The first thing Nicole notices when she drags the heavy door open is the irony.
On the surface, everything still looks the same.
The strange metal sculptures scattered across the front of the property, wearing skulls and chains as accessories, like some kind of twisted scarecrows raised from the Earth’s core to stand watch against far worse than scavenger birds.
The cluttered barn like something out of a horror movie, hammers and tongs and pokers pinned to the wall, tools of a trade that could just as easily belong to a twisted psychopath as an innocent smith. Sharp implements dangle from the rafters like teeth ready to sink into the next unfortunate soul that wanders into waiting jaws.
The mighty forge, impressive in its stature, demanding respect as the bellows and the swage block and the anvil all pay tribute to its hearth, where it forces even the most stubborn of metals into submission, bowing to its will so that it may shape them into its desired image.
On the surface, everything still looks the same.
But it’s not.
The rusted sentries failed to protect and the forge has lost its fire and the once warm barn now stands cold and empty inside.
The irony hits Nicole again like a bucket of icy water and she shudders, wrapping her parka tighter against the chill that has nothing to do with the frosty wind whipping through the open door at her back, rattling the iron cattle brands that sway overhead.
“The teeth are chattering,” she says to no one and scoffs out a humorless laugh, trying desperately to focus on anything but the fact that her kind of girlfriend is waiting for her back at the Homestead.
She also looks the same on the surface.
She also stands cold and empty inside.
Well, not exactly empty.
Nicole can’t let herself think about that, so she focuses instead on the reason why she’s here. Mattie might be gone, but there’s a chance there could be something of hers hidden among the generators and the blacksmithing tools and the discarded scraps of metal that could help Waverly. It’s grasping at straws and they know it, but Nicole couldn’t just sit there any longer, listening to that thing continue to expose their deepest fears and insecurities using Waverly’s honeyed voice.
Doc is still off trying to spring Dolls from the mobile command unit where Lucado has him detained just outside of town, and Wynonna is refusing to leave Waverly’s side, even though she’s taking the worst of vitriol that is spewing out of her mouth. So, when she had suggested that they make a trip out here as a last ditch effort, Nicole had jumped at the chance to try and clear her head.
It’s not working.
The second thing Nicole notices when she takes a few steps farther into the barn is the smell.
She recognizes it immediately, bile rising in her throat as her stomach rebels against the stench. The last time she had been overwhelmed by the sharp odor of rot, her nose stinging while her eyes burned, had been at the academy during their field trip to the body farm. There’s no mistaking that smell, and she can already feel the adrenaline setting her veins on fire.
With a practiced ease, Nicole clicks on her Maglite mini and draws her sidearm, grateful that she hasn’t been without it since all of this started a few days ago. It doesn’t take her long to locate a row of switches on the far wall, and she finds that, luckily, the power is still on. The large lights wired to the rafters must be hooked to one of the generators lining the other wall, but a string of small bulbs stapled above the two doorways on this side hum to life and bathe everything in a soft, incandescent glow.
The smell is much stronger over here and Nicole cautiously swings her flashlight into the first side room, the beam reaching farther than the arc of light spilling in through the doorway. It’s a small bathroom with a simple tile floor and a deep basin for a sink, with a spigot rather than a normal tap. She can see a rubber hose coiled nearby, and it’s clear that this facility was designed with easy cleanup in mind. There’s a shower/bath combo on the other side of the toilet with a cheap plastic curtain blocking her view of the inside.
Nicole takes a deep breath to prepare herself before entering and immediately regrets it, coughing and gagging from the decomposition that hangs heavy in the air. Once she’s steadied herself again, she moves slowly to the curtain and, with her jaw tight, yanks it back while raising her weapon, all in one fluid motion.
She blinks rapidly as she takes it all in.
Shampoo. Conditioner. A washcloth draped next to a bar of soap. A couple of bottles of scented shower gel.
No blood. No body parts. No putrid goo pooled in the bottom of the tub from a long-forgotten corpse.
Nicole had been certain she was going to find an unpleasant surprise waiting for her, but instead she’s left needing to search elsewhere. As she approaches the other room, she finds a second switch on the wall, just outside the door. When she flips it, several things happen at once.
A large lamp flickers on next to an old brass bed and Nicole squints against the sudden brightness before noticing two large, yellow eyes staring back at her.
"Holy shit!” she yells unceremoniously as she stumbles backwards, tripping over a small metal pail sitting next to a workbench behind her. She tumbles to the ground, falling on her ass, and feels something tickling at her hand.
When she looks down and catches a glimpse of red, her first assumption is that she’s bleeding. But when she raises her hand to examine it, the silky red strands slip through her fingers and flutter to the ground.
It’s not blood.
“Seriously?” Nicole blurts out, her voice laced with disbelief and bordering on panic.
One hand still grips her gun so tightly her knuckles are turning white and she can feel the ridged grip digging into her palm, grating against the callouses that normally protect her from it. She raises her other hand to her head and runs her fingers through her hair, gasping when she reaches the place where a large section of it stops abruptly at her collar, several inches shorter than the rest.
Looking around, she notices several thin strips of metal leaned against the leg of the workbench, just inches from where she landed. They appear to be lawnmower blades, and judging by the shiny sliver visible along the edges, standing in stark contrast to the rest of the grimy metal, they’ve already been sharpened.
Nicole gulps when she realizes she could have been in a lot worse condition than just having a large portion of her hair sliced off.
Taking a shaky breath, Nicole starts to push herself to her feet. But then she remembers what had made her falter in the first place, and her attention snaps back to the bed pushed against the far wall of the bedroom through the open doorway.
The yellow eyes are still regarding her, haunted and unblinking.
Now that she’s taking a chance to really survey the scene, Nicole has to do a double take. Curled up in the center of the bed, its massive head resting on its gigantic paws, is an enormous dog, its eyes never once leaving Nicole. It seems to have pawed at the pillows and the quilt until it managed to create a makeshift nest, and it remains hunkered down within it, even as Nicole begins to approach cautiously.
The moment she steps into the room, Nicole discovers the source of the smell. Laid out in front of the bed, in a suspiciously straight line, is a row of small animals – squirrels and rabbits and even a few pheasants and quail. Their necks are broken and they are on display, almost as though they have been presented as offerings. It’s obvious that a few of them have been here for quite some time, all of them showing various states of decomposition. A couple of the fresher gifts are partially eaten, and Nicole wonders how desperate the dog must have gotten the longer its apparent master remained absent.
“Hey, buddy…” Nicole says quietly, taking a hesitant step forward. There’s a low rumble in the animal’s chest, but it makes no effort to react physically to her movement. She inches forward and it allows her to approach the bed with her free hand stretched out, palm up to show she’s not a threat.
It raises its head when she’s within reach, and she freezes, waiting to see what it will do. After a long moment of watching each other, it drops its head back to its paws with a soft huff, and Nicole thinks it sounds sad. She’s holding her breath, partially because of the smell and partially because she’s pretty sure this thing could take her hand off without a second thought, when she pushes forward the last little bit to close the gap.
She’s expecting it to be thick and coarse and scratchy when she threads her fingers through the fur behind its ears, watching as they quiver and flick and pivot toward her at the gentle touch. She’s surprised when her palm glides easily over a soft, smooth, silky coat. Carefully setting her gun next to her on the bed, she brings her other hand up to scratch behind its other ear and she can’t help the sympathetic smile that forms when it subtly leans its head into the affection.
“You must be hungry, buddy…” Nicole says and it raises up to nudge against her hands with its impressive muzzle. She eyes the partially eaten animals, trying to ignore the smell that’s clinging to her skin and forcing its way into her nostrils, causing her eyes to water. “Give me a minute, okay? I think I have something in my car.”
She shakes her head at herself when she realizes she’s talking to a dog like she would a person, but she doesn’t miss the way it tilts its head, as though it can understand her perfectly.
“I know it’s around here somewhere…”
After digging around in the center console of her squad car for a few minutes and then moving to the glove compartment, Nicole finally finds what she’s looking for. She tries not to think about how, despite the fact that she’s sitting here in the middle of a dead woman’s property because her kind of girlfriend is being used like a puppet on a string, the thing that is apparently the most important to her at this moment in time is locating a half-eaten bag of beef jerky that’s been in her vehicle for longer than she can remember.
Welcome to your new life.
As an afterthought, she rummages through the duffle bag in her trunk, pulling out her scarf and wrapping it around her nose and mouth to help combat the terrible smell she’s about to walk back into. She forces herself not to remember the last time she’d worn it, when Waverly had dragged her down for a quick kiss and then scurried out of the station before anyone could catch them.
Nicole isn’t sure what to expect when she’s settled back on the bed next to the dog. It hasn’t moved an inch from where it’s nestled into the pile of bedding, but its eyes are watching her closely and it licks its chops when she reaches into the bag and pulls out a few strips of dried meat. She’s almost afraid to try and feed it and wonders if maybe just dumping the jerky out on the bed and standing back might be the safest idea.
But while she contemplates, the dog makes up her mind for her, craning its neck forward and snatching the jerky away from her with a surprising amount of restraint. It is apparently accustomed to eating from someone’s hand, and knows how to do so without taking a few fingers with it.
“Thank god for that,” Nicole mumbles, her voice breaking the silence, causing it to cock its head at her. “Sorry, buddy. Just talking to myself,” she sighs out and scratches its ears briefly before pulling out a few more strips of meat. She keeps her hand flat this time, letting the jerky rest across her open palm. The dog takes it from her carefully again, its nose and tongue tickling against her skin.
They repeat the process until it has finished off what was left in the bag, its tail occasionally thumping against the mattress when Nicole pets its head while it eats. She rubs her hands on her jeans after stuffing the empty bag in the pocket of her parka and laughs when it sniffs at them, licking the salty residue off of her fingers.
“That’s all I’ve got for now. You’ll have to come with me if you want more,” she says and rubs under its chin. A thought occurs to her, and she shifts on the bed to get a better angle. “Are you a…” she trails off as she drags her fingers down its ribs, scratching through the soft fur as she goes. As she predicted, it flops over on its side, giving her more access. “…a boy,” she finishes when its underbelly is exposed. “Such a good boy.”
Nicole stands after a couple of minutes, careful to avoid the row of offerings he brought to his missing master and tries patting her leg to see if he’ll come to her. He rolls back upright but makes no move to get off the bed.
“Come on, buddy,” she calls, patting both of her thighs this time.
He lets out a soft whine and nuzzles his face back into the pillow under his paws. Nicole feels like someone is squeezing her heart. She climbs back onto the bed and strokes along his head gently.
“Whatsa matter, boy?” she asks, her throat tight.
Another whine, this time longer and louder, and his tail thumps again.
“I know you miss her, buddy,” she says, her voice cracking. “But she’s not coming back.”
The words she’s been fighting, refusing to say, claw their way out of her throat, leaving it raw as they scrape their way past her tongue.
Something inside Nicole breaks when she says the words aloud, and all of the fear that’s been dammed up for the past week comes flooding through, the harsh current dragging her under.
I miss her, but she’s not coming back.
She throws her arms around the giant dog beside her and slumps forward, burying her face in his neck, and with sobs that wrack her entire body, Nicole cries for the first time since getting shot.
She’s not coming back.
“What a waste of time,” Nicole grumbles, absentmindedly running her fingers through the portion of her hair cut away by the lawnmower blade.
Just one more thing she’s lost.
Attacked by a serial killer that turned out to be more than one kind of demon, and everyone had ignored her when she’d tried to explain what happened. She lost the trust she held in herself. A piece of her sanity. Outed by her girlfriend’s ex in front of the entire town, including her boss. She lost the free will to make that revelation on her own terms. A piece of her privacy. Shot by her girlfriend’s sister, for no other reason than pure spite. She lost her belief that you can always find the good in someone if you look hard enough. A piece of her innocence. Her girlfriend is currently possessed by some thing, her normally bright eyes dull and lifeless as she spits hatred at anyone that gets close enough to listen. She lost her faith that good always wins, no matter what. A piece of her heart.
She wonders how many more pieces she’ll lose before she can’t even recognize herself anymore.
“There’s nothing here.”
With a sigh of resignation, Nicole sinks down on the bed next to the dog again, scratching his ears. She’s spent the past hour turning this place upside looking for something that might help Waverly. A spellbook. A sacred vessel. A fucking voodoo doll. Hell, with the world she’s just been thrown into, at this point, Nicole would only be half surprised if she found a goddamn magic wand.
She’s looked everywhere. Beneath the floorboards under the bed. Behind the tiles of the bathroom wall. Up in the rafters, among the piles of tools, in with the recipes filed away in the small kitchen area tucked away in one corner of the main barn area. She even dug through the ashes of the forge and the coal tray beneath it in case Mattie had stashed something in a fireproof container where no one would normally look.
But the only thing Nicole found was a cigar box tucked between the mattress and the bedframe, filled with a few of Mattie’s personal keepsakes. A photograph of a little girl on her daddy’s knee, kissed by the passage of time, cracked and yellowed and worn. Dried sage and sweet grass pressed between folded pieces of parchment, odd symbols scrawled in faded ink. An amulet, thick leather cord adorned with a polished crystal swirled with color, a sunrise set against a sterling silver pendant.
“None of this junk is going to save Waverly,” she seethes and hurls the cigar box across the room in frustration. It hits the wall, the contents scattering around the small space like the final shards of hope Nicole had been desperately clinging to.
For the first time since discovering him, the enormous dog beside her snarls, hackles raised and lips curling up to reveal prominent fangs. Nicole jerks away, startled, and then slumps forward, her shoulders sagging.
“I’m sorry, buddy,” she mumbles. “You’re right. It’s not junk. It belonged to her.”
He continues to growl, the deep vibrations in his chest causing the entire bed to quiver, and Nicole slips down to the floor, resting on her knees as she begins to gather up the last remaining pieces of Mattie’s life. The growling fades to a soft whine, and when she picks up the amulet, brushing her thumb over the smooth crystal in the middle, he nuzzles at her shoulder.
“It’s gonna be alright,” she whispers, threading her fingers through the soft, silver fur of his head.
She doesn’t believe a word of it.
“Wha— No, stop! What are y— Just… Why?”
Nicole sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. It had been an ordeal, but she had finally coaxed Mattie’s dog off the bed out of the barn. When he lumbered off the bed stood next to her, Nicole was stunned. She had known he was huge just from seeing how much of the bed he had taken up, but when he pulled himself to his full height, his back was every bit as high as her waist and his head rested easily against her elbow.
The only way he had agreed to follow her out was if she brought along the quilt he had been nesting in. His enormous form padded through the barn with a surprising silence, his silvery coat taking on an ethereal appearance as it caught the last rays of the setting sun through the open door. I was like watching some sort of spirit floating along, an apparition haunting its domain one final time before giving up the ghost.
She had just finished spreading the quilt over her backseat when Nicole turned around to find her companion digging a giant hole, snow and dirt and shale flying up in all directions. She wipes at a smattering of mud that just splattered across her face. His entire front half is wet and icy and covered in mud. She inches closer and he pauses, sitting back on his haunches, looking incredibly proud of himself.
“Was this entirely necessary?”
The bark he gives in response is so loud, Nicole visibly jumps.
“Hey,” she scolds. “Not nice.”
He barks again, pawing once more at the edge of his hole. She crouches down to see what he is so adamant about, and immediately leaps back, throwing her arms out behind her to keep from falling in the slush. The cold numbs her fingers like the shock numbs the rest of her body and it takes getting licked in the face to snap her out of it.
Nicole clambers to her feet awkwardly and fishes her gloves out of her pockets while she tries to get her breathing back under control. After flexing her fingers a few times, she jams them into the fur-lined leather and slowly leans forward to inspect the hole again. Wynonna had warned her about the “security system” Mattie employed, but seeing the black plastic casing jutting out of the snow in person was still enough to make it difficult to swallow.
“She told me they were inactive.” Her voice is strained and at least an octave higher than normal. “But did you really have to go tempting fate?”
The dog barks again, his broad tail sweeping the soft ground behind him. Shoving his muzzle back into the hole, he begins to dig again.
“Okay, stop! Will you stop?” Nicole throws her arm up to protect her face from another hail of debris. “Please?” she begs.
She hears a muffled woof coming from the hole and then he sits back again, tossing his head about, his front paws practically dancing in the mud.
“What’s that, Lassie? Timmy fell down the well?” she asks sarcastically, snorting even as she says it. He cocks his head at her and she throws her hands up. “Alright, alright. I was kidding, okay?” She crouches down again and peers into the hole once more.
That’s when she sees it.
Reaching a gloved hand into the hole, she brushes some of the dirt aside and hears a crinkling noise just beneath the surface. Using both hands now, she unearths a package wrapped in Tyvek and drags it out of the hole. The dog barks next to her again, but she’s oblivious to it this time. Wiping the bundle off as best as she can, she pulls off her gloves and works her fingers up under the edges of the wrapping. When she finally loosens it enough, she manages to slide the contents free, landing in her lap with a thump.
A large book. Bound in leather, strange runes burned into the surface, delicate feathers dangling from the binding.
“She buried it under the land mine…” Nicole whispers as she runs a shaky finger along the spine. She tilts it open, carefully leafing through the pages filled with sketches of sigils and notes scribbled in the margins and more of the strange symbols from the folded parchments in the cigar box currently sitting in her front seat.
“She buried under the land mine!” she shouts again, boisterous and exuberant and giddy. She lunges forward and wraps her arms around her new friend for a second time, ignoring the fact that his muddy mess is rubbing off all over her face and coat, this time sharing in her joy as she hugs him tightly and coos in his ear.
“Who’s a good boy… Such a good boy!”
Nicole gets the quilt moved to the front seat where it will be safe from the dog’s filthy paws, and grabs the emergency blanket from out of the trunk, spreading it across the backseat instead. It takes some doing, but she eventually gets him loaded up and then settles herself behind the wheel, her hand coming to rest protectively on the book in the passenger seat beside her.
None of the things Nicole saw in the pages made a damn bit of sense to her, and she has no fucking clue how they might use it to help Waverly, but something about finding it the way they did seems to resurrect the faint hope that had shattered when she’d thrown the box across the room earlier. The sun has finally dipped below the mountain, and she wonders what she’s going to find when she returns to the Homestead.
Will Wynonna even notice how long she’s been gone?
Depends on how many of the whiskey bottles stashed around the house have been drained.
She hears the massive animal shifting in her backseat and she looks in the rearview mirror, realizing he takes up far more of the space on the other side of the Plexiglas partition than any of the mopes she’s ever arrested have.
“Just… you know…” Nicole waves her hand at him awkwardly as she glances over her shoulder. “Try not to like… eat my door handle or anything.”
She can’t be sure, but she thinks she catches a hint of indignation in the huff she gets in return.
The intelligence that glints in his eyes can be a bit unnerving at times, and she wonders just exactly how much he actually understands.
But she doesn’t have time to worry about that right now.
The people she cares about are waiting for her.
She hopes it’s not too late.