The long dark stretched ahead down the street ahead of the gaunt man and his ‘shimmers’, the shadows stretching around them as if to swallow them whole. The breeze tossed plastic bags through the air in a dark mockery of dance, the shuddering sounds sending a tingle down the spine of John Kaepernick. He had searched over two dozen houses thus far and found nothing substantial. The former homes were empty and full of nothing but frozen memories to line walls. Well that and the corpses of the dead displayed with guns, nooses, and prescription bottles for emphasis. The same people that had lived through the world as it was were those claimed by the world as it became, and the homes were dramatic displays of contrast that deepened the visual reminder all around him that the world was over. There had to be others, more people like him that had no faith in the shimmers, but they were fewer and farther between. Not that his own shimmers spoke much anymore. They spent most of their time looking wary and dejected.
He had read of the Aborigine tribe in Australia. They believed in the four aspects of the Dreamtime, but the most prominent among them was ‘The Way of Life and Death’. They had been one of the most accepting groups when it came to the damn ghosts, acceptance blew through them like a strong breeze and carried a swift end. The tribe had all died out within a few days, the ghosts being seen as those embodying the power of life and death eternal. Within two weeks the anthro students down there had nothing left to study, nothing left to learn. It had no real bearing though, the students had followed suit at the advice of their own ghosts within a few days.
He was coming to the town proper now, the trash being replaced with bodies. They had dropped the dignity of home after a while. Downtown Biddeford was littered with the remains of its citizens and they were almost displayed. They were propped up on benches, arms around each other in a show of camaraderie, or they lay along the ground together, bottles of pills all around. The people in town had made a social event of it by the looks of things, going together to be with their loved ones on the other side.
The creepiest part of it was that his shimmers were the only ones around.
His son’s family followed him from street to street, silent as the grave. They were afraid of him, but he had the distinct feeling that if they strayed they would not be able to hold their corporeal forms. He had watched several other suicides in his time studying the phenomenon and had found that the instant a person died their ghosts went with them. Whether they were together in paradise or perdition remained a mystery, but he figured them for less than that. He thought they were nowhere. John figured that the ghosts vanished once they had tempted the living into death and that there was nothing after.
He stopped in a bar that advertised itself as ‘Fatboys Saloon’, the chalk sign outside advertising an open mic night. “Heh,” he thought. “Wonder who’s playing tonight.” It took him a full twenty minutes to find himself a decent whiskey (an Ardberg at that!) and slosh it into the cleanest looking glass available. Sipping at the bar, he stared at the blank TVs and the lights along the bar that were blackened and dead. The stool next to him was occupied, the skirt suggesting either a woman or one of those goddamn trannies that wandered around in pretty, coastal Maine towns.
“Nice night, huh?”
The skeletal grin looked at him from the bar.
“What are you drinkin’ sweetheart? A double? Well please, allow me!”
He snagged a pint glass from behind the bar and poured whiskey into it up to the top. He slid the glass to her, spilling the vintage all over the bar and laughing to himself. “Here’s to you darlin’.” He downed his own considerable glass and swiveled around. Even now his luck with women was fleeting. They smiled and they flirted but at the end of it all they had no interest in joining him at a hotel, a home, or even just the backseat of a car. They had been done with him since his fifty-fifth year and it seemed that he had no chance to ever score again.
“Last Call,” he thought to himself. That was what this was, the reality of the situation. Humanity had bought itself a one-way ticket and it was on the way out. The magnum hung heavy on his hip, a constant reminder that he had one possibility left to him. “No,” he thought. “Not till I find the little shit that did it.” John had no plan. Hell, he had no idea what he was even looking for. All he knew was that someone had done this, made the shimmers, and that he wanted to put a bullet between their eyes.
John had become more and more certain while making his way to Biddeford that he had found the right way. He knew that the ghosts could not be loved ones. If you truly loved someone you would do all you could to save them, not end them. He knew in his heart that this was done deliberately, and the with the early concentration of deaths around this town it was all but certain that it began here. Maybe the person responsible was long gone, maybe had even bought into their own bullshit and bit it themselves, but he would make sure before he gave up. He was going to follow this to the end. He had to, he was the only one who had seen it. He had been a cop. Not an exciting one, but a cop nonetheless. It had given him perspective, he saw things that made him look for a perpetrator.
“Jesus,” he thought as he spun around. What in christ’s name was that?
“Holy shit.” Someone was outside. He reached for the magnum.
“Everythiiiiiing. In its riiiiight plaaaaace.”
John Kaepernick flung himself on the ground. His ghosts looked around in panic, Benjamin clinging to his father. The small, wailing voice of the singer was coming from outside. Its deadpan sound was horrifying, the sound of a child. What in god’s name was a child doing on the streets alone?
He crawled to the window and shifted so he could see out of it, concealing as much of himself as he could. He peered out and took in the street. The bodies were still strewn around, the dead grinning at him through sunken and sallow skin as they focused on him. The bodies were calling to him, exposing him, and he didn’t like it.
Dancing in their midst was a small, birdlike boy. He had a bag over his shoulder, books spilling out of it. “Ah shit,” the boy mumbled. He began picking them up, humming the somber tune to himself as he bustled around.
John got up and went out into the street, his hand never leaving the butt of his gun. He stood watching the boy, who seemed completely oblivious to him. The child picked up his books slowly, as if he had all the time in the world. Shit, he did have all of it. There was nothing else to do. In the boy’s right hand was a sandwich. He had been eating and singing amongst the dead. Christ.
“Hullo there,” John said. Well, ok, he growled it. He hadn’t meant to startle the boy that much, but he wanted to come off gruff and authoritative. The boy jumped with a start and spilled his armload of books all over the ground, his sandwich following. He gaped at John, his beak lolled to his chest and his eyes bugged. The shimmers flanked John and looked straight at the boy, adding to the menacing presence. “Gob…” the boy whispered. “Goblin.”
John smiled. “No, boy, not Goblin. I’m John.” This was met with silence, but at least the terror had gone out of his eyes. The boy glanced down at his sandwich with a sad look. “Drop your food there? We can get you some more. I brought lots in my car.” The bird-boy looked up, startled. “I’m not supposed to get in cars with strangers.”
A roar of laughter broke through the street. John doubled over, trying to contain his outburst. “Boy I ain’t gonna bugger you,” he said. “I just wanted to know if you wanted food. We can part ways after if you like. Besides, it seems like its just me and you and the fam here, not like either of us have a lot of options.” Without hesitation the boy picked up his sandwich, glanced at the dirt and grime all over it, and tossed it aside. “What do you have?”
The question was rewarded with several goodies. Canned pasta, a bag of stale chips, a pack of gas station licorice, and a warm soda. The boy devoured them greedily, licking his fingers to get every morsel as he tore into the food. He was an odd kid. Funny features aside he was unsettling, the kind of self-reliant type that you often found in abusive homes. John had never seen much action as a cop, but he had seen domestic cases aplenty. In fact on his final day he had been sent to break up a fight between a man and a woman that had been called in by their twin girls. This kid reminded him of them, of the look in the eyes when you had seen your own mother bleeding from the corner of her mouth on the floor as she desperately tried to regain her feet. This kid was like them: a survivor.
It took less than four minutes for the the kid to eat, and he jabbered all the while as John tuned out most of it. “My name’s Billby,” he’d proclaimed, “and I’m by myself now. I don’t have a daddy anymore, he left. And mommy went with him this time, she’s gone to.” This got John’s attention, reminded him of where he was. “Son,” he asked, “where are your ghosts?”
Billby stopped chewing the red candy and stared at his feet for a moment. He had nearly blanked out in his face, but his eyes were full of focus and concentration. At last he spoke.
“I don’t have any.”
“Everyone has them, son. What did you do, piss them off?” John laughed.
“I never had any. The other kids at school beat me up over it.” Billby sniffed a bit.
“Ah, kid, I’m sorry. Did other people in town…uh…not have ghosts?”
“No, just me.” The kid’s lip was quivering now.
Billby burst into tears, covering his face with his hands. John watched the kid awkwardly, not wanting to touch him. With his luck the only other living person in town would be a trigger happy cop who would think he was trying to pick up on a little boy. Instead he turned off of his curb seat and knelt in front of the little kid. “Billby,” he said, “is there anyone else left in town?” The sobs began to subside and the kid shook his head. No. “Ok, that’ll hopefully save me some time.” John hesitated, unsure how much to tell the kid. Then he let it come pouring out.
“Billby, you have to listen to me carefully.” The boy raised his head up from his hands, his eyes still red rimmed and his face glistening. “Kid these shimmers, these ghosts, they aren’t real.”
“Dad, come on!” John’s son cried out behind him but John held up a hand for silence. Alan shook his head, vexed by the whole thing, and Sadie pulled Ben closer to her, his face uncomfortable and angry as he glared at his grandfather. John couldn’t see them, but they were all looking at him now. Their discomfort was visible, but just under the surface you could see resentment and anger. The family was being pushed away, and they didn’t like it.
“Kid,” John continued, “this whole thing is someone else’s stuff.” Billby looked up at him, confused. “Bill, this is it for us. This is where we go down. Someone’s trying to wipe us out.”
The kid leapt to his feet, backing away. He was looking at John with a mixture of awe and terror, looking for the world like Ben had when John tried to explain it to him. Then the expression changed. An angry, vindictive smile spread across his face. Children shouldn’t look this way. Not at all.
“Come with me Mister, I have something you need to see. I think we can end this.”
* * *
He had the Goblin. He had him dead to rights. The man had just waltzed into town and begun looking for him. He had no clue who he was looking for, just that the source of the ghosts was in Biddeford. All he would have to do is time this correctly, to get this old monster out of the way. He could do it right now.
He led John down empty streets, down alleyways. His concentration burned. He thought of nothing but the family of ‘shimmers’ that followed them, focusing on them and who they were. Restraining himself was hard, but letting go right now would do nothing but get Billby caught, and it just was not time for that yet. The sun was dipping low in the Western horizon, the trees catching the light in a jagged high rise that gave a comforting feeling to the boy. He held onto it and continued to focus while answering the man’s questions.
He led the man to his father’s house. This would be it, he would not be able to get away this time. Billby remained conscious of the big gun holstered on the Goblin’s hip, its silver and black facade gleaming out at him from beneath the long coat.
“It’s in here,” he said, pointing up at the door. John stepped forward, taking in the house. It was in decent condition, the doors a little grungy and the porch paint peeling, but otherwise sturdy and held up well. He placed his hand on the butt of his Magnum, the corner of his eye catching the boy’s gaze as it latched firmly onto the weapon, and stepped up onto the first step. There was a sign over the door on a scrap of cardboard that read ‘Not For You!’ on it in red paint. The smell outside reminded him of Jenna’s house and it sent a shudder through him. He felt tears sting his eyes at the memory, he felt the heat of her kitchen while she and her grandmother cooked dinner. He shook it off and continued up the steps. “Mister!” the boy called after him, “The scary things live in there!” He turned back to Billby and saw a poor boy, left out of the phenomenon and alone now. There were probably a few here and there that had been left out of it all, that had not had to endure the prickle on the back of your neck when you knew they were behind you. This kid had been one of the lucky probable, the few who got away without the endless pressure for death. “Kid,” he replied, “There ain’t nothing in the world in there that can be scarier than what’s happening.” The boy looked frightened, scared. He was sweating. “The monster lives in there,” he said. John entered the front door and pulled his gun from his holster, bracing it with his other hand, ready for the beasts to leap out from the walls.
It was anticlimactic. Nothing came at him but a stench, the rotting smell of food and death that he had smelled in the other houses. Billby followed behind him closely, seeming to not want to let the John out of his sight. “Upstairs is the monster’s room,” the kid said. “Is that so?” came the gruff reply. “Stay here, I’ll check it out.”
John headed upstairs, Billby watching from floor level. They creaked as he went up. There were pictures of a joyously smiling man and woman all the way up the stairs. He figured he was looking for one of them. The smiles were hiding what one or both really were, monsters who had made deals with the devil or were able to produce ghosts out of thin air. The latter seemed more likely. Occam’s Razor.
He mounted the top floor and began looking at the different doors, considering them in turn. One had had stickers and stars on it, the other was blank. There was a bathroom and closet open at the end of the hall. He would start with those, see if anyone was there. Placing his back against the wall he slid towards the gaping bathroom door.
* * *
Billby watched the Goblin go down the hallway, his gun in his hand and his hair standing on end. He looked like a predator ready to pounce. Or a victim that has gotten wind of a hunter. He looked like a deer who has heard the snap of dead vegetation or the cock of a rifle. Yes, that was closer to it.
He rounded and headed for the kitchen and the stairs to the basement. Slowly, trying not to creak the door, he slid in and crept quietly down the stairs. Every tiny crack sounded like a rifle in his ears as he went, sliding his hand down the wall to feel the ancient wallpaper’s leathery texture. Finally reaching the carpet he dashed for the couch on the far wall.
The corpse was disgusting. The body of Arthur Knowles had lain there for nearly a week now, his mother’s gentle coaxing had finally yielded results and shortly thereafter bone and brain fragments joined the porcelain angels and farm animal figurines on the shelves. The gun was still in the body’s hand, blood still staining the tip from where it had momentarily sunken into the hole on the side of his father’s head. The decay had set in and there was a liquid stain soaking into the couch from the settling fluid in his father’s ass. If you poked the couch it made a squishing sound. Billby knew that for sure, he liked to come down and poke at his father once or twice per day just to remind himself that Arthur was dead. But today he had no desire to gloat, today he wanted the pistol.
He pulled it from his father’s limp hand and tried the weight out, tested it in his hand. He checked the safety. It was still off. Good. Things could get started. Billby Knowles clenched his fists, shut his eyes tightly and began to concentrate. He focused on brown hair. He focused on a winning smile and a full figure. He put all of his concentration into being young, sweet, and beautiful.
* * *
John moved into the bathroom, his gun up and at the ready and his back to the wall. He looked at the toilet, still floating with what looked like vomit. It smelled like the aftermath of a good night. He pulled his shirt up over his nose, struggling not to add to the mess, and slid further in. The tub was empty as well, and since the linen closet was in the hall there was nowhere for anyone to hide. He lowered his gun, turned, and placed it on the counter. He looked at the tired man in the mirror, the bags and wrinkles evident even in minimal light coming in through the door. He sighed and turned on the water to splash his face.
The water felt good. It was refreshing, and he ran his hands over his eyelids and felt the pressure begin to build in his head. The adrenaline was looking for a place to go and it needed release. He laughed a short, barking sound and stood up. There was a face over his shoulder.
He grabbed his gun and spun around, his muscle memory taking over. He spun and put the gun directly into the face of Jenna Conner.
Her face was frightened and cold. She was soaking wet. Had she been there the whole time? “Fuck you,” he whispered. “Not this. Just not you.”
“John, please.” Just. Fucking. Please.
“You aren’t real, I found you!”
“Help me, John.” She reached forward and touched his face. She was cold.
“I can feel you. I can feel you.”
“John, help me. Please.”
She was solid. That shocked him more than anything else. He had hoped she would show up, even if she was just a damn shimmer. He wanted Jenna back. She had been so kind to him and so sweet to look out for him. “Fucking stupid old man,” he thought to himself. “Stupid old man with a crush like a little kid.” He had loved her for who she was, and had cared so much for her. Some small part of him had always hoped that she would come back, that she would be one of his shimmers. He hesitantly lowered his gun, gave in. She leaned forward as if to kiss him. He began to lean in, then thought better of it and pulled away. He spun and grabbed the door frame, shaking his head to loosen himself. “I can’t, girl. You aren’t real.” He turned back to her. She looked hurt, her hand still up and trembling. Then he saw the anger in her eyes. He saw her go clear, saw her shimmer. “Then choke on it, John. Choke on it.”
She leapt at him, he fingernails sharpening into fine points. Her eyes had slit, her teeth sharp and deadly. She snapped at his throat as he grabbed for her but she went right through him, crying out as she fell. She spun around and began to crawl up the wall, he limbs twisted and spider-like as she mounted the ceiling and launched herself at him again. John dove through her and rolled to his side. He turned around in a circle, looking for an out without even considering the stairs, and barrelled into the door. His hand fumbled at the door and he could hear Jenna on the wall next to him. John opened the door and thrust himself inside. Jenna stopped at the door.
The teeth gleamed in a hungry grin. She was panting hard, her breath ragged and gushy as though she were choking on liquid. She was barely recognizable but it was still her, the angry monster wearing her skin. “Fuck you, John,” she said. Then she did the oddest thing. The shimmer slipped through the floor and disappeared. She didn’t leap, there was no theatrics. She simply melted down through the carpet. “Christ,” John said, whether to himself or the deity he didn’t know for sure.
He turned to look at where he was. This was a child’s room, but there had been no child in the pictures. He walked to the bed and looked at the mess of sheets and blankets. It had been slept in. There was a glass of water on the small nightstand next to it with nothing growing in it, nothing settled. He had been there as of the night before. Hell, it might have been there that day. He touched it and the perspiration was still slick and chilly on the side.
The light finally faded and he was left in the dark. Well, almost in the dark. The ceiling was coming to light with dozens of plastic stars. There were pictures on the wall, still visible in the twilight and the light of the plastic stars. Monsters, demonic little things. They looked like Jenna had a few moments ago. Whatever kid lived here had seen these things. Probably not long before they ate his soul.
He turned to the table. A small laptop, a scatter of books, and a small composition book lay on it. He reached for the comp book as a scream split the silence. “Fuck!” John shouted as he spun around, his gun coming back up. He spun to the door and then realized that he had left the kid downstairs. Where Jenna now stalked the house. “Fuck!”
* * *
Billby hid under the stairs, screaming his lungs off. No cries for help, no use of the Goblin’s name, just the brutal shrieking of a terrified little boy. He held the gun in his hand and grit his teeth after cutting off the sound. He pulled his focus away from everything else, no doubt leaving the world bewildered, and concentrated on pulling up what he needed.
The misty forms of Alan, Sadie, and Ben Kaepernick appeared in a small semi circle and before them rose Jenna in her beauty and glory. She was more wondrous now than she had been in life. She needed to fully distract the Goblin. She needed to be mesmerizing.
“Where are you kid?” it called from upstairs.
“I’m down here!”
“Where the hell is ‘here’?”
“The basement! She’s here, help me!”
John burst down the stairs and tumbled to the bottom. He groped at his head, a gash opening and blood flowing into his left eye. He wiped it away and clenched it shut, spinning around and waving his gun. His ghosts stood before him, and the young woman before them. They leered at him, their gaze resting on him and making him feel like so much meat. He turned, braced himself, and fired the gun right at Jenna. The bullet hit the far wall through both her forehead and that of his son. They smiled, the corners of their mouths opening all the way to their ears. “Silly man. Tiny man,” they taunted.
The furniture and knickknacks began to rustle, then lifted full off the ground. Things crashed, porcelain broke as it all began to swirl, battering John. He dove to the floor and rolled under the couch, the leg hitting him in the shoulder. He felt a popping sensation as it dislocated and his gun went flying. The Magnum landed on the ground and went off, shattering a lamp in midair and sending broken shard into the swirling fray. He leapt for it but missed and then it, too, joined the mass. The ghosts stood over him, laughing and snarling. The endless swirling cloud battered above him.
A plate crashed next to his head, leaving shards spinning around him. They battered his face, the tiny knicks in his face running red. The cloud began to make a dull, roaring sound. It hummed and pulsed in a throng of rage, all the while under the scrutiny of the hysterical ghosts. Then it all abruptly ended.
The ghosts vanished, leaving no trace in the air around him. The furniture pushed back against the wall and then crashed to the floor. He spun around on the floor, scrambling on all fours. He could not see his gun, and he ran his hands over the floor hoping to snag it. He finally stood. His joints ached, his body burned with the pains of age. Then, with the last of his strength, he was whirling towards the stairs to run, and stopped dead in his tracks. Billby was standing before the stairs, a gun raised and aimed right at John’s face. It clicked.
“Yeah,” Billby cut in. “Me.”
Behind Billby a shimmer appeared. Jenna stood behind him. She smiled at him knowingly, the way a married woman would smile at her husband when he did something deliciously and adorably stupid. Then she winked. The shot split the night and echoed out over the suburb, and the town lay still.
* * *
He walked into the night. It was still, calm, a pleasant sort of evening. He had a smile on his face and a pack on his back, the road ahead looked gorgeous to him. His back was hot from the fire, the home of his father burning. Soon the whole town would burn and he would be long gone. Gone into the wind. He liked that idea, the poetic sound it had rang in his head.
He shuffled off down the street. He had a bag full of water bottles and sandwiches and a new, heavy gun on his hip. The holster made the whole thing a bit heavy for him, but he would learn to manage. He had all the time in the world.
Billby Knowles walked West toward the edge of town and the rest of America. He looked at the world he had made, the bodies lining the streets and hanging from the trees. It was a good place, and he thought he would like it. Others might still live, it was likely, but the chance that he would run into many was low and he had a whole world to explore. It was good. It was really good.