The Rule

          The train pulled into Chambers Street at 8:04am. It was teeming with passengers as usual. I stepped through the doors and spotted a sliver of space on the far end of the subway car. With briefcase in hand I weaved my way through the crowd to that small piece of unclaimed real estate.
          The door chimed and the train began to move. As I reached for the overhead bar to steady myself my palm grazed another man's hand. He was holding the rail with his right hand and clutching a folded copy of the New York Post with his left.
          "Sorry," I said automatically.
          The man slowly turned his head to me. He stared at me with his wide, brown eyes. "We're gay now,” he said coldly.
          “What?" I said with a chuckle.
          "Your hand touched mine,” he said. “That makes us gay together."
          I began to laugh but stopped when I realized he wasn't joking. "Uh, yeah, I don't think so."
          His face was pale and flat, like a tombstone. "That’s the rule," he said.
          I winced.
          We stared at one another uncomfortably. After a moment the train stopped, and the man began to inch toward the door. As he shuffled behind me he spoke softly into my ear. "We might as well get started. Meet tonight at eight at the Barley Club for an intimate dinner." His brow narrowed. "Don't be late, I have reservations."
          As he walked down the platform something struck me. I stepped out the door and called after him. "How do you have reservations if you just met me?"
          The man's only reply was the ruffling of his black suit coat. 
          A chime sounded and I stepped back into the car just as the doors closed.

          I arrived at the Barley Club at 8 o'clock for an unsatisfying steak dinner. After tiramisu and coffee the man asked me how I was enjoying my life as a newly-minted gay man.
          "It’s,” I paused, struggling to find the right word, “different. You?"
          He shrugged. "I think I preferred my girlfriend. But rules are rules." 
          Candlelight and shadow danced across his face.  I pictured us, twenty years from now, silently walking two French bulldogs down a quaint side-street in Greenwich Village. "Yeah,” I sighed. “Rules are rules."

Love in the Time of the Old Ones

We watched through the broken window of Spagnoli’s Fish Market as Ryan Beachard slowly ascended the massive pile of rubble that was once the South Street Seaport Mall.  He took one last drag of his cigarette before flicking it into the water.
Sarah stood to my left holding my calloused hand in her strong fingers.  Her grip tightened when Ryan reached the peak of the mountain of debris.
Pei Ling Chen stood to my right, her hand intentionally grazing mine from time to time.  It was both exciting and aggravating.    
Light flashed in the distance.  Ryan had cast the summon spell, as we called it.  Depending on where it was when summoned the thing could show up in anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.  Ryan knelt down and rummaged through his messenger bag, searching for another cigarette, I guessed.  He threw a Camel into his mouth and lit it with his Zippo.
Suddenly the ground began to shake, and a massive waterspout erupted as a towering form rose out of Upper New York Bay. 
Ryan’s eyes followed the shape as it rose to 20 stories above the water.  The cigarette fell from his mouth and sparked against his coat before being lost in the rubble.  The creature stood on three crab-like legs, each the width of a redwood tree trunk.  Hundreds of tentacles flowed out of its torso like the tendrils of a marine plant.  It crawled toward the Seaport.
Ryan appeared to be frozen, which was no surprise.  He wouldn’t be the first person who had ventured as far only to be driven mad by the sight of the towering abomination.  But I knew Ryan, and I knew that his mind was stronger than the others.
After a moment, he raised his hands toward the sky.  Ryan drew shapes in the cool autumn air as he spoke the arcane incantations. 
The thing saw Ryan with crimson eyes that roiled to the surface of its gray, corpse-like skin, only to burst and disappear like bubbles in a boiling pot.  It was no longer the spell that called the thing to Ryan.  It was the promise of live meat.
When the ritual ended.  I held my breath.  The thing stood in the water, pulsing and writhing.  The spell didn’t seem to have an effect on it. 
“Damn it,” I said and kicked the wall. 
Shhh!” said Sarah.   
Now it was the creature’s turn to attack.  It swung a thick tentacle at Ryan, the pallid limb curving through the air like a train falling off a cliff.  Ryan crouched, bracing for the inevitable, but before he could be devoured by one of its mouthed suckers the tentacle was deflected by a bell-jar of solid energy surrounding Ryan. 
Pei Ling perked up.  “Interesting,” she said in her thick Chinese accent.  “A force-field.”
I saw Sarah leer at Pei Ling from the corner of my eye.
I exhaled, but my relief was short-lived.  The thing beat on Ryan’s glass house again and again until it shattered in a blinding display of light.  When the light of the magic faded, Ryan was gone. 
The thing backed away from shore.  It climbed the remaining tower of the Brooklyn Bridge where it perched like an eagle waiting for prey to scurry out of hiding.      

Our party was silent as we negotiated the rubble strewn about Wall Street.  The strong smell of decaying flesh radiated from the ruined buildings.  We hadn’t the time or manpower to clear the rubble and dispose of the dead, and so the corpses were left to decay where they fell.  One thing people never imagine when they envision a post-apocalyptic world: the god-awful stench. 
I looked back at Pei Ling who was holstering her nine millimeter in order to climb over a crushed BMW SUV.  Guns, like most conventional weapons, are useless against the monsters.  Their hides are either too thick or their bodies are ethereal.  We carried them in case we ran into any people that might try to steal our supplies—maybe even eat us.
Pei Ling smiled when she caught my gaze.  I smiled back.  Our stare lingered too long.  When I looked forward I was met by Sarah’s scowling face.  I could tell this would come up later. 
After an hour we reached the 2, 3 subway station.  Three months ago, when the buildings were intact, the same trip wouldn’t have been more than a ten minute walk.  We took flashlights out of our backpacks and shuffled down the stairwell.  Three months ago we would have ridden a subway train to Pennsylvania Station.  Now we walked through the tunnels.

“How’d it go?” asked Jeffrey Pilaster as we made our way up the static escalator. 
“Bad,” I replied.  “The spell didn’t hurt the monster.  But it did create some kind of barrier around Ryan.”
Pilaster put his hand to his chin and stared pensively through his cracked glasses.  After a moment he whispered, “Protect self….  I thought it was ‘project self’.  Did it save him?” he asked with reserved hopefulness.
I shook my head.  “The thing made short work of it.”
Pilaster furled his brow and exhaled a deep breath.  He pulled a pack of Pall Malls from his breast pocket and withdrew two cigarettes.  He put one in his mouth and handed me the other.  I was about to light the end when Sarah swooped in and snatched it from my mouth.
“These are disgusting,” she said as she crushed it in her hand. 
I rolled my eyes.
I turned back to Pilaster.  I could tell he felt guilty.  “It’s not your fault, Jeff,” I said.  “You have to keep trying.” 
He nodded and then walked back to his apartment with his head down.
“Have a pleasant evening, Arthur,” said Pei Ling in her formal speaking style.  She headed toward the ticketing booth for radio duty.
“Have a pleasant evening,” I parroted.

Sarah and I entered our home—the former Penn Station Taco Bell.  I shut the metal gate and turned around to find Sarah standing only inches behind me.
“Don’t think I don’t see what’s going on,” she said acerbically.
Don’t think, you don’t see,” I said, counting the negative conjunctions on my left hand, “what’s going on.” 
“If I find out you’ve been messing around with that little Chinese tart,” she said, her finger wagging at my nose, “I’m going to cut your balls off, Arthur—just like I’d do to a dog that can’t stay in the yard.”
“I love you too, honey.”
Sarah shoved me into the security gate.  The slated door buckled under my weight.
The friction between us was nothing new.  During the two years we were together our arguments had grown increasingly personal and violent.  One night, after a memorably vitriolic argument, I had made the decision to leave Sarah.  But before I was able to muster the courage to end it, an urgent TV news report broke. 
Something had been smashing houses to smithereens during the middle of the night in a small Hamlet just outside of Providence, Rhode Island.  It was something so huge it could completely demolish a small building, and yet there wasn’t a single eyewitness account.  It was a curious and frightening account, but it was only a sample of things to come.    
In the days following several creatures began to appear near an abandoned radio station near Providence.  They tore into our world by the dozens, destroying everything in their path.  The military attacked, but their efforts were futile.  There was in-fighting over territory.  Eventually the creatures spread, first across the country, then the globe. 
Sometimes a disaster will bring people closer together—it did for us.  We used each other as crutches to limp on through the dark times.  For a while we were civil again, but you can get used to anything.  After we adapted to life beneath the “feet” of the Ancient Ones the old problems reared their persistent heads. 
I lifted the gate halfway and ducked beneath it.
“Where do you think you’re going?” said Sarah said.
I turned back.  “Ryan’s memorial service—I need to spread the word.”
“I’m sure you do,” she replied sarcastically.
I left Taco Hell and walked down the connecting concourse toward the ticketing office.   My steel-toed boots echoed down the corridor.  A few months ago the hallways would have been strewn with sleeping refugees—the stores and offices triple, even quadruple-bunked—but the halls were empty now, and a few of the stores were even vacant.
My knuckles rapped on the private sign stuck to the door of the ticket vendors’ lounge. 
“It’s me,” I said.
There was a muffled reply, “Come in.”
I entered the office and quietly shut the door behind me.  Pei Ling was seated at a desk running through bands on the CB radio.  She looked cute in camouflage pants and a wife-beater. 
“Anything?” I said picking up her clipboard.  She had written the time and several radio frequencies.  Next to each frequency were the words no transmission written in perfect calligraphy.
“No.  I reported today’s activities, but no one responded.”
We kept in touch with other pockets of resistance.  We would transmit our efforts over the CB and note any significant broadcasts that came back.  Our hope was that someone somewhere might discover the creatures’ weakness.  We had yet to hear anything useful.       
“Maybe they’re busy,” I said, trying to sound optimistic.   
“Maybe,” she said standing up.
Pei Ling stood.  She threw her arms around my neck and gave me a hard kiss.  “Baby, I missed you so much!  Did you miss me?”
Women, I thought.  It had been less than an hour since we last saw each other.  “Of course I did,” I said with a smile.
I stared into her wide brown eye and tried to forget that we were on the verge of extinction, if only for a moment.   
“I don’t have a lot of time,” I told her.
“I understand.”  She immediately began peeling off her clothes. 
What a woman, I thought, as I followed her lead. 

Twenty minutes later we lay sprawled on the floor with only our clothing between our sweaty bodies and the cold tile.
“Baby, when will we be together?” Pei Ling asked as she combed her fingers through my chest hair. 
The question had become a recurring theme to our tryst. 
I sighed.  “I don’t know, babe.  Sarah—”
“You do not love her anymore?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“Then you should leave her.”
“It’s not that easy.”  I said frustrated.
“If you are not satisfied with a relationship, then you abandon it.”
“Sweetie, it isn’t like before—when you broke up with someone and never saw them again.  We work together—live together—I see her every day.  She sees you every day.”
“It is exactly the same as before.  We are the architects of our own happiness.  You just have to take action.” 
“Believe me, if I left Sarah and started up with you she would do everything in her power to make our lives hell.”
“The world is not already hell?  What more can she do than already has been done?”
I raised my eyebrows and sighed.  “I have to get back.”

The next morning there was a pounding on the security gate.  I raised the door. 
“I found another one,” said Pilaster holding up the ancient leather-bound tome.  It was early morning, but he was already smoking a cigarette.  “You have to get everyone together for the lottery. 
I massaged the bridge of my nose and let out a tired breath.  “Later tonight,” I replied.  “They’ll cast tomorrow.”
“But the thing is still out there,” he said pointing east.
“Can we have a moment?” I snapped at him.  “Ryan’s body isn’t even cold yet.  We’ll send someone tomorrow.”
Pilaster looked at the cracked concrete floor and nodded.  “Alright.”  He paused.  “Tomorrow.” 
He left and I shuttered the door.  My stomach was grumbling for breakfast, which would undoubtedly be tortilla-related.
“You should send Pei Ling,” my wife said, surprising me.
“What do you mean I should send Pei Ling?” I glared at her.  “I don’t send anyone.  Chance does.”
“Don’t give me that horseshit.  You run the lottery, don’t you?”
I stared at her uncomfortably. 
She flared her eyes at me.
“So I should just pick Pei Ling and let her get killed?” I said flabbergasted.  “What is wrong with you?”
“You’re going to kill someone.  Does it matter who?”
I don’t kill anyone!  It’s up to chance—it’s a god damn lottery!”
Sarah took two steps toward me.  “Someone has to die, Arthur.  Why should you care if it were Pei Ling?”
The icy calm in her voice sent a chill through my body.  I shook my head as I backed away.  “I have to go,” I said.  “I have work to do.”
I left our apartment and made my away around Penn Station.  I pounded on security gates and office doors alerting the people that there would be a memorial service followed by a lottery. 

After Ryan’s memorial service, which was officiated by Pilaster, the group congregated in front of the staircase in the main concourse.  The numbers seemed thinner than ever—30, 35 maybe.  Had some deserted us?  
                I headed to a fire extinguisher cabinet bolted to the side of the stairs.  I pulled a key from my jacket pocket and unlocked the padlock.  Inside was a large Folger’s Coffee can.  Normally the case wouldn’t be locked should someone need the extinguisher in the event of a fire, but I had fixed a padlock to the door to keep people from tampering with the coffee can.   (The fire extinguisher was on the floor beneath the cabinet.)   Taking the can I wove through the crowd and hopped onto the third step of the staircase.
Looks of anxiety and despair adorned the peoples’ faces.  Pei Ling stood in the back leaning against the door of an Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop, her arms at her side.  Sarah stood on the other side of the room, arms crossed and glaring at me.
“Friends!” I yelled.  The people stopped talking and looked at me.  “Thank you all for coming.”
“Why do we bother?” shouted someone in the back.  I strained to see who, but the light from the barrel fire wasn’t strong enough to illuminate his face.  “We just end up getting ourselves killed!” 
There were supportive rumblings from the crowd.
“Friends, please!  I know you are all tired and frustrated, but we are getting closer to finding a spell that will banish the Old Ones.”
“How do you know that?” shouted Ryan Beachard’s sister.  She had the same pale skin and curly blond locks that her older brother had. 
“The translations—”
“Pilaster can’t read Arabic for shit!” shouted another voice from the shadows.
From the corner of my eye I could see Pilaster lower his head.
“Mr. Pilaster is doing all he can.  It’s only a matter of time before we find the right incantation!  This struggle has an end!”
More rumblings sounded, this time in my favor.
“What else can we do but keep trying?” I said.
“We could leave!” shouted another faceless voice.
“And go where?  To the Mountains in the north, where the monster floats above a bed of timber and bones?  South, to the grotto of the dreaming god?  On the radio an army Lieutenant claimed there’s a whole city of humanoid fish creatures on the west coast.  Should we try there?”
The rebels were beginning to lose steam. 
“This isn’t a problem we can run from!  We make our stand here, now.  There is a spell that can exile the monsters.  Dr. Pasqual was certain of that.  We just have to keep trying until we find it.”
A few heads nodded.  Some people sighed in resignation.  They knew I spoke the truth.  The things were everywhere.  All we could do was scurry between the cracks beneath their feet, like the rats in the subway, until we found a way to defeat them.
  “Remember we’re not just doing this for ourselves.  We are doing this for the world.  Now, I’m going to draw a name.”  I reached into the coffee can and withdrew a scrap of paper.
I read the name, which had been written by the entrant herself.  “Karen Wooster,” I said definitively. 
A girl gasped.
“No!” cried her father, Robert Wooster.
I pursed my lips and looked at the floor. 
“Not my Karen,” he said.  “Draw again!”
“It’s a lottery, Robert,” I said holding up my hands. 
Unlike Pilaster, I had given up on feeling guilty.  I’d always been the one to draw the names, but the selection process was based on chance.  If I didn’t draw the names, someone else would.  And if it wasn’t Karen, it would be another.  These were the rules the group had agreed upon in the beginning.
Robert paused, his face smeared with anger and desperation.  “Then I’ll do it.  I’ll go in her place.”
I looked into his eyes.  “You can,” I told him.  “But are you absolutely sure you want to?”
“It’s my daughter,” he said indignantly.  “Of course I’m sure.”
I shook my head.  “Then meet with Pilaster tomorrow at dawn to learn the spell.  We’ll head out at noon.”  I addressed the crowd.  “The lottery is settled. You can all go home.”
The crowd slowly dispersed to a coda of grumbling and whispers.
The only other person who had ever volunteered to cast a spell was an NYU professor named Doctor Victor Pasqual.  Pasqual had access to NYU’s Bobst Library, a repository for rare texts, which he frequented to indulge his personal interest in the occult.  It was here that he found the ancient tome.
Although the readings in the tome fascinated Pasqual, he had never believed them to be anything more than ancient folklore.  But when the creatures started to appear, and the doctor saw that their anatomy was strikingly similar to the diagrams and descriptions logged in the tome, he concluded that the book was rooted more in reality than superstition. 
Realizing the tome was the key to unraveling the mystery of these eerie new creatures, Pasqual seized the book from the Bobst Library and felt into the subway. 
After stumbling through the underground for days, scouring for a safe haven, the doctor happened upon our encampment under the ruins of Madison Square Garden.  Like most refugees, we took him in and gave him a place where he felt safe.
It wasn’t long before Pasqual began conducting experiments based on the readings in the tome.  I had never believed in magic before I met the doctor, but with the book he was able to do impossible things.  He could reanimate dead rats.  Make shadows speak in tongues.  Once I even saw him turn a dog inside out by merely speaking a few arcane syllables.  (He swore the dog was an accident.)      
After months of research Pasqual thought he had found a spell to bind the Old Ones.  He was so certain of his discovery that he insisted he be the one to cast it and, I think secretly, the one to get the credit.  While the thing was busy destroying the Brooklyn Bridge, Dr. Pasqual marched out onto the balcony of the South Street Seaport.  He shouted the incantations in a tone fat with undeserved triumph.  But magic is often vague and unpredictable.
When he concluded the spell a flash of light flared around his body.  The thing raised—what I could only assume was its head—and looked directly at the Doctor.  With only a moment’s hesitation it leapt toward the seaport.  Terrified Pasqual clumsily descended the staircase, but it was too late.  The thing whipped the building to pieces with its innumerous tentacles. 
Twenty of us had escorted Pasqual to Seaport, eager to see the monster destroyed—only seven of us made it back.  The good Doctor was not among those able to count their blessings that day. 
It was stupid to let the Doctor cast the first spell being the only person among us who could read Arabic.  We realized that as soon as the thing charged the Seaport.  Fortunately the doctor had at least enough sense to take on a protégé in the months leading up to his becoming a creature hors d'oeuvre.  Pilaster may not be an archaeolexicologist, but he’s better than nothing.  Maybe Ryan Beachard would have disagreed, but I don’t.

Pilaster had called a special meeting to discuss the book.  Six of us sat at a fold-out table in a security office.  Six leaders—unelected and unqualified. 
“This is the last spell,” Pilaster said getting right to the point.
“What do you mean?”  I said.
He grasped the tome by its covers and shook it as if trying to fling the pages from their binding.  “I mean this thing is kicked.”
“What are you talking about?  The book is huge,” Sarah said, referring to the tome’s 1,000 plus pages.
Pilaster let out a brief chuckle.  “This tome is one part history book, one part anatomy text, and one part grimoire.  The spells are only sprinkled throughout, and only a handful of them allude to being offensive.”
“If there are no more spells, then what the hell are we going to do?” My heart stopped.  “What am I going to tell them?” I said pointing toward the main concourse.
“There may be hope.  Pasqual’s journal spoke of another book that was alleged to contain spells.  It’s called the Libris de Lumine.  Literally translated it means the Book of Light.”
“And what’s ours called?” Sarah said pointing to the book in Pilaster’s hands.
“This one,” he said stubbing his finger on the ancient leather cover, “translates to the Book of Dead Names.”
“It’s called the Book of Dead Names?” Her eyes widened.  “Jesus, I can’t imagine why nothing good has ever come of it.” 
I closed my eyes and sighed.  “Where is this Book of Light?” 
“According to Pasqual, Bauman Rare Books was in possession of a copy when everything went to hell.  It might still be there.”
“Yeah,” snorted Joe Cabot, “buried under a pile of rubble.”  Joe was a former army Lieutenant, which made him our default weapons expert.
I thought for a moment.  “Alright, we’ll cast the last spell tomorrow and then head uptown to try to find the other book.”
“I have a suggestion,” Pei Ling chimed in.  “I think it would be desirable to send two groups.  That way the monster will be distracted by the spell as the second team recovers the book.”
“Good thinking,” said Pilaster.
An idea came to me.  “Sarah, you lead the team to Spagnoli’s to monitor the effects of the spell.  I’ll take another team to midtown to try to find the book.”
She looked at me skeptically.  “Why you?”
“Because you’ve done the Seaport run a dozen times, and I know the area around Bauman’s—my office was just around the corner.  Remember?” 
Sarah’s brow narrowed, but she said nothing more.

We set out the next day.  My team consisted of four people: Joe Cabot, Brendan Weller, a scavenger, and, of course, Pei Ling.  Sarah was infuriated, but there was nothing she could do.  I had already picked my role in the mission.  Pei Ling was free to choose which team she would aid. 
We headed up 8th Avenue through the A, C, E subway line.  A few trains plugged the tunnel, but they were deserted.  When we reached 5th Ave & 53rd Street we left the relative safety of the subway and headed above ground. 
To our surprise some of the buildings were still intact—a rare sight since the thing had made New York City its playground. 
“Bauman’s is only a few blocks away,” I said examining a fell street sign.
“Smooth sailing,” replied Joe.  He pulled a beige army cap from his back pocket and pulled it over his shaved head.
Brendan looked at him anxiously, as if Joe had just cursed our expedition with his hubris. 
We passed a few stores as we headed north on Madison Avenue.  The front windows were smashed.  Clothing was strewn about.  The food taken.  No surprise there.  Raiding had become our new pastime.      
Bauman Rare Books was relatively intact.  The glass doors were shattered, and a few tomes were scattered across the marble floor, but compared to the other shops Bauman’s looked newly renovated.  Literature wasn’t something you needed to survive an apocalypse. 
We fanned out and began searching for the Libris de Lumine
As I climbed the spiral staircase leading to the balcony, Pei Ling let out a scream.  I bolted down the stairs and followed Brendan and Joe into a back office.  We found Pei Ling frozen,her hands over her mouth.  In front of her sat a man’s decayed corpse.  There was a large splash of dried blood and brain matter on the wall behind him. 
“Are you alright?” I said, taking Pei Ling by the shoulders. 
Her focus broke away from the carnage.
“Arthur,” she paused.  “Yes.  I—I am sorry I caused you alarm.”
“You don’t have to apologize.  I would have screamed too—only the pitch would have been higher,” I said with a wink.
“I should be used to these sights by now.”
“It’s human to be scared.”
Joe bent down and pried the Smith & Wesson Russian revolver that was still clutched in the corpse’s stiff hand.  “Is there anything in this store that isn’t an antique?” he said dismayed by the find.

We continued the search.  After two hours we were about to give up when I noticed a white book sitting atop a plaster plinth on the library balcony.  I lifted the book from its resting place, my fingers trembling under its unnatural weight.  This has to be the it, I thought.  I can feel it. 
“I’ve got it,” I shouted to the team.  Curious, I looked at the price tag.  Six thousand dollars.  “Oof,” I cringed.  “Bill me.”
Just then the ground shook.  Several books fell off their shelves, landing haphazardly on the floor.  An ornate vase wobbled off a pedestal and shattered.  We looked at each other, eyes bulging with dread. 
“Time to go,” said Brendan. 
I stuffed the book into my surplus army backpack and dashed down the spiral staircase. 
We hustled outside and headed south on Madison Ave. toward the subway.  As we crossed 54th Street we heard a roar that sounded like the oscillating twang of a mammoth band of rubber.  It rumbled in the distance, and then grew louder.
Suddenly there was crash as loud as dynamite.  I looked up in time to see a strange monster slam into the side of a skyscraper.  It looked like the dismembered head of an aardvark, but it had a shorter snout that ended with mandibles.  Its head was encircled with a wreath of waving tentacles, each tipped with a long curved spine. 
The thing slid down the building and smashed into the asphalt.  One of its tentacles flailed toward us.  It landed on Brendan, crushing him with the weight of an oak tree. 
“No!” screamed Joe.
“Run!” I yelled.
But it was too late.  A massive section of stone and glass detached from the skyscraper.  Joe tried to outrun it, but that one moment of hesitation was enough to get him buried under a mound of debris. 
Pei Ling and I kept moving.  Behind us we could hear the new monster lifting itself from the rubble.   As if the situation couldn’t get any worse, the thing skittered out from behind the New York Palace Hotel just north of 50th Street.  When it spotted us with one of its bubbling red eyes it let out a wail that fluctuated in and out of the human ear’s audible spectrum.
“Don’t stop!” I yelled to Pei Ling. 
We raced the thing to the corner.  If we could make it one more block we could hide underground.
The thing whipped a massive tentacle across Madison Ave, blocking our path.  It took a step closer and raised its trunk-like leg.  But before it could crush us underfoot the aardvark creature soared overhead, crashing into the thing’s rubbery body.  The thing was thrown onto its back, dragging the barricading tentacle with it.
While the aardvark speared the thing with its tentacles, Pei Ling and I rounded the corner and made for the subway station.  We darted down the stairs jumped off the platform.  As our feet touched the track bed a loud thud sounded overhead.  Then there was a crash as part of the street caved in behind us.  Pei Ling and I bolted toward the tunnel as the cave-in spread like a crack in a car windshield.   Dust and debris ushered us into the pitch-black tunnels.

We had to stop and rest once we reached Port Authority.  I boosted Pei Ling onto the subway platform.  As soon as I hoisted myself out of the track bed she threw herself into my arms and began to sob. 
“There are two now,” she croaked into my polyester jacket.  “Two.
“I know, baby,” I said.  “I know.”  I felt an urge to cry myself, but I didn’t dare fall apart for her sake and for the sake of my sanity, which was now walking the edge of an abyss.  “But we can stop them now.”  I said, trying to reassure her.  I patted the side of my backpack.  “We have the Book of Light now.”
Pei Ling continued to cry.  For over an hour we sat coupled together in anguish, the domes of the yellow tactile paving digging into our knees.  Her fears were valid.  There were two of those things now, and unless one of them was killed or retreated their fighting would completely destroy what little of the city was left.  And as much as I wanted to whole-heartedly believe in the tome nestled between my shoulder blades, I couldn’t—not completely. 

We returned to Penn Station after dusk.  I was exhausted having had to carry Pei Ling for most of the trip back.  I set her on the couch in the ticketing office lounge and covered her with my jacket.  I wanted nothing more than to lay by her side and hold her until I drifted into unconsciousness, but I had a relationship to pay homage to. 
Reluctantly I headed back to Taco Bell.  Pilaster would have to wait until morning.  As I reached down to lift the security gate I felt a strange feeling come over me.  I found myself hoping that Sarah wouldn’t be there—wishing she had somehow become collateral damage in the monsters’ battle.  And when I raised the gate and found her waiting for me expectantly with that familiar scowl on her face, I found myself feeling deeply disappointed.    
“Where the hell have you been?” she said angrily.
Dumbfounded I raised my hands to the ceiling.  “Where do you think?  I was retrieving that god-damned book!”
“It doesn’t take all day to go to midtown!”
 “Oh, you know.  Pei Ling and I stopped into the Ginger for a few glasses of wine, and then we got a room at the Hudson Hotel.”
“You probably would have if you could,” she said, taking a step toward me. 
“Would you cut the petty jealousy?” I shouted.  “Half of our team died today!”
“You think we all made it back in one piece?” She said, getting up in my face.
“So what, it’s my fault?” 
“I needed you there with me!”  Her eyes glistened.  “But instead you were with that little tramp!”
“This is crazy,” I said taking a step back.  “This is crazy.  I can’t deal with this right now.  I can’t.”  I lifted the gate.  “Goodbye, Sarah.” 
As I walked toward Pilaster’s apartment, Sarah followed.
“Fine, go ahead!” She said.  “Go to your little whore!”
“Don’t call Pilaster a whore,” I said without looking back.
If anyone was lucky enough to fall sleep, our exchange surely put an end to their good fortune.
I knocked on the door that shuttered the Penn Station Starbucks.  In a matter of seconds Pilaster threw up the gate.
“Arthur,” he said, his eyes wide with surprise.  “I… I didn’t—”
“You thought I was dead,” I said matter-of-factly. 
“When I didn’t see you return, I—I feared it, yes.”  He peeked into the hallway to see if anyone else was with me.  “Come in, come in.  I’ll pour us some coffee.”
The Starbucks hadn’t changed much since Pilaster had moved in.  The interior’s earthen color pallet and rich wood floor made the room feel warm and inviting.  Pilaster had even left the faux leather furniture scattered about in their original places.  The only real difference was that the merchandise was gone—either used or put into storage—and replaced by cartons of cigarettes and arcane books—Dr. Pasqual’s legacy.
Pilaster ducked behind the Corian barista counter and returned with two cups of cold brew. 
“Remember hot coffee?” he said as he set a cup in front of me.
I chuckled. 
                He took a sip from his cup and then sighed.  “Arthur, I want to apologize to you—to all of you really.”
                “What do you mean?”
                He took off his glasses and rubbed the corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.  “It’s because of me that we now have another monster.”
                “About that….”
                “The spell that Robert cast—it opened a portal into their world.  And another one came out.” 
                I closed my eyes and kneaded my forehead.
                “I know I’m not the best translator,” he said looking away. 
                “You’re all we’ve got, man,” I said with tired resignation.  “If that book were in my hands, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.  With you we at least have some hope.  And that’s more than the rest of us can offer.”
                Pilaster stared bleakly at the coffee swirling around his cup.
                I unzipped my backpack.  “Maybe you’ll have better luck with this,” I said and handed him the Book of Light.
                “The Libris de Lumine.”  He smiled softly.  “You got it.”
                “Yeah.  At the expense of Joe and Brendan.”
                “Oh,” he said gravely.
                “That just means we need to make this count.”
                Pilaster shook his head.
                Suddenly the demands of the day caught up with me, and I could barely hold my head up.  “Do you mind if I just lay here a minute?” I said and lay down on the couch before he could answer.
                “Go right ahead,” Pilaster said turning his attention to the book.  “I want to get to work on….”
                His voice faded as I fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes I found myself standing at the end of a dimly lit subway corridor.  I pulled out my flashlight and tried to turn it on, but it wouldn’t work.  I smacked the end against my palm repeatedly when suddenly I heard a sickening roar.  My blood froze.  A writhing, tentacled shadow appeared on the wall a few feet away from me.  Something was approaching from an adjacent hallway. 
                As the shadow climbed higher and higher on the wall the roars grew louder.  It rounded the corner, and I braced myself for the sight of its horrible form, but I was surprised to see that it wasn’t an Old One.  It was Sarah dressed in a flowing black ball gown. 
“Sarah, thank god,” I sighed in relief.  “I thought you were one a monster.”
She cracked a wicked smile and shook her head.  As she came closer her skirt trembled and split into a cluster of oily tentacles. 
My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t move.
Sarah reached toward me with a trembling arm that morphed into a tentacle covered in round mouths, each one snapping its needle-teeth between its bruised and bloodied gums. 
As she wrapped her tentacles around me the mouths bore into my skin.  Sarah leaned in for a kiss, and as she did her mouth split into mandibles.
I screamed.
“Arthur!” said a voice from a thousand miles away.
As I came to Sarah’s horrible image faded and it was replaced with Pilaster’s mousy face. 
“You’re having a nightmare,” he said.
“Jeffrey,” I said.  “Thank god.”
“Get up.  I’ve found one.  You have to call a lottery.”
I rubbed my fists against my eyelids.  “I’m on it.”

I had managed to get everyone together shortly after dawn.  As the crowd waited I walked beside the staircase to fetch the coffee can.  To my surprise Pei Ling was waiting for me.
“Pei Ling,” I said, looking around to make sure no one was near.  “What are you doing back here?”
“Arthur, I just wanted to thank you for taking care of me yesterday,” she said and handed me my coat.  “Without you, I surely would not have returned.”
“It’s fine,” I said.  “I can’t really talk, it’s time for the drawing.”
“Of course.  Good luck.”  Pei Ling smiled and headed over to the Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop.
Good luck? I thought.
I leapt up the stairs with the can tucked beneath my arm.  The group was down to twenty five people—the smallest number ever.  The hopelessness in the air was palpable—the latest deaths having crushed what remained of the group’s morale. 
I explained that Pilaster had found a new grimoire and that we would be drawing for someone to cast the first spell.  Surprisingly I was met with no objections.  I quickly realized that the group was complacent only because their spirit had finally been broken.  There was no fight left in them. 
“Come on now, people.  I need you,” I said, trying to enliven them.
A middle-aged woman with a gaunt face looked at me and plainly asked, “Why, Arthur?  Why should we think this one will be any different?”
Because,” I said, “this one came from the Book of Light.” 
Subdued curiosity dawned on a few faces.
“A light to banish the things that came from the darkness!” 
Their hopelessness seemed to diminish at the mention of the book’s name, but it didn’t vanish completely.  The people had been defeated too many times to allow themselves to get worked up.
“I’ll draw a name and they’ll cast the spell this evening.”
Some people looked confused.  Usually the spell would require more than just an afternoon’s preparation.
“We don’t have any time to lose.  Those things are up there tearing the city apart right down to the subway lines.  We have to act now before the Garden comes down on top of us.”
I caught a nod from Pei Ling.
I reached into the coffee can and shuffled the ribbons of paper before choosing an entry.
I looked at the crowd, my eyes as big as half-dollars.  “Sarah Buckland,” I said in a state of disbelief.  
There were a few gasps from the crowd.  No one had expected me to draw my own wife’s name.  Whether by cheating or pure chance, no one thought it would happen.
I looked at Sarah.  “I’m sorry,” I said. 
Sarah’s face showed no emotion, which was surprisingly more unnerving had she become enraged.

Thunderous roars and seismic vibrations accompanied the group on the way to the Seaport.  Pei Ling decided to sit this trip out for obvious reasons.  Sarah didn’t speak a word to me throughout the entire trek. 
After we were situated in Spagnoli’s I turned to Sarah.  “Are you ready?”
She nodded—nothing more.
“Look,” I said feeling guilty.  “I’m sorry it turned out this way.  But—hey—it could work this time.  This is the Book of—.”
“Stop,” she cut me off.  Sarah looked out to the mound of rubble that was once a thriving tourist attraction. Without looking at me she said one last thing.  “You better pray the spell doesn’t work, Arthur… for your sake.”
She opened the fire door and crossed the FDR Drive.
It was obvious Sarah suspected I had rigged the drawing, and, although I hadn’t, I still held part of the blame.  When I read the ribbon of paper, I vaguely recognized the neat calligraphy in which Sarah’s name was written.  Before locking up the coffee can I pulled out a handful of entries.  Sarah’s name was written on each one.    We are the architects of our own happiness, I recalled Pei Ling saying. 
Sarah could have tried to appeal to the camp, but would anyone listen?  She said it herself—someone has to die.  A redrawing would only mean that one of them might end up taking her place. 
As Sarah climbed the mountain of debris, I thought about what she had said.  I didn’t think the first spell would end any differently than the others.  That would be too easy.  But what if Pilaster’s expectations were justified?  What if the spells in this book were different? 
Suddenly I found myself hoping the spell would fail.  Because if the creatures were destroyed, or banished back to their far corner of space and time, it meant that Sarah would survive, and she would return with a wrath more terrible than could be dreamed-up by any moldy, old God.

-The End

Hair of the Dog (Part II)

Hair of the Dog (Part II)

by Brett Van Valkenburg

Phil gasped and sat up.  He was on the couch in his apartment on South 3rd Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  He fell back onto a throw pillow and breathed deeply.  Crazy dreams, he thought—three nightmares in a row. 
After a few minutes, Phil got up to shower and dress for work.  As he brushed his teeth, he stared at his face, as if trying to catch it doing something it shouldn’t.  Before leaving the apartment Phil crouched on the floor and peered beneath the threshold of his roommate’s door.  The light was on, but he couldn’t hear her moving around.   He shook his head and left the apartment.
Phil smoked a cigarette on his way to the subway.  He passed two girls skipping in the hot summer sun.  A delivery man opened the barrel hatch beneath the Alligator Lounge.  The man handed cases of beer, at which Phil licked his lips, to a Mexican bar-back standing in the cellar.  As he neared the subway station Phil could hear the train screeching to a halt beneath his feet.  He and his fellow suits rushed down the stairs to the platform, eager to arrive at their three and a half walled prisons on time. 
As he rode the subway he revisited the first dream.  Phil hadn’t thought about Robert in years.  As soon as his mother had introduced him, Phil had hated him fiercely.  In his adolescent mind, he saw Robert as his mother’s attempt to supplant the memory of his father, and to punish them both Phil had treated them like garbage.  At least Robert was finally able to escape Phil’s wrath.  The marriage hadn’t lasted more than a year before he threw in the towel.  He left her citing a lack of common interests, but she suspected it was because of Phil.  Robert really was a good man—too good to tell his mother the truth about why he couldn’t stick it out.
Phil shook his head.  Poor mom, he thought.

The workload was light that day.  Only a handful of people called customer service to inquire about their credit cards, and Phil answered each question as efficiently as he could.  When the workday ended none of his coworkers wanted to go for a drink.  His colleagues had spouses to meet—children to attend to.  Everyone had to get home leaving him to do the same by default.
On the way to his apartment he grabbed a turkey sandwich and a six pack of PBR from El Morro Deli across the street.  When he returned home, he found that Haley’s bedroom door was still closed, but now he could hear the television. 
Phil leaned his head against the door.  “Haley?” he spoke softly.
No answer. 
He sighed and gave up.  Haley’s temperament was fickle, he knew, and if she was in one of her moods, it was better to just leave her alone. 
Phil plopped down on the couch.  He fired up an episode of the Simpsons on the DVD player and watched as he ate.  After a few episodes and a few more beers he shuffled off to bed.
The next day unfolded the same as the day before, as did the next and the next—a routine he was very used to.  Work was unstimulating. Haley was still locked in her room.  The only things that changed were the television shows as he ate his turkey sandwich and drank PBR. 
But the days didn’t just feel repetitive.  They felt familiar.  Lived in.  It was as if the events of each day were preceded by the memory of having experienced them before, like a protracted case of déjà vu.  That’s why they call it a routine, thought Phil, trying to dismiss his apprehensions. 
As he headed home on day five Phil stopped into the Tin Lounge, desperate to break up the monotony of the week.  He pulled up a stool at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic.  As he waited for the bartender he thought about his Disney dream, as he had many times that week.
  A glass hit the bar with a thud.  “Thanks,” said Phil with a start.
“Hair of the dog,” replied the bartender. 
Phil squinted at him.  “Sure,” he replied.  He took a sip of the drink and spit it back into the glass. 
“Hey,” he said beckoning to the bartender with his index finger. 
The barkeep glided toward him.
“This is isn’t what I ordered.”
“Hair of the dog,” replied the bartender with a smile.
Phil eyed the bartender warily.  His reply sounded eerily familiar.  “I ordered a Beefeater and tonic.” 
“Hair of the dog,” repeated the bartender through his wide toothy smile.  His head pivoted from side to side as if his neck were full of ball bearings. 
Phil began to sweat.  He grabbed the bartender’s hand.  “You shut up.  Do you hear me?  Shut up!” he repeated, with a hint of desperation in his voice.  Phil got off the barstool and backed toward the door.  It’s happening again, he thought. 
“Something wrong, mein Herr?” 
As Phil slipped out the door he could still hear the bartender rambling behind him.  “I’d smoke one myself if I wasn’t on the clock,” he said.
Phil ran around the corner and fell back against the brick wall.  He ran his fingers through his hair.  “Am I losing my mind?  Am I in a padded room somewhere?”

Back at his apartment, Phil put his back against door and slowly slumped to the floor.  He stared at the worn parquet slats and caught his breath.  Eventually his attention floated to Haley’s door.  At that moment he realized he hadn’t seen his roommate all week.  He was used to her locking herself away, but he’d see her periodically when she came out to use the bathroom or microwave some god-awful vegan meal. 
Phil rose and approached her bedroom.  His hand trembled as reached for the doorknob.  What’s in there? He wondered.  It couldn’t be her.  She’s, he paused as he realized what he’d already known for years.  She’s dead.
The knob wouldn’t turn.  Phil wanted to let it be, but he was compelled to see what lay inside Haley’s bedroom.
“Haley?  It’s Phil.  I need you to open the door,” he said.
No reply.
Phil tried the knob again, this time with more force.  “Haley, damn it, enough is enough.  You open the door right now or I will break it down!” 
Still nothing.
Phil wound-up and kicked, splintering the doorjamb. 
Haley sat on the bed cross-legged, her head facing away from him.  He cautiously stepped into the room.  The air tasted stale and dusty. 
As Phil crept closer Haley remained motionless.  He put his hand on her shoulder and when he did her head pivoted 180 degrees.  Her wooden face revealed a tooth-filled smile.  Haley’s waist rotated.   Her hands extended toward him, eager to reset the nightmare.
“Stop,” said Phil forcefully.
Haley’s hands fell to her sides. 
“You’re dead.”  His voice caught in his throat.  “You killed yourself.”
“You let me die, Phil.”  As she spoke her smile never wavered, like a ventriloquist’s dummy. 
                “I didn’t let you die,” he said, his voice quavering.  “How was I supposed to know something was wrong with you?”
                Haley’s arms sprung reached toward Phil.
                “Stop,” Phil said with authority. 
                Haley obeyed.
Phil guessed that if he was in a dream, then he could control it as long as he was confident. 
                “I want Haley!  I want the real Haley.”
                Suddenly the doll’s plasticity began to soften until what sat before him was the organic semblance of his dead roommate.
Phil squinted.  “Who are you?”
He shook his head. 
“You ran,” Haley said.
“When I needed you, you left.”
He pursed his lips and narrowed his brow.  “So what if I did?” said Phil.  “You were miserable.  You hated me.  Who wouldn’t have moved out?”
“I didn’t hate you, Phil.  I was sick.”
Phil’s scowl faded.  “I know.  I just,” he exhaled, unsure of what he was trying to say.  “I’d never dealt with mental illness before.  I felt like—like I wasn’t enough for you.”
“I was depressed.  I only needed you to understand.  Just like your mother needed you to.”
Phil lowered his eyes and was silent.  After a moment he spoke up.  “Can you forgive me?”
“I can’t.  I’m not really Haley.”
Phil raised an eyebrow.
“This Haley,” she said, lowering her arms as if presenting herself, “is a reflection of you.  The dead can’t forgive.  You can only forgive yourself.  Can you?”
Phil swallowed.  “I can try.”
She smiled and nodded.              
                They stared at one another.  “If you’re not Haley, then who are you?
“I am the mind beneath the mind.”
                Phil squinted.  “What’s this place?” He said, looking around the room.
                “A prison.” 
                “What do you mean?”
“It’s an illusion—fashioned from pieces of memory—to keep you trapped in your subconscious.” 
                “What about the animatronics?”
                “The prison guards.  They restrain you when you get close to escaping.”
                “Who’s keeping me here?”
                “I can’t tell you because you don’t know.”
                Phil sighed.  “How do I get out?”
“Memories are only a recreation of what your mind believes happened.  Seek what you can’t imagine.”
Semi sat on the backrest of a weathered bench in Alistair Park drinking an Old English forty—a ritual that had come to precede each night’s work.  A refreshing breeze filtered through the empty playground equipment causing the swings to gently sway.  Even when it was daytime no children played there.  
Semi was thinking of an excommunicated Hasidic Jew named Aharon.  Aharon had taken to trafficking psychedelics to a small splinter sect of Hasids that used the drugs—LSD and ecstasy mostly—as a means of communing with god.  Aharon had failed to deliver the money for the last shipment.  Semi’s distributor had instructed him to find Aharon and shake him down. 
Ever since Darnell sold out his distribution network to avoid jail it seemed like all Semi did was muscle low-level dealers.  But that wasn’t a surprise.  Darnell’s betrayal had brought down nearly every dealer, mule, holder, and pusher in his boss’s circle.  Each position needed to be replaced and each person was green to the role.  Mistakes needed to be corrected, noses had to be broken.  Malt liquor took the edge off.
The hum of traffic rolling down Borenquin Avenue eased his anxious mind.  The Jew would buckle, he thought, and the running around would die down just as soon as all the new dealers were housebroken. 
As Semi put the bottle to his lips a violent blow to the back knocked him off the bench.  His front tooth cracked on the lip of the bottled as he crumpled to the ground. 
Though overwhelmed with pain he still could hear laughter behind him.  Semi tried to roll onto his back, but he couldn’t move.  His second and third thoracic vertebrae had been shattered sending shards of bone into his spinal cord.  He was paralyzed from the chest down. 
Semi was overcome with terror when he realized he couldn’t move.  A foot slid under his shoulder and rolled him onto his back.  A white boy stood over him, his smile as wide as the moon above his head.  The boy patted an aluminum baseball bat against his left hand.    
“Surprise,” said Phil in a thick Jamaican accent. 
“Wh—?” Semi struggled to speak.  He couldn’t identify his attacker.  “I got no business with you,” he grunted. 
“But you do with Darnell—same as your spic friend.”
“What you care?” said Semi, too pained to form a complete sentence.
“Don’t I sound familiar?” said Phil, the soft island patois emanating from the front of his throat.
Semi furrowed his brow.  He did sound familiar, but the only man he knew that talked like that was dead.  
“You keel me.  Now I keel you,” said Phil, pointing the end of the bat at Semi, “and everythin’ be irie, mon.”
Semi’s eyes widened.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  The white boy was speaking with Darnell’s voice!  Before he could consider the phenomenon further, Phil brought the bat down hard on his head.  Semi cried out in pain.  Phil hit him again and again until he was silent. 

Phil heard a man cry out in pain.  His voice echoed through the crystalline sky like distant thunder heralding a storm. 
Phil walked up the stoop of a neighboring apartment building and opened the front door.  A staircase lead to the floors above—not the unfinished space he had uncovered in Epcot Germany.
What don’t I remember?  He said to himself.  What can’t I imagine?  Mundane details wouldn’t do.  Even if he didn’t know what was behind the door of a specific apartment building, his mind could cobble together a similitude of reality based on memories of the thousands of apartment buildings he’d visited throughout his life.  He needed something completely unfamiliar. 
Phil plodded down the stoop.  He walked north on Union Ave.  The intersection of Union and Grand should have been bustling, as it was at all hours of the day, but it looked evacuated. 
As he crossed the street, Phil scuffed his sneaker on a manhole cover.  Suddenly he got an idea.  Phil squatted and sank his fingers into the holes of the metal disc.  He pulled, but the manhole wouldn’t budge.  The difficulty was a good sign, he determined.  Phil pulled again with all his strength.  He let out a long grunt as the manhole cover slowly gave in to his strength.  It flipped over, spinning around like a jar lid, slowly then faster, before coming to a rest.  
Beneath the manhole (what an absurdly base name, thought Phil, a hole for a man) was blackness.  Not the blank white he had hoped for.  But then, he thought, wouldn’t he have imagined a void beneath a manhole cover?   What was beneath the darkness? 
Phil looked up and down the empty street.  He let out a long sigh and then pin-dropped into the Brooklyn sewer system. 
As he fell, the blackness gradually brightened into the white infinity he had found behind the mystery door in Epcot.  An odd wave of relief washed over him as a black dot appeared far below.  As Phil sailed headfirst through the portal, an unseen force cushioned his momentum like the arresting cable on an aircraft carrier catching a plane’s tail-hook.  He snapped into his consciousness.
As before, the flicker of reality was confusing.   A young girl lay beneath him, his knees pinning her shoulders to a bed.  Her eyes fluttered, and her brown skin turned blue as his hands tightened around her neck. 
Shocked, Phil released the girl.  She gasped for air.  Phil recoiled, frightened by what he had found himself doing. 
“I’m sorry!  It wasn’t me!” He said.
The girl coughed.  She looked at him from the corner of her eye, unable to speak. 
“It wasn’t me!  Something was in me—someone.” 
The girl continued coughing.
Phil got up and found his way to the kitchen.  After rifling through the cabinets for a cup, he filled a glass with tap water and returned to the girl. 
He handed her the glass.  “Drink this.  It will help.”
“You damn fool!” said the girl punching Phil in the shoulder.  Her cough began to subside.
Ow!  I swear it wasn’t me!”
“I know it wasn’t you!” She said.  “But you’s stupid enough to drink the whiskey I left for Darnell!”
A look of confusion crossed Phil’s face.  “How did you know that?"
“Because he told me, you idiot!”  She rubbed her throat.  “Darnell’s too cocky to kill me without letting me it was him.”
“Do you need me to take you to the hospital, miss—uh?”
“Shakia,” she said.  “And, no, I don’t need you to take me to the hospital.”  Shakia looked away.  “Couldn’t afford it if I wanted to,” she muttered.
“So you’re ok now.  I should probably leave, huh?”  Phil feared she might call the police.
Her eyes widened.  “Oh, no you’re not!” she said.
“I’ve got it under control now, really,” he said, trying to reassure her. 
Right,” said Shakia sarcastically.  “I’m not letting you out of my sight until Darnell’s outta you.”
Phil shifted uncomfortably.  “How the hell is that going to happen?” 
“I don’t know,” she replied.  “But I know someone who might.”

It turned out that Shakia’s apartment was not far from Phil’s.  They headed down Union Avenue to the corner of Grand Street.  She stopped at the fortune teller’s storefront.
“A fortune teller?”  Said Phil incredulous.  “They’re frauds.”
“Ma Obelique is not a fraud.”   
“Well, she’s not open,” said Phil pointing at the neon sign—an eyeball in the center of a hand.  It was turned off.  “We should go,” he said, eager to leave. 
“Ma will open for me,” said Shakia.  She rang the door-buzzer. 
After a moment a groggy voice sounded overhead.  “Who’s there?”
Shakia and Phil stepped back from the door and looked above the awning.  Ma Obelique was leaning out the window squinting at whoever had disturbed her sleep.  Ma’s hair was tucked beneath a brown bandana.  Her huge breasts drooped low under her billowing nightgown. 
“It’s me, Ma Obelique,” Shakia whispered as loudly as she could. 
“Shakia?” said Ma bewildered.  “It’s late, child.  Come back in the mornin’.”
“Ma, this is serious.  It can’t wait ‘til morn.” 
She sighed and hesitated.  “Alright, alright,” she conceded.  “Give me a minute.”
A moment later the door opened.
You,” she said, recognizing Phil. 
Damn, thought Phil. 
Shakia crossed her arms and glowered at him.  “What did you do?” She said.
“Boy pissed on my shop.”
“That was here?” Phil said genuinely surprised.  “Look, I’m sorry,” he stammered.  “I was drunk and stupid.”
Shakia smacked Phil on the back of the head.
“Drunk and stupid seems to be your M.O.” 
“Fine!   You’re right!  I’m a stupid drunk!  Ok?  I’m sorry,” he said.  He turned to entreat Ma Obelique. “Could you please just help me?” he said desperately.
Ma Obelique stood silently with her arms crossed.  Living in the neighborhood for over forty years she had seen her share of immigrant groups—Polish, Spanish, Hassidic Jews—they had moved in and carved their community into the bedrock of the neighborhood.  But this latest group, the rich white kids, was the worst yet.  They were self-absorbed and entitled.  They had no respect for the people who had been there for years or for their communities.  They came in riding on a tide of their parents’ money.  They raised rents and prices—displaced life-long residents and businesses and tore down their homes to make room for outrageously priced condos.  Locals used to come to her for advice and wisdom.  Now the few people that came for a reading did so merely to laugh at her and her odd rituals.  An apology from one of the white boys who was destroying community and ruining her livelihood?  It wasn’t enough.
Ma looked at Phil skeptically.  “If I came to you, would you help me?”
“Sure,” said Phil, shrugging his shoulders.
Ma shook her head.
                Phil grimaced.  “Come on, Shakia,” he said.  “She doesn’t want to help me.”
                “I need your help, Ma.  Darnell got in this boy, and he’s using him to kill me.”
                She looked at Phil with intrigue.  “You’s possessed?” She said. 
                Possessed, Phil mused.  He hadn’t thought to describe his condition using that word, but it seemed to fit.  He shrugged. “I guess.”  
                Ma pursed her lips.  “I’ll help you,” she said pointing at Shakia.  “But it’ll cost you.”  Her finger swung toward phil.  “Come.”  Ma Obelique stepped inside and the two followed.

                Ma Obelique listened with great interest as Shakia explained how Phil had come to be a surrogate body for Darnell’s soul.  When the story caught up to the present, the fortune teller delivered her verdict.
                “You don’t take offerings for the dead,” she said, her wagging finger emphasizing each word. 
                Phil stared at her blankly.  His brain was churning out sarcastic remarks at assembly line-pace, but he decided to hold his tongue.  Disrespect had landed him here, he realized.  Maybe it was time to retire that approach.
                “How do I get him out?” said Phil.
                “It’s a battle of wills,” she replied. 
                “I need to will him out?”  He looked to Shakia in hopes of an interpretation, but her expression was as confounded as his.  “Ok,” he said and stood up.  He took a deep breath.  “I want you out.”  Phil tensed his whole body until it shook.  Nothing happened.
                “It’s not dat simple,” said Ma.  “You need a symbol of your will—a sacrifice.”
                “What the hell does that mean?”
                “That’s for you to decide.”
                Phil huffed.  “Thanks a lot, lady,” he said hollowly.  He turned to leave.  Ma cleared her throat.  Phil turned around.
                “A tithe,” she said holding her hand out.
                Phil took out his wallet.  When he opened the billfold he was shocked to find it was stuffed with cash.  “Holy!  I have a shit-ton of money!” He said with a smile.
                Shakia stood up.  “Darnell probably stole it from his victims.”
                Phil grimaced.  “Oh.  Right.”  He emptied his entire wallet onto the fortune teller’s card table.  “You take it.  I don’t want it.”
                She issued a stiff nod.

                The sun began to rise as Phil walked Shakia to her apartment.  It was one of the few hours during the day when no one was around.  Even the hardest late-night drunks didn’t make it that far. 
                “What are you going to do?” said Shakia.
                “I don’t know.  I have to think of something.”
                “Well, you better do it quick.” 
                Phil yawned and rubbed his eyes.  He was about to reassure her, when he was startled by something from deep in the pit of his mind.  Something was rising to the surface, like a piece of flotsam broken free from an underwater snag. 
                “Run?” said Shakia, her head cocked to the side.
                “He’s coming back,” Phil said through gritted teeth, his fists pressed against his temples.  “Run.”  He staggered in the opposite direction.  “Don’t go home.”  He grunted.  “We’ll find you.”
                Shakia took off like a bullet. 
Phil stumbled down the street while struggling to keep Darnell at bay.  He needed a private place to sit and battle the thug until, he assumed, Darnell grew tired and gave up.  Phil came upon a fenced-off construction site.  He squeezed through a gap in the gate. 
Behind the plywood fence were the remains of a demolished building— recently leveled to make room for high-end apartments.  As Phil wove his way through a grove of naked rebar, rats darted in and out of the mounds of crushed concrete and brick.   A stray mutt approached him.  It whined for food. 
                “Get away!” said Phil shoving the mangy dog aside.   The dog yelped and then disappeared behind a mound of rubble. 
                Darnell’s assault was getting harder to fend off.  Phil sank to his knees and hugged his chest. 
                “Sacrifice,” he whispered.  The dog? He thought looking at the piled debris.  No.  It has to come from me. 
At that moment Darnell pushed hard.  Phil tensed his body until he felt Darnell’s will subside.  Phil relaxed.  The fight was exhausting.
Phil broke the problem down to its rudiments.  A part of Darnell had gotten into the whiskey.  He had drunk the whiskey.  The whiskey went into his blood, and Darnell went into him.   His eyes widened with an epiphany.
There wasn’t much time.  Darnell was preparing for another coup—he could feel it.  Phil surveyed the rubble.  He spied a claw-footed porcelain bathtub that had broken in half over a steel girder.  Phil limped over to it.  He bent down to pick up a shard of porcelain.  Phil took a deep breath and then dragged the sharp edge across his wrist.  Hot blood poured from his radial artery and pooled in one end of the broken tub.
Get out,” Phil repeated.  He envisioned Darnell’s spirit rushing out of his body in a white vapor, comingling with the blood in the tub.  As the blood streamed from his body he felt alleviated, like a clog forced through a pipe.
After a pint and a half of blood had been let, Phil took off his plaid over-shirt and wrapped it around his wrist.  He applied pressure to the wound, but it continued to bleed.  As the crimson stain on the button-up continued to spread Phil grew nervous.  He sat on a mangled water-heater, hoping to calm his heartrate. 
Eventually the blood slowed.  Phil hobbled toward the break in the fence feeling dizzy and weak, but also victorious.  Darnell was gone.
Before he reached the gate a low growl sounded behind him.  Phil turned slowly to find the stray mutt had returned.  The dog’s hair stood up straight on its hunched back, and there was blood on its maw and in its bared teeth.  Behind the dog Phil could see streaks of his blood splashed onto the side of the bathtub.
“You’ve gotta be shitting me,” said Phil.  
He made for the fence, but the dog lunged, sinking its teeth into his ankle.  Phil cried out in pain.  He kicked and caught the dog’s nose with the heel of his sneaker.   The dog squealed and backed off. 
Phil hurried to a pile of rubble and picked up a cinderblock.  As he hoisted the stone overhead the blood rushed to his brain and he grew even dizzier.  He dropped the block and reeled backward. 
He was tired and disoriented.  If only I hadn’t lost so much blood, he thought.
The dog jumped.  Phil ducked and it sailed over him, crashing into a pile of hard fill.  The dog howled in pain. 
The only chance Phil had was to get to the street.  Phil headed toward the opening in the fence.  More growls sounded from close behind him.  He wasn’t going to make it. 
Phil turned around, and as he did the dog leapt toward him.  It was too quick to dodge.  Instead Phil caught the mutt as if it were an excited child jumping into a parent’s arms. 
They whirled around like drunken dance partners as the dog snapped at Phil’s face and neck.  In the midst of their chaotic cyclone Phil spotted an opportunity.  He whisked to dog toward the forest of protruding rebar where he slammed the mutt onto its side, forcing a metal rod through the dog’s torso.  The dog wailed like nothing Phil had ever heard, and then it abruptly died.

Philip left the construction site dirty, bloodied, and pale.  Passerby’s heading to work crossed to the other side of the street when they saw him coming.  No one offered help.  Phil was reminded of Ma Obelique’s words, If I came to you, would you help me?  Had he always been so callous?  He wondered
Phil rang the fortune teller’s doorbell.  When Ma opened the door she found him passed out in the stairwell.

Phil awoke in a hospital bed.  Shakia sat in a chair beside him reading a magazine.  She smiled when she noticed he had regained consciousness. 
“Did you get rid of him?” she asked nervously.
Phil smiled weakly.  “I did.  It almost killed me, but he’s gone.”
“That’s all I needed to know.”  She stood up and headed toward the door.  “Feel better.”
“Wait.”  Phil pursed his lips.  “Would you maybe want to get a beer sometime?”
Shakia smiled and shook her head.  “You’re crazy.  You know that?
“I think attempted murder deserves at least an apology drink.  No?”
Maybe,” she said.  “Let’s see how we feel in a few days.”
Phil smiled.  “Well, I know where to find you.”
The smile fell off Shakia’s face.  “That’s what scares me.”
“You know what I mean.”
Her smile returned. 
After Shakia left Phil picked up the patient telephone and dialed home.  His mother was surprised to hear from him.  Phil explained to her that he had been admitted to the hospital after being bitten by a stray dog.  It took ten minutes to convince her that the dog wasn’t rabid and that he was going to be fine. 
“Mom,” he said.  “I wanted to apologize for the way I treated you and Robert….”
After a lengthy conversation Phil hung up the phone.  He then closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep, where he dreamed dreams that were his and his alone.