Friday the 13th, our little word came crumbling down, forever. I lay next to Gracie as she slept, contemplating eternity, when a crashing sound from downstairs made both us jump up. Gracie looked terrified, and entirely unsure of what to do. I rushed downstairs to see what was happening, and felt Rodge right on my heels as I descended.
“What the hell was that?!” He asked, over my shoulder.
“I have no idea…”
I reached the bottom and stepped off the staircase, rushing around the corner of the wall separating us from the front door. There, I was met with the vision of a large man in a smart, black suit, with a bouquet of stargazer lilies tucked under his arm. He swayed in the townhouse doorway…visibly intoxicated…then crept inside. The newly cracked front door hung loosely from its hinges, and it was obvious that he had just kicked it in with his enormous foot.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” I growled as I approached the man, forgetting that he could neither hear nor see me, “but you better get the fuck out of here, or you’re a dead man!”
“Chuck,” Rodge said, the pure dread in his tone giving me a chill. “That’s Marcus Crowley…”
Gracie appeared at the top of the stairs and began to make her way down cautiously, as Rodge rushed back up the stairs to stand before her, in absolute panic.
“No!” Rodge shouted at her, pressing his invisible hands against the air between them. “Gracie, stop!”
The girl passed right through him, making him double over at the unpleasant sensation. As he lurched, I took my turn…knowing it was a lost cause.
“GRACIE JAMES!!!” I shouted, with all of my energy, “STOP WHERE YOU ARE!!!”
She did not hear me, proceeding to descend until she finally paused at the base of the staircase.
“Hello?” She called nervously, afraid to look around the corner. “Is someone there? Chuck, is that you? Please be you…”
I spun in clumsy circles, reaching out to try to grab something, throw something, move ANYTHING to warn Gracie…or to distract Marcus, who was now creeping unseen toward the staircase, with a wicked grin.
“Chuck!” Rodge cried, recovered and racing toward me desperately. “Do something!”
“I can’t!” I shouted, both furious and frantic.
Gracie took a deep breath and stepped around the corner, bringing her face-to-face with the man of her nightmares. I swear that I felt my heart stop, though it had stopped long ago. The girl screamed and Rodge charged, attacking Marcus with all of his might, only to pass uselessly through him. I resisted the urge to do the same, knowing I would have the same result. I could not fight Marcus Crowley…could not call for help… what could I do?! I racked my brain, since it was all I had left, but came up with nothing. No scheme, no tricks, no way to gain control of the situation. I was completely and utterly…powerless.
As Gracie darted away from the monster in her living room and toward the back door, he reached out and grabbed her slender arm. That was when Gracie stopped running. The girl swung around and slammed the base of her palm upward into her attacker’s nose, and a sickening popping sound made both Rodge and I step back in astonishment. Marcus stepped back too, releasing Gracie and dropping the bouquet of flowers, to cup his bleeding nose.
“You filthy, little bitch!” He shouted, but was silenced by a powerful kick to the groin, which made him hunch over in agony.
“You’re the little bitch!” Gracie screamed, her eyes wild. “And you will never, ever touch me, again! I…”
Gracie’s rant was interrupted when Marcus straightened to lunge in her direction, only to be met with a roundhouse kick to the face, making him stumble back, stunned. He wasn’t the only one! Rodge and I both stood with our mouths hanging open, watching the scene in complete awe.
“Come on!” Gracie cajoled, sinking to a crouch, her tiny hands balled up into fists. “Come at me again, I fucking dare you!”
Marcus cast Gracie a murderous glare and turned to step toward the front door, as though he were leaving.
“That’s right, run,” Gracie said. “And if you ever…”
Marcus turned and surprised Gracie with a quick step and powerful blow to the jaw before she could finish her sentence, making me leap forward with useless rage. The girl was knocked to the ground and before she could stand up, Marcus was on top of her with his enormous hands wrapped around her pale throat.
“Should I kill you now?” He purred from above her, caressing her scar with his thumb as he squeezed. “Or do you want me inside you first…like last time? Remember, that baby? You loved it…”
My head snapped up at the horrific comment, and along with fury and disgust, I was seized by inspiration. Suddenly, I knew what needed to be done! But could I do it? It had been so long, and I was no longer the powerful spirit that I once was…
“What are you doing?” Rodge asked choking back a sob, as I moved toward the couple on the floor. “Give it up, Chuck. There’s nothing you can do…it’s over…over…”
“It is not over!” I exclaimed. “And there is something I can do!”
I was ready to spring into action, when Gracie somehow managed to maneuver her foot around Marcus’ massive body to shove it up under his chin. He removed one hand from the girl’s throat just long enough for her to twist away from the other, and the two became engaged in a full-on grappling match. Gracie’s speed and flexibility challenged Marcus’ superior size and strength, and she soon managed to escape from the floor, regaining her feet to crouch defensively once more.
My chest burst with pride and relief, but the fight this was far from over. Gracie was visibly exhausted and Marcus showed no signs of giving up.
“You said that there’s something you can do...what?” Rodge asked, hope returning to his expression at Gracie’s escape from Marcus’ grasp.
I didn’t answer. I was too busy watching the battle before me, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Marcus matched Gracie’s crouch with a grin, and the two began to circle the floor. She did not dare attack him in her weakened state. It was his move...
“What are you up to, Chuck?! I know that face of yours! What are you thinking?! What’s your plan?! Do you have a plan?!””
“Of course I have a plan,” I said, trying to sound flippant.
“I’m going to jump inside of Marcus.”
“You know, possess him! He’s too big and she’s too tired. He’s going to win, unless I can stop him.”
“Do you think you can? You haven’t been able…”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve been a bit impotent in the ‘ghostly powers’ category lately. But if I can hold him for just a minute…”
Rodge opened his mouth to respond, but froze, staring at the figures behind me.
I turned to see what I had missed and found that Marcus had pulled a handgun from his jacket.
“I’m tired of dancing,” the monster said, using the barrel to casually scratch his chin.
I moved toward him, trying to summon every bit of spiritual energy I had left, and was about to jump when Rodge appeared at my side.
“Chuck,” he said. “Think about this. If you succeed in taking control of his body and Gracie gets her hands on that gun, she might shoot you!”
I glanced over at Gracie seeing her brown eyes alight, not with fear, but with determination.
“There’s no might, about it,” I said. “She’s going to shoot this bastard…shoot him dead. And he’ll never be able to hurt her again.”
Marcus seemed to enjoy the momentary illusion of control over Gracie. He simply stood and smiled at her with his muscular arms crossed, not even pointing the gun in her direction. He was counting on her to rush him, I think.
“But…if Marcus dies while you’re in his body,” Rodge began, agitated. “What happens to you? Chuck, your soul might get sucked away with his! With the things he’s done, there is no way he’ll get a choice, like you did. He’s got a one-way ticket to Hell waiting for him, I’m sure of it, and he could drag you along for the ride! Or worse, you might just…disappear. Couldn’t that happen to someone who dies twice?”
Rodge’s frantic words gave me pause, but only for a moment. My course was unmistakably clear and it felt…right.
“Whatever happens to me,” I responded, trying not to sound afraid. “It’ll be worth it to know that Gracie is finally safe. Besides, I deserve whatever I get for the things I’ve done.”
“Are you honestly trying to stop me from saving her, Rodge? Because that’s what it sounds like!”
“No! Of course not! I just want you to be sure…as your friend.”
I turned to Rodge to find him eyeing me with genuine concern. He really was my friend…the best I’d ever had, if truth be told. I was about to admit this fact, when a quick flash of movement caught my attention. Marcus had apparently had enough “cat and mouse” for the evening. He suddenly raised the gun and aimed it at my Gracie’s beautiful face. So without another thought, I jumped.
Marcus Crowley had a much stronger spirit than Blake Tracey. Stronger, in fact, than any I had ever encountered. Though I landed squarely inside of his hulking meat-suit, I knew that my occupation of it would be brief, at best. Marcus’ energy tried to shove me out immediately, and his body jerked and twisted as I struggled for control, the gun slipping from his strong hands as I willed them to release their grip.
Gracie saw her window of opportunity and took it. As Marcus remained in the midst of what probably looked like some drug-fueled twitchfest, she dived toward the fallen gun, grabbing it by the handle and springing to her feet. She raised the barrel to aim at Marcus’ forehead…then hesitated. Marcus tried to shove me out again, and I could feel his intention, pulsing through my consciousness. He was going to kill her, if she didn’t kill him first. I held my position inside Marcus’ body with every ounce of energy I had, and struggled against him as he managed to force one of his feet forward, taking a single step toward Gracie.
That one step, was all it took. Gracie pulled the trigger, and despite her shaking hands, managed to land a shot right between Marcus’ eyes. There was no pain, but I felt the body around me fall heavily to the floor. I shut my eyes and prepared myself for a “second-death,” whatever that might mean. Surprisingly, I wasn’t afraid. I just kept my eyes closed and waited calmly for that drowning sensation to wash over me again…to feel myself sinking down, down, down. But I quickly realized that the opposite was happening! I felt my consciousness separate entirely from Marcus’ as my spirit rose effortlessly from his body, continuing to rise until I actually bumped against the ceiling.
“My God!” Rodge shouted excitedly, from beneath me. “You made it!”
“Of course I did,” I replied, trying to hide my relief. “I’m Chuck!”
“What are you doing way up there?!”
“Hell if I know!”
I reached for the crown molding at the top of the wall with my fingertips, thrilled to find that I could actually grip it, and propelled myself downward until my feet touched the floor. Things seemed to balance out at that point, energetically, because I felt securely bound by the laws of gravity, once again…no longer like a balloon without a string.
“You lucky son of a bitch!” Rodge laughed, approaching me. “I should have known you’d be able to pull it off.”
I shrugged and was about to make some cocky remark or another, when I realized that we were no longer alone on the astral plane. Marcus Crowley stood over his dead body, looking appropriately terrified. His gaze darted back and forth between his corpse, Gracie on the phone with the police, and Rodge and I across the room.
“What…what’s happening?” He stammered, but there was no time for an answer.
Rodge’s nose wrinkled, and I could tell that he smelled what I smelled. And I knew Marcus was smelling it! I turned in a circle, looking for the familiar, gaping maw of the hell-mouth, but did not see it. It was there, of that there was no doubt. Its stench was unmistakable! But where was it? I turned back to Marcus Crowley and found him staring at…nothing… with an expression of sheer terror. Obviously he could see the hell-mouth. He looked like he was about to lose control of his bowels.
What a pussy.
“It’s here,” Rodge said, quietly. “That hell-mouth, thing, you told me about. I can’t see it but…it’s here. Isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’m pretty sure.”
“Pretty sure? You can’t see it either?”
Marcus made a break for it, turning tail and running as fast as his legs could carry him toward the front door, but it was of no use. As Rodge had predicted, he was going into that mouth, whether he wanted to or not. We watched in fascination as Marcus’ feet went out from underneath him, but he did not fall to the floor. Instead, he seemed to be sort of…swept away…as if by the river Styx, to the underworld. His arms flailed and he kicked his feet but the current carried him away, regardless of his struggle, and then he was gone. Just, gone. And so was the smell.
I walked across the room to find Gracie sitting at the base of the stairs, expressionless. I wished that I could say something to her. Anything. But I’d lost my voice, and that seemed to be for the best. I wasn’t bitter about it anymore. I still did not know what twist of fate brought Gracie and I together…why she could hear me in the first place. I just knew that it was meant to happen. We were meant to find each other, and apparently, to save each other…
“Look,” Rodge said from somewhere behind me, and I turned to find him staring at a tiny, sparkling light, near the fireplace.
The light began to grow, swirling into a beautiful tunnel, wafting waves of peaceful, loving, energy, and emitting a fragrance sweeter than anything found on earth. I recognized the heavenly portal immediately, and knew why it had come.
“I think your ride is here,” I said sadly, walking over to stand beside Rodge. “She’s safe now. You can cross over, or whatever...if you want to.”
Rodge looked at the tunnel and smiled broadly. I felt my poker-face beginning to fail, and turned away to hide my expression. It was going to be awfully lonely around here without that pain-in-the-ass.
“I suppose so,” he said. “I’m not needed here anymore. Maybe it’s finally time to accept my heavenly invitation. So…what do you say, Chuck? Want to be my ‘plus-one?’”
“Plus-one?” I asked confused, turning to face him. “What the hell…”
My sentence faded from thought as I realized what Rodge meant. The glittering tunnel before me had split into two. One for Rodge and one for…me?!
“I don’t understand…” I said, thinking aloud.
“I think I do,” Rodge replied, beaming. “Chuck Butkis, the most selfish being in the history of creation, just committed the ultimate selfless act! You were willing to give your own life…no, MORE than that…you were willing to sacrifice eternity, for another person. If that’s not worthy of redemption, I don’t know what is! You just earned your place on the stairway to heaven, my friend. That crusty, black soul of yours has been saved!”
I stared at the twin tunnels silently, struck dumb by the enormity of the moment. It just didn’t seem possible…yet there it was. I looked over at my Gracie, who was visibly shaken, but so much stronger than I ever would have guessed. She really was a survivor, and she was going to be just fine on her own. I still didn’t want to leave her, didn’t want to say goodbye, but it just seemed…inevitable. The light was here for me and I don’t think it would have been, had I been meant to stay. And, after all, when Heaven comes knocking, you better answer the goddamned door!
I walked over to Gracie, wishing desperately that I could say goodbye, that she could hear me one last time. Though really, what could I have said? There were no words. Apparently, the universe understood that, because when I reached out on impulse to stroke my girl’s cheek, I was given a gift far greater than speech.
“Chuck?” Gracie called, her hand flying to where I had touched her.
I TOUCHED her, and she FELT it! And she RECOGNIZED me!
The girl still could not see me, and when I tried to reply, I realized that she still could not hear me, but when I reached out to brush her hair from her forehead and saw it move…felt it beneath my nonexistent fingertips… I was ecstatic!
“Chuck,” Gracie began, as excited as I was, “I can feel you! How long have you been here? Did you see?! Did you see what happened?! I finally beat him, Chuck! I’m free! And Marcus will never hurt anyone, ever again.”
I heard a siren approaching, and knew we were about to be invaded by officials, here to investigate what was so obviously a case of self-defense. It was time for me to go. I reached out and patted Gracie’s back, the universal symbol for “good job,” and my girl grinned.
“You’re leaving now, aren’t you?” She said softly, surprising me. “That’s why you aren’t saying anything. Your job here is done, and you’re going back to heaven…or wherever it is that you actually came from.”
This girl…this AMAZING girl…
“It’s okay,” she continued, brushing a stray tear from her cheek. “Really, it is. I’ve got this. But thank you…for everything.”
I wrapped my arms around her and was in sheer bliss when I was allowed to hold her for a moment. Embrace her, as though I had real arms. Gracie closed her eyes and somehow managed to hold me, back. I felt her. All of her. I felt her warmth, her spirit, her love. Yes…Gracie loved me! I felt tears stinging the back of my eyes and pulled away from the embrace. I had not cried since I was a boy, and had no intention of doing so now. This was a good thing, after all! I wasn’t going to say goodbye with blubbering tears. I’d do it my way.
I leaned over and kissed my Gracie smack on the mouth, and her back straightened in surprise.
“Chuck!” Rodge scolded. “What are you doing?!”
“Oh, come on!” I laughed, high from the quick brush of Gracie’s lips. “That was a G-rated goodbye kiss, for cryin’ out loud! What are you squawking about?”
“Chuck Butkis,” Rodge replied, placing his hands on his hips. “Will you please get your naughty butt into that tunnel before they change their minds about you?!”
“Fine, fine,” I sighed, then turned back to Gracie, who sat with a blushing smile, as police officers appeared in the townhouse doorway.
“Goodbye, sweetheart,” I said, knowing that she could not hear me.
“Goodbye, Gummy Bear,” Rodge said softly, from somewhere behind me. “I’ll see you again, someday.”
As the police swarmed in, I turned from Gracie and walked over toward the tunnels, Rodge right beside me.
“You know what the best thing about crossing over is going to be?” I asked.
“What?” Rodge replied.
“Never having to hear you call Gracie ‘Gummy Bear,’ ever again.”
My friend shook his shiny, bald head and smiled.
“See you on the other side, Chuck,” he said, and walked into the light.
I turned to cast one last glance in Gracie’s direction, then did the same.