“What is it?” Jonathan asked.
Barry had no idea how to reply.
From the safety of their apartment building—where, locked within their bedroom with nothing more than a laptop computer streaming light from its surface—they watched the Cherryville Dog Killer in all its glory.
The fact that it had dropped it from nearly twenty feet in the air was only the beginning of the nightmare.
He couldn’t tell what it was. His natural inclination was to say that it was a bird—that anything that flew in the air that had feathers and wings that was not a plane or a helicopter most obviously was a bird—but he knew he couldn’t say that. Its features were too grotesque, its size too exaggerated, and even in the light streaming from the nearby streetlamp he could make sense of its more defining traits.
In complete and utter darkness, he could see nothing more than a monster—a cruel, feral creature who killed like an eagle in the highest mountains of Brazil.
Barry swallowed a lump in his throat.
Barry pushed a hand out to keep him from moving.
The thing in the alley paused, then craned its head around until it looked directly at them.
He couldn’t see its face.
“What,” Jonathan started.
“Quiet!” Barry hissed.
The creature let out a sound between a growl and a low shriek before it turned back to its meal.
In one deft move, it opened its jaw and snapped a chunk of flesh away from its victim.
One look at its teeth was enough to prove that it wasn’t a bird.
“Get away from the window,” Barry said, taking hold of his boyfriend’s shirt collar and retreating a few steps.
“Are you sure we—“
A second shriek lit the darkness of the night.
“We’re gonna say it’s a bird right now,” he said, “and go in the living room where it won’t know where we’re at.”
Rather than respond and goad another response, he tugged Jonathan out of the bedroom and through the short hall into the living room. Here, their lives were blessed. With no windows for anything to see in or for them to see out, they’d be perfectly safe from whatever the hell was in the alley.
Sighing, he turned, set a hand on Jonathan’s ribcage, and set their heads together.
“Do you know what that is?” Jonathan whispered.
“No,” Barry replied, “I don’t.”
“Then why are you so scared?”
Because I don’t know what the fuck it—
The sound of screaming broke him from thought.
“Ok,” Jonathan said, breaking away from him. “Now can I call the police?”
“I think that would be appropriate.”
The gunshots that followed only solidified his case.
“9-1-1,” the ambiguous voice of the operator said from Jonathan’s smartphone. “State the nature of your emergency.”
“There’s people shooting outside the apartment building. Someone landed in the alley outside our window, something’s in the alley eating them, now everything’s going to—“
“Calm down, sir. Repeat what you said. Someone fell in the alley.”
“And is being eaten!” Jonathan screamed.
Barry took hold of his partner and began to stroke the small of his back.
The anxiety’s taking its toll, he thought as the gunshots, along with the screams, continued to echo throughout the night. It’s eating him alive.
“Sir,” the operator said. “There’s been six calls about this incident. Someone is on their way. I would advise you to lock your doors, get yourself into an enclosed space and lock yourself in. Do you understand what I’m—“
A gunshot ripped through the night.
The glass exploded from their bedroom window.
A screech filled the air as a car first tried to swerve, then collided with something out in the street.
The world became an inferno of noise.
Jonathan—far gone in the midst of a PTSD attack—threw himself to the floor, not even bothering to take note of his phone as it flew from his hands.
Through the disorientation plaguing his head, Barry could just barely make out what sounded like a car alarm and the snapping sizzle of electrical wires.
They hit a transformer, he thought with a laugh. They hit a fucking transformer and—
The blare of sirens filled the streets.
“Come on,” he said, taking hold of his trembling boyfriend’s arms.
“What?” Jonathan screamed.
“I said come on!” he yelled over the noise.
He dragged the gangly man’s body through the apartment until they stood in the kitchen.
In front of the pantry, he took a moment to consider what was outside and the shot that had broken their window.
If it saw, he thought, and it knows, it could—
He shook his head.
Without so much as a second thought, he threw the pantry door opened and barred them inside.
A few stacked boxes of soda cans would at least keep anything from looking in through the lower slats.
Drawing back, he cradled Jonathan against his body in the darkened corner and stroked his hair.
Outside, the world went to hell.
How long it would last he couldn’t know.
“And what time did you recall seeing this figure in the alleyway?” the chief of police asked.
“I can’t remember,” Barry said, glancing over his shoulder to look at his sleeping partner. He ran a hand through his ruddy hair and then down through the thin beard across his face as he contemplated what godawful hour of the morning it was. “Three, I think.”
“Would he be able to tell us?”
“He’s in no condition to answer.”
“Sir,” the police chief’s partner said, drawing up alongside her superior officer. “We need to get statements from everyone who witnessed this incident.”
“I can try to get him up, but I doubt that’s going to happen. I knocked him out.”
Both of the officers raised their eyebrows.
“He suffers from PTSD,” Barry continued. “He had an episode after everything started happening. I had to practically force him to take the Xanex just to get him to calm down.”
“So you’re saying there’s nothing you can do to wake him up?”
“No. There isn’t.”
“He wouldn’t be a reliable witness given the drugs he’s taken anyway,” the policewoman said. She finished marking down a few notes and then lifted her eyes to look at him. “Mr. Lawman, would you be willing to let forensics into the room the bullet entered through?”
“Be my guest,” Barry said. “Second door on the left.”
While the policewoman led the forensics squad through his apartment’s front door, Barry stared at the police chief and tried to determine just what it was he was supposed to do in this situation.
Do I just stand here? he thought. Or… what?
“Sir?” Barry asked.
“Yes?” Police Chief Morris asked.
“Do you know when we’ll have the power back on?”
“Might not be until morning,” the burly man said, offering a shrug that to Barry seemed to dismiss the situation entirely. “Might not be until the afternoon. Who knows.”
“What am I going to do about the hole in my bedroom?”
“That would be up to you and your landlord, sir.” The man paused and turned his attention to the couch. “Will he be needing medical attention?”
“No. I can handle it. Don’t worry.”
“All right. I’ll leave you to yours, then. We should be out of here in about an hour.”
The man tipped his hat and retreated into the hallway—where, faintly, Barry could just make out the police force calming down the other tenants. He only bothered to watch them for a few moments before he rounded the couch and settled down next to his boyfriend.
God, he sighed. What a fucking night.
Instinctively, his hand fell to his partner’s head and began to stroke through his thin locks of black hair. He resembled nothing like he had minutes before—screaming, inconsolable, unable to process anything save for the sound of violence outside their home or his own incoherent mumbling. It was a godsend Barry had been able to calm him down. How he did it he still couldn’t understand, even after three years of living together. All he knew was that he had the magic touch.
The magic touch.
“The magic touch,” he whispered. “The magic touch.”
He drew a blanket over Jonathan’s near-naked body and debated whether it would be worth it to try and get anyone to come over here. Given their situation, it wasn’t likely that someone would refuse their offer for help. He knew for a fact that Carter would come. The man was a life send—Christ-like if ever there was a word for it. He’d do just about anything to help a friend. The guy would even carry Jonathan, which was something Barry could do himself considering he was so skinny, but would it even be worth it to ask for such a thing?
You can’t expect people to bail your ass out all the time. You know that.
Still—would it hurt to ask?
Besides, he thought. When was the last time I asked someone to bail us out?
Last month’s rent, Jonathan’s medication, groceries—the list could go on and on.
“Fuck,” he whispered.
After taking a deep breath, Barry set a hand on Jonathan’s chest and held it there until he was sure his boyfriend wouldn’t stir further.
Rising, he made his way into the kitchen, filled a glass of water, and downed the whole thing in a minute.
“You’d’ve thought I’d pissed myself,” he mumbled.
The sound of the forensics team in the other room only further ground to home the reality of the situation.
You’d’ve also figured the forensics department would never be in your bedroom, he thought. Not much they’ll find there.
He couldn’t help but snort at the matter.
After setting the glass of water into the kitchen sink, he hopped over the side of the couch, slid up behind Jonathan, and wrapped an arm around his waist before burrowing under the blanket.
It didn’t matter. He could lay here for a minute. They’d wake him up if they needed something.
Just a few minutes, he thought. Just a few…
“You all right?” a voice asked.
Barry blinked. Jonathan stood over him, nearly-invisible in the darkness that still permeated the apartment. “What time is it?” he asked.
“Eight-thirty,” he said, looking down at his phone.
“Are you ok?”
“I didn’t break it,” he said, idly running a thumb along his phone.
“No. Are you ok?”
This time, Jonathan paused. While the only inflection Barry could make out was because of the light pooling off the phone, he could tell that Jonathan was still reeling from the previous night’s happenings.
“You still loopy?” Barry asked, throwing his legs over the couch and standing.
“I’m all right.”
“You don’t have to lie to me.”
Progress, Barry thought.
Jonathan leaned into Barry’s body and bowed his head into his shoulder.
“There,” Barry said, patting his back. “That’s my boy.”
“You really do save my ass Barry,” the younger man replied, drawing closer until their bodies melded almost perfectly together. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d do whatever you wanted to. You know that.”
“Mom would’ve said otherwise.”
“Your mother was a nut.”
“What does that say about me?”
“It says,” Barry said, gently pushing them apart until he could look into Jonathan’s eyes, “that you’ve got a lot of shit on your plate to deal with. And you know what? You’re dealing with it just fine.”
“I really don’t feel like it sometimes.”
Smiling, Barry pressed a kiss to Jonathan’s lips and drew him into the hug. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here for a little while. I don’t want to stay in a stuffy apartment.”
“Where would we be going?”
“To breakfast. I think we can just wing it from there, don’t you?”
“We always do,” Jonathan said.
The smile that crossed his face nearly melted Barry’s heart.
The first thing Barry saw when the waiter placed the menus and newspaper on the table was the headline: MAN FOUND BUTCHERED IN ALLEY AFTER EXPLOSIVE SHOOTOUT.
Great, Barry thought. Just great.
He already knew it was too late. Jonathan’s face said it all. The tensed expression, the fixed stare, the pursed lips—if he didn’t act fast, this would turn into a full-blown anxiety attack.
“Can we get two cokes, please?” Barry asked before the waiter could even begin to greet them.
The man eyed the two of them incredulously before departing for the kitchen.
“So,” Barry said, nonchalantly brushing the newspaper off to the side before taking hold of Jonathan’s hands. “How’s my man this morning?”
“Trying not to flip his shit over last night.”
“At least you’re being honest with me,” Barry chuckled.
The blank look in Jonathan’s eyes offered no reprieve.
“I’m sorry,” he said, tightening his hold on his partner’s hands. “I’m trying.”
“I just feel like a dick because I never know what to do in these situations.”
“How’re you supposed to?” Jonathan laughed. “It’s not like it happens often.”
When he found he couldn’t continue, he drew his hands away and let out a sigh he felt he’d been holding in for quite some time. In this lapse of dialogue, the waiter approached with their drinks, then proceeded to take their order.
The whole while he watched Jonathan, Barry couldn’t help but awe over his sudden and unnervingly transformation.
It’s like he became a completely different person in just one moment.
The human mind was a brilliant thing. When applied with pressure it could perform many a feat—conform, adapt, expand, contract. In some instances it could even absorb the external stimuli in order to better protect itself, thus bonding to an external presence that may not be beneficial.
It’s like a parasite, Jonathan had once told him, after the first attack had left Barry in such a state that he felt like nothing more than a blank slate on a chalkboard in a room filled with willing students. One that gets planted and you can never take out.
The body may be cast in bone, but it is truly the flesh that is mortal. Once something was put in, it could never be taken out.
When Jonathan finished ordering—for, Barry took note of, him too—he turned his head back to him and smiled. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he smiled.
“More like a facehugger,” he mumbled.
“Sorry. Aliens joke. You’ve never seen it.”
“I don’t like horror movies,” Jonathan shrugged.
I don’t blame you.
Given his boyfriend’s history, it was any wonder he could even function in everyday life.
The scar on his palm was proof.
They used to call me Jesus, Jonathan had said after their first few dates.
But sadly, he had added, it wasn’t because he could walk on water.
My mother wouldn’t have tried to nail me to the bed otherwise.
His focus was lost in his thoughts. Caught within the realm of the past three years and that of which lay right before him, he stared into Jonathan’s soul-piercing green eyes and tried to imagine a life without him, though as much as he wished he couldn’t he already knew he could.
Deadbeat, he thought. No job. Shit degree. Librarian. Gay librarian. Living on donations and toothpaste. Oh—and open mic nights.
The Great American Novel still wasn’t done. It’d probably never be either if he couldn’t afford to keep the power on.
The furrow in Jonathan’s brow drew his attention back to the present. “Sorry,” he smiled. “Got to thinkin’ about stuff.”
“Oh, me, mostly.”
“I was going to say,” Jonathan started, his voice lowering as he went along.
“Don’t worry, babe. We can get this. It’s no big deal. It’s just breakfast.”
“That’s what we said last month when we got that bottle of wine.”
Barry visibly grimaced.
$0.01 cents off the marker, after the jackass had swiped it.
Needless to say, their account had been drained.
“Sorry,” Jonathan said, lowering his eyes to the table. “You know I talk out of my ass when I’m fucked up.”
“We’re fine, honey. Don’t worry.”
Jonathan lifted his eyes.
The pain there was unbearable.
Looks like those made Barry want to cry.
The park was the greatest of their luxuries. Free as a boy on a silver-coated bike, it reigned supreme in the honor of spectacle—where not only could they walk and see the flowers, the bees, the dogs, the occasional cat and also the street performers, but also the people that inhabited their small town of Cherryville, California.
God, Barry thought as they passed beneath the trademark blossoms that framed the opening of the park. And to think I used to bring Jonathan out here to check out the guys when we first met.
“What’re you smirking at?” Jonathan asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Barry replied, sliding an arm around Jonathan’s shoulder. “Just about how we used to salivate over the guys here.”
“Running shorts are form-fitting,” his boyfriend mused. “Especially when they’re not wearing underwear.”
“Good God does that happen a lot.”
Jonathan chuckled and leaned against his side.
There we go, Barry thought, running a hand down Jonathan’s back. Now he’s loosening up.
The sound of rollerblades shooting past was enough to make him draw Jonathan into his side.
Ahead, the typical douche-dude roller gang spun to a stop, each appropriately dressed in denim shorts and tanktops pulled back over their heads.
“Hey,” one called. “Keep out of the way.”
“We were,” Barry replied under his breath.
The rollerbladers gave pause before they started off again.
“Dumbasses,” he mumbled.
“They’re going to end up hitting a kid,” Jonathan said. “Or an old person. Or worse: a bird.”
“The pigeons never were ones to take a hint.”
Chuckling, Jonathan pulled away—a fact Barry found remarkable considering what could have been an unpleasant situation—and took a few steps forward. Barry merely hooked his thumbs into his jeans and waited for a cue to respond.
Ok, he nodded, watching Jonathan first pause, look back at him with an unsure frown, then start forward again. This is good.
The Xanex had to have worn off by now, which meant that if Jonathan was venturing on his own—and, most importantly, without encouragement—he was coming down from last night.
He smiled, taking note of the pigeon that appeared to be following Jonathan along the side of the cobblestone path.
“Hey,” he said. “You’ve got a friend.”
“What?” Jonathan asked.
Barry jutted his chin out at the bird.
“Oh,” he smiled. “Hey there little guy.”
The bird titled its head up and cooed at him.
Crouching down, Jonathan balanced the weight on the tips of his toes and smiled as the pigeon approached. Waddling slowly, its movement resembling something of a landbound penguin, it first paused, looked up, then continued until it stood no more than a few short inches away.
Jonathan reached forward.
The bird extended its head.
“What the FUCK?” someone yelled.
A child’s scream ripped through the park.
The bird took off into the air.
The blank look on Jonathan’s face mirrored Barry’s thoughts to a T. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Barry said, “I—“
His eyes followed the trail of gazes up—into the trees that lay just beyond the path.
The urge to retch was so strong he almost did it then and there.
“Barry,” Jonathan said, rising to his feet. “Why are you—“
“Don’t turn around, Jonathan. Please, whatever you do, don’t—“
“HE’S DEAD!” a woman screamed. “SOMEONE KILLED HIM AND HUNG HIM FROM A TREE!”
The ear-splitting screech from the toddler that followed brought the situation home.
Immediately, all eyes were drawn.
There, suspended from the tree in a manner that thankfully shielded Barry from the gory details of it all, was a person—so bloodied and torn their entire outfit was drenched in blood.
It took all of Barry’s willpower to keep his eyes set on Jonathan as he stepped forward and took his boyfriend’s hand. “Come on,” he said. “We’re leaving.”
“My life is horrible,” Jonathan said from his place on the couch.
“Your life is not horrible,” Barry replied. “Don’t say that.”
“It sure seems like it.”
At his place in their bedroom—where, in perfect view of last night’s crime, he looked out the plastic-wrapped window—he tried to process the reality of the situation and just what was happening. One man brutally murdered in the park, strung up in a tree and laid bare for all to see, another dropped in the very alley he now looked into and devoured by something that he knew was a monster—it seemed too odd a coincidence that trouble would occur at the peaking point of Jonathan’s worst time of the year, and especially disturbing that the dog killed had upped its ante.
First the train-fuck of last month, Barry thought, and now this.
Thank God they’d refilled Jonathan’s prescription, otherwise he had no idea what he’d do.
Turning, he swept his eyes across the small room until they settled on Jonathan’s back. It was almost painful to see how badly corded the muscles were.
“Hey,” Barry said, crawling up onto the bed and sliding in next to Jonathan. “You ok?”
“No,” Jonathan replied. “I mean… maybe. I’m not freaking out. Yet.”
“You’re not going to either,” he smiled. “You know why?”
“I won’t let you.”
Jonathan laughed and turned his head to look at him. “How do you propose you’re going to do that?”
“Because we’re going to stay in and have a bro’s day.”
“A bro’s day?”
“Pizza, beer, and a whole lot of stupid TV.”
“Don’t look so thrilled,” Barry teased, nuzzling Jonathan’s face with his chinfuzz. “Besides—beer is for straight dudes. Let’s be classy. We’ve still got that bottle of wine. And besides—it’s not like anything can get us in here.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Jonathan mumbled.
Standing, Jonathan pushed his arms over his head, stretched his interlaced hands behind his back, then tilted his body to look at him. “Is the power even back on?” he frowned.
“Won’t know until we find out,” Barry replied.
His idea of a day in appeared to be exactly what Jonathan needed. Spread out along their couch, glasses of wine in front of them, a pizza ordered and nearly devoured in the span of a half-hour—by the time the first movie was over, the credits were rolling and a buzz had set in, Jonathan had fallen asleep across his lap, head resting on his thigh and fingers intertwined in his.
Thank God, he thought.
He ran a thumb along the side of Jonathan’s stubbly jaw and lifted the remote to turn the TV off with his other hand. The DVD player followed suit, then the shitty speaker system he’s managed to pawn off a friend who was going to throw it away otherwise. By the time everything was off, the low static hum that resonated through the living room was gone, replaced by the sheer bliss of silence.
Taking care to make sure he would not wake Jonathan, he slid a pillow under his head before making his way toward the meager computer den opposite their room.
Inside the converted storage room, he settled down in front of his dinosaur of a computer and waited for it to boot up.
Once into his profile, he began the meticulous task of navigating his folders.
He didn’t keep anything secret from Jonathan. There was no point, no reason for him to be so secretive when the strength in their relationship was built on the solidity of their trust. But there was the matter of Jonathan’s PTSD, and for that he had made it specifically clear that there would be things he would hide if only to avoid triggering him—including, but not limited to: the police records Barry had scanned in from the time he’d pulled Jonathan out of the homeless shelter, his list of medications and proper diagnoses from varying psychiatrists, and the few records he had managed to pull from the public database about the one woman who had made his boyfriend’s life hell.
He came across the files buried in a list of subfolders he’d specifically made confusing in order to keep Jonathan from finding. Only a few documents wide and bearing a file size of little more than a few kilobytes, he scrolled through the few until he found her complete biography.
Swallowing a lump in his throat, Barry cast a look over his shoulder to make sure the door was closed before opening the file.
Her face was revealed.
She was a hag of a woman in life. With rotten teeth, disproportionately-elongated jowls and a dead gaze that Jonathan said she’d developed from what he believed was a religious regiment of methamphetamine, it was impossible to believe that Jonathan could have come from such a spawn, let alone as good-looking as he was. His boyfriend had been quick to remedy that she didn’t always look like that, and that he had his runaway father’s ‘only lasting impression.’ Her obituary—which he’d copied and pasted directly from the internet—stated that her death had occurred almost a year ago to the day.
But that doesn’t make sense, he thought. You know it doesn’t.
Melinda McCrady had killed herself on the anniversary of Jonthan’s second year of escape from her. She’d always been what her son had called a vindictive woman—a calculated, serialized torturer who couldn’t keep grocery lists on a piece of paper but who could remember explicit times and dates like the back of her meth pipe. She’d specifically arranged her death to coincide with Jonathan’s national emancipation at the age of eighteen, but also his attempted crucifixion at seven and then her attempt to kill him on the eve of his twelfth birthday.
She didn’t want me to reach the end, Jonathan had said. The thirteen-hundred-thirty-five days.
Over a course of eleven years, Melinda McCrady had tried to kill her son twice and had tortured him on numerous occasions.
For some reason, the numbers were aligning with something.
Seven, Barry thought. Twelve… Eighteen…
“Twenty-one,” he whispered.
Even he as a non-practicing Christian would know that there were twenty-two chapters in Revelation.
This isn’t some religious bullshit, he thought, swiping to close the document with such force the resounding click from the mouse sounded like the drop of a heavy pen. You know that.
How, though, did he know? If she’d killed herself on Jonathan’s twentieth birthday and the events that were occurring now fell on the month of his twenty-first, did that mean that she—
The idea was too illogical for him to even think.
With a shake of his head, he closed the folders, cleared his recent documents if only to protect his own sanity, then began to boot down his old computer.
Though he knew peace would not come, he would try his best to persevere, for Jonathan’s sake.
“Barry,” Jonathan said over the makeshift dinner of spaghetti that night.
“Yes?” he asked.
“I want to go out to Cadbury Bend.”
The geyser of water that erupted from Barry’s mouth and onto the floor did little to phase Jonathan. “What?” he asked.
“I want to go back home,” he said. “Just one last time.”
Good God, Barry thought.
The psychiatrist had said that it was not uncommon for victims of child abuse to feel responsible for the actions that had been afflicted on them. Growing up, Jonathan’s last doctor had said, children are trained to believe the ‘punishments’ dealt upon them are their own fault. She hit me, he had said, because I was bad. Or, She didn’t let me eat for three days because I forgot to turn the burners off. Most often than not, the delusion manifests into an idea—an accord, the psychiatrist had said, that there is always some kind of finality even after one has completely disassociated from their abuser.
It doesn’t end, the doctor had told Barry one day after a particularly-rough couples session. He lives with it every day. I’ve helped him, and I know you’ve helped him, but no one will ever fix him.
He didn’t want Jonathan fixed—he wanted him better: happy, successful, getting back into his painting so he could better express himself and living, breathing and sleeping as if there were no ghost over his shoulder. But this—this was outrageous. What purpose would it serve to return to the place Jonathan had spent eighteen years of hell in?
“Barry,” Jonathan said, his voice a mixture of foolhardy confidence and childish fright.
“What?” he asked, swallowing his forkful of spaghetti.
“Mad? No. I’m concerned.”
Sighing, his body deflating like a balloon who in but a moment had lost half its air, Jonathan crossed his arms over his chest and tried to maintain focus, though Barry knew it was nearly impossible given what must be running through his head. The repeated loop, the infinite metaphor, the symbol that ran a figure eight through his life and the world around it—sprouted from its tips were roots that dug deep and interconnected with every living person and each inanimate object he had touched. For most, those roots eventually broke—withered, dried out, were gnawed away by the absent conscience present only in the darkest layers of the mind.
For Jonathan, though, those roots ran deep.
The gardener from hell would have never wished to stumble into his vineyard of destruction.
Standing, Barry rounded the table until he stood at Jonathan’s side, then fell to one knee, taking his boyfriend’s hand in his. “Hon,” he said.
“I have to go, Barry.”
“I’m not arguing with you. I just want to know why.”
“I… I don’t—“
Is it a delusion? he thought.
He ran his thumb along the curve of Jonathan’s wrist as subtly as possible and tried to take his pulse.
Trembling, Jonathan bowed his head atop his outstretched arm and began breathing exercises Barry knew by heart.
One, he thought. The great breath of the world.
“Two,” he whispered, mostly to himself, but also to Jonathan, “the sigh that is exhaled.”
The pulse quickened. A low staccato, but far more frequent than it should have been, he released hold of Jonathan’s wrist, stood, and gestured his boyfriend to stand by sliding his hands under his arms. From there, he led him to the couch, settled the two of them down, and cradled him against his chest as he prepared to wait out the storm.
Jonathan’s body against his was a testament—a history written by the greatest of men but captured only by the most helpless of victims.
I desire the things that will destroy me, Sylvia Plath had once said.
But was that indicative of Jonathan, who perhaps wished for nothing more than answers?
The time that passed he couldn’t determine. In previous years, Barry had learned to stop such things because such a declared element was not a prospective measure to recovery. Rather, he’d learned to wait with the pace of a breath, the tremble of a finger, the low flutter of a heart. The body itself was ageless—it was the mind that aged in the end.
“Barry,” Jonathan whispered after a while.
“Yeah?” he asked, resting a hand along Jonathan’s ribs.
“Let’s go finish dinner.”
He rose without question.
The bird had fallen from its cage. Painted in harsh strokes that dictated only the most frustrated of creation, the portrait ran the length of the canvas from the cage that dangled from the heights of nothing and eventually fell to the depths of all. There, Barry could see nothing, save the few feathers whisked carefully with a brush, but the cage alone spoke volumes of what his partner to be feeling.
Set loose, he thought, but bound.
He tried to keep from setting his attention too obviously on the painting for fear that Jonathan may rise and make his way from the bedroom, but he was so enraptured by the illustration that when he drew forward—when he smelled the bitter tang of paint that rolled down his throat and entered his chest like some hallucinogenic drug—a spark of longing filled him.
It’s not realistic, he thought. It never was. It never will be.
Who didn’t want the one they loved to feel as though they were special—that within their personal depths and space they were their own magnitude and creation? Those around could see them as a normal individual, yes, but to be someone who mattered—that was what people desired above all else.
“Yet you were stripped,” he whispered. “Stripped of all those things most normal people have.”
The flush in his fingertips rose from a numbness that occurred after he realized he’d balled his hand into a fist.
His eyes rose from the painting, then fell to the bedroom a few paces up the hall.
Wrapping his arms around himself, he cursed the bitter cold and flicked Jonathan’s fluorescent lamp off before making his way up the hall and into the bedroom.
There, within the threshold, he watched Jonathan stare blankly into space—toward the window that they or their landlord had yet to repair.
“Cold as shit in here,” Barry offered, treading foreign waters so commonplace within his life.
“It’d help if you weren’t wandering around without a shirt.”
“Sorry. It’s Cali—doesn’t rain like this here that often.”
“Not in Cherryville,” Jonathan agreed.
He stepped forward and slid toward the bed, trapped within a frame of mind like a snake upon a glass surface. First he applied pressure onto Jonathan’s side of the mattress, eased forward, then settled back. When his boyfriend made no move to resist, he spread out alongside him, but waited to set a hand on his shoulder until what he felt was a reasonable time.
“This ok?” Barry asked.
Jonathan nodded and shrunk against Barry’s body.
“I’m sorry I made you so uncomfortable at dinner,” he whispered, sliding his hand along Jonathan’s ribcage until it came to rest on his abdomen. “I just want you to feel safe. Sure doesn’t seem like it when your boyfriend’s questioning your every motive.”
“I’ve only ever felt safe with you,” Jonathan whispered.
Barry closed his eyes. He fought to control his emotions and somehow succeeded despite all that was set against him. “I won’t question you,” he whispered in turn. “If you want to go up there, I’ll take you.”
Jonathan said nothing. His hand atop Barry’s was answer enough.
Outside, the rain continued on—a love song for a vampire.
It was decided.
They would return to the home Jonathan had grown up in… and had almost lost his life to as well.
He was woken early that morning by the press of Jonathan’s hands upon his shoulders and the sound of the falling rain. Half-asleep, disoriented, exhausted emotionally and so physically tired he imagined he’d not slept at all, he opened his eyes to find Jonathan standing above him, fully-dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and a jacket appropriate only for outside weather.
Come on, his eyes said.
Barry wouldn’t argue. He couldn’t, even if he tried, because he knew that even if he somehow inspired the urge to try and make them stay, he would toil within the same madness as Jonathan.
If this had to happen, it had to happen now.
It took little more than five minutes for Barry to shower, shove the grilled cheese sandwich Jonathan had made for him into his mouth, and get out the door.
Soon, they were on the road and headed toward a place whose name was written on a map but whose spelling had been scarred into the mind of but one unfortunate young man.
Jonathan McCrady had run from a small town called Cradle when his mother had told him that God would not allow him the wheels of His mechanism. Near a little area of Glenville, California, cradled on the outskirts of the Sequoia National Park and little more than fifty miles away from the dragon-like facade of Isabella Lake, it appeared so nondescript that most anyone would’ve never believed it to have a population. Yet after Jonathan had been found by a state trooper in little more than his underwear, the town had gained notoriety for but one moment—when, in the eyes of the California court, it had been sanctioned as the home of one of the greatest cases of mental illness the state had ever seen.
On a map it looked completely barren—empty of anything more than forest and the long stretch of highway roads—but the cold and stark realization was that it held more than just monsters of the inhuman kind.
It was outside the city limits that their true test would begin.
At his side, Jonathan trembled in the passenger seat of the remodeled by still-dingy Ford pickup that was nearly as old as Barry himself. With the heat blowing on him, he bowed his head and fumbled with his hood, though eventually gave up after several moments of frantic tugging.
Barry set a hand on his thigh.
“It’s ok,” Barry said, careful to keep one hand on the wheel for fear that the old beast would decide to act up. “Deep breaths. I can pull over if you need me to.”
“No,” Jonathan said, shaking his head. “I… it’s just… I—“
“You don’t have to explain. Pull your hood on. We’ve still got two more dials if we need more heat.”
When he felt his touch was no longer needed, Barry pulled his hand away and returned it to the wheel.
The road ahead was long.
He needed all the focus he could get.
The town of Cradle resembled something of a lost soul who after stumbling along a road for a long period of time had simply caved in and collapsed. Bordered along a heavily-wooded area whose purpose seemed fit only to allow those misanthropes the fortune of living on the fringe of society, it came into view about an hour-and-a-half after they left Cherryville and immediately prompted a rolling feeling of unease within his gut.
“Where we goin’?” Barry asked.
“I’ll let you know,” Jonathan replied.
Their destination was set along a road that strayed from the main path and into a wooded area that gave Barry the chills. The California redwood was usually an impressive sight. These, though, were gangly. Gnarled like hags whose hands had spent their lives spinning between their fingers the cruel instruments of torture, they resembled little more than the countenance of what all great things should be and offered nothing in terms of the awe-inspiring altitudes that Barry loved about this state.
It looks, he thought, then swallowed a lump in his throat.
Maybe it was just the writer in him, but it looked like the trees had been sucked of all their worth.
Though his first inclination was to speak to Jonathan and continue to ask for directions, he allowed his boyfriend to provide them when needed and kept silent—mostly for Jonathan’s peace of mind, but also his own. The winding, beaten trail of Cadbury Bend appeared all but deserted until a few cabin homes appeared in small, secluded clearings.
“We’re at the end here,” Jonathan said, his voice so sudden Barry almost jumped. “Mom never liked company. She wanted to be as far away as possible.”
Barry had to grind his teeth together to keep from even thinking a response.
As he took a curve that brought them away from the other homes and thrust them into darkness, Jonathan lifted his head and began to scan the road. “Stop,” he said.
“What?” Barry asked.
“It’s just ahead.”
He couldn’t see. The darkness had become so absolute that in their current position, even his headlights could do little to shine through the piercing nothing that existed around them, but he did as Jonathan asked and rolled to as slow a stop as possible, which wasn’t difficult given that he had already been going under the speed limit.
Once stopped, Barry waited for Jonathan to offer further direction.
Slowly, and with a hand whose purpose was strong but strength lost, pointed to their left. “There,” he said.
Barry was just about to question his partner when he took note of a pathway so nondescript it could barely be seen. “That’s it?” he asked.
Jonathan nodded. “We’re at the end of the road,” he said. “In the only clearing that offers light.”
That even in this darkness won’t offer hope.
It was with trepidation that Barry eased the truck forward and took the turn that led onto the darkened path.
Here, darkness was absolute.
It took little to realize that it wasn’t just because there was no light.
They pulled up alongside a dilapidated house Barry first mistook as the wrong destination. More than prepared to shift gears and fall back onto the road, he reached for the shift and cast a glance behind his shoulder before the sound of the passenger door clicking open entered his ears.
“Jonathan?” Barry asked, turning to look at his boyfriend. “What’re you doing?”
“We’re here, Barry. This is it.”
The ghost of Jonathan’s past stood harsh and strong in contrast to what was around it. Here, nature was king. It ruled as though atop an iron throne and commanded with its hand the justice of the land. While the sequoias grew tall and the ground circling the clearing was feathered with fallen green needles, the ground upon the McCrady property was disintegrating. Here, fresh mud sunk into Jonathan’s shoes as he stepped from the road and onto the makeshift step-stone pathway that was sinking into the ground. The home itself was a different story. Looking ready to fall apart at any moment, Barry’s first inclination was to jump from his truck, grab Jonathan and keep him away from it, but he knew he couldn’t. They’d come this far. Turning back would be idiotic.
Setting the car into park, Barry slid the key from the ignition, jumped out of his vehicle, then rounded it until he stood at the end of the step-stone path.
Jonathan stood no more than a few feet ahead, framed by the aging pillars supporting a roof almost in shambles.
Is this where it ends? Barry thought.
He swallowed a lump in his throat and stepped forward. While he expected the hand he set on Jonathan’s shoulder to startle him, the younger man didn’t respond at all. “You ok?” he asked.
“I don’t want you to come in with me,” Jonathan said.
“This place is falling apart.”
“That’s not the reason why.”
“What is it then?”
Jonathan turned to look him in the eyes. His expression, while not downright frightful, was mixed with the sort of stubborn authority that came from a man scared senseless but who knew work needed to be done.
Ok, Barry nodded, knowing that any answer he got out of Jonathan would probably not make sense. I understand.
“You just… can’t come in there with me,” Jonathan said. “But… it’s only because I don’t want you to see.”
What devil was tempted to beg men to ask that question—to test their strength of morality and inflict upon themselves the horrors others wished them not to have? Was it gluttony? Lust? Avarice? Or was it something else?”
“You have a flashlight?” Barry asked.
Jonathan lifted the one Barry kept in the center console of his truck and held it before him. “I know it without,” he smiled, “but it’s nice to see.”
“How long will you be in there?”
“Not too long. Just… be careful, all right?”
Careful? he thought, frowning. Why—
“I will,” he said, before he could think on it any further. “Don’t worry.”
Jonathan nodded and turned. Before he could get more than a foot away, he spun around and planted a kiss to Barry’s cheek. Then, without pause, he made his way up to the house.
After Jonathan found a key and disappeared into the house, Barry wasn’t sure what to do. Trapped in a position where he had no choice in the matter, he stood in the very place Jonathan left him and crossed his arms over his chest, hopeful that his boyfriend wouldn’t be long. Though loathe to admit it, his unease was not specifically geared toward Jonathan’s situation.
Screw off, he thought. You’re just being paranoid.
Still—it wasn’t hard to be that way when all around him the world seemed ready to swallow him whole.
He crossed his arms over his chest.
The rustle in the woods he took as nothing more than a squirrel or chipmunk—a lowly-creature wandering through the underbrush scavenging for food on a cold and miserable day.
“Come on Jonathan,” he whispered. “Let’s get out of here before I—“
A snap drew his attention to the trees to his left. Eyes narrowing, nostrils flaring, he scoured the underbrush for the source of the sound. When nothing was found, he shook his head and loosened the tension within his back, but it wasn’t long before the snap happened once more and his eyes were drawn in a different direction.
The twilight of the grey day gave excellent view for the silhouette resting in one of the high tree branches.
Oh God, he thought. Please, God… let me be seeing things. Please.
It was highly-unlikely that the thing hadn’t seen him, whatever it happened to be. So warped in shadow it was that little could be discerned, save for its size, which mirrored something of a golden eagle who nature had allowed to grow exponentially large. Its features, though, offered a different story—especially its nearly-rounded head and the disproportionate legs.
His attention was so fixed upon the thing that he hadn’t realized he was staring until he heard the snapping once more.
His eyes trailed along the tree branch.
A jagged crack began to spread along its underside.
“Shit!” he cried. “Shit!”
The limb bowed.
The thin strands of keratin splintered.
Barry stumbled back and fell flat on his ass just in time for the branch to land on his pickup.
What the fuck? he thought, trembling.
The twisted resemblance of an avian screech struck fear into his heart.
Barry looked up.
That first night, in the apartment, when something fell in the alley and you thought it was an animal, but it was really a man; then in the park, when that man was torn to pieces—
It hadn’t been a bird.
It had been a monster.
She flew these lands as if they were her on. And now, she had come for him.
She landed on the remnants of his pickup cab with a thud so loud it reverberated through the metal and ground massive six-inch talons into the mechanism of her own destruction. Head downturned, but mouth still visible, she identified herself with her teeth alone and the jagged juxtaposition of her body, so hunchbacked and not resembling any bird in the least. Her wings—massive—ruffled as a breeze came up, but still she refused to budge.
Barry’s only inclination was to begin to crawl back—toward the house from hell.
His hand landed on, then crushed a constellation of needles.
Her head shot up.
Her face was bared.
Her image of her monstrosity was thrust into his mind.
No, Barry thought, frozen. No, no. It… it can’t. It—
She was the hag that all men feared, the witch of all desires, the devil in the night whose face was carved from the flesh of a mortal being. Her mouth was distorted, yes, and her eyes had bulged to birdlike proportions and blackened like the sallow corpse left in a bog, but her features still remained the same.
The creature that stood before him was not an ordinary monster. It was Jonathan’s mother.
His thought was cut off as she reared her elongated neck forward and uttered a screech that sent pinpricks of numbness across his body and into the finer pieces of his person. Stunned, slightly, on his left side, he scrambled to get to his feet and fell instantaneously, face-down in the mud that he choked out upon lifting his head.
He caught only one glimpse of the house before she took him by the shoulders and lifted him into the air.
Her strength was uncanny. He wasn’t a big man, by any means, but he was top heavy enough to know that her bird-boned body shouldn’t have been able to lift him. Little else could be thought of. Her nails were like knives ripping through his skin, six-inches long and caressing his shoulders, and the hallux digit at the back of her foot pierced the curve just between the muscles between his arm and back. The resulting affliction was an epiphany of pain he compared to having a scalpel shoved, then dragged through your skin.
He tried to reach up and grasp the creature’s talons but wailed.
He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t lift his arms.
Was this what prey animals felt when they were lifted into these arms—so helpless that they could do nothing but stare?
Knowing that his only hope lay in a house ten feet below him, he screamed.
The door burst open.
The young man emerged.
In his hand he held but one thing—a gun.
“Let him go you witch,” Jonathan said.
The harpy screeched and stopped her ascent. Flexing her claws, she dug her grip into Barry’s shoulders just enough to where he could not slip free from her grasp.
“Shoot her, Jonathan,” Barry gasped, blood running down his body.
“I came here to get rid of you,” Jonathan said, stepping out from under the awning and narrowing the gun at her body. “I knew it was you when I saw you in that alley. I knew you’d come back. But it’s not him you’re after. It’s me.”
“Come get me you crazy bitch.”
Her grip loosened.
The talons on her right claw slipped free.
The scream that came from his throat could not compare to the one that ripped from hers when he ripped his free arm around and grabbed her leg.
The bones were brittle.
He squeezed as hard as he could.
“Shoot her!” he screamed. “SHOOT HER JONATHAN! SHOOT HER!”
The shot went off, but must have only grazed her, as only feathers and not blood exploded into the air.
Barry thrust his body down.
The talons dug deep, but the adrenaline gave him resolve.
The moment he felt her grip slid free of his left shoulder, he twisted his body with all his might.
He let go.
The fall to the ground was a daze of gunshots and screams. The impact was a truck slamming into him at ninety-five miles an hour.
The breath was knocked out of him instantly.
His spine felt like jelly.
He managed, in the moments he heard the last of the gunshots, to reach out to every extremity he could.
He could move.
He wasn’t paralyzed.
The blanketing chaos of something crashing into the trees was the victory all warriors sang.
Barry closed his eyes and struggled to breathe.
“Barry!” Jonathan cried. “Barry!”
“Oh thank god,” Jonathan said. He threw himself into the mud at his side and took hold of his hand. “God... I’m so sorry. I didn’t want you to come in because I thought she’d be in there. I thought you’d be safe.”
“It’s… ok,” Barry managed with a cough. “Help me up.”
Jonathan struggled to help him from the mixture of mud and blood trapping Barry to the ground, but eventually got him upright. Rolling with pain and shivering from the spastic fire of his shredded nerves, Barry looked toward the clearing as his eyes began to water and waited for her to return.
“The truck,” Jonathan managed.
“There’s people,” Barry said. “Right?”
The rev of an engine coming up the road cut him off.
“Thank God,” Jonathan said.
The blue minivan ignored all aspects of the road and pulled directly up beside them.
Jonathan flicked the safety on his gun.
The passenger door opened to reveal a tall, elderly black man holding a glock in his hands. “What happened?” he asked, rounding the corner with caution. “We heard gunshots and thought a bear had gone after a camper.”
“My boyfriend got attacked by something,” Jonathan said. “Some kind of bird.”
“Jonathan McCrady?” a woman’s voice said. The driver’s window rolled down to reveal a black woman with startlingly-green eyes. “Is that you?”
“It’s me, Mrs. Miller,” Jonathan said. “She came back.”
Mrs. Miller turned her eyes on Barry and paled instantaneously. “We need to get you to a hospital,” she said. “Get in the van. We’ll go as fast as we can.”
“Is she dead?” Mr. Miller asked, taking Barry from Jonathan’s arms and helping him into the car.
“I… I don’t—“
“We can’t worry about that now,” Mrs. Miller said. “Edgar, get those seats rolled down and that first-aid kit out. We gotta get to the infection before anything else does.”
“I,” Barry started.
The blur in his vision gave him pause.
“Get his shirt off,” Edgar said to Jonathan, slamming his door shut.
Jonathan grabbed the bowie knife the older man offered and went to work cutting Barry’s shirt free.
“Jonathan,” Barry managed, turning his head to the side and coughing. “What the hell was that?”
“I’ll explain later.” Jonathan pressed a rough kiss to Barry’s mouth and cut the sleeves off his T. “Thank God you’re all right,” he whispered.
Barry spread out flat on his stomach and closed his eyes as he felt antiseptic wipes drawing the blood and mud off his back.
His breath faltered.
“Don’t fall asleep,” Edgar said. “Stay with us.”
“I won’t,” Barry said, the force of the minivan’s engine just enough to give him peace.
The world behind them, easily visible through the back window, offered but one glimpse of the outskirts of Cradle before they burst out onto the highway.
It took but a moment for him to realize something.
They’d done what they’d come out here to do.
The only question was: had it brought Jonathan peace?