To be fair, this is not my first encounter with the supernatural.
Nor the fifth, nor the eleventh.
Actually, I’ve kind of been the accidental shepherd of lost (and usually pissy) souls since I hit my head a little too hard in fourth grade and officially died for a few minutes.
Whoa, sorry, let me back up a little before I let you join me and my shrieking lady friend over here.
My name is Jean Kirschtein. Say it five times fast, you’ll get it sooner or later.
I live in a fairly large city called Trost. You may have heard of it; we’re the ones going bankrupt and firing teachers in order to make enough money to build prisons. We’re also situated over what I like to call a Stygian Fault, deep beneath the earth. Stygian: I stole that word from Dante’s Inferno. It means “generally shitty.”
I call it this because every few years, this thing will act up, getting all infected and cranky, and start spewing some truly awful shit up here in good old rotting, crime-ridden Trost. We’re basically Gotham, if the Joker was the Devil and I was Batman.
Sadly, my mansion is a cheap closet in the bad part of town and my Batmobile is a stolen bicycle. My job doesn’t really pay that well.
Or at all.
Mostly because no one really knows that I do it.
I have friends, and relatives, and whatever, but to all of them I’m the weird mortician that works night shifts ripping tracheas out of corpses two floors under the police department. What they don’t know is that I’m actually the weird mortician that rips tracheas out of hellish hobgoblins behind the Subway on 17th Street.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Jean,” you’re saying as you shake your head sadly. “You are one delusional little motherfucker. I saw that episode on cable like two nights ago. You’re some super handsome hunk that drives around the country, fighting evil by night and stealing credit cards by day, right?” Well, you’re partially correct. Delusional? Maybe. Handsome hunk? Definitely.
Fuck what you know.
This isn’t TV. This isn’t fun and games, and this isn’t about damsels in distress. This is real, and this is messy, and this is right here in my backyard. I don’t actually have to move in order to do my job. Good old Trost keeps me busy all hours of the day and night.
Trost is big enough that no one ever has to see me again after I help them out. And if any of my friends were to get infested? Well, you know those mind-eraser things from Men In Black?
Nah, I’m fucking with you. I just break into their houses while they’re gone and take care of things.
So, that should about have you up to speed. Handsome, punky-looking guy roams the streets of a big city at night and heroically guts anything that looks out of place. Enough exposition for you?
Again, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen something like this. This is, however, my first experience with an actual, honest-to-whatever haunted basement. Usually baddies like to haunt a more popular area of the house, like the bathroom, or that creepy hall closet that you have to scuttle past to get to your bedroom at night. Basements? Nah, they’re too creepy on their own, let alone with angry spirits fucking around in them.
I wince a little as the girl standing in the middle of the room shrieks again, fingers clawing at her face. Ducking down behind my makeshift shield (a shelf she’d thrown at me a little while ago), I try to reason myself through the situation. She wants something, clearly, and whatever it is, it’s down here somewhere.
Taking a deep breath, I look out from behind the splintered wood. She hasn’t moved except for her knees knocking together under the force of her own torment. Her sharp nails claw at the skin under her eyes and dark blood squirts over her pale skin, matting her black hair.
She’s really A+ nightmare material, this girl. And she’s pissed.
I look around the room again, trying to find the locus of her rage. A brick wiggles loose from the wall and flies up into the cheap fluorescent light staining the basement a sickly white, and the dying sparks are the last of the remaining light.
I suck in a breath and the girl stops screaming.
Shit, shit shit shit.
She straightens up, her bloody hands falling to her sides.
And then she’s on me.
I yelp and fall back on my ass, holding her at arm’s length with the board. She’s staring at me from over the splintering wood, eyes wide and half-clawed out of her skull, and she’s emitting this truly horrifying gurgle. Her hands scrabble at either side of the shelf, trying to get at me, and the gurgling grows louder.
“Listen!” I swallow and scoot backwards across the dirty floor, but she presses harder against the wood, nostrils flaring. Blood drips down the board. “Listen, I can help you, but you have to stop trying to kill me!”
She opens her mouth and a sobbing shriek comes out, somewhat muffled against the board. I can feel her knees between mine, twitching and tensing, and I really hope she doesn’t kick me.
“Come on, I’m the only one still here,” I sputter, trying to reason with her. Her eyes roll and a piercing wail follows, her scrambling, ataxic fingers moving to yank at her dirty, bloody hair. She pushes again, and we slide further along the floor. “Please let me help you.” I lower my voice, looking at her damaged face. Last resort. I lick my lips and give her a soft gaze. “I want to help. Will you let me?”
She backs off finally, falling over onto her side, draped over my thigh. Soft sobs wrack her thin body, but they’re different from the ones that had filled the basement just moments ago. She sounds young now, and pained, rather than rage-filled. I think about just how little she looks.
The board drops slowly, and I lean it against the wall. I reach a trembling hand toward her, palm up, like I’m trying to approach an angry cat. Her little form has curled around my thigh now, and the other leg is awkwardly splayed to the side to make room for her. Shaking with sobs between my legs, she aims a look at me from under her tangled hair. Her face is still covered with blood, but the scratches are gone.
I smile gently at her, but make no move to touch her. I know better. “It’s over there, right?” I nod my head at the missing brick. She shudders; not just her body, but her whole existence. It’s a kind of phasing movement unique to the damned. Like you’re looking really hard at something, but you’re really tired, so your eyes start shaking uncontrollably. Another shudder and she’s gone, no longer chilling my thigh. She’s kneeling in front of the missing brick and crying softly. I’m starting to feel really bad at this point, but I stand carefully and brush myself off.
“What are you looking for?” I move slowly, not making any sudden movements or loud noises. “Is it there? Do I need any tools?”
She doesn’t reply. She just curls in on herself and shivers, looking for all the world like the lost little girl she was at some point. I move next to her and cautiously lean around her, shaking fingers digging into the space left by the brick. A sharp inhale from hip-level informs me that my aim is off. I look down at her out of the corner of my eye. Less than a foot away from me, her frantic eyes search the wall.
“Okay,” I sigh, carefully sitting next to her. “Okay,” I repeat, and I start feeling at the bricks around it.
We sit in silence for a few minutes, apart from her sniffles. She’s wiping the blood on her white face around, not really making any move to get rid of it.
Finally, my fingers hit a chipped indent in one of the bricks. A slow exhale from my left, followed by a quiet whimper. I stick my tongue out a little in concentration and pick at the ancient mortar holding the crumbling stone in place. Finally, the brick wiggles, and I give a sigh of relief. I really don’t think she’d like it if I’d pulled a knife to try and pry the damn thing out.
I give a good tug and the brick comes out, and she perks right up onto her dirty knees. There’s no hidden hollow in the brick, so I drop it and reach my hand into the empty space. I can feel a soft rippling around my fingers. So that’s why she was so frustrated; sometimes when things are hidden and someone doesn’t want them to be found, they hide in a little bubble. The bubble prevents the dead from reaching the object.
I find that it’s usually things that are hidden from their rightful owners that have this power. That’s why I call them asshole bubbles. They’re filled with ill intent.
I reach in further, brow furrowing, and my hand hits something tangled and… hairy.
I pull out the thing, and the girl gives a soft sob, tears spilling down her cheeks. Of course. It’s a little doll, made with her own hair. People back in the day, I tell you. It’s like they were trying to get violently haunted.
“Is this it?” I turn to her and show her the doll. It’s small and dirty, but the tears falling down her face tell me that it’s the one thing she treasured most in her short life. Thus the rage. Old anger festers, you see.
I hold it out to her, and her shaking fingers come up and take it from me. Her mouth falls open on a sigh, and she brings the doll to her heart, curling around it and rocking back and forth. I smile. It’s almost cute, even with the attempted homicide.
“Will you go home now?” I duck my head to try and catch her eye. She blinks slightly, then looks at me and nods. She stands then, doll clutched tightly to her chest, and gives me a lopsided curtsy. I lean back on my hands and watch her turn toward the adjacent wall.
Her door is just her height and painted a soft pink that doesn’t at all match the shitty, dirty look of the basement.
I close my eyes as her little hand meets the comically large doorknob. I don’t like to watch; it feels too personal.
When the door closes again, I open my eyes and look around the dark basement.
That’s about the point that I hear footsteps above my head.
I scramble to my feet and jump onto an old filing cabinet, hurriedly opening the basement window and hauling myself through.
I don’t stop running until I’m safely three blocks away; I slow to a quick walk and try to look really chill, folding my hood up with a glance around. I jog down the stairs to the subway, pay my fare, and run to the train, jumping through the doors just as they close.
Yeah, so a bulk of my job consists of breaking and entering. I never take anything, honest! Well, maybe a beer if I think I can swing it. It’s for their own good, though. Seriously, some of the things I weed out of peoples’ houses can get real nasty if you leave them.
How do I find them, you ask?
Well, a good magician never reveals their secrets, I might say.
Truth is, I do have one or two friends in the industry. They’re hella cranky, but what can you do? It’s what the job does after a while.
Erwin Smith is the night manager of the shitty Target down in southern Trost. He’s also Levi’s caretaker, for better or for worse. They don’t fight often, but when they do, whoof.
Levi’s probably the best psychic this side of the Mississippi. He’s not happy about that. Would you be? Honestly.
I roll up at the shipping entrance of the superstore and find Levi leaning against the wall next to a propped-open service door. He’s smoking a cigarette and looking a little worse for the wear.
“Hey,” I say, announcing my presence and pulling my hood up a little. The misting rain is starting to make my hair more than a little damp. I run my fingers through my bangs, flopping them wetly to the side. “Can I bum one?”
“Tch,” Levi responds, leveling me with a pissy glare. He holds out his pack anyway, though. I take one and light it with the lighter tucked inside, then hand them back.
“How should I know?” Levi leans his head against the wall and exhales slowly. “Probably shitting. It’s about that time of night.”
I just shake my head, leaving the cigarette between my lips as I check my phone. He still hasn’t responded to my text. “I finished that job in North Trost,” I mumble around the cigarette, pausing to take a good, long hit. “You got any other hits?”
Levi chuckles drily. “Of course I do. Shitty hell hole’s acting up again.”
I groan and lean against the wall on the other side of the door. “It’s been doing that for weeks. It’s gotta pass over soon, school starts up in a month.” I’m not a student. I teach anatomy labs at the medical school. You know, when I’m not getting my ass handed to me.
Levi shrugs. He takes his cigarette between his fingers and is about to speak, but the service door bangs open and nearly crushes me against the wall. I yelp and block the swinging metal with my forearms. “Hey!”
Eren’s dopey face peers around the door. “Oh, hey Jean,” he says, then turns to Levi. “Don’t you have your radio on?”
Levi snorts and flicks his ashes.
“Um, Erwin was calling for you. He wants to count out your till,” Eren says, fingers wrapped around the door. I move away from the danger zone and finish my cigarette. Levi nods, and he and Eren have one of their gay little wordless eye contact conversations. Eren turns to me and smiles. “Haven’t seen you in a while. You thinking of coming back to work?”
I snort and grind the filter under my heel. “And have to see your face every night? Kill me.” I don’t know what it is about this kid that makes me want to pick fights, but it happens more than I’d like to admit. A lot, okay, a lot.
A shadow passes over Eren’s face, but he doesn’t take the bait. He just turns and goes back inside to do whatever it is he does.
I wait the customary amount of time before I turn to Levi. “You haven’t told him yet?”
Levi levels me with a “mind your own fucking business or you’ll be getting dumpster monsters for a week” kind of look, so I raise my hands and take a step back. He looks me over for a second longer, then sighs and digs in his pocket. As he hands me a torn-off piece of receipt paper with a hastily-scrawled address on it, my phone starts buzzing in my pocket.
“This one pays,” Levi says shortly. “Thirty for you, thirty for Erwin, and forty for me.”
“Aw, what?” I give Levi a little whine, which works about as well as it usually does. “How come I get the same cut as Erwin? I’m the one doing all the dirty work.”
Levi smirks a little and doesn’t answer. He just moves back into the store room and kicks away the brick doorstop. The handle-less, heavy red metal slams shut, and I pull out my ringing phone.
“Hey, Connie,” I say, injecting some cheer into my voice. I shove my other hand into my pocket and head back toward my apartment. “What’s up?”
“Someone’s in a good mood,” comes the loud response. I can hear Sasha in the background, and maybe a few other people.
“Yeah,” I say, turning onto the main street, but not before my customary shady glance around. “I got off work a little early tonight.”
“Nice! You can come over then!”
I sigh and wait to cross the street, squinting up at the mist twisting through the streetlight. “I dunno, man, I’m a little beat.”
“No way,” Connie says firmly. I can almost hear him pointing an accusing finger at me. “We’re gonna play cards, and you’re gonna come have a few beers and a good time. We haven’t seen you in like two weeks. All you do is sleep and play with dead things.”
I chuckle quietly. Oh, Connie, if only you knew. “Alright, you got me. Your place?”
“You mean they’re not one and the same?”
Connie sputters a little, and his voice sounds a little like he’s cupping a hand around his mouth when he replies. “Chill, man, her lease is up next month, I’ll ask her then.”
I roll my eyes. “Fine. I’m heading into the subway, I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Alright,” comes the reply, and before I hang up I can hear Connie yelling something about ‘great success.’ His Borat impression isn’t terrible.
I stuff my phone in my pocket and jog into the subway. The tunnels are an absolute signal dead zone, so no texting or talking or Facebook. Nothing. Once you hit those stairs, it’s game over. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Honestly, I think there’s some kind of infestation in the subways again. I remember clearing a few weird little taotie out from around King’s Ave a few years ago; they’d been eating the third rail and clogging up the subway lines. Finding out what eats cell phone signal, though, might take a little heavy research.
I sink into the hard plastic seat on the grungy subway car, grimacing at the warmth. Are the seats heated, or is it residual butt heat? The immortal question.
Getting to Sasha’s place from the subway isn’t hard, but I’ll be damned if she doesn’t live in a troublesome neighborhood. Kappas live in the sewers down her street, and when it rains you can pretty much hear them plotting. They like to fuck with the water supply. I’d try to do something about it, but honestly no one complains that much, and it’s way more than a one-man job. The people around here just know better than to drink the tap water at this point. That’s fine enough for me.
I try not to notice as their little black flippers reach up out of the storm grates, hunching my shoulders against the strengthening rain and walking a little faster.
Sasha throws the door open with a wide grin and pulls me inside by the front of my damp hoodie. I realize that I’d forgotten to stop and buy cigarettes, but it’s not like I can smoke them in her house anyway. I’ll get some on the way home.
“Mr. Warm Bodies is here,” Sasha calls as she drags me through the house, little hand still fisted in my hoodie. I stuff myself into a ratty chair next to the couch and nod my greetings to Connie, Bert, Reiner, and Annie.
Sasha reappears at my side and hands me a beer before moving to sit on the arm of the couch next to Connie. He moves his arm behind her and tugs her into his lap, laughing at her loud yelp. I smile and raise my beer to them before taking a swig.
I listen to them resume their conversation, Reiner loudly debating the finer points of The Matrix as a trilogy. This is comfortable; it’s nice. It’s a good way to unwind after getting my ass handed to me by a pissy little girl.
Like I said, I do have friends. I just kind of have to lie to them a little. It’s better if Connie never finds out that it was a poltergeist, not raccoons, that trashed his apartment while he was on vacation, and if Bert never has to think about the teenage suicide pact that had been haunting his attic. (Turns out all they wanted after death was to get really high. They’d never managed it, and their home lives all sucked enough that they crowded in the one kid’s attic bedroom and drank bleach to escape all the shit being flung at them. I had pity and smoked them out like kings. Bert had complained about the smell for a week.)
I laugh with them and don’t feel at all out of place. I make something up about work, and they laugh and make appropriately disgusted sounds as I talk.
Alright, maybe I feel a little out of place, but it’s a necessary evil.
The cards come out, and we play a few good and dirty rounds of that Cards Against Humanity game. It’s a really twisted game, definitely a good time.
It’s midnight when I finally dump my three beer bottles in the recycling and hug Sasha goodbye. Bert and Annie shuffle a boisterous Reiner out the door, and I turn down the short blonde’s offer of a ride home. She just shrugs and closes Sasha’s door behind her.
Before I can leave, though, Connie tosses a paper airplane at me from the couch.
“Hey, whatever happened to that girl you were seeing?”
I blink at him, honestly drawing a blank. Oh, wait. Pigtails. “Mina?”
“Yeah, what happened with her?”
I shrug, stuffing my hands in my pockets. Honestly, she had thought I was cheating on her. Yeah, of course. Cheating on her with a particularly ferocious wendigo. Fucker had required multiple trips (and multiple ass-beatings on both counts) to finally get rid of him. “She said I didn’t have enough time for her.” The image of her dark, angry eyes flashing at me in the dim light of my room pops into my head. Never mind that I was limping at the time. “I guess we just weren’t working,” I say finally, realizing Connie is still waiting for me to speak.
“Man, you need to come around more often,” Connie says, leaning back into the couch. Sasha nods and moves to sit next to him, their fingers twining. They should just get married already. I smile and run a hand through my hair.
“Sorry, work’s been really busy lately,” I say, and it pains me that this isn’t a lie.
They let me go and I lock the door behind me, my thumb tracing a little ward in the rain drops above the outside lock. It’s not much, but painting weird shit on my friend’s door might be frowned upon.
I make it back to my closet and collapse into bed just after one, making sure to at least kick off my shoes and set my alarm. The receipt paper that Levi had given me is still stuck to my phone, adhered to the screen with a few drops of water.
‘750 S 16th St, gaki’ the paper says. I grimace at the last word, then roll onto my back and stare at the ceiling. Great. Gaki are these really gross spirits afflicted by an endless, insatiable hunger as penance for their sins in life. Or something.
What they really are, are fat little skeletons that eat everything they can get their hands on, until they run out of stuff to eat.
That’s usually when they turn to the human snack supply.
I pull my thin pillow over my face with a groan.
Tomorrow’s gonna be great.
I roll out of bed around noon and immediately cross yesterday off my wall calendar. Only three weeks until the semester starts up again. The damn fault had better be long closed by then, I think.
I wring enough hot water out of the depths of the building to manage a quick shower. It goes cold halfway through, but hey. Saves me money on coffee, I guess.
My phone chimes annoyingly as I button up my jeans, and I answer with a gruff “What” around a mouthful of toast.
“Um, I’m sorry, hi, is this Jean?”
I blink at my phone. “Depends,” I say finally, taking another chomp of the slightly soggy bread I’m calling breakfast.
A silence. Seriously?
“Well, um, if you see him, can you leave a message for me?”
I pull the phone away from my head so I can shove it through a shirt. I pull the worn fabric down over my stomach and direct my full attention to the phone, cramming the last of my toast into my mouth.
“Okay.” Whoever this guy is, he sounds nervous. I wonder briefly if he’s my client for today. “Um, just let him know that my… my problem is getting a little… insistent.”
Yeah, definitely my client. “Look, I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I say as I shove my feet into my shoes and shrug into a hoodie. “Can you hold on until then?”
“U-u-um,” comes the shaky reply. A yelp, then, a little further away, and what sounds like a phone falling down some stairs. I’m already running down my building’s narrow stairs, taking them three at a time. “No, I don’t think so,” the guy yells from a little further. I curse and shove my phone back in my hoodie; no use trying to yell back at him. I unlock my battered bike, thanking my lucky stars that it had survived another night without being dismantled, and pedal north like my life depends on it. It doesn’t, but someone’s does.
750 South 16th Street, as it turns out, is a run-down little church. I ride through the gate, standing on the pedals, and jump off just before I hit the door. Leaving the bike, wheel spinning, on the lawn, I bust into the narthex.
It’s weirdly quiet.
I curse a little and realize that I totally forgot to bring any kind of offering. Damn.
There’s half a Snickers bar in my hoodie pocket. Somehow I doubt that’s enough.
I look around the entryway, searching for the most likely hunting ground for a hungry spirit.
The sound of fabric ripping catches my attention, and I bolt to the left, jumping over a little gate and into the world’s dinkiest stairway. The ripping sound continues behind a sliding wood door, which is open just a fraction. I can hear what sounds like soft whimpers underneath that, but mostly what I hear is chewing.
I fucking hate gaki.
I crouch on the last stair before the doorway and peer through the crack. There’s a guy sprawled on the ground, wearing black robes and half of a bright blue vestment. He’s got his face buried in his hands, and he looks like he’s trying to scrabble away along the floor without looking at whatever’s attacking him.
Observing the rest of the dirty storage room, I notice that the other half of his holy tablecloth is currently being chewed on in earnest by a shrunken little mummy with a fat stomach. Great.
Armed with my half Snickers, I stand and slide the door open. “Oi, gaki,” I say, definitely not trying to sound cool. It doesn’t respond, just chewing voraciously and staring with huge eyes at the priest, crouched much too close to him for anyone’s comfort. I raise an eyebrow and try again. “Preta?” No response. I strain my memory. “Peik-ta?” The thing stops momentarily, freezing up in response to my heavily-accented Burmese address. It turns its head toward me, emaciated jaws resuming their frantic gnawing.
I sigh and pull the wrapper off the chocolate. “What about this, buddy?” I wave it around, looking around the room as I do. The dirt floor is mostly obscured by random shit, but the architecture is old. I can see several vaults at the end of a long hallway. The huge door of the main vault creaks open, and in the darkness is a single, broken chair.
Oh, no. Fuck this place and everything about it. I focus my eyes on the priest, shivering a little, and notice that the guy’s robes are heavily torn. He’s lucky the gaki is only after his vestment.
Speaking of which, the thing is swallowing heavy, wet mouthfuls of fabric and looking at me over its shoulder with a demented, haunted starvation in its eyes. I bend my knees a little and hold out the now-melting chocolate. “Doesn’t this look better than that old table cloth?” I lick my lips and try to look disarming as I shuffle around toward the priest. The gaki’s huge eyes don’t leave me or my offering, its head moving slightly to track my movements.
“You want this?” I feel a little ridiculous. The priest is squinting at me between his fingers, trying not to alarm the spirit crouched next to him, chewing on his clothes. I notice a broken pair of glasses on the floor between them. So much for those. Hope God has good insurance.
I finish my wide circle and end up just behind the priest, with the gaki between us and the door. The thing slows its chewing and swallows, the blue fabric poking out from between its shriveled lips. Its distended belly pokes out between its naked thighs, crouching flat on its bony feet. Its hands hang loose at its sides.
The damned thing has yet to blink. Seriously, I hate gaki.
Licking my lips, I look down at the priest. He’s a lot younger than I’d assumed, I notice, and his black hair is dusty and messy.
“Hey, peik-ta,” I say. “How about this. I’ll give you this and a nice long prayer if you leave this nice man alone.” Like talking to a dog. Or a small child. I’m not honestly a hundred percent sure on the distinction. The thing doesn’t seem to like this idea, as it starts chewing rapidly again, slobbering a little in its rush. “Whoa, hey, okay, fine.” I stop to think, my eyes flicking down the hallway to the open vaults. I can already see something crouched on the chair.
My shoulders tense, and I’m suddenly filled with the urge to bolt out of here and never look back, with or without the holy man. Whatever’s down here, the gaki is probably the least of many issues. Those vaults are bad news, I can tell you that much.
“Okay,” I say again, looking at the panicky-looking gaki. Please blink, I think to myself. “Look, I don’t have any flowers or anything,” I start, but a small whimper distracts me. The priest is peering up at me, still through his fingers.
His voice, muffled by his palms, comes out shaky. “There’s some in the chest… b-behind you.”
I bite my lip, still holding out the Snickers. It’s starting to slide down my fingers as it melts. “Are they real?”
The priest just gives a terrified squeak.
“… Do they look real?”
I can almost see the guy sweating bullets, wide brown eyes staring desperately up at me. The stole, still draped over one of his shoulders, gives a jerk as the gaki stuffs more of it into its jowls, and the priest squeaks again. We don’t really have another choice at this point.
The chest he’d mentioned can only be this huge crate behind me, the kind of shit pirates leave buried under a giant red X in the sand. I fumble with the catch and haul it open, its hinges creaking, and pull out an extremely dusty, dully-colored bouquet. “Seriously?” I say, shaking the dust off.
The priest sniffles a little. “They were in the window for too long,” he finally murmurs, eyes flicking from me to the flowers. He’s desperately not looking at the thing chewing on his clothes.
I turn back to the noisily chomping spirit. Seriously, how long is this damn scarf? As I stand up a little straighter, I realize with a chill that the scene is being closely observed, and not by any participating party. Our clock is ticking. I purposely do not look toward the vault again.
“Okay, so I have food and flowers,” I say to the thing, crouching a little and offering it both. The thing stares and chews, stares and chews. Please blink. Its belly is lumpy with scarf and god knows what else. “Is that okay?” Slurp, slurp, slurp. “Food, flowers, and a prayer?” It pauses. I do too, realizing that I have completely forgotten the one Burmese remembrance prayer I knew. “Um, I only know one in Chinese,” I start, but the thing is already screaming, its fingers clamped over its ears. The sound is grating and muffled, escaping around a throatful of scarf, and it bounces agitatedly on its heels.
“Okayokayokay,” I yell over it, trying to make a placating gesture around my offerings. The priest had rolled onto his side, burying his face in what remains of his stole and stammering out high-pitched prayers. The fabric is yanked away from him as the gaki stuffs the rest of the scarf into its cheeks and stands. It levels a hungry look at me, its huge round eyes widening further, and I cautiously step toward it, over the shaking priest.
“I’m sorry,” I say in what I hope is a soothing voice, hands still in front of me. My right hand is covered with chocolate, I note with disdain. “I’m sorry, okay? I just… I forgot the Burmese one.” The thing growls a little, still working its way through its mouthful. Its gaze shifts, though, to the melting candy in my hand. I wave it around a little bit, dropping the sun-bleached flowers to the dirty floor. “You want this?” I lick my lips and step the rest of the way over the priest, effectively putting him behind me.
We’re only going to get one shot at this.
The gaki gnaws its way through the last mouthful of vestment as I reach behind me and fist my hand in his tattered black robes. He yelps, and the gaki twitches, and I murmur something soothing in whatever language comes to mind first. It seems to object less to Thai, I notice dimly. I yank on the priest’s robes insistently, and I hear him stand behind me, but I don’t let go yet.
Swallowing noisily, the gaki’s cheeks return to their hollow state, and the thing lets out a moan of hunger.
“You want this,” I say again, more of a statement. “I’ll just leave it,” I tug a little on the priest’s robes and really hope he gets the picture. “Over there!” I chuck the chocolate down the hall, toward the vault, and the thing runs after the sweaty chocolate at an insane pace. I’m not one to waste time, so I bolt for the sliding door, dragging the priest behind me as I go. When we clear the threshold, I bodily toss the guy onto the stairs and haul all my weight into slamming the door shut. The door clicks shut, and I’m already using the chocolate on my hand to trace a ward on the shitty wood. The priest is up, then, slamming a padlock onto a latch above the handle. He clicks the thing shut, then collapses back onto the stairs.
I lean my head against the door and sigh. Fucking gaki, dude. They’re awful. Hungry and picky and so oversensitive to every little thing.
The thing that worries me more, though, is the fact that there were a few open vaults down there, and they all seemed some degree of occupied.
I turn to the priest, who’s breathing heavily and wringing his hands. Dude’s covered in freckles. They stand out dark on his pallid cheeks. He looks up at me and squints a little. I remember the broken glasses on the floor.
Extending my non-chocolatey left hand to the guy, I try my best to give him a soothing smile. Paying customer and all. “Jean Kirschtein,” I say. “Supernatural janitor.”
Despite himself, the priest laughs and accepts my awkward lefty shake. “Marco Bodt,” he replies. “Confused priest.”
“I bet,” I say, dragging my clean hand through my hair. “How long has that been going on?”
Marco stands and heads up the precarious stone stairs, unlatching the little metal gate with slightly less shaky hands. “I started hearing chewing sounds a few months ago.” I pull a napkin out of the back pocket where my wallet is supposed to be and curse slightly. No cigarettes yet, then. As I clean my fingers, Marco continues. He’s still wringing his hands a little. “I thought it was rats… but then a lot of the church’s food for the Christmas food drive started going missing. Whole cans, mind you, and I don’t think rats eat those.”
I hum in acknowledgement and start toward the door. “So what happened today?”
“I went down there to get something from the vault.” He gives a shaky laugh. “Can’t for the life of me remember what.”
I stuff my now-clean hands in my pockets and look around the narthex. This place really blows. “And it tackled you?”
“Yes,” he replies, pulling at the scraps of fabric hanging off of his robes. He grimaces. “It… it really ate my vestment, huh?”
Despite myself, I laugh long and loud. “Yeah, gaki will do that. They’re hungry, you see. Always hungry, until they’re put out of their misery.”
Marco sighs and runs a hand through his dusty, messy hair. “What is a gaki?” He pauses. “And how do I get it out of my church?”
I sigh, scratching my stubbly cheek. That’s what I forgot to do this morning, shave. “It’s a hungry spirit. That one was Burmese. What it’s doing here of all places, I have no idea, but there it is. As for removing it…” I crack my knuckles and lace my fingers together on top of my head, flattening my messy blonde hair. “You got some problems, Padre. I think you should just abandon ship, honestly.”
Marco’s shoulders slump. He bites his lip and stares at the floor. “I can’t leave this church,” he says finally, taking a deep breath. “The community really needs it, you know?” He considers me for a moment, and frankly, I’m feeling a little nervous. “If I can pay you more…”
“Nooo, nonono,” I say quickly, putting my hands on my hips. I feel like the movement makes me look a little weird, though, so I just stuff my hands into my pockets again. “Sorry, Padre, but you have some seriously bad things happening down there. I’d have to be suicidal to try that myself.”
Marco looks at me with this weird mix of desperation and hope. “You’re not alone! You have me!”
I shake my head slowly, shoulders relaxing a little. “It’s more complicated than that. I have some pretty bad feelings about that vault there.”
“…pt,” comes the muffled reply, and I arch an eyebrow.
“What was that?”
Flushing a little, Marco twiddles his fingers. “It’s a crypt.”
I throw my hands in the air. “Fantastic.” I scratch the back of my head. “Excellent.”
We stand there for a little longer, neither of us daring to look at the slightly-wobbling door tucked into the corner. The little metal gate sectioning off the stairs looks almost absurd compared to the outright badness that’s threatening to come up out of it.
“Listen, Padre, let me walk you home,” I say, extending the olive branch. Marco shakes his head.
“I’m not a Father,” he says. “I’m a reverend. You can just call me Marco, though.”
I nod. “Okay, Marco,” I say. “Let me walk you home.”
He smiles and scratches his head, and for some reason I’m feeling nervous again.
“I, uh. I live above the sanctuary.” He points to the wide, white doors behind us. “So it’s not really that far.”
I stare at the doors for a moment, then back to Marco, before marching right over to them and opening one wide.
It doesn’t take more than half a second’s glance to convince me that Marco must really be fucking blind. I slam the door shut again and turn to face him, shoulders tense. “No,” I say simply. He blinks at me, and I shake my head. “No fucking way, Pad—Marco. Have you opened your eyes lately?”
He licks his lips and flushes a little, rubbing a finger under his nose. “I just thought, you know… sometimes when cars go by, their shadows move along the walls…”
I look at him incredulously and point over my shoulder, mouth hanging open. “Cars,” I manage finally.
Let me break this down for you really fast. I looked into that damn sanctuary for half a second and counted two more gaki lounging around the aisles, looking miserable.
Oh, and six humanoid spirits, three taotie, a kappa bouncing around in a fountain, four fucking will-o’-the-wisps, and some hazy giant that I don’t even really want to think about.
Cars, Marco Bodt says. Cars.
In the end, Marco agrees to come with me and stay at my apartment for a while. To be honest, the guy seems way too nice for me to let him get gored in a house of God. And he hasn’t paid me yet.
He pulls off his tattered robe and finds, with dismay, that his t-shirt underneath had been torn too. I chuckle a little when I notice that he’s wearing jeans and dirty chucks under his holy attire. Marco blushes, pulling at the torn fabric of his t-shirt. “No one notices when I’m at the lectern,” he mumbles bashfully. “I guess I’m a little unorthodox.”
I nod, still chuckling, and lead the way out of the building. Marco locks it, and I look up at the sky, silently requesting that it hold off on the downpour until I’m at least most of the way home.
“Oh, I still didn’t pay you,” Marco says behind me, fishing out his wallet and digging out a few crumpled bills. I don’t bother counting it, just shoving it in my hip pocket. “Um, thanks again for your hospitality,” he continues, looking at the wet grass.
“Don’t worry about it,” I mumble, hauling my stolen bicycle off the lawn and righting it. I wonder briefly if the bike would protest were Marco to ride on the pegs. Probably. I sigh and run a hand through my hair. “Sit.” I point at the seat. He looks at me, confused.
“What are you going to ride?” I give him a stare and refuse to dignify that with a response. “Oh,” he says finally, catching on. He has the good grace to turn red, moving to sit as far back on the seat as he can.
I look over his shoulder and investigate his torn shirt, noticing that he has some goosebumps around the scabbing scratches across his shoulder. I remove my hoodie wordlessly and push it into his face, trying to drown out any muffled politeness he might have for me.
It’s unseasonably warm, I notice, swinging my leg over his lap and moving to stand on the pedals. I don’t even need to roll down the sleeves of my flannel.
A few laggy starts later and we’re on our way, Marco’s hands resting primly on my waist as I ride the pedals back in the direction of my apartment.
I hop off when we arrive a few minutes later, kicking my sore legs a little and moving to chain the bike to a street sign, right under the little sign that says “DO NOT LOCK BIKES HERE.” Marco hops off too and lets his hands rest in the hoodie’s pockets, looking around like he hasn’t left the damn church in years. I turn toward the corner store and gesture for him to follow.
The bell above the door rings as I barge into the corner store, my eyes scanning for the drink fridges. A gruff holler comes from behind the cramped deli at the back, and I return the sentiment with a grunt of my own. Big Joe never has been one for intellectual conversation. I grab a few cans of Coke and look at Marco, who’s studying the shelves with a narrow squint. “Do you want anything?” I ask, closing the fridge door before it starts to hum angrily. Damn old fridges.
“Oh, um, I can get it,” Marco says, jumping a little and moving to grab his wallet. I wave my hand, though, and he tilts his head.
“You just got evicted by evil,” I explain. “Let me get it.”
He smiles softly and digs the toe of his shoe into the worn linoleum. “Thanks.”
“So pick something, go on,” I say, nodding toward the fridge. I honestly expected him to get water or something, but he smiles widely and grabs one of those monstrous Jolt cans of Monster. Okay then. I turn in the narrow aisle, tripping a little over some bags of kitty litter, and scan the slim macaroni selection. Half of the boxes are in Spanish, but I find the gooey Velveeta terribleness I’d been craving since this morning with an accomplished sound. I can hear Marco chuckling a little.
We toss our haul on the plastic counter, and a gum-chewing little Spanish princess looks up at us from her nails.
“And a pack of Marlboro menthols,” I say, reaching into my pocket for the crumpled bills stuffed toward the bottom.
The girl pops a bubble and hollers back to Joe in Spanish. “Your tenant’s got a new boyfriend,” she says, clearly not remembering that I speak Spanish just fine, thank you. I smile at her and grab the bag she’s offering me.
“At least I only have one,” I respond, rolling my tongue around soft syllables just to be a showoff. Her eyes widen, as does my smile, and Joe guffaws from behind a huge ham. “Do you have matches?”
She hands them over wordlessly, eyes moving between me and Marco. I turn on my heel and leave the store, hollering a goodbye to Joe. Marco trails along behind me, chuckling and looking a little flushed.
I stop outside the door to my building and fish around for my cigarettes. As I slap them against my palm, I study Marco. “So you’re, like, what… ten? Eleven?”
Marco laughs jovially, digging in the bag for his giant sugary beverage. “Har har,” he responds as he rips the plastic off and opens it. It makes a sound akin to a gunshot, and we both jump. “I’m 27,” he continues, sipping the odious green ooze.
I raise my eyebrows. “You’re actually older than me?” He tilts his head and smiles. “I’m 26,” I mumble, ripping the plastic off my pack and popping it open. I only struggle with the matches a little before managing to light my cigarette with a contented sigh.
“Funny how that works,” he says, tapping a finger against his can.
We chat idly for a while as I finish my cigarette, and I swear I can see him getting hyper. I wonder how often he actually drinks that shit, and whether he knows what he’s gotten into with that huge-ass can.
I lead him up to my apartment, and he sinks onto my ratty couch with a sigh. I drop the rest of the stuff onto my one counter and dig out a can of Coke. I collapse heavily next to him on the couch, resting my feet on the ancient, salvaged coffee table.
It’s nice to relax, finally, and just as I sigh and open my soda, the power gives a high hum and then goes out. Lovely.
“I paid my bill,” I say, looking at him out of the corner of my eye. Grey, rainy light filters in from the dirty window.
He smiles and leans into the couch, turning to look out the window. Thunder cracks somewhere in the distance. “I guess the building’s just taking a break,” he murmurs, and I give him a lopsided smile.
My phone chimes from the hoodie pocket, scaring the life out of Marco. I laugh at him and dig the noisy thing out, picking it up and holding it to my ear.
Before I can say anything, Levi’s growling into my ear and sounding rather like shit warmed over. “We have a problem,” he says, and I can practically hear him chain-smoking.
“You know how the fault’s been acting up?”
I think briefly about the excessively haunted church I’d just rescued Marco from. “That’s putting it lightly.”
“Yeah. Did you do that job yet?”
I laugh drily. “Yeah, and it’s pretty fucked up. You wouldn’t belie—”
“The rift’s there.”
I pause. My mouth goes dry. I swallow a few times before leaning up and gingerly placing my soda on the coffee table. I can feel Marco staring at me.
“Did you take anything from the church? Any idols?”
My eyes flick over to Marco, who looks concerned, his shoulders a little tight and his brow furrowed.
I lick my lips.