Kurtis McKinley was quiet for most of the long drive over the state line. With his thoughts elsewhere, he wouldn’t stop biting his nails down to the quick. So much that Owen reached over, took Kurtis’ hand in his, and kissed the top of it.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Owen smiled before taking his attention back to the road. The trip was exhausting enough, but the silence between them was worse.
“Nothing new,” Kurtis washed a hand through his black hair. “Just Candice has been messaging me for like a zillion times now.”
“So?” Owen shrugged. “She’s my problem, not yours. Let me deal with your sister. You’ve got bigger things to worry about if what you say is right.”
“You should’ve told her,” Kurtis huffed, “about us.”
“What’s to tell?” Owen glanced over with a shy smile. “You two are very much alike.”
“There’s a scary thought,” Kurtis made a face as he looked out the passenger side window. The world around them was zipping past so quickly that he could barely focus on anything long enough to register a reaction. “I just had to know.”
“That’s why I agreed to take you there.” Owen eyed Kurtis, “but you didn’t explain the why part.”
“I need to see if Jonah is back,” he shivered.
Owen huffed again and shook his head. “I read your Dad’s book years ago. I thought it was all just bunk, just another work of fiction. I hear that a studio was going to make it into a film.”
“I was real, alright; every single word of it.” Kurtis spotted the remnants of roadkill spoiling away on the asphalt as they accelerated past. “So, if you don’t believe me, why are you doing this?”
“Because you do,” he fist-bumped Kurtis’ shoulder. “You and your sister have said the same thing about the place. So I think something did happen.” He shrugged, “If it creates closure for you, who am I to judge?”
“So you’re driving me there because of closure?”
“Call me rational. If what you say is true, I want to see it for myself. Maybe even put some of those old ghosts of yours to rest?” Owen snorted, “To coin a phrase.”
“But you showed me the articles, the recent photographs-” Kurtis held up his cell. “Even Google map showed that the estate is back up. How is that even possible?”
“In your father’s book and by your reports, the whole place had sucked back into the ground. So it can’t be the same place, right?”
“He wasn’t my real father. He died in a tragic car accident two years before my Mom said yes to Hal Romic’s wedding proposal.”
“Foster parent then.”
“The author of the book wasn’t technically my adoptive father either,” Kurtis looked over to Owen. “Hal’s spirit occupied his surviving son’s body, just like in the story you said you’ve read.”
“Whatever, I read that book years ago.” Owen steered the mini cooper off the highway, and the sound of gravel rattled under it. They stopped before a large, rusted iron gate. The very same one Kurtis stood before so many years ago.
Owen ducked his head so he could see way up the hill from the car windshield, “Would you look at that.” He whistled.
Kurtis got out of the passenger side and looked up to the estate on the hillside. Though it was a warm and overcast day, he felt a chill and reflected for the first time when his auntie drove all this way to deliver him and his sister to the dilapidated Romic Estate and now felt as if he was a child again. For an instant, he stood between the past and the present. In his mind, his inner child rocked back and forth, shaking his head at the memories past and trying to forget what years of therapy had gently tried to reinterpret for him instead of resolving.
Kurtis squinted and shoved a hand in his coat pocket. The pill bottle was in his hand, the one he took to calm down, and was dry and chalky on his pallet.
He watched as Owen reached out to take his numbly hand in his. Kurtis had a worried look on his face.
“You’ll be fine,” Owen smiled bravely. “You’ll see, come on.” He walked over to the gate fumbling in his jacket with his other hand, and brought out a card.
Kurtis looked confused as Owen passed it over the gate and heard it unlock and then open. “What’s going on?” He said numbly.
“Aren’t you more curious about that?” Owen gestured up the hillside as he went back to the car. He walked in as the Iron Gate squeaked opened. He went back to the car and waited for Kurtis to get back in before heading up the cobblestone road—something Kurtis’ parents had never done to the path up.
“What’s going on?” Kurtis went back into the car. “How did you get that card? Who gave you that?”
“This?” Owen raised an eyebrow, gave Kurtis a little slight smirk. “The owner of the estate gave it to me.”
“What, you work for him or something?”
“Or something,” Owen accelerated the small car up the path toward the estate. “Does that surprise you?”
“B-but you said you were a reporter?”
Owen kept his eyes on the path. “I’m more of a private investigator. The funny thing is, I was hired to locate you, but instead-.” He winked at Kurtis and made the man blush.
“But you were dating my sister?”
“Yeah,” he snorted. “She was a good piece of ass too.”
“So, you went through all of this just to find me?”
“Originally,” Owen shrugged. “I tracked down your sister on social media. Chitchatted for a bit to get her comfortable with me, and before I knew it, we started dating. But after spending time with you, I must say that even though you’re both alike, you’re just more interesting. Well, anyway-” He placed his hand on Kurtis’ shoulder, “it’s now history.”
“You dated her to get to me?”
“What can I say?” He shrugged, “you were completely off the grid. I reviewed all of the interviews, the reports, and the leads, but I kept coming up dry. It was like you didn’t want to be found.”
“I didn’t,” Kurtis could see the estate growing closer by the second. “After the novel hit the bestseller’s list, the public lost their minds over it. Just the piles of letters, all the phone calls, and the-”
“The notoriety of your father’s popularity was just too much to handle?”
“As I said, he wasn’t my father.”
“So, when the book mentions your gift of seeing your real father’s death? That was real too?”
“Yup,” Kurtis could feel the tranquilizers taking hold. His anxiety started to level out. His mouth felt dry. He felt just a bit sheepish, but not enough to need to rest. “But I have avoided an episode with these,” he rattled the pill bottle, “-and a joint or two.”
“So that’s why he wants to meet you.”
“Who wants to meet me?”
“The owner of this establishment,” Owen stopped before the estate, “A Mister Devin Becker Dowle.”
“That’s the guy that hired you?” Kurtis shrugged and shook his head with a look of disconcerting.
“You don’t know who he is, do you?”
Owen pulled the car around to the front of the estate to park it behind the silver Mercedes-Benz. “Wow, you have been off the grid for some time. He’s very famous. You might even say he’s a celebrity of sorts.”
“Well, he’s just been on the cover of Time, Life, and the Rolling Stone magazine.”
“I’m more of a National Geographic type myself,” Kurtis shrugged, “still doesn’t account for you to convince me to come down here with a celebrity who had this Hell House rebuilt.”
Owen went to knock on the door, “Have I ever lied to you?”
“I’m not quite sure how to answer that…”
“You tricked me into coming here with you.”
“Oh please, I merely nudged you in the direction you needed to be. You did that all by yourself.” Owen then smiled, “besides‒” and gave a nonchalant shrug. “It’s not like you complained about us being together.” He pulled Kurtis forwards and gave him a full-mouthed kiss.
Kurtis recoiled as he held a hand over his mouth. “You do realize that my sister isn’t a forgiving type?”
“Tell me about it,” Owen was just about to knock when the front door opened, and there stood Devin Dowle—dressed in a hooded black robe to his bare feet. A goat’s head and a pentagram stitched on it like an embodied brand.
“Ah good, you’ve finally made it.” The man in his late forties nodded, stood back, and waved at them graciously. “Welcome,” he waited until they entered before he added, “oh, and…hail Satan.”
Kurtis stood with his mouth agape. His host was showing him the newly rebuilt and refurbished estate that had imploded into a fiery pit after Jonah's defeat so many years ago.
“How was this even possible?” Kurtis looked around. “How did you manage to get this house rebuilt? It was destroyed.”
“I bought the old library. The schematics here were in there, and for what I didn’t like—I just improvised.” Devin walked around the room and gestured to the electronic devices on the wall. “I just spruced it up, but not before adding some newly acquired and developed devices that record in various spectrums. Also, it allows me to monitor the place.”
“But…why go through all of this?” Kurtis was beside himself until he mulled upon the mischievous gleam in his host’s eye. “You want to see if Jonah’s real.”
“I’ve read the novel Colin Romic wrote in dedication to your adoptive father, Hal Romic.” He held up his hands in parenthesis. “I thought that it was quaint how he had it published under fiction, but we both know otherwise, don’t we?”
“So, what do you gain from all of this?”
“Ah-ah-ah… I will answer your question with one of my own.” The host wagged a pointy index finger at Kurtis. His nails had a black glossy sheen to them. “What happened to that obsidian blade you found?”
“Luckily it was, destroyed along with the estate.”
The host squinted at Kurtis’ face for a hint of deception. He scowled at Owen for his failure to find this out earlier. “I see.” He placed his fingers together and carefully thought out his next question. “Did Jonah’s form really take it into Hell with him?”
“I-I can’t remember,” Kurtis felt his mouth go dry. “So much was happening…”
Devin nodded in thought and then shoved his hands into his robe pocket. “Did it look like this?” He withdrew a small ornate casing that looked as if made for holding an expensive pair of sunglasses. He opened it up, and Kurtis held his breath.
“How did you-”
“Last year, I privately funded a crew of junior anthropologists to come to this estate grounds and start excavating it. We found crushed ruminants of human bones. Even found signs of a massive fire pit that continued deep into the earth. They believed it was a ceremonial rite for the ancient Indians living here centuries before the colonists came. But it’s the carbon dating and the forensic findings on the human remains that intrigued me.”
“Okay…” Kurtis was listening intently, but his eyes never left the obsidian blade.
“Ancient natives don’t have dental records, nor have metal fillings in their teeth. The bodies they found did.”
Kurtis pointed at the blade, “you should’ve left it where you found it.” He looked around the room, “in fact. You should’ve left this whole area alone. Left it untouched and unexplored.”
“It was once a sacred bird sanctuary.” Kurtis swallowed, “a place for lost and restless souls.”
“Yes, that would explain all the bird bones.” Devin hissed out and wore an expression of bliss. “So, do you think this is the real artifact?” He reached for the obsidian blade ever so carefully. It felt light in his hand.
“What are you doing?” Kurtis stood back, “be very careful with that…”
Devin smiled and waved Kurtis off. “Owen?”
“Sir,” Owen approached his boss, “what do you-”
Devin turned on him, pushed the obsidian blade into Owen’s stomach. “Would you be a good man and die for me?” He said ever so calmly.
Owen’s face contorted with confusion as his legs buckled. He managed to grab Devin’s robe, and it shredded under his weight as he toppled over with his mouth open in both pain and shock.
Kurtis screamed Owen’s name out and tried to approach him, but Devin turned and held him back with a free hand.
“Patience, my lad, patience,” Devin smiled reassuringly.
After a few uncomfortable seconds, a small sparrow appeared from out of Owen’s mouth and fluttered wildly around the entrance.
“You asshole,” Kurtis grabbed Devin’s collar. “What the Hell is wrong with you? What if it didn’t work as it said in the book?”
Devin shrugged, “Don’t worry. I tested this out before on some of my most devoted followers.” He winked at Kurtis. “Just don’t puncture a jugular, or they might bleed to death. Then their soul doesn’t appear. You know-” He pointed to his open mouth and made a gesture of something flying out of it.
“You’re bat-shit bonkers.”
“Well, at least I kept the doors and windows closed this time. Or else our little feathered friend here would be hard to catch if he got outside. Now he has nowhere to go but back into his original body once the wound heals back up.” He bent low to confirm that the wound he inflicted was disappearing.
Kurtis distanced himself from the mad man in case Devin decided to stab him too. Just to see what would happen if the wrong soul happened to go into the wrong body, something Kurtis had seen happen before.
Kurtis and Owen were up in what had once been where his room was. Everything was far more excellent than he had remembered it, even a bit more likable for a guest room. Even the decorums was far more elegant than it had been. It felt more as if they were staying a night at the Four Seasons Hotel.
“Look, I’m fine,” Owen took Kurtis’ hands and kissed them. “This time around, I can barely remember leaving my body.” He made a face. “Funny though, the healed cut is still a bit sensitive. Is that normal?”
“I-I don’t remember.” He paused, “you’re telling me that you’ve done this before?”
Owen turned away to get up off the bed they shared and shrugged. “What can I say? I’m just a sucker for punishment.” He hobbled to the washroom holding the place where his employer stabbed him. “I suspect that he did it just to prove to you that it was the real thing.”
“No shit,” Kurtis watched Owen as he made it to the washroom, something his original room didn’t have while he was still living on the estate. The washroom would be suitable where his sister’s room had been.
“Shit,” Kurtis grabbed for his cell on the dresser and looked at the list of messages left by her. She is royally pissed at me. “You plan on being in there long?” He yelled over to Owen.
The bathroom door opened, and Owen leaned on the doorway like some model from the defunct Blueboy Magazine. “What are you going to say to her?”
Kurtis acted indifferent to the question. “What impression did I give you that said I was going to get back to her?”
“Please,” Owen waved him off. His voice echoed as he stood over the open porcelain bowl. “You’ve been sulking since we agreed not to call her back.”
“Well, she is my sister.” He heard the toilet flush. We’ve been through a hell of a lot together.
“So?” Owen appeared at the door with a body towel over his shoulder. “Call her, for fuck sake. It’s destroying the mood.”
Kurtis nodded and looked at his cell, “what should I say to her?”
“Well, for starters, say hi for me.”
Yeah, right, Kurtis snorted as he texted her back. Hoping things between them would cool down some. After reading a few lines of text in response to his message, he realized that he was dead wrong.
For starters, Candice was livid with him and Owen. Her text had more swear words than he could make out what she was trying to say to him. But he caught the gist of the conversation. She had regretted introducing Owen to him. The identical brother kept “borrowing” all of her things every time he showed up at her door.
He was not yours to take, the last line of text read from her.
What he wanted to respond with was something snarky but thought better of it. He glanced over to the sweater he had borrowed in his gym bag, feeling a sliver of guilt. Candice always did have good taste in clothes than in men.
After carefully considering against a snide retort, he texted back to her, starting with a lengthy description of how sorry he was that he had never meant to hurt her. That Owen was a perfect gentleman.
Candice texted him back, calling him a lying, cheating bastard of a brother.
Kurtis felt sick in the pit of his stomach, and so he quickly changed the topic. Typing where they were staying and not to worry, they will be okay.
He balked at her response.
Leave now. That place is nothing but pure evil.
He read the words over and over. She was right, and he knew it, but what could he do? He was curious as to why Devin had gone this far to take the horror book so seriously enough to erect a new estate over the ashes of the old one that he had gone to such great lengths just to retrieve that dreadful dagger.
Kurtis paused. How on God’s green earth did Devin find that obsidian blade? Was there more than just one? What was he trying to accomplish in doing all of this? Was he planning to wake up Jonah just to prove spirits exist? If so, why would he even want to revive a force so evil?
“We’ll—” Owen left the washroom and was using the body towel to dry off. “How did it go?”
Kurtis placed his cell down on the counter and gave a long tired sigh. He rubbed at his eyes. Everything around him was blurred. He wished he had remembered taking along his reading glasses.
“That bad, huh?”
“Do you know how Devin got that obsidian blade?”
Owen shrugged, “I don’t know. He hired me to find you. Why not just go ask him yourself?”
“Right,” Kurtis leaned over to shut off the light and awaited his lover’s touch.
The next day Kurtis woke to an empty room and looked around for his clothes. Across from the bed sat a wooden chair draped with a black robe, a pair of swimming trunks, and a note. Kurtis went over and opened it to read, “You’re clothes are in the wash. Wear this and come downstairs”. As he held up the black robe, he saw that pentagram and the head of a devilish goat and rolled his eyes. What did you get me into, Owen? He eyed the swimwear and perked an eyebrow. That son-of-a-bitch had better have a pool.
After a few minutes of going through the house, Kurtis exited the back. He found a massive swimming pool where three topless women and an older man with sunglasses and black fingernails swinging languidly in an impressive four-person hammock, all getting lightly intoxicated.
“Good afternoon, sleepyhead.” Devin took a calm, passing interest in Kurtis’ midsection. “Aw, you didn’t even bother to wear the robe I left you.”
“I didn’t want to,” Kurtis looked around at the girls that were staring at him and whispering among themselves. “Is that your entourage, or just groupies?”
“Both, actually,” Devin smirked. Slowly, getting out of the hammock to put his arm around Kurtis and squeezed him uncomfortably close. “I’ll bet you’re just dying to see the excavation we did.”
“Not really,” Kurtis sniffed, “But I would like to know how you managed to get that obsidian stone dagger?”
“You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.”
Don’t be so sure about that, Kurtis thought but didn’t convey. “Where’s Owen at?”
“He’s-” Devin rose an eyebrow and looking around with a martini glass in hand. “Probably went to get some smokes…nasty little habit.” He then produced a lit joint with his free hand.
Kurtis looked at it as if the man was holding up a tarantula and shook his head.
“Well, let’s go then…” Devin pointed to the back of the house and directed Kurtis down the stairway to a more private enclosure. Two massive doors slid open and then automatically closed and locked behind them. The room reminded Kurtis of the time he went with his mother to bury his birth father in the Christian fashion. It felt comforting, if not inoffensive, and even soft and gentle music played overhead. The only furniture Kurtis noticed were two leather lectus across from each other. So two people could recline and rest. To his surprise, Devin had the place decorated with tarnished urns and ancient items the natives of the area had once owned in the period long before Jonah had even been born. On open shelves sat aged and cracked pottery, painted with imagery of birds and Shaman trading bodies. Just looking at them gave him a chill.
Soul cages, the words drifted into his head. I’m like a canary in a coal mine.
Kurtis started to wish he had stayed in bed.
“There, see?” Devin got them close to the lip of the vast cavern. He let the half-filled martini glass casually slip from his fingers and then waited for it to shatter. Kurtis, however, was far more interested in the pentagram painted around the open hole in the ground. The very place he had first seen Jonah’s misshapen spirit (a deformed crow) trying to apport its way through a yawning mouth. Kurtis squeezed his eyes shut but opened them in alarm as an obsidian danger jabbed into his back.
“What the-?” He spun around and went to grab his assailant. He had first expected Devin, but he was surprised to find that Owen had done the terrible deed. Owen wore a look that instantly told him that it wasn’t his lover but Jonah at the helm.
“Hello Frilly,” Jonah eyed Kurtis maniacally and smiled. “Welcome home, you filthy little sodomite.”
“What…why?” Kurtis held a look of helpless frustration and confusion to both his lover and host. “You lured me all this way for this?” His stomach churned, his eyes rolled upwards. He felt something from deep within, just trying to escape, forcing its way up from the depths of his being to pass through his open mouth. He fought to keep his soul from leaving his body. Lord only knew what Jonah would do to it.
“Wussy,” Jonah sneered. “Scaredy cat doesn’t want to face me. Knows I’ll eat him whole.”
“Now, now…we’re all friends here. Remember your promise when I evoked you, or I’ll force you back into one of those urns.”
Jonah gave Devin a sly side-glance.
“Why-” Kurtis started to tremble, spoke through clenched teeth, trying to keep conscious, “-me?”
Devin went over to Jonah and put his arm around Owen’s shoulder. “When my mother died, I was inconsolable. But when I read that book of your stepfather’s, I knew that there was a chance of getting someone back from death itself, that we don’t have to die, but to exchange our broken bodies for new ones. So I used all my fortune to make this happen. I mean, why to die when I can just travel into a new body and go on, right?”
“Madness,” Kurtis started trembling. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “All of this done, just to unleash something—evil.”
“You mean Jonah?” Devin gestured to Owen and chuckled, “he’s merely a poster child for this event. He originally found the obsidian dagger for me.”
“He’ll b-betray you-”
“He also knows where I can get more of them.”
Kurtis dropped to the ground as his sparrow form poked its head out of his open mouth. But before it was able to take flight, Devin snatched it up and held Kurtis’ little fluttering soul up to his face. “You are so beautiful…” He smiled to himself. “Jonah, fetch me the special cage kept behind that hidden panel, would you? I have another soul to add to my collection.”