Jacob took Alice to the shadiest motel in town.
As he’d promised, it wasn’t far, just a few blocks. But there was a definite transition from the small tidy houses of Alice’s comfortable working-class neighborhood to large industrial buildings, many of them abandoned. The streets grew dirtier and the sidewalks were stained with rust. Streetlights were few, bathing their path in deep shadow and causing Alice to walk with nervous steps, head jerking from left to right as she searched for threats in the dark.
Jacob didn’t seem to mind the darkness. He marched straight ahead, feet hitting the concrete like a challenge, daring the night to rise up against him. Alice trailed behind, watching the mysterious young man and wondering who he really was. How had he created that light that drove the shadow monster away? And how had he found Alice? Did he know about her death-visions?
All of this must have something to do with her visions. Everything started going wrong the minute they’d returned and shown her the thing inside the dead man. But why had they come back? And how did the shadow inside dead man know she’d seen it? Were all of her visions monsters like the shadow thing? So many questions. Alice really hoped Jacob had some answers for her, but she was also fairly certain she wouldn’t like any of them. That was just the kind of luck she was having tonight.
The rundown motel slid into view, its wavering light carving out a faint clearing between pools of shadow. Long and low, with only a single row of rooms, it sagged in the gloom like a crumbling testament to mildew and decay. The flickering sign out front was missing a few letters, but the unfortunate name was still far too legible despite their absence: The Quick Trick. Alice had heard the name around her school. It was the kind of place that any respectable person would drive away from without even considering a possible stay. Jacob headed straight toward it and Alice sighed inwardly. Of course they were going there.
Jacob kept a steady stride towards the motel room on the end, closest to them and farthest away from the small office on the opposite side of the long building. The room door opened on its own before they reached it and another young man stepped through. His features were obscured, his face made hazy by the sickly light that filtered through the windows, but even in the dark Alice could see his resemblance to Jacob. This must be the family Jacob had mentioned. The boy moved to one side, his head swiveling slowly as he scanned the surroundings from the shadows gathered beside the door. As they approached the door, he nodded at Jacob without taking his eyes off the darkness, and they stepped quietly past him and into the room. The moment Alice cleared the doorway, the young man stepped back into the room behind them, his movement smooth and confident, entering the room and closing the door in a single soundless motion.
“Anything following?” the young man said.
“Nothing,” Jacob said. “I know how to cover my tracks.”
The boy grunted in response but made no move to abandon his post in front of the door. Alice took a closer look at the young man. His features were similar to Jacob’s but sharper and less solid. His face showed the early bristling signs of facial hair to come, and his skin was pale and severe in the artificial light inside the room. His dark brown hair cut close to his head, he stood upright, his posture stiff, almost as tall as Jacob but with a thinner frame. He looked like a young soldier in training, all intensity and stone-cold veracity, over-invested in a cause he couldn’t fully understand. It made Alice wonder what could have inspired the young man to such devotion. Then she noticed the boy’s eyes as they followed Jacob and she had her answer: family. The boy turned suddenly, meeting her eyes and Alice looked away, pretending she’d just been examining her surroundings.
The tiny motel room splayed itself across the small space it contained, lounging in its own worn-out filth. A single full-sized bed consumed most of the floor space, while a sagging dresser near the bathroom door and a small round table completed the room’s sparse furnishings. The table had been crammed into the space between the bed and the front window. In the table’s only chair sat a teenaged girl with midnight-black hair.
“Oh,” Alice started. She hadn’t realized anyone else was in the room. “Hi there.”
The girl nodded once but otherwise ignored her. She stared out the window with an intensity in her eyes that easily matched the young man by the door. Something had these people spooked. Badly. And Alice had a pretty good guess as to what it was. The constant throbbing sting in her arms was a reminder of the very real danger that waited somewhere outside their little motel room.
“Uh, sorry,” Jacob said from the other side of the room. “I’m forgetting my manners.”
He dropped onto the corner of the bed, reclining onto one elbow as he made introductions and nodding at each of his companions in turn.
“The animated fellow by the door is my brother Aaron. And this sparkling young lady is our sister, Miriam.”
“Don’t be a prick, Jacob,” Miriam said without turning from the window. “You know what’s out there.”
“Hell yes, I do,” Jacob said. “I just fought the damn thing.”
That got their attention. Miriam turned from her vigil to fix Jacob with a piercing stare, and Aaron took a half step away from the door.
“You saw it?” Aaron said.
“Where was it?” Miriam said. “What did it look like?”
“Is it what we thought it was?” Aaron continued. “Is it him?”
Jacob held up a hand.
“Easy guys.” He turned to Aaron. “Yes, little bro. It’s what we thought it was. You were right, we’re definitely dealing with the Vetala.”
“I knew it,” Aaron growled. “That slippery bastard isn’t getting away from us this time.”
“It’s not that simple,” Jacob said. “It ditched the lawyer’s body. We don’t know what it looks like now.”
“So we have the girl here track it down,” Miriam said, nodding to indicate Alice but still not looking her way. “She can see it, right?”
It was the first time they’d recognized that Alice was still in the room, but they didn’t look at her or speak to her directly. Alice began to feel dizzy like she’d been swept up by an invisible current and was being carried along toward some unseen destination, tossed by the violent motion of the strange words and people and events around her. She needed to find a hand-hold and stop all the movement or she might never recover at all.
“Hold on a damn minute.” Alice planted her feet firmly on the faded carpet and spoke with all the authority she could muster. “The girl here is gonna need a few answers before she does anything.”
The room fell into twenty seconds of silence following Alice’s outburst. Then Jacob sat up slowly with an expression of chagrin breaking across his face.
“Of course you are,” he said. “I’m so sorry Alice. We are complete jerks.” He turned to his sister. “Miriam, this is Alice. She’s been injured. Would you mind helping her out with that?”
Miriam turned to look at Alice for the first time and Alice looked her over in return.
She wore black acid-wash jeans below a black Metallica t-shirt featuring cover art from Kill ’Em All. Her eyes were dark brown, almost black, and were rimmed by lashes so thick and dark they put eyeliner to shame. Within their dark corners, her eyes held an inner light of some kind, as if they were capable of shining a spotlight into Alice’s soul, piercing her defenses to reveal the truths she kept hidden from the world. Alice found her gaze unsettling.
Miriam examined Alice for a long moment, then offered her a weak smile and a “Nice to meet you.” Alice didn’t believe either one.
“Likewise.” She muttered.
Alice tried to appear as calm and confident as the young girl in front of her, but inside all she felt was cold and disturbed. And the pain in her arms was beginning to break through her composure. Still, she returned Miriam’s smile with an equally indifferent one of her own.
Miriam rolled her eyes and moved into the tiny bathroom, returning a moment later with gauze and medical tape. She took a seat on the bed near Alice. Placing the medical supplies on the bed next to her, she took both of Alice’s hands in her own and closed her eyes, mumbling for Alice to be still. Alice wasn’t sure what to expect, but after a quiet moment filled with measured breathing, she felt a warm sensation in her arms and the pain began to lessen. A gentle white glow spread from the place where Miriam’s hands contacted her own, traveling up her arms to bathe her injuries in a soothing glow. A moment later, the angry lacerations on Alice’s arms had dulled to a series of thin pink lines. The cuts were still there, but they didn’t look or feel as bad as they had a moment before.
“That should help with the pain and take care of any infection.” Miriam kept her eyes on her work as she bandaged Alice’s arms.
“Thank you,” Alice said, a genuine swell of relief and gratitude nearly bringing tears to her eyes.
That time Alice believed her.
Miriam finished bandaging Alice’s arms, then resumed her seat near the window.
“Feeling better?” Jacob asked.
“Much,” Alice admitted.
“Good. Now for those answers you mentioned.” Jacob adjusted his position on the bed, settling in and adopting the expression of a boy with a story to tell.
“The shadow monster that attacked you in the park is a creature we know as the Vetala,” he paused, waiting for her to digest the information, maybe hoping for a sudden gasp from Alice, or for her to fan herself to keep from swooning. Alice did not give him the satisfaction. She simply crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows, prompting Jacob to go on.
“Right,” he continued. “So, a long time ago, the Vetala was a man. Sort of a dark sorcerer, you might call it; pure evil, and mean as hell. We’re not sure where it came from originally, but most of us suspect that it’s from Asia somewhere, since the name Vetala comes from Indian mythology. Anyway, at some point in the past, it developed the ability to inhabit the bodies of the people it kills. And it has used that power to prolong its life for—well, we don’t know exactly how old it is, but it’s been around for a long, long time.”
“Two hundred years, at least.” Aaron cut in.
“You don’t know that,” Jacob sneered.
“Yes, I do,” Aaron insisted. “I read about it in Dad’s library. There are some old books written in Sanskrit, with English translations in the margins— ”
“That’s all folklore, Aaron,” Miriam offered in a low voice, “none of it is authenticated.”
“Whatever.” Jacob picked up the story again. “The point is that the bastard is old. And powerful. It has survived for a long time by using its body-snatching abilities to blend in. It shows up in a place, assumes a new identity, does some damage, people die, then it ditches its body and disappears without a trace.”
“Our family has been hunting this asshole for years,” Aaron said, “and every time we get close, it slips away from us.”
Alice could tell that the three were entirely serious about their story. This hunt was important to them and they genuinely wanted Alice to understand its urgency. But all of it was so far outside her world, it took a concentrated effort to keep from laughing in their faces and asking for the punch line.
“Look,” Alice said, “this all sounds terrible, and I’m sure you and your weird family have your own messed up reasons for hunting this thing, but I’m not sure what any of this has to do with me.”
Jacob sat up again, bracing his palms on the knees of his acid-washed jeans and fixing Alice with what she was sure must be his most sincere expression.
“Alice. The reason this bastard keeps getting away from us is because we can never tell what it looks like until it’s already done whatever screwed up shit it’s going to do, and jumped bodies. By the time we realize which body it’s been using, it’s already long gone.”
“We need to know what the thing looks like ahead of time,” Miriam said. “Before it has a chance to disappear. So we can get the drop on it.”
“And you need me for that,” Alice said.
“Yes.” Jacob pulled up a reassuring smile.
“Because I can see it.”
“No freaking way.”
“What?” The smile disappeared and Jacob’s brow knit itself into a state of confusion.
“I’m sorry. What you guys are doing is real noble and everything, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
“Alice—” Jacob leaned forward preparing to rise, and Alice held up her hand to stop him, taking a backward step towards the door. Jacob kept his seat but tilted his upper body toward Alice as if straining after an opportunity he saw slipping away.
“No, I’m serious.” Alice said “I’m not part of this crazy world you all are living in. I’m just trying to keep my grades up and take care of my little brother and my Grandma. That Vetala thing has already been to my house once. It could have done anything to my family. They could have been hurt, or worse. All because of me. I can’t get involved further and put them in any danger.”
“They’re already in danger.” Miriam leaned forward in her chair, the intensity of her gaze drilling into Alice and causing her to squirm a bit beneath its energy. “The only way for you to keep them safe is to help us find and kill the Vetala. Otherwise, all of you will be remain at risk. And you’ll never know when that monster might come for you again.”
Alice heard the truth in Miriam’s words, but she felt a paralyzing tendril of fear wrap around her throat, squeezing the courage from her lungs. Death visions or no, she didn’t belong in this world. She wasn’t like these people, with their glowing eyes and grim determination to battle monsters in the dark. Alice just wanted to live a normal life, graduate from high school, get into a good college, and take care of Royce and Grandma in the meantime. Miriam’s words made sense, but Alice couldn’t seem to connect them to her reality in any significant way. It was all too strange. And besides, the dark-haired girl in front of her was just plain creepy, with her pale skin and piercing eyes. She reminded Alice of a China doll with a rage disorder.
“Relax, Miriam,” Jacob cautioned.
“No, she needs to hear this. The Vetala knows who you are, Alice, and where you live. And it knows you can identify it. It’s already tried to kill you once, and it’s not going to stop until you are dead in the ground. You’re too big of a threat to it.”
“And that monster will use any advantage it can to get to you,” Aaron added.
“Including hurting your family,” Miriam said.
“My family?” That woke Alice up.
As Miriam said, the Vetala had been to her house already. The creepy siblings were right; that monster had already tried to kill her, and Alice was sure it would have no problem hurting her loved ones to get to her before she had the chance to help identify it. Her family was in danger. Right now.
Alice turned and ran, shoving Aaron aside and bursting through the motel room door. She sprinted into the night, heading for home and praying she would not be too late.