Authors: Benjamin Kane Ethridge
When his feet thankfully touched the ground, he said, “Okay, I need to get back. Where’s your—”
Jared couldn’t get the rest of his words out. He was forced against the building.
“Quiet!” She pushed her body closer. Her hands wrapped around his and pressed his fingers down. Hot whispers tickled his ear: “Clench your fists.”
“Clench your fists. Clench them. Stop the questions. Do it.”
A myriad of considerations passed through Jared’s mind. She was going to rob him. She was going to hurt him. She’s a female serial killer. He had fallen into her trap to be murdered—over boobs.
“Good,” she said in his ear. “Keep them shut. Don’t open your hands until I say so. Keep your voice low.”
“Look, I’m far from being a rich man and…”
Her body pressed harder into his and Jared’s heart made another strange throbbing lunge. This stress couldn’t be good for his condition, whatever that condition was. Then something else happened. He felt his body react to her closeness and he stiffened against her, despite all his confusion. The woman leaned back and her beautiful ocean eyes fixed on his. “Like me, huh?”
“Come on, what is this—”
“Shhh!” Her head whipped around and her eyes thinned on the far end of the alley. A figure ambled out with all the shrugging grace of a marionette. It must have been the distance, but the person appeared to be naked and badly burned from head to toe.
A homeless person?
The once Caucasian flesh had a bumpy, bubbled texture that clotted the skin up to the head, which was an even more disturbing sight: a skull exposing a glistening red brain that grew into an obscene nose with nostrils large enough for fists. In one of the clumpy hands, the person carried a small crossbow.
Jared cried out and a hand immediately slammed over his mouth. It smelled faintly of ash and lavender. “Let’s scream on the inside,” said the woman, sparing no playfulness. “The scouts may be blind, but they aren’t deaf.”
The creature stopped and watched the alley, its big nostrils dilating.
I’ve lost my mind.
“Keep your fists closed,” she warned. “Otherwise the scout will smell your lifeline.”
The scout moved back and forth for a moment, its brain erupting with blood that drenched the nose and its twisted shoulders. Up went the crossbow, quick and ready, and the scout took two measured steps forward and aimed straight for them. For a heartbeat. Then it aimed at a nearby dumpster. Taking a step backward, it angled the crossbow to the rooftops. The nostrils quivered into a loud snort that sounded like a prehistoric warthog. After a few silent moments, the scout withdrew and walked out of the alley, vanishing around the corner.
The woman pulled at Jared’s wrist. “Let’s be on our way now, but keep your hands closed in the meantime. Tight. No opening them until I say.”
Numbly, he let her take him a few paces away from the wall. In this moment of chaos, this upending of the natural flow of his life, Jared needed to focus on something tangible or he feared he’d panic. His head dropped and he noticed the woman had no shoes on. Surprisingly her feet looked clean and her toenails flawless. In a way, the perfection of them was almost stranger than the deformed scout.
“I really need to get back to the doctor. There’s something really wrong with me,” he pointed out.
“I agree,” the woman said, leading him on.
“So you didn’t lose your car keys?”
To this she chuckled and gave him a sly, backward look.
Jared halted now. The woman wasn’t getting it. He was in trouble. His heart was failing. Maybe he wasn’t getting enough oxygen to his brain. Something was horribly wrong. He must have wandered out of the doctor’s office somehow. Who knows which events really happened? And in what order. But he was sick. Maybe most, or all of this, had been hallucinations.
“I gotta go back,” he pleaded.
“Jared, now is not the time to lose your shit.” She got closer and carefully studied him. A fond expression entered her already sweet face. “It’s nice knowing you can see me now. Never imagined I’d have this chance.”
“What do you mean?”
“That doesn’t matter right now. Your soul is in danger. I’ll explain more once we’ve reached relative safety—”
“But how do you know me? What are you doing here? Where did you come from?”
The woman was silent for a few seconds, seeming to consider whether she should say more. She checked the alley and bit her lip before relenting. “I’ve watched you my whole life. I’m an
, or a banshee, if you like.”
Jared’s brows knit. “A banshee? Are you joking?”
“No, and in case you’re wondering,” she added, “we’re not ghosts and we’re not from Scotland.”
“Wait a minute.” Jared grinned and wagged his finger at her. “This smacks of Kaitlin. Making fun of me for watching
Lord of the Rings.
She probably sent you and that guy in the burn victim suit, huh? Probably got the doctor in on this too, to freak me out?”
“Rather elaborate for a prank, don’t you think? Especially for the likes of you, honey. No, no. Your pal Kaitlin’s got nothing to do with this. She’s at an audition in Burbank right now. Not doing that well either, I might add.”
“I’ve watched everybody in your life and in many other lives. That’s my job, my duty, my curse, what have you. Understood? So let’s beat cheeks here.” She tugged at him again. “We can play catch-up once I transport us to the beach.”
“You’ll see. That’s your only chance to be spared.”
It all sounded so frank coming from her. Disturbingly frank. Jared felt the world unraveling around him. This had to be mental failure. There was no way. “No no no. Can’t be a part of this lunacy.” He stopped walking and waved his hands in a
gesture. “You’re very pretty, but either you or I have to be crazy. Or both maybe.”
The banshee snatched his right hand and shook her head. Her gaze traveled from his palm back up to his eyes. “Nice work. You opened your fist. The scout has smelled you now, dummy.”
With incredible strength, she locked her hand around Jared’s. “I’m going to need to do the scream here and hope for the best.
Don’t let go of me
. Whatever you do. Understand?”
He nodded and she turned her head in sideways appraisal. “You sure? Because so far you suck at following directions.”
She broke into a sprint, nearly pulling Jared’s arm out of joint.
Sniffing sounds followed them. Jared turned back and watched in horror as the scout loped toward them, its legs rising and falling rapidly like a deer’s. Rich, corded black veins pulsed all through the brain-head. The scout waved its crossbow. It had been too far to see before, but as the creature closed in on them, Jared got a much better view. A long net wiggled from the end of the bolt.
“Remember,” said the banshee through deep breaths. “Don’t. Let. Go.”
Her blue eyes had become so real, so intense and commanding, Jared almost didn’t believe this was a psychotic dream anymore. He gripped her hand tighter. A thin vibration hummed in the air, indistinguishable at first, and then it
with other layers of the same sound, a series of universe-moving machines revived from eons of silence. A pulse went through the banshee and through Jared’s hand to shock his elbow. The source of the strange sound came from an angelic braid of
silver and gold that lighted under the skin of the banshee’s neck—it looked like a peculiar musical instrument, a sophisticated, harp-shaped set of vocal cords. Her mouth parted and miniature sunbursts and eclipses spread through the air on every note.
The scout let out a growl of frustration and shot its net gun. Jared followed the tangle of black webbing as it sailed overhead… and then… the air pulled back, away, the net hewed into minute, dim fragments. Everything surrounding Jared and the woman suddenly did the same. Buildings stretched out on strings of pebbles that raced into the sky, where they threaded in an immense tapestry of grays, greens, and browns. Lacing. Bending. Joining. And slowly, that tapestry pulled down east and west of them in long luxurious trails that could have been earthen taffy. Dark steam lifted from the sidewalks and streets and buildings alike. Plumes roiled around Jared and the banshee before little stars blinked in the space around them. It was as though he and the banshee had become galactic giants thrashing their way through space; they were juggernauts that moved around a micro-sized universe that had been shrunken exclusively for them. Comets the size of houseflies zipped past, asteroid fields scattered like suspended pools of pebbles and dust, and planets slipped around their bodies, frozen eggs moving briefly before returning to orbital position.
Jared looked over his shoulder. The scout struggled out in the darkness. It clawed and shifted violently but could not gain control. Its nostrils collapsed and the exposed brain hemorrhaged in torrents. After one more flail of its body, the scout drifted away, useless and frozen in the nothingness.
Jared’s ears buzzed as the banshee’s bizarre scream ended. The tunnel of open space that forged through the city buckled and shook, almost angrily.
“Oh, damn it!” yelled the banshee. “Shit!”
“What?” He could hardly hear himself.
. Keep holding on to me, Jared!”
Gravity pulled from several directions. His grip on the banshee’s hand started to give. She swung around and grabbed his wrist with her other hand. They were floating now. Pebbles, rocks, bricks, and stones rained down, some bundling together before falling apart and then rebuilding again. The banshee pivoted, turned him away from the dangerous debris. A cluster of something that looked like a halved portion of a dentist’s office twisted down from nowhere. The banshee threw her arms around Jared and rocked him away, just dodging the office as it fell past.
The sensation of being sucked through a straw overwhelmed him then and bile rose in his throat with a horrible wave of claustrophobia. A force pushed him and his protector forward into shards of hot white light and in the next moment—
Jared sat on the curb of Eighth Street, just across from his favorite
restaurant, which had to be at least five miles from the doctor’s office. He glanced back and saw the dentist’s office, unaffected, people waiting in chairs by a fake plant. Hadn’t that whole building just blown past them, as though weighing nothing? And yet it was here again. Nothing was fragmented or weightless. Everything was grounded and whole again. All of the madness of moving through space had ended like a dream.
The banshee sighed and held her forehead. “Not what I counted on… damn it. We were supposed to make it to the beach. That Disturbance Paradigm really screwed things up. Oh… this so sucks. So sucks. So sucks.”
Jared gaped at her a moment. Her agitation faded and she drew back and clapped him on the shoulder, successfully scaring the shit out of him. “Well, enough bitching I guess. We’ll get to the beach still. But that was a good job, Jared. I’m proud! You didn’t let go of my hand.”
She helped him up and he searched his surroundings, dizzily. “What else would have happened had I let go?”
She shrugged one shoulder, her metallic purple and brown tresses swaying with the motion. “Reality probably would have bent into a pretzel that ate it itself and then vomited… Best way I can describe it. Anyhow, we have much to discuss and little time to do it.”
“By all means.” Jared brushed off his pants. “Start where I’m connected in all this.”
“Great,” she replied. “So you’re ready to talk about your death?”
Jared absently nodded.
And then fainted on the sidewalk.
The banshee studied Jared as he sat there, searching the sidewalk in a daze. How many times had she watched him this way? Lost. Out to sea. Scared of what the future might hold for him. He’d spent most of his life that way, and she’d been there for it all. Still, she could never be inside his head, so there would always be more to learn.
An old lady driving a brand new Cadillac slowed down and peered suspiciously over her sleeping husband in the passenger seat. The window slid down. The banshee smiled and the woman smiled back, a little embarrassed. “Is he okay?”
“Tequila shooters for breakfast,” said the banshee.
The woman shot them both a disapproving glare and pulled the car away. Neither of the older people in the Cadillac were her assignments, but she could still read their lives. They’d both be gone from this world by this time next year. The woman would break her hip next Saturday and die during surgery a month later. The man would give up on life, drink scotch and eat nothing but Del Taco for the year thereafter. In the end, relatives would say he died of a broken heart. And this would technically be the case, due to organ failure.
Jared blinked up into the sun. Dark blonde hair, hazel eyes, just a slight shade of stubble on his jaw. He was incredibly handsome. She’d always thought so, even as a little boy. His shyness and lack of confidence, however, ultimately masked his good looks. Women who got to know him interpreted his reluctance as weakness, rather than taking it as a good sign and accepting it as a challenge. The banshee didn’t understand females in this world. They mostly chose strength and protection in men when modern society had rendered such qualities superfluous. With so many good hearts out there going to waste, women should have been cultivating these flowers and watching them bloom to fullness. Instead, they chose the man with more confidence than he deserved and spent most of their lives chipping away at that confidence to reshape them into someone closer to Jared. That was working in reverse. Jared was a hunk of stone that hadn’t been worked into a statue yet. She loved all the possibilities lying within him.
“I’ve never fainted before,” he said.
“I won’t hold it against you,” she replied. “I thought you had a stronger stomach. My apologies, Jared. We won’t talk death right now.”