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“If you didn’t want people to think you’re weird, you went to the wrong part of town,” Mirabelle commented. She dabbed at the cut on Ruben’s face–wholly unnecessarily, but habit was habit. She told herself it was to get dirt and other foreign material out of the flesh, not to clean up blood. The bloodless wound split Ruben’s coarse eyebrow, another cut among the tapestry that was on his face, another mark that would heal overnight.
Ruben’s smile widened, opening the cut on his lip again, a smile full of teeth and elongated canines. “Yes, Mother Mira.” He showed other signs of a scuffle: his flannel shirt was torn, and his t-shirt was darkened with droplets of blood. Not his, then.
“Don’t start with that, Ruben. You know that going out before designated hours *and* across the zone means someone is going to want to punch your face in,” Mirabelle chastised. She leaned over again, dabbing at his lip. A lock of her iron-gray hair fell out of its clip, and she blew it aside impatiently. “Annalise is finishing up a new batch of that ointment, should help these from scarring up.”
“Scars don’t bother me,” Ruben replied, standing up. He pulled off his flannel, draping it on the back of the dining room chair. Pulling off his t-shirt, he licked at the dried blood, then sucked on the fabric. Mirabelle was nonplussed–hardly the first time she had seen Ruben eat.
“Yeah, but they do tend to draw attention, what with the identifying features and all,” Mirabelle frowned. “Plus some folks are starting to get suspicious about why this whole area is still under construction.” She looked up and down his body. “Also you’re really tall, with red hair. You’re sticking out like a sore thumb.”
Ruben had moved his head out of the way of the ceiling fan just as Mirabelle commented on his height, and side-eyed her as he strode over to the door that lead downstairs. “Are you saying this as a hunter, or as a mother?”
“Both, you idiot,” she said, wiping her hands on a clean dishtowel from the rack. “Didn’t live this long without noticing things.” She checked the locks on the door again, making sure the hanger on the doorknob was in place. It was an oddly asymmetrical series of knots and whorls, sweetgrass and bones suspended between fraying fibers of smoke-stained wool yarn. She would probably need to replace that soon.
* * *
Mirabelle Lawson had a long and mostly uneventful career as a hunter, both factors that led her to be able to celebrate her 50th birthday with a weekend at Disneyland. Somewhere between when she got on the Teacup ride and wobbily getting off of it, things had changed. Like all-caps CHANGED.
All of her life, Mirabelle’s experiences with the unreal and unnatural meant that she and her colleagues were sent to stop them before things got out of hand. She wanted to think of herself as more of a silent guardian, protecting those that had no idea what actually lurked in the dark (or sometimes the daylight). Too often, though, it meant she had to kill what she pursued–too dangerous to keep it alive. She had heard tales from other hunt–guardians that some of the creatures were capable of rational thought, but she had never encountered it. She supposed it must be true–just because it didn’t happen to her didn’t mean it wasn’t possible. Having a looser sense of what was and wasn’t possible made your life expectancy just a little bit longer as a hunter.
Something in the Crossing from wherever these creatures existed to Here stripped them of reason, drove them beyond speech, sapped them of whatever energy kept them moving, sucked them dry of their essence.
Until the Change happened. Now, all the boggins and beasts could walk in the Here freely, or freer than they could. Hotspots of activity had popped up, and other hunters were frantically trying to coordinate some sort of response to the whole thing. A classic case of demand exceeding the supply–there were simply not enough of them to go around for everything that was happening.
It wasn’t just the creatures that were now thriving in the Here–it was the hunters too, and those that had always lived on the fringe and had their fingers in the unreal. When she had stepped off the Teacup ride, she had felt something down to her toes, a rush of sensation that was unique in how it numbed as it went from her heart out to her extremities. For a moment, it had felt like she was having a heart attack. The rush of euphoria that had followed was not because of the Magic Kingdom’s sense of wonder, though. ALL of her senses felt MORE–brighter, louder.
She had wandered back to her hotel room in a daze, feeling hyperaware of everything going on around her, the transition between the California sun to the air conditioning feeling like needles along her exposed flesh. She had stopped at the bar on her way, ordering a peach bellini and sipping it slowly as she made her way upstairs. Standing on the balcony of her suite, she had tried to relax her racing heart, but her phone had bleeped at her, breaking the reverie.
It was her old mentor, Lars–she hadn’t heard from him in at least a decade. They had not parted on good terms, both recovering from a bad assignment that put them both in the hospital. She had changed her number at least three times since then, but someone had given him her number. Why he was still in her contacts…habit, she had supposed. Even if you were on bad terms with someone else in your crew, shit happened, and you might need their help in a desperate situation.
She had supposed this counted as “desperate.”
She had read the message. “Check the Feeds–give the 411 where you’re at.” Other hunters kept in touch with each other, sharing intel and movements of their targets. With trepidation, and more than a little resentment at having her vacation interrupted, she had opened up the Feeds.
Two hours later, they all had answers. There, the Not-Here, Never Never Land, Dreamscape, the Shadow Realm, whatever you called it–that in-between unreality where nightmares and dreams dwelled–was gone. Nobody had a clue why it happened. What they did know was that they had a big, big problem on their hands, and none of them could agree on what to do next.
* * *
Mirabelle had returned home to find that her apartment building was one of those activity hotspots the hunters were worried about. She hadn’t chosen the apartment for that reason–she didn’t even know that it was a hotspot, or that it would become one. She just felt…comfortable there, in a way that she had not before. Of course, the idea of having a place to call home was also a new feeling as well.
She couldn’t help but notice the new scents as she walked into the building after her vacation. It wasn’t chemical, though she did get that from the cleaning agents used on the tired linoleum. Really, the entire trip back was a headache-inducing variety of overwhelming olfactory overload, and this wasn’t helping at all. The scent was herbal, and spicy. Not weed or tobacco, she had indulged in that often enough in her youth to know that scent. Not patchouli, not the clean scent of burning white sage…something. Something. It reinvigorated in a way that reminded her of a fresh cup of really good coffee, and she trailed it like she was starving at a buffet.
She had ended up in front of her own apartment on the ground floor, keys in hand, the scent stronger than ever. Did she forget to take out the trash before she had left? Nicest smelling trash she’s had, that’s for sure. As she put the keys in the lock, she saw the grains of salt around the door frame. She had put down the line when she left (habits), but it had not been scattered around like this. She didn’t have any weapons on her (stupid travel rules and their security theater), so she turned the key in the lock slowly and quietly. She kept a nice oak bat by the front door, right by the light switch and the key hook.
Setting down her duffel bag and creeping silently through her front room, she picked up her trusty bat where she had left it. The scent had gotten stronger, that’s for sure. The saloon-style doors that led to the kitchen were askew, one of them torn from its top hinges in the wall. Taking a calming breath, she moved quickly to the door, flinging it open and readying the bat for a swing.
Empty black foam trays lay strewn about the floor and counter tops, sticky plastic shredded around it. Piled high in the sink was pale, raw meat. As she had been trained to do, she took in the whole situation all at once. “Situational awareness,” Lars had called it.
Meat in sink: not pork, not goat, not lamb. Beef, drained entirely of all its blood. That weird plant she had never been able to identify had grown twice its size and had spidery multicolored blooms dripping from its tendrils. Thick blankets covered the windows, blocking out the sunny bay window seat where she had her coffee in the mornings. A tall, really tall figure wrapped in her favorite quilt, wearing a faded muscle shirt and equally faded denim jeans, the front of them covered in blood. Clawed fingers grasped a piece of meat, fanged teeth sunk deep. Her neighbor, locs pulled up and away from their face, wearing loose sweatpants and a cropped hoodie, offering the tall figure a shot glass filled with a glowing pink liquid.
Mirabelle had a thousand questions try and rush out of her mouth, but all she could manage was a croaked, “What…the fuck?!”
* * *
Two years after the Change, and the entire hunter community was still fractured on what to do. Mirabelle did not take nearly that long to make a decision. Her neighbor Annalise explained that she had found Ruben standing outside a boarded-up storefront. At much the same time Mirabelle got off her teacup ride, Annalise had that same overwhelming numbing sensation that broke through to euphoria, and the five reliquaries, three fetishes, and two mandalas that decorated her fireplace mantle shattered or burst into flames. Turns out, Annalise had similar feelings when she moved into the building that Mirabelle had. Annalise had a tidy side business propagating rare plants, and she had a green thumb that was borderline miraculous. When the Change happened (Annalise preferred to call it the Great Graft), that flipped over into actually miraculous, and Annalise could finally make sense of so many of her family’s old notebooks and herbal remedies.
Ruben’s story was much weirder. The last time he could recall, it was 1983, and he had just finished a wrap party as a roadie for a local band, the Screaming Peons. He had a body full of illicit substances and alcohol, and had gotten handsy and lipsy with a fan. All delightfully consensual, from Ruben’s recollection, and the fan was very insistent on that. “I could lift him easy,” Ruben had said.
“You’re six eight,” Annalise pointed out.
“Still felt great, though,” Ruben said with a smile full of memories. “So did the biting, right up until it didn’t.”
“Wait…was your fling…a vampire?!” Mirabelle exclaimed. She had heard of vampires, of course, but no one had reported encountering any in centuries.
“Must have been,” Ruben mused. “Here I thought it was just the best orgasm ever, but no, I was just dying.”
Annalise looked to the sides of Ruben’s neck. “I don’t see any bites…you sure he was a vampire?”
Ruben grinned. “Yeah, that’s not where he bit me,” as he stretched out his long legs.
Both Mirabelle and Annalise flushed at the same time.
Next thing Ruben knew, he was standing outside the club, everything boarded up, everything familiar and not, and absolutely famished. Annalise happened to be walking towards him with a cheesesteak in-hand, and he had snatched it from her fingers between one breath and the next. Annalise hadn’t noticed her mother’s pendant growing hot against her skin against all the other weird feelings going on. Ruben inhaled the sandwich, not tasting it, and only barely feeling sated after consuming it.
Ruben and Annalise had walked and talked, Ruben a bottomless pit of hunger while Annalise tried to figure out what was going on. Cruising through the grocery store, Ruben had fixated on how much the prices had changed, but then they reached the meat department, and he suddenly knew what he was craving.
“I really really want a steak. Like the bloodiest, rarest steak,” Ruben said, his speech slurring and lisping. He hadn’t noticed his canines getting longer in his mouth–but Annalise had.
“Uh, sure…we could do that, they’ve got a value pack right here,” Annalise said with some trepidation, starting to get suspicious about her nighttime stranger.
“Should get two, then, for…ext…extra.” Ruben was starting to lose his words, and his brain felt foggy.