“I told you we should’ve just taken the beltway. I told you.” The voice of the woman in the passenger seat next to Bryan was shrill and full of fear. The nasal intonation pierced his skull like a metal rod. “I knew we’d get mugged. I told you we’d get mugged. But you, big strong man, had to cut through the neighborhoods.”
Bryan racked his brain, hoping to recall her name. All he could remember was Not-Offensive-Face. That’s what his friend Steve at the bar had called her. Bryan had hoped to go home with Not-Offensive-Face’s friend, Big-Boobs-Small-Skirt, but it became clear through the night that Steve had won that honor, so Bryan had settled.
“Just back up,” Not-Offensive-Face, whined. “Just back up and take me home.”
Bryan’s head was pounding. He tried to recount the number of drinks he’d had. Seven? Eight? He was tipsy. No denying that. That’s why he’d decided to cut through west-side neighborhoods instead of taking the beltway home. Less cops in the neighborhoods looking to make traffic stops. A burning burp tore through his throat and erupted from his lips. He did his best to catch it in his mouth, but it was too strong for him. Yeah, there was no denying he was tipsy. But drunk? Was he drunk?
“That’s disgusting,” Not-Offensive-Face said with disdain. “And to think I was going to sleep with you. Gross. Turn around and take me home. Right now.”
Bryan stared at the man lying in the middle of the road. Had it not been for the streetlight illuminating the body, Bryan would have run over him. “I can’t leave him there,” Bryan said. “He looks like he needs help.”
“He’s there for a reason,” Not-Offensive-Face said. “Just leave him. It’s none of our business.”
“I can’t do that,” Bryan said. He pushed open the driver side door, hopped out of his SUV, and stepped into the street. The cold night air charged his senses, stinging the inside of his nose. The street was empty either direction. The abandon rowhomes stared back at him, watching silently, the only witnesses to what had happened to the man lying in the middle of the street.
Bryan stared at the man. His back was to Bryan. It rose and fell with shallow breaths. “Hey,” Bryan called. “You alright.”
There was no answer. No movement.
A muffled whine echoed from the inside of the car. “You’re going to get shot!” Not-Offensive-Face yelled.
Bryan considered returning to the safety of his SUV, throwing it in reverse, and backing away. No one would know he had been here. No one would judge him for it. Most of his friends would probably applaud his common sense. Let this man’s problem sort themselves out. Bryan looked up and down the quiet street again. He wondered how many other cars had come down this road, only to turn around.
Bryan took another step closer. The man lay in the fetal position with his back to Bryan. Still, Bryan could see the man was bald, but not like an old man, intentionally bald like a Skin Head. He watched the man’s chest rise and fall again. He judged the distance between the man and the sidewalk. If he hopped the curb, he might be able to get around the man on the left.
The thought jogged Bryan’s memory of a story from his childhood days in Sunday school – the Good Samaritan. A man lying in the road, two people pass by, but the hero of the story was the Samaritan who stopped to help. Bryan sighed. He took another step forward. “Hey, you. In the street. You need an ambulance or something?”
The man stirred and moaned.
Bryan took another step. The man in the road was large. It was hard to tell how tall he was, since his legs were tucked into his chest, but Bryan could see the bulging muscles in his shirtless back. The man’s skin looked snow white under the dim streetlight, almost blue.
Bryan heard his SUV window roll down. “Just leave him,” Not-Offensive-Face called from the car. “Just leave him and take me home.”
“I said give me a minute,” Bryan snapped back. Bryan took another step toward the man. The rippled muscles of the man’s shoulders made Bryan think the man was some sort of body builder. Bryan wondered how many hours a day the guy spent in the gym.
“Hey buddy,” Bryan called, moving closer. “Hey. Can you hear me? Do you want me to call you an ambulance?”
The man groaned. The sound was soft and full of pain. It pulled Bryan in, urging him forward. He took another two steps. He was close enough to reach out and touch the man now.
“Hey Mister,” Bryan said with fear. “Hey, you alright?”
The man groaned.
Bryan squatted down. “Hey man, can I give you a ride to the hospital or something?”
A low laugh came from the man.
The man on the ground rolled over to face his prey. The man’s skin was pulled tight on his face. There was a scare on his cheek. Bryan’s eyes drifted to his chest. The milk white pecks were like rocks worn smooth by a stream. Most terrifying of all were the man’s eyes. There were no white rims. There were no irises. There were no pupils. Where all these things should have been, there were swirling black pools of darkness.
Bryan stumbled back onto his butt. “Hey, mister. I’m sorry,” he said, trying to scramble to his feet. “I just wanted to help.”
The man smiled. His teeth were pointed like a shark’s. He stood, towering over Bryan. Bryan’s legs gave way to fear, leaving Bryan to sit like a helpless child at the monster’s feet.
“Hello dinner,” the beast in the road said. His voice was like the low rumble of a loaded freight train rolling through an underpass.
Bryan jumped as another low voice behind him said, “Aster, don’t play with your food. Just do it and let’s go. Before they find us.” Though the voice was of similar power and resonance, Bryan thought he sensed fear in it.
Bryan turned to see the source of the voice behind him. Another beast, with similar coloring, body type, eyes, and teeth sat on the hood of Bryan’s SUV. His massive hand covered the mouth of Not-Offensive-Face. Her eyes screamed for help. The monster held her with one hand like a young girl carrying around a weightless doll.
Bryan’s attention was jerked back forward when the beast in front reached down with one hand and grabbed Bryan by the shoulder. The monster’s fingers were like sharpened pencils. The points slid passed Bryan’s skin like thickening needles. Pain seared through Bryan’s shoulder. Instinctively, he tried to run. His legs churned, but he flopped like a fish on a hook. Warm blood flowed from the new wounds, turning his shirt red.
The monster laughed. He squeezed harder. When Bryan whimpered in agony, the beast inhaled as if he were breathing Bryan’s pain.
“That hits the spot,” the beast holding onto Bryan said.
“Just finish it and let’s go,” the other urged.
Bryan’s eyes burned with tears. He looked at his date on the hood of the truck. She was limp in the monster’s arms, unconscious from the fear. An image of his mother crying at his funeral rushed through his mind. Would there be a body to cry over when this thing was finished with him? The thought brought the contents of Bryan’s stomach forward. He wretched at the monster. Brown liquid splattered on the ground, covering their feet.
The beast laughed. “I’m going to take my time with you,” it whispered to Bryan.
“This one went to sleep,” the other said. Bryan heard his date’s body drop to the pavement.
The one holding Bryan squeezed again and slowly inhaled. Bryan yelped. “Come try this one,” the monster rumbled. “He’s ripe.”
Fresh tears filled Bryan’s eyes. He thought about the appointment he scheduled with his accountant for coffee in the morning. He imagined the small man waiting angrily, mumbling about Bryan being late. He thought about his cat, Betsy and wondered if anyone would take her in. He thought about his dad and about the O’s game they were supposed to go to next week. He felt as if he would vomit again. It was at this moment that Bryan realized he was experiencing true hopelessness for the first time in his life. There was no escape. There was no salvation. There was only pain and death before him. But then –
“Excuse me,” a young voice said.
The monster holding Bryan spun, whipping Bryan around like a rag doll. There, standing a few paces ahead of where the monster had lain, was a small boy of twelve or thirteen. He wore a tattered white t-shirt, baggy blue jeans, and dirty tennis shoes. “Put the man down,” the boy said with a matter-of-fact tone.
The monster dug his claws deeper into Bryan. Bryan felt the bones of his shoulder crumple. He screamed again, and the monster laughed. “And who are you little boy? Dessert?” the beast growled with amusement.
The little boy took two finger-less, gloves from his back pocket and put them on his hands. There was no pomp or circumstance to the child. He slid the gloves on as if he were slipping on a backpack. “You know who I am,” he said.
“Listen,” the monster in front of Bryan’s truck said. “We were just having some fun. We. We just wanted to see what it tasted like. We’ll go. We’ll go. I’ve got a lamina. We’ll go back. We’ll go back right now.”
The boy’s lips pursed in thought. Then shaking his head he said, “No. I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”
The monster holding Bryan dropped him on the ground. Pointing at the boy, he yelled, “You don’t scare me, boy. You’re just a myth. You’re not real. You’re not real.”
The boy smiled. Bryan was shocked by his poise in the face of certain death. He watch the boy make two small fist. From the gloves materialized blue, round blades, that extended just beyond the boy’s knuckles. “I’m as real as you,” the boy said.
“We’re sorry,” the monster in the back cried. “We’ll go. I promise. We’ll go.”
“Shut up, coward,” the monster in the front roared. “I’m not going anywhere. I just got here. And there’s no way in Hallows of Herester that I’m backing down to some child.”
Then, to Bryan’s shock, the boy began a slow jog toward the monster. The monster laughed. Sliding his right foot back as the boy approached, the beast prepared to swing. His right claw dripped with Bryan’s blood. Bryan saw a smile on the monster’s face.
The moment the boy was within each, the beast swung downward like a heavy weight throwing a haymaker right hook. Bryan thought the blow would shatter the boy’s temple, but instead, the boy pivoted on his left foot and swung wide of the punch. As the beast followed through, the boy completed his three-sixty, ending behind the monster. The child jabbed the blades on his fist into the monster’s back, and climbed the beast as if he were climbing a ladder. Black ooze spurted from each wound. Sitting atop of the monster’s shoulders, the boy jammed his fists into either side of the monster’s neck. The beast screamed in horrified surprise, and then fell forward. The boy landed on his feet as the monster’s body hit the ground. The black ooze ran around the boy’s tennis shoes like water around rocks in a stream. The boy’s white shirt and face were splattered with the black tar from the monster’s wounds.
The boy turned to face the second beast.
“I’m sorry about him,” the monster pleaded. “I’m sorry. He wasn’t right… He wasn’t right in the head. I’ll go. Please let me go. Please.” The monster pointed to Not-Offensive-Face who was laying on the ground. “Look. I didn’t hurt her. I barely touched her. I’ll just leave her here. Please. Just let me leave her here. I just want to go home. I’m sorry.”
The boy released his fists and the blades disappeared. “You tell everyone you see in Midian that Baltimore is protected,” the young kid growled. “You tell them to stay out of my city.”
The monster then pulled a small glowing object from his pants pocket. “I’ll tell them,” he mumbled. “I’ll tell them.” He tossed the object in the air. To Bryan’s shock, it stopped a few feet abov the monster’s head and began to glow with a pink hue. Then a hole of pink light opened in the sky where the object had been. “Thank you,” the monster said. “I’m sorry. Thank you. I’ll tell everyone. I’ll make sure.” Then the monster lept up and was sucked into the hole. It closed behind him.
Bryan’s head pounded. He rolled back to look at the boy that had saved his life. His shoulder throbbed with pain.
Headlights behind the boy flicked on, illuminating the street. A man’s silhouette stood in the light. “What was that?” the older voice demanded. “Weapons? We don’t use fucking weapons. Rule five. No weapons. I was very clear.”
“Bashi gave them to me,” the boy said cheerfully.
The man in the light moved forward. Bryan could make out his white tennis shoes and jeans, but everything above the man’s waste was obscured by the light. The man and the boy grabbed the arms of the monster and began dragging it toward the car.
“Weapons get people hurt,” the man chidded.
“Not when I use them,” the boy said in a cocky jest. “Because I got skills.”
“Goddamn Bashi. Get in the goddamn car,” the man gripped.
A trunk slammed. Then two car doors. Bryan watched as the car lights back down the street. His eyes closed, and he gave up consciousness.
The next morning in the hospital Bryan tried to convince the police of the monsters and the boy, but they chalked it up to a drunk yuppie walking into a drug deal gone bad.