3LBE #17
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The Tab

by Bret Tallman

 

It boiled down to this: one of them could do it and the other couldn’t. It might not have been such a big deal except it was Ben Hoover’s son who was being stolen away by a nightmare and Ben Hoover was the one who couldn’t rescue him. As a member of the Hallowjacks, he claimed expertise in occult sciences and the hidden worlds that sometimes sliced up through everyday reality like a shark’s fin rising from water. But there he was, down on his knees and trembling, gaping at a waterfront clinic across the street.

His son was in there, along with something from the Torment Countries. And he couldn’t move. It was all he could do to keep from running away.

A hand grabbed Ben’s shoulder and shook it once, hard. Tommy Hale said, “You stay here and call the police. I’ll go get David.” Hale bolted across the street without waiting for a reply. He didn’t realize then (and never would) that saying this was the purest act of kindness he ever committed.

Hale was also a Hallowjack and knew that even if Ben managed to get the police, they too would be affected by the waves of malignance sweeping outwards from the clinic, the pure terrifying sickness in the air. At best, they would freeze up. At worst, they would be a danger to each other. A thing that had no place in this world was nonetheless trying to establish a beachhead here in downtown Manhattan and was poisoning reality around it in the process. His own hands were shaking so hard it made opening the clinic door difficult.

Inside, though, it was different. The temperature dropped sharply and the wailing in the back of his mind dropped away. The clinic was cold and clammy and silent. No lights. Windows and evening sunshine provided only the dimmest illumination.

Hale’s breath caught when he saw that someone had filled the place with medical partitions, building their own little maze. On each partition was a symbol, painted in a liquid that dried dark against the navy blue. Hale forced himself to exhale and kept his eyes aimed at the floor; he knew from experience that if he stared at the symbols too long, he would start to understand them and something else’s thoughts would worm their way into his head.

He heard a pattering sound, like small feet slapping tile, and dropped to the floor, peering under the partitions. He saw, yes, small feet slapping tile. One pair was clad in blue sneakers. The other pairs were bare but blue all the same, as frozen as flesh from a morgue.

“David, Don’t go with them!” bellowed Hale. But the feet didn’t hesitate as they ran.

Hale jumped up and slammed into the first partition, intending to simply bulldoze through, but then realized that the entire thing had been sewn together with suturing thread. He lit a match and ran the maze.

Right turns. Left turns. Dead ends. Harder than it ought to be. Bigger than it ought to be. His match burned out and before he could light a new one, he realized the partitions themselves were giving off a faint blue light. Cursing himself, he dropped to his stomach again and looked for the boy’s feet. He couldn’t see them. But there were adult ones now, shuffling slowly. Why the hell had he assumed the maze would follow familiar rules? Why hadn’t he stopped to think before just throwing himself in?

Because he was sloppy, that’s why. At least, according to the other Hallowjacks, Poole in particular. He visualized Poole smugly shaking his head, telling the others that this was just more proof that they should wash their hands of him.

A dark shape moving in his peripheral vision brought Hale back to the here and now. He spun around but whoever it was had already turned a corner, disappeared. He considered calling out but couldn’t find his voice. Nothing else to do but keep moving.

Several turns later, he rounded a corner that revealed the doctor. The man was sitting comfortably in an office chair with a small plastic cup in his lap and a pair of pliers in his hand. Blood dribbled from his chin down the front of his shirt. He nodded at Hale and dropped a scarlet tooth into the cup.

“I have to get the old ones out of the way,” he explained in a thick, syrupy voice. “I can feel the new ones forming, growing under my gums. So — ” He shrugged and then spat a huge glob onto the floor.

Hale just stared at him for a long moment and the doctor gazed back with eyes as calm and sane-looking as you could ask for. “Where’s David?”

The man just cocked his head at him.

“David — He’s a little kid. About seven years old. He’s in here some — ”

“Oh!” The doctor nodded his head emphatically. “I do know who you’re talking about! The Corner King is taking him home. Are you his father? Did you do this to us?”

“No. His father’s outside. The kid is innocent.”

The doctor smiled at that, revealing the ruin of the man s mouth. Blood oozed from spaces between his remaining teeth. “No, He’s bait. His father went knocking on the wrong door, brought the Corner King out to play. Now the big man wants to thank him for that.”

“t’s not his fault,” muttered Hale, not knowing why he would say such a thing. “I needed some help with a summoning and pulled him in from the sidelines. But he doesn’t — It doesn’t matter now.”

The doctor stared hard at his pliers, as if wondering how they got to be such a mess. “Oh, all that matters is here. Here you will walk walk walk until you find your real and beautiful self. And here is gonna spread. Gonna spread out everywhere.”

He looked up at Hale and flashed his gristly smile again. “You know, just a few hours ago I watched Melinda skin herself. I didn’t understand then and started screaming. She said it was okay, that she had beautiful scales underneath, but I didn’t stay to watch. Now I understand, but I can’t find her anywhere. The maze tells you so much but not the way out.”

A great heaviness settled on Hale as it dawned on him what he had to do. He crouched in front of the man and asked, “Do you have knife? Or anything that cuts? I need to open up my scales too.”

The doctor looked confused for a moment but then nodded. He reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a gore-covered scalpel. He handed it to Hale and said, “Sorry about the mess. I had to use it on somebody.”

Hale said, “So do I.” And then he slashed the doctor’s throat.

The man flopped to the floor dying, spilling the cup and sending teeth rattling across the floor. Hale painted a symbol on the floor with the scalpel. It resembled a bird trapped in a ribcage. He uttered a single word from a language no mortal race authored, five cracking syllables, then whispered, “Kuuruuk, father of feathers and thief of skulls. I give this man’s life to you. Help me now. Guide me through this maze.”

He sat back and waited. The air became dry and the blood pooled around the doctor’s corpse slowly began to swirl. Then the liquid slithered around a corner, leaving a thin red trail behind it. He got up and followed, breathing hard, a murderer now. An indebted murderer, at that. His sacrifice had been accepted but that only paid for having his request heard. The actual favor itself, help against another creature of the Torment Countries no less, would put him deep in debt to Kuuruuk.

Right turns. Left turns. But no more dead ends. His fluid guide accelerated until he had to run to keep up. Twice he glimpsed strange figures shambling through passages but he only stopped when he recognized the sound of quick, small footsteps. The crimson wave halted a few feet away, waiting.

Hale listened. The footfalls were coming towards him but from the other side of the wall. He crouched, gripped the doctor s scalpel and cut a slit through the lower half of the partition. He hesitated, listening to the approaching beats and waiting for his moment, then thrust his hand through, nabbing David by the arm. The boy began to struggle immediately.

“David! Don’t listen to them! If you — ” Hale interrupted himself, howling in pain as several ice-cold little hands clawed at his arm. He felt them pull at David, almost succeeding in breaking his grip.

Through shuddering breaths, his voice sounded surprisingly calm. “David, it’ll kill your mom and dad if you go. They need you. It’ll kill them.” His arm felt like it was being shredded.

The boy stopped struggling for a moment, long enough to yank him partway through the opening. Hale managed to ignore the rents in his arm and instead looked into David’s eyes, dark but not quite vacant. “C’mon,” he breathed. The things on the other side of the partition hissed angrily and their stone blue hands clutched and pulled at the boy.

David started fighting against them, kicking them away, holding onto Hale. With a final backwards lurch, Hale brought David the rest of the way through, both of them crashing to the floor. Hale rested, breathing hard, listening to the cold things flee into the maze, their prize lost to them now. He lay there until his breathing slowed. He lay there until he heard new footfalls. Heavy, metallic impacts into the floor.

Hale bolted upright, sweat breaking out all over him. Corner King. He had cheated by cutting through the maze and now the it was coming. “Oh, God.” He looked to David, saw that he was open-eyed but limp, and slung the boy over his shoulder.

His guide, the blood of his sacrifice, fired itself like an arrow down the passageway and around a corner. Hale sped after it. Simultaneously, the deep ringing of the Corner King’s footfalls accelerated. Hale lasted nearly half a minute of mindless running and panic threatening to trip him, to cost him precious seconds as the stomping of their pursuer grew louder.

Then he rounded a corner and ran full tilt into someone else, knocking everyone to the floor.

The other person was a heavily pregnant woman. She was naked and her eyes were gone. She cried out, “Who’s there? Are you one of them?”

Hale was paralyzed with terror. The sound chasing them was almost like a church bell.

“Help me,” pleaded the woman, feeling around blindly for him. “Do you know the way out? I can’t let him have us. I can’t let him have my baby.” She found his ankle and latched onto it. “Please help — ”

The physical contact snapped Hale out of his paralysis. He kicked away the woman’s hand and ran, not so much remembering to keep hold of David as just forgetting he could let him go. The woman’s wails receded behind them.

And then the maze ended at an exit door. Hale hit the door like a runaway locomotive, just as something unimaginable rounded the corner behind them, and he crashed out into the uninfected world.

It was dark now, the sun’s exit ending, but Ben was still kneeling across the street, just as he had been. Hale staggered to him, dropped David into his arms and collapsed. Ben held his son for several minutes, talking to him. The boy moved a little and muttered a little. Ben turned to Hale and said, “Thank you, Tommy. Thank you so much.”

Hale sat up wearily. “What happened to the police?”

“Oh. I called Poole instead. He’s on his way with the others.”

Great. Hale knew it was necessary. After all, the Hallowjacks could probably banish the thing across the street while the police wouldn’t even be able to contain it. But it meant having to take their abuse again, having to listen to Poole’s damn lectures or maybe something worse than that.

Hale stood up. “I’m not waiting around for them. If I were you, I wouldn’t tell them how much we had to do with this fiasco.”

Ben looked uncomfortable at that.

Hale shrugged. “But if you want to be punished, whatever.” He turned to go.

“Tommy? I owe you. I mean — ” He gestured at David. “I owe you everything.”

Hale forced a smile. “Hey, I’ll put it on your tab.”

• • •

A little over three years passed before Hale reappeared to call in the favor. He simply showed up at the Hoovers new Boston doorstep one morning, without warning, and told them that he was going to Evergreen Hall and needed company. He didn’t say why or what they were going for but it wasn’t like Ben could complain or say no. He was in so deep to Hale, what could he refuse?

Ben packed a duffel bag, shared a strained, quiet goodbye with his wife and kissed his ever-silent son on the head, then scrunched himself into Hale’s tiny rental and was driven away.

“Everything okay on the home front?” asked Hale, lightly.

Ben resisted the powerful urge to point out that three years was a long time to let that question go. “Well, no. David almost never talks. He just stares when you try to have a conversation with him. He’s obviously been traumatized and we’ve taken him to doctors, the whole bit. But the weird thing is he’s doing fine in school. Whatever task you give him, he does just fine. And he seems to be sleeping soundly. He just doesn’t communicate.”

“Susan seemed a little…” Hale trailed off.

“She’s very angry.” Ben s voice was tight. “I shouldn’t have told her that it was you who went in and got him. I don’t think she’s ever gotten over that, even more than the rest.”

The rest of the drive was awkwardly silent. Conversation picked up again after they boarded the plane and the Atlantic began it’s swift sweep beneath them.

The two men struck everyone who saw them as an odd couple. Ben was husky and solid. Bristly brown hair and a beard framed his expressive, round face. When he spoke, his hands were always in motion and his posture shifted frequently. Tommy Hale, on the other hand, was pale and lean, with lank red hair hanging into cavernous dark eyes. He was usually still and his voice was a low monotone, like a car idling.

Ben grimaced as he tried to exercise his coach seat’s full two-inch mobility, gave up and elbowed Hale in the side. “So, come on. What have you been up to lately?”

Hale’s eyes lit up with anxiety at the question and it took him an unusually long moment to master his expression. “Nothing much. Just laying low.”

“What, from Poole and the others?” Ben lowered his voice, as if any of the other passengers could possibly know what they were talking about. “Listen, I took your advice, okay. I don’t think Poole bought it. He’s always suspicious, but there’s nothing he can really do.”

Hale played into his friend’s misassumption. “Well, I’m gonna stay out of their way anyway. Is it true they ended up sterilizing three whole blocks? I don’t want to hang for that.”

Ben nodded. “I know. And Bridger almost died. They had a hard time closing that breach.”

Hale glanced out the window next to him and his stomach turned. Being in the sky these days made him feel like naked bait, dangling helplessly before some great predator.

Ben nudged him again. “What about your personal life? Is that still a vast and arid wasteland?”

“There have been a couple of girls, but nobody special.”

Ben pounced on that. “Everybody’s special. If you were interested in really knowing a person, you would find the right woman pretty fast.”

He went on to lecture Hale on the virtues of long-term relationships, a speech Hale had heard many times before. Ben was one of those men for whom having a family was the ultimate form of moral superiority. It used to really annoy Hale but now he found it oddly comforting. The two men spent the next few hours catching up and falling into old routines with each other.

They touched down in London and spent the night in a pair of stale, white motel rooms.

The next morning found them hurtling north in another rental. Hale drove as if he was conscious of every mile that brought them closer to Evergreen Hall. Ben watched the countryside roll by, his dread growing in direct proportion to Hale’s eagerness. He hated places like the Hall, where men and not-men vied for secrets door to power. He was out of his depth in such places, cowed by the certainty that men had no business being there.

Hours of travel across progressively faint roads ended at Evergreen Hall, a sprawling black thing with jagged turrets, nearly overrun with ivy. There were seven front doors, rough and black and heavy. Hale and Hoover entered through the fifth one, the door all mortals chose if they wanted to perceive only what they could comprehend.

Inside was a confusion of corridors and recesses, gleaming black floors and stark red walls. The master of the Hall was there to greet them, though Hale had given no warning of their arrival, and Ben shuddered to see that Vitorek had not changed. He still wore his father’s shell, its skin yellow and horrific, decay incarnate. It amused the creature to dress this abomination in nothing but the most expensive formal wear. The air surrounding him churned hot and humid, as if his essence were leaking from the inadequate accommodations.

Ben wondered if Victor Evergreen had known what his fate would be when he built this place, this home for himself and his mindless bride, the goddess who swam the rivers between worlds, infecting the bloodstream of the eternal. And would he have cared if he had? The man had been mad and that madness had shattered the locks on doors that stood open even now, a century after his time.

Vitorek smiled, a freakishly wide parting of the lips that exposed his entire gum line, and the condescension came through clearly in his deep, purring voice. “Hallowjacks have come to visit us again! Well, this should be amusing. What little project are you industrious lads up to now, eh?”

Hale cleared his throat. “I need to get into the east wing.”

Ben started at this news. He had assumed they would be visiting the Hall’s extensive library, where most pilgrims to Evergreen hoped to find the answers to whatever drove them.

Vitorek was silent a moment. Then he set his stolen face sternly and said, “The east wing is no place for amateurs or children and with all due respect—” these last two words were spat out, “your little troupe are both.”

Hale simply answered, “Nonetheless.”

Vitorek s leer returned. “You do realize the Hall requires some form of collateral to be given while you are inside the east wing, yes? “

“Of course.”

“And it must be something of value, a sufficiently deep hook into your soul.”

Hale gestured at Ben and said, “My friend.”

Ben jerked back as if burned, gaping at Hale. Then immediately his mind tried to convince him that he had heard wrong. But Vitorek was laughing, a low throbbing sound. And hands seized him from behind; the Hall’s attendants, appearing from nowhere as always, were upon him. Four of them, each gripping a limb with implacable strength, hoisted Ben up and swept him through a dark doorway. Their flawlessly white smocks swished and snapped with the struggle, their faces obscured under featureless mesh masks.

For a minute he was sailing through absolute darkness, hyperventilating and unable to speak. Then a harsh yellow light welcomed him into a dingy room full of large stalls and racks from which various metal implements hung. The place smelled of meat. The attendants carried him into the nearest stall, slammed him onto a bare metal bed and began strapping him down. It was then that he found his voice and his quavering pleas were in strange contrast with the vigorous struggle he gave them. But they were slowed only a little by the kicks and elbows they caught and soon Ben was bound tight.

Wordlessly, they left him. Ben strained against the leather straps without effect and finally screamed. Other cries answered his from other stalls, some in mockery, some in earnest.

The racket they made didn’t reach back to the main hall, much less all the way to the entrance of the east wing, a pair of double doors coated in frost, where Hale now parted company with his host.

Vitorek presented the doors with a slight bow and a flourish of his hand. “Here we are, Mr. Hale. Do be careful, now. Should you fail to come back, we will have ourselves a grand time reassembling your friend in alternative designs.”

Then Hale was alone. Allowing no time for his hesitation to build, he gripped the pair of oversized doorknobs and gave them both a twist. A savage chill ripped through him, cut him loose from the rest of the world. Before he set foot in hall beyond, before the doors even opened, the cold settled deep into his bones and the east wing had him.

In that moment, all memories of Tommy Hale lurking in the minds of mortals became blurred and the question of whether he had ever really existed at all was suddenly undecided.

Hale was surprised to see no ice in the hall itself. Instead, the walls were obscured by a creeping vagueness, a fresh coat of dream reality painted wet and thick. A single figure, a man bled dry of all color and weight, stood before him.

The man waited until the double doors clicked shut behind Hale, then said, “No need to go any further, Tommy, there’s nothing for you here.”

Hale recognized the voice immediately. As frozen as the apparition appeared, the voice was still warm and alive. “ Grandpa. I didn’t recognize you. You look younger than I ever saw you in life. He pointed at the six medals on the man’s uniform. But I suppose I should have recognized those. You didn’t die in the war though, so why do you look like that?”

Avery Hale shrugged. “I feel most like myself this way. But let’s get this over with. Why are you here?”

Hale’s brow creased in confusion. In life, the old man had been his champion. Why the brusqueness now? “I’m here to petition my ancestors.”

“Well, yes. That’s what this place is for. But what do you want from us?”

“I’d rather wait until the others come.”

Avery’s eyes, now gray as tree roots in winter, sought his grandson’s. “There are no others coming,” he said. “You haven’t done right by us, boy. Most of the others don’t look on you anymore.”

That took a few seconds to sink in and Hale sputtered, “What?! What the hell are you talking about? What have I done?”

His grandfather scowled and said in a voice like stone, “Do you realize you just named one of the Torment Countries here in a place of borders? Tommy, if I were a damned soul, I would now have the option of forcing you to take my place.”

Hale opened his mouth to say something, then just silently flushed as the stupidity of his mistake dawned on him.

Avery continued, “Things like that are part of the problem but not the main part. Incompetence is one thing, pure selfishness another. You come from a long line of those who travel the borders and defend them when necessary.

“But that’s not what you do, is it? Instead, you cause more harm than you heal. You fall in with these Hallowjack idiots with their schemes and you end up being the worst of them because you can’t even be selfish and careful at the same time.

“When you were a little boy, I was convinced you’d be the best of us yet. Well, you made a real fool out of me.”

Hale tried to formulate some kind of defense of his life and came up empty. What could he say to the man who had met and repelled the Flesh Wolves among the wounded and dying of World War II and later stood at the Harrowing Well? Then he realized that being indefensible was to his advantage and slipped into sales-pitch mode.

He held his hands out. “Look, you’re right. I’ve messed up my whole life. That’s why I’m here. I want to do it all over again but different this time.”

His grandfather bowed his head. “Ah. You want to leave through the far door of this place, to go back and restart from the beginning.”

“Exactly! But I’ll be better this time. I was told, though, in order to change my life, I need the permission of those who made it possible, and you’re the only one here.”

The dead man nodded again. “Yes, but since the others chose not to come, I could lead you to the door by myself and get you through it.”

“Thank you, grandpa.”

Avery Hale looked up sharply. “I didn’t say I’d do it, Tommy.”

Hale bit back frustration and tried to keep his voice level. “But you sa — ”

“No, now you listen. I’m going to need you to answer a question first. If you leave through the far door, the Hall keeps your collateral. So what is it?”

Several moments passed in silence before Hale said, “Don’t you know? Can’t you find out for yourself?”

Avery shrugged. “There are few spoken secrets the dead can’t uncover, boy. But I’m asking you to tell me.”

Hale exploded, “It’s just some guy! He’s this poseur I know. He owes me everything, he said so him — ”

“And you’re sacrificing him?” interrupted the dead man, mildly.

“He’s not even doing anything with his life! He’s nobody!” The words came out vicious and desperate and defeated.

Avery Hale turned away from his grandson. “I can’t help you, Tommy. I’m sorry. Go home.”

Tommy Hale struggled to master himself. “Don’t go. Don’t go. I’m in trouble. Kuuruuk’s chasing me down. Please, grandfather. Everywhere I go. Everything I try. I’m marked and I can’t get rid of it. Please help me to escape. Don’t let it get me.”

The apparition paused and glanced back at his grandson, suddenly as old as the day he died. “But you haven’t learned anything. How could your life be different if you’re still the same? I’m sorry, boy.” Then he walked away down the corridor, his form fading with every step until it was gone.

Hale remained in the east wing for almost another hour, at first stunned, then waiting in the irrational hope of some reprieve, some change of heart among those who watched silently. And when it didn’t come, he finally left this place, the avenue of final escape, and made his way slowly back to the main hall.

Vitorek clapped and grinned at seeing him back and, with exaggerated courtesy, escorted Hale to the front door. They were joined by a pair of attendants supporting a limp and incoherent Ben Hoover. Once outside the pair unceremoniously dumped their charge onto the thick grass.

Vitorek looked from Ben to Hale, his neck popping loudly at the swivel of his head. “I’m afraid some of the more intense projects in the livestock pens disturbed poor Mr. Hoover and the attendants ended up medicating him a bit. Should recover, though.

“I do hope yours was a fruitful visit, Mr. Hale. And I wish you a very safe journey home.” With that, the Lord of Evergreen Hall blew a kiss at the Hallowjacks, one numb and the other delirious, and shut the door behind him.

Ben wrestled himself into a sitting position, his eyes red and unfocused, his mouth hanging open, nothing but labored breaths and a slim thread of drool coming out. He stared at his betrayer and Hale stared back until he burst out laughing. He couldn’t help it; Ben just looked so astonished.

“Well,” Hale whooped, “I guess we’re even now, huh?” His laughter was high and loud.

• • •

Almost four years later, Ben answered the urgent pounding at his door and found Tommy Hale once again on his porch uninvited. All the things Ben had imagined himself saying should they ever meet again fled his mind at the sight of Hale. The man had aged twenty years, his skin sallow and covered in small scratches. A gauze bandage covered where his right eye should have been, a small tear of blood escaped from underneath it. His clothes were torn in several places.

Ben took one look at him and tried to close the door but Hale blocked him, throwing his whole body into the effort.

“Wait,” Hale croaked, “I need help.”

“No,” Ben shouted, “whatever it is, I don’t want any part of it!”

They struggled with the door between them until Hale’s strength failed him and he toppled backwards, the door slamming shut. Ben threw the lock, wondering where the satisfaction was, and turned to go back to the room he was painting, the time he was passing. He would think no more of this.

“You’re welcome!” screamed Hale, from outside. “You’re so very welcome, you fat ingrate, you coward! I saved your son when you couldn’t! Coward!”

His rage was contagious. Ben turned crimson as he threw the door open again and found Hale still on his back. “How dare you come back here after what you did! How dare you! And then he saw it.”

Sweeping towards them from the horizon was an impossibly huge flock of peach-colored bird-shapes, blotting out the sun and rolling across the sky like a storm front.

Ben couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing. “What — Tommy, what’s going on?”

Hale’s remaining eye bore into him with a mad mixture of fury and desperation. “I got indebted to Kuuruuk. It was the only way to get through the maze and save David. Your son.”

“You said we were even,” Ben reminded him with a sigh, but these were just words and even as he spoke them, he was pulling Hale to his feet and through the door. He locked it behind them, as absurd as that was.

Hale collapsed onto the squat couch in Ben’s living room, apparently spent by the long chase his life had become. “Tell David and Susan to run. The birds won’t bother with them if they’re not in the way.”

“They’re not here. They left me about three years ago. The house is empty.”

Then the world outside the windows became a frenzy of pulpy movement. The house shook in the eye of a cyclone. Ben reached for his cell phone on the coffee table but Hale’s hand snapped out and caught him by the wrist.

Ben tried to jerk away. “We need to call the police.”

Hale looked the saddest Ben had ever seen him. “I tried that. It’s awful. What happens is awful. You’ll just get them killed.”

“The other Hallowjacks — ”

“Tried that. They won’t help.”

Suddenly, silence. Ben reluctantly edged towards the windows and looked. The flock had landed, perching on every inch of window sill and tree branch, blotting out the green of the grass, the white of the sidewalk and the gray of the street. Their wings were taut fans of tan flesh. Some had fingers or tiny feet where their talons should have been. Others had large eyes staring from their bare bellies. Their jagged gray beaks were curving ribs, broken femurs and assorted other stolen bones.

They peered at him from every neighboring rooftop and the scratching of talons sounded from his own. Then they began to tap. For the first few seconds, it was just noise. But then a rhythm emerged, and then another, layered on top of that, and then another.

“Oh, God,” gasped Hale, “Not this, not this.” He cried out and convulsed.

Ben raced over and held him down. “What’s happening?”

Hale’s voice bucked and jerked as his body did. “Don’t know. Doing things to me. Made me throw up weird things. Things I didn’t eat. Keep seeing — ” All at once, he went limp and his remaining eye was vacant.

“Tommy? Hey, Tommy.” Ben checked for a pulse, found it and jerked his hand back when he felt something wriggling beneath Hale’s skin.

Hale leapt up like a puppet on strings and began to lurch towards the door.

“No!” Ben bellowed and kicked Hale’s feet out from under him.

The flock broke off their tapping and shrieked in rage. Ben turned to see them rise like a great fist and smash through picture window. They stormed the house and swarmed Hale, scratching, biting, burying him.

Ben gripped one end of the coffee table and began swinging it, fighting his way through the frantic air until he uncovered Hale. He hefted the other man up onto his shoulders and ran blindly for the basement. The flock began tearing into him now but terror trumped pain; he made it to the basement door, yanked it open, brutally dropped Hale down the steps and closed the door after them.

Seven of the birds had made it in with them and continued the their relentless attack on Hale in the darkness. Still gasping air, Ben flipped on the light, found an aluminum baseball bat among the sports equipment kept in a generally ignored cardboard box and went to town on the cackling terrors. Several swings met only air but soon enough seven broken avian bodies littered the floor. Ben cried out in triumph, then spotted the plump human vulva one of the birds had between its legs and threw up on his own shoes.

Ben dropped to his knees wearily and turned Hale over onto his back. What he saw almost made him throw up again.

“They got my other eye,” whispered Hale, lucid again or at least seemingly so. The gauze bandage had also been torn away and both pulpy sockets wept streams of blood down his face. He smiled. “I’m blind. Can you believe it? So perfect.”

Ben didn’t know what that meant or how to respond. For some minutes, he listened to the sick thundering of the birds driving themselves into the basement door and the strangled squawking of the birds trying to strain themselves through the too-narrow bars of the basement’s two small windows. “What do we do?”

The disturbing smile finally left Hale’s face and he said, “Call on someone.”

Ben let out an exasperated sigh. “I wanted to do that before. Now I don’t have my phone. Do you — ”

“No,” Hale interrupted, “Call on someone. Like I did for your son. I’m already marked but you — ”

Ben was amazed. “Are you insane? I’ve never been able to … Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Is that why you came to me? You thought you could trick me into saving your life at the cost of my own?”

“I wasn’t trying to — ”

Ben was almost snarling now. “You’d get me in debt then skip out on me! Was that your plan?”

“No! We’re both — ”

Ben grabbed Hale by the lapels and yanked him upright. “Don’t try to trick me! You do and I’ll throw you out to them!”

“Okay! I’m sorry! Forget it!”

Ben released him and he flopped back down. The smile returned to Hale’s face as he lay in absolute night, listening to the harriers of an unstoppable primal thing. He listened for some time until he could hear the splintering of wood.

“They’re actually making headway,” Ben muttered.

“Yep, they’ll get through eventually.” Hale sounded almost cheerful. “They’re in the service of a higher power. Time to do what I came here for. He reached into his tattered coat and pulled out a .45. Take this.”

Ben stared at the gun stupidly. “We’ll never be able to get them all with that.”

Silence for a moment. Then Hale started to laugh and it was real laughter, untainted by hysteria or near-madness. “We’re not gonna fight the birds with this thing, you idiot. Do you think I have a U-haul full of clips out front?”

And then they both laughed, there in the heart of a nightmare.

Ben took the gun and as soon as he felt its cold weight in his hand, he knew what it was for. “Why?”

“Because I’m scared to do it myself. If somebody kills me, then I get away. But if I commit suicide, I don’t know what’ll happen. Maybe it would be breaking the rules.”

“But you’re giving me the gun and telling me to do it. That’s the same thing, Tommy.”

“No,” Hale said firmly, sounding now like his old self, the man with confidence he was willing to share with the world. “It’s not the same because you want to kill me.”

Ben shook his head adamantly, a ridiculous gesture in front of a blind man. “I don’t want to kill you!”

“You do. I betrayed you. You just don’t want to be that kind of person.”

“I’m not that kind of person!”

“And I betrayed you twice, Ben. The first time was seven years ago. The whole disaster with Corner King. When that portal we opened got out of control, it was because I messed up. I got you to think that it was you, but it wasn’t. It was me. I’m responsible for what happened to David.”

Ben stopped breathing for a moment and who he was hung in the balance of a split second struggle within him. Somewhere in the quiet places of his mind, he knew that what he had just heard probably wasn’t true. But this wasn’t the time and place to sweep away the lies and face himself or maybe Ben Hoover just wasn’t the man to do that in any circumstances. At any rate, the moment to be braver than he had ever been passed unmarked and he took absolution instead.

He asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Now do it. Right now. I’ve already had too much time to think about how I got here and I don’t want any more. Don’t let the magpies pick me apart.”

The two lapsed into silence again, getting their respective stories settled within them, until Ben lowered the gun to Hale’s temple and said, without a hint of irony, “Looks like you owe me one, now.”

Hale put this last bit on his friend’s tab, then reconsidered and simply forgave him instead. “Thank you, Ben.”

At the sound of the gunshot, the entire flock took to the air, chaotic and confused.

 

Bret Tallman is a sad leper wandering the subway tunnels under New York City. He has inflicted his complete and utter fabrications on the readers of Forgotten Worlds, Hub, Down in the Cellar, Niteblade, Sorcerous Signals and Future Syndicate. He blogs at Malarkytown.


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ISSUE #17

April 2008

FICTION