Former Coroner Ron sat behind the Itasca’s driver’s seat as the cargo crate on wheels lumbered down the road. He warily eyed the pad of his index finger. The place where he touched the creature’s blood felt scorched, like he’d brushed it against the hot surface of a frying pan but no blister or even a touch of redness could be seen.
The moment his finger came in contact with the blade, when the world went momentarily white, was so much like that moment ten years ago in the county morgue it made his head swim and his stomach twist. Only this moment didn’t black him out making him dead to the world. In that flash of white the inner wall of his mind became a projection screen animated in a full color montage, a barrage of racing images of faces and places. When reality reasserted itself, Former Corner Ron was certain he’d peeped into the Razor Baby’s mind– a place full of a thousand choruses screaming in pain.
Former Coroner Ron rubbed his finger as the motorhome’s wheels struck a rut in the road. Though his rotund form rocked back and forth on the bench, Former Coroner Ron gave the jostling little heed. Touching the blood of the Thelema Child had given him a second’s worth of kinship with the creature and filled Former Coroner Ron with enough revulsion to put him off food until further notice. No mean feat for the likes of Former Coroner Ron.
For a blinking second, he saw through its eyes and felt through its limbs. It was a creature of one note, one thought and one passion: Find and kill. Find and kill. Find and kill.
The blood also told Former Coroner Ron the creature was capable of a greater range of emotions than he’d anticipated. For one, it felt fear though fear of only one thing–two things, actually. Birds. Owls. But these owls were unlike any bird living in this world. More like the creature that breached Carri Cromwell’s open chest cavity that final night in the county morgue.
Former Coroner Ron’s eyes drifted through the gloom of the rattling Itasca, but those giant golden eyes and massive wings spread over the whole of his vision.
A flicker and he saw the owls descending down from a starry night sky, lighting upon bone-white sands as their forms stretched and elongated. People, thought Former Coroner Ron, the owls were people. Sometimes they were people. The endless killing sprees began to make some twisted sense, like the literal bird pattern across Castro and Paulus’s old maps.
And Former Coroner Ron discovered something else…the creature was unaccustomed to pain. The Thelema Child wouldn’t be on the move just yet, Goltry realized. It would have gone to ground to lick its wounds and that just might give them some time. They just might have the time to race halfway across the country. They just might have time to find the owl people. They just might have time to form a plan.
Rusty had never slept with another person in all his adult life. He’d never slept with a woman. He’d never made love to a woman. But he’d thought about those possibilities over and over again since he turned 14; he just didn’t know how those things would ever come to pass. But all of those things did come to pass and all in the course of one short evening…and all without a great deal of thought or preparation.
At the moment, he wasn’t thinking about much of anything. He was sound asleep, his breathing slow and gentle; his body motionless save for the rapid rolling back and forth of his eyes beneath closed lids.
If you were to ask Rusty if he dreamed in color or black and white, he wouldn’t be able to honestly tell you. Dreams were never the kind of thing he spent a great deal of time thinking about. Sure, he had the same anxiety dreams as most people; showing up to class to give a presentation in his underwear, getting pushed onstage in a play where he didn’t know his lines or being jettisoned from a rooftop and told to fly. But beyond that, he couldn’t tell you the finer details…until now.
He knew instantly where he was. He was sitting on the whitewash steps facing his Granny’s back garden. Across his right knee rested her old guitar. It was nothing like his, there was no glossy finish to the wood or that nice faux tortoiseshell pick-guard, just a space below the hole where the paint had been scraped down to bare wood. Across his shoulders rested the strap Granny had beaded and crocheted herself. The colors in the zigzag patterns were just as bright, the texture of the tiny beads just as smooth and tickly against his bare neck as he remembered.
Rusty touched the fingertips of his right hand to the strings and gave them a brush. The tone was much different than his guitar. It was a sound he could only describe as older, wiser and more nimble.
Whatever happened to Granny’s old guitar, Rusty wondered looking it over for the first time in over a decade. It must be up in mom and dad’s attic or maybe got sold off at that garage sale they held a year after Granny died.
“Why’d you stop playing Rustysaurus?” came a voice from across the yard. Rusty’s heart rocketed into his throat as he looked over the expanse of shaggy grass and butter-colored dandelion heads to the corner garden plot.
Kneeling up from behind a healthy patch of rhubarb leaves was his Granny. Her ratty straw hat casting a dapple pattern of crosshatch sunlight across her leathery cheeks and the bridge of her crooked nose.
Was this a memory or a dream? Or had he somehow dropped back in time?
Looking across at the old woman in the powder blue garden gloves, Rusty was reminded of just how much he’d missed his Granny.
“Maybe I should play something different,” Rusty stuttered.
“I was enjoying ‘Streets of Laredo,’” Granny said, driving her trowel into the base of a particularly healthy dandelion. “It gets better every time you play,” she smiled.
Thank God it was still a song he knew and knew well. So Rusty started up the old tune about the fine young cowboy all wrapped in white linen. As he rounded the bend to the end of the song and the revelation that its protagonist was no longer with the living, Rusty caught a movement from the corner of his eye. It was Scatz, Granny’s old tomcat. The cat was skittish and shaggy-haired and Rusty couldn’t remember a time when the creature wasn’t to be found lounging on Granny’s back stoop.
Scatz padded his way through the bunch grass to the cement path that led to Granny’s back gate. As little Rusty strummed the song’s final chord, Scatz made that obnoxious sound cats make when they commence to vomit. It was the sound of an animal’s digestive tract shot through with compressed air via the anus while some unseen hand attempted to twist the creature’s guts from the inside out.
Scatz, his head slung below shoulders and lower jaw stretched as wide as it would go, began that odd little backing-up-dance you often see cats perform when they’re struggling to sick something up. Its as though they’re trying to reverse themselves over something that’s actually been jammed up inside them–in a way that’s precisely what they’re trying to do.
Unable to look away, Rusty watched as Scatz yarked up three juicy gobbets covered in jet black fur and which he instantly recognized as the former components of a tiny rodent.
Curiosity bypassing any sense of revulsion, Rusty stood up on the step for a better look at the former contents of Scatz’s stomach. From his vantage point, Rusty spied a tiny, spear-shaped head in one pool of undigested goo and a twine-like tail in another. There was something oddly familiar about the shape of that little head. It wasn’t mouse-like at all. Its skull was too round, it’s nose was too long and tapered.
“Is that damn cat eating shrews again?” grumbled Granny from the corner of the yard. “Stupid thing will never learn he can’t digest those evil things.”
“Why can’t he eat it, it’s just like a mouse isn’t it?”
“No more than a mouse is a rat,” said Granny. “Shrews are venomous, like a rattlesnake. Well, maybe not as poisonous as one, but nasty enough to turn a cat’s stomach nearly inside out.”
“I’ve never heard of a poison mouse.”
“It’s not a mouse, kiddo. It’s something different. More vicious, more hungry—they’re like the hummingbirds of the rodent family. They’re so bad that way I’ve heard stories about putting two shrews in a pickle jar over night and come morning there’ll be only one.”
“They can dig through jars?”
And Granny laughed, that whole-body, throw-your-head-back-until-your-hat-falls-off laugh that she was so good at and Rusty missed so very much.
“No, sweetie. It’s their metabolism. They have to eat all the time, worse so than any other critter their size. In fact, I think they need to eat at least their body weight daily or they’ll die of starvation.”
Rusty eyed the little pile of gory bits soaking into the path and then glanced at Scatz who seemed to have all but forgotten his revolting little exercise of a moment ago and was now happily grooming a lifted paw.
Setting Granny’s guitar down on the porch landing, Rusty stood up and descended the creaky wooden steps. Squatting down on his eight-year-old legs, he took a good look at the rodent’s scallion-shaped head with its beady little eyes so tiny they had to be vestigial, it’s snout so long and narrow it looked to be something prehistoric.
Though the thought revolted him, he wanted to reach down and touch the mutilated thing. He picked up a twig and turned over the miniscule, macerated torso and eyed the pinkish gray flesh of the little forepaws. On closer examination of the upturned head, he could just make out a row of needle-fine teeth running along the creature’s lower jaw. Rusty’s eyes jiggled in his skull as they flipped back and forth from the finger-like digits to the wee razor teeth.
“Don’t you go touching that foul thing, Rustysaurus…” he heard his Granny call from behind the rhubarb, but before he could respond the world about him winked and was gone.
Rusty awoke in the darkened bedroom, instantly aware of how very cold the place had become. Glancing across the bed the first thing he noticed was the window standing open. The second thing he noticed was that Carri was no longer in bed beside him.
Puzzled, he propped himself up on his elbows. He was certain the window had been closed when they went to sleep. Before he could shuffle off the covers to investigate, his ears caught the familiar sound of heavily beating wings. Dropping into view beyond the pane, the great gray owl deftly landed upon the windowsill.
Rusty could not help but smile at the great bird, until he spied something black and moist dangling from the bird’s great beak. In another brief burst of feathers, the owl made the short hop from the sill to the bed, dropping the furry parcel nearly in Rusty’s lap.
A second later the bedroom filled with the sound of a thousand beating wings and there sat Carri cross-legged on the bed before him as lovely and featherless as she’d been the moment she’d fallen asleep beside him. Marveling briefly at just how amazing was Carri’s ability to transform, Rusty looked down at the bedraggled little carcass in his lap and gasped.
“I had this dream…” Rusty began.
“I know, it touched mine,” she smiled.
“You brought me a shrew.”
“I brought you a catalyst,” said the owl woman.