HOUNDSTOOTHE 1.4 - Zombie Joe and the Wonder Cats
Houndstoothe 1.4 – Zombie-Joe and the Wonder Cats
This episode is brought to you by my patrons, Adam, Amanda, Andy, Kimberly, Sam, and Vazgen.
The part of the unnamed window cat is played by our neighbor’s cat, whose name I do not know but who is always welcome in our yard.
EXACT LOCATION UNKNOWN – HOUNDSTOOTHEISH: Joe
Houndstoothe is one of those places that shouldn’t exist. The grass is too green, the streets too clean. Cats come and go as they please, dreamstalkers with agendas and business, passing in and out of the shadow realm as if all that separated it was a curtain. There’s a great beast, muddy paws and rock-sharp claws, and anyone who’s seen her knows she’s a Legend. And somehow no one knows if that makes her more or less real.
The lights are twinkling now, warm windows aglow, hearths smoldering, streetlamps burning; old faithful guardians of the dark.
Lightning strikes. Again. Again. Too many bolts to count, now.
The beast opens her eyes, glowing like electric roses in the gloaming.
She’s awake. Everything is awake, now.
The lighting hurt him.
Joe stumbled backward, clutching his chest – his heart was beating all through him. He felt his blood coursing through him, a jackhammer-thrum behind his left eye, and a throbbing pulse in both wrists. He bumped into something and flinched away from it and turned, ready to fight, expecting a monster. Just a tree.
He looked down. Same as I ever was. Still not made of glittery grit – still not made of stardust.
He looked up. The sky was fresh and clear. He couldn’t see any planets, and the moon looked like a cotton quarter. Far, far away, where it belonged. I’m awake. I’m alive.
He laughed to himself.
What a terrible nightmare! He glanced around to get his bearings, eyes searching the forest for familiar trees and the landmark of the cell tower. He saw the library from there, it’s sloping, gothic roof warming in the morning sun, and smelled the lake… yes. I am awake. I am okay. And inexplicably, he’d spent in the night in the forest.
His bag wasn’t anywhere nearby. Neither was the cell tower, for that matter. Maybe that freak storm knocked it sideways.
The forest seemed a little darker than normal, the shadows ink-washed and thick as fog. Joe frowned and slid down the tree trunk, scraping his stomach a little.
It’s so quiet. There were no birds singing and barely a rustle of wind. The silence made his stomach churn with unease, and an involuntary shiver shook his spine.
I n his mind’s eye he saw the lightning writhe out of the dark, like electric snakes striking at him. Joe shuddered and rubbed the goosebumps off his arms. The storm came out of nowhere. Maybe something hit him in the head – that’d explain why he couldn’t remember falling asleep, maybe even explain the weird lightning. A hallucination. He swallowed.
Just a nightmare, he reminded himself.
Joe folded his arms across his stomach and set off toward the library, walking at first, then jogging. He couldn’t stop shivering, but he didn’t think it was the cold. He’d never in his whole life hated being alone so much, and he realized as he followed the road back into town that it was because he didn’t feel alone at all – it felt like there was something else in the forest, something that didn’t belong. But, as he walked along the asphalt, the shivering ceased, and the sun warmed his skin through his shirt.
It’s just nightmare-residue in my brain, he thought. He gulped, thinking of the moment he got home.
Mom and Russell are going to be pissed.
THE DARBY HOUSE: Russell
Mom was crying. In Russell’s dream, Joe was back, but he wasn’t alive.
Golden sunlight poured into the house, but it was fading rapidly, to a darker gleam, more copper than gold, now more rose than copper, and it steadied at the dim red burn of sunset, like the world was a coal in God’s fire.
Lillian was standing by the door as it cracked open. Joe’s outline stood there, backlit by the red sun – not a sunset, Russell realized, but a dying sun – and it was so clearly Joe. With his stupid almost-mullet, the collar of his jacket pulled up to brush his earlobes. He stepped inside and shut the door behind him, abruptly killing the hot red outline around him.
Lillian dropped to her knees, wailing. “My baby,” she cried. “My son.”
Russell stepped forward, frowning, waiting. Joe met his eyes. His glasses were missing and his eyes, usually dark and brown and bright with thought, were milky and colorless.
“Joe,” Russell whispered.
Russell cringed and stumbled back as his brother advanced, matching each step backward with a shambling stagger forward, until he was grabbing Russell’s shirt and Russell was pushing him away.
A rancid, sour smell seeped from Joe’s body. His skin was sunken, sallow, decayed, and a squirming, red slug-thing was wiggling out of his nose. Maybe Joe’s own blood, congealed but still alive. Maybe his blood cells were puppeting him forward.
“You gave up on me,” Joe rasped. Even his voice sounded decayed and crackly, somehow both dry and rotten with dead man’s blood.
Russell tried to speak, but his voice was gone. He only had his beating heart, racing, and he remembered all the times Joe had had a panic attack before a test, how he described it after – like his heart was trying to get away from him, leave him behind.
The zombie-Joe opened his mouth and another slug-thing wiggled out, wetly, and Joe placed his hand flat on Russell’s chest.
Russell’s mind raced back to the dozens of times he’d sit beside his brother and place a hand on his chest and back – trying to help him hold those emotions in.
“Do you know how empty a body feels without a pulse?” Joe rasped. He closed his fingers around Russell’s shirt and yanked him forward. “You abandoned me, Russell.”
I’m dreaming. Russell stirred and started fighting for the surface of wakefulness. He’d never realized how like drowning dreams were. He felt the zombie-nightmare-Joe’s hands trying to pull him back in, and for a moment he thought he’d suffocate in his sleep, but then he opened his eyes.
There was a cat sitting on his chest.
Russell flinched and instinctively scooted backward in Joe’s bed. The cat stood up, still purring, and unsheathed its claws into Russell’s shirt and stretched itself into a lower-case N.
Russell twisted around and saw the open window as the cat hopped to the windowsill. His heart was still beating hard in his chest. He put his hand over it and swung his legs out of bed. His neck hurt.
The cat glanced back at him, her golden eyes wide and unassuming. Russell sank back onto the pillows.
“Why do you feed that cat? It has a home.”
Joe pet the tabby along her spine. “Because I want her to keep coming back.”
“Well, I don’t,” Russell grumbled. “Shut the window when she leaves.”
“She’s just friendly, Russell.”
“Too friendly.” The tabby walked over and rubbed her ears on Russell’s ankles. She began kneading his laces with her snow-mittened paws.
“She likes you,” Joe said, as if this were a human girl and not an intrusive house pet.
Russell sighed and ran his fingers along her spine like he’d seen Joe do.
“I’ll find you something to eat,” Russell sighed, pushing himself up.
“Yep, yep,” Russell groaned. He opened the bedroom door and pushed it closed behind him. He paused – there were voices in the kitchen. Dad’s here, Russell thought. He took a deep breath and went to the kitchen.
Lillian sat at the table, her hands cupped around a mug of tea, and Clark Darby leaned against the sink, towering over the whole room. His eyes darted up when Russell walked in.
Russell’s stomach churned – he wasn’t used to being called ‘Rusty’ anymore. Probably because Clark was the only one that called him that. Sometimes he called Joe ‘Joey.’
“…Dad,” Russell said, after a moment. “You’re here.”
Clark closed the gap between them and enveloped Russell in a hug. “Hey, son,” he whispered.
Russell bit his lip and squeezed.
Clark rubbed Russell’s back, patted his shoulder, and then stood back, squeezing his arms. His father looked tired, and his eyes were rimmed in red. He cleared his throat – for a moment he sounded just like Joe, when he was getting ready to say something difficult, or something he didn’t want to say.
“I, um – “ Clark stopped and looked away, toward Lillian. Tears glistened on his cheeks. “I’m sorry it took so long to come home – the plane – “
Russell shook his head and glanced down. “Glad you’re here,” he said.
Clark smiled and wiped the tears away. “Me too. Wish it were different, but. Me too.”
Russell nodded at the coffee pot. “Just gonna… make some coffee,” he said, heading for the counter. He raised his eyebrows – the coffee pot was already full.
“Yeah, I, uh – I got in pretty late, so I went ahead and made some. Probably not as good as yours, but. It’s hot,” Clark said.
“Thanks,” Russell said. He glanced at Lillian – she lifted the corner of her mouth and sipped her tea. The two of them watched Russell pour coffee into his cup, dress it with almond milk, and toss the empty carton in the trash.
Russell glanced between them. “What were you guys talking about?” he asked. He turned toward the pantry, looking for something to eat and something for the cat.
He found a can of tuna and slipped it into his pocket. He didn’t want to explain that Joe’s stray feline friend was in his room.
“Nothing,” Clark said, looking away.
Russell glanced over at Lillian and tore the wrapper off a granola bar. She looked a little more rested than she had the past two days. Maybe having Dad would help her.
Clark cleared his throat. “Your mom and I are going to go, um, see the body.”
Russell sipped his coffee but tasted nothing.
Lillian watched him, frowning.
Russell realized she was still staring at his glasses – he didn’t wear them outside the house much, and he almost always put his contacts in first thing and waited until right before bed to take them out. Self-conscious, he pushed them up on his nose and glanced at the clock on the microwave.
“Okay,” he said hoarsely.
“Russell,” Clark said. “You don’t have to come.”
“It’s fine. I’ll go. When?” Russell asked. He put his mug down.
Clark and Lillian glanced at each other. Lillian shook her head and then leaned on her hand – Russell recognized it as her “Don’t-look-at-me-he’s-your-son” expression. Clark cleared his throat.
“Probably this afternoon.”
“Okay,” Russell said, shortly. “I’m, uh. Gonna go get dressed.”
“Don’t forget to eat something, honey,” Lillian murmured.
“Yeah, I will,” Russell said.
He went to the bedroom and sat on Joe’s bed, willing him to appear. Their DNA was identical – maybe Russell could manifest his brother back to life with his heart, like the end of a fairy tale. Joe was always talking about fairy tales, and Russell had never listened. Not really. He tended to tune his brother out when he started talking about stories and books.
The cat weaved between Russell’s ankles and put her front paws on his knee, whiskers twitching in the direction of his pocket. He took the tuna out and opened it for her, then set it on the windowsill.
Russell laid back on Joe’s pillow. He hated Joe’s pillows. He liked really puffy ones. No wonder his neck hurt. It smelled like Joe – books, cinnamon, coffee, because he was always drinking in bed. He couldn’t even make it out of bed until he’d had coffee, and Russell was the one that brought it to him, every morning.
Russell rolled over, neck aching, and stared at Joe’s side of the nightstand. A lamp, a stack of books, empty coffee mugs, and candy bar wrappers littered it, and usually his glasses sat on whatever book he read before bed. Russell blinked and shoved the candy wrappers off to clear the surface. The glasses weren’t there.
Russell sat up. The sheriff had dropped off Joe’s bag and his clothes. Russell had poked through the bag – mostly books. Joe’s journal. But no one had opened the bag of clothes. It was still sitting in the living room, leaning against the couch.
Russell picked up Joe’s bag and started pulling things out – books, two, three, four, a handful of loose pens and pencils at the bottom, a one-subject college ruled notebook, and a bound journal. Russell flipped one of the books open, his eyes glossing over the stamped due date. The Houndstoothe library still stamped everything.
I’ll take these back in a few days, Russell thought. He stacked the library books and pushed them beneath Joe’s bed.
Joe’s phone was in another bag, crispy from a lightning strike, and it lay next to his watch. The watch was totally unaffected, keeping perfect time.
Russell heard his parents talking in quiet, teary voices. Lillian started sobbing. Clark was speaking softly, trying to calm her down. Cabinet doors opening and closing – probably looking for tea. Or vodka. A kid didn’t have to be dead for it to be “five o’clock somewhere” when is parents were together.
Russell slipped out of his and Joe’s room and crossed the hall to the living room. The wood-panel walls looked extra-depressing that day, and the white morning sun seeping in through the blinds cast weird bars of light over the furniture. A basket of clean, wrinkled laundry sat on the coffee table, waiting to be folded, and there was a half-empty trash bag beside the couch. Russell started picking up the day before but got tired after he shoved all the crumpled tissues and take-out bags in it.
He picked up Joe’s clothes, sealed in the evidence bag, then grabbed the other one with the phone and watch. Russell went back to his room, clutching the evidence bags in his fists. He dumped them out on the messy floor and pawed through it. Joe’s jacket, Joe’s wallet, his jeans, burnt and tattered. A maroon henley – actually Russell’s henley - spilled out onto the floor.
“How many times have I told him not to wear my stuff?” Russell muttered. His cheeks burned. The last thing Joe wore didn’t even belong to him. Russell rubbed the back of his neck. He thought of all the times he’d yelled at Joe for borrowing his clothes, his earbuds, his shampoo, even his favorite mug in the kitchen.
It occurred to Russell just how much time he’d spent being mad at Joe for being his brother and doing brother things. They’d always been split that way – Joe went with the flow. Russell was always bucking against the flow. He didn’t want his whole identity to be locked into being a twin – he was his own person, and he wanted everyone to know it. Russell chewed on his lip and stared at the pile of clothes.
Even Joe’s briefs lay in a crumpled heap on top of everything. But no glasses.
Russell checked the other evidence bags and removed Joe’s phone and watch. No glasses.
Joe was legally blind without them. He wouldn’t have left without wearing them, especially in the dark. He probably wouldn’t even take them off. Russell shoved everything under Joe’s bed – he felt oddly protective of his brother’s things, like someone else might take them and box them away if Russell didn’t keep them.
I should ask the Sheriff.
Russell knew she stopped by Lincoln’s for coffee most mornings. If he hurried, he might be able to catch her before she headed to the Hemlock County Police Station.
THE BLAIRE FAMILY HOUSE: Bill
The moving truck was a few days late, which Bill hadn’t realized until he checked his email that morning. Apparently, they’d tried calling him several times, but with the cell tower out, the movers had been unable to reach him.
With his stupid arm, there wasn’t much he could do except point the movers to the living room or dining room, depending on what they were carrying in. Agnes was outside, watching them unload boxes and furniture, with her hand over her mouth.
Bill walked out to the porch. He’d hit his head on Agnes’s geraniums at least once a day since they’d arrived, but he walked around the hanging basket this time and leaned on the rail.
“You okay, Aggie?”
Agnes looked up, hand still over her mouth. “Where is all this going to go?” she demanded. “There’s enough furniture for two houses in there.”
Bill shrugged. “We’ll get rid of some stuff.”
“There’s not room to store all of this,” Agnes said, throwing up her arms. “Why did you bring two couches?”
“One of those is a love seat,” Bill said.
“Well,” Agnes walked toward the porch, then quickened her pace and grabbed a fern before the movers ran into it. She sighed and set it back down as they passed. “The house is already cluttered.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Bill said, waving his good hand.
Agnes looked up at him. There were gray smudges around her eyelashes – probably mascara from the day before. It reminded Bill of when they were teenagers – Agnes always had black and blue ink on her eyes. She looked like a Tim Burton character for three years straight before she emerged from her emo-phase. He swallowed back the sudden twinge in his chest.
Too much nostalgia. Too many memories.
“Hey! Are you listening? Who is going to load all this furniture into the truck?” Agnes asked. She waved her hand in front of Bill’s face.
Bill blinked and slapped her hand away. “I will.”
Agnes snorted. “Not with that bent wing, partner.”
Bill glanced down at his arm. “Shit,” he said.
Agnes jumped out of the way of the movers as they carried a huge, mahogany dresser inside. “I’ll ask a friend to help,” she said, glaring at the dresser.
“That guy at the diner?” Bill asked.
Agnes didn’t answer. She headed inside, calling over her shoulder, “You better get in here and start helping me tetris with your one good arm, William.”
Bill flinched and waited for the movers to pass before he walked inside.
“I hate that,” he muttered. “William.”
Tetrising the house proved to be more challenging than Bill thought, even once the movers stopped bringing things in. There was a huge stack of heavy boxes that were all Bill’s things – books and DVDs, mostly – and he couldn’t carry them with one arm without someone handing it to him, so he’d been shuffling them along with his feet.
He heard Agnes shriek in the backyard.
“What’s wrong?” he called.
She didn’t answer. The pile of boxes fell over, spilling books all over the floor. Bill stared at it for a moment and then left it and made his way to the sunroom. Agnes stood in the center of the yard, staring at a haphazard circle of bookcases. The movers hadn’t known what else to do with them.
Sloppy Stonehenge, Bill thought. A Stonehenge made out of bookcases is pretty cool.
“Why did you bring six bookcases?” Agnes demanded.
Bill paused as he leaned out the door. “Because I have books? A lot of them.”
“There are floor-to-ceiling shelves in the damn library.”
“Yes, and they’re full, right?”
“Well… yes, they’re full. But there’s nowhere to put these, Bill.”
Bill backed slowly into the sunroom and let the door fall closed. He’d forgotten how easily stressed Agnes was – when they were teenagers, and moved in with Grandad, Agnes was always gone. She stayed out late, snuck in at all hours of the morning. June hadn’t seemed to care that much. The only time Agnes was home regularly was during a break-up, and then she ignored both Bill and June and helped Grandad build birdhouses.
When June got sick, Agnes was always home.
She waved her hand furiously and Bill sighed and came back out.
“We can’t keep these,” Agnes said.
“Those are really nice bookcases,” said Bill. “They were a gift from my editor.”
“They can’t go in the library,” Agnes said. “Maybe we could fit one or two in the sunroom, but –“
“I’ll put some in my room,” Bill said. “That’ll work.”
“Did you get rid of anything before you left?” Agnes demanded, throwing up her hands.
“My house,” Bill said, shortly.
Agnes slipped past him into the sunroom. “I need coffee,” she said.
Bill chewed on his lip and made his way to the hall. He stopped when he reached it. He’d forgotten about the books all over the floor. Rosemary’s bedroom door opened and bumped a box. She poked her head out and surveyed the hall.
“What is happening?”
“The moving truck is here!” Bill announced cheerfully. “We have all of our stuff!”
“This is all your stuff…” Rosemary grunted, climbing out through the crack in the door. As she pushed her way through the crack, she bumped a stack of boxes with a pile of books on top.
Rosemary turned and the cascade of books froze in the air, a literary waterfall aimed for her head. Bill stared.
Rosemary stepped back hurriedly and the books fell to the floor amidst the steadily-growing pile. She glanced at Bill.
“…that was pretty cool,” Bill said.
“I’m going to need some bookcases for my books,” Rosemary said, after a moment.
“Sure. Hey, can I put some books in your room?”
“No,” Rosemary said, stepping over the books and into the bathroom.
“Okay. Can you move some books with your mind again?”
Rosemary shut the bathroom door. Bill heard the water turn on and sighed. We probably need to figure out this pushing thing, he thought.
THE DARBY HOUSE: Russell
Russell took a shower and put his contacts in, then got dressed in his room.
He ducked back into the kitchen – Clark had joined Lillian at the table.
“I’m going to run out for a few minutes. Gonna get a muffin or something at Lincoln’s.”
“Oh – honey, we can order in,” Lillian said.
“It’s fine,” Russell said, shaking his head. “It’ll take ten minutes. Where are the keys?”
Lillian pursed her lips. “I really don’t want your driving right now,” she said.
Russell opened his mouth to argue, then shook his head. “That’s fine, I’ll just walk. I’ll see you in a little bit.”
“Uh – Rusty, we’re getting ready to go soon, if you still want to come,” Clark said.
“I’ll just… meet you back here,” Russell called from the hall. He went back to his room, grabbed his backpack and left through the window, shooing the cat ahead of him. If he left through the front door Lillian would try to talk him out of it again. The cat watched him climb out, licking her whiskers. Russell picked up his backpack and reached up to close the window, then caught sight of her, gazing at him.
“All right,” he said, and left it open.
He glanced at his watch and quickened his pace. He’d subjected himself to a cold shower in the hopes that it’d shake the dream wholly from his mind. He wished he could tell Joe about it – Joe was good about nightmares, probably because he had so many. He’d make a joke out of it.
“That sounds like a music video. Maybe for my band.”
“You couldn’t have a band,” Russell would say. “You’re not cool.”
Joe would ignore him. “Zombie-Joe and the Wonder Cats,” he might say, spreading his hands.
Russell shivered as he walked, checking his watch every few minutes. He couldn’t miss Sheriff Granger – he’d have to wait around at Lincoln’s for the landline until he got hold of her, and if he was gone too long, either of his parents might come look for him.
He’d pulled on a fleece-lined henley, but his hair was wet and cold. He ended up jogging the final few blocks to Lincoln’s and yanked the door open when he arrived, teeth chattering.
His nose and cheeks were red and freezing.
It wasn’t as busy in Lincoln’s as it had been when everyone was reading tea leaves. Everyone was eating breakfast, waiting on their to-go orders, reading the paper.
Lincoln was passing out plates like a card dealer at a casino, passing them out almost too quick. Russell waded through the tables. No one bothered him; he didn’t recognize most of the people there anyway. Maybe they didn’t know anything about Joe Darby and how he was survived by his twin and divorced parents.
Russell sat at the counter and hugged himself. He felt like he was only partially there – he felt hungry and tired, and he couldn’t think clearly. He shivered and rubbed his arms.
Lincoln stopped in front of him. “Need some breakfast, Russell?”
Russell nodded. “Please.”
Russell nodded again, glancing around. “Who are all these people?” he asked.
“The first morning rush,” Lincoln replied, pouring a cup. His eyes flickered from the mug to Russell’s face. “You’re up kinda early.”
“Yeah – has the Sheriff come in today?” Russell asked.
Lincoln nodded at the door. “She’s just coming in, looks like.”
Russell turned – Sheriff Granger walked through the door, nodding at someone that’d waved at her. Russell lifted his hand, then stopped, waiting for her to glance his direction again. When she looked up, he lifted his hand and watched her face go from relaxed to concerned. She picked her way through the tables. Her jacket was half-zipped, and as she walked over, she pulled off leather gloves and her hat.
“Russell,” she said. “I’m a little surprised to see you out and about.”
Russell chewed on his lip and glanced up as Lincoln walked back over with two cups of coffee. He set one in front of the sheriff, one in front of Russell, and then grabbed a plate from the window and set it in front of Russell.
“I didn’t order anything,” Russell said.
“Messed up someone else’s breakfast,” Lincoln said. “Have it on the house. Can I get you anything, Scarlett?”
The sheriff glanced at her watch, then at Russell. “I’ll take some pancakes if you’re not too busy.”
“Never too busy for pancakes,” Lincoln said cheerfully, then ducked into the kitchen.
Russell picked up his coffee and sipped. Lincoln had remembered to put cream in it – at home they only had almond milk. Joe was mostly vegetarian and Lillian was lactose-intolerant – Russell was the only one that took cream and Lincoln’s was the only place he got it in his coffee.
“I actually came here hoping to catch you,” Russell said.
Sheriff Granger’s eyebrows knitted together, but she picked up her coffee cup and nodded. “What can I do for you?”
Russell took a deep breath, surprised at the sadness bubbling up inside him. “I can’t find Joe’s glasses.”
Sheriff Granger frowned.
Russell took another deep breath, but he couldn’t keep his voice from coming out wobbly. “He never leaves without his glasses, and you brought by all of his clothes and stuff. It’s not in either of the evidence bags and his glasses aren’t in our room. Like I said, he wouldn’t leave without them anyway. He’s legally blind and kinda neurotic about wearing them.”
“Oh,” the sheriff nodded. She took a sip before answering. “I can double check the morgue, but I searched the area myself and collected all of Joe’s belongings. I didn’t see his glasses.”
“Any chance you missed them?” Russell asked. “Out in the woods?”
The sheriff shrugged and leaned back to make room for the pancakes as Lincoln set them in front of her. “It’s possible, if he dropped them – there’s a lot of plant life out there.”
Russell nodded and turned the coffee cup in his hands.
“He was working at the library that night – want me to ask Grey?”
Russell chewed on his lip. “If you have time. I can go see him.”
“It’s no trouble,” she said quickly. “I’ll go by there after breakfast.” She cleared her throat and glanced around the diner. “How are you holding up?”
Russell glanced down at the plate Lincoln had given him – eggs and bacon, cooked just how he liked them, and an apple crumble muffin with a slab of melting butter on top. Russell’s favorite breakfast. He cleared his throat and picked up the bacon. “I don’t know how to answer that,” Russell said.
The sheriff cut into her pancakes. “No one expects you to be okay,” she said.
Russell grabbed some napkins and wrapped up the bacon and the muffin, leaving the eggs. “I’ve gotta run,” he said, choking. “Thanks.”
“I’ll let you know what Grey says.”
Russell stuck a $5 under the plate and slipped out into the cold.
Where the hell are Joe’s glasses?
THE BLAIRE FAMILY HOUSE: Rosemary
Rosemary spent most of the day in her room, unpacking whenever Bill or Agnes found one of her boxes and brought it to her, and trying to make friends with the cats.
Living with cats was both exciting and alarming – Rosemary wasn’t used to it. Sometimes seeing one out of the corner of her eye made her feel like there was a giant, furry cockroach in the vicinity.
She slipped across the hall to the bathroom and opened the door to a small, brown-and-black tabby with huge green eyes, sitting on the toilet seat.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, turning to leave. She shook her head, hand on the doorknob. “Wait,” she muttered. She turned back, trying to decide whether she wanted to risk picking up an animal she didn’t know so she could pee, but the tabby hopped down from the toilet and sauntered past her, jerking his tail over his back like a scorpion. Rosemary opened the door for him.
It had been quiet all day, and Rosemary enjoyed it at first. She unpacked her boxes, stacking books in tall towers on the bed, folding her clothes in piles of t-shirts and pants, tossing her dresses and blouses in a pile to be hung up later. Bill was supposed to bring her hangers when he found them.
She tried not to think too much about school starting later in the week, or how she wouldn’t know anyone, or how she’d have to go to the bathroom every hour just to see if her tampon was leaking.
She also tried not to think about the floating lamps in the hotel room the other night. And she especially tried not to think about her mom.
She did think about Joe, though.
When she’d seen him at Target, her first thought was that everything was a big joke, because he was in front of her and surely alive, and then she thought it had to be Russell, but then the world he was in started bleeding into hers.
The box of crayons sat on her nightstand, closed. She hadn’t opened it since that night, when she handed the three crayons to him.
She knew, now, that it was possible to exchange items on the astral plane, both directions. Astral plane. She’d picked up the term in one of the crusty old books around the house. Wherever the hell he is.
She had his glasses. At least a pair of his glasses. And Joe had her crayons.
Rosemary splashed some water on her face and crossed the hall to her room. She’d been keeping the glasses in a drawer on her nightstand. She kicked the door shut behind her and went to the drawer and opened it. There they were, same as they had been for the past three days. She pulled them out and turned them over for what felt like the hundredth time in her hands. He’d used a Star Wars band-aid to patch a crack in one of the legs, and the left lens was cracked and loose.
She bit her lip and put the glasses back.
Lightning is usually the connection.
The first time, she’d seen him in the snow. The second time there hadn’t been snow but it’d been in the same place, with the lightning again. The third time was different, a different moment than the first two times.
She knew that she could cross into his space, completely, like in her first dream. And it seemed like he could partially cross to hers, but she wasn’t sure – maybe it wasn’t his world that bled into Target. Maybe it was the opposite – her world bleeding into his.
And she knew he was dead. Or, he was supposed to be.
Rosemary sat on the edge of her bed, veering away from the thought of death. Her interactions with Joe were nothing like what she imagined ghosts to be like – he wasn’t insubstantial, corporeal, ephemeral – when they touched hands, he was just as real as she was, just as alive as she was.
But no one really knew anything about death. No one knew what happened after.
Rosemary veered away from it again, searching for other answers. If people were saying he was dead, there had to be a body.
Maybe he was haunting her.
Rosemary flinched and looked up. Bill was leaning in the door, rapping it open with his knuckles.
“Did I scare you?” Bill grinned, eyebrows raised.
“No,” Rosemary said, shortly. “What?”
Bill’s mouth turned down a little at the corners. “Just came to see if you need something.”
“Hangers,” Rosemary said, pushing herself off the bed. She grabbed her vans, a green sweater, and some reddish-brown jeggings to wear on her first day of school and laid them on the dresser.
“I meant anything for school. Are you all set? Is that tomorrow?”
“Thursday,” Rosemary said, raising her eyebrows pointedly. “And yeah. I’m all set.”
Bill cleared his throat and nodded. “Okay. Well – good night.”
Rosemary came over to the door to shut it. “Good night,” she said.
Bill leaned back in before she could close the door. “Are you nervous?” he asked.
“I’m just trying to check on you!”
“I’m okay,” Rosemary insisted. “I’m good.”
“Okay,” Bill said, coming in all the way. “Glad you’re all set with school. Let’s talk about your jedi-powers.”
Bill shook his head. “The lamps.”
Rosemary crossed her arms and leaned on the door. “I need to clear off my bed so I can go to sleep,” she said.
“Clear it off in a minute,” Bill said. “I want you to talk to me about this.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Rosemary said. “I want to hang my clothes and put up my books and get some sleep. You promised I could have some bookcases.”
Bill rubbed his cheek. “Have you ever done anything like that before?”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you ever moved things with your mind before.”
Rosemary grabbed the doorknob and gestured to the hall. “Good night, Dad. I love you.”
Bill sighed and headed out to the hall. “I love you too, kid. Can’t you just think about putting all your stuff away and it’ll just happen? Like Mary Poppins?”
“I’ll see you in the morning, go to sleep,” Rosemary said, shutting the door.
“Get some rest!” Bill called through the door. “Come wake me up if you do anything cool!”
Rosemary sighed and sank to the floor with her back on the door. She made a list in her head.
First, her mom drank too much and drove too fast and died too soon.
Second, she finally got her period, in front of her Dad.
Third, she’d moved lamps with her mind and levitated in bed like she was possessed or something. And maybe somehow cushioned the jeep with her mind when it rolled off the road.
Fourth, a dead boy was haunting her. Or a boy that everyone believed to be dead was connected to her consciousness somehow.
Fifth, she was about to start high school, in a brand new town.
LINCOLN’S DINER: Lincoln
Lincoln always knew when Agnes came through the door, even if he was in the kitchen. She was so beautiful that even the bell rang differently for her – he’d never say that to anyone, probably not even Agnes, but it was true.
He poked his head out the window, tickets from his last dinner rush brushing his forehead. He yanked them down as Agnes waved.
“Hold on, Miss – err, Agnes,” Lincoln said, half under his breath. He didn’t know why he called her ‘Miss Blaire’ in front of everyone else, but the diner was empty now.
Agnes waved her hand and let out a laugh-filled, “Oh, you’re okay,” and sat down at her usual spot at the bar.
Lincoln ducked into the depths of the kitchen. He took his apron off and brushed his hair out of his eyes, then grabbed a fresh pie – he needed to put one out anyway – and then slipped out through the swinging door.
Agnes was leaning on her first, waiting for him.
“Hi,” Agnes said.
Lincoln set the pie down, watching her all the while – her hair looked like chrome starlight, and it was falling in loose waves around her face. “Hello,” he said. He smiled and gripped the counter behind him. “What brings you in so late?”
Agnes leaned forward. “I need a break from my brother.”
“Ah,” Lincoln nodded. “Want some pie?”
“On one condition,” Agnes said.
Lincoln smirked. “Name it.”
“Have a piece and a cup of coffee with me, Lincoln of Lincoln’s Diner. Mister Cooger.”
Lincoln nodded. “All right.”
Agnes’s teasing smirk broke into a grin.
Lincoln’s smile widened in response. “What kind of pie do you want?” he asked.
“Your favorite kind,” Agnes said.
“I have lots of favorite kinds of pie,” Lincoln said. “Just like movies.”
“Your favorite tonight, then,” said Agnes. She paused. “And you have to tell me why it’s your favorite.”
Lincoln straightened. “All right,” he said. “Coffee? Made some cold brew this mornin.’”
Agnes tossed her hand in the air. “Who needs sleep?” she asked.
Lincoln tilled two juice glasses with ice, then poured the iced coffee over the cubes. He was good at brewing things – this cold brew tasted like nuts and black cocoa, the perfect drink for the autumn months, when black magic ran rampant and thinned the veil between worlds.
“Are you going to start serving this?” Agnes asked.
Lincoln poured the cream and passed a glass to her. “Do you think Houndstoothe needs anymore caffeine?” he asked.
Agnes laughed and took a sip. “Mm,” she murmured. “Perfect. It’s smooth but there’s a little bite, too.”
“Cloves,” Lincoln told her. He held up his finger. “I’ll be right back. With pie.”
Lincoln ducked into the kitchen, grabbing two plates, two forks, and a pie he’d made that morning. Even as he made it, he wasn’t sure why – most of the folks in Houndstoothe didn’t care much for pecan. Blueberry was the most popular.
When Lincoln came back out, Agnes had lit a candle. She twirled a strand of her starlight hair around her finger and pulled it over her shoulder to dangle by her chin as Lincoln set the plates down.
Lincoln took the saran wrap off the pie, and cut it with three diagonal lines that intersected in the middle.
“Pecan,” Agnes said. “How Southern.”
Lincoln grinned and set a generous piece on Agnes’s plate, then took another for his own. He rewrapped the plate and gently pushed it aside.
Agnes took her first bite. “Mmm,” she said. “This is good.”
“Yeah?” Lincoln asked.
“Yeah,” Agnes nodded and held a finger over her mouth as she chewed. “It’s rich, and just the right amount of crunch. What’s the secret?”
“Uh-uh. I can’t say.” Lincoln took his first bite; it was good, and there was just the right amount of crunch. He smirked and got a sip of coffee.
“Why is this your favorite pie?”
“My mother used to make it,” Lincoln said.
Agnes opened her eyes wide a moment, then narrowed them. “Is that true?”
“That’s too easy,” she said.
Lincoln laughed and shook his head. “Well, it’s the real reason. She made me pie instead of cake for most birthdays.”
“So your mother is from the South,” Agnes said. “How South?”
“Southwest,” Lincoln answered. “Texas.”
Agnes raised her eyebrows. “So that’s the accent,” she said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Sometimes you slip into kind of a… twang,” Agnes said. “I’ve always wondered where it’s from.”
Lincoln took a bite of his pie and shrugged. He wasn’t supposed to talk about his past, not really. He probably shouldn’t have told her about Texas, if the last Lincoln was to be believed.
God. She makes me want to break the rules.
“Did you know any of the other Lincolns?” he asked.
Agnes’s eyes flickered up, over the rim of her glass. She shrugged. “I sort of remember someone from when I was younger.”
Lincoln nodded, thinking. Probably not the Lincoln he’d met – probably the one before that. The three Lincolns before him had all served “short shifts” and then retired after they duped someone else into taking over.
I’m the last in a long line of dupes, Lincoln thought.
Agnes cleared her throat. “He was older than you. I think. When you’re a kid anyone older than you sort of seems like a grownup.”
Lincoln chuckled and nodded.
“I remember he had a great hot chocolate recipe,” Agnes said. “For the longest time I just thought it was the best part of winter. That hot cocoa was everything good. I was sure he had a spell to make it taste like that.”
“Your mother did you a lot of spell-learnin’ huh?”
“Oh, yes,” Agnes smiled and lifted her finger at him. “There’s that twang.”
Lincoln blushed and picked up his pie crust.
Agnes giggled and leaned back in her chair. “I can’t really do any of it, though. I don’t have the gift.”
Lincoln shook his head – she didn’t know how much magic she was.
She tapped the plate with her finger. “Is this what Texas tastes like?”
“You’ve never been?” Lincoln asked.
Agnes shook her head.
Lincoln thought for a moment. “Texas has a lot of flavors, but yeah. Pecans are a good representation.”
“What other flavors?”
“Texas is spicy,” Lincoln said, flatly. “Probably too spicy for most of you Northerners.”
Agnes chuckled. “Northerners?”
“’Yankee’ is the colloquial term, but it’s the twenty-first century now, so.”
Agnes finished her pie. “Can we move outside? Bill’s driving me to smoke.”
Lincoln straightened and popped the final bite of pie crust into his mouth. “I thought you quit?”
“I did,” Agnes said. “I’m cheating.”
Lincoln glanced behind him as they headed for the door. The diner was clean. Every dish washed, racked and put away; everything thawed for the next morning. He’d pulled his salt and pepper shakers and mustard and ketchup bottles to refill, but he’d do them the next day.
He grabbed the trash bags he’d put by the door earlier and nudged the door open with his foot for Agnes. She lit her cigarette and then leaned against the window.
Lincoln stopped to double-tie the trash bag and survey the street. An orange cat was prowling the offices across the way, weaving in and out of flowerpots and rubbing up against doors.
Tying the trash bag double was unnecessary, but Lincoln triple-tied it, thinking. His stomach flipped with his hands. There was nothing visibly different about the streets of Houndstoothe. The streetlamps were all on, all burning, giant fireflies to light Agnes’s walk home. The twinkle-lights in the town square were still on, and would be, all night. A breeze moved down Main street. Lincoln shivered.
“What do you think is happening here?” Lincoln asked, after a moment. He glanced at Agnes.
Almost everyone in Houndstoothe had a peculiar insight into the town’s goings-on. The Hofsteds idly commented on the weather and what they hoped it wouldn’t do, and then that thing usually happened. Sheriff Granger seemed to know motives just by looking at people. Sylvia always seemed to know gossip about individuals even before they knew it. It was all subtle. Or it usually was. The past few days, Lincoln had noticed it a little more.
Agnes’ insight was different. Lincoln couldn’t put his finger on it, but he knew it was there.
Agnes shrugged and tapped her temple. “I don’t know. It’s autumn. Something wicked this way comes, I suppose.”
Lincoln peered into the night. He had a general idea of Houndstoothe as a whole, too – Lincoln knew a lot more about it than probably anyone, in the grand scheme of things, but not always about individual circumstances. He couldn’t recite the history of a place like the town historian could, but he’d be able to eventually.
The last Lincoln had promised it would come with time.
Sometimes he could see the town reflected in the velvety darkness of late evening Houndstoothe if he looked hard enough. Like right now. Shadows in his mind’s eye – or was it shadows in the town square, by the gazebo? – of Joe Darby getting hit by lightning and dying. The shadows looked like rotoscoped images and moved with exaggeration and grace, like ballet dancers. Lincoln shook his head and looked back at Agnes.
Agnes puffed on her cigarette. “How long have you been here, Lincoln?”
Lincoln smiled a little – this was one of those questions where he could get in trouble – and set the trash bag down, now to roll his sleeves back down.
“Me, or the diner?” he said, at last.
Agnes lip curled up – she knew, somehow, that she was asking him a problem question. “Both,” she answered. She leaned forward, smiling still, her eyeteeth gleaming wickedly.
Lincoln laughed, the fullest laugh he’d had all day. Agnes smiled more, mouth corners shooting up as if they wanted to meet the corners of her eyes.
“Um,” Lincoln said, still chuckling. “I’ve been here for four and a half years, um….” He looked out at the night again, this time to escape Agnes’ piercing smile.
But he hated to look away, so he returned to it. “The diner has always been here.”
“Always?” Agnes asked, doubtfully.
Lincoln nodded, eyes twinkling. “Always.”
“As long as Houndstoothe has been here?” Agnes asked.
“Maybe longer. Not sure.”
Agnes stood up from the table, and Lincoln was surprised by the void of disappointment in his gut, gnawing at him.
“I wonder how long Houndstoothe has been here?” Agnes said.
“At least since 1865,” Lincoln said.
Agnes watched him for a minute, a thousand unspoken things in her face. “I better go so you can throw that away,” she said, at last.
Lincoln picked it up. “You’re keeping me from very important work,” he said.
Agnes laughed and put her cigarette out beneath her foot, then pocketed it. “Lincoln,” she said.
“Will you ever have more than coffee and pie with me??
Lincoln felt his gut twist. He was not supposed to answer with his heart, not to her. He had a duty to the town. But he knew – and so did everyone else, in the world, that hearts aren’t so easily silenced.
But just as he was about to answer, her felt a ping in his brain. Just a little tap, but it rippled through his skull. He felt it behind his eyes, blossoming into icy white pain. Lincoln put his hand on his forehead, as if he could somehow get inside his head and rip out whatever thing had clamped down on him, but he couldn’t. He bit his tongue to silence the whimper crawling up his throat.
Is Lincoln here?
The words echoed through his mind, and he saw a gaseous, wavering image of the diner in his mind’s eye, with Joe Darby standing there, shivering. The layout looked wrong – a few tables in different places, some of the lights hanging along the edge of the room were a different color.
“Lincoln?” Agnes asked. He felt her hand on his arm. “Are you okay?”
Lincoln found her hand and squeezed it. “Just a migraine,” he whispered. “I get those sometimes.”
The pain faded, and Lincoln rubbed his temples, trying to massage the memory of it away. He glanced at Agnes. Her eyes sparkled, but with unfallen tears, not mischief.
“The town won’t let you, will it?” she murmured.
“I don’t know,” Lincoln said.
She nodded. “Well – I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Promise?” Lincoln bit his lip and held very still, closing his fingers tight around the trash bags. Agnes was so close, he could smell her breath – pecan pie and cloves and coffee, and her perfume. It reminded him of incense and some kind of purple flower.
“I do.” She stood back – he hadn’t realized she was on her tiptoes. “As long as you don’t know, I might as well. Besides – I’m addicted to your coffee now.”
Lincoln chuckled humorlessly. “Good night,” he said.
“Good night, Lincoln.”
EXACT LOCATION UNKNOWN – HOUNDSTOOTHEISH: Joe
Joe wasn’t much of a morning person – Russell had always been the first to rise and usually the first to go to bed, their entire lives. Lillian had told them that when they were babies, they never slept at the same time, and when they finally did get a sleeping schedule, Russell slept through the night while Joe woke up and threw fits. “You always wanted to be held,” she said.
But this morning, walking home – Houndstoothe smelled and looked fresh. Joe passed the library and noticed that the rose bushes were blooming again – weird, this late in the year, to see roses mingling with the fiery foliage of autumn – and the light over the door was on. It looked like an old lantern, and Joe had always loved it because it reminded him of Narnia.
“Huh,” he muttered, but kept going.
The lake glistened in the early morning sun, silver and green and teal, and Joe skipped a little. The events of the night before, his dream about the lightning, the Rider on his black horse Widow in the woods, the stars swirling above him and pulling him into the cosmos – all these things had shifted to the back of his mind to soak in the proverbial mud, amoebas near the beginning of time as he knew it, and he knew that it was unlikely that they would crawl from his mind again. They’d had their lifetime, an evolution in his subconscious, brought to life by a strangely deep sleep in the forest and what felt like a million REM cycles. In a day or two he’d forget about them.
Maybe he wouldn’t forget about the girl, though. Joe struggled to remember her face, but every time he tried to retrace the details of her eyes and hair in his mind, it slipped further away, like their last moments together when they were both pulled backward into their respective worlds. Oh well.
Joe noticed the old Grim Mansion on the other side of the lake. He’d never noticed how tall and proudly it stood. It had been abandoned for years, at least since the eighties, he was pretty sure – in the seventies, it had been a place that the Grims rented out for that movie to be made. Joe tried to remember. He’d never seen the movie, but it had once been the pride of Houndstoothe. Lincoln’s Diner even appeared in it. Even from so far away, it looked like a nice place to visit, something out of a twenties fairy tale, like Jay Gatsby was sitting up there, roiling in longing and lust and money, staring at the green light.
Joe skipped a little and headed straight. Lincoln’s would be open, and it was on the way to his house. He knew he should get home as soon as he could, but maybe if he stopped and got coffee, he could borrow the phone and at least call Russell and Lillian, in case they were worried. He glanced at his watch – it was still early, maybe they weren’t even awake yet.
A cat crossed Joe’s path and stopped to look at him. “Hello,” he said.
The sun rose a little higher, but it was still chilly. He started thinking of how to explain everything to Russell and Lillian. I just went for a walk and woke up in the forest. I must’ve fallen asleep somehow. It was a lame explanation, but surely they’d understand. Or not. He could just imagine Lillian’s face – if she was scared, she’d take it out on him by being angry for a while, probably. Russell would do the same, but Lillian would shut him out and Russell would lecture him.
“What were you doing out in the woods anyway?”
“Just walking,” Joe would say.
And then Russell would shake his head, and do something infuriatingly adult, like pour a cup of coffee or do the dishes, and he’d say, “You scared the hell out of me, and Mom.”
And Joe would apologize and leave them alone for a few days.
He quickened his pace, thinking of confrontations – there was still always the chance that he’d make it home before either of them noticed, or at least before Mom noticed. Russell would be easier to deal with than Mom was. A truck drove by with a bed filled with pumpkins – it was an old, green truck that looked like it’d never stop running. The guy driving it lifted his hand in greeting at Joe. He smiled but looked a little confused.
That looks like Agnes’s truck, Joe thought.
He kept going, walking by the town square. The streetlights and telephone poles were wrapped in Houndstoothe High Colors. And there was Lincoln’s – it looked busy as ever, folks coming in and out, and there was a lady with an apron behind the counter like always.
Joe stopped and squinted. There was a lady behind the counter.
The world around Joe changed. As he walked toward the diner, the sun passed through the sky at an unnaturally fast pace, the bright blue expanse darkening in the east to violet and exploding in pinks and golds in the west as the sun set, and then the whole sky was black. The city swirled. Joe felt like he was walking through water. He didn’t know how he couldn’t have noticed it before – how Houndstoothe was almost glistening, as if there were diamonds hidden at every corner and line.
He pushed open the diner door. The floors shone. The whole place smelled like soap. Moments before, the diner had been bustling, filled with people, but it seemed like a whole day had passed before his very eyes – now the diner was empty. The jukebox was still lit up, playing something that sounded old and romantic.
Joe let the door fall shut behind him. The tables were in different places. They still held candles, ketchup bottles, salt and pepper shakers, all arranged carefully in the centers. Joe looked for the stickers that would tell him which letter the tables were assigned but didn’t see them. He didn’t see a soul, but he heard water running in the back.
In a moment, Lincoln would walk through that door and he’d be able to tell Joe exactly what was happening to him. The lady he saw was probably just a waitress or something. Lincoln would let Joe call home, and maybe he’d make Joe a burger – he’d promised to order plant-based patties – and then everything would be okay.
Joe sat at the table behind the jukebox, the one right next to the window. It was red. Usually the table behind the jukebox was green.
The person walking from the back wasn’t Joe’s Lincoln. It was the lady he’d seen before.
She came out of the back carrying a pie in each hand and one on her head, wearing an oversized rainbow plaid shirt, leggings, and a white apron tied around her waist. She spotted Joe immediately.
“We’re closed, Clark,” she said. She set the pies in her hands on the counter and then took the one from her head, as if she did this every day.
“…Clark?” Joe whispered. He shook his head and stood up. “…Is Lincoln here?”
“I’m Lincoln.” She peered at him, brushing a strand of short red hair behind her ear, gold earrings dangling by her cheeks. “Sorry. You look just like Clark Darby. You even have the same haircut. You a cousin or something?”
“My name is Joe,” Joe said. His mouth felt awfully dry. “I’m looking for a different Lincoln. Uh… Lincoln Cooger?”
The Lincoln in front of him raised her perfectly arched eyebrows. She tilted her head and put a hand on her hip. “Oh no,” she said. “You’re in the wrong time, kid.”
“The wrong time period. Year. Whatever you want to call it,” she said. She grabbed a plate from behind the counter. “Sit down. You need to eat.”
She glanced up at him. “This is 1987,” she said.
“Uh-oh,” Joe whispered.
Another big THANK YOU to my patrons and readers. Your support means the world. As previously stated, the part of the unnamed window cat is played by our neighbor's cat, whose name I do not know. Like the window cat, she (honestly could be a he, I do not know) is very good at going into houses where she doesn't live. She's a little shy but I managed to get this picture of her a few weeks ago, when she first appeared in the yard (and in Russell's window.)