The Kind People of Denary

10 Aug

For consideration: 2022 Bram Stoker Awards®. Long fiction.

From the Sinister Smile Press Anthology: Screaming in the Night, Volume 1

                                      WC: 7746


                               The Kind People of Denary


                                       Daniel O’Connor

            “What is all of this shit and where does it come from?”

            He sat on his couch, mumbling to himself.  The “shit” to which he referred was basically everything in his view: books, records, the lamp, his phone, the couch, and his nearly-empty whiskey bottle.

            These thoughts would pester him whenever he washed down his marijuana edibles with a 92 proof chaser.  He’d tell himself that the earth was rock, water, plant life, oxygen, some other crap, but yet all of this random stuff was made from it.  Plastics, fabric, whatever.  Did we need any of it?

            Then, most of the man-made objects would orbit his head – if his THC/booze concoction was potent enough.  It had previously possessed enough potency to get his ass bounced from the NYPD, and to transform his wife, Kathleen, into his ex-wife, Kathleen.  She, free from his shackles, remained back in Staten Island with their house, while he, (former) Officer Bladen Dieci, relocated to a shithole apartment in a shithole town in Northern Arizona. 

            He’d been filling out job applications with a plastic pen that he deemed to be a worthless creation of man when his phone rang.  The chewed-cap Bic float-circled his head as he scanned the caller ID.  He raised his right hand and watched the pen, along with a tattered paperback copy of “Ten Little Indians”, pass cleanly through his forearm, like Casper the Friendly Ghost.  He was sure it was all hallucinatory.  Pretty sure, at least.

            Bladen envisioned the radio waves, the base station and the cell tower, as he stared at the phone in his left hand.  The caller was Uncle Arlo.  Sheriff Arlo.


            “Bladen!  It’s your old uncle!  Hey boy!”

            “Hi, Uncle Arlo.”

            “You doin’ better since you came out west?  Nothin’ like the desert.

Should be a good restart for a kid like you.”

            “I’m thirty-one.”

            “Still a kid.  I’m pushin’ seventy now, Blade.”

            The paper job application floated up to join the pen, the book, and all of the others in orbit.  If Bladen owned a laptop there’d be little need for the pen or the paper but his current finances didn’t permit such an extravagance.

            “So kid, you wanna be a deputy?”

            The orbiting ceased.

            “A deputy?  For you?”

            “Yup.  Down here in Denary.”

            “Um, Uncle Arlo, you do know that I was shit-canned from NYPD, right?  Harold and Kumar would have a better chance of passing a drug test for your department…”

            “Who?  Are they like a Cheech and Chong?  I get it!  Anyway, we can work on all that.  I basically am the department.  We have me and my three deputies.  We don’t even really need that many, yet we do need one more.  Long story.  Come on down to Denary and we’ll talk.  Decent pay, benefits, and you can stay with me till you get on your feet.”

            Bladen’s next call was cross-country.  He reached voicemail.

            “Hey, it’s Kath.  Leave a message. Fake IRS and fake Dell Computer can fuck off.”


            The next morning Bladen Dieci rolled south, deeper into Arizona, in a Ford that had rolled off the assembly line while he was in high school detention. It was blue, apart from one black door.  Denary was a little more than an hour’s drive, as the vulture flies.

            He was just finishing an Egg McMuffin when he saw the road sign.

                                               Welcome to Denary

                                      Where our kind are the kind kind

            All Bladen knew about the place was that there had been some strange and brutal murders there ten years prior, and not long after, his father – Uncle Arlo’s twin – ventured there to visit his brother and was promptly diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor He was never again whole enough even to return to New York to die.  Bladen never went to see his dad as the end neared.  He’d meant to, but it all happened so quickly.  At least that’s how he rationalized it.

            He saw his father’s body at the Staten Island funeral home, after it had arrived there like some fucking Amazon Prime delivery.


            Bladen walked into the Denary Diner, greeted by the sound of Dwight Yoakam and the sight of his uncle sitting in a booth, eyes down under his Stratton straw hat, tying and untying some kind of rope knot.  Uncle Arlo sure looked every bit the cowboy.  That he came from the Big Apple thirty-some years before and that his actual first name was Nick mattered little.  This is who he’d become: the wrangler with the rope and the big sheriff’s hat.

            “Blade!  Hell, you got skinny.”

            Arlo stood, dropping his piece of rope to the table.  His smile was broad, uncomfortably so.  Bladen noticed that the years were catching up with his uncle; he was still tall and broad, but now a tad hunched over and maybe a bit wobbly.  The men embraced.

            “Good to see you, Uncle Arlo.  I can’t thank you enough… ”

            “See that?  A Buntline Hitch,” said Arlo, pointing to the length of rope, “Was hooking my key ring to it.  Killin’ time.  Easy knot.”

            As Bladen sat in the booth, across the table from Arlo, the waitress approached.  Her smile might have been broader than the sheriff’s.  Her middle-aged choppers screamed tobacco and gum disease but she presented them proudly.

            “Hello, handsome!  I’m Maggie, I’m a Taurus, I love lake fishin’, and we make the best omelets in Arizona!  Your uncle told me all about you, big city policeman.  Good for you.  Can I get you some coffee?”

            “Uh, yes.  Black, please.  No food, thank you.  I just had a couple of McMuffins on the drive,” he smiled.

            “Mc whats?”

            Bladen laughed, politely, “I’m sure your eggs are better, but I was starving.”

            “But really, Mc whats?” she pressed, eyes and mouth wide.

            “McMuffins.  Egg McMuffins?”

            “That’s a new one, I guess,” she chuckled before heading to the coffee station.

            Bladen looked over at Arlo.  Same giant smile.

            “You do know what Egg McMuffins are, right Uncle Arlo.”

            “Yes.  Hey, you ever tie a Knute Hitch?”

            With the coffee cups near empty and the small-talk dwindling, Uncle Arlo got down to business.

            “I know you have questions, Bladen, and I know that one of them is about why we are meeting here rather than at my house – I’ll get to all that.”  Arlo was still smiling, as were the older couple who had just come through the door, nodded and headed to a booth toward the back.

            “That did cross my mind.”

            “I know.  Well, first off, we need to have at least four law officers in the town.  Not that we have any crime, but it’s just how it is with shifts and all.  I’m gonna be stepping down soon.  I’m not in the best of health and I need to find someone I can trust.  Not that you’re gonna be sheriff.  Not right off, anyways.  That wouldn’t be right for the deputies who’ve been in the department for years.  Not that they’d even complain.  One of them’ll get promoted, you’ll become a deputy, but your rank won’t matter for the job I have for you.”  Arlo grasped his nephew’s hand and stared into his eyes, smiling all the while.  “It’s a very important job.”

            “Sounds weird.”

            “Finish your coffee, Bladen.  I’ll have to tell you the rest in private.  Get in your car, follow me to my house, and we’ll talk out front of it.”


            Bladen shoved the key in his ignition, popped a THC lozenge and followed his uncle’s sheriff’s SUV through backstreets and brush until they came upon a neat Mediterranean-style single story home.  It featured a small gated courtyard with a detached casita.  Thick dark clouds gathered as Uncle Arlo exited his vehicle and loaded himself into the passenger seat of his nephew’s old Ford.  The first thing Bladen noticed was that for the first time since he’d arrived in Denary, there was no smile.  Arlo’s withered scowl looked like something on Rushmore as he turned toward his nephew.

            “What do you know about the mass murder that took place here back then?”

            “Well, it was strange as fuck, as far as I know.”

            “That it was.”

            “Wasn’t it the old mayor?” asked Bladen.

            “Was the mayor, the sheriff, the school principal, and a local preacher.  They just all got together and went through the town shootin’ up anyone they seen: kids, the elderly, didn’t matter.  Then, best the FBI could figure, was that the mayor, when they was done, killed his accomplices and then himself, as they had probably all agreed on beforehand.”


            “And that school principal was a woman.  You don’t usually see females involved in this kinda thing.  Anyways, the nagging piece was that a couple of very young children – witnesses who hid and escaped death – wouldn’t stop sayin’ that they saw more than just the four murderers.  They said there was maybe six or eight of ‘em, and more than just one female killer.  Problem was, they couldn’t identify them.  They were terrified and never got a clear look at faces.  But they never changed their story.  Not once.”

            “But, even if there were more accomplices, nothing further has happened in like ten years, and everyone in this town is pig-in-shit happy all the time… ”

            “Almost everyone,” replied Arlo, his face steady as Easter Island Moai.

            The rain began to pepper Bladen’s Ford.

            “Not long after the murders,” continued Arlo, “a young girl came.  She arrived with her mother, off of a freight train, they said.  Now Bladen, this is where things take a strange turn.  In the course of this story, I’m going to tell you something that I have never uttered to anyone.  If you don’t want to hear it please tell me now.  You are family, and I couldn’t imagine telling this to anyone who isn’t.  But, if you don’t want to know, I’ll be forced to trust someone else.”

            “Can I vape while you tell me?”

            “Vape?  Christ kid, either smoke or don’t smoke, but what’s with that electric shit?”

            “Just tell me your story, Uncle Arlo.”

            Sheriff Arlo studied the rain as it pelted the windshield.


                                           TEN YEARS EARLIER

On Arlo’s second day as sheriff of Denary, they stepped through the front entrance of the tiny police station, each toting one small, weathered piece of luggage.  They presented huge smiles; the only such grins in a town burdened with fresh grief.  The girl appeared to be about fourteen; the mother looked more like a grandmother.  They donned sprightly attire, mother in blue, child in pink.  The youngster possessed the most dazzling blonde locks, and eyes like select drops of tropical ocean.  Unlike the girl, the mother’s features were unremarkable, even drab.  But again, the dress was a nice shade of blue.  They managed to get themselves seated across a desk from Sheriff Arlo as he, though swamped, made time for his two visitors.  The station secretary, a sweet dark-skinned go-getter in her late twenties, who everyone affectionately called Miss Nini, bustled around the office, from desk to desk.

            “We were saddened to learn of the horror that has befallen your town, sheriff,” offered the mother.  “I am Ludovica, and this is my daughter, Giada.  We have traveled a long way to see you.”

            “Oh.  Where from?”

            “East.  By train.”

            “Train?  The nearest train station is almost… ”

            “Freight train, sir.  It didn’t actually stop.”

            Both ladies continued to smile.

            “Okay,” sighed Arlo, feeling pressed for time, “what can I do for you?”

            “With respect, sir, it is what we can do for you,” replied Ludovica.  She glanced over at her sunny-faced daughter, at which time the girl spoke; high-pitched, Disney princess-style.

            “Mister Sheriff, I can take away all of your sadness and bad thoughts!  If there are naughty people in your town who are pretending to be nice, I can make them nice for real!”

            Arlo began to stand, ready to show them the door, when, for whatever reason, he decided to ask, “How would you go about doing all that, young lady?”

            Giada’s smile grew even wider.  “All I do is hold your head in my hands!”

            Ludovica nodded, but Arlo had lost patience.  “Miss Nini here will show you ladies out,” he bellowed, loud enough for the secretary to hear.  As she approached, the sheriff added, “If you folks need a ride somewhere, I’ll have a deputy take you.  Good day now.”

            Their smiles remained as Miss Nini led them to the outer office.  Arlo sat back down, slipped on his reading glasses and directed his attention to the paperwork on his desk.  He was going to find out if any other townspeople took part in the mass murder.  No matter that the FBI had taken over the case.  Toward the bottom of the pile were the grisly crime scene photos.  One of them – a shot of two dead children – filled his frame of vision when Miss Nini hurriedly came through the door.  Arlo looked up to see her shaking, tears pouring from her captivatingly cocoa eyes.

            “It works,” she cried.


            “I let the little girl take my head into her hands.  I… I feel beautiful.  Sheriff, I feel so free.”

            A smile took hold of Nini’s face.  It was not unlike those of Ludovica and Giada.


                                                      PRESENT DAY

            Rain was seeping into the Ford.  It invaded via the cracked window that provided an escape for Bladen’s blueberry-scented vapor. Uncle Arlo continued his decade-old story:

            “That smile that day on Miss Nini’s face was the first one in our town.  Now everyone has one, and has had one since the day that little girl grabbed their heads.”

            “You mean the whole town did that shit, Uncle Arlo?”

            “All but one of us.”

            Arlo stared through the vape cloud, sans any trace of a smile.

            “You didn’t do it?  How is it that you’re the only one?”

            “It was all voluntary; from the mayor on down, but everyone did it.  Call it peer pressure or the desire to belong, or maybe they all just wanted to feel as good as it was advertised to be, but they did it.  Stood in line to be touched by Giada, with Ludovica grinnin’ beside her.  They all shook, they all cried, and they all became so motherfucking nice.”

            “They have no idea that you didn’t get… baptized, or whatever,” stated Bladen.  “That’s why you keep that goofy grin on in public.”

            “That’s right.  Try smiling for ten minutes straight.  Then think about doing it for ten years.”

            “How did you get away with not participating?”

            “This is hard, Blade.  Your father helped me.  Of course, I couldn’t have known, but I think… Bladen, I think that’s what killed him.”

            The vaping ceased.  The window rode back up.  The rain intensified.

            “What do you mean?  How did it kill my dad?”

            “The short answer?  He was my twin.  He liked the idea of being happy and carefree for life.  He knew I didn’t want to do it.  As sheriff, I needed a clear mind, a neutral thought process.  I needed an analytical brain.”

            “Get the fuck… ”

            “Yeah, he volunteered to dress as me and go kneel before Giada.  No one knew any better.  Well, no one except Giada, I suspect.”

            “But how did… ?”

            “He got headaches almost immediately.  His vision started to go, along with his equilibrium.  Got the brain tumor.  Died looking up at me.”

            “The touch of the girl gave him the brain tumor?”

            “I’m sure of it.  She sensed our deception and made him pay for it.”

            “But the girl and her mother came to help the people… ”

            “Seemed that way at first.  I’m still the only one who thinks otherwise.”

            “Where are they now, Uncle Arlo?”

            “The grateful mayor had set them up in a little trailer near the tracks.  It was clean and modern.  Hell, I’d live there.  One night, a few years back, Ludovica, the mother, well, she was just gone.  The girl said she went back east and that they’d reunite one day.”

            “She just left the girl here alone?”

            “Blade, let’s say that little Giada is, um… beyond her years.”

            “By now she’s what, like twenty-four?  Does she still live in that trailer?”

            “How about we go in the house now.”

            Bladen held his piece of luggage over his head to shelter himself from the downpour.  Arlo walked in front of him, oblivious to the weather.  They passed the casita, the courtyard, and approached the front door.  Arlo turned the knob and opened it.

            “You didn’t lock your door?” asked Bladen.

            “No crime in Denary, boy.”


            With Bladen seated comfortably in a living room chair, Arlo walked over carrying two full shot glasses, and handed one to his nephew.

            “Here’s to my new deputy.  We gotta go make it official at the mayor’s office, but that’ll just be a formality.”

            Bladen slid his head back and downed the whiskey.  “Will I have to put that bullshit smile on all day?”

            The sheriff put his hand out for the empty glass.  “No, because they’ll understand that you were never touched by Giada.  Kid, you will be the first person to move into Denary since that, er, girl, and her mother, got here.”

            “What?  In all those years?”

            “Yeah.  No one has moved in.  Or out for that matter; ‘cept for Ludovica, I guess.”

            “How is that possible?”

            “Beats me.  Above my pay grade.  No kids been born here either.”

            “Can you pour me another shot?  This tale is fucking with my vibe.  The rain seems to have slowed.  I’m gonna go to the car and grab my other bags.”

            “Need a hand?”

            “I’m good.”

            Bladen stood and strode toward the door.  He walked into the courtyard, toward the gate that led to the street.  Something made him stop in his tracks by the casita.  He glanced back at the front door of Arlo’s house, then stepped to his right, not toward the gate but toward the door to the casita.  He turned the knob.



            The Office of the Mayor was smaller than Bladen had anticipated, but the furniture was pretty sweet.  Mayor McComb was adored by the townspeople.  He didn’t exactly have a hard act to follow, since the previous occupant of his office checked out of life as a mass murderer.  Arlo referred to him as Mayor McComb-over, but only when complaining aloud to himself.  He made a mental note to share the joke with his nephew.

            “Soon as we get you sworn in, we’ll get you fitted for your uniform,” smiled the rotund leader; four strands of hair across the top of his head, looking like the Finger Lakes.  “This here is Deputy Gonzalez.  We call him Alamo.  He’s gonna be the new sheriff once Arlo signs off.”

            The deputy reached out and shook Bladen’s hand.

            “So they call you Alamo?” stuttered Bladen, “Guessing you’re from Texas?”

            “Arizona, born and bred,” answered the deputy, with a grin as wide as the Lone Star State, “I used to work for the car rental company.  Alamo.”


            “Hey, is that a touch of booze on your breath?” quizzed Alamo, still smiling, of course.

            “I…I… ”

            “Yup.  I gave him a shot for nerves,” interrupted Sheriff Arlo, fake grin eating his face.

            McComb and Alamo burst out in laughter.  In walked Miss Nini, bible in hand, already guffawing.

            “I told you about our lovely Miss Nini,” said Arlo to Bladen, forcing his own awkward laughter.

            “Yes. So nice to meet you, Miss Nini.”

            “Oh, but she is Deputy Mayor Nini now, for the past three years,” responded Arlo.

            “Ready to get that hand on the bible?” she asked, eyes still lovely, teeth still prominent.


            Two hours later, Deputy Bladen Dieci had a pair of temporary, and slightly baggy uniforms, a bag full of equipment, and a Smith & Wesson pistol.  The first thing he did after signing for his supplies was to place a call to Staten Island.  To Kathleen.

            “Hey, this is Kath.  Leave a message. Fake IRS and fake Dell Computer can fuck off.”


            That evening, he sat in his uncle’s living room again, plopped on the sofa, half-scrolling through his phone while Arlo mastered some complicated knot-tying from his recliner. 

            “Why no TV, Uncle Arlo?”

            “I was never one for the television.  I’d rather read a book or tie some knots.  I got games, if you wanna play.”


            Arlo stood.  He strolled over to a closet and opened the door.  There they were, stacked high.  Monopoly.  Risk.  Clue.  Maybe twenty board games in all.  Still in plastic.

            “Holy hell,” said Bladen, “I never pictured you… ”

            “Did you say ‘Pictionary’?  I got that, I think.”

            “I did not.  Why all the games?”

            “That’s what they do around here.  Every goddamned house is filled with these.  I don’t play unless I have to – you know, if I’m a guest.  I bought these to blend in, but I never have anyone over so I ain’t never opened ‘em.  I’ll play, if you wanna.”


            “Pop a six and you move twice!” exclaimed Bladen.  “You don’t know that rule?”


            Bladen danced his little blue game piece around the Trouble board.  Arlo then placed his palm on the clear plastic dome, pressed down, and set to motion the single die imprisoned within.  As it landed on the number 1, he spoke.

            “I have her, Bladen.”

            “What’s that?”

            “Giada.  I have her.  Or, I have it.”

            “Hmmmm.  Okay.  Uncle Arlo, I am going to ingest some marijuana cookies before you go any further.”

            Bladen walked to his bag, removed a cookie, and bit.  Arlo moved his red game piece one space.

            As crumbs tumbled from his lips, Bladen spoke, “I never made detective in NYPD, but it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to conclude that she is in that locked casita.”

            “It.  Not she.  Not for a long time.”

            “Maybe that’s a tad harsh, Uncle Arlo?”

            The sheriff laughed.  “Your move.”

            Bladen pressed the plastic bubble.  Another 1.

            “Fuck me,” he mumbled.  “Uncle Arlo, you do realize that you are committing a felony by holding someone against her will.”

            “I’ve learned – the hard way – that evil can’t be eradicated.  It can only be relocated,” answered Arlo.  “If I ate your THC cookie, maybe I’d get a little high; but if I ate a THC cookie from every person in this town tonight, well… you tell me.”

            “You’d be screwed.  Also, are you saying that everyone in town has edibles?”

            “No, jackass.  I am saying that this here, at the time, young girl, took the bad out of a whole town, and that might include some major league bad from a couple of folks who might have been murderers.  It seems, after what has transpired since, that all of that evil didn’t just vanish.  It went into her.  Changed her to a… a… thing.”

            “I’m having another cookie, Uncle Arlo.  Want one?”

            “Not for me.  Listen, I’ll be right back.  Don’t cheat.”

            Arlo stood, grabbed some keys, and stepped into the kitchen.  Bladen heard the fridge door open, followed by the sound of containers being moved about.  The refrigerator door closed and Arlo walked back in, past his nephew, and to the front door.  He was wearing big headphones and carried a decent-sized piece of rectangular Tupperware.  The door to the courtyard slammed behind him.  Bladen sat staring at the Trouble board.  The game pieces began to rise from their slots and float.


            They stopped and returned to the board.  He grabbed his phone and tapped, expecting to get Kathleen’s voicemail once again.  A man answered.

            “Listen,” said the deep voice, “enough of this shit.  Do you even know what time it is, you fucking loser?  She wants nothing to do with you.  Go away.”

            “W-What?” stammered Bladen.  “Who is this?”

            “This is Kathleen’s husband.  Her real husband, in the here and now.”


            Bladen started to call the number back, but decided against it.  Husband?  This needed to be processed.  His hands went cold, his throat tight.  He gazed at the game on the table and reached for his vape pen.  By the time of his first puff, Arlo was back.

            “Did I give you permission to fill my house with that vape shit?” he said through the initial cloud.  He spoke more loudly than normal, as his headphones were still on.

            “Sorry.  I wasn’t thinking straight.  I’ll go outside.”

            “Never mind, kid.  Just do it.  Who cares?”

            “Uncle Arlo, were you just in the casita?”

            “Yeah.  I fed it.  It eats once a day.  Raw meat.”

            “Why the headphones?”

            “It tries to trick me.  I don’t listen no more.  Also, it has a toilet in there, but I think it eats its own shit.”

            “Here’s the deal, Sheriff Uncle Arlo, you are gonna take me into that casita, because I sometimes have trouble with reality.  Maybe you do too.  So I need to know right fucking now if you are crazy, if I am crazy, if we are both crazy, or if neither of us is crazy.  That last possibility is the scariest of all.”

            “I am going to show you, Bladen.  I’ll give you the headphones and I’ll shove some other shit in my own ears.”

            He presented his nephew with the huge ear cups and the attached Sony Walkman cassette player.

            “Cassettes?  I don’t know if you’re old school or cutting edge, other than the fact that I actually do know.  Let me see what’s in that player… ”

            “It’s the only tape I got.  I bought the machine at a flea market and the tape was already inside.”

            “Hmmm,” uttered Bladen as he popped open the player and removed the cartridge, “Let’s see, ‘Once’, ‘Even Flow’, ‘Alive’… hell, the print is worn to shit, but that’s Pearl Jam!  You like them?”

            “I dunno.  I hear it every day, so I guess maybe a little.  I ain’t never flipped it to the other side, though.”

            “Okay, let’s do that.  Tomorrow, you’ll hear all new songs.”

            “Don’t bother.”

            “Hey, it’s done.  It’ll be ‘Oceans’ for you tomorrow!”

            “Well, you’re wearing it first.”

            “I’ll be kind – rewind.  Now take me to see the girl.”

            “Listen, uh, did you move your piece ahead while I was out?”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Bladen, your Trouble game piece.  Did you cheat?”

            “Of course not.”

            Arlo looked down, studying the board.  For a full minute.

            “All right,” he finally said, “I will take you out there, but promise me that you’ll understand.  I’ve had it locked in that casita for years; since I noticed the changes beginning.  I’m the only bastard in Denary that isn’t brainwashed, so it was all up to me.  I drugged it while it slept in its trailer, then brought it here.  Took me weeks to get that brig set up.  The town thinks that Giada up and left to go find her mother.  They wouldn’t understand why I have her here, even if they saw for themselves.  They are that batshit, Bladen.  I don’t know if I have the power, or the will, to kill it.  That’s my curse.  I keep it alive.  It eats once a day.”

            “You said that part already – about the eating.”

            “Oh, and it don’t wash or nothing, but there is a shower in there too, near the toilet.  It eats its own… ”

            “Shit.  I know.  You said that already as well.”


            As Arlo slid the key into the door of the casita, he hummed to himself; not a tune, but a steady drone, designed to assist the cotton balls in his ears with blocking out extraneous noise.  Bladen stood behind him in the darkness of the courtyard, the sounds of Pearl Jam glutting his skull.  Behind the heavy front door was a second one.  Gated.  Steel.  Arlo unlocked that as well.  He turned to his nephew.

            “The vape?”

            “What?” asked Bladen, lifting a cup from his ear.

            “That vape thing.  Ditch it.”

            “Sorry.”  He blew out the last cloud and set the vaporizer pen on the ground.

            Stepping into the dimly-lit casita, Bladen coughed, then gagged.  The first thing he saw was the enormous cage.  A jail cell. There was also a sign:


            Hanging from above, covering the top half of the cell, were several altar cloths, embroidered crosses facing inward toward the bars.  The walls were covered in crucifixes, which were affixed to the soundproof tiles.  Bladen could see shadowy movement within, but the deepest part of the cell was dark as night, due in part to the boarded and barred windows, and the altar cloths were no help.  Pearl Jam filled his head as fear filled his heart.  Arlo motioned Bladen to look in.  He knelt below the hanging cloths, peering.

            Too dark.

            Arlo went to the corner of the room and retrieved a heavy flashlight.  He handed it to his nephew.  ‘90s grunge blasted in Bladen’s ears.  He turned on the light and trained it on the back of the large cell.  Almost before the light hit, a figure retreated into the shower area, which couldn’t be seen from in front of the bars.

            Bladen’s left ear was on the far side of his uncle, and out of his view.  The new deputy, using one finger, slid the earphone off, hoping to hear anything.

            “Can you help me, sir?” came the voice, pixie-like and soft.  “He keeps me here and does things to me.  Terrible things.”

            Arlo, cotton-eared and humming, slowly stepped to the other side of his nephew, and Bladen re-positioned the headphone cup.  Pearl Jam again.  The sheriff stomped his foot in frustration, realizing that Bladen would not be able to see into the shower area.  He interrupted his humming to utter a single word.



            Arlo and Bladen were back in the main house.  The new deputy took off his headphones.

            “You could have given me some of those cotton balls to stuff in my nostrils, Uncle Arlo. What the fuck was that, Godzilla’s colonoscopy?”

            “It eats its own shit.”

            “Yeah, yeah – I got that.  You just could’ve… never mind.”

            “That goddamned shower,” sighed Arlo.  “Used it as a hiding spot.  My faulty design.  I can’t think of everything.  It don’t hide from me.  Guess it don’t want you getting’ a look at it.  Slick bastard knew you were with me.  Explain that one.  Tomorrow you can draw it out with food.”

            “Uncle Arlo,” began Bladen, placing his hands on the taller man’s shoulders, “Uncle Nick – remember when you were Uncle Nick?”

            “Yeah,” he responded with a trace of an actual smile.

            “Uncle Nick, is there a terrified and sickly young blonde woman imprisoned in your casita?”

            Arlo stood silently.  His smile died.  He removed Bladen’s hands from his shoulders.

            “No,” was all he said.

            The sheriff turned and walked toward his bedroom.  With his back to his nephew, he said, “I’m tired.  If I ain’t awake by ten tomorrow, come and get me.  Don’t bother tryin’ to get in that casita without me; it’s locked tight and I have the only key.  You’re a kind-hearted kid, Bladen, but the thing in that cage killed your father.  Remember that.”

            One more vape, one more edible, and Bladen was ready for bed.


            The morning sun shoved past the overmatched window shade.  Bladen Dieci hadn’t slept much.  The image of a girl held hostage tortured him as the coyotes prowled the night.  A girl in an Arizona cage; a girl in a New York relationship.  He ambled to the bathroom, then the kitchen.  As the coffee brewed he saw the Trouble game still atop the living room table, he saw the Blood Knot draped on Arlo’s chair, and he saw the clock on the wall – a wooden cat with moving eyes and tail.  He surely had done something, but before he knew it, it felt like he had stared at that cat for two hours.

            10 AM.

            He turned the corner toward his uncle’s bedroom.  Sticking halfway out of the crack below the door was a thick envelope.  It contained something, but Bladen first spotted the handwritten scrawl on the face of it.

            I tied my last knot, kid.  Don’t come in my room.  Just read the contents within.  God be with you.

            He blasted through the door.  Sheriff Arlo was adorned in full uniform. He swayed slowly below his final knot.  The rope had been tied to an attic beam, which had been exposed by the removal of a ceiling fan, which sat neatly in the corner of the bedroom, a few feet from a toppled folding chair.  Bladen ran to Arlo, but it was obviously too late.  He knew not to disturb the scene, because an investigation would soon come.  The keys to the casita hung from the late sheriff’s belt.


            Bladen sat in the living room, eyes on the Trouble board, holding a cassette he’d found in the envelope, along with a suicide note.  His mind raced, trying to find an order for what his next actions.

            Call it in?  Read the note?  Listen to the cassette? Enter the casita?

            He decided the order would be: 1) Read note. 2) Enter casita. 3) Play cassette. 4) Call it in.  He then added: 2) Ingest marijuana.  The others were pushed to 3, 4 and 5.

            It was more than a note.  Arlo had left to Bladen his mortgage-free house, his life savings, his truck, and a detailed account of the inhabitant of his casita.  He explained why he performed a drop-hanging on himself: for forensic reasons that would clear Bladen of any suspicion.  He also noted that there would not be much of an investigation because all of the law enforcement officers in Denary were oblivious to anything but kindness.  He concluded that they would not consider the detached casita a part of any potential crime scene, so he needn’t worry. He also wrote that he hoped Bladen had more resolve than he, and might consider slaughtering the “thing” that had given his father a brain tumor.  The note concluded with a reminder to play the tape and an apology regarding the future chore of reattaching the ceiling fan.

            Bladen devoured a pair of laced cookies, took the key ring that dangled from the belt of the man who dangled from the ceiling, dropped a raw steak into a bowl, removed the Pearl Jam tape from the Walkman, replaced it with the suicide cassette, and walked out the front door.  The headphones dangled at his side.


            The hot sun warmed his neck as he unlocked the casita door.  Blood oozed from the cold steak.  He opened the second door, the steel one.  He thought he heard a man’s voice within, a deep one.  Gravelly.  It ceased immediately.  He blamed it on the cookies.

            “Hello?” said Bladen, hesitantly.  “I don’t know if you really like raw steak, but I… ”

            “I’m used to it,” came the cheerful response.  Sounded like a 12 year-old girl.

            “I can… I can get you something else,” he stammered.

            “It’s okay.”

            “I want to help you,” replied Bladen.

            “Where is that man?  The sheriff.”

            “He was my uncle,” answered Bladen, ducking to see beneath the altar cloths.  He saw the flashlight in the corner.


            “How do I give you the steak?”

            “There are two very little, locked openings, side by side.  You need to turn off the electricity, open them both… ”

            “Oh yeah, I read that,” said the deputy.  He placed everything on the floor, retrieved the flashlight, took Arlo’s instructions from his pocket, and shone the light on them, reading.

            FEEDING: Turn off electric on wall switch, open ONLY ONE of the pair of side-by-side food slot doors.  The monster can’t fit both hands through just one slot opening.  It needs BOTH hands on you to fuck with your brain…

            Bladen went to the wall.  There were two labeled switches, one larger than the other.

            LIGHT.  CAGE.

            First he hit the light.  A single dim bulb on the ceiling turned on.  Didn’t do much.  Then he pulled the larger switch.  A low buzz that he hadn’t even noticed, stopped.

            “Good,” said the childlike voice.  “Now just come and open both slot doors.  Or you could just open this whole cage and get me the heck out of here.”

            Bladen walked to the slots.  The prisoner was again hiding in the shower stall.

            “I’m just opening one slot for now,” he said, as he unlocked it.  He kept an eye on the shower as he placed the bloody bowl of steak on the small shelf.  “If you come out of there so I can see you, I might open both slots, or probably even the whole cell.”

            “I’m shy.”

            “What?  I’m talking about getting you out of here!”

            “Okay, maybe not shy, but I… I’m so ugly now.  I’ve been here for so long.  Mistreated, malnourished. It all hurts so much, Bladen.”

            He had his hand on the second slot door.

            “I never told you my name,” he said, taking his hand away.

            “Silly, the sheriff told me about you when he fed me yesterday.  Why did you say he was your uncle?  Did something happen to him?  He is not a good man, but still, I wouldn’t wish harm on him.”

            “He was a good man!  I… I think so, anyway.”

            “Has he passed away?”

            “He has.  He’s gone.”

            “Oh, no.  I am probably too silly for even offering this,” said the juvenile voice, “but, though I am a good girl, I do have special powers.”

            “You do?”

            “Yes.  Have you seen the kind people of Denary?  I made them that way!  I help people.”

            “My uncle said you’re evil.”

            “No way.  He was evil, Bladen.  I don’t know why my touch never helped him.  He was the only one.”

            “He said you killed my father.”


            “My dad.  Uncle Arlo said you gave him the brain tumor.”

            “I’m not sure what any of that means.  I don’t believe I ever met your father.”

            “Your hands touched my father.”


            “When he stood in for my uncle.  My uncle never received your touch.”

            “None of that is true, Bladen.  My hands only help.  Do you have access to your uncle’s body?  If you can bring his remains to me, I might – no promises – be able to bring him back.  But only if we hurry.”

            “Bring him back?”

            “Yes.  Hurry!”


            THC raced through his bloodstream as Bladen raced out of the casita.  In the cage, hurried footsteps bolted toward the raw meat.

            Minutes later, Bladen Dieci was dragging Arlo’s body through the courtyard, and into the darkened casita.

            “Hurry!” said the girly voice.  “Either let me out or bring his head by the food slots.”

            Bladen, winded and sweaty, peered into the cell.  Giada was still hiding in the shower stall.  He lugged Arlo’s body near the food slots.

            “I will come to help your uncle, but only if you don’t look at me.  Okay?” asked the prisoner.

            “Whatever,” huffed Bladen, “Just do it.  Bring him back.”

            “You’ll need to open the other slot, too.”

            Bladen heard the footsteps within the cage, and pondered if he should open the second slot door.  Arlo’s head was just in front of it.

            That was when the hand came through the slot.

            It grabbed Bladen by his throat.  When he was six years-old, Bladen had seen something billed as The World’s Largest Pipe Wrench.  His dad took him to see it.  Now it felt like that wrench was crushing his windpipe.

            This was not the appendage of a girl.  It was calloused and thick.  It stank.  Bladen grew dizzy as he heard the command again.  It was delivered in a deep growl.

            “Open it.”

            The key ring was in his hand.  Bladen decided he’d rather die than unleash whatever was in that cage.  At that instant, something else slid through the open food slot.  Losing vision and sense, Bladen couldn’t tell what the snake-like entity was, but it looped through the key ring, like one of Arlo’s ropes, ripped it from his grasp, pulled it toward the second slot, operated the key, unlocked the other opening, and enabled the second hand to slide through the cage.  The hands then went, not to Arlo’s head, but to Bladen’s.  Though his throat was now free, the grip on his skull was overpowering, and he couldn’t move.  He felt the tears coming.  His body shook violently.  As, just seconds before, he felt the cold sting of death approaching, he now enjoyed a rush of the greatest happiness and peace he would ever experience.  Light years beyond any drug.

            The hands released him. 

When he finally stood, wearing the largest smile ever to grace his face, night had fallen.  The daylight hours had passed, as if he’d been anesthetized.  He stepped over his uncle’s body and pulled down the altar cloths.  The light was dim, the shadows full, but he could see Giada behind those bars.

            To almost anyone, the sight could be described as ‘grotesque’, but not to Bladen.  He wiped his most recent tears as he studied the figure before him.  It was large and naked.  Shaped more like something from a cave drawing than a human.  Its body was a combination of patches of matted hair and oozing blisters, but muscled.  Atop its voluminous head were small, scattered remnants of the blonde hair that had adorned Giada upon her smiling arrival in Denary.  Foam dripped from its mouth, like a rabid dog.

            In a voice like an ancient Roman earthquake, came the command:

            “Open the cage.”

            Bladen complied, and the creature rose.  Its dark yellow eyes stared into his as it emerged.  It pointed at a corner of the room.

            “Wait,” was all it said.  Bladen walked over and sat on the floor.  The Walkman was already there.  The creature stalked out into the night, to prowl amongst the coyotes.

            Still grinning, Bladen put the headphones on and pressed play.

            The first voice belonged to Arlo.  “Talk into this, you fucker.  If you ever want to eat again, you will explain what you are.  Otherwise, you can rot in there and starve.”

            The tape rolled on, with the deep gravelly voice taking command.

            “I am Sorbera.  We are Sorbera.  We are the beginning of time.  We are the end of time.”


            The creature, lit only by the moon, came upon the first house in its path.  The home of Miss Nini.  She stood alone in the kitchen as it came through the front door and into the living room.  It strode past a table with Chutes and Ladders, Scrabble, and Sorry stacked upon it.


            In Arlo’s casita, the cassette continued to roll.  “Your people, many of them, were no longer pure,” said the creature.  “They were taken by Haagabus.  Haagabus is what you call a demon.  A powerful mutator of souls.  Your world, for all generations, has fallen to Haagabus.  I, we, the Sorbera, consume Haagabus.  We absorb them, and all evil.”


            When Miss Nini saw the beast before her, right beside her double oven, her smile grew wider.  It took her head in its hands, and opened its jaws.  Stinking foam dripped onto Nini’s face as the Sorbera’s mouth covered hers.


            “We live for what you’d call a thousand years,” said the Sorbera on the tape.  “We absorb the evil, but then, as we must do, we return to retrieve the rest.  We consume the entire soul.”

            Bladen absorbed these words through the headphones, never altering his smile.


            Miss Nini’s remains rested on her tiled floor.  She was unrecognizable; a mass of dry, shriveled skin and pulverized bone.


            The Sorbera had visited eleven more homes before it entered Alamo’s.  The former car rental agent had just packed up his game of Chinese Checkers when his front door caved in. 

            “Giada?” he asked, as if seeing a human figure.  His bliss remained as it grabbed his head.  The creature’s dripping mouth cranked wide on Alamo’s.  As they touched, the snake-like appendage that Bladen had seen, slithered its way out of the demon’s wretched mouth, down the deputy’s throat, and through to his stomach.


            After consuming the souls of Alamo and his sleeping wife, the Sorbera visited every home in Denary, like Santa Claus on Christmas.  The final house belonged to the mayor.  The monster claimed the souls of McComb’s wife and elderly mother as they played Jenga, then took to the staircase.  Mayor McComb awoke as it came through his bedroom door.  His smile was on before he could reach for his eyeglasses.  It took him before he could stand.  The awful fetor of the sticky tongue filled his nostrils as it burrowed into his intestines.  From the rear of the Sorbera emerged another appendage; not unlike the tongue, but more of a tail.  A slim, serpentine rapier, thorny spikes covering it like porcupine quills.

            The splintery tail tore through McComb’s silk pajamas and shredded its way into his rectum, and up through his intestines, until it met the tongue deep inside his abdomen.  As it had done, in this exact manner, to virtually every citizen of Denary, the Sorbera consumed the mayor’s soul.  It sucked all liquids from his body, crushed every bone, and filled itself, satiating a decade of hunger.


            In the casita, the cassette had long stopped.  Bladen Dieci remained on the floor, grinning, four feet from his uncle’s body.  The light of the moon, which had shone in through the open door, became eclipsed by a figure.  The Sorbera stood at the entrance.


            When Giada and Ludovica had arrived in Denary, they came as stowaways on a freight train lugged by a steam locomotive.  Technology and environmental awareness have nearly done away with the image of the smoking, chugging train, yet here was Giada, admittedly looking quite different, sitting again in an open-doored box car.  The Sorbera, now strong and full, was going home to its mother.  Beside it, sat a new companion.

            “Where are we going?” asked Bladen, beaming.


            The 180 car train rattled slowly through the night, with the classic image of locomotive steam replaced by floating clouds of blueberry vapor.

            “East?” he asked.  “Ever been to Staten Island?”

* * *