fiction

like fine print, so hard to read

by Anna Katherine

Originally published on The Anna Katherine Co-op of Evil, April, 2012. “Anna Katherine” is the pseudonym of Anna Genoese and Katherine Crighton; this story is a prequel to the Door-world book SALT AND SILVER, 2009.

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Rian Corveau is fifteen years old. He lives about twenty minutes north of the border, speaks French better than he reads it (and he only does around his Quebecois family, anyway), loves hunting better than fishing, and has just had sex for the first time.

Michelle is six months older than him, and lives in town, and is so beautiful he doesn’t know words in enough languages for it. Her skin is the color of milk. Her lips are wide and thin around her mouth. Her laugh is rough and catches in the air when he tries to kiss along her skin like he’s seen in movies. She smells like spice and snow.

Everything, everything in the world, is amazing.

Rian Corveau is nineteen years old. He still lives about twenty minutes north of the border. He reads French a little better now, he’s prefers to hunt small game like fox and wolf, and he’s working every job he can find to make enough money to buy a ring.

He’s going to marry Michelle. They’ve talked about it, a little. Edging around it. “I’d like a house there,” or “maybe I wouldn’t change my last name” — things like that. It’s not like it’s a secret, though, or a surprise. Rian’s loved her since he was too young to know better. They’re going to get married. He just… wants to do everything in the right order.

Michelle’s step-dad hires seasonal workers to cut down evergreens at Christmas time. She knows what Rian’s goal is these days, and isn’t above helping him get to it faster: she talks her dad into giving him a place on the crew, along with a couple of other guys they’d known in school, and it’s a cold, ice-bright day that takes them all up the mountain with some axes, some rope, and a long, dark chainsaw to keep them company.

Rian tucks Michelle up against his chest, blocks the wind as the truck carries them to the site. The wind feels like it’s sloughing off his exposed skin, leaving him new and burning underneath. When they reach the stand of trees, he’s the last to get off the truck. Michelle tucks her head briefly under his chin as she hugs him, and then clambers into the cab of the truck to play the radio and wait for lunchtime to come around.

Bright days are always coldest, but it’s doesn’t feel so bad when there’s work to be done. Trees fall, cut loose from their bases. The sun doesn’t seem to move. The sounds from the radio travel back and forth between American evangelists and French easy-listening: extremes in either direction. It’s Rian’s turn with the chainsaw.

He’s on his second tree — just started really, dozens more to go before his turn is up — when the wind stops blowing. 

It’s strange, wrong almost, and his face feels tight and dry. There’s always wind up here this time of year. He keeps the chainsaw running, though, gets to work on the next tree. With the wind gone he can smell the heady thickness of pine resin around him, the scent settling on him like a cloak.

And the radio squeals. 

Rian turns hard, the chainsaw arcing around with him, and he has a moment to think about how stupid that is, how he’s going to kill somebody just because he got scared. And then the chainsaw connects with something tall and fibrous and–

On TV, when blood hits snow, it looks like bright splashes of cherry syrup. That’s because the syrup or whatever they use is room temperature, and the snow is fake, or maybe they just don’t want to show what it really looks like, because it’s not impressive. It’s holes. Cuts in the snow, 98.6 degrees worth of melt, and there’s nothing to see except whatever’s on the bodies.

Rian’s a hunter — he’s seen dead game before, hunted it in the snow, eaten what he’s brought home again.

He has no idea what he’s just killed.

It’s not a bear, and it’s not a man. It looks a little like both, but it has a pair of ant pincers where its mouth should be. It’s not a tree, either, for all that the saw split its skin and left shreds of pulpy fiber behind. It’s just… a thing. And it’s dead, its blood red against its skin. As he stares down at it, it begins to melt into itself, collapsing, wrinkling down and leaving nothing behind.

He shouts for someone to come over, see what he’s found; he shouts for Michelle, because he wants to show her and maybe show off and maybe just have her next to him for a couple of minutes, just until the adrenaline wears off and the monster is completely gone.

Silence answers him. For the first time since the thing came up behind him, Rian looks around the site.

It’s empty. No footprints leaving, no calls, no movement. The guys. Michelle. Everyone. Gone.

The radio squeals and pops. There is still no wind.

It takes a while, tramping hard through the snow, screaming out Michelle’s name, but it’s sundown when he finally does the math. Rian Corveau is in the middle of the woods, with a missing crew, a missing girlfriend, and a bloody chainsaw. 

The truck has enough gas to reach the border. Michelle’s gone. The dead thing had had pincers, and moved without a sound. Michelle.

Rian is twenty years old. He lives illegally in the U.S., because it’s very, very different than home. The wind is only ever annoying, and the snow is only ever a few feet high, and the things that come up behind him are human and stupid and should get the fuck out of his way before he kills them too.

He’s living in Boston, now, going to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, whatever he needs to do. He sees things, sometimes. Black, faceted eyes hidden beneath wide sunglasses. Wings growing from the backs of children. Terrible things.

He catches work where he can. He does time in the fish markets for a while — good money, there, for someone with decent muscle and no social security number. He spends a long time with his mouth shut, just listening to the people around him, feeling the weight of the work along his arms and helping him– not forget. He can’t forget. But maybe bury the fear, push it down where it can’t breathe against his neck. For minutes at a time, he can pretend it’s gone completely, and he feels almost normal again. 

The Atlantic pushes storms against the edges of the city. He starts to wonder if anyone’s looking for him back home.

But the day comes when he pulls a small thing out of a fisherman’s hold, and it’s got a tail, four chitinous arms, and a woman’s face. He swallows vomit in the back of his throat, vision tunneling down and down until all he can see are those arms, twitching against his hands, and he throws it as hard as he fucking can over the side.

The foreman chews him out about it, one odd thing too many out of the kid with no paperwork, and Rian’s told not to come back. He thinks that’s what he’s told, anyway — he’s not sure, since all he can hear is laughter like plucked metal and a little voice that says, My thanks, hunter, my thanks.

He’s got money saved up. He takes a bus to New York City. The seat next to him stays empty the entire time; he keeps scratching his ears, where the laughter won’t stop, and he thinks they might be bleeding.

Rian is twenty-one years old. He’s living, for lack of a better word, in the Bronx. He takes day-labor jobs, keeps his mouth shut so no one hears an unexpected accent, doesn’t stay long enough to make the mistake of thinking he belongs.

He doesn’t. He doesn’t at all, because he’s insane, he’s killed people, and it’s just a matter of time before he succumbs to it again. He’d just rather he didn’t kill anybody he loved, this time around.

Things chitter at him from window ledges. Faces on passersby look twisted, wrong.

It’s luck, stupid luck, that makes him pass the shop front that day, the one with the grinning Death in the window, dressed like the Virgin and carrying flowers. There are other things in the window, more faces, but that’s what he notices first when he runs into the woman coming out of the store. 

She’s taller than him, just by a little, and she has black hair down to her waist. He starts to move past, but she grabs him by the arm and looks him up and down. He fights the urge to warn her away — he doesn’t know what his voice will sound like.

“You look like you need a better life,” she says, and pulls him back into the store with her, and into a new and different place.

Botanica Rosetas is like nothing he’s ever seen. The walls are covered in beads, candles, statues of saints and strange men, manila envelopes filled with herbs, bottles of oils, dead bats in little plastic bags. It smells pine-resin thick, but like roses too. The floor is checkered red, and the ceiling has water stains, and all of it is lit with fluorescents that make it just a bit easier to open his eyes and actually look at what he’s seeing.

The woman’s name is Alba. She crowds him up to the counter and writes her name on a piece of paper she teases out from under the cash register. She holds it up to him. “This is me,” she says. “Not my real name, my true name, but me. Okay? What’s your name?”

“Rian,” he says, and his voice breaks on the sound, too unused to speaking. She looks at him hard, and it’s almost painful.

“Better not be your real name,” she mutters as she writes it out on her slip of paper. “True names aren’t things you just give to anybody, okay? That’s power that only you should have.”

He looks at the scratches of ink on the paper. Ryan, it says. 

“No,” Rian says, “Ryan isn’t my real name.”

Ryan is twenty-three years old, and he’s been working in Alba’s botanica for almost two years. He knows what to give a customer looking for fast money, easy love, a cleansed home. He knows what the grinning Death in the window means. He knows how to sell a cure to a disease no one has, and curse shoplifters with language that Alba swears works every time.

He’s… a little more sane, now. He has a place to sleep, and there’s food, and it helps more than anything that, if he ever told Alba what happened to him back home, he knows she’d believe him. It’s a bone-deep knowing, though — he’s never tested it. Because he absolutely knows she’d believe him, but, at the same time, he worries that while she might believe him, she still wouldn’t understand

She feels the same way about him and Santeria. So it’s all fair in the end. 

It took time for him to settle in. More time to realize that this was going to be a paying job. More time to stop seeing monsters everywhere he looked, besides the things he liberally sold to anyone with cash. And it took about a month and a half to realize that Alba wasn’t just flat-chested for a girl, or tall for a girl, or– She’s trans, that’s what she calls it. Or, what everybody calls it, he guesses. He’s never met anyone like her before, and he’s still not sure what being trans means in practical terms — does she piss standing up? how does she have sex? does she have sex? — but it doesn’t really matter. Alba’s not her true name, and maybe whatever she’s presenting as isn’t her true sex, but maybe it’s the other way around, and– it doesn’t matter, at all. She saved him. He thinks maybe he would die for her just for that.

Around his neck he wears a silver chain; a small steel capsule hangs from it. Alba gave it to him his first day, “to fight off nightmares,” she said. The capsule has the piece of paper with both their names, rolled tight to fit and doused in a perfume she’d pulled from under the counter. “I’ll be there for you,” she’d said, “and you’ll be there for me, and there’s a little something extra there for both of us.” Then she’d looped the chain over his head and, in a different tone entirely, asked him when he’d last eaten.

He touches the capsule when he hears strange laughter, or when things throw shadows that make no sense. It helps, somehow, though to Alba there’s no “somehow” about it. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for her — of course there are monsters, of course there’s magic, the world wouldn’t make sense if there wasn’t. She spends long afternoons, between customers, teaching him bits and pieces of the things she’s allowed to talk about to outsiders, testing him on all the herbs in the shop, handing him book after book to read. He sleeps on a cot in the storeroom, the books piled beside his bed. He doesn’t know where she goes at night.

Alba stands in the doorway of the shop now, looking down the street and counting red cars that stream past. No particular reason — it’s just summer, and hot, and the shop is empty, and the air is wavering like snakes, and Ryan hasn’t felt this safe in a long, long time. He walks up to Alba, close enough to smell the patchouli in her hair, and very carefully stands beside her, the barest of touches between them when either of them breathe.

Alba lets her breath out all at once, and just as carefully leans against Ryan. She doesn’t look back at him — she’s confident in so many things, but this isn’t one of them. He knows how to do this, though — in the middle of so many things he can’t ever know, he knows this one in his bones.

Ryan curls an arm around Alba’s waist, and presses a kiss against her temple, and they listen to the traffic rush fast beside them.

And for something that started so slow, they move fast after that. Alba climbs into his cot more nights than not, and yes, he can definitely say now that she has sex, and he can definitely say now that he was an idiot for wondering in the first place. He feels bad about it, but she laughs it off and flicks his metal chain and tells him that she thinks clueless country boys are cute. He tries on a Southern twang for her just because of that, and she laughs herself sick before sending him off to price the new shipment of coyote skulls.

They go out once together, and only once. A club she knows — she says she’ll take him to her apartment after, for the first time, and they’ll talk about orishas, and smoke and drink and fuck until dawn because it’s a lucky day for it.

The club is dark, and the bass is deep, and Ryan knows he’s in love with the woman in his arms. People swirl around them, shifting in an Escher dance that would have frightened him a year ago just from the chaos of it all. It’s fierce, and it’s loud, and it makes him feel alive.

Alba abruptly jerks, swats the back of her neck. She frowns, shakes her head, and they keep dancing.

They leave at two, swaying along sodium streets, and Alba’s stumbling more than she should. She keeps rubbing her neck, and her pupils are too wide. He finally stops them on the corner, turns her around, and brushes her long hair to the side.

A black thing is burrowed under her skin, streaks of filthy green spreading out dandelion from the wound. The bite itself is red and raw, and she reaches up and scratches it before he can stop her, pushes the black thing further in.

“Hungry,” she says then, in a voice he doesn’t know, and turns around in his arms. Her eyes are black and faceted, and her teeth are bared at him before she leaps.

And then all his nightmares are real again. 

She rears back when her face gets too close to the silver chain around his neck, and it’s that moment, that pause, when someone decides it’s not yet his time. Again, again. An arm wraps around Alba’s throat. The stranger twists Alba off him and throws her hard against the building beside them. When Alba rears, moves to attack again, the stranger flips her around, pulls out a knife, and, no pause, no moment to wonder if if if, slits her throat. The sudden body drops to the ground.

Alba’s blood is thick and dark against the pavement. The stranger doesn’t stop there, but kneels quickly and shoves a lump of something into Alba’s throat, making the corpse twitch. Ryan turns his face away, only to see the stranger in full focus — a woman, black, with a silver scar crawling down her face.

“Werewolf,” she says, as if answering a question that nobody’s asked, and then thrusts her chin at the necklace Alba had given him. “Smart use of silver. You’re lucky I was uptown, but still. Smart.”

It takes this long for the paralysis to wear off, but when it finally does, Ryan’s not even thinking about it — he smashes his fist forward, trying desperately to catch the woman, the murderer, off-guard long enough to fucking kill her with her fucking knife–

She sidesteps him easily, and the last thing he hears is, “Oh, I’m telling the witch about you–” She brings her clenched fists down hard against his head, and he falls.

The last thing he sees before going unconscious is dead Alba’s hair, long and streaming on the sidewalk.

Ryan is still twenty-three years old, and he is locked in some rich American woman’s bathroom like some kind of fucking feral animal she wants to fucking housetrain, and Alba is dead and Michelle is dead and the window won’t lift and his knuckles are torn and the walls are covered in blood stains where he tried to bash his skull into the porcelain until she let him out or he died.

When he’s finally exhausted himself, and not even suicide seems to work for him, she opens the bathroom door. She’s small, dark-haired, and her clothing is tight and tailored around her body. She holds out a sandwich. Roast beef. His favorite.

“I know it’s your favorite,” she says. She raises her eyebrow. “I’m the witch. And you are… something interesting.”

He doesn’t know what else to do. He takes the sandwich.

Ryan is twenty-six years old. He’s a hunter, has been a hunter since he was twelve years old, but now he hunts a different game. He sleeps wherever the witch tells him to sleep, and he kills whatever the witch tells him to kill.

He thinks she likes telling him what to do. He doesn’t mind it. What she’s telling him to do is basically what he wants to do anyway.

Michelle had been taken by a hidebehind. Alba had been bitten by a werewolf. Demons, both of them. Ryan’s been touched by magic, for whatever that’s worth, and it makes him… very good at some very particular things. He wears a Stetson hat to keep the sight of monsters at bay; he knows hunters, other demon hunters, who wear them too, though he doesn’t ask if it’s for the same reason.

When he lets himself think about something that isn’t hunting — not often, not if he can help it — he wonders if he was touched because the women he’d loved had died from magic, or if they’d died because he trails magic like poison behind him. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to know.

He doesn’t talk much.

Ryan is twenty-eight years old. He’s got more scars than he can count. He’s surprised he’s not dead yet, but he’s almost starting to think that maybe he doesn’t want to be dead, so things are improving. He doesn’t speak French if he can help it — the name he calls himself is too close to his true name, but he can’t bear to change it. He’ll change everything else about himself instead.

He thinks Michelle would like the Southern accent. He knows Alba did.

They’re calling the witch Narnia these days, for reasons that Roxie, the black hunter, thinks are hilarious. Ryan has slept with Narnia a couple of times, just to see if she’d die because of it — he’d feel more guilty about that, except she’s a psychic witch and knows what he was doing, and seems to want to know the answer too. 

She doesn’t die, though. He waits, and she doesn’t die, and maybe it wasn’t him at all. And he stops sleeping with her, and a month later, down the block from a Door to Hell that spits out awakkules every other full moon, he meets a very normal girl with a very normal life and he asks her out for a drink.

Ryan Clayton is thirty years old. He works construction, pays union dues, and lives with his vegan girlfriend in Queens. He knows a smattering of Spanish and watches arty fantasy films from the 1940s because a guy can have, you know, layers. He does quiz nights at the bar with his friends, and watches movies and goes to concerts on the weekends with her friends, and if sometimes he has nightmares, well, so does everybody.

(Rian Corveau is living a double life.)

His girlfriend, Jin Ae, is here on a student visa, studying musical composition and conducting in Manhattan. She gives piano lessons to supplement the money her family sends her, and leaves half-written concertos littered through their drafty apartment. Ryan kisses her in the mornings before heading downtown, and he comes home at night tired but satisfied with his day’s work. Sometimes he’ll go back out again in the evening — his job keeps odd hours.

He always wears black, T-shirts and jeans and boots and hat. Jin Ae likes to joke about him just buying dozens of the same T-shirt. He laughs quietly back and just shrugs.

It’s much easier to strip out of blood-soaked clothes and into fresh ones if the clothes are, in fact, identical.

Every day he takes the train down to Brooklyn to make his rounds. He specializes in werewolves and Christian demons, because everyone becomes good at something eventually, but he tries to learn what he can from every thing he fights. He talks to other hunters, too, old hunters and stupid hunters and foreign hunters and, on one particularly horrifying occasion, dead hunters. Everyone’s got something to tell him. Everyone’s got a story.

Ryan tries very hard to be the one hunter with no story. Nobody knows where he lives except maybe Narnia, and no one knows about Jin Ae. Jin Ae doesn’t know about demons, or magic, or Doors to Hell, or what exactly Ryan does that makes him come home sweaty and quiet and desperate to lose himself in her.

She writes him music he doesn’t really understand, but holds him tight when he wakes up screaming. She’s normal. He’s not sure if he loves her, but she’s his last hope, really, and he can’t let her die.

Three weeks before their two-year anniversary, Ryan gets a bite taken out of him by a hantu belia. He makes it back to the apartment before collapsing on the bed, recognizing that the blood’s probably going to be a problem when he regains consciousness. Then the darkness swallows him.

When he wakes, he’s tucked under their red blankets and Jin Ae is smoothing the hair back from his forehead, rhythmic and warm. She’s singing something in Korean, nothing he recognizes, but it feels restful. His leg doesn’t hurt, which is pretty damn spectacular considering what it was doing when he blacked out.

Jin Ae’s voice is rough from smoking, and her fingers are callused from her instruments. The bedroom ceiling is water stained with patterns that look like wisps of hair. The light is from a single lamp, and it throws her shadow on the wall. Ryan doesn’t know if he loves Jin Ae, but he thinks she might love him. And he’s getting a balance in his life, he’s finally getting a balance, normal and hellish, he can do this, he can make this work…

Something soft touches his chin, and he doesn’t think. His hand moves the way he’s practiced a thousand times, fist around whatever’s touched him and a swift jerk to pull it away and unbalance whatever it’s attached to.

Jin Ae lurches over him, swearing in tense English and yanking back on the thing he’s got a hold of. He doesn’t let go. He looks down.

Ryan’s holding a fox tail in his hand.

It looks like a fox tail. It also looks like a striated leg, fox-colored and jointed more times than it ought to be, with fur-soft spider hair that teases around his fingers. The air gets hot and wet and for a moment he thinks it’s beautiful, this thing he’s slowing breaking backwards.

Jin Ae crumples, clutching the blankets. She drags them from the bed when she collapses on the floor. Ryan rolls out after her, darts a hand beneath the mattress for the heavy knife he keeps there. Steel blade — not cold iron, but it’s always been enough to do the job.

He doesn’t know what demon’s taken her, but that’s not really an answer he needs. The legs — and it is legs, there’s more than one, she’s pulling the blankets over them to hide but he can count, there are nine, nine things twisting around her very human feet — the legs are fully developed, clearly a demonic possession of some duration, and he’s sorry, he’s so fucking sorry, that she’s going to die because of him.

“It’s okay,” she says frantically, “it’ll be okay, I know how it looks–“

He cuts the demon’s throat. The demon’s eyes widen, its mouth going slack, and the fox-tail legs curl up into themselves. For a moment, he sees Jin Ae, her dark eyes empty. Then her body shivers, gives up the last breath of humanity, and there’s a dead fox-thing on the floor for a second longer before it, too, collapses and melts away.

Ryan sits on the floor and cleans his knife. There’s nothing else to do. And as he does, he makes a list.

He’ll have to move.

His earlier wound is healed completely.

He has to call Narnia, get her to do cleanup.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with all the music.

He loved a woman — loved three women, he can say it now — and all of them died because of him.

He can’t do this again.

Ryan is still thirty years old when Narnia sends him to a Door in Brooklyn and tells him to stay there.

“Opened by a bunch of morons,” she tells him. “Which one ends up needing more watching, the kids or the Door, I’ll leave to your judgment.” 

“When did they open it?” he asks her, picking out weapons from the stack in her apartment’s second bedroom.

She waves a hand. “Oh, tonight. In about two hours.” Which just goes to show that witches are insane and have no sense of urgency, because it’s going to be hell getting there in time.

But he does, because Narnia’s a lot of things, but she’s rarely wrong. And so he kicks down the diner’s basement door, and he kills some stuff and saves some mundanes and settles down to telling the facts of life when–

When a twenty-something girl in white clothes and razor tones tells him this is the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to her in her life.

The world’s been nothing but fog and darkness since– since Jin Ae, but suddenly this girl’s lit up like a flame in his vision, and this is bad, this is so, so bad.

He tries to warn her, he really does. She doesn’t believe him, never believes him. He bunks down beside the Door to Hell she opened, waits for the day to come when she leaves town or kicks him out or whatever. Except the days turn to weeks, and the weeks into months, and–

She’s sharp, and she’s strong, and she refuses to take any bullshit except for all the times she does. She bullies him into teaching her how to fire a shotgun, makes him drink his coffee black, and tries so hard to be a good person that he wonders at how little practice she has at it. It’s painful to watch, sometimes. 

Sometimes, it’s beautiful. 

It doesn’t take long at all, really, for him to start praying again to the Christian God. He’d stopped when he left his first home up north. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. Now, though… now it matters again. Because there’s nothing else he can do, no other way he can stop what’s happening.

He prays to the god he can’t believe in that he doesn’t fall in love with Allie.

end

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