Excerpt for B.B. and Red by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.




B.B.

AND

RED



STEPHEN LOMER

Copyright © 2017 Port Nine Publishing

All rights reserved.


The events and characters presented

in this book are works of fiction.

Any similarity to persons or places living

or dead is purely coincidental and unintended.


www.stephenlomer.com


ISBN: 9781370151981


DEDICATION



To Patricia Ann Boudreault, the inspiration for

“Maybe God Left Us Out of the Plans He Made.”

I hope you were able to hear me.



ALSO AVAILABLE
BY STEPHEN LOMER


Stargazer Lilies or Nothing at All

Typo Squad




CONTENTS


I. B.B. AND RED

II. A SPEEDY CONCLUSION

III. ANY LAST WORDS

IV. NO PLACE LIKE HOME

V. MAYBE GOD LEFT US OUT OF THE PLANS HE MADE

VI. DEFENDING THE WALL

VII. A WEEK BACK

VIII. JAIL BRAKE

IX. BRAINS AND GUTS

X. STONE’S THROW

XI. LITTLE RICKY’S NIGHT OUT

XII. ROYAL FLUSH

XIII. A POUND OF CURE











I.

B.B. AND RED




My name is Red. This is my story.

The day was gray and overcast. A cold, bitter wind blew what few dead leaves remained off the skeletal branches. It was a bad day for traveling—for any outdoor activity, really—but that wouldn’t dissuade me. I’d get to my grandmother’s house or freeze to death trying.

It wasn’t love for my grandmother that convinced me to wrap myself in my heavy traveling cloak and pack food and a bottle of wine in my basket. No, not love by a long shot. Grandmother and I don’t get along, and probably never will. But grandmother owns that gorgeous house in the woods. The one with central air and the indoor swimming pool. As long as I kept in the old bag’s good graces, the house would be mine someday. Grandmother had a case of the sniffles. So I was off.

The wind whipped my long black hair around as I stepped out on the path toward the woods. If I’d been off to meet one of the boys—even Sneezy—I would have been annoyed that I’d soon be completely windswept. But it was just grandmother, after all. The old battle axe was half-blind as it was, and sometimes thought I was a girl she knew in her youth named Gretel. Whatever. With any luck, my next trip to the house would be as the owner, not a visitor.

I reached the edge of the woods and paused as I peered into the dark corridor formed by the denuded trees. Now, I’m a brave one—anyone who knows me would likely list gutsy and sexy as my top two qualities, and not necessarily in that order—but the darkness and the howling wind made me think twice, if only for a moment, about finishing my journey.

I stepped into the woods and picked up my pace.

I’d only been on the path for a few minutes when I saw him. He was a few yards ahead, leaning against a tree, looking as though he hadn’t a care in the world. My heart skipped a beat. I knew this day had to come, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say or do. Or what he might say or do.

I took a deep breath as I walked boldly up to him, a fixed smirk on my face.

“Well, well,” I said. “If it isn’t B.B. Wolf.”

B.B. turned his attention toward me and a wide, toothy grin split his face. I felt heat spreading from my chest to my extremities.

“Heya Red,” he said, his voice deep and smooth as silk. “My, my, you look good enough to eat.”

My smirk became a smile in spite of myself. “If anyone would know, you would.”

B.B. chuckled softly. “It ain’t fit for man nor beast out here today, Red. Where ya headed?”

I held up my basket. “Gertrude’s.”

B.B.’s eyes widened. “That rattling old sack of bones is still alive? She must be in her late hundreds by now.”

“Yeah, the Grim Reaper’s moved into her guest room,” I said. “He doesn’t want to be too far away.”

This time B.B. laughed out loud. “I thought you didn’t get along with granny.”

“I don’t,” I replied. “She’s a real pain in the ass. But I’m in the will. And if I want to stay in the will, I’ve got to come running every time she gets so much as a hangnail. I wish she’d just kick off, for heaven’s sake.”

B.B.’s expression grew thoughtful. He stared at me so long that I became uncomfortable.

“What?” I demanded finally.

B.B. took a few steps toward me and took me by the shoulders. I looked up at him and felt the old familiar heat between us.

“Things didn’t work out for us the way I wanted them to,” B.B. said with surprising softness, “but I still feel the way I always did about you, Red. And you know I’d do anything for you. You know that.”

I cleared my throat. “I know.”

“So why don’t you let me do you a favor?” B.B. said, his hot breath warming my cold cheeks.

“What kind of favor?”

B.B. looked over to the left at a thatch of crocuses. “I think your grandmother would like some flowers too,” he said. “Why don’t you spend a little time here picking some while I go take care of a few things?”

Comprehension dawned and my face lit up. “You’re so right,” I said with false enthusiasm. “Grandma does love crocuses, after all. Well, don’t let me keep you from your errands, Mr. Wolf.”

B.B. flashed one last dangerous smile and then disappeared in a flash. I wandered slowly over to the flower patch and squatted down next to them. As I deliberately picked them one at a time, I muttered under my breath, “I’ll put these on your grave, you senile old bag.”

I arrived at the house a short while later. Nothing looked out of place, but my excitement grew more and more as I approached the front door. I knocked.

“Come in!” came a strange, quavering voice from inside. I swung the door wide and stepped inside. I pulled off my traveling cloak and hung it by the door, and then made my way hesitantly to the bedroom.

“Grandmother?” I called out.

“In here, darling,” came that same yodeling voice again.

I walked in the room and couldn’t believe my eyes. There was B.B. in my grandmother’s bed, wearing one of my grandmother’s nightgowns and cap, and what looked like her spare reading glasses. I burst out laughing.

“Oh, you sick freak!” I said finally.

“Come closer, dear,” B.B. said, grinning. “Granny can’t hear so well these days.”

I put my hands behind my back and approached the bed coyly.

“My goodness, grandmother,” I said in mock astonishment. “What big eyes you have.”

“All the better to see you with,” B.B. said in his cracking grandmother voice.

“And what big arms you have,” I said.

“All the better to hug you with,” B.B. replied.

I began unbuttoning my dress. “And are there any other physical attributes I might remark upon?”

B.B. threw back the covers and gestured for me to join him. “That, my dear,” he growled, “you’ll just have to discover for yourself.”

I lay dozing next to B.B. as the afternoon shadows crawled across the bedroom floor. I sighed contentedly as I looked up at his face.

“I don’t know how I can ever thank you,” I said softly.

“It was my pleasure,” B.B. said. “In every sense.”

I rolled on my back and happened to glance out the window, just in time to see one of the loggers who had been cutting down trees in the area approaching the house.

“Oh God!” I cried, and B.B. was awake in an instant.

“What? What is it?”

“A logger!” I said frantically, just as we heard the latch to the front door open.

“Mrs. Hood?” the logger called. “Just checking in, making sure you’re okay.”

“He can’t catch us!” I hissed. “He’ll figure out we were in on it together!”

“Then hide!” B.B. hissed back. “Let me handle him!”

“There’s no time!” I said. Then my eyes grew big. “Swallow me!”

“Hello?” the logger called, closer still.

What?” B.B. asked, shocked.

“Swallow me! When he’s gone, I can come back out! Quick!”

B.B. opened his maw as wide as he could and the next thing I knew, I was in his stomach. It was warm and squelchy, and things were moving and squirming all around me. I held my breath and listened as intently as I could.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” the logger asked. I could picture him thumbing the blade of his axe.

“Oh, hi!” B.B. called with overt enthusiasm. “I . . . I didn’t hear you come in. I’m, uh, just . . . um, housesitting.”

“Housesitting,” the woodcutter repeated flatly.

“Yep, just housesitting for the old gal. Least I could do, you know. She . . . knew my dad.”

“I see,” the logger said. “And is there a reason that you’re dressed in her clothes and sleeping in her bed?”

“Oh that,” B.B. said. “That’s . . . that’s easy to explain. It . . . makes me feel . . . pretty. Y’know. Pretty?”

“Really,” the logger said. His voice was much closer and I heard the sound of covers being yanked off hard. I’m sure B.B.’s belly was horribly distended.

“Big breakfast?” the logger asked.

“Oh yes,” B.B. said. “Most important meal of the day. Had a lovely bagel with cream cheese, some oatmeal, a nice order of really crisp bacon—”

“Well let’s have a look, shall we?” the logger said, and suddenly daylight flooded over me. B.B. howled in agony as I came tumbling out of his innards, alive, covered in his entrails. I looked to my right and saw my grandmother next to me, covered as well, and son of a bitch, still alive.

Yes, that’s right. I had sex with B.B. while my grandmother was still alive in his belly.

“Next time stick with corn flakes,” the logger said as he grabbed B.B. by the scruff of his neck and dragged him, writhing and bleeding, out the front door.

I got to my feet and, sputtering and slipping in the mess, attempted to chase them down. By the time I got out the front door, the logger had finished heaving two large stones into B.B.’s open wound.

“No!” I cried. “No! Leave him alone! Let me explain!”

The logger paid no attention to me. He stood B.B. upright and kicked him in his hindquarters. “Now march!” he shouted.

B.B. took a pair of ungainly steps, but the weight of the stones was too much. He lurched forward and collapsed, dead.

I stood in the doorway, my eyes as wide as saucers, my hands covering my mouth in horror. I remained that way as grandmother joined me and took in the sight of B.B. impassively.

“Well,” grandmother said, “it was a grand adventure, but it looks like you’re stuck with me for a while longer.” She shuffled back into the house, wheezing laughter.

“Ah, balls,” I muttered.










II.

A SPEEDY CONCLUSION



The ten people gathered around the large oak dining room table sat in silence, occasionally stealing furtive looks at one another, waiting for whatever was coming. A distant thunderstorm approached from the darkened mountains in the east, and thin raindrops had begun spattering the high windows and hissing into the dancing flames in the fireplace.

Through the double doors at the far end of the room entered a middle-aged gentleman in a dark overcoat and hat. He strode purposefully toward the other end of the room, and all heads turned to watch him.

“Good evening,” he said, taking position at the head of the table. “I am Chief Inspector Mason. Thank you all for coming tonight.”

Mason put his hands behind his back and took a long, assessing look at the assorted faces staring back at him.

“As you may be aware, I am currently investigating the circumstances surrounding Lord Filby’s death. I can reveal here, tonight, that without question, Lord Filby was murdered.”

There was a collective gasp around the table.

“Indeed,” Mason said, nodding. “Furthermore, after reviewing all the available evidence, I have concluded that the murderer . . . is someone in this room.”

Lightning forked across the sky and a low rumble of thunder vibrated through the house, but in the dining room, there was absolute silence. Accusatory eyes met across the table.

“But who did the deed?” Mason asked dramatically. He moved behind the nearest chair, upon which was seated an older gentleman with thinning white hair and a monocle.

“Was it Lord Filby’s older brother Reginald?” Mason asked. “The man who was always consumed by jealousy when it came to Lord Filby’s success in life?”

“Now see here!” Reginald sputtered, but Mason had already moved to the next chair. A beautiful redheaded woman with a long black cigarette holder held between her graceful fingers watched him warily.

“Could it have been Lady Filby, Lord Filby’s lovely young wife, grown weary of her husband’s controlling ways, which were impeding her . . . socializing?”

He moved to the next chair, with an older woman in a shabby topcoat.

“Or perhaps it was Mary Lofton, the upstairs maid, who knew how much money Lord Filby had access to and was frustrated with her meager wages, year over year.”

To the next chair, with a dashing young man calmly sipping port from a small glass. “Or was it—?”

Before he could finish, a young blonde woman across the table raised her hand. Inspector Mason looked at her, momentarily thrown. His head tilted in curiosity.

“You are Elizabeth, Lord Filby’s daughter,” he said, regaining his thread.

She nodded.

“Yes, well, I’ve arranged something of an order here. I’ll be around to you shortly.”

“All right,” she said, lowering her hand. “I just thought I could save you some time by admitting that I did it.”

Mason and everyone else at the table stared at her.

“I beg your pardon?” Mason asked.

“I did it,” Elizabeth repeated. “I murdered Lord Filby.”

What?” hissed Lady Filby.

“Why would you do such a terrible thing?” asked a gentleman to Elizabeth’s right.

Elizabeth shrugged. “He was a miserable bastard. I hated him. So I killed him.”

“But however did you get away with it?” Reginald asked.

“It was simple, really,” Elizabeth said. “He went to bed early that night, so I—”

“Excuse me!” Inspector Mason cut across her, and everyone turned once again to face him. He looked positively stricken.

“Young lady, I had a rather lengthy and spirited presentation prepared for tonight,” he said to Elizabeth. “And now you’ve gone and ruined it.”

“Presentation?” Elizabeth asked, mystified.

“Yes!” Mason said. “I was going to go round the table, introducing everyone and throwing out motives, and then I was going to eliminate suspects one by one until only two remained, and then make a grand pronouncement about who done it. And then explain how and so forth.”

“I say, dear man,” a heavyset gentleman across the table said, “are you out of sorts because this young woman’s confession spoiled your bit of theater?”

Mason looked down at his intertwined hands. “It’s just that I never have opportunities like this,” he muttered. “I thought it might be a bit of fun.”

Fun?” the heavyset man said in disbelief. “Good Lord, a man has been murdered!”

“Yes, and now you have a confession!” said Reginald, pointing at Elizabeth. “Surely that is what you truly wanted!”

“I suppose,” Mason muttered. “But you see I practiced quite hard for this. Took acting lessons, memorized my lines. Waited for a night when a thunderstorm was predicted. It was quite a lot of effort, really.”

The room filled with silence again, save for the rain now hammering at the windows.

“Look,” Mason said after a few moments, “since we know now who the murderer is, could I just go through my bit anyway? We’re all here. What harm could it do?”

Everyone looked around at one another.

“Oh, go on then,” Reginald said. Mason regained his former energy.

“Right!” he said, standing once again behind the good-looking young man. “Could it have been Marcus, the stable boy who secretly pined for Lady Filby?”

Marcus smiled at Lady Filby and winked. She turned a bright shade of pink.

Mason moved behind an even younger man. “Or perhaps Lord Filby’s nephew Hawthorn, whose sexuality offended the old man’s delicate sensibilities?”

Hawthorn looked shocked for a moment, but then shrugged and smiled. The inspector rounded the end of the table to the other side, and came to stand behind a tall, thin man with a pencil-thin mustache.

“Could it have been Lord Filby’s longtime valet, Fletcher, who had to endure the old man’s verbal abuse for decades?”

Mason passed by Elizabeth with a glare and moved to the next chair down.

“What about Josef, the architect who built this very manor for Lord Filby but was never paid a shilling for his work and had grown weary of the slow-moving courts?”

On to the next chair, where sat a lovely dark-haired woman.

“Or might it have been Raven, the old man’s mistress, tired of waiting on his promises of leaving his wife and family for her?”

Across the table, Lady Filby’s eyes widened. “Lovely to finally meet you,” Raven whispered awkwardly.

The inspector reached the final chair. “Or could it be Lord Filby’s darling sister Lady Sterling-Poundsworth, who resented being left to care for their ailing father while Filby lived a life of decadence and luxury?”

He had reached the head of the table once again, and there was a manic glint in his eyes. He placed both hands wide on the polished surface, leaned forward, and looked slowly from one face to another.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he proclaimed at last, “tonight we will discover . . . who killed Lord Filby!”









III.

ANY LAST WORDS



Jack sat uncomfortably in the therapist’s office. The doctor, an older woman with dark cat’s eye glasses and a severe bun atop her head, stared at him, waiting for him to say something, but Jack had nothing to say. To escape her expectant gaze, he smoothed out the legs of his khakis, taking extra time to secure a small piece of white fuzz that had attached itself to him and toss it away.

The doctor adjusted her glasses and exhaled deeply through her nostrils. Neither action helped defuse the mounting sense of discomfort and awkwardness in the room.

“Jack,” the doctor said at last, “you were required to come to this session.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Jack said, now staring at a bust of Sigmund Freud on her credenza. “I know.”

The doctor exhaled deeply once again. “You’re not required to talk, of course. Not if you don’t want to. But I really think it might be helpful for you.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Jack repeated. “Sure.”

The doctor uncrossed her legs and then recrossed them the other way, shifting her weight in her wingback chair. Her blank notebook remained in her lap.

“Do you drink?” she asked him suddenly.

He looked at her in surprise. “No,” he replied. “Why?”

She scribbled a note in her notebook. “Just wanted to have something to write down.”

Jack grinned. “I don’t smoke or do drugs either,” he said. “If you need more stuff to fill the page.”

She grinned back and made two more quick notes.

“But you do absorb the ghosts of the recently deceased into your own body?” she asked, the pen still hovering over the paper.

The question caught Jack completely off guard.

“Well,” he said, after the initial shock wore off. “Yeah.”

“Would you like to talk about that?” she asked, flipping to the next page in her notebook.

“Um . . . sure,” Jack replied.

“Good,” the doctor said. “When did this first happen?”

Jack took a deep breath. “Well . . .”

He was in the back of his family’s station wagon. It was a bright, sunlit day as they pulled into the cemetery, and Jack was uncomfortably warm in his suit and tie.

His father parked and said a few words of comfort to his mother, who sniffed into a handkerchief and nodded. They all got out of the car, and the three of them headed toward the small hill where everyone else had gathered.

Jack was sad that his uncle Guy was gone, but not as sad as his mother was. She and Guy had been twins, and close their entire lives. As Jack made his way along, he noticed his mother lagging behind. He stopped, went back to her, and took her hand.

“It’s okay, Mom,” he said softly. “C’mon.”

His mother nodded again and allowed Jack to lead her to the gravesite.

The funeral had a massive turnout, which was not at all surprising to Jack. Uncle Guy had always been the life of the party, and had many friends, though no family of his own. As he stood between his mother and father and looked around at the faces of people he vaguely recognized, Jack noticed even the priest presiding over the funeral looked more somber than usual. Then he remembered that Guy had been an altar boy in his youth, and the priest probably knew him well.

As the funeral progressed, Jack felt increasingly nauseated[consider changing to nauseated] and dizzy. He chalked it up to the sun that continued to bear down on them as the priest read words of comfort, but then he felt a distinct tingling sensation on the bottom of his feet. It crawled up his ankles to his knees, and then up his spine until it reached his head. He had a sudden burst inside his brain, like a firework, and he was no longer in control of himself.

He could still perceive what he was doing, but it was as though he were a passenger in the back of a taxi with a partition between himself and the driver. He felt himself turn his head and look up at his mother, and then heard himself say, “Thanks for the comic book, Beezer.

He saw his mother looking back at him, shocked, disbelieving.

“What did you say?” she whispered urgently to him.

I fell and skinned my elbow,” Jack heard his voice saying, though he had no sense of saying it. “You had a quarter. It was your babysitting money and you and Anne were going to use it to go to the movies.

He saw his mother’s eyes go so wide that he feared they would fall out. Her hand went to her mouth and fresh tears coursed down her cheeks.

You used the quarter to buy me a comic book to make me feel better. Spider-Man. I never thanked you then, so I want to thank you now. I love you, Beeze.

And with that final word, the tingling sensation in Jack’s body reversed course. As it flowed from the soles of his feet and back into the ground, he felt his brain regain control of his body. But only for a moment, as everything faded to black.

“So your uncle Guy’s ghost took over your body because he had one final message for his sister,” the doctor summarized, scribbling away.

“That’s right,” Jack said.

“And you don’t think that it was anything that you could have . . . imagined?” asked the doctor.

“Well, my mother confirmed that I’d said all those things,” Jack replied. “And she said that no one ever knew that his pet name for her had been Beezer.”

“I see,” said the doctor, and Jack felt a wave of irritation.

“It’s true,” he said defensively.

The doctor nodded noncommittally. “So once you realized you had this . . . ability, you started attending funerals on a regular basis?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Jack replied. “I figured if these ghosts wanted one last word with their loved ones, I should give them the chance.”

“So the ghosts continued speaking through you,” the doctor said.

“Well, most of them,” Jack said. “Sometimes I’d get the tingling and feel them in my head, and they’d decide that they didn’t have the right words. Or that they had nothing to say after all. One guy just guided me over to his wife and had me take her hand and he looked at her face one last time before he disappeared. That was a little awkward.”

The doctor scratched a few more notes and then flipped to a new page.

“So the reason you’ve been assigned to this session is the result of a plea bargain you struck, to avoid jail time for assault,” the doctor said baldly. “Do you want to tell me about that?”

Jack shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“Well, the first scuffle I got into was unrelated to the others,” Jack said.

“How so?”

“Well, I attended a funeral a couple of years ago . . .”

Jack had never seen anything like it in his life.

As he had stood waiting next to the crudely dug—and altogether too shallow—grave, the funeral procession roared in like unholy thunder. The guests arrived on motorcycles, ATVs, and souped-up rustbuckets. Mullets and missing teeth were the order of the day. The deceased arrived on the back of a mud-caked pickup, not in a casket but in a battered orange crate.

The pallbearers wore matching sleeveless Iron Maiden t-shirts, and their jeans ran the gamut from ripped to barely qualifying as pants. Jack drew more than a few curious stares, dressed in his suit and tie, but no one said a word to him as the orange crate was plopped down at an awkward angle, half in and half out of the hole.

A heavyset man with a furious sunburn stood in the priest position and removed his John Deere hat.

“We’s here today to say fare-thee-well to our friend and brother, Duke ‘The Great Pussy Hunter’ Judson,” the man said.

Jack felt the familiar tingle in his feet. When it reached his head and he felt the presence of another person in his mind, he was surprised to feel such a wave of happiness, almost glee. Most of the ghosts he hosted were sad and somber, but apparently not The Great Pussy Hunter.

Hey Goober!” Jack heard himself cry, interrupting the eulogy. A huge man across from him with great mutton chop sideburns and a red cap with MAKE AMERICA GRATE AGAIN written on it in marker looked up.

I fucked your sister, Goober!” Jack cried rapturously. “And she gave me crabs!

The ghost made a hasty retreat out of Jack’s body, leaving Jack to suffer the wrath of Goober, who was, clearly, very protective of his sister.

“So your first fight was with Goober,” the doctor said with a smile she couldn’t quite conceal.

“I wouldn’t characterize it so much as a fight,” Jack said ruefully. “More like I stood there and Goober tired himself out punching me in the face.”

“I see,” the doctor said. “When did the actual fighting begin?”

Jack stared at her for a few moments, wondering how to answer. He decided to just tell the truth; the doctor didn’t seem to believe a word he was saying anyway.

“The actual fighting began,” Jack said at last, “when Death showed up.”

Jack had stood under a stately oak tree and watched one of the biggest funerals he’d ever attended. The young man in the casket had been an incredibly popular athlete at the high school, just weeks away from graduation with the ink barely dry on a full football scholarship, when he decided that he was sober enough to drive his two best friends home.

The two best friends in question stood graveside, bandaged, bruised, and stitched, one of them in a wheelchair, likely for the rest of his life. Standing with them were the young man’s family, and gathered in a mass of humanity was what looked like the entire school body, including coaches, faculty, and even the janitor.

Jack had a sense of what would happen that day. He’d been to hundreds of funerals by that point, and was rarely wrong when it came to final messages. The deceased would most likely want to apologize to his friends for what he did to them, and possibly hold his girlfriend’s hand once more before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Jack felt the familiar tingling sensation, but as it moved up his body, he noticed something odd out of the corner of his eye.

One of the limo drivers, standing silent and still next to his vehicle, suddenly looked up and caught sight of Jack. Before he knew what was happening, the limo driver had hooked an arm around Jack’s neck and dragged him behind the oak tree, out of sight of the mourners.

“Hey!” Jack shouted as the limo driver shoved him up against the crumbling bark and jammed his forearm against Jack’s neck. “Hey!”

The ghost in him seemed to sense something was wrong and the tingling sensation faded. Jack saw the driver’s eyes were glowing bright red—so bright that they seemed to have caught fire.

“Listen, and listen well,” the limo driver hissed. “No more funerals. Do you understand?”

Jack hooked his hands inside the man’s forearm to take some pressure off his throat.

“What are you talking about?” Jack said, his anger rising. “Let go of me! Who do you think you are?”

The limo driver leaned in until the tip of his nose was nearly touching the tip of Jack’s.

“I am Death,” he said quietly, the words filled with menace. “Those ghosts rightfully belong to me. They’re not entitled to one last go-round just because you’re able to give them one. So I’m warning you. Stay out of my business.”

With one last push, the man released Jack. His eyes faded back to their original brown and he blinked a few times, looking around. He didn’t seem to know how he’d gotten so far from his limo, and Jack wasn’t about to tell him.

“So. Death,” the doctor said.

Jack once again felt his hackles rise. “Yes, that’s right, Death,” he said irritably.

“And Death was annoyed with you because you were giving these people another minute or so among the living?”

“Yes,” Jack said. “Look, believe whatever you want. I’m just telling you what happened.”

“I’m here to help you, Jack,” the doctor said soothingly. “I’m not here to believe or disbelieve anything.”

Jack had serious doubts about that, but said nothing.

“I’m assuming you didn’t heed Death’s warning,” the doctor continued. “That you kept attending funerals anyway.”

“That’s right,” Jack said. “I have a gift. I’m not just going to set it aside when I can offer people closure.”

“And how did Death feel about that?”

Jack looked at her incredulously. “How do you think?”

The doctor reached over to her desk and grabbed a folder. She opened it on her lap.

“I have an incident report here that’s part of your file,” she said, scanning the document within. “It appears that, at least at some point, your encounters with Death were rather comical.”

Jack’s expression soured. “Maybe some people thought so.”

“According to this,” the doctor said, “you were in attendance at the funeral of a gentleman by the name of James Cooney. Do you remember that?”

“How could I forget?” Jack said.

Jack had stood at the gravesite of Mr. Cooney, a philanthropist and loving family man who had died of a massive heart attack as he and his golf partners had walked from the clubhouse to the first tee at Silver Oaks Golf Course. Jack had the sense that Mr. Cooney had something important to tell his grieving widow, something he’d assumed he’d have years to convey.

But Jack couldn’t relax the way he normally did. He scanned the crowd of mourners ceaselessly, watching everyone’s eyes for any sign that they might suddenly change color.

As the tingling in his soles began, he saw Mr. Cooney’s eldest son, Junior, raise his head and look directly at him, eyes ablaze. Jack knew he needed to buy Mr. Cooney time, so he did the only thing he could think of—he ran.

Erin!” Mr. Cooney cried through Jack’s mouth as Jack sprinted around the circle of mourners, Cooney’s son hot on his heels. “Erin! There’s a hidden safe in the attic!

“I warned you!” Junior snarled, stretching out his arms and trying to snag Jack by the collar. The rest of the guests looked on in horror as the two men ran in circles around the gravesite.

The combination is 15 left, 38 right, 33 left!” Jack shouted breathlessly, running as fast as his dress shoes would carry him.

“Stop it!” Junior screamed, reversing direction in mid-stride to try and fake Jack out. Jack spotted the move and changed direction as well, so now the two men were running counter-clockwise around the wide-eyed guests.

I love you!” Jack shouted, and he felt Mr. Cooney’s ghost drain out of him. He turned and shouted at Junior, “Okay! Okay! He’s gone!”

But Death didn’t release Junior, and the chase continued. Jack angled toward the main road leading into the cemetery and ran toward the main gates, certain that Death would respect the boundary and give up. But Death kept running, so Jack did too.

“‘Don’t you have a retirement home to keep an eye on?’ is apparently what the guests heard you shout as you disappeared out of the cemetery,” the doctor said with a wry grin.

“That son of a bitch chased me all over town before he finally let the poor guy go,” Jack said. “I had a hell of a time explaining to him why he was in the parking lot of a 7-11 and not standing with his family at Green Hills Cemetery.”

“You have to admit,” the doctor said, replacing the folder on her desk, “that’s a little bit funny.”

“I suppose it is, now,” Jack admitted. “But being chased down by Death gets old fast.”

“I’m sure. So, when did things turn violent?” the doctor asked.

“The very next funeral,” Jack replied. “You can say what you want about Death, but he’s no dummy. He took over the guy right next to me. I didn’t even have time to look around and bam! Caught me with a left hook before the deceased had even reached my kneecaps.”

“And how did you respond?” the doctor asked.

“At first I tried to cover up, see if I could give the ghost a chance to do something,” Jack said. “But Death was pummeling me. So I threw a punch and caught him off guard. Next thing you know we’re beating the shit out of each other, and friends and family members are diving in to pull us off one another. You think they looked mortified when Junior and I were running in circles around that gravesite? Imagine how these people looked when there was a coffin-side brawl.”

The doctor smiled again. “And that’s when you were arrested?”

“Yeah,” Jack said. “As far as the witnesses were concerned, I was beating up on the dearly departed’s favorite grandson. And no amount of explanation from me was going to convince them that I was some sort of ghost whisperer and the grandson had been temporarily possessed by Death. So I wound up in jail. That’s when things got really interesting.”

“Oh?” the doctor asked, looking up from her notes. “How so?”

“You remember Mr. Cooney?” Jack asked. “The gentleman who had to tell his widow about the secret safe?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Mrs. Cooney somehow got word that I was behind bars,” Jack said. “She was so grateful about that tip-off—the safe turned out to have a million bucks in it, by the way—that she bailed me out.”

“Fascinating,” the doctor said. “Was that the extent of your interaction with Mrs. Cooney?”

“No,” Jack said. “She also insisted on paying my attorney fees when I appeared in court.”

“It sounds like Mrs. Cooney is a generous woman.”

Jack frowned. “Okay, I’m sleeping with Mrs. Cooney. Are you happy? It’s not like she’s a married woman.”

“No, indeed,” the doctor said. “But circling back to your appearance in court. You decided to tell the truth about the ghosts and Death and all of it. Why?”

“I was under oath,” Jack said simply.

“I see,” the doctor said.

“And the judge ordered me to have a psychiatric evaluation, and now I’m here, talking to you, and that catches us all up,” Jack said.

“Very well,” the doctor said, finishing up her notes.

The doctor stood and crossed the room to the large picture window that overlooked a placid lake. She took off her glasses and placed one of the stems in her mouth as she stared thoughtfully. She remained there for a long time, so long that Jack began to feel uncomfortable again.

“So?” he said at last. “What do you think?”

“Tell me, Jack. Do you intend to continue serving as a conduit for these ghosts?” the doctor asked abruptly. “Will you keep going to funerals?”

Jack hesitated. “Yes.”

“You realize,” the doctor said, still staring through the glass, “that I could have you remanded to a psychiatric facility.”

“You could,” Jack replied. “But people die there too. It won’t stop me.”

“Mm,” the doctor said, turning away from the window and grabbing something from her desk. “Then I suppose you leave me little choice.”

She returned to her seat across from Jack and looked down at her notes. “You said that Death knew right where to find you.”

“Yes,” Jack said.

“Because Death is smart. Cunning. Resourceful,” she said, still referring to her notes.

Jack laughed uneasily. “You sound like you’re a fan.”

The doctor finally looked up. Her eyes were glowing bright red. She raised her hand, and Jack saw what she had picked up from her desk: a glinting, sharp letter opener.

“You might say that,” Death said through the doctor’s mouth, and before Jack could react, she had jammed the letter opener deep into his chest, all the way to the hilt.

Jack was so shocked he barely felt the pain as the blade pierced his heart. He tried to say something, but only choked up a mouthful of blood. The room began fading from his vision, the edges black as his consciousness dribbled away. He could feel himself drifting, untethering, light as a feather . . .

And then, just as he was sure the end had well and truly come, he felt himself being drawn back toward his body. The pain in his chest came rushing back, but so did that old familiar tingling sensation in his feet. He was entering his own body, just as so many other ghosts had done before him.

His eyes opened and he saw the doctor standing above him. She was focused on cleaning droplets of blood from her glasses and didn’t notice what was happening until Jack took a loud, whooping gasp of breath. The doctor jumped back and hurriedly put her glasses back on.

Jack reached up and grabbed the letter opener and yanked with all his might. It slid out, along with a gusher of blood, and he let it slip from his hand to the carpeted floor with a dull thud.

The doctor’s still-glowing eyes were wide with shock. Jack put his hand over the wound on his chest and smiled at her.

Death couldn’t help smiling a bit too. The two of them considered one another for a long few moments.

“Huh,” Death said at last. “I’ll admit it. I was not expecting that.”

“Me neither,” Jack said weakly. The pain was subsiding. The blood flow was stemming.

Death reached over casually to the chair the doctor had been sitting in and grabbed a large cushion. In one smooth motion, she grabbed it with both hands and jammed it over Jack’s face.

Jack began thrashing, clawing at the doctor’s hands, but he was still too weak to fight her off with Death’s strength flowing through her. The world was muffled and dark. His hot breath spread across his face and he felt his life slowly fading once more.

He blew out his final, shallow breath, and once again felt the sense of detachment from his body. And then, just as before, he came back to himself and felt the sensation of reentry.

The doctor had removed the pillow to admire her handiwork. Jack sat motionless for a few moments, and then took in a shallow breath, looked at Death, and said simply, “Nope.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Death said, throwing the pillow on the floor in frustration.

Jack sat up and examined himself. There was a hole in his shirt over the spot where Death had stabbed him, and he was still soaked with blood, but the wound had completely healed. There wasn’t a scar or even a mark to be seen.

Death folded the doctor’s arms and scowled. “It would seem,” she said at last, “that whatever gift you have with ghosts has also made you immortal.”

“Oh yeah?” Jack asked. “Neat.”

“No, it’s not neat,” Death said snidely. “I’m supposed to be the immortal one.”

Jack thought it over for a moment. “We could be immortal together,” he suggested.

Death looked at him with the doctor’s glowing red eyes. “What?”

“I imagine immortality is probably lonely,” Jack said. “I know I don’t want to live forever all by myself.”

Death cocked the doctor’s head to the side. “It would be kind of nice to have someone to spend time with.”

“Okay, great,” Jack said. “But a few ground rules. First, you can’t be randomly trying to kill me like you just did.”

Death smiled. “Sorry. I’ll try not to. But it’s what I do.”

Jack nodded. “And you’re going to need to buy me a new shirt, because this one is my favorite and it’s all messed up now.” He held out the bloody hole to illustrate his point.

“Fine, a new shirt,” Death said. “Anything else?”

“Yeah,” Jack said. “You’ve got to come to terms with me channeling ghosts. Because I’m still going to.”

Death scowled. “Well there doesn’t seem to be much I can do about that, does there? But how about we cap it? Give them all one minute, no more.”

“Deal,” Jack said, rising and shaking the doctor’s hand.

“So,” Death sighed. “Now what?”

Jack thought it over. “Go get a beer?”

Death shrugged the doctor’s shoulders. “Sure.”

“Great,” Jack said, grabbing his coat. “Hey, can you do something about the crazy glowy eyes thing?”

“Oh,” Death said. “No.”

“Okay, we’ll get you some shades, you’ll look great,” Jack said. “C’mon, let’s get going. Eternity’s waiting.”










IV.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME



As Professor Chen entered his lab, his three assistants jumped up, their faces eager, their expressions achingly hopeful.

He looked at them and slowly shook his head.

“What?” Nina said, deflating just like the other two.

“They said no,” Chen said in a flat monotone, crossing the lab and placing his briefcase on a table near the experiment’s glowing power supply.

“But why?” asked Joseph, crossing the lab toward his mentor. “Surely they were able to see that the math checks out.”

“Oh yes,” sighed Chen. “They were able to see that.”

“And the tests?” asked Jodi. “Didn’t the tests count for anything?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Chen said noncommittally. “They were all very impressed with the test results.”

“Well then what’s the problem?” Nina asked.

“Apparently, sending a beam of light into another dimension is fine,” Chen explained, gazing longingly at the teleportation chamber on the far side of the lab. “As is sending a cantaloupe and half a dozen white mice.”

“But not human subjects,” Joseph finished flatly, and Chen nodded.

Disappointment settled into the lab like freshly fallen snow. After a few silent minutes, Jodi spoke up.

“So now what?”

Chen took a deep breath. “Now we try and come up with a commercial application for interdimensional cantaloupes.”


That night, Chen sat alone in his study, dictating notes into his recorder, a glass of brandy on a table near his elbow.

“The committee said that the research shows great promise, and complimented my team and me for such groundbreaking work,” Chen said tonelessly. “But that sending humans into a parallel dimension is much too risky, and that any such test was likely decades away. If ever.”

Chen scratched his beard, unsure how much he should say.

“The trick is that no one on the committee knows that I don’t have decades,” he said, his voice growing huskier. “I have less than a year. I’m out of treatment options, and the disease is slowly but surely progressing.”

He swallowed hard.

“My only dream is to be the first human to step into another dimension, and now I’m drowning in bureaucracy and tripping on red tape. I’ve never been one to defy the university’s decisions, but I find myself in the unique position of having little left to lose.”

An unexpected grin twitched at the corners of his mouth.

“So one way or another,” he said, “I’m going through with it. The committee be damned.”


Chen made his way across campus, ducking in and around the darkness and shadows of the late hour. He didn’t encounter anyone, for which he was profoundly grateful, and he scanned his pass card at the back door of Perkins Hall, letting himself into the darkened and silent building.

He reached the lab, entered, closed the door behind him, and switched on the lights. He nearly jumped out of his skin at the sight of Joseph, Nina, and Jodi standing there, smiling at him.

“Jesus Christ!” he cried, grabbing his chest. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Jodi asked. “We’re going to assist you with your interdimensional jump.”

Chen stared at them. “What makes you think I’m going to attempt an interdimensional jump?”

Joseph folded his arms and cocked his head. “Professor Chen, we’ve worked together for more than three years now. We can read you like a book.”

“Is that so?” Chen replied, folding his own arms. “All right then. What am I thinking right now?”

“That you’re pleased we’ve already charged up the prefire chambers,” Joseph said, “since that will save a lot of time.”

Chen frowned. “Lucky guess.”

Nina, Joseph, and Jodi started moving about the lab, making the necessary preparations.

“You could get expelled for this,” Chen said, taking off his jacket and loosening his tie. “You know that, right?”

Jodi smiled at him. “Well surely there’s a university in a parallel dimension that will have us,” she said brightly.


An hour later, all of the equipment was powered up and humming. Professor Chen, with Nina’s help, had fastened the oxygen helmet to his environmental suit. She pressed a few buttons near his right shoulder and he heard a faint crackle and whine, and then Nina’s voice coming through the speakers near his ears.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Fine,” he said, checking the range of motion in his arms and legs. “I suppose I should have peed first, though, huh?”

Nina laughed and Joseph crossed the lab to join them. “Just remember, if you use the men’s room at an interdimensional 7-11, be sure to make a small purchase.”

“I only hope they take debit cards,” Chen replied.

Jodi swung open the dimensional displacement chamber door, made a few adjustments inside, and looked over. “We’re ready,” she said simply.

Nina and Joseph each grabbed an arm and helped Professor Chen cross the lab. He stepped up into the chamber and then clumsily turned around to face them.

“Thank you all,” Chen said sincerely.

“Our pleasure,” Joseph replied.

“See you soon,” Jodi said.

“We’ve got the interdimensional tether set to maximum,” Nina said. “If things go tits up, just give a tug and we’ll get you back pronto.”

“I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures,” Chen said. He nodded to his students and they all nodded back, and then Jodi swung the chamber door shut and sealed it.

There was only a small porthole window through which Chen could see the lab, but his students were all out of sight, tending to various controls. He suddenly felt very alone, and butterflies began to take flight in his stomach. His breathing sounded very loud in his helmet.

The chamber suddenly lit with a bright pink light, and a low, resonating hum. Chen could feel the vibration throughout his body, as though every nerve was spasming at once.

The hum continued to build in loudness and intensity, and the light brightened from bright pink to the purest white. Everything was happening just as it had in every experiment they’d performed. Professor Chen was counting down in his head to the moment when the dimensional portal would open and pull him through when he suddenly heard something under the loud thrumming of the chamber. It sounded like panicked shouting. Through the all-enveloping light, he thought he saw the outline of a hand pounding on the chamber door’s porthole window

. . . and then blackness seized him and he passed out.

Professor Chen came very slowly back to consciousness, opening his eyes one at a time and taking slow, deep breaths. He stood with some difficulty, the world coming grudgingly into focus, and adrenaline shot into his veins. The scientist part of him told him to resist making a conclusion by what he was seeing, but the non-scientist part was ready to declare that his trip had been successful.

The ground he stood on radiated an alternating red and yellow glow. In some spots it looked like pockmarked rock; in others, like highly polished glass. He shuffled his feet clumsily and made a slow circle in his environmental suit. The horizon stretched endlessly in every direction under an inky, blue-black sky.

It suddenly occurred to him to activate the display on the inside of his facemask and check his vital signs and take readings on this new place. Numbers and graphs popped up in front of him and he ran through them quickly. His oxygen level and heart rate were both normal, as was his body temperature. The atmosphere outside the suit appeared to be somewhat hostile, but no more so than many deserts in his home dimension. There was definitely breathable air, but Chen thought it best to remain protected for the time being.

Another light popped up on the display, one that he didn’t recognize, and it took him a few moments to realize that the light was coming from outside. He turned off the display and squinted toward the horizon, where the pinprick of light was growing steadily brighter. His heart began hammering in his chest at the thought of what he was about to encounter.

When it was close enough, he could see that the light was some sort of floating, glowing disk, and there was something that appeared to be riding it.

It was a creature of some sort. It looked not unlike a velociraptor, except it had silvery skin, a more flattened face, and longer arms. It rode the disk like a surfboard, and when it reached Chen, it dismounted and landed gracefully on the pulsing, glowing ground. The disk hovered a few feet away.

Professor Chen braced himself, completely unsure what to expect. But the last thing he ever imagined was that the creature would greet him in a clipped, British accent.

“Professor Chen!” it said enthusiastically, smiling and presenting rows of long, sharp teeth. “Welcome! How are you?”

“How . . . how am I?” Professor Chen said, completely flummoxed.

“Yes, my dear man,” the creature said. “Are you well? Unharmed, I hope?”

“Uh,” Chen said, unsure. “Yeah. Yes. I’m fine, thank you. Fine.”

“Splendid!” the creature said.

“I do have a lot of questions,” Chen said, gaining his footing.

“Ah,” the creature said, its smile fading. “Yes. Well, you see, I’m a . . . oh, what’s the word? A conduit. No, that’s not right. A liaison? Hmm, that’s closer.”

“An ambassador?” Chen offered up.

The creature’s smile reappeared. “Yes!” it cried. “Yes, that’s precisely it, an ambassador. And as such, I’m not really authorized to answer questions. But I am here to take you to those who will.”

“I see,” Professor Chen nodded. “Well . . . is there something I can call you, at least? Do you have a name?”

“I do, but it’s exceedingly difficult to pronounce,” the creature said dismissively. “You may call me whatever you like.”

“Will ‘Raptor’ do?” Chen asked, with a small smile.

“Certainly,” the creature said.

“Fine then,” Chen said. “Raptor.”

“Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, would you come with me, please?” Raptor said politely. “I know you must be eager to ask your questions, and we have a long way to go.”

“Lead the way,” Chen said.

Raptor nodded and turned toward the glowing disk. It suddenly split into two identical disks, and one slid under Raptor’s feet while the other slid under Chen’s. He felt himself being lifted a few feet off the ground, and then he was moving forward, held perfectly upright somehow, Raptor a little bit ahead of him and to his left.


They traveled for quite some time, the landscape remaining the same. Chen scanned restlessly for some sign of a building or a tree or a volcano, something he could use as a touchstone, but there was nothing to interrupt the glowing, flat surface. He was just starting to get impatient, his scientific curiosity beginning to wane, when he saw it.

Ahead of them yawned a massive canyon, one that made the famous one in Arizona look like a gopher hole. It had to be hundreds of miles across, and stretched to infinity in both directions. As he and Raptor approached the lip, Chen had a moment of panic when he was sure the disk carrying him would just plummet down to the bottom, but the disk kept skimming along as though the canyon wasn’t even there.

Chen looked down. The canyon wasn’t as deep as he’d expected, and it was crisscrossed with beams of light similar to the disks. They were being used as bridges by creatures just like Raptor, moving here and there, and down below them, at the very bottom of the canyon, were small pinkish-white creatures that Chen couldn’t quite make out.

Chen opened his mouth to start hammering Raptor with questions, but remembered that he wasn’t authorized to answer. Instead he stared hungrily at the alien landscape below him, memorizing everything he could so that when the time came to ask questions, he’d be ready.

Once past the canyon, they approached what Chen had been looking for all along—a city. The buildings were dome-shaped and many of them stretched so far to the sky that their tops were lost in the clouds. They were built of the same strange light as the disks and the walkways in the canyon.

There were many more creatures now, and as Raptor and Chen passed through toward the heart of the city, they stopped what they were doing to look. Chen began to feel uncomfortable, as though he’d been thrust under a great spotlight, but remembered that he was the first human to cross over into their dimension. It was only natural they’d be curious.

At last they arrived in front of a magnificent palace. The light that composed the many turrets and spires was golden instead of white, and Chen marveled at the pure beauty of it.

Raptor jumped down from his light disk and offered a steadying hand to Chen.

“We’ve arrived,” Raptor said. “I’ve no doubt you have even more questions now than before.”

“Quite a few,” Chen said, drinking in the shimmering archway that led into the palace. He noticed that the creatures around the palace were carrying long, serrated spears and wore helmets and armor.

“Well, you’ll soon have all your answers,” Raptor said, but without a smile and without looking Chen in the eye. “This way, please.”

They entered the palace over a shimmering drawbridge and passed into a cavernous main hall. At the far end of the hall sat seven of the creatures behind a table of golden light, seated on high-backed glowing chairs. The left and right walls were lined with more armed creatures standing at attention.

Raptor and Chen approached the creature at the center spot of the table.

“Professor Chen,” Raptor said as an introduction, bowing his head. He then stepped backward and off to the side.

The creature was slightly larger than Raptor, and had none of the good humor of Raptor’s face. He eyed Chen beadily, and had an air of impatience about him.

Several seconds passed. Chen was unsure who was supposed to speak first. He looked over at Raptor, but Raptor’s eyes were downcast.

“If you have questions,” the head creature grunted finally, “ask them now.”

“Oh,” Chen replied. “Yes. Uh, where am I?”

The head creature frowned at him. “If you have specific questions, ask them now,” he said.

“My apologies.” Chen thought it over. “What dimension is this?”

“We refer to it as Dimension 6971,” the creature said.

I did it, Chen thought. I really did it. I crossed over to another dimension.

“And what species are you?”

“We are known as the Xor,” the creature replied.

“Fascinating,” Chen said. “Xor. And this city? What is this city called?”

The head creature finally smiled, revealing even longer, sharper teeth than Raptor’s. He made a chuckling sound, as did the rest of the creatures seated at the table.

“Detroit,” the head creature said simply.

Professor Chen felt himself smile. “But that’s extraordinary! We have a Detroit where I come from! Tell me more about this Detroit.”

“It’s a city in Michigan,” the head creature said. “Known primarily for the auto industry and a sub-par football team.”

The surrounding creatures all made the chuckling sound again.

“I’m not sure I understand,” Professor Chen said.

“The only reason you’re standing here in our presence, Professor Chen,” the head creature said, “is because we owe you a debt of gratitude.”

“Gratitude?”

“Indeed. Your interdimensional device didn’t send you anywhere. You’re still on Earth,” the creature said.

Chen felt his heart drop into his stomach and all the blood drain from his face.

“But it did open an interdimensional rift that allowed the Xor—all four billion of us—to travel to Earth,” the creature said. “Dimension 6971.”

“That’s—” Professor Chen began thickly. He cleared his throat. “That’s not possible. This planet looks nothing like Earth.”

“This is not our first invasion,” the head creature said. “We conquer and convert efficiently.”


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-49 show above.)