The following story is from Jeff Elkins’s new supernatural thriller, Mencken and the Lost Boys. You can get the book for just $0.99 until November 16. Click here to grab your copy.
Melp’s chest burned with pain and his knees ached. He wanted nothing more than to stop and catch his breath.
“Keep running,” Balamack screamed. Even though the taller and more powerful Conculos had been running with Melp for the past ten minutes, Balamack wasn’t visibly winded. “Keep running or they’ll catch us,” he yelled again. “This way,” he said grabbing Melp’s arm and pulling him to the right.
Melp shivered as they pushed through a large crowd of people all traveling in the same direction. While his stomach pains and the dizziness had finally passed, he was still uncomfortable with the constant movement and unstable nature of Reality.
Melp hadn’t seen the Gracanjo. Balamack had spotted them over a mile back and the two Conculos had started running for their lives. Melp hadn’t looked back since the chase began.
“Just a little further,” Balamack yelled.
Melp’s chest began to throb. He couldn’t do it anymore. He stopped, placed his hands on his knees, and said, “Let me catch my breath.”
Balamack ran back to him. An expression of horror came over the tall warrior’s face. Melp turned to see something else pushing through the crowd. Something too short to see. The only evidence of it was the humans being shoved out of its way.
Balamack grabbed Melp by his bicep and yelled, “Move!”
Melp took a deep breath and began running again. He tried to keep pace with Balamack, but the soldier’s legs were longer and stronger than his.
“In here,” Balamack yelled as he swung open the door of a mostly-glass building. Melp paused to look up at the looming structure. So much glass. It was unlike anything he’d seen. The buildings in Malacandra were far more utilitarian, built to last forever. This building wouldn’t survive a hundred years.
Balamack grabbed Melp by the shoulder and pushed him into the building. “Keep moving!” he yelled.
They stepped into the building and were met by another large crowd. People were standing in lines that bottlenecked at five small booths. After the booths, the people seemed to be dispersing in different directions. Balamack directed Melp to one of the lines and said, “Keep your eyes forward.”
“Why?” Melp asked.
They stepped forward following the people in front of them. “Because if they can’t see our purple eyes, then they’ll struggle to know we aren’t human,” Balamack said.
“Can’t we just wear these?” Melp said, removing the sunglasses Balamack had given him.
“No,” Balamack said with frustration. “It’s nighttime. You can’t wear sunglasses when there is no sun.”
“That human is,” Melp said, pointing to an older looking human who was wearing large black glasses and tapping a stick on the floor. The sight of an aged human made Melp’s stomach turn. His skin was all wrinkly and his muscles were feeble. “Gross,” Melp said to himself.
“He’s blind,” Balamack said. “Do you want to pretend you’re blind? You’re worthless.”
The line took another step forward. There was a commotion at the door behind them. “Don’t look,” Balamack whispered.
It took every ounce of Melp’s willpower not to turn around and see the Gracanjo. His senses tingled with fear. There was a rustling of people being pushed and checked for purple eyes. A new smell hung in the air. It stung Melp’s nose, making him want to sneeze. They took another step forward. Melp swallowed, expecting at any minute to be taken by these mythical Gracanjo creatures.
“Do they always smell like that?” Melp asked as they stepped forward again.
“Yes,” said Balamack. “And they can smell us too.”
“But you made me rub that stuff all over me, um, I don’t remember the word,” Melp said, taking another step forward.
“Cologne,” Balamack said. “It’s called cologne. It helps. But if he gets close enough to us, he’ll find us.”
Melp looked down to a small human standing in line in front of him. The human smiled up at him. He shivered.
“You have pretty eyes,” the small human said to Melp. It was holding the hand of a grown human who did not turn to see who the child was speaking with.
“You are weak, small, not fully formed, and should not be permitted outdoors,” Melp said to the child.
The child smiled. “You’re funny,” it said.
“And you are incapable of contributing to society,” Melp said. They took another step forward.
The smell of the Gracanjo was intensifying. Melp’s heart raced. He felt at any moment they would be caught.
They stepped up to the booth. Inside sat a human who was looking at a screen. “Two please,” Balamack said quietly.
“All I’ve got left for tonight are in the $40 section, baby,” the woman in the booth said.
“That’s fine,” Balamack said. He pulled from his pocket one of the plastic cards they’d dug up. It made Melp happy to have such an informed guide. He didn’t know how he would survive the insanity of Reality without Balamack.
Balamack passed a card to the woman in the booth. Without looking at it, she swiped it through a small box and then handed it and two strips of paper back to Balamack. “Section 105, Row 10, Seats 13 and 14,” she instructed. “Enjoy the game.”
“Thank you,” Balamack said, as he pulled Melp forward.
They walked slowly together down a hallway and then up a ramp. “Should we run again?” said Melp.
“Nope,” Balamack said. “We just bought ourselves some time. The Gracanjo usually don’t have any money. It will be difficult for them to get through the ticket booth.”
“Why don’t they have money?” Melp asked.
“I don’t know. It’s something Bose figured out a long time ago. If you’re being chased, go somewhere that costs money. It slows them down.”
“I’ll make a mental note of that,” Melp said. “So, what do we do now?”
“We’re looking for Anditichus,” Balamack said.
“He is a missing Slake, yes?” Melp said, scrunching his nose as he tried to recall the name. “If I remember right, he’s been on the Missing Registry at the Library of Malacandra for some time. It was assumed he’d joined one of the rogue armies of Midian.”
“Nope,” Balamack said. “He lives here with the humans.”
The smell of the Gracanjo was fading, which helped Melp relax. “How do you know the missing Slake will be here tonight?” he asked Balamack.
They reached another bottleneck. Two men stood next to a row of turnstiles. Balamack held out the slips of paper, gestured toward Melp, and said to one of the men, “He’s with me.”
The man took the paper, tore it, and handed half back to Balamack. “Enjoy the game,” he said.
“We will,” Balamack said as he pulled Melp through the turnstile.
“Reality is a strange and confusing place,” Melp said as he pondered why they would give pieces of paper to patrons only to then rip that paper in half.
“Yep,” Balamack said. He took a right down another hallway.
“So how do we find Anditichus the Slake?” Melp asked.
“He’s always at things like this. If there’s a bunch of humans in one place, he’ll be there. We just need to look,” Balamack said.
As they entered the main room, Melp said, “This is just like the Great Assembly of Malacandra.” He watched as humans all over the building were finding their assigned seats. “Are we going to hear an oration tonight?” Melp said with enthusiasm.
“Not exactly,” Balamack said. He carefully scanning the crowd, searching each row for something. “We’re here to watch a group of humans kick at a small round ball.”
“Oh,” Melp was. He couldn’t hide his disappointment. “Will there be a State of the City address? Or will we receive any form of instruction?”
“No,” Balamack said, still searching the crowd.
“Well what is the point of this then?” Melp complained.
“Entertainment,” Balamack said.
“Entertainment?” Melp said, crossing his arms. “It would seem like creatures with limited life spans wouldn’t have time for entertainment.”
“It’s mostly what they do,” Balamack said.
“Reality makes no sense,” Melp complained.
“Found him,” Balamack said. He grabbed Melp by the arm again and pulled him forward.
Melp struggled to keep up with the larger Conculos without falling as they raced down the stairs together. While the rapid footwork required for the task seemed nothing for Balamack, Melp found himself multiple times missing steps, stumbling, and almost crashing into the warrior pulling him forward.
At the first row of the seating, Balamack came to a halt. With his hands cupped around his mouth, he called down the row past numerous humans to what appeared to be a Slake. “Anditichus!” he yelled. “Anditichus!”
Turning, the Slake threw his hands in the air in celebration. “Balamack!” he called back. “What are you doing here?”
Melp watched with curiosity as the Slake gently moved passed each human, apologizing as he came down the aisle. He seemed to know most of them by name, thanking them as he passed. He was dressed in a bright red shirt with the word “Blast!” written across the front. His tail appeared to be tucked into the right leg of the black pants he wore. On his face were giant, ridiculous looking red glasses. Melp scratched his head as he pondered the purpose of the gigantic glasses on the Slake’s face.
“Balamack,” Anditichus said. He and Balamack grasped one another’s forearms in a warrior’s welcome. “Did you finally come to catch a game with me?”
“There’s no time,” Balamack said. “The Gracanjo are upon us. Can you hide us?”
Anditichus’s eyes grew wide with fear and he began searching the stadium. “Why would you bring them to me? Do you know who it is? Is it Chris or Jose? Or both?”
“I don’t know,” Balamack said. “Please old friend.”
Anditichus pointed back up the way they had come. His smile had been replaced and with tight-lipped intensity. “Move. That way. I might have a place that will throw them off the scent.”
They ran up the stairs taking two at a time. Arriving back in the hallway, they followed Anditichus to the right. Both the Slake and Balamack swiveled their heads left and right as they jogged, searching for the Gracanjo. Melp mimicked the action for a minute before realizing he had never seen a Gracanjo and therefore had no idea what to look for.
“Over there,” Anditichus said, pointing to a female human standing behind a yellow counter. She leaned on the counter with her elbows. She was surrounded by various food preparation tools. Above her were pictures of food. In front of her was a black box with a small, rectangular display attached.
Approaching the counter, Anditichus called and waved to the woman. “Gloria!” he said. “Hey Gloria!”
The woman glanced up but gave no other indication that she had heard Anditichus.
Arriving at the counter, Anditichus leaned across from the woman and said, “Gloria. Baby. How you doin’?”
She laughed and playfully pushed the Slake. “Shut up, Andi,” she said. Turning, she grabbed a large cup and began filling it with a dark brown liquid from one of the machines. “Is it half-time already?”
“Hurry this up,” Balamack said. He continued to scan the crowd.
“Game hasn’t even started yet,” Andi said. “Sorry.”
The woman passed the cup to Anditichus. “You got my hopes up,” she said. “Thought I’d fallen asleep or something and was halfway done with my shift. What are you doing out here? You never come out this early?”
“Hurry,” Balamack said again.
Andi drank from the cup. “Well,” the Slake said. “I’ve got a favor to ask. I need you to let them hide behind the counter.”
“What? Why?” Gloria said raising her eyebrows.
“You don’t want to know. Nothing illegal, though,” the Slake said.
“I don’t know,” Gloria said. “I don’t wanna get busted.”
“Nobody’s going to care. Please,” Anditichus said.
“What’cha gonna give me?” the woman said, crossing her arms and leaning back against the counter behind her.
“What do you want?” Andi asked, leaning forward again on the counter.
“Hurry. Please,” Balamack said, as he watched the humans come and go.
“Hmm,” the woman said, as she thought. “I don’t know. You don’t really have anything I want.”
“Nah,” Gloria said, returning to her lean.
“We don’t have time for this,” Balamack said.
“O’s tickets? I got opening day,” Anditichus offered.
“You know I don’t care about baseball,” Gloria said.
“Anditichus,” Balamack said as he looked around. “They’ll be here any second.”
“There’s got to be something you want that I can get,” Anditichus said.
Gloria leaned back again. “You still get those tickets to the theater?”
“Absolutely,” Anditichus said.
“I can smell them,” Balamack said. “Please, Anditichus. They’re coming.”
Melp took a large sniff of the air. All he could smell was the various food products behind the woman. He decided it would be better to trust Balamack than depend on his inexperience.
“You take me to Fences on Saturday and we’ve got a deal,” Gloria said.
“It will be my pleasure,” Anditichus said with a smile, as he shook her hand to seal the deal.
“Come on back,” Gloria said, motioning to Balamack and Melp. To her surprise, the two Conculos leaped over the counter in a single smooth motion. “Oh,” she said. “Alright, then.”
Anditichus looked down the hallway. “Lay down and be silent,” Anditichus ordered. “I can smell them, too. They’re coming.”
Melp dropped to his belly and moved as close to the wall of the counter as he could. The hard floor was cold and sticky with a dried syrupy substance that pulled on his shirt. The boots of the large Conculos appeared in Melp’s face as Balamack laid next to him. Choosing to face the counter instead of the dirt covered feet of his guide, Melp twisted and turned, pulling his shirt from the floor as he moved.
To Melp’s pleasant surprise, there was a small crease in the counter before him that allowed him to see a small amount of the action happening in front of the booth.
“So, Fences?” Anditichus said. “I didn’t know you were a theater buff.”
“I don’t go very much,” Gloria said. “It’s so expensive.”
Melp tensed as the burning smell filled his nostrils. His breath grew quick and his legs flexed with the desire to run.
“Jose!” Anditichus said. “What are you doing here?”
Melp flinched with fear as one of the smaller humans came into view. He pushed back away from the counter and would have stood to run if Balamack’s knee had not dug into his back. Melp looked down at his partner. Balamack put a finger to his lips and gave Melp a firm look.
“Are you here to catch the game?” Anditichus said. “Is Chris here? You should come and sit with me. I’ve got seats on the front row, right at midfield.”
Melp took a deep breath. The burning smell filled his chest making his heart race. He swallowed and looked again through the crack at the Gracanjo. The young human did not answer the Slake. Rather he scanned the hallway, a look of confusion on his face.
Finally the Gracanjo spoke. His voice was higher than the adult humans, but fierce. It sent a chill through Melp’s chest. “Are you the only one here?” the Gracanjo said.
Anditichus stepped into Melp’s line of sight and placed his hand on the Gracanjo’s shoulder. “Jose. It’s me. Remember? I haven’t seen you since that night with Carl. You’ve grown a foot.”
The Gracanjo smiled. His shoulders relaxed and his fists unclenched. He had a nice smile. To Melp’s surprise, it put him at ease. “You’re the only one here?” the Gracanjo said.
“I’ve got season tickets,” Anditichus said. “Go Blast!”
The Gracanjo looked around, examining the people coming and going in the hallway. “I didn’t think it was you. I thought there were … I don’t know.”
“I, for one, am happy to see you. It’s been too long,” Anditichus said.
Gloria cleared her throat.
“Oh,” Anditichus said. “I’m so sorry. Jose, this is Gloria. Gloria, this is my good friend Jose.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jose said with a nod.
“Any friend of Andi,” Gloria said. “You want a Coke or something?”
“Um,” Jose said looking down. “I don’t have any cash.”
“No worries,” she said, as she turned to make him a drink. “This one’s on Andi.”
“So, where’s your angrier, more violent partner,” Andi said. Melp could hear the nervousness he was hiding in his voice.
“He’s out training new recruits,” Jose said. He received the cup from Gloria, took a sip, and smiled.
“New recruits?” Melp said.
“Yeah,” Jose said, taking another sip. “With everything that’s been going on, we lost three. One in Annapolis, one in DC, and one in Philly.”
“Oh,” Anditichus said with surprise. “Hello. I’m Andi.”
Melp slowly maneuvered to see who the Slake was speaking with, but the crack had its limits.
“Want to take this one outside,” a strong female voice said.
“Andi. Gloria,” the young Gracanjo said, motioning in the direction of where Anditichus was standing, “this is Crystal. She’s visiting from Annapolis.” Melp assumed the new Gracanjo had come up behind the Slake.
“Andi’s not an issue,” the young Gracanjo said.
“Chris is okay with that?” the new Gracanjo said.
“Chris and I go way back,” Anditichus said.
“I owe him one,” the young Gracanjo said.
“Your town. Your rules,” the female Gracanjo said.
“So, you are here filling in for Chris,” Andi said.
The female laughed. “Not exactly,” she said. “I came to see the boy wonder in action.”
“I’m famous,” the young Gracanjo said with a huge smile.
“Really?” Andi said. “Not that I’m surprised. I knew you were something special.”
“Took down one of Azo’s generals. Fought shoulder to shoulder with the Rothman. The youngest member of our order in history,” the female Gracanjo said. She stepped into Melp’s line of sight as she playfully tussled the young Gracanjo’s hair. She was lean and strong with short blonde hair. Melp was struck by her green eyes. To his surprise, they were kind.
“Little Jose here,” the female continued, “is an honest-to-goodness celebrity.”
“You like sing or something?” Gloria asked.
The Gracanjo both smiled. “I’m a superhero that protects Baltimore from monsters that come from another world through pink swirling circles.”
“Very funny,” Gloria said. “Seriously though.”
“Seriously,” the female Gracanjo said.
“I’m like Batman,” the younger one said.
“You’re nothing like Batman,” the female said. “Maybe Robin.”
“I’m not Robin,” the younger one said.
“Chris is Batman and you’re the Boy Wonder,” the female said.
The younger Gracanjo took another sip of the drink. “Fine,” he said. “Robin is better anyway.”
“No one thinks that,” Crystal said with a smile. “Robin is better than Batman, that’s not a thing.”
“You don’t know,” Jose said.
“You know what,” Gloria said. “I don’t care who you are. Don’t tell me. I’m just gonna Google your ass anyway.”
“So,” Anditichus said. “You two want to stay for the game? I’ve got great seats.”
The young Gracanjo took another sip from his drink. “Thanks, but we’re going to go poke around the stadium a bit.”
“That’s fine,” Anditichus said. “Maybe next time. Crystal,” he added, “it was very nice to meet you.”
“Don’t let me catch you in Annapolis,” the female Gracanjo said.
After a few moments had passed, Anditichus pounded on the counter and said, “You’re good.”
Melp and Balamack stood and brushed themselves off. “Thank you,” Balamack said to Gloria and the Slake. “We are in your debt.”
“You better move,” Anditichus said. “They went in the stadium. No telling how long they’ll stay. You’ve only got a little head start.”
“Again,” Balamack said, shaking the Slake’s hand. “We are in your debt.”
“Listen,” Anditichus said, “come by my place once you lose your tail. I’ll try to help you find whatever you’re looking for. I’m at 2501 Eastern Ave, across from the park, above the Perk. You think you can find that?”
“We will be there,” Balamack said. He and Melp moved down the hall, once again searching the crowds with fear, worried that the hunters would suddenly appear.