Cotopaxi Mountain, Ecuador.
Several minutes later . . .
As we race away from certain death and disaster, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I lift my head to the left, just enough to see Juan, one hand on his neck, the other on me. He’s alive. The children, most of them, are alive. Ricky and Ms. Josephine and Mr. Green and Mr. Blue, are all alive.
I’m alive, or dead, or alive . . . I’m not sure, anymore.
I’d like to think I’ve arrived at some kind of conclusion about all of this. Answers.
What have I become?
What side do I belong on? The earth plane, or Deadside?
Am I in control of my fate? Or am I just a puppet on the end of some invisible strings that only I can’t see?
“I think we’ve made it,” Father Peter Scarcelli, or whoever he actually is, yells over a static-laden radio transmission. Everything is still rumbling and shaking like we’re stuck in a paint mixer.
Hey, if the Vatican says we’re good . . . who am I to argue.
Pan-American Highway, 21 miles outside Quito, Ecuador.
3 hours, 33 minutes, 33 seconds later . . .
My eyes have been closed for the last couple hours, or couple hundred kilometers. I’m not sure which is more correct. The toilets flush the same but the distance is different. Evil is the same, but the harvesting is different. Maybe it’s all the same.
I haven’t been able to sleep. I’m trying to make some sense out of what happened. And here’s what I think I know.
I think the Evils transfer by blood-to-blood contact.
When they enter a body they find some way to suppress the original soul and take over. Body drivers. It’s like they just stole a car and pushed the other driver into the backseat to quietly watch.
I think all the animals that we found dead indicates that they were attempting to transfer into different animals. Perhaps they did. All the proof has been covered in ash and apocalyptic fire and brimstone.
They need blood to survive. Maybe two souls is just too much stress on a single body and they need a constant source of life-force. That might also explain the elevated heat Ricky was talking about in the bodies. I imagine it like plugging too many appliances into an electrical outlet: too much load and you end up melting and burning stuff out.
The system has catastrophic failure, eventually.
These are the things I think I know.
But I have too many questions to even consider right now.
On the radio the broadcasters are saying that the eruption and subsequent earthquakes that came from the Cotopaxi Volcano were all part of its 15-year natural cycle of tension release. It was just a matter of time, they say. A waiting game.
Imagine that, labeling an event of that magnitude commonplace. No different than, say, the sun setting, or some rainfall in the east. Just another natural development that you could set your watch by if you had enough time.
Over the radio I’ve been hearing father Pete communicating with the federal policia giving them the children’s names so that their parents can be informed. The couple we thought was responsible, we’re just two parents being forced to provide the Evils with material support to save their own two children.
Arturo and Celia Morales.
Whether or not they were inhabited by the Evils for some or all of the blood-sucking, we’ll never know. And at this point, nobody is going to be asking those kinds of questions.
I hope Mr. Green apologizes to them for the little interrogation session.
All in all, four children ended up dead. And that’s on me. Their drained blood is on my incompetent hands. Ms. Josephine will assure me that it’s not my fault, but we’ll both know otherwise.
At some point, and I don’t know when, I have to answer for all the bodies. It’ll just be me and the big guy, and I’ll probably be twiddling my thumbs like the retard I am, without an excuse worth giving. I’m not looking forward to that meeting, really.
We got into Quito and made our way to the Jesuit church La Compañía. There we were met by tons of local, state, and federal police. Inspector Rodriguez, with his baggy eyes, was there. He was followed by about four spooks. That’s two more than he had a few days ago. I see a pack of cigarettes in his pocket.
Between thank yous, and God bless yous, I pulled him aside and told him to find a church, grab a priest, and get some faith. I told him to do it today!
He smiled, his tired face softening as he said, “Estas cansado, Señor.”
You’re tired, Sir.
He continued, “You and your Canadian friends did some good things, here. Get some rest.” And then he shook his head like I’m the crazy one.
Ricky, Ms. Josephine, Mr. Green, Mr. Blue, Juan, and I have all gotten together and had some paramedics look us over. Juan’s neck injury was curiously not infected. Apparently, something in the saliva—the anticoagulants, Ricky theorizes—kept the wound incredibly clean and bacteria free.
He lost a few pints of blood, but he said for us not to worry because he had plenty more where that came from.
Yeah, Juan’s a pretty tough son-of-a-bitch. I’m sure glad we didn’t shoot him in the face.
Father Pete approached us after the press was shooed away and the police were done asking their questions. He thanked us and apologized for “lapses in judgment” that led to “over zealous decisions” yesterday.
You mean when you sent those guys out to kill us? I asked flatly. Little oversights and lapses in judgment like that?
“I did not know what your intentions were, and I only had the best interests of the missing children and their families at heart.”
The way he speaks, his mannerisms and gestures, all seems genuine. Everything he says and does appears honest and apologetic. But I can’t shake this feeling that he’s got another agenda all together. It’s just a hunch I have, but I’ve been listening to those hunches a lot more, lately.
“If the World Peace Brigade would like additional funding,” Father Pete says, “the Vatican would like to be a donor.”
Ricky, always smiles and handshakes, he says, “Well, Father, we will certainly take your offer to our board of directors. Every dollar today might save a child tomorrow.” He’s an entire sales force, that Ricky. My pseudo-brother. The smartest guy I know.
Ms. Josephine, I guess reading my mind, asks, “Mistah Peter, what were you going to do to da perpetrators of dose kidnappin’s . . . I mean, if dat cult ’adn’t been buried by ’ot ash?”
He has this wonderfully animated, yet humble, smile, “We would have brought them all to the Ecuadorian authorities so that the law of the land could prevail and justice could ultimately be served by both man and God. But then . . . they all died, didn’t they. Killed by the volcano?”
We all nod, doing our best not to look shifty-eyed.
“There were four of them, you said?” father Pete asks as if he knows that we’re being withholding.
That’s right. Four adult male Satan worshippers that liked to ritualistically drink children’s blood.
He nods slowly, “Right.” He looks at us, cocks his head to the side and sighs with a slight grin. “Well, I guess we’ll never know.”
I shrug, my eyes downcast. “Yeah, father, only God knows, now.”
Father Pete makes his way to each and every one of us, shaking our hands as he gives us a polite social hug, and then shuffles off to ponder our lies.
I wonder about the long-term ramifications of lying to a holy man from the Vatican, but then I dismiss it. I’ve got so much damn blood on my hands that a couple of white lies to a suspicious catholic isn’t going to sway my pits of fiery afterlife one way or another.
Mr. Green, has been pretty quiet since he saw all of the horrible Deadside things. The gatherers and my admittedly grotesque soulectomy procedures on the four Evils. He turns to me, whispering, “ . . . I still have a few questions about what happened.”
“No, Jack . . . really,” he stressed, a bit unsettled still.
Then a face from our recent past, full of tears and joy and helplessness and elation, she walks over to us with her son. Señiorita Alonzo and her two sons find us and she thanks us between her sobs. Her son Carlos was one of the kids that Evil inhabited. I don’t think I’ll mention how I had to box him to the ground to get him tied up.
She and Ms. Josephine hug and they trade words. I guess that chicken paid off in the long run. She thanks all of us, and I don’t mind admitting that it did make me feel a little better about myself. At least, for now.
When she walks away Ricky turns to us, “Who wants an all expense paid weekend in Cancun?”
Are there any volcanoes? I ask.
“Me gusta la playa,” Juan says, a smile briefly passing his otherwise worn and tired face. I can see that it pains him to move his head more than a few degrees in any direction.
“I like the beach, too,” Mr. Green says, nodding.
“Yo tambien,” Mr. Blue adds.
I look at Ms. Josephine, her shoulders lifting and dropping. I nod. We’re all ready for some down time.
“You know,” I tell them, “ . . . this is only the beginning.”
“Even da good days ’ave to start out wit darkness,” Ms. Josephine says as she grabs my bruised, battered hands. She slowly lifts them, turning my wrists until my palms are exposed to her eyes. She smiles, places my hands together and shakes them a bit. Almost a jiggle, really.
“What do you see?” I ask, looking into her once blind eyes. Eyes that see more than the rest of us.
“I see a man who needs a slice of pepperoni and mushroom pizza.”
I smile, looking at the others, “ . . . she’s good.”
Saturday, July 28th, 7:36 pm . . .
My name is Jack Pagan . . . and I’m just over seven-months-old.
The sun is this giant orangish-red ball that’s setting behind us, making the ocean and the horizon both beautiful and ominous at the same time. At the farthest edge of our sight, the water seems to melt into the dark sky in the place between dogs and wolves and sharks and impossible forests.
All the things we should never see, but most certainly did.
We’ve spent the last couple days eating, sleeping, and walking along the beach among all the beautiful women and older men that should never wear Speedo bikini-trunks . . . ever. We’ve talked to Billtruck and Hal about everything that happened in Ecuador. He sees it as a success in that we nailed four of the original 23 Evils. And we did save all those kids. Obviously, it’s more than disconcerting that we only got four of them.
19 to go.
Billtruck says we’ll have gained invaluable knowledge and experience during all of this. Hal is going to adjust his future estimates to include basic psychological indicators and parameters. I tell Hal that I don’t think we can accurately assume psychological processes.
He disagrees. Yeah, that’s right. Our computers disagrees with me, out loud, probably laughing at the simple-mindedness of humans. He explains that eventually every possible predictor of behavior can be qualified, quantified, and mapped.
“What about the Uncertainty Principle in physics?” I counter as I talk to our computer through my cell phone while the warm water of the Yucatan canal laps up against my ankles. Little foamy, salty bubbles are left on my toes to slowly dissolve and pop.
“Have you been watching Nova in your hotel room, Jack?” Hal asks me, though it’s more of an accusation.
Yes, I admit, but it’s more of an indignant so what.
“Keep up the good work,” Billtruck says. “Enjoy your vacation, because we’ve found some disturbing things going on in Eastern Europe. How’s your Russian?”
“When you get back, Jack. Just have fun. We’ll see you in a few.”
I put my cell phone back into the pocket of my board shorts. They’re silver and black with the words ‘Tapout’ in bold black print across my butt. Ricky says it’s like warning evil that we’re going to get’em in a choke-hold!
I think it’s just bold enough to get my ass kicked on the beach. But Mr. Green assures me that with the amount of spooky looking tattoos I’ve got, nobody’s going to try me, just in case I am some lazy-eyed psycho.
Ricky, Mr. Green, Mr. Blue, and Juan are at the hotel bar getting tanked off of huge tourist drinks filled with umbrellas and fruit and cheap tequila, and those straws that look like pieces of garden hose.
Ms. Josephine is walking behind me, her white linen dress blowing gently in the wind, her stubby little feet leaving these slowly evaporating footprints in the wet beach sand. With each passing wave, a bit more evidence of her past is erased. By the time we get to the next curve in the beach, nobody will know how we even got here.
Our past being erased as quickly as we make it.
In my hand I have the blue envelope that Angela gave me. I kind of want to read it one more time, just in case I read it wrong. But that’s just me being a stupid, hopelessly-romantic fool. I’ve read it 15 times. 20, maybe.
I lift it to my nose, sniffing it one last time for hints of apples and cinnamon vanilla and Angela.
Her shampoo, her skin, her beautiful brown eyes.
But all that’s gone, now.
As another wave comes in, I gently toss the envelope so that the current carries it out into the deep abyss. As the paper swells with water, the light blue fibers become dark. The sun setting behind us is a reddish-violet, now. The color of life-force, or just a sunset. The way I’m feeling, it’s easy to ascribe some really deep, thought-provoking meaning to otherwise average, every day occurrences. But the sun sets every evening, nothing magical about that.
I watch the envelope float away, trying in vain to come back.
Half of me wants to run out into the water and grab it.
But I don’t. I just watch the gentle back and forth motion of the submerging envelope, stuck between two waves that have no intention of letting it escape.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Ms. Josephine asks thoughtfully as she lays one of her hands on my shoulder.
The letter she wrote me, it says that she was starting to fall in love with me. But then she writes that she knows she can’t love somebody who spends most of his time with the dead. Dying, Angela wrote, was no way to live.
She wanted to end us before she couldn’t.
“I’m sorry, child,” she whispers as she hugs me from the side. “We’re not like everyone else. It’s just one of da cruel facts of life.”
“This feels worse,” I say, “ . . . than if I’d never even met her. How do you walk away from someone you care about like that?”
Ms. Josephine doesn’t answer. For the next several minutes we both watch the envelope disappear completely into the water.
We turn back towards the hotel, fearing that perhaps we’ve left the ‘boys’ alone a little too long. I expect to see people flying out of windows and cartwheeling through saloon doors at any moment.
I feel my phone vibrate. I pull it out and notice a number that’s not familiar, with an odd area code. My heart starts to race just a bit. Maybe it’s her. Maybe she’s changed her mind.
“Hello?” I answer, hoping to hear her voice.
“Hello . . . Jack . . . ” the voice says. I’m paralyzed, frozen in my tracks.
Who is this? I ask, but I already know. I can feel it. Part of me wants to smile, the other parts of me tremble.
“You know who this is,” she says hauntingly.
Kristen? I say as Ms. Josephine suddenly stops and turns towards me.
“We’ve been watching you, Jack. You’ve been quite busy playing bounty hunter, lately.”
I don’t speak.
I don’t whisper.
I can’t even breathe.
“ . . . you shook my hand. You looked right at me and yet you couldn’t see me.” I half panic, realizing she’s come into contact with me . . . here. If she was close enough to touch me, she was close enough to have . . . But I know what I have to do. There are only two ways this story can end:
We win, or she does.
Basically good versus horribly evil.
“I . . . I have to take all of you back,” I say, the air in my lungs barely making it past my vocal cords.
And she doesn’t say anything for a moment. The longest few seconds of my life.
“This is our world, now. Leave us alone. It’s in your best interests.”
You know I can’t do that.
“You don’t need to visit Deadside, Jack. Deadside is coming to visit you.”
And the call was dead way before it ended.
The 19 Evils, following the prophecy, had declared their stand against God. They have taken a posture of ambush and offense, warning the Pagan that they will not be denied their place on earth.
And now, it is the Pagan who will be hunted.
The number of days until the end is growing shorter with each passing sunset. It won’t be long now.
The story of Jack Pagan is starting to unfold.
The 19 evils have decided to fight back.
Now Jack becomes the hunted.
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