Over the Hedge
Shadow of Death, Part Five
1 November 2005
We didn't know how much damage Alethea could actually do, but I had proposed that we treat her more as a poltergeist than a true ghost. Whatever had happened to her since she was released from that bathroom in Chicago had clearly changed her, made her more powerful, more angry, more meticulous. To carry on a months-long possession and trick Matteson into a relationship with someone who he had never seen outside of possession was something that didn't line up with what I had learned of her before; neither her personality nor her power could quite account for it. I feared I had all the answer I needed for that when I saw the small altar Matteson had retrieved from her apartment. If Hecate was involved, and that was certainly an altar designed for her, this must be far larger than I had realized. I kept most of those concerns to myself for the time being, though, as Matteson needed to focus on the immediate threat instead of getting distracted with the big picture. It was hard enough to keep just me from wondering what she could possibly want with this situation, let alone both of us.
True to my concerns, the power she unleashed when she arrived was terrifying to watch. There was lightning setting fires in the grass that slowly started to spread, trees being torn apart by what seemed to be a very localized tornado, rocks and dirt and broken shards of wood flying everywhere. I was, for the moment, far enough away that there was no immediate threat to me, but I didn't know if Matteson would get control of the situation before her anger grew to consume the whole park. I also learned that his power was not as passive as I had expected. It was not simply that the wind and lightning weren't reaching him, which was notable enough, but the objects being carried by the wind were suddenly taking a dive into the ground a few feet away from him, leaving a ring of debris perfectly surrounding him. In the midst of everything, I almost didn't notice the park guard pull up in his SUV and get out near the trees, watching with his mouth and eyes wide.
"You don't want to be here right now!" I screamed to him, he looked over at me, then back to the flying woman divebombing Matteson and raining down destruction around him, then ran over to me.
"What the hell is going on here? You people can't be doing this!"
"We're trying to stop this! We couldn't do it anywhere else, could you imagine this happening in someone's yard?" He grumbled, and pulled out a radio, and I reached over and put my hand on his arm. He looked at me, and I silently pleaded with him to stop. With a huff, he put the radio back, and turned to watch.
"I'm gonna have a hell of a time explaining this in the morning."
Shadow of Death, Part Three
31 October 2005
I tried to lift myself off the floor, but as soon as I put weight on my right arm it collapsed under me and I fell back into the broken table and shattered glasses. I cried out in pain and used my left arm instead, slowly working my way to my feet. I checked my right arm and found a large burn covering much of it. It was a minor burn, I knew it would heal soon enough, but in the meantime that arm was feeling very weak and I knew I wouldn't be able to throw energy like that without a lot of preparation again any time soon. I winced as I pulled a few pieces of glass out of my side and leg, and then limped into the living room.
Lori/Alethea was gone, the room looked like a bomb had gone off, and Matteson was sprawled out on the floor under a cracked and dented area of the wall. I made my way to him and shook him awake, and as he groaned and rolled over I dropped onto the couch.
"Fuck," he muttered, rubbing his head, "that was really her, huh?"
"Yeah, mister 'I'm watching for her,' that was her. Probably this whole time! Which would explain some things..."
"Look, I didn't know, I-"
"That was the one thing you said you'd do! You were supposed to be able to see her coming! I did everything I could to warn you, and you couldn't even piece it together while you were actively fucking her?!" He punched the floor, then sat up and leaned back against the wall, staring at the ceiling.
"She said I ruined everything."
"Well, I'd hate to agree with her, but right now I'm kinda feeling-"
"She was trying to have a kid, Jackie. And she didn't react that way any of the months when she didn't get pregnant." I stopped and looked at him as a tear trickled down his cheek. "She had asked me a few times to buy her pads, but I hadn't really thought about the fact that she hadn't for the last few months."
"Oh shit. John, I-" He wiped the tear from his cheek and turned to me.
"We have to save Lori."
"Look, you're clearly going through something right now."
"It'll have to wait. She needs us, Jackie." I saw in his eyes that he was committed to seeing this through now, which I have to admit was somewhat comforting. I wasn't really ready to face her alone. I nodded.
"Okay. Let me get my stuff. I have an idea, but if this is how she's handling things now," I said, waving my hand to indicate the state of the room, "we'll need to draw her out into the open. Somewhere close, so she can find us, but where there's no people."
"Will it take a while to set up?" I nodded. "Then I have an idea."
Road to Perdition, Part Eight
15 September 2005
I was trying to stay hidden while still seeing the portal, which was something of a trick to pull off. The darkness on the edges of the room helped, but with most of the large machinery gone there was very little to hide behind. I ended up finding a pile of steel beams and rebar, all bent or cracked or welded poorly, and signaled to Matteson that I was ready.
He wasn't kidding when he said his main strategy would be to physically assault magic users, it turns out. He charged out of his shadows and had three of them hit before they were able to mount much of a defense, which I thought had bought me enough of a distraction to start closing the portal with the ritual I had started upstairs. Then there was a fireball being thrown in my direction, and much to my surprise Matteson just...canceled it. From a distance. Like it was easy. It was then I began to suspect that he had undersold the exact nature of his powers when initially telling me about them. I decided to just trust him and focus on the portal, and tried my best to ignore the ongoing violence and shouting, as long as it was all happening over there.
Rick took us all by surprise when he showed up waving a gun around. I'd seen enough people using guns in my life to know he was uncomfortable with it, and I almost stepped forward to tell him to leave while he still could before I was cut off by Matteson.
"You motherfucker!" he yelled, "I told you to wait in the car!"
"I got this, man!" Rick replied, despite the fact that it was obvious to me he barely had control of anything, let alone the situation. "All of you back off! You hear me?" A couple of the robed figures drew knives and started walking toward him. He pointed the gun at them and continued crying out for them to stop, threatening to shoot, but his hands were now shaking bad enough that I could see it from the other side of the room. I glanced to Matteson, who was engaged in a fistfight with some guy while the remaining uninjured figures were resuming their chant, and realized that if I helped Rick before closing the portal I might miss my chance.
"Goddess, let him be okay long enough for me to help him," I whispered, before continuing the ritual. It was easier now than it had been before--maybe the person Matteson was fighting was crucial to the effort, or maybe his proximity to the portal was helping me, I didn't know--and I was able to start slowly making progress. It was still me against six other people, but in retrospect I don't know if any of them actually knew magic or if they were just lending will to someone else's spell. I closed my eyes and focused.
A shot rang out, there was more yelling, and I was squeezing my fists so tight that my fingernails were drawing blood from my palms. I felt the portal closing, I could sense the presence on the other side just waiting, watching. Something about it felt vaguely familiar, as if I had encountered it or something like it before, but I couldn't place it. Rick screamed. Another shot. Less chanting. And then--
I opened my eyes to see Matteson standing on the altar, his feet straddling the dead woman and his fist clenched around the space where the portal had been. The robed figures on the spiral were all laid out on the ground, and I was certain they had been hit with backlash when the portal closed abruptly. The man Matteson had been fighting was gone, and Rick was actively attempting to dodge one figure's attacks with the knife while the other figure was sitting on the ground nursing a gunshot wound to the arm. I let out a quick spell, without adequate preparation, and heard two of my fingers break as the person attacking Rick went flying against a wall.
"Let's go!" Matteson yelled, and we all ran for the exit.
Rick had taken a few slashes and definitely needed patching up, but it wasn't anything we couldn't handle back at the house. He didn't want to go to the hospital and have to explain what had happened, but between Matteson's sewing (with a needle he heated over the stove) and my herbs, he seemed to be fine. Charles was furious when we got back to the car and he found out what happened, but he barely got a word in before Matteson ripped into Charles about bringing a gun into his car without telling him.
"Where'd you even get that thing?" he demanded, flying down the country roads.
"It's my uncle's," Rick replied, softly, holding a towel to a cut on his arm we would be tending when we got back to the house.
"Does he know you have it?" Rick grumbled something, and Matteson just punched his steering wheel.
"He was trying to help," I offered.
"He almost got killed!"
"Not next time," Rick said, his eyes fixed and burning with conviction. "I won't hesitate to do what I need to do next time."
"There shouldn't be a next time!" Charles screamed. "Rick, look, I get you're into all of this stuff, but can't you see this is dangerous? And you!" He pointed at Matteson. "You've crossed a line! Never again, you hear me? Don't ever drag us into some shit like this ever again!"
"Well what was I supposed to do? Just let them finish summoning whatever that was!?" Matteson answered.
"Okay everyone stop! Matteson, slow down before you kill us all or get pulled over," I said. Everyone stopped and huffed and leaned back into their seats. Matteson slowed down. "Good. Now, we've all had a rough night, let's just get Rick cleaned up and get some rest, okay? We can talk about this when we've all calmed down." Matteson started to laugh as we continued. "What?"
"Not tonight," he said, in a poor imitation of my voice. It took me a second to register what he was talking about, but once I did I laughed as well, then covered my mouth and cleared my throat.
"No," I said, "definitely not tonight."
Rick and Charles crashed on the couches in the living room, and Matteson helped me find some supplies to make a splint for my fingers before we each went to bed. I made a note to revisit whatever it was that seemed familiar about the entity on the other side of the portal, but was in no condition to do any work on that tonight.
road to perdition, part six
15 September 2005
My vision was still a bit blurry when Matteson and Rick practically threw me into the car, and the sudden movement when Matteson spun Alpha around took my breath for a moment. By the time I recovered enough to buckle my seat belt and rub the last bit of blurriness from my eyes, Charles was crying and we were going way faster than we had gone down this road before. I was about to demand to know why when I looked ahead and saw we were driving directly toward a head-on collision with the black garbage truck.
"What the fuck, Matteson!" I screamed, trying to brace myself. His eyes were fixed forward, is if he and that truck were the only things that existed in the world. I considered the possibility that Charles had been right all along.
I began to mutter obscenities at Matteson in Spanish as we got closer to the truck, and then very shortly before we were going to hit he cut the wheel, lunging into the grass and sliding sideways past the truck while flipping it off. And then we were back on the dirt, and he showed no signs of slowing down. He was whispering something as the narrow country road came into view, and when I listened more carefully I realized he was chanting "please no cars" over and over again. I braced myself again and took a deep breath.
We hit the edge of the pavement and sent the car into the air, the sound of a horn honking and the glare of headlights briefly occupying my entire window before we made contact with the ground in the dirt path on the other side.
"Probably the only car on that road all night," Matteson grumbled. I punched his arm and tried to catch my breath. I turned back to see how Charles and Rick were doing, and found Rick comforting Charles and promising never to lie to him again, and headlights following us. They were a good distance back, but not far enough for comfort. I turned back to Matteson.
"Is that the truck?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, pointing at the radio. I hadn't even taken the time to register that the radio station was out and the odd signal from the town was faintly humming along.
"Okay, well, please slow down just a little before the next road?"
"Fine," he said, before lighting a cigarette. True to his word, he slowed down enough to check for cars before turning onto the road at the other end of the cornfield and then sped up again. The truck had already been gaining on us, and that momentary hesitation got it close enough to see our turn and follow.
We spent the next ten minutes racing down back roads, trying to shake the truck and never quite losing it. We no longer had the advantage of the town blocks to use, and Alpha wasn't really made for this kind of work long term. We dipped into Ohio at one point, and on our way back into Pennsylvania the truck finally caught up to us and tried to ram us off the road. It mostly succeeded, but it happened very near the entrance to the Bessemer Lake Boat Launch so Matteson was able to turn down the gravel entrance instead of hitting a tree. But we were going really fast when that happened, and when he tried to stop we slid on the gravel and ended up stopping with one of the tires in the water. I had, by this point, pulled out some supplies for an illusion spell, and as soon as we stopped I cast an image that hid us and made the ripples of the water seem larger. When the truck pulled in shortly thereafter, it stopped, faced the disturbed water for a little while, then slowly drove away. We took a moment to compose ourselves and all lit cigarettes.
"You guys reacted really strongly earlier," I said, once we were all a little calmer.
"What do you mean?" Matteson asked.
"When we were on the hill. I was trying to look at you and Rick but you both acted like something was wrong, before you saw the truck."
"Ah, yeah, that. Well, it was two things, I guess. One, you were crying blood."
"That happens. It's not a good thing when it happens, it means I tried to see way too much, but it happens."
"What did you see?"
"It was...I can't even describe it. There was magic at play, very powerful, very ancient magic. And a lot of it. I couldn't even piece together quite what they did before I had to look away. I'm not yet ready for something of that scale, I think if I'd spent the time to understand it I'd have gone blind, or worse."
"Well, don't push yourself. Just do what you can handle, alright?" I nodded.
"And the second thing?"
"You said there were two things you were responding to on the hill."
"Oh! Yeah! Your right eye is blue now."
"What?!" I flipped down the visor and looked in the mirror and, sure enough, my right eye had turned blue. "Shit. I hope it doesn't stay like this." Matteson shrugged.
"I think you can work with it if you need to. But for now, is everyone ready?" We all agreed we were, and he drove out. We promised Charles we wouldn't go back to try and find the town again, but as we were leaving the boat launch and heading toward the road that would take us north again, Matteson stopped the car and pointed.
On our right was a large mill, which looked largely abandoned aside from some strange lights flickering from one section set back from the road. The fence was rusted and parts of it were broken down, and the gates had fallen long enough ago that parts of them were buried under the dirt of the entrance. The sign was chipped and faded, but with a close look you could still just make out a red spiral.
"No," Charles said.
"Look, if we're getting answers anywhere, I think it might be there," Matteson said.
"I want answers," Rick said. Matteson looked at me. I looked between all of them, and then out at the strange light.
"I--I'm sorry, Charles," I said, softly. Matteson nodded and slowly pulled in to the gravel lot.
"I'm staying right here in the car, though," Charles huffed, crossing his arms. We all agreed that would be acceptable.
road to perdition, part four
13 September 2005
The dirt road went on much longer than we expected, with nothing much to look at on the way but the train tracks on one side and a dark expanse of crabgrass on the other. It was a straight shot, though, so Matteson pushed Alpha much faster than I felt comfortable with. Rick and Charles were carrying on in the back seat the whole time, debating the existence of aliens with arguments that were, I hope, intentionally absurd. Shortly after I finally started to get comfortable in the knowledge Matteson wasn't going to hit anything and let go of the handle above my door, the radio cut out. The car went silent.
"Are we, by chance, driving out of the range of that station?" I asked.
"That station transmits from Youngstown," Matteson answered, cracking his window and then lighting a cigarette.
"Not from around here, remember?"
"We're driving toward it." I took a deep breath and started fiddling around in my bag.
"That is exactly the opposite of what I wanted you to say." I pulled out my phone and checked it. Finding I had no signal, I began looking for something else to test. The car started to slow and I looked to Matteson.
"Are you stopping? What's going on?"
"Town," he said, pointing ahead. I looked out the windshield and saw that we were, in fact, emerging into an actual town. The road was paved by the time we came across a line of brick buildings, the edge of town. There were no buildings beyond them in this direction, and even the paved road we were now on had no markings of any kind. The buildings had no windows facing our direction, which gave them a monolithic appearance, like a medieval walled city with a single gate opened for us. Immediately after those buildings was a stop sign and an intersection, and after looking around for a moment Matteson turned right.
"Why are we going this way?"
"Because I turned left last time."
"Oh great," Charles whined, "not this again."
"What? What's that mean?" I asked, turning around.
"He doesn't like when Matteson wings it," Rick answered. "We had one time where it turned out to be a bad idea, and he's never lived it down."
"One time?! It's gone terribly awry every time!" Charles cried out.
"Is this true?" I asked.
"Of course not," Matteson answered. "He doesn't realize I'm always winging it." Charles grumbled.
"Hey guys?" Rick asked. I turned back to him. "Does this place seem odd to you?" I looked around at the town, really for the first time, and started to notice that it seemed empty. It was night, so I wouldn't have expected it to be wildly busy, but it was just...silent. No lights were on in any building, house or apartment or business. The streetlights were off. There was no movement, no people, no animals, nothing. No cars on the roads, in driveways, or in parking lots. We were completely alone. Well, for a little while, anyway.
We spent a few minutes driving around aimlessly, unsure of what road would take us out of town or where we even were. The discussion during that time mostly focused on how weird it was to find a town like this, which looked fully lived-in, but with absolutely no evidence anyone currently lived in it. The radio started to pick up a signal, faint at first but growing stronger. It wasn't the station we had been listening to before, and it wasn't even really anything intelligible, but it certainly sounded like it was made with intention. Like structured static, or whispers from a robot's dreams. I looked back to say something to Charles and noticed something large and black behind us, mostly seen by way of the highlights where it caught the light of the moon.
"I think we have company," I said. Matteson checked his mirror.
"It's a garbage truck," he said. "I've never seen a black garbage truck before."
"How can you tell?"
"He's good with the dark," Rick said. "I don't know if it's a spirit thing or what." I sat back down in my seat and made sure my seatbelt was tight.
"If that thing is black, it has to be spotless to look like that. And why couldn't I see the windows?"
"It is awfully strange to have a spotless garbage truck," Matteson said, taking the next turn. "And maybe the windows are tinted."
"Are tinted windshields legal here?"
"Legal or not, it seems bad."
"Something bad that's following us," Charles said, looking out the back window. I glanced back and saw that the truck had indeed taken the same turn. It was getting closer, and the signal on the radio was getting stronger.
"Maybe this was just the turn it was supposed to take?" Rick offered.
"You see any garbage out for them to pick up?" Matteson said, lighting a new cigarette and then taking the next turn. The truck took the same turn. "Fuck, hold on everyone." Rick and Charles sat facing dead forward and buckled their seat belts. I turned back as well, glancing over to Matteson as he clenched his teeth down on the cigarette and punched the gas. The truck kept pace, but he kept cutting down random roads and speeding up as much as he could. The truck could keep with us on straights, but with all the turns, it started to fall behind ever so slightly.
"You got this?" I asked, feeling Alpha tip as he took one turn much faster than I think could possibly be safe.
"Almost," he said, glancing at his mirror. I grabbed the handle and started muttering invocations for safety. "Can you hide us, just briefly?"
"I don't know, that's a tricky one and I might not have the supplies..."
"What do you need?" The tires screeched and I felt fairly certain two of them came off the road briefly.
"Distance from you, for one thing! But even with that, I dunno, something...something invisible? That would help? Or-" Matteson reached up and snapped the rear view mirror off the windshield and tossed it into my lap.
"Something that can show what we want it to show?"
"I...yeah, I think this can work."
"On my mark!" I quickly tried to think of the wording of a spell that would do what was being asked of me, as he cut around one corner and, before the truck could make the same turn, dove into an alley and slammed on the brakes. "Now!" He turned off the engine, closed his eyes, and focused; I gripped the mirror and spit out the best thing I could think of. The truck went past us, slowing down as if looking around, but did not turn down our alley. As it passed and the moonlight hit it better we could all see that it was, indeed, a perfectly clean, black, garbage truck, with a red spiral painted on the side near the back. We waited until we were certain it was gone, once the signal on the radio faded entirely, then he started Alpha back up and punched the gas. We didn't see the truck again before he found a sign for Route 224, and by the time we got onto that road everything looked normal.
"I told you!" Charles screamed, "I told you it always goes bad!"
"Nah," Matteson answered, picking up the mirror from my lap and tossing it onto the dashboard. "Bad would've been getting caught."
The blog of Jackie Veracruz.
Boost on TopWebFiction
Tall Tales: Volume Two now available