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Once upon a time, things seemed so much simpler. I'd get a call from someone, or stumble upon some creature with no right to be here, and I'd hit them back to the world where it belonged. A few times, here and there, it'd get hairy, sure, but all in all, things tended to flow better, to move like clockwork. I'd say close to ninety percent of the beings that find their way to Earth are trying to escape the worlds and realms they live in. They're refugees who hope to escape wars, death, or other forms of cruelty, so they're not always the rough types. A lot of them cry and beg to be left alone, but lately, things aren't as simple as they used to be.
Take these two for example. Five days ago, I dealt with a monster who'd taken over the corpse of a priest I considered a friend, and that was no fun at all. I figured on taking a bit of a break after the whole mess, but this morning I got a call from a family who told me they thought their laundry room was haunted. They explained about voices they'd heard, how clothing would go missing or would be found chewed up as though it had been put through a paper shredder, and asked for my help. I wasn't sure what it could be, and it might've been nothing at all, but since they put down a non-refundable deposit, I figured I'd make the trip.
They lived in the very west end of the city, almost into Mississauga, but traffic was light enough, so I made good time. On my way I sent Rouge a message to let her know where I was and I'd text her when I was done. She sent me a smiley face and a message about a gig offer she wasn't happy about. Apparently, the promotor of the show thought fifty dollars for a high-end act she was usually paid two hundred for was a great opportunity for her. I asked if bringing over some Swiss Chalet and my full attention would be of any help. She messaged back that I was her hero.
I do what I can.
When I got out to the house, a little bungalow with a tiny, cute flowerbed nestled up to the porch and a tire swing hanging from a monstrous oak, the family — mother, father, and two daughters — came out to meet me. I grabbed my bag from the passenger seat and was taken inside. The father smiled at me weakly, but the mother seemed so happy that I was there. I could tell she was freaked out about the whole thing, while her husband was no doubt trying to come up with a logical explanation for it all that wouldn't involve them having to pay for my services.
Some people might think saying this is sexist or wrong, but in my experience with the strange and unexplainable, that's just how it goes. Going only from the people I've interacted with, it's just how it works out more than seventy-five percent of the time. Women seem to accept what their eyes see, while men want to over analyze so much and try to make the impossible fit into the reality they know. If I had time, I'd love to study those that won't or can't accept the strange, but monsters and demons keep me too busy.
"We usually take turns doing the laundry, so we've both seen things we just can't figure out," the wife explained. "I've heard voices, I swear I have, but when I go into the laundry room, there's nobody there."
"I thought, and still think, it might be us picking up some sort of radio or cellphone signals," the husband cut in as we stood in the living room. "But, well, there are other things I just can't quite ..."
"I think I get it," I said and smiled. I hoped it'd set their minds at ease. Letting people know they didn't sound crazy is a great first step to making them feel better. "I deal with things like this all the time."
"Do you think it'll be like one of the monsters you fought by those old buildings?" the youngest of the kids asked. I looked at her, confused, not sure what she meant, but she quickly went on and my stomach dropped a bit. "Those videos on YouTube are awesome. The monsters were so big and scary. That's why we told momma you'd be good at getting our monsters out of the laundry room."
"We haven't seen them yet," the other daughter said with a huge, mainly toothless smile. "But we know you're a superhero when it comes to monsters."
I said nothing. I'd known there had to be at least one video making the rounds from the fight in the Distillery District. When it all went down, I'd noticed a few people with cellphones out, pointed in my direction. It's the world we live in, but I really thought people would laugh them off. I'd hoped they'd think it was nothing more than movie magic or a viral video for a new creature feature.
Now, some might think it's weird for me to even care if a video of me fighting a monster gets out into the world. I mean, I have a website where people can come out and find me easy enough, though it's usually by stumbling on it while looking up porn sites involving large penises. A video on YouTube isn't the same thing. Especially if it's going viral, which I had no idea had happened, but if the kids had seen it, there was a chance.
"I don't know if 'superhero' is the right word," I said with a laugh, trying to brush it all off. "I'm more of a police officer or detective who's hunting down all the strange beasts that shouldn't be here." I looked from the girls to the parents and although the mother was still smiling, old doubting Thomas wasn't. In fact, his arms were crossed and he looked rather terse.
"So how much is this going to cost?" he asked, and I was prepared. I'm always ready for that question. I reached into my bag and pulled out a paper that contains all expenses. Normally, people are fine with it. I mean, if you really believe there is something supernatural in your house, what wouldn't you pay to get it out? There are always a few times where they look over the bill proposal and balk, but not often. The way he began to scowl going over it once, then twice, and then three more times, I was sure he was going to say no. "And how long will it take?"
"Depends on what's in there. I'm not sure what to think from the details you've given, but I think I can narrow it down to three or four possible species. Only one of them on the list is nasty. The others should be pretty fast and easy to tidy up for you folks."
"How long then?" he asked, sounding as thrilled as someone watching paint dry.
"Well, why don't the four of you go out for lunch while I go in and assess the situation? If it's one of the less threatening ones, it'll be done by the time you get back."
"And if not?" he asked, crossing his arms as if he would scold me if I gave him a longer time than he thought necessary.
"Well, if it is the other, more violent kind of creature, I'll have to go get something from my supplier to get rid of it. He's not far from here so I'd say regardless of what it is you'll be sleeping fine in your own beds tonight. Either way, I'll call one of you to let you know when it's done."
"We can't stay and watch?" the youngest girl cried out, and stomped her feet on the ground. "What's the point of having a monster fighter here if we can't see him fight monsters?"
I knelt down so I was eye to eye with both the girls, seeing as they were giving me equal amounts of stink eye. "So you saw that video of me with the big, ugly monster, right?"
"Well, there are a lot of things like that. Some are big and gross, stinky things that could wilt a flower. Some of them smell so bad, they could turn milk sour. Worse than the worst fart." They smile at the thought of it, the youngest covering her mouth to hold in a chuckle. "But sometimes, it's not just the old stink faces you have to worry about. A few of them are real bad, and will attack anyone who gets near them. The last thing I'd want to see is any of you getting hurt. That would mean I'm not doing my job, and a bad Yelp rating these days is killer. So, you two should go with your mom and dad, go get some food, maybe even ice cream for dessert — mint chocolate chip is my personal favorite — and I'll make sure you guys can all sleep safe and sound tonight. Sound good?" "I guess," the youngest said. "But I'd rather see you beat up a monster than eat ice cream. Dairy makes Daddy fart like a monster."
That was all that needed to be said, and they were off. Before they went though, Dad decided to give me a warning. He whispered that if he found out I was some kind of charlatan, he'd sue my ass back to last week. I just smiled and saw them off. It was the old Leave it to Beaver style where I stood on the steps of the house and waved to them as they drove off. Behind me, the house was silent. I took in a deep breath of the cool day outside before I turned to get to work.
My bag was on the floor, and I scooped it up and took a tour of the house, just to get a feel of it. The place was nice, tastefully if not plainly decorated with all the charm of Ikea and Wal Mart, but there was something cozy about it. It was a house that looked well lived in. Not messy and worn down, just homey.
It made me think of my own apartment. The sun doesn't always get in there, so there tends to be a dark, gloomy feeling at times. That's only made worse by the fact that I have so many oddities in there. Some of it is just specimen jars I've picked up at curio shops; others are things I've acquired on the job. I have bits of some of my stranger, more dangerous adventures. I have a piece of tentacle from the Hellion I fought, a claw and skull of one of many Gloudians I was attacked by, and even a tooth from one of the earthbound creatures I killed. My furniture is sparse and I could really use some time to give the place a good cleaning. Seeing this family's house made me feel as though my own apartment was more like Oscar the Grouch's place than a suitable place to live. It made me wonder what Rouge thought about it. She's never said anything overly negative in regards to it, not even something on the sly, which she's so good at. I could ask, but part of me is afraid of the answer she'd give.
It's strange to be worried about that. I mean the two of us sort of rushed head first into this relationship. Since I've never really dated anyone, at least on this planet, I'm not very good at knowing how fast or slow to take things, so I just let them happen. Rouge, on the other hand, is an intense person, someone who wears their feelings out in the open for people to see, for the most part, so she went with her feelings and we went from zero to sixty in no time. Since then we've slowed things up a bit. Not because we're afraid or getting bored, just because we want to keep it fun and light and allow the rest of it to take its course.
It was while I was thinking about all of that, lost in how happy I was with her and looking forward to seeing her, that I found the laundry room. I also found a surprise waiting for me.
The room was small, attached to the kitchen through a small doorway. The place was spotless and smelt of fabric softener and detergent. It was strong, but not unpleasant. I stood in the doorway, took it all in and waited to see if anything would happen. The way the mother described it, the washer and dryer would move on their own, jumping at times, even when they were off. She also said there were voices and the kids agreed: low, grumbling voices that sounded like monsters. There was nothing else to go on. No strange smells, no sightings of shadows, shapes or spirits. There was just a vague idea of what many would assume was a haunting. I sat my bag down, reached into my jacket and pulled out my Tincher, a dagger carved, blessed and branded with all possible curses, blessings and spells to defeat almost anything not of this world. Always assuming they're in range of the small blade. If they are, one swipe and it was lights out, dead or returned back to the place they came from, depending on the creature.
Nearly thirty minutes passed. I'm nothing if not patient. I stood there for half an hour, stared at the washer and dryer almost to the point of things becoming blurry, and waited for something to happen. A part of me wanted to sign into YouTube and see how many hits the video of me fighting those monsters had gotten, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I tricked my own head into thinking I needed to be quiet to make these things show themselves, but the truth of the matter was that I wasn't ready to see it yet. There was a chance I was going to be in some sort of hot water with it, so I needed time to build the courage before checking.
I was pulled out of worry with a dull, metallic thud. I focused towards the source of the sound, the dryer, and waited for more. It came again, then a third time, and on the forth one, the sound was coming from the washer as well.
"Alright, who's in there?" I called out, still in the doorway. "Might as well show yourselves. It makes it so much easier on everyone."
The thuds increased, joined by a pair of low, deep, guttural growls. The doors for the machines began to open and slam shut over and over again. Clearly whatever was in these machines was trying to scare me. It was also clear, they had no idea I was a hunter.
"Get out!" the dryer bellowed and jumped a half inch or so towards me. I tried not to chuckle at the sight of the possibility of extremely slow pursuit. "Get out or die, human!"
"Who said I was human?" I said, juggling my Tincher. The machines stopped moving at that. I wondered if they were pondering the seriousness of my question, or if they were trying to come up with a plan.
"Of course you're human," the washer growled, and the thuds started anew. "We will eat you and taste your delicious human meat."
"You can try, but how do you plan on doing that? I don't see teeth in those machines, assuming that's what you took possession of when you crossed over. So, you can try to eat me with your dull metal doors, but in the end, you'll only piss me off and I'll make you suffer before I send you back to where you came from."
"What? Who are you?" the washer asked in a low whisper.
"He's a hunter," the dryer said, and even in the tinny, echoed voice I could hear panic.
"Impossible. He's no hunter. He's just a stupid Earther."
I walked over to the machines. The bangs and thrashing about continued. They growled words I couldn't understand, nor cared to. I wasn't going to play around with them. I just took my dagger and slammed it into the top of the washer. There was a scream of metal against metal as I thrust the blade in, and then dragged it out, but no cries from the monster who'd taken possession of the machine. The creatures continued to make the washer and dryer jump and thud as they growled at me.
That's never happened before.
I stabbed again, to no end. Like I said, things used to be so much easier.
"Get the human!" the dryer commanded and they both made a minuscule hop in my direction. They hopped again, and as I watched, looking down at them, I saw something. They'd given themselves away.
"Sneaky bastards," I whispered, and couldn't help but smile.
I grabbed hold of the washer and pushed it so it landed on its side, and then did the same to the dryer, shoving it the other direction. The creatures screamed out as the machines crashed to the floor and revealed them for what they were. Maybe wherever these monsters were from they had access to the Wizard of Oz because they'd tried to pull off a move the Great and Powerful Oz would've been proud of.
Under the dryer were two small beasts, no bigger than a medium sized cat. They stared up at me with dull, empty eye sockets. Their bodies were made up of dust and lint, and as soon as they saw me, their growls stopped. They ran to hug each another with false arms, and just stared up at me.
"Do you know who I am?" I asked.
"Some human," one of them said, sounding less ominous since it no longer had the machine echoing its voice.
"Not really," I told them. "Judging by your height, shape, and the elongated skulls, I'm guessing you're both Bronns?"
"Oh no," said the one who'd been under the dryer. "I told you he was a hunter!"
"You got me," I said, walking towards them. They quivered and held on to one another. There was nowhere to run. The fallen machines were on either side of them, and behind them was a wall. It was time to send them back, and they knew it. The Tincher would be enough.
"Please don't hurt us."
"You know I have a job to do. You shouldn't be here. You know the rules. Not to mention you're scaring the nice family of humans that live here. You're leaving this planet."
"No, but if you leave now and let us be, we won't let Throg hurt you," the one from the washer said through the sound of tearless crying. "We aren't hurting anyone. We don't want to hurt you."
"Who or what is a Throg?"
Excerpted from "Altered Gate"
Copyright © 2019 Shaun Meeks.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
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