Read an Excerpt
It was my birthday, the anniversary of my mother’s murder, and on the way to the party, I made a special point to stop and kill a zombie.
I did it every year. My secret. Only Zee and the boys knew. Our gift to each other.
Sun had been down for only an hour, but this was Seattle, the skies were black as midnight, and the rain pounded the windshield like each drop was trying to break the glass. Cyndi Lauper played on the radio, softly, because I wanted to hear Dek and Mal sing along. “True Colors,” one of my mother’s favorites.
The little demons were coiled around my shoulders, heavy and warm, their breath hot against my ears as they hummed the song in their high, sweet voices. Aaz and Raw sat in the backseat, uncharacteristically quiet, their little legs dangling over the floor as they clutched half-eaten teddy bears against their scaled, muscular chests.
Zee crouched in the passenger seat. Razor-sharp spines of black hair flexed against his chiseled skull, and his eyes glinted red. His claws flexed, in and out, in and out, and every few minutes, he raked his arms in quiet agitation. He was difficult to see, even seated beside me. All of them were. Blending with the shadows, falling into shadows, except for the silver glint of veins and their burning eyes.
“Left,” Zee rasped. I didn’t question his instincts. I turned at the intersection. We were in the south end of Lake Union, near the park. I pulled into the lot near the armory. The boys were gone before I turned off the engine, disappearing into the shadows like ghosts. Only Dek and Mal stayed, heavy and reassuring around my throat. Little bodyguards.
The downpour did not ease. I didn’t worry about it. Less visibility was a good thing.
I only had to wait ten minutes. Zee poked his head out from beneath the dashboard. He didn’t have to say a word. I got out, hunching down, as the rain slammed me. Cold as ice. My gloves were already off. I looked down, once, at the armor hugging my right hand: organic metal, quicksilver as mercury, embedded in the skin of my fingers and wrist, connected by threads that traveled over the back of my pale hand.
Magic. Or close enough not to matter. It certainly didn’t matter tonight.
Zee loped ahead on all fours. We moved amongst trees planted in concrete beds, my bootheels clicking sharp. Rain slid down the back of my neck into my clothes. My hair plastered against my skull. My nose began to run.
Aaz and Raw waited beneath a tree, near the jogging path. A zombie lay between them. A woman. She wore sweatpants and a lightweight rain jacket. Blond, young, possessed by a demonic parasite. Her aura was old, fluttering with a darkness deeper than the night.
She bared her teeth when she saw me, but it was the beginning of a scream, and Zee clamped his small hand over her mouth. She bucked upward, but Raw had a firm hold on her legs, and Aaz had already pulled her arms over her head. All of them, touching her as gently as they could. Hosts were innocent. I always assumed so, anyway.
I crouched. Stared long and hard at the zombie, memorizing her face and the thunder of her aura. I didn’t ask questions, I didn’t care about crimes. I didn’t think too hard about the last two years and how some demons could be reformed, converted. I didn’t think about the possibility of innocence. Tonight, I didn’t accept innocence.
Instead, I thought about my mother carrying my birthday cake across the kitchen, and the window exploding, and her head doing the same. I thought about her blood, and the boys weeping, and my screaming. I thought about the possessed men and women—the zombies—who slaughtered her.
I had lost count of all the demons I’d exorcised over the years, but the ones I took on my birthday were always special.
I was gentle. I pressed my palm against her brow. I said the words, and the demon stretched and stretched, the parasite holding on for dear life. It had been a deep possession. Years, maybe—even decades. Controlling this woman, using her as a puppet to feed on the suffering the demon certainly had caused around her. Growing fat on pain.
The parasite snapped free. Aaz caught it first, and then Raw and Zee took hold. Dek and Mal purred. I looked away, trying not to listen to the high screams of the creature as it was eaten. I focused on the woman. Checked her pulse. Found her ID. She lived nearby. A jogger. Bad night for exercise. Those parasites and their fun.
Zee glided close, running his long black tongue over his teeth. I smelled sulfur and ash.
“Maxine,” he whispered. “Happy birthday.”
I wiped rain from my eyes and walked back to the car.
I had started keeping a box of prepaid disposable phones in the car. Public pay phones were becoming a rarity.
I dug one out, made a call. Told 911 that a woman was unconscious in the park. An amnesiac, too, I didn’t add. It was an old routine. Aaz ate the phone after I was done.
We didn’t talk as I drove to the party. Dek and Mal blew on my hair, trying to dry it. I jacked up the volume on the radio. Aaz and Raw yanked whole steaming pizzas from the shadows and ate them, along with two gallons of paint, a box of plant fertilizer, and several canisters of whipping cream. Zee sat in the passenger seat, held his sharp knobby knees to his chest, and rocked back and forth in silence.
Grant waited for me just inside the entrance of the art gallery. Tall, broad, leaning hard on his cane. His brown hair was damp, like he had been poking his head into the rain, searching for me. Inside, the lights were dim. I heard music upstairs: Tchaikovsky. The Sleeping Beauty.
I tried to smile, but I was wet and cold, cold beneath my skin. My heart hurt. Grant took one look and pulled me inside, into his arms. He held me a long time. I listened to the rain, and Dek and Mal as they purred, and the scratch of claws on the hardwood floors. I listened to my heartbeat, and I listened to Grant’s. Perfectly matched.
Slowly, slowly, I relaxed.
“I don’t like having birthdays,” I whispered.
He didn’t try to reassure me. He didn’t tell me it would get better. All he did was hold me, and kiss the top of my head, my closed eyes, my mouth, his rough cheek rubbing against mine. He was so warm.
“Come on,” he breathed finally, in my ear. “Dance me to the stairs.”
I smiled and kissed his throat. “It’s your life.”
“I trust you.” Grant leaned hard on his cane and offered me his arm. “I’ll even let you lead.”
“Oh, wow,” I replied, wiping my sleeve across my nose. “That’s love.’
“Eh,” he said, but with a grin and cocky shrug. Aaz and Raw giggled. Zee, crouched nearby, pulled jasmine petals from the shadows and tossed them at our feet.
I helped Grant climb the stairs. Neither of us said so, but I knew his leg hurt him. I was his shoulder, and we moved with the rise and fall of the “Sarabande” portion of the ballet. Near the landing, I glimpsed a shadow move across the golden light spilling from the door into the stairwell.
“Need help?” Byron asked. He was young, no older than fifteen, pale and dark-haired, wearing jeans and a soft white T-shirt that had SHAKESPEARE HATES YOUR EMO POEMS written across the chest.
I flashed him a smile. So did Grant. “Almost there. But thanks.”
The boy nodded but didn’t move until we were on the landing. I ruffled his hair. He smiled, just a little—but that might as well have been a grin, with nothing guarded in his eyes. Good kid. Smart, honest. He’d come a long way from living inside a cardboard box.
I heard pots banging from the apartment. Grant squeezed my hand. “Jack’s been busy.”
“Is that a warning or a threat?”
Byron had already begun picking his way through the books on the other side of the door. “He made pies. Grant said you hate cake.”
I stared at the boy’s back. Grant leaned a little harder on the cane, his hand tightening around mine.
“I didn’t tell you I hated cake,” I said.
“You also didn’t tell me when your birthday was. But you did tell me how your mother died.” Grant kissed my ear, and lingered. “My brain, it works sometimes.”
“You’re going to make me sentimental.”
“Jack has you beat. In all his thousand, million years of being alive, I’m not certain he’s ever celebrated a granddaughter’s birthday.”
“In all this thousand, million years, I’m sure he had other children, tons of grandchildren.”
“Maybe. But he has you now.” Grant patted my ass. “Go on, Wonder Woman. He’s wearing an apron just for you.”
The apartment had been cleaned. Or rather, the aisle between Jack’s stacked books had been widened, just a little. The walls were lined with shelves, sagging with books and pottery, masks, stones—but those were just the walls, and the walls were a good ten feet away from the center of the room, which was the only place a person could stand and walk without tripping. Everywhere else, towers of books, half-opened crates, papers and journals tipping sideways—some lamps perched precariously on boxes, cords disappearing into the maze—along with used coffee cups, chocolate-bar wrappers, and the occasional glass eye, which I pretended did not watch me as I passed.
I smelled pie. I heard mumbling, the screech of the oven door opening. I heard Jack say, “Put down the knife,” and an older woman reply, “Bad lines, Wolf.”
I walked free of the maze into the kitchen. My grandfather stood at the table. He was, indeed, wearing an apron—white, with cherries and frills—tied over his khakis and dress shirt. Somehow, it looked entirely proper. Mary stood on the other side of the table, white hair wild and hanging loose over the shoulders of a navy housedress covered in embroidered shooting stars. Her large, sinewy hands clutched a knife that was digging point first into a pie, one of several on the table—which was otherwise barely visible beneath boards, rolling pins, mixing bowls, and about a ton of spilled flour.
“Got skills to cut,” Mary said to my grandfather, thumping her chest with her fist. “Go lick yourself.”
“Charming,” replied Jack. “I suggest you stick to growing marijuana, Marritine, and leave the pies to me.”
The old woman hissed at him. Byron was perched on encyclopedias, watching them, sipping calmly from a cup of what seemed to be hot chocolate. I didn’t miss the wariness of his gaze whenever it fell on Jack—an involuntary response, one that I doubted would ever go away.
The boy held up the cup to me, but I said no. Dek and Mal, however, poked their heads free of my hair, staring at his drink. Byron pretended not to notice. He was good at not noticing the boys.
Grant tapped his cane on the floor. Mary’s scowl melted into a sweet smile that almost made me forget she was a trained killer. She left the knife standing straight up in the pie and danced on the tips of her toes to Grant. He kissed her cheek. The old woman melted, just a little.
I joined Jack at the table. He was trying to yank the knife out of the pie and having no luck. I nudged him aside. Mary had stabbed the blade tip right through the pan into the table. Kooky broad.
“You didn’t have to do all this,” I said to my grandfather, jerking the knife loose with a grunt.
“How could I not?” Jack dipped his finger into the pie hole left by the knife and licked it. “Apple. And that one over there is peach. The pecan is self-evident. All of them fresh, I assure you. I walked down to Pike Place Market this morning for the ingredients, and battled zombies and young women with grabby hands—just for you.”
“My hero. I didn’t even know you could bake.”
“My dear,” he said, resting his hand on my shoulder, “before the Spanish Influenza killed me, I lived briefly as the son of a baker in New York City. Early-twentieth century. I still have the knack.”
“And how many lives have you lived? I’m surprised you remember anything at all.”
“I don’t.” He rolled up his sleeve to show me his tattoos: words and symbols, even numbers. “Old men need help, sometimes.”
I smiled to myself and began slicing pie. “You’re trouble, Old Wolf.”
“Of course.” He leaned on the table, watching me, and it felt comfortable, easy. My grandfather. I had a grandfather. I could say that again and again, and never grow tired of hearing it.
“What was your name when you were a baker’s son?”
“Michael,” he said. “I found him in the womb when he was just a little ball of cells. Quite darling. And then I simply embedded myself and dreamed a little, and the next thing I knew, I was born. My mother was Hannah, my father was Robert, and they were good people. Stern, rather too serious for a couple who sold sweets to children, but I liked them well enough.”
“Why did you allow the flu to take your life? Couldn’t you have fought it off?”
“I was done in that body. Other adventures awaited. And, experiencing mortality in all its different forms can be . . . illuminating.” Jack’s smile faded. “Is something wrong?”
I thought about the zombie I had exorcised less than an hour earlier. “You make it sound so easy. But I still have trouble reconciling the idea that you possess humans. You’re not demon, but you and your kind still use human bodies. Some, more so than others. I suppose . . . I wondered what my mother thought about that.”
“I don’t know,” Jack said, and fumbled for a small box of candles. “We talked very little the few times we met.”
I was sorry I said anything. I patted his hand. “Thank you for the pies, and for . . . for all of the rest. It’s wonderful.”
“You’re loved,” he said simply, then busied himself with setting candles into the pie, ignoring me as I leaned on the table, drawing circles in the spilled flour while suffering a peculiar weight in my chest that was hot and good, and heartbreaking.
I looked around the room. Byron had opened up one of the books and was reading—studiously ignoring Raw, who perched several stacks behind him, peering over his shoulder while picking slime from his nose with his claw. Mary was also seated on books, eating fresh marijuana leaves directly from a plastic bag—tapping her feet, humming to herself. Grant watched her, shaking his head—and then he looked away, at me.
I always felt a jolt when our eyes met. Always. My man. My good man. I was a mess, I was dangerous. I was the last living Warden of a failing prison that would one day release a demonic army on this world—and I had always expected to be alone, except for the boys. Never homebound, just road-bound, rootless, without a single person in the world knowing or caring whether I lived or died.
That had been the future. That was the way things were done in my family.
Except I’d made a different choice.
Claws touched my knee. Zee, beneath the table. I crouched and drew him into a brief hug. He didn’t let go.
“Bad dreams coming,” he whispered, for my ears only. “Can hear the whispers, singing in the storm.”
I got chills, followed by a sinking feeling in my gut. I took a deep breath, steadying myself. “And?”
“Won’t be the same.” Zee glanced over his shoulder at Aaz, who was sitting nearby; then Raw, who crawled from the shadows beneath the table to join his brothers. Dek and Mal slithered free of my hair, roping down my arms. “Will never be the same.”
A strong hand touched my shoulder. Grant, looking down at me with concern. I couldn’t pretend there was nothing wrong. Never mind I was a terrible liar. There wasn’t anything in a person that Grant couldn’t see—and what he could see, he could change—with nothing but his voice. Made him almost as dangerous as me. More so, maybe. I could kill. But I couldn’t alter souls.
“Later,” I mouthed to him, and he nodded faintly. I glanced at Jack, but the old man was still fussing with candles. Pretending, maybe. Hard to tell. Mary had stopped eating her marijuana leaves and held Byron by the hand, drawing him to the table while singing softly to herself.
I looked at them all. My family. My random, mismatched family. None of us was entirely human—not human like the rest of this world was human—but we belonged together. I’d found home.
The candles were lit. Twenty-seven, burning. Years, burning.
I blew them out in one breath, and made my wish.
I woke only minutes before dawn, on the edge of a nightmare.
Coiled in darkness, in my dream. Made of darkness, stitched from a vast oubliette of forgotten things, endless worlds of bone and blood and skins, stretched upon a canopy of stars. I felt the stars in my veins, glittering as my heart pumped light into the darkness, waiting, and in my dream I ate that light, every burning morsel, and swallowed it down a throat that curved, and twisted, and knotted itself into a mighty, unending circle. I was the circle, and the twist, and the knot, and there was no end to the hunger that filled me. No end, ever.
We tried to warn you, my mother’s voice echoed in the darkness, each word caught in the stars flowing inside that doomed river in my blood. Gave you signs and riddles, and scars. Fed you dreams. These dreams.
But you did not understand. And so it comes.
So you come.
Be strong, baby. Be strong.
I opened my eyes.
I was not in bed. I was curled in a ball on the floor, shivering. It was cold. So cold, there was a moment I imagined myself lost in snow, ice, pinned to frozen ground. But there was no snowdrift or black sky. Just a room filled with books and soft chairs, a grand piano in the corner and a red motorcycle parked by the couch.
Sweet home, part of me thought, but I felt inexplicably uneasy at the idea. It didn’t feel right that I had a home. I was a nomad. I lived out of my car and hotel rooms. No roots.
But I recognized this place. I knew it was home. I belonged. I lay very still, soaking in that sensation, and felt small tongues lick my ears. Heavy bodies coiled through my hair, long as snakes. Twin purrs rumbled low, soft, against my scalp.
“Maxine,” rasped a low voice. “Sweet Maxine.”
I did not move. Remaining still seemed like the safest thing I could do—still and quiet, like a mouse.
“You sound afraid,” I whispered. “Zee.”
The little demon shuffled into sight, dragging his claws against the hardwood floor. Graceful, even so—as though his muscles were water and wind, flowing beneath his taut skin. A silver vein pulsed against his throat, but the beat of his heart was not slow, or steady. Fluttering, instead. Shuddering.
He could not meet my gaze, and the unease I had felt since opening my eyes—that growing sense of wrong—bloomed hard and wide through my gut. Chased, too, by emptiness: a vast hole centered in my heart. It felt like it should be grief, but I didn’t know why.
I heard sniffling, and tried finally to sit up. I needed help. My muscles were inexplicably weak, joints rubbery, as though I had been running all night, swinging a baseball bat. Every inch of me felt used. My head hurt. Made me want to lie back down.
Slender clawed hands reached under my elbows. Raw and Aaz, spiked hair slicked tight against dark skulls, red eyes wide, glistening. Oversized baseball jerseys covered their bodies, the hems dragging, tangling in clawed feet as the two demons clung close, falling into my lap. I felt them tremble. Listened as they started sucking their claws, like babies. In my hair, Dek and Mal coiled even tighter against my scalp, their purrs ending in terrible silence.
I tried to speak, but my voice broke. I tried again, more slowly, feeling as though I were having a stroke as I struggled to say each small word.
“What is it?” I managed. “What happened?”
No one spoke. No one looked at me. Raw and Aaz pushed harder against my body, as though trying to burrow through my stomach. Zee stayed where he was, claws digging into the floor, cracking wood. I braced myself, trying to stay upright, and looked down.
Blood. Drying blood, glistening in spots.
Took me a moment to understand what I was looking at. I hadn’t seen that much blood in a long time. It covered the floor from me to the kitchen, dull and rusty as poison. My hands, I realized numbly, were soaked in it. Left hand, nothing but red. Right hand, also stained, except for the armor. I knew instantly what the armor was and wasn’t—magic, a key, growing in your body until you die—but it seemed as unreal as the blood, or the floor beneath me, or the breath in my lungs.
My right hand balled into a fist. I could smell the blood now, as though seeing it released its scent: metallic and warm, gushing through my nose and down my throat until I thought I would choke.
And I did choke, when I looked over my shoulder and saw who lay behind me.
“Jack.” I knocked aside demons, scrabbling on my hands and knees to reach the old man. I slipped in blood. His blood. So much blood, sticky and thick, surrounding him like some terrible red sea.
He faced away from me, clad in a light gray sweater, dark slacks. His white hair, wild. So proper. So eccentric. My grandfather was—
I touched him and knew.
I knew. Stared, unable to breathe. Watching, as though from a great distance as my fingers closed around his arm and shoulder, tugging gently, rolling him over. He was still warm, and it was difficult. I was weak. I was terrified.
But then it was done, he lay on his back—and I froze, staring. Punched in the heart so hard, everything stopped: my pulse, my blood, my life.
His throat had been cut. Ear to ear. Flesh gaped like an ugly smile.
Jack Meddle. My grandfather.
And the knife on the other side of him, in his blood, was mine.