Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Laughing God, Pt.4

I took the sculpture into my house, set it atop the bookshelf it had squatted on during the party. “Well!” I said aloud, trying to sound as normal as possible. There’s something funny about putting on a show for yourself like that. “Well! You’re ugly as sin, but it would be damned rude of me to throw out little Joseph Kerr’s dying gift to me, wouldn’t it? Yes, very rude, very rude indeed.” I grinned, trying to match the sculpture’s expression, to exceed it. “At least, it would be rude to throw you away so soon after his death. Maybe in a week or two, I’ll put you in a box and bury you in the closet. You can sit there for a few months, at the bottom of a cardboard box I’ll fill with old clothes and shoes, and then I’ll take you to a second-hand store and be done with you. Won’t that be nice?”

It seems so pathetic now, so pathetic it’s laughable. There I was, talking to an inanimate object. At best, I was trying to calm myself, to project a facade of normalcy that I could hide behind and believe in. At worst, I was trying to threaten and intimidate the lifeless avatar of a diseased and disturbed 18-year-old brain.

Such madness. Such arrogance. No wonder it punished me for my behavior. Its expression never wavered, here a genteel father chuckling at a child’s foolishness, there a ravening maniac giggling at the squirming of an insect being actively dismembered. I stood there, crossed my arms, snorted, and went to bed. As if it were some kind of victory. How absurd.

* * *

The weekend passed uneventfully. So much so, in fact, that I almost forgot the feeling of dread I had when I’d first seen the the sculpture sitting idly in the lobby of my apartment building. It’s presence in my living room didn’t seem foreboding, seemed to carry no more weight than any other decoration I might have put up for display and then promptly forgot about. I worked on my book some, feeling intellectually invigorated for the first time in half a month. I spent time with Sheila. I made efforts to reconnect with my colleagues and peers and graduate students after the disastrous party some weeks back. My life was going normally, and everything was as it should have been, and I was even looking forward to Monday’s staff meeting in a way, to the familiarity of being bored out of my mind while the department head talked about our goals for the upcoming academic year, changes in university policy, et cetera, et cetera.

Monday morning, my car wouldn’t start. It had been fine the day before. I was late to the meeting, as I attempted to take public transit (the university being not especially far from my home, although inconvenient to bus to and unbearable to walk to under the broiling summer sun) and found myself missing every bus by a matter of mere seconds. In the end, I resorted to a cab, only to find myself paying an astronomical fare due to sitting helpless in traffic caused by an accident. A trip that should have taken me fifteen minutes took an hour and a half, all told. Thankfully I had planned on being on campus well in advance of the meeting, and so was only late rather than missing it completely, but that did not prevent the department head from chastising me in front of the other faculty.

I sat in the faculty room for some time after everyone else had left, fuming at my terrible luck. Sheila came in after some time and asked why I had been late. I related the whole string of events to her, and she comforted me in her playful, teasing way. “Wow. Well, hey, you should feel special. It’s nice to know God has it out for you, no?”

She laughed softly at her joke, but my breath caught in her throat as I remembered the statue sitting, awaiting my return.

We had difficulty finding Sheila’s keys the morning of the party. A minor annoyance, one that only wasted our time. The party had escalated out of control. That was more troubling, inviting trouble from a humorless colleague or a police officer called by an irritated neighbor. Still nothing major, but with larger consequences than a mere wasted afternoon.

And then Kara sliced her finger off.

I hadn’t been able to look any of my colleagues except for Sheila in the face since. I had been unable to bring myself to prepare any kind of a meal on the cutting board where it had happened. I threw out the knife she used. The statue presiding over it all, looking down on us, laughing, laughing.

And now this ruined day. Was this just the beginning of something larger? Who else was going to get hurt?

I was suddenly, painfully aware that my mouth was dry. I turned to Sheila, smiled weakly. “Some luck, hm?”

She rubbed my back, mussed my hair. “Do you need a ride home?”

Images of a car smashing into Sheila’s, reducing us to paste. Her staying over after dropping me off, having one too many drinks with me over dinner, crashing into a telephone pole. A thousand things going wrong, all of them ending in death and destruction and cackling echoing into the dead of night.

“No. No, thank you,” I said, that fake smile affixed so firmly to my face. “I think I’ll walk.”

She blinked. That wasn’t the answer she had been expecting. It wasn’t an answer that made any sense. “It’s no trouble, really. I don’t mind. Maybe we could make dinner together. Watch a movie or something.”

I shook my head, still smiling. “No, not tonight. I… I have work I need to do. In fact, I should go to my office. Get cracking. Books don’t publish themselves, you know.”

I stood up, effectively ending the conversation. She said nothing as I all but ran from the room and locked myself in my tiny office, so much like the cell of a monk, where I sat for the next three hours, staring blankly at the wall.

* * *

The walk back was uneventful. On another night, it might almost have been pleasant, the oppressive heat of the day mellowing into a pervasive warmth at night. But my mind was elsewhere, watching every car, standing well back from the curbs at stoplights, recoiling from every stranger I passed. Halfway along the walk, a thought occurred to me; why should I expect harm to befall me? After all, it had been Kara who had suffered at the party, not I. Suppose that I would see something horrible happen to a stranger on the street. Would that not be traumatizing in its own right? To see a man taken down by an errant car on the other side of the road and know that that could have been me, perhaps should have been me? I began walking faster. The sooner I was in my own apartment, the more certain I could be of my safety, of the safety of those around me.

But being in my apartment brought me no peace. I opened the front door and turned on the light in the hallway, only to immediately regret my decision. What had I accomplished other than announce my presence to the thing?

I shook my head. A little paranoia that the universe was out to get me was, perhaps, inevitable. An unfortunate side-effect of sentience. To believe that a statue created by a suicidal ex-student of mine was actively plotting against me was inexcusably insane. I took a deep breath. I strode into the living room. I walked right up the statue. I told myself that it’s eyes were not more shut, more of its mouths closed than before, as if it were regarding me with complete confidence. I told myself that my reason for opting not to throw it away was because doing so would be giving into irrational fear, not because I was afraid it would reenter my life all the more eager to amuse itself at my expense.

* * *

The next morning brought further injury. The mechanical failure in my car would be expensive to fix and would likely take a few days while the shop awaited the parts, leaving me without a vehicle for the first week of school. I locked myself out of my apartment, necessitating calling a locksmith and spending still more money. But the next day was fine, and the one after that. I was almost ready to attribute Monday’s misfortune to sheer bad luck.

And then, I was mugged.

It happened on the walk home. The bus ride to the university that morning was fine, if a bit crowded. The first day of classes passed by uneventfully, my sessions filled mainly with terrified freshmen and a handful of sophomores. I spent some time in my office going over my syllabi and socializing with those professors and graduate students that I had not spoken to over the summer. At seven o’clock, I left campus and begin the walk back to my apartment. By seven-fifteen, a man in dirty clothes with a ski mask pulled over his face and a gun in his hand was demanding my wallet. I complied, having no way to defend myself.

I walked home in a sort of fugue state. I don’t remember much of anything else from that night. I woke up in the middle of the night on the floor in my living room, still dressed in the clothes I had worn that day. A kitchen knife, grabbed in self defense, I believe, clutched in my hand, a few shallow scratches from the blade on my arms and my hands. The statue above me, its eyes little more than slits, its lips curled up in impish delight.

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The Laughing God, Pt. 3

The hour or so after that is fragmentary in my mind. Snippets of memory without direct context. Ted Cranston smirking and saying it was all fun and games until someone lost a finger; then it was a great party. Mark Williams quietly but forcefully chastizing me for letting things get so out of hand (to which I vaguely recall telling him that if he didn’t like my parties, he was welcome to walk out the door and go fuck himself, in whatever order he liked.) Various people helping to clean up in the wake of the accident, although they mostly picked up empty cups and discarded napkins, leaving me to wipe down the blood myself. A female graduate student whose name I never bothered to learn fainting dead away, comically landing on the couch, her body bouncing in such a way that her legs swung up and came to rest on my coffee table.

And Sheila. Sweet, considerate Sheila. I can see her in my mind’s eye, tending to Kate’s wounds, holding her sobbing friend close as they rode to the emergency room together in the back of Nicole Smith’s car (the only designated driver to not immediately grab their drunken wards and leave when things got bloody, God bless her.) They kept Kate overnight, of course, and I was alone by the time Nicole dropped Sheila back off.

She entered the apartment to find my sitting on the couch, trash bags scattered about, the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes, the unspeakable idol sitting on the coffee table, facing me, mocking me. Sheila didn’t say a word; she simply walked over to me, sat down on the couch, and put her head on my shoulder.

We sat there in silence for a little while, when finally took my arm and wrapped it around herself. “I’m sorry,” she said. I realized then that she thought I was deliberately ignoring her, that I blamed her for what had happened. I wasn’t.

I was staring at the statue.

Still, I was able to shake myself from my thoughts. “It’s okay,” I told her. “It’s not your fault.”

“This whole thing was my idea. I should have known that it would get out of hand, that–”

I pulled her close and rested my head against her own. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t give Kate the knife. You didn’t tell her to drink that much. No one did. We can’t sit here and blame ourselves or blame each other for how the night went. Sometimes things just happen.” My gaze began to slowly drift back towards the statue. Had it really shifted position earlier in the evening? I remembered that it looked like it was actively laughing at the pain and suffering and confusion unfolding around it. Now it seemed to have the at same air of quiet, cynical amusement it had when I’d first pulled it out of the cardboard box Joseph had packed it in.

Sheila must have felt the movement of my head, because she began staring at the statue as well. “That thing’s creepy,” she said. “You should get rid of it.”

I licked my lips. A similar, albeit much harsher, had occurred to me an hour earlier. “It’s funny,” I said. “Joseph Kerr sculpted this thing and wound up taking his own life. I bring it into my house, and Kate Powers slicers her finger clean off.” I chose my next words very carefully. “It’s almost like the thing is bad luck.”

That was not what I truly believed, but it was close enough.

“I didn’t think you believed in luck.”

I didn’t. “I’m just saying. It’s funny is all.”

Sheila looked at the statue, at those lazily drooping red eyes, at the grotesque body, at the hideous expression which seemed to be relishing a lavish dinner while greedily eyeing dessert. “I don’t think it’s very funny at all.”

* * *

I went into my office on campus the next day despite not really needing to. I simply didn’t want to be in the house, and the work I had to do could be done just as easily there as in my own home. On my way out of the apartment, I saw fit to put the sculpture back into its box and throw the thing into a trash can in the lobby. Good riddance, I thought to myself.

I was unproductive at the office, due in equal parts to a lingering hangover and a sort of general restlessness. My thoughts wouldn’t organize themselves into any kind of meaningful order, and I found myself spending more time imagining the heyoka’s antics that actually thinking about them in any constructive manner. I daydreamed. I doodled in a notebook. My thoughts slowly shifted from the idle to the absurd. I wondered that one Sioux chief had used the words heyoka and destroyer interchangably. I wondered who would win in an arm-wrestling contest between Coyote and Anansi (Anansi, obviously. Eight arms against two, perhaps four? No contest.) At one point, I closed my eyes and put my head upon my desk and dreamed of Thunderbird calling to me with blood red eyes.

Needless to say, I got no work done that day.

This trend continued for about a week, until finally I gave up. I began finding excuses to leave my office, going on walks to “clear my head” or patronizing restaurants and bars during the day to enjoy them before the students returned. Sheila and I often ate lunch together, which was always a pleasant experience. I gave some thought to syllabi for the coming semester, but that was often no more productive than trying to work on my book. Finally, I began eschewing the office all together in favor of spending more time in the hills and valleys around the campus. I’d spend hours hiking around under the hot August sun, seldom meeting other travelers, as they either had jobs or the good common sense to stay indoors. But it brought me some measure of pleasure and being alone outside was soothing. I reasoned that it was necessary to enjoy my freedom while I still could. Soon my hand would be forced; students would return and meetings would become more common and other faculty members would begin wondering when I had gone from diligently working in my office to avoiding it at all costs.

I came home that Friday night feeling a certain wistfulness for the impending end of the summer, a feeling I hadn’t experienced once in the nearly fifteen years since I’d been an undergraduate student. There was something bittersweet in being able to feel such a thing, I thought, and ultimately, I was content. I was pleased to exist, pleased with the state of my life.

I stepped into the lobby of my apartment, and there sat the sculpture on a bench by the mailboxes, squat and corpulent and sneering.

* * *

Even now, I don’t quite know what to think. It was in the trash! In a closed box in the trash! I can hear my mother’s voice in my head. “Well, surely it didn’t just get out of the trash can and walk there!” No, but surely no one saw the thing and was so overwhelmed by curiosity that they felt the need to open it and examine its contents. Surely no one saw the statue and thought, “My God, who could throw something like this away? I’ll take it for myself!” Surely no such individual then, after more than a week had passed, decided that taking the statue had been a mistake and opted to gently place it atop a bench for all to see rather than remand it back to the trash where they found it?

And yet, I suspect that that is almost exactly what happened. The large box sticking out of the can haphazardly piqued just the right person’s interest. They opened it, were so struck by what they saw, that they had no choice but to take it into their apartment and examine it further. They sat there, pondering the ghastly thing, disgusted and intrigued by it in equal measure. Doubtless they didn’t have my academic background, but perhaps they felt something familiar in the figure’s ghastly form, familiar but corrupt. They let it sit in their living room, on a bookshelf, atop a coffee table, anywhere, and it presided over their day-to-day affairs like the petty deity that it was.

And then it began to slowly, insidiously ruin them.

It began small at first. Keys that couldn’t be found when one desperately needed to leave the house. A stubbed toe. Oversleeping an alarm. Petulant practical jokes. But it escalated, and quickly. Soon plans were falling through, bosses were screaming, children getting injured at school. Phone calls in the dead of night. Optimism slowly being squeezed out of the soul in the unremitting grasp of a cold, uncaring universe. Within a week’s time, they could take no more. Coincidence had become bad luck had become malice, and as insane as it seemed, it all began when the statue was taken into their home, this ugly, laughing thing. So they did the only thing they could think to: they discarded and prayed they would never see it again and began the process of telling themselves it was all in their head.

A stranger took the statue into their home, and it began to ruin them. I am sure this is what happened. I know it is.

I know because that is what the hideous thing has done to me.


A Question for the Readers

Thomas here. So, as you may have inferred from the title, I’ve got a question for you. First, some context.

On Monday, March 19th, I started working. My first real, consistent job in seven months. Thank. Freaking. God. But working a 9 to 5 (a 10:30 to 7:30, actually) has given me less time to devote to the blog.

No, no. Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. But as you may have noticed, the posts have been shorter this week and coming out later than usual. Before now, I had spent a few days working on each post (albeit with most of the work being done on the day the post actually went live.) Now, almost all of the work is being done when I get home from my job with just some notes and outlines composed during the off days. Consequently, I feel like the quality of my writing may have suffered for it. I don’t know if it actually has. I’m not the most objective judge of my own work, and today marks the first large chunk of free time I’ve really had to sit down and edit.

I woke up a few hours ago and after tossing and turning in a futile effort to get back to sleep, I thought to myself, “Well, maybe I’ll just print out ‘The Laughing God’ thus far, edit it, make the changes to the appropriate posts, and try to go back to sleep.” And then I had a moral conflict.

To anyone who follows video game news, I’m sure you’re familiar with the controversy over Bioware’s latest release, Mass Effect 3. To those who aren’t, here’s the issue in a nutshell. Imagine if, back when Return of the Jedi had come out, George Lucas had turned the last twenty minutes of the movie into the last twenty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fans of the game went apeshit, decried the ending as an insult, and demanded that Bioware release a new ending for the game. Over the course of a week, Bioware went from telling the fans they stood by their writers to saying that they would definitely take feedback into consideration to saying “Hey, guess what? New ending coming soon! Details next month!”

I have opinions on this whole thing, but this blog isn’t meant to be a platform for me ranting about video games. It is about stories, though, so I’ll rant about storytelling!

Frankly, the ending to the game sucked. I’m making this claim not as a fan of video games and a fan of the series (I am both of those things,) but as a writer. As a writer, the ending was terrible. It showed all the signs of the authors having no idea how to end their story, so they threw something together, hoped the audience would be deep, hit print, and ran. I have an MFA from St. Mary’s College of California, which meant I took two years’ worth of workshop classes with other writers, and I feel completely confident saying that if we had been presented with Mass Effect 3’s ending at the end of a novel, we would not have liked it. The gentler among us would have said that it wasn’t confident, that it was confusing, that it didn’t seem to fit with the story that had come before it. The harsher would have said that it was rushed, that the author was expecting the reader to do the work for him, that it made no sense.

It all adds up to the same thing. It was bad.

And you know what? That’s part of being a writer. Sometimes your writing isn’t good. Sometimes your writing is actually bad. And when that happens, you either start over from scratch or sit down, think things through, and fix the problems. Not every story can be brilliant, but every story can at least be competent. I suspect that things were rushed, though. That Electronic Arts, the publisher for the game, just said “Fuck it, get the goddamn thing out the door.” I can’t imagine the creative team thought they had come up with an ending worthy of a five-year long saga. I suppose it’s possible, but I sincerely doubt it.

The fan reaction though, to demand a new ending… that’s unusual. It’s a victory for the company that they could produce such investment in their fanbase. It really is. You hear about people getting worked up at movies (Star Wars) or TV shows (Lost, The Sopranos) or books (Harry Potter,) but video games? That’s new. That’s exciting.

But they weren’t just outraged and confused, they were demanding a new ending. And Bioware capitulated. That’s got some interesting implications for the relationship between artist and patron, between consumer and company. I think it’s great that a fanbase can call out a creator on their shortcomings. It’s not possible to please everyone, but when you’ve displeased everyone, you’ve almost certainly done something wrong, and sticking your fingers in your ears because you don’t want to hear about it isn’t a mature response.

Where am I going with all this? Well, as I mentioned, I was just about to sit down and edit the last two posts when I began to wonder if that was actually a good idea. I’m sure that I could find places to tighten them. Words to be trimmed, commas to be deleted, ideas that could be be better expressed. That sort of thing. But do you, dear reader, want that? Or would you rather the story stay as it is, warts and all?

On the one hand, fans wanted Bioware’s magnum opus to be better than it was, and Bioware decided to give it to them, and there was much rejoicing. But on the other hand, George Lucas has been tweaking the Star Wars films since the goddamn things first came out, and every change he makes just generates more ill will. I am, of course, generalizing with both examples, but I think it’s a fair generalization.

I wouldn’t be adding new characters. I wouldn’t be changing themes or relationships or plot points in any way. If I were in the business of making movies, we’d be talking about a director’s cut that’s got the sound cleaned up and the image sharpened, not CGI dewbacks and midichlorians. But maybe you don’t want things tweaked at all.

Maybe there’s a middle way. What if left the posts as they were for now but edited them and kept them to myself. Then, if there ever came a time down the road when I needed to get something up but had no new content prepared, I could post an entire story revision all at once?

I’m sure I’m overthinking this, and frankly, the blog doesn’t have the reader base for it to be a huge issue. Still, I thought I would pose the question to the folks who are here.

You don’t own the stories, but you do own the experiences you have reading them and the thoughts you have about them. And I believe in collaboration. So let’s collaborate.


The Laughing God, Pt.2

Truthfully, over the next few days I didn’t think about the statue at all. It simply sat there, sealed in its box atop my coffee table. I went about my business, reading over papers from a class I was teaching that summer, going on walks, doing research for a book I intended to write. A week passed. I’d been so successful at pushing the accursed statue from my mind that I’d practically forgotten it even existed.

And then Sheila came to visit me.

Sheila Danvers, blonde and brilliant and beautiful in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious. She was confident, the child of divorce, of a father that taught her to be tough and mother that taught her that men could be led around by their penises. She was a professor of anthropology at the university, and although we did not teach in the same departments, we had enough intellectual interests in common that we quickly became acquainted with each other and came to enjoy each other’s company. In more ways than one.

Oh, God… Sheila…

She’d spent the summer abroad, had been in the jungles of South America studying a culture whose name I couldn’t pronounce. I had missed her dearly. She’d returned to the States to little fanfare, had taken a few days to settle back into the rhythm of her normal life, before deciding to see me. I’d given her a key to my apartment some months before, when we’d first began enjoying each other’s company, and I came home one day from a trip to the grocery store to find her lying back on my sofa reading a book, her shoeless feet propped up on its arm, a bottle of beer on the floor beside her. I didn’t even notice her at first. I went straight into the kitchen and jumped when she shouted out gleefully, “Howdy, stranger!” I turned, and there she was, grinning impishly and looking like she’d been waiting an hour to startle me so.

I returned the grin, set down the groceries, and walked over to kiss her. “Howdy yourself. How was your trip?” She regaled me with stories of walking through the jungles, fighting with insects, cataloging mythologies in languages that less than a hundred people still spoke. I listened as best I could. I admit that my attention tended to wander to less academic thoughts. It had, after all, been months since I’d seen her. For my part, I told her about teaching classes, working on a book about the heyoka of the Lakota peoples, attending Joseph’s funeral. We were, at that point, reclining on my bed, her hand stroking my chest, my fingers entwined in her hair.

“That’s pretty weird that his family would invite you, don’t you think? That he’d even request that you’d be there. I mean… what a head trip, you know?” She sat up, looked me in the eyes. “Are you okay?”

I nodded. “I’m fine. Really. It’s… unfortunate that he’s gone. Tragic. But we really weren’t very close at all.” I paused. “And if you think that’s weird, you ought to see the sculpture he left me.”

“He left you something in his will?”

“Something like that. He’d made a sculpture, mentioned in the note he left for his parents that he wanted me to have it. I think they invited me more so they could just give it to me and be done with it rather than out of respect for his wishes.” This thought played across my mind for a few moments. “In fact, if they had seen the sculpture themselves, it wouldn’t surprise me that they’d want to be rid of the thing.”

“Too many bad memories.”

I turned, looked her square in the face. “It’s fucking hideous. I dare say it’s in poor taste, really.”

Something in my delivery made her laugh. “You think it’s hideous? Mr. ‘Pueblo Clowns Drinking Urine is Just as Dignified as the Catholic Sacrament of Communion?’”

I snorted. “Why don’t you come look at it then? See if it doesn’t repulse you.”

We got up and walked to my living room, where Joseph’s sculpture still sat in its cardboard prison. I made Sheila close her eyes and sit on the couch as I set the thing before her. When she saw it, she gasped.

“That… that’s really something.” I laughed. She shot me a disapproving look, then picked up the sculpture and began turning it over in her hands, examining it in closer detail. “What the Hell is this thing supposed to be?”

“It was his god,” I said. “He wrote me a letter, said that he wanted to believe in something, but he thought all the religions he knew of, all the gods he knew of, were jokes. So he made his own.”

Something between confusion and disgust and pity crossed Sheila’s face, rendering her for just a moment as protean as the monstrosity she held before her. “And this was what he came up with? God… that poor kid…” She held it up to me. “What do you think?”

I rattled off the influences I saw. Buddha, Janus, various tricksters. An entire menagerie of faiths distilled into a single debased totem. I knew it wasn’t she meant, but it was all I had to offer. I asked her what she thought. She was silent for a long while.

“I think mine are nicer.”

We both laughed at that.

* * *

The next morning, out of nowhere, Sheila announced that we should throw a party. “A small one,” she said. “A sort of, ‘Welcome Back, Sheila!’-type thing. But not really. I’m not going to throw a party in my own honor. That’d be egotistical. I just want to see everyone.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” I said. I hadn’t really interacted with my fellow professors over the summer. There were enough close to our own age to make such a gathering viable, thirty-somethings who were either to devoted to academia to start families, or else capable of finding sitters on short notice since they often had to attend faculty functions. And even the older members of our faculty could enjoy themselves after a few drinks. “When should we throw this party?”

“Tonight,” Sheila said with a grin. I frowned. I already knew where she was going with this.

“Here, I assume.”

She batted her eyelashes at me, a gesture deliberately chosen for its obviousness. Sheila was nothing if not playful.

I loved that about her.

“Please?” she said, drawing out the vowels. She switched tactics, began pouting. “My apartment’s no good for parties! It’s too small!”

I shook my head, smiled. Her mother was nothing if not right, after all. “Fine, fine.”

“Just a small gathering. Just a few people, just to say hi and see how everyone’s doing.”

I stuck my tongue out at her. “I already said fine.”

She returned the gesture. A short while later, she was getting ready to return to her own home, to run some errands and gather a few things before the evening’s festivities. There were some difficulties in locating her keys, though. In fact, it took us nearly an hour to find the damn things before I noticed them, inside the refrigerator of all places.

In retrospect, I suppose that’s where it all began. So simple, so innocuous. A joke so subtle, there was no way to tell if it was even intentional. After all, improbable as it may have been, one of us could have put them in there, perhaps while putting away the groceries I have purchased. But we hadn’t.

I am almost certain that we hadn’t. No, no, I am certain. I swear, neither of us put those keys in there. We couldn’t have.

In any case, she returned to her apartment and I went back out to the store to purchase refreshments and snacks and additional alcohol. Some eight hours later, the party was beginning, the guests arriving. There were chips, there was dip, there was beer in the fridge and wine on the counter and liquor squirreled away in the cabinets. We’d laid out napkins, bought little plastic cups, and even set up a tray of meat and cheeses and crackers (pre-made at the grocery store, of course. There was only so much I was willing to do for guests attending a party I hadn’t planned on throwing.) Sheila and I were running to and fro around my apartment, making sure everything was in order.

It was her idea to set up the sculpture. It was her, not me.

“Come on,” she said. “It’s so ugly, you can’t leave it hidden in a box in the back of your closet. It’ll give people something to talk about it.”

I shook my head. “It’s repulsive. I don’t want it out. What if people think I actually like it?”

“So what? If anyone asks, you can just tell them that it was a gift from a student who passed away and you left it out in his memory. That ought to shut them up.”

I protested, but as so often happened, she got her way. Men and their penises and all that. There was no time to discuss it, anyway. The doorbell rang in the middle of our debate, and we had no choice but to leave it where it was and play the part of good hosts.

To be fair, the party started out small, as Sheila had promised. Professors Howard and Phillips and their spouses, Professor Campbell, Professor Auguste. We sat around discussing our summers, trading stories. As the alcohol flowed a bit more freely, the stories changed from the classes we were teaching that summer to classes we had taught in the past, to classes we ourselves had taken when we were PhD students, or even undergrads. Things went downhill from there. More guests arrived, bearing gifts with them. A younger crowd slowly began to filter in, PhD students invited by God only knows which of the professors. Someone started playing music, and by 11:30, those who had responsibilities to attend to were gone and those who had avoided all responsibilities outside of their field of study were drunk enough to be dancing sloppily and carefree in front of their peers.

I will admit that I was among that number.

There was something liberating about it, truthfully. We were young enough, and the atmosphere was welcoming, and for a brief moment those of us were married and those of us who were too young to even think about marriage were all the same. People were sharing jokes and stories, laughing, making plans for after the party was over, sneaking off early to do whatever their liberated heart and their alcohol-saturated brains told them was right.

That may have been the last time I was truly happy.

That may have been the last time I will ever be happy.

Sheila had been right about the sculpture. It was so ugly, so inescapable that conversation inevitably drifted towards it, no matter how briefly. As I moved about the room, refilling drinks and slipping napkins under unattended cups, I heard people discussing it. The gregarious were given a subject on which to demonstrate their craft, and the shy were given a subject so obvious that even they could maintain a conversation about it. Mind you, no one wished to speak about the sculpture for very long. There were, quite simply, more pleasant subjects to discuss.

But its presence was felt all around the apartment, and more than once I noticed someone who happened to gaze upon it while dancing or conversing with someone else. They locked up, suddenly and completely, a possum playing dead in front of a superior predator, a bird paralyzed before a bobbing and weaving serpent. To a man, they stood stock still for a few seconds before shaking their head and resuming whatever they had been doing with a deliberate enthusiasm. The sculpture presided over the entire gathering like… like Joseph had been in class. Vaguely amused. Vaguely disgusted. Feeling a smug sense of superiority, I suppose.

I myself, by my fifth drink, was spending more time staring at it than was socially acceptable.

It was Kara Powers who shook me from my reverie. She was in the kitchen at the time, and she was screaming as though she’d been grievously wounded.

She had.

She was slicing limes for gin and tonics. She had sliced clear through her left index finger. She held it before her for a moment, stared at it in wonder. The wound spurted blood with every beat of her heart. The finger from the first knuckle up sat on the counter, a mute and abandoned child. And her scream. God. It hit a register usually reserved for the calling of dogs. The entire party ground to a halt, and for a moment, all we could do was stare in wonder.

Sheila acted first, throwing a towel over the wound and clamping her fist around it, guiding her to the bathroom. We all began moving then. One of our number called 911. Another packed the severed digit in ice. Someone stopped the music. The party was well and truly over, the crowd suddenly, painfully sober.

But not I.

I watched as everyone scuttled about like ants in a disturbed nest. And then I turned to look at the sculpture, so arrogant, so hideous. Its belly seemed to stick out farther, its head thrown back. Its eyes were narrowed, its mouths more open. The blood of my friends had been spilled in my very kitchen, was still fresh, was still warm, and this horrible figure, a figure that had been constructed from my own lessons, was laughing uproariously at the fact.

All around me, chaos reigned, and I stood completely still, wondering at this hunk of clay and resin.


The Laughing God, Pt.1

The Laughing God begins below! My schedule has recently become much busier, and so Monday’s posts may come later in the night and be a bit shorter than usual for the foreseeable future. But so help me, there will still be something here every Monday and Friday. Enjoy!

I hear it in my head, a thousand voices laughing a thousand different ways. A low chuckle of disinterested amusement. Riotous, high-pitched cackling. A child amused by a new plaything. A sadist reveling in another’s pain. A thousand kinds of laughter for a thousand jokes, each funnier than the last.

God help me.

* * *

It began at the funeral, which is appropriate enough. Shakespearean tragedies all end with funerals; why shouldn’t this comedy begin with one? Joseph Kerr, a student from one of my comparative religion classes, slit his wrists one beautiful July day. His parents found him in the bathtub after they’d come home from work. Funny how he cared enough that he wanted to spare them the trouble of having to clean up after him, and yet he couldn’t be bothered to not commit suicide. Funny. Everything’s funny.

He had also seen fit to leave behind instructions on what to do with some of his possessions. Among these was a sealed package that he’d left behind for me, accompanied by a letter that was also sealed and labeled in a tight, pained-looking script “OPEN FIRST.” His parents gave me both of these things, and I awkwardly excused myself from our conversation, and we didn’t speak anymore for the duration of the service.

Back at my apartment that night, I stared at the package and the letter for some time, trying to decide what to make of them. The truth of the matter was that I hadn’t been particularly close to Joseph. Most of the students who took my classes were English or philosophy majors, or else sociology and psychology and anthropology students looking to fulfill some sort of university requirement. Joseph had been an artist, and while the class did occasionally those from other disciplines (usually science majors of one form or another who were looking to prove they had just as firm a grasp on the spiritual as their liberal arts brethren,) Joseph was singularly quiet in class.

Part of it was a short of shyness, I suspect; he wasn’t what you would call classically handsome, being pale and alternatingly thin and thick in all the wrong places, as well as being somewhat unkempt in his general appearance. But most of his reticence seemed to stem from contempt. Whenever debate or outright argument broke out in the class, there was Joseph, observing from a distance, shaking his head, snorting dismissively. He would speak to me on occasion after class, usually seeking clarification on some obscure belief that had been mentioned in passing, but he never revealed his reasons for doing so. He was a fine student, if that matters now.

After some consideration, I opened the letter. Inside the envelope was a single sheet of white paper, writing in the same hand as had been on the envelope covering both its front and its back. I read.

Professor Calloway,

Even though I only took one of your classes, you left quite an impression on me. I’d never understood before why people worshipped gods. It always struck me as a stupid thing to do, praying to an invisible man or animal in the sky to make everything better. Pointless. Primitive.

But as we learned about different traditions, the contrasts, the similarities, I began to think that maybe there was a reason to believe in something. Not Jesus or Buddha or Gaia or anything, mind you. But maybe there was something to be said for acknowledging an avatar of a moral framework, a worldview. So I put more time and energy into your class than any of my others, trying to understand the world’s religions, their perspectives. And ultimately, I came to the conclusion that none of their gods did anything for me.

So I made my own. A god that wouldn’t offer promises, but perspective. That wasn’t supposed to be a benevolent creator, but an impartial observer. A god that I could understand, that I could relate to, that didn’t “test me” or “work in mysterious ways” or any of that other bullshit. Something I could believe in and still look at myself in the mirror.

That one didn’t do anything for me either. Obviously.

Here. He’s yours now, if you want him. Have a good life, Professor Calloway. Such as it is.

I set the letter down and picked up the box It was a cardboard rectangle, about eight inches by eight inches by fourteen inches, and it was heavy. The contents shifted as I moved the box around, thumping dully against the walls that held them. There was minimal packing in it, as I would discover upon opening it. Not quite knowing what to expect, I began pulling off the tape that sealed it.

To have called the statue ugly would be an unthinkable understatement. Never in my life had I seen anything that suggested such craftsmanship while somehow being so completely repulsive. Perhaps most repulsive of all was that I could see which of my lessons Joseph’s young mind had siezed upon. The figure was a foot in height, although it sat in the lotus position. There was nothing meditative about its pose, though. In fact, it seemed to be leaning forward, it’s hands palm down and gripping its knees, as if expectant, as if hungry. Its skin was pale to a point suggestive of translucence, and its body was swollen to the point of corpulence. It had both male and female genitalia, breasts, a laryngeal prominence, alopecia universalis, trickster’s gender-bending nature taken to an illogical extreme. His head was disproportionately large and ringed by manic, laughing faces, an obvious parody of the Roman Janus, or perhaps Dante’s Satan.

But the eyes… the eyes were mirthless. There was no humor in those pupilless eyes with their blood red sclera. Only cold judgment.

I shuddered then, and even now, despite everything, I find myself shuddering just thinking about it. I don’t know what dark urge moved Joseph, what nameless insistence led him to create an abomination he could worship, but there can be no doubt that he succeeded in capturing its essence. Perhaps it existed before him. Perhaps he tapped into some latent part of the human brain, or some unspeakable pulse in the universe that longed to express itself. I’ve met no shortage of artists over my years at the university, and more than a few of them have said that some of their best ideas seemed to come from outside of themselves. Divine inspiration. Serendipity. The Pythia speaking in tongues, slowly being driven mad by pneuma.

Of course, none of this went through my head at the time. All I could do was look at the thing in disgust. I set it back in the box. I did my best to go to sleep.


Where There’s More of Reaping and Less of Sowing, Pt. 4

The canyon was twice as deep as it was wide, perhaps an acre’s worth of land. A few smoldering fires and a few hastily constructed tents lay scattered about. It seemed that the men in Dead-Eye Dan’s gang kept to themselves, were perhaps only united by Dan’s leadership and not by anything else. The discarded remnants of raids and robberies were heaped in a pile against one of the canyon walls. A few horses stood tethered to a stake driven into the ground, their eyes closed in rest. Delia was among their number, and John Quinn was relieved to see that she was unharmed.

John Quinn stood still for a moment, taking in the layout of the canyon. A single shack, built of similar construction as the one he’d been at the night before, albeit twice as large, stood at the very rear of the canyon. If Dead-Eye Dan, with his stolen jewelry and his condescending sneer, was to stay anywhere in this canyon, it’d be in there.

John Quinn made his way towards the shack, his path taking him by the horses. Delia snorted as he approached and tried to look around as best as she was able. She sniffed the air, and when she caught John’s scent, she began to whinny and stamp the ground.
John’s heart leapt into his throat. He froze. Would anyone hear her noise? Should he ignore her and continue on? Walk over to her and try to quiet her?

A figure emerged from one of the nearby tents, muttering and stumbling as he went. He walked up to Delia and struck her hard across the face. “Shut up, you worthless nag!”

John Quinn was moving before conscious thought could catch up to his actions. His right hand dropped to his waist, freed the revolver there from its holster. Faster than the man could turn and begin walking back to his tent, John Quinn closed the distance between the two. He set his hand upon the man’s shoulder and spun him around.

“It’s the lowest kind of man that strikes an animal just for being,” John Quinn said.

The man looked at him with confusion and then annoyance, recognizing Firebug’s sarape before his mind could fully comprehend that the look of intense anger was not Firebug’s, nor was the gun. “Oh, fuck off, you… you…”

John fired as fear began to flood the man’s expression. He crumpled to the ground silently, but the sound of the shot itself echoed off the canyon walls.

“Now, Jeraad! Now!” John Quinn cried out. With a wordless cry, Jeraad and his men poured through the gate. Those armed with spears and knives charged the nearest tents. The two that had taken the rifles took up a position near the wall itself, watching over the more aggressive melee fighters. Jeraad was with those who had charged ahead, using his blade and his ancient revolver with equal skill.

The men of Dead-Eye Dan’s gang who had camped closest to the gate fell quickly, unable to rouse and arm themselves fast enough to avoid their fate. But those farther back in the canyon had more time to prepare, and they scrambled from their tents, produced their guns, returned fire.

John Quinn focused on the shack at the back of the canyon, sticking close to the walls and moving quickly, firing off the occasional shot at the few men who seemed to notice him over the wild, screaming madmen at the gate.

Jeraad’s initial estimate of the numbers in Dan’s gang had been low, it seemed. At least a dozen had been laid low in the first few minutes, and at least a dozen remained to fight back. All around, the sound of gunfire, the cries of the dying, the smell of smoke filled the air. Under the cold desert moon, the dirt shined with blood.

John Quinn came at last to the door of the shack. A faint beam of light shone out from under it, but he could hear no noise over the din of the battlefield. He took a moment to reload his ironwood revolver, letting the empty cases fall to the ground. He drew his second revolver, not believing this job would take twelve shots, but not wanting to risk it. He took a deep breath and kicked open the door.

The door shattered into pieces and hung limp on its hinges. John Quinn’s eyes swept across the room, settling too late on Dead-Eye Dan sitting on his bed, both hands on his pistol, his eyes alight with cold hatred. He fired once with a careless indifference, the bullet catching John in the chest, making his world spin, squeezing the air from his lungs. He staggered, fell backwards against the wall, and slumped to the ground.

“You… are one tough son of a bitch, I will give you that,” Dead-Eye Dan said. John Quinn gasped for breath, and Dan shook his head. He stood up and walked over to John, chuckling to himself as he did. “I knew I should have a bullet in your head the first time I saw you. Well, ain’t going to repeat that mistake.” Dan raised his gun, and John Quinn saw the light from the lantern in the room glinting off a piece of brass that had lodged itself in the pistol’s chamber. Dan shoved the gun in John Quinn’s face, and squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened.

In the moment it took for Dan to realize what had happened, for his eyes to go wide with fear, John Quinn raised the revolver in his right hand and put a bullet through Dan’s left knee.

Dan screamed. His legs buckled underneath him and the pistol fell from his hand. He rolled over, began scrabbling at the floor, trying to recover it. John Quinn put a bullet through his left shoulder.

Amidst Dead-Eye Dan’s cursing, John Quinn pushed himself to his feet. Every breath he took made fire dance across his chest, but at least he was breathing. Byron’s vest had saved his life once again, it seemed. Below him, Dead-Eye Dan had rolled over once again, was reaching for the pistol with his good arm.

John Quinn put a bullet through his other shoulder.

John Quinn walked over, picked up the gun. Save for the color, it was almost exactly identical to the one his father had owned, the one that had been passed down from father to son for generations, the one that had been stolen. It even had the horse medallion pressed into the grip. John Quinn shook his head. He pulled back the slide, ejecting the cartridge that had jammed and loading a fresh one. “My daddy used to have a gun just like this. Used to say that it had been the family for nigh on two-hundred years. Taught me to shoot it. Used to say, ‘Son, I don’t know if you’re careless or scared, but you shoot that thing with a limp wrist, it’s just going to jam on you.’” He looked down at Dead-Eye Dan. “Who’d you take this from? What good, honest soul did you murder so you could take this as a trophy?”

Dead-Eye Dan glared at John Quinn, his brow set in anger, beads of sweat running down his face. “Just kill me and get it over with, you little prick.”

“You got anything you want to say before you die?”

A sneer crept across Dead-Eye Dan’s face at this. He chuckled once more. “You ain’t no better than me, you know that? A murderer is a murderer. You think you’re some kind of… some kind of avenging angel or something?”

John Quinn thumbed back the hammer on the pistol.

“You killing me won’t bring that family back. Ain’t nothing going to bring that family back. All you are is a maniac that rode three days into the desert to kill two dozen men. You ain’t no better than me.”

John Quinn raised the pistol. He looked down the sights, saw Dead-Eye Dan’s sneering face between them.

“It’s so easy, ain’t it? It’s so easy. You make a fist and the gun does the work for you.”

John Quinn fired, and Calaveras Canyon was silent.

* * *

John Quinn walked out of the shack to find Jeraad and two of his men standing over the bodies of their fallen. They were all of them covered in blood, some of it their own, most of it now. As for Dead-Eye Dan’s gang, every last one of them was dead. No one spoke as John Quinn approached, the stars and the moon still shining brightly in the sky, the smell of death still heavy in the air. Jeraad was the first to break the silence.

“Dead-Eye Dan has been taken care of, then?”

John Quinn nodded.

“He and his men have terrorized this land for too long. It is good that he is dead, that no more will suffer by his hand.”

John Quinn simply nodded again.

“There are still a few hours of darkness left. We will stay the night here, load up the horses and return to our village in the morning.” Jeraad gestured towards the bodies of his men. “They have died heroes’ deaths. They deserve to be buried amongst their people.”

“The mare’s mine,” John Quinn said. “I’ll be taking her with me when I go.”

Jeraad nodded. “As you wish. Will you stay here, then?”

John Quinn shook his head. “I need to get to riding. I don’t want to spend another moment in this damn canyon.”

“As you wish,” Jeraad said. Neither man moved, and at last, Jeraad set his hand upon the other’s shoulder. “John Quinn. You will always have friends amongst my people. You have done a good thing here today, and we will not forget it.”

John Quinn said nothing at first, but a small smile played at the corner of his mouth. “Thank you, Jeraad. It’s good to hear that.”

The two men shook hands, and each turned to go his own way. John Quinn walked over to Delia and gently stroked her mane before untying her. Hopping astride her sent more pain flaring through his ribs, but he did his best to ignore it. All that was left was to make the long journey back to Agua Grande, alone.

Thank you for reading! Be here on Monday, when “The Laughing God” will begin!


Where There’s More of Reaping and Less of Sowing, Pt. 3

Firebug stood twenty feet back from the shack, his eyes wild, a manic grin on his face. This was his favorite thing in all the world. This was why he ran with Dead-Eye Dan; no one else gave him the opportunity to burn things and watch them dance, encouraged him to pursue his life’s calling. He was only dimly aware that Dan thought of him as something between a tool and a pet, but he wouldn’t have cared even if he truly understood. The fire was the important thing.

A warm desert storm was beginning to fall, but it wouldn’t be enough to put out the shack before the whole thing was engulfed. Firebug stood there, reveling in the sound of breaking glass and crackling wood and unaware of the movement just behind and to the side of the blaze. Lightning flashed and thunder roared somewhere nearby, and Firebug jumped. It was then that he saw it.

It was a dark outline against the blaze, tall, wisps of smoke trailing from its body. The rain ran down its face, mixed with the ash and the soot caked there, and with every crash of lightning Firebug saw a demon from hell crying tears of pitch striding ever closer.

His breath caught in his throat. A frightened animal cry escaped from his mouth, and he raised his revolver. His hand trembled with fear and half of his shots went wild, but the half that hit had no effect whatsoever on the monster before him. He threw his empty gun at the thing, but it fell laughably short. He looked around in a panic. The horse Dead-Eye had left him was far, so far, and he was alone with no one to save him.

The demon in black raised its arm and a revolver reported twice, like the barking of a feral dog. Firebug fell over backwards, two holes in his chest gurgling and sucking and oozing blood as the life left his body.

John Quinn stepped forward, his gun still firmly trained on the dying man as if he were a viper that could bite even in death. Three of the maniac’s bullets had hit him square in the chest, and it was only through sheer force of will that he had stayed on his feet. That, coupled with the smoke he’d inhaled as he’d tried to undo the ropes after rocking the chair over and smashing it against the floor, made it almost impossible to breathe. Convinced that Firebug was dead, he holstered his revolver. Flashes of light danced before his eyes. He brought a hand to his chest, tried to feel for the tell-tale heat of blood flowing from open wounds, but it was hard to focus, so hard.

He stumbled forward, caught himself on his hands and knees. Every breath came ragged, and as the desert rain washed down upon him, he shut his eyes and lost consciousness.

* * *

John Quinn opened his eyes. The world made no sense to him, cold and wet and bright and green. His mother had never said that Heaven would be cold and wet, and he certainly hadn’t expected Hell to be bright and green.

“This one’s alive!”

With a groan, John tried to push himself to his feet. Sharp pain shot across his chest as he did so, and he let out a small cry before collapsing back into the grass.

He could feel as much as hear the presence of other people gathering around him, watching him in silence. “Would someone be so kind as to help me up?” John Quinn muttered. Within an instant, hands were upon him, pulling him to his feet, and just as quickly, spears tipped with scrap metal blades were at his throat.

“Explain yourself. Now.” John looked up to find himself staring into the unblinking eyes of a raider. The man was close to John’s own age, perhaps a bit younger, as Kid Bernie had been, but there was something cold and confident about him, calculating. He had light eyes and skin tanned by the desert. His clothes were a patchwork of animal furs and items stolen from travelers, but where his followers had simple weapons crafted from the wood and metal that they had scavenged, he had a revolver. The finish was wearing off, and the gun was impractically large, but John Quinn had no doubt that it would fire, that this raider was a good shot with it.

John stared at the man for a moment before nodding towards where he remembered Firebug’s body laying in the grass. “Crazy piece of shit tried to burn me alive. So I shot him. Then I passed out, I guess.”

“You passed out?”

“Yeah, on account of breathing smoke and getting shot three times in the gut? Takes something out of a man.”

“You’re awfully mouthy for a man that claims to have been shot.”

John Quinn’s eyes narrowed to slits. He grinned at the man. Despite John’s obvious helplessness, the raider’s hand dropped to the gun at his hip. “I’m tough,” John said. “Now, are you and your boys here going to kill me, or are you just going to stand here trying to tickle me with those pig stickers?”

The raider said nothing, but turned from John to look at Firebug. “Why’d he try to kill you? Do you know who he is?”

“Yeah, he runs with Dead-Eye Dan. He tried to kill me because I’ve come to kill them.”

“Are you from Agua Grande?”

“Not exactly.”

The raider turned back to look at John, eyed him suspiciously. “Why did you come for them?”

“There was a family farm a few day’s south of here. Someone burnt it to the ground with the family still in it. When I got to Agua Grande a few days ago, another one of Dan’s boys was there, and he was bragging about how they’d done it. Challenged him to a duel, shot him dead in the street, and made my way up here to finish the job.”

The raider watched John for a moment, considering his words before motioning to his followers to lower their weapons. He reached his hand out to the gunslinger. “My name is Jeraad, and anyone who would see Dead-Eye Dan killed is safe in my lands.”

“John Quinn, and forgive me for saying so, but Dead-Eye Dan seemed to think these were his lands.”

Jeraad snorted. “That is the way of all thieves, to think that all that they see is theirs. He and his men attack our village for sport, stealing our food and kidnapping my people for ransom.” His expression darkened. “Or worse.”

“Well, why don’t you and your boys here do something about him? You got enough muscle here to handle one old man.”

Jeraad shook his head. “He has turned the canyon into a fort. There is a wall across the entrance, and he leaves men standing guard there with guns. It would be suicide to attack it during the day, and even at night, more would rally to defend it before the wall could be brought down.”

“I thought it was just him, Kid Bernie, and Firebug in that canyon.”

Jeraad shook his head. “There are others who come and go, evil men who seek to create an easy life for themselves by preying on others. Those three are the heart of the gang. They are the ones who leave the canyon most often, as the people of Agua Grande fear them too much to stand up to them.”

“And you?” John asked, arching an eyebrow and eyeing Jeraad suspiciously.

Jeraad could not hold John’s gaze. “Perhaps… perhaps the same could be said of my people as well.”

John Quinn frowned. “Well, hell. I didn’t think this was going to be simple, but you’re making it sound impossible.”

“They’ll shoot anyone they don’t recognize who gets close to the canyon.”

John Quinn stood with his arms crossed carefully considering this new information. He didn’t have a rifle he could use to pick off the guards at the wall, and judging from the weapons Jeraad and his men were carrying, they didn’t either. He supposed that he could wait until dark and scout out the canyon under the cover of night, but the horses were gone. Either they’d run off in the storm or else Dead-Eye Dan had taken them with him the night before. Finishing the trip to the canyon on foot would take some time, and the longer he waited, the more likely Dead-Eye Dan was to grow suspicious about Firebug’s absence.

John looked over to where Firebug lay on the ground. He walked over and examined the body. They were about the same size, with Firebug maybe a bit thinner and John maybe a bit taller. The man’s hat lay a few feet away, tattered and dirty from constant use and neglect. He was dressed simply: jeans, boots, a bright serape that was now soaked with blood.

A smile crept across John Quinn’s face. By the time he turned to face Jeraad, it had become a grin. “I think I have a good idea.”

* * *

The two men standing guard at the entrance to Calaveras Canyon by the light of the full moon were bored and tired. Each armed with a rifle, they watched the dark horizon for any sign of trouble. They saw it at the same time, the lurching, shambling figure stumbling towards them from out of nowhere.

“Who’s that?”

“I don’t know, but if he gets too close, we waste him.”

The figure fell to his knees then and let out a low, plaintive wail like a wounded dog. The men looked more closely, recognized the absurdly bright colors of the serape, the shapelessness of the hat. “Oh, Jesus,” one of them said. “Is that Firebug? What in hell’s he doing?”

One of the men left his post, the other standing watch from atop the wall. The man cautiously approached, saying quietly, “Firebug, that you? Firebug?” The figure didn’t respond, but crawled on hands and knees towards the man. The man could see that the figure’s serape was caked in what looked like dried blood, its boots and hands were muddy, its features obscured by dirt. “Firebug, what in hell happened to you?”

The figure looked up, and the man realized too late that it wasn’t Firebug before him at all. The features were a bit off, but the eyes were all wrong. A cold intelligence burned there, and its gaze pierced him almost as much as the knife that it slid between his ribs did.

Up on the wall, the remaining guard was trying to figure out why Firebug had sprung to his feet in search of a hug. The two men grappled in the moonlight for a few seconds when the other guard went limp and collapsed in a heap. The figure then looked up at him, and the guard saw the glint of steel in its hand by the moonlight. His eyes went wide and he moved to shoulder his rifle. The figure pointed at him, as if issuing a challenge from below.

An arrow pierced the guard’s throat, the fletching quivering in the air before him. He tried to call out, but could make no sound. Another arrow struck him in the chest, and another a second after that. He pitched forward off the wall, his neck snapping as he struck the ground.

Jeraad and his men moved forward from their hiding places in the brush near the canyon’s entrance and joined with John Quinn. There were five of them all together, Jeraad and his best hunters. Quiet. Good with a bow. Efficient. “Do you think they know we’re here?” the raider asked.

John looked to the gate built into the wall and shook his head. “They’d be shooting at us if they did. We were quiet. We’ve got surprise on our side for now, at least.” John picked up one of the guards and began dragging him towards the brush. “Better not to waste it.”

Once the bodies were hidden, the rifles passed out to two of the raiders, the group crept towards the wall. “Give me five minutes to check the place out,” John said. “You hear voices or gunfire, you come charging in.” Jeraad nodded.

John Quinn took a deep breath. His revolvers resting on his hips, Kid Bernie’s bloodstained knife tucked into his belt, he slinked through the gate. The night’s work had just begun.


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