white dots over where the pupils of her eyes should be.
Your Majesty? asked Marty as he picked up the blood-soaked Jessica, his right hand holding the blood-red crystal.
The shadow turned suddenly and locked her eyes on Ethan. There was something in them, something in that was disturbing beyond words but also familiar. He wasn’t sure how she was familiar or why he was familiar to her. She recognized him.
Someday a man will come, she said in a voice that ran up and down his spine as if it was ice slipping down his nerve cord. He will see this and he will come for you.
She, It, whatever saw the future. What kind of creature could that? Could see him in the future watching their shades?
When? The police can’t know about this—
He is not yet born, said the dark woman. Be vigilant, Acolyte. He will find you in the course of time. Then she was gone and not by fading or vanishing or anything else. She simply blinked out of existence.
It wasn’t a matter of the shade-reality either because Marty looked around for her nervously. Then he grimaced and rushed off toward the woods across the tracks, his right leg limping badly, with Jessica Downs in his arms. “I think we’re going to find out what happened to your daughter, Jane,” he told her and he started to follow.
“You were terrified,” said Jane as she followed after. “What did you see?”
“I saw—” Ethan ran face-first into a large wooden shed structure “—well not that structure that wasn’t here in 1973.” He rushed around it, caught sight of the sunlit Marty, and rushed after him. He was running down the tunnel under the 95 Freeway.
“There were never any footprints. Is it a flying monster?”
“Probably covered up by magic,” he told her and he saw Marty turn right into the woods. Ethan followed him easily, slipping through a mostly broken and abandoned fence, and found Marty easily enough to follow. His limp made his movement through the thick Engelstad trees slow.
“You know anyone named Marty with a limp?” he asked.
“Sheldon Martin!” Jane hissed. “I knew it! I knew he had some part in this!”
Ethan stopped not far from where Marty leaned up the girl against a tree and clutched his leg. You fucking bitch! he cried. He took several minutes to recover, then picked her back up and continued to limp away.
“You might want to stay out of—”
“Piss on that!” she hissed.
“Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He followed deeper, the trees all in the same place where they were forty years ago, and Marty continuing onward for about forty minutes. When he explained to her what he saw, she didn’t say anything for a long time.
“What’s going on now?” asked Jane.
“He’s just walking through the woods and stopping every five minutes to call your daughter a bitch,” Ethan replied.
Marty’s shade got darker as that day in 1973 got later, but before he became too dark to see Ethan and Jane saw a light through the woods around some trees. They moved closer, carefully moving along the trees for cover, and saw it was actually a house built out of an extremely fat-bodied, short tree. There was an average-sized dull red door on the front, a small chimney sticking out of the far side, and a few windows backlit by firelight, which were what they had seen through the trees.
Ethan gestured for Jane to hide down behind a tree and the two crouched in the darkness and watched. Marty’s shade reached for the closed door, pulled open its shade from 1973 open and then vanished through the closed real door. Ethan didn’t speak, holding up his finger to Jane to be quiet, because he heard something real from the other side of that door.
A moment after, it really opened and a living black woman stepped outside. She was old, maybe eighty or so, with snow-white hair almost buzz short to her head. She didn’t seem feeble in the slightest, her back was perfectly straight and when she walked, she walked like a woman much younger. She wore black robes that covered her from head to toe and had black gloves over her hands.
Marty stepped out of the door afterward and Ethan was stunned to find that he had not aged a single day in forty years. His hair was buzzed, his dress shirt changed to a white t-shirt, his pants to jeans and his shoes to boots but the glasses were exactly the same.
Jane snatched Ethan’s arm, terrified, and Ethan held up his finger in the universal symbol of “quiet” while keeping his eyes locked on the two people less than twenty feet away from them.
“Don’t you ever fucking make demands on me again, you fucking nigger,” Marty told the woman.
The woman stopped, laughed and turned around. “Is this a joke to you, Sheldon? I need the Tall Man and you have no choice but to provide him to me.” Her voice had a distinctive Southern accent to it.
“Don’t call me Sheldon and I can’t risk another fucking debacle like that club. If I was going to risk it, it sure as hell wouldn’t be with a fucking amateur.”
“An amateur, really?” She put her hands on her hips. “What have you to your name, Sheldon, but the kidnapping of a child and hiding a tree for forty years? You are a glorified babysitter on the best of day of your life.”
“Loyalty and service count for something out here,” he said simply.
“I’m certain,” she replied. “Of course, the Tall Man is not that impressive, is he? One boy with a sword and another with sharp pieces of ice managed to defeat him quite easily. Quite easily.”
“If I was controlling him everyone in that club would be dead and you aren’t going to outweigh my loyalty anytime soon with talk and tricks. We’ve never needed voodoo and we never will.”
“Things are changing, brother,” she told him. “Agatha is dead and I hold her place now. I’m asking you nicely for the Tall Man which is my right.”
“Just summon a voodoo creation. Isn’t that what you do? Make a corpse stand and have it dance?”
“Oh, I will be making something that will amaze you,” she replied, “but first I need the Tall Man.”
“Why did we even take you in if you can’t contribute one fucking thing on your own?”
“Sheldon—” she shook her head “—are you trying to embarrass yourself? My sort is far more qualified to control summoned creations than you and your crystal. You can’t even make the crystal that gives you your power.”
“Fuck you, nigger. You get out of here and you never make demands of me again.” He slammed the door hard. The woman looked at it for a few moments, shrugged and then left. Ethan didn’t like the look of her at all. She was experienced, strong, calculating and did not lose control easily and witch doctors, the only kind of magician implied when someone said “voodoo,” had powers he didn’t come close to fully understanding. If or when he met her, she was no doubt going to be very formidable.
A few minutes after the woman left, Jane started to get up but Ethan kept her down. He didn’t move or let her move for an hour and by then everything outside had become very, very quiet but not dark. For whatever reason, Marty did not turn off the lamplights within.
Ethan cast Sense Magic and all around him and saw nothing magical, no runes on the trees or anything. However, beyond the door, just like in the tower, was a magic powerful enough to seemingly leak out from under the door. It could only be that crystal, another nightmare magical item from God only knew where.
“Wait here,” he whispered to Jane and he cast Magic Armor over himself. “If it looks like I’m going to die you run, okay.”
“And fast.” He gave her a smile, which she clearly thought strange, and then crept up to the tree’s closest window.
The treehouse was only a single room with wood-planked floors, a window on three sides, one with the door and a red brick chimney on the fourth. The walls were simply the tree’s insides smoothed over and there were photographs, some black and white, some color placed all around them. In one corner, to the left and a bit below Ethan’s window, was a wooden coffin built for a grown woman with the crystal shard still blood-red sticking out of the center which was, as he suspected, the source of that great magic he was sensing. On the opposite corner, to the far right at the back near the fireplace, was an old clunker of a television that couldn’t have been made after the 1980s.
In the very back left corner across from the television and close to the fireplace, was Marty fast asleep in a little twin bed next to a nightstand with a half-drunk bottle of Jack Daniels placed next to a copy of the John Grisham’s The Associate.
It felt too easy and that put Ethan on his guard.
He carefully opened the door as quietly as he could, it didn’t squeak even slightly, and slipped inside. Once his sword was free of it, he shut the door very carefully and stood there for a moment with his hand against it. He took a quiet deep breath, preparing mentally to really hurt that man, and then saw a living shadow.
It stood over Marty, more or less human in shape, with eyes glowing white. When it pointed its finger, it opened its mouth to reveal was a gaping hole into an endless pit of white. The scream that followed was an ear-piercing banshee cry that sounded like wind through the tombs of an ancient graveyard.
Marty jerked up, only partially visible around the shadow, and instantly scrambled for something. Ethan fired a lightning bolt, hit him somewhere through the shadow and he screamed and dropped the gun to the ground.
“She sent you!” Marty leaned around the shadow so he could see. “That voodoo nigger bitch—” he then recognized Ethan “—oh shit!”
Ethan prepared lightning bolts in both hands, orange sparks flickering eagerly.
“Ethan, no!” He jerked toward his gun and the shadow screamed at Ethan. The shriek made his eardrums vibrate and broke his spell concentration. Marty’s hands grabbed the gun from the ground and managed to raise it.
Ethan fired an orange lightning bolt into Marty’s chest. The gun fired off target, nastily scraping Ethan’s left arm, his Magic Armor spell saving it from being temporarily crippled.
Marty screamed but instead of collapsing, he seemed to recover instantly. He raised his gun again and the shadow jumped in front of him. Ethan fired into the shadow, distorting it slightly, at where he thought Marty was, and hit him in the left shoulder. The gun fired off, breaking a window, and Ethan fired again and hit Marty somewhere painful enough to cause him to drop the gun yet again. The instant it fell, Ethan shot an ice shard at it. It hit the gun perfectly and sent it spinning away under the bed.
Marty didn’t dare crawl down after it, it would open his back to Ethan, and so he started to desperately scramble on all fours to the coffin instead. Ethan fired a single lightning bolt into Marty’s arm, which should have sent him down, but somehow he kept going. Before Ethan could fire more, the shadow threw itself at him and let out a nastier, louder shriek causing Ethan’s nose and ears to bleed.
He fired spells into the shadow crazily, killing its scream and dissipating it with magic, and then turned to see Marty reaching up for the crystal. Ethan grabbed his dagger and threw it across the room. He didn’t dare use magic that close to the crystal as there was no telling what catastrophic event would occur if his magic mixed with whatever that thing was.
Marty wrapped his hand around the crystal the instant before the dagger hit his wrist but Ethan knew it was too late because he could feel it before he saw it. Blue mist slipped out from the coffin and summoned the creature out of the air in less than an instant.
Ethan pulled out his sword as the Tall Man appeared and stabbed him in the stomach. His blade went in smoothly, his enchanted sword superior to magic or his spells, but, like before, he felt his magical armor vanished suddenly. He pulled out quickly, blue blood pouring out onto the floor, and ducked the fist that came forward.
The Tall Man hit the door instead of him and knocked it right off of its hinges. It was faster: much faster.
Ethan sliced it across its chest and it swung its arm backward and hit Ethan at a glancing blow in the chest. It bruised badly and sent Ethan stumbling out of the tree where he hit the fallen door with his heel, lost his balance and fell over. He looked down at the doorway of light surrounded by darkness and saw the Tall Man bending over the doorframe to step out.
“Kill him!” cried Marty. “Kill him now!”
It was the same Tall Man but it also wasn’t. It had a darker, more determined look than before but it clearly recognized him. Its face, which had been before utterly calm and disinterested at the club, suddenly became angry and filled with rage.
Ethan jumped up to its feet as the Tall Man threw its hands toward him. He moved aside, barely in time, and sliced the creature across the left arm. It stepped back, grabbed a branch from a tree above them and casually ripped it off.
“You’re dead, Bartlett!” cried Marty from inside the cabin. “You’re fucking dead!”
The Tall Man swung and Ethan ducked it, the branch above making a deep whoosh sound as it went by. Ethan rushed back into the trees, lighting up the runes on his sword up as he went. The Tall Man rushed after and swung again but that time its swing was caught in the mesh of the entangled nearby tree branches and broke into several green pieces when it forced it through.
Ethan stuck his blade into its thigh, a burst of blood shooting out of it onto him and the ground, and then he slipped back into the trees. The Tall Man’s hand had reached out and almost grasped his head, missing by maybe an inch.
* * *
Marty whimpered as he stepped out of the tree with no sign of a limp, pulled out the dagger and glared out at the orange light in the trees. “You—you kill him good!” he screamed and he then dropped the blade to the ground and shut his eyes for a moment. The wound suddenly began to close smoothly over, so perfect that even the blood vanished back into his wrist. “Kill him good...”
In the distance, Ethan Bartlett cleverly used his environment to his advantage and the Tall Man found it nearly impossible to get a good swing through the thickly grouped trees. Ethan could be seen leaping over tree roots, his sword glowing like an orange glow stick and the Tall Man could be seen trying to swing at him after with its branch only to find it constantly getting caught on something.
Marty rubbed his wrist, took one step forward and then let out a scream as a large rock shattered his fixed once-bad knee. He crumpled forward onto his hands but before he could do anything, another large rock came down on his back. He held his ground, waling in pain, but then the rock came down again and broke his shoulder badly enough to send him down flat onto his chest.
He was shoved over and Jane grabbed the fallen dagger and pressed it against his throat. “Hello, Sheldon. Remember me?”
Marty’s eyes curled up into a wide, smug smile. “Why hello Jane,” he said. “Not quite the piece of ass you used—” the blade was pressed harder against his throat “—what did you offer Bartlett? Your snatch isn’t quite what it used to be.”
“You wouldn’t know.” Jane looked up and saw Ethan leap over a log. A split second after the Tall Man’s branch came down, hit the log, and broke into several pieces.
The Tall Man let out a frustrated roar and grabbed another tree branch.
“He can’t keep that up forever, baby,” said Marty with that same old smirk. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to start cutting you to pieces until you tell me what the hell you did with my daughter.” Marty’s eyes became nervous and his smile vanished. He was still a coward it seemed. “No smart mouth, Marty? No clever remarks.”
“Jane—” the knife cut into his throat “—do you have the nerve to actually kill me?”
“I’ve been dreaming about killing the man who stole my child for forty years.”
“It’s not what Jessie would want.”
“You clearly don’t know my daughter very well,” Jane replied, “but even if it was true, I think Ethan can kill you.”
His lips became very tight. “Doubt is in your eyes, Jane,” he said softly. “You’re not a killer. Not a monster. Can you live with becoming just like me? Can you even imagine—” He jerk-moved to grab at her but she slashed him across the chin viciously before he did, her hand moving instinctively when his arm did.
In the instant he was distracted by pain, Jane flipped the dagger downward and stabbed him straight through the left shoulder. He let out a long, miserable scream and looked up at her in shock-horror. “I’m pretty sure I can,” she told him and she leaned onto the blade to push it down into the dirt. “Did you think this was a late-night crime drama, Sheldon? That I would show some sissy moral persona at the moment of truth?” She jerked the blade around as hard as she could and then waited for his screams to die. “Now why don’t you tell me where my daughter is before I get really angry?”
Marty looked at her for several moments, uncertain and scared and then looked up at the woods where the orange light was.
“Go ahead and call him. The back is a lot easier to stab than the front.” The blade was pushing up, his insane healing pushing the weapon out, so Jane leaned on it again to force it back down.
Marty shook his head. “He won’t defeat him.”
“Oh, so I should hurry then?”
Marty’s eyes went wide. “N-no—” his words turned to scream as she began moving, twisting and jerking the dagger around as violently as she could.
* * *
It seemed no matter what Ethan did, it still kept coming forward. He fired lightning bolts and ice shards and stabbed it countless times and the Tall Man did not even slow down. If it had been the same as it had at Anglecliff, he was certain it would be destroyed by then. His magical sword was infinitely superior to the ice katars that he had used before but a straight stab into the knee had only made the creature stumble instead of fall.
Ethan couldn’t go on the way he was as the Tall Man would easily outlast him, so it was time for a drastic move.
As the Tall Man reached up for its ninth or tenth branch, Ethan fired a very pointy ice shard right into its forehead. Its head jerked back for a moment and then lowered down with a furious expression. Right between the eyes, a dagger-like shard the color of frozen orange juice was planted at least an inch into the cartilage of its nose.
It reached up for it with its left hand.
Ethan flipped his sword down, rushed forward and jumped onto a log. As soon as his feet made contact, he leaped forward and threw all his momentum, strength and weight behind his sword. He stabbed the Tall Man perfectly right in the chest with both hands, pushing through his ribs, into his heart, if it had one, and then out the other side. At that exact moment, it had just wrapped its hand around the shard.
The Tall Man ripped the shard off with a snarl and seized him in its hands.
They acted like a vice, steadily crushing his ribs and did not cease despite the immense damage of Ethan’s sword or the incredible amount of blood leaking out of its chest and back. Its eyes were two black soulless doll’s eyes as it watched Ethan start to die.
Ethan fought against it, his legs dangling several feet above the ground, and twisted the sword, the only thing that gave him any possible advantage. Twisting did nothing and he felt his ribs crack as the squeezing intensified. He let out a cry and jerked his blade down with both hands.
The hands loosened a bit and there was a wide-eyed look of surprise on the Tall Man’s face.
Ethan jerked the sword down again once again as hard as he could and the Tall Man burst into another blue mist. He fell to his feet and then backward onto the ground, the shards imbedded in the monster’s body falling around him. The blood had turned into foul powder as before but it was so much stronger that he instantly vomited.
When he did so, he felt his ribs explode in pain.
“Finally!” he hacked out and he pulled out a Heal potion, drank it, and felt everything heal but his nausea.
* * *
“Hey Mom, look up!”
Jane looked up to see her daughter Jessica and she was very, very dead. She was crouched naked beside Marty, having somehow snuck up without her noticing, with her entire body having turned an ugly rotting greenish-brown color. Something had killed her, something nasty, and she could see red-green flesh underneath half her face. Similarly was her upper chest where something had eaten most of the flesh over her sternum and there were huge tracks across her thighs.
All the wounds were overflowing with worms and maggots.
Jane shrieked and scrambled backward as quickly as she could until she hit a tree. “You’re not my daughter!”
Jessica locked onto Jane with her dead, glassy eyes and smiled in a way that left her mouth opened to reveal black teeth and a swollen, rotten tongue with as many or more things in her mouth as was in her wounds. “Oh, but I am,” she said in a voice that seemed to be almost normal except her mouth was filled with bile that poured out as she spoke. “I remember all the things you taught me. I remember the bicycle ride you gave me. I remember the piano lessons and the swing dances I so loved!”
Jane pulled out a small gun she had taken with her and pointed it at the creature. Marty had started crawling slowly back into the house out of the corner of her eye but she was too distracted to do anything about it. “You stay away from me!”
It looked at her with disgust. “Go ahead!” it snarled. “I already died once because of you! You know I was there at the train tracks because you were never around! Because the babysitter had an emergency and you had to sell a goddamn house!” started to shamble toward her slowly. “Just too interested in real estate! Just too interested in clothes and men and money! Everything was just so much more important than your worthless little brat you got at fourteen!”
“You shut up!” she cried and she fired. Its shoulder jerked back, gory rotten blood flying out of its left shoulder, and it sneered.
“I won’t shut up!” she hissed and she was suddenly close enough that Jane could smell the rot on her. “You did this! You know you did!” Its eyes narrowed. “You told me that everyone has to pay the piper—”
Jane fired again, hitting it in the thigh, and then shot her in the knee right below it. When that didn’t work, she shot her in the other knee and the thing just laughed at her. Tears ran down her face and she let out a loud, long scream before firing again just as the thing reached down for her.
The Jessica-monster’s head jerked back, a hole exploding out of the center of its head and it stood motionless for a second, its arms hanging loosely down its side. Then, making a sound like a crunch, it jerked its head forward showing her the new gaping hole.
“You can’t kill me, Mom. I’m already de—” She screamed in agony when an orange lightning bolt hit her in the back. She turned around and a large piece of pointed ice hit her in the chest. She let out a loud scream of pain and ripped it out. “You can’t kill me, Ethan!”
* * *
“Well, I’m sure as fuck going to try,” he said as he walked toward her. He stepped over Marty as he approached and casually stabbed him in the leg and twisted. Marty screamed, clutching his right leg, and Ethan pulled the blade out and approached the monster.
It looked at him with the ruined face of his mother, exactly as it was the last time he had seen it. The right half of her face had been completely burned off and the tendons, jaw, muscle and teeth of her skull could be clearly seen, all blackened from that fire from all those years ago.
“Ethan,” began the creature. “I am your moth—”
He stabbed it through the chest and its illusion dropped to show him its true form, a beautiful human-like female with long flowing hair, narrow Asian-like eyes, and a long flowing dress. Almost all of it was white. The hair, skin, nails and dress all as pale as snow with the only exception being its eyes, which were black like a doll’s. Its entire form seemed to almost glow even though it gave off no light.
Ethan didn’t know what it was exactly, suspecting strongly it was some related species to the doppelganger, its true form more or less human as he heard those creatures were. What it was not, however, was immune to magic. Many monsters are often found to have immunity to natural materials, such as the kind used in making bullets and knives, but magic spells and enchanted weapons almost universally went through them. Against many creatures, a cheap alternative was silver but unless one was fighting a werewolf, magic was infinitely superior.
The fight was gone from the creature and it looked up in its pain as if hoping to find some kind of mercy in its enemy’s face. Ethan looked down unsympathetically and twisted the blade. It screamed in response, sounding very much like a real girl and fell to her knees. “Mercy! Please, I can be anything you want! Anyone you dream of!” She suddenly filled with color and shifted around to become someone he loved from his childhood. It was Eilonwy, a main character from the Prydain Cycle by Lloyd Alexander, which had been his favorite book series and best friends growing up. She looked exactly as she had in his dreams, the ideal girl with red-gold hair he had always wanted and loved.
Ethan violently twisted the blade again, destroying the illusion of his dream girl, and then when he ripped the weapon from its body the creature fell to its knees. It looked up in horror and surprise just in time to see Ethan’s blade coming flying down toward its neck.
“No!” cried Marty as he watched its head roll away. “No, no, noooo! You killed her! You—” Ethan started toward him and quickly began to scramble away. “You get away from me! You—” Ethan stabbed him through the arm and into the dirt. “You monster!” he wailed.
“The life of a villain can be as perilous as the heroes,” Ethan told him. “Now if you want to gamble that I’m a sweet fellow with strong moral conviction who would never actually kill someone who was helpless go right ahead.” He pulled the blade out and saw the wound healing quickly before his eyes. “That’s kind of odd.”
“You don’t know what you’re—”
“Agatha said the same thing before I killed her too,” Ethan replied. “That was who that black woman was talking about? The witch in the tower?”
“Hurting me hurts the girl—”
“Oh, so she’s alive,” Ethan said. “In the coffin, right?”
Marty’s eyes went wide and he shook his head, unable to speak for several moments. “N-no. Th-that’s not—” Ethan smiled joylessly at him. “—that’s not it all.” He swallowed.
“Really? Well, you’ve sure convinced me.”
Jane grabbed Ethan’s dagger and moved up beside him. Her left hand held her blade, the right held her gun, and her eyes were two hard pits of light blue steel. “You were always so damn pathetic, Sheldon!”
His eyes narrowed. Somewhere in everything that happened, he had lost his glasses but it didn’t seem like it made much of a difference. “You all picked on me!” he hissed. “You all thought I was such a loser!”
“Well, you sure proved them wrong, eh Bill Gates,” Ethan replied with a laugh.
Marty looked up at him slowly. “What are you going to do, Bartlett? Are you going to kill me?”
“Yes.” His eyes went wide and his lips quivered. “Surprised?” He shrugged. “Whatever.” Ethan grabbed him by his arm and then dragged him into the cabin. Marty screamed and fought back weakly but he was not strong enough anymore to do any good and once he was near the coffin, Ethan stabbed him in that arm to disable it. Before it healed, he quickly stomped on the hand from that arm several times, breaking each and every finger to make sure they too were disabled. Then used the arm like a bat and knocked the crystal off the coffin where it easily flipped out of its little holder that kept it upright, bounced off the coffin lid and rolled out onto the ground.
It was connected directly to Marty somehow so Ethan didn’t dare touch it with his own hands. “Don’t touch that no matter what, Jane,” he told her as he kneeled down by the coffin. It had magic, but nothing that could harm him, so he pulled up the lid. “Ah shit.”
Marty groaned when he saw the coffin was open. Jane looked down, let out a loud, long shriek of horror and began to weep very loudly. Her hands shook so badly that her pistol nearly fired off.
“It’s really starting to feel like I’m not going to end up satisfied unless I torture you to death,” Ethan said with a sigh and he looked down at what was left of Jessica Downs. It was like what happened to Sally the Bellator woman but worse.
Jessica too had withered down into a crone, her skin covered in a million wrinkles with her bones and limbs all deformed from time, and almost every inch of her body was covered in scars from vicious old wounds. The nastiest of them were still fresh, mirrored but lighter versions of the ones Ethan and Jane had given Marty. She was naked so no wound on the front half of her body could possibly be hidden from their viewing.
Luckily for her, she was lying in a deep vampire-like state of sleep and was unlikely to have been aware of anything.
“What the hell of you done to my daughter?” cried Jane as she stepped over Marty.
“Nothing!” squeaked Marty. “It’s just time! You didn’t expect her to still be a girl!” She raised the blade.
“Don’t hurt him,” Ethan said. “He’s been transferring all his damage and pain into her. He hasn’t aged so I’m guessing she’s aged for him as well.” Ethan saw the familiar “drain” rune on the bottom of the coffin and a whole bunch of others he didn’t understand. What he did understand, or at least what he could feel, was that the magic was subtle and quiet and not very powerful despite its effectiveness. “Who has been casting all this shit?”
“What do we do now?” asked Jane.
Ethan put his sword blade into the coffin. “No!” cried Marty and Ethan stopped for a moment. “You want answers, Ethan, I’ll-I’ll give you—” He clutched his throat suddenly, eyes going wide, and his face turned blue. It only did that for a single moment but that was long enough to let Ethan know he was never going to be able to get information from him.
“Witchcraft 101,” Ethan told Jane. “Make sure your subordinate, even under torture, cannot reveal anything.” He sliced across the runes and created painfully bright sparks of magic shot off harmlessly like big party poppers as the power released itself. Jessica breathed easier as some connection broke and the blood from the crystal taken forty years ago leaked out onto the floor. “Now a test. Jane, shoot Sheldon in the foot.”
“Wait—” Jane fired and he screamed. He stopped after a moment as if expecting it to go away and then screamed again when it did not. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” He looked at his foot, a bloody mess that was certainly not healing, and then at Ethan. “Why did you come out here? Why do you even care?”
“Why do you care whether I care?” Ethan replied and he kicked him in the face hard enough to knock him unconscious and possibly break his jaw.
“Look what he did to my child,” Jane said and her jaw dropped when Jessica’s cataract covered eyes opened. “Oh no.” She threw her jacket over her, covering her up to her neck.
Ethan looked down at her for a long moment and she looked back up at him, confused, weak and very tired. “Give me a moment with her alone, Jane.”
“What are you going to do?”
“What needs to be done.” He held out his hand. “I need your gun.” Tears ran down her face out of her control and she shook her head. “She’s aged eighty years, Jane,” he whispered. “Do you really want her to wake up this?”
“I can’t let you just kill my daughter!”
“Well, I can’t just make her—” suddenly he remembered something “—oh wait. Maybe I can.”
“What?” she asked with a baffled look on her face.
Ethan reached into his satchel, found one of the seven potions filled with the essence of that orb from the tower and found they were still hot enough to hurt when touched. “I’ve got a better plan. You’ll like this one.”
“Wh-what?” she asked again with the same look.
Ethan took out one of his red Heal potions and fed it to Jessica. Her wounds closed up, her eyes cleared up, and she seemed healthy enough. He held up an emerald green potion. “I’m going to give her another potion after this,” he told her. “It is the last I’ll ever have and I don’t want anyone to know I ever had this potion. You understand?”
“Yes. I think so.”
He poured the emerald green potion down her throat and all the scars and wounds had vanished from her body leaving her looking like a healthy but really undernourished old woman with good white teeth. It worked far better than he would have expected and didn’t require an outside pouring over the scar material. The wounds were much more superficial than they appeared.
Jessica’s eyes focused. “Are you a policeman?” she asked. “You look kind of like a policeman with that sellout hair.”
“I’m more like a Pinkerton Agent. I could have been one too but my family bamboozled me into a bad opportunity out here in Bartlett Bay.” He smiled and touched her head. “You alright, Jessica?”
“I feel pretty shitty and call me Jessie.”
“You’re alright,” said Jane. “You’re just tired.” She looked at Ethan. “She’s just tired, right?”
“Anything’s possible,” he replied and he turned to Jessie. “This is your mother, Jessie.”
“She’s too old to be my mother,” she said. “My mother is not even thirty and has great breasts which I’m going to inherit.”
Jane swallowed and looked at Ethan worriedly. “It’s better this way,” he told her. “She would spend the rest of her life her in a mental asylum if she were conscious in a coffin for the last forty years.”
Jessie groaned and rolled her eyes. “What’s going on and who are you?”
“I’m Ethan Bartlett and you’ve been, uh—” Ethan shrugged “—frozen and missing for forty years. Your mother has been searching diligently in all that time. A break in the case has now opened and I was asked to help and I did and here we are.” She looked up at him in a rather unimpressed manner. “Well, you’re going to need to drink a potion to become healthy again.”
“Your family is full of assholes, your patriarch is a pedophile and that is the single most retarded story I have ever been told.”
Ethan laughed. “Yeah, well, if you want to get out of that coffin you’re going to have to drink what I give you.”
“Fine. Afterward, I want to get food. I’m really hungry.”
Ethan smiled and leaned over to Jane who moved instinctively close to listen. “Jane, I’m not one hundred percent sure what this potion will do. I just know that she will be younger and much healthier. She could end up forty or thirty or something but she could also end up as an infant. You understand?”
“Give it to her,” Jane said without hesitation.
“Okay,” Ethan said and he took out the burning white potion and poured it down Jessie’s throat. She immediately began to change no differently from how Tori Randal had.
Her age vanished off her body at breakneck speed. Her muscle and flesh filled out and her bones reformed as she went flying down from ninety, to seventy, to fifty, to forty, to thirty and beyond. She made an incredibly sexy young woman, who did have perfect breasts, but then she went below womanhood, her body shrinking back down again. Her breasts sunk into her chest as puberty reversed itself and she was twelve again but it didn’t stop as she continued down.
Jane grabbed Ethan’s shoulder, suddenly terrified.
“Magic can’t actually make a person younger than an infant,” Ethan told her. He had read somewhere was the youngest person could ever be, something to do with a womb being required to go any earlier, but then the changes stopped before that became an issue. “And here we are.” The girl opened her bright green eyes and looked up out from the face of a four-year-old girl with bright red-gold hair hanging loosely around her head. “Well, I guess you get some extra adjusting time, Jessica.”
“I said call me ‘Jessie’ but I do feel much better.” Jessie then frowned at him. “Why is everything bigger?”
Jane started to cry and dropped both weapons. “Oh, my sweet little girl!” She scooped up Jessie, wrapped her in her jacket and hugged her close. “My baby is alive!”
Jessie looked up at her uncomfortably and then at Ethan. “Who is this old giant?” she asked.
“Your mother,” Ethan replied. “It really has been forty years. Also, I’ll just let you know now the reason why things seem bigger is because I am so unbelievably awesome that I accidentally made you four instead of twelve.”
“You did what?” she cried and then, sensing it, she looked down at her hands. “You made me a baby again!”
Ethan laughed, stood up and sheathed his sword. “Yes. Yes, I did.”
“You bastard!” she cried. “I’ll kill you!” She tried to scratch at him but her mother pulled her back.
“Don’t you hurt him!” cried Jane. “He saved your life!”
“This is crazy! I want my mom!” She looked up at Jane and her eyes bulged when she suddenly recognized her. “Oh shit! What about my friends? My toys? My, uh, my—” She let out a scream and cried out angrily, “Damn it, damn it, damn it!” over and over again and did not stop until Ethan put a hand on her shoulder. She looked over at him and her face was red with tears. “You couldn’t have made me sixteen?”
“Better take her outside,” Ethan told her mother and he reached down and picked up his dagger and her gun. “Adventure isn’t quite over yet.” He slipped the dagger into its sheath.
Jane nodded and carried her out. “Hey what’s really going on?” asked Jessie.
Ethan waited for them to leave before he carefully pushed the crystal with his foot to where he could easily see it through the doorway. Somewhere in all of that Marty had regained consciousness but only then dared to speak. “My ‘oot… My ‘oot is b’ee’ing…” he sounded like he was trapped between moaning and crying. “You b’o’e my ‘ace, Bar’le’…”
“Yeah and I’m real fucking sorry about that, Sheldon,” Ethan replied as he stepped over the crystal and started walking. When he reached Jane outside, he put his hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her along and made more distance between them and the treehouse.
“W’ere—” Marty let out a cry of rage, forced his jaw to work and finished with, “—are you going now, Bartlett! You think I’ll die on my own?” He let out a forced laugh. “I won’t! You’ll see me again!”
“Don’t look in the direction of the treehouse,” Ethan told Jane as he put her behind a tree where she shut her eyes and pressed a struggling Jessie against her chest. Ethan went to a different tree and aimed the gun at the crystal in the doorway.
“I’ll live, Bartlett!” cried Marty. “I’ll come back for—” Ethan fired and when missed Marty shrieked “Are you fucking crazy!” Ethan fired again. “For the love of all that is holy NO!” Ethan shut his eyes and fired one last shot.
The explosion of magic felt like a small nuke and the huge blast of light that followed was so bright it made Ethan’s eyelids light up red when he closed them and there were shapes when he opened them again afterward. He slipped back around the tree, blinked for a few seconds to clear up his eyes, and looked back. “Wow,” he said.
“It’s pretty,” said Jessie.
The treehouse had not been destroyed, although the windows were all shattered, and in the center of the room had a source of light similar to his Torch spell and appeared like a miniature sun that spread genuine daylight through the windows. It made the treehouse look like a gigantic jack-o'-lantern.
When Jane looked, she saw what Ethan saw and she quickly turned Jessie away. Ethan shook his head, clearing it up a bit, and quickly began leading her and Jessie back. An explosion like that was bound to draw somebody’s attention and they needed to be long lost in darkness or, better yet, in the city before anyone came snooping around.
What Ethan and Jane saw was Marty’s severed arm lying near the base of what was left of the coffin and his head with its back to them leaning against the doorframe.
Jessie had been so enthralled by the light that she had somehow missed both of them.
* * *
“I’m not a little girl!” cried Jessie as she wrapped the jacket around herself tighter. It looked monstrously too large but she had nothing else to wear.
Ethan sat across from her eating fries and grinning at her angry expression. “You look kind of little.”
“Only because you screwed up!” she growled. “I’m supposed to be twelve! Look at me, you jerk!” Jane laughed and snuggled with her tightly. Jessie groaned unhappily.
Mandy’s Diner was almost deserted at that hour. Ethan never agreed on a price and since Jane really didn’t have much money and a child to take care of, Ethan settled on a free meal and called it even.
Francine Randal came up to them as they ate and gave them all a wide smile. “It’s very nice of you to help, Ms. Downs,” she told her and she looked at Jessie with a confused expression on her face. Jessie herself didn’t notice because every bite of her own meal seemed almost hypnotic to her, as if she knew somewhere subconsciously she had not eaten in forty years. “Who is this, Jane?”
“It’s my little baby,” she said snuggling up with her and Jessie groaned again and banged her head on the table a few times. “Ethan found her for me and stop that, Jessie.” Jessie groaned loudly.
“That can’t be Jessie Downs,” said Francine.
“Sure I can,” said Jessie and she reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out an old picture of herself from 1971 that Jane had brought with her. Francine looked at it and her eyes went wide. “See. You can be taught.”
Francine slipped down beside Ethan with that stunned expression looking permanently glued to her face. “You’re so young.”
“I’m supposed to be twelve but butterfingers here can’t brew a potion worth a damn.”
“You’re supposed to be fifty,” said Francine
“Well, I guess he’s not that bad,” said Jessie and she ate a fry.
“Do you remember me?” asked Francine and she smiled. “We went to school together. I was a year behind you. I remember you.”
“Really? What’s your name?”
“Francine Randal now but I was Baker at the time.”
“Oh yeah,” Jessie replied with a wide smile. “We never hung out because you a complete nerd.”
Francine’s face darkened. “You’re a brat! You were always a brat!”
Ethan burst out laughing and Jane ran her hands through Jessie’s hair and kissed her in the cheek making her very uncomfortable.
“Brat is such a kid word,” said Jessie. “I don’t want to be a baby. I want to be full-grown. I was just starting to wear a bra and talk to boys and now I’m going to have to go through stupid kindergarten again.”
“I know and it’s a tragedy,” Ethan replied. “But fear not, Jessie. I think that maybe with therapy, serious soul searching and heartfelt prayer one day I might actually start caring.”
“You’re a jerk!”
“Don’t be mean to him,” Jane told her. “He saved your life and gave you back to me.” She kissed her again on the cheek and lingered on it.
“Mom!” Jessie cried and her eyes darted around as she grimaced uncomfortably.
“I hope you like cats, kid,” said Ethan.
“Oh, I forgot about that,” said Jane.
“Lots and lots of cats,” Francine told Jessie.
“Cats?” Jessie looked up at her mother.
“I was in a bad place for a while and I forgot to neuter a few of my pets,” Jane told her and she moved a hair out from over her eye. “You are my good girl, Jessie. You can have your very own kitten when we get home.”
Jessie looked horrified. “Don’t talk to me like that in front of people—” Jessie looked around nervously as her mother hugged her “—everyone’s looking at me! Even nerdy Francie Baker!”
Ethan laughed again and Francine frowned at her. “I was not a nerd.”
“You were a total nerd! Everyone said so! Even Jamie Randal thought so!”
“Oh did he?” Her eyes were mercilessly cold as she stood up. “I’ll have to talk to him about that when I get home.”
“That poor bastard,” said Ethan. “He’s going to get reamed on about something he said forty years ago.” He laughed again. “I like this kid.”
“I like you too,” Jessie said. “When I grow up maybe we can date. I’m very pretty, you know.”
“Oh, I know you’re pretty as an adult.” Jane gave him a frown. “Your mother is very pretty after all.”
“Good save,” said Francine unhappily.
“Are you still here?” asked Jessie.
“She actually owns the diner, Jessie.”
“Oh.” Jessie grabbed her empty glass and shook it at her. “Then can I get a refill?” Francine snatched the glass and walked off. “I like her. She’s still funny.”
Ethan smiled. “What a crazy night,” he told them as he finished his food. “I do believe I’m actually starting to like this town.”
“Me too,” Jessie replied, “but I’m not going to be playing at the train tracks anymore.”
“Play?” Jane clutched her tightly enough to make her eyes bulge. “I’ve learned my lesson and you’re never going to go out and play again! I’m locking you away forever where you’ll never, ever be in danger again!”
Jessie looked up at Ethan in horror. “Oh God no!” she cried. “Say something Ethan!”
“No, she frightens me,” he told her as he stood up. “However, Jessie, I’m certain you will gain some comfort in knowing that when I am out at the park, the movies or just wandering the streets alone, I will be thinking about you and the hundred cats you now live with.”
“Oh you are a bastard!” she told him.
“With so many different types of people saying that I’m starting to think it must be true.” He gave her a wide smile, ruffled her hair and left.