Sunday, August 6, 2017

Three Thieves of Night Part Five: First Blood at Dawn



So there I stood, in nothing but a robe, my six shooter several feet away, hiding in my towel. My back twitching as the wound began itching like crazy. I balled my fists, clenched my jaw, tried not to draw attention to myself, well, no more so than I’d normally get, and failed miserably.

Mary, the Saint of Sinners-- one of the most dangerous hunters in Creation-- was also without her guns. She was side-stepping towards the exit, where Tristan and his uncle Gilead stood, glaring at one another.

Their fighting magic was surfacing, the electric crackle of it made the hair on my arms stand up. That was some serious mojo they were drawing up, and the scary things was, I was pretty sure neither of them was doing it intentionally.

It was a natural byproduct of their anger, of which House Andiron and by extension, their cousin House Montebalm was infamous for. Because Andiron was founded by the first son of the god king, our Holy Imperator, and the magic in their blood was strong and full of explosive potential.

Tristan did not like using his fighting magic. It made him lose control of his temper. The more he used it, the more volatile his emotions became, and the less control he had over his psychic abilities as well.

The bitter truth was, he had a lot of power, but it controlled him far more than he could ever control it. And his uncle knew it. I could see it on his face, that bitter arrogance. That haughty, “I know I can kill you in an instant” look in his gray eyes.

Tristan looked a bit like him, the family resemblance was striking.

Same strong chin, broad shoulders, lots of muscles, even the scowl was similar. Tristan was just a smidge shorter than him, and he has his mother’s nose and lips.

His uncle’s hair was almost completely white from age but other than that and the wrinkles near his eyes, he didn’t look a year over 50. Rumor has it that he was closer to 400, thanks to the royal blood that ran in his veins.

Mary, impatient, sighed and said, “Listen, gentlemen, I have no quarrel with you. If you would be so kind as to let me pass, I shall not have to get involved in what is clearly a family affair.”

Gilead regarded her cautiously. “And who might you be?”

“Mary. They call me the Saint of Sinners. Most know me by that name.”

“I have heard of you. Why were you in here with my nephew and that gene trash?”

By gene trash, he meant that I had dirty commoner blood, and was not from magically powerful breeding stock.

“That, is not your concern, Herr Montebalm,” she said darkly and I swear I saw viper fangs flash in her eyes.

“Are you here to wreak vengeance for a lost soul?” he asked, not for once taking his gaze off of Tristan.

“No. However, I sense that you are thirsty for justice, even though no true grave injustice has been done to you, or your kin,” she said.

“Mary, this is not your concern. Uncle, step aside. Let the lady pass in peace. You are blocking the door. On a saint.”

“His pride is making it difficult for him to be courteous,” Mary said. “It is typical nobleman behavior. I have seen it many times over the years.”

Gilead’s eyes flicked her way and he made a disgusted face.

“That is not the case. If I move, I give all three of you tactical advantage.”

“Uh…three?” I said. “Hey, I’m not looking for a fight with one of the heads of House Montebalm. But, since you included me, I guess that this worthless piece of gene trash will be forced to get involved after all.”

“Rourke.” He said and gave me a stop hand signal. It was subtle, just a few fingers of his hand moving, something we came up with, for situations such as these, where sudden movements would cause everyone present to break out into a fight. Gilead was looking for an excuse to throw the first punch, and Tristan didn’t want me to give it to him.

I shut my mouth, folded my arms, and waited for the inevitable to happen next.

“Nephew, I would like a word with you, if you please,” Gilead said and gestured towards the hallway. His words were not friendly, they were laced with the threat of violence and bloodshed.

“Might I remind you uncle, that this is a sacred place of healing. If bloodshed occurs between us, we shall surely be cursed by the local god. Such a curse could very easily extend to the entirety of our House, and no one of our bloodline shall ever be able to heal from a wound ever again.”

“He’s right, “ I said. “If you fight in here, you’ll get kicked out and the local god will curse your entire family for disrespecting her temple. She does that, and no one will heal well ever again. People will die from simple cuts because they will never stop bleeding. You really want to explain to his father why that happened? Think about it. And think on it good. You’d have to explain to the ruling head of the House why all Montebalms are cursed for eternity because you couldn’t control your temper in a healing temple?”

He narrowed his eyes and the heated rage coming from them made me take a step back.

“I don’t know who you think you are, but no one talks to me that way.”

“Wow, you really don’t listen, do you? Is your ire up that much, you have blood ringing in your ears so you can’t hear me? I can talk louder if you like. My name is Rourke Whelan. I am one of the Three Thieves of Night. And Tristan is my brother at arms. So no, I will not allow you to speak to him in such a way, nor will I allow you to harm him.”

“Rourke, shut. Up,” Tristan hissed.

“You should listen to your betters, and step aside, commoner.”

“No. I won’t. You want to hit him, you have to go through me first.”

“Stop,” Tristan said and put a strong hand on my shoulder and squeezed. It was like an iron vice grip. Yup. His fighting magic was just soaring through his veins now.

“Ow.”

He let go, leaving a red hand print on my shoulder that would most definitely turn into a bruise.

Mary stood there, legs wide, hands at her hips like she was about to start dueling pistols, and then she made an annoyed sound and lowered them and balled them into fists instead.

Old habits die hard, I suppose.

“Rourke is right uncle. If we are to work this out, we must need do this outside of sacred ground.”

Gilead made an annoyed sound. He didn’t unclench his fists, but he didn’t exactly start swinging them either.

“I am very well aware of that, boy. Mayhap we should speak outside Bethel’s gates instead? That way, I won’t have to deal with your father’s disapproval for the rest of my life.”

Tristan slowly nodded. “That is agreeable. We shall speak there. And resolve our differences in kind.”

“It is settled then,” Gilead said and backed out of the room, not taking his eyes off of any of us, and then turned on his heels and walked away at a brisk pace. Even his footsteps sounded angry.

I sighed and rushed to the wood post and scratched my itching back and hissed in relief.

Mary whistled. “Well Tristan, I am impressed. Most would not be able to ignore such a challenge and would have started fighting right then and there.”

Tristan stared out the doorway, his fists clenched so tight that his knuckles were white. “It was not easy,” he said softly. “But there was more at stake than just my pride in that moment. Our entire family could’ve suffered if I had let him goad me into hitting him first.”

“That is true.”

“So…that was a declaration of war or something?” I asked, still scratching my back. It wasn’t easing the pain, and really, the itching wasn’t letting up any, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop.

“Yes,” Mary said. “You wouldn’t know, but it’s an old tradition. The old Houses, when they challenge a duel, they release an aura of magical power so everyone at witness can feel their intent. That is what just happened here. Their discussion is going to be one of blades and fists, not words,” she said.

“Lady, I could’ve told you that. It was pretty obvious what his intent was.”

Tristan sighed, shook his head, and walked out of the room.

“Hey!” I ran after him, grabbed his shoulder to make him stop.

He whirled on me and shoved me back roughly and I slammed into the wall.

“What is your problem?”

“Rourke. Do not get involved in this. It is not your fight. I made an error that I cannot easily fix, and now I must pay for it.”

“With your life?” Mary asked.

“If I must.”

“You seem to forget one thing,” I said and stood up straighter and looked him in the eye. “We’re blood sworn. We made a powerful oath, sealed by our own blood, to protect each other and keep one another safe. I will not break that oath. Even if it means angering you further, I will honor it. I always keep my word. Especially to my hunting party.”

“You two are blood sworn?” Mary said. The tone of her voice made me think that she knew something, and I braced myself for what was coming next.

“Yes,” Tristan said. “All three of us, Jon included, swore an oath when we formed our hunting party. It seemed a good idea at the time. It strengthened our bonds of friendship.”

Mary swore under her breath.

“What?” I asked.

“Any curse can spread to others that have made a blood oath with the original target of a dark spell.”

“And?”

“And you, Rourke, are most definitely cursed.”

“Ah…well…that puts a damper on things, doesn’t it?”

“If I had known…” She shook her head. “Hopefully your companions are strong enough to keep the evil from influencing them.”

“Are you saying that I am contagious?”

“After a fashion, but only to them.”

“Shit.”

Tristan, seeing that I was distracted, bolted down the hallway towards our hotel room.

“Oh come on!”

I ran after him, bare feet slapping on the smooth stone floor. Mary easily kept pace with me on her long legs.

I got to the room just as Tristan was shutting the door and shoved my arm through, forcing the door to stay open.

He glared at me, let go of the door and went over to his things to get dressed.

“Tristan. Don’t do this. It won’t solve anything.”

He didn’t respond. He just kept moving and getting dressed.

Mary, nonplussed by his now naked body, stepped up and stood in his way when he went to grab his pants.

“Tristan. Listen to your blood brother. He is right. This duel will not fix the damage that has been done. Fight him and you will suffer the wrath of your House.”

“I must. I injured his son. He demands satisfaction.”

“Taking it out on you isn’t going to heal Barnabas, nor will it make your idiot cousin a good man,” I said.

“I am aware of that, thank you,” he said and pushed past Mary and hurriedly put his clothes on.

“If you fight here, you won’t be welcome back inside. You know that, right?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“However badly you are hurt, they won’t heal you or tend your wounds. You'll be stuck with them, all the way to Golgotha. You'll suffer the whole train ride there.”

“I know!” he shouted and turned on me, seething. I have never seen him so mad in my life. “I have to do this. There is no easy way out. I dug the hole, I must lay in it.”

“Why? So you can be punished for losing control and letting your fear get the best of you?”

“Yes! Damn it. I am weak. Don’t you understand? I can’t control my abilities or my temper. I--”

What he couldn’t say out loud, I realized then, was that he believed that he deserved to be punished for what he did. As though a serious beating would ease his guilt.

I knew damn well that it wouldn’t, but there was no telling him that. The stubborn fool had made up his mind.

“I’m doing this. Stay out of my way, or I will make you move.”

I put my hands up, “All right, all right. Go. I’ll get our things and the horses ready, and meet you at the town gates.”

Tristan, fully dressed, grabbed his sword and hat and stormed out.

I shook my head. “He’s going to get himself killed.”

“Not unless we stop them,” Mary said.

“We? Oh no. You are not going to get involved. He’d never forgive me if I let you fight his fight.”

“I won’t allow that man to kill him. It would be unjust. Tristan is a member of my flock. It is Sophia’s will that I protect the innocent.”

“And he is innocent? He punched someone into a coma.”

She gave me a bitter smile that made my skin crawl.

“It was just one hit. Bad angle, too much force. It was not his intention to kill or incapacitate, just to get his cousin to shut his big fucking mouth.”

“Language!”

“I will use whatever words I wish, when I wish.”

“Fine, but…how do you know that? Were you there?”

“No. I have angels on my shoulders, remember? They see the past and the present. They tell me what I need to know.”

“Well, lucky you, I guess.”

“We should make haste and stop that duel before it turns deadly.”

“Agreed. Three punches and they’re done.”

She chuckled and left the room to get her things.

“This is insane,” I muttered. “What the hell am I doing? They’ll pulverize me in an instant if I try to stop them.”

I was not one to eagerly enter a fist fight with men who had demi-god like powers.

In fact, most of the time, I’d find a way to talk myself out of a fight, if I could.

But not this time…not this time.

I double checked the room to ensure that I gathered all of our belongings.

Fortunately, since we hadn’t been there long, we not unpacked much of anything, so it was simple enough to grab our bags and go.

I dropped the room key off at the front desk and told the man working the night shift that something came up, and we were leaving early. He wanted to give me a refund, but I didn’t have time, and to be honest, I didn’t want it.

I told him to keep the money and ran out to the stables to saddle our horses.

Mary was already there, walking her horse out.

It was dark. The early morning air was harsh, cold and bitter. The sun wouldn’t rise for a few more hours. I wasn’t looking forward to riding without getting any sleep, but I didn’t have a choice.
I wouldn't be able to sleep until we got on the train to Gologotha.

“Got everything?” she asked.

“Yes. And yes,” I said, putting the saddle on Old Grey and patting his haunches. “Be nice to her,” I said to him. “She’s a saint.”

He knickered in reply and I saddled Tristan’s mare, Buttercup, and then we started heading towards the town’s gates, where my friend and his uncle were about to seriously slug it out.

Mary handed her horses reigns to me and walked over to where they were arguing and I just stood there, wondering what in the hell was going to happen.

“Before you start, I would like to say something,” Mary said, her voice loud and clear and unwavering.

Gilead glared at her. “Oh?”

“I’m the Saint of Sinners. These men are under my protection. Kill Tristan, and I will kill you. Understood?”

“What?” Tristan and I both said at the same time.

“Is that so?” Gilead said in a measured tone.

“Sir, I’m a living saint. Don’t fuck with me.”

“Language!” he said looked perplexed. “What kind of saint has such a foul mouth?”

“This one. I have lived many years and walked the path of many lives, and I can tell you this, the old ways are still viable. Whoever draws first blood, wins the duel. Satisfaction shall be met without murder. If you demand more, you should require him to pay reparations, as per your House laws.”

“What do you know of our ways, woman?”

“Plenty. I knew Andiron when he was a child. Watched him grow up into a fine man with quite the temper. His father established rules of conduct so that he wouldn’t commit murder anytime someone challenged his authority and pursued a duel.”

I stared at her.

If she knew young Andiron, she had to be well over a thousand years old. Was that even possible? Was she of noble birth? Or was it a because she was sainted by Sophia and the goddess granted her an extremely long life?

I mean, I heard the rumors, I knew the tales about her being cursed with immortality, and even if I had teased her about it before, I didn’t really believe it. Until now.

“The law you stated is correct," Gilead said. "We shall abide by it. Now, step aside. I shall not pull my punches if you happen to be in the way, and my nephew needs to be taught a lesson in manners.”

I could feel the electric crackle of their fighting magic growing stronger. Both he and Tristan were starting to form golden auras of light as they called on the full strength of their power. They lit up the area, made the snow banks sparkle. It would’ve been pretty if I hadn’t been there to watch my friend get beat all to hell.

They had to stop at first blood. That meant any blow strong enough to cut or break something open to cause the opponent to bleed would end the duel. It was not to the death.

Didn’t make me feel any better about it.

Mary stepped back, her hands at her hips.

“Do you require someone to start and call the end of the duel?”

“If you wish,” Tristan said.

Gilead narrowed his eyes at him. “That is…acceptable. I suppose.”

Great. With Mary acting as the referee, she wouldn’t physically get involved until either party was close to being killed. That meant it was up to me to rush in if they didn’t stop after drawing blood.

I walked the horses over to the hitching post by the gate and tied them off, just in case I had to run over quickly and end things.

If saving my friend's life meant that I was used as a punching bag, then so be it.

It was cold. Our breath steamed the air. We stood on the outer side of the stone wall gate of Bethel, and Tristan and Gilead stared at each other.

I fought the urge to check my guns. I knew that they were loaded. I had looked at them before I left the hotel room.

This was starting to feel more like a gun fight, than a fist fight, and I half expected them to pull out weapons. Instead, Tristan took off his sword and tossed it to the ground near Mary. Gilead removed his guns and did the same.

Mary didn’t move or flinch when they were thrown. She must be used to that sort of thing.

“Remember gentlemen, do not get carried away. Your magic is highly destructive. The force of your blows alone could destroy the town if you are not careful.”

“We know. Call the start already,” Gilead said. He sounded impatient. Angry. Ready to kick the ever loving shit out of his nephew.

“Just had to say it. In case you forgot.”

“Mary, just call it. We can handle ourselves. After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve fought, is it uncle?”

“No. It is not. And it most likely will not be the last either. You still have a lot to learn about your place in Creation, nephew. It’s time I taught you a thing or two.”

“So be it.”

Mary glanced at me and I shrugged. I had no idea what their past was like. Apparently, they’ve been fighting for some time. Tristan never once said a word about it. Maybe it embarrassed him.

I stood by her and she tipped the front of her Stetson hat up.

“Get ready,” she said.

Gilead rolled his head, cracking his neck with the action and put his fists up.

Tristan dug his boots into the snow, stance wide, and hands loose at his side. He shook his arms out and raised them up, fists at the ready.

My heart was racing.

I didn’t want him to get hurt. I couldn’t care less about what happened to his uncle, but still, if he killed him, the rest of his House would come after us. And we didn’t need that right now.

All of this was a waste of time.

John was in trouble, and yet here we were, waiting for Tristan to duke it out with his asshole of an overbearing uncle.

“You might want to shade your eyes,” Mary muttered.

“Huh?”

She raised her hand. “When I lower my hand, you shall begin.”

They watched her, waiting and in a blink of an eye, she brought her hand down, Gilead started glowing so intensely bright it was like looking at the sun and I was blinded for a moment while snow flew around us and the ground shuddered from the force of their blows.

I could barely make out their silhouettes in the brilliant golden light. Tristan’s power was nowhere near as bright as his uncles, his aura was a lighter almost silver color in comparison, and it was drowned out, subsumed by the bleed-off of his uncle's magical power.

I could hear their fists hitting, sending out rushes of air with each arm stroke.

It was incredible.

I never saw Tristan use his fighting magic to its full extent.

Whatever they were saying to each other was personal. I couldn’t make out most of it, but it sounded rather nasty to me. Tristan's uncle was cruel and cut him with words, as well as bruised him with his fists.

I didn’t like it.

Not one bit.

I hated seeing him so upset. He was a good friend. Probably the first true friend I ever had in my life. He saw something in me that no one else ever did. He saw that I could be a hero, that I could and would save people’s lives from the evils of the night, and it changed my whole life.

There was no way in hell I was going to let anyone take him away from me.

Not Gilead, not Mary, and certainly not the damned vampires of Golgotha. No. I would rather die than see him hurt.

The longer I stood bathing in their golden magical auras, the stronger my anger at Gilead grew.
I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him to suffer. I wanted him to die, horribly, at my own hands.

“Mind yourself,” Mary said and put a hand on my shoulder. I shoved it off.

“Don’t touch me.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Rourke? Are you affected by the light?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said and stepped a few feet away, heart pounding in my head. I wanted so desperately to run in there and rip Gilead off of him, but I couldn’t.

All I could do was watch as they moved in fast blurs of motion and gold, the snow throwing up from their feet as they rushed two and fro.

Tristan was blocking the flurry of blows, trying every so often to get a hit in, and missing completely. He was getting frustrated, I could hear him make a sound of annoyance.

Neither was getting in a good solid punch, nothing that would draw blood. They’d have to hit each other in the face to do that.

"You've gotten sloppy nephew, hunting has not served you well."

"And you've grown soft and slow, old man. Mayhap it's time for one of your sons to take over for you?"

"Rourke." Someone whispered my name behind me. A chill ran down my spine. I could feel their breath tickle the back of my neck and when I turned to look, I saw my shadow being cast on the ground by the Montebalm's golden auras, but it wasn’t in my shape. It was a wolf-headed beast, black as death, with hellfire green eyes.

I had seen that beast before. In Concordia. Its face flashed at me right before it bit me and ripped a hole in my shoulder. And that wound has not healed. At all.

My entire body ran cold. I started shivering. I couldn’t look away. I felt stuck, staring in those unholy eyes.

“Rourke,” it said, its voice dark, deep, colder than the very depths of hell itself. “It’s time.”

“No. No…I won’t let you.”

“It’s far, far too late for you little lamb. Can’t you see? Your throat has already been slit and you are bleeding out as the sacrifice.”

I felt something hot and wet slide down my throat and my hand went up to it and came away slick with red steaming blood.

“Death is too good for you, don’t you think? You should suffer, greatly, before you die. Yes, I think that will do nicely.”

“This isn’t real. You’re just messing with my head.”

I tried to pull away, but I could feel my mind getting pushed further and further down like I was so very far away from my own body, and I could see out of my eyes, I could feel my body, but I wasn’t in it. My mind was in my shadow, somehow.

It was cold. And dark. And I was terrified.

Mary stepped up to me, and I turned and smiled and said, “When are you going to tell them about him? About you and I? And that bouncing baby boy of yours?”

“Excuse me? What did you say?”

“It’s been far too long, sweetheart. Did you miss me?”

“Rourke? What’s wrong?”

“Oh, he’s not here right now. He’s taking a nap. In hell.”

“You son of a bitch, let him go.”

I could feel everything, even my mouth moving, but I couldn’t control what I was doing or saying. I was there, and yet, I was not. I was just along for the ride. My mind was split into two places at once, in my body, and in my shadow. I was fractured, and it was hard to focus.

It ignored her and stood there, with my hands clasped behind my back, rocking on my heels

“Such a great morning for a good fight. Do you think they’ll kill each other?”

Mary pulled out her cross necklace, a modest thing made of carved wood with a leather string and held it up.

“By Sophia’s will, I command you to leave this corpus and go back to hell from whence you came.”

It laughed, waved my arm and her cross caught on fire.

Cursing she tossed it off.

Tristan cried out in pain and I saw that Gilead had knocked him down to the ground and hit him hard in the ribs.

Anger flashed in me, white hot and painful. In that instant, I felt myself wrest back control, just enough to move, in the blink of an eye, from where I was standing, to in between the two Montebalms.

My right arm grabbed his fist as it lowered to strike him again and I held it, the force of the blow reverberated through my body and pushed my feet down into the frozen earth. The ground snapped and crackled under the weight of the blow, my feet buried in the dirt and snow spilling into the tops of my boots.

In that moment, I had managed to overpower that thing with my will, and we were both using my body at once.

My hand…my arm…there was black shaggy fur on my arm, it had tripled in size, ripped open my shirt and coat sleeve with thick rope cord muscles, the fingers ending in black sharp claws. Like a werewolf.

I shouldn't have been able to hold Gilead back, let alone with a single hand, and yet, I was. The demon...it was strong. Far stronger than any of us had ever realized, until just then.

“That’s enough,” I said. “You have proven your point. Step down, or I shall be forced to kill you.”

“What is this?” Gilead said through gritted teeth. Blood trickled down his knuckles as I stood, still gripping his fist with my strange hand.

“I should kill you for what you did to him. I really ought to. It would be ever so satisfying to rip your intestines out with my bare hands.”

“Rourke,” Tristan whispered.

It, that thing controlling me, ignored him as we struggled for control. My anger, my rage at my friend being treated so poorly by his family, overpowered it. But just barely. I could already feel myself slipping away under its fierce hold. It affected my words, tainted them with malice and cruelty.

My legs were about to buckle, Gilead was still pushing down his fist, and not letting up.

I made an annoyed sound. “Shall I break his arm, Tristan? Would that be enough compensation?”

“Stop. This isn't your fight.”

“No. And you can’t make me, even if you wished to.”

Still gripping his fist, I shoved Gilead back and pushed him down, forcing him to kneel.

"Down on your knees, you filth," I said and I started bending his arm to the side at an awkward angle. If I kept going, I was going to snap it in twain.

“Enough!” Mary shouted and ran forward. I saw my shadow reach out and grab her and toss her into the stone wall as though she weighed nothing.

She hit her head and landed hard on her side and groaned.

I turned my attention back to Gilead, glaring at him. His eyes were no longer filled with rage, they were filled with fear.

“You know, Gilly, you are just like your father. What do you think he would say if he saw you acting like a coward? Would he take the belt to your back, like he did when you were a child? Hit you so hard your skin breaks open? Like old times?”

“Who are you? What is this? I demand you tell me who you are!”

I could feel his arm giving way and gleefully applied more pressure until it snapped. Bone broke through the skin, glistened in the weak morning light.

The man’s golden aura faltered and died off as he passed out from the pain.

“Pathetic. I thought he would've put up far more of a fight before he dropped like a dead squirrel from a tree. I guess you never can tell, can you?”

“Rourke…what have you done?” Tristan was holding his side, trying to stand and falling back to his knees. His face all battered and bruised, his left eye was starting to swell up.

When he saw my face, he jerked away and fell on his ass and backpedaled until he hit the stone wall.

“No. Not you. Not again.”

“Oh yes. It’s me. Been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Not long enough,” he said and I saw that he was reaching for his sword.

“Too slow,” I said and knelt on his free hand. He winced and pulled it out from under my knee. “I should’ve killed you in Solomon when I had the chance. But someone was too much of a coward to do it. Such a pathetic and weak vessel they chose for me. What a disgusting man.”

“Rourke is not weak. He has fought you off longer than any other man ever could.  And you know it.”

I laughed, got in his face, he fell back against the stone wall.

“You should tell him, lover boy, how you really feel. I’m sure he’d like to know. About your secret. About what you fantasize about when you’re alone.”

Tristan looked mortified.

I laughed. “The look on your face! It’s perfect!” I leaned closer and whispered, “He’d never accept you if he found out. He’d push you away, and you’d lose the one person you love the most.”

“Shut up!” he screamed and shoved me off. He cried out, grabbed his side again and rolled away, crawling to his sword.

“And what are you going to do with that? Cut his arm off? Hurt your friend? You think that will get me out of him? It’s far too late you know. I’ve already taken root in his mind. Eventually, I will get to his soul and devour it. And then, I’ll completely possess his body. His sleek, muscular form that you admire so much, especially when he’s not looking your way.”

Mary moaned, her eyes fluttered open and she sat up, looking completely and utterly pissed off. She got to her feet, staggered towards where I stood over Tristan, mocking him.

“That’s enough foul beast! The sun is rising. This is Sophia’s domain now. You have no more power over him this day.”

I looked at her and smirked. “You know, for an immortal, nine months really isn’t that long at all. Before you know it, that little seed growing in your belly will be born.”

All the color drained from her face. “What?”

“You don’t know? Didn’t you suspect? I mean, I don’t work for the demon lord personally, but I think it’s great that you would give him a child. Any time darkness gets a foothold in Creation, it is a time for celebration. One step closer to humanity's destruction, on step closer to my dark father's rule.”

“No….no, that’s not possible.”

“Oh my dear, anything is possible, when a demon is in love with you.”

“Shut, up!” She grabbed Gilead’s gun and pointed it at me. “Let him go or I will shoot you between the eyes.”

“You'd kill him? But he’s innocent. I don’t think you have it in you.”

She swore under her breath and I heard something stir the air around us, like large feathered wings beating down as a bird took flight.

“You bitch, you wouldn’t dare.”

“Oh I would, and I am,” she said and muttered an ancient prayer in a language that has long since gone dead.

A halo of tarnished bronze formed over her head, and white wings dripping with blood unfurled behind her as she prayed.

The beast inside of me panicked and I tried to run but Tristan tackled me and held me down as Mary strode forward, her feet not actually touching the ground, like she was floating just inches above it.

“It’s too late,” I snarled at her. “You can’t stop what is coming. Creation itself will be destroyed when we’re done. My master is on his way. You won’t be able to stop it. Not you, not the Venerable August, not these Three Thieves, not even the Crow and his Wolf will be able to end our reign of darkness. All of the hunters will fall. We will take root in the world and finally kill the Imperator once and for all and plunge Creation into an era of darkness and despair. You can do nothing to stop what is coming for you all. You will fail! You will all fail!”

“It is Sophia’s will that I fight,” Mary said. “And it is by her will that I bind you inside this vessel.”

I could feel her righteous saint’s fury, I could feel the holy power within her stirring and coming to life, and it terrified me.

“No! No! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all!”

I screamed and flailed and she reached out with a glowing white hand, blood dripping down from the stigmatic spot on her palm.

She touched it to my forehead and said, “I anoint thee with saint’s blood. I call upon the power of the heavenly hosts and all of Sophia’s angels to protect this soul, and bind the evil within so that it may do no more harm.”

I screamed.

It burned.

Her blood burned!

My body was on fire.

My arm was killing me, the wound on my shoulder was puffed up and pulsing as the demon struggled to break free.

Tristan held me down, the arm out at an angle in a submission hold as Mary finished her prayer, using words not once uttered by mortal man.

Glowing sigils of holy power glowed in the around her, wrapping around her in a ribbon and then winding down her arm and around my body.

It hurt. It hurt so much.

I screamed and hollered and said awful things about her and Tristan, and how I was going to hurt them both.

It wasn’t pretty.

Then…the horrible words could be uttered no more. The rage subsided. Sputtered out and turned into numb horror.

I froze, then went limp and lay there gasping in the cold snow. My throat raw from screaming obscenities. My whole body wracked with pain, tendon's torn from the impact of Gilead's fist when I grabbed it.

My arm started shrinking back to normal size, the shaggy hair dissipated, the claws disappeared.
The wound on my shoulder screamed in pain. I could feel it bleeding. The stitches were ripped out.

Again.

"Please, let go. You're going to dislocate my shoulder," I said hoarsely, face pressed down into the snow.

Tristan sighed and let go and sat next to me, breathing hard. "Sorry."

Mary collapsed to her knees, her tears of blood plopping on the snow and on her pant legs. The holy light of her saint’s power dimmed and dissipated, her wings gone, but the stigmata on her right hand still bled.

She held it out in front of her and stared at it.

“I don’t believe it. It can’t be true,” she whispered.

And then I heard a beautiful angelic voice that sounded like ringing crystal, answer her back, “But it is. You are with child. With HIS child.”

“But…we didn’t. I mean, I don’t recall us doing that. We didn't. I never would have let him do that to me.”

“It matters not, all he had to do was touch you. You forget how powerful a demon he is.”

“Fuck.”

“Indeed.”

“Who are you talking to?” I asked softly. I sounded so weak.

“Rourke?” Tristan said and helped me roll over.

“Hey. You look like shit.”

“I know. Thank you. For stopping him.”

"Sure. You're welcome. No Problem. Anytime man."

He shook his head. “You are out of it.”

“No. You are out. Of it,” I said and poked his shoulder. “Out. Of. It.”

“Stop. That hurts. Everything hurts now.”

I slowly sat up. I felt like I had been hit by a train.

I looked over at his uncle and said, “Oh…no. Gilead.”

“You broke his arm. You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I didn’t…that wasn’t me! It really wasn’t! I swear!”

“He’s right,” Mary said, and she sounded so tired and defeated. “It wasn’t him. He had no say in it. He was trapped in his own mind. I haven’t seen a demon with the ability to manipulate its host's shadow, let alone take the full brunt of a powerful hit like that, and overpower someone of the Imperator's bloodline, in a very long time.”

“Oh? How long are we talking here?” I asked.

She shook her head and gripped the wrist of her bleeding hand. “Last time I met one that could do that…” She went still, her eyes wide. “Oh no.”

“What?” Tristan asked.

“This is bad. This is very bad.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I said and moved to sit next to Tristan with a sigh.

“We…may be in serious danger here.”

“Please specify, we are not well versed in demons. That is John’s specialty,” Tristan said.

“The last time something that powerful wandered the earth, the angelic war broke out. It almost destroyed all of Creation.”

Tristan looked at her funny, his left eye now swollen shut. “You…you were there. I can see it. You walked among them.”

“Yes. I did. I lost everyone, and everything then. And then I became someone else.”

“That is how you were sainted. Your righteous fury, your cries for justice, they were answered by Sophia. She heard you. She…she stood before you? You were touched by the goddess?”

“Seriously? That’s…unheard of.”

“Yes. At that time, the celestial gods walked the earth. To bind the powers of darkness and chaos, they had to give up their worldly forms and ascend to the heavens. They made a huge sacrifice for us all. And in return, I fight the good fight for Sophia. I am her vessel here in Creation now. I am her arm of justice. Her weapon. And I shall never rest until all the world’s evils are destroyed.”

“Damn. That is unfortunate,” I said. Tristan hit me and I winced. “Ow! Please don’t hit me. I feel like I was hit by a train. No joke.”

“Shouldn’t I be the one complaining about pain?”

“No. Obviously."

"What do you want to do about your uncle?" Mary asked.

Tristan nodded towards the town. I saw a man running down the street towards us. It was one of Tristan’s cousins that we saw in the dining area of the hotel.

He stopped when he saw us. “What in the blazing hell happened here?”

“We had a duel. Your father won,” Tristan said, sounding defeated and tired.

“If he won, why is he passed out in the snow with a broken arm?”

“Oh uh…” I said and we all looked away from him. “He…tried to block a hit and Tristan knocked his arm the wrong way and, well, it snapped. You know, it’s a wound from trial by combat. It happens. The important thing is, that he won. So he has satisfaction and justice has been gained for Barnabas.”

“Ah. I didn’t even know you were here, Tristan.”

“He must’ve seen us come in and decided to take care of it himself,” Tristan said with a shrug. “You know what your father is like. He never tells anyone anything until afterward.”

His cousin nodded, picked up Gilead’s gun belt and then hefted his old man's arm over his shoulders and made him stand up.

Gilead moaned and looked around bleary eyed.

“Hey, congratulations, you won!” I said and he blinked in my direction.

“I did?” he asked.

“Yes. You beat the ever loving hell out of Tristan. So, you won the duel. Are you satisfied now?”

“Yes. How did I break my arm?”

“Battle wound,” Tristan’s cousin said.

Gilead nodded. “Tristan hits harder than I remember. It is good. Let’s get some breakfast, I’m starving.”

“All right, all right,” his son said and they walked away, both shooting us a parting glance and whispering to each other about stigmata and weird wolf shapes in the snow.

I looked around.

Where I stepped when I was possessed, large wolf prints were left behind. Not boot prints. And where I had fallen in the snow, the shape of a wolf was, not a human body.

“Uh…guys? I didn’t transform did I?”

“Just your arm,” Mary said.

“Then how come I left wolf prints in the snow?”

She shrugged. “It’s a very old and powerful demon.They do things like that. Warp and twist reality. It’s in their nature. It’s not even something they attempt to do, it’s just something they do. It’s like a tell of theirs. It’s a sign of a strong possession. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to force it to back down.”

“You can't exorcise it? You can only put it to spiritual sleep?"  Tristan asked.

"Wait...you didn't send it packing? Just made it take a nap?"

"Unfortunately, yes. This is something that is beyond me. It is too ingrained in you. It is fusing with your soul.”

“Do you think John might know how to stop it?” Tristan asked.

“If he doesn’t, the Crow would.”

“Uh…who’s  that?”

“The demon mentioned him,” Tristan said. “Said his name with such contempt too. Must not care for him much.”

“There's a posse of hunters in Eugenica. They call their leader the Plague Crow, but don't let the name fool you. He’s a healer and a man of medicine. He treats the plague victims that are sent to Eugenica. He’s a good soul. Sharp as a knife and smarter than I’ll ever be. His magic is quite strong. I don’t even think he knows just how powerful he is yet.”

“Oh…wonderful. So, if John can’t fix it, we go to Eugenica? Is that the plan?”

“Sounds like it,” Tristan said and sighed. "I'm so tired."

"Are your ribs broken?" I asked.

"No. Just bruised."

I leaned back against the stone wall, closed my eyes. Everything hurt. The wound on my back was throbbing, and I could feel blood seep into my shirt and grow cold in the crisp winter air.

"I'm so tired," I muttered.

"So am I," Mary said. She sounded closer than before and I opened one eye. She was resting next to me. Sitting awfully close in fact.

Her arm was resting against mine.

"You wrecked your jacket," she said.

"I can mend it. I'm used to darning things back up."

She was shaking.

Tristan was breathing shallowly, and I feared that he had been hurt more than he wanted to let on, but would never admit it until he was forced to.

We all needed to rest before we left for the train station. We couldn't go back to the hotel, but maybe...

I slowly stood up, groaning.

"Where are you going?" Tristan asked.

"Just over to the stables for a minute. I'll be right back."

"Mm," he said and watched me go.

I could barely walk in a straight line and I leaned against the open stable door like a drunkard and peeked inside.

The stable boy was busy with his morning chores.

"Hey, kid," I said and he looked up and smiled.

"You back already?"

"Sort of. Listen, me and my friends need to warm up before we head out on the road today. Would it be all right if we rested in the barn here for a few hours? I can pay you."

He grinned. "Sure! Pa said you might want to do that, seeing as how you all got into a scuffle outside of town. I was waiting for you to show up."

I chuckled. "Smart man, your pa is. Here, for your trouble," I tossed him a gold coin and he bit it and smiled wider.

"Thanks, mister!"

"No, thank you," I said and wandered back to Tristan and Mary.  "We can stay in the barn for a bit. We all need to grab some shut eye before we head out. So let's take advantage of it and rest, shall we?"

"I am not going to argue with that," Tristan murmured and I helped him stand up. He winced, pressed a hand against his side and limped towards the barn behind the stables.

The stable boy ran out and took the horses off the hitching post and walked them back for us.

Mary said nothing, just wrapped her bleeding hand in a handkerchief and shivered. She looked haunted. Scared out of her mind. I didn't want to tell her that though. She hits hard.

I helped Tristan sit down on the fresh hay in a corner of the barn, away from the other animals, and he sighed.

"You're going to have to wrap those ribs up before we go," I said.

He nodded. "I know," he said and leaned back against a bale of hay and put his hat over his face.

I plopped down unceremoniously and groaned as my shoulder throbbed in pain and all my joints complained at me.

"Taking a hit like that is not good for your body," Mary said.

"No kidding."

"Why did you do it then?"

"Couldn't help it.  Besides, I wasn't exactly in full control back there, remember?"

"Yes. I am fully aware. But, that demon didn't decide to protect Tristan, you did. Your force of will made it do that."

"Yay for me, I guess."

She scooted up next to me, and I saw that she was crying. The tears of blood had dried on her face and she was crying normal tears now, washing streaks out of the dried blood stains.

"Here," I said and handed her my handkerchief. "Your face is a mess."

"Thank you." She wiped off the blood and sat there, staring at the white cloth and shuddered.

"What's wrong?"

"Rourke?"

"Yes?"

"Can I?"

"Hm?"

"I just..." She looked away, shame burning red on her face. She was blushing, embarrassed. Flustered. Scared? Maybe?

"What? You can ask me anything. Tristan is already asleep, so it's not like he's going to hear it."

"He is?"

"Yeah. He can sleep anywhere. Lucky bastard."

"Huh. I guess he is."

She scooted next to me and I froze as she hugged me tightly and whispered,"Sorry, I just...need comfort. I know this is awkward. But...I don't have any family left. To bring a child into the world, alone? It terrifies me."

I made a sound of pity and patted her back. "I see. Well, in that case, feel free to cuddle away. But don't think that it means anything because it doesn't. I'm just being nice because you're a saint. We shall still hate each other after the hugging is over. Got it?"

She made a pathetic laugh and buried her face in my chest and clung to me and cried.

We lay there a while like that until she calmed down and abruptly let go of me and rolled over, putting her back to me.

"You're welcome."

"Thanks," she said bitterly and sighed. "I am so fucked."

"No, you're not. You're the strongest person I know. You'll get through it, raise a great kid to be the world's best monster hunter and the two of you will be a force to reckon with. You mark my words woman. You will do just fine."

She rolled over and glared at me. "You think so?"

"Uh...is that a trick question? Will you hit me if I say yes?"

"No. I won't hit you."

"Then, yes. I think so."

"Don't treat me any different, I just had a moment of weakness."

"I know. It happens to the best of us. Don't worry about it. I won't tell a soul."

She made a face of annoyance. "Uh huh."

"I won't!"

"I know, Rourke. I know. And for the record, I like Tristan more than I like you."

"I gathered that. Most people do. It's because he's the strong silent type, and I'm the rakish charming type that never shuts up. I talk way too much. It's a blessing and a curse."

"You're an idiot."

"I cannot dispute that."

She sighed, wrapped my now dirty handkerchief around her other hand and pressed it to her lips. "I'll get you a new one for your troubles."

"No need. I have plenty. Keep it. It's yours now."

"Very well then. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

I glanced over at Tristan, who was sleeping soundly.

"Hey, do you think we'll survive Golgotha?"

"If Sophia wills it, we shall. That is all I can say on the matter. If I can get my guns back, it will triple our odds of survival. Until then, it's a fifty-fifty chance that we'll make it and get John out of there in one piece."

She was right. She was always right. I hated that, but it was the truth.

"Get some sleep, Mr. Whelan. Today is going to be a very long day, for all of us."

I yawned and nodded.

We all slept for a few hours before the stable boy came in and said that it was safe for us to travel on the main roads, and with that, we all painfully got on our horses and rode down the mountain pass to the train station, where we would start the final leg of our journey to Golgotha, where even more fresh hells awaited us.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Here's a FREE CHAPTER from my Scifi Body Horror Novella PHASE ONE INFECTION!



Part Two


We spent the next month together.

Kiki took some time off to stay with me while I got used to the side-effects from the new medications.

The first few days were the worst, but after that, I began to even out and not feel so nauseous all the time, which was one hell of a relief, let me tell you.

I thought that I’d be stuck feeling like crap for months, but it only took a few weeks for me to start feeling like my old self again. I wasn’t as dizzy, nor as tired, and even though my legs still gave out sometimes, I was getting some of my strength back.

For the first time in over a month, I got a decent night’s sleep.

Unfortunately, I woke up early the next morning. If it weren’t for Kiki arguing on the phone, I would’ve slept until late that afternoon.

She was in the kitchen. Her voice traveled down the short hall and into the bedroom. The door was open just a crack and light from the kitchen spilled in.

I looked at the clock. It was 5:30 a.m.

Whoever called was important. Kiki didn’t get up much before noon on her days off.

“No. I told you, it’s all gone. There’s nothing left.”

I yawned and rolled over. I tried to get back to sleep, but I couldn’t. She was talking just a little too loud for that.

“Of course, of course. Yes. I did. No, no. The footage is corrupted. The samples are inconclusive.”

Ah. She’s talking about work. 

I put an arm over my face to block out the light.

“What! Are you sure?”

The tone of her voice made me sit up. Something wasn’t right.

“They’re dead? All of them?”

She better be talking about fish and not people…

Kiki sighed. “Yes, yes. I understand. I’ll see you at the lab. One o’clock. Yes! I’ll be there. Goodbye.” She hung up. “Shit!” she shouted and threw her phone against the living room wall. I heard her scrambling to dig it out from behind the couch.

Yawning, I got out of bed and shuffled to the living room to see what was going on.

Kiki was bent over the back of the couch, her bare ass up in the air, her pink satin nightgown had slipped up when she dove to reach behind it.

I was sorely tempted to smack it, but I decided not to. She was in a bad mood. Doing that would only direct her anger at me. I didn’t feel like dealing with that, so I behaved.

For once.

“Hey there, sweet cheeks. Everything all right?” I asked, startling her. She bumped her head on the wall as she stood up.

“Ow,” she said, rubbing her forehead. Her phone was in her other hand.

“What’s going on? Who were you arguing with?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. They’re just threatening to pull the grant money.”

“Again? I thought you guys convinced them that you’re on the right track.”

“Well, we did. But there’s been some…complications.”

I stifled a yawn. “What kind of complications?”

“Sabotage. At least, that’s what it sounds like.”

“Seriously?”

“The college board of directors thinks that someone actively sabotaged our work in Belize, and they want answers. Glassner is livid. He thinks that the college is purposefully looking for an excuse to shut us down.”

“You never mentioned this before.”

“Because it wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean, yeah, someone stole our research materials and dumped them in the ocean, but we got proof that they worked. The Caddis Initiative formula, the one that we helped create, it had cured coral bleaching. So the board of directors backed down. But now—” she sighed and made a helpless gesture with her hands.

I took them and put her phone down on the coffee table.

“Sit with me chamo. Tell me what happened.”

She sat on the couch and leaned into me. I wrapped my arms around her and gave her a hug. She squeezed my arms and held them close.

I gave her a moment to calm down before I asked, “So, was that your boss on the phone?”

“Yes. Professor Glassner wanted to give me a heads up. He thinks that corporate will send someone to interview us. And that could put us back weeks in our research. We’re at a delicate time in our studies. We can’t afford to put things on hold again.”

“You sure that’s all? Sounded like it was worse than that. Like something, or someone, had died.”

“Oh.”

“Did someone die?”

“What? No.” She waved it off with a nervous laugh. “It was just the fish we were using as test subjects. No one died. It’s not that bad. And you know, if we lose the grant money, I’ll still have a job teaching as adjunct faculty with him. He won’t lose his position as department head.”

“More like fish head.”

“I can’t believe you still say that stupid line.”

“I think it’s funny.”

“I know. I just…I don’t need this right now. I have enough to deal with. Why does everything always happen all at once?”

“That’s life chamo. No way to avoid it. It’s just how the universe works.”

“Well, it’s stupid. Fix it.”

“Take it up with God. I’m not the miracle worker. He is.”

“God is an artificial social construct invented by man to make sense of death and random horrible life events.”

“If you say so.”

Kiki was an atheist. I was raised Catholic. It was an interesting combination, to say the least.

“Hey, I’m sorry I woke you. I didn’t realize that I was being so loud.”

“It’s fine. I wasn’t sleeping well anyway. The new drugs give me weird dreams.”

“But, they’re keeping you alive, until they can find a way to safely operate on you, so there’s that.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m hungry. Make me breakfast woman.”

She chuckled. “You know that you only get away with saying that because I love you, right?”

I kissed her forehead. “Yup.”

“Good. Then, I’ll start breakfast.”

“Excellent.”

I wandered back to the bedroom and got dressed.

Sabotage? 

That kind of was a big deal. 

Why didn’t she tell me about this sooner? She had plenty of time since she returned from her research trip to tell me. Did she honestly think that it wasn’t that big of a problem? Or did she not want me to worry about it? 

It didn’t sit right with me.

Kiki had seemed a bit distracted for a few weeks after she came back, but I figured that it was just jet lag and the stress from getting her teaching lessons ready.

But, maybe it wasn’t.

Maybe she was worried about her project, and what it would do to the sea life.

I mean, I was no brilliant marine biologist working on getting a doctorate. I was a licensed plumber. I worked at the water treatment plant. But even I knew that just dumping experimental chemical compounds into the ocean wasn’t a good idea.

Plankton ingests that crap, bigger animals eat them, they in turn, are eaten by larger fish and so on. The substances build up in the larger fish’s bodies—like mercury for instance—and by the time we go to eat them, they are at toxic levels.
The ocean is a fine-tuned ecosystem.

Tip the scales too much in one direction, and there could be catastrophic results.

It was odd that she would keep this from me. Sure, Kiki kept secrets, but she always was upfront with me about things.

At least, I thought that she was, until now.

Made me wonder just what else she was keeping from me.

I sat on the couch and put my feet up on the coffee table while she started breakfast.

Bowser kept jumping on my chest, trying to lick my face. He wagged his tail, and bounced
everywhere, tongue lolling about and he tried to give me what Kiki affectionately called “kisses.”

Dog slobber was nasty.

“Ugh. Get down.” I pushed his stupid little butt until he jumped off the couch. “Kiki, where did you put the TV remote?”

“On the side table, with all of your other remotes.”

“Of course,” I muttered. “Why would I look anywhere else?”

She was in the kitchen, making pancakes. She loved making breakfast. Her cooking wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t the greatest, but it was edible.

“Did you find it?” she asked as she wiped her hands on a cute little frilly white apron with a pair of red lips on it that said KISS THE COOK.

If I wore it, it’d be hideous, but everything she wore looked super cute.

“Yeah. I found it. You don’t have to come over here.”

“You sure?” she asked and Bowser ran over to her and jumped on her leg until she reached down and picked him up. “Who’s a cutie patootie? You are, yes you are,” she said and kissed his nose.

He licked her face and she giggled.

“Hey, don’t let the pancakes burn.”

“Oh, fudge crackers,” she said and dropped Bowser and rushed back to the stove top and flipped the pancakes. “Crap!”

“Uh-huh.”

“Shut up. They’re fine. Just, a little over-done is all.”

“Whatever. You know that I’ll eat anything. I’m not picky.”

“You’re so sweet.”

The 8 o’clock morning news came on, and the reporter started talking.

“Hey, turn that up. I want to hear it.”

I turned up the volume on the TV.

The reporter stood outside the fence of the water treatment plant I worked at.

“Over the past few weeks, the CDC has received numerous calls from fishermen and medical officials of Sausautucket, New Jersey. A mysterious new disease is affecting the wildlife, and the townsfolk as well.”

“Oh no,” Kiki said. “It’s in the news now? How many people have come down with it?”

“No idea. I thought they were going to say something about the water treatment plant, but they were just using it as a back drop to start the segment. I was just about to call Frankie to tell him to check it out.”

A guy on the TV showed the reporter a sore on his arm. It was a red oval lesion, with a silvery blister bubble in the center.

“Yeah, I had three that burst on my back last night, and this one showed up this morning. The docs don’t know what to make of it. They just send me home with antibiotics, but they ain’t doing squat,” the man said.

“This is just one example of the strange, unidentifiable disease that’s affected the town of Sausautucket. While it does not appear life threatening, it is painful enough to send people to the hospital in droves. 

“Some locals think that it is linked to bacterial contamination of the water supply, and they have blamed the old filtration units of the water treatment plant, which is currently scheduled for renovation this fall. We asked Superintendent Franklin Kelly earlier, and he said that while the water company has no official stance on the matter, he assured me that the filtration units have all been tested by OSHA and are in healthy running conditions. Back to you, Jim.”

I turned down the TV.

“So no one knows what is causing it, huh?” Kiki asked.

“Nope. Not a clue.”

Bowser barked at her, ran over to the door and started scratching it.

“In a sec, puppy! Sheesh,” she said and took off the apron and threw it over the top of a chair.

“What about the pancakes?”

“Ugh! Just, flip them when they start to bubble. I’ll be back in a minute” she said, sliding on her sandals. She grabbed Bowser’s pink leash, hooked it to his collar and stepped out of the apartment.

I sighed and walked over to the kitchen.

She’s crazy if she thinks I won’t murder these things. I’m a horrible cook.

I grabbed the spatula and stood over the pan. I held it like a baseball bat and swung it over the stove.

Outside, Bowser growled and started barking. I heard Kiki shout at him to shut up, and he continued barking like a madman. He must've seen a squirrel or something.

The pancakes started to bubble.  I tried to flip them over, but they didn't turn and became a mushy pile of batter in the pan.

“Perfect pancakes every time,” I said, mocking that stupid infomercial they keep playing for the PERFECT PANCAKE MAKER. It’s just a waffle iron with the grid removed. Definitely not worth $29.95 plus shipping.

Bowser yelped.

Damn, that little dog is freaking loud. I wonder what he got into now?

I turned off the stove burner and slid the pancake lumps onto the plate. No way I could make anything edible. She could deal with it.

My phone beeped.

Kiki sent me a text that read, “COME OUTSIDE!!!!!”

Bowser probably got away from her again and was hiding underneath the apartment dumpster out back. He’s done that every time she took him out this week. The little bastard was obsessed with something he thought was under there.

Maybe he smelled a dead rat.

I put on my shoes and grabbed my keys, locking the door behind me before easing my way down the steps and out the side door of the apartment complex.

An ambulance streaked by with the siren wailing.

It was the third one this morning. Stupid tourists. There were always more ambulances out once tourist season started.

“Where are you chamo?”

“Over here! By the dumpster.”

Called it.

Kiki was squatting by the rusty green dumpster and poking at something with a short stick. Her blue ruffled mini-skirt hiked up high on her thighs. Her panties peeked out from under them. They matched the skirt and had delicate white lace trim around the edges.

Nice.

“Who you giving fan service to?” I asked and flipped up the back of her skirt.

Kiki reached back with one hand and pulled it down.

“No one. Jeez!”

“What are you doing down there? Helping Bowser fish for roaches?”

“No.”

“What then?”

She grinned at me.

“I found something.”

“Found what? Where’s Bowser?”

“I tied him to the tree over there so he wouldn’t get bit.”

“Bit by what?” I asked and tried to look around her.

“Wait a sec.” Kiki put out a hand to block me. “I want to take a picture and send this to Professor Glassner before it moves again.”

“Oh, the college guy? The one you're in love with? Didn’t you talk to him enough this morning?”

“No. Not him, the other one.”

“Oh. Him. I see. Carry on.”

I leaned against the dumpster as she took pictures.

“Okay Bam Bam, come here and check it out,” she said as she sent a text. “I want to see what Prof thinks it is. I've never seen anything like it before.”

I popped a squat next to her.

“So, what are we looking at exactly?”

“Some sort of marine creature I think.”

In front of the dumpster was a legless purple crab the size of a football. It was covered in a lumpy, pulsating pile of white slime.

The slime wiggled like Jell-O when she poked it with a stick.

“How did it get here?” I asked.

“A bird probably dropped it. Could’ve picked it up off the beach thinking it could eat it or something.”

“Stop messing with it, you’re going to piss it off.”

“I’m trying to observe its response to physical stimuli.”

“You’re poking it with a stick.”

“Don’t question me while I am performing the scientific method.”

“All right, have it your way.”

The creature chittered, and a crab leg unfolded up out the top center of the shell with a loud crack.
The leg batted the stick away.

“What the hell? What is that?” I asked, and took a step away from it.

“I don't know. Isn't that great? Becca, this could be a new marine species!”

“A mutant crab? I highly doubt it.”

“You lack imagination.” Her phone chimed and she looked at it. “Prof just texted me. He wants me to bring it to the lab. Help me find something to put it in.”

I spotted a piece of cardboard on the concrete grabbed it.

“Hey, why don't we use the dog carrier?  We’ll shove that thing into it with this, and zip it up tight. After we eat, you can drive it over to the lab and drop it off.”

“Good idea. You're the best Bam Bam.”

“Why do I get the feeling that I'm going to regret this?”

She leaned over and kissed me.

“I'll make sure that you won't. Here’s the car keys.”

I popped opened the back hatch of her Mini Cooper. I looked at the dog carrier and had second thoughts.

If that crab was covered in a nasty parasite or bacteria, and we couldn't clean it properly, it could infect Bowser.

Damn.

I shut the door, tossed the cardboard scrap aside and went back over to her.

Bowser was yipping and growling, bouncing back with each bark, digging up grass with his claws as he went.

“Shh! Bow-Bow. Be quiet.” Kiki pointed her finger at him. He ignored her and kept right on barking.

“Oh yeah. He's trained real good there, chamo.”

“Where’s the carrier? Did I forget it at my place?”

“No. It’s in there. But it’s not going to work.”

“Why not? It’s big enough, right?”

“No, that’s not the issue…Ugh. All this excitement is making me lightheaded. I’m getting dizzy.”
Kiki grabbed my arm and helped me over to sit on the back steps.

“Sit here a minute.”

“Thanks.”

I took a deep breath and waited for the world to stop spinning.

“As I was saying, for all we know, that thing could be infected with a nasty disease. If we put Bow-Bow in the carrier afterward, and we don’t clean it out well enough? He could get whatever it has and end up being dissected in a lab.”

“Crap. You’re right. I guess we need a box and something to scoop it up with.”

“Sure, let me just pull a shovel out of my ass and we'll pick it up.”

“The apartment complex has a snow shovel by the back door. We could use that.”

“Oh yeah. And maybe if you ask the complex manager nicely and show him your tits he’ll let you keep it.”

“Good idea. I’ll go find him now.”

“You're an idiot.”

“Well, you're the one who loves an idiot, so what does that make you?”

“The smart one in this relationship. Duh. Keep your shirt on and let me think a minute.”

She laughed.

Behind her, the weird crab quivered and shook.

“Oh neat,” Kiki said and walked back over to look at it.

“Hey, don’t get too close.”

Bowser whined. He sounded scared.

The slime coating shivered, then pulled tight against the crab’s body, and disappeared. Like it was rapidly absorbed.

Chamo, come back here, it could be dangerous,” I said and gently pulled her over to stand next to me.

There was a sharp bone-cracking sound. The shell shrank to about half its size, and ten crab legs popped up from the top and unfolded, pulling the remnants of the white jelly into strings as they parted open.

It was almost as if it had just made the legs out of its shell.

But…that wasn’t possible. Was it?

Madre de Dios,” I said and crossed myself.

Kiki grabbed my shoulders and hid behind me, using my body as a shield as we watched it move.
The legs were all over, sticking up at odd angles on the top and sides of its body. They twitched and stretched out, tentatively touching the asphalt. They weren’t in the right spots for it to walk with them; some barely reached the ground, others were at awkward angles that would not support its weight.

“What is that?” I whispered.

“I don’t know.”

As we stood and stared, the base sockets of the legs were pushed out of the crab body by tiny orange roots. Like weird alien tentacles, the roots walked the legs, sockets and all, down to the sides of the shell, where they wriggled and burrowed back into the body.

“It has free-floating legs. How is that possible?” she asked.

“No clue. You're the marine biologist. You tell me.”

Kiki shoved her phone past my head to record a video as it stood up and took slow, measured, jerking steps towards Bowser.

There was no telling what it would do if it got a hold of him.

I had to stop it with something before anyone got hurt.

There was an empty milk crate sitting by the back door. The ground was littered with cigarette butts, so it had to be our downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Waters. She liked to sit when she smoked.

“Stay here. Don't let that thing get close to you,” I said.

“And what are you going to do?”

“Save your stupid dog before he gets eaten.”

I walked towards the back door, my head pounding with the start of one hell of a migraine.
Kiki picked up the stick she was poking it with earlier and tossed it at the crab. It startled, pulled all its legs close, then made a strange angry hissing sound.

“Kiki!”

“What?”

“Why did you do that? You’re pissing it off.”

“I had to see if its eyes worked the same way as a normal crab’s.”

“Do they?”

“Yes. Its eyes can sense motion by detecting changes in light and shadows,” she said. “If you don’t move fast, it won’t see you.”

“Like the T-Rex in JURASSIC PARK, right? It can't see me if I'm standing still?”

“Yup. Exactly like that.”

I took a step and waited.

The crab inched toward me.

I took another step and stopped.

It did the same.

The distance between myself and that thing was longer than the distance to the back door. If I timed it right, I could make it to the milk crate just before the mutant crab reached me.

Keeping my eyes on it, I took slow, long strides on shaking legs over to the crate.

With each step, it moved closer to me.

“Be careful Becca.”

“I got this. Just stay calm.”

 When I was an arm's length away I rushed for the crate. The crab skittered fast towards me; its legs digging into the asphalt, scraping deep white lines as it went.

I snatched up the milk crate and slammed it over the creature just as it tried to spear me with a leg.
The crab grunted and squeaked. Long, black needle-sharp quills popped out of the top of its shell.  I pulled my hands away before it could stick me with them.

I snatched the large rock Mrs. Peters used to prop open the back door and set it on the milk crate, anchoring it in place, and stepped back.

The crab stopped quivering. The needles pulled back into its body, which then turned a threatening bright red.

“Holy crap! It has chromatophores too?” Kiki shouted.

“It has what now?”

“Skin cells that let octopi and chameleons change their skin color.”

“Ah.”

One of its front legs cracked loudly as it elongated and doubled in size. A set of finger-length, mottled lilac pincers formed on the end.

The pincered leg touched the milk crate in different spots like it was exploring the points to find where the bars intersected on the sides.

“Are you okay?” Kiki asked. “You’re shaking pretty bad.”

“Yeah. I’m fine. It didn’t get me.”

“You sure?”

“I’m good. Really, I’m fine.”

She picked up Bowser and carried him over.

“Oh man. This is so scary, and yet so cool.”

“Chamo, that thing tried to attack us. Why are you happy about it?”

“Because it's unique. We're looking at what could be an entirely new species of animal. It’s exciting!”

“And that's a good thing?” I asked, eying it cautiously.

“Yes. Because we discovered it.”

“You know, if you take it to the college, the science department heads will get all the credit for it.”

“No, they won't. They’re not like that.”

Bowser wriggled, trying to break free from her arms, and she held him tighter.

“You kidding? That's the way the world works. You're the lowly peasant. You get no credit.”

“Boo. But, we should still take it to Professor Glassner. We need to study this. It could be super important. I mean, what if you're right and it has a contagious disease that we've never seen before?”

I sighed.

“Fine. But we're going to need something better than a milk crate to carry it. I have an empty storage tub upstairs. That should hold it. We can throw it out when we’re done. I’ll go get it.”

“You sure you want to run up and grab it? I mean, I could do it for you. You can stay here, and watch Bow-Bow and the crab.”

“I’ll be fine. We’re on the second floor. I'll only be a few minutes, tops. Just don't let anyone near it. Tell them it's poisonous or something.”

“Okay. Be careful Bam Bam. Don’t run on the stairs and fall and hurt your head. I’d hate to have to take you to the hospital again.”

“I’ll be careful, promise,” I said and went inside, going up the stairs as fast as I dared, gripping the handrail to support myself.

She was right, the last thing I needed was to fall and crack my head open.

I opened my door and rushed inside, leaving the keys in the lock and the door wide open. With shaking hands, I grabbed the empty clear storage tub, made sure that the lid would seal tight and locked the door.

I double-checked to make sure I had my keys, then rushed down the stairs. I didn’t hear Mrs. Waters walking up to her apartment and ran right into her, then bounced my hip on the end of the rail and caught myself before I fell and smacked my head on the floor.

“Damn it.”

“Oh my!  I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?” she asked, and took my arm with a pudgy hand to help steady me. Her floral mumu dress was a wall of powder blue fabric with large tropical flowers sticking their tongues out at the world. It was lurid, yet kitschy at the same time.

“Thanks. No, I’m not hurt. Sorry about that. I’m kind of in a hurry.”

“Oh? Where's the fire?”

“At your mom's,” I said and she laughed as I stepped outside.

Kiki stood there, holding the doggy carrier—now with Bowser inside—watching the crab with wide eyes.

“Did you turn off the stove?” she asked.

“Yeah. I did that before I came out.”

 “Cool. You know, I have to admit, this is rather unsettling. Something’s really off about this thing. I don't like how quickly its body changed. I mean, those needles weren't there before. They weren't hiding in the mess of silver mucous or its lumpy shell. It made its legs and those quills in response to feeling threatened by us. Crabs can't change their bodies like that. It's just not natural.”

“You’re right. They don’t. Go pull your car up. I’ll  put the crab in this and we’ll head straight to the college.”

“Sure,” she said and got into her car. She backed it out of the parking spot and pulled up beside the dumpster.

I stepped over to the milk crate.

While I was gone, two of the crab legs had moved closer to the front and had turned into serrated half-claws.  They were sawing through the plastic arms of the crate’s grid.

Kiki rolled down her window and popped open the passenger side door.

“When did it get those?” I asked.

“Just now, I think.”

“Wonderful. Just give me a sec and I’ll scoop it up.”

Kiki nodded and gripped the steering wheel tight.

She was nervous.

So was I.

“This is loco. Why am I doing this?” I asked myself as I slowly walked up to the crate.
I slowly tilted one end of the milk crate up and slid the tub lid under it. The crab legs lifted to allow the lid to slide under its body.

I did this once with a spider I caught in a glass cup on the table. I had slipped a piece of paper under the rim of the glass and kept pushing it across. The spider calmly walked onto the paper, just as the crab was doing now with the plastic lid.

Once the lid was completely under the crab, I flipped the tub upside-down and set it over the milk crate. I pushed down and snapped it into the lid, securely shutting the crate and the strange crab inside.

I carefully lifted up the tub, still holding it upside down, and walked it over to the car.

“This thing is heavier than it looks. Be careful,” I said as I handed her the tub.

“Whoa. You weren't kidding. How much do you think it weighs?”

“Off the top of my head? Probably 25 pounds or so.”

“Wow.”

I got into the passenger seat, buckled the seat belt, and took the tub from her.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Let’s do this.”

Kiki backed up fast, kicking up gravel as she turned her Mini Cooper around and drove out onto the main road.

I could almost hear the gears turning in her head. It was like she couldn’t decide if she should be excited or scared about all of this.

“This is just, incredible. I mean, this is really, really exciting stuff here.”

“I don't know, something isn't right about all of this.”

“Why? Because it's exhibiting behavior never before observed in animal life on Earth?”

“Yes. That's exactly why I think that. It's unnatural. It is of el Diablo.”

“Oh, no. Don't go getting all superstitious on me now.”

“I can't help it. I'm Latina. Catholicism is in my blood.”

“Right. How silly of me to forget,” she said and pulled onto the street that led to the community
college.

Bowser whined from inside of his carrier on the backseat.

“See? Even your dog doesn’t trust that thing.”

“Oh, Bow-Bow whines like that every time I take him in the car. That’s normal.”

“If you say so.”

Plastic snapped inside the tub, making me jump.

“What was that?” she asked.

“It’s breaking the crate apart.”

Kiki whistled. “Aggressive little bugger, huh? Here, text Professor Glassner and tell him we’ll be
there in a few minutes.”

She handed me her phone and I looked at her funny.

“What?”

“I hate your phone, it’s retarded.”

“Is not. You’re just an iThingie hater.”

“Whatever.”

I figured out what app to hit and selected Professor Glassner from the list and sent him a text.

He replied right away with,“Meet me at the back door.”

“He said to meet him at the back door, and to leave your panties in the car.”

“He did not. Shut up.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I think someone’s prof is a pervert.”

“Idiot. Give me the phone.”

I handed it to her and she glanced at the text and gave me a look.

“You are so stupid.”

“You should know better than to believe me when I say things like that.”

“I guess so.”

Kiki parked the car next to the side door of the marine sciences building.

“Hold on, I’ll get the door for you,” she said, and came around the side and popped open the car door. I gave her the tub so that I could climb out of her little clown car, and then took it from her.

Kiki grabbed Bowser's carrier from the backseat.

“Leave him.”

“I can’t. It’s too hot to leave him in the car.”

“Fine. Whatever. Let’s go, this is getting heavy. I probably shouldn’t even be carrying it.”
She gave me an apologetic look and we walked towards the faculty entrance, where Professor
Glassner opened the door and let us in.

“This way ladies, we’ll take it to the lab.”

He ushered us to his classroom.

Kiki held the door for me and I walked inside.

“Set it down over here please,” he said and I gently placed the tub on the lab table.

The professor locked his door and then lowered all the window blinds.

“It's not a gremlin, prof. It's not going to burn up in sunlight or anything,” I said.

“Can't have prying eyes looking at this before we get to study it in detail. There's no way I'm letting
Doctor Collins get the credit for this.”

He brushed back his thinning brown hair with a hand and straightened his rumpled lab coat.
That coat seriously needed bleaching, and his old worn Oxford shoes slid over the tiled floor as he walked. Not exactly the safety oriented type. In fact, he looked like the type to forget about important, dangerous things.

I gave Kiki a look. She grinned sheepishly and shrugged. She liked Professor Glassner.

She trusted him.

Silly girl.

“Kiki, you didn’t introduce us,” he said.

“This is my friend, Rebecca Espinoza. Everyone calls her Becca. Becca, this is Professor Glassner.”

“I kind of figured,” I said.

“Oh, you must be the one that was in the hospital that she was telling me about the other day. How has the medication been working for you?”

“Excuse me?”

“You have a brain hemorrhage condition. What’s it called?” He snapped his fingers. “Cerebral cavernous malformation. That’s the name of it right?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

“Ah. Kiki didn’t say that it was a sensitive subject for you. Forgive me for bringing it up.”

“Oh, it’s nothing. It just killed my mom and aunt. It’s not a big deal at all.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. You know, you could sign up for a new trial drug they’re testing for it. It could help with some of the symptoms.”

“I’m fine. Thanks.”

My heart was pounding.

I was pissed.

Son of a bitch. 

Kiki told him I was sick. 

She promised me she wouldn’t tell anyone.

Not only that, but she said that she wasn’t going to lie about us anymore. And she introduced me as a friend?

A friend?

Unbelievable.

The room tilted a foot to the right and I grabbed onto the edge of the lab table to steady myself. If I got too mad, and my blood pressure spiked, I could be in serious trouble.

I took a deep breath and tried to calm down.

“What’s wrong?” Kiki asked.

“Nothing. Just dizzy. I’m going to sit over here until we go if you don’t mind.”

“Sure.”

I hopped up on a stool, leaned my back against the lab table and waited for the room to stop spinning.

She told him about my illness, but not that we were dating? 

I thought that I was used to it, but I wasn't.

Kiki still hasn’t told anyone that she’s gay. No one she went to school with or worked with knew about us. 

Besides, wasn’t she going to “turn over a new leaf” and let people know the truth about her? About us?

Fucking figures. 

She isn’t ever going to change, is she?

“Well then, let’s open this up and take a look at what we’ve got here,” Glassner said and popped off the tub lid.

“Be careful,” Kiki warned. “It reacts fast. It’s surprisingly agile. And it keeps physically adapting its body to new stimuli.”

“Adapting. In what way?”

“Growing legs and quills out of nowhere,” I said.

“Really? I find that highly implausible.”

“Whether you believe it or not Professor, that thing is hyper adaptive. I’ve never seen a marine animal change its body so drastically in such a short amount of time. It’s almost as though it came into contact with something that’s forcing its body to change.”

They exchanged a look that made me uneasy.

They knew something and they weren't telling me about it.

But why?

He stood close to her as he removed the tub.

Bowser whined and I took the carrier from Kiki.

“Oh, thanks, Becca.”

“Sure,” I said and put it on the lab table next to me.

Bowser looked around, sniffed the air, his pointed ears moving this way and that as he tried to figure out where he was now.

I looked at him and whispered, “I hope that thing bites him. You?”

He sneezed in reply.

I was pretty sure that meant yes.

Glassner put the tub on the side of the lab table and whistled.

The serrated half-claw legs were busy sawing apart the thick plastic rungs on the milk crate.
Bits of the black plastic was covering the top of the crab in places like spikes of armor. It looked like it removed the rungs and shoved them into its shell.

“What in the world are you?” he asked and squatted down so that he was eye-level with the table and looked at the mouths on its underside. “Mandibles and chelipeds on the abdomen? I wonder if they all lead to its stomach or if they’re vestigial?”

“Who knows?” I said. “You got a cage or a tank that thing can fit in? You don’t want it roaming around here. It’ll tear this place apart.”

“Good point. There’s a spare tank next door. I’ll go grab it,” he said and stepped out of the room.

 Kiki stood there, watching the crab as it cut the milk crate apart.

“That plastic crate is thick. It’s hard to bend or cut through,” she said.

“Yup. That’s why I grabbed it.”

“So, how is it ripping it apart so quickly?”

I eased off the stool and stood by her. “Those claws, they look crazy sharp.”

“They do. There’s metal lining them now. They’re like serrated knives or a saw. Holy crap dude, this is insane.”

I pointed.

“Check it, there’s a mouth on the front now.”

It looked like the main mouth of the crab, except the mandibles were longer with hooked ends. It looked more like a squid's beak than a crab's mandibles.

“Whoa. That looks super dangerous.”

“It didn’t before? What are you, stupid?”

“No. What’s your problem?”

“I have a killer headache and I’m hungry,” I said as Glassner came back in carrying a large fish tank with a metal lid.

He set it down on the table.

“This is reinforced fiberglass,” he said, rapping his knuckles against the side of the tank. “I got it last year when a student was studying mantis shrimp. Those things can hit the bottoms of tanks so hard, they crack the glass.”

“Damn. That’s impressive.”

“They’re very interesting creatures. The lid clamps down on it, so the crab will have a difficult time pushing it up and off it.”

“What do you think it eats?” Kiki asked.

“Miniature Pinschers,” I said and she hit my arm.

“I would hazard to guess that it would consume what other crabs in the area eat. What beach did you find this on?” he asked.

“Um. We didn’t find it at the beach. It was outside Becca’s apartment building, hiding by the dumpster.”

“Eating the concrete,” I added.

“Eating…the concrete?” he said and raised an eyebrow.

“Seriously?” Kiki asked.

“Yup. There’s a hole in it now. I noticed it as we were driving away. It cut a disk clean out of the parking lot.”

“That’s bizarre. I’d love to see it. Got a picture of it?”

“No,” Kiki said. “We thought it best to come straight here. I’ll take a picture and send it to you when
we get back.”

“Good idea. I’m going to go grab some Kevlar gloves and then we’ll gently slide the specimen into the tank. Becca, would you mind helping Kiki move the tank onto a pair of stools and holding it steady while we transfer it?”

“Only if I get gloves too,” I said and he shot me a look. “What? You want me to catch something nasty from it? I’m not getting that close without some sort of protection on my hands.”

“Becca has a point,” Kiki said. “Its legs are quite long. For all we know, it can hyper-extend them and hit us as we try to move it.”

Glassner stood there, watching the crab for a moment.

“You’re right. I’ll get three pairs.”

He walked over to the closet in the lab and pulled out three metal meshed gloves and gave us both a pair to put on.

“I thought you said these were Kevlar,” I said while sliding them on.

“They’re Kevlar-lined steel mesh gloves. We use them to handle sharks.” Kiki flexed her fingers in her gloves. “Bring that stool over here, will you?”

I picked up the stool and placed it next to the one she grabbed from another lab table. We picked up the fish tank and set it on them.

Kiki took off the lid and tipped it on its side.

“You hold that, and as soon as that thing gets in here, put it on,” I said and Kiki nodded.

“We’ll tip the tank upright after we’ve secured it,” Glassner said.

“Yup. Let’s do this,” I said and held the tank steady.

Glassner took a deep breath. “Right,” he said and held his hands awkwardly over the crab. It stopped ripping off a piece of the bottom of the tub and all of the clawed legs raised upward towards his hand and started snapping at him.

“Oh my,” he said. “Uh…”

I sighed.

“Put your hands down. It follows motion. Just grab the end of the tub lid and slide it over, like you said you were going to do in the first place.”

“Yes. I did say that, didn’t I?”

“Yup.”

Kiki watched, her eyes wide. “Be careful Prof.”

“Always,” he said. “All right. On three. One. Two. Three.”

He shoved the lid off the lab table and into the huge tank. The large crab skittered up the lid and onto Glassner’s arm. He cried out, startled as it pinched his lab coat and tried to rip it off of him. Without thinking I grabbed the back of the crab and yanked it off and shoved it into the tank.

Kiki slammed the lid down and locked the clasps in place.

“Bam Bam, your gloves.”

My hands were bare.

The gloves were gone.

I looked at the tank.

My gloves were stuck to the sides of the crab.

“I did not mean to do that.”

“No harm in it,” Glassner said.

There were a few rips in his lab coat sleeves, but no blood. It didn’t look like it hurt him.

“Are you two uninjured?”

“I’m fine,” Kiki said.

“It didn’t get me. It just stole my gloves.”

“But your hands,” Glassner said. “They’re scraped up.”

I looked at them. Scrapes ran over the tops of my hands.

They started to ooze little droplets of blood.

“Huh. That’s weird.”

“We should clean those out, just in case,” Kiki said and she grabbed my arm and walked me over to the sink.

Glassner brought the first aid kit and she washed out the scrapes on my hands.

“Does it hurt?” she asked.

“No. Should it?”

“I dunno. Just asking.”

“It’s fine,” I said and pulled my hands away. “I think I can handle washing my hands. Go help lover boy finish whatever it is you need to do to study it and let’s go home. I’m starving.”

“Um, sure,” she said, looking a little upset.

Whatever. She’s the one that’s lying to everyone about us. She has no right to be mad at me.
I finished washing my hands and dried them. I put a couple of bandages on the biggest scrapes.

It should've stung like a bitch, but it didn't hurt at all.

Was this a new symptom of my illness? Or was there something else wrong with me?

I sat and watched them move the tank with the crab onto a wheeled cart.

“I’m taking the next few days off, so I’m not going to leave this here. I’ll take it home to study it,” Glassner said.

“Are you sure? I mean, what if it’s dangerous?” Kiki asked.

“I’ve worked with dangerous marine animals in the past. I’ll be fine,” he said. Sweat was beading up on his forehead.

“You okay there Prof?” I asked. “You’re looking a bit pale.”

“I’m fine. It was just nerve wracking there for a moment.”

“Do you think it could be poisonous?” she asked.

“A poisonous crab? Highly doubtful,” he said and poured a little bit of water into the tank. The crab grunted and squeaked and pulled some of its legs of the sides of the tank and put them in the water.

“There you go, little guy. I’ll get you some food in a moment.”

He talked to it.

And I thought that my girlfriend was weird.

This dude was a fruitcake.

Kiki walked up to me and took my hands gently.

“Thanks for helping. We’ll be done soon.”

 I pulled away from her. “Take your time. Don’t mind me.”

“What’s with the attitude?”

“Nothing. Just hurry up so we can leave. I’m starving.”

I ended up waiting half an hour as Kiki helped Professor Glassner load up some science tools and junk into his Jeep. I just sat there at the lab table, with my head resting on my arm.

I must've fallen asleep because Kiki startled me when she touched me.

“Hey. You okay?”

“Fine. You done yet?”

“We just need your help putting the tank into the back of the Jeep.”

I sighed. “All right.”

I followed her out the side door and into the faculty parking lot.

Glassner stood next to the tank, watching the crab.

It had ripped off one of its arms, which was now coated in a layer of metal, and was scraping the bottom of the tank with its coarse-toothed edge.

The only thing that remained of my gloves were the rubber cuff threads. They were in a discarded pile in a corner of the tank.

“This is just absolutely fascinating,” he said.

“Yeah. Sure is,” I said and walked over. “What do you want me to do?”


Read more here.