Authors: Benjamin Kane Ethridge
Problem was… she was pretty liberal when it came to safety. Bella had no problem letting Jared stroll up to stray dogs and pet them—had no issue with him climbing the tallest trees in the neighborhood wearing shorts and sandals—or letting him explore the entire neighborhood while she drank Miller High Life in a lounge chair on the driveway, reading kissy books. Jared was nearly six years old, after all. All of Bella’s sons had done the same thing. One was in jail for grand theft auto and the other was a bouncer at a strip club in Vegas, but as she liked to mention, “they both made it quite safely to adulthood on my watch.”
So the day Jared decided to go to the park and see for himself what had happened to Fatso, his sitter thought he was collecting tadpoles at the run-off channel up the street. Jared made up the tadpoles—he’d seen them on Sesame Street once, the letter “T” episode. He didn’t even know if tadpoles existed in California, but obviously Bella had no trouble buying into his plan. Her show, The View, was on, and that meant she got to pace the living room with a mug of coffee and cuss out the stupid things someone was bound to say.
Jared knew the walk to the lake well, his parent’s apartment being only one block away. He missed having his dad with him today. Since his parents stopped loving each other, he had seen less and less of the man. His dad must have been angry at Jared, too, for some reason. Maybe it was because of whatever happened to Fatso? That seemed to be the moment his dad went away to live at his friend Carl’s place. His eyes had told something meaningful and sad the night he said goodbye and rather than ask what his mother had done to make him in so much pain, Jared had chickened out and asked about Fatso. Oh those eyes of his, they could have said many things, but Jared read them only as,
how can you ask me about that bird right now?
Which only made Jared want to know even more. What had become of his big, fat feathered friend? It would be the answer to so many of his questions. Armed with a single heel of Wonder Bread, he headed down the hill, past the sundried run-off channel where his imaginary tadpoles lived.
He looked both ways like he was supposed to and hurried across the street. His eyes shot over to the crushed body of a crow. It didn’t look real. Looked like a billowy black puppet that never could have been alive. Jared thought of Fatso and his father’s silence and started running. The next three streets were empty and he got across without any problem.
Then came the major intersection at Grand Avenue. That’s when everything got tough. He saw the crossing sign was the green man—that meant “go.” Jared knew this. So he walked out into the crosswalk and hadn’t gotten even halfway when a blinking red hand lit up. Red meant stop. And the red hand meant you shouldn’t be in the street anymore and that a car would hit you.
Jared ran back to the curb, heart hammering in his throat. He thought about going back to Bella Boyd’s house. She was probably still chewing out Barbara Walters and had no clue he’d gone. But even thinking of going back there right now made him shake his head. He would still want to know about Fatso. The park wasn’t much farther. Just across this street and around the market, and he was there.
A tall pick-up truck with giant tires screeched to halt, almost coming to a stop in the intersection. Cowboy music blared over its revving engine.
The green man lit up again.
Jared had to circle the truck. It was so tall he doubted the driver could even see him. He decided to sprint for the other side of the street. It was different without his father holding his hand, making him keep up with the grown-up pace.
A horn blared and Jared yelled out in surprise, dropping his slice of bread in the street. The truck honked at someone making a right-hand turn. Jared turned back to pick up the bread—without it, there would be no point.
A man from the pick-up shouted, “Yeah, kiss my ass!”
Jared bent down and saw the red-hand light up again. The truck revved again, back tires kicking out white smoke. Another car’s horn blasted and someone punched their middle finger up into the sky. Jared had stopped cold in the street. He couldn’t go back the way he came. He’d have to run to the other side. This was dumb! He was going to get hit!
Gripping hard onto the bread, he flew for the opposite side of the street. A dark sedan slammed on its brakes and a green jeep turning right broadsided it. Jared jumped up on the sidewalk and grabbed the street light.
He cried for a long time in a daze. It wasn’t even clear what was happening when a stricken, red-eyed Bella Boyd jumped from her Corolla and swept him into her arms. She looked to have been crying just as long as he had.
The accident, Jared later learned, had happened because the woman in the jeep freaked out and stomped the gas pedal rather than the brake. The black sedan probably wouldn’t have hit Jared, but it was too close to call. A lady busted her nose on the steering wheel and her boyfriend, an older man, was taken away by the paramedics for heart troubles. The young woman in the jeep was able to drive away.
As much as he’d been missing his father, Jared hadn’t looked forward to seeing him that night. While his mother sobbed in her bedroom, he sat down Jared on the couch and lectured and shouted and lectured some more. “You can’t just make stupid choices like that. You have to think about everything you do! You have to be safe, Jared! You aren’t able to make choices like these. You’ll get hurt. This world will eat you up. Don’t you understand?”
Jared only nodded and cried.
“You did that for the bird? Is that why? What were you thinking?”
He didn’t have words for his father. As an adult, Jared still couldn’t explain why he needed to be sure about Fatso. It made no sense then or now.
The blame ultimately came to fall on Bella Boyd. After that, Jared wasn’t allowed to stay with her anymore, and shortly after she lost her rental and moved away. Jared always felt bad for her. She’d seemed so happy where she was and he’d wrecked it. He never felt safe or behaved well for any other daycare providers, and so after a string of failed attempts, Jared had to join his mother at her office job, which entailed staying quiet in the corner with
books and hand-held videogames. His dad moved back in, but the relationship never improved. His parents did take him back to the lake regularly every weekend, before it was filled in and made into basketball courts.
Jared never saw Fatso again, but long imagined other gulls guiding him back to the ocean where he’d heal and be loved.
* * *
As they continued down the all-too familiar city streets of his Southern Californian childhood, Jared watched the banshee, his feelings still on a tilt-o-whirl. Long hair drinking in the sunlight across threads of purple and magenta steel awash in a chestnut storm, she was outrageously attractive to him. So human looking and yet… alien. He was both enamored and terrified with the very concept of her. Even so, there was a strange trust between them, like a parent and child, but unique unto itself. He would follow her anywhere and that scared him more than anything else.
“How did you know the Assembly were near?” he asked.
“People died today who were not scheduled. That was
doing. It isn’t permitted to rearrange the schedule, but they are owed you.”
“People died,” muttered Jared. “Because of me?”
She ignored this question, lost in thought. “Still, I can't believe the Assembly was given permission to abuse the death schedule for so many, not even for a grant from the Silent Kings.” The banshee glanced down. Then her face darkened. “They mean to blame me... if I survive, I’ll be made to answer for these unplanned deaths.”
“What do you mean,
you survive? You aren't a person. You can't die, can you?”
She looked at him as though she’d let something slip. “Everything can die, Jared, even those life forms that cannot age have a means to expire. Even banshees can die. It’s difficult, but there are ways.”
“But who hails your death then?”
The banshee pressed her lips together, thinking a moment. Somehow it made her more beautiful to him.
“I've met my own banshee three times now, but she rarely visits the Deeper Unseen,” she replied. “She has red hair, is slender, with rather fierce looking features—but kind eyes. Just as with me, she has no name. She has watched me all my life, just as I've watched you.”
“That’s weird that banshees have banshees.”
“Everything with a soul needs to be given passage. All that energy goes to the same place, in the end. I'm lucky none of my assignments are other banshees—those assignments are long term, if not eternal, and require tracking just like any other. I can't imagine the patience it would require.” The banshee winced at something and stepped off the sidewalk.
“Even walking on this concrete makes my soles sting a little because it’s not as solid a connection to this world. That’s why I had to get you to come down from the second floor of that doctor’s office. I couldn’t go up there myself. The farther away I get from the ground, the more I lose connection.”
“Why is that, banshee?”
“This isn’t my reality, Jared. I belong to the Deeper Unseen. That’s my home. And without using the Cosmos Scream, I have to remain anchored when I have physical presence in this dimension. That goes the same for the Assembly, for that matter.”
“What, human?” She eyed him. “That’s getting annoying, you calling me
. I must say.”
“You have no name though.”
“Well use your imagination and give me one.”
Jared thought about it, but he’d never considered assigning a name to someone before. Pets yes, people no. He shrugged. “I don’t know… some of my friends in school used to shorten my name to Jare. How about we shorten banshee to Banch?”
“I hate it.”
“Okay,” Jared said, clearing his throat. “Let’s stick with Bs though. Beatrice, Bella, Beth. Oh! At the data entry place I work, they just hired a woman named Betty. How about that? It’s catchy, right? Yeah, Betty the Banshee.”
“How about Cs? Carol? Chantal? God, I can’t think of anything else.”
She rolled her eyes and groaned. “Just call me Banch, I suppose.”
They walked down the street past a few empty shops. She stopped short, spying something at the base wooden trim of a Wells Fargo Bank.
“What is it?”
“We might need to buy some more time. We need to remove the scent of the Gift—they’ll find us quicker if they’ve somehow acquired it.”
“I don’t follow. There’s nothing—”
Then Jared spotted a flickering auburn shadow just above the layer of bark shavings in the planter. The shadow rested against the bottom of the wall, the size of secret hidden within a child’s fist.
“I’ve seen these shadows before, back at the doctor’s office,” said Jared.
“Yes,” Banch replied, “I was searching for you and since I had some residence here, you could see the
open, just as you see this one now.”
“What are they?”
“Holes between dimensions? Well, sort of, think of the wedges of an orange as you pry them apart.”
“Like that. Pry those wedges apart and create an opening to a specific location in the Deeper Unseen. I happen to know that this shadow opens to nothing more than a field of bare earth and small rocks and pebbles. Perfect for what we need.”
“Earth and pebbles?”
“We are going to rub the dirt all over that handsome mug of yours and your arms and legs for good measure. It’ll complicate the scent of the prize and make it more difficult for the Assembly to track you.”
“Whatever we have to do, I guess.”
“Reaching through the shadow can be painful if not done with precision. We need to widen the opening so we can get a decent amount of dirt. Go ahead and put your fingers through.”
Jared stiffened. “Why me? Didn’t you say this could hurt?”
“Why can’t you do it?”
“It’ll be good for you. Stop being prissy.”
? I’m not a—I just don’t see why I have to do it.”
Banch leveled her gaze and folded her arms. “Because I’m not doing everything on this trip for you.
is why. It’s important. You have to get your feet wet. This is going to be a long day, trust me.”
Jared scowled and reluctantly dropped to his knees. The bark bit sharply into his jeans.
“Wow. You mind pretty well.” Banch laughed.
“Okay, okay. So put your fingers through and delink the strands of antimatter.”
“You’ll know them when you find them—”
A buzz went through Jared’s arm, making his teeth clatter and the hair on his neck stand on end.
“—and when you don’t,” Banch finished.
“Uh, ouch!” Jared smacked his lips in disgust. “It tastes like I ate an aluminum can.”
“Good, that means you went the wrong way.”
“It’s important to know the wrong way to go, just as much as the correct way. So find the other side now.”
Jared wiggled his fingers until they encountered something like a knot of dry twine. He probed it a moment and then plunged his fingertips through. Immediately the shadow widened on the wall.
“That is great work, Jared, really.”
“Yeah?” He smiled despite the cold sweat forming on his shoulders.
“Now one more. That should give us enough aperture to pull a sufficient amount of dirt through and fix you up. It’ll be a little more challenging.”
He searched around for two seconds before electrified tiger’s fangs slammed down on his wrist. Jared leapt to his feet, screaming, holding his arm. A middle aged couple walking their brown pit-bull stopped across the street.
“He’s good. Mental health issues!
!” Banch shouted. The couple shared a few whispered words and continued on more briskly.
?” Jared continued to dance around in circles. Smoke flaked off his arm in lavender wisps. “My damn arm is frying!”